There are some debates in the world of game design that never really die down, always ready to be re-kindled with the release of a new game. In particular, the question of how to balance player autonomy against embedded narrative, with various companies like Bioware, Square Enix, Bethesda, and Nintendo, and now Guerrilla Games all weighing in on one side or the other through series such as Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Horizon Zero Dawn.
Yet while the age-old debate rages on among AAA companies, indie developers, regardless of their views, usually find themselves bound by more pragmatic concerns – how to manipulate player expectations in order to maximise the success of their games. As such, indie games that explore both autonomous explorations and linear stories, with similar settings and familiar vibes, can attract completely different opinions simply due to the expectations created by pre-release materials, and the impressions of the gaming community on release day.
Of the games I have played in recent years, perhaps the one which most strongly advocated for open world exploration and player autonomy was Kholat, published in 2015 by the Polish indie studio IMGN.PRO.
Revolving around the Dyatlov Pass Incident that occurred in the Russian Ural Mountains in 1959, the game boasted all the beauty the Unreal 4 engine is capable of. The game’s trailers awed many with their breathtaking visuals, haunting sound design, and an exotic, enigmatic setting.
Interestingly, however, the pre-release media campaign did not focus on the expansiveness of the world, with the developers promising players deep mysteries to solve, an engaging storyline, and soulful, contemplative narration by Sean Bean.
To be fair, there are some interesting bits of narrative hidden within the game, with audio and visual cues subtly pointing out the location of in-game lore. Considerately, the developers arranged it so that lore notes will always be generated in the correct order, encouraging players to explore Kholat at their own pace and in no particular order (the starting position is in the middle of the map). No matter which direction the player takes to start their exploration, they would still read the information in the same sequence. I myself found great joy in carefully listening for the notes and putting all my senses to the highest alert possible. The game was an incredibly immersive experience that would have done very well even as a mountaineering simulator, purely made to train the human brain to recognise subtle clues that would lead to survival in a roaring blizzard, with nothing but a compass and a paper map at your disposal.
Yet, the rest of the community did not agree. In the initial days after Kholat’s release, the response from the community was lukewarm at best, with the game’s reviews only managing to recover from that initial disappointment months later.
Fast-forward for approximately 8 months, another indie game featuring a similar core idea was also published, but it was immediately considered an artistic success, standing in stark contrast with what Kholat experienced. It was Firewatch, an indie success that went on to win the prestigious Game Developers Choice Awards in 2017, a game about a journey in the woods in a completely different part of the world.
Released by the American studio Campo Santo in February 2016, Firewatch tells the story of a ‘fire-watcher’, a park ranger in charge of surveying the area for wild fires in the national parks of Wyoming in the summer of 1989. Similar to Kholat, Firewatch involves an expansive map in which the player wanders an exotic landscape in a first-person view with only a map and compass to guide them, and a story that gradually unravels as the player moves through the map.
Yet, unlike Kholat‘s lukewarm initial reception, Firewatch was met with considerable praise, its plot considered a delightful surprise in a game that was initially advertised simply as a stroll through the Wyoming wilderness. However, despite winning a multitude of accolades, Firewatch was by no means a perfect game, with the story only making up for the noticeable slowness and linearity of its beginnings with the great poignancy seen in the last half hour in the game.
Further, while the story definitely plays a major part in the design of Firewatch, had the team advertised it for ‘powerful stories’, it would have attracted an audience who already had high expectations. To such an audience, Firewatch‘s story – which features some rather far-fetched paranoia, uncontrollable time-skips, and with the majority of revelations squeezed into the last section of play – might well have disappointed. As it was, Firewatch effectively disguised itself as an exploratory adventure, giving the player the illusion of autonomy as opposed to Kholat, where every foot of ground in is etched into my mind in frigid, screaming ink; every dip and turn of the barely-recognisable roads explored and visualised just in case the Anomaly came shambling from around the corner.
So where did Kholat go wrong?
Once one gets past the fact that one game takes place during a winter night in the freezing Russian Ural Mountains while the other is covered in the glaring summer sunshine of Wyoming, both games have a lot in common.
Both are ‘walking-simulators’, games with a vast map that allowed players to explore at will, with the primary method of transport being walking or running by the male protagonist in a first-person perspective. Both reveal their backstory as the player walks through the map, discovering scattered bits of information through map progression. Both feature stunning visuals and powerful soundtracks, with a genuine sense of the exotic atmosphere.
Past those obvious points of similarity, however, are many intangible differences that added up over time.
One of the first complaints about Kholat was the apparent impossibility of navigating through its world. Despite its beauty, Kholat presented players with a map that… well… defied many video game traditions, as it lacked any markers to indicate your current location, and you could not put your own custom marker on the map. In fact, your progress was not auto-saved as you walk from one section of the map to another. With the above three factors combined, the player’s actual location was as good as anyone’s guess, with every death having the potential to set you back for long stretches of gameplay. What made navigation even more confusing was the abundance of coordinates painted onto walls, which did not indicate a player’s current position but that of a piece of lore, an item that would shed more light on the puzzling story of the game and more importantly, cause the game to auto-save!
Consider for a moment the difficulty of finding an object as a given set of coordinates when you are unaware of your current location.
It didn’t help that Kholat was intent on not educating the player about how the coordinate system worked. There were no tutorials, no guidance once the game started. Players were simply told to go to eight specific locations – that was all.
It was therefore little surprise that in the first few days after the game’s release, the internet was full of frustrated videos of people failing to navigate the world of Kholat, getting hopelessly lost, and coming to the conclusions that the map was inaccurate and that the developers were trolls. While the confusion certainly added to the horror by magnitudes (I was certainly simply consumed by paranoia at times due to the disorientation), large sections of Kholat would be better described as ‘running blind’.
Players were expected to learn about navigation the hard way, to have an excellent grasp of their location on the map with very little external indication, a skill that asks for prior life experience and that most modern exploratory games have completely done away with.
The experience of Firewatch, on the other hand, is built around a wholly different philosophy, focused on giving the players a smooth experience rather than a satisfactory challenge. There are no deadly enemies, no life-or-death decisions, no visual dizziness that accompanies exertion. The map is very friendly – too friendly, almost. Not only is there a marker indicating your current location, there is even a trail to show your last few steps, making it even easier to orient yourself. Firewatch also periodically auto-saves, and every time you find a ranger’s cache box, you can update your map with landmarks and paths in that area, even if you have not physically been there yet. The game’s focus was definitely not on the adrenaline rush that comes with successful navigation, but on providing a sedate and controlled flow of information.
With the pre-release material presenting Firewatch as a relaxing and immersive journey through the Wyoming wilds, the story was considered to be a good over-delivery that exceeded player expectations, despite the fact that in terms of gameplay, Firewatch is inferior to Kholat, given that the latter actually provides a player with meaningful challenges. In Kholat, it always felt like a great achievement to find a landmark. While in Firewatch… you are explicitly told where to go at each stage of the game, with the destination often marked out on the map, so that finding your way in the wilderness isn’t a problem at all.
The world of Kholat, no matter how bleak and depressing, gave me much more of a feeling of competence and made me feel like I had accomplished something worthwhile by playing it, while that of Firewatch felt rather hollow.
In terms of how both games ended up where they were, I would therefore say the biggest reason was that Kholat was advertised to the wrong crowd pre-release.
One thing Kholat did manage masterfully was the sheer panic of running blindly in the snow, the guttural exhilaration of finally finding a note, and the mesmerising colours of fire and mist that spelt both beauty and death. Indeed, had the game been marketed to a different group of people – people who enjoy a serious challenge with wilderness exploration, who seek the sudden adrenaline rush of the chase, it could have been well-received.
But those effective experiences of horror weren’t what Kholat promised. Instead, its promotional materials focused on the story and narration, which turned out to be one confused mess, open to a huge variety of interpretations that made the ending lack any impact. Kholat was marketed as an atmospheric horror game with an exotic and enigmatic story, a spiritual successor of sorts to the Silent Hill franchise – a legendary horror classic with profound psychological impact. Its branding as such drew in players who wanted to engage with the story on a philosophical level and experience a deeply thought-provoking journey, while the actual game of Kholat provided none of that.
Wild theories, ranging from the entire experience being simply a dream to the game spelling the impending doom of our world, could actually all be true in Kholat thanks to the nebulous nature of the lore. Almost all conspiracy theories revolving the Dyatlov Pass incident were included in the lore notes, and yet none were given credence and none were dismissed. It is easy to conclude that the developers threw everything they could find about the incident into the game, then created some vague Soviet-era secret-laboratory setting and finished the game off with nothing actually being explained.
The severe lack of balance between the three different Acts in the game was also quite jarring. Both Act I and Act III are no longer than 5 minutes, being mere introductions and conclusions, while Act II consists of up to 4 to 5 hours of wandering in the snow. Such a gaming experience led to the seriously rough transition between the acts, and I felt I was left hanging at the end of the game with no emotional catharsis. For a game that tried to sell itself at least partly on uniqueness of its setting and story, I walked away feeling more confused about the Dyatlov Pass incident than I did coming into the game, and had to spend more time reading up about the actual event after playing to get all my history correct again.
There is no shortage of market demand for minimalist, survival indie horror games. Yes, the genre may be inundated with some lacklustre offerings, but Kholat really wasn’t that bad, with many little touches in the code that indicated someone did sit down and think the game through.
And visually, Kholat features breathtaking, distinctively Polish aesthetics which deserves credit for its atmospheric, haunting beauty, unique amidst the hundreds of other indie horror games. The plot was frankly irrelevant as the moaning of the viola stretched through the orange forest, as the haunting female vocals echoed through the abandoned town, beckoning one to feel with the heart and not the mind. Kholat utilises the player’s imagination as its greatest, most horrifying weapon, awakening wild theories in the player’s mind with every lore note and suggesting death at every corner. Sight is a mere hindrance in Kholat‘s realm of endless night. And in the absent of sight, fear reigns supreme, ultimately creating a soul-shattering horror that barely needed a plot. Kholat is a sensationalist’s tale and should be sold as one. It is a story that haunts your mind with its uncertainty, that sinks into you the more you try to comprehend it. It is a story you tell to your friends at late night parties, to tantalise and to traumatise, to leave them gasping and shivering in fear of it.
In contrast, Firewatch is a decidedly American story, and not just because of the geographical setting. It is a relatable, plausible soul, a group of less-than-perfect middle-aged adults facing the misfortunes of life. Instead of a fantasy, Firewatch is a deep, dull wound near to the heart, that taunts and haunts you with how close these character’s lives are to ours – heck, it wouldn’t even be that hard for us to end up being them. It is one of those dark concerns that pop unbidden into your head when you lay in bed alone at night, when the world brutally reminds you of the clock ticking by, when you think back on a past regret, a forgone lover, a jaded friend – things that you can never again make right. It consists of the horrors of everyday life, of ordinary incidents gone irreparably wrong. The initial dreariness of the story was like the unending stretch of our uneventful lives, until the merciless hand of misfortune strikes us down in the middle of our happy days and sends our existences hurtling down a personal abyss, where both the wound and the pain are invisible to the world.
But the story was not the selling point, and so players who encountered it felt that it was more than it was, that Firewatch has over-delivered.
The realm of game design is as varied and complex as life itself, but just like with all forms of art, the appreciation for video games is always dependent on personal taste to a degree. Open-world exploration and atmospheric environments were never meant to appeal to the same population as linear, plot-heavy games.
Ensuring a game’s success is therefore more a matter of identifying and promoting the game to the right audience, rather than purely dependent on a developer’s artistic interpretation or skill. It is heartening to see that the ratings and reviews for Kholat have gradually improved over time as a more suitable audience eventually found its way to the game, but its initial reception could have been so much better if pre-release materials had already taken care to appeal to these players to begin with.
In short, the balance between player autonomy and developer control really isn’t that important in determining if a game will be good, entertaining or impactful – games leaning to either side of can allow for powerful, immersive experiences and commercial success. The key component of success might just be attracting the interested population and building hype that is backed by substance, something which sometimes seems an impossibility in a world where trailers often over-promise and games under-deliver.