Spread throughout the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) rewards the loud. It’s the largest video game trade show in the world, and when E3 begins Tuesday it is poised even more than in years past to emphasize the games that go big.
The new “Call of Duty: Ghosts” is so detailed players can see the scars on the snout of a dog. “Quantum Break” promises to merge live action with the latest video-game graphics to further blur the lines between game and cinema narratives.
The talk of E3 will be Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PS4, newly unveiled home consoles that are designed to control your living room. The Xbox One can communicate with your cable box, act as a TV remote or become a home base for subscription content such as Hulu. Microsoft even touts that Xbox One’s camera, the Kinect, can read your heartbeat.
In such a climate, what’s a little game to do?
As consumers and media look to E3 for glimpses of the most graphically intense and technologically advanced games of 2013 and ’14, the biggest buzz won’t come from a simple game such as “Thomas Was Alone,” which presents a world that could have been lifted from an old Atari title.
But increasingly it’s the little games that matter if one is looking for experimentation in storytelling. They’re having an industry-wide effect by appealing to our love of a good yarn rather than our need to be wowed.
“Thomas Was Alone” recently came to the PS3 and Vita. (Mike Bithell)
Consider that, technically speaking, players of Mike Bithell’s “Thomas Was Alone” can’t do very much. They slide and bounce a tiny orange box and other rectangles and squares around the screen of a Mac, PC, the PS3 or Sony’s hand-held gaming device, the PlayStation Vita. The tiny orange box is named Chris.
Chris, we’re told by a narrator in the game, doesn’t jump very high, can’t float and has little more agility than those early blips from the game “Pong.”
As an emotional entity, though, Chris is one of the more complex characters in gaming circa 2013. His frustrations with his lot in life and his never-to-be-realized hopes are relayed only via a narrator. But as players are drawn into the daily drama of Chris, it’s possible to forget that he’s nothing more than, well, a box.
The industry is taking notice of characters like Chris. Sony, for example, is focusing heavily on indie-leaning games. It’s distributing “Tearaway,” which involves a paper-like character who just wants to communicate with the gamer.
When Double Fine Productions turned to Kickstarter to raise money for “Broken Age,” a PC adventure game that centers on a boy and a girl living parallel lives, it blew past its $400,000 goal and brought in nearly $3.5 million from more than 87,000 different individual backers.
Most of these little games are downloadable, which means they’re budget-friendly — players aren’t required to invest in a console to participate. And in the case of “Year Walk,” which reveals static, painted landscapes with a swipe of the screen, they can be bought for less than $5.
“As the game industry is expanding, we’re seeing new platforms that target new audiences and casual audiences,” said Greg Rice, an executive at Double Fine Productions. “This new audience may not be into the super-fast action-based game — they might be able to better cope with a slower-paced, narrative experience.”
Not more than five minutes into “Thomas Was Alone,” the play becomes an allegory for daily life. It starts to feel less like a game and more like an interactive theatrical presentation.
Little games appeal to players by exploring themes of connecting — how artificial characters within games interact, how players interact with the characters. They lead us into these worlds with optimistically chirping chicks in the game “Toki Tori 2″; a stark yet magical take on Middle America in “Kentucky Route Zero”; or “Pinstripe’s” surreal adventure about a man, alone with his dog, looking for his wife.
In “Toki Tori 2″ players have only two options — jumping and singing. They control the game’s namesake, a young chicken trying to save its forest; learning how to communicate is the crux of the game.
In the borderline experimental “Kentucky Route Zero” the biggest challenge is in deciding what to say. With its dark hues and from-a-distance animation, it’s unclear what period the game is set in. One can drive around, explore abandoned mines and meet other lonely souls living in a near-forgotten truck-stop town.
The designers of “Kentucky Route Zero” credit the rise of mobile and downloadable games as not only expanding the industry’s appeal but challenging developers.
“One thing that’s happening is that games are reaching more people,” said “Kentucky Route Zero’s” co-developer Jake Elliott, who also teaches experimental game classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “The audience is spreading out, both on the player and creator side. There [are] a lot of people who are not gamers or haven’t been practicing first-person-shooters and are excited about games and are looking for games that aren’t reflex oriented. They’re looking for stuff that is more thematic.”
“Year Walk,” which requires players to remember melodic patterns (take notes), is almost existential. Developed by the experimental Swedish studio Simogo, it’s part game/part graphic novel. The cold, fantastical world is navigated by swiping left, right or up and down (draw a map), and all sorts of disturbing creatures are to be found, such as a horse-like person or an odd, floating ice queen.
The game’s Nordic-winter look is inspired by the work of Yuri Norstein, with much of it appearing to be hand-drawn paper cutouts. Its premise is centered around the myth that a year-long walk can show you the future. Many have taken this journey, we’re told in the game, “to see if they would be healthy, to see if they would be happy … to see if they would be loved.”
Such languid, character-driven narratives are starting to creep into the mainstream.
Take Joel and Ellie in Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us,” two characters whose reluctant respect for each other bleeds more tension than the zombie-like humans in the game.
Published by Sony for the PlayStation 3, it’s one of the rare mainstream titles to put emotion ahead of plot or mechanics. The game even discourages players from shooting: Joel’s arm realistically quivers when he holds a gun, making the task of taking aim an uncomfortable one.
“The Last of Us” creative director Bruce Straley said the goal was to add “negative space” to the game. Players can explore and engage in dialogue sometimes two hours at a time while encountering very little action.
“We’re challenging ourselves about what we know and what we’re familiar with in games,” Straley said. “How can you do this differently? What are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to make the characters feel? Where are the characters at? If this is where the relationship is, how do we get that in game play? There’s a wide array of feelings we want to explore.”
Feelings? That’s a word not often associated with video games, but as players grapple with whether it’s worth dropping hundreds of dollars on a new system, it’s becoming clear that some of the most impressive new titles are the ones that do more with less.
– Todd Martens
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