Cheese talks to himself (about games he played in 2016)

Continuing belatedly with an "annual" feature I started at the end of 2015, here are a bunch of shorter-form thoughts on some games I completed play throughs of in 2016 (this list doesn't include games I'd previously finished or episodic titles that are still in development and will be seen cumulatively a single game).

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Crypt of the NecroDancer

Crypt of the NecroDancer screenshot.

Crypt of the NecroDancer appeared in last year's list, but I've decided to include it here again after completing the third and final (?) story character in the game, Cadence's grandmother Aria. Continuing the narrative beyond Cadence and Melody's journeys, Aria must ascend from the depths of the NecroDancer's crypt with half a heart and immediate death upon any misstep.

Aria represents a challenge that is primarily about playing the game in its "purest" form, inviting players to successfully navigate the game with flawless performance and limited item upgrades.

I've seen criticisms of increasing difficulty by removing elements from a game, but to me, Aria's restrictions feel like they pull focus back onto the most enjoyable aspects of the game's core identity. I can definitely see how the unforgiving nature of Aria's gameplay might put some players off, but I'm not certain that that is a good reason to shy away from this kind of game mode when the game offers so many others.

As with Cadence and Melody, Aria's storyline ends with a finale presenting combinations of gameplay that create new and unique challenges. Aria's nemesis feels like it requires a bit more practice to master than the other finales in the game, and with zero tolerance for mistakes, that practice is best gained with the Boss Master, accessible from the game's lobby, than by repeatedly playing the game.

Even after finishing Aria's story, Crypt of the NecroDancer still has a lot more to offer. In my 340+ hours of playing the game, I've completed successful runs with two of the seven non-core characters. One of those, Coda, is locked until an "all characters" run is completed. I've purposefully avoided spoilers, but from what little I know, I gather that like the Bard, Coda has narrative ties to the overarching Cadence-Melody-Aria plot, and I'm looking forward to discovering that in the future.

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Day of the Tentacle Remastered

Day of the Tentacle Remastered screenshot.

My previous article on my experiences with working on Day of the Tentacle Remastered cover a lot of my own history with the game, but don't dive deep into my feelings about the remastered edition itself - after all, the game was more or less finished before I came onboard and I had plenty of time to play through it before I started working on it.

Re-creating low fidelity assets with greater detail removes a degree of ambiguity that different players invariably fill with different impressions. To one person, a few pixels here, might be interpreted as a smooth shape, while to another, the pixel edges define something more jagged - are the ends of Laverne's fingers square or rounded? Are outlines fixed or varying width?

Interpreting a low fidelity work at a higher resolution is daunting work, and having now done a little of that sort of work myself, I can appreciate the potentially conflicting sense of opportunity and responsibility that that represents. I can also appreciate that the very act of removing that ambiguity will generally alienate or disappoint whatever portion of the low fidelity version's userbase didn't have interpretations that align with the higher resolution version.

With that in mind, I feel that Day of the Tentacle Remastered does a decent job. It embraces the original game's cartoon influences and for the most part maintains the original colour palette. There are a few stylistic inconsistencies (for example, some of the moon-lit trees in the intro cutscene have a smooth gradient on them, while others have discrete bands of colour) and less-faithful interpretations of small details (such as Bernard's mouth during the intro cutscene), but on the whole, it's pretty solid.

The remastered UI lets the game's visuals take up the full screen and presents interaction verbs as a radial interface instead of the Sam & Max Hit the Road/late Sierra adventure style cycling interaction cursor. From a usability perspective, the wheel is great, but it hides verbs that don't trigger unique responses/actions - something that feels like it reduces the possibility space that the verb bar originally represented, drawing attention to puzzle solutions that were originally a little less obvious and making hidden dialogue more discoverable. On one hand, I feel like this is a bit of a loss, as it feels like it affects the game's pacing and reduces periods of uncertainty during which players might reflect on the story and their actions. On the other hand, Day of the Tentacle was the first LucasArts game to feature a contextual hint system (presented as "meanwhile" cut aways when enough time has passed without the player making progress on a certain puzzle) and was full of cues and shortcuts to reduce friction, and maybe this is a natural progression of that - it just takes things a little too far for my tastes.

Building on the options available in the Monkey Island 2 Special Edition (upon which DotT Remastered's codebase is based), Day of the Tentacle Remastered lets players to toggle new and old music, UI and graphics independently - something that seems to be one of its most appreciated features as it allows existing players to start with the game they love and add the bits they like without bringing the bits they don't, and allows new players to interactively explore and compare what's new and what's not.

It's still the game I know and love, but the one feature that I would have really liked to have had in the game would have been an option to review commentary tracks/review which ones still hadn't been found/listened to before. Without some hints on where to look, commentary tracks attached to obscure places can be easily missed, and that's a bit of a shame.

When I play, I usually go with remastered graphics and UI with original music. I'm not sure how much of it is nostalgia and how much of it is taste, but there's something about the original MIDI that resonates more with me. That said, I still can't hear the bird fall in the opening cutscene without feeling a sense of dread and panic.

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Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler

Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler screenshot.

When I first backed Duke Grabowski on Kickstarter, it was after reading Bill Tiller's response to questions about the game's apparent focus on "seducing wenches," which could (fairly) lead to the assumption that the game might put forward messaging that promoted the objectification of women and promotion of relationships as being extrinsically valuable rather than intrinsically valuable. I feel like it's not uncommon to see "We're doing it ironically," as some sort of all-purpose foil for criticisms of objectionable content, but this message was slightly different, and talked about wanting to put a character in a situation where they were surrounded by these kinds of narratives and pressures and showing how that character could cultivate perspective and reject them.

I figured that if a game that achieved that were to exist (and be created by developers whose past works I'd already appreciated), then I'd be happy to have played a tiny role in helping that happen, and backed the project.

For a studio's first game without a huge budget, the game's rough edges are generally easy to overlook, though there are some places where the consistency of production values stands out a little. For example, the backgrounds are so nicely painted that the game's 3D characters sometimes don't feel like they fit into the scenes. The music is great, and evokes a lot of CoMI nostalgia for me, but music transitions can be a touch jarring. Most of the voice acting is decent, but there are many instances where gaps between lines prevent them from flowing as nicely as they could.

Puzzle wise, I usually enjoy a little more difficulty, but this felt like a good introductory episode regardless. The level of pacing and density of player action across each of the game's three puzzle branches feels good. With the exception of the Aziza quest, the game's non-linearity makes it feel like there was always something to do even if I felt like I needed time to think about the main puzzle I was focusing on. The only puzzle I didn't organically find the solution for was asking the firefighters about the lower supports of the Gnarly Narwhal (which I eventually stumbled across). I don't feel like that was difficult to find at all - it just highlight to me how well connected everything else in the game was.

I love it when adventure games push beyond traditional inventory items/verbs (such as Discworld Noir's smell topics, or The Fall Part 2: Unbound's switchable perspectives), and Duke (the game) does a nice job of presenting concepts and other characters' skills as things that can be used to interact with the world. This helps ground Duke (the character) within the game's social and relationship contexts in ways that I don't feel like I've seen very often.

Thinking about archetypes from LucasArts adventure games: Guybrush Threepwood accepts help along the way but ultimately goes through his journeys alone; Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie all play integral roles in saving the world from tentacle domination, but they never really interact with each other in ways that highlight or reinforce their relationships; and while Sam's friendship with Max is pervasive and ever present, Max's goals and motivations in Hit The Road are such that he pretty much becomes a verb for violent interactions, and Sam is always the one making decisions. Duke on the other hand is definitely not alone, we see him come to know his companions and build relationships with them, and he's not afraid to defer to another character's lead when it feels like the right thing to do.

After reading Bill's response to concerns during the Kickstarter campaign about the game's sexist macguffin, I went in with higher expectations and came away a little disappointed that the game didn't subvert its own premise as much as it could have. We didn't get to see Duke traversing an arc that would have him reject the peer pressure of his crew and embrace the friendship of the people whose trust he had earned. It could be that this episode tells the start of that story, but my gut says that that's going to be a hard plot thread to keep fresh across an episodic series.

To me, it feels like the ending has the women Duke interacts with fulfilling their obligations our of thanks for Duke's actions instead of Duke earning that through mutual respect/friendship (even though there are hints of that). It doesn't feel like Duke respects these women much more at the end than he did when he first met them - which, all things considered, is still certainly much more than many characters in other games have for the women they interact with!

I found myself appreciating that though Duke is on a mission to effectively "use" these women, he isn't pursuing them out of romantic interest (at least, not with the dialogue options I chose), and that their objectification is lessened by interacting with them all meaningfully on their own terms. I also enjoyed that the one character that Duke shows possible romantic interest in is one that's outside of the three "targets" he ends up pursuing, leaving the opportunity for that to be explored in a more genuine way in a future installment.

Slightly awkward voice timing and fantastic backgrounds aside, I feel like this game is on par with some of Telltale's early work from around the Sam & Max Save The World era (which, arguably is some of their most interesting work). All up, I'm glad to have backed, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Duke progresses through future installments.

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Firewatch screenshot.

Firewatch was a title I'd been excitedly looking forward to since before its initial announcement. Between being a part of the Telltale community since the days of Bone and Sam & Max, being a regular Minnmojo reader, my involvement with Double Fine and running Game Club, I'd crossed paths with many of the Campo Santo team and already had an interest in where their respective paths would lead.

Programmer Ben Burbank invited me to assist with Linux testing a few weeks before release, which is something I'd like to say that I'm proud to have played a role in, but sadly, a Steam bug prevented me from noticing that the game's executable had had a name change, and messed up what should otherwise have been a smooth launch.

Late January/early February of 2016 were a difficult time for me. It's often hard to see the overlap between the attention I gave Firewatch and the constant care I gave my 23 year old cat at the end of his life, but when I look at the numbers, Firewatch released three days before he passed away. What I do remember is that afterward, Firewatch gave me something to sink myself into when I was ready to start doing Cheese shaped activities again.

Alongside the many other axes along which the game resonates with me, Firewatch is approachable in the way that I approach bushwalking (or hiking if you're from somewhere that hasn't embraced that term). It's easy to "exist" in Firewatch's spaces, and there are always nooks and crannies to explore. While the game may not be littered with little rewards and collectable mementos, neither is the real world - when you find an interesting flower or a butterfly lands on you or you stumble across a family of small animals doing small animal things, that's rewarding in and of itself.

My first playthrough took a little over 7 hours and I felt like I was rushing (my second playthrough was about 4 hours, and my third 9). I think at the time, Campo Santo were looking at 6 hours as the suggested average playtime, and that felt like a good fit. At launch, there were lots of grumbles about it being 3 hours long. It's a good reminder that different games are accessible to different people in different ways. For those who aren't keen to stop and watch the sunset or who don't care what's on the other side of a hill, there's likely significantly less game in Firewatch. For those of us who do take our time and find existing within and exploring a space intrinsically rewarding, there's a lot more.

At the time of writing, I've spent about 100 hours in Firewatch's depiction of Yellowstone National Park and I'm fairly certain that there's stuff I haven't seen (I've only seen the cloud of gnats down near Pork Pond once). About half of that was research for two guides that I've written, one cataloguing all of the interactable books in the game, and the other detailing all the wildlife that can be found, narratively framed as the notes made by a previous Two Forks Tower resident.

I think I'd have liked to have seen just a touch more wildlife in Firewatch (lizards, snakes and beetles seem notably absent), but at the same time, it's also nice to consider that as someone stepping into an unfamiliar environment to escape the realities and responsibilities of his life, Henry's heavy footed frame and distracted mind would likely have scared away and overlooked most wildlife.

Another interesting response that the game elicited (which I have to imagine comes from a distinct minority of players) is that the narrative's conclusion is either poorly written or just dumb. These arguments effectively distil down into being unhappy with a "mundane" resolution to an apparent mystery. Overlooking that thematically, the game is about a man's failed attempts to escape reality by embracing fantasy, there's something fundamentally off with this - if a mystery must meet expectations, is it a mystery at all?

I don't know that I'm ready to write a proper Cheese Talks article on Firewatch yet, but in the meantime, here's a letter I wrote prior to Firewatch's launch that gave some of my feelings on the game before the rest of the world had formed interpretations, discourse and narratives around it.

I had time to sit down and write out some rough thoughts after playing through a couple of times and wanted to share.

From the outset, Firewatch feels powerful. Henry's pre-Firewatch hurdles resonate with hurdles I've faced with significant relationships in my own life, and I found myself brought to tears during the opening.

Making use of hypertext adventure style gameplay to expose backstory and set the scene gives players a sense of ownership over Henry's history and character without risking confusion with Firewatch's main plot. The background parallaxing and environmental audio during these sequences are both a nice touch. Since these sequences have similarities to the game that I'm making, I'm curious to know whether positional audio that suggests movement in the way the backgrounds do was considered for these sequences.

Firewatch feels packed full of opportunities for expressive gameplay - opportunities for players to have actions or make choices that can be used to define and reflect their interpretation/expression of being Henry. I suppose that this is really what Firewatch is at its heart, with Henry and Delilah's relationship being built around players' dialogue choices, but it's things like choosing whether or not to wear Henry's ring, choosing which mementos to take/save at the end of the game (it would've been nice to see some of these alongside the photos during the credits?), choosing to clean up, to confiscate, and so forth provide opportunities to "be" Henry in ways that don't feel like they're part of the directed experience. I love that.

The environments are great. Jane's work is magnificent (not to discount the work of anybody else who had a hand in art production or graphics programming). I appreciated the effort put into keeping locations visually distinct and full of character, and it was solid enough that from about halfway through, I only ended up using the map when working out where unmarked areas (like the deep part of the cave) were in relation to everything else.

The fidelity with which Olly's artwork has been brought to life is impressive. Unfortunately, this makes texture seams, not-so-good texture mapping, lower res textures and detail pop-in stand out dramatically during the few occasions where that sort of thing is visible.

After my first playthrough I felt strongly that the game didn't feature enough wildlife/evidence of wildlife (I'd come across the deer during the intro and spotted butterflies, moths and birds). When hiking, moving carefully and quietly so that I can observe animals without disturbing them is pretty important to me. That said, I found a turtle and a raccoon (and identified that the thing on the lake was a duck of some kind) on my second playthrough that makes me think that maybe I just wasn't patient or observant enough to see everything that the game could show me.

Interface wise, the FOV felt a little narrow for my tastes, but I also feel that the hint of oppressive claustrophobia that that provides added extra tension and enhanced the experience. I found myself wanting to use W and S to navigate dialogue options (perhaps learned from other games), but I can definitely see that having freedom of movement while talking to Delilah is important. I also found myself wanting to be able to view a list of what was in my backpack. It's not so much an issue for the "equipment" (radio, rope, flashlight, etc.) that Henry carries around, but it would be nice to keep track of picked up turtles or cleaned up beer cans.

There's one plot point that I'm not entirely clear on. When Ned gives Henry keys to the cave, what are his motivations? The key is coupled with a threat implied by the tape recording, so we can assume that Ned expects Henry to go to the cave, but was he leading Henry to discover Brian or was he hoping that he could do away with Henry by trapping him in the sealed off section, not realising that he would have the tools to get through the fallen rocks? Both possibilities feel unexpected given the kind of calculated (if panicked) psychological torture Ned is subjecting Henry and Delilah to at the time. If Henry went missing or if Brian were found, more questions would be asked and Ned's way of life would be further threatened. Either way, it doesn't feel like it disrupts the story though - it's just a curiosity.

The pacing feels really solid, with a good amount of misdirection (or opportunities for the wrong conclusions to be drawn) to keep players guessing. There's something really nice about the way that the photo collection in the credits encourages players to reflect backwards through time on the things they felt were important or noteworthy since finding the camera. With those reflections in mind the reality of Brian and Ned's relationship is pushed on the player, poignantly reminding players of the story's conclusion. So good! ^_^

The writing is super strong, and is miles beyond anything I've seen from any of the team members before. I feel like comparisons to Telltale's TWD and other past projects that Campo Santo people have worked on are probably unfair, but there's unavoidable association and baggage there. To not mince words, this is a mature work that achieves more with regard to emotion, player choice, plot structure and characterisation than TWD ever did. Firewatch never once feels plodding or predictable. It doesn't ever feel gratuitous. It comes across as genuine and well grounded by relatable characters and a believable world, and it makes me happy to know that whatever contributing factors, whether they be chance, environment, growth or collaboration, have enabled Firewatch to exist.

Firewatch is both great work and *a* great work. Congratulations to everyone <3


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A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build

A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build screenshot.

I find it difficult to come up with words to express how wonderful A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build is to me. In addition to being a solid and clever expression of classic Sokoban and Tower of Hannoi puzzle sensibilities, it is packaged in a cute, peaceful aesthetic that invites reflection and love for one's work.

Players take on the role of a featureless monster exploring a snow covered hedge garden filled with various "rooms". In each room are a series of snowballs that will become snowmen if rolled and assembled correctly. Rolling a snowball across a patch of snow covered ground will grow the snowball and clear the ground, forcing players to consider pathing and ordering when building their snowmen in a way that is not encouraged in a traditional sokoban game. Snowballs can be one of three sizes, and smaller snowballs can only be placed on top of larger snowballs, exposing simplified Tower of Hannoi style gameplay in rooms with limited space.

Every time a snowman is created, the monster will name and decorate it. The names feel personal and intimate. The decorations are distinctive and hint at character. Standing adjacent to a snowman and moving towards it will cause the monster to hug the snowman until the movement key is released.

The game is full of little expressive interactions like this. Pushing against a hedge will make the monster lean nonchalantly against it. The monster will nudge birdbaths, statues and potted plants when pushing into them. Pushing against a telescope will cause the view to slowly zoom out until the entire hedge garden is in view. When pushing the benches spread across the garden, the monster will sit and take a nap.

These interactions might feel limited compared to other games, but the ones that are here push directly along the right axes to evoke a sense of reflective thoughtfulness. You are a monster who often stops to contemplate as you fill the world around you with friends. It's evocative and adorable in a way that I can't say I've experienced in a game before.

The game rewards these kinds of actions, letting flighty butterflies land on you if you linger against a hedge, or revealing secrets if you pause to nap for long enough.

Puzzle difficulty ramps up evenly, but has a very high ceiling. The game doesn't include a lot of gating, so being stuck on a particular snowman doesn't often prevent progression. There is also a moment around the middle of the game that feels like it could be comfortably interpreted and accepted as an ending by anybody who didn't have the persistence or patience to discover the "real" game where puzzles take on a new dimension that makes them significantly more complex.

This can be seen in multiple ways - perhaps successfully creating all snowmen is the "ending" and the rest of the game is a bonus, or perhaps the game ends after exploring and solving what lies beyond that. Maybe the game has more hidden depths that I haven't yet discovered, or maybe the game never ends and hugging snow friends is something that can last forever. Or it could be that there is no game and we are all lonely monsters, dreaming life and vibrancy into the cold world around us.

A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build is both wonderful and wonderous, and I am so very happy to have crossed paths with it.

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Gravity Ghost

Gravity Ghost screenshot.

Gravity Ghost is a tough game for me to write about. I dig its visual design, its narrative and its general style. I also appreciate its air of happiness-encased-within-melancholy and the way that that resolves. I enjoy the soundtrack. I love the animal guardians. I love the game's puzzles.

I like the notion of its mechanics - the idea of drifting and gliding through space while consciously using the effects of inertia and gravity are appealing to me. In practice however, Gravity Ghost's gameplay didn't really gel with me, and I can't quite put my finger on why. It's possible that by playing with keyboard and mouse, I was not getting the optimal experience, but since I don't find gamepads comfortable, I wouldn't be playing the game otherwise.

In Gravity Ghost, things feel a tiny bit awkward and a tiny bit cumbersome, but I've been choosing to think that maybe those are just feelings that go hand in hand with death and dying, and on that level, I've found Gravity Ghost to be a rewarding experience.

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Grim Fandango Remastered

Grim Fandango Remastered screenshot.

Grim Fandango Remastered is another game that I started a long time ago and then only recently came back to to finish. Since I'd played through the original release of the game many times before, it was easy to not prioritise, but it was still nice to dive back into and finish off.

I've written before about what Grim Fandango is and the context it came from, so I'd rather focus on the new features in the remastered version here.

Being higher fidelity than Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango suffers less from the ups and downsides of interpretation. The enhancements are for the most part more subtle and revolve around removing compression, improving lighting/shading techniques, increasing the rendering resolution and repainting textures.

For better or worse, the asset sources for the backgrounds and cutscenes weren't available to the remastering team, and so re-rendering these at higher resolution or with a 16:9 aspect ratio wasn't achievable. What's in the remastered edition is more or less what was in the original game minus compression artifacting and palette reduction. Likewise, updating character models and animations was beyond the scope of the remaster.

The changes that have been made, though subtle add a lot to the experience in terms of supporting the game's atmosphere. For example, in many players' memories, characters in Manny's office are moodily lit by late afternoon sun filtering in through blinds, but in reality, that was only present in the pre-rendered backgrounds. The remastered edition includes additional real-time lighting that casts those same slanted shadows on the characters, helping them blend more seamlessly in with the scene.

Another subtle tweak involved pulling harsh corners off collision the boxes that in the original game would often send Manny bouncing in the opposite direction when trying to run past a table.

For many people, the star feature of the remastered edition is new point-and-click style controls. Community developer, Tobias Pfaff, who previously worked on a ResidualVM fork that provided point-and-clicks style controls for Grim Fandango was brought onboard as a consultant to assist with the remastered edition implementation. Being able to explore scenes with a mouse cursor vs running Manny around has allowed many previously hidden objects and exits to become more discoverable to players. The dead-end highway scene will finally be getting the attention it deserves.

The usual fare of commentaries and concept art are present. Both provide some lovely insights into the game, but as with previous LucasArts Special Editions/Remastered editions, only being able to access the commentaries during gameplay feels a bit awkward when it comes to knowing whether you've heard everything and/or referring back to a specific track that's no longer accessible.

Ultimately, the biggest value for me personally is in being able to share Grim Fandango with people who weren't otherwise able to acquire a legal copy, and to have proper support on Linux. I didn't work directly on Grim Fandango, but I did help out with testing and troubleshooting some Linux issues, which I suspect played a small role in opening the doors that allowed me to work on Day of the Tentacle Remastered.

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Headlander screenshot.

My motivation to play Headlander was pretty low. I've got a lot more time for games that support Linux than I do for those that don't, but I found myself travelling late in 2016 with my Mac laptop and a bit of spare time, so figured I'd give it a go and see how well it ran.

The game itself is a light metroidvania style platformer, where you play as a disembodied head, perhaps the last non-digitised human consciousness in existence, who has been revived to challenge a nefarious AI named Methuselah. Placed inside a rocket propelled helmet, equipped with the power to suck the heads off robots and land on their bodies to control them.

Gameplay primary revolves hunting for the right body type to overcome the obstacles immediately before you. Locked doors are opened by shooting particular coloured laser bolts at them, which are only emitted by a security robot of that colour. Certain coloured security bots are rare and more difficult to yoink/shoot the head off, requiring you to work your way up to them.

Beyond doors, many other body types offer unique abilities. Similar to project lead Lee Petty's previous game Stacking, environments are filled with a vast range of potential hosts, and a lot of the enjoyment comes from exploring the possibility space that they represent between them. Scattered across the game are side quests and puzzles beyond door unlocking make almost all of the different body types useful in some way.

Aesthetically, the game has a 70s soft neon feel going for it which I dig, and is chocked full of subtle (and not so subtle) innuendo and silliness.

I'm sad that Headlander isn't available on my platform of choice, but it was a fun game to spend a couple of days with.

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Hue screenshot.

Hue is a puzzle platformer in which players take on the role of Hue, a young boy in a monochrome world whose mother, a scientist researching colour, has disappeared, trapped in a shade that is not visible to and can not interact with Hue's world.

Having previously assisted Hue project lead Henry Hoffman with testing Linux versions of game jam games, I was keen to assist with helping Hue have a solid Linux launch. In the month leading up to release, I played through the game multiple times, and hung around afterward to lend a little bit of a hand with community support.

Gameplay involves alternating between "background colours" to render foreground elements invisible/ineffective. A blue box might be suspended out of reach by pink balloons. Switching the background to pink will make the balloons disappear, causing the box to fall to the floor where it can be interacted with. A nearby red wall can be bypassed by switching to red, but that will cause the pink balloons to become visible again and raise the box into the air.

Puzzle difficulty isn't particularly high, but there are some nicely challenging set pieces late in the game as well as some sequences where pacing of moving elements requires reactive colour changes while platforming.

The game presents a dual narrative, following Hue's journey to discover his mother in the form of progressing through the game's puzzles/interacting with the game's few characters along the way, and Hue's mother expressing her feelings and the background of her predicament through letters left for Hue to find.

There's something really nice about the layering of character arcs through this background narrative. Grey's depiction shifts from antagonist to caring partner/paternal figure in a way that inversely reflects Hue's mother's progression from someone being victimised to someone being self destructive.

Hue invites reflection on the nature of perception, and I think does so in a more subtle way than most other stories that I've seen try to tackle that. It's also a competent puzzle platformer and is accessible without that philosophical underpinning.

I'm super happy to have played a tiny role in Hue's existence, and I'm looking forward to whatever Henry makes next.

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The Interactive Adventures of Dog Mendonça and Pizzaboy

The Interactive Adventures of Dog Mendonça and Pizzaboy screenshot.

I've already waxed poetic about Dog Mendonça and Pizzaboy in a previous Cheese Talks article that I wrote shortly after the game's release, and there's an interview that I did with one of the game's developers up over here, so I'm only going to touch on it briefly in this article.

After initially backing the project on Kickstarter in the interests of supporting OKAM Studio and the Godot engine, I didn't really give Dog and his world much thought until my backer rewards arrived. Armed with the first two graphic novels and having some of the franchise's history introduced through a "making of" at the end of the first, I quickly became engrossed.

Players take on the role Eurico Catatau, of former pizza delivery boy turned assistant to occult private investigator Dog Mendonça. There's a sort of Back to the Future-esque charm to Dog and Eurico's relationship. They hail from different worlds and often don't quite see eye to eye, but there's a great deal of mutual respect and they rely on each other more than either cares to admit.

After Dog disappears while following up on a suspicious case, it's up to Eurico to both find him and solve the case (with the debatable assistance of ancient-demon-trapped-in-a-young-girl's-body Pazuul and Edgar, the severed head of a gargoyle that once stole Eurico's motorbike).

At its heart, The Interactive Adventures of Dog Mendonça and Pizzaboy is a love letter to classic LucasArts adventure games, which is unsurprising, considering that the same games inspired some of the humour found in the graphic novels and, presumably, the film script that they evolved from. Almost poetically, the game continues/in some ways embodies the against-the-odds journey that the Dog Mendonça and Pizzaboy franchise and its creators have been on for the past 15 years.

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Moirai screenshot.

At the time of writing, Moirai is gone. The experience it once offered is not accessible to future audiences. To understand this, we need to spoil the surprises that made the game interesting.

Moirai presents itself as a retro styled fantasy adventure, opening with a priest asking you to check up on a woman named Julia who hasn't been seen all day. After speaking to townspeople and inspecting houses for clues, it is revealed that the missing woman's husband and child died a year ago. Hints leads you to the mouth of an abandoned mine.

A lumberjack near the mine entrance offers you a lantern and asks if you can check up on his brother, who went into the mine to investigate moans coming from within. Not far inside, you come across the brother, whose poor eyesight makes him unwilling to progress further into the cave. He gives you a weapon, saying "Who knows, you may need it."

Progressing deeper into the mine, you can explore and discover two side-rooms. One is covered with tally-like etchings on its walls and contains a book with a list of names. The second room contains a child's skeleton and a hole in the wall through which something shiny can be seen, but not reached.

Headng toward the source of the moaning sound, you come across a person dressed in overalls, carrying a lantern and a knife. They are covered in blood. After asking the bloodied character several questions, you must decide to let them past or kill them.

In the final room is the reclined figure of Julia, moaning in a pool of blood. She explains that she came to the caves to die so that she can finally be reunited with her husband and son.

Julia says that her husband was a miner who found a gold nugget large enough for him to retire and support his family with. She explains that her husband did not trust her and buried the nugget before disappearing. Shortly afterward, her son went into the caves to find his father and make everything better, but never returned, leaving Julia without a family and subject to the social pressures of being falsely seen as rich.

Julia begs you to help her end her life. You decide to either help her end her life or leave her be.

As you make your way out of the mine, you come across a person dressed in overalls, carrying a lantern and a knife. They ask you several questions where you may type your responses, and then the game ends, asking for your email address.

Hours or days later, you'll receive an email titled "Moirai - Epilogue" explaining what a subsequent player decided to do with you in response to your answers when they question you after finding you in bloodied overalls leaving the mine during their own play through.

The incidental narrative of Julia lying in a cave for an endless day as streams of farmers in overalls come to stab or refuse to ease her suffering as a pair of lumberjacks hand out infinite supplies of lanterns and knives is worth smiling at, but is completely beside the point.

That's not to say that the story isn't important and doesn't have purpose. The game's mood and tone are purposefully constructed, and I think there's also some intentional leaning on fantasy adventure tropes. The game lures players along their paths in a way that makes them less likely to think about the meta implications of their actions. If players are more likely to engage with the game on its own terms, then they're more likely to be earnest and honest in the way they express themselves through the game.

In addition to the broad strokes of a potential damsel in distress, a potential monster to be fought, a potential mystery to be uncovered and potential treasures to be found, there are some nuances and inconsistencies that I suspect are also intentional. For example, the townspeople say that Julia's husband died, though Julia claims he disappeared. This inconsistency allows for uncertainty that may make players less sympathetic toward Julia feel more comfortable with their position.

There's nothing within the Moirai itself beyond the final line in the conclusion email that passes judgement on your actions, and that is limited to whether the fate you chose for your predecessor matches the fate your successor chose for you. For the purposes of the game, euthanasia could be replaced with just about any divisive concern that's seen as morally grounded by all sides.

Moirai, like all forms of participatory art is at least partially defined by its participants. For better or worse, both the bad and the good behaviour of players became a part of the experience for others. This in itself is part of what I think Chris Johnson and his small team wanted to explore when they initially created the game during the 2013 7DFPS challenge.

What eventually resulted in Moirai's retirement was continued attacks on the game's online database, culminating in a scripted attack that submitted enough faux responses to take down the game's database.

After a year of working to increase security and counter attack vectors, maintaining the game's infrastructure against people wanting to explore and push the boundaries of what they could get away with grew to be more than Chris was willing to spend his time and effort on.

When considering that the game had somewhere over 300,000 players on Steam alone, even if 0.01% of those players are enthusiastically attempting to break the game and create a negative experience for other players, that represents at least ten times the number of people who worked on the game. Retiring the project was sad, but fair outcome for a game that lived well beyond its origins as a game jam game.

Prior to launching the game on Steam, Chris invited me to assist with testing new builds, and it's nice to have had a small connection to a game like this. I'm hopeful that the future might still hold a little more Moirai for me, as I've talked with Chris about the possibility of doing some data analysis and visualisation of the remaining data and explore . Right now, that's not high on my priority list, but it's something I'd love to do if the time is ever right.

While writing this, I stumbled across a Steam community guide that discussed the value of approaching the game in ways that fit with its fiction and presentation. It might not undo the damage done by others, but it's a wonderful counterpoint.

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Oxenfree screenshot.

In Oxenfree, players take on the role of Alex, a teenager on her way with her best friend and new step-brother to attend a beach party on an abandoned island. After discovering an inexplicable, presumably supernatural force through the use of a radio, the three of them, as well two additional teens, are set on the path of uncovering an eighty year old mystery while trying to cope with temporal anomalies, intersecting realities and possession.

I want to describe Oxenfree as a point-and-click adventure, but with its gamepad oriented control scheme (which maps fine to mouse and keyboard controls), there isn't much pointing going on.

With the exception of loading screens and the radio mechanic, which narratively fits as a break in focus, most of Oxenfree plays out as a kind of "continuous experience," there aren't any state changes. Items in the environment can't be interacted with until the player is close enough, and typically actions don't restrict player control, and walking away interrupts those actions. Dialogue options present themselves while other characters are talking, and if unused will fade away as conversation shifts to other topics or the moment passes.

This keeps the game's presentation consistent in a way that helps the supernatural "glitches" feel significantly more invasive.

The dialogue mechanics are interesting. In principle, they allow for smoother flowing conversations, but without knowing whether further dialogue opportunities will present themselves or whether selecting one will result in Alex interrupting another character's train of thought it can make things feel a bit disjointed or oddly stressed. Perhaps in some ways, this exposes some of the awkwardness of unscripted real-life conversations, but it still feels a bit odd to me.

The mechanics of exploring and unlocking clues, secrets and, potentially, Bad Things by wandering around fiddling with knobs on a radio are fun, and it feels like the sort of game that one could sink a lot of time into if the atmosphere and environments feel enjoyable to explore. I haven't gone through to find all of the caches Maggie left behind, but I suspect I'll come back to do it at some point.

On the note of secrets, hidden within audio recordings that can be found is a phone number, which had a voice recording which set a group of community members on the trail of an ARG that took them to an abandoned military fort similar to the one depicted in the game.

There's a nice photo mechanic aimed at getting particular moments in the group's relationships and story beats to resonate. The game is more or less book-ended by these photos in a way that invites reflection on the impact of the story's events upon its characters.

Aesthetically, the game has a painterly style that I really enjoy (I particularly like the trees in the Edwards Woods). The 3D characters have a style that can sometimes be a bit hit and miss when it comes to fitting into the environments. I'd be interested to know whether the developers were trying or had tried to create something similar to the flat style with outlines seen in the in-game photos.

I massively dig the mystery, the cyclic time loops and the opportunity to affect history, but the game is steeped in a style of teen drama/angst that I personally have low tolerance for. That said, while writing this, I fired up the game to double check the points at which the game takes control away, and somehow managed to accidentally play through the entire game again by accident.

Oxenfree does a bunch of cool stuff along a bunch of cool axes, some of which resonate with things I appreciated about Moirai (players communicating with each other through a game in ways that invite reflection) and Firewatch (depictions of realistic relationships and people). I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever Night School Studio make next.

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Pulse screenshot.

Pulse is a first person exploration game in which players take on the role of Eva, a girl without sight, who experiences the world around her through echolocation.

This is presented to players as waves of visibility that ripple across an otherwise unseen world in response to Eva's footsteps, animal sounds, wind, crackling fires and tossing around noisy creatures known as Mokos.

The effect can be disorienting sometimes, but I think that might be a valuable part of the experience. Needing to stop and listen or make intentional noise to get your bearings feels right. The effect is at its best when a moving environmental sound, such as a gust of wind blowing through a gulley, reveals a large portion of the environment ahead, but very little of it at once, leaving a mental impression of the space that players must keep track of/assemble in their minds.

As the game opens, players find Eva on a pier at the foot of what I imagine to be a volcano. An encounter with some kind of spirit in the form of an abstract crow reveals that Eva has run away to go on a rite of passage that her people had never allowed. By experiencing the world differently to the sighted members of her tribe, Eva is able to "see" past the things that inspired her people's legends and rituals to the heart of an existential threat to her world.

Sadly, my playthrough was slightly diminished by shader bugs in the Linux version, which cause animals like birds and beetles to be rendered black, and for geometry faces to flicker black randomly. It's not impossible to overlook, but it did make things a touch awkward sometimes.

On the whole, I enjoyed Pulse's presentation, and the light puzzles it pops in to supplement the challenges of navigating spaces with limited visibility are welcome. The story is, for the most part, well written and decently presented for what it is.

I get the impression that Pulse isn't likely to be accessible to sight-impaired players, and there's something about the notion of telling stories that can't be reasonably experienced by the kinds of people represented within that makes me uneasy. I don't see anything specifically problematic within Pulse, but more generally speaking, that disconnect feels like it leaves a significant opportunity for poor representation to go unnoticed.

Regardless, I found Pulse to be an enjoyable, short-but-sweet experience and I'm happy to have backed it on Kickstarter.

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Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire

Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire screenshot.

Toward the end of 2016, I was unwell and couch-ridden. In an attempt to use some of that time productively, I decided to play through Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire (after playing through QFG1, but since I'd already done that many, many times, it doesn't belong on this list).

My goals were to explore a little more (but not too much more) of the writing style of Lori and Corey Cole that had resonated with me from the first game so that I could be inspired and in the right headspace to progress forward with writing work on In the Winter's Wake when I got better.

Having spent so much time playing the original game and having never played any of the sequels, my impression of "what Quest for Glory is," is very narrow and very specific. I felt a little apprehension going in about whether or not I would like it and whether or not it might retroactively shape my feelings about the Quest for Glory I: So You Want To Be A Hero, but in the end, it won my heart (or spleen or whatever other organs I have that aren't already occupied by QFG1).

Following on from the first game, the newly minted Hero of Spielberg travels with his Katta companions Shameen and Shema to their home city of Shapeir. Players soon discover that the city is under attack by magical elementals and that the Emir of Shapeir's sister-city Raseir (an anagram of Sierra) is missing and the town has been under the tyrannical rule of evil wizard Ad Avis and his henchman Khaveen (named for a then-new creative director and Sierra's General Manager respectively - it's no surprise to learn that Quest for Glory II's development was a difficult time for its creators).

In the interests of being a hero, the player embarks on unravelling those mysteries while exploring Shapier and its surrounds. Unlike the QFG1, where few things happened that weren't triggered by player actions, much of QFG2's plot elements progress according to their own timelines independent of player progress.

This is fascinating, and adds a really interesting sense of urgency when you know about it (and presumably replayability when you don't), but also makes for the kind of planned "expedition" based exploration that I really enjoyed about the first game harder to justify. Instead of taking my time and appreciating the act of existing in QFG2's spaces, I often felt like I was on a mad scramble to make sure I got everything done before some important moment. If the game did a better job of communicating what was and what wasn't time-critical, or if I was relaxed enough to be content with not seeing everything, I think I'd have enjoyed the game more (which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy QFG2).

Originally, each game in the Quest for Glory series was planned to be themed to/inspired by a season, a cardinal direction, an element, and and a culture/mythology (from what I understand, this was slightly interrupted by Quest for Glory III). QFG1 takes place in the northern mountains in spring, and features elements from Germanic folklore. QFG2 moves to the southern desert for the burning summer, drawing upon Middle Eastern "One Thousand and One Nights" folklore. This gives each game its own distinct mood and atmosphere that I think is pretty cool, and given the scale of the series, it's amazing that realising it didn't require more departures.

There's something nice about coming to Shapeir, an exotic, alien feeling place, where many of the "rules" of the first game don't apply. The hero is a stranger in this land, and has to work to find his place and be seen as the hero that the twin cities need. Instead of proving yourself to an isolated mountain village town, you now find yourself in the middle of two sprawling cities, filled with people whose problems and social dynamics exist on a different level and at a different pace to the comparatively sleepy town of Spielburg.

The Shapeir Desert sits between the game's two cities, and exploring it represents a challenge of a degree higher than QFG1's environments. Its less densely populated with points of interest than the Spielburg Valley, and expands infinitely in certain directions, allowing players to become truly lost if they aren't careful about how they approach exploring. As in QFG1's forests, more/more difficult monsters tend to be found at night, but by contrast exploring the desert during the day is inherently risky thanks to the burning sun. Expeditions into the desert require more in the way of resources and intent than running around the Spielburg Valley ever did.

I have a massive soft spot for Quest for Glory I's EGA graphics, and on some levels, Quest for Glory II captured most of what I loved, though it often feels like it has slightly lower production values (again, not so surprising when taken in context), and some characeters/animations have a more cartoonish sense to them that I think doesn't quite fit with the broader aesthetic. That said, I'm more than willing to admit that most of this comes from over a quarter of a century of fixating on QFG1 - if I'd played QFG2 immediately after, perhaps I'd feel differently.

The same goes for the game's combat system, which seems to be based on an alternative combat mode present in the first game during certain encounters for which combat isn't appropriate. Beyond being trained to see this as unwieldy by Quest for Glory I, the cues and actions were difficult for me to read in Quest for Glory II's combat, I found myself missing the over-the-shoulder style combat from the first game, in which monsters dominated the scene.

While Quest for Glory II moves in directions that make it less accessible from the build-a-day-to-day-routine-and-carve-out-a-life-for-yourself angle that I enjoyed playing its predecessor from, it definitely had a sense of being more of what I loved from the first game. Quest for Glory I still remains special to me in a way its sequel could not touch, but for the first time in twenty five or so years, I got to experience something new in the Quest for Glory world, and that in itself was a lot of fun.

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RIVE screenshot.

RIVE is something of a bittersweet title for me.

Dutch developer Two Tribes was one of the early Humble era developers to support Linux, and after having a good time with Toki Tori, RUSH, Edge, and Toki Tori 2, I found myself eagerly looking forward to RIVE.

I'd previously helped pull together some love from the Linux community and lent a hand with testing a few things for Two Tribes, and over the years, I'd formed at least a passing friendship with a few people there. I'd been aware of the company's financial struggles and the ups and downs of the company's downsizing/reboot after filing for bankruptcy in 2013.

RIVE (called RE:Wind during development) was the title that the newer, slimmer dev team worked on, and it was something of a last ditch attempt to keep the Two Tribes name alive. For better or worse, six months before the game's release, it was announced that RIVE would be the studio's last title (though Two Tribes Publishing still exists, and the studio's games continue to be supported/ported to new platforms).

In spite of this (or perhaps because of this?), RIVE still pushes already high bar for audio, visual and gameplay production values seen across Two Tribes' catalogue, resulting in an engaging and bombastic last hurrah.

Players take on the role of Roughshot, a space scavenger running low on fuel who becomes trapped on a massive starship full of aggressive robots and malfunctioning AI. Story is pretty light-on and light-hearted, with the game primarily focusing on being an over-the-top shmup full of explosions and challenge.

It's clear from the outset that while RIVE might be seriously challenging, it doesn't take itself very seriously. The first level begins with Roughshot running > enable_sidescrolling_game_view and putting on some "classic game music" after finding himself in an asteroid field. Pausing after dying shows a "Guru meditation" error. The protagonist offers a almost-but-not-quite-constant stream of silly quips, which I found irritating at first, but eventually grew on me, and the "Messenger" bot's presence also feel a touch pantomime.

There's some nice variation in gameplay, with some light puzzles, movement challenges, zero gravity sections, disabled weapons sections, and so forth, which all provide some welcome variety among the game's more frenetic blow-things-up sections.

As the game progresses, Roughshot gains the ability to "hack" robots, causing them to become friendly and follow the player around. Each enemy has a different behaviour/role, and sometimes they end up becoming integral parts of puzzle solutions.

While I'm sad to see the end of Two Tribes' 15 year run, I'm glad that RIVE ended up as a game worthy of being the studio's last title, and I'm happy to have helped out with pre-release testing on the game.

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Solar Flux

Solar Flux screenshot.

Like Gravity Ghost, Solar Flux is a game that I was surprised to not enjoy the gameplay of. The challenge of efficiently managing inertia, limited fuel and gravity is something I'm excited by, and combining that with navigational puzzles/movement challenges is for want of a better term, my jam. My space jam, if you will.

Maybe it's the way that orbits in Solar Flux are mechanically expressed as rigid states or that gravity based slingshotting isn't really possible. Maybe I just never mastered the controls. Either way, I felt like I rarely found the gameplay or puzzles rewarding.

This has been interesting as it's given me some things to reflect on for the Super Happy Fun Sun prototype and the way it exposes and expresses its gameplay.

I don't regret playing Solar Flux, but I feel like I exist on the periphery of, if not outside its audience.

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Stealth Bastard Deluxe: Tactical Espionage Arsehole

Stealth Bastard Deluxe: Tactical Espionage Arsehole screenshot.

I picked up Stealth Bastard Deluxe as part of the Humble Bundle with Android 6 in 2013. Out of the games included, it was the one that interested me the most, and over a period of a month, I played my way through the first four sectors. In my memory, I'd hit some difficult puzzles in Sector 5 that were beyond my skills and ended up moving onto other things.

It wasn't until the end of October 2016 that I found time to return to it and work through the rest of the game, but when I did, I was quickly able to push through the barriers I'd come up against (perhaps my initial hurdles were just fatigue and all I needed was a break) and complete Sector 7 within a few days.

Stealth Bastard Deluxe advertises itself as a fast paced stealth game. Narratively, you play as a cloned test subject guided through a series of deadly tests by a kind-of narrator that speaks to you through signs and graffiti about upcoming puzzles, the questionable nature of the corporation that is conducting the testing, and your eventual fate.

Gameplay takes the form of a precision platformer where robotic sentries and sensors must be avoided/used to solve movement challenges, logic puzzles and timing puzzles. The difficulty curve is fairly smooth, and the game constantly introduces new challenges/mechanics/puzzle structures that escalate it to a point that I'd probably call brutally difficult.

Equipment such as the Camo Suit which renders the player invisible for a short period or the Anti-Light device, which creates a field of full shadow around it are unlocked by re-playing levels. In effect this provides a reward for finishing each level with every piece of equipment, but without that being a hard requirement if one item is proving more difficult to finish with than others.

Stealth Bastard Deluxe's 80 levels contain plenty of collectables, which apparently can unlock further content. I've not explored that or the in-game level editor, but between those two features (not to mention the equipment that I've only experimented with in the first sector), I feel like there's still a lot of game left for me beyond the dozen or so hours I've put into Stealth Bastard Deluxe.

It's been a fun ride so far, and I'm sure I'll be back for more if the sequel ever lands on Linux.

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Sublevel Zero

Sublvel Zero screenshot.

It all started with Descent, which was this FPS/space sim hybrid thing that would create and solidify an entire genre of games known as 6DOF shooters. In addition to all the other cool stuff it does, by allowing players to move through "six degrees of freedom" (movement and rotation along and around three axes) and by providing interesting navigational challenges, Descent lets players form a kind of relationship with its spaces that isn't found in other styles of games.

Fast forward 20 years, and while the original Descent and its sequel continue to live on through projects derived from the source releases of their engines (such as DXX-Rebirth and D2X-XL), the number of 6DOF Descent-likes made since has been fairly small until a recent resurgence through titles like NeonXSZ, GeoCore and the in-development Descent: Underground (which, while sporting the name and shaping up to be a cool title, is arguably hard to see is a member of the Descent franchise - more on that and Overload another time), but it wasn't until I played Sublevel Zero that I found something that really scratched the itch I'd had since playing as the Material Defender all those years ago.

It's easy to infer from that that Sublevel Zero is nothing more than a Descent clone. It's clearly drawing a lot of inspiration from Descent, with its robotic enemies, maze-like level structures and reactor fights, but Sublevel Zero puts enough of its own spin on things that I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I have.

Set in a crumbling universe populated by the fragmented remnants of humanity, Sublevel Zero puts players in the role of a scout for an unnamed clan, who stumbles across a lost, ancient facility guarded by automated defences, which seemingly holds both clues to the flux storms that ravage the universe and "pre-Event" technology that might benefit your clan. Upon approach, you discover that the facility is creating flux events as it rips itself and your ship from the universe. Your only hope rests in scavenging components of a larger flux drive with which to make the jump home.

Sublevel Zero's levels are procedurally generated from a large set of pre-made rooms that are joined together by dynamic corridors. I had long assumed that the enjoyment of navigating and learning a space that I enjoyed so much from Descent came from conscious level design sensibilities, and although Sublevel Zero's individual generated levels aren't as memorable as Descent's crafted ones, the sense of exploration and mastering a layout is still very much present.

Each level, or "sublevel" introduces new visual styles and room layouts, creating progressively more sprawling environments to explore. More diverse and difficult robot enemies are introduced over time, and while these may not be as memorable as Descent's (perhaps because there are far more of them), they are distinct and fill specific roles. A sublevel ends when its reactor is destroyed, leaving a flux drive component to be collected before you make your jump to the next.

There are six sublevels in total, starting at zero and working up to 5. Sublevel Zero offers one save slot, which is cleared whenever the player dies or a new game is started, giving it the kind of permadeath that rogue-likes are known for. When resources are low, suddenly the risk vs reward proposition of clearing out an ambush room becomes vastly different than it would have been in a game like Descent, where the consequence of a death is restoring a save.

Another decidedly non-Descent-ish mechanic that Sublevel Zero sports is its crafting system. Collectable nanites serve as a currency that can be spent on combining existing weapons, missiles, engines and hulls into new, more powerful weapons according to a range of blueprints. The equipment drop rate and blueprint requirements are tuned in a way that often forces players to make do with what they have rather than ignore crafting opportunities and hold out for what they'd prefer, prompting exploration and discovery of gameplay outside players' comfort zones.

Aesthetically, SubLevel Zero pushes a high fidelity, low detail feel, with sharp pixel art textures mapped onto low poly models, rendered at high resolution with bloom and dynamic lighting. Conscious palette design sets interesting tones for each of the game's rooms and environments, while well-placed lighting and detailing helps spaces feel identifiable and navigable. In sublevels 1 and 2, lava cavern and crystal cavern environments are introduced, which provide a more organic counterpoint to the majority of the game's rooms, which feel engineered from metal sheeting.

Each reactor provides an increasingly difficult challenge. Sublevel 1 introduces laser beams that chaotically scorch the room as the reactor spins wildly. Sublevel 2's reactor constantly fires projectiles and is positioned in a way that requires players to expose themselves in order to deal damage to it. Sublevel 3's reactor is in a cavern with columns of falling lava that trigger splash damage when shot, and spawns turrets in the room's nooks and crannies when the reactor is attacked. The difficulty of each reactor encounter feels like it works along different axes to the advantages that higher tier weapons provide, creating a level of challenge and intensity that requires players to think strategically and have a plan of attack when engaging a reactor.

Most of the enemy robot have distinct silhouettes, though some that feel like upgraded variants use similar models and can be identified through their different colour and behaviour. For example, the base Grunt is coloured blue and fires large medium speed projectiles, while the purple Seeker Grunt fires slower moving projectiles that doggedly home in on the player. Robots can also usually be identified by their alert sounds as their AI becomes aware of the player. Robots such as the Sniper or Lava Miner have distinctive charging sounds before their attacks.

There's something almost melodic about the robot sounds and their movement behaviour that gives them a degree of charm and personality. Drones will chirp, then approach quickly while firing, approaching at the same speed as their projectiles before slowing down to track from a close distance. Missile Defenders will bellow before slowly turning their hulking frames to track your agile ship's movements in a way that feels inexorable. The Lava Miners will play an extended note as they charge their drills and fly toward you at breakneck speed, bounding into and off walls as you dodge past, then singing before doing it again.

All of the game's sound effects feel synthetic and processed, giving a constructed, mechanical vibe that is echoed by the visual style of the non-cavern environments. While the effects are well presented and generally do a good job of communicating what they need to, the star of Sublevel Zero's soundscape is its soundtrack. Primarily dominated by retro feeling chiptune-esque sounds, real-world style instruments like percussion, horns, strings, pianos, flutes and electric guitar can be heard in most of the arrangements, giving extra dimension and weight to the tracks that I think would be hard to achieve without them. Will Bedford's work does an amazing job of supporting the quietness of lonely exploration, the danger and intensity of big battles, the ambivalence of being lost but having purpose, and the epicness of being an awesome space pilot facing down the odds with confidence.

I had my first successful Sublevel Zero run on my birthday, and managed to capture it on stream (including my unabashedly cheesing the final reactor). I've since had two successful runs (which embraced the intended gameplay a little more), though none after the Sublevel Zero Redux update, which restructures some of the campaign, adds more enemies, classes and several other features that give the game additional polish. Between Steam and non-Steam versions, I'm well over 100 hours deep now, and expect to continue coming back to Sublevel Zero for years to come.

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To Whom

To Whom screenshot.

I typically wouldn't include a game that was created for, but not specifically released beyond a jam game in a list like this - while I think that a great many people make a great many wonderful things during game jams, they're usually not polished or nuanced to an extent that I could fairly give them the kind of treatment I normally give games I write about. When I do a game jam write-up, I'll usually write about my favourites within that context, but generally speaking, I'd rather give my thoughts and feedback directly to jam participants over writing about their work as something that can or should be appreciated on its own.

All that said, there are a couple of things about To Whom that motivated me to write about it here.

Like The Beginner's Guide and The Magic Circle, which I wrote about previously, To Whom is about creators' relationships with their work. Unlike those two works, this game puts more emphasis on its creator's musings, expressed directly in the form of inscriptions on carved standing stones (they're not obelisks, monoliths of headstones, but there's a word for this kind of structure which would fit perfectly if I could remember/find it) rather than abstracted through the game's narrative. To Whom is unabashedly a work of contemplation and self expression in a world where I feel that many of the dominant consumer narratives suggest that this is unwelcome and inappropriate.

Zenuel muses over what drives him to create things, what value he sees in them, what value he derives from them, and how while exploring his creative identity, those things have proved to be transient and malleable.

Are the feelings that creating a work evokes in us reproduceable and are they something we can or should specifically seek out? Are the changed perspectives we gain as we grow and hone our skills and perceptions improving or damaging the connections we have with our works? Is it OK for us to create works that aren't the kinds of works we seek out and appreciate from others? How much of creating is about connecting with ourselves, and how much is about connecting with the people who appreciate our works? How do we weigh up the works we want to create against the works we think others would appreciate? Are the things we yearn for like validation, fulfilment and satisfaction things we deserve, and is it healthy to specifically chase them? Is perfectionism something to strive for or be wary of? What is selfish? What is selfless? Is it OK to expect to be rewarded and supported for the works we create? How do we reconcile, compare and prioritise the way we feel against the feelings that others express to us? Is it OK for us be disappointed by the works we create? Is it OK for us to be disappointed in ourselves? Is it OK for us to feel pride in our work? Is it OK for us to feel proud of ourselves? Should we share what we create? Should we even create things?

The questions that Zenuel addresses reflect on his own journey so far as a creator, but I think that on some level, consciously or subconsciously, all humans wrestle and struggle with these kinds of concerns, which ultimately boil down to, "What does it mean to exist with the power (large or small) to influence the world, the people around you, and yourself?"

Often it seems that we are adrift in a turbulent sea of subjectivity, upon which which we strive to map out where we've been, set our own bearings for where we're headed, and leave something meaninfgul in our wake. A reminder that there are other seafarers out riding the same waves as us and that these feelings are in no way unusual or abnormal seems like something of enormous cultural value to me.

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Waveform screenshot.

Finally finishing Waveform was a journey 4 years in the making, though writing that out, I'm surprised at how short a period that was.

Waveform's Linux version shipped in July 2012, before Steam supported Linux, back when SteamLUG was still a collection of Wine users, when there had only been 3 Humble Bundle promotions, when Double Fine had only been working on Broken Age for a few months, before the first 7DFPS game jam. I'd been running the Humble Visualisations for about 6 months, had been running the Double Fine Game Club for several weeks, and I was still contributing to Neverball and Desurium. So much about game culture, Linux gaming and my own life has changed since then. In just 4 years.

On a journey to the sun to restore light to a dying galaxy while outrunning a singularity, the game is played by aligning the wave along which you travel in a way that allows you to collect light orbs, rings and ride lines in order to gain speed and score. Mouse X and Y axes respectively control the frequency and amplitude of your wave, but the game's visualisation of the wave's trajectory makes it easy to understand what that means even if those terms are unfamiliar.

As the game progresses across its 11 "world" campaign, it presents increasingly more difficult wave-alignment challenges, pulling in obstacles like dark matter, asteroids, space squids and space mines. Each world has a "deep space" mode that allows for endless play, and there are numerous bonus levels to find as well. Stars are awarded based on performance, and certain levels can not be played until enough stars have been collected, encouraging players to work back through and master the game's nuances.

Waveform always impressed me; there's something about the way it presents interesting and technical challenges through simple controls that I still marvel at even to this day. It's hard to say whether or not the game's control scheme is intuitive or not, but it's so quickly learnable that it may as well be. It's not all about challenges though, there's something relaxing about lining up Waveform's gameplay, and I think it manages to find an unexpected balance. Certain levels might feel annoying, but they're rewarding when completed. The star unlock system allows for some levels to be skipped, and while it may not be as enjoyable as the crafted levels, each world's deep space mode allows that world's gameplay to be endlessly revisited without being memorisable.

Unfortunately, somewhere among the craziness of the months after Waveform's release, I ended up putting it to one side so that I could focus on other things. I'd installed it many times over the intervening years with the intention of getting back into it and finally finishing it off, but it wasn't until Semptember 2016 that I found time to sit down with it again and push through to the Sun.

Scott McFadyen's work on Waveform's soundtrack captures the game's relaxing/challenging duality in a synth pop journey that ranges from funky to introspective, from energetic to serene, from epic to calm. While I may not have found as much time as I'd hoped to play Waveform over the years, its soundtrack did find its way into my playlist and has been on in the background while I work on many occasions.

Waveform was the first published Linux port by my good friend flibitijibibo, at a time when both of us were weighing up what our futures in the game industry would look like. Inspired by Waveform, I was at one point negotiating to work with Eden Industries as artist on what I imagine eventually became Citizens of Earth, but in the end, the pieces for that didn't fall into place. It's always interesting to think about where our trajectories take us, and what experiences and connections we draw into our orbits as we pass. As in Waveform, we often need to shift direction away from where we previously expected our paths to take us.

I've had a lot of fun with Waveform and look forward to playing Waveform 2 should that ever eventuate.

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The Way

The Way screenshot.

The Way is a "cinematic platformer" that tells the story of a scientist trying to unlock the secrets of an alien planet in order to revive his deceased wife.

From the outset, the game ensures that the player is invested and complicit in the acts that put the protagonist "Major Tom" along his path through the game, meaning both that players' are already beyond the point of no return by the time they realise the importance of their actions, and that those pivotal movements are performed by the player rather than seen in a cutscene.

Gameplay wise, The Way draws upon a range of cinematic platformers for its moment-to-moment platforming, coming across as something of a blend between Flashback and Impossible Mission - pixel precise movement rather than tile based movement, and with a camera view that typically shows enough surroundings to allow players to think strategically about how to approach obstacles and enemies.

For the most part, combat revolves around Abuse style controls with a pistol that can fire several shots before needing to recharge. Later unlockable abilities include a shield that can reflect enemy projectiles. Many enemies within the game can not be defeated through normal combat mechanics, however, which brings us to puzzles.

The Way is far more puzzle heavy than I had anticipated, and it was a hugely welcome surprise. Puzzles range from following simple clues to logic puzzles, from sliding blocks to "Lights Out" puzzles, from navigation challenges to observational puzzles. Most puzzles have some degree of repetition, often occurring in triplets or pairs with a third example in a completed state, but those repetitions always offer some variation on the puzzles mechanics to provide additional challenge.

Puzzle clues and solutions are typically communicated through nearby background details, though "nearby" may mean a couple of rooms away. I generally appreciate this as a little traversal time usually gives more time for thinking about puzzles, and more opportunities for the game's plot points and emotional beats to sink in.

The Way takes players on a journey that is about devotion, inspiration, friendship, life, death and value, though most of this doesn't come into focus until the end of the game and even then, it's up to players to infer. On the surface, the protagonist explores alien ruins and activates ancient technology in search of the game's macguffin - the ability to spend more of his life with his wife.

The game does a fantastic job of portraying the passage of time, skipping through extended periods of research and archaeology while also showing the impact of the protagonist's presence on the world around him as the months and years pass. In the background, a dog-like companion named Tincan is raised from a pup, an alien tribe flourishes, and life is brought to a small patch of desert as Major Tom draws ever closer to his quest's conclusion.

Backstory, exposed through collectable memories, explores the protagonist's history before the start of the game and the death of his wife. With these primarily sitting along the critical path, they feel like they serve as an interesting pacing device, giving more context to the character's history as time progresses forward.

The Way draws upon a lot of games that resonate with me personally, citing inspiration from titles such as Another World, Flashback and The Dig. While all of these inspirations shine through in the game's mechanics, presentation and story (The Way is very much not ashamed to wear its homages on its sleeve), these influences combine with Puzzling Dream's own sensibilities and outlooks to create something that carves out its own territory. The Way very much feels like a title that might have stood alongside the games it draws upon in the halls of memorable classics had it been one of their contemporaries.

I think a lot of people will attribute this to the power of nostalgia and say that the industry has moved on, and while on some levels I can accept that, I think it's foolish to not also acknowledge that getting noticed in 2016, a market where 4,200+ games released on Steam alone, is a very different proposition to what it was in the early 90s, when you could expect to see around half that a year across all platforms. Generally speaking, I think this is a good thing (the more people making stuff, the better), but I also think that as a community and a consumer culture, we're not great at acknowledging that different people have different tastes and instead spend more effort on trying to identify good from bad while failing to admit that it's OK for everybody to have different tastes and for all creative works to have flaws (even this lovely article).

Maybe The Way aligns with your tastes, maybe it doesn't. Either way, it touched and moved me in ways that I wasn't expecting, and I absolutely love it to pieces ^_^

For those who've played the game and are keen to reflect on it more, I discussed the game, its inspirations, gameplay, themes and outcomes with HexDSL last year. A recording of that can be found here.

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A note from cheese

A note from Cheese

Thanks for reading!

I played a lot of cool games in 2016, and although getting this article out took a lot longer than I'd hoped thanks to 2017 being a super busy year, it was still fun to sit down and bash out some thoughts.

If you've played any of these games yourself and would like to discuss or compare your experiences, you can email me at

This article was first published on the 11th of March 2018.