ApathyWorks

Developer Blog reviews

Dear Esther Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

 

Okay, first: it's beautiful. It's very beautiful. It's the most beautiful game I've played until the next one. I think it's because I used to be a level designer that I look at this and just see a collection of pixels, shaders, and lighting choices, that a good chunk of it is largely lost on me.
So since I can appreciate the beauty without really giving a damn about it, let's move on to the story: we've all heard it before. I learned the title of the game and immediately thought, "$10 says Esther is dead." Which she is, of course, killed in a car accident in the south of England. The narrator wants to blame the offending driver for being drunk, the offending driver blames birds that flew in front of his car, but whatever, Esther is dead. And the narrator is now walking around this island in the Outer Hebrides, reading snippets of letters that he wrote to her, presumably after her death.
The whole thing reeks of "level designer who can't model and writer who can't program decide to make a game without models or programming." You only have those two components: a very pretty world and a narrator reading bits of exposition... randomly, it turns out. If you leave a level designer to his own devices, what does he do? He makes something pretty. If you leave a writer to his own devices, what does he do? Write about death, apparently. Unfailingly, it seems. I've already played a shit ton of indie games that have practically this exact same plot. Oh, and the plot is a ripoff of a Ken Follett book from 1975: family gets into a car accident in England, horrible results, family goes to live in exile on an island off the coast of Scotland and become shepherds. So my patience is a bit thin.
And I really hate how game design writers always go for purple prose. I only forgave it in Amnesia because the backstory itself was fascinating, as opposed to the line delivery. Out of all the spoken lines in the game, only one caught me off guard in a way that impressed me. "Fire, or soil?" Took me a second to figure out that the narrator was debating cremating Esther or burying her. That I like.
Since it's a guy just wandering around, talking to himself, the whole thing plays on ambiguity. Except that I figured out the "twist" (Esther is dead) within moments of starting the game. We live in a post M Night Shyamalan world, where anyone who has eyes that can read or watch a movie know that writers shouldn't use ambiguity to hide a twist, because it's been done to death, and everyone expects the fucking twist! I'd rather assume that there isn't one and then find out it was hidden in plain sight, like Bioshock's Would You Kindly? zinger.
Why don't game designers ever write about small ideas? Or at least smaller ideas, like love? Jonathan Blow spent all of Braid disguising an anti nuclear proliferation theme as a squabble between a couple. Points for delivery, no marks for my interest in it. Oh gee, you don't like nuclear weapons? Nobody likes nuclear weapons, welcome to 1949.
Anyway, I'd like to play a story-driven indie game that I can't hang the adjective "pretentious" from. Make me care about characters, make me care about smaller, more relatable themes. Maybe try your hand at good poetry instead of purple prose. Stop doing this "big ideas + twist!" bullshit.
In the end, though, it appears I'm the only guy who doesn't like Dear Esther. Oh well.

The following is from an email I wrote to my brother when he asked me for my opinions on Dear Esther. He didn't respond to the email, but Tweeted at me very briefly: "Apparently, you emailed me a review for your website."

That's a good idea. Here's my review, with tons of spoilers, so please beware.

Okay, first: it's beautiful. It's very beautiful. It's the most beautiful game I've played, until the next one. I think it's because I used to be a level designer that I look at this and just see a collection of pixels, shaders, and lighting choices, so that a good chunk of it is largely lost on me.

Since I can appreciate the beauty without really giving a damn about it, let's move on to the story: we've all heard it before. I learned the title of the game and immediately thought, "$10 says Esther is dead." Which she is, of course, killed in a car accident in the south of England. The narrator wants to blame the offending driver for being drunk, the offending driver blames birds that flew in front of his car, but whatever, Esther is dead. And the narrator is now walking around this island in the Outer Hebrides, reading snippets of letters that he wrote to her, presumably after her death.

The whole thing reeks of "level designer who can't model and writer who can't program decide to make a game without models or programming." You only have those two components: a very pretty world and a narrator reading bits of exposition... randomly, it turns out. If you leave a level designer to his own devices, what does he do? He makes something pretty. If you leave a writer to his own devices, what does he do? Write about death, apparently. And unfailingly, it seems: I've already played a shit ton of indie games that have practically this exact same plot. Oh, and the plot is a ripoff of a Ken Follett book from 1975: family gets into a car accident in England, horrible results, family goes to live in exile on an island off the coast of Scotland and become shepherds. So my patience is a bit thin.

And I really hate how game design writers always go for purple prose. I only forgave it in Amnesia because the backstory itself was fascinating, as opposed to the line delivery. Out of all the spoken lines in Dear Esther, only one caught me off guard in a way that impressed me. "Fire, or soil?" Took me a second to figure out that the narrator was debating cremating Esther or burying her. That I like.

Since it's a guy just wandering around, talking to himself, the whole thing plays on ambiguity. Except that I figured out the "twist" (Esther is dead) within moments of starting the game. We live in a post-M Night Shyamalan world, where anyone who isn't blind and has read a book or watched a movie recently knows that writers shouldn't use ambiguity to hide a twist, because it's been done to death at this point, and every other movie or book or game is experienced with the notion that you should be on the lookout for the inevitable twist! I'd rather assume that there isn't one and then come across one that was hidden in plain sight, like Bioshock's Would You Kindly? zinger.

And since the twist is about death, let's talk about death. Or, rather: why don't game designers ever write about small ideas? Or at least smaller ideas, like love? Jonathan Blow spent all of Braid disguising an anti nuclear proliferation theme as a squabble between a couple. Points for delivery, no marks for my interest in it. Oh gee, you don't like nuclear weapons? Nobody likes nuclear weapons, welcome to 1949.

The result of all this sturm und drang over Big Ideas is that I'd just really like to play a story-driven indie game that I can't hang the adjective "pretentious" from. Make me care about characters, make me care about smaller, more relatable themes. Maybe try your hand at good poetry instead of purple prose. Stop doing this "big ideas + twist!" bullshit.

In the end, though, it appears I'm the only guy who doesn't like Dear Esther. Which, it turns out, I'm fine with. It's a beautiful game that tries something new and attempts to be meaningful. Just because it didn't float with me doesn't mean you shouldn't try it. In fact, I've been hectoring everyone to give it a whirl, seeing as how I appear to be in the extreme minority. Support indies!

Uncharted 2 Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

What to do? I've accomplished a ton of work on the PC version of Cute Things Dying Violently, none of which is photogenic, really. So what should I blog about instead? How 'bout the fact that I'm going through the Uncharted series backwards, and just finished Uncharted 2. Which, for my money, is a far better game than it's threequel.

Oh wait, I already reviewed Uncharted 2.

Alright, back to CTDV. I hope to have something to show soon.

Uncharted 3 Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I spent MLK weekend dogsitting a canine that was fond of pooping six times a day and howling at 3am and waking the neighbors. As a thank you/apology, the owners bought me a PS3 for my troubles. So, hey, here's an Uncharted 3 mini-review!

I should clarify that I know full well the worth of bloggers who review popular games months after everyone has already beaten them, and that I mostly do this to organize my thoughts on good and bad design choices.

 

 

Things I Liked

 

Things I Didn't Like

Modern Warfare 3, Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I don't care if its the biggest goddamn video game ever. Activision shitcanned the lead developers of Infinity Ward in a ridiculously stupid move, and Infinity Ward is a shell of its former self, so I opted to just Red Box this game for $3. Heh. I didn't want to play the multiplayer (I intend to keep obsessing over Battlefield 3), so here's my thoughts on the singleplayer:

 

Stuff I Liked:

 

Stuff I Didn't Like:

Skyrim Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I've been very, very lazy lately about doing anything related to game design. Life's been busy (in a good way), and I've been more or less programming nonstop in XNA since February 2009, so every now and then I just gotta cool things down. And how do I get away from game design? By playing video games! Makes total sense, right?

Thusly, Skyrim:

Things I Like:

Things I Don't Like:

That's all for now. It's a great game, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say I love it unconditionally, I can safely admit that I am... more or less obsessed with it. I've dabbled in the main quest line, finished off the Mage's College quest line, and have yet to start either the Thieves' Guild or the Dark Brotherhood lines. But soon. Soon.

A long Thanksgiving weekend is coming up, too, so it'd behoove me to actually do some more work on the PC version of Cute Things Dying Violently, and maybe even get that damned Xbox 360 patch out. Admittedly, being lazy and playing vidya games is much more fun, but I should probably aspire to do more.

Battlefield 3 Mini-Review (Singleplayer)

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I finished Battlefield 3's singleplayer campaign last night, and I guess I wanted to organize my thoughts, if only as a lesson to myself for how not to design a modern first person shooter.

 

Things I Liked

 

Things I Didn't Like

I guess that's it for now. But isn't that enough?

Everyone loves Cute Things!

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Reviews are slowly but steadily coming in for Cute Things Dying Violently (and hey, check out that neat release link to the right). The responses are incredibly positive, ranging from liking it to outright loving it. Here are some snippets:

Vintage Video Games TV:

I can honestly recommend this title to anyone looking to just demolish cute things or build a level with your friends. Seriously go have fun with this title, I had hours of fun, and it’s replay value for an indie title is very high.

Indie Gamer Chick:

The ingenuity displayed in the puzzle designs surprised me more than once. The amount of variety on display here is truly stunning, and new ideas kept coming even towards the final boards. How often do you see that in a game, Indie or otherwise?

Two Fedoras/Armless Octopus:

Cute Things Dying Violently is on the whole, a good action puzzle game. It is polished in ways that many independent games (especially on the XBLIG channel) simply aren’t. The graphics and sound effects are good enough, and the music fits rather well. The mechanics are new and fun, and make the best of the controls required of them. If you don’t mind a challenge, Cute Things is a definite buy for the mindless creature puzzler genre fans.

IRB Gamer:

This may be the funnest game on Xbox Live’s Indie showcase. Every aspect of the game is amazing, from the ease of play, the difficulty at later levels, the humor, and even the price. Coming in at 80 MS Points ($1.00!), this deal is too good to pass up.

Indie Games Channel:

The challenge and likelihood of frustration is mitigated by Jordan’s witty writing. Tutorials are included in many of the levels, and they all contain cheeky one-liners and amusing fourth-wall-breaking gags. The critters are written as over-the-top adorable, which makes it that much funnier (or horrifying, depending on your perspective) when you accidentally send one to its doom. Players will also get a chuckle out of the Hate Bot, the game’s main antagonist, as it’ll occasionally mix up its “Destroy!” calls with a random out-of-context line.

The Indie Mine:

The overall package of Cute Things Dying Violently is fantastic. This is the addictive puzzle game people have been searching for since Angry Birds started getting old. You have a solid, addictive hook in the mechanics of the game with a layer of wit on top. I think this game is definitely worth picking up and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it eventually end up on other platforms.

I'll post more reviews as I get them!

Love Poem for Flawed Masterpieces

Posted by Alex Jordan on

The adventures of Sean Fuckin' Devlin

I find myself bedeviled by critical darlings that bore the shit out of me or find some other way to turn me off. One would think that I would've shared my opinions on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by now, seeing as how I've had the game since Christmas. Alas, the game's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to sandbox gameplay (I counted 20 different minigames that the game wanted me to play) seriously shortchanged the dense plotting and great characters I'd come to enjoy in the previous game. So, I turned it off, and looked elsewhere.

"Elsewhere" brought me to Dragon Age: Origins, the highly-regarded heir apparent to Dungeons & Dragons style epic RPGs that everyone else had raved about. However, I found the minutiae of the game world and its "gritty" take on standard fantasy tropes to be exasperating. How smart and creative do I expect a game to be if it contains the usual alliances of humans, elves, and dwarves fighting against a world-threatening evil, but with a perfunctory gloss of minor reinterpretations. (The elves are former slaves! The dwarves are agnostics! Oooooh.) Moving on.

I kept turning my back on these supposedly great games until, last week, it looked like Uncle Sam would shut down and I'd be without a job. I decided to pad the forthcoming mandatory vacation with a game that I'd been meaning to play for awhile but had consistently put off: The Saboteur, a World War II sandbox game by a now-defunct developer I liked that got decent but not great reviews.

After the first day of playing the game, I was considering returning it to GameStop. Three days later, I thought it was the best game I'd played in years.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops, Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

 

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood insisted on being tedious as hell, and Dragon Age: Origins instead on being bland as hell, so I decided to move on to a game that I knew would never, ever be caught within 100 yards of either of those two adjectives.

Frankly, I'm a little irritated that major gaming reviewers seem to have nothing better to do than heap plaudits on blockbusters games and look the other way completely on any of their flaws, so I'm just gonna go to another mini-review list of things I liked and thinks that made me want to saw into my wrists with a grapefruit spoon.

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Amnesia: Dark Descent, Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Actually, see that title? I'm kinda lying. Well, not really "lying" so much as understating the "mini" part. That's because I have very little to say in an Amnesia "review", per se, as I do about its mechanics.

Here's the review part: this game is fucking scary, and that makes it fucking awesome. It's the scariest game I've ever played, although that probably isn't saying much. It's well-designed, of decent length (my playthrough took 10 hours), and is marvelously paced. Not only that, but it has an incredibly engrossing story that perfectly compliments the scares that the game sends your way. Oh, and did I mention the game is fucking scary? Your character is tasked with descending into the lowest levels of a dark, rundown castle while battling encroaching darkness, diminishing sanity, and some very nasty former servants.

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Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Mini-Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I left my first Christmas purchase in my dust-strewn wake, so let's continue to move quickly.

The gameplay is good but not great. The suppress-and-flank mechanics of the first game haven't been changed significantly, and the addition of bazooka squads and machinegun squads don't really add up to much. The core mechanics aren't actually put to any really interesting use until the very last series of missions, where you get to control three full squads and solve elaborate field problems. They actually got rid of the part in the first game where you could give tanks orders... instead, you control a tank yourself, which is just as insipid as it was in every other Goddamn World War II game.

The graphics range from very good to pretty mediocre. Sunny Holland countrysides look amazing, whereas rainy Holland villages look like crap. The main character looks amazing, but some of his squadmates look like they escaped from games in 2003. Also, with only one or two exceptions? The voice acting is terribad. I know Gearbox has games with good voice acting... so why does it sound like they asked their programmers to moonlight as voice actors and pretend to be this close to reaching puberty?

The plot is hamfisted, to say the least. Why are we muddying up the life-and-death drama of Operation Market Garden with all this existential angst about a cursed pistol? What supporting character in their right mind would sacrifice their life for a girl he met 2 seconds earlier and only spent 1 of those seconds engaging? Why do characters hate other characters for things neither one of them are responsible for? Needless to say, the crappy voice acting doesn't improve matters. Fortunately, by the end of the game - the very end of the game - the characters are showing some degree of growth and manage to credibly deliver a few bits of good writing. Better late than never, hey?

Oh, and did the developers run out of time or funding or something? The game has pretty much no difficulty arc and the last mission doesn't even involve the main character! Things just kind of end.

In summary: very glad I spent $5 on this. Just the right amount for a semi-decent WWII shooter than ranges from whelming to underwhelming.

Next up: Amnesia and me getting the shit scared out of me every three seconds.

Another Around The World review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

The fine folks at Xbox Live Arcade Ratings hooked me up with a very honest, very enlightening review. Read it here.

Overall, the review was very kind to ATW. The reviewer was less-than-pleased with some aspects of the game, but his criticism was very smart and brought to light certain things that I didn't notice as a developer. For instance, being unable to switch off the day to night cycle gave him some headaches in trying to find locations at night. As a developer, I was so gosh-darn proud of the day-night cycle that it never occurred to me to let players turn it off! Also, he found most of the selection sound effects to be somewhat discouraging. Again, I reserved the best sounds for the best accuracy... it never occurred to me that people struggling to find locations and educate themselves would be turned off by the negative bleeps and blats that come with a miss. I love reviews like this, because in the end, they'll make me a better developer.

Also, unlike the guy from XNPlay, this guy really liked my unlocks/Screen Saver system:

However, the completionist in you will be thrilled to know that there are a LOT of pictures to unlock and, because of that, a lot of scores and correct answer streaks to try for. And, of course, you get to go for your high score. That might not seem like much, but giving you something to shoot for gives a glorified geography quiz a bit of addiction.

Thanks again for the review, DigitalQuarters!

Read the full Around The World review here.

2 Around The World Reviews

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I'm not sure what I was expecting. As a fairly by-the-numbers edutainment game, it didn't occur to me until now that Around The World doesn't warrant inches upon inches of column space to review. I mean, duh: it has the geographical quiz component, and the unlock/screen saver component. That's kind of it. So, the two reviews I've come across thus far are pretty modest. The first one clocks in at once sentence, the other at one paragraph.

XNPlay gave the one sentence round up, a familiar facet on the site: "Geography quizzes can be fun (this one seems decent enough), but don’t “reward” me with a screen saver!"

NaviFairy at GayGamer.net was a lot more cheerful: "Geography quiz games are nothing new, but this one takes a slightly different approach. Rather than pointing at a location and asking you what it is, Around the World will give you four locations (mapped to the four face buttons on the controller) and asks you to find them. You're awarded points depending on how close to the real location you guess, and then a new city is given for you to find. Because you have four location options at any given time, the game is easier since you can just skip the locations that you don't know. I'll admit that my geography skills are pretty terrible (hurray for the American public education system) so I will always advocate this kind of edutainment title."

The XNPlay one kind of irritated me, as the reviewer used his one sentence to bitch about the game's (optional) Screen Saver system. Turns out the guy was sick and tired, and that I got one of the better reviews on the site this week. But, much obliged to NaviFairy at GayGamer, who got what I was going for with the game.

Assassin's Creed 2 Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I finally finished it. And it's really good! Read the review, plzkthx.

Pirate Latitudes Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Michael Crichton was an author of unparalleled stature that I continue to miss. I started reading his books at a very young age, having picked up Jurassic Park when I was only seven or eight. I proceeded to plow through his works over the next two decades, loving the mix of science, technology, and high adventure. I even loved State Of Fear, which, despite its ridiculous anti-climate change ideology and irrational hatred of Martin Sheen, was a pretty compelling techno-spy thriller.

So, basically, I adore Crichton's work. And imagine my surprise when I learned that, after his death, editors found a completed manuscript on Crichton's home computer: Pirate Latitudes!A historical thriller in the vein of Timeline and The Great Train Robbery, and one on 17th century Caribbean piracy to boot! One year after that announcement, I finally got my hands on the book, and tore into it.

Pirate Latitudes, however, proves to be decent but also something of a disappointment. The book was clearly in need of more editing and more effort from Crichton. Unfortunately, fate (and cancer) precluded both. What's there is often entertaining, but the whole ensemble often seems like a framework rather than a good story.

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I finally got around to writing up my Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 review. I only managed to do so after pulling myself away from the multiplayer for a few moments.

Here it is. I hope you like skepticism.

What's Going On / Bonus Thoughts on The Lost Symbol

Posted by Alex Jordan on

The Intertron is working and I'm enjoying my new place, which also means I'm scurrying back and forth between my desktop computer and laptop to polish up the graphics on Around The World. As the last Development Diary showed, I'm really unhappy with how that water looks. The remake of the Secret of Monkey Island pulled it off much better with simple 2D refraction, so I'm experimenting with that right now. More about that soon.

And since I have your attention, here's some more Spoiler-rific rumination on The Lost Symbol:

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The Lost Symbol Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Stuck in the purgatory that is a full-time job and a half-functional new apartment, free time is hard to come by. Right now, I can reconfigure the free time that is available to me right this second into a mini-review. I'd rather reconfigure it into time spent designing my game, but, hey, my laptop is way over on the other side of the Potomac right now.

With that in mind, here's a mini-review for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, which I had time to tackle while I was in Rhode Island last week:

It is both a good and not-so-good book.

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Finished MUA2. And, oh hey! SSX 3!

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I just finished Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, and here's my review. My first playthrough was Anti-Registration, so in the near future I'll have to start a Legendary difficulty playthrough as Pro-Registration. I look forward to kicking Captain America's sanctimonious ass.

But before I do that, I need to play some SSX 3, since I just learned that it was backwards compatible on the Xbox 360. This is a critically important piece of information that I didn't notice previously, because, prior to purchasing the game, my 360 had turned itself into a $350 paperweight. I just played it on my old Xbox and didn't bother to check if it was backwards compatible.

Imagine my delight! Looks good when upscaled, too.

Oh, and I finally finished the Secret of Monkey Island remake too. Christ, I'm really slow, huh?

Call of Duty 4

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I also reviewed Call of Duty 4! Yay for my time capsule.

Assassin's Creed

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I'm going through the things I've previously written and it turns out, hey, I really enjoyed Assassin's Creed despite its numerous flaws. I wanted to do another playthrough once I bought an HDTV, but, good God, the unskippable cutscenes are monotonous.