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Hey Dylan PC Games

Quadrilateral Cowboy (PC Game) [Open Letter Series]

quadrilateral_cowboy_coverHey Dylan,
Quadrilateral Cowboy 
was, for me, interesting in that it combined a sort of dystopian technocratic future with a puzzle game that, in terms of its own mechanics, was more serious (it made me think of The Witness, only insofar as how non-casual it sees itself as a puzzle game).  It’s hard not to analogize, like a more serious Portal. But — there is a thematic darkness in this game that is not humorous like Portal or zen like The Witness. Rather, it seems to be constantly lonely. It seems significant that all the jobs in the game are set up, clearly, to protect something, and yet there are no other people. Your enemies are all objects.  I found this loneliness the most appealing part of the game, the way it shaped and informed the coding and my presence in the game.

The train heist at the very beginning, especially the car that just had desk after desk after desk in it, was in many ways the perfect example of this. Train heists are generally depicted as  about the of three things around the object to be stolen: moving vehicle, moving people, self. By eliminating the other people, you’re suddenly wondering about the point in an existential way. When you walk through a train car full of empty desks, you can’t help but wonder about where everybody went.

Aesthetically, I thought the game was beautiful, and obviously recognizable from Blendo Games’ earlier work. I thought this game took advantage of the familiar aesthetic in a particularly compelling way. Maybe that’s because there is something gratifying about squares in a game that is about subverting objects. And I immediately loved the desktop interface. When I first went to save and it popped up, I think, was the moment when I really got sucked in.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that I had been playing the game offline, and thus did not have access to what seems like a small thing at first but turns out to be thematically important: sticky notes left by friends playing the game. What is really interesting about that feature is that it changes but doesn’t absolve or resolve any of the isolation in the game. It almost makes it more real and more complex.

I ended up replaying much of it on tourist mode, which was for me personally an even better experience, because my own preference would be to avoid timed puzzles. In tourist mode, you don’t actually have to do any of the coding, because the doors and etc just open with a click, but you can still do all the coding. It was basically the best. I was also really taken with the obvious encouragement to mod the game, and build community. I hope it becomes a cult classic, where in some odd number of years, some weirdos will be famous for having built brilliant levels!

I got really lucky in that I didn’t encounter any bugs — probably a side effect of accidentally playing offline — but when I started to dig around for why you weren’t coming up, I saw that there are some bug reports coming in. While obviously not ideal, the good news is that a developer who is active within his own community is more likely to encourage consistent participation in that community. Overall, I was really taken both with the actual game, the look of the game, and the spirit of the game, and I hope it lives to see some cool mods.

-Joanna

Be sure to see Dylan’s reply here, and my reply to his letter here.

Categories
Hey Dylan PC Games

1979 Revolution: Black Friday (PC Game) [Open Letter Series] #2

bf2Hey Dylan,
With player agency and games, we obviously run the gamut. I have played games where the apparent player agency doesn’t exist (e.g.,  it turns out that your character is lying regardless of what you choose in the dialog box). There’s the basic agency to continue, as opposed to turning off the computer. There are minor deviations, major deviations, and no set path at all…

But in the case of 1979, we have an unusual combination of Walking Dead like reminders that our choices affect the game, and yet, they don’t seem to appear to, or they do so in a much more limited way than the game implies. So it isn’t the lack of player agency, or the presence of player agency, it’s the promise of a particular kind of player agency that doesn’t ever seem to be realized. This seems to indicate that the designers were interested in both being the ARTEUR and also appearing to be doing something with narrative that is in many ways limited to the game space. I suspect that this is because they were trying to attract people who were interested in computer games, as opposed to people who were interested in Iran.

Still, the end result is that the strange relationship between the player and the designer is a little strained. Again, we are more forgiving of this with new designers or perhaps, people who aren’t really game designers at all. So this is a critique of the game itself and not of a studio or of the designers, I suppose.

The biggest strengths and weaknesses of this game were both narrative related. The mechanics of the game suffered from it being a port — as you mentioned — but this seems secondary to me than the elements of the game that are endemic to it on every platform.

Anyway, on the whole, I personally tend to experience games that have three billion endings because of decision trees are necessarily sloppier and it usually makes me miss authorial control. Theoretically, you could (and esp. in postmodernist stuff, authors have) design an actual novel according to a system design instead of a more traditional narrative design. While games are getting better and better at being literary, I think books are getting worse and worse at being ludic. Just an outside thought.

-Joanna

[Author’s Note: This is the final letter in a four part series. Here are the first three:
Dylan’s first letter.
My first reply.
Dylan’s second letter. ]

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Hey Dylan Media Non-Fiction PC Games Uncategorized

1979 Revolution: Black Friday (PC Game) [Open Letter Series]

[Note: This is a reply to a letter written by Dylan Holmes over at his blog, as part of a game blogging series we are doing monthly. This month, we are discussing 1979 Revolution: Black Friday – a game about Iran in 1979. In addition, his response to this letter can be found here, and I finish the letter series hereAll the spoilers.]

maxresdefaultHey Dylan,
I will begin by agreeing with most of your thoughts. I agree that the cinematic aspects of this game are of far higher quality than the ludic aspects. More specifically, yes, there were a lot of mouse movements that were annoying as all get out. I agree that the information is presented in a compelling way, the world building is pretty good in that regard.  I get the impression that maybe the group of people who designed this game are not particularly interested in being a games studio — when I went to the website to link to it above (in the note), I saw that they partnered with a studio that may have done a lot of the non-cinematic parts. Lastly, I am also still glad that I played the game. I think what this game succeeds at, possibly against pretty decent odds, is that it is about something historical for the sake of making us aware about something historical and yet it is not edutainment.

But by far my biggest issue is that the choices often don’t affect the outcome of the game. I ended up playing this game in fits and starts, and therefore I noticed:

1) It didn’t appear to make a difference whether I got the documents out during the first scene or not.
2) If I chose to save Ali instead of Hossein, Ali died anyway, which lends the impression that there is a right answer.

I don’t know if there were other examples, but there might have been.

The choice to copy the Walking Dead game, or more specifically to introduce “so and so will remember that” is probably better for people who don’t usually play games and who need instructions on how to understand what is happening if they haven’t had an experience interacting with a narrative in that way before.  This might be more defendable in a case like this one, where the target audience might not be gamers (which is not true of The Walking Dead game or Dreamfall Chapters). But this of course gets back to the question we were talking about earlier this week — what the role of authorship is in games.  Notably, we say “game designer”  and not “game author,” which does seem to denote a different relationship between the creator and the content.  There seems to be something sort of gloating about the text on the screen,  as if the designer is saying “Ah, so that’s what you’ve chosen,  well let me tell you what that means.” Most gamers do not want to be reminded so blatantly that their agency is usually limited by the programming, and either way, it does sort of bring the player out of the world and into the meta over and over.  At the end of the day, I am somewhat forgiving because I think the flaws of this game are a result of naiveté and  lack of experience.

As for the story,  I would have preferred a straight “break the story” procedural. It is a continuous problem in media that they underestimate the understated. The trouble with blatant violence is that it is the least complex way to deal with power dynamics in a narrative, and therefore it ends up feeling a little cheap. But the world building was so good in this game that the ham handed (as you put it) use of violence didn’t take away too much from the immersion for me.

-Joanna

Categories
Hey Dylan Media PC Games

Richard & Alice (PC Game) [Open Letter Series] #2

http://owlcave.net/richard-alice/
http://owlcave.net/richard-alice/

Author’s Note: this is the third letter in a series about the PC game, Richard and Alice. The first letter can be found here, the second — written by Dylan Holmes — can be found here.
Dylan’s response to the letter you are looking at right now can be found here. (Spoilers abound.)

Hey Dylan,
Yes, I also think we’re short a bullet. After you shoot the lock off the door, you have no more bullets. If you get the one from the lake, then it gets used killing Barney, and when Alice kills herself, there shouldn’t be a bullet. If you don’t get the one from the lake, then there shouldn’t be a bullet to kill Barney (although Alice doesn’t kill herself in that version).

In fact, I didn’t realize there were 5 endings until after I finished the game, but I knew there were two because I played through them both to see if the bullet mystery was solved that way. I thought perhaps if I didn’t get the bullet from the lake, there would be some other thing which involved getting extra bullets (I didn’t realize yet that Alice wouldn’t kill herself without the bullet from the lake, so I was looking for two), and I also wanted to double check that she shot Barney as opposed to using some other weapon. When Alice didn’t kill herself the second time, then I Googled and discovered there are five endings. Interestingly, each ending correlates to how much of the optional stuff you did or did not do.  Suffice it to say, there are various notes and papers that the player is neither told about nor required to find, but if they do, it changes the interaction between Alice and Richard at the end of the game (depending on how many they find, etc).

I used to think the ugliness of games mattered, but after the popularity of Undertale, I began to wonder whether this was simply not as much of a thing as I originally thought. Maybe it’s true that the people who wouldn’t play it because of its ugliness alone are people who were never going to play indie games anyhow. Also, I liked certain things about the graphics in this game, they’re still way better than RPG maker’s to my mind. (I know this is weird, but I liked the way characters’ legs looked) And the sound editing was great! Especially when characters were walking in the snow.

I’ve been thinking about what you said about linearity — and I realized I’ve played one other game that has no dialog trees and only one possible action to move the game forward at a time, Drakan: Order of the Flame. That game doesn’t give you any choice either, and at every moment, it’s either succeed at given task and get next assigned task, or die and lose. Like the bullet in the box in Richard & Alice, there’s a sword in a cave in Drakan, and it is the only optional side thing you can get. Also similarly, within a given area you can move backwards, but after you’ve left that area, you can’t go back. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Rynn (the protagonist character of Drakan) has some choice in, say, which weapon to use,  to fight aerial vs. ground, etc.  And some other games at the time were probably similar, action adventure games that predated the open world infatuation? You would know about that. But anyway, my point is, what makes Richard & Alice unique for me is that it seems to take what I’ve only experienced as an action adventure trope, and turn it into a graphic adventure trope in terms of narrative and structural limits.

Overall, I liked the game, too, but when I think about it, I realize what I mean when I say “I like the game” is “I like the wit and intelligence  and aesthetic judgment of the game writers and developers,” I like it in a meta way. At the end of the day, the content was not itself enthralling because the premise was exhausted for me and the characters neither surprised nor interested me (although they were complex and developed). I want to play more games by Owl Cave, but not a sequel to Richard & Alice.

-Joanna

 

Categories
Hey Dylan Media PC Games

Richard & Alice (PC Game) [Open Letter Series]

Richard_&_Alice_CoverartHey Dylan,
I finished Richard & Alice on Saturday, and I was impressed with the creative use of time in the game. The opening especially, with the scene between the dad and son, and the flash forward to the jail, interspersed with the title shot and credits, struck me as sort of cinematic in terms of mechanics. I’ve seen it in TV shows and movies, but less in games.  In addition, it had the distinctive feature of the enforced pause (I don’t know if this was due to loading, or intentional, but the effect was the same either way), forcing the player to slow down which I both loved and hated at different parts. One thing that drove me a little nuts was coming back to a location to do something and waiting for the cut scenes to finish. This was less of a problem for me when the scenes gave me new back story, and more of a problem when it was Barney being whiney or Alice babbling to herself.

The main question the game asks – what are people when it comes down to it – is, for me, old. Like “yeah, yeah, after the apocalypse people are going to be jerks.”  Alice is no exception to the jerk rule, even though I think the player is supposed to sympathize with her. I wish I could say that I felt for her when she put Barney out of his misery, but frankly, it was difficult to care about Barney. In fact, Alice was the most likeable when she was failing at doing the right thing, like when she yelled at Barney. But the question is, does this make the writing in Richard & Alice bad, per se? With the exception of Barney, the characters are multidimensional, and the writing has a lot of interesting and sometimes intriguingly ambiguous points: talking to the dead at any old grave because there’s no way to know which grave you’re at, a jail that was originally luxury housing, Alice’s apparent choice to put herself in jail.

Most of the game logic was pretty straightforward. It was missing certain hints that a Schaefer game would have, like “hmm, I should put something on the gunpowder to make a wick.” Or, “if only I had something to melt the ice with.” And I thought that it would have been cool if any grave you chose worked at any given time, as a performative way of showing that it didn’t matter which grave the characters went to, since post-apocalypse, there was no longer a system for mapping bodies to graves.

I also noticed playing the game that Richard’s role was basically to be a robot in the jail cell that could listen. He listened to Alice’s story and did all the mechanical things with the objects but outside of the opening scene, his entire story was told through scraps of paper Alice found.  Seeing Richard develop through Alice was a different experience than playing Richard would have been, because Alice is already disposed to think of him as terrible, both as in bad and as in terror-inducing.

Of what I am told are five endings, I played through two – in the first, I had Alice use the ladder to get the box from the center of the frozen lake.  I was pretty sure from the moment I found out that there was a single bullet in the box how the game was going to end and I was right – by sheer coincidence, because there are a few endings where you get the bullet. But in the game I played, after Alice gets out of jail, she kills herself at Barney’s grave, in front of Richard. Alice’s suicide in this situation asks another kind of question about the apocalypse, if you are not one of the (lucky?) ones killed right away, is it unethical to voluntarily become one? Does it come down to what you could contribute if you were alive or whether you could better your own conditions? Or in this special case, is it no longer a selfish act because all acts have become selfish?

The second time, I left the bullet in the box in the lake, which caused her to use the empty gun to knock Richard out in front of the grave. She leaves a note for Richard telling him she’s gone…I think that this scenario is one where she kills herself with the next bullet she finds, that is to say the only reason why she didn’t kill herself is lack of bullets. This is the logical conclusion, on account of everything else happening exactly the same way.

For me, the best line in the game is when Alice says to Richard, “just because I understand you doesn’t mean I’m like you,” (and this may actually be a paraphrasing, but it’s very close), which she says shortly before shooting herself. What makes this the best line to my mind is Alice’s underlying assumption that it is within her jurisdiction to decide about her own nature. Often, we feel we are subject to various systems – biological, physiological, economic, social, etc. – and maybe we are but it’s possible, if morbid, that the fact of the ability to kill oneself means that in reality, no one is actually subject to these systems because they can voluntarily disappear from them.  While obviously most of us in the first world would not do that, perhaps the choice itself changes the power balance between the world and the person. Or perhaps not.

-Joanna

Author’s Note: This is the beginning of a monthly correspondence around short, mostly indie PC games, focusing on one per month. The other writer, Dylan Holmes, can be found here.

This specific post is the first in a four part letter series.  Here are the rest:
Dylan’s reply to this letter (post #2).
My reply to letter #2 (post #3).
Dylan’s reply to letter #3 (post #4)