Saying goodbye to someone, the cliche goes, is the hardest thing to do. But what about making a video game about saying goodbye to someone? Would that be the hardest thing to play? It might not sound like the most conventional narrative to make a game from but Thomas J. Papa, the artist behind Mimicry Games, has created Leaving—a game for the iPad which is set in the departure hall of an international airport and is a three act story where you interact with loved ones before biding farewell and going your separate ways.
And that’s it, you don’t save the airport from an evil attack by alien-terrorists-gangsters and you don’t collect icons to give you super powers to fly after the plane and rescue your dearly departed—instead you experience the melancholy sensation of someone leaving you. To do this the game relies on ambiguity as a narrative tool, letting it permeate the story, allowing the game to break away from conventional video game storytelling techniques. “Many games follow the exact same format as their predecessor, and even as their contemporaries.’” Papa told me via email. “They include things like the aim for a competitive experience, the inclusion of the element of chance or an in-game reward mechanism. You also see this similarity reflected in the narrative construction of many games, the heroes journey completely dominates all other storytelling forms.”
Trailer for Leaving
That’s not to say the industry isn’t changing and breaking free from these more traditional storytelling constraints. Leigh Alexander has written on this very blog about how developers and indie startups are challenging what constitutes a video game, and events like IndieCade showcase how new games are shaking off the commonly held stereotypes. So the times they are a-changin’—slowly—but the big gaming houses are still in it to make money, because they’re a business, after all. “There are few games made for the sake of simply being great games.” Papa continues. “Most games are made by following business ideals, rarely by pursuit of artistic ideals. Most games are made to be sold, and in business one wants to minimize risk, this has resulted in the limited ideology that videogames have such a hard time getting rid of.”
Screenshot from the game
But more and more developers and artists are looking at the medium as a way to express more abstract and complex ideas—as a painter uses their brush, paint, and canvas to create artworks that span every style, from hyperrealism to Cubism, so too the game developer uses a game engine, code, and 3D modelling to express the many nuances of how we experience and exist in the world. And, the interactive role the audience takes in video games is becoming a more normalized way to think about entertainment, and art, in general. In Leaving that role is less about frenetic action and and more about reveling in the unexplained, about pondering and reflecting and deciding.
“The German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser talks about the theory of the gap,” Pape notes, “and how unexplained pieces of story stimulate meaning. With Leaving I aimed to design a meaningful experience that stimulates personal reflection. I didn’t want to force feed the player a specific, exact story, but I wanted the story to become personal. Leaving allows room for the individual’s thoughts—if you ask me the game is about balancing life between possibilities and assurances, but that might be quite different for others.”
Screenshots from the game
The ambiguity the game throws at you also functions as a game mechanic—the lack of information you get as you wander around facilitates the user’s imagination and allows them to experience it differently next time they play it. Papa calls this “digital theatre” and it’s where the player creates the story, making it a “real time performance” in what he calls a “very pure type of role play” devoid of the power ups and other advancements you traditionally get in video games, freeing you up to just experience a role.
It’s a game that Papa says is aimed at the “non-gamer” and, as well as being about leaving, it’s also about making choices, about “making decisions in a world with an abundance of choice” and this theme of choice informs the narrative on a subconscious level. It might not be a game for everyone but it points to how, with readily available tools and avenues of distribution, the market is opening up to new possibilities of what video games can be. How the virtual worlds that can be dreamt up aren’t only the domain of blockbuster games, or even successful indie titles, but about whatever narrative people might want to conjure up—a place for experimentation.
Screenshot from the game
“I do think that the only way forward though, is to persist and continue to create games independently, that break with the general concept of what a game is supposed to be” Papa concludes when I asked him about how experimental games might influence, and perhaps change, gaming culture. "So that just like in other media we will each in our own way, and with our own taste and preference, be able to experience the opportunities of this amazing medium. "