Reporting Luis Prada
Video games are a growing artistic medium still in search for its Citizen Kane – that one work everyone can point to and almost unanimously agree that the medium has evolved to the point where it can be used to tell poignant stories about life, death, and all the happiness and sadness in-between. But it’s still mostly about exploding bad guys with silly guns, which will never stop being fun.
There’s been a movement in the past decade or so to elevate the storytelling aspects of video games; to take them away from the bare bones “You’re a good guy; they are bad guys: kill them”, arcadey tradition of video games to a more art house-acceptable medium that may or may not even include the use of weapons. BioShock is a terrific example of a game that combines older video game conventions (Guns! Mutant powers! Genetically-enhanced freaks!) with innovative and thought-provoking storytelling (a story about the downsides of Objectivism! Freewill v.s. determinism! The perils of dehumanization through unfettered scientific advancement!).
But for every BioShock there is a game that teeters perhaps too much in the direction of art for the tastes of the average gamer; so much so that they end up coming off as a wee bit pretentious in a medium dominated by shoot-shoot-bang-bang-explode-guts-gore type of games.
These are those games.
The Graveyard (PC)
The Graveyard is an interesting game in that it really isn’t a “video game” in the traditional sense of the word. It is a game in that there is a 3D environment that you maneuver a character through…and that’s about it. The Graveyard can be more accurately described in the words of one its creators, it’s “more like an explorable painting than an actual game.”
You begin the game in, of course, a graveyard. You control an old woman donned in black as she limps her way down a path, passing headstones honoring the dead. Crows craw, birds chirp, the wind blows. From off in the distance, a dog’s bark can be heard, giving you the sense that this cemetery is smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The walk takes a minute or two, and when you reach the end of the path the old woman sits on a bench, using her cane to prop-up her hands. Then, a song slowly rolls in; its lyrics are morbid and ominous – about the death of a man, presumably a dead man the old woman is visiting, backed with an instrumental track that sounds like a less whimsical version of the main title theme from Dexter. The whole time you simply watch the woman sitting on the bench as she stares out at nothing. The song ends, the woman stands from the bench, and you walk her back up the path, towards the cemetery gates.
And by reading that whole paragraph, you have officially played all of The Graveyard. It’s walking, sitting, watching someone else have some deep thoughts, and then more walking. You can play The Graveyard in real life right now by slowing walking to the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, counting the bathroom tiles silently for a minute, and then walking back to your computer.
The story of The Graveyard I described above is only the free version of the game. If you pay for the full version, you get a secret alternate ending. Are you ready for this spoiler? Here it comes…the old lady dies quietly on the bench…maybe. It doesn’t even happen on every play-through. She may die, she may live to walk again. In essence, if you dish out some cash, you can watch an old lady die – and you don’t even have to be a bored, mentally ill billionaire to do it! That’s the power of video games.
Created by thatgamecompany, a video game developer with only three games to their name but a huge following, Flower lets you be wind. You are a persistent, almost sentient, gust of wind that picks up a single flower petal that eventually turns in to train of flower petals that swirl with your every move. You maneuver through grassy fields, bringing the vibrancy of natural life to a world that, in some sections, was taken over by our concrete jungles.
Flower feels like a screensaver that loops endlessly on a plasma TV at a trendy Hollywood spa. While playing it you feel like you should be neck-high in therapeutic mud with cucumber slices over your eyes and a burly Scandinavian woman rubbing ancient tribal oils on your temples. It’s one of those artsy experiences that, for at least a moment after the experience is over, makes you want to recycle and compost, and you’re not quite sure why.
Dear Esther (PC)
Dear Esther is a first-person shooter without the shooter. The closest you ever come to shooting anything is when a flashlight automatically turns on when you enter particularly dark areas. Like The Graveyard, Dear Esther is all about walking and looking and discovering as you traverse an unnamed island in the Hebrides archipelago off the coast of Scotland. As you explore, you occasionally trigger the omnipresent voice of an unnamed narrator as he reads a series of letters to a woman named Esther, whom the narrator may have been married to.
And that’s the whole game. For about two-hours you walk around an island, occasionally spotting signs of what used to be life – empty homes, caves littered with drawings, etc. If The Graveyard was more of an interactive painting, Dear Esther is more of an interactive novel. Instead of reading the journey of a person exploring the lives of the people that once lived on this island, you are discovering it firsthand.
If you strip all that away, Dear Esther is basically a nature hike on a computer. It’s a deer hunting game without the plastic orange light gun. It’s like listening to an audiobook while walking on sandy rocks. Dear Esther is all the peaceful wonder of walking outside while sitting on a chair at home in your underwear on a beautiful day.
Passage can be downloaded, installed, played in its entirety, uninstalled, and forgotten, all in about 5 or 6 minutes. The game is so short that this Youtube walkthrough of the game is 5 minutes and 14 seconds long, and it starts with a quick installation guide. Not that you really need a walkthough, seeing as the game consists of doing nothing but walking to the right, occasionally moving out of the way of objects blocking your path, and collecting “treasure.” You might as well watch a guide on how to unzip your fly and pee; it’ll be just as informative.
You begin the game controlling a young, very pixelated man. You take a few steps and you meet a pixelated girl. You either take her on our journey to the right, or you don’t. If you take her with you, you both walk to the right together. The scenery changes as you walk, and you and your gal pal age. Eventually, your once luscious hair falls out, your backs hunch over, and you both die. It’s an entire life span in 5 minutes – you experience the passage of time…GET IT?!
The most “fun” you’ll get out of Passage as a game is reading the comments posted on Youtube videos about it. You either get lovers…
“It’s symbolic in the nature that gaining a soul mate makes things great, yet also makes getting through life more difficult than being alone [And to question if its worth it) and that through all the passages gone through together and making it out...that one day your soul mate dies. leaving you old and alone. it can make getting through those difficult parts easier...but alone. left to eventually die. alone. This game taught me an amazing lesson.”
Or angry haters that feel cheated out of their precious five minutes, as if they were going to cure cancer in that time but they got distracted by a free game…
“That, is the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my entire life, This a Game where your just walking Up, Down, Left, and Right. So shut up you douche bag.”
Either way, it’s a unique experience that may be too pretentious for some. Case in point: Passage takes only about 5 minutes to play, but someone made a spot-on parody of the game that only takes 10 seconds.
Don’t Look Back (PC)
Don’t Look Back, which can be played on AdultSwim.com, is one of the better examples of artsy-fartsy video games because it combines an elegant, simple, and emotional story with fun 2D platformer gameplay. It’s short, but it tells a tale that actually makes you think by the time it’s all said and done.
You are a guy who begins the story mournfully staring at a grave (apparently, to be an artsy game, you need graves. Lots of graves), before moving on to begin your journey through the underworld. Like a classic 2D platformer, you have to hop, skip, and jump your way through a series of, well, platforms, while occasionally shooting bats, giant spiders, and demons. The first half of the game is quite fun and not at all artsy…until you beat the final boss. Normally, the end boss ends the game and the credits roll. Not in Don’t Look Back.
Beating the final boss means you’ve only finished half the game. Soon, you meet a ghostly figure – the girl whose grave you were staring at, presumably. You now have to trek back the direction you came from to drag her out of hell. This is where the game’s title comes in to play. If you look back at the ghostly apparition, she evaporates, dying once and for all. If you overshoot a jump and have to back up and try again, she dies. If you accidentally hit the right arrow on your keyboard, she dies. You literally cannot look back, a metaphor for moving on with your life and finding acceptance.
I won’t spoil the ending, but, like all great artsy-fartsy works, it makes you think about what just happened and what it means. Unlike great artsy-fartsy works, it’s a great way to kill some time while sitting on the crapper.
Luis can’t be accused of artistic pretension, having eschewed intellectualism in Yahoo! Answers: Ask A Stupid Question Day Edition, and precision with 3 Fictional Things the Government Had to Tell Us Weren’t Real.