For many years adventure games were believed to be a niche genre, barely hanging on with life support and enjoyed only by a handful of crazy Germans. Here at Adventure Gamers we always knew this wasn’t the case, but more recently the rest of the world seems to have caught on too. (Yay!) As adventure and adventure-ish games resurge in popularity thanks to a parade of high-profile releases, crowdfunding, and booming indie development, another niche is quietly emerging: narrative games with almost no “game” to be found, with no higher goal than to tell a story.
Some people insist on calling such games “walking simulators.” I hate that term. First and foremost because it’s a veiled insult coined by the same people who were cheering over the so-called death of adventure games to begin with, but also because it’s grossly misleading. Think about it: a literal “walking simulator” would involve lacing up tennis shoes and strolling around the block, earning points for the number of steps you take. Okay, we’ll call them “interactive stories,” then—but is that any better? Is it even accurate?
As these narrative experiences grow in number and their novelty wears off, the interactive part of interactive stories is becoming increasingly important as a distinguishing factor. We need to start paying more attention to the quality of the interactions. Instead of “Is this really an adventure game?” or even “Is this really a game?” we should be asking a different question: “Why is this a game?”
Fragments of Him
Take Fragments of Him and Virginia, two recent releases that seem very different on the surface. Yet they actually have a lot in common: both are self-consciously artsy productions made by tiny indie teams. Both promise emotional stories with the potential to punch you in the gut. Both feature ordinary, real-world people living ordinary, real-world lives. And both focus on narrative at the total expense of anything resembling puzzles or gameplay—in fact, though they’re technically “interactive stories,” interactivity is at a bare minimum in each.
Fragments of Him, by Dutch developer Sassybot, is a bleak exploration of love and grief that begins with a young man named Will dying suddenly in a car crash. Told from four perspectives—Will’s, his boyfriend’s, his ex-girlfriend’s, and his grandmother’s—Fragments of Him allows us to peek in on the life that has been lost and the mourning process of each of these people who loved him. (Uplifting stuff!) As these characters convey their memories of Will and the depth of their grief, your role is to hover near them, take in their surroundings, and hear them out.
Virginia, by British studio Variable State, presents itself as a Twin Peaks-inspired mystery, but that setup turns out to be a red herring. Recent FBI inductee Anne Tarver and her partner, Maria Halperin—both women of color—are investigating a small town teenager’s disappearance. But Anne is also investigating Maria, under orders from their (old, white, male) supervisor. As Anne and Maria progress through the weeklong case, Virginia’s dream-like, heavily symbolic story veers off in a different direction to explore issues of loyalty, friendship, responsibility, patriarchy, and the far-reaching consequences of poor decisions.
Even in 2016, a bisexual man and a black woman are unusual video game heroes, but these aren’t unusual people. They live in real-world places you could reasonably go, in time periods you likely remember. (Fragments of Him takes place sometime between the 1990s and now, while Virginia is set in 1992.) You may never have visited London or the town of Kingdom, Virginia, but you’ll still be able to relate to these characters. Even if you’re not a minority woman struggling for acceptance in a male-dominated field or a man who has deeply loved both a man and a woman, Virginia and Fragments of Him will make you feel like you could be.
It’s helpful that the protagonists are relatable, because both games have experimental presentations that risk being off-putting. At first glance Virginia’s vibrant, stylized graphics seem inviting, but that supposition is shattered by a total lack of speech. You heard me: this is a two-hour story game without any words. Its wonderful orchestral soundtrack picks up much of the slack, skillfully conveying the tone, tempo, and tenor of on-screen events, while the characters’ gestures and simple yet expressive faces portray a good deal of emotion even without dialogue.
Still, asking players to muddle through two hours of uncertainty is a big ask, and keeping up isn’t always easy in a game often abstracted by dream sequences and jump cuts. One second you’ll be walking down a well-lit hallway; the next you’re descending a concrete staircase. The jump almost seems like a bug. We’re used to such visual tricks in movies, but in a game where you’re controlling the protagonist’s forward momentum (or at least have the illusion of control), the jump from one place to another is jarring. All of this unfortunately adds up to an experience that’s more about keeping a grip on the plot than about losing yourself in its poetry.
On the other end of the spectrum, Fragments of Him is so devoid of color it’s practically sepia. Its protagonists are like mannequins with facial features barely hinted at, while secondary characters are shadowy figures with no features at all. The aesthetic certainly channels its characters’ emptiness and grief, and the game’s world exhibits impressive attention to detail, but it’s hard to get jazzed up about an experience that’s so obviously going to be a downer. It’s also a wordy affair, dominated by the interior monologues of its four characters. The 2½ hour experience has only one interactive dialogue; the rest is narration. This can get dull, especially since points tend to be repeated just in case you missed them the first or second time. The story never confused me, as Virginia’s too often did, but I’m sorry to say it never surprised me, either.
The interfaces will feel familiar if you’ve ever played a first-person 3D game. Both games can be controlled either with a gamepad or the keyboard and mouse. In Fragments of Him, a blue or red outline around a clickable object changes to yellow when you’re close enough to interact; in Virginia, a circular cursor becomes a diamond. Where they differ sharply is in the character you embody (or not). In Virginia, you directly control Anne: look down and you’ll see her body; look in a mirror and you’ll see her face. In Fragments of Him, character control is more amorphous. The game is divided up between four protagonists, but you never truly become any of them. Sometimes you seem to be seeing through the point-of-view character’s eyes, but if you pan the camera you’ll see that person frozen behind you. Click and the figure will dissolve and reappear a few steps away, as opposed to fluidly walking. This pantomime effect makes it feel like you’re not playing as these characters, but spying on them.
As much as I wanted to like both of these games, they left me unsatisfied, and I’m struggling to understand why. Usually I like emotional stories, I don’t care too much about puzzles, and I’m not a stickler that adventure games need to follow the rules laid out by Sierra and LucasArts to be true to the genre. I loved Gone Home, Firewatch, and Oxenfree, all games Steam lumps together with Fragments of Him and Virginia in my library. So why didn’t these two work for me? What’s not to like?
One big issue is that both are seriously lacking in the interactivity department. First-person 3D games have long held the promise of free-roaming exploration, but that’s not the case here. Fragments of Him and Virginia involve very little walking around (which only reinforces the pointlessness of the term “walking simulator”). The progression of events is linear and beyond your control. When you do get to explore, it’s generally indoors within a small set of rooms with few interactive hotspots. What can be clicked on usually must be in order to advance the story, sentence by sentence in Fragments of Him or camera cut by camera cut in Virginia.
Fragments of Him
It’s a real shame that interactivity is so sparse, because both of these worlds are begging to be explored. Every environment has silent clues about the people who live there. In Fragments of Him, there’s a whiteboard in the kitchen where Will and Harry have left each other silly notes, art on the walls, shelves full of books. The furniture and décor of Will and Harry’s apartment differs from Sarah’s dorm room and from grandmother Mary’s house and garden. These characters are fully sketched thanks to the places they inhabit. In Virginia the rooms are less cluttered, but telling details have been carefully placed. Open boxes strewn around Anne’s apartment suggest she’s recently moved in and hasn’t had time to unpack. A pair of shoes kicked off under Maria’s kitchen table hint at a late night the day before. An empty bedroom, barren except for a hospital bed, makes a stark statement about the person who’s no longer there. But the vast majority of these details are seen with your eyes, not with your (virtual) hands.
Because interactivity is so limited and the stories so linear, neither game offers much by way of player choice or replay value. Now, I’m not someone who thinks every narrative game needs to be choice-driven. As far back as Fahrenheit, I realized that the promise of a story players get to sculpt and reconstruct is largely smoke and mirrors. Choice worked well in The Walking Dead, which happened to be set in a post-apocalyptic world requiring a steady stream of high-stakes moral choices, but this format hasn’t translated well to all of Telltale’s other licenses. I thought Dreamfall Chapters’ attempt to incorporate player choice was a hot mess. So why complain now that these two games aren’t choice-driven?
It’s because choices draw me in. Particularly in a game with no puzzles and little to poke at in the environment, at least deciding how the character will respond to their situation gives the player some agency. One game that handles choice well, Life Is Strange, worked for me because every decision added up to flesh out a character I grew to know personally and intimately, whose struggles were my struggles. With their everyday protagonists—not superheroes, remember, but ordinary people—Fragments of Him and Virginia are already poised for this type of intimacy. But with virtually no choices to make on their behalf, I never crossed over from spectator to actor.
Maybe that’s intentional. When I spoke to him at GDC, Fragments of Him’s creator directly compared the game to a night at the theater. Between its jump cuts and David Lynch homage, Virginia is clearly influenced by film. But that brings me back to the original question: Why are these games at all? With its dramatic monologues and meticulously dressed sets, why isn’t Fragments of Him a stage play? With its lengthy cutscenes, vibrant colors, and dynamic soundtrack, why isn’t Virginia an animated cartoon? What makes these stories worth playing? The answer should be interactivity, but the interactivity’s just not there.
Best intentions aside, neither of these games truly succeed in what they set out to do. Fragments of Him, meant to be a powerful exploration of love and grief, turns out to be too straightforward, mostly telling instead of showing, and lacking any compelling climax or epiphany. Virginia tries too hard to confound with its artsy presentation and a befuddling, open-ended conclusion that trampled everything I’d worked so hard throughout to understand. (Looking for insight about what was supposed to have happened, I came across an interview where one of the writers suggested Virginia’s ending can mean whatever you want it to. No, that’s a cop-out! I want answers!)
Even so, the storytelling isn’t what drags these games down. In spite of my gripes, both did move me to tears. Both made me feel. I think Fragments of Him’s script is beautifully written and voice acted, and I’ve been listening to Virginia’s soundtrack and reliving certain scenes for weeks now. But with interactive storytelling, a good story just isn’t enough. As developers continue to push the boundaries of this emerging genre, they need to remember we’ve chosen to play their story, when we instead could be reading a novel or watching a movie or indulging in a night at the theater. The story should be good, of course, but the interactivity needs to be worthwhile, too. The title “interactive story” needs to be earned.