Papers, Please

With Dark Souls III behind me, and while I wait for the inevitable time-eater that will be Civilization VI, I wanted to go back through my backlog of smaller games. Papers, Please is a simple little indie title that has been out for almost three years (at the time of this writing), and has been sitting in my Steam library, unplayed, for quite some time. Now seemed like as good a time as any to rectify that.

I just paid to go to a second job that I don't get paid for

Papers, Please is a funny little game in that it is so dedicated to its theme that the game actually does start to feel almost like a real job. You have to click and drag to open up documents, sort through papers, check dates, make sure the document was issued in a valid city, and so on. It's a lot of mundane work, and if you miss any little detail, then you have an omniscient boss who will print out a citation. I quickly came to anticipate the sound of a citation being printed with a Pavlovian anxiety after sending applicants through, even for the ones whose documents I thought I had thoroughly checked. You get two warnings before your omniscient boss starts docking your pay, which keeps constant pressure on you to try to be as close to perfect as possible. Paying for this game is almost like paying for a second job that you, yourself, don't get paid for. And it's kind of a shitty job, at that.

It's not just the potential immigrants' problems that you have to think about. You have your own problems. Every day, you go home with a measly salary, and you have to pay daily for rent, heat, and food for yourself and your family. Maybe you kids or wife get sick, and you have to spend some precious extra dollars on medicine that night. And if your pay gets docked for letting in people with invalid passports, then you might have to go that night without food or heat or medicines, which will just make your family more likely to get sick.

Papers, Please - shuffling paperwork
Hooray! A game in which I get to shuffle paper work and perform bureaucratic government functions!

You'll also have people with invalid documents begging to let you in to the country so they can be re-united with their families, or because they're political refugees who will be killed if they go back to their own country...

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DreadOut

The opening moments of DreadOut set the bar pretty low for what was to come. The visual quality varies wildly. The main character, Linda, looks and animates decent enough, but the other characters all look incredibly stiff and robotic. And they sound almost as stiff and robotic. I'm not sure if it's a matter of poor translation, cultural disconnects, or if it's a deliberate attempt by the developers at camp, but the dialogue and voice acting is cringe-worthy. It wasn't even laughably bad. It was just bad. Don't worry though, you won't have to put up with them for long. They'll disappear for the majority of act 1, rendering the game's futile attempts at early character-building moot, and likely leading to you forgetting that they ever existed until they reappear later. The ghosts and monsters themselves actually get better development and depth, as each one is given a thematic backstory, and its aesthetic design attempts to represent that theme - with varying degrees of success.

DreadOut - camp
Dialogue and voice-acting might have been going for deliberate camp, but ends up just being bad.

It's an indie game, so I don't expect its graphics to impress on any technical level. But what's presented on screen is often only passable for a PS2-era game, and there's very little artistry or detail in the majority of environments. Some of the environments are decent, and there's the occasional well-placed lighting or particle effect that helps to set a mood. That mood rarely lasts though, because you'll turn a corner and find repetitive environments and flat textures. It is very easy to get lost in a few areas of this game because so much of the environment looks the same. The school building was particularly bad, as all the classrooms had the same desks, chairs, and backpacks sitting around. Only two rooms in the entire building had unique decorations (a teacher's office and what appeared to be a biology lab). The difficult-to-read signposts and lack of any sort of in-game map just exacerbates the sameness of the game's environmental design.

DreadOut - black cat
"Aw, hello Mr. Kitty!"
Oh, you're a black cat and are
supposed to be scary. My bad..

Gameplay is less a mixed-bag, and is more universally terrible. Movement is very clunky. The camera loves to pivot around when you go through doors, leading to temporary disorientation as you try to figure out which direction the character is facing. It doesn't help that so much of the game looks the same, so it's easy to get turned around and confused (or outright lost) when the camera wigs out on you.

There's a blue vignette effect that indicates a nearby item that is designed to work as a player aid, but sometimes it can be a hindrance. It works through walls, which I guess is fine since it can let you know that you need to go into a nearby room. What isn't fine is that it also seems to work through floors and ceilings. So the game will nag you that a useful item or clue is nearby, but it might be on a different floor of the building. So you end up wandering back and forth trying to find it - which you never will because it's not there...

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Five Nights at Freddy's

Five Nights at Freddy's was recommended to me by some friends a couple years ago. They knew that I was interested in horror games, and that I was disappointed with the stock of horror games that were available at the time. I bought it at the time, but never got around to playing until recently.

The concept for the game is quite a good one. You work as a night watchman of a Chuck E. Cheese-style children's birthday party center. By day, there's four animatronic animals along the lines of Disney's Country Bear Jamboree that dance and sing songs to entertain children; but by night, these animatronic animals come to life, stalk the halls of the facility, and have been known to attack and kill anybody that they find. This is definitely the stuff of nightmares, and if your young child ever plays the game (or sees you playing it), he or she might never want to go to Chuck E. Cheese or Disneyland ever again. But as an adult, the game just doesn't quite do it for me.

I think the core problem is that the whole experience is built around providing semi-random jump scares. It might cause someone to jump the first one or two times it happens, but after that, you get pretty quickly desensitized to it. And once that happens, the game loses all of its effectiveness, even though it doesn't necessarily lose any of its borderline-unfair challenge.

Five Nights at Freddy's - security door
Keeping the security doors closed consumes power, sacrificing your long-term security.

You must spend five nights sitting in a security control room. There's two security doors and a series of camera, but there's also a limited supply of dwindling power. Closing the doors consumes power, looking through the cameras consumes power, turning the lights on consumes power. And if power runs out, you are left sitting in the dark for the rest of the night with no defense against the monstrous mechanical mascots.

The amount of nightmare logic that is required just to establish the setting is actually kind of interesting in its own right. What kind of a place operates with dwindling power? How poorly-maintained is this facility? How does it maintain power during the day? Is it even safe for kids during the day? Why would the doors require power to stay closed? You also get voicemails each night from the former night watchman, who casually talks about the increasingly-complex behaviors of the mascots, new strategies for dealing with them, and so on. These phone messages are very well-acted and well-delivered. All of this contributes to the game's incredible uncanny setting, and everything seems to be in the perfect place to create an incredible horror experience based on powerlessness and creeping tension.

But then the actual gameplay starts, and the excellent atmosphere starts to buckle...

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Star Trek: Enterprise

Star Trek: Enterprise is a very divisive topic among Trekkers / Trekkies. Personally, I'm not a big fan. It was a perfectly adequate space adventure TV show, but just never quite worked as hard science fiction for me, let alone as "Star Trek". There were certainly some stand-out good episodes. The haunted space station of "Dead Stop" and the mirror universe antics of "In a Mirror, Darkly" being among my favorites. The annoying thing is that the show made several mistakes at very fundamental levels before it even got off the ground. I could have lived with the show being a prequel, but the efforts to make the show seem both futuristic to the viewing audience, but also less advanced than the (then 40-year-old) original series put the show in an awkward juxtaposition with established series continuity. The hackneyed time travel meta-plot certainly didn't help.

"Juxtaposed" is an excellent way of describing Enterprise as a whole. It's a show that simultaneously seemed ashamed of its "Star Trek" name (remember, it premiered with the title "Enterprise", and "Star Trek" was only stapled back on in later seasons), while also indulging in needless - and sometimes cringe-worthy - fan service (such as the appearance of the Borg, Ferengi, and the entire episode "In A Mirror, Darkly"). It wanted to distance itself from established Trek tropes, but also brought back many of the same technologies, concepts, and character archetypes (simply renaming many of them). It set itself at the cusp of development of advanced science fiction technologies, but completely waffled when it came to telling hard science fiction stories about those technologies. It wanted to be simultaneously a prequel and a sequel via its contrived time travel premise. It was this lack of confidence and true vision that really killed this show.

The science of future technology

The show made the mistake of trying to present a Star Trek setting that was less technologically advanced, but still went ahead and gave the crew access to stand-ins for all the established trek technologies. They tried to make the Enterprise itself feel more like a contemporary submarine with its confined spaces, but it never really felt different. There was "hull polarization" instead of shields, and "phase cannons" instead of phasers. Different names, but same basic concepts that were used in exactly the same manner. The crew didn't start the show using more contemporary-seeming projectile weapons - not even a futuristic projectile weapon like a rail gun - before transitioning to purely energy-based weapons. The Enterprise didn't have to be equipped with any kind of futuristic chaffe in order to misdirect hostile targeting scanners, nor did it use point-defense to destroy incoming missiles.

"Phase pistols" and "polarized hull" were just lazy stand-ins for phasers and shields.

The only pieces of tech that the show really held off on (and were relevant to narrative) were the universal translator and transporters. The translator was rarely an issue since Hoshi was practically a Babel Fish. The transporter was there, but it was not trusted to reliably transport living things - even though it had been verified as safe by the beginning of the first episode and was successfully used in that episode. So for most of the show's run, the crew used shuttle craft for away missions, but the transporter was always there just waiting to act as a deus ex machina to get the crew out of a sticky situation (which, of course, happened on multiple occasions - including the premiere).

The fact that these technologies were already in place made the show feel too similar to other Trek series, even though it desperately wanted to feel distinct. But it also prevented the writers from exploring some of the more interesting issues inherent to the development of these technologies...

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PolyCast logo

I had another opportunity over the weekend of June 11th to participate as a guest host on the Civilization podcast PolyCast for their 257th episode. I joined regular hosts DanQ, TheMeInTeam, MadDjinn, and Makahlua as we discussed the latest news regarding Civilization - specifically, some new information regarding City States in Civilization VI. We discussed how the new envoy system works, what exactly Firaxis might mean by city states being "streamlined", took a jab at Beyond Earth by joking that stations are "streamlined" city states, and then teased Dan with the apparent lack of a "bully" option on the city state interface that is shown in the screenshots.

Civilization VI - City State Hattusa
City State "diplomacy" is now handled by sending envoys rather than by buying their alliances with gold.

The new city state system relies on sending diplomatic envoys to a city state. Once certain thresholds of envoys have been reached, the city state grants certain bonuses based on its type. The civ with the most envoys gets the privilege of being the suzerain of the city state (seems to be just a renaming of "ally" or "master"), which confers a unique bonus to the civ from that city state. Having unique bonuses from city states is a cool new feature that adds more variety and personality, and helps inform the player of the history of that city states in the same way that the civilizations' national powers were informed by some aspect of the respective civ's culture and history. Very nice addition.

The envoy system seems to be an attempt to make city states feel more diplomatic and less like bribery subjects. It sounds like it should work towards that goal, and city states alliances will require more long-term commitment and hopefully won't be subject to the same kinds of mass-gold buying to suddenly swing their alliances from one civ to another. I just wonder if city states will still play a major part in the diplomatic victory?...

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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