I usually like games about making games. They’re an entertaining way to get inside a fellow developer’s head and take a look at what they think about the craft. Whether it’s full of loving care, irritated frustration, or those odd moments where you take a look at your job and realise the ridiculousness of it, getting to explore your own creative outlook on a meta-level can be an excellent experience – when done well. Unfortunately, Behind Closed Doors: A Developer’s Tale is not one of those games.
Ethan, our avatar, is an indie dev working for a small company on a new project. Every day he goes to work, tinkers away at the current version of the build, then returns home. For the full first half of the game… that’s it. Granted, this is a very short game – a fast playthrough comes in at under an hour. It’s a very bold decision, though, to create a half-hour opening sequence that gives very little, if any, by the way of a hook.
Every time a new day rolled around I expected to find the reason I ought to be playing this game, and every day, it didn’t show up. It’s not in his daily routine of getting ready for work. It’s nowhere to be found in the studio. It’s not even in his flat interactions with his generic pregnant wife. The writing in general, while a minor component of the game, is a particularly low point. I know that writing dialogue is difficult, but the lines in Behind Closed Doors smack of either extreme inexperience or a dire lack of re-drafting.
There’s little of interest in the way of gameplay, either. While Ethan is at home, it’s basic point-and-click exploration, quickly exhausted within the first ten minutes of play. If paired with fun characters and interesting dialogue then this could make for an acceptable introduction. Given that this is missing, however, we end up with nothing more than a dull routine. A charitable reading of it would be that it’s supposed to be dull, to emphasise the drudgery and routine that Ethan is trapped in. It’s not a convincing interpretation.
So, that’s home. What about work? Ethan’s daily commute results in a little more exploration at the office and some shallow interactions with his co-workers. The gameplay changes a little once he gets to his computer. There are a few emails to respond to (from irate, snarky players – where, surprisingly, satisfyingly, you get to reply with equal snark) and then it’s time to work on Ethan’s game. I hoped to see an interesting building mechanic here, or perhaps something that highlighted the everyday un-sexy side of game development, but no. The ‘coding’ ended up being nothing more than repeatedly mashing A until the text had finished generating.
Things do get more interesting once Ethan is actually testing his game, the first of several minigame-style interludes – this one being platformer level that gets more complex as the week goes on. A welcome change, if the controls here weren’t so fiddly and the level itself so frustrating. While Behind Closed Doors is a short game, a disproportionate amount of time was spent just trying to clear this level. Time that certainly didn’t feel worth it. A deliberate choice to make it not fun? Something to highlight the cycles of iteration real games go through? Again, I’m unconvinced.
The story takes a strange turn in the second half. Ethan skips an office party and instead is pulled into a strange gamified otherworld. Here he has to complete a range of drawn-out bullet hells and more platformer levels to find a way home. The pacing doesn’t improve, and neither does the feel of the gameplay. Very little of it matches up. There’s no sense of cohesion between the levels, and the ending they lead to is just as arbitrary and unsatisfying.
There is some potential in Behind Closed Doors: A Developer’s Tale. The concept and core atmosphere of frustration could, with a lot of additional polish, become a snappy exploration of the claustrophobia of corporate game development. But it needs a lot of polish to get there. In its current published state, Behind Closed Doors feels like a rushed first draft. A great deal of it needs tightening up, redrafting, and playtesting for it to feel worth the playtime.
Keep the part about sending snarky emails to rude players, though. A lot of devs will appreciate that.
Behind Closed Doors: A Developer’s Tale is on the Xbox Store