Personally, I love a game with any kind of minimalist aesthetic. I still feel haunted by Metrolith and Home, I’m still mocked by Blackbar, I still go gamble in Tower of Fortune, and I think One Finger Death Punch and A Dark Room are two of the best games of the year. However, that said, Stranded is an example of everything that could go wrong when a game tries too hard to be “minimalist.”
Stranded describes itself as “a minimalist adventure game that forgoes dialogue and puzzles to focus on atmosphere, mystery, and exploration.” Unfortunately, in its attempt to be minimalist, the game removes all the things that drive an interest in atmosphere, mystery, and exploration.
Stranded seems to do all that it can to mechanically hamper exploration. Your character walks slowly across the screen, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except that many screens are simply wide open environments with nothing of visual interest to distract the player—the minimalism is boring. All we can do is click and watch the little man walk, then stop at the edge of the screen because for some reason he can’t walk across the entire screen with a single click. So we click again and watch him walk again because there’s nothing else to click on. Movement in Stranded involves too much waiting to be properly considered “exploration”.
Part of the game’s minimalist aesthetic is its lack of instructions or stated goals. The game starts with the main character in a cryostatis room and assumes that we’ll naturally want to leave that room. However, the game doesn’t actually give us any reason to want to leave. In fact, the flashing red terminals of the room encourage us to stay in order to investigate whatever problem exists with our ship. It’s only after clicking around the room and realizing that there’s nothing to interact with that we do decide to leave. We’re driven to explore not out curiosity, but because there’s nothing else to do.
Exploration is not an aimless activity. It’s a very goal-driven activity. We might not know what our goal is initially, we might not know what we’re looking for, but we know we’re looking for something. It’s the knowledge (or assumption) of that “something” that drives us to look closely at the world, to explore it. Without that “something” to tempt us, our movement ceases to be exploration and becomes wandering. The former has a purpose (we move with the intention of learning), but the latter has no purpose. That’s why Skyrim gives us a compass to point us in the direction of interesting discoveries. Bethesda understood that without some sort of goal in mind, players can only wander, and wandering is boring. I wander the world of Stranded more than I explore it. Sure, my curiosity is piqued by the appearance of rock aliens and temples, but these discoveries lose their appeal when I realize that they’re non-interactive entities.
Stranded‘s minimalism kills its mystery because the sparse design removes any interaction that we might have with the mysterious things we see. Our cryo pod, the giant rock aliens (robots?), and the glowing temples all beg to be touched and examined. They beg for a close observation. However, all we can do is glance at them. Mysteries should always be interactive because that’s their inherent appeal. Even in passive mediums, mysteries are exciting because they offer the audience a chance to play along with the protagonists, to try and suss things out for ourselves. A non-interactive mystery is no mystery at all.
A telltale sign of a poor mystery is when the protagonist can’t answer a simple question: why try to solve this mystery? It’s a question that I asked myself multiple times as I slowly walked across the red planet of Stranded, past the same rock aliens whose existence was no longer a compelling concern, through the same temples that glowed for reasons I didn’t understand, to my same cryo pod that flashed red even though it seemed to work fine. Why wander this world? The sad answer is, I have nothing else to do. There’s nothing else to see and nothing else to do in Stranded, so the boring mystery of the rock aliens and temples becomes our number one concern by default. It should go without saying that boredom is not a compelling motivator.
Without the lure of an interesting mystery, our exploration loses whatever luster it once had, and without either of those contextual dressings, the game fails to evoke an atmosphere of dread. For a game called Stranded, we never actually feel stranded. We’re supposedly stuck on this planet, but the cryostasis pod is in perfect working order so it seems safe to assume our ship can be fixed. We’re supposedly running on limited oxygen, but the only time we’re notified of oxygen levels is when the game is about to end. One of the most frightening things about being stranded somewhere is the isolation that that word suggests. However, we see a rock alien as soon as we step outside. We’re immediately introduced to native life, so we never feel isolated, and we never feel stranded.
Stranded is simply too minimal for its own good. And in the interest of not ending on a downer note, I’ll tease that next week I’ll write about a game that takes all the ideas and themes that Stranded wanted to evoke and does them right.