Games that include full motion video are still an oddity with the video elements often feeling out of place in the game world. This has gotten better of time of course, with the games in the mixed-media genre (Quantum Break being the most recent example that comes to mind) combining elements in a way that highlights the best of both mediums. The newer genre of interactive fiction, which takes away most game elements in favour of a predominately FMV or cutscene based experience, has also started to find its feet over the past couple years. Her Story, which I unfortunately never got around to play (even though it was on my to review list), was widely acclaimed to be a standout example of that and so when I saw Telling Lies, done by the same developers, I figured that it’d be worth diving into this particular brand of interactive fiction. I have to admit that whilst it’s a novel way of telling a story there’s a lot of room for improvement in just the base story exploration mechanics which would make the whole experience just that much better.
Telling Lies puts you in charge of an unnamed person who’s gotten ahold of an intel dump relating to a particular case. What you’re given access to is a database of videos, each of them fully transcribed so that you can search for certain words and phrases to find new videos. These videos have mostly been captured from one side of the conversation, meaning you’re only going to hear what one person is saying at any given time. So in order to find all the videos you’re going to have to listen carefully for clues that will lead you to other snippets so you can piece together the multi-layered puzzle that has been laid out before you.
Since this is supposed to be a kind of “found footage” experience a lot of the visual aesthetic is grainy cell phone style videos with muted colours. This is part of the experience of course and there’s not a lot of room for creative cinematography when you’re supposed to be viewing video chats between two people or footage from a hidden camera. It’s quite obvious in some shots that the pictures aren’t coming from equipment that the characters in the game would have (the shot below being a good example of being far too wide for a standard laptop camera) but unless you’re a cinematography geek that’s not likely to impact on your experience. For what it seeks to recreate Telling Lies does a good job of giving you the feeling that you’re peering into parts of normal people’s lives, even if the drama has been amped up a bit for effect.
The searching interface you have to use is pretty basic, giving you a keyword search box, the ability to bookmark and a log of your search history and videos viewed. The search is artificially limited to 5 results which prevents you from using very broad terms like “the” or “hi” to get a long list of videos to chew through. Once you’ve picked up on a particular element it can be pretty easy to then follow it through for a fair while, utilising snippets from the conversation to branch out to other videos which, in turn, provide you even more search fodder.
The game does actually provide you a notepad to keep track of things but honestly I actually enjoyed keeping my own physical notes that I could flip through as I was playing. I’d keep track of people, key words and other interesting items as they cropped up, ticking them off as I ran a particular vein dry. This strategy got me through the bulk of the game, probably about 130 videos or so, before the clock got stuck at 4:45AM and I couldn’t find a way to progress further. If you happen to get to this point just know that you’re not doing anything wrong, it’s just that the game has a hard stop at a few points where the timer won’t progress until you find a specific video. For the first few stage gates finding them isn’t a problem but the last one can be a real pain in the ass to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
This also isn’t helped by the fact that the interface for watching videos is total ass. When you search for a video you’ll be taken to where in the video your search term appeared which could be anywhere in the timeline. If you’re like me (and most of the people on the Steam forum) you’ll want to go to the start of the video to watch it. You can do that but you’ll have to rewind the video like it’s a VHS tape in order to watch it all the way through. I’d hazard a guess I spent a good 2~3 hours just watching video rewind which honestly serves no purpose to the overall story.
There’s also a lot of videos that don’t have good keywords in them, meaning that to actually find them you’re going to rely on a hefty amount of guesswork in order to find them. For example in one video it’s clear that one character has made a comment like “You’re huge!” or “You look big!” but it’s actually nothing like that and the other keywords you might think will give you the other side of the conversation don’t work either. This starts to become quite a chore later in the game when you already have the overall narrative down and are just trying to get through to the end, ploughing through video after video just to move the time ahead.
Indeed this is the problem with games that present their narrative out of order like this as once you’ve got the general idea of what’s going on all the other scenes just end up feeling like filler. I stumbled across some very late in the timeline videos early on in the piece and so was pretty sure of what was going to happen after an hour or so. To be sure exploring some of the different character arcs was enjoyable but after a certain point I was done and just wanted the game to end. Thankfully the developers are pretty junior when it comes to actually structuring these games and all the videos in the game are helpfully available in a single folder in the game directory. So it was just a matter of cycling through those, finding the right keywords and watching the videos in game to finish it off.
As for the story itself? Certain aspects are done well, like giving each of the main characters enough screen time to truly develop them completely (if you invest the time to find the videos, of course). The choose your own path storytelling does mean that the pacing is all over the shop, some search queries leading to intriguing veins of information that keep you going down the rabbit hole for hours on end. Other times you just find video after video that reveals nothing new nor provides anything interesting to go on and you just feel bored with the whole experience. Honestly I’d love to see all the videos stitched together, both sides of the conversation included, in chronological order just to see how it’d stand up on its own. In this format it’s interesting but a bit all over the place. As a cohesively told narrative I feel like it’d probably be a lot more.
Telling Lies is an interesting piece of interactive fiction that’s predominately let down by its exploration mechanics and the inherent pacing issues with navigating your own path through a narrative. The team behind the creation of the videos, from the actors to the tech guys to the audio engineers, have all done well to create the experience in this way as I’m sure it was a real challenge to create and capture moments like this. It’s just a shame that the exploration isn’t a little more refined, needing a few touches and perhaps a few mechanics to push the story along when it’s clear that you’re not getting to the points that they want you to get to. I still think it’s worth playing but would love to see a few patches to really tighten up the rather mediocre mechanics.
Telling Lies is available on iOS and PC right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours playtime and 64% of the achievements unlocked.
Given my last 2 reviews have been for MMOs you can probably guess that I’ve been a little strapped for time to get around to playing other titles. It even got to the point where I was playing Destiny and WoW in the same night, something which I knew wasn’t going to be particularly sustainable if I wanted to keep my 1 review per week cadence going. So I went in search of some shorter titles and stumbled across Donut Country, another Annapurna Interactive published title, which seemed to be charming and, thankfully, quite short. Whilst I might have been drawn in by the game’s brevity the visual style, kitschy dialogue and simple mechanics made it far more enjoyable than I was expecting.
Racoons have moved into the quiet town of Donut County, taking over the local donut shop. Every time someone orders a donut however a mysterious hole shows up at their house, devouring everything in sight. The hole is piloted by none other than BK, one of the new racoon residents, who’s doing so in order to get enough points to get his hands on a sweet new drone. However once he falls into one of his own holes he finds the citizens of Donut Country trapped 999 feet below the surface and they’re understandably quite mad about his recent shenanigans. What follows is the story of how the town became swallowed up and their journey to get back out.
The single developer behind Donut County, Ben Esposito, set himself a few constraints when designing the game’s visual style: no lighting effects, textures or gradients. Whilst those rules aren’t adhered to 100% they are the driving force behind the games minimalistic aesthetic. The result is a kind of flat, cartoon like environment filled with bright, solid colours which is really quite charming. Indeed whilst there’s a lot of games with a similar visual style I’m actually struggling to come up with one that’s exactly like it as most games won’t go so far as to abandon the use of textures, nor even simple gradients. As someone who’s worked as a sole developer on a couple projects I can definitely appreciate setting yourself boundaries and working within them; sometimes there’s really nothing as liberating as working within a strict ruleset.
The game’s mechanics are simple: your a small hole which grows bigger as it consumes things (kind of like a reverse Katamari Damacy). There are a bunch of small challenges which will require you to get a little inventive with how you use a few mechanics but other than that the game play doesn’t deviate too much. That being said it’s kind of fun to try and figure out which things will fit and which ones don’t as sometimes you can get away with getting bigger things in if you know how to position them right. That being said this is a physics based game so there’s many opportunities for things to go pear shaped, with items flinging themselves wildly across the level and getting stuck in areas that you won’t be able to reach. Of course you’re only a restart of the level away from fixing that so it’s not that much of an issue.
The story is a simple affair, seemingly reflective of the developer’s own conversational style (as evidenced in their Gamasutra interview here). It’s a lighthearted commentary on their experiences in Los Angeles and it issues they want to touch on certainly come through. Overall though there’s not much to write home about, it’s simply there to set the scene for the various puzzles and to tie the whole thing together.
Donut County is a fun little distraction, combining simplistic art work with lighthearted dialogue for an interesting experience that’s really like no other. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a game idea that was born out from Peter Molydeux; something completely left of center that pays little heed to the creed and conventions of modern game design. After chewing my way through too very heavy game experiences over the last couple weeks I was incredibly glad to cleanse my palate with something a little lighter. So if you like me are experiencing a little fatigue with the AAA barrage that comes this time of year then Donut County is most likely the game for you.
Donut County is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with 104 minutes of play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
One of the secrets behind the Nintendo Wii’s wild success was how it was able to tap into one of the largest markets that had been largely ignored for decades: non-gamers. The games industry might eclipse other entertainment but it’s still doesn’t have the same level of penetration among the wider community. So when my non-gamer friends recommend games to me it’s always worth looking into as the design, objectives and mechanics are completely different than those I regularly play. That’s how Florence, an interactive story from the developer Moutains and published by Annapurna Interactive, made its way to me. I’m very glad it did too as the short experience is a great example of how simple mechanics, good story building and a wonderful soundtrack can come together into an emotional experience.
This review is mostly for people who’ve already played the game, so SPOILERS BELOW.
Florence follows the tale of a relationship between the protagonist (from whom the game draws its name) and Krish, a street performer. Whilst there are some bits of dialogue scattered throughout the game most of the communication is nonverbal, done through mini-games and graphic novel styled panels. The game has 20 chapters, each of which focuses on a different part of Florence’s life. You don’t have any real influence over how the story plays out, I believe, but you are able to put your own touches on some things, like a childhood painting that reappears in a couple scenes. This creates a narrative that, whilst guided by what you’re seeing on screen, is largely built out of your own imagination as you fill in the gaps between scenes. That’s what makes Florence’s story feel so personal to us all because, in the end, it’s us who’s building out her story.
The visuals are a simple, whimsical style reflective of our protagonist’s love of watercolour paints. The colours are usually solid with dark pen outlines, something that certainly felt reminiscent of a time when I used to dabble with them. Colour (and the lack of it) is also used to draw your attention to things or to reflect the mood of the characters on screen, with high tension moments taking on sharper, more aggressive tones and times of emotional lows reflected in the colour draining away. This is then all backed by an absolutely wonderful soundtrack by Kevin Penkin. This makes Florence an absolute joy to play just from an audio-visual experience which is then amplified tenfold by the narrative.
Florence starts of with a deliberately slow pace initially, reflecting the monotony of everyday life that everyone finds themselves in at some stage in their life. Then everything starts to pick up dramatically as a single event changes everything, in the case of Florence that’s meeting Krish. From there it’s a wonderful tale of seeing their young love blossom as they get to know each other at a much deeper level. The game mechanics start to come into play wonderfully at this point, like the conversations initially starting off difficult with lots of puzzle pieces but then, at its climax, turning into a single piece that just fits. Honestly I would’ve been quite happy with Florence if it just kept along that trajectory and never explored any of the more challenging aspects of being in a relationship. However I feel the developer wanted to explore relationships in a more realistic way, which is why the second half of Florence is dedicated to the breakup and how Florence recovers after.
For me personally this is where Florence started to really hit home. Not so much from the relationship perspective (although I’ve been there, but I’ve also been extremely lucky with my dear wife) but more in rediscovering something of yourself that you’d left behind and how sometimes tragedy is what leads you to rediscover that. That, I feel, is something universal to the human condition; we’re all pushed to pursue certain things in our lives and quite often a piece of ourselves might get left behind. Even when others recognise it in you and try to bring it out it can be hard to take the leap to begin the process of rebuilding yourself. The ending then is somewhat bittersweet, Florence has discovered how to be true to herself but only through gaining some emotional scars. Perhaps that’s why it’s stuck with me because it feels so true to life.
Florence is one of the best examples of a game that has universal appeal. The barrier to entry is low with it being available on iOS and Android and the mechanics being simple and easy to understand. The story it tells is one that I feel anyone can take something away from, whether it’s being stuck in a routine life, the joy of a new relationship, the pain of a breakup, rediscovering a lost passion or the process of rebuilding yourself up from your lowest point. On top of all of this it’s simply a wonderful audio visual experience with its whimsical art style and gorgeous backing soundtrack. Florence is hard to pass up because it asks so little of you yet gives so much in return, especially for lovers of a good story.
Florence is available on iOS and Android right now for $4.49. Game was played on Android with about 45 minutes of total play time.
Maybe I’m getting older or maybe I just have less time but walking simulators fill a perfect niche for me. Their short play times, slow pace and (typically) well crafted stories make them a great escape from my usual diet of non-stop work and rage-inducing DOTA 2 matches. It’s also been quite some time since I got to play one, the last being Event towards the end of last year. So when a friend mentioned that I should look into What Remains of Edith Finch, a game from the same developers who brought us The Unfinished Swan, I was instantly intrigued. Like all walking simulators it’s certainly not for everyone but, if you like a gripping (albeit tragic) story, then it’s definitely up your alley.
The Finches are an unfortunate family, one that appears to be pursued by a curse that befalls nearly all of them to untimely deaths. You play as Edith Finch, returning to your ancestral home for the first time in many years. What unfolds from there is the story of how your family came to be in this place, the stories of their deaths and why you left. Much of the family’s history had been hidden from you as a child, your mother refusing to discuss anything. However with her death she had relinquished to you a key, one that unlocked the many tragic tales that befell your family.
What Remains of Edith Finch is built on the Unreal Engine 4 and whilst it does a good job of hiding that “Unreal” feeling there are a few telltale signs that give it away. The visual aesthetic fits in between realism and fantasy which is tied in heavily to the story’s themes. The visuals excel in the wide open spaces, with lovingly crafted vistas sprawling out before you. Up close the lack of detail in some areas becomes apparent but, for the places you’re meant to explore in depth, you can definitely see the extra effort that’s been put in. Overall I’d say that What Remains of Edith Finch’s visuals are above par for the genre, even if they’re not a selling point.
As is expected for this genre What Remains of Edith Finch’s mechanics are simple in their execution. Typically you’ll be locked inside a room or area which you need to find one clue or dialogue trigger. You’ll be rewarded with additional dialogue and story development the more you explore although, thankfully, the game keeps red herrings and dead paths to a minimum. All of the flashback sections have their own little twist on story telling, blending in different story telling elements to make each of them unique. Beyond that there’s not much I can say without spoiling certain story elements but, if you’re a fan of the walking simulator genre, then I’m sure what I’ve described appeals to you.
Knowing that all of the flashbacks would result in that family member’s death ignited something of a moral conundrum for me. In order to progress the game I had to do as the game requested but this, essentially, meant I was condemning them to their fate. Like when you were the child swinging over the cliff it was obvious what the outcome would be. However if I did nothing I could go no further and morally speaking they had already died, so I wasn’t changing anything. I guess the feeling came from the deep engagement I had with the game and the sense that I should have some form of control over the outcome, even if it’s already set in stone.
Whilst, overall, I think that the tragic tale of the Finch family was told well I didn’t like the fact that the narrator was killed off in the end. Sure, I understand that this is part of the “Finch Family Curse” motif the developers are going for but it just didn’t seem necessary to the overall plot. Perhaps my feelings about this come from the sense of loss that the game instils in you, wanting the stereotypical Hollywood ending to soften the blow, so to speak. Of course how you react to the story will be unique to you and there is no right or wrong way to feel when the credits begin to roll.
What Remains of Edith Finch well executed tale of tragedy, taking you through the history of family that has been forever surrounded by death. It’s visuals straddle the line between realism and fantasy, echoing the story. As you’d expect the mechanics are simple and unobtrusive, focusing you on the story. The dialogue and story elements are well paced and delivered excellently, ensuring that you’ll want to complete this game in one sitting. The genre suggests that this game is likely not for everyone but, if you’re a fan of a good story (even if it’s a sad one) then What Remains of Edith Finch is worth your time.
What Remains of Edith Finch is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 56% of the achievements unlocked.