Hi all! Sorry I’ve been gone for so long; what with work and trying to complete Fallout 4, I’ve been busy. But I’m back with a review for this huge game, and though it’s quite a bit late, I’d still like to lay out my thoughts on it. So here they are!
Perhaps this is a bit late—Bioshock Infinite was released back in 2013—but I only just finished it, and let me just say, all the hype surrounding it was totally warranted. For my final blog post I would like to discuss this amazing game and hopefully make you interested enough to try it out for yourself, if you haven’t already.
Gone Home, a computer game from The Fullbright Company, is the latest in a recent trend of first-person walking-simulator story exploration adventure games (wow that’s a mouthful), like Dear Esther or the upcoming Firewatch. In it, you play as a college student who’s just come home from studying abroad, only to find that you’ve come home to an empty house. You explore the vast mansion, reading notes left behind by your family, listening to journal entries by your younger sister, Samantha, and picking up and examining objects for clues. Those are really the only mechanics in the game: walking around and picking things up. If you’ve played Dear Esther, which has even less mechanics (just walking around), you may already be used to this. But I must warn you that this is not really a “fun” game. This isn’t a game I would play if I wanted to let off some steam and relax. This game is more like a short story, the plot points of which you unravel as you make your way through the mansion.
I forgot I wrote this review a while ago when I played the game Lone Survivor. So, here’s what I had to say about it.
Lone Survivor is one of the only games that I thought I understood, but was frequently proven wrong. On the surface, it is simply another zombie game. But there is so much more underneath that I don’t quite understand yet. Often I found myself saying “What’s going on?” out loud. The confusion I had mirrored the confusion of You, the main character. You hallucinate. You meet other characters who don’t seem quite right. I’ll need to play it again in order to understand it further, but here’s what I took from my first playthrough:
Your choices end up mattering, and affect how the game goes. I unfortunately didn’t realize this until late in my playthrough. Your choices boil down to two things: avoid violence and hide, or confront the enemies by shooting them. I chose the latter option—the “Blue” ending. You can take pills to help you, which are mysteriously restocked every day. Blue pills give you more ammo. Green pills give you batteries for your flashlight. Red pills wake you up. When you take a blue pill, it makes you drowsy, and when you go to sleep, you dream you are on stage, sitting in a chair next to a man. You never learn his name, but I believe that he is a part of you, and his name is Draco, which I inferred from diary entries scattered about. He is the violent side of you. When you take the green pill, you dream of The Man with a Box on his Head, who is shown in a better light and presumably wears the box to hide from the world, as you do when you hide from enemies. The game seems to favor the Green path as more morally acceptable. However, both ways require you to rely on drugs to advance. They are easy to obtain and easy to fall back on, since they help so much. Take enough of them and you begin to develop a need for them, and the hallucinations start. I didn’t realize there would be any consequences, so I took as many as I wanted, since they were so helpful.
There are several side quests and supporting characters whom you meet, who either help you with items or advice—or nothing at all. Most of them are just weird and out of place. It makes me wonder how alone You actually are, and whether the zombie apocalypse is real. There are several scenes where You remember Her, or at least, feel like someone is missing. Her is presumably your girlfriend…I’m not sure. But it seems like she died, and You don’t remember Her. There are scenes in the game where you come across what appear to be relics of the past and signs of some sort of tragic event. However, your observations of them make them seem unrelated to the apocalypse, and out of place.
That’s how I would describe most scenes in this game: out of place. This is not just another zombie game. There are things at work here, layers and layers of meaning. You come across a crashed bus, which I believe might have been what killed Her. You survived, and were sent to the hospital, which explains why You were on the clipboard. And the monster you fight, with the sword things for arms? Apparently that’s your mother, according to the end stats screen. It tells you how many times you shot your mother in the legs. What the fuck.
In my ending, I finally got to control myself on the stage in my dreams. I walked over to Draco, and he was being a dick as usual, and dared me to shoot him, so You did. But it didn’t kill him—“You’ll have to do better than that!” It was incredibly weird. But everything went blank, and it cut to scenes of destruction and a desert and the tree and cliff overlooking it all, with You sitting next to Her, talking and holding hands. I think when I shot Draco, I shot myself, and then I died so I could be with Her. What happens when you get the Green ending? Do you just pretend everything is okay by hiding from your problems? And what happens if I don’t take any drugs at all and have a playthrough with both hiding and shooting? Will I not hallucinate, and see things more clearly? Would the story make more sense? There is a lot of room for interpretation here, and it probably requires multiple playthroughs. I enjoyed my one playthrough, but I don’t think I’ll be playing it again. It would be interesting to see how things could pan out differently, however.
This is the second time I’ve played Braid. I wasn’t able to solve all the puzzles without a guide either time. Braid is not a game I would call “accessible.” However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Braid’s gameplay forces you to think in ways you don’t normally, in ways you thought you never would. Jonathan Blow, the creator, said he hoped it would be “mind-expanding,” and it certainly was for me. It simultaneously pays homage to and deconstructs platform games and how we approach them as gamers.
The classic platform games of the NES and SNES eras are often celebrated for how difficult they were. They required pinpoint accuracy and razor-sharp reflexes. Braid is difficult for very different reasons. Wrapping your brain around each new mechanic is incredibly hard, and once you feel you’ve mastered the concept, putting it into practice is an entirely different story. This translates to the narrative as well—it is very deep and whenever I thought I had a piece of the puzzle, something else comes up and I don’t know what to make of it. An interesting thing to note is that you can actually blow through the game without collecting all the puzzle pieces, but you won’t see the ending, which is really the crux of the narrative, unless you do. Blow rewards players for engaging with the game and understanding its systems.
In many ways, Braid is a critique of modern gaming trends. Its references to Super Mario Bros. and its very different take on the “save the princess” motif are particularly striking, but something else I noticed is that you really aren’t given very much choice. Each puzzle has exactly one way to solve it. It is very deliberate, almost scientific puzzle design. A trend in modern games is giving the player more choice, and making those choices have impacts on the game world. “Open-world” is the name of the game; “linear” is almost a bad word. Since you can’t really die in Braid, it’s kind of like a sandbox for the player to experiment in, which could have lent well to having more player choice, but Blow’s decision to make the game without choice provides a very different experience. Since the gameplay is so scientific and exact, it makes me think that the narrative is similar, in that there may be only one way you are supposed to interpret it. In his interview with the AV Club, Blow seems to suggest that some people get it and others just don’t. I think he intended for there really to be only one interpretation of the work. “Braid isn’t a subjective work of creativity: it’s a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn’t up to broad interpretation. If you think the puzzles are too rigid, or you hate the text – maybe it’s because you don’t understand the point. If you pull an interpretation out of thin air, it’s probably wrong.”
Aside from gameplay and narrative, Braid features beautiful, painstakingly crafted graphics. The backgrounds look as if they are alive, using particles and other effects to give the illusion that they are moving. But they don’t distract from the gameplay, because everything in the foreground is sharper and more focused. The music is also very beautiful, and works well with the time-rewinding mechanic, playing backwards when you reverse time. A particularly cool instance of this is in one world where time is mapped to left and right movement—that is, moving left rewinds time, and moving right moves time forward—and a lullaby is played, forwards and backwards in time with your character.
Everything in Braid is there for a reason. There are no random platforms, no random enemies. Everything is very deliberate, everything has a purpose. The same goes for the narrative. It is clear that a ton of work went into making the game as polished as possible. The puzzle and platform design is very tight. My only complaints are that the game is unnecessarily frustrating at times, and I don’t see how anyone could solve some of the puzzles without using a guide. There is no mistaking it—Braid is a hard game. But it is so worth playing. If the ending doesn’t blow your mind, I’d be very surprised.
I just recently played The Path by indie developer Tale of Tales. I had to play it for my media studies class. I don’t think a video game has ever evoked as many emotions in me as this game.
Let me start this by saying that I don’t even know if The Path should be considered a game. In fact, the developers often call it an “anti-game.” It is more of an interactive art piece, which is why I won’t be attaching a score to this review. However, it does have a few game-y elements, like collectibles and a map and goals. Nevertheless, this game is not for everyone. But if you open your mind, and let this game take you away, you will likely find it very rewarding.
The Path has you playing as six different girls, each representing a different stage of a girl’s life between 9-19. (The developers talked about this and other aspects of the game in a post-mortem essay here) It is basically a retelling of the old fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. You start on the path, and text appearing on screen tells you to go to your grandmother’s house, and stay on the path. So, that’s what I did the first time. However, staying on the path actually results in a failure, and you are forced to start over. I was so confused. Years of playing video games has taught me to always obey instructions. Am I supposed to deliberately disobey? So during my second attempt, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a girl in a white dress running in the woods. I went off the path and followed her. The colors began fading and everything turned greyscale. The atmosphere is incredibly dim and foreboding.
I followed the girl into a graveyard, where my character made some morbid remarks. You can interact with certain objects to add memories to your basket (inventory), such as the skull that my character buried in the ground.
With no onscreen instructions and no map, I was left to wander aimlessly through the forest. I tried to get back to the path, but to my horror, I discovered that once you leave the path, it is impossible to get back. If you just keep walking, you will eventually loop around again, which I could see from the map of your trail which flashes on screen every 100 meters.
Every girl has her “wolf,” which apparently is supposed to be like each of one of the developer’s ex-boyfriends. They are archetypes for men. One is a lumberjack who spends all day chopping at trees and drinking beer. Another is the “cool guy” who is smooth and wears a leather jacket. These aren’t your typical “wolves” and took me by surprise. I didn’t know they were the wolves until I completed the first chapter and it said “Wolf encountered: yes!” Wolf? I don’t remember seeing a wolf…was the wolf…WATCHING ME?
These wolves are pretty much ordinary people on the surface (except for the werewolf) but your character often talks about the romance or fascination with giving in and submitting. A sort of perverse enjoyment out of not being in control.
And to relate this to the actual mechanics of the game, you don’t have much control as a player. You can walk, run, or interact with objects, but you don’t decide how your character interacts with the objects—she does. And maybe you wanted to be a good girl and just stay on the path, but you’re penalized for it. You are essentially forced to get yourself lost. Never before have I played a video game where I was actually encouraged to get lost—and never have I been more enticed by it.
After you meet your wolf, you black out, and wake up lying in front of your grandmother’s house in the rain. You walk very slowly, almost in a trance, into the house, where you go on an on-rails, first-person journey through it. This is definitely the weirdest part of the game, and I can barely begin to interpret it. And it is up to you to interpret what happened during the blackout. I have heard people say that you were raped, but I don’t think that’s what the designers intended. I think it is your character coming to a sudden realization, perhaps the loss of her innocence, snatched away by her wolf. When she goes into grandmother’s house, everything is chaos, and not the way it used to be. I have heard that you are murdered in the house, but really it’s open to interpretation.
That’s what I love about games like this. You are completely free to interpret them in the way you want to. That’s what makes this game art—it evokes different responses, and means something different, to each individual. The soundtrack, the art design, all contribute to making The Path a truly beautiful game.
My only complaint might be that this game is far too slow. I understand that it is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of game, where you are supposed to take in all the sights and explore everything, but the walking speed is much slower than it needs to be, and frustrated me. You can run, but I stopped running early on because I realized that it actually makes things worse. The camera lifts up and gives an overhead view, with your character at the top of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s in front of you, and it gets much darker on top of that. Also, the coin flowers that you are supposed to collect (there are 144 of them, for symbolic reasons that won’t really make sense unless you read the developer’s blog) disappear when you begin running. So the game basically encourages you to walk the whole time. I’d rather you be able to run, without the negative side-effects.
This game divided people into two camps: the more hardcore gamers who criticized it for not even really being a game, and the more casual ones who loved everything about it. But what’s important is that more games like this need to be made, or the video game industry will never evolve. We have enough Call of Duty’s; we need more games like this that push intellectual boundaries and actually stimulate us, the way literature and cinema have for decades. This is as “art game” as it gets, and I loved it. If you open your mind and give it a chance, I think you will too.