Level Up: Notes from Gaming’s Edge

Put your weapons down. The gaming industry has been turned on its head by the de-mocratization of development and distribution tools, paving the way for games as a form of deeply personal art. A new wave of standouts signals the way forward for a mature creative medium.

By definition, any movement begins with the avant-garde. Gaming began with the hackers. You could say it began with the Tech Model Railroad Club, building games with duct tape and light pens in MIT basements in the 1950s. But when a movement grows up it grows safe. Industries assemble and become protective. Dominant narratives become hegemony. Somewhere along the way, the experimental, punk side of gaming—text adventures swapped on disks and dubbed cassette tapes, bedroom experiments becoming hits, primitive online universes coded by the players—was drowned in an ocean of first-person shooters and increasingly violent demonstrations of the latest possibilities in video card technology. Modern gaming, of the non-casual kind, became a noisy world dominated by masculine, fixed narratives produced at vast industrial scale. Sex, engine noises, sport, and explosions. Blood and bullets and Wilhelm screams.

But there’s always a counter-narrative. When barriers to entry and expression are stripped away, interesting things happen. New distribution mechanisms and development tools have opened up something entirely new in the world of gaming, and it comes as much from the realm of interactive fiction as it does from the games industry proper. In other environments, you might just call these small-scale expressions of the deeply personal “art” and leave it at that. Looking at these games from a certain angle, you see what it looks like when a new creative medium, full of boundless possibility, is born.


Many of these games are somewhat pejoratively referred to as “walking simulators.” The canonical example of this kind of ungame is 2013’s Gone Home, made by Fullbright, a gather-ing of refugees from the mainstream gaming industry who moved into a Portland house together to build a game most easily described as a “coming home to your parents’ house in the mid-nineties when nobody’s home and just kinda rummaging around” simulator. Karla Zimonja, a cofounder of Fullbright, tells me it didn’t start with a particular business plan.

“There’s only a few of us, and so we weren’t really hurting anyone other than ourselves,” she laughs. “At least that’s something. But we tried to keep our costs as low as possible obviously. We all rented a house together. It was actually pretty adorable. We watched a lot of Star Trek.”

The impetus to make the game, she says, didn’t necessarily come from a specific plan for subversion.

“I dunno,” she says. “I feel like that’s not how art works. When it comes to art, you make a thing because you have to make a thing, or it’s the only thing you can make, or something like that. It was a reaction in some ways to the Bioshock style of games, where you do a lot of exploration and find out about the world and learn about characters, and we were like, Hey cool, what if nobody shoots you while you’re doing that?”

Gone Home takes the basic mechanics of a first person exploration game and turns them to the purpose of beautiful and unexpected narrative—exploration as wrestling with identity, dreams, and expectation. It’s a narrative that constantly teeters on the edge of horror convention, and then subverts that with the mundane. Its most moving moments include the discovery of old mix tapes. However, when it won a slew of Game of the Year awards, it ran afoul of something entirely different—fear of the new.

When Richard Strauss’s Salome premiered to riots at the turn of the twentieth century, it rep-resented an unfathomable moral and musical threat for those used to what music meant be-fore. As Alex Ross argues in his marvelous history of modern classical music, The Rest Is Noise, you can trace lines from the anger generated by Salome through the atonality of Schoenberg to the radical post-war innovations of contemporary new classical music, and so much of the other contemporary music that sprung up alongside. Without making the argument that Gone Home and its counterparts will have the century-long ramifications of Strauss, I can still claim parallels of a movement at a point of maturity, ready to reach out and explore in new directions that shock and unsettle the status quo.


The riots of the conservative gaming audience were provoked most horrifyingly by a text-based game about mental health. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest is a different kind of interactive fiction, built using Twine. Twine takes the traditional interactions of text adventures and shifts them into a drag and drop environment where no code whatsoever is required. Depression Quest made striking use of that traditional foundation, exploring what happens when you introduce a problem people suffering from depression face every day: the inability to take the sort of actions that everybody else considers obvious and easy, just to get through the mundane movements of everyday life. The ugliness of what became known as “gamergate” is hardly worth words here, other than to say that the reaction was soul-scrapingly repulsive and adolescent, and in no way, actually, about ethics in games journalism. You can read about that elsewhere. But play Depression Quest. It’s great.

I ask Zimonja if she has any theories as to where the hatred came from for Gone Home in particular.

“It seems to be that a lot of people have the idea in their head that games are zero sum,” she says. “That there can only be so many games, and if you take ten percent of them and make them walking simulators, then that is ten percent removed from hardcore army shooters. I think people think of it that way, they think of games as a fixed landscape.”

Games, now, are anything but a fixed landscape. The console industry, protected in its licensing and distribution models, has always found the space to incubate an avant-garde without expectation of large sales. In the late 1990s, Sony bankrolled Playstation experiments such as NanaOn-Sha’s Vib Ribbon, a bizarre world of frenetically scrawled stick figures that had no business-plan-based reason for existing. These days, it uses its Santa Monica studio to incubate small firms such as Giant Sparrow, whose The Unfinished Swan turns the game world into abstract splashes of ink. The world of open-ended gaming reached its apotheosis with Minecraft, a meta tool upon which almost any narrative could be built. Jonathan Blow’s Braid took the traditional platformer and turned it into something like jazz. The possibilities within the medium are, rightly, infinite. Those at the edge push forward. But back in the traditional scene, people had grown used to things being, well, one way.

“If people perceive their gaming universe as changing or shifting away from them, that can hurt their feelings real bad,” says Zimonja. “That is another way to look at it—they had this thing and it was theirs, and then you try to pry it out of their hands and they try to bite you. Even though you’re not really trying to pry it out of their hands, but if you look at it as an overall shift towards being more humane, or a partial shift towards that, still it’s a shift, and that means fewer murdering strippers.”

Sam Barlow is no stranger to the avant-garde. Before he ventured into the mainstream gaming industry to direct titles such as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (in some ways an obvious influence for Gone Home), he was known for Aisle, a pioneering piece of interactive fiction. It was a text-based game that built beautiful narratives on a foundation of limited moves, where everything boiled down to whether or not you should buy gnocchi in the supermarket. It was playing Gone Home that inspired him to return to a braver new world of gaming with Her Story. But for his game, he pushed even further, removing the “walking around” entirely, reducing the story to fragments of narratives on a cutting room floor—videotaped answers from a series of police interrogations, only searchable by keyword through a primitive computer interface. The user’s interaction is limited to listening, trying out new words, seeing what responses come up, piecing together a story. It’s a strange and beautiful journey. As he explains to me, it’s not one he could have made inside the industry.

“If you take movies,” he says, “even the more artistically inclined ones are still very big, ex-pensive productions with hundreds of people involved at various stages of the process. With a lot of those movies, there’s still a point where a screenwriter sat in his apartment for six months to a year writing that movie on their own, being very personally connected to it. With games we generally skip that point. It’s a weird product, the business model and the way these things are built. You have this process where you pitch a game from quite a simple idea, or quite a shallow exploration of that idea, because no one is paying anyone to sit around and come up with game ideas for two years. And then the emphasis is very much on, Right, now, let’s ramp up, let’s start making it.”

Resisting that model and spending time in his own world, Barlow did just fine, selling over a hundred thousand copies in early release and garnering extremely positive reviews on Steam, the de facto standard of digital distribution systems for games.

“The piece of advice that people always give me, which I used to hate and ignore anyway, was if you’re making a game, you’re not making it for yourself,” says Barlow. “Don’t listen to the voice inside, because that will lead you astray. You’re making a product, and so you should be having that cold, hard product approach and you should focus test everything.”

Of course, the success of Barlow and others like him proves how misguided that approach can be in the new environment. These approaches are for the mainstream, and just as there are (we shudder to think but nevertheless presume) focus tests designed to dumb down mass market books and hit singles, there always will be for big games. But we have other things to play with now.

New Distribution Models

Before the modern internet, independent distribution mechanisms for games existed. They were called envelopes, and exchange was facilitated by classified listings in games magazines (or via Fidonet and bulletin boards, but let’s not clutter my narrative here). Since then, digital distribution through platforms such as Steam (and to a lesser extent the mobile app stores, where a different economy has taken hold) has been one of the most profound enablers for independent developers. Zimonja tells me that Gone Home basically could not have happened without it.

“I don’t even know how the hell we would have distributed it,” says Zimonja. “We would have, what, boxes? What? We didn’t have the kind of money for that production, we didn’t have the knowledge to do it.”

Barlow agrees. Independence was a less daunting prospect than it had ever been in the past. The right audience was not found through retail strategy, but through trusting in that audience to be out there.

“I don’t need to sell a huge number of copies for it to make sense,” he says. “Because my audience is fairly international and doesn’t have to get out of their house and walk into a shop to buy my game, I can pick up that audience all over the place, and before you know it I’ve got a hundred thousand people buying it. The limiting factor was always that you’re going to have to physically produce the discs and the boxes, you’re going to have to load them into a truck, and, because America was the biggest market, you’re going to have to have distribution centers all around this huge country, and then stick stuff onto the back of trucks, drive those trucks, pay for the gas, get it to a physical shop, and then convince the sales person for that particular shop that your game should have shelf space. That was the end point, and that essentially worked backwards and influenced the whole way the industry worked.”

New Tools

Democratized access to distribution platforms means little if barriers to creation still remain high. The first wave of this avant-garde came about partly through the longstanding tradition of clever modification to existing game engines, turning the violence of first-person shooters on its head to produce completely new counter-narratives such as Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable. But the days of needing to learn overly obscure code to build beautiful games are near past, Barlow claims.

“The end of that era was people really pushing the toolset,” he explains. “Going, Right, I’m not going to make a shooter, I’m going to try and make something that is more artistic. What you then see, in the case of both Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, is more polished, ex-pensive versions of those mods being made for public consumption, but they got their testing and they built up an audience through that initial release into the actual communities that they were part of. So that’s almost like the extreme, as far as we got with that method.”

Barlow sees more friendly game development systems such as Unity, and in a more low-key manner, Twine, as being the way forward for the next generation.

“There is a level of support for people who are new to this stuff to get started,” he says. “There are groups that are promoting those tools and taking them to communities that haven’t traditionally had a voice in video games, or seen them as being a useful way to communicate. We’re seeing this with the big engines, like Unreal, and Unity… anyone can download and use them. When I had my 8-bit computer at home, you taught yourself BASIC, and then you had to learn Assembly language if you wanted to go further than that. That’s obviously quite a steep barrier to entry.”

But this new wave of games is not just about experimentation. It’s about finding modes of storytelling and artistic practice to create works that could only exist in this medium—works that punch you in the gut in a way that only games can. When an artistic medium is born, it becomes a terrain within which all the realms of human experience, from the struggles of everyday life to the deep pangs of loss and loneliness, of being in all of its messy ways, must be wrestled with anew, on the terms of that medium and within the realm of possibilities that medium allows. These efforts at self-expression sit within, ahead, and alongside the main-stream, chipping away at its edges. It starts with the riots, and sometimes it takes a century or two to figure out what it all means.


The Stanley Parable

The one person I resisted the urge to speak to for this piece was Davey Wreden. Not because I was afraid, or because I didn’t think he would cooperate, but because he is somebody who exists in his most clear, personal manner in the games he makes. The Davey I want to know is the one inside his weird experiments. Ostensibly a story of a bored and lonely office work-er, The Stanley Parable is a subversion of everything mundane in modern life. It’s a wickedly funny, mindbending, and beautiful exploration of personal agency, and the tension between narrator, reader, and subject. Its in-game Powerpoint presentations are also devastatingly familiar for anybody who’s worked in an office in the last two decades.

The Beginner’s Guide

After The Stanley Parable, Wreden and his co-creator William Pugh made two very different follow-ups. Pugh’s Dr Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald took Stanley’s basic humorous conceit and meta-comment on gaming and turned it into a fun, literal behind the scenes subversion. A beautiful trifle that makes no claim to be anything more. Wreden, however, had much more profound territory to mine. The Beginner’s Guide begins as a strange amalgam of experiments with game-development engines and interaction mechanisms, narrated by Wreden himself, only to build into a primal scream of depression, loneliness, artistic insecurity, and the crippling need for validation. The ambiguity of its central narrative premise (the existence of another developer named Coda who did not want his works shown) unsettled a gaming community used to tangible, understandable backstories to games. That’s not how Wreden plays.

Papers, Please

Lucas Pope specializes in lo-fi dystopian mind games. Papers, Please is not a walking simulator like the others in this list, but is a spiritual cousin and a powerful piece of art. Here, though, the engine is not privileged middle-class wandering; it’s relentless and crushing totalitarian rigor, with all freedom removed. You play a border guard in the fictional country of Arstotzka, spending each day facing an increasingly desperate queue of refugees, migrants, and potential terrorists, forced to inspect their passports and stamp them in or reject them. With your meager income, you must support and feed a family and somehow keep them alive, while the state stamps it boot ever more heavily on your face, forever (or as long as you can survive).


Campo Santo are yet another independent studio of mainstream gaming refugees, based out of San Francisco. Firewatch, their debut game, takes the core of the walking-around idea and sends it deep into the wilderness, with stunning results. Though the narrative itself is fairly linear, the soul of the game, as your character hikes the wilds of Wyoming, is interaction with your supervisor, the game’s only other character, via your handheld radio. Through playful and frank conversation, something beautiful emerges that could not have been told in any other medium. “Wherever you go, there you are” in exquisite game form, with a little bit of rappelling and spelunking for added measure.

Further Viewing

Dig into the archives of the Aalto Media Factory’s Games Now! conference to find Davey Wreden talking at length about his approach, his own personal struggles, and why “the kind of game that you make is less important than the reason that you made it.”

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