A new wave of firstperson adventures is trading action for discovery. We talk to the pioneers of a genre to find out where it’s headed next
conflict lies at the heart of a great many videogames, but nowhere more so than in those that adopt a firstperson perspective. In the period between 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D and 2014’s
Wolfenstein: The New Order, the word ‘shooter’ has become the natural partner for ‘firstperson’, so successful has the genre been. But there’s a growing counterculture of developers putting the emphasis on what you can do with an eye-level camera without tying it to the extensions of a vehicle or firearm.
“There’s definitely a bit of a moment going on with these kinds of games,” says The Fullbright Company’s
Steve Gaynor, designer of housebound interactive mystery Gone Home. “There’s a lot of games that gave us the confidence to make a game like Gone
Home, games such as Dear Esther, and even Amnesia or Portal. There was this small movement of games before we came out that were starting to explore FPSes where they’re shooting, but you’re asking what else is going on.”
Gaynor worked on one of the latter himself: BioShock 2’ s Minerva’s Den DLC. “We saw isolated examples that could be expanded on,” he says. “That’s where Gone Home came from. We played a bunch of games based on environmental storytelling with audio diaries and stuff as a side activity, as a small support structure for the core loops of combat and levelling up, and we were like, ‘Well, what if that was the whole game?’ We see people saying the first hour of Bioshock Infinite was their favourite game in recent memory before the combat started. That has to build up before people say, ‘All right, what if the first hour of Bioshock
Infinite was the whole game? How do we make that interesting? How do we invest additional mechanics into making that the thing that you do, not just the prelude to an FPS?” finishing up The Stanley Parable, a surreal and self-aware adventure that shares the same conflict-free structure as Gone Home. White Paper Games, meanwhile, skipped the human drama of Gone Home and the Dadaist musing of The Stanley Parable, building its own actionless adventure in Ether One, an impressionist tale about living with dementia. Released within six months of each other – while the major FPS machines at Activision and Electronic Arts revved up for a new console generation – these games represent a relatively new avenue for creators. Vekla’s The Witness, The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To The
Rapture and Storm In A Teacup’s Nero pave the way for some of this actionless genre’s next steps.
“WHAT IF THE FIRST HOUR OF BIOSHOCK INFINITE WAS THE WHOLE GAME? HOW DO WE MAKE THAT INTERESTING?”
Gone Home is just one of the firstperson adventure games from the past year that has attracted critical acclaim – and a tsunami of Internet scorn – for embracing the design extremes touched on by post- Portal experiments such as Dear Esther. Gone
Home strips away firstperson norms, eschewing fighting, shooting and taxing environmental puzzles. It doesn’t even have the idiosyncratic, multistep puzzle solving of point-andclick adventures. And it isn’t the only game seeking to chart this space.
While Fullbright was hard at work on Gone Home, Galactic Café was
In place of action, these games share a set of defining characteristics. They’re all mysteries solved through observation and slight manipulation of the environment. You might pick up a key or a lantern, or press a button to reveal more space. They’re also all lonely experiences, largely devoid of other characters. Yet despite these shared features, it’s hard to say what this burgeoning genre should be named.
“Firstperson narrative exploration game?” suggests one of the primary masterminds behind The Stanley
Parable, William Pugh. “I don’t know. I know that we certainly