Five games which influenced the making of Closed Hands
Bury Me My Love
One of the core influences on our work, Bury Me My Love follows the fictional (but realistic and well-researched) story of a Syrian refugee attempting to make a dangerous crossing to France in hopes of safety. Mechanically, the game's influence on our work is clear, in that it presents the story through a fictionalised version of WhatsApp as you guide Nour through her journey - the whole game is made from nothing but flowing conversations and decision points, as the player (taking the role of Nour's husband Majd) is tasked with helping her make difficult decisions and choose the right pathway through the often perilous journey.
What makes the original mobile version really sing is that the interface makes complete sense on the platform it's being played on - the player uses their phone to text Nour, using an interface that's recognisable and familiar, which is something we really tried to do with the simulated desktop environments in Closed Hands. As well as this, the game uses a simple technique to really make the story feel real: it can be played out completely in real time. This means that if Nour takes a dangerous path, or is somewhere where she can't text back, the game will stop until she re-appears, sometimes hours later, or the next day, in real time. This sometimes adds a sense of pressing urgency, coupled with long stretches of worry about whether you've helped Nour make the right choice, creating an incredibly immersive way of telling a meaningful and challenging story.
We were lucky enough to have Florent and Pierre of Le Pixel Hunt join us for our panel session examining challenging and complex game narratives, check it out online here.
Inkle's entire body of work has really pushed forward the interactive fiction medium over the last few years, not just through their brilliant independent games releases, but also via the release and ongoing support for their brilliant Ink scripting language. 80 Days is a great example of both Inkle's keen eye for elegantly-designed narrative games, as well as being a brilliant demonstrative of the power of the Ink language. The game is a whimsical steampunk-flavoured retelling of Around The World In 80 Days, and while the game obviously has a huge scope in terms of its structure and locations, the part that really shines is the conversation trees, with prose and description flowing beautifully all the way through, making the excellent writing really shine.
Every single one of the 130,000ish words in Closed Hands has been written and structured in Ink, and the beauty of the library is in its simplicity - it doesn't do a lot of things, but it does the things it does incredibly well. Ink is a little closer to code than visual environments like Twine, but not at the expense of clarity, which when working on a project of this scale was very important. A few minutes saved here and there really adds up when you're writing hundreds of scenes. Once confident with the syntax, it's possible to write and edit and scan through huge Ink files without even running them, as the language lends itself to being structurally simple and clear, as closed to 'normal' writing as possible.
Although mechanically quite different from the game we were trying to make with Closed Hands, Tacoma was another huge influence on the initial process of thinking about our characters and their stories, in terms of getting under the skin of them as humans and extrapolating out from there. Set on what looks like an abandoned space station, the player explores a beautifully detailed environment to begin to piece together the fragments of what took place on the station before their arrival.
One of the things Tacoma does brilliantly is allow the player to really dive into the characters, in a really original way - playing back scenarios and scenes involving the now missing crew of the station, allowing the player to not just watch or listen to the stories, but to walk around the scene as the segments are playing out. The game is non-linear up until it's conclusion, meaning the player will encounter different fragments at different points. The sum total of this approach is that by the end of the story it really feels like you've seen into the lives of these individuals, which is something that really we wanted to try and achieve with Closed Hands.
We were lucky enough to have Nina Freeman join us on the first panel session that we ran, which you can check out here.
One of the big indie success stories of the last few years, Papers Please is undoubtedly on the lists of a great many interactive story writers, including us. Set in the fictional dystopian Eastern Bloc-like country of Arstotzka, the game requires players to act as a border crossing officer, assessing the information and documentation provided by people attempting to cross over into the country. If the player picks out and spots any mistakes, the person can be denied entry, or conversely they can be waved through if everything looks OK - this doesn't sound exciting on paper (pun intended), but the game wraps this mechanic in all sorts of interesting narrative ways. For example, one scenario involves a disheveled-looking man attempting to pass through the crossing using almost hilariously badly forged documentation - the initial instinct is to block entry, but then... perhaps he has good reason to try, is he running, and why?
What I take from games like Papers, Please is that the devil is in the details sometimes - even tiny little textual pieces of clues can enhance or add weight or depth to a story, which again is something that we tried to carry over into the way Closed Hands was written and produced.
Another huge influence on our work was Sam Barlow's brilliant Her Story, a completely non-linear exploration of a murder story, framed as the player working through pieces of video captured during many hours of interrogating the main suspect. The game presents the narrative through full video sequences, which are written and acted brilliantly, which gives the player a whole extra dimension of knowledge and subtlety to examine - no longer is this story just about the script, but it's about body language, tone of voice, everything.Where some of the above examples are non-linear but ultimately structured, Her Story is also noteworthy as the main interaction method is the player typing in keywords to find new videos. All of the videos are tagged, allowing the player to search for key words that might unlock new videos - of course at the start the terms will be obvious, but as the videos unfold more information is unveiled to the player, allowing them to work through further sequences. This mechanic means that the way a player reads and understands the story is truly non-linear, in that there's no chronological framing or other logical structures - the game is more about the player reaching into the archive and pulling out footage, piecing the whole thing together from dozens, then hundreds, of disparate pieces.