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.

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