Open Worlds and Closed Space Stations: My Favorite Games of 2017

I’ve been lax about maintaining this blog in 2017. I’ve written a couple of perfunctory posts, just so that people will remember (or finally notice) that I’m here. I won’t go into the reasons for my absence, but one was that I was playing so many games.

My rationale for that, beyond simply my love of gaming, is that it made sense to learn as much as I could about what’s happening currently in the gaming industry. This, I reasoned, would give me a better, more informed perspective on what kind of games, indie and AAA, are currently on the market so that I could write more cogently about them.

Precisely the opposite has happened. The more games I played, the more I despaired at the prospect of summarizing the current state of the art a few thousand words at a time. In fact, the gaming industry is all over the place right now, from the emergence of wilderness survival games as an insanely popular category (largely, I think, due to the brilliantly designed sandbox mode in The Long Dark with some lingering influence from Minecraft) to the increased pandering to the retro market, with games that supposedly resemble, in their pixelated glory, the games of everybody’s youth. (They don’t, really, but that’s a subject for an entire post.)

Instead, I simply want to talk about the games I’ve most enjoyed playing this year, even the ones that I’m embarrassed to admit I love. (True confession: I’ve become obsessed with Ubisoft games. Go ahead and laugh. You’ll have more opportunity later.)

If last year was my year of gaming emotionally, this was my year of gaming bigly, embracing huge AAA titles with large open worlds, intense, often linear narratives and gorgeous graphics. While I’ll admit that I had an unexpected emotional response to one of those games, which I’ll name below, I was mostly gaming for the sheer widescreen fun of it. And here, in no particular order, are the games that have offered me the most fun. (Unlike last year, I’m going to stick with games published in the same year that I’m writing this post, i.e., 2017.)

Prey

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GLOO-gunning your way through the rafters of Talos-1.

As far as I know, the trapped-in-a-space-station (hereafter referred to as TiaSS) genre began in 1994, with Looking Glass Studio’s innovative adventure cum shooter cum zombie survival game System Shock, which I still think is one of the ten or so best computer games ever to grace my video display. Its setting and basic mechanics have been copied quite a few  times over the years, most notably by its sequel, System Shock 2, which I’ve never learned to love. (I usually end up cowering in a corner waiting to be killed by the lumbering zombies I’ve let myself become orbitally entombed with.)

Dead Space brilliantly crossbred the TiaSS genre with full-on survival horror in 2008, but it’s only in the last year or so that this type of game has genuinely flourished, maybe because it’s relatively easy to construct a space station interior out of Unity assets. TiaSS games from 2017 include the soporific but visually appealing early-access game P.A.M.E.L.A. and the awkward but promising early access game STARDROP. (Early access games also deserve a post of their own, but not until next year.) The Gone-Home-in-space game Tacoma, which also deserves an entire post, has a lot in common with TiaSS games, but doesn’t really fit into the genre.

None of those games, even Dead Space, can hold a half-melted Christmas candle to Prey, the “spiritual sequel” to System Shock from Bethesda and Arkane Studios. (Spiritual sequels, a category that’s only just beginning to take off as a way of capitalizing on nostalgia for specific games, may also deserve a post of their own, as soon as I figure out how many there are besides this and Torment: Tides of Numerera.)

Prey is a stunner of a space station game, opening with a trope freely lifted from Philip K. Dick. (I’ll stay mum about the twist for players who are waiting to pick the game up cheap during the holiday sales season.) The part of the premise I can talk about: The game takes place in an alternate future where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and a joint effort between America and Russia created a space effort very different from the one that peaked and went nowhere after Project Apollo. The player character is trapped on a space station, Talos-1,  in orbit around the moon and has to work out both the reason that he’s there (his memory’s been wiped) and what he has do to get out.

Like System Shock, Prey forces you to piece together its premise and its backstory from emails, audio logs and videos. (This much-used mechanic probably originated with System Shock, though now it’s found its way into a wide variety of games, even in medieval RPGs where defunct characters leave a remarkable number of handwritten notes in their wake.) The space station itself is lovingly and meticulously constructed around an art deco aesthetic reminiscent of the city of Rapture in the first two Bioshock games but without the heaps of economic and ethical philosophy piled on top of it. It’s magnificently explorable, with objects and passageways secreted away on top of the infrastructure and in hard-to-spot crannies. Talos-1 is a joy to visit, though no sane game character would want to live there.

The weaponry available to the player is a peculiar mix, starting out with a crowbar apparently borrowed from Gordon Freeman. The already-notorious GLOO gun isn’t especially powerful and the crossbow isn’t so much a nerfed weapon as it’s literally a nerf weapon, designed for recreation by bored office workers. Yet the seeming uselessness of these weapons forces the player to find creative ways to use them, which is one of the things that makes the game so fascinating. There’s a lot of emergent gameplay in Prey and I suspect no two people will play the game in exactly the same way unless they’re following a walkthrough. (Ah, there’s another idea for a post: the boom in visual game walkthroughs on YouTube and Twitch.)

I’ve discovered that playing on the easiest mode makes the exploration more fun, because those annoying creatures that wander through the hallways keep spoiling the view. But the easiest mode isn’t all that easy. I love Prey not so much because it challenges me in the traditional, rapid-twitch way that shooters have traditionally challenged players, but for its complex  environment (including the exterior of Talos-1 as well as its interior), which challenged me to find ways of exploring it that were completely different from anything I’d seen in a game before. Let’s just say that the GLOO gun is useful for more than just attacking your enemies.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

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Wheelchair fighting at its finest in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Seriously, this is the best, most satisfying first-person shooter since Half Life 2 back in the mid aughts. (I’m not counting Prey as an FPS because the weaponry is so pathetic.) What’s so astonishing about MachineGame’s latest entry in the Wolfenstein series is that B.J. Blazkowicz finally makes the full transition from that pixelated image at the bottom of the Wolf3D screen into a completely realized character, one who begins this game broken and with vital organs collapsing. In the opening sequences he goes from fighting in a wheelchair (in a marvelously executed series of navigational puzzles) to fighting in a powered exoskeleton, somehow managing to remain a strong FPS protagonist while struggling against a depression over the state of the world, his life and his loved ones that’s so deep it poses more of a threat than the Nazis. (Brian Bloom deserves plaudits for a masterful voice-acting job as B.J.) At one pivotal juncture he’s saved from both death and depression by what seems at first blush like an absurd deus ex machina, but on careful examination turns out to have been skillfully set up in the early portion of the story in a bit of sleight of hand so deft you never notice MachineGames sliding the card up their virtual sleeve.

The revelation, which I’m pretty sure hasn’t come up in previous Wolfenstein games, that Blazkowicz is half Jewish on his mother’s side lends much-needed weight to his never-ending fight against the Nazis. And the depiction of his father in flashbacks as physically and emotionally abusive not only deepens Blazkowicz as a character but has a powerful payoff in one of the most startling moments I’ve seen in a computer game. The New Colossus was my emotional high point for the year, one that I didn’t see coming when I sat down to play it. Some Steam users have complained that this isn’t a worthy follow-up to Wolfenstein: The New Order, but I think it’s a better, richer game than its predecessor and much deeper emotionally than I ever expected a first-person shooter to be.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands

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The lovely mountains (and towering cathedrals) of the Bolivian Wildlands.

This is where you get to laugh. Go ahead. I can see you  trying not to snicker too loudly (or at least not so loudly that I can hear you all the way in Long Beach, California, from wherever it is you live). Wildlands is the game where Ubisoft unites the long-running Ghost Recon series with the company’s signature formula of a lone character (here actually four “lone” characters) taking down a pyramid of underbosses on the way to the big boss at the top. I’d never had any interest in playing a game with Tom Clancy’s name on it (except for the original Splinter Cell, which a friend recommended and which I found surprisingly engaging a decade ago) and wasn’t really expecting a lot from this one.

All I remembered about Ubisoft before I played this, other than the Tom Clancy connection, was that they produced the Assassin’s Creed series, which I’ve never cared for. Over the years I’ve picked up the first AC game every several months and tried to make sense of its unending series of tedious rooftop-jumping assignments. And every time I’ve failed. (It’s finally started to sink in on me that I may be taking the games in the wrong order; there are some well-regarded entries later in the series.) I bought Wildlands primarily so that I could have something graphically impressive I could use to show off my (relatively) new gaming computer. Instead, I found myself obsessed with it.

Steam says I’ve spent 214 hours playing Wildlands and while the game was probably sitting in the background during a large chunk of that time, waiting for me to stop surfing the Web or watching television with Amy, the majority of those hours represent actual play. I came to each of its story missions as a mini-world of its own, a tactical landscape that I had to puzzle out in order to accomplish whatever goal my CIA handler had stuck me with. As silly as the game’s depiction of a druglord-ruled Bolivia may be, those missions became an important part of my life for several weeks. And while I can’t say that I was blown away by every one of them, I found enough of them compelling that I had to force myself to stop playing when it was time to go to sleep. (Given that the game lets you go on playing after you’ve overthrown the uber-boss, I’m technically still playing it, though I haven’t touched it in several months. It loses a lot of momentum once you reach the top of the cocaine-cooking pyramid.) Shoot up a casino to embarrass a Sicario? Sure. Capture a lieutenant and choke him until he coughs up information on his buddies? Why not? Run a video revealing a priest’s sordid mob past in the middle of his sermon, then drag him out of a giant cathedral without the Sicarios killing him? I’m there!

The open world of the game is voluptuous, gorgeous to look at, with single-lane roads winding treacherously through tall, jagged mountains and a range of biomes from tropical to desert to sub-arctic. I don’t know if the real Bolivia is anything like this — honestly, it felt more like Skyrim at times than South America — but as a landscape for a game it’s perfect. The world frequently becomes repetitive, with conspicuous reuse of landscape and architectural assets, and the side missions that you discover on the map pretty much fall into a small set of scenarios — Sicarios parked by the road and ready to start shooting, Sicarios flaunting their presence in rural villas and ready to start shooting, Unidad (secret police) in the pay of the cartels ensconced in large, well-guarded compounds and ready to start shooting — but I felt a feverish need to complete the main missions. I systematically ticked them off the quest list and don’t regret a single minute I spent doing it.

Wildlands led to several months of Ubisoft obsession that included Watch Dogs (which had been sitting in my collection for a couple of years unplayed) and Far Cry 4. Now I’m playing Assassins Creed: Origins, the first AC game I’ve actually liked enough to play for more than 45 minutes at a sitting. I’m dubious about the historical accuracy of its Egyptian setting, but Origins has a more compelling story than any other AC game I’ve seen, with a main character who actually feels like he belongs in this milieu (Ubisoft ignores their Animus device in the early stages of the game) and a revenge motive not unlike the one in Watch Dogs. (Diving into the Nile to avoid arrows from guards is a lot like diving into the Chicago river to escape a police manhunt in WD. Maybe they should have called the game Watch Dogs Primal.) And it’s the first game in the series structured as an actual RPG, complete with a branching skill tree, so you feel as if you’re accomplishing something as you work through the main quests and side quests. If Assassin’s Creed games had been this good from the beginning, I would have been lined up to play each year’s new entry the moment Ubisoft rushed it to market.

It’s too early to say whether AC: Origins belongs on my 2017 list, but there’s no question in my mind that Wildlands does. Say what you will about Ubisoft — and a lot of people have said a lot of nasty things — but I’ve never seen games that work their butts off as hard as Ubisoft’s do to show the player a good time.

Sniper Elite 4

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A railroad bridge enjoying its final moments in Sniper Elite 4

When Ubisoft’s oeuvre began to wear thin, I picked up this stealth fighting game set in World War II Italy as a change of pace. I’m not sure what I expected from it but it slid neatly into the obsession slot that Wildlands and Watch Dogs had recently vacated. Having subsequently tried the earlier games in the series (plus the Zombie Army Trilogy that uses the same interface and engine, not to mention the same weapons and main character), I can confidently announce that this is the first Sniper Elite game that Rebellion has gotten right. The designers don’t push you from goal to goal, a device that’s antithetical to the idea of an open world and that Rebellion uses liberally in their other games. You can take the missions within each map in almost any order, though there’s usually a key goal that will finish off the level and is best left for last. That’s really the only major change from Sniper Elite 3 and the Zombie Army games, but it makes an (open) world of difference in the way that the game feels.

While the sniping aspect probably isn’t realistic, the shooting feels much more grounded in SE4 than the shooting in Wildlands did, and SE4‘s worlds are almost as open as Wildlands’. Each one is a portion of Italy large enough to hold multiple missions, some of them discoverable, marked with large circles on the game map. The game play captures a pleasant balance between relaxing stealth strategizing — slinking past or silently slitting the throats of the Nazis who seem to have systematically driven out or murdered the Italian populace — and high-speed FPS play when your stealth play doesn’t prove subtle enough.

The musical score, which sounds like something from the soundtrack of The Godfather, sets a low-energy mood, signalling that the player should take each scenario at an unhurried pace. That was fine with me. Scoping out the landscape is half the fun in an open-world stealth game on this mid-sized scale and I pored over the maps in each scenario with the glee of a long-time historical wargamer, something that I’m definitely not. I studied the differences between weapons, selecting them carefully for the situations I was in (sniper rifle for distance, machine gun or pistol for close range), and hid in deserted houses, trying to find the best windows for picking off passing enemies. Each landscape is smoothly  designed for stealth play, with a plethora of hiding places and strategically located scenic overlooks for long-distance sniping. Until the enemy discovers you, the game gives you lots of time to pick your shots. Who knew that a shooter could be this laid back?

My favorite scenario was about blowing up a railroad bridge, a process that involved finding the perfect spot to place a satchel charge and then the perfect spot, very far away, from which I could fire a bullet into it with my sniper rifle. Watching the massive bridge crumble into the river far below, carrying an entire train with it, was as satisfying a gaming moment as I’ve had all year.

Is it coincidence that two of my favorite games this year involved shooting Nazis? Probably. But Nazis never get old as the targets in computer gaming’s eternal shooting gallery. They’re easy to hate and satisfying to shoot, a lot more satisfying than the spectral monstrosities of Prey, which just kind of get in the way.

The Rest of the Crowd

I’ve lost count of how many games I’ve played this year and have no intention of opening Steam to total them up. There are quite a few games that I’ve bought and installed but have yet to play. However…

Here are some of the most interesting ones that I did play but never became obsessed with:

What Remains of Edith Finch

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The crooked house of Edith Finch and her defunct family

Edith Finch, which bears a superficial resemblance to Gone Home but was clearly produced on a higher budget, is about a young woman returning to her family homestead to learn how each member of her family died. As she explores the rooms in an old house that’s so convoluted it must be shaped like a tesseract, she finds an animated recreation of each death — every one in a different style of animation, with differing degrees of interactivity. The only reason I’m not putting this in the main list is that, while I admired it hugely, I never found myself deeply engaged in it or emotionally involved. Not that this was necessarily the designer’s intent.

My favorite death sequence is rendered in the style of an early 1950s EC comic book a la Tales from the Crypt. As a long-time EC fan, that one sequence alone made the game work for me, but the inventiveness of the other sequences is equally impressive, especially a first-person sequence where the young female protagonist turns into various animals, both realistic and fantastic, gnawing on larger and larger victims to satisfy a seemingly bottomless appetite. Essentially a children’s book for adults, Edith Finch is well worth playing on artistic merit alone. I do, however, plan to write a piece on why neither this nor Tacoma packs the same emotional punch that the simple, unassuming Gone Home does.

Echo

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Rose Leslie trying to sneak past spectral opponents. Good luck on that.

A visually appealing stealth shooter with an interesting gimmick: Your opponents “echo” your own behavior. I’m not far enough into the game to give it a fair assessment, but what I’ve played so far is intriguing. Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones, The Good Fight) gives a pleasantly raspy voice performance as your character, a space traveler on a mysterious mission to find her grandfather in a buried palace, and there’s enough exploration (through a fairly repetitive environment), sneaking and fighting to keep it reasonably engrossing. I wish I’d been able to set aside more time for it and plan to do so in 2018.

Elex

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Looking for allies and discovering enemies in Elex

A science-fiction RPG that asks the eternal question: Does Piranha Bytes have more than one game in them? Every RPG I’ve played by them, in the Gothic, Risen and now this series, feels identical, a story about an outsider wandering into a closed environment — a penal colony, a village of pirates, the survivors of a planet-wide apocalypse — that’s splintered into philosophically distinct factions, trying to find a way to fit in while enacting his or her own personal agenda. It’s an interesting formula that would be compelling if PB were capable of creating characters who did  more than gesticulate wildly and spout banal dialogue.

ELEX is their most interesting variation on this theme to date. The planet Magalan is reeling in the wake of a collision with a comet, which left behind a powerful energy source called ELEX (the reason for the all-caps name isn’t clear) that can be used pretty much any way the plot demands, including for magic. The most effective ELEX users, the Alb, have decided to conquer the disparate factions that have arisen in the disaster’s wake and you play as a disgraced Alb pilot struggling to escape the wrath of your former allies while not giving away your identity to the Alb’s enemies. Succeeding means that you have to decide how you want to use ELEX (which you pretty much have to, given that the game’s Pip-Boy-like mapping, crafting and skill-tree interface depends on it) and pick a side in the war. This is such a strong premise, and the world is so well imagined, that even Piranha Bytes can’t entirely screw it up and, despite its occasionally clumsy presentation (and poor-to-competent voice acting), the game more or less works. The choice of factions would seem, though I haven’t finished my first playthrough yet, to offer considerable replay value and perhaps multiple narrative threads.

Your character starts the game in almost a pathetically weak state, low on skills, armor and weapons. You’ll die a lot in minor fights with forest creatures before you can do any proper exploring or faction choosing. The most fun I had in the early stages was using my jetpack. It’s only good for short flights, but it can get you into spaces an RPG character normally couldn’t reach. Like most Piranha Bytes games this is a diverting enough way to pass time if you’re in the mood for open-world exploration, stealth fighting, crafting, etc., and are bored with any better alternatives at hand. Watch for this on Steam’s and GOG’s holiday sales. At this writing both have it at a 33% markdown.

Endless Space 2

“Let’s blow some stuff up! I mean, let’s do science!”

The cleverest and best-looking of the recent spate of space-based 4X games, with some of the best-conceived (and occasionally humorous) spacefaring societies any game developer has let loose on an unsuspecting galaxy. Between this and Endless Legend, Amplitude is shaping up as the most innovative developer of 4X games since Sid Meier’s original Civilization appeared from Firaxis predecessor Microprose more than a quarter of a century ago. They’ve been good about responding to player feedback on this and the game has improved substantially since its initial release. Admittedly I find myself getting bored with it after an hour or two — I’ve found this happening more and more with 4X games in general — but I always come back to it and don’t expect that to stop any time soon. Like Edith Finch, it’s a game that I admire more than love. Endless Space 2 is well worth picking up when Steam marks it down.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Melina Juergens having afternoon tea with the voices in her head in an Oscar-worthy mocap performance.

A visually stunning schizophrenia sim in the guise of an adventure game. I’m still stuck at one of the pattern-rotating puzzles early in the game– at least I assume it’s still early in the game — so I can’t really say much about it except that it features a superb motion-capture/voice performance by the game’s video editor Melina Juergens, who would almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave awards for video game performances. Also: The sound design is as powerful and multi-layered as anything you’re likely to hear through your Bluetooth headphones in 2017 and probably 2018. I really have to get back to playing it, though I hate pattern-rotating puzzles.

Game of the Year

So, after all this, what was the best game I played? I’m marking it as a tie between Prey and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The first is the most imaginative strategic shooter I’ve played in years, not to mention one of the best looking. The latter is the first FPS I’ve encountered with genuine emotional depth. (Sorry, Gordon Freeman, but I never really felt I knew ye.) Either one would have made this a great year for gaming. As it stands, I think this year has been a high water mark in the era of AAA games, the best since, oh, probably 2016.

I feel bad about omitting The Long Dark, but the sandbox mode has been available in early access for a couple of years now and the story mode, added a few months ago, is the weakest part of the finished game. Maybe next year I’ll settle back into playing emotionally/strategically satisfying indies. But Far Cry 5 is waiting just over the horizon and I suspect my Ubisoft obsession will reemerge to embarrass me all over again. I may just keep playing bigly until Campo Santo’s follow-up to Firewatch, In the Valley of the Gods, appears on Steam in 2019. But Campo Santo looks like it’s on its way to becoming yet another AAA developer. We’ll see.

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Game Saves and Checkpoints: A Brief Introduction

When you hit Escape to bring up the Options menu in a PC game and click “Save Game,” what happens? I mean, besides a dialog box asking you which slot to save in and possibly requesting an arbitrary name for that slot?

Here’s the simple version: The game program dumps the value of all relevant variables to a file on your disk or cloud or other storage venue. Depending on the complexity of the game, this variable dump may be huge or relatively small, but the process is straightforward. Any moderately experienced game programmer knows how to do it.

So why do so many games only save at specified checkpoints?

If you’re an experienced gamer, you know what I’m talking about: Those games that nag you, when you try to quit the game, pointing out that you’ll lose everything since the last save, even though you don’t have the ability to save the game on command. These games are using checkpoints. Usually a symbol appears in the corner of the screen when you hit a checkpoint — that is, when the game is saving itself — even though half the time you don’t notice it because you’re caught up in actually playing the game.

Why don’t programmers let you save the game any time you feel like it? The short answer is that I don’t know. The longer answer is that I can make an informed, and fairly lengthy, guess.

Early game consoles lacked any kind of external storage device to dump variables to. (Similarly, very early PCs used primitive external storage devices like tape drives where game saves were excruciatingly slow.) Most games from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, especially arcade-style games, had no save-game function. Why bother? The games were of limited duration and you could always start again from the beginning.

Some games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came with static RAM in the game cartridge that you could use for saving your game, but those games were expensive, because memory was costly in that era. Other games would show you a string of alphanumeric symbols you could write down that represented your current variable values, but this was a pain in the ass and gamers really didn’t like having to transcribe the symbols. And, needless to say, that string of characters only held limited information, so the games couldn’t be especially complex.

During this period, game designers discovered something important: When a Save Game function was available, gamers tended to use it as a substitute for tactical thinking.  If you could save your game whenever you wanted to, why not plunge willy-nilly into the action and learn from your mistakes rather than carefully planning your movements ahead of time? Furthermore, if players could restore their characters to life magically whenever they wanted to, they would have less emotional investment in the fate of those characters. That little avatar on the screen that responded to the controls became a piece of disposable Kleenex, easily replaced by the next piece of Kleenex in the box when it fell afoul of bad strategy on the player’s part.

With the first-generation Playstation in the mid-to-late 1990s, Sony began selling memory cards that could be plugged into the console for game saves, but the first memory cards were extremely limited in their storage capacity and programmers only allowed game saves at specific moments during play to minimize the number of variables that needed to be dumped. This both reduced memory card use and maximized player investment. Before long, gamers became conditioned to the idea that game saves were a precious commodity, only parceled out by the designers when they deigned to allow the player to save.

Ah, but what if you needed to go to bed? (If you were an older gamer, your spouse might be finding your absence in the bedroom both conspicuous and annoying. I have to wonder how many marriages have been ruined by somebody calling down the hallway, “I’ll be there as soon as I’ve killed this boss, hon!”)

And what if you needed to go to dinner? Or if you were afraid of losing the contents of your dynamic RAM in a power failure? You were, forgive me, kinda shit out of luck.

There was a time when PC games tended to allow game saves at arbitrary moments — there’s that large hard drive available, after all — and console games didn’t. But, at least in the current AAA game world, PC games and console games tend to use much the same code and are largely identical between platforms. So if game-saving is restricted on the console version, it’s restricted on the PC version too. Indie game designers have, in many cases, taken their cue from AAA game designers and limited saves to checkpoints on PC games as well. If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of games I’ve played on my PC lately only save at checkpoints and a minority allow arbitrary saves. This is starting to bother me. I like to save my game. I don’t like having to repeat huge chunks of narrative because I lost them when I knocked off for the evening.

I can remember arguments about checkpointing and limited saves taking place on the Compuserve gaming forums back in the early 1990s, so this problem isn’t new. But it’s one that refuses to go away. Furthermore, it’s one without an easy answer. By and large, with the large hard drives on current-generation game consoles, there are no technological limitations preventing players from saving games whenever they want to. Yet checkpointing persists.

Is this just a matter of habit or is it because game designers want players to have the deep character investment that only comes from knowing that your death will require you to replay a large portion of the game?

I don’t know. I’m not sure that game designers know why they do this anymore, though I’d like to think they’ve at least thought the problem out.

But checkpointing in games remains ubiquitous and I’m starting to get tired of it. Maybe it’s time that gamers who resent being forced to wait for a checkpoint start protesting this. Or maybe we’re so used to it we don’t notice it anymore. And I have to admit that there’s something liberating about having the game do Autosaves for you. But, on balance, I think there’s something even more liberating about being able to save the game anytime I feel like it just by pressing the Quick Save key.

Oh, excuse me. My girlfriend is wondering where I am. I’m pretty sure that WordPress has done an autosave on this post, so I’ll just

 

 

Dungeon Master and the Birth of the Modern Computer Game

There are moments around which entire timelines pivot: The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to the First World War and the death of most of a generation of young British males. The election of Adolph Hitler, which led to the deaths of millions of Jews and hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims. The series of cosmically unlikely accidents that brought about the evolution of intelligent life on earth, which led to…us.

Me, I don’t worry too much about these things. They happened, there’s nothing I can do about them, and I’m not even well informed enough to speculate about what would have happened in alternative timelines where these events never occurred. But I do know enough to wonder about a smaller, less important, more personal timeline — the last three decades of computer gaming history — and what would have happened if the 1987 game Dungeon Master had never existed.

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Dungeon Master: A pack of regenerating Screamers that you can practice your attack skills on. Go ahead. Shoot a fireball at them.

There’s a good chance you’ve never played Dungeon Master. It was released by FTL Games three decades ago and isn’t currently available through any retail outlet (though you can find a perfect, playable clone of it at this website). It was ported to a number of platforms, but the major versions were for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, which only a small contingent of current gamers even owned, though if you did have one of those computers then you played Dungeon Master. It was the game to have, the pinnacle of RPG achievement in the late 1980s. You may also have played the Super Nintendo port.  I haven’t, but I can’t imagine that it was as good as the ST and Amiga versions. There was a PC port eventually, but it came too late in the curve, and I found a copy at precisely one small computer store. I never saw it on the shelves of Egghead Software, Babbages, Electronics Boutique or CompUSA — the must-visit shopping stops for gamers in the years BS (Before Steam).

What makes Dungeon Master so significant, and why it was an essential pivot point in the history of game design, is not the number of gamers that played it but the number of game designers that played it and the lasting influence it had on the way they developed games. Dungeon Master was the first RPG to feel genuinely immersive, a term that gets bandied about so offhandedly in the modern gaming environment that it’s becoming almost meaningless, yet three decades ago it was a concept that seemed almost unreachable given the slow CPUs and rudimentary graphics cards that hobbled gaming rigs in that period.

I’d only experienced a sense of genuine immersion in a game world twice before Dungeon Master and they were in very different sorts of games. The first was in the Infocom text adventure Deadline, where you spent 12 hours (over and over) in a large mansion following characters around, spying on them, having conversations with them, to solve a locked-room murder mystery. That mansion was alive and interactive, reacting to your presence the way Schrodinger’s Cat reacts to being observed. The second time was in SubLogic’s Flight Simulator 2, where you flew a Piper Cherokee Archer across large regions of the United States, hopping from airport to airport (the game meticulously modeled even the smallest airfields in those regions) or just looking at the sights because part of you believed that they were real.

Dungeon Master plopped you down in what was, by the standards of that period, a photo-realistic stone dungeon — and trust me when I say that the dungeon looked a lot more photo-realistic on the smaller, fuzzier monitors of the late 80s than it would look on the widescreen, 1920-by-1080 pixel, crystal clear mega-displays of the 2010s. You moved through that environment in quantum strides on a four-way grid, turning to each of the major compass points at the tap of a key, seeing what your party of four characters could see from each position. (See Legend of Grimrock for a modern take on a grid-based dungeon crawl.)’

Dungeon Master wasn’t the first game to use that sort of 3D dungeon grid. Even the first Ultima installment in 1980 used simple wireframe graphics to achieve a kind of grid-based movement. By mid-decade, games like The Bard’s Tale and Might & Magic were doing the same thing with more realistic texture mapping. What made Dungeon Master stand out was that it did this in real time, with your enemies moving along that grid toward you whether you made a move or not, and you could see them coming from a distance. You could even see them through barred doors and when the bars weren’t there, even sometimes when they were, you could fight them by clicking on icons representing your characters’ weapons and spells. (The spell-creation system alone was a small wonder.)

What really made Dungeon Master innovative and influential, though, was how well integrated all the pieces were, what one envious game designer referred to as its “seamlessness.” You fought monsters from the same view that you used for movement, without being transported to a separate combat screen, the way you were in Ultima or Wizardry or almost every Japanese RPG ever written. DM was the first RPG to make full use of the mouse in its control system. While you could move the characters with the numeric keypad, you could simultaneously use the mouse to scoop weapons and potions off the floor or drag food into the mouths of your hungry characters. This seamlessness made the mechanics so intuitive that it rendered them invisible and you quickly forgot that you were sitting at the keyboard of a computer, looking at pixels on a screen. You were there, in that dungeon, fighting for your life, and there were moments when you really felt your life depended on concocting just the right spell. Even today, decades after I first played it, I remember the world of Dungeon Master not so much as a game environment but as a place where I’ve actually been.

dungeon-master-therons-quest-usa
The seamless hallways of Dungeon Master.

If all that seems unremarkable, it’s because almost every AAA game on the market today feels like that, but Dungeon Master is where that immersive experience began. You can see echoes of it in first-person shooters going back to the inception of the genre in the early 90s, and outright homages to it in games like Stonekeep and Legend of Grimrock. But every game from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim to Prey owes the seamlessness of its design to Dungeon Master. Games rapidly went beyond grid-based movement to outright 3D maneuvering as the underlying hardware became more powerful, but the designers of those later games either learned how to achieve their seamlessness from having played Dungeon Master or (probably in the vast majority of cases) from having played games designed by someone who was influenced by Dungeon Master.

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The seamless hallways of Prey.

This December, Dungeon Master will turn 30 years old. I think there should be a celebration in the gaming world to mark the occasion, perhaps involving a completely remastered edition of the original (though modders have already created acceptable substitutes by tinkering with the Grimrock engine). Most importantly, though, I think gamers should know how influential DM was to the development of the games that followed it. Westwood Associates, a company that rarely made a game that wasn’t copied from something some other company had developed (Dune 2/Command and Conquer being the lone exception), stole FTL’s thunder when they released their own Dungeon Master clone, Eye of the Beholder, on the PC before DM was ported.

I’d hate for gamers to think that immersive 3D gameplay was invented by Westwood, or Id Software, or even the brilliant Looking Glass Studios (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief). Perhaps because they were so late to the VGA-PC platform, which by the early 90s dominated the world of computer games, FTL has faded from the industry’s history as though they never existed. They deserve a monument for having inspired the modern computer game and every gamer who respects the history of their hobby should bow toward that monument at least once and give thanks to the brilliant minds that gave Dungeon Master life. Maybe modern computer games would have happened anyway (and maybe World War I would have happened without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), but to the extent that I can see across the alternate timelines and visualize the one where Dungeon Master didn’t happen, I can guarantee that it would have looked at least a little bit different and a little bit diminished for the loss.

Firewatch and Gone Home and Life Is Strange, Esther: These Are a Few of My Favorite Games (2016)

I stopped gaming for a while in 2015 because life had taken me to a strange place where it didn’t feel right to sit at my computer or my Xbox and live in some kind of world that didn’t exist in any way that felt meaningful right then. I stopped reading for pretty much the same reason or maybe because I didn’t have the attention span to sustain the concentrated suspension of disbelief that even a short story would demand. Maybe I was having a spurt of depression, that state where you suddenly find that you can’t take joy in anything. I’d been there before, but that was long ago.

So when the gaming urge reawakened in 2016, it did so with a vengeance. I’d been away on a personal voyage and the games must have been happy to see me back, because all at once they were so good. Sure, I played some mediocre games this year, but I didn’t play them for long. I also discovered games that touched me in ways that games hadn’t touched me before, reaching me at an emotional level I hadn’t experienced in the past. I don’t know if this was something new about games or something new about me that impelled me to seek out games with deeper, subtler levels beneath the surface.

It’s a bit of a lie to say that I hadn’t experienced this emotional connection with games before, but I only remember feeling it once, when I played Dishonored in 2012. I finished the game with chills running down my spine, realizing that what had seemed while I played it like nothing more (or less) than a brilliantly constructed mission-based stealth game had become something more. It was a game that not only allowed my moral choices to affect the game’s progress — games have been doing this since Ultima IV in the 1980s — but it was a game where I actually cared in the end about the wrong choices I had made and felt almost like crying at the realization I had made so many of those choices in a way I regretted. I’ve tried to play it again and make those choices correctly, but I’ve never been able to. The game makes it difficult and that’s probably how it should be. Why should it be easier to make the correct moral choices in a game than it is in real life?

This year I realized that my experience with Dishonored hadn’t been a one-off. There were other games that could offer me an emotional experience deeper than the exhilaration that I had usually considered the tipping point that pushed a game over the dividing line between being good and being great. I’m going to talk here about those games, the ones that affected me deeply — and perhaps a few that simply made me feel exhilarated.

These are my favorites among the games I played in 2016. Not all of them are from 2016; this just happens to be when I played them. But it was my year of gaming emotionally and that’s going to be the theme.

Firewatch

I don’t remember where I first heard about Firewatch. Maybe Steam was trying to push it on me in its running slideshow. Maybe I read about it at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Maybe I saw it mentioned on Electron Dance. For whatever reason I bought it and immediately started playing. It’s a short game and I finished it over the course of two or three evenings. I never looked back on the purchase with regret.

Firewatch both establishes and partially resolves its sublime confusion from the first moment, with a running text-adventure-style opening designed in the authoring tool Twine, where you make choices that essentially lead to a single conclusion: You met a wonderful woman, you fell in love, you got married and then, after a period of happiness, the end of your marriage and of your joy had entered your life as your wife began to display the first signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

That was when the game had me. I’d also lost a woman I loved to an unexpected illness that came on slowly and then took over our lives. There have been times since when I thought that she was the lucky one. She took death so well, while I had to figure out what do after it and I didn’t handle that nearly as well as she had handled death itself. In the game, your dying wife has gone off to live with her family in Australia and the game starts flashing between the text story and the three-dimensional life (designed in the Unity engine) you’ve chosen in your wife’s absence, working alone at a remote firewatch tower in a Wyoming national park. The juxtaposition makes it clear that you’ve chosen to handle the situation by running as far away from it as you can.

This doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a game; it sounds like the premise for a novel. But when I entered the firewatch tower and looked out at the beautiful, neo-impressionistic scenery I knew I was in good hands. I examined my new surroundings and began talking on a small radio with the director of the firewatch, a woman in a similar tower that I could just glimpse in the distance.

The view from your firewatch tower.
The view from your firewatch tower.

Firewatch combines that thing I love so much in games, exploration of an open environment, with something else: the slow growth of a relationship with someone who you only know by her voice. It’s that relationship that leads you to a gradual understanding of yourself and the choices you’ve made. There are also job-related missions to accomplish and a mystery to solve in the park, but they seem almost incidental to the emotional thread that runs through the game’s day-to-day routine. The voice acting, by Cissy Jones as the woman on the radio and Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer as your own character, is superb and you feel that you know both of them, even while, if you’re like me, you’re coming to know yourself a little better too.

Some people have complained about the ambiguity of the game’s ending, but that ambiguity is essential to the game: You’ve made a decision by then and whether you actually carry out that decision is irrelevant. What matters is that you’ve made it.

I’m not going to bury the lede. I’m giving this my Game of the Year award. I’ll try not to make it all downhill from here.

Gone Home

Gone Home, released in 2013 and set in 1995, isn’t as overt in its emotional themes as Firewatch, but they grow throughout what at first seems a simple exercise in exploration and mystery solving. Your character is an 18-year-old woman returning from a trip to Europe to her family’s new home, an old house somewhere in Oregon, and the mystery to be solved is why your family isn’t there to greet you. You solve it by examining objects in the house and solving a few simple puzzles, gradually piecing together what’s happened while you were away.

The house interior in Gone Home
Home is where the family’s missing

The game takes an interesting bait-and-switch approach that I won’t describe further so that it won’t be ruined for anyone and it cheats occasionally by rewarding you with brief voice narrations by your younger sister as you make certain discoveries, but your exploration leads to an unexpected emotional connection with people you, as the player, have never met. Like Firewatch it’s a short game and I played it in about the same amount of time, but once caught up in its mysteries I couldn’t quit.

Gone Home is a small game in its technical ambitions — it uses the ubiquitous Unity engine to create a fully realized, interactive, three-dimensional house and not much else — but within its limited confines it creates what feels like a genuine experience. And the resolution of that experience is an unexpected one, both in its solution to the mystery and the emotional impact that its resolution carries.

This is a small game. It’s a great game. You can find it cheap. Buy it.

Dear Esther

I’d heard Dear Esther, from 2012, described in advance by the sometimes derogatory term “walking simulator,” meaning a game where all you do is walk through an environment and admire it. It’s that, but it’s more, ultimately a great deal more.

You have, for unknown reasons, arrived on the shores of a barren island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. As you begin to explore it, and it’s a startlingly beautiful place to explore, you begin to hear snatches of a narrative from an unknown narrator speaking to someone named Esther, in the form of what seem to be notes addressed to a loved one and that turn out to be…well, let’s not go there.

The barren Hebridean coast
The barren Hebridean coast

Dear Esther turns out not to be a walk but a journey, one that the landscape and narration guide you gently through until the end, when it forces you through the culmination of your odyssey and you realize why you’re there, who you are, and what those spoken messages have been.

The heart of the game are the spoken messages themselves, read wonderfully by narrator Nigel Carrington, with a tone that implies both gravity and tragedy plus a paradoxical touch of joy. Like Firewatch, Dear Esther is about a tragic relationship that I found I could also relate to, but the ambiguity of its narrative make it nicely replayable as you try to parse out the deeper meaning of the poetic prose that early on seems metaphorical but gradually becomes more concrete.

Dear Esther is the shortest game in this list and it isn’t for everyone. But for me it was a powerful emotional experience, one that lingered on after it was done. I found myself staring at the closing screen for a long time — and there was nothing on it.

Life Is Strange

I played the first installment of Square Enix’s Life Is Strange, an episodic adventure game in the TellTale Walking Dead mode, when it came out in early 2015. I was ambivalent about it. I was impressed by its lovely, largely realistic 3D graphics (run on Unreal Engine 3) and the characterization of the viewpoint character, a high-school senior named Maxine “Max” Caulfield (a rather heavy-handed nod to The Catcher in the Rye). But its depiction of high school was uncomfortably realistic for someone, like me, who couldn’t have gotten out of high school fast enough, and its central gimmick — that Max discovers she can rewind time and remake choices that don’t seem to turn out right initially — struck me as a laborious mechanic, though at least it removed any need to save the game so you could go back and correct anything you felt you’d done wrong.

Max Caulfield and her childhood friend Chloe
Max Caulfield and her childhood friend Chloe

When I came back to it a few months ago and played through all five episodes, it had somehow become a different game. I found that I identified intensely with Max, who has returned from Seattle to a private school in her small Oregon hometown, to attend a class in photography taught by a once-famous photographer who she yearns to learn more about her photographic hobby from. The second time I played through the first episode I lingered more on the character moments, especially Max’s interactions with the other students and with her childhood friend Chloe, who feels that Maxine abandoned her after Chloe’s father’s tragic death in an automobile accident. Chloe has turned from a sweet young girl into a surly, rebellious late adolescent and Max’s attempts to rekindle their relationship are some of the most powerful parts of the story. I discovered that when the game offered you the opportunity to simply sit on a chair and think that you should always take it, because Max’s thoughts opened a window into a seemingly immutable past that she felt she could never regain. I also discovered that the game is deeply felt and deeply moving.

And the time-rewinding mechanism turned out to be much more than a gimmick. It was a tool for exploring player agency in the context of a game genre — adventure games — that typically offers very little or at best, as in the TellTale games, the illusion of it. Photography also plays an important role in the game, much of which is about capturing the present and rediscovering the past. At times photography becomes almost a deus ex machina, but one used intelligently enough that it ultimately doesn’t feel like a cheat.

In the end, Max’s agency within the game pivots on a single, unrewindable decision, one that’s foreshadowed from the beginning, a decision that I wouldn’t dream of giving away but that sums up the emotional impact of the story in a single act. In its finale Life Is Strange turns out to be less about recapturing and possibly changing the past than it’s about determining a future and in a way its ending is as ambiguous as Firewatch‘s, if only because you’ve come to know Max so well that you want to know where she’ll go from there. But I’m not sure I really want to know. I feel I know her well enough now that I can imagine a better future for her than she’ll possibly have.

To be honest, Life Is Strange would tie Firewatch as my game of the year except that it wasn’t released in 2016. It was serialized entirely in 2015. But I give it a belated Game of the Year award for the year when I wasn’t really playing games.


I also wanted to talk here about The Witness, Tyranny, The Stanley Parable, Rise of the Tomb Raider (which I’ve already written about at some length), The Long Dark and Tales from the Borderlands (the most charmingly delightful of TellTale’s episodic adventures). But those aren’t as deeply emotional as the games listed above (though some come close) and I have to get back to writing things that will actually earn me money.

But I reserve the right to talk about all these games again, even the ones I’ve described in some detail. My head (and my unfinished drafts folder) are full of blog posts where they’d fit perfectly. I hope you stick around for them.

Lara Croft and Scrooge McDuck: Tomb Raiders of a Feather

I feel almost embarrassed that I’m enjoying Rise of the Tomb Raider so much. This is the kind of overproduced, overly linear, overly prompted AAA shooter that sophisticated game commentators tend to disdain, but my sophistication as a game commentator can be measured in nanometers. I enjoy well-produced AAA games, even when they’re part of a series that began in the 1990s as masturbatory fantasies for 14-year-old Playstation owners who enjoyed watching Lara Croft’s ample curves trotting down the hallway ahead of them with a pair of guns in her shapely arms. Guns and curves: If it weren’t for those low-res  Playstation graphics, the original Lara could have been a centerfold model for Gun Owners Monthly.

Lara Croft shooting at a wolf
Low-res Lara Croft, unlocked and unloading.

The newer Lara Croft is a lot higher resolution, though, and except for her uncanny ability to survive landslides on ice-covered landscapes (which usually requires a half dozen returns to the game’s last checkpoint for less agile tomb raiders like me), she could pass as a credible young woman just realizing that her life has a purpose beyond cramming for final exams and wondering when the hunkier archaeology nerds at Oxford were going to notice her subdued but undeniable attractiveness. This is a Lara Croft that young women can identify with and that young men might actually consider an intellectual equal rather than (purely) a sex object. (For some reason, though, she spends much of the game’s cut scenes hanging around with handsome older men, maybe because she has an almost Freudian obsession with her father, Tomb Raider, Sr., whose suicide over the rejection of his archaeological theories is something she blames herself for.)

The new, subtler Lara.
The new, subtler Lara.

In this post, though, I don’t want to talk about Lara so much as I want to talk about the tradition her character and her stories grew out of. And this tradition is not so much a gaming one as it is a literary and a cinematic one. It’s a tradition that in my case I learned to love at the age of five when my mother began reading me comic books about a feathered zillionaire named Scrooge McDuck. Yes, that Scrooge McDuck.

A Duck Tale

Most Americans not of my generation are probably familiar with Scrooge McDuck from the Disney Duck Tales animated TV series that began in the 1980s. But the avian mogul goes back a lot farther than that, to the comic books of the 1950s, and he was created by a man whose very name has an almost godlike resonance for me: Carl Barks.

For those who aren’t into older comic books (or who aren’t European; for some reason Barks has a much higher recognition factor in the hemisphere opposite the one where I’m sitting), Carl Barks was a Disney animator who produced Donald Duck cartoons in the 1930s, but his job as an animation artist never suited him. He wanted the creative freedom that self-employment would give him and in 1942 moved from creating Disney animation to creating Disney comic books.

It’s not surprising that he settled on the Disney ducks, Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, as his subjects, but the Donald of the comic books was a very different duck from his animated counterpart. He was no longer given to incoherent explosions of anger, but became more adventurous, not strong on initiative but encouraged by his nephews, who were members of the Boy-Scout-like Junior Woodchucks, to engage in exploration. Under Barks’ tutelage he would uncover pirate treasure and discover Viking ships encased in ice. But it wasn’t until Barks introduced Donald’s uncle Scrooge that the duck family’s wandering ways began taking them into the realm of genuine legend.

Scrooge McDuck swimming in his Money Bin.
Scrooge McDuck wallows in his luxurious Money Bin.

Scrooge first appeared in 1947 as a miserly old curmudgeon as dislikeable as his Dickensian namesake, but when he was given his own comic book in 1952 Barks turned him into something else entirely. He was still greedy and given to uncontrolled outbursts of anger not unlike those Donald was prone to in the cartoons, but he was also wistful for the adventures of his bygone youth, when he had been poor but ambitious, chopping firewood in the forests of his native Scotland and prospecting for gold in the wilds of the Yukon.

In later life he would be drawn into explorations, along with his relatives, that promised monetary gain but that turned out to be mythic in scope. He wanted to find the golden fleece sought by Jason and his Argonauts, but to find it had to negotiate the Greek island of Colchis, with its dragons and its larkies (the Disney version of harpies). He wanted to find the Philosopher’s Stone, which would transmute ordinary materials into gold, but ended up almost turning into gold himself. He wanted to find the fabled treasures of the Seven Cities of Cibola, but instead found an underground metroplex wired to trigger an ancient, horrible, spectacular trap.

Barks was actually working from an even older tradition, one started by novelist H. Rider Haggard, whose much-filmed 1885 bestseller King Solomon’s Mines launched a craze for stories of lost cities and lost civilizations buried in the last unexplored corners of the earth. It was a tradition that was later followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Tarzan novels, where the archaeological genius raised by gorillas was constantly stumbling on the populated remains of bygone empires. Barks simply took Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain and Burrough’s Tarzan and refashioned them as ducks, but they were such ingeniously conceived ducks that they brought a kind of wry yet thrilling humor to the Haggard-Burroughs sensibility that appealed to me immensely when I was five years old and still appeals to me today.

Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain in King Solomon's Mines.
Sharon Stone goes all Lara Croft in the 1985 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, with Richard Chamberlain as Allan Quatermain.

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg also grew up with the Uncle Scrooge adventures and Indiana Jones is basically Donald Duck in Harrison Ford drag. (In the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery essentially becomes his Uncle Scrooge.) And given that Lara Croft was quite consciously modeled on Indiana Jones she’s a linear descendant of Scrooge, Donald and the Haggard and Burroughs heroes who had preceded them. Lara, like Scrooge and Indy, is always in search of an artifact of ancient power. And like her predecessors she discovers lost cities and lost civilizations on her way to locating them. Rise of the Tomb Raider reminds me more of the Uncle Scrooge story “The Land of Tra-La-La” (the Barks version of James Hilton’s Shangri-La) than it does of any Indiana Jones stories. Both Scrooge and Lara stumble on peaceful societies of good shepherds living in nearly inaccessible mountain valleys, endangered by the encroaching forces of civilization and the greed that those forces represent.

The peaceful society of Shangri-La.
The peaceful society of Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s film version of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

I like the new Lara for many other reasons too, not just for her more realistic personality but for the meticulous graphics of her lost cities, which remind me of Barks’ work at its best. Compare these two images of Scrooge and Lara:

Uncle Scrooge and the Seven Cities of Cibola
Scrooge and his relatives get their first view of the Seven Cities of Cibola.
Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider
Lara Croft gets her first view of a barely ruined civilization in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Lara’s stories are still basically linear, though there are large, explorable areas and multiple ways to get past some of the game’s obstacles. She still climbs walls of rock and falls off them a lot. But the Scrooge stories are, by their nature, even more linear and the thrill of discovery, heightened by the sense of learning that a piece of the ancient past is still alive, is always present in stories about both characters. In Rise of the Tomb Raider even more than in the previous reboot (or the earlier games) Lara finds herself treading the path that Allan Quatermain, Tarzan and Scrooge McDuck have trod before her. And I love both Lara and Scrooge for that magical voyage into living history as much, or more, than for anything else about them.

Into the Worlds: The Universe in a Computer

It was my great good fortune in 1993 to live around the corner from the offices of Bethesda Softworks. I worked at the time as one of the moderators on the Compuserve Game Publishers forums and we all got invitations from Bethesda founder Chris Weaver to drop by and watch their games in progress. (By coincidence, we all lived in the Washington, DC, area.) Bethesda was working on a Terminator game, Terminator: Rampage, which I was less than impressed by when it was released, but I got an early look at a game called Arena that would be the first game in the Elder Scrolls series. I was blown away by it.

This was when I was working on my book Gardens of Imagination, which is about programming what we called “maze games,” though the genre later morphed into first-person shooters and RPGs. I was mostly discussing the raycasting techniques used in Id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, but what Bethesda was doing with Arena was miles beyond anything I had written about in the early chapters and I tried hard in the later chapters to invent programming tricks that could duplicate effects like a glowing fireball shooting down a hallway, lighting the surrounding walls as it moved. We take that kind of effect for granted now, but to the naive eyes of a 1993 gamer on a DOS-based machine without 3D acceleration, it was beyond astonishing. It was a programming miracle.

A Dungeon in the Elder Scrolls: Arenga
A dungeon in Elder Scrolls: Arena

When Arena came out, it was every bit as impressive as I’d expected, perhaps even more so. You can still buy it on sites like Gog.com, but trying to play it will make you wonder what the fuss was about. It’s dated badly and, even at the time, had a boringly repetitive quest structure that was exciting at first but became monotonous by the fifth of the 16 dungeons you had to complete to finish the quest. No matter. I was still awestruck by the sheer size of the game world and the variety of the cities, provinces and dungeons you could visit. I would sometimes leave a city and just go for a walk, wondering what I’d stumble across. Never mind that most of what I found was procedurally generated (using fixed random number seeds, so the dungeons and cities didn’t change from one visit to another the way dungeons in Rogue-like games do). I had spent the first 13 years of my gaming life looking for a genuine world inside my computer and Arena delivered that world on a scale that was at the time unprecedented.

After the second and somewhat improved game Daggerfall came out two years later, the production of entries in the Elder Scrolls series slowed to a regular trickle of one new game every five years (though it doesn’t look like they’ll make the 2016 deadline for the sixth game, unless you count the MMORPG The Elder Scrolls OnLine. I don’t.) It was with the third game, Morrowind, in 2001 that the series hit its stride. Though the graphics have dated (though nowhere near as badly as those of the earlier games), some people still regard Morrowind as Bethesda’s best game. It had a fully imagined world, one in which fungi and insects were the major flora and fauna. Giant mushrooms towered over the landscape. Monstrous insects carried you, for a small fee, from city to city. Though not as large as the previous game worlds, the province of Morrowind was still immense and fully explorable, even (and usually) by foot. It was exotic. It was exciting. The scenery looked, and still looks, like a watercolor painting or charcoal drawing. It was, I think, a masterpiece. It was a world of infinite surprises and infinite possibilities.

A monstrous insect in Morrowind.
Hitching a ride on a monstrous insect in Morrowind.

There have been two more Elder Scrolls games since. The 2006 Oblivion took a leap into another graphics generation, one that hasn’t dated as much as you’d think. The world of Cyrodill was less exotic than Morrowind and the frequent visits you took to the Elder Scrolls version of hell were almost as repetitive as the dungeons in Arena, maybe more repetitive because they were all identical and you had to go there a lot to rescue cities and lost citizens. But there was a strong overall plot, with voice acting by Sean Bean, later the tragic paterfamilias on Game of Thrones, that lent a depth to his character that was helped more than a little by good if not exceptional dialogue. While regarded as one of the weaker entries in the series, it’s still well worth playing, assuming that somehow you missed it. I played it all the way through on the XBox version, which is more than I can say for the PC version of Morrowind, which I have yet to finish. (I plan to, though, because the large portion that I played is nicely replayable. It’s a world worth going back to.)

And then, of course, there was Skyrim, which remains the definitive Elder Scrolls game, with a large and varied Scandinavian-like universe. I’ve completed the main quest, but there seem to be more. It’s a game that never ends. I’m not sure I haven’t gotten my fill of it, though I’ll probably go again. There are too many quests I haven’t finished yet.

skyrim-2
Skyrim: Welcome to town, Dragonborn.

Which brings me to the topic of open worlds and exploration, especially exploration for exploration’s sake.

Into the Black

One of my favorite gaming blogs is Joel Goodwin’s Electron Dance. I discovered it through a link to Goodwin’s video Into the Black, which is as impressive a statement on why Goodwin (and, to a large extent, I) got into gaming as I expect to see anytime soon. It’s essential viewing if the idea of exploration for exploration’s sake interests you as a reason for gaming. I’m not sure I share Goodwin’s distaste for games that reward exploration with a series of goals — I could hardly love the Elder Scrolls games if I did — but his introduction of the “Overjustification Effect” made me think. It was something I’d experienced in my own life. Things I’d done primarily for fun, like computer programming, had often become my greatest passions while things I do for work, like my paid writing, are much less enjoyable than writing this blog, which nobody pays me to do and at the moment only a few people even read (though I hope to change that).

The real chill for me, though, came when Goodwin described his experiences with the original 1984 version of Flight Simulator 2, a game Goodwin played on an Atari and I played on a Commodore 64. Otherwise our experiences were the same. You flew that Piper Cherokee Archer not because you had a destination in mind but because you wanted to see what was there. You wanted to find the tiny pixelated objects that represented buildings and roads, hoping to discover something that you might miss if you didn’t look carefully, hoping that you might see something that no other player had seen. The Elder Scrolls games are a wonderful experience, but for several weeks Flight Simulator 2 was my obsession. I flew endlessly across its seemingly bleak landscapes letting my imagination fill in the details, so thrilled that I was discovering a genuine world in my computer that I didn’t want to stop, never mind that my frame rate occasionally dropped to less than one frame per second.

A landscape view from Flight Simulator 2
Flight Simulator 2 – Maybe you have to fly it to get what was so good about it.

Goodwin writes about this and a number of other topics, both related and unrelated, throughout his blog. He’s introduced me to games I otherwise might have missed, like Proteus. I’m not sure I share Goodwin’s passion for Proteus, but I understand it. The game generates islands procedurally, with vividly colored scenery and a childlike sense of wonder at wandering through them. It’s never going to make my most-played games list, but I’m glad I visited there.

Exploration for Exploration’s Sake

In 1981, the day before I received my first microcomputer, I picked up a game called Morloc’s Tower, which I later learned was a spin-off to Temple of Apshai, possibly the first graphic RPG ever written for a microcomputer. (Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth may also hold that title.) The back cover of the Morloc’s Tower box showed a pixelated silhouette of a knight fighting the pixelated silhouette of a monster. It was nothing to get excited about, yet I got excited. I was disappointed when I realized that the box art was for the Apple II version and my computer was a low-resolution TRS-80, which worked fine for the word processing I had bought it for. My character was simply a block of large pixels fighting other large pixels, but I played it anyway.

I found my head flooded with images of computer games 20 years hence that would allow you to walk across vividly rendered 3D landscapes meeting vividly rendered people. I wasn’t terribly wrong on the time frame for that, though the computer screens I’d imagined were huge and surrounded you like the 3-way mirrors in the clothing section of a department store, which hasn’t quite been the case. I didn’t imagine goggles that would give you a three-dimensional view without the need for a conventional screen, but now we have that with virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. I hope to get one of those — as soon as my bank account allows it and I see some must-have games that run on them, maybe a full VR version of Skyrim. I expect to see those games soon.

Knight versus monster in Moloc's Tower.
Morloc’s Tower. Crude, but in 1981 a genuine source of amazement.

My benchmark for this kind of virtual reality was when computer graphics were good enough to show individual blades of grass blowing in the wind. I finally saw this in Oblivion. Having programmed crude 3D games myself I knew how this was being done. The programmers had created a smooth-shaded, transparent polygon, then mapped the image of a clump of grass across it. By deforming the polygon in a blowing motion, the tuft of grass seemed to be blowing too. It wasn’t really individual blades of grass blowing in the wind, but it gave the illusion of it, which was close enough. My ideal virtual world had arrived.

This is a common effect now and programmers seem to be moving on to more spectacular ways of making their worlds look real, aided by yet another generation of graphics hardware. The new frontier seems to be realistic lighting effects, some of which almost look like ray tracing. Watch the scenery in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and notice how the color of objects in the outdoor scenes changes as the day progresses. Long shadows stretch across the landscape at sunrise and sunset and the grass takes on an orange glow that fades away closer to midday. It’s beautiful, sometimes so distractingly that I lose track of whatever quest I was trying to accomplish.

The Witcher 3‘s world is so beautiful that I find myself exploring it just to see what it looks like, watch the way light filters down from above as my character swims underwater, the way the sun blinds me as I look at it through the trees. I go plunging wildly through the forests, half hoping that I’ll find some monsters to fight so that I can level up, half hoping that I’ll find something so beautifully rendered that I want to stop and stare at it while the monsters kill me, leaving me to restore to my last save and go running off in a different direction.

The Witcher 3 aglow with sunset
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – A world aglow with sunset…or maybe sunrise.

This is exploration for exploration’s sake, the urge to examine another world just for the sake of discovering its textures, seeing its visual secrets, discovering its beauty. When I get my fill of that, I go back to playing the game.

And yet, as I suspect Joel Goodwin would agree, all of that was already in place with Flight Simulator 2. There was a world. You could explore it almost without limit. You just needed a hefty dose of imagination and maybe that was a good thing.

The World as Words and Electrons

I taught myself to program simply because I had a computer sitting on my desk and it came with a built-in BASIC interpreter. But once I caught on how to use data structures like arrays to program simple adventure games, something I learned from a small-press book filled with late 1970s TRS-80 text adventures written in BASIC (which were originally sold commercially at small software stores), I realized that there was already a world inside my computer. It was made up of memory circuits arranged along a linear pattern of numeric addresses, but a programmer can do a lot with that. In many ways, the world inside my computer was as real as the world outside of it. The “real” world is made up of particles that have properties determined by integral values that govern their interaction with other particles, like the particles that make up your optic system, your auditory system and your brain. The world inside the computer is made up of voltage levels contained inside circuits that interact with the CPU while a program is executed and communicate to the real world via output devices like the video display and the audio connections.

As a programmer, I could give that world a form and a function using words typed into the BASIC interpreter (or, later, mnemonic codes typed into an assembly language file) and maintain a kind of godlike control over it. To this day I think the time in my life I spent programming was the greatest open-world game I ever played and one with possibilities limited only by my imagination and my computer’s memory, much the same limitations faced by Flight Simulator 2 and the latest Elder Scrolls games, though memory is less of a concern now. In the early 80s you measured memory by the kilobyte and spent each unit of it like a precious coin, squeezing your world into it through efficiency and ingenuity. Now we measure computer memory by gigabytes (or, in the case of magnetic drives, terabytes) and creating a world inside a computer is so overwhelming a job that it mostly has to be done by teams or with tools like AGS (Adventure Game Studio), which Dave Gilbert used to create the Blackwell games. At some point I lost interest in creating those worlds. It was too much like work. I’d have to do it professionally, in which case the overjustification effect would kill any fun left in the process. At least I’d need some artistic and music composition skills, both of which I lack, or some friends who’d be willing to work with me for eventual profits. I miss the day when one person could create a game for the TRS-80 Model III or the Apple II or the Atari 800.

But I digress.

So Computers Contain Worlds

Yeah, they do. They contain them for players of games like the Elder Scrolls series and they contain them for programmers too. Game publishers have become quite aware that players enjoy this, to the point where Open World Game has become a category of its own and one that computer game publishers like to advertise. Not all games that appear to contain open worlds really do. Dragon Age Origins, which looks like an open world game, is only a selected set of regions the player can visit with problems they can overcome, much like an adventure game but with better graphics. It’s a game that I want to like much more than I do. The Mass Effect games don’t even pretend to offer open worlds. Well, at least the first one didn’t. I’ve never gotten past the first one, so I’m not quite sure where they went from there. Pillars of Eternity, the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate games, doesn’t really offer an open world, just story. As I said in my last post, story can be its own justification for gaming, but I’m not convinced yet that the story of Pillars of Eternity, which is in many ways rather bland, is worth the effort of completing it.

Pillars of Eternity landscape.
Pillars of Eternity — Closed world, bland story.

I think at some point I became jaded about open world games and yet I’ll probably rescind that statement the next time I find a good one. Maybe Elder Scrolls VI: Hammerfell. Maybe something that’s on the market, or even in my Steam library, that I just haven’t tried yet. The Witcher 3 reignited my interest for a while but I also haven’t played it in several weeks. I have to get back to it and see what it offers.

I just need world(s) enough and time.

Methadone for LucasArts Withdrawal: The Blackwell Saga

In 1985, LucasArt game designer Ron Gilbert did something remarkable. He created a game called Maniac Mansion and a scripting language called SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) that he used to write it in. To understand why this was remarkable, you have to know a little about the state of the adventure game art in the mid-1980s.

Two years earlier, LucasArts competitor Sierra On-Line published the first “modern” graphical adventure, King’s Quest, a technically if not conceptually clever adventure game in which you used the cursor arrows on your keyboard to guide a tiny knight on a quest across an environment that looked like it was contained within a pixelated proscenium arch. (In later games, the keyboard would be supplanted by a simpler point-and-click system.) The game, a standard search-and-retrieve story, was fairly simple in construction and more than a little simpleminded in conception, though it gains a certain sheen when viewed through the eyes of nostalgia.By the time I had a computer powerful enough to run King’s Quest, not even nostalgia could have saved it from being anything other than a banal, often frustrating exercise in monotonous and annoying puzzle solving. It was designed by Sierra’s leading game designer (and wife of the company’s owner) Roberta Williams and programmed in a scripting language that Sierra called SCI (Sierra Creative Interpreter), which Gilbert was punning off, more than a little maliciously, when he named his own scripting language SCUMM. King’s Quest was successful enough to spawn multiple sequels as well as spin-offs like Space Quest, Police Quest and the Leisure Suit Larry series. These games put Sierra in serious competition with Infocom as the leading adventure game publisher of the period.

Sir Graham on his first King's Quest
The first King’s Quest game. Believe it or not, these graphics were fairly impressive by 1983 standards.

The Infocom adventures, being entirely text-based, lost ground rapidly to Sierra’s more visually striking graphics technology, even though the Infocom adventures were, quite frankly, a lot better designed. Williams was a haphazard designer at best, with an intuitive sense of what she was trying to accomplish in her games but no coherent design ethic to guide her in doing so. Sierra’s other designers weren’t much better and some weren’t even as good (though better designers like Jane Jensen would come along in the 90s). Sierra adventures punished the player for simple actions like examining objects on the screen or trying to negotiate mountain paths partially obscured by scenery. They left the player stranded with no way to solve a puzzle if they hadn’t picked up a necessary object at an earlier location that was no longer accessible. You frequently had to restore to earlier game saves to remedy a simple failure to examine every pixel on the screen with a keen enough eye or because you’d fallen off a cliff, leading Leisure Suit Larry designer Al Lowe to use the phrase “Save Early, Save Often” as a running slogan on his games’ load screens.

Ron Gilbert, on the other hand, developed a very clear design ethic as he was creating his early games. In 1989, while writing The Secret of Monkey Island, he articulated that ethic in a remarkable document called “Why Adventure Games Suck,” which you can read at that link in a version that he posted to his blog in 2004. In Gilbert’s games you could never die and you could never find yourself in a position that was unwinnable given your current situation, making saving the game necessary only if you needed to break for bedtime or were afraid your system might crash, taking your hard-won progress with it. With Gilbert’s help, LucasArts took what Sierra was trying to do (with, I might add, inexplicable commercial success) and reworked it in a way that made it a genuine form of popular art.

Guybrush Threepwood meets his first pirates in The Secret of Monkey Island.
The Secret of Monkey Island, VGA version. Games looked better by 1990. Not a lot better, but better.

Gilbert and subsequent LucasArts designers like Tim Schafer used that ethic to create a series of genre classics, like the Monkey Island games, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle. It was a great time to be alive and adventuring, but the superior LucasArts games never outsold their Sierra counterparts and both lines of games, along with those of their multiple imitators, died a quiet death around the turn of the 21st century.

Gilbert attributed the death of the genre to Sierra fatigue and I can only bow to his wisdom on that point. I remember once seeing Gilbert get into a flame war on the old Compuserve Information Service with a Sierra game producer and his anger at Sierra’s inability to grasp the simplest rules of adventure game design was an impressive thing to behold. The Sierra producer, on the other hand, could only offer weak arguments in favor of their player-punishing approach that I suspect were trickling down from upper-level management. One didn’t badmouth Roberta Williams’ game designs and remain employed at her husband’s publishing firm.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the Blackwell adventure game series.

The Blackwell Saga

We live in an age of retro gaming, when everything old is new again and the market is flooded with games just like the ones you played as a teenager (or, in my case, as a thirty-something). You don’t have to complain that they don’t make games the way they used to because crowd-funding services like Kickstarter are happy to connect game designers with formerly young game players who have grown old enough to earn the kind of money they can afford to part with to give game designers the chance to do precisely that.

For my own part, I found myself having a fit of nostalgia for LucasArts’ heyday that was inspired by playing a modest but nicely decked out retro adventure called Kathy Rain, about which I can now remember very little except that it concerned a leather-jacketed, motorcycle riding, chain smoking Nancy Drew who followed clues concerning her grandfather’s tragic death to an unexpected and not entirely satisfying supernatural climax.  While it’s not a game I’m prepared to rave about, it led me to try a series of games I’d bought on sale a couple of years ago on Steam that all have Blackwell in their titles: The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, The Blackwell Convergence, and The Blackwell Deception. Given that there was a relatively new entry in the saga, The Blackwell Epiphany, and I’d already shelled out the money for all but that one, I figured I ought to look at what I’d bought.

It’s a decision I don’t regret. The Blackwell saga offers no sublime confusion, just sublime familiarity, but the design comes straight from the Ron Gilbert playbook and I found myself hooked from the first, though admittedly weakest, of the games. This is a series that demands to be played in order, because designer Dave Gilbert (no relation, as far as I know, to Ron) builds serial themes into what are otherwise standalone stories, the way a lot of television shows do.

Joey and Rosa in The Blackwell Legacy.
The Blackwell Legacy, trying really hard to look like it’s from 1990.

Ron Gilbert makes an interesting observation in the document linked above. “The element that brings adventure games to life for me is the stories around which they are woven.  When done right, it is a form of storytelling that can be engrossing in a way that only interaction can bring.”

I didn’t get into computer games for story. I got into them for exploration, a subject I’ll expound on at greater length sometime soon. Suffice it to say that I loved the idea of finding a world inside my computer and exploring it at length, making interesting discoveries and having interesting interactions. Adventure games offer some of that but not as much as I’d like. As Gilbert, Ron, observes, adventure games are about stories. But the Infocom adventures, when I discovered them in the early 1980s, taught me that story is almost as valid a reason for gameplay as exploration, even more so if the exploration involves story as well. And the Blackwell games have story by the bushel, including a story that weaves in and out of the entire series in a slick and lovely thread. They also have a small amount of exploration, but it’s mostly linear and unsatisfying as opposed to exploration for exploration’s sake.

The games, with one exception, are about a young female psychic named Rosangela “Rosa” Blackwell and her spirit guide/ghost companion Joey Mallone. The games lack the over-the-top hilarity of the best LucasArts games but make a fair exchange for the wit of a hardboiled detective thriller cum YA mystery, with Joey playing Philip Marlowe (or maybe Mike Hammer) to Rosa’s Nancy Drew. There’s no sublime confusion to these games, which for me were a pure nostalgia trip, but there’s a sublime familiarity that kept me playing in sessions that ran much later into the night than they really should have. Sleep deprivation is both my curse and my guilty pleasure.

Rosa Blackwell’s curse and guilty pleasure is that she comes from a family in which one female member of each generation has psychic powers and the companionship, wanted or unwanted, of the aforementioned ghost Joey. Their job is to find ghosts who have become bound to the mortal plane and send them off to the fabled white light of the afterlife. They do this by solving mysteries that convince the ghosts, who suffer from serious spiritual denial, that they really are dead and can go off to a place much happier than the one they find themselves stuck in. (Gilbert never calls this “heaven” and you don’t actually have to believe in an afterlife to accept this as a standard fantasy trope.)

The Blackwell Legacy is essential to play if you’re going to understand the games that follow. It’s about Rosa’s discovery that she’s a psychic and that her aunt and grandmother were psychics too, all with the mission of playing travel guide to lost souls and the curse or blessing of Joey’s companionship. The story is about a string of suicides among a group of young women, all friends. Play it to learn the other details.

The second game, Blackwell Unbound, is a clever departure from the first game and all the  games that follow. It flashes back to 1973 (the other games are set in the present) and introduces us to Rosa’s aunt Lauren, who would later raise Rosa after her parents died and then go insane, leaving Rosa essentially orphaned. The insanity isn’t explained until a much later game; here we just get to know what Rosa’s aunt was like and get a much handsomer version of Joey, not I assume because he was younger then — he was already dead and aging isn’t in the list of things that ghosts get to do — but because the artist presumably realized that Joey needed to be a handsome hero, not the ordinary-looking schlub of the first game. The game also introduces the countess, a clearly insane old lady who figures into a later game as a ghost and in a still later game makes a cameo in a flashback as a young woman.

The third game, The Blackwell Convergence, ties together the storylines of the first two games, hence the title. It also introduces Madeline, a spirit guide who’s been around much longer than Joey, who seems to have died in the 1940s, give or take a decade. (Much of the humor in the games comes from Joey’s wisecracking disdain for modern electronic technology.) Madeline, who may well have been around for thousands of years, figures into the remainder of the games in an increasingly major way.

Rosa and Joey search an abandoned office in The Blackwell Convergence.
The Blackwell Convergence. Rosa has a loose strand of hair to show us how disheveled she claims to be.

The fourth game, The  Blackwell Deception, introduces new mysteries and continues developing the plot arcs from the previous games, but its primary purpose is to set up the final game, The Blackwell Epiphany, where all the plot lines converge and designer Gilbert builds the story to literally earthshaking consequences. It’s supposedly the last game in the series and it wraps things up nicely, leaving the player with a sense of triumph and sweet sadness that justifies the hours you’ve put in playing all five games in a row.

Dave Gilbert is good at plotting, but for my tastes his greatest strength is in balancing the puzzles so that they aren’t so difficult that you throw up your hands and decide to finish the games much, much later, but still challenging enough that you feel a sense of triumph when you solve one. Of course, just when you think you’ve solved the puzzle that will tie up the plotline once and for all you find that you’ve just opened another can of puzzle-solving worms. These aren’t 100-hour-plus RPGs, but the length of play is remarkably good considering the low prices you have to pay for most of the episodes, especially if Steam or some other entity places them in a low-cost bundle.

The games also play nicely with technology, with Rosa going from a land line and a phonebook in her first game to a handheld “myPhone” with built-in search engine by the final game. And as the series goes on her apartment becomes a collection of game memorabilia that references all of the earlier plots, inside jokes for players who went to the effort to play the games in order. It’s a nice touch, one of many that Gilbert, Dave, throws in.

Like most adventure games, the Blackwell games are essentially linear, but you frequently find yourself faced with multiple puzzles that at least give you the illusion of an open world because there are very few clues as to what order they need to be solved in. But there usually is an order and figuring it out is a major puzzle in itself.

Dave Gilbert isn’t the master innovator that his namesake Ron (who has his own LucasArt throwback game on the way) was and probably still is. But he understands how to construct a compelling story with characters that the reader cares about, puzzles that are satisfying to solve, and a well-constructed five game arc that must have been flowcharted meticulously, probably starting sometime during the design process of the first game. Are the Blackwell games ever as great as the LucasArts titles? No, but that’s really too much to ask of an indie game series.

If adventure games aren’t your virtual drug of choice, I’ll move on to another topic in the next post, though right now I’m not entirely sure what it will be.