What Does It Mean To Create For Children?

There’s always been a niggling little part of me that might reflexively sniff in derision whenever I see a Minecraft YouTuber over the age of thirty appear in my suggested videos feed, or might do the same when I see a university student claim to be writing their dissertation on The Very Hungry Caterpillar (as I did on an open day at Exeter University last year). Until recently I had never cared so much as to inspect this little part of me as I’m not one to really encounter children’s material all that often. Those who know me will know that I am a very pretentious pillock who will read some verbose and unwieldy tomes for the sake of accomplishment rather than enjoyment. I am indeed a literary sadist, and the realm of children’s literature has always seemed a little bit too soggy next to the kind of books I can see myself wanting to read.

But luckily I was recently handed an opportunity to get outside my comfort zone: a loved one recently lent me a collection of poems by A.A. Milne, the mind behind British cultural staple and my personal doppelganger Winnie-the-Pooh. The collection contained two books of poetry: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.

Reading through these two books completely flipped my notions about the sheer difficulty that writing for children entails. I used to hark back to the days of yore, when playing with Lego was more socially acceptable, and I think of how easily entertained I was. My imagination gland was constantly in overdrive, you could have given me an action figure of the blue power ranger and a Scalextric’s pickup truck and in thirty minutes and a square metre of carpet space I could have produced a drama more moving than anything in Shakespeare’s canon; kids are absolutely bloody mental, it’s as if they’re either on extreme caffeine or mild shrooms around the clock.

This is the notion that I always held in tandem with the idea of writing for children, this was my simple and ignorant syllogism:

a) Kids are easily entertained
b) Writing is a form of entertainment

Therefore:
c) Writing for kids is easy

Of course, looking into it a bit more, and after reading Milne’s poems, I discovered that this is obviously a false argument. Of course, a child’s capacity to enjoy something is often inimitable as an adult. It’s why we sometimes call passionate people like cosplayers or gamers ‘childish’, but kids are sincerely not easy to entertain at all. Firstly, the selection of topics or abstracts which might entertain a child are completely different to what might entertain an adult. A child’s scope of importance is entirely incompatible with a normal person’s. For example, children do not have a grasp on and are often intimidated by the idea of relationships, and right there you’ve wiped out about half of the contenders in the literary canon as even mildly entertaining stuff… when you write for a child you’re not writing an adult story with reduced or diluted language, you have to elect to write in a different language entirely.

Secondly, the attention span of a child is comparable to that of a goldfish or a gnat. On a biological level a child requires much much more sleep than an adult. Tonight I will probably stay up until around the midnight mark reading The Elements of Style before I attempt my first officially marked essay, but the idea that anything might interrupt a toddler’s sleep schedule is unfathomable. Toddlers need constant recharging: after a big cry they need to sleep, after a big meal they need to sleep, after a big sleep they need to sleep… so the sheer minutes that belong to their waking consciousness are ever more precious. They can’t waste their time reading something that is either too boring or too long or too ‘too’, they have things to do and sleep to sleep. I remember being around 8 or 9 and feeling astounded that I’d stayed up to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows past my bedtime. It was the first time I had made a sacrifice to my biological schedule for the sake of art, and I have been gradually crucifying myself in similar ways ever since.

Michael Rosen, who served as the children’s laureate from 2007 to 2009 says this about writing for children:

You have to go back to when you were a child and think about what kind of things you liked… I mean, I sometimes think that I write for the child I was and then mix that with the children I meet

And as simple as this sounds, the process of ‘going back to when you were a child’ is actually really hard. Using your adult mind and adult vocabulary in order to transport yourself to a place where you knew nothing that you know now, literally saw the world from a different angle and saw your own inevitable adult existence only as a series of swirling possibilities… it’s about as simple or as complicated as asking someone: ‘forget your first love’.

Milne’s poems have taught me to look at creating for children in a different light. He had an amazing ability for communicating with children, and also for transporting adults to that fleeting frame of mind as well.

It only makes me wonder about the possibilities for interactive narratives. I think about what the separate philosophies of design are for adult and child interactive storytelling. I for one am very happy that I grew up on things like Pokemon and Rayman, but they were handed down to me from an older sibling. I wonder if something like Mario is already a game to have a place in the ludic canon as something that adults and children both revere?

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If Videogames Are Art, Must They Have Artistic Generations?

For the past month or so now I have been very, very slowly getting through Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel On The Road and I have ultimately come to the realisation that it is not very good.

I’m just over 100 pages in and I’m yet to come across a point of quality or apparent profundity in this novel that would warrant actual genius Bob Dylan’s lauding quote “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s”. Considering the novel’s basis in Kerouac’s own personal reality (despite his awkward decision to identify as an Italian American protagonist called Sal?… who at some stage is inclined to write: “They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am”) I found myself trudging through this canonised roman-à-clef and thinking what an awful time I would have were I to have any kind of conversation with a 1950s Kerouac if were he alive today. Despite the fact that I would probably find the conversation printed in one of his novels years later, I simply wouldn’t know how to correctly engage with a man who writes sentences, actual sentences about women, like:

“Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside […] I dropped right opposite her and began scheming right off” p73 Penguin Modern Classics

Many people find (or rather found) his rambunctiousness, alcoholic mirth and libertine lifestyle to be endearing, but unfortunately I do not, and I don’t find those kind of people to be endearing either. I only curse my habit of needing to finish a book once I’ve started it. But, for all the venom I can spit at the book I can at least say that it truly belonged to the Beat Generation. Even though I don’t think the best work to come out of that generation stands the test of time… at all… man, at least it was kind of cool. All the top authors of that generation were socially connected, they travelled together, went to the same universities, influenced each others’ creations, and everyone was having sex with each other (single audience member cheers).

Generations seem to be a cornerstone of most artisitc media, they can be found in classical art, cinema, television and music, and reading about On The Road makes me conversely wonder if gaming generations are only limited by contemporary technologies rather than the fashion of design.

its a me

Of course, when given an example of an early Super Mario iteration, the average person would recognise the image as belonging to a certain generation, but if that generation can be classed as simply ‘the 90s’ rather than anything more design-oriented then can we call that generation artistic?

Artistic generations are not part of a quota for a medium to be classified as art, more than anything they are social movements, but the prospect of the medium being used for such a movement remains exciting to me and, who knows, maybe we’re on the road towards that point already.

St. Elmo’s light

In the bankless valley of the streaming night
And in the upwards mercury rain,
Between Orion’s grounded belt-clasp and the
Teeming fire-life sits, to all, a familiar name.

Be they ‘honeyed phosphorescence’ or rather
‘Luminescent-essence’? Metaphors
Will drift ashore as words that cannot explain.
Scrap it, poet, you’ll crack it, poet,
Lie back and try again.

Love predates history, Keats predates language,
And the lexicon of all by-gone
Will drive the romantic insane.

For some such rabid lover whose
Heart might exceed their brain,
St Elmo’s Fire, or some such balm
Is all that three words can contain.

Drafting All Readers! Yes, YOU!

Hello chums,

It’s very rare that I’ll post anything on here that’s quite personal, or that I’d ask my readership to do anything other than reluctantly skim-read my posts (which at best is a chore), but I guess there is a first time for everything.

VV Games is becoming a subscription-based, payed-for content magazi 

Tomorrow my girlfriend will be going to University to start her first term and it would mean a lot to me if you could write “Good luck, Alex!” or some such message of support or advice about Uni (or ‘College’ to my American friends) below. Going to University and, in general, being away from home can be quite nerve-wracking so I thought it would be nice if she had some encouragement that wasn’t just from me. Or, you know, just send rabid hate mail as usual, either is fine.

Many thanks,

VV xxoo

Observer And The Real-Time Mystery

If you’re unlucky enough to be a regular reader of mine, you’ll know that I’m quite a sizeable wuss when it comes to the horror genre.

Being as neurotic as I am erotic, acute terror has simply become a staple of my everyday life. This is why I have never really been drawn to the Horror genre across all forms of media: paying for this experience would be totally unnecessary next to the natural cascade of bollock-churning horror I experience every single day for free. I see your F.E.A.R, I see your Aliens and Predators and Dead Spaces and I raise you the perspiring dread of giving an older relative a phone call, of extended eye contact with strangers on an underground train (what are they thinking?), of walking on the same side of the street with a dog that might be a rottweiler, although not being 100% sure…

My life is already an emporium of horror and spleen-rumbling terror so it is not often that I deign to experience relatively tame ‘horror’ games for a hefty monetary toll, however, having enjoyed my time with Layers of Fear, I decided to check out Bloober Team’s latest I.P Observer and found it rather tantalising.

me after a workout

The year is 2084. Angela Merkel’s preserved neural tissue is beginning its 19th term as Chancellor of Germany. Woody Allen’s movies are gradually being less critically favoured. Arsène Wenger signs another contract at Arsenal following another FA Cup win, keeping him at the club until 2086. But, none of this matters to our Cracovian detective Daniel Lazarski, a gruff-voiced potty-mouthed cyborg with

FAMILY
ISSUES.

Like Fullbright’s recent title Tacoma, which I believe is even set in the same envisioned decade, Bloober Team have not only created a competent psychological-horror game, they also intertwine this experience with their own position of what a dystopian future might look like. Much like Tacoma, the future that we glean from this experience is one of a corpotocracy, with megacorporations and their loyals being designated first class citizens whilst the rest of society struggles in the lower echelons. Both as a dystopian sci-fi narrative and as a psychological horror game, the title is very successful, but what I really took away from the game is an idea that transcends the boundaries of its own narrative.

What I found most interesting about the game is that it manages to suspend a mystery throughout the whole experience whilst being told in real interaction time. I remember when Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) came out, the media was amazed by the fact that the entire feature was shot in almost real-time with very few cinematic cuts, giving a “One Take” appearance. And until I played Observer it had never really occurred to me that most games in which interaction is the main drive of narrative execute this feat that would otherwise be apparently article-worthy.

What makes Observer unique in this, however, is that the narrative is a real-time mystery. With other forms of media, detective narratives often chop, arrange and rearrange time so as to maintain intrigue throughout the duration of the witnessed experience, you do not take up the mantle as a kind of secondary or tertiary detective who follows along in the events with the actual characters, to do that would entail hours between interesting revelations manifesting in throwing tennis balls at an office wall adorned with a cluttered cork board, saying ‘hmmmm’ a lot whilst sipping police station coffee. Instead, in books, film and television you are a witness to the most interesting, most well paced narrative the creators can arrange. Of course, even in a real-time narrative like Observer and Birdman the story is creatively arranged, but crucially the internal chronology isn’t, and to face up to the task of a real-time mystery must therefore be incredibly difficult.

Even in the most exciting detective stories, like The Usual Suspects or True Detective, five minutes in the actual present narrative might be incredibly boring. While our detective hero might be in his house, connecting two pieces of information that was right under their nose (and your nose! *boop*) the whole time!, they might race outside the house to their Fiat Punto to travel back to the office and tell the whole team, but find that they’re on only a quarter tank. They’ll stop for gas and think about getting a bag of peanut M&Ms at the cashier’s desk. Then they’ll fart when paying for it and they’ll shuffle awkwardly and maybe look around as if someone else did it. They’ll wonder if the cashier smells it but is too polite to say. But THEN, they’ll RACE down the freeway! Burning with a newfound sense of… You get what I mean.

Pieces of fiction in which the internal narrative chronology and the time taken to tell that story perfectly overlap are considered great pieces of art. Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses, which when read in precisely 24 hours perfectly elapses 24 hours, is considered one of the greatest novels written in the English language. Similarly, Iñárritu’s Birdman is lauded for its illusion of being a live experience, and I think it would be remiss of me not to praise Bloober Team for creating a story that meticulously maintains intrigue so that for every minute played, no narrative intensity is lost at all.

Seal Of Approval

Size Does Matter

With this post’s obligatory dick joke now being over and done with, I should start by mentioning that last weekend I spent a very long and very hard time in front of my TV screen doing absolutely nothing.

You see, to my delight the Xbox digital marketplace was teeming with some rather tasty deals and I managed to nab both Titanfall 2 and The Bioshock Collection for half the usual asking prices, and seeing as it is now only days until I assume the mantle of ‘University Student’, I thought it best that I exercise the last few impulse purchases I am allowed to make before I’m eating instant noodles every day for 3 years. So, with fingers trembling in anticipation, I clicked to buy and then, soul flowing with excitement and mind racing with ludic possibility, sat in front of my television and stared at the installation screen for about forty hours.

The process of purchase, for me, was profoundly anticlimactic, the pathos of the long, drawn out waiting period no doubt compounded by the circumstances: parents? Away for the weekend. House? To myself! Girlfriend? Away until September. Friends? On holiday or busy. All of them? All of them…

That two day period must have been, for me, the first time in my life where I have experienced pure, utter isolation from the life and civilisation I am so used to. My actions for that two day period included: waiting, waiting, waiting. Sleeping, washing up, waiting. Going to the shops, and then waiting. Waiting. Are you free this weekend? Waiting. Sorry bud, I’m in a completely different country. Waiting. Waiting. What is my purpose in this life? Waiting. Rock back. Rock forth. Waiting. Twitching. Waiting…

I had to wait for the entire time I was alone to myself to finally play that mammoth videogame, and the experience therein I think was more edifying than the game itself was afterwards. The sheer man-hours I put into maintaining my patience throughout that time, the mental labour I endured, it all caused a kind of reflective sadness that ultimately made me mourn the loss of the readily available videogame.

I know that mine was an irksome experience that will not apply to the majority of the people reading this seeing as both Titanfall 2 is an arguably unreasonably large game and my WiFi is certainly unreasonably slow, atop the fact that I downloaded it entirely from the internet where it’s also available as a blu-ray disc okay okay OKAY

But it would be remiss of me not to talk of the decidedly consumer-unfriendly direction that modern games are taking when it comes to just being able to play the product you buy. I can only think of how simple it was not a few years ago when blu-ray discs and laser disc DVDs could achieve content parity across consoles, rendering the blu-ray disc the optimal format of a videogame disc rather than the necessary one.

Nowadays, however, with AAA games being more graphically sophisticated and generally more expansive, Microsoft’s Xbox One has had to switch the format of their disc to keep up with the demands of AAA content and remain a solid competitor against Sony’s hardware. In principle this just sounds like the standard evolutionary trend of a company that vies to stay on the electronic world stage, but there remains a problem in that, while over the past few years the hardwares, softwares and general industry of console gaming has become more sophisticated, the average internet speeds of the people playing these games hasn’t, even between console generations.

The size of Titanfall 2 ended up being over 60 gigabytes, contested only on my external hard drive by Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V which, between updates and updates and updates how now reached 70. Amongst local installations off of blu-ray discs and downloading of day 1 patches and updates that have launched since a game’s initial release, it might take someone hours of waiting time just before they’re able to see if they enjoy the game they’ve bought or not.

And I’m not even talking about my own experience here… as someone who plans to go into making videogames I understand that this is something I’ll naturally have to deal with, but for the guy who has a job and a wife and kids and just wants to play some Battlefield with his coworkers after a hard day, he will have to endure the experience of walking into GameStop, purchasing a game so that it exists in his hand but then also knowing that he does not yet fully own the item in that hand and maybe won’t for a number of hours.

The age of bliss in which I could, happy as a little lamb on methamphetamines, wake up on Christmas day, open each of the Modern Warfare PS3 franchise titles placed under the tree by Jingo-Santa and just play away the campaigns into the night, is well and truly over. Now, in truth, a large part of my Christmas day is just spent staring at an installation screen waiting for the latest FIFA to update, and as my eyes wander over to the section of the TV shelf where those Modern Warfare titles used to be, I wonder what I’ll be waiting to receive next year, once the presents are already unwrapped.

Bayonetta Is Batshit And Hey, That’s Pretty Cool

Before the 2009 title landed in the monthly Games with Gold catalogue, I had only known the name Bayonetta to be thrown around as the object of feminist debate in Kotaku forums. ‘This is a sexist, ogling depiction of well-endowed women’ says Motherof5ArmyWife, to which AnimeGlands retorts ‘breasts are the only reason I wake up and I want this gigantic woman to step on my dick and kill me’ et cetera et cetera.

I have to admit, I never thought I’d be picking up Bayonetta at all. Being myself a babbling racist, I’ve never really clicked with the top triple-A Japanese games of the modern generation. Mate, don’t get me wrong… when I first got my Nintendo Wii I was wholly enamoured of it, and I was determined to do nothing but rise through the ranks of the Wii Sports universes and achieve celebrity status at least in each one. Baseball, bowling, tennis, boxing… I made it pro. Then I started the Wii steroids… started cheating on my Mii girlfriend with a better, curvier Mii. I lost control.

Since then, I haven’t had much luck with Japanese titles. I desperately, desperately wanted to become one of those people who can speak the Dark Souls parlance, but… (cowering away) it was just too hard. Okay? Okay?! I said it. I will forever wear the shirt of shame: (creds: http://bit.ly/2uY83pp)

My taste in games has veered away from the combat arcade-style that’s essential to the Japanese game development culture. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the cinematic tomes of the Metal Gear series, but at least in my mind, that franchise ended many many years ago when Hideo Kojima himself lost the ardour for it. So, it was certainly a stroke of luck that Bayonetta ended up in my games library for free, otherwise I would have invariably turned my nose up at it before spending a minimum £300 on FIFA points and Jelly Babies.

But, I’m very glad that I did end up having a go because my, my… WHAT a… THING this is! This… this… THING!!!

Between the mile-a-minute visuals, the Amazonian protagonist with legs for days, the obvious token characters and the INSANE Japanese music blasting throughout all the action in the first 10 minutes of the game, I think I may have found the first game, nay, the first piece of media I’ve ever consumed, where I do not have time to stop and register about what I’m doing or seeing. It’s the ludic equivalent of an ocular migraine, its combat a time-lapse of a cocaine-fuelled orgy. Bayonetta is the epileptic version of the last 30 minutes of any Marvel film, it’s action packed, visually incomprehensible madness that I think has helped me discover my inner goddess.

also me

Perhaps due to the lack of protagonists like Bayonetta, or perhaps because of her inimitable swagger, never before had I experienced that gynephoria of being a pistol-wielding mammary powerhouse of pain, crushing anything in my path. I am a callipygian crusher of angels! I am become Beth, destroyer of worlds!

My time with Bayonetta this morning has been a blast. Platinum Games, you have earned this badge of honour.

Seal Of Approval

*****

On a side note, I got in! I got my acceptance from the University of York to study Interactive Media (which has elective options of game development in Unity). I’m really excited to start next month, and especially to do the module on Firewatch! Just a little update from me ok cya x

The Happiness Tag

Dear reader, if you’ve found yourself doing a double take or have simply fallen on the ground after being met with that title I’d assure you not to be worried. I too never thought I’d ever use the horrible term ‘happiness’ as a titular item in any of my posts, much less feel any emotion at all throughout the duration of my life, but here we are in 2017. Donald Trump is president (bad), Neymar Jr is playing in Paris (bad?) and I, the first blogger to be entirely without emotion on any scale thus making me the only 100% objective writer on the planet, am writing a post about “hap-ee-ness” (emotional void).

How did I get into this situation? Fellow blogger Rei must have read my material and wrongly inferred that I was a blogger that makes her ‘happy’, as it says in her tag. I certainly don’t understand this emotion, but I can assure you that the correct emotional response to anything I write, say or create is ‘unhappiness’ and ‘frustration’. At least, that’s what I’m constantly told by lovers and subway-goers.

On a real note tho, thanks so much to Rei for the tag, it really means a lot when someone says they enjoy my stuff online and rest assured you’d be a nomination if you hadn’t already tagged me! Be sure to check out her blog with the links above! She does a monthly ‘Games to Revisit’ series which has introduced me to some great titles.

The rules for this tag

  • List five things that makes you happy
  • Share five songs that makes you happy
  • Tag at least five bloggers that makes you happy

5 Things that make me happy

1. Funny People

I don’t think I can say that I have a friend who is not a funny person. I really take very few things seriously in life and I’d much rather laugh than brood over something if laughter is ever an option. I’m beginning to notice that this sounds a bit like a Tinder bio you wouldn’t swipe right on but, it’s true. If ever a friendship wouldn’t work out in my life it’s probably because that person couldn’t make me laugh if they tried, or if I couldn’t make them laugh.

2. Handwritten Things

Odd one I know… but I really like the personal touch of something being handwritten. There is so much personality in the way someone writes, whether they use a certain nib or if they use Disney Ds, it’s just interesting to learn about people through the way they write. Although writing notes and letters is much more of a chore than other methods of communication, it’s still something that makes me really happy to send or to receive.

3. Finishing an Online Post

Making something like a YouTube video or a blog post or some artwork is a sometimes long but always gratifying process, and the final apotheosis of being finished- actually finished- is always such a relief, because it’s the point where I’ve said to myself: this is good enough to be at home online. Naturally, I might look back 2 or 3 years later and think: this definitely isn’t good enough to be at home online, and of course both the moment I’m driven to do something and the process of actually doing that task is also great, but there’s something special in the actual publication.

4. Reading a Good Book

I’d like to say that I’m a voracious m̶a̶s̶t̶u̶r̶b̶a̶t̶o̶r̶ reader but I can’t help but picture that guy at the party who says “Yeah, I’m thinking about going veggie” but means ‘I’m open to a jacket potato’ at the same time. I do read a lot, especially this year, but my problem is that I have a backlog that is always being appended to and I can never catch up! If I’m stuck on a book I’m not crazy about, I can’t just give up, I have to finish it out of habit but I’ll take aeons to do so before I get onto a book I will just eat right up. But, when that time comes, I don’t want to do anything else and I’m a veritable turkey. Gobble gobble gobble.

5. Finding That Game

The people who have convinced me to join the games industry, and to work, really really work on my coding and my criticism and wholly focus my attention on this vocation I mostly do not know. I know them only through their work and their creations, and when I find a game or a written piece that really really reminds me why I’m here on this website, with these posters on my bedroom walls, it’s invariably an experience I’ll always remember.

5 Songs That Make Me Happy

These 5 are songs that will never wear off on me!

And the Ultimate…

5 Bloggers That Make Me Happy

I Played The Game!

Falcon509

LightningEllen

Extra Life

The Cinema Crunch 

 

Yet More Music

Hello chums,

The other day I found a Cort 12 string at my local guitar shop for an absolute steal of a price. I’ve always wanted a 12 string so it was great to get my hands on this!

Been messing around with a scale and came up with this thang. Might use it in a Twine game this Summer when I get round to making one!

I’ll be back with a non-fluff post soon!

Tacoma Review: The Actor is Absent

Hello all, to commemorate the passing of (almost exactly) a year since my last videogame review I’ve returned with another packet of spicy word-powder that should help to further cement my status as the best paid and most widely recognised games blogger ever.

You might notice from the getgo that I’m really rather shaking things up this time, shaking it up like a sex martini, in that I’ve dropped the usual ‘Mega’ from the title. Yes, dear readers, the age of the ‘Mega Review’ is behind us, ushering in a new format of ‘(x) Review: (Relevant Subtitle)’. The reason for this? I’m always revisiting and reviewing my old pieces in hopes of improving anything I’m currently writing, and while I appreciate that the 16-year-old me saw the word ‘Mega’ (from Greek megas– ‘great’) as an appropriate descriptor for my review-bits, it can only come off to me now as self-aggrandising. There isn’t much ‘Mega’ about what I was writing back then.

End of the day, mate, I’m just writing a bloody review… to separate it linguistically by shoving it in a category above a normal review is to suggest that every review that isn’t mine is a less-than-‘mega’ review. Perhaps if my reviews were more Mega than Smeg-a then I’d be happy to call them ‘Mega’, but I am in fact a diagnosed smeg head so it’s out of the question.

Tacoma (8)

Anyway… to begin the review, after my few hours playing through Tacoma, the second I.P by indie darling The Fullbright Company, I was mostly confused.

I was confused about why I did not like the game as much as I thought I should given that its methods of storytelling were virtually identical to its seminal predecessor’s. For a day I was just mentally rummaging through my time spent in Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, trying to battle with the cognitive dissonance I convinced myself I had for feeling markedly underwhelmed by this game but really rather liking Gone Home, and it’s only been very recently that I’ve come to understand why it’s okay that I’m not really in love with Tacoma.

On Succeeding A Throne

Tacoma (3).png

It is perhaps unsafe to say that Gone Home permanently changed the way modern developers consider environmental storytelling, but to my judgement it is at least safe to say that the advent of Gone Home permanently changed the way critics choose to assess methods of environmental storytelling in the wider sphere of discourse. For the past few years and into the foreseeable future we live in the post-Gone Home side of history, where comparisons will invariably be made to that now-criterion of ludic-diegetic success.

At least in my eyes, the sometimes rather forced comparisons to that game have only ever sought to ask the question, of Firewatch or Life is Strange, of What Remains of Edith Finch or Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture: is it as good as Gone Home? The problem with placing this comparison within the discussion or review of the game that follows Fullbright’s title is that, at least to my mind, we often look over the discussion on the other side of the wall: why is Gone Home as good as Gone Home?

And, if you’re a returning reader, you might know that I think the actual discussion that took place during the appropriate time after Gone Home‘s release was kind of poor. To a lot of people, the critical response to Gone Home was more than a farce, and indicative of collusion between journalists and developers. I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but if we have established Gone Home as the immediate critical standard for any attempt at environmental storytelling in modern game narratives, don’t we owe it to the wider discussion to examine why that is the case?

This is just one of the thoughts I was having as I was repeatedly headbutting my bedroom wall trying to get to grips with myself and my unexpectedly apathetic response to Tacoma. But, on reflection, I think it’s the most crucial question of all in understanding why Tacoma is just okay, it is the most crucial task of all to deconstruct the game’s better if we are to understand the latter’s faults.

On Diegetic Stalking

Arrrr

The entire premise of Gone Home is essentially gamified stalking, the objective is to snoop around a house and discover as much as you can about the actual people who live there while they aren’t home. The player character’s involvement in the actual plot is simply an abstract and is of secondary importance to the reality of the player’s invasive enjoyment. The idea that so many game players and critics would end up aligning themselves with this kind of personal invasiveness is not so surprising when you consider that… broadly speaking… most stories, or at least most methods of storytelling, harbour some element of personal invasiveness.

In the foreword to the book I’m currently reading: On The Road by Jack Kerouac, it is mentioned that Kerouac was first drawn to fellow Beat Generation writer and lifelong companion Neal Cassady after he wrote Kerouac a detailed letter of a very personal account. Kerouac spent two hours in a cafeteria nursing over this letter, which detailed an incident of Cassady being interrupted in the act of sex with a girlfriend, Cherry Mary, after the mother of the girl Cherry was babysitting arrived in the house unexpectedly. In response to the letter, which detailed how Cassady had to somehow manoeuvre through a very unaccommodating bathroom window several feet off the ground, Jack ‘thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America’. The disclosure of personal episodes and personal information is the most integral step of any kind of storytelling if you want to retain the attention of an audience. Leasing off, through pages or cameras or videogames, the experiences that belong to you onto the people for whom they don’t is a kind of narrative contract that has proved effective since Chaucer’s England. The essence of this idea, however, begins to change when we change the format of the disclosure from non-fiction to fiction.

In the case of Kerouac and Cassady, the contract of trust that was being formed was between the person for whom the experience truly belonged and the known recipient. In the instance of fiction, the nature of that contract changes invariably. The contract is between the character and the reader, the unknown recipient, and there is no such dynamic of trust between the sharers of any one experience. In essence, all fiction in which the characters are unaware of being read naturally renders the reader a kind of diegetic stalker, and before the kind of narrative possibilities videogames offered storytelling in media, the keyhole through which an audience would reach these experiences would be in the form of words or through the borders of a television screen.

It is all well and good to say that, while an audience experiences a piece of fiction, they are fully aware of the artifice and that the personal experience being shared is always accompanied by an innate awareness that the personal experience does not belong to the characters but to the author, but this is an idea that fails when tested against simple notions of suspension of disbelief, and the idea of simulated memory in storytelling.

To borrow an example from Ian Danskin in his video essay on The Beginner’s Guide, Samuel R. Delany in his book About Writing says that:

“It looks like the writer is telling you a story. What the writer is actually doing, however, is using words to evoke a series of micromemories from your own experience that inmix, join, and connect in your mind in an order the writer controls, so that, in effect, you have a sustained memory of something that has never happened to you”

If we take this idea about literature we can see elements of its truth in other media. In any given popular action movie, most cinematography is rendered spatially so that the audience member retains throughout the experience the illusion of having partaken in the actual content of the movie. The audience member views the events from a cinematic angle that is close enough to the characters to simulate active participation in the filmed situation. We do not remember the experience as a passive spectator, but as an active participant. Otherwise, how could we possibly be affected emotionally by these movies in any capacity? If we were constantly self-aware of our position as an audience member, the harmlessness of the material never suppressed, how could we possibly be scared, moved, have our heartbeat raised by something that is just a movie? These media may be known only through words or pixels, but they manifest themselves in the minds of audiences as memories that are emotionally indistinguishable from the truth.

As readers and as audiences we are all diegetic stalkers, useless to and unacknowledged by the plots of the media we consume but active participants in the experiential memories formed therein nonetheless. When Gone Home was released in 2013 it tapped into the kind of joy that any lover of fiction harbours as a natural diegetic stalker. Prior to the advent of videogames, you could not be given a book and have successfully sustained the memory of exploring a whole house and have known the personal experiences from its owners, you could not have been given a DVD of a person exploring a house and afterwards have the sustained memory of you yourself having personally learned about the journey of emotional maturity for the household’s youngest member through your own exploration.

On top of audiences’ joy in being natural diegetic stalkers, something which Gone Home fully utilised like no other game before it, I believe Gone Home found success in its apropos setting.

On The Domestic Museum 

What Remains of Edith Finch (5)

The title What Remains of Edith Finch, released this year, found similar success in either the tried and tested or, more likely, natural setting for a narrative in Gone Home‘s style, the abandoned house.

There is no place conceivable that is more rich in personality or personal history than the abandoned house. The simple amount of trust a homeowner places in a house is significant and often overlooked, an idea explored in Kitty HorrorShow’s Anatomy. We all trust our houses to maintain our privacy and to keep us safe at night, we trust our houses enough to spend a significant amount of our lives sleeping within them. The relationships we form with our houses, improving them and entrusting them with our most cherished items and loved ones, are often permanent.

To many, a house is not just a living space, and in games like Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, the house you as a player occupy serves not only as a testament of personality to the inhabitants, but as a Museum of artefacts and memories for everyone who has been a member of the household.

Certainly, Gone Home posits very obvious moral prescriptions by the end of its tale but, perhaps by accident, at the end of Gone Home and at the end of What Remains of Edith Finch I ended up asking myself a question for the first time: were I to leave a house to my children, what would I want them to inherit?

Spending an evening wandering through an abandoned house will put these questions into your head. As well as the experiential memory of doing something (at least, to me) as novel and daring as exploring an abandoned house, the takeaway from Gone Home and What remains of Edith Finch are the wider questions of inheritance. Only the best games can drive you to consider these kind of questions, and it is only in such a setting that these questions can be asked.

kevin SPACEy

It is a shame, then, that the followup to a game that really knew where to tell its story doesn’t have the same kind of ideas behind its chosen environment.

Nothing about Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma screams, speaks or even whispers personality. It might be built from scratch but everything about the environment is entirely familiar. Screenshots from the game exhibiting the space station to me could easily be from a number of games released over the past few years and it certainly wouldn’t strike me as a place of creative toil.

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The most interesting screenshots shown before release and publication delay have proven that the least generic architectural environments just… are not in the game anymore. When your primary gameplay mechanic is to simply observe and explore, a mostly dreary space station with plenty of reused assets accompanying that experience does not make for a gratifying journey.

On The Absence Of Actors

Tacoma (5)

Perhaps the most irksome thing about Tacoma is its, I believe, creatively misguided decision to strike a third way between including actual character actors in the game and providing character exposition only through audio and artefacts.

The effectiveness of the latter method was already proven in the success of Fullbright’s previous title and the first way would have been a welcome addition by a team of developers that have created already a very good narratively driven game, but to instead choose to have… half characters is incredibly jarring.

teletubby people.png

These strange teletubby people in lieu of real character actors perpetually feels reductive, rather than enriching to the overall storytelling. The simple fact is that these coloured blobs of exposition will never be able to be sympathetic characters… I’m looking at a f***ing teletubby. It just looks stupid.

The narrative situations that these blobs find themselves in exhibit moments of real intimacy that would have been served well by actual people: they kiss when they think they are about to die, they attempt to dictate the last letter they will ever write to their loved ones but break down… but this is not what you see, this is what’s implied instead by an coloured oval where a face should be.

The emotion in Gone Home was mostly translated through the evocative voice acting of Sarah Grayson, and the more emotionally resonant writing. Tacoma has a notably larger cast of characters, 6, and it appears that the emotional intensity for the character of Sam in Gone Home was divided by a such a number here. None of the teleblobs say or even do anything truly subverting of your expectations. I agree with wordsaboutgames.net when they say that they wish the A.R data recording mechanic was better spent on a better story.

On Bathos

vista

The expected coda of a story simply ceasing to exist can often be frustrating, as was explained in some reactions to Campo Santo’s superior I.P Firewatch. As I’ve mentioned, this is excusable in the case of Firewatch because instead of simple bathos as a result of the ending, the reality of the coda served to speak volumes for the characters themselves. There was a certain profundity in that Campo Santo managed to craft a story where the characters change a great amount emotionally against a diegetically and physically immutable environment, all the while remaining an engaging experience.

The emotional payoff was in the personal arc of the characters. While the world of the game remains mostly as it was when you entered it, as a player you leave the experience with the knowledge that, in the extrapolated narrative, characters Henry and Delilah will return to the world and profoundly change the way they live. The same even remains true for the characters of Gone Home.

On the other hand, the ending of Tacoma is simply bathetic. Nothing changes within the characters, nobody makes mistakes and learns from them, no profound realisation is reached, and I’m not even sure if any intended question from the developers is posed. In the spirit of Seinfeld, it really is “no hugging, no learning”. Well there is some hugging… between coloured jellyblobs.

Goethe’s 3 Questions

Tacoma (4)

What is the creator trying to do?

Create an engaging interactive narrative about a small space station crew whose lives are threatened.

Was the creator successful?

In crafting an interesting storytelling gimmick through the A.R system (explainable only through experiential play, really) Fullbright have done something commendable, but they remain unsuccessful seeing as the teletubbies’ narrative is much more shallow than the tale of Fullbright’s previous title.

Was it worth creating?

While I wish the narrative gimmick was better spent, you cannot mourn a story that has never existed. No.