February 27, 2016

Firewatch - Do you wanna know why we keep starting fires?

More like "hiking simulator", amirite?

For all of its troublesome origins, the term "walking simulator" remains a very useful shorthand for a genre that has become very popular in recent years: exploration games that are based more on narrative and immersion than on any standard gameplay mechanic such as combat, stealth or puzzle-solving. It's a great idea on paper, and it sounds easy - until you remember how hard it is to get anyone immersed in a world with which the only modes of interaction are looking around and reading conveniently-placed notes. Questioning established gaming tropes without coming up with any of their own answers, most games in the genre have felt anywhere from uninspired to downright lazy, with at least a dozen Gone Homes to every Stanley Parable.

It is with no hyperbole, then, that I say that Firewatch is by far the best walking simulator I've played to date. While far from perfect, it shows a rare understanding of how to build a setting and get players invested in a story, to the point where I already know that I will play through it again - something that I've never done with any other walking simulator.

Firewatch's replay value is due mostly to it being so enjoyable, but there are a few choices to be made which not only have certain (admittedly minor) effects on unfolding events, but also serve to draw you into the story. The game starts by telling you that you are Henry, a man in his 20s who is getting very drunk with friends - say no more! I immediately identify with this guy. But at some point, Henry notices a fetching lady and decides to hit on her. The lady turns out to be a professor, and Henry must have way more game than me, because while I never had much success hitting on my professors stumbling drunk, Henry and Julia end up getting together and eventually getting married. Their happiness is not long-lived, though, as you eventually discover that Julia is suffering from dementia.

The decisions you make during the aforementioned sequence, especially those that take place as Julia slips further and further into dementia, will tell you what sort of person your iteration of Henry is. This entire intro is composed of text intercut with scenes of Henry making his way to the forest where the bulk of the game takes place, and while this is in all likelihood a budget move, it is surprisingly effective and does a good job of separating the part of Henry's life taking place before the game and the part you will be most active in.

No option to make a Metal Gear Solid reference, then?

Sadly, this is where the problems start. As a game based mostly on immersion, Firewatch cannot afford to be as shallow as it is in the decisions it has you take. For example, after a particularly exhausting day of taking care of Julia - already very ill - Henry wants to steal away a few hours at a bar while Julia is asleep. That you will go out is a foregone conclusion - you can only decide whether or not you will block the bedroom door so that Julia can't get out. If you think your character wouldn't leave his mentally-ill wife alone at home, or if you think he could get just as some much relaxation from staying in with a bottle of Jack and playing some Rocket League, sorry - the game has already decided to disregard your opinion on the matter.

Firewatch is littered with such immersion-breaking moments, and they're not limited to the decisions you make alone. Most of the game has you walk around a reserve, taking care of fires and other disturbances. It's absolutely gorgeous, and walking around the forest, taking in the view, discovering animals and admiring the foliage - when it's not clearly just made of flat, pixelated textures - feels great. It's a world so easy to get lost in - that is, until you want to maybe get closer to where another character is supposed to be and hit an invisible wall, or when you talk to a couple of characters far away who are clearly just blacked-out stick figures, or when you look at a tree and notice one of the aforementioned flat leaves. And then immersion breaks, completely and irreversibly.

Seriously, these leaves.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not big on immersion in video games. It tends to encourage treating playing them as an escapist activity, and I find escapism troubling in any media. But in Firewatch, immersion is pretty much all you have - otherwise, your computer game story is just a cartoon with questionable production values. I realize that one can only spend so much money on a game's visuals, but it seems to me that making the world less pretty overall but more cohesive would have been a better use of resources.

And still, Firewatch draws you in. It is so beautiful, so well-written and well-paced, so charming, that all these issues are easy to swallow. For every bad texture or plot convenience you find, there's at least one moment where you adopt a turtle, find a raccoon, or listen to a really great exchange between Henry and Delilah, the other main character in the story, that just puts a big smile on your face. The running time isn't long, even with optional content factored in, but the wealth of dialogue options and secrets make Firewatch a deceptively deep experience.

Seriously, this turtle.

Most importantly, Firewatch shows how walking simulators should be done, sort of like how the original Batman showed how Batman movies should be done.

Let's hope the next one is a Batman Begins rather than a Batman Returns.

Finally, I just had to get in how hilarious it is that we needed a rope 
to climb down this barely two meter, easily scalable wall.

Score Calculation: Turtles have hexagons on their shells. Raccoons have two colors (black doesn't count, because it is the absence of a color). In my book, that's a

Final Score: 8

Verdict: Firewatch's significance far exceeds its score. In a genre plagued by pretentiousness and laziness, it is a genuine and successful effort at being artistic, emotional and entertaining. We fully expect it to become an inspiration to some truly great games in the future.

February 9, 2016

Pony Island - I love pony, pony don't lie, I love pony, almost much as Undertale

2016 is off to a good start

Pony Island almost seems like a game that didn't want to be discovered. It's called Pony Island; it has a yellow-pink-purple logo; its trailer begins with a pink pony running through a green field; everything about it reads like a guide on how to make mainstream audiences lose interest, like a game version of that Achewood strip where Ray decides to make it easier for people to rent gay porn videos by giving them boring false covers (we were still kinda renting videos back then). But through the combined strength of its own quality and the morbid fascinations of the fringes of the gaming community, Pony Island found its critical attention and approval, and we are all the better for it.

As the trailer is quick to clarify, this is not a game about ponies - well, maybe just a little. It's mostly a game about game design. Yes, it's another one of those meta indie games, but unlike most of its predecessors, Pony Island does not feel smarter or more special than its audience. It's frank about the frustrations of a developer without wallowing in self-pity, showing how the special dynamic between designer and developer can, despite its aggravations, lead to making better games, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Of course, how Pony Island does that is a secret that I prefer not to divulge. It's the kind of story where even knowing the genre and basic content matter is something of a spoiler, and Pony Island is a game that absolutely everyone should experience, though its deeper themes will appeal mostly to more veteran gamers. Suffice to say, the game is chock full of surprises, secrets and easter eggs that, almost a month after its release, still have fans looking everywhere for more things to discover.

On a gameplay level, Pony Island is divided into two parts: the first is a side-scrolling runner, and the second is a riddle game where you have to guide a key to a lock through various obstacles, a bit like a very basic version of The Incredible Machine. Both are functional, and at times, the riddles can be fun to figure out, but gameplay is generally Pony Island's weakest point. Unlike games such as Arkham City and Shovel Knight, where entire challenge modes could be made consisting solely of variations on bits of the main game, the non-narrative parts of Pony Island are very much a one-trick... well, you know.

It's the narrative where Pony Island truly shines, though, and a major part of that is the incredibly oppressive atmosphere the game creates. Though not an outright scary game, PI's minimalist design and its intentionally vague and unfriendly communication with the player give the experience a sense of alienation and paranoia on the level of early Silent Hill games and parts of the first Metal Gear Solid. It's incredibly creepy, and while it's certainly not a game you'd have a hard time playing in the dark, it does feel pleasantly uneasy all the way through.

While the basic gameplay never changes all that much, the scenarios surrounding it are constantly evolving, in what is clearly a commentary on the evolution of video games throughout the years. At first you go through levels one by one, but eventually, the game does open up and allow you to explore a world map to varying degrees of freedom. It's a nice touch, and it's also where many opportunities lie to engage in another important part of the game: collecting tickets.

There are 24 tickets in total, received for completing various side goals that the more diligent players will come across. Most just require going off the beaten path, but a few need a genuine flash of brilliance or just a lot of patience and meticulous exploration to be found.

That is where another major flaw with the game is revealed: Pony Island is very bad at check-pointing. This isn't a problem in the runner levels, where failure only means starting the stage from the beginning, but with the more exploration-oriented parts of the game, or rather, with players' ability to access these parts. Pony Island's plethora of secrets naturally encourages replaying different sections and trying different things. However, while the game does allow players to jump between acts from the main menu, getting to certain sections is incredibly trying of one's patience, and the game is all too eager to throw points of no return all over, forcing one to repeat various mundane tasks just to get to the fun parts again. And while the dialogue is brilliant the first time it is read, being forced to stare at the screen and tap a key as the same text messages appear very, very slowly, inevitably breeds contempt.

All that being said, the extent to which I've been dancing around talking about the game's actual plot should clue you in to how much I recommend experiencing it for yourself. For all its flaws, Pony Island certainly merits a playthrough, even if I highly doubt that I will ever go back to play it again after playing the whole way through twice and repeating certain sections to find secrets. At 5$, though, that's plenty - certainly more than I've gotten out of many 15-20$ indie games, nevermind 60$ AAA games.

Besides, look at how cute that listless little pony is.

Score Calculation: Pony Island is one-half pony and one-half secrets. However, there's simply not enough pony, so that the pony part is in reality only four-fifths of a half, giving us

Final Score: 9

Verdict: I would like a listless pony plushy please.