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The Pen vs the Sword: The un-actiony guide to games as experiences

When games sacrifice hack-and-slash for narrative flow, it opens up new worlds of experience, says’s resident geek, Matthew Herst

When people think about video games, they tend to think of them as experiences that revolve around mechanics. It’s all about the actions you take; the story takes a back seat. But this is becoming less and less true. 

These days, there are some games that still focus entirely on the mechanics that define their gameplay. These games have little to no story to speak of, drawing players in with new and inventive ideas that can be played over and over again. 

Then there are games that mix great gameplay and a story, leading you through a narrative that tasks you with surviving increasingly difficult situations. Not only are you treated to fun gameplay loops, but a story that develops characters and fleshes out the world. This is largely the norm for games. 

But in the last couple of years, this trend has been bucked by games that can only be described as experiences. These titles sometimes task the player with doing nothing but explore a beautifully realized world. Some are more exploration heavy than others, but taking in the world and discovering the stories it holds is the main draw. 

Possibly the best and easiest example of this – for me, at least – is Journey.

In Journey, you play as a mysterious cloaked traveler wandering a sea of sand, trying to reach a mountain that rises in the distance. 

This journey (no pun intended) is filled with beautiful sights. The sun filters in through columns as you slide down the mountains of sand, the grains glistening in the heat. Underground caverns are patrolled by hulking stone serpents, shadows lying heavy on the sand. The music rises and falls in the perfect places, perfectly capturing the moments that dance across the screen.

So you walk a relatively straight path, freeing creatures made of ancient fabrics and learning why the entire world seems to be buried under an ocean of sand. Floating upwards through the world not only allows for more exploration, but a sense of levity in a world that has long been grounded. The world grows more hostile over the course of Journey’s roughly two-hour completion time.

This short length heightens the emotions the game aims to bring up in players. The entire experience begins and is over in one sitting. And other games that aim to be emotional experiences do as well. The shorter, the sweeter.

Despite being about the experience, these games still tell a narrative and they know not to overstay their welcome. Create something too short and it’s dissatisfying. Creating something too long and it becomes boring and bloated. But creating something that takes between three to six hours to complete ensures that a coherent and poignant story can be told. 

Another fantastic example of this is Gone Home. In this title, you play as a woman who comes home after her family has moved into a new house. So the player is as new to the space as she is. 

You spend the entire time wandering throughout the different rooms of the house, reading letters, watching old videotapes and generally just learning about the family. By the end, you’ve learned about the checkered past of each of your family members, as well as discovering a few things about the protagonist as well. 

Wandering through the rooms, picking up items and ruffling through such personal quarters is a visceral journey that few games take players on. Not only is the story told through the artifacts in the room, but also the way things are placed, how they were left, and what condition they are in. This minute attention to detail is astonishing and gives the experience even more emotional resonance. 

Since Journey and Gone Home sauntered onto the scene, more and more story-centric experiences have cropped up. Games that may not be as action packed as movies, but can tell more personal stories due to their interactive nature. 

All of these games, or at least the ones I’ve played, have on thing in common: You are always alone. You may talk to someone on a walkie-talkie or hear their voice as it crackles through a recording, but you never come face-to-face with another human. 

Journey does let you travel with a companion, but there is no way to communicate. 

This sense of isolation puts a larger focus on the world that surrounds you. The narrative is the only thing to focus on. The world immerses you in the situation, capturing you with its beauty and atmosphere. 

The story then draws you in further, no matter how simplistic it may be. The narrative and the world work in tandem, driving the experience and ensuring that exploration is your main goal.

These kinds of experiences aren’t for everyone. I know plenty of people who say they find walking around a detailed environment boring and unfulfilling. But if you find a story-based game that clicks with you, everything changes. These games are very personal experiences and need to be treated as such. Even if the path forward is explicitly laid out for you, everyone will experience and interpret the messages differently. 

All this is to say that games can be more than jumping, slashing and shooting. While doing those actions are still incredibly fun and often rewarding, sometimes you just need to sit back, relax and take a walk. 

Matthew Herst is a Carleton University communications student, video game journalist and’s resident geek writer. Yeah, this guy loves video games. Besides, you can also find his work on Follow him on Twitter @supergurst.


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