This week Brakketology is celebrating the mere possibility that Steam is making its Libraries sharable with family members (and a bit beyond). As Kyle and Ana begin to clamor for more and more PC time, my need to have my Steam library accessible to more than just myself will become crucial. I’m just not quite sold on the fine print yet. Also making the rounds this week, Bioware is getting interesting again, EA is very proud of all the new IP they’re working on, even if they’re not too sure what the words “new IP” are supposed to mean, there’s a Kickstarter project that you should be looking at, and Blizzard just keeps on being Blizzard. But first…
The original Descent was probably as famous for its seemingly endless expansions as its astronomical play time. Some gamers made almost an entire hobby out of trying to collect them all. Arguably, the new edition with its focus on campaign play is even more suited to expansionism that its predecessor. So, after small box addition Lair of the Wyrm we now have the first big box expansion, Labyrinth of Ruin.
And it is a big box, with more of everything. And I mean everything. Pretty much every deck in the base game now has some extra cards, there are new rules (though nothing terribly demanding), new heroes, monsters, tiles and archetypes and, of course, a brand new campaign. There’s so much it’s hard to know where to start.
It’s late in the afternoon, Saturday at Dragon Con, and I’m walking by Malcolm McDowell’s table in the room of “celebrities” that I like to call the Career Graveyard. This man was Alex in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, one of the defining films of my life and one of the great performances in cinema. 17 year old me would have lost his damn mind. But at 37 and having seen him at the past three Dragon Cons I’m completely unmoved, unphased as I push the stroller containing Peter Pan and Tinkerbell past the dim stars of shows I’ve never even heard of. My wife, who works in film and television, is irritated by the phony glamour of it all as we edge past the morbidly obese on their mobility scooters, past the muffin-topped jailbait skanks desperate for attention in what passes for “sexy” in the minds of the socially decrepit, and through the pathetic tribal boundaries between Browncoats, gamers, otaku, steampunks, and furries. Amidst the sleazy aura of desperation and the stench of sweltering bodies, she asks “why do we still come to this?”
For the first time in the 21 years that I have been going to what is billed as the Southeast’s largest celebration of pop culture, I don’t have a justifiable response.
In this day and age a guy has to do what he can to get by. That means you have to take a lot of jobs to make ends meet, even legal ones. A Firefly class boat needs parts and supplies to keep it in the air, after all. In this week’s Brakketology, if you haven’t guessed, I got a chance to play Firefly: The Game. Along with some first impressions of that, there’s a promising first look at Banner Saga (via RPS) that demands you pay attention, more Enemy Within bits, Project Eternity continues its climb up my list of most anticipated games, Amazon does something that almost made my life better, a real Ultima lands on iOS, and Xbox One gets a release date…
The first Amnesia title, The Dark Descent, was acclaimed by many as the scariest game ever made, an assessment with which I concur. Its success was down to getting simple things right: atmosphere, cunning set-pieces and depriving the player of the ability to fight back, making every monster encounter a wellspring of terror.
That immediately creates two problems for this sequel. First, the bar is already set incredibly high: to outdo the most horrifying game ever created. Second, to make it interesting and new without adding too much and spoiling the stripped down formula responsible for the original’s success.
AEG has certainly come a long way from Tomb, a game I mercilessly panned back in 2008 which remains one of my barometers for modern game design gone…well, just bad. They’ve positioned themselves well with a couple of strong product lines and brand names beyond their tentpole Legend of the Five the Rings, and I’m always curious to see what they’re doing next. Last week, I reviewed (and mostly liked) their US release of the Japanese deckbuilder Trains but I’ve also been sitting on a small pile of recent card game releases from the company and I figure it’s about time to round ‘em up in a Review Rodeo.
Labor Day has come and gone and the last time I penned anything we lived in a world where I could go 48 hours without hearing anything about Miley Cyrus. I didn’t even know what twerking was. Yes, it was a happier, simpler time. But fall is coming and I’m here with renewed vigor to, like, write things and stuff. (Said vigor may least three weeks or three years, get your bets in now!)
After the break, lots of stuff from the past week summarized for your edification…
You arrive at the doorstep of a mansion. Your parents recently moved there with your kid sister but you are seeing it for the first time because you have just arrived from your backpack trip across Europe. It’s dark, stormy, and the place looks like it’s been ripped out of a King novel (one of the good ones). No one is home. The lights flicker. The TV is on but it’s just white noise. You enter the house looking for signs of your family.
It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without venturing into spoiler territory. The game, if you insist on calling it that, is all about the story. There are no controls to speak of, no inventory to rifle through, no health meters, no reflexes are required, your amazing hand eye coordination is meaningless, and there is nary a weapon in sight.
Ah, so it’s an adventure game!
No, it isn’t.
There is no “adventure” here, either; at least not in the typical way we tend to view adventure games. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no riddles to think your way through and no dialogue options from which to choose. If you thought a game like The Waking Dead was devoid of actual game mechanics then Gone Home will feel like a school project.
But that’s part of what makes the “game” work. In Gone Home you are merely along for the ride; a passenger on a ghost train that only reveals itself as you muddle your way through a seemingly abandoned mansion one room at a time.
Is that enough? Is sitting down in front of your PC for two hours (literally) and piecing together an interesting story worth your $20? We like to debate the merits of “value” of a game when discussing its critique and while I still strongly believe that price has no place in the evaluation process of a game, (then again neither do stars, ratings, or any other ridiculous measuring stick) but in this specific case you need to at least know what you are getting into.
Gone Home is short – two hours short, but that’s somewhat irrelevant. More than that, the writers know you are playing a videogame where you are wandering alone inside in a spooky abandoned mansion that looks like it should be a terrifying place to wander around alone – it plays on that emotion at every possible turn. And this is where it’s difficult to really talk about Gone Home without giving anything away, and I do think you should play the game, which is really all a “used to be game critic” can offer, right? I’m glad I played it, but I’m not nearly as happy that I spent $20 to do so.
That said, the writers and designers of this game deserve great praise for their ability to tell an engaging story via spoken dialogue (journal entries), sound effects and music, Post-It notes, and by strategically placing mundane objects around the house that help you slowly piece together what happened to the family that lives there. It’s an amazing achievement that the writers can tell such an emotional story via post cards, letters, and travel brochures. As far as pure storytelling is concerned Gone Home is equal to and in most cases is far superior to anything you see in today’s so-called blockbuster videogames. Of course since the game is all about the narrative – it better be damn good or it simply won’t work.
But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by Gone Home. Not because of its length or its lack of any real gameplay, but because it knows…the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.
Hisashi Hayashi’s Trains, just released in the US by AEG, is a very good game that unfortunately has an indelible issue of identity. You simply can’t discuss this title, which is effectively a deckbuilder that drives rail game inspired board play, without Dominion. Even if I did not mention it, every single aspect of this game’s fundamental design would still say it out loud. Trains is probably even closer to the cornerstone Dominion design than Ascension, Thunderstone, or any of the other deckbuilders we’ve seen over the past few years. But then again, continually referencing Dominion, even if the design’s goal is to “fix” an aspect of that game like its notorious lack of meaningful theme, is the pandemic problem with the entire genre. It all goes back to Dominion, and the big question mark hovering over all of these designs is to what degree any of them could actually be considered “great” or “significant” when ultimately all are iterative designs typically with a couple of modifications or twists to distinguish them from their forbears. Continue Reading…