So my blogging schedule was a bust. No surprises there, really. But I must say I impressed myself with how quickly I flubbed it. Oh well. Never apologise. I’ve been very busy. A lot more people seem to want things edited in winter than in summer.
But occasionally my work coincides with blog-worthy material. Case in point: I’ve recently been hired, in a very loose way, to help with a computer game. It’s a point-and-click adventure, so it’s given me an excuse to check out some recent games. Today I’ll be reviewing three, all from the last few years: Resonance, Gemini Rue and A New Beginning.
No real spoilers after the cut, but Resonance is so good I’d recommend playing it without knowing anything about it at all, especially if you’re interested in mystery and thriller techniques. It’s on sale at the moment, so you can get it and a bazillion other games for just $5. That deal will also get you Gemini Rue, so I feel a little less bad about giving it such a drubbing. Avoid A New Beginning completely.
A New Beginning (Daedalic Entertainment, 2010)
A little unfair to call this a review, perhaps, because I gave up after about thirty minutes. But absolutely nothing interesting happened in those first thirty minutes, and almost every line of dialogue was off in some way, both in the writing and delivery.
Making wonky stories and dialogue better is my job. I’m grateful for it, I enjoy it and I’m glad to help out people who, for the most part, really love writing. But I don’t want it to spill over into my leisure time.
Many people are fine with terrible game writing. They either don’t much care of they just don’t see it. That’s cool, but I think they might be giving designers the impression that everything’s fine, and everyone else is just moaning. But you shouldn’t ignore criticism just because some people are pleased. Just as some people are never happy, some people are always satisfied. And writing is cheap to fix. You could hire a hundred writers for the cost of a minute of rendered CGI cut-scene.
Anyway, there are no excuses here: Daedalic are the top dogs in the traditional adventure game market at the moment, and they can afford competent translators, editors and voice actors. People who don’t pronounce “Sisyphean” to rhyme with “pristine”. (That’s not a snobbish thing. Who cares if you don’t know a particular word? There’s nothing less appealing than vocab-based dick-measuring. But if no-one on your production team knows how to pronounce something, that’s probably a clear sign that you should use a different word. And it seems an odd mistake for a company called Daedalic! Maybe they pronounce it Deadlock?!)
Even if the writing and acting were better, I doubt I’d have given it much more of a chance. I guess it’s about environmentalism, given the opening sequence where future scientists on an Earth where the climate has spiralled out of control decide their last resort is to travel back in time to put things right. That’s an interesting enough premise, but no part of me wants to begin that story by fixing a broken fan-belt as my primary goal. This is a typical adventure game ploy: make it seem like we’re going to start in medias res with a thrilling cutscene but then rewind the story and make you do chores instead. Well I can’t be doing with it. If your story doesn’t have space for engaging puzzles, or at least an engaging beginning, then you’ve misunderstood how to design an adventure game.
As I said, I’m busy. I don’t have time for crap. I think a lot of game designers think they have a captive audience. You really, really don’t. People value their time, and they have no qualms about giving up a game that isn’t engaging. This isn’t their fault for being impatient, it’s your fault for being boring. Even if this gets better an hour in, even if it’s the best game ever once it gets going, that’s no excuse. I shouldn’t have to give things a chance in case they improve. If the good stuff doesn’t kick in for an hour, then cut the first hour! If you can’t… well, I don’t believe you. Hire an editor, listen to what they have to say. We’re basically magic.
Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger, 2011)
I’d heard good things about this, and it won a lot of awards and story and writing plaudits. It may not be entirely fair, but the fact that it’s practically all the work of one guy meant that I was prepared to give it much more of a chance than A New Beginning. I’ve got a lot of time for lone voices.
I shouldn’t have bothered. This was pedestrian from start to finish, and by the end I actively wanted it to end so I could do something else. I don’t want to piss all over the guy’s effort – it’s really a very, very impressive achievement for one man – but thuddingly average stories like this winning awards is one of the reasons why computer game story-telling is progressing so slowly. There’s not one iota of originality here, and what the story does do it does pretty badly. Yes, it’s better than a high percentage of computer game writing, but I’m afraid that’s not much to be proud of. The bar is set so very, very low.
But here’s the setup. Judge for yourself.
Azriel Odin is an ex-assassin looking for information about his brother. Delta-Six is a prisoner in a semi-automated testing facility, where criminals are “rehabilitated” by having their memories wiped, faces changed and being trained in handy, workplace-friendly skills like computer hacking and shooting people in the face.
The game is split between Odin’s detective work and Delta-Six’s escape plans, with a large section where you can swap between the two characters at will. Although there’s no interaction between the two strands, this is still a good design choice. It allows the player to mix things up if they get stuck and achieves something quite clever, which I’ll go into in my next article for spoiler reasons.
The game isn’t beautiful, partly because of the low-res limitations but mainly through poor design choice. The testing facility in particular would be hard to make attractive with any budget, and there’s a lot of time spent in corridors and stairwells. Still, it’s very impressive as the work of just one guy, and it’s easily as attractive as the 90s games its emulating. The rain effect in the city sections is particularly good.
But that story! Sure, the game took three years to make, so it’s not the designer’s fault that in the intervening years this has basically become its own Flash game subgenre, but was “nameless inmate undergoes tests in a sterile facility overseen by a disembodied voice with a sinister purpose” ever interesting? Especially when it’s done super-earnestly? (I know, I know. The Prisoner, right? Sorry, that was crap too.) At least Portal had jokes.
There is a sort of point of it all, to do with the nature of personal identity and the importance of memory, but it’s underdeveloped and doesn’t make much sense. The author comes down firmly on one side of the issue, which I think is usually a mistake with thematic stuff. Especially because, as so often happens, even the slightest critical thought shows that his story supports the opposite view to the one he thinks it does. But that will have to wait until the spoiler tags come off tomorrow. For now, general advice: people don’t if you don’t pick a side, you can’t accidentally end up supporting the wrong one!
One a line-by-line basis the writing is mediocre to awful. It’s not as bad as A New Beginning, and to start with it’s just inoffensively bland, which is absolutely fine for a thriller. Good genre writing doesn’t draw attention to itself. But by the end it goes completely off the rails. There are many lines in the third act that only make a dim sort of sense because of context, and some of it is barely English. The excellent voice actors struggle valiantly with the warped syntax, but even they have difficulty in the game’s final minutes. I understand that the author may not speak English as his first language, but Wadjet Eye should have done a better job polishing the text. Editors are magic.
Anyway, a lot of people seem to love this, so I don’t want to frighten anyone off. This is all just my opinion and I’m a grumpy bastard. If cyber-noir is your thing then you might find a lot to enjoy here. It’s not a genre that gets a lot of love. It’s also on sale for a crazy low price most of the time, so there’s not much to lose, even if you give up after an hour.
But if you want to put on a white jumpsuit, wander round a spaceship and crawl through vents while avoiding psychopathic crewmates, you should play Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s 7 Days a Skeptic. If you want to put on your best trench coat and mope around a grim and drizzly future-opolis, you should play Bladerunner. Both are miles better than Gemini Rue in every regard, superficial musings on the philosophy of identity included.
Resonance (Vince Twelve, 2012)
Now this is how it should be done. This is published by the same company as Gemini Rue, and is also mainly the efforts of one dedicated guy, but it’s so much better. In fact, it might be the best serious adventure game I’ve played (Day of the Tentacle and Curse of Monkey Island are going to be tough to topple, but comedy in adventure games is a whole different design model). The story is top notch, the writing is never less than competent and often excellent, the graphics are nice in a retro way and the puzzles are well-integrated and challenging without being annoyingly difficult. I’d urge you to play it, because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it in my next post.
Ed is a physics student working on Resonance, a technology that can generate limitless energy via particle entanglement. Unfortunately, the same technology can be used to blow buildings to smithereens. Ed’s professor, Dr Morales, wants to destroy it. He’s terrified of what might happen if it falls into the wrong hands and is convinced that people are following him. But before he can destroy his research, Dr Morales is targeted by a Resonance device that rips him and his lab apart.
You control four characters as you try to help Ed track down the missing Resonance research: Ed himself; Anna, Dr Morales’ niece; Ray, an investigative reporter; and Bennett, a cop.
Don’t get me wrong; we’re still firmly in cliché territory. But at least these are the clichés of fun books and films, rather than over-earnest games. And they’re leveraged beautifully in service of a wonderful surprise in one of the most effective computer game scenes I’ve ever played. Anyone who’s even remotely interested in writing mysteries should play through this at least once to see how elegantly it’s managed.
The key to its effectiveness – and this is what the creator of Gemini Rue and really a huge swathe of the gaming industry needs to understand – is that everything in Resonance is specific. Sure there’s a mystery, and more than a few surprises, but there’s none of that needlessly cryptic and amorphous enigma that permeates so many other games. Everyone is given a clear and separate motivation. It doesn’t matter that many of these are lies or more complicated than they first appear. The point is the player has something to latch on to.
When Resonance springs its twist, you have to throw out everything you thought you knew and replace it with something else. That’s a great feeling, the Holy Grail of thriller writing. But with Gemini Rue, you never actually knew anything pre-twist, so it doesn’t feel like anything’s been shaken up. Playing as God-knows-who, stuck God-knows-where trying to escape from God-knows-who-else before they can do God-knows-what isn’t intriguing. It’s a story vacuum. Enigma is irritating, like someone passive-aggressively making it clear that they know something you don’t. What’s fun is plain, honest deception, concrete information that can be turned on its head in one fell swoop. Resonance understands that, which is why it’s a first-class thriller.