It sometimes seems like no video game wants to be itself. Many mainstream games yearn to be blockbuster movies—the Michael Mann-aping Grand Theft Auto V is the most obvious example. A certain type of independent game aspires to the qualities of middlebrow literary fiction, with the focus on delicate, human-scale stories, the subtlety and seriousness, the modest epiphanies. Firewatch comes close to succeeding.
The setup seems straight out of an old issue of the Paris Review: it is Wyoming, 1989, and Henry, desperate for a break from caring for a wife with early-onset Alzheimer’s, takes a job as a fire lookout in a national park and falls into an intermittent flirtation with his supervisor, Delilah, via walkie-talkie. Its opening sections are filled with moments of physical and interpersonal observation. You control Henry from a first-person perspective that goes out of its way to remind you of the particulars of the body you inhabit. (Not many games convincingly represent a middle-aged man gruntingly heaving himself up a ledge.) The world around you has an exaggerated warmth and clarity: the sun filters through the trees as you pass beneath, smoke curls in the distance, a deer is glimpsed on the path ahead, then disappears. There is an unusual emphasis on quiet, patience, and withdrawal.
In Henry’s tentative radio exchanges with Delilah, whom he’s never actually met, the game has found the perfect narrative excuse for the herky-jerky rhythm inevitable in branching, multiple-choice video-game conversations. The way Delilah interprets your silence if you dither too long over the options as just that—silence—was a tiny shock: like unexpected eye contact across a crowded room.
Then, alas, the plot kicks in. Someone is following Henry, perhaps even framing him for murder, and you find yourself on a conveyor belt of walk-over-that-way-and-press-a-button busywork and ensnared in a mystery that is implausible and still somehow banal. Henry angrily trashes a campsite, say, or makes a panicky run back to his lookout tower, but the real concern is always frustratingly simple: What does the game want from me, here? How do I convince it to let me proceed? The game you are playing and the story it has decided to tell you are perpetually barging into each other, and both suffer—a story of mounting paranoia is expressed as a sequence of tedious chores.
Brendon Chung’s 2012 game 30 Flights of Loving took the opposite approach to the interactive short story: it used a blocky, low-res style and a montage of dense, non-linear fragments to tell a disorienting tale of espionage, smuggling, and betrayal. His newest, Quadrilateral Cowboy, is as original but less focused. Here he presents a near-future imagined as a collage of obsolete and non-existent technologies, a world of hover-bikes and portable phonographs (usually playing Caruso), virtual-reality rigs that run on cassette tapes, and brain scanners that emit the distinctive buzz-whistle of a dial-up modem. Even more than 30 Flights, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a visual landscape crammed with jokes. It at times seems composed almost entirely of whimsy and witty asides, which are even incorporated into the basic functions of the game: tutorial instructions are scattered on in-game product labels, and you save your game using an actual man-sized Save Point machine—complete with magnetic tape memory, LED readout, and a big lever to be pulled. You might see stay hungry spelled out in lights on the side of a futuristic high-rise, find a room strewn with “Aorta” brand “pulmonary liquor,” be offered a mission called “The Bergamot Bank Job,” stock up at a black-market emporium disguised as a bike shop and staffed by intelligent house cats—all in just a couple minutes of playtime.
Buried beneath this are two separate games. There’s a heist puzzle game that involves sneaking in and out of futuristic structures using robots, remote-control rifles, and various other tools, often controlled by typing commands into an actual in-game laptop. It is in principle very clever, but in practice very dry. Alternating section by section with that game is a semi-interactive story about three female thieves, told mostly through carefully orchestrated details—the morning commute, scattered objects in a tiny high-rise apartment, downtime chores—in static set-pieces somewhere between game and cut-scene, like walking through a museum installation of the characters’ lives. It’s low-key but charming, and built on a sustained portrait of female friendship that is all the more powerful for its offhand delivery. There are shoot-outs and bank robberies and a variety of robots (depressed, murderous, indifferent), but the most affecting moments are a few photographs on the wall of an empty room, and a rooftop game of badminton.
Sometimes all you need for a good game is one idea. Superhot is a first-person shooter “where time moves forward only when you move.” If you stand still, so does time, letting you ponder oncoming attacks at leisure and line up every shot perfectly. Three seconds of fighting might take three minutes of stepwise play. The result is a burst of abstract energy and novelty and pleasure, all from the basest video-game structure: shooting people, and not getting shot.
It has the simplified visual style of a tech demo—bare polygons in white, black, and red; enemies that shatter like glass when killed. The violence is muted, even soothing, and everything else is glitchy and intentionally abrasive. When not robotically repeating its own name at the close of each level, the game berates the player with taunts like “YOU ARE STILL WEAK” and “HAND OVER CONTROL” in jarring flashes of on-screen text. Its nihilistic, metafictional story is centered on “your” increasingly helpless, self-destructive intoxication with the game itself. The “you” of the plot begs a friend for access to more levels, soon loses self-control entirely and descends into self-harm, and eventually sheds all trace of personal identity.
This is told largely through staged text “chat” sequences: you press a button to “type,” but have no control over the words that result—a pretty good joke on the role of the player in most video-game stories, actually.
Inside seems, at first, an almost plotless game. It opens without setup or words of any kind, except for the title; even the controls are left for the player to infer. You find yourself controlling a nameless little boy, moving left to right across the screen in the traditional way of platformers. It is night, he is in a forest, there are men in the forest with trucks and flashlights. You keep him moving, right, right, past the men (they’ll kill you if they see you, of course), across a highway—and now the men are pursuing you, and now you’re being chased by packs of dogs.
What becomes increasingly clear is that the game is all story, but story understood in the most fundamental way: a simple succession of events. A thing happens (you find yourself in an abandoned farm, filled with dead pigs), and then something else (a big pig attacks you), followed by events that are more or less unpredictable. Inside takes in all basic actions of a platform game—running, jumping, pulling switches, pushing objects around—and refines them into an almost perfectly smooth delivery mechanism for its stream of increasingly bizarre, unsettling incidents. Inside’s world takes in everything from zombies and desolate cornfields to giant robots, underwater revenants, reverse-gravity corpse farms . . . Written out, it likely makes no sense at all. But played through, it is entirely coherent and convincing.
Partly this is because the details of the game are so well tuned: every escape (if you make it) is by the skin of your teeth, every jump is just at the edge of impossible, every transition surprising yet strangely inevitable. The sound effects shift from those of the ambient world to electronics, then, almost imperceptibly, turn into music, then fall back apart into dripping and creaking. It has a dream’s strange combination of specificity and vagueness: when the boy yanks a switch or shoves open a door, he is animated with a persuasive physicality—he flops, strains, recoils. And yet he, like all the other humanoids you encounter, doesn’t quite seem to have a face, so far as you can make out. The world appears to have three dimensions, yet in practice they always collapse, with an illogical correctness, into two. The relentless rightward momentum of a platformer and the headlong inevitability of a nightmare: these turn out to be the same thing.
That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer was created by Ryan and Amy Green to depict their experiences with their son, Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 1 and died four years later. Narration and dialogue recorded by the actual people involved, including recordings made at the time, are combined with rather abstract 3D renderings, in which smooth, luminous planes stand in for faces and details. The primary interaction is gentle, lightly interactive exploration, with a few more active mini-games—a race around the hallways of a hospital, an arcade game in which an armed and armored Joel does battle with a dragon.
It is wrenching. Scenes like the one in which Ryan, up all night, begs God to let his son stop crying and go to sleep are sincere and powerful. Yet the game is undercut by a sense of the inadequacy of these mechanics, these metaphors—perhaps of almost any mechanics or metaphors—to contain such experiences. A room slowly filling up with water, a vision of Joel eating pancakes in heaven, the “dragon” itself: they all fail to measure up to the brute facts of the disease.
But once or twice, it works. Early on Joel, wearing a stethoscope, plays with a dog; the player can move the end of the stethoscope around on the dog, and each location triggers a different brief sound recording of Joel playing, his family laughing and reacting. They sound distant, like they were pulled from a home video. The recordings can be repeated, cut off, played in any order, and the scene can last as long as you want: a brief nexus of memory within memory.
Like Inside, The Witness avoids direct communication entirely, and succeeds by burrowing deep into one of the oldest and simplest video-game forms. You begin the game alone on an island, which is a patchwork of compressed, disparate environments—here an autumn forest, there a desert strewn with ruins, an empty castle, a flower-filled greenhouse, a jungle, a snow-capped mountain, all of it a little brighter and cleaner than reality. Everywhere you look there are puzzles, presented without ornament or disguise as gridded electronic screens, wired together. You interact with them (the only way you can interact with anything on the island) by drawing a bright white line through the lines of the grid. A correctly drawn line solves the puzzle, an incorrectly drawn one achieves nothing. One screen activates the next, or opens a door, or lowers a bridge, allowing you to progress.
At first the puzzles are just mazes, childishly simple, but soon the walls of the maze disappear, replaced by strange glyphs (squares, stars, and other shapes, in a variety of colors) that must be interpreted or obeyed. Or they are replaced by what at first seems like nothing at all. One sequence features a series of blank screens strung through a forest; it soon becomes clear that their mazes are formed by the shadows of the tree branches falling on the screens (and then, to compound the difficulty, the shadows stop making it all the way to the screen, and must be extrapolated). Submitting to The Witness involves a descent into simulated madness: you find yourself scrutinizing the angles of branches, the placement of pebbles, the arrangement of clouds in the sky with a cold, desperate passion; you come to with incomprehensible diagrams on little scraps of paper littering your apartment.
But the heart of the game is the bloody-minded consistency with which it resists any effort to go beyond those puzzles. The island is strewn with tape recordings and with statues of people in all sorts of postures, from a thief making a getaway to a mother and child gazing out to sea. They are clearly significant but never quite narrative or allegorical; the most you get is the occasional teasing quote from someone like Richard Feynman: “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.”
Witness creator Jonathan Blow has at various times spoken of his interest in “figuring out how we learn in games,” in the way games can, even without words, create “a stream of communication between the designer and the player.” That abstract process forms the real drama of his game. Its subject is the different textures of thinking itself, rendered visible, away from the glare of any other content or ideas.
No Man’s Sky
Before it came out, No Man’s Sky seemed like a dream: a game of endless discovery and exploration, in which you could wander a simulated planet no one had ever seen before, encountering strange and wondrous creatures, then take off in a space ship, fly to another planet, and encounter something entirely new, over and over again. You could fight, build, trade, mine, and explore forever. The developers announced that there would be over 18 quintillion planets, each of them, including the creatures inhabiting them, algorithmically generated and unique.
The actual game is profoundly depressing. Every planet is the same, filled with minerals of this or that color to be mined in identically monotonous ways; the animals are dead-eyed automatons, wandering pointlessly this way and that, never quite interacting with each other. Every planet is littered with crash-sites and bases, abandoned or occupied—wherever you go, others have been there first. You can never truly touch or change anything, beyond blasting a few holes in the ground. (An update, months after the game’s release, now lets you build a base of your own—from preset components, on one planet.) You can’t even crash your ship. And to land, you press the land button, and wait. Nothing is new, nothing is different, nothing matters, nothing can ever really happen. Not to be played alone.
The Last Guardian
The Last Guardian, like its predecessors Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, strips down familiar fantasy tropes to focus on a single, sustained emotional situation. At its center is the relationship between an unnamed boy, controlled by the player, and an enormous part-bird, part-cat, part-electrical-lizard-dog named Trico, very much not controlled by anything but his own simulated whims. Together, Trico and the boy attempt to escape a half-ruined temple complex, exploring and running and jumping through it, completing various environmental puzzles, occasionally battling the malevolent creatures that dwell within. The boy learns to direct Trico to some extent, and they attempt to care for and protect each other.
The environments are beautiful and Trico is a wondrous creation, alien and ingratiating at once. But the game often seems to be barely holding itself together. It takes a minimalist, withholding approach to backstory (though answers do eventually come, in a strange rush all at the end) but is irritatingly generous with on-screen reminders of the controls and unneeded hints couched as a retrospective voiceover. The third-person camera is a marvel of frustration, sluggish to respond to inputs but given to sudden sweeps and turns. At times this is oddly fitting: it forces a certain slowness and attention on the player even in easy, open areas, and an old-fashioned fantastic tale like this does merit a certain creakiness in the telling. The unyielding controls give even apparently simple actions a sense of weight and real effort. (Inside has wonderfully animated simulacra of a small boy struggling with an oversized lever, but here you truly strain along with him.) But more often it is all incompetent. I navigated an entire platforming sequence by sound and feel, as the camera provided me with a prolonged close-up of Trico’s butthole.
The game’s most powerful moments are, oddly, the ones in which you are least in control: the sequences of vertiginous movement as Trico bounds through the air, the boy clinging to his fur; an extended set-piece in which the boy dangles from a branch and all you can do is rock him back and forth as Trico scrambles to get to him. It turns out this is a story not of saving anyone, as most games are—nor even, really, of mutual salvation, as the game seems to promise, but simply of being saved. Its dominant emotions are rare in video gaming: helplessness, gratitude, awe, and, as you watch Trico suffer to protect you—he takes more and more punishment as the game goes on, including several vicious fights with other giant creatures like him—grief.