Davey Wreden Delivers an Intimate Story Game: The Beginner’s Guide

This is the kind of gaming experience that compels me to get my thoughts out about it because I have been thinking about it nonstop since I finished playing about 24 hours ago. The Beginner’s Guide is a first person narrative experience with minimal player interaction. Instead of keeping you busy with mechanics and enemies, a narrator (Davey Wreden) guides you through a compilation of games to tell you what he thinks of them and of his relationship with a person named “Coda”.

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There’s always a man. There’s always a CS map. 

Please excuse my bad Bioshock Infinite joke.

Anyway, the player moves from level to level seeing what appears to be the slow progression of a game designer becoming more skilled and honing their creativity through games. What starts of as some kind of strange analysis of his friend’s games turns into this concerning dilemma of what Davey wants and how the friend reacts through his creative medium.

Spoilers ahead in the next paragraph.

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One of the biggest feelings I took away from playing this was creative inspiration. I was blown away by some of the imagery that the levels presented. Starting in pure whiteness or darkness blew my mind. The manipulation of space that made everything seem so magical and temporary reminded me the power that games really have. At one point, you enter a room with floating text of many, many game ideas. It fascinated me. I felt like I was being shown drafts and wanted to take any one of his ideas and run with it.

I am in love with this concept of minimal control, walking-simulator style game that hits hard on delivering a certain feeling or idea. There will always be a place for AAA titles, yes, but now that games are so accessible on Steam it only seems right that personal games like this are emerging more and more.

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Davey Wreden took this compilation of games (or made them) to show us just how hard the creative process can be. He shows us how the desire for creative freedom can often juxtapose the “rules” that we take for granted in games. He makes us question tropes, puzzles, and solutions. I think the most powerful thing he did in The Beginner’s Guide was use 3D space to metaphorically explore the inner mind space of the developer. I felt privileged to be led by Davey through such personal experiences like growth, frustration, and isolation.

The Beginner’s Guide artfully explored new territory with this one. I hope to see more projects from him, and other creators, that deliver a similar “auteur” experience. If games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Jazzpunk were up your alley, don’t miss this one.

 

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Among the Sleep: Psychological Thriller Meets Crawling Simulator

This weekend, I took a break from playing The Witcher 3 and finally installed and played Among the Sleep. As usual, I bought it during a Steam sale some time ago and never got around to it. My partner was perusing Steam games on Saturday and I brought it up as a suggestion because we both tend to like first person games that are focused on a narrative. I installed it and we both sat down to play this together with only the knowledge that it was about being a two-year-old who crawls around in fantastic looking environments. Boy, was there more.

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The voice acting makes this bear sound creepy and untrustworthy.

I am going to give a vague synopsis to avoid spoilers and discuss the core mechanics of the game. It begins with a cutscene as you become acclimated to the life of a two-year-old and what your living situation is like. You receive a teddy bear that speaks slowly and with the voice of a middle aged man. But, you are willing to follow the bear (because you have to) as it plays games with you.

After you become familiar with the basic mechanics and what life is like for baby-you, something jarring happens that makes everything shift. The house becomes dark and scary and you are helpless as you crawl through it to open doors and peek around corners. You are a vulnerable observer who wants nothing more than to find their mommy.

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Go ahead. Crawl around. Nothing to be scared of.

Reality then breaks away into fantasy, or perhaps nightmare, as you fall into a sort of dreamworld representation of your psyche. You then proceed to navigate through several levels that may be places you have experienced as a two-year-old with creepy filters changing them that may represent some kind of fear or trauma. The environments seem to be alive in that there are sounds and visual shifts happening as you navigate through them to solve puzzles. If you have played a game like Amnesia, it is similar to that in how you progress.

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I thought this was just a nice park…

You can alternate between walking and crawling and hold shift to run, albeit not very fast. You are a toddler after all. And who wants to run? It’s so noisy. Crawling felt like the most immersive, and scariest, means of traveling. Feeling small and low to the ground enhanced the feeling of vulnerability in the world around me. The feeling of vulnerability is key to making you feel like a victim to trauma as you discover childlike drawing scattered throughout each level which depict your perception of important figures in your life.

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Vision distorts as baby-you cannot handle certain sights.

The game is about uncovering the child’s life and the secrets it holds. What happened to you and why are you here piecing things together? Each level is rich with scattered pieces of the narrative, scares, and memories. When you are scared, the best you can do is hide under or inside of something such as a bed or cupboard. It’s exactly how you think as a child; if I hide, maybe it will all just go away. And it does, but not for long.

FEZ: A brilliant game that sat in my Steam backlog for way too long.

I felt that it was necessary to include in the title of this post that I just got around to playing FEZ. I’m pretty sure that I bought it during the summer Steam sale of 2013 months after it came out. Two years later, I booted it up because I wanted to play something that my laptop could handle when I wanted to be near my partner who was stuck on the sofa playing Bloodborne.

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I would be more disappointed in myself for waiting so long but, on the other hand, this is just the kind of game I was in the mood to play this summer when not screaming at Rocket League or spending hours on my Desktop in The Witcher 3. I can play Fez for 15 minutes to an hour and get plenty of satisfaction from my play time. It is a pretty casually paced 2D/3D platformer that allows the user to change the perspective on the fly.

Change perspective on the fly?! That sounds crazy, you might be saying! Well, it is. I was pretty awed by the puzzles that could be created from such a mechanic in Monument Valley but since FEZ came first I’m giving credit where credit is due. Of course there may have been other titles to do this first. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments!

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You play as the little white dude named Gomez. He looks like he’s made of clay. You also get a hat, so rest assured you Team Fortress players. You traverse across many different types of environments trying to collect cubes by climbing vertically and horizontally. It works similarly to Super Meat Boy or I guess even Super Mario that you will encounter more advanced types of puzzles and geography to navigate as you progress. I think I am about 20% of the way in right now so it’s been fairly easy so far.

One of my favorite parts of the game are all of the cute little animals strewn about the levels. There are rabbits, turtles, bunnies, pigeons, and worms. They all have adorable animations and sound effects, too. Sometimes I just have to walk up to them and watch them live their little lives. There is no way I know of yet to harm them. They just meander around looking cute while you play the game.

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This game is only about $10 full retail on steam right now. I’m sure most readers probably already on it on Steam from the 20 sales that have happened since the game first came out. If you haven’t taken the time to boot it up yet, go do it! This game will instantly charm you.

JAZZPUNK: A Fantastically Outrageous, Indie Game that Everyone Should Play.

It’s so hard to know where to start with this game, so I’ll jump right in with a little background.  Jazzpunk was created by a DUO, Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse, who established Necrophone games in 2008.  They have created some games at Game Jams previously, and have since had one release preceding Jazzpunk: Beetlenaut (which I have not played).

Anyway, they certainly got some help making Jazzpunk, as is made clear in the credits, but this is an indie game that I felt 100% obligated to rave about after playing it because it left me with that rare feeling; the one that makes me want to shout its name from mountain tops in the hopes that other gamers are listening and have the same exceptional experience I had playing their game.

Graphic Design in the opening sequence of Jazzpunk

Graphic Design in the opening sequence of Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk wastes no time throwing you right into the experience that is… JAZZPUNK.  It starts off with this busy, exciting, loud intro with music that makes me want to reference Archer somehow in that it’s very spy-like and glamorous. You are presented with a lot of patterns, loud colors, and imagery that set you up for the attitude and setting of the game before being hurled into the intro scene: a quiet train station where you exit from a very peculiar shaped suitcase.  The mechanics of the game itself are so simple that the player requires to explicit instruction to proceed.  There is only one way to go, it just all depends on what you want to look at and how long you want to take to get there.

There's a joke around every corner in this game.

This is one of the first few jokes that got a laugh out loud from me and gave me an idea of what to expect from the rest of the game.

The next thing you know, you’re invited into an office because it turns out you’re a very important person with a very important mission.  This is presented all very tongue-in-cheek and the laughs begin from the second you walk into the secretary’s office.

Jazzpunk plays very much like other indies I’m very fond of: Gone Home, Thirty Flights of Loving, and Dear Esther; the first person, exploratory point-and-click mechanics with a “figure it out yourself” feeling.  Jazzpunk expects you to be the type of player who wants to look at everything, click on everything, and relish every detail.  If you don’t, you are simply robbing yourself of the full experience.  If this sounds like a chore for you, it may not be your type of game.  If you’re like me, you embrace games like this that give you a setting and set you free to perform actions in a world full of things just waiting for you to discover.

The first level you are allowed to play around in.

The first level you are allowed to play around in.

Jazzpunk is like this: you could either read a comic book, or read a transcript of the comic book without the imagery, characters, expressions, and little details.  Just like the Mass Effect series or recent Fallout games, you could do exactly as you are instructed to in each level, do your mission, and miss tons of little things all around you.  The Stanley Parable makes perfect example of this game design principle: taking advantage of the idea that the player will want to deviate from the “main course” and push the boundaries of what the game can afford before doing what must be done to continue.  I really appreciate this type of design because it just feels so rewarding when you dig up piece after piece of comedy gold.

An ordinary pizza with numbers on it...?  Or a ticket to an alternate dimension full of pizza-related mayhem?

An ordinary pizza with numbers on it…? Or a ticket to an alternate dimension full of pizza-related mayhem?

Even though the jokes are absolutely ridiculous sometimes and really random, something about the formula just did it for me.  The humor was all paced very well in between ambient activities and small side quests.  The jokes are spread throughout player conversation with the NPCs, who sure have a lot to say, the environment design (e.g. signs, buildings, sentient boxes), and interactive objects.  Just like old RPGs, I found myself clicking on every NPC until they had nothing left to say to me… or disappeared. I just couldn’t move on with the main storyline until I had explored every nook and cranny of each level to be satisfied.

Many, many computer-related puns await the savvy gamer.

Many, many computer-related puns await the savvy gamer.

There are a lot of computer and programming-related jokes that I could appreciate.  Some of them may go over the heads of gamers who don’t have a lot of experience with code or game development, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a detractor from the game.  On the contrary, it could be incentive for players to Google things in order to understand the joke and learn from it.  I find myself doing that sort of thing all of the time with normal TV shows if I don’t understand a reference.  That said, I think it’s brilliant, to elaborate on this again, that the designers made this game keeping in mind that their target audience is primarily smart, savvy, mature players.

Break it break it down.

Break it break it down.

One of my favorite aspects of Jazzpunk was the number of mini activities there were strewn throughout the game.  Even though the game is primarily walking and clicking on stuff, every now and then you find yourself thrown into a specially scripted mini-game that managed to hold my attention for more than 5 minutes.  Pictured is the players’ artfully drawn man-hand which pops up when necessary to participate in particular activities.  In this particular activity, the hand dons a jeweled ring as the game allows you to scratch records of dated voice recordings related to science and technology with a phat beat playing.  I found this activity to be bewilderingly enjoyable and must have “DJ’d” for about 5 minutes before resuming.  It’s moments like this that really make the game memorable.  I don’t want to spoil too much by mentioning other mini-games but I wanted to emphasize the fact that this is much more than just a “walking simulator” as some may call it.

 

Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

To end on a positive note, I uploaded this photograph I took of Game Informer magazine after reading the “review” they did of Jazzpunk that was crammed into their, I don’t know, “last minute” section of the magazine?  Someone named ‘Jeff’ who is proudly well-versed in B-movies and games thought that Jazzpunk got bad and bad again.  I don’t know who Jeff is or what games and movies he watches, but I was infuriated after seeing this lousy “review” in the back of the magazine and, as you can see, tore the magazine in outrage (especially after that Octodad review, too).  I feel this is injustice to indie games.

If I spent months or years developing an indie game as brilliant as Jazzpunk with a best friend or colleague, I would be outraged at this kind of lazy journalism.  Heck, I was outraged for them I suppose.  I took almost 200 screenshots while I played Jazzpunk because I felt so compelled to document each thing that brought me a good laugh.  I highly recommend this game to the casual and experienced gamer.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to just boot up a game and enjoy explorings worlds at a relaxed pace with the desire to get some great laughs.  Have you played Jazzpunk yet?  What did you think?  And if not, check it out on Steam here. I spent $5.50 on the game during a Steam sale for about 5 hours of unforgettable gameplay, so wait until the next sale if $14.99 is too far beyond your budget.

The Last of Us: What I Loved (and Didn’t Love) about Naughty Dog’s Latest Action-Adventure Title

I was indeed very late to this party, but I finally got around to playing and finishing The Last of Us over the course of several weeks.  Had I had it my way, I would have marathon played this game over a weekend, but my life and job just kept me too busy to beat this in a handful of play sessions.  I also feel like I should mention the fact that I really had no idea of what to expect from this game going into it.  The only other title from Naughty Dog I had played was Uncharted but I gave up on that because I got tired of the “run then kill dudes” pattern of the gameplay.  I realize this is what Action-Adventure games are but I felt like it just lacked in too many departments, thus preventing me from ever trying Uncharted 2 or 3.  All I knew about The Last of Us going into it was that it had infected things in it that you have to kill given minimal supplies and that it had an actor in it who looked sue-worthy similar to Ellen Page.  

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That said, I don’t really mind that she looked like Ellen Page… What? Don’t look at me like that.

This “review” will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the game, I highly recommend not reading this and playing it first so you can comment or have a discussion with me about whether you agree or disagree with me on the points I’m going to touch on during my evaluation.  I want to talk about what I really loved about the game and what I thought it lacked or could have gone farther with.  

To start off on a high note I want to talk about the opening cutscene and how it absolutely floored me.  I loved starting off playing Joel’s daughter, Sarah, and padding through the house trying to figure out what in the world was going on.  I found the father-daughter relationship and even the level design of the house painfully relateable so needless to say, I cried at the end of the chaotic opening sequence in which Joel fails to succesfully escape the city with his daughter alive. 

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The level design and environment art were highly enjoyable throughout the game.

That said, I think that the cut scenes were extremely well acted, animated, and shot.  They were never jarringly placed either.  The cut scenes fit very well in between action sequences and I think kept the game at a solid pace all the way through.  I also thought that the level design and environment art was excellent.  I almost wish there was some way the game would have let me enjoy those aspects a bit more… like with a first person cam toggle or more L3 moments that gave you good views of where you were.  I found myself using guns to zoom in on a lot of things in order to enjoy the art and posters all around.  Sometimes though I could tell in certain areas they almost didn’t expect the gamer to look closely.  There were moments when I’d see two identical pictures in the same room as each other or even within feet of each other because the level designer expected us to just chug through a particular area.  That was a little disappointing, as in a game of this length (it took me about 20 hours), I’d expect enough variety in the art to not roll my eyes at seeing two paintings of a mime in one room of a house.  Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to make it sound that bad when here I am trying to praise the art.  I’m just a detail person and those little things can kill immersion in a dramatic game such as this.  

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When Ellie commented on a scene or they had an exchange, I wouldn’t have minded if the camera moved around a bit to show you some additional perspectives.

I’m also happy that I never felt rushed after I cleared a level.  There’s nothing more annoying to me than games that have characters who won’t stop saying things like “HURRY UP!” when you are trying to explore, be a completionist, or just take your time during a level to appreciate what’s there.  The Last of Us, thankfully, didn’t ever do this.  Ellie always waited patiently for you to move on and would wander around, hum, mimic a jam, or adorable attempt to whistle while you searched.  That might have been my favorite aspect of the AI behavior in this game which I’m about to discuss a little more.  The fact that they took advantage of downtime to build Ellie’s character with ambient observations or audio design was brilliant.  To add to that, there were collectible comic books that would trigger conversation with Ellie as well as certain scenes that would spark conversation.  If you take the time to read each comic book summary, they are metaphorical to Ellie’s journey and struggle, but I wish that was taken further.  Ellie always tells you she’ll read the comic books later, but I wish she did something like talk to you about each chapter after she read it in the following level or tell you how she felt about it.  That would have been a great opportunity to develop her character and solidify her, and Joel’s, motivations along the way.  

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She says she’ll read it but she never talks about it! Argh. Also, not finding them all was frustrating when I felt like I searched every single corner.

I said I’d talk about AI behavior, so here we go.  This is the first and probably worst “didn’t love” aspect of the game.  The AI behavior of your companions (when you had Ellie and Tess in the beginning) and the enemies was often times very frustrating and confounding.  It was like the AI was a puzzle in itself to figure out.   There was not a whole lot of instruction on the game’s end as to what the rules of engagement were with particular enemies, making strategies very hard to develop until you were near end game.  At first, this made combat VERY frustrating.  The only thing the game really taught me was that Clickers reacted to sound, thus the best way to deal with them was with stealth/shanking.  This was fun when you succeeded at it.  However, the clickers were more often than not paired with gaggles of “screamers” I think they were called?  Just regular infected dudes who would groan and run at you like a zombie would.  I had no idea how to deal with them for the longest time and I often just wound up going all out with melee or a shootout to finish them off.  Their movements seemed unpredictable, and like every other enemy, we were never given any information about how to handle them or what was most effective.  

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Clickers: the scariest but easiest to deal with enemy.

Listening mode was fantastic and I really enjoyed using that to play up the stealth actions through the game.  But again, the AI behavior was just so unpredictable and unknown that it was a LOT of trial and error.  Frustrating trial and error.  I put a lot of thought into why combat frustrated me so much early on in the game and figured out what my problem was with it; there is no more reward for doing well or punishment for doing poorly.  Failure was made annoying by being granted the same cutscene and audio clip of being grabbed, bitten, and that high, screechy terror sound as it happened.  The checkpoints were spaced out well, so I had no problem with trying over and over, but then I learned the enemies’ paths (which were not randomized) making it more disappointing the more I had to re-do a scene.  I would have preferred more variety in death animation clips and methods overall and even a reward for when you do exceptionally well at handling enemies in a scene (e.g. a temporary health or damage boost, bonus item drops, or proficiency with your method of choice).

Once I did start to understand how combat worked better, which for me was towards the last half of the game, doing it right was so much fun and often got my adrenaline pumping when I pulled off a scene without getting hurt too badly or wasting too many supplies.  I really enjoyed the opportunities to upgrade my weapons but there was another thing that I needed more information on when it happened for the first time.  

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Sweet, a weapon upgrade bench! So uh… what would the weapon holster DO exactly? Guess I have to spend 75 scrap to find out. Oh, that’s what it does.

I suppose it was just by design that you had to figure a lot out on your own.  I feel like I’d enjoy the whole endeavor much more the second time through but on the flipside, it wouldn’t be the same.  Maybe Naughty Dog just wanted you to constantly feel confused, frustrated, and unsure the whole time.  Now that I’m actually typing that out I kind of liked it in retrospect.  Those feelings were supposed to be how Joel felt through the entire journey.  I guess if that was the intention, they could have connected it by giving us sound clips from Joel or something being like, “Now let’s see what this does…” or whatever.  There was just a lot of not knowing what the hell I was doing but most of the time I didn’t care.  I just wanted to move forward and experience more of the story.  I can complain about the unintuitive controls, UI, and crafting system in retrospect, but in the moment you’re not really thinking about it as much as you’re thinking about the last cut scene you just saw and where you need to go next. 

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Wait, so I need another 1/4 of a blade and a half a rag? When am I picking up fractions of supplies? I have no idea… WHO CARES!

It was easy enough to craft and I was always making molotovs instead of health kits because, hell, you either die in a scene or you do it right, right?  But the whole fraction of a material thing boggled me the entire game.  I STILL don’t understand what that was about.  I never realized when I was picking up 1/4 of a blade or a half of a rag.  Finding and gathering materials was always fun, but it was often a triangle spam-fest followed by an immediate press of the select button to see what I could make. When I couldn’t forge a shiv because I only had 3/4 of the tape I needed, I’d just stare helplessly and confused before closing the menu and moving on with a shrug.

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I can’t wait until you all spread out so I can shoot you in the head with an arrow or shank yo ass.

I want to talk a little more about the characters (other than Joel and Ellie) and the roles they played in your journey.  Like I said at the start of this thing, the cut scenes were highly enjoyable and the virtual actors felt real enough to draw very heavy emotions from me at the right moments.  At the same time though, I can’t help but feel like some of these characters’ stories fell short or could have been played out with more meaning.  The characters would say and do one thing in a cut scene, but then be contradicted by the gameplay that would follow.  For example, when Tess painfully sacrificed herself to buy Joel and Ellie a little more time in running away from the… military guys… in the Boston Capital Building, if you don’t hurry your ass up and waste time trying to look around or search for stuff, the sacrifice was completely futile because the dudes catch up to you and fight you anyway.  I had a problem with that and felt like they should have either put more pressure on me to RUN or just play out the cutscene of Joel and Ellie escaping so I wouldn’t sit there and say, “well, gee, that was a waste of a sacrifice” right after an extremely dramatic moment. 

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He’s an asshole! Wait, why again? What happened exactly? Oh, that’s why. Wait, he’s an asshole?

This kind of happened with Bill too.  The game kept telling me this guy was an asshole, a dick, a jerk.  But what did he do?  Helped us at every turn when we were with him.  Then we find out he’s gay and his partner hung himself, but not before leaving behind a letter telling us how he hated Bill’s guts.  That WOULD have been a good reason for him to be an asshole were it not for the fact that he reads this letter right before sending you off on your separate ways.  We never really see him be an asshole other than saying things like “don’t touch anything” to a kid, which… who wouldn’t?!  Everyone’s dead and you gotta look after your stuff!  Joel just sort of halfheartedly apologizes about the death of Bill’s “buddy” before we never see Bill again, so I don’t know.  I loved watching these characters interact and learning more about Ellie and Joel’s personalities through the cut scenes along the way, but maybe I just wanted to see more of the characters come out through gameplay and mechanics too, not just the cut scenes.  

 

Henry and Sam are especially good examples of this.  You meet them and Henry seems very level-headed and in control of his brother and their situation, but then they do ridiculous things in the game.  

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Sam, what happened to being like GLUE?! WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT?

Everyone except Joel seems keen on teaming up, but then they ditch you the first opportunity they get after barely helping at all in a combat situation.  Henry tells Sam to stick to him like glue, but then the second you’re left alone with Sam, the kid LITERALLY goes running up to enemy AI and you have no control over his movements whatsoever.  That was an extremely frustrating moment for me.  There was just so much dissonance between what happened in the cut scenes and then what followed that I found myself furrowing my brow trying to understand just how Henry could be so unobservant of his own brother to not see him get bitten?  Or that he wouldn’t even let him have a toy… they were brothers not father and son.  Why didn’t Sam stick up for himself?  He just wound up being a scared victim and Henry gave up on himself when his brother was lost to the infection.  It was a gasp-eliciting moment but I couldn’t help but question that series of events later on.  

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You collect a lot of these through the game. Each time I found one I thought, “wow, maybe I’ll meet them all or get paid scrap metal for each one later!” Nope, they’re just contest winners on tags for you to look at. Wh…why? Huh? ~_~

I feel like I’ve been ranting too much about the negatives now when my overall experience of the game was one I would call “fantastic”.  I would recommend this game to any gamer, certainly, but maybe to have lengthy discussions with them about this stuff just as equally as wanting them to have the experience.  I guess to summarize, it was a huge artistic success, told a great story, used virtual actors extremely well, and was beautifully unpredictable, but had a lot of weaknesses in terms of game design.  I think Naughty Dog will improve and blow us away with their next title.  There were so many good ideas but maybe they could have left out the extras to focus on what was important.  

 

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Most of the game you are focused on the most important thing: this girl, right here.

Ending this with what I loved most about the game: the last scene.  My heart…  I loved that you got to be Ellie in that last little level going towards a promising looking town before a scene that concludes everything that had been developing between Ellie and Joel on a parent-child level.  Joel does something that’s hard for an adult to do and lies to Ellie’s face because he realizes she is the most important thing he has left in his life and she knows that too.  Maybe it was a cheap, quick ending to some.  To me though the fact that Joel fought so hard and recklessly stole her back from the fireflies because, selfishly, he loved her and she was all he had left to live for, was one of the most touching moments I’ve experienced in a video game.  It made me think a lot about my own dad and that definitely brought some tears.  

I never edit these things or do second drafts, but I feel like I have gone on long enough at this point and covered a lot of bases.  I just feel like I could discuss every single piece of this game.  So what did you all think?  Please feel free to comment and let me know what you liked or didn’t like, and if you agree or disagree with me on any of these points!  I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Of Us and highly anticipate seeing what Naughty Dog comes up with for us next time.

Kentucky Route Zero: First Impressions

I’m titling this one “First Impressions” because I am writing this after having completed the first two acts that are out with three more acts due to come out in the future. Anyway, this game left such an impression on me, I knew I had to write about it before I even finished what I owned of it.  Let me help spread the word and hopefully gain a few more fans for a brilliantly crafted game aptly titled Kentucky Route Zero.

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This was the first image I ever saw from the game, and it was all it took to intrigue me and make me want to experience whatever awaited me in that world.

Kentucky Route Zero, or KRZ as I will proceed to refer to it to save keystrokes, is a poetic, slow-paced, subtle, and somewhat meditative point-and-click adventure game.  It is unlike any point-and-click adventure game I have ever played in that it did some pretty experimental things I have never seen before in parts of the game I will mention further in the post.  The basic premise of the game is that you are a delivery man trying to make a delivery to an address on Kentucky Route Zero, but you need help finding it first.  The plot unravels from there and the longer you work towards this, the less the game becomes about getting from point A to point B and more about everything in between.

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Some of the script and dialogue choices are so ambiguous, it leaves you sitting in front of your PC, scratching your chin and furrowing your brow for minutes before continuing on.

Every moment in this game feels deeply meaningful in some way.  It’s like a really good, classic film.  As I played it, I knew that I would have to play it several more times-maybe even analyze it and discuss it with others-to truly appreciate everything the creator put into this game.  I got my degree in Programming & Design, so needless to say, I am not very practiced in interpretations of narrative, symbolism, and poetry.  A lot of bits in this game felt like they went right over my head even though I was trying my hardest to keep up with its ambiguous speech choices and plot turns.  Now, I’m not saying that any of this detracted from my enjoying the game.  I am just being honest with how I experienced it and that I rather enjoyed the game’s intelligent approach. The game treated me like a mature gamer; Like a human with a brain in their skull capable of reading and processing information and feeling as opposed to a mindless creature out to shoot zombies and loot bodies.

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The use of the camera was very creative and effective in multiple scenes throughout the game. The zoom in effect with the foreground blacking out and backgrounds coming into view was very enjoyable.

KRZ was created by an indie company called Cardboard Computer which consists of creators Jake ElliottTamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt.  I’m not too familiar with these men, but I have to guess one or more of them studied film (I’d be really surprised if none of them did) because what they did with the camera in this game was very effective.  It panned out at the right moments and took control of scenes when necessary.  The graphics reminded me of the PC classic Another World with its clean, vector-like shapes and high contrast.  At first everything looks very flat, but the constantly changing camera gives an added depth to the world that keeps it interesting and always changing.  Sometimes, it has a rather disorienting effect which I think was intended and if so, well executed.  The point is to feel lost sometimes.

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Navigating the roads at your own leisure was a nice change of pace in a linear story game.

As you would expect from a point-and-click adventure game, the story is linear, but there are opportunities to go out of your way when you’re in your delivery truck to find stops along the road and explore.  These little hidden spots have either some flavor text or minimal interaction, but they all contribute to the broader narrative of the game very well.  I don’t like to spoil in my “reviews” of the games I talk about here, but I can’t help but mention the Supernatural aspects of the game.  I guess you could think of them as science fiction elements- things that can’t happen in reality but are easily acceptable in a game setting.  A big part of the game is that strange, inexplicable things keep happening to you but your character seems to take it all in stride, as none of the other characters make a fuss about the strange phenomena.

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I’m not going to give away what this is or where this is, but wow.

I don’t want to go on too much more in depth about the plot, but there is a lot of reflection on who you are, where you are from, and what your goal is.  None of this is handed to you.  In fact, most of it is chosen and shaped by you.  You never see it and it’s never obvious, but you are constantly making choices in speech option scenarios without any information as to what the ‘right’ answer is.  This was clearly intended, and I don’t think there really is any right answer.  The game pushes you to define yourself and what you want your journey to be within the boundaries of the story that you act within.  It’s a very interesting design that I can’t really think of any examples off-hand to compare it to.  Usually when you are given speech options in a game, it is to define personality traits like whether you are a friendly-type or more snoody.  In KRZ, sometimes the speech options will all seem like good things to say, but you are limited to one choices.  It’s hard to choose sometimes, but that’s the challenge.  That’s the core of the game: the frequent opportunities they give you to over think the dialogue and wonder, “what if I had said this?”.

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Scenes that appear graphically simple are beautiful in design and composition. Paired with the cryptic dialogues, I often stopped to sit and just reflect on what was before me.

If story-driven head scratchers are your thing, you’ll have to do yourself a favor and pick up the season pass for Kentucky Route Zero.  It’s such a refreshing game experience that is reminiscent of The Longest Journey, but more focused and purposeful than Sword & Sorcery Brothers EP, and, in my opinion, easier to grasp than Dear Esther.  This is certainly a game for gamers who want something beautifully poetic, mentally stimulating, and intellectually satisfying.  A few things in my first playthrough may have gone over my head, but I would gladly go through this experience a second or third time just to put all of the pieces together and better appreciate this work of art. And yes, I’m not afraid to call this that: a work of art… and I haven’t even talked about the sound yet!  Yikes, what have I been doing.

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Sometimes your speech options extend beyond the main character you begin as and include a companion you pick up along the way. Neat!

Well, that last paragraph was intended to lead into a conclusion but I just have to mention the sound design before I wrap up this post.  The sound design is… outstanding.  It is exactly what it needs to be for this game: a mix of the quiet, ambient, loud, white noise, and soft synth tones for more peaceful scenes.  It reminds me a bit of the sound design for Limbo in the sense that it pairs so effortlessly well with the game that you can’t help but become immersed in the experience.  The characters aren’t given voices, and frankly I’m glad they weren’t.  The sound does all the work establishing scenes, enhancing them, and putting you into that meditative state I mentioned that few games really achieve like this one does.

I look forward to seeing Parts 3, 4, and 5 from Cardboard Computer and can’t wait to see how this journey ends.  This was one of those games that I would think about when I wasn’t playing it, and still think about days after having finished.  It truly leaves an impression on you.  Whether you are a hardcore gamer looking for something fresh or a casual gamer looking for something to play in the little time you have to allot to video games, definitely put this one high on your priority list.  This is one of the best storytelling indie games of the year and I’d hate to see you miss out.

Anachronox: My Favorite Game of All Time

I wanted to take a break from writing about current games just to write about an old classic by the name of Anachronox and somehow try to put my feelings for this game into words once and for all.  First of all, how I came across this game to begin with is a story worth telling.  Back in the day, when PC games were sold in gigantic, beautiful, collectible boxes, stores would often bundle them into even BIGGER 2-packs.  Well, my brother wanted to buy the new Thief game (I can’t remember whether it was Thief 1 or 2 at the time) and it came in this 2-pack with another game called “Anachronox”.  We had no idea what it was, but we bought it anyway because it was shiny and looked like it was futuristicy cool and cyberpunky.  Hey, we were kids.

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Look at this box art. The two characters on the right are minor and don’t even come in until later, but come on! It was shiny too and the front flap opened!

Well, I didn’t play Thief.  My brother did.  But I put this game into the computer and loaded it up to see what it was about.  I had no idea at the time that I was about to embark upon one of the greatest sci fi rpg adventures of all time… The game begins with a long, beautiful (for its time, mind you) intro of space, a planet, and ships docking into a giant cool looking space station where the tale begins.  It shows rotating plates on the planet’s surface and people walking upside down and all sorts of crazy sci-fi elements right off the bat.  Now, this game came out in 2001, which was an amazing year for PC games.  I mean, Max Payne came out that year, Baulders Gate II, Dark Age of Camelot, and RuneScape.  This game out almost exactly 1 year after the first Deus Ex, but it wasn’t anything like it.

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One of the first sights you get to see of Anachronox and Rowdy’s bar.

You’re introduced to the protagonist, Sly Boots, when you are beaten up and thrown out a window by a midget who looks like a member of the mafia telling you to pay what you owe.  You wake up in a bar but, lo and behold, you’re a washed up detective and your office happens to be on the second story just above said sleazy bar.  It’s a fantastic starting point for an adventure; you’re a washed up detective looking for work-small time, of course- but you stumble across something big.  I mean, really big.  That’s the premise of the game and I won’t go into huge detail about plot, but I want to move on to the other elements that make this game really special.

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Sly Boots on the platform area, and a man on fire in the background. Yep, you can’t go that way until that guy stops being on fire.

There was so much going on in this adventure that just felt so FRESH.  Your cursor was a character, you had a functioning camera that you used on jobs, and there were a number of collectibles scattered around (like the Anachronox symbol above the platform area sign in the above photo).  The world was filled with a variety of alien species that spoke languages you didn’t, and couldn’t understand!  They even had their own font, which really made you feel like a dumb, alienated human from the start.

The game’s design was perfect in the way it made you feel like you were going from zero to hero, if you’ll excuse the Disney reference.  There I was, a washed up detective at the bottom of his career just looking to make rent, and I wind up getting myself into situations that seem way over my guy’s head.  But the fun is feeling like you’re going along for the dangerous ride anyway!  It’s kind of like being Mal in Firefly; always in risky situations but somehow pulling it off with his rag-tag team of allies.

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Grumpos, Rho, Boots, and PAL-18, your lovable bad-mouthed robot.

The writing is what really makes this game.  It was written and designed primarily by Tom Hall, and it was a long development period, but the outcome was just amazing.  Here’s a great quote regarding some of Hall’s inspirations for the game:

 “In movies, some inspirational people are SpielbergHitchcock,George Roy HillRob Reiner, and now Sam Mendes. Also a big fan of Chuck Jones, who directed Warner Brothers cartoons. Novels: GatewayEnder’s GameSnow CrashHitchhiker’s, so many more. Games: Chrono TriggerFinal Fantasy, LucasArts adventures (Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer rock), Ape Escape (buy it now), MarioUltima IIIWizardry I, oh, I’m sure I’m forgetting some!”

What it wound up being was the perfect blend of adventure, comedy, science fiction, and action.  It’s hard to remember more than a handful of games in which the writing was just so good that I felt like I could not go on until I talked to every single NPC just to hear what they had to say.  This game gave me some real gut laughs and golden quotes I still pull out from time to time.  Among my favorites is when your little robot buddy, PAL-18, turns to a female companion of yours and says in a meatwad-like voice, “Wanna see my batteries?”

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There are a lot more classic speech options where this screenshot came from. I’m telling you.

The characters are so well-written and really feel like people.  You’ll find yourself caring about each one but the sad part is you can only have a party of 3 at any given time!  They each have their own abilities that will come in handy, giving you incentive to switch out frequently, go back for secrets, and use your memory a lot about locations of things in the world.  It is a linear story, but even if the speech options don’t have Paragon or Renegade outcomes, it feels so participatory.  Sometimes it was incredibly difficult to choose a speech option because I really, REALLY wanted to hear the outcome for multiple lines.

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Combat in Anachronox was unique, challenging, and always changing.

The combat in the game was pretty unique albeit a bit weird at times.  It was a timed, turn-based system and you had a variety of options like using weapons, powers, items, or moving/interacting.  Each character had their own little special powers that would charge through battle and god, were they fun.  I mean sometimes you get sick of battles systems like this because you know, like Final Fantasy, you just want to get through it or something.  But in Anachronox, I always felt like I wanted to see a different combination or attack.

 It was kind of funny because the enemies didn’t really have animations for dodging and dying, so they’d kind of just like flop over at a 90 degree angle or side step like a statue, but that just added to the charm of the game for me.  Sure it made me pull my hair out when a giant bear-like creature just floated to the side when I shot a huge bullet at it, but if that’s the worst thing this game had going for it, that ain’t too bad.  The best part for me was playing Grumpos, an old man with a staff, and watching him jump like Yoda from Episode 1 to somersault through the air and whap things with his staff.  Who doesn’t love acrobatic old men fighting like that?!

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I wonder what the deal is with that gross looking sock… you gotta play to find out!

I don’t even know how to conclude this other than with a plea for whoever reads this to go out and try it.  I know a lot of people, for whatever reason, feel that they can’t put up with outdated graphics to play through an older classic these days, but trust me, it is worth it. This game made me laugh, cry, rage, gasp, and smile warmly as it led me through one of the greatest video game adventures I’ve ever had.  If I have convinced at least one person to play this game by writing about it, I’ll be happy I wrote this.  This game deserves to be remembered and I will always have a special place in my heart for it.