Visioning games – what we can learn from games like Dear Esther and Journey

Statement: The procedural, interactive and (potential) non-linear nature of games allows for them to address the human mind in ways none of the more static and linear media of the past can. But very often, because games are locked up in a cage of conventions and expectations to their design, they don’t cover even a fraction of the emotions or narrative of their artistic counterparts.

I am both a gamer and game developer, but I still look at the vast majority of games today as merely “fun” gimmicks. With only a few notable exceptions, games are still structured around juvenile stories and rigid, competitive gameplay. As a result, to quote Scott Brodie, “the industry as a whole looks uninspired and adolescent by comparison to other popular art forms”. I completely agree with Scott, and I think it’s such a pity, such a waste.

In that regard, here are a few questions I think is important to discuss. Can one make incentives to play video games that are not driven by progress bars or high scores? These are mechanics that go well with an emotion like fun, but do they blend well with other complex or serious emotions? And might the fanatic pursuit of extrinsic rewards be the reason we don’t have game equivalents to the contrast between a romantic comedy and a documentary film?

After waiting for what felt like an eternity, the gameosphere recently got to play Journey and the remake of Dear Esther. I found a number of similarities in their approach to game design. Similarities that seem to follow a few growing trends, though mostly in the indie scene. On a personal level, games like these bring me much hope for the future of our medium, and I find them to be perfect examples from which to vent some thoughts I’ve been having for some time, about games in general.

Hopefully, my grave portrayal of current affairs is about to change. A lot of recent games’ approach to form, pace, playtime and focus are well worth discussing and possible to learn from.

Gameplay focus

All too often, it seems as though games are made with an exclusive focus on fun. They are designed to be fun, and most people expect them to be fun. This is not necessarily bad per se, but if all developers succumb to this focus I believe it gravely hinder the mediums potential diversity, and excludes a lot of people with interests other than the traditional gamer. Both Dear Esther and Journey are bold enough to change this approach.

One example is that they don’t hesitate to put the player in uncomfortable situations. Such as the part in Journey where you walk for minutes against the freezing snow, slower and slower, until you drop from exhaustion. This part is not included to be fun or entertaining, but is still an essential part of the struggle and experience. The same goes for the entirety of Dear Esther, where the gameplay will only let you walk slowly through an environment.

This type of gameplay forces the player to start interacting with games through exploration and analysis, and not only through mastery of rigid systems and extrinsic awards (a shift in focus at least I find very appealing). It is not hard to see how hordes of enemies or a progress bar would ruin this accomplishment completely.

Many game enthusiasts criticize gameplay like that of Dear Esther and Journey as having no challenges at all. Apparently, the only acceptable challenge for a game is fear of punishment, like losing fictitious points when failing. Have we become so accustomed to games as meaningless, unforgiving, cold-blooded and rigid goal-based systems that we miss the point so easily? Or maybe we just don’t appreciate the point, while narcissistically expecting (and demanding) all games to fit us specifically?

It’s refreshing to see how thatgamecompany and thechineseroom are bold enough to take their visions seriously, even while designing gameplay. This is an obvious contrast to a lot of huge blockbusters like, say, the Uncharted games, that in my opinion do not follow their own visions at all. Beyond all the brilliant details, the core gameplay (and what one actually does during 70% of the games) ultimately makes me feel like a sociopath committing genocide. I would be surprised if this didn’t directly contradict Naughtydog’s main design goals, even though it might have supported some immediate wallet goals.

Rewards

Related to the last section, but more specifically – might the current shift towards more extrinsic rewards ultimately limit the game designer’s palette of emotions? Might this be one of the reasons games end up exploring the same narrow emotions again and again?

Through examining what the player are thinking about and striving for while playing, we can find out what the games are really about. And in the end, the subtitle of most games could just as well be ‘The Epic Adventure of Numbers and Progress bars’. In other words, most games’ core goal is to satisfy its player by letting him or her master the manipulation of mechanical rules and maximizing the right numbers. This is a description of sports (which of course has its place) but it is not necessarily art, or something good at provoking new emotions. For instance, one would have to change the gameplay of chess dramatically if you wanted the player to feel remorse when killing an enemy pawn.

A recent trend, and obvious example of extrinsic rewards, is the achievement systems integrated in almost every digital distribution platform. While they indeed work for some game types, these rigid systems are ruthlessly imposed on all games regardless of whether it fits, thus compromising their communicative integrity. Just imagine if book publishers demanded 10-word sentences every 20 pages, or movie publishers required specific dialogue every 10-minute during a movie! Most people would, and rightfully so, find these scenarios absurd, and we shouldn’t accept it in our medium.

Eventually most games might end up looking so much like everything that they start looking like nothing. To be blunt, this is not intelligent design. Actually it feels more like publishers are designing our games, rather than game designers. It might keep games fun and addictive (as if this was a positive trait), but not much more. And I digress, this is not really unlike the strategies employed by drug dealers to build their customer bases, and we might just as well defend the “value” they provide to their customers.

Pace and imagination

Journey and Dear Esther include a lot of spaces where the player is allowed time to dwell, explore and let his or her imagination roam freely. When games dare to linger and to leave the space needed for thought, something really special happens and you are free to “fill in the gaps”.

“We build all this detail into the world, and in many cases the player whizzes through it at a breakneck pace. Puzzles and ‘down time’ are like a sorbet in a multi-course meal, in that they allow the player to better appreciate whatever comes next. Without those pacing contrasts, everything becomes a numbing blur of relentless action[…]” – Josh Weier (Valve)

It’s not about making incoherent and cryptic experiences, but that spoon-feeding the player every last detail often removes a lot of the intended impact. Remember how the simple “graphics” of letters in a book can create whole worlds and emotions. I think one would reach a deeper level of thought, if gamers were encouraged to interact more by imagination and analysis.

Playtime

Both Journey and Dear Esther have been criticized for their short length. I can see why this supposed “value for money” is a logical preference for some hardcore players, but why on earth is a longer playtime still considered a mark of quality? Are we making easy entertainment and not experiences? Or maybe it’s about time we start judging literature by how long it takes us to read it and not by its content?

If the real goal of your project can be achieved in one hour of playtime, I cant imagine why you would want to waste your player’s time for 7 hours extra. It is indeed unnecessary, and does not respect your player at all.

The solution: design a vision and not a hit!

It is obvious that thechineseroom and thatgamecompany kept their visions as a basis for all design choices during the development of Dear Esther and Journey respectively. And I mean for every single design decision. If an aspect of a game compromises the project’s intent and vision, it should of course be discarded – even though some people might find the feature to be fun. This comes quite naturally to all other forms of expression, isn’t it about time it becomes the norm in games? Just imagine what Guernica would have become if Picasso decided to include some slapstick for broader appeal.

Braid isn’t about trying to appeal to the maximum number of people — it’s about appealing to exactly the right people. – Jonathan Blow

This approach became the solution for Frictional Games, and part of what makes Amnesia so disturbingly successful. They decided to remove things like combat, death penalties and competitive gameplay (watch this great talk) because these seemingly natural aspects of their game conflicted with Frictional Games core immersion goal. And thus, they replaced plain action (mastering a system), with real emotion (making it so scary on its own that it doesn’t matter if your death has no in-game penalties) — to great success.

The audience in a movie theater is not exposed to any real threats or punishment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be engaged in the experience. If emotional immersion is one of your goals, please remove superfluous mechanics that ultimately hinder this!

Also, gameplay and narrative often seem to be held separate, when they in fact should be a result of the same vision. We say things like “I’m making a game about [insert narrative] and its going to be a [insert genre]”. And just like that, gameplay is plastered on top like wallpaper, when it in fact should be designed from the ground up in relation to the projects vision. This is not easy, but people shouldn’t be playing a vastly different story from what they are being told.

In other words, I would like more designers to approach narrative and gameplay inextricably. I strongly believe core goals and visions should come first, always, and a lack of doing this is gravely limiting our medium from reaching its full potential. It’s not about hard-to-grasp cryptic meanings — the vision could both be extracted from the deepest chasm or a shallow stream, and be both hard to grasp and obvious. What’s important is that this intended vision is kept at the center of every single design choice during the whole process. Quite unlike the Uncharted series, that naively expects you to feel like a hero while slaughtering a country. I mean, how can we sacrifice the most basic of expressions and expect to keep our integrity as a serious expressive medium?

Does high score, multiplayer or even death penalties support your visions? No? Scrap it. Make the game about experiencing it, not beating it! It’s after all an interactive medium, so instead of punishing players with rigid systems I would love to see more games role-playing along with me.

As we have seen, intrinsic rewards can also be a strong motivator to continue playing, and gameplay that is not designed exclusively to be fun can actually enhance the experience greatly. Also, if superfluous content is removed, people are given the space to experience what you really want them to. I think that remembering these facts will result in more awesome games, as well as give games the potential to appeal to a much broader audience. (Publishers, that was for you!).

Concluding thoughts

Today it seems as though game enthusiasts almost blindly defend their medium if someone as much as hints towards critique. This is a tendency I find very destructive, and I think we have the responsibility to take most critique seriously (as well as a lot to learn from it).

The fact that the industry is structured around commercial profit makes it quite conservative and hard to change, but as many recent games have demonstrated — maybe one does not need to follow yesterday’s principles that slavishly to be successful today?

As mentioned, points made do not apply as strongly to all kinds of games, like those aiming simply to be competitive. But I wholeheartedly think all games, regardless of genre, has a lot to gain from studying some of these growing trends.

With the increasing average age of players (not surprisingly by one year, every year), the audience’s preferences shift. Big publishers often seem to be swayed by economic arguments, and there is both the audience and demand for more of these kinds of experiences today!

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17 Responses to Visioning games – what we can learn from games like Dear Esther and Journey

  1. Nice post. Enjoyed reading it.

  2. Takura says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts and ideas. Learned more than I had expected.

  3. Travis Pynenburg says:

    “Many game enthusiasts criticize gameplay like that of Dear Esther and Journey as having no challenges at all. ”

    A friend and I argued over this issue. We were debating whether or not a video game needed “challenges” in order to be considered a “game.” It seems that Jesper Juul, in his book Half-Real, states that a game must include variable outcomes that the player is emotionally attached do, and that the player must exert effort in the process of playing. It’s arguable whether or not Dear Esther presents the player with any real “challenges” that require effort beyond finding which specific area will allow trigger the player’s advancement. It also has one fixed outcome, though the inner monologue is randomized along the way. So by Juul’s definition, Dear Esther doesn’t seem like much of a “game,” but more of an interactive experience.

    Granted, I don’t really care what we call it. Dear Esther, video game, videogame, interactive narrative, or even just interactive experience, is an excellent experiment in emotive, interactive storytelling. I’m just curious if games like Journey and Dear Esther are moving away from the traditional “game” structure and are moving more toward what Janet Murray envisioned, where “games” are played as interactive drama (a la the Holodeck).

    I just wrote an English Literature thesis that featured Journey and it’s excellent ludonarrative resonance. I think that Journey, more than Dear Esther, is a “game” and it uses its gameplay to enhance its narrative, and vice versa. I think the reason I feel differently about Dear Esther is because of its very few gameplay mechanics. You have walking, zooming, drowning, and narrative triggers. This does not give the player much ability to “play” in the game space. I’ve heard it described as a virtual museum of sorts, which feels accurate from the way in which I played it. However, it’s clear that there’s still value in talking about Dear Esther as a “game.” I wonder what your thoughts are on games shedding their “gameness?”

    • Thanks for the lengthy response!

      I agree wholeheartedly that the words at hand inadequately describe the vast contrast between, say, Starcraft and Dear Esther. But despite them being fundamentally different animals, I’m still struggling to find a clear cut between the two. We could fill the scale from Dear Esther to Journey to ICO, all the way to Starcraft, and it would be an endless diffuse blend. I guess this is the case for all media, but then again we do consider both the most serious of documentaries and the silliest of comedies “movies” without hesitation.

      Hence, the most logical thing for me is to consider all interactive experiences videogames, regardless of them arguably being “digital interactive art installations” or “e-sports”. Instead of excluding one type of experience from the medium altogether, I think what we need is a better set of genres that clearly separates the different types of games from each other. (The flaws of the current genres is a completely separate post on its own!).

      I also agree with you that it is ultimately not important weather Dear Esther is considered a game or not — I just find it more confusing not to call it a game at the moment. What I do think is important on the other hand, is to have accurate words so that we can have meaningful conversations about games. It’s indeed striking to see how many discussions on games that actually boil down to a disagreement of definitions. (If you have any suggestions to improved genres, I would love to hear them!)

      The crux of my post, I guess, is that I see a potential for a much wider range of experiences, that can’t be obtained if we only treat games as goal oriented contests of mastery. I don’t worry about games shedding their “gameness” at all. For example, the peaceful village in Uncharted 2 was my favorite part of the game by far! And quite interestingly, this scene was even openly inspired by a game that most certainly would not satisfy Juuls definition. I don’t think splitting the game medium will encourage more experiments like these.

      As to your thesis, is it available online? Because it sounds very interesting, and I would love to read it!

      • Martin Greip says:

        I want to direct back your argument about Uncharted, but use it on Dear Esther instead. I think the same thing can be applied to that game. That the interaction is separated from the aesthetic/narrative/what have you. You basically walk to the end and you trigger things on the way (be it monologue, sounds/music and the occasional “ghost” in your peripheral vision). It is true that most game mechanics and systems can be separated from a certain thematic dressing. But it feels really transparent for that experience.

        I was never put off because of the lack of challenge but rather, the lack of interaction. And in this regard I think Journey and Amnesia are the bigger winners. They’re both unconventional games but they provide meaningful interaction through mechanics. In Dear Esther I couldn’t even decide on my own when I wanted to use my flash light.

        For me it’s all about playing a role. Whether it’s Fallout, Starcraft, Tetris or Journey. In some of them the role is very abstract, like Tetris. In some games you do not have an avatar which you can project your role on, but there’s still a role to play. Commander in a RTS or puppeteer (as in JRPGs for example) etc.

        I think that we as an industry can learn more from analogue role-playing games, and the kind which focus on narrative and expression (no dungeon-crawls). Winning is seldom a part of the players’ motivation. You usually have a lot of mechanics present to invoke a certain feel and show the player possibilities and limitations of interaction. But it’s never about winning. More to take the rules as part of the experience. Limitations to the way you can act out. Just as limitations in the real world can invoke certain behavioural patterns.

        I think this is the reason Amnesia succeeded so well. That they just as in analogue RPGs focus on the flow of the interaction and expression. And realise that games do not need to be about winning. Or about killing things. I agree with you to an extent, however I think there’s very little to learn of games like Dear Esther. To me it’s a game, but a very shallow one interactive-wise. Let Journey, Amnesia and analogue RPGs show us the future! Of aesthetic driven development with meaningful audiovisual content and interaction.

        • In a game about exploring your own mind, I don’t see how exploring by walking is separated from the story and atmosphere. The interaction in Dear Esther is so pure that your actions never contradict the game’s story and atmosphere, which is what Uncharted’s genocidic gameplay does all the time. I agree with you that the interactive possibilities are very limited, but I think this is also a good thing. Dear Esther’s lack of active interaction was central in providing the space necessary to interact with it analytically, which the game depends on to work. Like you say, just as limitations in the real world can invoke certain behavioural patterns, the behavioural pattern imposed by the limitations in Dear Esther was central for me to experience it as I believe it was intended. Your description “You basically walk to the end and you trigger things on the way” describes many games, including parts of Journey and Amnesia. Together, these three different approaches to game design constitutes an awesome diversity, but I would argue that using the same interaction as Amnesia or Journey in Dear Esther, would make it a completely different game.

  4. Shane says:

    You might want to take a look here: http://notgames.org/forum/

    ;)

  5. Nicholai Cascio says:

    Wow, this was a great read. I feel like I learned some things I never thought about before. I’ll definitely follow you and your project, it looks great.

  6. Wrds says:

    It’s nice to read the words of someone with similar thoughts as myself on this subject. I’ve argued this very idea with people in the past, and much like yourself, it disappoints me that many can’t see all the bullshit mechanics and unnecessary gameplay for what it is. It makes me feel even worse when I see journalists taking on a similar mindset; that games have to have some particular goal or mechanic to master.

    I was going to come here to say too that competitive games have their place, but I see you’ve already made that clear in the comments. Anyways great read, I’m going to be in a good mood all day because of it.

  7. Sleepy says:

    personally; i felt Dear Esther played a bit pretentious. yeah; there are cues for imagination there, but things tend to be rather boring. “oh look. i’m on an island. there’s molecules painted all over in strange glowey paint. some boats over here. some pretty glowey crystals over there. more grassy hills. *woosh* i’m a bird.”
    am i oversimplifying a little? yeah. but if we’re coming back to judging a book by its content and not its play time: Dear Esther still fails as a game. i can appreciate what they tried to do, but its something that many point and click adventure games had done more successfully in the past. Myst comes to mind.

    if you replaced the voice overs with marketing phrases Dear Esther could easily become an interactive advertisement for Exxon-Mobil. then we wouldn’t consider it a game would we? we would consider it as purely ‘interactive media’. therefore we can infer that its intrinsic value ultimately comes from its aesthetic and narrative(maybe more importantly the context in which it is presented). conversely if we were to take Doom and replace all of the sprites with Checks(cereal) related items; we would still have a game wouldn’t we? i’m talking about Checks Quest if you were ever lucky enough to come across it. it was so awesome in its day that it saw 2 sequels.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKKvwig25fQ
    the third by popular demand if you can believe it.

    don’t think of “videogame” think of “game”.
    “3. a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.”
    in the case of single-player games: the player is competing with the artificial intelligence or the particular rule-set to satisfy a win condition, such as with solitaire.

    however; the goal does not by any means have to be concrete. Divine Cybermancy has an abstract goal. but the major distinction between it and Dear Esther is that you compete with the ai to garner additional insights into just what the hell is going on. each new piece of information making the imagination go wild with possibility. the win condition in this case is having access to all of the information. at which point you will have as complete a story as the game will afford you. it may seem like splitting hairs a little, but where the distinction comes to fruition is in the form of replayability. how amusing is the game after the win condition has been satisfied? after all win conditions have been satisfied? is it possible to implement your own win conditions?

    as is such with Minecraft and Garry’s Mod. they are games in-so-far as the player picks a goal and competes with the restraints of the game world to achieve it. in essence; they are true sandbox games. concerning most of the weightier facets of what constitutes a game: Dear Esther has much more in common with a story(eg:book).
    “1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.”
    you could go through Dear Esther again if you were missing details (eg:re-reading a chapter), but if you have all of the information and can recall it vividly: there’s really not much of a reason to. that isn’t to say that a presentation along these lines wouldn’t be viable as a form of immersive story telling.

    you can easily have a game without a story.
    i think the real question you should be asking yourself is: how do you turn an abstract narrative into a game?

    it is a lot easier to say all of that business gets in the way of the project goal. but without opposition in one form or another; it can’t really be considered a game. that isn’t to say you can’t get really clever with this and trick the player into opposing themselves the entire game. or possibly have the player attempt to act out a role that (s)he doesn’t quite understand. there are plenty of outside the box options that haven’t been explored fully.

    • Thanks for the lengthy comment! I agree with many of your points, but beg to differ on a few others.

      Personally I ‘m not interested in the unnecessary limitations by having to satisfy the definition “game”. I want to approach medias not as empty vessels waiting to be filled, but as illusory constructions that expand as we explore new and awesome ideas. Hence, criticism like “Dear Esther still fails as a game” sounds a bit meaningless to me. For example, instead of viewing “replayability” as a goal, I want to be asking questions like “what is replayability, and why should I care?”

      Mechanics as metaphor is indeed very interesting, but I also think that interactive minimalism and focus on exploration works great in a game about exploring the mind. Basically, if your main goal is to generate enjoyment, thoughtfulness and reflection, it would be wrong to say that games only can realize their purpose in exploring areas that no other medium can, like massive interactive possibilities. Most criticism regarding the abstract storyline and limited interaction, ignores the fact that Dear Esther represents one of the many necessary parts of video games’ (gravely needed) diversity. So I see no point in defining Dear Esther on the basis of elements it never attempted to satisfy.

      I get a vague feeling that your arguments boil down to how “Dear Esther doesn’t fit under the umbrella of video games.” CoD version 12 will probably feature much more interactivity than Dear Esther, but I refuse to regard that as a superior project. Using only “interactivity” as grading, deems aspects of innovation & thoughtfulness worthless. Even though it can be interesting, even important, to talk about – whether a project is considered “interactive media”, “game” or “video game” is in the end not important to me. The definitions are already expanding to fit the new experiences anyway.

  8. Michael says:

    I really liked both Dear Esther and Journey, although to successfully make a game like these you need to master “magical realism” – that is, creating a game world players want to inhabit. While both of these titles pulled off magical realism, there is a lot to be said for adding interactive components (weapons and items for example) within the game world. I think this is up to the games developer. If they think the game would benefit from additional interactivity, they they should add it. If not, a minimalist approach can work, as these two games show.

  9. Johnatahan says:

    I really enjoyed reading through this, it was really interesting. I understand your point of view on Dear Esther but here’s mine anyway. What Dear Esther is is walking through the in-game world while listening to the narration. Now this concept is absolutely fine.. If done right. What I mean is, that while “playing through” the game, I was always asking my self one question: “Do I really need this intractability?” I mean this entire game could have been a large cut scene. When a game makes me feel that its only form of intractability is pointless the it must be doing something wrong.
    Many people considering Dear Esther as a story, as a book, but I consider it as a picture book. You have a story, but you also have pictures and visuals to give the reader something to look at, or to try and immerse the reader into the story not with just walls of text.
    Do I like the game? Yes. I have no problem with art games, and I think That-Game-Company did an amazing job with Flower and Journey. Hell, I believe the relationship with two characters in Journey is deeper and more emotional then most games these days have, and they don’t even speak! But Dear Esther seems more like an experiment to me, when you classify it as a story, or a picture book then I have no problem with it, but when the reviewers come and say that it’s “One of the best and most immersive games of this generation”, I think they were playing something else.

  10. Gorgona says:

    Nice article and lot of thoughtfull comments! What has been puzzling to me for a few years is that I stumbled on quite a few sites or articles similar to this one, and there appears to be a lot of people who are interested in this kind of stuff (I intentionally do not use word “games”). But, usually there is mention of just one or two examples, praise of effort, but there appears to be no interest in advancing all this efforts in some kind of “movement”. Maybe I did not look hard enough, but I havent found any blogs or sites dedicated to this, in my opinion completely different approach to digital media, oposed to strictly sales driven mainstream one. So, in order to force a synthesis :), if you like “games” like this, in addition to already mentioned Dear Esther, Journey and Flower, take a look also at:
    -Myst and its sequels
    -The Path, by Tale of Tales, which have more than a few similar works
    -The Void, by Ice-Pick Lodge, creator of also very old, and very unnoticed game “Pathologic”
    Also, very interesting read:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_game
    There is also a few rare commercial games that try to break conventions and refuse to treat it’s players as infantile, but that’s a whole different story…

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