Okay we’re done complaining now. 2016 wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was a pretty good year in terms of released games. I guess it would have to be. In a year with this many games, some of them had to be good.
Let’s talk about some of my favorites…
This game used a very similar trick to Gone Home. I can’t discuss it without spoiling both games. If you’re looking to preserve your ignorance, skip this section.
In the real world, if you read a story about an axe murderer you don’t instantly expect that you’re going to meet the axe murderer in the next couple of days. But in the context of a story, the audience knows the ax-murderer backstory is there for a reason. As soon as Old Man Exposition begins jabbering about those ax-murders back in ’79, we know our protagonists are going to meet one.
Both Gone Home and Firewatch employ a trick where they drop certain genre-specific cues into the story. This sets up a Chekov’s Gun that is never fired. I liked this because it pulled me in and allowed me to experience the same emotional state as my character. I went through the story paranoid and wondering what sort of gruesome conclusion this was all leading up to.
When it turned out that it was much ado about nothing, it continued to work for me because my emotional state was still in step with my character. When Henry realizes that he’s been alone in the mountains for too long and his imagination has run wild, I felt the same strange blend of embarrassment and relief that he did.
But for some players, this kind of anticlimactic twist ruins not just the end, but everything that came before. If a story promises ax murderers, or space aliens, or government spooks, or ghosts, or occult magic, then by the end we damn well better see those things. Otherwise the story is making promises it doesn’t plan to keep and setting the player up for a letdown.
The interesting thing about this is that this conflict is unavoidable. If the developers telegraphs that the threatening element isn’t real, then it would kill the sense of mystery and resolution that enabled me to ride the emotional roller coaster with Henry. If they don’t telegraph it, then some players will be frustrated. No matter how you tell this story, you have to disappoint someone.
7. The Witness
I didn’t see The Witness through to the end, but I enjoyed the hours I spent with it. It was a throwback to those mid-90’s Myst-type games of exploration and quiet contemplation. It was a delight to look at and had some genuinely interesting ideas. If I have a quibble with the game, it starts with this sales blurb from the store page:
This game respects you as an intelligent player and it treats your time as precious. There’s no filler; each of those puzzles brings its own new idea into the mix. So, this is a game full of ideas.
I would say the first claim is true. The game does respect you as an intelligent player and it never feels the need to ruin its own puzzles by explaining them to you. The second point, though? I have no idea where you would get the idea that this game respects your time as precious.
The game gives you no direction. That’s nice because it means you’re free to figure things out for yourself. But it’s also open world, which means you might spend an hour trying to solve a puzzle when the information you need is on the other side of the island. I spent more time holding down the W key to walk around the island than I spent working on the puzzles, because there is a “proper” order to some of these puzzles and the game doesn’t give you any way to know if you’re wasting your time on the current puzzle.
On top of this are slow elevators, slow machines, and an agonizingly slow boat ride that leave you with nothing to do but wait. There’s only one game I played in recent memory that was more careless with my time. Speaking of which…
From the creators of Myst and Riven comes a new game that ditches the old pre-rendered stuff from the 90’s and instead gives us a spectacular 3D world filled with interesting devices to sort out.
This game started really strong. As with their previous games, you spend a lot of time trying to sort out machines that feel like alien devices made from familiar parts. Every puzzle seemed to hit that sweet spot where it felt just challenging enough to make me feel clever when I solved it, but never so hard that I got bored or frustrated. It’s a game filled with brilliant ideas and a few kinds of puzzles I’ve never seen before.
Which brings me to the puzzle that killed the game for me…
In Obduction, you do a lot of world-hopping. You use these fixed consoles to teleport between dimension / worlds / whatever. The trick is that the teleport works by swapping a volume of space between the origin and destination. So if you used this technology to go from Manhattan to Death Valley, then when you arrived you’d have a slab of Manhattan pavement under your feet and the folks in Manhattan would have a perfect circle of desert where you had been standing.
This is a fun science fantasy idea, but it gets to be really interesting when you start using it to solve puzzles. Sometimes you have to swap around bits of these alien worlds to remove obstacles, power machines, create walkways, or reveal important bits of visual information. It’s great.
Hopping from world to world takes an agonizing length of time. Often you sit there for half a minute or more, watching abstract particle effects while you wait for the destination world to load. Usually by the time I arrive I’ve lost my sense of direction or forgotten what I was doing.
What kills it is the point in the game when you need to do several teleports in a row, playing a sort of shell game with spherical slices of the world to arrange them into place. Just figuring out what you need to do and how all the bits connect will require several painful loading screens, and that’s before you can begin the long work of moving the pieces into place.
It’s tough to convey just how much of a killjoy these moments were for me. Thirty seconds probably doesn’t sound all that long. I can remember games that were far worsePre-patch Witcher 1 comes to mind.. But it’s just long enough to break my train of thought. In theory, these puzzles are quite simple. The challenge isn’t figuring out what to do, it’s keeping your mind on the job with so much time between moves. It’s like a game of tic-tac-toe where the board vanishes for 30 seconds after every move. When it reappears it’s in a new position and you can’t even remember if you were playing X’s or O’s. The thing that makes the puzzle “hard” is how monumentally frustrating and tedious it is.
At this point I turned to a hint guide, hoping to push through these loading screens as fast as possible because they were killing the fun for me. Then I read that even if you’re following a guide and know exactly what to do, the solution still takes seven teleports. When the ordeal was over, I realized I was done with the game. Technically the process took less than ten minutes, but I spent most of that time thinking about what other games I had that I could be playing instead of staring at several consecutive minutes of loading screens. I don’t know how many more of those kinds of puzzles there were in the game, but I didn’t care to hang around and find out.
It’s a shame. If not for this one really obnoxious flawActually, the alien number system was pretty un-fun too., this would be the best game in the genre. The first couple of hours with the game were a delight and I’m glad I got to play them.
 Pre-patch Witcher 1 comes to mind.
 Actually, the alien number system was pretty un-fun too.
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