Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Tale Of 3 Games

So here's something I don't do very often but should and that's talk about video games. As I've said before, I'm an extremely limited gamer and as such I don't play video games very often, unless they're wrestling games (the last one I purchased was "WWE2K14" and I have no intentions of playing "2K15" as I have no plan to purchase a PS4) and while I have played and GREATLY enjoyed "The Last Of Us", it's really not my style of gaming. But despite my limitations, I do consider myself a gamer, although not a hardcore, you'll never see me having Wolf Blitzer sessions over the latest patches and graphics of the new releases on PS4, but I do appreciate a good game. A few years back a decided to dip my finger in the recently booming indie gaming market due to my increasing curiosity of Steam and a particular game that caught my interest. I've wanted to write about this game for awhile but now finally premits me the opportunity to do so. I'm going to talk about 3 games actually, and while these games are EXTREMELY similar in style, execution and limited mechanics, only one of them excels at it while the other two utterly fail. Those games are as followed, "Dear Esther", "Gone Home" & "The Stanley Parable".

Before I discuss the games proper, let me say that by all conventional standards these are not games. There's no reward system (winning or losing), there are no levels to be beat, no bosses to battle and no series of objectives to be completed. There essentially is no way to fail at playing these games unless the key to move forward is broken. These games basically amount to Walking Simulators, where your interaction with the world in the games are limited to, picking up objects and putting them down, pressing a button, turning on and off a flashlight and simply walking forward. All 3 of these games are done in first person. These games don't take any real cognitive effort to complete and offer no challenge to anyone who would consider themselves a hardcore gamer. However, despite having the same limitations and a similar set up, "The Stanley Parable" manages to be not only incredibly fun and hilarious but it manages to do what "Dear Esther" and "Gone Home" could not do. So what's so great about "The Stanely Parable" ? Before I answer that, let me explain what's so bad about "Dear Esther" and "Gone Home". FYI:

SPOILERS FOR THESE GAMES ABOUND! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

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Let's start with "Dear Esther" as this is the worst offender. Before I completely tear it asunder, I suppose I should say something nice about it and that would be it's graphics. "Dear Esther" despite being an absolute suck fest has some of the BEST (and I do mean) BEST graphics BAR NONE! I have seen the latest graphics from PS4 and I have to say they don't hold a candle to the graphics of "Dear Esther". The graphics team did a stellar job with the EXTREMELY and PAINSTAKING detail they put into every nook and cranny of the game. I have to compliment the graphics team because after you play the game, your immediate assumption (after being extremely pissed off that you paid money for it) is that the vast majority of this game's budget went to the graphics team and nothing else. So what is "Dear Esther" about?

In "Dear Esther", you play as an anonymous character roaming a large deserted island. As you roam the island, ever so often you'll hear an anonymous narrator reading the eponymous letters to Esther. The content of these letters are about several characters, a man named Donnelly, Paul, Jakobson, a goat herder who lived on the island MANY years ago, and about the author himself. The idea of the game is create a mystery surrounding who your character is, what is his relation to Esther and what exactly happen to her if anything at all. The mystery is hinted at in the narration and on occasion the atmosphere of the game as an auto wreck is seen in when your character dives into the water, so it's heavily suggested that Esther may have been hurt (died) or in a coma and it may possibly be the fault of your character. The Catch of the game is this: The Narration is not presented in particular order. So let's say that there are 5 narrative pieces, well at one play through you might hear Narration 2, 3 and 4 but not 5 and in another you might hear Narration 3, 1 and 4 but not 5 and 2...you get the idea.

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The mechanics of "Dear Esther" is simple, WALK FORWARD. That's the ONLY thing you have to do in this game. Despite being surrounded by some STELLAR and BEAUTIFUL scenery, the game doesn't offer you any chance to deviate from the pre-established path, even if you think you can. There isn't anything for your to interact with or locate or collect, you're simply walking forward and listening to narration and trying to figure out what the hell happen to Esther and who the hell your character is and why the hell you're playing this game. "Dear Esther" sucks absolute balls because despite being graphicly beautiful (again, I can't praise the graphics enough) it has NOTHING and I do mean NOTHING going for it...kinda like Kim Kardashian.

In terms of simple mechanics, the EXTREMELY limited interaction with the world makes this game plodding, boring and tedious. Despite praising the graphics the glamour wears off REALLY quick when you suddenly realize that you're locked into this walking simulator for 1 hour (that's how long the game actually takes, but frequent stops to lament and implore the heavens for a refund will not doubt make this game much, much longer) and theres nothing you can do but walk around and listen. If "Dear Esther" had a 3rd mechanic, something as simple as a scavenger hunt, this game would MAYBE be able to redeem it's self, but it doesn't. All it is, is walking forward and listening to EXTREMELY poetic letters who despite using language from present time and referencing modern technology, sound like they were written in the 18th century. If you want to play "Dear Esther" get yourself an audiobook of any 18th correspondence and walk around until you come to a lighthouse and jump off and somehow transform into a bird or something...no seriously....that's the ending of the game.

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The ending of the game is your character approaches a lighthouse, climbs to the top of it and dives off, before making a bellyflop into the cold waters below, the camera changes view and it's clear to you that your character is flying (wouldn't it be an amazing twist if your character was Superman all along?). Now many have defended "Dear Esther" as being an experience and far too deep and layered for us common folk, and those who disliked the game just didn't understand how truly thought provoking it is. While everyone's entitled to their own opinion if there are people who genuinely liked the game, more power to them but telling us we didn't understand the game is complete out and out bullsh*t for two reasons: #1: What exactly is there to understand? You walk around an island and listen to narration, not exactly brain science or rocket surgery. #2: Given the non-linear narration, everyone's understanding of the game is open to interpretation and therefore and perhaps the particular sequence of narration Player A got didn't captivate him enough like the sequence of narration did for Player B. And maybe if Player A played the game more he'd appreciate it more...that is of course, assuming Player A actually cares enough about Esther and the character he's playing as.

That's another problem, "Dear Esther" offers you NOTHING in terms of replay value, no new mechanics are added, no secrets are unlocked, no nothing! The only thing you get out of replaying this game is a different sequence of narration, THAT'S IT! Given these reasons you can see why "Dear Esther" is the WORST offender. The problem with this game is that is attempts to be deep and profound and like all things that try to be that way, they come off as pretentious, boring and haughty. The writing is good and the graphics, again are awesome, but that's all there is to this game. There is nothing of real interactive interest to engage the player and because of that it fails MISERABLY.

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"Gone Home" is what "Dear Esther" COULD have been if the production team didn't blow all their money on the graphics. While "Gone Home" is only a little better than "Dear Esther" it still amounts to a walking simulator, but it has one critical difference that "Dear Esther" does not, you actually get to DO THINGS! By "do things" I simply mean that you get to open doors, turn off and on lights and interact with objects. Your interaction with objects is only limited to picking them up and putting them down, but you're also given a bit of business to do as there are a few locked doors that you have to find keys for. Outside of that, there isn't much else you can do. So what's "Gone Home" about?

In "Gone Home" takes place in 1995 and you play as Kaitlyn Greenbriar, a girl who has just returned home after studying abroad. She arrives home during a dark and stormy night to discover no one is home. As you roam the house looking for clues about everyone's whereabouts, certain items you find trigger narrations of Kaitlyn's younger sister Sarah's diary entries, as narrated by Sarah herself. As the game progresses you unlock the mystery as to why no one is home. That's the entire game. Now while that may sound interesting at first blush, allow me to give you some further information. The Greenbriar are living in something called "The Psycho House", an infamous house where apparently a murder has taken place. Sarah's diary makes numerous references to her classmates making reference to the house's infamy and their astonishment that she's living there. Still interested?

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What if I told you that "The Psycho House" doesn't play a role in this story in no way, shape and or form, what if I told that there was no mystery about why no one is home in "Gone Home"? What if I told you that despite having a very interesting premise for what could be a very interesting horror game isn't a horror game AT ALL and the only horror this game will induce on you is the horror of having wasted money. While "Gone Home" (I hope) wasn't advertised as a horror game (I have reason to believe otherwise based on a few videos), "Gone Home" sets it's self up as one, what with a dark, stormy night, an empty house and the constant references to it being the previous venue of bloodshed. Unfortunately, as you make your way into the game it becomes PAINFULLY obvious that this game is about something else, something you wouldn't expect.

So what is this game REALLY about? Brace yourself. It's nothing more than a walking simulator with teen romance sprinkled it, excuse me, LESBIAN teen romance sprinkled it. As the game progresses you hear more of Sarah's diary and her infatuation with a girl named Lonnie (Yolanda) and how they began dating. Despite being a Christian and being adamantly against homosexuality, their being gay is not what's sticking in my craw with this game. For anyone who wants to tell me I hate this game because the characters are gay, bare in mind that on this very blog are reviews for "Pretty Little Liars", a show with a very prominent gay character, and despite ribbing the show relentlessly, I enjoy it, so take that. My issues with this game stem from the fact that just like "Dear Esther" you're not really doing anything but walking and listening.

Furthermore, the interactions in the game don't effect your character in any impactful fashion. So the reason why no one is home is because Kaitlyn's parents are off somewhere at a conference. Kaitlyn's parents are going through a rough-patch as Kaitlyn's father is a struggling writer who's books aren't getting published and Kaitlyn's mom may have been cheating on him. Not even sure why I mentioned this because of none of this factors into the story in any meaningful fashion. Sarah is not home because she ran off with Yolanda, who after enlisting in the army, left because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". So there you have it. That's the entirety of "Gone Home". Now let me ask you a question, how does any of this effect your character? Kaitlyn isn't better or worse finding out any of information and after studying abroad, she was absent from Sarah already, so...Furthermore, rather than going on a scavenger hunt and unlocking doors to find scraps of Sarah's diary, Sarah could've simply left Kaitlyn a note telling her what she did, after all throughout the game there are notes written by Sarah.

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No, the reason why the game wants you to go on this scavenger hunt is so you can experience the confusion of a young teenage girl not knowing what she's feeling but embracing it anyway and stepping out on love and damn the world and what it thinks about it, blah, blah, blah...that's the kind of bullsh*t you'd hear from the laziest hack working as a writer for ABC Family or in the no-call back section of Young Adult novel agents...and that's pretty much what this is. While "Dear Esther" was a walking simulator featuring 18th century correspondence who are somehow aware of our technology, "Gone Home" is a walking simulator featuring an angsty, teen romance look at 1995 all through the eyes of a young lesbian in high school...this is what makes compelling game play folks.

Because this game features a character of the Gay community, it's been lavish with praised and touted as one of the BEST indie games ever made. If they pulled their heads out of their asses for a second, they'd see that the game offers little in terms of interaction and actual game play. While the scavenger hunt aspect of it is good, the reason behind it isn't compelling enough to make playing the game worth while. The only thing really egging you on is hopes that "The Psycho House" will eventually come into play somewhere along the narrative and it never does. The aspect of Sarah being a lesbian adds nothing since you could make this a straight couple and the game would still suck because it's not a compelling narrative to warrant the 30 minutes it takes to play it. The fact that the game takes place in 1995, despite a few references to "Pulp Fiction" and it being the year of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", that doesn't add anything either.

Despite adding something that "Dear Esther" didn't, "Gone Home" still sucks because it didn't have a compelling narrative to make it worthwhile and really utilize what they had going for it, which is the set up to a really good horror or mystery game. Instead they treated that for a poorly written Young Adult novel and threw in gay characters to please the Progressive crowd. As you can imagine, the replay value of this is nill, since replays offer you nothing, and hilariously enough, once you start the game there's an option to play with all the doors unlocked, as if that wasn't a sign already that the creators were basically saying "We don't really want anyone to have to do anything in this game or really put in any effort.". Imagine buying "Grand Theft Auto" with the cheat codes preloaded in the game and you could turn them off and on at will...yeah.

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And now we come to "The Stanley Parable", how and why does "The Stanley Parable" succeed where "Gone Home" and "Dear Esther" fails, despite having similar limited mechanics? Well before we touch on that, what is "The Stanley Parable" about?

In "The Stanley Parable" you play as the eponymous character Stanley, a nobody, working at a faceless corporation, doing a nothing job (it's all very Kafkaesque). One day Stanley emerges from his office to find that all of his co-works have suddenly vanished. Stanley roam the office building in hopes of discovering what happen to everyone. As you roam the office, an anonymous Narrator narrates your actions in the game. The mechanics are limited to pressing buttons to activate elevators, open doors and that's about it. That's the entire game in a nutshell. Doesn't sound much different from "Dear Esther" and "Gone Home", so why am I praising this game and shunning the others?

The answer is simple. The clever twist in "The Stanley Parable" is that your decisions in the game impact not only the narration of the game but also determines the ending you receive once you finish. In the game you reach a hallway where you can choose either The Right Door or The Left Door, The Narrator instructs you to choose the door on your Left, however you can choose the door on your Right and The Narrator will react to your decision, urging you to remain on the path he's instructing you to follow. Whether you choose to obey or disobey at certain moments, each action you take leads to a different outcome.

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Therefore, "The Stanley Parable" makes the most of limited mechanics and turns a simple walking simulator into an a choice driven adventure. As you can imagine, the replay value, although not incredibly high (after all it's still a considerably short game, for good reason, too many choices spaced too far apart can make a game tedious) is still higher than that of "Dear Esther" and "Gone Home" because each play through offers something different than the first. What if I go Left instead of Right? What if I do down this path ? I wonder what'll happen if I go over here? Not only are the choices fun and engaging but hearing The Narrator snidely berate you for your decisions and question you relentlessly is hilarious as well and adds a unique experience to it, that very few game (if any) have been able to replicate.

While "Dear Esther" props it's self up as this incredibly profound game that's so deep it goes over people's head, "The Stanley Parable" actually is INCREDIBLY deep without calling attention to that fact and it does what "Dear Esther" doesn't do and that's be entertaining. "The Stanley Parable" is deep because it manages to write a subtle commentary on gamers and how they play games, the choices they make and how gamers choose to take direction in the games they play. The Narrator serves as the voice of The Game's designer, constantly looking over The Gamer's shoulder and going "No, no, no! You're going the wrong way! Don't go there!". I mean imagine if you were playing "Zelda" and you just so happen to slip and fall into a glitch that somehow propelled you to the end of the game, or managed to obtain an object by accidently exploiting a secret backdoor you weren't supposed to see.

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"The Stanley Parable" does all of that in a tongue-in-cheek fashion and with wonderful 4th wall breaking humor, and seeing as how I have a long standing urge to completely destroy The 4th Wall, I can completely appreciate it. Not to mention as an EXTREMELY amatuer game designer myself (I have made games on RPG Maker 2003) I LOVE hidden backdoors and easter eggs and meta-fictional humor and I love gamers who are willing to explore and go here, there and everywhere just for the sake of knowing what's out there. "The Stanley Parable" is an amazing game without being highbrow and pretentious like "Dear Esther" and without shamelessly pandering to a specific crowd like "Gone Home". The narrative of "The Stanley Parable" is compelling and the game play (although limited) is fun and engaging.

So there you have it, 3 very similars games and yet one manages to stand above the rest of them as a very well crafted masterpiece that proves games don't have to be violent and action packed to be entertaining and they don't have to be quiet and moody to be deep and thought-provoking. If you've played any of these 3 games let me know what you think about them in the comments below, until then, I'll be seein' you guys. Over and out!

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