To Watch - The Long Dark. To Play - Dragon's Dogma

Steam often had recommendations for things I should buy. Sometimes I suspect that the algorithm is pretty simple - Valve knows I played DayZ with friends, so it assumes I'm a fan of survival games, which, generally speaking, I'm not. But today, when it recommended "The Long Dark", the algorithm struck something that is genuinely interesting to me, if not something that I'll definitely purchase. 

I love atomosphere in games, and in even in Open Access the Long Dark has it in spades. There are no zombies - no enemies at all, as far as I can tell, save for wolves and a blistering, piercing cold. There IS, on the other hand, something that is fairly rare for a survival game, which is a story. The Steam trailer establishes The Long Dark as a story game sort of reminiscent of The Road, with people struggling to survive an apocalypse and retain their humanity. The player character is voiced, a trend that I love to see in games since it gives so much opportunity for richer story telling. 

I was on the verge of purchasing the game when I watched more of the gameplay footage and found the more heavy survival elements. The Long Dark is apparently brutal, forcing the player to count calories and gather enough firewood to last a night of sleep. While I appreciate that there are some people for whom that particular challenge is fun, I'm a bit hesitant to commit myself to that grueling type of play, especially in an Early Access title for which the mechanics haven't been totally polished. 

Also, I've been convinced. My friend has been telling me that Dragon's Dogma is a game to play for years. Both he and James Portnow from Extra Credits have defined the game as "Dark Souls meets Skyrim meets Shadow of the Colossus". That's enough for me to give it a whirl. 

Screeps, BitUp, Let Them Come, The Beginner's Guie

I've encountered several cool games in the past three days. Let's see what I can cover.

Screeps

Screeps is a game in which the player needs to code in Javascript to get things done. It's an MMO strategy game set in a series of interconnecting rooms. The player needs to spawn minions and program their behaviors in gathering resources, defense, and offense.  The learning curve is incredibly steep, but the vision of having players face off in a battle of coding wits is intriguing. I watched one gameplay clip that showcased a player facing increasingly challenging attacks from another player.  S/he does well in the initial stages, but once the front line is broken, responding to the threat as enemies moved about seemed really challenging. What's the code that will say, "split fighters off into groups and chase down the closest baddies"?

I took a look at Screenshot Daily, a site that showcases the posts from Reddit's screenshot Saturdays. As an indie developer myself I'm pretty damn humbled by how good some of these projects look.

BitUp

BitUp's painted pixelart. 

BitUp's painted pixelart. 

 

I just think this is pretty.

Currently in development for PC and PS4.

Let Them Come

Let Them Come is not really my kind of game, but I was floored by the style. The player's face at the bottom of the screen distorts with fear and rage as baddies get closer to his barricade. The flashes of gunfire in a pitch black hallway illuminating the shambling masses. Wet explosions. Very effective.

Currently in development. PC, Consoles, Mobile.

The Beginner's Guide

From David Wreden, the writer of The Stanley Parable. The Beginner's Guide "tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand."

I know literally nothing besides the trailer, but I loved the TSP and the premise they lay out here. It's $10 on Steam. 

Games are awesome, and there are more of them than it's possible to keep track of.

 

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

This was a Steam Sale purchase for me. Several reviews connect The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to two of my favorites, Gone Home and Dear Esther. There's a lot of similarities between them - like those other titles The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does make use of environmental storytelling, first person narration, etc, which I tend to love. But I also encountered some frustration in figuring out what I was supposed to be doing. The experience reminds me exactly how hard it is to balance player freedom and coherent storytelling.

You enter this world in a vibrant wood, following a train track. The sun is setting and there is an atmosphere of decay. The developers, The Astronauts, know how to make use of the Unreal engine. The sun is setting over a lake - in the lengthening shadows you can see, far off in the distance, a collection of houses that you will visit. Knowing that talented storytellers know how to use environmental guidance and foreshadowing I set off, following the train tracks. I observe a few eerie clues that something violent happened - blood on a train car, a stain on the tracks, and, thinking it will all be explained as I press on, I move forward.

In doing so I apparently missed a sizable chunk of content. As it turned out a murder took place on those tracks - something I could have explored and thereby come to understand a little about the characters. But, not being told that it was my goal to inspect all sites like a crime scene, I moved forward, missing out on exposition and plot.

The first thing I am told is that "this game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand." Definitely true. Unfortunately the game also assumes that the player will figure out some important details without being explained - something that doesn't always happen. So much of my experience with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was wandering around, looking for something that would move the game forward, instead of experiencing the story the authors wanted to tell.

That story, by the way, was fairly gripping. I ended up loading up a walkthrough and consulting it when I got too stuck. Generally I don't enjoy this, because like the game to push me along at its own pace, but this seemed to be the best gameplay compromise. If you like Lovecraftian horror, you might really like this game.

In Dear Esther, you as the player is pretty much on rails. You are presented with a glowing tower in the distance and a trail that will get you there, and you push on along the rails that the game has set for you. Gone Home, too, sets up the goal and then keeps the player on a fairly tight leash. You are given hints of what has happened in this house, and then set up with environments to explore and doors to unlock. The next step (the door that needs to be opened) is always fairly clear. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter creates a world every bit as vibrant, and more ambitious in scope, but struggles to make the "what's next" clear to the player.

Lesson learned - environmental storytelling can be a powerful tool for crafting a player experience. But minimizing the information you give to a player can be dangerous, especially when you're trying to explain mechanics.

Available on Steam for Windows.

Sunless Sea

Sunless Sea is set in the same universe as Fallen London, a delightful free to play text based adventure. Both games revolve around Fallen London (London was stolen by bats, you see, and taken a mile underground). They represent probably the best writing I've found in games - dark, quirky, and dripping with character.

Sunless Sea benefits from having a sound track, sound design, etc. It's clearly of the same mold as it's browser-based sister game, but more so.

I like games like this. World building, atmosphere, and story are rare.

Available on PC, Mac, and Linux.