This week, Zero Punctuation reveals there are a lot of similarities in indie games.
As you may have inferred from my pain-racked sobs throughout last week's video, I was at the time suffering from rather severe tonsillitis, so everything that passed me lips magically transmuted into an entire Mongol infantry unit the moment I tried swallowing it. Basically what I'm saying is the back of my mouth looked like a bunch of incontinent seagulls had exploded in a cave. Basically what I'm saying is it looked like a Shoggoth had gotten cold feet while trying to use my epiglottis as a diving board. Basically what I'm saying is you could have cut my tonsils out and hid them in a basket of fancy cheeses and no one would have been the wiser. Basically what I'm saying is, "More painkillers! Yum yum!"
But it gave me the opportunity to sit on the couch playing video games eating ice cream all day - with actual justification for once, I mean. So I used the time to catch up on XBLA's recent movements. Today I'd like to discuss two games that both carry the theme of exploration, something I could do very little of while my tonsils resembled things a habitual nose-picker would be attacked by if he got lost in Silent Hill.
First up, Fez. I've said in the past that the easiest way to be critically acclaimed on cus-blah is to be a game, ideally a platformer, about a small, large-headed humanoid in a big, uncaring, frightening world, like how Tom Cruise must feel at academic parties. Here's an addition to the formula: bonus points will be awarded if the game also features moving among the long-abandoned ruins of a once-mighty civilization, like how Tom Cruise must feel about his career. Fez is a deeply explorative game in deliberately retro pixel style, outwardly a 2D platformer but it's kind of complicated.
In broad terms, it makes me think of Knytt if it had less direction or Yume Nikki if it had actual gameplay - get a load of my indie penis, spurt-spurt! - and it's all wrapped up in a bag that smells strongly of Super Paper Mario. You move in 2D but can freely rotate the levels in 3D ninety degrees at a time to cross gaps and rearrange platforms with perspective tricks. So I guess we could also call it Echochrome if it had more colors. Blimey! If indie gaming was a country, Fez would be the ki - well, Cave Story would be the king, but it would be unwise to appoint Fez as the grand vizier, I tell you that.
As well as being one of those rare games where my Zero Punctuation representation of the main character will probably be more complex than the original, Fez works if you let yourself get lost in the exploration. You can take a detour on your way up a likely-looking tower and end up mapping out two continents before finding a reason to turn back. That said, once you have visited all the furthest points, the backtracking can turn into the metaphorical turd in the pixel bucket, since there are no enemies or hazards beyond falling off shit, and you just get teleported straight back onto the platform like the Prince of Persia being quick on the L2 button.
When you come across a puzzle room, I'd recommend against telling yourself you'll come back and figure it out later, because that will inevitably end with having to trek back through seven different wildernesses to scrape together the last few cubes. Although in some cases, "puzzle" is entirely the wrong word. One requires you to translate Morse code, another, scan in a 2D barcode; neither of which are puzzles, strictly speaking. If I fix the door on my tumble dryer with a screwdriver, I will not describe that as, "solving the riddle of the slightly rattly spin cycle."
Fez is a fun little way to kill time if you're not feeling up to anything as stressful as combat, and it does contain some very fine examples of interactive storytelling without dialogue. But I should mention that the combination of vibrant retro colours, chirpy retro sounds, and entire levels spinning wildly around like a meerkat looking for its lost mother in Grand Central Station did make me feel physically ill after a while, although that may have had more to do with my tonsils looking like a set of speed bags being worked over by a man made of salad dressing.
But let's move on to our second topic, I Am Alive. That's not me joyously announcing to the world that my tonsils stopped looking like a porridge monster from the planet Retch, that's the name of an XBLA game developed by Ubisoft. In contrast to its XBLA peers, you are a full-grown adult male with a soberly-proportioned head, although the big scary world full of the ruins of a once-mighty civilization remains intact. After an earthquake and subsequent dust cloud bollockses up a city good and proper, you must journey through the post-apocalyptic remains to find your wife and daughter while interacting with survivors and either giving them presents or making them not survivors anymore.
I played I Am Alive when it first came out a while back but was left somewhat disappointed. I've always liked the idea of a realistic survival game - managing your bodily intake and searching every corner of the environment for slightly damp rocks to suck on. But I Am Alive is more of a climbing simulator than a survival game. You only need to eat or drink if you've overexerted yourself while climbing, and even then you can crack open a can of fruit cocktail and scarf it down like Popeye in a single frozen instant midway through leaping off a grappling hook rope onto a four-inch chunk of rebar. So bang goes realism. And as your stamina depletes, the same really obnoxious piece of scary music gradually escalates like you're climbing up Alfred Hitchcock's bum hair.
And the combat is very troubled indeed. For all the game's talk about how valuable bullets are, the enemies seem remarkably generous with them. And the game pretty much demands you slaughter everyone who looks at you funny, when a smart survivalist would say, "Hey, guys, just passing through! And you can even keep watching to make sure I don't nick anything. And incidentally, just because I'm not specifically pointing a gun at you doesn't mean it's gotten any more rational to run up and try to machete my arse. We're not playing Grandmother's Footsteps, motherfuckers."
But having come back to it last week, I found a little more charm in it when the game world opens up a bit and you can explore the streets to find optional objectives, every single one of whom is some needy Darwin-defier whose survival strategy is to whine passers-by for specific objects. One bloke claimed to be seconds from death and needing one last cigarette, but I came back two hours later and he was still hanging on! Go hustle someone else, Captain Coughsitup.
Climbing does gain a little something-something when you unlock the grappling hook, but there just aren't enough grapple points around to amuse myself with. Come to think of it, the whole game has that Uncharted problem of climbing paths being aggressively linear, and the difference between climbable scenery and random set dressing only becomes apparent when you're trying to jump on it from a window ledge and a string quartet is busily destroying its instruments right next to your ear.
Perhaps I shouldn't criticize a game for not being what I expected it to be, except when I say I don't expect a game like this to have a lives system, because that archaic bullshit is about as relevant to gaming today as a fucking oscilloscope.
- Doctor Livingstone I presume: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Oh, nice going mate, we'll be able to rebuild a ton of civilization out of those hacked-up bodies, cheers
- Easter eggs are cheaper this time of year, alright
I Am Alive