October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit. For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games. Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful. For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page. First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.
Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island. During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry. The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.
The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree. Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael. Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.
Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold. Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player. Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.
The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile. When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select. The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent. Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking. And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.
As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress. At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur. Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay. These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge. The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments. It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.
Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing. What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa. I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this. Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary. There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension. Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough. It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story. As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.
But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it. A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either. The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game. Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had. By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment. It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.
I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree. I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game. I did enjoy many parts of it. But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities. Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it. I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do. You know, I can only ever really speak for myself. Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case. Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone. However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series. It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.
For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar. The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger. From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo. And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist. But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo. The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.
Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them. However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different. Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister. But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes. The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him. Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.
The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects. Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game. Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment. Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages. Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.
One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error. That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died. Some people disliked this, some were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t mind. The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo. With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo. Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common. As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.
A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there. I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax. There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside. And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming. Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball. If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.
Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution. I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act. Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments. Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.
Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much. I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason. I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo. Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.
A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many. For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game. A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough. I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.
But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game? Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside? My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks. But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true. The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions. The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output. I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.
Inside is a cool game. While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit. It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel. Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.
Once again, the Steam summer sale is upon us. One of the big reasons I look forward to the summer sale is that it gives me the opportunity to check out games I’m curious about but not confident in paying full price for. Over the past few years of this blog, I’ve made a tradition of doing a write-up during each summer sale about ten deals that I think are underrated “steals”. These are games that are discounted below $5(USD), and are games that I think probably haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The past years’ posts can be found at these links: 2014 Edition, 2015 Edition Part 1, 2015 Edition Part 2
The Summer Sale this year is much different than the years before. Since the institution of Valve‘s new refund policy, which occurred before the last Winter Sale, the prices on games are constant throughout the length of the sale. Previously, games would get a base discount for the entire sale period, but certain games would go on even deeper discounts as limited time daily and flash deals. This created a reason to check back on the store each day to see the new daily deals, but now that’s all gone.
Valve has never explained why these changes to the summer and winter sales have happened, but most believe the culprit to be Steam’s new refund policy. Since this new policy allows for no-questions-asked refunds within a 2 week period of purchase, those limited time sales would be rendered pointless, since if a game you bought went on a daily deal, you could just refund it and buy it again for the cheaper daily deal price. Honestly, I feel like the lack of the daily and flash deals has removed a lot of the eventfulness and fun of these big Steam sales. It was always exciting to check back each day for the new deals. Now, despite the fact that the sale runs for 12 days, you only really need to visit the store once during the whole sale since nothing changes from day to day. On the other hand, I find the new refund policy to be an important pro-customer move on Valve’s part, so I’m stuck having to accept that these changes to the summer sale are a necessary sacrifice.
The current Steam Summer Sale started on June 23rd and will run through July 4th. Now here are the games I recommend this year. All prices are listed in USD:
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – $1.49
A touching and immersive puzzle adventure game with a rich story to tell. I played Brothers last summer and wrote a very positive post about it. Brothers tells the story of two brothers who set out on an epic journey through a fairy tale world to save their dying father. A controller is basically required for this game, as the player controls both Brother’s simultaneously, one with the left stick and the other with the right stick. This game is for those who are looking for something with a lot of heart.
The Last Door Season 1 – $1.99
Another game I’ve wrote about before. The Last Door is a moody and atmospheric point-and-click adventure game with pixelated graphics and an amazing orchestral score. Set in the Edwardian-era, fans of Lovecraftian horror should not miss this game. Puzzles are similar to the point-and-click adventure games of the 90’s with a focus on creative uses of items and inter-character dialogue, but I found the difficulty to be very fair, not too hard but not too easy. The game has been released in two seasons of five episodes each, and both are on sale for less than $5.
Antichamber – $4.99
Antichamber is an oddball first person puzzle game with some similarities to Portal. The story behind the game is intentionally vague, but the players find themselves in a position where they must escape a large facility that is governed by non-Euclidean geometry. Non-Euclidean geometry is kind of one of those Matrix-style Neo moments of “you have to see it to understand it.” This game is a great puzzler that is full of mind-bending spectacles.
The Swapper – $2.99
The Swapper is another puzzle game, but this one is played from a side-scrolling perspective. The main mechanic is that the player can materialize clones of themself across the environment that move synchronously with each other. Set aboard a derelict space vessel, the game’s story has a highly philosophical bend to it. This is a great game for gamers seeking out something a little more cerebral and thought-provoking than the average title.
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die – $4.94
D4 is a modern narrative-focused adventure game, similar in vein to Life is Strange or Telltale’s work. D4 tells the story of David Young, a former detective of the Boston police who has gained the ability to travel through time to the scene of murders after witnessing the bizarre death of his wife. From the creator of Deadly Premonition, D4 is heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch and his own iconic brand of weirdness. This is a great game for those that enjoy bizarre tales of mystery, but I will warn you that the game ends on a cliffhanger, as it was meant to be the first “season” of an ongoing series. Unfortunately, the director has recently taken a break from game development due to medical issues, and I fear that the story of D4 may never be finished. Nonetheless, the game is a wild and bizarre ride while it lasts.
Organ Trail – $2.99
A lot of you probably fondly remember Oregon Trail, an old educational game that was widely available in elementary schools all across America in the 90’s. (I’m not sure how popular it was outside of the US.) Oregon Trail was about the planning and management of an expedition of American colonial settlers that sought to settle in the Oregon frontier. Proper decision making with regards to the expedition’s limited resources was key to the survival of the group to the end of their arduous journey. Fast forward to the modern day and here we have Organ Trail, a mixing of Oregon Trail nostalgia and zombies. Very similar in design to its inspiration, Organ Trail instead features a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse setting out across America in search of a safe haven on the west coast. Yeah, I know it sound a bit contrived, but I thought it was an amusing game for only a few bucks.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet – $2.99
Games based off of the “Metroid-vania” structure are getting to be a dime-a-dozen these days, but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet came out before the craze took over, and I think it was a bit overlooked at its release. Featuring art similiar in style to the works of Genndy Tartakovsky, ITSP is a dual-stick shooter with a heavy focus on exploring a vast interconnected map, ala Metroid. Players take on the role of a tiny UFO who must venture inside the titular Shadow Planet to save his homeworld. A good title for those looking for a light-hearted, visually-striking action adventure game.
VVVVVV – $1.24
VVVVVV features an aesthetic and design that is reminiscent of old Commodore 64 games. It’s one of those retro-inspired platformers that is hard as nails. You guide the captain of a starship that has crash landed in an alternate dimension and must explore a large interconnected map to find his missing crew members. The game has no jumping, but instead the player hits a button to reverse the flow of gravity from either up to down or down to up. VVVVVV is not a particularly long game, but I think most players looking for something with a tough but fair challenge will be satisfied with it. The soundtrack is also an incredible collection of catchy chiptunes and electronic beats. Veni, vidi, vici.
Nova-111 – $3.74
Nova-111 is a highly unique and experimental action adventure game that came out late last year. The game centers around a tiny spaceship exploring alien worlds filled with hostile creatures and dangerous obstacles. What makes Nova-111 unique is that it has a turn-based and grid-based structure akin to old roguelike RPGs. That is to say that the ship and enemies move around on a grid, and each time the player moves the ship (which counts as one turn), the enemies take a turn to move. It’s not really an RPG like the old roguelikes, more of an action adventure game, but I think it blended the elements of these two genres very well. The game was a great surprise to me earlier this year when I played it on the Vita.
Outland – $0.99
Outland was a game that recently released on PC, but was released on Xbox Live Arcade ages ago. It’s a melee-focused sidescrolling action-platforming game that takes place in a beautifully silhouetted world. The main gimmick behind the action is probably familiar to the Ikaruga fans out there. Enemies and projectiles are colored either blue or red. The player has a barrier that can be shifted between blue or red, and the color of the barrier dictates the enemies and projectiles that the player is immune to. At its core, Outland is just a well-designed action-adventure game that I think fans of these sorts of things will love. I cannot emphasize enough that at 99 cents, this game is easily the best deal on this list.
I have been trying to write this post for a while, but The Witness is not an easy game to write about, I’m afraid. If you have any interest in the game, you probably already know that it reviewed incredibly well upon release in January. It’s been a difficult game to discuss, partly because I have trouble articulating some of the thoughts I have about the game, but also because it’s one of those games that really shouldn’t be spoiled for the uninitiated. The Witness is clearly inspired by the ‘90s hit CD-ROM game, Myst. It’s an open-ended puzzle adventure game set on a mysterious abandoned island. But it’s so much more than what Myst was, and it completely outclasses most other games of this type released in the past few years.
I would introduce the story of The Witness, but I’m afraid to say that there really isn’t much I can say about it. That’s not necessarily because I want to avoid spoilers, but because there is very little explicitly revealed about the player character or the situation they face. You are a character that is exploring an island filled with puzzles. Outside of that the player probably has to fill in the rest with your own intuition and imagination. The island certainly has a history, for lack of a better term, but, again, nothing is ever directly spelled out. There may be some secret high-level unlockable content that explains everything that is going on (and I know for a fact that there are a fair few secrets that I haven’t uncovered even after beating it, as I’ve seen them even if I haven’t figured them out), but after my playthrough, I’m afraid that I cannot say with any level of certainty what is actually going on in The Witness.
But does it matter that the story is only an apparition? Does that mean there is no discovery or compelling reason to explore the island? No, and in fact, The Witness is a game that is entirely about discovery. After all, it’s fun to unravel secrets in games, and The Witness is all about mysteries. Nothing is bluntly given to the player in this game, rather the means to succeed in the game are the result of careful exploration, experimentation, observation, and reasoning. Consequently, I found there was an immense amount of satisfaction with each bit of progress I achieved in the game.
The world of The Witness is littered with hundreds of maze puzzle panels, and these serve as the meat of the game. The maze panels are display screens that exist strewn about the environment, and they are almost the only thing on the island that the player can actually interact with. To progress in the game, the player walks up to one of these display screens and solves a maze puzzle by drawing a line to connect the start point of the maze to an end point. In the first introductory area of the game, the puzzles are more like a traditional maze, with only one possible way to connect the start and end points. After that, the puzzles get more elaborate, and there are multiple ways to connect the start and end, but of all the possible lines that can be drawn to do this, usually only one of them is “correct”. The solutions to the puzzles then arrived at in one of three ways:
- Symbols on the puzzle indicate the correct way to draw the line.
- Clues in the surrounding environment are needed to solve the puzzle.
- The line drawn on the puzzle affects the surrounding environment in some way. These tend to be the most unique parts of the game.
As discovery and finding your own way is a huge part of the magic of this game, I don’t want to elaborate too much more on how the puzzles work. But when the player solves a puzzle, often they’ll notice a wire leading away from the panel becomes lit, indicating that something on the other end of the wire has become activated. Usually what is activated is another puzzle panel, but sometimes a gateway or door will be unlocked, and occasionally there are other things that will happen.
Just as the story of The Witness is not explicit, nothing is ever really made explicit about these puzzles. Not once is the player directly told what specific symbols on the puzzles mean, or given hints as to what to look for in the environment. Instead, you learn to solve the puzzles purely through experimentation. When a new puzzle mechanic is introduced, the player is presented with a series of simple puzzles of this new type that are of increasing complexity. These sequences of puzzles are structured in a way that allows the player to experiment and on their own come to an understanding that will allow them to solve the much more elaborate puzzles that make use of each of these new mechanics. It felt like a very unique and natural way of challenging the player to master the world of The Witness.
The island is divided into 11 different sub-regions, and the player needs to complete at least 7 to unlock the final area. Each sub-region has its own distinct visual theme (for instance, there’s a swamp and a castle and a desert), but more importantly, each sub-region has a particular “twist” it puts on the puzzles. That is to say, each area has its own distinct mechanics it adds to the mazes. For those that have played the game, I think my favorite of these areas was the castle. In addition, I have to say, each subregion and the island as a whole are really stunning. No matter where I was in the game, I was always impressed by the visual splendor of the surroundings. The Witness seems like a game that was made for taking screenshots and showing them off.
At first blush, I found myself a bit disappointed with the size of the island. After leaving the tutorial area, the player is pretty much free to go almost anywhere they want, save for a few locked areas. What I personally found was that running from one end of the island to the other could be quite fast, which initially made me question how big the game actually was. But as I familiarized myself with the setting, I found that the island is actually a very dense place. There’s very little wasted space, and little details and pockets of puzzles and other curiosities are packed in pretty much everywhere. I was still discovering new points of interest on the island for several hours into the game, and I know for a fact that I haven’t seen everything there is to see.
It’s impressive the tricks the game pulls out of its sleeve for the final stretch.. The puzzles really explode in terms of their creativity and complexity. But while I was impressed by the final slew of challenges, I also found it to be a bit grueling. Most areas of the games require the player to solve the puzzles in a sequential order, but if you get stuck, you can always wander off to another area and work on the puzzles there. But for the final puzzles, they must be completed one right after the other to go forward. So if you get stuck, you’re just stuck. In these types of games, when I get stuck for too long on a puzzle that I blocks my progress, I usually just quit the game and wait to come back later with a fresh mind. What this meant is that it probably took me the same number of real world weeks to finish the final stretch of The Witness as it did to get to that endgame point.
As you can probably tell, The Witness really resonated with me. Unraveling the mysteries of the island really spoke to me as more than just a game, but also as a scientist. The need for experimentation, personal intuition, and analytic and holistic reasoning are what make this a very “scientific” experience in my mind. Many of you probably know that The Witness was spearheaded by the same designer behind Braid. I liked Braid well enough, but The Witness really felt like one of those games that is just operating on “the next level” beyond most everything else. It has both incredibly well-designed fundamentals and is a startlingly highly polished experience.
Gunpoint was a small indie game released on Steam back in the summer of 2013, around the same time as Rogue Legacy. At the time, I did hear it mentioned on a few of the big name gaming podcasts that I listen to, but I’ve always felt that it flew a bit under the radar and didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved. And there was never any subsequent console release to give it a second wind as is often the case with Steam games, so I worry that it’s a forgotten treasure at this point. Regardless of it being overlooked or not, Gunpoint was a surprising burst of joy to me, as it came out during a time that I was under a lot of stress. Although it is a very well-designed stealth game, the writing and atmosphere of the game just carry a flippant, goofball energy to them that I found really appealing, and for that reason the game stands out to me.
Gunpoint is a 2D stealth game played from a cross-sectional viewpoint. The levels are usually large office buildings that provide a gauntlet of guards, cameras, laser tripwires, locked doors, and other security measures for the player to sneak through. The camera is zoomed out so that large portions of the level are visible at any given time which conveniently provides the player with plenty of information to plan their movements through the mission. The objective is in most circumstances to find a computer somewhere in the building that contains sensitive information that your character is on a contract to collect or erase. Credits are awarded at the end of each mission based on performance and can be used to upgrade the arsenal of spy gadgets available to the player.
In Gunpoint, the player takes on the role of Richard Conway, a freelance corporate saboteur who can probably be best described as a demented Inspector Gadget. Conway has at his disposal a number of eccentric gadgets to enhance his sneaking abilities. The most important of these are his “hypertrousers” which enable him to jump great distances at high speeds. He can also cling to walls and ceilings, and since jumping is faster than running, most of the game is spent darting from surface to surface to avoid the guards’ line of sight. Stealth games tend to be slow, methodical affairs which require the player to precisely time the moments at which they can weave between cover spots undetected, but Gunpoint tends to be a more acrobatic ordeal where the best way to hide is to zip to a place to hang just out of the guards’ purview.
If the guards catch Conway, they will immediately open fire which usually results in failure for the player since it only takes one bullet to kill Conway. But if your reflexes are fast enough, you can occasionally get away unharmed. The player can go on the offense by pouncing on guards from the shadows and beating them senseless, and there is a gun that is available as a high-level unlockable gadget, but it can only be fired once per mission (as it only carries one bullet). Occasionally, these offensive maneuvers are necessary, but as is usual for a good stealth game, the non-violent solution is often the best way through.
One of the hallmarks of a good stealth game is the ability to utilize a game’s systems to goof with unsuspecting guards. An important gadget available in Gunpoint is the “crosslink” device which allows Conway to rewire the circuits in a given building via remote control. Most importantly this device adds a slight puzzle element to the game, as it allow him to overcome electronic locks and avoid triggering security alarms. It also offers the player some creativity in neutralizing (read: screwing with) the guards. The crosslink gadget makes it possible to do things like rigging the building to lock the guards in certains rooms, playing with the lights so that Conway can stay concealed in the dark, or remotely opening doors as guards pass by to knock them out.
While Gunpoint is a lot of fun to play, what really elevates the game is the spastic storyline that spoofs convoluted spy fiction. Richard Conway is a man whose only loyalty lies with his bank account, and over the course of the game he gets entangled in the midst of an increasingly complicated revenge conspiracy. This is not a game about saving the world or anything like that. The main conflict is simply a lovers’ quarrel between some Very Serious People, and Conway, through no fault of his own, gets in a position where he’s playing both sides (and others) against each other. It’s a plot that’s filled with double-crosses and triple-crosses and double triple-crosses and “I know she knows he knows” and “I know he knows she knows I know” kind of stuff. The comedy is driven by how increasingly absurd and convoluted the various schemes that involve Conway become and the contrast between the seriousness of the Very Serious People who are hiring him and Conway’s own flippant and bemused attitude.
One specific thing that I think is interesting to mention about the game is that an important part of how the story is told is through dialogue choices the player can make for Conway. Unlike in most games which utilize a significant amount of dialogue choices, Gunpoint makes no pretense that these will affect the outcome of the story. Rather, the dialogue choices are used as a comedic device by contrasting the disparity between the various responses Conway can give. Conway can range from a strictly down-to-business professional, an empathic do gooder, a flippant idiot savant, or a babbling psychopath. These wild potential swings in Conway’s personality give the character a level of frivolity that makes the game funny despite the seriousness of the conspiracies that Conway becomes entangled with.
In a previous post, I recommended Gunpoint as a good Steam sale game for those that are curious, and that recommendation, of course, still stands. It’s not a particularly long game. I think Steam reported that it took me under 3 hours to beat, but for as short as it is, I found the game to be a worthwhile burst of fun. It’s both a very good 2D stealth game, as well as just generally being a fun, goofy experience. The game has also been updated with a level editor and Steam Workshop support, so if you’re still left wanting more, the game can be extended with a decent-sized catalog of user generated content.
The final game of The Maximum Utmost’s Halloween Gaming for 2015 is here! Stasis is a point-and-click adventure game that released just a short while ago on Steam. An isometric adventure game with “inventory”-type puzzles, Stasis leans heavily on a disturbing and shock-ridden atmosphere to lay claim to its horror roots. The game was actually a fair bit longer than I expected, and that’s why, unfortunately, this post didn’t make my Halloween deadline for it.
In Stasis, the player wakes up as John Maracheck, a man who has been in cryostasis for an unknown amount of time. The last thing John remembers is entering stasis with his wife and daughter as they embarked on a vacation to Jupiter. John now finds himself in orbit of Neptune in a derelict research vessel that has been overrun by the vile products of the human experimentation that had been carried out by the now deceased and slaughtered crew. Setting out to find the whereabouts of his wife and daughter as well as a means of escape, he’ll have to face the grotesque abominations of science that call the ship home.
Stasis is heavily inspired by an old isometric PC adventure game called Sanitarium. I think when most people think of old isometric PC games, they usually associate this type of perspective with RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Diablo, Icewind Dale, etc., but Sanitarium was interesting in that it was actually a point-and-click adventure game in the vein of Monkey Island or Sam and Max. It was a game that lacked combat, but instead focused on puzzle solving mainly around creative problem solving using items (and combinations of items) found in the environment. I’ve never played Sanitarium, but after reading about it, it actually sounds pretty cool, so I may give it a shot sometime.
Stasis shares a lot of common factors with its inspiration. The gameplay is focused on finding items and figuring out how to use them to overcome obstacles that block progression. And the stories of each game kick off in a somewhat similar way with protagonists who are “waking up” in a setting where things have gone terribly awry without any memories of how they got there.
But the key commonality between Stasis and Sanitarium is their focus on psychological horror (which in some ways is a natural consequence of the puzzle-focused gameplay chosen). There are no enemies in this game to fight or run and hide from like in most other horror games. There’s no combat of any sort, and there’s no enemies that will ever really kill the character in this game. It’s possible to die, but this happens only occasionally when the player screws up a puzzle, rather than it being the result of an action actively done to the protagonist. Instead, the tension and dread of this game originate from the intensely disturbing and unnerving imagery and scenarios that play out as the player progress through the starship. There’s some really shocking and depraved stuff that the player will see during this game, and these disturbing discoveries are the main driver of the horror aspects of this game. I found that the game definitely delivered when it came to macabre and grotesque scenes that I won’t forget for some time.
But the focus on shocks rather than scares is both what makes the game unique, but also what leaves it being rather uneven and poorly paced at times. Considering he’s on a ship that was overrun by mutated creatures that slaughtered the crew, it’s odd that John Maracheck never really finds himself in a situation where he directly encounters these monsters. He certainly witnesses the gruesome aftermath of the massacre of the crew, as well as the perverse experiments that were being performed by the ship’s depraved science team. But I never really felt like he was in danger. I understand that this is a game focused on puzzle solving rather than action and combat. But as I felt that John was never in any real danger, I think it created a disconnect between my reactions to the game’s events and John’s increasingly panicked and emotional state.
To elaborate further, I found the character of John Maracheck to be frustratingly intrusive sometimes, especially toward the end of the game. When arriving at an unsettling scene, I would begin to start taking in the grotesquery that I was witnessing, only to be interrupted by John loudly panicking with weeping and wailing and insipid cries of “How could they do this!?!?!” and other such trite comments. Given his situation, I perfectly understand why he is so emotional throughout the game. My problem is that I find that his reactions disrupt my reactions to the disturbing things that play out in this game. They’re more distractions to me as I try to fathom and process exactly what it is I’m seeing. Imagine if Jill or Chris started freaking out everytime they came across a zombie or some new horror in the Spencer Mansion. I think it might have been a better choice to have John be a silent protagonist or to only give his feedback during the game’s particularly troubling scenes.
The other issue I have is that the game is rather uneven and poorly paced. There is a large stretch in the middle of the game where nothing particularly interesting happens. This occurs in the crew and medical quarters. I think the player is supposed to be appalled by all the dead and desecrated crew found in this section, but it just fell flat for me. The game starts picking up in a big way when the player reaches the labs, but, unfortunately, I think the long, unnecessary, and forgettable middle sections made me grow tired of the game just as events were starting to pick up toward the climax. As a result, I was beginning to feel that the game was overly long during the parts I should have been the most engaged with it.
Another major pacing complaint that I have is that the game is filled with TONS of text logs. I really really hate to sound like some sort of illiterate here, but I think a lot of these text logs needed to be trimmed out. Almost all of them are overly long with no concision to be found. And more than a fair few of them are filled with mundane details about the crew that don’t really enhance the story in any meaningful way. I understand that the writer of the game probably wanted to establish the crew as real people so that the player would feel terrible for what happened to them. But I really felt that all the tedious details that were given to the lives of some of the dead crew just disrupted the pacing of the game. Unfortunately, the game establishes very early on that sometimes these text logs contain important pieces of information that are necessary to progress, so I felt compelled to read everything I came across, regardless of my dwindling patience for it.
That said, there’s some really great and disturbing material in these text logs, particularly when the player reaches the labs. And the writer(s) actually do a good job of slowly revealing the extent of the depravity that was occurring on the ship via these logs. But I feel like at least 50% of it could be cut out without detriment to the player’s understanding of the story.
While I have issues with the back loaded nature of Stasis, I do think the people behind the game succeeded at what they set out to do with the game. It also makes me very curious to try Sanitarium. For players looking for a traditional survival horror experience, I don’t this is the game for them. Afterall, the monsters are very much a detached part of this experience. But if you like point-and-click adventure games with dense atmosphere, I think you’ll jive with Stasis despite its pacing flaws. I found the puzzles to be well-designed, not too easy, but not too hard. The solutions weren’t always immediately apparent, but they always made sense to me, and I was never so stumped and frustrated that I needed to consult a walkthrough. I just feel that with some trimming or tweaking of the less impactful parts of the game, Stasis could have been much more of an indie gem.
It’s October again which of course means Halloween gaming! Last year I did a short series of posts called “Utmost Spookiest Games” on a few of the horror games I played last October and….. they were incredibly unpopular…..some of the worst viewed and liked posts I’ve ever written! (Un)Fortunately, I have no capacity to learn from prior failures, so I’m back here again to kick off another month of spooky game posts starting with Steam indie horror title Into the Gloom.
Since the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s, there’s been a boom of low-budget horror games on Steam looking to make it big on the YouTube reaction videos circuit. At merely $2.99, most would probably categorize Into the Gloom with the rest of the cheap jump-scare gold rushers, but actually the game predates the popularity of FNAF. Even if you didn’t know that though, you probably would reconsider it as a “me too” game, simply because it’s a decently well-constructed experience which makes the most of its low-fi potential. While you’ll have no illusions that this wasn’t created on a very narrow budget of resources and time, it makes the most of what it has and stands up as an respectable underrated horror game for what it is.
Into the Gloom can best be described as an exploration puzzle game. You wake up in the operating room of an abandoned hospital and set out to find your way to safety. Along the way, you’ll find several dead bodies and blood scrawled messages on the walls that hint toward a terrible danger that pervades the world. I’ll go ahead and say this, but there are some rather disturbing images in this game. Nothing too extreme if you’re accustomed to survival horror games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame or Outlast, but if you’ve only ever played the Capcom survival horror games like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, you might be a bit taken aback by what you’ll find in this game.
The first thing you’ll notice about Into the Gloom is its stark, low-fi graphics. The simplistic, stylized aesthetic is used quite well in creating a creepy atmosphere that is just deeply tense. Grey-scale dominates this game’s appearance with most of the environment being rather morosely shaded with black, white, and grey. Otherwise, the only color used is red which adds a an unsettling flair throughout the scene. Red is used to depict bloodstains, artificial lights, and, most ominously, the bloody sky itself which drapes the disquieting world of the Gloom. The other major thing you’ll notice that adds to the oppressive atmosphere is that the game runs with a very limited draw distance. There’s a general fogginess that pervades your surroundings which results in a mood that feels all the more insecure. If this game nails one thing, it’s atmosphere and mood. I was quite impressed with the feeling of dread I had while playing this game late at night, something I didn’t expect from the screenshots I had seen beforehand.
Moment-to-moment gameplay is mainly centered around exploring new areas, finding items, and solving puzzles that block further progress. Puzzles come in two forms. The first requires you to find certain items to progress, say a set of bolt cutters to get a lock off a door. Sometimes you’ll need to combine items in your inventory to open the way forward, but in general these puzzles are pretty simple and you’ll never really be stumped by them. The hardest part is just finding the items, but even that is far from a pixel hunt or anything. The second type of puzzle is more problematic. These generally involve some sort of brain teaser set to a panel on the wall. For instance, the first puzzle in the game requires you to solve a sliding tile puzzle to open a safe. These puzzles can get a bit annoying, and I generally just had to solve them by semi-randomly clicking around until I happened upon the solution.
An example of one of the more annoying puzzles.
Aside from the puzzles, the other component of the game comes from the monster that occasionally shows up to give chase. Basically, when the monster shows up, the player will need to book it until they reach safety. These encounters typically aren’t so hard, but the monster does move fast so there’s little room to dawdle when making an escape.
I will say this about the monster: there is a long build-up to the monster’s introduction, and I found the build-up to be a lot scarier than the actual encounters with the monster. This I think happens in a lot of horror games, and I made note of it last year when I played Fatal Frame. In a lot of horror games, there’s a tension and dread that comes with the player psyching themselves out as they wait for the monsters to make their ambush. But when the monsters finally reveal themselves, I personally find it to be a bit of a relief.
Another phenomenon that I felt occurs in Into the Gloom and that occurs throughout the horror game spectrum was that the later parts of the game become significantly less scary, as I figured out how the game “works.” What I mean by that is that I was pretty confident in knowing when I was safe and when the monster was about to attack. This is something that I’ve felt in many other horror games, particularly those which require you to run rather than fight the enemy such as Amnesia and Outlast. To Into the Gloom’s credit, though, there was a great moment at the end where my feeling of complacency was completely subverted. In addition, in the “safe” parts of the game, there are still some (non-damaging) jump scares that occur, although I found these to be cheap at times. Regardless, the generally disturbing and creepy atmosphere was something that I felt pervaded the entire game.
The game took me almost exactly 2 hours to beat. However, I found out through YouTube that there is almost another hour of the game that I didn’t unlock. There is an optional puzzle that can be found midway through the game that if completed opens up additional levels that occur after the “normal” ending of the game. This additional content actually goes into much greater detail as to the nature of the “Gloom” world, gives some explanation as to the nature of the monster, and introduces new characters. Seeing as how the 2 hours I played was rather scant in story, I’m a bit disappointed in missing out on this extra content.
Ultimately, some annoying puzzles and a monster that isn’t super-threatening didn’t undermine the intense atmosphere and mood that this game managed to exude. At an investment of 3 buck and a few hours of play, Into the Gloom is probably a worthwhile experience for most horror game fans.
I’ve been meaning to play Journey for a long while. I didn’t own a PS3 when the game came out, and by the time I did own one, I feared that that no one else would still be playing it. It seems to me that most people seem to agree its greatest value is as a co-operative experience. Fortunately, the recent PS4 release gave me a good opportunity to finally check-out what all the buzz was about and not risk having to trudge through the whole thing with just my lonesome self.
As was detailed by creator Jenova Chen before release, Journey’s deeper creative aim was inspired by the stories of the spiritual journeys astronauts had went through during their voyages through space. It’s easy for most of us to abstractly understand that our world is just a relatively small spheroid rock that circles a star that is one of countless many in an unimaginably vast and mostly empty void. But to actually face the reality of such a fact first-hand, well, unsurprisingly most astronauts ascribe it to be a very unique and profound existential experience. And to try to capture those feelings in a game is certainly very high-concept and quite ambitious for a creative medium that is overwhelmingly concerned with lone heroes single-handedly defeating vast armies of enemies. Perhaps more interesting is how Journey developer thatgamecompany went about trying to artistically replicate how these astronauts may have felt. Journey has nothing at all to do with space and is rather about a small hooded being’s personal quest to reach the peak of a sacred mountain at the far end of a silent and sometimes dangerous desert. Well, at least I assume the mountain is sacred. There is no dialogue in Journey and the story is relayed rather cryptically through a series of silent supernatural visions.
But after reflecting on the whole experience, I think I can begin to understand how the developers expected all of this to resemble the grandeur of space flight. The hooded being feels small. Not small like an insect, but small like a human being. The desert stretches out vastly around him (her?). There is no civilization encountered during the journey, which compliments the solitude of the hooded being’s quest and reinforces just how insignificant he is relative to the immensity of the desert (and the world and universe beyond). I imagine this feeling of insignificance is precisely how the game seeks to allegorize the astronaut’s experience far above the world in the greatness of space itself. Actually, the whole desert reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem set in the desert that themes itself around the impermanence and fragility that exists in even mankind’s greatest accomplishments.
While the hooded being’s journey feels burdened with solitude, ideally he is not alone on his quest. The game is meant to be an anonymous co-operative multiplayer experience. Along the way, you will encounter other hooded beings who are other random players currently in the same area. These beings are strangers to you. Players are randomly and anonymously paired with each other, and there is no way to match up with people on your friends list. There is no voice-chat, and the only form of communication between players is through a chirping sound the hooded beings can make at a button press. You can choose to stick with those encountered and work together to complete puzzles, or you can run off and not deal with them. The game can be completed alone, without any help from a second player, but as I’ll explain below, this is not how you’ll want to play the game. I’ve heard and read many complaints about not being able to play with friends, but really, I think the unfamiliarity of the partners you meet along with the way is meant to reinforce how small both the hooded being and the player in the real world actually are. The game wants the player to be out of their comfort zone, and friends list connectivity and even voice chat between companions would undermine that goal. And after all, the world is not just vast in both space and geography, it is vast in the quantity of people that inhabit it.
This is important, because I think another thesis of Journey is that human desire for companionship is precisely rooted in their own relative insignificance within the enormity of the world. Multiplayer video game design has historically most often compelled players toward competition with one another. Even in cooperative games, players’ performances are often ranked against each other. In addition, many games give co-op players small ways to screw with one another (see Rescue Rangers, New Super Mario Bros., etc.) Journey, on the other hand, tries to eschew conflict between players to capture the importance of human companionship. There are no competitive hooks in this game, and it causes Journey to be a far more poignant experience. When I first encountered another player in Journey, I have to say that my immediate impulse was to try to establish that I was the better player. I’m programmed as a gamer to be competitive, after all. I wanted to be the one leading the way. I wanted to be the first to solve all of the quest’s (relatively easy) puzzles. I wanted to be the one finding all the collectibles and growing the longest scarf. But as the game wore on, I found myself less trying to be the dominant partner, and more just happy to be accompanied by another human being. I let go of trying to race to the next point of interest to make sure I could figure it out first. I found myself slowing down when the other player was having trouble keeping up, so that we could face the obstacles of the journey side-by-side. And I can honestly say that I think I would have felt far less satisfied if I had crossed the game’s final threshold alone.
Ultimately, I feel like I’ve heard it professed far too often that video games are nothing more than empowerment fantasies, and, honestly, while I’ve enjoyed hundreds of games that let me be an indomitable hero, I find it to be closed-minded to expect (or demand) that all games be of such nature. Journey is a prime example of something that deviates from this norm. It is not a game about empowering the player, rather it is about humbling them.
Aban Hawkins and the 1001 Spikes is a content-enhanced port of a “popular” Xbox 360 game originally called….Aban Hawkins and the 1000 Spikes. I use the term popular in quotes since the original game was released through the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, the oft ignored little brother of XBLA. But while XBLIG was a mostly obscure platform, a few of its denizens did manage to rise to a relative amount of prominence, and I feel that Aban Hawkins was one of them. This new edition doubles the content of the main adventure through the addition of a new world and produces a few new unlockable modes to serve as side attractions to the central single player mode. There are also several unlockable characters, many visiting from other indie game series, that have unique abilities which adds to replayability. I played the game on 3DS, but you can also find it on Steam, Wii U, PS4, and Vita.
1001 Spikes is a big pixel-styled, Indiana Jones-esque platformer that hangs its hat on a brutal difficulty level. The game stars Aban Hawkins, an adventurer tasked by the departed father he hated with delving into the lost temple of Ukampa to plunder the untouched riches guarded within. The name 1001 Spikes has a two-fold meaning: the temple is loaded with spike traps (amongst other hazards), but also the player is given 1001 lives at the beginning to complete the game (there are other means of gaining additional lives, however).
1001 Spikes finds itself in the company of games like Super Meat Boy or Ms. Splosion Man, but unlike those games, the platforming physics are more humble. Unlike the fast slippery fluidity you’ll find in Super Meat Boy, Aban Hawkins is governed by relatively more limited mobility that is more similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 than many modern platformers. There is no wall jumping and your ability to control your trajectory while in mid-air (air control) has a fairly limited range. While Aban does have a means of attacking enemies through the daggers he can throw, there are actually very few creatures you’ll have to contend with in the temple. It is very much based around dealing with the various traps (spikes, boulders, pits, fireballs, falling ceilings, etc.) that Aban will have to maneuver through to escape the temple alive. In this context, the dagger is primarily used to intercept and deflect daggers being spit out being wall traps. The traps are all laid out in a fairly grueling pattern, and the game very rarely holds back on the player. In most games, after completing a fairly arduous series of challenges within a level, the designers will make the rest of the level a fairly easy path to the exit. This is, of course, not how 1001 Spikes works. Odds are, after surviving a harsh sequence of traps, you’ll only be given a slight breather before you find yourself again on a pathway expertly primed for your death.
And yet, despite the fact that it is an immensely hard game, it does try to be a very fair game. Traps are usually telegraphed before being triggered through (sometimes subtle) visual or audio clues which provide the player with a chance to evade oncoming death. These clues prevent the game from being completely trial-and-error like I Wanna Be the Guy (which is a game that is intentionally unfair), as careful observation will signal you onto the presence of a trap without needing to die on that trap first. Yet despite the subtle cues for these dangers, you will still die…a lot.
I’ve classified 1001 Spikes in the same company as Super Meat Boy, another notoriously difficult platformer, but really, 1001 Spikes feels like a game that is several steps up the ladder in terms of challenge. The level of precision timing and movement that is required in 1001 Spikes is exceptionally high, even for this type of hardcore platformer. Currently, I’m halfway through the second map of the adventure, and even though the levels are small in size, the harder ones have been taking me between 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete. I’m someone who usually goes for these types of ultra-tight challenges, but this game sometimes just feels too much for me in ways that its alternatives never have. It has crossed the line between being a daring test and a frustrating trial more than a few times. The experience is definitely not for everyone, and gamers who dislike daunting challenges should probably just avoid it. Regardless though, I remain hooked by the game despite the ills it casts upon me. It just pinches a nerve in me that refuses to allow me to be back down before something as trivial as a video game, and after I’ve conquered a particularly rough level, the cathartic feeling of triumph that brings is extremely gratifying.
Aside from relating my experiences with the game, I decided to write this blog because 1001 Spikes and the recent E3 event has me thinking about the maturity of games as a creative effort. It takes a lot of confidence from a designer to make a game like this. The designer has to have faith in the player that they won’t just walk away from the game at the merest sign of hassle, and the designer has to be comfortable with the thought that not everyone will find enjoyment in their game as a result of reasons that are perfectly rational. You see this more commonly in small scale development than you do in big budget games. Big budget games often feel so desperate to avoid the player from ever experiencing a second of discouragement that they are loaded down with quick hints to easily-solvable problems, constant nagging of the player to remind them of what they should be doing, and heavy use of scripted events to relate dangerous events (a “tell don’t show” mentality). At times, the designer’s assistance to the gamer can get so overbearing that these “sanitized” adventures feel bereft of excitement and thrill despite the bombastic action game trappings. Other times the desire to avoid frustration actually induces frustration. I remember an annoyance I had at the beginning of Borderlands 2 when the little robot wanted me to come over and flip a switch for him. Problem was, at the time, a group of monsters were beating down on me, and I had to deal with that situation before I could obey the orders the game was giving me in regards to the switch. Yet still, the little robot didn’t recognize my predicament and kept incessantly nagging me over and over and over on a quick audio loop insisting I flip the switch. I’ve experienced so many situations like this, when a game is trying to remind me where I need to be, but I’m busy doing my own thing at that time. Maybe I’m looking around for ammo or loot or just exploring the area to see what I can find, but since I’m not in the exact place the game wants me to be, it retaliates by spamming audio and visual reminders about where it wants me to go next. The desire to provide assistance to the player in avoiding confusion has become a rigorous demand for obedience.
I think there exists a difference in maturity between the big budget and small scale developers. I don’t mean maturity in the sense of tackling high-minded themes or in the sense of having excessive levels of violent or sexual content. I mean they are more mature in how they treat their games as a creative effort. The big budget developers remind me of teenagers desperate to make everyone think they’re cool. This is reflected in their game design by trying to make games that are as stress-free for the player as possible, but also in the ways they represent themselves in promotional and marketing material. E3 had a lot of good examples of this. So many big budget action games have these incredibly sappy trailers that want to give the appearance that the game is super deep on an emotional-level, when in fact, the games being represented are fairly straightforward and cookie cutter shooting game with little artistic resonance. (The Division struck me as an extreme example of this.)
Small scale developers, on the other hand, tend to design games that reflect a greater level of self-confidence. To take the professional and financial risk of striking out on your own requires a true passion for one’s own vision. These developers are simply putting their dream out there and, while maybe not everyone will “get it,” hopefully there is a following that will understand and enjoy their work. If big budget developers in this analogy are high-schoolers straining to be popular, then indie developers are the college-aged kids who have matured to a level that negative self-consciousness doesn’t hold them back.
I understand that there are perhaps rational business reasons for why big budget developers act the way they do. Those games represent massive capital investments that require the employment of hundreds of people, and, therefore, the major publishers are building and marketing their game to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. But the results of such behavior can often feel watered-down and inoffensive. It is like the difference between Bud Light and a microbrew. The Bud Light is designed with minimization of flavor in mind to appeal to a lowest common denominator standard. Meanwhile, the microbrew is tailored to be more flavorful, but this comes at the expense of turning off potential drinkers. For the case of 1001 Spikes, the high difficulty will surely turn off many gamers, but there is a fanbase out there who definitely jam on this sort of thing.
In the end, I don’t want to begrudge the big developers too much for why they build games the way they do. But if you consider games as artistic efforts, then I think the point still stands, regardless of commercial considerations, that small scale and indie developers have a much better developed sense of creative pride and artistic maturity.
I often get frustrated by a great deal of video game narrative these days. Particularly in big budget action games at retail, storytelling in games is often trite, shallow, staged with samey-characters and saturated with the same repeating tropes and plot twists. Considering how obsessed big developers are with giving claims to high quality storytelling, they are essentially all telling the same one: There is a guy on a mission which requires him to fight a lot of people. Maybe the details differ a little bit from game to game. Maybe it’s a woman instead of a guy, or maybe instead of a gun, it’s a sword, or maybe instead of fighting people, they’re fighting robots. But essentially it’s the same template of an ultraviolent quest, only framed with different motives and setting.
In no other storytelling medium are the narratives so singularly focused on chronicling the exploits of characters with huge body counts. In film, we have violent action movies like Terminator and Aliens, but we also have a large number of movies where not a single character ever dies or is involved in an act of violence (go look at most of the critically acclaimed movies from last year). But the vast majority of video games are about powerful protagonists at the center of violent conflicts.
I understand that there are practical reasons, both technical and commercial, for why this is the case, but that doesn’t change the fact that all these games are in overly-trodden territory. Of course, there are a few good examples of games that manage to get away from the action game template, to varying degrees of success. Most of these games are descendants of the old-school adventure genre (not Tomb Raider-style adventure games, but games like Monkey Island and Gabriel Knight), such as The Walking Dead and Beyond: Two Souls. But these games are the exception, not the rule, and I’ve become tired with the situation I see. I have become a big fan of games that just get to the point and don’t weigh me down with excessive cutscenes or scripted events. It’s one reason I’ve tilted so much to indie games lately.
And man have I just played a good one, one that actually reaffirms to me the reason why games are even given stories in the first place. Back when it was released in 2010, I completely disregarded Thomas Was Alone. The game’s extremely minimalist aesthetics and gameplay led me to believe that it was just another indie game trying to be over cleverly, and in truth it is totally that. But the game attempts to deliver a message of hopefulness and wonder, and it completely succeeds at that.
Thomas Was Alone is a game about a cast of quadrilaterals who have recently come into existence and are trying to cross a series of abstract landscapes. The gameplay is incredibly simple. You switch between the quadrilateral characters present on the level and guide them to their character-specific exits. Cooperation is key, as certain characters have special abilities that need to be exploited to get other characters closer to the goal. For example, there is a large blue square named Claire who can float on water which is lethal to the rest of the crew. You can position the other characters on top of her and ferry them across otherwise uncrossable expanses. Another example, John, is a tall skinny rectangle which other characters can jump on to reach higher ledges.
As you play the game, the narrator periodically speaks up to provide insight into what the rectangles and squares are feeling and thinking. There is a meta-story going on here in which we are told that Thomas and his friends are actually emergent AI that are awakening into existence for the first time. As they cross the cyber landscapes before them, they grow to question the nature of their existence, their relationships to each other, and most importantly, the purpose they serve in being alive. Each quadrilateral is given their own personality, which is often influenced by the circumstances of their births. Thomas is the first to come into being and he is curious, observant, and afraid of being alone. Chris is a short rectangle who is often jealous of Thomas for being taller and able to jump higher. James is different from the others in that he falls upwards against gravity, and consequently feels like an outsider to the group. And there’s so many more. As the group’s journey evolves and their understanding of their destiny deepens, their relationships grow in a believable, deeply sincere way. They fall in love, become uplifted, become humbled, become enlightened, and ultimately accept the truth of their situation. Basic shapes they may be, but they are in some ways more human than most human characters of other games.
The thing is, Thomas Was Alone is an incredibly minimalist game. It’s a very simple puzzle platformer with character designs that are nothing more than basic shapes. If I was to mute the audio and ignore the subtitles, the game could be confused with someone’s first attempt at a flash game. But with narration, suddenly the game becomes so much more. You begin to feel for Thomas and his friends as they face the world for the first time. Through their successes and struggles, these little rectangles come alive. It is a tale of innocence and selflessness, with violence completely absent.
And thus, I come to realize the importance of narrative in games. The context given by the narration contributes so much to my feelings toward the game. Without it, this simple game would have been completely forgettable. As visually abstract as the presentation is, I ultimately cared about the trials of these rectangles and was vested in seeing through the path their journey would take. And, as goofy as it sounds, their fateful endings will have a lasting impact on me. If Hotline Miami is a game about the irrelevance of game plots, Thomas Was Alone is its opposite, a demonstration of the impact these narratives can have on gameplay.
So in the end, I came out a little bit wiser about storytelling in gaming. I realize now that the context it can provide can enhance the experience, not merely distract from it. I only wish we could see game design branch out farther, and not simply be restrained to aggressive tales of walking personifications of power fantasies.