Summer game wowzers: ruminations

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, the cosmic wheel sisterhood, stray gods, cocoon

Okay, it's not summer any more. (Even by New England standards, those being "alternating heat spells and dank rain through the end of September." It is now fall, aka "alternating dank rain and frost through the end of December." Unless we get something else, aka climate change. Sorry. Obsessed with weather, I guess.)

I got around to these recently, and two of them were released in August, okay?

  • The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood
  • Stray Gods
  • Cocoon

The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood

A pixel-art visual novel about Tarot readings. Is really not a good description of this game! Sorry. Again.

You're an immortal witch girl. You read the wrong future and got yourself a thousand years of solitary exile in a remote cozy asteroid cottage. But don't worry: you've got a plan, and nothing can go wrong with bargaining with demons summoned from beyond the cosmos. Right?

(This setup -- sexy anime sorcerers messing around with black holes and cosmic gods -- is startlingly reminiscent of Paradise Killer. Only without the human sacrifice, thank Ghu. It's not at all the same story, but if you're jonesing for Paradise City, you might check out CWS.)

I'm going to be less spoilery than usual, because much of the charm of this game (for me) was not knowing what I was getting into.

The first chapter -- or the demo, if you play that -- consists of talking with √Ābramar the Behemoth (demon, whatever). He snarks at you and teaches you to create new oracular cards. You snark at him and bind your soul to various choices which, the game assures you, will have immense impact on the storyline. You also do some Tarot readings.

That's just the intro, though. What you're actually doing is chatting with other witches. ("Solitary exile" turns out to be negotiable.) Your witch friends ask for help or favors or advice. You make choices and do more readings. Storylines advance.

It is, in fact, a very traditional visual-novel setup. Except, then... more stuff happens, and it turns out that that was just the intro. What you're actually actually doing is... well. I'll just say that the game becomes a rather interesting social simulation with a bunch of possible outcomes.

The funny thing is, the Tarot cards aren't all that central to the game. Oh, inventing cards is fun and expressive. You mix-and-match elements and backgrounds; the game tells you what the card's title and significance is. But that's costuming. I won't say just costuming! Costumes are fun! But you're not doing it to advance the plot, or even to influence your Tarot readings.

When you do a reading, each card turned up reveals a handful of possible interpretations -- answers to the querent's question. That's your choice point. It's real choice. But which card you drew, and the symbology of the card, are pretty much set dressing. The symbology of the card clearly affects which interpretations appear -- but that connection is opaque. You can't steer into it when placing the card, much less when designing the card.

I'm not bagging on the Tarot reading scenes. Your choice of interpretation for each question affects the story dramatically! In fact, the mechanism of reading turns out to be a key part of... well. I'll just say that it sneaks up on the question of story creation, or in fact interactive fiction, in a rather satisfying way.

It's just the cards that feel somewhat uninvolved. I wish that had come together better. Still, it's a great little game. Witches reliably kick ass. Give it a go.

Stray Gods

A hand-drawn-style visual novel... musical. Operetta.

This review could pretty much end there. "So it's all -- sung?" Not all the dialogue, just the key scenes. But yes: all the voice-actors sing. "In branching dialogue? Branching lyrics?" Yes. "So you're performing a song and hit a choice point and that determines the next verse?" Yes. "And they went and did that?" Yes. "For the whole game?" They really did. "So--" So they wrote all the possible songs and then recorded them.

Go look up the game soundtrack; there's four of them, covering all the major plot variations. Or, really, I have no idea how many major plot variations there are! Certainly lots. Maybe they just picked four and covered as many potential verses as they could.

If you have any sense of how over-the-top this concept is, you've already stopped reading and started playing. But let me go through the spiel anyhow.

You're a singer trying to headhunt talent for your going-nowhere band. Then Calliope, the Calliope, bequeaths Muse-hood on you with her dying breath. Awesome, except now the rest of the Greek pantheon thinks you're a murderer. Oops.

Gaming isn't short on Greek mythology riffs ("...boy!"). Happily Stray Gods comes up with an original and chewy take. These Idols lurk behind the contemporary scenes, clinging to their mythology or passing their roles on to new mortals -- that tension underscores much of the plot. They're also a vividly engaging bunch of walking plot disasters. Every character bursts onto the stage, drawn and voiced just so, bursting with, well, character. You immediately want to get to know them. And solve their problems. Maybe smooch them (it's that kind of visual novel).

Once you do talk to the Idols (and Freddy, your mortal bestie bandmate) you realize that a Muse is exactly what this story needs. Heroes and villains will both pour out their hearts in song -- and you're the one who makes the music play. If you also tweak the theme to your benefit, well, there is a killer to track down.

As for the songs themselves... I'll admit I wasn't left humming them. The lyrics have to carry a lot of plot, and that doesn't leave much room for catchy hooks or foot-stomping choruses. Indeed, much of the performance is close to recitative. That's fine though. It's musical enough to move things along and get you in the swing of timed verse-choices.

It's the choices that sell the story, really. Every character would make a star protagonist in their own right; they're all enmeshed in prickly moral dilemmas growing out of (but not stuck to) their mythological origins. I found myself genuinely conflicted over the outcomes in ways that most narrative games don't reach.

The writing is great; the art is great; the animation is great in a Last Express-ish motion-comic way. And they went and did an interactive operetta, so they win regardless of anything else.

Cocoon

A metroidvanioid puzzle game where you're a bug carrying spheres around. ("So you're a dung beetle," remarked my friend, and proceeded to refer to the spheres as "dung-balls" for the rest of the evening.)

The spheres have the usual crate affordances -- drop on a switch to open a door, etc. Each one also has a special puzzle power, and the powers dovetail nicely for puzzle construction. But also... each sphere is a world. Drop a sphere in a special pool and you can dive into it, entering an entirely new landscape of puzzles. Other pools let you jump back out. And then that dovetails with the sphere powers.

Of course you can carry spheres into other spheres. Thus unlocking the entire spectrum of puzzles that Myst carefully avoided.

This sounds very brain-hurty, and brain-hurty it is. But the designers have chosen to be circumspect in their hurtiness. It's not a Baba's-Expedition enumeration of every possible puzzle-mechanic variation. The game dips into each puzzle concept a couple of times, lets you get it, and then moves on.

The game is also very careful about keeping you on the right track. It's notionally an open world -- or four open worlds that you can freely dive between. But it liberally deploys one-way doors, one-way bounce platforms, awesome balloon rides, elevators that depart behind you when you've solved a puzzle... Really an impressive variety of ways to say "Ok, you've done that bit, time to concentrate on the next bit." A cheaper game would just line up a bunch of gated puzzles along a track! Cocoon insists on making every gate feel like a unique event that just happens to move you forwards.

(Twenty-five years ago I called this "wedge-chocking", after the arrival scene in Riven. Man, did that coinage never catch on.)

(Sometimes an old area is reachable for a while as you advance... and then you discover that you need that area for a future puzzle. It's all intensely constructed while feeling completely natural and happenstance. Admirable design work.)

The upshot is that Cocoon is a medium-short affair -- six hours by my Steam clock -- but never feels grindy or repetitive.

Except, mind you, for the boss fights.

It's not that they're bad boss fights. They're clever; they teach unique mechanics; they require care and cleverness rather than button-mashing or fast reflexes. Everything I loved about Soul Reaver; even more like the end of Ico. Furthermore, "death" just knocks you out of the sphere. You can immediately re-enter and start the fight again.

...from the beginning. This is where the whole concept falls down for me. I'm decent at game combat, but I sometimes dodge the wrong way or take a hit. And Cocoon's fights are one-hit-instant-death. Sure, you can re-try as many times as you need. That's called grind! It's boring! I got seriously bored during some of those fights.

I think the real issue is game designers who have a limited view of their audience. There's puzzle fans who just play puzzle games. Who have never taken on a bullet-hell or a jumping challenge or Atari 2600 tank-shooting. They look at any kind of reflex game and say, meh, I can't do that.

See also Night in the Woods, which had "easy" jumping puzzles. The designers had a notion of what the "average" gamer could handle, and made their one notch easier... but their "average" sample was biased. There are more gamers in heaven and earth, Horatio.

You don't have to design for those people. (You don't have to design for any particular kind of person.) (Except yourself.) But if you're going for brain-hurty puzzles, you should at least consider that puzzle fans will play it! Just like exploration fans will play Tunic and Lost Room story fans will play Control. That's why those games have accessibility options. Cocoon needs some of that.

Okay, enough about the boss fights. I managed to beat all of them. Then I went back to the puzzles. It's an awesome little puzzle game.

Gorgeous, too. I want to use words like "biomechanical", "insectile", "alien"... except H. R. Giger appropriated those decades ago for his creepy sexual fixations. The hell with Giger. Cocoon redeems biomechanical from the creeps. Protoplasm without the slime. Pulsating alien geometries without the madness. Honeycombs without the sting.

Cosmic soundtrack, too (credit to Jakob Schmid). I hope that goes on sale sometime.