Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Chuchel - PC Review

The cherry on the cake.

My best gaming experiences are almost all a shared gaming experience. The countless hours I've spent in the sofa (or on the floor in front of the TV) at my parents playing games like Mario Kart, Mario Party, Golden Eye and Super Smash Bros. The even more countless hours I've spent playing World of Warcraft. But also games that you'd normally consider single-player experiences, like Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil. To this day I am certain that a big part in why I love gaming so much in the first place, comes from watching my mom play games like Myst, Diablo and the Dig.

This, of course, is something I want to share with my son. Just as I love building lego, drawing, walking in the forest to find cool insects or play pretend games with him, I love playing video games with him. And I've found that his 4 yo brain has its special way of thinking of gaming and puzzle solving that really adds to my experience as well. Firstly he simply enjoys puzzle solving a lot more than I do, and brings the enthusiasm I need to try and retry more difficult parts. Secondly, I find he thinks about solving puzzles differently from me, and often brings the out of the box thinking that I need. Of course, being 4 yo it is clear he wouldn't get very far in the games we've played together (that have been designed with adults in mind) without my help, but while I might do the big nudging to get us forward he definitely sometimes helps me as well.

So while we also play racing and platforming games together, I often find that puzzle solving games have worked best for making it feel like we're in it together. It allows us to have a dialogue where we suggest things for each other that I find unique to the genre. I also don't have to help him (ie take over the controller to make a difficult jump) as much as I help him help himself (or us) move forward.

We recently played The Room together and had a lot of fun with it. I was definitely on the lookout for something similar to play together with my kid, but even though I heard of Chuchel already when it was released and I immediately thought it looked interesting, for some reason I didn't think about that it could be a fun game for us to play. It wasn't until the other day, when it popped up on the gog.com summer sale that I decided to give it a shot.

A lot of things verge on creepy

Just like The Room, Chuchel is a very short game. Even with me and the son playing around, not always trying to solve the puzzle but just trying to see what clicking on everything would do, I think we clocked in at around 2,5 hour gameplay when we reached THE END. Unlike The Room however, Chuchel is almost more of an experience than it is a game (like a sort of puzzle version of the "walking simulators). That is not to say that it isn't fun to play, and we definitely had a blast with it.

The premise is simple and reminiscent of the Scrat + Nut short films that air before the Ice Age movies. Chuchel, which I assume is the name of the protagonist, is a little soot ball who just wants to eat their cherry. In various screens it is prevented for doing so and you need to solve the puzzle to allow them to get to it. This game has no in-game text or dialogue, making it universally appealing to pre-reading children in the same way that for instance TV-series like Shaun the Sheep or *shudder* Angry Birds does (Pencilmation is another great example of this type of entertainment). The comparison to TV-series is actually apt in many ways, as Chuchel almost plays out more like an interactive, and incredibly whacky, cartoon than a regular puzzle game.

While the game will mostly present you with a puzzle or scene where you get to click on various things to see how you can interact with them (presented through icons rather than text) it often intersperses with cut scenes and the title Chuchel pops up so often you think the creators story boarded the game like TV-episodes (Wikipedia even categorizes it as an "adventure game" rather than a puzzle game).

While the gameplay is simplistic, and I felt instantly understandable for a 4 yo, the puzzle solving itself felt a lot more trial and error. But definitely not in a bad way. Often it is completely impossible to be able to tell how different things on the screen act and interact until you've tried to click everything at least once. Chuchel presents itself like a fever dream and all the crazy characters you encounter are probably as weirdly disturbing to an adult as they are hilariously wonky to a child.
While we never had to use a walkthrough to get through any puzzles, I credit this to the excellent in game tip system. Once you've tried a puzzle for a while, a little question mark will pop up somewhere, explaining roughly how to solve the puzzle but keeping with the rest of the in-game style. Nothing is explained flat out or in text, but rather with pictures or little animations. Sometimes the tip is as much a puzzle to understand as the puzzle itself, but I felt the balance was great and using the tip didn't feel like just being handed the solution.

All of the gameplay is handled with just one mouse-button, and while most of it is just clicking around for various ways to interact with objects, there are also more action-packed parts to give you some variety. For instance there is a Space Invaders-puzzle, flying or jumping through obstacles stages and all of these can still be controlled with just the mouse button. You are also given the option to control these stages (that require a bit more reflexes) with the arrow keys and I personally preferred this while my son preferred to stick with the mouse button.

Of course this isn't a game where you can die nor are you on a time limit, so the bf said over my shoulder that the game seemed void of challenge (and thus in his eyes pointless). I just replied that in a puzzle game the puzzles, namely solving them, is the sole challenge and that goes for pretty much all of them. This does leave the non-puzzle parts feeling "pointless" in the meaning that there is no way to fail them, but yet again I feel like they are more there for providing an experience in between the puzzle solving bits. And this works perfectly to mix things up for a 4 yo, in fact one of my kid's favorite parts of the game is where you have to run and jump your way through a section (think a very light version of Bit.Trip Runner).

Gameplay-wise Chuchel isn't doing anything new. It's basically a hodgepodge, and in some instances versions, of existing games and gameplay-elements. But that's not why you want to play it. It's all in the presentation and aesthetics of the game. You simply haven't seen Pacman or Tetris this way before. The sound design is an equally lovely bunch of hums and umms that adds to the overall style. Chuchel itself just spouts gobbledygook and flails its arms to communicate with various things and my 4 yo loved pointing out how funny everything sounded. Since Chuchel has a soundtrack I am assuming it had music, but to be honest I can't remember any of it. It doesn't detract from the experience, but what you'll remember are probably the sound effects rather than the score. (Listening to the score on its own it's actually pretty cool).

Once you've beaten a part you can revisit it to replay it, and and for myself I'd have to admit I wouldn't say there is much replay value in Chuchel. The kid enjoys replaying some of the more platformey bits (as mentioned above) but overall I think once you've beaten it few people would care to revisit.

What a visit it is though. You just don't see things like this every day, and the sheer surprise effect of almost everything on screen, the amount of times you're thinking "what am I even looking at" and of course the laugh from my 4 yo when Chuchel gets smashed flat by a hammer out of nowhere, his enthusiasm when you play a Pacman clone and to see his joy when he experiements with turning Chuchel into different animals at one point - it's like a really great movie experience but with the added fun of interactivity where you control the story.

Chuchel won't provide you with much challenge, maybe not even a lasting effect. But it will definitely brighten up a few hours of your day, and I can definitely recommend playing it. And if you have the opportunity to play it with a kid, I'd say that is the way to go about it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

I Saw Avengers: Infinity War And I Have So Many Questions


I saw Avengers Infinity War Friday evening, and while I thought it was a highly entertaining movie and recommend anyone with an interest in the MCU to watch it, it also left me with a bunch of questions.

Now I realize my knowledge of the lore and intricacies of the MCU are very limited and that comes a lot from the fact that the comics aren't so easily available in Sweden and some from the fact that I haven't even watched most of the other movie entries in the Marvel Superhero franchise yet. Some of the questions I have from AIW might already have been answered in the previous movies, most of which feel like they've all been setting up for this one.

While I don't think it's essential to have seen ALL the previous movies, because there are a lot at this point, I do agree that some of them are pretty dang important to get the right feel of the characters and story.

Dr Strange is definitely one of those movies. Black Panther is another. I had no idea who Vision, Scarlet Witch or Red Skull were (other than that I know they exist in the comics) because I haven't seen Age of Ultron or Captain America: The First Avenger, so they are worth watching first as well. Some things in AIW I didn't really know the background of, like who the heck the guy with the arm was (apparently the Winter Soldier from another Cap America movie) but he was more of a cameo than a plot element. The movie references events that happened in the latest Thor movie (Ragnarok) which I also haven't seen, but recaps it well enough that you get the gist. I also haven't seen any of the newer Spider-Man movies, but Spider-Man is Spider-Man. I guess the final scene where he vanishes loses a bit of its punch if you haven't built up some emotional attachment to that particular Spider-Man yet though.

But I also know there are a lot more characters in the MCU, or at least within the Marvel Universe, that I wondered why they didn't show up. Like, where are any of the X-Men when you need them? I am sure Phoenix (when she's not just going all bonkers) could've been useful against Thanos. I also missed the Fantastic Four. While the Four themselves might've been of limited use (but to be fair, since they still try to make me believe Black Widow is anything but useless I am sure the Four could've contributed quite a lot) it would've been cool to see what Dr Doom had to say about Thanos' plans. Since I don't really know much about Dr Doom and judging by his name it probably wouldn't have benefited Earth however.

I realize any characters missing were probably due to legal issues, and also the fact that the movie already sports a massive array of super heroes (some of which, like The Falcon, seem completely unnecessary). I think the movie did a tremendous job to manage to get this plot come together to something that wasn't just a mess trying to follow. Each storyline manages to make sense and come together to a marvellous (see what I did there) whole.

So while it would've been cool to see even more super heroes get involved, and they might still be, I understand why they weren't.

My questions instead regard a lot of Thanos' reasoning. Now, as you must've understood by now I know very little about the MCU in general and not much about Thanos either. These questions are raised by someone who basically only has the information from AIW to go by. I think AIW does a very good job at layering Thanos' motivations, making it a lot more than just black and white. While Thanos wants to kill people, and a lot of them, he does it for the "greater good". Essentially he is no different from any hunter who culls a herd of animals for the greater good of the rest of the eco system, and in the end the animal itself as well. Rather than having a lot of people suffering, you have a few people living in prosperity. So far so good (even if, rightfully, a lot of people don't agree with his reasoning). 

What I don't get though is that if Thanos has the power to wipe out half of all life in the Universe once he gets his grubby hands on all the infinity stones, then why doesn't he also have the power to provide for the life that is already in the Universe? If the argument is that that wouldn't really solve the issue as resources are finite I would argue that reducing any population by half to remove overpopulation also doesn't solve the issue as populations will rise back up again, at which point Thanos would have to redo all the work (of having to snap his fingers to kill people). Will he do this on a set time schedule or whenever people reach a certain amount or ratio of overpopulation? Or maybe continuously? It makes more sense to terraform planets into livable area for the people that already exist, because A: no one would have to die and B: with the infinity stones resources aren't limited in the Universe in any practical kind of way. 

Are you even alive?

This also saves him the hassle of figuring out something else - who to kill? In the movie it's not clear whether people die randomly or Thanos has chosen them, but that's not the big issue here. Do only people die? Only sentient beings or any living being? Because let's be frank, there are more animals on Earth than just humans who can be quite devastating for an eco system. Also taking into account every other planet with living organisms on them I think it's safe to assume that the range of sentience is quite wide, so where to draw the line? Is Thanos going to wipe out half of everything living just to make it easier for himself?  What is a virus classified as? Where to draw the line with people with disabilities or species with different levels of sentience, like elephants and dolphins? Wiping out half of everything living would also be extremely counter-productive as it would basically put the resources vs people ratio to the same levels he is trying to avoid. So let's assume he doesn't want to get rid of half of every tree, beetle and duck. What kind of scale does Thanos use to judge whether something living is enough of a burden on an eco-system? Has Thanos even thought this through?

Worst of all though, once Thanos has all the infinity stones, or even beforehand when he plans on what he is going to do with the infinity stones, he only has one plan. He doesn't even try to consider any other way of dealing with the issue. When he looked at the devastation going through his home planet of Titan he never once thought "how can I provide for all these people?" but instead all he thought was "how can I make half of them die so that at least we don't all suffer?". It says a lot about his inner workings and is definitely worth calling him out for when he starts on his "holier than thou"-rant of trying to help people. Nah dude, you just want to kill people. Why even bother trying to justify it?

But maybe the infinity stones don't work that way, maybe they can only destroy. If that is the case it's not very clear in the movie (in which they're only basically portraid as giving the wielder immense power of any kind).

And in the end this is all just a lot of over-analyzing from someone who really should read up more on the lore first, and maybe not write rambling blog posts when tired and hungry. If anyone finds the time and want to clear up any of these questions though - I'd be grateful.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (PC) - Unfinished Playthrough Review

Sin of the 90's.

Sometimes I really wonder why I think I like point-n-click games. I am notoriously lousy at puzzle solving and this genre is pretty much all about exactly the out-of-the-box thinking that I constantly fail at. And still I have played a fair share of these games and I keep coming back to them. P&C games (as I am going to refer to them) hold a special place in my heart, as they are among my first video game experiences and fond ones at that. I remember watching my mom play games like The Dig and Myst and loving it. I'm not sure she's much better than me at puzzle solving, but her enthusiasm was infectious and definitely helped a lot in developing my love for gaming in general. I think by playing P&C games I get some of that nostalgic feeling in a way that makes me enjoy the game even when it frustrates the heck out of me.

That isn't to say that I succeed at every P&C game I play, far from. I often end up having to use a walkthrough for more than I'd like to admit, but at least most of the time I get through them. But every now and then there will be one that is more frustration than it's worth.

Gabriel Knight was one of those series of games I had heard of for the longest of times but knew very little about. I pretty much only knew it was a P&C game and well spoken of. Which is probably for the best. Most P&C games are story-heavy and are best experienced knowing as little as possible about what you're going to get through. Every now and then I have the urge to play some P&C, more often than not I will go back to one I have already played (probably because I know more of the puzzles) and the last one I played was Broken Sword for the fifth or so time. But a while back when I got the itch again I decided it was time to check out something completely new. Well new for me at least, but quite old in the gaming world.

Anything or nothing could be of interest.

Released in 1993, one of the first things that I noticed (and had sort of expected) when starting up Gabriel Knight was that this was not going to be a helpful game. You're released into the world (New Orleans) as the titular Gabriel Knight, not knowing much more than that there have been some murders, dubbed the "voodoo murders" and that Gabriel has an interest in them in his role as a wannabe-author.

I immediately noticed that nothing in the world is highlighted for you as important. Oh no, this game was really going to make me work for it. Instead you can choose to look at things in your surroundings, and that can be literally everything - from the magazine half-covered under a stack of books to magnets on a refrigerator. Some of these items you will need further down the line, but trying to figure out which ones you need to interact with and in what way was the first massive hurdle to pass. And that's true for every screen you enter. The game even recommends that you thoroughly search through every area you encounter and while that is more or less true for every P&C game this one takes it to a whole new level (I think the 20th Anniversary Ed. might've improved on this issue).

So far it was pretty much what I expected though. P&C games are about scouring the surroundings and trying to figure out different interactions, either between you and items or between items. Gabriel Knight was just not very forthcoming in telling me exactly (or even slightly) what items were worth interacting with, but that's just the way it was back then. Something I wasn't ready for though (although I should've been), was the fact that you also often had to talk to people about the same things several times before they'd spill the beans you were actually after. In the end it all came down to the regular case of trying everything with everything... but then doing it several times.

George might look like a bore, but at least he's not a creep.

It didn't help that Gabriel himself came off more like a creep than the suave player he probably sees himself as. Of course it's hard to not see his "harmless" 90's banter with his secretary without modern #MeToo glasses, but for the short time I played the game he also had little else interesting going on about him. He wasn't the guy-next-door-average like George Stobbart in the Broken Sword series, and nowhere near anything as whacky as something from a LucasArts game. To me, Gabriel had not aged well and would've probably been written differently today. Further aggravating was the narrator of the game, whom, while I assume meant to add to the atmosphere of the game, was an absolute chore to have to listen to. And she speaks every line of text not said by a character. Fortunately you can turn her off.

The story seems better written however and starts out interesting enough. As mentioned there are murders and Gabriel needs to investigate them. The history of his family seems involved somehow (maybe this is what the title is about?). Presumably this all leads to him getting involved in more sinister stuff (yet again I see similarities with Broken Sword, released three years after this), maybe a bit like the Da Vinci Code? I enjoy stories with a bit of the supernatural and conspiracy thrown in as much as the next person, but unfortunately I never made it far enough to explore much of anything.

The puzzle that broke this camels back was when I was required to use a mime to lure a cop away from his bike for me to be able to listen in on his cop-radio (and this is still right at the beginning of the game). Even if I could've figured out I needed the cop radio (which doesn't seem too farfetched considering the objective was to locate the police chief), I don't think I could've in a million years figured out to use the mime to lure away the cop. There is simply not the slightest hint for it. You have to make the mime, which is in a completely different part of the area, follow you around until you get to the cop at which point they will interact in a way that allows you to use the radio. But apparently (according to the walkthrough I was reading), just getting the mime to follow you around is pretty tricky. And then to surmise that the mime would be what makes the cop leave...

Of course it's the mime

I realized right then and there that I wouldn't be able to get through the game without using a walkthrough 95% of the time (or spend 30 minutes on each puzzle), and at that point I'm not really playing the game anyway. If all I was going to get was the story without doing any actual puzzle solving myself I might as well just watch a playthrough on YouTube. After two hours of really trying to be clever enough for this game I had to face the facts that I didn't have the time (nor patience) it required of me.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is probably not a bad game. And it might have a really cool story. Unfortunately it's buried in gameplay mechanics too old for me to handle and honestly I doubt few people except the buffest of puzzle-nerds will have the patience to struggle through this. While I am not a fan of handholding and leading by the nose in modern games, let this be an example of what it's like when a game veers too much in the other direction. In the end, neither of those options are much fun to play.