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No video game I have played as an adult has affected me as profoundly and personally as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has. I’ve already written about my technical admiration for Telltale’s interactive television dramas (whose titles have doubled in number between the date of that essay and just this week), but now I wish to get personal. This may take more than one post.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the “Walking Dead” video game.

I purchased all of Walking Dead season one during a half-price sale at the end of 2012, spurred by the raves of many trusted friends. I tried part of the first episode, approaching it like the point-and-click adventure game I had expected, and it didn’t really gel for me. (To my past self’s credit, and as I wrote before, the first few episodes of this then-new style for Telltale did hold over many inventory-focused, get-batteries, put-batteries-in-radio adventure-game elements that would become wholly vestigial once the series hit its stride.) I remained in this skeptical relationship with the when Matt Weise and I recorded the Play of the Light episode about zombies in video games.

I would pick up the game the following summer, playing it straight to the end over the course of a month or two. In part this was likely due to the passage of time letting me see the game from a fresh perspective, and play it the correct way: much more a choice-driven narrative than a series of puzzles. I discovered, to my surprise, that The Walking Dead does not wear the flimsy frame-excuse to destroy human bodies with impunity that the zombie trope typically brings to fiction, and to video games especially. Instead, it is a wholly human drama about people scrabbling for hope in an utterly hopeless world. Each episode brings fresh horrors for the characters — not merely decaying body-horrors, but new revelations that they’d been thrown into a world with literally no love left for them. I treated each chapter as an ampule of poison I injected willingly, at a pace of my own choosing: escape through recreational despair.

The especial reason this appealed to me on second viewing, I strongly suspect, had to do with my rapidly changing family situation of that time. That spring, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He succumbed within weeks, barely giving me time to secure power of attorney over both parents’ affairs without getting probate courts involved. And then things became truly difficult, as his death revealed that my mother had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and that he’d been covering for her for years. But it took my brothers and I, as well as the framework of helpers and professionals I assembled from an initial position of zero knowledge or experience, months to realize that.

At first, I was assured, her confusion was due to grief and stress. So we moved her into a nice, loving retirement home in Bangor, Maine, not far from where she lived with dad; she could keep her cat, and room and board cost almost exactly her monthly pension. It was perfect. And within a week, the home asked that I please relocate her elsewhere.

Like a lot of elderly with Alzheimer’s Disease, my mother suffers from a condition called sundowning. As the day turns to afternoon, such a person’s grip on reality becomes weaker, and can disconnect completely once night falls. Mom would be in a great mood through lunch, then call me repeatedly to ask me to come fetch her from this weird hotel she was in, and take her back home to dad. The calls would stop by night because, in utter confusion, she’d disconnect her phone, then proceed to wander the halls. She’d sometimes bang on other residents’ doors, or just let herself in and proceed to violently accuse them of invading her home.

I have no pat answer for why The Walking Dead appealed so much to me at the same time I was daily negotiating with a series of assisted-living homes and elderly-care advice sources, all while sinking into financial ruin (spending upwards of $10,000 per month) to support a woman who would daily tell me that I must hate her to have abandoned her penniless among strangers in a ski lodge or wherever she was, stealing all her cars and emptying her bank accounts and whatever else I must have done so that she wasn’t even sure of her own identity any more. Maybe I just found myself possessing a deeper well of sympathy than before for Lee and Clementine’s unsolvable and ever-worsening plight. Maybe I felt relief to step directly into their situation in the unique way that Telltale’s dramas allow and experience how very much worse their lives were than mine (even if make-believe). With navigating my utterly unfamiliar situation as my full-time job, maybe it just felt good to chase another call with mom or with a social worker with the fantasy of having all my problems coalesce into something so easy to understand as shambling corpses, and a short-term solution as simple as an icepick.

Our luck changed as summer ended (and after I finished playing through the end of Lee’s story in season one). I finally connected with a particular elderly-care resource in Bangor able to give me direct assistance towards getting my mother an actual Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Soon after, I found her a place to live in a truly beautiful “memory care” facility in Brewer, full of staff who work exclusively with Alzheimer’s patients, willing to guide them with dignity through the variably lucid twilight of their lives. And at the same time, my mother’s lawyer succeeded in connecting her with Medicaid, staunching my own financial bleed-out. By the time 2013 ended, so had these tribulations with my mother. As I write this, she has lived in this home for more than a year, and remains safe there.

So, then. Season two.

Season two of the Walking Dead game memorably twists two survival-child tropes. In its first episode, Clem encounters a lonely dog right after she loses her whole family (for the third time in two years). As she and the dog travel through several scenes together, the game lets us believe that the animal will become Clem’s companion, a source of trust and comfort who will reflect Clem’s own relationship towards Lee in the previous season. And suddenly, the betrayed and bleeding Clem must choose between slicing open the formerly domesticated dog’s jugular or just leaving it, mad but paralyzed, to die of its wounds.

This encounter’s true purpose in the season’s narrative arc has it act as foreshadowing for Clem’s relationship with Sarah, a girl who evidently dwells somewhere in the autistic spectrum, and whom Clem meets in the lodge where she reunites with Kenny. Sarah has no ability to grasp the fact that the world has ended, and she makes an obstacle of herself in stressful situations. Her father, overworked as the group’s only medic, treats her with exasperation. Jane, a loner who accompanies the group for a time, warns Clem not to let herself be dragged down by people like Sarah who — she says — can’t fend for themselves.

Once again, the game lets us believe that Clem and Sarah can become friends, working together to overcome Sarah’s disability, or perhaps even allowing it to become her saving grace. Maybe her sunny optimism, borne of her inability to recognize that the world has died, will buoy the survivors’ sprits when they need it most. Plenty of narratives would take that tack, so comfortable in tales of kids helping each other through tough times, and do quite well with it.

This narrative demurs. In this story, contrary to every trope, Jane is exactly, inescapably right. Within the cruelly libertarian world of The Walking Dead, one with no time or pity for people who cannot function without community support, Sarah’s autism makes her dead weight. She doesn’t directly attack Clem like the dog did, but she endangers her just the same, over and over, while Clem — and the player — stubbornly refuse to just let her go.

My middle brother, whom here I shall call “Hank”, had a worse year than I did.

We shared the same parents, obviously, and he lives near the rest of my family in Bangor, but he did not help my eldest brother Ricky and I during our crisis with mom. He was too busy caring for his ailing wife, something he had made his full-time job since she became bedridden the previous year. They lived on her social-security income; Hank had quit his job, and had no savings or fallback of any kind. He supplemented their income with credit cards, at least until he found that he couldn’t open any more new credit-card accounts.

But I, too, was very busy navigating our mother’s dilemma, and so we didn’t talk much. He showed up for dad’s funeral and read from Dylan Thomas, which I honestly wouldn’t have expected of him, but didn’t have anything to say beyond that. I wouldn’t speak with him much for about a year thereafter.

His wife moved into hospice in April of 2014. This meant that Hank, who was neither elderly nor disabled, had to vacate the subsidized housing they shared under her name. He had no idea what he was going to do, other than vaguely planning to literally become a homeless person, and he watched TV while waiting for this to happen. The day before his forced eviction, I drove to Bangor, found him an inexpensive apartment on Craig’s List, put myself down as co-signer — I didn’t want his underwater credit rating to spoil my mission — rented a van, and helped him and his cat move into it. He expressed sincere gratitude, and promised that he would weather his situation and land on his feet.

His wife died a few weeks later. The funeral was on his birthday.

This past fall, after months of working with grief therapists and other counselors, he got a job at the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant by the Bangor Mall. The management hired him despite the two-year gap in his work history, as they had his social workers’ good word behind him. He phoned me right after the interview, ecstatic, and laughingly complaining that he only had one pair of decent pants, and he had already used them for the interview. I sent him some money for some more pants. He did not show up for his first day.

Ricky, a disabled veteran, has received social-security benefits for decades. He has also earned significant experience with America’s welfare system and the many sorts of people one meets within. He feels sadly confident that Hank has become the sort who has simply given up, and who will never muster the intent to re-enter the workforce. Ricky has been working his connections to try to get Hank declared disabled too, but without finding much success.

Hank thinks maybe he’ll next apply for a job at a nearby hotel, some months from now, after they’re done building it. In the meantime he told the city’s general-assistance board that I help pay his rent, so they cut off his monthly dole.

I saw a therapist myself a handful of times this year, the first time I did so since high school. We resolved the immediate impetus for my visits quite quickly, and spent the rest of the time talking about Hank.

At the climax of the fourth episode, the observation deck of the survivors’ temporary camp collapses, and Sarah and Jane both tumble down into the path of the advancing zombie herd. The game prompts the player to either give Jane a hand back up, or tell Jane to rescue Sarah, catatonic and screaming while the monsters approach.

At this moment I had an epiphany not unlike that upon my return to season one: since the last time I had played, something had changed on my side of the screen. I realized anew how the game wanted me to play it.

We recognized, finally, the locus of our problem, Clem and I. And we cut it away.

Clem looked on silently as the creatures swarmed Sarah, who in previous episodes had lost her father and the rest of her adoptive family, one by one, to various monsters. “I’m gonna die!” she cried. “That’s right,” I said to my television, as they tore into her.

Nobody would mention Sarah again. She left nobody to miss her.

I could ask Hank if the things other people believe about him are true. I haven’t, because I haven’t taken any of his calls since the one from the Wendy’s parking lot. I have my bank print and mail him checks every month, and I will continue to do so through April of next year, when his lease — and my legal obligation to pay his rent — ends.

Maybe I will pick up the phone, sometime before then. Maybe I’ll just write a letter. I don’t know yet. Perhaps this is related to the fact I haven’t spoken to my mother since she moved into the Alzheimer’s home, either. In any case, I don’t find myself moved to worry about it much.

His story is sad. All of our stories are sad.

Today, I do not talk to the dead.

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Telltale Television

Winkyandyou head07The publisher itself doesn’t market them this way, and I haven’t run across anyone else applying the label. So, from my own perspective, let me say it first: Telltale Games’ most recent narrative video games, including The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, have realized the ancient dream of true interactive television.

By this I don’t mean TV shows with audience call-in gimmicks attached, or experimental games delivered via broadcast television, or similarly venerable exercises of the medium. I mean an evolutionary application of contemporary television storytelling techniques to the naturally interactive environment of video games to create something entirely new, and deeply interesting.

Each episode of these games, with a typical playtime of between 90 minutes to two hours, has a set storyline with a structure of major acts and lesser beats familiar to anyone with knowledge of screenplay writing — or, indeed, anyone with many years’ experience watching TV dramas. But while the major events that define the story’s acts are fixed in place, the player has limited control over the beats that make up those acts, and quite a bit of control over the protagonist’s dialogue choices and other minor actions leading up to each beat.

For example, frequently in both of these series the protagonist has a discussion (or a heated argument) with one or more non-player characters about what they ought to do next. The player receives several opportunities to choose a response or interjection from a menu, usually comprising three possible utterances the protagonist might make, with a fourth choice of “…” having them say nothing. (Depending on dramatic context, this latter might represent passive silence, or it might result in a non-verbal response, such as the character crossing their arms and glowering at their interlocutor.) The game ties most of these conversational choice-points to a timer only a few seconds long, and it will roll ahead with “…” if the player makes no choice within the timespan of what, on a television show, would constitute a pregnant pause.

However, if you reduce a latter-day Telltale game’s branching beat-and-act structure to a flowchart — which, unsurprisingly, fans have done — then little to none of this conversation appears to “matter”. The story doesn’t branch until you actually get up to the beat, the point where the player-as-protagonist decides which path to take. The conversation leading up to them does not change the timing, nature, or consequences of these choices in any structurally major way.

And yet, the conversation, all those myriad little choices folded invisibly within the straight lines of that flowchart, makes up the largest part of these games’ material, the dark matter to the more obvious “playable content” of the overt branch-points. Almost all the player’s interaction with the game happens via these timed choose-a-response prompts, which usually stack several to a scene. The games’ producers put a lot of resources into recording and animating every line the player-character might choose to say, and all the ways that other characters might react. (This isn’t an Elder Scrolls game where the character models just lip-flap robotically as their scripted dialog passes through them; these are simply but fully animated characters, and animators have had to plan how they block and deliver each line.)

So: if all these conversation options “don’t do anything”, why do they account for so much of the total mass of the game?

The naive answer might suggest that these sections merely avoid making the game too short, since there are only so many branching choice-points in any episode’s narrative. But that isn’t quite right — these games do contain pacing mechanisms, but they come in the form of vestigial adventure-game scenes. Using technology held over from earlier Telltale works (e.g. the Sam and Max games), these occasional breaks in the story’s flow let the player directly marionette the protagonist around the set for a little while, walking about and variously interacting with nearby objects or people. These scenes never last especially long, and in the latter chapters of Wolf Among Us they become almost comically short, giving the player nothing to do except walk up to a door and open it, for example. But in every case, these sections provide a break from the tension, letting the player control the pace for a while before triggering whatever action resumes the game proper.

So, perhaps they are meant to avoid turning the long stretches of exposition between choice-points into interminable cutscenes, giving the player a way to twiddle their thumbs entertainingly between major choices. That explanation would hit a little closer to the truth, but would not account for the uncanny sense of investment that I experience with these games, and which I very much doubt I’d feel were they merely Choose Your Own Adventure-style works adapted into teleplays.

When I talk about Walking Dead, I talk about what “my Lee” did in Season One, and how his choices inform what “my Clementine” is doing in Season Two. Even though every significant thing that happened to them was completely predetermined, I felt like I co-developed these characters. I have a pretty good idea how these games work as systems of rules and procedures, and I’m quite aware of the artifice and stagecraft involved. And yet the Lee of my one Walking Dead playthrough still feels like “my Lee”, and I know that he always will.

This is magic. I don’t know how it works; I write this essay to help myself think through some ways that it might. Right now, I suspect that much of the magic lurks in all that dark matter, all those dozens of little choices the game offers the player between the major choice-point beats.

To describe my approach to these games from the beginning: all the latter Telltale titles feature superb voice acting through and through, and great (if limited-budget) art direction, so I’ve no problems diving through the surface. The subject matter’s another thing; I find most zombie fiction loathsome, so it took a year or so of trusted friends’ insistence as to the game’s quality (plus a one-day sale of the series’ Xbox version) before I finally tried Walking Dead. I do love a good horror-story hook, and that game’s first episode had one, so I was in.

Once there, I found myself paying far more attention to the stories of the three extant Telltale seasons than I have from any TV show in recent memory. Because a prompt to react might literally appear at any moment — more true in the Walking Dead games, perhaps, which have license to interrupt most any scene with a door banging open and unspeakable horrors shambling in — every moment I spend playing sees my full, undivided attention focused on the game. I can’t even zone out in the limited way I do when traveling between familiar areas in an RPG, say, or bouncing through a new-but-still-familiar obstacle course in some platformer. No, I am drinking in every detail I can, listening closely to what the characters are saying (and how they’re saying it), keeping a close eye on little interpersonal tells.

But it’s not like I’m an air-traffic controller, here; I’m not just monitoring people-shaped blips booping around on my TV. These are characters as wholly fleshed-out as any you’ll find on a modern American television drama, and in paying as much attention to them as I am, I can’t help but build models of them in my mind, becoming familiar with their personalities and motivations.

With all this set-up in place, then, the game frequently asks me to choose the protagonist’s immediate next action or utterance from a short list, giving me no time to ruminate or second-guess. That on-screen timer, shrinking down like a fast-burn fuse, challenges me to trust my model of not so much what the character should do next, but what they would do. And in this way — even though I’m choosing from little pre-arranged lists, and even though the events that befall the character never change, no matter what buttons I hit — I feel like I am molding that character. I cannot help it. It really does feel like an act of co-creation, despite all the constraints.

All of which cause the inevitable arrival of the actual story beats, the choice-points, to not feel like mechanical nodes on a prose flowchart but to instead carry all the weight of irrevocably life-changing decisions. Lee, Clementine, and Bigby all live partly in my head, taking up residence one conversation-node at a time in a way that no TV character and perhaps no game character I’ve met before them ever has. Despite their being wholly fictional, even fantastical, their experiences feel shared, and so do the costs and consequences of their — our — decisions.

Seems pretty simple, when I lay it out like that! But I know it’s a difficult alchemy that’s been a long time coming, and has a lot more development and refinement ahead of it.

I’ll note that just because these games have realized a new kind of interactive television doesn’t mean they’ve perfected it. They’re at their weakest when they dip a little too far into their video-game substrate. In particular, certain quicktime challenges, on failure, result in the untimely death of a main character and a corresponding GAME OVER screen. When this happens, it feels less like I experienced a routine failure as a videogame player, and more like Netflix just cut out. Telltale is clearly experimenting with these bits, as they change dramatically in tenor from the first Walking Dead season[1], and I surely support the presence of controller-fumbling action sequences in games that are largely about building and then releasing tension, but I’m not sure they’ve gotten it quite right yet.

I have more I want to say about the particulars of how these games have moved me personally. But for now, I believe it suffices to say that my household has found the Telltale games to be among the most emotionally involving and affecting media to ever appear on our television set. I genuinely look forward to playing more, and not just from Telltale.

[1] The first season of Walking Dead allows this to get especially frustrating, as I sometimes had to replay the same zombie-dodging scene five or six times, towards the end of which I had to draw on my reserves of faith that, yes, despite all appearances the game did actually want me to finish it and I should give it one more go.

Among other things, it changes the button you need to hit in order to yank the screwdriver out of the walker’s eyesocket or whatever with every fresh attempt. I found this terrifically exasperating, if not downright trollish. Emily Short read this experience as part of the text, feeling that the game was intentionally refusing to allow the player to get good at slicing up walking corpses, because it took place in a world that isn’t meant to feel like a video game. Both Dead season two and Wolf have fight scenes that feel far more forgiving… but now that I think of it, both the supernatural Bigby and the veteran survivor-child Clementine might have more excuse to display rather more combat acumen than ol’ Lee, so perhaps they’re all playing by the same rules anyway.

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Not IFComp adventure reviews

Since it's IFComp season, I thought I'd get my ducks in a row by clearing my brain of commentary of the last few non-text adventures I played.

(Note: any linearity of ducks is strictly accidental. Use of "ducks in a row" as a metaphor does not constitute any guarantee of IFComp commentary, express or implied, now or later, leaded or decaf. Void where used in void context.)

Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper

(Web site; Frogwares Studio)

Third in the weirdest adventure game series I can recall. Weird for one specific reason: each game so far has had a totally different tone. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened was Lovecraftian horror: chasing down a murderous cult across Britain, Europe, and America, with an apocalyptic (well, nigh-apocalyptic) showdown in a storm-blasted lighthouse. Flashy, full of wild occult connections, occasional chase scenes even.

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis switched antagonists entirely: from squamous Elder Things to Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief (a fictional contemporary of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories). This game took the form of a battle of wits: clues left in wry little notes and riddles, Holmes chasing the thief around London. It wasn't farce -- Lupin really was after the Crown Jewels, and he had a plan to get them. But it wasn't a cosmic struggle for the survival of humanity, either.

And now, Jack the Ripper. Another natural nemesis for the master detective; but on a completely different axis. And the game, once again, runs along completely different lines. No gentleman criminals here. The story is a murky tangle of racism, poverty, prostitution, and revenge, with plenty of syphilis and mutilation thrown in. Not the fantastical set-dressing of Lovecraft's cannibal cults; just straight-up human butchery.

The challenges, too, switch gears. You're not solving riddles, or even lining up the logic-puzzle-like suspect lists of the Lupin game. (Well, sometimes you are, but mostly not.) It's down-and-dirty police procedure. Which way did the knife cut, left or right, shallow or deep? Where did the blood splatter? Which witnesses reported a five-foot-nine shadow, and which five-foot-six? You re-enact murder scenes, dress up mannequins to test theories, and -- memorably -- hack up some hog corpses to try to figure out what kind of knife was used.

(The game isn't graphically bloody, but it doesn't skirt it by much. You are, after all, taking detailed physical evidence from human victims. The game departs from its usual realistic 3D, using stylized flat artwork for the corpses -- and for the pig heads. Nonetheless, it doesn't take much imagination to be revolted by these scenes. If you're suspectible, avoid this game.)

(The good news is, Watson finally has a walking animation. In other words, he no longer teleports from place to place when your back is turned. Forget the gore; Mysterious Teleporting Watson was absolutely the most unnerving thing about the first two games in this series.)

You run into the usual stock of evidence-collection, object-manipulation, and NPC-fetching puzzles. (And one arbitrary set of sliding blocks, sigh...) But this game also adds a large selection of evidence-collation puzzles -- again, the form of the police procedural. For example, after you've assembled a stock of information about when things happened, you enter a timeline scene: Holmes prompts you to place pins on a timeline, and then resolve inconsistencies. Locations are put together on a map; physical descriptions, as I noted, are laid out on mannequins. And all the facts you assemble go onto a big chart, with chains of conclusion leading to further deduction and, eventually, a narrowing profile of the Ripper.

All of these deduction scenes are interactive; they do a good job of pulling you into the act of tracking down a killer. Much better than cut scenes of Holmes monologuing. They follow, as far as I can tell, plausible forensic investigation. (Well, mostly. The perfume analysis bit is disappointingly and arbitrarily abstracted.) The scenes even have a depressingly realistic percentage of null results: half the time, you are tracking through a bunch of facts which turn out to exclude nothing and point to nobody.

What these interactions are not, unfortunately, are good puzzles. Most of them can be brute-forced. The deduction chart, in particular, lets you twiddle each node through its three options until the result lights up green. The designers try to make up for this with multi-stage deductions, but that just increases the number of guesses you have to make. It was always easier for me to grind through combinations of "left-handed... right-handed... taller, shorter..." than to think about the facts in the game world.

I'm not saying I have a better model here. Designing a good puzzle is hard; designing a puzzle around a realistic activity is hard. Doing both together is so hard that you can wind up tuning your entire game design to make it work once... if you're lucky. In trying to cover every aspect of an investigation, Holmes v. Ripper makes itself into more of an interactive movie interspersed with puzzles.

Mind you, there aren't enough good interactive movies out there. You should play this one, as long as you have a strong stomach.

But I have no idea what Frogwares will do with the next game. Their web site says it's in development...

Cursed Mountain

(Web site; Deep Silver Inc)

This Wii title was mentioned at a Penguicon "what games are you looking forward to?" panel. It sounded cool: survival horror with Buddhist mythology.

As it turns out, it's Fatal Frame on a mountain. Ghosts jump out at you and you kill them with your blessed pickaxe. Nothing wrong with this as a premise; I miss Fatal Frame. (The latest iteration of that series was published only in Japan.)

Sadly, Cursed Mountain is terribly thin on gameplay; it just doesn't push any boundaries at all. You search levels for keys (for locked doors) and magical symbols (dispelled with a little gesture game, to unlock doors). You smash barrels jars, all of which look the same, and which contain either nothing or health drinks health incense. And then ghosts jump out at you, so you whack them or shoot them with your magic pickaxe -- don't ask me, apparently magic pickaxes can shoot ghosts -- until you can dispel the ghosts with the same little gesture game.

Oh, and you find a lot of journals to read, for storyline.

Very occasionally you get to play a different gesture game (meditating, or balancing on a beam) but there really isn't any sense of variety. You never think "Ooh, I can try doing something else here!" The game just changes modes on you, briefly.

Yes, I could be describing plenty of different survival horror games here. It's not like Silent Hill got famous for rich gameplay. But the typical game offers some kind of changeup -- boss fights, or weapon upgrades, or bonus items. Cursed Mountain waves a hand at all of these, but they don't work. The bosses are some extra ghosts that fly, with extra magic symbols to gesture at. The weapon upgrades are tactical downgrades; I never found anything more effective than the third weapon you get, so I never switched after that. And the only bonus item is, as far as I could tell, a statue that makes your next two pickaxe blows more deadly. (You can't even decide when to use them -- zero added interactivity.)

As for the story -- your brother disappeared on the mountain. He had an evil mountain-climbing mentor. There's some Buddhist treasure somewhere. Try writing the rest yourself. Evil guy wants the treasure, evil guy disrespects the local religion, curses, ghosts, mass slaughter. The use of Tibetan Buddhism ought to be cool, but it's been pounded into a template that feels exactly like every other Japanese horror game out there: clumsy sexual innuendo (secret Tantric rituals!) and oh no human sacrifice. Resulting in monsters.

The developers are not, as it turns out, Japanese. (I believe it's a German studio.) But they sure got the tone right, or "right", and the result is more a case study in creepy cultural appropriation than in Buddhist theology.

Cursed Mountain also manages to lift the worst possible checkpoint system from Japanese action games... okay, not the worst. I don't want to know what the worst is. But this one is pretty bad: the game autosaves when you reach particular triggers, but only the first time you reach a trigger. You can never decide to save. So if you're trundling along with low health, and you reach a save point, that's your save state. If you lose a fight and die, tough -- you come back with low health. No fair running off to a health shrine and then re-saving.

I have not finished Cursed Mountain. You can't make me. I ran into a boss fight with low health, died about five times in a row, finally struggled through it, and then hit another big fight with even lower health. I just don't care enough to continue.

And to be fair, this annoys me. Not just because I'd climb a mountain of Towers of Hanoi to explore one bit of scenery I've never seen before. (Although I would.) Not just because the game is a waste of a decent horror premise (which it is), or the second horror game in a row I've given up on because the fighting wore me out. (Which it is too.)

But because Cursed Mountain is only marginally worse than all those other games I've played. Nothing about it is a raging disaster. All the pieces are kind of fun. It's just a steady stream of tolerable. The nicely-laid-out levels and intensely atmospheric environments -- see, I can say nice things -- are not quite enough to make it work. I wish they were.

Tales of Monkey Island

(Web site; Telltale Games)

I never played the original Monkey Island games. Even more heretically, now I don't want to. Telltale Games pull off their episodic contributions with the finely-honed design skills that we now all know from Sam & Max. (Wallace and Gromit was somewhat limp, which had me worried, but apparently pirate snark is sufficiently similar to private-detective snark to put their dialogue writers back on track.)

I just don't believe the older games were this well constructed.

Sure, I could be wrong. I'll cope. In the meantime, my ignorance lets me attest that the Tales episodes are fully comprehensible to newcomers. There's clearly backstory -- you're married, you have a nemesis and a voodoo ally -- but it's all cleanly introduced and it doesn't drown in the lake of dredged-up back-references that I feared. I've played two out of the promised five episodes; the first set up a story arc, and then the second carried it forward with twists, and, well -- it's well-constructed. Enough said, really.

Or not quite enough. I should lay out I mean by "well-constructed"...

  • The player always has goals, short-term and long-term.
  • Every action the player needs to take is motivated -- even (especially) the actions with surprising results.
  • Correct moves are rewarded immediately.
  • Incorrect moves are also rewarded immediately. The response explains why your attempt failed, and also reiterates what you wanted to do.
  • The game clearly distinguishes "that can't be done" from "you tried to do that wrong."
  • Also "that doesn't work" from "you can't do that yet" from "you've already tried that, and it didn't work."
  • If a puzzle requires deep experimentation, the game (usually) locks you in with it, so that you can't mistake "doing it wrong" for "need something else, come back later".
  • Funny.

Not to mention the particular virtue of the episodic adventure: repeating elements that you recognize and rely on as the series progresses.

These are all freshman-level design points, and why do I even list them? Because they are executed consistently and cleanly, so that the player's trust never fails. "Listen to what the game is telling you" is the right strategy, and is taught as the right strategy, and so the player gets through.

Sure, you get a lot of reiteration of goals, and a lot of over-explained action results. That's fine. Solving ten easy puzzles is more fun than solving nine hard ones and getting stuck on the tenth. Telltale gets that.

Also, funny.

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Wallace and Sam and Gromit and Max: an eternal golden triangle

Telltale Games has released the first episode of their Wallace & Gromit series, for PC. (Available as a direct download or on Steam.)

I'm not doing a full review, because you can get those anywhere, but I wanted to pick up a few contrasts between W&G and Telltale's previous episodic adventure hit, Sam & Max.

...The first contrast being, Wallace & Gromit isn't an episodic game series. Not in the sense we usually mean. The "episodic" model is: you buy a small game, which doesn't cost very much, and then next month a followup comes out and you buy that, and you keep doing this until you decide you're hooked (either because each episode is awesome, or because they build into a story arc and you want to see the end). Maybe you know you're a fan straight off the bat -- I certainly was when Sam & Max season 2 began -- so you buy a package deal for the whole series. Up to you.

Not this time. Telltale isn't offering Wallace & Gromit a la carte. You have to plunk down $35 up front, and then you get four small games delivered monthly. It's not so much "episodes" as "buy a game that's only a quarter done yet." (Or, I suppose, wait until July, when you'll be able to buy the whole thing at once for the low-low-price of... still $35.)

I'm not sure what spurred the change. The point of episodes is that you can draw in new players with a low-price game. ($9 for each S&M episode.) Not all those new players will follow through the rest of the series, but then how many players do you push away by asking for $35 up front? Maybe the name recognition (and existing fanbase) of S&M is enough to make this work for Telltale. I guess we'll find out what they do with their next offering.

Anyhow, I am the existing fanbase, so I paid up and jumped straight into the pit.

The most interesting interface tweak is keyboard navigation. Unlike in the S&M series, you move Wallace and/or Gromit around using the arrow keys. Now, keyboard movement has been the spurting carotid rupture of third-person adventuring ever since -- I don't know, Gabriel Knight? Steering an avatar around a 3D space with arrow keys is generally as much fun as parallel parking. However, W&G manages to minimize the hassle. You can still click on objects to walk up and interact with them. This is 75% of your navigation to begin with. The arrow keys only come into play when you have to walk across a wide space -- down a hallway, along a street -- so you're really just holding down one key. Obstacles are rare, large, and blunt, so you don't get stuck behind anything. The only place I had any real trouble was the town square, which is large enough that perspective does odd things to the directions.

Why this interface change? I'll hazard a guess: to make the game cozier. In the S&M series, the locations are fairly open, because there has to be floor everywhere. You have to be able to click on floor next to every object.

W&G is centered around a cluttered house. By cutting out the floor, the designers are able to pack more interesting objects into each room. The kitchen, for example, gives you an over-the-counter view with appliances in the foreground and background both. And by the same thought, the characters themselves can be larger; they can take up more of the screen, because you're not trying to click around them.

Another difference: W&G has no dialogue menus. (What, really? A third-person adventure with no dialogue menus? Outrageous!) If you're sharing the display with another character -- Gromit and/or Wallace count, when you're playing Wallace and/or Gromit -- some of the scenery acts as conversation topics. That is, when you're standing near the flower lady, you can click on various flowers to comment on them. It's the same one-click as any other action; some objects can be taken, some examined, some manipulated, and some commented on.

This works so smoothly that players may not even notice the lack of those beloved (or perhaps despised) menus. Mind you, it makes for a less conversational game pace. You're not going to spend as much of each game interrogating people, because the conversation choices don't change or nest. But then, that fits the theme. Sam and Max are cops; they interrogate. Wallace and Gromit are inventors; they play with toys.

So, does the contraptionating part of the game work? Answer: yes. (I told you this wasn't a full review.) Some of the puzzles felt a little awkward, but then I said the same about the first S&M episode. As with that series, I expect W&G to smooth out as the designers get comfortable with the model and build up some running gags.

My only other negative comments are, first, this episode felt a little short. (Perhaps the lost dialogue time needs to be replaced by some other sort of pacing interaction?) Second, I miss Peter Sallis (the original voice of Wallace). This game's Wallace does a great Peter Sallis impression, but it's still an impression.

And, third, I love Gromit -- Gromit is the best -- but he's no Max. The doggy eyebrows can express the perfect shade of exasperation, resignation, or confusion, but they just don't carry the narrative like the rabbitty-thing's awful, cheerful, unsay-that-now-please bon mots.

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