/ Gone Home

Games Without Gameplay

This post was written about half in January, and half more recently. Classic Me. Anyway, obviously there's lots of stuff that belongs here that I'm mostly going to ignore b/c otherwise it'll likely be another seven months before it's done.

Games (Nearly) Without Mechanics

One of the less shitty trends in games recently is the growing prominence of interesting games with minimal mechanics -- games with a minimum of controls an UI elements, and which do not necessarily assume that the player is already familiar with the conventions of a given genre.

Such games provoke resistance from some core gamers, spawning instances of that most tiresome and predictable internet debate: "Is it a game?" I'm not really interested in that argument, so I'm going to ignore it. (If you must know, my acid test for whether something is a game is whether people turn into total douchebags when they talk about it online. I.e., if you're not sure whether Dear Esther is a game, simply take a look at the Steam forum for it, and if the people slagging it sound like fucking gamers, it's a game.)

What does interest me about games like this is the fact that they have the potential to open up gaming experiences to a wider audience. Which, yes, is a huge part of why the douchebag demo is so resistant to them.

I'm all for the normalization of games like this, if it means that interesting new games are more likely to be played by:

  • New gamers
  • Casual gamers
  • Non-gamers
  • People who have difficulty playing games that require complex controls and/or twitch reflexes

I've recently gone on something of a proselytizing binge, recommending games like Kentucky Route Zero to people who either don't play core games or folks who play one or two games but rarely venture beyond them.

This post is primarily to serve as a standing pitch for a few mechanics-light games that I think are really worth playing. It's not an especially comprehensive or learned list, or long. My taste in games is actually fairly mainstream/pedestrian, and I don't usually go hunting for obscure jewels.

Kentucky Route Zero (incl. "Limits and Demonstrations" and "The Entertainment")

Kentucky Route Zero was my favorite game of 2013, and -- since only the first two acts out of a planned five were actually released last year -- it's very likely to be my favorite game of 2014. Hell, it may be my favorite game of all time.

In form, it is (mostly) a simplified side-scrolling point and click adventure. The UI is uncomplicated, and the puzzles are sparse and not overly challenging. I think this is an important virtue, not because I particularly prefer easy games, but because adventure game puzzles are often peculiarly inaccessible. It's not that you have be smart to navigate them, so much as you have to think in exactly the same way as the game's writers. Stuff like that is very cute if you're an insider to that community, but is unfriendly to new players, especially if the game relies on cultural references. So, by all means, bring on the easy games.

It's hard to say succinctly what Kentucky Route Zero is about. It's about debt, rural infrastructure and privatization, labor rights, bureaucracy, Colossal Cave, Nam June Paik, giant eagles, museum culture, and tons of other shit. As is often the case with the best art, its influences and references go dauntingly wide and deep, but do not act as gatekeepers to enjoyment. Even if you don't catch every reference, (or, like me, if most of them shoot right by you.) the story is complete on its own terms, and detailed enough for the player to make sense of its world whether or not they know what it's based on.

The most surprising and important feature of Kentucky Route Zero is its awareness of class. Even on the progressive arm of games culture, where gender and sexuality are consistently (and correctly) placed in the foreground of game creation and criticism, class is largely ignored, and where class diversity in games exists, it is usually in the crudest and shallowest terms.

Kentucky Route Zero is the rare exception that deals with socioeconomic class interestingly and well. It presents uncomfortable class realities and -- shockingly -- even encourages the player to think about where those realities come from, and what interests are complicit in creating poverty, indebtedness, homelessness, and the gutting of government services and infrastructure. And what toll those phenomena take on the souls and bodies of working people.

It does these things well and simply, accessibly and beautifully. It is gorgeous, heartbreaking, and funny. It's brilliant, and you absolutely need to play it.

The game costs $25. You can (and should) get it from Humble Store. It's multi-platform, and runs fine on my Macbook Air.

There are also two free quasi-demos/interludes: "Limits and Demonstrations," which takes the form of a trip to an installation art exhibit, and "The Entertainment," which puts you in the seat of a performer in an student theater production. These don't relate directly to the main game, but expand its themes and get deeper into some of its influences.

Gone Home

Gone Home is a game I recommend with somewhat more ambivalence. It's a very good game, and an extremely important one, and largely friendly to non-core gamers. You should definitely play it.

It's a first-person exploration game, in which you investigate a house full of people's belongings, but empty of people. Mechanically, it's mostly undemanding, although if you aren't accustomed to operating a first-person camera, it may take some getting used to.

The game does anticipate a fairly high familiarity with gaming conventions, however -- it expects you to know how items are customarily cached away in a video game environment, and the plot of the game draws extensively on horror tropes.

(Possible spoiler: It's not really a horror story -- it's actually a game about relationships, families, and growing up -- but it's structured in ways that play on the expectations of those who've played horror games, or at least watched a lot of horror movies.)

Not that you won't be able to enjoy Gone Home without having a background in this stuff, but it may not flow as smoothly.

Setting aside the gaminess, I have some concerns, partly about the writing of the game, but mostly about the way the game has been covered by the games press. I've already written about this in some detail, and I won't duplicate all that here.

What I will do is recommend the game with the following caveats:

  • If you're not affluent and not white, Gone Home may not resonate for you in the profoundly personal way it did for so goddamn many of those who reviewed it.
  • If you are affluent and/or white, good for you, just don't rave about how universal an experience that is, kthx.
  • Lonnie, an important character and what passes for diversity in Gone Home lacks a clearly defined voice of her own, and is generally a major weakness in the writing of the game. Just advance warning to lower your expectations. (And if you thought Lonnie was well-written.... ::eyebrow::)

Dear Esther

In gameplay terms, Dear Esther is even more accessible than Gome Home, because there are no actions the player is required to take or puzzles to solve -- you just have to walk around. Which is not to say that there's nothing to do. There's a great deal of information in Dear Esther, presented through a combination of audio (letters read aloud) and environmental storytelling. But that's not used to gate player progress, and the overall experience is more about interpreting the experience than anything else.

Without getting into spoiler territory, it's a game that is contemplative, dark, surreal, and more than a little pretentious. I'm pretty bad at non-genre literary comparisons, but Dear Esther is, I dunno, somewhere between a JG Ballard story and "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock."

How well Dear Esther succeeds, and whether you consider its creators to be taking more or less interesting risks, will probably depend on what context you read it into. In the games context, it was much weirder and more innovative (at the time of its introduction) than it would be if considered in an "art" context. (But in either context, Kentucky Route Zero takes more interesting chances, asks more of the player, and gives more in return.)

Proteus

In terms of gameplay, Proteus is very similar to Dear Esther; it is a first person walking around simulator where you explore an island. There are even some similarities in its narrative...maybe. But where Dear Esther and Gone Home feature painstakingly constructed environments and a great deal of writing, Proteus is procedurally generated, and gives the player very little information. Things happen, and events and environmental elements have meaning (some of which has been designed-in, some of which is up to the player to assign), and there is essentially a story (or, perhaps, more of a fable), but it is a profoundly abstracted story.

Proteus is great if you want something that you don't have to bring any kind of particular cultural background to, and if you want a contained, bite-sized, soothing experience. Its art-style is very...specific, though, and navigating the world can be a little disorienting.

The Walking Dead

I'm not sure whether The Walking Dead fits in here or not. It's not as accessible as the other games I've mentioned, and notably it does contain some "gamey" interactions where a lack of dexterity could mean failure. It also has some adventure game object puzzle stuff that's frankly obnoxious. (Oh, and also: I really disliked the first episode of it, and never played further.)

That being said, the core gameplay, and what has garnered the game so much attention, is about choices you make and things you say. The choice systems are fairly involved, and my understanding is that seemingly small decisions about how you interact with people early on can have major consequences later.

That's all well and good -- in fact, that side of Mass Effect is what made ME3 one of my favorite games of all time -- but it breaks down for me in the context of the game's setting. Too much is structured around what amounts to a series of gruesome "would you rather" binaries that is neither entertaining nor enlightening. I understand it improves in later episodes, but I just can't be bothered, given how bored/squicked I was with the first. (Also, the flak Telltale has drawn recently for ableism doesn't make me more inclined to give it another chance.)

Gaming by proxy

Are let's play videos just as good?

Something that came up in conversations with @earthtopus about Dear Esther is the question of whether there's any practical difference between playing a game where exploration is the only mechanic, and watching a let's play video of that game.

For my purposes, there definitely is -- immersion, as annoying an industry term as it is, as very important for my enjoyment of games. And a big part of immersion for me is setting the pace of exploration and controlling perspective. (This may also have something to do with my photography-relatead habits -- being able to choose where to stand where to look is a big deal.)

That being said, I think for a lot of folks, let's play videos are an excellent alternative to playing a game, especially if the game is inaccessible to them for whatever reason, and it's interesting to watch. And those experiences can even be very affecting -- I remember when I was browsing Tumblr posts about The Last of Us, being repeatedly surprised at both how many people were experiencing the game via videos rather than playing it, and at how deeply felt were their emotional responses.

Are blog posts just as good?

I'm surprised this didn't occur to me earlier, but another mechanics-free way to experience games is to do so at a remove, by reading about it. Some of my favorite pieces of games writing have been in-depth explorations of games that (for whatever reason) I'm confident that I will never play myself. Rock Paper Shotgun has proven a good source for this kind of content, like this piece on Solium Infernum or "Butchering Pathologic".

I'm not sure why these appeal to me more than let's play videos, apart from the fact that good games writers who cover specialized niches bring niche-specific background knowledge and cultural literacy that is essential. In this sense, some of my favorite video game experiences have been had entirely by proxy...