Doing it Right: Tomb Raider (2013)

Doing it Right is a new, hopefully regular, feature I’ll be writing that looks at games that I think are making positive strides in regard to females and representation in games. While it’s important to call out games when they are sexist and reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the games that are succeeding at elevating themselves away from that. 

I played through the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 for the first time not too long ago. From a gameplay perspective, I thought it was amazing. It looked and sounded great, and the controls were smooth as silk. It was one of the most engaging and entertaining games I’ve played in a while. But how does it hold up when I look deeper? Through her history Lara Croft has been interpreted in many ways, from strong female role model to virtual blow-up doll. Have Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics re-invented Lara in a positive way or have they fallen back on lazy and sexist video game tropes?

Lara Croft

Classic Lara Croft

When I think of classic Lara Croft, the above image is what comes to mind. On the bright side, she looks fierce and determined. But she has completely unrealistic body proportions. Besides the huge breasts, which she was always known for, she also had small hips and a teeny, tiny waist. She has an unnaturally wide stance. She was always an ass kicker, but she was also eye candy, with her physical assets at the forefront.

Lara Croft reimangined

This is the new Lara. She looks just as determined, though maybe a little less fierce (this is an origin story, after all). Her body proportions are much more realistic. She looks like someone who is strong, who can climb up cliff faces and use a bow with a heavy enough draw weight to take down an enemy. Her outfit is a reasonable outfit for raiding tombs. I do have to suspend disbelief a little bit that those skinny tank top straps or her bra straps never slide off her shoulders, but I can get past that. The new Lara makes me believe that her designers thought about function just as much as form.

You can also choose to put Lara in different outfits, which I believe were DLC originally, but were included in the PS4 definitive edition. In most games I find games that the ‘bonus’ outfits for female characters tend to be much more revealing than their original costumes (see games ranging from Metroid to Cool Boarders 2 to Bayonetta). In Tomb Raider, it’s very refreshing to see that this isn’t the case.

Tomb Raider skins

The extra skins actually put more clothes on Lara. Her starting tank top is as revealing as it gets. Again, function is just as important as form. She gets the Sure Shot outfit, which puts her in archery gear. She gets the Hunter outfit, which adds camouflage to her normal attire. Three of the six bonus outfits have sleeves. Most of them cover her chest. Lara is still gorgeous, but not in a “we need to make her overtly sexy so men will want to play this game” way.

The new Lara is also smart. Not that the old Lara wasn’t, but here it’s made very clear that she’s an academic. She knows a lot about other cultures, she has good instincts, and is continuously puzzling things out throughout the game. She figures things out when other people can’t. When she finds an artifact in the game she shows reverence towards it. The term “tomb raider” doesn’t really fit Lara, as she’s not going to exotic locales to pillage another culture’s historical artifacts. She yearns for discovery and knowledge. Through journal entries found throughout the game, we see that Lara’s brains and bravery also inspires adoration from the rest of the Endurance crew.

There was a lot of controversy about the Tomb Raider reboot and how Lara is portrayed, and most of that was due to some incredibly dumb things said by the executive producer before the game was released. Things like “we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again” and suggesting that “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character… They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’” I can tell you that’s not the Tomb Raider I played. People will interpret things in different ways, but to me, Lara was never broken. Lots of bad things happened, but she overcame them all. The game occasionally showed that she was scared or in pain or doubting, but she kept going. I can’t fault a game for trying to make the protagonist more emotionally realistic. Most people can’t be in mortal danger, drop hundreds of bodies, or have their friends die without being a little shaken up.

Damsel in Distress

Tomb Raider does use one of the oldest tropes in the book, the damsel in distress. Early in the game, Lara’s friend Sam gets kidnapped. Sam is a descendant of the Sun Queen Himiko, so Lara literally needs to save the princess. However, a couple of things set this scenario apart from the usually problematic cliche.

Lara and Sam

First, none of the women need to be saved by a man. Lara is the one who does all the rescuing. She saves a number of the men in her crew as well.

Second, Sam is never portrayed as an object or a prize, as the damsel in distress so often is. We learn about her through her interactions with Lara and the rest of the crew, as well as through journal entries. She’s not just a plot device, she’s a real character. The relationship between her and Lara is established.

Diversity

Women play most of the important roles within the game, from the hero, to the skeptic, to the one who needs rescuing, to the big bad.

The crew of the Endurance is fairly sexually and ethnically diverse. There are 4 men and 3 women. Four characters are white, one is black, one is Japanese, and one is Polynesian.

The nameless bad guys who Lara has to fight are also very diverse. In many games where the protagonist racks up a big kill count the antagonists are the “savage” natives, or just some kind of non-white/non-Western group. As you learn through journal entries found on the island, the Solarii Brotherhood is made up of the people who have crashed on the island, who come from all over the world.

It’s not stated anywhere in the game but if you wanted to, you could absolutely interpret the relationship between Lara and Sam as a romantic one.

 Overall

In addition to being a whole lot of fun, I found Tomb Raider to be a very positive experience from a feminist perspective. Lara was presented as a strong woman, who only got stronger throughout the game. That’s not to say that it’s completely without problems but, as I mentioned, I wanted to focus on the good things. If you want to hear some more opinions about the game, and hear some discussion of the more problematic things, go listen the episode of Justice Points I was a guest on. I tried not to overlap the article with the podcast too much.

Hear Me Roar

The topic of sexism in video games is not a new one, but is one that has been becoming more and more prevalent, at least in the corners of the internet that I frequent. As a female who has been gaming since I developed the manual dexterity to use a keyboard or a controller, the topic is an important one to me.

I will admit that I didn’t always consider being a woman in gaming one worthy of much discussion. Over the past 25 years or so, I’ve had few memorably negative incidents that stemmed from the fact that I was a girl. Sure, there have been some “oh, my god, a girl!” exclamations when I spoke in voice chat in WoW (I actually managed to completely silence a Mumble channel by talking earlier this week). I’ve been asked for pictures, told my voice is “hot”. I’ve also been told I sound like a 12 year old, and putting those two sentiments together is problematic. But in general, I never felt othered for being a female who games.

However, my experiences are not representative of every woman’s. I know I enjoy certain privileges. I know I’ve been lucky. I don’t frequent gaming areas that are known for having a toxic atmosphere or play many games with people I don’t know. I have a very good IRL ignore function that lets things I don’t care to see and hear go by without me having to register them. I also have a thick skin and a big ego. So if anyone were to suggest that I was less of a gamer or my opinions were less important because I have a vagina I could beat them at video games, tell them to fuck off, and then forget they ever existed.

The problem is that even though I haven’t had much overt sexism directed at me personally in games, it’s still there, ingrained into attitudes, opinions, and actions all around. It’s in SCOTUS rulings; it’s in things the mayor of my city says; it’s in game tournaments that exclude women; it’s in women getting minimized, insulted, and threatened for daring to criticize the status quo.

Video games, just like all other media, absolutely influence the way people think and how they relate to other people. When surrounded by countless examples of women as prizes/decoration/helpless/weak/shallow/disposable/sex objects the idea that women are less than can definitely take root (or, in many cases, become more deeply rooted).

Gaming is something that I love. It’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I care enough to speak up and voice my opinions. As Anita Sarkeesian prefaces all of her Tropes vs. Women videos: “Please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.” If no one was ever critical, even of the things they like, nothing would ever evolve and get better. Calling out inequalities and bullshit is worthwhile. However, I think that in addition to pointing out the things that need to change, it’s just as important to point out the positives in games. In my experience, criticism is a lot easier to take and more likely to be accepted when it’s balanced with some good. Plus, if I only focused on the negatives, I’d drive myself crazy.

So, I’m going to start what I hope will be a regular feature writing about games that I think are doing things right – being representative, creating nuanced female characters, not falling back on lazy tropes. Few games do this perfectly but they deserve kudos for making an effort and the things they do get right.

This past weekend I was on the Justice Points podcast to talk about the Tomb Raider reboot, so that seems like a good place to start. Later this week I’ll kick things off by talking about Tomb Raider and all the ways I think the developers and writers did right by Lara Croft.

The Swapper: Review and Giveaway

Of all the games I picked up during the Steam Summer Sale the one I’ve enjoyed the most is The Swapper, an atmospheric puzzle platformer set in space. In it, you play an unidentified astronaut who must traverse a huge, mostly dark and empty space station. It makes for an unsettling mood and provides plenty of intrigue that makes you want to push on and discover more.

The Swapper

Gameplay revolves around the titular swapper device which allows you to create clones of yourself which will copy your actions exactly. The device also allows you to swap your consciousness (soul?) into the clones in order to move forward. In order to make your way through the space station you need to collect orbs which are inaccessible to you initially but reachable through clever use of your clones.

While the puzzles start off simple, they quickly become more challenging. Eventually it’s not just a matter of positioning, you also need to navigate around obstacles and make use of gravity, momentum, and timing. Don’t worry about needing twitchy, split-second reaction time though – as you hold down the mouse button to project a clone time slows way down, giving you plenty of time to think and act.

The story is not only about trying to escape the space station but also learning about an alien civilization and creators of the swapper technology, the Watchers. You learn about what happened through security console logs, interactions with the Watchers themselves, and from a mysterious woman who seems to be the only other human survivor on the station.

The Swapper

The narrative and gameplay are equally engaging, and really enhance each other. Things get rather philosophical as questions about the nature of life, identity, and the mind are raised. Are the hundreds of clones you create and discard throughout the game just empty vessels? When they fall to their deaths or get dematerialized once you no longer need them, does it mean nothing? Can a body be shared by multiple minds?

The Swapper clocks in at about 5 hours of gameplay, depending on how long it takes you to solve the puzzles. If you’re a fan of games that make you think and the sci-fi genre, I’m sure you’d like it. If you’re looking for something to compare the game to, I’d say it has aspects of Braid (though you’re manipulating copies of yourself instead of time) and a number of similar ideas to the movie Moon.

Rating: 10/10 – The game is short but kept me engaged and curious the whole way through. Gameplay is simple, smooth and requires more thinking than reacting. Also, it’s set in space. So automatic +1.


Since I enjoyed The Swapper so much, I’d like for other people to enjoy it too, so I’ve got 2 copies to give away on Steam. If you’d like a chance to win one, comment below and tell me your favourite game, book, movie, or show that is set in space. Be sure to use a real email when you comment so I can send you the game. I will randomly pick 2 winners in a week, on Sunday July 6th.


Edit (July 7): Thanks to everyone who entered! The winners were Lizzy and Gruffertus! Steam codes have been sent.

Steam Summer Sale Stash

I’ve been on Steam for 6 years, though I never really paid much attention to the big sales, or Steam as a whole until recently. The Steam Summer Sale seemed like a huge trap for those gamers with hoarding tendencies – the ones who would purchase 50 games and maybe play 3 of them. Recent statistical sampling has shown that this is a valid concern. 37% of games registered on Steam have never been played. Hot tip: even if it only costs $1.99, if you never play it, it’s not really a bargain. I’ll never understand the mentality of just wanting to buy/own things but never use them. But I digress.

I’ve purchased 8 games so far on sale, and overall I’ve been happy with my purchases.  Here’s a brief rundown on a few of the games I’ve had a chance to play.

Don’t Starve

Don’t Starve, as indicated by its title, is a survival game. You play a character lost in the wilderness and you need to survive. Don’t starve. Don’t get killed by evil frog monsters. That’s about it. The environment is filled with things that can help you survive – seeds you can eat or plant (if you find the place to plant them); trees you can chop down to build fires or weapons; cute little bunnies you can trap, murder, cook, and eat. As you progress through the game you can learn to build new things – new weapons, clothing, items to keep your sanity level up. If you starve (or get killed by frogs) you are permanently dead and need to start over from the beginning.

The first time I played this I found it thoroughly charming. The art style and music is great, the exploration was fun, and the whole game has an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek quality. I think I lived for 6 days before I went through a wormhole and made the mistake of attacking some pig creatures which immediately killed me. A big part of the fun was learning how to build new things. At the start you can only build a few simple things – an axe, a torch, a small trap – but after finding the right materials, you can build a science machine and create prototypes of new items and equipment. Doing this really opened up the in-game possibilities, but I died not long after I built it.

Don't Starve

On my second play I survived longer – 7 or 8 days I think. However, in all this time, I never found a gold nugget required to build the science machine. This greatly impacted my enjoyment of the game, as it stifled any sense of forward progress and became all about wandering around searching for boulders to mine, while still having to collect mats to build fires and feed myself. I got bored and frustrated rather quickly and threw myself into a beehive.

I’m hoping my second play through was an anomaly (the maps are randomly generated, after all) and the materials for the science machine are generally easier to find. I’d like to find out what I can build, discover, and what kinds of creatures I can take on if I procure some more powerful weapons and armor. I’ll be giving it another shot soon. After a quick scan of a Don’t Starve wiki, it seems like there’s still a lot to discover, and even an adventure mode to open up, which I’d like to try out.

Prison Architect

I run very hot and cold on simulation games. SimCity or The Sims? I’ve tried them and got bored real fast. I’ve never had the urge to play any of the Tycoon or Themepark games. But, Afterlife – a game where you build heaven and hell – is a game I’ve sunk many hours into and really enjoyed. Playboy: The Mansion – basically The Sims with a business component of having to publish a magazine – is a game I loved play-testing back in my video game QA days. Theme Hospital – a game released in 1997 – is something I still go back to and play every once in a while.

I like my sims a little on the odd side, so Prison Architect seemed right up my alley. This game is still in alpha – it’s an Early Access sale – but is quite playable. The introduction has you building an execution chamber for an existing jail. The game walks you through step-by-step, from placing the foundations and choosing flooring materials, to building enough capacitors so your power generator isn’t overloaded when the switch is flipped, all the way to walking your inmate to his holding cell. As you play, you also get a bit of the story of the prisoner, shown with comic book images and decent voice acting. I really liked the tutorial scenario.

Prison Architect

The next phase of the game stops holding your hand and tasks you with building a whole prison. You are given some basic instructions (like you need a warden and a kitchen before your prisoners arrive), but overall everything is very open. The planning and construction aspects are surprisingly deep. You don’t just drag and drop objects into rooms, you need to build the walls, the floor, designate what the space will be used for, build the plumbing, the generators, the wiring. It was actually a bit overwhelming.

My problem with the game is that it starts with a rich, objective-based, story-laden intro, and then it dumps you into a giant sandbox without a whole lot of context or storytelling. Apparently a story mode of the game is planned, but it hasn’t been developed yet. If you like a more pure sim experience and just want to build things, I’d recommend the game. However, if you’re like me and want some goals and narrative in your games, I’d wait until further into the development cycle.

Talisman: Digital Edition

I love big, complex board games. Until I don’t. I’ve played a lot of board games where I start out with a big group of friends and a lot of excitement to play. Four hours later, I wonder – will this game ever end? Talisman: Digital Edition is a very faithful port of the classic board game and allows you to play either online with friends or against AI opponents.

Talisman

I’ve played a lot of this since I bought it, partially because it doesn’t require that much attention. It’s turn-based so I can play while watching an episode of some tv show (I finished season 6 of Glee while play, don’t judge me), or I can tab out of WoW to take my turn. I really like when board games are digitized. Not having to keep track of a tabletop full of life tokens and counters and spells, or put them away at the end, is a big plus for me.

If you like the Talisman boardgame, you’ll probably like this. The Talisman expansions are also available to add on, I think I might get these, as the original Crown of Command win scenario is not very well thought out.


I haven’t had a chance to play Monaco, Spelunky, or To the Moon yet, and I’ve only briefly played Warlock – Master of the Arcane. So far my favourite game I’ve picked up is The Swapper, a puzzle-platformer that takes place on a huge spaceship. I really love it so far, but I want to finish it before I write about it.

Have you picked up anything that you’d recommend?

Monkey on my Back

I haven’t done a /played in a while. I don’t really want to see the number of days it would show me. I know I’ve spent over a year of my life in Azeroth though. I’ve been thinking about how this game manages to gets its hooks in so deep for so long.

Collection

People love things. And WoW has so many (pixelated) things to collect. There’s gear, gold, companion/battle pets, mounts, vanity items, toys, tabards, profession recipes. Though some things aren’t even part of a collection per-say, those of us with hoarding tendencies can even make endless loops around zones to farm stockpiles of ore or herbs. Not everyone will want to collect everything (I hate vanity items and delete them from my bags immediately), but there’s something for everyone. I don’t even like pet battles but I still went around and collected every pet in Azeroth at one point. As long as there is some new object to collect, even if you have to kill something 700 times before lady luck smiles upon you and it drops, people will log in.

Completion

This one goes along with Collection, and is the one that usually got me. Achievements. For the collectors, possessing those 90 battle pets found in Eastern Kingdoms was the reward. For me, it was those five (5!! /cry) achievement points I got when I caught the last one. I didn’t give a shit about the pets themselves, and I certainly didn’t have fun for 90% of the time I spent collecting them. But those shiny, arbitrary points – I wanted them all. Of course achievements aren’t unique to WoW, or MMOs. If a game has a multi-platform release, I’ll always get it for Xbox because I love those gamer points (and the Xbox controller). The difference is, going for all the achievements in your average Xbox game will only take a couple extra hours. In WoW, the time investment needed can be absolutely ridiculous. And it needs to be, or else you’d get them all and have nothing to log in for. At one point I wanted to go for Battlemaster. Then I realized that would likely be at least a hundred hours of generally frustrating gameplay (that number is a total guess and probably a very conservative one). I spent hours going for archaeology achievements, an activity which was about as interesting as watching paint dry (and with paint, at least there are fumes).The pinnacle of ludicrousness came recently, with Going to Need a Bigger Bag. We haven’t had new content in 9 months, but people are still logging in to camp mobs, kill mobs, hate life when the last item they need doesn’t drop, and then do it all over again.

Competition

I like to raid, I like to do it well, and I want to kill things before most people. How could I ever unsub while there’s still that last big bad to kill? Of course, the raid competition bug bites many people a lot harder than me. I like to kill bosses, but I also like my 9 hour per week raid schedule. For those who are truly competitive, they not only log upwards of 12, 15, 20, hours per week raiding, they also do all the current raiding extras – rep grinds, valor capping, food farming, and consumable crafting. The truly competitive even go so far as to level and gear up alts so they can run content multiple times, funnel gear to raider mains, etc. It’s not enough to just see the content, you need to see it and defeat it first, and with that comes a lot of time commitment.

Community

In a multi-player game, this one is the biggie. If I can take a step back, the collection, completion, and competition aspects that have kept me playing this game for 8 years seems rather inane. When the servers shut down and Jasyla the Night Elf Druid is no more, will I care that I had 173 mounts, 19460 achievement points, or that my guild was the 176th US 25man guild to defeat Heroic Iron Qon? Not likely. But I will care about all the friends I met in-game, the friendships that extended into real life, and the people I haven’t met but chat with often on Twitter or blog comments. I’ve seen a number of people over the past week or so really struggling with wanting to step away from WoW over some things that have been said by executives recently, and not wanting to leave their friends, the community of people they’ve become a part of. I’m sure that obligation is a thing that keeps a lot of people playing over the years. Wanting to avoid additional obligation is the thing that’s kept me from ever picking up another MMO habit. When I don’t enjoy playing the newest Final Fantasy game, I just stop – return it to the store if I’m feeling ambitious. No harm, no foul. But when WoW gets boring, when the healing game sucks, boss fights require spreadsheets, and we don’t see any new content for a year? Stopping isn’t so easy since it means losing a big source of connection to the community.

Conclusion

There is no conclusion. It doesn’t end, you never win. The story doesn’t get wrapped up. So you’ve killed heroic Garrosh? Just wait for a bit and there will be a whole new set of bads to kill (also, you didn’t really kill him, sucker, he’ll be back because we can never get enough orc bros). There will always be another quest zone, a new PVP season, a new raid instance. You may feel a sense of accomplishment now, but it will fade as soon as the next thing is released, and you’ll have something new you need to conquer.

So, I guess that’s how it happens. One day a friend says “hey, you should try this, I think you’d like it”. The next thing you know, its 8 years later, you’re still playing, you’ve spent $1500 on subscription fees, and dedicated 10,000 hours of your life to a single game but still can’t say that you’ve beat it.

Two Telltale Tales

I’ve been playing through Telltale’s A Wolf Among Us, since the first episode was released last fall. After my great experience with The Walking Dead, I was ready to continue my ride on the Telltale train.

A Wolf Among Us is a gorgeous game with the same, heavily-outlined, cell-shaded art as TWD. But it also has some of its own style, with an atmosphere that looks like a cross between Heavy Rain and Vice City. The story (based on the graphic novels Fables), what I’ve seen of it so far, is good. It’s filled with interesting characters and situations. I love the premise of having fairy tale characters living, in secret, in the real world.

The game is usually referred to as an adventure game but in reality it’s more of an interactive story, with quick time events. Ninety percent of the game requires no interaction at all; it’s mostly watching characters interact with each other. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, as the characters are very watchable and the writing is well done. When you do actually get to play the game, it mostly involves walking through a room and examining things, or making dialogue choices (plus the quick time events whenever you end up fighting someone). Really, the formula is identical to TWD. Heavy on narrative, light on game play.

So I’m left wondering… why did I love The Walking Dead, while my experience so far with A Wolf Among Us is only mediocre?

I think part of the problem is the episodic nature of the games. TWD fit into episodes very well. Though they were all part of the larger story about Lee and Clementine, each episode had a logical endpoint which wrapped up the smaller narrative. Episode 1 was about the characters dealing with the initial zombie outbreak and finding a safe (for now) place to stay. Episode 2 dealt with finding another group of survivors on a farm, etc. Episode 4 was the only one that ended with a real cliff-hanger, something that wasn’t wrapped up within the episode. Wolf, on the other hand, is not so neatly broken up. There are no smaller stories; it’s all about Bigby searching for a serial killer within Fabletown. So when an episode ends, I don’t feel as if I’ve really completed anything, I just feel frustrated that I’ll have to wait another 3 months to get the next part of the story.

Time between episodes is also a big problem. Whereas I didn’t start playing TWD until 4 episodes were already out, I’ve been playing Wolf as it’s released. With TWD I felt like a got a solid 8 hour game, followed by a short wait for the finale, while with Wolf the ratio of game time (episodes take about 90 minutes to finish) to waiting time seems insane. My interest level has gone down with each episode.

There’s also a problem with the characters. The Wolf story and characters aren’t gripping me like they should. This is odd, as the atmosphere and story of Wolf are way more appealing to me than TWD on a surface level. But for some reason it’s not grabbing me. With Lee in TWD I felt very close to his character – decisions he (I) made had an effect on me, and how the rest of the characters saw him was important. With Bigby, I’m just an observer. Whether the other characters respect the tactics he uses to get what he needs doesn’t really matter to me, I just want him to solve the mystery. TWD’s decisions felt like moral decisions. Wolf’s feel somewhat less than – is it really immoral for a wolf to rip out someone’s throat? TWD, for me, was a role-playing game. Wolf is a story, and one I could get through much faster if I just read the graphic novels.

Another aspect that makes Wolf feel more like a story than a game to me is that I’m not finding any of the decisions I make or conversations paths I choose make much of a difference. I know that in TWD the ending was set – your decisions didn’t change what ultimately happened; only who was with you in the end, but regardless of that, the choices felt important. I wanted to make decisions that would make Clem strong, so she would survive (side-note: having a child character so prominently featured in the game who I wanted to save rather than knock off was quite a writing feat). I wanted the other characters in my party to trust me. I wanted to save as many people as possible. In Wolf, I don’t feel any of these things. When the text pops up “Toad will remember that,” I think “so?” he’s going to give me the information I need whether or not I backed him up in the previous chapter. Choosing to visit one location over another makes me think I’m going to miss a small scene, but I don’t think it’s impacting the outcome in any meaningful way.

Even the quick time events aren’t as exciting to me. In TWD I was afraid that being slow meant that I (or someone else) would get eaten by a zombie. Wolf’s combat is much more prolonged and there’s a lot of spamming of the A button, which often doesn’t even feel like it’s doing anything. You also need to fail a number of actions before you face any consequence (i.e. death).

To make a long story short (too late), I’m disappointed. TWD was one of my best gaming experiences last year, I got totally immersed in it, and the end left me choking back sobs for a good 10 minutes. Wolf just isn’t doing it for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I’ll finish the game – hopefully the final chapter will elevate my experience a bit since there will be some closure and no more waiting. Chapter 4 is out next week, so I’ll let you know if it changes my opinion at all.

Have you played both of these games? What do you think?

Footnote: As a life-long inverter of y-axes, I’d really appreciate the ability to do this in future Telltale games. My quick-time responses could be much quicker.

Moebius: Empire Rising

Moebius: Empire Rising is the newest game from Jane Jenson, creator of the classic adventure game series, Gabriel Knight – one of my favourites. The game released on April 15th after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

As I backed this game on Kickstarter, I obviously really wanted to like it. Sadly… I didn’t.

In Moebius, you play Malachi Rector, a brilliant antiques appraiser whose social skills are lacking. Malachi is hired by a mysterious organization to do a mysterious job which takes him all over the world. As you get deeper into the story (minor spoilers alert) you find out what you’re actually doing. The group Malachi is working for believes in a “Moebius pattern” where the lives of people in history are being repeated in the present. They hire Malachi to find key historical figures who could bring about an era of stability and prosperity. Basically. Summarizing the plot to this game in a coherent manner was harder than expected.

The game does have some good things going for it. I did find the game occasionally enjoyable, especially at the beginning. The dialogue was decent, as was most of the voice acting. The background images were pretty and the music was good – very evocative of Gabriel Knight. There were also some unique kinds of puzzles. As your main objective in the game was to relate people to historical figures, one of the main puzzle types was matching up their characteristics. This was both interesting and educational, though once I had done it a couple of times, I figured out that just guessing was often quicker than reading though all the information.

My favourite feature of the game was a button that highlights all objects on the screen that could be interacted with. While using this could be considered easy-mode, I found it incredibly useful. Pixel-hunting for objects is not something I’m interested in doing, and this was totally prevented.

There were a few things that started out as positives, but turned into negatives. Adventure games are often far out there in terms of reality and physics. Adventurers often walk around with shovels, coffee tables and iron statues in their overcoats. Where do they put them? In this game, the protagonist often refused to pick things up until he saw a need for them. At first, I applauded that. Why would you walk around with a can of motor oil? But after a while, it got very frustrating. For example, at one point I needed to get into the VIP tent at a political rally. In order to lift a pass off someone I needed to go back to my apartment to pick up an mp3 player I hadn’t been able to pick up earlier. Once I used that to bribe someone to be a distraction I needed to go back to the apartment again to pick up some scissors. When I successfully stole the pass and had to go back to my office to get some superglue that I also was unable to pick up before. Then back to the rally to get into the tent. That’s a lot of back and forth that could have been avoided. Not picking up every single item in sight makes sense, but as it turns out, that kind of realism in video games is not a great idea. “How irritating” Malachi remarks. Tell me about it.

Items and inventory use wasn’t all bad though. I enjoyed that you were never overloaded with items and there weren’t any nonsensical item combination puzzles. No cat fur mustaches in this game.

Some of the puzzles fell flat. Malachi was able to analyze people to learn more about them. Sounds like a neat idea, but in practice it mostly involved guesswork and the process of eliminating the most ridiculous options.

The most unforgivable part of the game was an excruciating 50+ screen underground maze at the end. There’s only something to do/interact with on maybe 5 of the screens. The rest is just running through dark tunnels. Considering how the rest of the locations in the game (like France, Egypt, New York) have only a handful of screens, dedicating so many to this awful, dismal, repetitive place is almost insulting. Who could have possibly thought this was a good idea?

Moebius runs about 8 hours long. Though there were parts of the game I enjoyed and I’m glad I finished it (other than that awful maze), it was disappointing overall. The story was so-so, the characters were a bit flat and some of the animation work was downright bad. The game lacked the charm and historical detail of Gabriel Knight and really did nothing to advance the dying (dead?) point-and-click adventure genre, or even replicate it at its height.

Hopefully the other game projects I’ve backed (Tesla Effect – May 7!) will deliver more bang for my buck.