75 – The Samaritan Paradox

The Samaritan Paradox is one of those backlog games that I played, got stuck on a puzzle, and moved to the “games I’ll probably never play again” category in Steam. Adventure games are a funny thing for me–I played them almost exclusively in middle school, half of my friends either design old-school-style adventure games or run podcasts on them or whatever–and yet I don’t always like to play them. (I still haven’t gotten to Part 2 of Broken Age.) I decided to give Samaritan another go, based on Ben Chandler mentioning that there was a certain twist at the end that was extremely polarizing; that Vince Twelve (developer of Resonance, which itself contains a couple of fantastic plot twists) chimed in to mention that he liked the twist settled it, and over the course of the next couple days I played and beat Samaritan–a couple of light nudges over Twitter helped me with a couple of puzzles, but I found it a mostly successful game with a really interesting story that falters in a couple of bits–some having to do with the fact that it is an adventure game and it takes on a lot of flaws with the genre.

Uh, spoilers.

The game revolves around the suicide of a writer known for political investigative journalism and potboiler detective stories; you play a down-on-his-luck cryptologist who gets involved in the search for the manuscript for the writer’s last novel. The writer has hidden the various manuscript pieces along a breadcrumb trail that begins to illuminate a deeper mystery, a conspiracy to sell weapons to third-world countries in turmoil. (The game is Swedish; I didn’t know that Sweden had a history of doing these things, but it’s nice to know that it and America have a lot more in common than you’d think!) The story is indeed interesting–the mystery is paced very well, the revelations about the conspiracy are parceled out in satisfying chunks, it’s the kind of game which answers a lingering question and then introduces a character who brings up two more questions and may or may not be untrustworthy. As you can imagine, there’s a bunch of secret codes and a couple of puzzle boxes, and thematically they fit: You’re a fan of puzzles who’s on a literal treasure hunt. When you find a section of the novel, the game shifts and you play through them; they’re a fairy tale story about a young woman fighting dragons and attempting to stop a ritual. In these sequences–and they’re some of the most visually beautiful in a game that’s lovely throughout–you have some more standard adventure game puzzles, and they fit here. Like I said, the game was very solvable–a couple of slight hints from friends were all I needed.

One puzzle seemingly falters. One of the things I’ve picked up from Andrew Plotkin’s game reviews is the question of: If you have a puzzle which clicks together in a complex and satisfying way, but where the player completely misses the clue which ties everything together and resorts to trial and error, is that a bad puzzle? One sequence in Samaritan features a locked chest; there’s an illustration of a harpy, a dial of numbers, and a blocked keyhole. The harpy refers to a series of constellations–constellations you learn from a segment of the missing manuscript and which you can view through a nearby telescope. Locating the Harpy constellation gives you a pair of coordinates, which you obiously dial in, letting you access the keyhole.

The key comes from a chessboard in the room. There are eight queens; if your Stock Puzzle Senses are keen or you found a book in the game which mentions the puzzle, you know that this is called the Eight Queens puzzle and it goes a little something like this: Can you place the eight queens in such a way that no queen threatens the other? I hate chess and I hate stock chess puzzles; I hate chess metaphors and I hate it used as shorthand; but more importantly, I hate stock puzzles. (Everybody hates Stock Puzzles; there’s a reason why everybody loves Richard Cobbett’s riff on the Towers of Hanoi in The Sunless Sea.) I don’t mind blundering through a weird Adventure Game Puzzle; but if I have to figure out Nim or Peg Solitaire or a sliding tile thing I am looking that shit up; 30 seconds on Google and I solved the chess puzzle, got the key, opened the chest, and moved on with my life.

I mentioned this bit to Chandler after the fact, and he said, oh, the clues were in the room with you, I liked how it connected to the constellations–and at that point the puzzle clicked. The Harpy constellation consists of eight stars, and if you recreate it with queens on a chessboard, you’ll see that no queen threatens any other: The Harpy constellation is the solution to the chess puzzle. In this light, it’s an excellent puzzle–everything is centered around this one constellation–and yet I just plain didn’t make that insight until after the fact, largely because I didn’t need to. Plotkin’s Maxim: I am a player, therefore I am lazy. If you put a series of riddles on a plywood door, and I’ve got an ax, I’m not gonna solve your riddles. In some ways, it’s kind of nice that there are multiple ways to arrive at the solution, but the one I used was mildly disappointing. It’s largely a question of lost faith: If I see something that looks like a stock puzzle, I’m going to assume that it’s a lazy designer padding his game–and you know, it’s really hitting me how neither player nor designer can be having a good time during a stock puzzle. They’re kind of cheating each other, or bullshitting each other, or whatever: It’s a totally bad-faith moment. And maybe players have had so many bad faith moments from lazy designers that a clever designer can’t quite do a clever variation on a stock puzzle.

And part of the problem is that there are moments where the game doesn’t justify that faith. The fairy tale segments of the game handle more adventure gamey puzzles in a better or at least more thematic way, but there are some in the real-world segment of the game that just blow up. You use a small saw to get through some drywall, timing it with a man’s snoring in order to mask the sound. You sneak into an office by setting up a series of dominoes involving a fan, some extension cords, and a stack of papers. In probably the worst moment of the game, you meet up with someone who can show you the boat that the writer drowned himself from; oh, but he’s entering a crossword puzzle contest and he’s got to solve this thing before the post office closes.

It wouldn’t–it couldn’t–you think, and for a moment, The Samaritan Paradox doesn’t let you down. “This would take an ordinary person hours to solve”, you say, at which point the screen fades to black: “FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER”–and of course, your character is a brilliant cryptologist with an omnivorous thirst for knowledge, this would be a piece of cake for him–except there’s one clue he can’t solve, one which he leaves to the player. And the clue is the name of the detective in the novels written by the writer you’re investigating. The writer is popular enough that it’s like if you had _OI__T as the answer for “Agatha Christie’s detective”, if you didn’t know it yourself you could ask someone or look it up.

But this is an adventure game, and you’ve got to solve a puzzle to do that, and it’s a puzzle I solved entirely accidentally. There are half a dozen very obvious places to look, not the least of which is the writer’s daughter, who you’re working for. Even considering that she’s estranged from her dad and actively uninterested in his writing, the game doesn’t even give you the option to ask her if she knows the name. But there aren’t any mentions of the character anywhere in his house, none of his books around anywhere. Worse, the entire game is kicked off by your discovery of a code to the writer’s daughter Sara *in one of his novels*–while your character scoffs at it as pulp detective trash and actively hasn’t read it, the book completely disappears from your apartment, taking away the option to look at the blurb on the back. You can’t even call the friend who *lent* you the book and ask him what the detective’s name is. The newspaper article about the writer’s death doesn’t mention it. Hell, the guy who gave you the crossword in the first place knew the writer personally and might even be familiar with it–you can’t even ask him if he knows the final clue on his own puzzle! I spent a good 20 minutes traipsing through the game (making several ferry trips to and from a nearby island, going across town sevearl times, the post office likely closing and reopening six times in the intervening time), asking everyone about everything, and ultimately blundered my way through when I noticed a hotspot that I hadn’t seen earlier, one which gave me an item–

–okay, I’ll get into it because the only copy of the writer’s novel that exists in the world (there are no bookstores, it seems, in Sweden) is in a bar, where a pissed off guy is reading it. I of course used everything in my inventory on him to no avail–it’s not even clear if he’s a puzzle piece or a background character. Over to the side is a “rocker” who’s fiddling with a jukebox and trying to change the song–again, unclear if he’s a piece or scenery. And finally, something I legitimately thought *was* scenery–a sofa whose hotspot is such that I didn’t even think it had one the first few times I went into the location. Clicking on it gives you three coins from under the cushions: What you need to do is give a coin to the rocker, who puts on a heavier song, disrupting the reader’s concentration and driving him from the scene, leaving the book behind for you to read the back and finally find the detective’s name. As a final, almost cruel punchline, the coins icon changes to show that you’re now holding two coins: Okay, this may not have been the best puzzle, but it was a clumsy way of forcing you to have these coins in your inventory, they’ll likely be used later on and they’re trying to avoid a dead man walking scenario. Except that’s not the case–the two coins are never used again. The sequence is *entirely unnecessary*–it’s an excuse made up by a very minor character to prevent the player from going to the next bit just yet, one which yields no insight into the world or anything, which could be solved in multiple ways, and which doesn’t really provide any other reward. It’s a bit that should have been cut: Ask to see the boat, the character takes you there without the hassle.

And yet, if that and a bunch of puzzles are based around poking at things until you find the dominoes are in place and the sequence goes in the intended way, I *did* solve the game without a walkthrough. The crossword puzzle puzzle was not one of the areas I needed a nudge on–one of the ones I did was a relatively fair puzzle where I simply didn’t realize a certain action was possible; another was a completely fair puzzle–the one I initially got stuck on–where I just needed to be reminded to read the instructions again. It’s one of the fairy tale segments: A dragon challenges you to a battle of wits in a contest involving poisons and antidotes, and I think I simply hadn’t made the right efforts towards figuring out how the mechanics of the puzzle actually worked.

As for the twist, I simultaneously liked it a lot and didn’t quite love what they did with it. The weapons conspiracy eventually leads to the writer’s son who is the lead arms dealer; you find the final piece of the manuscript in his apartment and figure, at this point, you more or less know where it’s going to end: The main character–who’s explicitly identified with Sara–defeats the bad guy (obviously modeled after her brother), and finds a home in the house of a kindly middle-aged man who’s recently lost his son: Who’s identified explicitly with the writer himself. It’s a sweet, heartwarming ending…which suddenly takes a very shocking turn when the young woman realizes the feelings of desire she has for the older man, and the two embrace–

–and suddenly you realize that the writer had molested his daughter and that the entire thing was an extended confession. The arms conspiracy was definitely a thing, and the writer had been investigating it, but it’s almost a red herring. While he was indeed murdered, it was not for what he knew or to stop him from publishing, it was a character who, realizing the writer planned to finally confess, decided to stop him before he could ruin Sara’s life. She’s got a career, she’s expecting a baby, she has a life apart from all of this–and a budding romance with the game’s protagonist–and this would crush her. It protects Sara and punishes him at once. It’s the kind of motive that’s both well-meaning and heartbreaking and completely wrong. And yet–it’s a motive that the game seems to agree with. The final action of the game involves rewriting the story’s ending. The Sara-analogue returns home, regains her memories, and is reunited with her lost lover (the son of the kindly older man who remains, thankfully, her doting father-in-law in this version), who’s obviously our protagonist writing himself in. In general, it’s a much better ending–it ties up a lot of the story’s loose ends in a way that “incest” doesn’t–and yet Sara isn’t completely fooled. She recognizes the ending’s been rewritten, but she finds it romantic and charming, and is content to dismiss the unread original version as “probably not very good”.

Listen, this woman is going through a hell of a lot of trauma at this point. Her father apparently committed suicide but was revealed to have been murdered by her mother’s nurse–a woman who’s more or less one of the family at this point. Her mother is deep into Alzheimer’s and en route to a nursing home over the course of the game. Her brother runs an illegal and immoral international arms trade and is arrested for it. A hell of a lot has happened and her life is experiencing some extreme changes, and to add “by the way, you were molested” to that is, well, yeah, it’s an additional stress. But at the same time, we’re talking about a highly-educated woman with a successful career as a chemist, who is about to have a child that Sweden’s generous childcare benefits will help out with, and she’s beginning a relationship with a more or less decent guy. If her support system isn’t as strong as it could be, it’s still there, and nowhere in the game is it even suggested that she’s a delicate flower who’ll crack at this news. There’s even suggestions that she sort of already knows–she’s estranged from her father, wants nothing to do with his writing, and seems worried about finding something very specific in the manuscript–even if she truly has consciously forgotten about or repressed the incidents, they would help her understand a lot about her feelings toward her father and towards herself.

So I guess to me it just feels wrong–it feels like hiding from someone the fact that they’re adopted, or lying to a cancer patient and telling them it isn’t terminal. It’s an old-fashioned, paternalistic attitude. Now, the game does take place in the 1980s, in Sweden, so it’s possible we’re dealing with a different attitude than an American in 2015 would have–but at the same time, the game wasn’t *written* in 1984; in general, it seems like an ending involving a housewife in Long Island in the 1950s.

But again–i think the reason the flaws are sticking out was because I did enjoy the game very much. It lasted a Friday and a Saturday evening–which is a great length for an adventure game, as far as I’m concerned–and the more satisfying puzzles *were* satisfying. I didn’t see the twist coming, and I mean that in a positive way–the game’s sense of misdirection did force my head to look at the wrong things and ignore the actual plot. And I’m really excited to see the next game. So I guess I’m glad I rescued this one from the backlog then.

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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?

11

For its initial stages, there’s a lot that’s very datedly wretched about Dragonsphere–it has a SCUMM-esque verb list at the bottom, a slightly clunky interface, glacial movement speeds, and what appears to be an extremely, extremely cliche plot: You’re the King, and you’ve got to kill the evil Sorcerer. Go to. You spend the first few screens in a very generic-looking castle, and only nostalgia and patience kept me past them.

But what hooked me was the absolute lushness of the game. Adventure games have always been praised for their advances in the quality of game narratives, but they also deserve a little more credit for their graphics. Given the genre’s slow pace and its tradition of hidden-picture pixel hunting, it’s only natural that adventure games tend towards pretty backgrounds. The game isn’t very good at mundane areas like the castle, but that might be intentional: When you get to the magical areas of the kingdom, and there are a lot, they’re explosions of color and surrealism. Shapeshifters are rampant in the kingdom–and not at all trusted for their abilities to impersonate anyone–and their land is particularly eerie–the rocks and trees have eyes and ears: They’re people partially shifted.

And so an appreciation of the background led me to press on; a nifty little game began to reveal itself. Let’s talk about death for a minute. There was a while where playing adventure games was an extremely punishing, gory experience. Sierra was infamous for being cruel about it: Not only are there many, many ways to die in the average classic Sierra game, there were just as many ways to get irrevocably stuck. Often these two are intertwined: Forget to pick up a sword in the first room and you won’t be able to kill the monster two hours later.

We must remember that while pointing out the unfairness of classic adventure games IS a legitimate criticism…it’s also a selling point. The audience for the early days of interactive fiction and adventure games were frequent computer users–the average person didn’t own a computer in the 80s and early 90s. These games were being played by science-minded people, academics, programmers–people who *enjoy* an intricate, cerebral challenge. The entire process of playing an adventure game is scientific–it largely boils down to trying objects on other objects until the desired result is achieved. Playing a game for hours only to realize that an early, crucial step was missing and needing to start completely over–that may be failure as I see it, but take it from the perspective that it’s simply an unsuccessful experiment.

Lucasarts didn’t invent the deathless adventure game, but it’s the watchword for the forgiving one: Early works like Maniac Mansion aside, Lucasarts very deliberately avoided unwinnable situations and death. The intent was to make games more accessible, and while their games were no less difficult, their worlds feel so much less hostile than Sierra’s. And so, when confronted with a threat, your character will either run away, or the bad guy will just wave some teeth around and make growly noises, but either way Lucasarts obstacles turn out to be more paper tigers than anything else.

Again, not a problem–actual violence doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max–but games like Dragonsphere manage to split the difference. Sierra’s own King’s Quest VII was released the same year, and both games tie death to a “try again” button. A monster is blocking the path; if you go through, it eats you, a small hint is displayed, and you reappear as if nothing had happened. It’s not uncommon, and a lot of games continue to do that to good effect–Resonance’s staticky rewinds were a particularly striking example–but it’s not the kind of thing you think of a game doing in 1994. Dragonsphere even goes one step further: You begin the game with a ring which immediately transports you to the castle. At first, the game’s stages seem self-contained, but there is an order you’re intended to go through them. The game does not penalize you for trying out different areas before you’re ready. In one notable moment–one of the few one-time areas in the game–if you leave before picking everything up, the game will let you know you notice “something”, and refuse to let you leave until you’ve gotten everything. It’s nice. It’s forgiving.

There’s a twist; the game fucks with player character identity, and somehow manages to do so without the assistance of the Grand Poobah of Twists, Ken Levine! You’re not actually the King; you’re a shapeshifter who’s been enchanted with the King’s form and memories. You’ve been sent to fight the sorcerer as part of a plot by the real King’s brother–using the sorcerer as a way to kill the fake king and take the throne himself. It’s a well-justified twist: There’s enough odd things found here and there that the twist puts in context, and it’s unusual enough that I’m good with it.

What I’m not good with is–well, ultimately, the slow pace and the backtracking just GOT to me. There’s too much in other regions, and it’s too tedious to go from one to the other. There are a few mazes and solving them is too annoying. Ultimately, I got too tired of figuring things out on my own and grabbed a walkthrough; my general rule is if I’m playing from a walkthrough before the halfway mark, and I’m not loving the experience, then it’s time to give up. The art might be gorgeous, but I’d rather look through an art book than play some obscure puzzles.

And yet it was a nice contrast. I’ve been playing a lot of indie adventures later–Wadjet Eye stuff mostly, and while the backgrounds are no less pretty, their games tend to be much more compact, much fewer locations. There used to be a trend towards advertising your game based on how many rooms it had. Painting and scanning backgrounds, Sierra-style, might not be the most expensive thing in the world, but you DO need to pay people to do it, and if you’re doing small teams on a short deadline, well, it’s understandable–and it does avoid Traipsing Syndrome. Still, I miss epic adventure games. There haven’t been that many of those.