RiME

The last four paragraphs of this post contain major spoilers for Rime.

Rime (stylized as RiME) came out this past May, and people have been describing it as a cross between Journey and The Wind Waker. This comparison is understandable, as Rime has clearly borrowed visual design elements from both games. Its take on the genre of “exploration adventure” has been influenced from Journey, while numerous gameplay elements have been drawn from Wind Waker.

I think Rime is supposed to be about seven to eight hours long. In addition to an initial hour of wandering around aimlessly, I put about four hours into the game, and I think I’m done. Rime is like Journey without the charm and like Wind Waker without the cleverness and solid gameplay. Where it succeeds visually are its striking and brightly colored landscapes, but it forces the player to spend an inordinate amount of time in unlit interiors fooling around with moving block puzzles. It also opens with an immensely illogical failure in the design of its initial tutorial mission.

Like Journey, Rime doesn’t tell the player how things work but instead helps you figure things out for yourself through environmental design. At the beginning of the game, the player washes up on a deserted island, and within the first few minutes you’re given the task of activating four statues. Each of these statues is marked by a bright blue beam flaring directly upwards, the four of which collectively serve as obvious goalpost indicators. One statue is just off the main path from the beach to the interior of the island, one requires you to feed some fruit to a boar so that it will move out of your way, and one requires you to dive and swim through an underwater passage in order to be able to climb onto a small offshore structure.

The game guides the player through the actions needed to achieve these three goals. When you’re standing next to the first statue, the triangle button appears onscreen, showing you how to activate it with the “voice” command. When you’re standing close to the fruit bushes right next to the second statue, the square button appears onscreen, showing you how to pick the fruit with the “interact” command. When you’re swimming around the small structure in the bay, the x button appears onscreen, showing you how to dive using what you’ve already probably figured out is the “jump” command. No problems here.

The difficulty with the fourth statue is that it’s far away from the point of specialist action needed to reach it, and this target point is not flagged for the player in any way. What you’re supposed to do is use the circle button (which otherwise makes the avatar character perform a somersault) to drop down from a cliff so that you’re hanging from it by your fingertips. You then shimmy along its edge until you can jump to another cliff, which you then climb before following a path to the other side of the island. There are plenty of other cliffs on the island, but most players will have learned that they mark boundaries, as jumping off of them will result in death. Climbable ledges are marked by white erosion patterns (or guano?), but you can’t see these patterns from above, and you cling to and scale them with the jump button. Since the key action point involving the circle button is the only time that the player is required to actually drop down from a cliff, and since you can’t see its “climb marks” from where the camera is positioned looking down on it, and since it’s so far away from the actual statue, it would stand to reason that the circle button would appear onscreen when the player approaches this particular cliff – but it doesn’t.

I therefore spent a good hour running around and trying to jump over or climb up or somersault through piles of rocks close to the fourth statue, all to no avail. When I finally gave up and resorted to a video walkthrough, I noticed that the circle button prompt didn’t appear onscreen for that player either, which leads me to believe that it’s not something I missed but rather a deliberate feature of the game meant to help the player develop exploration skills.

Because I’m a shitty casual gamer, I frequently have trouble figuring out the internal logic of games that are new to me, so this could just be a consequence of my own relative lack of skill. Regardless, I still think exploration challenges with this level of difficulty should not be included in a tutorial mission. This wouldn’t be a flaw in a game that is in fact meant to be difficult, but it’s definitely a problem in Rime, which is meant to expansive and atmospheric instead of twitchy and stressful.

Speaking of twitchy, Rime’s platforming elements are atrocious. The player-character will not successfully land his jumps unless he is positioned in exactly the right place and at exactly the right angle, and the camera angle often doesn’t help. The character moves so slowly that returning to the jump point is often a tedious process, especially later in the game when chains of jumps must be completed. I could only stand to play about half an hour of this game at a time, and I had to take a few days in between play sessions to allow my frustration with the poor game design to abate.

I eventually got to the point where I started to search for spoilers. I suspected that, like other indie games in which a child must complete trials in a world with no other people, the boy who serves as the player-character might already be dead. If that was the case, I wasn’t sure that the emotional payoff of the game would be worth the frustration.

Spoilers ahead.

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It turns out that the kid is in fact dead, having fallen overboard during a storm while on a boat with his father. It’s not clear whether you play as the kid’s soul making the transition from life to death or whether you play as the father imaging the kid’s fantasy adventures as he navigates the seven stages of grief, but the last bit of the game involves the father walking around the kid’s room and picking up the kid’s toys, each of which played a symbolic role in the game (a stuffed fox is the fox spirit that leads you through the early stages, and so on). I am predisposed to cry at video games, but this revelation came so totally out of left field that my reaction was basically, Wow that grieving father has some nice real estate, I wonder how much his house is worth.

I think I would have preferred a more straightforward story of a kid being shipwrecked on an island and discovering the remains of an ancient civilization. The game is structured so that the boy is able to visit the island in what seems to be different time periods: in one it is lush and green, in another it is filled with ghosts and sand-choked ruins, and in another there are robots. Also, many of the game’s puzzles involve circles, orbits, the sun and moon, light and darkness, and other elements that suggest the cyclical nature of time. It would therefore make sense, both in terms of game design and gameplay, to have the game’s theme be the ultimate ephemerality of even the most monumental human achievement within the endless flow of time.

I think it would also be cool if the game involved the kid gradually realizing that he is the heir to this ancient civilization but then leaving everything behind on the island so that he can go home. Or the kid inadvertently (or deliberately) destroying everything on the island and being okay with it. Or the island being some sort of trial or pilgrimage the kid has to undertake in order to become an adult, kind of like a spirit quest.

What I’m saying, I guess, is I wanted the game to be more thematically cohesive. As it stands, it’s a waste of what could have been some gorgeous environmental storytelling. I’m not sure that even the most resonant of themes and the most brilliant of storytelling could have made up for the endless series of contrived puzzles and the godawful platforming, though.

( Header image from the game’s review on Kotaku )

What Remains of Edith Finch

This post contains minor gameplay spoilers.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking simulator that takes about two and half hours to complete. It was released back in April on Steam and for the PlayStation 4, and oh my goodness it is gorgeous.

What Remains of Edith Finch falls into the most perfect category of video games: It was created for an adult audience by a small team of developers who take full advantage of the interactive gaming medium but have no intention of frustrating the player with unnecessary and artificial puzzle or platforming elements. The game is emotionally challenging, and there’s a lot to explore and take in. The design is flawless, and the atmosphere is never broken by the player having to get up and check a walkthrough.

You play as a teenage woman named Edith Finch, who is returning to her family’s house on a small island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The house has been abandoned ever since Edith’s mother moved away in order to escape what has become known as “the family curse,” which seems to be that everyone who is born into or marries into the Finch family dies before their time in a tragic accident. In order to find closure, Edith tries to reconstruct the details of these deaths, which the player is allowed to experience for herself in a series of vignettes that play out in the form of games within the game.

The story progression is definitely on rails, but it doesn’t feel particularly linear or forced. Even though we know that each vignette will end in death, the player’s interaction with the game is integral to the storytelling. I’m going to use the case of Edith’s older brother Lewis as an example of what I mean.

Lewis is a kid who loves fantasy novels, 16-bit video games, and smoking pot. When he graduates from high school, he gets a job at a salmon cannery, which is just as dreary as you might expect, but he daydreams while performing menial labor. As the player, you use one joystick to control the repetitive motion of decapitating fish and throwing them onto the conveyor belt while simultaneously using the other joystick to guide Lewis’s avatar through his RPG-themed fantasies.

Lewis doesn’t die by slicing off his own hand if the player messes up the controls. That would be a cheap shot, and this game does not take cheap shots.

What happens instead is that Lewis’s daydream becomes more interesting and complex, which is reflected by upgrades to its graphics and sound. The controls for the salmon cannery aspect of Lewis’s life never change, and they remain a constant annoyance as the fantasy gradually fills the screen. When the player is jolted out of this daydream back into the bloody and poorly lit factory, it’s much more jarring than it would be if we were simply reading or watching Lewis’s story.

The psychiatrist who narrates this vignette says that Lewis’s death was caused by a hallucination triggered by withdrawal, but the player knows that it was suicide brought about by his overwhelming desire to no longer be anchored in an unpleasant and unsatisfying reality.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me tear up not because it’s sad or sentimental, but rather because it’s nuanced and incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t give the player the same sort of transcendent experience as something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Abzû, but it offers a smaller story that still manages to contain mystery, wonder, and breathtaking landscapes. Epic postapocalyptic science fiction is all well and good, but it’s also nice to see the gaming medium used to apply magical realism to a Gothic drama of family ghosts and dying communities that is uplifted by the emotional catharsis of voyage and discovery.

( Header image from the game’s review on Wired )

Oxenfree

oxenfree-characters

Oxenfree is a teenage conversation simulator set on a haunted island.

The protagonist of Oxenfree is a teenage girl named Alex, who takes the last ferry out to Edwards Island with her pothead friend Ren and her edgy stepbrother Jonas with the intention of spending all night on the beach, where two girls named Clarissa and Nona are waiting for them with a cooler of beer. Alex has brought an old-fashioned transistor radio with her; and, after hanging out around a bonfire for a while, Ren suggests that Alex go with him to show Jonas a cave where her radio can pick up strange distortions. This ends up opening a portal to another dimension… sort of.

I enjoyed Oxenfree. The graphic design is gorgeous, the OST is ambient and chill, and the horror elements build on each other and are genuinely creepy.

The actual conversation feels a bit off to me, though. I can’t put my finger on why, but I suspect that my discomfort stems from the male writer/director’s misunderstanding of how young American women tend to communicate.

Alex spends the beginning of the game walking around with Jonas and Ren, and these two young men don’t respond well if the player chooses the conversation options that don’t read as “masculine.”

To give a generalized example, let’s say that, after something terrible happens, Jonas says to Alex, “I’m scared.” If she demonstrates sympathy or empathy, responding with something like “Are you okay?” or “I’m scared too,” Jonas will become annoyed or openly hostile. Meanwhile, a stiff upper lip response such as “Let’s keep going” is usually configured as “correct” and doesn’t result in passive-aggressive snark being directed at Alex. Each conversation branch generally has three option, but there’s always an additional option of not saying anything, and as I played I found myself “choosing” it more frequently.

Regardless, the story of Oxenfree is fascinating, and moving through this story is a unique and interesting experience. Still, as a game, it suffers from two major problems and two minor problems.

The first major problem is that Alex tends to walk slowly. On one hand, this encourages the player to enjoy the scenery and the ambiance. On the other hand, backtracking is a slog.

The second major problem is that the loading times between areas are obscene, usually exceeding ninety seconds. Because these loading times are so punishing, I felt strongly discouraged against unguided exploration.

The first minor problem is that, in order for Alex to uncover the full story of what’s happening on Edwards Island, she needs to go on a scavenger hunt to collect a dozen letters scattered across the various areas of the game. Because of the slow character movement and unbearable loading times, I couldn’t be bothered. As far as I can tell, a Cold War era submarine somehow managed to get itself caught in a time loop just offshore, and the “ghosts” are the sailors trying to free themselves. It’s strongly implied that the protagonist has gotten herself caught in a time loop as well. The main story is about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, however, and I don’t care enough about the deeper story to undertake this optional sidequest.

The second minor problem is what I’m going to go out on a limb and label as misogyny. Oxenfree really wants Alex to spend the majority of its playtime with Jonas and Ren. As someone who has actually been a teenage girl, I tend to find that interaction with teenage boys is best in moderation, and neither of the teenage boys in this game does anything to make me feel more sympathetic towards them.

I therefore wanted Alex to spend time with the two other teenage girls on the island, but the game was not having it. One of the girls, Nona, is set up as Ren’s love interest, while Oxenfree goes way out of its way to make the player dislike the other girl, Clarissa. I like both Nona and Clarissa a lot, and I found them to be extremely compelling characters. I wanted to know more about them and their lives, but the game doesn’t give Alex many dialog options to interact with them that aren’t disdainful or downright mean.

There are several different variations on Alex’s personality that the player can choose to express at any given conversation branch, but I’m not interested in any variations in which she’s mean to Clarissa and Nona. Unfortunately, her options for being kind to them are extremely limited – in fact, I’m pretty sure that I was able to choose them all in one playthrough.

I just saw a post on Tumblr about a similar narrative tendency regarding female characters in stories created by men, “when we’re supposed to dislike a female character but she’s obviously a straw-woman the writer’s using to work out some unresolved issues he has with an ex or his mom or an unrequited crush so you actually kind of like her out of spite.”

Despite the lags in gameplay, Oxenfree only occupies about three to four hours of playtime. My concerns aside, they’re three to four hours well spent, and I’ll more than likely return to Oxenfree at some point in the near future. When I do, though, I intend to be just as bitchy to the boys as the game seems to want me to be to the girls.

( Header image from Kotaku )

Inside

playdeads-inside

When people write about Playdead’s new game Inside, they tend to say things like, “It’s incredible, but I can’t describe it without spoiling it.”

I’m going to “spoil” the beginning of Inside and make vague allusions to its ending, so please proceed with caution.

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Your player-character is a ten-year-old boy who begins the game in the woods, where he has escaped from some sort of shadowy facility. He’s being chased by masked men with guns and attack dogs, and he will be killed instantly if he’s spotted. The player’s goal is to move the boy constantly to the right side of the screen while evading capture.

After the boy leaves the woods, he emerges onto a farm littered with the carcasses of parasite-infested pigs. It’s here that the game introduces its central puzzle mechanic, which involves using a headset to control braindead adult humans. After the boy makes his way from the farm into a decaying city, it becomes apparent that these braindead humans are being tested and possibly marketed by normal humans.

Inside eventually finds its stride, but the puzzles at the beginning have the potential to be frustrating for a first-time player. To give an example, in order to progress through one of the barns on the farm, the player has to backtrack in order to open the door, which allows a gaggle of chirping chicks to enter. Since the game has never asked the player to move from right to left, and since there’s no indication of the chicks other than a faint chirping on the other side of the barn door, it’s not immediately apparent that these chicks are a necessary element to a puzzle that otherwise has four moving parts.

The first quarter of the game also features another type of frustrating puzzle – let’s call it the “crossing long distances to escape anthropophagic attack dogs” puzzle. If the player dies at any point during one of these sequences, she has to start over at the beginning of the set piece, not from the point of death. Repeatedly playing the same three minutes only to fail at the end is not fun, and it breaks the game’s mood and sense of flow.

Thankfully, such puzzles don’t appear again after the first third of the game. Many of Inside’s later puzzles involve a similar combination of careful timing and brutal death, but they allow the player space to stand still and assess the situation, and their respawn points are non-punishing.

Tiny birds and bloodthirsty canines aside, Inside is beautiful and seamless, with no loading screens or frame rate drops. In addition, the sound design is brilliant, with the audio working alongside the shadows and dim light of the graphic design to create a palpable sense of danger and menace. I was so wired and on edge after I finished this game that I couldn’t sleep for hours.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing Inside. Unlike Playdead’s earlier game Limbo, which was more abstract and fantasy-themed, Inside is grittier and more focused on apocalyptic imagery. Inside’s realistic stylizations render it less creepy and darkly atmospheric than Limbo, but the game’s graphic slickness and polish underscore several of the central themes of the story while rendering the ending sequence all the more bizarre.

When I had gotten about an hour into Inside, I could can see its story evolving in two ways. The first is that the boy is a host for the same parasite that killed the pigs on the farm; and, if he escapes into civilization, the infection will spread and the world will be doomed. The second is that the boy is being controlled just as he controls the braindead adults; and, after he accomplishes his mission, he will be unplugged.

The actual ending of Inside is nothing even remotely resembling what I expected. The game ended up becoming a surreal meditation on bioethics and subjectivity, and to be honest I’m still trying to process what happens. In addition, apparently there is a secret ending that the player can unlock by going back into the game with a walkthrough, collecting all the MacGuffins, and starting over from the beginning. I need to step back from this game, but I hope to return to it within the next few months.

( Header image from Playdead’s official website )

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition

Guacamelee Gold Edition Costumes

Guacamelee is so much fun; it’s everything that was wonderful about Super Metroid. In many ways it’s better than Super Metroid, as it replaces the imprecise projectiles with melee combat attacks that are a lot of fun to chain together. The game also has a lovely sense of humor, and the writing for every character is perfect.

Probably my favorite part of Guacamelee is that you can choose to play as either the default male hero or a female hero who would otherwise serve as a guide. Aside from the character sprite and its animations, nothing else changes in terms of gameplay or dialog, which means that all of the female NPCs flirt with the female hero aggressively, calling her buff and spicy and handsome.

There are also a number of unlockable outfits that allow the female hero to wear actual clothing instead of the default bandages and ripped fabric. My favorite of these outfits is a bright red tailored suit, which I desperately covet for myself. Each outfit adjusts the parameters of combat, and the red suit is especially interesting to play with since it allows more stamina (for special attacks) at the expense of health, meaning that it rewards an aggressive fighting style. Because your character has less overall health, however, this outfit renders the platforming sections much more punishing, and they’re difficult to begin with.

Every stage in Guacamelee contains a special ability that allows better navigation of the terrain. These abilities allow the player to discover treasure and new areas of the map while backtracking, which is always enjoyable, but each ability also results in a new set of platforming challenges. Some of these are insane, especially in the final three areas. The game is generous with its respawn points and doesn’t punish failure, which is good, because I died all the damn time.

There’s something so satisfying about trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and then finally getting it right as you gradually get a handle on how the game mechanics work; and I think that, when this rise in difficulty level is handled well, it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of gaming. In this sense I suppose I can understand where the “git gud” crowd is coming from, yet I don’t think I would have been able to handle Guacamelee if it were that much more difficult. Considering how clever and creative this game is, it would have been a shame if I hadn’t been able to play it.

I should also mention that I love the OST; my favorite track is Desierto Caliente.

( Header image from DualSHOCKERS )

Gone Home

Gone Home Lesbian Scavenger Hunt

( There are major spoilers regarding the game’s ending in this post. )

I played Gone Home two weeks ago, but I’ve had trouble processing it. At the end of the game, it becomes clear that the player-character’s sister Sam has made a very stupid decision, running away from home to be with her girlfriend Lonnie. I can’t even begin to explain how much the game’s unquestioned celebration of this decision upsets me.

Sam is a gifted writer who has been offered a scholarship to a summer college program in creative writing. Since Sam is eighteen years old, it’s not clear whether she’s graduated from high school or whether this program is just for the summer, but in any case she drops everything to drive off into the sunset with Lonnie.

Lonnie entered the army after graduating from high school, but for some reason she left a few weeks into basic training and called Sam from a payphone. Lonnie seems to be a mess of contradictions regarding her attitude toward the military, and it’s troubling to me that, although Lonnie was quite content to leave Sam, she’s now running back with her tail between her legs.

In other words, Lonnie is emotionally unstable and has no idea what she’s doing, and Sam is giving up a lot to be with her. To make matters worse, I can’t imagine that either of them has any money, and Sam already has a tendency towards shoplifting. I feel like such a bitter spinster grandma when I say this, but this relationship is not going to end well.

Speaking of me being a grandma, I was in high school from 1998 until 2001, and so the events of this game, which occurs during the 1994/95 school year, are a bit before my time. I know that three years may not seem as if it makes a huge difference, but in those three years Al Gore invented the internet, which changed everything. During those three years a slew of foundational anime, manga, and video games were released, which transformed the cultural landscape for kids in my generation. Various technologies changed so rapidly that I have no real memories of cassette tapes, VHS tapes, or not having a cell phone. To me, Sam and Lonnie might as well have been living in a different world.

However, even though they occupy their own specific moment in history, it was still extremely surprising to me that Sam and Lonnie felt comfortable openly identifying as lesbians.

Something that only recently stopped being true is that coming out and being openly gay as a teenager was a sign of incredible privilege. For a lot of kids, coming out would have meant getting kicked out of school and/or getting kicked out of your parents’ house. Being a homeless teenager without a high school degree is obviously not an ideal scenario, so silence was traded for parental and institutional support, the idea being that you could come out once you were able to support yourself. In college, you could be as fabulous and as politically radical as your heart desired, but in high school you kept your head down.

Therefore, when Sam decides to run away from her loving family’s gorgeous house to be with her older girlfriend instead of going to a prestigious college program that’s mostly funded by a merit-based scholarship, I couldn’t help being like, Yes, financially comfortable white lesbians of the world, tell me more about your struggles toward self-actualization and your unironic love of punk music, please, go ahead.

To shift the topic from gay girls to gay men…

There’s something weird going on with Sam’s great-uncle Oscar Masan. He owned the manor house that Sam’s family has recently moved into and that the player-character explores. He seems to have died recently, and there’s still a lot of his junk in the basement. In particular, there’s a safe that contains the artifacts of a morphine addition, as well as a page from a letter written in cursive from Oscar Mason to his sister, who I think is Sam’s grandmother. The handwriting is illegible, and there’s no option for a plain-text overlay, so I’m not really sure what’s going on here, but I think Oscar Mason was gay. Perhaps he was in a relationship that he wasn’t able to keep secret? Regardless of how it happened, the people in his community somehow found out, which is why he closed his pharmacy and retreated to his house to live as a hermit. He seems to have spent a lot of time with Sam’s father Terrence, who stopped visiting when he was still a child. Based on what I was able to glean from his letter, he may have come out to his sister, which is why she stopped allowing Terrence to see him.

For some reason, both the Gone Home entry on Wikipedia and the entry for Terrence on the Gone Home Wikia seem to think that Oscar abused Terrence, but I don’t understand what evidence supports this. Moreover, if Terrence had been sexually violated by his uncle as a child, why would he move his family into his uncle’s house instead of just selling it for the enormous amount of money it must have been worth during the booming 1990s real estate market?

I also didn’t understand the relationship Terrence had with his father, who seems to have been a scholar of James Joyce. From the clues I gathered, which are (confusingly) very close to the clues about Terrence’s uncle in the basement, Terrence’s father didn’t approve of his son’s forays into genre fiction. In a letter to his son, Terrence’s father tells him “You can do better,” which Terrence has tragically taken to heart, posting in in large letters above his writing desk. Terrance’s first two novels didn’t sell well, and boxes of remainder copies are hidden in the house’s library. Nevertheless, Terrence kept writing; and, toward the end of the game, the player learns that his work is going to be reprinted and that he’s already thinking of pitching a new novel to the press.

It’s interesting that there’s a progression from the high literature of James Joyce (Terrence’s father) to masculine-coded spy thriller genre fiction (Terrence) to lesbian fantasy romance and punk zines (Sam), but I’m not sure what to make of it. It would be wonderful this broadening of who gets to speak and be heard were a clear theme in the game, especially since Oscar Mason was driven away from his community and his family because of his sexuality. But then Sam decides not to attend a writing program, and all the copies of her zines are sitting in a box in her basement. The key texts of the game – the journal entries that her sister (the player-character) is tasked with uncovering – are of course written by Sam, but she doesn’t intend for anyone else to ever see them. In a game so thematically concerned with people being able to speak in their authentic voices to tell their own stories, why does Sam reject the opportunity to do so?

I think, in the end, that’s one of the main problems I have with exploration games like Gone Home. In order for the complete story to make sense, the player must be able to carefully examine all of the story fragments, but this is often impossible. First of all, it’s difficult to locate the story fragments – that is the challenge of the game, after all. Second, many of the story fragments disappear as soon as they are read, meaning that the player can’t reference them in light of subsequent information or developments. Finally, I suspect that many people have trouble devoting their full attention to spoken story fragments while they’re engaged in the act of actually playing the game.

None of this is to say that Gone Home is a bad game. I just wish I could be happier for Sam and Lonnie, who I’m not sure actually have a good ending.

And honestly…?

I don’t think I’d be so upset with Gone Home if it didn’t cost a full $20 for less than two hours of gameplay. This inflated price feels very Whole Foods to me. Like, you can only enjoy this offbeat story about gay romance if you can afford to pay for it, and people who can’t are shit out of luck, because queerness is apparently some sort of specialty premium product.

( Header image from Best of Steam Reviews )

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

( There are major spoilers regarding the game’s ending in this post. )

At the very beginning of the game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts text on the screen saying that it’s “a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”

I was like, Okay, fine. I will use a walkthrough, then. DON’T TELL ME HOW TO PLAY.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s gameplay is maddeningly opaque, and I ended up having to use four separate walkthroughs. The Kill Screen review hits the nail on the head when it says that the failure of the devs to acknowledge how a game’s design shapes the player’s interactions signifies “a refusal to become friends with the player, when really, it should be as welcoming as possible.” That is absolutely how I would describe this game – unfriendly.

I appreciate that there are no artificial barriers restricting the player’s movement through the game; but, without any “beaten path” to suggest clues, it’s supremely easy to miss the story events. For example, one of the first puzzles involves finding a small gray crankshaft hidden between a bunch of huge gray rocks sitting on gray sand beside a gray lake. I can barely locate my own damn socks in my own tiny apartment, and even with the help of two video walkthroughs it still took me about twenty minutes to find the MacGuffin. I would have just given it up for lost, but I wasn’t able to trigger the next event until I completed the previous one in the sequence. So much for not holding my hand.

To make matters worse, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most joyless games I’ve ever encountered. It has zero sense of humor, and the writing is atrocious. The readable text almost makes sense but doesn’t quite, and the direction of the voice acting is bizarre, as if the actors were asked to fake American accents on the spot. I suppose we’re getting the key parts of the story through the words and visions of the eponymous Ethan Carter, a twelve-year-old kid who’s just starting to break in his writing chops, but one would hope that “artistic license” would be a good excuse for mitigating some the resulting awkwardness in the game’s storytelling.

Although there’s supposed to be a dramatic reveal at the end, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t achieve any sort of narrative closure or denouement. It’s supposed to be a surprise ending, but there’s no payoff from any foreshadowing. In fact, the entirety of the foreshadowing is that the story basically sucks. If I understand what’s going on correctly, the player-character, Paul Prospero, is some half-baked supernatural noir detective fantasy made up by Ethan Carter. As Ethan is suffocating to death in a fire, he either hallucinates Prospero or imagines himself as Prospero, who navigates the area around Ethan’s house while investigating clues from a preposterous mystery. In other words, the fact that the mystery is clichéd and disconnected, poorly written, and sloppily characterized is apparently supposed to serve as the foreshadowing that the game takes place in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy.

If I were writing this game, I would do two things. First, I would make a clearer connection between the stories Ethan reads and the stories Ethan writes. The stories Ethan has written, which the player receives in the form of scraps of paper hidden around the game, are crappy fairy tales that make no sense. What I would do is to make it clear that they are homages to the pulp fiction of the 1960s and 1970s by (a) having them read more like earnest fanfiction, and (b) putting them in relative proximity to the sort of paperbacks and magazines that would have inspired them. Second, I would have relied more on allegory to give depth to the diegetic world Prospero inhabits. The story we get is that Ethan’s family becomes possessed by a dark force that feeds on their pain and hatred and demands the sacrifice of their youngest son. What I would like to have seen are more allusions to the “pain” and “hatred” of Ethan’s family in the real world. For all the player knows, Ethan’s family could be perfectly normal and happy people, and Ethan is turning them into monsters in Prospero’s story just because he can – which is regrettably shallow.

I went through the game not really caring what boring and poorly explained murder scene would pop up next, and it took me almost until the end of the game to realize how the characters were related to one another. In an ideal scenario, the player would be able to figure out early on that the story is about Ethan’s family, and we would see interactions between them that contain more emotional valence than “Person A hits Person B over the head with a rock.” And then, as the player gradually uncovers clues that these interactions are filtered through the various tropes of pulp fiction, the events and objects in the game would begin to take on symbolic weight.

The only time the game comes anywhere close to doing something like this is when it reveals that Ethan’s dad is a failed inventor, which is connected to a story about miners who fail to summon an elder god… Except they do summon the god in Prospero’s story, and it makes no sense for the dad’s inventions to be associated with the mines, especially since the player is presented with a note from Ethan’s mom telling the dad to get his junk out of the laundry room. There’s a lot of backstory we’re not getting here. Did the dad move his machinery to the mines so that he could keep working on his projects in secret? Are “the mines” real, or are they supposed to be an analogy for the basement of Ethan’s house? Does Ethan’s family actually discourage his dad’s hobby; and, if so, why? Does Ethan, who writes stories, feel any affinity for his father’s supposedly illicit creativity? Why does Ethan associate creativity with summoning an elder god, and what does it mean that his fictional miners succeed? Who knows.

There’s no denying that the world of the game is very beautiful; but, as things stand, it feels very empty. According to the PS4 Trophies achievement rate, only about 46% of players have bothered to finish the game, even despite the fact that it costs $20 and can be completed in about three hours. I guess I’m not the only one who felt that the pretty scenery doesn’t justify the lack of a coherent narrative or well-designed gameplay.

( Header image from the review in North Texas Daily )

Bastion

Bastion - Zulf, Rucks, and the Kid

( There are major spoilers regarding the game’s ending in this post. )

I started Bastion in January, and I just finished it last night. It only took me about ten hours to make it to the end with a fairly high level of completion, but I enjoyed the game so much that I didn’t want it to be over, so I took long breaks between sessions.

I’ve been wanting to replay Secret of Mana for months now, but it’s gone from the Nintendo Wii U eShop, and Bastion scratched my adventure game itch. The game has everything that’s good about Secret of Mana. There’s a leveling system that doesn’t require a lot of grinding, a nice selection of fun weapons to play with, a cool leveling system for these weapons, combat that’s challenging without becoming frustrating, and a vibrantly colorful world to explore.

The only thing I disliked about Bastion’s mechanics is that, once an area of the game has been completed, it can’t be re-entered. This is contingent to the story in a few places, as the protagonist destroys several locations through his interactions with them, but in most other cases (including the weapon training areas) it’s completely arbitrary. This element of gameplay means two things: first, all of the collectibles are missable; and second, the player doesn’t get to enjoy the experience of returning to earlier areas at a high level to trounce weak enemies while enjoying the scenery.

Bastion compensates for its linearity both offering two distinct endings, as well as two sub-possibilities within each ending. The “Bastion” of the game’s title is a floating island that the player restores and enhances by collecting power crystal shards from the ruins of a city called Caelondia, which has been destroyed during an event called “the Calamity.” Once all of the crystal shards are collected and the Bastion is at full power, the player learns that the island is a giant machine that can reset time to a point before the Calamity. Since everyone would lose their memories of the events that passed since the restore point, there’s no way to tell if the Calamity wouldn’t just happen again, so the player can choose to burn the Bastion’s energy cores and propel the island away from Caelondia so that the survivors can start a new life elsewhere in the world.

What I’ve learned from my experience with Zelda games is that time travel is always, always a terrible idea, so I chose to let the past stay in the past. According to the PS4 trophy system, this choice was made by 43% of players, while 47% of players chose to turn back time (one assumes the other 10% didn’t make it to the end of the game).

Along with the player character (who is referred to as “the Kid”), there are three additional survivors of the Calamity. The game’s voiceover narrator is an old man named Rucks, who designed the Bastion. The second is a girl named Zia, whose father engineered the Calamity to prevent the genocide of a minority group called the Ura. The third is a man named Zulf, an ambassador to the Ura who attempts to sabotage the Bastion about halfway through the game.

At the end of the game’s final stage, the player can choose to allow the remaining Ura to kill Zulf, or s/he can rescue Zulf and return with him to the Bastion. I decided to save him, which triggers an interesting endgame scenario in which, after an onslaught of attacks against the defenseless Kid as he carries Zulf back to the Bastion, the Ura finally realize that the Kid never intended to hurt anyone, and they bow to him as he passes. It’s really cool.

During the ending I chose, the player gets to see pictures of the four survivors setting out into a new world, taking the final remnants of Caelondia with them. There’s one image of Zulf chopping vegetables with a tame version of one of the game’s monsters that made tears stream down my face, and the gorgeous song that plays during the credits didn’t help. I want to hug everyone in this game.

I definitely want to play Bastion again, so I probably should have chosen what I’m convinced is the bad ending (using the Bastion to reset time) during my first playthrough. There’s a “New Game Plus” option that allows the player to start over from the beginning with all level gains and weapon upgrades achieved during the first playthrough intact, and I plan on taking advantage of that feature in a month or two. I noticed a few interesting parallels between the stories of Bastion and Transistor, and I’m looking forward to returning to Transistor as well.

In conclusion, I love Supergiant Games, and they can have all my money forever.

( Header image from Gamespot )

Firewatch – Days 78 and 79

Firewatch Start Screen

I can understand why so many people have been upset with the ending of this game. It’s harsh.

That being said, the closing conversations re-established my trust in the game devs. All the fetch quests and ill-considered cave diving and other macho bullshit were definitely avoidance. The three main characters begin as cowards, and I’m not entirely sure that the process of becoming more aware of consequences of their decisions does anything except cause them pain.

The near-constant orange lighting turns out to have served as foreshadowing for the endgame, when the forest catches on fire. This is an interesting backdrop to the theme of “running from something.” It seems easy to judge the characters, but their emotional weakness is juxtaposed against them running away from a literal fire, so it’s not as if you can blame them.

It turns out that Henry is 39, while Delilah is 43. I’m always getting down on teenage protagonists in video games, but what I keep forgetting is that adults don’t get happy endings. I feel like, once you reach a certain age, the best you can do is minimize defeat. I suppose this doesn’t gel with the gaming medium, in which the player expects to be able to make some sort of progress and receive a reward for success.

The ending of Firewatch forced me to confront my own cowardice, but it didn’t offer any solutions, just a vague sense that none of us are alone in being broken as we try to muddle through our lives as best as we can. Although hey, at least I managed to save a turtle from the forest fire (and I named it “Turt Reynolds”).

If I play this game again, I’m going to see what happens if Henry doesn’t tell Delilah about his wife Julia. I’d also like to try to figure out if the northwest quadrant of the map can be explored. I hear that there are raccoons somewhere in the game, and I want to try find them so that I can take tons of pictures of them.

I also skimmed through a walkthrough to see if I missed anything big (like, what’s going on with the two dudebro rangers who leave messages for each other in the supply caches?), and apparently you can have Henry sit in Delilah’s watchtower until the helicopter leaves without him. The credits start rolling automatically, so presumably he burns to death in the fire.

I’m not going to lie – this game hurts on a visceral level. It’s still a lot of fun to run around the woods and discover cool things, though, and in the end the joy of the experience of play more than balances the emotional pain of the story.

( Header image taken from Kyle McKenny’s review for the Swarthmore College Daily Gazette )

Firewatch – Days 76 and 77

Firewatch Henry in the Woods

Henry goes out fishing one day and finds a clipboard with detailed notes on the conversations he’s been having with Delilah. When he tries to return to his watchtower with the evidence that someone’s been spying on him, someone attacks him. Although Delilah doesn’t believe him at first, by the time she starts radioing around to other stations she’s so upset that no one takes her seriously. She ends up sending Henry to an area called Wapati Meadow, where someone has set up a chain-link fence for unknown purposes. Henry’s objective during this part of the game is to figure out how to get on the other side of the fence.

I started experiencing a bit of narroludic dissonance at this point. I mean, the fence is just a normal chain-link fence. It’s about eight feet tall; and, aside from a padlock on the gate, it’s completely unsecured. If Henry is the sort of dude who can sprint all the way up the stairs of his lookout tower, I don’t see how it would present a problem for him to just climb over the fence. Also, if he were to walk a few yards to the left of the gate, he could step over a three-foot rock formation and go around the edge of the fence. What he does instead is to hike south to the site of a controlled burn to ask a group of firefighters for help. They’re gone, but they’ve left a pulaski axe behind, which Henry uses to pry open the hinges of the gate.

This of course begs the question of why Henry didn’t have an axe at his station to begin with. The lack of anything he could use as a weapon could be a vital story clue, or it could just be the game devs fabricating a fetch quest for the player.

Ditto for the fence. One assumes that, if Henry really wanted to enter Wapati Meadow, he very easily could have. The fact that he doesn’t might indicate the fact that he doesn’t want to. He seems to be in denial about a number of things in his life, and he could be in a similar state of generalized denial concerning whatever’s going on around his watchtower. Henry’s employment with the firewatch service was an act of deliberate passivity, and it could be that he has no intention of being thrust into an active role now. It could be that he feels almost gratified that someone has been devoting so much attention to him and his friendship with Delilah, and that he unconsciously desires the situation to remain as it is. Or? It could just be the game devs fabricating a fetch quest for the player.

Once I started experiencing this dissonance, I started to worry about other things. Specifically, at this point in the game both Henry and Delilah make a series of very bad decisions. Is this supposed to demonstrate how psychologically damaged they both are, or how continued isolation impairs rational judgment? Or is it just the game devs fabricating fetch quests for the player?

Henry continues to move around during the early morning and the late afternoon, meaning that the dramatic light effects continue unabated. I was expecting something to change to signify a development in the story. Perhaps Henry would become more active at night, reflecting confusion or self-deception, or he would become more active during the day, reflecting increased clarity (or a false sense of increased clarity). But nope, everything is still all orange all the time.

Based on the PS4 Network trophies I’ve received, it seems I’m almost done with the game. I’m given to understand that people have been complaining about the ending, but hopefully it will shed some (bright orange) light on what’s been going on.

( Header image from the official Firewatch website )