Games that aren’t games are nothing new. Since the noblest of beginnings text adventures and their brand of interactive storytelling have pervaded and fascinated the otherwise twitch happy world of video games.
This year, however, has seen the genre takes its biggest critical leap forward. The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games is already garnering praise outside the sphere of the adventure gamer (as the point-and-click genre has come to be known). Even though it hasn’t finished the run of five episodes in its (surely the) first of many seasons, it is being talked about as a legitimate contender for Game of the Year.
Adventure games have always been items of curiosity for the wider gaming audience, languishing with the same criticisms title after title; “the puzzles are too weird and don’t make sense…“; “they are pretty but lacking in any real depth of character…“. All these criticisms were true. So what has changed?
They removed the puzzle aspect as a barrier. Sure, the games still have puzzle elements but they are used to punctuate the gameplay not hinder it. They are checkpoints not roadblocks. So the genre has flourished. When this is coupled with a more sophisticated level of writing and concentration on depth of character, the world of interactive storytelling has taken that monumental leap forward.
It should be noted that the purview of changing this perception does not lie solely at the feet of Sean Vanaman, Jake Rodkin and Gary Whitta (the storied headliners of the Walking Dead writing team). I believe it has been surpassed by Freebird Game’s ‘To the Moon’ this year. The term ‘indie game’ was seen as a derisory term for a game with good ideas and lack of polish that only deserves to be sold at a cheaper price. No longer. As has been discussed 2012 is the year of the indie game. To the Moon delivers storytelling usually reserved for the upper echelons in cinema.
To the Moon tells the story of John, a man on his deathbed who signs up for a service whereby a company can infuse his memory with a dying wish so that the last act you will experience on this earth is your heart’s desire. John’s desire is to go to the moon, however the cannot remember ‘why’ he wants to go to the moon. This memory or motivation is the very device which the scientists utilise to infuse the memory.
So we get taken on a journey through John’s life in reverse from the end to the start. The idiosyncrasies if his life are laid bare and explained as we experience what made John, John. It is a sophisticated storytelling device which pays off in spectacular fashion. I laughed, cried, had my heart broken and put back together again in the space of the four and a half hours this game took me to experience.
However there is little in the way of game here. Much like The Walking Dead you click on any part of the environment that is deemed interactive. By doing this you progress the game. The only puzzle element is a supremely simplistic grid puzzle that separates each of the memories in the game. So are these games really considered games or are they an fusion of literature and cinema? It is only in the eye of the beholder which side of the coin you fall on in that argument.
More importantly there is evidence that the storytelling in games is moving beyond blowing everything up in sight.
If that is achieved then games will indeed have game.