One of the few benefits of being stuck at home during this weird pseudo-lockdown period in the UK is suddenly having more time than ever before. Yes, I’ve been working throughout the pandemic – having been very lucky to have a decent work from home setup, as well as working on a project that can be worked from at home – but when you cut out the daily commute and other time spent away from the home, you find yourself with oodles of time to spare, and I began filling mine with lots of hobbies, both new and old.
One of these hobbies has been working through my backlog of games. Since 2018 I’ve been keeping track of what games I’ve completed each year, and whilst the list had steadily increased from 2018 to early 2020, it’s exploded since March 2020. Compare the 8 games that I finished during 2018 to the 15(!) I’ve finished in 2020 so far and I think you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that every single game on this list has been a 50 hour plus epic – more than a few have been smaller Indie projects, but for me they’re just as, if not more, valuable than the AAA content I’m also consuming. They’re so often filled with exciting new ideas and are willing to take risks that I implore everyone to go out of their way to look for these smaller one shot games and give them a try, not just for your own enjoyment but in support of small developers who are pouring their heart and soul into each project.
One of the most recent games I’ve finished was just such a project – a free Indie game on Steam called Marie’s Room. A short narrative driven walking simulator-slash-puzzle game, it has a much higher production quality than you might expect, and when I say it’s short, I mean it; it took me 52 minutes to complete (shout out to Steam for the metrics, what up my homie) and it warns you straight off the bat that there are no save games, and that it is designed to be played in one sitting. This doesn’t bother me, sometimes a short but sweet adventure is just the ticket, especially when we all have a lot on our plates still, despite the newfound extra time for games. It also means that the narrative is much more compact, much more focused and engaging to the player from the off. There’s not much preamble to the experience: you play as Kelsey who has come to retrieve her friend’s – the titular Marie’s – journal and are pretty much thrown into the environment and told ‘have at it’ which, again, is fine with me. It’s neither difficult to control or particularly complex, the majority of the game is played using the left and right mouse buttons and your typical WASD controls. In fact, if it wasn’t for a spur of the moment ‘Ima hit each key and see what it does’ decision, I would never have known that there was a crouch button (It’s ‘C’ by the way) because the game doesn’t feel compelled to tell you about it. It tells you about the mouse controls and sends you on your way, happy as Larry.
The gameplay is fine but nothing revolutionary; you walk around a self-contained environment and interact with objects to listen to your character’s thoughts about them, or about the memories they stir of their friendship with Marie, and the night that everything changed – dun dun dunnnn. Yes, it’s a bit melodramatic in places but the dialogue is written well enough that it keeps you hooked. What happened to Marie? What did Kelsey do? There’s a lot of intrigue with enough being drip fed that it creates a cycle of ‘But what else? that brings the player back for more.
This voice over is exceptionally well done for such a small game, the actress who plays the main character brings a lot of life and emotion to the role; as much as you sympathise with her, you also find yourself annoyed by some of the more selfish thoughts or behaviours. It’s refreshingly human, and realistic, which helps tie you into the story in the early moments of the game. This is useful because the narrative of the game is delivered in a non-linear fashion, where the player picks up anecdotes at random depending on what they look at, and in what order, but there is a helpful journal that updates as you progress so that you can piece together the full story eventually. For the most part this delivery method works, and by the time you reach the end you have a pretty good idea of what’s happened to Kelsey, Marie and the other secondary characters, but (without spoiling things) the ending does throw a curveball that I didn’t see coming. Unless I missed something – which I doubt as I unlocked the achievements for interacting with all the story items and finding all the journal entries – it comes so far out of left field I spent more time thinking about how much I disliked this particular twist that I don’t think I really appreciated the final cutscene as much as I should. It’s the only cutscene in the game and uses a nice particle effect to create stop motion figures as a memory replays itself in its entirety, once and for all. As the player I found it gave a feeling of closure to the proceedings, but that was then slightly marred by the fact that the gameplay continued a bit more, and raised further questions about the relationship – and how it currently stood – between Kelsey and Marie. I don’t know, maybe I did miss something, but it felt like most of the game built up one perspective that the ending then effectively reversed.
For free, it’s more than worth playing. I just can’t help but notice the bits of the game that pull you out of it when it really should be held as a good example of what kind of experimental, interesting stories can be told through Indie development.