|I come across plenty of games I might describe as “unrecommendable”. They can be competent executions but offer nothing compelling or new that makes them worth speaking up for. Sometimes they have ugly flaws that make you feel uncomfortable bringing them up in polite circles. I’m going to talk about three unrecommendables I played recently.
I originally played Rituals (Tymon Zgainski, 2015) at Rezzed last year through which it earned its own Dabbling With post. Yet even then I wasn’t exactly confident about it. I was offered a Steam key by the developer but I turned it down. I wasn't comfortable with abusing press privilege for a game I was pretty sure I wouldn't write about. So I paid for it.
Rituals is a 3D adventure game sporting chunky, polygonal graphics and awkward controls; it uses the Google Maps Streetview interface for getting around, which was more common in older adventure titles like Myst or The Journeyman Project. The interface seemed a waste of modern computing power to me, as there was no good reason for Rituals to simplify the world to a grid of predefined spots, undermining the joy of exploration. It offered puzzles, some of which I only solved through trial and error, but it wasn’t as bad as Panmorphia which I played through on mobile last year - a pretty thing to look at but entirely driven by nonsensical puzzle design and hotspot guesswork.
Rituals had been on pause for months but turns out I had stopped one move from the end of the game, at which point there is a good ending and a bad ending within your grasp. Perhaps because I restarted the game after months of ignoring it that this felt quite abrupt... and unfortunately the bad ending is far more entertaining than doing the right thing. Still, there was nothing in Rituals I could recommend. Rituals is about a developer finding their feet with their first big project; it’s not compelling enough for the rest of us. The story and the puzzles you will have seen before.
Does anyone remember Adam Wells? He used to pop up in the comments now and then and won the Neptune’s Pride trophy I commissioned Jonas Kyratzes to make. I've since learnt that Wells is a gifted artist and become a fan of his animated work (try Brave New Old). He extended his portfolio into the world of games last year with a title called Grimsfield (itch.io, Steam). Pippin Barr also mentioned in passing that he liked it.
Grimsfield reminds me most of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, minus the Orwellian overtones, where you negotiate a system of byzantine rules just so you can read your poetry at open mic night. It might as well be called Zeno’s Paradox: The Game as for much of its playtime, you feel like you’re progressing towards a goal that keeps moving farther away. It’s a JRPG without fighting, except instead of Japanese sensibilities you’ve got British ones. I will admit it surprised me with an unexpectedly… downbeat ending. Which makes it even more like Brazil, I suppose.
But can I recommend Grimsfield? I don’t know, really. It’s actually a pretty solid, short game and Wells invested much love in it. Some of the jokes do hit their mark, provided you take the time to read everything. Don’t approach it as a task-oriented experience because that’s not really what it’s all about, Alfie. I didn’t quite find it to my taste but it wasn’t bad.
Which brings me to the oddest of my three unrecommended games, FREEDOM: Diegesis from Quicksand Games. And it’s time to go back seven years to the beginning of Electron Dance.
In the wake of Marvel Brothel I was making a small name for myself as a finder of curiosities and so the makers of curiosities began to approach me. “T.” said he was developing a game called Why I Want To Fuck Barack Obama and shared its weird trailer. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become a preview site because little indie previews can easily become PR for vaporware, but the trailer got my interest and I wrote a short something about it. And, naturally, WIWTFBO ended up as vaporware. The Obama years are now over. There will be no game.
Last year, T. turned up to do another drive-by, except this time had actually finished a game before pointing me to its odd teaser trailer. T. described it as “a Mario-pastiche that takes the familiar tropes of the genre and curdles them into Freudian horrors and ambiguous mysteries, alongside some tricky environmental puzzles”. Although I was busy with The Unbearable Now, I quickly fired it up. Yeah, it was really annoying. I got stuck after a couple of levels. Screw it.
But I never deleted it from my desktop. This happens all the time - fire it up, try it, come back to it later. And sometimes the games just die like that, starved of human attention on my desktop. For example, I tried Arcen Games’ Starward Rogue but it just didn’t do anything for me and could not find the enthusiasm to return to it. But then I was preparing for the Great Purge. After half a year of random PC crashes (sometimes five in a day) since the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, I was gearing up to wipe the install and start afresh - and every game that had left to flounder on my desktop would be erased from existence. Until I installed them again, of course, but would I? Would they ever come back? What about that Spellrazor?
I wanted to give some of these games one last shot before the sleep of oblivion took them. This is how I returned to Rituals. And this is how I tried FREEDOM again.
FREEDOM is completely frustrating in a kind of why-aren’t-the-controls-better sort of way and if you die it’s back to the start of the level for you. Even better, it’s really easy to wipe out your precious save game if you don’t pay careful attention after launching. Christ, my blood was boiling.
But I couldn’t quite put it down. Thing is, for all its horrible sharp edges, I know some of them are very deliberate. And I find I like its distinctly unpleasant soundscapes and pixelated glimpse of the grotesque. I hate playing it but I want to see and hear it. I’m not putting this in tha great giant box labelled “Dark Souls Design” as I think that’s giving it a little too much credit, but somehow it earned a stay of execution.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The Great Purge came and went. And FREEDOM, against all odds, survived.
FREEDOM: Diegesis is free to download from itch.io.
So I did that Rock Paper Shotgun piece, The Fallen Price of Indie Games, to attract new readers to the book. The RPS article did incredibly well - I’d never seen one of my articles explode like that before. I couldn’t tell you the article's traffic but it must have been huge. The tragic thing is most people didn’t see the book link at the end - it was obvious from the comments and I realised I had to jump in there and invite people over personally over like the desperate attention whore I am. Although there was a welcome bump in itch.io visitors, much of it was secondary traffic, via Twitter. Gah, marketing! I will likely promote the book with excerpts for future chapters but it would be nice not to waste these opportunities…
The book got a writeup on Indienova.
I am attending Rezzed next month, on the Thursday and Friday.
Three Links To Rule Them All
Against Worldbuilding by Alexis Kennedy (GamesIndustry.biz). “This is possibly Tolkien's fault, but it isn't what Tolkien would have wanted.”
Saru Jayaraman interviewed by David Wolinsky (Don’t Die) “Oh my God, that's -- it's the same thing! I mean, that's how you get people to work for free coming out of -- you know, paying tens of thousands of dollars for culinary school, they literally have people working for free in the fanciest, fine dining restaurants all over the country. For free. Because it's the passion and it's the integrity and it's the art.”
The Xbox Puzzle (YouTube). FLEB has an entire channel devoted to puzzles like this. FLEB is also behind RYB a puzzle game I recently enjoyed which will get an honorable mention in an upcoming post.
Feel free to discuss anything in this post on the discussion page!