Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Ben's Top 5 Narrative-Based Video Games

Good morrow to you all, dear readers! Ah, what a fine day it is, too. I'm starting my festival job as of today and have, after getting the good news of passed resits (yuhs), spent the past week sitting on my arse playing video games, gradually turning into the Sloth victim from Seven.

legend of zelda ocarina of time screen shot child link
You know you've played too much OoT when you start dreaming in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
As such I've not exactly got round to doing much else this week, so you's lot is getting a chat about gaming; if you don't like it, tough titties. My most recent obsession (save for FTL and any other Rogue-like I can get my sweaty, Dorito-cheese-coated palms on) has been a rather peculiar and oft-debated genre of games that are difficult enough to categorise, let alone even decide if they count as video games at all. I am, of course, talking about *spooky music* Naaaaarrative-based games, oooooooooo!

Robbie the reindeer legend of the lost tribe wibble wobble flashback gif
"Wibble wobble, wibble wobble..."
What are Narrative-based games? Classically, they serve to blur the line between gaming and other forms of media, most notably film, either by adopting tropes more classically associated with those other mediums or by casting off some of the more iconic aspects of video games themselves. Like, say, if you were to make a Sci-Fi game but take out the shooting lots of aliens and focus more on galactic inter-species relations. Kirk-style, if you know what I mean...

mass effect strip tease screenshot
Essentially half of Mass Effect.
A lot of people see these games as more akin to "interactive entertainment", what with a predilection for reduced or often non-existent challenge and a lack of traditional gameplay elements like puzzles or combat. They're right, to an extent, but I think to veto these as a type of video game is a slight to both video gaming as a whole and what these games try to achieve; why can't a game be more about emotion and story than headshots?

I'm going to assume that only half of you know what I'm actually talking about while the other half are sitting in quiet befuzzledment, so I feel like the best way to explain this is by giving you a few examples of my favourite games of the genre and why you should play them. These are games that perfectly encapsulate what narrative-based gaming is all about and have been numbered in the order that I think you should try them to ease yourself into the genre nicely. Consider this a handy beginner's guide to a broad and fascinating genre.

Naturally, due to the distinct lack of well trodden, easily-marketable tropes that necessitate the growth of first-party publisher funding, almost all of these games come from the indie circuit. For the pervading air of wank that comes from such a place, I apologise in advance.

1 - David Cage's Entire Career (XBox/PC/PS2/PS3)

Fahrenheit heavy rain cover comparison

David Cage and his French video game studio, Quantic Dream, are possibly the biggest names on this list (save maybe Notch, who we'll get to later) and the only candidates that have managed to punch through into the much coveted world of big-budget Triple-A titles. Although any of their work is worth checking out, there's two of Quantic's staggering back catalogue of four whole games that I want to mention in particular: Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to all you 'murica folks out there) and Heavy Rain. Both draw heavily from film noir and have actually been described by Cage himself as "interactive films" of a sort; focussing on player choice and the nature of consequence with multiple story arcs and endings. Also there's nudity.
heavy rain shopping mall jason clown balloon
Instead, here's a creepy clown. Riiight in the boner.
Although Fahrenheit is much weaker than its successor, it's still worth getting a hold of to see the evolution of Cage's unique approach to storytelling and gameplay. Each game involves multiple characters attempting to unravel an overarching mystery through a mixture of exploration, conversation and quick-time action sequences. For those of you who don't know, quick-time events (QTEs) are essentially the Bop It of the video gaming world (essentially press the button that comes up on screen); although usually considered a lazy "Get Out of Jail Free" card for developers unwilling to come up with a working mechanic of their own they're used in a variety of refreshingly new ways in these games.

Fahrenheit game QTE screenshot
Albeit being a shameless ripoff of Simon in one of them.
The end goal is immersion, and that's something both games do remarkably well. The heads-up display is distilled down to nothing more than minimalist command icons, toyed with during particular moments to heighten the tension or convey particular ideas. All in all, they make for clever, yet extremely accessible ventures into interactive storytelling and give a glimpse into games that are based entirely around player choice and actions. Be prepared for some pretty harrowing scenes and lots of emosh.

heavy rain the shark mission ethan execution drug dealer
*press R1 to give him a puppy*

2 - The Stanley Parable (PC)

Speaking of player choice...

the stanley parable poster

So you've finished Heavy Rain and now you're power-tripping balls, totally hyped up on the idea of your actions causing ripples throughout a universe. Say hello to Galactic Cafe's massive middle finger to everything you ever loved about video games: The Stanley Parable. Now everything that could be said about the underlying themes of the game have already been thoroughly dissected again and again by the hungry, merciless hands of the internet, so I won't add my own piss to the ocean and just say this: The Stanley Parable scared the shit out of me.

the stanley parable office powerpoint whiteboard
This game is hilarious, cleverer than you ever will be, and also an existential nightmare on par with Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The basic gist is that you, Stanley, work in an office pressing buttons, but one day the commands to press buttons stop, so you get up to find out what's going on. The game is narrated by the exceptional Kevan Brighting (known for absolutely nothing else, sadly), who describes Stanley's actions as, and often before, he does them. It's your choice then as to whether or not you want to follow the story or forge your own path. Needless to say, neither really end up working out well for you.
the stanley parable adventure line office weird wiggly
Things can get preeetty weird...
For an avid gamer and a creature of habit such as me, the idea of having the game, in developer Davey Wreden's own words, "Mess with the player's head in every way possible," is less than comfortable. You might think that the concept of being given the illusion of choice before having the rug pulled out from under you is a little predictable, but the depth and confidence with which Stanley does it is consistently surprising and thoroughly unsettling.

Is it a game, a concept piece, an interactive story? I don't care. What's important is that it evoked something in me; it was an experience. It shatters your expectations regardless of how you go in and manages to handle extremely complex concepts with the driest of wit and the deftest of skill. The only thing comparable to it is the flawless humour and atmosphere of Valve's own Portal; an undoubtedly strong influence on Stanley's own style and substance. Play it, experience it; you will be changed.

3 - Drowning in Problems/Passage (PC)

passage jason rohrer drowning in problems markus notch persson comparison

Oh look, I'm cheating again. These two are completely different in their approach, style and message but they both have a number of very close similarities that make it totally OK for me to lump them together like this. Firstly, they're both by quite well known and highly praised indie developers, Minecraft's Markus "Notch" Persson and programmer Jason Rohrer, respectively. Second, and most importantly, they're both free and very, very minimalist, having been made for two different development competitions. Lastly, they tackle the same themes of life, the inevitability of death, and the frailty of our own existence; cheery stuff. 

Drowning in Problems is a web-based text game by Notch which essentially distils a person's life and choices down to a series of problems that the player can click to "Solve". A percentage counter shows you how long the problem will take to solve and then you solve something else. Simple.

drowning in problems markus notch persson solve body screenshot
"Click to exist."
As you grow, learning and developing as you go, more options and more problems begin to open up until you start to lose track of things. You start...oh, I see what the title did there! Then shit starts to go downhill real fast. I'll leave you to have a go yourself, but safe to say don't play this if you happen to be in a fragile state of mind. I played this first during the week of my exams this year, and boy was that a blow to the old morale. Notch hasn't been afraid to deal with some harsh truths about the apparent futility of life and the fragility of human existence; the cruellest thing, though, is that there is only one way for it all to end.

Passage has a rather more sentimental undertone than Notch's nihilistic hope-strangler of a game, but one no less thought-provoking. The game takes place in a tiny 12 pixel tall screen, where you can wander about, looking for chests and such, all the while ever so slowly progressing closer to the right of the screen.

passage jason rohrer screenshot
Best conveyor belt simulator ever.
Finding chests earn you points, but as your character(s) ages you can wonder what it's all in aid of; if in the end it's really worth the effort. I played Passage a few times, and on the second run through I found something that made me realise how blinded I had been in my search for chests and points. That I had managed to miss something so obvious and so vital; that I had overlooked what was really important... I kind of got a bit of a lump in my throat. *sniff* 

angry man yelling phone
You might even be loathe to call these games narrative-based, if even games at all, seeing as there really is very little in terms of storytelling, exposition or even things to do. But the story is what you make it, and to go in with an open mind and accept the world that each game creates leaves you the freedom to fill in the blanks with what you feel is appropriate. I found Passage sad, filled with a pervading sense of longing and loss, but I've read others online who found it to be quite hopeful, like a Nicholas Sparks novel or a reassuring hug. Drowning might be less ambiguous, but it is just as open to interpretation. Either way, games that are capable of doing so much with so little deserve to be spread around; give them a go.

4 - To The Moon (PC)

to the moon game poster header

To The Moon is my catnip. I fucking love this game; to the point that I wrote an essay on it for my course (reminder: I study medicine. Go figure). By now you've seen big budget production values and indie developers deconstructing the very nature of choice and consequence, so it's about high time that we sat down and enjoyed a good old story. To The Moon is probably closest in this sense to the interactive novel genre that's become popular in recent years for manga, in that you spend most of your time just letting the story progress itself and reading along...

to the moon game car crash squirrel screenshot
Woo, look at me! I'm gaming!
That said, the story is undoubtedly more than enough to keep you interested. You follow two scientists who work for the Sigmund Corporation, an organisation that specialises in altering the memories of the dying in order to fulfil their last wishes; think Inception meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The way in which the story unfolds in reverse order and the pieces begin to slot themselves together so seamlessly would be enough to garner praise for a movie, but this is a video game; that kind of shit is unheard of. We're used to kill cams and gratuitous innuendo, not emotive storytelling, character arcs, and weeping inconsolably on a Sunday afternoon after finishing the game for the first time. Speaking of which, if you don't cry the first time you play this, you are a monster. Or an android. Or both.

to the moon game sky johnny screenshot
To The Moon: A real life Voight-Kampff test.
Despite being the game on this list that has the most technical problems with it (character movement is cumbersome, some of the puzzles are utterly directionless, and glitches be all over yo bitches), To the Moon is probably still my favourite. It really is an experience that I originally thought could only be found in the best of films, so to find it in a video game is truly special. Have tissues handy though.

5 - Gone Home (PC)

Gone Home game poster

Here we are at our last entry, and I've chosen The Fullbright Company's Gone Home to finish off half because it is the indiest game ever (set in the 90's, influenced by Riot Grrrl music, and neck-deep in heated discussion over its very existence) and half because it's an amalgamation of everything all of these other games on the list have achieved. Minimalist gameplay? Check. Engrossing, fully realised world and story? Check. Atmosphere coming out the wazoo? Check. Emotive, clever, memorable, subversive and utterly beautiful? Check to all of those things.

gone home game x-files x files video VHS living room screenshot
Complete X-Files Season 1 collection on VHS? Check.
Gone Home is an annoyingly simple concept: you, the eldest daughter of the Greenbriar family, have just come home in the middle of the night after being away for a year to find that the house is empty, your family seemingly vanished without a trace. You must explore your home, sifting through stuff left about the house to find out where everyone's got to. There's no puzzles, no action, no other characters. Just you, the house, and the ability to read the label on every video tape in the living room and thoroughly inspect any pencils and other junk you come across. The only compulsory exposition is a voice-over by your younger sister that drip feeds details about the events leading up to your arrival; everything else is up to you to find or work out by yourself.

gone home samantha bedroom poster locker screenshot
Like remembering the names of sexy 90s icons.
To reveal any further details of the story would be an insult to the experience of playing it, but I will say that Gone Home does a damn fine job of building tension and atmosphere with nothing more than some well placed items and a little bit of lightning. You'll find yourself engrossed in a captivating, relatable tale of adolescence and personal discovery built around a wonderfully tense mystery that would make you reluctant to go on if not for the power of your own curiosity.

gone home attic stairs red lights screenshot
Those fucking stairs, man...
Still with us after five long entries? Then congratulations on completing this handy introduction to narrative-based gaming! These are just a taste of a vast and exponentially growing genre ripe with potential and if you happen to have come across anything yourself that I might be interested in, please do let me know; I'm always looking for something new and exciting.

I have work to get to and food to eat, so I shall see you lot in a week!

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