FROM THE SOURCE
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
“ALLOWING STUFF TO BE HIDDEN – THAT GOES A LOT OF THE WAY TOWARD CULTIVATING RESPECT WITH PLAYERS”
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