Narrative games that are heavy on plot and discovery, but light on mechanics, are bringing a new definition to the notion of video games.
They tell evocative stories in atmospheric worlds. But they often lack the intimate human connection of present characters; dominant in most forms of fiction.
In the best of its kind, the player moves through the story, gaining a sense of real people, often without seeing them. These games seek to tease complex emotions out of players, without asking them to break down the kinds of challenges and puzzles generally associated with games.
In this sense, they sit close to story-based entertainment, like novels and movies, than twitch-based arcade games. Still, they are very much video games.
Until now, they have tended to keep human characters out of the picture, sometimes because of limited budgets, or due to the complexity of creating facial emotion, or the particular storytelling direction of their makers. Think Gone Home and Dear Esther, both of which superbly investigate human emotion, without featuring on-screen human characters.
Other games have sought highly stylized versions of human faces, such as the blocky heads in Thirty Flights of Loving, or the intense simplicity of the characters in Journey.
Such games are inspiring new game developers to push forward with games that do feature real humans. One such is Virginia from Variable State, officially announced yesterday. Set in the state of that name during the early 1990s, it's the story of two FBI agents searching for a lost teenage boy.
Although little has been revealed about the game, it's styled as an interactive drama. The game's intention to depart from gaming norms is also evidenced by its two central characters, both women. The playable character is an African-American agent just out of training, who teams up with a Hispanic agent, slightly more experienced, but with a reputation for recklessness. It follows both the investigation and the relationship between the agents, which begins in hostility.
"Gameplay really involves exploring a number of scenes, like an adventure game," explained writer and gameplay designer Jonathan Burroughs. "We're intentionally light on mechanics. It's quite casual. We're far more interested in telling a story that the player immerses themselves in, like a movie or a television drama that you are participating in rather than necessarily dealing with obstacles that you have to overcome."
Virginia is being self-funded and created in Unity. It is set for launch on Windows PC and possibly Mac in mid 2015.
Burroughs said that Virginia's satisfaction would come from exploring the game and its world, rather than from mastering any specific skills. "Games don't need a high bar of entry in terms of skills and mechanics," he explained. "There are opportunities to evoke emotions beyond the thrill of success and completion. That has opened up an opportunity to explore new experiences."
Burroughs and co-founder Terry Kenny, who works on art, design and animation, have a long list of AAA franchises on their resumes including Battlefield, Grand Theft Auto and House of the Dead. But now they have set out on their own, they are inspired by indie games that seek to tell stories.
Their inspirations are games like Gone Home and Thirty Flights of Loving, but also 1990s popular dramas, like Twin Peaks, The X Files and The Silence of the Lambs.
"Thirty Flights of Loving was a real epiphany for us, a flash of inspiration," said Burroughs. "It had a huge emotional bandwidth, really engrossing and effective storytelling but done subtly."
He said he wants the characters in Virginia to resonate with players, even though they are drawn in a heavily stylized way, that is almost cartoonish. "We are creating these fully realized characters who are able to perform with a huge amount of personality," he said.
"When we were figuring out what we could achieve with the scope of this thing, about the art cost associated with having characters, we thought animated characters would be something we could do very well, and it would be a really effective storytelling device. That was the route we took because we felt we could be good at it."
Video games have generally not been great at character portrayal and development. But this is a game about how the two women interact with one another and how each changes the other. Originally, it was envisioned as a Mulder and Scully style professional romance between a woman and a man, but the developers became more interested in the potential of a friendship.
"We felt it was a more interesting story to tell, one that is so rarely used in games," he added. "We thought it might be more interesting to have two people who don't get on, but through adversity they form a real friendship. It's about two different people learning to get to know each other."