GRIS

This post contains spoilers

Gris is an ode to grief. Presenting itself simplistically though not minimistically it draws a balance between the emotional stages of its protagonist as she moves gracefully forward through her own personal tribulations.

The artwork of Gris is balanced somewhere between etherealism and emotional rawness, something that the artworks of designer Conrad Roset distil. Other inspirations draw from the landscapes with the surrealistic world, drawing from asian influence. This is most clearly seen in the final levels, where lotus flowers bloom alongside cranes and circular geometries hint at the Dharmachakra and reincarnation after suffering.

Pi halved

In an interview by Andrew Webster (Verge), the games director Roger Mendoza, speaks about how Iwagumi aquascapes were the choice for the level design, and that is clear with the games lack of textures, and simple colour palette that is contrasted against strong lines and the silhouettes they create. The animation itself is as fluid as the watercolours that disperse across the screen in brief bursts of emotion. Slowly building in complexity as Gris revives her own emotions. The simplicity of it all, allows the game to emphasise its symbolism, making them all too obvious. A trait that has led many to criticise the game for being too heavy handed, and yet there’s enough range to fully elucidate a range of psychological stages without obscuring the games message behind an idiosyncratic presentation. In short Gris’s symbolism works because it is simplified and not obscured.

The symbolism is presented in a variety of ways. Foremost is the use of colour. As Gris journeys through the world her emotionally numb state is offset by the stages of grief. The game begins as a bland monochrome, tonality is reduced and everything is represented by white, ostensibly the colour of innocence and purity which could be congruent with our introduction to Gris, but also to blankness or nothing. The failure to manifest emotion that leaves her as a blank slate. This transitions to reds, the ambiguous colour of both love and rage. Here with Gris entering the anger stage it is a harsh colour, melding with the blacks to create shades of carmine and sangria. Gris’s new ability “heavy” has her colliding against the environments, using force to move forwards. Whether it’s against the winds of her own discontent or obliterating the statues that demarcate her memories. Eventually the anger fades into lighter tones, melding with the white state of calmness into rose and salmon pinks.

The blessings still remain

But despite Gris’s development her emotions are still stilted and so she enters into a green forest world. Green the complementary to red, here repressents recovery and growth, a chance to replenish herself after the previous destructiveness she undertook. Making friends she bargains with them, enticing them with apples and other food, and the tenuous connection slowly builds into a proper bond. Initial reformative acts of kindness (in the giving of apples) result in her invitation to their abode and a chance to live out the old adage “a friend in need is a friend in deed”. Gris bargains with herself as well, leaping into the air grants her the ability to ascend higher her dress spread out like wings, but ultimately as all things need to descend she falls, but it is a controlled fall, a negotiation with her weight to descend lightly and gracefully to the ground. It is here too that she meets her first externalised foe. A giant blackbird that screeches at her, causing her to tumble backwards, her own song being lost all she can hear now are the screams that impede her progress. Her act to defeat the monstrosity is with an exterior sound. The tolling of a giant bell, usually rung at times of joy or for funerals here the bell sounds the deathknell of the bird, allowing it to dissipate into fragments. However as a realisation of Gris’s mind, as surrealist landscapes are imaginings of interior worlds, the Blackbird does return, though it also now is capable of lending aid.

For whom the bell tolls

It is this robustness of Gris’s mind. Her negativity that turns to her strength that lies at the heart of Gris’s themes. Though the game is about depression and grief it is also the tale of overcoming it. The acquisition of Gris’s new abilities and the players persistance in driving her forward are the clearest indications of this. Gris as an avatar of the player, has no choice, like people who suffer from such mental states, the march of time offers them no choice either but to persist against the mental hardships they face. And whilst many of these hardships are of the mind, just as Gris landscapes present her with obstacles and puzzles to overcome, so to is her mind a source of strength. The world offers assistance, both in the landscapes. In the windmill the scaffolding actively assists her by extending as she approaches, her own mental scaffolding that provides her with the ability to move forward, or in the figures she meets, the small apple creatures or the red birds that allow her to jump further than she would reach alone. They are welcome reminders of the robustness and strength of the mind when facing difficulty.

Yet Gris’s journey is not yet done, and she must still encounter the blue of depression. Sinking into the ocean, she drowns and yet still breathes. Her terrors transform as she sinks, what was once the bird is now an eel. An irrepressible force that chases her, barely staved off between bouts of rest. And it’s darkness surrounds her as she sinks deeper beneath the waters. Into areas darker and blacker. Again she meets assistance, a turtle offers temporary reprieval yet the depression still surrounds her.

All the while Gris still gathers the fragments of her memory. Small mementos the game hides and conceals about the world. Pieces of memory that cause her pain, that it may be easier to simply forget abandoned in the darkness. Yet there they still glow waiting to be retrieved.

Memento vita

As blue overwhelms her shifting in blackness and hollowness so vastly different from the white of blankness, Gris encounters the fourth and final colour. It is not entirely the complementary to Blue, being the more gentle yellow, that begins to illuminate her world again. The colours shifting and swarming into new blends, and varied hues and tones. Light has another effect. Unlike the obfuscation of depression, light illuminates new platforms, new perceptions of the world. Yet as the final colour it also introduces the most complex of areas. With her emotions restored Gris must now use all her skills again to proceed, not merely relying upon one emotion or the other.

The final level then is one of varied shapes, a city of the night teeming with flowers, its sculpted turrets shine against the distance offering new heights to ascend. But there is one more difficulty, that of her own distorted perception that still remains. For Gris can move across a boundary line to stand topsy turvy upon the ceilings. This too is another difficulty to be confronted, a way to confront her mirrored world yet still move capable of understanding more than one way of existence.

But the negativity of her emotions is still embodied within her temple. They may now give rise to blossoming flowers with the return of her voice, and allow her to ascend to the stars, yet the loss is always with her. Grief is unending and not even time can truly distil the pain. All that has happened is that through her journey Gris has found the mechanisms to cope with her grief. Her acceptance is one of defeat as she admits to her emotions, yet triumph as she is no longer subject to their vagaries.

As above so below

Gris is a parable of the mind. A story that showcases the robustness of spirit and the capability of logic to confront even the most difficult of its own conceptions. Gris embodies this in her pursuit of a resolution, of continuing despite the adversities she faces. It is a persistence that is accomplished both as an individual (as a proxy of the player) and as a receiver of help, turning her adversaries into assistants or through discovering new friends.

The greatest weakness of Gris, is perhaps its difficulty. It is a very forgiving platformer. And whilst this could be argued that it means individuals should be kind and gentle with themselves, it also means that the difficulties Gris faces are not difficult to overcome, this lessens the nature of her achievements in battling herself and coming to terms with her emotions. The game has no death state, there is no point where you can’t stop playing, but where it should have created difficulty is in the platforming elements. As a puzzle platformer, the game needed more areas to explore rather than the linear experience it offers as well as trickier jumping sections to further illustrate her increasing abilities. With difficulty in games being a contentious issue, and a game like Gris being designed with only one difficulty in mind, it is a slight shame to see that the designers couldn’t further reward players with more difficult to access mementos. Only two offer a fair challenge, one because it is concealed off screen and so unlikely to be noticed and the other required a timed sequence of light, that was perhaps too forgiving. The other alternative being to offer multiple routes with one way indicating an easier path and another a slightly more difficult path.

Pros

  • Gorgeous yet simplistic designs that are highly symbolic
  • Fluid animations

Cons

  • Puzzles are slightly too easy to solve
  • Overall design is fairly linear, with options to take alternative routes unavailable
  • Jump command was sometimes slightly unresponsive

Publisher: Devolver Digital

Developer: Nomada Studio

Platforms: Windows, Mac,

ESRB: E / PEGI: 16

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store, Microsoft Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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The spirit will always rise anew

Building a Backlog

With digital purchases becoming the largely de facto way to purchase games, sales have skyrocketed. Whilst some still prefer to own an actual product (specially coded onto a plastic disc of varying storage capacities) that is also fueled by limited edition collectors specials (usually with bonus goodies) and some discussion of this also points to the continued preservation of games. Most of the time games are now downloaded at a button click. Continuing expansion of digital infrastructures globally, has meant faster and easier access to games whether it is by 3G and 4G technology with increasing possibilities with the slow rollout of 5G, or increasing dispersion of fibre-optic cables.

This has come with varied problems however. As far back as 2012, Steam sales have been noted as harming the game development community by damaging the long term value of the brand or as put by the CEO of EA a cheapening of intellectual property. Though this is largely opinion based and not compared to sales figures, not to mention the inherent bias in both interviews as both storefronts (GoG.com and Origin respectively) were possible competitors to Steam at the time.

Steam Libraries have a tendency to increase exponentially with sales

Some of the claims are partially true, as waiting for a sale is only a matter of a few months or so, (and even less with increasing world wide holidays such as the Chinese Lunar New Year gaining traction offering reduced time between sales) and gamers have even more discounts to look forward to. However there is another effect that I couldn’t find discussed until two years later, that points to how sales encouraged growth of players, whilst warning that it caused initial communities to be smaller, though long term this seemed to even out as many developers pointed to long term sales for their games that gave them “healthy revenue boosts”.

However for us as gamers, Steam sales are massive contributors to the backlog of games. It gives us the opportunity to experience games as a medium more widely, when you take a chance on that niche, bizarre indie game that you otherwise may not have bought, or let you purchase two expensive AAA games rather than one, since you were trying to stretch your budget as far as possible.

Steam sales are massive contributors to the backlog of games. It gives us the opportunity to experience games as a medium more widely

Other culprits to increase ones backog include gaming bundles such as those from Fanatical or Humble Bundle, whose Humble Choice offers select games every month at a very attractive subscription price and the added bonus of donating to charity. Who have by and large seemingly avoided the ire of the gaming press.

Another more quiet culprit is the issue of regional pricing. This may not be a large factor for gamers in 1st World countries, but it makes all the difference for those of us living in the 3rd world. My GoG library is largely inhibited by the fact that they do not allow for regional pricing, which makes Steam, Epic and even Humble Bundle far more attractive prospects. Being charged Pound sterling on the uPlay store or directly converted prices on Origin make them far and away the most expensive options. The same held true whilst I worked in China, where games were even more cheaply priced than in my native South Africa. Though regional pricing is not without its detractors as well, with concerns being raised around geoblocking and discrepancies in pricing.

My GoG library has had an extensive increase with increased integration provided by the new Galaxy client

Despite all of these controversies and debates, many of which centre around economics, and accessibility of gaming as a world-wide phenomena, many gamers’ backlogs continue to grow. Which begs the question… how to manage continuously increasing inventories.

Which begs the question… how to manage continuously increasing inventories.

Prior suggestions have included working out the time to beat various games using sites like HowLongtoBeat or organising your Steam library into played, unplayed, DNF (Did Not Finish) or current. That is even easier now with Steam’s (and GoG’s) new library management tools.

Steam itself has also suggested ways for players to play old games, from its mini events such as the SpringCleaning event that included badges entitled “Clear the Backlog”, “Nostalgia” “Can’t Wait” and “Blast from the Past”. In addition they’ve just unveiled the Play Next Experiment in the Steam Labs, designed to recommend games you have not yet played from your backlog.

Narrative and puzzle games seem like appropriate recommendations

Other ideas for mastering the backlog come from a few friends. One of which is to tackle a larger more time intensive game whilst playing shorter ones alongside it.

Now finally for the main #LoveYourBacklog challenge provided by LaterLevels.

A Game You’re Eager to Play But Have Not Yet Started

Disco Elysium has been critically hailed by many, and its dialogue systems and opportunities look absolutely incredible. Although I don’t particularly relish the general nihilistic tone of the game, I do look forward to seeing exactly how their systems have developed opportunities for roleplaying.

A game you’ve started several times but haven’t yet finished.

I actually don’t have any titles for this category. I finish all the games I start, mainly because I’m on a mission to review every game in my library, which means in order to review them, completion is required. Even if I leave them on hiatus for a while, I end up resuming from where I left them rather that restarting.

The most recent addition to your library

Project Warlock comes courtesy of Humble Bundle Choice for February. It’s an old fashioned FPS shooter, that is vaguely reminscent of the old Heretic and Hexen games. I’m terrible at FPS games but did have fun exploring the old level designs and castles of Hexen, so hope that this will give me a ‘blast’ of nostalgia. It doesn’t have an elven protagonist though as Heretic did, so I may not enjoy it quite as much!

The game which has spent the most time on your backlog

Dungeon Siege III was purchased in 2013 as a part of a Dungeon Siege pack, as I slowly converted my physical game library over to a digital one. This was mainly due to the fact that I ended up not having a settled home for many years, which is prohibitive against large book or gaming libraries. Slowly over the years I’ve built up my backlog to be primarily games I had previously owned and so I picked up the Dungeon Siege pack. I had played both the original Dungeon Siege as well as Dungeon Siege 2, but never had the opportunity to play the third. Partly because I had grown bored of aRPGs at that stage and partly because it received lacklustre reviews. I replayed Dungeon Siege last year, and temporarily started Dungeon Siege 2 after tweaking it to run on a modern system, however still haven’t completed it in order to play the third and final game in the series.

The person responsible for adding the most entries to your backlog

This would be myself since my relatives are fairly disapproving of gaming, seeing it as an escape from reality (it is) and something I retreat to at difficult times, which they then blame as causing the difficult time. Other factors such as depression or just the general society in which I live were not seen as exacerbating factors, although with the declining economy, there has been some mitigation, as well as the incredibly difficulty of finding work against affirmative action policies when applied against minorities, to exclude them. Yet persistence pays off, and work can be found, even if it’s not the skilled work I’m fully trained for. It does however allow me to freely indulge in the occasional splurge on games, though with what global gaming trends hold as well as the junk status of our economy, the future is likely not so prosperous. But while I can, I will add games to tide me over the dark times ahead (and most literally dark times, as our electrical power outages are consistently being increased)!

For more old games, I will replay at some point as well as more modern titles I still have to tuck into, you can browse my Steam Library. I’m planning to tackle quite a few RPGs alongside the numerous HoGs that are waiting to be reviewed. This includes classic titles like Baldur’s Gate I & 2 EE, to see how much more I can appreciate them now, with a few years of gaming behind me, years that have changed and reformed the way I view games, alongside some extra worldly wisdom, from having traveled and become a …semi-responsible adult.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

This review contains some mild spoilers

The high seas beckon, as the Watcher of Caed Nua finds them-self adrift at sea… yet the Watcher is not unwatched. For the god of death, Berath, seeks to use The Watcher towards her own ends.

The first Pillars of Eternity was an immense disappointment when I played it. The world building and overall story were interesting, yet the companions felt stilted and the narrative was continuously interrupted by kickstarter self inserts. As much as it was a nice idea in theory to have so many diverse voices appearing in the game, in practice it distilled and weakened the overall world and frayed the themes of the game.

Being the desperate crpg player chasing after a Planescape: Torment high, I did however purchase Deadfire, despite not being particularly interested in pirates, nautical adventures and only after a vague sense of “treasuring” the ambition of the first game more than truly enjoying it.

Deadfire was thus an incredibly welcome surprise. The graphics are slightly overhauled with additional lighting and spell effects. This is noticeable in the very first area where a rainbow dances over a waterfall concealing a cavern. And was further validated by the delicate animations that bring each character to vivid life, whether it be flexing their water shaping skills, or scratching an itch in an… unmentionable area. The landscapes themselves evoke the Carribean, but with just enough innovation to still feel exotic, with Adra taking the place of coral to form reefs and shoals. Whilst exotic fruits and berries form the basis of various local cuisines. These little hints of the fantastical were present in the first game as well, but with the unusual setting they are even more apparent in Deadfire, and create an environment of discovery that was previously captured in games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

Berkana’s Orrery

As tropical as the environments are, the game doesn’t shy away from more graphical effects in combat as well. Spells are the most gorgeous to see, with bright neon colours dancing about the screen, whilst insidious cloud effects partially obscure the combatants. Even the fighters are well realised as they steady themselves before a dash attack, and launch themselves on their enemies. Critical hits even have a kill cam feature where the game momentarily slows down time, before zooming in on the action further. The slow down however was rather frustrating as the combat wouldn’t flow as smoothly after, and the loss of framerates at such times was immensely frustrating. Some of the more demanding areas, had some noticeable drops in framerate, particularly where there was advanced wind or water effects that caused shifts in light, or sand particles to obscure the camera.

At times when the action on screen was particularly frenetic, the UI certainly came to the fore. Most information is readily available and many of the pop up menus are contextual which is helpful. The game does highlight figures if you linger over them with the mouse and an information screen will also pop up giving general details such as resistances, current effects and a generalised statement of health.

And the narrative whilst still based in its pirate theme, thankfully expanded far beyond that.

Narratively the game attempts to wear many hats, it wants to be a postcolonial deconstruction of colonial economics, a rollicking marine adventure ala Robert Louis Stevenson, by way of Pirates of Penzance and a high fantasy RPG that delves into existentialism, the nature of the divine and at times even ecological terrorism. This kaleidoscope of influences collide into a mess of genres and tropes. A cohesive theme is lost in favour of attempting to straddle various genres and their requisite themes. Whilst this slew of influences lends the game it’s diversity of choice it also lessons the impact of any particular message or thought the game might have, even if it does have some fantastic shanties.

We’ll rooooooooll the old berath’s wheel along and we’ll all hang on behind!

Foremost of all of these narratives is the factional alliances you can make. The Huana are the natives of the isles. Initially they may seem the most sympathetic to modern audiences, however the strict rigidity of their caste system and propensity to suppress social mobility in their own population is part of what causes their lack of ability to develop and is a large cause behind their social and economic stagnation which is what places them at the feet of foreign powers and even those powers that are only emerging as a result of the regional conflicts.

A chance to settle trade disputes… or start them

The Principi are as such a lawless faction governed by their own piratical code, that swings along the lines of “might makes right”. They are the most piratelike of the factions and at times it felt as if the game was most sympathetic to them. They have their own internal conflict, involving the seizing of slaves and selling them on for profit that causes an internal schism and power struggle. As buccaneers and freebooters they stick, lamprey like, to the various economic thoroughfares of the Deadfire archipelago seeking to exploit weaknesses and undermine inefficient bureaucracies. Their penchant for chaos does have a few redeeming features, as they actively subvert corrupt social structures as Neketaka (the primary city of the regions) lower markets. But they do this not from any compassion for misfortune but for the sake of individualism that results in anarchy.

Opposing this anarchy yet seeking to use it for their own ends are the economic policies of the Valian’s trading company. Seeking to expropriate valuable resources at the most efficient price possible they seek to reduce the cost of their scientific funding of animancy. The very same animancy from the first game that lead to some of the kiths greatest achievements as well as being incredibly harmful to the ecological state of the world, not to mentioning engendering the metaphysical crises that drives the primary narrative of the game. As expropriators they bring economic prosperity and to a limited extent social upliftment due to the benefits of their knowledge, and sciences, but sadly the game never truly explores the sustainability of their practice.

More coveted than gold, Adra is the natural resource for which the factions fight

The Royal Deadfire company on the other hand is largely concerned with long term viability. They are colonisers in the most general sense. They seek to dominate whether it’s via military prowess, new engineering feats or through remolding the defects of Huana society to gain political advantage. The game skirts away from racism and eugenics here to establish that the Huana are considered close to the Rauatai and so deserve the imperialistic improvements that they can bring. Superficially the Rauatai are there as benevolent arbiters of the indigenous Huana culture.

These conflicting factions form the backbone to the God’s secular question, of whether humanity itself is able to overcome its differences and act in unison to confront a global crisis. Eothas, in the aspect of Gaun, is simply the progenitor of this crisis and Woedica who is the most antagonistic and cynical about the nature of the kith, seems to be the most vindicated by the results of your actions at the end of the game. This is largely due to the fact that the game offers no true resolution to the factions. There is no armistice, in fact it fails rather dismally, sometimes as a direct result of the players intervention, such as two factions storylines that result in you destroying the powder house of the Royal Deadfire company. The failure to create solidarity is justification of Woedica’s views. Even the party itself is split once certain factions are chosen with even the Watcher’s closest companions abandoning them at the penultimate moment.

Whilst the faction endings are at once rather underdeveloped (after all two factions resulting in the same scenario as a penultimate quest speaks to lack of resources to develop more broad scenarios), it doesn’t assuage the results of the player causing the unity of the individual faction they choose: whether it is deposing a pirate lord, or maintaining his power, allowing for a queen to continue to rule over a caste system that creates systemic inequality, or allowing a merchant to continue to hold his corrupt bureaucracy or fall in favour of his more ruthless and exploitative underling. In these smaller triumphs the narrative does hint towards Eothas’s idealistic view of human nature.

But these moments fall short of the absolute failure to actually bring about a more amicable and stable political situation to the Deadfire. The political tensions are done away with in acts of braggadocio and the jingoistic triumph of the faction you choose. The consequences for choices here are clear, and the central importance of your character is never in doubt as the traditional fantasy protagonist that sways the fate of nations. Yet in its larger narrative solidified in the titanic Eothas the game reverts all of this, clearly playing upon the more passive nature of being a “watcher” rather than an active participant.

Gods, even the artificial gods of Eora, are clearly considered too much for the protagonist to handle. The game steers directly away from the power inherit within a protagonist to indicate, despite being a Watcher, that your abilities are mundane. This is done repeatedly; from tête-à-têtes with the ‘Prevailing Powers That Be’ to encounters with archmagi that reveal their superiority over the player character. Even the trials against gods take place as gauntlets to be overcome rather than climactic confrontations, which is all the more obvious in the DLC content. It’s a realism that is surprising in such a game, and has been the source of many complaints, not least amongst them the inability to duel Eothas at the finale, which many felt robbed players of a final boss fight. This lack of pandering to a power fantasy is a break with the more conservative tradition in cRPGs that gives the player godlike potentiality. In the case of Eora, this lack of status given to the Watcher makes some sense, after all the Gods are created by animancy and a mechanical apotheosis would require some similar circumstance to be undergone, but with Eothas’ intentions for the wheel it seems such pursuits might be permanently unattainable. Instead the game reconfirms in its finale your ultimate status as kith – mortal and mundane. In this the games ultimately cynical outlook on kithkind (humanity) is revealed.

Beware when you play cards with death…

From the very beginning Berath informs you of the inevitability of your journey’s end. That in pursuing Eothas you will ultimately fail to prevent his mission. This is reconfirmed throughout the game. Narrative tension is lost from the outset as failure is inevitable, and even exploration of the unknown and the mysteries it holds does not lend any motivation, after all the trajectory of a titanic Adra statue is not difficult to determine. Instead the game relies on the factional tensions and the alliances you build with them to create interest and conflict. The burden of the storytelling lies firmly upon the ability of the roleplaying, roleplaying that is hindered by a mechanical system that can never compare to the freeform play of tabletop or the statistical methods that optimize the play of powerful builds that can overcome the most difficult strategic challenges.

For all that is a major criticism, the combat in Deadfire is immense fun. Breaking from the DnD ruleset and it’s min-maxing elements, leaves room for experimentation with builds. Many things are still the same, a dexterous wizard is still a primary but might (physical strength) is a positive boon as well, because it directly translates to the damage output of spells. Likewise unconventional melee builds are possible as well, with fighters being able to include intelligence as a stat for Defensive fighters due to its bonuses to AoE. As much as the game does allow for such unconventionality though on harder difficulties it still favours more traditional builds.

Those harder difficulties are more difficult than the first game. There is still some issue with level scaling, as per the first game, were later game encounters became to easy for large parties, requiring the game to upscale the difficulty. It is nowhere near as noticeable here though, and the overall development is well handled. The quests themselves don’t necessarily increase in importance however. Some of the later stage quests are incidental encounters, that neither add to the overall story, though one might consider an imp uprising to be possible in future titles (if they ever come to be). Companion Quests however tie in directly to the main plot, whilst adding characterisation. The game hints at which characters to use for which quests by including their portraits alongside the quest description in the journal. Special dialogue is usually available adding to the players understanding of events, as well as causing party alliances or disputes. Deadfire has a robust character system that encourages the party members to actively like or dislike each other. Aloth will constantly roll his eyes, in his best imitation of a petulant teenage girl at anything Serafen says, whilst Tekehu’s amorous adventures and nymphomaniac tendencies are laughed at by the selfsame Serafen. This causes more links and interconnections than just simple party based banter familiar in more normal RPGs that is purely based on character and not how well the characters are getting on. It’s a lovely feature though one that is questionably included considering how much extra work it must have required. Work that the game desperately needs elsewhere such as in ship exploration and combat.

Since Deadfire has a nautical theme, it’s unsurprising that the player is given a ship to steer about the sea. This is where factional alliances come into play. Depending on the colours you fly (your own unaffiliated, or factional) various ships will either ignore or attack you. Managing and outfitting your ship takes the place of usual keep management that was introduced from games like Neverwinter Nights 2. In addition Deadfire also has you manage the crew for your ship. The larger the ships and the more crew you have, the more food and water they will require. The game also introduces morale, keeping the crew happy and preventing them from mutinying will require either victories at sea or more expensive rations, usually of an alcoholic nature. Yet it never really feels like it amounts to that much. The travel distances of the Deadfire Archipelago are so small as to make most of the rationing and strategical planning to be redundant, and by the late stages of the game, the ships are easy money sinks, since the loot has improved immeasurably so that it’s easy enough to simply purchase up the rations required.

The triumph of the Useless Idiot!

Ship to ship combat is also relatively unrewarding. The combat is rather clunky and not visually realised but rather as descriptions of combat. The nautical terminology is easy to grasp and glosses for terms are provided, whether through icons or descriptions. Most of the time combat is usually simply advancing close enough whilst receiving as little damage as possible in order to board the ship, which then moves to normal ingame combat, which of course is the games strength. You can even simply attack directly as an option when engaging vessels bypassing the ship combat completely.

The other important aspects to ships is of course exploration. The ships crew gains experience in an additional levelling system, as they encounter new regions, sights and survive encounters. The islands themselves are marked on the map for you and a subquest encourages you to “colonise” the lands, naming them after your whim. However main quest locations are marked and can be sailed to directly without exploration. Since the islands are discrete landmasses, they don’t offer a feeling of scale when adventuring. They inevitably end up feeling more like once off encounters rather than integrated parts of a world. A place to tick off then continue adventuring. As such the wonder of discovery is inevitably lost to a list of check marks, something that the game tries to prevent with its detailed and inventive locales but never quite achieves. This is especially apparent when massive wonders are only reverted to textbox descriptions that can’t quite translate across the dual medium of the game as both text adventure and visual isometric world.

There are many fishermen’s tales of odd creatures in the Deadfire, not least amongst them tales of living trees.

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is overall an incredible game, with sound combat, an incredible interfactional storyline, but is let down by some very serious issues, such as the lack of intriguing exploration, feature creep that led to some interesting elements but that will only be for new games to explore meant that areas that required more development did not receive the budget or development time they should have. It is however still one of the finest RPGs ever made, despite the passive role it wishes the protagonist to adopt, that leads to weaknesses in the narrative. It is kept aloft by its fantasy and inventiveness that promise future developments for the genre, and continues to carry the standard of its predecessors Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

  • Incredibly well written with lots of nuance
  • Companion dialogues and stat system is intriguing
  • Lots of complexity and customisability of companion builds
  • Detailed graphics that bring the world to life

Cons

  • The narrative is somewhat weak as it de-emphasises the role of the player character and shifts them to a passive role as “Watcher”
  • Naval combat is underdeveloped and lacks impact

Publisher: Versus Evil/Obsidian Entertainment

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

ESRB: M / PEGI: 16

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store, Microsoft Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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The Vicarious Baron of Varn

Please note this article focuses on some critical story elements and may contain a few spoilers for Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Pathfinder: Kingmaker like many RPGs offers a variety of outcomes to the events of its main story. Alignment choices, completion or incompletion of side-quests, decisions of governance, may exhibit immediate outcomes, or have an outcome in the ending slides of the game. Even nominal characters like Nyrd Zottenropple, have an impact on important events should you make the requisite choices. Yet none of this is unique, in fact it’s been done for years. As recently as Deadfire and as far back as Arcanum. As creative as Kingmaker is, and as varied as it’s choices are there is still one more unique way it approaches its storytelling that I haven’t seen in a game of this type before.

The primary focus of an epic fantasy RPG, as the genre implies, is the creation and fulfillment of your avatars life in the world. The game is played from a first person perspective with the player embodying the characters view point. We learn about the world and it’s events through the eyes of our avatar. And although mechanically we can pull the camera back for a 3rd person view in some RPG games (like Skyrim or Dragon Age) this is only a mechanical change, not a narrative shift, instead the narrative stays purely focused on something I call (for games) the singular perspective. This of course allows for the building of suspense for plot twists and removes an annoying omniscient (or partially omniscient narrator) from muddying the ‘text’ of the game keeping the player immersed in that delicate balance that is known as ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Yet this is also limiting. Where novels such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings can switch easily between characters and events in far-flung spaces, which vastly expands the scope of the world as they do it. Games however largely require the player to explore the world, revealing it slowly frame by frame focused upon the avatar. As such games lay importance upon the characters agency and this is somewhat to the detriment of a concept of a world that exists externally to the avatar.

Not all illusions are art

Pathfinder: Kingmaker attempts to overcome this, with timed events that place pressure on the player to resolve them before they escalate. The world is filled with danger and wonder that both threatens and delights. The world has agency, important to the thematic elements of the plot, and it is unlike other RPGs in that this danger purely manifests as quests to resolve or monsters to slaughter. As nature, and time attempt to tear down the hard wrought community you attempt to build. These events that occur are revealed in the main quests as many media’s do, through insight from NPCs, most notably certain companions as well as through a villains monologue. Allowing the player to piece a timeline together after the fact, and discover the secrets and revelations of a forgotten past, the secondary type of exploration that games can offer.

The Varnhold’s Lot DLC offers a new approach, more closely allied to novels that switch character perspectives.

But these traditional methods are not the only technique Owlcat Games uses…

The Varnhold’s Lot DLC offers a new approach, more closely allied to novels that switch character perspectives. Running two characters in a single unified game is of course impossible, except Varnhold manages to achieve this by offering a secondary campaign that occurs in conjunction with the first campaign. Whilst the player character is exploring events in the Shrike Hills, the Varnhold Barony is expanding into the Dunsward and developing alongside your own kingdom. It offers a juxtaposition to the success of your own elevation, and may be seen as either a rival or ally. The Baron Maegar Varn who was elevated alongside your primary character by Jamandi Aldori in her scheming against the Issians and House Surtova, is genially disposed towards you, and beset by much the same curse that drives the conflict in the rest of the game.

All of this is revealed in dispatches and missives in the main game, and the fall of the Varnhold Barony is explored in depth in Part 3 entitled rather literally “The Varnhold Vanishing”, along with a little foreshadowing by one Willas Gunderson. Yet more is made available in the DLC, and whilst the player characters concern is with preventing the same forces from destroying her own kingdom, the DLC fills in plot holes as to how certain individuals survived.

Necrotic botanists

As a separate campaign the solution is easy, simply role a new character to play for the duration of the DLC. This newly embodied character gives a fresh perspective to the player of the characters involved. Not only is this character exploring the world at the same time as the main character but also reveals a few hidden truths about the nature of the curse and the depravity of the individual behind it, or perhaps nefarious assistance would be a more appropriate term when discussing the Horned God’s intervention through the aforementioned hapless Willas Gunderson, who unwittingly awakens a fallen empire.

These tidbits of information are illuminating. Not only enhancing the nature and temperament of the villains, but also expanding the scope of play. Such things have been used before in gaming where a choice of characters are offered such as in Resident Evil 2‘s choice of Leon or Claire, but took a backseat for years until being revived in games like Dishonored 2 which allowed you to play the same campaign but from both Corvo’s and Emily’s viewpoints or the more recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey choice of Alexios or Kassandra. But it has never truly been attempted in a multiparty game nor in offering a largely separate structure from which to view the larger narrative, although Resident Evil 2 comes closest to this.

These tidbits of information are illuminating. Not only enhancing the nature and temperament of the villains, but also expanding the scope of play.

The other more important part that the Varnhold’s Lot DLC adds is tangible changes to the games overall story. The choices you make have distinct outcomes, whether your character is left to wander the first world forever or whether they end up retiring to the comfort of your capitals tavern. And seeing your character (YOUR character) ensconced in the gameworld with your primary protagonist interacting with them is something distinct and unique.

Awaiting the final release

Of course the pioneering ability for this comes from Baldur’s Gate 2 which allowed you to import a saved character from the first game, but was refined with the release of Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition and Pillars of Eternity 2 that allowed you to not only import your previous character for a cameo, but the entire set of consequential choices that had shaped the world. Whilst this had established continuity between games, it’s only with the Varnhold’s Lot DLC that I’ve come to see the potential for expanding narratives in a lateral fashion. It is this that makes the DLC so innovative, and something I’d hope to see more of in the future. After all the fantasy novels we read have expanding vistas shaped by vain villains confronted with violently vehement adventurers! Why not expand the possibility of players and allow them to vicariously assume the identity of more than one inhabitant that can shape the events of a world? Not just by controlling side characters, that serve an important role as tools with which to shape your character through interaction, but with the primary force that makes gaming so powerful a narrative medium, the players own ability to choose the actions and shape the responsibilities of more than one protagonist and in so doing the world at large.

Varnhold’s Lot was the second DLC released for Pathfinder: Kingmaker on February 28th, 2019. It is included in the Imperial Edition of the game.

Images are property of Owlcat Games and are used here for commentary and criticism. Screenshots from in the game were taken by the author.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Enhanced Edition (PC)

Sic transit gloria mundi

Pathfinder: Kingmaker, much as the rather unimaginative title indicates, is a game about the establishment of a kingdom. Yours. From the political machinations of a nearby Duchy that wishes to create a possible alliance against their enemies they aid in not only granting you the land but also in financing its establishment. From there in true fantasy style a new threat emerges, an old curse exists upon the lands that gathers the remains of previous empires, atoning for a mistake from the past.

Like many of the cRPGs of recent years Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the product of a crowdfunding success story that propelled the small Russian studio of Owlcat Games into the limelight. Though it’s initial release was marred by numerous bugs and balancing issues, subsequent patches largely fixed many of the issues, and the release of the Enhanced Edition incorporated a great deal of player feedback to improve the overall quality of the game.

Story

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is truly epic in scope, not only does it span multiple playing hours but in terms of the game world it explores millennia. In doing so it can elaborate on its them of civilization and barbarity, the transient nature of empire and the various ways they rise and fall. This is done most notably through the various chapters of the main campaign, each of which focus on one or more kingdoms that had once existed in the territories of the Stolen Lands. Not only is internal strife and decadence explored but also external threats, and natural disasters, whether it be plague or climate change. Accompanying these hints from the past for the discerning lore master, the actual campaign itself also expounds on these ideas, with each chapter of the campaign unfolding a new threat to the governance of yourself and your advisors (who are selected from your various companions).

Arise, Your Grace…

The choices here are unprecedented, you can recruit erstwhile enemies to assist you, (provided they have a similar ethos to governance as you), shape and change the fates of your companions due to your influence over them, and in some cases might just roleplay their influence on your character as well. And they are an interesting lot, from the grandiose delirium of Nok-Nok the goblin, to the stalwart Valerie, and erudite Jubilost, there’s a lot to uncover about each companion.

Of course, they do have accompanying side-quests to expand upon their choices and influence them, as well as the option to romance some of them. Many of the options taken in these side-quests also have additional impacts upon the fate of the kingdom later on, though they aren’t realised mechanically. The characterization of each is superlative, from the erudite, pomposity that characterizes Jubilost’s speech, and his accompanying focus on rationalism and rhetoric to the crude yet good natured banter of Amiri, each companion has their own distinct style of speech. They also might unintentionally work against you. Lindzi for instance procures some of the kingdom’s funds to assist one of her dreams. Depending on how you’ve managed your kingdoms finances this may either be an absolute disaster, or you just shake your head, and wonder why she just didn’t come and ask you in the first place since you would have happily assisted her anyway. Even with such inadvertant setbacks however the game does recompense you in some way. In the case of Lindzi, you do receive a building later that covers the cost of what you initially lost.

The kingdom itself shares a story with you, changing significantly based on the decisions you make, whether its populated with monsters, a mercantile success, or a generic tyranny there’s multiple ways to craft its story. This is realised in short excerpts from the kingdom management screen, and are known as “problems” and “opportunities”, choosing different advisors (with different traits) will have varying outcomes, not only can they fail or succeed but different individuals handle matters differently. Some of these permutations can be seen as many of the “opportunity” events are recycled (which leads to some story fatigue) but they also shape the alignment of the kingdom, having distinct outcomes for how the people are governed.

Lost time unleashed

The main story itself has a fairly generic ultimate villain, but the secondary villain is the main antagonist for most of the game, and she is rather unique, however it’s up to the player whether she will be viewed sympathetically or not. The main story is also imperative in forcing and encouraging exploration. Most of the structure turns upon a threat whose mystery must first be uncovered, then investigated and finally confronted. This pattern unfolds for each chapter. The greatest criticism I can level is that after a while this feels uninspired, but the mysteries themselves are intriguing enough and pull the player to explore the world further, which is after all one of the great joys of playing a cRPG, adventuring to uncover new dangers, treasures and above all to gain experiences (xp points too).

Gameplay

Kingmaker truly excels in its game-play. The combat mechanics are robust and adaptive to varied play styles. Characters can be built in various ways and , on harder difficulties tried and tested builds will need to be used in order to min max stats, however easier difficulties (including a story mode) allow for more experimentation in builds and are forgiving if you make a few mistakes in a build. The mechanics will be familiar to any person whose encountered a cRPG game before. From elemental to physical damage types and their relation to damage resistances, the need to create a party with multiple ability types, to work in concert together. All the normal roles apply.

Nothing is truly innovative here, wizards can work as heavy damage dealers or crowd controllers, rogues can provide debuffs and concentrated damage, fighters work as tanks, bards as buffers/debuffers. It’s all familiar and comforting terrain to veterans of the genre, but not overly complicated for newcomers to work out.

Valerie’s Confusion

General play will consist of observing the encounter beforehand, time spent buffing your party before launching into attack. Positioning of characters is important (you don’t want your wizard to land their fireball right upon your tanks head with their low reflex save) and at times controlling the flow of battle will require deftly moving your characters around. Managing debuffs upon your party is also important at higher levels, and not controlling them can result in a few rather hilarious scenarios, that leads to emergent storytelling, such as when Valerie, the noble fighter ended up slaying a unicorn, going insane from a spell inflicted upon her by the dryad who looked after the beasts, she turned upon the party… terrified by their normally steadfast and loyal companion they hid in terror waiting for her to calm down… only to witness her hit herself between drinking bouts of beer. Its moments like these that shape and make your own adventurous tale.

Ready to paint the map

Exploration occurs across a world map with isolated encounter areas (as well as random encounters when travelling between locations). At first most of the map is unavailable with higher difficulty levels being locked until you’ve expanded your power enough to access them, that is not to say that difficult encounters are not hiding tucked away in caves in earlier areas though… discretion is the better part of valour. In addition, some areas will require repeat visits, as new quests will be linked to that area. Encumbrance impedes exploration and acts as a serious hindrance, slowing travel time which affects the games overall time pressure. It’s not a huge role but is something to be aware of, if a quest timer is close to ending. The area is not free-form exploration sadly. You are confined to the paths that you find between nodes. It’s a step back from the slightly freer feel of Baldur’s Gate but not out entirely out of line with more recent cRPGS that also have limited budgets and so restrict encounter areas.

Each encounter area is filled with various side-quests or unique enemies to fight (and loot) however the major dungeons are reserved for areas associated with the main campaign. Many of these dungeons have multiple levels and distinct puzzles associated with them as well as some rather difficult combat challenges. The game also does not shy away from splitting your party on more than one occasion. The dungeons themselves are generally well-crafted experiences, with challenging encounters as well as various puzzles to solve. In some dungeons these puzzles take precedence and can be rather obtuse in their riddling, however compared to games like Pillars of Eternity and its sequel Deadfire which had very few puzzles its pleasant to encounter such riddles again. Sadly, one of the dungeons has some rather complex coding associated with its puzzle and it can be quite buggy, it’s also exceptionally late in the game so multiple saves are mandatory… of course.

The beginning of a city to rival Absalom!

The other important aspect is the Kingdom itself. The kingdom is assigned various stats, such as loyalty, espionage, military, arcane and culture that link to various domains of society. These stats are boosted by assigning the appropriate ministers to events and granting them time to complete them. In addition, you can construct villages with various buildings that provide boosts to said stats, and some buildings even decrease the difficulty for the encounters by providing bonuses. Your companions may be assigned as advisers in a vaguely nepotistic faction however there are other advisers you can assign and complete tasks to enhance their governing abilities. Who you assign is important as it shifts the alignment of your kingdom, which further determines what buildings you can include, not to mention their own allegiances, that just may result in a betrayal? The kingdom management also has certain tasks that only the player character can complete, such as annexing neighbouring lands that results in time lost for adventuring. This is where a more strategic layer of play develops, balancing the cost of assigning various advisers, (also dependent on which adviser is available), upgrading your kingdom and completing the timed quests. It’s a unique and heady blend of strategy that is utterly new for the genre. The only issue is that it can result in not being able to see some content if managed poorly, the same issue that games like Avernum 3 had as well.

Who better than dour Harrim to deal with death!

Since the success of the Kingdom also factors into the completion of the game, managing it well is a necessity. Like the keep in Neverwinter Nights 2 ruling your people (or monsters) well and looking after their safety is a necessity. Integrating the success of your kingdom to concepts such as the health of the ruler is linked to the health and prosperity of the land are born out later in the story as well. This is a refreshing change from the unimportant management aspects of games like Pillars of Eternity where Caed Nua plays an unimportant role in the games story (at least only as a cut scene as a prequel to the second game does it gain significance) and Dragon Age: Inquisition where the missions don’t really bear much impact on the overall story except perhaps to fill in a few sundry details.

To the horizon

Other things to note is that there are some keyboard shortcuts, but I didn’t find or use any party management shortcuts (e.g. for melee vs ranged members) which was frustrating. Also, the game is active time with pause so prepare for your spacebar to be abused.

Graphics

The graphics are quite phenomenal, there are some gorgeous lighting effects and there is very little issue with textures. A great amount of detail has been paid to monster designs, from the irascible mites to the gargantuan Crag Linnorn’s they are rendered with unique animations, that are particularly noticeable when it comes to combat. Combat itself is a visual feast, the array of spells and spell like effects dazzle across the screen, and make a wonderful visual counterpoint to the slowly increasing feel of power. Death and critical hit animations, have enemies (or your characters) reeling backward or stumbling, and with a well-placed heal, lifting themselves with effort to join the fray again.

Healing waters

The UI is fine on lower resolutions with lots of detail at a glance but can be slightly too small on larger screens even with the option for text scaling. Additional information such as enemy stats are not readily available with a mouse hover (such as in Deadfire) but are available using the “y” button on English keyboards, this was somewhat frustrating as I’d have preferred combat information to be available more readily.

The in game menus are pretty comfortable to view and easy to sort, however some of the icons are a little too similar, this was particularly frustrating with scrolls and some of the potions that meant you had to hover slightly over the potion to check it was the correct one, you wanted to select which slowed down combat at times, one way to overcome this is to use alphabetical sorting.

Music

I was somewhat surprised when starting to play the game and thought for a moment I was hearing Dragon Age: Origins again, because the chord structure is nearly identical. This is of course due to the soundtrack being largely composed by Inon Zur. He’s an excellent composer, however at times the similarity in music evoked memories of other games which actually detracted from the experience with Kingmaker.  What was particularly wonderful though was the kingdom having music associated with its state, a lawful good kingdom has very different ambient music to a chaotic evil kingdom, add in the music for specific areas, as well as each boss having a soundtrack designed especially for them and you’ve got hours of music to accompany your play. The music seems to draw heavy inspiration from European folk melodies and the choice of instrumentation, lends itself well to the standard medieval fantasy setting.

Additional sounds make the world come to further life, whether it’s the varying sounds of your footsteps across different terrain or the sound of magic combusting, the game is an absolute aural treat, making the animations come alive.

Silence is golden

Even the voice-acting is well done. The emotions are well conveyed, and though not all dialogue is voice-acted, most of the main campaign is. The emotions are subtly portrayed with layers of nuance, and vastly aids in making the characters more sympathetic. Sadly budget constraints meant that party resting banter is limited to only two lines of exchange which doesn’t really convey the relationship between the two companions involved, where even three lines with a second response would have done more to establish their relationships.

Conclusion

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is one of the great cRPGs, despite its rather difficult launch, the enhanced edition is generally a treat to play, despite still having a few bugs. It’s exploration of rulership and governance sets it apart from its contemporaries, and whilst it lacks philosophical depth directly in the writing, the concepts are there for the attentive player to explore. It may not have the philosophical complexity of Numenera or the verbosity of Deadfire but it is far more accessible than those games, and still incredibly entertaining to boot.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

  • Incredible and lengthy narrative that has multiple plot twists
  • Well fleshed out companions
  • Engaging combat system that offers tactical depth
  • Lush and colourful graphics

Cons

  • Rather generic in its medieval fantasy setting
  • Time management on quests creates sense of pressure and reduces willingness to explore
  • An area at the ending is rather prohibitive if you haven’t fully explored the side-quests from earlier in the game

Publisher: Deep Silver

Developer: Owlcat Games

Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

ESRB: – / PEGI: –

Available from: SteamGoG.comHumble Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Video Game Literary Classics 101)

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was originally published in 2013 and was developed by Starbreeze Studies, published by 505 Games and released to widespread critical acclaim. Brothers garnered a number of indie and professional awards not least amongst them a 2014 BAFTA for Best Game Innovation Award.

Brothers originally launched on the Xbox 360 with PC Windows, and PS3 versions following the same year.  Later platforms included the PS4 and Xbox One with the latest port being announced for the Switch in May 2019. It was heralded for its empathetic characters, innovative controls, as well as its heavy focus on visual storytelling without any spoken dialogue or written exposition. This wordless storytelling was intentional on the part of the games director Josef Fares, a Swedish film director and his desire to experiment with the medium.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has a fairly simplistic narrative. It relies on the traditional quest arc, with two young boys setting out to find a magical elixir to cure their father. It’s the simplicity of this narrative arc that allows the game to get away with its lack of dialogue, or exposition. Language is heard in the game, but it isn’t comprehensible, though it does borrow heavily from proto-indo-European sounds. Rather the focus is on the visual language with cuts, angles and scenes carrying the weight of the burden to deliver important moments and highlight the characters.

This shift becomes immensely important when establishing the games themes, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is of course about relationships.

In terms of delivery the game shifts seamlessly between cut scenes and gameplay. Unlike games like Dead Space which was famed for introducing this seamlessness, Brothers will shift the camera to indicate the player has lost control, before shifting back to its default position. The cut scenes use standard film shots such as close-ups or medium shots to draw the player in and focus on the characters animations revealing their emotions whilst general gameplay consists of high angle shots, positioned at a near 60 degree angle that mirrors an isometric game perspective. This is largely due to the need to focus on both of the brothers at the same time.

This creates something of a problem. In most early 3D games the camera was not controlled, which made for some rather awkward gameplay sections, slowly overtime 3D camera’s improved their angles and directions and eventually allowed players positional control over the camera themselves. Brothers came up against this issue, due to its control scheme (more on this later) that meant they were only able to offer the player partial control over the camera. Keeping both boys on the screen simultaneously became a problem, and this was resolved by allowing the character to zoom in when the brothers were close, and zoom out as the brothers move apart. As the boys separate so the player too, is distanced from them, creating an inadvertent triangular relationship between the player and the boys. This shift becomes immensely important when establishing the games themes, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is of course about relationships.

The title, of course, is the first giveaway, establishing the sibling relationship that takes centre stage throughout the rest of the story. Narratively though the game explores further dimensions and relationship in more depth. The starting cut scene indicates that their mother is already passed on, with the Younger Brother having a silent moment of grief beside her grave. This is quickly transitions when the older brother arrives lifting a heavier man (their father) onto a cart. Through animations and sound the story quickly establishes that he is ill, and unable to move. The stakes are set; if he cannot improve it is clear the two boys will be entirely orphaned. Narratively this works as often it is only when we are going to lose something (or have lost something) that we can establish its true importance to us and how much it is (or was) valued. The following segment serves as a short tutorial to the games mechanics. The boys are united, not only through their quest to get their father to a doctor but also through the controller.

Unlike most games Brothers requires the use of a controller. The reason is primarily due to its use of both analogue sticks and additional haptic feedback if the player’s controller supports it. The analogue sticks independently control each of the boys. It’s this that makes the player lose control of the camera, and it’s this that gives both of the boys the agency so necessary to the execution of its themes and transcendence from what would be simply a escort mission into a fully fledged single player co-op game. This is immensely important to some of the critical appraisal of the game, since this is the primary area of innovation, since there is nothing particularly original in other areas such as graphics or narrative. It also rests upon the idea that escort missions in games are usually singularly frustrating experiences, as evinced in critical reactions to games like Shadwen where inconsistent AI makes the experience rather frustrating. This can be largely overcome through good characterisation and storytelling such as in the recently released A Plague Tale Innocence, but Brothers overcame those issues by allowing the boys to have agency by having the player simultaneously control both. It does feel awkward at first, much like playing a musical instrument for the first time having to co-ordinate both hands, yet practise makes perfect, and the game doesn’t push the players reflexes to hard, instead creating its difficulty through the environmental puzzles you face. The tutorial has you carrying your father on his cart with one brother pushing and one pulling it to reach the Doctor’s. The game offers a few prompts for contextual interactions here, but quickly shifts to allowing the characters to prompt themselves when there is something to interact with, by shifting their animations and having them respond to elements of their environment. After reaching a lift the boys realise they need to work together to get to the lift controls. Big brother boosts little brother up a cliff face and he in turn can drop a rope down for his brother to climb up so that together they can turn the winch to raise up their Dad on the cart. These sorts of character skill based puzzles are well established in gaming, most notably in games like the Trine series, where character skill sets and shifting between them play an important role in overcoming obstacles.

A pastoral haven

Throughout this sequence and the beginning of the first act we see quite clearly the differences in the two brothers’ characters. Their animations the way they respond to the environment and the contextual clues give away little details about them. There isn’t much to subvert notions here, Big Brother is the more responsible of the two, the one driving them forward and acting as support, whereas little Brother is inclined to scamper off and play, performing both good and bad natured tricks, such as splashing a bucket over the sleeping Bridge guard to wake him up before Big Brother apologises and asks him to lower it so they can cross, or in side interactions such as Little Brother balancing a broom in his hand whilst Big Brother uses it to sweep away some dirt. This shift of responsibility and light heartedness shapes the two’s interactions, and it’s clear the Older Brother is far more aware of the gravity of their circumstance than Little Bro. Their co-dependency is also established at this stage. Whilst navigating the town, Little Brother can slip through fences whilst Big Brother can carry him over the water since Little Brother has not yet learnt to swim. These early scenes quickly establish them as individuals whilst allowing the player to see them interacting harmoniously to overcome the minor obstacles they face. Much of the early humour and engagement comes from Little Brother, acting much as the comic relief, whether he’s gob spitting into wells or laughing maliciously at his Bully who tormented him earlier. These interactions entice the player into checking what will happen in each location, testing to see what amusing event will follow with each brother when they interact.

This shift of responsibility and light heartedness shapes the two’s interactions, and it’s clear the Older Brother is far more aware of the gravity of their circumstance

However it does create some narrative dissonance, though coherency is well sacrificed at this point. Because the start of the game is so serious in tone, the shift to light hearted exploration here seems out of place, yet it creates a suitable slow-paced environment to allow the player to become comfortable with the controls as well as encourage them to explore interactions not only because it reveals more of the boys characters (important to a non-text narrative) and familiarises the player with the abnormal control. This bears fruit as well since the game does repeat various puzzles and interactions making them slightly different each time, encouraging the player to constantly test the limits of the controls. This is most apparent with the wall climbing puzzles in the early game. With the first wall allowing you to move straight up and the second one encouraging not only vertical movement but diagonal as well. This however brings into the questions of the environment against which the boys (and the player) test their ingenuity.

Mountain vistas

The environments themselves are based upon a medieval European environment, and in particular a mountainous one. The inspiration for this becomes clear when one is aware that the studio is of course Swedish and are drawing from the Alpine environment they call home. From the high crags and cliffs the boys scale to mining operations and castles it is a testament to the love of their home. Possibly much of the verisimilitude felt when playing the game comes from the authenticity of the design itself since it draws upon the real world inspiration of the artists. The villages are less authentic and slightly more generic medieval however it lends credence to the choice of the fantasy setting. This is only briefly apparent at the beginning when the mother’s ghost is seen but quickly becomes apparent as the two young boys encounter a troll. The hesitant approach and fear of the player upon encountering it is of course deeply rooted in European folklore and the game takes a rare chance at subverting this expectation by soon indicating that he is a friendly albeit sad troll. Later on in the narrative there are more severe consequences of this that ties into the young boys own narrative.

This encounter though does prompt a shift in the games tone. Where the village life depicted so far has been simplistic and innocent, painted with bold sunlight, and muted pastel browns that seem to reflect similar colours to those chosen by Swedish artists like John Bauer. The game begins to shift, to a rather more sombre tone and palette of dull greys, later on colours will again add emotional value and weight such as red rivers of blood during one particularly harrowing scene that portrays the culmination of a battle.

Asssistance arrive from an unexpected quarter
Look at them, mother Troll said. Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon, 1915, watercolor by John Bauer (wikimedia)

It’s these elements that add to the games figurative storytelling, the building up of the environments and world showcase the transition of the two boys from innocence and naiveté in the beginning, with the pastoral scenes to experience as they encounter the horrors of the environments they venture through. As such the game is as much a coming of age story as it is about the boys’ relationship, and how it is impacted over time. The constant dependency of each boy upon the other becomes integral to this, and particularly in the case of the younger brother as his light-hearted approach in earlier scenes becomes juxtaposed with the greater responsibility he bears in later scenes after his older brother is injured.

The environments also become more hazardous as you progress; the mine sequence which occurs directly after the Village quickly showcases dangerous environments with platforming segments that could lead to the boys plummeting to their deaths.  Again the safety of the beginning area representative of their sheltered innocence is challenged just as the player begins to find controlling the two to be more onerous. The ambidexterity required to control both boys whilst avoiding a sequence of falling rocks or clinging to chains above a yawning chasm requires more intense concentration than one would think. These new environmental dangers only increase as the game continues and the player becomes more familiar with controlling both boys.

the environments and world showcase the transition of the two boys from innocence and naiveté

After the mines and a brush with death, the two boys are confronted by a graveyard, it’s a potent reminder of the stakes at play, and this is followed by a reminder of their own mortality through a near drowning experience which leads to one of the most important scenes of the game. As the unconscious younger brother enters a dream state, and confronts the harshness of his situation and fears in his dream. The symbolic weight of this scene is arguably overdone with his mother looming largely across the scene and her hand covering his father. This stands in immense juxtaposition against his normal cheerful nature when playing and hints at the fact that he is aware of his circumstances. It also marks a position roughly half-way through the game, serving to introduce the more serious second half.

A brief moment of rest

This sequence is literally followed by a dark night, (navigating it with only a torch despite the howling of wolves around them that will devour them if they aren’t within the lights circumferences (a mechanic that the more recent A Plague Tale: Innocence uses but with rats) before shifting to a larger mythical setting. The grandiose expansion conveys the young boys’ broader confrontation with the world and hints at their expanding horizons as they advance. This is mirrored for the player visually by allowing the camera to draw back further and see the vast mountain landscape that unfolds before your visions. It’s another abrupt shift from the simplicity of the village and enclosed caverns of the mines.

Yet the game is not without moments of levity. The goat riding sequence through the mountains and the enhanced folk music that rises to a crescendo during this sequence complements the young boys’ cries of excitement and joy and is swiftly followed by another transportation sequence by glider, where they boys control its direction by shifting their weight back and forth across the bars. But again these moments are brief and quickly transition back to the two youth’s confrontation with mortality. This time by entering one of the most visceral and disturbing environments of the game.

The Giant’s Valley depicts the aftermath of war. And whilst the two boys have had violent confrontations before, such as with the ogre in the mines, there is no actual violence in this scene, only the depictions of the aftermath of violence. Manipulating and moving across the corpses, including dismembering them bring a totally different level of shock value than outright violence. The boys’ characters of course have already shown that they do understand death and mourn the loss of life, whether it’s their mother, the churchyard visitation just before the night sequence or the ability to mourn their griffin friend after his assistance that results in his death through exertion. So having them mutilate corpses to advance as well as accompanying animations that shows their surprise and dismay help assist this scene. It continues with the establishment of their characters due to their capacity to both witness and commit violence when necessary to achieve their ultimate goal which is of course to save their father. The morality here is not explored in any deep measure, taking a backseat to the player’s emotional reaction to such scenes rather it’s one of those moments where players are able to decide for themselves the morality and ethics of what they are doing. The mutability of interpretations in such scenarios is of course amongst the greatest strengths of the medium.

The aftermath

However the mythical underpinnings are still there, with the next segment featuring tribal goblinoids engaging in a sacrifice, incredibly reminiscent of Andromeda. Disguising themselves in blood the two boys rescue “Andromeda” and escape with her to safety. And subsequently an encounter with the abominable snowman and what appears to be a burgeoning romance that interferes with the relationship between the two brothers.

The old saying of two’s company and three’s a crowd becomes quickly apparent. The outsider becomes a disruptive force between the previous harmonious unity between the two. And ultimately her reveal as a spider, the weaver of webs of manipulation leads to the demise of the family unit. The quick breakaway at the culmination of this climactic fight to focus on the father however ‘weaves’ back the concept of family connection as he senses his sons injury. The emphasis here is laid upon the concept of the integrity of the family unit and its destruction at the face of malevolent external forces. That this injury comes so close the final conclusion and success of the quest underpins the tragedy of the tale as they do finally reach the tree, the ancient symbol of life.

Yet as you finish off the journey the final signifier comes into play. It is not visual, or auditory but rather the controls themselves. For now with only one Brother too move… the second control still allows him to proceed. The controls themselves signify the lingering ghost of his brothers abilities now invested in him. Facing the original tutorial puzzles one went through in the beginning are a sharp reminder of loss as you complete them solo.

Much like many of the tales of the past, that focus on quests and their failure, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is unafraid to establish the tragedy of the human condition, in hindsight the game seems Quixotic and yet during the playthrough the hope and determination of the two boys seems as grand as any chivalric tale. As the tale moves into its diminuendo, the flashback of the younger brothers memory of his father and his love for him creates a stirring moment of quiet empathy before the game has you complete the tale by burying his brother. These acts of veneration, both with the small Griffin and now with your own brother are what ground the player deeply into the world.

These relationship links are deeply tied into various conceptions of brotherly love and friendship. Plutarch describes Brotherly love as “natural” in his essay De fraterno Amore a smaller section of his Moralia. In it he states that “Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other”.–Chapter 15 This is clearly a large influence behind the mechanics of the game which has the young boys mutually helping. This is all the more poignant in the final moment where the younger brother begins to perform the acts his older brother once did. The game took great care to establish the Brothers different skills in the early game, only to subvert this at the end, allowing the younger Brother to swim and pull levers on his own. It is at once uplifting to see him become so capable, something other stories often celebrate in their protagonists but here it feels like a loss. Not only is the control partially simplified and diminished by the loss of one character to control but also a testament to what his brother had taught him.

The brothers death is not just a narrative act but the death of your own investment in controlling him. Characters in games may simply be objects, at the whim of the players own agency yet withing the narrative and the world they become invested with autonomy that makes gaming as a medium so compelling.

Questions for review

  1. What interactions allowed you to develop a feeling of intimacy with the characters through the controls?
  2. How are the characters animated to allow you to quickly identify with them, based on characteristics and expectations from the real world.
  3. What is the importance of establishing mythical elements in fairytales and how does this cultural framework of symbolism add to effective and clear storytelling.

This article is produced in collaboration with BacklogCrusader and their Community Collab: Video Game Literary Classics 101

SOMA (PC)

SOMA takes a horrifying precedent and blends it with an extremely plausible future, to delve deeply into musings on what it means to be alive. This isn’t the eldritch Lovecraftian horror that Frictional Games are famous for, though those elements are clear in its visual design, rather SOMA is horrifying because it is so intimate, a revelation of our own identities.

SOMA starts of as a normal day, grounding itself in daily routines and the comfort of the familiar. Before quickly juxtaposing this with the new horror that the protagonist, Simon finds himself in. The game makes fairly large leaps at times, sometimes bewilderingly so, leaving the characters emotional reactions to disappear into an Atlantic trench. For a story that relies deeply upon its characters reflections on their nature and circumstances, these visceral reactions are too often delayed. Simon’s moments of epiphany, which occur three times throughout the game, allowing you the player to follow the story, often occur long after the events have resolved. Whether this is because Simon is not the brightest person, or that some malfunction from his brain damage causes a delay is not clear. In these moments when he does realise his state, and actually contemplates the horror of his situation, his response is to quickly pursue his tasks with renewed vigor. At times Simon’s disengagement from his predicament left me feeling estranged from him in turn, though his later grasping at the tenuous hope that Catherine offers is believable, and the ending a natural consequence of his nebulous emotions. His frail grasp on his newfound reality makes his ultimate fate(s) tragic yet clear when viewed in the wake of Catherine’s insights. It isn’t a satisfying ending yet it is the most plausible one. The writers deliberately left such things ambiguous, which sadly doesn’t make for a compelling character study though it does leave players with the ability to decide some of the issues themselves.

Sadly, this does also extend to the other characters you encounter who are divested of essential things that make them human, they lack the emotional responses so necessary to elucidate the horror of the situation they find themselves in. Instead, there is a calm, resigned acceptance of their fate, which makes sense for a few but not for all the individuals you encounter.

Only the monsters ‘seem’ to acknowledge the horrifying position they are in, their thoughts delivered in muttered and distorted speech, with their rationality as decayed as their appearance. Which leaves one with an interesting question: if they are insane, can they be truly terrified?

“The privilege of being makes a strong case.” ~Catherine, in game dialogue

At approximately 10-12 hours of play, SOMA doesn’t have much time to work with. Since most of that is spent creeping as stealthily as one can about the environments. The pacing is slow, and with most of the story delivered through objects, diaries, and terminals scattered about the Pathos-II hubs it unfolds in dribs and drabs. This also means that those playing purely for horror and scares won’t find much to appeal. The horror is only apparent once one has truly explored the world, something the game actively hinders when attempting to escape from monsters that disrupt your search.

Hiding and avoiding monsters is the primary aspect of play. It’s something established in previous games by Frictional, such as the Amnesia series. Addressing the issue of exploration which is so essential to SOMA, a non-death mode was introduced, allowing you to explore freely, its implementation was widely debated, yet it did solve much of the issues around exploration and story.

Lurking in the depths are mankinds vast creations

Exploration is done via the first person perspective, which limits your awareness of surroundings that a 3rd person would have created. It works brilliantly, not only do you feel embodied when playing from this perspective which of course is important to the ontological themes of the game itself, but also allows the game to blur your vision at times, dependant on the stress that Simon himself is experiencing. The perspective is also in a way disorienting, keeping you guessing about Simon’s state. It’s not that other games haven’t used this perspective for good effect before but here the developer’s choice is clear and impactful upon the story itself, leading up to an awareness of yourself that is of pivotal importance in two particular scenes.

If we could rebuild even a small part of ourselves, why wouldn’t we do that?” ~in game dialogue

The monsters, robotic or humanoid you are avoiding have various ways to navigate past and learning their behaviour is essential to successfully avoid them. Whether looking at them directly or stealthily creeping, or simply running as fast as you can to get away, slamming doors behind you to slow their pursuit. They aren’t particularly frightening or at least aren’t as frightening as you think, but when analysing the game’s story their existence is terrifying. It’s telling that the game eventually asks what the monster might be, whether it’s you (and your decisions in the game), the WAU or the beings themselves. The vague shadowy monsters often distorted your view as they near, or the monstrous ambiguity present in your decisions are what build a cerebral tension, rather than a release of epinephrine. In this, the game plays to its existential themes.

Organic fusions with technology lead to bizarre conglomerates

The environment which switches between the Atlantic seabed and the constructed environments of Pathos-II itself create variable stages of calm natural surroundings and the intensity of a decaying industrial complex. Pathos-II is aptly named for the tragedy that plays out within it’s hallways. It’s clear the complex was a height of international, scientific co-operation. From the English and simplified Chinese that dot the terminals and hallways, to the broad cast of characters of multiple nationalities that once inhabited it, to the hope embodied by Katherine and her calm discussions driving you forward. Yet even with this aid, that gives your movement forward impetus, the environments are linear. There is little leeway for exploration other than to find the pieces of story. Only when one is about to encounter a monster does the game shift to a labyrinthine pattern enabling one to dodge around and use obstacles to separate oneself from the figures that chase you, quickly changing these segments into games of hide and seek. They do create moments of needed tension, desperately dashing about rooms to uncover as much as possible. But the game is always ready to assure you that you are no Daedalus, and Icarus may just be a vain delusion.

Catherine offers a moment of reflection and a new challenge

The controls are immensely responsive, and focus purely on movement and observation. Stealth, and running are the two variations on your walking pace, and, as is standard for first person perspective, the mouse controls the direction you look. Whilst the mouse buttons offer contextualised interactions for solving the various short puzzles that you will encounter. These puzzles are fairly easy to solve, and are varied enough to increase engagement. They didn’t require too intense observation leaving you free to solve them, without a great deal of exploration.

The sound design is superb and is heavily contextualised. Walking across varied surfaces, will produce different tones, and even walking slower will lower the sound of your footsteps. Venturing out into the water, leads to sounds being distorted by the water, only returning to normal once you are back in the relative safety of the Pathos-II interiors. Pathos-II itself creaks and groans, the stress of metal reverberating through the speakers, as the pressure of water creates strange new stresses. These clues of your surrounding are alleviated by the comforting sounds of human voices, digitally preserved in various recordings, the emotions lending an analogue feel to the otherwise inhumane situation, and of course Catherine and Simon themselves, Simon’s fluctuating emotions traced with the stress of his situation against Catherine’s non-inflected, rational tones, that emulate her humanity. They are wonderful performances.

SOMA is an ambitious project. With its blend of philosophy and exploration tinged with horror it executes perfectly on its themes. The emotions it evokes both in its characters and in the player are well balanced. Moving from visions of the past with Amnesia, to a dystopian future lent much needed weight to the story, and expanded on the concept of what a post-humanist position might entail. SOMA is exceptional. It is certainly not to the taste of all, but if you are looking for an excellent interpretation of science fiction themes, and solutions for the future that lets you decide for yourself what the negative and positive consequences may be, you will be in good company with SOMA.

~8/10~ Cerebral Transcendence

Pros

Wonderful level design that shifts as needed

Atmospheric sound design

An intelligent narrative with thought-provoking moments

Cons

Narrative shifts are extremely abrupt with little build up

The horror is not outright scary (subtlety may be a pro for some)

Publisher: Frictional Games

Developer: Frictional Games

Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One

ESRB: M / PEGI: 16

Available from: Steam, GoG.com, Microsoft Store, Playstation Store, Humble Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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