PC Pick-and-Mix 2: The Obra Dinn’s Returned and Star Wars Has Mustered Dark Forces? Play It Again, Bard…

I like videogames and I like writing reviews, but sometimes I don’t have deep enough thoughts on the latter to write particularly deep examples of the former. Time for another roundup of PC games I’ve been digging lately. This time, I’ll look at a spooky insurance mystery rendered in gorgeous 1-bit graphics, a classic Star Wars first-person shooter, and a CRPG classic given a new lick of paint.

Return of the Obra Dinn

It is the early 19th Century; the Obra Dinn, a ship that had gone missing somewhere off the coast of West Africa has finally sailed into port – with all sixty of its crew and passengers dead or missing. The ship had been insured by the East India Company, and you are the insurance investigator sent to figure out what happened. It’s a tough job – but you are helped by two items. The first is a logbook containing all the names and roles of the people who were on the ship, and some sketches of life onboard ship which show most of their faces (the obvious exception being the shipboard artist who made the sketches).

Your second helpful bit of kit is the Memento Mortem, provided by the same party who was able to send through the logbook; this is a strange pocketwatch which, when used in the proximity of a corpse (or a place where a corpse has been – indicated, once you’ve discovered it, by the fuzzy form of the body in question), allows you to enter and explore a static snapshot of the immediate surroundings in the moment the relevant person died. Your task is to put names to all of the faces, and specify how each and every individual onboard ship died – giving the exact cause of death and, where the death was not due to ill health or accident, the party responsible.

Continue reading “PC Pick-and-Mix 2: The Obra Dinn’s Returned and Star Wars Has Mustered Dark Forces? Play It Again, Bard…”

PC Pick-and-Mix 1: Flexible Rules, Internet Fools, and a Sinful Origin

Not every videogame I play inspires sufficient thoughts to build an article around, but many inspire enough of a reaction that I want to write about them anyway. This is what might be the first of a strand of articles in which I give a somewhat brief overview of some recent games I’ve played, and my thoughts on them.

Baba Is You

Originally whipped up for a Nordic Game Jam, Baba Is You is an endearing puzzle game where you (mostly) control Baba, a little rabbity thing who must traverse various levels on a not-really-defined quest. Each level requires you to fulfil a winning condition, but exactly what that is – and whether you play that level as Baba – is up for grabs, along with a whole other aspects of the game.

You see, each of the level has actual words floating about in there, and these words define the rules for the level. For instance, a typical level might start off with “BABA IS YOU” and “FLAG IS WIN”, which means that you control Baba and you need to get to the flag to win. You can shove each constituent word in those sentences around and make new sentences, and thereby change the rules – but care must be taken that you don’t do so in such a way that creates an unwinnable situation. (For instance, if you break up “BABA IS YOU” and you don’t have another “THING IS YOU” statement on the field, you stop being able to control any of the objects on the level and you can’t take further moves.)

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GOGathon: Broken Swords From a Faulty Forge

When it came to point-and-click adventures, one specialist publisher of note is the UK’s Revolution Software. With the likes of Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution carved out a reputation with games which, in retrospect, aren’t necessarily that hot when it came to the gameplay and writing, but did look remarkably nice for the time and did try to do some interesting new things with the form, even if those things didn’t always pan out well.

Such are the qualities which would eventually feed into the Broken Sword series of games. Set in the modern day, these combined globetrotting plotlines, charmingly realised locations, historical conspiracies, and an endearing cast to attain perhaps the most critical and commercial success of any of Revolution’s products, with five games so far being released in the series. However, are the games actually all that great, or do they hover at that good-to-mediocre level which can yield sufficient sales to keep the lights on but doesn’t result in a product which it’s especially fun to revisit after the hype is done?

Shadow of the Templars

The premise of the first game is simple enough: American tourist George Stobbart is enjoying a holiday in Paris when the café he’s sat outside is shattered by a bombing committed by an assassin disguised as a clown. Slain in the bombing is a certain Monsieur Plantard, a highly-placed civil servant in the Treasury, who had invited intrepid journalist Nico Collard to the café in order to discuss a highly sensitive story with her. When Stobbart and Nico compare notes, the duo realise they’ve stumbled onto something big, and neither of them feel able to set the investigation aside until they’ve got to the bottom of it all. And the mystery seems to have something to do with the secret treasure of the Knights Templar…

1996’s Shadow of the Templars is the shortest of the Broken Sword games, and in its original version you only ever played George. However, an enhanced Director’s Cut version of the game – first released on Nintendo DS and Wii in 2009 before being ported to other platforms, including the PC – expands the game somewhat by adding a number of sections where you play Nico, providing both a new prologue section as you play through Nico’s initial entanglement in the case which sets up the fatal rendezvous with Plantard, and then a few additional episodes as Nico’s personal investigation progresses.

These new additions rather dry up partway through the game, though they do lay the groundwork for a new end-of-game cut scene; this is inevitable because Nico’s investigation reaches a point where the writers couldn’t really do much more with it without significantly redesigning George’s segments of the game, and I suspect they simply didn’t have the budget for it that. Still, on balance I do quite like these new additions; as well as fleshing out the story a bit more, it also boosts Nico’s role in the story appreciably, since in the original version of the plot she didn’t do all that much, and it means Shadow of the Templars is no longer the odd-game-out in the series – for in all the others you play both George and Nico at various points in the game.

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Darkness Reborn

After pioneering their distinctive hide-and-seek-oriented style of survival horror with the Penumbra games and Amnesia: the Dark Descent – the latter of which was their breakthrough hit – Frictional Games allowed The Chinese Room to expand their prospective Amnesia mod into a full-blown entry in the series, the divisive A Machine For Pigs (which I quite liked), whilst Frictional themselves delved into philosophical SF which didn’t quite land for me in Soma.

Now Frictional have returned to the Amnesia franchise with Amnesia: Rebirth. The time is 1937; Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon and her Salim have signed onto a mining company expedition to one of their remote sites in French Algeria, with an eye to improving efficiency. The plane carrying this little colonial expedition runs into trouble – weird trouble – and comes down in the middle of the desert.

Recovering consciousness in the wreck of the plane, Tasi finds she is utterly alone – but there’s signs that others also survived and toted the supplies and wounded out of the crash. At first it seems Tasi has been bizarrely forgotten, but as she explores to try and track down the other expedition members she realises this isn’t the case – she’d left the wreck with the party, and whenever she ends up closely retracing her steps she has hazy recollections of what happened the first time around.

So what is she doing back in the original plane crash? What’s happened to her memories? Where are the others? And why is it that whenever she gets extremely scared or angry she seems to find herself overcome with strange symptoms, a discolouration of her arms, brief visions of strange places and of herself doing brutal, animalistic things? How is it that whenever something that should be fatal happens to her, this same blackout overcomes her and she wakes up safe elsewhere? The answers are both inside Tasi and outside of our universe altogether, as she discovers when she stumbles into a hellish, green-tinged otherworld…

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GOGathon: Harvester Yields Withered Crops

Steve Mason is an 18 year old who looks like he’s in his mid-20s; he wakes up in the sleepy little town of Harvest one fine day in 1953 to discover that he has a bad case of amnesia. Or is it just amnesia? Looking at the family television, he has a distinct recollection of watching televisions with full colour displays and remote controls.

Believing that something is up, Steve asks questions and soon finds out that he is due to marry Stephanie – an 18 year old woman who looks like she’s in her mid-20s – in just 3 weeks. Checking in with Stephanie, it becomes apparent that she also has amnesia, and has had the same experience as Steve when it comes to all the people she’s talking to refusing to believe she has amnesia.

Stephanie has been grounded by her parents until the wedding – not that being free to go out and about would necessarily help, since the hub of this mystery seems to be in the absurdly huge edifice of the Lodge at the centre of town, entrance to which is restricted to the men-only Order of the Harvest Moon. Steve must venture in there to discover the truth about this bizarre town and its eccentric inhabitants.

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GOGathon: Redemption Is For Suckers

Once upon a time which is supposed to be 1141 except there are historical and architectural and in-fiction reasons why that’s really unlikely to be the actual date, Christof the Crusader is badly wounded in a battle in the vicinity of Prague. Left behind by his fellow Crusaders to recuperate, he learns that the city has been plagued by monsters who seem to have taken over a silver mine on the outskirts of town. Heading off to the mine he first kills a bunch of rats and other monsters, before getting to the lowest level and fighting a scary wizard lady. So far, so Dungeons & Dragons.

However, Christof does not live in a D&D setting – he’s the protagonist of Vampire: the Masquerade: Redemption, the first computer RPG based on the tabletop RPG – yes, Bloodlines was not the first Vampire: the Masquerade game, it’s just the one that’s fondly remembered and widely talked-about. As it turns out, the scary lady in the dungeon who was creating monsters was one of the fleshcrafting Tzimisce, one of the great Clans who rule the vampire world, and by slaying her Christof has caused the balance of power in Prague’s vampiric underworld to shift.

Ecaterina, the leader of the Brujah Clan in the city, decides that if nobody acts to give Christof the Embrace that will make him a vampire, one of the Clans will just kill him – and since his actions so far have hurt her enemies and aided her plans, she decides to intervene, giving him the dubious gift of vampirism. Soon Christof is drawn into the struggle between the Clans – but matters are complicated by the romance that has kindled between him and Sister Anezka, the nun who nursed him to health when he was injured, an infatuation which brings Anezka herself onto a collision course with the world of the Kindred…

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The Vanishing of a Promising Plot

1973: Paul Prospero, psychic private detective, has received a letter from young Ethan Carter, from which he quickly develops a hunch that Ethan’s hip-deep into some occult danger. Sure enough, when he reaches the lonely, neglected region of Red Creek Valley he discovers that Ethan is missing – and his supernatural powers allow him to sense the after-impression of terrible events that have overcome Ethan’s family. Can Paul Prospero reach Ethan and get him to safety, or is it already too late?

Released in 2014 by Polish indie developers The Astronauts, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person adventure game which has been accused of being a walking simulator. I think that’s an unfair description of it; it might have some influence from the genre, particularly in the sense that a lot of gameplay involves you walking around a lovingly-realised location sort of just kind of observing what’s happened there, but it’s certainly not a purist example of the genre. There are puzzles to solve, things to interact with, and in one segment an avoid-the-ghoul hide-and-seek section reminiscent of pacifist no-fighting-back horror like Outlast or Amnesia; you can also run, which puts it a big step above Dear Esther.

It also isn’t the longest of games – you can play through it in a single evening (I did). I felt like I got my money’s worth, but then again, I got it for less than £3 on a GOG sale – I’m not sure I’d necessarily feel the same about it had I paid full price on release. See, there’s the kernel of a really fun way of conveying a narrative here, but the narrative The Astronauts ultimately choose to tell left me cold.

Paul Prospero’s abilities largely revolve around reconstructing past events – sometimes by putting objects back in the configuration they were in when shit hit the fan, which can allow him to witness a person’s last moments, and sometimes by entering strange secondary worlds as a result of the information he has found. The first time I did this and I realised that the ground under my feet had turned into, not the worn old stones that had previously covered the hillside, but a tangled morass of skulls was a properly creepy moment.

The problem I have with it is that the plot gets shallower and less interesting the deeper you get. At first it seems like Ethan Carter’s in trouble because he’s poked into secrets people wanted to forget, and developed a habit of writing stories that seem to curiously hint at the dirty laundry of the local area (and his family in particular). This is an intriguing concept and I was keen to learn more. As the game progresses, this resolves into a fairly bog-standard sub-Lovecraftian stop-the-cult plot – trite, but entertaining enough.

By the end of the game, even this plot – which, while hackneyed in many respects, still had the potential to develop in interesting directions – falls away and you are left with one of the most obvious, trite, annoying, and altogether exasperating plot twists you can think of. It is a really damn obvious one by the time you get there too, more’s the pity. Put it this way: when it becomes apparent that Paul Prospero doesn’t cast a shadow, I thought that the developers had goofed; by the time I realised what the twist was going to be, it seemed weirdly apt.

To spoiler it further, The Astronauts apparently resolved to pull off the final twist after reading An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (though they were apparently thinking about the plot’s general direction before then), not realising that perhaps if Ambrose Bierce did it over a century ago, and if numerous hacks have done it since then, maybe the idea is a little stale. There seems to be an attempt here to say something about abusive family dynamics, but it’s handled in a rather trite and two-dimensional way (before and after the revelation) which doesn’t really add much depth there.

One suspects that the copout ending was inevitable – the earlier version of the story, the one I thought the game was initially hinting at, feels like it was probably too ambitious to realise on the scale The Astronauts were operating at. But as it stands it feels like they spent a lot of time developing a nicely realised little village and then wasted it on a story which didn’t deserve it.

Also I couldn’t take the game seriously because the kid’s name just reminded me of the wrestler of the same name.

GOGathon: DreamForge Made a Nightmare

Sanitarium is a psychological horror adventure game from 1998, developed by DreamForge Intertainment. It begins without much in the way of setup: after a car accident your character wakes up with his head wrapped in bandages in what seems to be a ludicrously gothic asylum, and you have to figure out who you are and why you got here. So far, so hackneyed… but soon enough you start having strange experiences where you seem to be snatched away from the sanitarium and placed in strange scenarios in the wider world, and after the first of these you also find your identity becomes more mutable than you expected. Clearly, some of the stuff you are seeing isn’t real – but they might reflect reality somehow. Can you emerge from the nightmare before it’s too late?

The use mental illness and its treatment as a subject of horror fiction has had a decidedly patchy history – one which may have contributed to a general cultural stigmatisation of mental illness. Though at first glance Sanitarium may seem to be doing this, it becomes fairly apparent early on that the action of the game is largely happening inside your character’s head – which means that the sanitarium he’s exploring is not intended to represent a statement on what such things are actually like so much it reflects his internalised issues. In fact, what the game largely resembles is not so much general mental illness as an extended dream, right down to the shifts between being in the sanitarium and being in the outside world which feel especially dreamlike.

The implementation is an interesting one for point-and-click adventures at the time. Rather than running with the new hotness and presenting a real-time rendered 3D environment – something which big names in the field like LucasArts and Sierra were struggling with at the time – or go for a traditional 2D presentation, the game instead shows an isometric view reminiscent of that used in then-current RPGs like Baldur’s Gate or Fallout, allowing the developers to make good use of 3D graphics but fall back on prerendered assets a lot. It is clearly an old game, but visually speaking it hasn’t aged terrible. By contrast, the voice acting is a bit pants, but you can largely turn it off and I did so fairly early on.

As far as the actual controls go, it’s pretty simple: clicking the left-mouse button on stuff in the environment allows you to interact with it, clicking the right mouse button will cause you to walk towards the cursor. The cursor animates when it’s over something interactive, which you would think in theory should be nice and user friendly, but it has an annoying habit of being over-fussy about when it animates, or taking slightly longer to animate than you’d expect, which meant there were some parts of the game where I got stuck due to missing something you have to do a bit of a pixel-hunt to find. (Likewise, some of the screens are not laid out as well as they could be, leading to one bit where I got stuck because I didn’t realise there was a passable path going in a particular direction.)

Though some puzzles are based around the movement system, these are a bit variable. (The final puzzle is absolutely infuriating because it keeps requiring you to move in specific directions and the game has a bad habit of misinterpreting which direction you want to go in.) For the most part, however, the puzzles don’t make much use of it, and I strongly suspect the movement system is a kludge to make up for the absolutely terrible pathfinding in the game. It’s not that the game has zero pathfinding – sometimes you can click on a distant-ish thing and the protagonist will interact with it just fine, but most of the time they will whine about not seeing how they can get there from where they are… even if there are absolutely no obstacles in the way. This can be particularly annoying when solving some puzzles which require you to be in a very particular place to enact their solution.

This is, frankly, pathetic. Simple pathfinding of the sort needed in this game was basically a solved problem by this point, and I don’t understand why DreamForge do such a pathetic job of it. It wasn’t bad enough to put me off playing Sanitarium and enjoying its trippy imagery to the end, but it did bug the heck out of me while I was playing it.

Still, there’s plenty of games out there with this sort of isometric presentation and actually decent pathfinding, and I’m kind of surprised I’m not aware of more point-and-click adventures that used this sort of presentation; after all, Planescape: Torment and Fallout had plenty of situations resolved through dialogue and puzzles rather than detailed RPG combat, so if you took the combat and the very game mechanic-y magic out of those you’d basically have an adventure game already.

How Much Final Fantasy VII Is Enough?

I never played Final Fantasy VII until recently, the only entry in the series I had ever invested much time into being XII, which I stopped playing when I realised I had just ceased caring, and III, which I stopped playing when I realised that there was no way to progress without doing a heap of grinding. As a consequence, I’ve only heard about it second-hand, and I don’t have a great deal of nostalgia about it; I think my biggest exposure to the thing was reading the infamous Final Fantasy VII house story back in the 2000s. However, with Final Fantasy VII Remake kicking off a reappraisal of the game and its spin-offs among friends who had played it, I decided to give it a go.

A note on how I played it: I actually used the PlayStation Classic, AKA the “PS Mini”, Sony’s rather unloved entry into the mini-retro console scene. Whilst some have their issues with this console, I found that playing the game on it worked just fine for the most part, but I did notice some slowdowns in fight scenes. Fortunately, Project Eris has come along and allowed users to add a bunch of useful quality-of-life features to the PS Mini, including a setting which allows you to launch games from the carousel using RetroArch rather than the stock emulator. This works a treat; though it has a bit of a learning curve to it, especially when it comes to changing discs and saving save states, RetroArch has the advantage of being significantly more efficient than the stock emulator on the PS Mini, avoiding slowdowns entirely.

Once you have that under your belt, using the PS Mini is essentially like playing a much more convenient version of the actual PlayStation 1 hardware where you never have to worry about your memory card running out and you can make save states any time you like, which is a real boon when playing a game like Final Fantasy VII which likes to throw long cut scenes at you with long breaks between points where you can save.

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Mini-Review: Zork

Text adventures had a long history even before Zork, but it’s Zork which is perhaps the most fondly remembered of the early wave, largely because it’s the game which established Infocom, who over the 1980s would become the most widely-revered designers working in the format.

The first Zork game has an almost archetypally simple premise, to the point where it doesn’t even offer you anything in the way of an introductory spiel: the game simply dumps you in a field west of a white house and lets you work out what to do from there. Unless you play deliberately incompetently, you soon enough make your way into the white house and eventually discover a route through its cellar into the game’s dungeon – which, as it turns out, is a small sector of the long-lost Great Underground Empire, a fallen civilisation of the past. Thus, along with portals to Hades and trolls and thieves and vampire bats and coal mines and the like, there’s a surprisingly modern reservoir and dam down there. In the long run, you’re expected to extract a bunch of treasures from the depths and install them in pride of place in the trophy case in the house, and once you’ve caught them all a deus ex machina points you in the direction of the next game.

The process of actually working out this much is arguably a puzzle in itself; equally, there’s a learning curve involved in working out how to play the game which is an illustrative example in people’s expectations of the early text adventures. As with Adventure, the inspiration for Zork, the odds that you’ll beat the game on your first run-through are slim; even though Zork is kind enough to give you multiple lives (though figuring out how to regain your possessions and/or your corporeal form once you’ve been killed is tricky), you’d have to be exceptionally lucky to not get the game into an unwinnable state, like accidentally breaking the crucial wind-up songbird or letting the iconic brass lantern run out of power before you find a reliable alternate light source. A large emphasis is on mapping so early run-throughs are likely to focus on that – a trickier task than you might expect since the game includes several mazes and often has rooms connected together obliquely. (For instance, the west exit in one room might be linked to the north exit on another room.)

Another aspect of cracking the game consists of timing. Your odds of slaying the thief and finally getting back the stuff he swipes from you are higher if you wait until you have a higher score to do it, but the longer you leave him in play the more of a nuisance he’s likely to become, so judging when the time’s right to go knife the guy can be key. Likewise, you’re going to need to snag that alternate light source sooner or later before the battery in your brass lantern runs out, but do you do this before you get the thief (in which case you run the risk of having your light source swiped from you) or after? And if you delay, do you still have enough juice left in your lantern for those segments of the game which still require it?

And whilst you’re figuring out the map and the best order to do things in, you also have to deal with the puzzles, which range from the extremely logical to the somewhat obscure. Of course, it’s worth considering that Zork, like Adventure, was originally developed to run on a university computer system, back in the day when personal computers were toys for hobbyists and most computer users worked on terminals connected to mainframes and minicomputers. Playing such games would be a much more social process than having a crack at a text adventure alone at home these days; odds are you were playing the game on a terminal in a computer room with fellow students and researchers who’d also played the game nearby you could ask for help or hints. This being the case, it makes sense that a few of the puzzles seem to require mildly obscure courses of action, just as it makes sense that the game doesn’t give you much in the way of help when it comes to working out what you were meant to do in the first place: developed, as it was, in a social context in which you not only could get pointers from your colleagues on how to proceed, but where you also had the millions-of-monkeys-at-millions-of-typewriters effect making it possible to add potentially quite nasty puzzles to the game and still be reasonably sure that at least someone will be able to stumble on the answer, it seems the developers had little to no opportunity to consider or observe how it may play differently for a user who had no access to help from friends playing the game.

This is why I think there’s no dishonour in using hints to beat the game when you’re stuck. To be fair, most of the puzzles are reasonably logical and have solutions which, whilst requiring a little thought, do absolutely make sense, though there are a few rogue incidents which I’d never have been able to guess (like one solution to the “Loud Room”, where typing “ECHO” resolves the situation but typing “SAY ECHO” doesn’t have the same effect). Luckily, Infocom understood that they could monetise this and produced numbers “InvisiClues” booklets which provided gentle hints in a non-spoilery way written with their characteristic wit, and since Activision haven’t been that litigious about Infocom’s copyrights since they bought Infocom out the InvisiClues booklets are available in handy HTML form for all to enjoy. By and large I find the system is good for giving me a nudge in the right direction without robbing all sense of achievement from the game – it’s the same reason I quite like the Ultimate Hints System website – and I’d argue that use of InvisiClues is as much part of the experience of playing Infocom games as actually sitting down and bashing away at the keyboard is.

Speaking of Infocom’s sense of humour, that is one of the major draws of Zork which helps stop the game becoming overly frustrating. The various text descriptions of places, objects, creatures and events are simultaneously economical (they had to be, back in those days of tight memory budgets) and evocative, and also manage to showcase a comedic style which would make Infocom natural collaborators with Douglas Adams for the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy text adventure and Bureaucracy.

Although I suspect most people won’t give Zork that much time unless they have a particular interest in text adventures, it is at least worth a quick look if you have a general interest in gaming history, and if you do dig interactive fiction it’s probably the earliest text adventure I can think of which I actually enjoy playing – so many of its contemporaries are let down either by an over-fussy parser or lacklustre prose that even though Infocom didn’t invent text adventures, I still regard Zork as representing Year Zero for seriously playable ones. Its two immediate sequels – The Wizard of Frobozz and The Dungeon Master – suffered a bit from some irritating puzzle mechanics – The Dungeon Master has an annoying maze, and the titular wizard in the second game largely spends his time randomly teleporting in and casting spells on you which momentarily inconvenience you, which usually requires you to wait until the effect wears off before continuing. It would take a little while for Infocom to evolve beyond this early dungeoneering style into the approach to adventure game design they’d become truly reknowned for.