Sunday, November 11, 2012

Terry Cavanagh's Don't Look Back

A game story that I’d like to give special attention to is Terry Cavanagh.'s Don’t Look Back. It’s been on the web for quite a while, actually, but I’ve just recently become acquainted with it as it was released for iOS.

As this is a blog about analyzing game stories, I can't say there won't be any spoilers. I will try to avoid big things and speak more generally, but at times it's just not possible. With this game specifically, the story doesn't have that many revelations, which is why there is not that much to spoil - this post is more about the rich story experience itself which remarkably is created in such a minimalistic game.

The game takes around 10-15 minutes of continuous play to finish, and the story’s simple enough: the player character grieves over a lost loved one. He decides to go into the underworld to bring her back. When he finds her, he must return to the surface, but cannot look back at her. If he does, his love vanishes.

The plot clearly alludes to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. That’s already an achievement – the game sports a single music track and looks as if its graphics were done in MS Paint. Yet it still manages to convey a rich atmosphere.

It’s all about the colors, the smooth, minimalistic animations, that music track haunting very specific parts in the game. It’s proof that a solid story doesn’t need much in the way of expensive graphics and sound.
But what’s really impressive is how that plot is conveyed. It’s astounding how a game that has no dialogue, cinematics or even text in any substantial way can create a clear narrative sensation – creating a clear introduction, providing a suspenseful first act, a twist, a revelation and a dénouement.

The game manages it because of its clever marriage of story to gameplay.  Meaning, the plot progresses as the player progresses. The player learns plot elements as he plays (like ‘I can’t turn around or my love will vanish, and I’ll have to start over’).

I hadn’t completely understood the allusion until my character found his love and she started following him. Then I started backtracking as my character was heading back outside. But when I turned my character to face his love, she vanished and the screen I was in restarted. The plot element of not looking back turned into a game mechanic. The story’s title turned into the game’s instructions: Don’t Look Back.

It was a brilliant moment both in terms of freshening the game’s mechanics and in terms of story. Admittedly, those familiar with the original story of Orpheus receive a more rewarding feeling, but nevertheless, it was a great story moment.

Of course this is due to the structure of the game – being built by screens where every screen is repeatable. This enables the player to try and fail and continue to do so until the story is experienced ‘properly’. I don’t know how much this would work in other types of games, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that with this method, Cavanagh has managed to create a compelling story that works on practically every level and is experienced primarily by playing.

It's a small game but I still don't want to spoil all of it. The ending has a final surprise that again fits as a story and also benefits the gameplay.

Try it out at