Takes, some of which are hot
It’s time for another series of hot takes in this month’s edition of the so-far irregular segment, “Whatcha playin’, kid?”
This time, it’s a short list. I’ve been stuck in something of a rut, and playing games has felt more like a chore than an escape. I’m hoping it’s a case of the 2020 blues, and not a case of the “every studio in the industry has rejected my job application this year, and now I hate games forever”s. Except, like, Beat Saber. There will always be love for Beat Saber in my grizzled Grinch-gamer heart. It’s right next to the part of my heart that explodes a little every time I do too much cardio, incidentally.
Here there be no spoilers, so read on with gusto, friendo.
TELL ME WHY
Tell me why I didn't like this game more.
I really wanted to love this game. I was *so* excited for it to come out. A big-budget, AAA game with a trans protagonist? What an important step in representation! Yay!
But I think DONTNOD forgot the “game” part of this game. The pace is slogggggggging, and the moments of interactivity amount to a) walking… very… slowly, b) stilted “how do you do, fellow kids” dialogue choices, c) remembering cutscenes (that then play out very… slowly…), and d) “puzzles” (too generous a word for what amount to dead-simple chores, or using extremely obvious clues found in a book you’re continually asked to reference).
I could have forgiven it as a slow-burn semi-interactive movie with way too much exposplaining, but...
Then there’s the story. I was there for the narrative of twins Tyler and Alyson, reunited after 10 years (and after Tyler’s transition). I was there for the atmosphere of a small town in rural Alaska and its sweeping snowy vistas. I was there for Tyler’s coming home, what that meant to him, and what it meant to his sister and their childhood community that hadn’t seen him since his transition - but I don’t think DONTNOD was there for it.
Where the story could have explored the nuance of what it means to come-of-age when you’re coming-of-gender, and indeed sets itself up for that, it failed to deliver on that premise. And I get why: if you’re the first AAA game to feature a trans protagonist, you tread carefully.
Unfortunately, they tread *too* carefully, almost to the point of making Tyler’s narrative irrelevant. The story didn’t have to be traumaporn, with a community of people refusing to welcome Tyler, dead-naming and mis-gendering him, or engaging in outright physical violence. (Although, it does lean heavily into a different kind of traumaporn, the killing-off-moms-as-an-inciting-incident trope.) But the few moments of conflict and confrontation that lend reality to Tyler's trans narrative blow over in simple dialogue lines, taking a sidestep to the central mystery surrounding the twins’ mother.
Tyler’s transness is used as the catalyst of that mystery, but the twins’ mother is presented in such a way that *anything* could have sparked her actions. The unraveling of a single woman with substance and mental health issues who turns on her children didn’t need Tyler cutting his hair short to set it off. If anything, Tyler spending the next decade blaming himself for her actions is exactly the sort of traumaporn narrative DONTNOD seemed to be trying so hard to avoid - that transness is life-ruining for you and your loved ones. I walked away from this game feeling conflicted about its message, and a little bit wishing I had just watched a let's play at 2x speed.
Maybe my bar for this one was too high - but at the bare minimum, if you’re making a game, even an artsy narrative game, you can’t forget the gameplay. Especially when your portfolio includes the Life is Strange series - I know you know how to make point-and-click adventure gameplay interesting, DONTNOD. What happened here might have been too little focus on gamification in favor of all the focus on “trying to get it right” with respect to Tyler’s narrative - which is especially a shame when they didn’t exactly “get it right”. Got it safe, maybe.
Don't get me wrong: I do think it's an important game that paves the way for AAA studios to bring trans narratives into mainstream gaming, but let's hope future attempts learn from Tell Me Why's shortcomings.
It’s inevitable, I know. But see above point about games feeling like chores. I mean, like, I'm already being asked to use my thumbs, and now games expect me to use my brain, too?? Pfft. I will brute-force my underlleveled way through this fight, thank you very much.
WHAT THE GOLF?
Annnd now I have theme song stuck in my head.
What the Golf! You guys, What the Golf!
This was SUCH a delightful discovery. My antidote to 2020. Filled with wordplay and absurdity (my favorite) in spades, it’s easily one of the top five funniest games I’ve ever played. It’s throw-your-iPad challenging at times - but you know why I didn’t throw my iPad? Because it wasn’t f*%#ing free-to-play! If some monetization algorithm had been churning in the background to make sure I was close-but-no-cigar in my level attempts, I wouldn’t have bothered installing it. After 7 years of working on F2P games, I've had damn just about enough of that noise.
But this game is old-school hard - the kind that rewards mastery of a mechanic with winning, like the good ol’ days when games were finished products you paid for up-front. I haven’t 100%-ed a game in years, but this one earned all of my time and then some, making sure I’d explored every nook and cranny. I’m still trying to figure out the ARG, on that note, but I hear the secret blue horses might have galloped away… neeeeeeigh, say it isn't so.
Oona is a big mood.
I’m late to the party on this one, but speaking of representation, oh boy, I appreciates you, NeoCab. Delightfully diverse cast, engrossing world, fantastic and all-too-real dystopian techopoly themes… I really enjoyed this one. The idea of dialogue options based on the protagonist’s mood is interesting gamification that I hadn’t seen before - though I got a bit frustrated with it in the climax conversation between Lina and Savy. That might be because I wasn’t exactly invested in Savy - at least, not as much as I was invested in the other characters. Oona, particularly, was my favorite - I want to be Mallory Archer-turned-quantum statistician when I grow up!
The replayability factor is big on this one - your careful budget of interactions ensures you won’t get to see how every character’s story plays out, and I, for one, need to spend more time with Agonon. He’s a big 2020 mood right now, may the worm rise and devour us all.
Whatcha playin’ next, kid?
Assuming I find the motivation to yank off my 2020 comfort blanket of 90s sitcoms and pick up a controller, Hades is at the top of my list - because my friend Cyrus voiced several characters, yes, but also because I hear it does interesting things with moving the narrative forward through the roguelite formula.
I’ve also been meaning to check out Down the Rabbit Hole on Quest - I’m all about that Alice in Wonderland vibe, and I quite appreciate the dollhouse perspective, as I’m pretty susceptible to motion sickness in VR. No Skyrim for me. :(
I picked up Lair of the Clockwork Gods and Unavowed in the Steam sale, and I avow (…) not to let them sit on my shelf unplayed, like the 300 other things I’ve picked up in Steam sales prior.
So, sole reader who has subscribed to this blog (thank you!), whatcha playin’, kid? Go ahead, @ me.