Moons of Madness - title

It's hard to make a good Lovecraftian horror game. The key to Lovecraft's horror was the mysterious intractability of his cosmic abominations. It wasn't just that they were ugly or deadly; the horror came from the realization that these monsters were part of a much greater cosmos that humans can barely comprehend, and that we are little more than ants to these god-like beings who could snuff us out of existence at a whim -- if they even cared enough about us to do so. In the century since Lovecraft wrote his stories, Lovecraft's monsters have become so iconic that Cthulhu is pretty much a universally-recognized, cliche monster along with the likes of Dracula and the Xenomorph. The closer a story adheres to Lovecraft's ideas, the more familiar it becomes, and the harder it is to create that sense of being overwhelmed with unfathomable knowledge that drives a person insane.

That is why I think that FromSoftware's Bloodborne is perhaps the best video game adaptation of Lovecraft's concepts (even though it is not a direct adaptation of any of his stories). Bloodborne's esoteric and arcane lore, and the indirect nature in which it communicates its backstory, actually does create that sense that the player is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle that you will never fully comprehend. And the difficult nature of the game means that the player certainly feels like you can be snuffed out of existence at any moment.

Moons of Madness isn't mysterious, or arcane, or particularly threatening. It's cliche and predictable to a fault.

Flatline

I saw almost every plot point coming from a mile away, and if you don't want spoilers, then I suggest you skip ahead to the next section. I didn't expect there to be a full-on underground lab complex akin to Resident Evil 2, but it wasn't something that came off as very surprising considering how telegraphed the corporate conspiracy "twist" was from the start. All the other twists, however, came off as rote and stale. The science experiment gone haywire, the relief ship crashing, the reveals about the protagonist's family history, the multiple betrayals ... none of it came off as even remotely surprising, and the whole game degraded to simply waiting for the next shoe to drop. The game isn't very long, but the predictable nature of its plot made it feel like it was dragging on for much longer than its six-ish hour playtime.

The secret lab was not a surprise and only distracted from the cosmic horror.

Worse yet, the corporate conspiracy stuff ended up distracting from, and drowning out, the Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The monsters don't feel mysterious because they're all the results of experiments being done at the request of the evil corporation. The Lovecraftian temple complex and "dreamers" fall flat because their existence is spoiled much earlier in the game. Heck, the other characters visit the temple and tell you all about it over the radio, while you're fumbling about the silly underground lab, so by the time you get to the temple, it's not mysterious at all. I think the point was to try to convey the awe and wonder of the NPC characters in the hopes that it would instill a sense of awe and wonder within the player, but all I could think was "I'd much rather be playing as those other characters right now!"

When all is said and done, I feel like Observation (despite not being directly inspired by Lovecraft's mythos) pulls off the cosmic horror shtick much better because its alien influences remain mysterious and intractable all the way through the end -- perhaps to that game's fault.

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Return of the Obra Dinn - title

Well, with a Madden review in my rear view mirror, and while waiting for the indie football games to hit the market, I decided to try out one of last year's darling indie games. I very much enjoyed Lucas Pope's previous game, Papers, Please, so Return of the Obra Dinn was high up on my wish list of indie games. It was just a matter of finding time to sit down and play it and give it my full attention.

This isn't a game that you can just kind of casually play. Much like with Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn requires your close attention. You have to pay very close attention to details, which can come from one of several different places. It might be a single word or a name in a snippet of dialogue. It might be inferring a person's naval rank based on the uniform they're wearing. It might be making a mental note of what room a person is running into or out of. You then have to use those details to make genuine deductions or judgement calls.

Elementary, my dear time-lord

The basic premise is that you are an insurance claims adjuster (I guess) working for the English East India Company. A missing merchant ship suddenly returns with all hands missing. You must search the ship to piece together the events of its voyage, and try to determine what happened to as many of the crew as possible.

Search a derelict ship for clues to the fates or whereabouts of its crew and passengers.

Your only tools are a notebook and a mysterious stopwatch (or is it a compass?). The notebook contains a crew manifest, a drawing of all the crew and passengers, a map of the ship, and a few notes on where to look for initial clues. It is also used to log all of the pertinent information that you find. The other tool is the mysterious stopwatch that has the ability to manifest a recreation of the scene of a corpse's death. Where such a fantastical tool came from and why you have it is not really explained (at least not at first). When you find a body, you can activate the stopwatch to see how that person died. The stopwatch manifests a 3-D freeze frame of the moment of the person's death and replays the last things the person heard before he (or she) died.

The whole game consists of exploring these scenes to try to figure out who the deceased person is, how they died, and to cross-reference the scenes to figure out who everyone else is and what happened to them. It's actually a lot more challenging that it seems.

Try to figure out the names and fates of as many people as you can, using the clues provided to you.

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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

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What Remains of Edith Finch - title

The Finch family is, as we are told, cursed. It's not a spoiler to say that every member of the family dies a tragic, premature death. The family tree in the sketchbook tells you as much at the start of the game.

We play, ostensibly, as 17-year-old Edith Finch, the last surviving member of the Finch family, but also an expecting mother. Her son will carry on the name and legacy of the family. She returns to her childhood home to learn the stories of all her cursed relatives, as she debates internally with whether to share these stories with her son, or to let the past (and its myriad tragedies) fade away and die.

The Finch family is cursed by tragedy.

The house itself, is a whimsical generational home in which each member of the family is given his or her own unique room. As more members of the family are born, new rooms are added onto the house, including a towering structure on the top that makes the house look almost like a castle. After losing both of her sons, Edith's mother began sealing off everyone's rooms so that Edith (and any future children) would not become aware of how the others died. But, each room has alternate ways in and out, including some secret doorways and tunnels.

Despite the whimsical, fantastical nature of the house, everything feels surprisingly real and lived-in. The house is cluttered with the paraphernalia of the family (since they were apparently also hoarders), and each room has a very distinct personality. Even the shared spaces that do not belong to any one individual still exhibit a sense of personality to them. This is a family that takes great pride in their history and the connectedness that they have towards one another.

The Finch home is a whimsical, generational house.

As she learns about these stories, Edith questions whether the family members should know about the stories of their relatives and the supposed curse? Or does that knowledge make tragedy a self-fulfilling prophecy? Should she share these stories with her unborn son, at the risk that the knowledge may cause him to also fall victim to the curse? Or is he cursed either way, and has a right to know it?...

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Firewatch - title

I made it through the big winter game releases, my play-time with Civilization VI's first expansion has slowed down, and the lackluster Green Cities expansion means that I'm not sinking tons of time into Cities: Skylines anymore. This has left me free to finally dive into my Steam back-log once again and try to finally cross off some of the games that have been sitting there for a year or longer. Oh, sure, I have some big games that I'm still playing off and on, like Monster Hunter: World and the 2.0 update of Stellaris, and those reviews will come in time.

Firewatch was released in February 2016, and has been sitting in my Steam library since the summer sale of that same year. I was actually surprised that it had only been two years. I was half afraid that I'd find the game had been sitting around since like 2012 or something like that. Two years isn't that bad, right? I'm not too late to this party, am I?

Firewatch is a summer job to just ... get away from it all.

The life you left behind

Basically, the game is about a middle-aged man dealing with a mid-life crisis. Except that it isn't the stereotypical "mid-life crisis" in which a 40-year-old man goes out and buys a sports car to feel young and "cool" again. In this case, Henry takes a job as a fire look-out at a national park in order to escape the very real life crisis of dealing with his wife suffering from early-onset Alzheimers. He's trying to escape from the very real trauma of losing his wife, Julia. Julia is actually still alive, but the illness means that she isn't the same person, and Henry is struggling with whether he can even stand to visit her anymore, and whether she's effectively "dead to him".

Not only is he losing his wife, but he's also dealing with the guilt and grief of not ever having really given her the life that she wanted. His own selfish desires and apathy meant that they kept putting off having kids, Julia never got to live where she wanted to live and have the job that she wanted to have, and so forth. And now Henry and Julia are suddenly out of time. Not only can he not have the life with Julia that they both want, but he's not young enough to really start over either. He's stuck with the life choices that he's made, and he doesn't want to have to face that.

The game that follows is an exploration of choice, and how a person copes with the consequences of their choices.

There won't always be a "later"...

I'm in my early 30's (a good decade younger than Henry), but I'm starting to get to the age when this sort of thing really hits me hard as well. I'm not 20 years old anymore. I'm becoming very much aware of the ticking clock as well. The pressure to have children soon or accept that we never will weighs on my girlfriend an I. Fortunately, she has a child from a previous relationship, so we did both have the opportunity to raise at least one child together.

My 7-year-old proxy daughter, by the way, asked me who my character in the game is and what he looks like. I told her that he's a "kind of pudgy, balding, middle-aged man with a beard, named Henry." To which she responded, "like you?". Sigh. Yes, sweetie, just like me...

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A gamer's thoughts

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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