Night In The Woods: When A Tree Falls In The Woods…

There are two things that stuck with me upon completion of Night In The Woods – the first is that Mae, the protagonist, is not voiced. The second is that Garbo and Malloy, as well as Sharkle, characters that are as background as characters can get, are voiced. The comedy duo of Garbo and Malloy show up on the television, whether that’s at the train station or while Mae watches television with her father, and the other is simply a companion buddy for the desktop interface, akin to Bonzi, of BonziBuddy. While this can simply be brushed aside as a budgetary consideration – it’s a dialogue-driven game and the sheer amount of voice-over work that would need to be done would get quite expensive – there are more interesting things to derive from these characters having vocal voices at all.

Garbo, Malloy, and Sharkle are all media. Their messages are clear but that is mostly because their messages gravitate towards the realms of vital and yet completely useless. Sharkle is the only character that speaks comprehendible words with a distorted “Hi!” and “Hello!” that would fit coming out of a state-fair mascot’s mouth. The two comedians take a page from the voice of adults in the Peanuts’ cartoon show, with  “wah-wah-waaaah”s taking the place of language.

It’s something to take note of because while there are gods, cultists, and the common folk, none of them get a voice. It is only these entities that exist outside of the town that get any consideration in this way. The thing is, they have nothing of importance to say. Garbo and Malloy make a joke of their lives and a fear of failure, but the laugh track underneath undercuts it as anything serious. Sharkle is something that appears within two instances – as a hallucination when the protagonist, Mae, is unconscious, and when clicked on in the computer interface. They ultimately have nothing to say but are the only characters with audible voices. The rest of the game is filled with characters with busy lives who are, literally, silent in their suffering.

Night In The Woods is set in a rust belt town and deals with Mae Borowski dropping out of college and returning home. There is the expectation that comes with homecoming stories that the protagonist returning to their home will find that they are the mature ones and that they have outgrown their former friends and family. Night In The Woods takes this  trope and instead shows a world wherein others have grown up, leaving behind the protagonist who has, in turn, left their old world behind. Economic instability, dead-end jobs, and forgotten and downtrodden workers are the common tale of Possum Springs, the setting of this game. By turning the trope around, and showing these workers as the ones who have matured and grown, it puts the spotlight back on them. With so many characters that share poetry, their plights, dreams – only characters who are not tangible and have nothing to say get to have voices. Despite the focus of the game being upon these people – the player is still someone who is outside of this community and can not hear them. They can only hear the media that surrounds Possum Springs.

Sharkle is insignificant. Their influence on the story is a comedic hallucination wherein they tell Mae to get up. When you click on them on the desktop interface, they make a funny sound. They contribute nothing but the voice is what makes them actually stand out. It’s a paradox – they demand attention because they have a voice, but there’s nothing of note or depth to derive from what they are saying. Instead, the only thing worth analyzing of them is why they do have voices. Sharkle embodies the buzz of the internet. It overpowers the voices within these towns. The internet is simultaneously a method to communicate externally, but the sheer size and breadth of it makes actual communication impossible.

 

Garbo & Malloy’s is the basic double act. One character plays the straight man to let the other play the comic. Their jokes deal with their own ratings, employment, and dealing with depression and self-image. It’s fairly basic stuff in the realm of comedy. It is the program that Mae is greeted by when entering the train station upon returning to Possum Springs – the initial action of the game. It is also what Mae and her father watch at the end of her nights. Their voices lack the principles of language, just devolving into rising and falling syllables. They almost have nothing to say, except that’s not entirely true. One of the things that stands out is the closing line of their act is directly related to the next major action in Night In The Woods. For example, there is an instance wherein Malloy says they will join a cult on the next segment. Soon after, Mae encounters the cult of Possum Springs. In another instance, the two proclaim they will be going to therapy and the next day, Mae’s mother sets up an appointment for Mae to go see a therapist. In this sense, they have a predictive power. It is a vague prediction, but a prediction nonetheless.

There is a certain predictive power to comedy. Fiction and literature all point to a future, even if they’re rooted in the past. Garbo & Malloy both have this power, but it’s ultimately not as powerful as one would expect. It simply signifies the event will happen – not how to prevent it, survive it, or point to a future after the event. It gets lost in the comedy, so the dire warnings become background noise. Garbo & Malloy’s best efforts are the equivalent of telling someone a train is coming when they’re stuck in the train track.

The voices are given to the useless. These characters have nothing of worth to give to the story, but can be heard. It represents the current state of affairs – TV and Internet dominate the consciousness. Night In The Woods is not casting aspersions upon either – it simply is stating that the more important and vital conversations happen locally. The voices that are amplified are highlighted because their message can be seen as broad enough to just dive into uselessness. Media as a whole, even Night In The Woods itself, can not solve the issues of Possum Springs. It comes from work and local effort.

Review: INSIDE

Inside

Playdead’s Inside opens on a young boy tumbling over a hill with nowhere to go but onward. There’s something so desolate about this one that makes it stick out – you start with no direction and no other characters on screen. The way the protagonist emerges into a forest, alone, with no guide. The color palette is subdued. There is no music. The protagonist is alone in some woods and the only direction to go is right. There is no compulsion to go on, there’s no arrow. To be quite honest, it just feels right. It’s a primal thing born in the history of video games to continue going in that direction. Read More

That Dragon, Cancer

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That Dragon, Cancer
is dealing with the heaviest of material, the death of a child, and the game does not feel equipped to carry it. An autobiographical game, by couple Amy and Ryan Green, That Dragon, Cancer is the story of their infant son who was diagnosed with cancer and, eventually succumbs to his illness, and how they cope with that reality.

When I first heard of the game, I let out an audible “Oof.” Cancer sucks. I went in with an open mind. The death of anyone from cancer is tragic and couple it with the death of an infant son and it’s all the worse. I expected to feel bad when I left the game. I did not expect to leave the game feeling disappointed.

Disappointment is a tricky word when talking about something like this. It implies that there was expectation – it implies that there was something worth going into this game for – an almost excitement at the possibilities. When talking about material like this, having expectations or anything of the sort can put one out to be a monster craving a tragedy, but I was excited because it looked promising. It looked like it would take a mature look at life and death.

I’m going to be straight about this: I did not like this game. I didn’t not like it because of its subject matter. This isn’t a case of “Well, it made me feel sad, so it wasn’t fun.” I was disappointed because the subject matter is close to the Green family and I was looking for this tragedy to be explored with a deft hand or a raging fist or something more than what was actually put on display.

That Dragon Cancer
The Faceless Joel Green

The art style is completely minimalist in nature. The art creates a layer of separation. A faceless child is not a child I’m looking to know, but that’s what’s in this game. It’s a distracting feature. It doesn’t seem to bring any meaning to the game or bring any element besides being the throw away art style of the game. The father, Ryan Green has his beard and glasses, and the mother, Amy Green, has her eyebrows and hair, but Joel, their son, lacks any identifying marks. It creates this layer between the player and the drama unfolding.

 

It’s totally understandable that they wouldn’t want to model their son’s face for this, but nothing looks well made. The art style instead of elevating any sensations actually puts a barrier up between the player and the game. The fantastical elements feel more like shadow plays than something to be believed. It works to cohere the magical realism and the realistic bits but at the cost of making the entire game suffer and harder to connect with.

The small interactions between the player and Joel feel more intrusive than actually revelatory, and this is the part that feels strange to mention in a game like this, but so important to highlight. A lot of progressing involved turning around and then turning back to allow the “objective” to load in. There were moments where that wasn’t clear. There was moments were it felt like I was waiting for the game to move on. The gameplay feels sluggish, when it doesn’t feel like it’s bugging out and breaking.

These interactions feel cumbersome and they intrude upon some larger moments of the game.There were moments where I had questioned if the game was making me wait, as some sort of statement towards waiting for results or waiting for the inevitable, or if I needed to restart because the actual game was broken. When given control, everything feels so floaty and “game-y”, which is to say there’s too much feedback, too much control to the player, while simultaneously, frustrating to control, using a click to move style of movement. It felt like the “game” sections were added to adhere to some strict guideline of “game-hood,” but there’s no goals to them but connection, and again, the art style gets in the way. The “games” instead of bring the player closer actually act to push them further away.

These small little hitches and frustrations continue to snowball and get in the way of the narrative, but pushing that aside, it never dug deep enough. The writing touches on questions of faith and grace and religion, but instead of plunging into them, instead it feels like it plays on the surface, while simultaneously never being subtle. It never rises to try and answer any questions, but instead just…comes to a conclusion of the son ultimately dying.

The game is split into 14 tragic little vignette of magical realism and fantastical ideas. Few seem connected enough and instead it feels like a smorgasbord of suffering. It makes it hard to make a connection. There’s special emphasis on Ryan, it seems. A lot of moments center around his suffering. His narrative arc follows the story of acceptance of their son’s death. Amy’s on the other hand, felt far more interesting. She was the one waiting out for a miracle. She was waiting for something to save the day. Her story felt caged away though and never touched upon.

A moment of levity from the conclusion
A moment of levity from the conclusion

It feels like it’s fumbling with itself. It introduces symbols and metaphors and seems to either reveal them too early for them to pay off, or never returns to them. The beginning of the game involves feeding ducks, but never does anything with it. It feels out of place. The landscape, if one pays attention, has the striving motif of the game, which is budding black branches, symbolizing cancer. Instead of letting that bloom, within the first three chapters, it’s obvious what they mean and instead settle into the background and lose their power for being revealed so early.

The mini games feel so out of place. There’s a point early in the game, wherein Ryan dreams of his son, soaring through space on balloons, and being bombarded by those black branches. It quickly becomes obvious there’s no end but to succumb. The problem is, the process is so long and there’s no content to revel in or any interactions to do besides dodge, that it actually becomes a game of running into them to end the section earlier, as grim as that might be when you extrapolate that metaphor.

The game’s imprecise nature is highlighted through a small little faux-cart racing segment. That Dragon, Cancer attempts to use this segment as a way to highlight the ways in which cancer can seem like a loop around a track. Each lap, you’re collecting medication, and it’s costs are shown at the end. The problem is, the game never goes into the Green’s fiscal lives. It’s the only section of the game that hints at a sort of financial struggle, if there even was one. The controls are imprecise and feels clunky and strange. There’s no objective, but the insinuation of just to collect stuff. It becomes clear though that there’s no choices, or again, any interaction, it simply goes around.

One of the final chapters, taking place in a church, went on for so long that I had to look up a video to see if there was something I was missing – if there was some puzzle I had perhaps missed. Instead, I had to just wait. But that was one of my problems throughout the game. I wasn’t sure what was intended, and what was a glitch? Was I clicking an objective too much? Or was I not turning around at the right time? Was I waiting too long or not waiting for something?

That Dragon, Cancer never focuses. The second half of the game takes on an extended metaphor of a sea of misery, but besides that, everything seems very disconnected – that sea is left fairly quickly, and constantly interrupted.  Everything seems to come together to distract the player instead of giving any enlightenment.

The Depths of the Unknown: The Eldritch Teller

The Depths of the Unknown is an attempt to reveal and talk about games that are not talked about: games that are only a few bucks, last only a few minutes, and exist to stand by themselves and the purpose of this segment is to shine light on those experiences and pull something out of them.


The name
The Eldritch Teller stuck out to me. It’s a good name. It’s invocative of something grander than oneself, but it inspired quite a bit of apprehension in me because I’ve just grown tired of the “unknowable cosmic horror” tropes. I’ve grown tired of the unknowable because it feels like a waste of time to really concern oneself with what one can not know. Maybe that’s the point. Thankfully, The Eldritch Teller never seems to concern itself with that either.

Yes, I am a cool adult. It's very nice of you to notice.
This is the sort of humor The Eldritch Teller deals in and I love it.

The Eldritch Teller, by Arielle Grimes (@slimekat on Twitter), is a game with really one option and that’s what the player does when they hear their phone ring. The Eldritch Teller, of title fame, is a robed, antlered, faceless entity, that simply acts as narrator. The game looks as if it’s running on a faulty CRT run through a fish-eye lens. Pixelated geometry spirals and a space-scape acts as the letter box. The distortion makes some of the text hard to read, but the actual art in the game is well made. Silhouettes are vague enough that it doesn’t bring any strict definition to the “You” of the story, leaving the story open to anyone participating. There’s no attachment – The Eldritch Teller knows what it’s audience is. The game plays like a ghost story being told to you, about you. The Eldritch Teller has no time to really consider what you do. It knows what you’d do. The story being told is a vague enough story that it feels like “your” story and doesn’t suffer from being so vague.

The screen flashes to convey small story beats and focus from high detailed figures to explosive bits of pixelated lines portraying, well, the unknowable. The art is pixel art, but it’s not overly stylized pixel art – it’s a means to create indistinction. Nothing is very clear, as something set in a cosmic horror setting should be.

I had mentioned earlier that I had a slight bit of fear – not a psychological or primal fear, but a fear of disdain. Between friends, I’ve referred to the cosmic horror tropes as “Cthulhu shit.” There’s two camps: those that have been trying to separate the roots from the mythos and concentrate on the kind of horror that is found in those stories, a pure fascination and healthy fear of the unknowable that has no time nor regard for you, and those that find delight in the lore of the Cthulhu mythos – a paradox in itself. The idea of a mythos behind something defined as unknowable is silly, or maybe it’s expected. It’s putting structure around something one can not know and adding your flairs to it. The second worst thing HP Lovecraft did, after being a terrible racist, was describe Cthulhu and inspire an unknowable amount of merchandise to spawn after his death.

I am so ready.
The combination of casual tones and a simple color pallet is really striking.

The Eldritch Teller falls squarely in the first, personally, more interesting camp. It’s the camp that is more interested in what it means to interact with the unknowable. It’s friendly, it can come in contact with you, but it feels less like looking over the edge of a cliff and more like being talked down to by a teacher.

The narrator’s tone is frank and casual, toying with the player’s expectation of, well, an Eldritch Teller. It’s a character that toys with the player’s expectations of itself. My favorite line in the piece is “You’re a cool adult who definitely deserves respect.” It’s that tone that I enjoyed. It’s not a narrator that’s going to blow anyone away, but I appreciated that. It brought levity to the parts that would be dull and got out of the way when action began.

The balance of the tones creates an interesting effect. The humor leaves the player just open enough to let the turn take you. When it switches to a bit of cosmic horror it’s a slow shift, easing you into it. The harder turn is a return to normalcy and that’s where the narrative is at it’s most interesting to me – The Eldritch Teller is a tragedy. It’s a comedy that trades not in the unknown, but uses the unknown to set up it’s ultimate joke and the punchline is depression. The story being told is about waiting for a phone call. The Eldritch Teller tells you that you await this call, but you’ve always wanted to adventure, just as most kids have. Regardless of which of the three storylines you choose (to casually get the phone, spring forward for the phone, or to sit paralyzed in anxiety), you’re ultimately ending the call to adventure. The adventure is the moment of “abduction,” of being taken away, but in the end, the phone call needs to be answered and the job needs to be taken. That’s the state of the world once you leave it. The extravagance of adventure is brief, fleeting, and wouldn’t accept you, no matter how much you crave it. There is really only one path where there is a true interaction between “you” and the cosmic horrors. The great irony is they’re quite polite. They’re not lording over you the fact that they’re of some higher headspace.

It’s a short little experience, it’s about 5 to 10 minutes. It’s not going to revitalize a joy for cosmic horror, but it feels like a good response to the exhaustion in those ideas. It treats it as window dressing, as opposed to the window itself. It’s the kind of way I want this setting and set of tropes to be explored. The initial idea behind the settings is a shallow well that can only sustain a few stories, or at least that’s my opinion. That’s because stories seem to want to constantly question the unknown, as opposed to interacting with the unknown. It’s limiting, narratively, when your only interactions you can have with the void are to go mad. What I liked about The Eldritch Teller is it felt like I had fallen into the void’s living room and it picked me up and asked how I was doing, sent me on my way, without any significant conversation. The Eldritch Teller is not going to change your life. It’s not going to unlock some big dark secret of the universe or lead you to an epiphany, but it’s entertaining – even if it’s whole purpose is to just let you know just how insignificant you are.

If you’d like to play this for yourself, you can go here. Pay a few bucks and you can experience all of the choices in the story. If you play for free, you’re restricted to whatever choice you pick – there’s no reloading the game and starting over to see the rest.

Accepting When to Quit a Game

So today I quit playing a game. A single player game no less. I just gave up. Not because the game was too difficult to be conquered (though for honesty’s sake I had just died for the fourth time) and not because the potential for the game wasn’t good. I quit because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the game in pursuit of something the game wasn’t delivering enough of.

Let me back up and explain.

The game in question was No More Heroes, an old (2007) game for the Wii that I borrowed from a friend because I had heard amazing things about it. To be specific, the amazing things were in this article here about the ending of the game (needless to say, spoiler alert.) And I wanted to see that ending in context. I wanted to play the game that could not only insert such a dark, truthful moment into a video game where such things aren’t generally done, but also in such a clever and powerful way (for clarity without spoilers, the information is revealed in a fast forward which breaks the 4th wall and references previous moments within the game).

I wanted to experience that moment as it was meant to be.

And when I started the game, I loved it. After a quick tutorial I was hacking and slashing with ease, enjoying the relatively simple combat. Sure it was a bit repetitive, and yeah the level design was very closed, but this was a game that had story. This was a game that had clever cut scenes. And the game play was fun enough that a little repetition wasn’t going to distract me from that.

Then I fought the first boss. And it was hard. But not in the way it was supposed to be. It wasn’t hard because I had to figure out a long string of moves with timings and combos. It wasn’t hard because it required me to think strategically or do complicated maneuvers. It was hard because the boss could only be hurt at certain arbitrary times. Not because he was blocking. Not because he was using a special move that only activates once every thirty seconds. Not because he was just too damn fast He just…couldn’t be hurt because he couldn’t be.

But I beat him. It took a hot minute and it was frustrating, but I beat him. This opened up the open world aspect of the game which, when you really look at things isn’t all that open world. Yes, the world is open, and you can drive around it, but you can’t interact with much. You can’t do much at all in it except go from set place to set place. But that wasn’t why I was playing this game. I was playing it for that ending. That awesome, unexpected, extremely well done ending. And I was going to get to it.

Which took me to the second boss. And his guns. And while the guns were frustrating, they weren’t the most frustrating part of the boss fight. No, that honor goes to the same frustrating part of the first boss. He couldn’t be hit except during certain times and all other times he was invincible because…reasons.

Again I beat him. It was close, but I did it. Back to the limited open world. Back to the grind for cash before entering the next narrow hallway stage into the next boss fight which…you guessed it. Boss couldn’t be hit except during certain times. Oh, but I left some parts out. See, video games get harder as they progress. What did this new boss have?

A ranged attack which was unblockable (which, 2007 wii controls meant I was getting stuck behind pillars and not dodging too many of those. Then there was a variation of that move at about 50% health where she would launch a barrage of them. Enough of them to kill you. Which I found out the hard way a couple times. And once you got her down to 25% she had another attack which if she hit you would instantly kill you.

I died. A lot. Strong words were spoken. At one point I had to turn the system off and walk away.

But! But. I was determined. I was going to get to that ending. I was going to see it in context. I was going to experience the anticipation and earn my way to victory. Research on the internet told me that she was the most difficult boss in the game (for some reason) and that there were no exploits, you just had to be calm, patient, and hack away at her until she died while not dying yourself. It was going to be hard but I could beat her.

And I did. After about ten more tries I did it. I beat her. I shouted victory. I did a little dance. Then returned back to the limited open world, back to grinding for money, so that I could go back to another limited level, cut through a new slew of similar but slightly different enemies, to get to another boss who once again couldn’t be hit except when the game decided and who had another pair of unblockable attacks which took away half your health and got him down to 1% health on my fourth try only to die when I got stuck on a piece of terrain I couldn’t see because of the camera..

That was it. That was the straw. Because I realized something fighting that boss.

I didn’t care about the game play. It was repetitive, uninspired, and other games did it better. I love a good hack and slash but this neither had enough enemies to make it interesting, nor was it refined enough to handle more than four enemies even if they had included more. I didn’t care about the boss fights, because I want a boss who can’t be hit because they won’t let me, not because the game won’t. The only thing I cared about was getting to the end to see the video I’d already seen in full context as opposed to just a clip on a website.

This 42 minute clip saved me another six-ten hours.

And I got what I wanted. I didn’t have to fight through uninspired gameplay to do it. I just had to go watch a youtube video and see the other cut scenes that led to the story I had wanted to see all along.

At the end of all of this, it may sound like I’m going to say No More Heroes is a bad game. But it’s not. I’ve played far worse. I’ve powered through a lot worse. People love this game and I’m not here to tell them not to enjoy it. But getting to be an older gamer, I realize now, if I want to play a game for a specific reason and the game is not enjoyable to me in other ways…it’s probably time to stop. Save myself the frustration, the anger, and the time. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t have to hack and slash to do it. I just needed YouTube.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in a game.

Catherine is a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has cheated on his girlfriend, though he doesn’t remember picking up the girl. The descriptions I had heard of the game seemed to point to it being a game where you had to navigate the careful thread of unraveling A. Where this girl came from and who she was while you B. Tried to save a relationship that you had accidentally compromised. The game has six possible endings based on the choices you make throughout the game and if that was all this would be an amazing game. But instead you get gameplay like this.

If you don’t feel like watching the video, I’ll fill you in. That is a puzzle game right there. But what the hell, you might be thinking. Didn’t I just describe the game above as a relationship navigator? Yes! It was! With a puzzle game in between because…it needed to be a game apparently. I really don’t know the reason because every trailer I saw for that game didn’t include that aspect of gameplay.

But that’s not even the best example I have of the plot trumps game play experience. The final example, and I think the best is a little game called Battleblock Theater.

Battleblock theater isn’t a bad game. In fact, if you like platformer collection games much like Super Meat Boy, or just platformers in general then it’s good. Repetitive, challenging, but good. But compared to the cutscenes…it’s just ok. The cutscenes, however, are amazing! In fact, I’m watching them right now just because they’re so funny.

But I never beat that game. Never will. With limited time and so many other games to play and other things to do, the game play just isn’t enough to keep me interested when I can just get the cutscenes by themselves.

So what am I trying to say here? At the end of the day I’m the type of gamer who wants a good story. And a good story used to be enough to keep me powering through game play I wasn’t enjoying just so I could get that story. But as I’ve grown and matured, I’ve come to accept that…sometimes I just don’t care. I don’t need to finish it. Same as how I don’t need to finish a book if I’m not enjoying it after fifteen pages, or don’t need to finish a movie if I’m bored after the same amount of time. There are other ways to get the information I need and the enjoyment I seek. And if it means being a quitter…well, as a former smoker sometimes you know quitting isn’t the worst thing in the world.

But if you’ve found yourself in the same situation, I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to quit the games we borrow, sample, or *gasp* purchase. That it’s YOURS to do with as you please, and if you’re playing through something complaining the whole time “gods I hate this game,” it might be time that you just accepted…if I hate this so much why am I playing it? If the answer is anything except “because I want to play it,” then it’s time to quit. And if you’re hating the game and still playing it, then you’re probably playing something in the Souls franchise.