Friday, July 15, 2016

Crit Links 15/7


The Unbearable Now: An Interpretation of The Witness

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Nintendoomed 2: Pokemon GO's Jaunty View

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The Power of Incentives - How Games Help Us Examine Our World - Extra Credits

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The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening's dungeon design | Boss Keys

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Wind Waker: The BEST Zelda Sequel? - Really Freakin' Clever

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What Old Games Got Right: Donkey Kong Country!

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At times, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feels very grounded. Despite it being a story about a supernatural visitor that causes the population of a small English town to inexplicably vanish, the world and its inhabitants often feel authentic. However, due to the way that you interact with and learn about the world, this feeling of “being there” is inconsistent. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a story about humanity, but the tools that you use to understand the story are unfortunately alienating.
/.../
It’s fine to make a deliberately paced game, but Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture makes even the simple act of entering and exiting a house a tedious chore. It’s really hard to overstate how slow the movement is. One could argue this is meant to enforce a reflective, observant approach to the game. In some respects this is true, but it also inspires resentment.
Missing a key story piece and facing the prospect of a long journey backtracking (and potentially getting lost) is demoralizing. After a certain point, seeing a mysterious item in the environment no longer raises the question of “What is that?” but rather “Is that potential clue worth the time it will take to walk over there?”  The fact that sometimes a mystery is just a trick of the light (rather than the quasi-defined light being itself) means that the slow speed actually hastened my pace to finish the game.
/.../
Because of your speed, you have plenty of time to reflect on the many contrivances needed for an interactive sci-fi story/religious parable. Why can’t I hop over waist-high fences? It sure is convenient that some of these doors are locked while others aren’t. How is this place littered with identical radios that all play a pre-recorded message on demand? Why can I only see the ghostly apparitions of some people and why aren’t these people more angry about their impending deaths?
Suddenly everything feels overly produced. You’re not person in a village. You’re a human-sized viewfinder navigating around a meticulously constructed set on which you mustn’t run.
/.../
What starts off feeling like an intimately human environment becomes a stifling set piece. Instead of relishing your presence in environment, you resent it and ultimately detach yourself from it. 

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Everything else about the game actively works to hinder your consumption of the story; an insane design decision considering that the story is literally the main selling point for this type of game.
/.../
The town of Shropshire is large, and it’s easy to get lost among the houses
/.../
The open world design also works against the story. Memories are spread far and wide, so it’s easy to miss things. There’s no map of the town, so it’s easy to lose your sense of direction; Shropshire is no predictable grid town, it’s curved and wide and there’s no clear sense of a “forward” direction. The floating orb is meant to mitigate this, but there are dozens are memories off the proverbial beaten path that you’ll miss if you just follow the orb.

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A sense of powerlessness runs throughout Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Taking place after all of humanity has died out, and after anything can be done about it, the game places the player in an ambiguous role: she is an observer and a wanderer, but she is not a character in any story the game is telling, and rather than creating her own, she has a story told to her, one whose outcome she cannot affect or alter.  
/.../If, like most games, the default movement setting was a jogging pace, with the ability to either slow down or speed up, Rapture would become a very different experience. Suddenly, the world would feel more open, more navigable; somewhere the player could roam free rather than stalk carefully.  
/.../
The player can shake door handles, rattle gates, knock over and over again but there is nothing to be done, nobody will respond, and there are many places the game simply doesn’t allow the player to go. The act of knocking on doors or rattling their handles is one of the few ways Rapture allows the player to interact with its world, yet remarkably this act is one that ends in failure every time.
/.../These physical boundaries that the game imposes all add to the sense of powerlessness felt; despite the world having ended, it is not yours, and you are not there to profit from disaster.
 /.../The inability to interact with these items doesn’t take away from any sense of realism in the game, it simply adds to the ways in which the player is rendered powerless.
/.../
The representation of the characters in the game is closely tied to the narrative they are involved in. So often, progress in videogames comes down to what the body is capable of; as the game goes on, more and more extreme physical feats are necessary to progress. Yet in Rapture, the only progression comes in the form of narrative progression, something that happens by reaching the end of a character’s story, which, every time, involves witnessing the final moments of their life. In other words, progression in the game actually involves the body failing, as opposed to triumphing; narrative progression comes at the cost of human lives, of the body falling powerless. Death in Rapture happens over and over again, and every time the body fails, and every time the player is powerless to intervene.

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Six Games that Celebrate Grace

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At first glance, it looks like an ordinary adventure game: here are some puzzles, here are some pieces, get to work putting it all together. But the more you play it, the more you realize just how much the game questions adventure game form.
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Future Vision. When Max first receives this power, it’s easy to think the writers are using his Future Vision to provide a narrative justification for the game’s hint system. But after making your way through a few of the game’s puzzles, you learn that it’s actually both a vital tool for solving puzzles and the site where Sam & Max dismantles the very process of solving puzzles in the first place. Usually when we talk about puzzles in video games (adventure games especially), we discuss them as a linear chain of cause and effect: you see a problem, you piece together bits of information you’ve gathered, and one revelatory moment later, you’ve solved the puzzled and you can move onto the next. In fact, researchers at UC Santa Cruz have identified this process as “the eurekon design pattern”, describing it as vital to understanding adventure games. With Future Vision at play, though, this cause/effect understanding no longer applies as neatly as we want it to. Predictions can be defied, and characters can act on information they received from future predictions. Sometimes, the act of gathering information is all you need to complete a puzzle.

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Most RPGs have NPC traffic. Gothic had a society.

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Stop calling Eastern European videogames pessimistic

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How the history of Japan's post-war peace movements can help us understand Kojima's older games-- and maybe Death Stranding, too.
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This Kojima aesthetic -- fusing Anime tropes, real-world events, American action films, and Japanese anti-nuclear rhetoric -- creates a world where Kojima can tell an anti-war story while still indulging Hollywood war fantasies. Despite his obvious love for military hardware and action scenes, MGS retains its anti-war, anti-nuke message because it happens in an absurd fantasy world unmoored from realism. No one in their right mind would join the military because of a Metal Gear Solid game, because we know real militaries don’t have walking tanks and psychic soldiers. Kojima gets to play with the same toys as Call of Duty, yet avoids the worry that he’s glorifying military action by depicting it.

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Fatherhood isn't an accessory, or an upgradeable character trait, or a snap-on mark of maturity or earnestness, as so many of this year's other games would have it be. It's an overwhelming source of agony and purpose that - yes, I am saying - is a bit like owning a vast and feathered cat.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Crit Links 16/6


Solaris (And How it Influenced Silent Hill 2) | Monsters of the Week

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Controllers Control Everything | Game Maker's Toolkit

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past's dungeon design | Boss Keys

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E3 2016 Thoughts and Analysis - Writing on Games (Bonus Episode)

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Game Commercials are Still Stupid - The Final Bosman

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Still Skeptical of V.R. - Five Challenges for Virtual Reality - Extra Credits

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Strategic Butt Coverings - Tropes vs Women in Video Games

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OXENFREE | Part 1: The Story

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The Kojima-P.T. Conspiracy (Silent Hills|Konami) - Monsters of the Week Special (feat. Fungo)

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Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Responsibly
Designing a morally questionable character doesn't have to railroad your players into moustache-twirling villainy: done right, it can present a truly meaningful study in compromise and complicity. Dan Nagler, designer and writer for Gigantic Mechanic, details a unified design strategy for creating this type of game protagonist: a character whose very moral ambiguity is leveraged for positive dramatic, emotional and educational effect. This theory is grounded in Gigantic Mechanic's design for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute's Senate Immersion Module, a digital and live-action hybrid game that puts students in the shoes of antebellum, slaveholding American politicians.

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Some people insist that reliance on psychotherapy or medication is a sign of moral weakness, while others deny that clinical depression exists at all. Playing Quinn’s game and allowing yourself to feel sad therefore becomes a form of social action; to play is also to take a stand, placing yourself on one side of a debate. The sadness intertwines with a kind of proactive anger to challenge the status quo and advocate for the disenfranchised. The role of art in unpacking incontrovertible sadness is more ambiguous.
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Ten years later I’m a little wiser and a lot less snarky, but I still don’t think Rabbit Hole is a good play. Its emotional punches land squarely on the nose, yet its point-of-view is absent. One ends up feeling manipulated by such a work: we are made to feel sad because, well, it’s sad to watch parents grieve for two hours. No one could argue with that. But what’s the point? There is no stand to take, and any anger evoked cannot be put to productive use. What can be gained by such an exercise? Then again, perhaps the idea that something should be gained is simply an indication of our discomfort with facing the undeniably tragic.
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The emotional core of That Dragon, Cancer is real—so real, in fact, and so personal, that I ended up feeling like an outsider looking in. I pitied the Greens for having to endure this awful series of events, but I did not come away feeling connected to their experience, or enlightened by it. This was not because the game tried but failed to connect with me, but because it didn’t. There is an insular quality to the vignettes; they are by and for the family Green (and, perhaps more broadly, others who have lived through similar trials). The “point” of the game is that this is how Ryan and Amy are dealing with their loss. I can praise or criticize it, but really my opinion is irrelevant. This game was not made for me, and reviewing it feels like a borderline intrusion into a family’s private mourning.
/.../
for the Greens, the titular dragon turns out not to be an RPG’s final boss but rather one of the Arthurian variety: an evil to be battled by brave Christian crusaders, pure of heart and clean of soul, who know that even losing the fight means an unfettered ascension to god’s heavenly kingdom. As a secular existentialist Jew, it may go without saying that by ultimately settling on this metaphor, the game started to lose me.
/.../
This is sadness. Our task, I think, when faced with this kind of sadness, is not to force it into an ill-fitting symbol, or turn it into a cause, or define its point. Our task is to sit there for a while and feel its invisible weight, its randomness and cruelty. But I understand why the Greens could not stay in that space for long. Who could? I applaud that they tried, and I am sorry for their loss.

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On its own, the tedium of The Ice-Bound Concordance would not be enough to carry the text to any sort of end beyond exploring the well-trod intersection between play and work. Instead, the game focuses on narrative layering in a way that attempts to discover the compulsive allure of difficult texts. The echoes of Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), or Borges’ Labyrinths (1962) are fairly apparent, but present also are the interests of electronic literary experiments like Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) or Michael Joyce’s Afternoon: a story (1994). Like these artists and their respective works, Reed and Garbe use The Ice-Bound Concordance to prompt its player to embrace the pleasures that come with deciphering, or maybe just interacting with, texts that actively resist comprehension.
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While KRIS wanted to write about “human dignity” and “going it alone,” I fought to keep the focus on the aforementioned spiral imagery and ever-growing threat of existential horror that haunted dark places below the facility. KRIS cared more about character flaws as they related to the personal sins of the writer whose mind the AI was meant to emulate, but I found its quest for self-discovery a dull moral tale about the need for humanism in the process of artistic creation. KRIS and I fought constantly, each of us vying for authorial control until we landed on an ending that disappointed the both of us. Ultimately, it was my struggle against KRIS that interested me most in The Ice-Bound Concordance. Even as that damn program insisted that “endings are the crux of this matter” and warned me not to “get distracted by the medium” because “it’s the material that’s important,” I found my time spent trying to use the book to redirect the program’s focus to fit my needs far more satisfying than coming to any sort of end. All of this is by design, of course, though the heavy-handedness of KRIS’s direction over-explains the themes of the game that were already revealed organically. Indeed, if The Ice-Bound Concordance has any noticeable flaws, they appear in the occasional pontifications about the toil of creation that are a bit too obvious, or with a few supposed tricks that are far too telegraphed in their method. But such observations may reveal more about my own hubris than it does an actual flaw in a game about the tension between authorial intent and editorial obsession.
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There’s something troublesome at the heart of The Ice-Bound Concordance that rests in the space between the physical copy of the book and the way a machine can see patterns and forms beyond the player’s perception. The complicated networks of mediation reveal that there are systems at play beyond the human faculties of language. From the actual mechanics of printing and editing to the complex codes that run software required to read the physical Ice-Bound Compendium, these unseen forces aiding in the processes of artistic creation trouble our concept of the single author. After all, we can never read Ice-Bound in its native form because it only truly exists in the raw data of the computer program and the obscure iconography of the compendium, each only readable when filtered through the computer. For us, that text will always be just beyond our scope of understanding—formless, changing, and warped as if it is partially obscured behind a translucent sheet of ice.

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Was it worth waiting an extra five years to play The Witness? No. What I played in 2011 was satisfying and intriguing enough.

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Undertale and The Witness have a lot in common, too. Both heavily reference a mid-90s game (Earthbound and Myst, respectively) but avoid cloying reverence, instead managing to say something new. Both games are extremely avant-garde, constantly requiring the player to think about genre convention and challenge it head-on. And like The Witness, Undertale is essentially one long ritual labyrinth. At the outset of the game, an assortment of characters and posted signs walk you through a series of trials where you're meant to tread a path that has already been clearly marked for you.

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In the end, Oxenfree is absolutely a game about teenage bullshit (forgive me for being a little disingenuous earlier). But it manages to revitalize that narrative by focusing on feeling more than substance; it glances at each character’s inner struggle rather than serving it up for a full meal. The supernatural side of the story carries some of the weight here as well, mirroring Alex’s own story of grief and isolation even as it performs the work of all good ghost stories: reinterpreting your immediate surroundings and enchanting the mundane. If you’re looking for a story that valorizes adolescent struggle by iterating all of its existential complaints, you’d be better off looking elsewhere. But if you miss the na├»ve wonder, the warmth of lifelong friends, and the thrill of still having rules to break, Oxenfree can take you back.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Critical Compilation - Firewatch

Firewatch and Games for Grown-ups

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Firewatch and the Consequence of Player Choice (Review/Analysis) - Writing on Games

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Firewatch Is Mine (No Spoilers)

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The Moving Pixels Podcast Looks at the Scenic Vistas and Human Drama of 'Firewatch'

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EXP Podcast #366: Firewatch Debrief

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FIREWATCH Theory - ROMANCE, MURDER, AND JANE EYRE?

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FIREWATCH Theory: DELILAH'S DARK SECRET. The True Firewatch Ending

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Firewatch is all about the dangerous assumptions the player makes as they play - the writable way we approach readable games. We work through the text-adventure backstory sequence at the start and think: sick wife, childless - Oh man, what a burden this must be for Henry.What a terrible thing to happen to him! The girls down by the lake go missing. Poor Henry - are they trying to frame him? Or is it something worse? We go home and ponder Delilah's tower, bright in the distance. What is her deal? What is she hiding from Henry? Is she watching him? The answer that suggests itself - it's the answer that suggests itself at almost every stage - is: of course she is.

Because Henry's special.

Henry's special because he's the main character in a narrative video game. Everything that happens must, in some way, be happening to him.

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In truth, if the trick that allows Firewatch to work is the player's suspicion that a single-player game must revolve around them, the irony is that, to expose this cognitive fallacy, the designers have to devise a game that does revolve entirely around the player. In order to make the player understand that they aren't the center of the universe, the designers must build a universe around them. Spoiler: games are weird because players are weird.

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I quite liked the ending of Firewatch, and I’d like to discuss my thoughts in some detail. I think it is ultimately very coherent on the level of theme (perhaps even over-obvious about it, by literary standards), and that if there are missteps, they’re in the midgame rather than the endgame.
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 thematically, the mystery is not pasted on, and the teenagers (the “third of the game” rendered “essentially irrelevant” according to Metro) play an important part as well. In fact Delilah explicitly spells out the themes for you in some endgame dialogue, to a degree that I would consider Too Much if I encountered the same dialogue in a novel. Ned Goodwin is a bad father (she says): he didn’t step up and deal with his responsibilities to his son. Delilah herself didn’t do what she should have done in terms of reporting that Brian was in the woods to start with. She says that when you care about someone, you are supposed to figure out how to take care of them, even if it’s tough to do so: a clear reference to your relationship to Julia, and perhaps to the way that she herself let down her ex-boyfriend.

Meanwhile, the forest that you were supposed to care for is burning down around you, thanks to the carelessness or self-serving impulses of various characters. That too might have been avoided if Brian hadn’t died, if Ned hadn’t gone into hiding, if you and Delilah had been more open with the authorities instead of trying to cover your own tracks in various ways. You and Delilah are in your way not all that different from the drunk teenagers you had to deal with at the beginning.

So. This is not primarily a story about your romance with Delilah. Delilah is a counterpoint for Henry, suffering from the same decision-making, responsibility-taking problems. The best you can do for each other at the end is direct one another to do the right thing, if it’s too hard for you to direct yourselves. To my mind, that’s a more interesting and poignant outcome than some implied hookup would have been, and one that suggests a genuine intimacy between the characters.
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Wapiti Station is a distraction, and it seems to have made some players think that the point of Firewatch was going to be a reveal of the terrible truth about what is really going on. Many games do work that way, after all.

The ending we actually get is more unusual, more mature, and more interesting, in my opinion, assuming we’re able to see what we’re looking at. It’s an ending that doesn’t really let Henry off the hook, or Delilah either. You screwed up. You’re responsible. And now you need to grow up and go do the scary and painful things that are your job.

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For the majority of Firewatch, my foremost emotion was jealousy. Many-splintered jealousy: primarily at the aforementioned freedom available to protagonist Henry, in his escape from the pressures of life and into somewhere truly beautiful. Partly at the easy repartee he and unseen deuteragonist Delilah were capable of – oh, to be capable of such effortless wit, such natural connection with another human being. Partly, and relatedly, at how much attention Henry was immediately given by an interesting person (later tempered by the realisation that, unfortunately, Delilah has just a touch of the manic pixie dream girl to her).

The contradiction is glaring: I want to be on my own, unbothered by anyone else’s needs, but I want to mean something to someone nonetheless. I don’t really want to be a farmer on his own in a field, day after day: I want people to be there but I don’t want them to need anything from me.

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Something happens in Henry’s life and he disconnects. He then sees what happened to another person who also tried to disconnect, and at least partly resolves to try and find a way back into his life. That, for me, is the emotional core of Firewatch, and no, it’s not tearjerker. Instead, it’s a story about a person, or rather persons. Too many writers try to make games about something – loss, existentialism, the apocalypse, abuse, childhood – instead of about someone. Firewatch is a videogame about its character and for that it stands out.

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Cibele takes on the online dimension of this phenomenon forthrightly, but Firewatch abstracts it away from even the mediating force of the Internet, instead exploring all the other ways we can have ineffable but meaningful contact with human life.
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Over the course of the game you realize that Delilah never expected to actually meet Henry and that shaped the context of their interactions greatly; all of their intimacy was akin to the way we anonymously flirt online or overshare with strangers we think we’ll never meet or see again. Contact without consequence, sating a need with none of the mess.
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Perhaps the quietest beauty of Firewatch is that Henry ran into the woods to get away from it all, but failed.

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The absolute worst instance so far has been picking up a photograph of Henry with his wife (who is a key element of the narrative setup and, I assume, the rest of the game) – which is to say it’s an emotionally charged object. So you pick it up to look at this woman who you love but are tortured about – good dramatic moment. Then you try to put it down and… you throw it carelessly on the floor. We did this over and over trying not to be so callous. Eventually by doing some pixel-perfect aligning we managed to get a contextual message saying “put back photograph” (instead of “drop photograph”)! Imagine our delight at this, so we push the button and… the hero tosses it on the ground again.

It’s hard to express how upsetting this experience is. It’s a kind of “uncanny valley” except for normal human behaviour. Most videogame protagonists are psychopaths one way or another, and so when they do thoughtless bullshit you don’t really notice. But Firewatch is attempting to represent an actual human being with feelings, a voice, preoccupations, a life outside the game mechanics, etc. So when that person, who you’re trying to believe in, is such a dick with the objects around him, it’s a real killer to any sense of identification or being-in-the-world.

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Henry ‘should have’ stayed with Julia. Delilah ‘should have’ called in that there was a minor at the fire watchtower. Henry ‘should have’ never taken the job. Delilah ‘should have’ never developed any feelings for a married man. Henry ‘should have’ never ran away.

Everything was an ‘I should have’. Or an ‘I could have’.
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Every character in Firewatch carries regrets. The narrative tells about those regrets, and the spaces they occupy, like smoke set into an old jacket. They never really leave you. Everyone ran away here for a reason.

By the end of the story, nothing feels wrapped up completely. Firewatch doesn’t pretend otherwise. Henry goes home. Delilah leaves before you ever see her in person. The boy’s body still lies at the bottom of the cave, rotting and posed grotesque by gravity. Life goes on.

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Campo Santo, the game's developer, doesn't want to offer me this path with Henry. He is selfish. Campo Santo has taken away the option to be flawless. They've removed an aspect of my agency and, in doing so, created a character who's arguably far more like us than any paragon of justice we'd like to create.
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Interactions with Delilah on the first night are informed by Henry's exhaustion and crankiness. There is no option to be perky, friendly or engaging, because Henry has just hiked a bunch of miles and he's exhausted. The opportunity to maybe open up and help Henry to grow as a person is provided at exactly the moment it should be: after rest, recuperation and a good night's sleep. His new life has begun. It's time for you to help figure out what that means.
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Delilah is never the antagonist. Delilah becomes your confidante and potential lover but also occasionally your accidental foil. This makes for a far more honest portrayal of confronting oneself than if her role had been that of a cackling villain. Your reactions to her may include frustration and disappointment, but ultimately they lead to a desire to understand and support her. It's a relationship based on growth, whether through Henry's obvious shift in personality or Delilah's steadfast stubbornness. It's a perfect metaphor for the average relationship with one's own self.

Delilah is a woman who has worked the job for nearly a decade and been seemingly unchanged by her experience. She's not growing, and the fact that Henry and the player are still not enough to change her mind in many situations is refreshing in a medium where you can often achieve impossible persuasion simply by having high enough stats.

You can encourage her to inform the police about the missing campers, but she won't. You can ask her to wait for you in the tower before evacuation, but she doesn't. By the final interaction, if you choose to ask her to come with you into the future, not even you or Henry believes that she will. In all these cases, she can be persuaded to agree with you, and to commit to doing these things. She just simply doesn't follow through on any of them. She's a rare thing in gaming: an NPC with agency.
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The game ends with Delilah remaining steadfast in her feelings, no matter what Henry says, and this is purely a narrative decision. It serves as a great footnote on how Henry has changed into a more empathetic person and starkly highlights how, despite Henry's influence, that empathy is still absent in Delilah. Or maybe it's an indicator of the difference in approach between men and women, or simply between Henry and Delilah. It's open to interpretation, and even the reading that Delilah is failing to empathize isn't condemning of her.

There are plenty of justifiable reasons why she might not choose to do so. While Henry has additional insight as a retrospective observer, Delilah bore witness to the majority of events as they unfolded, and as the game ends there's still the possibility that due to his empathy and growth, Henry's got this one wrong. None of the characters are infallible, and the player never has enough agency to make them so. And that's just perfect.

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If I want more than just those handful of photos, I can load up a new save file, find the camera again, and keep the shutter clicking until I’m satisfied.

But real life doesn’t provide that luxury. Sure, I could rent out the watchtower again, but Jon is two time zones away, and it wouldn’t be the same. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings. I’m not going to live the rest of my life through a viewfinder, but I won’t be a passive observer who looks but doesn’t see.

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what would happen if you went through Firewatch without talking to Delilah at all? How would that colour an experience that’s already about cutting yourself off? So that’s what I decided to do when starting over, and it was one of the bleakest experiences I’ve had in a game.
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Firewatch isn’t just about fleeing from life’s problems. To me, it’s more about finding solace in the sometimes fleeting connections we make with others. They may be temporary, but sometimes they come along when we need them the most. So when they do, speak up.

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In Firewatch your wedding ring is inescapable. Each time you climb up a rock wall or scramble into a crevass your wedding is there, visible: emblematic of a relationship that sits silently at the centre of Firewatch’s narrative. Your absent wife, who you’ve left in Melbourne, Australia, is represented by that ring. It’s a constant reminder that your escape, your avoidance, is a temporary solution. It’s Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, beating beneath the floorboards. It’s the visible representation of your regret and shame.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Moments - Opera Omnia

There are moments when we face ourselves and the horrors we have perpetuated. And there are moments when we do not. In Opera Omnia, there is a moment when we should have.

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How do we forgot what others are, and in turn what we are? How do we forget to treat other human beings as human beings? It's a question with many answers, one of which is that we utilize tools to distance ourselves, or indeed use people as tools, treat them as its instead of thous. If the only tool we have at our disposal is a hammer, then everything starts looking like a nail. If the only tool we have at our disposal is a boot, then the only interaction we can imagine with another is the boot stamping on a face. But we do not have to do our stamping in close proximity - if we abstract our interactions enough and create a framework for evil so that it appears both banal and commonplace enough, we can run through a a large set interactions/boots-in-faces simply as we go about our business . We can go "the distance", commit to our framework of abstract interactions and in doing so committing atrocities as science.

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In Opera Omnia, you play a state historian who is charged by your superior to prove certain theories the state has about the past migration routes of minority groups in your country. For this task you have tools for simulating migration patterns, population numbers, natural historical occurances such as famines, plagues, etc. You get these in the form of a very counterintuitive interface and data points situated in both the past and present which your superior doesn't even bother to assure you are correct but are indeed taken at face value. It all takes some time to wrap ones head around, and the complexities of the missions just grow with each completed assigment. But idle hands make for devil's playthings as they say, and thus you will just have to put all your mental effort and computational power at your disposal to become one with the interface and learn to think backwards like the system which you use for your calculations. See, if there were still people left in the city after the plague had decimated the numbers of the minority population, then plagues actually increase population if you see this simple fact through the interface which works its way from data points located in the present toward the past. Once you get the hang of it, it starts making sense. Kinda.

Well, the fact of the matter is that Opera Omnia was never meant to be simple, and that the obscurity of its interface furthers the theme of obfuscation at the hands of the imagined state which the protagonist works for. The object for that state was never to create a better future, but rather to craft a more convenient past under the veneer of objectivity. There are no theories which you can arrive at in Opera Omnia other than those already typed into the programs which you work in. Thus the conclusions are drawn before any real questioning can begin. The minority groups in Opera Omnia, Romani or what have you, are abstracted through so many layers that one doesn't know what comes out at the other end. Or wait, one knows exactly what comes out, because that was the point all along - to obscure and abstract through temporal aspects such as time/proximity, by unclear communication such as insinuations, by cherrypicking for misrepresentation, by making unfounded generalizations, by Othering, in general. Add to this a preoccupation on the protagonists part with figuring out the interface/"scientific" procedure and a promise of a future career at the institute by hir superior instead of evolving the capacity to ask tough questions and question superiors, and you have the parameters set for the possibility space of the data points in this little game of politics.

Withhin that framework, persecution can become a migration pattern. From there, the step to genocide becoming a famine isn't that big. The data points are there. The facts add up. It's all so godamn clean. It's so godamn clean that one of the problems toward the end of our assigments make no sense at all outside the scope of the simulations we toy around with - the theoretical assignment can only be proven if we treat the number 0 as a purely mathematical concept within the computational landscape of the programming itself. After all, 0 can be zero, nothing at all, or an infinity of numbers. Suddenly there's no end to the possibilities. And during all this, a disconerning question starts formulating in the back of my mind - what kind of government would want to cover up atrocities if not one which commits atrocities as we speak?

At that point, I wonder if the protagonist would even recognize a human being if zie looked one in the eye. And I wonder what zie would see if zie looked in the mirror.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

In the absence of long rpgs

For a second I thought that Telltale might become my new Bioware now that I don't have patience for 50+ hour videogames. Bioware has been that company which makes me buy a new console and always has me anticipating and following the progress of their upcoming releases. And then has me playing their games, and replaying them, and always loving them. I don't think there are any other companies out there which I've had this relationship with for the past 5-10 years. I used to love the Metal Gear Solids, and I used to play every new Castlevania and Silent Hill game, but there has not been anything quite like Bioware, meaning a company which makes a very specific type of game that isn't part of the same video game franchise/series and makes that type of game consistently awesome. For a while there was Cave and their shmups, but mostly it was their back catalogue that I explored, and by the time their games started reaching the Western hemipshere once again my interest in arcade shmups was already waning. And there was Nintendo and their trinity of Zelda, Mario and Metroid games. Of these, I'm mostly into Mario today, which I wouldn't have guessed ten years ago, but that's a franchise. There's all these indie developers whose upcoming projects I've been looking forward to (Aaron R. Reed, Jake Elliot, Terry Cavanagh, Jason Rohrer, etc). But none of these is Bioware. And then there is Telltale. But Telltale is not Bioware either.

Bioware for me has been about immersing myself in something for an extended period of time. It's been both about the hype before a game release, about playing the game with millions of other people, and then being part of the gaming communities collective memory. It's been about comparing their new game to their old ones, tracking the progress of their conversation systems and contextualizing their games in the video game industry as a whole. It's been about finding these types of charts endearing. It's been about always getting to know interesting characters in interesting settings, and about doing cool missions with these characters. It's really not the same thing in Telltales games. In my playthrough of Tales Of Borderlands, I got the opportunity to talk to the supporting characters by approaching them on my own maybe once or twice per episode. There were a lot of other conversations (seeing as the game consists primarily of these), but mostly in-action, as part of the plot development. One might see this as a strength and proof of good writing. But it's not the same thing as kicking back with your squadron in your spaceship, extensively getting filled in on their backstory and what problems they might have had with each-other while you were out doing something else. It's not the same as taking in what a character is asking of you in your own pace, then deciding how to answer, approaching the problem at hand. It's not the same as exploring a world and its characters in that RPG and Bioware specific fashion.

So I mourn the fact that I don't have the same relationship to Bioware as I used to have, and that there doesn't seem to me anything close resembling a replacement. jRPGs just never worked for me in the same manner, and I even tried replaying both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII just last weekend. I got five hours into FF7 and three hours into FF8, and this when playing without random encounters! No, I'll just have to remember those games through their soundtracks, because by God is the writing in them so bad that I honestly think many teenagers could come up with something better. And newer jRPGs, well, you know, they haven't gotten much better, and they sure as hell haven't become much shorter. And I guess that's part of the problem, that the open-world trend has taken over both the new Dragon Age/Metal Gear Solid games and the upcoming Zelda (although in the context of the Zelda franchise I'm actually intrigued).

But, you know, I did play Pillars of Eternity last year. It was awesome, even though it wasn't Bioware. And this year the new Planescape is coming out. Perhaps it's not so bad after all, it's just me being nostalgic as always. And then there is always Mass Effect: Andromeda. If they make just enough changes and don't make it too much of an open world game, I might give it a spin, and I might even get hyped before release. Well, if I get a PS4 that is, but I still don't know any other game which might convince me of doing so more than Bioware's upcoming one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Critical Compilation - Her Story

Moving Pixels Her Story Podcast

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Idle Thumbs Her Story Podcast

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Game Maker's Toolkit - How Her Story Works

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Her Story Gamers With Jobs Spoiler Section

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'Her Story' and the Birth of the Reader - Writing on Games

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Her Story: Walkthrough Guide and Discussion

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Barlow decided to make a game by himself and never looked back. His very first idea was to place the entire game around a police interview, and the reasons behind that are more intriguing than you'd think.

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[interview with Sam Barlow]
At it’s core it’s a game about a single case, a murder, and what’s different about it is that rather than taking the direction that other crime and detective games take of having you embody the detective and wander around, doing lots of gamey stuff, with the trappings of a police procedural – I’ve gone off on an extreme and created something where you have a lot less of the gamey stuff. Almost to the point of having none of it. I’ve abstracted things but this, in theory, gives you a much greater sense of the feeling of being a detective and, for me, fires a lot of stuff off in the brain that you get from that kind of police procedural material.
/.../
If you do a thought experiment and you imagine the holodeck exists and you’re standing in a fictional world, and to all extents and purposes you’re there – for me, at that point, all the things that make art just disappear. If I’m in this virtual space and it’s all happening to me, and I’m reacting exactly as if it IS happening to me, I completely lose that layer that enables me to parse something.

If I’m watching a movie, there’s this wonderful thing where you have the floating viewpoint of the camera and a lot of your responses to the movie are as if you were in the position of that camera, spying on things, looking at things, reacting to the action with movement. At the same time you’re doing this magic act of putting yourself in the shoes of the characters but also being outside of them, so you’re aware of their situation, you have dramatic irony, you have that whole concept where you’re able to think of things on a more thematic level – that’s what makes movies really interesting and makes them more than just soap operas*.

Part of me, when I’m trying to make games that are that immersive and virtual, is aware that there needs to be another thing that is pushing against it and deliberately defying it. With Shattered Memories, we deliberately did things that are specifically designed to take you away from that character, Harry. When we’re cutting back and forth to the therapy sessions, we’d occasionally spawn Harry in a slightly different place to where you’d left him and some of the things that he said were there to deliberately push that.
/.../
RPS: We mentioned performance as an aspect of a psychiatrist’s job. The same must be true of a detective?

Barlow: Yes, that whole aspect of performance is key to the police interview. With the stuff about torture coming into the public domain now, I had that in the back of my mind while I was working.
/.../
It isn’t about uncovering contradictions – some of those contradictions and lies are interesting because they lead to a different truth.
/.../
You were talking earlier about how people take skeletal things and put flesh on them and particularly with women accused of murder, all of the tropes come out. When somebody is trying to get the death penalty, to show that the accused is beyond human, you get these concepts of the femme fatale and all of that. On some of these YouTube videos, people are analysing the way that this woman cries – is she crying in the right places or in the right ways? No, they’ll say, she’s deliberately crying, or she’s flirting with the police here. She’s evil! All this kind of stuff comes out.
/.../
Overall, Her Story ends up being about the bigger picture rather than the crime.
/.../
I think there’s a bigger point that comes from all of this. It’s not just about armchair detectives, it’s true of everything. People take very small pieces of information and extrapolate from there, ending up with conspiracy theories. You just have to look at some of the stuff in the games industry recently. The level of invasiveness and the way that people concoct crazed theories around stuff, which is essentially peoples’ lives!
/.../
We’ve almost now become immune to reality. There’s a realness to VHS and scrappy footage that just doesn’t work on us anymore, partly because of found footage films mimicking reality. If I watch an advert for tissues or bread, I will be in tears. A little boy pedalling up a hill and his bike breaks, and I’m in tears, crying because of the artistry of this completely synthetic thing. But yet I can sit and watch video footage of these people who have lost loved ones, or been forced to do horrendous things that they’ll never recover from, and we’re able to sit and watch it and eat it up and post popcorn gifs on the internet.

That’s partly what I’m trying to figure out in my head with Her Story.

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Her Story creator wants the truth about the game's ending to stay a mystery.
/.../
"My notes and my current understanding is that there's a definitive version of the story that I have in my head," Barlow said. "Certainly of what happened prior to the various interviews; this was important as well because all of the detectives' dialogue was fully scripted as well.
 "Obviously when you remove all the questions of the detectives — obviously there are a lot more questions — but for the detectives to be asking those questions and have their line of inquiry that would have to be quite well thought out." Barlow has no plans to release those detective questions, though he did consider it for a short time.

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lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.) I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it? So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it.
/.../
let’s get this bit out of the way: yes, the thing is crammed with tropes. It’s a Gothic story, fundamentally, the bones of Radcliffe and Bronte still visible under the wrappings of more modern genres. The duality of persons, the midwife, the poison, the significant pictures that are usually kept covered up; the obsession with mirrors and fairy-tales, doppelgangers and disguises, the forbidden places within the home, the family secrets preserved by servants, the false parentage. No, of course it’s not plausible. This kind of story has never been plausible. It never made sense that Mrs. Rochester could hang out in the attic that whole time without Jane finding out, either. The Gothic is a way of talking about irrationality, darkness in the soul, and the fact that people aren’t consistently just one thing or another. Though the Gothic is full of women who might, in the words of some of the reviewers I linked above, fall into the “crazy bitches” category, it was also often written by and for women, concerned with domesticity, and touching on family loyalty and family perversion. “These tropes are really old tropes!!” is obviously not an excuse of any kind: I don’t think the mere presence of recognizable tropes is an automatic artistic demerit, but what is harmful or derivative remains so regardless of length of pedigree.
/.../
So what truth did I see in all this? I think: the social mutability of self, which is something that everyone inevitably experiences. It has been especially present in my life the past few years. I travel more and have increasingly non-overlapping social circles, so that I’m playing the role of native and foreigner, novice and expert, relatively rich and relatively poor, depending on environmental factors that change sometimes many times a day. And for reasons of career, I’ve also needed to give more thought to actually managing all this, rather than just observing it in a bemused way. Here’s a thing that happens to me pretty frequently. I’m at a game-related conference. I may be wearing a speaker badge. A young man comes up to me; often he’s a student, sometimes a bit older. He asks me what I’m into, game-wise, and I say that I work in interactive narrative. This is the starting gun. He begins to tell me all about interactive narrative. He has deep theories about interactive narrative, in fact, which are usually grounded in having played a couple episodes of The Walking Dead, or maybe the end of Portal or Bioshock. Typically the insight he wants to share with me is something like “it’s really hard to have both story and gameplay” or “it ruins the story if you let the player make important decisions” or “twist endings, man, whoa”. There isn’t really a stopping point for me to say anything. Sometimes he may transition from telling me his insights to giving me some advice about how I might “break into” the field, e.g. by working in QA, or maybe teaching myself to program a bit. Gently, he may tell me that I shouldn’t be scared of code and it might really help me out to learn some. If I somehow manage to get a word in and mention that I do code, the fact that my language of choice isn’t C++ inevitably entitles him to blow this information off again. Sometimes at this point I excuse myself from the conversation and go find someone else to talk to, or the bathroom, or a drink, or just the nearest exit. Just occasionally, the incident gets an alternate ending: someone Student has heard of and respects — his professor, an older dev, a journalist — comes over and says, “HI EMILY! It is great to meet you! I love your work!” Student becomes confused, then silent. Professor and I have a conversation instead.
/.../
It’s not lost on me that I’ve needed to learn a lot of traditionally feminine-coded and traditionally less-valued skills (I pretty much never wore makeup before a couple of years ago) precisely in order to navigate an environment where I was shown less respect as a result of being female. I don’t think all this is about discovering how to be fake or how to deceive people, but how to be myself in a way that other people will best connect with, and that will draw the least negative feedback. Even if it’s not fair to have to think about these issues, what happens when I don’t think about them gets in the way of doing my job. When Student is talking down to me like I’ve never read a CYOA or opened a terminal window, he’s not having a conversation with me as I am, but with a projected imaginary version of me that I’ve failed to dispel. Maybe it’s not really my fault as such, but we’d both be having a better time if I could change that. The more authentic self, in other words, is sometimes also the more deliberately enacted and performed self. And this is the point (finally!) where we get back to what I liked about Her Story. Eve is both the more false and the more true member of that pair. She knows what she is doing and why she is doing it. She is more confident, braver, a superior liar. Hannah is less competent at being bad, without being a better person. Eve, one feels, would not have lashed out and killed Simon by accident. She might have killed him on purpose at some point, if she felt she had to, but not by accident. As exaggerated as the story incidents were, as much as the virginity story squicked me out, as little as we have in common in circumstance or (I hope!) personality, there was still something about the deliberate self-making of Eve that spoke to me.

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On that last interview, it's important to note that the clips you bring back with every search are ordered chronologically rather than given a permanent random ordering. This seemingly minor detail is significant because the final interview clips often get edged out of a search's five clip cap. This is an astute way to bake hard answers into the game without having to gate them artificially, thus retaining Her Story's sense of openness.

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If the player were able to act like an actual researcher, the game wouldn’t be very exciting.  Dumping an ordered list of all the videos and sorting through them in order would have satisfied by academic inclinations, but it would have drained the story of any mystery or sense of discovery.
/.../
Her Story does an uncanny job of modeling some aspects of real technology, while at the same time ignoring the fundamental purpose of that technology.
At times, it borders on being disingenuous. Her Story presents something that looks like the 1990s, but it only contains a small portion of the rules that governed that world. Why not embrace the artificial limits and change the entire setting into a fantasy realm where memories can be magicked away or a cyber-punk future where computing rules are more science fiction than fact?
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Her Story is about investigating people’s true nature with a set of tools that have had their true nature diluted.

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with the exception of Narcissus, all of the stories named above are about women. In her essay Book as Mirror, Mirror as Book, Veronica Schanoes points out “the historical association between femininity and the trope of the mirror,” particularly in fairy tales. Schanoes also discusses the long tradition of Eve—the biblical first woman and humanity’s first sinner—being portrayed looking into a mirror. “Eve’s connection with mirrors suggests the medieval emblem of vanitas, always depicted as a woman gazing at herself in a mirror,” she writes. In Her Story, Eve—the first twin to appear on-screen and arguably the first to sin, by sleeping with Hannah’s husband—presented with a set of psych-test pictures, Eve can’t help but see herself in them. In the first, she sees Rapunzel, and describes a girl trapped, “looking out the window because her mother won’t let her out.” In the others, she tells tales of mistaken identities, affairs and women wielding sharp objects. It’s practically a full confession.

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It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable.
/.../
I think, had Her Story been significantly more rigorous as a puzzle, it would also have lost some of its emotional impact, and some of its mechanical focus. I like that you really can find out a satisfying amount without ever diverging from the main mechanic the game offers you at the outset.
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Aisle was, among other things, about how a character remembers his ex-lover. It’s explicitly a man’s feelings about a woman. Her Story attempts this much trickier, less explored territory of fiction: a woman in her own words.
/.../
I feel like this was a plot that could have been built out believably, deeply. Yet I find it so frustrating because despite being called Her Story, it keeps dodging the opportunity to say anything about women’s real experiences.
/.../
Her Story is incredibly good at jolting the part of our brain that seeks out motivations. I’ve read once that humans can have trouble calculating some logic problems, but when those problems are framed as checking other humans for cheating, we find the same logic much easier. Our ability to reassemble complex stories is heightened when we suspect other humans of deceit.

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What’s interesting is how Barlow doesn’t seem to sweat the idea that the mystery might be solved quickly, or whether that mystery itself is all that important to Her Story.

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So I’m assuming we all took slightly different routes through the story and I’d be interested to know your favourite or most memorable AHA moments because I’m thinking they’ll vary due to those different pathways.

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There is a freedom in Her Story, and it is the freedom that comes from the game getting out of the way: you don't have to arrange your thoughts for the computer to then check at the end. You don't have to show your workings. It's not Cluedo. You don't actually have to arrange your thoughts at all. Ultimately, the game's about prejudice as much as detective work; it's not Her Story but Your Story as you weigh the evidence and apportion motives as you see fit. There is a neat thematic reason for all of this, I suspect, just as there is a neat thematic reason that the logo on the opening screen fades in and then slowly fades out again, one letter at a time. A narrative can never belong to a single person for very long. Once we become historical artefacts, we belong to everyone, our agency is steadily erased, and our actions are open to everyone's interpretation - or lost for good.





* "There is a spectre haunting videogames: the spectre of the holodeck. Developers, fans and the media are united in doing its work. Janet Murray first summoned the word to game studies, but it has long since escaped her control. In its purest form it is the teleological fantasy that games will one day achieve the status of perfect simulation: computerised experiences of such fidelity that they consume all five senses and immerse the player in a fake reality. But we pay tribute to it whenever we measure our games against it, or imagine that it is the end-goal of the medium; whenever we repeat simple platitudes that immersion is better than distance or the intuitive better than the obtuse. 

At bottom, holodeck thinking implies that mimesis is the highest ambition of videogames. But games exist as more than reflections of reality: game places are not only representations of imaginary locations, but are themselves actual places, with all the characteristics of space as we know it; game systems are not only representations of life systems, but independent formal arrangements with their own terrors and joys. This truth acts against the teleological tendency of the holodeck because it implies that a game released two decades ago can be as interesting, complex or beautiful for its own merits as a game released last month."1

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dreaming in gamespaces

One can be a gamer in many different ways, a notion I explored earlier. I just realized another aspect of being a gamer - where one's mind wanders when it is time to choose one's creative weapon of choice.

I recently saw The Martian, a sci-fi flick about a guy being left behind on Mars. And as often is the case when I interact with works of fiction (but also academic literature), I got inspired and started imagining scenarios; by projecting the possibility-space of what could occur in the movie later on; by trying to figure out how scientific the movie was; by trying to put myself in the position of the main character; by exploring the life of the main character after the end of the movie, and so on. My mind was exploding with creativity, a reaction I often have when watching an interesting movie, where really half of the experience is just me thinking about alternatives to the experience at hand, me extrapolating interesting things about the movie and toying with them.

It also so happened that when watching The Martian, I remembered an idea for a video game which I wanted to make some years ago wherein you are a person in a spaceship with just a couple of minutes to live/play. A similar idea has since then been explored in Orchids To Dusk (Pol Clarissou), which in turn has conceptual similarities to earlier web-based works 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (Petri/Kloonigames) and We the Giants (Peter Groeneweg), but notes for my idea are still scribbles all over the pages of my copy of Alain de Bottons Religion For Atheists, which inspired me to imagine this spaceship game about connectivity and spirituality. I mean what better way to realize the connectdeness of everything than on your own deadbed, seeing the planet as a "pale blue dot"? I imagine going to ones own funeral might also work - someone should make a video game about that!

Anway, watching the Martian something hit me - why do I start realizing video game ideas both when watching a movie and when reading a work of non-fiction? Because I am a gamer, of course! ;) Seriously though, my thinking patterns say something about me. I've never made a video game in my life, but I do give videogames a lot of thought. And even though words pop up in my head, often I want to insert them into a videogame of some type. I love a lot of things about video games, but one of the things I love the most is inhabiting game spaces. Many of the games I play these days (Her Story, Beginners Guide) don't have spaces you can traverse through and inhabit in the sense that you might traverse a space in games such as The Legend of Zelda or Baldur's Gate, but nontheless I love inhabiting game spaces and associate just walking around strongly with video gaming. And even though I love exploring game spaces conceptually and many of my favorite video games have these sorts of spaces, I'm happy that modern adventure games such as Telltales are linear and have game scenes rather than game spaces, as compared to oldschool point-and-clicks which were all about game spaces but then also all about backtracking through those spaces and being stuck in them far too long.

I have less patience these days and I'm more interested in story than ever before, and thus just exploring game spaces for the sake of it doesn't cut it, which is why I didn't play Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, or Fallout 4. But I'm not completely satisifed with the interactive movie solution presented in Telltales games either. Perhaps this is why I enjoy games such as Consortium so much, where you both have a very clear sense of space where it's all about mise-en-space rather than mise-en-scene, but you also have a lot of character interaction and story (all of the game takes place aboard a ship and thus there isn't much transportation necessary between the good bits). Pathologic is similar, yet different: there, the characters and world-building is awesome, and there is also a clear sense of space, but most of the time is spent walking between interesting encouters, which takes far too much time and is something I hope Ice-Pick Lodge address in their upcoming remake, and not solely by making the walking bits/combat/scrounging system more intrusive/encompassing - then it just becomes a gamey survival simulator which has too little of the character/world building elements which I love about game spaces.

So what do I love about game spaces then? It's the sense of being somewhere specific, really connecting to that place, something which is easier to do when it has quality characters, and harder to do when it's empty or not fully-realized as a space and instead is more like a movie. It's also easier to get this sense of place when it's filled with characters that live and breathe (Life Is Strange, Undertale) as opposed to filled with audiologs of characters talking about the spaces at hand in the past (Bioshock, Dear Esther, etc). "Audiologs" exist in Life Is Strange and Undertale as well (I imagine it's really hard making a game as deep as Life Is Strange with as much a sense of space and character exploration without lazy environmental narrative "crutches" such as diary entries, newspapers, etc) but they do so as complements to exploring the space at hand rather than abstracting it completely. I guess that when I wish to be immersed in other worlds, I primarily want to be so through tightly-knit video game spaces with the traits mentioned above, and I actually don't wish to be immersed through text simply because I don't find text immersive enough. Text inspires me, non-fiction or fiction with for example sci-fi concepts such as the ones explored in Mievilles or Egans books especially,  and I can imagine movie concepts, sure, but a good RPG such as Planescape Torment or an adventure game such as Pathologic makes me really want to live and breathe somewhere else for a while. Now then, I'm off to immerse myself in some Oxenfree.