Closure

Thoughts about the beautiful serenity of not giving a damn

I read something on Twitter the other morning that made enough of an impression on me that I felt compelled to break my read-only rule1Just temporarily, Twitter is still garbage and comment on how false it was. It was from game developer Rami Ismail:

A reminder that being a terrible person that “loves crunch”, “yells at people”, and “says things they don’t mean” will eventually end your industry career, even if you manage to grow your tiny studio from just a few people all the way up to AAA size. Being a team player matters.

To be clear, I’m not trying to call out Ismail or anything. It’s an idea that I would’ve agreed with to some degree at several points over my career. And that is why I want to stress that it’s not true, but more importantly, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not true.

So let me stress first: it’s demonstrably false. I’ve worked for or with quite a few terrible people over the past 25+ years, and most of them have just kept failing upwards. Unless by “eventually end your industry career,” he meant, “you’ll at worst retire comfortably,” then I’ve never seen any evidence of the kind of cosmic justice that he’s describing.

I spent quite a bit of time in my 30s and early 40s holding out expectation for resolutions that were never going to come. First hoping for reconciliation, then vindication, then even schadenfreude, so I’d feel that there’d been some kind of justice. It almost never actually happens, and on the rare occasion it does, it almost never actually makes anything better.

So when I say that terrible people almost never face any real consequences for treating people badly, it’s not just empty cynicism or bitterness. Just the opposite, in fact: I’m saying stop wasting any time thinking about what may happen to other people some day, and just live your damn life.

Continue reading “Closure”

Hooray for Niche Audiences, or, We Made it Weird

Modernizing adventure games, the potential lifespan of interactive media, and what it means to be a “niche audience” in the 21st century

(One of my favorite jokes I’ve written for a game is a reference to Zork, even though I don’t like text adventures. Sam & Max screenshot via Mixnmojo.com)

On his blog, Andrew Plotkin wrote an interesting post titled “Unwinnability and Wishbringer.” The basic concept is taking aspects of 80s text adventure games that have fallen out of style — for instance, letting the player get the game into an unwinnable state without necessarily realizing it — and thinking of how to modify them to be more appealing and less annoying to modern audiences.

The thing I found so insightful about Plotkin’s post is that he makes clear that many of the “annoyances” of text adventures weren’t flaws or mistakes, but design decisions. It’s easy for us to just assume that the frustrations of those older games were a result of their being old. Either limitations of technology (I have to draw my own map?) or primitive game design that simply hadn’t yet evolved elegant solutions to problems like being able to leave an area without a crucial item.

Instead, he suggests that the decisions were made for a reason, and you need to understand what they contributed to those text adventures before trying to modernize them. For instance: drawing your own maps reinforces the idea that you’re exploring a real place, and a closer idea of how the areas are related to each other. Having unwinnable states can help make the game feel like an active, living system, instead of a set of static puzzles waiting indefinitely for you to solve them.

What I really love about this is that I can extrapolate it out to say that text adventures are more than just a format, they’re a genre. And therefore, I can say it’s fine that I don’t like text adventures, and it just means that they’re not my thing, not that I’ve got too short an attention span and lack of imagination to appreciate them as a more intelligent and cultured gamer obviously would.

Continue reading “Hooray for Niche Audiences, or, We Made it Weird”

Let Me Show You My Pokemans

Let me show you them

Today the YouTube algorithm, in Its Infinite Wisdom, recommended I watch a video of some guy opening a box of GameBoys he’d bought from Japan. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except as part of the excruciatingly dull unboxing process,1Yes I’m aware of the irony he checked all the battery compartments to look for signs of corrosion.

That made me jump up and run2(or at least the best I could approximate after six months stuck inside the house) to my closet, where a mysterious box sits underneath all the detritus that an American consumer-focused nerd has been able to accumulate over a few decades. Inside that box is a de facto collection of Nintendo handhelds ranging from the GameBoy Color to the 3DS. (I never owned an original GameBoy, and I can’t say I’m particularly interested in getting one at this point).

I say “de facto” since I’ve never intentionally been a collector of these things; I just worked at video game studios for a long time, and they just kind of accumulated. If you work in games and aren’t keeping up with what Nintendo is doing, you’re not doing it right.

When my fiancé got into Pokémon Go a while back, I told him I’d played one of the games years ago, and I might be able to help if the game ever started to rely on which types were strong or weak against other ones. That was when I rediscovered the mysterious box, and I realized that I hadn’t played one of the games years ago. I’d played all of them. I just kept pulling them out of the box, one after another, like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from his sleeve, or Mary Poppins pulling impossible quantities of tea sets and coat racks from her carpet bag.

I don’t have an active memory of playing these things; it’s something like the lost time after an alien abduction. It might as well have been another person playing these things, but still using my name each time. We must share the same brain, though, because I can’t remember a single damn thing from AP Calculus, but for some reason I know in my bones that you should use a grass or water type if you ever come up against a Geodude.

That guy didn’t know how to take care of electronics, though, since all the devices that used removable batteries still had them sitting inside. Fortunately, none of them were ruined or even slightly corroded. (My Sony PSP’s rechargeable battery is oddly swollen, like a tick, but fortunately those seem to still be available and reasonably priced).

Weirder than that, the DS’s rechargeable battery had still kept its charge. Even more surprising to me, the AAs left carelessly in the no-longer-quite-so-Arctic-white GameBoy Advance (in its original package!) still had enough of a charge for me to remember how bad I am at Super Mario Bros 3. I’m so used to treating electronic devices like Star Trek red shirts, ready for them to die at any moment, that it’s remarkable to see something that just turns on and works immediately, after so many years lying inert. There’s something to be said for making electronics durable enough for children prone to dropping them or trying to eat them. Maybe instead of ripping off Apple, device manufacturers should’ve been trying to rip off Fisher Price.3I am curious now how many of my every-other-iPhone-since-the-original can still be charged up and function.

Also in the box are all the games I de facto collected over the years. I don’t have a grand, Super Potato-worthy collection, but I’ve got my favorites: Advance Wars, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance I & II, a few Zeldas and Mario Brothers, various colors and gemstones worth of Pokémons, Pokémon Pinball with its built-in rumble pack, a Japanese import of Nintendogs and the American release, and Super Puzzle Fighter.4A hugely underrated game, and none of the various games that inspired it have the same magic as that one.

It’s kind of an odd feeling, seeing so many people for whom these games are profoundly nostalgic, and realizing I’ve just got them tossed in a box in the closet. The nostalgia they conjure for me is being in my late 20s or early 30s and buying them mainly to avoid the fear of missing out. I still could never bring myself to sell them. I wonder if, when it’s finally time for them to be donated to someone, they’ll still have any magic left in them.

Habitat and the MADE

I learned from a video from NoClip the disappointing (but not surprising, unfortunately) news that the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment here has had to leave its building in Oakland. They’re looking for donations, and have started a Patreon, to find a new home post-COVID. The thing that stood out in that video was the reference to Habitat, the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

I was extremely into QuantumLink in the early 80s, and in retrospect, it was probably the beginnings of my not-entirely-healthy relationship with social platforms on the internet. 1It also charged by the minute, which led to one of the only times I got into serious trouble as a teenager. Habitat was near legendary. It sounded like the coolest concept ever! It was being made by the company that made Star Wars games! And it always seemed to be just about to come out, any month now.

I never got to actually play it, as I stopped using QuantumLink before I ever got a chance to. I’m still not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Knowing how obsessed I got with LucasArts adventure games later on, it seems like I would’ve spent entirely too much of my parents’ money on it and burned out on video games altogether. Or maybe I would’ve known back in the 80s that I wanted to work in games, instead of a decade and three college majors later. In retrospect, even the biggest Q-Link bill was probably cheaper than a year of film school.

Virtual Reality Check

I bought an Oculus Rift S, and now you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Back in 2016, I became a convert and likely insufferable evangelist for virtual reality after someone let me try out the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. At the time, I was completely enamored with Valve’s The Lab and the seemingly endless potential for immersive experiences made possible by dropping you into a world that completely surrounds you. I wasn’t one of those super-early adopters who bought the Rift development kits, but what I lacked in timing, I made up for in enthusiasm.

I took to VR headsets like Mr. Toad took to motor cars. Which means that over the last few years, I’ve tried all of the major commercially-available ones, and I’ve wasted disposable income on several of them. So I’ve got opinions, and I think they’re reasonably well-informed. Here’s my take on the current state of things:

  • VR isn’t just a fad that’s already gone the way of 3D Televisions. For about as long as I’ve been interested in VR, people have been declaring that VR was “dead” or at best, that it had no future in gaming and entertainment. The most common comparison that people made was to 3D televisions, which TV manufacturers tried to convince us were an essential part of the home theater of the future, but which just about completely disappeared within a few years. Even though interest has cooled a lot, I think it’s impossible for home VR to go away completely, simply because it still suggests so much potential for new experiences every time you put on a headset.
  • VR will remain a niche entertainment platform. That said, home VR as we know it today is never going to take over as The Next Big Thing, either. A few years ago, a lot of people were suggesting that VR headsets would become the new video game consoles, and therefore the bar for success would be an HMD to achieve PS4 or Xbox-level sales. That’s not going to happen. I’ve been pretty disappointed in the PSVR overall, but I think in terms of market positioning and ease of use and overall philosophy, it’s the one that most got it right — it’s an easy to use accessory for specialized experiences.
  • VR needs experiences designed for VR, and not just different presentation of existing games. For a while, I was starting to become convinced that VR had “flopped” since I almost never went through the effort of setting up and putting on the Vive or PSVR again, so they just sat collecting dust. When I was in the mood to play a game, I almost always went to the Switch, suggesting that The Future of Games Is Mobile and Accessible. But I think the real conclusion is that there are different experiences for different platforms, and the one-size-fits-all mentality of video games is a relic of the “console wars.” Not every type of game is going to work well in VR, and IMO the ones that do work exceptionally well in VR can only work well in VR. The comparison to 3D TVs is apt, since it shows that people thought of VR as a different way of presenting familiar content, but it’s actually an entirely new type of content. Altogether.
  • Stop trying to make “epic” VR happen. Related to that, I think a lot of people (including myself) assumed that the tipping point for VR adoption would come as soon as one of the big publishers made the VR equivalent of Skyrim or Halo: the huge, big-budget game that will incontrovertibly prove the viability of VR as an entertainment platform. But actually playing Skyrim or Fallout in VR turns out to be a drag, in some part because you can’t just lose hours to a game in VR without noticing. The fact that most VR experiences have been brief isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The success of Beat Saber doesn’t mean that VR is a baby platform for stupid casuals, unless you’re a teenager on a message board. Instead, it means that we’re getting closer to finding out what kinds of short, dense experiences work inside a VR headset.
  • The biggest obstacle to VR is that it’s isolating and anti-social. I think it’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest investors in VR — and in fact the greatest chance for VR to reach wide adoption — is a social media company, since putting on a VR headset is about as anti-social as you can get. Sony had the right approach with their initial PSVR push, emphasizing it as the center of a social experience, but I think it ultimately came across as gimmicky and limited, like Wii Sports. Sometimes you want to shut the rest of the world out — I was surprised to see so many people touting the Oculus Go as perfect for media consumption, since I can’t imagine anything I’d want to do less than watch a movie with my sweaty face stuck against a computer screen. But I think the real key to longevity and wider adoption with VR will be a way to have that sense of immersion and isolation but still have a lifeline to the outside.
  • Ease of use and convenience are always preferable to “better” technology. Back in 2016, I was 100% on Team Vive, because it had the better tracking technology, and better technology meant better immersion, right? I’ve done an almost complete reversal on that. In practice, an easier experience beats a “better” experience every single time. I think the PSVR tracking is throw-the-controllers-across-the-room-in-frustration abysmal, and the display is disappointingly fuzzy and pixelated, but it still ended up getting more overall use than the HTC Vive, simply because it was more comfortable and easier to jump into. And I suspect I played more with the Oculus Quest in the first week after I owned it, than I’d spent over the entire past year with the Vive. I wouldn’t have thought it would be a huge difference being able to set up a play space in seconds as opposed to minutes, but just that one change made VR something I looked forward to again, instead of feeling like a burden. All the videos about haptic gloves or force feedback vests or two-way treadmills to guarantee a more immersive experience seem not just silly now, but almost counter-productive in how much they miss the point.
  • At the moment, the best headset is the Oculus Quest. It’s still a mobile processor, so it sacrifices a lot of the graphical flourishes that can make even “smaller” VR experiences cool. But being able to just pick the thing up and be playing a game within a minute is more significant than any other development. I have to say that Facebook/Oculus’s efforts to make it easier to jump in and more social when you are in, are just more appealing to me than anything else happening in VR.

Facebook has been holding its Oculus Connect event this week, and in my opinion the biggest announcement by far was that the Oculus Quest —their wireless, standalone headset with a mobile processor — would soon be able to connect to a PC via a USB-C cable. That would essentially turn it into an Oculus Rift S, their wired, PC-based headset.

Full disclosure: I have to say that I was instrumental in bringing this change that made the Oculus Rift S functionally obsolete, since about a month ago, I bought an Oculus Rift S. I never expected Facebook to add a feature to one of its hardware platforms that would invalidate another of its hardware platforms, but then I’ve never really understood Facebook’s business model. And honestly, I’m kind of happy that I don’t.

But the end result is that if the technology works as described, it’ll be the best of both worlds for the Oculus Quest. You’ll still be able to have the just-pick-up-the-headset-and-start-playing experience for a lot of games. But on the occasions where you want to play a larger-scale game like No Man’s Sky, or if you’re just playing Moss and are sad at how bad the downgraded water looks when it’s so evocative on the PSVR, you can sacrifice mobility and ease of setup for higher fidelity and a bigger library.

And the other announcements — in particular, hand recognition so that there are some experiences that won’t require controllers at all; and the “Horizon” social platform that may finally make VR feel less isolating, if they get it right — are encouraging to me. I feel like the way towards wide adoption isn’t going to come from taking the most advanced technology and gradually making it more accessible, but from taking the most accessible technology and gradually making it more advanced.

And while I’m predicting the future (almost certainly incorrectly, since I think I was completely off in my predictions just three years ago): I think all the efforts that see AR and VR as competing or even different-but-complementary technologies are missing the point. I believe that the future isn’t going to look like VR or AR as they’re pitched today — putting on a headset that blinds you and has you start swinging wildly at imaginary monsters only you can see, or just projecting an existing type of mobile game onto a real-world table or showing a Pokemon on your living room table — but is going to be more like the immersive AR shown in the movie Her. People will need to be able to treat it as a continuum that goes from private to social, where they can shut out as much or as little of the outside world as they choose to at any given moment. And whether that’s an isolating dystopian future, or a magical one-world-united future, depends less on the technology itself and more on how we decide to use it.

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.