For the past 10 years or so understanding of what can be achieved with videogames in terms of storytelling has changed quite a lot. From feeling too dependent on the gameplay mechanics to “be successful” which was then crushed by several titles like original Dear Esther mod or strange experiences from Tale of Tales we came to the almost opposite reality of games trying to brush off gameplay as unnecessary and trying to be as non-game as possible to tell their stories. But this whole movement seems to have finally matured in recent years and we’re getting more an more titles that try to mix gameplay and storytelling in ways that naturally complement each other, rather than compete with each other. And two new interesting examples of that are Stories Untold and What Remains of Edith Finch.
Stories Untold is, in many ways, an evolution of a text adventure. The games that described what you do, what you see, what you feel with text only and allowed you to experience adventures with simple verbs like “look around”, “go forest” or “open door”. Except, this title adds the visual element to it in a way that’s meant to complement the horror theme of the strange stories it tells. It also doesn’t limit itself to pure text adventure only, including elements more common to something like Myst and even some walking around sections. And ties itself quite heavily to the ever popular today late 80s aesthetic, and quite successfully, I must say.
This however, leads to some unpleasant side-effects as well. For example, the text adventure parts don’t feel like what’s a modern text adventure would be, but specifically those early, extremely limited in parser and verbs available adventures that expect you to do exactly what they want. The non-text adventure bits, while at times clever in how they build up to the eventual story revelation and evoke certain feelings, are sadly more tedious then fun. And the story actually feels less interesting than it could’ve been, although it does tie everything quite nicely and rewards attention. In addition, there is very unfortunate lack of any way to save mid one of it’s 4 stories, requiring you to start from the beginning every time and watch a lot of unskippable stuff. And we get a creative and fun, but seriously underdeveloped idea, that still results in a fun game to check out at a discount.
What Remains of Edith Finch is both simpler and much more interesting, on the other hand. At the start it feels like something that will be close to, say, Gone Home – story-driven ambient exploration game. And it is. But the way that it tells it’s story, or more specifically – many stories, – is where it gets interesting. The game, also with a lot of horror and mystery elements at the core of the stories, tells a tale of a history of a rather peculiar family, full of people who ended their life in an unusual and sometimes gruesome, but also very non-surprising way. To the point, where they were believed to be cursed, something that some of them tried to avoid, and some embrace.
What is the most interesting aspect of the game is not just the way that it gives a very different tone and voice to each of those family member stories, but also how it almost always tries to enhance the story it tells through how you live through that story. Some of it is simple, some of it is stunningly effective. With the best example story being something that, if just told or shown, without any interactive element, would not have a very strong effect on the audience. But when told through the interaction, and quite simple, actually, it makes you connect to that story so much more. And the fact that those actions are actually quite simple, but yet work so well to tell the story is what sets it apart from similar attempts, like, say, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, that had more classic adventure game puzzles. And makes a lot of the actions you do in the game more meaningful.
Which is not to say, that the game was all solid or all stories were similarly good. It is a bit disappointing how slightly more abruptly the game ends, even if it works like that intentionally, that I wish it did. Some of the stories it tells are a simple or too long. And exploratory bits had those slightly annoying parts where scripted animation takes priority in forcing you to walk somewhere or look a certain way. Which was understandable, but felt more restrictive than a lot of the smart bits, where such direction was instead enhancing the experience and helping the pace. Either way, I would highly recommend checking this game whenever you have 2-3 hours as it definitely worth it.