Some time ago, Leigh Alexander wrote an article for Edge about how “less is more” when it comes to storytelling and evoking emotional responses in games (“When it comes to storytelling and getting emotional responses from games sometimes less is more”, Edge Online, 14 October 2013).
Her article was mainly about Gone Home, but as I read it, another game came to mind, the poorly received indie “thriller” (spoiler, it’s not actually thrilling) Montague’s Mount. That game proves Leigh right with one moment of subtle storytelling that’s actually effective, then proves her right again with several in-you-face attempts at emotional manipulation that fall painfully flat.
A quick summary: Montague’s Mount is about a man who wakes up on an island beach with amnesia. He decides to explore the island to find out what happened to him and who he is.
The effective moment is completely optional (which might be one of the reasons that it’s so effective). Early in your exploration, you’ll find a cabin with a television. It’s mostly static, but one channel plays a video of a little boy over and over again. The boy is young, his age likely still a single digit, and he’s riding a bike up and down an empty sidewalk in a grassy field. He looks quite happy, smiling and looking to the camera as he passes. His acknowledgement of the camera makes this feel like a home video, and we naturally imagine a person behind the lens watching the boy.
Next to the television is an old record player. If you’re dedicated in your exploration of the island, you might find an intact record in a drawer. Playing it reveals some kind of infomercial or self-help session about bettering yourself by “bettering your truth.”
By placing these two things next to each other, the game encourages us to make connections between them. I consider the happy boy in the video, the sad state of my current situation, the tempting but illogical invitation of “bettering my truth,” and I create a back story for my amnesic avatar: Is the video real, something from my past that I want to go back to, or is it something that I hope for, a hallucination or fantasy to make my life bearable? Did I try to better my truth and fail and that’s what led me to this dreary island, or is the record offering me a way out? The lack of details encourages me to play with the possibilities, and in playing with those possibilities, I become more invested in them. I’m not just interacting with the world but with the narrative as well. Through the simple placement of items, the game creates a mystery and invites me to play along with it.
However, the game doesn’t take any lessons from this moment. Later on, you find a cave that looks to be the home of a squatter. There’s a wooden board propped up on some chairs, covered with pictures of a young boy. When you enter the cave, the game takes control of the camera, slowly—oh so painfully slowly—zooming in on the board, then to a single picture, then it proceeds to pan across each picture until it reaches the bottom.
Clearly the game wants me to consider this board and the pictures on it, but this kind of forced emphasis has the opposite effect. When control is wrested away from me, I lose interest in the thing I’m seeing because I’m no longer solving a mystery, I’m being shown a mystery. I’ve lost the sense of personal involvement. To make it worse, the presentation of the mystery is repetitive and turns boring. The camera pans over multiple pictures of this boy, but the pictures don’t reveal or hint at any new information; they’re just close-ups of his face. The game thus takes control away from me in order to forcefully show me the same bit of information again and again.
Eventually the camera ends on a different picture, that of a man. There’s no explanation for the man’s presence on this board, again inviting us to make connections, but the problem with equating these two people (the boy and the man) is that the gulf of possibilities between them is too big to allow any interesting mysteries to arise. We don’t know anything about the boy or the man or even if they know each other since they never appear in a picture together. These two variables are so ill defined that when we consider their relationship we can only think in vague generalities: family or friend, protector or abuser, victim or villain?
The contrast between the television and the record player worked because those items suggested very specific ideas but offered no obvious connection between those ideas. The puzzle pieces in our hands contained vivid illustrations and that helped our imaginations fill in the blanks between. By comparison, the boy and man are mere doodles that begin and end as only individual puzzle pieces, but no picture ever forms from the. Still the game focuses on them as if they’re meant to reveal a grand and shocking truth.
The game ends on a low note with another slow pan across the same set of pictures at a different location, followed by expository narration explaining who the boy is and what happened to him. So not only does the game forcefully present me with what I already know, failing to make it interesting twice in a row, but then it gives up and just explains everything.
When the game tries to be mysterious, it tries too hard. It tries too hard to be vague and tries too hard to focus our attention. When it steps back and leaves the mental work to the player, it succeeds. That it doesn’t do this more often only shows that Montague’s Mount has no faith in its audience—and no faith in itself.