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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Mad Max game

Normally, I try not to get excited about movie-tie in games. They have a very bad track record - with only a handful of exceptions. But this Mad Max game wasn't a direct movie adaptation, and it didn't release simultaneously with the movie, implying that it hopefully wasn't being rushed out the door to meet the movie's release. Warner Brothers Interactive had previously released Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which was also sort of a tie-in to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and that game was actually very exceptional! It had a novel and innovative concept around which the entire game revolved (making it very focused), and it was a very well-polished game that was immensely comfortable to control. So Warner Bros had earned some benefit of the doubt for its next game. I wasn't expecting Mad Max to match (let alone exceed) Shadow of Mordor, but I still had hopes that this one would turn out to be a well-realized game that could stand tall and proud as one of those rare, good movie tie-in games. After all, the concept of an open-world, post-apocalyptic action game about smashing spiky, nitrous-fueled cars into each certainly sounds like a solid premise for a game!

Well, not quite...

Wasteland chaos

Mad Max - conflicting button prompts
Many actions are overloaded to the X button - the game even displays conflicting prompts at times!

Virtually every interaction that I had with the game was either naggingly uncomfortable in some way or was prone to glitches. Even the basics of moving around and interacting with objects in the game world was a constant chore. When one button does everything; it does nothing (see my Assassin's Creed III review). Fortunately, a couple really important functions (like getting in and out of cars) were mapped to different buttons, but virtually everything else uses the X button. So if you're standing in front of a ladder and holding a weapon, it's a crapshoot whether the game will decide to let you climb the ladder or make you drop the weapon, and then it'll be a crap shoot whether the game lets you pick up the weapon again. Oh there's button-prompts to tell you what you can and can't do, but sometimes they outright conflict with one another. Besides, when you're running or fighting, then you're reacting on impulse and muscle memory rather than reading screen prompts. It doesn't help that the character's movement is very fidgety, so it's hard to position yourself properly when trying to interact with objects. I think the developers recognized this, which is probably why they make you have to hold the button for a second in order to perform most actions - to give you time to ask yourself "are you sure this is the action you want to do?".

Not enough space for vehicular combat

Clunky movement isn't limited to walking on foot. Steering vehicles is also very fidgety and floaty, and I found it very difficult to perform any precision maneuvering in the cars. The cars all tend to understeer at high speeds, but then strangely oversteer or fish-tail whenever you let off the gas. Trying to hit a ramp or knock down an enemy scarecrow or ram a sniper tower would often require multiple passes in order to succeed, and doing slaloms through the canyons resulted in a lot of cheap impacts. The rough terrain also leads to a lot of spin-outs. The vehicles feel so weightless and floaty that they can park on nearly vertical slopes, and running over a pebble can send the car hurtling and flipping 20 feet in the air. On a more personal note, I prefer my driving games to have cameras very close to the action, and so Mad Max's driving camera feels like it's a mile away from the action, which makes it harder for me to get a feel for precisely where the car is in relation to the environment. Virtually none of the game's vehicular set pieces really worked all that well for me due to these nagging control and scaling issues. If the map were bigger to accommodate multiple vehicles running side-by-side on a road, then dealing with the low-traction sand or the unlevel rocks wouldn't be so much of a consistent problem. Even having the option to zoom in the camera (an option that I couldn't find) would go along way towards helping me make more precise maneuvers.

Mad Max - vehicular combat
The primary gimmick of vehicular combat works fairly well in spite of the map not feeling big enough to support it.

This game really lives or dies based on how well the cars perform. The bulk of the game is played from within your car. You use the car to travel the world, and it's actually your primary weapon thanks to the game's novel vehicular combat. This vehicular combat would actually be really fun if the cars handled a bit better and were durable enough to actually take the beating that the combat entails...

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Soma

Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.

Learning from failures and forgetting successes

Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.

Second chances

Soma - monster
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.

Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish...

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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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Humble suggestions for improving Dark Souls II onlineHumble suggestions for improving Dark Souls II online09/22/2014 I recently posted my much-belated review of Dark Souls II. In it, I criticized the game for having lackluster online components, but didn't go into much detail other than to say that Soul Memory seems like a non-optimal matchmaking method and that invasions are rare and reserved for elite players. I wanted to take a moment to...