With the graphical ceiling pretty much being hit by the current generation of consoles, I’ve become jaded to modern AAA games. The realistic explosions are very pretty, and the character models have seemingly crossed the uncanny valley, and the games are fun to play, but at the end of the game I’m not really left with much, moving on to the next thing churned out by these large video game companies. One of the biggest things I look for in a single player game is the narrative. Two of the biggest problems I find with AAA titles is that either they do too much telling through dialogue and not enough showing through actions, or they shoehorn too many cutscenes in where the player is rendered incompetent. For example the most recent Tomb Raider game features a scene where one of Lara’s friends gets held hostage, and instead of helping out she just stands there and watches as he tries to get out of the situation by himself and gets killed in the process.
Even going back there’s Kingdom Hearts 2, where the main character Sora, who has been whaling on armies by himself through the player, suddenly can’t handle, what, three shadow heartless in a cutscene. I do not care for such pointless tragedies that the player could have clearly avoided had they been in control. Scripting isn’t much better. Think you can save someone by killing everyone else before they even pull a trigger? Too bad, that character mysteriously dies from an invisible assassin. This pretty much has made me cynical to these sorts of games. Now indie games, which lack the big budget and the strings that come along with it, are what actually drive me to tears at times.
Of course, in this day and age, the tools to make video games aren’t hard to come by. All it takes is a lot of effort and some good planning to make a game. Make a game interesting enough, and you can attract the general populace to back your game through funding sources like Kickstarter instead of trying to get your work through to the larger companies.
Anyways, the first game I’d like to mention is Witch’s House, one of the only games I’ve played where I could not complete. Made in RPG Maker, this game features a girl named Viola who is visiting her friend Ellen who lives in a house in the woods. The woods are said to be haunted by a witch who kidnapps children, and when blocked off by a magical force, Viola has no choice but to proceed inside the witch’s house. Now I went through the house, witnessing some odd horrific deaths of the main character, but I started to get suspicious when I cut off a teddy bear’s limbs, only to have the thing bleed. Odd, but nothing too horrific for me. But later in the game you get a companion frog who helps you through several puzzles. However, there came a point where I was confronted with a door, past which contained a giant snake. There was a small slot near the door, and with no other way to distract or kill the snake I realized that I was supposed to shove the frog into the slot and use it as bait. At that point I just put down the game and stopped playing, because as much as I wanted to find out what happpened next, I was not going to sacrifice a friend who did nothing but help me the whole game. Of course reading it on a wiki was perfectly fine for me, and the true ending is just terrible. The graphics are of a sprite-based style, but yet it conveys the sense of fear that AAA games lack due to the empowerment of the main character in those games with weapons and abilities. The protagonist in this story doesn’t have any sort of this stuff, and can only rely on story items and just plain running away thus creating fear due to a down-to-earth character.
The second game I’d recommend is also of this brand, called Ao Oni. The main characters, high school students in the first versions, then turned into middle schoolers, visit a haunted mansion that was said to have monsters. This freaky game comes with characters who are sprite-based mixed in with monsters that take a photo of someone’s face and modify it to the point where they lie deeply in the uncanny valley, making them the primary antagonistic oni of the story. Creepy and terrifying, the versions actually change the outcome. In the first versions you could save all of your friends, but eventually the game made sure you are the only survivor. Horrifically killing off your friends one by one until you are left alone. It definitely is a good scary game for those interested.
Third Game I’d recommmend is called Ib. The titular character is a young girl who gets trapped in an alternate dimention of an art gallery, where there are several works of art that try to kill you. A main point of the game is your remaining health is indicated by a rose that you carry, which wilts when damaged and rejuvinates itself when placed in a vase of water, healing you. It has several interesting puzzles, and a plot that made me tear up at the end. The music beautifully ties in with the characters as leitmotifs and the sprite-based nature of the game lends itself to the player’s imagination. The game also features several endings depending on the choices made during the game, and even the ‘best’ ending made me cry.
Finally, the last one I’d recommend would be the only one in the list that costs money, but it’s completely worth it. It’s a game created by Firebird Games called To The Moon. It is the first game in a series that follows two scientist whose job it is to go to dying clients and rework their memories in order for them to ‘live’ the life they’ve always dreamed of before dying. it pokes fun at the rpg-esque nature of the game and is a great experience for the story, which features a good twist or two in the narrative. The music is first rate, and definitely gets worked into the narrative. Saying anymore would be spoiling it, so go ahead and try out the one hour demo on their site.
Now as to why these games give me more feeling, it actually has a lot to do with what the games are limited with, as well as what they can do. Because the games are put into the sprite form, rather than going for graphical realism of polygons, less effort is put into trying to render them realistically. It also allows fans to create their own images of the characters, all of which are valid since the game doesn’t give a definite rendering of the character. The loads of fanart for Ib, for example, are derived from those same sprites ingame as everyone else who plays can see. Another big reason is the music that ties into the atmosphere the game is trying to set. Sure the AAA games have orchestral scores, but sometimes chiptunes are just more memorable, not to mention easier to play on an instrument. As there isn’t much to work with in terms of graphics and music, most of the effort of these games go into story. All of these I’ve mentioned so far use an RPG style of mechanics, with inventory screens and menus, which are reminiscent of the old adventure games of text-based and point-and-click styles. And through this mechanic, the developers craft a story that doesn’t feature a character that is powerful and skillful, but rather ones that rely more on intelligence and problem-solving abilites to progress.