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.


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.