Updates Tuesdays and Fridays.

Friday, September 28, 2012

(P)Review: Don't Blow It!

So, at BostonFIG I wasn't able to escape much - there were only a few minutes I had to myself, and I used almost all of them for routine biological maintenance. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get a chance to sit down with Don't Blow It!, a production of DinoMage games, and by extension of an excellent fellow named Jonathan Dearborn.

Explosives feature prominently.
The game was first pitched to me as a multiplayer cooperative platformer, which . . . hadn't occurred to me as a possibility before. The game supports up to 4 people; each one's controls are essentially move, grab, and jump (two people played with NES controllers), and the interesting part comes in getting the players to work together. Players can stack, throw one another, open gates for one another, and so on.

All I know about the story so far is that every character is a highly trained acrobat, and also incredibly strong.
So, that's where you start. The puzzles we saw at the demo did require some thinking, but the major game of it was coordination; of course you need to stack boxes to get out of the pit, but the trouble is getting the boxes on top of one another, making sure that's what people are doing, not getting trapped under a mountain of boxes and sobbing helplessly while waiting for someone, anyone, to come release you (this happened to me at least once), and so on. There are also hats that let you do different things, though I didn't get a chance to play with all of them.

I wore the beanie, and it let me jump higher. For a moment, I lived Calvin's dream.
All this leads to a lot of shouting, which is the crux of any single-screen multiplayer experience. I'm only half-joking here. It's loads of fun to see different parts of people's personalities come out, seeing who doesn't get the puzzle and is just messing with the fun hats, who gets it immediately and tries to take charge, who gets it immediately and messes with the fun hats anyway just to piss off the person trying to organize things. It's a game that exposes a lot of silliness in people, kind of like playing Super Smash Bros. with all the items turned up to maximum frequency: you don't always feel in control of what's going on, but that's a big part of the fun.

So, to turn the confusion and fun into frenzy, there's a bomb. At least, there was in the level I played, though presumably there will be other bombs.

I can see my Uncle Steve giving me a bomb for my birthday, and I can see giving it to my brother as well.
The timer goes up on the screen and suddenly it's everyone's responsibility to clear obstacles for and create a path for the bomb to go through until it can be deposited somewhere safe. Which actually happened in the game I played; people opened gates made new stacks of boxes to backtrack to the bin where we were trying to drop the bomb, which we took turns carrying. Other games weren't so lucky; I saw a few people miss the deadline by a hair and end up with a game over.

I've been told that the art will change (they're still looking for an artist - for info, email  jonnyd@dinomage.com). Jon has suggested that the game will get even cuter (!!!) with a more refined style. The game experience will also become less general, with the ability to take on more easygoing puzzles or ones that have been tailored to those of us who have been puzzle-platforming for years. That said, what was on show at BostonFIG was an incredibly solid concept: get a group of people to try to collaborate using simple controls, give them some cool toys, and then throw in some timed chaos. I saw a lot of people go through that booth, and a lot of people laughing. The formula certainly fills a need - like I said, cooperative multiplayer puzzle-platformers is a new concept as far as I've seen - and more than that, it's a lot of fun. It's accessible to new players, it's challenging even for those who are used to this kind of puzzle-solving, and it gets a group of people in the same place to start yelling at each other. Games like this are why we will always have local multiplayer, and I'm definitely looking forward to this one.

Website: dontblowitgame.com

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Candlelight - BostonFIG State-of-the-Game

Because we (Idle Action Studios) were doing a demo at BostonFIG yesterday, I thought I'd take the time to explain a little about our game, Candlelight, and what you should expect from it Saturday and in the weeks/months to come.

As I said previously, our game is a 2d puzzle platformer. I'll be talking about it in terms of some other games, because it's hard to talk about platformers without making reference to what's come before. Candlelight is not so much a puzzler the way Braid is, or at least, not yet. Our goal is to keep the puzzles a little more organic, and a little more dangerous. We aren't quite going for Limbo either, though. Our characters aren't so powerless, and our atmosphere isn't as uniformly oppressive and violent. And yes, the use of lantern-light, as described in my last post and as seen in our demo, may remind some of Closure, which is a fantastic game which I intend to review sooner rather than later, but those similarities are more aesthetic than anything, and as our art style changes I think it will become harder to draw parallels.

So if we're not any of those, what are we?

For one thing, I'm seeking to make this game a little more Metroidvania style. Named for the Metroid and Castlevania games that first explored the concept, the idea is to have a side-scrolling game featuring one big environment, parts of which are out-of-reach until you've acquired some new item or ability elsewhere. What we have on display for BostonFIG won't be quite enough to represent that - we wanted to show off what can be done with one of the two main basic abilities, the lantern light, and the simultaneous two-character control. There's already a lot of depth in these mechanics, and we want to flesh them out a little before exploring further.

Our goal - one of our goals, subject to growth and evolution - is to create a world that eventually will offer a little more emergent gameplay - that is, interesting and complicated uses of simpler mechanics - than most puzzle games typically provide. We want to build a wall and give you several ways around it. By the end of the game, there will be a number of abilities that the characters can use in different combinations to overcome obstacles. It's my hope that, sometimes, people will approach our puzzles with solutions that never occurred to us. When I was a younger man, I loved watching speedruns for Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, and my favorites were the moments when the players did something that made no sense. I would narrow my eyes and say "Wait, why the hell is he skipping X or going around Y? Why is he leaving this room and going back in again right away?" And then it would click, and I would laugh at the absurdity and brilliance of how they'd exploited the game. I hope Candlelight can generate those kinds of moments.

This post claims to be a state-of-the-game, so I should probably actually address that. What we have right now is most of a single level, quite linear, and the most basic of the lantern abilities. Going forward, we're going to add the most basic of the mask abilities, and then . . . We'll see! We've found a lot of richness in the few abilities we've implemented so far, and we're hesitant to add in more until we get to really explore the ones we've already gotten. But iterating through the new abilities, and Finding the Fun, is a top priority.

Yesterday, at BostonFIG, we got an incredible amount of love. There were a lot of people impressed with the feel of the game, with how we'd implemented a few key features, with the art design and general art direction. Given that this is something myself and a few other lovely, talented people have done over a period of half a year or so, with no budget ($40 for a great book, $20ish for BostonFIG, $20ish for business cards), we're really inspired to see what a positive response we've received, and I feel like I'd be letting those people down to not amp up production a little bit. Over the next few days/week, I'll try to figure out what that means, and what resources are at our disposal, and then I'll update you all. If you're interested in following the process, please send an email to idleactionstudios@gmail.com - we'll be creating a mailing list and keeping everyone on it updated with news and info about new builds and beta testing opportunities.

Thanks so much to everyone who came out to BostonFIG this year, and for making the first year an excellent start. I'm really hoping this is a springboard for our game and that you'll be hearing more from us soon.

Idle Action Studios is:

Solomon Lutze (Yours Truly) - Cofounder, co-designer
Andrew Ross - Cofounder, co-designer
Tess Grover - Lead Artist

Other contributors include:
Jacob Seabolt - Music
Juliaty Hermanto - Concept Art
Eric Honour - Sound Effects
Caleb Niederer - Music

Website: idleaction.herokuapp.com
Email: idleactionstudios@gmail.com
Twitter: @IdleActionGames 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Black Mesa

Finding out that Black Mesa came out this past weekend was a little like finding out that another Inception movie had come out or something - I know people said it was going to happen, but I didn't think it would be this soon, and I had never quite believed it would happen in the first place. (also, I would be completely OK with Christopher Nolan directing Half-Life 3, should it ever make an appearance.)

Black Mesa (formerly Black Mesa: Source) is a fan-made recreation of the original 1998 game Half-Life, made using Half-Life 2's engine. If you never played anything in the Half-Life series, you should have. First-person science fiction shooters, they follow MIT physicist and incredibly good-looking guy Gordon Freeman through alien-destroying adventures. In the first, he explores the Black Mesa science facility as it is being torn apart by aliens and the military in hopes of stopping an extradimensional invasion. The sequel introduced one of the best physics engines ever seen at that point, and would have been a fascinating and terrifying shooter even if it hadn't done that.

These are the kinds of games that inspire so much love that fans would try to meticulously reconstruct the original using the tools provided by the second. It's a little like if someone tried to recreate Morrowind using the Skyrim engine, or to recreate Super Metroid using Metroid Prime 3's engine. (If anyone's doing either of these, by the way, let me know. I want in.)

The following side-by-side might give you an indication of what kind of improvements they've made graphically:

As seen in Half-Life . . .
 . . . and fourteen years later in Black Mesa.
Upgraded as the graphics are, it's a little inescapable that Half-Life 2's graphics are themselves eight years old, so things do look a little dated. Still, though, the physics are impeccable, and it's still really fun to watch a  flaming headcrab running around in circles. If you played either game, you'll feel a pretty strong nostalgic pull - the cramped corridors of Black Mesa are as creepy as ever, and the visuals and myriad ways to use physics to your advantage capture the feel of HL2 very successfully. If you haven't played either, it's a fine place to start, with all the best parts of both games (though I'm not sure I can tell you in good conscience to play any game other than Half-Life 2 immediately if you haven't played it yet).

Both games are about fifteen seconds of anything related to a PhD from MIT and the rest is mainly blowing things up.
As cool as I think Black Mesa is, I haven't found a lot that really ties me to it yet. I loved Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and I played through each several times, so that now I'm not sure that there's much to see here I haven't already. What impresses me, though, is the liberties that the team did choose to take. From a guard accusing Gordon of cutting off his ponytail to the random nerdy pseudo-science spouted by the physicists to some dialogue snippets between two major characters in HL2 (who weren't really explored in the original), there are little flourishes that feel extremely in character with the franchise. These are the things keeping me playing Black Mesa even though I've already been through the facility many times. The amount of love that went into this mod/remake is evident in every detail, and it's heartwarming to see so many expectations finally met.

If you've been waiting for Black Mesa, it's what they said it should be, and you should go play it. If you didn't know about it, go play it. You'll need the Source engine to play it (details below), and it's otherwise free. If the Half-Life universe is totally new to you, check it out. It's a staple of video game history, and this should be a very visible marker of what a fan community can do with a well-loved and well-crafted story when they get the chance.

Black Mesa: http://release.blackmesasource.com/
How to get Source (requires Steam): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijuERFX-tY4

Friday, September 14, 2012

Storytelling and Games: Immersion

Writing about Myst earlier in the week got me pumped thinking about how we experience stories in games, so I felt it was time to add another entry to my "Storytelling and Games" series, since it would give me a chance to talk in a little more detail about That Thing Myst does so well. That thing is Immersion, which in general is something games are better at than other media and which I think is a major advantage they have over other forms of art.

(Caveat: Not all video games are immersive, and not all video games try to be. Here, I'm just interested in immersion as one possible technique available to video games in a way unique to the medium, not as something found universally there.)

Immersion is, in large part, something we get from the avatar-player connection, something I discussed earlier but which I want to discuss in this context as well. Everything I mentioned in my post about this topic is relevant: the fact that we feel a powerful emotional link with an avatar is immersive, since investment takes us out of the metagame and deposits us in the narrative. This especially comes up in terms of choice and skill. Both of these things allow the player to lay claim to the narrative, since the eventual outcome can be seen to be the direct result of his or her actions. We become focused on success; we want to find the missing red pages, or to beat Ganondorf, or to drive our kart across the finish line before that blue shell hits us.

A goal can be of the most immersive elements of video games. Looking for one more diamond vein keeps you up until seven in the morning playing Minecraft, and just wanting to keep from ending the night in straight losses makes you start another Starcraft match. Pacing, penalties, rewards, and a host of other factors must be carefully balanced to make goals really pull you into the game, but they're certainly a strong pull, and in the case of some games (World of Warcraft) actually addictive.

But with the exceptions of Myst and Minecraft, I'm not really excited about putting any of the above games up as examples of "art" (or at least, not art I plan to talk about at the moment). Even so, they're worth mentioning; whether or not you'd want to describe Starcraft in terms of its artistry, it elicits a particular emotional response - pleasant stress, lots of tension, euphoria at victory - in a way that is certainly artfully constructed.

But, I would say that immersion is frequently an element of those games that I do consider art, and that that immersion comes from different places than you'd find in other media. Certainly, you can be immersed in the story of a video game, as you could in a book; you can be enthralled with the sights and sounds like you might be while watching a movie; you can be captivated by the development of plot or character over a series, as you might be with a TV show. But the ability to interact with a world, to move about it at your leisure, is what so enthralled me when I went back to Myst. Tolkein talked about "distant mountains," the places and things that are referenced in a story but never explored or discussed in depth - these are the details that make the world feel whole. In games, those details can be expanded dramatically.

Take Wind Waker. Of all the Zelda games I have played, Wind Waker is the one whose terrain I'm most unsure of, whose expanses I think I've explored the least. And the thing is, that might not be true. It's a huge game, to be sure, but the distance between points of interest is not what makes it feel so big. It's the fact that it is an open world, full of little wonders. The points of light on the waves that indicate treasure, the high towers manned by goblin pirates, the reef fortresses patrolled by gunships - I could list a million cool things that you stumble on, sometimes in pre-defined locations and sometimes at random, in any given journey between destinations in that game.

Nostalgia in .jpeg form, for a certain population.
There's lots more to say about this, and I may continue at some point. What I want to leave you with is this: The ability to lose track of the world and to place yourself into a world, into a story, is hard-won by any medium. When you find it in games, though, it's a different kind of wonder. It's not just the wonder of imagining another world, it's the wonder of discovering that you can fly. It's getting to test out your abilities, and the world around you, tentatively and experimentally, and to slowly acquire a mastery that makes that environment feel like a real space you can physically occupy. If  you've played Myst, or Shadow of the Colossus, or Bioshock, maybe you've felt it. Even in serious games, there's often a childlike quality to the play, as if you're seeing the world for the first time, and that newness is a very fascinating thing to be able to craft.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review Backlog: Myst

There are invariably going to be weeks where I don't have time to play a new indie game to review. Already most of my reviews are of games that came out awhile ago. But for games that aren't strictly indie and/or came out years (sometimes decades) ago? Those are for the backlog.

This week: Myst.

Myst came out in '93 originally, which means you can be younger than it and still legally buy cigarettes, which makes me feel old. I was still a whelp when it came out, and three years or so after that I remember stumbling through it, trying to figure out how to get the piano in the spaceship to work, finding walkthroughs like a little cheat, marveling at the scenery. I never made it very far; I didn't have sound working, for some reason (The Selenetic age probably would have made me destroy my computer, had I ever made it there), and besides my little gamer-to-be brain wasn't equal to the endeavor yet. I played it again in high school and beat it on a Saturday morning, and now I'm playing through it again on my iPhone.

All that time and I still need a map to open a door.
So, has this game, and this version of this game, been reviewed to death already? Sure. So here's why I'd like to talk about it:

-At the time it came out, it was revolutionary.
-Its use of visual art, music, and sound were, and still are, incredible.
-The story is deep and intriguing, the puzzles devious and clever, and the intersection of the two - the game's biggest puzzle, where you must come to understand that the task before you is not the task you should be trying to complete - is nothing short of brilliant. 
-A game like Myst would be, from a technical standpoint, much, much easier to create now than it was in '93.

As people who love games, we should look at what Myst does well, and demand that of ourselves (as developers) and of the people we buy games from (as gamers).

There are a few points I'd like to make and elaborate on.

Myst artfully blends story, aesthetics, gameplay, and mechanics to deliver a unified experience. The principle idea of Myst is the ability to enter new worlds, and explore and interact with them, and everything in the game serves that idea. The story involves travelling to strange worlds through books, and asked a question of both the gamer and of the gaming community at large: What other worlds can you imagine, and what stories could take place there? The player-as-gamer could experience the same wonder at new worlds within computers that the player-as-character experienced at new worlds within books. The ability to move through lush environments by pointing and clicking, to turn wheels or pull levers by dragging them, to hear the waves near a dock or the hum of electricity or the rush of water though a pipe - all this was about making you feel like you were there. The game unified its component elements in the service of a single ideal, a task few games since have succeeded at so well.

Myst is not an especially long game.
Myst shows us something that many games (Skyrim, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect) help us forget, and that a few (Limbo, Braid, Portal) help us remember: that a short game can be as compelling, or more so, than a long one. It's been said that a work of art is perfect not when everything that has to be added has been, but when everything that is unnecessary has been removed. I can name a handful of games that have influenced me in my life, some shorter and some longer, but all of them felt like they showed only a glimpse of a much grander world - Braid with a "what-if" about changing the past, Shadow of the Colossus with its lonely wastes and obscure rituals and laws, Majora's Mask with its small-town charm overshadowed by perpetual menace. Myst made a promise - there is more to be seen, and to imagine. And the sequels delivered on that promise. Riven showed us a detailed study of the colonial implications hinted at in Myst. Exile showed us the utility, and danger, of being able to write any place you can imagine. And Revelation, which I almost prefer to the original, took us into the dark places that Myst's antagonists made their homes. But the first game showed us just a glimpse, and it's a beautiful view. When longer games, like Skyrim, appeal to me, it's always because there's so much to achieve, and so much to see, and it's all beautifully executed. When shorter games, like Myst, appeal to me, it's always because of the dreams and wishes they set spinning in my head, and it's in those places, usually, that I find anything like an authentic emotional experience.That, I suspect, is where we will begin to find art in games.

Myst is the sort of experience you could go make.
I hope by now you've got a sense of how much I adore Myst, and how highly I regard the people who made it. But it is dated; the technical limitations those developers were working with have been eliminated dozens of times over, and all the trails they blazed are now paved and carefully marked. You could, if you wanted, probably remake it in Unity. And then put it on an iPhone. What I'm getting at is this: If you go play Myst, and are as floored as I still am by the feeling you get looking through Atrus's library or opening the rocket ship door or looking over the trees in Channelwood, then take that feeling and go make a game with it. Create with it. Every time I play that game, I'm reminded how simple the tools involved are, and every time, I ask myself "Why am I going for anything less?"

I suppose this post is more for devs than it is for gamers. I don't want to make the claim that I'll ever make a game as good as Myst, and I think I've probably got a few bad games in me yet before I start getting at stuff that's really cool and meaningful. Yes, making a game is hard. Yes, there's a LOT of craftsmanship in Myst, and trying to emulate it, or to top it, is an incredibly tall order. Just remember that a game doesn't need to have cutting-edge, or even especially gorgeous, graphics. It doesn't need to look like Skyrim. It doesn't need to look like Wind Waker. It doesn't need to look like Braid. Play through Myst, whether for the first time or not, and just remind yourself that, of the many worlds it promised, only a fraction have been explored - and for any of the remaining worlds, you might be the first one to show it to us.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Home Again

The reason I decided to do a review of Home at the beginning of last week, rather than the end, is because I wanted my usual self-indulgent theory-post to build on that review. So now, we’re going to talk a bit about whether Home is a “game” and what that means. A conversation has started up on the Home Facebook page based on IGN’s review of the game, which was something to chew on, anyway. The subtitle of the review reads: "Home offers an intriguing concept, but it's not really a game."

To his credit, our reviewer, Eric Neigher, does begin with a definition of “game," saying that "traditionally, the line between a game and a toy is often delineated by whether or not it's possible to lose." Apart from the fact that I lost lots of toys as a kid, there are two issues I have with his definition.

The first is that I just really don’t like it. Separating games from toys is a good place to start, but any definition of “game” that excludes The Longest Journey is a definition I do not like. We’re probably also excluding Flower and Dear Esther and that does not give me joy either. It raises questions about what “losing” means (is it a loss to “die” in Braid, when there's no meaningful distinction between rewinding right before and right after death? What about in a game like Bioshock, where you can “die” in an encounter without really being penalized for that death?). I also don’t know if I agree that you can’t “lose” Home; if there are unpleasant or unsatisfying endings, do those count? My major gripe, though, is that I think that that definition is really broad without actually saying anything about why we play games. We don’t necessarily play them because we have a possibility of losing. Sure, that’s what makes a game like Pac Man or Super Mario 64 or Skyrim exciting – skill, sometimes planning, are required to avoid losing, which gives the game an added edge, making skill more necessary and completion (of a level, of a quest, of the whole game) more gratifying. But we’re not always in games for those reasons. I didn’t enjoy Black and White because of the excitement granted by the possibility of losing (which never happened to me once, despite playing over one hundred hours of it), I enjoyed it because I liked throwing fireballs and watching a 300-foot tall crocodile rain lightning on unbelievers.

Above: Entertainment.

We play games for lots of reasons, and starting your review with a definition of “game” that the game in question doesn’t cleanly fit indicates that we don’t want to talk about it like it’s a game – or, maybe more precisely, we’d like to talk about it like it’s a bad game. Which reviewers are allowed to do, of course. Games can be bad, and reviewers can say so. But I think that the definition of “game” the author gives indicates that he’s approaching Home like it’s something it’s not – that is, conventional.

The second issue, and the bigger one to me, is that once he places home outside what a “game” typically is, he doesn’t really ask any questions about that definition. I started this blog for one main reason: we are changing the way we think of games. We have new games, I’d argue better games, than we’ve ever had before, and we’ve got more innovation in the market than we’ve ever had before. So, Benjamin Rivers makes a something, calls it a game, puts it on a distribution platform known mainly for distributing games, and then a person whose job it is to review games reviews it and calls it “not a game” - some, then, might ask how it got here.

At this point, the pompous academic in me says “Well, this is interesting! If it doesn’t fit this definition of a game, why are we treating it like one? What are the gamelike elements we are assessing? Why deliver it in this way? If this isn’t a game, (why) are we consuming it as we consume other games? If it is a game, what about it makes us think it doesn’t feel like one?” And this is where our IGN reviewer says “6.5.” OK. Sure, so, maybe answering those questions isn’t within the scope of his review. It’s not his job to be overanalyzing the existential abstraction of “game,” it’s his job to be reviewing games. But that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. Home did something new, and something cool, and it’s fine if you don’t like the graphics or the story or the sound or the gameplay or damn anything about it. I feel, though, that the fact that it did something different, within the context of a game, is worthy of mention.

I want to address only one philosophical question about Home in the capacity of being a game, and that is: Why are we consuming it/discussing it as a game? Maybe we decide that it isn’t really a game, maybe we should come up with a better language for what it is – why are we consuming it like a game now? And the answer, I think, is pretty simple: We don’t have any other language for it. The only real language we have for a program you download through Steam (or elsewhere) and in which you move a virtually-represented character around a virtually-represented world to advance a story or accomplish something (even if that "something” doesn't strictly involve skill) is the language of games. The only way we know how to interact with it is like it’s a game. The only way we know how to talk about it – graphics, gameplay, story – is as though it’s a game. That language is new – the idea of studying games and talking about them seriously is a relatively new one. Our discourse isn’t refined yet, we don’t have canon meanings for terms or firm definitions of what qualifies. And that’s true across media – what qualifies as a “novel?” Or a “film?” The point is to ask these questions, because that’s how we end up with innovation, with people stretching our understanding of what is possible to convey, what emotions it is possible to elicit, with the medium. We have a lot left to discover, and I think game-with-a-question-mark games like Home and Dear Esther are exploring, more than a lot of AAA-titles are.

I do want to say that I agree with Neigher on a lot of what he says. He acknowledges that his definition of a game is not the only valid one, that Home is worth playing more than once, that there's an interesting experience to be had even if it's not a game. What concerns me is that if more games like Home comes along, we'll judge them in the same way. I'm comfortable saying "We don't have a really good language for talking about this now;" what I don't want is for us to think that answer will continue to be adequate as more and more games like Home appear. I don't want to put it on any reviewer to do all this exploring, to redefine the word “game,” or to ask a bunch of open-ended questions without offering much in the way of answers, which is all I’ve really done here.  I hope, though, that Neigher review won’t stop people from playing  - or developing – Home, or games like it. What I hope is that he was starting a conversation, not finishing one.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Late post this week

The regularly-scheduled blog post for yesterday is going to go up tomorrow - I'm visiting family and friends this weekend and won't have time to write until I'm on a plane tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Home

If anybody from Steam is reading this, your ads worked. Home was brought to my attention by a little ad that popped up on one of the rare occasions this weekend when my girlfriend or I closed out Skyrim, and I said "Neat, less than $3, let's give this a try."

I might have been sold just on the pixels.
Home's promotional materials describe it as a "horror" game, though I'm not sure I found it to be that, exactly. It is, among other things, a mystery, and sometimes a scary one, but first and foremost about finding answers. You wake up in a house - not yours - next to a dead body and with only a blurry understanding of what happened. From there, you have to make your way home to find a woman named Rachel, your protagonist's S.O. Along the way, you'll face a number of choices - some seemingly inconsequential, some where there's really only one "choice," and many that seem significant but whose outcome isn't wholly predictable. The game's story is presented in first-person past tense, making it seem as though the outcome is already written - choices come in the form of "Did I climb the ladder?" or "Did I pick up the knife?" It's a cool effect - at once it gives you more agency, as though you're manipulating the past, and less, as though all you're doing is remembering (or misremembering) previous events.

"Did I pretend I didn't see that dead body because it was way creepy?" Yes. Yes, I did.
You have to play Home in a single sitting - there's no save option - but that does it more good than harm. At a lingering pace, it won't take you more than an hour, and having a continuous experience does wonders for the atmosphere. The game is certainly tense; the corpses and unsettling clues you find along the way are claustrophobia-inspiring and frightening. As you unravel more, though, your curiosity will outweigh your fear. What happened? How did this come to be? How are all of these links connected? Or, perhaps, put better: How am I connecting them? One of the things I love so very, very much about this game is so simple, and so small, and that is that choices you make are clearly reflected in the writing. So simple. If you pick up something, your character will note it later. If you notice a particular locked door, your character will muse on it as you're leaving the area. It all flows really well; if it was a story written down, the paths would feel complete, like that was the way it was supposed to go, and you wouldn't notice. It's only in knowing that you could have made a different choice that you get to be impressed at how well the story handled the choice you did make. It's a video game where your decisions don't make the thing feel like a choose-your-own-adventure.
Incidentally, every book on that shelf is a choose-your-own-adventure. 
So, story-lovers reading this, there's your takeaway: Home does multiple-outcome stories better than any other game I've played. Each choice feels consequential and noticed. If you don't have any other reason to play it, let that be it. But there are other excellent reasons too. The game looks great (like old games, but great), sounds fantastic (I jumped, more than once), and whatever story gets told, it is intensely unsettling and strangely heartbreaking. There will come a moment in the game where the story, and your role in it, suddenly comes to light in a way that was, for me, nauseating, unbalancing, and perfectly timed, and that moment for me was an experience I've never had with any other game. And when I play games, that's what I'm looking for.

There are many choices to make, and many ways for the story to turn out. Midway through, I told myself I'd want to go back and do it again, to find another path, which is one of the dangers of games with multiple endings: you feel cheated unless you get the "Real Ending" or the "Good Ending." At the end of Home, I didn't know what kind of ending I was looking for, but I did feel like the ending I got was the ending to the story that was being told - that I was deciding - throughout. When I was done, I didn't feel like going back - not because I didn't want to, but because I was satisfied with the story I experienced. The idea that there are a lot more stories to experience, and that how each player proceeds through the game teases out those stories naturally, is incredibly cool to me.

Website: http://homehorror.com/
Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/215670/?snr=1_7_suggest__13
Twitter: @BenjaminRivers for the game's developer, @homehorror for the protagonist (and #homehorror)