You didn’t have to look very hard at the hundreds of video games demonstrated this month at E3, a trade show, to note a distinct mood of expansionism. One after another, designers took to the stage to present so-called “open worlds”: virtual environments in which, they promised, the player could travel anywhere, do anything, never cease from exploration. There was “Sea of Thieves”, a pirate game set on an endless rolling ocean. There was “Anthem”, in which robotic exosuits explored an “Avatar”-like jungle planet. There was “Days Gone”, set in an American Northwest overrun by zombies, and “Super Mario Odyssey”, an open-world outing for the entertainment industry’s most famous plumber. Limitless horizons, as far as the eye could see.
Does that excite you? It exhausts me. Video games may be bigger, more complex and more open-ended than ever before, but anyone hoping to keep up with a fraction of them needs to plan for substantial journey time, approaching their sprawling landscapes as they might actual foreign travel. I’ve only just finished “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”, an enormous open-world fantasy game that I’ve been playing on and off since 2015. I’ve fared better with Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”, which came out earlier this year – but mostly because, thanks to the portable Switch console, I can drop in and out on long journeys and in ten-minute snatches.
No one should complain about game designers wanting to push the boundaries of their medium. But lateral stretch doesn’t always translate to intellectual reach. In fact, several recent games have intrigued with deliberate moves in the opposite direction. As though in response to the endlessness of their open-world competitors, they aim to focus the player’s attention on tiny details, crafted environments and intricate architecture – and, sometimes, to play with the idea of enclosure itself.
One of the most interesting of these experiences is “What Remains of Edith Finch” (above), a two-hour, first-person game by Giant Sparrow, a group of Californian developers. You play the titular young woman, who returns as an adult to her family’s deserted house in the Pacific Northwest. The Finches had occupied this house for a century, building crazily on to it with each generation: it straggles skywards, with rooms perched unsettlingly on top of rooms to form a tattered and precarious tower. Inside, too, it is a puzzle box, full of secret passages and architectural jokes. Finches across the house’s history have died suddenly, and, as Edie picks through bedrooms and pores over the diaries of her predecessors, she finds herself entering their memories as well.
It’s a hugely clever game, a magical-realist fantasy whose best effects couldn’t work anywhere outside its tottering house of imagination. As the player moves through the building, text appears on walls, curls around pillars and flies up chimneys. Discovering each detail warps the first-person narration into fantastical new shapes: you enter the mind of a baby in the bath, inhabit the food-obsessed fantasies of a hungry ten-year-old girl and walk through the visual world of a four-colour creepshow comic. The building is intricately rendered: you can riffle through the bookshelves, spotting copies of Borges or books of Norwegian folktales, or clamber through secret passages into little spaces whose decoration evokes a wealth of detail about their inhabitants’ lives. The game may last a mere couple of hours, but it ushers you into a tiny, perfect world.
This kind of concentration on interiors is something of a sub-genre all its own – one that harks back to some of the oldest conceits in the medium, and, as anyone who grew up playing “Maniac Mansion”, “Alone in the Dark” or “Resident Evil” can attest, some of the most memorable. Spaces like these made a virtue of necessity, intensifying the claustrophobia as you battled zombies or rescued companions while saving their programmers from having to confront the computational challenges of a larger world.
Newer games approach them from a different direction. “Gone Home” (above), a game from 2013 by the Fullbright Company, offered a radical new spin on the haunted-house genre: its premise (to which Edith Finch tips its hat) involved a girl coming home for the holidays to her parents’ deserted house, and sifting through its faithfully-recreated Nineties contents to discover the story of a recent family conflict. The game contained no characters except for the unseen player: the family was visible only by its absence, in the print of its ephemera on the built environment. Another game from the same company, “Tacoma”, set on a space station and employing a similar approach, is set for release this summer.
The same programming advances that permit thronged cityscapes and rolling countryside in open-world games can, it turns out, also be bent towards enriching rooms. The “Dishonored” series, free-roaming games set in a steampunk fantasy world, offers players discrete environments to navigate – a rococo brothel, a modernist villa, a clockwork house – each one brimming with minutiae. Last month the same company released “Prey”, which takes place on a space station strewn with possessions and marked by the passage of lives. Yes, the broad trend in today’s gaming may be to move outwards – but, as works like this show, there is still virtue in confinement.