11/4/15 Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes for $14.99. “Co-operate in following convoluted directions” speaks to something deep in my soul. My sister and I breezed through about half of the game; then the Morse Code blinker defeated us several times, and we got discouraged. Maybe someday we’ll return. I’m just listing it here for completeness.
11/8/15 Indiegala freebie:
• Realms of the Haunting (1997): Gremlin Interactive (Sheffield, UK) [14 hrs]
The 90s-game-generating machine was left on overnight by mistake, and this is what came out. Full-motion video, first-person shooter, graphic adventure, horror fantasy, haunted house, lava caverns, secret society, time pedestal, demon labyrinth castle shotgun psychic sword hell knight brain ghost sarcophagus dimension church prophecy dragon crystal UH OH SOMEBODY SHUT IT OFF! A fascinating lump of creativity, made with palpable enthusiasm in every respect, bursting with nifty ideas, and offering undeniable spooky-dream atmosphere. Also: unutterably stupid, frustrating to control, has a couple of truly infuriating sections. A ridiculous camp delight AND totally unrecommendable. Glad to have taken the ride. Never again!
12/14/15 GOG gives away Worms Forts: Under Siege. In checking my heart I find no interest whatsoever in trying this for even a minute. Noted, heart.
12/21/15 GOG gives away:
• Bio Menace (1993): Apogee Software (Garland, TX) [played for 2 hrs]
I try not to overstate the role of “nostalgia” in my enjoyment of things but this one fits the bill. The bright-lit EGA “Commander Keen” aesthetics — depthless, chipper, toylike — offer me a sense of comfort by fond association. I didn’t play this one at the time and probably would have found its gore distasteful. The first of three episodes was all I needed, just as it would have been in 1993.
12/30/15 “Humble Bundle: Eye Candy 4” for $6 gets me six games. Why on earth did I buy this? How did I justify it to myself? I honestly can’t recall. The “eye candy” theme means that all the games have striking art styles; I guess I just got intrigued by the screenshots and made an impulse buy? Exactly what I swore not to do ever again? It’s a mystery.
• Dyscourse (2015): Owlchemy Labs (Austin, TX) [played for 1.25 hrs]
“CHOICE” IS A FALSE GOD. I keep saying it, but do they listen? This is standard choose-your-own-adventure, i.e. pick a path arbitrarily and it leads to an arbitrary outcome, all in a flavorless scenario about which you have no reason to care. There’s no writing to speak of, just a tree of tropes. They think you’ll want to do it again and again to explore the other branches simply because you know other branches exist. Not I. Anyone who thinks “Dyscourse” is a good title is not someone I want telling me a story. “Eye candy” rating 2/5. (Where 1 is Smarties and 5 is peanut butter cups.)
• Lumino City (2014): State of Play (London, UK) [4 hrs]
Stiff, self-involved adventure game with essentially no functional plot, just a twee aesthetic. Its only intention is “build a cutesy world out of cardboard and get credit for it.” Well, they done it! Do you see “Filter > Blur Gallery > Tilt-Shift”? Do you hear “turntable-crackle-03.wav”? If so, congratulations: you’re having all the feels. Eye candy rating 3/5.
• Plug & Play (2015): Michael Frei and Mario Von Rickenbach (Zürich, Switzerland) [.25 hrs]
Not a game: an animated short in the artsy-deadpan tradition, translated directly into interactive form. Click, drag, plug, etc. to progress through the surreal vignettes. The very simple interactivity is handled intelligently; this should serve as a case study for how to think about the point-and-click paradigm, which happens to mesh very well with the stop-and-go aesthetic. Competent art! Eye candy rating 4/5.
• 2064: Read Only Memories (2015): MidBoss (San Francisco, CA) [played for 1 hr]
Very finely retrostyled cyberpunk throwback, but clearly much more thought has been put into being #GENDERWOKE than into being #GAME. For the most part you’re just here to read a linear mile of geek-written text, strained and oblivious, which unspools onscreen at an indefensibly slow pace. Sure, fine, X get to choose mx own pronouns — but when do X get to have FUN? Mx patience ran out within an hour. Eye candy rating 4/5.
• Apotheon (2015): Alientrap (Toronto, ON) [played for 2 hrs]
A beautiful idea: a game that looks like it takes place on the side of an amphora. The graphic concept has been realized with care and taste. But in play everything is just a little too far apart; there are just a few too many factors to juggle; the world is just a tad too empty. Slight things, but they make a big difference to the amount of pleasure. I came to a door that crashed the game every time I tried to enter, and decided I wasn’t actually having enough fun to bother troubleshooting, so that was that. Eye candy rating 4/5 at the outset, then 3/5 after you’ve gotten used to it. I guess those diminishing returns are exactly what “eye candy” implies.
• The Next Penelope (2015): Aurelien Regard (Paris, France) [played for 2 hrs]
Top-down racing, with some shooting and bosses and other stuff thrown in. Moderately “retro” new wave neon color scheme, and a CRT ghost effect if you want it — but no pixels, which shows admirable restraint. The intent is to be clean and zippy, and mostly it is. Very impressive for being a one-man show. But racing games always frustrate me; they end up being about my physical relationship with the controller, and that’s not something I want to care about. Eye candy rating 3/5.
1/4/16 “Humble Square Enix Bundle 3” for $1 gets me 6 games. I buy it solely to assuage my curiosity about Life Is Strange; the rest is bonus.
First game is The Last Remnant, which my brain instinctively rejects as inappropriate for intake; a blinking red X appears over it in my Terminator’s-eye view. A brain is a mysterious thing, but I’ve learned that it’s best to do as it says. (I’ve learned the hard way.) So no Last Remnant for me.
• Life Is Strange (2015): Dontnod Entertainment (Paris, France) [3 hrs]
This is only the first of a five-episode series, and six months after I paid a dollar, it was made permanently free as an enticement to buy the rest. Oh well. It was quite good and I feel duly enticed; if the complete series drops below $8 I will buy it.
A landmark in the continuing development of what I might call “TV games”: adds a few layers of finesse to the model established by The Walking Dead. The writing is basic but never outright asinine, which for a video game amounts to a triumph. The atmosphere of dewy poignancy is laid on awfully thick, but I don’t mind because it’s all been done with such skill. The choice to give the protagonist a “sit silently and feel sentimental” action in most locations is inspired. Not only is it apropos as high school emo, it’s also exactly the mindset to which the storytelling mechanism is making its appeal: if you meditate on and in this environment, a sense of rich but ineffable narrative meaning will emerge. Just like it does for teenagers.
Special bulletin! 12/19/19: $3.99 sale for the rest of Life Is Strange. I said I would, so I did. [15 more hours]
Undeniably captivating. By far the most cinematically fluent TV game I’ve yet experienced. “Best Lighting” for sure! The nuts and bolts stagecraft is so commandingly professional that you can’t help but go along for the ride, regardless of all its many glaring flaws and shortcomings. Yes, the game’s ambition outruns its actual sophistication; pretty much every big effect in the script feels underearned and a bit immature. But only a bit — and I mean that to be praising with faint damnation, because considering how wildly emotional this game wants to be, just coming within shouting distance of its goals is an astounding achievement. I was truly riveted, and, against my better judgment, moved. By hook or by crook, it wouldn’t let me be otherwise. A masterpiece of presentation.
Back to the Square Enix Bundle.
• Tomb Raider (1996) (“Tomb Raider I”): Core Design (Derby, UK) [played for 3 hrs]
Deservedly a classic. I played through a friend’s copy in 1997 (thanks, Mary!) and it left a strong impression that hasn’t faded. Tomb Raider brought a new firmness and snappiness to 3D gameplay, and a new sense of rumbling menace to the fantasy of subterranea that has been the central offering of computer games going all the way back to Adventure. As with Dark Forces earlier this year, I am struck by just how well its particular geometric brutalism has aged. The subject matter, the gameplay, and the aesthetics are all complementary: it gives the sense that everything is exactly as detailed as it ought to be and no more, which is something that can’t always be said for its fancier descendants.
I’m giving myself another paragraph here for some musings about Lara Croft: I think she’s a fascinating counterexample to the notion of “objectification” as connoting something intrinsically oppressive and demeaning. She is manifestly a sex doll created by sophomoric male programmers, but she is also you, the player. There’s no way to play the game for any length of time without coming to identify with her. How can she be “objectified” if she is the subject? The answer is: she’s both and neither, because the “object / subject” model is a crock. In games, first-person and third-person are often freely interchangeable, and “the male gaze” can easily be twisted into a Möbius strip. (Also, I think Lara’s pornographic quality actually helps the game insofar as it makes her look less ridiculous than she otherwise would; the intrinsic grotesqueness of her polygonal form is conveniently masked by the blind spot of conventional sexual exaggerations.)
My memory from 20 years ago turned out to be so unfaded that playing again felt unnecessary, so I stopped after the first few levels. Plus I recalled disliking the increasingly yicky environs and skinless monsters toward the end of the game. Who needs it?
Next up in this bundle are Tomb Raider II and Tomb Raider III, neither of which have I ever played. I expect that someday I will indeed give them each a spin, but my 3 hour tour of Tomb Raider I completely sated my Tomb Raiding appetite for the moment, so I’m leaving these for later.
• Murdered: Soul Suspect (2014): Square Enix (El Segundo, CA) & Airtight Games (Redmond, WA) [9 hrs]
Alternate titles include “Ghost Detective: Who Has A Hat”, “Also A Vest: Ghost Man”, and “Bad Boy Ghost Cop: He Is A Tattoo Guy.” A well-meaning, expensive-looking game, full of valuable assets, all of it completely squandered because there’s no gameplay to flatter the content. For example, they neglected to include any parts where you feel smart, or experience the thrill of discovery. The only mechanic is: click on every item from a checklist. Oops! That’s supposed to be the back end, not the front end! The whole thing smells like project mismanagement: plenty of artists and programmers, but is anyone steering this thing? A cautionary object lesson for game designers. (Direct comparison with its excellent contemporary The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be illuminating.)
1/14/16 “Humble Weekly Bundle: Full Motion Video” gets me 11 wacky live-action-based games, several of them classics of a sort — a campy sort — and one of them a recent game that was on my wishlist, for only $5. Fine.
• The 7th Guest (1993): Trilobyte Games (Medford, OR) [8 hrs]
An artifact. When my father finally brought home a computer with a CD drive (circa 1996-7?), I eagerly borrowed this from either the public library or Blockbuster video, to appease several years of curiosity. Magazine screenshots had seemed to promise unprecedented immersion and delicious haunted house ambiance. It delivered a bit of that, but mostly I found the actual product a lazy mess — an incoherent script and puzzles shamelessly cribbed straight out of Sam Loyd and H.E. Dudeney, the original trees from whence fall the oldest possible chestnuts. Furthermore several of these puzzles simply aren’t fair. (Tryst by my crypt for details.) 20 years later, this was a somewhat interesting memory to have turned over with my spade, and I didn’t mind devoting a few hours to swapping chess bishops and the like, but the game still feels like a sham, built more to be sold than played.
• The 11th Hour (1995): Trilobyte Games (Medford, OR) [7 hrs]
Wretchedly unimaginative sequel. I had known it existed but not much more; I am stunned to discover that it takes place in the exact same rooms, in which you have to solve a nearly identical set of puzzles. The gall! The only dimension in which it demonstrates any sort of ambition is the sheer quantity of moronic, tasteless video: there’s a lot more this time. But to what end? An Elvira pinball table has the good sense never to make you stop playing pinball so that it can tell you some stupid-ass story about what Elvira did yesterday afternoon. That would be idiotic design, right? Whatever entertainment value Elvira’s presence brings to a pinball game (probably the Standard Elvira Quotient, defined as “none”), it is at least brought to the whole, in the present, in a way that tries to enhance, rather than interrupt, the playing of pinball. Whereas The 11th Hour tries to get you to watch an hour’s worth of sub-Elvira trash while waiting to do puzzles. Come on.
Google says I’m the first to use “sub-Elvira.” A sad comment on the state of games journalism.