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Gone Home: design ruminations

I don't imagine that Gone Home suffers from lack of reviews. I heard about it from several directions when it came out, and that was over a year ago. But I just played it.

(Yes, I am slowly starting to dig into the past four years of indie IF that I was too busy writing my own game to play. Yes, I will also get to Bioshock Infinity one of these months.)

I don't have anything to add to the discussion of Gone Home as a story game, or as a game about gay folks, or as a flashpoint of hatred from jerk-gamers. That's all been covered. Nor am I going to tell you why you should like or dislike the game. I liked it, a lot of people liked it, that's not news.

Instead, I'm going to give my impressions as a game designer. This is what I would have said if I were on the team building the thing. Or, more likely, having muffins with the designer during the wild-idea stage. Maybe that'll hit some new ground. If not, well, too late -- I've already written this post.

I'll start right in with some petty interface neepery. This is a game whose interface is entirely about picking things up and rotating them. But when things get interesting, it doesn't do a very good job of sticking to that interface!(*)

Objects in the game which can be manipulated, rather than just examined: housekeys. A combination dial lock. Cassette tapes. Notice something? All of these objects are rotated as part of their normal use.

But the game doesn't make use of its rotatey interface for this. You don't stick the key in a lock and turn it; you just click on the door and zap it's open. You can't turn the cassette over, stick it in the player, and hear the other side. The combination locker is particularly bad; you learn the combination in the familiar form ("turn left to X, right to Y...") but you enter the combination using a four-digit interface with arrows. (Which doesn't even match the format of the numbers you're given.)

I've already admitted this is petty. The interface they've got works and it's easy to use. To make it all rotation-based would require some additional cueing; the housekey wouldn't be automatic. But harmonious UI matters! When you pick up an object, turn it over, and discover something written on the back -- that's got that little IF zing. You used familiar actions in the world, in an intuitive way, and were rewarded. Or when you pick up an object and discover something hidden underneath. Or when you pull a secret panel aside. Gone Home has some of these moments, and they zing. Being thrown out of the UI convention to open a locker: zingless.

A more fundamental clash with my IF sensibility: the game isn't about you. No, strike that -- I'm fine with games where you discover another character's past. (I've written that one, more than once.) But this game's narration isn't positioned the way I expect.

Kaitlin, the viewpoint character, comes home from a year in Europe to discover her house is empty; she (you) then encounters texts narrated by her sister Samantha. But this confused me at first! For a few minutes, I thought I was playing Samantha, recalling her (my) experiences in the house.

When I encounter non-diegetic voice-over in a game -- texts not anchored in a found journal or tape recording -- I expect them to be my thoughts. The narrator is the protagonist is the player. Or the narrator is the protagonist addressing the player. Or maybe the narrator is a third party addressing the protagonist -- but usually there's a cue indicating that.

(This is the convention that Sands of Time twisted so wonderfully, by having the protagonist narrate the game apparently to the player, but in fact to another character in the story.)

The "twist" at the end of Gone Home -- not a spoiler -- is that you discover Samantha's letters, the ones which you've been hearing as narration. This is fine, but then how are we to understand Kaitlin's experience? Has she been wandering through the house, unaware of the story that I-the-player have been hearing, to instead learn it all at the last moment? What does this separation of the player's experience from the protagonist's accomplish? It's not revelatory (as it is in Sands of Time); it's just confusing and distancing.

How would I rewrite this? I have no pat answer. Scatter Samantha's letters through the game? Obvious and clumsy; it erases a story element, Sam's hesitance to trust you with her story. Or maybe Kaitlin should start with the letters, received over the course of the year, and recall them as the environment cues them? This still separates the player's experience (now Kaitlin knows more than you) but perhaps in a more natural way.

Or maybe Samantha should have been the protagonist, after all. Eliminate Kaitlin, who is essentially the classic faceless adventure protagonist. (She has a name, gender, and age, but no personality or relationships beyond the excuse of a year abroad. In retrospect her opening monologue, promising to arrive home, is what tripped me up as much as anything: it's a false promise, a voice that will never be heard again.)

Would Gone Home have worked better with Sam's point of view as well as her narrative voice? I don't know. I just feel like the game-as-it-is missed an opportunity.

(The idea of "I am the protagonist, and I am going to tell you a story even as you manipulate me like a puppet" is one of the great weird unacknowledged conventions in gaming. It's somehow become completely natural, even cliche, to players -- even though it makes no narrative sense. I don't blame Gone Home for not using it! But it's familiar because it fills a need: it credits both the author and player with 100% responsibility for the story, with an unspoken agreement to ignore the contradiction.)

Well. I've made two criticisms, but my goal here is not to complain. (As I said, I liked Gone Home!) Let me switch tracks and talk about what kind of game it is.

(Or, if you don't think Gone Home is a game(**), I'll talk about what kind of game it isn't. I'm an atheist, but I'm a Jewish atheist.)

What game mechanics are we given? A dense environment with a lot of environmental story elements. Locks and combination dials, with the keys and combos found elsewhere, mixed in with story cues. Notes about secret passages and hidden panels, which are then marked on a map. A plot which is gated using these keys and map markings. A structure in which you have to backtrack to use them, discovering new elements in familiar rooms. Creating shortcuts, once you've reached an area, by unlocking a door from the other side.

Any of these mechanics could appear in nearly any kind of character-centric game: action, adventure, platformer, RPG. But if you ask which archetype game had all of them, I immediately answer: Silent Hill.

My contention: Gone Home is survival horror minus the horror and the survival elements.(***) And this is not surprising, because the core trick of survival horror is getting you to move slowly and focus on your environment. That's what this game wants. It doesn't lean on the threat of stumbling into a zombie pit, or even (c.f. Fatal Frame) the penalty of missing a one-shot ghost manifestation. But it does put you in a dark room, fumbling for a light switch. And you don't want to miss anything.

I do wonder how much of this flirtation with the survival-horror form is deliberate. While playing, I knew (from minor spoilers) that Gone Home doesn't end in blood-soaked tragedy. But I half-expected a tragic ending anyway! My expectations were drawn by the familiar horror trappings, both the environment (the dimly-lit empty house) and the Silent Hill mechanics. I suspect that was deliberate. Certainly there are story elements which allow you to imagine both a ghost story and a contemporary tragedy, a Gay! Teen! Suicide! plotline. Again, I knew that the story wouldn't be resolved that way (and I would have been deeply off-put if it had been). But the form plays into that tension as much as the text does.

I also wonder about the decision to place the game so firmly in 1995. I imagine (without checking) that this comes from the experience of the authors, that they were in high school in the mid-90s. It's a personal game, certainly. And the setting helps place Sam as a particular character, rather than a projection of the contemporary player. (Though Kaitlin is such a projection.)

But the effect is that the game feels dated; it was dated the day it launched. (As distinct from feeling retro or nostalgic or a period piece.) The experiences of queer high school students today are not those of Sam and Lonnie. Lonnie is a ROTC student; Sam comments on the don't-ask-don't-tell policy -- brand-new in 1995, but two years gone by the time the game was released. High school students today still have problems, but they're also (nationally) (on average) ahead of the curve, openly dragging their elders ahead.

It's hard not to notice, playing in 2014, that Sam and Lonnie could well be married and raising kids today. Or split up (high school romances, right?) and married to other people. Or not married. Or not identify as lesbians, or not identify as women, or not be alive. Gone Home does not address this, and that suits; it's the narrative of 17-year-olds. I'm not that age; the authors aren't. Are they writing for today's teenagers? People their own age? (Maybe this is nostalgia after all: the nostalgia of having believed that 17 was forever.)

The game feels dated in another way. It's personal, as I noted, but not in the confessional sense that the Twine community has embraced. It's about the experience of otherness, but it doesn't present it as your experience. Again: not the player's story, but a story told to the player.

I've come to expect this genre to be in my face, daring me to empathize. Radical otherness. But of course Gone Home isn't in that genre, or any of the intersecting IF communities that I'm familiar with. So there's my extra, un-looked-for dose of alienation: Gone Home is outsider art to me. I have no conclusion to draw from that.

Coincidentally, the day after I played, the author tweeted:

(quote from email): "...why do you think the majority of people are in agreement with lesbian relationships..."

interestingly, of the criticism Gone Home has gotten, this has been the rarest type of complaint. -- Steve Gaynor, 3 Dec 2014

The obvious reply is that it's 2014 and the majority of Americans are "in agreement" with lesbian relationships. That's been true for many years. (Same-sex marriage flipped more recently.)

That wasn't my reaction, though. I would reply: Gone Home is the story of your sister coming out. Is that something you are "in disagreement" with? What would your sister say to that? Or: what if you project yourself as the parents in the game? They are, after all, depicted with far more specificity than the faceless Kaitlin. So you're horrified by homosexuality; can you reject a game about what it's like for your child to come out? Because that's a thing that can happen.

(Ironically, if you assert that it can't happen, you're aligning yourself with the parents as they're depicted. So Gone Home should speak more to your interests. This is awfully clever of it.)

I guess that's all. Lo. I have ruminated.

Coincidentally (again), this weekend after I played, Fullbright Games announced their next game: Tacoma. There's a video teaser. I have no comment, except to say that if they really plan to do an environmental exploration game in free-fall, they've got a hell of a lot of design work ahead. I look forward to it.

(* It may have been Nick Montfort who first pointed this out in my presence.)

(** No, I don't have any real patience for the argument that Gone Home "isn't a game". One can have an interesting discussion of what "game" means, but not on the Internet, not this year. The bullshit artists have drowned out the genre analysts. We move on.)

(*** I have just cheated and done a web search on "gone home" "survival horror". Okay, I'm not the first person to assert this. Fine.)

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Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

MA_revisions_06-large.jpgThe opening cinematic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash shows a towering and unearthly creature -- cowled, hunchbacked and literally bird-legged, yellow eyes glowing like lanterns over a beaklike proboscis -- tenderly caring for some chubby, babbling babies. We see it helping one learn to walk, letting the child grasp its absurdly long, bony finger, leading it along gently.

The scene is not played as a shocking reveal; the entire, bizarre tableau is displayed at once, as soon as the game loads. The game knows damn well that you downloaded it after reading a blurb, either on Steam or on Xbox Live, that led you to expect an action-adventure about beating people up. And then it shows you this.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.

"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan.

This the opening of "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle, whose work I discovered via Pseudopod, a podcast of new short stories in the horror genre. I started listening to the show a couple of years ago as a change of pace from Escape Pod, the trailblazing SF podcast that became popular enough to spawn a handful of subgenre-specific shows, Psuedopod among them. I quickly came to prefer it over its parent show -- to my surprise, since I have never identified as a horror fan. And while I don't love every story it features, it manages to air a real winner with sufficient frequency that I look forward to each week's new show.

I quote Nickle because his stories, and the experience of having them read to me by Psuedopod's varied but consistently fine vocal talent, came to mind as I started to play Zeno Clash. From my perspective, the game appeared without warning or fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade last week. (It's been on Steam for a year, but, not much of a PC gamer, I hadn't noticed.) By coincidence, I'd purchased Nickle's collection Monstrous Affections earlier that same day -- after hearing and loving, for the third time, a story of his on Pseudopod -- so stories like "The Sloan Men" were fresh on my mind.[1]

The two stories' openings share the tactic of taking something familiar and domestic -- one parent lovingly caring for its infant children; another, enthroned in her kitchen, casually grilling her son's new girlfriend -- and mixing in something very wrong, letting it jut out in plain sight, as obvious as an exposed fingerbone. The disconnect, when executed correctly, produces a thrill in the audience, a recognition of the normal world gone horribly (aha!) awry somehow, and generates a hunger to learn more.

For me, this artful juxtaposition of the mundane with the monstrous is the very definition of contemporary horror at its best, far more so than the zombies and vampires that bulk up the genre's stereotype. What struck me about Zeno Clash, as I worked through the first hour or two of its single-digit playtime total, was its successful implementation of this particular flavor or horror literature into the videogame form, and the fact that I couldn't recall the last time I'd seen such a thing -- at least, not outside interactive fiction, which has long used the strengths of its text-based medium to establish its own tradition of horror-themed games.

You can say a lot of nice things about Left 4 Dead, but it doesn't make much room for narrative subtlety. The storied survival-horror videogame subgenre that informs it (Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, et al) relies on the formula of an audience-identifiable outsider trapped in a dark place they don't belong, trying to fight their way back to normalcy. The player-character of Zeno Clash, on the other hand, lives among the monsters of his world as a native; and unlike, say, the Oddworld games, the situation isn't played for ironic laughs. Instead, you-the-player find yourself both repulsed and tantalized by the game's setting, unable to completely sympathize with the alien protagonist but nonetheless finding just enough familiarity among the unsettling scenery to be drawn in.

The game does an excellent job maintaining the uneasy tone established with the opening nursery scene. The tutorial level takes place in an uncertain dreamscape. Your fighting instructor, while teaching you how the controller works, keeps saying odd things, always concluding with the repeated insistence "But you are not dead" in a breathy growl. What kind of trainer is this, exactly? Soon after the plot gets underway, the main characters find themselves in a forest populated by a tribe of gibbering madmen wearing bizarre costumes. Unexpectedly, the protagonist displays admiration for them, revealing that he used to be one himself. Between fights with the colorful (and spry) lunatics, he introduces them to his traveling companion, calling them by name and noting the unique, single-minded purpose that each displays. As the camera pans over a masked figure slumped against a fallen tree, the hero beams, "She peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, because that is what she did." This is perhaps the oddest thing my Xbox has ever said, and -- as the line came delivered via good, understated voice acting -- served to trigger the connection I drew between this game and my listening to the stories of Pseudopod.

The writing keeps its high quality throughout the game, sometimes seeming somewhat too good for a game whose interactive sequences mainly deal with pounding people to a pulp with your fists. It features perhaps the least intelligence-insulting bit of foreshadowing I've seen in a console game's story: an unusual event that happens early in the game remains memorable enough that, when it's echoed by a major mid-game plot development, it relies on no supporting flashbacks or voiceover to remind you. It's subtle enough that I missed the connection while playing, realizing it only when I stopped to take a break, and I laughed with delight. (That introductory cutscene plays a similar trick, incidentally. It, and a few short subsequent cinematics, play every time you load up the game. If you play through the game over several sessions, as I did, those scenes re-contextualize themselves with every repeat viewing, and the result made me smile each time.)

The artwork is fine, too, weirdly blending a gunpowder-using society with a neolithic aesthetic, looking something like the organic landscapes of Moebius by way of Jack Kirby. I could keep going, but the game is too short to pick apart further without spoiling the rest. I'll just place Zeno Clash among the most refreshing of console-style videogames I've had the pleasure to experience in a long time. I recommend playing through the trial which -- at least on the Xbox version -- gives you a taste of both the narrative flavor and the nature of the martial-arts simulation that defines the game's action sequences. If both appeal to you, you could do worse than invest in the full game, which offers several hours of phantasmagoric fighting and storytelling of a sort I've never quite seen before.

[1] Nickle has the full text of "The Sloan Men" on his website, but I especially recommend giving a listen to the story's audio version, read by Cunning Minx.

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Genre studies in scariness

A few months ago I played Penumbra: Overture, and wrote:

A survival horror game. I'm not sure why it's marketed as adventure. Perhaps because the technology isn't up to commercial survival horror games; the graphics are crude, the controls are clumsy, and there are only a couple types of creepy-crawlies.

The gimmick is a physics engine, on which some of the puzzles are based. Sadly, this is bad for the puzzles -- I spent a lot of time trying ideas which should have worked, but which I couldn't force the physics to comply with. And it's not great for the horror either. Rule of thumb: simulation engines lead to solutions which are emergent, surprising, and dull. You can kill nearly everything in the game by kneeling on a crate and flailing with your biggest weapon.

(from my web site.)

This week I played the sequel (and conclusion), Penumbra: Black Plague, and wrote:

This chapter fixes everything I complained about in the first game. The physics engine is now harnessed to serve the puzzles and plot, instead of the other way around. You still do lots of stuff, but your actions are now clear and definite when they need to be, analogue and simulation-y only when that's interesting. The combat is entirely gone; monsters may chase you, and you might even be trapped in a room with one, but you aren't flailing with a crowbar. You have to either run, or figure out how to use the environment to save your butt. More immersive, scarier, and far less dull.

Is this not interesting? ("You mean the way you reflog stuff from your website onto the Gameshelf?" Thanks, Steve, back in the crate please. We're doing Analysis, here.)

The interesting point, at least to me, is that the designers turned a mediocre action game into a good adventure game by taking things out. They took out the periodic attacks by zombie dogs. They took out the succession of weapons (broom, crowbar, hatchet). And they took the physics modelling out of many (but not all) of the story actions you undertake.

When we ask "what kind of game is this, really?" we expect the answer to be: whatever you spend most of your time doing. Overture had plenty of adventure-style puzzles and unique story actions. But they were paced out with zombie dogs. Furthermore, when you were wandering around exploring, you were watching for zombie dogs. (Which answers a slightly deeper question: what do you spend most of your attention on, in this game?) So Overture felt like an action game punctuated by adventure puzzles. Particularly since the action parts were flawed, and thus memorable. (Sorry! That's usually the way it works in reviewerland.)

("Survival horror" has a bit of cognitive advantage in this comparison. It's a subgenre of "action game"; but "action" these days implies some adventure-style elements -- if there's any storyline at all -- which there usually is. Action games will have some puzzles, some environment interactions, that sort of thing. Certainly all the well-known horror lines -- Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, etc -- have these adventure elements. Whereas adventure games are quite allergic to action-style intrusions. When minigames show up, as in Next Life, or even jumping sequences as in Uru, many adventure gamers mutter darkly and wave incense.)

Now, I'm not saying that the improvements in Black Plague, the sequel, stemmed only from negative changes. I fully acknowledge that the designers put in good stuff. They were able to do this -- and, moreover, make that good stuff dominate the game -- by dropping the elements that hadn't worked before.

Here's my second example: the physics puzzles. In Overture, at one point, you're being chased by a zombie dog. You run through a door and slam it. The door, being a weight on a hinge, bounces halfway back open again. Great. Some crates are nearby, and the narration hints that you should block the door. You drag the crates in front of the door. The zombie dog leaps against the door; since it's a massive object, and the crates have finite friction, the dog is able to push the crates aside. Great. I reload (the dog has killed me several times by now) and try piling the crates on top of each other in front of the door. The dog now pushes through them more slowly, and kills me.

At this point I've died about five times, and the best solution I've come up with is to slam the door, run back into a dark corridor, and hope the dog doesn't see me when it makes it inside. Which works, but then why was I fooling around with all these movable objects? Why did the game present them?

I never once managed to kill a zombie dog by dropping a crate on it, or anything clever like that.

In contrast, in Black Plague when you're being chased, you run. Generally if you make it through a solid door, the chase is over -- and you're into the next phase of the plot, because the designers have planned it out that way. In one case the zombie starts pounding on the door, and the narration hints that you should block it; but when you drag something in the way, it works. Because the game is scripted for it to work. If you fail to drag something in the way, the zombie bursts in and kills you -- try again.

This is where the fans of simulationism start howling about linear plotting. But the simulation puzzle didn't work, and the scripted puzzle did. Why? At least in this instance, it's because simulation means multiple fuzzy outcomes -- and all of those outcomes have to be fun, engaging, and advance the plot. That's hard to do! You fail to block the door, you slightly block the door, you block the door for quite a while, you block the door completely. Are all of those satisfactory? If one of them is only mostly satisfactory, is the player going to try to think of something better, or is he going to go on with a weakened game position?

(Which he may not even know is weakened. Remember, multiple plot paths add no value for a player who is only aware of one of them.)

Similarly, in Overture you have to maneuver some things into careful stacks, or particular positions. In Black Plague, generally, you just have to shove something into the right region; the game fits it into place automatically. Which means you're engaged with your intent, not with mouse mechanics. If the challenge is physical manipulation, then the manipulation has to be challenging; if the challenge is thinking of the right idea, then the manipulation only has to be satisfying. In other words: in an adventure, you're not supposed to fail for trivial reasons.

(There are satisfying interactions with the physics in Black Plague. You drag crates around in order to reach the "right region." This is fun, for the same reason that walking an avatar around is more fun than "click to go there." But it's not overused -- for the same reason that walking an avatar around shouldn't be slow or awkward.)

This is where the fans of simulationism start saying... "Will Wright! He rules the universe!"

And, yeah, he does. I am well aware that The Sims has better sales figures than the entire adventure genre piled up. Different game goal, different player goals -- in fact, the player's goal revolves around the fact that there is no game goal. This is the opposite of the story game.

Can they be combined? Well, maybe. I've spent this post arguing that Penumbra doesn't combine them effectively. That doesn't mean it's impossible.

Wright sure hopes it's possible; it's Spore. Thus far we have no idea whether its simulation elements and its goal-oriented elements will fit together. I hesitantly advance some skepticis -- hey! Ow! ...Okay, okay, I'm sorry! I'm just a cranky refugee from the early 90s -- from SimEarth and SimAnt, neither of which were, you know, any fun.

I don't think simulation-based adventure games are impossible. What I think is that they're really hard, and require months -- years -- of rebalancing and player feedback. This is what all the MMO-RPGs are doing, right? In a sense. They aren't simulating physics, but they have these immensely detailed combat engines, with thousands of dials to tweak and (hopefully) dozens of valid player strategies. And they always get it wrong a few times first.

Hopefully Spore has spent its months and years of buildup time on that balancing work. We'll see.

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