2024 IGF nominees: normal stuff

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 20 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, igf, american arcadia, tchia, the talos principle, the talos principle 2, spirittea, planet of lana, cocoon

Time has come 'round for the IGF finalists, and my posts about them.

This was a rough year for judging -- in more ways than one. Many great entries. Many great entries that the judges didn't agree on! I think every single game on the top list had one or two comments saying "Sorry, I just don't see it." And yet every one had passionate defenders too. These posts are my opinions, but I'll try to convey where people disagreed with me.

A rough year for playing, as well. A lot of the year's games tackled the year's fears: COVID, climate change, the immiseration of the middle class, the rise of fascism. Some were optimistic, some were resolute, some were ragingly furious. Some just bled on the page. The ache of fear was down underneath all of it, anyhow. You couldn't play the games without owning it.

First group to discuss: familiar genres. Which isn't a dig; I'm not putting the weaker titles first! But there's games that push the boundaries of design, and games that give you a lot of comfortably familiar gameplay. This is the latter.

"Normal stuff" is probably a bad title. But I have "weird stuff" cued up for tomorrow's post, so here we are.

  • American Arcadia
  • Planet of Lana
  • Tchia
  • The Talos Principle 2
  • Spirittea
  • Cocoon

(I don't think IGF announced the jury lists, but I was on the narrative jury, as I have been for several years. I therefore had access to free review copies of these games. I bought Planet of Lana, TP2, and Cocoon with my own money; the rest I played for free.)

American Arcadia

A side-scroller action game about reality-TV-show world.

This does a nice job of contextualizing the Limbo/Inside genre: the fixed side-scrolling camera is because you're on TV! Your earbud-buddy sometimes has to hack doors, elevators, or other machines as you run around, thus providing a solid two-handed play mechanic. Occasionally the story breaks out into the hacker's first-person world.

So, fun to play, but the puzzles range from clunky to decent-at-best. Pleasant stuff but you won't break a brain-sweat. The only real challenge is coordinating the "inside" and "outside" actions. (The game says "gamepad recommended", but in fact I found the two-handed action scenes unplayable that way. Mouse-and-WASD worked fine.)

The story should be the highlight, but... the story is kind of limp. Basically "Walmart built Westworld, only with boring office workers instead of gunfights and sex". Um, why? Or is it "The Truman Show minus Jim Carrey"? Just as bad. You may suspect it's all leading up to a third-act twist; I won't say it's not, but it strains to make sense even then.

On the up side, the voice acting is solid. The actors are clearly having a ball and the writing itself is solid. I had a good time running mostly to the right and pulling levers as directed.

Planet of Lana

Speaking of the Inside genre, here's another one. A side-scrolling platformer with the traditional mix of puzzles and post-apocalyptic megastructures. Unlike American Arcadia, it retains the genre's traditional wordlessness.

This was perfectly satisfactory but it didn't stand out from its crowd by much. There's a bit of alien-language puzzle stuff -- musical puzzles, not language-translation puzzles, but it still adds a nice thematic cohesion to the storyline. Other than that, you push a lot of crates and dodge a lot of sentry robots.


Open-world cutesy action game inspired by the Pacific island of New Caledonia.

This is fun in an explore-world-collect-stuff way, and it does a nice job of conveying the landscape and social fabric of New Caledonia. (Particularly the uncomfortable contrast between the big city, the small villages, and mining/industrial installations.) The landscape (and seascape) is gorgeous in its stylized way. Running, swimming, or -- spoiler -- flying through it is always pleasant.

However, the narrative doesn't live up to its initial promise. The game introduces an oppressive greedy president-figure as the antagonist. Of course; you can't talk about island nations without tackling colonialism. But that story almost immediately falls off-stage. You spend the first half of the game running around collecting shells and stuff. The tension just vanishes -- no conflict between peoples, no conflict between lifestyles, no economic conflict, no conflict stemming from history, no conflict. (Except for scattered evil-sentries whose symbolism is fantasy-magic, unconnected to anything.)

The plot eventually creeps back on stage, but it never forms a coherent thesis. It is not, in fact, about colonialism. Factories are bad, but not for any reason. The island has no history beyond the one antagonist. It's basically a tourist show -- dances and carved totems to see on your visit. There's a traditional myth behind the story, but you don't encounter it until late in the game. I don't think I learned anything else about New Caledonian culture except "give your host a gift" and "try the porc au sucre".

For all that, I blew a lot of hours running around the island doing chores and hunting treasure chests. It's a perfectly cheerful game. I wanted something non-challenging (after all the catastrophe-themed games!) and Tchia was it.

The Talos Principle 2

My off-the-cuff summary is "An incremental improvement over TP1." Ouch? No, they really have improved every single aspect of the formula. The scenery is better. The environments and geography are more interesting. The puzzle mechanics are more combinatoric, with the most annoying ones (bombs, time-replay) swapped out for better ideas. There's a mini-map. There's charismatic megastructures. The difficulty curve is more inviting. The story is more detailed. You can find "skip" tokens to bypass the puzzles you're really stuck on (and the game doesn't give you crap about it). The tetromino puzzles are slightly more diegetic and, thank Elohim, there are many fewer of them.

(There's a running-gag love letter to interactive fiction, and I am absolutely not up-voting TP2 because of it. That would be artistically unfair. The winners of Robot IFComp are pretty great though.)

All that aside: this is still a giant-stack-of-puzzles game in the end. And in the middle. And in the beginning really. The story, elaborate and elaborated as it is, clearly started with a bunch of writers saying: "We've escaped Elohim's test-chamber simulation, but we still gotta fill the world with laser-and-crate puzzles. Why?"

Well, the game answers that, although it takes its time about it. Like the first game, TP2's dialogues are an intensive philosophy session straight out of your weed-hazed college dorm. But where the first game was all about the nature of consciousness and reality, good and evil -- topics which can only take so much beating before the P-zombie dies -- this game's topics are social philosophy. What are our society's goals, and how do we figure them out? Do we focus on cultivating humanity's dreams or curbing its excesses? How do we distinguish between our ideals and the people who embody them? How do we, collectively, achieve virtue? And, bringing it back to the painfully pragmatic, how do we avoid another climate catastrophe? (Recall that homo sapiens is thoroughly extinct in these games, done in by a fossil plague in the permafrost.) It's still sophomoric in the non-prejudicial sense, but it's way more on-point for our times and -- dare I say -- worth a few thoughtful moments between the puzzles.

TP1 was solitary, enacting its story through journals and records. This time we're engaged with society, so we need a society -- a wannabe-utopia of 1000 robots. (You are "1K", the newest and perhaps last.) And it is a motley crowd of robots: leaders, artisans, archivists, mechanics, journalists, inventors, historians, explorers, and that one guy who plays guitar in the park all day. And they all have opinions. (And voices; a wonderfully distinct mob of charactor voice actors.) You can spend as much time as you want with them, arguing or asking or answering. Naturally, your opinions on society's Big Questions (and little ones) will shape the outcome of the game.

Even the puzzle setup nods at the idea of collective effort. Occasionally one of your companion NPCs offers (or is dragged in) to solving a puzzle for you. Don't worry, it's just a token effort; you are the only robot who really likes solving. Mostly the others help by mapping the world (your mini-map!) or fixing the elevators or whatever else is going on.

I suppose this all sounds snarky, but really TP2 is very successful. You wanted more puzzles, you got more puzzles, and you also got a whole high-production-value narrative game to go along with it. If Talos Principle was a Portal-like, TP2 is a Portal-2-like -- in the best way.


Cozy farming sim, except instead of a run-down farm, you've got a run-down bathhouse for Miyazakian nature spirits.

This is very much of its genre: you need to earn money to repair and expand your bathhouse to bring in more money. It's got a dating minigame and a fishing minigame and a furniture-arranging minigame and a drinking minigame (I didn't try that one). I'm pretty sure it will eventually have a farming minigame, once your bathhouse develops a kitchen and guests have favorite recipes.

However, the bathhouse setting refreshes the whole concept. No planting onions! At least not at the beginning. Instead, you bustle around chopping wood and laying out fresh towels for guests and making sure everybody is harmoniously arranged in the bathing pool. I was sold the minute I stumbled across a broom and realized (without tutorial prompting) that I could get rid of all the dust and cobwebs and I really wanted to.

Plus there's a blindingly detailed little Japanese village full of lovingly characterized NPCs. The game's first mission is to say hello to all of them. (It's a contemporary setting, if rustic. The tension between that and the nature spirits who only you can see is clearly going to underpin the plot.)

I put Spirittea aside because I had lots of other games to play. I could see jumping back into it and getting hooked, though.


Puzzle game where you carry spheres around. Spheres can contain puzzles, each other, and you.

This is one of my top puzzle picks for the year. It's not extremely long or difficult, but it does what it does well and thoughtfully. Mind-twisting puzzle concepts explored just enough. Tightly guided without ever losing its open, worlds-to-explore feel.

The only down side are the "boss fights". These wouldn't be difficult for Soulsy-game fans, but I'm not one. I struggled. The game desperately needs Tunic's "no harm, no foul, I'm just here for the puzzles" accessibility option.

It's also gorgeous in an alien/biomorphic/insectile (but not creepy) way. Plus awesome soundtrack.

My full review is here. Mind you, I've seen a bunch of discussion since then from people who disagree with me about the game. On two counts:

  • The boss fights hit different people very differently. Some people found them a chill break in the puzzle-pacing. Some people found them annoying. Some people, like me, got frustrated and bored retrying the same challenge over and over. However, that very disagreement proves my point: puzzle fans have widely varying capacities for twitch gaming. You need an accessibility option.

  • I found the "wedge-chocking", the map control via doors and elevators, to be wonderfully smooth and clever. The game keeps you on track without ever feeling like an artificial sequence of levels. But quite a few people thought it was irritatingly linear; it drained the game of challenge by forcing you towards the current puzzle and its solution. This is very different from the previous disagreement! It's purely about puzzle design and presentation.

I did find the game moderately challenging; not a brain-smoker, but not something I could just stumble through with my eyes shut. And I don't think I'm bad at puzzles. Maybe I just get an undue thrill out of juggling maps in my head?

If I had to guess, I'd say my solving approach is on the tactile end -- I like to bang around and feel puzzles out -- and this game has a lot of banging around. So I felt like I spent most of my time solving. If your approach is to gather all the intel and then fire up the brain, you could have exactly the same experience but decide the game is 90% walking around and 10% real solving work.

I suspect there's more to say on this but I'll save it for another post.

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