Serena (2014)

I am stunned. I am stunned and confused by what I’ve just witnessed.

Let me begin by introducing the premise of the game. After that, I’ll focus in on the mechanics. Lastly, we’ll look at the game critically, analyzing what I hold to be the most interesting and difficult part of it all: the conclusion, wherein I will explore and dissect the possible meaning of the ending of Serena. So there will be SPOILERS.

But are you surprised? This is a short adventure game.

The game begins with you in a cabin, alone, wandering through your memories. Your wife, Serena, isn’t with you. Where is she? What has happened to her, and what has happened here? Mystery hangs thick in the air; every item you look at is one part insightful and one part equally unhelpful. From the first minute of play, I could tell Serena would be a game that would puzzle me, and its conclusion did not fail to do so. The game houses a collection of disparate moments, each with their own value, each potentially beckoning the player to judgement and discernment.

One of the most memorable of such moments occurs very early in the game, when you pick up a photograph of you and Serena. The photograph is a portrait – and it is fascinating to think back to the discovery – but the image of Serena is blurred, hidden from you. It is as if the very memory of her face escapes your every effort. How haunting a realization, to perceive that the one you love is vacant from the recesses of your mind; and how awful that you cannot remember what she looks like. Of course, it is the more frightening and extraordinary scenario that you cannot and will not see her face in a tangible object, as you hold and fondle and peer at the image of her.

This moment has continued to stay with me even after the photographic obscurity was resolved.

On another note, there is a certain novelty present in the game’s mechanics. What do I mean by this, you might ask? I say novelty rather loosely, since Serena does very little outside the realm of what has been done before in adventure games. It’s a simple concept: one setting, point-and-click interaction, no other interactive characters, etc. There is a script of dialogue that runs with each click of the mouse, sequentially, of course. Though this system is not novel, it is executed in such a way as to feel much more organic. When clicking through the dialogue, on the one hand, I was able to perceive the mechanic and knew intuitively how to manipulate it and how to use it to get what I needed from the game. On the other hand, though, the dialogue was rich and nuanced, and I don’t think it was necessarily all that predictable. I may be wrong about this.

On a final note, I think I can make sense of the conclusion of Serena.

Initially, I (along with my character) believed that the body found inside of the armoire was that of Serena. The continuous exploring, along with the growing resentment for her character made this scenario very probable. However, this was not the case. It is instead your character that is dead, murdered by Serena, it would seem. But this isn’t news to you. If you’ve played the game, then you know all about this twist ending.

What is worth talking about is the disconnect here. If you are dead and stuck inside of an armoire, then what is the backstory of your experience of reality, and how does it fit into the game’s memory motif? Asked another way, why are you walking around this cabin, touching things, thinking, and generally experiencing reality in this particular way? Furthermore, on account of you being dead, why are you experiencing reality at all?

Another possibility is that when the game begins, you are not dead. This would explain the ending, when Serena shows up to burn the cabin to the ground. However, this treats the body you’ve found in the armoire as not actual but merely symbolic – that is, because of the way your character mistreated and unappreciated Serena, you are dead. You seeing your body is a sort of premonition or realization of how wrong things are.

Unfortunately, this last option isn’t very satisfying, and it doesn’t make the most sense of the data. Granted, I acknowledge the possiblity of the conclusion not needing to make sense in some rational way. However, the game does seem to be implying that it is you in the armoire; Serena has killed you, and then she and a man will burn down the cabin housing you, your memories, and all the objects of affection that you’ve spent the past hour (or more?) pouring over. In a way this is vaguely reminiscent of the realization made by Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense.

So let’s conclude with this. The developers were very clever to misdirect us with our own character’s misdirection. The game has some loose ends left unraveled, but the thrust of the narrative is really quite solid albeit overplayed. What I really enjoyed about Serena was the scope of the storyline and the way in which we were forced to answer our own questions – or our character’s questions. I also enjoyed the way in which the typical adventure game dialogue unfolded. It felt novel. Lastly, in light of all of these things, the game nonetheless left me deep in thought about what I’d just witnessed, for days, if not weeks later; this is what makes Serena stand out: its lingering presence.

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Balloon Diaspora (2011)

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The fact that Balloon Diaspora came from the minds of Cardboard Computer: for this reason, credibility was immediately given. They gave the world Kentucky Route Zero (which is, put plainly, enough), and this title feels like its neighbor, if not its cousin.

Playing through this felt a little like a dream. The characters felt real (many as if I knew them), though there was something about each of them that seemed distant, removed; alien. I rather did like the way each of them looked, with those white, simple bodies, and unadorned countenances (with one exception, if I recall). This unadorned aesthetic ran concurrent throughout the game. The whole thing struck me as pure, bare, and unfettered.

I especially enjoyed the converse of this aesthetic, found in the colors of the balloons, and in the scarves, sashes, capes, and bows worn by the characters. The whole thing was like a dream.

And the gameplay was fun. It was simple, but fun.

The Last Night (2014)

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Though a brief play, The Last Night is incredible.

The game was a submission at Cyberpunk Jam. Its minimalist futurist aesthetic is perfectly executed. Being as I am a fan of games such as Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Gods Will Be Watching, I knew immediately that I would appreciate this.

I think more than anything, The Last Night has served as a gateway to Tim and Adrien Soret’s upcoming project.

FOC/US (2013)

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It would be unfair to say that FOC/US is a game about taking pictures. Rather, I feel it appropriate to say that FOC/US is a game that asks all sort of existential questions. Its dialogue is witty, and its characters are sharp. And perhaps most importantly of all, FOC/US asks the player behind the camera to examine himself. Unlike the very small characters that are being spotted with a very, very, very long lens, the player must concern himself with his role in the world around him, not merely as a detective looking for information, but also as a fellow character, being watched by some other lens of sorts. Brought to us by Felix Park.

The Very Organized Thief (2013)

My initial play-through of The Very Organized Thief was met with both a sense of curiosity and with fear. The moment I began my journey as a thief, scouring the house of some unknown victim, I was overcome with a real and present anxiety. This anxiety was the result of feeling pressure to secure the items I had made a list of, and to do so without being caught.

As I began my thieving, I had many questions: Whose house is this? Why am I robbing them? Why do I have a list of items to procure? Is anyone home? All of these questions swirled through my head at a hundred miles per hour, an indecent speed to properly and sufficiently meet the conviction of each respective question.

The mechanics of The Very Organized Thief were delightful; the gameplay, exciting and unique. The atmosphere crafted by the developers was also extremely well-done. My only complaint would be with regards to the A.I. I found its interaction to be deterministic, and one-dimensional. Even with repeated plays, the character of the returning house owner struck me as irrational, illogical, and unsophisticated. Brought to us by Redefinition Games.