Hello fellow TAYers, and welcome to my first official post for TAY and last post of the year! Following the last TAY Theme week, I decided to contribute another article. There really wasn’t a game I played this year that I would call completely terrible (although game #2 below tried my patience), but I knew right off the bat which game I wanted to cover; at least initially. As I was preparing this article, I thought I’d reference a few other walking simulator games, but after finishing a recent game, I think both games deserve mention.
For this entry, I’m going to briefly cover 2 of the 3 nontraditional games I played this year. Again, I must reiterate that I didn’t completely hate these games, but rather they didn’t strike a chord with me (gameplay wise) as in other games I played this year.
When I first started my run with Gone Home, I was actually pretty stoked to see how the story unfolded. For those of you unfamiliar with the setting, the game is set in your family’s new home after returning from studying abroad, only to discover your house is empty and your family is gone. You wander around the house, attempting to find clues to what happened, and try to gain access to the rest of the house by finding items. Without giving two much away, the real story is given through several journal pages told through another character. Sounds pretty good so far, right? There’s just one problem:
Gone Home is boring.
While I knew upfront that this was a very “ground in reality” game, meaning I wasn’t expecting a supernatural horror story or some weird tale about aliens or anything out of the ordinary, I wandered endlessly from room to room expecting to find something of interest, only to be setup for disappointment. The real problem is that Gone Home doesn’t do anything meaningful with it’s gameplay to justify the story it’s trying tell. It’s like they chose the wrong medium to tell their story.
Now don’t get me wrong; I think there is a place for video games that emphasize storytelling over gameplay. I’ve sat through Metal Gear Solid 4's lengthy cutscenes and even enjoyed Journey’s simplicity. I connected more with Persona 3 while doing the Social Links and non-dungeon activities than I did while spending time in Tartarus. I even thought Bioshock Infinite could have been improved had it been a different, calmer game. Part of what separates video games from other mediums such as films and TV is the player interaction and the power of the player to tell the story to a certain degree, even if the player’s character and story is well defined and set in stone. Gone Home largely ignores this in favor of telling its story. Your character is not even the protagonist of this tale.
Remember how I mentioned the main story is told through the journal of another character? As you make progress in the game and access more of the house, you find more of these pages. You know, this sounds familiar.....
That’s because Slender: The Eight Pages did this in 2012; a year before Gone Home released (the console version hit this year). The difference between these two games is that Slender provides a connection between its gameplay and story. You wander around looking for the pages while avoiding the dangerous Slenderman, knowing that he can emerge at almost anytime. What’s Gone Home’s reason for its true main character to leave several pages of their diary when the very first note on the front door explicitly tells your character not to pry further? And if they wanted you to find it, why hide go through the trouble of scattering each page? Maybe I’m reading into this too much (it’s not the first game to ignore logic for the sake of gameplay or story), but details people! These can easily break immersion.
Despite all this, I ended up completing the game. Why? In contrary to everything I just said, Gone Home does two things right. The first is that it can be completed in about an hour or more, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The second is the story of course. For the sake of this article, I’m avoiding spoilers, but let’s just say it’s a breath of fresh air from anything I’ve played in recent memory and tackles a topic rarely covered in video games. Gone Home’s tale is surprisingly human even if your character is not the protagonist and is simply a medium to channel its message.
Gone Home might have failed to grab me as a video game, but it succeeded in telling an entertaining tale. It just didn’t use the right tool to spread its message across. Like the house where this game is set, it is empty and unremarkable, but the history is what is most significant.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
Like the previous title in this list, what Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture lacks in deep gameplay, it makes up for in its visuals, audio, and story. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to cover up it’s baffling design choices:
- The player’s character walk speed is painfully slow. I get that the developer’s intention was for the player to absorb the environment and take their time, but when you are navigating the area to hunt down the next point of interest, I don’t need to revisit the same landmarks multiple times. Or have to turn around and walk back the way I came because a fence is blocking the path (this happened a lot). This becomes more apparent in the endgame.
- Yes, you can sprint, but it is mapped to one of the shoulder buttons on the PS4, which can get very uncomfortable after a while. Worse is the option can’t be changed. In addition, sprinting is barely faster than walking and it takes several seconds before your movement reaches full running speed. This actually wasn’t even included when the game launched.
- There is a gameplay mechanic that requires you to tilt the controller to interact with spheres of light to open up the next piece of the story. The game doesn’t communicate to the player exactly what it wants you to do in these sections, so it took me a few hours to figure out how this mechanic worked.
- There is no map. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is divided into several small sections, but I discovered at one point it’s possible to skip chapters and move into the next section if you take an alternate path. To put some context, Gone Home had a much smaller world and provided a map that indicated which rooms had already been visited.
- There is usually a trail of light to follow to find the key story moments you need to trigger to progress, but I found it to be somewhat unreliable at times as it redirected me or suddenly asked me to retrace my steps.
- I actually felt the game length was padded out too long compared to similar titles at about 5 hours. A large part of this was likely due to my first point and a combination of the other points.
For a game that makes it a point to explore and piece together a mystery, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture design ironically inhibits exploration. Aside from its slow walk speed making it a pain to navigate from point A to B, the endgame is fumbled. You can’t actually trigger the final chapter without activating all of the needed story moments, which means you are pretty much obligated to follow the light trail to progress. While you can ignore this and explore at your leisure, you are liable to miss events (or even skip a chapter), and having to return to already explored areas to locate that one story event you missed can really test your patience. I pretty much stopped exploring once I reached one of the final chapters and kept following the light just to make progress.
Now I did mention there was a story. While there were some interesting character arcs throughout the 5 hour journey, there were a lot of unanswered questions by the time I got to the credits. One positive note I will add is that the game does a fine job of keeping you invested in the plot as you try to piece together what happened to make everybody vanish. I formed my own theories as I navigated the world, but to my surprise, I was proven wrong with each new story element. Even the player’s character remains a mystery until the very end. If you are interested in one explanation about the game’s plot, Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton actually lays out a decent timeline for the entire game.
These younger game creators, they want to be recognised. They want to tell stories that will touch people’s hearts. And while I understand that desire, the trend worries me. It should be the experience, that is touching. What I strive for is to make the person playing the game the director. All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create. — Shigeru Miyamoto
As I was writing this piece, I thought a lot about Miyamoto’s words above. I’ve always been a person who’s placed more value on gameplay than story. That being said, I’m not against this style of game. As far as I’m concerned, both these games are as much video games as Super Mario Bros. and Dark Souls. I mentioned earlier these were two of the three walking sims I played this year. What was the third you ask?
It was Journey.
What worked for Journey is that the story was not only told through the environment, but the player was instrumental in telling it. The fact that it was so open ended and vague leaves it open to several interpretations. At the end of the day, each person’s experience will differ, but Journey succeeds in creating an engaging experience by providing a sense of wonder and surprise in each new area. This extends to its simple gameplay as you interact with the world. It also helped that it wasn’t plagued with poor game design choices.
The difference between Journey and Gone Home is the former works with the player to shape the experience through interaction. Even if the player is being led from point A to point B with little to no deviation, the player still needs to feel that they are in the driver’s seat. Gone Home feels like the story was written first and the gameplay was simply added on for the sake of giving the player something to do. I never felt rewarded for uncovering additional story notes, and this is coming from someone who makes it a point to go back through areas in other games and retrieve audio logs, notes, etc. as I tend to be a bit of a completionist.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture worked better in context (aside from the tilt controls) despite following the same formula, but its poor game design choices made for a more frustrating game.
So while both these games failed to grab me completely, I still think story driven games have potential. Horror games have proven well to the style of gameplay demonstrated with these games. Even P.T., a prototype demo for a game that is now long gone proved that you can engage and entertain players with limited inputs. There have been plenty of other games that have focused on story but given the player enough input to make for a worthwhile game. The Stanley Parable is another great example that uses player choice to great effect in influencing the game itself by changing the narrative literally (the narrator will deviate or comment on player choices to redirect them). Telltale’s games all follow the same game design or episodic structure like a television series but still requires the player to make choices at certain points or go through quick time events, which is bare minimum gameplay, but suitable for the style of game they are selling, no different from a choose your own adventure style book.
These are just but a few examples, but what worked in those games is that the gameplay actually fit the game design. Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture clearly put more emphasis in telling an interesting story. While they succeeded for the most part, both largely ignored their audience by providing a disconnected or flawed game experience.
So that’s my take on these games, but I know some people will have had a different experience. What did you think of these games? Any great story driven games you have recently played? Suggestions for what could have made these games better or was I just the odd duck that did not like these games as much as others did? Comment, discuss, and share below!