Going, Going, Gone Home

One of the many objects you can pick up and interact with in the game

Playing Gone Home this week I was struck by the notion that it seemed like large chunks of the story were either missing or obscured by a false sense of horror. As you explored the house it was easy to follow the story of Sam and Lonnie because it was read out loud in the form of journal entries Sam wrote to you. Each entry was tied to an object or location in the house so that the story naturally unfolded with your exploration and you could hear the inflection in her voice as if she was telling you her story in person. If you were an observant player you could also notice what was going on in the lives of the other family members and the history of the house. However, this part of the story was told entirely through scraps of notes and objects left lying around the house. You could read letters written by various family members and look at your past school projects but it was easy to miss the details of the story when presented with a wall of text. The story was also obscured by the fact that the game insisted on attempting to be creepy when there seemed to be no real reason for it. There was just a constant sense of dread since the lights kept flickering and turning off so you got the sense that something would jump out at you even though it never did. I would have enjoyed the game much more if it didn’t have this false sense of horror and I was able to equally explore each of the characters presented instead of just focusing on one story that was read aloud since I often missed details and had to go back to figure out what was going on with the rest of the family.

Escaping to the OASIS

When you think of an oasis the first thing that comes to mind is probably something similar to the definition of the word given by merriam-webster.

It conjures an image of a place that is safe from what is surrounding it where unpleasant things like the heat of the desert can’t reach you. In the book Ready Player One however it is an Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation which is a virtual reality device used to connect the player to the other players and many worlds that they can explore. The characters use this as a real oasis where they can pretend that the atrocities of the outside world can’t reach them and they can escape into a fantasy setting or a version of the world before they ran out of fuel. This escapism is a major point throughout the book because the world they live in is full of poverty and they have become reliant on a second virtual world for their economy, education, and entertainment. Besides sleep, food, and bodily functions everything can be done inside the oasis and they never have to interact with many of the unpleasantries of their real world. With technology like the hamster ball rooms and haptic feedback suits and chairs the characters can become fully immersed and even be able to touch and feel objects in whatever world they want to make their own personal escape to. However, they can’t escape from the real world forever since their makeshift fuel solutions will only hold up for so long without anyone trying to fix them. Though the oasis can help them escape from the world, it can’t help them fix it and eventually they will have to step out from their safe haven to mend the world they actually live in.

Virtual Hopes

VR is an exciting way to experience media in a more immersive way although it still has a long way to go before it is truly available for everyone to experience in their daily lives. This is largely because of the cost for a single setup even before you buy any games or interactive experiences to enjoy with your headset. You can either have no interaction with your environment other than turning your head or you can have a fully immersive experience that costs a ton. Another major setback is that these expensive setups that can track your movements are not always very accurate which was a problem we ran into while solving a puzzle in our first experience with the HTC Vive. We were far enough from the walls and close enough to an object in the game that we should have been able to pick it up but the tracking system believed that we were much closer to the wall and prevented us from being able to grab the object until other people in the room moved around and the tracking started working correctly again. It is also rather obvious that you have a screen right in front of your eyes no matter which virtual reality setup you were using and depending on how clear the resolution is and how the screen is created it can get hard to watch really quickly.

Even with these limitations there is a lot of space for VR to expand in videos, games, and simulations for educational purposes. For example, it would be cool if they could have doctors practice surgeries in virtual reality so they don’t have to get cadavers all the time and they can practice over and over with different representations of peoples bodies. Personally, I would like to see VR improve with its tracking capabilities so that it becomes more immersive and can truly simulate real world experiences. VR has already been able to explore many concepts and styles of play by transforming regular three dimensional media into something you can stand in the middle of and feel like you are actually interacting with your environment rather than just sitting in front of a screen where you can’t touch any of the objects surrounding you. For example, there are many VR experiences that allow you to experience things that you wouldn’t be able to do in real life. This includes climbing Mount Everest and becoming a bunny in an animation. Experiences such as this where you can walk a plank at great height can even allow people to experience the things that terrify them without facing any real danger. VR can even transform games that start out as PC games into an immersive experience  allowing you to become a surgeon or play fruit ninja in almost real life. A great side effect of games in virtual reality is that it allows you to become active and practice archery or tennis without ever having to go too far or find a gym to work out in. And if you want to be able to play sports with friends or strangers around the world then you can do that as well though you can’t play with any friends who do not own their own VR setup. Virtual reality can even allow you to experience completely impossible environments that have an animated, drawn, or dreamlike feeling. Though these are all really cool advances in virtual reality that demonstrate how it can be used socially or in an active or dreamlike environment to enhance the way you experience a piece of media the tracking and visibility are not quite at the level they would need to be for it to be used in a truly educational sense for surgeries and other applications. Once these advances can be made and the price comes down to an accessible level then it everyone will truly be able to experience and enjoy virtual reality.

Interacting with Fiction

What makes a game a game? A game can be almost anything that has rules that define how to play and how to reach the end of the game. However, there are many games that feel more like an interactive story or experience than the traditional idea of a game. This is the case with That Dragon, Cancer where the main mechanic is to point and click on different locations and characters in order to interact with them and advance the story. Aside from a few mini games to illustrate the fight they are in against the cancer, the game acts like an interactive story. Each click leads to a scene that plays out in front of you through dialogue, letters, and limited movement. In order to advance the story you have to take in your surroundings and listen to what the characters are saying. After playing the game many of my classmates expressed that they disliked the game with some of them pointing out the lack of interactivity as a reason that they did not enjoy playing it. Personally, I liked the game and felt that this game style fit very well for an emotionally charged game like That Dragon, Cancer where more free input from the player would have detracted from the story that the parents wanted to tell. Instead of the controls getting in the way of the story it allows you to experience the game at your own pace without any extra factors such as camera angle or free player movement to distract you. However, I can see why many of my classmates would not like the game particularly since many of the games I have enjoyed that were interactive stories or contemplative experiences were much shorter and That Dragon Cancer is very long. For example, The Temple of No only takes 15-20 minutes to complete depending on which route you choose and The Plan is only 5 minutes long, allowing you to control a fly as it journeys upwards through the trees. The Temple of No is a game that is almost entirely text based though it has some illustrations and music for certain scenes. It is also an example of how games that are story focused can vary widely because it is very sparse with graphics and sound where That Dragon Cancer has very beautiful graphics and many of the scenes are told in voice overs from the parents. 

On the other hand, The Plan has very nice graphics and the story is based only on your movement and is directed by the music since there is no written story you are following.ss_46464261147b27033478ada0c7962f8bf7edac20-600x338

Each of these games feature very simple controls that help to drive their story or the experience they are trying to show you. In fact, That Dragon Cancer utilizes these simple controls to pull you into the story and encourage reflection to ensure that you feel the full impact of Joel’s life story.

Rushing Through The Journey

We embark on journeys of different lengths and purposes all the time, but we rarely stop to appreciate them. The journey is always seen as an obstacle to our goal, something we must go through to get what we want. Even when we get to the end we are not satisfied because there is always something more to strive for. I often find myself racing towards a goal without really paying that much attention to the process of getting there. However, reaching the goal doesn’t instantly make you satisfied. There is always another goal to strive for because without a destination you are just aimlessly wandering through life. In “Ithaca” Cavafy writes

“But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”

emphasizing the need to slow down and appreciate the journey that is life instead of just racing towards a goal. On the rare occasions when I do stop and take a minute to enjoy what I am doing I am much happier and can interact more with those around me. When I move towards my goals at a slower pace and focus on the journey instead of the destination I can take in more of my surroundings and see many things instead of just one. This need to slow down and appreciate what is happening can also apply to a book like Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. Since it focuses on a journey, the book spends a long time on each part and forces you to slow down and see the entire journey instead of quickly skipping ahead to the destination. You could skip ahead yourself to see what happens at the end of the book but then you wouldn’t get to enjoy the journey that the story takes you on. What use is knowing the ending if you don’t get to experience the how the characters got there and how they grew and interacted along the way? You can find the ending to almost anything you can think of online but it can’t replace reading the book, playing the game, or watching the movie. In many of the puzzle style games I often play the goal is to solve the puzzle and get to the end of the game. Looking up walkthroughs can get you to that goal quicker but reaching the destination of your goal isn’t fulfilling on its own. The path you take to get to the end is the part of the game that is fun and once you reach it you can’t keep playing or get any more satisfaction unless you want to retrace your steps and repeat the journey. It is much more satisfying to enjoy the journey for what it is instead of just focusing on the destination or goal at the end.

Time and Perfection in Braid

I am a perfectionist in many aspects of my life. Perfection can mean many different things in a game though. Is it never making a mistake, or being able to fix your mistakes when you do make them? Is it finding every easter egg, puzzle piece, or extra point? Is it completing the game in as little time as possible and getting achievements? Is it playing every level and moving on as quickly as possible, or solving every puzzle in the level to advance the story further? Perfection can be any or all of these things. Personally, I like to advance through levels as quickly as possible much like how I read very quickly. This speed allows me to see every chapter or level and discover how the story ends as soon as I can. I constantly move forward and only go back if I need more collection items to move forward or if there was a particularly interesting puzzle I want to try to solve.

Braid allows you to explore the idea of rewinding time and doing something over and over again until you reach perfection. This repetition becomes almost an obsession with finding every single puzzle piece and completing every level fully, similar to the obsession the character has with erasing every mistake and finding his princess in the next castle. As soon as the character dies or fails to complete a puzzle you can shift backwards in time to act as if the mistake never happened. Every move can be repeated over and over and over again until you finally learn what to do and can jump across that gap or use your own shadow to pull a lever.

If you ignore this obsession with perfection and your ability to rewind time you can quickly progress through the levels without much trouble. The real difficulty in Braid, and where my team often got stuck, is in the puzzle pieces hidden behind elaborate puzzles that require you to rewind time again and again to solve them. We often ended up moving on to the next level without spending the extra time to challenge ourselves more and fully complete the level. Since we skipped a large number of the puzzle pieces, we were left with missing pieces to the story and could not fully experience everything the game wanted to show us. We could not experience as much of the frustration of repeating an action over and over again until perfection. It caused us to miss some of the point of the story and the complexity of the levels. The missing puzzle pieces left our image of the narrative and the game incomplete.

In order to experience the entire story of Braid you must have the skill and patience to truly perfect every level. This makes it so that more casual gamers can’t fully enjoy the game because the levels start out difficult and only get harder as the game progresses. Much like the character seeks to avoid the mistakes he has made searching for the princess by rewinding time again and again the player has to seek to avoid their own mistakes. This often requires more skill and patience than I have.

My team and I also did not originally realize just how important the puzzle pieces were to the story and by the end the puzzles were so difficult that we could not solve them. If you can achieve perfection though, Braid rewards you by hiding a secret ending in plain sight that can only be accessed by collecting eight stars hidden even deeper in the levels than the puzzle pieces. Even when you think you have reached the end by collecting every puzzle piece, you haven’t. For the few that can reach the hidden ending, the story changes significantly, pointing to an unreliable narrator whose quest for perfection and manipulation of time ruins everything around him. By truly achieving a perfect game you find an even worse ending than you would if you just stopped once you found all of the puzzle pieces.