Interactive book-teaser Sixteen Horses is a reminder of the power of text
What a novel way to promote a novel. Sixteen Horses: Prologue is a short interactive experience designed to whet your appetite for a brand new crime thriller of the same name, released only a few days ago, and written by game alumni Greg Buchanan, whose credits include No Man’s Sky: Atlas Rises and Metro: Exodus. And though I say “whet your appetite”, I realise it probably won’t do anything of the kind, because it’s pretty grim. Don’t play it while eating your lunch. This is about a discovery of dead things.
The Prologue isn’t long, and it’s free, somewhat obviously, and while it doesn’t do anything inherently surprising or exciting, it shows how fundamentally powerful a few well-chosen words and slight interaction can be. There’s a delicious moment in this experience, when you uncover the dead things, where you can choose how one of the characters reacts to the gruesome sight. Is it disgusting or is it beautiful? It’s a stirringly dark thought. And your act of thinking about it: it’s like a little poke at your imagination. It’s a tiny moment of investment, an ever-so-slight leaning closer to the story. And when you wrap it up in music and sound effects, and a couple of nice pictures, it combines to strong effect. It’s a great way of setting the scene for the book.
None of this is new to video games, of course. They’ve been playing around with text since they began. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from Sixteen Horses: Prologue. In fact, I’d love to see games use a similar kind of sparsity in the amount of words used. Too many, I believe, and you dilute the power of your words overall.
But what Sixteen Horses also reminds me is how powerfully text can be wielded in the right hands. It reminds me so vividly of the dream-memory moments in Lost Odyssey on Xbox 360. They are my memory of that game, not the many hours of JRPG in between. Those text-based memories, those short stories exploring the sadness of what it means to be immortal. The love outlasted, the relentless progression of time. All simply told with nicely chosen and nicely placed words, and some slight animation for emphasis. I can feel nostalgia stirring in me even now.
I don’t want games to lose that, or to overlook how powerful text can still be. It’s why some of my favourite games come from studios like Inkle, which really seems to understand that less can be more. Inkle’s Jon Ingold even said as much while talking to Aamir Mehar, in a piece about exactly this: the power of text in games. And what fine taste in games Mehar has! Incidentally, there are lots of other great examples text-powerful indie games – I don’t want it to sound like Inkle is isolated here. Bury me, my Love is wonderful. But what about in bigger games? Is well-wielded text only a memory for them now? I sincerely hope not.