All These Variable States

virginia_gameplay_screenshot

So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.

A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.

The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.

Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.

~

We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.

I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.

I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.

Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.

There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.

Oops.

That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.

If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?

When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.

Context is king. Context is key.

Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.

~

I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.

Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.

EthanCarterBanner2

Stories In Stories In Stories In Stories In…

(Spoilers ahoy for the games “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” and “Until Dawn”)

I like weird takes on stuff.

The way that literature can take a deep and interestingly-critical look at its own self is probably one of the best aspects of reading and consuming literature. The idea of a medium within a genre using itself as a way to talk about the genre is what makes storytelling great, and really being able to dig into a story and pull it and the genre apart, see how it ticks, and mess with that is such a cool concept to me.

TVoEC_ScreenShot_011

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is ostensibly a supernatural mystery story, a detective with some level of mystical awareness or powers that allow him to basically view elements of the past. The surface story here, that of a young boy who reaches out to supernatural investigator Paul Prospero for help against his supposedly-possessed family and an ancient evil, is only a part of the whole actual story.

The fact that somehow almost every element of Ethan’s life and “adventures” are reflective of his real and really troubled life is the first step to realizing the deep issue with the story here. Though the true ending of the game is ultimately and somewhat-purposely left ambiguous, the point here is that Ethan would somehow rather immerse himself in a world of ancient leviathans and possessed blood sacrificing-oriented predatory adults to the reality of his shitty brother, bullying uncle, nagging mother, and spineless father.

The fact that the protagonist of a world like this, a supernatural detective who functions in this incredibly dangerous world, is the desirable role model, is fairly telling. It’s pretty telling of that sort of level of wanting to escape into fiction, which is a major underlying theme here in the game. One of the revelations I came to as we ended the game was that so many of the dangerous and fantastic situations were actually just imagination-fueled viewpoints of the real world. The spaceship? It’s a treehouse that offers a level of escape up off the ground. The tentacled flood monster in the mines? A kid playing in caves and imagining what lurks in the dark.

The old sorcerer’s home and source of his black magic? An old ramshackle building where a boy dies in a horrific accident, dreaming of a better life. A haunted life full of fantastic dangers…but to him, this story is definitely a better life.

Furthermore, the fact that this life is the life that is initially presented to us as reality before we realize that it may or may not be the “real” or “correct” one is what throws the story and frays at the linear traditional story. The story continues to fall apart as we progress, not as a way to reveal a “truth” (because ultimately we get a level of uncertainty about the true nature of the story and characters at the end of the game) but rather as a way to show us just how someone can cling to stories as a way to escape and to re-form their realities, not just in the last moments of their life, but throughout their whole day-to-day existence.

It’s a really interesting testament to the love that people can have to the art and impact of storytelling.

untildawnleadimagejt

We had a party and played Until Dawn. We’re all horror movie fans, and this game advertised as basically being a role-playing/interactive horror movie. However, there’s a lot more to it than that specifically about what it is that man make up a horror scenario.

How do you scare the shit out of someone? In particular, how do you come up with the elements of a horror story?

So much of what makes basic horror work is that, like it or not, there are standards that need to be hit for there to be an appeal for the lowest common denominator to find appealing. There’s gotta be drama, there’s got to be some level of hyper-violent action, there needs to be suspense and play with sound and visuals (the jump scare), and there has to be a cast that we can observe going through the moral trials regarding their eventual deaths or brutal scares.

The thing is that, in this game, you determine so much of it in so many ways, it’s fascinating. The very mechanics of the horror storytelling are entirely controlled by you. Until Dawn lets you pick you amongst the group you like more or less, who you prefer, what kind of things scare you versus other things, etc. The in between-chapter breaks that are ultimately metaphorical/mental (not literally in a therapist’s office) and the setting for all of this  groundwork. You choose things that have subtle influences on the background and primary scares of the first 2/3 of the game, within the house. It also influences the tensions and the interactions between various characters, and thus, to an extent whether or not you can successfully complete some of the more obscure “trophy” mission aspects, like getting everyone in the game to work together so everyone survives (versus no one surviving, another option if you’re morbid and bored).

I don’t think that enough people are willing to look at what exactly it is about horror that makes it so effectively. Part of Until Dawn is that we look at that effectiveness being rooted in interpersonal relationships. Being able to manipulate those relationships and the roots of all interaction and all the ways those interactions get you different endings is a satisfying thing.

When it comes to genre, I think a big aspect of my taste is rooted in the critical understanding that I picked up in college when I was exposed to critical thinking, nontraditional literature, and all that jazz. It allowed me to build up my tastes and to expand my understanding of how writing works, how storytelling works, and how you can continue to create great work in great subjects but not fall prey to the blind idealism and blind noncritical fannish slavering over the lowest-common-denominator aspects of loving that genre.

My favorite horror movies are the ones that work hard to pervert and transcend the genre. The science fiction I feel has the biggest impacts on literature and genre is the stories that don’t treat the trappings as the story, but rather use them as a setting to be able to craft critical and interesting work about different issues. In a similar way, I like being able to look at interactive storytelling and story-oriented games in a way that can mess with the traditions of storytelling in the genre they focus on.

Oh, and that jumpscare in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in the mines is total bullshit and scared the fuck out of me.