I was obsessed with Maniac Mansion when I was a kid, so getting a switch was the perfect opportunity to play Thimbleweed Park. This is such a throwback – I love the references to MM, the self-deprecating game dev humour and the twin-peaks-if-it-was-a-comedy setting.
It doesn’t feel quite as difficult and pixel-hunt-y as Ron Gilbert’s older games, which I like as it means less frustration and more irreverent humour. Its not too easy either though, and I have felt I’ve had to think while playing, so that’s great. Honestly, not too much to say here beyond I really enjoyed it.
Tokimeki Memorial Girls’s Side: First Love
I played this game again because I was both feeling nostalgic for my teenage years and was thinking about systemic relationship building. The romance focused games I play are by and large visual novels, where the focus is on the story, dialog and choices, but Tokimeki Memorial is a dating sim, where the onus is placed on planning the player character’s calendar in order to raise her stats. The goal of building these stats up is to guide her towards her desired career and boyfriend by the end of her school years.
While I like a stat based approach and really enjoy calendar balancing, this leads to a gamification of the relationship building process that doesn’t feel great. While in a VN I generally express my character how I want to and hope that matches with a love interest (at least the first time playing), playing Tokimeki is more like chess – calculating ahead, planning and saying exactly what you know the boy wants to hear in very limited interactions. As there is no linear story as such and you don’t have a ‘route’ to go on with your love interest, the dates can feel a little shallow, with one or two choices where you pick the line that the other person would like best. I wonder if there’s a way to build a system like this into a more developed story? I think Long Live the Queen does it well, but largely because the focus is on your output as ruler and not on specific relationships, so that level of personal interaction between characters isn’t needed.
One of the most interesting mechanics in the game is the bomb system. A character constantly rejected me, so I figured they were not interested and stopped talking to them. In return, a bomb popped up next to their portrait. If I didn’t fix this relationship, it was going to explode and affect my relationship with every character. This was akin to the character telling people you were horrible or gossiping about you, which I think is a really neat touch. Especially in a closed environment like a school, no relationship exists in isolation. I did feel however that there was a bit of a weird gendered feeling to this system, like as a girl I had to keep all the boys happy while they were fine to ignore me. I’m not really sure how to rectify that, as this game is full of things that could be seen as harmful stereotyping, but were also true to my teenage girlhood. Its a complicated one that I don’t think was bad enough to warrant critiquing, but I can understand how it might put some off the game.
So this is a funny one. All my friends had been recommending a game to me. Its this first-person, open-world, spacefaring role-playing game filled with time bending puzzles and detective work. Right up my alley. Unfortunately, the game I bought was a first-person, open-world, spacefaring role-playing game filled with guns and capitalism. Que the Outer Worlds vs Outer Wilds problem. You’d think someone interested in game narrative might be a little more literate when it comes to her title choices, but here we are.
I figured I might as well give the game a shot since I’d spent the last two hours downloading it, and it had been a while since I’d played anything sufficiently Besthesda-like.
The game opened with some vintage style artwork riffing off of advertisements of the 40s and 50s and a tounge-in-cheek narration espousing the glory of capitalism. That had me interested. Political critique in a cool space world was something I was most definitely down for. When it started making not-so-subtle nods to Bioshock with the opening in the pod, I was sold.
Unfortunately the gameplay didn’t quite deliver on the opening cutscene’s promise. The twin sticks on the switch controller don’t feel great for camera or movement control which makes the combat fall flat. This may just be me getting used to the switch – this is the first shooter I’ve played on it – but the fact I’m having difficulty right at the start isn’t great. Its not awful when the joy cons are docked into the controller, but playing in handheld mode feels impossible. The level of sensitivity would be fine for keyboard/mouse, and probably for standard sized controllers for those more used to playing shooters, but its just too much for switch.
I may have already been soured on the combat by the first enemy you encounter being the marauders. You are given no context to who these people are, beyond that they are presumably human and they are going to kill you. There are no negative consequences for killing them (in fact, you have to kill them to progress in most areas) and stealing their things incurs no penalty, unlike other human characters.
Now, I’m not trying to go all video game violence bad here. I don’t have an issue with combat and killing as a mechanic as long as its adequately justified either by in game narrative or genre convention. I think there’s definitely a case for genre convention here and I was probably in the wrong headspace, having thought I’d be playing Outer Wilds, but it just felt wrong. We later have to make some really hard choices regarding human life and the capitalists who value profit over life are, so far, portrayed as straight up bad guys, so I don’t like murdering a whole encampment of people to steal a bloody engineering manual!
They attacked me so I attack them back feels rather cheap, but is at least fair. Justified self defence! Killing waves of these to complete an objective while you’re companion says nothing on the matter doesn’t feel justified. Some characters have mentioned how marauders barley speak, and it might be that we get context later down the line, so I am reserving full judgement for later, but I would rather context up front.
In contrast to mowing down marauders, the game has us make an incredibly difficult choice for our first major decision. We are told by the owner of the town that if we shut down the power to an outlying settlement, made up of deserters, we can have their power core to get our ship started. When I was given this task my immediate reaction was just, no. I don’t want to fix my ship if it means depriving an entire area of protection, heat and power. Upon making this objection (the dialog choices are generally very expressive and let you work through a problem before accepting it – I really like this) the owner tells you that he will take them back into his town. Of course, that means going back to his way of life, where profits are more important than people. These deserters left for a reason.
Never the less, I ventured out to the settlement and spoke with their leader, letting her know the deal. She offers a counter deal, switch off the power to the town and take their power core. Now – when I was making my over I was saying to my partner that that would be my ideal outcome, have everyone go to the settlement instead – but, the settlement leader was not offering sanctuary to the townspeople. She was after revenge.
My choice was between keeping everyone alive but under a cruel regime, or leaving an entire town of innocents to die. These people had no choice but to be complicit in the way the town was run. They were beaten down by it and scared to move out of line. Was I to doom them for this?
Ultimately, I chose to give the power to the town, with hope of not only convincing the deserters to go back, but to convince the leadership of both factions to come to some sort of agreement, where the town could be ran with an ethos more similar to that of the deserters. I got my way in the end, so that was pretty great.
I had a bit of annoyance with the game when I was given a number of side quests to do, just after I’d disabled the power. This is something that I often gripe about – I hate side quests that are given out at time-critical moments in the narrative. I don’t mind picking up a few when I’m meandering and there’s nothing bearing down on me, but you’ve just told me that without power the people of the settlement will die. By introducing side quests here, my sense of urgency and therefore my sense of immersion into the fantasy are taken away.
In my ideal game, all quests would have some sort of time sensitivity attached, and would not be able to be completed at or after certain story points. There with a persistent changing world to go alongside this. In a game that was catering to a wider gamut of player motivations however, I think the best way to deal with this is to not give out new side quests when these moments of urgency come up in the story, but to allow players to complete previously picked up quests at this time if they would like to.
Just as I was starting to decide this game wasn’t for me, it threw me a bone with some fantastic companion dialog. Parvati, who I already loved as a character, asked me for relationship advice. I was a little disappointed because in my headcanon we were already spacefaring girlfriends, but the entire sequence was really sweet, relatable and didn’t feel like I was making decisions for the character, I really felt like a respected friend giving advice. It was a fairly standard dialog tree, and I feel like I’m supposed to want more ‘interesting’ mechanics than that, but honestly I love a good bit of conversation!
I’m now looking forward to playing more and, as I’ve now picked up a fair few stragglers, thinking about my headcanons for how the crew get along. Good character dynamics really are instant fodder for my enjoyment of a game so this is good!
It Takes Two
It Takes Two is a co-op platform adventure game, which I partially decided to play because of the co-op traversal idea I’d been playing with in my one page pitch exercise. I played with my partner, which was an interesting exercise in itself, as we rarely play together due to our conflicting playstyles – I play for story/emotion/immersion, he’s very into mastery/completionism.
I am very torn on my opinion of this game, because in some ways it is fantastic. The 3cs are incredibly polished and the game feels great to play. The platforming is intuitive and fun, just challenging enough to keep engagement up but not be frustrating, the new mechanics and tools provided to the player work well and blend seamlessly into the rest of the gameplay. I don’t normally like platformers that much and I really enjoyed this.
However, I found myself increasingly annoyed at the story and characters, which, as an aforementioned story motivated player, is kind of an issue. The game attempts to talk about a serious issue, but has both the tone and tact of a children’s movie. I found myself asking – who is this for? You play as two parents, ostensibly rectifying their marital issues through an adventure to break a curse that has turned them into dolls. The issue is that their daughter has put this curse on them for this very purpose. From an adult perspective it feels coercive and uncomfortable. The message was not that by working together they rediscovered their bond, but that they were forced into this discovery. I’ve not played enough of the game to know what the resolution is, so perhaps this angle is explored later, but considering it appears to be aping children’s movies of the early 90s, I’m not expecting it.
This is one of these situations where the mechanics and message should fuse seamlessly – co-op puzzle platforming is the perfect avenue for exploring co-operation, relationships and running a household/parenting – but the framing and tone have just let the overall theme down.
Also, the book character is the most annoying thing I have ever seen.
Mark and Lara
This is a very short co-op detective game, where each player is given a different set of information and they must work together to make deductions about the case. I really love the premise here. It takes the best parts of detective puzzling and couch co-op to make what is usually a solo experience social.
Me and my friend had a lot of fun playing, though we did get a little exasperated by the line matching mechanic by the end of things. In order to point out a contradiction, the player must type in the number of a line in each character’s journal that contradict each other. This got increasingly less obvious, to the point that we had the right idea, but finding the line that matched that concept was difficult as suspects repeated the same things. It wasn’t heinous, but we were getting frustrated and had the game not wrapped up where it did I think we may have ended up giving up.
I really enjoyed the google mechanic, where you could look for additional information to do with the case by using keywords. This asks for more engagement from the player than is usual in a lot of detective games, as you are not led by wording of choices or hand held towards the answer. This is generally true of the game’s whole approach.
In terms of execution, there were a couple of localization hiccups, with some odd grammar and flow. As this was made by a small team, I don’t have the same expectations as I would of something AAA, but considering that the text is the focus of the gameplay and comprehending it correctly is the goal of the game, it would have been nice to have had an editor on the team who had a higher standard of written English.
Overall it was a good experience, and I’m looking forward to the next case.