True stories in video games are rare. Compared to other media, where biographical works, either by documentary or dramatisation, are popular and make up a decent portion of what we consume, video games have only a handful of notably successful such entries. But last month, Humble Grove released No Longer Home, a game introducing itself as ‘semi-autobiographical’ in which lead developers Cel and Hana invite players to explore a turning point in their lives.
You play as them, choosing their words, and exploring the flat they must soon leave.
We begin by discussing why there are so few games doing what theirs does. Can games even depict true events? It seems especially impossible in interactive media, given that the moment a player is given the hint of choice, they can deviate from what really happened. They can walk into a wall for ten minutes, do things in the wrong order, or fail where a real person succeeded. Cel answers, “I don’t think it’s possible, full stop.”
Hana elaborates: “I think, if you do want to make things true to life, you pretty much just have to make a recording of whatever happened, but even that…“
Cel finishes the sentence, in what becomes a flowing back and forth between the pair. “…even that, you have an interpretation of where you put the camera, that kind of thing.” So it’s impossible? Well, they continue, “drawing from our own experiences, we’re allowed to put our own interpretation on it. They’re my own experiences.”
So, there are solutions to what seems like an inherent problem, and Hana segues to biography’s advantages: “Mundane things are quite fun to explore, not in a hashtag-relatable way, but there’s a lot of character-building that can happen in real events that aren’t about revolutions or wars.”
“I feel like a level of depth is more accessible in non-fiction,” Cel continues, “especially as a writer, because you experienced it, you know exactly what the characters are going through.” Writing characters with complex interior lives, then, is easier when you know or are that person in real life. But despite the advantages for character-building, it’s still true that games can never literally depict events truthfully. Instead, you produce the illusion of non-fiction, something that seems true despite the details being dramatised, misremembered, and shortened. In No Longer Home, this collides with the central illusion of interactive fiction: the notion that you are exerting your free will on events even though you very rarely are. Together, these two create a bizarre sense that you’re rewriting history with your in-game actions. This bizarreness makes it abundantly apparent to the player that what they’re seeing isn’t what literally happened, but is nevertheless true to the lived experience.
But No Longer Home is even more special than that. The game offers me choices to express social and political opinions through the mouths of its characters, and so I choose my opinions, but isn’t that odd? I’m expressing myself, through the mouth of a real person, in a seemingly non-fictional account. It reminds me of Being John Malkovich, like I’m taking over Cel and Hana’s real thoughts and actions. I ask them how this makes them feel. Neither expected this response, both at first laughing nervously and unsure of what to say, until Hana begins; “I’ve just realised we were doing something quite perverse,” they laugh. “[It makes me] feel weird, but not in a bad way, like: sorry I put you through this. [But] all of the dialogue options are things that we felt, whether we vocalised them or not.”
“They’re all true to character,” Cel interjects. Agreeing, Hana continues: “Regardless of what option you choose, they’re all true – there’s no wrong answer to the dialogue.”
This point about a general truth, rather than recreating conversations exactly as they happened, seems to naturally complement the game’s ‘magical realist’ elements. The game’s a memoir, but also contains impossible extra-dimensional geometry and housemates depicted as literal monsters. I ask about their use of the magical realist literary genre, and Cel tells me, “I think there’s a lot that happens inside people’s heads, and it’s easier to show that stuff through something that’s magical, rather than this purely mundane narration, so we tried to mix in magical elements to elevate it.” With video games being an audio-visual medium and not particularly well-suited to depicting real events, using highly exaggerated sounds and sights to communicate true-to-life meaning seems a no-brainer.
The way forward
It seems to me that magical realism is the perfect fit for video game non-fiction: it’s realism, so it says to the player ‘this is true’, but it’s magical, so it also says, ‘this is abstracted and shouldn’t be taken as literal’. It solves the problem of non-fiction being an odd fit for the art form, while also playing to its strengths: you can use the full potential of the sights and sounds computers can create, while also taking a more accessible route to narrative and thematic depth by tapping into real people and experiences.
As we end the discussion, I tell Cel that I can see a version of the games industry in ten years where a larger, more prominent non-fictional narrative genre exists and is dominated by magical realism, to which they enthuse, “I’d really like to see that! I think there’s a growing community of people making things like that, through Bitsy, or bigger games like Mutazione or If Found… We’re starting to see it, and that’s very exciting!”
Hana is also hopeful, and offers some advice: “Pick out some bit of your life and try to tell a story from that, no matter how mundane you think it is. It’s going to be interesting because you’re putting a lot of passion into it. Just trying doing it. Get on with it!”