Player Too: Episode 2 - Gone Home & Race The Sun (and more)

Click for Episode 1..

Welcome to the second instalment of Player Too, where I try to turn my girlfriend Claire into a gamer by exploring games with low barriers to entry. After all, you can't expect to play a shooter without having learned movement controls at some point, or a 4x strategy game without playing something simpler like Command & Conquer or a tower defence.

In the time since the first episode, we've played Race The Sun and Gone Home, as well as Irish games Darkside Detective (demo) and Curtain.

Gone Home

A few people recommended that we play Gone Home if we liked the mystery of Her Story and needed something with a low skill level. Again, I thought it was important for Claire to play herself, and not just watch. You'll never consider yourself a gamer if you don't actually get 'hands on'.

I know this game is referred to by many as a "walking simulator". I know it's intended as a derogatory term, but that doesn't mean a game is without merit, and in fact, since Claire has never ever controlled a first person character with a keyboard and mouse, a walking simulator actually sounded perfect. She could get used to movement in an environment where you can't die and don't have a time limit. I figure if she could get used to first person movement, then she might eventually be able for the extremely enjoyable Portal games, maybe by way of the Stanley Parable or Talos Principle first. If she liked Gone Home for what it was, then maybe we could stop off at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or something like that.

howlongtobeat.com said that Gone Home takes about two hours to beat. We figured we'd beat the game in a single evening, even with the need to learn how to move first. I positioned Claire's fingers on the WASD keys. She asked why she couldn't use the up/down/left/right arrows. I said that she could technically but that she'd just have to treat this like a driving lesson and take my word that it's better to have more keys in range of your fingers (like tab, q, e, f, etc) for when a game requires more controls. Plus on her laptop the arrow keys would just be horrible to try and use. Look at this!

Ewww.. Okay we're definitely going with the WASD keys, then.

Ewww.. Okay we're definitely going with the WASD keys, then.

So the next ninety minutes for me were kind of painful. Like sitting alongside a new driver as they grind the clutch, cut out the engine, slam on the brakes, and over steer. But that's just me. I wanted to see the story but it was really being held up by learning how to move. Claire did really well, though. She remembered to keep her fingers in place, and before long didn't have to keep looking down for the crouch button. Using the mouse to look around was natural, and I think for a first go she did as well as could be expected. First person games aren't ruled out, then, but it might be a while before she's circle strafing and rocket jumping. All the same, I got exhausted watching. Claire finished the second half of the game without me and I played it myself the day after that so we could talk about it.

Because it's such a short game, heavily based on plot, it's hard not to discuss it without spoiling a large percentage, so I won't. I think that's probably a telling criticism of Gone Home. You nearly need to come at it knowing literally nothing to get the full experience (a bit like the movie Signs). If you know what does or doesn't happen then the occasional red herring won't add to the experience. Wondering what's happened in the house is all you've got. Gameplay-wise, you wander around a fairly large family home, wondering why your family aren't there, and examining notes, phone messages, and newspaper clippings to develop the story. Every few clues your sister will "speak" to you in your head and continue narrating the story. You don't really need to work anything out for yourself, solve puzzles, or test theories. It's all given to you in a logical sequence. You can choose which of the unlocked rooms to explore yourself and how deeply to explore them, so the experience isn't 'on the rails', but it still feels like there's nothing to DO! There's very little you even have to remember or backtrack for.

Unprompted, Claire said things like "it's not really a game" or "there's nothing to do". Without her being aware of the "not a game" debate that circles experiential games like this, it was interesting to hear her get there on her own. She felt like she had no input into the experience. There's nothing to 'beat'. There's no element of competition. No win or lose state. It was just like watching a movie but where she had to move the plot on herself, and that that's not really what she would call a game.

You can pick up and rotate objects to examine them, but rarely need to. A properly-opening cassette box was the best though!

You can pick up and rotate objects to examine them, but rarely need to. A properly-opening cassette box was the best though!

Legendary game designer Sid Meier said that "a game is a series of interesting choices". That's a great definition, but excludes interactive fiction as games. Claire and I think that's fine. Saying something "isn't a game" shouldn't be offensive. Not every piece of recreational software has to be a game. Interactive fiction is probably a better way to describe 'games' like these. But I digress..whatever that means..

In terms of it being a worthwhile experience though, she said it was, and I think it is too. I do think games should be about more than just shooting and platforming. "Experiential games" can be a great way of telling a story. Gone home would have been a decent short story if done in print, and using technology to bring you into the story is definitely worth doing, but the word 'game' has definitions and expectations. Broadly speaking, there's a player or players, an objective, and a set of rules. Gone Home, or Telltale's games could meet this at a stretch, but they're far better described as 'interactive fiction'. Telltale themselves said in a panel at GDC when asked if what they made were games, that they didn't really care! They are what they are.

Claire's Score: 6/10. Worthwhile as an experience, but not worth the €20 asking price as it's too short with not enough going on. Get it on sale for €10 or less.

Player Too Result: Claire and I reached a common consensus pretty easily with Gone Home. We felt that it was useful as a walking simulator to train Claire in movement in a consequence-free environment. We felt that it wasn't really a game (how dare we use such profanity) under certain definitions. We felt that it was a worthwhile experience, and that more interactive fiction like this would be a good thing. But we felt that the story wasn't particularly great. It was nice, different, and worthwhile, but if there were more similar games to compare alongside, Gone Home probably wouldn't stand up all that well as, insofar as twists, red herrings, and mystery go, it could have done better. We think people only recommend it because it's different and there isn't yet anything better. The developers, Fullbright, are releasing another game called Takoma next year. We're definitely interested in checking it out.

Claire is interested in a similar experience but with the ability to make decisions and affect the story. Sounds to me like it might be time to introduce an RPG on Player Too, though we still have to keep the controls simple. Any recommendations?

Bonus Mini-Review: Curtain

As I wrote this blog, I got Claire to try "Curtain", by Dreamfeeel, winner of the Grand Prize for the Most Amazing Game at Amaze, Berlin 2015. It's a 20-30 minute experiential game that focuses on abusive relationships. It has a very distinct art style that looks off-putting at first, but stick with it if you try the game. It uses that imagery, as well as sound and level design in great narrative ways that experiential games should take note of.

I asked Claire what she thought when she finished and she said "that was awesome! So simple, so clever" (note that after ten seconds of playing the game she said "I don't like this, I want to quit" so do stick with it if you try it).

Click to see Curtain's page on Itch.io

Click to see Curtain's page on Itch.io

You can name your own price  (including €0) to get the game on Itch. Click the GIF above. We downloaded for free just to see (I thought Claire may have hated it) but she liked it enough to go back and pay the asking price. You can't say fairer than that!

Second Bonus Mini-Review: The Darkside Detective

At the end of the last Player Too I said we might try point-and-click game The Darkside Detective which, though not out yet, has a downloadable demo (scroll to bottom of that page) covering a single complete chapter.

It's a comedy point-and-click adventure game with an X-files vibe and is divided into 'cases' like monster-of-the-week episodes, with a larger 'seasonal' plot running through them. In reference to our above "not a game" debate, I'm conscious that a point and click linear story is not that far removed from interactive fiction, but they've always been called games no-question. I suppose the fact that you have to think about how to advance the scene counts as input and challenge enough to use the word 'game'. Anyway, I think I'm really making two blog posts out of one thing today so I'll digress once more.

As I said in Episode 1, Claire has always liked puzzles, crosswords, etc and so I thought this genre might suit her. She did take things a little too literally, though. Because you're exploring a mansion and the kitchen isn't important, it's not included in the game. A policeman character makes a fourth-wall-joke about it being odd that these rich folks don't have a kitchen and so Claire started to focus her efforts on finding the hidden kitchen, so she could use a phone to ring the number on the box of matches she'd been given and verify the father's alibi. I thought this was funny. We don't think about certain things as gamers too much. In a point-and-click game we tend to just use the items we've been given on the scene to try and advance the plot, whereas Claire was approaching the given situation as a real detective and fully role playing.

She was disappointed to find that the experience was narrower than she thought, but when she had the right frame of mind she found the fun that this genre had to offer, particularly the comedic aspects. Everyone enjoys having a guess at the solution or the plot and being proven right, then rewarded with more story. It's a great core game loop that made the genre huge in the 90s and is likely why the genre is seeing a comeback now.

Claire said she'd definitely buy the full game when it comes out so, again, I think we're doing well at turning Claire into a gamer. 

Race The Sun

Four games in three weeks, across three genres. I'd say project Player Too is working pretty well so far. Race the Sun is an endless runner, meaning there is constant movement and your only input is to avoid obstacles. You can't get off the rails that the game proceeds on. More can be build around that core but that's an endless runner.

In Race The Sun you control a solar powered spaceship racing towards the setting sun. You collect time-warping powerups to make the sun climb a little in the sky, but if you stray into the long shadows cast by tall obstacles, you lose sped, and the sun sets faster, bringing you closer to death. When I played, I never saw death by sunset, I always smashed into a wall way before that.

As you can see from the images, the art style is as simple as it needs to be. It does everything you need, and the game runs at a high number of frames per second, essential to giving this game is smooth feel.

The reason I came to try this game with Claire is that it was on a Steam promotion. For one day the game was free to install, and if you installed it you could keep it. This coincided with the release of some DLC so they were quick to offer you to buy the expansion if you did get the game for free. I knew of the game before but thought it a bit simplistic for me. I'll try anything once though (for free) so I downloaded it and found that I liked it. It's a great little way to spend a few minutes.

This prompted me to create a Steam account for Claire and download it on her laptop. I thought that the fact that you need only steer left or right, and that there's a fast reset time after death meant that Claire might get into it. I'd seen her enjoy Angry Birds because of its fast reset time, and even an early build of my game Sons of Sol when I had all hits cause instant death, but a quick tap of the R key reset the level. Difficulty didn't matter if the consequences to death were minimal and you could get back into the action quickly.

Claire was soon riveted! She was jumping around in her chair ("full body steering") as she'd swerve to avoid a large column, then wail in frustration, arms up in the air as she hit the one behind it. After one second she'd be back at the controls, eyes inches from the screen, tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth, concentrating and vowing to get further this time. "One more go" was never one more go.

She'd be intimidated and put off by the amount of controls you have to think about with a racing game, but with left or right being her only decisions, she had 'mastered' the controls in a minute and was all about beating the challenge. Race the Sun challenges you very well. When you're about to pass your record distance you can see a big banner text with your old distance float up from the horizon in front of you, egging you on. There's also several achievements that let you feel like you're progressing even if you still can't get past level 2 (things like "beat the first level without bumping anything", etc). 

Riveted!

Riveted!

I played it just on the first day, but Claire has returned to it several times without me being around. She's taken it upon herself that she wanted to play this game more. That's encouraging. We've found that she can be drawn in by a game experience and look forward to playing it again. She's said that she spent all day in work wanted to come back and try and beat that damn level.

This is extra interesting because the levels change daily. The feel of the zones and the types of obstacles encountered are consistent, but the specific layout changes daily, meaning you can never really learn the course  and improve that way. Every day it's about your reactions versus the game, with no cheating.

Of particular interest to me was that you can get a powerup that allows you to jump once with the spacebar. This adds a button to think about while your mind is already constantly racing. It wasn't long before Claire added this jump move to her repertoire and added finding the powerup to her mental list of objectives in a turn. Further on, there's some sort of teleport on the shift button that she's also mastered. She's now much further into and better at the game than I am.

Claire's Score: 7/10. Loads of fun!

Player Too Result: We've found another genre that Claire can get into.  Endless runner! We've proven that skill based games are totally within her grasp as long as they're not too punishing, and indeed that they can be more fun for being difficult but with a shallow learning curve and little encouraging objectives.

Claire's skills are increasing, but still need work if we're to take on Portal. She's finding that she enjoys more and more genres of games and types of games that she didn't know existed, but that she enjoys them in small doses. Her willingness to try new suggestions is increasing because of the good games we've found so far, and she's starting to think she'd like try try games with more input in to the narrative, or more games with a simple skill challenge.

I think we're a long way from getting into an epic 20+ hour RPG, but that Telltale games are definitely where we should be heading next for a positive narrative experience.

As far as building her first person skills, the Talos Principle has a free demo and is discounted on Steam this weekend. I'm not sure if the puzzles are skill based at all, but we can learn from the demo and buy it if she think's she could handle it. The Stanley Parable demo would also make a good low-consequence 'walking simulator'/training game.

Next Time On Player Too: All of those possibilities aside, on the strength of her enjoyment of the detective game Her Story, we're next trying out Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, which is the newest and best rated of the Holmes games. Claire and I have read and both really enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes books, as well as the Benedict Cumberbatch TV show and Robert Downey Jr. movies, so this will hopefully not disappoint.

Have you any suggestions for what else we should try next? Or which is the best Telltale game to go for (she think zombies are stupid, so not Walking Dead)? Have you had a similar experience with a friend or loved one and want to suggest any games you tried together? Please comment!

Until next time..