Donut County (Ben Esposito)

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 10.31.55 AM.png

Donut County is a mellow casual puzzle game wrapped in story. The gameplay: you control a hole moving across the ground. If you place it under something small enough to fall in, the object vanishes below, and the hole gets bigger. It’s Katamari-esque, but there are some nifty extra effects: the hole can fill with water, which makes things float on the surface; sometimes items that are in the hole give off smoke or fumes, or leave appendages sticking out, which you can use to affect the environment in new ways. (Note for new players, by the way: I initially found the gameplay a little sluggish, but going to the settings and turning control responsiveness up to maximum made it a much more natural and enjoyable experience.)

The story? This is all a game-within-a-game presented within a flashback, with multiple protagonists, sort of. Let me start from the beginning because there’s a lot to unpack here.

Donut County begins with a frame story that everyone in town is living at the bottom of the hole, after six weeks in which this hole has been terrorizing the community. Mira, a human, blames BK, a raccoon who has all this time been playing an addictive video game that involves hole manipulation (and just incidentally manages to really swallow things in the real town). BK also happens to run a donut shop, and the hole tends to turn up whenever anyone orders donut delivery at home.

As you, the player, play levels of Donut County, you receive experience points and rewards that correspond to the in-game points BK is trying to accumulate; and then you cut back to the frame story in which the denizens of Donut County are talking about what has happened to them over the past few weeks and whose fault it all is.

This makes for one of the most convoluted triangle-of-identity problems I’ve yet seen. The framing introduces an undercurrent of unease and self-doubt in what is otherwise a relaxing, candy-pink game of playful destruction.

Where do you-the-player stand in all this? Are you BK, playing the game and destroying the entire community? Are you one of the other townspeople or perhaps Mira herself, telling the story of how the gameplay destroyed the community, a kind of interactive reenactment? Is there a possible redemption in store after you’ve done all this? Should you maybe stop being a hole?

I want to talk about where the story goes from there, but this will involve spoilers, so let’s have a break first.

Continue reading

Shadowhand (Grey Alien)

Shadowhand is a casual game based around the mechanics of solitaire, with a frame story about a noblewoman who dresses up as a highwayman and gets involved in piracy and smuggling and various other shenanigans in 18th century England. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s a prequel to Regency Solitaire, which I covered here previously, and I also posted excitedly when the premise was announced.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.46.12 PM.pngThe frame story is pretty light. I have yet to finish this, but the plot doesn’t feel either very convincing or very important. The protagonist decides to take up highway robbery on the spur of the moment during a traumatic event, and is soon killing local ruffians, coachmen, prisoners, etc with little soul-searching or transition. Notionally, she’s trying to protect a friend, but the friend doesn’t turn out to need all that much protecting, and our protagonist goes on about her highwayman business more because, well, she enjoys it. There’s a bit of business about discovering a conspiracy in the neighborhood, but given the number of people she’s killing in order to uncover said conspiracy, it’s not immediately obvious who would be on the side of Good, if we stopped and did the math.

There’s also an RPG element, whereby we can buy equipment and level up skills. Skills grant bonuses like a higher likelihood of drawing jokers during play, or being to start a level with more of the cards face-up, as well as advantages when fighting — and, of course, let us dress up our protagonist with a range of highwayperson outfits, knives, swords, and guns. This, again, is there because it’s fun, not because it’s an accurate representation of a time or a character or a style of fighting, or because it tells a coherent story.

But that’s okay with me. (No, really, it is.) This game is unabashedly about taking a bath in entertaining swashbuckling tropes. Making sense isn’t the point. And — odd as this might sound — it does a really good job at capturing aspects of the swashbuckling genre through the medium of solitaire.

Continue reading

Reigns

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 3.47.56 AM.png

Here is Reigns, a game about managing a series of kingdoms currently available on Steam for a few dollars. (Or £1.99, for those of us buying in the UK.) The mechanics are simple. Each turn you’re presented with a choice, typically presented as a request by someone in your kingdom. Swipe left to refuse; swipe right to agree.

Your decisions affect some or all of the four stats at the top of the screen, which correspond to the well-being of the church, the populace in general, the army, and your treasury. If any of those stats reaches either maximum or minimum states, you will die and be replaced by your heir, who will start from where you left off (but with stats set back to average). Some of those death reasons are pretty contrived: make too much money and your citizens will throw a feast in your honor, where inevitably you will choke to death. But the need for balance makes this much more difficult and interesting than if it were safe to just max out your treasury, for instance.

There are a few minor complications that turn up after you’ve played for a bit: for instance, you can make decisions that add semi-permanent resources to your kingdom, such as a placement on the Silk Road that provides income every turn regardless of what else you do, or a siloing system that helps protect you in the event your kingdom runs out of food. And there’s also a combat mini-game that you can unlock after a bit of experiment.

Still, there’s a heavy component of chance here. You don’t know in advance what cards are going to turn up, and you can never just autonomously choose an action. So you may be able to see that your Treasury stat is edging up and up, dangerously close to triggering the Deathfeast, but not be able to do anything to offload your obscene wealth.

Each card also comes with a small amount of story, and because those stories are dependent on your existing stats, this feels like quality-based narrative — though without the wild proliferation of different stat types that one sees in Fallen London. Like other QBN pieces, this means it offers cause-and-effect chains the authors might not have specifically anticipated. During one of my reigns, I accepted a marriage proposal from an adjoining kingdom in order to avert a war; then I let my new wife throw a feast, but the feast bankrupted the kingdom and brought my reign to a precipitous close. Oops. Did the authors intend that sequence? Not necessarily, but it results naturally from the way stats move.

There is a longer arc that plays out over the course of multiple reigns, but it’s easy to go through a number of deaths without getting any new content for that piece of the game.

Ultimately, the story experience is a little dilute for my tastes. The tinder-style mechanic, the randomness of card availability, and the fact that you die so often, all made me sit back rather than sit forward. After all, the stakes are low (what do I care if yet another king dies of gangrene after an ill-advised boar hunt?) and my control is likewise limited. Still, Reigns is entertaining in short spurts, and I’m always interested to see new QBN-ish pieces, especially ones not written in the StoryNexus toolset.

Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.

Tales from the Borderlands (Telltale)

TFTBL-103-key-art-650px

I’m going to talk about the whole season, but the badass vault hunter Athena (pictured) is one of my favorite side characters, so we’ll start with her

This post needs a big, big disclosure message before I say anything else:

1. Though I had no involvement in this series, I have done some paid work for Telltale Games in the past, and it is conceivable that I might do so again in the future. I was consulting with them during the period that Tales from the Borderlands was being made, and I talked with people who were on the team at the time. 

2. I have no prior experience with the Borderlands franchise. Everything I know about it comes from playing the Telltale series and from a little casual Wikipedia-reading.

3. I did not pay for my copy of this game. It was given to me to cover, though by someone who is not affiliated with Telltale.

I haven’t been reviewing (or even really talking at all about) recent Telltale work precisely because of the potential conflict of interest here. However, during last year’s IF Comp I offered to do some review swaps in order to get more coverage of the competition: if the other person would write a review of an IF Comp game, I write a review of some work of their choosing. One of the people who took me up on this was Justin de Vesine, who reviewed Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Midnight. Swordfight. In exchange, he asked me to cover Tales from the Borderlands and offered to supply a Steam code for it, since it wasn’t freeware. I explained the caveats mentioned above, and he said he was still interested in my take on the series. That seemed cool to me too – Telltale is doing some really interesting stuff, and I’d like to be able to talk about it, as long as I’m not deceiving any readers about my level of distance.

So here we are. Consider yourself warned.

Continue reading

Firewatch (Campo Santo)

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 11.09.37 AM

Firewatch is a new narrative-and-exploration game from Campo Santo, put together by a skilled crew including Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, writers on season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

It took me about five hours to play; people who are more efficient or look at fewer scenery objects might make it through in four. It is effectively a short story, with a single emotional arc and minimal branching. I’ve seen people comparing it to Gone Home, but more happens in the present setting of the game; I also found a few moments that reminded me of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but it is ultimately a very different game from that as well.

Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a guy whose wife Julia is suffering from early-onset dementia. Henry isn’t really equipped to handle that fact. He volunteers for a position watching for fires all summer in Shoshone National Forest. His main – and for a long time really his only – point of contact with other people is through his radio, which allows him to communicate with his supervisor Delilah. He lives in one tower in the woods and Delilah lives in another, far away; Delilah manages other lookouts, but we never communicate with them. Over the course of the summer, Henry spends a lot of time hiking the woods to various spots to do errands at Delilah’s instruction. Gradually, they begin to realize that there are more people out here than they knew about, and that someone is watching Henry and Delilah specifically. There are also, here and there, notes from rangers who used to watch these woods but who have now gone on to other work elsewhere, and hints of the hikers who passed through these woods before.

The game sets up Henry’s backstory through a piece of choice-based text, a passage that could quite plausibly have been prototyped in Twine, interspersed with scenes of his arrival in the woods. The hypertext portion gives you a chance to do a little immediate personalization of Henry. I don’t have the impression your choices there pay into any major story changes, but they do lightly tweak what Henry will say about himself later, and a few props he has. We see the effects of this more or less right away in the game world, in that we pick one of two ways that Julia might have sketched Henry, and then shortly afterwards see the sketch itself: an early promise from the game that there will be perceivable consequences for your choices.

Continue reading

Read Only Memories (MidBoss)

ROM_SS_07-1024x576

Read Only Memories is a point-and-click graphical adventure set in “Neo-San Francisco”, in a cyberpunk future full of personal assistant robots; implants that let you experience VR right through your own head-hardware; and massive amounts of genetic engineering. Both the increasingly intelligent robots and “hybrid” humans (those with significant amounts of non-human DNA) are struggling for their rights, while the corporations have largely taken over the responsibilities of government. You are investigating the disappearance of an old friend who is at the forefront of the robotic research.

Continue reading