A new subgenre is making waves for narrative hungry gamers
The Growing Gaming Landscape
The ever-growing indie scene has given developers a chance to take risks. Without corporate overlords to consider, creators are free to experiment and challenge market research, as long as they can afford it. The immersive worlds in mainstream games like System Shock 2 and Fallout 3 paved the way for this emerging subgenre, but it takes a giant leap of faith to remove the second-to second action and still create a compelling experience.
“If anything, these kind of experiences arose from triple-A games in the ﬁrst place – smaller teams extracting one piece of bigger games and focusing on it,” says Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor, who worked on Gone Home, a game set in the ‘90s about exploring a house and ﬁnding out about the people who live there.
Dan Pinchbeck, creative director at The Chinese Room, had a similar epiphany when his studio set out to make its ﬁrst game. Dear Esther has you traversing an island full of beauty and wonder as you hear voice-overed excerpts from letters. This pioneering approach started with Pinchbeck asking a simple question. “With Dear Esther, I said, ‘We’re taking a part of something that exists in most ﬁrst-person games,’ and the question was: ‘Rather than it being an aspect, what if that’s the whole thing?’” Pinchbeck says.
Designers spend thousands of hours creating details to immerse us, but some players never notice them. “What we do is create these incredible, atmospheric worlds, [then] bombard the player with action,” Pinchbeck says. “It felt like there were a whole lot of designers saying, “What if we just be in the world for a little while because that’s really cool in itself?’”
But would that be enough? At the time, it wasn’t proven that gamers would want this type of experience. When people picture a game, they envision action – running, jumping, shooting – some sort of visible challenge. Would people really like rummaging through belongings or walking along a beach with narration? It sounds boring on paper, but the true magic came from how these developers set up their worlds to unfold the larger narrative.
Finding success and an audience
Both Gaynor and Pinchbeck had great success with their respective games, winning numerous awards and media praise. Dear Esther received the Independent Games Festival award for excellence in visual arts and The TIGA Game Industry Awards showered it with ﬁve awards, ranging from best action/adventure game to best debut. Gone Home earned Game Developers Choice and BAFTA awards for best debut.
While Dear Esther was one of the ﬁrst games of this nature, Gone Home and The Stanley Parable continued to show the genre’s appeal. Gone Home stands at 86 on Metacritic, while The Stanley Parable, a witty game that challenges players’ expectations with game design, interactivity, and narrative, has an 88. These games have found an audience due to their accessibility and unique way they involve the player in the narrative.
Both Pinchbeck and Gaynor’s ﬁrst projects encouraged them to make new games in the same genre. Gaynor’s studio, Fullbright, is tackling Tacoma, while Pinchbeck and The Chinese Room are releasing Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. Both feel that seeing this game style have success has encouraged other developers to take the plunge.
“There’s a wave we caught with Esther, and because Esther did so well, I think it opened the door for smaller studios who were interested in stories and the world,” Pinchbeck says.
Gaynor agrees. He ﬁnds game design a very collaborative discipline, as developers are always learning from others’ failures and successes. “There are a lot of open design problems out there, so when you see a game that has addressed one of these longstanding design questions in an interesting way, it can be really inspiring,” he says.
That’s exactly what happened for Tristan Parrish Moore of Broken Window Games. In 2012, he created a prototype that just had you walking around in a real-world environment and interacting with everyday objects. “I just didn’t think there would be anyone who would want to buy something like that,” Moore says.
He shelved it, but soon games like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and Gone Home launched and saw success, encouraging Moore to return to his prototype. It lead to him creating the upcoming Reﬂections. “What the last couple years have really shown is that there is a real audience out there and lots of people going, ‘Yeah, it’s enough to be in a world and explore and that’s a really rewarding experience,’ Pinchbeck says.
Innovating the Genre
The fact that these games aren’t as expensive or resource-heavy as big triple-A ventures has encouraged more developers to make their own stamp on the subgenre. The competition is tougher than ever, and that’s made developers have to up the ante to stand out.
“The advantages of working on a game like this two or three years ago was just novelty,” Gaynor says. “On the one hand, it feels less risky – we know people play games like this. But on the other hand, it’s just like any other genre of game where there’s enough of these out there that you can’t rely on the novelty of it. You have to make it one of the very best.”
Adam Orth is hoping his team at Three One Zero can take the genre to new places with his upcoming space exploration game, Adr1ft. “Our experience in making ﬁ rst-person shooters made it so in Adr1ft there’s always something you’re doing with your hands,” Orth says. “Adr1ft has game mechanics. It’s not just walking around and reading things or listening to things.” Orth feels so conﬁdent in the subgenre’s future that he’s built his whole studio around it. “Those are the kind of games we’re going to be making,” Orth says. “We’re making these shorter, really beautiful interactive experiences. I think people want these things and they’re ready for them.”
Prepping for the future:
As with any genre, anticipating the future is essential for developers, and for all the successes of ﬁ rst-person exploration games, they’ve also come with their share of criticism. Every developer I talked to discussed battling against the unfortunate “walking simulator” label. Another criticism is characterizing these experiences as games, since they challenge so much what people have come to expect. Giant Sparrow Games creative director Ian Dallas is hoping he can combat these misconceptions with What Remains of Edith Finch.
“For us the challenge going forward [is] how do we get people that may have written it off interested, because othere’s a perceived walking simulator genre,” he says “I think that’s something that our game is so far away from, so I’m not too worried about it.”
Pinchbeck has already noticed a big change as more developers take the wheel. “This new wave that’s coming out is really interesting to me because it’s changing now,” he says. “It’s not just walking simulators, it’s much more diverse games getting attached around that core idea. It feels like what started as an experiment is now establishing itself and it’s not just limited to walking down a corridor while audio logs are playing.”
This subgenre is just getting started. Early innovators proved that there’s an audience for this type of experience. Every day more developers are experimenting and seeing what else they can do with it.
“I feel like as we go along in this medium, we’re just making new kinds of experiences that people can get excited about,” Gaynor says. “We found a new way to make nonviolent games that are more about discovering story than any other kind of mechanic, and that’s something that I think a lot of people are getting excited about. It’s great to see more perspectives on what that type of experience can be.”
FIRST-PERSON EXPLORATION GAMES ON THE HORIZON
You begin Adr1ft ﬂoating in the wreckage of a destroyed space station. You’re all alone, looking for any sign of life, while you desperately search for your next oxygen supply. Cut it too close and you start to gasp for breath, adding tension and urgency to the experience. It might be a science-ﬁction setting, but your journey is ﬁnding out about normal people. “We’re not spoon-feeding you the narrative; you have to go off and ﬁnd it,” says Three One Zero’s Adam Orth. “When you ﬁnd it, it’s both beautiful and tragic.”
Everybody’s gone to the rapture
The Chinese Room’s latest game takes place during the end of the world. The narrative revolves around six characters in a small English county. As you explore the quaint town, you ﬁnd connections to these people through items and landmarks, learning more about them. The world isn’t like the desolate post-apocalyptic worlds we usually see. “It felt like it was an interesting thing to say, “‘What if it’s really lush and green and beautiful? The world has ended, but what if it’s actually the most beautiful you’ve ever seen it?’” asks creative director Dan Pinchbeck.
Firewatch takes you to the Wyoming wilderness to gain some perspective. You play as Henry, whose life is in a downward spiral. Dealing with marital problems and a DUI, he becomes a ﬁre lookout to get away. Henry’s only lifeline is his supervisor Delilah, whom he communicates with over radio. The life of a ﬁre lookout has Henry busting drunk kids, keeping an eye out for suspicious ﬁgures, and making sure nothing is out of sorts. The comical banter keeps things fun, but soon Henry ﬁnds that someone has broken into his tower, leaving him to question if he’s really all that safe.
Return Of the Obradinn
After working on the indie hit Papers, Please, Lucas Pope’s next project tackles exploration of a merchant ship. Pope says this isn’t like his past games; he wants to focus more on story this time around. In 1802, the Obra Dinn had over 200 tons of trade goods when it set sail from London to the Orient, but it never made it to its destination. The ship was lost at sea, but surfaced six years later when it drifted into a port with damaged sails and no crew. You play as an insurance adjustor and must board the ship, ﬁnd the captain’s logbook, and ﬁgure out what you can for assessment. Soon you ﬁnd little clues that lead to the crew members and what happened to them.
Considered a spiritual successor to Konami’s canceled P.T./Silent Hills project, Allison Road takes place in a familiar setting: a house. You wake up with no memory of how you got there and must investigate letters and photos throughout the house. So far we’ve only seen one trailer, but at the end a ﬁgure that resembles Lisa from P.T. surfaces, attacking you. The setting and search mechanics may remind you of Gone Home, but we think this game has more horrifying revelations
This ﬁrst-person horror game puts you in the cold abyss. As an industrial diver, an accident leaves you stranded on the ﬂoor of the Paciﬁc Ocean with only a small light and some tools. Oxygen is limited, so you need to conserve your supply as you search for a way to restore it. If you take any damage, you lose air. Lose too much and you hallucinate. Narcosis is all about survival and trying not to lose your mind in the cold loneliness of the sea.
Gone Home developers Fullbright tackle a new, unfamiliar setting with Tacoma. Tacoma is a space station that acts as a way point for those traveling from the Earth to the Moon. You play as Amy Ferrier, who arrives for her day at work only to ﬁnd no one in sight. You must ﬁgure out what’s happened to the crew, learning about their lives in the process while getting a station computer to cooperate with you. Your journey also includes switching perspective by walking on multiple surfaces to ﬁnd hidden items and passages
What do the little decisions we make in life say about us? This question is explored by giving you free rein to do what you want the day before college. You can mingle with people you’ve come to cherish, pack, or lounge around the house. At the end of the game, your personality type is assessed. Your choices can lead you down the path of being an ofﬁce executive, going out in the wilderness, living with your family, and more.
Frictional Games laid a lot of the groundwork for ﬁrst-person exploration games with Penumbra and Amnesia. Its new project continues to shape the genre. Soma exists in an unknown time period, where machines are developing human traits. You play as Simon, who ends up at a remote research facility where things are not what they seem. Even Simon isn’t sure how he got there or why he was selected for whatever is ahead. Your only option is to explore and ﬁ nd out. During the trip, you ﬁnd audio logs that chronicle the ﬁnal moments of people’s lives. For more on Soma.
What Remains of edith finch
The creators of The Unﬁnished Swan are making things much more eerie in What Remains of Edith Finch. You play as Edith, the only remaining member of a cursed family, and must investigate how each member died in hopes of ﬁnding answers for what your future may hold. During your search, you encounter different stories of Edith’s ancestors ranging from the early 1900s to present day. These play out in vignettes as you explore objects and rooms that represent Edith’s relatives. The game was inspired by The Twilight Zone, so expect plenty of twists and unusual occurrence