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How Experimental Indie Games Are Telling Better Stories

When Fullbright’s Gone Home first arrived in 2013, it ignited heated discussions in forums all over the Web. Critics loved the game, but many players were left with an overwhelming sense that they’d been swindled, that they’d overpaid for something that wasn’t actually a game.

Gone Home was hastily labeled a non-game by these players because it has no fail state (that is, the playable character can’t die or fail to achieve a goal, causing a reset), and it’s not “won” by skill or luck. It was called a walking simulator, a title that fans of this style have since embraced.

What isn’t up for discussion about Gone Home is that it tells a story you’d never find in a AAA game: a strikingly intimate and affecting portrayal of a family in crisis. In fact, I’d argue that games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and That Dragon, Cancer have succeeded in telling better, more nuanced stories for adults than any of the 25 best-selling AAA game narratives of the past two years. Why?

Reduced Scope and Scale

gone home, indie games

Don’t get me wrong: I love games like Skyrim and the Grand Theft Auto series. But their sprawling open worlds and long-form branching narratives don’t lend themselves to the kind of solid, compact storytelling we get in experimental indie games. They’re more akin to watching a whole season of TV, in that the sheer amount of playing time allows for more epic character arcs. But the games tend to hold back on character development in favor of action-based gameplay.

Making a smaller game allows for the narrative to develop more quickly. One of the reasons Gone Home feels so haunting and direct is that the game gives the player very little chance to abandon the central mystery. The protagonist’s conflict is always present. Sure, you can walk around the house and throw tissue boxes around for as long as you like, but there is no other in-game narrative (like a side quest) that could potentially lure the player away from advancing the central story.

Telltale’s episodic games, like The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands, are doing similar things with narrative. While these games do allow the player to shape the narrative in small ways, the big strokes of the story will always be there no matter what the player chooses, which allows the talented writing staff at Telltale to bring you their story at their pace.

Unconventional Protagonists

Firewatch

Another great advantage that experimental indies have over AAA titles is that they can explore a wider range of protagonists. Now, of course you can create your own protagonist in games like Fallout 4 and Destiny, but that often only changes the look of the character. The character’s function is often the same: It’s a human(oid), usually a male, with one or more weapons, usually guns. Sometimes this gun-toting humanoid hops in a vehicle.

Now, I won’t lie: I do love a gun-toting humanoid game. But I’ve played so many of them, and very few of them have stories that really touched or affected me. Experimental indie games provide a place for unconventional protagonists like Henry from Firewatch or Kaitlin from Gone Home. Henry’s a schlub, a functioning alcoholic with marital problems who wants a change of scenery. Kaitlin’s a college student returning from a year in Europe who finds that her family’s new home is unexpectedly vacant. They’re just normal folks trying to solve very human mysteries.

Simple Mechanics

dear esther, indie games

By using simple and familiar gameplay mechanics, experimental indies are not only accessible to hardcore gamers, but to casual and first-time gamers as well.

For instance, Dear Esther is a first-person exploration game with no apparent protagonist. You’re basically a floating camera that explores a space at roughly human height. It controls just like most first-person shooters, so an experienced gamer will pick it up in no time, while a first-time gamer need not be worried about dying in the game. It’s low stakes, low-conflict gaming.

That may not be enough for some players, but as long as the game is telling an interesting story in a beautiful way, that’s enough to hook plenty of people who are looking for something more contemplative and quiet.

Atypical Structure

that dragon cancer, indie games

If you play PC games, you may have heard of a controversial game released last month called That Dragon, Cancer. Created by spouses Ryan and Amy Green, the game is an exploration of their hope and heartbreak as their youngest son Joel was treated for terminal brain cancer. It’s a poignant and beautiful experience, and it explores the Green family’s story in a very unconventional way.

It places you in control of many different perspectives in the game, including birds, unnamed floating first-person perspectives, the Greens themselves, and the medical staff that treated Joel. The game rendered me speechless when the player is allowed to view one of the game’s most heartbreaking sequences from the perspective of every character in the room, including Joel.

The structure of That Dragon, Cancer defies conventional game expectations so heavily that it almost seems like outsider art. But just like the other experimental indie games I’ve mentioned, it’s the intimate, thoughtful, and uncluttered way in which it approaches its subject that allows it to tell an effective and beautiful story.


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Travis Newton

Travis Newton is a Fan Contributor at Fandom. He’s written about movies and TV for CHUD.com since 2012, and co-hosts an entertainment podcast with fellow Fan Contributor Drew Dietsch. He’s partial to horror movies, action games, and Irish Breakfast tea.

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