When I was planning what to play on my 3rd day of full-time Twitch streaming, I was at a loss. I had decided to start two days earlier with Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor but after lackluster intro content (including tutorials) and visuals that disappoint for just having come out in 2015, I wasn’t engaged and excited to play the game, and therefore put out fairly poor stream.
The next day, I decided to finally give The Banner Saga a shot and while the visuals and music and emotion of the game were portrayed excellently, it just didn’t seem like the type of game that would give a good stream experience and I wasn’t particularly excited to continue playing it. Did I mention that I am also just abhorrently bad at tactics games and brought my usual talent to The Banner Saga? Yeah.
So there I was, needing something to really pep up the “Past Broadcasts” on my channel. And then I stumbled over Dust: An Elysian Tail in my Steam library. It was in my wheelhouse – platformer, button masher, indie, great art, jammin’ tunes. This was my time to shine.
And bless Dust‘s heart, it totally worked! I had a blast playing the game during the past 3 streams and finishing it up last night. I might stream it a 4th time to wrap up the 117%. Which is actually a perfect segue to the nostalgia-laced trip it was in this final stream. SPOILERS ABOUT THE SECRET FRIEND COLLECTIBLES AHEAD (no main story line spoilers) (oh and 117% was the full completion percentage of Spyro so . . . nostalgia).
A kind Twitch passerby stopped to watch the stream and while we were chatting back and forth about the game, which he loves to death, we were talking about all of the extra “secret friends” you can get by unlocking special chests throughout the different regions. I had already collected Super Meat Boy, Howard the Duck*, and the main male character of Spelunky. He was super in to helping me find the rest of the secret friends before I called it quits on the game (I’m not generally in to collecting achievements or completion percentages for Steam games and I was playing on Steam) so I beat the story mode and then together (via chat) we started going through the game to unlock all the secret friends.
The first secret friend the Twitch chat lead me to was Bandage Girl, also from Super Meat Boy. When I unlocked Super Meat Boy himself, I was tickled pink. It was an obviously frivolous addition to the game, but at the same time, it was the perfect level of non-committal to making the game different in anyway. And it wasn’t a super dose of nostalgia. If anything, I read the secret friends in the game as nods to great indie games of our generation.
I got some others, including the female Spelunky character which made me smile wide, but I also kept thinking about the beginning of the game. The first time you hack down a wall a “Mysterious Wall Chicken” pops out, which when eaten grants back 80 health. The first time that happened I also laughed out loud because come on – Castlevania! Why the hell was cooked poultry popping out of the walls in that game? No one knows, and Dust made me laugh about it.
Later in the night I got to a secret room and I couldn’t quit tell for the first few jumps what this room was hailing to until I realized that the music and particle effects were only moving when I moved. I was about to unlock Tim from Braid. Perfect. What a masterful game to quote in a game that might not be on par with Braid but one that perhaps acknowledges it and doesn’t feel bad for falling short. Later there was an area that populated isometric-view blocks as you ran forward. Bastion. And the final secret friend I unlocked was in a pixel area with three brain-busting puzzles to get through. Fez. The whole time my smile was growing as I was shaking my head. This is the way homage is intended to be. A slight tip of the hat, a comfortable acknowledgement of past greatness, and a shrug at the naysayers who don’t like what they’re playing as much as what they played before. This was perhaps the first game I had played that didn’t feel like it was pandering but was instead honoring. And that is 100% the nostalgia I can get behind.
While the story had some facepalm moments and the voice acting was a bit try-hard at times, the gameplay, the art, the BluePrint system, and the music all made this some of the most enjoyable 14 hours I’ve dumped into an indie arcade in my life. If I play a game that has some Dust easter eggs in the future, I’ll tip my hat, smile, and remember fondly what came before.
*I googled this to make sure I was saying the right thing because I don’t know my Marvel lore and don’t know anything about Howard the Duck, but lo and behold this was actually someone named Hyperduck? Which makes more sense when they both become Daft Punk. . . But anyway, I’m going to keep calling him Howard the Duck because I don’t know who Hyperduck is either. Sorry.
Little bit of cross promotion here, but last week my co-hosts at Go For Rainbow interviewed Ian Snyder, creator of an indie game that’s quickly picking up press (and recently got put on Steam Greenlight) called The Floor Is Jelly. Unfortunately my schedule didn’t allow me to chat with Ian and the guys but I just finished listening to the episode and finally got a minute to sit down and play the game. I swiftly concluded I must write a blog post, because you all must play it (and vote for it on Steam Greenlight . . . just sayin’).
The protagonist is a small two-legged creature attempting to traverse each level to make it to a window (and after a certain number of stages, an elevator to go to a new environment). The floor isn’t exactly jelly however – it’s a non-Newtonian fluid (or at least behaves like one). Any of us who spent extensive time on a trampoline as kids have a slight advantage, because it operates much the same way; propel yourself higher with the momentum of the rippling ground.
The artwork is simple, warm, and beautiful. Rounded edges combined with a stellar soundtrack make the stress of continually dying in this challenging platformer seem to fly away on the digital wind blowing leaves across the background. The music is minimalist, but full-bodied – just my style. I haven’t gotten very far but each environment thus far in my quest has introduced a new gameplay mechanic (most recently, hitting a bullseye rotates the entire world to make what was previously a bouncy wall, turn to a bouncy floor). In short, it contains absolutely everything I love about the very best indie games have to offer.
If I had a wishlist, I suppose I’d add some story to it but I bet players across the world are coming up with their own backstory just fine on their own. When you have a game this full of character, it would be hard not to.
Right now you can pick up the game for $10 USD from thefloorisjelly.com, but you could wait and share the Steam Greenlight link if you’d prefer and pick it up in your Steam library because I’m sure in the very near future, this will be picked to make a Steam debut. I’ll tell you honestly – I forgot that I got a free copy of the game, went to the site after listening to the podcast and bought a copy, remembered I had a free copy already, played the free version (lamenting that I had just spent $10) but after playing three full stages (and itching to play more), am so pleased I supported Ian and his game, despite having a free copy. Pick up a copy, and leave a comment letting me know what you think of the game!
If you haven’t ever heard of Kentucky Route Zero, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Although the indie title from Cardboard Computer didn’t make a huge splash across all gaming news outlets, I had happened to read a rave review of it on Kotaku. After that, I didn’t hear much about it. I believe it’s in a humble bundle of some sorts, but I can’t confirm (is humblestore.webs.com really affiliated with the official Humble Bundle website? Can’t tell).
I bought a this game full price on Steam because after reading it’s description, wouldn’t you?
“Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. Gameplay is inspired by point-and-click adventure games (like the classic Monkey Island or King’s Quest series, or more recently Telltale’s Walking Dead series), but focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill.”
Fun fact about me – magical realism is MY JAM. I love the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I love the idea of magical realism (inexplicable [“magical”] things happening in a seemingly realistic world), I just . . . love everything about the genre. I haven’t ever been a big sucker for point-and-click games, particularly if they involve guess clicking, but that last clause, “focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill” put a grin on my face as soon as I read it. I knew I had to buy this game.
Since the Steam Summer Sale is well under way, I had to start looking through my unplayed Steam games from last year’s sale and picking up the slack. I decided to force myself to start playing some of the games I had been looking forward to but never got going on, I would install them, so they would be staring me in the face. I finally installed Kentucky Route Zero and started it Sunday evening. Because it’s episodic (five parts), I’ll publish a series of posts as I play through each episode.
The intro menu is minimalistic, asking which chapter to start on – simple Courier New text on a black background. The title displays across my entire monitor, again, just white text on a black screen. Immediately I am charmed by the polygonal, geometric art work. All the colors are muted, and much of every scene is dark, but it helps that much more to see where you click to move forward the protagonist, Conway. The graphics indicating gameplay are clever: an eye to look at a person, animal, or object; a notecard to speak with someone; two stick figures holding hands when you and another party member can interact with an object or location point.
After a simple introductory fetch quest with an old man at a gas station, you jump in your moving van (Conway is a driver for an antiques shop) and hit the world map, which is essentially just a road map. Major highways are numbered, but only by driving down a road do you then learn it’s name. A handy logbook keeps track of your conversations that had driving directions. Your position on the map is indicated by a wheel that rolls along as you click on various roads. Points of interest only come up as you pass them. Some allow you to get out of the van and interact with a new scene, while others are strictly text-based wanderings through buildings (e.g. churches, museums, stores, etc.).
The aesthetic of the whole experience is very minimalist. There is no soundtrack – only sound effects that vary as you move through areas. One outstanding example of creating an atmosphere is when Conway enters a bait shop, and the game informs us that he sees a cashier and a row of tanks filled with water. As this text is populating, a faint water-bubbling sound fades in as though we’re standing near the tanks. If you choose to approach the tanks, the bubbling grows louder. If you choose to talk to the cashier, the decibel level of the tanks remains faint. These kinds of details aren’t new to video games, and we all know that good details like that are the best way to achieve immersion in a video game. All the same, that attention to detail from an indie developer, who is very aware that there are few sensory inputs in their game so every detail counts, is delightful.
By the same token, that minimalism creates a very . . . uneasy feeling as I played through the game. I don’t believe this is in the horror genre, and yet something fishy is going on. There are ghosts, and no one seems to be able to give you a straight answer about this mysterious Route Zero. I don’t ever feel like something is about to pop out at me, but . . . I also never feel completely secure in my chair. As someone who thoroughly dislikes being scared, this is a perfect medium. I am completely head-over-heels into this environment without being forced to jump out because it wants a cheap thrill. The sound effects and lack of soundtrack are what really bring these feelings home while playing through episode one.
My only concern as I gear up to jump into episode II is that there are sometimes a dozen different story options in one conversation. I’m playing by gut, just kind of approaching situations as though I were Conway, but because I’m a completionist (I’ve played Mass Effect 3 four times to make sure I’ve seen every different conversation choice), I’m wondering what I’m leaving behind by not repeating conversations. I hope all hanging plot points (there are a lot) get resolved by the end, but I suppose I’ll wait and find out!
Currently, Cardboard Castles has episodes I and II out, with promises of III-V coming before the end of the year. The two-man dynamo team also has an experience available for free called Limits & Demonstrations: A Lula Chamberlain Retrospective. From the page itself, it says “Marking the first major public showcase of her work in over twenty years, this retrospective exhibition of work by pioneering installation artist Lula Chamberlain comprises a diagonal slice through time, place, and form.” You know me. Any labor of love I’m definitely going to be checking out. Post forthcoming about that title, most definitely. Also, what a great way for me to be introduced to artist, Lula Chamberlain!
Thus far, a huge round of applause to the Cardboard Computer developers, Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy. Playing Kentucky Route Zero is a treat audibly, visually, and intellectually. I can’t imagine the future chapters going anywhere but up. Pick it up now for 25% off at the Steam Store!
When I read the synopsis of Splice in the back of the PAX program, with the rest of the PAX10 games (ten indie games at PAX, highlighted by industry experts for how awesome they are), I was pretty sure it was going to be over my head. But I had made a goal to try and play all ten PAX10 games before the doors of the convention center closed two days later. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to play all ten games (I couldn’t find six of them whatsoever, so that’s on you, PAX), but I did get a chance to try out Splice and pick up a coupon code so I could buy it on the cheap after PAX, which I did.
Splice was made by Cipher Prime Studios and is currently available in the iTunes app store as well as on Steam for Mac and PC. The marketing copy boasts over seventy levels, and the company also offers a deluxe edition that comes with the soundtrack. That was my first tip off about the music. Just like Catch-22, in the exhibition hall at PAX I couldn’t hear the soundtrack but when a game starts offering their soundtrack along with the game, not as an afterthought months later, you know it’s going to be a good soundtrack.
I didn’t get to talk much to the Cipher Prime guys at the booth because some “big wig” who “voted for their game to be in the PAX10” or something lame like that walked up right when I did. Sheesh. The nerve, huh? /sarcasm. Anyway, I pieced together a little bit of the game play, got stuck on the seventh strand of the first sequence, congratulated them on the game, and left. I finally got around to buying, installing, and playing the game last night.
As for the actual game play, all the player has to do is move around microbial units (sure, that’s what we’re gonna call them) to fit in the frame that the level provides. But when you move one microbe, it effects where the others are and they move as well. You have a limited number of splices, or moves, to get all the microbes to match the shape of the frame. In later levels, microbes get special actions, such as splitting in two to make more microbes, and other actions that are harder to explain. I heard one YouTube reviewer compare the sequences to worlds in a platformer, and the individual strands of Splice to levels in a platformer. So when I say sequences and strands in the rest of this, think of it like that. Strands are levels essentially, and they’re grouped into sequences, which are pretty much only there for organizational purposes. The funniest phrase of this paragraph is “all the player has to do,” because for its simple objective, I found Splice stupidly hard.
My previous admission about how terrible I am at puzzlers still stands. So it shouldn’t be surprising when I got stuck on the same strand of the same sequence two weeks after I played it at PAX. I eventually got it on my own, but it took me so long, it wasn’t even gratifying. I was still shaking my head, like “Man, how could I have figured that out faster?” I got stuck again on sequence two, strand three but not wanting to waste more time (which is how I always view beating my head against puzzles, i.e. as a waste of time), I googled a solution. Thankfully (for my pride, anyway) the reviewer explained some more mechanics of the game so I didn’t have to watch the full solution; I realized the solution now that I understood what the new microbes actually did.
I stopped my brief run through at sequence three, strand five. Like all puzzle games I play, it might be awhile before I actually finish this one because I am impatient and apparently an idiot. I recognize the deliberate choice to go minimalist on the game play by not explaining how to play the game, but at the same time, players get nothing to go on . . . For as much as I love progressive gaming, the lazy, puzzler-handicap in me shakes its head at setting up gamers to fail. And it’s more than others. Limbo, for instance, explains nothing. But it’s such a familiar backdrop (i.e. platformer) we instinctively figured out what to do. Splice is breaking boundaries all over the place, so our frame of reference is limited, if not gone entirely for those of us who don’t play puzzle games often enough. I think at the end of the day however, I’d rather developers assume I’m too smart than assume I’m too stupid. This rant is just because I’m mad that I’m really bad at this game.
Far and away though, this has got to be one of the most beautiful indie games I’ve ever played. There isn’t a ton to go on visually throughout the game, it’s true, but again the minimalist art style and controls, as well as a superb soundtrack (officially called Flight of Angels) that I’m going to buy off of Bandcamp in just a few minutes, creates an ephemeral place in which to ragequit. Ahh, how pleasant.
If you like puzzle games, you will love Splice and you should definitely spring the $10 to buy it. It’s only $4 for the iPad, and I don’t see anything telling me that it has any fewer levels, so if you have an iPad, save some dough and buy it in the app store. If you don’t like puzzle games, I think this is still a beautiful enough game that if you like being challenged in non-puzzle games, you’ll appreciate the experience in Splice. Just wait until it goes on sale.