Her Story is a New Kind of Interactive Murder Mystery

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To start, all you see is a computer screen displaying a version of Windows from the early 90s. This is the interface for a police archive of interrogation videos, and you dig up the videos by typing terms into a search bar. To start with, the search bar is already filled with the word “Murder” and inputting that search gives you four video clips. They all show a woman being interviewed by the police about a murder. However, the clips are very short and don’t depict the whole interview. You will have to type in more search terms based on the scant clues provided in the videos you’ve already seen, and doing so turns up more videos for you to watch to help you figure out what happened.

Where it all startsn
Where it all starts

This is the setup for Her Story, a new game that has just been released on Steam and mobile platforms. Actually, to call it a game would be a stretch for some people. There is no enemy in the traditional sense, and you can’t even influence events. All you can do is keep entering search terms and watching videos. Can a search bar really be a game? Perhaps in the sense that 20 Questions is a game. In the end, Her Story is an experiment in a novel form of storytelling, and whether it works for you will depend largely on how well you accept its premise and the gimmicks that make it work.

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Secret Word is How Not to do a Censorship Game

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Truthfully, the vast majority of you are never going to see this game and probably would never have heard of it if you didn’t read this review. I’m really just writing this to express my frustration and annoyance with it. If you want to know whether you should give this game a chance, I’ll just tell you right now to turn around and walk away. It’s worthless.

At first glance, Secret Word seems like a call back to Blackbar which I reviewed very favorably a few months ago. The game presents you with text with certain words blanked out, and you advance by guessing the words to fill them in. The difference is Blackbar was a unique work of art which used the medium of mobile gaming to tell a story in a new way while Secret Word is just a cynical cash grab.

Ads are not a problem by themselves, but the unfortunately there are a lot of other attempts to extract money from the player
Ads are not a problem by themselves, but the unfortunately there are a lot of other attempts to extract money from the player

The game has ads running across the bottom of the screen. That in itself is not really a problem. The developer has to make money somehow, and it’s not that hard to ignore an ad. But in the screenshot above, you’ll also notice a coin counter. You use the coins to buy hints which either give you a single letter or an entire word, depending on how much you spend. The game gives you 100 coins to start, but when you run out, you have to buy more with real money. And Secret Word does everything it can to try to make sure you have to spend that money.

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Let me know if you can figure out what the other two words are. I’m out of coins.

Blackbar essentially played fair with its puzzles, setting things up so that you could figure out the missing words if you employed a little lateral thinking. In Secret Word, however, many of the puzzles are a complete guess. It’s clear that the developers are only interested in trying to get the player to spend coins and pay real money.

The core story behind the game isn’t even very interesting. And as a final straw, the game periodically sends annoying notifications to try to get you to keep playing if you haven’t opened the app in a while.

I’m not sure why I’m still wasting time on this review. I’ll just leave it here and tell you these developers don’t deserve your money.

The Trace Is a Sterling Whodunnit (That’s Too Short)

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There’s no shortage of murder mystery games on iOS, so any new entries in the genre will have to do something pretty new and do it well to get attention. The Trace came out just a few days and immediately started attracting buzz on blogs and on the App Store, so I decided to give it a look.

Arriving at the scene of the crime.
Arriving at the scene of the crime.

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Agent Alice Brings the Annoyance of Freemium to Hidden Object Puzzles

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Ask any serious gamer about what they disdain most in the industry and at some point they will probably mention hidden object puzzle games and freemium pay-to-win games. And that’s with good reason. Hidden object games are fundamentally kind of lazy with not much of a gameplay element, and what gameplay exists is often ridiculous (why exactly do I have to point at a raccoon, a fedora, and a keychain before I can examine the bloody glove?). And freemium games are despised because they look like a bait-and-switch with a not-too-transparent cash-grab. So a game like Agent Alice which combines the two genres would not seem to hold much promise at first glance.

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Well something is certainly disastrous.

 

I’d like to tell you that Agent Alice does better than expected, but it doesn’t really. I can actually see some potential here, but the irritating freemium aspects of the gameplay just don’t work. And there aren’t enough other good qualities to get me to keep playing.

The story is more or less a murder mystery told through cutscenes and static dialogue boxes. Whatever else you might say about the game, the art really is quite well done. Characters are well-designed, and there’s never any trouble seeing anything.

Freemium games generally use two tricks to get players to pony up cash. One is to put some obstacle in the way which requires an item or a certain rating in order to pass. Theoretically the player could come up with the necessary requirements by grinding away at something, but many would prefer to just pay cash to get past it. The other freemium trick is to set a timer that counts down and which the player must wait out before proceeding (for example, building times in Farmville and the like).

Agent Alice uses both of these tricks in its efforts to get money out of you. Most actions in the game require stars to perform, and you earn stars by completing timed hidden object puzzles. Doing a hidden object puzzle itself requires energy which slowly replenishes over time. And then some tasks just outright require you to wait a while before you can complete them unless you want to pay money. The actions are part of the story of Agent Alice’s investigation, but they all tend to be very small and mundane such as “read the letters” or “talk to the witness.” Meanwhile, the wait times can sometimes go on for literally days.

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Spending a hard-earned star to “Patch Wanda up” will take all of ten seconds, if that.

All of this would be fine if the story was worthwhile, but it really isn’t. Dialogue is very sparse, and characters are completely flat. There simply isn’t any emotional investment in what’s going on. You talk to a witness and get a completely functional line like, “She was in love with her co-star” and that’s it.

The thing is I can actually see a way to make this format work. Agent Alice is free, and if the cash-grabbing was less blatant, I would even be tempted to throw a few bucks at it in exchange for a few hours of entertainment. But instead the game just reaches for too much. As a business model, I would call it an interesting experiment. As a game, it’s not worth recommending.

 

Thoughts on the Legend of Zelda for Netflix

You may have heard by now that Netflix is developing a live-action Legend of Zelda series. I have always had mixed feelings about all the efforts to adapt the Legend of Zelda games into a film or TV series. On the one hand, I’m a major Zelda fanboy. I spent a year writing a very long fanfic based on Ocarina of Time. I have purchased and played every console game, and I’ll finally get a Wii U just to play the next Zelda game. I ought to be part of the prime audience for this series.

On the other hand, the games have never seemed suitable for adaptation to me. The Legend of Zelda series is renowned because of its gameplay, not its storyline. Even the more narratively complex Skyward Sword had a pretty simple storyline when you boil it down to the basics. There’s an anonymous boy in a village, he’s called to action, and he fights evil while saving Princess Zelda. The games are a pretty basic interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. There usually isn’t much in the way of character development either. Most of the characters have basically one personality trait. And the main character is so blank that he literally doesn’t speak. He’s just an avatar for us to project ourselves onto, after all.

So is this series going to be any good? Well, first of all we should keep in mind that Netflix has only announced that they are developing a series. Nobody has been cast, and the whole project could yet stall. But if everything does come to fruition, I would say the choice to do it in live action is a very risky choice. The Legend of Zelda games have an animated sensibility about them, and not just because they are aimed at a family audience. Link’s movements are faster than any actual human is capable of since he’s supposed to respond instantly to player commands. The world is bright and colorful. And then there are all the inhuman creatures who will probably be rendered in CGI. If you’re going to do a family-friendly Game of Thrones story as the article suggests, I don’t see why you wouldn’t do it as an animation.

Still, it’s not impossible that they will get the look of the show right. What then? Hopefully, the writers will move beyond the typical captured princess story and come up with something richer. Since it’s a Netflix series, it does not have to follow an episodic formula as most network and many cable TV shows do. Instead, it can just tell a long, multi-episode story. I personally would like to see an exploration of the origins of Hyrule and a lot of world-building. Anything coherent will do. We all know that Nintendo has been pretty much making up the history of Hyrule as they go along, and I very much doubt that they really do have an official timeline plotted out that explains all the apparent contradictions. That’s ok for a videogame series, but I would enjoy a more comprehensive mythology for this series.

And yeah, I suppose Link will have to talk. That’s ok, too. But I think his role will mostly be to play the straight man against all the other characters, much as he does in the games. That means casting him will be tricky since he’s inherently a much less interesting character and his actor will have to bring a lot of substance to the role. It doesn’t help that judging by cosplay pics, women are much better at playing him than men.

But nothing is set in stone yet, so who knows? I’ll keep an open mind about the project. But I’m also not getting my hopes up.

Waking Mars Brings Biology to Puzzle/Platformers

Is there life on Mars? It’s probably not much of a spoiler to tell you that in this game, the answer is “yes” since it wouldn’t be terribly interesting otherwise. Now the question is what does that life look like? Waking Mars is about exploring a cave where life has been discovered and figuring out what it’s all for.

You play as Liang, a scientist/astronaut stationed on a base in Mars with his colleague Amani. Liang wears the space suit and actually goes exploring the Martian surface while Amani runs analysis and communicates with him from the home base. There’s also ART, an artificial intelligence who seems to have had some of his communication sub-routines disabled as a practical joke.

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Meet our hero, Liang

The game starts out as Liang is exploring Lethe cavern on Mars looking for new sights and also trying to find out what happened to a robot named 0ct0 who went in before him and has ceased communication. A few moments after answering, a cave collapse forces Liang further underground. Fortunately he is unharmed and still able to communicate with Amani. More importantly, there is water and life on Mars.

The rest of the game is an exploration into the mysteries of Lethe Cavern. How exactly do the plants and animals around here work, and why did they evolve this way? And what happens if Liang starts messing with their development to try to get more things to grow?

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Lots and lots of life

Waking Mars plays on two levels: as a Metroidvania-style multi-room exploration game and as a puzzle game about balancing ecosystems. At the first, Waking Mars is adequate but occasionally clunky. On iOS, Liang moves towards wherever you are touching on the screen whether that means walking, jumping, or using his jet pack to go up into the air. Most of the time this works quite well, and Liang even has context-specific animations for when he bumps into a wall or finds himself in a small space that he can’t stand upright in. However, he is subject to gravity and inertia which means he has to constantly fire small bursts whenever he needs to make precise maneuvers. This doesn’t work as well on a touch screen as I’d like. Liang will also occasionally get stuck on an obstacle, forcing you to move him backwards to try again. I suspect that on other platforms where you can use a keyboard or a controller, Liang controls much better. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except for the fact that some of the Martian life can hurt Liang and it is actually possible to die in this game.

On the other hand, the puzzle aspect of the game is brilliantly developed and engaging. The core mechanic is that Liang can pick up seeds and throw them at fertile pieces of terrain in order to grow them into plants. Each plant has its own life cycle and method for reproducing. Under the right conditions, a plant will spit out more seeds for Liang to plant and grow. There are also animals moving around which interact with the plants in various ways. The plants and animals form a complete ecosystem — some of them are mutually beneficial to each other while others are predators. Liang’s general goal is to grow as much biomass as possible because there are gates located throughout the caves which open when a certain level of biomass has been achieved. Most interestingly, the game does not lay out any of these relationships for you. Liang has to figure things out through trial and error and keeps a journal of his findings for you to refer to as you try to grow more biomass.

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The game features beautifully drawn environments

Production values are excellent throughout. As you can see in the screenshots, the art is beautiful and conveys a sense of alien life that is neither friendly nor hostile but simply indifferent. The animation is simple but smooth with every object made up of a bunch of individual moving parts, much like a flash animation. The voice acting is also well done for what it is. The game’s script is very functional without a lot of opportunity for dramatics or emoting. Nonetheless, the voice actors don’t embarrass themselves and even ART isn’t too annoying like most other overly cute robots.

Waking Mars is one of the most original new games I’ve ever played. It has a few control quirks, but the main puzzle design is very well thought out and put together. It also offers some replay value for completionists. Maximize the biomass in all of the rooms on Mars and you will unlock an alternate ending for the game. At $4.99, it offers excellent value for your money, too.

Score: 4 out of 5 stars

République Gives a Unique Twist on Stealth

Play X-Men: Days of Future Past With a Controller

X-Men: Days of Future Past was a pretty good movie, and of course it had videogame tie-ins. One such videogame came out for mobile platforms and had the full title “The Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past” (even the acronym is a mouthful!). Normally, the game costs $2.99, but I got it on a Black Friday sale. What I found was a game that was ultimately worth supporting even if I didn’t end up caring too much for it.If you follow comics at all or if you saw the movie, then you know the story. An assassination by Mystique in the past sets off a chain of events which leads to the creation of the Sentinel program to hunt down mutants. In the future, the remaining X-Men launch a desperate plan to send someone into the past to prevent the assassination and change the course of history. In this game, the time traveler is Kitty Pryde and she has most of the dialogue. However, throughout the game you can switch with any number of other characters to play with even in the middle of a level.

If you follow comics at all or if you saw the movie, then you know the story. An assassination by Mystique in the past sets off a chain of events which leads to the creation of the Sentinel program to hunt down mutants. In the future, the remaining X-Men launch a desperate plan to send someone into the past to prevent the assassination and change the course of history. In this game, the time traveler is Kitty Pryde and she has most of the dialogue.

Although some of that dialogue includes typos
Although some of that dialogue includes typos

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GamerGate Died Just Like Occupy Wall Street

It began as a seemingly spontaneous uprising, startling the establishment and gathering a popularity that nobody expected. Its participants were fueled by a righteous sense of justice and communicated with each other using social media in ways that observers hadn’t anticipated. For a while, they were all the talk of the town, and there were pundits in the media who openly speculated that this movement would lead to a permanent change. And then, slowly but surely, the momentum died down, the press started paying less attention, and the participants dispersed except for a dedicated core group. A few years later, hardly anybody talks about it, and no actual change has come out of all the noise and fury.

This was the story of Occupy Wall Street, and a few years from now, it will be the story of GamerGate. Not too long ago, the front pages of many traditional newspapers as well as blogs and social media were posting new stories about GamerGate on a daily basis. Now it’s already pretty clearly dead, having accomplished nothing that anybody can discern. The unofficial motto of the movement, “It’s about ethics in videogame journalism,” is now more likely to be used as a sarcastic punchline than a sincere wish. To understand what happened, I think it will be useful to look at how Occupy Wall Street started with a similar bang and then slowly collapsed in upon itself.

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