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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Resident Evil VIII Village - title

Village seems to be positioning itself as a sort of "greatest hits" of earlier Resident Evil games. I'm not sure it all comes together as well as Capcom must have hoped it would. Resident Evil VII Biohazard did an excellent job of modernizing the design philosophies of the original Resident Evil game. Map design, inventory and resource constraints, and the "fight or flight" nature of enemy encounters all perfectly re-captured the feel of the original PS1 classics, without all of the clunkiness.

Village maintains the exploratory map design of the original Resident Evil and of Resident Evil VII, but it also tries to port concepts and aesthetics from the Resident Evil 2 remake and from Resident Evil 4. The RE2 stuff fits well enough, but the RE4 influences just don't feel compatible with classic design philosophy.

The setting instantly reminded me of Resident Evil 4.

Clash of philosophies

Right off the bat, the general aesthetic screams "Resident Evil 4". The game begins in a small, rustic, eastern European village at the foot of a gothic castle. Just like in RE4, you're quickly ambushed by the monstrous villagers and have to desperately fight your way out. Resident Evil 4 replaced the traditional zombies of the series with semi-aware "ganados"; Village similarly breaks away from the traditional zombies, but this time, the monsters are werewolves.

Not long into the game, you'll start smashing crates to reveal hidden loot, and pixel-hunting along the walls and ceilings for obnoxious sparkling gems to shoot down and collect. Also just like in Resident Evil 4, you'll routinely get rewards of items and money from defeated enemies. That money and loot is used to buy items or upgrade your equipment at a shop, just like in Resident Evil 4. This is where the game started to break down for me.

Loot, ammo, and cash can be recovered from smashed crates or defeated enemies.

Giving the player rewards of in-game cash for defeating foes (and for wasting bullets to shoot glowing gems off of walls) completely changes the motivations of the player in how we deal with enemies. I'm no longer carefully considering whether to try to sneak past an enemy or run away, nor am I ever firing off a single round at an enemy's knee to stun or cripple it so I can get away without consuming more resources, the way I might in REmake2. Since every defeated foe returns some of the resources that I invest into killing it, there is no "fight or flight"; only "fight". The enemies stop being threatening or frightening, especially on the standard difficulty setting, in which ammunition is readily available and the monsters patiently await their turns to charge and attack.

Even inventory management is mostly thoughtless. The more linear, more action-oriented, and less puzzle-oriented design of the game means that key items and treasures are not put in your limited inventory, and there isn't even a storage box to keep excess weapons or supplies. Only weapons, ammo, and healing items go into your briefcase. Everything else has unlimited storage. Even crafting components have separate, unlimited storage (the only exception being the animals meats needed for the Duke to cook meals -- more on this later).

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Outlast - title

I have one more game in my spring "walking sim" research. That game is the 2013 first-person horror game, Outlast, which (along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent) was instrumental in popularizing the "hide-and-seek" brand of horror gaming that became very popular in indie and low-budget horror games over the ensuing decade.

I liked Amnesia, and was interested in playing Outlast back around its release. I bought it years ago, and it ended up sitting in my unplayed Steam backlog until I installed it about a year ago, with the intent of playing it during the pandemic. But then I played other games, and Outlast sat around on my desktop this entire past year until I finally got around to playing it last month.

So was it worth the 8-year wait? Meh.

A haunted house permeated with uncertainty and surprise

At a very fundamental level, Outlast wanted to be a game that shocked and horrified players. In many regards, it's very successful at this endeavor, and it holds up pretty well in the 8 or so years since it released. The game starts off with a slow, ominous build that helps create an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. But once the horrors start coming, it's a barrage of shockingly horrific violence and inhumanity. I was never quite sure what I was going to find on the other side of a door or at the end of a hallway.

Sadly, the over-the-top violence did turn out to be desensitizing. By less than halfway through the game, the mutilated bodies of inmates and guards just wasn't scary anymore. Thankfully, there's a few other shocks and surprises in store for the player that helped keep me from becoming too comfortable with what's going on around me.

I actually had plenty of spare batteries
at the end of the game.

Like with most good survival horror games, Outlast sets up an expectation of scarcity that makes players anxious about using supplies that are actually in fairly generous supply. Just like how Resident Evil provides more than enough Ink Ribbons to let you save whenever you come across a typewriter, and Silent Hill gives enough ammo and healing supplies to let players stand your ground against most enemies, Outlast provides plenty of batteries. I thought I was using the night vision fairly liberally throughout the game, yet still had 6 or 7 spare batteries on me at almost all times throughout the game, without ever feeling like I was going too far out of my way to search for them.

The only exception was going through the courtyard and female ward, which is basically just a resource sink. The courtyard itself is a pain in the ass to navigate, but it looks really cool. The blowing wind and lightning creates lots of visual and auditory tricks that kept me tense throughout the entire time. I thought I was seeing ghosts all over the place, but could never really be sure that it wasn't just a trick of the light. I came out the other side of the courtyard with like 2 or 3 spare batteries, which made me nervous whenever I saw a dark hallway or room in the ensuing level. But it didn't take long to get my battery reserves back up to a comfortable level.

The dark courtyard perhaps the most tense and frightening (and battery-consuming) level.

In fact, by the end of the game, the night vision seemed to become less critical to progress, as the final level or two of the game are very well lit. I got to a point where I wasn't able to pick up new batteries because my stock was already full. So perhaps Red Barrels could have been a bit more stingy with how many batteries it provides? Or maybe they could have made a few more levels of the game a bit more dark? As it stands, most areas in the game are either completely lit and do not require night vision at all, or they are pitch black and absolutely require batteries to see anything at all. This means that the game has to provide more than enough batteries; otherwise, progress becomes impossible.

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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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Observer - title

Once again, it is spring time. All the big holiday releases are out, and I didn't need to bother playing them because they were all crap. So I spent all my time on the indie football games. Well now football season is over too, and I'm done with my critique of the indie football games. So it's time to dig into my Steam backlog and try to play some of the games that have been sitting around for years without being played.

I've been on a Bloober bender lately, playing through Layers of Fear 2 and The Medium, so I decided I'd check out their other game: the cyberpunk horror >Observer_.

Dialogue trees and player-driven exploration gives the player a greater sense of agency than in Layers of Fear.

Bloober seems much more cynical about trans-humanism compared to Frictional

Having played a few of Bloober's games, I was expecting a visual treat. If nothing else, Bloober's games are technically impressive in the ways that they depict surreal environments. I was curious how this would translate into a cyberpunk setting. It doesn't disappoint, as the game is a visual and technical treat from start to finish. But much like Bloober's other games, Observer is a technical treat, but as a game, it has definite shortcomings.

Observer lags behind other stand-out sci-fi games like The Swapper, Soma, and Outer Wilds by not really using the gameplay mechanics to convey its sci-fi concepts. Soma is an especially apt comparison because both games deal with transhumanist themes. I feel like Soma is a lot more thoughtful, thorough, and laser-focused on its singular main idea; whereas Observer is a bit more scatter-shot and surface-level with its various cyberpunk dystopian ideas.

You're given a few moral decisions that relate directly to the game's themes of transhumanism.

Observer also never really challenges the player to think too hard about the moral, ethical, or metaphysical consequences of your choices. There's a decision at the end of the game that determines which of two endings you get, and there's a couple optional side quests that culminate in the player making a moral decision based on what you've learned about how this world operates, and whether you think the technology is being mis-used. There's also dialogue trees that give the player the opportunity to poke and prod at how the other characters perceive this world, and to imbue a little bit of your own characterization on the protagonist. So yes, it does engage the player with the story's subject matter a little bit, which is certainly a heck of a lot more than Layers of Fear ever did.

It does fall apart a little bit in practice because the whole game is so cynically distrustful of the technology and institutions that employ them. The game only ever shows the pain, suffering, and degradation of human dignity that the cyberpunk revolution brought, but it never bothers to show any redeeming qualities of the technology. We're told that there are wealthy "A" and "B" class citizens, but we never see how they live, nor are we given any real hint at how much of the population is trapped in the disgusting squalor of these tenement buildings, or if this lifestyle is common in the rest of the world outside of Poland. By choosing to only show the heavy human toll that this technology has taken, and not giving the player any additional background knowledge or context, I feel like Bloober kind of makes the player's decisions for us.

Bloober is a bit cynical and heavy-handed in its depiction of cyberpunk dystopia.

It pales in comparison to the other games I mentioned (Soma in particular), which actually had me stopping dead in my tracks and really thinking about my choices. It's not "bad" story-telling per se (and in fact, the visual aspect of the story-telling is superb!); it's just not particularly interactive story-telling. Beyond Bloober leading the player towards these specific moral choices, there's not much else in the way of decisions or opportunities to apply the ideas towards any particular challenges or obstacles.

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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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