Hey Ataris and Amigas, this week I'm taking a close look at three games I played this week and specifically evaluating how each takes a specific concept or narrative tool which I'd normally turn my nose up at and somehow made it work for me. Were I to judge these games by their cover (in the cases where they actually have physical covers) I probably would not have played them, yet I'm very glad I took the plunge regardless. Credit it either to a fortuitous and uncharacteristic lack of pre-judgement or simply that the summer slump is making all sorts of odd prospects sound palatable, like that proverb about the thirsty man in the desert. No, not the one that won't help the turtle flip back over.
So here's how this'll go: I'll take each game, expound on it a little for those not in the loop or are unwilling to click the link to its wiki page, talk about the game's aspects which would normally have me running for the hills and then elaborate on why those aspects instead became a draw for me personally. In doing so, I'm hoping I not only shame myself out of any gaming prejudice in the future and perhaps convince a handful of you to try going outside your own gaming comfort zones too. Summer's definitely the time to draw outside the lines a little, after all.
Driver: San Francisco
What It Is: Driver: San Francisco is the latest in the Driver series: A bunch of racing games that endeavour for a more old-school car chase cinematic feel compared to its brutish or more serious peers. I'm not particularly mindful of which racing game franchises are trying to court what audiences, since I kind of figure anyone who likes cars is going to buy any and all these games. Driver is definitely more movie buff friendly than most though, as a set of side-missions has you recreate famous chases from movies, often in or around the city Giant Bomb calls home. Bullitt is the obvious one, but I was able to spot allusions to The Cannonball Run, The Dukes of Hazzard, Back to the Future, The French Connection, The Blues Brothers, Vanishing Point (from which I believe Tanner's supercharged Dodge Challenger originates) and lots of others. The actual plot of the game, at least the parts that aren't crazy which I'll get into in just a moment, is a very homage-heavy buddy cop car chase movie in video game form as well.
Of course, if there's anything that makes D:SF stand out it's the "shift" mechanic, where protagonist Tanner is able to astrally project himself into any nearby driver (with some limitations to stop the game becoming TOO easy) and use that to massage the outcome of chases and races in his favor. One could feasibly enter a street race and play it straight, and the game is balanced well enough to allow you to do so if that's your bag (and it probably is if you bought a Driver game), but the option also exists to ghost hop into oncoming traffic and disable the opponents' cars through a series of grisly head-on collisions with whatever weighty vehicles were coming from the other direction.
Why I Balked Initially: Two reasons: One is that I'm not particularly fond of racing games, due in part to my inability to drive a car. I'm not sure if I'm just mechanically inept or I just can't mentally dissociate the fact that I'm driving a two ton metal box at speeds that would kill almost anything it hits, with only my decidedly non-lightning fast reflexes to prevent such an awkward faux pas as running over someone's testicles. Since the trains usually suffice in getting me to any major city where I might need to be, I generally say "fuck it" and put that imaginary car tax money towards eating for the month instead.
The second is that the game's plot, specifically how it justifies Tanner's ability to Geist-'em-up, is that the whole game is a coma dream of his after a near-death experience in the prologue. The "it was all a dream" twist is perhaps matched only in story ending cliché hoariness by "it was a sabre-tooth cat what killed him".
How the Game Proved Me Wrong: First off, the driving isn't too bad. At least it's manageable. I guess the hardcore, manual-gear-switching, bar-graph-making driving-enthusiast elite would call such a simplified control scheme "arcade style racing", which I'm perfectly content with. A button makes the car go fast, another button makes it go slow and another button makes it go slow very quickly which is highly conducive to making the car go fast around corners without spinning around and stopping. Though my mastery of the lingo might fool you into thinking I was a dab hand at these games, this is just about what I am able to manage. That I was able to successfully complete every side-activity (and, more to the point, actually wanted to) should speak volumes about how accommodating this game took the trouble to make itself. This is helped of course by how much fun the shifting mechanic is and how it can be used to circumnavigate many of the trickier straight racing aspects: It's not always available, and it's not always applicable (especially in the off-road races where there's no traffic), but when it is it's an incredibly fun way to cheat yourself out of some of the game's more challenging scenarios. I'm a proponent of the idea that games need challenge if only to engage the player's interest, but the various "legal" subversions like this game's shifting and the various game-breaking abilities in Saints Row: The Third are a fine way of replacing that challenge with something just as alluring.
As for the second obstacle, the game wins points by laying out all its "it's all a dream" cards on the table right away. Though you're able to spot Tanner a few times as the customary nose-tube hospital coma victim, there are various visual clues in the game that pertains to his half-alive status as well; instances such as occasionally bumping into the ambulance that took him to hospital and a neat little heart-rate monitor sweep overlay that can be seen while shifting at the maximum height level. The game also explains that Tanner is able to keep up with nemesis criminal Jericho's plans with various news reports being shown on his hospital room's television; the language of which often permeates his dreamscape as various characters will keep using the same "eyes in the sky" slogan of the news show in different ways. It's not quite as earth-shattering as "would you kindly?" when the game reveals it, but it's one of the many neat twists that help explain the connection between dream San Franscisco to actual (well, in-game actual) San Francisco. I don't want to get too spoilery, but it's only when Tanner is starting to realise that he's in a coma do things get really absurd and fun towards the end.
Overall, it's definitely worth checking out if you're generally not a fan of this sort of thing. I'm glad I did.
What It Is: Yahtzee Croshaw is a divisive figure in the not particularly glamorous world of video game criticism. His weekly flash video game review show very much accentuates the negative, which tends to put people in the mind that the show is meant purely to entertain rather than educate. While it's clearly an entertainment product, given the amount of humor injected into the proceedings, It's a little reductive to say the eviscerating analyses have little merit from a critical perspective, since it's clear the guy loves his games and could really do with paring away more of the repeating bugbears of lazy modern game design before it really becomes a medium to be reckoned with. He's on our side, you guys!
So, what is this diatribe about a guy who makes funny videos on the internet leading us to? Well, I've been on an adventure game stint of late and decided to check out Yahtzee's critically-vaunted freeware AGS quadrilogy of horror-themed games (mostly) starring the dapper thief Trilby in a series of supernatural thrillers, collectively referred to as the Chzo Mythos. Each game depicts a separate story that heavily features a Jason-esque spectral serial killer named John DeFoe and eventually expands towards uncovering the machinations of the Lovecraftian beastie indirectly pulling his strings. They each also try new ideas with the adventure game format, as well as having disparate settings and a rather gruesome emphasis on gory deaths and macabre, downer endings.
Why I Balked Initially: I'm not the biggest horror fan. At least in terms of horror movies. I do have a strange draw to horror-themed video games, but mostly because I'm curious to see how they're able to effectively employ horror elements in the gameplay. Often it's by making the protagonist relatively vulnerable, with the supernatural enemies effectively unstoppable until you're able to do more detective work behind the "why" and "how" of your enigmatic foes while surviving their frequent rude interruptions to butcher you. As such, you're expected to run and hide. While I'm generally fine with the various flaws and repetitive beats of survival horror, I wasn't sure if my tolerance could extend to adventure games, especially those without an auto-save feature. Gemini Rue can kill me as often as it wants, as long as it drops me right back to before that unfortunate death occurred.
I feel I also ought to admit that I was a little apprehensive about Yahztee's ability as a writer. The guy's witty enough when he's tearing into something, without ever getting to that sheer obnoxious shrillness that seems to accompany any sort of internet-based beatdown crituque that doesn't involve an elderly misogynist sci-fi fan, but I was definitely sceptical if that sort of ironic detachment and wilful genre savviness would suffice for horror fiction, which definitely needs something of a dramatic earnestness if the scares are going to land. Shaun of the Dead is the exception, after all, not the rule.
How the Game Proved Me Wrong: I enjoyed the Chzo Mythos a lot. So much so that I beat all four episodes of it in one day, as glued to it as I was. They are short, sure, but that makes them a little more palatable as far as I'm concerned. If it was a single game instead of four diverse episodes, I don't think I would've enjoyed it as much. I'd be a little annoyed that so much material was being held back with each chapter if it was a single game, but considering the time lapse between chapters and the fact each received various improvements to graphics and UI as Yahtzee grew in competence with the software, it's way more excusable. I was impressed with how new plot elements always felt germane to the source material, even when things started getting really effing crazy in the third episode, and how the goofy Chzo scripture factors in the two very chronologically separate tales of the first two games as kind of the Alpha and the Omega of the Chzo cult's grand scheme. It doesn't quite feel pre-meditated enough to be a clever "Fry pushes Fry into the cryostasis pod" sort of reveal, but it maintains the tone and quality of the storytelling while also raising the stakes, like a good sequel should.
As for the gore, it's kind of cool. You don't see adventure games, especially those of a 16-bit graphical quality, take such a visceral artistic route (I can think of one other that I'm in no hurry to recommend). I think its graphical primitiveness (though only technologically speaking; the art tends to range from tolerable Indie game levels to almost on par with an early LucasArts game, which suits me fine) kind of softens the vomit-inducing edges of the various impaled cadavers and hanging meaty skeletons you might come across, while not understating the luridness of the surroundings and the subsequent terror you ought to be feeling. It would be pretty hard to depreciate a big ol' machete through the guts, I think. The times where I got caught out by a sudden death after an extended period where I forgot to save were annoying, but the benefit of an adventure game is that when you know what you're doing it makes what seemed like an hour of progress fly by in a handful of minutes. All four games are available on his website, so there's no excuse if you're into either adventure games or the Tricky-approved sub-genre of survival horror.
What It Is: Everblue 2, Arika's spiritual predecessor of the Endless Ocean games, is a deep-sea diving game where you play a prodigious diver named Leo as he searches and salvages his way across the seabeds of the nearby Caribbean island of Valentir for fame and fortune. The goal of the game is to make money by any means, often by helping the local islandfolk find heirlooms or recovering other precious items from the sea floor and larger wreckages. The game has a basic cyclical progression of "make money, buy better equipment, reach deeper areas, make more money", punctuated by various story events that need to be resolved before any further meaningful progress can be made.
All of Everblue 2 is depicted in first-person and the treasure-hunting is usually dependent on the diver's sonar "element" - there's one for each material of item you can find (metal, glass, wood, ceramic, stone) and it's usually impossible to find items of that type without it. Often you need to be cognizant of what exactly you're looking for and make sure you're well prepared. You also need to monitor your air supply (otherwise it's Sweet Dreams for you), depth limit (your health will steadily drop if you're in too deep) and most importantly your health (drops whenever something is picked up, when you're carrying too much, whenever you're attacked, or running out of air). So like any game set underwater (and like the actual activity of scuba-diving, one would assume) the key to survival is being mindful of one's limits.
Why I Balked Initially: An entire game of underwater levels? So like, Ocarina of Time's Water Temple multiplied by infinity? There's also the fact that it's almost a decade old for a system of mine which is already on its last legs without exacerbating things by trying to make it run a CD-ROM (which it has not been keen on doing in the recent past). Actually, I'm starting to suspect I must've been hypnotised into trying this game.
How the Game Proved Me Wrong: I adore this game. I can't really explain it. I think it's because I'm irrationally fond of treasure hunting games, and this definitely has that in spades. In each of the voluminous shipwrecks you're able to visit in the game (which include pirate ships, planes and submarines among other standard staples like a ferry and luxury liner) is absolutely chock full of items you can appraise and sell at various levels of profit. Each trek can be perilous, especially if you're considering overloading yourself for maximum returns and watching your health meter tick down alarmingly fast, which adds a nice level of dramatic tension whenever I decide to be an idiot and lug a dozen chaise lounges out from the Poseidon's ballroom. There's also plenty of extra-curricular activities, such as putting together collections of certain types of items for people or taking photos of the various sealife for a fish-loving loon. I appreciate any game that lets me faff off and do whatever, even when there's ostensibly a ticking clock to reach the next big discovery before the evil conglomeration of men-in-black divers (yeah really) beat me to the punch.
Yet while I might giddily espouse the horrors that lurk within Yahtzee's diseased mind for six paragraphs, Everblue 2 is able to be somehow as equally terrifying in a far more benign manner. Salvaging the various sunken vessels in the game is an exercise in atmospheric pantswetting, as it were, as each waterlogged corridor and antechamber is depicted entirely in darkness save the couple of meters in front of you that your flashlight is able to illuminate. More than once I've found myself greatly unnerved by unexpectedly discovering various human-sized statues and suits of armor (which seems like a great thing to have on a ship, incidentally) lurking in the darkness. If Everblue 2 actually deigned to go for full realism and had staffed these fallen conveyances with the corpses that assuredly sank with them, I don't think I'd ever stop screaming.
Everblue 2 might only be a game that I could only recommend to like-minded kleptomaniacs, but I found there's (puts on sunglasses?) a lot more going on under the surface than meets the eye. I really ought to try those Endless Ocean games.
Since we're discussing three experiences that turned out to be much better than anyone could've anticipated, how about we do the opposite for a while with these...
Driver: San Francisco
The Chzo Mythos