April 1, 2020

Game log 1-3/20


Download for free on a whim, and a month later play through:

The Lion’s Song: Episode 1 – Silence (2016): Mi’pu’mi Games (Vienna, Austria) [.75 hrs]

Pretty sepia-retro graphics, a nice sense of quiet, and good intentions, but the interactivity isn’t meaningful, and the whole thing desperately wants to be cultured, in much the way a child wants to be an astronaut. “Mr. Schönberg, Mr. Berg, and Mr. Mahler have all agreed to participate in your concert — isn’t it wonderful?” Fin-de-siecle ooh la la!


I was so impressed and rewarded by Life Is Strange that I immediately bought the spin-off while it was still on sale ($5.25), and played it right away.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017): Deck Nine (Westminster, CO) [12 hrs]

Alas! Life is Strange was made by French people, whereas this was made by — uh-oh — Americans. All the irresistible craft of the original has been swapped out for an eminently resistible imitation. The original had some kind of subtle human touch that buoyed it above its own silliness. (It may just have been the lead voice actress; the right voice goes a long way.) Whatever it was, it’s lacking here.

Back to the “full-motion video” bundle purchased 1/14/16. More than half of this bundle is the complete “Tex Murphy” series: five campy sci-fi private-eye adventure games from the 90s and then a Kickstarter revival in 2014. As an adventure-playing teenager I skipped these because I got the impression they were tacky and sophomoric. Let’s see if I was I right! (I was.)

1989’s Mean Streets got about 10 minutes before I declared it too primitive and inscrutable to suffer through. 1991’s Martian Memorandum got 15 minutes. Those were only included in the bundle as pre-history anyway; the next one is the first one with full-motion video, and I gave it a bullet-point-worthy amount of time:

Under a Killing Moon (1994): Access Software (Salt Lake City, UT) [played for 4 hrs]

A time capsule from a peculiar historical moment when a computer game could star James Earl Jones AND some rent-a-models AND the game’s producer — i.e. just some programmer dude — as the lead. An industry in transition. I’ll concede that it has a good-natured Z-grade cheer, and that the story and game design, for all their respective inanities, do fulfill their baseline obligation to make some kind of sense, which can never be taken for granted in this business… but even with all appropriate handicapping, this is not a thing of depth or quality. My brain deserves better fare. After a while I considered just skimming through the rest of the game on Youtube; then I realized that I didn’t even care enough to do that. That’s when I knew I was done.

The subsequent entries in the series add a few layers of polish but don’t alter the fundamental design or tone. Even the 2014 game is apparently a completely faithful throwback to its hokey forebears. I think that means I’m gonna take a pass on the rest of these.

At this point I thought I should try chipping away at the stash of Star Wars games that I tabled a while ago. Thus:

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (2003): Raven Software (Middleton, WI) [played for 1 hr]

Nope, can’t do this either. The storytelling, level design, and use of music are immediately clumsy and off-putting, and the game seems to heavily emphasize constant flip-and-jump lightsaber fighting, which was my least favorite part of the preceding games and indeed one of my least favorite parts of the holy writ of Star Wars. I don’t need any of this. My brain deserves better fare.

Seems like “my brain deserves better fare” might drastically reduce my game-playing! Or rather, just cut it down to the games I actually like. Isn’t it good that I’ve finally reached this point? I guess it is, but there’s melancholy in it too.

I used to find absolutely every game stimulating at some level, because games are intrinsically interesting. But in recent years I’ve either grown more benumbed by age, or I’ve finally acclimated to the new reality in which there will always be more games available to me than I can possibly play. We live in the age of overwhelming cultural surplus, which encourages — indeed, necessitates! — a stronger will to peremptory dismissal. I’ve hardened my heart enough that now I can say “nah” to things before any real feelings form. It saddens me but it’s true.

I used to consider it a virtue to delay judgment and sample everything with an open mind; it seemed like the most life-affirming — world-affirming — way of being. But when you’re endlessly inundated with content — when you’re directly in the path of the firehose — you are forced to be always filtering your own intake, which means being constantly judgmental. Grotesque surplus is bad for the spirit. Ah well.

Okay then, I’ll just continue with the full-motion video. Next is the one I actually wanted:

Her Story (2015): Sam Barlow (Portsmouth, UK) [5 hrs]

The “interactive fiction” niche gaming subculture dresses up like TV and manages to briefly emerge into the light of mainstream attention. Two hours of police interview fragments, but unindexed: your only access is through the peephole of a keyword search. “Keyword search as obfuscation” is a brilliant and elegant inspiration! It’s the intersection of investigative thinking and Oulipean non-linear text-play; it makes a cross-reference maze out of the script. And you’re also always free to guess intuitively, searching for words that haven’t even been hinted at in the material you’ve seen. The ability to think like the writer and make meaningful wild leaps is rare in games and I found it gratifying. The writing and production and performance are: sufficient. Half of the game consists of speculating about clever possibilities that never actually come to pass, but that’s a form of pleasure too. Not knowing what’s behind the curtain is the main thing, and I’m always down for some of that. By all means, pull curtains shut and tell me to guess what’s behind them! It really and truly never gets old. Showmanship at its core. Peek-a-boo!

Once again, the game I actually wanted is much more rewarding than the random games that just hitched a ride. My my! What a peculiar coincidence! Who’d have guessed?

Now to play a couple more that I didn’t want.

MISSING: An Interactive Thriller — Episode One (2015): Zandel Media (Montreal, QC) [.5 hrs]

These poor misguided guys. They had just a glimmer of a tech concept with no actual content, and they went and ahead and produced it anyway. This is like the maze on the back of a cereal box made as expensively as possible. It’s like watching money drain into the void; half an hour of utter emptiness. Unsurprisingly, the company went under soon after this was released; there is no episode two.

Roundabout (2014): No Goblin (Seattle, WA) [played for .75 hrs]

This is basically Kuru Kuru Kururin done up with a thick coating of deadpan hipster-camp. I respect that it’s cheery and goofy, even if I’m left mostly cold by its Napoleon Dynamite idea of charm. But I just don’t get much pleasure out of avoid-a-thon gameplay. In the kind of dexterity games that I like, mastery looks uniquely graceful, and that’s why it’s enticing. Here all you can do is try to mitigate the awkwardness.

Thus ends the Full Motion Video bundle. No regrets about $5 for Her Story.

1/24/16: Pay-what-you-want — I want $2 — on IndieGameStand (long since defunct) for:

Hadean Lands (2014): Zarfhome Software (= Andrew Plotkin) (Boston, MA) [6 hours and counting]

It’s clear that this game is going to be a long haul, but apparently so is this year, so I plan to stick with it. Rather than wait to log it, I’m noting it now: I have EMBARKED ON THE LONG HAUL.

Plotkin is a geek VIP of long standing in the aforementioned “interactive fiction” fringe scene. His games have original ideas, high standards, and a real feeling for the gnomic Infocom style. In 2010 he opened up a kickstarter campaign to see if he could get some support for a new game, and immediately got showered with far more money than he had asked for, earned by years of goodwill from his high-quality free text adventures. So he used it to make this, an ambitious non-free text adventure. Word is that it’s a great success… at least at being what it wants to be, which is: a complex set of interlocking puzzles about make-believe alchemy governed by intricate make-believe rules.

I must admit I feel some dread, since I’m not at all excited about the prospect of doing a lot of make-believe alchemy. But as a lifelong fan of the genre, I feel like this is a game I will want to have played properly, without cheating, so I’m going to do it right. Having started in I can already see that it’s going to be clever and also be a headache — after leaving the introductory area, suddenly I’m inundated with about 100 different objects, locations, and bits of information, and left to sort it out for myself. I aspire to. I just might be very slow. Stay tuned.

[Added a few weeks later: Turned out to be a 23-hour haul. The game is a bizarre and fascinating experiment. Its high-concept outline (“alchemy spaceship Groundhog Day Enchanter with fast-travel and fast-solve”) is splendidly eccentric, and has been executed with great care and intelligence. But the concept is running this show; the resulting experience turns out to feel weirdly technical and often rather dry. Also subtly unfair at a few crucial junctures. Still, it suggests a really wonderful game, a better-rounded game that one can sometimes imagine oneself to be playing. Recommended only to those willing to run a significant distance to meet it halfway.]

Anyway, next up on my backlog is… wait, what’s this? I’m being handed a bulletin:


One of the side effects of global pandemic, at least as of this third month of The Plague Year 2020, is a lot of video game discounts and giveaways. Not to mention a lot more interest in game-playing, generally. Here’s one that I tagged as interesting a few years ago, and then on 3/22/20 noticed that it was being gifted for free to the beleaguered planet. Sounds good!

Fidel Dungeon Rescue (2017): Daniel Benmergui (+ Jeremías Babini & Hernán Rozenwasser) (Buenos Aires, Argentina) [about 4 hours?]

It’s original and polished and compact and has charm and depth, and I had a very nice few hours working my way through it. The game is about choosing a path across a semi-randomized board, but the various constraints on your movement make it almost a puzzle. Almost! It’s that rare game that calls on true puzzle-solving thought without being made of actual puzzles. It required an unusual blend of my “exactly solving” and “just surviving” forms of effort, which are usually distinct. Recommended.

And of course I must mention, as purchased for $19.99 on 3/14/20:

Tabletop Simulator (2015): Berserk Games (Austin, TX) [35 hrs so far, more to come]

I’ve had my eye on this for years. Lockdown was clearly the time to go for it. At time of press I have inveigled two parents and two friends into getting copies, as well as one parents’ friend, and oddly also one parents’ friend’s friend, a guy I don’t actually know but to whom I provided a day’s worth of tech support anyway. (He bought a four pack to play with the grandkids.) So far it’s just been a little checkers, a little Connect Four, some Codenames: Duet, a lot of Scrabble, one game of Sushi Go, and a fair amount of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, which for some reason caught my attention.

My review of the software: it’s an essential service and god bless them for making it. It’s also awkward to handle, hard to get used to, often quite ugly, forces you to use additional software for video chat, and overall has a tendency to glitch. Plus, picking your way blindly through the ridiculous wild west of user-made mods ends up being a time-consuming drag. (Which of these 12 poorly-indexed attempts at “Uno” is the one I ought to use? They all seem sloppy; which is the LEAST sloppy? Guess I need to check them all out carefully before I can play.)

But honestly none of that matters. I can play EVERY BOARD GAME THAT EXISTS and I can play them with friends and family who are holed up in separate bunkers across the land. That’s what counts. I’m so glad people are playing stuff with me. Even if they mostly just want to play Scrabble. So far.

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