A couple of weeks ago I got really into Twitter.
One of the people I followed was Mike Bithell and, as a result, I found myself last Saturday buying and playing his game Thomas Was Alone.
Then on Sunday I played Zoe Quinn‘s Depression Quest.
On Monday I played The Stanley Parable.
Tuesday it was Organ Trail.
Wednesday I bought Feist.
And on Thursday, to round it all off, I finished Braid. Again. Yes, that one doesn’t count because I’ve played it dozens of times before, but I ran through it again anyway.
Here are my thoughts:
Thomas Was Alone
Amazing. Perfect mix of story, art style, music, puzzles, gameplay, and narration.
It’s a great length, too. I finished in one sitting, a little over three hours long, getting up only to make more cups of tea.
There’s not much to add (and you don’t want any spoilers, now do you do), but I’ll expand a little on what I meant by “gameplay”. Quite simply: the “left, right, jump” controls correspond in a totally intuitive way. It’s as though they have been repeatedly tuned in testing to be as unfrustrating as possible (and they almost certainly were). Every time you jump or run, it feels GREAT, much like those sessions heavily in “the zone” on Mario or Sonic.
I guess now I write about the controls one minor point I would make is that switching between characters often isn’t intuitively immediate. You can select “next character”, “previous character”, and jump to specific ones with the number keys, but often you have to bumble a little to get to the one you want. I don’t know the way around this except to say that perhaps the order of the characters could have been fixed in the same order they are introduced in the game. That way I would know that “1” was always Thomas (or Chris, if no Thomas, or John, if no Thomas and Chris, etc.), and likewise for the others. It would, I believe, have smoothed over that aspect of the game in a pleasing way. As it is, the order of character cycling on each level seems arbitrarily random – did I miss something?
The last thing to say is that the learning curve on this game is FLAWLESS. I honestly believe I could give this to someone who had never played a videogame before and they could get through the whole thing and, more importantly, because of the way the story draws the player in, they would WANT to, and it would be a fun experience, rather than a frustrating “challenge”. And you can’t say much better about a game like Thomas Was Alone than that.
I’d been meaning to play this for ages. I hate all the Gamergate crap – it incites in me such a “who the hell cares?!” reaction (on both sides, to be honest) – and I guess I had felt like playing Depression Quest was going to somehow draw me into that stupid quagmire so stayed away from it. Luckily, I realised how dumb that was so played it on Sunday.
This is a text based game where you play a person suffering from depression and I felt like it did a REALLY good job of conveying what that might be like.
While I was playing, I kept looking for the options like “psyche yourself up, pull yourself together, and get out of this slump” but they weren’t there. And that’s the point.
The best I could do was choose options that seemed to lead in the most positive direction (medication, therapy, etc.) and what started as being a “ooh this is an interesting look into depression” became more of a game and I felt “I’m gonna WIN this and NOT be depressed because I RULE!”.
But of course it doesn’t work like that.
I got to the end having put the character in a better place than when she (he?) started but I didn’t get to solve everything.
And you can’t.
Not in that timeframe.
Depression Quest is a great game that completely achieves its purpose of raising awareness but, not only that, is interesting and – weirdly enough – I found it quite fun, in a gamey “I gotta win this” way, too. I know that sounds wrong and not the point, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I connected with competitive game-like elements in it.
The Stanley Parable
If Depression Quest is a Choose Your Own Adventure that you play once and it’s served its purpose, then The Stanley Parable is a Choose Your Own Adventure that you want to read again and again until you’ve gone through EVERY possible route.
It’s a first person game set in an office, with an antagonising voiceover trying to make you do what it tells you, with hilarious consequences.
There are so many different “endings” and paths through the game, and it really is masterful at inciting emotions in the player. Much of the time those emotions are laughter, curiosity, etc. but probably MORE of the time they are sheer anger and frustration at what a condescending dickhead the narrator is. Which is brilliant. The fact that a game can do that is honestly impressive, and some people have taken it so badly they’ve sent the creator hatemail, which although he has admitted does get to him, is also proof that the game has succeeded.
It’s another one of those “you kind of have to play it rather than read me talk about it because there will only be spoilers” but I would say two more things.
The first is that I’d seen stills and videos of bits of the game which, although didn’t contain any spoilers, did really give me an idea of what the game could be like. I think I had read one of the Penny Arcade guys write about it too. I had built in my head an idea of what the game was like and when I played it there was no disconnect – it was exactly the game I thought it was going to be, and exactly as good as I thought it could be. No, that’s not quite right. It was better than I thought it could be. I didn’t expect it to make me feel as strongly as it did. Which leads onto the second point…
…I found the game depressing. The reason I found it depressing is that it employs a subtext that work is boring and life is meaningless and people are all the same and offices are crap and somehow there needs to be something “more” than that to make things worthwhile. It’s a worldview that I don’t like. Now, perhaps for many people that is what life is really like, but I’ve found even when working in offices that humanity shines through and we have a laugh and I look forward to seeing people and, yes, even look forward to working. I don’t agree with this “you grow up and then life sucks” narrative that we’re often pessimistically fed, and the way the game assumes it for the setting was particularly wounding. The Stanley Parable wouldn’t work without it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but certainly the strongest emotional response the game brought out in me was that of sheer resistance to the default philosophy on work and life that underlay everything.
I only played this for about an hour. I just found it boring. I’m not going to say it’s a bad game but I wasn’t engaged.
So, this is sort of a parody game of Oregon Trail, a 70s educational(ish) game where you have to manage food and people getting to Oregon in 1848.
In Organ Trail you’re getting across America by car and there are zombies.
It still has the same type of interface and resource buying elements and a bit of action here and there.
I understood perfectly well what I was supposed to do, and things seemed to be going alright (one of my party got killed by a zombie though) but it felt like I’d played games like this before (and I have! I grew up with a BBC Micro!) and my reaction was just too much “OK, I get it, I get this game. I’m not really having fun but I’m glad I played it”.
It could also be that at this point in time zombies are FUCKING BORING.
I kept the Indie game combo going and bought Feist on Wednesday.
It looks like Limbo but it’s not about puzzles, it’s more a chase through a forest where your little guy has to pick up twigs and rocks to defend himself from bigger animals, including flying bugs, who all seem to be trying to kill him. They can fire arrows at you too. Then there are bosses which are about five times larger than you and take a tonne of hits to kill. It’s brutal!
No joke, this game is quite difficult. There are some questionable restart points, a general lack of information (your hit points, enemy hit points, what you’re supposed to do to move on, …), and some odd long sections of nothing happening at the start of levels (loading? scene setting? music building? atmosphere? just there to screw with me? – it works).
At one point I reached a particularly cool physics momentum problem – after getting through a harrowing stretch of attackers – and there was something off-screen firing arrows at me, which killed my guy and I had to go all the way back to before the combat stretch. That was maddening. Except it wasn’t really, because I consider myself a bit of a skill gamer and I love stuff like that which is unfair but which I know with a bit of persistence I can beat. And I did beat the game, in probably about the same time as it took to do Thomas Was Alone. But, unlike Thomas Was Alone, Feist is not a game I would just give to anyone and say “you’ll enjoy this”. I can see A LOT of people giving up when it just seems to be too unfair.
Anyway, it’s an absolutely beautiful adrenaline ride, and that’s the point. It was one long sprint through a forest that demanded a lot of skill from me and didn’t hold my hand or even tell me how I was supposed to do stuff. To finish a game like that feels awesome.
Maybe even viewing Feist as a linear experience is flat out incorrect and it’s really best interpreted as a playpen. Certainly I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the coolest bits again with a more experimental, “What can this game do? Let’s make neat stuff happen” mindset.
I’ve played it A LOT, and I’m not really sure why I went back to it for day 6 instead of trying something else new. I guess I felt like I’d spent a fair bit on Indie games and I also wanted to see how one of my old favourites stacked up to these five newer ones.
What can I say? I ran through the whole game, knowing most of the puzzles like the back of my hand, but still having the odd “oh yes, now how do I do this one again?” moment, which was very satisfying.
Braid is still excellent and, by the end, I realised, whether intentional or not, playing it through was a fantastic way to round off a week of Indie gaming.