• Consortium (2014): Interdimensional Games (Vancouver, BC) [8 hours]
Extraordinarily weird experience! Free-roam murder mystery on a Star Trek super-jet in an alternate reality future, into which you the actual player are ostensibly being Source Code/Quantum Leap-ed BY THIS GAME. I say lots of things feel like dreams, but this really feels like a dream: Mazey exaggeration of an indoors-while-outdoors environment. Loose story logic and slippery identity/self-awareness issues juxtaposed with “pay close attention” whodunit. Social chitchat uncanny valley. Past-future-present mishmosh. Incongruous bursts of horror and/or orchestral grandeur within a placid context. I could go on! It’s going to stick with me even though it’s clunky and buggy. It had that special, vague pressure that I feel in my dreams: not actual fear but some even more basic emotion that contributes to it and is rarely experienced by itself in waking life. Primal uncertainty, like what I imagine a dog feels in a new place.
2/15/16, “Humble Ubisoft Bundle”: $1 gets me the three games on the lowest tier. Can’t remember why I did this! I think it was pure compulsion. $1.
A rail shooter without rails, which is a neat idea in theory; a little silly in practice. For the first half hour I took it to be an FPS-adventure like Half-Life, but so infuriating and repetitive that I was on the point of quitting. Then I realized that contrary to all the 3D freedom it offered, it actually wanted to be treated like a classic shooting gallery game (for example, this one that I played at a friend’s house in 1989). After that it basically won me over in spite of myself. “Headshots” in games make me wince, but apparently not so much that I won’t do them a thousand times in a row. The scenery was very pretty, and the whack-a-mole gameplay felt nicely old-fashioned; the combination of rich environment and simple arcade business became a pleasure, despite the carnage. “Why does Kevin Roberts have friends and a storyline?”
• Grow Home (2015): Ubisoft Reflections (Newcastle, England) [3 hours]
Quirky but monotonous game about making a floppy little polygonal robot climb a growing polygonal beanstalk all the way to the polygonal heavens by alternating his suction cup-py hands, human fly style. One shimmering endless chord-o’-wonder is all you get for music, and gameplay to match. It’s supposed to be “relaxing” and “cute” and “magical.” I’ll grant that it gives a feeling, but I found the feeling to be mostly lonely and empty, and it was distinctly un-relaxing to worry that the finicky little robot might lose his grip at any time and fall from the stratosphere to his death, undoing many minutes of progress. (Which happened repeatedly.) I like the dreamy spirit of sunlit simplicity and spatial exploration, but why did it have to be this space? Also it made my thumbs hurt from clinging on for dear life the whole time.
Cartoon platformer with fabulously smooth animation and responsiveness. A real pleasure to watch it zoink and boink on the screen. I think Donkey Kong Country Returns still stands as my favorite in this genre, but this is a very strong showing indeed. Impeccable technically, and clearly made with loving care. Some very good musical tracks, too. I’ve always thought the “Rayman” character looked moronic — and I stand by that — so I would never have sought this out. Really glad to have come into it by bundle! I found it quite cheering to play. If occasionally a bit agitatingly hard.
Bare-minimum tech prototype, using assets from Thimbleweed Park, given away for free because free is the only acceptable price for such a thing. I played it out of goodwill and curiosity. Not sure I’m thrilled about the new engine here prototyped — right-clicking for context menus feels like hanging out with Bill Gates, distinctly unwhimsical! — or the fact that this not-really-a-game ate up three hours when it really only deserved one. But whatever: I appreciate anything people are making and offering up while sheltering in place, especially people who did such honorable service to my childhood.
6/8/16: GOG gives away System Shock 2 for free, to entice people into stress-testing the new GOG client. So I click.
• System Shock 2 (1999): Irrational Games (Boston, MA) and Looking Glass Studios (Cambridge, MA) [played for 1 hour]
This is a tremendously influential classic, and I certainly like imagining myself having played it — literacy points! — but having already crawled my way through all of Bioshock, to which this is the direct precursor, I just don’t think I have it in me. My standard complaint: all of the unnecessary systems are exhausting. (As per the title.) RPG mechanics are spiritually contrary to the obvious aesthetic strengths of 3D computer games, which are sensory, spatial, ambient. I don’t want to be asked to think about the algorithms behind that experience; that just breaks the precious illusion!
I’m making up a terminology right now — “transparent” vs. “opaque” games:
“Transparent” games — games where the player interacts rationally with a ruleset that very crudely models reality in terms of some game-specific abstract tokens (e.g. any board game). “Opaque” games — games where the player interacts instinctively with a graphical representation of reality, governed by an extremely complex underlying “ruleset” — i.e. program — which is never explicitly disclosed (e.g. any action video game). I’m okay with both kinds of game! But they don’t mix well.
6/9/16: I buy The Vanishing of Ethan Carter during the Summer Sale at GOG for $4.99. Already played and logged it. However, a gimmick of the sale is that any purchase also unlocks a substantial freebie:
• Spelunky (2008/2012): Mossmouth (= Derek Yu), et al. (San Francisco, CA) [played for 3 hours so far]
Another tremendously influential classic. I put in a little time with the original free version years ago but this commercial upgrade is the one that counts. It’s a forever-game, one that I might play a little from time to time but that I have no intention of ever getting good enough to “finish,” so I’m just logging it now.
Fascinating to dabble with this sort of thing, but I’m not sure I can endorse it. The proponents of self-randomizing games talk passionately about the joys of having nothing to memorize or truly conquer, only an inexhaustible system within which to become increasingly fluent — “literate,” I saw one person calling it, which is an apt term. My qualm is that a single video game isn’t an appropriate object for “literacy,” and “literacy” isn’t an appropriate standard for a video game to demand.
“Literacy” in the real world is attained in relation to entire cultural bodies, not to individual works. That seems to me a distinction worth maintaining. A sense of proportion matters. There’s a danger in setting yourself up as a Torah to be studied for a lifetime rather than gracefully accepting that you’re a mere novel to be read once — the danger being that you entrap people into wasting their lives “studying” a non-existent discipline. (Or alternately that you don’t, and they don’t read your book at all.) From my period of fascination with Finnegans Wake a few years back, I recall what H.G. Wells wrote to James Joyce: “Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”
Yes, becoming literate (in the literal sense) is a joy, but that’s because it gives you access to something beyond just the primer you learned from: namely, the spiritual content of the whole vast expanse of human literature. Whereas games that demand “literacy” are essentially offering you access to nothing beyond themselves, 1) because they’re mere works, not cultures, and 2) because that process of attaining mastery is their whole spiritual content.
I can respect that Spelunky and its ilk offer a experience of actually getting better at something, which in contrast to the utter lie of RPGs (“you leveled up! you’re stronger now!”) feels downright invigorating. But that experience can be offered far more efficiently than in the 100+ hours this game demands.
6/16/16: “Humble Staff Picks Bundle: Hamble” for $1 gets me three games, one of which I genuinely and specifically wanted, so this is allowed.
Speak of the devil! Here’s a game with the exact same skin as Spelunky — “STANDARD HAT AND WHIP GUY and the PLUNDER OF IMPLAUSIBLE TEMPLES” — and a game that, like Spelunky, demands that you do things that you won’t be able to do without practicing 100 times. But unlike Spelunky, the things here are tiny, discrete, fixed challenges, and each attempt lasts only a few seconds, so you can watch yourself go from incompetence to competence to victory in 15 minutes. And then, after you’ve done that enough times, you can comfortably reach the revelation that you’ve had your fill of that experience, and move on to other things. This is a very fine take on “retro,” and also the most satisfying example I’ve seen of the “hilariously merciless / try, try again” school of level design (sometimes stupidly called “masocore”). I enjoyed it quite a bit and I also enjoyed stopping.
Not having seen The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, I hadn’t fully internalized the fact that drifting — i.e. skidding sideways — is a full-fledged thing, with its own whole sport and community and fandom and specially-built cars and a whole genre of video game, etcetera and more etcetera. I find this absolutely befuddling, just as I would find it befuddling to learn that “walking in high heels that wobble so much that you almost fall over, but then not actually falling over” was a sport. Absolute Drift‘s contract with the player seems to be that the player already loves “drifting” so damn much that they really just want a game to command them to do it constantly, in an extremely spare environment, for hours, so that they can answer “yes sir! whatever you say sir!” and then start drifting. Far be it from me to step on anyone else’s fun, but man oh man this is not mine. Also I’m bad at it.
• Snakebird (2015): Noumenon Games (Karlshamn, Sweden) [12 hours]
This is the one I genuinely and specifically wanted, and guess what: I know myself well! This is great. 53 puzzles, good cheer, serious difficulty. The package is beautifully presented, excellently edited, and utterly without padding. Exemplary! As with all the best puzzle games, the premise is compact — “the classic snake game, but with gravity” — and then everything flows from there. Like I said about Baba Is You: the game becomes a self-guided tour of the most interesting properties of the system. I was very proud of myself for taking only about six hours to zip through the 46 regular puzzles; then somewhat less proud of myself for needing another six hours to battle the seven extra-hard puzzles at the end.
The iOS version gives you the first few for free. Go for it.
Pretty sepia-retro graphics, a nice sense of quiet, and good intentions, but the interactivity isn’t meaningful, and the whole thing desperately wants to be cultured, in much the way a child wants to be an astronaut. “Mr. Schönberg, Mr. Berg, and Mr. Mahler have all agreed to participate in your concert — isn’t it wonderful?” Fin-de-siecle ooh la la!
I was so impressed and rewarded by Life Is Strange that I immediately bought the spin-off while it was still on sale ($5.25), and played it right away.
Alas! Life is Strange was made by French people, whereas this was made by — uh-oh — Americans. All the irresistible craft of the original has been swapped out for an eminently resistible imitation. The original had some kind of subtle human touch that buoyed it above its own silliness. (It may just have been the lead voice actress; the right voice goes a long way.) Whatever it was, it’s lacking here.
Back to the “full-motion video” bundle purchased 1/14/16. More than half of this bundle is the complete “Tex Murphy” series: five campy sci-fi private-eye adventure games from the 90s and then a Kickstarter revival in 2014. As an adventure-playing teenager I skipped these because I got the impression they were tacky and sophomoric. Let’s see if I was I right! (I was.)
1989’s Mean Streets got about 10 minutes before I declared it too primitive and inscrutable to suffer through. 1991’s Martian Memorandum got 15 minutes. Those were only included in the bundle as pre-history anyway; the next one is the first one with full-motion video, and I gave it a bullet-point-worthy amount of time:
A time capsule from a peculiar historical moment when a computer game could star James Earl Jones AND some rent-a-models AND the game’s producer — i.e. just some programmer dude — as the lead. An industry in transition. I’ll concede that it has a good-natured Z-grade cheer, and that the story and game design, for all their respective inanities, do fulfill their baseline obligation to make some kind of sense, which can never be taken for granted in this business… but even with all appropriate handicapping, this is not a thing of depth or quality. My brain deserves better fare. After a while I considered just skimming through the rest of the game on Youtube; then I realized that I didn’t even care enough to do that. That’s when I knew I was done.
The subsequent entries in the series add a few layers of polish but don’t alter the fundamental design or tone. Even the 2014 game is apparently a completely faithful throwback to its hokey forebears. I think that means I’m gonna take a pass on the rest of these.
At this point I thought I should try chipping away at the stash of Star Wars games that I tabled a while ago. Thus:
Nope, can’t do this either. The storytelling, level design, and use of music are immediately clumsy and off-putting, and the game seems to heavily emphasize constant flip-and-jump lightsaber fighting, which was my least favorite part of the preceding games and indeed one of my least favorite parts of the holy writ of Star Wars. I don’t need any of this. My brain deserves better fare.
Seems like “my brain deserves better fare” might drastically reduce my game-playing! Or rather, just cut it down to the games I actually like. Isn’t it good that I’ve finally reached this point? I guess it is, but there’s melancholy in it too.
I used to find absolutely every game stimulating at some level, because games are intrinsically interesting. But in recent years I’ve either grown more benumbed by age, or I’ve finally acclimated to the new reality in which there will always be more games available to me than I can possibly play. We live in the age of overwhelming cultural surplus, which encourages — indeed, necessitates! — a stronger will to peremptory dismissal. I’ve hardened my heart enough that now I can say “nah” to things before any real feelings form. It saddens me but it’s true.
I used to consider it a virtue to delay judgment and sample everything with an open mind; it seemed like the most life-affirming — world-affirming — way of being. But when you’re endlessly inundated with content — when you’re directly in the path of the firehose — you are forced to be always filtering your own intake, which means being constantly judgmental. Grotesque surplus is bad for the spirit. Ah well.
Okay then, I’ll just continue with the full-motion video. Next is the one I actually wanted:
• Her Story (2015): Sam Barlow (Portsmouth, UK) [5 hrs]
The “interactive fiction” niche gaming subculture dresses up like TV and manages to briefly emerge into the light of mainstream attention. Two hours of police interview fragments, but unindexed: your only access is through the peephole of a keyword search. “Keyword search as obfuscation” is a brilliant and elegant inspiration! It’s the intersection of investigative thinking and Oulipean non-linear text-play; it makes a cross-reference maze out of the script. And you’re also always free to guess intuitively, searching for words that haven’t even been hinted at in the material you’ve seen. The ability to think like the writer and make meaningful wild leaps is rare in games and I found it gratifying. The writing and production and performance are: sufficient. Half of the game consists of speculating about clever possibilities that never actually come to pass, but that’s a form of pleasure too. Not knowing what’s behind the curtain is the main thing, and I’m always down for some of that. By all means, pull curtains shut and tell me to guess what’s behind them! It really and truly never gets old. Showmanship at its core. Peek-a-boo!
Once again, the game I actually wanted is much more rewarding than the random games that just hitched a ride. My my! What a peculiar coincidence! Who’d have guessed?
These poor misguided guys. They had just a glimmer of a tech concept with no actual content, and they went and ahead and produced it anyway. This is like the maze on the back of a cereal box made as expensively as possible. It’s like watching money drain into the void; half an hour of utter emptiness. Unsurprisingly, the company went under soon after this was released; there is no episode two.
• Roundabout (2014): No Goblin (Seattle, WA) [played for .75 hrs]
This is basically Kuru Kuru Kururin done up with a thick coating of deadpan hipster-camp. I respect that it’s cheery and goofy, even if I’m left mostly cold by its Napoleon Dynamite idea of charm. But I just don’t get much pleasure out of avoid-a-thon gameplay. In the kind of dexterity games that I like, mastery looks uniquely graceful, and that’s why it’s enticing. Here all you can do is try to mitigate the awkwardness.
Thus ends the Full Motion Video bundle. No regrets about $5 for Her Story.
1/24/16: Pay-what-you-want — I want $2 — on IndieGameStand (long since defunct) for:
• Hadean Lands (2014): Zarfhome Software (= Andrew Plotkin) (Boston, MA) [6 hours and counting]
It’s clear that this game is going to be a long haul, but apparently so is this year, so I plan to stick with it. Rather than wait to log it, I’m noting it now: I have EMBARKED ON THE LONG HAUL.
Plotkin is a geek VIP of long standing in the aforementioned “interactive fiction” fringe scene. His games have original ideas, high standards, and a real feeling for the gnomic Infocom style. In 2010 he opened up a kickstarter campaign to see if he could get some support for a new game, and immediately got showered with far more money than he had asked for, earned by years of goodwill from his high-quality free text adventures. So he used it to make this, an ambitious non-free text adventure. Word is that it’s a great success… at least at being what it wants to be, which is: a complex set of interlocking puzzles about make-believe alchemy governed by intricate make-believe rules.
I must admit I feel some dread, since I’m not at all excited about the prospect of doing a lot of make-believe alchemy. But as a lifelong fan of the genre, I feel like this is a game I will want to have played properly, without cheating, so I’m going to do it right. Having started in I can already see that it’s going to be clever and also be a headache — after leaving the introductory area, suddenly I’m inundated with about 100 different objects, locations, and bits of information, and left to sort it out for myself. I aspire to. I just might be very slow. Stay tuned.
[Added a few weeks later: Turned out to be a 23-hour haul. The game is a bizarre and fascinating experiment. Its high-concept outline (“alchemy spaceship Groundhog Day Enchanter with fast-travel and fast-solve”) is splendidly eccentric, and has been executed with great care and intelligence. But the concept is running this show; the resulting experience turns out to feel weirdly technical and often rather dry. Also subtly unfair at a few crucial junctures. Still, it suggests a really wonderful game, a better-rounded game that one can sometimes imagine oneself to be playing. Recommended only to those willing to run a significant distance to meet it halfway.]
Anyway, next up on my backlog is… wait, what’s this? I’m being handed a bulletin:
ALERT ALERT ALERT! ALL HUMANS MUST SHELTER IN PLACE ANXIOUSLY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE!
One of the side effects of global pandemic, at least as of this third month of The Plague Year 2020, is a lot of video game discounts and giveaways. Not to mention a lot more interest in game-playing, generally. Here’s one that I tagged as interesting a few years ago, and then on 3/22/20 noticed that it was being gifted for free to the beleaguered planet. Sounds good!
It’s original and polished and compact and has charm and depth, and I had a very nice few hours working my way through it. The game is about choosing a path across a semi-randomized board, but the various constraints on your movement make it almost a puzzle. Almost! It’s that rare game that calls on true puzzle-solving thought without being made of actual puzzles. It required an unusual blend of my “exactly solving” and “just surviving” forms of effort, which are usually distinct. Recommended.
And of course I must mention, as purchased for $19.99 on 3/14/20:
I’ve had my eye on this for years. Lockdown was clearly the time to go for it. At time of press I have inveigled two parents and two friends into getting copies, as well as one parents’ friend, and oddly also one parents’ friend’s friend, a guy I don’t actually know but to whom I provided a day’s worth of tech support anyway. (He bought a four pack to play with the grandkids.) So far it’s just been a little checkers, a little Connect Four, some Codenames: Duet, a lot of Scrabble, one game of Sushi Go, and a fair amount of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, which for some reason caught my attention.
My review of the software: it’s an essential service and god bless them for making it. It’s also awkward to handle, hard to get used to, often quite ugly, forces you to use additional software for video chat, and overall has a tendency to glitch. Plus, picking your way blindly through the ridiculous wild west of user-made mods ends up being a time-consuming drag. (Which of these 12 poorly-indexed attempts at “Uno” is the one I ought to use? They all seem sloppy; which is the LEAST sloppy? Guess I need to check them all out carefully before I can play.)
But honestly none of that matters. I can play EVERY BOARD GAME THAT EXISTS and I can play them with friends and family who are holed up in separate bunkers across the land. That’s what counts. I’m so glad people are playing stuff with me. Even if they mostly just want to play Scrabble. So far.
11/4/15 Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes for $14.99. “Co-operate in following convoluted directions” speaks to something deep in my soul. My sister and I breezed through about half of the game; then the Morse Code blinker defeated us several times, and we got discouraged. Maybe someday we’ll return. I’m just listing it here for completeness.
The 90s-game-generating machine was left on overnight by mistake, and this is what came out. Full-motion video, first-person shooter, graphic adventure, horror fantasy, haunted house, lava caverns, secret society, time pedestal, demon labyrinth castle shotgun psychic sword hell knight brain ghost sarcophagus dimension church prophecy dragon crystal UH OH SOMEBODY SHUT IT OFF! A fascinating lump of creativity, made with palpable enthusiasm in every respect, bursting with nifty ideas, and offering undeniable spooky-dream atmosphere. Also: unutterably stupid, frustrating to control, has a couple of truly infuriating sections. A ridiculous camp delight AND totally unrecommendable. Glad to have taken the ride. Never again!
12/14/15 GOG gives away Worms Forts: Under Siege. In checking my heart I find no interest whatsoever in trying this for even a minute. Noted, heart.
12/21/15 GOG gives away:
• Bio Menace (1993): Apogee Software (Garland, TX) [played for 2 hrs]
I try not to overstate the role of “nostalgia” in my enjoyment of things but this one fits the bill. The bright-lit EGA “Commander Keen” aesthetics — depthless, chipper, toylike — offer me a sense of comfort by fond association. I didn’t play this one at the time and probably would have found its gore distasteful. The first of three episodes was all I needed, just as it would have been in 1993.
12/30/15 “Humble Bundle: Eye Candy 4” for $6 gets me six games. Why on earth did I buy this? How did I justify it to myself? I honestly can’t recall. The “eye candy” theme means that all the games have striking art styles; I guess I just got intrigued by the screenshots and made an impulse buy? Exactly what I swore not to do ever again? It’s a mystery.
“CHOICE” IS A FALSE GOD. I keep saying it, but do they listen? This is standard choose-your-own-adventure, i.e. pick a path arbitrarily and it leads to an arbitrary outcome, all in a flavorless scenario about which you have no reason to care. There’s no writing to speak of, just a tree of tropes. They think you’ll want to do it again and again to explore the other branches simply because you know other branches exist. Not I. Anyone who thinks “Dyscourse” is a good title is not someone I want telling me a story. “Eye candy” rating 2/5. (Where 1 is Smarties and 5 is peanut butter cups.)
• Lumino City (2014): State of Play (London, UK) [4 hrs]
Stiff, self-involved adventure game with essentially no functional plot, just a twee aesthetic. Its only intention is “build a cutesy world out of cardboard and get credit for it.” Well, they done it! Do you see “Filter > Blur Gallery > Tilt-Shift”? Do you hear “turntable-crackle-03.wav”? If so, congratulations: you’re having all the feels. Eye candy rating 3/5.
• Plug & Play (2015): Michael Frei and Mario Von Rickenbach (Zürich, Switzerland) [.25 hrs]
Not a game: an animated short in the artsy-deadpan tradition, translated directly into interactive form. Click, drag, plug, etc. to progress through the surreal vignettes. The very simple interactivity is handled intelligently; this should serve as a case study for how to think about the point-and-click paradigm, which happens to mesh very well with the stop-and-go aesthetic. Competent art! Eye candy rating 4/5.
Very finely retrostyled cyberpunk throwback, but clearly much more thought has been put into being #GENDERWOKE than into being #GAME. For the most part you’re just here to read a linear mile of geek-written text, strained and oblivious, which unspools onscreen at an indefensibly slow pace. Sure, fine, X get to choose mx own pronouns — but when do X get to have FUN? Mx patience ran out within an hour. Eye candy rating 4/5.
• Apotheon (2015): Alientrap (Toronto, ON) [played for 2 hrs]
A beautiful idea: a game that looks like it takes place on the side of an amphora. The graphic concept has been realized with care and taste. But in play everything is just a little too far apart; there are just a few too many factors to juggle; the world is just a tad too empty. Slight things, but they make a big difference to the amount of pleasure. I came to a door that crashed the game every time I tried to enter, and decided I wasn’t actually having enough fun to bother troubleshooting, so that was that. Eye candy rating 4/5 at the outset, then 3/5 after you’ve gotten used to it. I guess those diminishing returns are exactly what “eye candy” implies.
Top-down racing, with some shooting and bosses and other stuff thrown in. Moderately “retro” new wave neon color scheme, and a CRT ghost effect if you want it — but no pixels, which shows admirable restraint. The intent is to be clean and zippy, and mostly it is. Very impressive for being a one-man show. But racing games always frustrate me; they end up being about my physical relationship with the controller, and that’s not something I want to care about. Eye candy rating 3/5.
1/4/16 “Humble Square Enix Bundle 3” for $1 gets me 6 games. I buy it solely to assuage my curiosity about Life Is Strange; the rest is bonus.
First game is The Last Remnant, which my brain instinctively rejects as inappropriate for intake; a blinking red X appears over it in my Terminator’s-eye view. A brain is a mysterious thing, but I’ve learned that it’s best to do as it says. (I’ve learned the hard way.) So no Last Remnant for me.
This is only the first of a five-episode series, and six months after I paid a dollar, it was made permanently free as an enticement to buy the rest. Oh well. It was quite good and I feel duly enticed; if the complete series drops below $8 I will buy it.
A landmark in the continuing development of what I might call “TV games”: adds a few layers of finesse to the model established by The Walking Dead. The writing is basic but never outright asinine, which for a video game amounts to a triumph. The atmosphere of dewy poignancy is laid on awfully thick, but I don’t mind because it’s all been done with such skill. The choice to give the protagonist a “sit silently and feel sentimental” action in most locations is inspired. Not only is it apropos as high school emo, it’s also exactly the mindset to which the storytelling mechanism is making its appeal: if you meditate on and in this environment, a sense of rich but ineffable narrative meaning will emerge. Just like it does for teenagers.
Special bulletin! 12/19/19: $3.99 sale for the rest of Life Is Strange. I said I would, so I did. [15 more hours]
Undeniably captivating. By far the most cinematically fluent TV game I’ve yet experienced. “Best Lighting” for sure! The nuts and bolts stagecraft is so commandingly professional that you can’t help but go along for the ride, regardless of all its many glaring flaws and shortcomings. Yes, the game’s ambition outruns its actual sophistication; pretty much every big effect in the script feels underearned and a bit immature. But only a bit — and I mean that to be praising with faint damnation, because considering how wildly emotional this game wants to be, just coming within shouting distance of its goals is an astounding achievement. I was truly riveted, and, against my better judgment, moved. By hook or by crook, it wouldn’t let me be otherwise. A masterpiece of presentation.
Deservedly a classic. I played through a friend’s copy in 1997 (thanks, Mary!) and it left a strong impression that hasn’t faded. Tomb Raider brought a new firmness and snappiness to 3D gameplay, and a new sense of rumbling menace to the fantasy of subterranea that has been the central offering of computer games going all the way back to Adventure. As with Dark Forces earlier this year, I am struck by just how well its particular geometric brutalism has aged. The subject matter, the gameplay, and the aesthetics are all complementary: it gives the sense that everything is exactly as detailed as it ought to be and no more, which is something that can’t always be said for its fancier descendants.
I’m giving myself another paragraph here for some musings about Lara Croft: I think she’s a fascinating counterexample to the notion of “objectification” as connoting something intrinsically oppressive and demeaning. She is manifestly a sex doll created by sophomoric male programmers, but she is also you, the player. There’s no way to play the game for any length of time without coming to identify with her. How can she be “objectified” if she is the subject? The answer is: she’s both and neither, because the “object / subject” model is a crock. In games, first-person and third-person are often freely interchangeable, and “the male gaze” can easily be twisted into a Möbius strip. (Also, I think Lara’s pornographic quality actually helps the game insofar as it makes her look less ridiculous than she otherwise would; the intrinsic grotesqueness of her polygonal form is conveniently masked by the blind spot of conventional sexual exaggerations.)
My memory from 20 years ago turned out to be so unfaded that playing again felt unnecessary, so I stopped after the first few levels. Plus I recalled disliking the increasingly yicky environs and skinless monsters toward the end of the game. Who needs it?
Next up in this bundle are Tomb Raider II and Tomb Raider III, neither of which have I ever played. I expect that someday I will indeed give them each a spin, but my 3 hour tour of Tomb Raider I completely sated my Tomb Raiding appetite for the moment, so I’m leaving these for later.
Alternate titles include “Ghost Detective: Who Has A Hat”, “Also A Vest: Ghost Man”, and “Bad Boy Ghost Cop: He Is A Tattoo Guy.” A well-meaning, expensive-looking game, full of valuable assets, all of it completely squandered because there’s no gameplay to flatter the content. For example, they neglected to include any parts where you feel smart, or experience the thrill of discovery. The only mechanic is: click on every item from a checklist. Oops! That’s supposed to be the back end, not the front end! The whole thing smells like project mismanagement: plenty of artists and programmers, but is anyone steering this thing? A cautionary object lesson for game designers. (Direct comparison with its excellent contemporary The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be illuminating.)
1/14/16 “Humble Weekly Bundle: Full Motion Video” gets me 11 wacky live-action-based games, several of them classics of a sort — a campy sort — and one of them a recent game that was on my wishlist, for only $5. Fine.
An artifact. When my father finally brought home a computer with a CD drive (circa 1996-7?), I eagerly borrowed this from either the public library or Blockbuster video, to appease several years of curiosity. Magazine screenshots had seemed to promise unprecedented immersion and delicious haunted house ambiance. It delivered a bit of that, but mostly I found the actual product a lazy mess — an incoherent script and puzzles shamelessly cribbed straight out of Sam Loyd and H.E. Dudeney, the original trees from whence fall the oldest possible chestnuts. Furthermore several of these puzzles simply aren’t fair. (Tryst by my crypt for details.) 20 years later, this was a somewhat interesting memory to have turned over with my spade, and I didn’t mind devoting a few hours to swapping chess bishops and the like, but the game still feels like a sham, built more to be sold than played.
Wretchedly unimaginative sequel. I had known it existed but not much more; I am stunned to discover that it takes place in the exact same rooms, in which you have to solve a nearly identical set of puzzles. The gall! The only dimension in which it demonstrates any sort of ambition is the sheer quantity of moronic, tasteless video: there’s a lot more this time. But to what end? An Elvira pinball table has the good sense never to make you stop playing pinball so that it can tell you some stupid-ass story about what Elvira did yesterday afternoon. That would be idiotic design, right? Whatever entertainment value Elvira’s presence brings to a pinball game (probably the Standard Elvira Quotient, defined as “none”), it is at least brought to the whole, in the present, in a way that tries to enhance, rather than interrupt, the playing of pinball. Whereas The 11th Hour tries to get you to watch an hour’s worth of sub-Elvira trash while waiting to do puzzles. Come on.
Google says I’m the first to use “sub-Elvira.” A sad comment on the state of games journalism.
Have been thinking of retiring this log but eh, I’ll at least go to the end of the year. Why not. Still would prefer to be doing multi-paragraph entries about books and movies. If only I could consistently get my brain to stay the course! Working on it. In the meantime here are some mostly bad games I played mostly very briefly.
Last one from the “Monochromatic” Bundle.
• Oquonie (2014): David Lu Linvega (= David Mondou-Labbe) (Tokyo, Japan) [2.5 hrs]
A snazzy little doodad from a couple of digital nomads. Maze-puzzle as objet d’art in classic hipster/art-school style: bold, meticulous, superficial.
March 10, 2015: I buy the three DROD games I’ve never played, on sale for $7.82 at GOG. One of them, the last and longest one, remains unplayed today, but I’m still feeling my DROD marathon of last year and think some more delay is in order, so for now I’m skipping over it; this is just to wave at it out the train window. (And I still don’t feel ready to return to that Star Wars bundle, either.)
March 17, 2015: “Humble PC & Android Bundle 12” for $3.88 gets me nine games, seven of which are new. I had played none of them until now.
I bought the bundle just for this. A worthy sequel to Blocks That Matter, which at the time of the sale I had posted about just the previous week. Better-than-average puzzles on a smooth difficulty curve. Still quirkily tactile, albeit a bit less so. Charming, flavorful music by the same guy. Low-key and genial; suitable for all.
It’s good old Space Invaders, with glowing faux-pixel graphics and some added structure and variety to satisfy modern expectations. Not to say it wasn’t briefly diverting, but I get the impression that this developer likes fiddling with lighting effects more than he likes designing games.
Oddball cartoon graphic adventure; well-intentioned and cute to look at, but irritating to play. The wacky whimsy is all too German, and the translation is dubious (LOOK AT MOSS > “That has moss written all over it.”) Everything moves too slowly, and the nonsensical puzzles are mostly under-indicated. Kind of dumb, frankly.
Next in this bundle is Ironclad Tactics, a game so overwhelmingly not my style that I am skipping it. For now? For good? I don’t know what to tell you. See below for more on this subject.
• Eufloria HD (2009/2012): Omni Systems (Folkestone, UK) [played for 1 hr]
An exceedingly boring game about conquering featureless circles by waiting for grass to grow; pitched as “relaxing,” but bland pastels and ambient synth beats aren’t my relaxation style.
• Solar Flux (2013): Firebrand Games (Glasgow, UK / Merritt Island, FL) [played for .5 hr]
Irritating momentum-nudging game of collecting space dots; I think it wants to be a somber cousin to Angry Birds.
• Toast Time (2013): Force of Habit (Bristol, UK) [played for 1 hr]
Cutesy “retro” arcade shooter (with a particularly deadly case of FAKE PIXELS) where you’re a toaster that bounces wildly around the screen. Has some appeal but it’s clearly a phone game not really meant for computers.
June 10, 2015: Almost three months pass with no games added to my list! Good for me! Then GOG gives away Battle Realms for free so, yes, I click on it. Free is free.
It’s a real-time strategy game about warring clans in ancient Japan. I don’t have any interest in playing that, and never did.
When I started methodically going down my list like this, it was because I really thought that by dutifully playing each and every game, I could retroactively justify my senseless acts of compulsive acquisition, and maybe broaden my palate in the process. But I’m older and wiser/dumber now, so here are some facts: 1) Acts of compulsive acquisition aren’t actually senseless, and need no justification. They’re compulsions — what’s not to understand? And dwelling on past compulsive behavior, hoping to retroactively redeem it, only makes it loom larger in my life. If you regret something, just move on, dude! 2) My palate isn’t set in stone, but come on, it’s not a magic moonbeam either. I have certain tastes! No need to deny them indiscriminately.
So okay, that’s Battle Realms.
June 15, 2015: I pay $1.00 for “Humble Indie Bundle: All-Stars” because I’ve been meaning to play World of Goo for years and I’m happy to pay $1 for it. It happens to get me two other games, one of which is new to my collection.
• World of Goo (2008): 2D Boy (= Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel) (San Francisco, CA) [7 hrs]
The best “physics game” from a moment in time when physics games were suddenly the hot thing. Build towers and bridges out of ever-sagging rubbery triangles: this is a task well worthy of having a game built around it, and you’ll know it as soon as you try your hand; it’s immediately satisfying to play with. Most physics games fail to strike the right balance between freedom and constraint, but World of Goo pulls it off. The tasks are well-defined, but because the system is so blobby and imprecise, executing any given solution always requires flexibility. And the Dr. Seuss trappings are an inspired match.
• Dustforce DX (2012/14): Hitbox Team (Portland, OR) [played for 1 hr]
Looks like a platformer, which I would usually play through, but is actually just an elaborate speedrun course, which doesn’t interest me. Also the anime-like emotional tone implicit in the character designs and the music really turns me off.
Oops, off the list for a second: a game was given away for free by Indiegala on August 1 (of 2019) that looked like it might be my kind of thing, so I played it. Forgive me.
• Adventures of Shuggy (2011): Smudged Cat Games (= David Johnston & collaborators) (Littleport, UK) [6 hrs?]
A game out of time: a deep stack of very mildly puzzling one-screen things to do, which is a cheerful format from 30 years ago. “Puzzle-platformers” these days usually aspire to being actually hard. This does not, though the enemy-avoidance does test one’s patience. But in a friendly way. Charming, well-executed, and inconsequential (though I suppose the “avoid your past self” rooms have some slight interest). Downright old-fashioned! Great for kids, I’d think.
And then another dinky giveaway from Indiegala distracts me on August 17.
Unremarkable number-placing logic puzzles but with a charmingly gratuitous narrative presentation: the puzzles are on the floor of a Saw parody scenario and little characters walk and talk their way through. I stayed with it for the freewheeling homegrown dialogue, which is sprightly and dorky and unselfconscious, as though an eager preteen wrote it.
Back to the list.
6/21/15: “Humble Jumbo Bundle 4.” $4.19 to beat the average gets me six games. A week later they add three more for a total of nine. I only bought it because I was curious about The Stanley Parable.
• Outland (2011): Housemarque (Helsinki, Finland) [played for 9 hrs]
Platformer with a parity-switching mechanic, as lifted from Ikaruga. Color-swapping obstacle courses are a good idea and there are some satisfying individual rooms, but the game as a whole is bland and repetitive. It’s a fake Metroid-like; actually just a linear guided tour. Art direction is superficially competent but the atmosphere doesn’t really cohere. Also it’s all too dark to see, and the character gets too small. Yet another one where I played up to the final boss and felt no need to finish it off. Frankly I should have stopped much earlier.
• Mercenary Kings (2014): Tribute Games (Montreal, QC) [played for 1.5 hrs]
Lively cartoon action, excellent pixel animation in the style of Metal Slug, but ultimately this is a systems game rather than a progression game — collect collect collect! upgrade upgrade upgrade! — so it feels essentially static. The trailer tries to wow you with the overwhelming combinatoric possibilities for weapon configuration, which for me is a red flag.
Endless Space is another “empire-building” game, sci-fi this time. Keep in mind I can’t even get into Civilization. Pass.
• The Stanley Parable (2013): Galactic Cafe (= Davey Wreden & William Pugh) (Austin, TX & Sowerby Bridge, UK) [3 hrs]
A clever comic performance, well worth the whole $4.19. Essentially the inversion of the Life of Brian “think for yourselves” joke: here the classic Authoritative British Narrator Voice wants to tell you a stirring interactive tale about thinking for yourself, but gets petulant when you don’t do exactly what he says. Wasn’t I just saying that choice in games wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Gratifying to see it punctured with such panache. Well staged and well delivered. I laughed aloud twice! Imagine that!
Screencheat has no single-player mode so that’s that. Pass.
• Freedom Planet (2014): GalaxyTrail (= mostly Stephen DiDuro) (Waterloo, NY) [played for 2 hrs]
Overt Sonic the Hedgehog throwback. Well-built, but insufficiently tasty for me to want to go the distance — I never having been that much of a Sonic fan to begin with. Also the interstitial storytelling is truly unbearable, spastic furry-minded infantilism, and there is an incredible amount of it. Consider me off-put.
Battle using tokens in order to win more tokens, being careful never to run out of tokens. A worthy idea, but the presentation isn’t rewarding enough for me to want to put in the time learning the deck, the stats, etc. The more tabletop-like the game mechanics, the more look and feel matter to me.
September 3, 2015. A free giveaway from Indiegala:
• The 39 Steps (2013): The Story Mechanics (Glasgow, Scotland, UK) [3.5 hrs]
Not a game but a so-called “visual novel,” i.e. a straight-ahead narrative presentation with nominal interactivity (e.g. “click the door to enter”) but no functional choices. The John Buchan book is a good choice of source material for such a thing, and all the illustration and audio has been done with a modicum of taste and care. The adaptation is certainly faithful and respectful. The effect is very similar to filmstrip presentations of olde: very mildly effective, and pleasantly soporific. Plenty of flaws too. I would love to see more and better work in this direction.
September 24, 2015. Free on Steam for a day, as a promotion for the remake thereof:
A big hit from years ago; glad to have finally played it. Attractive, tactile, atmospheric graphics with a stop-motion feel; wiggly-woggly story and character design have real spirit; gameplay distinctly superior to the rather similar Heart of Darkness. But: it is demanding, and one of its demands is a SEVEN SECOND WAIT every time you die, which happens constantly. After 6 hours of play I did not feel myself to be 6 hours into a game; more like 4 hours into a game and 2 hours of SEVEN SECOND WAIT. I really wanted to see it through but, alas, that degree of time-wastage is unendurable even for me. I wish someone had patched it to change just that one thing. Instead they remade it entirely, in ways that mostly seem to detract. A shame.
You know the type: “half-baked, underdesigned game, but containing cartoon graphics that can be made to look good in screenshots on the box,” from the golden age of same. (A British Amiga game, in fact: the belly of the beast.) This one seems to have its charms, but still, why subject myself?
November 3, 2015 — the next day! Yet another free giveaway from Indiegala:
• Lucius (2012): Shiver Games (Helsinki, Finland) [played for .25 hr]
Play as approximately ‘The Omen’ and kill your family one by one. Not sure that’s a good or tasteful concept, but I was willing to give it a chance because I’m a pushover for Mansion Horror. But this immediately reveals itself as ill-built. Feels like it has stray nails sticking out of it and I don’t want to cut myself.
Present day again! My sister tells me she saw a game she thinks I might like, and then a couple weeks later some nerds I know are all abuzz about the same game… so I say fine, it’s a sign and spend a full $14.99 to play it. Was that really advisable? Is that really something I should be doing? What can I say.
Art! Not big art, but little art — which is simply to say that it makes you feel and think about things that aren’t other videogames. In a better world, that would be the baseline, but it’s not, it’s special, so let’s celebrate it. I adore the idea of responsive piano accompaniment and I’m very impressed with the execution… I just wish it hadn’t been famous classical pieces, whose vivisection I couldn’t help but find distracting. Oh well. The goose is a beaut. The situational dynamics, the emotions in play and the overall social vision, are so very much healthier and clear-headed than in most other games. The fresh air here feels like happiness offered on the level, not a sentimental escape offered to the needy. I think that’s why the game has become a sensation; it’s so immediate and obvious to anyone who touches it. I’m all for it.
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.)