Friday, April 22, 2016

DOCPLAYS: Little Party

Little Party
Let's Play!

You can get Little Party at

So this is Little Party. You can see from the controls here that it's what is sometimes called a "walking simulator" where you explore an environment with limited interaction. It's a short game where you play as a mother keeping an eye on her daughter's all-night art party. It does some interesting things that I thought were worth talking about.

The game has a five-act structure. The first act serves as the tutorial, teaching the mechanics and rules as well as introducing the game's most important characters. First is the player character of the mother. Most walking simulators are first-person, but Little Party adopts an over-the-shoulder perspective that keeps the player character on the screen at all times. I think this is because the player character's identity is actually very important. This isn't like Gone Home, where the player learns about family happenings that they weren't really involved in - here we're taking part in an established family dynamic, and our role in that dynamic is central to the experience.

Four pictures on the hallway walls give us an abbreviated family history. Mom and dad, young and happy together, and then their daughter Suzanne. Rounding the corner we see an aerial view of the house, nestled between a lake and a country road, and then finally a graveyard. Since we're playing as Mom, and Suzanne is still around, the implication is that the father has died.

Now we're ready to meet Suzanne. When we find her, a large blue text prompt appears - these indicate things we can interact with by hitting the space bar. So let's hit space and talk to Suzanne.

The conversation with Suzanne - like all conversations in the game - is brief and has no dialog choices. Like with the over-the-shoulder perspective, this is because we aren't creating a character, we're inhabiting one - so we just see what she says rather than deciding for ourselves. And what she says introduces the dynamic between her and Suzanne that's at the heart of the game: Mom is well-meaning and clearly appreciated but increasingly unnecessary as her daughter becomes an adult. Mom offers to make some guacamole for the party because she genuinely wants to help. Suzanne seems to understand and appreciate her mother's intentions, but would probably rather her mother not get involved. Still, it's hard to turn down guac without being rude, so the conversation ends with Mom planning to make the guac. Notice the blue text here - that indicates a goal for Mom.

When we head to the kitchen, we find Suzanne already there. This is another piece of tutorial, showing that other characters will move around when we aren't looking. This recurs throughout the game, and creates a sense that the other characters are moving with purpose, while we are just sort of wandering to find them and see what they're up to and whether we can help. It feels like we're playing an NPC, and it's a great way to line up the player experience with the player character's experience, since Mom is just having a normal day on the sidelines while the kids are having their art party.

Anyway, we can talk to Suzanne again and this time she and Mom just joke around with each other. This conversation shows that the relationship between Suzanne and her mother really is a healthy and friendly one, in case there were any doubts. It also shows Mom's willingness to laugh at herself, as she's just as amused as Suzanne that she accidentally claims to not be sober.

With that done, we can now make the guac. This closes out the tutorial with the final lesson - interactions with objects are act breaks that advance time. When the guac is done, the guests arrive and thus begins Act II.

A quick note about this line - it's attributed not to Suzanne, but to a misspelling of the word "daughter". My guess is that a previous version of the game simply called Suzanne "Daughter" the same way it calls the mother "Mom", and at some point they did a global find-and-replace to change it over. But since this instance of "Daughter" was misspelled, it wasn't caught and changed. So now it's this weird artifact - an incorrect spelling of an incorrect word.

The conversation ends, and we're left contemplating the pile of shoes by the door that are the universal symbol for "a bunch of teenagers are here." We have no explicit goal, so we wander around and find the kids. Suzanne gives a speech to kick off the event, and opens it kind of offensively by implying that at least artistically, mothers don't get things done. It's kind of a weird thing to say, but nobody calls her on it. We can also talk to her friends and get a sense of what they're here to do. Nicholas is anxious and overeager and already started his project. Biff holds a camcorder and adjusts to the house - the set for his film - being different than he expected. Isaac is splattered with paint, and intent on finding his inspiration inside himself.

Heading upstairs, we find Biff filming. Mom gets in his shot, but he's cool about it - as before, he's trying to be open about how his film goes. In the kitchen we can find Nicholas struggling with his game design and offer him some guac, but he's anxious about that too since he didn't recognize the fried shallots. As we keep walking around we start to hear music coming from the basement, luring us downstairs to find Suzanne playing. She refuses to accept Mom's encouragement, thinking at first that she's being made fun of. She also prompts Mom to state her next goal, and if we head to the office to send those emails we find Isaac getting ready to paint, who says thanks for putting them all up in her house.

Sending the emails advances time again and moves us to Act III. The kids have had some time to make progress, and we're presented with the fruits of Isaac's labors so far, though Isaac himself isn't around. Again there is no explicit goal, so we wander around and find Nicholas fussing over cards and trying to figure out how to show their intended order. Mom's willingness to say the dumb thing comes in handy here, because she proposes the simple solution of just numbering them, which Nicholas had apparently not considered in his overthinking of the problem. It's Mom's first chance to be genuinely helpful.

Isaac and Suzanne are out on the patio while Isaac smokes. He seems to be an inexperienced smoker, though. Suzanne is talking about her father's music, in a way consistent with the implication that the father has died. She clearly respects his work and wants to keep it alive, in contrast to the way she's been treating her mother. But then, a deceased father is no threat to her independence. She can safely enjoy his art.

Out front, Biff is filming near a picnic table, speculating on family history. When Mom appears, he incorporates her into his process, accidentally calling her a "relic." But Mom rolls with it and says she takes it as a compliment.

Again, music draws us downstairs where the kids are working. Talking to Isaac, Mom has another moment where she's semi-awkwardly willing to laugh at herself, but then it's revealed that Mom used to paint, and Isaac is impressed with her work. Mom says thanks, but dismisses the art as behind her, echoing Biff's language and saying that she's just a relic now. It adds some color to the contrast between Suzanne's treatment of her father and mother - Mom's made some art too, but has no apparent interest in continuing to do so or any concern in preserving it for the future - Isaac just happened to find her work and pull it out of storage. She seems to consider art something for young people, not her. It's not clear when she stopped painting, or if the father was still making music up until his death - but if he was, then Suzanne would remember her father as an artist and her mother as someone who'd given up her art. This could certainly explain why she respects her father as an artist but not her mother. It's not really fair to Mom to compare her to the impossible standard of a dead person, but it's exactly the sort of comparison a kid in this situation is likely to make.

Biff is filming the others as they work and trying to find his film's story. His approach is still free-flowing as he clearly improvises some narration. Suzanne is making progress too, as her music becomes more developed, but all she has to say to her mother is an offer to keep it down if they're being too loud, and Mom volunteers her next goal, which is reading a book. Nicholas, meanwhile, is panicking. He's been working with physical cards and dice and is starting to think the game should be a phone app instead, and thinks maybe he should start over, and worries there isn't time. Suzanne tells him to relax, that failure is okay, which he seems reluctant to accept.

Heading upstairs to find our book, we advance time again and move to Act IV. Mom has dozed off reading her book, and the kids have had time to get even further with their work, so naturally we want to find them and check in. After seeing some furs in the basement, we find Biff and Nicholas out front filming a scene. Nicholas is in costume as some sort of woodland monster, apparently having given up on his game to help Biff with his film. Biff explains that Mom can't be in this shot, as the monster needs to be alone to make his home.

Out back, we hear music, different from the music we heard before. It leads us pretty far from the house - we have to go out of our way to find the source. It turns out to be Suzanne standing by the lake with a guitar, and as soon as she becomes aware of us she stops playing. She seems a little embarrassed to be caught, since she's experimenting with her musical style and isn't pleased with the results. Mom tries again to be supportive, Suzanne again rejects the attempt, and there's an awkward silence. Only when we leave does Suzanne resume her experimentation. After all, the monster needs to be alone to make his home.

Heading inside, we find Isaac in the kitchen nursing a coffee. Mom says "Howdy," calling back to their earlier conversation, a little joke that goes unremarked. Isaac offers her some coffee, but she reveals that her next goal is to go to bed. Isaac mentions that he's having trouble with his self-portrait, and Mom relays some advice from an old professor, that the way we represent things outside of ourselves says the most about our insides. Isaac doesn't quite get it, and Mom simply laughs at herself for not explaining it well. Isaac asks about Suzanne, and Mom says she's out by the lake trying to be alone. This was probably clear to Mom even before their awkward conversation, based just on Suzanne going so far from the house, but Mom wasn't able to resist her curiosity to check in on her daughter any more than the player was.

Heading downstairs, we find Biff and a cleaned up Nicholas playing games. Biff is excited and trying to help, but Nicholas just finds his attempts distracting. Nicholas needs to figure this out himself, even if Biff has useful insights, providing another echo to Suzanne's journey. And why is it so hard for Nicholas to concentrate? To me, it's because he's finally getting out of his own head and looking to other games for inspiration. He's playing this game like a designer, looking into what works, what doesn't, and why. Biff's coaching, then, misses the point, as it's aimed just at completing the game's internal objectives.

Mom goes to bed, and time advances once more, taking us to Act V. It's morning; the art party is ending and the artists are displaying their works. In the living room we find Isaac's exhibit, titled "Outside" Art - he's apparently taken Mom's advice to heart, and has found his inspiration externally, revealing himself by revealing the way he sees the world. In the basement, we see the TV playing Biff's film - and it's about Mom. In looking for the right way to tell the story of his fellow artists, he ended up telling the story of an outsider, and how she interacts with them. We also find Nicholas's exhibit titled "Failed Card Game." He's accepted that it's okay to fail, and still laid out his work for presentation anyway, showing that he understands it still has value.

But where's Suzanne? In her room, we find a power cable going out the window and up to the roof. Out on the patio, we find a ladder and can climb up ourselves - to find Suzanne giving a rooftop recital. Biff sees Mom and gives her a welcoming smile, but - crucially - Suzanne does not. Unaware of our presence, Suzanne keeps playing. We finally get to see our daughter as the artist we knew she was. All we can do is stand back and quietly be proud.

Little Party is ultimately a game about self-discovery through self-expression. The most prominent story is Suzanne's, because she is the most important person to the player character. Unlike the other kids, she can't benefit from Mom's perspective - she needs to reject it and find her own path. It's overcompensation, but it's what she needs to prove to herself that she's independent from the person she used to rely on for daily survival. As much as Mom would like to be part of Suzanne's life and help her blossom into the amazing person she's becoming, she can only get so close without being intrusive and disruptive. It isn't anyone's fault - it's just a fact of life that you have to stand back from your child for them to grow up. And that's okay, but that doesn't mean it's easy. By casting the player in this role, and tantalizing them with glimpses of artistic process and with haunting melodies heard from a distance, and proving that Mom has useful things to say but can't say them to her daughter, Little Party creates empathy for Mom by creating the conflict in the player as well - you know you're disruptive, and it's up to you whether to mix in or not, but if you're like me then you just can't stay away.

So that was Little Party. I hope you found it as interesting as I did.

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