One of the most memorable moments I had in gaming was back in 1998, during the initial moments of the original Unreal. An interstellar ship you’re imprisoned aboard crashes on a strange and unkown planet, and as the game opens, you find your way out of the wreckage. Emerging from the craft, you’re suddenly in a gigantic, lush alien world.
Unreal, the game, hasn’t aged all that well, and the action was mostly by-the-numbers shooting. What really stands out to me though, 16 years later, is the environments. At the time, Quake was more or less the benchmark in shooters, and its aesthetic reflected the ‘90s goth-metal-sludgerock influences of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who created the game’s sound design. Unreal moved out of the grimdark castles and sewers of Quake and into a vibrant, colorful world full of trees, lasers, and fantasy castles.
Fittingly, then, one of the most striking gaming memories I’ll take from this year is stepping into the lush countryside of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Built on the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine, Ethan Carter puts the player in the role of Paul Prospero, “supernatural detective,” on the trail of the titular missing boy. It’s a “narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” as an opening title card warns. There is an interesting story to discover, and puzzles to solve, but the real star of Ethan Carter is Red Creek Valley.
It’s stunningly modeled – blades of grass sway in the breeze, fog banks move across the lake above the imposing dam, and sunbeams glimmer through the verdant forest canopy. Ethan Carter set me loose in this lovely world, and only after a while did I quit looking at mossy tree stumps and decrepit train bridges long enough to stumble across some mysteries to solve.
Ethan Carter teeters on the edge of an ongoing debate – what qualifies as a “game” in videogames? The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be considered what is derisively called a “walking simulator” by some “hardcore” players who sniff at the idea that a digital experience that does not have a “fail state” could be considered a game (and therefore be eligible for meaningless “Game of the Year” awards). You can’t die in Ethan Carter – the closest it comes is a sequence where failing to avoid a certain obstacle sends you back to the beginning of a maze.
In a similar vein is Gone Home, Fullbright’s 2013 game about a young woman returning to her family’s house after a semester in Europe. As in Ethan Carter, the real star of the show is the environment, a large house in rural Oregon. You explore this house at your own pace, turning lights on and off, reading notes left by your parents and younger sister (all of whom are ominously absent), and picking up and examining the items left in each room. (Cara Ellison has a great S.EXE piece about Gone Home’s remarkable sense of tangibility over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.) As you snoop through the house, you uncover pieces of a story about a particular family and a particular time and place, with each member dealing with their own personal failures, fears, or temptations.
There’s no coded-in “fail state” in Gone Home, which again means certain snobs like to say that Gone Home isn’t a game. There are no skeleton archers waiting for you in the basement, or Nazi doomtroopers setting up artillery outside.
Dear Esther is even less interactive than Gone Home. Also derided as a “walking simulator,” Dear Esther’s narrative beats — told in voice-overs of letters to Esther — trigger when the player crosses certain points in the gameworld. It’s a dreamy and existential (if somewhat boring) experience, but again, the environment takes top billing: craggy Hebridean cliffs, scrubby trails, and ruined seaside buildings manage to evoke a sense of mystery and antiquity.
The notion of fail states being a requirement in games is a relatively recent one, and when taken to its logical conclusion it’s patently absurd. Under this rubric, “Connect the Dots” is a game (you can draw lines between non-sequentially-numbered dots), while “Mad Libs” is not. In “tag,” nobody ever actually wins or loses – the roles of the players are simply rearranged and the game only ends when the players get bored or the recess bell rings. I can’t remember ever actually “winning” a game of cops and robbers, either. So much for that.
And anyway, walking simulators do have a kind of meta-fail state: When the player decides to stop driving the narrative forward, the game ends, and if this happens prior to completing the game, well…
It’s fine if walking simulators aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. While Proteus was a lovely little experience with its Atari-esque look and its dynamic, musical environment, it’s probably not one I need to revisit. Once you’ve seen what one of these titles has to offer, there’s usually very little compulsion to play in their worlds again, but getting to that point can be a valuable experience nonetheless. I was very impressed, for instance, with Gone Home’s presentation of what’s been criticized as a, well, pedestrian story of teenage love. Changing the format from written short story into something digital and interactive allows you to experience the narrative forensically – I absolutely loved finding the younger sister’s punk rock mix tapes and the “zines” (remember those?) that she created with her friends. It’s an indication of how videogames might elevate and enrich storytelling into something that we consume more actively. For a medium that’s struggling to be recognized as art, I’d say that’s (ahem) a step in the right direction.