Abstract art: Wither and magical realism
Wither’s a curious little game. It’s an RPG Maker title and it runs about thirty minutes (less for me. At some point I turned into an adventure game savant), and yet there’s so much to say about it. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect microcosm of the modern independent game’s narrative.
By this I mean, you should go play the game here. Or maybe you’ve already played it. In either case, playing the game first is a good idea. It’s free, it takes thirty minutes, and it can run on your Windows computer.
Okay. We’re back. Good. Because I’ve got a lot to work through.
Wither, as you now know, is a game about death, about suicide. It’s telling a very mature story through styling that reminds you of retro games, and it reminds me a lot of To the Moon in this regard. The difference is structural, and that’s where Wither becomes emblematic of indie narrative games as a whole: it relies perpetually on mystery. We’re talking about the games where reviewers like I exhort you to read nothing about them before you play, because once you do there will be nothing there.
In terms of telling a story, there’s a number of different ways you can keep a reader entertained. You can deliver great mechanical elements (in terms of fiction, the craft of writing, while in terms of games, the “gameplay” itself). You can deliver moment after moment that the player will remember; this has been rechristened the “Saints Row 3 approach”, because it is a game you principally play to jump out of an airplane, then jump back into it, shoot six men in three seconds inside, and then catch your love interest. You can build suspense, by playing off the reader not knowing what’s going to happen. You can appeal to emotion, to reason, to some physical response to win the reader’s sympathy. Or you can do what Wither does and make everything as mysterious as possible.
Most games try to do the first and at least one of the latter. Take a sympathetic character and place them in a suspenseful situation, or take a suspenseful situation and blow shit up around it; by casting a wide net like that, you make more people interested in your story. Wither, and independent narrative games on the whole, tend to focus on just one aspect: the mystery. Things happen for no reason. Weird things occur just around the fringes of your eyes, so that you’re never quite sure, never quite settled into the story being told. They are video game magical realism.
There’s good reason for mystery: it’s evocative. When there are questions left unanswered, questions not even stated, then we feel compelled to keep playing because we want to know what’s going on. But, in general, our curiosity isn’t being sated: weird things keep happening, abstract things, and we’re told to draw conclusions from these actions. I mean, Wither enraptured me from the start, which has to be saying something about the game. Its story is compelling but, when you get to the end with so few points resolved, it begins to feel cheap.
Here’s where I make a point that I really did like the game. It’s successful, because it does its job well enough to make me think about these issues. Its story kept me engaged long enough to think it through, as opposed to the legion of other independent games that have drawn from the trough invented by Braid and followed up here. Tell a story deeply about something and then obscure it in the mists of metaphor.
I like “mystery” games. There’s definitely a place for ones as good as Wither in the world. But the type of narrative I find more gratifying is the one where it is a simple story well told. Games like Passage and Bastion, neither of which relies heavily on mystery, both connected with me on a deeper, more personal level than abstract wonders like Wither.* Wither entertained me with its mysterious nooks and crannies but, in the end, it didn’t resonate as powerfully because there was no clear, shining moment to resonate with. Every question the game asked was designed to keep you blindly stumbling forward, grasping for answers, and in the end the clarity isn’t there. Its light was hidden underneath a basket, and I couldn’t find enough clarity in it for it to really touch me.
*Yes, I know Passage is abstract graphically, but it’s narrative is not. There’s no room for interpretation; everyone who plays the game will experience the same actions and will build their response to it from the same narrative “soup”: the story of life.