Recent narrative games: the old school

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Comments: 3   (latest January 29, 2023)

Tagged: reviews, rusty lake, the past within, adventure games, return to monkey island, one dreamer, the excavation of hob's barrow

I didn't intend to play three different takes on the "old school" in a row. Or maybe I did, but didn't realize how different they would be.

Warning: This is the sort of post where I talk about games I enjoyed and mostly focus on what didn't work for me. I recommend all these games!

But endings are hard. Adventure games have always been tricky to wrap up. Adventure, the original, ended with a "master game" which both broke the fourth wall of the cave-world and handed you an uncharacteristically nasty final puzzle. Myst left you trailing around a bunch of worlds you'd fully explored while Atrus told you to buzz off and wait for a sequel. Monkey Island -- but we'll get there.

Naively, you want hit a dramatic, world-changing climax in the story while also smashing through the game's best puzzle. These ideas are, shall we say, in tension. So do you put the big puzzle before the big story beat? Do you make the final puzzle a cakewalk and give the player a victory lap? Or try to make the finale thematically satisfying rather than relying on pure challenge for the high? Can you keep your theme from being undermined by the focus on puzzles or game mechanics? There's a lot of ways you can play it, and a half-century of adventure gaming is still coming up with new ones.

So let's talk games!

  • One Dreamer
  • The Excavation of Hob's Barrow
  • Return to Monkey Island
  • The Past Within

One Dreamer

Pixel-art, side-scrolling adventure about writing the Next Big Indie Game. Capital letters very much pronounced.

This is a strange take on the game-dev scene. I can't quite pin it down. Remember the big wave of "games about making games"? That was 2016. But those were, in various ways, cynical takes. The Writer Will Do Something was snarky; The Magic Circle was bitter; The Beginner's Guide was incisive through the fourth wall.

One Dreamer is... sincere? Optimistic? Except it's got all the crunch and the forum toxicity and the publisher-groveling and I think even an intimation of SWATting, although that's only a gesture. It boils everything bad about game-dev down into a parable -- and then it says, "But you know what? It was worth it!" I was left nonplussed.

I mean... I'm glad it was worth it for you? But there's an undertone of this is just the way it is that I think needs more push-back.

The game is pretty good as a game, though. The puzzles are an interesting compromise between generic adventure fetching and the full-on Zachlike programming experience. You look over snippets of code, locate variables, and figure out how to set them. This is introduced as your day job ("fix this web site") but rapidly turns into a hallucinatory experience of debugging the immersive game-world that you're both building and exploring.

If it feels like a constrained system as first, be patient. Soon enough you learn to copy variables from one routine to another, thus linking different bits of the world together. (Reminded me more than a bit of Savoir-Faire.) The mechanics really come together in the final chapter, an burgeoning open-world playground in which you scramble to launch-day-patch your game before everybody gives up on it. In some sense the whole game is a tutorial buildup for that chapter. A lot of dialogue for that much tutorial, but I thought it worked out.

Pretty, too. The pixel art is elevated by rich, atmospheric effects -- bloom, shadow, clouds and rain and thunder. The people are stringy pixel blobs but the background environments are terrific.

The Excavation of Hob's Barrow

Pixel-art, side-scrolling adventure about tomb-raiding in Victorian England. Not Victorian London, mind you. This is the North. Or maybe the Midlands, I can't tell. Lots of "nowt", no "thee".

"An old-school adventure!" they said. Okay, what does old-school mean? Well, this is the generic adventure fetching I mentioned before. Person A wants some milk, person B has a goat but also sore knees, person C has a recipe for liniment but wants ingredients... it's all set up to resolve tidily and then you move on to the next chapter. If an NPC likes beer or fossils or whatever, you can be sure you will be fetching them that very thing. And don't hesitate to pick up everything that isn't nailed down -- unless the author has a reason that you shouldn't, in which case it's either a puzzle or scenery.

None of this is surprising. Old-school is classic school.

The game mechanics may be creaky but the writing is pretty solid. The cranky old village of Bewlay has plenty of colorful local characters, from the vicar to the blacksmith to the cranky old farmer who invited you in the first place... where has he gotten to, anyhow? Of course nobody wants to talk about the famous Hob's Barrow, but they sure do want to talk about everything else. The secrets will bubble up as the game goes on. (And you have your own backstory, of course.)

This is folk-gothic horror, to be clear. I sort of wish the game had made this clearer: you are screwed from the minute you arrive in Bewlay. That's a perfectly fine model for horror, of course. And story-on-rails is a perfectly fine model for an old-school adventure!

But what it's not is tragedy. You're not the victim of your own choices; you're the victim of creepy village forces who take adventage of you. The truth will come too late. I walked away thinking "How awful, but it's not like there's anything I could have done."

Maybe I've gotten to used to player agency as a core principle? I think I just went into the game expecting something that it wasn't. Well, now you know.

(It occurs to me, days later, that the story can be read as a tragedy about the father. He has to lie in bed and listen as his mistakes destroy first his coworkers and then his daughter's life. From this angle, the protagonist of the game and the protagonist of the story are different people. Which is interesting! But it's also deeply submerged. The father's story doesn't come into focus until the later chapters and then it's all second-hand.)

The pixel art is... okay. It's painterly -- landscapes in subtle earth tones. The colors are nice but the pixels just make it looks blurred. I wanted the original painted landscapes! Later parts of the game slide into an unearthly color-out-of-space nightmare; I thought that monochromatic environment was better served by the pixel style than the painterly village was.

(I'm not sure I want to make a general rule of this, but I'll keep an eye out.)

Plenty of puzzles. Puzzlier at the end, when you get past the milk-fetching. I looked at a hint or two but was basically happy with the difficulty level.

Return to Monkey Island

Admission: I never played the original Monkey Island games. I sort of absorbed the core concept from the air -- it wasn't complicated. Pirate goofuses. Then I played the 2009 Telltale series, which I liked, but it didn't make me go back and play the earlier ones.

So I appreciate that Return to Monkey Island starts with a scrapbook for people like me! It's a recap of the series... well, it's a recap of the running gags of the series so you'll know when to laugh. Got it? Good.

Then it's time for puzzles. Stacks of puzzles. Gobs of puzzles. Really a lot of them. I don't mean that this game is a brain-burner. It's not! The designers clearly want you to make steady progress. Every puzzle is solidly clued. The biggest challenge is remembering everything you've seen and everything you need to do and putting the pieces together. There's in-game hints ready to go but I never had to resort to them.

The designers also intended to smooth out all the historically annoying trip-ups of the point-and-click genre. You can run fast. You can highlight hotspots. If you have to traverse a puzzle twice, you'll get a map-hotspot or a shortcut. Every long, fussy animation has an abbreviated version the second time around.

Dragging an item onto a hotspot where it fails just shows a red X, so you don't have to hear Dominic Armato say "That doesn't work" six thousand times. If the item does work, it shows a tooltip saying exactly what it will do. So you're never surprised by your character solving a puzzle in a way you didn't expect. It's really thoughtful and smooth.

As for the story: you're going to find the Secret of Monkey Island, because (running gag) the first game never actually had one. LeChuck the zombie pirate is after it too, because you can't have a Monkey Island game without him. That's about all the plot you get. Run around a bunch of islands performing tasks that will solve puzzles that lead to more tasks. Elaine is around too, albeit mostly offstage because this isn't a sidekick game. But (as always) I'm happy to see a game where the romance is a happily married couple.

(Although they could smooch. Not to get horny about it! But you've got a couple who travel a lot, doing their own things, but they meet up occasionally on a tropical island... I'm just saying.)

As for the ending... Hrm. I mean, there never was a secret of Monkey Island. The game admits straight up that there can't be. This is a world of affable stereotypes; there's fundamentally nothing to say about it beyond "Fun ride." Oh, there's a bit of a running theme about Guybrush's tendency to wreck anything that might have a puzzle solution on the other side, but this doesn't really go anywhere except "Yep, you sure are an adventure game protagonist."

And it's not like we can go back to rescuing Elaine from mortal danger. Come on.

So it's not surprising that the authors wrap up the game by shrugging, going meta, and ringing down the curtain. Abrupt, but not surprising.

Now, a certain amount of post-game googling let me in on the not-actually-a-secret of Monkey Island 2: that (1991) game also ended with a weird meta shrug. The frame story of RtMI refers back to MI2. The ending builds on it. Still ambiguous, but consonant... if you've played the first two games, which I haven't. Oh well.

I feel like it would have held together better if the game had performed closure for any of its story elements or themes. You'd think that Guybrush could have a moment of "I've accomplished something! Or learned something! Or made some kind of worthwhile difference in someone's life! And now it's time to go finally get that Secret." But nope. The game practically rubs your face in never doing that. That's not the kind of guy Guybrush is.

And yet, I solved gobs of puzzles and they were generally creative and clever. The dialogue has plenty of funny. The art is good. (Not pixel-style! It's off doing its own sort of bouncy-2D-cel stylized thing. I liked it.) Some of the in-jokes were my jam. I was into it.

The Past Within

Surprise bonus game! Okay, it's listed up top, so no surprise to you. But I threw it into this post at the last minute.

I've played a lot of Rusty Lake games, going back to the time when they were Flash "Cube Escapes" on the web. (Speaking of old-school!) They're short, they've got good puzzle variety, they have a distinctive campy-creepy iconography.

But the creators have always been willing to push the boundaries. A few years ago they made a game with a companion film. Now they're tackling two-player cooperative IF.

I don't think I've seen this angle before. Each player has a copy of the game. One plays the Past route; one plays the Future. The game just requires the two to pass clues back and forth. Non-networked multiplayer! Videochat or sitting at opposite ends of the couch would both work fine. Peeking at each others' screens is cheating; you're supposed to talk it out.

On the one hand, this is a pretty constrained model. The entire game is synchronized through puzzles, so it's very tick-tock: you solve a puzzle and find clues for me, I solve a puzzle and find clues for you. There can't be any side trails.

On the other hand, the game is clearly about the shared experience rather than the puzzles. The fun part is describing what's going on as you fumble through Rusty-Lake-ness towards a common goal. Sometimes you catch glimpses of each other's worlds.

On the two-handed hand, I skipped the fun part! If you're a calloused introvert, which I am, you can just boot the game up on two devices and play yourself. Which I did! Then it's a perfectly good Rusty Lake game with a two-screen interface -- interesting in itself.

But I do recommend the two-person experience if you're up for it.

And the ending? Rusty Lake games all end the same way: you disappear into the spookiness. Swallowed by the Lake. The lore is an infinitely extensible family tree of Gorey-esque misfits, but there will never be a final resolution and we're all fine with that. We'd be disappointed if there were one! Keep 'em coming.

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