Rereading what I wrote about Richard and Alice after having played Sepulchre, I’m slightly surprised I felt as negatively about it as I did, given that Sepulchre has a lot of the same issues and yet I feel much more warmly about it. Maybe it’s simply because Sepulchre didn’t depend on me giving an iota of a damn about One Of The Most Obnoxious Children in The World. Maybe it’s just shorter–a fifteen minute short story as opposed to Richard and Alice, which was padded out to be a novella. Maybe it’s just free. Maybe it’s just got better graphics–I’ve spoken appreciatively about Ben Chandler’s artwork before, and the look of the thing is exquisite compared to R&A.

It’s got just as much Adventure Game Crap–go to one side of the screen and do a thing, then go to the other side of the screen and do a thing, then go back to the first side of the screen and do a thing, and then cross over to the other side and do a thing–and the puzzles themselves are more busywork than anything enjoyable–but then, the game’s something like six, seven screens large and short enough that it stops before it can begin to wear out its welcome. The puzzles themselves are either literal lock-and-keys, give-thing-to-dude, or incredibly simple object manipulation. The hardest part of the game was realizing that I had to put whiskey in a flask rather than giving the bottle directly to the guy who wanted it. And there are so few things in the gameworld that click-every-thing-on-every-thing isn’t exactly, you know, a problem.

You know, it’s a short little spooooooooky horror story, one which owes a clear debt to Poe, to King, to Lovecraft, to Christie, but rather than coming off as an overused set of cliches, as the internet attempting to make a horror story, Raze ends up using some of the lesser-known themes and settings, or taking them from such an odd angle that it feels at once familiar and yet off.

Yes, you can probably see the ending coming if you’ve read a book, especially considering how laden with obvious dramatic irony much of the dialogue is. At one point, in response to being charged for a drink, the protagonist moans, “You’re burying me alive here!” One can imagine the bartender, muttering under his breath, Dude, shut up, there’s foreshadowing, and then there’s foreshadowing.

I don’t mind, actually–Raze is writing extraordinarily tightly here; pretty much every word and image serves a dual purpose. Most of the story is told through misdirection and implication–something fairly funny in light of several peoples’ complaints about the little expository speech the main character gives about himself at the beginning, which may or may not be completely incorrect.

It’s the kind of thing you play once, with a decent idea of where the thing’s going but a few bits stay unresolved; you play a second time, and most of the bits fall into place and you notice bits of foreshadowing you didn’t before; maybe you’ll give it a third time and figure out, you know, why he names the paper dog Sam (something which is either utterly meaningful or something I’m reading too much into), or perhaps what exactly the Grub is intending to say to you.

There’s some deeper stuff in there, and the game’s so short, particularly once you know what to do, that digging for them–Ssh, says the bartender, don’t give it away!–becomes one of those Fun And Rewarding Experiences that we engage with narrative games for in the first place. You’ll see it advertised as horror, but it’s more properly Weird Fiction, but, you know, it’s October, and we can all use a cold night where we end a story with a vague chill down our spine or whatever.

Yeah, I think I really liked this one.

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?