999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

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Video game, 2010

Here’s yet another DS adventure game that beat me. I could dedicate a lot of thought dissecting the things about this game that don’t work, things that I believe are objectively bad, but instead I’m going to talk about one moment that stuck out to me as particularly awful, and from which you can draw your own conclusions about the level of sophistication at work here. In it the protagonist asks his love interest (and their characters have no depth past what I just described) to repeat herself after she said the words “It’s really hard”. Several times. He didn’t do this to laugh at her accidental innuendo, we’re told that after she repeated herself he blushed. I guess he asked her to say it again so that he could overload on how sexually exciting that is? Right in front of her? And the third party that’s present? It’s this mortifying immaturity and emotional tone-deafness that informs all aspects of this game. The shallowness of thought here is overwhelming, despite some good puzzle design. I’m surprised by the amount of positive attention this game has received, and can only speculate that people either wanted to like it because of its interesting gameplay mechanics, were fleeced into thinking its brooding atmosphere actually possessed depth, or have loose standards due to the low bar set by poor storytelling in the majority of video games.


Secret Files

secret files ds

 

Video game, 2010

This is the video game that finally made me realize that I have no interest in traditional adventure games of the mystery solving variety. This is a genre that I had been intimidated by what I perceived to be an intimidating amount of complexity and depth. After playing two of the genre’s most beloved classics, Broken Sword and now Secret Files (both in the form of their DS ports), I can now rest easy with the revelation that these games are shallower than a puddle. They’re boring, bland affairs, devoid of any intrigue, insight, or excitement. Secret Files in particular is unintuitive in every way. The interface is garbage, requiring up to three click to simply look at something. The puzzles make no sense, requiring near constant trips to a walkthrough. And the story reads like Indiana Jones fan fiction. I will say that Secret Files brushes right up against being fun in its incompetence, but not to an extent that is capable of holding your interest for more than a couple of chapters.


Ghost Trick

Video game, 2010

As a big fan of the Ace Attorney series of games, I’ve looked forward to playing Ghost Trick, a new property by Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi, for a long time. And it was quite a while into playing Ghost Trick that I was still viewing it through the prism of Ace Attorney. There are a lot of reasons for this beyond the fact that they have the same creator. Not the least of which is because they are both the same type of unique game. A “visual novel” (which is, let’s be honest, just another way of saying “comic book”). What this means is that for the vast majority of the time you’re playing Ghost Trick, you’re simply reading. The beauty of this genre, or perhaps just the way Takimi treats it, is the way it marries story and gameplay. Only by paying attention to the story, and anticipating the story, can you determine the correct course of action. Many people find this unappealing, preferring the arcade style thrills of Mario Kart, Fruit Ninja, or Call of Duty. That’s fine. Although those things make a fine distraction, there’s nothing like a good story. And that’s not to say that there’s nothing visceral about Takumi’s games. The man knows how to dole out clues to a mystery better than JJ Abrams ever will. The answers, and new questions, you’re given are paced out at near perfect intervals. Close enough in proximity to each other to be rewarding, and not so far apart that it feels artificially lengthened. Okay, the third act may be guilty of that. And the beginning of the game holds your hand for way too long. But! For the most part you’re following a loose trail of crumbs, realizing where it leads right along with the protagonist. This, combined with crazy characters and unique dialogue-centered sound effects, are the tantalizing special sauce on Takumi’s works. (Sample dialogue: “Fool! Don’t you know women are can make themselves appear thin through fashion! To this day I still don’t know how much my wife really weighs!”)

But all of this could be said about Ace Attorney as well. And while Ghost Trick doesn’t have the “crazy Japanese lawyer” weapon in its arsenal (a tough gimmick to top, to be sure), it does have a number of strong qualities that has me seriously considering if it’s even better. Most notable is the art. The totally unique, lush animation is striking from the moment you see it, and a pleasure to drink in for the entire length of the game.

In addition to differentiating itself from Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick actually improves on its predecessor’s formula in a number of ways. One shift that I really appreciated is from the court room to the scene of the crime itself, and in progress at that. The fact that you’re present at the time the crime itself is being committed gives the proceedings a sense of urgency, excitement, and danger that Ace Attorney’s sterile courtroom setting just can’t compete with. Ghost Trick also magnifies Ace Attorney’s dichotomy of dark themes wrapped in a silly package. Death, although it rarely ends up sticking, is a real thing in Ghost Trick. The fact that you’re seeing it happen to excitable, talking Pomeranians and big, chicken-loving galoots only makes it more disturbing.

Ghost Trick’s biggest problem is the video game cardinal sin of making players sit through the same dialogue tree multiple times, although its interface attempts to circumvent this. Tough to avoid for a video game that most of what you do is read and involves time travel. This is likely to make it even less appealing to people turned off by its basic mechanics.

I’m most interested in Ghost Trick as a feat of storytelling. Regardless of the story itself, which is practically beside the point, I’m interested in the ways it tells its story. I think Takumi is a master of finding fresh, vital ways to make his stories engaging, and I’m endlessly entertained by them.


Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Video game, 2005

I think that Ace Attorney is one of those series that no matter which game you played first, that one is going to be your favorite forever. (Unless you’re like REALLY into this in a very straightforward way, in which case don’t talk to me.) My first game was Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice. For that reason my saying that Apollo Justice is better than the original Phoenix Wright may not hold any water, but I will maintain that Apollo Justice had crazier scenarios, weirder characters and better art, and if you’re not playing Ace Attorney games expecting those three categories to be maxed out, then I don’t know what you’re doing with them. I got a little bored with this one from time to time- the stories and characters were too mundane, and the puzzles were crazy easy. Still good though, and the case that they added at the end for this re-release is much better. 3


Snakes of Avalon

Video game, 2010

Read my review of Snakes of Avalon for WingDamage.com here


Adventure games (Day of the Tentacle)

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

I never really thought it would happen, but I actually play a lot of video games these days. And as far as I know, I am the only person who plays video games for the artistic merit, and not the technological. The video game industry seems to be in this creative rut where people only play the newest prettiest games, and anything that came out more than year ago pretty much doesn’t exist. Honestly, apply this way of thinking to any other art form (movies, books, music). It’s absolutely ludicrous. The video game industry is even more disgusting than Hollywood.

Sam and Max Hit the Road

What games do I play? Well, the only stuff that I’ve ever really liked isSpace Quest, stuff by Doug TenNapel (Earthworm Jim, Neverhood), and early LucasArts stuff (mostly by Tim Schafer). What do all of these things have in common? They are all adventure games, a long dead genre of video game. This seemed to be the only place in the industry where anyone was interested in telling a story, or really being artistic in any way.

Halo is not very artistic, it is functional. The level design doesn’t have any theme or idea behind it, as demonstrated by things like doorways that are three stories off the ground that lead to nowhere. And plain boring walls. And nondescript machines in the middle of a hallway that just happen to make excellent cover. These games have no personality or ideas behind them, but can be fun to play. Find one boring, non-beautiful, uncreative inch in the game Psycohnauts. You’ll be there for a while.

 

I won my first eBay auction the other day and won Day of the Tentacle, an early game by Tim Schafer. Exactly as expected, this was a great game. It was really funny, really well designed (both in that the backgrounds were great, and I enjoyed solving all of the puzzles), and I cared about what was going on. The game is a sequel to ManiacMansion, a pretty good game that pretty much started the adventure game genre. Day of the Tentacle took what little story and characterization was in Maniac Mansion and went wild with it. Basically Dr. Fred’ pet tentacle drinks some toxic waste and grows arms, enabling him to hatch a scheme that will allow him to take over the world. You play as three different characters: Bernard the geek, Hoagie the metal roadie, and Laverne the tweaked out med student. Dr. Fred sends you back in time to yesterday to stop the tentacle from drinking the sludge. But of course, there is a mix-up. Bernard stays in the present, Hoagie goes two hundred years in the past (and meets over the top versions of Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin), and Laverne goes to a tentacle dominated dystopian future. You have to work all three characters in conjunction in order to solve the many many puzzles in the game.

 

The art is pretty good, but it’s just wacky and cartoony. Pretty standard animated sprites, and fun house mirror type backgrounds. Not bad by any means, but it doesn’t really make a comment on anything either, other than the humorous nature of the world the game is set in. The writing and characterization is the real highlight of this game. All the characters are distinct and specific, and their personalities of the source of most of the humor in the game. The thought of actual characters in a game is a pretty foreign concept to most games.

I’ve seen Day of the Tentacle is regarded by at least a few people as the best adventure game of all time, but it’s not. It is very high up on the list, but it is not very heavy in concept. It is however really fun to play, and very funny.

Pretty much, this industry is going to have to start making games that are actually good (like this one) if they don’t want to get caught in the rut that comic books and animation did and be considered a “lesser” form of expression forever. But I’m pretty sure that the video game companies are making too much money to consider changing their strategies, so I don’t really see this happening. Never has the formative years of a new form of expression been so dismal.
OVERALL
Writing: 8 Graphics: 8 Gameplay: 9 Number of puzzles I had to use the walkthrough for (stupid fucking cat): 3 Overall: 8

Double Fine (Tim Schafer’s video game production company)
Telltale Games (Ex-Lucasarts employees)