There’s a particular art to short stories. Take a solid concept and build a compelling narrative around it in a limited timeframe. Satisfy the audience with what’s immediately provided, but also offer cues for their imagination explore the grey areas outside the primary text. The short story format lends itself especially well to genre fiction like horror and sci-fi: a fantastic or frightening idea that emerges like a butterfly from its chrysalis, dazzles the audience with brief spectacle, then flits away into memory.
The expectation-free flexibility (and limited resources) of indie game development has led creators to experiment with concise, refined storytelling. In some instances, the scope narrows to the point that a game can be completed in under an hour – a short story, in effect. Game jam by-products Supercontinent Ltd and The House Abandon are two recent examples that are restricted in both narrative and spatial terms – each takes place in a single location, seen from a static viewpoint, almost like a one-act play.
Supercontinent Ltd puts depicts a cyberpunk hacking operation to unravel a corporate conspiracy. The protagonist lounges comfortably in the CEO’s office he has broken into, gradually learning to exploit the archaic landline telephone that’s key to his mission. Supercontinent Ltd has its roots in SCUMM era adventure games, so there are objects in the office that can be clicked on and used, but the main player input comes from dialling phone numbers on their keyboard. Although the dialogue is inconsistent (and could use a good spellcheck), developers Deconstructeam craft a strong three-act narrative within the restrictive parameters, plots twists and all.
Minimalist horror game The House Abandon also limits itself to an (apparently) benign setting. Adopting a first-person perspective, developers No Code seat the player at a bedroom desk that is neatly arranged with some family photos, a lamp, and an old Commodore 64-style computer. The game plays out on the PC screen, using text-based inputs and monochrome graphics that hearken back to classic Infocom adventure games. The House Abandon is essentially a “house exploration” title in the vein of Gone Home, Anatomy and PT, but the results of the player’s actions (ie. GO TO KITCHEN) are described rather than depicted. Although the house seems normal to begin with, an alternate version emerges which – as with Anatomy and PT – becomes increasingly disquieting, reflected in visual changes to the desk space.
Given the microcosmic scale of Supercontinent Ltd and The House Abandon, a heavy onus falls on the music to help evoke their themes and setting. In both games, the soundtrack is comprised of a single song. Supercontinent Ltd uses electronica to match the towering buildings and neon lights of its dystopian backdrop. Spanish composer Fingerspit begins the track with brooding ambience, its main riff slowly peaking and receding in waves, perhaps a nod to Vangelis’ work for Blade Runner. The track eventually drops into a 4/4 beat to evoke the urgency of the hacking operation, a touch of piano lending a note of optimism, then ebbs back into introspective ambience.
In keeping with its 80s motif, The House Abandon composer Omar Khan also takes an electronic path, drawing a line from the eerie work of John Carpenter. Khan’s arpeggiated synths waver between gentle tones that pulse across swirling pads, and a jarring riff that stabs its way to primacy. Beneath the lead synths is a simple two-note bassline that moves up and down, lurking in the background, eventually taking centre stage as the house adopts its malevolent form.
While the music in these games is well composed and thematically consistent, it also points to a potential weak spot in the “story story” game format. There was a moment in The House Abandon, for example, where I struggled to figure out the correct text input to progress the story – not a design issue, just user error. Even so, the prolonged pause became tedious due to the music, that up/down bassline stuck on a monotonous loop while I tested out text combinations, to the point that I temporarily removed my headphones. In Supercontinent Ltd, meanwhile, the point at which the song transitions from ambience into a more upbeat tempo is arbitrary. There’s an underlying urgency to the mission, to be sure, but no particular story moment triggers the uptempo section. It’s background music rather than a dynamic soundtrack.
While the overall play length of “short story” games is inherently concise, just how short they are will depend on an individual player: some will be natural speedrunners, others will fumble over minor obstacles. Even though short games are working on a condensed scale, musical emphasis is no less important than it is for a “full length” title, particularly when a short game is trying to vividly conjure its world and narrative using a limited palette. This is not to take away from the artistic achievements of Supercontinent Ltd and The House Abandon – they are great experiences, made even more remarkable given the circumstances in which they were produced.
In the words of Edgar Allen Poe, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” In videogame terms, every creative element – mechanics, art and sound design, writing and music – should build towards a tight focal point. Both Supercontinent Ltd and The House Abandon exemplify the narrative potency of short games, but also demonstrate the mood-distorting issues that can arise when the music doesn’t match the game’s tempo.