I still don't know what to call this monthly ritual ("Jonnas' monthly pot-pourri?" I don't know, but that'll have to do for now), but I plan on sticking with it until December.
So, February. Not many short games focusing on Carnival or Valentine's, but with the N-E Café podcast doing a PodPals episode focused on Edith Finch, I figured it would be appropriate to do three story-driven games from my backlog, short ones as per usual. I wanted to do them last weekend, but that turned out to be difficult, so I extended the period to the entire week.
Anyway, the three I chose are...
Life is Strange (Episode 1)
But it wasn't free...
I actually bought the first Episode on Steam a few years ago for a cheap price (2,50€ or something). I just never brought myself to actually play it until now. Then I found out it's free these days. Oh well.
Anyway, Life is Strange needs no introduction. This story-driven, point&clicky, Telltale-y game from Dontnod (a French developer, to my surprise) was widely talked about during its release in 2015. It's supposed to tell the story of a teen girl in an American High School, and it touched on heavy subjects. Alright, I can give at least Episode 1 a try.
I will say, I was fairly pleased with its mechanics. I'm an old-school point&clicker, so the over-the-shoulder camera irks me for this genre, but it worked better than expected. The button shortcuts were intuitive enough as well, and there were actually a lot of small things to inspect and interact with. Plus, the short-form rewind mechanic actually works like a charm in a game that allows you to choose various actions, since you can at least see the immediate effects of your dialogue choices (and avoids dishonest situations where what you pick is way more hostile than you thought. If "Ignore him" actually becomes "Antagonize him wordlessly", you can turn back time to pick something more to your liking), but it still locks you into those choices after some time passes.
Puzzle-wise, it's all run of the mill stuff, except for the time travel stuff. Time travel is pretty well used, allowing for puzzles with a short window of opportunity, as well as puzzles that must be solved in a specific order or else you're locked out. That sort of puzzle was common in old games of the genre (especially Sierra), but the rewind mechanic in LiS actually makes them work well, without any needless frustration. My main nitpick is that your location somehow doesn't rewind with everything else, which makes no sense.
As for the story, which is what actually matters in this game... Gotta be honest, I don't jive well with the American High School setting. Not only am I tired of all the typical high school drama from films and TV, my own school experience was considerably different from this (specifically, the characters here are 17-18, dealing with a hostile school environment I haven't truly felt since I was 13-14). I thought the fact that this was an art course would mean a different environment from the clichés, but no, there's the bully, the nerds, the queen bee, the lovable-but-nerdy-and-supposedly-plain-and-homely protagonist... all the typical stuff from high school dramas of the US and Europe alike.
That said, I still enjoyed the writing a lot. Easier to notice in locations other than the high school, but the short time I spent with this game was enough to make me get attached to the characters (even the antagonists), which is always a good sign. I'm avoiding saying anything specific about the story, since it's wiser to go in blind, but I definitely dug a lot of what Chapter 1 had to offer (plot twists, voice acting, character development... it hit the mark all around).
[Rant] One thing that annoys me is the memetic "[Character] will remember that". That's a quick way to ruin immersion, and telegraph future plot developments. Like, you know why the trial scene in Chrono Trigger works so well? Because you had no idea it was coming, and everything they mentioned was your legitimate choice. But if there was a "Gato will remember that" message every time you did something, your actions would no longer be natural. Just... stop telling me all the time my actions "will have consequences", you're spoling your own game! If you want to tell me my actions impact the world, do it with a proper reactions from other characters. [/Rant]
However, I have decided to not play the following episodes. The gameplay was better than expected, but I still wasn't much attached to it. The High School drama stuff is still a chore for me to go through, and I just kept having this feeling that the game, for all its strengths, never quite clicked with me on a mechanical or aesthetic level. I recognize its quality, but I'm sad to say that Life is Strange is not for me.
But I'd give a chance to a game like this in a different setting for sure, I see the potential.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable
Stanley was Alone. That was his first thought... wait, wrong game. Stanley was asleep when he heard a voice say "Wake up, sleepyhead! You'll be late for the Milleni-" no, that's not it either. Stanley is actually just a regular employee and test subject, just listening to his radio at the Aperture Science Enrichm- fuck it, we're doing it live!
The Stanley Parable is a bizarre 2014 game about videogames and the nature thereof. It's a very short first-person walking simulator that you can complete in like 15 minutes. However, those minutes give you plenty of choice, which is where the meat of the game is: seeing the branching paths you can take along the way.
What even is a Stanley, anyway? A miserable pile of secrets! But more concretely, Stanley is supposed to be a generic office worker that one day realises everybody in his office disappeared. What you he does next is up to you, go wherever you want. The narrator, as his name implies, will take care of the narrative. He'll nudge you here and there, provide context for the paths you take, the usual, helpful stuff.
But what is it about? Comedy, mostly. I thought it'd be a shallow parody of videogames in general, a post-modernist nonsense if you will, but it does have meta-commentary on the nature of choice and freedom (and how it relates to videogames) that might be worth paying attention to. And even if that does not interest you, the set pieces you see along the way are pretty well done, and plenty entertaining on their own.
Anyway, after about 90 minutes, I had seen about 6 or 7 endings. All the major ones I could see, at least. I'm sure there are obscure endings I didn't quite find, but I'm content with the major ones. I was quite entertained by this silly game. Good thing I only paid around 3€ for it.
Can I say that I replayed this game at least 5 times, though? That's a debate.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday
Not to be confused with the yearly mayhem in the USA
So, back to the serious stuff. This 2016 game has been on my radar for a long time, but I somehow kept finding reasons to delay me playing it (even though I've had it on GOG for so long). It's supposed to be a documentary of sorts, telling the story of the 1979 revolution in Iran, and that aim to tackle a potentially controversial historical event in this manner had me intrigued.
You play as Reza Shirazi, a photojournalist who's living the political powder keg that is Iran in late 1978. While covering the frequent protests, he also comes into contact with a shaky coalition that opposes the Shah. The game is structured in a way that introduces various aspects of Iran's culture, history, and politics to the player, and that seems to be the main goal, really.
Sadly, there is no Farsi voice acting available (the developer said this was something he'd like to add, but it seems they couldn't do it), but the majority of English voice acting was done mostly by Iranian actors anyway, many of whom would throw Farsi phrases here and there. Not the most immersive thing, but it's an acceptable substitute. I normally don't put this much importance on the voice actors' identity, but the genuine Iranian accents were significant to this game.
Gameplay-wise, it's a lot like Telltale games, where you control a character across open spaces you can inspect (with some spots allowing you to take photos of noteworthy elements), but will also spend a lot of time a predetermined path where you pick dialogue options and make other choices here and there. There are also segments that ask for your input/interaction in minor ways (like QTEs). Compared to Life is Strange, this game's UI was a lot rougher around the edges, being clunky in places, QTE moments coming out of nowhere, button prompts being inconsistent all around, and the NPC AI occasionally sandwiching you into a corner. Furthermore, the game's UI was clearly designed for mobile devices, meaning even a mouse is imperfect.
So what are the game's strengths? For starters, the developers were serious about the documentary part of it. Most of the objects/people you can interact with unlock a page in your "stories" diary, which are brief paragraphs that provide further context for Iranian society, culture, and/or politics. The initial chapter at a protest seems like a linear corridor, but if you stop to check/photograph as many details as you can, you'll get dozens of pages talking about Iran, from popular celebrities of the time, to common religious practices, and even actual transcripts from notable political figures.
The writing is also really strong. Doing its best to present common opinions, factions, and values of the time, it actually successfully avoids a common pitfall of similar period pieces: the power of hindsight, that is to say, no character here acts or speaks like they know that religious groups will eventually seize power in the country (down to barely mentioning Ayatollah Khomeini. The "stories" mention him a lot due to being written in the past tense, but in-story, his presence is miniscule). Dedicated to boiling down a political conflict to its rawest elements, it replicates that uncertain feeling of being on the cusp of a revolutionary movement, with all the excitement, paranoia, and disappointment that it entails (I did get swept up a couple of times in the excitement before remembering I already know where history leads to). In a way, the awkward UI even helps in this regard, because even the mechanics are uncertain and unpredictable, and you never know what kind of outlandish scenario you'll be dealing with each chapter.
Reza himself has no well defined political beliefs besides being sympathetic to the revolutionary cause ("oppressive authoritarianism is bad" is the only belief you can't change about him). The minutia of it is up to the player (how militant he is, how empathetic he is to soldiers, etc.), with Reza becoming a surprisingly effective, somewhat blank slate for this game. What confuses me is that... I don't know if he's based on a real person or not. Logic says no, but the game drops evidence that a real Reza may have existed. It's weird.
I really enjoyed 1979. Absolutely fascinating game, and one I highly recommend (and also advise that you think of it as a documentary, or digital museum)
So, throughout the week, I learned that the Telltale style is grating on me, that a clunky UI can be more engaging than a clean, sanitized one, and that Stanley has a lot to say about the nature of choice of the other two games I played.
I was planning on doing some games from Capcom Arcade Museum for March, but considering how that release actually turned out to be, I'll need to find another theme...