Notes on recent games: big narrative

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Tagged: reviews, observation, outer wilds, narrative, zed, close to the sun


You are the system AI of an LEO space station which has just gone wrong. The surviving astronaut reboots you. Fix the problems.

This feels rather old-fashioned, for a couple of reasons. Narratively, you're on rails; Emma gives you tasks and you carry them out. You have enough leeway to hunt around the station and collect notes -- journals and logs in a very classic environmental-storytelling mode. But the next task is always clear. Your only real narrative choices are how exhaustively you want to hunt journals.

As for the mechanics, the basic navigation model is simple. You can switch cameras in each space station module, and switch to new modules as they come online. You can connect to any station device visible on camera; you can report anything you see to Emma. Later, you get to steer a floating drone. Pretty much everything else you do in the game is a matter of "connect to a device, figure out its controls, do what Emma asks." Or "Figure out its controls, see a problem, report it." You wind up using most devices twice or more, so you get the sense of learning a toolkit, but it doesn't really have systematic mechanics that build on each other.

So that makes Observation sound pretty dishwater, doesn't it? But the game works really well! It's a series of crises -- as you would expect from a barely-functional space station -- and the sense of urgency carries you right on through all the mini-quests and button games. All of which are fun. They may not have a deep narrative or mechanical basis, but you feel good when you get something right and Emma gasps in relief. Reporting a problem may be a matter of selecting a trouble spot and pushing a button, but Emma seizes on your intel and advances the plot, and there's your sense of agency.

Furthermore, being on rails fits your narrative role. You are, after all, only a computer. Your NPC partner is doing the real work of fixing the station. You're taking care of all the background mechanical stuff that Emma either can't reach or can't spare the time for. You've always got a job to so. It's a simple trick, but as I say, it works really well.

If I have a real complaint, it's that the puzzles involve too much searching around with the slow-and-grindy camera controls. When I got stuck, it was always because I'd failed to find one critical switch or sticky note. The only way to advance was to keep panning around. It's a dense environment, but it's mostly space-station clutter; it's not that much fun to explore.

(A couple of scenes move outside the station, and the view is stunning -- but it's also a much larger environment and it's really easy to get lost.)

So I can't say that Observation pushes any boundaries. But everything it does is so engaging and nicely constructed that I don't care. It's a terrific experience. Recommended.

Close to the Sun

It is impossible to talk about this game without mentioning Bioshock. On the one hand, that's a problem. On the other hand, it's an easy problem to ignore. Monumental Art Deco follies are awesome; we've played in them before Bioshock; why not play in some more?

Plus, the pitch is "Bioshock without zombies", which gets me up out of my chair dancing. I didn't mind the combat in Bioshock; it's a gun game. But that wasn't what interested me. I was there for the environments, narrative, and puzzles. Close to the Sun is all those minus the gun. Great!

Well, pretty good. I mean, it's fine. I mean...

For a start, it doesn't seem to have much to say. Bioshock starts with a thinly-veiled Ayn Rand declaiming the glories of personal liberty; and the game was about free will and liberty. CttS gives us an alt-history Nikola Tesla declaiming the glories of pure scientific genius, and somehow it comes to exactly the same thing. You have giant gilt rooms inhabited by extremely rich people. This Tesla is an extremely rich power magnate, hounded by resentful Edison terrorists -- which is a nice bit. But there's no take here. Except for portraying Tesla as kind of a clueless lunatic, which comes off as watered-down reality and a watered-down Cave Johnson, both at the same time.

The story involves running around the dead ship looking for your sister-the-scientist. There's the expected sisterly banter on the radio, plus Tesla diatribes and a few other characters. The characters never really came to life, though. At least as far as I got.

For all my gripes, it's a perfectly playable game with kickass visual environments. Some kind of time-fracture story is building up, which has potential. I'm perfectly willing to play through such a game. However -- I didn't finish CttS. At a certain point you get chased by a lunatic with a knife. (The Whitechapel killer, of all the really-not-Art Deco figures.) You have to run away or get messily stabbed. I tried running away six or eight times. Five times in a row, I tripped over a low barrier because the "vault" button refused to work. Then I gave up.

I wanted to like CttS more, but there just didn't seem to be much meat on the bones. Observation did more, quicker, with less dialogue.


And now, the awkward bit where I like a game, I recommend a game, but everything I have to say about the game is negative.

First, unsetting the expectations. When Zed launched its Kickstarter in 2016, it billed itself as a puzzle adventure. The pitch invoked Myst early and often. (Underscoring that, Zed wound up being published by Cyan.) But development is hell, as we know, and the final release has evolved into something a lot more Gone Home than Myst.

That's fine, as long as you don't walk in jonesing for puzzles. Walking sims are great. My complaint is that Zed spends much of its (short) length walking through well-trodden territory. It's a symbolic exploration (check) of someone's life (check) laden with loss, regret, and nostalgia (check) and affairs with hot young grad students. No, wait, that last bit is a different genre. This one is an artist being screwed over by Hollywood.

And the play consists of finding symbolic objects that trigger memories. Find all four in a scene and you can go on to the next. Repeat until sentimental ending symbolic of new beginnings.

None this is bad, but we've seen it before. A lot. Even more so on the psychological-horror side of the walking-sim fence. Zed doesn't go the horror route, but the techniques are still familiar.

In theory, Zed explores the life of an artist suffering from dementia. I say "in theory" because that aspect seems barely present in the narrative, and not at all in the gameplay. I have not lived through the hell of a parent or loved one falling into dementia, but I have friends who have. They talk about progressive inevitable loss: loss of memory, loss of ability, loss of the person they once knew. Every remnant you find is a tiny miracle -- and crushing, because it's got an expiration date.

Zed isn't about loss. It's about memory, yes, but your experience is the opposite of loss: you build someone's complete life. Everything you find is crystal-clear. Winning means finding it all.

Okay, this is a hard problem. I'm not saying Zed had to tackle the experience of loss this way. But it feels like a missed opportunity that it didn't even try.

(The obvious comparison is Stephen Granade's Twine game Will Not Let Me Go, but I'm embarrassed to say that I've never played through it. It's the right comparison anyhow.)

Okay, enough negatives. Zed is a visual treat -- large, striking, vivid environments, wildly varied and each appropriate to its theme. If you are a VR enthusiast, I'm sure you will enjoy wanding through them as much as I enjoyed the old-fashioned flatscreen experience. The voice acting is lively and convincing. It avoids the cliche of walking-sim monologue narration while still staying focused on the protagonist's voice; a good trick.

And the story pulls together solidly at the end. It's a genuine and moving conclusion.

And I've still spend four times as long complaining about Zed as I've spent praising it. It's good, you should play it. I just wish there was more for me to buy into, rather than just to watch.

Outer Wilds

(Not "Outer Worlds", an unrelated and as-yet-unreleased game.)

I haven't finished Outer Wilds. I'm still working on it. I'm not going to write much, because it's not the game I thought it was when I started. And it's not the game I thought it was half an hour later, when the (SPOILER) started. So I'm probably still wrong about what game it is.

But it is 100% adorable, with banjos, marshmallow roasts, and spaceflight among St-Exupery-sized planets. It's also deeply nerdy. 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.