At the end of this blog post you'll find a list of games by three different developers. I think you should try them out.

Edit: Pathways does actually work on Wine if you set fullscreen=0 in the config.ini file.

Vignettes? Well, that's how one of these developers describes his works. Some of them definitely aren't short (Don't Look Back took me about half an hour; Eversion took a few hours spread over a few days), but the stories they present all have in common a reflective simplicity. All of these games are more about story than gameplay: some of them have gameplay elements which try to give the player some direct, deeply effective control of the fiction (Daniel Benmergui's games), and others take tried-and-true gameplay mechanics and use them as a way to communicate story elements to the player (Don't Look Back and Eversion).

The title of this post calls them "non-expository", and I'm not sure how accurate a phrase that is, but it's the first one that came to mind when trying to describe the way they present the story. Let's take a look:

1. The act of exposing or laying open; a setting out or
displaying to public view.
[1913 Webster]
It may be overly subtle or perhaps even punny, but I think it does make sense to refer to them as non-expository. The stories they present are not clear-cut and laid out. The author did not tell us what the story is: he showed us some scenes, depicted some characters, but didn't flesh out their details. They're much more introspective than that. When you get to the end (or one of the endings), you think to yourself: "okay, maybe I know what just happened. Whatever it was, it was cool."

I can only say that I am really happy that indie game development is becoming so widespread and successful. Certainly most indie development these days is focused on improving the essential gameplay of video games, which is awesome, but I find the experiments with story much more fascinating.

There's a more concrete property that most of these games share: there's no text or dialogue. Despite this, they instill in the player a strong sense of the narrative with subtle graphical, audial, and gameplay cues. Somewhat tangentially, there is something that I've become a bit obsessed with as I think more and more about story and games -- the way that we can communicate to the player by taking something which is commonly used as a utilitarian device of user interface (a score counter or a health meter, for example) and twisting it in some way to reinforce the impact of an event in the game's story. Eversion does this well. I'd like to write about this more, once I find a better list of examples.

The one game in the list below which does have dialogue is Pathways, and its dialogue is very limited. Each character only says one or two very simple sentences. Even so, that dialogue really has an effect on me, and I wonder if that has something to do with the nostalgia I have for those old, badly-translated Japanese video games where most of the characters you run into simply repeat the same line over and over again. I wonder if someone who's not familiar with those types of games could have the same kind of emotional response to the simple but incisively crafted dialogue in Pathways.

Anyway, here's the list. Most of these are Flash games and the links will take you directly to the page where you can play them, unless otherwise noted.

Daniel Benmergui
  • I wish I were the Moon. Take pictures of the things you see on the screen, and then click again to move them elsewhere. See what happens.
  • StoryTeller is similar in that you basically have the ability to move elements of a scene around, but this time it's broken into three distinct scenes, representing three points in the lives of three characters. You can modify the elements in any of the scenes and immediately see how it affects the later ones.

Terry Cavanagh
  • Don't Look Back. It's a pretty simple jump-and-run game with beautiful music and a haunting turning point.
  • Pathways (runs well on Wine if you change config.ini to say fullscreen=0). This one is really touching. It's all about making decisions, and it reinforces what seems to be a recurring theme in his works by not allowing the player's character to turn back. He can only move forward or turn onto another path.

Guilherme S. Töws (of Zaratustra Productions)
  • Eversion (another Windows-only game, works well on Wine). Another jump-and-run game which looks like a typically boring and hyper-cheery Mario-type game for the first couple of levels, but becomes gradually deeper and more bizarre. This one is the most difficult of all the games I've listed to actually complete, but you can get through the first 7 levels without having to collect all the gems. Getting them all may require the use of walkthroughs, which are readily available on Youtube.