This post contains spoilers for Your Actions Do Not Effect The Ending, Bioshock Infinite and Gone Home.
When I was young, I used to move my bed around. My sister and I shared a room for many years longer than we wanted to, the unneeded third bedroom was filled with junk when we moved in, and the time was never right to clear it out. Unable to have our own spaces, we exercised the control we had, and every few months we’d rearrange the layout of the room. My bed was placed against the door, my sister’s bed under the window, forming a horrendously impractical L-Shape that rendered most of the floorspace unusable for the important things in life such as setting up all your Bionicle figures in an impressive tableau.
I don’t remember what my father said, but I remember he was standing on the third step from the top. I don’t remember what month he left, but I remember I was about to ask him to go play football for the first time in weeks. I don’t remember what my mother did in the hours and days that followed, but I remember my bed was against the door, just five steps from the landing.
Your Actions Do Not Effect The Ending is a twine game by Jazz Catte, in which you do nothing. You flit from room to room, as time passes, unable to influence anything, merely witnessing events larger than you. When the game begins, you are presented with eight different options, which remain your only choices for the entirety of the experience: which room do you want to visit? If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon a story event, but there’s no way to know where in the house the story is unfolding. The descriptions focus on details within the space; you are a child kept from understanding the moving parts of the familial drama unfolding in rooms around you, left to process the stillness left behind.
When you enter your parents’ room, the description reads:
“Your mom and dad have separate dressers. The top of your dad’s is a bit messy, with piles of books, a couple old pairs of glasses, three watches he never wears, and a few other sundries scattered on top. Your mom’s is usually very well organized, since it’s where she keeps her jewelry box and makeup, but today it seems like a lot of things are missing.”
Those few sentences contain more information and detail than most of the ‘story’ sequences within the game. The human interaction is ambiguous and painful, you have no context for you parents’ actions when you witness them arguing. It is impossible to tell who is at fault, who to side with, and what any of it means for you. On the other hand, a dresser is simple, a dresser allows meaning to be easily inferred, a dresser won’t contradict itself or tear your loyalty in two.
In games where the primary interaction is spatial, it makes sense that the storytelling would follow suit: Rapture has fallen, Sam has run away, the infection has decimated civilization and the buildings are covered with moss. Two corpses hold hands by the sewers, bathed in firelight they’d set up to keep the danger away, spending their last moments together in peace. Words are written in blood on the wall. It is harder to make sense of an explosion than to pick up the pieces. When done well, these moments of environmental discovery surpass the presently occurring, cut-scene driven story due to their coherence with the player’s interaction. I don’t remember a single thing about who’s fighting who in Dishonored, but I’ll always remember those corpses holding hands.
These moments are powerful because you are not a part of them. They emphasise your smallness, working to create the illusion that these worlds were not built for you to walk through them. But their power reveals the limits of the form. You may have a gun in hand, you may be the all powerful chosen one to save the day, but you’re still a child walking from room to room, unable to understand events larger than you, left to process the stillness left behind.
In Bioshock, the tale of Rapture’s decline is both sad and inevitable. Fontaine and Ryan are two selfish and ambitious individuals hiding behind the ideology available in order to advance their own power. We see their motivations, their relationships, and the effect their escalating struggle is having on individuals around them with their own agendas. In Bioshock Infinite, Columbia’s revolution is ongoing. Told through a series of alternate universes as “what if” plot devices, its revolutionaries are empty caricatures, the game aiming for dramatic twists and settling on a nihilistic centrism as the story turns away to the more pressing matters of alternate universe fan service. Fitzroy’s entire movement is bloodily sacrificed at the altar of Elizabeth’s tragic loss of innocence. In Columbia, you are unable to make sense of an explosion. In Rapture, you pick up the pieces.
It is no coincidence that Gone Home, which removes any and all other methods of storytelling to fully explore the potential of exploring a space, concerns itself with youth and nostalgia. You play as the child all grown up, learning how little you knew about the people you loved. It’s a detective story, as you glean information from your environment until you have seen all the information available, and arrive at a place where you know the truth. And that’s the core, adolescent fantasy of Gone Home. To know the truth. To reach a point of certainty. Sam runs away with Lonnie, certain it is the right thing to do. And it is. Your parents aren’t there, panicking, crying, feeling guilty for alienating their daughter, pleading for her not to return. There’s only inanimate objects that aren’t going to call anyone home.
Which brings us back to Your Actions Do Not Effect The Ending, a game that also understands the inherent childlike nature of environmental storytelling, but reaches a far less optimistic conclusion. Anna sits in her room, playing with her dolls, acting out the story of her parents’ failing relationship. You walk around, sometimes catching a glimpse of an argument, but mostly passing time looking at the walls. There is ostensibly a ‘correct’ sequence to visit the rooms in which you can see the story unfold, but to do so belies the impact of the game. The events of the story don’t matter, for even if you were to see them all, what sense would they make to you, anyway? You and Anna desperately long for the security of the inanimate, of the rooms, of the dolls, for the world around you has ceased to add up.
Even the title of the game is half reassurance, half desperation. Your parents repeatedly tell you that “they’ll always love you, no matter what,” trying to let you know you that their separation is not your fault. But this can’t be entirely true, you have agency, you talk to them, there must have been something you could have said, could have done. And if you truly couldn’t, as one of the people who matters most to both of your parents, then what do you matter? When all you can do is move and look, manipulating and connecting with the inanimate but not having a single effect on the people you’re with, what does that say about you?
Within three months, my sister got her own room, and I moved the bed back under the window. It’s stayed there ever since.