I beat BioShock Infinite earlier this week (yes, I bought it) in about a 24-hour period, stealthily avoiding spoilers beforehand until I’d found a free moment after the demands of senior year at university faded away. With two months of tantalizing build-up since the release, I went into it with greater anticipation than any other game in recent memory. Fortunately – as is obvious by my short completion window – Irrational Games’ latest didn’t disappoint, and I was quick to name it my favorite full-retail video game from this generation (that qualifier included as Journey retains the top spot – admirable attempt in any case, Mr. Levine). But if I had to criticize, if I had to comment on something I didn’t totally enjoy, I would speak of Infinite’s the combat segments.
That is, less this.
I was not one of the Never Satisfieds that felt BioShock Infinite would be better without the violence. No, I tend to side with the Jim Sterling section of the spectrum, believing violence is an essential part of Columbia’s narrative and removing it would require a shift so significant to Infinite’s core story as to make a passive state almost unrecognizable. Still, to me, BioShock’s fights were undoubtedly the least impressive pieces of the engrossing experience, myself preferring instead the Disneyland-esque moments of temporary peace, strolling at a carefree snail’s pace to soak in every single sight embedded within the luscious world.
Though I was thoroughly pleased by BioShock’s end (and stricken dumb by its torrential revelations), you can imagine the bittersweet sentiment tied to concluding what may very well be the best thing I play all year. Immediately, I needed more, yet knew there were none here. So I sought something similar, a defined world with even less interaction than what is featured in Infinite.
Enter Dear Esther.
For the unfamiliar, Dear Esther challenges the very definition of a video game. Gameplay is stripped so far to the basics that you can do nothing but walk and look. There are no collectibles, no NPCs or enemies, literally nothing in the environment to interact with whatsoever (well, unless you include drowning, I guess. That might be possible in the deep sea, though I was never tempted to find out). Instead, it’s just you, a faceless somebody being funneled along a generally linear path. Rather than stat boosts and loot drops, the one motivator here is the spoken dialogue, triggered occasionally (and somewhat randomly) and read like the reader’s own personal journal. What begins as vague and disconnected accounts of select individuals gradually develops into an eerie tale. I would be remiss to spoil even the slightest of details, so I won’t. If this sort of thing intrigues you, I suggest you spare a few dollars and about an hour to try it for yourself, compliments of the current Humble Indie Bundle.
Dear Esther is enchanting, mysterious, and satisfied the urge sparked upon the credit scroll of BioShock Infinite. And yet, it wasn’t enough. While BioShock had too much active gameplay for my preferred tastes, Dear Esther overcompensated in the other direction. The world is a wonder, don’t get me wrong (best evidenced by me actually uttering an audible “wow” at one scenic moment – yeah, I’m that guy), but long stretches of bland landscape with only a depressed W key to keep me company got a little bare from time to time.
What is it, then? What am I looking for in a game? Me, the story obsessor? What type of interaction would be my ideal method of narrative delivery in this medium? Does one already exist?
Yes, I believe it does. The answer lies in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
A lesson in getting it right
Regardless of where that story went, ignoring the degree of influence – or lack thereof – that decisions had on the overarching tale, I believe The Walking Dead got it right. It found that fleeting balance that those like me crave, successfully crafting an engaging story without asking us to complete classically game-y moments that break down an illusion of immersion. Shaping conversations with meaningful characters made all the difference. Establishing a powerful sense of accountability and attachment for Clementine, in particular, bred a determination to protect her that rivals – and perhaps rises above – the feelings for the freed Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. However, The Walking Dead doesn’t contain any of the hear-we-go-again combat arenas present during a trip through Columbia. Hell, I didn’t even realize the former had a fail state until I was a few episodes in. I’d been sick of zombies for years, but with this structure, it didn’t matter.
I’m not saying The Walking Dead is a better game than BioShock Infinite, for that’s something that not even I believe. I’m not saying there should’ve been less combat around Columbia, or even more opportunities for interaction on Dear Esther’s island. What I am saying is The Walking Dead’s design allows for a strict focus on developing narrative, and Telltale did so in a manner closer to perfection than anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m saying I’d happily play 100 more games made in this exact same style. I’m saying, for those others out there that truly do game for story first and foremost, there simply isn’t anything better.
Or do you disagree? Of course you do! This is the Internet, after all, so yell your heart out in the comments below for a level-headed reply from Yours Truly.