Monthly Archives: May 2015

N8 R8S 8 – GameJolt Adventure Jam

GameJolt’s Adventure Jam ended recently and I played several of the lovely little prototypes.  I should note that I have never really liked adventure games of the point-and-click variety, and I was surprised to see there were a LOT of them in this jam. I find them kind of tedious and slow-paced and more often than not, frustrating. This is sad, because I loved this type of game as a little N8. Freddi the Fish and Spyfox were so much fun to me, even though I was way too old to be playing them. When I played Grim Fandango, I ran into the same problems, but the game was colorful and clever enough to keep me entranced. Walkthroughs typically annoy me.  I want to figure my games out for myself, but with this type of game, I stop caring. It’s a choice between click-spamming all over the place and cheating myself out of figuring out the solution on my own.

The games in this jam did not, unfortunately, alleviate my disdain for point-and-clicks, so please understand that the way in which I ranked the following games is entirely arbitrary and based on nothing more than my personal fancy.

Here are the results of this N8R8S8:

1/8 Turing Adventure – This was one I couldn’t quite figure out.  I was supposed to escape this room by talking to something akin to CleverBot.  As if talking with chat bots online isn’t fun enough,Turing Adventure incorporates dynamic interaction in a way dialogue-trees can’t touch.  That doesn’t mean the dialogue here was really any better than pre-recorded dialogue trees, but at least the game tried something new.  As an experiment in human-AI interaction, this jam is great!  But the problems of chat-bot stupidity are far from resolved.


2/8 Speak of The Cloud – A beautiful, spirited, glitchy mess.  I’d say it’s the jam with the most potential in terms of classical story-telling.  I am very interested in where this game will go, assuming it goes.  The visuals were great and my biggest regret is not being able to see more.  I got stuck and quit – half due to frustration, half due to the fact that I had like 6 more games to try.  Nothing really groundbreaking here.


3/8 Foundations – This one got a lot of praise from the folks judging the jams.  It is well-polished and played much like a fully-fledged point-and-click. But it was just that to me. There was nothing that shouted ‘unique’ or ‘different’ in any real way, and I just got bored so quickly.  The lowish rating has nothing to do with the game’s merits, and everything to do with the fact that I just like weirder and more stimulating stuff than this.


4/8 Being Her Darkest Friend – The title screen is fantastic.  The visuals are polished and fit the mood of the game perfectly.  Underneath the surface, this is still a pretty generic point-and-click, just with some creepy overtones and an interesting story.  The dialogue was underwhelming, though the ending was pretty cool.  This falls directly in between ‘totally typical’ and ‘entirely different’ to me.

Main chamber

5/8 Once Upon a Timeline – A point-and-click again, but that is not the main attraction by far!  This clever game allows the player to go back and forth about 200 years and discover the changing scenery of a small house.  Gathering items from different periods of time was definitely a more entertaining way of using the point-and-click style of exploration than the typical form of slow-paced meandering, but there was very little to do.  The mechanics are simple and easily transferable to another game.  I’d like to see this more fleshed out.


6/8 Pendek – Another point-and-click. Blocky, faux-pixelated graphics, a cool, unique, engaging narrative, and some not-so-frustrating gameplay made me enjoy this short game a lot more than I expected to.  I was invested in the character and his plight.  I would have liked to discover more, as it ended a bit abruptly.  The game was charmingly mysterious.


7/8 Late Last Night – Yet another point-and-click.  But this one is hilarious and actually pretty fun. Each location has a different neat little aesthetic and the characters are funny and whimsical.  Reminded me a bit of Jonas Kyratzes’ stuff.  Biggest complaint was the fact that the main character’s dialogue and visuals were crumbier than the rest of the games’.  And the fact that it’s a point-and-click…


8/8 Bellular Hexatosis  – This game was right up my alley.  This is a text-adventure where clicking your next line of dialogue pulls you through some amazingly absurd 3D renders.  The bizarre landscapes are great, the writing is fantastic and mysterious, reminding me of Ben Marcus, and the interface is unique and smooth.  This is the first game I’ve played by Porpentine, but I am looking forward to playing more in the future.

Bellular Hexatosis

Hope you’re not too disappointed with my results.  I plan on doing similar short reviews for GameJolt Jams in the future, so please give me a shout if you’d like me to focus on one particular jam or another. Looking forward to more great free indie games like these in the future. -N8

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The Abandoned World of Kairo

Kairo is creepy.  It’s creepy because it drops you into a pit of grainy monoliths and industrial ambient sound.  It’s creepy because it’s subversive in its simplicity and obscurity.  It’s creepy because it urges you to discover its secrets, though they remain cryptic when found.

These secrets house the answer of what Kairo is, in the strict, narrative sense of the question.  If you’re at all like me, you’ll pick up on a few hints – get a little taste of what Kairo is all about – but will unfortunately have to leave the heavy lifting up to the true researchers like Joel over at Electron Dance.  It’s surely impossible to play through this game once, without any outside assistance, and pick up on all the little details that he documents in his spoiler intensive article on the game.

But while Joel picks apart the miniscule details to construct an accurate picture of the What, Where, and Why of Kairo, the average player will only have access to the initial experience.  This article is not about the hidden narrative of Kairo.  Far more interesting, in my opinion, is the unadulterated experience of playthrough one.  This first playthrough feels like a hallucinatory walk through a contemporary art gallery, actively avoiding the type of clarity that can later be extracted.

The player enters a fever dream – a realm of bleary edifices, sounds, colors, and spaces.  A psychological horror game based in the architectural and auditory – none of it particularly scary – but all of it just the right type of unsettling.  Exploration is your only initial instinct in this alien world and as you employ it, you’re rewarded with a sense of progress.  New rooms become available and your map slowly populates.  Delving deeper into the structures in Kairo, simple puzzles become your focus.  You’re not quite sure who/what you are as you complete these tasks but you assume you’re human at the very least.  But this anthropomorphic sentiment is not easily provable.  In fact, a more likely immediate explanation is that you’re some type of non-human, whose goal is entirely unintelligible from the perspective of a person.  Human or alien, solving these puzzles allows you to glean a sense of purpose.  Perhaps this absurdly beautiful collection of dimly-colored antechambers and chambers actually exists for a specific reason.  Kairo is the embodiment of a creepy secret numbers station – something is going on that you’re not quite aware of, yet you’re right there in the middle of it.


In fact, the puzzles have a certain mechanical nature.  One solution sends electricity through rotating rings while the solution to another sets water flowing to turn some hidden turbines.  You realize your objective is to set these cogs into motion.  You’re never entirely sure what kind of relationship the throng of connected and disconnected rooms and puzzles has to the ‘real world,’ but you are slowly tempted to believe that there is, indeed, some hidden association between this place and Earth.  Discerning the hard truths of this connection is problematic and it is only at the very end of the game that you realize what was at stake the whole time.


Navigating these rooms, you are slowly fed a drip of images.  A portrait of Einstein, a desolated city, famous works of art, circuit diagrams, the Buddha, a pair of dice, a pile of coins.  These pictures are the artifacts that remind us where we come from, like an archive of great, important, and familiar things, lest we forget our origins on this haunted vessel.  Other remembrances of home can be found on Kairo.  One room resembles a park.  One room houses maps of Earth.  Certain hallways air static-drenched human voices from eerie obelisks.  These snippets of human life never quite pacify the desire to return home, though Kairo has us question whether or not there is a home to which we can return.


The creeping lonely feeling is akin to feelings I remember when I first played Myst, and while comparing Kairo to Myst feels like a cheap tactic, it’s hard for me to ignore the similarities in tone.  The game feels bleak, mysterious, foreboding and somehow threatening.  To me, the world of Kairo, just like the world of Myst, feels passively sinister.  A similar sense of apprehension exists in Mateusz Skutnik’s Submachine series.  There is something off in these worlds and it’s up to the player to discover the secrets of these spaces with the ultimate goal of somehow returning to a safe, familiar place.  Games like this are peculiarly good at making us feel as though we’ve been away from home for a very long time.  Kairo emits a type of uneasy ambience that can’t be easily boiled down to words.


While the atmosphere of Kairo is spectacular, the actual gameplay components feel plain, unoriginal, and superficial.  The puzzles are simplistic (not just in the minimalist sense) and occasionally disjointed.  It rarely takes more than a brief period of trial and error to solve any one of them.  If you’ve played many puzzle games, you’ve already solved most of the puzzles in Kairo.  I am certain that smarter puzzles, with a stronger relationship to the game’s biggest strengths (sounds, structures, and exploration) could have been constructed to replace these basic placeholder challenges.  It’s annoying when a puzzle feels like it’s been arbitrarily inserted into the flow to keep me from moving forward too fast.  A slightly unrelated gripe has to do with the number of glitches I encountered during my playthrough.  I found myself having to restart more than once after getting permanently stuck on the game’s geometry.  There is also a pretty consistent problem with visual clipping and being able to see through walls.  These are all little issues, but so many of them dampen Kairo’s shine.  Fortunately, this game focuses on its strengths more than its weaknesses. It’s obvious that the visual and auditory landscapes and not the more classical first-person puzzler elements are at the heart of Kario.  The puzzles are a side-dish (albeit not a very tasty one) to the main course of haunting sounds, bleak, fading colors, and a simple, stirring type of absurdist architecture.


Personally, I prefer to leave the full-picture half-complete.  Filling in the pieces with my own sense of why things are the way they are seems far more genuine than gulping down the potion of ‘truth.’  This does not mean my respect I don’t respect Joel from Electron Dance for the massive amount of work he put into his analysis, or that I choose to strip all authority away from Richard Perrin, the actual creator of the game.  What it means is that analyses that aim to find a specific truth in such ambiguous material is always bound to turn up more questions.  The author may have had some very specific intentions when creating Kairo and Joel may have been able to pick up on just about all of them, but those definitive answers are not what made this game so beautiful.





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Seeing Further by Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Robots

N8R8s The Talos Principle

Like a giant benevolent alarm clock, a booming voice from the sky wakes you from your slumber. You get up, stretch the sleepies out and start mashing buttons. Quickly, you realize you are some sort of cyborg with the handy ability to go into third-person and sprint like ridiculously fast. Soon, you get to work jamming force fields, redirecting beams of light, and placing boxes on pressure plates.  You’re doing all this because… well, you’re not quite sure yet, but Elohim – that godly voice from the sky – sure sounds convincing and He wants you to keep at it!  Don’t worry about those highbrow questions like, “Why am I doing this?” or “Where am I?” or “How do I get the kitten from the cover art?”  Elohim assures you that so long as you keep solving his puzzles and collecting his sacred Tetris pieces, all questions will be answered and you’ll ascend and live happily in his eternal paradise.

Of course, any puzzle game worth its weight in salt teaches its players never to trust the disembodied voices telling us to engage in repetitive and seemingly pointless tests.  Messages scrawled on the walls in Portal gave us the feeling early on that GLaDOS was not as right-minded as she acted.  Similarly, The Talos Principle offers messages from previous testers in the form of QR codes, each offering a snippet of insight into the true nature of this beautiful, mysterious world.

I have heard players say that the metaphysical focus of the game comes across as heavy-handed or pretentious.  I sometimes got this feeling while reading through the massive amounts of these mixed media artifacts, but the biggest problem with the story wasn’t its haughtiness, but its inability to really surprise me.  I found most of the audio logs bland and highly predictable and many of the accessible texts to be embarrassingly cliché.  Still, the overarching philosophy of the game blows other thought-heavy games like Bioshock or The Stanley Parable out of the water, which is especially impressive considering The Talos Principle’s
much, much grander philosophical scope.While Elohim avoids addressing questions like Why? and How? you are tasked with solving deeper philosophical puzzles in order to answer these questions for yourself.  The game’s narrative is constructed with a variety of messages left behind by others in the form of various multimedia.  Forum posts, IRCs, emails between researchers and coworkers, philosophical texts, audio logs, and conversations with the mysterious Milton Library Archive allow you to gain understanding and a better sense of what happened to humanity.  More importantly, digging through this wide array of information may lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and that weird thing you call reality.

These minor issues of narrative clumsiness and self-impressedness are washed away by The Talos Principle’s greatest success.  These bright moments exist at the intersection of truly good puzzles and truly engaging pieces of narrative.  This crossing typically occurs at the end of a string of difficult puzzles – when you’re heading back to the start and are faced with an eerie blinking eye on the computer terminal.  Activating the terminal faces you with a choose-your-own adventure style of dialogue with Milton, a peculiar AI with a penchant for socratic dialogue.  This is how The Talos Principle gets in your head.  Milton questions you and your way of thinking, potentially getting you to doubt the nature of the game, yourself, and the world you live in.  These conversations – typically awarded to the player at the end of a gauntlet of difficult puzzles – exemplify The Talos Principle’s capacity for greatness.  These are the moments that make this game more than just another first-person puzzler.

The game has some of the nicest environments I have ever seen in a first person game.  The graphics aren’t incredibly polished, but it’s easy to forget this with its huge structures and fantastic detail.  The architecture is beautiful and the level of explorability is impressive.  This is a game you can truly get lost in, if that is your purpose.  There are dozens of hidden goodies throughout the worlds – some crafted to add a bit of extra challenge to the game and some just added for plain fun.  The puzzles themselves are sectioned off into little cages rather than dispersed throughout the surrounding expansive terrain, which can leave you feeling less like entering the cramped spaces of the puzzles and more like wandering around outside.  Undoubtedly, it was intentional to make the prison-like ‘progress’ of solving the puzzles clash with the freedom of exploration.It’s unfortunate that this feeling cannot be sustained throughout all of the game.  The puzzles in Talos are increasingly difficult and mentally stimulating and while they typically require forethought, concentration, and finesse, they frequently lack a design that avoids repetitive, meaningless, chore-like tasks that annoy and bore rather than stimulate.  Over and over I found myself running back and forth across the level because – even though I’d already figured out the solution to the puzzle – I couldn’t quite place a laser beacon in just the right spot at just the right time.  If the game did not have the humorously fast infinite sprint feature, Talos would have felt eternal.

All-in-all, The Talos Principle plays extremely well as a puzzle game.  The problems of repetition and tediousness do not heftily detract from the rest of the gameplay but they do make me wonder if the large number of puzzles is warranted.  The game asks for a lot from its players in terms of thoughtfulness and open-mindedness, and is therefore not for the stupid.  The expansive worlds and huge number of texts give the Talos a vast and open feeling, allowing the player to easily escape when the puzzles get just a bit too tiresome.  With so much to read through, it’s unsurprising that some of the texts feel a bit forced or 
cliché.  This problem is easily trumped, however with the beautiful moments in which the puzzles come seamlessly together with the tough philosophical questions.  Without these intersections, the game is an excellent first-person puzzler.  But with the artful combination of puzzle and paradox, The Talos Principle is a thorough examination of the human, and robot, condition.

The Talos Principle can leave you in a metaphysical crisis.  Few games can boast this.





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