When Gone Home launched in 2013, Tristan Moore thought that maybe he'd missed his opportunity. The team at Broken Window Studios was already hard at work on Grave, a surrealistic survival game that would eventually be funded through Kickstarter. But an old college project, an ambitious narrative adventure game that toyed with some of the same narrative concepts in the critically-acclaimed Gone Home, suddenly seemed like it might just have an audience waiting for it.
"So we took Reflections off the shelf," he told Polygon, and pushed it onto the Steam Greenlight platform. Earlier this year it entered Early Access. "I think that there's still a lot of things that Gone Home didn't do, as far as giving players control over narrative. We wanted to get the project released while we were waiting to complete Grave."
It was a decision that has inspired his small team. Today, they release their latest revision of the game's trailer, showing off a carefully crafted impressionistic style, one that he says he hopes will help the game stand out.
"We really, carefully considered how we wanted to create a unified style," Moore said. "I just didn't feel like it was drawing enough attention to the fact that Reflections is an unusual game, that it is not the kind of thing that you play every day, that it's not just a walkabout exploratory game or that it's not just a first-person adventure."
Evoking the real
So what is Reflections? To hear Moore describe it, it's a game that takes the player's actions in new directions. It's a game that explores consequences, one that digs into how our passions can lead us toward situations and people, and also how individuals move themselves through a life in unexpected ways.
It is designed to challenge player's preconceived notions of what games can be.
"I think that people who play video games are not necessarily accustomed to dealing with real-world ideas," Tristan said, "or addressing real-world concepts in video games that have more of an edge to them."
Reflections starts with a question: Who are you currently dating? Emily, David or no one. Next, the game asks, who is your high school crush? Chelsea, Jason or no one.
Do you take the call and run off to a clandestine rendezvous?
"We don't specifically gender the player," Moore said. "We let you make choices about whether your various relationship interests are male or female. So, essentially you can say I'm currently in a relationship with a girl but I'm interested in a guy, or I'm interested in another girl, or I'm not currently in a relationship with anybody but I'd really like to get to know somebody who is a guy or a girl better.
"We give you a spectrum of possibilities and I think some of this will play out in the future because I don't necessarily know what the answer is."
From there, players are plopped into a vignette some time after high school graduation. You're packing for college; collecting your things, listening to old records and perhaps talking with your girlfriend or boyfriend in the living room. It's a turning point in a young life.
Do you take the unexpected call and run off to a clandestine rendezvous with someone? Do you linger in this moment with your closest companion? Or do you take a walk down to the lake and wistfully skip stones?
All the while, Broken Window's analytics engine is tracking you.
"In act one," Moore explains, "you make a series of seemingly inconsequential choices about how you choose to spend your time. It's this kind of open, sandbox-y segment of gameplay to explore. And as you make these choices about whether you choose to go outside and explore, if you choose to pack and get ready, if you say goodbye to your girlfriend or if you follow up with somebody you were kind of interested in earlier in high school, all of those things get tracked."
It sounds creepy, in a way, to have a game developer poking at your emotions, reading your intentions through your in-game actions. But there is a purpose behind Moore's efforts. His goal is to expand the way that games are able to tell stories.
"This tells us what you're interested in," he said. "Then in act two, you see the first meaningful payoff. The game splits off into one of several different levels, completely different levels with different gameplay that you can encounter. Within that are other kinds of feedback that will change, such as what your role is in working in your office; if you’re the office worker or if you're the boss; if you're taking a day trip to the forest or if you're actually living there. Each of those goes down into smaller and smaller micro details, where objects that you interact with will carry over, aspects of your relationships will augment that experience and each of those metrics of data that we have about the player creates a new experience within the gameplay."
For a game developer, this sounds like a nightmare.
For a game developer, this sounds like a nightmare — a wide field of possibilities, all with separate key decision points that make for a broad story with lots of content to create. But in Reflections, the team at Broken Window is taking a more nuanced approach to how things play out.
"We can give a lot more variation in the way the game's branching plays out because we're getting a more tuned idea of what a player is in aggregate than we are doing a bunch of divergence and convergence trees — the way that you'd see in something like Mass Effect," Moore explains. "There, you make one choice and it branches out to one dialogue option and then you have another choice and it branches out to other dialogue options. We're not really doing it that way.
The game of life
"We can take segments of gameplay, that have kind of self-fulfilling gameplay. They have direct results based on the actions that you take. But they don’t necessarily split the gameplay in huge directions until later on, when we jump ahead in the story to the next segment, say, five or 10 years later. Then we show you how essentially what you did on a day-to-day basis is what defines you — more than your making a big choice about which job that you're going to pick."
Instead of a raging river, filled with dangerous forks and bends, Reflections moves more like a casual stroll through the woods, where the plants or vistas you choose to spend time admiring unfold in the form of subtle details later on in the trip. It is constantly building little details to tell a more nuanced kind of story.
It's a daring approach, and with around half of the gameplay still in development even players who've spent hours with the game's current incarnation aren't quite sure where it's all headed.
But outside of the functional aspects of the underlying engine, Reflections is also a kind of philosophical leap for gaming. The goal seems more about evoking empathy and self-reflection instead of pixel hunting and twitch reflexes. Moore said the game's name feeds off that goal.
"The reason the game is called Reflections," Moore said, "is because that's actually what we would like our players to do, is go through the game essentially uninitiated and with no preconceived notions to see what happens, and see if the results that they get from that experience make them think about their real life and also think about the game world life and evaluate those decisions.
"I think that if you're a straight, white 20-something male playing Reflections, you can put yourself into it and hopefully learn from it without feeling like you're being instructed, or that the author is placing a very heavy hand on how they expect you to relate to it."
The feedback so far on Steam has been, Moore said, more like a series of bug reports than introspective diary entries. He's not sure if that's because of the pool of users he's working with, or simply because that's the kind of feedback that people think developers need. As a consequence, much of the work he and his team are doing with their community is in making sense of those responses.
"I think gamers have an expectation ... and until there's enough games in the market that challenge that I think there will still be some people who just say, 'This is not a game.'"
"I always say that it's kind of like you're the doctor and they're the patient," he said. "They're telling you that something hurts, and you have to diagnose the problem. So a lot of times people won't be talking about ... what their concern is. And a lot of times the most helpful feedback is just when somebody has a general dissatisfaction and you have to kind of tease out of that what their criticism is without necessarily having them just tell you their exact opinion. Because the feeling is really what needs to be addressed."
Reflections is expected to be released later this year, Moore said, and the team at Broken Window is hard at work evolving the gameplay to match their lofty goals. It's an experiment, but also a commercial risk worth taking.
"I don't necessarily know if it will be solved in a day," he said. "I think gamers have an expectation of lots of guns and shooty-bits, and until there's enough games in the market that really challenge that, I think that there will still be some of those people who just say, 'Well this is not a game, it's a walking simulator and why would I play a game about real life?'
"I think that video games can have an amazing potential to do crazy things that you would never be able to see in a book, or television, or movies. I really want to see that be a focus of a huge area of development in games going into the next 10 or 20 years, and that's why I want to start on it now."
Reflections is being developed for Linux, Mac and Windows PC and will be compatible with Oculus Rift.