Madison - title

I feel like Halloween just wouldn't be Halloween anymore without playing some new P.T.-inspired indie horror game. This year's "hot" title seemed to be MADiSON by Bloodious Games, which I started playing with a group of 2 friends on Halloween night (after returning from taking the kids Trick or Treating), but we didn't get around to finishing until after the New Year. It wasn't that we didn't want to keep playing. Quite the opposite, in fact. The reason it took so long to finish is because all 3 of us really wanted to keep playing, so I had to wait till all 3 of us were available for a next session before continuing.

In addition to being another indie horror game in a long line of P.T. wannabes, MADiSON also follows in closely off the coattails of Visage. Both games heavily utilize a polaroid flash camera as a critical multi-tool, but MADiSON does one-up Visage by making the camera much more integral to core gameplay. While I only remember the camera in Visage being used as a source of temporary illumination, the camera of MADiSON is both integral to the story, and also absolutely necessary for solving multiple puzzles and for progressing the game's story.

Yet another indie horror game about wandering the halls of a haunted house -- this time with a camera!

Ocular Obscura

The core gimmick of MADiSON is that the player uses a polaroid camera to take pictures of the environment, and the resulting photograph will show things that aren't really there. These photographs will be used as clues to solve a puzzle or to progress the scenario, or taking the picture will just outright trigger the next objective. The house is littered with such puzzles. Unfortunately, the layout of the house, the pacing of the scenario, and the solutions to many puzzles can be a bit on the obtuse side. So much so, in fact, that Bloodious Games resorted to scattering blank polaroids near important objects, which act as obvious signposts that you should take a picture of the thing. This isn't exactly obvious at first, because many such marked objects will get no reaction from the camera until later parts of the scenario, when they become relevant to the current task at hand.

The dense nature of the game's map creates a lot of problems for pacing and signposting. Multiple puzzles, from different chapters of the game, might be present in the same space and could serve to interfere with one another or confuse the player.

This isn't to say that the puzzles are necessarily "bad". Once we realized that the house is littered with red herrings that don't become relevant until later, I actually started to like that these puzzles are a bit more complicated and multi-layered than the typical adventure game fare the we've been getting over the past decade or so. This was, in fact, a big reason why all 3 of us wanted to continue playing the game: we wanted to solve the next puzzle! So many adventure and horror puzzles these days don't get much more complicated than "open a drawer, find a key, and use said key on the one and only lock in that same room." They can feel so patronizing. MADiSON's puzzles definitely do not feel patronizing!

Many puzzles require careful observation and inferences from the environment.

Even if there is a simple clue like a color or a number that is given to the player, there is always some confounding additional factor. It's never just as simple as matching a number or a color or a shape. Most of these puzzles require some careful observation of the player's surroundings, some contextual inferences that won't be obvious to every player, and occasionally a lit bit of arithmetic, spatial, or logic skills. Playing this game in a group actually did help in this regard. Any one of us would have been stuck for a while on multiple puzzles, but there was always one of us who would pick up on a given clue and point it out to the others.

But some of the early puzzles, in particular, are a bit heavy on the red herrings and could definitely have used some better sign-posting and direction.

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35mm - title

December, January, and February is usually a time when I try to make a dent in my ever-growing Steam backlog. I buy lots of games on Steam sales, and then end up not playing most of them. So when I do go into the backlog, I always try to emphasize some of the shorter, indie games in the hopes that I can power through several before the big spring game releases start rolling in. This time around, I loaded up an independent Russian game from developer Sergey Noskov, which was very well-reviewed back when I bought it in 2016. Apparently, it's going to be released on PS4 soon, so this review is sort of topical. It hasn't really held up as well as I hoped it would in the almost-5 years since its release.

Ironically, this game is set during a fictional ebola pandemic that has turned Russia into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I'm playing it during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The game was released back in 2016, long before COVID.

35mm is a hard game to classify. It's not quite a shooter. Not quite a survival game. Not quite a horror game. And not quite a walking simulator. It straddles the line between all of these sub-genres, shifting from one to the other at the drop of a hat, but without ever feeling jarring about it. There's even a few little mini-games thrown in for good measure. As such, there's plenty of variety that helps prevent this game from ever feeling stale. Regardless of whichever genre 35mm is currently residing in, its slow pace, subdued, aesthetic design, and melancholy tone remains consistent. It is this pacing and tone that defines the game much more than any one genre.

35mm straddles the line between walking sim, shooter, survival game, and horror.

We play as a mysterious protagonist travelling across a post-apocalyptic Russia, presumably to get home to see his family. He is accompanied by a travelling companion for most of the game. The history of these characters and the relationship between them are never clearly defined, which feels like its setting up for some kind of narrative twist right from the start. Nevertheless, the companion character acts as a sort of guide through the first half of the game, telling the player where to go and what to do. Unfortunately, since these characters are never very well-developed, any potential tragedy or impact of the final twist (regardless of which ending is achieved) is severely neutered.

What's the deal with the camera?

Even though I can't quite put my finger on what genre to classify 35mm, one thing that I can definitely say is that it is not a game about photography. Given that the game is named for the type of film in a camera, and the camera is featured in the game's title screen and promotional material, I would think that the camera would feature heavily in the game. But this is not the case. The camera is never necessary. It isn't used to progress the plot. It isn't used to solve puzzles. There isn't even a recap of the photos I took at the end of the game. Photographs become a major part of the game's finale, but they aren't the pictures that I took during the course of the actual game.

The camera is not utilized, despite inspiring the title of the game and being featured on the title screen.

So I'm really puzzled as to why the game is named "35mm". It kind of set my expectations a little bit higher than they probably should be. I thought I was going to get something a little bit more artsy and creative. But instead, what I got is a pretty straightforward, linear game.

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Disco Elysium - title

It's kind of hard to play a lot of video games while holding an infant child. It's certainly possible, but I had to accept that I was going to be less precise in my inputs whether I was holding a PlayStation controller or a keyboard and mouse. It seemed like a perfect time to try out a game that only requires a mouse to play -- a perfect time to finally try out Disco Elysium!

Disco Elysium is a unique and experimental RPG that straddles the line between RPG, point-and-click adventure, and walking sim. Most RPGs have combat of varying degrees of complexity in order to give all the various character stats and progression systems something to do. Disco Elysium completely eschews those conventions. I think I fired a gun maybe three times in my entire play time with the game (across a campaign and a half that I played prior to reviewing), and one of those gunshots was against a corpse hanging from a tree. Oh and I roundhouse kicked a a racist beefcake (you know, in order to establish my own racial superiority). Not exactly Call of Duty over here.

It may not require the twitch reflexes that many "gamer bros" expect every game to have, but games like this have been a godsend for those of us who only have one free hand to hold a mouse, because the other arm is holding a sleeping infant. It also happens to be a really good game.

I maybe fired a gun thrice, and roundhouse kicked a racist once, in 40+ hours of gameplay.

Inner dialogue

Instead of channeling character stats into gauntlets of filler combat encounters as a way of accumulating experience to improve those stats for the next combat encounters, Disco Elysium channels all of its character attributes into conversation trees. But these conversations aren't just with the other characters who I interview as part of the murder mystery plot. These conversations are also with the character's own inner monologue.

You see, the skills in Disco Elysium aren't like the skills of most other RPGs. They don't determine the character's physical strength, or agility, or skill with various weapons, or a blanket "charisma" attribute that determines if people believe your lies or are swayed by your arguments. No, instead, all of the skills of Disco Elysium represent elements of the protagonist's personality and psyche. Those skills will even pop up during dialogue and allow the character to have arguments or conversations with his own inner monologue. Each skill is like a voice in the protagonist's head, telling him what to do, or how to interpret the events he encounters. Each skill is sort of a character in its own right.

The character's skills talk to him, giving the player insight into the game world and current circumstances,
and also (sometimes flawed) advice about how to proceed.

I'm reminded of the psychosis voices of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, with each voice shouting over the others trying to tell Senua what to do or telling her that she's worthless and can't do anything right. Except in Disco Elysium, the player can actually have conversations with those voices. You can talk back to them.

These skills will pop up from time to time as interjections during conversations to make observations about what is happening or to recommend specific courses or action or responses. It's also a great way of delivering exposition and ensuring that the player knows any relevant details that the character should know. But they aren't always completely reliable. Sometimes blindly following the advice of these skills can land you in trouble.

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I do not have particularly strong opinions one way or the other about the video game sub-genre known as "walking simulators" in general. I have strong opinions about some of the games that I've played within this genre, but I would not say that I either like or that I dislike "walking simulators" as a whole genre. Some work well and are good games. Others are un-engaging or lazy and didn't particularly work for me.

For example, I hated Dear Esther and Ether One. I was immensely disappointed in Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, after having enjoyed The Dark Descent. But on the other side of the coin, I thoroughly adore Gone Home, Firewatch, and What Remains of Edith Finch.

Patrons had early access to the full video essay.

Are "Walking Sim" games?

So what is a "walking simulator"? Well, like with most things in pop culture, the definition will vary depending on who you ask. But I think most people would agree that a "walking simulator" can be accurately described as interactive entertainment that conveys a narrative almost exclusively through the exploration of an environment and the clues provided therein. You may notice that I used the term "interactive entertainment" as oppose to "video game". I did this in order to keep this discussion's definition as non-contentious as possible. One of the criticisms of walking simulators that I specifically wish to address is the idea that they are not video games, and such critics would immediately object to the use of the term "video game" in the definition. These experiences generally lack any of the violent conflict that is present in most video games, and the mechanics rarely go beyond navigating obstacles, solving puzzles, or managing a limited inventory.

While I am perfectly content to call walking simulators "video games", there are somewhat valid arguments for why the label might not be appropriate for such entertainment products. It could be argued that they are not video games because they lack conflict; they lack a traditional win state, fail state, or any stakes at all; and they lack mechanical depth or complex systems. I personally do not accept these arguments as disqualifying walking simulators from consideration as "video games". There are plenty of universally-accepted video games that also lack one, or even all three of those criteria.

Many games have lacked violence conflict, traditional win states, or complicated system mastery.
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Virginia - title

I spent a large chunk of my gaming time since last August playing football video games. With the season over, I wanted to spend a couple months playing other games before diving back into to football critique videos with the next installment of my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" series. I also recently played Outer Wilds, which gave me an idea for a new video essay about the evolution of walking simulators (video will be published soon, and I'll post it to the blog when it's released). So I spent pretty much all of March diving into my Steam backlog of walking simulators, replaying ones I'd played years ago, and spending some Patron funds to purchase ones I had never played.

One such game sitting in my Steam backlog for years was the divisive indie noir thriller Virginia. Players take on the role of a freshman FBI agent tasked with performing internal affairs oversight on her partner, who is currently investigating a case involving a missing teenager in a small Virginia town. The game shows its X-Files and Twin Peaks influences proudly on its sleeve, including a scene of lounge musicians performing a song that is a blatant homage to the title theme of Twin Peaks.

Virginia is heavily inspired by 90's thrillers X-Files and Twin Peaks.

What makes Virginia interesting as a game is its unique presentation. It uses very cinematic editing, with sudden cuts and montages during gameplay. I might start walking down a hallway on the first floor of the FBI building, then suddenly cut (mid-stride) to the hallway leading to my partner's basement office (just like the office of Agent Mulder in X-Files). This can be convenient because it spares the player from the unnecessary legwork of tediously walking through such a large building. This keeps the game focused on telling its story at a brisk, cinematic pace. When combined with the context of the situation, and the movie-quality soundtrack, this editing can build a lot of tension and suspense. Who would have thought that a montage of walking down empty hallways for less than a minute could be such a tense experience?

Furthermore, the levels are designed such that these edits sync up with player inputs so as to create a surprisingly smooth and purposeful stream of inputs. These aren't cutscenes. I remain in control of the character, and these sudden cuts rarely, if ever feel jarring. They might be surprising (especially the first few times they happen), but I never felt like I had no idea what was going on (with maybe a few exceptions late in the game).

Cinematic edits cut down on tedious travel and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

This style of carefully-paced editing can also be problematic. Scenes will sometimes transition without player input, creating frequent points of no return, even if I wanted to go back and examine something else or try another interaction. Even though the player remains in control throughout, I still had virtually no agency in how scenes would progress -- let alone how the larger story unfolds. This probably could have been a first-person animated film and wouldn't really lose much in the translation.

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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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