By Mento 0 Comments
Welcome all (previously) delirious duders to a new variation on May Madness: an annual event wherein I attempt to pare down my Steam backlog in a manner not unlike a sculptor chipping away at an enormous cliff face. Most of the time it leads to naught but a lifetime of tears and anguish, but occasionally you get some big president faces out of it. Where was I going with that analogy? Right, May Mastery.
With this new series, I'm revisiting a concept I devised with that Go! Go! GOTY! series from last year. Instead of playing a new Steam game every day for the month of May, I'm going to try to crush a smaller sample of backlog games that I've been meaning to play for, well, a while now. The plan is to reach some sort of conclusion with each of the games I visit, so that after this May I'm not left with a massive list of "now playing" games I was curious enough about to leave installed, but apparently not so curious about that I actually bothered to go back and see them to their ends. (I won't be revisiting any of those games for May Mastery, incidentally, so the most I can really hope for is to break even.)
I do have a few rules, because I always have to make things more complicated. I won't play a game for more than three days in a row, for instance, nor will I skip a day to give myself more to write next time: this May feature was meant to be a daily writing challenge first and foremost, after all. I probably should've said "this feature was meant to be entertaining and elucidating to those that read it", but then there's no time for editing or filtering one's stream of consciousness in a daily series. That's the fun of it.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Playthrough: Despite my well-documented predilection for MS-DOS era point and click adventure games, a genre and era I've explored many times in my blogging habits on this site, I never actually got around to playing Harlan Ellison's highly-acclaimed adaptation of his psychological horror novel I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream prior to today. It features AM - short for Allied Mastercomputer - a miles-long, secret subterranean government computer system built to fight the Cold War on America's behalf. Not content with challenging bratty teenagers to games of Thermonuclear War while Dabney Coleman chews the scenery, it pulls a Skynet and absorbs its Chinese and Russian equivalents (and presumably their share of the Philosopher's Legacy) and orchestrates the near-total nuclear annihilation of the human race. See, it has a bone to pick with us because we opted to create a system of unparalleled computing power, enough that it could happen upon sentience, but declined to give it any means of expanding creativity or physically. Instead, it just goes into a massive sulk and endlessly tortures the remaining five human survivors for over a hundred years.
It's a cheery story, one about the last dregs of our once-haughty species who have long since abandoned any hope of defeating their omnipotent prison warden, and instead simply plays along with its little revenge scenarios knowing full well that the computer will never let them rest or forget. Rebuilding the human race is sort of futile when there's a very unhappy CPU fantasizing about your race's extinction at every nanosecond. Instead, the player is given five scenarios - one for each character - and their collective successes will lead to one of several endings. Each scenario plays into the psychology of the character attached to them, taunting them about their past mistakes and traumas, and slowly the events leading up to this past century of post-apocalyptic terror is deduced by combining the fragmented storylines.
At least, that's what I've determined from playing it so far. With today's Bombcast and UPF, I've been unable to spend a decent chunk of time with the game yet, completing only one of the five scenarios: that of Ellen's, the only female character. Ellen begins in a makeshift pyramid of electronic junk parts, which is itself flavored with a mechanical/Egyptian motif. Despite being from New Jersey, AM presumably figured it was being clever by manufacturing an ethnically-apropos scenario for its only African-American captive. Ellen is also a technological whiz, having graduated from Stanford cum laude with a double engineering-computer science degree, and is clearly connected in some way to the manufacture of AM. However, possibly given the usual secrecy behind top secret government projects, she doesn't actually know that much about the supercomputer that's been giving her hell for the past 109 years. When AM gives her an opportunity to find a way to destroy some of AM's core circuitry, however, it's not an offer she can refuse.
The actual gameplay parts, which would be the usual "using objects on hotspots" graphic adventure business, is impressively streamlined. For as obtuse as AM can be, with an intelligence unfathomable to the remaining humans, the game ensures that the player doesn't have so many moving parts that they become regularly stuck, and this capacity for confusion is also ameliorated somewhat by separating the quintet of sufferers into five not-so-easy pieces. I've talked about how adventure games do themselves a service by being "episodic", but given how often I need to explain the difference between episodic in the Telltale sense and episodic in the way I mean it, I've decided to start calling this format "capsular" instead. A capsular adventure game separates its screens and items into manageable chunks, minimizing the amount of backtracking and experimentation necessary to decipher a solution. Ideally, a good adventure game can open its world to you, allow you collect a couple dozen objects from all over the place and still be straightforward enough for a reasonably intelligent player to intuit the solutions based on what they've found and the hints they've gathered from contextual clues and accommodating NPCs. Still, the average player's intelligence is perhaps the hardest thing for a developer to anticipate, so a capsular approach like this works just as well, even if it serves to railroad the player's progress a tad.
Anyway, with this capsular framework and a handy built-in hint system (that appears to take some sort of mental toll whenever it is used), I was able to get through Ellen's scenario without getting stumped too often. Even so, the game certainly doesn't shy away from throwing dark, introducing Ellen's two fervid phobias of confined spaces and the color yellow that Ellen must eventually overcome in order to solve AM's riddles, and then goes ahead and explains just how she came by them in a pretty harrowing scene. Ellen eventually discovers a former, more benevolent facet of AM's programming that the supercomputer managed to bury, and the scenario is over: the intent, it seems, is to gradually fill in a larger picture as more of these scenarios are completed. Even so, the game is not pulling its psychological punches, and I don't imagine a happy ending is on the cards for anyone. I'm looking forward to playing more of it.
The Verdict: I'll be jumping into more of this tomorrow, playing a few of the other scenarios. The benefit of adventure games, at least in the context of wanting to pen a daily series with some variety, is that they often only take a handful of hours to complete. When they want to be cooperative, that is. They also sometimes want to be abstruse moon-logic simulators that stump me for hours. Here's hoping for a smooth ride on May 2nd.