Friday, 8 March 2013

Finished: To The Moon

To The Moon is an adventure game by Freebird Games made using RPG Maker. It follows a pair of doctors, Dr Eva Rosaline and Dr Neil Watts as they explore an old man named Johnny's memories in order to rewrite them such that they fulfill his final wish, to visit the moon.

They work for an organisation whose business is just that, you are reaching the end of your life, so you hire them to search through your memories, nudge various events and simulate how your life would have been had you taken the other path. Then they dump these new memories over the old ones.

The game itself is fairly simple, consisting primarily of exploring an area/memory to find objects and talk to people, then once the right objects have been found, to complete a fairly simple tile flipping puzzle. To be honest though, that doesn't matter, because the game tells the story of Johnny's life so well using these systems and music, that you can't help but be drawn in. The game took me about 3 and a half hours to complete, and once I was about half an hour in I did not want to stop until the story was over.

The way the story is told has a kind of memento vibe to it, the doctors have to start with more recent memories and work their way back toward childhood, so you have a similar pattern of seeing Johnny's more recent history, but not have the context. It results in drawing conclusions that you later revise as new information comes to light and completely changes the interpretation of later events.

Personally I find the concept of deliberately rewriting someone's memories really disturbing, that the technology exists has interesting consequences from a world building perspective, and whilst clearly they have permission (complete with a contract) to be rewriting Johnny's mind I still find it to be morally questionable. The game feels heartwarming and uplifting towards the end, but I can't help but feel that those notes are false in the wider context of what is going on. Changing how Johnny remembers his life doesn't change the life he actually led.

I do think that this game could probably be told just as well in another medium, though perhaps not by the game designer. I wonder if in its current state, the game format results in a closer attachment by the player to Eva, Neil and Johnny.

Of the games I played in 2012, this one probably had the greatest emotional impact on me, I thoroughly recommend playing through it and picking up the wonderful soundtrack.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

EuroUS Trip 2012 - 2013: Germany


Berlin was a fairly depressing city, to be fair that probably has a lot to do with the sites we visited, which were focused around World War 2 and the Cold War, the East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Sachsenhausen, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror.

See, totally made it there!
Our stay in Berlin actually included New Years Eve, despite having arrived in town at 4am (alas, the timing of planes and trains were less than ideal), we did in fact make our way to Brandenburger Tor, where the big celebrations are held. We didn't realise at the time that the entrance to the celebrations were actually quite far from the Tor itself, we had to make our way around most of the Tiergarten before we could get in, and once we were in, well it was like a really crowded carnival. It had the same 4 or 5 stores repeated along the entire party mile, each selling either silly hats, lollies, bratwurst, glühwein or beer. There was a single ride, that being a ferries wheel, and as you worked your way closer to the Tor, the crowd grew thicker and the entertainment louder. The entertainment on offer seemed like pretty standard pop music fare, but in German, which did help me enjoy it. Didn't even make it to 9pm before we decided to head back to the hotel.

Personally I think that Sachsenhausen and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe were the most powerful places we visited. Our trip to Sachsenhausen was as part of a guided tour and so were told the history of the camp as we went through it, giving insights into the purpose behind the layout and the sheer amount of time, thought and effort that went into the systems of cruelty. It really drives home that this was not done for purely cynical and logical reasons, but for fanatical ideological ones, enough people really believed in what they were doing. They would have known that the world in general would not approve, nor even the population at large in Germany, but it was a task they felt was necessary.

Alas a reconstruction, but this was taken at about 4am on New Years Eve
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or rather the museum beneath it, is laid out in a very interesting way. It consists of 4 rooms, in a loop. The first is a fairly straight forward history of the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the lead up to WW2, through to the completion of the war. Finishing with 6 portraits to give faces to the millions that were murdered. The second room is artifacts, scraps of diaries, letters and other records from Jews in the camps, some of them revealing what has happened to them, some showing vague knowledge of what will happen next. The third room is about families, they have about a dozen of them, each with a nice family photo, a map of where they were from and what the family did to try to escape persecution, finally it has a list of all the family members and you can see, that maybe 1 or 2 survive the war of a family of a dozen people. The last room was the most impactful, it was a darkened very simple room, with seating around the centre and plain unmarked walls. It projects a name on the wall and then tells that person's story, first in German, then in English. They all end with "and they died in a camp in X" or "and they were never heard from again". The names just keep coming, with no signs of repeating, I have no idea how many names and stories that they have, but longer than I was willing to sit in that room.

By no means was Berlin all fireworks and depression, we also visited the Pergamon museum, the Bundestag dome and just a lot of walking around. The tours we went on in the city were good and the Street Art tour was focused primarily on the Berlin of today rather than the Berlin of 70-30 years ago.


We visited Hamburg for one reason, the Miniatur Wunderland. The world's largest model railway. It (currently) takes up a floor and a half of the building it is in, with the intent to eventually take up at least 2 floors. I have no idea how my girlfriend first found out about this place, but it we simply had to go there while we were in Europe. We spent the entire day there, exploring all of the various locations they have been inspired by. Switzerland, Germany, America and Scandinavia are all represented along with their own entirely made up areas. There is even a working airport, with planes landing and taking off (atop of transparent poles admittedly).

The entire place is packed with amazing little details, both mundane and fantastical. Even buildings that are almost impossible to see into seem to have fully detailed interiors, they even have a day/night cycle that lasts in total maybe 20 minutes, so you can see Vegas at night, or notice the UFO that periodically drops down to communicate with that alien that is standing out in the open but you simply did not notice until the UFO highlighted it.

It is a bit like Where's Wally, looking around at relatively normal scenes you start to notice little things, like Santas being everywhere (since we went close to Christmas time), or a Unicorn hidden in a cave in a mountainside, a thief tunneling into a bank vault, where police are ready to catch him or my favourite a couple having some fun in the woods. So many neat things that are easy to miss, I only noticed the last because a woman was taking photos of a seemingly boring section of woodlands.

The displays aren't entirely static either, there are buttons that will activate sections of scenery periodically, starting a play to be performed, or setting off a brush fire or starting up a chocolate factory. None of them are particularly well labeled, which can make working out just what has changed a challenge in of itself.

I am sure that Hamburg has other things to offer than model trains, but that was enough for us, maybe next time we are in the area we will actually look at more touristy activities.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Finished: Home

Home is a short atmospheric horror adventure game about trying to make your way home and make sense of the circumstances you found yourself in. It adjusts in various ways to your decisions, which can result in a very different final narrative (though the game ends up playing the same way).

The journey home is not straight forward and involves a trek through a surprisingly large number of locations, homes, tunnels, a forest, an abandoned factory, not a normal walk home. I picked up this game because a pair of my friends had played through it simultaneously each picking opposite decisions and discussing the differences and also, because it was cheap. Ultimately what seems to shape the story to various extents is what items you pick up and keep with you, primarily because in the final scenes this limits the options your character has available.

One thing I quite liked about this game was the boxed text, the graphics engine can only show so much, and can't really show more subtle things like smell and touch, or even just sounds and animations that the engine doesn't support. The boxed text was a fairly simple but effective way to convey that the mood.

Overall, Home was an interesting game, but not really one I think I would have bothered with were it not for a combination of a friend's recommendation, low price and short length. Had the game been much longer I suspect it may have ended up on the Abandoned list.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Finished: Saints Row The Third

I picked up Saints Row the Third in a Christmas sale on steam, when they were selling the pack with most of the DLC ridiculously cheaply. Not the last time that THQ tried to raise funds that way, but at the time THQ's financial woes had yet to make headlines and I had not finished Saints Row 2.

Saints Row 2 moved the franchise from a fairly basic Grand Theft Auto knock off to its own firm territory, introducing a huge variety of side missions and firmly gating story behind a requirement to play around, explore the city and do some very silly things. While it was a great game, I was happy to move on when I was done rather than aim for 100% completion, because there was simply too much stuff left to do, and because I knew that to a certain extent Saints Row 3 was there, which would give  me more things to do, whilst also giving me a goal and direction.

SR3 is violent and silly. It wears the sillyness proudly, and deliberately rubs your face in it. It exists in a bizarre, ultra-violent world, where the leadership of a criminal gang can become the focus of a notable international brand, it has a gameshow that involves condemned criminals as some of the contestants, and it has a "car chase" with human pony carriages. A car chase where when the carriage is destroyed it explodes the same way as every other vehicle in the game.

Despite the amazing amount of power that the game simply hands the player (especially if they have bought the various DLCs), the game managed to hold my attention and entertain me. It doesn't mitigate your ability to use ridiculous powers, it just encourages you to try different weapons and to play.

Because of the ridiculous nature of the universe, you simply can't be sure where the story will go next, what new strangeness show up, taking the story in a new direction whilst still allowing the Saints to continue their inexorable rise to power.

Hopefully the new owners of the IP will continue the tradition of putting the game on sale for super cheap, because its definitely worth a play. Provided you can cope with the violence and sexual themes that are in the game.