[5 February 2014]
Genres in video games are generally defined by either the predominant action that the game is built around or on some other factor that defines the experience of play. Take shooters as an example. We call them that because the player spends most of their time shooting things. Originally these games all looked similar, usually top down or side views of a gunship or other shooting platform moving on a 2D plane, but as technology improved and allowed for more options, so did the specificity of the nomenclature surrounding the genre. Shooters can now be subdivided into first person, third person, side-scrolling, light gun, twin stick, and so forth. Now why in the first two do we specify perspective over some other aspect? Side scrolling is related to level design and the term “twin stick shooter” refers to a control variation.
Last year, I wrote a series of posts about a burgeoning genre with the indie game community that looked like a first person shooter but was missing the defining action needed to actually be called one. The first person walker (a term that I swear that I did not invent, but everyone else says otherwise.) is a genre of minimalist works that takes a more complex sub-variation of the first person shooter and boils everything away until the game is left only with one main activity, movement. The name reflects the defining action in games like Dear Esther, 30 Flights of Loving, and Proteus. But what happens when you take that base model and then add another action back into the mix?
9.03m is a game by Scottish developers, Space Budgie, who describe it as “a short, first person, art/empathy game.” The title is a reference to the magnitude of the Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami that struck on March 11th, 2011. The aim of the developers in creating the game is to humanize the victims of the tragedy, as we so often just consider the death toll of such events and not the actual lives lost. The game is set on Baker Beach in San Francisco; a pale peach image of the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.
After an opening cutscene, in which a white butterfly that leaves sparkles in its wake flutters about a beach and a child can be seen sitting near the water’s edge, the player is given control. The boundaries of the world are a lot more expansive than I thought they might have been when testing them, but go too far off the prescribed path and the screen will begin to darken until it fades out, depositing you back at the menu screen. 9.03m has all of the now expected traits of a first person walker. You can’t jump, run, or crouch. All you can do is look and walk. You follow the path that the butterflies trail to a dark blue silhouette of a person, and on your approach, that person dissolves replaced by a cone of light that surrounds an object where the figure once was.
When the game hands control over to you, its first instruction is to “find the butterflies.” You begin at the top of a path that leads down onto the beach proper. The silhouette of the boy from the opening cutscene is some distance away, the gravelly crunch of the sand emphasizing every step. The ocean waves crash along the shore. Here is where 9.03m begins to build on its strictly minimalist formula by adding further mechanics. By pressing E, you then pick up the object that washed up on the beach. In real life, the tsunami carried debris all the way from Japan to the shores of California and the rest of the North American west coast. The items that you pick up belong to someone lost in the tragedy. Once you pick up an object, you rotate it by moving the cursor to the edge of the screen. This is where you find the butterflies. Their image is imprinted on the debris. Clicking on the imprint causes the butterflies to fade and the object to change into the soccer ball belonging to the boy, Tatsuya Sato.
A new cutscene plays following another white butterfly and creates a path to the next figure, this time a young woman in shorts and a ponytail looking out over the sea. A ring is at her feet with the inscription “Love, happiness, together” and the date of her supposed marriage, just two years prior. And the pattern continues to a man standing on a rock with a music box that opens to show him and the ponytail woman in a dancing embrace. Then a man appears with a pocket watch, the time is frozen at 2:57. A boy kneels over his toy train, and the butterfly turns into his handprint. A couple, the woman pregnant, hold each other close, each standing on one side of a crack in the ground. Their item is a baby basket, three butterflies fly out of it. A teddy bear belonging to a young girl, named テディor Teddy in English. We are given a close up of this butterfly as it careens over the sand. The water retreats further than it has previously to show a large crowd of silhouetted figures stretching the length of the beach and into the distance.
In total the game is only 15 minutes long and most of it is walking from one washed up object to the next. A tiny portion of it is spent picking them up and rotating them so you can find and click on the butterfly. It is slight, but it does add a further layer of mechanics on top of simply moving. This action forms as light an inventory puzzle element as a game can muster in order to allow access to the next section of the journey down the beach. Does the simple addition of a button change the nature of the genre that the game is playing with?
Every first person walker that I’ve looked over has been a simplification of another first person perspective genre. Dear Esther is an immersive sim like Deus Ex. 30 Flights of Loving is a linear, story-based, spectacle action game. And Proteus is an open world exploration game. Without gun or any other functional interaction with the world, the traits and feel of these genres are boiled down to their absolute essence. 9.03m, seems like it is a boiled down first person point-and-click adventure game. It could not be boiled down any further, and yet it still retains an interaction beyond looking and walking. Nevertheless, if we are classifying it into arbitrary genres I would have to say that it still is a first person walker because of how slight the rest of it is. It isn’t the focus of the game.
The game wants you, the player, to reflect on the tragedy by using found objects on the beach to connect them to the people they belonged to and consider the part these objects played in these individuals’ lives. The distance between each figure is much larger than it probably needed to be. However, half of the activity in the genre of the first person walker is looking at stuff. If more than half the time that you are playing there is little to look at, then the game may be too shallow an experience.
This game wants to honor the dead, and in fact, the proceeds from the game did go to those affected by the earthquake and the tsunami. It wants us to think of the people, but the game itself doesn’t really do that. I was more overwhelmed by writing that mini walkthrough above because I had to think and apply words to what I saw, which made the images sink in. The imagery of the game by itself doesn’t do that.
I don’t wish to disparage the game, but it feels like one of those “save the children” ads if the requisite Sarah McLachlan song had been removed. And your donation has been given in exchange for seeing the commercial. The real key to creating that emotional tie with the items was in picking them up and manipulating them. The time with them was so short compared to the total play time that it fails to have the efficacy that the developers wish for. Perhaps, in the end, 9.03m ends up being too subtle, too low key.
Point-and-click adventure games tend to be more intellectual affairs, and a minimalist version of one almost seems counter intuitive. Interaction is simplified, but the game doesn’t replace it with anything else. And despite being an intellectual genre at its heart, the developers attempt an emotional experience. First person walkers are contemplative by nature, but they require something to spark and engage that contemplation during the time spent walking, whether that be audio diaries, frenetic editing, or mysterious happenings to discover.