Portrait of the Videogame as Short Story
There is both utility and danger in looking at one art form through the lens of another. For every new insight into process or form, every aspect which works and which can be transposed, twisted, or transformed to fit, there is an equal and opposite myopia that can all too easily restrict thought and creative movement, binding possibility and expression.
Videogames have long laboured under the weight of constantly evolving technology and comparisons to their nearest cultural forebear—cinema. In technology’s case, videogames have been defined by the steady increase in the power of consoles and the miniaturisation of devices, creating an endless race of more, more, more, and a tribal allegiance to particular platforms that harkens back to the VHS/Betamax skirmishes and beyond, and is played out across the internet in heated arguments over which is the best platform for ‘true’ gamers—Playstation or Xbox or PC—and which is only suitable for ‘casual’ gamers and their mobiles or their Wiis.
The fact that both cinema and games are presented on screens leads to superficial comparisons and the production of high-end games like LA Noire or Heavy Rain which seem slavishly devoted to the language and experience of film or television, but both, when pulled apart, never quite achieve their ambitions, resulting in a strange experiential uncanny valley with stilted digital characters, stories that feel cobbled together from other stories, rather than real world experience, interruptions of those stories by gameplay rituals, and dialogue which begs for the bloody streak of a red-pen.
But lenses from other artforms can still be useful, especially if we approach from an angle other than the obvious one of film, and ask what would games look like if we looked at them as a novel or short story, as a poem or an opera, as theatre or live music? Again, we might restrict how we think about games just as much as we do by thinking of them as technology or cinema, but we might just as likely reveal something new.
Two games that are closer to short stories than anything else are the recent Journey by ThatGameCompany (available for the Playstation 3) and Dear Esther by The Chinese Room (available for the PC and Mac). Both are visually detailed, with rich, complex soundscapes, and both are interactive in very different ways—Journey sees you traversing an open desert, whereas Dear Esther ushers you along narrow paths on an island—but both use the foundations and expressive grammar of videogames to create crystal clear contours of feeling, with every moment bound up and serving to amplify their themes, intent, text, and subtext.
Journey casts the player as a silent explorer dropped into a vast desert with the unspoken goal of reaching the pillar of light emanating from a mountain shrouded in fog. Along the way, the player uncovers glyphs that tell the wordless tale of what has already happened, and what will happen if the player continues. It is a game of fluid movement, of flying through the air alongside creatures which resemble coiling flying carpets, of surfing down the edges of towering sand dunes, of a sense, at least initially, of freedom.
In interviews, Journey’s designer Jenova Chen has spoken of his driving interest in catharsis—the moment of revelation, emotional change, understanding, and knowledge. A second or a third playthrough of Journey makes this intent clear. The initial guidance and signposts for the player to follow, the burnt orange landscape and subtle cello music, give way to more space to move in, longer, vertiginous pathways to surf down, deeper reds and yellows, and soaring strings, all contributing to the implicit notion that this freedom is what matters most in the world, and that given the chance it could easily go on forever. Drawn into the flow of the game, the kinesthetic joy of it all, you accept this feeling of freedom in the moment of play, unaware that the game is about to take those feelings and slowly twist them.
Unlike games in which you become steadily more powerful, or which resemble roller-coaster rides, Journey takes deliberate steps to make you feel less powerful, to make you submit to the experience of its systems and its art. The space deliberately constricts, removing your sense of freedom, making your physical movements—both with the controller and in game—more punishing while the colour schemes shift, the light fades and the soundtrack darkens. In every sense, the game takes the joy you had at free movement and manipulates it to the point where it feels almost as though the game would rather you give up.
And just when it seems there is nowhere for you to go, when the screws of the game have tightened until you can’t move at all, the game explodes outwards, giving you more freedom than you had at the beginning. Colour, movement, sound, floods back and the game spins out towards its inevitable, affecting end. A perfect moment of catharsis, bringing the game’s experience full circle back to the start of your journey.
By contrast, Dear Esther, is a series of smaller moments where you trek across a beautifully realised abandoned island while an unseen narrator relates the twin stories of an explorer who lived here, and the letters he wrote, that all begin, Dear Esther. The player’s movement is slow, and the only actions they can take are to walk and to look around. There is no button for jumping here, no button for shooting. Even the game’s one game-like conceit is a flashlight that activates automatically when you enter somewhere dark, requiring nothing of the player. For many, this level of interactivity barely qualifies Dear Esther as a game, but it is precisely these deliberate restrictions alongside the layered stories, that create a world where the player, with nothing else to do, has to contemplate the results of simply walking and looking while story fragments are relayed in response to some piece of the world—an abandoned cabin, a radio tower, a rusting ship, a lookout point, a cave stained with paint, a beachfront covered in flickering candles.
The essence of Dear Esther is the gap between these fragments. Each moment of movement along a winding overgrown path or the edge of a cliff gives the player just enough detail to speculate and fill in what might have happened, before the next piece of narration works to undercut, enhance, or retexture your expectations. What is the connection between the island and the tragic letters? How does the strange, metaphorical ramblings of the explorer connect to the psycho-geography of the island itself? Whose story are you actually hearing, and how much of it is true? And because you see the world through a first person perspective, what role do you play in it? Are you writing the letters? Recalling the explorer? You can’t be, but you must be complicit, somehow, because it is your movement along the path that draws the stories into existence in ways that are unsettling and foreboding.
As in Journey, you press on, because that is what the game urges you to do. You press on along an unbroken, clear, but strange path to its inevitable end.
Both Journey and Dear Esther can be completed in an hour or two and they don’t force you to learn complex mechanics, or work under rigid time constraints. You can move through them at your own pace, taking in the scenery and settling into their magic. They want to carry you through their experience and show you everything they have to offer—and what they have to offer is far closer to the short story than a novel or a film. They both do one thing, and they are in total control of it through all aspects of their interactivity, visuals, theme, text and subtext, and music. They use the tools available to them in nuanced ways, building layer upon layer of meaning and then stripping it away until the core of what they are trying to say is exposed, raw, at their end, and the player—or wanderer, or explorer, or archaeologist—can’t help but look back at the journey they’ve been on, see all of the moments strung out in time back to the beginning and wonder at being carried so effortlessly along a path where every moment, every action, every word is perfect and economical, and tells, in its own videogame way, a story.
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