Part Four – Focused Vision
A defining characteristic of this console generation has been the rise of the smaller (often downloadable) games from diminutive teams. Larger companies are having to sell millions of copies to break even, and are taking less and less risks because of this. Games have simply become too big.
I’m not just talking about massive in-game worlds like in Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto; or lengthy quests such as a Final Fantasy. Some modern videogame teams, like Treyarch (Call of Duty) or Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin’s Creed), employ upwards of 300 people over periods of multiple years to create their technological vision. However, with huge teams comes different visions and approaches to game-making. This means creativity is often watered down in the process. So when a game like ‘Dear Esther’ comes along with a mood and idea so precise, so clearly and exactly what the developers intended, you know it must have come from an intimate and tightly-knit group. The type of group which many of the games profiled in this series, from Journey to The Unfinished Swan, have spawned from. The type of group which understands mood.
Interactivity in Dear Esther is limited. You play in first-person, and often all you have to do as the player is walk around, take in the sights, and soak up the atmosphere. Atmosphere is the key expression to describe Dear Esther’s charm. At times tense, moody, mysterious, but always engaging – the sense of place that the guys at thechineseroom have created is astonishing. I won’t get into too much about what happens in this short, experimental game for fear of spoiling its unique charms; but the important thing to take away is this – Dear Esther is an example of how an interactive experience (even with interactivity so limited) can create some of the greatest narratives available to us today. And all from a team that could comfortably fit in Treyarch’s bathroom.
A similar example is the beautifully simple ‘Slender’. It’s a straightforward horror game available for free download on the PC (or you can pay to pick up the newer ‘Slender: The Arrival’). All you have to do is collect pieces of paper from an almost pitch black environment, torch in hand to light the way, whilst avoiding the ever approaching Slenderman. Playing Slender for my first time was a horrifying experience. I was genuinely terrified at points. But the real fun came at a friend’s house.
After a long night of Mario Party with my old pal Alex, his 13 year old brother and his cousin of the same age, Alex went off to bed. I was going to crash on his sofa, but as it was a weekend, Alex’s brother and cousin were still up around midnight playing Call of Duty, as 13 year olds do. I started to tell them about this great game called Slender, and shamelessly tried to scare the two youngsters by claiming the creaks and groans from the otherwise silent house were the Slenderman’s footsteps. They weren’t having it, and said no videogame could scare them. 10 minutes later, Slender was downloaded and installed on Alex’s PC. Another 20 minutes later, and one was hidden underneath a blanket whilst the other refused to play anymore. That really says more than I ever could.
Slender won’t keep you occupied for months and months, but it’s not meant to. It’s all about that first experience. The fear of the unknown. The tension as you find your second, third and fourth piece of paper and Slenderman tracks you more fiercely than ever. It’s Munch’s ‘The Scream’ come to life. It’s all in the atmosphere.
That’s not to say bigger companies can’t do atmosphere. One of my personal favourite games of the generation is ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’. In terms of gameplay, it’s an average third-person stealth shooter. But the characters, dialogue and most importantly the world this game creates is absolutely second to none.
During my time with Deus Ex, I felt like I was playing the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. The characters have real flaws and real motivations. Their interactions are realistic. The near future setting, something so contrived in many of Deus Ex’s contemporaries, is fantastically believable. It feels like an organic evolution from our current surroundings, yet it’s just different and crazy enough to be absolutely compelling. Every time I got bored of skulking through another straight corridor, I hacked a computer to spy on the workplace gossip of ‘just what was in that secured container last Tuesday?’ Once the cookie-cutter cover shooting became tiresome, I just walked the city streets talking to police, pedestrians and even persuasive ladies of the night. I seriously wanted to live in this world, civil war warts-and-all.
One might say the creation of place was simply artful (sorry).
So there it is, the games that artfully construct place and mood better than even most films can manage. Part Five, the finale, coming soon!