Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Broken Age, Act II

And so, Broken Age concludes on the same mild, inoffensive note with which it began, leaving behind a legacy of.......something or other. Probably a horde of wannabes waving their own Kickstarter banners, wondering why they aren’t reaping mountains of strangers’ money. This game may be remembered simply for the stubborn goodwill of its many, many benefactors. We all helped make Broken Age happen, guys! It’s our baby! Kumbaya! I almost wish it had dared to alienate somebody. If crowdfunding is the last hope for original, creative game development, awesome, but I worry that crowdfunded games will fall into the same trap as mainstream mega-releases: comfy mediocrity in the name of never, ever causing buyer’s remorse. Only worse, because everyone who donates to a game’s Kickstarter has their own idea of what they want, and in order to please as many folks as possible, you gotta slap margarine on white bread as opposed to constructing a mighty, spicy, cheesy, saucy grinder. Maybe nobody’s stomach will be full, but we have to consider that one guy who’s allergic to sriracha!

But enough weird sandwich talk. What does Act II of Broken Age do, or not do, with its premise? I see no need to recap the entire plot; read my post about Act I for that. We left off with the predictable yet sophisticated twist that the tales of Shay and Vella exist concurrently, and that Shay’s “spaceship” is, in fact, the monster that’s been terrorizing Vella’s people. More fascinating to me was how Act I ended with Shay and Vella switching places. Vella is now trapped inside Shay’s half-destroyed ship, while Shay wanders the villages outside. What great implications! Implications that...never really go anywhere. Yeah, it’s fun to see how both environments have changed during the intermission, but it wears thin when we’re just galumphing around the same old places, talking to the same people. Act II came out eight months later than projected, and I assumed this meant the developers were cooking up something huge, for which Act I was merely a teaser. Instead they just juggled some details and called it a day. Lame.

So now, funnily enough, Vella inhabits the more interesting part of the game (Shay’s ship, which she must sabotage), while Shay’s stuck in the bland half (where he must help jumpstart a 200-year-old derelict ship). The result? Vella’s shipboard adventures became my favorite part of the entire game, while Shay’s quest is Good lord, what a contrast. Vella is discovering a sinister conspiracy that redefines her entire world...and Shay is purchasing a cupcake at a junior bake sale. Vella must somehow infiltrate the deepest workings of the monster-ship and bend it to her will...and Shay has to make a tree laugh. And it’s not just story-based tedium; Vella’s puzzles are interesting and well-conceived, arising organically from her circumstances, while Shay’s puzzles entail hiking all over the damn place and interacting with no less than nineteen different characters. It’s exhausting. Completing both halves of the story became a punishment-and-reward process for me: “Hey, if you make it through another of Shay’s stupid fetch quests, you can switch over to Vella for a bit! Stay strong!”

I complained that the puzzles in Act I were easy. I may not have been the only one, and boy, did the developers ramp up Act II’s trickiness. There’s that challenge I was looking for! Except some of the puzzles kinda suck, because they unfold in unfair ways. As I said, Shay’s story has to juggle a huge supporting cast, and it’s easy to forget who he’s spoken to about what...and every time he does something, he has to make the rounds again in case a new dialogue prompt has popped up somewhere. Vella fares better, and I loved one puzzle that entailed searching a room for clues, because I had to make my own deductions based on the clues and it felt great. Problem was, the game gave me a handy chart to help with the puzzle but gave me no way to fill out the chart, unless I wanted to use a Sharpie on my laptop screen. WTF? What really bugged me were instances where a clue from one environment was necessary to complete something in the other. It breaks the reality of the game! Shay may have revealed the name of his childhood plushie to me, the player, but Vella couldn’t possibly have that knowledge! And if Shay is stuck on something, do I need to switch to Vella and scan the entire ship for answers, or not? See the problem? Difficult puzzles are only fun when they don’t cheat.

In the end, puzzle deviousness aside, Act II of Broken Age is just more of the same. Yes, we learn why Shay’s space journey is a sham and why maidens are being kidnapped and so forth. It’s cool, I guess, but it felt like the developers began the game before they knew their own plot, and just made shit up as they went. When the game bothers to unveil some villains, they’re interesting enough, but they feel like they belong in a different game, or maybe one of those Star Wars novels that are now non-canon, HA HA, WE DRINK THE BITTER TEARS OF NERDS. A twist involving Shay’s computerized parents is cool, but nobody reacts strongly enough. Actually, nobody in the game reacts much to anything. Oh, hey, we sacrificed our daughters on a complete lie! Let’s fail to be shocked or guilty in any way! Shay is a vanilla cone of blandness, and the only character I gave two shits about was Vella, who retained her knack for sweetly wreaking havoc (honestly, she’s one dead family away from becoming a supervillain). Sure, I found the supporting cast amusing (I particularly liked Curtis the hipster lumberjack and the trio of dysfunctional sentient dinnerware), but none of them behaved like human beings, probably because their sole function was to require something from Shay, give him something in return, then cease to matter. What about the endgame, the point at which Broken Age might have broken free? Eh...a final puzzle that resets itself if you don’t topple the dominoes in the exact right order, and that, again, involves Shay and Vella apparently reading each other’s fucking minds. Then a heartwarming ending that completely ignores the powerful, murderous bad guys it took the time to set up. Kumbaya.

Soooo, Broken Age was fun. I liked it more than I disliked it. I’ve been criticizing it so much because I’m just so let down by how it never took its own potential seriously. Its art design is outstanding. Its voice cast are skilled. Its plot follows current trends (yay, a seemingly idyllic quasi-dystopia secretly controlled by shadowy puppetmasters!), but it threw some great details and serious twists into the mix. And if the landbound half of the game was as fun as the shipboard half, I’d have been way more forgiving. But why don’t I feel sated? Why am I left pining for more? When I played Monkey Island, a game that came out ages ago, it satisfied me to my very core. And Broken Age is meant to be the offspring of Monkey Island-style adventure games. Its technical improvements can’t mask its watery presentation, I’m afraid. I’ll play it again someday and maybe it’ll age well, but for now, it illustrates the dangers of overhype. We gave them our money and got something merely decent. Not great, not awful, just...a thing. A game. Point, click, win.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Myst Series, pt. 8

The Dig -- A Tale of Three Idiots and Some Archaeology

I’ve known for a long time that The Dig needed to go in my Myst review series, despite seeming, on the surface, like a refugee from an entirely different genre. I mean, we’re talking about a 1995 point-and-click adventure game from LucasArts, a relic from the days when a character’s face was blotchily constructed from seven or eight massive pixels and gamers didn’t need a fanfare and a meaningless “Achievement” every time they clicked on a thing. Yeah, The Dig may be a weird third cousin on Myst’s family tree, but step back and study the parallels. We find ourselves stranded on a strange world, solving puzzles across a series of interconnected islands, blowing the dust off age-old machinery and compiling an account of the mysterious world-builders who came before...see what I mean? The Dig is a proud third cousin indeed, merely exchanging the tropes of fantasy (worlds being written into existence) for science fiction (super-duper-duper advanced alien technology). It’s cool as fuck. If you can get around the slow, boggy bits.

Wrapping one’s mind around the pacing of an old-school point-and-clicker takes a little time. The Dig starts slow and never picks up momentum, even when you have to save somebody from a giant spider-monster. Myst was just as sedate, but with Myst, you never felt like you were in danger. With The Dig, it’s all spider-monsters and murderous Bavarians, but you still have time to meander through the entire gameworld looking for a lump of pixels you missed. This blasé approach to peril begins with the discovery of an asteroid headed for Earth. Yawn. NASA cobbles together a team to, you guessed it, divert the rock by planting bombs on its surface. Thus, the intro sequence consists of floating slowly around in spacesuits and engaging in tedious dialogue trees. Things get more interesting when the “asteroid” reveals itself to be some kind of advanced alien craft. Three cosmonauts are catapulted into the final frontier: the ridiculously named hero, Commander Boston Low, and his colleagues, journalist Maggie Robbins and scientist Ludger Brink. Don’t ask how they prepped two civilians for astronaut duty in less than a month. The prologue barely matters.

What matters is where Low, Robbins, and Brink end up: a barren, seemingly lifeless planet that gradually blossoms into a place of great beauty and mystery. Huge kudos to the gamemakers for crafting an alien world that seems alien. The lighting, the rosy color palette, the very geometry of the Everywhere you explore is visually compelling, even with the aforementioned grapefruit-sized pixels, and thank the gods, because Boston Low is destined to wear out his NASA-issued shoes hiking from scenic view to scenic view. Another nice touch: the characters are swiftly engaged, not in survival or alien-squashing, but in archaeology. Ancient alien technology sprouts here and there, organic as the rocks themselves. Who built it? Where’d they go? Is the ghost in the machine (both literal and metaphysical) issuing an invitation...or a warning? The humans discover a type of crystal that reanimates the dead -- with, shall we say, alarming side effects. This foreshadows gradual revelations about the aliens themselves, and the game’s presentation of its aliens makes me swoon. I won’t spoil too much about them, but they ain’t Star Trek types, that’s for sure. They are strange, eerie, and wholly unique. In the best of ways.

For a computer game, The Dig succeeds at being pedigree sci-fi in its own right. Based off an idea for Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories TV series, with dialogue penned by the venerable Orson Scott Card (well, venerable until he commenced with all the gay-bashing, cough cough), it takes itself very seriously indeed, and gets away with it. The gameplay is fine, if meandering. The Dig has been both praised and criticized for having unusually difficult puzzles, and...well, maybe it’s because I’ve played it more than once, but I don’t really agree. Most of its puzzles can be untangled through simple trial and error, and usually, when I get stuck, it’s because I’ve overlooked something stupidly obvious. (Oh, I’m supposed to hold the button instead of just pressing it!) Okay, yes, your inventory winds up clogged with inscrutable single-use knickknacks, and at times, you may be reduced to rubbing every item against the latest puzzle-related thingummy while Boston laments, “It won’t do anything!” over and over. And, yeah, the game’s mechanics make some puzzles a pain in the ass (that fucking planetarium...). But at least everything ties together in a neat logical bow; like Riven, the puzzles are thematically connected and serve a purpose beyond merely padding the run time.

Now. Know one of the great things about the Myst games? With minor exceptions, you spend them alone. The luxury of exploring strange new worlds without someone bitching in your earpiece is, I’m afraid, somewhat absent from The Dig. After all, Boston has his two fellow stooges, Robbins and Brink, and while they at least have the decency to vanish for chunks of the story, their existence adds little beyond a headache. Why did they have to be so unlikeable? What was wrong with depicting a trio of friendly humans making amazing discoveries while getting along? (For an example of a similar scenario done right, see the amazing indie treasure that is Waking Mars.) Robbins and Brink seem to have come from a mail order catalogue of annoying archetypes: the Acerbic Female Reporter (responds to every prompt with icy sarcasm!) and the Humorless German Douche (guaranteed to turn evil and/or insane!). I really wish the game’s other two supporting characters wound up space-marooned with Boston instead, but, no, they vanish forever after the prologue. Boston, at least, makes a perfectly tolerable protagonist; as voiced by actor Robert Patrick, he’s a humble working man who takes a pragmatic approach to his extraordinary situation. Weirdly, though, I wish the game didn’t have recorded dialogue at all, because I read faster than they talk. Not helping matters are the low-rent animated cutscenes that make Saturday morning cartoons look like Miyazaki. Must the glorious alien vistas be broken up by such crude snippets?

I can be mean. But The Dig is definitely a worthwhile endeavor for the patient gamer. I didn’t dig it as much the second time (hardy har har), and I think that’s because a game like this benefits from the sense of awestruck discovery. Imagine what it would be like to visit an alien planet! I’d go in a heartbeat, provided I could get back, and that’s why I respect The Dig for its thoughtful, almost joyous take on sci-fi. Yeah, its ending is a bit too upbeat (somebody basically waves a magic wand and makes everything all right again), but I like what it implies, how it suggests a future for humankind and alienkind that doesn’t involve explosions and death rays and the usual bullshit. Just as the Myst games relish the simple joy of exploration, so too does The Dig. That’s why I hope it doesn’t vanish from the annals of gaming history. It offers a world unlike any other.

Myst Review Series