Since the early days of our favorite hobby, video games have been used as an interactive way to tell stories, and with the invention of the "walking simulator," we've been able to experience storytelling through games that just wouldn't be as impactful if it were a film or book. Detroit 1995 is the perfect example of the less is more ethos that narrative-driven games can take to be impactful and respect your time. Detroit 1995 is a game made by a small team of students from the University of Southern California's game development programs and was featured in this year's USC Games Expo. So why exactly is Detroit 1995, in my opinion, worth spending the 10 or 15 minutes it will take to finish?
Detroit 1995 is a game that can be classified as a "walking simulator," but after playing it and talking to the game's lead designer and artist Dan Qiao, I was able to learn why this short story is so meaningful and full of heart. In a brief chat with her, I was told that the main theme of the game is learning to move on and, ultimately, let go. As you progress through Detroit 1995's short vignettes, you get to see your childhood house go from a happy idealistic summertime habitat, to a run down shadow of itself, and finally, a warm and welcoming home for another family during Christmas. The gameplay is simple and doesn't require too much effort to finish, but I found myself playing through a second time and feeling a full range of emotions thanks to the well-paced levels and lack of dialogue or text.
"The story in Detroit 1995 is very personal to me," claimed Qiao, "...and we decided to use Detroit as the backdrop so Americans can identify with the story better since I grew up in China." During the interview she told me that the main inspiration for the game came from her personal experience growing up during the recession and seeing people lose their houses and how they changed over time. The personal attention from the small team of three really shows in how Detroit 1995 brilliantly captures the feeling of living, leaving, and returning to the home you grew up in without needing to rely on exposition or a named protagonist.
Detroit 1995 was part of the USC Games Expo, and like many of the other projects featured, this was made by an extremely small team in a short window.
"We made the game in a little over two weeks...but the smaller team and short amount of time really helped us keep our priorities in check," Qiao said. "It wasn't easy though, shout out to the team."
When asked about this year's shift from a physical showcase to a fully digital show, Qiao told me that her and the rest of her team, Rong Deng and Lingxiao Wang, were thrilled to have strangers play the game and give their own unique insight. "I think its a really new experience," she said.
Detroit 1995 is part of this year's USC Games Expo, and due to ongoing events with COVID-19 the show had to go fully online. You can play the game here on PC for free alongside 49 other titles that are worth checking out.