“I don’t play games” is a feature series where we have a chat with someone who, obviously, doesn’t play games for a particular reason and then ask them to play something that might change their minds.
As an actor, singer and Australian Sign Language interpreter, Ilana Charnelle admits she has her fingers in a lot of pies and is incredibly passionate about a lot of different things. Video games, however, have never made the list. Today, I am hoping to change that.
“It’s not that I wasn’t interested,” she tells me, “I just never had games [myself]. The only real experience I’ve had with games was my cousin’s old Sega console he gave to us when I was 10 but he only had a couple of games for us to play.” She soon branched out to a GameBoy where she experienced Mario for the first time, and can even sing the theme song, and had a bit of a dabble with The Sims. Her passion for vintage 1940s fashion inspired her to give 2011’s LA Noire a try, but admits finding running or shooting anyone with any sense of urgency was a little difficult.
And this relates to another part of Ilana’s disinterest in video games: from her perspective they all seem to be about violence and less about storytelling.
“Growing up I always assumed “video games” meant “first-person-shooters,” she says. “You know, they dropped you in a war zone, you killed as many people as you could and that was playing video games.” This viewpoint was further exacerbated by her experience working casually in electronics retail, where a majority of games purchased featured some combination of zombies, guns and explosions, as well as all the children begging their parents to buy Grand Theft Auto.
“There just seems to be this thing where it has got to be all action games,” Ilana says, “and when I hear people talk about video games I don’t hear them talk as much about the narrative; the action always seems to be the big part.”
So, action is a bit of a turn off, running and shooting are a big no-no and a good story is a must. To me, this sounded like a job for a walking simulator, and what better walking simulator than the 2013, BAFTA award winning Gone Home, from developer The Fullbright Company.
With no zombies, guns or even any running, Gone Home focuses on a woman in her early 20s named Katie returning to her family’s new home after a year abroad to find it eerily empty. Instead of immediately calling the police like any sane jet-lagged person would, Katie spends several hours searching the entire house for clues to her family’s whereabouts, and uncovers a tragic and incredibly moving story of two teenage girls in love. One of the finest examples of video games as “interactive fiction”, and perhaps just the thing Ilana needed to add another passion to her list.
But first she’d have to tackle first-person controls…
The separation of directional movement and view rotation led to a lot of strafing instead of turning, a fair amount of floor staring and the occasional instance of bumping into walls, but soon a natural sense of curiosity kicked in and the control woes faded away. Well, they mostly went away, the wall bumps made the occasional re-occurrence. I commented that I’d always love to see a first-person game character wandering around a space, as such incidents would look amusing. The look I received in response was far from amusing…
Having already been informed the story of Gone Home was told through the clues the player digs up, Ilana was initially incredibly thorough in her searching. She was pretty much fully embodying Katie, reading every note and clicking every object she could find.
She was almost too thorough in the beginning, leading her to question why so many of the objects littered about the mansion were interactive. “It always gives me stupid options,” she says, “like ‘rotate tissue box’. I don’t know why I’d want to do that, but I guess it is nice to have the option.” She also had a fascination with picking up all the toilet paper rolls in the bathrooms, I won’t presume as to why…
But once the oddness subsided, it was clear the atmosphere of Gone Home was piquing Ilana’s interest. Every locked door meant a key must be somewhere to be found, driving her forward in her quest for answers. There were many “ohhhhhhs” as pieces of the puzzle fell into place, and I definitely detected the occasional “naww” as Sam’s, Katie’s younger sister, voice over diary described her romantic plight.
Suffice it to say, I think the narrative had made its mark. By the time the credits roll, Ilana had a priceless expression on her face.
Once she’d finished playing, I asked her how she felt now having experienced a story-based game, and she admitted to me that it wasn’t so much the story itself that grabbed her but the way it was told: interactively.
“It was up to me and my actions to unlock more of the story and that was a huge motivator to continue to explore, even if just for little things like picking up pens or a soda can,” she says. The actual participatory aspect of the medium that really engaged her in the story being told, rather than it being presented to her. She went on to say it was a shame that games have been stereotyped to be mainly violent shooters.
“I think there’s maybe a completely different audience never would have thought about playing video games before who would be happy to engage,” she says. “And it was easy. I didn’t need a console, it told me how to navigate the game, it was easy and it was a really fun couple of hours.”
As for how this experience has impacted her, Ilana admits it’s similar to forms of entertainment we all already consume.
“It’s definitely changed my perception as I never saw myself as a ‘gamer’, but something like [Gone Home] for a couple hours is no different from putting on a good movie.”
Perhaps more games will feature in her future? I, for one, look forward to the inevitable cover of the Super Mario theme song on her next album.