First off, I’ve been getting a couple of requests from game designers for me to do reviews, which is flattering. However, “What I Learned” isn’t really a series of reviews so much as a way to deconstruct games I’ve played because I’ve either learned something or it illustrates something I consider important – I’ve skipped fantastic games and blogged about games I didn’t like as a result. As such, I’ve added a bit about my review policies on my bio page – if you’re okay with this and want me to review something, let me know and I’ll see if it works into my schedule.
Secondly, the two games I’m looking at here both address narrative in gameplay, and as a result I need to actually talk about said narrative. While I generally try to keep spoilers down when I do these because I hope that readers are playing these games themselves for their own study, in this case oh my fucking god there are so many spoilers that if you drink milk next to this post it will turn into cheese.
Lately I’ve been going through my backlog of “indie adventure games using VGA-style graphics” (yes, that’s a thing). I’ve been playing through Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw’s “Chzo Mythos” series of adventure games. These are free, even the special edition versions, and they’re super-lightweight – I actually have them in my Dropbox so I can keep playing between computers. The second one in the series is “Seven Days A Skeptic,” a sequel to “Five Days A Stranger” that takes place hundreds of years later – it helps if you’ve played the first game, but it’s not strictly necessary. After that, I wanted to give that series a break, so I moved to “Gemini Rue” by Joshua Nuernberger, another one-person indie adventure game set in a bleak future. Both games also have developer’s commentary modes, so I ended up playing them both twice – which is good, because each has an ending that puts the rest of the game into a new perspective, so it gave me an incentive to play them through again right away and see the pieces I missed.
SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT. Particular for “Gemini Rue” – I highly recommend you play it first if you can.
Developer’s Commentary modes are amazing if done well. Part of the reason why I’ve been (slowly) playing through Half-Life 2 is because of the developer’s commentary, and I’m happy to see other games starting to do it as well – they not only help increase and facilitate game design study, but they provide a lot of incentive (for me, anyway) for replaying games that are inherently very linear. Yahtzee’s commentary is funny, personable, and bounces between utterly proud and scathingly self-depreciating – you can really feel the passion he has for this. Nuernberger’s commentary was voiced as well as written, but it feels very flat and analytical – still useful and insightful, but the focus is entirely on gameplay decisions, and it’s hard to get a sense of the passion that he had working on it. Both were informative, but I felt like I learned more from “7 Days” because I got a better sense of why the creator did what he did beyond just a dry breakdown of gameplay needs. Also, from a purely technical level, Gemini Rue had “commentary nodes” that sometimes got in the way of the screen, while “7 Days” had commentary simply inserted into the dialog or pop-ups as needed, which felt more natural.
Twist endings are hard to pull off, but amazing when done right. “7 Days” ends with the revelation that the character you’re playing isn’t actually who you thought he was – it’s the final scene of the game, and it slaps you in the face. In playing again, I did see the seeds where the twist was set up (although I think there could have been a few more places to really solidify it), but it feels like it was designed to be sudden and jarring. “Gemini Rue,” on the other hand, doesn’t actually give you a premise that it subverts – rather it lets you imply a premise that turns out to be wrong. In fact, it turns out to be wrong a few times, according to my count.
In “Rue,” you are playing between two very different situations – a gritty film noir cop looking for his brother, and a man trapped in a mental facility where they wipe memories. At first I thought these were simultaneous, as the story of finding the brother seemed to be drifting towards the prisoner’s escape, until late in the game when you realize that the events of the escape are actually a year earlier. Then you find out that the prisoner is not actually the cop’s brother, but they are both the same person. THEN you find out that the character you thought was your friend is actually your antagonist. But when I played through again, nothing actually told me that these original assumptions were actually true. Which leads to my next point.
Gameplay needs to establish narrative, not dialogue. I think the biggest difference between the twist endings in both games is that “7 Days” told me that it was coming, but I missed it. “Gemini Rue” embedded clues in the gameplay, and then made me think the opposite. For example, during one dialogue tree with the cop character, you only get one option: “But he’s my brother.” It’s a common trope in video games of this design that dialogue trees sometimes only have one branch, but on the second playthrough I realized the subtlety – the character was mentally programmed to find a (fictional) brother, and he didn’t really have a choice at all. The player, similarly, isn’t offered a choice. Also during the game, the mental patient is trained in guns, using moves that the cop later needs. At first, I thought this was just a particularly neat tutorial, but then it turned out that I was literally learning the skills in the same fashion as the character – using them a year later in a very different context. Again, the structure of the gameplay added to the narrative. For a game that is primarily based around dialogue, this is amazing.
Voice acting is not always the answer. “7 Days” does not have voice acting, but “Gemini Rue” does. When the acting in “Rue” hits, it hits well, and I feel more drawn into the story. When it fumbles, though, I’m instantly dropped out. In “7 Days,” though, it’s a constant hum of immersion. Further, the music and sound effects in “7 Days” carries the day more, and they are stronger for it, whereas the sound and music are beautiful in “Rue,” but are often lost in the voice acting. “Rue” certainly feels more professional, but “7 Days” isn’t hurt by the lack of voiceover – it’s just stronger in different ways.
I don’t know how I feel about retro. I starting thinking about this while playing “Cthulhu Saves The World” (another great retro game released recently), but I don’t have a solid conclusion. I personally like the “low-fi” experience in these kinds of games, as long as the underlining game is strong. When you cut down on graphics and presentation, the game has to be stronger as a result. That being said, sometimes going intentionally retro brings something to the game – in the case of “7 Days,” the game was strongly evocative of the old “Space Quest” games, and the horror juxtaposed with my memories of comedy made the story more stark in my head. “Rue” is very strongly evocative of “Beneath a Steel Sky,” another great dystopia sci-fi game (and also free – check it out). But it can be done so badly, and I’m concerned that merely making a game retro is now the goal rather than a specific design choice.
The Chzo games are free – there’s really no reason not to download them and give them a whirl for a few hours. “Gemini Rue” is $15, but well worth it – I played it in about 7 hours, and that isn’t counting the additional 2 or so hours I got from playing it over again. (Also, “Cthulhu Saves The World” is a few bucks, and “Beneath a Steel Sky” is free.)