Screenshot: Paramount Pictures (Cinema Vine)

Unreliable narrators, deep-set paranoia, insatiable curiosity, and figures that defy description or human comprehension. The chances are that one of those elements triggers a memory within you of a specific experience you had with a piece of fiction in the past. All of those qualities invoke experiences I’ve had with weird-fiction(ish) stories that I’ve read—be it House of Leaves, The Southern Reach Trilogy, The Road, Ted Chiang’s imaginative prose, or any one of the more familiar H.P. Lovecraft penned tales.

Maybe it doesn’t rouse your past literary experiences at all; perhaps your first thoughts were drawn to Bloodborne, The Last of Us, Darkest Dungeon, The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, or something further back like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Call of Cthulhu, or even Spec-Ops: The Line.

Regardless of your frame of reference, one thing is clear: these experiences are few and far between, strong, singular in focus, and linger for many years after we, the audience, experience them. I’d like to make a case for how these tenants of weird-fiction, and its genre cousins, could generate unique game experiences moving forward.

A sample of the Annihilation original book cover, designed by Charlotte Stric and illustrated by Eric Nyquist.
Illustration: FSG Originals

It’s About a Feeling

Alright. I’ll admit that a big reason that I’m writing this piece is to give myself another excuse to talk about Jeff VanderMeer’s sublime Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance). However, I also found that the intense feelings that VanderMeer’s works flared up in me could make for some super exciting gameplay considerations. I promise that the intent isn’t to backseat drive or Monday morning quarterback the fantastic and challenging work that modern game devs are producing day after day. My primary mission is to open the door to curiosities, and even generate some great game suggestions in the comments below for selfish reasons.

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The feelings as mentioned earlier were plentiful, but specifically geared towards the three following categories: curiosity, fear, and melancholy.

I know that some critics point out that media focused on singular emotions tend to suffer regarding pace, due to the plateauing of their “one-note song” quickly into the experience, but I find that many of those games are qualified successes in what they aim to accomplish. See 2016 Doom’s focused approach to fun, violence, and gory theatrics. Or Hotline Miami’s non-stop over stimulus and unease. Furi’s pulse-pounding one-on-one boss rush love-letter was also hard to put down for me. Overall, I find that shorter, more tightened, games with a strong core “hook” tend to outshine the more modal play sessions with titles like Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto, or Assassin’s Creed.

An example. Max Payne is a game that knows what it is, what its core mechanic is, and how to expound on that mechanic in inventive ways for a 7-8 hour experience that will linger for long times to come. That’s what makes these weird-fiction tales so compelling as well—strong conceptual hooks built around audience emotional response.

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A sample of the Annihilation original book cover, designed by Charlotte Stric and illustrated by Eric Nyquist.
Photo: FSG Originals

Hasn’t That Already Been Done?

I cited some games at the top of this post that I felt aimed for a similar design ethos to the kind of project I’m discussing. These all have some DNA either rooted in this semi-weird-fiction prose style that I’m rambling about, but different amounts and yielding different results. For this particular discussion, I’d like to dig into what an AAA open-world(ish) take on a brooding, mysterious, and dangerous world could be. It’s something that it appears Metro: Exodus may be striving to achieve when it releases shortly.

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I’m 600+ words in, and I have yet to even touch on any of what Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is about. So let’s dive in:

Annihilation is a weird/science fiction story about a group of women enlisted by a semi-governmental organization (the titular “Southern Reach”) that venture out into a quarantine zone (called “Area X” in the books) where people seldom return. The story takes the form of a “found journal” that we’re presumably reading after the events have occurred, and have a first-person perspective from the eyes of one of the women in the unit—The Biologist. Characters do not share their real names with each other (for story reasons), readers are unsure of what is real and what is perceived, and the story is essentially all “quiet moments” filled with tension and speculation. There’s a sense that the presence in Area X is part organic and terrestrial, but also part alien and malicious. It’s a quick read, it allows for a lot of personal projection, and I’ve described it as a “written virus” to some of my friends. The story, the characters, and the scenario take hold of your imagination and put a passion within you to share its contents with all of those around you.

But, fanatical semi-religious comparisons aside to the quality of storytelling, it got my mind racing for what an interactive equivalent could be. A tense, quiet, and beautiful open-world space that presents wonders and mystery, only matched by its dangers and pains when the sun goes down. This idea raised two questions in me: a.) Does modern linear video game storytelling convention allow for player-authored narrative experiences that are possible but not prescribed? And b.) What about current games actively gets in the way of this type of model succeeding?

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Regarding my first question, I think that the industry is making strides towards producing interactive experiences that are profoundly fluid and responsive to player expression. PUBG comes to mind as a unique, tense, and mostly quiet game that builds all of its goodwill through the intersection of its players and their desires—but this is a multiplayer game. Detroit: Become Human seems to allow for a wide variety of possible scenarios based on what little I’ve played, but even this feels oddly prescribed given the nature of the game as more of a “choose your own adventure” experience. Maybe something like The Witness skews closest, but the game locks content behind puzzles that will always be the same for every player and allow for no, or minimal, player expression in their solutions.

The second question allowed for a lot of interesting ideation. When considering an “unreliable narrator” in video game stories, what if even the player became part of that unreliability? What if HUDs, with their codification of information and status, are proving to be a grounding-wire in an otherwise subjective pool of knowledge? With larger-scale AAA game projects having the ability to generate so many unique animations, what if a player’s only option was to pay attention to context clues in the world and on their character to have a good idea of what might be possible? How could the paranoia and suspect of weird-fiction become hard-wired into the moment-to-moment gameplay mechanics of a title? I know that titles like The Getaway have tried more “cinematic” approaches like this in the past, but I feel that the technology has grown leaps and bounds in recent years.

Screenshot: Paramount Pictures (Engadget)

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In Closing

The meta-narrative of a game like this could be something unique and special. For all of the fun times that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain contained that were mostly off-book, would it be possible to do something similar but skew it more towards the unknown, self-discovery, environmental storytelling, and fear? Finding a way to lay a strong foundation of the core narrative but then allowing for player authorship within that world could pave the way for not only more palpable thrills and chills, but also some genuinely different and unique experiences that make the entire scenario feel more crafted to each specific audience member.

If you know of any tense games that allow for more options for player expression and exploration, I’d love the recommendations. I’ve been eyeing The Evil Within 2, but I worry that the predecessor’s ham-handed approach to the narrative will still be present in the sequel, regardless of how the mechanics have evolved.

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These stories that aren’t outright told, but rather unfold through dissection, are the stories that ultimately imprint more strongly onto someone, I’ve found. It’s why the first 10 hours of my original Demon’s Souls playthrough will always feel like one of the tensest games I’ve ever played. These are the stories that I think games are getting closer and closer to telling, and I cannot wait to see how things develop from here.

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Oh, and there was a film version of Annihilation. I love Alex Garland’s films, but I did not find Annihilation to be a particularly excellent adaptation, as I felt it missed capturing the core elements that made Jeff VanderMeer’s story so distinct. The film had a decent story, but not one that I’ll carry around with me for years to come like I will with the novels.