A few days ago Skye Nathaniel took me to task in comments for “[making] a point of playing Portal when there is science to do elsewhere”. I don’t regret playing Portal — it was awesome. But this makes me wonder about other things that I’m missing. What belongs on the “must play to understand interactive storytelling” list?
Here’s my own list to start with. It is, I know, both woefully incomplete and IF-slanted (and that even though I was fairly sparing about what IF I allowed on the list). I’m probably also forgetting a bunch of things that I’m planning to play myself. But that’s why I’m posting. Input?
Have played and consider relevant
- Planescape: Torment. Didn’t come close to finishing, but played enough to be impressed.
- Portal. despite Skye’s comments, I did think it was worth playing through, for the characterization of GlaDOS if nothing else. And it’s popular enough that it provides a good example for discussing any of the techniques it does use — because people are likely to know about them.
- Something in the Myst series, as a milestone of atmosphere and development. I liked Riven best for its overall structure and gameplay. But I’d include it more as source of history to understand than because it’s currently cutting-edge.
Indie but not freeware
- The Path. I really don’t know whether I liked it or not, but I played to a finish. I thought it was both broken and kind of brilliant, and whatever you think about it, it will really stick with you. I have a Homer in Silicon column on this to come, though probably not for a while.
- Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. Very unusual gameplay in many respects, and there are some semi-boring patches in places, but it’s taking on issues and ideas that are worth discussing. (HiS column)
- Oiligarchy. Most persuasive games incorporate their point into their rules and allow it to emerge procedurally (Airport Insecurity, The Redistricting Game) or allow the player to play with the simulation of a problem (Ayiti, Budget Hero), or, well, dress up Space Invaders with the face of whatever we’re supposed to dislike this week. But Oiligarchy is really telling/selling a narrative. (HiS column.)
- Miss Management. Gamelab’s excellent time management game with memorable characters and a distinct plot arc. (HiS column)
- Emerald City Confidential. It’s really a graphical adventure, but it puts itself in the casual category via its marketing, sort of. Categories are hazy, did I mention? Anyway, it’s not too formally innovative except in its attempts to make a graphical adventure accessible to a casual audience (and even there, it’s adopting a new set of genre conventions more than inventing); but it does take the story to some places that aren’t completely common in adventure games. (HiS column.)
IF (long more because I know about it than because I’m making some statement about its relative importance)
- Anchorhead, for the complexity and extent of the plot and the uniformly high quality of writing and atmosphere.
- Photopia, as an exploration of linearity.
- Rameses, as a classic example of the value of complicity.
- Shade, for the changing player/protagonist relationship.
- The Baron, for adventures in protagonist motivation and the value of choice and philosophical thinking in an interactive story.
- Varicella, for its development of the accretive protagonist.
- Slouching Towards Bedlam, for its excellent articulation of the different choices available to the player, and the sense of true freedom within the story.
- Everybody Dies, for its inventive combination of image and text to accomplish subjective effects, and because it’s an especially strong use of multiple, differently-voiced protagonists (though see also Being Andrew Plotkin).
- Blue Lacuna, or exploring player reaction and expressiveness as well as player choice; for the experiment in drama management, even though I think said drama management does not always work to keep the pacing tight.
- For historical reasons, probably Trinity and AMFV; possibly also Deadline, Plundered Hearts, and Wishbringer. Maybe The Hobbit, though honestly it drove me insane when I tried to play it. I don’t get the impression it was a terribly successful adaptation as narrative, but that people really enjoyed getting the NPCs to do weird things.
Ren’Py… I don’t know. I have no specific recommendations here about works that were too awesome to miss, and yet I think a knowledge of the form doesn’t hurt. I’ve played a few of these, especially by Tycoon Games and Hanako Games, but I’d be interested in any suggestions if there are Ren’Py games with really fabulous stories that I’ve missed.
Various games in the newly emergent retro/art genre
- Passage. Because it gets talked about so much. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I feel like it’s kind of necessary to know about.
- Don’t Look Back. Terry Cavanagh’s platformer version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, for its use of the challenge and frustration of gaming in service of the story.
- Cavanagh also collaborated on Judith, which rediscovers some of Photopia’s techniques — temporal reordering, inevitability, narrowing of interactivity — but in a different medium. So, from my point of view, most of what this game does with interactive storytelling techniques has actually been done better and earlier in IF, but it may have introduced the ideas to a new audience, which is good.
- (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors. My favorite, I think, in this game line: it’s intuitive and moving and unique.
- I Wish I Were the Moon and perhaps also Storyteller (same place) for the way that they allow the player to select elements that should go into a story, rather than controlling any of the characters.
- Façade. Unique and entirely obligatory, though far from perfect.
- Ruben and Lullaby. Uses touch and gesture on the iPhone as a way to communicate feelings to the protagonist. For my taste the actual story aspect is a bit vague, but it’s a fascinating attempt and worth a look. (HiS column.)
Want to play (some of them rather old)
- The Blackwell Legacy. While I have a dual-booting Mac laptop, I don’t have a two-button mouse for it, which makes some games unplayable. I know, I could fix that for about $20, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
- Neverwinter Nights. Again, I just need a $20 two-button mouse to make this go on my Windows boot partition, so it’s probably going to happen sooner than the others; I know it’s old, but I’m particularly interested in exploring the player-designed content aspect, and I’ve just never gotten around to playing with it. (I know there’s also a Mac version, but as far as I could tell it didn’t come with the editor, which makes it vastly less interesting to me.)
- Half-Life 2. I don’t have anything up to running this.
- Bioshock. Ditto.
- The Mighty Jill-Off.
- Braid. Planning to play it when it’s available for the Mac.
- Shadow of the Colossus.
- The Longest Journey.
- Fable. I have the impression that people were disappointed, but I’m still curious about what it attempted, perhaps unsuccessfully, to do.
- The Witcher.