2064: Read Only Memories

Here’s an interesting point-and-click investigation game. Ace Attorney isn’t a terrible thing to liken it to, but also stuff like Policenauts, given a couple clunky shooting segments. I liked it: the characters are endearing (the voice acting varies but it’s surprising work for such a small development team), there’s some good music, and the drama–while not totally gut-wrenching or unpredictable–managed to draw me in. But to be clear, this is not a challenge or a puzzle game. You have a path to follow.

There are quite a few funny throwaway lines, but you have to do some digging through the noise to find them. For any inventory object listed in an interaction with someone or something else, there are at minimum two lines of text in response to that interaction. That means that rather than a generic “I can’t use those things together!” when you try to use your ID card on a shrub in the park, they encourage you to use your ID card on that shrub twice–and then to use your carton of milk on the shrub, and then to use the ID card on the bench next to the shrub, and… well, suddenly the game takes twice as long to finish as it would have otherwise. Luckily–and this is something I’d like to see for all games in this genre, Ace Attorney included–if there’s nothing unique written about using an object in a certain situation, it won’t appear in the list when you try. Rather, the problem is that too much is written. It’s anyone’s choice not to participate in all these shrub interactions if they just want to move forward in the game, but I don’t want to miss something, y’know? I think in the end, much of it is a waste of both the writer’s and my own time. Especially the ones that just scold me for trying to use an item on something. You’re the ones who put the button there, man.

Since there are often more than two interactions when looking at or touching some object, it may have been helpful for completionists if buttons became greyed out once a player had cycled back around to the first response again. This is a nitpick, of course, but when you’re talking about UI and experience, a lot comes down to nitpicking. I also would have moved through the game with less frustration if, say, clicks were properly detected in times where my mouse was already over an icon before it appeared. A hold-and-release approach might have been better for this mode of interaction, too; I’ll say without complete certainty that Full Throttle worked like this. You tend to click a lot more in sequence than is honestly necessary. As a final design criticism, a dedicated text skip button would have been great.

I had a pretty annoying save bug where my game wasn’t overwriting an old save reliably, which is a pretty scary thing to get wrong. Once I discovered this problem, I just decided to beat the rest of the game in one stretch so I wouldn’t lose any more progress, but I also noticed that the devs have still been patching this game over a year and half after its initial release. I’m uncertain whether to be pleased that it’s still being given care, or to be disturbed that 2064 still can’t save reliably despite that care.

The futuristic setting is very Shadowrun, which is alright, but it’s that kind of sci-fi that assumes the word “otaku” will be used by more people in fifty years. (I would assume, optimistically, that there will be fewer.) There are parallels with DXMD, given the mistreatment of cyborgs and people with hybrid DNA by conservative groups, but I’m generally more aligned with 2064’s political slant: they reveal who this game is made for right away, when the destitute player character is getting email offers to do freelance writing “for exposure”. And while the game doesn’t really put Silicon Valley directly in its sights any more than DXMD does, there is a small element of dystopia in the world lore when it comes to the pretty scary privatization of public infrastructure. The social politics of gender identity, pro-choice, and so on are less subtle.

It’s probably better not to delve too deeply into the story, but I didn’t have a terribly hard time figuring where I stood with the characters, or otherwise tend to be wrong when going with my gut. For instance, I found it an awfully big coincidence that Fairlight was just put in the same hospital room as the player character by chance, although that hardly gives anyone the whole picture. While distrusting Fairlight was allowed in dialogue, it did feel a bit contrived that I was forced to continue to communicate with him as the story developed anyway. The scenario might’ve better accommodated this demand by making me feel more deeply in need of his help.

I probably liked what was done with Jess the most, although that’s not quite the same as liking her personality. Her help is needed at a few points in the story, but since she’s initially rude to the player, it’s normal to respond in kind, thus making her aid a little more awkward to come by. To me, her rudeness wasn’t so much my problem as her inability to dish it out but not take it, and it was only when she started treating me like a bigot that I actually felt we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. I thought it played out well in the chapters that followed.

There’s a little bit of reactivity in these character choices as well, as some characters decide to lend their support to you, or won’t, in your final objective. Few of these differences seem to affect the outcome beyond a few friends/not friends achievements, but there are some shallow plot forks for bad ends. I only played through once–and won’t likely do so again for a long time while there’s no means of skipping text quickly–but I failed to recruit Starfucker & Oli on the basis of calling for police backup in an earlier chapter, and it seemed apparent from their dialogue that it didn’t distinguish between doing that or just frequently being an asshole in conversation, which I never did. I suspect having their full friendship doesn’t terrifically affect things either.

On the other hand, I discovered some interesting variations in how to progress through a quest at one point when I reloaded a save: I could knock a security guard out with a stun gun, or talk my way past him. There’s still only one story, but you can definitely leave your fingerprints on it. It’s not a bad story, either.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.
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Dropsy

Dropsy was far better than I anticipated. I think it was that it didn’t just go for easy weird-territory, “scary clown” bits or rely overmuch on rando amoral webforum humor; I think Dropsy earns the player’s sympathies very quickly. Probably during the first time he attempts to hug someone and they reject him… there’s this little deflated animation he does. To give this some context, hugging is Dropsy’s only distinct “action verb”, in the classic LucasArts sense, apart from his generic interaction clicks. So right away it’s pretty obvious and cleverly communicated that this sort of thing means a lot to him. He’s got a lot of immediately appealing animations, like little dances and reactions that communicate a very childish joy that’s very different from our shared cultural image of clowns as jaded, depressing old men who are most likely also serial killers. These animations, and the rest of the art, are great.

It’s a charming story, but also a pretty somber one, with some ridiculous developments that had me actually barking out laughter in shock. Though none of the characters have dialogue in audio or in text form, you learn more about the backgrounds and personalities of characters through little pictographic symbols of items, actions, and moods in their speech bubbles. Writing still exists on signs and notes, only written in a Fez or La-Mulanese-like character substitution alphabet, and players can optionally figure those out for a little more lore and understanding (and I did, because I never seem to get tired of those cipher puzzles), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was not really meant to signify a foreign alphabet for once but instead Dropsy’s illiteracy warping the appearances of letters into something familiar, but mostly unrecognizable. I don’t mean to get carried away here, but these things are fun to think about.

The music is fantastic, too–even putting aside the diverse collectible cassette tapes, it’d be a completely different game without the jazz and other funky music playing around the island. There’s a town theme that puts my head in the same kind of place as the intro/outro to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, which is an incredibly pleasing direction to go in, if you ask me. (And I think the instrumentation tends to change depending on the in-game day-night cycle, too.) My only complaint here, which reminds me of a big gripe I had with EO4, is that these tracks get interrupted on you too frequently. Transitions definitely could’ve been handled better–maybe only changing tracks when you used a bed, went indoors, or otherwise switched areas by more significant means, like taking a boat out to the smaller island nearby. We can’t all be Monkey Island 2, but having an occasional buffer map where one track plays out (or fades back in if you choose to double back) would’ve worked wonders. Or just planning the allocations a little more: you spend an average of about two seconds on the hospital exterior, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only screen where this track plays.

The gameplay could use a little polishing. Before I get into that, I think there are some well-conceived puzzles, and a few instances of great hinting, despite the challenge the devs imposed on themselves in not being able to make their hero talk to himself out loud about the various objects he’s holding (or for others to talk, when he’s shoving his things in their faces). A Dropsy hint, for example, is flipping channels on the TV and seeing a chef dropping garlic into a tomato stew. I much prefer seeing that on the TV while I’ve got a stew half-done, and thinking “I better find some garlic,” to seeing the garlic first and thinking “I don’t know what this is for, but my cursor arbitrarily changes when I hover over it, so I damn well better start figuring out how to touch it.”

But I wasn’t a fan of the modularity of the puzzles. The Steam store description extols the “open-endedness” of it but what it’s essentially doing is having a bunch of puzzles that don’t affect your overall progress apart from maybe removing a red herring from your inventory, at best. In Dropsy, most puzzles are sidequests, and each sidequest ends in a hug. If you want the “all the hugs” achievement, you gotta do them, and anyway it’s the game’s content, so you want to, for sure. But you know that feeling in puzzle/adventure games where you’ve been stuck everywhere for a while and you’re running back through the earlier maps trying to find a loose end… and then something clicks for you, and you’ve suddenly made progress, only to find out that your solution didn’t give you a new inventory item or change the world’s state in any way? Maybe because you need to do 3 modular puzzles together before you can advance, like assembling three parts of a disguise before using it? It feels like breaking through a wall only to find a second wall a foot behind it, so you have to go right back to combing through those maps again as if you hadn’t found anything. And that’s virtually every puzzle in Dropsy. You have to stick close to the main questline until you’ve gathered all three pets and have unlocked quick travel, or you’ll be making things really hard on yourself.

I did manage to beat the game without doing any annoying pixel-hunts for objects, which is fabulous, but I wasn’t able to reach 100% on the sidequests that way. Apart from inanimate objects I never considered hugging–I only ever thought to hug people (and some anthropomorphized stuff, like the robots and the tree with the face on it)–I notably missed a collectible statue piece that required pixel-hunting with the dog as the active character (to find it, I googled its location after finishing the game first without it). Normally the animal stuff seems pretty well signposted; little mouse footprints leading up to the crawlspace the mouse can get into, and things of that nature. The dog actually likes to run over and sniff at things that are (or later will be) of significance, which I thought was another cool hint mechanic and was something I paid a lot of attention to, but I never saw it happen for that missing statue piece. Could’ve been either my oversight or the developer’s.

Oh, and one last nitpick: some of the red herrings are quite rude. I spent a while near the endgame hopelessly using a coin on half of all the objects and people I could think of, trying to figure out what it was used for, only to google it and learn that there were four coins hidden and you only needed two (so even with that third, I’d still missed one). Same thing happened again with a second bone item. I like the idea of reducing pixel-hunting by having multiple places where the key item can be found, but it would have been nicer to just make the other two hidden coins and the other bone vanish from the world when I picked up what I needed. Those extras can drive someone crazy when they’re playing blind. At least the hubcap in Day of the Tentacle made itself clear that it was a joke item.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Broken Age

This game’s got some cool puzzles, at least in Act 2, but there were a couple times where my progress came to a halt. The worst was on account of missing the peach item in Act 1 and having to backtrack to the cloud colony for it. Those peaches are off the path, so it feels a bit like being told you missed something you were supposed to pixel-hunt for in one of the frequently obstinate and esoteric classics from LucasArts. (Imagine how much time I spent thinking about that Dead Eye God riddle. It was longer than that.) As far as I know, there’s no other reason you would possibly have to return to the cloud colony other than if you’re missing that item, and no new NPC dialogue if you do return, so it feels like you’re going the wrong way if you try. Maybe they should’ve shoehorned in some need for a peach on the way down. The proper uses of objects are often contrived and silly like that anyway, so it wouldn’t have been a problem if they had.

Act 2 had a couple points where I got stuck, though they didn’t hold me back for nearly as long. One was in guessing the snake pet’s name: “Mister Huggy”. I didn’t remember it from dialogue, and only figured it out through trial and error, when everything other than “Mister” disappeared from my initial list of options. It didn’t help that after each guess, the game automatically sent me back to a room where the name wasn’t written anywhere to look for clues.

It also took me a while to find the wiring diagram hidden in the background of a photo. Once I finally found it, I didn’t think the game had asked too much of my attention to detail, but Shay randomly saying things like “I think this wire’s right” as I messed with combinations encouraged me to waste more time, as did the numerous red, yellow, and blue triangles dotting the walls of the ship, which were just an unfortunate red herring. In a couple cases, you can know the colors and connections but still get wire ordering wrong as many as five different ways before successfully trial-and-erroring it, but it isn’t a real issue, as you know how the system works by then. Overall, it’s no Fez or even Grimrock 2, but I was satisfied with the level of thinking required to solve the second act.

I found the dialogue and events highly enjoyable, and laughed a ton. Especially in failing to put together a good joke for the talking tree–I was laughing my ass off. (“Why didn’t the acorn want to go to the opera? IT CLOSED DOWN. Did you hear about the First National Tree Bank? IT CLOSED DOWN.”) The characters were really fun too, especially Vella’s little sister, the talking tree, and the lumberjack. Probably a few others deserve mention, but it’s safe to say that the outside world has the most and best NPC interactions, which made Vella’s side quite a bit more fun in Act 1, and likewise gave Shay’s side something of an advantage in Act 2.

The plot itself was a little haphazard. While I thought the major twists were clever, there were some strange choices, like keeping the parents out of the loop with regard to the ship they live in. In Act 1 I thought the whole yarn thing couldn’t be tied to actual star system destinations: it was a colony ship supposedly heading somewhere, so it wouldn’t make sense for it to be able to physically backtrack to another system to entertain a kid, and even if Shay somehow didn’t figure that out, the parents had to have. The exposition dump from the evil mastermind about how Shay can sense a person’s good genes through a bad crane game was also a little too out-there, and seeing as one hero has to infer puzzle solutions from the other’s side, they should’ve just given the two some subconscious psychic bond and went with something else for the reason maidens were being kidnapped. I don’t know, maybe there’s a plague that causes female babies to be stillborn, and they didn’t have the technology to be immortal or make wombs obsolete, so they kidnapped girls from less advanced parts of the world. Is that dark? Extremely, but it works, and you can still reveal this information in a cryptic fashion for the All Ages sticker.

I also have to wonder if there was supposed to be an Act 3, behind the Plague Wall, before the developers realized it wasn’t feasible with their budget. The game ends without the antagonist’s society really being brought down in any meaningful way. But the game is mildly delightful and there are only a couple potential stumbling blocks I know of that can happen in a run, so I’d say it’s in pretty good shape as-is.

Broken Age looks and sounds great, but its budget-to-content relationship makes the $600,000 Day of the Tentacle shine more favorably, and the unvoiced $130,000 Secret of Monkey Island probably even better–at least if you’re like me, and you’d rather have a bounty of low-res pixel art maps instead of actors and big cinematics.[1] That could be promising for Thimbleweed Park, which doesn’t seem to have gotten nearly as carried away as Broken Age did, but it’s too soon to say.

It’s also worth directing attention to the documentary, which is now publicly available on YouTube. They unfortunately gloss over most specifics in the creative- or design-decision process, spoiler-avoidance being a somewhat short-sighted priority while the thing was being edited, but I still found it hugely entertaining and by itself worth the fifteen bucks I paid for the game on Kickstarter.

[1] I have no official sources on budget figures and I don’t feel like looking for interviews or press releases to link to, so if you’re planning to repeat these numbers, maybe check for yourself that they aren’t some kind of Wikipedia troll first.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.