I miss talking about games! And particularly, I miss geeking out about the specific and cool things happening in narrative design. So, in an effort to combat how much I miss hallway talks at GDC, con cofffees and dinners, and casual get togethers, I’m going to try writing about games (again). Mostly because there are so many incredible games out there that I just want to nerd out over with others, and writing up what I love about these games is a good excuse for me to offer up some thoughts on my side of that.
To start off, I wanted to write a bit about two games that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and, coincidentally, two games that about moving: Unpacking by Witchbeam and Last Call by Star Maid Games.
So first up is Unpacking.
I’m not the first and I know I won’t be the last to talk about how extremely clever, efficient, and powerful Unpacking‘s narrative design is. Since working on Grindstone updates for 2021, I’ve spent a lot of time delving into the realm of how to use puzzle mechanics to tell story and how to have a solid feedback loop of characters/story into gameplay and gameplay back into characters/story. And then Unpacking comes along and just absolutely nails it, creating this incredible emotional and character arc entirely through its environments and puzzle mechanics.
It’s not just that it uses unpacking boxes to create a character and personality; it uses the spaces and objects to create friction, conflict, as well as resolutions. Spoiler for the rest of this paragraph: The juxtaposition between trying to fit your items into unconsidered spaces in 2010 (indicative of a partner who hasn’t bothered to make space for you) to 2016, where it is now your turn to fit a partner’s belongings in your space is stark and telling. It’s not just about where you put things, but how and what this means for how the character fits into these spaces.
Unpacking is masterful and confident and is incredibly moving and powerful (and was a good distraction from my own packing, as I played it while preparing to move my own home).
And then there’s Last Call
Last Call is the exact sort of game I knew I was going to love. It’s a vulnerable story about abuse and domestic violence, and it is absolutely unflinching. As someone who started figuring out how to go about being a games writer via making my own games about traumatic stuff, I deeply appreciate the candidness Last Call portrays. Last Call knows what story it wants to tell and it knows exactly how it wants to tell that story, and that intention is what makes it such a powerful game.
Last Call is a difficult game, and in many ways, the inverse of Unpacking (but no less incredible). If Unpacking is all about creating story through unpacking one’s life and trying to figure out how you fit into the next stage of your life, Last Call is about packing up a space and moving on. Whereas Unpacking lets the player decide where things go and how to properly categorize and sort things, Last Call is purposefully on-rails. In the game, you’re taping up boxes that are already packed. Some boxes contain vignettes, memories of the relationship that took place in this space. It’s these vignettes you’re looking for as you click on boxes, and not at all boxes contain these memories.
The vignettes are not randomized; they are linear and authored, and the story will unfold linearly. When it needs you to listen to a specific vignette, it ushers you toward the box that contains it, using layered and spatial whispering. And this is part of what makes the game so effective. It’s a crafted experience that you are following, not dictating. You’re not there to help the protagonist move on; you’re there to bear witness to her story and to validate it. And this is what makes Last Call so moving. It’s not about how your presence there changes or informs the emotional trajectory of the protagonist. It’s about providing space for the protagonist to be heard on her terms.
I don’t want to give away too much more about either game, but I’m so glad I got the chance to play both of these, in the same time frame, because they both managed to make use of a similar theme in such different, but wildly effective ways. Both are about significant moments associated with a specific space, and both use that frame to different ends.
And they both represent what I adore so much about making games: using games to talk about experiences that are important to share AND, in the same but exact opposite breath, finding clever ways of delivering story in scenarios that don’t look like they’ll provide a narrative gut punch.