Archive for May, 2015

Broken Age

I suppose I should at least say a little about Broken Age. I backed its Kickstarter back when it had no title other than “Double Fine Adventure”, and played the first half during this blog’s hiatus. Act 2 was released about a month ago, and I’ve managed to find the time to complete it.

I recall seeing some grumbling of dissatisfaction from other supporters when the first half was released, but I find the whole thing highly satisfactory. We were promised an old-school point-and-click adventure game, and that’s what we got. The style is gentle and sweet, even when people are being fed to monsters. It’s got the old familiar Tim Schafer sense of humor, somehow zany and wry at the same time, involving absurd situations and people taking them seriously — but somehow, the feel of this humor is changed quite a lot when it’s overlaid on soft and rosy children’s-book-like illustrations. Really good, well-paced 2D animation — sometimes I just sat and watched the character idles. So much good voice acting — there are some big-name actors here, but I felt the best performances came from the minor characters. Basically, a delightful world to be in, except in the few occasions when I got stuck. And even then, there’s a good lot of humorous quips to be gotten from trying wrong things.

The game wasn’t originally planned to be released in two parts, but it’s at least thematic. The whole story is broken in two, with two protagonists that you can switch between freely, like in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. Except where Maniac Mansion put all the player characters into the same environment, and Day of the Tentacle put them into disjoint but linked environments where one character’s actions affect another’s situation, Broken Age almost puts them in completely distinct games. It isn’t until the end of Act 1 that the two characters meet, and it isn’t until the ending sequence of Act 2 that you have to control the two characters in tandem to solve puzzles. Before that, the only link between them is at the story level, and even that takes a while to become apparent. At the start they seem to be in completely separate stories.

Opposed stories, even, juxtaposed for contrast. We have two youths, Vella and Shay. Vella lives in one of those ahistorical sort-of-pre-industrial-seeming fantasy worlds with modern attitudes. You’ve got people living on clouds and the occasional talking tree there. Shay lives on a spaceship. Vella is suspicious and argumentative; Shay is naive and easily-manipulated. Vella’s story is full of people — entire families, sometimes — with their own desires and agendas. Shay lives alone, apart from some robots whose entire existence is devoted to him. That’s his base situation: pampered, infantilized, kept safe. Shay’s story starts with scenes of him being showered and his teeth brushed by automated systems, just another day for him; he’s taken to a bridge decorated like a playpen and given a choice of various important-sounding “missions”, which turn out to be fake play scenarios arranged by the doting ship’s computer, or “Mom”. A jab at videogame plots, perhaps, with all their save-the-world bluster? Anyway, this is his life, and he’s extremely bored with it, craving new adventure, just like the player after a few iterations — the whole thing repeats in a cycle until you figure out how to break out of it. Vella, meanwhile, is being rushed against her will into a grotesque parody of a rite of passage. Once every 14 years, her village sacrifices maidens to a monster called Mog Chothra so it will spare everyone else, and nearly everyone other than Vella treats this like a good thing. Not just “It’s good that we have a way to spare the village”, or even “We honor your sacrifice”, but “I can’t wait to be eaten by the monster!” The maidens wear elaborate prom dresses for the occasion, and the ones that don’t get eaten wonder “Is there something wrong with me?” Such is the power of social pressure that Vella goes along with this to an extent (with the result that she winds up spending the rest of the story in her prom dress), but she ultimately escapes, determined to find a way to kill Mog Chothra and bring her society to its senses. So, both stories are about youth rebelling against an authority that’s placing unreasonable expectations on them, but in opposite ways: eternal inconsequential safety in an environment that’s all about you vs demands for complete self-abnegation. Shay rejects this because he doesn’t like his life as it is and wants change; Vella, because she does like her life and doesn’t want to throw it away.

Now, I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers here, so I’ll only describe Act 2 briefly. Act 2 has a theme of unmaskings. The ending of Act 1 is a kind of great unmasking, a peek behind the curtain, but smaller revelations come thick and fast in Act 2, including the true nature of the ship’s computers, the exposure of the guru in the clouds, and the literal unmasking of the deliciously shifty Marek. Marek spends the entirety of Act 1 in a wolf costume, and, given the game’s style and content, it’s reasonable to think he might actually be an anthropomorphic wolf. He admits to being human within Act 1, but it isn’t until Act 2 that we see his face. The biggest revelation, though, is Shay and Vella getting to know each other. Through Act 1, they’re unaware of each others’ existence, and even in Act 2, they can’t interact. They’ve seen each other briefly, exchanged no words. (The extent of their communication was Vella throwing a punch at Shay.) But at the end of Act 1, they swap environments. Vella is now trapped in Shay’s ship, while Shay is in Vella’s world. In both cases, the presence of the other person is unavoidable. Vella is basically snooping around Shay’s house, looking at his old toys and embarrassing childhood photos. Shay is meeting Vella’s family and everyone who was affected by her passing through in Act 1, for good or ill, and they all have things to say about her. Neither of the pair is exactly looking for the other, but it’s clear that the story is preparing them for remeeting.

And what then, after they remeet, at the story’s very end? One of the things that I like the best about this story is that it doesn’t try to force a romance. Oh, there’s room for one. If you play this game and want to imagine Shay and Vella getting married after the credits roll, there’s nothing to contradict that. But I think I’d rather imagine them becoming friends, and the story affords that just as easily. But there is one thing hinting at some sort of deeper connection between the two, and it’s something that’s left mysterious within the game’s content.

Now, I said that the two stories are basically distinct games. The stories sync up at the end of Act 1, with the result that you have to complete both sub-games before either can proceed to Act 2, and a similar thing happens just before the endgame. But for the entirety of Act 1, the game never forces you to switch characters. And some players respond to that by, well, not switching characters. By playing through the entirety of Shay’s story before starting Vella’s or vice versa. I’ve even had conversations more or less like: “I’m giving up on Broken Age. I’m stuck on a puzzle in Vella’s half.” “Maybe you should switch to Shay’s half for a while.” “No, I wanted to finish Vella’s half first before starting Shay’s.” Now, I generally don’t like telling people other than myself that they’re playing a game wrong, but: This is the wrong way to play the game. The links between the two stories are set up to be optimally discovered gradually as you play through them both at the same time; if you play one to the end first, you’ll get a lot of the other half’s foreshadowing as aftshadowing.

In Act 2, though, the author forces the issue. The two characters still can’t affect each other directly, but there’s a puzzle in Shay’s half that can only be solved with information from Vella’s half, and vice versa. Thus, the obstinate player has to switch between characters to solve it without a walkthrough. The mystery comes in when we try to interpret this diegetically. In both cases, the player is acting on knowledge that’s unavailable to the player character, making us ask: I knew what to do, but how did Shay and Vella know? In the endgame, this happens frequently enough to become normal, to the point where the two characters are cooperating on complicated time-sensitive actions without any intercommunication whatever, occasionally saying things like “I have a good feeling about this combination. I don’t know why.” And they trust this good feeling above the advice of the grown-ups who get in their way. And so they should — both have been betrayed by the older generation plenty.

I imagine that there’s been a lot of complaint about this. That the game is breaking its own rules, forgetting to provide character motivations for player actions, and making the player do things that don’t fit into the story. But I personally dig it, because of the implications if it does fit into the story. There’s something special about these kids, something that links them, and the game isn’t telling us what. I mean, obviously you know full well what it is that links them: it’s you, the player. They are linked by the single mind that controls them both. But what are you, within the story? Usually the player is represented by the player character, but if there are two distinct player characters, what are you? Through Act 1, you can pretend that you’re nothing at all — you’re subsumed into Vella and into Shay. But the information-sharing puzzles wake you up, make it clear that you’re something distinct from them both.

Lost Souls: Wrapping Up

OK, last post about Dark Fall: Lost Souls. Time to kill this thing and move onto something else. I finished the game about a week ago, but I’ve been taking about a week to write each post lately. This isn’t really the game’s fault — it’s a perfectly respectable representative of its genre, even if it is a different genre than the first two Dark Fall games.

So let’s talk about the ending, or, what amounts to the same thing, let’s talk about Amy. This gets a little confusing, because it’s not entirely clear where the boundaries are between Amy, the Inspector’s imaginings about Amy, and the Dark Fall.

The backstory presented at the beginning of the game is this: Amy, aged 11, disappeared. The Inspector was for some reason convinced that she was kidnapped by a local vagrant known as “Mr. Bones”, who he arrested. Apparently the Inspector was caught faking evidence against him, which ended both the Inspector’s career and any hope of finding out what really happened to Amy. Some time later, the Inspector seems to have attempted suicide.

Now, Amy appears several times throughout the game, in ghostly form, no older than when she vanished, demanding that the Inspector play childish games with her, then vanishing. Documents from her school days and from the Inspector’s investigation show her as having creepy powers, and befriending dark “angels”. The other ghosts in the hotel fear her, speak of her as the reason they’re trapped in the hotel. This can’t be taken completely literally, because they died decades before Amy was born. The words “Dark Fall” are spoken in reference to her.

Now, there are two ways of taking this. One is that the Dark Fall, which has existed since ancient times, has simply taken Amy’s form, or possessed her. (Can that happen? Can you possess a ghost?) The other is that this is all simply reflective of the Inspector’s mental state. The case of Amy is what brought him personally to his sorry state, so his mind turns her into a being of malevolence and power.

I mentioned how the ritual for freeing a ghost involves placing three significant objects. The Inspector perform something of the sort for either Amy, himself, or Mr. Bones, piecing together three dolls found throughout the game that Amy considers to be her “sisters” and placing them into mock graves that have been prepared for them in a room full of oversized scissors. On the way there, he has a breakdown in which he confesses/realizes that he didn’t just falsify evidence when he couldn’t make a case against Mr. Bones, he actually stabbed him to death. It’s not said what the murder weapon was, but my money’s on scissors.

Unlike the mostly free-roaming first two Dark Fall games, there’s a definite linear progression to Lost Souls, as you gain access to the floors of the hotel one at a time. Early on, you receive a key for room 3F, the last room on the topmost floor. Every ghost has its room, and this one is yours. Inside, with dream logic, it turns out to be the police interrogation room where the Inspector confronted Mr. Bones. Amy shows up, and you get a choice: “I need to go home”, she says, “but someone must stay. You are old and grey, you should stay.” If you refuse, you have one last puzzle to solve, and then wake up in the hospital; if you accept, she disappears, laughing, as you are consumed by darkness.

But why would you accept? In both interpretations of what Amy is, it seems like a bad idea. If she’s a demon, the last thing you want to do is set her free. If she’s just a figment of your unprocessed guilt, leaving her behind is clearly the first step toward healing. So the choice reminds me a bit of the Little Sisters in Bioshock in its obviousness, except that there the obvious choice was to save the little girl, and here it’s just the opposite.

Lost Souls: Ghost Stories

Another repeated pattern in Dark Fall: Lost Souls comes to the fore in the later parts. Or not so much a pattern as a ritual, a multi-stage process for laying ghosts to rest.

It starts with a text message from the mysterious stranger who goes by the name “Echo”, telling you that a new guest has checked into the hotel. After procuring a formerly-absent key from the lobby, you go to their room, where you can move back and forth between 2010 and (a vision of) 1947. The disembodied voice of the person who stayed in that room talks to you while you’re there, commenting on things you examine, in both time periods. (There’s some unfortunately conspicuous reuse of lines.) Ultimately, you have to find three specific items of importance to that person, no more and no less, and put them onto a table or other surface in the present. Now, at this point I’m just doing what the UI lets me. Only certain indicated spots can have items used on them, and only the specific items they require will do anything, so when you find a table that can have items put on it, it’s not hard to find out by experiment out what it’s willing to receive. But if there’s an in-fiction justification for the Inspector knowing what to do, I’ve missed it.

Once the items are in place, you can have an actual conversation with the ghost, in the course of which you will be prompted to remind them of details of their backstory that you learned over the course of snooping around the room. This fits into the theme of recovering memories: you’re giving the ghosts exactly the kind of help that the Inspector himself needs, because they’re all in basically that same position as you. I said before that the whole game seems to be a dream that the Inspector is having in a hospital after a suicide attempt. All the ghosts in the hotel are suicides.

The ghosts are kind of hard to reconcile with the dream business, though. They’re largely the same ghosts as in Dark Fall: The Journal, and there’s information about them here that the Inspector could not possibly have known. For example, one of them was secretly an infamous bank robber known as Sly Fox. In The Journal, you could find her loot stashed under the floorboards. In Lost Souls, it’s still there. As I’ve said about other games, it might be a dream, but it’s clearly not just a dream.

Now, the game is kind of subtle about communicating this, but: helping the ghosts seems to work by actually altering history. It’s like your final conversation after placing the three objects isn’t really with a ghost, but across time, with a living person, who you talk out of suicide. Well, it’s hardly the first time I’ve altered the past in a Dark Fall game. It just usually happens all at once at the game’s end, not piecemeal throughout. It seems likely that the Inspector is headed for the same conclusion, reaching into his own past to prevent his own suicide. Maybe he’ll even talk to himself and fill in his own backstory. We’ll see.