Like many people, I have been extremely curtailed in my options how to spend my time for the last year. I do not mind escaping into books or films or indeed games for a while – but the past months have made the while longer and longer … so why not share a few of the more interesting narrative experiences you can have in the realm of video games.
In order to make it a bit more difficult for myself, I have decided to mix up genres. It would be very easy to simply list the best RPGs and call it a day. However, I was trying to find games from very different genres that have managed to evoke something unusual with the way they are telling a story. I am not looking for the best stories (although I would include some of the games here in that list as well) but mainly for games that try something strange (and successful) with their narrative aspects.
No need to talk a lot, let’s instead make the favourite kind of article of the Internet: a list.
To pick one RPG isn’t the easiest task. You all know how they work – you play as a character with different attributes and during challenging situations those attributes get tested in the form of a dice roll. Now imagine that your character has to roll a dice just to successfully look at himself in the mirror after several days of binging himself into personal oblivion. Your abilities are parts of your psyche that talk to you in different, very distinct voices at mostly inopportune moments and some of them are thoroughly mad. Outwardly, the story of Disco Elysium is a neo-noir detective adventure with a very European flair (it was made by ZA/UM an international studio from Estonia) but the true story is the internal exploration that its protagonist is offered by those inner voices and they might take him to dark, strange, hilarious or very vulnerable places.
The ambitious and somewhat precocious games of David Cage, the creator of (among others) Heavy Rain and Detroit Become Human have spawned admiration and memes in equal measure. I loved Heavy Rain when I first played it. The immersion that the simple quick-time reaction mechanics offer have been used in a lot of later games but rarely to such effect. It is a murder mystery that puts you into the shoes of several of its protagonists and your success (or failure) in advancing the story, finding clues, reacting properly to subtle psychological hints determines the ultimate direction of the story. Heavy Rain is a game that is almost entirely geared towards the narrative experience and as such it has to take a spot on this list.
What Remains of Edith Finch
This is the game that is closest to a short story collection in the way the player experiences the narrative. It is surprising and weird and uses all the tricks in the book (and invents or repurposes a few more) to give you a magical and emotional experience. It tells the story of a family through the protagonist’s memories of her own childhood. They serve as a gateway to her explorations of the – now empty – family home, where she finds traces of all the other members of their family and their respective stories. It’s a game where you shouldn’t give anything away other than this: it’s really good and unique.
Do you want a philosophical game? A game that shows you a dark mirror of America in the early 2010’s and the twisted psychology that underlies a Utopia? False prophets? A brainwashed society? The Great American Video Game? There are no better dystopian games than the Bioshock series and, in my opinion, Infinite tells its story in the best possible way. Ostensibly, Ken Levine’s game is a shooter. You run around, shoot baddies and get stuff. The high-octane action, however, is laced with chilling and shocking philosophical implications that would not be out of place in a dystopian novel.
Tacoma might not quite be in the overall echelon of the preceding games but what it does with its narrative elements is quite original and effective. It’s basically a walking simulator on a spaceship where something mysterious and terrible has happened. The player takes on the role of the person sent to clear up that mystery and all you have to do that are the logs and personal effects of the vanished crew. So you start traveling through highly subjective time, pieceing together the characters and their states of mind – it’s a kind of reverse storytelling that video games, due to their format, can excel in.
For the last pick (for now), I will go small. Gorogoa is a puzzle game that leads you through the memories of its protagonist. It is calm, somewhat sad and occasionally seems like an experimental graphic novel. You move the hand drawn pictures around, can enter and leave them at will and find the secrets hidden within them. It’s a wordless story and it seems like something a dying artist would leave behind, to explain things that cannot be said.
There are, of course, a lot more games that did interesting things with their narrative aspects. This is just a brief glimpse and a short list. I might return and add to it in the future.
Salmane’s laughter was lost in the wind as we rode away from Jemaa el-Fnaa on his motorbike. He was still elated about having it back. A few days ago the police had stopped him at an intersection because he was riding without a helmet (a helmet on a motorcyclist in Marrakesh is about as rare as a sighting of Khidr, the green saint of Islam, in broad daylight). He thought he would get away with a warning, but the policeman told him to get of his bike, wrote something on an official piece of paper and handed it to him. “This is now your motorbike.”
Getting the bike back turned out to be a real odyssey. The fine of 300 dirham (a hefty fine for a student) had to be paid at the Royal Treasury, where a large number of people, some demonstratively dangling their motorbike helmets from their hands, were queuing for similar offenses. When Salmane’s turn came the clerk stood up, shut her window and said she was going for lunch. While we were waiting an incensed man almost single-handedly started a small revolution, shouting for a good ten minutes at another clerk who gave a good as he got. To the ears of the uninitiated even loving words sound like a quarrel when spoken in Arabic, while an actual quarrel has something of a storm and a deluge about it. But the man was smiling in between his bouts of anger. Two trips to impressively forbidding police stations to get the receipt stamped followed. Salmane’s brother, a taciturn doctor, picked us up in his car and drove us there.
Salmane had mentioned him and that he had studied hadiths, the sayings attributed to the Prophet, in Saudi Arabia, so I was expecting a rather conservative and perhaps combative man, but he was clean shaven, sparse with his words and relatively unremarkable in appearance and simply didn’t seem to know how to deal with my presence. Then again, he had taken a “lunch break” from work to drive his youngest brother from a police station to the next, so any added distractions were probably best ignored.
Having the necessary papers in hand he was sent off – with an uncertain goal. Apparently there were three places where confiscated motorbikes were brought and he didn’t know where his bike was and neither did the clerk who had stamped his form.
His brother dropped us in front of a nondescript gate and drove off. There was a tiny window, barred with rusted iron and behind it loomed the face of an elderly man, screwed up in a permanent Piss-Off setting. He took the papers and turned out to be friendlier and quicker than his appearance suggested. While he worked over the papers, another trio of bike seekers arrived, greeting us with boisterous noises.
“Do you like my body?” asked one of them, strong, tall young guy, quite out of the blue. I was momentarily puzzled by the question as he went through one or two half-hearted poses to show it off.
“He’s a body-builder!” shouted one of his friends and shook my hand. Never mind, we laughed and chatted a bit in a mixture of French and English. They, like most younger men, preferred English to “the language of the protectorate.”
Then the rusted gates swung open, interrupting us. Salmane and I were admitted with another double-check of his papers and the trio that had arrived after us submitted theirs to a check from the gatekeeper.
We entered and before us lay a wasteland of confiscated bikes. All size and shapes (most shapes exactly the same as Salmane’s bike, unfortunately, which seemed to be a popular model) filled the yard, haphazardly put together in rows and bundles with those at the far end looking like they would never be reclaimed by anyone. It seemed like a post-apocalyptic traffic jam after a catastrophe that had wiped all motorcyclists from the face of the earth.
I looked over at the keepers, expecting them to produce some kind of paper on which the location of Salmane’s bike would be marked. Instead they lazily waved in the direction of one of the corners. Nobody had any clue where the bike could be. Salmane and I looked at each other for a moment, shrugged and went off to look for the bike. The only signs denoting anything at all were chalk-markings on the seat, showing the date when the bike was confiscated. Another clue was that Salmane had had to remove the pedal chain a few days ago, so we were looking for a bike confiscated on a certain date, missing a chain.
This particular Moroccan-Austrian detective duo did walk all over the grounds, but eventually came across the correct bike. Salmane rubbed at the markings, but they wouldn’t come off. So he pushed the bike out, had a quick, light row with the guys at the gate who weren’t sure he had filled everything out, but then we were off, once more complete and motorized. The city belonged to Salmane again and he would show it to me.
He spoke while we were riding along the roads of the city. “What are those holes for? The wall has holes – what are they for? You can guess.” Along with his bike he had regained his stentorian, school-masterly nature.
I looked at the wall surrounding the city and studied the holes. “Pigeons or birds?”
“No! Look where we are. What is out there to protect against?”
Exasperated with his pupil, he said, “No, the wind. The holes are because of the wind from the desert. It is very strong and it would blow over the wall, that’s why they made holes. No pigeons or birds – if that is what tour guides tell you, they are lying.”
We raced past the gates of the new palace and out towards the richer quarters, always outside the walls of the medina. The roads were wide here, and quite empty of cars.
“I will tell you about the city and the people who founded and made it.” Salmane, you must know, has a prodigious memory. He learned the Qu’ran by heart when he was a child and repeatedly demonstrated it to me, reciting the subsequent lines whenever we heard a recitation on TV or on a radio in a shop or a car. In addition he was a great storyteller, understanding the power of images and conviction. One of the first things we had talked about was how the story of Joseph and his brothers was different in the Bible and the Qu’ran (not at all, by the way), ending up re-telling the story to each other, filling in half-remembered details and scenes.
I have never found much use for the Bible, to be truthful, but here it struck me for the first time how useful a tool of communication it is. Through the eyes and words of Salmane those stories became alive again. I’m not going to say that centuries of misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians vanished (and since I’m no Christian it would be a misleading analogy) because we sat and talked about a shared story, but I realized how far communication, shared knowledge and the ability to tell stories go in establishing mutual understanding. We could have talked about a movie or food in the same way, but because our experiences in those matters were probably very different we ended up talking about this ancient story.
But there were more stories, dreams and visions. Islamic history is full of them. Hashish and opium have always been favoured pastimes. Rulers dreamed grand and decadent dreams and warlords nourished themselves on a harsher diet of curved steel, hard saddles and desert winds. Those are stories that are best told when in movement – the motorcycle ride was exhilarating.
Two rival rulers, one a soft and rich man fond of poetry, the other a hardened and crafty warrior. A story about the first: One evening, in his garden, he sat on a bench and was musing about affairs of the day when he spied his wife on a balcony. He was struck by her beauty and wanted to watch her unnoticed, so he hid. She seemed rapturous, watching something in the garden. He followed her gaze and saw that she was watching the slave girls, all swathed in white except for their naked brown soles, as they were going to the well to get water. It was evening and the sun was setting behind the well, so she would see their silhouettes and would watch with great pleasure how their naked feet touched the clay path. The ruler remembered this. Unknown to his wife he ordered to have another part of the palace built, with a golden well in the direction of the setting sun and a balcony of jewels and wrought metal, exotic flowers lining a path that was all made of musk. The well was to be filled with the whitest milk and for more than a year the ruler sent out men to search for the slave girls with the most beautiful feet, which were to be garlanded with pearls. After two years he had created an apotheosis of the scene that his favoured wife loved and he gently tied a scarf around her head, covering her eyes and led her into this new dream that he had made…
Later he made a deal with the warlord, only to be betrayed, watch his soldiers routed and be chased from the city. But the image of his dedication is what remains, certainly embellished, but also making everything else meaningless. Softness and harshness, always side by side. The soft naked soles gliding over musk and the boots of soldiers trampling the earth.
We drove past the walls like the wind it was meant to keep out, along wide and almost empty streets, looking at the gates. It was through one of those gates that we drove and immediately we were swallowed up by a mass of people. It was a market in one of the poorer parts of the city. The word bric-a-brac very accurately conveys the shape of the produce sold here.
People were throwing words and goods at each other and everything seemed so makeshift that a gust of wind could dissolve them all, stands and people alike.
We scrambled through them and into the narrow streets of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter and poorest part of the old city.
“This is the Mellah. If you come here at night, you do not value your life very much,” advised Salmane as he took a turn. Another motorcyclist came towards us and we nearly rammed each other. Dust and pieces of stone flew from a wall as we scratched it, not with our feet or shoulders, but the back part of the motorcycle.
“Neither during the day, I guess,” we both mumbled, hoping the other one would not hear. Then louder: “Are you alright?”
The motorcycle and its riders were unharmed. We continued through the narrow streets, cautious for a minute, then making robes flap in our wake again. The Mellah is not just a remnant of the past, nor is it a ghetto. The historical relationship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco is not an easy one and the apartments in the Mellah are among the worst and most dilapidated in the old city. Drugs like kiff are as readily available here as anywhere else and it can only be the poverty and perhaps a spectre of the past that causes the bad reputation. On a later visit I was to meet a Moroccan Jew who worked as a performer on Jemaa el Fnaa, but this time my impressions remained fleeting as we crossed the quarter on the bike and shot out through another gate back into the flow of beige taxis and towards the outskirts where Salmane lived.
The city is not a city. It’s actually a mirage – few people know that about Venice…it is a fata morgana of the seas, something that a shipwrecked traveler might wake up in, believing himself in a different world. The layout of this floating city is just too unique. I imagine it drifting away overnight, and myself waking up in a lonely bed floating in the lagoon. The city’s history is very unreliable. Nobody knows when, why or by whom the city was founded.
It is built on what is called an archipelago, a number of small islands, connected by channels. It is one of the few entirely car free cities in the world and probably the only one where a boat is the most convenient mode of transport. There are doors leading out of houses straight onto the canals.
This uniqueness is Venice’s burden. The city attracts thousands upon thousands of visitors each year. In fact the number of actual Venetians, people who were born and live in their own city, is rather small in comparison. It is said that – at almost any given moment – the visitors considerably outnumber the residents.
Venice is a city of visitors and travelers…and it can bear them. No matter how many people fill the main routes – like the one leading from the train station along the Rialto bridge to San Marco square where you can at best creep forward on a busy summer day – you can always take a quick turn and vanish into one of the smaller side streets and look for the true Venice…if there is one at all.
You must know, Venice is also a city of masks. The culture of the city was one of appearances and show but also of deceit and lies. You must never give yourself away entirely, always keep the others guessing and entertained by who you are. Go into a church. Any church. You will see that the paintings are without depth, like shimmering colors on the waves. Nothing solid and monumental would feel at home here.
A celebration of that aspect of the city still exists in the yearly Carnival of Venice every winter. It’s a celebration of the city’s secretive history and its love for the uncertain. People from all over the world fill St. Mark’s square wearing the most elegant masks and costumes.
Walking through the city you will see masks looking at you from every corner. Some are a reminder of the history of Venice – for example, a long nosed mask is reminiscent of those worn by plague doctors during the time the Black Death haunted the city – others are pure fancy.
Venice has several outlying islands. One, the island of Murano, is world-famous for its production of glass and jewelry which has a century long tradition and is often visited to see the glass factories and glass blowers at work.
Another island is reputed to hold an old sanatorium and to be more than a little haunted. That is probably just a story – why not rent a boat, try to find the island and make sure?
The decayed glory, the canals, the boats, old churches, squares full of people…Venice always offers something for a short or longer visit. Perhaps you will even see it during high water once, when many streets are flooded and visitors have to walk along makeshift piers to see everything they want to see.
There is one secret that the founders of the city managed to keep, for the most part. They were all seafarers and most of them were pirates, plunderers and thieves. In fact the entire city is a gigantic magpie’s nest of stolen goods, bits of temples and statues that were nabbed far away. Look at the Palace of the Doge, if you don’t believe me. On the middle balcony there is a group of statues on a chariot. They were brought here from different places and then the architects played a game. Where does this statue fit? The one that looks slightly angry. Even the lion on top of the pillar, even that symbol for the city came here on a boat from Africa and never felt, let alone saw a Venetian chisel.
Knowing this pleasantly scandalous morsel, don’t you feel like putting on a mask and walking around the city, feeling slightly superior and a little proud of yourself? No matter where you are from, the mask surely makes you a bit Venetian, no? Perhaps you understand how important, how essential, a bit of scandal was to the city?
Perhaps the next time (the first time?) you come, you will look for your own secret Venice? They say it is right around the next corner and over this bridge. Just walk past the shops selling masks, ice cream and pizza. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the Jewish part? Perhaps it is in a street that suddenly ends, in a window above a sea-smudged wall and the dance of light on the waves…
I don’t mean to be overly British and start with the weather … but I have to start with the weather and hide this fact as best I can with literary allusions.
“Wind and Wave” is the title of a collection of dark hebridean folk tales and it’s impossible to better sum up the isles than with those words.
The wind is a constant companion on the Outer Hebrides and not unlike Hamlet the visitor may be convinced after not too long a time that the direction of the wind can influence one’s mood as well as one’s sanity. You can walk along narrow lanes or drive your bike along the roads for hours and be astonished by how easy it is to move along. Perhaps it is the road itself that keeps you moving. But woe unto you if you try and turn around to return the same way you came from. If you do that, you’re bound to find out that it was a Southerly wind after all, the proverbial wind in your sails, that benevolently carried you along. Now the wind is in your face. The wind is like an unceasing swarm of insects that enters even the tiniest openings of your clothes. You feel it in your bones. You feel that the wind knows all of your deepest, darkest secrets and that is why it wants to keep you from returning. You feel faced with true cunning and evil. It is old and clever. It does not take long for you to curse the wind in intimate detail, like an ancient enemy.
In short: Headwind makes you go mad, faster than you think. Like a man searching for shade in the desert, that is what you are, on a windy day on the Western Isles looking for still air.
If you manage to brave wind and madness, there are a lot of discoveries to be made. The Outer Hebrides, specifically the isles of Lewis and Harris are remote. (strictly speaking those two form a single island; but in the imagination of it’s inhabitants it always appears as two islands; Lewis is the island of the Protestant workers and Harris is the wild and exotic South in which – at least in whispered rumours – traces of flamboyant Catholicism appear). In the books of the Greek historian Strabo they appear under the name of Hyperborea, the furthest North, and once you’ve made it from London to Stornoway you have already made it halfway to the North Pole. In an age of cheap flights distance doesn’t mean very much, but we have become so complacent that something like changing flights twice already seems like an impossible imposition. And since this is the way things are, most of us will never make it to the barely inhabited isles.
Which isn’t too bad for those that do. The relative emptiness of the land (about 18,000 people are living here and population density is about 8 people per square kilometer) makes it easy to draw a line right through time itself. Here civilization did not manage to create enough ruins to cover the old places. The traces of the – often quite harsh – past have not been wiped away.
The foundation of the island, stone called Lewisian gneiss, is the oldest stone that exists today and it was created during thousands of years of volcanic activity. It was the ice age that gave the isles their shape. The heat rising from the Earth’s molten core melted the rocks, the air and the ice hardened them; explosions and eruptions shaped the rock into mountains. It’s a scene from the oldest myths. A world of chaos, ice and fire. Then the ice age passed and temperatures rose. The massive sheets of ice ground down the mountains like titanic sandpaper and the icemelt filled the valleys where it formed the countless Lochs and created the basis for the peat moors that dominate the Hebrides.
The empty isle, a newborn exhausted by the catastrophes and cataclysms of volcano and ice that gave birth to it, was a place of the sidhe, the fair folk, creatures of the otherworld. They lived here in a world that would lie beyond human comprehension for yet a while.
Much later man enters the stage. Human, manipulated or simply guided by the sidhe, who he would not comprehend as his un- and subconscious voices until much later, took his first tentative steps across a harsh landscape where hunger, loneliness, cold and madness where never too far away. Then human learned to hammer bronze and iron. Learned to live in hordes and tribes around a fire and to chase away the fears, the cold and also the sidhe. All of these things he banished to the shadows.
The islands were already settled in the Iron Age. If one takes a car to a place called Bosta, a beach hidden in a bay of the isle of Berneray, which in turn is hidden in a bay of the isle of Lewis, one will find a reconstructed iron age house right in the sand, a few meters away from the waves. It is only a few steps away from the place where archaeologists found the ruins of the original house and the remains of its inhabitants. Until recently the house used to be inhabited. A woman – conveniently, a woman of present day – stayed in the house to explain to curious visitors all the details of the lodging. She was working for the archaeological society but they seem to have run of of money to pay her.
If, instead of their modest and quietly proud character, the Hebrideans would be given to boastfulness, they would never shut up about the fact that the menhirs, the standing stones, that can be found on Lewis are older than Stonehenge. The Callanish Standing Stones are about 30 minutes by car from our beach of Bosta and offer you a somewhat more mystical window on the world of 4,500 years ago.
There are a number of stone circles scattered over Lewis but the largest of them can be found above Loch Roog between windy fields and herds of sheep. The purpose of those mysterious stones is up to debate but in the imagination of most people they are a clear symbol of something mystical and spiritual. It is possible that they indeed were religious gathering places for the druid class but they might also have been astronomical tools, used to calculate weather patterns or the severity of the coming seasons, as well as more complex calculations in accordance with the celestial bodies. One thing that is sure is that there were burial held here. During the time of the beaker culture, which lived at the end of the Neolithic period (about 2000 B.C.), bodies were lain underneath the stones and given ritual gifts. Another sure thing is that during the late Neolithic period the henge stopped being a gathering place of any sort and was instead used as farmland. The henge sunk into layers of peat and was home to cows and sheep who rarely stopped to puzzle about the use of these quizzical stones.
Later inhabitants of the isle, freshly Christianized, now distrusted those relics of a devilish past. If they paid attention to them at all, they called them fir breighe, false men. As far as they understood the stones were non-Christian humans that had been turned to stones as punishment.