I’m still plowing away at Dark Souls 3. I’ve been at the edge of my seat for the entire experience thus far, going toe-to-toe with the undying legion of death before me. It has proven as all-consuming of my free time as this series always tends to be, but my overall opinion of the game is still unformed. Instead, I want to talk about a very different kind of gameplay experience (or, arguably, the same), starting with a little game called Firewatch.
Firewatch is an intensely personal game. Its plot is simple: you play as a person living as a park ranger in mostly solitude. Many hours of the game are spent wandering the wilderness, punctuated by radio chats with an unseen friend in another ranger station, with increasingly wild speculations about what’s going on. This game too kept me at the edge of my seat, through a different kind of gameplay, and yet the same kind of experience. For a brief moment, I was there. Dark Souls may be a scary game in its own right, but Firewatch is one of the most chilling I’ve played in some time. And yet, very little “happens” in the game proper. The thrills came from my personal investment in the game through gameplay. For too long, we’ve considered fighting and shooting and dropping blocks on other blocks to be the core of gameplay, but Firewatch, and others of its ilk, buck that trend. Instead, the gameplay doesn’t stray further than letting you walk through the world the story is being told in.
Games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, though on their own strict sets of rails, lets you experience their story similarly. “Nothing” changes, and yet, my involvement and personal feelings about what’s unfolding before me are some of the most pure storytelling experiences I have had in gaming. Another greatly under appreciated gem is Spec Ops: The Line. Though its almost comical number of enemies and violence sometimes threaten to derail it’s core message, its commentary about the choices of you as that character and you as a gamer are so rich, that it still haunts me to this day.
One of my favorite games of this kind is The Beginner’s Guide. Actually a “compilation” of games, developer Davey Wredon presents the various works of a developer named Coda in an attempt to understand him, believing their creative output to be indicative of who Coda is and what they’re feeling. As someone who has opted to mix a bit of my own blood into the creative inks, the game spoke volumes to me personally, commenting on what we can and can’t learn through the creative struggle and what it does to us. Davey might be the greatest video game villain of all time, because he had the audacity to tell me how to feel when I wanted that for myself.
And it’s fucking brilliant.
Games like these, that bring you such a close connection with such flawed characters, stick. Letting me live their stories is a more visceral thrill than any post-boss cinematic or dialog tree. Short, simple games that let me assign my own lamp posts (so to speak) speak volumes more for me, because I get to fill in the blanks. I make it personal. And maybe that’s why I have nothing to say about Dark Souls 3 yet. I have yet to fill in any real blanks of my own, so the game isn’t really my experience (though I have had my fair share of exciting boss fights that had me screaming in both horror and delight).
I’d like to see more games like that. Zack and I often joke about an Unlife game. We’re not sure what genre it would fit into. In spite of the zombies, it’s not a survival, horror, or action tale. Its motifs and storytelling are more akin to a dating simulator than anything else. But who knows. Maybe this genre will be something we’ll look into some day. And then you can live the experience with us.
And I’ll try not to tell you how to feel about it.