I definitely agree with you that there is a layered mythological story here. At almost every access point (story, aesthetic, interface), there seems to be a one dimensional surface that is representative of a lot of stuff going on beneath it, which is true of myth. One of the roles of myth, both in these games, and generally, I think, is to be just this side of comfortable. That is, to be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. That’s what stuck out about these games for me, the side scroller interrupted by alarming discussions of mortality that are actually inside a bedtime story for a child that is explicitly anti-sentimentality. You ask, “and what is it about these games that makes them feel so…warm-hearted in an often cold, mechanistic medium?” I am not sure either is true in my own experience — these games do not strike me as warm-hearted, nor do I find the medium particularly cold (although mechanistic, certainly). What makes these games unique, I think, is the way they resist tropes. Another series of games that has done this is The Longest Journey/Dreamfall/Dreamfall Chapters. In both cases, the games fit a certain type of expectation: heavy on narrative containing recognizable human themes. But they also go sideways when you think they’re going to go forward. They’re ambiguous and in my own opinion, more real than likable, more nuanced than warm-hearted.
To get into each game:
The conversation in Longest Night was interesting to me, but I admit I did have a little bit of that “walking simulator” (obviously not with actual walking, but “playing” a game that’s really watching a game) feel. I think for me, it was about re-configuring my expectation. Omniscience is totally a playable possibility, but I have a certain anxiety if I’m waiting to be asked to do something, and it took me a while to realize that wasn’t super happening. I completely agree the dialog was believable. Above all, what made it feel most authentic is that we were simultaneously omniscient, and yet not, the inside jokes remaining inside. And this is how we are, really: very good at developing processes for probing the outsides, very hard to really get into the insides of so many phenomena. That translates really well into a conversation between teenagers, because adolescence is really all about that, how to process insides.
Lost Constellation was a lot more game-y, and it was also beautiful. A petty complaint of mine is that the dialog system is too time consuming. I am a fast reader and prefer an interface that matches my natural mental speed, or at least can adapt to it. I’m really coming to appreciate the side scroller though, in terms of being simple upfront but capable of producing many layers of narrative. Counter-intuitively, fancier games like Skyrim, for example, sometimes lack narrative layers simply because of the fancier interface. That isn’t to say the fancier games are worse or are not doing something right, but rather it’s a thing I’ve come to appreciate about side scrollers, and I’m a person who isn’t super into platformers, as you know. I thought the death preamble (pre-woods) was a little too long, but otherwise, I found the story very compelling. I’m curious to know how you found the pacing in Lost Constellation.
Lastly, just a quick note to say that I really appreciated your contextualization of this game within the “free, distributed, indie game” culture, if just because we so often think of free-to-play games as being poorly designed at best, and scams at worst. But as we recently discussed, there does seem to me to be a niche for a kind of making and sharing of content that is unrelated to money, and more related to something like street art: the sharing of complicated experience via media but not in any kind of tradition so much as for the human by the human. Approachable art, perhaps.
PS: I don’t usually take pic caps in story games because it destroys the immersion for me. In this case, I didn’t go back and take any because time was too short.