There are very few people in the world that have yet to experience the gut-wrenching experience that grief can give you. Losing a loved one, the passing of a family pet or a broken-down relationship can leave us feeling raw and sometimes lost. Creative media has always been good at tapping into this feeling, but mostly on a surface level. Sure, a film series can kill-off a fan favourite character or a beloved TV couple could break-up, but it is very rare that these types of media engage their audience in a way that makes them think introspectively about their personal relationship with this array of emotions. As video games have advanced, some titles like The Last Of Us: Part II have taken a conventional approach to deal with grief, which is effective. However, games like RiME and The Almost Gone use video games’ unique interactivity to get players to engage with this difficult feeling in a truly unique way.
“The challenge was to involve the player in the emotional journey of RiME. Our way to build it was to set up a narrative structure supported by a very pictorial language.” Raúl Rubio Munárriz, CEO of Tequila Works, told me. “The light and colour of the Mediterranean and its evolution set the mood for each stage in grief. The sounds and atmosphere added immersion in a non-intrusive way.”
Just sit with it
Immersion was the clear objective for both RiME and The Almost Gone. Both games focus less on dialogue telling you what to feel when and more on creating a platform for players to discover how they feel. In the case of RiME, the beautiful, Mediterranean island that young Enu, our “protagonist” (for lack of a better term), found themselves on was used as the base of this emotional exploration. This contrasts heavily with The Almost Gone, which forgoes any traditional world format altogether for something a lot more minimal. David Prinsmel, creative director of The Almost Gone at Happy Volcano, explained to me:
“The game is not about exploring a vast world; it’s the other way around. The world comes to you with the truth in its details. It presents itself right under your nose; everything has a meaning. So it wasn’t necessary to create large worlds, it’s just the dioramas that needed to work really well on their own and fit together in a natural way.”
Go your own way
Both The Almost Gone and RiME are games that beautifully display the power that visual storytelling has. These games abandon the “video game” design tropes we are used to; a HUD, map, checkpoints etc., to allow the player to explore the themes of the game without having clutter on the screen reminding them that it is a game. This allows players to explore RiME and The Almost Gone in their own way, but as Raúl explained to me, this doesn’t mean a player is left directionless.
“We relied on symbols [for narrative direction]: the tower, the king, the cape, the familiar… and the island itself was treated as a character. Not just another character but the antagonist. The island changes as a consequence of the player’s actions and progress. Originally it’s an Eden, free of dangers, full of light and colour and distractions. But as Enu focuses on the tower and gets inside, it’s like trespassing a tomb, entering a forbidden realm where you are not welcome. And the majestic, solemn ruins now look derelict, broken. There’s anger, and the sunlight is not warm but boiling, hostile. The island reacts to you with rage and violence.” He continues by saying that “giving the player freedom and agency was a fine balance as we tried to guide them but not push them. Each emotion should feel earned, not imposed.”
More than just a body
This is a mantra shared with David, but whereas with RiME, the world becomes a character in itself, The Almost Gone focuses on making the world exclusively serve the main character’s personal odyssey. This didn’t come easy, as David shared with me.
“The most difficult part of telling this story was keeping the focus on the main character and her close surroundings. We tried to put so much stuff in there, that it was clear at a certain point, we were trying to tell too much. After test plays at different gaming events, it was clear that players were particularly interested in the story of Emily. So we decided to focus on that.” David continued. “We just show the things that matter for Emily. We never have a piece in the game that doesn’t have any purpose. Everything she passes is trying to tell her something. And that something is crucial to understanding the whole thing.”
These are completely different approaches that achieve the same goal – to confront grief, resolve, loss, consequence and acceptance in a hands-on and earnest manner. When playing RiME, your journey of discovery starts to hurt the place you are discovering. Sometimes confronting the truth and accepting loss hurts, the world that Enu needs to discover and explore suffers for it, but this suffering is necessary to find out the truth and to ultimately accept it. The Almost Gone presents Emily with the items needed to discover her situation and the harrowing circumstances of her journey by physically engaging with the abstract and surreal, never telling the audience what is happening or why it is happening, opting instead to let the player piece together Emily’s story by facing incredibly difficult subjects in an intimate way.
Difficult stories still need to be told
RiME and The Almost Gone are not games for everyone. They are both deeply personal journeys with both studios bearing their souls. But for them, the impact their games had on their communities made it worth it. For Raúl, getting that feedback was “a punch in the guts, to be honest. Players all over the world, total strangers, sharing their personal and very painful stories with us. We cried a lot. All kind of tears. It’s incredible how our medium can be a therapeutic tool, not just toys, entertainment or art. We never anticipated this; we never aspired to it.”
Regardless of if you are ready to tackle something this heavy, it is thanks to a vibrant and diverse indie landscape that experiences like this can not only exist but flourish. Tequila Works and Happy Volcano are small teams with big ambitions and immense talent, which gave them the opportunity to create an experience which makes players face something so devastating head-on. David sums this up perfectly.
“We had some doubts if we really wanted to tackle these subjects because most of them are pretty delicate. But we’re an indie game studio, and we don’t have anyone telling us what we should make. So we decided that it is in fact because we are indie that we can and need to tell other types of stories with difficult subjects.”