Played a bunch of indie games today and the one I mostly felt the need to write about is Tale of Tales game The Graveyard.
In the game you play as an old woman visiting a graveyard. Played the trail version, which differs from the full version in that the old woman dies in the end.
Darkened my room before playing, putting my headphones on as usual. I have wandered in graveyards many times in my life and the concept of creating such a space in digital form seemed really interesting, so I wanted to give it a concentrated play trough.
The experience begins with the woman entering the gate of the cemetery walking slowly with her cane; She listens to the sounds of the city combined with the calmness of the graveyard, steering is done with the arrow keys. First impression is pretty good but I wonder why I can’t explore the whole graveyard and why does not the camera follow me around behind my back? Instead it has this really static old school feel. She slowly moves and observes some birds, laying eyes on a bench in the distance. She arrives at the apparent focal point, so the next question is how to sit on it? She doesn’t seem get any response even when turning her back against it. Finally I hit escape to get an answer to the question. Apparently you have to wait a while till she sits down and position her at the right angle. In my opinion of interactivity it is a huge mistake to have to read how to play this kind of game (even if it maybe was me being dumb). The transition should have been able to be done more smoothly and context sensitively.
So she sits there on the bench and I get a close up of the old woman’s face and some fascinating music starts to play, I relate to some of my own encounters with graveyards, just for comparisons sake. I wonder if I can move around when the music plays so I hit the up key on my keyboard. She rises and the music fades away, so a bit disappointed I make her sit down again, to get to listen to the whole song whilst contemplating on why the technical aspect is made so evident. Why have to listen to the song from the beginning every time she sits down? Why only be able to see her and not the graveyard? After the song has ended I decide to see if she can walk around the chapel, but I get blocked by an invisible wall, is this the strengths of interactivity? So far it has seemed like a really dictated experience, which could have been a novel or a movie and gotten better results frankly. She moves on back through the graveyard still having the desire to walk around more. I misfortunately loose sight of the old woman behind a big grave and since she is slow on the response I have a hard time navigating back to the main path because I don’t know which way she is facing. These kinds of problems should not exist in a game that’s 100% about immersion and so small, a 2d game would have sufficed just as well at this point, having the pros of taking away lot of the technical issues. Finally I pass the gates and my journey has ended, I get prompted to buy the full version and they’re by death to the old woman.
This game has a good concept, to make a player contemplate and feel what ever he/she wants’ to upon a visit to a graveyard. But why convey it in a really static third person view and not in first person (which is one of the strongest tools of 3D graphical narrative)? If the intention is to immerse the player in a calm experience, why no freedom at all to wander about the graveyard, which usually are designed to be open public spaces? There sadly is no interactive freedom in this game; it is cut off effectively in every possible way. Go from A to B, see movie, head back or linger for a while. As I said a film could have conveyed this just as well, there are many film scenes in graveyards were I have been able to attach my own feelings and responses in a much stronger way.
This game strongly reminds my of Jonathan Blow’s talk about how Bioshock failed to Convey altruism, the theme of a visiting a graveyard is made clear visually and with audio but not in interactivity and design choices.
I will quote some part from the Gamasutra interview with Tale of tales and then give more of my thoughts around what they are saying, hope anyone has the stamina to read further :)
It the article begins with this:
“Gamasutra is talking to this year’s Independent Games Festival finalists, this time interviewing Tale of Tales’ Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn about The Graveyard, a very short but thought-provoking interactive experience about old age and death, nominated for the Innovation Award.”
What is so thought provoking about this game? That it’s about death of an avatar and a graveyard? Just because it’s in a game doesn’t make it that thought provoking, games have had graveyard scenes before and MGS4 was just about as interactive with its interpretation of such a visit (had to push X sometimes, here I push the arrow to move slowly around).
“While technically the difference is very small, and while you can get a lot of the content from the trial alone — in fact, we feel that you need to play both for a complete experience — the death of the avatar can have a huge emotional impact. It can drastically change one’s experience of the game.”
I would agree more if I could be the character in focus and not just following an old lady I have no attachment to. Again the first person view would have made a huge difference for me. The age theme could have been included anyway.
“We decided to charge a symbolic amount of money for this feature because we wanted to make a point about the value of games. In most game reviews, the value of a game is directly related to the cost of its production and the amount time you can spend playing.
We are critical of this attitude because it ignores the content of the game and depth of the experience of the player (e.g. how meaningful the game is outside and after playing).”
The value of game is created either by the player or the indie or commercial market. To force it with some kind of money statement does not make sense to me. It sends some weird messages that emotions actually can be valued in money, how does a person measure if they get the money worth in that case? Is in such a case is drama more worth than joy? Would it also not been more effective emotionally not reveal this death “feature” before the player gets to experience it in the game? Or would it have ticked players of too pay for a death-scene only, and not knowing about it?
Apparently they have decided for the players that this will have a huge impact beforehand, is it possible to tell others how to feel? Seems like that’s the case here.
“Luckily, we live in a time that has interactive technology. Non-linear, generative, interactive media allow us to create art that needs to be completed by the viewer. This has been a desire and even a requirement of art for many centuries. But never before has it been so concrete. For us, art is not about what the artist wants to express. It is about what the viewer can see in it.”
Doesn’t all art have to be completed by the viewer that isn’t that one of the reasons it’s called art? There’s the creator and the receiver, have also been paintings and media art were the receiver has been able to interact directly with the installation. Interactive art always gives us ways to make choices, if not removed by the creators.
A bit confused by this statement as you can see by what I have written before, this experience in extremely controlled by the authors, and again a question the view of what interactive means in their mind, is it direction input and vague linear story?
“We are still sickened to the stomach by the memory of hurling hundreds of living bodies through the air with a gravity gun in Half Life 2. But even Mario and Pikmin are highly objectionable in this respect.”
The developers don’t like certain kinds of death portrayal in games and I can understand that fully, but many kinds of games use the gore as a shallow presentation layer, underneath you have the game part that is the core of the game, and characters become more like chess pieces with some more detail, as for example in Halo 3 or Quake 3. You could remove the characters and blood still having the whole interactive playful experience intact, at least when it comes to well designed games.
“Our medium of choice, however, is real-time 3D. So we communicate the character and her story through interactive scenes.”
The scene were you move doesn’t have interactive choices except seeing her struggle moving forward. Once again I vote for the “convey through another medium”-argument if this is all she can do.
“It was just a game. It wasn’t really about something. Games were not a medium for storytelling and transmitting meaning yet.”
Seems like the developers see the only way to transmit mining is trough narrative in a more traditional sense, but play is very important interactive narrative, and games and play since many thousand years back has indeed affected people profoundly because it’s real time storytelling and role-play.
Lots can be done with the medium now we just need more pioneers.
“Now that the technology (and desire) is ready to allow for video games to become a medium of expression, developers need to take up their responsibilities. They need to start with a theme, a story, and a piece of content. And then design all interaction so that it supports and expresses that narrative.”
I fully support this point that there should be more support between presentation and game mechanics, also that emotions should be explored more. But that is not the only way to express in an interactive medium unless you want to make it single tracked.
“I think we would try to find a more elegant solution for the fact that walking down the side paths in the cemetery is irrelevant. But only because several players responded very negatively to this. I guess they didn’t realize that the game was not about spatial exploration. So we should communicate this better in the design.”
And here they answer one important question. But taking away the spatial feel seems odd because it is a big part of how public graveyards are designed and experienced at least in the western world, that combined with actually being able to visit graves and paying tribute in some way. The game can’t take credit for my emotional responses either because a photo of an old relative would given me more emotional and thinking material. It would be a stronger game if players were able to decide how their time is spent and how they more personally can relate to such a spiritual place.
I have repeated myself a bit too much and my English isn’t the best as readers may notice (if I have any :)), but hope some of it was constructive in some way. Just wanted to give my view of the whole game and some of the things being said, it’s a good game to analyze in my opinon.
I hope Tale of Tales really works on its conveyance of the theme and makes the games more interactive if that is their true goal. There’s so many ways this could become an awesome experience.