I've decided to give my critical thought a bit of excercise, and will be writing some thoughts on games after I've played them. Not as reviews, but as little pieces of criticism. In practice it'll probably end up way more informal than that.
Today I'll be taking a look at Gone Home (PC) by the Fulbright Company, The Stanley Parable (PC) by Galactic Cafe, and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward (3DS/Vita) by Spike Chunsoft. They're all together since I played them all around the same time and thoughts for all three felt connected a bit.
Note that spoilers for all three games are in the post below, including spoilers for Virtue's Last Reward that will likely make your first playthrough much less fun.
Consider yourself warned.
Still here? Ok. Let's go.
Gone Home is one of those newfangled "first-person walkers." You know, the games where you wander around, look at things, and have a disembodied narrator tell you things about their life. Critics have called Gone Home a shining example of the best that the medium of video games have to offer, praising the story, environment, design, and considering it the best thing since sliced bread. That might be a bit of hyperbole, but looking at the Metacritic page for the game I don't think I'm exaggerating too much (ok maybe a little). I don't know what these people played, but I didn't see what they saw in it. I found Gone Home to be a lackluster interactive experience that told an ok story that was a welcome change of pace from normal video game stories, and failed to take full advantage of the medium it was presented in.
Most of my problems with Gone Home come from the fact that I think it limited the amount of exploration I could do. Anyone remember those three-ring binders? Didn't you want to look inside and see what was in them? I did. And got a little disappointed that I couldn't. I wanted to know what books were in the library, I wanted to see what other records were in the house, I wanted to be able to microwave a frozen dinner and have my character eat it because it's 1am after a plane trip and us young kids get hungry even at 1am. I even tried throwing all the objects in a bathroom into the bathrub and turning on the water to see if they would float. I couldn't do any of that (but I did leave the water running for the rest of the game). This is kind of the story of the entire game. I wanted to explore the house more fully than I was allowed, giving the entire game a feeling of, as Ian Bogost put it in his review, sitting "uncomfortably between a theatrical stage on the one hand and a realistic 3d environment on the other." Set designers of a theatrical stage know that if they want to give the impression that a set has been lived in for a while, they need to add a lot more props and decoration than they'd think. You not only need to account for plot-critical elements, but also extraneous elements that are there only as decoration. Gone Home's house felt empty because the plot-critical elements were there, but the extra decoration was not. And what was there couldn't be interacted with.
Keeping with the theatrical theme, some critics have claimed that Gone Home provides a uniquely "video gamey" experience, with you exploring to find the story yourself. I don't think so. Everyone forgets about theater it seems. I think that you would be able to replicate most of Gone Home in a theatrical setting. I can imagine two productions of Gone Home. One production goes all out and builds the entire mansion as its set, installs a house-wide speaker system, and invites groups of people to come explore and find out what happened in the house. The diaries would be played over the speaker system triggered by a stage manager either following the group or sitting in a control booth somewhere. It would be cool (and impossibly expensive). The other production is a one-person show in a traditional theater and uses some clever set tricks to create the interior of the entire mansion and maybe projects the close ups of objects onto a screen integrated into the set. Narration is triggered at set times, maybe based on the actor's movements, and would potentially be seen as an interesting theatrical technique. It would be cool (and not as expensive). The story would be the same, maybe slightly less powerful, but in both cases it's essentially the same journey of discovery. Though in the traditional stage environment, the actress playing Kaitlin would be the player's proxy. Not much would be lost in translation I think.
As for the story, well, it felt incomplete to me. The conflict in the game didn't feel grounded in anything, meaning that there weren't many visible consequences except for the final moment. More than anything in the story, I wanted to find out what happened after Sam left. It's like watching Acts I and II of a three-act play and then being told to go home after Act II. The interesting conflict to me would be seeing how the family deals with this particular issue. And that wasn't really helped by the way the story was presented I think.
Speaking of presenting a story, let's talk about The Stanley Parable (or TSP as I will now refer to it). I think this game does a lot better job of leveraging the strengths of the medium to make a particular point, namely that most of your choices in a narrative game are pre-determined and inconsequential and everything is contrived and arbitrarily changeable. Sometimes random factors come in to play too. It's a microcosm of the current state of interactive fiction. Unlike Gone Home, TSP leverages the "video gamey-ness" of its presentation to make the player think about the role they play in a story. Even the most basic story in TSP, turn off the machine and go outside if you want meaningful choice, pokes a bit of fun at games and the people who play them. It's a reminder also that we can do better, and can indeed leverage the strenghts of the medium to create actually new experiences and ways to tell a story.
Guess I didn't really have that much to say about TSP. That's kind of what I noticed in my classes when writing about comedies vs. dramas and things. It's funny too. Humor is good. Much appreciated. Ok, moving on.
While some games struggle with the linearity of player progression in a game (Gone Home could've been on rails it would've been the same thing), others embrace it. Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward (VLR), like Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) before it, is a visual novel that uses the fact that the player will have necessarily played multiple endings, and seen different outcomes of the story, as a narrative device.
VLR's story (spoilers, seriously guys I warned you and I'll warn you again for this one) invovles a protagonist who's able to transport his consciousness through time and is thus able to explore the consequences of different choices he (the player) makes through the game. The hook is that he remembers everything he's seen in the alternate universes, just like the player would. Furthermore, this idea actually has roots in the rules of quantum mechanics, specifically Wheeler's Delayed Choice Experiement, which shows that simply observing the future can change how things act in the past.
VLR does some clever things to make its story filled with pseudo-science craziness, quantum mechanices, game theory experiments, and locked room puzzles work. It drops the player immediately into the game with little explanation and also puts the protagonist into the same situation. As you progress through the game, you'll get to an ending, good or bad. Regardless, the game will present you with a flow chart of the story. At first it seems like a video game convenience mechanic to replay certain branches, but as you explore the tree more fully, both you and the protagonist realize that there's something more going on with the flow chart. You'll encounter these "locks" which forces the character, and the player, to remember something from an alternate timeline that may or may not have been observed yet. From this, you, as the player, realize that the flow chart represents the protagonist's ability to jump through time, and (slower than you of course) the protagonist figures out the same. It's a very cool use of the normal "visual novel has multiple branching endings and only one true ending" design paradigm to make an extremely effective thriller and it shows a bit of TSP-like self-awareness about the role of mechanincs in a game. VLR is a shining example of using the structure and form of the medium to enhance the story being told.
Now I should note that VLR's story isn't particularly impactful like Gone Home's is. It's not a story about personal struggles, it doesn't really have any deep overarching theme in the story, there are still some common visual novel tropes (however it should be noted that many of the tropes are subverted through the course of the story), and it actually just boils down to "hey let's save the world using crazy time travel nonsense." However, VLR provided a much, much stronger sense of immersion, discovery and exploration in it than Gone Home ever did. Wait what? A linear, no environmental interaction (outside of puzzle rooms), visual novel provided more discovery and exploration than a 3d first-person walker? Isn't that what first-person walkers are suppoesd to be good at? VLR invites the player to explore the environment through the story, or in this cases different variations on the core story, and puts the player in the role of the protagonist, making the choices of where to explore, or "jump" to, next. It's framed as a mystery, and the driving force is the desire to know what happens next, to reconstruct the story in its full, "true" form. Sure Gone Home had some of that, the same drive to reconstruct the story, but the linear delivery of the story made the mystery much less mysterious. Everything in VLR fit just right and left just enough mystery to make me desparate to get the final game in the trilogy. It's what good thrillers do. It made short work of 36 hours, while Gone Home made 87 minutes feel like a monumental slog.
Of course you can't use VLR's narrative techniques in every visual novel. Kōtarō Uchikoshi, the writer of VLR and 999, jumps through some huge hoops to make his story work. Not every game can use quantum mechanics as a key element in a story. But designers can make better use of the mechanics in the games they make. I've argued this point before, highlighting Fire Emblem: Awakening and The World Ends With You as examples of games that use their mechanics to enhance their stories (both also for Nintendo's handheld systems, hmmm....). I'm not saying that every game needs to have this synergy between mechanics and story, but I am saying that it can make for stronger games.
Gone Home left me somewhat disappointed, The Stanley Parable left me amused, and there really was no escape from Virute's Last Reward's sublime blend of mechanics and story. It was a good few weeks with these three.
But seriously Gone Home. What was in the binders?