6/18/13: GOG promotes their summer sale by giving away Torchlight for free.
• Torchlight (2009): Runic Games (Seattle, WA) [2 hrs]
An “action RPG” — where “action” means “just click click click incessantly,” and “RPG” means “but with an intricate system of crap and crap upgrades and crap upgrade currency etc.” Maximum ado about nothing. I like games where you’re rewarded for paying ever closer attention to what’s going on; this is the opposite. Cleanly executed, at least. One hour was just the right amount for me. Then I did another hour.
6/28/13: “Humble Bundle with Android 6”: 10 games for $5, but two of them (Frozen Synapse and NightSky) I already owned from prior bundles, and one of them (Pulse) is for Android only, so better call it 7 games for $5. I didn’t play any of them until now.
• Aquaria (2007): Bit Blot (= Alec Holowka & Derek Yu) (Winnipeg, MB / San Francisco, CA) [21.5 hrs]
• Fractal (2010): Cipher Prime (Philadelphia, PA) [1.5 hrs]
Aquaria is in the noble genre of the nonlinear action-adventure, or “Metroid-like.” (The internet, alas, has taken to referring to this genre as “Metroidvania,” but that’s inane and inaccurate and I reject it.)
I said once that the graphic adventure was the king of game genres, but that was rash; it might just as well be this. Or maybe it’s that this is the queen of game genres. There’s definitely some yin and yang going on between them.
Plain old adventure games are goofy and forthright and frequently embarrassing. Action-adventure games play hard-to-get, which gives them a tinge of charismatic cool. That is, adventure games are dogs and action-adventures are cats. They each have a story that they won’t reveal until you do something, but in an adventure game, when it comes time to withhold, it basically just bites its lip and eagerly waits for you to say the magic word that gives it permission to bark again. Whereas an action-adventure will fill the screen with a giant monster and have it stomp you over and over again until you learn to obey. Then, and only then, it will feed you your snack.
Okay, so I guess I’m actually saying that where adventure games are like dogs, action-adventures make you the dog. Definitely something to do with dogs.
Note that video game genres need better names. It’s a more pressing need than in film, because to be a film audience all you have to do is sit and look, no matter the genre; a game player’s job, on the other hand, is completely different from genre to genre. Yes, maybe there aren’t really “genres” in video games, just mix-and-match elements… well, if so, that’s fine: they still need better names. “Action” vs. “Action-Adventure” vs. “Adventure” is like distinguishing the meals of the day solely by how spicy they are. (“In the morning I usually have a Bland, and then in the afternoon a Medium, and then in the evening another Medium — but understand that the afternoon meal is characterized by sometimes being bland, and the evening one is sometimes spicy, so generally we refer to the evening meal as a “Spicy-Medium” and the one in the afternoon as a “Medium-Bland.” The morning one we can safely just call “Bland” — though, footnote, there are some European examples that are, in fact, spicy…”)
So Aquaria is an “Action-Adventure,” but really it should just be called “lunch.” (i.e. “Metroid.” Except that’s still lame, because it’s naming the genre after an exemplar rather than as itself — like calling lunch “a sandwich-like.”)
I spent many hours playing Aquaria; all these digressive paragraphs correspond to that time expenditure. Now the review: dreamy fishtank world full of varied sea creatures — odd, atmospheric, memorable. Game itself — engaging enough to hold me down for very long play sessions, but ultimately too distended to be satisfying; it didn’t feel respectful enough of my time and effort. If the whole map were shrunk by about 30 percent — just the distances, not the content — and the game was saved every time you entered a new area, and there were about twice as many stops on the quick-transit system, and the boss battles were a little less obtuse, this would be a splendid, transporting 10 hour game. Instead it’s a trying 20 hour game.
I got all the way to the FINAL FORM of the FINAL BOSS — and as soon as I could see that the end was within reach, the spell was broken and I was suddenly filled with the awareness of how little I actually cared about this mermaid game. So after more than 20 hours of play and with only one obstacle remaining, I declared myself done (and watched the last 5 minutes on Youtube). Better late than never.
Fractal, meanwhile, is just what it appears, a puzz-procedural in the Bejeweled vein, but with hexagons. These sorts of games directly target the subconscious, so only the subconscious can review them. My subconscious shrugged at this and said “nah.” So that’s that.
• Organ Trail: Director’s Cut (2010/12): The Men Who Wear Many Hats (= Ryan Wiemeyer & Michael Block) (Chicago, IL) [.5 hrs]
• Stealth Bastard Deluxe (2011/12): Curve Studios (London, UK) [8 hrs]
Organ Trail is, as you can see, an opportunistic hipster mashup of the Apple II Oregon Trail with the standard zombie apocalypse shtick. Ha ha, get it? Good idea, right? Yeah, I get it. It’s cute, for what basically amounts to a conceptual pun. But I never thought Oregon Trail was a very interesting game and I just don’t go for the zombie thing, so this isn’t for me, as a half hour’s play confirmed.
Stealth Bastard is a pretty typical “puzzle-platformer” (= kind of like Sunday brunch). Middle-of-the-road stuff: the levels are mostly superficial button-rigged contraptions rather than deep or elegant puzzles, and the screen is always a little more cluttered than I wanted it to be. But I like puzzle-platformers so, sure, I’ll take it. A noteworthy touch is that prescient-seeming snarky commentary appears onscreen when you fall for a trap or, alternately, make a breakthrough. This is a nice use of the counter-intuitive fact that the whole process of solving a puzzle is actually a pre-planned experience, even though the player always has the sensation of blazing his/her own trail. Video games tend to blur the line between free will and determinism; I like it when they find ways to revel in the blur.
• Broken Sword: Director’s Cut (1996/2009): Revolution Software (York, UK) [6 hrs]
• McPixel (2011–12): Sos (= Mikolaj Kamiński) (Nowy Tomyśl, Poland) [2 hrs]
Calling a revised release a “director’s cut” even though the director had total control over the original release is stupid. In this case it should properly be called “Broken Sword: schizophrenic tart-up for the console and touchscreen market.” The original game, which I thoroughly enjoyed in the year of its release and replayed fondly about 10 years ago, continues to stand. It has its shortcomings, of course, but it’s coherent on its own terms. The new version constantly intrudes on that coherence with a lot of clumsy insertions, replacements, and deletions, with mismatched new art and audio, and an overall depressing sense of Lucasian disjunction between the 1996 and 2009 incarnations of the aging designers. In short: this was tacky and kind of a drag, but I played it all anyway.
McPixel is deliberately asinine to the max, a joke game meant to feel like a 7-year-old made it. It’s an endless, spastic, dadaist restaging of the SNL MacGruber sketch — so a parody of a parody: just the kind of indefensible and compulsive thing a 7-year-old takes for humor. When I was 7 would I have thought this was funny? or would its calculated childishness have raised a red flag? I probably would have thought it was funny, but also a little weirdly menacing, the way other people’s ideas of “naughtiness” always are. Since it’s deliberately a stupid waste of time, it kind of defies critical response. The only worthwhile question, I guess, is whether it helped put me in touch with my sense of the exhilaration of the stupid. Not consistently, but sure, a little. Faintly.
• Waking Mars (2012): Tiger Style (Austin, TX) [7 hrs]
My favorite thing about this game was its genre defiance. It looks like one kind of thing, talks like another kind of thing, and has the gameplay systems of a third kind of thing. That means it’s none of those things. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better or more interesting than those things, but it does mean that the question “what is this?” becomes stimulating in itself. I don’t think Waking Mars quite added up, but it took its originality seriously, which I admire, and I enjoyed the process of letting this unknown quantity sink in and make its case. One of the great attractions of video games is that each game has to sell its own paradigm from the ground up. I never stop feeling grateful for the sheer scope of aesthetic tourism this form allows, even if a lot of stops on the tour are only so-so. Or worse. This was so-so.