The Charnel House Trilogy (Review)

One of the greatest merits of the adventure genre is the platform it gives a writer to tell a story. They can tell of thrilling exploits, amusing capers, mysteries of the world and of the mind. They don’t need to rely on flashy visuals or reaction time-testing action. By letting us step into the shoes of a character we get to learn about their life and story through their conversations and observations about the world around them.

The Charnel House Trilogy - Inhale

The Charnel House trilogy, a classic style point-and-click adventure game by Owl Cave, succeeds at telling a great story. In the first chapter, Inhale, we meet Alex, a 20-something woman who seems to be working to overcome some hardships – a recent break-up that’s still in the forefront of her mind, a sick father.  Alex will be going on a journey. This first act functions mainly as a set-up for the rest of the game, and introduces us to the characters and themes that will be explored more deeply later on. Act 2, Sepulchre, was actually available as a standalone game for a while and is made stronger by the bookending chapters. Sepulchre focuses on Harold, who boarded a train with Alex, and has to deal with strange events that are happening. While Harold seems to be in an almost fugue-like state, Alex is plagued by her memories, which weigh heavily on her. Act 3, Exhale, goes back to Alex and does an amazing job at tying everything together.

It’s hard to say a lot about the story without giving things away, but the titles (Charnel House, Sepulchre) should certainly give you an idea of the direction it takes. While it is a horror game, it’s not scary in the traditional sense, but provides a gradually increasing sense of unease that worms its way in and turns into dread. The writing by Ashton Raze is on point. Dialogue goes from sounding completely natural to Lynchian levels of bizarre. The best praise I can give is that from Act 2 on, no line is wasted. Everything has a purpose, and is building towards something. It’s a very well constructed story with a self-aware script, and it gets better as it goes.

The Charnel House Trilogy - Exhale
For a game that maxes out at a 320 x 200 resolution, not a pixel is out of place. The style is very reminiscent of the Blackwell series (Ben Chandler did work on both this and The Blackwell Epiphany). The character portraits that pop up during conversations are lovely and the backgrounds, few that they are, are attractive.

The soundtrack often blends seamlessly into the background, but when it becomes more prominent, it’s really quite great. I highly recommend playing this with headphones, I put them on halfway through and was immediately impressed by how great it sounded. The voice acting is competent. Madeleine Roux’s Alex started off a little flat, but got better as the game went on. I have no complaints about the rest of the main players. Jim Sterling did well in his turn as a too-friendly neighbour, and the smaller parts were also generally well done. Though to be honest, I can’t hear Abe Goldfarb without thinking of Joey Malone.

The game is light on puzzles, but since the story is the star, that works out. There’s no mindless combining of inventory items or pixel-hunting for objects. Gameplay is quite straightforward, and I think more challenging puzzles would have been a distraction.

I only have one real complaint about the game. Inhale is peppered with in-jokes and nods to the voice actors. In-jokes are okay, but the first 10 or so minutes of the game consisted of little else, so that it was a bit of a turn-off.  Once the game got that out of its system, the story started steaming ahead and I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

The Charnel House Trilogy took me about 2.5 hours to complete. It’s currently available on Steam for less than $5, and it’s well worth the cost. Content warning for the game – it does deal with topics such as violence, stalking, and suicide.

Verdict – Highly recommended. If you’re a fan of adventure games, horror, or just great stories, The Charnel House Trilogy is a treat. It’s a taut, wonderfully written experience kept me intrigued and I ended up finishing it in one sitting.

 

 

Revisiting The X-Files – Season 1 episodes 3-7

My intention of reviewing every single X-Files episode might have been a bit ambitious. So rather than try to stretch the episodes I don’t have a whole lot to say about into whole posts, I’m going to combine a few.

Conduit

“I want to believe…” -Mulder

This episode is rather Mulder-centric as it deals with a young woman being abducted by aliens, a cause near and dear to his heart. The most interesting part of the episode is the titular conduit, the woman’s young brother who seems to be receiving messages from aliens. Mulder takes to the kid and projects on him a little bit before the woman is eventually returned, but refuses to say what happened to her.

X-Files - Conduit

The thing that stuck out to me most this episode, unfortunately, was an immensely creepy scene near the beginning while the agents are talking to the mother of the missing girl. Mulder sees a picture of the girl from when she was very young. Note to writers: don’t ever write a scene that involves a man stroking a picture of a child in a bathing suit. Just don’t. I know, the picture reminds him of his own sister, but this could have been communicated in 7000 other, better ways.

Other than this, the episode is decent.

Jersey Devil

“Unlike you Mulder, I’d like to have a life.” -Scully

As far as paranormal content goes, this is the first weak episode. It deals with a mountain man (who turns out to be a woman) who has been attacking people outside of Atlantic City. City officials don’t want to cooperate for fear of driving off tourists, making the case harder to solve, yada, yada, yada.

However, this episode does have some interesting Scully and Mulder content. This is our first glimpse of Mulder’s apparent porn habit, when Scully walks in on him reading a nudie magazine in their office. He is reading an article about alien abduction though, so at least it’s somewhat work related, I guess. Scully gets glimpses of a life outside the FBI as she visits some family and even goes on a date. As for Mulder though, it’s made abundantly clear that work is his entire life.

Shadows

“Psychokinesis? You mean how Carrie got even at the prom?” -Scully

This episode deals with a ghost who is sticking around the mortal plane to protect his secretary/daughter proxy and help her solve his murder. It’s not a particularly memorable episode. Not bad, but not great either.

This episode starts to feel a bit like Polkaroo. There is plenty of unexplained phenomena going on – Mulder gets to witness a man being suspended in mid-air, objects moving by themselves, and an office being trashed by unseen hands. Scully is always just outside the door when these things happen and walks in just as they stop. She’s got to maintain her skepticism somehow, I guess.

Ghost in the Machine

But there’s plenty of kooks out there. Data travelers, Electro wizards, techno anarchists. Anything’s possible.” -Wilczek

The series takes a bit of a break from the paranormal this week, as the villain ends up being a supercomputer with artificial intelligence. Sadly, it isn’t done very well. The episode comes off as low budget and the script is weak and lacking humour. Witty banter between Scully and Mulder is what makes this show so good, and its absence is palpable.

X-FIles Ghost in the Machine - Scully saves Mulder

So after a strong beginning, these episodes were a bit of a slump. Luckily, one of the best episodes of the season is up next.

Tips for Pillars of Eternity

It’s been great to see so many strong isometric RPGs come out in the last year or two, with more still to come. Pillars of Eternity was released at the end of March by Obsidian and it’s been great so far, and really brings up the nostalgia for games like Baldur’s Gate 2 or Planescape: Torment, while adding some cool new features and story.

Pillars of Eternity

Here are a few tips if you’re just getting started.

Combat

The real-time combat took a bit to get used to for me, here are some of the things I learned:

  • Micromanage the hell out of your party. Even on lower difficultly levels, you can’t usually just let everyone auto-attack and still win.
  • Combat can be over quickly, and your characters can be killed in a matter of seconds if you’re not careful. Be aggressive – use your abilities proactively, don’t save them for a time you think they may be more needed. If you’re up against a group of enemies, reducing their numbers quickly is key.
  • Use the custom formations to put your party members in good initial positions (heartier melee in the front, ranged and casters in the back).
  • Make sure your squishy ranged are actually equipped with ranged weapons (a quarterstaff will still have them running into melee range) so they stay in safe spots.
  • Buffs and crowd control are just as important as damage and healing. I particularly like abilities that knock down enemies, or the big AoE buffs from classes like Priests and Druids.
  • Read all your spells – some offensive spells will only hit enemies, but many have friendly fire as well.
  • Sometimes, you just aren’t strong enough to beat a particular enemy yet. Learned from experience – don’t try to take on Raedric at level 3.

Companions

Here’s the list of all 8 possible companions and where you can find them, so you don’t miss any:

  • Aloth (Wizard) – Gilded Vale
  • Eder (Warrior) – Gilded Vale
  • Durance (Priest) – Magran’s Fork
  • Kana (Chanter) – Caed Nua
  • Pallegina (Paladin) – Oondra’s Gift in Defiance Bay
  • Sagani (Ranger) – Woodend Plains
  • Hiravias (Druid) – Stormwall Gorge
  • Grieving Mother (Cipher) – Dyrfold Village

The pre-created companions will all add something to the story as well as have their own character quests.

  • There are 3 classes not represented by the pre-created characters – Barbarian, Monk, and Rogue – in case that impacts the creation of your own character.
  • You can also make your own companions from an Inn.
  • You’ll level up faster if you don’t have the party of 6, as each character will get more experience.

Items

  • Rope and Grappling Hook, Hammer & Chisel, and Lockpicks are very useful, especially at the start of the game. If you get a chance to buy or pick these up, do it. There are in-game events which will need them if your skill levels aren’t very high yet.
  • Always carry the max amount of Camping Supplies (4).

Crafting

  • You don’t need to worry about recipes in the game, they’ll open up as you reach the appropriate levels.
  • You can cook or do alchemy, to get foods and potions which will provide buffs. You can make scrolls, though I haven’t found those are needed much, or traps.
  • Enchanting has been the most useful type of crafting for me. If you get a good, named piece of equipment, enchant it to make it even better.
  • Don’t worry too much about saving materials for later, most things can be found again or bought easily.

Exploring

  • Make extensive use of the Tab button, which will highlight items you can pick up or interact with, and Scouting mode, which will reveal traps and hidden items.
  • If Scouting mode is too slow for your tastes, pair it with Double Speed.
  • The initial scrolling speed for the game is slow, it can be increased in the menu under Game.
  • Rest often. It doesn’t seem that rest can be interrupted by monsters.
  • Visit Caed Nua early, because it opens up some cool new stuff.
  • You can’t get to Twin Elms until Act 3, don’t drive yourself nuts trying to figure out how to get there.
  • It matters what exit you take from some screens. Exiting from the East won’t open up access to an area South of you.

That’s all for now! Let me know if you need more info, or if you have any tips for me.

Lore and the Codex – How to do it Better

I’ve been playing Pillars of Eternity since it came out last week. So far, it’s a great game in one of my favourite genres, and I’m enjoying both the gameplay and the story. As with most RPGs, it’s full of lore that’s just waiting to be discovered by the player and enrich the game world. But how much lore is too much lore? And why is it always delivered via walls of text in books, journals, or codex entries?

Last week there was an article on Paste.com about 5 narrative devices games should stop using. I’d like to throw in my 2 cents and say that overly long journal entries have got to go as well. I usually go into games with the intention of reading all the available lore, stories, and histories but it generally takes all of half an hour before I’m overwhelmed with text and start skimming. An hour or two later, I’m skipping them completely. And in-game libraries? Well those just instill me with feelings of guilt and malaise as I know I’m not going to sit around reading for half an hour. And there’s always a library in fantasy games.

Pillars of Eternity - library books

I started Dragon Age: Inquisition planning to read all the lore. But within a very short timeframe of being at Haven, I was quickly overloaded with codex entries. Probably 30 of them opened up after just a brief run through the area, and a look at the Dragon Age wiki shows there are 558 codex entries in the game. Even assuming a modest length of 250 words an entry, that’s almost 140,000 words of text. I just don’t have the inclination to read through all that. I want to play the game, not read a novel.

Unfortunately in DA:I, my aversion to codex entries meant I had no idea what the very end of the game meant. So I was basically punished for not wanting to read them all. Also I have to say that Bioware games, at least on console, have a poor UI for finding your unread codex entries, making me even less likely to want to track them down and read them.

I do think this is more of a problem in Action RPGs such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or The Witcher. In a game like Pillars of Eternity or Torment, you know you’re going to be doing a lot of reading – they are text-heavy games. If you don’t want to read lines and lines of dialogue then that particular category of RPGs is probably not for you. But with ARPGs there’s a huge disconnect between running around shooting things or smashing them with a sword and standing, unmoving, reading page after page of stories, songs, and histories. A lot of these codex entries open up in the middle of a conversation or even a fight, making them awkward to get back to.

Obviously, I’m not against lore-rich worlds, or reading in general, but there has to be a better way. There are a few ways I think codex entries could be more accessible and interesting to players.

First – editing. Edit, edit, edit, cut, cut, cut. Let’s be real here – 558 codex entries in a single game is ridiculous. Focus on what’s most important or interesting. Once the number of entries has been brought down to a manageable size, also edit for length.

DAI loading page

DA:I showed codex entries on the loading pages. Great idea, terrible execution. Unless you have the longest loading screens ever, no one will be able to read through this when it’s presented. And each loading screen has 3 entries! Yes, put lore info on loading screens to give the player something to read, but limit the entry presented to 50, maybe 75 words. And make the text bigger.

Second – organize. Make a clear distinction between text information that may have an impact on your game – whether it’s a map that’s pointing you somewhere, an enemy’s weakness, or who the hell that guy at the end of the game is supposed to be – and the stuff that’s mostly just flavour. UIs can also be vastly improved by things like adding a ‘show unread entries’ button, customizable sorting, or flagging entries so you can easily reference them later.

Third – read to me and let me multitask. I don’t share a dislike of audio logs with the author of the Paste piece. If you can’t convey information to me in any other way, then please, read it to me. Diablo 3 does this well. When you pick up a journal the author pops up in a little window and reads it to you, leaving you free to go about your grindy business as you’re learning something about the world.

Mass Effect codex entriesIn Mass Effect, the codex entries are read aloud (good!) but you have to stay on the codex page in order to hear the whole thing (bad). If I could select an entry, or even a whole category, and have it read to me as I run around The Normandy or shoot Geth, I would be 99% more likely to experience those codex entries. I’m trying to save the galaxy here, I don’t have time to sit in the menu screens for an hour.

What do you think about lore told via codex entries and in-game books? Do you read them all? Is it too much, or do you appreciate having access to everything? Can it be done better?

Revisiting The X-Files – Squeeze

Do you have any idea what liver and onions go for on Reticulon?

The camera pans over a modest city skyline at dusk. A man walks out of a restaurant; the camera follows and slowly zooms in on him, occasionally cutting away to a storm drain across the street. As the man comes more into focus, the background colour bleeds away. A pair of yellow eyes are revealed within the storm drain, as the creepy-crawly music we’ll eventually hear a lot of ramps up. We follow the man into an office building, while the camera keeps cutting away to something unseen that seems to be stalking him. A screw on a small vent is shown being undone from the inside, as fingers squeeze out from under it. The man is suddenly and violently attacked by something inside his office. Pan back to the vent, which is being closed and screwed back in place by something unseen.

Ah, the first monster of the week episode. Now we’re in my wheelhouse. Though the mythology of The X-Files provides much of the backstory and driving force of the series, I’ve always enjoyed the standalone episodes, with their casts of odd and interesting characters, more. This is also the first episode written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, two of the more entertaining writers on the series.

After the opening credits, we get to see Scully having lunch with someone she used to work with at the FBI Academy. He manages to disparage her, Mulder, and their work all while asking for a favour. Smooth. The lack of point of entry in a rash of killings and liver extractions is stumping law enforcement and Agent Colton is determined to crack the case. With a little help from Scully, whom I’m sure he would give credit to, because he doesn’t seem like a self-serving jerk at all. Colton and Mulder get along about as well as expected, and Colton gets very salty when Mulder uncovers some actual evidence from the crime scene – elongated fingerprints from the vent. The fingerprints are common to crimes reaching back as far as 60 years, which also involved victims with missing livers. Looks like Mulder is proposing some spooky ideas again.

Scully presents a profile of the killer that, while it misses the killer’s true motivation, is pretty on the nose. She suggests they stake out past crime scenes because the killer is likely to return. Colton’s unit run with her plan, but not before snidely chuckling about her work on the x-files some more. They’re pretty hauty for a unit that didn’t have a single lead on the case before Scully got involved.

Mulder shows up unannounced to Scully’s stakeout location because she’s pretty much his only social connection at this point. I love Mulder, but he’s not a very FBI agent. Who sneaks around underground parking lots at night when they know armed agents are on a stakeout looking for a serial killer? Though Mulder insists Scully is wasting her time and that the killer will not come back here, they end up finding and detaining Eugene Victor Tooms, a member of animal control who was climbing around in the vents. At night. Without alerting security.

I savour it when Scully is right. One of the shortcomings of the whole series is that Scully almost never gets to be right about the big stuff. She’s this brilliant scientist, but whenever she states an informed scientific opinion like “No Mulder, it wasn’t aliens, they don’t exist” or “No Mulder, it’s impossible for this serial killer to be 100 years old” she usually ends up being proven wrong. In a show like The X-Files, the truth is stranger than fiction so the skeptic usually loses.

Doug Hutchison as Eugene Victor Tooms in Squeeze

Doug Hutchinson does a great job with this character. He’s so diminutive and soft spoken, but still manages to be quite terrifying.

After passing a lie detector test, with the exception of the questions Mulder added which would place him at the crime scenes from 60 years ago, Colton’s unit lets Tooms go. And of course he immediately goes and rips out someone else’s liver, getting into their house by squeezing down the chimney.

S&M decide they’re going to solve this case, Colton’s narrow minded ideas be damned. While tracking down info on the killer, they find a detective who had worked the murder cases in the 60s who shows them a picture of Tooms looking exactly the same as he does now. The agents travel to Tooms’ apartment (the shot of them entering the premises is the one used in the intro credits) where they find a nest made of newspaper and bile (ick) as well as trophies from previous victims. Mulder’s theory is that Tooms is a mutant who feeds on livers in order to keep himself alive and un-aging through the years. As they leave, a hidden Tooms lifts Scully’s necklace (which Mulder had awkwardly called attention to in a previous scene).  Looks like he’s found his next victim.

Here we get to see Scully’s apartment for the first time. All she wants is a nice, hot bath to ease away the tensions of the day but, no, she has to get attacked by a mutant, contortionist, liver eater. Mulder bursts in just in time to intervene, distracting Tooms from the overpowered Scully. She, in turn, saves Mulder from Tooms’ attack by handcuffing him to the faucet. Of course, everything we’ve seen from Tooms indicates he could squeeze out of those cuffs in the wink of an eye, but we’ll just ignore that. We’ll also ignore that the action scenes at this point in the series are really poorly done and a bit laughable.

Tooms is institutionalized and immediately goes about building a new nest. His intense gaze at the slot in his cell door indicates we may not have seen the last of him.

Revisiting The X-Files – Deep Throat

Daylight. The episode opens on a group of military police surrounding a house. They take down the door, spreading out through the house. Looks of shock appear on their faces as they find a man, shaking and covered in burns, huddled in a corner. He’s going to need a doctor.

Scully sits at a bar, wearing some terrible 90s eyeglasses and flipping through notes. Mulder appears and it almost looks like he’s going in for a kiss, which is a little weird. He stops short and offers to buy her a drink. Scully, ever the professional, refuses to drink at 2pm. Mulder goes on to tell her about a military pilot of experimental aircraft who had a psychotic breakdown, was taken in for hospitalization and hasn’t been heard from in 4 months. I love the sly amusement in Scully’s face and voice whenever she questions what Mulder is telling her. She clearly thinks he’s nuts.

The X-Files s01e02 Deep Throat - Mulder sees Deep Throat for the first time

This is the episode in which we first meet Deep Throat (kinda obvious from the title), the man who will become the agents’ contact and giver of sometimes reliable information, who warns Mulder off the case. This is the first episode that really opens up the X-Files mythology. Conspiracy is afoot and Mulder’s interest in this case gets rewarded by someone having his phone tapped.

No one wants to talk to anyone. That seems to be a theme of this episode. Military refuse to talk to Mulder and Scully about the missing pilot. Another pilot’s wife refuses to say anything about the military, and admonishes the wife of the missing pilot for bringing in outside forces. It’s the ‘ufo nuts’ who end up being the source of the best (and only) information, directing the agents to Ellens Air Force base.

This episode is full of UFOs, which Mulder thinks have been created by reverse-engineering alien technology. When nearing the air force base at night, Mulder and Scully see two points of light in the sky, moving in ways aircraft couldn’t possibly maneuver. They also find a couple stoners, one of which is a very young Seth Green, who end up providing more information than anyone.

Besides possible alien technology, this episode introduces the idea that the military is able to wipe people’s memories or re-wire their brains. The missing pilot comes home but his wife calls the agents for help, insisting that this man isn’t really her husband. He doesn’t know things he should know, and he doesn’t remember where he’s been for the last months. After this, the chilly reception the agents received from the military gets downright hostile, as men in black accost them, destroying photographs they had taken and telling them to gtfo.

The X-Files s01e02 Deep Throat - Scully holds Air Force security at gunpoint

Mulder doesn’t like being told what to do so he lies to Scully and runs off to explore the air base in secret. Good move, hot shot. He sees a UFO (not necessarily alien, but definitely unidentifiable) up close and then is immediately captured, strapped to a gurney, and injected with drugs, while Scully has to go rescue him. It’s actually a nice reversal of what tends to happen in future episodes. Scully gets captured a lot in the coming seasons. Scully lays the smack down (shut up, it’s the 90s) on airforce security personnel, holds him at gunpoint, and demands he bring her to the base to find Mulder. Before they can get into the base, Mulder is sent out, looking like a lost, drugged up puppy. He doesn’t remember anything.

You’d think being federal agents would afford Scully and Mulder some degree of safety or respect but this episode makes it clear that if they keep pursuing the alien / government conspiracy thing, they will never be safe. At least Mulder gets thrown a bone at the end when Deep Throat visits him and confirms that “they (aliens) have been here for a long, long time.”

Revisiting The X-Files – Pilot

With the recent announcement that Scully and Mulder will be returning for a 6 episode stint in the 10th season of the X-Files, it seems like a great time to  rewatch the series. The show has had an important place in my life, with it becoming somewhat of an obsession of mine at the end of grade school when it was first on. It spawned many all night watching marathons, inspired me to draw its stylized X on pretty much anything from school desks to my jeans with magic marker, caused me to dye my hair red for the first time, and may have influenced me into sneaking around industrial parks once or twice, in search of government conspiracies.

So grab a cup of coffee, maybe some sunflower seeds or a mushroom pizza, and let’s revisit The X-Files together.


The opening shot is dark. Fade into the lush British Colombia woods, a sight we’ll become quite familiar with over the next 5 seasons. A young woman scrambles through the forest, afraid. Running from something. The wind picks up and an unnaturally bright light appears over the horizon, framing the shape of a man approaching her. She looks up at him as the light overtakes the shot. The next morning the woman is found dead with two marks on her back and identified as one of the members of the class of ’89. It’s happening again.

Dana Scully with the Cigarette Smoking Man in the background

Cut to Washington and we see the first star of the show, Gillian Anderson as Agent Dana Scully, here to lay down some science and set hearts aflutter. I even love her in shoulder pads. Scully’s first scene tells us a lot. She’s eager, informed, well-spoken, proud. She’s not afraid to crack some jokes in front of her stuffed suit superiors, including CSM (Cigarette Smoking Man) who lurks silently on the sidelines, smoking as always. At her first meeting with David Duchovny’s Mulder the chemistry is instantaneous. Though I find the scripted dialogue of their first encounter a bit stilted, there’s a wonderful tension between the two actors which only approves throughout the episode. Once the nature of each of the agents is established – Scully is a skeptic, Mulder an enthusiastic believer in the paranormal – they’re off to the very plausible state of Oregon to investigate a death and possible alien abduction.

The actual story of this episode isn’t what most appeals to me. As is common with network television, the pilot is usually one of the weaker episodes of the series because it has to spend so much time setting up what’s to come. There’s unexplained phenomena, possible alien abduction, lost time, and hints of conspiracy at both local and very high levels.

Dana Scully and Fox Mulder talking in a motel room

The best thing about the episode is how quickly yet naturally it develops the relationship between Scully and Mulder that will drive the entire series. There’s a point midway through the episode where Scully goes to Mulder’s room, concerned that she has marks on her back similar to those found on the dead girl. Though the decision to show Scully in her bra during the pilot episode was gratuitous, it leads to a delightful moment between her and Mulder. After Scully’s brief moment of vulnerability and the trust she places in her new partner, Mulder offers some vulnerability of his own and opens up about why the x-files mean so much to him. When he was a child his younger sister was abducted, unassumingly by aliens and he’s been chasing the truth ever since. It’s a great way to both deliver some exposition and show how quickly the two agents begin to trust either other despite their different perspectives on the job at hand. It’s a great relationship, and one which will remain platonic for quite a while, much to the chagrin of shippers everywhere. Though honestly I was always more likely to ship Scully and Skinner. Or Scully and me. Or Mulder and me.

Once the case is wrapped up, the only physical evidence of abduction (or of anything) that remains is an implant of unknown origins found in the sinus cavity of one of the victims. The last shot shows CSM storing it among thousands of hidden evidence boxes deep within the Pentagon. Likely beside the Ark of the Covenant. It seems this conspiracy rabbit hole runs deep.