If You See Something, Say Something

Another thing I like about Firewatch


While I’m thinking of it, one more thing I like about Firewatch is the walkie-talkie. Specifically, how they took one of the most mundane elements of adventure games and turned it into the emotional core of a narrative game.

I’ve worked as a writer on around 13 adventure games, and while I do sometimes miss writing for games, I definitely don’t miss writing examine lines. They’re the lines of dialogue for when the player click on an object in the environment, like a rock, and the character walks over to it and says, “It’s a rock.” Maybe I’m revealing too much about my lack of imagination.

Ideally, you can use these lines as opportunities to make jokes, give clues to the solution of a puzzle, or both. But there are only so many jokes you can make about rocks and other mundane objects — at least, only so many that I could make — before you start to suspect that maybe games aren’t an effective medium for storytelling after all, and maybe they’re just meant for shooting bad guys.

Even worse is when you get some pretty good jokes in there, but there are so many that it all just turns into noise. Like having a guy following you around saying “Eh? Eh? Get it?!” repeatedly while you’re just trying to find your keys, or the combination to the safe you saw two screens ago.

One of the neat things about Sam & Max games was having the opportunity for these examine lines to be more conversational; Sam could observe something and Max could make a joke about it. It made it a little harder for them to fall into a rut, but the core problem still remains that the lines are purely mechanical. They exist to tell a joke, or to drive a puzzle forward. It’s extremely difficult to do story development or character development with them. (For several reasons, such as the fact that they’re usually optional).

So the method that Firewatch used — the player presses a button on their walkie-talkie to have Henry “report” something back to Delilah — lines up in tons of clever ways that made me happy to see:

  • Henry’s a newcomer to the job, so the stuff he doesn’t recognize is likely to be the same stuff that a player wouldn’t recognize.
  • Delilah’s role as your supervisor lines up with her role as semi-omniscient narrator, but she’s also a little bit unreliable, which is much more interesting.
  • Banter isn’t used just to describe an object or to solve a puzzle, but to establish character or advance the plot.
  • Henry starts to rely on Delilah as his one point of human contact, and the player relies on that connection as a guide through the game.
  • When the game starts to mess with your walkie-talkie, Henry’s panic resonates as your panic.
  • Because he’s having to describe stuff to someone remotely, it actually makes sense for the player character to be walking around describing what he sees out loud.

Of course, there are some aspects of Firewatch that make the walkie-talkie mechanic work better than it would in a traditional adventure game. It’s more linear, so most of the lines are critical path, and the player’s unlikely to miss a crucial character beat because she didn’t try to examine a specific picture on a desk somewhere. It’s not puzzle-driven, so there’s little need to be giving obtuse clues to puzzles; in fact, it’s more realistic to tell the player outright what she should be focused on. And it’s more evenly paced, which is to say there are fewer interactive objects in the environment, so there’s no attempt to create a constant firehose of jokes, red herrings, or insightful observations.

Instead, it uses one of the oldest tropes of adventure games to tell a mature, thoughtful, and character-driven story about connection and isolation. Kind of like an adult contemporary short story about Link and Navi.

One Thing I Like About Firewatch

Being an independent developer means you can take uneventful hikes through the woods.

Playing What Remains of Edith Finch? reminded me how much I love video games that do interesting things with interactive storytelling, and writing about it renewed my interest in writing about things I love on this blog. The idea behind this series is to counter-act my usual tendency to over-think, over-write, and reduce an entire work of art to the one thing I think it “means.” So this is the start of what I hope becomes a series in which I write about one aspect of a piece of art or entertainment that I really like, and I try to explain why I like it.

One thing I like about Firewatch is its opening walk from Henry’s truck to the watch tower.

The introduction to a game has to do a ton of stuff, introducing the game mechanics, setting up the narrative, setting the tone, and even just grabbing the player’s interest. There’s a lot going on in Firewatch’s opening, and it’s all pulled off with subtlety and confidence. Emotional and tough-to-write scenes are all front-loaded, distilled into vignettes with the most impact, and presented in a surprising choose-your-own-adventure format. (And they serve as a good example of why the argument “your choices don’t matter!” is a mostly vacuous one when it comes to narrative-driven games).

The mechanical controls are introduced along with the narrative premise: Want to run away from your troubles? Press the W key. The relationship that defines the core of the game is established purely through banter during the opening. As you walk, you’re gradually exposed to more and more of the stunning environments that would be the hallmark of the game. You can even tell that someone agonized over the editing down to the microsecond — the last line of dialogue welcoming you into the game slams you into a black title card almost too abruptly, a final bit of punctuation on the conversation. Even the selection of typography impressed me. The entire thing was so slick and mature that I was completely on board.

But my favorite aspect of it is that the whole sequence is the very first thing that would be cut in “normal” game development.

By my count, there are six distinct environments in that opening. If I remember correctly, only the very last one — the watch tower itself — is ever revisited in the game. Maybe that doesn’t seem that remarkable, but the thing about environments in Firewatch is:

  1. They’re beautiful,
  2. They’re meticulously planned out, and
  3. They’re reused a lot.

The reuse would be perfectly justifiable for a small, independent studio making its debut game, but I don’t even consider it a negative. The game compresses three months and a huge expanse of open space into an experience you can navigate over four or five hours, and the reuse helps turn a foreign landscape into a familiar home. It even created a weird sense of nostalgia as I was playing and realizing that the story was drawing to a conclusion. I’d gotten used to the place and was starting to regret having to leave.

But whether that was intentional or not, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a finite amount of work a small team of developers can do in a limited amount of time. It would’ve been a lot more efficient and practical to scope it down. Put all that time and money into the watch tower, which you know has to be the most developed and detailed, and start the game there. Sure, keep the flashbacks, but have them play out while you’re on day 1 of the story, exploring the space around the tower and learning the controls.

That’s how it would’ve gone in all the production-driven studios I’ve worked at. In fact, I’ve heard similar so many times that I wouldn’t have even proposed it. I’d have scoped it out from the start, convincing myself that the time and money would be better spent elsewhere, and asking for extra environments is pretentious indulgence. And instead, I’d have saved that energy for the inevitable argument that the beginning is too slow, and we gotta grab ’em from the start with a big action set-piece.

Which would be a huge loss, because the opening of Firewatch is absolutely crucial to the rest of the game. It’s establishing mood as much as plot and backstory. It has to make you feel as if you’ve withdrawn and escaped, isolated yourself miles away from any human contact. Your character mentions that he’s been hiking for two days, but without taking parts of that hike yourself, it’s just an abstract idea.

The changes in daylight show that passage of time, but what really drives it home is that you’re walking in a straight line through nondescript (but beautiful!) woods, in that period of time dilation at the beginning of a game when you have control of a story and are eager to drive it forward. There are interesting things to look at, but you’re not really exploring. You’re just traveling, and it’s taking a long time. In other words, you’re actually hiking.

For Firewatch to work, it’s got to nail that mood of isolation. It can’t just be a bunch of beautifully rendered environments, because without the context, it’d all be hollow. The game does a fantastic job of establishing a place — at first breathtaking, then familiar, then dangerous. But what makes it resonate as more than just world-building is that feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world except for two threadbare connections, one to a stranger in the present and one to a difficult past. And it would’ve lost something invaluable if they’d started with Henry in the middle of the woods without showing you how he got there.

What Remains of Edith Finch

It turns out that the game from last year that has gotten near-universal praise and made it onto multiple best-of lists is actually pretty good.

What Remains of Edith Finch
What Remains of Edith Finch came out about a year ago, and I bought it at the time to show my support for small game development studios and immersive storytelling. But I never got around to playing it until last night. Even though it’s gotten near-universal praise, I’d assumed that I got the gist of it and didn’t need to dive in right away. I rarely play games anymore as it is, and I haven’t been in the mood for what I figured was going to be another artistically-minded and well-crafted but predictable and passive walking simulator.

Turns out I was mistaken. This game is a masterpiece. Everybody at Giant Sparrow should be immensely proud of it, for everything it gets exactly right artistically, technically, and tonally. It seems effortlessly beautiful, unabashedly earnest without being maudlin, intriguing without being obtuse, and profound without being pretentious.

I reckon I’m still only about halfway through, but I had to stop playing because I was sitting in the living room straight-up heaving-sobs ugly-crying over one of the stories. I can’t remember the last time a video game has made me cry — well, the last time playing a video game has made me cry, anyway — and I know that none have hit me that dramatically.

What’s remarkable to me is how much the game earned it. To be honest, it doesn’t take a whole lot to make me cry; movies have been able to do it with increasing regularity, and it usually resonates only as much as a jump scare. But the scene in Edith Finch (at the risk of spoilers, it’s Gregory’s story) wouldn’t have worked outside of a game. Or, more accurately, outside of a game as thoughtfully and skillfully made as this one. The story itself is real, and it’s tragic, but it’s also been made maudlin by its overuse in shallower stories. It’s been reduced to a background sketch in adult contemporary fiction, or made trite like Hemingway’s saddest short story. In Edith Finch, though, the audience’s perspective and interactivity are used to flip the focus; the story isn’t about a tragic death but a joyous life.

You already know what’s going to happen; that’s not only something that’s been foreshadowed several times over, but has by this point revealed itself as one of the game’s main themes. But the genius of Edith Finch is that it forces you to confront, accept, and even embrace the sinister premise behind each story, so that you can see for yourself the joy, or beauty, or humor, or exhilaration of it. It takes the “don’t go into that room!” moments from horror movies and games, then makes that idea literal as the game’s recurring theme and core “mechanic.” And then it uses that tension and suspense not for horror (or rather, not just for horror), but for empathy.

The reason I put “mechanic” in scare quotes there was because What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t a game, and it’s also the best possible illustration of why the argument of what constitutes a “game” is irrelevant. At first, even while I was marveling at the beauty of the art direction — it’s a marvelous example of being simultaneously painterly, realistic, intriguing, mundane, sinister, and familiar — I was bristling at the lack of interactivity. I was getting so annoyed at passively listening to descriptions of objects, needlessly fiddling with the controls for what should have been simple interactions, and illusory choices that had no real consequences, that you’d think I’d never worked at Telltale.

But then the game started changing the way I interacted with things, and it started to make me realize the implications of those changes. (As long as I’m gushing, I’ve got to mention that the pacing of the stories and the order in which they’re presented is masterful, although it’d be easy to take for granted). A gameplay loop develops inside each story: what am I trying to do?, how do I do it?, and then why am I doing it?, and you realize how the process of answering those questions either reveals or emphasizes the theme of each story. The loop is a bit like Wario Ware, except instead of picking someone’s nose, you’re getting insight into the joy and sadness inherent in the nature of human existence.

As a result, even the relatively simple moments can become profound and poignant. Calvin’s story, for instance, takes place entirely on a swing. You know what’s going to happen, but the game doesn’t let you continue until you actually do it. By the end, you understand why the game made you do it — you have to do it to see what it feels like.

At which point everything seemed to click in place and the metaphors made sense to me: a house full of sealed-off rooms that you can only peek into. An anthology in which you know from the beginning what’s ultimately going to happen to each character. A mystery that reveals its killer at the beginning, but forces you to see for yourself what happened. An interactive experience in which your actions aren’t defining the shape of your narrative, but making you better able to understand and empathize with someone else’s.

It’s constantly surprising, both in how frequently it shifts between different tones and different game mechanics, and in how masterful it is in doing it. Over the course of my half-playthrough, it’s already changed my perspective on the potential of “walking simulators” and whether or not they were a storytelling dead-end. It’s also seemingly transformed from sinister haunted house story to a funeral memorializing a bunch of dead characters and then into a wake celebrating their lives. I feel like I already know how it’s going to end, but I still can’t wait to go through it and see for myself.

The Road Not Taken

Playdead’s “Inside” is a beautiful and horrible masterpiece, but it also feels like it reveals a hard limit on what video games are capable of. Spoilers throughout, so please don’t read this until you’ve finished the game.

Inside screenshot
Inside is easily one of the best games of 2016, and it deserves a place in any list of the best games of the decade. It’s relentlessly intriguing, almost always preferring subtle, disturbing imagery to spectacle, but still finding a way to top itself over and over again with an even more surprising or evocative scene.

Like Limbo, it’s unapologetically brutal, but unlike Limbo, it seems dispassionately so. That game had the tone of a dark, corrupted fairy tale, and so there was still a trace of sentimentality about the young boy protagonist even as it showed him getting gored by a giant spider or crushed in a bear trap. There’s no sign of sympathy for the young boy the player controls in Inside. He’ll be pursued by faceless men in suits, shot, strangled, have his throat torn out by wild dogs, stabbed by strange cables that drop from the sky and kill him instantly, disintegrated by a concussion blast, crushed, drowned, or pulverized, dozens upon dozens of times. The game simply observes all of this silently, showing the death with hardly a shrug before starting you back at the last checkpoint.

After a couple of hours playing Inside, I started to find the dispassionate silence after the boy’s death to be even more unsettling than the death animation. There’s no one freaking out, screaming “Snaaaake!” over this kid’s body. Part of the game’s oppressive tone is the idea that your protagonist isn’t just alone, but is completely disposable.

It’s part of how Inside manages to be simultaneously beautiful and horrible. Or maybe, like The Road, it mires the audience in a world that’s so relentlessly gray and cruel and bleak that it makes us able to appreciate the profound beauty in simpler things. Or maybe it’s just got really fantastic lighting. In any case, it’s a platformer that rejects — almost violently rejects — the reward structure typical of platformers. For instance, here’s a game that has you repeatedly watch your avatar drown because a section is just a little too far to swim without solving some puzzle first. And then: it grants you a cool submersible that lets you explore freely with no time pressure, and which even lets you start smashing through walls!

Except of course Inside can’t just give you something to make your life easier. Instead, it has to raise the “what in the hell is that thing?!” factor with horrible sea-children who want nothing more than to smash your submersible, drown you, and drag your corpse to the bottom of the ocean. And yet: the sight of their freakishly long hair flowing in the water as you cast your light on them is undeniably, almost hypnotically beautiful.

And it can’t be emphasized enough: Inside does everything it does elegantly and wordlessly. There’s no dialogue conveying the mood of your character or his pursuers. There are no signs telling you where to go. There are no hint systems pointing you to the solutions to puzzles. It just takes your innate desire to keep moving your character to the right to find out what happens next, and then relies on brilliant level design, animation, sound design, and the subtle use of color and lighting, to guide you through to the end. That means that you process everything in the game on a more visual and visceral level than on a verbal one. You find the solutions to puzzles by experimentation. You pick up on the mood and tone of the game by feeling it instead of by having it described or explained. There’s so much in the game that’s still unexplained, open for the player’s own interpretation and projection.

That impresses me so much, after having worked in places where there’s been so much pressure to compromise, over-simplify, and over-explain. Studio heads shitting themselves over the prospect of a player feeling even a moment’s frustration or confusion, and trying to justify it as some kind of artistic accessibility instead of just fear of a lost sale. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a game that simply refuses to explain itself, trusting that players worth pursuing aren’t the drooling simpletons that marketing departments make them out to be. And even better: a game that rejects the notion of the player as center of the universe.

Spoilers

All that would be true even if the game ended about 20-30 minutes earlier, and it had been “about” nothing more than a young boy trying to escape a horrible and beautiful nightmare world. But of course, it doesn’t. It has a young boy escaping into an observation tank in the center of that nightmare world, at which point the game goes absolutely apeshit bonkers.

Even though I started Inside around the time it was released in June of 2016, I didn’t finish it until a couple of days ago. It does such a good job of driving home its bleak mood that playing it made me anxious, and I kept procrastinating getting back into it until it started being mentioned again in terms of game-of-the-year lists. So I’m genuinely impressed that I went so long without having the internet spoil the ending of the game for me.

Usually, even the best-intentioned reviews manage to spoil an experience a little: simply knowing that something is “spoil-able” is enough to make me spend the whole time watching for the twist. Inside manages to sidestep that as well, by virtue of its own stubborn, uncompromising integrity. I’d heard that the end of the game was weird, so after playing through multiple scenes involving mind control helmets, I’d been expecting yet another tedious reveal that broke the fourth wall and confronted the player with the question: who’s really in control here? I’m sorry, did I just blow your mind?!

As it turns out, the ending can be interpreted as a commentary on control and free will. But it’s so, so much better, grosser, and more disturbing than anything I ever would’ve imagined. Any respect that I had for the developers for being uncompromising on the base game is multiplied by 100 after seeing the ending. I can’t even imagine trying to pitch that concept to some of the chicken-shit marketing teams — sorry, “risk averse” marketing teams — at studios I’ve worked at.

I’d be fine with giving a Danish game studio infinite high-fives for having the integrity to make an uncompromising game with an uncompromisingly bizarre and gross finale. But the finale isn’t just bold; it’s really smart as well.

At least, if you buy my interpretation of the ending: the player’s avatar throughout the entire game has been the monstrosity in the tank at the end. The little boy was actually just another of the zombies/golems you encounter throughout the world, being controlled by the monstrosity in an effort to free itself and escape the facility.

It’s not a particularly out-there interpretation. I’ve heard that there’s a “secret cutscene” in the game (that I’ll never see, since it depends on collectibles) that reinforces it, and it’s the same interpretation (more or less) than JJ Sutherland explained on the Shall We Play a Game? podcast. I’m confident that it’s reasonable and makes sense, but I don’t want to be so reductive as to say this is what the game means.

But while I was playing Inside, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the game seemed to be running into the wall of what’s possible for a platformer to express — if not in fact for any video game to express. The game was trying all kinds of new bold, mature, and tonally perfect stuff, but there was a dissonance between that immersive and disturbing experience, and all the gamey-ness of a platformer. The limitations of what the player can interact with in the environment. The puzzles that would’ve been almost impossible to solve without having my character die at least once. The repetitive format of entering a new environment and solving a puzzle in order to progress to the next environment. When the game is working so well artistically, the cracks in suspension of disbelief become more and more jarring and grating.

If that interpretation is correct, and the entire game is spent controlling a creature in a tank attached to remote-mind-control devices, then that at least gives my annoyances with Inside a purpose in the fiction, even if they don’t exonerate the genre completely:

Trial and error by dying and repeating

I can’t recall any instance where Inside mechanically requires your character to die before you can solve a puzzle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see speed-runners able to make it through the entire game without dying once. But realistically and practically, there’s no way a player would be able to make it through the game without dying. For the majority of puzzles, seeing the character’s death is what defines the obstacle you’re trying to get past in the first place.

As the puzzles get more difficult, that aspect of the game gets more annoying. It robs the game of any sense of accomplishment, or the player of any sense of real cleverness, when you’re reduced to clumsily trying the same thing over and over until you stumble onto the solution that doesn’t have a small child violently murdered. And of course, each death chips away at the suspension of disbelief, since you’re starting again with information you couldn’t possibly have had otherwise.

Which makes sense if “you” aren’t a little boy, but in fact a gross blob of body parts that is running an endless parade of disposable little boys through a gauntlet of death traps all so you can sit in sunlight for once. That would add a disturbing layer to everything else disturbing about the game: knowing that each new “life” was actually a cut in time. The blob had had to start over with a new little boy golem and re-run through the entire course of the game up to that exact moment.

No motivation except moving to the right

The setup of Inside is incredibly intriguing, and there are still so many richly detailed set pieces left unexplained — for instance, what’s the deal with the concussion blasts that will disintegrate your body instantly if you’re not protected by a metal object? But the game’s refusal to tell you what’s going on — which would be respectable on its own — creates an ever-widening gap between the character’s motivation and the player’s motivation. There were several moments where my forward momentum stopped, and I no longer had any clue what I was even trying to do apart from “reach the end.”

You keep seeing interesting environments, but you’ve got no idea of what you’re trying to accomplish in those environments apart from no longer being in them. So you just keep moving to the right. And as a result, the richness of the game world starts to fade as the game itself becomes more and more abstract. It becomes something like the gap between the art on an Atari 2600 game box and the art in the game itself: it’s no longer evocative or intriguing, but purely mechanical.

Which again, makes sense if the character you’re controlling directly has no motivation, but is simply being pulled through a series environments by some force off screen. You realize there is actually no dissonance there, because the boy has no identity, no sense of purpose of his own, and no interest in anything other than the specific objects that will help him get to the observation tank.

Everything has a solution

This one’s bugged me ever since I played Half-Life 2. In that game, you’re playing as Gordon Freeman, lone savior of humanity against an impossibly huge and powerful alien force. You’re out alone in the wilderness, riding a sweet sweet motorboat that’s jumping over ramps and blowing up tanker trucks and helicopters and plowing through Combine soldiers like extras in a Michael Bay movie. Then you land in a secluded area in which you have to build a makeshift ramp for your boat in order to proceed.

There’s a kind of mode switch here, where you go from purely mechanical or visceral to more intellectual. And if you get stuck on the puzzle, there’s a pacing switch as well. With that switch comes an opportunity to get knocked out of your suspension of disbelief and reminded that you’re no longer a post-apocalyptic action scientist, but you’re a guy at a computer solving a puzzle.

Half-Life 2 has an in-world fictional explanation for a lot of this; in puzzle sequences, you’ll usually find a lambda symbol graffitied onto the wall somewhere. It’s to indicate that the whole scene was set up for you by the Resistance, and not set up for you by somebody at Valve Software. It helps somewhat, spackling over the cracks in the suspension of disbelief.

Inside has a similar strange dissonance, where the game world is bleak and oppressive but the player’s experience is, ultimately, somewhat optimistic. You always know that there’s a solution to every puzzle. Considering the elegance of the game design, the solution’s likely as simple as finding a single object, or simply moving to the left or right at the correct time.

The game has its own narrative justification for that, but it’s retroactive only: you can look back through the story and reason that the blob had a similar sense of detachment as you did while playing, and the same confidence that trial and error would eventually give the right answers. You never had to be in the exact mindset of the boy because like you the player, the blob was never in the same risk of physical danger as the boy.

Which is all fine and clever, but doesn’t change the fact that as the puzzles got more complicated, I felt more disconnected from the atmosphere and mood that the game had done such a spectacular job of building. I was no longer exploring an intriguing world, but pushing a joystick around looking for clues of what the puzzle even was, not mention how to solve it. In adventure games, this was the point players complained that you had to “read the designer’s mind.”

So how much of that is a limitation inherent to interactive entertainment? How do you make an experience that’s driven by the player but relies on an unreliable narrator, or a powerless and desperate protagonist, without its feeling like a trick or a gimmicky twist? How much can the mindset of a player’s avatar differ from the mindset of the player before it breaks the fiction and draws attention to itself?

Shadow of the Colossus took advantage of the weird dissonance created when the player is willingly making his avatar do things that he knows are morally or ethically questionable. Thirty Flights of Loving experimented with the idea of a first-person game that doesn’t play out entirely in real-time, but instead uses cuts and flashbacks — maybe not 100% successfully, but still more successfully than I would’ve expected.

So how much of that disparity or dramatic irony between the protagonist’s experience and the player’s experience is an inescapable limitation of the medium, and how much is an opportunity that game developers just haven’t fully taken advantage of yet?

It’s not a make-or-break distinction; it’d be more like the difference between an outstanding game and a genre-defining one. I love how much time and talent Playdead devoted to making Inside a unique experience, and I hate the thought that it’s brilliantly creepy mood was interrupted even for a minute by the knowledge that it’s just some video game.

Have you heard the good news?

Valve has turned me into one of Those People.

I’ve been hearing people evangelizing about VR for years. I always put it in roughly the same category as new parents: they say “it’s changed the way I think about everything!” and “you can’t really understand until you experience it yourself!” I figured okay, fine, that’s genuinely great for you but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

But I finally got a very gracious offer to try out the Oculus and Vive headsets. And now I’m going to have to be one of Those People.

From hearing the descriptions, I’d expected it to be the case where I put on the headset and am instantly transported to a fantastic, vividly-realized world. It wasn’t. I put on the headset (Oculus Rift first) and found myself in a nice, slightly stylized version of a modern living room where I could look around what was clearly a 3D space. I’d expected it to be like the people who saw the first movie footage of an oncoming train and (according to legend) dove for safety. Instead, it was more like the first time I saw a 3D movie. Clearly a neat effect, and genuinely more immersive, but nothing transcendent.

I played the first two levels of Lucky’s Tale, which is completely charming and a perfect packaged game for the Rift. I’d never thought a 3rd person VR game could possibly work, but it does: it feels like being inside the level along with the character you’re controlling. Essentially, you’re one of the Lakitu. I only wished that they did a bit more with the VR right off the bat; I got to a section that did depend on looking at targets, but apart from that it was just a more immersive presentation of a 3D platformer.

The other issue is that I was standing up, and the camera’s constant gentle drifting was starting to throw off my balance. It wasn’t outright nauseating for me, but it did feel like I was on a slowly rocking boat and felt unsteady on my feet. I tried a few minutes of Adrift — the game I’d most been looking forward to — but after being unsteady already, it was way too disorienting for me to tolerate for long.

Then I put on the HTC Vive, and started up Valve’s The Lab. And it was, without exaggeration, possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a computer.

I’d already seen the “Robot Repair” demo on YouTube in its entirety, so I was kind of spoiled for it. In a way, though, it’s the least spectacular part of The Lab, since it’s the least interactive even though it’s the most “produced.” It’s hilarious and a fantastic experience in its own right as well as being a perfect teaser as to the potential of a VR version of Portal. The tone of humor combined with menace that the Portal games get so perfect is made 1000 times better when you’re convinced that you’re trapped inside a space with GlaDOS, and that GlaDOS is enormous.

But the rest of the demos take that tone and let you interact with a space that feels less scripted. The “Slingshot” demo is my favorite, but they’re all fantastic. Bending down to pet a robot dog, flying a drone around a huge warehouse, launching an endless stream of balloons: it all cements the idea that I’m in a fantastic place better than anything else. I was sold within a minute.

The technology is astounding, but if The Lab proves anything, it’s that technology is only part of it.

It’s easy to see why so many people have become fascinated by it, and more importantly, why it doesn’t feel like just another gimmick. It’s also easier to understand why there’s such a “new frontier” aura around VR: it feels that there’s still a ton of experimentation and innovation to be done. How can you move people through an environment without its being nauseating? What are the different ways you can immerse the player in the experience without drawing attention to the fact that none of the objects can touch them or be touched? How do you keep the experience from feeling completely isolating?

Whatever the case, I’m a convert. And since I’m relatively late to the party, I have to catch up on all that lost time by being extra insufferable about it.

Why I’m Excited About Firewatch

The future of independent game development is now! Or at least two years ago!

Firewatch comes out for PCs and PS4 next week, and you can already preorder it on Steam. There are a couple of obvious reasons I’m happy to see it:

  1. My friends made it.
  2. I mean, just look at it.

But I also can’t help but see it as a victory for independent game development. Not to mention evidence that occasionally, we do actually live in a meritocracy, and you can actually be rewarded for being good at what you do.

It’s likely because I’ve spent the last year being disillusioned by the state of professional game development, but I keep thinking about how much the environment has changed since I started working in games [REDACTED] years ago.

Lately, I’ve been focused on all the ways it’s changed for the worse, because that was all I had to work with. I’d forgotten how much it’s changed for the better. I used to imagine a far-off future where game development finally had more in common with film production than toy manufacturing, and it’s happened without my noticing.

I used to take it as a given that making games meant getting a full-time job at a studio. It was such a huge investment that it was all but impossible to try and make anything of consequence otherwise. The popular game engines like Unity and… well, okay, just Unity weren’t available, so in most cases, making a game meant making an engine. Even if you had the chops to write your own game engine, just getting a license for Visual Studio was a not-insignificant investment, something that’s easy to forget now that free compilers and IDEs are ubiquitous.

While I was bitching about Steam as an unnecessary hurdle to jump through so I could play Half-Life 2, I didn’t realize what a gigantic shift it would bring. Once manufacturing and distribution became more accessible, it all but wiped out the necessity of having a publisher. Of course, it didn’t wipe out the need for a marketing budget, not to mention funding for game production itself (especially since art tools are still a huge investment), but it did finally turn the big publishers from gatekeepers into business partners.

This is all pretty obvious stuff, and most of us would just take it as a given that democratizing game development is a good thing. But the implications are a lot more significant than I’d appreciated: making game development more accessible hasn’t just made it possible for more people to make games. It’s allowed for the existence of better games. When a game isn’t having to depend on risk-averse investors or clueless marketing departments in order to exist, then smarter and riskier games get made.

I used to despair at the proliferation of space marines and dwarves and stripper-killing-simulators as a sign that maybe games were as infantile as the “grown-ups” suggested. The people making games just didn’t have any original ideas. While that was no doubt true in a lot of cases, it’s more likely that the original ideas were there, but were getting ignored by publishers and marketing teams still pandering to an outdated and very narrow audience that didn’t even exist until they created them.

I first got interested in games because the Monkey Islands and Full Throttle demonstrated that they were capable of an entirely new kind of storytelling, and Sam and Max Hit the Road demonstrated that there was room for weird stuff that seemed to exist only for its own sake, because it was something that the people making it wanted to see. Unfortunately, that was around the same time that the “gamer” stereotype was becoming fully entrenched. Everyone who had any power in the industry seemed to be devoting all their attention to pandering to that very narrow and specific demographic of asshole.

But there was still this idea that they could be more than that. That it’d be possible to have games that made good use of dialogue. Dialogue that wasn’t just treated as an afterthought, but actually given as much care and attention as screenwriting.

One day, you’d see as much variety in video game art direction as you did in animation. You didn’t always have to strive for photo-realism or try desperately to recreate Aliens or Blade Runner; you could make stylized art that was stylized for a reason instead of attempting to cover up a limitation in rendering fidelity.

Games could be quiet. They could have you as deeply invested in relationships as you are in checkpoints or puzzles. They could be more personal stories than epic adventures. They could be mature.

Firewatch isn’t the first indie game, obviously. But so many indie projects (with rare exceptions) can come across — no doubt unfairly, but still — as ego-driven and self-important, or crass and commercial. This is one that I can say for sure is driven entirely by people who are completely passionate (occasionally, infuriatingly passionate) about making games as good as they possibly can be.

I’ve spent the last several months thinking about how the slot machine mentality has so thoroughly taken over game development that they no longer even pretend to separate creative from marketing; “monetization” is now considered a part of “game design.” Or how game studios treat increasingly specialized employees as interchangeable resources instead of as talent, and how some studios subtly “gaslight” their employees into thinking they have no option but to keep working for them. How the unreasonable and unsustainable hours are now so firmly entrenched that they’re treated as expected instead of exceptional. How the atmosphere has gotten so hostile and opportunistic that people can be as duplicitous as the worst stereotype of the Hollywood movie industry.

And then, I see that a bunch of my friends made a 1980s period piece about a divorcé who spends most of his time walking through absolutely stunning environments that look like fully-animated versions of National Park Services posters, using a walkie-talkie to have conversations that build a relationship. And that makes me really, really happy.

Until Done

First impressions of Until Dawn and the current state of story-heavy games

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Until Dawn is a horror game about a bunch of dead-eyed teenagers in their mid-20s, none of whom have full control of their necks. The game is set in a dark, secluded ski lodge in the mountains in the dead of winter, where they’ve all gathered to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a cruel prank that resulted in the disappearance and/or death of two of their friends because why not.

Even though it’s emulating the style of horror movies, it’s inexplicably split into “episodes,” each with its own “Previously on Until Dawn” sequence to recap the stuff you just did 30 minutes ago. According to the episode count at least, I’m still only about halfway through the game.

Normally you’d experience an artistic work to its conclusion before you’d be arrogant enough to start critiquing it, but I’m not going to do that for two reasons:

  1. Even B-grade horror movies scare the hell out of me, so I can only play the game in short, tense bursts where my heart’s racing and I’m not particularly enjoying it. By the time I actually finish the game, it’s probably not even going to be relevant anymore and I might as well be writing a navel-gazing analysis of the ludonarrative complexities of Night Trap.
  2. I feel like I’ve already seen everything that interests me about the game.

What interests me is the way games are developing a unique language of storytelling. I particularly like trying to pick apart horror movies, because they have a built-in tension between active and passive storytelling that they share with narrative-driven games. (It probably helps that horror movies are usually so easy to pick apart, because they’re usually so direct in what they’re trying to do and trying to say).

So this is, if anything, a “first impressions” instead of a review of the game. So far, the game hasn’t blown me away with its originality or any particularly brilliant achievement, but what it does have going for it is that it’s completely accessible and surprisingly compelling.

Uncanny Peaks

It’s weird to be An Old Person (in video game terms) whose first exposure to horror games was Uninvited‘s black-and-white, MacPaint-drawn rooms, but still be dismissive of Until Dawn as an artistic achievement. Just look at it! It’s got recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare painstakingly motion captured and rendered down to their pores, walking around extremely detailed environments with dramatic lighting. Plus each of the eight characters is controllable at some point in the game, which would be a ton of animation work even before all the narrative branching were taken into account.

So it’s frustrating to think of all that work being undone by dozens of small, seemingly insignificant details. Like how the characters seem stiff and overly fidgety unless they’re in a canned cutscene, at which point they’re clearly walking around on a sound stage. Or the eyes that never focus quite right, or the necks that don’t move quite naturally. As well done as it all is, it still ends up feeling like a bunch of robots wearing rubber masks of the actors.

That feels to me like a problem of technology, though. (I can already hear the groans and see the eye-rolling of character animators and modelers reading my dismissive “Press button to make character look human” take on it). The environments don’t get off as easy, because that seems like a problem of design. And one that hasn’t been solved by any narrative-driven game I can think of.

The first iteration of Until Dawn was apparently focused on directing a light source with a Playstation Move controller, and that’s very evident in the final game. There’s dramatic and atmospheric lighting throughout, with a flashlight or lantern cutting through the darkness, and it all makes for a very distinctive look. (One criticism I will make is that for every distinctive environment like the ski lodge or cable car station, there’s another generic one that’s lifted directly from the book of Early 21st Century Horror Movie Locations).

But the environments are detailed while by necessity having few objects that you can actually interact with. So important items are marked with a glint of blue light. Which means that a stray reflection off snow, or a strong specular highlight on a doorknob or vase or something, looks like an object of interest, and you keep getting taken out of the moment trying to figure out how to get to it and activate it.

On top of that are all the problems of level design that aren’t at all unique to Until Dawn: areas that feel like narrow corridors from point A to point B, rooms where it’s not obvious how far you can travel until you run into an invisible wall, spaces that give the illusion of being freely explorable but actually only have one or two areas of interest.

All of these problems are common, because they’re all fundamentally the result of having multiple design goals that are completely at odds with each other. Everything you do to encourage exploration and decision-making are going to kill your game’s pacing, and vice versa. Too few objects to interact with, and the environment feels barren and video game-like; too many, and you’re wasting time looking at incidental things that have no bearing on the plot, draining all the urgency out of the moment. The more you make a level “intuitive,” where the “right” way to go is the one that just feels right with no obvious clues, the less the player feels as if he’s actively exploring a space and making decisions.

It works the same way that the uncanny valley does for characters, since counter-intuitively, making things more realistic or more subtle just makes the problem worse. Playing Until Dawn has frequently reminded me of Gone Home, since they both have you wandering around dark spaces looking for things to pick up and turn over in your hands to get the next bit of environmental storytelling. Gone Home‘s objects and environments are obviously much less detailed and realistic than Until Dawn’s — whether out of intentional design or simply the fact that it’s a much smaller team and smaller budget — but it still has a better sense of place. It’s entirely likely that I’ve already spent more time in Until Dawn‘s ski lodge than the entire running time of Gone Home, but the latter’s house is the one that feels like a real place. I can still remember the layout of that house and where stuff happened, while I have no clear picture of how the ski lodge’s rooms even fit together.

It occurs to me now that “uncanny valley” is inherently optimistic; it just assumes that the problem will go away if we keep pushing forward. I’m starting to become skeptical. I’m sure that there’ll come a point in the future where it’s feasible and even practical to motion-capture an entire performance. Production on that type of game will become just like it is currently for linear media, and the software will be advanced enough to seamlessly blend between pre-recorded and procedurally generated movement in real time. In fact, after seeing how far “intelligent assistants” have come on cell phones in the past few years, I no longer think it’s unrealistic to expect CG actors to be able to understand natural language and respond intelligently.

But all that assumes that making things more realistic will solve all the problems, when we’ve seen time and again that interactive entertainment is a medium that rewards artifice and punishes realism. It’s Understanding Comics material: our brains are constantly looking for tiny, nitpicking details that will make something realistic seem “off,” while at the same time eagerly filling in the blanks on less detailed things to make them seem more recognizable and human.

To bring it down out of the clouds and back to a specific example from Until Dawn: most of the “teenage” characters are going for a completely naturalistic performance in both their voice delivery and motion capture, which ends up with lots of “ums” and “ahs” and overly-casual poses that just seem weird in comparison to everything else. It inevitably feels like a mannequin playing a recording of a real person instead of a real person.

Peter Stormare’s character, on the other hand, is played completely batshit crazy. He’s chewing the scenery so hard that he tears right through the fourth wall. It doesn’t feel at all real, but his character is still somehow the most compelling. Even though the lines he’s given and the questions he asks aren’t all that interesting, in my opinion. Most of the teenagers feel like disposable ciphers in comparison.

Warning: Explicit Language

So I think the “problem” with going for something hyper-realistic isn’t actually in rendering or art direction, but in game design and narrative design. When I said that Gone Home does a better job of establishing a sense of place, I don’t think it’s because of its relative low fidelity, or even due its careful and thoughtful level design (although both contributed to it). I think the main reason is that the game’s pacing allowed you to explore the space at your own leisure. You aren’t just dumped into a space and left on your own — it’s clear that a good bit of thought went into gating the sections of the house in a believable way and making sure that the revelations of the story could play out non-linearly and still make sense — but there’s nothing pressuring you towards the next story development except for your own interest and curiosity.

My biggest criticism of Gone Home is still the same as it was when I first played it: there’s absolutely no sense of player agency in the entire narrative. Everything interesting has already happened by the time the player’s game starts. And by the end of the game, it even seems to be mocking the player for wanting to participate in the experience.

Until Dawn is basically at the other end of the spectrum, desperate to remind the player how much they’re shaping the entire experience around player choices. I was going to say that it fetishizes player choice, and it does so almost literally: instead of fetishes, there are vaguely native American-ish totems lying around everywhere that dispense prophetic visions. (When each one gets discovered, the camera zooms inside, which makes for a hilarious image of a teenager picking up this weird totem and immediately slamming her face into it).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of branching narratives, the game helpfully talks about the butterfly effect, then drives the metaphor home with an elaborate sequence where you fly over the veins in a butterfly wing. Each crucial junction point in the game is punctuated with an animation of butterflies. There’s a screen listing each of the story threads, which lets you page through your choices and see how they build on top of each other.

When I played Telltale’s Walking Dead series, I said that that game’s notifications of branching points (“So-and-so will remember that”) were a pleasant surprise. They seemed jarring, artificial, and clumsy at first, but in practice turned out to work like musical stingers. If we accept non-diegetic music in movies and don’t freak out that there’s suddenly a full orchestra in the shower with Janet Leigh, why dismiss non-diegetic notifications of in-story developments as being too “gamey?”

There are plenty of aspects of cinematic “language” that would be weird if we hadn’t spent a century being trained to accept them without a second thought. Cuts and montages are the most apparent, but even the way filmmakers compose shots is so deliberately unnatural that when we’re shown a scene framed the way a person would actually see it, it’s unsettling. In games, though, the tendency has been to reject all the game-like elements almost as if we should be ashamed of something so clumsy and primitive. Health meters have to be explained in-world as displays generated by your hazard suit, assuming they’re not eliminated altogether. Even Mario games have to explain that there’s a Lakitu following you around with a camera. Instead of developing a new language for games, it seems as if there’s a desire to hide the fact that they’re games as much as possible.

The obvious problem with Telltale’s approach is that they haven’t done anything with it. It was promising at first as an intriguing warning of story developments to come; after so much of it, it feels as empty as a jump scare. It’s just “a thing that these games do,” as if they’re not as interested in actual innovation in storytelling as they are in branding.

Until Dawn‘s notifications make Telltale’s seem restrained by comparison, but I think they work better as a result. When a story branch occurs or a clue is found, you’re shown exactly what happened, given a good idea of what it means, and you’re explicitly shown the junction points that led up to it.

That’s not to say that the choices are particularly interesting. So far, they’ve been all over the place — actual considered decisions are extremely rare. Most take the form of split second binary choices that don’t give enough information to judge against each other, e.g. “take the quickest route or the safest one?” Others let you slightly steer a conversation in one direction or another, which supposedly affects your relationships with the other characters. Others just go the Saw route and have you deciding between one horrible thing or another.

(When I bought the game, I’d forgotten that modern horror movies have been overtaken by stuff that don’t interest me at all or actively repels me, like all the torture porn franchises or the found-footage craze. I’d been expecting something more like 80s slasher movies or the Scream series. I’d still like to see more done with the Final Destination movies, because I think they’re relentlessly clever and it’d be interesting to see if it worked at all when made interactive).

As often as the game reminds me that characters can die as a result of my choices, I rarely feel like I’m making informed choices. But I’m not sure that that’s a failure of the game, because I don’t believe the game is trying to present a narrative built off of your player’s informed choices. I believe its ambitions are a lot more modest and straightforward. I believe it just wants to be a pastiche of horror movies, but with a simple layer of interactivity: instead of yelling at the screen “don’t go into that room!” you get to decide whether the character goes into that room or keeps going down the hallway.

In other words: it aspires to be a movie with some moments of interactivity, instead of a story-driven game that’s presented cinematically. The reason I believe that’s the case is because it uses the language of horror movies throughout, even at the expense of the game.

Secret Agents

Sometimes, it works fine: the sequence in which Sam is exploring the lodge alone seems to be what the game was designed for, the standard scene from any slasher movie translated shot-by-shot into a video game.

Occasionally, it works so well that it seems too ingenious to be completely intentional: having multiple controllable characters is nothing new, but it turns out to be a perfect way to re-introduce cinematic edits into a video game narrative. Usually, games have to take place in some version of real time, and you’re either relinquishing complete control of the pacing to the player, or making the player feel like everything’s on rails and she’s in a shooting gallery. Thirty Flights of Loving is all about using cinematic cuts, flashbacks, and flash forwards in a first-person game, but it’s frankly tough to tell how much of the experiment could be translated to feature length. Until Dawn has no reservations about cutting away right as something interesting happens, but it doesn’t feel like missing time, or like the player’s had control ripped away from her, because she’s immediately given another part of the story to work on.

Most of the time, it just seems to be doing its own thing with the player input as something of an afterthought. You’re occasionally given something to open or push or flip over to read the back, but it doesn’t do much for engagement or immersion since you’re just following prompts. Same with several of the arbitrary binary choices: I can’t reliably predict what’ll happen if I choose hide instead of run, but I’m going to try it anyway. A lot of the quick-time button-press sequences, on the other hand, work surprisingly well. I despise QTE sequences on a philosophical level, but in this case, they add tension throughout — the usual “something is going to jump out and kill these fools,” but with the added stress of knowing that you could be asked to participate at any moment. Of course, these are even more random, unpredictable, and have no regard for agency: there are several sequences where Mike does a whole sequence of acrobatics in a cutscene. Or decides to shoot something, and even though I think it’d be a big mistake, I’ve got no option except to pull the trigger.

(To be fair: there are a few moments where the player’s choice not to do something is used for dramatic effect, and those are pretty well done).

But Until Dawn also insists on using some horror movie tricks that just definitively do not work in a video game, and it’s infuriating. The worst offender so far is the painfully long sequence of Mike and Jessica making their way through wooded paths up to a cabin. The game cuts away — over and over again — to show that there’s a strange person in the woods stalking them. We get just about every possible variation that’s been used in movies before: the Predator style POV shot. The shot where the characters walk off-frame but the camera stays behind to show the stalker waiting in the woods. There’s a particularly asinine jump scare one where the stalker is suddenly visible in a set of binoculars right as Mike stops using them. They’re infuriatingly tone-deaf, because they act as if what works in a movie will work in a video game with absolutely no thought given to player agency.

It’s entirely possible for a player to know more than a character, and to get tension out of that. In fact, Until Dawn does an adequate job of it later on, starting off the sequence I mentioned earlier where Sam is walking through the house alone. The player knows for a fact that there’s a killer in the house, but really, that’s something the player’s known since scene one. In that case, having the audience know more than the characters works exactly the same way it would in a horror movie.

The sequence of Mike and Jessica walking through the woods cuts away so often and so clumsily that it goes past “frustrating” all the way to “insulting.” If you show me a POV shot where a weird dude is looking directly at the characters I’m controlling, and then immediately turn the joystick back over to me, of course my first inclination is going to be to walk directly to where the guy is standing and ask him what’s going on. If you show me a flash of a bad guy in a set of binoculars, of course I’m going to immediately try and use the binoculars again.

The fact that I think it works with Sam’s sequence but completely fails with Mike and Jessica’s may seem like a contradiction until you consider what role the player has in Until Dawn. For me, at least, I’m never playing as Mike or as Sam. I’m floating in limbo somewhere between the director of a horror movie and the movie’s audience. Maybe I’m a production assistant?

During Sam’s sequence, the character’s goal and the player’s goal are aligned: we both want to find out what’s going on. So even though I know more than she does, following the trail is the best course of action because I know something interesting will happen when I get there. During Mike & Jessica’s sequence, their goal is to get to some absurdly distant cabin to have sex. I have absolutely nothing to gain from their having sex. I’m more interested in when this story is going to finally commit to being a horror movie and make something happen, already. So introducing the threat and then repeatedly showing it and pulling it away isn’t cleverly manipulating the tension between what the audience knows and what the character knows. It’s just showing me the thing I want to do — bring on the confrontation! — and then yanking it away from me for no discernible reason.

The Tingler

“Partipulation: Participate in your own manipulation.”

The other day I caught the tail end of a conversation/skillfully-defused argument where a bunch of people were trying to call out Patrick Klepek of Kotaku for writing “Emily, Who Is The Worst, Deserves to Die in Until Dawn. As far as I can tell (Twitter makes it difficult to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations these days), people were accusing the article, if not Klepek himself, for being somehow complicit in the horror genre’s long history of misogyny. Or maybe it was because Emily and her boyfriend are the only characters who aren’t 100% white in the game? Like I said: tough to tell exactly what the complaint was.

Regardless, objecting to lack of empathy for a character in a horror movie doesn’t just miss the point; I believe it’s even more ghoulish than the alternative. Obviously, there are volumes of material looking at the “problematic” aspects of the horror genre, and its treatment — both intentional and subconscious — of women, ethnic minorities, and gay and transgender people. But to suggest that the audience is expected to feel genuine empathy for any of the characters in a slasher movie is either a pointlessly broad rejection of the entire genre, or is seriously messed up.

Knowing more than the characters do is an implicit part of watching a horror movie, since from the start of the film, you know they’re probably going to die horribly. If you’re feeling sympathetic towards the characters and getting attached to them, I’ve got to wonder why you started watching the movie in the first place. “I love seeing three-dimensional, fully realized humans be murdered and/or horribly traumatized!” The distance and lack of empathy is what makes the movies work at all.

The stakes in a horror movie (no vampire puns intended) aren’t something horrible happening to the characters, but something happening to you. You’re going to get startled by the jump scare or the face suddenly appearing in the bathroom mirror. You’re the one who has to feel tense knowing the character’s walking into danger. You’re the one who’s going to have to see something gross and disgusting. Until Dawn isn’t subtle about manipulating this: it explicitly asks you what bothers you, then shows you exactly that a few scenes later. Consider it “enthusiastic listening.”

Manipulating the audience as much as the characters is something that translates particularly well to video games, because the audience is even more invested in what’s happening. Not in the characters, necessarily, but in their story and in the things they’ll have to see. And as much as I hate QTEs, they add that layer of being invested in what I’ll be expected to do.

So far, even with its faults, Until Dawn pulls it off better than any game I can remember since the first Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness. It doesn’t require breaking the fourth wall, but it does require being aware of the fourth wall and how to use it. It may be as simple as the fact that the game is structured not so that you feel in control of what happens, but that you feel responsible for it.

Whatever the case, what’s increasingly clear to me is how much of the experience of interactive narratives depends on artifice. It rewards explicitly exposing the mechanics instead of subtlety. It benefits from deliberate design instead of hyper-realism. So much of the marketing of games — which has inevitably taken over the design, at least outside of indie games — is focused on selling the idea of player empowerment. You’re in control! You’re making all the decisions! This fantastic world has been built entirely for you! That should’ve been setting off all our bullshit alarms, even before GamerGate happened and made it explicitly obvious what a shitty goal that was for a medium that’s striving to be artistic expression.

It’s definitely true for horror games, but I think it’s true for all story-driven games: players aren’t giving you their money so that they can be in control; they’re giving you their money so that they can have fun being artfully manipulated.

Splatoon for Graybeards

Are you old like me? You might still enjoy Nintendo’s Splatoon.

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Splatoon is:

  • a console-based shooter
  • with online multiplayer
  • against strangers
  • aimed directly (and aggressively) at pre-teens and teenagers
  • with an overwhelming late-1990s Nickelodeon network aesthetic.

All of which is code speak for “Chuck should hate this game.”

As it turns out, it’s completely accessible and a hell of a lot of fun. Not to mention that it’s packed full of design decisions that are so elegantly effective it’s annoying. So this post is part deconstruction of why the game works, and part reminder that even if you think you’re too old/too smart/too uncoordinated to enjoy Splatoon, you might end up liking it.

You can jump right into turf wars

After a fairly brief intro and setup (protip: disable motion control camera tilting for the game pad as soon as you possibly can), you’re immediately encouraged to jump into a “turf war” against other players online.

Plenty of multiplayer-focused games do this, always with the implicit promise that this time will be better. Whether it’s because of some ingenious game-balancing feature, or because of their excellent community support, or because of blind optimism, they insist that all players will want to jump immediately into heated battle with strangers despite years of experience saying this is one of the most frustrating and least fun things that humans can do on the internet.

With Splatoon, it actually works. I jumped right into a game without going through a lengthy single-player tutorial. And I actually had fun. And tried it again, several more times. That never happens.

Turf war battles are short

One of the main reasons the multiplayer skirmishes are so accessible is that they’re so short. Matches are limited to three minutes, after which a cat shows you the map and tells you whether the good guys won.

This has the obvious advantage of avoiding matches that drag on interminably because one guy’s off somewhere camping, or the teams are so “balanced” that control just shifts sides over and over. But it has the added advantage of keeping less-than-stellar players (like me) from getting too invested in how the match turns out.

I can imagine this would offend both players and developers who see themselves as “hardcore.” You’re making a game you don’t want players to care about?! But in practice it’s at least as satisfying as the games that take themselves more seriously, because short skirmishes build up to a longer-term feeling of progress.

Even if you lose a match, you still make progress towards leveling up. It’s a nice, steady progression and a constant incentive to “do better next time.” And it makes it almost impossible to get overly frustrated, even if your team is losing badly.

Turf war battles are anonymous

At least in the “regular battle” mode, you can’t choose your team, or even your server or region. (There is a way to play online against friends, but I haven’t checked to see whether you get the same experience/money benefits from those matches).

I would’ve thought this would fail horribly, but again, it’s different in practice. As it turns out, it’s a great equalizer. Everybody’s incentivized to play the same regular battle modes in order to level up, so you’ll usually see a wide range of levels in each match. That means you start playing the “real thing” immediately, instead of being cloistered to some newbie area for the first few hours of the game.

Because there’s no voice chat or much of a sense of persistent “identity,” it’s almost impossible to get harassed or worse, get stuck with a player who tries to tell you how you should be playing. Even if there were voice chat, the time limit would keep it from being practical to say much of anything, anyway. Instead, the game is simple and frenetic enough that “strategies” develop naturally as you go along.

Shooting is incidental

When making a Nintendo Shooting Game For Kids, the most obvious temptation would be to downplay the “shooting” part, or remove it altogether. Splatoon wisely goes the other route. There’s a dedicated Weapons store where you’re buying variations on shotguns and bazookas and machine guns and sniper rifles, and you can try each of them out in a shooting range, and you’re given ample chance to covet the more expensive ones. They just lean in to the fact that they’re all paint guns.

I happen to think that a lot of the pearl-clutching about video games’ obsession with gun violence is overblown. People understand how fiction works, the shooting is an abstraction for game mechanics instead of actual violence, and almost all players quickly start to think in terms of strategy and tactics instead of going on killing sprees. (Add a thousand other defenses of first-person shooters that have been trotted out over the years).

But, even those of us in the Video Game Violence Apologist camp tend to overlook the fact that while shooting in games may not be technically violent, it is absolutely aggressive. While you may not be wishing physical violence on your opponent (I’d hope), you are eager to take her out of the game so that you can win.

It’s obvious in Deathmatch, but even objective-based multiplayer game modes in shooters suffer from the fact that the game itself doesn’t let you do anything other than shoot a guy. To capture the flag, you shoot the guy who’s carrying it. To take over a control point, you shoot the guy that’s guarding it. To win the game, you’re going to have to shoot a guy.

In Splatoon, you win the game by covering the most ground in ink. A lot of the time it helps to take out opponents, but it’s at best secondary to the main objective.

It’s nearly impossible to be a bully or to hold grudges

And because your objective is covering ground, playing the game as if it were a deathmatch would be the surest way to lose. You’re not penalized for attacking other players — it gives you an acknowledgement and, as far as I can tell, is encouraged. But there’s no advantage to attacking players over and over again. There’s no shortage of long-range weapons and high points on the map to play the sniper, but it’s the least efficient way to help cover the map.

It seems straightforward enough, but it really makes it seem silly how we’ve built this elaborate framework of anti-griefing, anti-exploit, game-balancing, and community-policing around games whose entire premise is “You win by killing your opponents.” It’s as if we’re saying, “Sure, you can fire a bazooka into your opponent’s face and then teabag the corpse, but play fair, kids.”

Splatoon sidesteps the whole issue simply by making it impractical to bully other players. It’s not just that there’s no incentive to do it, it’s that you’ll actually hurt your own chances of winning. In fact, games of Mario Kart 8 often end up feeling a lot more aggressive and frustrating.

Another nice touch is that you’re given the standard “you’ve been splatted” screen while you’re waiting for your character to respawn, but it doesn’t draw attention to the name of the player who killed you. Instead, it shows the weapon that did it. That’s a weapon that you could aspire to buy, as soon as this match is over!

Super-jump is brilliant

In a clever use of the Game Pad’s screen, you always see an overhead view of the map during a match, to get a high-level indication of your progress and how much ground you’ve covered.

In a genius use of the Game Pad’s screen, you can see the location of all your teammates and press a button to jump quickly to their position. Most obviously, it makes sure that you’re never out of the action for too long. More subtly, it encourages teamwork and basic tactics. You’re encouraged to work together to hold ground, or leap-frog each other through the map, because it’s just easier to do.

“Squid mode” has all kinds of clever side effects

When I first heard about the game, I thought that the whole “turn into a squid” gimmick was a clever spin on several now-standard mechanics in shooters: when you’re refilling your ammo, you’re defenseless, but you move faster and are much harder to see. So it seemed like part Halo‘s shield recharging — duck out of combat briefly to get back up to full power — and part Team Fortress 2 Spy — sneak up invisibly behind an opponent to shoot them unawares.

In practice, there are so many different clever off-shoots of the way the two “modes” are balanced that I can’t even tell how much were explicitly intentional. You can silently drop through a gated floor to land behind an opponent. Since squids can swim up vertical surfaces, you can paint a path up a wall to get to a high point for sniping, and other players have to go into defenseless mode to get near you. If you turn into a squid, an opponent may not be able to see you well enough to shoot you, but just firing where they think you are is still effective since it limits your ability to swim.

And my favorite so far: two players can make quick ground across a map by leap-frogging each other, one player shooting a line of ink, the other swimming along behind to refill, then trading roles. Back when I first got interested in Team Fortress 2, I said that I wished the game had allowed for me to discover clever combinations on my own instead of making it explicit which classes work well together. Splatoon makes me feel clever for figuring out stuff myself.

Boss fights are surprisingly clever

I’d thought that if I played the game at all, I’d go through the single player mode and occasionally dip into a multiplayer match or two. As it turns out, I’ve done just the opposite: the single player mode is fine, but the multiplayer is so completely accessible that most of the time, I’d rather play that.

But the single player does let Nintendo designers show off what they’re best at doing, with clever design mechanics and a perfect difficulty ramp. Because it’s an all-new property from Nintendo — a rarity in itself — they get to show off what they can do when not beholden to everything that goes into making a Mario or Pokemon or even Smash Brothers game. It’s all clever and cute world-building — I especially liked the Octarians’ version of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, with a squid taking the place of the serpent — that ends up feeling more like a Rare game than anything else.

The boss fights, though, are pure Nintendo (do the same thing three times to win) but with some interesting and bizarre twist in the character design and fight mechanics. You’ve got to find some way to climb up to the top of the monster itself, as in Shadow of the Colossus, to defeat it. And they’ve got tentacles and bug eyes and weird spindly legs or robotic armatures with sneakers at the end, and they pop open to reveal steam pipes or electric wires and shifting plates.

It is completely accessible

Super Mario 3D World hit this weird spot of being almost too good for me to enjoy. It was so clever and so well produced that it seemed fragile, for lack of a better word. I felt as if I could admire it — and I did, over and over again, as each level is just jam-packed with brilliant ideas — but couldn’t just let loose and play around in it.

Splatoon is abundantly clever and has all kinds of ideas that elegantly fit together and complement each other. But it also feels like a game that wants you, first and foremost, to play. The entire premise of the game is to jump in and start making a mess. It does such a good job of it that your age and your competence at shooting games seems entirely irrelevant.

Camp Grizzly

Camp Grizzly finally hits the sweet spot between cooperative games and storytelling games

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At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.

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Ameritrash

The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.

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“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.

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“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.

CampGrizzly_Dont

“Don’t”

If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.

CampGrizzly_Desensitized

“Desensitized”

That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Firewatch

A biased but honest bit of gushing about the five minutes I’ve seen of Campo Santo’s game Firewatch.

firewatch-tower
There’s a phenomenon both charming and insufferable (depending on how inspired or intimidated you happen to be feeling at the time) in which people who are really good at what they do start to take it for granted. (I think a term more sophisticated than “the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect” has been floated out there, but I don’t need to do any research to find it because I am awesome at psychology). So they tend to downplay the results, assuming that everyone is starting from the same baseline level of competence and that anyone could achieve the same results by putting in the same amount of effort.

Which can result in Campo Santo, a small-ish start-up studio of absurdly talented people, fairly quietly making Firewatch, which may be the best-looking game I’ve ever seen from any studio of any size.

Granted, it’s kind of a no-brainer, since they managed to assemble the closest you’re probably ever going to see to a “supergroup” in something as ego-driven as video games. By the time they’d assembled the guys who’d brought the first real innovation to narrative-driven adventure games in years; a ridiculously talented graphic designer; and artists and programmers quietly talented enough to turn graphic design into a real place you could walk around in; the best sound designers, composers, and voice directors; then adding backing from Panic — a company with its own reputation for combining solid software with outstanding design and its own sensibility for making weird, innovative stuff — it all just seemed like overkill.

But even knowing that, the game looks better than I’d anticipated. I’ve been deliberately avoiding seeing too much of it apart from the screenshots and promotional material, but seeing it in motion is even better. It’s as if they took Olly Moss’s prints (which I really wish I’d bought when I had the chance, now) and turned them into 3D spaces. It’s graphic design sensibility and all the obsessive detail that goes into a static image, now spread across an entire section of wilderness.

When The Orange Box came out, I said that with Half-Life 2 and especially Team Fortress 2, Valve was working harder on visuals than they really needed to. They could get away with a lot less effort. There’s doubtless going to be plenty of comparisons of the look of Firewatch to Team Fortress 2 — which I believe is high praise — but I think it’s a good lesson to all of us non-artists about how much thought goes into art direction and world creation. TF2 had to emphasize playability, which means readability of the characters and environment and maneuverability around the space. Firewatch is no doubt concerned with much of that, but also focused on mood, narrative, and time. The brief bit I saw had the main character finding a group of unruly teens, then heading towards a cave as a storm was approaching. Even in that short segment, you could see all kinds of subtle storytelling going on. While TF2 is going for slapstick, bombastic action, and fast pace, Firewatch seems like a slow burn (sorry) towards an emotional climax: the tension between tedium and danger, a beautiful natural environment taken for granted, isolation vs. human connection.

Which leads to something I hope doesn’t get lost while everyone is talking about the confident art direction: the level of engagement you get from the premise of a first-person narrator having a running conversation with an unseen voice on the radio. It’s a brilliant case of an entire narrative being built on a single, easily-definable character relationship. (Like, for instance, that of a convicted murderer having to become surrogate parent to a little girl). At the risk of hyperbole: it reveals an innate understanding of how interactive entertainment works and how it’s unique, more than any number of hypothetical discussions about “ludonarrative dissonance” and the tension between “developer’s story” and “player’s story.”

The reason is that it understands that engagement is more necessary than any bullshit goal of “player empowerment.” The conversational options in Firewatch aren’t just joke dispenser voice menus, nor are they Critical Action Time Choice Junctures® in which you’re arbitrarily deciding what role you’re going to play for the next 1-5 minutes of developer-provided content. Instead, my friend Jared articulated it a lot better than I could: more often than not, you get to a moment in Firewatch, and you think, “I want to say this thing,” and then that thing pops up on the screen as a dialogue option. Get that balance right, and all the years spent thinking of how to fix the problem of “players wanting to break the game” just vanish. It’s not about empowering the player to do what she wants, because that keeps the player at a level of role-playing or gaming the system instead of genuine engagement and inhabiting the character.

It seems like a subtle, almost indefinable skill. But then, there are a lot of aspects of The Walking Dead that I’d thought would have a subtle impact, but instead ended up pushing forward the experience in ways that years of emulating traditional SCUMM games weren’t able to.

So yeah, I admit that I’m biased when I say I really want Campo Santo and Firewatch to get the success they deserve. But I also sincerely think they’re doing something capital-I Important (even if they’d never describe it as such). If there’s one thing that game developers are good at (including myself), it’s aping other games. If we get enough people pointing at a beautiful, engaging, and mature experience and saying, “This. We want to make more of this,” then the entire medium will be better off.