Over the past couple of years, along with the rise of crowdfunding I’ve seen another trend emerge in gaming, one that will slowly reach the same level of shenanigans: Episoding Gaming. Episodic Games come in seasons, their story split into multiple chapters with their own price tag and of course the usual season pass, and over the course of potentially many years.
It used to be that episodic games were the domain of independent developers, those struggling to make enough money to meet development costs. The episodic nature would let them earn money on small bits of the game while they work on others. It also helps them by splitting the development into defined chunks, something useful I believe when they’re juggling day jobs with the game development responsibilities.
But while that is still somewhat true, there is a growing trend of full-time and highly successful game studios releasing games in the episodic format as well. Some have done it for ages and see no need to change now, as the business models suits them best, knowing how to take advantage of new episode releases to boost sales. Others use “episodic” as an excuse to cover up a delayed development and some just want to milk the trend as much as they can. Then there are the episodic titles released by major publishers, those that have no need for this type of content save for feeding the marketing fires. This last one has another side effect that I hope doesn’t become a common occurrence: releasing full games as episodic, splitting it up haphazardly in “post-production.” Continue reading Episodic Nightmare – The worrying trends of Episodic Gaming
In the gaming industry, perhaps more than any other, Crowdfunding has become commonplace. Every week, if not every day, we hear of a new project on Kickstarter, Indiegogo or any other platform for anything from a point & click adventure game to a full-blown MMO.
Yet I’m curious when I see developers returning to crowdfunding platforms after incredibly successful games and campaigns. Particular among those, and the reason I thought of this piece, is Tim Schafer and Double Fine. My concern is this: when does crowdfunding stop being a necessity and becomes a sleazy easy-money scheme? Continue reading Crowdfunding Shenanigans – The Double Fine Case
Double Fine’s Broken Age is an episodic point & click adventure game. In it we play as Vella and Shay, a girl seeking to escape her fate as a sacrificial maiden and a boy looking for real adventure. They both get far more than they expected.
At the start of each of Broken Age’s episodes, you get to choose whose story you’ll play first. I am a firm believer in “Ladies First” so I picked Vella. She lives in the baker town of Sugar Bunting and when we first meet her it’s the day of the Maiden’s Feast, when she and other girls in town have the honour of becoming sacrifices to appease the dreaded monster Mog Chothra. According to the elders, the Mog appear once every 14 years and if they don’t have any sacrifices, they’ll ravage the town. Her parents and sister are proud but her grandfather hates it and wishes they fight the monster instead of submitting, and that’s exactly what she does, escaping her fate and starting a journey to kill the beast.
Shay’s life is the exact opposite. He wakes up every day to his mollycoddling Mom and Dad, faces on the monitor. He doesn’t even refer to them as parents but as “Computer,” realising he’s alone in his spaceship. He’s outgrown the knitted animatronics around him as well as the different and predictable adventure ‘scenarios’ he plays every day. But when, out of boredom, he decides to go off-script and let a scenario literally derail, he meets Marek, a strange person in a wolf costume. He tells Shay that while he’s been playing around, the galaxy was at war. Wanting to help, Shay joins Marek in rescuing helpless creatures, refugees of war.
Each of the character’s first episode plays out independently, though you can freely switch between them. At the end there’s a big revelation and their paths cross momentarily before they switch places. I won’t go into the details so as to not spoil anything though. The first episode sets the first pieces of the story in place and the second deals with truths, about the characters, the world and the story.
While it’s true their first episodes are independent, you’ll need to switch between them at times during the second episode, as information presented to one of them is useful to the other. An example is a tune Shay hears during this episode. It’s useless for him, but it’s the clue for one of Vella’s puzzles. As the episode advances, the need to switch between characters becomes commonplace and in fact the last segment’s central puzzle revolves around it.
Vella is strong and decisive, but with a devious streak that comes to play when she needs to get things done. She’s likeable and relatable, but deeply flawed, as her determination often makes her ready to do and sacrifice anything so long as it advances her goals. She’s not above lying and breaking things to get ahead, but it’s all to save the world from having to sacrifice more maidens and to save her family from the monster’s ire. Adventure game protagonists always toe the line between likeable and despicable because of the sometimes horrendous actions they take and how they hurt others, but you can never really fault Vella for what she does, as perhaps we’d all do the same in her place.
Shay on the other hand speaks to the desire of independence we’ve all held at some point in our lives. The need to prove our mettle, to show the world and ourselves that we’re capable of accomplishing everything we set our minds to. In Shay’s case, whatever harm he inflicts on others is due to pure naïveté and ignorance. In many ways he’s still a child and as he learns of the world, we learn with him, but he’s never a faceless avatar.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that characterisation, for the protagonists, is outstanding. The characters don’t only have depth but they’re capable of growth and understanding and they come out the other end of their journey forever changed, stronger and better.
Secondary characters are just as well developed. Vella and Shay’s families are phenomenal characters, as are the priestesses of the Dead Eye God, minor characters with a surprising amount of depth and a relationship that left me smiling, as I didn’t see it coming. Whil Weaton plays a hilarious hipster lumberjack/metalworker and he’s a joy to talk to and sometimes manipulate.
The villains on the other hand lack polish. Their personalities are one-dimensional, just evil bastards with no other traits. I’m not against a purely evil character, but when everyone else has so much depth, they feel bland in comparison. Their motivation, central to the plot, is a bit weak and the explanation isn’t really satisfying, which is perhaps the most negative thing I can say about Broken Age’s story. There’s a lot going on, and the journey is terrific, but the main conflict lacks punch. The pacing is also a bit off, with the reveals and exposition rushed near the end, to raise the tension before the big climax, but without giving it the proper time to develop.
What the game and its writers did wonderfully is play with your preconceptions and expectations. When you first experience each of the protagonists’ worlds, you’ll make assumptions on genre and where the plot might go, but then the game flips those around and it keeps doing that until the credits roll. They’re subtle reveals, no exposition needed, just things happening that make you reconsider what you held as truth a few minutes before. It’s quite amazing how the game and its developers play with you as much as you play their game.
Puzzles in the game are varied. You have your typical fetch & inventory puzzles, some logic based and others based on timing. The latter are predominant in Vella’s 2nd episode. Broken Age might be the first game in a long time to make me pull out a sheet of paper and pencil to draw and make notes, as there are often so many tiny clues you need to remember to finish puzzles. It’s not something I’m used to seeing in modern adventure games and I felt happy for the challenge, to test not only my deduction skills but my memory as well. With perhaps a couple of exceptions, such as a roundabout Heimlich maneuver, there aren’t any puzzles that are too outlandish and there’s mostly a definite logic in place or a clue somewhere around you. Puzzles can be challenging but they’re never frustrating.
While puzzles are central to a point & click adventure game, I do have a couple of issues with some gameplay elements. First is the position of the inventory, located at the lower left side of the screen…right where you’re going to be moving and clicking most of the time to explore the environment. I lost count of the times I opened the inventory instead of moving to where I wanted to go. What makes it even worse is that you don’t even need to click to open the inventory but just hover over it, so it gets in the way quite frequently.
Secondly, this game could’ve used a fast-travel option. The spaceship partially addresses this with teleporters in a couple of locations, but outside the backtrack trips from one puzzle to the other will get long and tiresome, especially during the later stages of Vella’s first episode and all of Shay’s second one. A simple map would’ve done wonders to make the game a bit more fluid.
Finally, I thoroughly dislike how conversations handle in Broken Age. Unlike other titles in the genre where you can skip individual lines of dialogue—if you’re a fast reader like me—conversations in the game handle much like old-school FMV adventures. Each conversation is a cutscene so if you decide to skip ahead you’ll miss an entire discussion.
Wil Wheaton’s voice might be one I instantly recognise but the voice talent in Broken Age is outstanding. Even the tiniest and seemingly insignificant character sounds convincing, even the Maiden airheads you meet throughout the game. You can feel in their voice how convinced they are that they’re better than others by being sacrificial maidens. It’s the same with the soundtrack, there’s a piece for every location and screen and it perfectly sells the mood for the place and situation. There’s a particular chime tune at the end of the game that I found extremely memorable, even though it lasts a short time. It’s beautiful and relaxing and successfully conveys the message “This is the end.”
One of Broken Age’s most striking features is its visual design. A paper-like texture that makes it all seem straight out of a children’s pop-up book. Most of the places you explore and the people you interact with are bright and colourful, vibrant and alive and they offer a striking contrast with the villains, who are grayish and faded, with darker colours and purposes. The use of colour, much like in other forms of art, helps transmit ideas and feelings as effectively as words.
One of the many childish scnearios in Shay’s ship
Oh Curtis, we love your stools! And all your stool jokes!
Maidens dress in the mot outrageous costumes!
He can build anything…with sand.
Very solid, painfully so.
Just as the first episode, the second begins with a choice
Shay’s ship is full of his childhood mementos
One of the cleverest puzzles in the game
When you’re desperate, even the craziest plans sound reasonable
The Star Chart sets the Navigation Scarf! Yes, Scarf!
Only person I’ve ever seen sad because she didn’t get sacrificed to a giant monster!
The dreaded Mog Chothra has seen better days!
Broken Age is perhaps one of the best adventures games I’ve played in the past years. It has a wonderful journey, terrific characters and it offered me something many adventures have failed in the past years: a challenge!
Originally released in 1999 Grim Fandango is one of the last adventure games released by LucasArts. It combines Mexican folklore with a Film Noir plot and stars the grim reaper himself…well, one of them anyway.
Fantastic world combining Noir and Mexican folklore.
Superb voice acting and music.
Revamped control scheme.
Clunky inventory system.
I won’t deny it. I was excited when I saw the news for the Grim Fandango remake. I remember playing it when I was younger, about a year after release, in 1999. I borrowed the game from a friend—you know, back in those days where DRM and serials weren’t a thing.
I’ve been playing the game recently, going through it once more and I realised I didn’t remember a thing about it. I couldn’t remember the solution to even a single puzzle, which to be honest is perfect for a review. So let’s get to it.
Grim Fandango puts you in the shoes of Manuel “Manny” Calavera, an agent for the DOD, The Department of Death. As an agent his job is to find the recently deceased and depending on their personal history get them the best deal possible on their trip to the afterlife. If the soul has been especially good, they can get a direct trip on the Number Nine express train to the Ninth Underworld. If there are dark spots in their bio, the options range from lying in a coffin shipped by mail to a walking stick for the long journey.
At the start of the game, Manny’s been in a slump, only getting bad clients and cheated out of new ones by his colleague, Domino. Deciding to take matters into his own hands—and yours—he intercepts one of Domino’s clients and claims her for his own, thinking she’s assured a spot on the Number Nine. But it turns out his bosses rigged the system and have stolen everybody’s tickets. With Meche, his would-be client, now lost in the underworld and the conspirators pursuing him, Manny sets out to find the girl and stop the bad guys…but mostly find the girl.
The story is a traditional Noir plot. There are conspiracies, intrigue, betrayals and deceit at every corner. But it is a Tim Schafer and LucasArts game so there is plenty of comedy as well, mostly from how surreal the world and locations are. Unlike other LucasArts games there aren’t many pop-culture references, instead they take jabs at familiar Noir tropes and poke fun at how we all imagine death and the afterlife to be. It is however a darker game than other in the Lucas catalogue.
The story plays out in four acts or Years, each with a different location, new characters and new pieces to the conspiracy. I loved the Year transitions. Years 1 and 2 end with Manny in a precarious position, stuck at a dead-end café and a broken down ship respectively, but the opening cinematic for the following one show him turning those around—the Café into a successful nightclub and casino called Café Calavera and the ship into a mercantile vessel. And all of it without losing sight of his goal of finding Meche and get her to the Ninth Underworld.
Manny as a character is one of the best in adventure games. He’s both selfish and selfless at times, he cares even if he has to manipulate and cheat. He’s not an angel, but he’s not evil either. In essence, he’s a very human and relatable character, with strengths and flaws. The supporting cast on the other hand is a collection of extremes and Noir tropes, from the sultry femme fatale to the extremely greedy villains. But that isn’t to say they aren’t as interesting as the main one. Each has their unique personality and they make you want to know more about them. Glottis, for example is one of my favourite characters. He’s a Mechanic Demon, first acting as Manny’s driver and on the way becoming his loyal companion…and comic relief. Meche starts off as the typical good girl, but shows more strength and determination you would think she had. The central characters all grow during the story, and that is rare in adventure games.
Grim Fandango’s visual style takes its inspiration from Mexican “Dia de los Muertos”—and in fact it is that exact day at the start of the game, the only time when the dead can visit the living. All characters look like Calaca figures, walking skeletons. When Manny reaps a soul, what comes with him isn’t a ghost but another bony figure. Environments area mix of 1930s aesthetics, such as you would find in classic film Noir, and Aztec architecture. There are high-rise buildings and race tracks with Aztec colour tones and even temple-like structures in the last act, but there are also more traditional Noir locations, such as the Poet’s nightclub The Blue Casket or even Café Calavera. The locations and character designs draw you in as much as the voice actors and music do.
The game uses static environments with 3D objects and characters and fixed camera angles. The remake improved on the character models, though considering they’re all skeletons there wasn’t much to improve. Mostly they just made the faces more detailed. But they also improved on the lighting, and this bit adds a lot more to the game’s atmosphere, especially at the start. Now light streams through Manny’s blinds, falling on him in stripes as if it were the office of a Noir detective.
The game also features FMV both during gameplay, such as when opening the mailing machine’s door or the elevator in Rubacava, and for story cinematics. The latter mostly take place between acts or at significant moments, such as when you pull up the SS Lamancha. The remake doesn’t change anything about these, nor did they have to because they work perfectly well. In fact, the best thing about them is the original development team went to great lengths to make sure the characters and environment in the FMVs looked exactly as they do in the game’s engine—called GrimE and based on the Jedi Knight engine, no SCUMM for Grim Fandango—so that players always saw familiar faces.
Speaking of actors and music, there isn’t anything bad to say here. The sound design is outstanding. The soundtrack mixes the jazzy tunes you need for the Noir vibes with traditional Mexican music, in the process creating a new style that instantly brings the name Grim Fandango to your mind. Hell the music is so good there were moments I stopped progressing just to take in as much of it as I could. It’s the kind of videogame music you’ll buy the soundtrack and listen to it every day!
Voice acting is superb, particularly because most of the actors are native Spanish speakers, making them much more authentic and convincing, but also because as actors they give strong performances. I often complain how screams and shouts in games feel half-assed, but in Grim Fandango the actors give their all and remain convincing no matter the situation.
Finally, there’s the gameplay and this is where I have a problem.
I hate the inventory system for Grim Fandango. I sincerely do. Instead of the grid-like inventory used in other LucasArts titles or the horizontal list-like inventory of games such as Sam & Max, you can’t see all the items you have at once. Manny’s suit is your inventory and every time you need an item, you’ll have to scroll through the entire inventory. Worst still is that it doesn’t remember what the last item you looked at was, and it even gave me the impression that the item positions changed from one look to another. I knew an item, a piece of bread, was two items to the right when I first looked, but the second time I had to scroll even further. It ties nicely with the item-drawing animations, as the inventory is essentially part of it but it’s clunky and can make you waste a lot of time. It actually made me grateful there aren’t any item combinations, because that would’ve bene a terrible hassle.
As this is a LucasArts game, the puzzles are almost exclusively inventory ones and they are generally in the moon-logic realm. To be honest, I’m now convinced Schafer and his team were on peyote while designing some of these, because you would have to bombed out of your head—or be a long-time adventure gamer—to figure them out. For one puzzle you need to figure out the combination of numbers and days for a winning betting ticket using pieces of casual conversation, a plaque for a statue and the complaint of a worker. For another, you’ll drink alcohol with gold flakes just so you can have some stripsearch time with a sexy officer to get her metal detector. See what I mean?
As you progress, however, the complexity lowers and the last act has generally easy puzzles, which is slightly disappointing.
One of the best aspects of the remake for me is they built in a fan patch, released years ago, that changes the control scheme from the tank-controls the game originally had—inspired by Resident Evil, popular at the time of the game’s release—in favour of point & click controls. It’s much more comfortable though the originals are still present and work really well with the added gamepad support.
I mostly played the game using the original rendering, which you can switch to at any moment in the game’s menu, but I did enjoy the developer commentary. In commentaries we often hear from the designers and storytellers about something fun they did, but this commentary is from the entire team. From their field trips for environment design ideas to the struggles to program certain things in the game, to how many pieces of different engines they cobbled together to build Grim Fandango. As a software developer, it was fascinating to know the ins and outs of the development side of this great title.
Tim Schafer mentions something very interesting during the commentary. He states that the game happened because of the amazingly talented people that came together at the time, but also because they and he infused in the game a lot of what was happening in their lives. And that if they decided to make the game now, it wouldn’t even get close to what we have, even if they made it with the best of intentions.
Grim Fandango is a hell of a ride. There are grievances with some of its design decisions, especially with the inventory and the original controls, but they don’t really detract from the outstanding experience. It’s a folklore story with Noir soul, and one of the fines adventure games ever released. And I think Mr. Schafer is right, this game couldn’t be made today and have it make the same impact.