Inspect-’em-Ups: Genre Core and Periphery

One last post for September: I did indeed succeed in getting the second part of my new series on detective games out of the door by the end of the month. And it’s a long one, too! Long enough that I don’t feel bad about the dry spell that’s inevitably going to set in in October.

I’ve written about most of the games in this video on the blog before, mostly for things like capsule reviews and walkthroughs. This is the only time I’ve done any sort of analysis of them, though. (Excepting maybe Gone Home.) In addition to being long, it’s also mostly brand-new material, which is not something I can say about most of my videos.

Script below the jump.

Today, we’re going to be talking about categories, and the different ways we define them. It’s easy to get into navel gazing and useless esoterica when talking about such things, so I’ll try to keep the matter short and sweet, and move quickly on to some case studies. I’m just going to quickly front-end two different concepts of how we define categories.

1) Defining Categories by Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

This one is popular among folks who value facts, logic, rationality, consistency, those sorts of things. “Necessary” conditions mean that something definitely doesn’t belong to a category if it doesn’t meet the conditions. “Sufficient” conditions mean that once something meets all listed conditions, one can logically conclude that it qualifies as a member of that category.

For instance: the category of an “odd number” is defined as integers that aren’t divisible by 2. (Without remainder, that is.) When determining if a number is odd, it is necessary for it to be an integer. And it is necessary for it to not be divisible by 2. And that’s it: those two conditions are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a number to meet the definition of an “odd number.”

Prime numbers are a bit more complicated, but not by much: Prime numbers are natural numbers, greater than 1, that cannot be the product of multiplying two smaller numbers. That’s three necessary conditions, and taken together they are sufficient conditions for qualifying something as a prime number.

I’ve used two math examples upfront, because math and formal logic are deeply linked. But we can use categories pulled from ordinary language, as well. For instance, a mug is a vessel for holding and consuming hot beverages. Mugs often have handles, but that’s not strictly speaking necessary. What is necessary is that it provides some means of comfortably holding a hot beverage. Instead of a handle, a mug could just be made of an insulating layer that doesn’t conduct heat well. So we could say the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to fall into the category of “mug” would be a) that it successfully holds liquid, b) that it allows for easy access to drink the liquid, and c) that it provides some manner of insulation between hot liquids and one’s hand.

As you can see, defining the category of “mugs” is a little bit messier than defining mathematical categories. And “mug” is not even that contentious of a category! Whenever you’re dealing with cultural inventions—things and concepts that actually do everyday work in human social situations—definition by necessary and sufficient conditions is going to be a dicey endeavor.

Social conservatives typically demonstrate at least some preference for defining social categories in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, especially in times of political upheaval when categories begin to shift—for instance, who counts as a citizen of a nation, who deserves to have a voice in the public sphere or to cast a ballot in democratic elections, or what laws are unjust and in need of correction. To take a contemporary example, today it is easy to find conservatives insisting that we hold on to certain necessary and sufficient conditions for gender categories—whether those are chromosomes, hormone levels, or genitalia.

If I were to give some friendly advice to conservatives, it would be to stop doing this—not for my benefit, but for your own sake. Because it’s really very needlessly hard, and you could save yourselves a lot of headache by not falling into this trap. Because it’s hard enough to provide strict definitions of seemingly simple and uncontroversial categories without running afoul of a lot of persnickety edge cases. For instance, last year on Twitter, Mermaids and H. Bomberguy arch-nemesis Graham Linehan claimed that there was a strict definition of “woman” that could be universally applied without problem. Rather than ask him to spell out this universal definition of woman, comedian Avery Edison asked him a seemingly softball question, asking him to provide his definition of “chair.” Linehan responded with a seemingly reasonable-sounding definition: “a separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs,” and Twitter revelers had a field day providing images of all of the objects this definition included—and all of the ones it accidentally included.

And that’s just the definition of chair! We haven’t even gotten to the really controversial cultural categories, like “games” or “philosophy” or “art.”

So what’s a better way of defining culturally-invented categories? Let’s move on to …

2) Defining Categories by Core vs. Peripheral Examples

Graham Lineham’s definition of “chair” seems to have something like this in mind. We might call this the prototypical chair, at least for Western Europeans and white Americans. It’s a seat for one person. It’s got a back. It’s got four legs. It’s probably close to the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word “chair.”

But this is also a chair. And this, and this. And maybe this, depending on how we draw our boundaries? Forget what conditions are sufficient, which ones are even necessary? Are there any?

Well, there don’t have to be, if we turn to a different way of defining categories: by core and periphery. When we definite a category by core/periphery, we don’t start with conditions, we start with examples. Maybe we start with the example of this, as the prototypical chair. This will be our core example of the category of “chair.” And then, extending out from it, slipping down the hierarchy, we have less central examples, less strongly linked to our core conception of the category. This allows for fuzzy boundaries around the category, rather than hard ones. Is a horse a chair? Probably not. Is a saddle one? We might allow it, but if we do, it’s going to be on the more peripheral edge of the category’s fuzzy boundary.

Defining categories by means of necessary and sufficient conditions draws from the traditions of formal logic and mathematics, and conservatives cannily leverage this to make their approach to categorization seem “rational,” and “logical,” or at the very least “unemotional.” Throwing out some basic terms from formal logic is a good way to sound “smart.” But there’s copious research in cognitive science going back to the 1970s convincingly demonstrating that actual human intelligence tends to process categories in a “core/periphery” manner—a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “typicality effect” of categorization. I’ll throw some citations in the description for anyone interested in classic readings from the history of cognitive psychology here.

Genres are notoriously slippery categories, prone to changing, dividing, and dying off over time. Anyone who tries to to draw boundaries around them will always be playing catch-up, because the patterns that define them aren’t perceptible until there are enough examples lying about. Using necessary and sufficient conditions to determine if something is “hard fantasy” or a “elevated horror” or “synthwave” is impossible, because as long as a genre is alive, it’s a moving target. It’s more elegant just to think in terms of prototypical examples.

To take a videogame-related example: what is an adventure game? If I was pressed to offer a verbal definition, I would say something like, “games characterized by their emphasis of exploration, spatial navigation, item-collection, puzzle-solving and dialogue over combat, or any other time-sensitive form of gameplay.” But I don’t think any of what I just listed is a necessary condition, let alone a sufficient one. Plenty of adventure games  include some form of rudimentary combat, or at the very least require players to keep up with real-time action. Where’s the dividing line between the “adventure” genre and the “action adventure” genre? I certainly can’t point to one with any confidence. Similarly, where’s the dividing line between puzzle-heavy “adventure games” and just plain “puzzle games”? Again, I’m not sure that the question actually has an answer.

So, in the absence of strict conditions, we turn instead to core and peripheral examples. To best illustrate this, I’m going to create three hypothetical adventure game fans.

First up, we have Sally. Sally’s tastes in adventure games are, shall we say, classical. Her prototypical adventure game is and always will be Adventure, Will Crowther and Don Woods’ text adventure game for the PDP-10 mainframe computer, distributed over ARPANET in 1976. Filling out Sally’s core conception of the genre are Infocom’s text adventures, as well as a few graphic adventure games—but only those that use a text parser. Point-and-click graphic adventure games are a little further from the core for Sally, but she’s played the classics. Then she’s got a lot of peripheral examples, skirting the fuzzy boundaries of the category.

Then there’s Sally’s friend George. For George, Myst serves as the prototypical adventure game. George also has a different set of “core” examples: he associates the genre with getting mysterious contraptions to work, navigating mazes, and solving relatively self-enclosed puzzles to progress to the next area. George’s peripheral examples overlap pretty substantially with Sally’s. But because he lacks her cultural reference points, he excludes text adventures altogether.

Then finally we have Ainsley. Ainsley’s prototypical example of the genre is The Secret of Monkey Island. They’ve always had a special fondness for the “insult dueling” mechanic in that game, and they’ve subsequently sought out adventure games with an emphasis on dialogue: whether that’s persuasion, argumentation, collaborative storytelling, whatever. They’ve played a diverse array of stuff—old and new, text-based and graphical—and some of their peripheral examples are things neither Sally nor George would ever think to include. But their conception of the genre is really tailored to their taste for dialogue.

The point I want to make is that none of these conceptions of the adventure genre is wrong. But they’re also not complete. Each one of us mentally constructs categories by way of typical and atypical examples. But categories are also socially negotiated. Sally and George and Ainsley each have their own core and peripheral examples, and they also belong to a larger community that is constantly in the process of contesting and coming to consensus on its own core and peripheral examples.

This process is always ongoing—few things are subject to the whims of history quite as much as the boundaries of artistic genres, which shift and erode constantly. In the mid-90s, DOOM formed a very strong prototype for the nascent first-person shooter. At this historical moment, critics considered the game System Shock to be a “DOOM clone”—albeit a weird and atypical one, bogged down by all sorts of audio logs, ability upgrades, and attempts at environmental storytelling. But with the benefit of hindsight, from our own historical moment, we can re-position System Shock not as a peripheral DOOM clone, but instead a prototypical immersive sim. We have a different rubric now for conceptualizing it, one that places it in the company of games such as Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored, and Prey. But, who knows, maybe one day we’ll consider one of those games the prototype for some other category. Such is the way of genres.

Six Slippery Examples

In 2013, The Fullbright Company released Gone Home, a short and minimalist game about exploring an empty house. When it first came out, Gone Home got labeled a “walking simulator,” a term use to describe digital games that seemingly had no mechanics, and butted up against the boundary of what could be considered a “game,” at all.

“Walking simulator” is not a term I’m particularly fond of in the best of times, and I found its use as a descriptor for Gone Home to be particularly perplexing. In my mind, the prototypical examples of the walking simulator genre are things like The Graveyard, Dear Esther, Bernband, Marginalia, and Fugue in Void: games where literally all you do is wander, look at the scenery, and maybe hear some narration. In Gone Home, there’s stuff to pick up and inspect, and doors to unlock, and journal entries to collect. Compared to the core examples I just listed, it’s atypical.

Now, I’m already on record characterizing Gone Home as a hybrid between the non-violent, exploratory gameplay of adventure games and the immersive sim, characterized in part by its highly detailed environments, filled with objects you can pick up and manipulate, the design and placement of which often tells you something about this world and its previous inhabitants.

Granted, Gone Home is pretty minimalist by either the typical standards of the immersive sim, or those of the adventure game. It sits on the outer periphery of both genres, and whether someone would include it in either category probably has a lot to do with their prototypical examples of the genre. If Riven is your prototypical example of an adventure game, and you associate the genre with learning alien numerals representing a base-5 number system, then Gone Home is probably too atypical to make the cut: not enough puzzles. But if Maniac Mansion is your prototypical adventure game—a game that mostly consists of exploring a house, getting to know some characters, appreciating environmental detail, and getting past a few locked doors along the way—than it’s easier to see how Gone Home could slip within the fuzzy boundaries of the genre.

Now, saying that Gone Home stands as a peripheral example of the walking simulator, adventure, and immersive sim genres is a low-stakes claim. But what if I flipped the script, and said that Gone Home is the prototypical example of a new genre that has arisen in the years since its release? We could call this genre the location investigation game—or, “inspect-em-up” if you need a snappier name. Core examples released in the wake of Gone Home include The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in 2014, Kona and The Painscreek Killings (both in 2017), The Norwood Suite in 2018, and Draugen in 2019.

Inspect-em-ups are games in which you explore a location and discover the stories of their previous inhabitants. There’s a lot of overlap with detective fiction here, particularly the role of the crime scene. And, indeed, in some of these games you’re exploring a location that’s been left abandoned because of one or more crimes. But the location might also be empty for supernatural reasons. Or, in the case of Gone Home, just a string of overlapping quotidian reasons. The hotel you explore in The Norwood Suite isn’t even empty—it has plenty of guests, who act as quest-givers. But you still end up discovering the secrets of the hotel entirely on your own, largely by ignoring their requests and pursuing other leads. So inspect-em-ups draw more from just detective fiction. They also draw from melodrama and gothic fiction, in which the events and emotions of the past have an effect on a home’s architecture. Indeed from any story that’s motivated by the discovery of objects in an abandoned place, including letters, journals, or clippings—I’m thinking here of books like The Shining and House of Leaves, and movies such as Session 9. Honestly this is a form of entertainment that extends past storytelling—just look at the popularity of things like Pripyat tourism, “ruin porn” photography, and the well-documented fact that kids like to explore abandoned houses. Hell, I still do! I just play videogames because I’m behind on my tetanus booster.

Let’s turn to Gone Home, and its salient features as a prototype of the inspect-em-up genre. The game is organized around a two basic questions: why wasn’t your sister there to pick you up at the airport? And why is no one home to greet you when you arrive? These questions don’t constitute much of a mystery, but they do provide a central hook, and give you a reason to immediately start digging around. Your character, Katie Greenbriar, also has a motivation to be digging around: Katie’s been away while her family moved to a new house, her Mom got a new job, and her sister started at a new school. Of course she’s going to be curious about this stuff, and in the absence of anyone being home to greet her, taking a look at the stuff strewn about is a pretty reasonable way to catch up on her family’s affairs.

Gone Home is a game of exploration: you notice objects, you inspect them, and eventually the tiny stories each object tells weaves a larger story of the Greenbriar family. The story of Katie’s sister Sam becomes the game’s focal point, and is made highly explicit by the fully voice-acted journal entries that we hear throughout the game. Each member of the family has their own story, however, and my personal favorite parts of the game are found in the more intricate bits of environmental storytelling that don’t have voice-over guiding us along. I’ve mentioned it before—in my video on environmental storytelling that’s a part of my Half-Life 2 series—but the relationship between Terry Greenbriar and his Uncle Oscar is especially impressive in this regard. It’s quite upsetting, which I think explains why Fullbright buried it the way they did: if they were more explicit about it, it would overshadow the rest of the game’s plot. And by keeping it at the margins, Fullbright ended up creating a master class in subtle environmental storytelling, in which stray details of mise-en-scene do just as much work as letters and journals.

I want to turn something that’s going to be a running theme in my structural analysis of each inspect-em-up game: gating. By “gating,” I mean any obstacle that prevents us from accessing an area before we’ve met some prerequisite: finding a key, learning a code, discovering how a mechanism works, that sort of thing.

Traditional adventure games rely heavily on a variety of gating techniques. What they lack in combat, they make up for in other sorts of obstacles, delaying your progress through the game through different variations on locked door scenarios. In Maniac Mansion, in order to get to outside to the swimming pool, you need to use the silver key. You grab this key from the basement. This is an example of simple gating: find the key, unlock the door. Unlocking the wall safe in the attic is a much more involved affair, in which players must puzzle out a specific sequence of events: you need to find a way past Edna to sneak up the ladder into the attic, pour some irritated water onto a man-eating plant to make it grow, give it some Pepsi so that you can safely climb it while it’s burping, then insert some coins to rotate a telescope and successfully catch a glimpse of the safe’s combination, which is written on the safe itself but too small for your characters to read with the naked eye.

The first thing you do in Gone Home is unlock the front door. After you’ve gotten through that basic gate, a hefty portion of the Greenbriar home is available to explore. While you do encounter some gating later on in your exploration, Gone Home forgoes elaborate puzzle-based gating of the type you find in typical adventure games. The game’s gates are of the more garden-variety “find the key” type.

Once you’ve successfully unlocked the house’s front door, there are seven additional gated areas: a secret passage, three hidden compartments, Sam’s locker, the basement, the house’s east wing, a hidden room behind the staircase, and then finally the door to the attic. Although you can explore the rest of the house’s rooms in any order you like, these gates form a basic immutable sequence that determine your path through the second half of the game. In order to open the secret passage, you need to find a note from Sam in the laundry room clueing you into the fact that it exists. Inside it, you find a map to the three secret compartments. Once you’ve opened those, you can piece together the combination to Sam’s locker. This gives you the key to the basement, and by passing through the basement you can unlock the east wing. In the greenhouse, you find a note that clues you in to the hidden room behind the stairs, and once you gain access to that you have the key to the attic.

The fact that you need to work to get through these gates separates Gone Home from more “pure” walking simulators—for instance Marginalia, where the only thing you ever have to do is wander toward the next light source in a forest. But these gates aren’t really challenges. They’re certainly not puzzles like finding the safe combination in Maniac Mansion, decoding the base-5 number system in Riven, or putting together that damned inflatable duck contraption in The Longest Journey. They’re closer to the sorts of hidden compartments one occasionally finds in immersive sims, where simply paying attention to dialogue, notes, and environmental clues is usually enough to uncover a level’s secrets. Rather than asking you to engage in the often-goofy lateral thinking that so often characterizes point-and-click adventure game puzzles, gates like these simply ask you to be observant. It’s a way to structure the player’s progress through a developer-guided sequence, without ever sacrificing environmental verisimilitude: that feeling that the space we’re in follows reasonable rules, and could be believably inhabited.

Verisimilitude” is really the name of the game when it comes to Gone Home. It presents a mundane mystery, free of murder and supernatural elements. Its scenario is just an excuse to get us into a house that is dense with detail, so that we can vicariously experience the forbidden pleasure of learning people’s stories by rifling through their stuff. It’s single-minded in this pursuit, sacrificing combat, stealth, and puzzles, maintaining only the most minimal and realistically motivated forms of gating.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter makes two distinct sidesteps away from the model presented by Gone Home, to the point where it’s probably the least typical of the six examples I’m discussing in this video. For one, it’s much less dense with environmental detail. Its environments are beautifully rendered, to be sure, and I remember when it came out its developers, The Astronauts, were promoting the photogrammetry system they used to create the game’s visuals as a potential game-changer for small indie teams looking to create photorealistic 3D games. But aside from the pages containing Ethan’s short stories, and a few other accompanying paper materials, there’s nothing you can pick up and play with.

Secondly, the game is quite haphazard with its gating. It backloads series of hard gates in a way that forces players to backtrack—potentially even to game’s starting point—if they haven’t been keeping up with various little scenes and challenges.

Ethan Carter ultimately expects you to solve five killings, each of which involves Ethan Carter, a young boy on the run from his family, the members of which seem to be mind-controlled, and are attempting to sacrifice him to some elder god. But for a good long while, it lets you get away with not solving these killings.

You can walk straight by the first one—a grisly scene at the railroad tracks—and the game won’t try to stop you in any way.

Solving the second one does give you a clue where to go next, since upon solving it you hear Ethan’s ghostly apparition announce that he’s entering the mines via a secret tunnel near the gate. But technically, you can enter that tunnel before having heard the dialogue. The game doesn’t prevent you from doing it—it just signposts it less. You can see here in a side-by-side comparison: before you’ve heard that dialogue, the game doesn’t give you a prompt letting you know you can enter the tunnel until you’re right on top of it, whereas after, it makes the tunnel much more visible by having the text hover over from further away. You can actually see it from quite a distance.

The third murder is quite similar: it provides a clue, but even without that clue there’s no real gate in effect. Once you’re in the mine, the shaft terminates in a pool of bubbling liquid that players might want not want to wade into. Solving the investigation sequence gives you this bit of dialogue explaining that it’s not actually dangerous. But even before you hear that, you can wade through the pool and onto the next area, if you’re feeling adventurous.

It’s only once we get to the fourth murder sequence that we find the game’s first actual gate. There’s a walkway across the river, but it can only be traversed once the water level has been lowered by reducing the flow from the dam. We do that inside of the dam control room, which we gain access to when we’re in etherial form during the vision we have when completing the investigation. Theoretically, it would be possible for a player to get all the way to this first hard gate without having solved a single one of the game’s murder investigation sequences.

The fifth sequence unlocks the final room, where we finally get access to a map, and the game finally starts enforcing some additional gates. Along with the five investigation sequences, there are also five little vignettes players have to find, based on Ethan Carter’s stories. Two of these—the House of Portals and the Curse of the Sea-Thing—are fairly puzzle-y, requiring just as much thought and careful attention as the game’s investigation sequences. The other three are just things you more or less happen upon in the environment, strange occurrences that coalesce into some sort of climax. And these are much more walking-simulator-y: akin to the submerged dream sequence in Dear Esther, or the strange things you happen upon in the desert in NaissanceE. It’s only once you experience all of these, and collect the associated story pages, that this final map fills out, and the game reveals its ending.

Frankly, I don’t think that this style of all-at-once back-loaded gating works. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter represents a leap in scale from Gone Home: rather than just exploring one mansion, you’re exploring an entire town. Granted, it’s a very small town: six buildings, a graveyard, a dam, a mine shaft, and a small train stop. But still, it’s a fair amount of ground to cover, and when you discover at the game’s ending that you need to backtrack all the way to the starting point because you didn’t realize there were five distinct traps you needed to interact with in order to prompt Ethan’s story “Sap” … well, that’s not an entirely welcome revelation. Speaking from experience, here.

The actual investigation sequences of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are pretty robust. Frankly, they resemble Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishment far more than they do the other games I’m including in this sub-genre, right down to details like the hovering text our detective-protagonist’s observations, hunches, and deductions … and the mechanic of placing hypothesized events in the correct order, finding a scenario that fits the physical evidence. In fact, part of me wonders if the haphazard gating in the game isn’t a display of cockiness, of a sort. Fullbright sensed that they couldn’t leave the entire mansion open from the outset of Gone Home, or the cries of “not a game” would be even louder than they already were when the game released. They had to include some carefully-placed gates, to give players a sense that they were doing work and making progress. The Astronauts, by contrast, were confident that their investigation sequences were “gamey” enough that they could get away with allowing players to sprint from the starting point of the game practically to its very end.

I have no idea what was going through any of these developers’ heads. Just postulating idly. But these are the sort of things my mind wanders to as I reflect on these six games and the mini-genre they represent.

Next up, Kona, which popped up in Steam Early Access in 2016, but didn’t get a proper full release until a year later, in 2017.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter allowed us to wander around an entire town, rather than just a house, but as I already said, the trade-off is that it was far less populated with items, providing character and bits of storytelling. Kona is more ambitious: it genuinely scales up the style of Gone Home to an entire town, giving us eight homes (plus a handful of other buildings and locations) that are dense with environmental detail, readable documents, and embedded stories of home life.

Kona allows for a lot of un-gated, self-directed player exploration, to the point where it sort of feels like an open-world Gone Home. The game includes one main story-related gate: a supernatural wall of ice, flanked by four ghostly figures, that bars our entrance to the game’s final area. In order to get past it, we need to investigate four mysteriously frozen corpses scattered throughout the town, discover their identities, and what happened in their last moments. (These sections sharply resemble the spectral figure segments that conclude each investigation in Ethan Carter.) Once you’ve investigated all four, the way opens to the endgame, which is much more linear than what came before.

One of the corpses is deep inside an icy cave, and there’s a bit more gating related to this. In order to enter it, you need to get your hands on a coat, and the only way to get that is to trade some moonshine for it, which you have to make yourself after you’ve collected the necessary ingredients. So getting into this cave is a multi-step process that much resembles the types of puzzle sequences you find in traditional adventure games. There are a lot of other small gates spaced around the town, as well, but these simply require finding keys hidden nearby: under welcome mats, in mailboxes, in drawers, or cash registers, that sort of thing. This is more typical, Gone Home-variety stuff.

Kona really does succeed as a basic upscaling of Gone Home, down to details such as the structure of the game’s pacing: both games offer an exploratory beginning with maximum openness, followed by a more linear back path. And, in both cases, this design technique maps on to the requirements of storytelling: although players are allowed to discover some of the basic expository elements of the story in any order they like early on, at a certain point a twist is revealed—say, the clandestine relationship of your younger sister, or the crime that precipitated the supernatural revenge that has how descended upon a town—and the remainder of the plot is unspooled in a more linear way, now resting on the assumptions that you’re familiar with all of the necessary background information.

Kona has more going on in it, gameplay-wise, than Gone Home. There are vehicles you can drive. The game has a body heat system, which makes it dangerous to be out in the cold for extended lengths of time, meaning you need to start fires at regular intervals to give yourself opportunities to warm up. And there is even some light combat against wildlife, although this is pretty rudimentary—you don’t even need to hit the wolves, just firing your gun in their general direction is usually enough to scare them off. But despite this extra mechanical dressing, the central pleasures of Kona are still very much the central pleasures of Gone Home: they’re all about investigating locations, discovering the lives of previous inhabitants by poking through the stuff they left behind.

The Painscreek Killings is another town-sized inspect-em-up. As in Kona we’re given numerous residences and other buildings to explore, each of which contains copious notes, journals, and other bits of environmental storytelling. There’s no specialized investigation mechanics in this one, or spectral vision sequences. You’re just a journalist, investigating an abandoned town, trying to solve the long-unsolved murder case that set off the of the town’s cascading social decline, culminating in its economy collapsing and everyone moving away. Along the way, you discover that a couple of seemingly-accidental deaths were also in fact murders, as part of a far-ranging revenge scheme by one of the residents for past misdeeds long buried. And you do this the old-fashioned way: by poking around documents and finding incriminating evidence, with only your wits and a camera, without the help of any fancy vision modes.

This back-to-basics approach recalls Gone Home quite a bit, but one sharp break The Painscreek Killings has with Gone Home, and the other two games I’ve looked at so far, is how dense and strict it is with its gating. Quite early on, you start encountering locked doors, and they’re not the simple sort of locked doors, where the key is just under the mat nearby.

The Painscreek Killings is quite fond of what I’m going to call “volley-nested gating.” This is easiest to define by way of example. There is a note from the character Scott Brooks to the character Trisha Roberts inside a music box that is no simple task to acquire. It requires traversing the town between four separate locations, multiple times.

We start at the Trinity Church, unlocked by a key inside a flower pot. Once inside, we need to collect the key to a storage room, and grab the slim jim car lock pick from the tool collection here. With it, we can jimmy open the lock to an abandoned car. Inside of the car is a notebook left behind by a private investigator. On its last page, we find the code to the Roberts mansion security room. We head to the Roberts mansion. We unlock the security room. Inside is the key to Trisha’s room. We can now unlock her room. Inside her room is a key to Scott Brook’s cabin, as well as two more locked items: the music box, and a nightstand drawer. We need to start with the nightstand drawer, which requires us to return to the Church, but let’s hit up Scott’s Cabin first. We unlock it with the key we found in Trisha’s room. Inside is a key to a chest of Scott’s things. The door to Scott’s basement is locked. OK, back to the church. We can unlock Scott’s chest now; it has a key to his cabin’s basement. Let’s hang onto that. In addition to his cabin, Scott had a room room here. We need to find his secret wall safe, and determine its combination from multiple clues left around in the room. Inside is the code to a storage shed at the Roberts mansion that he and Trisha used as a “secret hideout.” So we return to the mansion. We unlock the storage shed. Inside is the key to a nightstand drawer. Return to Trisha’s room. In the nightstand is a metal cross. Now we can return to Scott’s cabin. We unlock his basement with the key we found in the Church, and we unlock a hidden room inside of his basement using the metal cross, using clues we’ve discovered elsewhere in the game that I’m not going to get into because I’ve already been going on for too long. In the desk under the conspiracy board there’s a key. It’s the key to the music box. Back to the mansion. We can finally read that note.

So that’s volley-nested gating. Gates within gates within gates, which necessitate, by their very construction, traversing across the town multiple times to unlock the next barrier and retrieve the next key. The hardest item to retrieve in Gone Home is the last page of Sam Greenbriar’s diary. In order to get it, you have to pass through eight gates, each of which of which is spaced in a very linear way, requiring very little backtracking. Getting to this note in Painscreek Killings requires getting past twelve-ish gates (depending on how you count them), nested in such a way that they send you volleying across town multiple times to work through each locked layer. And it’s not even the hardest-to-get item in the game! The hardest-to-get items are probably the documents in the locked drawer of Charles Roberts’ desks. Getting into that requires solving a puzzle based around multiple chess pieces, and some of the chess pieces are themselves hidden in heavily-gated areas requiring upwards of 15 steps to access. So it’s tough to quantify. But it’s a lot of gates.

Now, there are several areas in which the production values of Painscreek Killings fall short of those of Gone Home or Kona. EQ Studios, the small team that made the game, obviously didn’t have the resources to fill every single interior space of the game with unique furniture. You end up encountering a lot of re-used, generic-looking assets, which in a game about poking through every single drawer in every single cabinet gets kind of dull and immersion-breaking. And occasionally the design of the environments is just a little bit off. Like this hospital emergency room: it’s got the decor that you would expect, but there’s no entrance here for an ambulance to pull up. If they brought someone in on a stretcher, they’d have to carry them in from the main entrance, down this entire hallway from the front desk. I wouldn’t necessarily notice this sort of thing if this was just the hospital level of a linear first-person shooter, but since the whole point of the game is exploration and close inspection, it stands out more.

Gone Home and Kona also benefit from a really distinct sense of place that Painscreek Killings lacks. Gone Home is set in Boon Country, Oregon, a fictional location that’s presumably in the northwest corner of the state, close enough to Tacoma, WA to get television broadcasts from there. It takes place on June 6th, 1995. Kona is set in the village of Atâmipêk, in the fictional Region la Manastan in northern Quebec. And it’s set in October 1970. This sort of specificity helps these places feel distinct and lived-in. I know that Painscreek Killings is set in the US, mostly because of the sign on the post office. But EQ Studios, which is a Japanese team, didn’t have a clear enough sense of setting to craft the sort of verisimilitude you find in Gone Home and Kona. Homes are densely-packed around cobblestone walkways in a way that doesn’t ring true to the layouts of American small towns, which have been shaped so thoroughly by car culture. Even the way the addresses work is weird—I legitimately had trouble finding certain houses in the game, because house numbers snake off of the main road and down little winding walking-paths in a way I’ve truly never encountered in the US.

But the tradeoff Painscreek Killings offers is this: its environmental art may be less distinct, its sense of place more warped and watered-down. But it wants to be a proper adventure game, in a way that Gone Home and Kona are not. It wants to make you work to unlock doors, much like you had to work for them in Maniac Mansion. I wrote a guide to Gone Home that remains decently popular, but it’s not a guide to “beating the game”—it’s a guide to tracing every detail of of the story, as embedded in the game’s objects. I can’t imagine writing a “walkthrough” to Gone Home—it would be, like, eight lines long. But as a matter of fact, I did write a walkthrough of Painscreek Killings, as I was re-playing it and picking it apart. And it’s super long! This is a complicated game, one that it is quite possible to get stuck in. It is by far the most ambitious inspect-em-up, and the one that’s least likely to be charged with not being a game by the game police.

Now we pivot from a game with rather bland environmental art to one with absolutely wild environmental art. The Norwood Suite is Cosmo D’s follow-up to his free 2015 game Off-Peak. Cosmo D has a very distinct audiovisual style: soundtracks filled with electro-jazz, dialogue rendered as synth bloops and large blocks of text hanging by character models’ heads, psychedelic decor splashed with garish colors, and an off-kilter approach to scale that adds an extra bit of wrongness to architecture and the human form. It’s highly distinctive, and quite alarming. Even though these games are rendered in 3D using the usual techniques, populated by 3D models just like any other Unity game, there’s something about them that constantly looks off, like you’re staring at a dadist collage rather than an actual 3D space. The effect is especially pronounced in still frames, but even in motion something in my brain rejects what its seeing, and says, “no this must be a collage of disparate 2D elements; there’s no way it can be a traditional 3D rendering.” And I like that, a lot! It just tickles me.

Compared to the games we’ve just been discussing, The Norwood Suite scale things back. Its setting is not an entire town, it’s just a single hotel—but a hotel filled with decades’ worth of secrets. You arrive at the hotel with a mysterious but innocuous-seeming mission: deliver a CD-R of a musician’s music to a taste-making DJ, who is currently in the middle of a set. To get into the set, however, you need to upgrade your outfit, which means doing a lot of fetch quests for the hotel’s guests. This means that, unlike the other games we’ve looked at, this space isn’t abandoned. Well, to be fair, the town in Kona does have one living occupant. He’s introduced as a surprise, after players assume the entire town will be abandoned, and he even comments to you as you’re rifling through his stuff, reminding you that he’s there, which is a clever touch. But the hotel in the Norwood Suite is the first area to be fully populated with quest-givers.

I don’t think that’s disqualifying, though, because The Norwood Suite still very much embodies the spirit of discovery, of uncovering mysteries by means of mise-en-scene. Eventually, getting the CD to the DJ takes a backseat to discovering the history of the hotel and its titular Norwood Suite, named after a jazz musician who held some of his most famous and revered recording sessions in the hotel. The hotel has played up its place in the history of this jazz giant, plastering its hallways with portraits and album art, mythologizing the fact that Frank Norwood eventually became a recluse before mysteriously going missing, while glossing over his reputation for being abusive toward his fellow musicians.

Whatever happened to Frank Norwood? Is he still hidden somewhere within the walls, Jane Eyre-style? If anything’s certain, it’s that this hotel hides many secrets. I have never seen a game so in love with secret passages, to the point where a building with three floors becomes an impossibly dense rhizome of hidden spaces. Ronald A. Knox, in his set of rules for detective story authors, forbids the use of “more than one secret room or passage.” But The Norwood Suite isn’t looking to be a respectable mystery story. It’s closer to a delirious children’s pop-up book, drunk on the elusive possibilities of architecture. At times, the game really does feel like exploring a dollhouse designed by an over-caffeinated child. And I mean that as sincere praise! The game has its share of gates, mostly in the form of locked doors to the hotel’s many guest rooms. But cataloguing them the way I did for The Painscreek Killings seems utterly perverse. The game is animated by the pure spirit of freewheeling discovery. Unlocking a door never seems like busywork, as it occasionally does in Painscreek Killings. In this toy-like space, discovery is its own reward.

So that’s The Norwood Suite: makes a nice little contrast piece with Painscreek. Now, to cap things off with one final case study.

Draugen released this past May. It is the most recent game designed by Ragnar Tørnquist, who started off his career producing the achingly traditional point-and-click adventure game The Longest Journey. Since then, though, he’s experimented a good deal with the genre, moving away from fussy inventory puzzles and toward more streamlined, interactive-movie style experiences. One thing that’s remained constant across much of his work has been extensive voice acting, adding characterization to the plucky-young-woman archetypes he likes to write. And so, building on the precedent of Kona and Norwood Suite, alongside things like Firewatch, Draugen has the player investigating a lonely abandoned village, while all the while being accompanied by a chatty companion character, Lissie, who comments on our every move.

It’s an ambitious twist for the genre, and Draugen clearly supports a budget for photorealistic modeling and character animation that something like Norwood Suite could never aspire to. The seams still show: Lissie’s movement animations are tightly scripted, and she has a distinct tendency to say she’ll “catch up with you later” and then just spontaneously appear the next place we go, rather than moving alongside us, presumably to avoid the dangers of clumsy pathfinding and getting in the player’s way. And she doesn’t have that large of a suite of facial expressions. But she’s really good at piping up about things in the environment, adding her 2 cents in a way that successfully makes it feel as if you have an investigation partner.

Unfortunately, alongside this evolutionary leap, Draugen shoots itself in the foot with its odd approach to gating. There aren’t many locked doors in the town of Graavik—I think I counted two keys in the entire game. Instead, our protagonist Teddy is unfailingly polite, refusing to trespass even though it’s obvious from the get-go that the town is deserted.

The game is broken into multiple days—again, similarly to Firewatch—and you’re unlikely to notice Teddy’s willfulness all that much on day one. When you first enter the town, Teddy is carrying a heavy suitcase, and the player’s movement speed is slowed. This, plus Lissie’s constant calls to keep up, means that players are heavily disincentivized from straying from the path. This means they’re unlikely to notice that the houses in town are rendered as non-interactive facades on day one, with doors that can’t be opened. Once inside the house where we’re staying, Teddy’s movements become more obviously constrained by scripting. He outright refuses to go upstairs, and only peeks into the kitchen rather than passing through its doorway. The constraints imposed on us by Teddy’s personality become increasingly obvious and frustrating in Day 2. He only takes a quick peak into the town’s homes, after knocking, to make sure they’re uninhabited. There’s only one we’re allowed into to explore, and that’s only because there’s a loud noise when its door blows shut, and that gives Teddy due cause to investigate. He steadfastly refuses to hop the fence to explore the mine. He also initially won’t explore the church, which is odd for two reasons: one, because churches are usually considered community meeting spaces rather than private property, and two because the previous evening there’s even a bit of dialogue establishing the church as somewhere the villagers might possibly be. And then, weirder still, you eventually can open the gate and explore the church on day two—but only after Teddy brings it up in dialogue. Which seems like an arbitrary trigger.

Arbitrary” is the key word here. From a purely mechanical perspective, there’s technically no difference between the way past a gate being a key or a code, and it being a story beat or dialogue flag. In theory, they are functionally isomorphic. But in practice, having Teddy’s own moral code be the source of most of the game’s gates feels arbitrarily restrictive. I’m someone who usually likes using user interfaces to tell us something about a character: I think it’s a worthwhile use of the medium’s affordances. Having one’s player-character refuse to act in certain ways can be a valid form of characterization in videogames. But it doesn’t work here, because it takes away whatever meager sense of discovery was still at work when you get past a simple gate in something like Gone Home. All we’re left with are the very obvious rails.

Lissie doesn’t help the problem—in fact, she exacerbates it. She’s written as a player stand-in, a manifestation of pure gamer id who doesn’t understand why Teddy won’t just realize he’s in a videogame and poke around in people’s stuff. Her pluckiness gives her a fair amount of genre-savviness, and she accurately predicts Teddy’s eventual actions. I think this is supposed to endear her to us, but a side-effect is that it makes us even more annoyed with the game’s designers, who obviously were well-aware of the pleasures they were squashing for no justified reason. The game suffers from the same problem that Metroid: Other M does: since our access to abilities and spaces is restricted by the arbitrary commands of an authority figure, gaining access to new abilities and spaces doesn’t feel exciting—instead it just makes us resent this authority and their arbitrary pronouncements even more. And in Draugen, this figure of authority is our own player-character, restricting his own actions due to his inflated superego. When he finally gives himself permission to do the things that Lissie’s been encouraging him to do all along, I think the idea is that he’s reached some moment of rebellious self-actualization. But instead it just feels like the game has lampshaded its clumsy and arbitrary-feeling gating with Lissie’s sassy dialogue. If anything, it’s like salt in the wound of bizarre design decisions.

Okay. So, at this point, this is one of the longest videos I’ve ever done. And I am acutely aware that it has a very strange arc. I start with these big, sweeping points about the politics of policing categories, and by the end I’m digging into the minutia of gating techniques in these six games. Time to put a bow on this strange journey.

When Gone Home first came out six years ago, so many people discussed it in purely negative terms. It was defined by what it wasn’t: It wasn’t a real game. It didn’t have any actual mechanics. It presented no challenge. This struck me as wrong-headed then, and it strikes me even more wrong-headed now, having played things like The Painscreek Killings, which has plenty of mechanical challenge, mainly in the form of lots and lots of gates you need to figure out how to get through, and yet is also so clearly in the mold of Gone Home that I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who liked Gone Home. So in part I did this video just to challenge myself, to flip the script, and re-define Gone Home in a positive way, to save it from its limbo in various peripheries and instead re-cast it as the prototypical example of a new kind of investigation game, one that has, at this point, fully matured out of its groundings in the adventure game and immersive sim into something fully-formed and unique.

And I also wanted to push back on the tendency to push back on rigid thinking in general, using games as my way in. If you’re the sort of person who would claim that Draugen isn’t an adventure game because it’s “barely interactive,” or that Gone Home is in fact “not a game” at all, I’d like you to ask yourself: what is motivating these positions? What are the stakes of this sort of boundary policing? Why is it necessary? If you don’t like these games, and want to critique them, that’s fine—I certainly critiqued Draugen. But I made specific and contestable claims about its clumsy gating techniques when doing so, rather than just using eliminationist rhetoric to excommunicate it from the category of “games.”

I’m being sincere when I say I see a lot of strict definition of categories in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions on the right, and I’m being sincere when I say that this is an unnecessary source of frustration and confused thinking. Not every category is a mathematical concept. Most categories are porous, with many peripheral examples. We create the world by living in it, and it should come as no surprise the world that we have created follows the tendencies of the human mind rather than the laws of formal logic. Stop trying to pinpoint the exact number of puzzle-based gates a game needs to have to qualify as an “adventure game,” rather than “not a game.” I tried counting all of the gates in The Painscreek Killings. It was exhausting, and I’m probably stupider now for having tried it. But I still like the game! I like it enough that I invented a new genre name to describe it. We can do that! We can invent new genres names. Me, and you, and everyone. I mean, they won’t mean anything if other people don’t adopt them. But we’re not involuntarily beholden to the categories culture hands us. Live a little. Experiment a little. Be genre-curious. And above all, don’t deny something, or someone, a place at the table because they don’t meet some arbitrary standard you’ve taken upon yourself to enforce. In videogames, or in any other aspect of life.

Well, that’s my pretty bow on this ridiculously long episode. Thanks for watching—especially if you made it all the way to the end. You’re a real trooper.

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