Posts Tagged Indie
Three days ago I gave a 20 minute presentation on the artistic merit of videogames in an English seminar at the University of Vienna, creating roughly 40 minutes of heated discussion. It was mostly on the nature of art, mind you, and only partly on the place videogames in the grand scheme of things but it’s still better feedback than I could have hoped for as I clearly got those people thinking. Anyway, most of the points I raised have been discussed with a lot more acumen by the people from Extra Credits, but there’s one thing about it that might be of some value even to those who already know their way around games and that’s the recommendation section: Three unconventional videogames available on the internet, free of charge.
Premise: Trip and Grace invite you over a few drinks, but end up quarreling about their marriage and pulling you in. Depending on your actions the two might decide to work it out, or break up. Or they might just throw you out for acting like a tit.
Why it’s on list: The game is fairly nonlinear. A few variables are clearly randomized upon starting the game (for instance Trip might admit to having been unfaithful or Grace might admit to resenting Trip for having forced her out of her passion for arts), but other than that it’s mostly down to how you handle the situation. What’s more the game features a text parser, but rather than just fishing for a couple of fixed phrases like most text-based games it uses some clever programming to interpret what you’re trying to say, akin to a search engine. This feature is a pretty neat example of where games might go in the future, even if right now it’s still a bit clunky. Subtle levels of language use like irony or interrogation are generally lost on the two and many parts of the game, like the ability to grab one of their drinks and down it or the magic eight ball, seem to have no effect at all.
Premise: The game is based around a poem ( “dead world / full of shades / today I die” ) displayed at the top of the screen. Changing words changes the scenery and music, playing with the scenery unlocks new words. After about five-minutes of playing around you’ll have turned around the depressing lyrical piece into a life-affirming bit, complete with corresponding imagery.
Why it’s on this list: Today I die is an interesting look at how we decode poetry, illustrating the huge difference a single word can make through its brilliant combination of visuals, music and writing. At the same time the trial-and-error gameplay could be seen as a nod towards the unrewarding parts of literary creation. If nothing else this game deserves your attention for being really beautiful.
Thanks to Maet for pointing this one out to me.
Premise: I can’t tell. Anything I say about this game will inevitably spoil a bit of the experience. Just go play the damn thing.
Why it’s on this list: This game is honkin’ weird. I mean really, really, really weird. I can’t come up with any interpretation for Gravity Bone that isn’t largely based on guesswork and speaking as somebody who’s secondary education forced him to learn how to wring meaning out of the likes of Kafka, I’d say it’s no small feat for a game to baffle me this entirely. Okay, Gravity Bone‘s confusing nature partly owes to it being tight-lipped, but when it comes to walking the fine line between ambiguous and indistinct, the game still does a pretty good job. At least it manages to make you feel like you’ve been given everything you need to decipher it.
Games are predictable. When we expect them to jump they’ll eagerly hop up and down for us: We align them into genres and expect them to act accordingly, we deduct marks for not living up to established standards, we ask them to stick to a set of rules. If a game decides to deliberately bend those rules it can create a wonderful moment of denaturalization for us, but as all things in life this can be taken too far. Note exhibit A: Zeno Clash. It treats our expectations with such reckless abandon that even after completing it the only thing I can tell for certain is that it’s a video game.
The game picks up with our main character Ghat killing Father-Mother, the hermaphrodite head of a large and influential family in the town of Halstedom, a place he’d rather not be from here on in. But what’s more Father-Mother was his Father-Mother. The questions how he got himself into this mess and how he intends to get himself out again are addressed alternatively as he embarks on a psychedelic trip through the Dr. Seuss meets Oddworld meets Stone Age cave paintings gameworld accompanied by a strange lady called Deadra. The prime gameplay mechanic is that of a first-person brawler, but even at a total length of just three hours Zeno Clash is anxious to shake things up and mixes in a bit of gunplay. The focus between those elements keeps shifting back and forth. Some parts feel almost exclusively like a fighting game, whereas others feel like a traditional FPS. Then at halfway point there’s something that is neither FPS nor Brawler, but also both at the same time.
Judged from a gameplay perspective, Zeno Clash is decent, but not good. No element of the game is broken past fixation and they’re interestingly put together, but there’s also no denying that they’re all flawed in their own right and once you put them all together this creates room for frustration. As simplistic as the melee combat might be, there’s technically nothing wrong with it. At times it feels like you’re simply going through the motions over and over, but the decent sound effects and enjoyable Source-engine ragdoll madness makes it an enjoyable exercise and a similar thing can be said for the gunplay. Problems only start arising once the two combine: The lock-on function has an annoying tendency to simply switch to another enemy when you’re trying to turn it off, making it hard to get far enough away to open fire and this isn’t helped by the fact that Ghat will drop whatever weapon he’s carrying if an enemy so much as bumps into him. But it’s not like I need any help to get rid of my guns: I realise that in a melee/FPS hybrid like this you need some way to drop your weapons in a pinch. I accept that the game doesn’t necessarily need a jump button. I also understand that, with the key now useless, it’s reasonable to use the space bar for blocking, but as soon as I pick up a gun my FPS paradigm takes over and the fact that space bar then serves to throw away my weapon rather than to hop about the place is something I could only memorize after tossing much-needed equipment out-of-bounds a few times.
Gameplay is certainly a bit rough around the edges, but there’s one thing that still keeps Zeno Clash from being forgettable or mediocre and that’s the level of weird it radiates on all levels. The game boasts completely bizarre and often times deadly wildlife, at any given moment the themes can vary from motherhood to insanity and the use of lighting and space to communicate atmosphere is actually pretty decent. Especially in the beginning I found myself wanting to go on just to see what the game would do next, but unfortunately this charm is undermined a bit once the game stops to pick up all the loose threads and attempts to weave them together. Ghat’s and Deadra’s journey reaches a rather perplexing turning point when they meet Golem, the man-gone-macguffin character, who convinces them to face up to the society they left and makes loud-mouthed promises to “end all conflicts”. So the three of them travel back, win a climactic boss fight and of course we finally learn Ghat’s big secret, the one thing he knew that made killing Father-Mother look like a good idea. And without wanting to give anything away here, it’s just too tame. The game uses its entire length to build up anticipation for this one and all we get is a crime worthy of a Disney villain, whereas a sequence close to the beginning involves a trip through a subculture of raging lunatics and more than one instance of cannibalism. How’s that for consistency Zeno Clash? After that all we get is a cryptic monologue followed by a Rubik’s Cube out of nowhere (that’s not a metaphor), and then the credits kick us out of this intriguing but ultimately disappointing experience. It’s a shame for all the potential on display here, but on the whole Zeno Clash just isn’t worth your time.
That’s one way to look at Zeno Clash. Now if you’d be so kind to give me a second to put on my reviewer hat, there’s another perspective I need to cover here: That of an elitist connoisseur. I’ve been giving the game lip for ignoring conventions at every turn, but that’s not technically a bad thing. I quickly found myself enjoying how efficiently Zeno Clash managed to alienate me. Make no mistake about it, it takes some genuine cleverness to defy standards with such consistency, and with this in mind even the laughable ending might have been intended as another entry in a series of slaps across the face. There’s method to this madness, so an appreciation for clever design can definitely help you overlook some flaws. However there’s no ignoring that the game still puts itself into an awkward position. I enjoyed it, but that’s mostly because I picked it up expecting to be entertained, but without caring about the particulars. Even if you’re a sucker for first-person melee combat or an FPS enthusiast starved for new artistic venues, if you walk into this experience looking for any one particular kind of game, be it shooter, brawler or complex epic, then you might end up feeling disappointed.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to predict whether or not you’ll like Zeno Clash, but I’d say that its low price makes it worth checking out. It’s certainly a nice example of what the FPS genre could do outside of current trends.
The best things in life are free. If a game decides to put neither an upfront price nor DRM nor copy-protection between us and the fun it can get us to look past many issues inherent to the nature of such low-budget productions. Even if parts of the game end up irritating or annoying you it’s no big loss, so no harm no foul right? To tell you that such a game isn’t worth your while is a very dismissive conclusion given the low barrier of entry, but it’s the only conclusion I can reach with Haven 2. It’s peculiar nature doesn’t make up for the abundance of flaws bringing it down.
Haven 2 comes courtesy of Cleril, The Escapist‘s resident upstart game developer. His projects mainly take the form of visual novels, with Haven 2 being no exception. After the events of the original Haven Cleril, the protagonist not the developer mind you, is declared insane and consequently forced into an asylum in the game’s barely interactive intro. With nothing but empty walls around him Cleril is left to explore the depths of his own mind in which the raging parts of his personality assume the shape of four different people: The Jester couples humor with malice and a taste for game shows. The Flirt represents Cleril’s sexuality and similarly primal urges. The Writer personifies Cleril’s problems with his supposed avocation of being a bard and poet and the Stranger deals with the way Cleril is perceived by others, or rather how Cleril assumes he is perceived by others.
This being a visual novel gameplay is largely taking backseat and the writing is the one quality that ultimately makes or breaks the product, doubly so since the limits of RPG Maker stop visuals from playing a major role. This problem is fought with graphic overlays, but this procedure is very invasive and gives us awkward results at best. The sound design on the other hand is one of the few highlights: Music generally communicates the right tone for the scene and the voice acting is surprisingly well done considering how small a project this is. But sadly this doesn’t help the game. It’s still up to the writing to seal the deal and in that regard Haven 2 is a big letdown. Many issues undermine its overall appeal, but the most glaring of all is the fact that the game has the subtlety of a brick to the face.
When it comes to subtlety the golden rule of writing is “Show, don’t tell” and video games have a lot of potential for showing. Between its visuals, its sound and its interactivity, its ability to have the player actively participate in the events on-screen, a game can communicate a great deal without a single word. Haven 2 works on none of those levels. The game rarely allows you to have your say and when it does you’re likely still unable to influence the situation: The amount of dialogue options is limited and mono-dimensional to begin with and this is not helped by the descriptions generally failing to describe the actual intent of an option (Don’t get me started on the irritating habit of having all options lead to the same result). The visuals and the audio do a better job of conveying ideas, but generally they don’t have the time to create poignant images before we’re boldfacedly told what we’re supposed to feel.
As early as the first few lines of the game Haven 2 bluntly introduces us to Cleril’s mental predicament and all other characters are introduced in a similarly direct fashion. There’s a halfway interesting bit in which the Stranger sends Cleril back to the original Haven in order to see people’s attitude towards him, but sure enough the whole thing climaxes in monologue explicitly reiterating the various hints dropped throughout the quest. This is just bad storytelling and nothing about the ambiguous context of the game excuses such behaviour. The fact that it ignores the basic laws of presentation and design for sake of focusing all effort on “the message” just speaks to how pretentious this piece is and here’s an interesting twist: Even all those tradeoffs fail to give the game a salvageable message.
Haven 2 gives us the worst of both worlds. It produces a series of awkwardly presented, shallow points but never connects them with any sense of coherence, and be it coherent incoherence. This statement might indicate to you that I simply don’t “get” Haven 2, which is true. Between all the mindless pandering, the bad design and the habit of over-writing I can’t tell if there’s anything the game wants me to remember and so I walked out of the experience feeling I had gained nothing. If you want to assume that that’s simply because I’m thick then I can’t stop you. But keep in mind that just because something is open to interpretation doesn’t mean it’s above critique.
Bottom Line: Skip this one. It picks an interesting subject, but never lives up to the potential.
The Fall(en) is an interactive storytelling thingie featuring an unnamed, uncommitted suicidal on top of a cliff. Through a sort of multiple choice monologue system you get to control his musings as he considers whether or not to end his own life. I honestly wish I could tell you more, but that’s really all that’s too it.
The game Cleril promises about 30 minutes of replay value, but to be honest I saw most of the game in a 10 minute playthrough and my second one only consisted of jumping without a second thought about it.
With games that feature this little gameplay, like visual novels and adventures, it ultimately comes down to whether or not the writing resonates with you personally. And the writing for this title is, well, insubstantial at best. Part of the problem is the concept: A 10 minute time frame is not exactly a lot to get to know a stranger and this certainly isn’t helped by the fact that we have to meet him on our own terms. All his thoughts ever do is add one vague hint after another as to why lacks will to live. Whether he’s complaining about society, or people or his upbringing, it never feels like we’re listening to an actual person, more like somebody going through all possible reasons for suicide in rapid succession. Even if you sink 10 minutes of your life into this and go through all options you won’t so much as be able to make a sensible guess as to why exactly he’s miserable.
But it’s not like you needed to learn anything about him. The options to either jump or walk away are pretty much there from the get go. The Fall(en) doesn’t just abandon conventional game design, it also kicks it in the shins before leaving. Not all convention is bad. Nonlinearity may be one of the most hyped concepts in game design, but that doesn’t mean one should follow that trend mindlessly. A good dose of linearity would certainly have helped improve this game. What exactly do we gain by having the option to conclude The Fall(en) within 30 seconds? Rip it out of context and you’ve just watched the worlds most boring cutscene. It may just be 30 seconds wasted, but still, they were wasted, and that’s not what I expect a game to do. At least not without redemption of some sort.
There’s really no reason why a game with this premise shouldn’t work, but sadly The Fall(en) just stays far behind its potential. If I programmed this game, I would have made the player control a second character who found the suicidal character on top of the cliff and began talking to him. Not only would it mean that both jumping off and staying alive would be decisions that logically evolve out of the conversation, but it also would have allowed to narrow the experience down somewhat.
I like the direction Cleril is taking with The Fall(en). He seems to be well aware that being a single person developing team limits his options and experiments with new and interesting ways to tell a story. But experiments can go wrong, and I’d say this is one of them.
Arbitrary Score: 0.8125 out of 3.1415
Haven is unarguably Cleril’s magnum opus, seeing how it’s his longest game, created the world every game since has been set in and the protagonist inspired his username. Haven puts you in the shoes of Cleril, by his own description the last bard in existence, as he arrives in the eponymous isle of Haven to help improve the staggering economy. Except that’s all a lie and Haven is actually about a boy writing stories. Except that’s a lie too and it might all just be happening in Cleril’s psychotic head. Official press release labels it a non-combat RPG, which strikes me as a rather run-around way of saying it’s an adventure.
On his way to improving Haven, Cleril has to solve quite a few puzzles, but few of them amount to more than just finding and using one specific object. So it relies a bit heavy on fetch quests, but at the very least it has gameplay. Some at least. Even though you have to run around quite a bit, you’ll spend the better part of the game talking to the various odd characters that populate this quirky island. Other reviews have given Haven lip for ignoring logic or basic physics in its puzzles, but while those complaints ring true, it’s still following a side road. What little gameplay there is may not be exactly great, but it isn’t completely broken either. Either way, the solving of puzzles and running around part take up so little actual playtime that the ultimately deciding factor is the quality of the writing. To cut things short: It’s better than in The Fall(en), but just not good enough to sell the game.
I was really struggling with finding a way to bring this out nicely, but the writing is just not good enough to work for a game utterly dependent on it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the writing would be bad. I’d even say it’s well above average for videogame writing, which is right up there like saying somebody’s slightly bigger than a dwarf. There’s even bits of true brilliance like a scene inside an abandoned library where the books suddenly seem to be addressing you a little too directly. And then there’s the insanely clever idea to have a protagonist of uncertain mental health, that will make erudite pricks like myself forgive almost any accidental problem with the writing as an intentional attempt to showcase it’s all just in his head.
But for all it’s potential and occasional cleverness, there’s no help denying that the writing is terribly flawed. For one thing, the characterization for Cleril is schizophrenic at best. Once again due to unnecessary dalliances with nonlinearity, you start the game on one side of the island with your first task leading you to the other, free to wander about in the process. So depending on exactly how enthusiastic you are about exploring the place, you get to meet Cleril as either a somewhat compassionate eccentric, an arrogant twat, a hallucinating madman, a depressed bard or a flirty ladies man, and he spends the rest of the game shifting back and forth through those personalities. He isn’t so much a fully grown character encompassing all these parts as an empty shell in turns taken over by one of several, flat and unreal personalities. In one moment he spends time at the jail to school a young pickpocket, the next he takes up the task of driving natives of an island without so much as second thought.
Admittedly it makes Cleril a pretty interesting and unpredictable main character, even more so when you constantly take his possible craziness into account. I respect the design notion that games needn’t empty their protagonists of all personality except for that which the player ensigns them with, but the fact that Cleril included plenty of character-based choices anyway makes the game populate an eerie middle ground behind character-driven epic and choose-your-own-adventure game. Maybe I’m making to much of a deal out of this, but this is really one of the few times that I’ve felt a game could have genuinely been improved if it was more linear.
But what’s worse than Cleril’s unstable personality is the portrayal of his profession. As he’ll never grow bored to remind every person around him, Cleril is a bard. The last bard in existence, in fact, and as such he is portrayed as highly respected, admired even. The only problem is the enormous discrepancy between the amount of fame he earned and the quality of his poetry. Again, I was struggling with finding a nicer way to put this, but sadly the best I came up with is: Cleril, you’re not as good a poet as you’d like to be. Almost all of his creations are of an half-baked existentialist kind, and while I understand that rhyming or measure needn’t necessarily be a part of poetry, the fact that Cleril steadfastly refuses to use either quickly made it look like he was merely an orator, who’s overly fond of dramatic pauses.
Do you remember how one of the main things they thought you about poetry in school was that it tried to convey as much meaning as possible with as few words as possible? And after you read one, everybody in class came up with a different interpretation, like maybe it’s about vanity, the fugacity of beauty, death, enjoying the moment or the beauty of nature? The poems in Haven are almost diametrically opposed to this concept. Sure, they’re pretty concise, but the amount of meaning doesn’t keep up with deeper examples of the craft. Some of them don’t even leave the slightest bit of interpretation work, but bold-facedly tell you their message. And there always is one. It just gets schizophrenic how every single time Cleril showcases his craft the characters on-screen respond oh-so deeply moved. Even a stoic soldier type-guy who was about the exact opposite of Cleril chokes on words the instance he recites his little pacifist poem. It almost had me wondering whether or not he was going to cry.
It’s a shame, but large parts are of the game were more memorable for their pretentiousness than their actual quality. But nonetheless I enjoyed Haven a bit, and I was occasionally getting intrigued. Then, about 2 hours in, a plot stopper bug occurred and hurled me out of the experience. I simply couldn’t bring myself to go play through it again, though I’m not sure whether that says more about me or the game.
You may say that doesn’t put me in a fair position to review Haven, but unless the quality of the writing took a very sudden change for the better, I do believe I saw enough. A better game than The Fall(en), but not exactly objectively good just yet. If the writing resonates with you, then you’ll like this game a lot. If not, and I’m afraid that seems a little more likely, you’ll find it to be more work than fun.
Arbitrary Score sqrt(2) out of e^1
“Psychological horror”. These words had me intrigued about the game Peekaboo, because I’d use the same to describe my favourite part in Haven: A short excursion into an abandoned library, subtle horror mingled with great writing, hints, foreshadowing and mystery.
So I hoped Peekaboo would be just that. And it is. Occasionally.
Peekaboo puts you in the shoes of James, a journalist, who is tasked with writing a story about an abandoned mansion. As it turns out, rumors that the place would be haunted, turn out to be correct and the place won’t let James leave, at least not until he… something or other. There’s little to no explanation just about what’s going on in this house, even towards the end. Naturally, inexplicable events are part of mystery, but just how little information the game gives you is barely enough to figure out there’s a mystery going on. It bordered the point where I figured not even Cleril had fully fleshed out the backstory to the place.
Gameplay luckily made its way into Peekaboo, and the fact that the game world isn’t as laughably big and empty as in Haven is a large boon. There’s still no real puzzles, but you have to think occasionally. Even more so since you can (and will) die. It’s where the horror part of things come in. Regardless of what I think of the gameplay decision, I guess the threat of death is necessary to evoke fear.
If I seem to have trouble going into this review, it’s because I’m not very experienced with the whole horror thing. The reason for this is that I don’t generally enjoy being afraid, not even the relief that stems from leaving a frightening situation unharmed. I don’t like tunnels of horror, I don’t watch horror movies and the first few minutes of the Shalebridge Cradle mission of Thief 3 were enough to make me quit a game I thoroughly enjoyed. Keep this in mind when I say that I didn’t find Peekaboo to be scary.
It’s not that the game doesn’t try, and to be fair the music and additional effects create a generally unnerving atmosphere, but the buildup never leads anywhere. The closest thing to a climax is a calm conversation, even on the few occasions when death’s scythe hangs over you, like the sword of Damocles, the pace of music, effects and writing fails to create a sense of immediate danger.
None of this completely breaks the Peekaboo experience, it just makes it more suited for a slower paced unravelling kind of horror, and that’s not what the writing seems to be aiming for. The game occupies an uncomfortable middle ground, the visuals and audio aren’t strong enough to carry an immediate, shocker horror kind of thing, but the story is pretty much geared towards this. I’ll tell you how I’d have to game take place: James walks in the Mansion, nothing strange happening. He starts looking around to find out what happened there. He investigates some key spots, narrating his plans to keep the player on a clear track. On the way a few strange things happen, unintrusive at first. Strange notes, odd messages, diaries from family members with torn out pages, the like. They imply a story of violence, but James doesn’t get enough to make out if that’s what actually happened. He isn’t locked in so far, the reason he doesn’t leave is because he doesn’t believe in ghosts and none have shown so far. He solves a few puzzles, finds a secret room, cue dramatic music. More notes, the pieces start falling together, he realizes what has happened here, but the door to the room falls shut, music goes more dramatic when suddenly… yeah. Like I would tell you. That’s the way a horror story could work out, even with only crude visual mechanics at its bidding.
Peekaboo, by contrast, hits you straight in the face with horror the instant you enter the mansion, then drags a mostly eventless plot through the mid-section, leading up to a unfullfilling climax. For the most part the writing can stand on its own, but it lacks a grand scheme, a thread that would tie the whole thing neatly together. As it stands the writing is once again above average, but once again a little too insubstantial and a little too weak to carry a game of this sort. That isn’t to say that Peekaboo was a bad game, but it definitely doesn’t tie visuals, writing and sound into as good a package as, say, The Perfume or Today I Die do. It’s worth checking out, but it ultimately leaves an unsatisfied taste in your mouth.
Arbitrary Score: b out of c
So… No hard feelings right?