Game Profiles: The art of the imaginary stroll

Back in the early days of massively multiplayer online games, Richard Bartle, one of the developers of MUD1 – one of the first multi-user online virtual spaces – developed a taxonomy (later turned into a test) to describe which activities most motivated individual players. It assigned each player a score in four areas: Killing (character vs character combat was one part of the game), Socializing, Achieving and Exploring. Still used today (though not without criticism) the Bartle Test’s categories are pretty recognizable even to outsiders – or most of them are.

Two of these four activities are, of course, readily compatible with popular conceptions of games: competition, or “Killing”, and Achievement are perhaps central to how most people understand games. (This is perhaps why “gamification” is often equated with “awarding points and publishing a leaderboard”.) Socialization is increasingly understood as part of the draw of games – though it should perhaps rather be recognized as part of their inherent nature. But not many non-gamers understand that exploration is also a key element of the appeal of games. (Though, to be fair, “non-gamers” is a steadily dwindling population.)

Yet just as a novelist will include details that reward close reading, or a television series might include recurring characters or throwbacks to previous episodes as a kind of insider’s wink to longstanding fans, a game will have hidden details – or even hidden areas – which are only accessible through extreme luck or careful exploration (or, of course, walkthroughs or other spoilers) to reward those who are engaging closely with their fictional worlds.

From very early on, games have told their stories through environmental details – the discovery of notes and recordings from past inhabitants of a space, often hidden away in caches and crannies where their authors had sought to conceal themselves, frequently provided a layer of backstory and narrative meaning. Titles such as the System Shock games, and their inheritors the Bioshocks, in particular relied on this technique to explain the contrast between the apparent purpose of the environments you navigated and their current state.

However, those games still had a healthy dose of recognizable game mechanic layered over the top of this exploratory play: RPG-style character customisation, and some form of combat. But in recent years, independent designers have experimented with pure exploration as the core of the experience – to notable effect. This post covers what you might call “first-person promenade games” – games where you play simply by moving around.

Dear Esther, the first such game we’ll discuss here today, was one of the early trailblazers in the recent resurgence of exploration games. The game consists entirely of wandering around a mysterious, and rather stark, Hebridean island, noticing the curious details scattered around the landscape, and being rewarded as you cross various trigger points with readings of fragments of a strange sort-of-correspondence addressed to Esther that drop tidbits of information about the island, various inhabitants, the author, and of course Esther herself. Playing the game is done purely by walking around and discovering these audio samples. I don’t want to spoil the experience – or give away the story that is gradually revealed as you explore the island – so I’ll just say that it could be a mystery; it could be a ghost story; it could be a one-sided epistolary novel; but it is certainly atmospheric and – despite its decidedly sombre tone, and the fact that literally all you can do is move around – intriguing.

The next game in this vein is The Fullbright Company’s recent indie darling, Gone Home. Set in 1995, in an isolated mansion in Oregon, a young woman called Katie returns home one stormy midnight to a house she has never seen before – during her year in Europe, her family has moved into a residence inherited from her uncle, known locally as “The Psycho House”. When Katie arrives, the house is mysteriously empty, and the letter she wrote home to tell her family to expect her is waiting there unread. As she explores, she begins – inadvertently, at first – to learn a little about the secrets her parents and her little sister have been keeping and the tensions that have been brewing in the house… and to worry about what exactly has happened to her family.

As with Dear Esther, the absence of other characters with whom to interact drives a close attention to the environment and the clues about its inhabitants. Unlike Dear Esther, Gone Home does allow some degree of interaction with the environment, with some of the traditional game elements of gathering keys and clues, and the ability to rearrange and fiddle with quite a range of objects. But the basic process is the same: wander around a single environment, learning as you go. It sounds straightforward… but by clever pacing of the information and the possibilities it suggests, there is a distinct and well-crafted emotional arc to what you learn. Again, I don’t want to offer spoilers, so I’ll leave it with a recommendation: if you’re interested in storytelling technique you should definitely check it out; it’s a novel expression of timeless principles.

The Path, a game by Tale of Tales based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, also has a degree of environmental interaction; it also adds the twist of changing the character controlled by the player. The game features 6 sisters, representing 6 takes on (or ages of?) Red Riding Hood; different sisters interact with the environment in different ways. Each play of the game, you choose a sister and walk to Grandmother’s house along a path… whether or not you stray from the path, and whether you meet that sister’s Wolf, is up to you. If you’re interested in the symbolic power of fairy tales, The Path explores a number of permutations of this particular myth in a way no other medium could. (Note that this game has obvious overtones of horror; this fairy tale is not for children… though the Brothers Grimm might disagree.)

The final promenade game for today is The Stanley Parable, a game that explicitly plays with the tension between narration and action in interactive media. You play from the perspective of Stanley, an office worker whose office is unexpectedly devoid of colleagues, and whose adventures are narrated as you play them… or don’t. Unlike the previous two games, where the gameplay consists of uncovering the story embedded in the virtual environment of the game, in The Stanley Parable, you are exploring a possibility space mapped out by your relationship to the narrator of the game (and other elements that define game expectations, such as Steam Achievements). The narrator has a story he wants to tell… but what happens if you decline to play [sic] along? And, of course, what does it mean that the game’s able to tell that you’re doing that, and has responses prepared? A sort of videogame equivalent of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler…, The Stanley Parable explores our relationships to the systems and contingencies thereof that make up a game… and, in my view, manages to transcend the specific context of games to get players thinking about their relationship to the systems around them in their own lives. It’s also, at times, rather funny.

It is interesting to compare these sorts of titles to books. In some sense, they are passive in a similar way: fixed sets of preordained stimuli requiring the active involvement of the reader/player in order to proceed. In others they are quite different; depending on the game, the player has a greater or lesser ability to “steer” the course of events. But then there are of course books like this too… perhaps a conversation to have with a Games Club at your library?

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