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.

23 – Me And Alice

Uh, spoilers because my dislike of this game is at least partially related to certain specific plot points. That Richard and Alice is actually pretty decent is a surprise to me–I dislike Ashton Raze’s writing; that it’s not as good as it ought to be is a disappointment.

I’ve gone back and forth on the concept of adventure games for a while now. I was a huge Sierra kid back in middle school and was totally the type of guy who’d thrill a little bit at the very word “Adventure”; years of playing really bad ones soured me entirely on the genre…until a couple months ago, when Cognition, Primordia, and Resonance made me fall back in love with it. I haven’t figured out what, exactly, makes a good adventure game as opposed to a bad one yet. Story is a lot…but it’s not everything. The Longest Journey has a genuinely awesome story…and yet it’s filled with so much adventure game bullshit. There are entire arcs in that game which are necessary to the plot but which are actively miserable to play. The duck puzzle is one famous one–but when I think about that game, i think about that awful communication system puzzle on the island where you have to wake up a giant. I have never completed that puzzle without a walkthrough, and that’s less because it’s a difficult puzzle and more because it’s an unrwarding one which requires a lot of extremely tedious backtracking.

I’m just gonna throw this out there: Richard and Alice isn’t really a great game.

The shame of it is that Raze has written a genuinely excellent premise for his characters. The world has more or less ended due to weather related reasons; characters mention that there are areas so exposed to the sun that the land is scorched and barren; in the area where the game takes place (Raze’s England?), it’s been snowing for years with no signs of stopping. As is appropriate, no one solves anything or figures out why this is happening; everyone’s more concerned with the societal collapse that’s happened as a result.

And so the titular Richard and Alice are prisoners in a mysterious prison. Their situation turns out to be a lot more literal than the Sartrean situation it initially appears to be–there are some absurdist, existentialist elements present at the beginning that nothing really gets done with–but their situation is fairly opaque to the player for most of the game. Makes sense: Neither Richard nor Alice need to talk about the world situation much more than getting the updates that the newly-arrived Alice has learned, and neither quite trust each other enough at the outset to tell the other why they’re in prison.

There are a lot of fascinating issues that the nature of the prison brings up.  As the game goes on, it becomes clear that Richard and Alice are part of a sort of pilot program. The prison is a test to see how well people can live in underground bunkers; once all the kinks are worked out, we’re told, the more wealthy people are going to be moving in. That’s a fascinating premise. And while things ultimately go wrong, Raze becomes bored with his own premise and decides that sentimental Old Yeller bullshit is the way to go. I don’t like tearjerker games; doubly so when the object of my sadness is something I am pathologically incapable of giving a damn about.

For a change, some Momfeels: Alice–whose sections of the game are flashbacks to her time before the prison–is equipped with an irritating little moppet, her son Barney. (As a guy who was too old for Barney and Friends but at the perfect age for “let’s team up and kill Barney” parody songs, I can neither love nor ascribe any intelligence to anyone with that particular name, a fact which has made watching How I Met Your Mother fairly difficult.) Barney is…

…well, he’s five.

Every review you will read about Richard and Alice will talk about how, out of all of the characters, Barney is the best written. Barney is a living, breathing 5-year-old. The only five-year-old I have spent any time with since I turned seven was my friend’s son, who was visiting and who, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the least interesting people on the planet. I cannot speak with any accuracy to whether Barney is a good example of a five-year-old or not; as someone who greatly dislikes children, I will point out the following:

1) Barney sings, loudly, while someone hostile to Alice is within hearing range. Alice tells him several times, calmly, to be quiet; when he idiotically refuses, she snaps and yells at him and he begins to cry and feel Sad.

2) Barney, during many occasions, refuses to move on, even when he’s in the middle of a snowfield and Alice could use some help solving the puzzle to get them shelter.

3) Barney doesn’t seem to realize that strangers, in this world, are dangerous and has at least one conversation with a pair of them; it is only his own goldfish-style memory which leads him to not think to mention his mother’s existence.

Throughout the entire game we are told how smart and cute and adorable Barney is. I am not qualified as far as the “cute and adorable” parts; as far as “smart” goes, every action that Barney takes is one which puts himself and Alice into deeper danger. He is, quite literally, a millstone around her neck.

Alice’s crime becomes very clear the moment that Barney begins to have The Sniffles. A series of fetch quests and slow backtracking form her attempts to cure Barney of The Sniffles, but being told how much of a Sad Game Richard and Alice is means that the ending is in no doubt: Faced with the fact that her son is suffering from an illness that she can’t cure, Alice shoots the boy. That the narrative addresses that Alice might feel a small amount of relief from this act is addressed by the narrative; that the narrative doesn’t go into much detail, and seems to think that shooting the idiot load resource drain isn’t something Alice should have done much, much sooner says a lot about Raze’s and my differences of opinions as far as cold equations go. I recognize what that says about my humanity, I suppose.

Look: I didn’t like the videogame that was ultimately about how sad it is to make difficult choices about five-year-olds because the five-year-old is about as interesting to me as the billboard with the ironic slogan about the snow not actually being the end of the world. (Less: The billboard is a lot quieter and is not uncomfortably unpredictable.) But I didn’t like it because it’s not a very interesting game. It’s a game which strives for realism and grafts a bunch of adventure game puzzles onto it. Lewis Denby is credited with the game half of it; Raze, for all of his story’s faults, is the more talented member, because Richard and Alice is a goddamn boring, ugly slog. The graphics aren’t pretty, the movement speed is slow, the puzzles are annoying. It’s not a fun game to play by any means, and the story ultimately doesn’t fulfill its early promise, and I’m left wondering: Why the hell did I just play that?

It’s not uncommon for games to end long before their plots do, by which I mean the story isn’t finished but the designers have run out of interesting things for the player to do. LA Noire was the most egregious example of this in recent memory: Most of the way through the Arson chapter, the developers had taken the engine for their investigation and interrogation and put it through a good number of permutations without bothering to resolve the game’s main plot. And so the final few hours of LA Noire, a game notable for its city exploration, interesting dialogue, and unusual interrogation mechanics, become a series of corridors where you get to Shoot Dudes. A lot of dudes.

Richard and Alice has elements of this. We are dealing with that unfortunate case–a decent story which is an adventure game less because of anything the developers want to do with the genre and more because that’s the easiest genre to make plot-centric. (Or second easiest, if you count JRPGs, and I do.) Raze realizes that the game has run out of ideas, and so his story’s resolution is extremely rushed. The problem is that the game runs out of ideas about five minutes in and so we have scenes where you have to duct tape poles together to hit a switch because that’s something to do, where you knock down and blow up a statue of Mary in a church to open a trapdoor because that’s something to do, and where you finally escape the prison by combining the last few items you didn’t get to combine because that’s something else to do.

Like most indie games which are stories first and games as a grafted afterthought, Richard and Alice is a very underwhelming experience; in many ways, I think that its obnoxious, forced sentimentality is a way to get us to forget that. Remember that To The Moon, which is a similarly insulting story which got a lot of guilt-ridden praise, is one of the worst games I’ve played in recent memory. Seriously–did anyone enjoy those fucking picture puzzles at all?