It seems to be traditional, when you talk about The Beginner’s Guide, to not talk about The Beginner’s Guide.
You don’t need, really, to hear anything about Watch_Dogs. You can make the case there’s no reason for me to be going over something that’s so well-explored and well-covered as this game. Perhaps another writer who finds the game a deep and personal love may come back to it with an eye towards the games’ inner life and maybe find something to love. I don’t think I’m going to be that guy, though. I’m the guy who inspects the game, experiences the game, and mainly tries to see if I have anything new to complain about.
Fortunately, I kind of do.
Odds are good, unless you’ve known me for a while, you don’t really know or can’t chart the history of the Game Pile. Originally, the focus of Game Pile was a review series that’s designed to be entertainingly useful in promoting the sales of games I like and the discouragement of games I don’t, with the notion that seeing me do that would get the attention of gaming editors, and maybe get paid for this work. Then I moved on to trying out a new model of how reviews should be, with my view of a standardised release schedule and form, which sought to tell you reasons you might want to play a game, rather than whether or not a game was, itself, fundamentally good or bad.
Then, in the most recent iteration, Game Pile has taken on a shape I really appreciate, which is to use the game as an avenue to discuss what the game made me think about or care about. It is the treatment of games as art objects. Sure, I try to give you an idea of what the game is like, but I do that by trying to only focus on games I like, and the games I like I tend to like because they make me feel and think something. It’s a nice occlusion.
With that in mind, then, I don’t want to tell you you should buy Planescape Torment. It’s a good game, I like it. If you like slow, talky-ready RPGs, it’s really good. Telling you that is almost the definition of old news and you can probably find someone to wax more rhapsodic about it with a cursory glance around.
Instead, I want to tell you about four stories from this game, and what they mean to me.
Spoilers ahead for, y’know, Planescape: Torment. Continue reading
There is however, one truth to all these Baldur’s Gate 2 memories. The truth is, I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 2 as she is coded, for much more than one or two years. What kept me coming back, what kept me playing this game over and over again was the modding community – which saw the vast scale of the game, and still looked at places where it was incomplete, where the sheer scope of the project had failed, and looked into adding to the game what had been begun and not finished, what had been tried and not done, and what was needed but never realised.
Baldur’s Gate 2 is a pretty decent game. But to make it a great game took people who loved it. Continue reading
You might notice that last week, we barely talked about how Baldur’s Gate 2 played, and we’ll get to that, but all you really need to know for now is that Baldur’s Gate 2 is a meandering, sprawling epic, too large for even its own ambitions.
And Throne of Bhaal is not. Continue reading
I love this game. As with Fallout 3 before it, even if I didn’t think of the game fondly in itself, I’d still have to admit anything I spent a hundred hours doing voluntarily couldn’t be something I hated. I can’t talk about Baldur’s Gate 2, a game I marinated in, a game that I played over and over for days at a time, without making it clear, from the outset, that I love this game. It’s just such a basic, absolute background radiation to the conversation about Baldur’s Gate 2 that it seems impossible to describe, seems meaningless to describe. I can’t tell you how air tastes. I can’t describe to you what left is.
What that means is that when I talk about the game, and I tell you oh that’s nonsense, or I complain about the wonky balance or the plot or the voice acting or the bits that drag it’s the complaints of someone who has played every single moment of a game over a dozen times, someone who has played the game in various challenge modes and mods and been part of the conversation about its future.
I need you to understand this because when I talk to you about Baldur’s Gate 2 it’s mostly a festival of complaints about the ways the game is hilariously, completely, incompetently busted.
Well that last one was a bit heavy, wasn’t it? Don’t worry, this one is sunshine and rainbows.
Oddly, this Game Pile needs an additional content warning; the game discusses horror, intrusive thoughts, suicide, and eventually, Nazis. So, come prepared. Continue reading
Videogames exist in a sort of weird plateau in the modern era. Speaking broadly, games these days aren’t that different from games five years ago, and it’s mostly just an evolution of user interface and following different trends. Sure, if you’re really into them you can appreciate the differences between Assassins Creeds 3 and 4, but a casual observer can be forgiven for thinking they’re basically the same game. It’s even easier to look at games in terms of their attempts to cash in on styles of games – the military shooters, the racers, the sporters, etcetera – rather than on their actual gaps in time.
Let’s look back then to a period when a style of game was a thing. We’re not going to look at the leader of a trend, we’re going to look at one of the most blatant followers.
Let’s talk about Gex.
Regarded largely as a modern classic, Beyond Good And Evil is one of those games along with Psychonauts that it launched on the overwhelmingly busy Gamecube and PS2 marketplaces, didn’t stand out in that attention economy because at the time, games journalism was still really difficult, and only a few years later, after its window for impact was past, people picked it up, noticed that it was phenomenal, and we ended up with a modern classic. Still, classic games get to be exulted the same way classic literature and classic medicine does, with an understanding that maybe being good for its time is not the same thing as always going to be good.
There’s a certain risk of rhapsodic enshrinement with games like this, where a game transitions from unknown to classic and we miss a chance to talk about what in the game is interesting or cool. And what with a trailer for Beyond Good And Evil 2 launched last year (again), I figured the time was ripe (several months ago) to replay and talk about Beyond Good And Evil.
There used to be this show called The Simpsons on TV, and while a lot of ink has been spilled about the show – in some cases by Dan Olson, using it as a lens to examine masculinity, and Hari Kondabolu to celebrate the diversity and complexity of his culture, and by Super Eyepatch Wolf to examine the impact of a creative complex on the creative continuity – the institution, the brand of The Simpsons is basically cultural superstructure. You can’t really go wrong writing about the Simpsons, you just need to make sure you both point out the recent series sucks (what would I know) and glorify in its history.
We talk a lot about what the Simpsons is doing based on its creators, a sort of top-down perspective on the work from the narrowest point which coincidentally is a position shared by people who, like, make films and youtube channels, but you know a thing we don’t talk about much?
The Simpsons videogames. Continue reading
If you’re a fan at all of having pets and stabbing monsters, well, we have a classic for you right now.
It’s no secret that I have Opinions about the golden age of adventure game, which is to say about 1985 through to 1995, the period when the genre of moon-logic point-and-click PC games expanded, explored, then catastrophically collapsed. But while having that grounding in the genre is useful for being able to speak authoritively about the way the genre developed, it can sometimes suggest that there are no games out of that period that did it well.
Well, let me tell you about an amazing point-and-clicker from 2008.
More and more these game reviews are as much a chance to use the game as an avenue to talk about any old stuff I want to so let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what I’m gunna do.
So, Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a mediocre first-person shooter modelled on ‘Doom, but-‘ released to compete with Quake, an equally haphazard game that despite being a failure is still one of best videogames of its decade, no qualifications, no exceptions, Quake is, yes, that good, do not @ me. While id and Raven Software games sought to take a technical engine and wed it to solid fundamental play and design choices, 3D Realms strove to instead build their game with theming, making it all about being the coolest goddamn thing you could possibly be in 1996, and with that, carried the brand all the way into the Sonic The Hedgehog Franchise-Dumpster.
But while there’s a certain fondness that can persist for Sonic the Hedgehog, a franchise that picked up a lot of people when they were kids with ideals of environmentalism and friendship, Duke Nukem was…
Let’s say he’s got problems.
I’ve recently taken a habit of going back and re-exploring things from that twilight period of my learning that I could be a person, that I was going to have to shape a life in the wake of the not-apocalypse, and that’s been a mixed bag. Some things hold up – like Homestar Runner, and even some of Seanbaby’s stuff. Some stuff, however…
Let’s talk about Sonic The Hedgehog DX.
Yarr! Buckle up, me friends and hearties, time to talk about a classic of the point-and-click genre that’s got itself a remake on Steam! Continue reading
What with my regular chatter about card and board games, and this blog having a feature about videogames, it seems in a way Star Realms is sort of destined to be here.
Last year saw the release of Yooka-laylay, a game that launched to thunderous shouts of Okay, a game which some people hated a great deal (because they didn’t like it), and some people hated a great deal (because it’d been edited to kick out a white supremacist, and I’m not linking that disingenuous crap), and some people thought was pretty okay (because they liked it, but didn’t find it that amazing). This conversation put me, particularly, in mind, of the last collect-em-up game that I really liked: The anarchic, quirky and deliberately weird Double Fine excursion Psychonauts. Continue reading
Content warning: violence, gore, demonic imagery. Basically, Is This Doom-y? Yes. It’s Doom-y.
This year saw the resuscitation of the Game Pile, perhaps directly tied to my efforts to be taken seriously in games journalism again and the sudden cessation of my work on a honours thesis. In that time, I put out an article, meaning that despite starting mid-year, there have been 24 other game articles – 26 if you include this and the Dark Souls 2 diary.
This year I’ve played a lot of games, games from my game pile, marking off things from my extensive underplayed Steam library – which has been great for a feeling of accomplishment. Still, the Christmas sales are still ongoing, and the odds are good games I’ve referenced in the pile have been going on sale – so which do I think now, with months later, of games I liked? Did my opinion change any?
Since a part of my time this year was dedicated to revisiting some of the Lucasarts classics, and complaining at length about the way Sierra hecked everything up in their development of the point-and-click genre, I thought it was important to take a moment to draw attention to a time that Sierra made a better Lucasarts games than Lucasarts made… within some constraints.
Let’s talk about some 1990s Environmentalist Kids’ Culture, in the story of Eco Quest.
I wrote once about the Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston ouvre of gamebooks while working on my own designs. When I did it, I was struck momentarily with the thought: I wonder how hard it’d be to convert one of these gamebooks to Twine. It’d be an interesting little project, wouldn’t it? I can even see now the kind of way that you can make the combat system work, Twine can store a handful of variables – it should be okay, right?
Anyway, turns out someone else took one of the best examples in this library of gamebooks and went absolutely hambones on it. Continue reading
As a gamer who went through the bulk of the period known as the golden era of the FPS and the rise of the console to the impoverishment of the PC in the cultural cachet of gamer culture, I have childhood memories of plumbing my way through the games media of the time that wasn’t focused on control sticks and how great the Playstation or Nintendo were, and that means that when people talk about ‘hey remember when’ I almost always have a bunch of ridiculous examples that nobody else, largely remembers. I’m that annoying guy who bothered to memorise the lineage of film history that leads from Hitchcock to Tarantino and wants to take any opportunity to tell you about it, only for PC shareware videogames, a field that could not matter any less but still has a direct line in it from Marcus Fenix back to furry porn then back further to sticking a fish in a door.
For the majority of you, this isn’t the case, so let’s talk about Rise of the Triad.
As with Snakebird before it, there are some games which you play, you experience, and you set aside. In the case of Olympia Rising my metric is this game cost me as much as a pair of chocolate bars, and I definitely got to have more fun with it than I would have out of a pair of chocolate bars.
There’s your really basic point: Olympia Rising is almost perfectly $5 of videogame.
Sometimes a game gets on the list just because it’s interesting looking! Wanna know more about that? Well, let’s see what we got.
With Shadow Of The Most Generic Name Ever on the horizon, I decided it was time to return to the first game in this franchise, one of the many 2014 Licensed Games That Was Stunningly Good. Continue reading
Well this is a bit lovely, innit?
Sproggiwood is a turn based roguelike* explorer game, where you play characters from a tiny little forest civilisation of adorable Clogheads, delving into little demense of Finnish mythical creatures. You follow on the behest of – well, at first it’s a condescending sheep, but the story unfolds a little weirdly from there. Really, a little weird is a good little thematic mantra to use for the endlessly smiling, effortlessly charming Sproggiwood.
Now I should feel bad that I don’t really know any of these myths, despite having Finnish relatives, but I’m not fooling anyone if I tell you that my Finnish culture is much more about the baked things that you can stick in your mouth when smeared with butter. Continue reading
Over time I’ve come to wonder what the purpose of the Game Pile even is. I know that it’s slowly morphed from being a sort of diary listing of the videogames I’ve played in my digital collections, then straight-up reviews to slowly morphing to where it is now where I try to use each game as a launching point to talk about something interesting a game does while still giving useful information about whether or not people might want to play it. A sort of consumer advocacy coupled with artistic analysis, which really is what most reviews are but on a much tighter time scale.
Some games don’t really merit a lot of deep talk though? Some games are just unremarkably good or acceptable or decent?
And speaking of Unremarkably Good: Snakebird!
Snakebird is a puzzle game with a slightly hard to describe mechanism: The player controls one (or more) of the game’s titular snake birds. They are birds, because they can somewhat maintain themselves in the air. They are snakes, because they move in the four orthogonal directions in a videogame space, as real snakes do. Snakebirds can push other snakebirds, they eat fruit – as all good and noble videogame animals do – and … that’s it. The whole game is built around this simple puzzle set and… yeah, yeah that’s it. Is that two hundred words?
There’s nothing much to say about Snakebird because Snakebird is just really good and above my skill grade. For all I know around puzzle thirty, Snakebird is just fireworks and boobs, but I have no idea, because it’s really hard!
I’m not good at puzzle games.
Nonetheless, Snakebird does have one particular thing about it I’d like to point out: The game has an adorable interface quirk. In Snakebird, the birds have faces, faces that react to how you’re doing. You can turn and shift your snakebird and when it gets near fruit, it gets excited. Repeat too many actions? The snakebird gets kinda bored.
There’s so little to say about this game, just because it’s really good? And that’s … really all there is to it? It’s got good cloud saves on Steam? Which is… nice?
You can get Snakebird on Steam.
Get it if:
- You want something cute and harmless
- You want something portable with good cloud saving
- You want a really renewable puzzle
Avoid it if:
- You’re on a tight budget and don’t expect to get a lot of mileage out of a puzzle you might not be good at
We’re going to do something a little special here, this time. I try to keep my writings on games honest, and also useful. For most of you, the useful information is does this game do anything really offensive and is this game an interesting or fun experience to play? With that in mind I’m going to provide that information all in one tight little block – and then, after a fold, I’ll go onto the unfortunate category of a complex but extremely negative and unpleasant issue.
It’s not negative or unpleasant in the ‘beware’ way! This is – it’s – it’s disagreement with a message or a value. It’s not the kind of thing I normally do, because it’s as much a study of a character as much as anything else.
The Game, As Purely As Possible
Night in the Woods is an active-movement platform adventure which is built around exploratory setpieces. Set in a slowly dying mountain mining town, full of people who grew up there and don’t know how to do anything else, it’s wrought about with rural town menace as writ by the people who live there, not by the people who think anything outside of the New York Suburbs is a grim forest filled with the Wildlings.
What you get when you play it is this wonderfully sad place, the sort of bubbling form of human civilisation you get in the spaces that an older, crueler but also more wealthy world carved out of the wilderness, as it slowly bleeds to death over the course of days. There are murals to history, symbols and monuments to the town’s own specific culture that live in cupboards where nobody needs them, because nobody cares. It is a grim and sad place full of people defiantly struggling onwards because there is nothing else to do, nowhere else to be, and a person’s way of life is not a thing that changes easily.
It is a place full of people who did not have choices.
Populating this town is a cast of young people living in systems created by other people and doing the best they can care to do. There are your friends, the ever-loving Gregg, his boyfriend Angus, there’s Bea, there’s… other characters… as well… with names… like Mom! And Dad! And yeah anyway.
You play Mae, who has returned home from college at a point that is noteworthy and people remark upon it, and the structure of the game is somewhat akin to a point-and-click adventure game. Rather than carrying around an inventory of things to locations to see what reacts differently, you’re just dragging around Mae and looking at what she reacts to differently, where she guides you onwards next. This is all through a beautifully realised, pretty little town of dilapidated yesterdays.
The game does do sideways things – little mini-games where you play bass guitar or try to find someone missing or shoot crossbow bolts or fight with knives. This breaks things up, which is an interesting need in a game that, for lack of any better term, is mostly about frittering away time doing not much special.
As a pure game, it’s a bit like a really low-budget version of a Naughty Dog Uncharted game. You mostly get to control a character moving around a space with responsive controls trying to work out if any bits of your environment are things you can stand on, will react if you check them out. There are setpieces, sudden shifts where the game says okay, now pay attention to doing things this way, with slightly awkward controls that you quietly hope won’t be used as central to other scenes.
There really isn’t that much like this game out there. It’s an adventure game where your challenges are frittering away an afternoon with a friend, a dating sim but the dates are with friends, and a horror story where you never see the monster. It is an excellent indie game made by people who, by all accounts are Not Awful.
Get it if:
- You like adventure games but don’t like feeling like you’re waiting for characters
- You like exploring very normal, very mundane spaces
- You enjoy a feeling of creepy wrongness
Avoid it if:
- You’re big on achievements
- You want every part of a game you buy to be good
I wanted to write about this game three weeks ago – but I felt I had to get perspective. I felt I had to really get into the roots of what I actually thought, what I actually felt about this game and why I wasn’t liking it. I wanted to resist the knee-jerk response of but it’s new, it’s not as good. I wanted, I really wanted, this small form delivery of adventure game content to be a good idea, and I wanted to hold it up, I hope, to people who might want to consume more of it, who might have been shy, as if The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us hadn’t already seized most critical attention and pulled eyes onto this form.
Still, I am a Sam & Max fan; I do love this franchise, such as it is. Or do I just love one particular game and a cartoon? Oh, these are the tangled spaces we find ourselves in as we indulge in fandom.
Still, let’s get it straight.
With Sam and Max Hit The Road tucked away, I have to take a quick detour to describe a very different game, a game that is, nonetheless, very important to talking about the point-and-click adventure game, and more importantly, which provides useful context for its sequel episodes. But don’t worry, because the game we’re talking about here is Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, which is super great and I love it to bits because it’s super great, so this won’t take long.
Okay, so straight up, Sam and Max Hit The Road is one of my favourite games. It’s a point-and-click adventure game with some frustratingly obtuse puzzles. I don’t know if I can even recommend it as a game per se because the times I struggled with the solutions to its ridiculously obtuse view of the world are all so far in the past that I can’t imagine how anyone would solve them. Some of the puzzle solutions are positively arcane.
When you boil down a lot of point-and-click adventure games, they have one problem: Use key on door. In fact, sometimes games that tried to do something different (like Future War and Full Throttle) were criticised for the involvement of those other elements. In Sam and Max Hit The Road, there’s a handful of, y’know, bits and stuff designed to introduce other puzzles and problems, but none of the game is too hard once you grasp the thread of the game’s weird poke-it-and-see methodology.
So, right, as a game: It’s good, but it’s of its time. The GOG release brings automatic saves and windowed play and those are nice modern conveniences. Okay? Play it with a walkthrough nearby but don’t follow the walkthrough directly. Just use it when you’ve poked everything to laugh at the responses you find, but not to remain stranded in a narrative point for a while. I like it, I think it’s good, it’s cheap and it’s really funny.
Let’s do the heck out of talking about Sam and Max Hit The Road.