Quern: Undying Thoughts (Review)

3a7279aa4d6b088dca7c8dacae8e6cfe23372182e9927c8c5ea0bfdfc52a9cedQuern came highly recommended by other Myst fans. From what I could see in the trailer and screenshots, I could understand why they would. Quern shares several key traits with the original Myst game–it is set on a remote island, riddled with puzzles, and shrouded in a mysterious story that is mostly told to the player through scattered journals and letters–but it’s similarities with Myst are superficial and cannot save it from its superficial puzzle design and heavy-handed storytelling.

The puzzles in Quern aren’t bad. In and of themselves, they make perfect sense and can be fun to solve but most are not well-integrated into the story and feel tacked on. While this issue does not break the game, the more poorly integrated puzzles add little of value to it and feel more like a chore to solve than a delightful challenge.

When puzzles are well-integrated into a story, they tell us something about the characters and the worlds they inhabit. In Riven: The Sequel to Myst, several of the puzzles directly involve the various machines used to generate power on the islands. These puzzles tell us about how the antagonist, Gehn, has fundamentally transformed Riven by plundering its natural resources and manipulating it native inhabitants to fuel the production of his linking books. These puzzles are not meaningless obstacles for the player to solve but are an integral part of the world and support the moral conflict at the heart of the story. Well-integrated puzzles allows us to interact with a story more meaningful and enhances or experience of the game.

As is they are, the puzzles tell us little about the island or its various inhabitants. Many of the puzzles are explained away as the result of the anthropologist’s well-developed technical skills but this explanation feels flimsy, especially when the anthropologist neglects to label any of the ingredients in his laboratory.

But, of course, to integrate puzzles into a game well you must also have a good story. The story takes place on a mysterious island that exists out of time and grants eternal life to anyone who inhabits it. Throughout the game the player picks up pieces of a journal kept by an anthropologist who inhabited the island previously. In these journals he relates how he spent his unlimited time studying the island, expanding his knowledge of the natural world and mastering his technical skills, until he exhaust everything the island has to teach him and becomes restless.

Near the end of the game, the player learns that other past inhabits suffered the same intellectual fate but with far greater consequences. Instead of being a lone researcher, like the anthropologist, these other inhabits came to the island in search of a means to save their home world from utter destruction but when they eventually return home, solution in hand, they become arrogant and power hungry. Although they save the world from destruction, their feel of intellectual superiority leads to civic unrest and social collapse. It’s a grim story that feels unsettlingly anti-intellectual for a game built around puzzles. I’m not sure if this was intended by the developers but with such a heavy-handed, allegorical story it’s difficult for me to interpret it any other way.

Quern is a decent puzzle-adventure game, offering a variety of challenging puzzles that are consistently fair to the player but occasionally feel tedious due to poor integration to into the game world. The story is, as other reviewers have put it, forgettable and possibly even regrettable considering its anti-intellectual message. I would recommend Quern to anyone with an interest in traditional logic puzzles but I cannot recommend it to anyone looking for a more substantial experience similar to those offered by the Myst series.


Dream Daddy (Video Game Review)

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When I first heard of Dream Daddy, I was immediately intrigued by the game’s theme (dating older men, a.k.a. “daddies”) but I was also hesitant. I had not played any other visual novels or dating sims before, and my only exposure to this type of game was through watching a short segment from Coming Out on Top. My concern was that the game would be primarily erotic in nature (Coming Out on Top has nude artwork for the sex scenes) and would lack any real drama but I was pleasantly surprised by Dream Daddy. Its various plotlines are generally well written, offering many genuinely sweet and sexy moments (through without any nudity) and even some beautifully bittersweet moments that make it far more emotionally compelling than a game about dating would be.

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Mr. Vega can lecture me any day …

Without giving too much away, I can say that each of the dad characters have a core conflict that the player can help to resolve. Most of these are relatively minor problems but make for very sweet, heartwarming stories. From the start, I was most drawn to Hugo Vega, or “Dr. Dad” as my husband and I like to call him, initially for his handsome exterior but was utterly sold on his after discovering he writes scholarly papers on 18th century literature. How I would have liked to talk to him about Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith! His plotline is typical for the game and will end very happily if you play your cards right.

Not all the various plots ending happily, however, and add a much-needed element of dramatic, that elements one character story considering and making another rather gut-trenching sad. The better of these two stories is Robert Small’s, a mysterious and potentially dangerous fellow with a heart of gold. His story ends in a poignantly bittersweet manner, appropriate to his character’s history and personal conflict. I ended up loving his character all the more even though I didn’t quite get him in the end (no pun intended). The other dramatic story belongs to Joseph Christiansen, a sweet and perhaps too flirtatious minister with a wife and kids. I won’t go into his story much, because it would give far too much away, but suffice it to say,

“Some men are like chocolate
but most of them are like shit
and if you don’t have the experience
to spot that tiny difference
you’re likely to fall for all of it.”

As wonderful and effecting as the stories are, I found myself a little disappointed by how constrained the protagonist’s character is. While you can determine the character’s appearance (which include “binder bods” for trans men and some make-up for us genderfluid men) and name, the protagonist’s personality is largely decided for you. There are numerous situations where I would have liked to have more reaction options–instead you have no other option but sound like a square.

One other aspect of the game I found disappointing was Mary Christiansen’s character and plot. When you meet her for the first time, she comes across like a mean and hostile person but over the course of the game, the player is given opportunities to provide her some emotional support. They’re wonderful moments because they force you to re-evaluate her behavior and understand that they come primarily from a place of pain. While this does not excuse everything she does, it humanizes her and is important for understanding Joseph’s character. It’s such a pity then that the game never explores her story beyond these few encounters. I would so have enjoyed bonding with her over a few drinks after … oh, well, I said I wouldn’t say anything more about that!

Dream Daddy is a delightful experience through and through despite some minor faults. The romantic moments are sweet, frequently funny, and often sexy, but its more dramatic moments are what make Dream Daddy worth your time and attention (and money). They add a emotional complexity to the various plotlines makes the game more interesting overall and actually intensifies the romantic moments in an unforgettable way.


One Year After The Witness: A Short Review

It has been nearly a year since I played The Witness and wanted to give it a second, although short, reconsideration. When I really liked (or hate) a game, it is easy for me to feel confident about my experience with a game. However, The Witness left me feeling rather ambivalent and so it had been harder for be to make a final judgement about it quality.

Here are my final thoughts.

The puzzles are cleverly designed, vary in difficulty, and offer some choice in which puzzles you have to solve to finish the game. However, there are a lot of the, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of them (one is reminded of The Talos Principle). As I stated in my previous review, I think it would have been smart to reduce the total number of puzzles in one play-through by separating them into difficulty levels.

The audio and video logs add little of value to the game. Most are interesting in and of themselves but quoting smarter, more interesting people is a poor substitute for original insight. The game would have been better without these, particularly the longer video logs, and would have been far more consistent with Jonathan Blow original intention to make the game about the puzzles.

The environments are beautifully rendered but environmental puzzles would have made them even more engaging.

Overall, I can’t say that I am unhappy with my experience with The Witness but I would have been far more satisfied if there had been fewer puzzles, difficulty settings, and no quotations. The Witness had the potential to be a great puzzle game but feels critically unbalanced and unpolished. It is very hard for me to imagine going back to play it again as I have with other, better puzzle games.

The Witness (Video Game Review)

WitnessPoster (1)The Witness first came to my attention while I was perusing a popular gaming magazine, the name of which I cannot recall, my sister had subscribed to years ago. It caught me quite by surprise because most gaming publications focus on anything but puzzle-adventure games and has ever been so since the decline of the genre in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Apart from the Portal series, Antichamber, and Fract OSC, there have been very few (good) puzzles game in the last 10 years (or more) for me to look forward. I was excited just to see one featured in a major gaming magazine and am glad to say that it was worth the several-year wait. With genuinely challenging puzzles and a beautiful environment, The Witness succeeds, but often tries too hard to sound smart.

The graphic design of The Witness has been widely praised and is, indeed, deserves it but I feel the architecture on the island serves special praise. Thekla, Inc. hired consulting architects to design the architectural elements of the island. Many game developers give little thought to architectural details and how crucial it is in creating a believable world. In games architecture is often only a superficial set-dressing, providing a semblance of time and space, but rarely achieving anything near historical accuracy or spatial sense. The Witness is one of the few games I have played that does justice to one of humanities oldest arts.

The game-play on the whole is very well organized. Unlike most other puzzle games that preference environmental or inventory puzzles, The Witness uses abstract logic puzzles. These consist of mazes that gradually increases in complexity and difficulty as the player progresses. The rules of these mazes are indicated through a variety of video and audio cues. Symbols, shadows, sounds, reflections, and, yes, even the fruit growing on the trees can provide vital clues to a puzzle’s solution. Some puzzles are quite easy, while others require more time, and some are downright difficult. Indeed, The Witness is easily the most difficult puzzle-based game I have played since Trilobyte’s The 11th Hour. However, as difficult as the puzzles can be, most of them do not feel unfair. In the cases of The Witness, a little patience can go a long way. I often found myself solving a previous frustrating puzzles after a several hour break and always felt gratified by doing so. It can be hard to find puzzle-based games that are genuinely difficult and The Witness does this very well, if at times too well.

In fact, the difficulty can be so great that I can’t help wondering if the game could have benefited from difficulty settings, thus allowing players to tailor the game-play to suit what they feel it appropriate to their skill. If they complete the game on a lower difficulty, they could always return and replay it on a higher setting. Given how many puzzles there are in the game (more than 400? or is it 600?) they could easily have sorted them into several levels of difficulty.

Despite this, however, The Witness does provide some relief by organizing the island, and its puzzles, into separate distinct areas. Completing each section activates a laser but the 11 lasers available, only 7 have to be activated to proceed to the end of the game. This allowed me to bypass an areas of puzzles that stumped me for a long time and to focus on others. Unfortunately, once you get to the find stretch of the game, this rule no longer applies and you have to solve every puzzle.

The puzzles I enjoyed the most were those that directly altered the environment. In some areas, such as the swamp, laboratory, and tree house, the puzzles moved platforms, bridges, or rooms. Most other puzzles simply unlock doors, which is a fine mechanic in and of itself, but integrating the puzzles into larger functions made solving these puzzles especially rewarding. Unfortunately, it a rare experience in The Witness.

There was one problem that occasionally got in my way, quite literally, when solving certain puzzles. The solution to some puzzle are suggested by tree branch but unless you have the camera position just right, you won’t be able to solve the puzzle. If a piece of branch extends into your path it will obstruct your line. Curiously, another puzzles use a similar element with shadows but they never obstruct the line. In another instance, a maze panel is obstructed by debris, unrelated to the solution itself, and can’t be solve unless the player is standing in just the right position. These problems form unnecessary barriers to solving puzzles and increase frustration in an undesirable way. Fortunately, these problems are minimal and don’t render the game unplayable.

The one characteristic of The Witness that makes it stand out from the rest of adventure games is its story, or lack thereof. I expected, from what little information was given during its development and prior to release, that the game would have a minimal story and would center on the experience of solving puzzles. Granted, the ah-ha! moment is there but there really is no story to speak of. I had expected, even hoped, that there would at least be something to give context to the islands existence or purpose but this is one area where The Witness is odd—not disappointing, mind you, but odd.

Throughout the game the player may encounter audio recordings on small electronic recorders, scattered throughout the island’s variation locations. Each of the recordings are direct questions from a variety of real sources and not fictional. These quotes are interesting in and of themselves, and compliment the game’s awe-inspiring scenery but they are very difficult to find within the game. I knew for some time there would be recordings in the game, because it was explicitly stated in interviews, but I never noticed them until I got to the secret ending. Afterwards, I went back to find some of them, though I confess I did not feel motivated enough to do a thorough search after completing the game. The recording devices are just too small to easily notice and there is nothing to draw your attention to them. One is even hidden between a post. Even in a beautifully minimalistic world it’s easy to neglect a small detail such as this and I feel that this is a problem they could have easily avoided.

In addition to these audio recordings, there is an underground theater when the player can video a small collection of videos and, much like the audio recordings, these clips are not original material but taken from other sources. It’s a curious choice and one I think does not work. Some of the videos are quite long and are just indirectly related to the gameplay as they audio recording but unlike the audio recordings, which you can listen to as you continue to play, you must sit (or stand, really) and watch them. Compared to the audio recordings, they are at least easier to find, but the sitting and watching is somewhat unpleasant because the content of these videos are not crucial to the game. Even the audio reducing seems unnecessary. After all, I got through the game without even noticing them! If indeed the game is about discovery and the ah-ha! moment of puzzle solving, then these audio and video clips create a sort of intrusion into the player’s subjective experience of the game. Instead of forming our own impressions, we are exposed to a series of thematic primers. This would not have been bad, and might even have worked, if there were a more conventional story to provide context to the island and purpose to these recordings but without this the recordings just seem unnecessary.

The two endings are just as problematic. One will send you back to the very beginning, resetting every puzzle, and the other (secret) ending shows a long, drawn-out video of the creator waking up from a virtual reality headset and stumbling around. These endings make the completion of the game feel final but I found them very unsatisfying. Again, they might have worked if the game had a more conventional story but because it doesn’t these sequences feel rather superfluous. Personally, I would prefer the game to have no ending. That way the focus would be entirely placed on the puzzles and the environment.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed the game immensely. It is one of the most challenging and visually stunning puzzle games I have ever played but it’s lack of story remains a strong weakness of The Witness, which is only emphasized by the unnecessary audio and video quotations. The Witness certainly isn’t for everyone and I can easily understand why some people absolutely hate it but it made this puzzle-gamer very happy and I think it will please other puzzle-loving gamers as well, provided of course that they don’t expect a story to go with their puzzles.

SOMA (Video Game Review)

soma___official_cover_art_by_sethnemo-d93l45jI have been following Frictional Games since their original Penumbra tech demo in 2006 and in that time I have seen them grow and mature as a developer. Their most recent production, SOMA, demonstrates just how far the have come as a developer and easily is their best game yet.

When I first heard the news regarding the development of SOMA, I was both excited and trepidatious. (After all, Amnesia was very scary. I shudder still when I am reminded of the dungeon sequence.) There are more lurking monster here than there were in Amnesia and this can make the game incredibly stressful at times. I must confess I turned on godmode  at several crucial points because I couldn’t take it. Even with this advantage, the game still proved to be very scary for me, largely due to the well developed and evocative story

Frictional Games has always been good at evoking strong emotions in their games but SOMA tops their previous efforts. The emotional moments of their previous games were genuinely sad and tragic but they were straightforwardly so. SOMA, on the other hand, does not let you off so easily.

SOMA explores the possibilities of artificial intelligence and brain-mapping–and does so in a way that fundamentally questions what it means to be a living, feeling organism. At several moments in the game, the player encounters robots (and one human) desperately thriving on a mutated artificial intelligence system called the WAU. In order to proceed through the game, the player must disconnect them from the WAU and effectively kill them. Normally, one might not feel much concern for a robot but these are running human brain scans. In many ways, they are quite human. They think, feel, and desire to live. Does their mechanical body disqualify them from being human? Is turning off a machine the same as ending a human life? Is it really better to die than live a painful existence? Do I have any right to make this decision for another organism? I could stop think about the questions and second-guessing my answers.

When I disconnected a robot (or human) from the WAU or ruthlessly attacked a robot for its computer chip, I found myself doubting my actions and feeling genuinely guilty about them. I didn’t like the idea of ending someone’s existence, even if they appeared to be nothing more than a machine. At least, that’s what I thought for much of the game.

Towards the end the player will meet the last fully human person, severely weakened and barely thriving on a life support system. After she helps you, she asks you to turn off her life support and end her life. Up until this point, I had assumed that surviving was the one and only goal. This is why I tried to save as many of the other characters as I could. In this case I’m explicitly asked to end a person’s pain by ending their life. The game allows you a choice here but I couldn’t leave her there to suffer alone. Once you turn her life support off, she asks that your remain with her during her last moments. This may have been option as well but I had to stay with her. Being with her as she died was one of the most painful moments I have ever experienced in a video game. It made me question whether my past actions were truly humane–perhaps letting the other characters live only condemned them to a miserable existence, one utterly alienated from everything they knew to be real and meaningful. Perhaps not.

These crucial choices are curious because they have no direct impact on the story. Even killing the WAU produces no apparent effect on the ending. This has been criticized by some players but I think this was a smart decision on the part of the developers. Giving each action a direct, observable consequences would have detracted from the emotional experience and cognitive dissonance that the game, and it choices, are meant to evoke. If each action were followed by either a “good” or “bad” consequences there would be little question how the player should feel about their actions. Instead, the emotional impact of these actions are the consequences. It’s an unusual decision but works very well for SOMA.

It can be difficult to find games with the kind of intelligent and emotional weight that SOMA has. It’s a remarkably achievement and one I suspect we won’t be forgetting anytime soon. SOMA manages to challenger our sense of being in a way that is neither trite or cliché but is consistently, and terrifyingly, meaningful.

Antichamber (Video Game Review)

Adventures games have been a part of my life since my childhood, when I would play Monkey Island, Zork, or The 7th Guest with my aunt, and has since grown to include many other titles of the same genre. Unfortunately, the genre declined in popularity in the late 1990’s, largely because not all titles met the standards gamers expected for the prices they paid and there are many games that do fall short of the mark, and nearly became nonexistence after 2000, with the exception for an increasingly repetitious Nancy Drew series and a few other games. With the success of the Portal series, the emergence of critical acclaimed independent companies like Frictional Games, and the promising development of a new Tex Murphy game and The Witness, I’m feeling very optimistic about the future of the adventure game.

Alexander Bruce’s Antichamber is another such game that gives me hope.

Unlike the many games I have enjoyed over the years, Antichamber does not really have much of a story, It relies more the players experience of the highly stylized environment and the thought-provoking picture-messages decorating walls here and there. Some of them also serve as hints to help the player but does not give away answers, as many game “hint systems” do or, in some cases, fail to do. Instead, the compels the player to think differently about the environment and so acts more as am aspect of the game-play and not like a “hint system.”

The labyrinth in which the game-world exists is large, confusing, and follows a not too obvious logic that the player much interpret in order to navigate competently through to the end. As difficult as this might seem, this structure works very well for the game, as the player begins within a smaller area with over portions closed off by puzzles. As the players understanding of the environment and skills increase, the labyrinth expands but never feels to encumbering. To aid the player, the game allows one to easy navigate to almost any place within it that has been previously unlocked. This, along with the menu screen and your collected picture-messages, appear along the walls of the entrance/menu page.

To solve the puzzles the player must experiment with the environment and the block-spewing gun in order to understand how they function and can be used. At times manipulating the blocks can be frustrating. When attempting to create a floor with the red gun the blocks would spread vertically instead of horizontally, and I was unable to determine of what of guiding them in a desired direction. Creating continue lines of blocks can also be difficult, as aiming is not so precise from a distance and the blocks are projected as far as they can go until prevenet by another object. Despite this, building with the blocks can be fun as well, and once during a playful impulse I lined all the walls around me with blocks. Whenever the player creates an enclosed shape the inside fills with more blocks (this technique is used to “grow” blocks) and this same rules applies to three-dimensional shapes. Without thinking about the actual consequences, I effectively entombed myself with a solid block and crashed the game.

The only other aspect of the game I found problematic was the mouse point. Although it remains in the center of the screen, it can be hard to discern from the “evaporation” areas, which are themselves permeated with agitated dots. Nevertheless, it wasn’t so detrimental as to make block manipulation impossible.

Antichamber ends with a curious, rather creepy chase sequence, during which the player has to follow after a mysterious black entity that floats around the maze. In the end this entity becomes necessary for the final puzzle. The ending is simple and rather ambiguous but a satisfyingly mysterious end to a thoroughly mysterious game.

Despite some of the cumbersome mechanics, I found this game greatly enjoyable. It appeals to my desire to explore, experiment, and solve problems; and it does this all in a neat, uncomplicated way. Playing Antichamber captured my interest in a way that few games do and it is a game well worth being interested in.