Tag: independent

Papers, Please – A Love/Hate Relationship

Courtesy Lucas Pope
Glory to Arstotzka.

Let me be clear right from the off: I adore the fact that Papers, Please exists.

For those of you who don’t know, Papers, Please is a video game described as “a dystopian document thriller.” You are a citizen in Arstotzka, a fictional country ruled by an authoritarian regime, and you are tasked with monitoring one of its border posts. You examine the documentation of someone entering the country, look for discrepancies, and then bring down the stamp to either approve or deny their entry. You can detain people trying to smuggle contraband or weapons into the country, and your earnings are based on how many people you process in a given day, less any mistakes you make.

In a market dominated by first-person shooters, sports simulations, and massively multiplayer online games, it’s fantastic that Papers, Please even grabbed a toehold on the market, let alone climbing to success. Most of the reactions to the game have been entirely positive. Personally, I think it’s a deeply immersive and very atmospheric experience, with dashes of humor and some very real moral dilemmas that add to the emergent narrative that comes with every person that steps into the booth. Despite not having top-end graphics, the stories both spoken and implied by those giving you their passports and awaiting judgment is some of the most involving story-driven gameplay I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

It’s so involving, in fact, that I can barely play it.

You see, dispensing your tasks requires you to compare the would-be visitor’s documents with several sources you have yourself – a guide to various neighbor countries, their seals and cities, different permits to allow, etc. The money you earn has to be split between your family’s needs, and if you don’t make a certain amount, you’ll have to choose between food, heat, and medicine. Finally, if you miss something, the antiquated dot matrix printer in your booth begins to chatter, telling you how you messed up and how much it’s going to cost you.

It’s this last bit that really affects me. You could even say it triggers me. I have enough problems in dayjobs where a detail slips by me, or the alignment of an element is off by a pixel, or the timing of an animation is not quite what a client was looking for. I’ll think a task is done, on time and without incident, when news hits me like a hammer that no, there’s more work to do, and I know it reflects badly upon me and my self-esteem takes another blow and I feel the crushing inevitability of time and decay as I re-open my assets and go back to something I thought I’d actually done well for a change. And now a game is invoking that feeling? No, thank you.

I bought Papers, Please and I do not regret it. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and Lucas Pope deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing it to life. Maybe, at some point down the road, when I feel less like the sword of Damocles is hanging over me every time I open a new task, I’ll return to that cramped little checkpoint on the border of Arstotzka. There are good puzzles, good stories, and good design all over and throughout it, and I do recommend it. I just hope that someday, I can play the game without that paralyzing sense of dread that I feel during business hours all too often.

Game Review: Journey

I would be one of the first people to stand on rooftops to declare video games as a legitimate form of art. They convey stories in a way not possible in books, music, cinema, or the stage. They combine many forms of media into a singular experience to entertain and engage. Until now, there have not been a lot of games that fully encapsulate the experience of a work of art, the sort of thing that defies description and speaks to the engaged on a personal level. Some immerse with gameplay mechanics while others focus on story. Many video games struggle with balance between the two. Journey does it with such ease, it’s almost painful in its sublime beauty.

I had a feeling I’d start gushing about the game once I started typing. I’ll try and reign it in.

Courtesy thatgamecompany

Journey is both the title and premise of this little PS3 exclusive indy title from thatgamecompany. Your character, nameless and without speech, begins by some markers at the edge of the desert. In the distance is a mountain, from which pours a geyser of light into the sky. It is mysterious and ominous at the same time, and it is your sole destination. You are gifted with a scarf, and when the scarf’s embroidery glows, you can use it to fly a little. That is literally all you know at the beginning of the game.

Games have taken great strides in immersion over the years, and one of the biggest steps has been the minimization of user interface. While impossible for things like MMOs, the less overt information that clogs the screen, the more room there is for the design team to show their work. Journey is almost completely without UI. There’s no health bar to speak of, no prompts for quick time events, no directional arrows or minimap or equipment or sub menus. You are shown an outline of your controller at brief moments when you start out, demonstrating how to act in one of the two permitted ways other than movement: you can fly, and you can sing. When you sing, you not only emit notes, a small sigil appears above your head; it is the mark you make upon the world.

Courtesy thatgamecompany

As you travel, you may see other marks and hear other notes. As much as the expanse between you and the mountain yawns wide and desolate, you are not alone in your journey. Other players are with you, and some may try to endear themselves to you by helping out while others run in circles or sit quietly. You can leave them behind you, of course, pressing ever onward, but there’s no guarantee one won’t try to keep up. Yet, the path you must take is lonely, filled with signs that something terrible happened in the past, and there are perils ahead that are daunting to face on your own. You will not know the people you meet in Journey, at least not until the very end of the game when their names are displayed, but you can get a feel for them based on how they move, how much they sing, and how often they wait for you if you fall behind as you float, fly, leap, and slide from one obstacle to the next.

Before I circle back to all of that personal stuff, regardless of what you may draw from Journey, the beauty of the game cannot be overstated. The visual style is unique and breathtaking, from the way the wind moves the sands of the desert to an entire sequence that seems to take place under water yet clearly is in the open air. Life-forms made of tapestry float past you, ruins lean out from rocks with the weight of history upon them, and watching things react to the sound of your character’s voice never fails to delight. Couple these visuals with the haunting score and keen sound design, and you have a world that may engulf you before you’re aware of what’s happening to you.

Courtesy thatgamecompany

I’ve been playing video games most of my life. I started on an old Atari 2600 back in the early 80s, and I’ve been trying new things and challenging games ever since. I’ve been racking my brain to remember a gaming experience like the one I had with Journey, and my memory is coming up short. Games have made me cry before, certainly: the death of a beloved character, watching a protagonist break down, that sort of thing. But for the life of me, I cannot remember a game making weep openly for joy the way Journey did.

I wish I could tell you why. I would love to lay out the entirety of the experience to communicate why I love it so much. But I can’t. I won’t do that to you. I won’t spoil it. You just have to trust me. If you’re reading this, and you own a PS3, you owe it to yourself to buy and play Journey. It is a masterwork of game design, a symphony in digital entertainment form, an exciting and harrowing and touching story from start to finish that you experience not by reading, or watching, but by participating. For me, it reinforces my belief that the very best journeys, in gaming or in life, are the ones we take together.

Game Review: Bastion

Saying goes that a proper story starts at the beginning. This one ain’t any different. Not all video games roll out to store shelves full of glitz and glamor, backed by big studios with lots of cash. Some are quiet affairs. Some are carefully assembled by a small, tight-knit group of fine people with a singular vision and talent coming out their ears. Don’t let the name fool you. Supergiant Games is anything but, ‘cept in the dreams department. It’s those dreams, after all, that gave us Bastion.

Courtesy Supergiant Games

Bastion’s set in Caelondia. It was a nice enough city, once. Plenty of innovation, opportunity for those after it, haves and have-nots, just like any city. It was nice enough, before the Calamity hit. Nobody really saw it coming. Sure there were rumors of new hostilities between Caelondia and the people out past its walls, the Ura, but nobody expected this. Nobody expected the world to just stop working the way it should. Nobody expected the land to all but disappear, bits of it floating in great seas of empty air. Nobody expected any of it, least of all the Kid.

Don’t know if he’s got a proper name, or if we’re supposed to saddle him with one. He’s the first warm body we meet in Bastion, though, and just about every move he makes is narrated. Good thing, too. Things are a bit violent and chaotic in the wake of the Calamity. All sorts of beasts, creatures, and foes come at the Kid from all sides. We watch the whole thing from above as he goes to work on all comers with a variety of tools, long arms, and some really interesting surprises. He’s capable, this Kid, but he ain’t the only survivor of the Calamity.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
He’s got a mean swing.

I mentioned his actions are narrated, right? Turns out the narrator’s a character, too. Goes by the name of Rucks, kind of a seasoned older fella with plenty of stories of his own. Seems that way, at least, but his focus is on the Kid. Even as the Kid rolls, blocks, fights, and explores, Rucks is filling us in on what Caelondia was like before the Calamity, what the Kid’s coming up against, and how the Bastion can fix things up. Right, almost forgot. The game takes its name from your home base, a sort of last-resort refuge for folks from Caelondia who could make it out of the Calamity. Not that many did.

When the Kid does find survivors, their stories get told, too. Rucks ain’t shy in that regard. Takes a little doing to get all the details, but it’s definitely worth it. As the Kid’s doing his thing, he’s earning back parts of the world, which he brings to the Bastion and changes into upgrades for his weapons, improvements to the Bastion itself, even fresh bottles of spirits from Rucks’ private stock. The best thing about all of this is how seamless it is. Other places might see you moving from story to gameplay to upgrades and back again with audible clacks and clunks. Not Bastion. If it’s got seams, they’re pretty stylish ones.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
Calamity really tore things up. Down to the Kid to make it right.

Normally this’d be where someone like me’d do a summation of the experience, lay out likes and dislikes, maybe even tack on some arbitrary number. But I ain’t gonna do that to ya. Not this time. This is different, and deserves different treatment. It’s a fine tale as well as a fun and challenging distraction, well worth your time and effort to seek out. Art’s gonna pull you in. Music’s gonna stick with you. Best of all is that it’s available to ya just about any way you please. Consoles, digital distribution, hell, you could buy it through Chrome and play it literally anywhere. So what’re you waiting for? Find your way to the Bastion.

Story like this ain’t gonna tell itself. You gotta make yourself a part of it.

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