Dear Es­ther shares cru­cial his­tory with The Stan­ley Para­ble – both games were born as Half-Life 2 mods. The ease of use, low cost and ac­ces­si­bil­ity of Valve’s age­ing but ver­sa­tile en­gine has played a sig­nif­i­cant role in games like these be­ing made.

“You’ve got the Un­real En­gine, Cry En­gine, Unity and Source,” says White Pa­per Games’ Pete Bot­tom­ley, re­flect­ing on the tools avail­able to de­sign­ers look­ing to build a 3D game. There are plenty of op­tions, each with their mer­its, but Source is un­usu­ally rich with fin­ished games ready to be mod­ded, which makes ex­per­i­ment­ing with ideas far eas­ier. “You’ve got Un­real and, yes, you can mod it in soft­ware and stuff like that, but the thing about the Source en­gine is it comes with the

Half-Life- style game de­sign ap­proach and so there’s very much an em­pha­sis on sto­ry­telling. It’s al­ready got those kinds of el­e­ments in there that al­low you to cre­ate a nar­ra­tivedriven game.”

didn’t cre­ate this see­ing a genre emerg­ing and think­ing we could do some­thing within that. The game very much emerged from lim­i­ta­tions we had when de­sign­ing it, and I guess that’s why you see so many in­de­pen­dent stu­dios do­ing this sort of stuff, pos­si­bly, rather than peo­ple with more money to spend on AI and me­chan­ics.”

In The Stan­ley Para­ble, you con­trol an of­fice worker who finds his work­place sud­denly aban­doned. A nar­ra­tor ex­plains Stan­ley’s ac­tions be­fore you act them out, but you’re reg­u­larly pre­sented with the chance to defy the script, re­sult­ing in dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent end­ings and sto­ry­lines. Fol­low the nar­ra­tor’s path, and you may find a de­press­ing dis­ser­ta­tion on the ba­nal­ity of fan­tasy. Try to spice things up by jump­ing from a stock­room el­e­va­tor to a hall­way be­low, though, and you’ll be treated to a tear­down of the av­er­age player’s cease­less need for com­pe­ti­tion and thrills. The nar­ra­tor even plops a leader­board into the game and lets you press a big red but­ton, say­ing such fo­cus-grouped fea­tures make Para­ble more mar­ketable. These se­quences are hi­lar­i­ous and re­ward­ing as dis­cov­er­ies, but they also get to the heart of those lim­i­ta­tions de­scribed by Pugh. They’re mys­te­ri­ous and lonely, partly be­cause they have to be.

“Gone Home is the way that it is be­cause they just lit­er­ally didn’t have the re­sources to do any­thing with char­ac­ters,” Pugh’s part­ner and the cre­ator of the orig­i­nal Source en­gine mod ver­sion of The Stan­ley Para­ble,

Davey Wre­den, says. “For a lot of in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers, you can go in a com­pletely di­ver­gent di­rec­tion and pull it off as op­posed to do­ing what the big de­vel­op­ers are do­ing, and it never even suc­ceeds. If we had a big bud­get, I guess we would have had NPCs and we would have had the free­dom to make more choices, but those might not have been good choices.”

dear Es­ther has sold well over 750,000 copies, Gone Home sold 250,000 copies over its first four months, while The Stan­ley Para­ble sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week. Ether One, re­leased in March 2014, has re­viewed well with the ma­jor­ity of crit­ics, with a score of 81 on Me­ta­critic. The se­cret to suc­cess is speci­ficity, ac­cord­ing to White Pa­per Games de­vel­oper Pete Bot­tom­ley.

“You’re not try­ing to cater to ev­ery­one, [and] I think that’s re­ally im­por­tant,” he says. “We asked, ‘What’s the genre? What’s your in­tended au­di­ence?’ All the gen­eral ques­tions. We just kind of made what we wanted to play and then we put it out there. All of the triple-A games have to sell mil­lions of copies, so they’ve got to ap­peal to quite a lot of peo­ple. The re­ac­tion’s never go­ing to be as [po­larised] as ‘This is a real in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence’ at one end ver­sus ‘This is a walk­ing sim­u­la­tor’ at the other.”

Putting you in the role of a Re­storer, some­one who dives into the mind of de­men­tia suf­fer­ers and at­tempts to fix their minds, Ether One is more ac­tive than many of its peers. Items such as a lantern have to be used in puz­zles to unveil more of the story, but most of these puz­zles can be skipped en­tirely and don’t re­quire any bold in­ter­ac­tions. Rather than the do­mes­tic land­scape of Gone Home or the pre­pos­ter­ous, shift­ing of­fice of

The Stan­ley Para­ble, Ether One switches be­tween en­vi­ron­ments meant to evoke a de­men­tia pa­tient’s men­tal land­scape, mov­ing be­tween a ster­ile clinic set­ting, a for­bid­dingly drab se­ries of in­dus­trial lo­cales, and a tech­ni­colour cel-shaded world called Pin­wheel. Ether One treads that fine line be­tween what In­ter­net pun­dits have lam­basted as ‘walk­ing sim­u­la­tors’ and some­thing that is still recog­nis­ably a tra­di­tional game with ob­sta­cles to over­come.

“It’s hard when you’re deal­ing with sub­ject mat­ter such as de­men­tia, be­cause you want it to be a se­ri­ous game, but you don’t want it to be a se­ri­ous game that’s dry,” says Bot­tom­ley. “We tried to al­ways tie back into de­men­tia, but as far as pac­ing goes, we still wanted those, you know, ‘triple-A-style’ ex­pe­ri­ences. We have a co-nar­ra­tive that sets the over­all pace for the game: col­lect­ing rib­bons. It makes 70 per cent of the game op­tional. It was a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion, I’ll tell you that, be­cause it’s very game-y, that me­chanic, but that was the best

way that we could set the tone and the pace of the game.”

“With our game, it’s all about the in­ter­ac­tion with this other en­tity, the nar­ra­tor,” Pugh says, at­tempt­ing to pin down The Stan­ley Para­ble’s ap­peal. “A kind of sat­is­fac­tion comes from a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the player and the game. The game­play takes place within your mind rather than in the game. We do it a bit in the sense that the player has to kind of work out what this sys­tem is that they’re in­side of.”

While The Stan­ley Para­ble’s au­tho­rial con­trol is clear, the de­sign­ers of Ether One and Gone Home pre­fer to main­tain the in­tegrity of the fourth wall. “It was a good idea to pri­mar­ily have the house be be­hav­ing like a house would in the real world,” Full­bright artist Karla Zi­monja says. “We didn’t re­ally want it to be like, ‘I went to Dis­ney­land and I went into the Ghost House, and there’s things hap­pen­ing ev­ery time I step around the cor­ner.’ If you got too tricky with the re­ac­tions to the play­ers’ be­hav­iour, it started feel­ing very con­structed and it didn’t feel good.”

“Our in­tent was to have as light a touch as pos­si­ble and only in­ter­vene as the de­signer as the pres­ence of the per­son that built the game in very spe­cific cir­cum­stances,” Gaynor says. “We wanted to ap­proach a sink as a sink. You can turn on a sink and turn it off be­cause you can [in real life]. Sim­i­larly, we do not put down trig­ger vol­umes that say, ‘Light­ning flash one hap­pens when you walk through door A.’ It’s more like light­ning and thun­der could be out there just hap­pen­ing any time and its un­pre­dictable the way that na­ture is un­pre­dictable.”

Cru­cial to the suc­cess of all these games is free­ing the player to ex­plore unim­peded. Free of all but the most lim­ited guides and tu­to­ri­als, these ac­tion­less ad­ven­tures thrive on trust. “I don’t think that you can re­spect your player enough,” Wre­den says. “You have to imag­ine that they ac­tu­ally will go off and want to do work on their own to un­ravel this thing that you’ve cre­ated, that they’re


will­ing to go the dis­tance. At the same time, it’s re­ally hard to do all of this work and then just leave peo­ple hang­ing, to not re­solve some­thing, or to risk that a lot of peo­ple just won’t find some­thing that you’ve spent a lot of time on. Al­low­ing stuff to be hid­den – that goes a lot of the way to­ward cul­ti­vat­ing re­spect with your play­ers to where they feel they’re en­gaged. [I be­lieve] that you as a player are smart enough to both want to do that and to be able to ac­tu­ally make the ac­tions on your own.”

The ques­tion now is how the ac­tion­less first­per­son ad­ven­ture evolves. Vekla’s The Wit­ness looks to fur­ther ex­plore the ideas shared by these games, but over a sig­nif­i­cantly longer run­time. Gone Home, The

Stan­ley Para­ble and Ether One are all brief ex­pe­ri­ences – just a few hours long to com­plete in their en­tirety – while Vekla’s Jonathan Blow has said his team has found The Wit­ness to take 25–40 hours to fin­ish. Whether the main­stream block­buster pub­lish­ing ma­chine em­braces this style de­pends partly on its suc­cess, on whether such games can be made into longer ex­pe­ri­ences play­ers are in­clined to spend larger sums of money on.

“I want to see more dif­fer­ent, in­ter­est­ing things hap­pen­ing in all sec­tions of the in­dus­try,” Gaynor says. “I think it would be re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing to see what hap­pened if a game with a full triple-A bud­get gave them­selves those same con­straints: like, there’s no at­tack­ing in this game what­so­ever. I re­ally liked what Naughty Dog did with the non-com­bat sec­tions of The Last Of Us DLC where El­lie and Ri­ley were run­ning around to­gether, let­ting the player’s play be about char­ac­ter build­ing and a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the world… not as a means to killing zom­bies. But it could also be done badly, you know? There’s a rea­son Gone Home is only three hours long. We don’t know if a 20-hour game works in this for­mat and I don’t know nec­es­sar­ily what you would add to it to make it stand alone. I don’t know if that can sus­tain an en­tire pro­duc­tion, but it’ll be an in­ter­est­ing thing to see.”

TOP GoneHome’s Green­briar man­sion is over­full with con­flicts both real and im­plied, but not a sin­gle one re­quires stealth kills or head­shots.

RIGHT TheS­tan­ley Para­ble asks the player to make seem­ingly the most pas­sive of de­ci­sions – go right when told to go left – but these small, docile ac­tions lead down an ar­ray of ex­is­ten­tially har­row­ing paths

Davey Wre­den, cre­ator, TheS­tan­leyParable

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