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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.