Ruins, by Cardboard Computer is a free, slightly older example of the Found Story, and if you’d like to experience what this mode of storytelling is like you can download it and toy around. Possibly, you should do so before even reading this piece. Although I will try to avoid spoilers, I may end up revealing some elements of the tale, and a big part of the joy of Found Stories, is discovering the story, piece by gradual piece.
So what is Ruins exactly, if not a game in the traditional sense? Why am I reluctant to even classify it as a game? To start with, like the other two titles I’m planning to look at, Dear Esther and Gone Home, there is no testing of skill involved in Ruins. You do not solve puzzles, or jump, or find out secrets, or run, or kill goblins and take their stuff. You start the ‘game’ in the form of a shadowy dog in a surreal landscape of ruins and glowing white rabbits with Chopin playing in the background. As you use the arrow keys to move around, you start to work out that the point of the experience is not to chase rabbits and find out their secrets: rather it is to ‘catch’ the bits of story in the ruins. There is no particular challenge in the capture of story rabbits. You’re meant to be able to catch the bits of the story easily. It is the experience of uncovering the tale that is engrossing.
What unfolds is a story about a relationship gone sour and love lost and love found. It is a story about the strength of reassurance and joy a person can get from a pet, and it might also be a meditation on the way said pet might view their owner. Throughout the story we are not sure if the whole experience is the dream of the narrator, the idle thoughts of the narrator, the memories of the dog, or the entry of the dog’s spirit into the dreams of the narrator, or something else entirely. There is absolutely a sadness in Ruins, and we are certainly not left with any clear feeling that there is a happy ending. There may be, there may not be. It is left unsaid… or at least the story threads I’ve played out have left it unsaid. One way that Ruins does differ from Dear Esther and Gone Home is that you do get some choice as to where the story wanders. As the narrative unfolds, you do get to pick between options, maybe not between events per se, but between interpretations of events. To use a made up example, you might have to pick between the options, The relationship was always doomed. I don’t know why I stuck it out for so long… or… I really thought the relationship would work. I tried so hard. I really thought we’d make it work.
In both options the relationship has ended, but the differing colouring of the view of the relationship allows for more flexibility than a linear story in a traditional written form.
And I think this is one way in which Found Stories can really shine. The other way is through the subverting of expectations. Short stories and novels can do this too, obviously, but because the person experiencing the Found Story is likely to go into it with certain assumptions about what sort of character they are ‘playing’, and maybe because computer games are a more larval and neonate form of entertainment than stories told in books, this seems to leave more room for genuine surprises. It is very rare that I ever read anything in a novel that surprises me. In Ruins, and in Dear Esther, and Gone Home I was to some degree surprised by a twist in each story, and in Gone Home I was utterly floored when I finally worked out what was really going on.
There are other elements and twists to Ruins that I am not going to elaborate on in detail because I don’t want to upset the experience of it. Suffice to say, Ruins is contemplative, poignant and reflective in a way that we would not expect of a computer game obsessed with racking up points and solving puzzles. It is well worth the ten or twenty minutes it takes to play it out from start to finish, and the ten or twenty more it might take to replay it, picking some of the options you didn’t the first time around. Ruins is contemplation-inducing and thought-provoking. Very much two elements that I look for but seldom find in traditional fiction.