An Unlikely Pair

Over the break, we were asked to play Gone Home.  Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, we were unable to talk about it much in class, which is a shame, since this is one of my favorite games that we have played for the class.  One of the things that made me enjoy the game was its unique style.  At first glance, the game appears to be a horror game; your character, Katie, arrives at her family’s new house (dubbed the “Psycho House” in-game) in the dead of night while a storm rages outside.  What’s more, no one is actually in the house besides you, which is both very isolating and dark, as no people means very few lights on in the house.  As you continue, you find creepy hidden passages and even a very small sub-plot involving the alleged ghost of the previous owner of the house, Oscar Masan.  However, these horror elements are not the main focus of the game.

Instead, the focus of the game is on the true protagonist, Sam, and her relationships: to her sister (the character you are playing), to her parents, and most importantly to Lonnie, a girl who Sam eventually enters a romantic relationship with, leaving her homophobic parents’ house to join Lonnie in Salem, Oregon.

These two different types of games-atmospheric horror and character-driven walking simulator-seem somehow at odds at first, since the stereotypical demographic of those two genres are so different.  However, the horror elements of the game actually heighten the player’s experiences with the character-driven portions of the game by providing tension throughout the game.

First of all, the tension the horror provides gives players a reason to be engaged in the game.  Exploring a normal house is boring, but exploring a dark, abandoned house that might be haunted by a sinister being is more compelling.  This is especially important in the early game where the horror is most prevalent, since players have not developed a reason to care about Sam yet.  As the game goes on and it becomes more clear that Gone Home is not actually a horror game, the player’s (theoretical) interest in Sam’s story is enough to carry them through to the end.

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And if you’re not a fan of horror games, don’t worry-there is an option to turn all the lights on from the beginning.

More importantly, however, that tension allows players to get into both Katie’s and Sam’s heads.  For Katie, the reason is simple; imagine you came home to a house you have never been to before late at night.  Your family, who you expected to be waiting for you, is nowhere to be found, it’s storming outside, and the lights in the house keep flickering.  Being slightly scared is expected in that situation.  However, this tension is also mirrored in Sam’s experiences as she writes them down in her journal.  While large parts of Sam’s journey of self-discovery are fun and exciting, she also has to deal with unfamiliar, scary situations-just like you, the player, are dealing with.  Sam has no support system outside of Lonnie since she has just moved to a new school.  She knows her parents will be unsupportive, and her only possible familial help, Katie, is away on a year-long stint in Europe.  Sam is exploring uncharted waters where even usually welcoming sights can be dangerous, just like the player is.  By including these horror elements, the game makers are also including a pathway into Sam’s own experiences.

God’s Role Needs Refinement

I wasn’t in class on Thursday (and thus totally blanked on posting to the blog, sorry!), so my response to That Dragon, Cancer will have to be based entirely off the experience that I had while playing it.

I already commented on the nature and beauty of walking simulators in my first blog post, and after seeing previews of That Dragon, Cancer, I knew it’d make for a good continuation of that topic. First and foremost, this game solidifies in my mind the existence of the narrative-based indie game. Gone Home and Journey, which we’ll play later in the semester, have both become classics of this style. That Dragon also immediately reminded me of Myst, one of the most acclaimed PC games of all time, with its point-and-click movement and vivid, low-poly graphics.

Of course, each of these games is unique, and That Dragon did not fail to break the mold. Its strengths include several novel storytelling techniques and a powerful soundtrack; its weakness, in my opinion, its its undeft presentation of the tension between the parents and the importance of their religion.

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That Dragon, Cancer is a deeply Christian game. This isn’t in of itself a detractor, of course; the developers have every right to style their game to their philosophy, and the importance of the characters’ religious beliefs could hardly be overlooked. Furthermore, it’s not like I don’t enjoy Mumford & Sons and Sufjan Stevens, with their overt Christianity. But God’s role in That Dragon, as it were, was painted in with too broad of brushstrokes.

At the game’s first mentions of God’s presence and influence, I was intrigued, looking forward to where this theme would go. But as the game progressed and the narrative became more heavily laden with churchgoing diction, I found myself too bashed in the face with it all to fully appreciate the real point of the game—that is, an attempt to convey the potent misery and joy that such a parenting experience would bring. In all, however, That Dragon, Cancer did deliver this message, and did so in a really nuanced way.

Considering that this is an entirely true story, the couple couldn’t have necessarily been expected to produce a perfectly fluid presentation of the slow death of their son. But as a purchaser, consumer, and critic of the game, I would have liked to see God’s role worked into the story a bit more, rather than plowing straight over it.

Unhappy Ending: Art Isn’t Always Fun

During our discussion in class today about Braid, one student made the astute observation that, while the game is sometimes so difficult it isn’t even fun, perhaps that’s the point. As the class delved into Jonathan Blow’s opinions on video games, I thought back to another game in which I had experienced this sort of “harsh art” and thought that perhaps this is yet another sign that video games are truly maturing as an art form.

One of the first games I played on my PS4 was a short, narrative-driven walking simulator (a term which is often used pejoratively, though I’ve taken to reappropriating it for ambient aesthetes of all media) called Firewatch. This gorgeously rendered, slow-paced, and emotionally sapping game is without a doubt a piece of art; indeed, it is so narratively focused that I almost wouldn’t call it a video game at all but rather an immersive movie.

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Firewatch places you in the eyes of a lonely man whose wife has begun to suffer from early onset dementia. As she begins to forget who he is, he takes to the woods to escape depression, applying for a summer position as wildfire lookout for the US Forest Service. Throughout the game, the player is forced to choose between suboptimal and morally questionable paradoxes. You are never allowed, in other words, to be completely happy with your decisions, as there is no best option.

I of course won’t spoil Firewatch‘s wonderful story (and if any of my classmates would like to play it, they are free to do so on my console, as it’s only a 2-4 hour game). All I will say is that the ending was, for me, quite disappointing. Indeed, it was an intentional letdown.

So back to Braid‘s at times frustratingly difficult puzzles. If Jonathan Blow was seeking to make some sort of commentary on video games, in their predictably satisfactory endings and linear progression, I believe he succeeded. In the same vein, Firewatch‘s creators gave us an antihero whose climactic ending is but a quiet disappointment.

So why would we play games that are, in some respect, unenjoyable? Because in all seriousness—in terms of giving me pleasure, both Braid and Firewatch would be considered failures. But this is precisely why I feel that video games are coming to a certain level of maturity, that they might have the ability to deliver unto players something other than dopamine. Reading Lolita isn’t fun at all; neither is listening to Schoenberg’s expressionist music or reading Ginsberg’s bleak poetry. What these works do give us is a taste of some real or hyperreal fantasy in which feelings we all recognize but shudder to behold are thrust out, into our faces. And in looking at them in the light, perhaps we gain some consolation in knowing that at least, we are not alone in fearing them.

Gimme hold of that narrative!

Narrative ambiguity is a central feature in Journey; a pro for those of us who enjoyed playing/watching the game, irritating and inconclusive for those who did not. But many of us felt connected to the character(s), sensationally aware of the setting, and personally invoked in the story–whatever we manipulated it to be. Not surprisingly, Journey’s critical response also centered on the game’s open interpretation aspect. Joel Gregory, a game reviewer for Playstation Official Magazine writes that “its [the game’s] brilliance . . . comes down to the fact that the symbolism is left open to interpretation” and describes the game as an “interactive parable” (2012).  And as Gregory notes, the interpretations of the game are infinite, but a definitive answer isn’t the point here. Rather, the game invokes the player on an intellectual level and allows (or forces, for those who didn’t find joy in it) to engage with and in many ways, complete the story by his or herself.

In class, we wondered if this type of game–one that requires intellectual reflection and analysis–might be limited in audience. Many people, it seemed, might be turned off by the mental gymnastics required of the player. And Gregory echoes these concerns, writing that “some think it’s pretentious nonsense.” But the game’s critical reception overwhelmingly suggests otherwise: Journey is currently the fastest selling game on Playstation Store to date, won multiple Game of the Year awards (in categories ranging from story to gameplay engineering), received a Grammy nomination for the score and garnered 92% approval rankings on both GameRankings and Mediacritic.

So rather than excluding segments of the typical gaming community, might Journey (and games like it) actually invite a larger audience? The gameplay is relatively simple, but as Eurogamer reviewer Christian Donlan writes, Journey creates a “sense of hardship” because of the vast unknowns in the world of the game. (This “hardship” is precisely what draws so many advanced gamers to the game; they still find payoff in the end despite the low technical demands of the game.) Games like Journey invite another class of people to the gaming table: maybe those novice gamers who still want to participate in the stimulating virtual world,  maybe those literature buffs who want something new to dissect and analyze, maybe those who feel most connected to a story when they make their own contributions to it. I suspect a bit of all three lies within many Journey players. (But to give credit where credit is due, the game developers have done the majority of the mental work for us plebian players by creating such a visually and sonically robust world.)

In a workshop on Vanderbilt’s campus this afternoon, game designer Evan Meaney cautioned the audience of the illusion of choice present in video games. In his words, games offer the viewer more choice than film (or other media forms) only by “better lying.” And this makes sense–of course a user doesn’t have full control over the game world, because the game developers have only coded so much! In terms of mechanics, Journey succumbs to this same critique. But by granting the player with narrative power, we’re gaining more control, and for Lamer Gamers like me, that’s pretty darn empowering.

-Emma Baker

I Feel For You Tim: Emotional Attachment in Braid

In the introduction to Half Real, Jesper Juul argues that “emotional attachment” is an essential component of video game construction. However, many critics argue that emotional attachment is largely missing from today’s popular games (Call of Duty, Halo etc.).  But emotional connection is  front-and-center in Braid. What’s more, the game offers multiple ways for the player to feel connected to the game. The world of Braid is visually stunning, musically compelling, and puzzling in the obstacles, mechanics and story; this makes space for any player to form an attachment with the game.

The story hooked me. We get snippets about Tim’s path at the beginning of each new level–his past romances, his parents, his own self-reflection–and we care about him just as we might the protagonist in a great novel. But the narrative is particularly compelling because it leaves so many questions unanswered–What big mistake did Tim make? Who is the monster? These questions can only be answered by playing and beating the game (or looking it up on Wikipedia, as I did). The story creates so much anticipation, and I enjoyed playing largely because I wanted to solve the mystery of Tim and his Princess. I was rooting for Tim. Learning the ending made me sad, made me reflect on the game, made me consider Tim and the Princess as a legitimate relationship that might exist outside of a video game. Deeply personal and delicate, this story touched on much larger themes than I would have expected from a game.

Game mechanics-wise, I echo others’ posts with my admiration. The rewind/re-do function extremely helpful for me as a new game player, and made the theme of multiple realities more concrete. Plus, players have the advantage of seeing other possible outcomes; if you don’t like where a certain path of play takes you, you can quite literally alter your own course. There is also a tension at play between fate and free will. The narrative is pre-set, obviously, and so although we can choose and re-do our path, all means lead to the same end. This element creates an even stronger bond between the player and the characters. Tim’s final loss made me question if anything he/I accomplished in the game was worth it. The game boasts time travel, magic and do-overs, but ultimately, Tim cannot win the princess back.  In fact,  one could argue that Tim’s use of all these technological advancements turned him into the monster that the Princess sees him as.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game because of how close I felt to the characters. Creator Jonathan Blow has spoken out about the importance of forming emotional and artistic attachment in video games, and I think he nailed it in Braid. I look forward to his next release!

Emma Baker

 

The Intertwining Narrative and Mechanics of Braid

By Carly Vaughn

Braid is a frustrating game. In my opinion, this is mostly because the simple game mechanics belie the fact that introducing the element of time into a game creates a whole different set of complexities. While these complexities do tie in well to the narrative, it makes playing the game, for me, quite a challenge.

The game’s relationship to time seems, at first, to make the game very easy. Instead of having to start a level over when you die, you simply rewind time and correct your mistakes. As the narrative for World 2 says, “This happened because Tim made a mistake.” This simple statement mirrors time’s rather simple function in these early levels.

However, this time manipulation quickly changes from the game equivalent of Wite-Out, to an incredibly challenging dimension of the game experience. I found myself mystified, though my partner was not, by the levels in which time only moved forwards or backwards when Tim did, or the levels involving Tim’s shadow. Tim’s shadow was particularly confusing, as I could never seem to get him to do what I wanted, even when my partner patiently explained what I was meant to do. This complication in game mechanics, is reflected in the new, deeper context of the game’s narrative: “A trail of feelings, of awe and inspiration, should lead him to that castle in the future: her arms enclosing him, her scent fills him with excitement, creates a moment so strong he can remember it in the past.” The future and the past and the present are intertwined in this game, not only in playing it, but in Tim’s reflections.

I think the game’s creator made a very conscious decision to have this progression of the time manipulation; i.e. from a help to a hindrance. Tim’s narrative is about time, of course, and about regret. It seems easy to wish you could simply go back in time and correct mistakes, but the game seems to be arguing that time and regret and mistakes are more complicated than that. While this game is incredibly difficult, I want to finish it and discover what happened to the Princess, and what will happen to Tim.

Braid: A Different Type of Experience?

By Jo Kim

 

When I first heard that we are going to be playing a platform game in class, the first thought that came into my mind was ‘Well, this is going to be easy,’ but boy, was I wrong. Going into the game, I was half-expecting Braid to be similar to the Super Mario Brothers series. Having played the said game over and over past the years of my life, I thought having a good gaming reflex would help me breeze through the levels of Braid.

Truly enough, the first introductory phase of Braid proved to be what I expected, a typical reflex-based platform game; however, I did notice that Braid had a special tint to its game play, the narrative, which separated this game from its other platform counterparts. However, as I progressed past the initial introduction part, I realized that Braid required more cerebral activity than games like Super Mario Brothers or I Wanna Be The Guy. Braid was closer to a puzzle-type game than it was a reflex-based game.

Collecting puzzles proved to be a rather difficult task, as I had to plan out what to do in order to get the puzzle in the levels. However, thanks to the Braid’s unique feature of “time-reversal” I was able to do these tasks without starting over from the scratch whenever I “died” from controlling errors. This “time-reversal” (pressing shift to reverse for yourself, or walking backwards to reverse time for everything) gradually proved itself as a significant feature of the game, as you needed it to defeat bosses and collect puzzles. It was quite difficult getting used to this feature, as the usage of this ability seemed to differ from level to level, requiring more thinking and preparations.

Having collected all the puzzles in the first level, I did not receive any type of “reward” for my hard work (other than the picture, which I did not care about for the most part, and because of this, I deduced that the puzzles in this game might be similar to coins in Super Mario Brothers or in Sonic the Hedgehog. Following this, from the next level on, I tried to finish the level as fast as possible without collecting these puzzles, as I was more interested in the narration (the dialogue between Tim and the black dinosaur intrigued me for some reason, do not ask why). As I went further and further in the story, I got hooked into it, and I wanted to see the ending; however, this is when the puzzles got me. Because I had not collected any puzzles past level 1, I was not able to proceed into the final level, making all my work of running straight through the levels meaningless. But it was perfectly fine, as I had the internet to dig into the ending.

Overall, Braid proved to be a familiar, yet a fresh approach into the platform gaming field. Its melancholy artwork and background music created a dreamy atmosphere in the game, which allowed me to focus into the game much more. However, its puzzle-based gameplay proved to be a bit too much for me, as my brain does not possess such delicate feature. Nonetheless, the gaming experience was enjoyable, and I recommend it to puzzle-lovers and platform-lovers, as you can kill two birds with one stone by playing this game. For story lovers, the narration in this game is outstanding as well (I can vouch this because I looked at the ending on Wikipedia played the game) and the twist at the end is flavorful. When I have leisure, I will definitely go back and finish the game, just so I can say that I have played the game thoroughly.