Blackbar Is a Creative Look at Censorship

Who would have thought that a text game could be one of the most creative and innovative games available on iOS? Blackbar is a game about censorship that functions partly as a puzzle game and partly as a commentary on oppressive oversight and freedom. It also uses the tools of gaming to tell its story in ways that can’t be done on other narrative platforms. It’s worth supporting for that reason alone.

The game is very bare bones — it has no title screen or sound, and the only interface is the letters exchanged between yourself and your friend working for the government.

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It’s immediately clear that something is wrong. Someone is censoring the letters from your friend, Kenty. Fortunately it’s pretty easy to guess what the missing words are, but it doesn’t take long for the government censors to introduce themselves.

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You progress through the game by filling in the blanks, each time receiving a new letter from Kenty. Things start out innocently enough as Kenty tells you about her day and how she’s adjusting to her new job. The exact nature of the world and even what time period the story takes place in is left up to your imagination. Soon the censorship starts becoming arbitrary and oppressive. And then you start to get hints that there is a rebellion afoot…

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What ties it all together and makes the game work is the brilliant writing which conveys the different personalities. Kenty is developed effectively and economically, starting out as a naive and eager young woman and slowly growing disillusioned with the government that imprisons her. Meanwhile, the censors work by very strict rules. The irony is that it becomes clear that the rules are also restricting the censors. Kenty and the various other characters you correspond with can work around the censorship using clever word play, and there’s only so much the censors can do to stop them. The missing words are almost always guessable with a little thinking and creativity. I only ran into one instance where the solution seemed impossibly arbitrary.

Blackbar is the creation of a two person team of whom one grew up in 1980s Yugoslavia experiencing government censorship firsthand. The game is a true artistic endeavor, using the medium to tell a story in ways that can’t be done in either a book or a performance medium. To say much more would be to spoil the fun and discovery. At $2.99, it is less technical and probably a lot shorter than other mobile games of the same price. But this is a game that deserves to be played by as many people as possible because it reaffirms what videogames and independent developers can do.

Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Forever Lost Offers Creepy, Complex Puzzling

Forever Lost is a triumph on multiple levels. The artwork and music combine to give the player an oppressive, atmosphere experience. The game hints at a well-developed backstory which is intriguing enough to make me want to know more. And most importantly, it has some of the most complex yet thoughtfully designed puzzles I’ve seen in a modern adventure game. There are two episodes currently out with a third promised by the end of this year. I can’t wait to buy and play it.

The game is played in first person, and you navigate the world through a series of still scenes much like Myst way back in the day. This also has the effect of putting you into the mindset of your character. The game begins as your character wakes up and blinks open his eyes. As his vision comes into focus, you see an empty room with a bed on the floor and a cryptic message scrawled on the wall. How did you get here? What is your name? Why are the room’s doors locked? Your character is as clueless and bewildered as you, and thus the quest begins to escape from the room and find out what happened.

Continue reading Forever Lost Offers Creepy, Complex Puzzling

Review: Lost Echo

I usually wait until the end of a review to mention the price of a game, but in this case it’s useful to set expectations for Lost Echo. At $2.99, Lost Echo costs considerably less than Broken Sword or The Journey Down or even Gemini Rue. Developer Kickback Studios is apparently made up of a two-person team who worked on the game for two years. That they were able to put together a game this complete and polished is a testament to their dedication and the power of modern independent gaming.

Continue reading Review: Lost Echo

The Journey Down – Episodes 1 and 2

The Journey Down is an original new adventure series that hearkens back to the best of LucasArts. With beautiful artwork, an excellent musical score, and occasionally difficult but fair puzzles supporting a fun storyline, the existing two episodes are well worth the $9.99 each. The main drawback is that we’ll have to wait for the third episode to see how everything finishes up.

The story begins with our hero, Bwana, and his best friend, Kito, eking out an existence at their dockside gas and charter plane service. Business is slow, the electric company is cutting off their power, and their adoptive father Kaonandodo disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving them to fend for themselves. Despite these outwardly grim circumstances, Bwana and Kito are a pair of cheerful souls making the best of their lot.

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Our heroes

Continue reading The Journey Down – Episodes 1 and 2

Review: Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars — The Director’s Cut

Broken Sword was a series of adventure games that started in 1996 and has just had its fifth entry released in 2013.  I didn’t play them when they first came out, but the release of a Director’s Cut for the Wii and for iOS has given us all an opportunity to get introduced. The game is worth playing and avoids some of the pitfalls of the point and click adventure genre.  At the same time, the game hasn’t aged well in many ways, and the additions from the Director’s Cut tend to make the outdated elements even more stark.

Shadow of the Templars is an ancient conspiracy tale in the genre of a Dan Brown novel: mysterious assassins going after members of a secret society and everything being tied to events that took place hundreds of years ago. In this case, the assassin is literally a member of the Hashashin order and he’s going after members of the modern Templars who believe they are related to the historical order. Caught in the middle of this are French photojournalist Nico Collard and American tourist George Stobbart. Together they must race to foil a conspiracy which could unleash ancient powers on the world. Continue reading Review: Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars — The Director’s Cut

Apple Watch is the new iPod

I can understand the appeal of the Apple Watch. Throughout the day, I am constantly pulling out my phone to quickly check the time or the weather or my current location and then putting it back into my pocket. It would be more convenient to simply glance at my wrist which is not only faster but also leaves my hand free to hold something else. Yes, it is a small thing, but many consumer products are built on small conveniences.

There was no way the Apple Watch could live up to some of the hype that was building up before its unveiling. Before we feel too sorry for Apple, though, it’s worth remembering that previous product unveilings really were that good. The original iPhone turned the entire cell phone industry on its ear with a simple innovation that was startlingly obvious in hindsight: stop forcing users to deal with unintuitive and tiny buttons or pens, let them use a big touch screen instead, and let third party developers create software for it. The iPad was less clearly revolutionary, but it created the modern tablet market where only a few feeble products had existed before.

By contrast, the Apple Watch seems to be following in the footsteps of Samsung and Pebble. Is Apple still an innovator, and can the Apple Watch really succeed?

The best comparison is probably to the launch of the original iPod. At the time, MP3 players were nothing new and Apple was entering a field with a lot of competition. But the iPod had a superior interface (the click-wheel) and the backing of one of the most popular music download services at the time (the iTunes Music Store). The iPod was not obviously superior to all the others, but it had enough advantages that eventually Apple was able to rule the market. (It’s ironic that the iPod Classic line has now been discontinued).

Similarly, the Apple Watch is entering an existing product field, and it’s clear that Apple hopes to win marketshare on the strength of its industrial design and supporting software. To help solve interface issues, Apple added a rotating knob on the side called the Digital Crown and a touch screen that distinguishes light taps from firm presses. There are also modules on the side contacting the wrist which provides tactile feedback. These are all features which no other smart watch has (and which Apple has surely patented). In terms of software, the App Store is still widely considered the best and most comprehensive store available.

Of course, there are still important details we don’t know yet (like battery life). But it’s not going to become available until early 2015 anyhow. Unlike some other Apple product launches, the Apple Watch isn’t a clear runaway hit. But all in all, it has as much of a fighting chance as the original iPod did.

The Titanfall and Destiny of the FPS Genre

When Titanfall showed up at E3, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and a true innovator leading the way to the future of FPS games. Now the launch of Bungie’s new FPS franchise, Destiny, is imminent and the hype machine is working overtime to tell us it will change the FPS landscape forever.

Both Titanfall and Destiny have legitimate claims on showing true innovation in a genre that has become stagnant. But it’s interesting now to think about how differently they go about it.

Titanfall’s main contributions were in its gameplay and controls. The most obvious new feature is the Titans themselves, but there are also numerous other innovations like wall-running, jet packing, and various little tweaks that discourage practices like spawn camping. The game is a joy to play and in many ways feels like a completely new way to play a shooter online.

On the other hand, Titanfall’s campaign mode is so laughable that one wonders why they even bothered. The story is completely inconsequential since, after all, it still has to hang together somehow regardless of which side wins each match.

Destiny aspires to revolutionize the entire online aspect of the FPS genre with a persistent world that players can explore alongside other online players whom the system matches with them. The game is only just now being released as you read it, so it’s not clear exactly how this persistent world is going to interact with other online players. However, if Bungie is clever enough to take advantage of the exploration format in order to find new ways to convey the story, they will have made something truly new. It will literally be an experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium. Movies can’t tell stories this way.

On the other hand, the actual running and gunning gameplay does not appear to be anything new. Of course, I haven’t seen all the abilities that can be unlocked, so there may be something groundbreaking to be found. So far, though, Destiny appears to play pretty much like Halo with some upgradeable abilities and weapons.

On the face of it, Destiny would seem to represent a much more profound change in the FPS genre than Titanfall does. Titanfall adds some neat new tricks. Destiny could change the whole genre fundamentally. And yet, I have a feeling that Titanfall’s innovations will be more widely adapted just for plain pragmatic reasons. Implementing a jump pack, some parkour, and giant robots is relatively easy for an FPS developer to do. Doing something similar to what Bungie is attempting is much harder and even harder to do well. Ten years from now, we may find that Titanfall was the more influential game whereas Destiny was a fascinating one-of-a-kind game that nobody else replicated.

And that’s ok. But I really hope the sequel to Titanfall gets a better story.

Review: Gemini Rue

One of the encouraging trends brought on by the rise of tablet gaming is the return of the point and click adventure genre. I have fond memories of playing through Grim Fandango with my roommates, and I still think it was one of the greatest games that too few people played.

Gemini Rue is a game in that genre, but it hearkens back to an even earlier time period when characters were splotchy collections of pixels and the use of a floppy disk to represent saving still made sense. On the other hand, the game is fully voice-acted and has a full quality music score.

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Continue reading Review: Gemini Rue

Twitch Could Kill Metal Gear Solid

I didn’t know anything about Twitch until news broke that Amazon had purchased the service, but I instantly saw the appeal as soon as I read about it. Like Twitch users, I enjoy watching other people play videogames. The mainstream media has gotten a lot of mileage out of making fun of the concept, but what they don’t get is that a lot of games these days have pretty complex, involving storylines. None of them would qualify as great literature, but I would argue that many of them are at least comparable to Hollywood blockbusters. A number of YouTube channels have drawn millions of subscribers by posting complete playthroughs of various games. If I don’t feel like watching anything currently on my Netflix queue, I will often pull up a playthrough from one of my subscribed YouTube channels.

Here’s the thing, though: after watching a playthrough of many games, I have very little desire to purchase and play those games myself. The most egregious example was Metal Gear Solid 4 which I often joke about by saying, “I played MGS4 on YouTube.” There have been plenty of more recent examples, though. I was watching Lara run through a collapsing tunnel in the latest Tomb Raider game when I realized that the whole thing was almost entirely scripted. Oh sure, the player nominally had control of Lara, but really all he was doing was holding up on the analog stick and watching as stuff dramatically collapsed all around Lara. How much value would I get if I was actually playing that game instead of watching somebody else play it?

A similar phenomenon has happened with the single-player campaigns of recent Call of Duty games. The game all but forces you to walk over to certain locations and then stop and while enemies pop out of pre-determined locations for you to shoot at. Technically you are in control, but really you are just following a script that the developers have laid out for you. How much value are you really losing if you watch someone else play the game for you?

Not all games are like this, of course, and not all Twitch viewers are watching playthroughs just to see a game’s storyline. I would go so far as to say that most premium games are still worth experiencing firsthand. But there are some games which have gotten so tightly scripted that they really only offer the illusion of control on the part of the player. And as Twitch or services like it become more widespread, it’s going to be harder and harder to convince people to shell out for something they could enjoy almost as much by simply watching someone else play it.

Twitch could be the death of Metal Gear Solid as we know it.

Bowser for Mayor!

To be clear, I do not live in Washington DC and I do not endorse any particular candidate. I don’t know enough about the issues or about the candidates.

But one of them is named Muriel Bowser. What videogame blog could resist that name?! Here’s a video of her talking to the Washington Post about her home.