I have something of a recurring thought when playing heavily story-focused games. I don’t think exploring stories through the medium of a video game is quite there yet. It feels like there’s many interesting ways we could interact our way through a story. I don’t mean this to be an indictment of The Gap; quite the opposite in fact. It brushes up against an interesting – and unique – way of exploring a story. I’ll get into the specifics of that in a moment but it’s something that narrative games have long wrestled with.
When you play a video game, the expectation is that you’re going to have some involvement. Whether that’s some grand choices that shape the world or just pushing a button to make your character bunny hop. The key element is you. Introducing a story into that mix risks the player essentially functioning as someone reading a book over someone else’s shoulder. My measure of narrative games is how they get around that issue. Let’s see how The Gap fares.
The first image you come across in The Gap is probably the best way to explain the overall feel of the plot. It’s a wall full of post-it notes, printed out pieces of paper and scribbled arrows connecting everything back to the single phrase, ‘The Cure’. Already we know that our player character hasn’t got all of his marbles together. Even before we get into the whole ‘parallel universe’ element. Turns out our hero has the ability to cross over into these, thanks to some help from the neurobots in his brain. Bots that look uncomfortably close to the squiddies from The Matrix.
This little slice of sci-fi is used as a framing device for quite the sensitive story. Most of your money’s worth is coming from the emotional gut punches that The Gap delivers. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, the central conflict comes from the diagnosis of a hereditary disease. Our protagonist – called Josh, by the way – slips off the handle as he tries to find a cure and ends up destroying himself in the process, his obsession with delving into other universes resulting in the loss of his own memories. It’s an interesting exploration of memory and grief, as well as a story about how these sorts of diagnoses can drive wedges in otherwise happy relationships. It’s a good concept, handled well.
Down Memory Lane
Part of the good handling is down to the writing, which takes pains to illustrate its characters before things went south, and the decent voice acting. The other part, though, is down to The Gap’s attempts to make use of the format. See, when we first start, we’re not sure what’s going on. We only piece the story together by hopping into memories – and different universes – where we get little snippets of information, without the full context. Some of these memories are happy – like pushing your daughter on a swing – and some are not. It’s a non-linear way of experiencing a story like this and it works well.
The aforementioned diagnosis is like a bomb hitting in the middle of the game. You begin to realise little things about previous memories and re-evaluate the happy ones as you try and place it into your mental timeline. It’s a great technique, that just elevates it out of the pool of narrative games. Having said that, our actual involvement doesn’t go much beyond looking at things and occasionally interacting. If the story doesn’t interest you, you’re left with nothing. There’s no interesting gameplay beyond the odd code input and incredibly light puzzles, which is a little disappointing. To use my earlier analogy, we are still looking over someone’s shoulder, only The Gap lets us control when to turn the pages. If that makes any sense.
Short & Bittersweet
The Gap does enough to make me like it, but it’s held back by the issue that plagues many of these narrative games: it can’t think of a way to insert interesting and challenging gameplay into the mix. The ideal narrative game is one that would have interesting gameplay that furthers the story. Most games seem to approach it from the other way around. The Gap‘s non-linear story makes strides in the right direction. It’s a poignant story too, with some heavy emotional notes, though it does get a little convulted right at the end as it begins tying together the threads. Without spoilers, the last fifteen minutes is basically Josh having a deep discussion with himself.
I came away with a positive feeling, though it must be said that The Gap is quite brutally short. My total playtime was about two and a half hours, which is a little on the short side for £17, especially as this isn’t a game you’re going to want to replay endlessly. Still, it’s one worth picking up if you’ve got the means. The story is an important one, that effectively grounds its more ‘out there’ elements. It can’t quite pair it with meaningful gameplay, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for narrative games.