games


I picked this up because it’s made by Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, which I loved. You can definitely feel it’s made by the same person– it’s cute, unusual, and full of a certain goofy benevolence. And wonky controls.

wattam

On the whole, unlike every review I’ve seen, I mostly didn’t like it.

First, what is it? You start as the Mayor, a green cube who’s unhappy because he’s all alone. Soon he discovers a rock, so he’s not alone. This is only the first in a large collection of objects. There is an underlying story about how they all got separated long ago.

You can control any of them; most of them can only walk around, jump, and hold hands, but some have special powers– e.g. the Mouth eats other objects and turns them into poop; the Mayor can remove his hat and cause a small explosion that throws him and anyone nearby up in the air.

Very roughly, the game is like an extended play session with a one-year-old. The objects all sound like babies or toddlers. They’re either giggly and happy, or wailing in tears, which means that one of the objects has a problem you have to solve. The sushi above, for instance, has lost their fish roe, and you have to find them.

Now, this could have been a whimsical romp like Katamari Damacy or Untitled Goose Game. There’s two reasons it wasn’t, for me. One, it is so overbearing, like a pushy kindergarten teacher who bellows, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE FUN NOW. The game is highly linear: you have to do something, and you’re rewarded with a cutscene, a few new objects, and a new goal.

You can, I suppose, ignore the prompts and play with the characters. But the tools you have are so limited.  It’s really not a deep model of friendship to allow you to make two objects hold hands.  Plus, if you ignore the current puzzle the soundtrack is going to be dominated by the object who’s wailing inconsolably.

The other problem is the wonky controls. There’s one task that’s about as annoying as anything else in video games: a doll has lost her facial features and is freaking out. You have to chase after her as the Mayor and beat her with a plastic sword. (I don’t think the subtext there was very well thought out.) While she’s stunned, you find one of the facial features, click on it to switch to it, run to the doll and up her face to get into position. There’s a short timer, the characters are slow, and climbing things is extremely awkward. It’s no Dark Souls, you’ll do it in a few minutes, but there’s a lot more failure than there ought to be. That and a few other tasks would probably be hard for children.

Plus, the game doesn’t tell you how to use the sword.  Or rather, it tells you once, but the keyboard tips screen doesn’t mention it. I figured it out but I’ve forgotten again– all I remember is that it’s the same key as one of the Mayor’s other actions.

Sometimes you need a particular object, and it’s on another island. Some objects are large boatlike things than can swim between islands. So you hit Tab to find the object, maneuver it onto a boatlike thing, zoom out, swim to the island you have to get to, zoom in, click the target object again.  You’ll be tired of all this the second time you have to do it. You can make a game where moving from point A to point B is an interesting challenge (Mirror’s Edge, Dishonored), but this isn’t it.

I often think about whether a game would be better as a movie. When a director mostly wants to tell a story and doesn’t trust the players to come up with one, they might be better off going the movie route. I think Wattam comes close. Actually playing it does not really add much to it; it might have done quite well as an anime along the lines of Kemono Friends.

Alternatively, I think the comparison to Goose Game suggests approaches that would make it more of a game. Basically: less handholding, more toolbox. More objects with strange powers; more ways to solve a problem; a little more mild mischief.

Against all that, the game is colorful and nicely animated, and I respect it for trying something different.  It definitely has its moments– the bit where the Mayor turns into a noir detective, for instance.

 

I’ve noticed that some video games create stories– not the developer’s stories but the player’s. PUBG was like that when it was new: players wanted to tell the stories of their intense escapes and successful firefights or, more likely, agonizing losses.

Skyblock is like that too. In general it has a compelling story of expansion from near-nothing. You start with this

sb orig

and end up with something like this:

sb vista

This is not the same Skyblock world I had before. I restarted with the same map Impulse and Skizzleman are using, largely because it contains a very useful change to vanilla Minecraft: zombies can drop gravel blocks. You can turn dirt + gravel into coarse dirt, which you can then hoe to form regular dirt. This makes dirt into a renewable resource, enabling the vista above, where I’ve built out the entire path from the starting island to one of the far ones in the distance.

The pool goes all the way there, so you can travel by boat. It’s lined almost entirely with bone blocks, obtained from skeletons.

The mushroom to the left is part of my village. How do you get a village when all you start with is tiny islands with one tree each? Oh my, that’s a tale.

  1. You’re given enough obsidian to get to the Nether. Build a portal.
  2. Find the tiny little Nether fortress. (I more or less found it at random: it was visible while I was building a path from the portal.)
  3. Blazes spawn at the fortress.  Good luck, you’ll need it. I ended up building a path protected with handrails (so I couldn’t be knocked off), trapdoors (so zombie pigmen wouldn’t rush me), and frequent cobble towers to hide behind. Even so it was a major struggle to kill a blaze and get close enough to grab the blaze rod.
  4. Use that to create an alchemy station.
  5. Now do it all again to get another blaze rod. Turns you you power the alchemy station with blaze powder, made from blaze rods.
  6. Craft a fermented spider eye from an unfermented spider eye, sugar, and brown mushroom. Use the alchemy stand to brew a Potion of Weakness from the fermented spider eye and a bottle of water.
  7. Add gunpowder (finally a use for this drop!) and brew a Splash Potion of Weakness.
  8. Go back to the Nether and farm gold by attacking the Zombie Pigmen. My trap doors and handrails helped a lot here; I also had a magic bow so each one only took 2-3 hits. This may take a bit as most pigmen drop only a gold nugget, and 9 are needed to make an ingot. You need 8 ingots.  Craft with an apple to make a Golden Apple. (An advantage of all this grinding: you get better with the bow, and the Blazes get less scary. I have a bunch of blaze rods now.)
  9. Keep going back to your mob farm till you get a zombie villager. Carefully kill the rest of the mobs to isolate him, and protect him with blocks. Light him up so no more mobs spawn by him.
  10. Throw the Splash Potion of Weakness at him.
  11. Give him (right-click) the Golden Apple. This produces the most satisfying sound effect in the game, a sort of crash of thunder. Red squiggles appear. He is now being cured.
  12. Wait.  He will still attack if he can get to you, so keep him secured until he’s cured.
  13. Bingo! He is now a regular villager. Use walls, or a boat, to lead him to a bed and workstation. You now have a village.

Here’s one my patients undergoing a cure. Isn’t he cute?

sb zombager

I didn’t even realize, playing vanilla Minecraft, that there’s a whole thing of villager management. I thought they only bought zombie flesh. Turns out only cleric villagers offer that trade. And they expand their trades as you keep trading with them– this is a godsend in Skyblock as they will produce many many things you can’t get without them. There are many kinds of villagers; you produce each one by creating a workstation for them.

You can breed villagers too, with stacks of carrots. But curing them from zombie villagers– zombagers?–  is best, because then they are grateful and give you a steep discount. In fact, you can purposely let a zombie kill one, then cure it, in order to get a discount.  This was a major comedy of errors when I tried it. Once I killed the zombager while trying to kill the zombie that bit him… once all the villagers got loose and then got attacked by zombies… once the damn zombager killed me.  I restored from a save until I got it right.

A villager has a random selection of trades, and sometimes it’s advisable to destroy and redeploy their workstation till they give you something you need. This is particularly useful with Librarians: you’d really really like to have them sell you Silk Touch.

From Skyblock I learned about applying spells to weapons, and combining enchanted weapons, with anvils. To do this you need shitloads of iron. But you can’t mine! Zombies occasionally drop iron, but even with a mob farm you’ll be lucky to have six ingots on hand. But villages, after a point, create iron golems!  You can murder them to get iron. (I was really nervous the first time I did this, but you just have to stay out of their reach. It doesn’t anger the villagers, nor other golems.)

Eventually I had so much iron that, just for sheer extravagance, I built a railway to another island. You can see it here, approaching my main base:

sb rails

You can see one of my mob farms to the left, and in the distance below right, another mob farm at a lower level. Both use water to push mobs to a drop. The first one just weakens them, so I have to periodically go kill them, but that’s good as it gives XP (which you need to use the anvil).  The second is tall enough to kill most mobs; it has chests to capture their loot.

There are so many little tricks to learn… many I picked up from Impulse. E.g. the mob farm let out kid zombies, which were annoying, till I learned to block them with a stone wall. Though this leaves a gap to kill them, the game considers it 1.5 blocks tall, so it blocks the kids.

I also carefully followed Impulse’s recipe to make a bubble elevator. More Nether trips, as you need soul sand.

I’ve been to the End, but immediately die there, even on Peaceful mode. Apparently you need to be well stocked with regeneration potions. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it in solo mode.

Anyway, I got a little tired of grinding, so I started a vanilla world. This was originally a disaster. I discovered two villages, and managed to kill off all the villagers. Not directly: it turns out that the player is a mob magnet, and the mobs will kill villagers as they go after you.  Plus I triggered a raid, and that was absurdly hard. I restarted the world and tried again, this time making it a priority to protect the village.  A fence will do!

mc new town

After Skyblock, it’s kind of a luxury to see all that sand.

Naturally I’ve been cultivating villager trades here too. I actually have too many villagers, because they’re confused by my bed. They can’t reach it (they’re too stupid to climb the ladder), but because there’s an extra bed in the village they keep breeding more. I feel sorry for the one who can’t find a bed, so I build him one.

I mislearned something from Skyblock. Animal mobs regenerate regularly there, and I thought they would in vanilla Minecraft too.  Turns out, no.  (They respawn but VERY slowly.) So I killed off most of the local wildlife. I did manage to get sheep and cows, but no pigs. Finally I found pigs at a long distance, penned them up, and figured out how to bring them home: boats. Most mobs, including animals, will get into a boat and stay there. And you can pilot a boat on land, though only downward. But that got me and my passenger pig to within walking distance of the village.

Finally I got chickens: one came by randomly, and one came from an egg. Yet another fun fact: if you throw eggs, some of them hatch into chickens. I’m still short on leather, which is a pity because I like to make maps of the world…

 

I should talk to you about Mesopotamia… but a late stage of the Minecraft fever hit me, so I want to talk about Skyblock instead. This is a map where you start on a tiny little island in the sky. After watching Impulse and Skizzleman turning their Skyblock into a major empire, I had to try it.

2019-11-13_22.24.46

The picture is far from the initial state. This is after getting trees and wheat growing, and getting a load of cobblestone.

I had to learn how to do backups, because there are so many ways to ruin the game. It took me a few tries to figure out the cobblestone generator. You use water and lava: if you do it right, they generate a cobblestone block which you can mine, and then repeat forever.  But it’s easy to do it wrong and get obsidian instead, and/or lose your water or your lava.

Then you need trees. You start with one, which you mine… but if you don’t get a sapling out of it, you’re toast.  More frustrating was when my lava set fire to my tree…

There are other islands far away that you can build a bridge to, and have additional resources. One is especially useful because it allows you to reach the Nether (which also starts you out on a tiny block). Some of the stuff I haven’t figured out. Like, what do you use the lily pad for?  Also, the trader is worthless so far– he doesn’t want zombie flesh as ordinary traders do, and the one trade he’ll make requires golden apples, which I don’t have yet.

I spent a lot of time creating a mob farm.  The first one was never very productive– not as much as just letting them spawn on the bridges. But now I have an awesome one. Here’s its business end:

mc-mobs

Sometimes there’s a dozen mobs in there– the sound they make when you hit them is terrifying.  I didn’t make it tall enough to kill them with fall damage. That’s not the design flaw I ran into, though.  The design flaw is that I forgot to light the roof.  So mobs spawned on top of it and started invading my base…

It’s weird to play for hours without a scrap of iron. I now have two bars of iron, so I feel rich.  Both were provided by zombies.

I’ve learned a bunch of new stuff as well. E.g. I didn’t know that you can crouch in order to move freely over a block without falling off– this is essential in Skyblock as falling into the void is easy and also fatal. I also only just learned that saplings can be used as fuel, which is great– I was using wooden shovels.

There’s no shortcut for building below the current block, but there is a method: create a waterfall. You can go down the water and lay cobblestones as you go. You’re supposed to be able to swim back up, but I haven’t figured that part out… I just respawn.

Also, I learned how to make snowballs, which turn out to be great for knocking mobs off those narrow bridges.

That’s enough for now. I really want to go back and add another wing to my mob farm…

Edit: I forgot to say why this mode is fun. Mostly it’s the challenge— doing without iron and gold, turning precious single resources into chestfuls of stuff.  Plus it’s neat to start with so little and end up with a little empire.

I did redo the mob farm, which involved cleaning it out first. So… many… spiders.  But it’s easier to open up the roof and hit a mess of spiders than it is to lure a single spider into range and get one or two string each time.

 

So I’ve discovered a game called Minecraft. It’s fairly new, compared to, say, Babylonia: it was released in 2011. It’s kind of addictive!

mc1

I’ve played a number of exploration/survival games– I’ve put hundreds of hours into Empyrion and Conan Exiles. I had long resisted Minecraft, not least because it looks stupid; I liked the realism of the later titles. But, as I say, Minecraft is surprisingly good.  I think it’s because of the very pure gameplay loop.

These games need to balance mining, building, and threats (combat, hunger, environmental damage). Too much mining quickly becomes tedious and prevents building magnificent structures. Too much threat is annoying, but too little makes the building seem pointless. Minecraft gets the balance just right.

  • The threat level is low, so you can spend most of your time doing other things. Yet monster-proofing your creations is still important.
  • Mining is generous: you can make a dirt shelter in seconds, stone is so plentiful that you’ll soon have chestloads of cobblestone, wood is easy.  So your “real house”, after making shelters, will be pretty satisfying.
  • You drop your items when you die, and they disappear in five minutes. This can range from no annoyance at all to a major catastrophe, especially if you don’t know exactly where you died. So you’re motivated to not be entirely careless.

At the same time, just building bases would only be good for a few nights of fun. There is a huge variety of other tasks you can discover and take on:

  • finding villages and trading with villagers
  • growing crops
  • raising and breeding animals\
  • exploring new biomes
  • building railroads
  • mining deep enough to find the good stuff (gold, diamonds, redstone)
  • building electrical (redstone) devices
  • making maps
  • fending off pillagers
  • enchantments
  • making monster traps
  • building a portal to the Nether (a hellish otherworld with new monsters)
  • co-op, if you still have friends who play

Or, of course, you can just build and rebuild. The picture above is not my house, it’s a railroad station. I’m sure it still looks noobish to Minecraft veterans, but at least it’s past the “make a big rectangle” stage.

A couple days in, I discovered a huge cave with a partial mine inside– that is, it had long passageways with rails and timber supports, which were themselves good resources. I moved my main base there to excavate fully.  I found a deep ravine nearby which turned out to be connected. I think the place is fully explored now, though I still find odd monsters wandering around.

I took a long wander around and found the ocean, about 1200 blocks to the east. A shipwreck suggested a new place to build a house, this one located right in a ravine, with glass blocks for a roof.

Then I built a railroad between my two houses.  This was a huge project that required mining large amounts of iron and making several base camps in between. It’s now a nice train ride, though I’ve also found how to make the trip using Nether portals.

In its own way, Minecraft can be rather pretty:

mc2

In the distance you can see one of my railway bridges. (I built like a 19th century engineer, bridging valleys and digging through mountains.)

I thought the fever had broken recently, but then I found a new ravine with a mine system, and I’m back to excavating. By this time I’m more scientific about it– marking the way to the exit, for instance.

On the whole I still like the relative realism in the other games.  Empyrion is still the best of these, not least because its wide array of building pieces allows you to build truly original and gothic spacecraft. The progression of building, then getting to space, then getting to other planets, is also more satisfying.

What still falls short, to my mind, is No Man’s Sky. The visuals are top-notch– you really feel that you’re deeply exploring a 1970s progressive rock album cover. But the base building is terrible: it takes huge investments of resources to build a single room, and with the latest update, it’s a further chore to keep it powered up.

I stumbled on some videos related to a mod called Skycraft, where you start on a tiny island in the sky. The first was just stupid; the player just kept knocking each other off. But this series is rather addictive: two dudes build an impressive installation with a good deal of automation. Plus the main dude has a really infectious laugh. (Also, they say “dude” a lot, like every five seconds.)

Just a couple of Minecraft cavils. One, making skins is pretty basic but isn’t in the main game– you have to use the game website, and mess with Paint or external character creators. They couldn’t have addressed this in eight years?

Two, there’s not much help in-game. You get recipes for crafting, but there’s no real guidance on doing most of the more advanced tactics. Fortunately there’s years of guides available by now.

I’d also say that they’re not generous with points of interest– e.g. I’ve explored a couple dozen chunks and found only one village. I assume this is optimized for co-op play, where you want a good deal of land for each player. But playing solo, it can feel like there’s little reward for exploring the world.

It looks like Untitled Goose Game is a big hit.  It’s well deserved.  Being a horrible goose in a lovely English town turns out to be a universal aspiration.

goose

I bought it on Epic, because it’s not on Steam, and I can’t wait a year for Goose. Epic’s exclusivity deals are annoying, but the Epic store is pretty painless. You can set preferences so Epic doesn’t load on startup; remember also to exit it once you’re done goosing around.

By now you’ve probably heard what the game involves: pattering around town doing mild mischief.  You get the gardener wet, you honk at the boy who’s scared of geese, you shut the shopkeeper in her own garage, you ring a big bell in one yard to annoy the man next door. You have dedicated keys to honk and to flap your wings.

The controls are a little wonky, but I suspect that’s intentional.  You move by clicking a destination– you can also keep moving the mouse and the goose will follow. Double-click to move fast… I had trouble sometimes getting this to happen when I needed it, but I got better over time.

Some tasks are tedious to complete. One that defeated me was “do the washing”: steal laundry from the woman with the bell, and carry it and a bar of soap to the pond next door. You have to sneak items one at a time past the neighbor man, and the last bit of the trek is quite hard. And if he finds your cache in the pond, he will steal every item back from you. It’s fun for awhile, and then not quite so fun.  Fortunately, you don’t need to complete every area, so if one task is eluding you, you can skip it.

It’s not long: it took me about 7 hours, and that includes some of the extra tasks you can do once you’ve finished the game. I’m not sure how replayable it is, but I can see coming back to it now and then. The best comparison here is with Portal: there’s just enough game that you want more when it’s done, not enough that it ever drags or feels padded.

Most reviews find it charming, and it is.  It looks great, and the animations are inspired. The goose and the villagers are perfect. As you are a force of chaos, the villagers are totally dedicated to order. They will carefully seek out every item you’ve moved and put it back in place; you can use this behavior to your advantage.  Most of them will grab items back if you’re right next to them; a few will defend their little turf aggressively. They have short memories and love to go back to their routines, pretending that the little waddling force of chaos was never there.

The interaction when they’re grabbing something or pushing you away is amusing– the goose will flap its wings but then just stand there, insouciant as a cat.  Once you’re out of their space, they glare at you or shake their heads.

It’s curious to spend a whole game as, more or less, the villain.  But it’s the mildest form of villainy. No one can be hurt; only one item is permanently broken.

Impressively, the developers have implemented everything with physics and the villagers’ routines. So behavior is emergent, and often there are multiple ways to solve a problem. It must have been hell to test. Plus, there are extra behaviors that don’t have anything to do with the stated goals. E.g. your honk sounds different if you’re carrying something. You can have fun with the walkie-talkies though you don’t need  to. You will almost certainly ring the bell way more than you have to.

goose2

Something many people have noticed: the credits include a notice reading

This game was made on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to their Elders, past and present. Sovereignty was never ceded.

This turns out to be an Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners— something the government of Victoria actually encourages. The Wurundjeri lands are the northern part of Melbourne. Their language is Woiwurring, in case you want to find it my numbers list. It’s part of the Kulinic subfamily within Pama-Nyungan.

It’s curious that the Australian government encourages and sometimes even requires such acknowledgements (minus the “never ceded” part). It seems like a nice gesture, though probably that’s all it is– Australia is not noted for its progressive politics toward First Nations, and unlike the US there is no form of Native sovereignty at all, and no treaties were ever signed.  (If I’m not mistaken, this here was Potawatomi land, at least as of 1812.)

I saw that PC Gamer has a list of their top 100 video games. This is a profoundly silly idea, since they change it every year, making it unstable even as a record of their own opinions. But making lists is fun and I thought I’d try it.

arkcity for blog

Big warning: this is strictly for fun and I may not be any better than PC Gamer at sticking to these opinions in a year.

Part of the amusement value is precisely in the absurd comparisons– trying to decide if (say) The Stanley Parable is better or worse than Fallout New Vegas.

Some reflections, and responses to your shocked protestations, after the list.

Arkham City
Overwatch
Saints Row IV
Civilization 2
Dishonored 2 (incl. Billie Lurk DLC)
Borderlands 2
Mirror’s Edge
Portal 2
Saints Row The Third
Arkham Asylum
Team Fortress 2
Katamari Damacy
Beyond Good & Evil
Borderlands
Empyrion: Galactic Survival
Dishonored (incl. Daud DLC)
Civilization 3
Half-Life 2
Fallout 3
Portal
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell
Kings Bounty Armored Princess
Jade Empire
Conan Exiles
Oblivion
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
The Stanley Parable
Mass Effect 2
Fallout New Vegas
Tomb Raider (2013)
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Left 4 Dead
Arkham Knight
Sam & Max Hit the Road
Jazzpunk
Gotham City Impostors
Left 4 Dead 2
Bayonetta
Heroes of the Storm
80 Days
Kings Bounty Dark Side
Euro Truck Simulator 2
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
Civilization 4
What Remains of Edith Finch
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Sim City 2000
West of Loathing
Superhot
Rise of the Tomb Raider
League of Legends
Viscera Cleanup Detail
Kentucky Route Zero
Gunpoint
Space Colony
Mass Effect 1
To Be or Not To Be
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
No Man’s Sky
Witcher 3
Arkham Origins
Telling Lies
Grim Fandango
Tacoma
Nier Automata
Singularity
Skyrim
Dragon Age Origins
Tomb Raider Underworld
Sim City 3000
Fable III
Hydrophobia: Prophecy
Gone Home
Tropico 1
Remember Me
Dungeons of Dredmor
Saints Row 2
Zeno Clash
Gorogoa
Sam & Max (Telltale)
Secret World Legends
Dead Space
Chronicles of Riddick
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
Californium
Dreamfall
Bioshock
Bugdom
Fallout 4
Half-Life Deathmatch
Destiny 2
RAGE
Sunset
Monaco
World of Goo
Assassin’s Creed 1
The Longest Journey
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Sleeping Dogs
Max Payne 2
Torchlight
Kings Bounty: Warriors of the North
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Torchlight II
Agents of Mayhem
Don’t Starve
Grand Theft Auto IV
Dota 2
Dead Island
Silk Road Online
Kerbal Space Program
Black Desert Online
Braid
Cloudbuilt

Some explanations:

  • I rank replayability very highly. I’m not one of those people who say “I’ve played this game for 200 hours but it sucks!” If I’ve played a game that long, it’s doing a great job as a game— even if I have a list of complaints about it.
  • Contrariwise, if I liked a game but have no desire to play it again, it’ll be ranked lower than games that invite replays.
  • I’m a sucker for a really original setting or bit of gameplay.  This is mostly important in the middle of the list– things like VTM Bloodlines or 80 Days or Kentucky Route Zero are pretty high just because they’re so dang creative.
  • I tend to get bored with sequels. Some are far better than the original (note how far down Saints Row 2 is), but there’s a certain novelty that makes a game great. And with some series, like Civ, I played the earlier ones so damn much that I can’t even finish a game in the latest editions.
  • That goes for genre too. That’s just bad luck for a lot of games where I played something like it before.
  • I rank a game way down if I haven’t finished it. It’s hard to claim that a game is compelling to me if, y’know, it doesn’t compel me to keep going at it. In some cases, like Fallout 4, I could explain why I was disappointed; in others, like Witcher 3, I’m not even sure.
  • It’s hard to evaluate co-op and team games, because so much of the fun depends on your friends. Just on a gameplay level, I’ve probably overrated the Borderlands games, but I they’re up there because I had so much fun playing with my friend Ash. On the other hand, playing against your friends can be really painful when there’s a huge skill gap, which is why I soured on Left 4 Dead.
  • This list covers several decades.  As noted, I have no interest in Civ now, but I played the hell out of it in the 90s.
  • I really don’t like platformers.

You have to get almost to the bottom of the list before getting to games I actually disliked. If I really bounce hard off a game, I just don’t spend much time on it.

There’s a few games that I installed and tried, but either hated them so much I got a refund, or just realized they weren’t for me (e.g. Dead Souls, SpyParty). I didn’t put them in the list because I don’t want to imply that I have an actual judgment on them.

If you want to write a game that rockets to the top of this list, extremely neat gameplay might be enough (Portal 2, Mirror’s Edge), but balanced variety will really help. The mix of stealth and combat helps send Arkham City to the top, and it’s why games like Beyond Good & Evil and Saints Row IV are so high up there. They’re not only fun, they’re fun in different ways at different times. (The “balanced” bit is important: if you have two types of activities but one isn’t much fun, that’s not great.)

I’ve probably reviewed most of these games on my site or on the blog– use the custom search feature on zompist.com.

Finally, most of the fun of these lists is in disagreeing with them. So I encourage you to take some time to make your own list!

This is a new video game which sounded really interesting.  And it is!  I just finished it.  Or “finished it”.  More on that later.

This is from the creator of Her Story, which I haven’t played, but if you have, it’s like that, only with more characters and a bigger budget.

tell-lies

All these people are totally [redacted].

You don’t get to shoot anyone; you don’t even get to walk around. You watch video clips from a database, and you eventually piece them into a story.

The clever bit is that you choose the search term in the database.  The game starts you out with the search term LOVE, which returns five videos. You can watch them, and you probably will. Or you can choose a different search term and see what you get.

Now, this is rather close to a project I was working on. For the Verdurian game I’ve been working on approximately forever, I wanted to have dozens of dialog options, and my initial idea was to make the user actually type them. E.g. Ticai finds that her husband is missing, and she could ask her maid about her HUSBAND. But if you could find better search terms, you could get more information.  E.g. you suspect he has a MISTRESS, or you ask if he is CHEATING. If the maid says (say) he is with a mane named ZONVURAN, you can ask about him. As you can imagine, this involves a lot of writing and debugging, which is why I haven’t finished it.

Well, that’s how Telling Lies works. Watching a clip will give you leads to pursue: names, locations, code words, topics. You will probably need to take notes, especially at first, when possible topics proliferate.

Now, because of this, I can’t give you details about the story, even simple things like the names of the characters, because part of the game is finding out these things yourself. You don’t even know what you’re after, at first.  Are these just random recordings? What sort of story is being told? The title of the game is relevant too: some of the people are telling lies, elaborate ones. When, if at all, are they telling the truth?

You also don’t know who you are, except that you’re someone. At the start we see a woman going into a house and booting a laptop, and you see her reflected dimly in the screen from then on. So the idea is that you are that woman, who is doing the search.  (She never comments or helps out in any way.  At intervals, however, the reflection is enhanced and something happens in the house she’s in.)

A key concept: the keywords are tied only to the words spoken in the video. E.g. that initial search will find videos where someone says “love”. This can help you narrow things down, because there’s no need to search for “that long-haired girl” or whatever– only things people say can be searched. On the other hand, one search term gives you a maximum of five videos, so (say) searching for a character’s name will not give you every video where they’re mentioned.

(The game marks videos you’ve seen, which is a help.  So later searches will often give you only a few new clips.)

The end result is that you explore the database in little jumps, for several hours. I never had trouble thinking of things to search for. Intriguingly, every person’s experience of the game will be different, because they’ll see clips in an entirely different order. One player might find a given secret very quickly, another may see it much later, or never.

I’ve read a few rapturous reviews, but this one is closest to how I feel about the game. They call it “flawed but fascinating,” and that’s about right.

First, the fascinating part.  I really did get into the search.  You get to know the main characters and quite a few minor ones.  The overall outline of the story becomes clear soon enough– though getting a grasp on its chronology and even its outcome is much harder. The clips are all well acted and almost everybody has an interesting backstory.  There’s a nice range of tonal variation, from the everyday to the romantic to the dramatic.

More than that: this is about the best experience of detection I’ve ever had in a video game. Most adventure games, even if they have mysteries, don’t let you actually detect; they simply dole out the mystery in the order the developer sees fit; you’re about as useful as a toddler handed a magnifying glass to gape at the clues thrust in your face. Here, even though all you’re doing is watching videos, the game makes you feel like an investigator.  You have to identify the clues, pursue them, and try to piece together the story.

It’s about the best dialog system ever, even if all you’re talking to is a database program. The reason is, you’re not given three options and occasionally an extra one if your Speech skill is high enough. You have to come up with keywords yourself.  This is a trick to an extent, because most of the keywords are obvious, like the names you hear. But you feel like you’re doing work.  Plus, to make any sense of the clips you’ll probably have to take notes on what happened, what the relationships are, whether someone seemed to be lying, and so on.

If all this sounds interesting… well, go and get it! It’s a really different type of game, and quite well done.

The flawed bit mostly has to do with the time limit.  You see,  after five hours you’re out of time– you have to upload your videos and finish the game.  You get some cutscenes and a very terse report summarizing what you were doing.  (At least you learn ‘your’ character’s name, if you hadn’t learned it already.)

To be honest, I pretty much hate this feature. I can see the idea of limiting your search, because after all they couldn’t film an infinite number of clips, and at some point the process would probably become frustrating or tedious.  But, well, I feel like I wasn’t done. I have a good picture of the story– maybe I even have all the big pieces, I don’t know.

But that picture feels incomplete, and I don’t feel any closure. The final report says I found “just under half” of the clips. Another review mentioned the same phrase, so that’s probably normal. But, why do you they want to limit you to seeing half of the game?

Now, it’s completely possible to go back in and keep searching the database!  I did, a bit, but it doesn’t feel the same.  I feel like the game told me it was over and I was done, and shouldn’t it know?  At this point I kind of want to know how far I actually got and not just carry on filling in details.

I could also start over, but that sounds completely unattractive. The clips are well done, but not so amazing that you’ll want to watch them over and over.

A couple of minor cavils.  One: clips often record just one half of a conversation. Often you can find and watch the other half. The process is fascinating for the first few hours, then slightly annoying. E.g.– not infrequently, by using a good search term and seeing clips with the same length, it’s clear that I have both halves of the convo in front of me. But there’s no way to watch them at the same time.  Why not?  The actors are good at actively listening, but in effect we have the watch the same conversation twice.  (You can fast forward, though.)

Another: the database will start clips at the point when your search term is spoken. But generally you want to see the whole clip, and there’s no way to start at the beginning without a slow process of rewinding.

The game includes an in-game notepad, but this is a missed opportunity. I have 13 pages of notes, and it was easier to flip through the pages than to use a computer file. What would have been really useful would be the ability to create a pin board like in detective movies. E.g., a character portrait, room for notes, a place where you can pin the actual video clips. Another place where you can record searches still to be made.

One last discussion point: would this story have worked better as a movie?  That is, is the whole database search an extremely eccentric way to make you watch what could have been presented as a straight story or TV series?

Overall, this is answered by my point about detecting. I think the gameplay works great as a process of exploring a story. About the only thing that compares is an in-person mystery RPG. The idea is good enough that (again, for the first several hours at least), it’s easy to forgive the occasional unexciting clip. Some clues in a good mystery story are red herrings.

That said, I think I like the characters and the themes better than the actual story. But as I can’t tell you what the story is, and as I’m not even sure if I got the actual story, there’s not much more to say about that!

 

 

 

 

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