A score or more scores for…er…video games

In this post, I review the following games:

Child of Light – 2/5
STARWHAL – 4/5
Valiant Hearts – 1/5
LIMBO – 3/5
Gone Home – 1/5
Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe – 4/5
Depression Quest – 2/5
Gravitation – 3/5
Passage – 3/5
Krypteia – 3/5
The Banner Saga – 1/5
To the Moon – 1/5
Minecraft – 5/5
Patterns – 1/5
Long Live the Queen – 1/5
The Binding of Isaac – 3/5
Gunpoint – 4/5
Assassin’s Creed – 1/5
Papers, Please – 2/5
400 Years – 4/5
Dys4ia – 1/5
Nothing to Hide – 1/5
Machinarium – 3/5
Heroes of Sokoban – 4/5
Braid – 5/5
Starseed Pilgrim – 3/5

Child of Light – 2/5

The world art in Child of Light is pleasantly stylized, but not captivating. The writing is charming, but lackluster. The mechanics are interesting, but not deep enough to support an entire play-through.

Child of Light’s most redeeming quality is its distinctive imagination. Aurora, the game’s heroine, is a princess who awakes in a strange land. One of the most endearing personal touches that makes this more than a completely generic fantasy story is that all dialogue rhymes, in keeping with the fairy tale aesthetic. One of the first characters Aurora encounters, though, is a travelling jester who just can’t get the words right. She always sets up an obvious rhyme and then picks a non-rhyming synonym instead.

This is already pretty funny, but my favorite thing about it is that the other characters become consternated and correct her. For example, when the jester asks permission to accompany you, she says,

Little lady, can I join you?
My bags are already packed
I’ve got to find my brother
And save our double…routine!

Another companion interjects with a look of concern: “Act.” This seems to reflect a peculiar feature of their world: the dialogue doesn’t just rhyme because the game is a fairy tale; in the language these people speak, sentences actually don’t make sense unless they rhyme. I was quite smitten by this touch.

The battles are built on a turn-based RPG system with a few clever modifications. One of the characters can be used to slow down enemies or heal your own characters between ordinary actions, and this adds a dynamism to fighting that is usually absent from older RPGs. The skill and equipment upgrade systems are standard, but also add enough complexity to keep the gameplay moderately engaging as you advance to harder enemies. The world is explored in a mostly linear fashion, which becomes a bit dull, but this didn’t bother me too much.

Child of Light’s lethal weakness is that it treats the player like a complete moron. If you can imagine coming up to a “puzzle,” immediately seeing the solution and trying to go about implementing it, only to have your controls frozen while the game walks you through it step by step, then you don’t really need to play this game. Charm can only go so far to justify this kind of basic disrespect for the player’s ability, and that’s not as far as Child of Light needs.

STARWHAL – 4/5

Move forward, turn right, turn left. Drive your tusk through the hearts of enemy starwhals.

(To wit, space narwhals.)

Battles are fast-paced. It’s hard to say how much any particular outcome is determined by skill as opposed to luckier panicked flailing, which is somehow a selling point. This is an experience both hilarious and intense. This is a phenomenal party game.

Without diminishing that praise, STARWHAL is not good for much else. It doesn’t support multiplayer online, and the solo “challenge” levels aren’t enough to justify a purchase. You should play it with friends at home or not at all.

Valiant Hearts – 1/5

Consider this screenshot:

Valiant hearts screen shot

Those are links to share on Facebook and Twitter. In the game menu. This sets off aesthetic alarm bells I didn’t even know I had. I hope this seeds in you a deep distrust of the game’s design choices, because that distrust will be rewarded with sweet self-satisfied contempt.

We are now prepared to begin the review.

I couldn’t get a feel Valiant Hearts. It’s sometimes cartoonish, sometimes dramatic. It sometimes throws real-world photographs on screen, sometimes attempts immersion. Switching between multiple characters’ perspectives is disorienting, especially at the painfully artificial cliffhangers. With each transition, more contrivances are piled on. I don’t think I could write flatter characters if it were my deepest desire.

The gameplay is a terrible implementation of point and click mechanics, which was sometimes difficult only because I didn’t understand what tools were available to me. Several times I would try to advance, only to discover that I was unable to interact with my environment in the obvious way. Instead, I would have to undertake a ridiculous sequence of actions that no reasonable person would ever attempt. This, apparently, is the developers’ concept of a more interesting solution.

The only great puzzle of this game is its popular reception. It seems that a bifurcation has occurred in the gaming world, where mainstream gamers care only about gameplay mechanics and a fringe group of indie gamers cares only about storytelling elements. Worse, the industry standard for storytelling is so low that even trying to tell a story is enough to satisfy the second group. Since no one in the first group of gamers would even buy Valiant Hearts, user reviews (on Steam, for example) are almost entirely positive.

We don’t have to accept this compromise. Valiant Hearts doesn’t teach us anything about the politics of World War I that a history book doesn’t teach with more insight. It doesn’t reveal anything about the personal experience that All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t reflect with more humanity. It doesn’t even give us more interesting point-and-click exercises or humor or social commentary than Sam and Max Hit the Road, a game more than 20 years old.

To try is not enough. To do something new? Likely. To do something better? Maybe. But Valiant Hearts does neither.

LIMBO – 3/5

LIMBO has one character and no story to speak of. No dialogue. No identifiable message. The only thing it has going for it is atmosphere. It does this very, very well.

You find yourself in a creepy platformer-style underworld, facing a series of assailants animate and environmental. Dying frequent, horrible, and violent deaths only to reappear in the same scenario gives the impression of an underlying supernatural, evil intent, like a mad god has placed you in a cheese maze where death is just another wrong turn leading back to where you started. This is the only game I’ve played where respawning feels like the natural order of things rather than a necessary fourth-wall-breaking evil.

Annoyingly, this is not a Limbo in the colloquial sense of a place that one occupies until something from outside opens a way out. It has even less to do with the theological concept. We might hope that we are in Purgatory, a place of temporary cleansing that leads to an ultimate reward. However, the game takes great pains to keep us from hoping too much. In the end, we still don’t know much about where we are.

Few of the puzzles are difficult and none stretched the way that I think. Surprises were to be found instead in the palette of blacks, whites, and grays, which threatens to hide traps everywhere and contributes to a general fear of making your next move.

LIMBO only takes three hours to play, but this is still too long. My deep sense of unease yielded to detached interest, damping the game’s effect. The initial promise–of what, exactly, we aren’t even sure–never delivers. The scenes becomes stale. If they didn’t become a little nonsensical, they might even be predictable. The driving questions of what it all is, what it’s all for, what is this all about, slip into: how do I do this, how come that happened, how about that.

I still can’t tell you what LIMBO is about. In part, that’s why I play games: the special ones, at least, say something that written word, or films, or paintings can’t, just as each of those media offer things that are not reproducible in the others. LIMBO stirs up some unfamiliar feeling. It moves some part of me. That’s genuine and it earns the game my recommendation. But when the fear of navigating LIMBO’s dark paths subsides, all that lingers is the fear that my enchantment was hollow; that the answers to my questions simply do not exist; that we don’t know where we are because we aren’t really anywhere at all.

Gone Home – 1/5

In Gone Home, the player assumes the role of a young woman coming home from college soon after her family has moved to an old mansion, though it’s new to you. No one is there to greet you when you arrive late at night, so you let yourself in.

The remainder of the game consists of exploring the house and trying to piece together what has been happening in the lives of your family members. Your father is a dissatisfied author. A more distant relative is a deeply troubled recluse. Your mother is unhappy with her marriage.

The main story centers around your sister, still in high school and discovering love. She communicates with you through notes and audio recordings, and you piece together the rest.

I found this game extremely difficult to role-play. Coming home to a big, inexplicably empty house, you start exploring and rifling through everyone’s private things instead of calling a friend who might know what’s going on, or calling the police to file a missing persons report? Even setting that aside, I felt strongly encouraged by the house’s layout to explore by starting in the first room and going through every corner before peeking into the next. Obviously, this would make no sense for someone in your character’s situation.

The conceit seems to be that it’s okay to dig through everyone’s stuff because they’re your own family, but some of what you find–love letters, for instance–is extraordinarily private. The core mechanic feels morally wrong and, much worse, out of character. Nothing about what we find supports the picture of a family dynamic where this is a remotely normal thing for you to do.

In addition to these problems, I found the characters boring and the story dull. The interactive, exploratory format isn’t conducive to deep characterization, at least in this case. Actually, I couldn’t even understand why this should be a video game rather than a movie (since the interactivity felt all but nonexistent to me) or a book (since it was fundamentally an exercise in storytelling through imagery and text). Please don’t misunderstand me: it also would have been a bad movie or book, but at least then I could understand the choice of medium. As is, there is not a single thing about this game to recommend it.

Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe – 4/5

Like STARWHAL, this is a great action-based game. You control a square sprite confined to a Tetris-style grid where blocks fall from the sky. When you shoot blocks, they break. If blocks of the same color connect, then you must destroy them all together. Enemies or traps sometimes fall instead of blocks, making the play more unpredictable and frantic.

I’m a fan of these kinds of puzzle games; the one I most remember from my younger days is Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. (The best ones all have names like that). The combination with platformer-based action only makes SPPD more fun.

I could imagine spending much more time honing my skills in this game. It gives you enough to work with: there are special challenges, sequential levels containing different kinds of threats, and extra characters to unlock, each with a unique special power. In many games, these “extras” become the reason to exist; upon achieving “100%,” the urge to play vanishes. In SPPD, the extras feel just how they should: little twists, sprinkles scattered atop a three-layer cake. The joy behind the desire to play SPPD stands on its own: it is the thrill of fighting an unwinnable battle against a never-ending stream of things that exist only to crush you. A simple pleasure.

Depression Quest – 2/5

Depression Quest is less a game than hypertext fiction with some graphics and sounds thrown in. Your character’s life is rather bland, and the choices you need to make are commensurately banal: do you get a cat? Will you open up to your girlfriend?

The not-very-surprise twist is that you’re depressed. As your depression worsens, your options become more limited. Even if you see that talking to your therapist and going to work are the best things to do, sometimes you just can’t do them.

If Depression Quest is supposed to be a depression simulator–or at least a way to peek into the mind of a depressed person, as I believe was the intention–then I seriously doubt that it is successful. It’s not that the writing is bad, or even that its goals are impossible to achieve. Instead, I blame the mechanics, which I’m suspicious were chosen due to ease of implementation rather than their suitability for conveying the game’s message. The result is a worthy project executed without the effort it deserves.

Gravitation by Jason Rohrer – 3/5

I like this game. It’s free, takes about eight minutes to play, and has some interesting things to say.

Gravitation, a game about work-life balance and self-management, makes for a compelling contrast to Depression Quest. It’s possible that my preference of Gravitation stems from my greater familiarity with what it’s expressing; the feeling of making choices but not being in full control–of needing to watch yourself and carefully feed back on your behavior, of learning how you respond to different inputs–reminds me more of my own experiences with depression than the multiple-choice decision tree that Depression Quest offers. The unease in discerning what’s a tool and what’s an end in itself was also familiar from a lifetime of trying to make the right call, depressed or not.

If Gravitation only highlighted what we already know, it would probably not be worth playing, but these complex feelings are given a kind of focus in the context of an eight-minute minimalist virtual world that they don’t receive in ordinary life.

This is an autobiographical, symbolic, dense experiment in what a game can be. It sets its sights high enough to be valuable and doesn’t overreach them. It’s not a great game, but it is something almost as rare: just what it is meant to be.

Passage – 3/5

Before Gravitation, Jason Rohrer created Passage. The thematic similarities are obvious. It’s only five minutes long, but in that time, it distills a perspective on one entire life.

The game is not as simple as it looks. There are meaningful choices to make, and it’s up to you to find out what they are. As in Gravitation and ordinary life, one metric of success is provided for you, but it’s not so clear whether you ought to use it.

Passage felt a bit too obvious to me and it didn’t have as much of an impact as Gravitation, but the brief time playing it is still well spent if only to see something very new.

Krypteia – 3/5

Kateri is a classicist, interesting thinker about video games, and hilarious writer. Her first game, Krypteia, is a dark choose-your-own-adventure RPG about the tension between one’s inner and outer life, and about forging a path when none that are laid out are for you to walk on.

It’s very much about gender identity and oppression. It was a little hard for me to connect with this aspect directly since I lack the kinds of personal experiences the game explores, but I felt that Krypteia accommodated my own way of processing the content: going one abstraction layer up to a reflection on self-expression, and then projecting back down to “gender identity” specifically. That the story works on both levels speaks to the strength of the writing and construction. This success might also be a result of the way that Kateri draws on more recognizable narrative structures and archetypes, which provides an area of interesting analysis all on its own.

Krypteia is also about indulging in the temptation to become a monster or resisting that temptation for all of the wrong reasons. You can find some refuge in hiding or in violence, but not in love. This is not a comforting game.

There were times that the game play didn’t quite work. When I was unable to find my way around, it felt frustrating and gratuitous rather than contributing to the “lost in the woods” setting. I also found the inventory system surprisingly confusing given its simplicity. On the whole, though, Krypteia is cleverly written, thought-provoking, and uses its medium well. While it wasn’t quite a powerful experience for me, I could easily see it being one for others.

I really wanted to like this game, but the gameplay is just not there. The battles initially hold promise for a challenge similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, but they quickly become tedious and mechanical. They’re so boring, in fact, that I can’t bring myself to write anything else about them.

The other component of game play is the large-scale management of a migratory horde of refugees and soldiers. As their leader (or something; I found it confusing to figure out who was who, including who was I), you have to make Hard Choices (TM). This means that a very contrived problem occurs and you are given a multiple-choice list of very contrived solutions.

For example, suppose a cart of provisions is about to roll off a cliff…for some reason. One of your generals, a giant, grabs onto it in order to stabilize its trajectory and save the goods. Do you order him to let go, thus saving his life, or do you call for other soldiers to help him, or do you leave the call in his hands?

What is the speed of the cart? I do not know. What is the slope of the hill? I do not know. How strong is a giant compared to an ordinary human soldier? I do not know. What exactly is in the cart, anyway? I do not know. The optimal choice could be anything. Whatever you decide, the result feels like the output of a random sentence generator.

Someone once told me about getting a call from a friend who wanted to meet at a bar for some emotional support. This friend was feeling real blue. Supportive Friend asks what happened. Blue Friend says, “I was playing Mass Effect, and there’s this alien spider race that’s supposed to be extinct. And you find the last one, a mother, and she has eggs. You can let her go and rebuild their civilization, but I killed her. I mean, that’s genocide. What kind of person does that? What does that say about me?”

I remember this scene from when I played Mass Effect. I paused the game and thought about my choice for almost half an hour. It was a hard choice because I was given incomplete information about a complicated subject, but more than that it was a challenging choice. I was made judge and jury in a trial of my own values. It was uncomfortable, revealing, even haunting. The smaller choices in Mass Effect felt no less important. How you treat the street urchins and shop keepers matters because they’re people. This is exactly what I was hoping to see in The Banner Saga, but it didn’t materialize in the four hours before I gave up on the game. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my charges were just an abstracted score:

if num_survivors > NUM_SURVIVORS_GOOD:
show GOOD_ENDING
else:
show BAD_ENDING

The Banner Saga probably has a worthwhile story to tell, but making players execute simple moves dozens of times in a row and giving them artificial “decisions” is not the right way to tell it.

To the Moon – 1/5

In To the Moon, a pair of scientists use a machine much like the one in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to enter a dying man’s memories and allow him to re-live his life. Controlling the scientists in scenes from the man’s past, you can piece together his story.

That story is sweet, but the writing is unbearable. The “comic relief” is especially trite and unrelenting. I usually find it rewarding to reflect on both the good and bad in things, but in this case it just doesn’t matter what the game does well when it does something else so much and so badly.

Minecraft – 5/5

You’re empty-handed, and made of blocks. How could it be otherwise, when there are nothing but blocks in the entire world? Punch one and it pops off the landscape. Pick it up and place it somewhere else, or combine it with others to make something new. If you die, you get to start over, but the world doesn’t restart with you. It remains changed: by you, by the monsters that wander the landscape at night, by your friends. It goes on, waiting to persist forever or be molded in an instant, and not caring either way.

It’s the game’s indifference that makes it so powerful. To say that playing Minecraft is a purely creative experience does it disservice. It is primarily a transformative experience. Everyone has imagined how they would like the world to look, but the world we live in cares too much. It fights back. I will never build a crystal tower to the moon, no matter how cool I think it would be. I will never eliminate world poverty. I’ll never make every schoolchild read Number Numbness by Douglas Hofstadter and the United States Constitution.

The first stage of playing Minecraft, constructing a vision, is indeed creative. What makes the game play compelling is making the world conform to that vision.

You can find Youtube videos of all sorts of projects in Minecraft. Here is a small sample of things that I or my friends have made, individually or together:

A house made entirely of doors. An extensive farm including wheat, several species of tree, pumpkins, potatoes, carrots, and cacti, as well as cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep of every color. An underwater base made of glass, whose only above-land entryway is a moving wall. A sacrificial shrine atop a giant waterfall of lava. An automated cobblestone factory. A castle with giant mushroom guard towers. A floating island. The tackiest sex-lair bed you could ever hope to lay eyes on. A cozy library. Way too much of what are essentially digital circuits built from elementary logic gates. And if I may brag about my incredibly brilliant friend’s magnum opus, the Shrine to Bad Taste, complete with highway billboard sign.

shrine billboard no toolbar

chicken shrine no toolbar

If you think this is bad, you should see the Room Where It’s Always Christmas.

I don’t recommend introducing Minecraft to yourself in single-player. I really enjoy the collaborative aspect of the game, and since multiplayer worlds are hosted online, playing is a good way to casually keep in touch with distant friends.

Minecraft doesn’t neatly fit into any traditional genre, but it’s referred to as a “sandbox” game. I remember playing in sandboxes made of actual sand as a kid, and even then it kind of sucked. It’s encouraging to me that so many young people are now learning to challenge themselves with the tools that Minecraft offers.

Patterns – 1/5

Patterns is basically Minecraft with triangles and more sophisticated physics. I bought it in the beta phase and can see why its development was abandoned early. It lacks the humor of Minecraft, and the extra physics limits your construction options more than anything else. After all, if you want to build something in Minecraft that would be structurally sound in the real world, no one will stop you. But sometimes it’s nice to not worry about silly things like gravity and tensile strength.

Many other games have tried to tap into the sandbox game market. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of them offers improvements over Minecraft, but Patterns isn’t it.

Long Live the Queen – 1/5

In this game, you play a princess who is soon to be queen or, far more likely, soon to be dead. You must choose what subjects to learn about each week–poison, espionage, dogs, etc.–and this knowledge will hopefully allow you to survive a series of trials and assassination attempts.

At least in the time I played, the choices in this game felt a bit too much like those in The Banner Saga. The challenges I would face later were so unpredictable, I couldn’t find a consistent strategy for survival. In that sense, the game is hard, but this is a very unrewarding kind of difficulty.

There probably are good strategies, but I was uncompelled to find them. The writing is entertaining enough, but it didn’t engender any attachment to the characters and I was left with no desire to survive until the coronation. It seems to me that the primary reasons to keep playing this game are completionism and stubborn defiance. I don’t endorse dumping several hours into the service of either.

The Binding of Isaac – 3/5

Speaking of darkly humorous games where you should expect to die a lot.

Binding of Isaac is probably a great game if you’re looking for an old-Zelda-style dungeon crawler with more finesse. The most responsible way for me to write this review would be to note that this is exactly what BoI is trying to be, and that happens to not be my kind of game. However, I’ll be a little more indulgent than that.

BoI requires training in hand-eye coordination and the development of some strategy, but I don’t see why I should care to get better at either in this context. Victories are short-lived since new, but similar, challenges always remain, and they don’t feel intrinsically rewarding. Put as pretentiously as possible, playing this game doesn’t make me feel as if I’m growing. The same is true of, say, Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe. I think the difference is that Binding of Isaac feels grueling and brutal, whereas SPPD is frantic and exciting.

A key to the success of both SPPD and BoI is randomness. In BoI, the sequence of rooms in the dungeon is different every time, while in SPPD, the same is true of the sequence of blocks and traps that fall from the sky. By analogy, I can understand how Binding of Isaac could be a satisfying way to generate the stimulation of spontaneously adapting to survive. However, I don’t generally recommend it.

Gunpoint – 4/5

The best way to describe Gunpoint is “Metal Gear Solid if Snake were a jazzy futuristic noir electrician.” Do I need to say that I like this game a lot?

The setting and writing aren’t very original, but they’re deliberate and consistent, and they go far enough to justify your missions. You work freelance jobs as a spy to earn money and buy high-tech gadgets, which help you do your spy stuff more effectively and entertainingly. The central gadget is the “cross-link,” which lets you re-wire security cameras, guards’ guns, doors, room lights, alarms, and electrical sockets. The gameplay is focused; there are no tedious mini-games involved like the hacking in Fallout 3 or lock-picking in Skyrim. Instead, you jump around, climb up walls, punch people, and above all devise Rube Goldberg schemes to infiltrate and escape from the baddies’ various fortresses. You can work out your own solutions, optimizing for violence, non-violence, or humor, though only to a very limited extent in any given level.

The word “play” is sometimes most fitting for video games in the sense of actors playing characters. Usually, it’s just a default verb that does no more to describe a gaming experience than “watch” does to describe what we do with both Groundhog Day and City of God. To play Gunpoint is to play in the sense that children do it: creatively and un-seriously, and on some level to learn, but mostly just for fun.

Assassin’s Creed – 1/5

Assassin’s Creed is another spy game with a lot of jumping, climbing walls, and punching people. It’s terrible. The mechanics are limited, so there are only two or three basic things to do. Unlike in Gunpoint, the limited mechanics don’t include anything creative or mentally challenging, so sequential missions are little more than replicas of each other, which were already boring the first time.

Papers, Please – 2/5

A friend of mine once attempted to compliment our teacher, but just ended up saying, “you smell…interesting.”

That’s how I feel about Papers, Please.

You assume the role of a border checkpoint agent working for a fictional totalitarian regime. The game play is tedious and nerve-wracking. You check people’s identification documents and decide whether to let them through your checkpoint. This involves a lot of cross-checking papers and rules memorization. If you make a mistake, then you might–or might not–be audited. The migrants might–or might not–be suicidal terrorists. An enticement to join a resistance movement might–or might not–be a trap by the secret police. If you miss your quota, then you will be unable to heat your home, buy food, and pay for your family’s medical expenses. Unless you manage to embody the Triumph of the Machine over the Spirit of Man like some inverse John Henry, it will get out of hand and your wife and children will die.

I felt uncomfortable playing this. Some of that discomfort was with the deliberately unpleasant game play, but some was with myself as I kept caving in to the overwhelming self-interested incentives in lieu of the apparently ethical route. I got something out of that…for a while. However, Papers, Please takes about seven hours to complete. In the two hours that I played, I felt that it had perhaps a half hour of things to say. I’m highly skeptical that its ratio improves as your tasks become even more convoluted and frustrating.

I appreciate the concept of a game that conveys a brutal, demoralizing, and stressful life with an unending stream of unrewarding work. It must take a deft hand to do this without creating something that is unrewarding itself. With all due respect–and I use that phrase unironically–the creator of Papers, Please was just not up to the task he set himself.

400 Years – 4/5

This game is free, short, artistic, meditative, emotional, unique, uncomplicated and just a little bit inscrutable. You play some sort of stone earth guardian. He stirs, sensing an impending calamity in the distance. He has only 400 years to prevent it.

As with so many indie 2D platformers, 400 Years has one twist on otherwise classic mechanics. In this case, it’s waiting. If you need to cross a lake, wait until it’s winter so it freezes over; if you need to scale a cliff, plant a tree and wait a couple of decades until it’s tall enough to climb.

Your tasks become less trivial later, but the “puzzles” are still not the game’s selling point. Playing this game, you’ll learn to ask: what will this look like next Fall? Next year? 100 years from now? And what can I do right now to change that? What will the world look like if I act this way, and what if I don’t?

Because in the end, 400 Years is not about passing time so much as directing time. This is slow going, but that doesn’t make it any less profound.

Dys4ia – 1/5

I do not get this game. This is unsurprising, since it’s about undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I probably do not have the kinds of life experiences to make this relatable. Aside from that, though…I don’t get it.

Perhaps the extreme shortness of Dys4ia compromises its storytelling mission. The game play is an abrupt sequence of mini-games, each of which attempts to make some particular point about the author’s personal experience. However, I couldn’t connect with it as anything more than a shallow intellectual exercise. The writing was not stimulating, the mini-games were not engaging, and the messages felt trite. There was no time to let discomfort or awkwardness fester. There were no characters at all. I found nothing to latch onto emotionally. If the author had any goal for Dys4ia beyond personal catharsis, I have to conclude that it was unsuccessful.

Nothing to Hide – 1/5

If you are passionately opposed to the current state of government surveillance in America, then Nothing to Hide might be for you. Otherwise, you’re out of luck because this is a really crappy game.

The narrative uses self-congratulation less as a crutch than as a death bed. The politics it purports to address are handled completely without subtlety. In general, this is only as obnoxious as the representation is trite. In Binding of Isaac, for example, I wasn’t bothered by the treatment of fundamentalist religion despite finding it rather shallow, because at least it’s creative. Nothing to Hide doesn’t have this redemptive quality.

Worse, the game is boring. You must remain within sight of cameras at all times as you attempt to find some path to freedom. If you start to stray out of sight, you’re shot down. No one minds if you move cameras, as long as you can still be watched. This makes for a lot of puzzles that feel like block-pushing exercises. There are some mild challenges later, but I never felt the things I crave from puzzle-solving: satisfaction, pride, a feeling of expansion in how I can think.

Machinarium – 3/5

It is a testament to the talent at Amanita Design that in a story about robots with no dialogue and an aesthetic dominated by rusty grays, you could not ask for more heart. The titular Machinarium is a crowded, technological, folksy city. It is fantastical to its core while avoiding familiar molds like steampunk, which is perhaps too human for a world populated by robots.

It’s easy to root for the main character, and not just because you’re in charge of him. He’s the resourceful underdog. He discovers that a small gang of bullies are up to no good, and you spend the rest of the game helping him get out of trouble using a point-and-click interface.

An interlude about language is necessary here. We don’t have a good way to talk about the player-character divide in gaming. In many of these reviews, it has felt most natural to write as if “you” and “your character” are the same person, but of course they are not. Usually, you control your character in some ways, but not in others. This engenders a completely different relationship than we have with characters in other media or with ourselves. When we say that we identify with the hero of a movie, what we really mean is that we relate to him. Only in games do we feel that we are the hero. But we only inhabit video game characters like rooms in a dream: first one and then another, and never the same for too long.

In Machinarium, I never felt like my character because I was not sure exactly how he would respond to my controls. This isn’t an unusual feature of point-and-click games. The environment is complicated and your actions don’t have to fit into a template. In fact, some of the joy of these games is seeing what happens when you try to interact with something new. However, this makes for an inevitably awkward experience because I’m never sure what I’m allowed to do. If I direct the robot over here and click on this thing, will he pick it up? Kick it? Do anything at all? That depends on how the developers thought about this particular object, not on how I think about it.

The puzzles in Machinarium are often difficult. They are, on the whole, well designed. Still, I had a hard time thinking through them more than one step at a time because I couldn’t predict where the next step would leave me. This compromises the game’s cleverness and planted a suspicion in me that the difficulty arose from a lack of clarity about the world’s rules rather than from the direness of my character’s predicament.

It’s a shame that a game with so much love in it is just not that satisfying to play. I imagine that fans of point-and-click games will be crazy about Machinarium. For me, it was doomed at conception by its genre conventions.

Heroes of Sokoban – 4/5

This is a puzzle game with simple rules. You control three heroes with different special powers. Each level consists of a set of rooms, buttons, and doors. Maneuver the heroes through the doors to advance to the next level. (What exactly makes this heroic is left to the player’s imagination.) Only the particular, clever way in which the mechanics come together leaves any room for novelty.

The puzzles are very good. They feel educational, a bit like learning higher math: given a straightforward, assumed world and guided exploration, you discover unexpected consequences. You could, I suppose, believe that there is some greater reason to keep going, hidden behind the last door. This often, and quite mysteriously, turns out to be true with math. But in both cases, you’ll likely be disappointed if that’s all you’re looking for. The core experience of Heroes of Sokoban is elegance, a primitive mental expansiveness operating in the background of your mind and the sudden bursts of insight where it comes to the forefront.

Braid – 5/5

Perhaps if I say that this game changed my life, you’ll suspect hyperbole. Let me say instead that for my 24th birthday, I asked all of my friends to buy Braid as their birthday present to me, and then I invited them to come over with their laptops to a party where we all played it in parallel.

With that introduction, I must admit that despite a long and proud history of evangelism for Braid, I have yet to figure out how to pitch it. To some extent, I’m not sure myself why this game seems so important.

Maybe this difficulty speaks to Braid’s complexity. It is, foremost, a game with great puzzles. It is a window looking into–and out of–perspective and regret. It is a critique of video games. It is an artistic project undertaken with attention to every detail.

Mechanically, Braid is a platformer with a set of “twist” elements that all play with time manipulation. It is refreshingly complete. Each puzzle tells you something new about the world you’re in, your abilities to navigate and manipulate it, and your limitations. Almost every second you play feels useful; if something takes a lot of time, then it’s probably because you’re still learning. By the end of the game I felt that I understood everything there was to understand, and the substantial remainder was in the realm of uncomfortable mystery where it belonged.

Braid trusts you to understand, to mull over its ambiguities, to solve its puzzles. It is demanding. It asks you to match its expectations of yourself. This respect shouldn’t be remarkable, but it represents such a radical departure from the game-player relationship I’m accustomed to that it might be what most stands out to me. Braid challenges every call to let it slide, man, it’s just a game, or movie, or TV show. It challenges every choice that’s less than it could be.

Most puzzle games with unique solutions feel stilted, too convenient. If a hero is faced with 100 crises wherein there is only one way out, you might suppose that a few should admit two means of escape, or that one would have to lead to a hopeless defeat eventually. This is awkward because in most games, puzzles are fundamentally artificial things: either bullet points in a plot summary or tasks appearing out of nowhere, and often both. In Braid, each puzzle is a question and its solution is a lesson.

In part, Braid avoids the just-so tone of other games by constructing the world of a troubled man’s fantasies. That the fantasies consist of pointless, implausible heroics makes them more compelling. That they have the illusion of danger while actually being stacked in his favor to a laughably impossible degree makes them more believable.

The ease with which we can slide into this world, literally relive certain moments again and again, and accept it as a valid reality reveals something important about our own mindset as people and players, which are of course the same thing. The artistic direction and game play mechanics complement each other in terms of both immersion and thematic impact. Everything in its place, even when you don’t know where that is.

Starseed Pilgrim – 3/5

There is no tutorial in Starseed Pilgrim and I would be betraying it by saying too much about how the actual game play works. By far the strongest element is the way it allows you to discover its rules, which are non-obvious but coherent in their own terms. I didn’t particularly care to know more about them, but I did want to learn more. The game play is driven by the moments of new understanding rather than an appreciation of what is understood in itself.

A design philosophy that emphasizes the journey over the destination rarely works when the journey is tedious. I didn’t enjoy the core game play of Starseed Pilgrim at all; it just felt like a chore that I imagined I could put up with for the pleasure of solving the mysteries before me. But after about an hour, I couldn’t imagine it any more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

To write LaTeX output, type $latex [input]$ with [input] replaced by LaTeX input.