I’m going to try something a little experimental this week. You might know that I’ve released some of my own games and digital fiction (over here). For the most part, I’m not intending on writing about them – nobody wants endless screeds of me blowing smoke up my own ass. But I’ll make an exception, just this once, because I think one of those games serves as an interesting comparison with The Vanishing of Edith Finch.
If you’re not familiar, The Vanishing of Edith Finch is a short narrative game telling the story of the Finches, an unlucky family living on an island in the middle of nowhere. You play through the different stories of the Finch family, and each story takes on a different style to reflect the point of view of the person telling it. In one of the later stories, Lewis Finch, Edith’s brother, is working in a cannery. He chops the heads off salmon using a little mechanical guillotine, and puts them on a conveyor belt. It’s obviously pretty boring work; so as Lewis plods along, he starts making up a little fantasy world that’s more exciting. It’s a world that he ultimately gets lost in.
My game, by contrast, is called The Wall. It’s a visual novel about a bunch of guards spending the night on wall duty. They chat amongst themselves, and try and keep warm. When I wrote it, there were a few different ideas I was playing around with, and I ultimately don’t think they came together in a compelling way, but I’m also okay with where the experiment ended up. In terms of theme, The Wall was about the things that happen away from the action. You always get big dramatic events in video games, and I’m usually more curious about the day-to-day lives of normal people living outside of that dramatic sphere. So, for instance, The Wall has a new emperor being crowned in the capital city. The guards talk about it happening, but they’re also on guard duty in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere. The dramatic events of the moment have nothing to do with their day-to-day living. In terms of mechanics, I wanted to explore the relationship between work and the stuff that springs up around it. If you’re in the workforce, you’ll know that there’s the job, in the strict contractual sense, and then there’s all the social and cultural shit that grows up around that frame. Workmates muck around together. They chat, they kill time, they find ways to wind each other up. The contractual work is like a trellis, but there’s also a culture that grows up around it, weaving in and out, finding gaps, latching onto things – I dunno, I think that’s interesting.
So to express that idea, there were two parts to the visual novel. In this screenshot below, you can see the dialogue box on the right. At the same time, you’ll also get numbers popping up above the fire drum, and you have to click up and down to the corresponding number and put the right sized log on the fire. If the fire gets low, the dialogue pauses until the fire’s stoked up again. So you can see how the idea plays out: there’s the work you’re supposed to do, which is dull and repetitive, and the more interesting dialogue that’s happening around it.
Obviously there are clear parallels between The Wall and Edith Finch‘s Lewis scene. Both are about doubled worlds: Finch explores overlapping real and fantasy worlds, while The Wall is about work as both social and contractual. Even the control schemes go some way towards communicating those ideas. In Finch, you use the mouse to control Lewis’s hand and chop the fish, and you use the WASD keys to control the fantasy character. You’re using different instruments (mouse and keyboard) to control the different worlds, which is a nice way of showing how they’re disconnected from each other. In The Wall, players use the same controls for both parts. You use the mouse to put wood on the fire, and also to progress the dialogue. I like that as a way of exploring the kinda mode-switching that happens at work, where you move back and forth between mucking around and business.
That said, I think the scene in Finch is better to play, because you’re able to more or less automate the mouse movements – automate the fish-chopping – and focus your attention on the fantasy world, which has text popping up, and this whole choose-your-own-adventure boat thing, and – it’s fun and interesting to play, and the way in which you automate and totally forget about the fish stuff reflects the way in which Lewis drifts away from that reality as well. By contrast, in The Wall, I think the firewood thing ultimately becomes a bit of a drag. It’s distracting, you’re never able to focus on enjoying the dialogue – I mean, aesthetically I think that’s appropriate, I think it’s fitting that it’s not a totally satisfying type of gameplay – it speaks to that split attention that’s a reality of the workplace – but it also feels like it grew out of my inexperience as a designer. The fact that janky gameplay was thematically convenient doesn’t negate the fact that right now I’m just not super good at game design. I only played Edith Finch after launching my games, and playing the Lewis sequence was like watching someone do everything I’d done but better.
I dunno. I guess I’m learning more about what makes gameplay good. On paper, my game does a lot of what this scene in Edith Finch does. The mechanics function to much the same effect. And yet one is infinitely better to play. It’s a side of game design that I’ve not really had to think about before – how a game actually handles. It helps me appreciate good games, and it also helps me (or will help me, hopefully) become a better game designer too. If you’d like to check out The Wall, you can find it here; I’d really rather recommend Lay Me Down though – it’s the least experimental of the four original psalms, so if you’re only going to play one of them, that one stands best on its own. Onwards and upwards.