The Lion’s Song and Symbolism: In Search of Inspiration

Art is often synonymous with creativity, and is seen as the emergence of something new out of nothing. The discourse that centres around inspiration explains it as though it were derived from some internal wellspring. Yet this is not entirely true, art is more often the consequence of drawing from and interpreting ones surroundings, uniqueness comes from the idiosyncratic viewpoint of the artist and the way they weave their observations and experiences into the pieces they create.

Art dallies with interpreting itself, from novels such as Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy to  Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World however the abstract and deeply psychological process that is an artist’s inspiration and their concerns with their arts reception is incredibly hard to conceptualise in any concrete form. Where metaphors and symbolism can often work to convey deeper truths in a condensed form, there are times when the ideas being portrayed are too self-referential to hold any meaning. It’s at this point that any attempt to explore concepts like imagination tend to break down, unless they are in the hands of a skilled individual.

Romantic Inspirations

Mi’pu’mi have tackled precisely this issue in their debut game The Lion’s Song. At a surface level it’s a point n click adventure delivered in an episodic style that was popularised by Telltale Games. The first episode of “The Lion’s Song” is free on both Steam and itch.io and concerns itself with Wilma’s attempt to compose a new piece for an upcoming concert. Struggling with artists block, she retreats to the Alps to compose amidst the “Silence” of the mountains and allow the music within her mind to emerge once again, despite her personal troubles and tensions that distract her from her work. It’s at this point that The Lion’s Song takes the formulaic methods of a point n click game and transforms them. There’s nothing mechanically new that the game is doing, you search, hover and point with the mouse, interacting with the background to reveal new information. If anything The Lion’s Song is actually reductive in its mechanics. There’s no menu to combine items, you can’t pick things up and make them interact with others. Instead where The Lion’s Song manages its interactivity, is within the symbolic function of the things you interact with. Where most games focus purely on the physical aspects of their world, Lion Song’s focus on the metaphorical and psychological focus leads you to pursuing the issues of the mind.

Waiting for inspiration or merely procrastination…

The very first quest with Wilma Doerfl, is simply to block out annoyances, and pursue aspects of the environment that she can weave into her music. The Alpine setting lends itself to a consideration of Wilma’s music as essentially romantic, however as much as she can listen to the sounds of wind, rain and thunder, Wilma is not a romantic, despite the game hinting at her work being contemporaneous with luminaries of the movement such as Mahler. The romantic movement ended roughly at the start of the 20th century with a few composers drifting into the 20th (some notable Russians composed quite late) but Wilma represents the shift to modern music. Simply using the symbolism of nature to compose her music will not be enough. And this is where the games writing begins to emerge, creating its own harmonies between player, character, mechanics, imagery and symbolism. The skill the player is asked to engage with here is in fact empathy, understanding and listening. Not listening as an auditory skill, but listening to the imagery of the game, Wilma’s unfolding narrative, through her own reflections on her circumstances, the letters she uncovers and the dialogue she engages in. If you want to compose a song for the ages, you actually need to understand a poem:

“A portrait drawn in different style,
a push through sleep, just for a while,
the sound of rain does make you smile.

Behind those bars, trapped with a hiss,
a call, so strange, yet full of bliss,
you might regret a second miss.

My latest piece, in one fair letter,
while clouds rush on a change of weather,
transform its state and make it better.

Worth your while, if you don’t mind,
these tiny things, so hard to find?
Now back to play, please be so kind!”

The hints here in fact allude not only to what elements of nature Wilma draws expression from and so links her music back to the movement and expressive style of art she would have grown up with, but also how she is pushing the movement forward. Searching for new expressions and inspiration, that are drawn not only from her own emotions but also interactions with others and how this manages to clarify her own ideas. It’s during her discussions with a stranger and through her dreams that Wilma comes to terms with her unequal relationship with her mentor and is able to fully distill the elements of nature and her emotions to selectively include them in her work.

This exploration of people and their dimensions is a natural follow through in the second part that looks at a young artist Franz Markert. He is introduced at a high level of Viennese society despite not being particularly wealthy. Our first encounter and introduction to him, is as he is on his way to unveil his new art at a private gathering held by Gustav Klimt. And here the game introduces one new mechanic to differentiate the new episode. Franz is able to see people’s layers. These emerge from people as you approach them in the game world, and if you engage in tete-a-tete with them in private, the layers shift depending on what that person seeks to portray of themselves. It’s a visual representation of the concepts of id, ego and superego, that had been codified by Freud in his 1923 paper The Ego and the Id. Of course, the fantastical element here is that Franz is capable of seeing all these things, whereas the player is not. In terms of perception these are characteristics that they highly empathic and sensitive Markert would be able to sense. For the player, we are given visual clues as to what aspect of the character is being evoked, represented by the ghosts that are superimposed over the actual character. To elicit these ghosts during the portrait painting sequences… you ask questions.

Self-portrait

Questions and dialogue are what expose our psyche to psychoanalysis. Something Franz actually undergoes underneath Freud himself. Markert’s neurosis, is what drives him there, and its from Freud that he engages in dialogue to begin his self-portrait. This is the central piece of Markert’s tale, the uncovering of his own layers of identity, by asking questions of himself and the player responding to the questions, in a form of self-dialogue. Markert’s revelation of his own identity is dependent on how much attention the player has actually paid to his identity, as revealed in his reactions and relationships to others. Here the role of the traditional psychoanalyst is transferred between player and Markert, with the player as analyst acting to supply the answers in a process known as countertransference, which attacks the patient’s pathological defenses in order for him to gain insight. If the player is giving the wrong information to Markert, he is unable to gain insight into himself.

The therapy begins

There’s nothing new mechanically to this approach. Dialogues with varied options is a stable in multiple genres, what is new is the context of the dialogue. That it is framed and styled as a therapy session, and that the focus is not to garner information regarding a plot, or to force a romance subplot -in the horrendous nightmare of relationship manipulations that are Bioware games- but as a means to discover someone’s psychological state.

Yet how is the player to gain such insight? Here the normal exploration mechanics of the point n click genre come to the fore. Information can be gleaned from environments, and from dialogue. What is unique here is again, not how you gather said psychological insight but how the game presents it. All the characters in The Lion’s Song are interconnected, in that serendipitous way that only exists in stories. Exploration here is not simply moving through screens and clicking on everything insight, but moving through the various plots of the story itself.

Thwarted by ones own intentions

Exploration in video games is one of the principal areas identified by Bartle in his 1996 essay, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs. Which although focused on a specific genre of game, swiftly became used in other genres as well. Exploration as he defined it was about exploring the topography of the game, which is the common factor that most games design for by creating expansive open worlds and sandboxes, but Bartle also identified that exploration consisted of exploring the physics of a world as well in order to fascinate and satisfy a sense of awe and wonder at the virtual world. The Lion’s Song plays upon this but of course its concern is not a physical dimension of its world, which is largely limited to a singular map of Vienna with limited locations, but rather the psychological depth of its characters. The game actively encourages you to explore their minds, and allows the player to replay each chapter by making them accessible. The connections between characters that give insight into individuals are even highlighted in a gallery that is extrinsic to the story, making players aware of who and what social connections they still need to uncover.

Image originally available at gameanalytics.com

But this is not before the game attempts to explore one new dimension. Appropriately it does attempt to innovate in its third chapter on change, which features Emma Recniczek. A rather unconventional woman who attempts to pursue a career in mathematics only to be prevented by societal norms. Her tale is a common one, wherein she engages in crossdressing shenanigans in order to be accepted into an all-male mathematics club, and the difficulties this leads her into in maintaining her disguise. It’s the sort of humorous nonsense, to occur on Twelfth Nights and played for effect in the theatres of Elizabethan London, though here it is handled fairly seriously.

Restless Sleep

This third episode does mark a number of changes. Firstly, the previous chapters had focused on a more historical approach which complemented the stylised pixel graphics and choice of a heavily muted colour palette. The previous chapters also focused quite exclusively on the internal state of the characters rather than external states or society, when other people were concerned, the focus was on their direct relationship to the other characters. Emma (or Emil’s chapter) focus on more modern concerns of progressivism. The game, in a rather clever pun attempts to declare Emma non-binary, and there’s a very subtle homosexual relationship alluded to. Emma’s nonbinary status as a result of her crossdressing seems to simply be there to score points, rather than as a truly considered inclusion of her character. Emma is by no means non-binary, nor did such a concept exist for people to identify with, the closest would be the hermaphrodite, but the game steers away from any allusions to Tiresias. Emma is only crossdressing as a means to an end rather than as an expression of identity. This pragmatic context has very little to do with the modern concern with gender expression which is not pragmatic at all. However, the homosexual incidence is handled far better.  Though it is discreet, which is largely appropriate for the time since it was considered illegal, the signs are there for an attentive player to note one characters blossoming attraction and eventual dismay when his love is thwarted. The game handles this all sensitively that actually makes it far more sympathetic, than if it had been trumpeted. There’s more akin to the portrayal of gay characters in an Iris Murdoch novel, than in modern inclusive writing.

Rebuffed

The shift to a larger social concern is also accompanied by an attempt to innovate with mechanics. In Emily’s story, her mathematical revelations can be realised visually, just as Franz’s ghosts were marked in the second chapter. For Emily her work on change is represented visually to the player as graphs that can be interacted with. By selecting the appropriate point on the graph or selecting a range on the axes, the game allows you to interact with Emily’s ideas. Her ruminations indicate you were to point and then it’s a short and easy puzzle to figure it out. However unlike the other characters Emily does not allow you to make a mistake with her ideas. Where you could create a poor or great composition for Wilma, or allow Franz to identify or not, with Emily there is no room for failure. Whatever the outcome of your interactions the correct maths is forced onto the player. This leaves little room for conflict in Emily’s tale except for the social conflict she finds herself in.

In search of states

For her story then it is not so much about her ideas as it is about how they are received socially. With Emily you need to convince a review board that her mathematical proof is sufficient. The pay off is that this is done before a university class in perhaps the largest scene of the game. This scene plays out in a similar fashion to a Phoenix Wright court case. Objections may not be shouted dramatically, but the game utilises the same array of postures for its principal actors, the susurrus of a captivated audience and the player to interact with dialogue back and forth in an attempt to prove your proof! Though the scene is cathartic if you do manage to triumph, compared to the stillness and introspectiveness of previous aspects of the game, it stands out as breaking the overall tone. For many though the emotional impact of the scene may override the more contemplative aspects, yet like the fourth chapter it marks a substantial point that shows the games direction has indeed changed, just as history was about to change.

On the Way to War

The fourth chapter solidifies the game further. Not only is it the primary chapter that acts to link all the preceding three, it serves as a point to anchor the game in its broader socio-political context. but at the expense of losing focus on a central character. The third chapter had hinted at events in Serbia, and Bosnia and the effect that this was having upon some of the Austrian citizens. In addition, Emily’s disguise is as a German, due to the extremely close cultural ties between the Austrian and German nations. Yet it is only in this the final chapter that the realities of the onset of World War I become apparent. Whilst they hurtle towards a battlefield the four characters talk briefly about events (events that the previous three characters featured in) and it settles into an exploration of a brief cultural high note that was lost with the onset of war.

It’s a somewhat sobering ending to a game that if played well truly celebrates the pinnacle of human creativity and endeavours, but it is not a disheartening one. The game actively encourages you to replay the segments to improve and acquire beneficial endings for all the characters. The insights you gain in the final chapter into each person are critical to understanding them, and definitely encourages a replay to further explore the characters minds. In this the game is slightly weak as it certainly favours players who do like to explore, but then the point n click genre doesn’t tend to lend itself well to replays anyway, so if anything, The Lion’s Song offers more than the average game in the genre.

Despite note being unique on a mechanical front, The Lion’s Song’s true brilliance resides in how it present familiar mechanics within new contexts, and how that shift manages to fundamentally shift the way a player engages with the game. Whilst it doesn’t offer Dostoyevskian insight, it certainly presents new ways with how to represent characters minds and internal states, and how this leads to their creativity and imagination. It marks a shift in games towards stories that can effectively utilise symbolism and metaphor mechanically in order to convey more information to the player. In this its achievements are similar to Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and it is well worth a play through, particularly since the first episode is free.

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.

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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Oxenfree (PC)

Oxenfree defies genres at the same time as it weaves the American obsession with high school culture into a horrific tale that is more about the loss of freedom at a time of life when young people look towards expressing new found liberties.


A young group of teens decide to spend a night on a nearby island, however rebelliously innocent this may at first appear, all is not well beneath the surface as tensions arise from the various traumas that each character bears. Grief is very much poignant in their relations and sours a number of friendships. As they explore the island and are thrown into a supernatural occurrence these dramas unfold, as each character is exposed to the stress of the situation.

Oxenfree is not only a horror game but also fits into the genre of character drama. By isolating the characters and placing them in a situation where they face an existential crisis, is a staple of literature and film, and is used to good effect here as well. 

The tensions between the characters are revealed early on in the game, however the reasons for this are only slowly revealed through the course of the game. The narrative is thus forced to carry two stories, one for the present events on the island, and another that reveals a past tragedy that shapes the present. It’s a heavy burden to bear and the game suffers as it slows the pace down heavily, which may make some players bored as a consequence. The game demands investment of your time, and though it is rewarding you will need to slog through the game to get there.

This slowness is ameliorated somewhat by the brilliant characterization. From the superb voice acting to the dialogue trees that form in response, the game deftly shapes each person through their speech. Little idiosyncrasies in the diction come to the foreground to differentiate each character and the writers have mastered the delivery of emotions through the responses. The tension, relief and fear of each character is effectively realised.

Most interesting was the primary mechanic of the speech process. You have usually 3 responses, and although it’s fairly obvious which ones would portray Alex as more sympathetic to others, or which would have her more individually focused the third also gives her a sense of humour. It’s tempting to think if you answer only a certain way you’d create a specific ending, but this isn’t entirely true as the consequences of choices (the player as) Alex makes also determine the outcomes. Add in various linguistic issues such as being able to interrupt others while speaking by making a quick dialogue choice, or just not replying at all and the speech system here is one of the most robust I’ve ever encountered in a game. It makes for excellent roleplaying of Alex, as you shape her character towards compassion for her current acquaintances or whether she is torn and guilt ridden over her past. 

The game itself will have you travelling around the island in an attempt to escape, and in order to make this more interesting the game offers small collectibles in the form of special radio frequencies and letters to discover. These illuminate more of the backstory of the island and the reason for the encounter with the supernatural and in addition to having specific information for in the game itself, they also include hidden messages such as morse code in some of the audio for the player to crack the code of. The game then slowly bleeds these messages out into the real world, referencing actual telephone numbers that make it more real for the player as well.

As mentioned most of the game will be responding to dialogue and this is fairly easy to do as it works off the mouse. The environments themselves are actually 2.5D and can be moved around using the keyboard. In addition Alex uses her radio to solve various puzzles by tuning into different frequencies when she pulls out her radio and dials it with the mouse. Finding out the correct frequency to progress, is the primary puzzle mechanic and with a stronger radio later in the game, Alex will even be able to open doors not just react to the supernatural.

A map is available to use to help you navigate around the island, and Alex will scrawl objective notes on it to help the player recall where they are meant to go. Despite how small the areas look trekking across them will take quite a bit of time, because walking and even jogging is quite slow. This is partially because dialogues will occur as you walk so the speed is artificially slowed to allow the dialogue to play out largely in full. Add in sections that will trap you in extra-dimensional spaces and memories of the past and you’ll be slowed even further. Whilst these “occurrences” or “happenings” do move the overall story forward they feel more like interruptions (which metaphysically they are). It can become frustrating but if they were not there the game would most certainly lose the element of suspense that these intrusions create.

The suspense and horror elements are subdued. Most of this is born out by the fact that the colour palette is largely composed of pastel tones, and only occasionally will move to the harsh reds and blacks that define the contrasts of worlds during a supernatural invasion. The scenes are also soft, almost appearing to be made of a velvet texture with blurred outlines, it’s actually incredibly beautiful, though somewhat stylistic.

The game often zooms out when moving drawing back to give you a larger sense of the location, however in times of stress or when moving indoors the camera zooms in to better show the characters, although when playing at high resolutions they can still seem quite small.

Audio is where the game excels, from the small ambient sounds to the orchestral pieces that build up slowly adding to the tension, and the arbitrary crackle of the radio’s white sound interspersed with old jazz and country rock. A large part of Oxenfree’s aesthetic relies on the sound. Additional elements such as the morse code mentioned before, that cries for release and a radio and tape deck puzzles all add to the games central element revolving around the radio device that Alex used to unveil the horrors of time and entrapment.

Oxenfree is a very special game. Despite it’s incredibly slow pacing it is a masterwork of character interaction and dialogue and cleverly espouses its themes of concealment, entrapment and the desire to be set free and escape, and return to friendship just as the old phrase “All ye, all ye oxen free” would amicably end a childhood game,

Score: 8/10 ~Slowly suspenseful~

Publisher: Night School Studio

Developer: Night School Studio

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

ESRB: T / PEGI: 12

Available from: Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle, EPIC Store, GoG.com, Google Play

The banner image is copyright of Night School Studio and used under a Fair Use Policy

Dark Souls (PC)

Dark Souls was originally released in 2012 to widespread critical acclaim. The spiritual successor to the lesser renowned Demon’s Souls, it carried through many motifs and ideas that Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software had initially established. Now nearly 7 years after its original release it is one of the high points of gaming both as entertainment and art.

With widespread discussion of its lore (including an excellent series by VaatiVidya) and with a plethora of games that have followed in its footsteps in terms of mechanics and design, it has become one of the games that many others are held to in terms of standards.
To approach a game that has established so widespread a legacy in so short a time is somewhat daunting but not quite as daunting as approaching the unassuming white mist that bars the way to a boss fight.

Pros
  • Integrated area design
  • Satisfying progression system
  • Complex yet intuitive combat
    Cons
  • Frequent camera clipping
  • Still quite a few glitches (suggested to use dsfix)

Dark Souls has a Promethean premise. From its mythical opening moments, that clearly draw inspiration from the Greek myth to a more expansive view that incorporates the Arthurian romances and Christian motifs of the holy grail and sacrifice; the setting, ambience and ambiguous lore is deftly established. The root material and philosophical premise that looks at an understanding of existence and the torment it inflicts on those who are alive expand upon the western literary tradition it draws inspiration from, but juxtaposes this with a more postmodern nihilistic worldview, that challenges and subverts notions of redemption, sacrifice, chivalry and restitution.

Anor Londo and Lordran as places are equivalent to a mythical Camelot or Olympus. Set high upon a mountaintop, inaccessible by ordinary means, the passageway is only opened by the tolling of bells (that ring for birth and death). Once one reaches the heavenly city (heavenly since it exists in the sky) one finds that the gods have already fallen, and existence is tenuously preserved by the rekindling of a flame that symbolizes the age of fire. It’s only by sacrificing the Lords to a lordvessel (similar to the Holy Grail, or Black Cauldron of Cernunnos from which the dead arise) that the age might be preserved. The entirety of civilization and order is dependent on this sacrifice. As the ‘Chosen Undead’ it is your duty to either fulfil the sacred duty of preservation or allow the world to fall into a ‘dark age’.

The ramifications of this are further explored in the concept of Souls. Souls are not only individuals, but also function as currency, by defeating and acquiring the essences of people who have been divested of their own will (those who have fallen into despair). Humanity is considered separately, and it’s in humanity that one is able to realise both the best and worst of what makes the concept of human (to invade or to assist). These metaphysical elements underscore the overall narrative and create a comparison to the darkly physical yet still alluringly beautiful world.

As an RPG with action mechanics Dark Souls is viscerally satisfying. Combat is slow and heavy, even with dexterity builds you will find yourself delaying attacks to seek for the perfect opening. Played out in a 3rd person perspective, navigating and using the environment to the best advantage whilst cautiously enticing enemies into overplaying their hand before you parry, riposte or outmaneuver them for a backstab. Playing strategically is of the utmost benefit in Dark Souls, and will demand your attention; carelessness will quickly result in death.

Characters advance by collecting souls and using those to pay for attribute points. As your ‘soul level’ increases the cost to increase the attributes does so as well in a carefully scaled system. The max attribute benefit is around 45, after which the scaling levels off. As such its best to focus on the starting attributes of your class which are the standard RPG fare, with warriors, clerics, sorcerers and pyromancers (fire of course holding especial significance). Each class is viable (I usually play casters so I have both a pyro and a sorcerer, and a low level warrior) and will require different approaches to areas and enemies. I quickly found my sorcerer excelled at picking off enemies from afar, which meant I could find a good spot and launch volleys of soul arrows, the pyromancer was better at mid-range, with a combined strategy of running in and out and leading the enemy around, whereas the warrior was close range, and much more reliant on dodging and parrying.

In addition to your stats, your equipment is of vital importance. Weapons (and the right choice of weapon) are serious decisions. Various weapons scale with different attributes, e.g. the estoc will scale with intelligence whereas the great axe scales with strength, that mean you will likely choose a weapon that best fits your class. In addition weapons have different move sets, a halberd has a jabbing attack as well as a sweeping attack and great reach whereas a long sword has slashing attacks in different directions and good ability to stagger an opponent. Knowing your weapons attributes and move sets is equally vital to survival. A well leveled weapon can easily determine the difficulty or ease of an encounter.

Other equipment is more situational. Rings provide various benefits such as increased item find as well as increasing your weight limit or making sure you don’t lose your souls and humanity if you do die. I found myself switching armour dependant on needs. Armour also has weight and mobility is dependent on this. Heavy armour will make you dodge more slowly however gives you more poise making you less prone to staggering, whereas lightweight armours will keep you mobile and able to dodge swiftly.

Most enemy encounters take place in a variety of areas, from precarious cliffside paths that will send you plummeting to your doom or expansive hallways and forests. There are a range of locations to explore with unique enemies in each area. As hostile as the environments can be, from poison water to trees and branches impeding your escape, the enemies themselves are the most lethal.
Each enemy has a specific move set and will provide you with tells for their attacks. Working out ways to approach encounters, as well as having a strategy to effectively take down each enemy type is integral to the game. Some enemies may require you to stay at range dashing in for quick attacks whereas other enemies it’s best to stay nearly underfoot, causing them to twist around to attempt to hit you. The enemies are often placed in strategic locations so using the environment to your best advantage is necessary, otherwise you may just find yourself impaled.

As much as the exploration is a driving force behind the game, the other major aspect is the boss fights. Each boss is distinct, from the calm encounter with the moonlight butterfly to the intensity of the final boss, each one will offer a new challenge and new move set to learn. Observing the bosses’ tells is key to avoiding their attacks, allowing you seconds in order to counter or escape. Combat becomes a dialogue, listening to the boss before responding.
In addition you can use summons (NPC or PC) to assist with the bosses however in some instances additional party members can increase the difficulty of the boss, so whether you want a greater challenge or are looking to make it easier, is situational.

Multiplayer aspects are still available, however the player population is fairly low averaging out at 500-1000 players daily with slightly higher numbers in the remastered edition (source:Steamdb). My own observations hovered around the 400 concurrent player mark. It’s possible to find matches and duels but is not always consistent. On the plus side if you’re a PvE player you’ll have less worries about invasions and being ganked. PvP enthusiasts however will be disappointed.

The graphics are beginning to show their age even when using the dsfix mod. There was some camera clipping and I did see a frame rate drop in Sen’s Fortress (the game also crashed a few times there), but for the most part the game is holding up well. Textures are all still viable and the game worked well in HD widescreen, with no tearing or stretching.
The ambience evoked by the design is superb. Each area is distinct, and whilst they all add thematically to the tone of the game, they also contribute to the mythical elements. From forests and woods, to the soaring parapets and gothic cathedrals the elements combine to clearly showcase the inspirations.
Enemies such as Hollows or beasts are deftly animated, and whilst some are generic others are truly fantastical in their design. In particular the later game enemies that have much of the grotesque about them, that show the decay and corruption that has befallen the world.

The soundtrack is beautifully executed with an orchestral soundtrack that accompanies various moments in the game as well as faster tempo and grander tones during boss battles, with each boss having their own motif.
The environmental sounds are where the game is at it’s greatest, from the chink of armour as your move about to the clash of weapons increasing during a crescendo of attacks, the audio makes the battles and struggle to survive come to life. In addition audio can assists with hinting at enemies locations. Pausing for moments at a blind corner, you might hear the tap of armoured feet, or scuffling of a beasts claws. Running from enemies you can trace the sound of their approach. I played with stereo headphones rather than a surround system and it really was a phenomenal experience.

As much as Dark Souls is a game of skill, there is some leeway within the RPG elements to surpass areas by grinding yourself to a higher level. With some luck and above all persistence Dark Souls will slowly reveal its world. Observation and attention to detail is integral and will allow for greater interpretation of its obscure and ambiguous lore. At its heart Dark Souls doesn’t just explore how the decline of a civilization occurs, it also looks to human intrepidity and exploration as means of salvation.

Score 9/10

Dark Souls is no longer available in the standard edition

Publisher: Bandai Namco, From Software Inc.

Developer: QLOC

Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

ESRB: M+ / PEGI: 16+

Available from:

Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle

The banner image is copyright of From Software Inc. and used under a Fair Use Policy.