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.

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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.

Walking Simulators and the Importance of Narrative

In class on Thursday, one of the complaints that people had towards That Dragon, Cancer was that it wasn’t really a “game;” instead, it was more of an interactive narrative.  They went on to say that, since they were expecting a more gameplay-driven experience, the extreme focus on story and lack of choices that That Dragon, Cancer had left a disappointing taste in their mouths.  However, I would argue that lack of choice is incredibly important to the story.  Furthermore, I would argue that That Dragon, Cancer does count as a game, because the very act of playing serves a purpose and communicates core concepts to the player.

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A scene where gameplay matters.  Source

A major theme of That Dragon, Cancer is the sense of helplessness that Ryan and Amy feel.  At a certain point, they realize that there’s not really anything they can do to save Joel’s life.  While faith (specifically Christian faith) gave the pair a way to cope, by the end of the game they realize that there is nothing they can do.  While it is subtle, much of the gameplay in the game leads you to have the exact same feeling.  The scene shown in the screenshot above is a good example of this.  In it, you play as Joel and eventually a man who died of cancer in the family’s church.  While there is a lot going on in this scene, one thing in particular stands out.  If you are good at fighting the dragon, Cancer, (see what he did there), then you will realize something interesting; no matter how long or how well you play the game, you will eventually succumb to the dragon because the dragon will never die, but stay at 1/2 heart until you eventually die.  What is interesting is that the game is not exactly hard; if you’re good at retro video games (which I am not) and figure out the pattern(which I did not), you can theoretically stay alive and continue fighting indefinitely.  However, if you want to continue the game, you have to give up.

There are many other places where you have to give up in order to continue.  Specific scenes where this is a theme are the Temple of God scene where you have to stop moving to continue and the scene where you play as Ryan and the only way to continue forward is by swimming deeper into the ocean.  These scenes serve to make an important point-moreover, they make you, the player, feel the point in a way you would not from simply hearing the characters describe it.  This is why I consider it, and many other “Walking Simulators” like it, games: because games aren’t just narratives that you affect, they are narratives that affect you in ways that a novel or movie does not have the ability to. Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you guys in the comments!