BADGP Combo Reviews: Dear Esther, Little Inferno, To The Moon, & Kentucky Route Zero Act I

Dear Esther, Little Inferno, To The Moon, & Kentucky Route Zero (Act I)

Combo Review: A Look at Storytelling in Video Games

Alex Linna

March 20, 2013

I’ve been playing a lot of smaller games and instead of writing reviews individually for each one; I decided to take a look at something they all do well: putting a strong emphasis on storytelling.  The above mentioned four games have alternative ways to tell a story in video games, but stating that begs the question: How are game stories usually told if these are to be called “alternatives?”  One might consider cut-scenes placed in between action sequences (DmC, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance) or story happening or being told to the player as one traverses an open world (Assassin’s Creed series, Borderlands) or multitudes of boxes filled with wall of text (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Ni No Kuni). Many games with include a combination of these styles of storytelling and there are certainly more than I mentioned. These four games innovate in how to tell a story in a video game and they might not utilize 100% original styles, but they place a strong emphasis on the importance of narrative and make unique cases for different avenues of storytelling.

Dear Esther (PC)         Dev: The Chinese Room          Released: February 14, 2012

It is almost too easy to start a discussion on storytelling in video games with Dear Esther.  While this “game” screams unique; it is also incredibly atmospheric due to the attention to detail in the environments, gorgeous visuals, and slightly unnerving soundtrack.  Dear Esther is less of a game and more of an experience. The player has two options: to walk and to zoom in on something.  As the player explores the island, journal entries begin to be read to the player which aid in the setting, and give purpose for continued exploration.  This makes it possible to “miss” part of the story if the player does not explore everywhere filling in little pieces to the narrative.  It is this risky approach that adds to the experience, when exploration is all the gameplay and interactivity offered it becomes engrossing.

Image

Little Inferno (PC, WiiU, iOS)  Dev: Tomorrow Corp.             Released: November 19, 2012

The follow-up to 2D Boy’s much acclaimed, World of Goo, Little Inferno takes a much unexpected turn.  The first word in my notes while playing Little Inferno is “Weird.”  It is a weird game that had me hooked as I completed it in one setting in about 3 hours.  The flow of the game is addictive. The player must burn two objects based on clues or puns for example: for the clue Springtime! the player must burn a packet of seeds and a clock.  There is huge growing list of items from which to choose and combine with the huge list of clues and puns.  Every so often the player receives letters from a mystery girl detailing her situation and will sometimes give you gifts to burn and request gifts to burn.  *MINOR SPOILERS*Then upon reaching what would appear to be the end of the game; it transforms into an adventure game whilst retaining the thematic feel and tone.  *END SPOILERS* The story is seamlessly weaved into the gameplay that feeds the pyromaniac in all of us.  The narrative combines saddening themes covering consumerism, warped priorities, and corporate greed, and the brilliance lies in the how these themes play into the gameplay.  The game is also a little more than disturbing and incredibly satirical:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0TniR3Ghxc

To The Moon (PC)       Dev: Freebird Games              Released: November 1, 2011

To The Moon is almost all story.  The only gameplay comes in two forms: 1. Block puzzles 2. Light Adventure mechanics.  This game employs a time-travel story that actually works.  Unfortunately, due to the game being almost entirely story, I cannot discuss the game at length.  It is a charming, endearing experience with a fake turn-based JRPG scene, a How I Met Your Mother reference, stargazing, horseback riding, road kill fetching, and whack-a-mole-ing.  The game is generally a little slow for my taste, but the climax and ending are immensely satisfying and well done.  To The Moon made me feel feelings, more so than most games.  The game ends with a weird cliffhanger that seemed out of place, but I did not even know that this was an “episode 1” until it said so in the credits.  The game plays on the player’s emotions in unique ways and uses the medium of a video game to tell a strong narrative.

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Kentucky Route Zero (Act I) (PC)        Dev: Cardboard Computer     Released: January 7, 2013

This is part 1 of 5, so my impression ultimately ends up being that the game is quality, but the substance of it is yet to be seen, much like Telltale’s The Walking Dead Ep.1.  It appears as though the set of five acts will have quite the divergent possibilities and there were several parts of Act I that felt as though they could have gone completely different.  Presentationally, the game is quite excellent. Reminiscent of Capcom’s Ghost Trick, the animation is stellar, the camera work is great, and looks exceptional.  Kentucky Route Zero Act I creates a mystery that I am now invested in, and with its style of barely providing details to keep the player in the dark and its use of player choice have yet to prove if they will pay off.

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Storytelling in games is something that is constantly evolving from traditional cut-scenes and text boxes to completely unique experiences like Heavy Rain and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.  These four games explore alternative means to tell stories.  Dear Esther uses exploration, Little Inferno uses a fusion of gameplay and thematic elements, To The Moon is almost hardly a game it focuses so much on story, Kentucky Route Zero Act I strings the player along with little details of an intriguing mystery.  The future of gaming is always exciting, but how the medium can continue to evolve when it comes to narrative and storytelling perhaps has the most potential.  

Image Credits (in order of appearance):

http://dear-esther.com/wp-content/gallery/screenshots/wallpaper-0031.jpg

http://www.invisioncommunity.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/freebird_games_to_the_moon_1162681_g2.jpg

http://static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/2/25628/2410783-2013_01_10_00001.jpg

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