If you’ve listened to the Midnight Resistance podcast at any point over the past year, you’re likely to have heard that I’m not a huge fan of indie darling Dear Esther. In its defence, it has provided me with a constant talking point whenever the game is brought up, but alas the side I take in any discussion is a negative one. I’ll go into detail later, but I found the whole thing to be quite boring.
I’ve recently played this year’s hottest walk ‘em up, Gone Home by The Fullbright Company. In the days following my playthrough (which I did in one sitting, as it isn’t the longest) I’ve read quite a lot about the title, some of it genuinely interesting insight into the story, some of tedious jerking off by someone desperate to justify their hobby as an artform (hint: it already is. Stop it.), but nothing has quite nailed my feelings, on the game and this genre of wandering around a bit ‘em ups.
Upon finishing Gone Home, I’d had a much more positive experience than the one I had with Dear Esther, which left me incredibly cold. The narrative was better and there was a bit more to do (despite still being quite basic in terms of gameplay), but my overall feelings were the same. After Dear Esther, I remember thinking that the atmosphere they carved out was amazing, despite that weird cave section, and that I would have loved to have seen them turn their hand to a ‘proper’ game. I got that wish, when The Chinese Room were confirmed to be working on Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. A brilliant fit. In fact, although fans of Amnesia weren’t totally taken by the changes in gameplay for the sequel, few had anything negative to say about the atmosphere and setting. They showed what they were capable of with Dear Esther and nailed it.
Gone Home has an incredible sense of place. The ‘90s setting isn’t just cheeky references to The X-Files, it’s things like the technology, the design. The house feels like a real place; much like a real home, the different inhabitants put their own stamp on areas they spend their time in. The characters themselves don’t even actually appear in the game at all, but even by the halfway point into this hour/90 minute long experience you know more about them than you found out about ‘Soap’ fucking McTavish over three Modern Warfare games. I especially liked the part in the second one where they gave him a mohican in lieu of some actual personality. Anyway, Gone Home also spins a great tale. You could just walk from place to place throughout the house, eventually getting to the end and finding out what exactly happened. However, by digging around in notes and possessions you flesh out absolutely everything. That’s all you do, though. You walk about the house, and you look at stuff.
Like Dear Esther before it, Gone Home felt like a tech demo to me, only instead of showing off the latest/greatest graphical tour de force, it shows how to convey time, place and characters. It is a demonstration of how to weave a narrative into the world. It is a brilliant demonstration on how to tell a simple tale, but allow the player to dip in and out of the depth, choosing when to take in more of the tale and fill in the blanks with information uncovered from the world created by the developer. The way it sets an atmosphere is also exceptional, to the point where most are convinced it is a horror game for the duration. There’s just not much ‘game’ here.
Midnight Resistance ultra-favourite Dark Souls is a good example of a game that shares a similar way of feeding you depth in terms of story and character development. Reading item descriptions, exploring the world and listening to the various characters tales flesh out what initially seems like a simple tale of the heroes journey. Another, perhaps closer to the mark game that I feel achieves this balance of game/narrative is Simogo’s brilliant iOS title Year Walk. With Dear Esther, you’re simply walking from A to B while the game shouts the tale at you. In Year Walk, the puzzles you solve whilst walking from A to B flesh out the tale Simogo are trying to tell you. Sharing one of Dear Esther’s better traits, Year Walk has a HAUNTING atmosphere, which is an incredible feat given its handheld nature and strange, almost papercraft visuals. Coupled with the accompanying app, that adds detail to the story, as well as providing hints to solving the puzzles and a few secrets of its own, Year Walk is a bit of a masterpiece.
It isn’t about having a ridiculous story that is open to the interpretation of the player, either. I found Dear Esther’s attempts at ambiguity disappeared right up its own arse by the time the credits had rolled. Gone Home’s tale is, at its heart, a very simple one. How it is told, the way that the characters involved have their own backstory fleshed out (which in turn affects the way you feel about them and their interaction with the ‘main’ story) and the way you discover detail is where it truly, genuinely excels. It turns a simple tale into a housebound epic, as you find that one discarded note that sheds a totally different light on a character’s personality. Imagine if you stumbled across this house in Skyrim, wandering into the abandoned building and slowly piecing together a picture of who lived here and what happened to them. It’d be incredible.
What I want is to see this level of care applied to, with lack of a better way of describing them, ‘actual videogames’. It baffles me that this detail hasn’t been applied to a fantastic RPG, a genre that can only benefit from rich story, characters and the way it is all revealed to you. The greatest tool videogames have as a storytelling device is player agency - the ability to take part and have an affect on the outcome - and it is what sets them aside from film, TV and books, which is why I find it a shame when I see shelves of stuff that just tries to be like a big Summer blockbuster movie. We have those already. On the other hand, I also find it a shame that experiences like Gone Home lack the other thing that videogames have - the actual gameplay. I don’t think it is a coincidence that every game I can think of that marries these two things together is brilliant. Try it. Think of some. BRILLIANT, I bet.