Rules secondary in 'experiential' games

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There’s a particular kind of game I like to call “experiential.”

Games are often thought of as a series of challenges we must overcome within a framework of rules. Mastery of this rule system is the primary goal. Take Pacman for instance, a game that’s mostly about proving you can eat dots and dodge ghosts until you or the game literally can’t keep going anymore.

That’s not an experiential game.

Experiential games aren’t concerned with you mastering a system; they are games that use sound, imagery and rules to convey an experience above all else.

Here are three of them, none especially long, but all will probably give you a bit to think about.

The first two are “Gravity Bone” and “Thirty Flights of Loving.”

Imagine a spy film from the 1960s. Now make it more. All the colors are brighter, all the plots more convoluted, the sense of paranoia more acute. Nothing quite makes sense, nothing quite fits together. You barely even know who you are. This is Gravity Bone.

Your character is named Citizen Abel, but besides the obvious pun everything you know about Abel is conveyed only through the events you witness through Abel’s eyes.

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving both use this set of aesthetics, but their designs diverge in subtle ways. Gravity Bone has more traditional game mechanics, including different weapons and items to wield. These mechanics are mostly used to underscore the surreal atmosphere of the game.

On the other hand, Thirty Flights of Loving completely divorces itself from any sort of traditional game rules. In fact, it’s almost more like a movie than a traditional game. You do have control of where you move. You can choose to linger and choose where you go, but this is mostly to invest you in the events.

Thirty Flights is mostly concerned with giving you the feeling of forward movement, of momentum, shunting you through a rapid fire sequence of images that you don’t always have time to process. The game’s ending is a hilarious metacommentary on art criticism that’s too good to spoil.

The third game is “Dear Esther.”

This game is not fun. At all. It totally defies what games are supposedly to be for, right?

But Dear Esther, although a grim trudge, is very worthwhile.

The game is set on an island with a distant radio tower, its red beacon beckoning you. The island is cold and foreboding, and as you explore it audio clips play with little to no context or warning.

These audio excerpts are from someone who might be you, or maybe just someone whose footsteps you’re following. This guy keeps talking about the island, and then starts mentioning his relationship with someone. Before too long you’re start seeing broken car parts and references to Jesus on the road to Damascus.

By the end of the game, you’ll probably be even less sure about what’s going on that when you started. You’ll feel battered and bruised. You’ll feel worn out. You won’t have had any fun. But the impressive thing is, that’s how you’re supposed to feel.

Like I said, these experiential games are something a bit different. None of these are especially taxing on your reflexes or your wits, but they will stick with you long after you’ve played them.

Give them a shot to see how games can do something different with narrative structure.

Gravity Bone is available as a free download from Blendogames.com, Thirty Flights of Loving is available for $5 from Blendogames.com or Steam. Dear Esther is available from dear-esther.com or Steam for $9.99.

Noah Hinz is an art and game design enthusiast living in Walla Walla. Contact him with questions, game suggestions, playing, or anything else related to games at noahhinz@gmail.com .

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