Friday, September 14, 2007

Game Friday: The Thrill of the Chase

A simple little game today, Lonely House Moving, which caught my eye not for the gameplay (urban Mario) but for the intoxicatingly simple story. Girl and boy talk. Girl gets into U-haul. Boy has epiphany and starts racing after her.

You play the role of the boy, dodging squirrels, bird poop, and the lampshades falling off her truck as you try to catch the moving vehicle and, presumably, announce your affection. It’s like every modern romantic comedy compressed to its most basic form. And the impact is powerful; in the discussion area of Casual Games, comments ranged from
“Go nameless lonely guy! For the sake of love!”
“dodging stuff in the context of this little guy's newfound love-struckedness is a nice illustration of the way you have to prioritize if you discover that you really want something. I honestly feel like I'll take a little piece of this game away with me and it might improve my life in some tiny way.”

What makes this simple narrative so impressively conveyed? There isn’t any dialogue or facial detail on the characters. There’s no carefully composed heartstring music. Visually, the game uses two devices to great effect: the relation between two faces, and the passage of time.

First, the relation between the characters. It’s no more detailed than the fable of Mario and the princess (less if you consider the occasional text in Mario about the princess needing help). And yet the game designers here did something brilliant: they keep the two characters in the visual frame throughout the entire game. The boy isn’t moving towards a goal (the girl). He’s chasing her. For most of the game, you watch his body, constantly moving towards her, while she is facing the other way, unaware as she rides the truck that she is being followed by her friend (and is losing several personal items off the back of the truck). Seeing both of these heads and their directionality continually reinforces the relationship between the two, and you are constantly hoping that she will turn around and see you. That tension and hope fuels the game.

The other thing the game does well is passage of time. It’s accomplished in the cheesy “sun goes down then comes up in the background” way, but it works. In the context of the simple story, it conveys the length that the boy will go to follow the girl, and you can imagine how the 12 hours pass in each of their minds.

Ultimately it’s this invitation to the imagination that makes the simple strokes of this game so emotionally appealing. The game sets you up with everything you need to get invested, get interested, and get imaginative. You can port your own emotions onto the characters, thinking of that one woman or man or job or chance that got away. And then you run and hope to God this time you’ll catch it.

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