Yes, I’m still alive.
When the end of June rolled around, I thought to myself, “hey, I should do one of those collections of capsule reviews of games from the first half of the year, just like I did last year.”
But then I prioritized peer-reviewed projects I’ve been working on, instead. I’ve had a productive summer, although I do regret not hanging a little “on summer vacation” sign on the blog, so it didn’t feel quite so abandoned.
Anyway, better late than never. Below the fold, you’ll find thoughts on games that have piqued my interest so far in 2018.
Taking a bird’s-eye view of things, I don’t think that 2018 is shaping up to be quite as good a year as 2016 and 2017 were for independent games. But that’s because 2016 and 2017 were both freakin’ amazing. Even if it doesn’t match the height of 2016 and 2017, I still think that 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year for adventure games, in particular. Between new entries from storied developers such as Amanita Design and Quantic Dream, sequels to some of my favorite games from up-and-coming studios, and debuts from new studios such as Dim Bulb Games, the first six months of this year were carpeted with promising adventure games. Even neither Campo Santo’s In the Valley of Gods and Cardboard Computer’s fifth and final chapter of Kentucky Route Zero ultimately release by the end of the year as predicted, I still think 2018 will still go down in history as a particularly, er, adventurous year for adventure games.
That’s not to say that all of the the adventure games I’ve gotten excited about are have necessarily been great, mind you. There have definitely been disappointments in the pile. But even the failures have tended to be interesting failures.
The Red Strings Club
(Deconstructeam, released January 22)
Okay, this one is genuinely great. Deconstructeam’s previous game, 2014’s Gods Will Be Watching, piqued my interest, but in the end I avoided it, as reviews made it sound laborious to actually play. I’m happy to report that The Red Strings Club, by contrast, is a real keeper. A tight and compelling cyberpunk yarn, where puzzles take the form of drink-mixing and perpetuating some high-stakes phishing schemes. To top things off, it achieves a level of high-level thematic coherence that is all-too-rare in games.
It’s a compact enough experience that it’s worth going into cold, so I won’t say too much here, beyond recommending it.
Secret Little Haven
(Victoria Dominowski, released January 30)
GUIness continues to be the visual sub-genre of our time. So far, 2018 has seen the release of both Unfriended: Dark Web and Searching in movie theaters. And videogames aren’t letting up, either. Dear Sophie was release on August 1st. (I haven’t played it yet, and even if I had, I want to limit myself in this entry to games released in the first half of the year.) And Secret Little Haven was released on January 30th. This, I have played, and enjoyed.
Much like Cibele, Secret Little Haven simulates online fandom. Here, the fandom in question is of a fictional anime series, rather than a fictional MMO. And in place of Cibele‘s tale of trepidatious first love, Secret Little Haven is about a teenager realizing they’re trans. It’s not so much a “coming out” story as it is a self-realization story, as our player-character gradually learns that there are terms out there that describe their identity, feeling the rush of self-actualizing excitement as previously-forbidden knowledge flows forth from chat groups and instant messages.
I have a few gripes about how the story is presented. Our character is a bit of a Mary Sue, stumbling into situations and helping out everyone around her as gender identity is calmly explained to her by other characters. As a result, Secret Little Haven lacks the bite of, say, the emily is away games, which put the player in a more morally compromised position, wringing more complex shades of guilt and complicity between the player at the keyboard and the character whose words are appearing onscreen. But Secret Little Haven has its own distinct strengths, as well. Early on, it introduces command-line interfaces, which are exploited well in some stressful late-game moments that had me flashing back to the panicky bits of Analog: A Hate Story. Overall, Secret Little Haven is a worthwhile addition to the GUIness canon.
Secret Little Haven is available DRM-free at itch.io.
A Case of Distrust
(Ben Wander, released February 8)
A Case of Distrust made me ask: is it possible for a game to be too stylish?
Because A Case of Distrust has a lot of style going on. The live actors that played its characters have been transformed into caricatures through the judicious removal of features. Only the most distinctive details of their faces remain, reduced to duo-tone stencils that resemble Saul Bass prints. Its soundtrack is jaunty jazz, brushed drums propelling each image card onward. When characters talk, the text of their dialogue doesn’t simply appear; instead, it flutters down in delicately-animated cascades.
All of this makes for some lovely screenshots, but to be perfectly honest it also distracted me as I was playing. A Case of Distrust is, when you really get down to it, a text adventure game, with a few moments of point-and-click gameplay thrown in for the sake of variety. And maybe I’m being to picky, but I found that the music, color scheme, and animated just made the game harder to read. Which is not really a thing that benefits a text adventure game. The style pursued by the artist(s?) is wonderful, but it’s a shame they weren’t working on a game with more fitting mechanics. As it stands, their efforts work against usability, in a very clear example of form over function.
That said, I wouldn’t want to deter anyone from playing A Case of Distrust—particularly not anyone hankering for a good investigative adventure game. Distrust‘s balance between skeptically probing character dialogue and carefully examining environments is a good one, and its pacing is pretty tight: it offers one meaty mystery, and refuses to overstay its welcome. Still, though, I can’t help but hope that Ben “TheWanderingBen” Wander’s next project finds a better fit between mechanics and aesthetics. There’s clearly talent here on both sides of the equation, but the fit wasn’t a perfect one.
A Case of Distrust is available for Windows and Mac DRM-free at itch.io.
The Fall Part 2: Unbound
(Over the Moon, released February 13)
I prefer adventure games that prioritize storytelling and character over rote puzzle-solving, which is why 2014’s The Fall was such a lovely surprise. The Fall was heavy on puzzles, but its puzzles were intimately linked to the logic of its storytelling. In The Fall, you play as an AI, bound by certain Asimov-style restrictions. Your goals are fairly straightforward, but due to your restrictions, sometimes you have to take circuitous paths to achieve them. The result was one of my favorite examples of science fiction in game form: puzzles were the result of restrictions on our actions, which were themselves the result of procedures this AI must follow, and so the game’s mechanics were effortlessly blended with its establishment of character. The game’s puzzles give its players an imaginative look into what it might be like to problem-solve as a bound AI.
Unbound expands far beyond the confines of the first game’s plot, offering up much more elaborate world-building. I appreciated the additional scope, but the counterpoint of this is that the strict logic that governed the first game is gone, replaced by a much more freewheeling set of mechanics and set-ups. These add variety, but at the expense of focus and cohesion. The Fall was one of the few point-and-click-style adventure games I’ve ever gotten through without consulting a walkthrough, because of the elegant synergy between fictional conceit and mechanical logic. By contrast, there were several points in Unbound that I struggled to get through even with a walkthrough. The latter half of the game, especially, introduces some mechanics that are very poorly explained—bewilderingly so, for a game series that I had previously associated with mechanical elegance. I imagine that some of these problems could have been solved with more playtesting and some improved tutorial sections, but even then, the smooth coherence of the first game would have been lost. I guess some of the pleasures of the first game are just bound to be diluted as the series scales up.
In any case, I still look forward to the third and final chapter in this story.
(Mountains, released February 14)
This one reminded me quite a bit of Dys4ia. Not in its narrative content at all (this one’s about young love and the realities of adulthood), but in its form: the way in which it breaks its story into bit-sized vignettes, each presented as a single-action minigame that’s a perfectly-realized metaphor of a given activity and/or emotion.
Despite the fact that it has no written dialogue whatsoever, Florence still features perhaps my favorite dialogue system I’ve ever encountered in a game. Dialogue bubbles are broken into puzzle pieces, which must be assembled in order to move the conversation forward. When a date goes well, and our young couple gets more comfortable, these puzzles become easier, and conversation flows more quickly and effortlessly. But a similar process occurs during arguments, in which retorts become increasingly quick, rigid, and thoughtless, as these partners stiffen into calcified positions. Some wonderful procedural metaphor at work in this one.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
(Dim Bulb Games, released February 23)
First of all, let me just say: casting players as a hobo in the Depression-era U.S., tasking them with collecting stories they can then swap with other hobos, then watching them gradually stretch into tall tales as they seed them throughout the land, is a fantastic conceit for a game. But it’s one of those things that’s so original, and so specific in its concept, that things may start to fall apart once you try to actually turn it into, you know, a game. This is a tough nut to crack, and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine doesn’t quite get there.
The “gamey” parts are actually fairly solid and satisfying. Once you get into the thick of things, a pleasant loop emerges. Collect stories. Try them out on your fellow travelers to see what sort of emotional resonance they have. (Because of the nuanced tone some of the stories have, it isn’t always obvious if a given story is “sad” or “scary,” or “funny” rather than “exciting.” The best way to find out is to find picky listeners who will give you precise feedback. Tip: I found the character Quinn to be good for this.) Once you know what sort of feelings they elicit, seed them out into the world. Harvest embellished versions that subsequently flourish. Use the heightened versions of stories during your later conversations with travelers, when they’re more difficult to impress. But be careful—you can only tell a given story to a given traveler once, so cycle through stories wisely! Always be on the lookout to diversify your portfolio, stocking up on new tales of sadness, or mirth, or optimism. And make sure all your tales of a given mood don’t fall into the same Tarot arcana!
Like I said, these mechanics are satisfying. But they also may be too instrumentalist. At a certain point, friction emerges between the pleasures of playing a game and the pleasures of hearing a good yarn. Too many times, after wandering the countryside and finding some old barn with a story-encounter, I would read the first couple lines and immediately jump to a conclusion: “Oh, this sounds like a spooky one—no good. I’m well-stocked on ghost stories, what I’m looking for is a funny story, since I’m low on those at the moment.” And then my eyes would sort of glaze over. I’m thinking that, at a certain point, the game’s “gotta-catch-’em-all” story-portfolio-management aspects actively inhibit enjoying the game’s 236 short stories as stories. Which is a shame, because a lot of them are pretty darn good.
That said, this is an astoundingly ambitious debut from Dim Bulb Games (headed by Johnnemann Nordhagen, who was previously with The Fullbright Company—the family tree of exciting indie developers is getting increasingly twisted). I suppose it helps that Dim Bulb was aided by a slew of the best videogame-adjacent writers around, including Emily Short, Leigh Alexander, Austin Walker, and Cara Ellison.
(The Secret Experiment, released February 27)
Along with GUIness, a return to the unfulfilled promises of 1990s visual media is another trend I noticed in games last year. (In fact, the two are linked: GUIness is often indebted to 90s-era AIM and ICQ-derived visual aesthetics.) At their best, these games don’t just mine nostalgia, but instead perform a sort of generative media archaeology, charting bold new aesthetic futures by imagining where the aesthetic trends of two decades ago might have ultimately ended up if they weren’t cut short by the vagaries of shifting tastes.
Beckett is a shining examples of the latter sort of archeological futurism. Beckett harkens back to the multimedia collage aesthetics that featured prominently in experimental CD-ROM filmmaking such as Chris Marker’s Immemory (1997), or electronic literature such as Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia (2000). Beckett imagines an aesthetic landscape in which this moment of avant-garde art was literally avant-garde, heralding a new aesthetic wave that became the mainstream, creating an alternate timeline in which adventure games came to resemble Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel (1995) more than the output of Sierra and LucasArts.
Over its brief running time, Beckett narrates a paranoid absurdist noir tale that reads like a mixture of Kafka, William S. Burroughs, and Dashiell Hammett. The writing didn’t especially grip me, and the stabs at social commentary are occasionally a bit too on-the-nose to be truly compelling. The collage aesthetics of its visual and sound design, however, I found utterly transfixing. Along with the obvious inspiration it pulls from 90’s-era artist’s CD-ROMs, I also found it to be the closest thing we have to an interactive Janie Geiser film. Definitely recommended to those with adventurous tastes, a pining for new media experimentation of old, and a tolerance for some mild pretentiousness.
Beckett is available for Windows and Mac DRM-free at itch.io.
(Amanita Design, released March 7)
I have known to be effusive in my praise for Amanita’s Botanicula (2012), and the satisfying way in which it ditches the traditional point-and-click graphic adventure game’s unholy obsession with puzzles in favor of pure delight. Botanicula quite refreshingly doesn’t care if you think it’s a “game” or not. It confidently occupies a weird middle ground between interactive cartoon and audiovisual toy, and its aim is quite clearly to be the best version of that very thing, traditional conceptions of “videogame” be damned.
Well, I have bad news for Botanicula: it may no longer be the best version of that very thing. Because I think it may have been unseated by CHUCHEL. My love for Botanicula is deep, so I do not make this claim lightly.
Amanita made one game in between Botanicula and this (2016’s Samorost 3), but CHUCHEL stands as Botanicula‘s clear spiritual successor. Again, it chases some very specific aesthetic joys: colorful art, interactive animations that are as gleefully absurdist as they are satisfyingly “physical,” and sound effects that sound as if they were created by filling a bunch of 6-year olds with sugary soda and then shaking them vigorously. And it’s even more successfully single-minded in its pursuit of these pleasures than Botanicula was. It helps that, unlike Botanicula, CHUCHEL is split into completely self-contained chunks of a few minutes each, each of which follows a highly archetypal cartoon template: two animated characters with different demeanors compete for an object they both desire, with the more excitable character always ending up on the losing end. It’s the Platonic ideal of cartoon form, and Amanita went and made it effortlessly interactive. I’d assign this to graduate students studying comedic form, and I’d hand it to a four-year-old to entertain them for an hour. It is a nearly-flawless bit of interactive entertainment. Please, go enjoy it for yourself.
Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength
(Osmotic Studios, released episodically February 22–March 22)
I quite liked Osmotic Studios’ first Orwell game, and I had high hopes that their follow-up would be just as good, if not better. After all, they had gotten over the hump of figuring out their mechanics, designing their basic UI, and sketching out the basic details of their surveilled dystopia. I though, perhaps naïvely, that this meant that in a follow-up the team could focus on writing, authoring compelling new tales to hang on the basic framework they had established.
And yet, for reasons I’m not entirely qualified to speculate on, Ignorance Is Strength feels like a step down from its predecessor (now retroactively subtitled Keeping an Eye on You: a move that was supposed to prevent confusion, but that I personally find confusing).
There is, I think, an admirable goal lurking behind the disappointment I had with this game. Ignorance Is Strength wants to avoid being Manichean. It wants to be ambiguous, to keep you guessing about who’s in the right, to shut down attempts at clear-cut moralizing and open up some gray area in between. Unfortunately, they do this mainly by making the entire cast a bunch of dicks. By the end of the game, everyone I was spying on and everyone I was working for was so aggressively unlikeable, so mired in failings both political and personal, that I simply didn’t care about the story’s stakes anymore. Ignorance Is Strength aimed for moral ambiguity, but the it just ended up muddled and pointless from a storytelling perspective. (And not in a good way, like Little Red Lie.)
Perhaps I’d gain some extra insight on the characters if I played the game again, tweaking things in a different direction and getting a different ending (there are several, each of which reveals its own twists about character relationships and motivations). Perhaps it would bring things into sharper perspective, and offer some moral clarity. But my time with the game wasn’t rewarding enough for me to want to do that. And so the taste I’m left with is that of a vague what-about-ism, pointing to the conclusion that political ideals are pointless because everyone’s kind of a creep. That’s not a taste I particularly like in the art I consume.
(Freaky Creations, released April 24)
Time was, if you wanted to seek out and keep up with games about mental illness, you’d have a much easier time than if you had a similar keen interest in, say, rougelikes, or indie 2D platformers. Games about the subject certainly existed, but they were few and far between, and it was perfectly possible to keep up with playing every single one of them, if one was so inclined.
But the genre is suddenly getting more crowded. Last September brought us Please Knock on My Door. Then The Thin Silence came out in February. TIE: A Game About Depression arrived in April. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK got a major content update in May. And now all of a sudden I find myself unable to keep up with my queue.
(Gee, I can’t imagine why deteriorating mental health would be such a popular topic for independent games released in the past year…)
Then here comes To Leave, developed by Ecuadorian studio Freaky Creations and released in April as a PlayStation 4 exclusive. And it’s definitely about … something. The game’s subject matter is quite opaque, and the English translation is a bit scrappy at points. But at the very least, it makes clear references to social isolation and substance abuse. If you squint a bit, you can see some abstract references to bipolar disorder. (That is, at least, I think, if I’m reading the game’s symbolism correctly.)
The first 45 minutes or so of To Leave read like a typical “art game”: there are lengthy animated cutscenes, interspersed with short interactive segments that are as trivially easy as they are thematically opaque. But when I reached the game’s eighth chapter (out of ten), I encountered an astounding difficulty spike, the likes of which I have never seen. By that point, the game’s mechanics are perhaps best described as a mix between VVVVV, Flappy Bird, and … um … bullfighting? It is unusual, and it is extraordinarily difficult. And in addition to being difficult on a micro-level (adapting to the unexpected precision it expects you to wring out of its slippery controls), it is also ruthlessly unforgiving on a macro-level, putting strict limits on the amount of time you can spend trying and failing a difficult section until it kicks you back to the main menu and forces you to start the level over from scratch.
So there you have it: the rapidly-growing pool of games that tackle the subject of mental illness has just gotten its first twitch masocore entry. It’s not a game I’d recommend to anyone I know (the Venn diagram overlap between people interested in about mental health and those with the sort of 1337 skills needed to actually see this game through has got to be a vanishingly small sliver). But it’s out there, a testament to the changing face of the “personal game.” It’s the first game about mental health I’ve ever completely given up on seeing the end of, because I realized I just wasn’t skilled enough to complete.
LOL jk no really I just totally made the Game Changer Chicago summer interns beat it for me. Here’s to academic integrity! (And seriously Juan your skills are unmatched thanks so much.)
To Leave is a PS4 exclusive. You can get it via the PlayStation Store.
FAR: Lone Sails
(Ocomotive, released May 17)
There are games that seem to exist chiefly as a delivery system for a distinct mood. Developers such as thatgamecompany and Playdead, in particular, strike me as being primarily concerned with assembling well-paced tone poems, using color, sound effects, music, and story beats to craft a specific linear emotional arc.
Of course, videogames being videogames, the question then becomes: “but what do you do“? Unlike a movie or a symphony, videogames need to busy a player’s thumbs, along with their eyes and their ears. And so even if a developer is pursuing an emotional arc über alles, they still need to settle on some sort of interactive content to busy a player over the course of a game. Maybe that will be some puzzle-platoforming. (This is Playdead’s go-to mechanical content.) Or maybe it will be based around collecting (as, for instance, in thatgamecompany’s Flower). No matter how ambitious a game is in terms of mood-crafting, it will usually fall back on a relatively small repertoire of player activities. In the worst case scenario, these player activities can feel tacked on, a concession to the normal expectations of game design dragging down a piece of interactive art that would be better if it were bolder.
FAR: Lone Sails is a mood piece. Judged purely in terms of the moods that it plumbs over the course of its three-hour running time, it is far from my favorite. But in terms of the way it integrates player activity into these moods, it is astoundingly successful.
Most of the time players spend with FAR: Lone Sails will be devoted to maintaining the forward momentum of a curious motor vehicle. The operation of the vehicle is not inordinately complicated—in fact, it is simple enough that players are (rightly) expected to figure it out entirely on their own, without the aid of a proper tutorial. But the vehicle is fussy. It produces a lot of steam that must be vented, its engine needs restarted constantly, and it is perpetually low on fuel. And so maintaining it requires quite a bit of plate-spinning. Is there wind? No? Lower the sail. Press the button all the way in to get that engine started. Wow, low on fuel, now. Time to jump out into the dark night and grab whatever jetsam I can find, to feed the flame. But there’s no way to brake, so now I’m running after the vehicle, trying to catch up, and oops, I forgot to release the steam before I left, gotta remember to hit that valve as soon as I hop back in, oh boy, now I’ve got a fire, gotta douse that, is the wind starting up again? … should raise that sail again … and so on.
If one wanted to be reductive, I suppose all of these maintenance activities are nothing more than busywork. But their performance invites a surprising array of emotional responses: satisfaction, annoyance, panic, confusion, trepidation, pride. FAR: Lone Sails feels worked over and honed to the point of perfection—which, in this case, means to the point where every tactile detail of the interaction the player has with the game contributes to setting the mood just as much as the score, or the color palette, or the lighting scheme. FAR is a humble little thing, but it’s still something to behold, and utterly unique.
FAR: Lone Sales is available for Windows and Mac DRM-free at GOG.com.
Detroit: Become Human
(Quantic Dream, released May 25)
Detroit: Become Human is indisputably the best game David Cage has ever written. It has no gaping plot holes I immediately noticed on my first playthrough. It makes no tonally dissonant swerves into unexpected genres. Its main female character’s story is not a roller coaster of sexual assault episodes (at least, it wasn’t in my playthrough).
Unfortunately, that’s still a pretty low bar. Quantic Dream is an example of what adventure games can look like when they’re handed an astronomical budget. But as an actual piece of compelling science fiction, it’s not even within striking distance of The Red Strings Club, a game made by a team of a couple people sporting an early-90s graphical style. Money can’t make up for a dearth of compelling ideas.
I’ll likely have further thoughts on the strengths and limitations of Detroit, after a second playthrough. (Not entirely sure what form these thoughts will take.) I feel like critics who have a stake in the future of the medium have a responsibility to analyze Quantic Dream’s games fairly, without being tritely dismissive. And yet sometimes, it’s difficult to marshal up the energy to do so—especially when doing so leaves less time to celebrate the successes of Red Strings Club, or CHUCHEL, or FAR: Lone Sails.
I dunno. I feel like I should say something nice about Detroit. Hmm … I liked the fact that it allowed you to lead the androids in an armed revolution, as an alternative to following the path of milquetoast respectability politics. I played Detroit right after the public shunning of Kirstjen Nielsen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders caused fits of hand-wringing among the civility police. So it was cathartic to pursue the revolutionary path, as a thumb in the eye of a centrist political project that values comity above all else.
Detroit: Become Human is a PS4 exclusive. You can get it via the PlayStation Store, or retail disc.