Tale spin

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Though wil­fully re­duc­tive, the ‘walk­ing sim­u­la­tor’ la­bel emerged from a crude at­tempt to cat­e­gorise the kind of nar­ra­tive-fo­cused first­per­son ex­pe­ri­ence ex­em­pli­fied by Dear Es­ther. De­trac­tors take is­sue with a per­ceived lack of game­play (in the tra­di­tional sense) and find no com­fort in brood­ing at­mos­pheres, lay­ered sto­ry­lines or the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore new places.

But the kinds of games that an­tag­o­nised those hide­bound play­ers were very much the prod­uct of a writer’s vi­sion, whereas in this is­sue we see two ex­am­ples of the vaguely de­fined genre as in­ter­preted by game de­sign­ers. The Wit­ness (p106) takes a sim­ple game­play premise and wrings what ap­pears to be ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity from it over the course of dozens of con­tin­u­ally sur­pris­ing hours. And then the game goes even fur­ther. Fire­watch (p114) sim­i­larly sub­verts ex­pec­ta­tions, though in an­other man­ner al­to­gether. Campo Santo’s tale of in­trigue, iso­la­tion and hu­man in­ti­macy puts its story first, and then hints at tra­di­tional me­chan­ics and gat­ing, be­fore re­veal­ing a much sub­tler take on player pro­gres­sion within its Wy­oming canyons and wilder­ness. And like The Wit­ness, Fire­watch pro­vides you with an un­ex­pected level of free­dom.

The par­ents of Joel Green might not have the pedi­gree of Jonathan Blow or Nels An­der­son be­hind them, but

That Dragon, Can­cer (p122) also of­fers a fresh take on slow-paced ex­plo­ration games, serv­ing up its melan­choly story in a se­ries of vi­gnettes that mix first­per­son sec­tions with minigames and kart rac­ing. It’s a lov­ing me­mo­rial to, and cel­e­bra­tion of, the child they lost to can­cer. But like

The Wit­ness and Fire­watch, it also points to a fu­ture of deep, nu­anced sto­ry­telling that needn’t be dis­en­gaged from ab­stract game­play.

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