Journal of the Plague Year

I’ve written an album during Social Distancing called “Journal of the Plague Year”. It is 10 tracks, because that is a number that is important in The Decameron, a book I never intend to read. Please enjoy!

133 – Frostpunk: On the Edge

Frostpunk: On The Edge is just as cruel as the rest of the game and all of its other DLCs — I have not beaten a single scenario. I have played the first scenario dozens of times, each time maybe getting closer, but it’s such a tight game that I’m just as likely to fuck up irrevocably in the first five minutes. I still can’t quite put my finger on why I love this game so much — it’s so well-designed, I guess. It has enough numbers and things to keep me entertained but it doesn’t have so many that I get confused. I’ve played it enough that I get why the economy is fucking up, when it inevitably fucks up.

The entire proceeding is Fuck Capitalism: The Videogame, I suppose, with On the Edge taking it even further. This time you’re playing as the leader of an outpost who’s charged with sending supplies to New London — you’ve played the New London half of this relationship in the scenario The Last Autumn, where it’s a sweet deal where you pay a token amount of resources to set up a trade route and, reliably, a shipment of another resource makes its way to your coffers.

New London, in the On the Edge scenario, is a parasite. Unlike other scenarios where you’re able to hunt or grow crops, here food is entirely at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And New London doesn’t even pretend to be helpful. The relationship goes south immediately: Your very first shipment of food is short, and then you’re immediately told that not only do they expect a larger shipment than initially requested, they’re not sending regular shipments but will only feed you in return for work. Immediately, starvation becomes your biggest problem, and you send scouts to find another settlement that might be willing to trade food on fairer terms. New London is not happy with that, and suddenly you’re embroiled in revolution. I have no idea what that means, exactly, because it is a very hard scenario and I can’t make it that far.

Look, revolution may be the right thing to do in this situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. But like all of the rest of Frostpunk, I am bashing against it again and again. It’s still the most compelling game that I’m bad at.

132 – Lamplight City

Adventure games were my favorite genre in middle school, but I find I lately play them almost grudgingly, just like these days I read almost grudgingly. It might be one of those awful adulthood things. I joke, a lot, that when I play games I need to have numbers going up, because if I don’t see numbers going up, I don’t know how much fun I’m having. I get, I guess, kind of suspicious about Narrative in games a lot, because oh man, have we all played a lot of really bad narratives. I generally like narrative as the embellishment to a solid game, rather than having gameplay as connective tissue through a narrative.

Classic point-and-click adventure games usually belong in the latter category for me. One of the genre’s best innovations has been that of simplicity–it is a genre which evolved from guess-the-verb parser puzzles to a single-click do-everything interface. Over the past 30 years, rooms have gone from being filled with distracting items to only a few salient hotspots. Dead ends and instant-death and other nasty surprises have been filed off. It is a catch-22. The old Sierra games are absolutely murderous to play today without a walkthrough, but strip away too much and you’ve got a kinetic novel.

(Sorry, kids, I don’t like kinetic novels.)

Lamplight City sits on a decently comfortable place on the spectrum. It is a mystery game, which is a common and natural subgenre that has itself gone through a lot of evolutions. Early mystery games like Witness require the navigation of a timed environment–characters have conversations on certain turns, and the game consists of playing and replaying to learn everyone’s schedules in order to construct one golden playthrough where you are able to gather all of the clues you need in order to successfully accuse the killer. Beloved classics like The Dagger of Amon Ra add in Sierra bullshit; it is not a game whose charm derives from its gameplay but from its characters and gory death scenes.

More successful are the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games, which feel more like hanging out with Sherlock Holmes and nudging him to solve a mystery. It’s a more linear route where time and missables aren’t really a factor. Lamplight City takes this route. You follow broody, tortured detective Miles Foreman through a series of cases and clues. The focus is on discovery; you wander through various locations talking to people and looking at evidence. There are a couple of different suspects for each case, you can occasionally decide whether or not to let the more sympathetic killers go free, and you can also piss off witnesses so badly that they refuse to talk to you, but generally thoroughness is more important than deduction. If you discover all of the clues in a case, the killer will usually be obvious–they’re usually the last suspect revealed after you discover the last clue. But this has the flip side of making the game pretty satisfying–you have to pay attention enough to not completely fuck it up, but you’re also not bashing up against a wall over and over again. It’s absolutely better than having to sort through incomprehensible clues and reverse-engineer a solution after guessing.

The game’s best flillip, besides of course its art, is its POV–everything you click on is narrated by the spirit of your dead partner who manifests as a voice inside your head, and it’s up to you, the reader, to decide whether or not it’s a ghost or a symptom of a nervous breakdown. At one point you can piss him off, and he’ll refuse to describe anything. I am sorry to spoil that surprise. It’s really nifty and I just wanted to comment on it.

Designer Francisco Gonzalez’s games are a lot more about setting and atmosphere than rigorous puzzles; he’s really good at making these nice, odd little worlds based on whatever historical or culture niche catches his eye. The Ben Jordan series is pure paranormal cheese. A Golden Wake is a Roaring Twenties theme park. The upcoming Rosewater is going to be the wild wild west version. Lamplight City’s New Bretagne is a grab bag of everything Gonzalez finds interesting and troubling about 19th century London and New Orleans and detective stories with some light steampunk sci-fi thrown in. You go to opium dens and investigate cooping gangs and witness abuses of servants. It’s not a happy place. It’s not a place with a ton of hope–it’s the real world embellished after all. But it’s also not absolutely desolate. It’s not a world of despair because it is one that does believe that there are people who are genuinely trying to make things better. I, frankly, think Gonzalez might be a tiny bit too happy to write the game to as bleak a level as it perhaps wants to be. Miles, frankly, has too good of a social safety net–he spends large portions of the game pissing off his friends and family, true, but it’s clear that they’re not going to let him completely go off the deep end.

(Of course, there also could be some branching I’m not quite aware of; I did choose the dialogue options which did reinforce that safety net; perhaps I am a tiny bit too happy too.)

I guess this is the theme I’ve been coming back to a lot–We Need That Sort Of Thing. We are in a world that is not being written by someone who is happy–we are in a world that is bleak and desolate. Falling into despair is what that author wants; we cannot give him that satisfaction. We can repair our broken relationships. We can atone for our failures. We can clean up our tiny corner of the world. We can attain justice without becoming evil. We can progress. We can become better than we are.

131 – Westmark Manor

Westmark Manor is a gigantic sprawling knot of a mansion where you get five thousand inventory items and have to juggle them until the game decides you’ve solved enough puzzles and gives you the bad ending. It was great. I am a fan of knots and Lovecraftian cheese and Westmark has both in spades.

I found myself making a lot of comparisons to Eternal Darkness–take out the combat and restrict yourself to one character and you’ve got a pretty decent idea of the tone and style. It’s really nice! I traditionally love horror games but have been really cold on them for the past few years, largely because of Frictional’s influence. I hate bad stealth, I hate most stealth, and I hate stealth horror because after a while the game devolves into desperately trying to get through the same exact tunnels while the same exact monster “gets” you and having to repeat that section over and over just to get to the next bit of awkward story.

Westmark, as I mentioned, has no combat. You have a lantern that you’ve got to keep lit or a sanity meter–essentially your health–drains out. Sometimes spooky hands appear and curse you with a status effect–while there’s nothing quite like Eternal Darkness’s fake resets, sometimes it garbles text or messes with your movement. Mostly you are sorting through a large collection of keys and locks.

It’s a nice twist on resource management–survival horror games love to give you very few items and force you to save them until you really need them. Westmark throws keys and healing items and crafting supplies and trinkets at you and you delight in all of it until you realize, shit, I’ve been playing for a half hour and both my inventory and the storage are completely filled.  There’s a nice rhythm where you collect a bunch of shit, then wander around and open up more rooms and maybe shed a couple of keys, collecting more shit along the way.

It’s a wonderfully open game–when it begins, you’re given a number based on your selected difficulty and told to find that many sigils, many of which are hidden behind major puzzles but several are just, you know, there in plain sight. I think this is a trick. The game doesn’t care which puzzles you solve if getting to an ending is all you care about–so of course I ignored all of the hard puzzles which require thought and cross-referencing of notes, got my sigils, and got to the bad ending. Just like with the crafting ingredients, the game overwhelms you with puzzles and lore. There’s a lot to sort through, a lot of loose ends, a lot of combination locks I didn’t even bother to look at. I think that’s where the real ending is.

I love this kind of thing–lore that you’re expected to read, clues and cryptic notes, and eldritch nonsense. And it’s a game that very easily could have randomized itself, but it’s an entirely bespoke mansion. The inventory items probably have some randomization going on, but there’s so much of it it doesn’t matter–the rooms are all laid out the same way and I really like that. Westmark Manor is just this weird little spooky adventure game I had a lot of fun with, and will have a lot of fun to find the Real Ending of.

130

I saw a tweet that said “holy shit” and it was some footage of some bro playing The Last Of Us 2, a game I don’t really have much of an interest in playing because, well, I’m too cool for school. And it’s a clip of the videogame lady running around a room killing all of these dudes and man, it’s horrifying–like she’s jumping around slashing throats and heads are exploding and guts are all around and–you know, holy shit indeed! It was a flashback to the couple weeks my partner was into Mortal Kombat 11, which has this super goofy 80s style story where a bunch of goofy heroes fight a bunch of goofy villains and then they goofily threaten to rape each other, goofily rip each other open, goofily desecrate each others’ corpses, goofily cover themselves in entrails, goofily quipping the whole time–anyway, I guess it’s all pretty goofy!

(I appreciate that Kano begins battles by taking a piss.)

Anyway so I look at the comments of that Last of Us 2 video, and everyone is praising the bro, because apparently playing this well is something really hard to do, and apparently the graphics are really, really good. This is a game that got praise for the realism of a scene where a homunculus mashes a burrito against its mouth and pieces of the burrito disappear and if you squint, it almost looks like the doll is actually eating the food which you can later retrieve from a hatch in the back. Maybe it’s more impressive in-engine, or maybe it’s just a case of pearls before swine, in which case, oink oink. I’m just being too sensitive–I should have more of a sense of humor about the mass death around us, right? I’m just being a baby for living in existential fear of painful. It’s not my fault. I was raised Catholic.

Anyway I’m glad that the bro is very good at playing this game, because it is always nice to see a skill implemented well, and I am glad that the viewers liked it. We live in a cruel, hard world and we must find our joy where we can. t I am at peace being out of touch. I cannot explain how freeing it is.

129 – Chinatown Detective Agency (Demo)

Look–let’s just say that cyberpunk detective stories (see also, and also, and also) are Having A Moment. It’s partially a case of Follow The Leader–although thankfully I haven’t seen any other games which run with the awkward concept of genital customization. But it’s also Where We Are As A Society. Massive corporate power, plagues, environmental collapse, ruthless and sociopathic leadership, invasive technology that we can’t live without–it’s, like, really natural that cyberpunk would be a good way to examine all of that.

Chinatown Detective Agency puts you in the shoes of a detective in Future Singapore who takes on a government contract, and you know what’s going to be coming–a simple missing persons case begins to unfold into So Much More and she’ll ultimately uncover a vast conspiracy and be conflicted about who to trust and all of that great stuff–if you do not like this flavor of cheese you do not like this kind of game. There’s an explicit Carmen Sandiego influence, in the presentation of the map (the graphical effect when you travel, where the transit doors open up into the map screen, is so simple and so striking!) and the jet-setting around the world, and in the use of real world-information. Given the name of a neighborhood, for example, you’ve got to go online and look it up to figure out what city to go to. I love that sort of thing. There are codes to decipher and people to question and the demo gives a really nice set of puzzles that suggests a good variety for the full game. It’s beautiful. The characterization is snappy and the mystery is mysterious and the main character is essentially a glamorous spy, and man, I really want to play this.

And yet I have been driving myself absolutely up the wall since playing the demo because I honestly cannot tell how the game feels about surveillance. Largely this is, of course, due to it being a demo of a mystery game that’s interested in keeping its cards close to its vest for the moment. But essentially the genre’s trappings are telling me one thing while the content is telling me another, and I don’t know where it’s going to go. It turns out that I’ve apparently got a strong reaction to works that view government surveillance in a positive way.

Neo Singapore, we are told on the game’s Steam page, is “a last refuge of order” in a chaotic world. (It’s short on details, but we can imagine the kinds of disasters they’ve cooked up for the world.) Already this is a bit of a problem for me, because well–I’m a gay stoner whose Peanuts archetype is Pig Pen–real-life Singapore isn’t exactly a place I’d find welcoming or comfortable. I don’t believe in that level of authoritarian control, and I am absolutely terrified of the elements of my own society that are a surveillance police state. (Whether or not that consists of all elements of my society depends, of course, on whom you ask, but it is for sure more than I like.)

You make very nice use of some extensive government surveillance during the demo, all in the name of catching the crooks. While the protagonist is surprised at the extent of the data that’s being collected, she doesn’t exactly seem to hesitant to use it–there’s bad guys to catch, after all. The rules do not apply to her. A librarian initially refuses to give you information about a patron, in one of the only examples we see of a halfhearted attempt at privacy. But you’ve got bad guys to catch, and not only do you convince her, she volunteers to help you crack a code and will likely be one of your contacts in the full game. I mean, there are plenty of people who talk about how Singapore is a wonderful place. There are plenty of people in my own country who genuinely believe that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t worry about who’s watching. Many people–I don’t understand these people but many people–are in favor of authoritarian police states.

Even if it ultimately decides that too much surveillance is too much, it falls flat for its attempt to have it both ways. It’s a lot like Morgan Freeman’s cellphone tracking network in The Dark Knight, which yes it’s reeeeeeally bad and it violates sooooooo much privacy and we can’t use it foreeeeeeeever but maybe we can use it just this once because we’re the good guys and there’s bad guys to catch. Or maybe it’s like Grand Theft Auto V where you torture someone but then you find out that you didn’t need to torture someone and it’s terrible that you tortured someone but you already tortured them and maybe next time you won’t torture them and everybody nods soberly and the scene fades out and yet it doesn’t actually silence that tiny, tiny voice that says, but, like, it was, like, a really bad terrorist and he, like, he refused to tell you where the bomb was, maybe it would work.

None of that sits terribly well with how cyberpunk generally presents itself–this is a genre full of sociopathic megacorporations and dystopic governments and people who make their attempts to chip away at the dehumanizing society in which they find themselves. And given that we all do live in a hypertechnological society in the real world, cyberpunk has evolved to tell stories about people managing to find a life of dignity within that kind of a world. But some of the notable stories I’m thinking about–Read Only Memories 2064 and Technobabylon come to mind–still do come from a place of critique. Technology is not inherently dehumanizing; in fact, transhumanism can be extraordinarily liberating. It depends on who is using it and for what purpose. It’s evil when used as the means of grinding people down in the name of Mammon; it is good when it’s used to feed the hungry. It’s pretty rare for the genre to approve of the oppressive use of technology. You don’t lose your humanity by installing bionic eyes and a cybernetic brain and smart legs–you lose it when you embrace the corporate machine.

This is a demo; we don’t have enough information. Even the marketing copy is pretty coy about whether or not it believes that last refuge business or is merely adopting, for the sake of ambiguity, the city’s biased view of itself. Without the full context, the material presented is at war with the tropes of its genre, and that tension is really compelling–it forces the issues front and center. You cannot look away from the amount of violations of privacy in the demo alone, and it refuses to say whether or not it’s okay with what’s going on. I don’t know the game’s values, or what it’s going to ask me to do. I’ve seen this setup before many times; I don’t know where it’s going to go. It is murky, possibly dangerous. And it’s a hell of a way to get me interested in a mystery. I mean, the case already has me spinning in circles.

128 – Greedfall

I’m enjoying Greedfall so far but boy, do I want to get to the fireworks factory. You play a noble son or daughter in a world in the middle of its Golden Age of Exploration. Said Exploration is centered on a mysterious, magical island and you’re sent there to be its protagonist and most important resident. The first two hours, however, are spent in your home city of What Do You Mean It’s Not Seville, where you get to do your normal set of fetch quests while you and your party members eagerly talk about how excited they are to get to the island. When you do get to the island, you’re set on another set of fetch quests at port, one of which requires you to meet back at a certain location in a couple of days, and so far I’ve been in a city, a ship, and another city while everybody talks about the mysteries and monsters that I’ll surely be discovering as soon as I’m allowed to deal with the corrupt police.

Yeah, I suppose the game is relevant–even moreso considering the world of the game is beset by a plague that is still raging but that people have convinced themselves is non-contagious enough to begin commerce again. It’s a weird and particularly apt game to be playing at the moment–given that “toppling statues of Christopher Columbus” is a bit of a meme at the moment, this kind of heavy colonialism stuff is very loaded. We are asked to identify with a noble who has the right to solve conflicts as he sees fit, who is the representative of a trading empire that, along with several other countries and factions, has set their eyes on a rich land and has decided it’s theirs for the taking. The island has a native population (vaguely Celtic, from the glimpses I’ve seen and from my limited knowledge of those kinds of archetypes) and everybody is concerned about the best way to convert them. These are people that we would consider the bad guys, and there are a lot of ways the game can treat that. It’s very likely that the developers have read Dune and seen Avatar and maybe even Dances with Wolves.

Part of the issue for me is that, so far, the main character is a fairly blank slate. You have your choices in dialogue and approach to situations, with diplomatic and nonviolent solutions generally getting a preference, but you’re barely a character. None of your party is–I have A Dude With A Face Tattoo, A Dude Without A Face Tattoo, and A Native Lady. Nobody has any strong reactions to anything. This is a bit of a failure of writing, just as the very dated brown drabness is a failure of design.

You know, it’s Eurojank. It’s one of those games whose ambition and drive far outstrip their budget and talent, and one of the reasons the “genre”, or tone, or whatever you want to call it, is beloved is because there is a very non-cynical honesty about it. I’ve never really liked any of Greedfall developer Spiders’ games–Bound by Flame is the only one I’ve spent any real time with, and I gave up on it almost entirely because of the combat. It’s the kind where the speed of the monsters doesn’t quite match up with your character’s lack of agility, and the whole thing is a bit of a slog. (Greedfall’s combat, while slightly better, isn’t particularly anything to write home about either.) Even the best of Eurojank (Elex) sputters and stumbles the whole time and if it manages to make it to the end it’s shocking.

But–look, there is no non-condescending way to say this, there’s something endearing about a large, bad idea that’s been scrappily put together by a team that seems to believe in it. You don’t put in a large skill tree and a crafting system and a handcrafted world if you’re lazy. And while Bethesda is also far from a lazy developer, you know I go on and on about how bland Skyrim is to me. It’s a AAA game that knows how polished it is and was deliberately made to appeal to as many people as it could by a team that knows how to appeal to as many people as they can. Greedfall is a C-list game that doesn’t quite think it’s AAA–it’s too humble for that–but it’s proud of what it did and maybe it can have at least one A. It reminds me of the ending of Ed Wood, when our ragtag group of misfit filmmakers gets dressed up and goes to the premiere. The actual quality of Plan Nine From Outer Space doesn’t matter–they’ve gotten together and created something, which is a wonderful act of love, and as far as they’re concerned they’re stars.

Go get ’em, Greedfall. You can do it. Let’s finally get out of this city and let’s actually explore the island. I’m really eager to see if you’re actually problematic or not.

127 – Jack Move (Demo)

I half want to take the demo for the unfortunately-named Jack Move and put it in comparison with Backbone and Disjunction because, well, it’s a Noir-influenced game taking place in a dystopic city where one small case turns into something bigger. This time, you’re a young girl trying to find her father by using her mad haxx0ring skills to take down the evil megacorporation which has captured him. It takes place in the most traditionally cyberpunk setting of the three–you fight neon-mohawked, sunglasses-wearing “punks”!–and it’s also pitched to a bit of a younger audience. It’s not particularly gritty, the enemies are more cartoony, and it’s an overall lighter feel.

Jack Move–that name!–is a Western Japanese RPG, meaning it features turn-based battles, low level of choice in character development, and lots of awkward menu fumbling. It’s the kind of game that replaces MP with “Data” and spells with “software” and a bunch of other Mad Libs style replacements. (The titular Jack Move is your limit break.) There’s too much combat, the streets are nonsensically laid out, and the villains are ridiculous. How do I make it clear that I’m not making fun of the game but describing its charms?

I cut my teeth on games like this. Real talk, aside from the presentation (which is, you know, beautiful, intricate pixel art, smooth animations, it’s lovely, games are so beautiful these days), this game could have appeared on the SNES and would have astounded if it had. Traditional JRPGs have a gameplay loop that’s often satisfying if done right. It’s true that the bar for the genre is really high for me. Jack Move might not do a single new thing, but it does everything it does very well. The worst thing about it is a slightly awkward keyboard control scheme that you can’t remap, but it’s just a demo and that’s not necessarily their first priority. (But seriously, let me use a gamepad or something because H to accept and J to cancel is surprisingly unwieldy for me.)

And maybe the Backbone and Disjunction comparisons are unwarranted because Jack Move doesn’t make any particular point to lean into the noir feel of it. Rather, they’re simple vestiges of cyberpunk itself–given that many of its foundational texts like Blade Runner and Neuromancer are, in many ways, detective stories dressed in neon. Jack Move’s Noe is a hacker who detects, first and foremost; it’s a lot more concerned with flashy technology than the social elements. We spend the demo in the slums, and a megacorporation runs everything, but that’s about as far as we see.

But again, this is a simple, foundational game–in many ways it’s a nice, accessible way into both cyberpunk and JRPGs for newcomers to either. And again, it’s beautiful and thoughtfully-written. There’s a reason that I got into this genre years ago, and Jack Move–that name!–exemplifies and understands that.

126 – Symmetry

Symmetry bills itself as having a “non-obvious sci-fi plot”, which is a nice way of saying that it’s fairly nonsense. A group of people crash on an ice planet, they ramble on while your attention is distracted by other things. At some point some kind of AI thing happens, and if you’ve been playing well you get to escape the planet, and then there’s what would have been a thought-provoking ambiguous ending if I’d been paying a little more attention.

It’s a nice counterpart to Frostpunk in that they’re both resource-gathering games set in a cold environment. Symmetry is extremely small in focus–you start with three crew members and get five by the end, there are a total of four jobs and three resources, and your goals–collect enough of Resource C in order to fix three macguffins–are clear and obvious from the outset. You have a target set of numbers you have to reach, and you have to optimize everything in order to get there. It controls like The Sims, somewhat–you have health and food meters you have to babysit and you have to tell people when to eat and sleep and when to study and when to work and if you aren’t paying attention to everyone they’ll keel over dead. It’s a nice puzzle–incidentally I disagree with the blurb’s assertion that it has replay value–that I bashed up against a few times before solving. There’s an endless mode and a harder difficulty setting, neither of which I feel like playing because I think I got what I’m going to get from it.

With videogames in particular, I respond to many of them as mood and atmosphere and tone rather than a collection of plot points. Do you read the text when you’re given a quest in an MMO? Can you remember the name of the NPC that gave it to you? Or does it just provide flavor and atmosphere? Most of what goes on, textually, in many videogames is irrelevant on the literal level. Sure, you can go back and look at all of the lore fragments in Dark Souls and piece together the meaning of the plot. But the first time you go through it, the lore evokes dark kingdoms and the enemy names are portentous and tragic and you’re not exactly sure what you’re doing but damn, isn’t it stylish.

So that’s where Symmetry hits–the characters all have their throughlines and their opinions of each other and their backstories, but it doesn’t matter if you tease it out or not. They speak in long paragraphs that you maybe pick out phrases–“daddy wouldn’t let his princess die”, “I don’t know why we crashed”, “they’ll deny everything”, “the crew is moving like robots”–which give a little taste of the roots of their paranoia. Because it is a very paranoid game. Most of the dialogue is stress-induced ranting. The characters aren’t speaking to convey complex ideas–they’re babbling in order to hold on to whatever remaining sanity they can just to get through this thing. The slowly-awakening AI is so overwhelming and its motivations alien enough that the characters don’t even really want to deal with what’s going on–it’s enough that they realize it’s probably going to be very painful.

The last few minutes of my successful game–where my crew, moving like robots, had an assembly line to gather Resource C while the evil AI threatened us and the crew spouted off terrified gibberish and I frantically babysat everyone because I wasn’t going to have anyone die then and the clock was running down and we made it at the last minute and everyone’s fate wasn’t necessarily good–the filigree of the plot, the names of the characters and their motivations and the larger conspiracy that everyone may or may not be involved in–all of that’s irrelevant. Figuring all that out might even diminish it somewhat. What matters, and what Symmetry did very well, was conveying that moment of desperate struggle against something you can’t understand and ending up in what’s probably a pretty bad fate. As pretty and pastel as the game is, it delivers a wonderful sense of dread.

125 – Disjunction (Demo)

The Disjunction demo turned out to be a nice followup to Backbone: Prologue, given that it too is a game about a down-on-his-luck private detective in a dystopic, hella racist city who gets called to do a simple case which–you know this because you’ve seen a Noir thing before–turns out to be so, so much more.  Like Backbone, it’s pretty pixel art and a moody soundtrack.

Disjunction is, however, foremost a stealth-action game, as opposed to Backbone’s awkward stealth sections. It’s one of those where it matters if you actually stealth your way through or not–I killed everyone my first time through the first level, and my contact was appropriately horrified but was much happier when I did a nonlethal replay. Unlike Backbone, the stealth is an actual game. You have actual tools–a few abilities, actual cones of vision, obstacles which require you to at least glance, plan ahead, and try out a different technique or two to get past. There have been some Hotline Miami comparisons here and there from what I’ve seen, which I can sort of see but also not quite–it’s not as slippery as Hotline Miami plays, and it’s less focused on quick, prayerful blitzes where most of the time it just comes down to luck whether you or the other guy shoots first, or whether the controls slide you out of aiming range while you get slaughtered again and again and again and again until you put the game away and get a vein popping out of your head every time it’s mentioned. (I don’t like Hotline Miami.)

It’s a better game than Backbone is, but Backbone has the better story and possibly the better visual presentation. I’m really excited to play Disjunction, and I’m curious to see how the other two promised characters control. (Supposedly the game alternates between three different storylines which All Come Together In The End.) But I’m also not particularly Invested in them–our hero doesn’t go much past Grizzled Private Eye; his contact, while an old friend whose bio suggests an interesting character when she’s given room to breathe, also doesn’t give us much beyond mission briefings; the only other character we see is a news reporter who shows up at the beginning to give us some exposition. The evidence you’re collecting is treated as the MacGuffin it is–about all that’s said about it is “it’s evidence that he was here and that proves he’s innocent” kind of stuff.

This is not to say that the game doesn’t care about its story–it does, and it’s obviously thought about its world, and there is a lot of potential for some Real Themes here. The Canadian Backbone uses its species-based discrimination a bit more symbolically–the various species don’t necessarily represent any particular racial or ethnic group but rather stand in for the process of discrimination–an easy-to-see hierarchy that, with some modifications, can apply to roughly any society which divides people by social class. (In other words, every society.)

Disjunction is more explicitly about American racism, particularly as it relates to policing. In the backstory, New York City’s economic inequalities have only deepened. Masses of poor and homeless have occupied Central Park and formed a shantytown there which is in an uneasy detente with the police only after much resistance and rioting. One of its community leaders has been accused of murdering a police officer and Science Fiction Heroin is possibly involved. His wife, an activist and community leader in her own right, calls the main grizzled white dude protagonist for help, and if the writing team is worth their salt and the right critics play this game, there’ll be a lot to mine about allyship. You can, after all, ignore your boss’s order that you complete the mission without any bloodshed, brush off her horror that it’s poisoning the well of her cause and giving a lot of unwanted attention. And then when she gives you a second mission, because she really doesn’t have anyone else to turn to, you can tell her, sure, I’ll do what you say and follow your leadership; and then you can slaughter everyone again. Based on the artwork, the other two main characters appear to be BIPOC, and there’s so much potential there for different perspectives and all of that. We don’t see a ton of that in the demo. The focus is on the gameplay, and it is enough to have an excellent action game with a story that is Relevant To Our Times, even if that story is just the connective tissue between stages.

And I’ll admit that a lot of Backbone’s character comes from the simple fact that it’s an Animals World–both games’ main characters don’t stray far from Standard Depressed Private Eye, but Backbone’s has a tail. It’s a raccoon in a trench coat smoking cigarettes, how can I not love that? But that’s enough pitting the two games against each other. Rather, take it as a really great sign to see two games run with the Noir concept in completely different directions and see both having the potential to be really successful with it. And they’re both so colorful. All of the games I’ve been playing lately have been so colorful! Remember when every game was brown? Remember when we let all of those obnoxious nerds convince us that videogames needed to look realistic and that realistic meant brown and washed-out? Remember how boring all of those nerds insisted games needed to look? Somewhere, Wind Waker is smiling. It was right in the end.