Adventures in video games

I grew up in the 80s, so my introduction to gaming was pretty lo-fi back then. Atari, Commodore 64 (oh my god the tapes, THE TAPES), and even some little handheld video games (like my prized Ms Pac-Man tabletop arcade game). I gamed a little on our home PC once we got that – some SimCity, Dune, Lemmings and the like, loading from 3.5 inch floppy drives and CDs, having to enter a code every time from the booklet to ensure you weren’t playing a pirated copy (those halcyon days). Eventually, I got myself a Sega Mega Drive (when I was still young enough that staying up all night to play Robocop vs Terminator only gave me weird dreams) and progressed onto various Playstation consoles. I’ve always loved video games, but it’s never been up there as my main hobby – and since board games came on the scene, even less so! I’ve slowly gotten back into it over the last 5 – 6 years with the WiiU, PS4 and a Nintendo 3DS living with me. What I hadn’t delved back into was the PC gaming I’d loved in the 90s, primarily due to my lack of a desktop in the last 10 years, and the cross-platform availability of a lot of games; but I figured, why not try out some of the lower scale games (as far as hardware requirements) available on Steam on my laptop?

I created a Steam account and started browsing around some of the indie games available, and also asked my friends on social media for recommendations – and the recommendations (plus Steam keys because people are wonderful) really rolled in! Hilariously, the game near the top of my wishlist was something my other half had downloaded for free on our PS4 a while ago and I hadn’t realized – the atmospheric Gone Home. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Steam games in a bit!) I didn’t know anything about this game before going in, and was completely delighted from the 90’s PNW setting to the seemingly infinite amount of investigating and exploring the environment allows. The game gently guides you along with a journal-based narration as you discover more and more around the house – the rest is up to you and how in-depth you want to explore. There’s a sort of creepy feel to the game, as you’re essentially roaming around an abandoned home in a thunderstorm – and I was suitably spooked at times! – but it slowly starts to feel like more of a narrative about family, love and life choices, exploring someone’s life. I interacted and wandered as much as I could, finding little easter eggs like X-Files VHS tapes and posters and audio tapes of various 90s Riot Grrl musicians, feeling like this game was almost made just for me. It’s not high-action or necessarily fast paced – but that’s why it works. I’m so pleased to have played it through.

Screenshot of the lobby of the house from Gone Home.

Gone Home

Not long after I had finished Gone Home, a friend recommended Virginia to me, which was due to release shortly. From reading some pre-release articles and watching the trailer, I was on board. Also set in 90s PNW (yeah, I know) and having a Twin Peaks/X-Files vibe to it grabbed me – in addition, it looked like there was a great diversity of characters including the player character, a freshly minted FBI agent who is not only a women, but also a POC. I was hoping it would be as open for exploration as Gone Home was, but it had much more of a guiding hand to progress you through the narrative of the game. What’s interesting are the jumps that the narrative takes back and forth through time, and how that starts to drop little clues as to what’s going on. Without dialogue, the game leaves quite a bit open to interpretation – and with the Twin-Peaksy vibe, that only adds to the mystery of it all. The experience was intriguing, even though it wasn’t quite as extensive as Gone Home was for ticking the exploration boxes. Metaphor and vibes drive the game rather than the action and urgency that the stories of other games have – and this is not a bad thing.. Virginia is one that will wash over you, and you’ll be puzzling about for a little while after finishing.

Character from Virginia - hands holding an FBI badge over a sink

Virginia

If these two games are any indication, it seems that – overwhelmingly – adventure and discovery are enriching rewards in games for me, and that’s the sort of thing that will keep me going back for more. Don’t get me wrong, I love lap after lap of Mario Kart 8 – but playing games like Gone Home and Virginia are reawakening my excitement for exploration in games. Increasingly I want to be able to take things at my own pace, ponder the meaning of a game’s progression and narrative, and puzzle out its story. I’ve definitely gotten this feeling, albeit on a much larger scale, with Skyrim – while there are structures and quests to that narrative, it has a lot of give as far as letting you roam the landscape. Although not as great as Skyrim, Witcher 3 has scratched that itch a little bit for me, but the storyline feels much narrower. Let me out there to collect flowers and talk to dragons and stare out into boundless, beautifully rendered landscapes!

Anyhow, yes.. back to the PC. I’ve started to work my way into the little library of games I’ve built up on Steam, with more adventuresome titles to begin with. Sorcery 1 & 2 were a simple yet enjoyable D&Dish romp which ended up being like a fun on-screen choose your own adventure; The Stanley Parable, a strange and surreal game that gets very meta and is really all about exploration and what could be real or not (do you follow the narrator’s prompts, or just go where you want to?); and a simple yet touching playthrough of The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne, an exploration of what it means to experience social anxiety (by its nature a small game with limited choices, but was eye-opening). I still have over a dozen games in my Steam library to get to. Next up on my list to explore are Undertale and Her Story – each an excursion into dark places in their own way, but with their own unique interface and way of storytelling. Although having just started Stardew Valley, I fear it’ll be tough to wrest myself out of that intriguing little world. Gotta plant some parsnips!

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