Monthly Archives: February 2015

February 27, 2015

Shadowgrounds: Survivor (2007)

Shadowgrounds: Survivor
developed by Frozenbyte (Helsinki, Finland)
first published November 14, 2007 (online) by Meridian4, for Windows, $19.99
~1 GB

Attempted to play for >1 hour, 2/26/15.

The third of the four-or-so “Humble Frozenbyte Bundle” games, as included in the “Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle” that I bought on September 30, 2011.

I can’t get Shadowgrounds: Survivor to work.

It shows me the intro, and then at the point seen at the 1:00 mark in the video above, it freezes the entire computer, forcing me to power down. Freezes the entire computer! That’s some serious crashing.

It seems from the Steam and Frozenbyte forums alike that there are wide variety of crash problems associated with this game. I followed the official FAQ advice: installing various things it thought it might need, then reinstalling the game, then validating the downloaded files, etc. etc., at each stage of which I was encouraged to try it out anew. I got to see my computer freeze to death four more times. After a while I feel like a sucker. Fool me once, shame on, shame on you, fool me, you can’t get fooled again.

Okay then! I’m not gonna run at this football anymore without a signed document.

I’ll type up the credits here if I ever play the game. Be sure to check this entry every day for the rest of time, to see if I came back and played the game after all!

February 26, 2015

Shadowgrounds (2005)

Shadowgrounds-manualcover Shadowgrounds-UScover
developed by Frozenbyte (Helsinki, Finland)
first published November 4, 2005 by dtp entertainment (Germany/Austria/Switzerland) & November 9, 2005 by Plan 1 (Finland), for Windows, €29.99
first published in the US April 25, 2006, by Meridian4, for Windows, $29.99
~800 MB

Played to point of exasperation in 2.5 hrs, 2/15/15–2/24/15.

The second of four-or-so “Humble Frozenbyte Bundle” games, as included in the “Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle” that I bought on September 30, 2011. (Actually, it was the third in the pictured order — which I’ve been taking for the order in my spreadsheet because why not — but the second was its sequel, so naturally I’m playing the original first.)

The whole “in space no one can hear you scream” ambiance of Alien works on me: it’s unnerving! So I don’t really understand Alien-head fans who obsessively return to that environment like it’s a clubhouse — not just to have that particular nightmare but for other kinds of fun too. Such as this game, which puts on the whole Alien show like it’s just one of the pre-installed desktop themes, like ‘Autumn’ and ‘Brushed Steel.’

I mean, in the world of pop culture clearly it is just one of the pre-installed themes; this thing that I’m claiming to find bewildering is a very very old phenomenon, basically going all the way back to the 1979 release of Alien. The influence of Alien on videogames is, I daresay, second only to the influence of Tolkien. (I dared say it but I didn’t think too hard about it so feel free to knock that down in the comments.)

I further will note that I am perfectly sympathetic to the idea that “a haunted house” can be a fun place to have a birthday party or play checkers or whatever, so why not Alien?

I see haunted houses as representing the stratum of fear implicit in all houses; a haunted house is the shadow side of the good feeling of home, and it secretly brings some of that good feeling along with it. What is the good feeling that casts Alien as its shadow? I guess something similar, some kind of cozy snowed-in feeling, which I suppose I can get behind. But the presence of the organic-nausea Giger stuff spoils that for me. Flesh and sex are not good things to be afraid of! I get disturbed by “body horror” elements in movies and games not so much because they are close to home for me personally, but because they feel like being inside someone else’s dysfunction, and I am scared of the threat other people may pose to me if they are addled by such stuff. The thought of H.R. Giger himself is far creepier than any alien.

The game started out kind of engaging, despite the completely schlocky/campy writing, acting, and animation. The shadows and sense of foreboding were effective enough to make me want to walk around and fix the panel, get the keycard, shoot the bugs, whatever. But after about an hour of play it had become clear that as far as dramatic vision went, that was nearly all there was going to be: despite the ostensible storyline, the game was mostly going to consist of occasional new weapons and occasional new enemies to match. As I’ve said repeatedly, the “buy upgrades” paradigm is of no interest to me; neither is ammo-rationing. Nonetheless I was still willing to stay the course and play it all through, just to get the benefit of one more game’s particular offering of flow-state reverie.

That plan, however, is contingent on a game being a reliable collaborator in the effort to maintain the flow state, which this game proved not to be.

The character movement is just a tad clumsy, such that my guy would often get accidentally pinned to some detail in the environment, the corner of a crate or something, while trying to back away from the oncoming hordes of identical aliens, and get mauled. This alone is frustrating enough, given that shooting it out with aliens is the game. But worse is that the game has no proper save mechanism — it lets you die up to 5 times while trying to finish a level, but die one more time and you’ll have to start it over from the beginning. Each level is about 30 to 45 minutes long, which means that if you are near the end of a level and die that sixth time, you are being rather severely punished. Any new content is hereby withheld until you go back and do another half-hour’s service to this stupid game.

Like I said a few entries ago, I want to learn my lessons while moving continuously forward. There’s a hateful mindset out there that would call such an attitude “spoiled” or “entitled,” but I see it as enlightened about the true nature of practice and learning, which is that they are a continuous progression. If a video game is supposed to be a potted hero’s journey, that journey shouldn’t be the onscreen character’s but mine, the player’s, in which everything I do is moving me further toward my goal. So what kind of aesthetic sense does it make for my journey to consist of watching my avatar reenact the same piece of the narrative over and over?

When the impediment in the game is a puzzle, my state of stumped-ness contains its own hidden forward motion, as I mentally work my way toward a solution. But when the impediment in the game is having my character’s physical progress stolen out from under my feet because I didn’t do it well enough, that’s the game admitting that the narrative journey in the game really has no intrinsic relationship to the player’s journey. Being punished for exposing this fact has a kind of petulant tyranny to it: “No! no! no!, that’s not how you’re supposed to play this game! The way this works is, by this point, you’re good enough to defeat this boss, and it’s satisfying. But you screwed up the plan, so go back and do it again, my way!”

(Such petulance is implicit in schoolteacherdom, when students are chastised for having failed to learn from the teacher who is doing the chastising. “No! no! no!, that’s not how this is supposed to work! The way this works is, I’m a great teacher, and then you know the material! But you screwed up the plan, so go back and do it again, my way!”)

Anyway, you can imagine what all this is getting at: Near the end of level four, I found that I’d died my final death and was faced with the choice between repeating an already-indifferent 30 minutes of this game I don’t care about or particularly enjoy, or just declaring the game dumb. (I meant to type “done” just now, but this way works too.) I was in no rush to decide so I figured I’d let the matter sit for a few days.

Somewhere in that time I read online that the game had a “twist ending,” so I figured, fine, I’d just suffer the repetition and push forward to see that ending. However, during the interval, the laptop computer on which I’d been playing had to be commandeered for other purposes and ended up being taken far away from me, thus making it impossible for me to continue from the same savegame. Having already steeled myself for boredom, I was able to accept that fate had sent me back to the start of the whole game — fate, which has none of the petulance of a schoolteacher and so doesn’t offend me — and so I just began again on another computer. I figured I could be back to the place I’d died in level four, and on my way forward into the rest of the game, within 90 minutes.

However. After about 45 minutes of play, I had reached the end of level two; while the screen was showing the loading screen for level three, I closed the game and took a break. A few hours later, upon returning and starting it up again, I found that apparently, since I had not actually entered level three, my game had been saved with level two considered to be incomplete, and so I would have to do that level all over from the beginning yet again.

Just to be clear: this is not how games should work.

So that was the last straw. Especially considering that the next game at bat is the sequel and appears to be more of exactly the same. I don’t need this!

The game has its charm, but so do literally thousands of games out there. In such a landscape, there’s no reason to settle for masochism if it’s not my bag, and I’m proud to say it’s less my bag than it’s been in a while.

Compiling all the links and release data and whatnot for these entries is masochistic enough for me, thanks!

I read what the twist ending is, and then watched it on Youtube. The attacking alien monsters actually came to save humanity, by preventing us from using a weapon that unbeknownst to us would have destroyed the entire solar system. Think of that!

Now none of you need to play either. You’re welcome.

Most of the same Finns as last time.

Lauri Hyvärinen: project lead
Juha Hiekkamäki, Jukka Kokkonen: programmers
Ilkka Kuusela: cinematics/scripting/writer
Joel Kinnunen: writer
Ari Pulkkinen: composer/sound designer/writer
Timo Maaranen: lead artist
Tero Rickström: level design

February 24, 2015

70. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

2000: 070 box 1 2012: 070 box 2

directed by Martin Scorsese
screenplay by Paul Schrader
based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (ο τελευταίος πειρασμός, 1953; translated by Peter A. Bien as The Last Temptation of Christ, 1960)

Criterion #70.

Historical Jesus is a movie I’ve always wanted to see. As I imagine it, it’ll be a movie with a strong sense of place, something that puts the man’s life in familiar human terms. Something that offers me the sensation of recognition: ah, I get it, I feel it now. As things stand, my sympathy for Jesus, and for all the supporting players in his story, is still only roughly sketched, with just a few points of color. I want some skilled artist to come fill in the detail. Sometimes we know exactly what art we could use; I feel certain that I could use some non-Christian art about Christ.

So I had very high hopes for this. I realized that it was going to be more essentially poetical than Historical Jesus, the movie in my head, but I was led to understand it was still going to be about Jesus as a recognizable human being, about the story of Jesus as the story of a man’s struggle with real circumstances.

Reader, I had been misled. I realize that false expectations are a bad reason to dislike a movie… but I cannot tell a lie. I found the film bewildering in the watching, unsatisfying in retrospect, unsuccessful in the ultimate analysis.

The Last Temptation of Christ is not about a man who happens to be Jesus. It is about a man… who turns out to be JESUS!!!

The spiritual struggle it depicts is encapsulated in those exclamation points. OMG: The Movie.

It may sound like I’m making a highly nuanced (or petty) distinction, but as a non-Christian I can say that it is for me an immediate and unavoidable difference. An ordinary man’s struggle to be a prophet of love is a universally valuable subject for a movie. A man’s struggle to come to terms with being THE CHOSEN ONE, AND NOT JUST ANY CHOSEN ONE, BUT THE BIG ONE! CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE!?!? is only to be distinguished from Harry Potter to the degree that one is already a member of the fan club.

I do not pay regular dues to this particular fan club. I can respect it from a distance. But this was not a movie for mere spectators. It thought it was, but it wasn’t. If you don’t already feel the epic weight coming from your offscreen beliefs, what’s onscreen doesn’t really make sense.

I was bewildered, rather than just bored, because it so closely mimicked the movie I wanted it to be, and I was doing my darnedest to play along. We get a gradual progression: from Jesus in fearful denial of his spiritual calling to Jesus as increasingly bold spiritual leader. Well, I had come to the movie expecting exactly that! I figure the “voice of God” is a kind of psychological experience, and in any case metaphor can overlap with the supernatural. I was ready to work with that!

But every scene or two, the movie would shake me off: Nope, he’s explicitly doing non-metaphorical miracles. Nope, he’s explicitly not arriving at these thoughts by himself, just delivering them from on high. Nope, the disciples aren’t following him because he has something to offer them, they’re following him because they can sense that he’s Jesus Christ! Or something!

The awkward relationship between the “human” and the “superhuman” storytelling constantly leaves gaps in the sense, which the viewer has no choice but to fill with “or something!” Perhaps a sufficiently Christian viewer can convince him/herself that this is The Holy “Or Something,” the sacred mystery. Once you’ve committed to sanctifying your experience of The Bible, an incredibly esoteric archaeological text, then obscurities and inscrutability become part of the package of spiritual experience. This movie’s gaps and paradoxes can just be folded into the great awe.

But what we’re dealing with here is not a thousand-year-old palimpsest; it is, like Big, a movie from 1988, and so has no reason not to be clear and feel right. It just doesn’t feel right. I spent the whole movie sagging uncomfortably in the gaps. The characters relate to each other neither familiarly nor epically; the actors are all trying to split some unsplittable difference. The camera looks around with solemnity but not conviction. The few showy gestures feel overassertive; the rest feels underassertive. What goes on is mostly loose, watery.

The movie is two-and-a-half hours of hearty whole wheat dough, uncooked and sticky. Maybe a taste, sure, but eating an entire batch of uncooked dough is inadvisable, and this is a big batch.

And I can’t help but feel that the filmmakers kind of knew that they were getting away with something they didn’t understand, hiding behind poetry instead of inhabiting it. Making cohesive statements about profound spiritual matters is perfectly possible; this movie, with all its dreams and visions and riddles, and no solid ground, seems like kind of a phony.

Then again, the spiritual is never objective; what genuinely sustains Martin Scorsese might naturally seem absurd to me. Movies capture whole frameworks of reality, and peering into another man’s spiritual framework is always a strange experience. The core of spirituality is always so obviously something biographical: an image from elsewhere in life that happens to have been infused with that stained-glass feeling. In Mel Gibson’s mind, corporal punishment is carried out endlessly. In Carl Theodor Dreyer’s mind, a weeping innocent is surrounded by glowering faces. In Martin Scorsese’s mind, gruff men with New York accents argue inscrutably. I believe it.

They really do all talk with New York accents; the whole movie is like some kind of strange stunt casting. “Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot” is as bizarre and unconvincing in practice as it sounds on the page. The film climaxes with a standard mob-movie scene: Jesus (having been tempted to accept the life of an ordinary man) lies in his false deathbed and receives surprise visitors from the good old days, the apostles in age makeup. “What happened to you?” asks Jesus of Peter. “I got old,” he replies with a tough-guy smirk. “You got old,” repeats Jesus wistfully.

I have no doubt that this is all deliberate, and that Scorsese was aware of creating something extremely personal. But I think he didn’t realize that having gone so deep into his own private dream, there would be no turning back and claiming to have created anything of general religious significance. He should have gone all the way and had it take place in a half-Jerusalem, half-New York; be half the story of Christ and half the story of himself, or his father. (Or at least of Robert De Niro.) Like I said about Cocteau: only when the inward-turned gaze is completely unabashed does it finally become sympathetic. It is in the evasion of ultimate private emotions that art becomes irritating. The Last Testament of Christ feels brave to a point, but then evasive beyond.

All films are holy visions; all visions are holy. Jean Cocteau’s ego-films were no less spiritual than this. More spiritual, I’d say. So too is Taxi Driver. A strenuous effort to confront “the spiritual” head-on can be misleading, can distract the artist from himself. What we are really seeking, what is really spiritual, is always off to one side.

The theological crux (so to speak!) is in the notion that Jesus has to die on the cross: what does this “has to” mean? This question is basically at the heart of Christianity, right? Well, the movie does not address this question. It holds up the “has to” as a holy and terrible fact, and makes a great prolonged drama out of its consequences — the dangerous “last temptation” is the temptation to believe that he doesn’t “have to” — but it does not actually touch it or humanize it or explore it. It just is this way. He just has to. ‘Cause that’s what Lucy says.

Lucy’s the boss, so you’ve got to listen to Lucy!

Hm. The song is rather ominous, isn’t it.

Interpretive key: Simon (= Peter, apostle), is usurped by Lucy (= Lucifer). Lucy says, “I wanna be the queen of the world, yes I do.” Lucy says, “I want everything my way.” Lucy says, “I’m gonna be a beautiful girl, yes I am.” Which is the form he takes in the movie. Also as in the movie, Lucy tricks her followers by telling them they may put down their hands, rather than keeping them up on the cross. (Just look at them all posed like martyrs!) Ultimately Lucy betrays them all, even the prophet Linus (= Jesus), who gives in to the last temptation to run in place (= lead a mortal life of no eternal consequence), giving dominion of the earth back to the wild beasts.


This movie has the same ending as Brazil. (“Uh-uh I didn’t say Lucy says!”) If anything it’s even more toxic here.

Given the task at hand, Willem Dafoe does an admirable job, and after seeing Fishing with John I feel warmly toward him. But see above for all the reservations that his performance could not, or at least did not, overcome.

The photography is mostly handsome, though I had the clear sense that the filmmakers were out of their element and did not intuitively know how to look at the Moroccan landscape. Movies shot in California always look like they know exactly what they’re seeing and what it’s like to see it. Movies shot on exotic location sometimes have a bit of an uncertain eye. In image and substance, this movie felt like tourism. Dutiful tourism.

Or: like Scorsese’s very eager and conscientious eating of his spinach. He is a good boy and will eat it all, and really taste it, and care about it! Look how good he is: he’s eating it even when nobody asked him to! Even when no one really wants him to, in fact!

Conscientiousness is not an aesthetic virtue.

I watched the movie back in December, and drafted the above immediately after. (Except for the “Lucy Says” part — that I put in just now, in a different mood! Could you tell???)

The plan, as usual, was then to watch all the other stuff on the disc and add further comments down here. But boy, I really didn’t want to watch that stuff.

I mean, within a day or two I did watch the on-set footage, which I always enjoy, and I did enjoy it — especially seeing Martin Scorsese videotaping himself in the mirror with a bulky 80s VHS camera and musing, in his excitable way, “I wonder if that red blinking light means that it’s recording.” And then I flipped through a bunch of the “extensive collection of research materials, production stills, and costume designs,” but it was really quite like spinach-eating. After reading about 20 screens worth of dry summary of the archaeological record concerning crucifixion — simultaneously grim and tedious — I had to take a break.

Then a week or so after that, I watched half of the commentary (Scorsese, Dafoe, Paul Schrader, and uncredited actual screenwriter Jay Cocks). It was fine, I guess, but a little too vindicating of my assessment above. Scorsese says outright that he thinks the movie isn’t successful and represents a mistake on his part — that he understands now that his lifelong struggle to think about religious concepts actually gets in the way of his artistic spirituality, and so this movie is all a kind of barking up the wrong tree. Really, almost in so many words. Meanwhile Schrader and Cocks and Dafoe are all talking about the care and intelligence they tried to bring to this difficult, awkward assignment. That would be interesting to hear if I thought the assignment had been basically worthwhile. But I don’t, and the director is brave enough to admit that he doesn’t either.

So this really is just the “dutiful conscientiousness” show, which is the ultimate turn-off, and after a couple hours I turned it off. I then proceeded to delay and delay and delay watching the rest of the stuff on there (assigned to me by my own principles of dutiful conscientiousness)… to the point of renewing this library DVD every Monday for weeks on end, never touching it. Just now I went to the library website to click my weekly click, but instead of doing my bidding, it gave me a pop-up warning with a big red exclamation point: “TOO MANY RENEWALS.” Apparently there is a limit of 10.

Well, having reached this limit, I take it as a sign that I have sat out my sentence, done my due penance, and am no longer under obligation to watch the rest of this DVD. I may return it to the library and proceed on to Criterion #71. Woo-hoo!

Connection to the previous movie: audienceless vanity project in which a man searches for meaning in a barren landscape.

Oh right, I always mention the music with these. This movie has a charismatic score by Peter Gabriel that proved to be extremely influential in establishing the sound of what most subsequent “world music” pop/soundtrack borrowing would sound like. I’m pretty sure you can thank and blame Peter Gabriel for all movie scores with a drone, exotic keening, and propulsive drums. This tree he planted in 1989 would grow a thousand increasingly lame branches. There’d be no Lion King without Last Temptation; neither would there be any Jason Bourne et al. These days, what doesn’t sound like this?

That link goes to the opening track from the album-ified version of the Last Temptation score, but I couldn’t make it my official ripped selection because in the movie it doesn’t have a clean start or finish. So instead I’m offering up the end credits as our Track 70. (A shorter version with a different mix is titled “It Is Accomplished” on the album.) The “world” elements aren’t very prominent on this cue — it’s a fairly straight-up Peter Gabriel pop instrumental in “In Your Eyes” mode, bookended by some wild ululation.

What does any of this have to do with the movie? It’s exactly what it sounds like: yet another collaborator’s conscientious effort to make sense of Marty’s assignment about melding present-day feeling with the ancient setting. Since Peter Gabriel was just writing music, he didn’t have to specifically put JESUS with a capital JESUS into his contribution, so he comes out looking the best of any of them. There’s an interview with him on the disc, and some kind of gallery of the ethnic instruments, which I may or may not have flipped through. I suppose that interview might well be interesting.

But it has already been determined by the 10-week rule that I am done here and am moving on.

It is accomplished!


February 21, 2015

Trine (2009)

developed by Frozenbyte (Helsinki, Finland)
self-published July 2, 2009 for Windows, $29.99
[trailer 1, trailer 2, trailer 3, trailer 4]
~800 MB

Played to completion in 8.5 hrs, 2/9/15–2/11/15.

[video of a complete 5-hour playthrough (once again, disregard the captions!)]

The first of four-or-so “Humble Frozenbyte Bundle” games, as included in the “Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle” that I bought on September 30, 2011. (Finnish developers “Frozenbyte” and the game Frozen Synapse by UK developers “Mode 7” happen to have the word “frozen” in common. Is that why they were bundled together? Who knows. There is no other connection.)

From the trailers one sees clearly that in the eyes of the developers, the selling points are the physics and the freedom of approach. But those were exactly what I didn’t care about. “Physics” in games is going to be looked back on as an awkward techno-fad, like FMV was for years: it sounds cool in theory but in practice it just means that instead of interacting confidently with things that respond reliably, you’re struggling awkwardly with things that respond approximately. Great. And the freedom to choose your “play style” from among three different characters with different powers is meaningless to me. Like I’ve said, if I wanted freedom I wouldn’t be playing a video game! It might be interesting to watch different people play the same area different ways, but how is it interesting to be just one person and play the area just one arbitrary way among many? It’s not.

“Replay value” pssh. A book doesn’t have re-read value just because you can turn the pages from the top OR from the bottom; the value depends solely on the content. In a platforming game, you may think that the value can’t possibly be in the content because it’s so self-similar (another platform! more skeletons!) but nonetheless it is, at least to me. This is why I like platforming games, in fact: because they retain the simple imaginative core of their original 80s forebears, in that very slightly different arrangements of environmental elements are to be experienced as genuinely meaningful, emotionally distinct spaces. The fact that the world you traverse is so self-similar is in fact its essential mystique.

(Wouldn’t it only increase the weirdness if this kid passed the same stuff twice? This piece of animation is a proto-platformer, except of course for the denouement where he returns from whence he came, something that no platform game has yet been spiritually ready to attempt. Yeah, Braid made some gestures in that direction, but they were basically about oh-so-clever abuse of convention; I’m talking about a game that fully embraces that after one goes right for miles, one might well find oneself going back left. In these 30-some years of gamery, has there ever been any such game? Some “There and Back Again” adaptation of The Hobbit?)

Anyway, I didn’t care about the gameplay, nor did I care about the half-assed characters or dialogue (just as the developers clearly didn’t). It’s always the other stuff that makes a game: floaty time in a spacy nowhereland Lord of the Rings/Keebler elves world, lush with skeletons and candles and sunset haze. The vagueness of the stupid story is the story, to the player: this nowhere is where I am. Why and who and what are all cozily, expansively imprecise, lit with daydreamy sensuality. I’ll tell you where you are: the castle and the mine and the forest and the ruins and the lava. The standard catalog, the taster’s menu. (No desert and no ice on this particular outing, but there’s always Trine 2.)

Music is exactly in keeping. When Howard Shore squandered those movies on this kind of crypto-Celtic cotton candy, it was a damned shame, but now that it has come to be the foundation for a whole school of bullshit secondhand make-believe, there’s actually something almost sweet about it — so insincere you can get truly lost in it again, like all the hypnotically terrible Saturday morning cartoons of my youth. Don’t you feel drawn toward some deeper, calmer spiritual level of existence by the irredeemable disinterestedness of, say, this clip? Doesn’t it actually leave a wider gap through which to experience the mysterious under-surface of image and sound and imagination, the mystic truth, beyond the petty, meddling reach of human intention? I am 100% not joking.

(I seriously am finding that clip incredibly soothing because it defies my ability to attend. That wouldn’t have been true a year ago! I have struggled mightily to return to this point, heading to the left this time! Try to remember everything you passed, but when you go back, make the first thing the last! Behind your face, there is a place, and so forth. Hence my return to the Snorks.)

Anyway, Trine did sort of that kind of thing too. It was too stupid to see as stupid, so I saw it not at all and simply experienced the dreamlife of computer games. It helped that the whole game looks and sounds like it might take place under the covers with a flashlight. Who really cares what goes on? You jump and jump and jump, and draw a bunch of planks and boxes and shoot arrows and kill hundreds of identical Harryhausen skeletons. And keep shooting some kind of grappling rope thing and it doesn’t hook quite where you want and you fall. For 8 hours, under the most gratuitously luscious lights, through completely extravagant intricate 3D backgrounds of no functional significance whatever.

The 3D-for-2D thing was very familiar to me, from having already played Donkey Kong Country Returns and Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, both of which post-date this game (and at least the latter of which was pretty obviously influenced by its look). I think if nothing else, Trine was significant for really cementing the idea that even 2D games should invest heavily in flamboyant 3D settings.

And I have to agree: one way or another, looking around and feeling you’re really there in nowhereland is the point of these traveling games, so you can’t go wrong giving the player a ton of stuff to look at, no matter how silly and irrelevant.

This might sound like it goes against what I said back in Half-Life 2, that I don’t want to be in an tinsel look-but-don’t-touch reality. But it doesn’t! The important difference is that unlike in Half-Life 2, in Trine (et al.) there’s no chance of missing the forest for the trees because the trees are quite literally out of reach. You can’t get lost in the useless scenery behind it because you can’t stray even an inch toward it; that axis of movement is unknown to you. Even when there is very explicitly a rope bridge heading from your location off a cliff toward a platform in the far distance… sorry, you simply can’t go there! I dare you to try!

It is the extreme narrowness of your freedom that allows the surplus decor to be meaningful, and not confusing and discouraging. Narrowness of freedom is good in games.

Last July the developer re-released the game in a new, ahem, Enchanted Edition, free for anyone who already owned the game, which has even fancier, even mistier lighting, and seems to have had all the levels cleaned up graphically and otherwise. (Side-by-side comparison video.) When I first started it up, that’s the version I was playing. But I felt funny about that, like I feel funny about all after-the-fact Special Editions and Director’s Cuts and so forth. I want to play the thing that people loved so much in the first place, not the revised and repackaged thing made to cash in on that love. In most cases, contrary to the marketing, the revised thing is almost certain to be inferior. “Han shot first,” and all that. (It really bothers me that you can’t watch Yellow Submarine without “Hey Bulldog” anymore.)

So, even though it may well be that the Enchanted Edition is in fact superior, I played the original, non-enchanted edition of Trine.

Ah, but who cares? You’ve got me there.

A bunch of Finns made this.

Jukka Kokkonen: producer, programmer
Lauri Hyvärinen: design director
Kim Juntunen: gameplay/level designer
Joel Kinnunen: writer
Santtu Huotilainen: art director
Juha Hiekkamäki, Oskari Nyman: programmers
Ari “AriTunes” Pulkkinen: composer, sound designer

Plus maybe 10 more people, and four voice actors.

February 12, 2015

Frozen Synapse (2011)


Frozen Synapse
developed by Mode 7 Games (Oxford, UK)
pre-order/public beta first available April 19, 2010
self-published May 26, 2011 for Windows/Mac, $24.99
~230 MB

At time of posting: have played for 12 hours and completed 30 of 55 levels, 2/6/15–2/11/15. Will probably continue.

[7-minute video that gives a sense of what gameplay looks like]

The next event in my game purchasing history is the expenditure of $5.00 USD at 3:40 PM on September 30, 2011, for the “Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle,” which at the time of purchase consisted of: Frozen Synapse, TRAUMA, and for those who beat the average price (which my $5 did) the complete contents of a prior bundle, the “Humble Frozenbyte Bundle,” which had originally been offered in April 2011, containing: three full games, one “pre-order” for an upcoming game, and a playable prototype from an abandoned project. So depending on how you count that stuff, I got somewhere between five and seven games for my money. (And a few days later another game would be added retroactively.)

As I recall, I bought it mostly because I was interested in TRAUMA, which looked like my kind of thing. I played through it in a single sitting a little while later. It was more of an art piece than a game, kind of like a student short film. I was fine with that. Then secondarily, Frozen Synapse, which I hadn’t heard of before, looked pretty interesting. The rest seemed harmless; most of it has remained untouched.

I was tempted to write this the obsessive false-audience way, where I “tell you” about the game and “explain” what’s significant about it, but I’ve just cut and pasted that draft out into an .rtf file of oblivion that I keep around to make oblivion seem less cold and lonely. (“Oh hey, guys!” says the abandoned draft, finding itself with a lot of other abandoned drafts that I will never reread.)

The idea is supposed to be: if you wanna know about Frozen Synapse, go look it up. That should come easy to me, if I can just relax enough to go with the actual thoughts I have.

I watch a lot of YouTube videos where people represent themselves in various assumed authority voices. “Hello, and welcome to this video where I’ll be discussing…” There’s generally a cadence and even a timbre that goes with the phrasing, all imitative. “Well hello everybody!” In my ears, the sound is always of a kid playing at being the teacher or the TV announcer. I get sad when actual teachers and actual TV announcers sound like that.

Well, I used to get sad, anyway, but now I’m trying not to, because it turns out there’s way too much of it going on. I can’t afford to be sad about stuff like that; I’m surrounded.

The point is, “blog journalism” runs a distinct risk of being the same, a lot of make-believe (“Deet deet deet di-deet, we come to you now with a breaking report!”) that has come to believe it is an actual point of view. The part of me that wants to “explain Frozen Synapse and what’s so distinctive about it” to you (to “you”) is a compulsive phony part of me that thinks it has to save me from the lonely, soggy, weirdo subjectivity of my actual thoughts. Not so, not so.

Now here’s a game that isn’t soothing at all. I like it in a way that has nothing to do with the escapism of fantasy. I respect it. But it is exceedingly stressful. At least if you fear getting shot, like I do.

The constant pausing for computer-calculated moments of truth (“The shapeforms are deliberating” … “Scenario data is being assimilated” …) is what grinds one’s nerves. Ten seconds is a very rough interval to wait for a moment of truth: not long enough to recover one’s sense of equanimity; not short enough to remain in the flow of thought. “And the winner is… … …” Look at the faces of the nominees while the presenters are joking about how hard it is to open the envelope, oh I can’t do this you do it you have nails, oh but then who will say it? should I say it? am I supposed to say it? Should we say it together… Ha ha ha.

Now multiply that by hours upon hours of gameplay. That’s my Frozen Synapse experience!

Is this game too hard?

(I mean the single-player campaign; the multi-player is only as hard as your opponent is good. OCD Archivist, the part of my personality that assembles the data for the tops of these entries, here inserts his long nose to clarify my activities: “I actually played a fair amount of this game when I first got it, but head-to-head against a friend. I started the single-player campaign but found it comparatively unrewarding and unappealing, and didn’t get very far. These past few days I have played no multiplayer.” Thanks, OCD Archivist. Fare thee well, poor devil.)

There are a few levels that I played for nearly 2 hours apiece, failing over and over and over in scenarios that seemed designed to put me at a considerable disadvantage, gradually becoming ashamed: surely it’s not supposed to be this hard; I’m just impatient and inattentive and not very good at the game. Then when I finally succeeded, a sense of great accomplishment. But at what cost? Or rather: in what context?

The bubble wrap analogy. One wants a puzzle to pose a challenge that puts up a little resistance and then gives way. One wants to pop bubble wrap because it resists, then pops. If a bubble is so tough that it takes two and a half hours and an axe to pop it, is that more rewarding than an ordinary bubble, or is that a category error?

How much resistance creates satisfaction? It varies person to person. (Perhaps any affection for resistance is unenlightened. I put this in parentheses because it’s purely theoretical; fact is, I like games and puzzles.) I want my games to offer a certain choice amount of resistance, then relent. If something offers more than expected, that creates a certain kind of story, which can itself be satisfying. But it’s not inherently a more worthwhile story than if it offered less than expected. They’re both just stories, and as they get more extreme, they become unrewarding stories.

What I’m saying is that hard is not the boss of easy. Hard does not dress in ermine while easy wears rags. They’re identical cousins.

This game sure is hard!

A lot of computer games over the decades have wanted to be Millenium Falcon chess, a worldwide fantasy since at least 1977. Obviously, any stupid animated chess meets the basic requirements, but I like to think that Frozen Synapse, despite not having monsters or much in the way of animation, actually comes closer to the underlying fantasy: the players apply chess-like tactical turn-based play to a living animated world.

Or at least that was my understanding as a kid, since the claymation is unbroken, and manifests in all the monsters at once. Looking at it now, though, I see that they probably just meant most of the motion to be the breath of life in otherwise idle pieces, while single pieces alternate making chess-like grid moves. But you know how kids see what they see. I saw a continuous cartoon world that somehow was also a board game. How could that work? Frozen Synapse, finally, shows a way.

There is a cyberpunk story being sprayed all over your face while you play the single-player missions, where characters like “Nix” and “Belacqua” and “Soulsby” and “Shand” are constantly saying the names of fake stuff like “Enyo: Nomad” and “Markov Geist” and “Petrov’s Shard” and “Charon’s Palm.” At least one of those per line, truly. This is characteristic of unconfident or unpracticed writers: they think that by repeating the fake thing they give it body and reinforce it, make it less fake. Effectively the opposite is true.

A resident of The United States of America only very rarely has occasion to say “The United States of America.” Even a politician probably goes days without saying it. The residents of Markov Geist, on the other hand.

Just now watching that Star Wars clip I thought about the embarrassment that Harrison Ford must have had to overcome to say “Wookiee.”

This just goes to show how much more embarrassment there is left to drain from my system. So that I don’t end up like Harrison Ford.

I had played Frozen Synapse (which the UK developers pronounce “sigh-naps,” good lord) for about 7 hours when I decided it was probably time to crack open the next game. It’s not that I wanted to stop playing Frozen Synapse; I just wanted something less nail-biting and frustrating, something a little more welcoming, to be going at the same time.

A few days later and now I’ve already reached the end that next game, and Frozen Synapse still yawns on, with 25 more levels left in the campaign. If the 30 so far have taken me 12 hours, that’s gonna be 10 more hours of play. (Putting me, incidentally, right on par with‘s estimate of 21.5 hours.) Meanwhile, naturally, I want to post about this other game and move on to the next one still. And, just as naturally, I could never simply post about them in the order I finish them, because dammit that’s not how a checklist works. You check them in the order they’re listed!

Oh. Wait a minute. That is how a checklist works — you don’t have to check them in order.


Hence this entry. If I have more I simply have to say when I’ve reached the end, whenever that happens, I guess I’ll stick it in here somewhere. Maybe between these next two horizontals.


It’s a very good game, and, I think, an important one. If I had written the version of this entry where I explained why (“Hi-ho, Kermit the Frog here”), you’d know why.

The single-player campaign isn’t really the point, but it’s okay too. The AI is a worthy opponent.

Music sounds just like you’d expect for British cyberpunk thinking music. A little silly but gets the job done. Of course, given all the angst this game puts me through, I might prefer something a little more spacious and confident. The electronica sounds are all anxious sounds.

Colors are officially divided into warm and cold, and then less officially everything else is too. I feel like this is just a way of talking about the two zones of the mind: R is warm, L is cold. (A warm way of talking about it.) I know the game is Frozen Synapse and the composer probably had the word “cold” in mind while he was writing the music, but I feel like it’s cold in a further and more consequential sense, which is to say uptight, anxious. It’s not impossible to write warm music with cold sounds, warm music about cold problems.

Three people this time.

Ian Hardingham — concept/design/programming
Paul Taylor — production/art/writing/music/sound
Robin Cox — level design/testing

If you’re looking for it, the game does feel very British.

Computer games are a splendidly international form of culture, much moreso than books, TV, or movies. Of the twelve Humble Bundle 3 games that I ran down at the end of the last entry, we had USA x 5, UK x 2, Finland, Russia, Austria, Czech Republic, Canada. It’s like the Olympics out here. Or, perhaps more to the point, it’s like the internet. The question then becomes: why aren’t books, TV, and movies more like the internet in their internationality? I think we’re headed in that direction, just slowly. American movies are already very likely to farm their special effects to foreign countries; somewhat less likely to co-produce with foreign countries; still less likely to simply be imported movies that were fully produced in foreign countries. But it’s gradually trickling up, I think.

February 6, 2015

Atom Zombie Smasher (2011)

Atom Zombie Smasher
developed by Blendo Games (Culver City, CA)
self-published January 23, 2011 for Windows/Mac/Linux, $15.00
28 MB

Played until having completed (but lost) one full campaign, in 3.5 hours, 2/5/15–2/6/15.

[1.5 hr video of a successful campaign, in 4 segments, with commentary.]

By the end of Wednesday, August 3, 2011, my “Humble Indie Bundle #3” purchase contained eleven games (six of which I’ve just posted entries about). On Friday 8/5/11, Atom Zombie Smasher was added to the bundle, bringing the total to twelve.

Hey, he likes it! I liked it. Even though I lost and didn’t want to play again right away. It’s only 28 MB; it’s no problem to just keep it around and play again if the whim strikes me. 28 MB is the smallest game I’ve played so far (in this streak I’m on), and definitely the most value-per-byte. (I would say Steel Storm, at 930 MB, offered the least value per byte.)

Obviously, it’s no problem to just play anything when the whim strikes me, because this stuff is all on my permanent accounts with Steam and Humble Bundle and GOG and wherever. But I still think of local files as being more truly in hand than cloudborne files; and I also can’t help but think about hard drive space in miserly terms, even though all our computers have terabytes worth of space just sitting open. I still feel like I’m talking Star Trek talk to even refer to “terabytes.”

I had started up this game a couple years ago and managed only about 15 minutes of displeasure before I wrote it off. This time I was just as quickly put off, but soldiered through for a full hour. It didn’t help. I considered just stopping there, but I knew that I hadn’t really gotten my head around the real sense of it yet. Watching YouTube videos of people playing (like the one linked above) is what finally got me to understand what kind of a game this was.

This is a problem with the design! In retrospect I see it’s actually a very superficial problem, but to me it’s a serious one: there is way too much whimsical window dressing. The in-game help, which is supposed to explain what’s going on to those who don’t know yet, is all cuted up with ambiance in a way that makes it completely ineffective. I understood immediately that a lot of what I was looking at was mere decor, but that doesn’t mean I understood immediately which part was which; the task of sifting through it was pretty significant.

For example, when a game event occurs that I would implement as “YOU GOT A NEW UNIT: SNIPERS! Click to continue”…

…what actually happens is text pops up that says “REWARD: MERCENARY” and then an image of a piece of paper appears onscreen that says e.g. “NUEVOS AIRES MERCENARY CONTRACT / Department of Hearts & Minds / Contract 1 of 7 / 430 Wrath Plunders / Snipers. Long-range sharpshooters. / CLICK HERE TO RENAME / IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the parties hereto have executed this Contract to the Agreement for mercenary services. / _____ / broom” where “430 Wrath Plunders” is by far the largest text. (This example taken from the guy’s video, though it’s blurry.)

It turns out that “430 Wrath Plunders” is only prominent for cutesy reasons: it’s just an arbitrary generated name for the unit of snipers, of no significance whatsoever to gameplay, and “CLICK HERE TO RENAME” is just inviting you to replace it with your own cutesy inconsequential name. The rest of the text is just performance of the game-world premise that the player’s units are mercenaries working under contract to fight a zombie plague in some vaguely South American country. Clicking on the blank line will animate a scribbled signature and thus function as “click to continue.”

That’s not so bad, you might say, but this is just one example; every aspect of the game has been “skinned” this way, with real information couched in joke information. (And then there are occasional comic-book style vignettes that are a skin for nothing, and in fact barely even have to do with the game’s premise: they’re just whimsy.) Once one knows the ropes and is playing fluently, all that skin for the underlying game becomes transparent, and in its transparency starts to function the way it’s intended to, as flavor and atmosphere. But to a newcomer, all that stuff seems like genuine confusion about purpose, like the game has been eaten up by its style.

This is the essence of design as a discipline: how to put appearance and function in sympathy with one another, rather than at odds. It’s fine that Atom Zombie Smasher has some goofy story/aesthetic ideas, but I didn’t like that figuring out how it all fit together was up to me. Or up to the people on YouTube who somehow figured it out for themselves.

Once again, I’ll grant that maybe this was only hard for me because of my deeper gaming proclivities. To wit: I don’t enjoy games based on catalogs/leveling up/experience points. (You’ve heard it here before and you’ll hear it here again, a lot.) I think what happened with me and this game was that my blindness to the “sense” of that very basic gaming concept also blinded me to the sense of the way it had been decorated.

Why don’t I get “leveling up”? To me, “leveling up” feels like I’m being patronized and bullshitted; a game tries to give me the experience of getting better at something without having to actually get better at anything. “Oh, you earned the mega-cannon! You’ve gradually climbed your way to being really powerful!” But I don’t want to watch my avatar “get better” at things: I want to actually get better at them myself. Games where you get more and more stuff (but so does the enemy) feel like some kind of Escher staircase, for people addicted to the idea of going up up up, who nonetheless expect their level of struggle to remain the same, or, if anything, increase, as their supposed power rises. This feels terribly wrong to me! Expecting to struggle constantly while getting fancier and fancier medals is an unhealthy ideology! Greater experience creates greater ease, and it’s not doled out from on high; it’s accrued in the form of experience. I guess I don’t like experience points because “experience” is something that a game is perfectly capable of actually providing; it doesn’t need to be modeled.

That’s why I like puzzle games. They get harder and harder for real, and the player has to get better and better for real.

What leveling up and experience points and whatnot actually resemble is finance. The more money you have, the bigger the scale of both your opportunity and your risk. It’s a kind of geometric growth rather than the linear kind that makes sense to me. I don’t like to think of myself that way; in fact I kind of find it nauseating to think about my self and my world remaining the same while at the same time everything “scales” around me. It’s like a dolly zoom (of Vertigo & Jaws fame); it makes me feel wrong. And yet for many people it’s clearly their bread and butter; they fantasize it in games and live it in their businesses and finances. And my fear of such things has obviously put me at a real-life disadvantage. So I think it would probably be for the best for me to learn to love RPGs and other fantasies of scaling up.

But what can I say: it runs really deep. It goes down to the very core of my psychology, it feels like. Why am I like this? I don’t know. I’m also learning that knowing why is never really that important.

This isn’t really one of those games, it just has that stuff in it. I guess “real-time strategy” is the genre, but who cares about genres. The overarching campaign plays sort of like a board game — you vs. zombies on a Risk-type map — and then each turn consists of a city grid: set up whatever weapons you’re allotted, and try to airlift out the innocent yellow dots before they get touched by the purple zombie dots and turn into purple zombie dots themselves. The infectious chain-reation nature of zombie-ism is the most interesting game element — once you’ve herded the innocents together, the whole cluster will be lost in an instant if even a single zombie reaches them — but there are several good ideas here working in sync. I got it; I liked it. The strategy board-game playing part of my brain turned on.

I lost because it’s very hard. You can’t really afford to have even a single bad turn. I tried hard to hold myself to a very high standard in the first half so that I’d have a chance of holding out to the end (which is why my game took nearly 3 hours) but eventually realized the standard needed to be even higher. Final score was 5333 to 6000. That I blame my own skill (and not the game’s many, many elements of cruel luck) is a compliment to the integrity of the game. It’s good! But don’t try to figure it out by yourself, because it’s unhelpful. Watch people play it on YouTube.

On which subject, isn’t learning how to play games a drag? For videogames, I admire the intentions of the in-game tutorial approach, as gradually standardized over the past 20 years, but it has the drawback of making the initial stages of the game kind of asinine, such that the real gameplay design doesn’t get underway for an hour or more, sometimes, which can be itself kind of discouraging (“So everything up until now was all tutorial? But I thought that was what the game was like!”). And a lot of game designs can’t be broken down into constituent layers, such that if you learn layer one and then add layer two and then three, etc. etc., you will eventually build up to the gameplay proper; the best gameplay tends to exist as an interlocking unit, not a layered stack.

There can be no in-game tutorials for board games, of course, and don’t we all agree there’s always been something humiliatingly wrong with the pedagogy of instruction-manual reading? The natural way to understand a game is to learn it like learning a language: watch other people play it for a while and come to understand not just what they do but the spirit in which they do it. YouTube is good for this, though of course one would rather emulate nice, pleasant, intelligent people.

I saw that some new board games come with links to YouTube tutorials, which seems like a cool idea. The idea of a perfect video nugget of education, such that nobody could watch it without coming to understand something as intricate as a game, is exciting to me. I don’t think such a thing is possible, but I still like to muse about how one might get close to that ideal.

Have I gone far enough off topic?

The window dressing in Atom Zombie Smasher is some kind of deliberately obscure/wacky cold war 1961 South America comic-strip absurdist pseudo-political-satire thing, accompanied by surf guitar. I got kind of a wannabe Glen Baxter vibe. It’s sort of dry, sort of pointless, sort of self-indulgent. It turns out surf guitar isn’t a bad match for this kind of play. I’ll give the guy points for dumping his own idiosyncratic blend of stuffola in the mixing bowl, though I’m not sure it baked into anything. Still, I’d rather half-baked geeko-hipster quirk than half-baked mainstream comic book crap, any day. No contest.

This game was made by just one guy, Brendon Chung. This time I can believe it; the scope of the game seems about right for one guy working for 3 years or so.

Let me here wrap up by saying that Humble Indie Bundle #3 was $5 very well spent.

Out of 5:
Crayon Physics Deluxe: 2
Cogs: 3
Hammerfight: 3
And Yet It Moves: 3
Steel Storm: Burning Retribution: 1
Braid: 5
Cortex Command: 2
Machinarium: 5
Osmos: 4
Revenge of the Titans: 3
Atom Zombie Smasher: 3

Hey, where’s a good game recommendation engine I can plug this stuff into? I really do believe the Netflix engine gets things right, so I have faith in the concept. But I’ve never had that kind of success with anything else. Googling about it now. I’ll let you know if I find anything good.

February 5, 2015

Revenge of the Titans (2010–11)


Revenge of the Titans
developed by Puppy Games (London, England, UK)
first public beta released May 24, 2010; self-published March 16, 2011, for Windows/Mac/Linux, $27.72 (about the pricing)
~350 MB

Played until deciding to move on, having completed 29 of 50 levels, in 4 hours, 1/30/15–2/4/15.

[Video of a complete 5.5 hr playthrough, in 50 segments (one per level)]

Fifth of the five “Humble Indie Bundle 2″ games retroactively added to my “Humble Indie Bundle 3″ purchase on August 3, 2011.

A nice sturdy sort of indie game: not too flimsy, not too vain.

Genre hybrid: “tower defense” plus “real-time strategy” (or “a tower defense game with RTS elements” or “an RTS game disguised as a tower defense game”). But this, the customary way of describing games, is just a needless commitment to categorization (a tendency characteristic of the gamer mind). All cultural development is recombination, reshuffling of what exists; anything new descends from what’s old. The question is what it has descended to be. The game is interested in being itself, and I am interested in playing it as itself.

Also I have no long history with either the “tower defense” or “RTS” genres, so I have no natural inclination to evaluate this particular game that way.

On the other hand, sometimes that kind of thinking drives the development process, and when I step down from my throne of neutrality and ask questions like “but why is this supposed to be fun?”, they can only be answered by tracing the genetic lines of descent: “because it’s a tower defense game with RTS elements!”

My attitude is: if I have to know the thing’s ancestry to like the thing, there’s something lacking about the thing.

But that’s a digression (mostly), because Revenge of the Titans makes its own kind of sense (mostly). The look and feel have been crafted with care, and the gameplay rests pretty comfortably inside that aesthetic shell.

At first glance you might say this is visually “retro pixel-art,” but I’d say it’s something more durable, less nostalgist than “retro.” It’s art independently governed by the same aesthetic ideas explored in the pixel era: implicit orthogonal order, the reassurances of brick-like abstraction. Are Legos “pixel-art”? Are alphabet blocks? Moorish tessellations? Ancient mosaics? Yes and no.

Of course, on top of that, Revenge of the Titans is in fact passed through a layer of genuine low-resolution pixelization, which is hard to explain as anything other than nostalgia. But on my screen it hardly registered. The diagonals didn’t seem particularly jagged to me; had they been high-resolution crisp diagonals, I think it would have been exactly the same game.

(There are legitimate non-nostalgist functions for low-resolution, too, such as the menacing quality of imprecision, but that’s not really applicable here.)

The nostalgia element didn’t grate for me, I think because it didn’t really have a wistful component, or at least not a conscious one. The music immediately establishes the muddled spirit with a nicely done Wendy Carlos/Stanley Kubrick homage, the techno-classicalia here signifying only a) power and portent, tongue-mostly-in-cheek; b) the awesomeness cred of the homage itself. Yeah, hiding somewhere inside there is some nostalgia, but I don’t think the developer has conscious access to it as such.

Things I like about the game. It feels good: all the zoiping and gloiping is right on target. The amount of information onscreen generally matches my level of interest (i.e. no point values spewing from enemies, no status spreadsheets hovering over everyone’s head — mostly just zoips and gloips). Doing more or less what you intend reliably results in more or less what you intended, and then watching it all play out has some primal appeal (“the reassurances of brick-like abstraction,” as I said earlier).

The drama of the gameplay is meaningful. “Better get ready as best we can! Okay, here they come! Uh-oh, here they are!” Each of these stages has its own emotional tone and corresponding gameplay imperatives. This is the core of the game and it works nicely.

Things that feel like they’re not for me. Any game with a catalog element, from which you very gradually get to buy everything, always annoys me. Unfortunately this is a fairly common element in games! I’ve never liked the pressure and decision-making involved in actual shopping; I take no pleasure in seeing a sea of options after every level. I’d much rather have the new stuff doled out to me at some rate that the designer has deemed rewarding. Whatever the chef recommends!

Related point: I’d much rather have there only be a few tools in the game, with which I must work resourcefully, instead of an abundance of tools from which I’m encouraged to develop my own “style of play.” “Express yourself!” I know that some people like to say “Look at this wardrobe full of clothes! What shall I wear?” but a menu bar in a video game is never going to make me feel wealthy so I’d rather it not try. Constraints are what make games rewarding, not freedoms!

The amount of interstitial blah-blah-blahing about new enemies etc. etc. This is essentially a game with fixed gameplay from the start, not one that develops. The more protesting the game does about how things are supposedly constantly changing, the more it calls my attention to how much they’re staying the same, and makes that seem like a liability. Staying the same is okay! No need for all this briefing/debriefing cover-up. (Or else make it more interesting.)

I wish I could have zoomed in and out as a way of keeping tabs on the action, instead of scrolling around worrying that something bad is happening where I can’t see. That didn’t contribute in any way that I could relish.

The thing that made me stop. You carry over your amount of money from one level to the next. Eventually you realize you don’t have enough money to beat the level you’re on, because you didn’t play earlier levels efficiently enough. So you have to go back and do them again, if you want to proceed. But the levels are already all kind of the same; the only thing that makes continued play feel worthwhile is the modicum of progression through the game content that each level affords. I won’t learn any lessons by actually going back and retracing my steps; I’ve already learned my lesson in the moment I realize what I have to go back and do. What I want to do now is apply it while I keep moving forward. Unfortunately that’s impossible.

So I think I played enough. 4 hours always seems like a nice 2-movie’s-worth investment, appropriate for a game. I really went there and learned some of the language.

I wonder what kind of terms professional game reviewers set themselves. Longer than that, I should hope. If I was doing this full-time and being paid for it, I would feel obligated to see it through to the end. Sometimes the moment that most alienates you is just the pains of growing into the actual mindset the game rewards. Perhaps if I had pushed through I would have found my way to something even better. But I don’t want to be dangling that carrot in front of myself all the damn time anymore. Generally, if a thing is gratifying, it is in fact gratifying, which becomes an easy way of identifying such things and setting them apart. I never considered stopping playing Machinarium. This I considered stopping, so I did. There you have it.

No hard feelings. It’s a good game! But you know what they say: “I like ravioli, but I don’t eat it all the time.

Design and Programming: Caspian Prince [way to go, Mr. and Mrs. Prince!]
Art: Chaz Willets
Music: Dave Sunerton-Burl, Steve Legget
Sound: Michael Manning