Inside The Last Symphony's harmonious narrative experiment

Clara Fernandez Vara and her team came up with a fresh take on storytelling -- within the simple hidden object genre, no less. We explore what makes the The Last Symphony prototype so neat.
Experimenting with new genres and time constraints can yield surprising successes. Let's say you've only got eight weeks to try something completely new with storytelling -- what if you tried the hidden object genre? Postdoctoral researcher Clara Fernandez Vara and her team were faced with the upcoming end of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab (the university will continue its own program called MIT Game Lab), and found themselves in just this circumstance. "I was trying to make a hidden object game where there was a narrative and there was a story -- without making it into an adventure game," she explains. Combining an object-oriented game with a strong story element often ends up with something like an adventure game, since the logical conclusion is to develop purposes for the objects players find as part of a gameplay experience generally oriented around learning and clicking items in complicated scenery. There could also be story alongside the gameplay that contextualizes it, but that wouldn't be enough for Fernandez Vara, whose research often aims to pave new ground in game storytelling. She refers to one concept she's been working on as indexical storytelling, rooted in the goal of getting players to take their own more active role in shaping and unearthing the story of a game. Similarly to how doctors can't see an illness so much as they can interpret the symptoms to make a diagnosis, indexical storytelling allows players to piece together their own story as part of the gameplay. This summer, Fernandez Vara and her team created a prototype hidden-object game called The Last Symphony to showcase these ideas. The player is cast as a curator mining the house of a deceased composer, with the help of his elderly sister, to choose items for an exhibit about the composer's career, with an intriguing prompt: Why did his musical style change so much midway through his career? thelastsymphony7.jpg"You're not only finding the objects, but with these objects, you're trying to unravel what the stories are," Fernandez Vara explains. "Different objects are going to tell different parts of the story. It's up to the player to relate them and 'compose' their own game." In a brilliant touch, the team integrated fitting symphonic musical elements; while the player can get information on every object they unearth in the house, they can get further clues about the interrelationships between those things and what story conclusions might be drawn by the musical parts that play when objects are placed side by side in the player's packing truck. As the player builds a logical grouping of objects, a harmonious symphony swells. The music in the game is absolutely lovely, and perfectly compliments the soft, hand-drawn art. "I worked with a really cool team of students," says Fernandez Vara, adding that using sound and music as a hint system challenges players -- who don't normally use listening skills when playing -- to look at problem solving in a new and refreshing way. Like many game designers Fernandez Vara has been influenced by attending Sleep No More, a large-scale interactive performance art show where the experience is led by audience curiosity and exploration. "I've seen it twice, and the first time I was so taken, because I felt like I was in a real-life adventure game," Fernandez Vara enthuses. "I could open drawers, and there would be things inside related to the story... it was just perfect to me. Inspired by that experience, she's begun mulling how she might apply her research, and her ideas on indexical storytelling, to other "real life adventure game" concepts, with more to share in the future.

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