A few weeks ago, in the middle of August, the top-selling game across all formats wasn't a shooter, a sports simulation, a movie tie-in, or a Hollywood-indebted action adventure. It was Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, a digital-only release exclusive to the PlayStation 4, made by UK-based indie studio The Chinese Room.
You can be forgiven for missing it, especially if you don't own a PS4. No physical copies were produced, so Rapture wasn't rubbing shoulders in Sainsbury's with discounted copies of Tomb Raider and stacks of Skylanders figures, and it didn't have any kind of mainstream marketing push. It was only available on the PlayStation Store, with an attractive discount if you were a PS+ subscriber. But the timing of its release was perfect, arriving in something of a summertime slump for bigger-budget (and bigger-bang) experiences.
Rapture is a quiet, meditative game, one that doesn't force its story upon you but lets it unfold in an order the player determines, by wandering the verdant hills and village halls, lookalike public houses and abandoned homes of a small corner of rural England. I really liked it, though I can also see its flaws (limited replay value, more unremarkable characters than not, no real puzzles to speak of, those identical boozers), and playing it made me wonder what the gaming landscape would be like if this sort of release were more the default than the exception.
What sort of world would we be living in, and what kind of social media circus would we be a part of, had violent shooters not become the most popular genre with the releases, in the early 1990s, of id Software's Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and, more pertinently, the same company's incredibly successful, genre-defining first-person shooter (FPS), 1993's DOOM?
Earlier in 2015 I spoke to Sean Murray, managing director at Hello Games, the Guildford-based studio currently finishing the endless outer space epic No Man's Sky. He's a FPS fan, but when discussing the current state of independent video games—the scene, the community, that's helped to make the likes of Rapture a relative hit—he began to draw parallels between today's non-mainstream releases and what might have been had a certain other game of 1993, Cyan's danger-free first-person puzzle title Myst, been a greater influential force on what commercial gaming became in the following years than id's seminal slice of digital ultra-violence.
"I think video games kind of grew up really, really fast, and became about money and business really quickly, before they really had a chance to form," Murray said. "And I think indie games are taking them back quite a few steps, almost like they're creating these alternate realities. That's how I see it. There are loads of indie games where you'll look at them and think about how it'd be if we went back to the Atari phase, or the Commodore 64 phase, or the SNES phase, whatever—but knowing what we know now to create this alternate history, almost.
"You see games that are coming along now that are like the second or third generation of that alternate history. Like, (Braid-maker Jonathan Blow's forthcoming game) The Witness looks like a triple-A game, but it's come through this alternate history where there were more sequels to Myst, and we all went down that route rather than the first-person shooter route."
Myst wasn't exactly unpopular. It was the highest-selling game across PC formats until 2002, when The Sims surpassed it. Yet its critical reception across its many ports has been mixed, and it's not aged very well. Its story reveals itself through investigation, much like Rapture and another Chinese Room production, Dear Esther. There is no easy fail state, no health bar to monitor, no enemies pumping bullets in your general direction. Completing the game required time and no little lateral thinking. It did spawn sequels, four in total, and even a parody game in the form of Pyst (oh, ha ha). But its stroll-around-at-your-own-pace gameplay has never attracted gamer interest quite like the alternatives, games that might let you slice up zombie soldiers with a chainsaw on a demons-invaded Mars.
Richard Stanton, a contributor to the Guardian and Eurogamer, mentions Myst in his recently released book, A Brief History of Video Games, actually in the same chapter as DOOM. "Myst is often hailed for its huge sales," he writes, "which tends to obscure what a forward-thinking design the game had." Playing Rapture today, or something like the Fullbright Company's revered drawers-rummager Gone Home of 2013, that design has clearly left its mark on developers not especially interested in guns and gore. I asked him for his thoughts on Murray's imagined alternative reality of indie gaming.
"Myst showed there was always commercial demand for different first-person experiences," he tells me. "Even before Myst, in fact, Bill Gates was heralding (early 1993 'interactive movie') The 7th Guest as 'the new standard in interactive entertainment.' The difficulty I have in imagining the alternate reality where Myst's heirs run free is what replaces shooting as a mechanic.
"Shooting is so popular in gaming because it's a versatile and extremely impactful interaction—putting aside the value judgment, it is a reliable way to make a player feel powerful. Consider a modern first-person adventure like Dear Esther, where you walk around an island triggering audio recordings. To me that's not an especially engaging design. It's something that does make me excited for The Witness, because really well designed and tactile puzzles could provide that extra depth of engagement players like me want."
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Dear Esther actually began as something of an experiment: a shooter without the shooting, in a way. Dan Pinchbeck, founder of The Chinese Room, told me a little about that mod-that-became-a-game.
"Dear Esther started as a research project: If you rip out all the traditional call-and-response gameplay, and just have a story, is that going to be something players are still into? And that was it. So it never was a conscious thing, to 'change gaming' or anything like that. People loved the mod, so we made it as a game."
Dear Esther is a quintessential example of what some gamers like to call a walking simulator, as that's really your primary interaction—you walk your (unseen) character onwards, to interact with objects and 'unlock' more of the story, in an order that the game's makers are not determining. Head over to Steam and "walking simulator" has earned itself a category, collecting together (actually very different) games like Beyond Eyes, Sunset, and Among the Sleep. These are everything the DOOM clones aren't—steadily paced affairs, mostly with nothing trying to kill you, and definitely no body count targets for the player to meet to guarantee progression. They've become a divisive breed of video game, and I understand where people who don't like them are coming from, especially when there is no real element of challenge to proceedings. Personally, though, I enjoy these relaxed adventures, which often feel more personal, more intimate of atmosphere and lingering of impression, than anything where the sole part of "you" on screen is a hand with trigger finger primed.
"I've never really paid much attention to the people saying how Dear Esther is 'destroying gaming' or any of that crap," Pinchbeck says. "More diversity can only be a good thing, in any medium. The greater spread of experiences available to you, the better. I am massively obsessed with Far Cry, but I can also play Proteus, or a Tale of Tales game, and I have that choice. That cannot be a negative. Not every game has to do everything, and it's OK to have games that are just big dumb stupid shooters. In the same way, when you start to read a book, you can decide what type you want, what content. And games are getting closer to that point."
"Big dumb stupid shooters"—your Call of Duty, Far Cry, and Halo games at their best, your Duke Nukem Forever-style wastes of everybody's time at their worst—are the most dominant dominant power in gaming, though. A new title in an established FPS series, had it come out the same week as Rapture, would have obliterated it. No doubt about it. People prefer to play violent video games than ones that ask you to explore a family's past through the trinkets of an empty house, or uncover the mystery behind a community's disappearance by following spirit trails to clue-laden locations. The sales figures don't lie. Last year's lukewarmly received Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare witnessed sales well below previous entries in the series, yet still shifted enough copies to be named the best-selling game of the year—and it was released in November. In contrast, Gone Home sold an impressive 250,000 copies in six months, but that's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it blip at the very edge of a commercial radar that only registers millions.
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"You had space marines and corridor shooters, and they became huge," Murray tells me. "They became the main focus of the industry, to the point where you could look at the line up—even now—for Christmas releases, and it'd be Halo vs Crysis vs Gears of War or whatever. But if you took a layman to those games, they might not be able to tell what screenshot came from which game, pretty much. We became super generic in those terms, to an outsider at least.
"We're trying to explore other ideas. About openness, and vastness, and freedom. More about feelings of real exploration. That's our alternate history. It's not like it's better or anything—it's just that style has been forgotten a little bit."
Stanton notes that shooters don't need to be macho, marines-filled experiences, citing Splatoon as a fine example of a game using third-person shooter mechanics in a, let's say, friendlier fashion. "But I think it's true to say that the big-budget side of the games industry turned away from narrative design in the early 1990s," he says, "and with few exceptions has never really returned to it in a meaningful sense. Perhaps Myst's heirs would have changed that and, who knows, they yet might."
So the answer to the "what if" of this piece may naturally, albeit perhaps belatedly, present itself soon enough. Shooters aren't going away—the DOOM model will always be a powerful force in game design. And it's not like that's a bad thing, entirely, as titles like Far Cry 4 and Wolfenstein: The New Order bring intelligence and warmth to the ruthlessly recycled mechanics of murder. But Myst's legacy is palpable in Rapture and a spread of similarly minded new video games, which prefer to stoke the fires of your brain than demand swift reflexes to prevent bloody death by ballistics. And there are only going to be more walking simulators—some of them in space, no less.
Would the last 20-odd years have been different—for games and those who play them—had Myst been the template upon which more titles were based? Would gaming culture have been less male dominated, a friendlier place to tweet in? Would video games have avoided being dragged through the tabloid press in the wake of the Columbine massacre and Anders Behring's rampage of 2011? Perhaps. Maybe we'd all be a little friendlier to each other right now, in person and online, with multiplayer games emphasizing cooperation over annihilation. But then, you have to admit that finally getting the better of a rockets-chucking Cyberdemon, right before your ammunition was reduced to nothing, and watching that bastard explode in a cloud of red, was a raw thrill then and equally electrifying now. And that's the kind of power trip no amount of walking around a handsome hamlet can provide.
Richard Stanton's A Brief History of Video Games is out now—click here for further information. The quotes from Sean Murray and Dan Pinchbeck represent unused material from a book project by the author, which he'll no doubt be tweeting about nearer its publication.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.