Now more than ever, the sheer number of genres available to gamers allows for many types of stories to be told. From fast-paced shooters and richly detailed role-playing games to team-based MOBAs and nuanced strategy titles, almost everyone is sure to find something to engage with and enjoy. One genre focuses on narrative in such a way that the games play more like interactive novels or television episodes than traditional level-by-level tales. Dismissed by some as ‘walking simulators’, these titles present the player with a scenario where, instead of shooting enemies or leveling up, they must explore to fully grasp the story. With no sentences ordered or cutscenes sequenced to make the plot clear, the developers embed the narrative in the world around the player. Despite what some may claim is a boring experience, the recently released Tacoma and Life is Strange: Before the Storm show that developers can use minimalist gameplay to tell complicated stories with diverse characters in race, gender, and sexual orientation by putting them at the forefront.
Fullbright’s first title, Gone Home, sets the player up as an explorer of a haunted house, oozing atmosphere and making the setting a character to create an immersive narrative. The payoff of a heart-wrenching emotional twist, which comes through the subversion of the expectation of ghosts and ghouls, is one at which this genre excels when handled by the right developer. Such an experience is rewarding because the simple gameplay of searching the rooms and examining the objects left behind brings the player to a conclusion that would not feel as earned without the painstaking sleuthing that came beforehand. With the studio having succeeded so well in this first outing, the four-year wait for Tacoma set high stakes for what would come next. The eponymous space station that players investigate as Amy offers a twist not based on subversion, but on understanding the crew members’ motivations and how the player sympathizes with their plight.
The premise of Tacoma is, once again, a simple one. Amy is a tech sent to retrieve the AI core from the space station and figure out what exactly happened to the crew after they lost contact with the outside world. Her silence throughout the title puts the player in her shoes as the explorer of the derelict ship, navigating the discarded objects lazily floating in zero gravity and heading to three sections of the vessel to download data about what happened before getting to the AI core. This gameplay choice is simple yet functional. Instead of merely standing around and waiting for the progress meter to slowly inch to 100%, Amy can choose to wander the personal quarters, offices, and other areas to try and understand the crew of the ship and what happened in the days before her arrival. In this way, the player becomes a voyeur, using augmented reality technology to watch interactions between the crew in amorphous humanoid forms marked with primary colors that differentiate the characters. Though the faces of the crew can be seen in photographs and messages sent between them, something disconcerts the player in only being able to know them by voice and the forms the program uses to represent their physical bodies as they discuss their thoughts either with others or themselves while pacing, exercising, or relaxing.
An observation most striking, and indeed encouraging, about these characters is how many of them are in same-sex relationships and how seamlessly the game presents this information. Amy never comments on this fact, and none of the other characters ever react as if the relationships are anything but natural. The stance is refreshing, to be sure, and one that argues the future may be more open and accepting than current times. Thus, Fullbright paints a picture of a diverse future. Similarly, the station has people of various ethnicities onboard who bring a fully-rounded complement of crewmates that show just how diverse and wonderful humanity can be. The more time the player spends viewing the past conversations and behaviors of these characters, the more they can see how these are just everyday people afraid for their futures, lives, and relationships, no matter whom they love or from where they come. The evil of corporations is amplified, and the nature of AI sentience and the freedoms they receive are also called into question. These themes resonate so strongly because of the human characters who give face to them and show a common thread of humanity beyond time and setting.
On the other hand, Dontnod Entertainment focuses on the nature of romance and same-sex relationships in Life is Strange, and Deck Nine pushes that idea even further in the recently-released first episode of the prequel Before the Storm. The former takes players through the supernatural and heart-wrenching story of Max Caulfield, a high schooler given the power to control time in a limited, but nonetheless life-changing, way. Simultaneously, she reunites with her best friend, Chloe, five years after being separated and investigates the sinister goings-on at Blackwell Academy. The awakening of her power coincides with an awakening of possible feelings beyond friendship for Chloe—a novel but emotionally-heavy examination that takes place across the five episodes. While certain aspects of the story could have been handled better, the ability to forge meaningful relationships with the denizens of Arcadia Bay through dialogue and the areas of the town that could be investigated made for a strong gameplay core. This more intensive approach takes the wandering of Fullbright’s titles and pushes the gameplay into a voiced protagonist and raised stakes with lasting consequences for decisions big and small in dialogue and interaction. While the premise may seem boring or even discomfiting, Dontnod takes the time to flesh out the characters and allow the player to form opinions before and after learning all the facts. Max and Chloe’s feelings for each other are ultimately left for the player to decide in both their choices and inferences from things unsaid. This romance is not on the backburner as in Tacoma, but is instead an organic development over the five episodes.
However, in Before the Storm, perhaps emboldened by the success of the first series and understanding the franchise’s audience more, Deck Nine picks up where Dontnod left off in examining same-sex romance and homes in on the topic from the start. While Rachel Amber was central to the plot of the first season despite not appearing, and even with her fate known by players of those episodes, Before the Storm treats her and Chloe’s meeting and blossoming friendship (or romance) as something new and exciting. With the player having not seen but only heard of their relationship, playing as Chloe offers a fresh perspective, but one that helps inform the characters as well. Arcadia Bay looks and feels the same as ever, despite not being developed by Dontnod directly, and the gameplay remains the same except for the fact that Chloe cannot turn back time as Max could. This shift in protagonist is a significant change, even if players can still reload or restart to change their choices, as now they must exit the game and interrupt the flow of the narrative to do so. Depending on how players feel about Max and Chloe’s relationship, they can let that perspective inform how much they develop the latter’s relationship with Rachel. With two episodes left to continue this dissection of relationship, the conversation can only continue about this portrayal of a blossoming romance between two young girls who, while adrift in their lives, can bond over the personal turmoil with which they struggle.
Games have a unique opportunity to delve into opposite and same-sex relationships, as well as familial and friendly ones, in a way that allows the player to experience them in similar and different lights than in their own lives. Beyond simply reading about or passively watching characters develop relationships, the interactivity in games lets players discover and form those bonds of their own volition. Fullbright’s choice to simply leave exploration to the player and have them tell themselves the story as they learn and see more of the world gives the studio the chance to show a diverse cast of characters existing in a world and letting their presence speak for itself, as in Tacoma. Dontnod and Deck Nine add another layer to this gameplay by giving the main character a voice and a personality—one the player can shape and develop over time in the way they speak to other characters and the actions they take. Max and Chloe serve as vessels, giving voice to feelings both platonic and romantic between each other and in society, and allows topics of sexual orientation and gender identity to be engaged from a perspective that encourages discussion and thought, not simply one side or the other. As tempting as the option can be to jump into the newest shooter or get lost in the latest role-playing world, some of the most topical and insightful stories being told in games are found in titles where gameplay may seem as mundane as everyday life, but where true appeal comes from complex characters and complicated themes.