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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)

Categories
Media PC Games

Broken Age (PC Game)

Broken Age from Double Fine Productions ($25 on Steam) is a point-and-click adventure by Tim Schafer, who is well known for games like Psychonauts, Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. This style of game involves no combat, is story based, and has puzzles that move the narrative forward. What make Schafer’s games wonderful and charming is the eccentric, likable characters he brings to life in worlds that amaze.

Unless you suddenly find yourself looking at an obvious interface that needs to be interacted with, some kinds of puzzles are not easy to guess. Those kinds of puzzles that require your character to do a series of actions in a certain order are easier for people who have played p&c adventures before, because they might understand that when something doesn’t work, it could just be that they thought of doing the steps in one order, but the designers had it in mind players do them in another order.  But if you’re walking in cold, the point and click adventure style needs to be learned along with being able to decipher the clues that are specific to the content in Broken Age. What could compel a player to do this? Especially since some of the puzzles involve either taking a picture of the screen or taking literal notes? It’s in the world building. The plain fact of the matter is, even if the puzzles are things of genius, the player will only solve them if she likes being in the game world. In my opinion, more than a few of the puzzles in Broken Age are not intuitive, require a lot of back and forth between the same places, and involve going through more dialog trees than you maybe want to.  (Especially all the ones that deal with the talking tree, omg SHUT UP TALKING TREE).

But the story — about a girl in a small town who decides she doesn’t want to be sacrificed at the maidens’ feast and a boy on a space ship who decides it’s time to grow up — is so charming, the characters you meet along the way so quirky, and the art so compelling, that the player doesn’t notice the hours flying by…literally…I might have suddenly realized I was sitting in the dark playing Broken Age because the sun went down and I didn’t notice…

I loved this game, and I’d recommend it to people who like narrative heavy games and art particularly. However, there is probably a decent demographic who would find the whole genre of point and click frustrating, and there is also a decent chance that at least some of that demographic doesn’t yet know that this is true about them. So, this is how I’d break it down: for gamers who super enjoy the open world style of gameplay, who prefer their graphics to be realistic and 3D instead of charming and 2D, who can’t imagine a game with just one ending, and who have excellent hand-eye coordination, this game probably isn’t really your bag. For people who usually don’t like video games, but do love comics, for lovers of old school p&c adventures, for gamers who want to identify with characters that they play, and lastly, for people who are not experienced with p&c adventures but who don’t feel guilty googling a solution, check this game out.

I wished I’d played it sooner, myself, because it is a little bit like “coming home,” in that it reminds me of the first PC games I ever played, and it brings back a little bit of the wonder I felt then.

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Media PC Games

Emily is Away (PC Game)

Emily is ObnoxiousThere is a particular sub-genre of media that explores the nature of impotence. Not necessarily the literal inability to get it up, but the failure to do the thing, whatever the thing happens to be. These media are obnoxious when they’re not interactive, but a game really brings the obnoxiousness to the fore. In Emily is Away (free on Steam), which has a total run time of twenty to thirty minutes, you play a character that can’t bring himself to tell his friend Emily that he wants to date her.  and that is the entire game. And it sucks.  However, I will say the interface is a nice blast from the past. Remember AIM? Remember the open door/close door/IM sounds? Remember profiles and buddy icons? However, as it happens, you can also just download an old version of AIM itself,  so really – don’t bother with Emily is Away.

Categories
Media PC Games

Journal (PC Game)

Screenshot from the PC Game, "Journal."
Screenshot from the PC Game, Journal.

 

Journal, a game by Locked Door Puzzle (available on Steam for $1.49 through Jan 4th, $9.99 after Jan 4th) grows on you. What first appears to be a distinct lack of player agency eventually evolves into a relationship between the player and the character that is unique and compelling. The premise is simple: a high school aged girl wakes up one morning to find that her journal is empty. You play her as she goes about her life. At first it seems almost trivial, but gradually, it becomes clear that something is happening, or has happened, and you are playing through the aftermath. The ending is heartbreaking, but refreshingly honest. I thought when I was about halfway through the game that I would come here to tell you all not to play it, but the truth is, this game redeems itself. There is a lot of pointing and clicking, and dialog trees (with different potential outcomes), but there are no puzzles and certainly no stealth or combat. Total game time is a couple hours at most. You should definitely give it a go if you like strong storytelling and the type of game often labeled as “visual novel.”

Categories
Media Non-Fiction PC Games

The Beginner’s Guide (PC Game)

The Beginner’s Guide, created by Davey Wreden (who also famously made The Stanley Parable), gets immediate brownie points from pretty much every reviewer for daring to try something new.  In a nutshell, the game approaches the topics of consumption-as-identity, authorship, depression, and what it means to know a person in the form of a “narrative video game,” a game that eschews normal game mechanics in favor of what feels like a narrated tour. The compelling part is the tour guide is telling a deeply personal story, and the player gradually realizes that he is grappling with the narrative even as he tells the story.

Some will argue (and have argued) that therefore, The Beginner’s Guide is not a game, so much as an interactive story, or a visual novel. Over at PC World, Hayden Dingman even gets into Death of the Author, Barthes’  literary theory about authorial present, intent and control in a given work. Indeed, as a text, there are many ways to discuss The Beginner’s Guide and what it says about various themes common to the lived experience in the first world.  But all of that happens to be less interesting to me at the moment than the (also often addressed) question of what constitutes a game.  More specifically, if we take it as a given that Wreden’s latest work is in fact a visual novel,  does that necessarily mean it is not a game? Or, to put it in the most controversial way possible, can a novel (you know, a normal book) be a game?
[EPIC SPOILERS AHEAD]
Here are some experiences/thoughts I had while I was playing The Beginner’s Guide:

This narrator’s voice is comforting, can Davey narrate all the games I play?
Man this is some deep psychological shit.
Dude, who builds whole levels that aren’t even accessible?
Oh my God, Coda isn’t even REAL.
Wait. Is Coda real?
Wait, what if Davey is Coda, and I am Davey? That would just be some whiney shit.
Why does EVERY character have a block head except the one girl who is crying?
I love the NOT-ACTUAL-NOTES NOTES THING. OH MAN.
House cleaning and lamp posts: domesticity in the wild, got it.
adding lamp posts! is this what the player does? add lamp posts? projection + making the foreign more familiar. OR – beacon, I am here in your world, come find me.
What is the difference between Davey’s need for validation and loneliness?
Is it really true that we can’t know anything about the author by looking at his work?

OK.  So this is what I think of as definitely necessary in a game:
1) participatory
2) puzzle – so traditionally, we use this in the game world to denote logic puzzles in adventure games, or even just puzzle games – games  that are basically leveled puzzles. But I am expanding “puzzle” here to mean  “interactive challenge that it is necessary to overcome in order to progress.” So that could be combat, or a platformer level, or a more traditional puzzle.
3) progress – true for most media, but also games.  unlike most forms of media,  games aren’t necessarily linear but there are end conditions.

In What Videogames Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee asserts, “two things that, at first sight, look to be ‘mental’ achievements, namely literacy and thinking, are, in reality, also and primarily social achievements.”[1] He goes on to defend this argument by explaining that the reader cannot “privately” or “asocially” read a text. What determines how a person reads, according to Gee, is who she associates herself  with. He stresses that the reader is free to read however she likes, insofar as she can align herself with whatever group or people she chooses, but what she cannot do is read outside the framework of a social narrative altogether. There must be a social narrative. The reader,  then, is constantly interacting with her text, by bringing her social narrative to bear on what she is reading.  Moreover, she is constantly deciding who is in relation to the text, as she reads. In this way, all media is participatory.  Arguably, videogames capitalize on this participation where other forms of media capitalize on other universal traits. A different discussion for another day is why we take the participatory trait of media (i.e. “play”) to be less serious or important than other traits.

In SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal argues that anything can be a game, you simply label your allies, and your bosses, and you get to work.[2]  She believes that gamifying one’s life will increase the amount of time one spends in a  “flow” state, and therefore reduce suffering.
However, the puzzle task seems to me to be forced in McGonigal’s treatment, it involves the literal reorganization of worldview in order to explicitly label something a “puzzle.”  And Fred Rogers, you know – Mr. Rogers – argues that play is work (although he only argues it in regard to children – there is no reason not to extend this argument).[3]

Perhaps the reason why our everyday interactions are not “puzzles” to be “played” is because they don’t cohere neatly into a gamic model. (did I make the word “gamic” up? I don’t think so..) But – as the visual novel type of game, such as The Beginner’s Guide might suggest – could it be that the “gamic model” is simply a progressive narrative structure that has cohered into a specific space? That is, if the novel is the space, and if reading it requires the application of the reader’s experience in the world and her conception of self, as Gee suggests, then could it not be argued that reading is a form of playing, because of the reader-text interaction?

Of course there still remains the challenge of the puzzle, which is a particular sub-narrative, with a more defined interaction.  I think, though counter-intuitive, it is possible to break up a novel into a series of puzzles, using both the novel structure as a general construct and/or the individual structure of an individual novel. I think we might go so far as to say that avid readers are people who enjoy the kind of interactive puzzles that are inherent to the medium of the novel.  These puzzles involve way finding, evaluation of information, even strategy: the application of already-gained knowledge to the construct of the larger narrative in the reader’s mind.

Yet, this very wide reading of the game (that it might involve anything with a structured narrative with which the player/reader/viewer interacts) does a disservice to the traditional medium of the game in exactly one important way: agency. In The Beginner’s Guide, the player has very little agency, and in a novel, the reader has no agency except insofar as she consistently negotiates her own relationship with the text. In a more traditional video game,  she both negotiates this relationship and also substantially affects the environment of the game itself. She cannot affect the environment of the book in the same way, it is static.

Indeed, the player might find The Beginner’s Guide frustrating in the lack of agency it gives you, especially since you are complicit in the narrator’s mistreatment of “Coda,” a possibly fictional game designer.  Likewise, a book that does not allow for satisfying relationship negotiation will go unfinished by the reader. And a traditional video game which feigns more agency that it actually gives often reaps criticism.

That isn’t to say there’s no place within the gaming sphere for games that limit player agency – I do think that you could legitimately argue that all media experiences fall on the game spectrum somewhere, but there is an important question here, and it has not only to do with games but also, say, paranormal romance, and 50 shades of grey and user experience and, like, capitalism and democracy. The question is — and I think it is the most important one that The Beginner’s Guide asks — what does it mean to have agency?

[1] Gee, James Paul. What video games have to teach us about literacy and learning. New York: Palgraw Macmillan (2003).
[2] McGonigal, Jane. SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient — Powered by the Science of Games. Penguin Press First Edition (2015).
[3] Fred Rogers. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved December 31, 2015, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/fredrogers193081.html

Categories
Media PC Games

Her Story (PC Game)

Her Story is game for people who love database querying. Hilariously, that includes yours truly. The premise of the game is that you have just been given access to some old, disorganized footage of a series of interviews done with a suspect in a murder. You call up footage through querying this database and try to determine what happened (the story is complicated and there’s a lot more to learn than just Who Committed The Murder). There’s even a tagging system, so you can add your own keywords to call up videos later. The game’s pros include an amazing interface (with a couple of Easter eggs), easy game-play (no hand-eye coordination or video game literacy necessary), and compelling content. The only downside is that the endgame dialog (which doesn’t actually end your access to the game or the database) comes after you have accessed a certain number of the videos. Depending on how you design your searches, you can learn the majority of the story long before you see most of the videos and then you just have to make your way through the videos until you reach something like 80%. The game end also enables new admin features, so it’s not simply completionist anxiety. But overall, this game is quite interesting and entertaining and worth a play. $3.59 for the digital download through Jan 4th on Steam ($5.99 after Jan 4th).