Interesting Games of 2017: Games Telling Stories

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I’m facing a quickly-approaching deadline for some genuine academic writing, so I’ve got to put a cap on my efforts to play every game that came out in 2017. This is the final post of this series I have planned, and it’s admittedly a bit slapdash. The theme is basically just “remaining games that did interesting things with storytelling,” which is admittedly pretty broad. Still, good games in here.

Ground rules: Unlike in previous entries, I’m not going to include any games that got a mention in my mid-2017 round-up. My time is too tight to indulge in such redundancies.


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The Fidelio Incident

(Act 3 Games, released May 23)

In my mid-year roundup, I singled out Kona as presenting a template for how to introduce “gamier” aspects into the “wander game/himitsu-bako” formula established by trend-setters such as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012). I didn’t find Kona‘s story to be particularly captivating, but I did like its commitment to letting a taste of challenge creep into its environmental storytelling. It deepened my connection to the game’s dangerous, unforgiving environment, which prevent it from becoming mere window dressing.

Lo and behold, this seems to have been something of a trend for 2017. Like KonaThe Fidelio Incident is set in a dangerous subzero environment. And, again like Kona, it wrings challenge out of this environment, forcing players to plot their route forward keeping heat sources in mind, lest they freeze to death and are sent back to a checkpoint. It’s a forgiving system, but it again results in a connection to the depicted environment that transcends the disembodied virtual tourism offered by the likes of Dear Esther. I much preferred its story to that of Kona, as well. It’s personal and grounded (unlike Kona‘s ultimate dip into supernatural horror), precise in its historico-cultural setting, with a mild amount of allusion flickering around the edges. (It does suffer from some “it was all a dream” lack of real stakes, though.)

The Chinese Room’s So Let Us Melt released on September 21st, 2017. I didn’t play it. (As I’ve already established, I only have one VR headset, and am frustrated and worried by the excessive platform-exclusivity that seems to be fracturing the market.) Unfortunately, it might be The Chinese Room’s final game: they announced an indefinite hiatus immediately after its release. If they indeed never re-assemble their team, they will be missed in the gaming landscape. But if The Fidelio Incident shows anything, it’s that there still exists some sort of market for their brand of high production-value wander games. And it looks like other developers might just be willing to brave the winds, and wander out into that market.

The Fidelio Incident is available for Windows on Steam.


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Get Even

(The Farm 51, released June 20)

Let’s continue our expedition into story games that embrace “gaminess.” Get Even is a lumpen, stitched-together thing. It isn’t really “good,” in any traditional sense. But it was probably the most enjoyably off-the-wall thing I played this year.

At its core, Get Even is an exploratory investigation game. Scanning the environment with an in-game smartphone unlocks fragments of corrupted memories, motivated by some tedious bunkum about a memory-recovering VR headset. The end result shares some surface similarities with the investigatory sections of Condemned: Criminal Origins (Monolith Productions, 2005) and the ghost-uncovering phone of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, 2009).

But the reference point that I kept coming back to was Fragments of Him (Sassybot, 2016). As in Fragments of Him, Get Even tasks its player with exploring memories, navigating a space in order to trigger bits and pieces of dialogue. As in Fragments, each piece of dialogue is presented in a manner reminiscent of a radio play, illustrated by character models in static poses. The constant polygonal flux of the character models in these memories even recalls the dissolving mise-en-scene of Fragments.

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The plot of Get Even is one of kidnapping, corporate backstabbing, and marital infidelity, a far cry from the earnest sentimentality of Fragments. To its credit, though, Get Even solves the “who am I, and why am I here?” problem of Fragments (even if it turns to baroque science-fiction technologies to do so). And, in a move of singular ambition, it integrates its story elements into environments crawling with hostile NPCs, to be dealt with through combat or stealth. No one would ever accuse Get Even of being a “walking simulator.”

It must be said that these “gamier” elements aren’t particularly good. Movement is simultaneously too floaty (they went way overboard with the camera bob) and too grounded (there is no jump button, rendering even minor bumps in the terrain impassable) for the shooting to feel satisfying. And the stealth is fairly simplistic. From Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Kojima Productions, 2015) to Hitman (IO Interactive, 2016), we’ve been awash in superb, immersive, systems-heavy stealth games in recent years, so 2017 was not a particularly good year to offer up some under-cooked stealth.

That said, even if the end results are lumpen and malformed, Get Even remains a fascinating experiment.  And its sound design is the best I’ve heard in ages. (Boldly, I’m even going to declare it better than that of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.) Electronic burbles and metallic thumps increase in tempo the closer one gets to danger or a plot reveal. Our character’s breathing serves as an indicator of how close we are to an enemy’s cone of vision. If we break their line of sight, said breathing transforms into the swishy rhythm section for a tense combat score.

In my favorite moment, slipping out of stealth is accompanied not just by shouting and gunfire, but also by a burst of sonic pleasure, as the phone ringtones and ambient strings that had previously scored the scene crescendo into a bubbly pop song. It’s perversely incongruous—rewarding you musically at the exact moment you’ve messed up—but I loved how bonkers it was. Which, when it comes down to it, pretty much sums up my feelings on the entire game.

Get Even is available for Windows on the Humble Store and on Steam. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.


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>observer_

(Bloober Team, released August 15)

Taking a Philip K. Dick-inspired story and marrying it to visuals that evoke both David Cronenberg and The Brothers Quay, >observer_ has style to spare. Judged purely on the strength of the screenshot folder I left the game with, I’d have to say that it contains the most arresting images of any game I played from 2017. But do these images add up to anything?

Truthfully, I found my engagement with the game’s startling environments to be limited. Bloober Team are masters at making monstrous imagery. They are also masters of framing that imagery. During most of the game, your character is jacking in to the decaying cognitive processes of dying or recently dead individuals. This provides plenty of opportunities for Bloober Team to embrace nightmare logic. Things that used to be behind you won’t be there any more when you turn around. Corridors will shift and dissolve into something else. Nothing is stable, and nothing is as it seems.

This is a great showcase for Bloober Team’s art direction, scripting prowess, and general cleverness. The problem is that it all feels very disembodied, which works against the game’s attempts at horror.[i] The first time I got a “game over” screen, I was shocked: I didn’t realize that the monster stalking the area could actually “kill” me, because up until that moment nothing in this dreamscape had felt solid or consequential. The game had all of a sudden, at that moment, decided that I was a character in Alien, when up until that point I had felt like someone browsing a book of H. R. Giger art, comfortably sipping tea as I aesthetically appreciated the creepiness at a remove. In waiting so long to introduce any sense of bodily consequence, the game made me all-too-aware of how inconsequential everything up until that point had seemed. I hadn’t been treating >observer_ as a horror game; I had been treating it as a theme park ride through some wonderfully terrible production design.

I’ve already used The Chinese Room’s output as a reference point in this post, so I might as well bring them up again. When it first came out, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (The Chinese Room, 2013) got a fair amount of pushback from previously-existing fans of Frictional Games’ series. The consensus at the time was that the game leaned to heavily on danger-free sections of exploration and exposition, and that enemy encounters were too rare, leading to a game that wasn’t scary enough. Although I don’t think A Machine for Pigs is entirely successful, I will at least say this for it: by the time the enemies do show up, you at least know to run from them. Upon close inspection, I would venture that >observer_ has about the same proportion of story/exploration to enemy encounters that Machine for Pigs did. Both are games that privilege storytelling over cat-and-mouse gameplay, quite heavily. But I still found Machine for Pigs to be quite a bit scarier than I did >observer_, simply because it was consistent in establishing the physical rules of its universe and the bodily vulnerabilities of my character. The high-concept surrealist dreamscape route that >observer_ goes in proves to be a fantastic showcase for their art direction, but I’m not sure tacking it on to a nominal “horror” game was the right thing to do. The pieces just don’t seem to fit cleanly, which means a whiff of empty spectacle hovers over the whole project. Which is a shame, really, because the nuts and bolts of its science fiction tale are actually pretty solid, and unsettling in their own right, fantastic imagery or no.

>observer_ is available for Windows, macOS and Linux on GOG (DRM-free), on the Humble Store, and on Steam. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.


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Last Day of June

(Ovosonico, released August 31)

2017 was a good year for experiments in interactive storytelling. The Sexy Brutale tasked players with tracking character schedules over slices of real-time, making subtle changes to the environment to alter character behavior and thwart foul murders. Last Day of June is structurally similar, but swaps out the macabre Agatha Christie machinations of Brutale for something more intimate and sentimental. In Last Day of June, you are a grieving widower, replaying the day of his wife’s death over and over again, trying to imagine (and magically implement) the exact scenario that will avoid the car crash that ended her life. Doing so requires taking over the daily routines of a gradually-expanding cast of neighbors within a close-knit village.

Like The Sexy Brutale or Consortium (Interdimensional Games, 2014) before it, Last Day of June seems like the final arrival of something that videogames have been claiming they can do for decades, but somehow never gotten around to. It’s all about choice and consequence, about getting to know a setting and suite of characters well enough that you transcend the status of character and become an author, tweaking systems to move the story in the direction you want it to go. It is striking, too, how much this niche experiment draws upon well-established standards in game design, tweaking them to its own needs. Last Day of June is basically a Metroidvania game. The only real difference between it and something like Super Metroid (Nintendo R&D 1 / Intelligent Systems, 1993) is that the gates you are progressively unlocking open up new character actions (and, consequently, different story outcomes), rather than just the route to the next boss.

I have niggling complaints about Last Day of June. Whenever you go back and re-play a given character route, the game streamlines the process, but not nearly enough. There are still too many short un-skippable cutscenes and redundant button-presses involved, which disrupt the feeling of being a grand conductor of the day’s events. (The game would really benefit from body-hoppy as seamless as that in Beyond: Two Souls or SUPERHOT.) And although the ending is bold, it would have benefitted from being bolder still.

Still, though: I am enormously grateful that we live at a time when these sorts of experiments in interactive narrative are being made regularly. And, in this case, with such lovingly-crafted art direction!

Last Day of June is available for Windows on the Humble Store and on Steam. It is also available for PlayStation 4.

[i] An aside: another thing that contributed to my feeling of disembodiment in >observer_ was the game’s field of view, which was unusually narrow (at least by PC standards, the platform I played it on). The game’s settings give you no option to widen it, which in hindsight makes sense, since so many of the nightmarish moments in the game are based around making sneaky changes beyond the player’s current viewing frustum.

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