“Calm” is a post-apocalyptic survival game by Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy, with a fair amount of open-world freedom and multiple possible paths, somewhat reminiscent of Quintin Stone’s Scavenger.
In the review to follow, there are some comments on the gameplay experience to start with, then spoiler space, then more details about what did and didn’t work for me. If you want to experience the game free of all preconception, though, you’ll want to skip even the first portion.
“Calm” has an ambitious design concept. Intended to be played multiple times, it lets you choose your goal and opening scenario as well as a difficulty level; there are apparently several ways to solve various puzzles, with a moderate amount of simulation so that you can use any plausible object to break or cut things when necessary. Goals are clearly listed in the “mental checklist” in your inventory, and you can choose to receive suggested commands every turn.
To provide challenge, there’s a menace system based on stress (a bit reminiscent of frustration in Heated or sanity loss in The King of Shreds and Patches) such that if you get too upset, your well-being is threatened. This sometimes punishes you for doing foolish or dangerous things, but it also adds stress when you find out significant secrets.
Unfortunately, I had a lot of trouble with “Calm” anyway. I started the game three or four times, but did not succeed in finishing it any of those times, despite being in “easy” mode. I came away with a more tepid feeling about the experience than its ambitious design probably deserved, mostly because I was underwhelmed by both the technical and imaginative aspects of the writing. Details follow the spoiler break.
Partly I had trouble because the descriptions don’t always play fair with the player about what’s there, as far as I can tell: they’re often very sparse and don’t always name all the interactive objects or even make it clear exactly how exits relate to one another. There were several points when I found myself being asked to disambiguate references to objects I hadn’t even known were present in the room, and even after discovering them, I’m not sure what I was supposed to have examined in order to find out.
In other cases, actions hinted by the suggestion system were impossible to carry out: for instance, I had cut a hole in the plastic sheeting in the half-finished room and the suggestion system offered GO THROUGH HOLE as a next step, but when I typed this command, there appeared to be a scoping problem, because the game responded that I couldn’t think how to get to the hole.
Finally, despite the game’s attempts to offer multiple solutions, there were definitely times when it seemed perversely to be resisting the obvious option. One of my checklist tasks was to get hold of a “full drinking container”, but when I found a carton of milk, I wasn’t allowed to take it, because I “don’t need the milk carton, just its contents”. Apparently the game was determined to make me solve a longer puzzle to fix my broken canteen and possibly prepare a complex beverage with milk and coffee — but there was nothing about the phrasing of the goal or the fiction of the scenario that made that sensible. (And I never did figure out how to fix the canteen, either — the hints told me that there was some tape somewhere in the apartment complex, but I couldn’t find it, and wandering around typing GET TAPE didn’t miraculously call it out of the scenery.)
These problems meant that there was a lot of friction getting in the way of my enjoyment. I started the game several times, trying out each of the possible openings, and died repeatedly, but I always felt like it was a bit of an uphill struggle.
More positive feedback would have helped as well. An open world structure needs a lot of juiciness to keep the player engaged, a lot of small fun outcomes for experimentation. I would have liked more and crisper description, not just to help me figure out what to do, but to reward me for doing it. Often I felt as though the environment was a generic post-apocalyptic setting (everything is relentlessly dirty, rotting, and overgrown) but there wasn’t enough specificity to create that evocative sense of decay and loss you get from, say, looking at photographs of Detroit. Responses to actions were sometimes dulled as well: potentially amusing, important, or moving moments were a bit underplayed. To be sure, the authors have given themselves an especially hard task in that the viewpoint character is supposed to be avoiding strong emotion, but it would still have been possible to get across more feeling in several of these scenes, and the game would have been much more engaging as a result.
So overall: ambitious design, implemented fairly solidly as far as I could tell. It would have benefited from stronger descriptive writing, both to establish a sense of place and emotional tone and to lead the player better towards interactive objects.