91 – Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter and Trials of the Luremaster

I said last time I was starting to get burnt out on Icewind Dale because of the DLC. I finished it this morning with a sense of relief. ID’s main campaign is great–about the best “wave after wave of monsters in the Infinity Engine” as you can get before its sequel. Baldur’s Gate’s dungeons are kind of terrible–it’s obvious this is a team that hasn’t figured out the limitations of its pathfinding and so you get a lot of areas with winding paths that your pikmin refuse to go through, tiny rooms that you can’t do combat in, etc. Baldur’s Gate II and Planescape Torment are better in that regard, but I dislike both of their structures–they both start off as sprawling explorations of a single city and some environs, dense with quests and plot, only to branch off into a series of combat-heavy maps that aren’t as strong as the first bit. By being simpler, Icewind Dale is a lot stronger structurally. It’s a shame about its final boss, but there you go.

Its DLC is a mixed bag, The DLC is split into two parts–Heart of Winter, which came first; and Trials of the Luremaster, which is an expansion-to-the-expansion which was added after, I’m told, people complained that HoW wasn’t long enough. There are a lot of theories about the best way to play the DLC. It’s possible to access Heart of Winter within ID itself–a fellow in the main town will be happy to whisk you away to the extra content as long as you’re a certain level or higher, or you’re welcome to export your endgame characters to the DLC after you’ve completed the main campaign. The latter is my preference–the initial level you’re able to access it is fairly low-level for the HoW content; a happy medium is also often recommended–ID asks you to find six macguffins to access the endgame, and once you’ve collected them, a lot of people suggest doing HoW at that point. It’s up to you. (Plotwise, if you’re the kind of asshole geek who insists on canon and continuity, HoW seems to take place after ID is complete; and notably, there’s a sword you can get in ID’s endgame which has some plot relevance to HoW.)

The point is, HoW is a separate map from the original areas. Unlike Baldur’s Gate’s Tales of the Sword Coast, which adds several points of interest to the main map, HoW does not let you go back to the main campaign to grind if you find yourself too low-level for it. For the most part, that’s okay–Heart of Winter is some good waves-of-enemies content, and while you might struggle if you go into it at the very moment you’re able, it should be all right to muddle through. And since the content can take place after the endgame, it’s all right that you can’t go back. You’ve done everything there is to do.

The problem is Trials of the Luremaster, which is a matriyoshka doll–a fellow in Heart of Winter’s town will offer to whisk you away to his portion of content, and once you’re there, you can’t leave until it’s finished. And the problem with Trials of the Luremaster is its encounters are poorly designed, its puzzles irritating, and it’s content totally separated from everything else that’s gone before. Where Icewind Dale loves its waves of enemies, TotL is relentless with them. My level 20-23 party kept getting slaughtered by a series of guards; eventually I put the entire thing on Story Mode and just whapped my way through because, you know, it had gone beyond the point of sanity or fun. There is a thoughtfulness to many of the most difficult areas of Icewind Dale–a careful placement of enemies designed to challenge. TotL overwhelms. Two dozen olive slimes! Spiders upon spiders! A pile of harpies next to a pile of wyverns! Half of a cavern which has rooms in which six umber hulks pop out, then six minotaurs, then six wyverns, then six of those overpowered guards–and then you get to do the same exact set of encounters in the other half! Beholders after beholders after beholders! The whole thing is relentless; the whole thing feels like busywork.

TotL is similar to Durlag’s Tower, part of Baldur’s Gate’s expansion, in that it’s a puzzley, difficult dungeon which involves solving riddles. But you can leave Durlag’s Tower–if you get bored with it, you’re able to leave and do other stuff, level up a bit, hang around Baldur’s Gate itself and do some sidequests. TotL’s castle forces you into it, forces you to solve its puzzles, and they’re generally poor. The final area involves two interconnected maps, only one of which allows you to rest. (If I ever design an RPG like this, I’ll have to resist the temptation of including a map which features the message, “You’re unable to rest in this area because fuck you.”) These winding caves feature five chests, each of which is next to an altar. Inside each chest is a flawed gem. Putting the gems in a sixth chest transports them to the altar, this time shining and able to be used as a macguffin in a portal area. In practice, you end up fighting a bunch of tough/annoying encounters, having to go to each chest and pick up its gem, then to the magical chest, placing the gems inside, then traipsing back to the altars near each chest, picking up the restored gems, and then finally to the portal area.

In short, Trials of the Luremaster is exactly the kind of content designed to placate the kinds of people who complain that a DLC isn’t long enough. (And frankly, Heart of Winter is, in my opinion, exactly long enough.)

Icewind Dale is named for its region, a snowy area to the far north of the Forgotten Realms setting of Faerun. Heart of Winter also takes place there, dealing with some more of the land’s history and steeped in the setting. Trials of the Luremaster takes place in a desert castle that could have just as easily been a snowed-in castle. I can appreciate that maybe they wanted to go to another region, but it feels very out of place. And while its story is fine, it’s what the kids on the internet would call a Big Lipped Alligator Moment–it’s just kind of this weird side venture that your party goes through and that no one ever refers to anymore.

The entire experience is padding.

Which is a shame, because interrupting Heart of Winter as it does weakens it. It would be fine if the option to access Luremaster would come afterwards–Heart of Winter distracts from what’s going on in Icewind Dale, true, but you can take it after your business there is done. This doesn’t give you that option.

And I guess my final thoughts on the subject is that Beamdog has probably done a lot of great things with their enhanced editions, but honestly, I wish they’d done more. The Infinity Engine has a lot of quirks–its pathfinding, its traps, its nonsense with sustained area of effect spells–and while I can appreciate from an archival perspective the need to include the original stuff, I wish they’d have enhanced the engine a bit more. Story Mode is, for example, a nice edition, and there’s some class kit stuff and some extra items and content that are across the franchise, but man, it’s 2017 and we’re really feeling some of the limitations of a late-90s engine. Look, the Infinity Engine is one of the finest RPG engines that’s been made, but in a world with the Pillars of Eternity engine and the improvements on the formula that’s made, it really feels like we should have some of the kinks worked out. Those asshole geeks I keep talking about, they flipped the fuck out on Beamdog on the extra content in Baldur’s Gate–apparently there’s some SJW crap which, you know, fuck you asshole geeks, get out of my fucking blog–but, I mean, I guess I can’t blame Beamdog for being conservative. Asshole geeks are such conservative, boring, picky eaters. I’m just always surprised, I guess, to find that “Baldur’s Gate, exactly as it was in 1997 with nothing added” is, you know, the equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese made exactly the way their mommy made it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Baldur’s Gate and I love mac and cheese. But for fuck’s sake, it’s 2017 and I’m 35. We can get fancy. It’s okay. We’re adults.

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90 – Black Watchmen, Icewind Dale, The Silver Case

Hitting walls:

–Black Watchmen began to fall into every ARG trap, namely I don’t fucking understand it and the people in the forums are such STEM dicks about it. One puzzle involves a bunch of graphs that I can’t interpret. “Look at the graphs and see what they’re saying, what the numbers represent,” one person on the forum says, helpfully. “Put the numbers into Excel and see what it says,” says another.

I’m staring at the graphs and I’m not even *seeing* numbers.

In college I took an Intro to Astronomy course because, you know, I thought it would be fun to have a class based on stargazing. Instead, it was so mathy. We had one assignment which involved putting all of these numbers into some kind of stats software which generated an incomprehensible chart. “What does this chart say?” was one of the assignment questions.

“I have no idea,” I wrote. “This chart is gibberish. You didn’t bother to explain how to interpret this in any way.”

I got a C in that class.

–Completed the main campaign of Icewind Dale and am most of the way through the DLC, but I’m abusing the Story Mode option. The final boss of Dale itself is, you know, a really fucking tough final boss preceded by a longish cutscene–it’s Infinity Engine, so it’s nothing Final Fantasy or anything, but it is a minute or two long, and I kept getting my ass kicked. The DLC features a swarm of some of the toughest enemies in the game, and I know I’m going to have a bad time of the final boss too.

There’s a lot of talk, post Dark Souls, about Easy Mode and whether or not it’s acceptable to play just for the story–remember that one Bioware dev who got all GamerGated because she suggested that some parts of gameplay be skippable I’m generally of the opinion that you play on whatever volume you want, it’s not a competition, it’s a single player retro RPG, you’ve already lost the battle of coolness the moment you downloaded it, and so you do whatever gives you the most enjoyment–but there’s something pretty unfulfilling about playing 90% of a game in the default mode only to have to switch it down for a couple of the last moments. But this is something that i’ve kind of always found with Infinity Engine games–I definitely needed to bring down to Easy Mode for Sarevok, for the final battle of Icewind 2, and I seem to remember cheating in the final battle of Planescape Torment. (That was the first IE game I finished, and I’m curious to see what kind of time I’ll have with it when I try it again, understanding the engine.) Is it a question of balance, of feeling like they’re doing well for most of the game and then shitting the bed in the ending?

But in general–I wouldn’t go so far to say Icewind Dale isn’t as enjoyable as I remembered it being, but the sequel does up the ante in terms of dungeon design and encounters. ID is very much a pile of enemies that you have to figure out how to defeat, then a pile of different enemies, and lather rinse repeat until the ending. The DLC is a little better, a bit more variety, but the Trials of the Luremaster portion (a sort of DLC-within-DLC) is where that swarm of difficult enemies is and it’s generally a dungeon that goes on for a bit too long.

I guess it’s becoming clear why Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape Torment are considered the high parts of the franchise is what I’m saying.

–I loved Killer7 back in the day, I’d never played or seen anything like it, and for me Suda51’s reputation comes as a generous gift based on that one game. K7 is just absolutely batshit terrifying as far as I’m concerned–while I’m as receptive to jump scares as the next guy, I think you’ve got to be an absolute fucking wuss to claim to be terrified of, say, Amnesia, which becomes silly the moment you’ve got That Chase, and in no way do most horror games stay with me. Killer7, however, has just some absolutely terrifying sound design–the laughter of the Heaven’s Smiles will creep up into my mind sometimes during dark nights, and it’ll absolutely scare the shit out of me.

What I love about Killer7 is that just about the entirety of it is background noise. There’s revelations, and plot, and terrifying moments, but the whole thing boils down to a moment in the ending where you’re asked to make a choice in a videogame: There’s a set of nuclear missiles and you can either aim them at the US or Japan. (It’s irrelevant which, because, you know, it’s a videogame, and all that changes is, I believe, a bit of text.) Everything that comes before that moment is slow psychological torture designed to have that question utterly ruin you, though–as I’m describing it, it seems silly, and I’m making fun of the question, but in context, coming as it does after 20-30 hours of just total upsetting surrealistic horror, it’s a question that just gets to me. The game is designed to put you in a paranoid, terrified mindset, and then it hands you a big red button. (It’s a Donald Trump simulator.) The internet will happily miss the point by trying to square every circle of plot, by putting events in a timeline, by doing that terrible style of geek crit close reading that it’s famous for, but at the end of the day, it’s, you know, a Tone Poem or something, and an absolutely horrifying one.

And it’s one I enjoyed very much. These things don’t work if they aren’t surprising, and I found Killer7 surprising in every way when I played it. That was–shit–thirteen years ago. I’ve gotten older and played a lot since then, sure, but it blew my 21 year old mind. Maybe it’s because I’m older and more jaded that I’m not finding The Silver Case to be quite so entertaining. It’s a visual novel, sure, an extremely stylish one–it doesn’t look like all that generic Ren’py crap you find floating around, it very much has its own voice and look and feel–

But man, is it putting me to sleep.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older, because I expect more, because I don’t like visual novels, or what–but it’s really hard to play The Silver Case for more than 15-20 minutes at a time before my eyes start closing. The plot is confusing but not so much so–there’s a lot of characters but no so many that I can’t keep track of them–but there’s just something very clinical about the whole thing. The Silver Case is, like most of Suda51’s games, about madness and violence–it’s about a group of detectives hunting down a serial killer–and yet there’s no feeling of vitality about it. The humor isn’t funny. The scary parts aren’t scary. At no point do I fear for my own life as a player. Maybe it’s too much to ask that I should feel like the killer is going to appear in my own bedroom, maybe I’m too old for that–but honestly, the new season of Twin Peaks made me feel like a nuclear bomb and a primal spirit of evil were going to appear at any moment and take me into a place of eternal torture and suffering, so that’s still a feeling I can tap into.

I think I loved Killer7 because it made me feel very unsafe, and The Silver Case does, in no way, make me feel unsafe. I’m four hours in and it feels like chapter 2 is never going to fucking end.

No More Heroes, incidentally, was just okay. I frankly find it pretty overrated. Like I said, Suda’s reputation is coasting from Killer7. We’re not going to talk about Flower, Sun, and Rain.

89 – Icewind Dale

–Replaying Icewind Dale after playing Icewind Dale 2 is instructive in how much more ID2 is. I love these games–it’s my favorite of the 3 Infinity Engine subseries, and I’m trying to figure out why. It doesn’t have the narrative heft of Planescape or the questy open-worldness of Baldur’s Gate. What it does have is an extremely tight structure. Baldur’s Gate’s looseness works against it a little bit–until you know the shape of it, it’s difficult to know where to go and when to do it. Sometimes you need to rush to the next area, sometimes you’re expected to meander and level up a bit. It is a structurally weird beast, but it’s also the kind of bad structure that, when you’re used to it, does make a lot of sense. BGII, the one and only time I played it, felt like it was going to be a freeform, open-world game set largely in and around a single, large city, until the point when you leave the city and go on a huge number of difficult adventures in the Underdark, at which point you realize you should have stayed in the city for a much longer time than you thought and so everything is a lot harder than it should be. I enjoy Baldur’s Gate much more during each replay, and when I decide it’s time to play II again, knowing how I should approach it will make it a much better game, I think.

Icewind Dale is much simpler. You’re given a single dungeon, and you’re expected to crawl. It is a firehose of combat. It’s some of the best incarnation of combat in the IE series, I think–probably my favorite druid build. There is, usually, only one thing to do at a time, and the dungeons are more winding than sprawling. You don’t have a lot of choice in this videogame. But that’s okay–it works for it. Icewind Dale 2’s dungeons have more in the way of gimmicks–I use the term positively–and the writing takes your classes and races and alignments into account, it’s a much better written game–and maybe that’s the true lost classic, I really hope Beamdog makes an enhanced edition of it. But for now, Icewind Dale’s crawling is really hitting the spot.

–Traps, however, are complete bullshit. The Infinity Engine silently ticks down rounds, and as far as I can tell, each round your thief is detecting traps there’s a skill-based chance that they’ll detect one and a section of the dungeon or treasure chest will flash red and you can disarm it. The problem is, this is a slow process and success is not guaranteed, and so in order to make it through certain hallways without damage, you’ve got to put your thief in, and hang out for a moment. The whole process is slow and laborious and there’s no advantage to it–it’s not like you get any XP for disarming in this game. Particularly considering how you can rest at any time and there are no resources consumed when you do so, it’s just a stupid holdover from the tabletop days.

I seem to remember Tyranny having traps be detected instantly and the checks to disarm never being particularly difficult. They’re even more useless there–even though you do get XP, it’s not as if you ever get caught in one. Just give me the free XP. As influential as the Infinity Engine is–and rightfully so!–I wish we as a society had given the traps a wide berth. I wish the Enhanced Editions gave the option to disable them entirely.

–The other area where the Infinity Engine falls is its handling of persistent area-effect spells. Icewind Dale depends on a lot of them–throw down a web and get the enemies stuck there, then throw down a Stinking Cloud and watch them go unconscious, then shoot some thornbushes into the area to lacerate their unconscious, stuck forms, maybe put a cloud of fire–there’s a lot of stuff you can do if you set up the geometry right, and the magical effects in ID are particularly pretty. The problem is, the spells all have a set time that they fire for. The game doesn’t let you save or rest while they’re proccing, which makes a lot of sense–the game doesn’t let you do either in combat, and you wouldn’t want to create an unwinnable situation where you’ve trapped your own party in a death room–but there’s no way to stop the spells. There are a lot of situations where you’ve defeated all the enemies you’re facing, but your spike traps and webs are still firing and so your party just hangs out cleaning their fingernails until a minute or so later the spell finally dissipates and you can save and rest.

It’s not a game killer, obviously, but I guess this and the handling of traps make the games a little slower than they quite need to be. You get a Dispel spell; it would be nice if that stopped the area spells, but it doesn’t.

88 – Might and Magic 3, Black Watchmen, Dragon Age Inquisition

–Stuck, as has always been the case, in Might and Magic III, this time on the lever puzzle in the Fortress of Fear. I hate lever puzzles. Yes, it’s optional, yes, I have a half-dozen other dungeons I could be going in at the moment. I am not quitting; I am Taking A Break. Because, dammit, I do want the map of the Isles of Terra on the wall to join VARN, XEEN, and Lost Guardia. (And I swear, one day Ishar is going to join them!)

But what is it about MM3 that just loses me? The exploration isn’t as satisfying–the biggest mistake of the series came with II, where you get the ability, very quickly, to traverse every square on the map and it becomes a game of lawnmowing. Might and Magic I is an impeccably designed maze. You can, eventually, go on every square if you find the way to do it; Might and Magic II gives you skills which allows you to, essentially, cross through walls in the outside. A line of trees or mountains that blocks your way in I becomes simply another square to pass through in II and that continues. III is a flat game paced only by enemy difficulty and keys to certain dungeons. And I love exploration and mazes, poking at a maze to find the spot that I haven’t gone into yet.

I mean, I did make it all the way through IV and V, so obviously the style got refined. III is excellent in many ways–it’s a beautiful game, it keeps and refines the manic energy of the series which is one of its hallmarks, and it’s hard–though a lot of the difficulty does come from riddles and puzzles. But really, Might and Magic I captured me in a way few other games have, and 6 did a good job of having that wonderful sense of expansive purpose; the other games in the series have been diminishing returns.

–Ducked into The Black Watchmen because a paranoid conspiracy ARG-style game is probably what we as a society need right now? It’s fun. Total cheese. You’re given a series of puzzles with all of this window dressing about secret experiments and agents with thick overdone Russian accents planting bugs and occult organizations–I’m totally blanking on the name but what was that webpage game a bunch of years back that started you off with searching pixels of images for text written in and moved to cracking codes and image manipulation and–do you know what I’m talking about? It’s one of those kinds of games. If you’re in the right mindset, and you can solve the puzzles, it’s great. Hard to do by yourself, I guess–it’s always more fun to do these things with a friend. I’ve recently gone through a breakup and so, you know, maybe I should have gotten Black Watchmen six months ago.

It reminds me of Missing Since January–anyone remember that lost little gem? An old boyfriend and I played that through a few years ago–we were the type to play adventure games together–and it was fun. The kayfabe of that was a little more complex–where Black Watchmen is simply “You’re a member of a cryptic organization solving crimes, have fun”, Missing tells the story of a serial killer and the two journalists who disappear investigating the murders. The killer sends a CD full of clues to the police, you get your hands on a copy, and you get to solving.

Missing took the ARG thing to some pretty nice heights, particularly for the time, particularly for someone like me who didn’t have much experience with ARGs. Its major gimmick was integrating itself with your email–you’d get messages from various characters, including the killer–the most notable one being several days after you’ve solved everything and moving on to something else, getting a gloating email from the killer promising to be back in the sequel because he’s always watching. Great shit. Black Watchmen has sections where you can add your phone number and address–locked for me at the moment, perhaps for later seasons.

The two biggest issues with ARGs from my sights, though, are that they’re usually too commercial and too hard, which at first glance seems a little paradoxical. Most of the big ARGs–I Love Bees, for example–are made to promote other things, aren’t a story in and of themselves; and if you’re not interested in the thing they’re promoted, it feels a little cheap. And these things are often designed to require that group participation. I like that such tools are available–there’s forums for Black Watchmen (that had absolutely no hints or discussion for a couple of puzzles I was stuck on) and a Discord server (whatever that is, sorry, kids, but I’m 35 and it’s getting hard for me to learn new shit unless forced, which by the way I’ve gotten the fuck rid of my Twitter and am richardgoodness@mastodon.social now and I fucking refuse to learn about instances)–but, you know, videogames have always been a largely solitary activity for me. I don’t like to play games against other people, and I don’t like to play with strangers. It’s nice to have another head next to mine to work together, but that’s about it. And so when you get into ARGs that require specialized esoteric knowledge that everyone has a piece of, where a community is required–I get a little leery of that.

I guess it takes me out of the experience a bit. Spells like these are very difficult. I’m the guy who hates Twine games made in the default, who hates Choice of Games for their fucking refusal to even change font colors, who can’t play a game if it’s not fullscreen. Seeing that this is on a computer with the Finder and the charge icon for my battery, that reminds me that I’m playing a game at home. The suspension of disbelief is difficult. Now, if I’m looking into the dark underbelly of organizations, if I’m pretending to hack into servers, if I’m doing research, doing it from the comfort of my own web browser adds to the experience. That’s how I’d do it “in real life”. But when I’m going to a forum that the company who made the game has created specifically to help people connect so they can discuss the game, that’s a little…silly.

I will say Black Watchmen does a little more online than perhaps they ought. The shell program, that you run from Steam or whatever, contains the navigator where you choose the puzzles you’re going to solve, is the spot where you enter the puzzle solutions, contains some basic documents. For the rest, most puzzles involve the site http://archive.blackwatchmen.com where you enter certain codes/passwords to access particular documents. It’s effective in its way, it gates your progress nicely, but I don’t quite understand why it’s a separate webpage that you can get to–why it isn’t a feature of the program itself. There could very easily be a database module within it that could serve the same exact purpose. And there’s some UI shit in the program–copying and pasting isn’t great, for example, little things like that–but it’s about as cute of an experience as it can be. I mean, I mean, I run an X-Files podcast. I’m a 90s kid. This kind of conspiracy cheese, I can’t take it completely seriously at the same time that I’m able to take it completely seriously. It’s funny, and creepy as hell to play at night.

–Speaking of breakups and big blocks of cheese, immediately after my breakup, a friend of mine suggested I get some kind of overwhelming videogame to take my mind off my shit–she got lost for a few weeks in Fallout 3 after a similar situation. Fallout isn’t my thing, particularly in such chaotic times, but fantasy is, and since I hate Elder Scrolls I picked up Dragon Age Inquisition. I don’t quite love Dragon Age–I don’t quite love Bioware. There’s always something pretty internetty about it, if you know what I mean, and I really hated the first two games as games. Dragon Age Origins I played before I had played any of the Infinity Engine games that it was hearkening back to, and so didn’t quite get the experience, but after I’d played them its faults and flaws began to become a little more apparent, and frankly, the XBox controls are kind of terrible. Dragon Age II was a really great attempt at telling a story in a small space, in showing social change over time, but while I’m not the kind of guy who gets hung up on plot holes, being an illegal mage openly running around with a flaming staff while people say “It’s the hero of Kirkwall, the guy who killed the biggest Qunari of all time, we’re low level bandits, let’s get him” began to wear on me, the quests which randomly solved themselves because you pick up an item as a random drop began to wear on me; and while I am okay knowing that I have made a choice in a videogame, Dragon Age II really wanted me to think that I was, and when it was all over and I realized that it was a series of magician’s choices and morton’s forks, it just felt–oh, god, I’m going to say pretentious–pretentious. It didn’t help that there’s a fuckton of really bad queer games crit about the game.

I mean maybe it just is a case where if I’d been five years younger when I’d played it, it would have blown my mind.

What I really wanted to play was The Witcher 3–I really like The Witcher’s world–but as I only have a 360 and a POS Macbook, Inquisition it was–and I think I’m pretty okay with the decision. As a Pile Of Content, it’s great–part of the reason I put it aside was simple fatigue. I actually like the much-memed Hinterlands, would have honestly been satisfied if that was the bulk of the game–and while I don’t quite love Dragon Age’s world, I don’t mind it. It certainly has more character than The Elder Scrolls, which you can tell very badly wants to be a fantasy world with a lot of character but just can’t help but be generic. I mean, I rolled a Skyrim character, thinking, okay, maybe this time it won’t be so bad–and here I am wandering through generic dungeons and fighting bandits after bandits after bandits and I just don’t give a shit. Dragon Age Inquisition is simple enough that when I want to get back to it, I’ll be able to pick up where I left off because it’s not exactly that complex of a plot, but it at least has a little bit of character. And, I mean, you know what a sucker I am for Catholic Shit.

87 — Darkside Detective, Thimbleweed Park, And Obscure Lines From Ghostbusters

There’s a lot of Ace Attorney in Darkside Detective’s DNA, and it’s not only because your sidekick Officer Dooley is a distant cousin of Dick Gumshoe. Ace Attorney is notable, to me, for two things–its episodic structure that adds up to a larger whole, and its huge back cast of recurring characters. All of the installments of the series feel very grandiose because everything seems to be part of a bigger story, pieces of a gigantic puzzle, and it’s really clever in how it reuses its characters.

Darkside Detective doesn’t quite get to that point, but that’s okay: It’s a much smaller game in many ways, and it’s an excellent introduction to this world and these characters. You play Detective McQueen who, along with Officer Dooley solve supernatural mysteries, focusing on the Darkside, a parallel dimension which has its own branch of the police sent to deal with incursions from the real world. It’s an adventure game in the more storytelling mode–puzzles are simple, as logical as they need to be, and more to pace the plot. There are a few setpieces scattered around the episodes, and I’m sorry to inform you there’s a sliding tile puzzle.

What strikes me the most about Darkside Detective is how much better it gets as it goes on. The game consists of six supernatural mysteries, all of the wacky variety, all in that very smart, self-referential, very knowing mode where the characters are vaguely aware of their pop cultural influences–in this case, Twin Peaks, X-Files, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, etc.

You know, geek humor 101. It isn’t quite as bad as it could be–like, the writing restrains itself to only one Doctor Who reference that I caught, and I didn’t notice any Monty Python, thank God, thank God. There’s that very internetty mode of writing that I can’t stand, and Darkside flirts with it in its initial cases and then slowly becomes something pretty good. The game slowly introduces your fellow police officers, some members of the Darkside police force, various characters around town–there’s a world here, and one which begins to break out of its pop culture roots by the end, and if at the end we’re left with the feeling that they’ve just scratched the surface, well, always leave ’em wanting more, right?

I got a few flashes to The Last Door with the graphics–both games are drawn with very large pixels, very stylized, but Darkside features a ton of neon which, as someone whose room is decorated with lava lamps and Christmas lights, I was very fond of. But the game that I really couldn’t get out of my head while playing Darkside Detective was Thimbleweed Park.

Oh, Thimbleweed Park.

I’ve been chatting with a few friends lately about What The Fuck Exactly Went Wrong With Thimbleweed Park, and while everyone did feel a slight bit of acid bubbling in the back of their throats at various moments, the scene that killed the game for just about everyone I know was when a character turns to the player and says, “I want to be a game designer! My favorite company is MMUCASFLEM! They make the best games,” and then goes on to bash Sierra for all of the sins they committed in the games that they made 20-30 years ago.

I mean I guess I’m going to say it outright: Thimbleweed Park was embarrassing.

Right now there’s a lot of back and forth going on about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I didn’t like the book because I am a fucking lit snob; I say that the six years I spent in Reading School give me the luxury to turn my nose up at any book I please. I know a bunch of people who loved the book, who see it as something affirming, and there is something pure to it. But there’s something very Loot Crate about it.

I guess I think about the underground nature of gay culture a lot because, paradoxically, I live in Portland, which–and I am of course saying this from the perspective of a white cis man who is fairly masculine-presenting and works at an organic grocery store–feels much more comfortable to be gay in than New Jersey or even New York did. LGBTX people are, quite frankly, much more visible here. I see more queer people here. And it’s so much less of a big deal: Mentioning a boyfriend in New York or New Jersey often led to a conversation about me being gay; mentioning it here just leads to further small talk about my relationship. It’s not hard for me to find others like me, and I can do so openly–and that’s a really fucking huge blessing. Another time–or another place–or hell, another family just down the block from me–and I wouldn’t have that luxury. Closet culture has so many tiny signals that you escalate from the subtle to the more overt, each step confirming that, yes, I’m picking up what you’re putting down, I’m throwing out my own references, each checking the other to see that, yes, I’m like you, we can be candid with each other because we’re both safe.

It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the treatment of geeks to the treatment of gays, but I’m all about metaphors and metonyms and analogies or whatever the fuck figure of speech I’m using–I may have gone to reading school for six years but that was ten years and a lot of weed ago–and I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two. By my reckoning, I actually see both groups as coalescing in the 70s and 80s into a more codified culture. The gays had Stonewall and disco and, more darkly, the advent of HIV; the geeks had Dungeons and Dragons and the birth of personal computers and the beginnings of convention-based fandom. Being a geek or a fag would likely still get you beaten up–more severely if you were the latter, let’s face it–but at least there was a more defined culture. To reference that culture was to mark yourself as part of it. To quote Monty Python was a shibboleth.

But for motherfuck’s sake, it is 2017. Everybody knows Monty Python. To quote Monty Python is to proclaim nothing but the fact that you are tuned into mainstream (capitalist?) culture. Everybody knows Star Wars. Disney owns Star Wars. Steve Bannon likes Star Wars. There’s a scene from the pilot of How I Met Your Mother where the dipshit lead character (whose favorite movie is Star Wars) is listing the reasons he’s fallen in love with a woman. “She can quote obscure lines from Ghostbusters,” he gushes, and we cut to the lady telling Ray that the next time he’s asked whether or not he’s a god, he should say yes.

That’s not an obscure line from Ghostbusters. And do you know why that’s not an obscure line from Ghostbusters? That’s because there is no such fucking thing as an obscure line from Ghostbusters. Everybody has seen Ghostbusters at least once. Men have gone to war over Ghostbusters. Most movie critics agree it’s one of the finest comedies ever made. Ghostbusters is not a tiny underground film that only a few people know about it. It is mainstream pop culture.

And you know what? Mainstream pop culture–oh my god, 14-year-old Richard is going to shit himself when he reads this–is okay. I mean, it’s Problematic as shit, but fuck, enjoy a pop song if you like. I’m one of those guys who agrees about Ghostbusters being a great movie. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. But it’s really churlish to pretend the nerds didn’t win.

I mean, there’s something really sore winner about Thimbleweed Park. Its constant harping about how great its design philosophies are–design philosophies that haven’t changed in 20 years and, as influential as they may have been, don’t translate as well to 2017 as they think, like it doesn’t even seem to recognize that Wadjet Eye or Telltale exists–feels like a mean-spirited O’DOYLE RULES. Thimbleweed Park lightly pretends it’s actually from 1987, and it seems to think that both the feuds and the references are still as fresh as they would have been then. It feels like being in your 30s and writing a piece about shit that happened to you in high school. Every snipe at what other adventure game companies are doing, every crow about how great Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island were back in the day, every stupid bazinga reference–it’s like, you’ve been doing this for how many years? Aren’t you better than this?

But, like, it’s hard to find your people sometimes. And I think the shibboleths of obscure references are a necessary part of growing up, even in this world where movies you would have gotten funny looks for liking are now cash cow franchises that have made a bunch of people very, very wealthy. Because these things are new to people, at some point, and your opinion doesn’t matter to someone who just fell in love with Final Fantasy XV. Maybe Thimbleweed Park doesn’t pass my sniff test for authenticity, because it’s so stuck in its own past. It is a work that comes from a constant self-focus, a turning inward that decides that what it sees is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

That authenticity is there in Darkside Detective. If, in itself, it’s merely “a decent, pretty game with nice music, a few good laughs, and a neat story”, that ain’t bad, and again, I love that the game slowly breaks out of its shell as it progresses, gaining more confidence each episode in the story it’s telling, in the characters it’s introducing us to, in the world it’s building. The ending promises a followup, assuming the game sells enough copies, and I hope it happens. Darkside Detective might be a decent game, but its sequel is going to be awesome.

86

I should try to update this fucking thing more, so here’s a little of what I’ve been up to:

1.  Hatred: Or, The Last Temptation of Richard Goodness, a new game which I released something like two months ago. Sorry I didn’t tell you.

I’m happy and proud of this one; writing-wise, it’s kind of the culmination of Zest, The Richard Goodness Trilogy, and Sam And Leo Go To The Bodega (all of which come with Hatred as extras!); my boyfriend Mat did the art and some insane CSS stuff, and I even recorded a soundtrack. So spend a smoky Saturday evening enjoying it if you like!

2. With Trekabout, we’re beginning Season 3 of Voyager; with Tuning In, we’re starting Season 3 of The X-Files. So far I’m liking X-Files more. Voyager is occasional good episodes with a lot of dire shit.

3. I’ve been working on a remake of TOMBs of Reschette–Mat is going to be illustrating the thing, and I’ve written a new ending and done a little redesign. I’m going to be compiling that along with a piece I’m calling Faeiriey Tailes Off Olde Reschette–right now it looks like that’s going to be a small fiction anthology with maybe some light interactive elements. Ultimately I’m looking to expand Reschette into a full series–I’ve got four major installments in mind for it. What can I say, I’m in an epic mood.

4. I can’t say I’ve played anything life-changing since Persona 5. Supposedly Grimoire is really really really really going to come out in two days. I guess I’ve got to blog the hell out of that one if it does.

85 – Persona 5’s Camp Sensibilities Are Comedy Gold

The setup: Your artist friend Yusuke takes you to the park and the two of you rent a rowboat. He’s a bit pretentious–he’s talented but seventeen, so–and he’s going on and on about how he’s chosen love as the subject of his next painting, and begins to furiously sketch the man and woman in a nearby boat. He rhapsodizes about the obvious passion between them, the pure devotion, the romance–until, inevitably, they notice him and are upset by the attention. Besides, the man says, this isn’t my girlfriend, it’s my sister, I know mostly couples do these things but she’s visiting from back home and wanted to come here.

But if only couples go out on the boats, what about them, the sister asks, pointing at you and Yusuke.

The punchline: Well, the brother says, you have to understand that in the big city, there are people from all walks of life!

I mean, maybe you had to be there.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Two teenagers and their cat are in the colorful part of town when two older men accost one of them. Let’s party, they say, grabbing the boy and dragging him off, screaming.

“Come back alive,” says the cat.

Don’t worry if you missed the nuances of this joke, they’ll repeat it later.


If you’re feeling industrious and you have certain stats, you can get a job at a bar managed by Miss Lala Escargot, an overweight drag queen with a chainsmoker’s voice. To the extent that she’s a character–she’s largely a Greek chorus in someone else’s story–she’s treated fairly sympathetically. She’s, you know, more or less the best you can hope for as far as this particular stock character goes: Gruff exterior but truly tender inside, who loves her customers, who refuses to show how much her heart breaks at the woes of everyone around her–and, hell, if she’s ripping off Anita Bidet a bit, I’ve got such fond memories of The Oblongs that I’ll allow it.

Accepting the job, you quite reasonably ask Lala if you need to dress in drag for the job. Too bad, your cat laughs when you learn the answer is no. You would have looked really funny. Now, maybe he’s not referring to dressing in drag itself–maybe he’s just saying, you’ve not shown any previous interest in the art, you’ve got no makeup skills, no experience wearing dresses and heels, and so this is simply a recipe for some legendarily bad drag–but still, that fucking cat.


There’s, you know, nothing offensive about any of this–it’s too lazy, too cliche–I mean, I can only give you vague summaries of the Problematic Queer Shit in Persona 5 because I’m just clicking through these sections because, I mean, I’ve seen Adam Sandler movies before and I’d rather move on to the better shit. It’s just, you know–embarrassing. Listen: I’m 35, the guys who wrote this game probably average around there, we’re dealing with the adventures of a bunch of 17-year-olds, and here are a bunch of jokes that, at 13, I would have only laughed at in order to fit in.

I mean, if you thought it was funny, well, that’s cool too. I guess the world does need laughter.


There’s an amount of oh, Japan that comes into play when having this conversation, but honestly Persona 5’s vision of Tokyo madeleines me back to New Jersey, to 2008–not least because that’s the year I played Persona 3 and 4, but because this is kind of what my life was like, a large, dramatic group of friends I was always going to some adventure or event or other with.

I left New Jersey even though I had many places and people who cared for me but because it wasn’t my home, because I felt like a guest in someone else’s house, because–I mean I guess it’s like, my dog, right, he’s just this adorable goddamn thing, he’s got this really cute face and he dances around when he’s excited and he just makes me crack up, and I just love having this dog in my life, I love this fucking dog. No one in Jersey was homophobic, just as Persona 5 isn’t homophobic. They’re not homophobic: After all, we’re hanging out with Rich, and Rich is a big ol’ gay, isn’t he?

I mean it’s true, it ain’t my fault if they happen to find me hilarious. And I mean, let’s face it, sex is funny. That makes gay sex really funny!


Their time at the beach drawing to a close, a group of teenage boys decide to go for broke and hit on every girl they can see in a desperate attempt to lose their virginity before their vacation ends. Disheartened after rejection after rejection, they finally hear someone catcalling them!

Oh shit, one of them says, all of the color draining from his face, it’s the guys from earlier–and indeed, it’s the two men from the colorful part of town who dragged him off and (I’m extrapolating) raped him earlier. A merry chase ensues.

I told you they’d repeat the joke later.