The current Humble Indie Bundle (available on a pay-what-you-like basis here until Tuesday 11th June) contains a number of games that take quite different approaches to story and worldbuilding than the general “defeat the bad guys, save the world” tales that are often associated with video games. Let’s have a look at how some of these titles tell their stories, and even, in some cases, challenge the very idea of what a video game is. Possible spoilers ahead for all the games I talk about below, so proceed with caution – Little Inferno in particular is probably best experienced without any knowledge of its content.
Thomas Was Alone
If ever there were an instance of a game needing its story in order to have any real substance, Thomas Was Alone is it. Stripped of all narrative context, the game would be a fairly straightforward puzzle platformer with some subtle but pretty graphical touches. However, the game really comes to life thanks to some excellent writing from creator Mike Bithell – not to mention the enthusiastic (and BAFTA-winning) narration from comedian Danny Wallace, who avid gamers may also recognise as sarcastic historian Shaun Hastings from the Assassin’s Creed series. The personification of these otherwise ordinary-looking quadrilaterals leads the player to form an unlikely bond with them – some characters are confident about their abilities, while others are neurotic about their perceived inferiority, or believe that other characters may just be using them. The game’s puzzles become the characters’ personal struggles, and the story is constantly compelling the player to discover what might be beyond the next portal – there’s even some thought-provoking meta-commentary about the idea of AIs becoming self-aware. Thomas Is Alone isn’t a particularly lengthy or difficult game (in fact, it rarely even features an outright fail state), but it’s definitely worth experiencing for yourself.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Little Inferno is. At a very basic level, it’s a game about watching things burn, with a side order of puzzles – figuring out which combinations of items to burn together is not only a brain-teaser, it’s also essential to make progress within the game. But on a narrative level, the game could be a lot of different things. It could be a satire of the kind of free-to-play games that you might see on Facebook, or even a commentary on consumerism in general, reducing it to its bare bones – buy things, then burn the things to get money to buy more things. It could also highlight the fact that we spend most of our days staring at screens – in Little Inferno, pretty much the entire game takes place infront of a fireplace, with news of the outside world filtering in via letters sent by other characters. Indeed, the unsettling picture we get of what’s going on away from our cosy fireplace could suggest that the game harbours an environmental message too. Ultimately, the game’s story is about breaking the cycle and discovering the truth for yourself – and I’d best say no more than that for fear of ruining the experience entirely.
When is a game not a game? Proteus almost seems purposefully designed to raise that question. Taking the kind of exploration you may have found yourself enjoying in say, Skyrim and stripping it back to its bare component parts, it gives you a world to wander around in and seemingly very little more. There is more than meets the eye, however – your exploration subtly influences the world’s soundtrack, whether that be via climbing mountains, walking through forests, or interacting with the strange wildlife. It may not seem like it at first, but there is a sense of progression through the game. Your curiosity will inevitably lead you to discover a way to change the seasons, from vibrant spring to desolate winter – and as time went on, I found myself asking questions of the world I was in. Are these rows of gravestones I’m walking through? Who could have lived in this cabin I’ve come across? There are no answers, of course, leaving you to create your own story. Eventually, seemingly unbidden, the game brought about a fittingly strange and wonderful climax. There may not be any clearly defined objectives, story, or enemies, but I would argue that Proteus is a game in as much as you shape your own experience – an experience that, thanks to the game’s procedurally-generated worlds, will be a little different each time.
The first thing that’ll grab you about Hotline Miami is its surreal, gaudy presentation, and things only get weirder from there. The violent, highly stylised, blink-and-you’re-dead action is interspersed with bizarre story moments that raise more questions than answers – the most obvious one being “why am I killing all these people?” Without wanting to spoil too much, the game isn’t particularly forthcoming with answers either – though even in the early stages, there’s the nagging suspicion that it’s trying to make you feel like a terrible person, much in the same way that Spec Ops: The Line did when it so successfully deconstructed the ‘bro-shooter’ genre. Or is it simply pointing and laughing at the very idea games requiring a narrative meaning? It’s probably best that you play it yourself and make up your own mind – but if you do, be prepared for some twitchy, trial-and-error gameplay and occasional frustration when you miss at what appears to be point-blank range, or die over and over again on the same level. Ultimately though, the gameplay is slick, stylish and compelling enough that you’ll want to keep playing regardless of your thoughts on the story.
Like Proteus, Dear Esther will also cause you to ponder exactly what the nature of a ‘game’ is. Your ability to interact with the world is limited to simply exploring it – the game is essentially an interactive story that takes place on a deserted Hebridean island. You’re free to explore the island at your own pace, and the game gives the impression of being quite open-ended at first – but you’ll find that ultimately there’s really only one route that the game wants you to take. There is no running, or jumping, just a fairly ponderous walking speed that certainly gives you time to reflect on your surroundings, even if it can feel frustrating at times. As you navigate the world, the protagonist narrates his story and that of the titular Esther in florid but fragmented prose, leaving you to slowly piece together the narrative. The incredibly limited gameplay means that, apart from the story, your focus is on the game’s impressive visuals and stirring score, which wouldn’t be out of place in a big-budget title – indeed, with no distractions, you find yourself examining the world in more detail. Ultimately, it’s an unconventional but intriguing experience.