Sunday, February 19, 2017

Murder in the Last

As previously noted, I've been playing through games that are increasingly-tangentially related to Life Is Strange, my favorite game of last year. One of the last items on that list is "Murdered: Soul Suspect." This is a very unusual and intriguing game: it's a mystery-adventure game, with quite a few mechanics that I've never seen done before. More relevantly to my interests, it also features the debut voice-acting appearance of Hannah Telle, who played Max Caulfield in Life Is Strange and a supporting character in this game.

M:SS is one of the most noir-y video games I've played. I found myself oddly reminded of Discworld Noir, another mystery-adventure hybrid; the earlier game was heavier on the adventure side, and more focused on comedy, but both combine supernatural elements with noir conventions in a surprisingly effective stew.

Between the two, I think M:SS does a better job at actually playing like a mystery game, rather than using the mystery as flavor for a different type of game. The other recent example I thought of was Telltale Games' The Wolf Among Us, which has a super-noir-y storyline, but the same interface that Telltale uses for horror games, focused on dialog (interrogation) and exploration (investigation).

In contrast, M:SS not only has you searching for clues, but also drawing inferences and deducing outcomes. The clues you assemble form a constellation of possibilities, and after acquiring as much knowledge as you can, you'll then need to filter them down and find what's actually significant.

This felt really fresh, although it often made me think that the protagonist Ronan was a bit thick. You, the player, will often figure out what's happening early on, and will see multiple flashbacks describing what has happened, and only after it's crystal clear will Ronan finally go, "Oh, now I understand!" and re-play everything again, just to make it as obvious as possible. Conversely, you'll occasionally encounter a puzzle that's just obtuse and requires guesswork to solve.

For better or worse, M:SS isn't a hard game. There really isn't any penalty for failure: you can just keep guessing and trying until you come to the right solution. In an ordinary game, this would bother me, but this isn't an ordinary game. The story and mechanics are so different from what we're used to, and I really appreciate the novelty; best of all, the gameplay is nicely aligned with the plot. It doesn't feel artificially easy, it feels like it's easy because of the capabilities Ronan has.


The big hook, which reveals itself near the start of the game, is that Ronan is dead, the titular "Murdered" of the title. You're a ghost, with all the abilities that entails. You can walk through walls! Teleport to distant locations! Read the minds of people around you! Make televisions turn all staticky!

The one threat you face is demons, who are creepy and can "kill" you. I mean, you're already dead, but they can suck out your soul and devour you, so, uh, keep your distance. This is yet another aspect where this game feels unique, since the "combat" against demons is unlike anything I've encountered in other games. You "possess" "ghost residue" to camouflage your location, activate spectral ravens to distract them, sneak up in their blind spots and destroy them with a semi-unique three-keypress combination. I can't say it's a particularly challenging or deep form of combat; but, again, the fact that it's unlike anything else I've played makes me inclined to enjoy it. And, again, it really isn't hard. Despite the unfamiliarity, you can pick it up quickly and get through those challenges with minimal fuss.

Other than those demons and the bubbling pits of torment from whence they come, though, there really aren't any obstacles in the game. It was really fun to re-program my brain and get used to doing all the things you can't ordinarily do in video games. At the top of that list is walking through walls. This feels profoundly liberating the first few times you do it. However, I was noticing that I would get a bit disoriented and nauseous (in real life) after spending time in-game recklessly pouring through apartments. I eventually conquered that by restricting myself to only going through (closed) doors: I knew I had the freedom to pass through any wall, but my mind apparently had trouble coping with those transitions.

Let's talk characters! I kind of groaned during the opening flashback where we learn about Ronan's dead wife Julia; I am massively over with video games about middle-aged male protagonists who are Dark and Gritty and Tormented because of their dead wives. That said, over the course of the story I found myself softening on it quite a bit. I actually like that Julia's death was so random and pointless; Ronan isn't driven by revenge, just by sadness. And Julia gains some depth too, not being some pure angel who saved the troubled Ronan, but having issues of her own that Ronan had helped her through.

The most important character, though, even more than Ronan, is Joy. I really liked her portrayal in this game, fierce and independent and talented without seeming annoying. I've been struck lately by how much better video games seem to be at depicting child allies than movies are: in examples like Elle in The Last of Us and Joy in this one, they seem brave and helpful and immensely likeable; in contrast, children like Anakin in The Phantom Menace and John Connor in Terminator 2 drive me absolutely nuts. Anyways, I really appreciated Joy's arc: she doesn't immediately buddy up with Ronan, and seems to have a lot more agency than sidekicks typically do, but that never felt frustrating, just a believable element of her character.

Hannah's characters show up closer to the end of the game. She actually voices twins, Iris and Rose Campbell. Her performance is great, quite possibly the most challenging of the game: she has to sound simultaneously insane and sympathetic as Iris, and as an eternally-burning-and-vengeful ghost as Rose. The flashback scene where she's murdered has the most heartbreaking, agonizing voice acting in the game. I was a little surprised that we didn't get to see more of those characters since they were so compelling; Rose in particular didn't get to do a whole lot. Still, I was really grateful for the scenes they do get in the game.


Those performances might have been the reason I picked up the game in the first place, but fortunately they weren't the only good thing about it! In addition to the great acting and unique gameplay, M:SS does a fantastic job at depicting a slightly sinister yet immensely likeable vision of Salem, Massachusetts. There's an immense amount of detail in the environment, immersing you in the modern setting that feels like it could be happening right now.

The stuff you can interact with is great, but I almost prefer all the things you can't affect. After a while, you realize that the vast majority of the people in the world have nothing to do with your story. And yet, they're all there, each existing, with their own concerns and lives. You can eavesdrop on them, hear what funny or tragic things are occurring to them: they don't affect your own problems, but reinforce the idea that this is a big, complex world, and you're just seeing a small part of it.

That's even more strongly reinforced by one of the most disconcerting visual elements of the game: ghostly figures, often standing stiffly with a 19th-century pose, staring at you from the middle-distance. As you approach, they shudder and fade, vanishing from sight. You'll never get to know them or their stories. There are so many of them! You gradually come to feel that Salem is filled with ghosts, with uneasy departed spirits. You hope to solve one mystery by the end of the game, but countless others are waiting, staring, filling up the world.

Sadly, those mysteries will almost certainly never get answered. Airtight Games, who developed this game, went out of business just a few weeks after it was released. Which is a shame... they were doing some really unusual, innovative stuff in this title, and I wish we lived in a world where such innovation was rewarded rather than punished. Still, they left behind a lovely little artifact in this game, and I've greatly enjoyed my time exploring it.

Hey, here are some albums! Spoilers within each section, although I try to avoid referencing future events.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

BOO! (That, uh, was an interjection, not a review.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Hacking Games, Ranked

My previous post got me thinking about the long and mostly miserable track record of hacking depictions within video games. Here are all the ones I can remember, sorted from best to worst.

Criteria: It has to actually be a "game" with some mechanics, distinct from the meatspace portion of the game.

  1. Dex
  2. Shadowun Returns / Dragonfall
  3. Shadowrun Hong Kong
  4. Fallout 3 / New Vegas
  5. Shadowrun (Genesis)
  6. Deus Ex Human Revolution
  7. Shadowrun (SNES)
  8. BioShock 1 
  9. System Shock 2
  10. GTA V
  11. Mass Effect 1
  12. Mass Effect 2

CHA 18

I’m surprised that the game Dex managed to fly under my radar. It checks so many boxes for me: Female protagonist! (With blue hair!) Cyberpunk! Choice-and-consequences story! Strong stealth mechanics! Viable non-violent solutions! Kickstarted!

It’s a low-budget indie game, with a simplistic side-scrolling 2D design. That said, it looks TERRIFIC, and I was surprised at just how good the game felt. Mash-ups of action games and RPGs often end up disappointing me, but Dex genuinely worked, with each element feeling natural.


Aesthetic. It’s a traditional cyberpunk setting, so you have your typical neon, but it also has a gently retro feel to it. It uses strong sprites instead of the blocky pixels you see in 8-bit games; at the same time, it is a fully modern engine, and has terrific-looking effects (smoke, flame, camera distortion) that help it feel great without distracting from the simple core.

2D design. Actual navigation is pretty straightforward: mostly left and right, and occasionally up and down. However, it doesn’t FEEL flat, thanks to the use of multiple planes in the Z-axis. There’s intuitive navigation between different elements, such as transitioning from a floor to a stair, or jumping up to a ledge. Design-wise, there’s a strong feeling of depth, particularly in the bustling city scenes: you might be walking along the sidewalk, but there’s also traffic rumbling past in front of you, and crowds bustling behind you.

Hacking mechanics. I think this might have the best hacking game-within-a-game that I’ve ever played! I’ll throw together a list for another blog post to see how it stacks up, but the bottom line is that it’s really strong. It isn’t just a mini-game, but a fully-designed and thought-through alternate game mode, with its own mechanics and strategies. It looks great, and the hacking nodes are nicely varied: you don’t just repeat the same moves over and over, but get a very different feel depending on the type of infiltration, and will adjust accordingly. Some feel like mazes, others like puzzles, others like Galaga, but they’re all built on the same mechanics and skill sets.

Hacking impact. Most games either use hacking as a different type of lock to optionally pick (Mass Effect), or as a mandatory gate to pass (Shadowrun). Hacking is omnipresent in Dex in the same way that it is in System Shock, but also with the same degree of depth that you get in Shadowrun. One big reason for this is “AR”: besides the pre-built computer levels to hack, you can also drop into the AR view at any time, freezing time and bringing up a display of all nearby hackable elements. This can be used just for surveillance, but also to hack cameras and turrets, or even to temporarily disable nearby foes. This mode is simpler than full hacking, but still uses the exact same items and enemies, so the skills you develop in one will apply to the other. And the full hacking levels feel even more useful: they’ll sometimes provide non-lethal solutions to quests, or allow you to secure a better outcome. I should mention that, unlike some games, hacking is REQUIRED to beat Dex; I personally enjoyed it, but that might be a turn-off for some people.

Skill tree. It’s simple but good, with eight tracks to choose from and either 2 or 6 ranks in each track. Every upgrade gives a distinct and significant improvement, not a smooth curve. My favorite aspect might be the shortened trees for the soft skills of Charisma and Bargaining. It’s really smart to allow players to max out useful-but-rarely-used skills like this with fewer points than are required to max out commonly-used skills like Melee, and I’m kind of surprised that more games haven’t done this. The skill point economy is good, too: you’ll get a fair number of points by the end of the game, but not enough to max out everything, so it’s important to think through and prioritize your build.

Story. I was a little underwhelmed at first, since it starts off seeming like a very typical cyberpunk tale, but it got more impressive towards the end and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot.

Decisions. There aren’t as many as in, say, the HBS Shadowrun games, but they are there and do have impacts. Different choices may have different mechanical outcomes (granting more or less XP or money or different items), and also can affect the resolution of individual plot lines. There are some places where choices chain together nicely, with the outcome of one plot carrying forward and optionally affecting a future plot, which is always cool to see.

Stealth. I was surprised by just how good it ended up feeling. It’s a simple system, driven entirely by distance and line-of-sight. If an enemy can see you from far off, they’ll get curious and walk closer to investigate. Once they get close enough, they’ll detect you, turn hostile, and start shooting. However, you can run away, or take cover in a convenient hiding space, and they’ll eventually determine that everything is fine and return to their previous position or route. If you walk up behind them, you can perform a one-button takedown that instantly eliminates them. This is really fun! A few enemies are immune, and occasionally you won’t be able to sneak up on someone, but for the most part I had a blast figuring out how to clear levels by choking out bad guys. Refreshingly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy to this. Sometimes you need to be patient and wait; but other times you need to sprint forward at the start of a level to snatch someone. You might be able to jump up into an air duct and drop down in someone’s blind spot. Or distract one foe, then circle around and take out their partner while the first one is investigating. I was also impressed by how well the different systems interact here. In a fairly common example, you might have a human guard, a camera, and a turret. You could hack the camera and the turret, and then take out the guard. Or you could hack the camera and take out the guard: the turret will still be hostile, but without anyone to sound the alarm it’s harmless. Or just take out the guard and the turret: the camera will sound the alarm, but it won’t matter since nobody’s around to respond.


Music. It definitely isn’t bad, but isn’t as memorable as other games in this genre.

City navigation. The city is big, which is good, and has quick travel, which is also good. But, there are a LOT of shops, and it took me most of the game to memorize which district each was in. So I ended up spending a lot of time sprinting the length and breadth of the city trying to find, say, the drugstore or the “other” weapon shop. It would have been really nice to have map markers or something to show where stuff was located.

Economy. It’s fine, and better than a lot of other games, but still exhibits the same plague that affects most RPGs: there’s too little money early on in the game, and way too much near the end.

Voice acting. The individual voices are usually quite nice, but I found myself often skipping past them after quickly reading their lines instead. As with Wasteland 2, I’m increasingly skeptical of combining text with full voicing:  it’s occupying an awkward middle ground between the lightly-voiced Baldur’s Gate games with fully-voiced Dragon Age, and the verbose literariness of the former clashes with the cinematic thrust of the latter. Dex herself was particularly strange: she’s a voiceless protagonist for virtually the entire game, similar to the Warden in DA:O, where everyone else’s dialogue was fully voiced but you only read her lines. BUT, she does voice the intro and ending cinematics, which felt a bit jarring: I had gone for over a dozen hours without hearing her voice, and had kind of created a new voice for her inside my head, which didn’t at all match her actual voice near the end. All that said, some of the particular characters like AJ have fantastic voices, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to get rid of that.

Roleplaying. I was a little surprised at how rarely Dex has multiple response options available, especially considering that her lines aren’t voiced and the NPCs usually have the same reply anyways. There are a couple of points where you can select between a sympathetic and an aggressive response, but the roleplaying is pretty lightweight and there isn’t very much of it.

Romance. Dex in many ways echoes back to retro 90s game art and design, and to some degree that is reflected in an unfortunate echo of a juvenile view of relationships. To put it bluntly: you can pay for sex, but not develop meaningful romantic relationships. There are several appealing NPCs with whom you can flirt, but nothing ever really develops there. (On the plus side, though, both men and women are available for physical and emotional connections, so it’s nice to have that level of agency available.)

Difficulty curve. The flip-side of having non-scaling enemies: the hardest parts of the game come early on, while you're underdeveloped. Near the end, you'll have ridiculous amounts of consumables and extremely high skills; the mechanics are still fun, but it's much less of a challenge.


In-game explanation of mechanics. I think they cover most stuff in-game, but it kind of flies by and is easy to overlook and forget. I had to search outside the game to figure out things like how to equip and draw a gun, or how Energy is different from Focus, or what the second rank of Charisma actually does. Most comically, it wasn’t until after I finished the game that I belatedly discovered how to fire my secondary hacking attack and single-shot consumables. For future reference: the best way to find this stuff out is probably through the in-game Options / Controls, which shows the keybindings for everything. The Help menu is fine for some other stuff, although it isn’t comprehensive.

The name itself. I mean, “Dex” is an awesome name, but makes it almost impossible to Google information about the game. Searching for “Dex builds” will bring up pages of results about other RPGs that use dexterity as a stat.


Like I noted above, I’m really impressed by the character customization available, and how the different game systems interact with one another. In my game, I almost never used firearms; but there are a bunch available, with their own unique mechanics and strategies available, so it would be interesting to re-play sometime with that flavor of build. In my own game, here was my general approach to leveling:
  • Took the first rank in Charisma early to open <Convince> dialog options.
  • Grabbed both ranks of Lockpicking to unlock every lockpickable door.
  • Took a few early ranks in Endurance to get more augmentation slots.
  • Leveled AR up to 2. The increase in hack speed might not sound like much, but in practice makes a huge difference in practice.
  • Leveled Hacking up to 4. I thought this was plenty for almost every computer, and if I had understood how to use my secondary attack, even those would probably have been fine.
  • Took a couple of Melee ranks.
  • Maxed out Endurance.
  • Maxed out Melee.
  • I had enough points left over by the end of the game to buy a couple of ranks in Ranged, though not enough to reach level 4 and the better weapon unlocks.

I was pretty happy with this progression. After the intro, most of the game is pretty wide-open, and you can get a lot of levels just from focusing on exploration and persuasion quests within the city, so you don’t feel handicapped by postponing combat-related skills. But, again, that’s all optional - if you wanted to, you could start building out your fighting skills early by taking those quests, and buy the soft skills later after you’re happy with your fighting build.

The overall length of the game felt pretty perfect to me. The pacing is a little… fuzzy in the middle, and it felt a tad like an Elder Scrolls game in the way that side-quests significantly outnumbered the main quest. But, each individual quest was relatively short and memorable, with its own small emotional story and something interesting to do. At this point in my life, I have exhausted my tolerance for grinding, and it’s a relief to not churn through tasks like “kill 5 sewer rats”.

On a related note: there’s a limited amount of experience in the game. You can earn a fair amount from defeating enemies, and enemies do not respawn, making for a soft cap. Quests can have a very variable amount of experience that honestly felt a little random. One cool touch is that you can also find or buy a variety of items that will grant more XP or full skill points; I think it makes sense to invest in these early on, since a few points can make a more significant difference early in the game. As far as I can tell, enemies do not scale based on your level. I ended up around level 15 by the end of the game; it looks like levels 1-5 grant 1 skill point on level-up, 6-10 (or maybe 12?) grant 2, and beyond that you get 3. Which is nice, since you’ll always be able to upgrade at least one skill on each level-up.

Hm… I was going to chat about the plot, but I’ve already covered that in my album captions, so I don’t have much to retread here. No spoilers for once, wowzer!

Album sections:
Intro (mini spoilers)
Quests (mini spoilers)
Climax (mega spoilers)
Endgame and Credits (mega spoilers)
Alternate Endings (mega spoilers)

On the whole, I really liked Dex. It uses a genre and theme that I’m predisposed to enjoy, and I had a blast, despite having very little recent experience with this sort of side-scrolling action-oriented game. It’s surprisingly deep for how simple it looks, and surprisingly accessible considering the wide variety of mechanics. Especially considering how cheap it is, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who digs cyberpunk or action/RPGs. (And a quick gentle note: if you buy from Steam, be sure to "buy" and install the free Extra Outfits DLC. It's best if you install this before you start the game, so you can acquire the outfits over the course of playing the game.)