Friday, February 26, 2016

Firewatch - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Slower-paced games that are centered around natural, beautiful environments can elicit a weird reaction from me. Like, I enjoy gazing out upon a breathtaking vista as much as the next person, but for it to have a lasting impression there usually needs to be more to it. As much as I enjoy exploring the rich worlds of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the crux of those experiences hinge on their mysteries for me. No matter how gorgeous a game looks, if my only action is to walk through it at a leisurely pace, I need something substantial to ponder in the meantime.

So as you can probably guess, I have some mixed feelings regarding Campo Santo's debut Firewatch.

There's promise here, no doubt. Right out of the gate Firewatch throws you a curve ball by exploring Henry's life pre-lookout days (albeit in a slightly ham-fisted way), doing the bold thing and—*gasp*—giving the protagonist a compelling backstory. At first I was a little puzzled over its inclusion but I reasoned it was a pretty smart move: it inducts the player into Henry's tumultuous past and gives them a reason to be hesitant towards Delilah. The way the game resolves Julia'a presence through Alzheimer's is a really clever and uncommon thing to see too: it allows her to persist in the story but prompts the player to move on.

The push-and-pull nature of Delilah and Henry's relationship is stupendous, easily becoming the focal point of the game. Even pit against the majesty of the softly rendered Wyoming wilderness, the moments where Delilah radios in to talk to you are among the high points of your days; the banter is well-written (though a mite sarcastic at times) and the small choices you make in the conversations feel like they matter. There isn't a significant payoff for your decisions, but I feel the moment-to-moment challenge of choosing an answer is worthy of merit despite narrative inevitability. This isn't to downplay the visuals either; like The Witness, the game deserves praise for its vibrant color tones, varied locales, and soothing atmosphere. Firewatch may be short and move at a snail's pace, but its characters and world feel well realized and very much alive.

I can't really say the same about the story, unfortunately. I'm not bothered by the fact that there's only one ending or that the central mystery leads nowhere—I'm disappointed that Firewatch steered away from Delilah and Henry's relationship. I do think the subversion it took with conspiracy theories was admirable, expanding on how isolation and paranoia can mix to brew a very potent (and nearly tenable!) concoction. As much as one may detest the numerous red herrings, every event and action in the game has a reason for unfolding the way it did, though I imagine many players will get flustered by the abundant amount of information stored in Ned's hideaway (plus they have to dispel their own convictions while digesting each factoid). It admittedly stumbles a bit in the delivery, but I respect the game for what it was trying to achieve.

However, the conspiratorial element doesn't compliment Delilah and Henry's relationship as much as it distracts from it. The ingredients are there for a very fascinating tale about human connection deprived of physical interaction—both seek to escape into one another, yet for different reasons—but it feels undercooked by the finale. Despite how well the ending captured the poignancy of their miscommunication, I felt that if the game had spent all of its effort on exploring the nuance of their relationship, I would've been wholly onboard. Instead, it pushes the player into pursuing something fishy out in the woods, treating the park as suspect rather than letting it evolve into a welcomed, shared experience. I think the discovery of Brian's body being the catalyst for Delilah's departure works well, but there could've been a more natural way to tie it into the story instead of using it as a springboard for Ned's manic antics. The father/son material is tragic and works well on paper, but it should've remained secondary to the main characters.

A lot of this makes it seem like I take umbrage with one single facet out of the entire experience, but the problem is that a game of this particular style rests on its story. I can see some being sated by the delightful visuals alone, but for me it was different; near the end after I had fetched the ax, I realized that traversing the park had become "normalized", meaning all I had left was to anticipate was where the mystery would lead. The tension of discussing Julia with Delilah had been put on hold, and our own personal insecurities (besides the paranoia) appeared to have dissipated. All that was left for me to ponder was what awaited me deep in the forest, but that...

I guess that just wasn't enough.

We're at a point with video games where the most run-of-the-mill topics can be explored and made interesting. Gone Home was phenomenal not just because it made a single house feel lived-in, but that its heartwarming tale turned the ordinary exotic. Firewatch feels like it took the supernatural bent of Gone Home and wanted to delve into that deception more thoroughly, enabling the player to become as lonely and paranoid as the emotionally wracked character s/he's controlling. It consciously shelves the humane aspect of the story in doing so, which is a great pity since it brushed upon one of the greatest sources of loneliness there is—a long distance relationship that goes nowhere. I didn't dislike it, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm sad it shied away from (what I feel is) its full potential.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Hexcells - Thoughts

Matthew Brown's Hexcells is great! That's the most important thing that needs to be said about the game, but I suppose I'll expand on it a little more.

For the uninitiated, Hexcells is basically Minesweeper meets Picross with a tiny sprinkle of Sudoku. Your only controls are to either destroy or highlight an orange hex with your mouse cursor, and the goal of each puzzle is to destroy/highlight all of the orange hexes using the numerical hints given to you. The starting hints are simple—the numbers inside of destroyed hexes will tell you how many highlighted hexes surround them. You can see this in the screenshot down below:

This puzzle is easy enough that it can be solved through cursory deduction. If you're a Minesweeper amateur like me, the game thankfully eases you into its basic mechanics early on, but be warned: it'll turn into a brain-busting mess before you know it! The first Hexcells game is relatively straightforward (it took me two hours to "perfect" it), but the following Hexcells Plus and Hexcells Infinite took me 10 hours each to plow through. More hint types are piled on as you progress through each game, and the way they shape your comprehension of the game is pretty astounding.

Talking about numerical puzzle games like these are difficult, because you'll either like it or you won't. If you're looking for a twist on the Minesweeper or Picross formula on Steam for an absurdly cheap price (all three games can be bought for under $3 during a sale!), then Hexcells is a no-brainer. I had a damn good time with it!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Witness - Thoughts

In its entirety, Jonathan Blow's The Witness exists as a challenge. Nearly everything about it is designed to instigate and confound, from its textless puzzles to the verbose audio logs. But it doesn't seek to halt your progress—merely impede, momentarily. It's a game designed around the "aha!" moment, crafted meticulously together to spur your curiosity and wonder. The game's mysterious island will submerge you in instances of apophenia and splendor, kindling your imagination and asking you to seriously think about some of its puzzles. If you play it without a guide, you're bound to have an amazing time.

Broken down to its core components, the gameplay in The Witness is all about clicking on circles and drawing lines. It may not seem like there's ~30 hours of content with that description, but you'll interact with the game's systems in clever ways: perhaps you'll see multiple "exit" points for the lines, or there will be strange symbols on the panel that will bar your way, or maybe you can't even locate what you're supposed to be drawing lines on. Similar to Fez, there's a lexicon of symbols that you'll have to manually decode, but the way they're adjusted and oriented changes up constantly.

But that's what makes the game fun! You know nothing going into it, but by the journey's close you'll be witness to the furtive ways in which the island works. The game guides your hand but does so from the shadows, allowing you to explore any of its locations once you're free from the starting area. Of course some locales will be harder than others, but the nonlinear approach to learning the rules of the world make the game seem far more open and exploratory compared to many other puzzlers. Even when you reach the game's conclusion you'll still be interacting with the panels in very clever—and devious!—ways, never quite sure if you've fully digested everything the island has to offer.

And if the puzzles don't seem to stump you, the inscrutable text will. Blow's natural leanings towards "pretentiousness" have not been curbed since Braid, and I think that's great! I'm all for a larger diversity in gaming. There's a place in this medium for Mario and Call of Duty's A to B storyline just as there is for convoluted meta-narrative pieces like The Beginner's Guide and The Witness. Plus Blow raises some really interesting (if vague) questions with the texts compiled here, weaving their meanings into the "challenge" aspect of the game itself. The narrative is one part celebration of human ingenuity, and another part condemnation of our categorical tendencies, with a ton of angles to approach each side from. Plus Tarkovskiy gets "name dropped", which is pretty cool.

The final thing worth discussing is the art direction. Blow and his team absolutely nailed their attempt to make a modern Myst in style alone, having distinct portions of the island that work harmoniously together. There's a ton of color used in each setting; at times I found myself wondering why other games aren't nearly as vivid and lush with their color palettes. Seriously, the colors are so strong and distinctive that it almost comes off almost as cell-shaded, but continues to deceive you with its realism. Plus the aforementioned apophenia moments are unforgettable—there's so many little details put into the environment that the game may be worth it for the art design alone (er, as long as you don't mind the price of admission).

I have my own theories on what Blow was trying to achieve with The Witness, and I hope that if you're intrigued by what you've read, you'll give it a shot too. It's a welcoming game despite the isolation (kinda the inverse of SOMA), and the puzzles found within are superb. During my time on this beautiful and vibrant island, I only needed to look up a solution for one of puzzles out of the +500 I completed (the ship [sigh]); nothing is ever so hard that the answer lies out of your reach, though you'll likely have to break out the ol' pen and paper when the going gets rough. The Witness is a fantastic experience, from start to finish.