Archive for Game Reviews

Under the Sea

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid

This article can in some sense be considered a continuation of my previously shared thoughts about Alien: Isolation and horror simulators, but also should generally stand alone as a review of SOMA. It is also spoiler free.

I’ve backed myself into a corner, in a room with just too many windows. The monster growls behind me, and I duck behind a support beam in the wall.

“Go away,” I say under my breath, as it paces back and forth in the hall. Instead, it decides to come into the room. My mind races as the creature continues to come closer. “What do I do? What do I do?” Soon it will come around the edge of this beam and surely see me.

Finally, I decide my best chance is to just make a run for it. I step out from behind my hiding spot.

The music crescendos as I am spotted. I sprint as fast as possible out the doorway and down the hall. I hear echoing footsteps behind me of something inhuman. Suddenly all the lights go out.

The terror is palpable as I realize I’m headed right for the only room that still has the lights on.

“Great, I’ll be a sitting duck…”

I rush in anyway and make my way around the desk to the computer. I fumble with the interface a bit, but manage to get the door locked down before the monster arrives.

I hide in the corner of the room. The monster thrashes at the door but is unable to open it. I wish I could sink further into the corner.

Suddenly I do.

I look to my right and see the backside of the wall. Turn behind me and there are distant inside out structures.

“Ah fuck,” I say, “the game glitched out,”

I try to step back into the room. There is some sort of threshold I have passed, and I can no longer return. I turn around and look down into the yawning void, make peace, and leap into the abyss.

SOMA is a difficult game for me to write about. It’s a game that I had been looking forward to for a long time. It’s ambitious. It’s certainly worth playing. But somehow, it’s also a disappointment.

SOMA is Frictional Games’ follow-up to their 2010 horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the intervening 5 years since Amnesia’s release, there have been a slew of games to follow in its footsteps, including the notably big budget Alien: Isolation. One could happily call these games “Amnesia clones,” as they borrow so much from that game, but I have preferred to consider it a new genre, called horror simulation.

Most of these games put a small twist on the formula established by Amnesia, without really making any huge strides forward. SOMA is intent on changing that. Whereas most horror sims, including Amnesia, tend to tell the story primarily through audio and text logs, SOMA pairs these with strong environmental storytelling as well as dramatic scripted sequences and dialogue scenes. The game is intent on minimizing the limitation on player agency due to cut-scenes, and allows the player to continue to move freely unless the character is physically restrained.

Opinions on whether or not SOMA is “scarier than Amnesia” seem to vary wildly. Horror, like humor, is quite subjective. As for myself, I found SOMA to be much more intensely terrifying that it’s predecessor, although it’s much more of a slow burn than last year’s Alien: Isolation. Whereas that game felt as though it turned the volume up to full blast and never stopped, SOMA is much more content to explore the dynamics of horror, crescendoing into intensely terrifying set-piece moments, and then gently falling down and giving the player room to catch their breath and relax.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the game. It succeeds in more ways than it stumbles. The story is compelling and left me with a lot of interesting philosophical questions that I’m still pondering weeks later. The art direction and overall polish is super high for a game made by such a small team. And the storytelling is often effective, reminding me at times of Half Life 2 and Gone Home.

So what’s so damn perplexing to me is why I have this overall sense of disappointment about the game.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of how long I have been waiting for its release. It’s not uncommon for lengthy development times of games to grow hype to unmanageable levels (Just imagine what Half Life 3 would have to be at this point to not be a disappointment).

Thomas Grip, the designer of both SOMA and Amnesia, has written and spoken extensively about his “Four Layers” approach to narrative design for games. It’s some heady and ambitious stuff for narrative-focused games that don’t want to leave the player feeling like a bystander. In a sense, the idea is to keep the player constantly engaged in the storytelling even down to the moment-to-moment gameplay, a point at which most games struggle to maintain that connection.

SOMA can be seen as a field test of those ideas. And for the most part it’s successful; resulting in what is one of the most ludonarratively consonant (there’s that word again) games that I have ever played.

But even though SOMA effectively executes on its storytelling approach, there have been plenty of other games which have focused on storytelling in the past several years. Many telling stories that lie well outside the established sci-fi/fantasy safe-zone which games have typically stayed in. This often leaves SOMA feeling like it is playing catch-up more-so than innovating. Credit should be given where due, as much of the game’s storytelling is strong, but it is perhaps impossible to not draw comparisons and find the emotional core of the game to be lacking in honesty or vulnerability. When it comes down to it, it’s a sci-fi horror story set in an laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, which can only be so relatable.

Because SOMA considers the moment-to-moment experience to be the core of the story, at any given moment, the game is typically very compelling. However, this focuses the player’s attention so narrowly that the game struggles to effectively integrate its big ideas. It can be a thrilling roller coaster ride, but when the game tries to probe at deeper questions it often feels like it’s just paying lip-service; draping philosophical window-dressing on what is essentially a haunted house.

I hate to bring up the issue of length in video games, as it’s so often a major sticking point for people in a way that I usually find unsavory. Many players will look at SOMA’s roughly 13 hour playtime and see it as being woefully short. However, as I get older, I find that my time is increasingly valuable to me, and I tend to not like it wasted. At a certain point, I knew there were going to be two possibilities with the game. Either I was going to put it down and never finish it, or I was just going to have to steel myself and marathon through until the end. I chose the latter.

In that sense, I found SOMA to be significantly longer than necessary. This is not to say that I found any of the moments in the game to stand out as particularly low quality, or that I would find it easy to say where cutbacks should be made. It’s simply a personal observation that the depth of the story felt as though it was not requiring of a 12 hour game to communicate effectively. It feels as though a third of the game could be hacked off and the story would come across just as well. Again, this is somewhat of a vague criticism, but is reflective of my feelings as I pushed myself to finish the game, expecting to be very close to the end, but rather being many hours away from it.

It’s hard for me to be comprehensive about SOMA, and in many regards, I still feel as unresolved in my thoughts about the game as I was before writing this article. It’s a good game, almost a great one even. You should probably play it. I wish I could point to one thing and say what’s holding it back, but it’s not that easy. Somehow though, SOMA never quite lives up to its potential. Even though all of the parts of it are high quality, the whole is not the sum of its pieces. It’s like a bicycle made of high quality aluminum, with new tires, but with wheels that are just a bit too square.

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Absolutely Nothing

Posted in Game Design Essays, Game Reviews, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander


Those who know me, know that I often deride the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series as a exploitation of veterans. The game seems to offer an unrealisticly positive representation of modern warzones, twisting something terrible into something fun. The game appears as Halo, only skinned to look like real war. Replace the SMG with an AK-47, the Warthog with a Humvee, Space Marine with a real Marine. Also, if you know me, you know that I, until this writing, have never played the Modern Warfare series.
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Catherine is all grown up, in a good way.

Posted in Game Reviews, Games with tags , , , on September 2, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

Vincent runs for his life.

Two cords hang from the ceiling. “Has anyone ever called you stingy?” I put the controller down. I’m not even sure what stingy means, but I’ve never been called it.

I get up and walk to the kitchen for a drink of water.

What does that even mean? Why does it matter?

Suddenly I remember that I’m playing a game. I sit down on the couch, push the stick right and press a button.

“No, no one has called me stingy.”

Catherine asks me questions, it makes me think. It beckons me and tempts me to indulge in it’s intoxicating cocktail of self-reflection and devious puzzles.

I blast off in my confession chamber. Off to solve another staircase. I die. I try again.

“Now’s not the time to be dead.”

I make it to freedom. I help the lost lambs around me. Another question beckons ahead. I feel my eyes burning. I shut off the game.

In my sleep, I’m pushing blocks around. Trying to find a way up. Desperate. Katherine needs me to commit. Catherine tempts me with candy.

There’s something a bit addictive about the game’s blend of seemingly unrelated ideas. Part dating simulation, part pure puzzling pain, and definitely straight from Japan.

Japan. When was the last time I even cared about a game from that faraway country. The sun has been set for too long. Catherine is delightfully quirky. And that follows through all the way to the end credits.

Even though there are eight endings, only one was needed to make me think about myself in ways even okCupid’s dating match questions have not.

Perhaps you should indulge yourself. You might be surprised at what you find.

Prince…

Posted in Game Reviews, Games with tags , , , , , on November 4, 2009 by Matthew VanDevander

Well, sorry I haven’t been updating much recently or anything. I haven’t had much time lately to do really anything of this sort. Also I don’t have internet at home, so it’s a bit hard to just get out and post things on here all the time. But for this post, I’ve got something fairly decent prepared. I just quit my job so I can start working on Fij full time, meaning I will hopefully get the game finished or at least in some working order. But I will go ahead and get on with the rest of this post, which is a review of the new Prince of Persia.

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia is one of the oldest gaming franchises there is, with the entries spanning nearly two decades. The original Prince of Persia is somehow considered a classic, and appreciated for its astonishingly smooth animation for the time. Even despite its horrid laggy controls, which are caused mostly as part of the “smooth” animation. It’s somewhat surprising that such a flawed game has spawned so many sequels. I mean, there’s the first sequel, which was basically like the original, only different levels, then there’s a remake… At one point, someone decided that the franchise was worth bringing into the 3d era, and the god-awful “Prince of Persia 3D” was born. Not surprisingly, after such a flop, and with the Nintendo 64 and Playstation already in their waning years, the idea of a 3d Prince sat stagnant for a while.

But then, an idea was born. Continue reading

Once again, my dear Johnny my dear friend.

Posted in Fij, Game Reviews, Games, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2009 by Matthew VanDevander

So, yeah. It’s been a bit of a while since I’ve updated the blog. But that’s nothing unusual for me, I suppose. After I dropped out of college, I moved in with my fiancee, and we don’t have internet except for going downtown and sitting outside next to the courthouse and mooching off of the wifi there. So I don’t really get online that much, and when I do, I try to make it for something more important. But I guess I’ve been neglecting this blog, as well as my game design and programming habits. It’s all just sort of gone down the toilet, so to speak.

However, I have seen quite a few movies and played a few games since my last post, so I suppose I should give an update on them. Or at least on a few of the ones that I haven’t reviewed.

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