Save the Date (2013)

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Have you ever had a date that concludes in disaster? You know, the sort that ends with death by fatal wounds, fantastical creatures engulfing an entire restaurant, or meteorological calamities.

If you haven’t, well then you’re in for a treat.

Save the Date is a spurious, humorous, wild, calamitous title. I have not laughed out loud at a game in a long time. However, I have to qualify exactly what I mean. This isn’t a funny game, per se. Rather, Save the Date is a game that takes itself, its medium, as well as its audience and their expectations very lightly. Prepare yourself for layers and layers of meta-humor.

Honestly, I was sad when it was over (though is it ever really over?) because the game left such a warm and indelible impression on me. It was a little gimmicky, but the gimmick was cute; it was aimed at perceiving the experience of playing a game based around decision-making as fleeting, and it took complete liberty in deconstructing the whole event. I found this very refreshing.

If you are wanting to experience a game that you will not quickly forget, play Save the Date, and consider what it means to play a game.

Save the Date is brought to you by Chris Cornell (no, not the lead singer of Soundgarden).

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Little Party (2015)

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Well, this was quite a surprise.

I began playing through Little Party in a less than committed fashion, as I was not particularly interested in what I saw. I thought the choice of pastel colors was interesting, but I didn’t think much of everything else. Of course, that was until I realized the character of the mother was a vehicle for observing the real characters of interest.

But maybe not. Perhaps it is the mother’s perspective, one of reflection, that actually owns the purpose of the game. Perhaps it is her slow movements – traversing every square inch of geography available, moving in and out of conversations, silently observing, carefully considering – that give this story its purpose. I still don’t really know what Little Party is about, or what it is communicating. Surely something is being communicated, given that large, blue letters dominate the width of the screen whenever a significant action is required of you. In this way, the mechanics are directive and lacking ambiguity.

It is, however, the narrative of the mother and daughter that seems most substantial to understanding the purpose of Little Party.

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Your daughter, Suzanne, is having a few of her friends over for an all-nighter at your place in the woods. Apparently this all-nighter is a party, and this party is an occasion for Suzanne to write an entire EP in one evening. Suzanne is a musician, who in the course of the game plays both a keyboard and a guitar. The rest of her friends are along for the ride, and each character brings their own schtick to the event. One friend is a burgeoning filmmaker, lugging around his camera, perceiving drama everywhere, and orienting long shots. Another is something of a thinker, seemingly preoccupied with equations and patterns. The third friend, we learn, is a painter. I think it’s interesting that Suzanne’s friends are all male.

In the course of the evening, each character delves into their craft, apparently inspired by the forested and isolated surroundings. Paintings are made, games are played, films are shot, music is written; all of this is experienced indirectly by your character, Suzanne’s mother.

I would like to talk a little about the music Suzanne writes in the course of the game. Honestly, from the beginning, Little Party makes itself about the music. The music takes center stage in telling the story, and it serves as much more than a backdrop for the relationship between the mother and daughter: it serves as a link that brings their two worlds together. Perhaps music is not quite correct; perhaps it is more like the creative task of writing music that links Suzanne with her mother. After all, she and her mother share a few creative bonds: Suzanne writes music, just as her dad did before her, and her mother was a painter. In fact, the entire Little Party is comprised of creatives doing what they do best.

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Much of the music was interesting, but ultimately incidental. It serves its purpose of showing Suzanne to be a creative, thick in the process of composing an EP. An exception to this would be the scene by the lake behind the house, when your character stumbles upon Suzanne playing her guitar. The first song she is crafting is dour and mournful. After being started and apologizing for playing a style she ultimately dubs as not her own, she turns and plays the most beautiful piece of music in the entire game. This guitar piece captured my attention and effortlessly ignited my imagination. With its grandiose, introspective progression, this piece helped me to connect with Suzanne.

In conclusion, my impression of Little Party is a good one. The game itself is simple, its mechanics are predictable, and the gameplay is clunky and unsophisticated. Still, I really enjoyed it. Its lovable atmosphere left an impression on me that I won’t soon forget. And could turn away those colors, and those (what look to be) hand-drawn characters and backgrounds? It’s all so original. Also, the whole thing really does come together nicely in the end. And as a creative myself, I relish the thought of ending my party as Suzanne ends hers.

Little Party was created by a host of people, but specifically Carter Lodwick and Ian Endsley.

3 Games By Connor Sherlock

In this post I would like to turn my attention to a game developer named Connor Sherlock, who has made three games that I’d like to write about. Each game struck me differently.


Sanctuary (2014)

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Created in 2-3 days for the #IndiE3JamSanctuary is difficult to play. The mood is heightened by some interesting music, and I must say, the lomographic visuals are very striking. However, it’s an odd game. And like I said, it is difficult to play. Rather than talk about the gameplay, I will instead focus on the mechanics.

Sanctuary is a first-person explorer, and begins suddenly with you in the midst of a natural scene, surrounded by trees and flowers, with a cloudy sky above you. But there’s a very odd quality to this game: the visual field of your character is low-sitting (as if you were a small animal) and skewed at the periphery. So what this entails is a clear field of vision toward whatever you are looking, straight ahead. However, above and below this field – as well as to each side – is blurry. If this was intentional, I found this feature to be very distracting.

Conceptually I am open to experimentation on the topic of visual obstruction. I think this may provide some truly fascinating scenarios and mechanics. Naturally, for an obstruction to be deemed necessary, there has to be an explanation for its existence, for it is normative to be able to see what you are looking at. I can see without any aid. My eyes work properly. This is normative. If I cannot see, I must get corrective lenses or contacts. This is not normative. In the same way, there must be some reason for obstructing the vision of the player. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for it! I just think it is unthoughtful and in poor form to implement something like this without a reason.

On to other things: I rather enjoyed the atmosphere of this world, and after playing through three of Sherlock’s games, I think this is one of his strongest attributes across the board. Sanctuary is surreal. It is conceptually staggering, and I like that. I like that a lot.

One peculiar feature of the game is the low-sitting nature of your perspective. What is this about? Are you playing as a small dog, or as a rabbit? How about a cockroach? The perspective feels extremely awkward and really unlike anything I’ve ever played before (not in a good way).

But perhaps this and the visual obstructions are the result of the same lagging graphical issues, with the game being in his words, poorly optimized.


CONDOR (2014)

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The second game to be discussed is CONDOR, and what a different game this is. CONDOR is dystopian and futurist, and feels like an homage to the world of Blade Runner. Everything is neon and pastel. Building are grafted into the world with minimalist aesthetic. It’s beautiful. The world here is huge (read: HUGE) and you truly feel its immensity throughout the entire game.

But I have some criticisms.

In the first place, the world feels empty. Granted, this may be the intent of Sherlock. Certainly the game’s objectives and its mechanics treat the world more like a desolate mountain to traverse. But with such a magnificent display, why not entertain there being more? Why not emulate life and interaction, even if these things only serve as foils to your attempts at jetpacking up to the highest point of the skyline. It just seems so wasteful; to construct something so beautiful, but to leave it so barren.

My second criticism turns to the subject of atmosphere. While there is this minimalist architecture all around you, beautiful and brazen, it is merely monolithic. It serves no purpose but to engage the sport mechanic at work here. The music is likewise very disappointing. There is exceptional possibility here. But alas, only a simple, droning soundtrack serves as a backdrop to this beautiful urban cityscape. As a composer, I cannot help but imagine some of the ideas that could emphasize the qualities of CONDOR.

But let’s end on a good note. I think that CONDOR is beautiful, and I think it is interesting. And for these reasons, I will keep the game on my hard drive. I will play it again, years from now, perhaps, and it will be exciting.


TRIHAYWBFRFYH (2013)

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Short for The Rapture is Here and You Will Be Forcibly Removed from Your HomeTRIHAYWBFRFYH is a game that will stay with me forever.

Upon launching the game, you are immediately standing in a flowing meadow. A lush synth soundtrack begins to set the mood. And as it does, there is a nagging sense that this place is terrible and it is beautiful; it is weary and hopeless, an entire world in front of you but not a soul in sight; it is loneliness.

TRIHAYWBFRFYH does a fine job of a couple of things. In the first place, the game leaves you with a real, original, and lasting impression – something so few games are capable of, and even fewer could accomplish in such a short period of time. I have not – and foreseeably will not – forget this game. This impression is bolstered by its striking visuals and its lush scenes. There is blood red fields of grass, then moving into golden hues, and blanched orange. There are trees, cabins, and fog littering this world of impending doom. One distracting feature of TRIHAYWBFRFYH is the way in which, sometimes, the draw distance of the graphics just appears out of nowhere. Who knows the reason, but I thought it worth mentioning, given that it took me out of the experience at times.

It is also worth mentioning how impressive the soundtrack was. Not only did it aid the immersion of player into the story and world created, but it heightened everything significantly. Warm synth lines, freckled with the occasional tom hit, and warble-y leads that demonstrate other-wordly essences: all of these elements perfectly emphasize the narrative trajectory of the game.

The final thing Sherlock did so well is to craft a world and experience that left the player feeling complete and utter loneliness. How did he do this, you might ask? Well, through a careful literary penetration of a selection of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. In TRIHAYWBFRFYHSherlock is less interested in exploring the horror of the author’s pedigree, but rather the loneliness of the author’s works. In his own words: “Feeling lonely in first person games was very cathartic to me growing up, so I’m trying to recreate the feeling as acutely as I can.”

And recreate them he did. I can empathize with the catharsis of feeling loneliness in first person games, especially when those games are comprised either of worlds absent of others (think Myst) or chalk-full of baddies or friends to mindlessly shoot (think Halo or perhaps any FPS on Steam).

Using Lovecraft to guide and nurture the mood, Sherlock established dialogue points (as we’ll call them) throughout the game, where passages of Lovecraft’s stories are narrated by various voices (some very good, by the way, Sherlock). Each passage hits at the feeling of loneliness perfectly. Each passage moves the narrative forward in a very abstract way. The effect is unmistakable, and this is most certainly TRIHAYWBFRFYH‘s greatest strength.

I will leave you with this passage from Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space:

When they looked back toward the valley and the distant Gardner place at the bottom they saw a fearsome sight. At the farm was shining with the hideous unknown blend of color; trees, buildings, and even such grass and herbage as had not been wholly changed to lethal grey brittleness. The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues of foul flame, and lambent tricklings of the same monstrous fire were creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn and sheds. It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism.

Then without warning the hideous thing shot vertically up toward the sky like a rocket or meteor, leaving behind no trail and disappearing through a round and curiously regular hole in the clouds before any man could gasp or cry out.

I recommend buying the soundtrack for a mere four dollars.

Patient # (2013)

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Created during the Vancouver’s Full Indie 48-hour game jam, Patient # is a brief dialogue-driven game taking a novel approach to how choices are made. Dialogue options are presented visually, floating through the room and around the subject, apparently reacting to the course of the conversation. Furthermore, the responses made available depend on the emotional state of the patient with which you are engaging. It’s a neat idea.

Jesse Davidge is responsible for the artwork of this game, and I must say, it is certainly striking. The gloomy, darkly shaded patient characters are captivating in their few moments of screen time.

The gameplay is brief, but it’s an interesting and thoughtful experience.

I am looking forward to what is to come from Silverstring Media.

Glitchhikers (2014)

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Glitchhikers plays out like a Lynchian dream.

The gameplay is secondary to the experience. There is no sense of urgency – everything moves along at a languid pace determined only by your conversations – even though the topics traversed by you and your passengers are of universal and mortal importance. I believe this juxtaposition serves as the pinnacle reveal of the game: Glitchhikers’ appeal lies in its transparency, as it allows the open, uncertain philosophical themes to guide the driver, all the while, wooing him with the gentlest of caresses found only on a long drive. Truly, isn’t this what driving at night is like?

Though I am sure it is easier to ask questions that seem to have no answer at all, Glitchhikers finds some middle ground, though ultimately goes the continental route in all things philosophical. This is my only substantive criticism of the game: to have more meat on its discussions of life and death.

Some reading this may find my criticism dull or pointless, or perhaps you think I’m being pretentious. But hear me out. My difficulty with the dialogue lies not with its questions but with its answers (or lack thereof). When I go on long drives, it is with greatest pleasure that I engage in long and complex thinking; some of it is vacuous, of course, but much of it is intellectually stimulating. It’s hard work versus merely light thinking. I think Glitchhikers could have really benefited from a change such as this.

But driving is a metaphor.

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.

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.