Friday, 23 September 2016

Game or experience? The Virginia case

One of the things making the indie gaming scene so interesting is that there are very little restraints on what developers can try, both in terms of concepts and form. Of course, such freedom of experimentation is far from a free ticket to attention or success, and I guess the guys at Variable State knew better when they set in stone the design of Virginia. But what's going on with the game, for starters? Well, today's subject is a Steam Greenlight project with an interesting hook (its story is set in the titular American state, and features two female FBI agents dealing with a bizarre case of disappearance) and an approach to game design that focuses entirely on storytelling at the expense of player agency.

What may sound like a walking simulator at first is actually a shade of that genre where dialogues are completely absent, and sound effects are sparse at best: the player is supposed to explore the surroundings, feel the mood set by the music while looking for clues, and use these cues to understand what is happening in the scene. Yes, the experience is structured in discrete, sequencial scenes intersped with various kinds of cuts (temporal, oniric etc.); interaction is limited to walking around and manipulate objects that are essential to the story with a simple left click, and fixed results. Virginia is a game that makes a clear functional point out of its stern linearity.

The whole design is in fact aimed at surrounding the player with a deeply atmospheric story told through non verbal means, where all the beats happens precisely when they have to, and characters emerges from their scripted actions - or the reactions to what little the player can do. There's an interesting, yet stark opposition between the barebone gameplay scheme and a rich visual language sporting exquisite care for framing, lighting, timings and cuts: the scale of variation is purposely leant towards the latter, and as a result, the mood and emotional impact of every scene are bumped up extraordinarily. This is not at all a first in the gaming world, as we often see AAA productions reinforce their climatic moments by briefly restraining the player's agency: Virginia, though, extends this approach throughout the whole span of the adventure.

A working gameplay structure can rely on simple one button contextual interactions, as long as it serves another basic function besides "click here to progress the story", and that's challenging the player on some level

In a touch of cleverness, here and there are scattered some very short scenes that does nothing to push the story forward, but only exists to reveal some facets of the world and its inhabitants: in one instance, the older agent stops by a convenience store leaving you in the car. A few instants later, a blue coupé with some white boys stops by your car, they give you the middle finger and then flee. In a matter of seconds, you get to understand the youngsters' relationship with the law, the female gender and the black people (both agents are black).

As you may have guessed, there's no arguing the validity of this structure in experiencial terms, but whether Virginia constitutes a proper game or not is another matter. There is so little to do in the game that some may feel compelled to say "I could have watched it on Youtube after all"... and yes they could. It's a pertinent doubt spawning a legitimate question about whether interactivity alone can turn something into a game, and if not, what type and degree of interactivity is required for this to happen. In my experience and opinion, a working gameplay structure can rely on simple one button contextual interactions, as long as it serves another basic function besides "click here to progress the story", and that's challenging the player on some level. As far as the demo goes, Virginia technically does this - you have to walk through the scenes and look for that particular clue that triggers the next event - but it's too straightforward in its approach.

Rare is the impression of working towards an objective in this experience, as powerful as the narrative rewards are. In this sense, there's an unavoidable comparison to be made with Dear Esther, a game widely criticized for its structural simplicity, but with a stronger element of challenge in the randomization of story clues at each new playthrough. The narrative may not be as elegantly exposed as in Virginia, but the player is required to reconstruct it and make it come together in his mind, thus bringing a tangible sense of accomplishment upon succeeding. The same basic mechanic, used in a different way, ultimately brings more weight to the gameplay and the meaning of the interactions, making the act of playing Dear Esther more attractive than watching it on YouTube. Virginia stays on the very edge of what we call "games", and does it knowingly.

Going by how favourably Virginia is being received by the specialized press, it can't be said that Variable State's gamble hasn't paid off: it sits comfortably into the wider spectrum of interactive experiences, naturally lending itself to other media such as VR. Ironically, working so well in video form doesn't do any good to its interactive nature.

1 comment:

Ram Chauhan said...

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