Man oh man this is a long one. Nobody’s gonna read all this. That’s okay.
Remember, in addition to not reading all this, you can and should pop the videos open to full screen when you watch them. That should go without saying but I felt the need to say it. Don’t want you straining your eyes.
2/14/14: As a Valentine’s Day sale promo, GOG gives away free copies of:
• Dungeon Keeper Gold (1997): Bullfrog Productions (Guildford, UK) [played 3 hrs]
A classic that I’m glad to have sampled. I like how it combines murk — subterranean shadows, infernal clanking, weird distortions — with the satisfactions of little-computer-people toddling about, blithely building and destroying their marzipan palaces. A cozy and gratifying proportion of order and disorder; comfort dressed as threat. Which is what I’m here for. But SimCity-likes have never held me entirely transfixed — I think maybe the role of overseer is a little too impersonal for my needs — plus some aspects of this 20-year-old game are inevitably awkward by modern standards. So maybe I’ll return; maybe not. But I enjoyed the visit, both in its own right and for my improved game literacy. Now I’ve played Dungeon Keeper!
2/18/14: I buy into “Humble Indie Bundle 11” and get six games for $5. A week later, three more are added, bringing the total to nine, two of which I happen to own already. Another one, Antichamber, I play to completion right away. (It’s great.) That leaves six on the list still awaiting my attention. Here they come, one after another:
• Guacamelee! Gold Edition (2013): DrinkBox Studios (Toronto, CA) [16 hrs]
• Dust: An Elysian Tail (2012): Humble Hearts (= Dean Dodrill) (Highlands Ranch, CO) [13 hrs]
We’re deep into the post-pixel era and games are now heir to the visual arts in their entirety, without limitations. Something like Cuphead plainly demonstrates that anything in the century-long history of animation is within reach. Thus games now can and should be held 100% accountable for their actual aesthetic value; we don’t need to be handicapping. (So where’s my Vermeer game already???)
Point is: I’m past saying “wow this looks amazing FOR A GAME.” How does it look FOR LOOKING AT?
Guacamelee! looks pretty snazzy! It’s got honest-to-goodness art direction and conveys a genuine aesthetic sense of fun, something that goes beyond just imitating other games. The animation is a little slippery-weightless, Flash-slick, but they’ve made it work; it ends up being a good match for the vibrant angularity of the illustration style. I usually hate fighting in games but this one does it really well, with a snappy, pared-down version of a Street Fighter-style system. I actually enjoyed myself! The game as a whole I would describe as “Cartoon Network goes to a Mexican restaurant.” Did I mind that it was littered with indefensible hipsterisms and reflexive gamer references? To be honest: not really. I was there for the look and feel. Structure and level design were cheerful and functionally okay — mostly smooth sailing with a few well-balanced challenges dropped in — and okay was good enough. Maybe they’ll aim higher in the sequel. [ed. from six months later: reportedly they didn’t aim higher.]
Meanwhile, Dust… is an impressive? accomplishment? by one man with a vision. He did all the art and animation himself! He designed and programmed it! He really did the whole thing! And it’s so substantial and so polished! Can you believe it? Yes, of course I respect that. But here’s where the “no handicapping” rule comes into play: can we acknowledge that this thing he made looks and feels like a straight-to-DVD animated movie about bible stories that you’d find in a bin at Walmart? And thus IS that? Like all furry-adjacent culture, the psychology here is painful in its transparency. The squeaky, neotenous (but round-hipped!), pupil-less sidekick plushie that floats over his shoulder is clearly his wife. The hero’s eyes are perpetually obscured and averted because of his dark inner life. Etcetera. Ugh. The whole thing is so blinkered and emo and hopeless; it makes me squirm no end. Also is the game actually balanced? I found it extraordinarily easy, and I’m not a very skillful gamer. The intricate piles of different “items” and “power-ups” and “crafting” and blah blah blah turned out to be immaterial; you could get past pretty much every enemy, including the bosses, by just using your most powerful attack over and over and over. No prob.
Nonetheless I played the whole thing. I’m not sure why. I guess it had enough of a sheen — and the intrinsic draw of the Metroid-style “locked door, come back later with the key” design — that I kept being curious to see what else it had in store. Answer turned out to be not much. I should have known.
• The Swapper (2013): FacePalm Games (Helsinki, Finland) [4.5 hrs]
• Monaco (2013): Pocketwatch Games (San Diego, CA) [played for 1.5 hrs]
The Swapper is a beaut. A real aesthetic vision: clay miniatures put through a digital burn, in heavy, murky darkness. Functionally it’s the same old Alien derelict spaceship environment (you know the drill: “oh god, what happened here? what killed them all?”), but the fuzzy handmade texture imparts a special softness, a dreamy interiority that changes its meaning. The script is a little clumsy, overwritten and under-explained, but in this atmosphere it still manages to have the spooky game-poetic impact it’s going for. The puzzles constitute a good smart tour of the mechanic — which is self-cloning and body-swapping — and they don’t waste time on redundancy. 4.5 hours is SO perfect for a game of this kind. This deserves double praise: it is exactly the right length.
Monaco is a heist game, which is a great and natural idea for cooperative play. Fake pixels aside, the design seems smart and I’ll bet it really does have a lot to offer with a group. Divvying up the responsibilities of lurking around corners, knocking out guards, cracking safes, whatever. Coordinating, holding your breath. I’m all for that game. I, however, heist alone. For a solo burglar, this is just a typical run-around-the-map-and-don’t-get-caught affair. It’s jangly and old-fashioned, and it got repetitive fast. The whole selling point is the idea of a TEAM; I have no team. I certainly didn’t care about grabbing the McGuffin; it wasn’t designed to make me care. So 90 minutes was enough.
• Starseed Pilgrim (2013): Droqen (= Alexander Martin) (Toronto, ON, CA) [played for 2 hrs]
• Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians (2013): Threaks (Hamburg, Germany) [played for .5 hr]
Starseed Pilgrim makes a fine poster child for the whole culture of self-conscious modernist indie game design. There’s a hipster code-llectualism going around out there that prides itself on delving deeper and deeper into the theory of “fundamental game design principles” and “emergent gameplay” and this sort of thing. I like the spirit of experimentalism, curiosity, and seriousness, but the culture also brings with it certain tics. For one thing, these people tend to have a fixation on shufflers and randomizers — to them, dealing with a situation generated algorithmically is inherently juicier than dealing with a human-authored one — and also, their fascination with design itself means they have a tendency to overvalue things that are “interesting,” even though it’s not always clear whether the interest in question is for the player, the programmer, or just some third-party cultural commentator. In other words, it’s not so different from what happened in the arts in the 20th century, as the mindset of the critic began to be subsumed into the mindset of the artist and art became accordingly more and more arcane.
I’m wary of the tendency, but I can also enjoy the arcane, and Starseed Pilgrim is indeed “interesting.” A big part of what it offers is that the gameplay is hard to describe, and it doesn’t try to give you any guidance, so you have to experiment in a state of confusion for a while, developing a wordless sense of things. Which is a pure and rewarding experience. Then once you do understand what’s going on — though you’d still probably have a hard time putting it fully into words — you have to actually develop a nimbleness at deploying the weird set of tools at your disposal, and juggling them on the fly as the randomizer dishes them out. “Interesting,” certainly. I spent two hours with it, which is about the duration of a visit to the modern art museum. Not nearly long enough to beat the game — but then again who ever really beats the modern art museum? It’s undefeated.
Beatbuddy is clearly someone’s half-idea for a game (“everything is synced to music, and you have to move in time with the beat!”), which they then couldn’t figure out how to execute (“so for example maybe there are these, uh… balls?… that are dangerous? … and there’s, like, a row of them?”), and should have had the integrity to admit wasn’t as much fun as they’d imagined (“Yeah I guess you’re not actually moving to the beat THAT much, mostly you’re just sort of swimming around trying to avoid spikes.”) But they’ll be damned if that’s going to stop them! So here’s your game, everybody! The first level (which I completed) is set to that post-Triplets of Belleville sampled-early-jazz kind of stuff that really rubs me the wrong way — a phony idea of culture combined with a phony idea of fun. The player character is like a little lump of Jell-O. This whole game seemed like a no-go after half an hour, so that’s that. (Simple tip for making any title worse: just add “Tale of the Guardians” to the end. Never fails. “Middlemarch: Tale of the Guardians.” See?)
6/18/14: GOG promotes their summer sale by giving away a free game. All you have to do is click. I know nothing about this game but you better believe I clicked on it.
• Magrunner: Dark Pulse (2013): Frogwares (Kiev, Ukraine) [11 hrs]
An unabashed Portal wannabe about magnetizing things, with a pea-brained story tacked on about Lovecraftian god-monsters (step away from the Lovecraft, game people!) and a nefarious all-powerful Social Network run by one KRAM GRUCKEZBER, repeat, that name again is: KRAM GRUCKEZBER. Consider that this is a game with voice acting, which means that real live human beings are made to pronounce the sounds of “KRAM GRUCKEZBER” aloud, with their voices, many many times during this script. Please look closely: that is GRUCK-EZ-BER, not GRUCKZEBER, which would be marginally more name-like. Nor is it BRUCKZEGER, BUGZERCKER, ZUGBRECKER, or any number of other pronounceable permutations. GRUCKEZBER. Listen to that poor voice actor in the trailer. His “dignified British” delivery is a food processor and “GRUCKEZBER” is a big chunk of wood that some moron shoved in there with no regard for the blades. Will it blend?
All that aside: yes this has “second-rate” stamped all over it, yes it’s derivative in every molecule — but it’s also a perfectly acceptable puzzle game, made with an acceptable degree of polish, and offers a perfectly acceptable puzzle-game experience. I wasn’t enthralled but I was diverted and I willingly stuck with it to the end. It certainly didn’t deserve to be so utter a flop as to be given away for free within a year of release.
It’s a place! I actually went there! Computer games are fancy pieces of machinery and they offer strange transport. How was all of that free?? I still have a hard time reconciling my notion of value with the way these things are treated like just so many restaurant napkins. Grab one, grab twenty, whatever.
If this is free, why can’t I have a free house? It doesn’t need to be a great one!
7/2/14: After reading some kind of article about it, I decide I’m interested enough in the artistic aspirations of the newly released Mountain to spend the $.99 they’re asking.
• Mountain (2014): David OReilly (Los Angeles, CA) [observed for an hour or two]
This isn’t really a game, it’s an art piece. It’s by the guy who animated the futuristic computer game in Her and it shares some of that movie’s air of techno-tender angst. It’s basically an existential Tamagotchi: when you boot it up it does a neat trick to get you in an emotional frame of mind, and then it shows you a pretty mountain floating in an infinite void and says “this is you, this is a depiction of your soul.” And that’s all there is to it. It’s there for as long as you care to leave it onscreen, close it, boot it back up and check in with it some more. The weather comes and goes, every now and then a piece of clutter falls from the heavens and sticks to you permanently, you occasionally utter a few words of contentment or uncertainty, and eventually you die (apparently). There are a couple other aspects to it but really not much.
I admire what it’s trying to do and be. It reminds me of the little animated metaphors that the Headspace meditation app offers to illustrate and concretize experiential states, philosophical stances, etc., except that Headspace has a self-help agenda and Mountain has the opposite of one, it seems to me. By all appearances its intention is to charm you and distress you in equal proportions. That’s a far cry from real enlightenment, but hey it was only $.99.
Yes, this entry keeps going! For a while! I told you it was long! It’s a six month dump!
9/22/14: Humble Indie Bundle 12, $8 to beat whatever the average was at the moment, so that I get Papers, Please, which I play right away, and which is great. Nostalgia for olden C64 Carmen Sandiego aesthetics put to real experiential use rather than just waved like a flag. A brief, well-defined experience, with actual ideas in it, carefully made, memorable. Huzzah! Glory to Arstotzka.
Also, I eventually try one of the other eight games in the bundle, Race the Sun, which has an appealingly stark look to it but turns out to be much harder and much less engaging than it ought to be. Don’t need to return to that one now; I know what it’s like.
One of the other games I already own (it’s Monaco, see above), so that leaves six games that have been waiting patiently in the backlog for five years. Here come all six of them! Starting with:
• SteamWorld Dig (2013): Image & Form (Gothenburg, Sweden) [played for 2 hrs]
• Hammerwatch (2013): Crackshell (Stockholm, Sweden) [played for 1.5 hrs]
SteamWorld Dig is a cha-ching cha-ching game, where you dig cha-ching for ore cha-ching and then cash it in cha-ching to buy “upgrades” cha-ching to dig some more. There are little obstacle course rooms along the way and you gradually expand your set of abilities, but mostly you’re just drilling down down down through cutesy caves. I did that for two hours, which from my point of view is a very long time to be doing that.
Hammerwatch is basically the long-ago game of Gauntlet, which never had much appeal for me. I like imagining I’m in an endless dream-dungeon as much as the next guy, but hordes upon hordes of creepy-crawlies swarming at me while I collect the same three dumb keys, over and over, isn’t my dungeon dream of choice. Much like Monaco, this is a game designed to be fun as a team effort, and then sold as “and you can play it single-player, too!” Small print: “If you don’t mind incredibly repetitive tedium!” But I do! I mind. In the 90 minutes I played, I got the Steam achievement for killing 2500 enemies. 2500! And that’s apparently the first achievement everyone gets because that’s just the kind of game this is. Then I defeated the first boss — an enormous room-sized grub much like the person-sized grubs I’d been killing endless hordes of for an hour. Then the second level started and it looked like still more of the same. Seemed like a good place to stop.
• Gunpoint (2013): Suspicious Developments (=Tom Francis) (Bath, UK) [2 hrs]
• Luftrausers (2014): Vlambeer (Utrecht, Netherlands) [played for 2 hrs]
Gunpoint is cute. It’s a 2D stealth game, comparable I suppose to Mark of the Ninja, but I found it much more amenable. It just felt more like it was coming from my kind of people. Ultimately that’s what we’re really responding to, I think, in all culture. It’s still a little guy sneaking around in repetitive 2D environments — which look a lot like Elevator Action (1983) — and trying to dupe guards with his couple of tricks, which in this case are mostly to do with rewiring switches to do things the guards don’t expect. But where Mark of the Ninja was heavily invested in its smarmy idea of cool, Gunpoint is clearly unconcerned with cool, and goes instead for a kind of lazy briskness (or is it brisk laziness?) that I find endearing. (What do I mean by brisk laziness? Think of, say, The Electric Company.) The whole thing feels like a mere whim, executed with an inborn respect for whims. That speaks to me. It’s even nostalgic, in its way: that spirit used to be the essence of computer games and now it feels rare. It’s the opposite of e.g. Beatbuddy, which couldn’t bear to admit that it was a mere whim and accordingly white elephant-ed itself into worthlessness.
“Luftrausers” is a more or less meaningless fake-German word (“air-scrammers,” I guess), which is an indication of the sort of “cool before school” attitude that drives this game. (I just made up that expression; feel free to use it constantly from now on.) These developers clearly wanted first and foremost to make something nifty, and then second and thirdmost to make a game worth playing. It’s a retro-chic miniature, which is to say a free flash game. And it probably should have stayed that way, but I guess you can’t blame them for trying to sell it. The gameplay idea is to have a flying-and-shooting game where 1) you can only shoot in the direction you’re moving and 2) you have to fly against gravity to avoid crashing but 3) there are enemies on the ground. That’s interesting — in the sense of “how would that feel? what would be the strategy?” But once you’ve figured out the strategy (fly upward, then cut the engine as you turn around and shoot downward through the top of your parabolic motion, then turn back upward again before you fall too far) I’m not sure there’s really all that much more worth doing here. Yes, yes, the Gameboyish sepia palette is charming enough. The music is not.
• Gone Home (2013): The Fullbright Company (Portland, OR) [2 hrs]
• The Bridge (2013): The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild (=Ty Taylor) (Seattle, WA) [5 hrs]
Gone Home is supremely indie: a game-as-narrative-art-piece, with campus-literary-magazine depth, that purports to be a three-dimensional portrait of a teenage girl’s first love but mostly resorts to cliches. (Also… quoth the game: “Oh by the way, that first love? It’s homosexual!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What? What are you talking about? What exclamation points? We didn’t use any exclamation points. Why would we use exclamation points? It’s the most normal thing in the world. Dude it’s 2013, you need to grow up.”)
All that said: it’s a pretty effective piece of work. I was truly moved by the atmosphere, if not by the specifics, and that’s part of the intention. Beyond the story, in the format itself, the game makes a profound equation between haunted houses and real lives. The player wanders around in an empty mansion on a rainy night, pushing through worrying darkness to find lightswitches, hearing ghostly creaks and shuffles as well as lightning and thunder, wondering WHAT HAS BEFALLEN the missing residents — your family! — and yet this genuine spookiness is just form, not content: the story, such as it is, is all about domestic normalcy, and ultimately warmth. I was stirred by that, because it’s true. In both directions. Wandering alone in haunted darkness is just a dream-shadow cast by a normal life; and likewise all everyday security is, under the surface, haunted.
I played this on a night when I was feeling thoroughly distraught and wanted something to change my mood for me. It did just that. By the end I felt that I had traveled through inner spaces that represented outer spaces that represented inner spaces that represented outer spaces etc. etc. in infinite regress — and had thereby been in some respect cleansed. A house is a house is a house. Even when some voice actor is doing a mannered “heartfelt” reading of fake-o diary entries in your ear. It didn’t matter; all that house-ness more than compensated. It evoked some of my earliest “transcendent” computer game feelings, which were brought on by pure text games. What are these spaces? What does it mean to be “in” them, as I feel myself now to be? How quiet are they? Is anyone in here with me? Sometimes during Gone Home I felt like I was in the house in Deadline. That’s meant as high praise, or at least high thanks. There’s a charmed childhood half-sleep implicit in there somewhere and I’ll take it anywhere I can get it.
The Bridge is another indie attempt at artiness, but still shallower, more on the high-school-literary-magazine level. A fancy private high school, mind you! Basically it’s an obvious Braid-alike, which means everything here feels rather sophomoric, Braid itself having been fairly private-high-school itself. The idea here is “what if Escher’s “Relativity” were a game?” Sounds nice but ultimately I’m not sure how fertile an idea that is. The Bridge does the best with it that it can. The world-rules have been worked out reasonably enough and some fair puzzles have been extracted from the system. And there are only 48 puzzles total, which is correctly brief. The little guy (a drawing of poor M.C. Escher himself, I think, who didn’t deserve this) moves quite a bit slower than I would have wanted, and god knows the music (a couple of short tracks by royalty-free royalty Kevin McLeod) is grossly insufficient. It aims to be tactile and atmospheric and satisfying and meditative and it’s not quite as much of any of those as it ought to be. But at least those are, to me, sympathetic goals. This has “my type of game” written all over it. I guess what I’m saying is, I prefer games that haven’t been written all over.
Really, it’s fine. It offers some nice-enough imagery and gameplay to match. And when the game wasn’t getting in its own way, the pencil-and-paper texture did have something to offer.
Meanwhile: non-backlog games also played these past six months.
On August 17 (of this year!) Steam told me a game on my wishlist was very cheap: $2.24. Fine, I said.
• Toki Tori 2+ (2013): Two Tribes (Harderwijk, Netherlands) [played for 16 hrs]
This was on my wishlist because I admired the original Toki Tori and read somewhere that the sequel was a completely different design and full of inventive ideas. It is that. It’s built with care, like a fine toy. It gives off a distinct sense of goodwill. The design is based around a very charming, toylike concept: that the player only ever has two possible actions (1. whistle, 2. stomp), but the menagerie of creatures that populate the environment all respond differently to these actions, and their responses interact in various useful ways. So there’s simultaneously the feeling of confidently knowing all of your options, yet also of constantly discovering and learning more about how things work. That’s a fine, bright-eyed set of feelings. The game is invigoratingly tutorial-free — figuring out how to do stuff isn’t a prerequisite to the game; it IS the game — and like its predecessor manages to assemble genuinely tricky puzzles out of the clear and simple elements. I recommend. My one quibble is that after winning the main game — a smooth and pleasant ride all the way — returning to solve the bonus puzzles that you missed is about as annoying as possible; neither the map nor the navigation nor the level design makes for easy retraversal. A shame. I really wanted to go pick up everything but I still haven’t because it’s kind of a drag.
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 9. Complex Complex (2009): Rasmus Björling [43 hrs]
The DROD charge continues. This one was really, really, really tough stuff. Hard. Really. Very. Really, really, really hard. Honestly a little too hard for me. (WHAT? HOW CAN THIS BE?) I had to take quite a few hints. God bless the nice man on YouTube who narrated his thought process as he played through the whole thing. I absolutely wouldn’t have made it to the end without his virtual companionship.
Some puzzles frustrated me a bit for executing truly clever concepts in unnecessarily demanding ways; I would have preferred to experience the exact same challenges in more streamlined forms. But I can’t deny the overall quality was excellent. Having had a couple months away from DROD, upon return I had the same reaction as always: this game is such a gift! It allows for such unlimited inventiveness!
(Okay but seriously this one was kind of grueling. 43 hours over many months! This is the first one where I ducked out without finishing the “post-mastery” extras. Let’s be reasonable here. Word on the web is this is the hardest one. Good.)
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 10. Suit Pursuit (2009): Jason Fedor [6 hrs]
A charming grab-bag of ideas, from easy to mildly tricky. Varied, approachable, never too convoluted. A few sittings to get through the whole thing. That’s more like it.
• DROD: Gunthro and the Epic Blunder (2012): Caravel Games (Provo, UT / various) [20 hrs]
The fourth of the five full-fledged commercial DROD games, promoted as being easier than the others and thus a good place to start, for newcomers. The puzzles are certainly more varied and lively than in the first game in the series, and the unveiling of new mechanics is much better paced. But my lingering sense of embarrassment — fond embarrassment, but still — at the story elements of these games, the writing and voice-acting, means I am unlikely to point anyone here for their first DROD experience. Witness that trailer and tell me you don’t sympathize. I personally feel charitable toward the dorkiness — but that’s because these games and I, we grew up together. When I first met this series it wasn’t into that sort of thing yet, and that’s still who I think of it as, deep down. It’s the first impression I think it still deserves.
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 11. Finding the First Truth (2011): George Wanfried [17 hrs]
Oops, I slipped up in my chronologizing. This one was supposed to come before the preceding game. Luckily it makes not a bit of difference. Another excellent add-on collection; this one probably the closest in spirit and quality to the “real” games.
I have deep and distinct experiences with each of these games, but when translated back into written language those experiences return to a state of close mutual resemblance; too close really to be worth expressing again and again. The specifics that make each experience different are musical, in the sense that puzzles are music: formal, structural. The doings of imaginary objects that live on imaginary grids constitute a whole field of interest in itself. That field has no language. I could call these things by their game names — roaches, snakes, mirrors, soldiers, whatever — but that feels like an even worse misrepresentation than not talking about them at all. I spend hours in there doing something, something that is to me fairly fascinating. I assure you the thing I am doing is NOT “fighting roaches.” There is no name for the thing I am doing.
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 12. Flood Warning (2012): “TFMurphy” (Tom Murphy?) [8 hrs]
Another excellent one; of modest length. See above for why there’s not a lot more to be said.
This was the last one in this series. All that remains is the fifth and final commercial game. Which is by all reports the longest, hardest, and most involved by far. I intend not to start that for some months at least. Gonna take a DROD break before diving in.
And that’s it! I promise to write about movies or books or anything other than games next time. Promise.