Astounding! A masterpiece. Awe and disorientation. Pure symbolist architectural immersion, the poetics of dreamspace. Escher/Blade Runner/Brazil/Star Wars/House of Stairs/House of Leaves/Mandelbrot/Lovecraft et cetera et alia. You are neither welcome nor unwelcome here; just as mankind is neither welcome nor unwelcome in the universe. It worked on me at a deep level; it’s still ringing in my head. These hallways aren’t exactly my personal dream, but they’re close enough to resonate; this sort of light and shadow has real meaning for me, not just hypothetical meaning. Wonderfully sensitive and effective use of music, including tracks by noted experimentalist Pauline Oliveros (used with her approval). The game makes the best possible case for her music, I’d say. Just a spectacular overall impression.
(Is it uneven and arbitrary? Is the actual gameplay sometimes infuriating? Does it lack a proper ending? Yes, sure, all of that — so what?)
Remarkably enough, this game has been free since last fall. If you’ve got a Steam account and you have any interest in artsy games, you really ought to give it a look.
• Betrayer (2014): Blackpowder Games (Seattle, WA) [played for 2 hours]
Superficially a nice try: cold, crisp, otherworldly black-and-white with flashes of blood red. 1604, abandoned American colonial outposts. Wind in the grass, slow-loading muskets, the cawing of crows. Sounds like it could be a worthwhile dreamy-spooky experience. But the rest of the design is pure reflex and repetition — buy weapons, buy ammo, kill screeching skeletons (!), read scraps of paper, etc. etc. etc. Both the game and its big empty world are underrealized. I’m guessing this team of developers tried to go independent, started out ambitious, then ran out of time and money. That or they just didn’t have quite a full enough vision.
Oops, and I bought a new game. It was clearly a mandatory game, for me, and I decided it would be more satisfying to play it while it was still hot. People I know in real life are playing it right now; why not join the party, right? So I spent $14.99 + tax to buy:
• Baba Is You (2019): Hempuli Oy (= Arvi Teikari) (Helsinki, Finland) [41 hours]
Hats off, gentlemen! A fantastic game; an all-time game. It goes straight to my short list of greatest puzzle games, and that’s a list that matters to me. Those were 41 dense hours; this thing is jam-packed, and I am, I daresay, a strong puzzler. It’s incredible just how much of that time was been spent having the so-called “aha” experience — the thrill of transformative insight, prized by puzzlers. Immensely satisfying! FluxxSokoban is a nifty enough gimmick, but nifty enough gimmicks are literally a dime a dozen these days. Baba Is You distinguishes itself by the puzzles themselves, which are uniformly excellent and extremely numerous. There are tricks and surprises and meta-gimmicks and all that, but what really counts is that sense of of enthusiastic commitment to its own materials — the designer is genuinely interested in his system, and so has arranged for you to take a self-guided magical mystery tour of everything cool he found while exploring it. These puzzles are never here to prolong your playtime, which is to say to delay you from being done: they’re here to show you something that wants to be shown. They are etudes and this is a book of etudes.
I’ll allow myself some additional paragraphs here because I’m feeling so enthusiastic. The self-devouring logic of the puzzles has delightfully been carried over into the game structure, which might sound like an obvious design move but it really isn’t. Game design is generally myopic and obsessive about its pet forms; the value of rigid hierarchical concepts like “overworld map” and “hub worlds” and “bonus content” mostly goes unquestioned. Here those concepts are all gently tweaked into absurd Möbius loops. Is this screen a level or a map? Am I going up or down in the hierarchy? Are these normal levels or bonus levels, or does this whole group of levels constitute a bonus level, or what? What is the thing, or set of things, that I need to complete to get it to say that I completed something? It’s all deliberately been made screwy. Which is what this stuff deserves. Every artform needs to be always exploding a little bit, if it wants to stay alive. This had some real life in it; it is not rigid.
Computer entertainment, being an extension of animation, has more complete a freedom than any other medium I can think of: it can be truly anything. The breadth of genres demonstrates this capacity, but individual games rarely do — too many preconceptions running the show. Ideally, playing a new computer game should give a least a little of the feeling of experiencing some new slice of “TRULY ANYTHING,” some new discovery that was found floating through the universe of the human mind. This one did, god bless it!
A simplistic, forgettable fly-and-shoot; too slick to be charming and not slick enough to be seductive. The “sixth generation” graphical style still feels like it hasn’t been fully broken in: for fleeting moments, the space battles can look impressively like the cinematic real thing, but for the most part the world feels dull and empty. The overall sense is of programmers eager to get home to their families; the game plays like a contract fulfilled. Plus: the menus, the packaging, the GUI, the primitive CGI puppet storytelling — these were the years when things started to get real ugly.
This comes after Dark Forces and Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. Amusing for a third installment to be called “Part 2: II”; not sure I’ve ever seen that done anywhere else. (This on top of the usual Star Wars colon overload.)
This was new to me and turned out to be very satisfying indeed. Wonderfully on brand — Billy Dee Williams as the real Lando! — and just the right amount of gloss. 3D action games were well on their way out of the awkward phase by 2002; the surfaces are inviting again, soft and glowing, the figures are doll-like. Gameplay felt a tad cruel at times, and the whole thing ran too long, but keep in mind that I’m not actually very good at these games. Lively level designs full of variety and interest. Much obvious inspiration from Half-Life, and why not. The opposite of Starfighter: feels like a labor of love.
Plenty more Star Wars to go but I need a break so I’m gonna mix in some of the next group.
March 6, 2015, $4.50 for “Humble Weekly Bundle: Monochromatic.” Four games (plus one more that I already have). The theme is black & white graphics. It looked like a neat mix of stuff so I went for it, again breaking my oath to only buy when I had a specific interest. (Eventually I did start sticking to it, but it took a little while to sink in.)
A close relative of The Bridge, i.e. another well-intentioned Braid-alike from the years when they were rampant. This one has a very fine concept: if a surface isn’t lit and visible, it isn’t there. Unfortunately there’s often a lot of finicking to be done between conceiving of a solution and executing it. Meanwhile you’re putting up with somewhat overbearing Tim Burton ‘zine stylings and repetitive music. I prefer my puzzle games with a meditative rather than a goth vibe; it’s all about the headspace, after all. The puzzles make a nice exploration of the mechanic but there are probably too many of them, and it seems to me they’re in the wrong order: the third of the three groupings is both the easiest and the most aesthetically engaging. Nonetheless: pretty good.
Not just indie but truly “alt.” I find this sort of thing invigorating, just as I find art by children invigorating. It’s “about gender and the economy” (uh-oh!), but only in the most simplistic ways, which given the medium I think are probably the best ways. At the “be! creative! be! creative!” summer camp I attended as a kid, hippie progressive political ideals were never actually preached, but they were deeply embedded in the camp’s conception of creative freedom. This game is in every way like something made at that camp: the real Social Justice agenda is the one implicit in its defiance of any received aesthetic standards. It is neither serious nor a joke. It is neither well made nor poorly made. It is qualityqueer. More power to it.
By the way, Dominique Pamplemousse is now “name your own price” which means you can download and play it for free if you’re curious. (There’s also apparently a sequel.)
Those links both go to itch.io, an absolutely vast expanse of “be! creative! be! creative!” alt- games, mostly free, by creators at all levels of talent. If you want the real indie, this is where it is. Dipping into itch.io is the equivalent of seeing the unknown bands at the local performance space. Some of it’s like drunken karaoke; some of it is already signed with a major label. Whenever I stop by and glance at the storefront I’m intrigued and tempted, but I don’t think I have the stamina to wander into that thicket alone without guide or companion. If anyone wants to join me in occasional joint expeditions, though, let me know! Could be fun.
Not quite ready to quit this practice yet, but paring it way down.
Finishing up the Humble Indie Bundle 13 as purchased 11/11/14, two games to go:
• Eldritch (2013): Minor Key Games (=David and J. Kyle Pittman) (Frisco, TX / Novato, CA) [played 1 hr]
Minecraft as Lovecraft (well, “Lovecraft”), which is an inspired dreamspace equation: pixel-simple, toylike, hushed, spooky subterranean 3D space. Consistently raised goosebumps but not adrenaline, which for me is a rare threading of the needle. As usual with roguelikes, my interest lasted only as long as the novelty.
A handheld game, clearly conceived as “Gish does Katamari,” but with all the quirks ironed out. Plus a pile of standard-issue gimmicks — magnets, moving platforms, rocket packs — to prevent it from being too transparently boring. It’s still boring, but at least it’s cheerful and means well. I regret playing for 3 hours.
Two days later, 11/13/14, GOG gives away Mount & Blade. I impulsively click to claim it, even though it’s not the kind of game I care about in the least.
No story or goal; it’s just a Medieval Dolls Playset For Big Boys. I have no medieval fixation and thus am uninspired to play with the dolls. It’s also ugly: like a lot of marionettes being clacked together in the middle of nowhere. I spent several minutes trying to make the guy’s face look like mine. He was killed by looters almost immediately.
Two weeks later, 11/29/14, GOG gives away The Witcher 2. I impulsively click to claim it, even though it’s not the kind of game I care about in the least.
Despite being a ridiculous Game of Thrones-style high fantasy porn/gore/politics/snooze-fest, and despite being a goddamn RPG crawling with pointless systems, and despite wasting the player’s time shamelessly, extravagantly… it kept me under some sort of spell and I went the distance. It’s a fancy piece of work; the environments are lusciously pretty and full of detail. It suckered me into trotting back and forth through its virtual parks for hours on end, and I can’t deny I got something out of that. I always felt dumber after playing, but also more relaxed. Way to go, Poland! (Please note: not a recommendation.)
One month later, 12/25/14 GOG adds Akalabeth: World of Doom as a free game. I impulsively click to claim it, even though this is a game of historical interest only. I’m declaring it skippable. Can you blame me?
I think it was clicking on Akalabeth that made me stop and take a look in the mirror. I could only justify all this reckless acquisitiveness if I actually played the games. So a few days later I started blogging my way through the pile. That’s right, I’ve finally caught up to myself from 4 years ago!
At that point I made an oath to myself that I wouldn’t buy any more games unless I actually wanted them. Alas, it only took about a month before my resolve was tested by the “Star Wars Humble Bundle.” 12 games (a retail value of $137!) for 12 dollars. Purchased 2/10/15. In my defense, I did actually want about half of them.
So: here comes a massive overdose of STAR WARS®: EPISODE MERCH®: ATTACK OF THE STAR WARS®: THE STAR WARS® RETURNS-branded space-fantasy-action-style American entertainment products, fun for the whole family. In chronological order of release.
One from my past, one with feelings invested in it. Unexpectedly gratifying to return, for the first time in probably 20 years. Not a 100% perfect memory-capsule — I accept that such things can’t exist — but it managed to bring back a lot more of my 1995 sense of things than I thought likely. The simplistic Doom-era 3D is so wonderfully clear: all surface, no interior. Fundamentally comfortable, confident, inviting. The level design is varied, novel, fun. The now-primitive slideshows and MIDI music feel strong and eager. Just a worthwhile imaginary place to be, splendid puppet theater. I feel like kids today would still enjoy this, low resolution and all.
The release of this game marked a dividing line for me: I had just gone off to college, which I felt as a sudden distance between me and the world of new games. Playing the demo of this game in my freshman dorm room might well have been my very first time experiencing “Huh, so I guess this is what the young people are up to these days” — now one of the basic emotions.
The same moment also marked a dividing line in the overall aesthetics of 3D games, which is why the games of the “Playstation era” still feel foreign to me. The first games in full polygon 3D were markedly uglier than the clever fake 3D of the earlier Doom style, and the sense of space and proportion tended to be all out of whack. This game tries to turn that into a feature, offering mind-bendingly vast structures assembled into weird, maze-like levels. At first it all struck me as unwelcoming and a little nauseating, but the style grew on me the longer I played. Big chunks of it seem to be trying to recreate the spatial impact of Luke Skywalker falling down that colossal shaft and getting sucked into a duct. That’s a charmed image, worthy of this kind of exploration.
There are several inventive experiments, like the Titanic level where you race through a tilting, plummeting spaceship. They don’t all work but that doesn’t make them any less intriguing. The swordplay mechanics are clumsy at best. The music, collaged bizarrely from bits and pieces of John Williams, is distracting. The chintzy live-action interludes just are what they are. All around: more ambitious and sloppier than its predecessor. But again: I think the kids could get into this.
After I play Gone Home Steam tells me that I might also like Marie’s Room, a free half-hour game. But I don’t! It’s just someone’s exercise in set-building — yup, good job, very pretty lighting — with some truly terrible middle-school storytelling stuffed into its pockets after the fact. (“Dear diary, I saw that man again!”) It received a bunch of positive press, which just goes to show that you still can’t trust the world of games to know wheat from chaff.
• System Syzygy (2018): Matthew Steele (Boston, MA? not sure where this guy is) [7.5 hrs]
System Syzygy is free free free and is a loving homage to some games from 30 years ago that I feel very fondly toward, (Namelythesethree). The genre here is puzzle grab-bag with some degree of “metapuzzle” that ties it all together at the end. (As readers are probably aware, I was involved in the development of some metapuzzle grab-baggery lately, so this sort of thing was on my mind.) This guy did good. Sure, it has the problems endemic to the genre — unevenness, occasional unrewarding opacity mixed in with the rewarding opacity, and some puzzles that are more “interesting” than they are fun. There’s one puzzle here that’s about five times harder than any of the others (it’s a triple-decker Lights Out variant) and it shows up early on. But really this is a class act aimed at a very narrow nostalgia market — mine — and I’m grateful. (The EGA-style graphics are excellently accurate to the era.) I chomped through it hungrily in two days.
Meanwhile in backlog business. On November 7, 2014, GOG gives away Little Big Adventure for free. I think it was to promote some kind of “Vive la France” sale. Who cares, right? Free.
• Little Big Adventure (US title: Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure) (1994): Adeline Software (Lyon, France) [played for 2.5 hrs]
(This game is 25 years old and has no real trailer. The thing above is what a retro-repackager threw together for a recent Steam release and only contains footage from the first 10 minutes of the game. But that’s what there is.)
This is a game that I owned and played to completion in 1995. At 16 I was still young enough to be enveloped by the reality of every game I played, to be subsumed into its order-of-the-universe, and I remember this game being both intimate and expansive, like the best toys, in a way that set it apart as something special. The text and story were awkward — so in fact was some of the actual gameplay, though I got accustomed to it — but the basic sensory make-believe of the thing felt pure and true and welcoming. Like a beloved dog: it can’t speak but it has heart anyway, and is attuned to the things that matter. The game left a sweet, soulful, animal impression that I can still access today.
I hadn’t replayed it since, and I was truly looking forward. I thought I had a treat, and a sentimental journey, in store. I am thus very sad — pained! — to report that the mechanical problems with this game have aged terribly, to the point that I don’t think it’s possible to recapture that feeling and revisit that dream. Or at least it wasn’t possible for me this month, with the degree of impatience and frustration that currently inhabits me. Having to replay the same first 10 minutes of action over and over and over and over because of the stubbornly unhelpful save system; being punished for the very faintest of navigational miscalculations by getting stuck in an inescapable loop of damage until the character dies. These things hurt my feelings today in a way that at 16 they didn’t. Have I gotten softer? Harder? More impatient? Less masochistic? All I know is I couldn’t stomach it enough to get past it, to breathe the dollhouse air and smell the little Lego flowers. So I had to stop. It made me sad but that’s how it is.
November 11, 2014: I buy in to “Humble Indie Bundle 13” for $7.48, a price chosen to Beat The Average and thereby net me nine games. It’s been almost five years and I still haven’t played any of ’em! Here they are.
• OlliOlli (2013): Roll7 (London, England)
Well, this one wouldn’t start. I don’t know why. I tried several different things but it just wouldn’t. As you can see it’s not something I’m too torn up about. Still have about 150 games to get through, so there’s no time to be precious. If it won’t run, I’m not playing it. Next.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is snazzy concept art in motion, by a real animator guy. The art direction is the point. Heck, even the title is art direction! And to sustain that art direction is a serviceable, unremarkable, good-natured game. (It reminded me a little bit of Guacamelee in this respect.) The trailer is absolutely representative in every way. If you want to play around with a thing that looks like that, this is the game for you. If you want more than that, I have sad news.
By the way, world: this game took me 7 hours because it mistakenly defaulted to my DUMB SLOW graphics processor instead of my SMART FAST one, and I didn’t realize what was going on until I was at the final boss. I thought the game was deliberately slow and meditative. “Atmospheric.” Kind of frustrating that way, but I figured it was their choice! The fast way that it’s supposed to be is much, much better. Too late for me!
• Tower of Guns (2014): Terrible Posture Games (= Joe Mirabello) (Sharon, MA) [played for .5 hrs]
This game isn’t for me but that’s okay! It seems like a great idea: randomized, hard, shoot-or-be-shot 3D obstacle course, not too long (pitched as lasting “a lunch break”). You acquire more options the more times you play, so there’s a sense of long-term progression even as it repeats itself. (People really seem to love that, these days. Anything to avoid the sensation of stasis!) Atmosphere is half-silly, half-menacing. No real investment in the specifics but enough atmosphere to transport you, in the spirit of long-ago Quake et al. No drooling demons, just big cartoon cannons. No anger, just danger. I approve. I think this guy did great. (Way to go, Sharon, MA!) But the thing is… I’m not very good at first-person shooterizing, I never have been and I never will be. When I play first-person games I’m always in it for the exploration and the sense of make-believe. Tower of Guns expects the player to be in it for the game. Uh-oh! Waiter!
• Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs (2013): The Chinese Room (Brighton, UK) [6 hrs]
Hell of a subtitle. Amnesia is of course the sequel to Amnesia. Another haunted house walking tour with the same plot: “oh god, who’s responsible for these unimaginable horrors” (answer: you; see title for details). As in the original, anticipating the monsters is scary, and dealing with them isn’t. But there’s plenty of anticipation to go around. The first hour or so, in which basically nothing happens, had me absolutely gripped. After that: whatever. The storyline is Sweeney Todd does Dr. Moreau, which is probably a smidge more interesting than Dracula does Lovecraft from the first game, but the writing runs long and repetitive and pretentious, and tangles itself into pointlessly confusing knots by the end. Some people complained that the gameplay was too simplistic and linear compared to the original; personally I’m very happy to be led by the hand down a straight hallway, so long as it’s a rewarding enough hallway. This game means well but could have used an editor.
Also: “Weird ungodly classical music from a nightmare world” gets written into a lot of horror games and movies, but it’s harder to compose than you might think. There’s a piece in here that does a fine job of it. Kudos!
• Jazzpunk (2014): Necrophone Games (Toronto, CA) [2 hrs]
High-energy post-retro nonsense! Actual nonsense; silly nonsense. Hipsterism, to be sure, but at least the kind that picks and chooses its influences with panache. I laughed aloud at truly stupid crap because the proceedings were properly manic and stylized. (e.g. you dial the Kremlin and the voice that answers informs you that you’ve reached “Kremlins 2: The New Batch.” That would be unfunny in a movie, but in the middle of a conceptual tornado it managed to surprise and amuse me). These days pastiche is the fundamental mode of all culture, so pastiche-as-comedy is no longer viable. Mad Magazine is a fossil. Yet Jazzpunk manages to seem like something rather than nothing, by channeling it all through the psychedelic inanity of a primitive 3D engine, where it can no longer be passed off as well-formed. It can’t be “merely lame” because it’s too far gone toward real madness and/or incompetence. This kind of prank-dream is probably as close to Airplane! as we can get in a post-Quentin Tarantino world. I admired it for being near-frictionless, un-game-like: it really is just a comedy experience that happens to be interactive. I’ll forgive it whatever it needs to be forgiven, because: it’s some new sort of thing, of its own invention, and god bless it for that.
Maybe some of the principle is the same as those Firesign Theatre albums that used to delight me as a kid despite my understanding them almost not at all. Are my feet on the ground? No? Is everything whirling around? Yes? Excellent. That’s artistic insight enough for me! I say live it, or live with it!
• Risk of Rain (2013): Hopoo Games (Seattle, WA) [played 1.5 hrs]
Another game with a simple foundation (shoot monsters and don’t die) on top of which a towering skyscraper of ADD-ONS POWER-UPS CHARACTERS UNLOCKABLES etc. has been built. It’s depth, but it’s cheap depth. If you want to evolve checkers you can either invent “Chess” or you can invent “Hellz Yeah Balancepunk Checkers!!” in which a deck of cards has been added that determines each player’s special power for that game, and the board is randomized before play so that certain squares impart abilities when you land on them, and so on and so on. (I just now coined “Balancepunk.”) To me it seems like the unimaginative way forward but some people really love this sort of thing and are convinced it’s the future. “Is the system more complex? Is the path to mastery ever longer, and paved with ever more bric-a-brac? Does it contain 200 of something that I can try to collect all 200 of? Woo-hoo!”
Personally, I’ll always be a foundation-dweller; I’m compelled to explore the cellar thoroughly but not to try to get to the roof of the unlockable skyscraper. The cellar of this game is a decent little run-around-and-shoot game with a serious case of the tinies. Everything that matters is about 6 pixels big. But: they are real pixels! They never overlap or change size. Gotta respect that. Also the music is really very professionally done, for what it is. I had a 60 minutes of fun poking around, and then 30 minutes of “oh it expects me to want to really get good at this?” and then I stopped.
• The Novelist (2013): Orthogonal Games (=Kent Hudson) (San Francisco, CA) [2 hrs]
I like indie games and their ambitions and their pretensions. I really do. Mix it up! Experiment. Throw weird stuff at me. Get things wrong sometimes. By all means!
This is an experiment that doesn’t work because it isn’t good enough. It’s not fun or interesting to play. That’s okay! Keep going, everyone!
Was gonna complain about “choice” here but it started to balloon so I transferred it to its own entry, which may or may not get rounded off and posted at some point. In short: “choice” in games is a false god. Nobody really cares about “choice” and it doesn’t mean what game designers want it to mean.
This game makes you chooooooooooose every day between whether dad’s precious time and energy is spent on himself, on mom, or on little Johnny. Once you’ve chosen, you get told, very somberly (molto sombrero), that the person you chose felt better! as a result of the choice! but alas! the two you didn’t choose felt worse! as a result of the choice! And now… on to the next choice! This is framed as mature food for thought but to my mind it’s reductive in an immature way. Loving your family is nothing like keeping a tally of points for each person; or at least it shouldn’t be.
As is often the case in computer games, the designers’ compulsion to build the model in the first place is far more revealing about human nature than any insight that they managed to put into the model. And this model is really super simplistic. It’s basically a 9-question “what are your priorities?” quiz from Modern Dad magazine, rendered in the style of Gone Home — you slink quietly around the 3D house and look at their stuff. Ostensibly you’re a ghost haunting a family’s private spaces, but it’s more like you’re a PLAYER haunting a NON-GAME, trying not to be seen.
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:
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:
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
• AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! …for the Awesome! (2011): Dejobaan Games (Cambridge, MA) / Owlchemy Labs (Boston, MA) [played for 1 hr]
• Jack Lumber (2012): Owlchemy Labs (Boston, MA) [played for .5 hr]
AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAA!!! is silly stuff. Mildly diverting for the one sitting I allotted it, but then what? Tongue-in-cheek dada-punk stylings leave me mostly cold but I don’t actually care; my real problem is with the basic idea that a “falling down past buildings” game is somehow different from a “flying forward past a bunch of random junk, with very sluggish controls” game. Is it? I’m not sure it is.
Jack Lumber is “Fruit Ninja but better,” and I’ve got to hand to them: it’s Fruit Ninja but better! They nailed it! The problem is nobody wants to play Fruit Ninja with a mouse. This is fundamentally a touchscreen game. And my computer, I’m proud to say, doesn’t have a touchscreen.
• Hero Academy (2012): Robot Entertainment (Plano, TX) [played for .5 hr]
• Anomaly 2 (2013): 11 bit studios (Warsaw, Poland) [played for 1 hr]
Hero Academy is a “tactics” game, which means that it’s not for me, at least as I am now. My attitude is: why would I ever choose to play a strategy game with a big ugly pile of rules and variables — a whole lot of different character classes with different strengths and powers and weaknesses and power-ups and power-downs — when I could play 1) a simpler and more elegant strategy game that’s just as deep, or 2) a full-on action game? Apparently there are great answers to this question, because lots of people love these types of games. Other people.
Anomaly 2 is “reverse tower defense.” I’m able to get some satisfaction out of the core task of keeping a system chugging along happily. The game is fine, truly. If the aesthetic were at all palatable, I’d play it. That is, if this exact game were reskinned to be monkeys throwing coconuts at alligators, with a string quartet playing in the background, I’d probably have played the whole thing. But did you see that trailer? This is a game that repeatedly plays a clip of a guy saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” in the middle of the action. I’m not sure the writers fully understood what napalm is, or indeed, where that quote comes from and what it signifies. Sorry boys, no time to think about that because we’re goin’ in — in three… two… one… LOCK AND LOAD, BABY!!!
That wraps up the games purchased on 12/18/13. Except it doesn’t, because a week later, on 12/24/13, the same bundle got three more games retroactively added to it:
• Solar 2 (2011): Murudai (= Jay Watts) (Australia) [played for 2.5 hrs]
• Bad Hotel (2012): Lucky Frame (Edinburgh, Scotland) [played for .75 hrs]
Solar 2 is a simple zone-out-and-float-around game. I like the scale of the thing: it’s just this toy; this is all it does. That’s how video games used to be: poems in one stanza. Limitations invite investment; they also give the experience of depth more immediately and quickly. My two and a half hours felt nice and full. I floated around listening to the nice music, getting bigger and smaller, growing little spaceman civilizations and then losing them, smashing into things, devouring the universe, and so on and so forth. Lovely, sweet. Not necessarily memorable.
Bad Hotel is a very literal tower defense game with a cheerfully conspicuous visual style (one which I would characterize as “so lately I’ve really been getting into graphic design”) and a music-generating feature (: the blocks go plinket-a-pop bip!, plinket-a-pop bip!, plinket-a-pop bip! until uh-oh two of them exploded; now they go plink-a smerr, plink-a smerr, plink-a smerr… and so on and so forth). It’s not exactly balanced but it’s perfectly playable. It’s also clearly an iPhone game, meant to be played with one finger, not with a mouse. And also not played for very long. 45 minutes isn’t me getting fed up; it was just the right amount of time.
• The Bard’s Tale (2004): inXile Entertainment (Newport Beach, CA) [played for .75 hrs]
Yes, I agree, the trailer makes this look unforgivably tacky, but in action I got the impression that it might well divert me in spite of itself. Unfortunately it’s not properly compatible with modern controllers, and the keyboard controls struck me as ungainly. So I’m passing. Sorry, bard. (As a bonus, it’s also got ye olde 80s “Bard’s Tale” games embedded in it on an Apple IIGS emulator, but those would be fairly punishing to play now, I think, so I’m not even trying. I’m bad enough with RPGs as it is.)
Okay now I’m done with that bundle. Those were mostly-unwanted games that I played quickly, and now have logged pretty much solely to check them off my list. Here come the ones I actually spent time on this month.
Moving down the spreadsheet. On 12/21/13, I bought the delightful Escape Goat on sale for $1.49, then immediately played it to completion, so it needn’t be replayed now. (I exempted myself from the vicious-beyond-all-reason bonus levels that become available at the end. I think everyone does.)
That’s it for 2013!
This next game on my spreadsheet is listed as 1/14/14 because that’s when the first part of it became available to play. But the actual date of purchase was 12/11/12 ($30 for access to the ongoing documentary tracking the development process, plus an eventual copy of the game). I played the first half when it was released in 2014, but when the rest came out, 4/28/15, I never actually opened it up. So just now I played the whole thing start to finish.
• Broken Age (2014–15): Double Fine Productions (San Francisco, CA) [10 hrs]
A wonderful, beautiful, transporting, misguided, frustrating, undercooked adventure game. The documentary is truly fantastic and I recommend it to everyone. It’s a fascinating look at a contemporary workplace, the subtleties and good intentions of time and resource mismanagement, and the rewards and challenges of a collaborative artistic production process. It’s also a great piece of pure peoplewatching. I have very fond memories of watching each new episode as it was released; I have a distinct and personal sense of each of the member of the creative team. The game is exactly the heartfelt/confused thing I saw them making.
The core of the problem is that given a budgetary windfall in advance, they decided to spend it on more lavish and elaborate stuff — art, music, voices, animation — rather than on more time to iteratively test and refine the actual game script and design. And then they compounded their error by repeatedly forgetting to give themselves enough buffer to deal with the additional production complexity entailed by that new lavishness.
So that’s what you get: by far the highest aesthetic production values of any point-and-click adventure game ever made. It’s a gorgeous and enveloping storybook. But what’s it like when you actually sit down and read that storybook? How’s the game itself? It’s, uh… well-meaning? A little weak? Seems like they kinda improvised the story, didn’t actually know where they were going, lost their own thread somewhere halfway through… then, finding themselves under the gun, fell back awkwardly on boring cliches that “explained” everything, and threw together a shrug of an ending. The end product is simultaneously a marvel and a damned shame. I’m rooting hard for it. I still am! Even now that I’ve seen it all and sighed my way through. Hey, maybe I got it wrong! Maybe it’s really actually a great piece of work, a big success! I sincerely wish it.
Part of the reason the documentary is so great is because it documents that, the creation of a thing neither very good nor very bad. It’s a thing. It’s a thing people worked on and made. Your relationship to the emotions of hope and disappointment is your own; it’s something you bring with you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Good luck out there.
On 1/21/14 the following game goes on 90% sale, for $1.49. I’ve been curious about it for a while and can’t resist that price.
This is a marvelous and terrible game. I know, I just said something similar about the previous game. Well, it’s a thing that happens in video games. But where Broken Age was quietly marvelous and subtly terrible, La-Mulana goes BIG. In every way. It’s a masterpiece AND maybe it’s unplayable and shouldn’t exist. For better and worse I spent a lot of time inside it.
While playing Metroid-style action-adventures, a certain type of mind can’t help but entertain fantasies of ever more baroque mazes, ever more dense with secret panels, ever more intricately constrained and interwoven. Ever more more more. Wouldn’t that imagined game, that more elaborate game, be so astounding, thrilling, splendidly overwhelming! Well this is it!La-Mulana is the realization of that fantasy; it is this type of game “taken to its logical conclusions.” It is willfully, aggressively, flagrantly overvast and overcomplicated and overcryptic; it takes many tens of hours to complete; it sprawls through about 450 rooms; it requires the player to keep track of a book’s worth of maps and hints and symbols. It’s also pretty hard on a screen-for-screen level — the individual boss fights are often really, really tough. It is extraordinarily generous in scope and extraordinarily nasty in particulars. And that’s all awesome, as long as you can clearly distinguish between awesome and satisfying.
The fantasy is of being completely enveloped in a puzzle-womb, from which escape is theoretically possible, but only upon fulfillment of a maniacally overwhelming gauntlet of ordeals, indefinitely prolonged. The fantasy is here achieved and it is exactly as healthy and rewarding as it sounds. Its marvelousness and its terribleness both arise from doing such faithful service to a troubled compulsion. It’s a platonic ideal of something, which means it has a lot to answer for.
I am so close to being ready to love this, in all its grotesque hugeness — I’m even ready to embrace all the prankish sucker-punches — but there’s one thing I cannot fully embrace: that there’s no way to distinguish between “come back to this area later, it’s currently impossible,” and “push through this area now, it’s hard but doable.” When you’ve discovered 25 different blocked passages in various places and 100 cryptic fragments of text, you really deserve some kind of help in deciding which ones to focus your attention on and which ones to leave alone. I wanted to try my best to play without online hints but this aspect defeated me. That’s where my personal puzzle-compulsive psyche gives out, anyway; your proverbial mileage may vary. Whatever kind of person I am, I’m the kind of person who loves figuring things out for myself but who doesn’t love searching for needles in haystacks. Well, I mean, I kind of like that too… but it depends on the size of the haystack. This is a mile-high haystack. This is the Lost Temple of Haystack.
It has a lot in common with Aquaria — which I suspect was somewhat inspired by the original 2005 version of La-Mulana — which I played all the way up to the final boss only to discover I didn’t care enough to finish. In this case I’ve played all the way up to the final boss, died many times, and am currently ambivalent about whether to grind it out and get the “you did it” achievement on Steam. One way or another, I’m pretty much done here.
Is it coincidence that both of these games culminate in destroying your own ancestral creator-god, depicted as an alien maternal figure fallen from the heavens? Obviously no, it’s not. (Spoiler: The vast ruins of La-Mulana ARE the Mother God.) Maybe reread the description of the game with Freudian glasses on.
La-Mulana 2 is coming out any day now.
2/10/14. Tipped off by a post on the “GameDeals” Reddit forum, I obediently go through some kind of promotional rigmarole involving “liking” the Facebook page of some game retailer — maybe “Bundle Stars”? — in order to earn a free copy of game about which I know almost nothing, but which looks kind of attractive:
• Pid (2012): Might and Delight (Stockholm, Sweden) [12 hrs]
An exceptionally pretty jumping-around game. For some reason the sensitive soft-focus aesthetic made me think this was going to be a gentle one-sitting indie bonbon. Not hardly! It’s tough and it goes on for quite a while. Maybe a little too tough and maybe a little too much of a while. The basic mechanic — plant little anti-gravity beams and then jump in them to float around — never really enchants. It just sticks around and wears you down. But the hazy, dreamy, murmuring vibe is as sweet and rewarding as it looks. I zoned into this with pleasure. The music is real and smart and human. As is the sound design. The rain patters on the windows of the game and you’re somewhere cozy inside with it. This is a tasteful and cared-for thing, of significant scale. And yet it has almost no presence on Youtube/Twitch/wherever. It has its flaws but its obscurity is unmerited. Glad I played. Wish it had been half as long.
Meanwhile in free play:
• DROD RPG: Tendry’s Tale (2008): Caravel Games (Provo, UT / various) [14 hrs]
Next up in the DROD chronological marathon, even though it’s not a true DROD. Sure, it quacks like a DROD, but it plays like something else entirely, something very odd. It’s an example of what I propose to call a “trading maze,” e.g.: your goal is to get 100 Cs and you start with 10 As. Your current options are: 1) Trade 3 As for 1 B. 2) Trade 9 As for 2 Bs and a C. 3) Trade 1 B for 4 As. 4) Trade 5 As to open up a subtree of seven new possible trades. Etc. That’s all there is here — the graphics and monsters and movement and stuff are superficial. But the design invests in that surface in a strange way. You can’t see the whole map, so you don’t actually know what’s your trading options might be — what’s behind door number 3, as it were — until you invest some of your coin in sheer exploration, in the process of which you usually learn retroactively that you did things in the wrong order and have to try again. Which is a classic example of bad game design (don’t punish the player for failing to have information you didn’t give them yet!). The wrinkle here is that this game knows exactly what it is, and is cheerful about it, and wants you to be cheerful about it too. “Save and restore often! Try, fail, then try a different way!” Okay, so… hm, is that fun? It defies some of my intuitions for what constitutes an engaging game. But maybe those intuitions could benefit from being defied?
My experience with this was genuinely fun-confused. Hitting the point of “ugh, so apparently the last 45 minutes have been for naught, I have to redo them” would invariably make me feel irritable and consider quitting for good… and then I’d take some time away from the game, come back, and find that redoing the same stuff with the benefit of foresight was actually rather satisfying. In fact, over the whole 14 hours of the game I developed a deeper instinct for how to make blind gambles wisely, alternating with deliberate and efficient save/restore scouting missions, such that I was able to do the last few areas pretty smoothly, without any major backtracking. That was a satisfying feeling — a feeling of actual increased competence. But the thing I had become more competent at seemed like a meta-game, not the game itself. I recognize that maybe that’s a mental block but there it is. Even having finished, it feels to me like the game itself was the place where I had been unfairly hung out to dry many times over. Then I learned how to steel myself against that intrinsic unfairness, and that became a point of pride. Which is apparently what the designers wanted to offer me in the first place. So again: is that “fun”? I still don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter as there won’t be any more DROD RPG games. (Unless I download the user-made ones.)
Ever onward, ever onward. I know how much you all cherish these entries.
• DROD: The City Beneath (2007): Caravel Games (Seattle, WA / Provo, UT / various) [54 hrs]
Picking up from last time, after playing hundreds of hours of DROD: I proceeded to play even more DROD.
Third full game in the series, and the last one that I’d already played; everything from this point on will be brand new to me. My first playthrough of this one was only 4 years ago, but damned if that helped at all. Some of the hardest stuff, toward the end, seemed vaguely familiar when I got there, but a substantial portion of this felt like I was seeing it for the first time. That’s not a reflection of how interesting it is — this is in fact the kookiest and most eventful of the games thus far. It’s mostly just an indication of the degraded state of my memory-formation in 2014. Pretty sure things have improved on that front since.
Story-emphasis gets even more extreme in this one. On my previous pass I found that off-putting, but this time I was into it. Bring on the folk-art weirdness, I say! For whatever reason, I’m eating it up. Meanwhile the puzzle elements branch out in all kinds of wacky directions. This is a game that experiments and expands on its own design right before your eyes. There’s something thrilling about that.
Also, after a decade of defiantly unschooled and unpolished music by the game’s designer — which, I grant, was fairly engaging in a gawky “outsider” sort of way — this one suddenly has a soundtrack by an actual established synth musician. And it’s pretty good! (It better be, if you’re gonna spend 54 hours with it.)
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 8. Devilishly Dangerous Dungeons of Doom (2008): Roger Barnett [8 hrs]
I promise: this is the last one for now. A few interesting rooms here but overall I found this set of puzzles tended toward the irritating. Ah well. You better believe there’s more DROD to come but I think it’s time to mix it up again.
• Fish Fillets 2 (a.k.a The X Fillets II) (2007): ALTAR Interactive (Brno, Czech Republic) [50 hrs so far…]
Yes, I know how it looks. But contrary to all appearances, this is absolutely terrific. If you can set aside the chirping nonsense of the trappings — and you can — this is as good and as hard (hard! HARD!) as puzzle games come. The original Fish Fillets was a drag, whereas this isn’t at all: it’s smooth and responsive and has a generous undo and save system. Furthermore the puzzle mechanics in this one have been revised to be much more intuitive: yes of course the fish should be able to carry items downward as well as upward!
It gave me that childlike eager feeling I sometimes get, where not only am I enjoying myself but I become convinced against all reason that everyone I know would enjoy this too. It’s never true, of course — in fact often the things that inspire that kind of enthusiasm are the ones most idiosyncratic to me — but it’s a special expansive kind of enthusiasm, where even the non-ego parts of my psyche get folded in. This is a game not only for “I” but for “the Other”! Too bad Fish Fillets 2 isn’t available for Mac or else I’d give YOU a copy, gentle reader, whether you wanted it or not. (If you have a PC, please note that this is just $5 on Steam, and goes on sale for $0.99 regularly. Please note!)
The brilliance, as with DROD, is that the puzzle construction is always in interlocking conceptual layers: the big-picture plan (“I think the idea is to move the first piece across the screen and then use it to lift the second piece?”) is constrained by the move-by-move sliding-puzzle logistics (“Dammit, in what order do I have to make the moves so that I can squeeze both the fish past that jut in the wall? Is it even possible?”), and vice versa. The process of solving is always an intricate dance between attending to short- and long-term goals.
The puzzles are hard (HARD!) enough that all the X-Files fish nonsense feels perfectly welcome (though I’ll grant that the way the dialogue repeats after an undo is a bit exasperating). All the non-puzzle elements of the production feel like illustrations on paper plates at a 6-year-old’s birthday party, but that’s really fine with me. I generally had a good time at those parties. And yes, after tens of hours of brainwashing, I did actually start to chuckle at some of the supremely supremely nerdy joking. It’s all in good fun, people! Come on!
I’m writing it up even though I didn’t finish, yet, because — did I mention it’s hard? About 40 hours into this thing the difficulty started to be, as they say, prohibitive, and progress became very very slow indeed. But I’m not a quitter. Just a slower. I’ve slowed so significantly that I’m logging it. But I assure you: the work will continue.
Hey! I just now put it together that Fish Fillets is designed by Vlaada Chvátil, the same game designer as instant-classic tabletop game Codenames, as seen at your local Barnes & Noble! NOW do you believe me? This is the real thing! Woo-hoo, Fish Fillets 2!
Meanwhile I do want to keep chipping away at the backlog. Still working through the Humble WB Games Bundle from 11/5/13.
Curiosity about this game’s celebrated “type absolutely anything and it will appear onscreen!” mechanic was the main reason I bought this bundle in the first place. The system is simultaneously impressive and not that impressive. Everything’s rendered in the same simplistic, blocky, hinged-puppet style, and modifiers are implemented in the simplest and most obvious way. Wanna see “big fat angry teal koala”? Sure, it can do that. Just don’t expect it to be as funny to look at as it was to come up with. Despite all the adjectives it still just looks basically like “koala” which, come to think of it, looks basically like “bear.”
That said, there are certainly several minutes of genuine entertainment to be had in ordering it to generate a bunch of stupid surreal things and then watching them interact. “Stinky mean cantaloupe” vs. “hairy baby mapmaker”! Go! (In case you were curious: the cantaloupe attacked the baby mapmaker, who then defeated it almost immediately by throwing a map at it.)
As for the game, it’s more or less Richard Scarry’s Busytown, with plenty of glockenspiel cheer to go around. Contrary to the silly casting in the trailer above, this is designed for actual kids much more than for kids-at-heart (= weird uncles)… but I do have to wonder if even actual kids would find this rewarding for very long. Once you get past the pure sandbox amusement, the gameplay basically consists of a series of characters making requests like “I need something to help me put these dinosaur bones together!” and you type “glue” and then drag the glue to the woman who asked for it, and then the pile of bones puff-of-smoke into a complete skeleton, and the screen fills up with “hooray you did it” graphics. I guess maybe if I had typed “giant sticky boogers” it might also have worked, but it’s not like it awards creativity points. Glue will do fine.
Fun is where you find it, I guess. Sounds good. I made a hairy baby mapmaker and had the corresponding amount of fun. I heartily approve of the spirit of this game and have no need to actually play it.
• Batman: Arkham City (2011 / “Game of the Year Edition” 2012): Rocksteady Studios (London, UK) [25+ hrs]
Batman’s post-Burton franchise affectations — of being “brooding” and “dramatic” and, quote, “dark,” end quote — are pretty hard for me to take, if only because I actually do like things that are brooding and dramatic and dark, and Batman, as far as I can tell, is actually just a ballet about a bunch of different Mardi Gras costumes getting into fights. All the weeping choruses singing double-talk Dies Iraes, the obsessive Pietà posing — get a grip, guys! Open your eyes and look at what’s really going on here: the little guys are bopping each other!
The storyline is just a catalogue of 15 different villains, strung together into a fetch-quest daisy chain, and the gameplay mostly consists of being trained to do tricks on cue, and then being fed the cues. (Whenever you see a concrete wall: use your explosive to explode it. Got that? Hey look, it’s a concrete wall! Hey look there’s another one!) The characters are all kinda gross and/or porny, and as I’ve already said I can’t really get into the vibe. So why did I thoroughly enjoy this game for 25 hours? Sheer production polish. This product is luxurious in every respect: it looks and sounds and responds like a million bucks. That’s what “triple A” games are supposed to offer: confident, seamless immersion in a sensory thrill. Taste, and indeed substance, is really beside the point. Games are the new Hollywood; this is a mountain of sparkly tinsel. I’m totally a sucker for tinsel. Isn’t everybody?
I think snobbery usually arises from people trying to fight off their own seduction by nonsense. I on the other hand enjoy allowing myself to be thoroughly seduced by all sorts of nonsense. If it can figure out how. This figured out how. Yes, I know, having no standards is risky — but listen: life is risky.
The rest of the Humble WB Games Bundle is going to be skipped!
• Mortal Kombat Kollection is no longer supported by Steam and anyway it’s just old arcade games, which I can play other ways.
• Guardians of Middle-Earth is fundamentally a multiplayer game, in a genre I don’t care at all about, and Steam reviews pretty much all say it’s terrible. Three strikes.
The bundle also came with some kind of starter kit for Lord of the Rings Online but that’s not actually a game that I now own, it’s just a promotional enticement to enter an already free-to-play “massively multiplayer” game. Not happening.
So that finally brings me to the end of my purchases of… let’s see… November 2013!
December 12, 2013: GOG, knowing that at the end of the year they’ll be losing their license to sell the original Fallout games, offers them for free to kick off their winter sale (and possibly to piss off the rights-holders?) I can’t resist clicking on buttons that say Free, so now I have them.
These are famous and beloved games, but they’re now essentially antiques and are furthermore not what I would usually consider to be my kind of game. So let’s see how much patience I have for them.
Results are in: Not enough patience. I can tell this is a nice, thoughtful RPG. But I have some kind of inborn RPG block, and this isn’t gonna be the game that breaks it.
I spent most of my time punching rats, then waiting for them to ploddingly “take their turn,” so that I could punch them again. A guy said he’d help me for money, but I had no money, and couldn’t find any way to get some. I died several times by stupidly wandering into situations I wasn’t prepared for. There were too many menus and stats, and everything required two more mouse-clicks than I instinctively wanted it to. I just couldn’t get in the zone. I never can with RPGs. That’s all there is.
Very very gradually earning new slivers of the statistical pie in the face of a random number generator is not fun to me. It never will be. Seems to me that RPGs are ALL ABOUT that.
12/18/03 I purchase “Humble Bundle: PC and Android 8.” This ends up being 8 games (for $5). One of them (Little Inferno) I already own and have addressed somewhere above. The other 7 are next up on the backlog.
• Gemini Rue (2011): Joshua Nuernberger (Los Angeles, CA) / Wadjet Eye Games (Brooklyn, NY) [6 hrs]
All graphic adventure games are born fighting an uphill battle against terminal awkwardness. I can’t help but root for them… for the first half hour. The other five-and-a-half hours of Gemini Rue I spent making editorial corrections, mentally. The title gives a clue to the sort of writing on offer: Gemini is the name of a sci-fi location in the game, and then, yes, that’s just the plain old word “rue,” as in “rue the day.” As in “He doesn’t need to live a life of rue anymore,” which (spoiler!) is the final line of dialogue. Or as in the designer’s own words: ‘…since the game was pretty melancholy, I looked up a sad thesaurus and came up with the word, “Rue.” ‘
The protagonist’s name is “Azriel Odin.”
Sound and graphics are… okay, and some of the Philip K. Dick-ripoff story ideas had promise. The genre is a promising one for this form (and overall I found this more successful than Beneath a Steel Sky; the necessary actions may have been uninspired but at least they made sense). So, sure, the game has its points — I don’t need to look up a sad thesaurus to review it — but it is inescapably student work, living somewhere above “fan” but below “professional.” Of course, a lot of well-staffed graphic adventures also tend to find themselves stuck in that zone, which is why they all need so much rooting for. Root root root! If they don’t win it’s a shame. Hey Wadjet Eye, if you ever want someone to rewrite absolutely every single line of your dialogue, just let me know. Sample work: final line above should have been “Whoever he is… he’s free.” Get in touch if you want the other thousand.
Unless the voice acting is supremely good — which it never is — these constrained pixelly games feel far better without it. Much more enveloping, much more ominous. That hush is a threat and an enticement, just like the faces that are too lo-res to be seen. And yet I never have the guts to just outright mute the voices when they’re provided — it would feel uncouth, like refusing a birthday cake that someone has taken the time to bake for me. On which they’ve written “Happy birth! Day.” because they only got one take and don’t have any clue what the context is. Thanks guys, it’s! Delicious.
A break from the bundle backlog! After typing up the previous entry in this log I realized I maybe should play some games that I actually like, for a change. Done.
• The Talos Principle (2014): Croteam (Zagreb, Croatia) [28 hrs]
Purchased 12/28/17 in the Steam Winter Sale for $7.99 (down from $39.99!).
Excellent. Gently surreal uninhabited idylls filled with lock-and-key puzzles, a.k.a. Myst, but this is surely the cleverest narrative justification the genre has ever received. The particular aesthetics of these idylls were rewarding for me; I was pleasantly reminded of my recent visit to Pompeii, which I think is exactly what the designers had in mind. I was also affected by the level that seemed to be a take on Böcklin’s Toteninsel; the chance to go “inside” an evocative piece of art is one of the greatest gifts of computer games. All in all, a bunch of tasty make-believe places to spend some time.
Furthermore the actual puzzles are good too, basically revolving around the principle of locking/unlocking at a distance by line-of-sight. This is a simple and solid mechanic, and despite being intuitive and obvious, was genuinely new to me. Quibble is that there’s some redundancy, a sense of filler, over the course of this fairly long-for-a-puzzle-game game. Second quibble: of the two voice performances, one — the female voice you hear in the trailer — isn’t very good, and unfortunately it has a lot to say. Otherwise strongly recommended!
• The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna (2015): Croteam (Zagreb, Croatia) [12 hrs]
DLC (“DownLoadable Content“! We’ve been through this before!) for the preceding. I bought it on 12/30, after enjoying the main game for only two days, because it already seemed clear I was going to want it and I didn’t want to miss the sale price: $3.74.
This is the good kind of DLC, where the new stuff actually feels more polished than the original game, because the designers’ understanding of their own creation has grown more confident and mature. This set of puzzles is more varied, less redundant, and overall harder than those in the main game. In fact the set of optional extra challenge puzzles at the very very end are legitimately tough nuts. Which I was glad for. Even the writing was stimulating! There was a distinct sense of “let’s not just phone this in by grinding out more of the same, let’s come up with a new subject of interest and take it seriously.” Admirable all around.
• DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon (1996–2005): Caravel Games (Seattle, WA / Provo, UT / various) [35 hrs]
“D.R.O.D.” = “Deadly Rooms of Death.” An old friend. Played the original in 1998, then checked out the revamped edition in 2008 or so. I guess once every 10 years seems to be the rhythm because look what time it is. I recently learned that the version on Steam had some new “challenges” incorporated into it, involving doing old puzzles in newly constrained ways, and I’m a big enough fan that that’s an enticement. I had bought the first three games in this series from GOG on 6/14/14, bundled on sale for a total of $2.49 — good deal! — but those copies didn’t include the challenges, so on 1/1/18 I repurchased them on Steam, on sale for: $2.49 again. Sometimes it’s disturbing how cheap games are.
This is possibly my favorite game of all time? The ultimate computer game? The greatest puzzle game ever made? I’m not sure if any of those things is entirely true, but some kind of superlative certainly applies here. Not sure I can fully explain the grip it holds on me, but essentially: it’s like an infinite toybox. Each puzzle-room is a new surprise pulled out from its depths, and there are thousands upon thousands of rooms out there. This is a construction kit that can generate genuinely interesting and substantial puzzles, seemingly without limit. It’s a thing of beauty. And there’s something of the platonic ideal of videogaming, to me, in the way it’s simultaneously continuous action AND turn-based strategy — in its world, these are identical. Just as it’s simultaneously pure logic puzzle AND fantasy dungeon adventure — again, it makes these identical. It’s like the nexus of all gaming.
The game’s aesthetic quirks and shortcomings are to me endearing. Or maybe that’s even too condescending: they’re genuinely engaging in their own right. Suave and polished is not the only way worth being! DROD is profoundly unselfconscious in the greatest nerd tradition. It feels like something purer and more unembarrassed than “the industry” will ever know, and reminds me of the bygone computer culture of my youth, when the homeliest of homemade games sat shoulder-to-shoulder with intricate commercial products. Listening to voice-over done by programmers, and following along a storyline like something your friend would write in their notebook in 6th grade — at some level, though I do occasionally roll my eyes, these things make me feel that I’m somewhere healthy, somewhere worth being.
As for this first game in the series: yeah, it’s a little unbalanced, with weird difficulty spikes and several tedious stretches. And the “challenges” turned out to be a mixed bag at best. But overall it holds up and I was happy to be back.
• DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold (2005): Caravel Games (Seattle, WA / Provo, UT / various) [52 hrs]
[There’s no dedicated trailer for just this one — the trailer above includes scenes from both of these first two games in the series.]
Played through way back in 2005, but was eager to take a second pass as part of this “let’s just play all of DROD in chronological order, dammit” kick.
Second game in the series brings new polish, new variety, and a significant increase in the amount of storytelling, which in this case means doofiness. When I first played this years ago I was a little turned off by that; compared to the relatively plotless first game, it felt like a regrettable downturn toward terminal dorkitude. But this time around, I really felt the opposite: that it was a welcome, cozy dumbness. It drew me in.
Again I was was eager to check out the “challenges,” a few of which turned out to be pretty cruel and tedious, maybe to the detriment of my overall enjoyment, which luckily is robust enough to take a few hits, no problem.
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 1. The Choice (2005): Neil Frederick [2 hrs]
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 2. Perfection (2005): Larry Murk [17 hrs]
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 3. Halph Has a Bad Day (2006): Eytan Zweig [6 hrs]
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 4. Beethro and the Secret Society (2006): Jacob Grinfeld [11 hrs]
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 5. Beethro’s Teacher (2006): Henri Kareinen [33 hrs]
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 6. Master Locks (2007): Larry Murk [8 hrs]
• DROD: Smitemaster’s Selections: 7. Smitemastery 101 (2007): Jacob Grinfeld [4 hrs]
[No trailers for any of these things because they were made by and for superfans, who don’t need to be advertised to.]
Yes! That’s right! It’s more DROD! The plan is thus to go through all the official content in order of release. That means between the second and third games, all of these things.
I bought the complete “Smitemaster’s Selections” DLC bundle (12 in total) at the same time I bought the preceding games, 1/1/18, for $3.72. I splurged, what can I say.
So what are they. Well, another reason why DROD is the best computer game of all time — the most computer-game-y computer game of all time — is because the built-in level editor can be used by players to create, as suggested above, genuinely rewarding and original content. The things that make the games so great are exactly the things that a “modding” culture can take fullest advantage of. So the line between “official” content and “fan-made” content is, though clearly marked, deliberately faint. These “selections” are fan-made levelsets that were chosen for deluxe treatment by the developers — adding story and voice acting, more thorough testing, etc. etc. — and thus were elevated to being a more or less commercial product.
As you might expect from fan-made content, these are generally more compact, quirkier, and on average far, far harder than the main games. For those reasons they’re also sometimes the most stimulating. I wasn’t sure what to expect — I had never played any of these before — but for the most part I had a really good time. No. 5 of these is the hardest DROD content I’ve encountered anywhere, by a long shot, and also maybe the best. And generally I liked having personality brought to the fore. When you’re wrestling with a puzzle, you’re wrestling with a particular person. Here that became palpable.
Much much more DROD to come, rest assured.
[No trailer available for such an old game. Here’s some gameplay from the tutorial area to give a sense.]
• Fish Fillets (1998): ALTAR Interactive (Brno, Czech Republic) [played for maybe 6 hours?]
I almost forgot, I played one other game on and off during this period, one that I’d tried a few times before but never gotten into. This was my most committed attempt yet and probably will be my last. It’s sort of a Sokoban/sliding puzzle with two player characters, gravity, and a lot of movement restrictions, some of which are extremely counter-intuitive. It’s a brutally unforgiving bastard of a puzzle game from the outset, and then even if you do manage to master the full ruleset, the puzzles ascend to really crazy levels of intricacy (here’s the solution to a late-game puzzle, just to give an idea). And wow, talk about folk art. The two fish do comedy routines in Czech while you’re playing (really!), and the puzzles involve moving deliberately goofy stuff around to deliberately goofy music. Like, say, a big toilet. Get it?
The reason I stopped wasn’t the actual puzzles, though there is certainly an element of infuriation there — it’s the extremely antiquated program itself, which is intensely clunky and slow to respond, and has no undo system, pretty much unforgivable when wrestling with problems of this depth, at least at my current levels of patience. Turns out there’s a much better implemented sequel from 2007, in which all my issues were addressed. Watch this spot.
These days, the original Fish Fillets is available free for every imaginable system, by the way. Have at it, I guess. Or don’t.
This has been accruing. Might as well dump it out now. There’s nothing very good here, but since when has that ever stopped the log? It keeps on rolling.
Okay, so, last two games of Humble Indie Bundle 9, purchased 9/23/13.
• Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken (2011): Ratloop Asia (Singapore) [4 hrs]
This was the commercial upscaling of an in-browser Flash game. A browser is like an itsy-bitsy proscenium, a little Punch and Judy stage with red curtains at the side. The format brings different expectations; not everything can scale. The Punch And Judy Movie remains to be made for good reason. The essence of Punch and Judy is that they’re a miniature vulgar version of real, full-scale drama. So by definition they can’t be real full-scale drama. This felt a little like The Punch And Judy Movie.
The packaging weighed more than the game. Not to say there weren’t a few actual gameplay ideas here, but none of them remotely justified the dimensions of the production. This wanted to be in a browser, or on a phone. Or the back of a cereal box.
• A Virus Named TOM (2012): Misfits Attic (San Francisco, CA) [played for 4 hrs]
Simple stuff, overworked and overproduced. A modest little indie game invested with too many hopes. Basically it’s just the pipe rotation/networking puzzle that I first encountered as “Series of Tubes” by Wei-Hwa Huang in 2006 or so (I don’t know if there’s an earlier precursor), combined with the Pac-Man maze/evade mechanics of so many early 80s arcade games. That’s it. They add some minor novelties to try to keep it varied as you progress. But who asked for variety, anyway? At heart this isn’t really a puzzle game, notwithstanding that the designers opted to build some puzzles with it. It’s basically just an arcade game; it probably ought to have had randomly generated playfields and continuous play. It’s okay for such things to be monotonous; that’s the draw, in fact. Say I, anyway. Of course, I only played the single-player content — there’s some cooperative and head-to-head stuff in there too, and maybe that sits better. I promise never to find out.
As for the package, the strenuously professional attempt to keep things lively and generate charm is self-defeating, and misjudged. Maybe if the music were in fact charming, and not ha-ha hardcore as-if, the whole experience would be reframed. Oh well. At least it’s short. Though I abandoned before the end because the last few levels were pointlessly, punishingly hard.
10/21/13: Humble Weekly Sale: Hothead Games. Pay what you want for these three games. I pay $1 because I’m faintly curious about the first game below. Faint to the tune of $1.
• DeathSpank (2010): Hothead Games (Vancouver, BC) [13 hrs]
Bought it because it was by Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame and seemed to have some adventure elements. At heart it’s actually exactly the sort of thing I usually whine about: a pure tedium of armor and weapons and potions and combos and currency and shops and configuration; phony inflationary “leveling-up” instead of substantive progression; a plot consisting entirely of fetch quests and padding. I wrote off Torchlight and Bastion as a waste of my time. Yet this I played to fullest completion. Why? 1) I happened to be in the mood to embrace the meditation of an empty task-chain. 2) When it comes to emptiness, packaging is everything, and where Torchlight‘s package was genuine refried D&D, and Bastion‘s was preening emo junk, DeathSpank is a cheerfully stupid pop-up book. This I can use. I picked up thousands and thousands of little coins that went ding simply because that’s what one does in a pop-up book, and it seemed like a pleasant place to hang out for a couple days.
• DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue (2010): Hothead Games (Vancouver, BC) [played for 1.5 hrs]
Only a few months later in 2010, this “oh oops here’s the rest of DeathSpank” game was released. Seems like they were developing content for a single game and at some point realized it was too much, too long, too bloated, and then instead of cutting back they bulked it up further so that they could split it into two separate products. That’s all well and good for them, but what about me, the player? I started in cheerily enough but after an hour had to have a reckoning: am I really going to spend another 13 hours hanging out clicking on things that go ding in this same pop-up book? What if there were THREE iterations of this game? What if there were SIX? Would I really play them all? If they’re just going to make more and more of it, at some point it’s on me to say it’s been enough. Okay, then: I say it’s been enough. This second one might be marginally more interesting in some superficial ways but screw it. I already had this experience. It’s cute! I’m not complaining. But I’m ready to move on. If, say, in fifty years, when I’m in my late 80s, I have a profound nostalgic desire to return to DeathSpank, what a treat I’ll have in store! A whole brand new game! But for now, I’ve got plenty of other inane non-places to be.
• Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One (2008): Hothead Games (Vancouver, BC) [played for 1.5 hrs]
Penny Arcade is a longstanding webcomic about two unpleasant nerds who play videogames, constructed as a charisma fantasy in which there’s something wry and snappy and authoritative about being unpleasant nerds who play videogames. It’s self-congratulation very thinly veiled as self-deprecation and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Nonetheless I thought maybe I could get through one episode of their game. But the game is an RPG, so, as I said above, the packaging is going to be the entire value. And the packaging here is smarmy overwritten trope-clusterbomb gobbledygook, i.e. “geek culture.” Strictly for people who think “Chthulhu plushie” is always and ever intrinsically hilarious no matter the ubiquity. That’s not me so I’m out. Also the design is full of 2008 clumsiness, with way too much clicking necessary to get from one non-event to the next.
Like I said, I only put in a dollar for this bundle because of DeathSpank. This just hitched a ride and I never wanted it in the first place. But I gave it its 90 minute due.
11/5/13: The Humble WB Games Bundle. I “beat the average” by spending $5 for six games, one of which I already have; a week later three more games are added, making a total of eight new games. I purchased this solely for Batman: Arkham City and Scribblenauts. From my point of view the other six games are completely incidental. But here we go!
Here we go, sort of. See, the thing is…
• F.E.A.R. (2005): Monolith (Kirkland, WA) [played for 2 hrs]
Okay, well, I can see that this is a class act, really I can, but it’s basically a machine purely for making the player tense, and I don’t need that at the moment. In fact perhaps it’s enlightened to say that I don’t ever need it. I passed on Dead Space for the same reason. Of the two, if I had to pick a horror movie to be stuck in, I’d pick this one, which as you can see from the trailer is basically The Ring done as an “evil lab” story. Not my favorite but I’ll take it over outer space fleshmonsters any day. But isn’t a lovely thing about life that one doesn’t have to pick a horror movie to be stuck in?
Really, it’s mostly a gunfight game, with a horror wrapper. But gunfights make me just as tense, if not tenser, as the vengeful spirits of little dead psychic girls, so that’s no relief. I played two hours, killed a whole bunch of guys, got jump-scared a whole bunch of times, and decided I get the drill. It seems like a pretty good drill but I think I’d rather stay away from drills.
There are some expansion games that came with it. I won’t be playing those.
Right, so, the sequels were in the bundle too and naturally I’m not going to play them either. For the time being. And I expect the time being to continue being for a good long while.
• The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011): Snowblind (Kirkland, WA) [played for 2 hrs]
A big-budget mediocrity, one among thousands. Games like this are the reason you can’t just go out and buy every game that looks like it might be good. Because chances are it’s not that great. The brand tie-in is done well enough, and I’ll admit that the scenery looks pretty nice, but ultimately it’s all just tinsel. The actual playable area is usually a big rectangle, in which you just stand and fight hordes of bad guys. It’s a glum slog. The writing, the design, the gameplay — everything about this is professional, expensive, and worthless. Games are the new Hollywood, baby!
I put in two hours trying to see some variety but the game insisted on denying it to me. I quit when I noted that I had gotten to level one, part 19, and saw that it was just going to be another fight against the same bunch of bad guys I’d been fighting for the past 18 parts. What a drag. There’s so much better out there and my time deserves it. Shame about all those nice castles and mountains and things that they built. If only there’d been something to do in them.
Not a lot of game-playing these past few months. But a few things.
• Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001, for Game Boy Advance): Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (Kobe, Japan) [played for about 6 hrs?]
(I can’t find any original ads. Maybe there were none. Here’s a trailer from a 2014 Wii U rerelease.)
This turned up in the Raspberry Pi dragnet. All those GBA games were looking pretty tasty so I told myself I’d pick one, imagine I had a GBA back in the day and it had been one of the few games I owned, and play it to completion with that kind of dedication. After about 6 hours the make-believe wore off and I realized I should stop.
As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of games where little numbers fly off the characters like sparks. Hey designers: I want to be to processing either symbolically or aesthetically, not both at once. But in this instance I swallowed it, because the big picture strongly appealed to me at the moment: to be questing through subterranea, trying to acquire and master, acquire and master. I disparage RPGs for conflating inflation with progress — is the “level 2017” USD really all that awesome? — but there’s something undeniably reassuring about any game where your only possible trajectory is upward. Found a new power, a new ability, a new card for your deck? You never have to do without it again; it’s not going anywhere. Eventually you’ll have the full set and be the monarch of all you survey. Personal aspiration modeled on baseball card collecting. A fantasy to soothe the real-world angst of losing things, slipping backward. Here the only possible struggle is forward, forward for hours toward the distant exit. And as you work your way toward the light you have all that wonderful tunnel waiting for you, a haunted house to be savored. In this context struggle is indistinguishable from ease.
I enjoyed the jump-whip-jump-run flow state, but the stingy checkpoints seemed to insist on cautious and strategic play. At every death: aw, c’mon, guys, that’s my flow state you’re messing with! I’ll cheerfully follow your twisting thread of tasks, and if you leave me be, you’re welcome to spool it out forever. But if you insist on interrupting me again and again, I’m gonna come out and say it: this thread is too long.
New release that I bought on launch day ($19.99) because I wanted to be able to relate to the reviews:
• Thimbleweed Park (2017): Terrible Toybox (Seattle, WA) [11 hrs]
I mostly give this a thumbs-up. Atmosphere and loving care, sure, but above all: the sense that this really is a product of the same people and the same sensibilities that generated Maniac Mansion 30 years ago. A rare sense of authentic cultural continuity. “Nostalgia” gets sold a lot but this is the real thing: it lives! The only other example I can think of is Cliff Johnson’s 25-years-later sequel to The Fool’s Errand — the production of which seems to have killed the man’s spirit.
Two major problems:
1. Fake-o pixels that get manhandled. Different sizes of “pixel” show up on the same screen, “pixels” get rotated diagonally, “pixels” shake and warp in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the grid. This is such a profound aesthetic error that it’s hard for me to understand how these designers could blithely get it so deadly wrong. But they do.
Need it be said? “Pixel art” is only meaningful to the eye insofar as it is a rigorous constraint. Otherwise you’re just using a lot of little squares. Why? God knows. “I’m officially obsessed with little squares! They’re kind of amazing. OMG little squares hahahaha ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ lol .”
2. The game is run through with wocka wocka meta-commentary on adventure games, game development, etc. etc. In the old days that sort of thing was an occasional puckish indulgence from the coding side of the curtain. Fine. Here it’s given free rein and a major role in the story: a bit much. Then at the end of the game the meta actually takes over outright, which is far more than a bit much. Monkey Island 2 ended by yanking back the curtain and thumbing its nose at the audience, but that worked because the whole thing had been a paper-thin genre goof all along. (Compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Whereas Thimbleweed Park is a very weird amalagam of stuff, not just a straight parody, and the trajectory of its plot isn’t at all obvious. To punch holes in the screen (so to speak) instead of paying off in full feels like a failure of imagination rather than the daredevil leap it seems to want to be.
That said, these were an enjoyable 11 hours. I resorted to googling for hints three times. One was worthwhile, one was a wash, and one of them I regret.
I didn’t Kickstart Thimbleweed Park — I’m not going to Kickstart any game until a game has Kickstarted me — but I followed along with its development blog. Two years ago, when they crowdsourced the names of the books in the “Occult Book Store,” I totally submitted some that are now in the game (alongside about 6000 others). They’re dumb. But they’re not nearly as dumb as the other 6000.
Backers above the $50 level got their names in the in-game phone book (again, thousands of entries) and were given the option of recording an audio voicemail message, of which there are 1848 in the finished game. I listened to quite a few (including one from Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer, known videogame enthusiast). Hearing the actual voices and senses of humor (and German accents) of the people whose money made the game possible is a rich and rewarding bonus feature to stick in a game. It’s of course an ocean of meaningless monotony but there’s some real depth there too. Hey, just like: the internet!
Okay, now back to the backlog. More from “Humble Indie Bundle 9,” purchased 9/23/13. Four games left.
• FTL: Faster Than Light (2012): Subset Games (Seattle, WA) [played for about 7 hrs?]
Not my cup of tea but I drank about 7 hours worth of tea anyway. People love this game and, you know, I get it. I just don’t get it as me. I was pretending to be another person for a while.
The dream is: hey, when Captain Picard says “divert all power to forward shields,” could that be a game? Yes, it could. But what goes on in it? Space battles, naturally, where you do your best to divert all power etc. Beyond that it’s basically just a board game, shuffling Chance Cards at you. It tells about as much of a story as Monopoly. I was able to play it with my board game mind, with occasional interludes for my video game mind. It goes in the long line of board/realtime hybrids extending back to “Archon.” Of course it’s also a direct descendant of the hallowed old “Star Trek” BASIC game circa 1971.
I had heard a lot of indie hyperventilation about this dinky-looking game for the past several years, and accordingly brought some cynicism with me. I’m very pleased to find that this is what engendered all that nerdy enthusiasm: an unpretentious, extremely old-fashioned thing through and through.
People go on and on about the brilliance of “roguelike” games when they’re really just talking about the way card and board games have always been. Thoroughly shuffle the deck and away you go.
Yes, there’s a kind of freedom and perhaps dignity in such games that Mario et al. lack. There’s a certain sense of independence, of maturity, in randomness. A rigid adventure game gives a man a fish; a deck of cards teaches a man to fish. (By saying “go fish.”)
But actually I’m skeptical of equating independence with maturity. Dependence has its own dignity and meaning. A rigid adventure game dares to say something directly to the player; it’s sociable. There are great human joys and depths in the experience of giving a man a fish. You can cook it for him, for one thing: add spices, add a side dish, make it particular. Being connected isn’t inferior to being disconnected. They each have their place. I like video games because they’re connections, because I like encountering the human in cultural works. If I’m going to play a true Game, a system game, a tokens and shuffling game, why would I play it on a computer? A real deck of cards is always a superior tactile experience, a superior social experience. I spent some of my FTL hours fantasizing loosely about a hypothetical tabletop version. It seemed to invite it.
No, I never beat the boss. Yes, I was playing on Easy mode. I made it to the final phase of the boss battle once, but then it got me.
• FEZ (2012): Polytron Corporation (Montréal, QC) [13 hrs]
This lived well up to expectations. A mood piece smack-dab in the middle of “video game culture” — pixels as ontological fixation + wistful synth sunsets — and yet it didn’t annoy me in the least. This is the fully committed game all other hipster indie games want to be. Credit the excellent soundtrack, but also the concept and design. Mario World as Flatland is an inspired link-up, and while you’re gently jumping and climbing your way through the game, the environments are taking the premise more seriously than you may at first notice. When the finale goes the full Kubrick it feels earned and appropriate; it’s genuinely spectacular.
One of those games where the unfurling of the content corresponds to methodical exploitation of the various potentials of the “core mechanic,” as they say. That kind of structure is satisfying not just because it keeps the level of interest up — something new is always happening — but because it feels formally unified and whole. For these 6 hours (or 13 if you stick around like I did) you are doing many things because you are doing one thing, and that one thing is synonymous with the game. This was what gave such force to Stephen’s Sausage Roll (and The Witness) last year. I think this structure is probably the platonic ideal for video games: an exhaustive guided tour of a single idea.
Navigation is the weak spot here. Having to re-traverse completed areas over and over becomes increasingly irritating as things drag on. (I assumed some kind of warp power would be granted to the player late in the game, but it wasn’t to be.) For me this had the unfortunate consequence of making me reluctant to leave an area with any unexplored secrets — because it would be such a pain to get back — and thus more inclined to look things up online. Which turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the game was designed with some lovely puzzles in its second half that I had spoiled for me while still in its first half. I imagine that a few tweaks could have clarified to the player that some areas simply weren’t meant to be solvable until — not just “later,” but “much later.” The idea of “not until much later” is its own thing in game dramaturgy; if it had been signaled to me more explicitly I would have recognized it, and been spared the spoilage.