Recent narrative games: summer 2021 edition

Monday, September 27, 2021

Comments: 2   (latest 15 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, psychonauts 2, opus echo of starsong, the artful escape, lake, francis vendetti


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".]

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