Learn about how Sean utilizes his own contrived world to replace his loss of control in his real life by clicking here.
When I was approaching the assignment, I was at first worried that I would not have enough to say to cover the 10 minutes. After all, my argument seemed obvious: halo must have fulfilled standards of art, gameplay, and story in order to have become so successful. However, as I began digging for nuances within the game, I realized that the initial approach I took may have been misguided. Instead of trying to, once again, advocate for the value of the game, I could use a symptomatic reading to order to determine what the game has become after being exposed so long to the gaming community.
It was with this perspective that I found the similarities and differences in game design between objects within the game. It is was also at this point that I realized I had much more discussion than space within a 10 minute timeframe. As a result, I decided to focus on only the most iconic objects within the Halo universe: the sidearms and the starships.
Even then, the number of weapons and ships were still too numerous and their roles within the story were so complex that I feared oversimplifying how crucial they were to each faction. The solution was to tie each object’s design to a larger theme that can encompass the entirety of equipment. That theme was the evolution of graphic design in Halo. I noticed that as the series progressed, much of the designs, although polished, remained fundamentally the same. The various new designs that were incorporated into the game did not seem alien; in fact, they contributed more to the over atmosphere of the game. The reason Bungie was able to maintain the fundamental essence of Halo is because they synthesized already existing designs to create something new.
I later found that the concept of evolving art was applicable to all of Halo’s design. In order to make the object feel like it belonged in the Halo universe, graphic designers have taken care to combine existing faction designs and create a new faction altogether. By doing so, they are truly maintaining and building upon the culture that is Halo.
It was surprising how invested we got into our separate characters. In a sense, we became the character ourselves and tried to make the best possible scenario. But because of our relationships to the other players and the different interest agendas, there was an incentive to create conflict with people for the sake of keeping your own character alive.
Essentially, then, the game turned highly political. Each character sided with one and betrayed another while later backstabbing friends and allying with enemies all for the sake of keeping their contrived character alive in the story.
My character had a “unpleasant past” relationship with the person on my left and a “parol officer” relationship with the person on my right. My story character was thus created as a police officer that used to be high school friends with a Cannabis dealer. As our careers drifted apart, so did our opinions of each other; this represented our “unpleasant history.” I was also the officer in charge of a minor charged with possession. Our overall goal was to get even with each other. Our playset included a small suburban town and a van surrounded by old newspapers. What started out as a simple relationship between the character’s small time drug dealing crimes and the law turned into a full out multi-national war on one of the biggest organized crime sectors of all time.
During the setup, we got way ahead of ourselves by providing the backstory for all of our characters. In many cases, we were playing the game backwards: we picked out events that were going to happen and then created the conditions in order for that event to occur. Sometimes, the storyline did not go where we expected it to go, mostly because it is difficult to negotiate
Also, there is a risk that as the game is being played, parts of the setup, such as key information that is determined by the roll of the die, are left out. For example, our weapon that caused a death was a toy chemistry set. Although we included the toy chemistry set in our discussion of creating narcotics, there was no direct relationship between a person’s death and the weapon determined by the die roll. By the time we got to the end of the story, there was a lot of information that we established at the start that got lost throughout the story. In some cases, the backstory for our characters and the actions that we claim our characters took may not have even matched up in a sensible way.
It seems that the game gives the players a large amount of freedom to explore the story. Yet, the problem with this freedom is that there is no wrong answer: the players aren’t punished for making decisions that may not work with the tilt. If we take a step back and look at the conditions that our story needed to fulfill, an infinite number of plot-lines could emerge. This may suggest that the game is doing most of the work and player contribution is really irrelevant. Even if we had a completely different set of conditions at the start of the game, I could see a way to make the story exactly the same.
The intentionally ambiguous beginning to the novel Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, along with repetitive plot structure and subject parallel, reveals a conflict between the a posteriori reality and the perception of that reality through a delusional character. This dynamic is represented through the narrator’s use of a real-life role playing game which exposes parallels between concepts in that gaming genre versus how Sean Phillips, the protagonist, sees physical interactions.
The first instance of this relationship occurs through Sean’s physical description of the house. We can imagine that way the scene is described resembles that of a first person lens that pans across the various objects in the house. The technique of description through motion, that is, detailing his surrounding while being carried to a final destination by his father is representative of how a fictional character in game would observe his surroundings. However, a more concrete connection occurs when we realize that Sean actually describes the route (and therefore the interior) twice. On the first instance, he ends up sidetracking from his intended destination, his room. We can attribute this scenario as a reflection of unfamiliarity when first starting a new game. This also makes physical sense as we can assume that Sean has been away from his home (in the hospital) for a long period of time and coupled with the physical trauma of a later realized incident that could incur memory loss. On the second instance, however, although the description of the so-called journey is similar, we end up where we should, the bedroom. This may reflect a new player’s experience with a game: in a first play-through, the player might get lost and end up in the wrong place whereas in the second play-through, the player now knows what to expect and proceeds to the correct location.
Another parallel occurs when Sean begins to imagine what the world would look like from above. This perspective immediately reminds us of a world map or mini-map that is given to a character in a video game for the sake of positional reference. Yet, the world map also functions by providing the locations of other important areas to the player. Therefore, we may think that Sean is activity searching for the next important area and the directions to go there. This seems metaphorical of what we can perceive in Sean as a depressive disorder that is rooted in confusion on the questions ‘what’s next?’ Thus far, Sean does not seem to have found his answer, but the concept of a world map still remains important in considering future actions that he might take.
Both these parallel exist alongside Sean’s physical world. The comparison to video games is thus used to illustrate a potential mental state within Sean that shapes his perspective and subsequently, how he narrates the world to the reader.
What struck me immediately when I first looked at “Her Story” was the model of the computer screen, reflective of the Windows 95 operating system. It was a recognizable UI that applied both to the desktop function and the program design coupled with a horrible search function. In other words, completely realistic.
Yet, a couple of minutes into exploring the game, I found that the story was difficult to invest in. We are presented with this figure of some significance, but the only thing we see is her sitting in an interview. Presented with this situation, based on the username given to me, AUTH_GUEST, and the database arranged like that of law enforcement, I believed I was either a private investigator or part of some law enforcement agency assigned to this specific case. Perhaps this lack of personal investment is intentional, since you are a member of law enforcement and therefore you must be unbiased in your investigation. On the other hand, if the videos were meant encourage the player to deviate from the stoic nature of law enforcement with regards to individuals with mental illnesses, they surely failed to invoke empathy for the woman’s situation.
What is also very interesting is the sound in the game. Especially the loud, incessant droning of what may be the computer box or air conditioner. I would argue that the droning sound is important in two ways. Firstly, it creates a sense of uncanniness in the player, not quite fear, but a form of uncertainty that adds to the experience of solving some form of mystery. Secondly, the droning, at certain stages, increases or decreases in volume. The sound can therefore be used to represent a mental state where the individual is constantly either unable to focus or annoyed, which may be indicative of the woman’s psychological condition. There is also a pseudo retro arcade soundtrack layered on top of everything else that only plays when I returned to the home search screen on the computer, although I am not sure as to what purpose that soundtrack might play.
The final point of interest rests with the artwork on the physical computer screen, such as reflections and glares. In fact, what is displayed on the screen provides much more information than just the search returns or the desktop icons. From the glass window we can see the glare of two lights that are oriented in a way to suggest an interrogation room (two long lights side by side on the same plane) as well as a hint to who might be sitting in front of the computer. At the end of the story, we learn that the female figure in front of the computer is actually the woman’s daughter. The question of why the developers chose the player to become such an intimate person still remains to be seen.
On the decor filled oakwood wall on the north side in Manuel’s Tavern, there is a sign that stands out from the dark colors of the rest. Here, Pabst Blue Ribbon aims at a different audience with a different purpose: to become the social beer, the beer that is always there at a party.
You can read more about it here.
It would be impossible to discuss Dear Ester without first acknowledging the gorgeous graphical and environmental design. With a logical scale, precision audio, and just the right amount of shading, Dear Ester does a fantastic job of making the player feel like they are on the island. Especially detailed is the hillside paths that are covered in photo-realistic foliage and artwork of the cave system under the island. In addition to outstanding land design, the skybox is incredibly detailed as well. The player is presented with a day and night cycle that corresponds to the shadows of objects, creating a recognizable reactionary response that adds to the immersion of gameplay. Other than the parts where a glaringly white text box pops up and covers the bottom third of the screen, I felt highly immersed in the game.
I started out exploring the abandoned buts that were on the cliff side under the impression that I was supposed to learn something about who the inhabitants of the island were. I was surprised, however, when I realized that my character was unable to interact with the environmental objects and pick things up. Certainly, the inside of the houses were dirty, but there seemed not to be evidence that anyone had lived in them recently.
I then proceeded down to the beach to look around. Again, I must stress how nicely the water texture was layered over the sand. It is also here that the soundbox plays it’s part perfectly. With headphones the sounds of the ocean crashing onto the sand to my left and the echo of the canyon to my right, I actually felt my presence on that beach.
The most interesting part was the caverns under the island. It is here that the thoughtful lighting became most apparent. There are few cases where the lighting failed to illuminate crucial details and the light was designed to be felt in the air as shown by the screenshot above. The cave sequence seemed important because it combines both a sense of discovery and claustrophobia, which utilizes a real player fear to represent the narrator’s state of mind. The effect is interesting because, of course, I wasn’t there, but I received a very present feeling as I was exploring the cave.
After finishing the game, I realized that Dear Ester is a combination of a dreamlike world and internalization. From the notes, it seems that the island is a physical manifestation of a person’s mental state, perhaps signifying either hallucinations or some disorder. Certainly, from the way the game path places the player at the lowest point of an island (a beach) and guides to the player to the very top (the radio station), we are experiencing a journey of self discovery for the narrator. Whether or not this journey ends for the narrator and he is delivered to peace, however, remains to be seen beyond the abrupt ending.
When my character first walked up the stairs to the mansion, where most of the story takes place, I legitimately thought that I had stepped into a horror scenario. This is partly because of the very peculiar art form, semi-realistic but with a some characteristics of cartoon work, and partly because of the noticeably dramatic lighting as seen in the living room above. As you can see, the artist for the game utilized a photorealism for textures, but stuck with a low polygon count for the actual models. The result is an effect that has to deal with the uncanny, which is to say, it is not necessarily scary, but definitely unsettling.
The story is fantastic. I think the producer had a very solid vision for what he wanted to do with this game. I think the details used to further the story were extremely well placed and meaningful for providing information to the player. I think that the storyline was itself intuitive and accessible but was not built upon simplicity. Overall, then, this work should be placed on a relatively high pedestal, right?
Here is where I find the game lacking and this derives mostly from a comparison with other “video games”. The gameplay is focused almost entirely on the plot, no doubt about that. No story, no “Gone Home”. My problem is that with such an emphasis on the plot of the game, and with such a narrow focus on the ultimate message, the player is only given the illusion of any sort of freedom. Sure, we can walk around anywhere we want, but there is only one way to progress through the game: finding the logical order of notes and journals so that the narrator will continue to tell the story.
There are also some design issues that, compared to other games, Gone Home does poorly. We are presented with only three interactions: walking, picking objects up, and putting objects down. In some sense, these actions may seem repetitive because the character is in a very small space (a house) compared to other games that use scale as a hooking factor. The physics engine that is used to calculate pathing for objects while thrown is heavily inaccurate and feels clunky. The game, lengthwise, is extremely short, about an hour and a half for new players and offers no repeatability since the story remains the same. For twenty dollars, Gone Home offers little to justify its price.
In the end, however, the game seems to hard to push forth its agenda onto the player which limits the developer’s ability to put the player in a position of power, resulting in an intriguing situation but ultimately dull gameplay experience. In some cases, and I certainly agree with this, Gone Home could be called an “interactive cinematic” rather than an actual video game.
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