Friday, November 19, 2021

Slice of Sea

It's IGF judging season, which means that I'm writing a lot of reviews which you won't see until the nominees are announced in January.
(January this past year happened in May because of GDC rescheduling. But they're more or less back on track for an in-person GDC in 2022. I am way ambivalent about going, let me tell you.)
However! Occasionally I have to set aside the GDC entry list and play a brand-new old friend. To wit: Slice of Sea by Mateusz Skutnik.
I've been enjoying Skutnik's surreal little pen-and-ink adventures since the Flash days. The Submachine series began in 2005, for Adobe's sake... They were marked by a mix of post-Soviet mechanical grunge, Tesla-esque technology, and otherworldly dream architecture. The point of view was uniquely ambivalent, too: neither the classical first-person Myst/escape camera nor a third-person point-and-click style. You were outside the game world, looking in, but you weren't looking at anyone in there. Somehow it worked.
Submachine grew into a deca-ology with bonus side-quels. In parallel, Skutnik did a bunch of one-offs and experiments -- the Daymare Town series was probably the most notable. I also grew to anticipate his periodic 10 Gnomes whimsies (based on black-and-white landscape photography) and his annual Where is New Year?
But these were all snack-sized games. Even after Skutnik moved on from Flash, he kept the scale and rhythm of a browser-playable diversion. Open it up, play it through, go back to your work day. Does it make sense to talk about a full-sized Skutnik game?
Well, we've sure got one! (Maybe making sense isn't the point.) I just finished Slice of Sea with six hours on the Steam-ometer.
We have a protagonist this time: a little seaweed creature, adrift on land in mechanical trousers. But it's still not a traditional point-and-click. The game takes pains to show that you are with the protagonist, not inhabiting them. The screen is yours to play with; your hand can reach what they cannot. You can carry (in "your" inventory?) items much larger than their body. But then, you must open doors for the bouncing weed-person to reach new screens. It's not a resolved relationship.
Neither is the story particularly explicit. Your goal -- sorry, Weed-friend's goal -- is clearly to advance. But nothing says where you're going. (Okay, the store blurb says "lead Seaweed back home to the sea." But let's play fair.) The world is inhabited by gnomes, chimeras, and nautiloids, all of whom eye you with silent detachment. The landscape of locked gates and unpowered machines makes demands of you; living creatures never do.
The landscape is the game, anyhow. It's a Skutnikite wonderland of dust, cockeyed cities, crumbling archways, and cubes floating in the sky. (Nobody floats a cube like this guy.) But now the landscape has scale. You move from cramped basements to yawning gulfs, and there are a lot of both. For the first time, you'll need to map! Unless you've got a really good sense of adventure-game direction. I do, and I made it through without mapping -- but that was orneriness. I crawled back and forth through the map a lot, trying to remember where I saw that one rock with a diamond-shaped hole. If I'd drawn a map and filled it with notes, I would have spent way less time running around.
(I'll give you one non-spoiler for free: a banner with a hook symbol always indicates that you can go up/back/in. Some in-passages are explicit doors, but not all. Twice I went to the walkthrough, only to realize that I'd overlooked a less-obvious trail leading back into the landscape. Then I figured out what the banners meant. Learn from my mistake.)
The inventory ("your" inventory?) is similarly scaled up. This is a bit of a problem. The game freely loads you up with scads of miscellaneous trash. You don't have to take it all -- it's pretty clear which items are the important gears and gizmos -- but come on, adventure game, of course you take it. Then you spend the game staring at an inventory screen full of junk.
It's thematically appropriate! This is a wasteland of ruined machinery; of course it's rolling with junk. But it does drag down the gameplay a bit, particularly because the game almost never gives you a cursor hotspot for placing an item. (Takeables, yes; buttons and levers, yes; sockets and keyholes, no.) So if you get stuck on a screen, you're probably going to try clicking every item on every pixel, or at least on every significant-looking ink-stain. When you have forty objects in hand, that's a slog. But you still do it, because come on, adventure game.
(The junk winds up being important for a couple of achievements. I'm not very interested in achievements.)
No, click-lawnmowering never helped me. The art provides good focus; you can distinguish the important sockets from the ink-stains. At least I learned to. But I think that cursor-hotspots would give the player more confidence without detracting from the feel of the game.
The other problem with a large game is that the large inventory is really widely scattered. If you're stuck, you're missing a rod or diagram or spark plug or something; and it could be anywhere in the game. You really do have to revisit every single unsolved puzzle and see which one is currently solvable. (This is where the notated map helps a lot. Never, ever forget a locked door.)
But for all that, I never did in fact get stuck. (Aside from the missed banner-paths I mentioned. And one late puzzle that turned out to be a timing problem.) Finding all the stuff, and remembering all the locked doors, was a mental exercise. (Without a map it was, let's say, a rigorous exercise.) But it wasn't hard. Spotting the important features, like I said, was learnable. The puzzles aren't intricate but they get nice variety from the core game elements.
I guess the closest spiritual kin is Rhem? (Speaking of old-school.) Slice of Sea isn't the same style of game as Rhem, but it has the same mindset: sprawling map, puzzles in every nook, take careful notes and you'll make it through. Not really story-oriented. Satisfying to finish.
I've said how much I enjoy the art. Skutnik once again invokes The Thumpmonks for the game's eerie ambient soundtrack. It's not front-and-center like the freaky line art, but it keeps the mood flowing. The title and credits tracks are by Cat Jahnke, who you may remember from Daymare Cat back in the day.
It's fun! It's a trip to another world! It's everything you liked in Submachine but piled to the ceiling. Play Slice of Sea.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The apprehension of the Outer Wilds

It's easy to talk about the brilliant puzzle design of Outer Wilds. It's a metroidvania of pure information. It runs about five layers deeper than you expect even after you realize how deep it runs. You begin as a naive newt; you can explore in any direction; and when you have all the pieces of the story, you also know what the game's goal is, and how to get there.
One hears less about the game's thematic unity. But as much thought went into the story's symbolism as its puzzle structure. They're both necessary and they build on each other. Outer Wilds wouldn't be compelling if it were just a barrel of puzzle mechanics. So let's look at the flip side.
I already wrote the non-spoiler review. This is the spoilery discussion. Seriously: all the spoilers for Outer Wilds. Do not read this post until you've finished original game and the Echoes of the Eye expansion!

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

I wrote my Outer Wilds review while halfway through the thing.
[...] And it's, I'm pretty sure it is, no I'm sure, it's incredibly clever.
Play this one. Don't wait for me to talk more about it.
-- my comments, June 2019
Then I never said any more about it. But what would I say? The awards and plaudits piled up; you knew that. Any specifics would be spoilers, and -- just this once -- spoilers really are verboten.
I replayed Outer Wilds last month, in preparation for the Echoes of the Eye expansion. Replaying was strange. I enjoyed revisiting all the familiar sights and refilling the log book. I unpacked the tiny solar system like a well-remembered toy. But it was hard to connect that to the original experience. The shock of the world transforming in my head, over and over. The cycle of seeing, exploring, understanding, and letting go of what I thought I knew. I missed that. Replay is not discovery.
Then I started Echoes of the Eye and -- it all came back. Only, of course, not. This was different. New beings; new worlds; new uncomfortable realizations. Nothing at all like the nostalgic realizations from last time!
(Memory is such a liar. No wonder people get hooked on remakes of the stuff they loved at age thirteen.) (By "people", I mean me.)
Anyway. The shock of your expectations exploding and the world rewriting itself in your head. That's what you want. Play Echoes of the Eye. If you haven't finished or started the original, that's fine. You can buy the expansion and play the threads in parallel if you want.
I will say that the "less fear" gameplay option was a wise move. (Not a spoiler -- the game mentions it up front.) I am entirely and vocally worn out with Amnesia-style "hide from monsters in the dark" gameplay. This isn't that but it's similar enough, and far enough from the "core" game of pure intellect, that I really stumbled. I switched to "less fear" and got through with no further trouble.
Mind you, "less fear" does not mean "spook-free". EotE is not a horror game, but it is hella haunted. Another post for that, maybe.
And, mind you further, "game of pure intellect" glosses over a lot. Outer Wilds demands a certain degree of controller-flying skill. It's the game's big flaw (and I say that while insisting that the game is flawless). Many people who would really enjoy the investigation are turned off the first time they wreck a landing or bounce off an airlock door.
I'd love an assistive mode for precision flying and jetpacking. It's a tough design problem. Perhaps unsolvable. Many of the game's secrets are about how you move, what you can try while moving. Some destinations are intentionally difficult because you're supposed to find an alternate path. It's hard to imagine how to convey those limitations and discoveries outside the existing mechanics of "try it and see". But it would be a big win if someone figured it out.
Anyway. If the flying is too difficult, park yourself on a friend's couch and insist that they handle the controller for you. They're not allowed to refuse. Tell them I said so.
Echoes of the Eye is over; I have found my way through. I can never experience that again. More like completely different from this, please.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Recent narrative games: summer 2021 edition


A game about taking a vacation. You take two weeks off from your high-stress software company job (in 1986, it's eight-bit stuff) in order to drive a mail truck. You have just enough scheduling to optimize your route, just enough scenery to learn the roads, the radio has just three songs on rotation, and sometimes you need to whip a three-point turn at 40 mph. Which is all we ever wanted out of GTA, right?
Really, the truck-driving is there to pace out a bunch of meet-the-neighborhood story threads. Follow through whichever ones you want. It's basically a dating sim with 80% less dating. (Some dating if you want to go there.)
And it works because the game itself is a vacation. You take a few days off off from playing flashy, world-saving, tower-jumping, monster-smashing, brain-busting games. You putter around in a truck! There are no stakes! You can't win or lose!
This is kind of brilliant, and also kind of self-defeating. What the game conveys is that none of this matters. But it's supposed to be a story about a grounding, self-discovering moment: you return to your home town, connect up with old friends, meet new people... figure out what's important. But it's so low-stakes that I couldn't feel very involved. Even when I was driving off with the hot video-store owner. "Summer fling, don't mean a thing..." Sorry, Angie.
Well, it's a charming ride, the writing is fun, the sunrises are lovely, and I really did appreciate the break.

The Artful Escape (of Francis Vendetti)

It's... it's the world's easiest platformer, except you're on a psychedelic Bowie head-trip and playing power chords makes you sail through the sky. Sometimes there's a little Simon-style chord-following challenge under the glittering neon speaker-stacks of space. Again, very easy. Who cares? It's a gonzo sci-fi rock opera experience. It's not about the music; it's about the light show. (The narrative nods at this.)
It's also about the heavy-frame glasses, so it has my vote.
My only complaint here is that the story gets unnecessarily salty about folk music. The protagonist is trying to escape his folk roots to become a glam star. I get that. This is mostly framed as personal expression and self-discovery and it's fine. But a bit at the end sneers about "the dreary taint of folk music" (or some such phrasing) with no pushback. It was -- sorry -- a sour note. Especially since the sound track features quite a bit of soulful folk. (Luke Legs doing the title and main-menu tracks.)
That's a footnote, though. Playing this is like injecting album covers directly into your ocular nerve. Do it.

Psychonauts 2

I don't have a lot to say about this -- it's a big release; people have said plenty. But I really appreciated how much the story centered consent, concensus, and teamwork.
The original game, after all, was basically about gate-crashing people's heads and using their hangups as an amusement park ride. The adventure-game form practically mandates this sort of ego-trip approach. But P2 makes an effort to break away from it. The first big story arc has Raz jumping into someone's head to "fix a problem" -- which causes a big problem, and then he has to fix it. And then he apologizes! And for the rest of the game, whenever Raz needs to head-dive, there's a line where he asks permission. It's a small thing, but the writers went there, and it makes the game shine.
Similarly, the big cast of background characters all get their moments of storyline and their moments of heroism. The game is about Raz, but in the story, sometimes he's the sidekick.
Also appreciated: the generous easy-mode options. I turned on "invincible" for most of the boss fights. Made it a better game -- for me. You do you.

OPUS: Echo of Starsong

A visual novel mashed up with several other genres: abstract puzzle, adventure game, Out There-style space puttering. The visual novel is on top, and I'm not saying that just because all the dialogue is floating heads with a range of facial expressions. (Plus the infamous Giant Sweat Drop of Fluster.) All the exploration and puzzles and minigames are there to pace the big dramatic romance plot.
When I say they're pacing, I don't mean they're extraneous or slapdash. Every piece of the game carries its share of the narrative. You get walk-and-talk while you explore. You get bits of worldbuilding and history from every random encounter. You get NPC banter in the email screen that hands you quests. You get tragic space girlfriend music out of the puzzle system. The designers have clearly thought through their narrative design in intense detail, and then polished the heck out of everything, too.
(I will raise one tiny quibble, just because it was such an uncharacteristic oversight. If your story does a "one year goes by" timeline skip between chapters -- with plot consequences -- you can't put me back in the same ship with exactly the same amount of fuel, scrap, hull damage, and cargo. That's a Voyager-level writing goof. At least throw some money and gas in the tank to show that the offscreen year was a working year.)
On the up side, the game seems to use a full-fledged storylet system for its encounters. Each location (aside from the big adventure-y areas) has just a handful of exploration choices. But some of them are contextual; for example, crappy jobs that will hire you for pin money if you're broke. If your ship is badly damaged, you might run into a repair truck in flight. Stuff like that. It's not ostentatious but it does a lot of the game's balance work.
Anyway. Everything is about the story, so how was the story? Eh, it was fine. Space Boy and Wise Parental Guardian meet up with Space Girl and Orphan Kid Sister. Then, big spoiler here, Wise Parental Guardian dies because George Lucas said so[*]. It's a romance. There's shouting and pining. It all leans heavily on tropes. There's plenty of story, but the characters have roles rather than personality as such.
The game does better with backstory. The Thousand Peaks is a big messy solar system filled with lost ancient ruins, and also more recent ruins because of the Big War. You scout the ancient ruins for artifacts and lumen energy (what the Big War was fought over). I was originally skeptical -- it seemed like a re-run of Heaven's Vault minus the cool linguistics. But the game eventually won me over through sheer weight of detail. There's dozens of asteroids and space stations and ruins and spaceships and factions, each with its own glimpse of the world. Even a one-paragraph description or one-choice side-quest conveys its own angle. It slowly adds up to a dense web of history which left me kind of awe-struck.
Points for sharp use of the frame story, too.
I know it's faint to praise the worldbuilding when the story doesn't entirely measure up. I enjoyed playing, though! There's nothing wrong with relaxing into the tropes and mouthing along. That's half the TV I watch. (No, I'm not admitting which shows.) If I wasn't all that caught up with the characters, I still had fun fussing with the map and the puzzles and the economy -- which is what they're for. And the narrative craft really is top-notch.
[* Footnote: Did George Lucas say so? I've seen at least one account that Obi-Wan was not killed off because of a Campbell obsession, but because Lucas expected to introduce Anakin Daddy Skywalker in the sequel, and having two Wise Parental Jedi Knights would be redundant! No, I don't remember where I read this. Yes, there were so many Star Wars drafts that probably everything was true once. Large Luke says "Never mind".]

Sunday, September 19, 2021

A plenitude of alchemical domains

This weekend was Emily Short's Seltani jam, which was a pleasant morning hangout and went off without a hitch.
(I'm writing this a week in advance, by way the way. If it went off with a hitch, I'm going to have did some hasty editing last night!) (Nope, was fine. Low on jam content, but plenty of people interested in the tour.)
My contribution was Mutuai Minor. This was a fix-up of two unrelated interaction concepts:
  • Upstairs: a mutable location (an island, or hill, or ridge, in an ocean or desert or ice-plain...) which requires five cooperating players to fully control.
  • Downstairs: an alchemy lab where you can make several colors of ink, and then color a model world.
At this point you fix me with a Vulcan eyebrow and say, "Really, Zarf, alchemy? Haven't you done alchemy to death?" Yes! I have done it to death, and yet I keep finding new and interesting angles. Or new angles, anyway. To convince you that they're interesting, I'm going to compare three different approaches.
(This post will have partial spoilers for The Dreamhold, Hadean Lands, and the alchemy lab in Mutuai Minor.)

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Myst (2020)

Well, the thing is out. (On Steam, Epic, GOG, Xbox, Mac App Store, Oculus store. Supports Oculus, Vive, Valve Index, and regular flat monitors like regular flat people use.)
(I am a flat person, by the way.)
I blog the Myst news, which means I need to write a post. Except there's no news here. It's all been said. This is the most expected game of the year. You've already read most of this.
  • It's awfully nice-looking. Let's all agree on that.
  • It's Myst. You've played it. Eric Anderson said, "Not the way it looked, but the way we remember it looking." And that's true! I don't remember Myst (1993) as having low resolution or an 8-bit palette. I remember the places. Now here they are again.
  • Myst is now on, I think, its fifth engine and its fourth graphical rebuild. (Hypercard, native slideshow app, Plasma, Unity, Unreal. Do we count the iPad Unity version as different from the desktop Unity version? I've lost track.)
  • But, yes, the textures glisten wonderfully if you turn up the graphics settings. Sunlight burns through the clouds. The mist that we speak of rolls in.
  • The island is somewhat larger. The tower is closer to real scale. (The original game had a lot of forced perspective. Plus the forest felt more encompassing in slideshow mode, didn't it?) Again, this mostly doesn't come across as a redesign. It's the size the original felt.
  • A couple of rooms, but just a couple, have been seriously redesigned. The added breathing space feels good.
  • The interactions have been modified so that everything happens in the "batter's box", between waist-height and shoulder-height. (So that the game is playable in chair-scale VR.) This means some puzzles and devices look different. All doors are sliding doors, because in VR, swinging doors whack you in the face.
  • They took extra care to make the game more accessible. No puzzles depend on red/green distinctions. You can turn on subtitles for both dialogue and audio puzzles (which includes background audio cues like water flowing in Channelwood).
  • The randomized-puzzle mode is a nice touch but it doesn't make the game harder. It prods you to go read all the clues and write them down, just like you did in the 90s. It will also entertain speedrunners, which I am not.
  • All the linking books are now bolted down. This fixes the "plot hole" that I had some fun with last year.
  • Most of the audio is the same. I think they re-recorded Atrus's lines. Sirrus and Achenar have new faces. I gotta say, the new Achenar doesn't match his voice. That's the face of a baritone.
  • I was prepared to bet that "third quarter" meant "September 30th". Cyan beat that deadline by five weeks. Showed me!
  • No Rime. The developers say it's planned, but no release date.
  • No Linux. Dunno what the plans are there.
The upshot is that you have a great opportunity to replay a game that you enjoyed, and it sure does look brand spankin' new. It'll kill an evening.
You're a VR fan? This release will ring all your bells. Have fun.
You've never played Myst? ...This is really the question! Nothing about this whole "definitive Myst" process is aimed at me. I'm the guy who killed an evening replaying a game for, I think, the fourth complete time in 28 years. (I admit that I had to look at a hint! I forgot how the Stoneship compass clue worked.)
Cyan said up front that this release is aimed at a generation of gamers who know about Myst but never bothered to play it. And I honestly don't know what they'll think. The reviews are written by people like me. Or people younger than me who played Myst as research or nostalgia, but they've played it, and not recently.
Myst is weird. The story is so fragmentary as to be sleight-of-hand. The puzzles have one foot in environmental worldbuilding and one foot in soup can land. The ending fizzles. Atrus does not have, and never will have, a bedroom or a bathroom. In 1993, people were torn between the world-flooding sensory detail and the confusion of a somewhat janky puzzle game.
And yet Myst happened. It just "happened to happen", as King Derwin once said. It happened to millions of people. Is it likely to happen again? Everything has come 'round again; the weird story, the somewhat janky puzzles, the flood-tide of a surreal world that looks as good in 2021 as those little JPEGs did in 1993.
Everything else is different, of course. The market and audience and the expectations. (I've put way more of my weekend into Psychonauts 2 than into Myst.)
I don't know. I don't know if it'll sell. I don't know whether Cyan will break even on this project. (Beyond the up-front funding that we're pretty sure Oculus laid down.)
My guess is that a lot of adventure game fans will play Myst (2020). The people who play it will mostly be people who've played it before. I think that, like me, they're happy to see it; they'll kill an evening on it and treat it as a Firmament teaser. Some newer story/puzzle gamers will try it for the first time; they'll decide it feels kind of old-fashioned but they're glad they tried it. Cyan will see a revenue bump and long tail. I don't think that anybody will still be talking about Myst (2020) in 2022.
That's fine, actually. That's a successful re-release.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Seltani Jam, Sept 19

Emily Short has scheduled a Seltani build/play jam, hosted by the London IF meetup. This will be Sept 19, 3-5 pm London time. I will be hanging around as, I don't know, groundskeeper and tour guide emeritus?
Seltani was my Twine/Myst-Online/MUD mashup project from a few years back. (Technically it is none of those things. Nor is it holy, Roman, or an empire. But that's the best way to explain it.) I haven't touched Seltani in a long time, but I keep the server running.
See Emily's post for details and how to sign up for the meeting.