Narrative games are getting more and more complex nowadays, and they’re starting to draw on facets or styles of other mediums to assist in telling their stories. The results are fascinating amalgams of well-known tropes and the still burgeoning styles of video game storytelling. 4PM is the graduate project from a student of the National Film and TV School. The creator, Bojan Brbora, wanted to combine his knowledge of cinematography with the interactive nature of a video game, and so he made 4PM, a fairly minimalist game.
In 4PM, you control Caroline, an extreme alcoholic. You appear to be constantly drunk, which the game illustrates rather effectively through blurred vision and slow, almost stumbling movement. Taken together with the very limited interface, the game often feels more like you’re simply controlling a person, rather than a character. This is further reinforced by the rather mundane tasks you go through in the first part of the game — you wake up, wander around your apartment, quickly get dressed when you realize you’re late for work, and call a cab. There are only a few locations in the game, and each scene is typically denoted by a time of day and a specific location — 11PM for the cab ride, or 3PM for the final scene, for example. On top of serving as effective scene changes, they are also functional, since you can jump to each segment of time from the main menu.
The graphics are probably the only thing about the game that bothered me. Specifically, the character models. The game has a very earnest, interesting story, but none of the character models can quite match that. That said, I understand the models; this is a student project, not a AAA game, so expecting something on the level of, say, LA Noire, would be a little unfair. But it is disconcerting when, during that final emotional scene, I can see through hair to a character’s entire scalp, or the rails that are supposed to be framing a face, rather than being seen as dull shadows in your hair. 4PM‘s graphics work for it though, despite not requiring a Titan video card to run.
Music and narrative are where this game shine. Musically, there isn’t a ton going on, but all of the music fits and enhances the moods of the various scenes, which is the point of incidental music. The only strange occurrence comes at the end of the game, where it launches into a curiously ominous piece. It’s not that it doesn’t work in that context — it does — but it’s more that it felt very abrupt, and like there could have been slightly better music to convey the feeling of the scene.
And finally, we have the actual narrative, which is what 4PM is all about. Most games — even visual novels/adventure games/walking simulators/whatever you want to call this new kind of narrative-focused game — don’t take on very realistic subjects. For all of its brilliance, The Stanley Parable was lampooning video game tropes, and Thomas Was Alone was about AI, which are hardly pressing issues that people deal with daily (not that we won’t deal with AI some time soon, nor are adventure game tropes technically unreal).
Alcoholism is a serious issue that plenty of people suffer from, and so this short game — and it is short, only 40 minutes at most — is pumping quite a bit of weight into not a lot. What it ends up looking like is a very interesting short story, told with three endings (I only found three, I could be wrong?). What’s particularly cool about it is that you could see this game working as a written story, but, simultaneously, you would lose a bit of the story — specifically the branching ending — if it had been made as anything else. In other words, it ends up highlighting what video games can do that other, more static mediums can’t. My only real complaint about 4PM’s story is that it feels too short. I don’t mean from the simple “game was too short” perspective, but that the narrative could have been fleshed out a little bit more, to give the final choices a bit of extra impact. Still, the symbolism the game uses is clever, and a few very nice details make the game’s narrative very solid.
4PM is a game to enjoy, ponder, and replay, to try and fix things — which is, of course the point. You just want to fix things. But maybe not today.