Monday, June 27, 2016

That song-hole in your face? Push air through it!

Wow! Dreamfall Chapters is awesome. It's a fantastic story, one that I'm still chewing on and lingering over. It's also a terrific game: a fully modernized adventure game, with puzzles that are thoughtful and challenging without ever feeling unfair, and following a TWD-style approach to choice and consequences that helps pull you into the narrative.

The story is a highlight, but also necessarily requires spoilers, so I'll handle that later. First off, some thoughts on the technical aspects of the game, starting with the few things that I disliked.

While the sound in the game is terrific overall, there are some spots where the levels are out of whack. For example, when talking with someone, you might not be able to clearly hear what they're saying because the background sound is too loud. On a related note, the audio can overlap in inconvenient ways. Some audio is triggered by proximity, and other by actions; so you might click on a thing to examine it, and then an NPC will start speaking at the same time, and you won't be able to hear either clearly.

Along the same lines: the game looks gorgeous, and has beautiful AAA-quality scene design and camera work. But, they do occasionally go overboard with camera effects, especially lens artifacts. Sometimes they have persistent smudging or rain drops on the "camera lens", which can be distracting.

Finally, and this is just on me: I didn't realize until the very last scene in the entire game that you can walk by pressing the right mouse button! I really wish I'd figured that out earlier, I think the game would feel much more comfortable as an all-mouse thing. I'd been using WASD, which works fine (and may be necessary for running), but isn't the most natural setup for an adventure game.

And next, some of the MANY things that I appreciated:

Pausable cut scenes! I tried to avoid interrupting them, but on the few occasions that I received a phone call or needed to change the laundry, it was fantastic to be able to instantly pause it midway through and pick right back up when I returned. This should have become univeral in games a long time ago.

The voice acting is terrific. I didn't recognize any of the actors' names, they aren't in the normal posse of voice actors who I idolize, but were really talented and universally professional. (To put it in more specific terms: they were, as a whole, better than the VO in Wasteland 2 or Pillars of Eternity, and on par with the Dragon Age franchise). This is, of course, critically important in a story-focused game like this, and I'm glad that they invested so much care in it. It's particularly helpful in pulling off cases where they are presenting characters who seem like bad guys but are actually good guys, or vice versa. Having the "right" tone for something like that really helps pull it off without actively misleading players.

I LOVED the triple-presentation of dialogue. Most old-school RPGs, like Baldur's Gate and Pillars of Eternity, have a voiceless protagonist and will present you with entire lines of dialogue which you can choose between. More modern games with voiced protagonists, like the Telltale Games adventures and BioWare's dialogue wheel games, will typically have brief summaries to select from; after choosing one, you'll hear a longer voiced line that expands on the summary. In Dreamfall, your choice is typically a single word: "Wit", "Angry", "Politics", for example. Hovering over the choice, though, will trigger an inner monologue as your active protagonist mulls over the topic. "Wit is a brilliant engineer. If anyone can solve this problem, it will be him. I'm not sure if I can get through to him, though." Selecting it will speak, but it might be much briefer than the monologue: "What about Wit?" It's brilliant, because it gives you the full context for the dialogue and for the choice that you're making, without requiring your character to be verbose.

I alluded to this a bit before, but the puzzle design is fantastic. For starters, you're typically facing one puzzle at a time (though occasionally you'll have multiple objectives that you can pursue independently). Everything is collocated nicely: if everything you need is in the courtyard, they'll block out the exits, or have your character automatically turn around when you try to leave. It's impossible to ever get stuck, and there's none of that nonsense of "You need to remember to pick up Item A in Scene 1 in order to solve the puzzle in Scene 4." It isn't really possible to lose, either. If something bad does happen, like getting spotted by a guard, then the screen will flash, and you'll quietly return to a few seconds earlier, where you can try again.

Okay, it's almost storytime! (Humor!) I did throw together a couple of albums, which are heavily but not completely captioned. Most of my reaction to the plot proper is included in those, with my ramblings on larger themes and theories below. I captioned these after beating the game, so if you haven't yet played Book Five, you may want to refrain.

Book One (also linked from the end of my previous post)
Book Two
Book Three
Book Four
Book Five

Okay, here are some

MINI SPOILERS (mostly Books Two through Four, not much plot stuff)

Let's start with an easy one: boy, lots of characters have similar names. It took me a little while to properly track Anna, Enu, and Hannah. I don't think the similar names are significant, but they still threw me.

There seem to be a few doppelgangers between worlds. Abby, Hanna's girlfriend, reminded me a lot of one of the non-human Resistance members in Arcadia. I don't think there's any importance to that - based on the lore we get near the end of the game, it seems like Zoe is the only person who can actually cross worlds in that way - but it was an interesting, subtle way to tie them together.

I thought they did a really good job of giving an in-universe explanation for why the player might not recognize certain characters from previous games. That came up for me a couple of times, since I haven't played The Longest Journey or the original Dreamfall, so when some prominent cameos appeared later I could tell that Zoe knew them while I did not. (I'm thinking in particular of meeting  Brian inside Abnaxus's library.) Fortunately, Zoe's coma and memory loss is a major element of the game, and so I could pick "I'm sorry, who are you?" without feeling at all guilty. It reminded me a little of Baldur's Gate 2, another game that extends an earlier story but wanted to allow players to jump immediately in to the sequel, likewise, in that game, you have undergone extreme mental anguish and so the characters around you will sympathetically respond to your lack of comprehension.

All right, let's talk about decision-making! Choice-and-consequences! I think that Dreamfall Chapters might have the best C&C that I've seen in a game. Granted, I just finished the game and am still riding high on it, so take that with a grain of salt. But I think they've managed to outshine even the seminal Walking Dead adventure games in their presentation of branching narrative and contingency.

Let's start with one specific example from fairly early in the game. Kian tracks down an Azadi officer and questions him about the occupation's plans. You have a choice: you can torture him, or just verbally threaten him. Being a decent human being, I chose the latter.

I was delighted to see that, in breaking with the poisonous Hollywood tradition of the past fifteen years, Dreamfall does not reinforce the idea that torture is the best way to gain intelligence. You have plenty of leverage with this person, and learn the information you need: yes, the Azadi are planning to rain Marcuria and drive out the magicals.

However! While the decision to torture or not does not affect the information you uncover, it does affect how others perceive that information. In particular, Likho does not believe it because it was not acquired with violence. And so he refuses to act on the intelligence, and as a result, the rebels are driven from the city (though not before inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders).

That's a case where a choice played out in an unexpected way, although in a way that's still linked to the origin. Other choices have far-reaching consequences that could not possibly be anticipated ahead of time. Who could have predicted that ordering organic sausages would result in a business being destroyed and a relationship breaking up? This sometimes felt frustrating to me.

I'm used to more clearly marked paths, like "Do you want to save Ashley or Kaidan?", or "Do you want to romance Sera or Josephine?" In a lot of games I play, there are choices, but the choices are primarily between outcomes. Surprises can still result - you'll be facing down a Specter's gun in Mass Effect 3, or fighting a duel for Josephine's honor - but you know in advance which path you're heading down. In Dreamfall, though, you aren't picking the outcome, you're picking the choice. That feels much more realistic. The world is filled with unintended consequences: the random minor decisions we make throughout the day might result in meeting a spouse or starting a new business, while our much-contemplated five-year-plans never unfold exactly as planned.

Besides being more realistic, I think it's also more narratively powerful. I felt a deep sense of guilt when a character died due to a series of choices I had made. Crucially, none of those choices was "kill this character" - at each step along the way, I thought I was doing the right thing, and was keeping a strong relationship with that character. And so the death came as a total, gut-punching shock. But, I also knew that the death was totally a result of the choices I had made, so I still felt responsibility. That combination of guilt and shock is powerful! (As a contrast, think of how much more powerful the ending of Dragon Age 2 would have been if that disaster had only happened if you fulfilled Justice's mission. Most players probably do this anyways, so it narratively fits, but knowing that it is inevitable undercuts the player's personal sense of ownership in the outcome.)

I'm definitely going to replay the game later, and am very curious to see how things change. Some of the alternate outcomes seem straightforward - for example, I'm pretty sure how certain things will change if you don't bring Likho along on your mission - but the game also seems to have a lot of contingent choices, so there may be entire sub-plots and sub-choices that I haven't even seen. For example, I had a choice that unlocked an "intimate moment" with Likho on board the airship, but I couldn't have even made that choice if I hadn't previously decided to bring him along. That makes me wonder what other branches lie in store. It's different from, for example, the choice structure I used in Caldecott, where events at point B will play out differently depending on what you did back at point A; instead, you may be facing entirely different points C or D. It's a much more expensive way to build games, since you're spending a lot of time and resources on content that many players will never encounter, but it does pay off in making players believe that their choices matter.

Choice is a huge part of the game, but just as interesting as the things you can change (inadvertently or not) are the things you can't change. One big example of this is Kian's sexual orientation. I took the option to have him kiss Anna in Book Two because, hey, she's a mysterious red-headed stranger and he's a cool dude, why wouldn't they smooch? Then I went "Whoops!" in Book Three once I realized that Kian was gay. You can choose to kiss or not to kiss, but kissing a girl doesn't make him magically straight. As with picking-choices-instead-of-outcomes, this was sometimes frustrating, but ultimately feels much more realistic and significant. We can affect things in our lives, but there are far more things that we cannot change.

I do kind of wonder about Anna. Saga says something like "I don't know who you are, so you must not be important." That makes me curious if she can die and not be present in the end-game. Again, contingencies! I'm glad she stuck around, though... her story is filled with irony, but it's still compelling.

MEGA SPOILERS (mostly Book Five stuff)

The plot gets really complex in Book Five. They introduce a bunch of new characters, including the Prophet and Zoe's parents. Almost everything gets explained, but it felt a little like information overload. There are lots of interlocking factions: there's no one single person or group who's behind everything; instead, everyone is manipulating everyone else, trying to use one another to pursue their own goals. In the end, more of the bad guys are taken out by each other than by the good guys.

I kind of rolled my eyes at Helena Chang's explanation of how Zoe was able to physically manifest in Europolis while dreaming in the lab, thanks to "entangled particles". It's pseudo-scientific babble that reminds me of people using "Dark Matter" and "Chaos Theory" back in the 1990s when they didn't want to just say "magic".

While the quantum mechanics bit seemed silly, though, I loved everything else about the big-picture plot revelation. I really like the idea that dreaming precedes reality. Saga explains (with some exasperation) that what she's doing isn't magic or sorcery. Everything, including magic, exists within the dream. You can reshape the world by shaping the dream. That's what the primary villains were after: Helena wanted to craft a new world by altering the dream; Brian wanted to return home by disrupting the dream; The Six wanted to eliminate magic from the world by removing it from the dream.

The big lore-bombs came in Book Five, but I feel like the big meta-revelation came in Book Four, where you meet Lux, "The First Dreamer". I'm not 100% sure of the following, but I want it to be true: the entire universe exists inside Lux's mind. Everyone we meet in the game is living in a contingent reality. People only have existence for as long as the dream lasts. If Lux ever were to wake up and stop dreaming, everything (in the game's universe) would cease to exist. Nothing has an independent reality outside of Lux's mind.

I'm reminded of Berkeley's philosophy, where he argues (surprisingly persuasively) that there's no such thing as matter. We can have no direct experience of matter: we only know what our senses tell us, mediated through our minds. A thing cannot exist without something perceiving it. In Berkeley's Christian view, the whole of the universe is sustained because God is constantly thinking it. In Dreamfall's view, the universe is sustained because Lux is dreaming it.

This is probably reaching even more, but I'm tempted to draw parallels to gaming as well. In Books One and Two, there's a strong tie between the dream machines and video games: they're isolating devices into which people strap themselves, having vivid virtual experiences disconnected from the real world. Book Four, though, got me thinking: Zoe's adventure in Arcadia is a video game. Specifically, it's "Dreamfall Chapters", the video game that I am playing right now. Zoe, as a character, only exists because I am playing this game and thinking of her. She doesn't have an independent reality outside of the game. Within the context of the game, though, she is a fully-realized, three-dimensional character with her own hopes and fears and actions.

Throughout Book Five, Saga keeps saying "That's how the story is written." Within the context of the game, this means something like, "Fate dictates that events must happen this way." But what Saga is saying is quite literally true. Things are happening this way because Red Thread Games, the developers of Dreamfall, wrote the script that way. They have a climax that requires Saga to bridge Arcadia and Stark, and so she does it, because that's how they made the game. As an adventure game, there are some things that are set in stone (characters, factions, settings, certain required plot beats) and some things that are variable (choices, locations, people living or dying). That seems to line up with how Saga sees the world: there are fixed points that must always happen, and also "unimportant" things that can vary. I love the idea that Saga is aware of this. Much like Vivec in Morrowind, she may be a video game character who has realized that she is in a game, and can use that knowledge to her advantage.

And, to close the circle, it's a fun mental experiment to wonder if we are characters in someone else's video game, characters in someone else's dream. Would we know?  Does it make a difference?

To an extent, this can seem disappointing, especially within the context of the game itself. After all, "It was all just a dream" is the most hacky, cliched ending ever. But, get rid of that "just". And change that "was" to an "is". You suddenly have a much more compelling idea.

Again - all the above is just my own musing, I'm pretty sure it isn't intended by the game. But that says a lot for the quality of the storytelling, that it can create a world that's so vivid and enticing and open-ended that it can bring your thoughts to interesting places.

Speaking of Saga:

Near the end of Book Four, there was some talk of something being "divided into two". Given the context at the time, I thought they were referring to April Ryan, and was curious about what that division was. My first thought was that part of her might live on in Saga, who, after all, we meet after April has died. By the end of Book Five, though, I came to believe that it was referring to the Dreaming and the Undreaming. At first, they were together; then they separated, and the Undreaming caused problems; now they are reunited, and the balance is restored.

That said, I do still like the idea that Saga is a reincarnation of April. That could be very cool and time-twisty: near the very end of the game, we see a very pregnant Zoe; at the moment you see her, a Steam achievement pops up called "Baby Papa" with the descriptive text "We'll never tell." At first, I thought this was just being cheeky about whether Reza was the father or not; however, someone online made the observation that the only character in the whole game who goes by "Papa" is Saga's father. Therefore, it's possible that Saga is Zoe's granddaughter. When April walks away at the end of Storytime, she says "We have a long journey ahead of us." Besides being an awesome self-referential line, it also helps set up the timeline nicely: what if the time it takes her to leave Storytime is also the time until Saga is born?

We know that time in the House Between Worlds is inconsistent; time spent inside its walls can be much longer or shorter than time outside. It does still seem to be linear; there doesn't seem to be any risk of returning to a time before you left. But, given the very end of the game, it seems like it must be circular as well: regardless of whether Saga is April, Saga does meet April at the end, even though we know that the younger Saga helped Zoe after April died. I absolutely adore that looping, Finnegans Wake-esque structure, where the end of the story is its beginning. Yes, it's a paradox for April to meet herself, but it's a lovely paradox.


I've known for a while that I want to go back and play The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, partly because this game is so darn good and also because Rahul recommended it. I feel even more motivated now.  The developers have set up a really clever narrative situation where it can retroactively make sense to play the games in this order, so I won't necessarily feel like I'm backtracking and covering the stuff I'd missed before, but actually extending the end of this wonderful story I've just finished.

Of course, if I do that, I'm certain that I'll also play through Dreamfall Chapters again. There are some very specific things that I want to do differently next time around, and I'm also curious to see how many other things can change based on my actions.

I'm looking forward to that. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of replaying adventure games (modern, branching-plotline adventure games rather than retro confounding-puzzles adventure games) as opposed to replaying RPGs. The first time you play a good adventure game, a well-designed puzzle might take you twenty minutes or so to solve. You'll walk around, examine the environment, try a bunch of different things, ponder, observe, get inspired, and find the solution. On a replay, of course, you can go straight for the solution, possibly cutting down the time to five minutes or less. So, on a replay, you're focusing more of your time on the stuff you actually care about: learning more about characters, exploring different plot lines, maybe replaying some scenes you particularly liked.

I do enjoy replaying RPGs - I go back every couple of years to Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age - but so much of the time in those games is devoted to fighting and fiddling around with resources. That can be fun as well, especially if you're trying out a new build or taking a new party, but subsequent replays are likely to be just as long of time commitments as the first game, which is a substantial requirement for a role-playing game. As much as I'm curious to see what an evil playthrough of Baldur's Gate looks like, or a Warden ruling Ferelden, I don't often have the luxury of enough time to see it through.

As I grow older, I find myself more and more drawn to games that focus on stories, told in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Dreamfall Chapters is now near the top of that list.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Wel-ding! I enjoy wel-ding! Wel-ding! Wel-ding! Wel-ding! Wel-ding! ... Wel-ding! Wel-ding! Wel-ding!

This is just a short (hopefully!) post about my initial experiences with Dreamfall Chapters. It's an episodic adventure game that I started playing recently and am enjoying so far.

I actually acquired the game a while ago, through somewhat surprising means. A kind stranger on the Internet, who had played and enjoyed The Caldecott Caper, noticed that the game was on my Steam Wishlist and gifted it to me. I sent him/her a profuse note of thanks - it was extremely generous of them, but I also felt a little guilty, since I hadn't wanted to give even the impression of accepting compensation for the mod. I've since scrubbed the remainder of my Wishlist, lest others get the same idea. Still, it was a very humbling experience (among other things, my benefactor is from France, which gave me a better idea of the global popularity of the Caper), and makes the game even more special to me.

All that said, it has been languishing in my queue for a few months, while I played Wasteland 2 and Siege of Dragonspear and Pillars of Eternity. At last, my schedule freed up enough for me to start playing it. I've been looking forward to it for a while: if memory serves, I initially found it while doing a Stream tag search for "Cyberpunk + Female Protagonist", and the great reviews and screenshots were enough to get me excited for it.

As I've learned, this is actually the latest entry in a long-running series of games called, appropriately enough, The Longest Journey. First released in 1999, it has a detailed backstory, which is efficiently and compellingly conveyed via an optional summary within Dreamfall. While many of the characters and plots are continuations from the earlier games, I haven't felt like I've missed much by jumping directly into the current game.

Like practically every other modern adventure game that I'm aware of, Dreamfall Chapters is released episodically. Each release is a "book", containing several "chapters". Different chapters typically alternate between different playable characters and plot threads, although there's a meta-story tying everything together. It looks like I perfectly timed my start of the game, as Book 5 (the last one) was just released on Friday. I'm not a big fan of waiting for months to find out what happens next in a story, so I'm really glad that I'll be able to play straight through this one.

So far, I've finished the first book, which includes a short Prologue, a shortish Chapter One, a very long (and great!) Chapter Two, and a couple of interstitial segments. I've been struck by how different the chapters are: not just in style and theme, which I was already expecting given the background of the game, but in gameplay as well. It's all an adventure game, and everything uses the same interface, but each sequence has a different feel to its puzzles.

The prologue's puzzles fairly straightforward: you're in a small space, with just a couple of available interactables, and need to figure out which abilities to use to proceed. It was fine, maybe a bit simplistic but that might be intentional to ease people into the game. (I've seen in the release notes to the latest version that they've revamped many of these puzzles, so they may be different now.) The first chapter, by contrast, focuses more on traditional item-based puzzles. You need to explore your environment, locate objects, then combine and use those objects in order to proceed. Those puzzles were decently logical: not immediately obvious, but they almost always made sense in retrospect, unlike the infamous latter-day Sierra puzzles.

The second chapter, though, has been by far my favorite so far. Part of this is because I enjoy Zoe more than Kian; not that he's a bad character, but we get to see a lot more of Zoe's interior thoughts and her relationships. This segment is a lot more open-ended than the more focused Chapter One, with a ton of exploration and many different people to meet. The puzzles change again in this sequence: the map is now big enough that you can make interesting challenges out of finding things, and figuring out who to talk to. There are very few items in this sequence, but some original mechanics to using them.


Beyond the story itself, though, the setting is just jaw-droppingly great. Propast is a gorgeous cyberpunk-infused district, reminiscent of Blade Runner and other seminal works of the genre. There were quite a few areas that reminded me of Shadowrun: Hong Kong and Dead Man's Switch, except this time around I was playing with a third-person camera rather than a locked isometric view. It looks fantastic, and is a wonderful space to immerse yourself. It feels alive, too, which is something that a lot of video game cities get wrong. There are tons of people walking around, or whispering in corners, or slumped over a dream machine, or protesting the Eye. It took me a while to realize that this was all atmosphere - not every person has a hidden quest associated with them - but once I could relax and enjoy their presence, it helped add to the sensation of Zoe's gradual and deliberate rejoining of her community.

Oddly enough, I found myself thinking of Bioshock Infinite during this chapter. One of my biggest and least sensical criticisms of that game was that it created this amazingly evocative city, and then made us play a dumb shooter game inside of it instead of just letting us explore and immerse ourselves in it. Well, Dreamfall is the game where we get to explore the cool city, and I'm glad for it.

Coming on the heels of my long-running sequence of RPG games, it's also been interesting to contrast an adventure game like Dreamfall with those games. There are certain narrative elements that are common to both games, but the way they're used is drastically different. I'm thinking primarily of choice and, to a lesser degree, consequences.

Each game is different, of course, but I feel like the Platonic ideal of an RPG is a game in which you project yourself onto the protagonist. The game presents you with options, you select the one that most appeals to you (or least repels you), and then the story shifts in that direction. In most franchises you start as a bit of a blank slate: a prisoner from a far land, or the sole survivor of a giant explosion, or the one explorer to emerge from an underground bunker. You have little or no baggage, and have nearly total freedom within the parameters laid out by the developer.

In contrast, adventure games always (I can't think of any non-text-based exceptions) feature a predefined protagonist, generally with a detailed appearance, backstory, and set of skills. You're playing as them, but generally won't identify with them to the same extent as you would an RPG protagonist. Your role is a bit closer to that of a director or a screenwriter: you're steering characters in a certain direction in order to tell a story, not directly experiencing the story yourself.

As an RPG fan, I of course tend to assume that it's better to give players more leeway in shaping their characters. More choices is good. Being able to choose whether your character is male or female is better than having it assigned. Choosing a profession is better than not choosing one. Picking your race or ethnicity is better than having it be assigned. Choosing a love interest is better than having one forced on you.

And yet, many of the most emotionally affecting experiences I've had in the last couple of years have come from adventure games with strongly defined protagonists. I'm thinking now of Lee from The Walking Dead. He's always black, he's always a former college professor and convicted felon, he always adopts Clementine. The choices the game gives you are comparatively narrow, generally more about how you feel about your situation or relate to other characters. And yet, those smaller choices end up touching more deeply. When cutting Clem's hair or walking Duck through the woods, I felt more connected to them than, say, I felt to my sibling in Dragon Age 2, even though I'd had a more significant impact on my sibling's appearance and situation in life.


The main reason I'm thinking of all this now is because of Reza. Again, I haven't played the earlier games, but my understanding is that Zoe previously went searching for Reza and in doing so helped unravel the Dream Machine plot. Now that he's free and she's awake, they are reunited and living together. Which is great and all, except I, personally, as a player, don't particularly like Reza.

Don't get me wrong: I think he's a good character, and he's pretty objectively good for Zoe. He's been supportive of her, giving her love and stability without hindering her independence at her own job and political volunteering. He makes his preferences known, but has a laid-back and easy sense of compromise.

And I threw it all away! I think I was a little resentful of being "forced into" a relationship (which, again, makes a ton of sense in the context of the game itself). So, at the end, I deliberately chose to be confrontational with him, calling him out on being overly protective and then chiding him for his patronizing tone. He turned cold. The game clearly warned "Ignoring Reza will hurt your relationship." I wandered over to the living room and turned on the television. He stiffly announced that he was going out for the night and that I could help myself to his paella.

And I felt so bad! I'm infamously fond of video game romances. For me, though, that tends to mean something more like ordering off an a la carte menu. You examine your options, maybe try a couple, then pick the one you want and move forward. In Dreamfall, though, you have to do the work. This isn't the heady early days of passion and romance. This is a relationship that's been built and rebuilt over a year, that requires work as well as pleasure. It's a situation that most people will experience far more often than wooing. It's more realistic, less heightened, and ends up being more powerful because of it.

So, yeah. I felt bad afterwards, but hey, that's the choice that I made, so now I need to live with the consequences. I'm curious to see what those end up being!


Whoops! This turned out to be longer than I expected. It turns out that I have thoughts and feelings about video games, who could have predicted that?

As usual, I've assembled an album of screenshots. These cover Book One of Dreamfall Chapters. I'll probably make one more post after I finish the rest of the game!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cibele + Rambling Thoughts on What Games Can Do

So: one of my immediate inspirations for "playing games other than RPGs" was picking up the Humble Narrative Bundle, a ridiculously-lowly-priced collection of games. This included several games that I've had my eye on for a while, including Her Story and Random Access Memories. It also included one game that I hadn't heard of before, Cibele. After some cursory research, I realized that it would likely also be the shortest of the games, and decided to play it first.

I really liked it! It's definitely on the artier side of game development, but that's a good thing.  There aren't challenging mechanics or an intricate choice-and-consequences system, but rather an immersive story that you participate in.


You play as Nina, a nineteen-year-old girl. I have never been a nineteen-year-old girl, and it was fascinating to inhabit that perspective over the brief ninety minutes or so of the game. Most of the game is played on a virtual computer within the game (not unlike the fantastic Digital: A Love Story, although this is a much more modern machine). Clicking around the folders, you see old archived emails, posts from a series of abandoned blogs, selfies throughout the years, and some extremely earnest poetry. It's a terrific way to communicate the character who you are playing by catching up on her history and semi-private thoughts.

Nina is shy, and has always been a little insecure about her body. She had a few close friends as she was growing up, who bonded over a shared love of games, mostly RPGs like Final Fantasy X and X-2. Now in college, she has blossomed into a beautiful young woman, but has internalized her self-criticism. She occasionally socializes, but most of her time is occupied by going to class and playing Valtameri, a fictional MMORPG that she has been obsessed with for several years.

Much of the game Cibele is played inside the game-within-a-game of Valtameri, which you launch from your in-game computer. During these segments, I was vividly reminded of Felicia Day's terrific memoir Never Weird On The Internet, in which she chronicles her own addiction to World of Warcraft. Never Weird included a mortifying (and hilarious) passage about how she used to flirt with boys on the Ultima Dragons Prodigy site back in the 1990s, then met with them in person, discovered that she didn't like them as people, but had to spend intimate time with them anyways.

Again, this is all far outside of my own experience. I've occasionally played multiplayer games, but am just as reluctant to meet people online as I am in real life, and so I've never developed those digital relationships that Felicia or Nina Freeman describe. But, that's the power of this game - there is no button that says "Click here to sign out of the game and play a single-player RPG instead." So you are forced to continue playing, which means experiencing a level of emotional connection that I'm not used to dealing with.

We learn from notes on the computer that Nina has been crushing on Ichi, the leader of her guild. As soon as I met him in-game, I was like, "Nope!" He's extremely negative, talking about how all the other players in the game are idiots, how all other games are dumb, why doing stuff besides playing Valtameri is a waste of time. Again, the game doesn't give you any options to control your response (except for three emotes, which I think are just cosmetic), but that's fine - this isn't a role-playing game, it's putting you in the shoes of a sweet, vulnerable 19-year-old and asking you to understand her experience.

Warning bells continued to go off in my head as the relationship deepened - they exchange more and more photos, with Nina's becoming increasingly revealing and provocative. For a little while I was worried that this was going to become a cautionary tale about revenge porn. Fortunately, it doesn't go there. I never really came to like Ichi (real name Blake), but I did gain some sympathy for him as I got to know him better. He's antisocial and shy, and playing the game is the only thing that he feels confident about. Yeah, that's not great, but given that that's who he is, you can see why he would feel (and act) the way he does. His mastery of his role in Valtameri gives him the confidence he needs to pursue a girl, and Nina is flattered by the attention and genuinely attracted to him.

This might be a good place to note that Valtameri is a deeply stupid game. I think that's by design. You click on a bad thing and then auto-attack until it dies. That said, even though the gameplay is shallow, the fact that it's cooperative becomes really powerful narratively. The game is mindless enough that you can continue reading emails and writing chat replies while "playing" it and absent-mindedly chatting with Blake; but it's weirdly heartening to see that, for example, when you attack a mob, Ichi will break off what he's doing and rush over to help you. I found myself naturally returning the favor afterwards, and there was a comfortable, unspoken rhythm to the way we cooperated to accomplish this deeply dumb task.

That is brilliant. First, because the best way to create a bond with another person is to cooperate to overcome a challenge. It also helps you understand the context in which a relationship like this could start. Yeah, it's all digital and they've never met in person, but you can still have many layers of nuance in online interaction. The small kindnesses that we use to signal our care and interest in the physical world have counterparts in the online one, and can provide a graceful entry to the flirting relationship that Nina and Blake strike up.


The ending of the game seems cruel, but again, deliberately so. I found out afterwards that this is based on an actual experience of Nina Freeman, the game designer, and... wow, I feel sorry. But it also has a weirdly applicable relevance to how other games represent relationships.

Think of how many games there are out there where the male protagonist can sleep with a woman. In how many of those games does they then have a long and mutually rewarding relationship together? And in how many does the woman disappear, no longer a part of the man's story as he finishes the game?

The answer is "a lot." And I have to admit, I haven't really thought much about that before. The game is telling the man's story, and this is one thing that happened to him. He got laid, it was cool, he moved on. After playing Cibele, though, hopefully I'll have more sympathy for the other partner in that relationship.


For the last few years, one of my main obsessions has been with empathy and video games. I think games have the potential to significantly improve our ability to relate to other people, to understand other experiences, to feel what lives would feel like if they weren't our own. One of my favorite authors, George Saunders, has said that "Prose, when it's done right, is like empathy training wheels." There's no substitute for actually meeting with people and getting to know them, of course, but one of the powers of the novel is the ability to share intimate thoughts directly with another mind who has not experienced those things. Video games are still in their infancy as an art form, but I think they may ultimately be even more successful than prose in accomplishing this. You're not just being told something: you're doing something, exploring a world, listening to how it reacts to your presence, seeing what options are opened or closed to you.

Of course, most games don't do this. They're often power-simulators that let us indulge in behaviors that wouldn't be allowed or possible in real life (killing thousands of enemies, saving the universe, building civilizations). But games like Cibele show how games can be even more powerful by taking the opposite approach and putting us in situations that we intellectually know exist but haven't personally experienced. What does it feel like to have a random guy creep on your Facebook? I still don't know, but I did get a little knot in my stomach when it happened in this game, and that gets me just a tiny bit closer to empathy than I was before.

I think it's those moments of discomfort that are the best elements of Cibele. I've played tons of other games as a female character, but they're generally games where the player character is always on top - Commander Shepard is a badass, and playing as a woman primarily just means watching a different body and listening to a different voice save the universe. Cibele is a story that could be our story if our lives were just a little different. There's a very small gap between her and we, and games like this help us understand the other side of that gap.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


I think this is the first time since 2012 that I haven't had one or more RPGs in my gaming queue. That means time to play other video games, and finish ones I started long ago! Fortunately, all other video games are shorter than RPGs, and I'm looking forward to broadening my horizons a bit. Possibly until Torment finally comes out in 2017.

First on the list: Transistor. I started this almost exactly one year ago, before getting distracted by The Caldecott Caper and the universe. The summary description sounds like my kryptonite: stylish cyberpunk game featuring a female lead and awesome music. It delivered in spades.

Gameplay itself is terrific. It mainly focuses on battles, which you can either fight in realtime or by using a limited "Turn" ability, which lets you pause time while you plan your actions, and then execute them almost instantly. I did almost all of my fighting in Turn mode, which appeals strongly to my preference for tactical gameplay and limited hand-eye coordination, but I think it would be totally doable in realtime if that's your preference.

Transistor is technically an action-RPG. As you progress in the game and level up, you'll unlock new abilities ("Functions") for your character, as well as other benefits like more equipment slots ("RAM"). You can only use a limited number of abilities at a time, but different abilities can be combined in various ways to create new effects. For example, "Mask" can be used by itself to turn yourself invisible for a short time, but you can also combine it with "Crash" for a more devastating backstab attack. There are story-based reasons to experiment with different configurations of your programs, which keeps the gameplay fresh and interesting throughout, rather than just sticking with the same strategy throughout.

That said, I definitely found a loadout that appeals to me, mostly based on the earliest functions you find. I slotted Crash with Mask and Ping for a cheap and powerful backstab. I would follow this up with Breach for a combo. I can typically repeat this in a single Turn, which will destroy most enemies and seriously damage the rest. My third slot is Jaunt, which is useful for efficiently setting up backstabs or as a quick get-out-of-trouble button while Turn is on cooldown. My fourth slot rotated based on what I needed to unlock, but otherwise would remain empty to free up memory for my passives. At the end of the game, my passives were Void (boosts base damage of all attacks), Help (25% chance to become the superuser on each Turn, giving a powerful AOE attack), Bounce (blocks an attack from doing damage), and Tap (extra HP).

There isn't much of an exploration focus in the game - at any given time, there's only one or maybe two places you can go, with possibly a few nooks or crannies that hold a terminal or point of interest. That said, most of the pleasure I got from the game came from moving around, gaping at Cloudbank. It's absolutely stunning. Being an isometric cyberpunk game, there are scenes that are strongly reminiscent of the Shadowrun games, but where Shadowrun often goes for grimy and lived-in locations, Transistor is one of the most beautiful games I've ever seen. It combines cyberpunk elements (neon signs, enormously tall buildings, omnipresent digital terminals) with a fantastic arc deco architecture. These are some of the most graceful and elegant elevators you will ever see in a video game.


As everyone knows, I'm a sucker for story, and Transistor's is absolutely fascinating. Partly for the story itself (more on that later), but even more so for the unique way in which it's told.

I tend to think of video game stories as being synonymous with dialogue. Well, there's no dialogue in Transistor. That's by necessity, since Red (the protagonist, who you play as) has lost her voice. We only get to hear from her in flashbacks, after everything went wrong, or "hear" from her on the very rare occasions where she can type something into a terminal. When she does this, she'll type and then erase, which at first I thought was a form of self-editing, but now I realize was her attempt at carrying on a conversation. As soon as she pressed Enter, she would lose that input prompt, so she needs to reuse it for everything she wants to say.

In most RPGs, the plot of the story is communicated through critical-path segments that the player is guaranteed to experience. These are often cut-scenes, or crucial interactive dialogues that the player must complete in order to proceed. These are often supplemented by additional materials found in the world that will add in additional background or flavor; these can safely be ignored, but fans like me who want to learn more will gain a deeper understanding of the world and plot by finding them. These include codex entries in Dragon Age, books in the Elder Scrolls games, emails in Fallout, etc.

Transistor has a very full and complex story, but extremely minimal storytelling. The only way you can piece it together is if you combine everything you know. That means using all of the different functions in all of their configurations in order to unlock the characters' dossiers, AND paying attention to Breach's comments, AND finding and reading the terminal news reports, AND listening to Royce's rambling monologue. Each individual piece doesn't make sense. Reading Kendrell or Asher's dossiers in isolation won't help, but after you read both of them, you'll make the connection and realize how the Camerata came to be.

None of this is required to enjoy the game. The atmosphere is fantastic, and you'll be able to pick up on the gist of your motivations even if you never read a word of text. But it's impressive to see a game that's comfortable with such an opaque (but fair) system for communicating with its players about what the heck is actually going on.


So, no guarantee that this is correct, but here's my own understanding.

Cloudbank itself is a purely digital, virtual city. The people we meet may have real physical selves, but the community only exists because of their decision to participate.

It is a democratic, collaborative community. I find myself thinking of it as an ultimately-evolved BBS, though of course it would be more relevant to compare to something like an MMORPG. The best comparison might actually be something like a MUD or MUSH. Participants help build the environment that they live in.

The "Administrators" are users who volunteer to help keep things running smoothly. They're the equivalent of the forum moderators or webmasters. They have a position of authority, but their purpose is to implement the will of the community. They aren't dictators, they're the civil service of the digital world. Most administrators will serve for a time and then step back down to being users, similar to many volunteer forum moderators. Some will tire of Cloudbank and log out completely. Kendrell is one of the few who has served for a long time, outliving many different trends and fads.

This is a democratic community, hence the ubiquitous polls. However, this democracy leads to mediocrity. Nothing unexpected can ever happen, because people vote on everything that happens. Everything is just always sort of fine, never wonderful or terrible. The people always vote for mild weather, so they never experience epic thunderstorms or frigid blizzards.

Kendrell becomes disillusioned with the status quo, realizing that democracy can't make the city great. He starts the Camerata, whose goal is to improve the community by surprising it. He and Asher recruit two other people to their elite conspiracy: Sybil, an extremely well-connected woman who knows everyone in the community, and Royce, a brilliant engineer.

In order to make changes without going through the standard voting system, they will need to access the lower-level functions of Cloudbank. Essentially, access the operating system rather than the user-level program that everyone else is running in. This will let them bypass the community's democratic will. Again, their intention is to do good - "When everything changes, nothing changes." They create plans for a new form of Cloudbank, with some immutable features that cannot be modified by popular will.

Royce eventually invents (or perhaps discovers, I'm not clear) the Process, a low-level program that can rewrite Cloudbank. The Camerata begins using the Process. Some people find out about this, and are forcibly exiled from Cloudbank, never to return. When they leave, Royce uses some aspects of their avatars to modify the Process, making it more adaptable and training it to behave differently. I think that this is the purpose of the Transistor: it is the interface between avatars and the process, or perhaps between avatars and the OS where the process resides.

The Camerata is patient and works slowly, converting one person at a time. Things go wrong when Sybil, who feels jilted by Red, plots to use the Transistor to get back at her. Ostensibly this is just another step in their plan, to inject a necessary element for the Process, but it's actually driven by her own jealousy. "Breach" gets stabbed and pulled into the Transistor, Red takes the Transistor and escapes.

At this point, everything starts to go wrong. The Transistor was the interface between the user-level world of Cloudbank, where the Camerata avatars reside, and the OS-level world where the Process runs. (The Process manifests inside Cloudbank, but it's a one-way street. System-level code is allowed to access user-level processes, but  user-level code cannot access system-level processes. The Process can thus attack Cloudbank, but Cloudbank cannot retaliate without root privileges.) The Process no longer receives guidance from Royce or the Camerata, and so it acts on its own, drifting from its original purpose.

The Process begins deleting things. Avatars, buildings, entire blocks. All of the architecture that was built over time and colored by user consensus is erased, replaced with a blank slate. The Camerata, horrified, pursues Red to try and regain the Transistor. She, understandably, is not inclined to let them have it: it holds all that remains of her boyfriend.

In the end, Red and Royce agree to a truce. Red returns the Transistor, plugging it into the interface so Royce can access the root system and destroy the Process. He succeeds (in an astonishingly elided scene). However, there's a problem. Both he and Red are inside, and only one can come back out. She triumphs, and Royce is gone.

Red logs back into Cloudbank, but now as a superuser, rather than a regular user. So, she has the privileges that the Camerata wanted all along. Earlier in the game she cast meaningless votes; now she can do anything by willing it. (In both cases, it was the system itself that ultimately did the work, she's just bypassing the previously-mandated method of doing so.) With her newfound powers, she's able to restore the damage done by the Process. She creates the buildings and plazas and bridges anew, replacing the blank slate with a glorious new canvas.

But... she cannot bring the people back. Everyone else has logged out. (My theory is that they've returned to the "real world", though I'm not sure if the game makes that clear. If there is no "real world" and only the digital one, then all of the users have been deleted.) She's a goddess, but a lonely goddess with no living souls around her.

Except for Breach. He's still trapped in the Transistor. He begs for her to stay in Cloudbank. I'm not totally clear on why, but my theory is that, because Breach is stuck in the Transistor, he's unable to log out. Red basically has three options at this point. Remain in Cloudbank and create a beautiful city that nobody will ever see. Log out and return to the real world, leaving Cloudbank and Breach behind. Or enter the Transistor and spend an eternity with Breach.

She chooses the last option. It's a shocking ending, but after I had time to think about it, it does make sense. Red loved Breach so much that she would give up everything else in her life to be with him. That's really sweet.


Anyways, that's my theory! The game can feel very impressionist at times, and I'm certain that other players will come up with their own interpretations of the game. It's a story that really resonates with me, though, so I'll continue to believe it until persuaded otherwise.

So, yeah! I absolutely loved this game. It's the only thing by Supergiant that I've played, though I'm now very interested in Bastion, as well as the upcoming Pyre. I'm also amazed that they managed to build this incredible game with such a small team - the entire credits fit on a single screen with a lot of spacing. That says a lot for their talent, and also for the power of modern game engines. I'm looking forward to whatever they do in the future!

Oh - as per usual, here is an album with tons of screenshots from the game. Spoilers, spoilers everywhere!