More assorted comments on games!
Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.
(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)
Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.
In this post:
- Rusty Lake: Roots
- Able Black
- Neptune Flux
- She Who Fights Monsters
- Islands: Non-Places
- Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
- Mu Cartographer
- Burly Men at Sea
- A Normal Lost Phone
The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.
This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!
The narrative nominees:
- Ladykiller in a Bind
- 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
- One Night Stand
In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.
- These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
- I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
- I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)
Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!
This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!
Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.
In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.
(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)
When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?
Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.
Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)
And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.
(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)
Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.
(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)
Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.
You may have noted that Steam has launched its Thanksgiving sale. It's not Black Friday yet; I dunno, maybe it's Purple Wednesday. They don't tell me these things.
Anyhow, Hadean Lands is part of this sale. My first Steam sale! Until Nov 29th, you can buy the game for 35% off. Exciting times indeed.
While you're at it, you might want to nominate your favorite text adventure for the Steam Awards. Interactive fiction winning such an award in the braoder gaming market? Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? I guess we'll find out!
(Yes, the iOS version has a lower base price. That's just the way things are right now.) (Also note: due to the way Apple prices bundles, the "Zarf's Interactive Fiction" bundle is not available this week.)
...Oh, and since somebody is going to ask: no. The Steam DLC Solo Adventurer Pledge Certificate is not discounted. Discounting the certificate would only make it less valuable. Sheesh.
I finished up all the games I bought from Steam's summer sale, so I bought a bunch more in Steam's Halloween sale. Nice how that works out, right?
Note: I am involved in IGF judging again this year. However, I played all of these games before I started doing that, and I bought them all on my own dime (minus the Halloween sale discount).
Hue: A short casual-puzzle game. It's a 2D platformer with a theme of color-shifting; any object that matches the background is invisible and therefore doesn't exist. The puzzles explore this premise adequately -- no enormous surprises but everything is solidly designed. The platforming requires light jumping-reflex skills, nothing hardcore.
As for the story, well, it's in the genre of sentimental art games about children. A lot of background voiceover about Love as the silent protagonist jumps around. We've seen a lot of these, I'm afraid.
Pavilion: Another short casual-puzzle game. The puzzles are decent; they have a playful, exploratory variety of mechanics, but they're not very difficult or complex as puzzles per se. But the real point is the game art and the soundtrack, which are hallucinatory and fantastic. (Warning: designed for game controller; awkward on keyboard. The developer swears that they're working on a mouse UI.)
Apartment 666: Yeah, I dunno. The combination of highly repetitive environments and a cheesy there's-a-murderer "horror" story turned me off quick. I quit out before finishing, and I gather the game wasn't long to begin with.
Abzû: I'm glad that Journey wound up defining a class of games (a form). Sometimes I just want to sit down with a couple of hours of narrative experience that has arc, theme, variation of interaction model, a bit of challenge, and (not tangentially) is really, really pretty.
If you add serious puzzles to that you have a short adventure game. If you add blood and jump scares you get horror. If you add boatloads of text you get some kind of IF. I am sometimes in the mood for each of these, but then sometimes I'm not, so Abzû is a good sort of game to have around.
Subject 13: Another old-school adventure game; this one is third-person. Even has the classic pop-up verb menu.
The early puzzles take excellent advantage of the 3D engine; you have puzzle-boxes to examine from all sides and manipulate. I like those. And then... bam! Slider puzzle. The first two chapters have some simple slider puzzles, which I don't mind, but chapter 3 throws you the classic tedious squares-and-rectangles slider puzzle. It is 2016 (or 2015 when the game was released, same difference). That means you have to pay me $50 to solve the slider puzzle again. This game didn't pay me $50. Discard.
Haven Moon: A Myst-clone. Small and enthusiastic, but I can't say it's an outstanding example of the genre. It's not a bad game either! It has a lot of good ideas and puzzles. But the visuals are a little weak (the world gets samey-samey as you explore); the puzzles are a bit sparse and many of them are underclued.
I suppose this gets into a philosophical game-design debate. Here we have a solo project, an adventure game built by one author. If it were text IF, I'd expect it to be totally solid -- text IF can be built solo, we all recognize that. But for graphical adventures? Modern tools (Unity, in this case) let a small team build a high-quality graphical game. But going it alone is still hard!
So the author gets my respect for doing it at all. But, on the other hand, is this the right tack? I said both the world and the puzzles felt sparse. This implies that the author could have done better -- or made me happier, at least -- by tightening things up, packing the same amount of work into less floorspace.
But then, of course, there is a joy to architecture and open space. I don't want to squash that. (I recall The Guest, a charming example of a right-sized adventure in a claustrophobic hotel room. Must every game look like that? Of course not.)
So I don't have a simple "you should have done this differently!" message. Which is good, because who wants to hear that? I will just gesture at the range of possibilities, which includes tiny, densely-packed puzzleboxes.
Here's a bit of a thing. I happened to look at my "game design" folder, which is of course full of random snippets of text dating back years. The oldest file is from 2003:
Research: enter a book "room", use standard IF search techniques to explores, find "exits" to other pages or other books. Books can be hidden in "real life", or just not indexed in the library. Similarly, a section of a book might not be findable until you find a reference elsewhere, and search for it.
(Library is a real-life room; the books you're familiar with are pulled out, handy. Reading one enters the book "room".)
Alchemical operations form a deep skill tree. As you perform operations successfully, they're added as single action. ("distill alcohol", "resublimate thiotimoline"). Lots of room to explore. Operations have logic, but also exceptions.
Time limit? If you screw up, or take too long, your supplies and tools are restored to their original state -- new day begins -- but you retain your skills. Maybe even get pre-made supplies of stuff you're very familiar with.
Operations take particular amounts of time? So there's an optimization problem, even for skills you've learned. (Ameliorated by pre-made supplies.)
No idea what the story looks like. Something about the reason why you are taking this alchemical test and have an infinite number of retries.
That's all I wrote back then. It's old enough to have MacOS-Classic line breaks instead of Unix/OSX line breaks.
When I started planning HL in mid-2010 I started a new notes file, but I left the old one in place. Obviously some of that old stuff went out the window. Although now I like the idea of books as environments which you "enter" to do research. Maybe I'll try that again someday.
For more fun, here's a snippet from the 2010 notes file:
Planetary types: (A marcher doesn't normally visit these, but they're familiar from the academy and from sailor's stories. The protagonist has never seen one before; he's only visited Gaian lands, and rarely left the Retort except in inhabited places.)
- Gaian lands: where people can live.
- Hadean lands: rock, little or no air, "night" sky. (The Moon, Mars.)
- Helian lands: like Hadean lands, but with a big honking sun. (Mercury.)
- Erebian lands: like Hadean lands, but covered in ice and with little sun. (Pluto, etc.)
- Thalassan lands: oceans (of something) and atmosphere. (Titan, probably.)
- Aeolian lands: only clouds visible. (Jupiter, but also Venus.)
- Hermetic lands would be fairyland or Atlantis. Places populated by the Wise. The term is from popular fiction rather than science.
All of that is canon, but it's only briefly referred to in the released game.
I'm holding onto the hermeticlands.com domain as a placeholder. For what, I don't know yet.
It's IFComp time! And I haven't played any of the 58 IFComp games! But I have been playing down my backlog of random Steam walking-simulator-and-other-exploration games. So here are some more notes.
Metrico+: Stylish little platformer which attempts to substitute observation and cleverness for twitch-jumping. I don't think it completely succeeds. That is, it succeeds at avoiding too much reflexology. You have to combine jumps, shots, horizontal and vertical motion, and so on in various ways to solve the puzzles. However, the specific effects of those actions are left for you to determine in each level. This produces a slogging rhythm: every level begins with a bunch of pointless button-flailing as you try to guess what's connected to what. I wish the "infographic" style had been used to convey that information.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Begins with an outright apology for its gameplay flaws. ("This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.") I respect that.
So my expectations were low going in, but I wound up deciding it was quite strong. Remember when I said Everyone's Gone to the Rapture needed one more element? Ethan Carter had the right number of elements to grab me. Pretty scenery, mostly exploration, simple puzzles -- or interactive pacing challenges, if you like. Just enough of them. Story threads that felt disparate but looped together at the end. Surreality.
Ilamentia: Another "bunch of disparate levels" abstract platformer. It brags of having 96 levels; I solved the first and then stopping making progress. I tried five or six other levels, failed at all of them to various degrees. Clearly not on my puzzle wavelength.
NaissanceE: Yet another abstract platformer. This has a thoughtfully minimalist chiaroscuro style: nothing but light, shadow, and cubes. Artfully composed! However, an endless maze of that with no story gets wearing. I eventually hit a point where I had to chase a racing dot, which worked poorly on my controller, and I decided it was time to give up.
The Guest: An unrepentantly old-school first-person adventure. I could have reviewed this in 1998. Okay, in 1998 it wouldn't have been free-roam 3D and it probably would have been a bit longer, but otherwise, yeah.
Anyhow, perfectly pleasant puzzle excursion. Did not overstay its welcome. Many puzzles verged on being arbitrary, but generally on the right side -- I only had to look at one hint. Not much story but so what? Enjoyed.
The Ball: Very much in the first wave of post-Portal physics-gimmick platformers. The gimmick is okay, but the graphics feel a few years pre-Portal instead. The designers try to keep varying the scenery and the puzzles, but there's only so many ways they can mix up their elements, and there's no story to speak of. I found myself getting weary a quarter of the way through; gave up.
(If the later chapters have more elements mixed in, I apologize, but I didn't have the stamina.)
Rise of the Tomb Raider: I wanted more Tomb Raider, and that's exactly what this was. More of the 2013 game. Lots more. I enjoyed all the pieces, and yes, I spent the time to scour every corner of the game world. But by the end I was wishing the game had been half the size for half the price.
I played on easy-combat mode; I would have skipped the big fights entirely if that had been an option. If there are any non-combat acrobatic-climby-puzzle games out there, please let me know. (More acrobatic than Submerged, ideally.)
...I feel like I should talk about the story. (It's credited to Rhianna Pratchett, whom I trust to stay at least a notch above the usual videogame plot-stodge.) The 2013 TR was full of dramatic events, most of which involved Lara Croft's friends and allies dying horribly in front of her. Over and over. Well-written, but a strain to play, honestly.
This iteration avoids that trope, and does some quiet subversion on the TR standards. For example, there's a Lost Tribe who are good guys; quite a lot of the story involves Lara helping and being helped by them. There's a pair of villains who are not only characterized but have some plot arc.
However, these scripted scenes are still embedded in a Tomb Raider game. So on the one hand you have Lara Croft, junior explorer of the world's wonders; and on the other hand you have Lara Croft, bloody-handed slaughterer of armies and destroyer of every antiquity in arm's reach. (The friendly tribe is up against faceless mercenaries and faceless zombie Byzantine warriors. Lara gets to murder scores of both.) (As for the antiquities, we never see Lara close any of the fragile reliquaries and sarcophagi she cracks open.)
Conclusion: AAA gaming is just not kind to the creative writer. I bet you're all surprised to hear that.
Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.
I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.
But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.
(This has been widely noted, but I wanted to summarize what's known.)
At the beginning of September, some Dropbox users got email:
We’re writing to let you know that we’ll be discontinuing the ability to render HTML content in-browser via shared links or Public Folder. If you're using Dropbox shared links to host HTML files for a website, the content will no longer display in-browser.
(Text copied from a post on the ChoiceOfGames forum -- thanks jeantown.)
Dropbox has posted a more complete summary on their web site:
Dropbox Basic (free) users: Beginning October 3, 2016, you can no longer use shared links to render HTML content in a web browser. If you created a website that directly displays HTML content from your Dropbox, it will no longer render in the browser. The HTML content itself will still remain in your Dropbox and can be shared.
Dropbox Pro and Business users: Beginning September 1, 2017, you can no longer render HTML content.
In other words, in a month (for free users) or twelve months (for paid users), people will no longer be able to play your HTML-based games directly off of Dropbox. They'll either appear as raw HTML or as "download this file" links -- it's not clear which. (Other kinds of files, such as images or CSS files, will not be affected.)
Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.
(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)
The themes of this list:
- Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
- My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
- The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.
Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?
The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.
Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)
Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.
Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.
Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.
Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.
Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.