Player Too: Episode 8 – Stardew Valley, Oxenfree, The Beginner’s Guide, Super Hexagon

Hello again. Boy, this Player Too thing is really going well! At the end of the last episode (two months ago) I said that Claire had said she’d write a foreword to this episode, so you can hear directly from her that I haven’t had to chain her to a laptop to play these things (there were rumours… okay no, there weren’t). But anyway, here she is!..

No need to send help, I’m here of my own free will. I promise that Kev is not holding a Duck Hunt Gun to my head and making me write this. I’ll start by saying thanks to you guys for reading. I probably wouldn’t have been tricked into playing otherwise. In this episode we are looking at Oxenfree, Super Hexagon, Stardew Valley & The Beginner’s Guide. Yes, Super Hot was supposed to be on there too and we had Abzu all loaded up and ready to go but something really interesting happened.. I sorta fell in love with a game and I couldn’t be dragged away from it. Yep, I’m surprised too. I started out this experiment with an idea that I was too busy to give too much time to gaming. Granted, I’ve encountered a bunch of games that have defied my expectations but I have had no problem shutting down a game before its end if I felt I’d given it enough time.

But now we’ve found a game that I got hooked on. Don’t judge me, but I may have stayed up past my bedtime playing more than once for this one. I’ll leave Kev to fill you in on the details. Writing the blog is his “problem”, so to speak, but we do always talk about the games together before he writes, so I’m happy that he gets my opinions across fairly.

Thanks again everyone for reading, for the recommendations, and the encouragement. I’m having more and more fun as we go along, hopefully some of you have tried the games we recommend (maybe with a loved one?) and have had some fun too.


Okay, me again. See? She’s real!.. I probably should have done that in a video or something now that I think of it.. but anyway, let’s get started. I always try to make the blog shorter every month and it never works, so let’s get to it!

Super Hexagon

This crazy thing! This epilepsy-inducing impossibility of a mind-shatterer! There’s actually very little to it. You rotate left or right (that’s the sum total of the controls) to avoid the inwardly shrinking hexagonal walls, always trying to move just fast enough to find the gap and not lose time.

It’s a very ‘more-ish’ game. If you live longer than 5 seconds on your first try I’d be surprised. My own high score on easiest mode was only 16.17 seconds. Easiest is a relative term. The game’s easiest mode is labelled ‘hard’, with ‘harder’ and ‘hardest’ following that, and three further unlockable difficulties. Strangely (it must have been a fluke, because I couldn’t do it again) on my first try on ‘harder’ mode I got 23.12 seconds. 

The game has a super (no pun intended) soundtrack by Chipzel, but every time you die the music stops until you restart the level. This I found quite annoying, as I was enjoying it, but not living long enough to hear the tracks uninterrupted. I have sought out the soundtrack separately though and am enjoying it.

Here’s the problem with the game though. There are basically no early wins. And after half an hour there are no later wins either. If you don’t have ‘it’ (extremely fast reflexes. Colour blindness might actually help too) you’re going nowhere with this game. There are no easy levels. It took me twenty minutes to get my 16 second high score, and I’ve never gotten there again.

The levels are always the same, so you can master them with time (in theory) but unlike similarly difficult but fair games (Devil Daggers comes to mind) you won’t get much of a feeling of improvement without serious commitment, and it’s hard to commit to a game with just two buttons and flashing lights when the most attractive aspect is a soundtrack that keeps muting every 5-15 seconds because you died.

The controls also felt overly sensitive to me. Most of my deaths came not from not seeing the gap on time, but from seeing it, rotating 180 degrees towards it, and then overshooting and smashing into the far side of the gap. I tried keyboard buttons and controller stick and shoulder buttons. Nothing felt good to me.

There’s not a lot else to discuss. Claire pretty much said all those same things, but had even lower scores than me, and just didn’t enjoy it. It’s overly frustrating.

In its defence, it’s not really a game you sit down to, and we bought from Steam. It’s more suited to having a few goes on your mobile on the bus. And I’m not sure how well touch screen controls are tuned. We didn’t play there.

Also in its defence, I’ve enjoyed it each time I played. I always want “one more try”, especially when you die just short of your high score, but the frustration does set in quickly, so it depends on what kind of gamer you are, this one.

If you’re an Irish reader, it might be worth saying to you that both the game’s developer (Terry Cavanagh) and the composer (Chipzel) are Irish. So you know, do support, and all that 🙂

Player Too Result

Swing and a miss! I didn’t expect success here actually, but Claire had enjoyed those quick-restart, one-more-go kind of games before (Race the Sun, and to a lesser extent Super Meat Boy), but those games did have easier first stages to give you a taste of victory. Super Hexagon just kicks you off every 5 seconds and it’s hard to get any better at it.

I do recommend trying it on your mobile, or especially in the current sales, but don’t pick it up expecting to beat it for the achievements or anything.

The Beginner’s Guide

So, next we continued with the first-person branch of our Player Too campaign. Last time we played The Stanley Parable and said this would be the next one; a logical progression since this was developer Davey Wreden’s follow up game after Stanley.

I won’t say much because it’s only short and, like Stanley, it’s an oddity. I talked about the “it’s not a game” thing before (I am planning to do a proper blog on it some day) but I think it’s very fair to say about this one, no matter what your view on that label. Because this is literally a collection of older, discarded game ideas, thrown together as an exhibition. “Walking simulator” fits, and I don’t mean it as an insult. If you’re a regular reader you know that I never do. I think we should just own that term and enjoy the great games of that new genre.

The Beginner’s Guide is unlike anything you’ve likely ever played, and that alone makes it worth a look. It’s short (about 90 mins) and you don’t have an objective other than to be led through the game by the narrator. You can’t die. You’re just following a story.

It occupies a space somewhere between ‘based on a true story’ and ‘biography’. Like Stanley, “to say too much would be to spoil it”. Unlike Stanley, though, this isn’t a comedy game, but it’s very engaging and interesting. Curiosity and novelty definitely pull you along. The trailer tells as much as I’m really willing to give away here, other than to say that the game is about sequentially exploring all of those games in the folder, made by a person referred to as ‘Coda’. Viewing their work as snapshots of the person in time is a very interesting way to be told a story, and you’re accompanied the whole time by Davey Wreden’s audio narration.

You may replay it once (worth doing, take it from me) but if not you’ll appreciate the 90 minutes the first time anyway. I recommend it as long as you’re happy with what you spend for a 90 minute experience. The price of a cinema ticket definitely seems fair.

Player Too Result

Claire enjoyed this, as did I. It’s quite an interesting way to tell a story. Certainly unique. The true elements definitely increased our interest in it, and I found myself scanning forums and Wikipedia after finishing to learn more.

We’ve already learned from earlier Player Too episodes that Claire appreciates that games can be more ‘interactive experiences’ or works of art than just “pew pew” wastes of time. She likes her walking simulators like Gone Home and Firewatch so this was a predictable success.

The aspect I cared more about was training her first person movement skills, because I’d love to enjoy games like Minecraft or Portal in co-op with her, but she’s not used to moving around with WASD and mouse. Walking simulators are helping there. I’ve noticed that she doesn’t really lose the fingering or have to look down at the keyboard anymore, and while she doesn’t really strafe/look around corners, she does now use A and D a little. You’ll notice if you watch someone using WASD and mouse for the first time that they’ll pretty much only use W and if they need to strafe around an object, they’ll awkwardly turn to face the direction, press W, and then re-orient, instead of using all the commands available.

First person movement is second nature to me, and nearly all PC gamers, I’m sure. But when you try to share certain games with someone who’s new to that movement style, it’s a major hurdle. The numerous walking sims we’ve played on Player Too definitely seem to be good low-difficulty training wheels (and good games to boot) towards slightly more challenging experiences that we could hopefully play together.

Whether Claire will enjoy those games when we get to them is another story, but I’m happy to report that she’s enjoying the journey, at least.


Oxenfree is some combination of an adventure, 2D, puzzle, mystery game. You can tell from the trailer that there’s a distinctive and appealing visual aesthetic going on here. That’s the first thing that’s easy to appreciate. The second thing you’ll likely appreciate, only minutes into the game, is how well written and performed the dialogue is between characters.

Okay, I’m not, and never have been, an American teenager, but the way these teens speak to each other seems very natural, and authentic. There’s no dialogue that stands out as wooden, and no cracks in the performance.

The game centres around a bunch of teens who sneak onto an island to go drinking overnight (it’s an annual event / rite of passage of sorts) and then spooky goings on occur.

It’s not exactly a horror game, but it’s close. In tone it feels a lot like Super 8 or Stranger Things.

You control Alex, and interact with the world and other characters entirely from her point of view. Your main control over the game comes from dialogue choices, and a couple of “where do we go now? A or B?” choices. A criticism I have of the dialogue is that you don’t usually have much time to choose your responses, and most of the time you actually interrupt if someone else is speaking as soon as you’ve made your choice. If the other character finishes speaking, your options usually disappear about 1 second later and the other character comes back with a response tailored to your silence, which can be things that result in the character liking you less or whatever.

Basically, I didn’t find using the dialogue to be a smooth experience. I found it stressful to have characters interrupting each other and losing parts of conversation or losing dialogue threads. The constant interrupting and bitching may be a realistic way to represent teens talking to each other (read with a sense of humour), but I didn’t like how it worked in the game. Claire didn’t care much for it either, but despite the mechanic being clunky, we both still thought dialogue was something to put in the ‘Pro’ column for this game.

You walk around the island manually, with the control stick or arrow keys. It’s presented as something of an open world, but progression is fairly linear. Whatsmore, you walk every step of the way yourself with almost nothing to do (maybe a puzzle the first time you go, but nothing when you’re backtracking) along the way. Sometimes the time is filled by a conversation with a companion, but often they remain silent (you nearly always have at least one friend by your side during the game, especially on long treks) for long and boring sections of the game while you travel from A to B. This can be extra frustrating when they’ve just talked the ear off you moments before setting off, when they could have saved up that spiel for the long road ahead.

The game is about 5 hours long. Claire played it to completion with interest, and she enjoyed it, but without loving it. She was just engaged enough to keep going. There is a mystery to the story that tempts you along.

Personally, about 90 minutes in, I was frustrated with the dialogue mechanic. I’m also not really that interested in supernatural or ghost stories generally, so I didn’t care about the story as much. Because there wasn’t much input required of the player, I stopped playing and let a YouTuber finish out the game for me on the 2nd monitor while I did some work.

The main, and arguably only, non-dialogue mechanic is tuning your radio to the correct frequency to tap into the mysterious energies and spirits that are haunting the island. But the frequency doesn’t move. There’s no skill required to finding the frequency. It’s a nice mechanic, kind of, in that it’s a bit of fun and requires some input, but it’s pretty shallow at the same time.

You can have an effect on the game world, though. There are multiple endings, or at least combinations of character outcomes. Does this person survive? Do A and B get together? There are a few things you can affect, at least.

Player Too Result

For me, I played it because I’d heard so many great things about it, but that also makes me (and most people I’m guessing) quicker to play devil’s advocate against all the positivity and try to find the faults that nobody is talking about (or is that just me?..). I found enough game design faults to critique that I wasn’t as impressed as others appear to be. I didn’t dislike it, mind you. But it’s not for me. That’s okay.

Because I’m such a nice guy, I think I usually recommend nearly every game on Player Too, even if I phrase it with a caveat (“I recommend this game IF..”) so in the interests of balancing the scales a bit I’m going to say that I recommend giving this one a miss unless you’re really into your supernatural mysteries or you’re really looking for a good example of well-written and performed dialogue in a game.

Claire played the game first and actually had all the same critiques and praises that I had, but she just found it interesting enough to continue with. It might be that I had about a dozen games sitting on my desktop ready to play that I chose to move on when she didn’t.

This is a ‘casual’ game I guess. Its gameplay is laid back, but its tone is tense. It might be for you, but if you identify as a ‘hardcore gamer’ then I suspect it’s not. Do decide for yourself. The game has plenty of positive reviews to counterbalance my opinion.

As for a Player Too result, as a genre, as a direction, Oxenfree was just ‘fine’. Engaging story (if it’s your genre. Claire liked Twilight Zone etc more than I ever did) and good dialogue usually sit well with Claire, particularly when paired with a very pleasing art style and low difficulty. She appreciates games like this, but they’re nothing to write home about for her. 

That’s in contrast to this next game, which Claire gushed about when we recently spent time with her mom and sister.

Stardew Valley

Released in February this year, Stardew Valley is possibly this year’s biggest indie success story. Certainly one of them (it’s been a good year for indie games.. and for quality AAA games – though not for sales of the latter). It dominated the start of the year anyway, with half my Steam friends constantly “playing Stardew Valley” and even this glowing piece (not a review, more like a special interest piece) from GameSpot piqued my interest. I’d have picked it up then but the reported 70 hour game length put me off. Not that you have to take that long with it, but I didn’t want to risk getting hooked on it while there was work to be done (Xcom 2 alone tanked 2 weeks of productivity for me). Stardew recently won a Golden Joystick Award for ‘Breakthrough’, so you know it’s good.

The 70 hour length is amazing when you learn that this is a game made by just one person over four years! It’s an homage to Harvest Moon. A harvest simulator-cum-fantasy RPG. Its SNES-era pixel art is very pleasing, especially as the seasons begin to change.

This blog post is getting very long in the tooth so if you somehow don’t know much about Stardew Valley then do check out GameSpot’s 5 minute video that I mentioned above. I’ll move on.

Player Too Result

Personally, I’ve only spent about 4 hours on the game yet, which is barely scratching the surface, but I liked what I saw and if the week were 70 hours longer I’d soon finish this game (and Witcher 3, AND Fallout 4, AND two dozen others). I knew about the game but hadn’t played it. In real life, this year Claire has gotten into planting trees and started a campaign for a #plasticFreeBray, to ban single use plastics from our town. She’s already planted 62 trees by herself! So as Winter rolled around and the days got shorter and the ground got harder, she was planting less and I thought it might be a good time to try this game out on her.

At first, she had a few frustrations with the controls and inventory management (and I agree that there’s a few niggling inconveniences in the inventory/shopping design) and an early game crash when my Steam account booted her off playing my copy of Stardew on her laptop (FYI you can share games with a few people via the ‘family’ option, but only one person can play (any game – if connected to the internet, at least) at a time) she lost (skipped, actually) a couple of days near the start of the game, overshooting an in-game event (Spring fair) that she was preparing for. Annoying.

Thankfully, this didn’t put her off the game and now she’s planting trees, spelunking caves, loving her dog ‘Floof’ and chicken ‘Toto’, winning farmers’ produce competitions, making mayonnaise, keeping bees, getting to know the townspeople, and generally loving the game.

 Claire and her chickens Toto and Feathers Mahoney.
Claire and her chickens Toto and Feathers Mahoney.

The sheer amount of mechanics, art assets, characters, options, locations, and dialogue is staggering, again, especially considering it was made by one person. The game is a gem!

When Player Too started I usually had to negotiate out an hour or two to try a game together. Now with Stardew Valley it’s the first thing she wants to do when she gets home, and she’ll play until well after her bed time. Some nights. She’s already about one game-year (or 20-30 hours, estimated) in.

No other game has had this effect on Claire. Ever. And this game does include the frustration of ‘death’ in the caves with a respawn causing a loss of equipment and currency. This was a deterring feature of other games, but it’s not having a negative effect here.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve found “her” game. She’s loving it! I’ve even heard her whistling to her in-game dog and celebrating the upgrade to iron tools. She’s even now had instances of “game brain” (you know what I mean) where in the real world she was thinking of picking up 100 plastic bottles on her walks through the woods. I asked “can you carry 100 plastic bottles?” and she realised she was thinking about having this gigantic inventory that real people can’t have (we’re going with 25 in a bag instead).

Apparently the game does ‘end’ after two in-game years (edit – I’ve also heard now that it’s three years). That is to say, it has some sort of resolution of your story and ending-style event, but, like many open world games, you’re free to continue playing and exploring afterwards.

At her current trajectory, I’m sure Claire will finish the game, but I wouldn’t be sure when she’ll finish with it. With most unending games, like myself with Minecrat, there comes a time when you just decide to stop, and that’s it. You might revisit once or twice, but you’re done really. For me with Minecraft it was after spending 3 full real days building a giant pyramid (in survival mode) that nobody would ever see. When I was done with that I was like “okay no more. This has to stop”. She does say she wants to 100% the achievements though, so that’s pretty awesome.

Claire’s initial objections to her gaming at all were basically that she didn’t have the skills to play them (which we’ve gotten around quite easily), and that she was worried she might get hooked on something and that it would be a real time suck. That’s basically now happened, but what else would you be doing in Winter anyway? It’s a debate for another time (the whole compulsive game addiction thing) but suffice it to say that spending a few hours a day enjoying a hobby is not something that’s detrimental to anyone’s life, in my opinion. It’s not all she does (it’s only been about two weeks anyway), and this game does have an ending point and limited content. Proper game addiction is really the domain of online round-based games or MMOs, if you ask me. It’s just always good to be aware of, I guess.

My one regret with Stardew Valley is that I can’t play it with her. It’s single player only. We play in the same room, and I might be playing that or something else at the same time, but it’s not the same as building a farm or castle together, as you can do in Minecraft.

On one hand I wonder would she like Minecraft. It’s first person, but not too hard (survival mode, I mean), and has farming elements, and creative expression is at that game’s very core. Then on the other hand I’m wondering will she ever stop playing Stardew Valley, or want to play another game after that when she does.

This may even be the end of Player Too as a project. I’d still like to get to where we play co-op games together, but we are now sharing our gaming time in the same room together and having good chats about what we’re liking in the games, so I’ve gotten a lot of what I wanted out of Player Too already.

Claire thinks she may never play another game again, but those of us more seasoned probably remember thinking the same thing about various games. For me I said it about GTA 3, Operation Flashpoint, and Planetside 2 before finally learning not to make outlandish statements like that. But we’ll see..

In short, we can’t recommend this game enough!

Next Time on Player Too

Let’s assume, despite what I just said, that Stardew Valley neither occupies the rest of Claire’s life, nor turns her away from gaming entirely because there’ll never be something better.

In that case, it’ll probably be a while, but we’ll have Abzu lined up to follow Journey’s success. We have Never Alone to follow the puzzle platformer trend (with a cute snow fox, because canines are really killing it for her), and in the first person genre we have Super Hot.
Edit: I started playing Never Alone and realised you can play co-op as the girl and the fox, so we’ll definitely be playing it together, not solo.

We normally play four games. Happy to take suggestions for the fourth. I’d personally like to try something in co-op for once because we haven’t yet. But a non-First Person Shooter co-op is harder to come by. Co-op games that I can think of are usually quite difficult, particularly for 2 players if it’s built for 4. Thinking about Clandestine or Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime. Have any readers played those before, or something else you’d recommend?

In the event that we don’t play more games for a while, I’ve a few other ideas for series lined up, so I do hope you’ll keep reading and enjoying these monthly posts as they go up.

Actually, the new demo for Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest (my game) has gone up on the site, so Claire said she’d play that (despite it being somewhat unbalanced as of yet and quite hard until you get a grip on the flight controls). Do please give it a go, though. I’d love the feedback.

Anyway. Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed, do please consider sharing in your social places.

Until next time..

Player Too: Episode 7 – Journey, Flower, The Stanley Parable, Valiant Hearts

Hello again everyone and thanks for coming back to read these sort of mini-reviews that are Player Too, as I document the journey (word choice! foreshadowing! real writing!) to hopefully foster in my girlfriend, Claire, a real interest in games so we can share one of my favourite ever hobbies together. 

At episode 7 I have to say we’re really getting somewhere. At this point she’d be tired of humouring me and I’d just be being cruel to pester her this much just for writing material. No, we’ve actually had a great couple of months for the games, following a very positive period for Episode 6 as well.

So during the last couple of months, my good buddy Ian lent me his PS3 so I could finally get around to playing some games that had been on my list a long time, but I hadn’t had a TV or PS3 console to really use them. We worked out that I could use my PC monitor for the visual, and output the audio separately into a portable speaker. This hassle was of course just weeks before Sony made PS Now available on PC anyway, but whatever.

I finally got to play a whole host of games over a few weeks. Uncharted 1-3, The Last of Us, MGS4, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Killzone 2 & 3, Resistance, Flower, and of course, Journey; a game people still haven’t shut up about to this day. It must be good!

I didn’t play all of those games to completion, but I did most of them. Claire joined for for the evenings I played Flower and Journey. If anyone’s wondering, this was a couple of weeks before Abzu came out. I knew they’d be good games to try with Claire as they were chill, beautiful, short, and didn’t really have failure states. These are all things we’ve mentioned that Claire sees as positives in previous Player Too episodes. I’m increasingly appreciating short games too, as you get a well crafted experience that doesn’t eat up all your time over a few weeks – just one or two evenings. When you’re trying to play as many trending games as you can, that’s a Godsend.

Anyway, let’s get to it!


Journey, by ThatGameCompany, is a visual masterpiece from 2012 that still holds up, and it also now has a HD remake. It’s a gem of a game that throws many gaming conventions out the window while mastering others. For instance, there isn’t a single line of dialogue, nor popups, wrong-way warnings, health bars or even instruction. Everything you need to know is communicated visually or by example. There’s a very floaty feel to the controls as you soar, slide, and glide across magnificent landscapes towards a mountain in the far-off distance. Why we’re trying to get there isn’t directly explained, but is implied enough through environmental story-telling and short, wordless cutscenes that you can come to your own conclusions – and everyone’s theory will be a little different.

One of my favourite things was the multiplayer implementation. As long as you’re connected, this will work seamlessly. You start the game solo, but may be paired up with just one other player at at time, at any point, and you travel in tandem. There’s no indication that someone has joined you until you literally spot them moving around nearby, and there’s no indication that they’ve left until you look around and really can’t find them any more. There isn’t even a name tag until the post-game credits when they mention all the other users who joined you. Claire and I were debating as we watched another player move about if they were really another player or just an NPC (I had to look it up, and there are no NPC journey-ers). You have one way to interact with them. You have a sort of jumping, twirl animation that sends out a small pulse. It’s basically your only way to say hello. But, correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to charge your companion’s flying ability, and not your own (again, this isn’t explained in-game), so they’re encouraged to stay near you and you’re encouraged to reciprocate their charge.

This also means you kind of miss them when they’re gone. Aww.

Another nice thing is that your character’s gender is non-defined and you couldn’t tell by looking as they’re so stylised (and also they fly a bit so they’re clearly not exactly human), so again the game insists very little upon you and it’s easy to get in to. Claire saw the character as female, but me, having seen that character all over games media for four years, just saw them basically as “the Journey avatar”, though I do find it easier to lean towards female than male if I had to choose. The stylised skinny legs and graceful movement just imply that to me. Anyway.

The game is only 2-3 hours long so I won’t spoil anything other than to say “just play it”.

And I haven’t even mentioned the music, which sort of means that it did its job perfectly. It’s only watching the trailer again today while I wrote this that I remembered how gorgeous and seamlessly integrated that it actually was, sitting in with the visuals and theme at any given moment without ever demanding your focus directly, or worse, lifting you out of it by being overly dramatic at the wrong moments.

 So preeeeety!
So preeeeety!

Claire and I played together just swapping controls every other level and it’s so passive and low-skill level that we both advanced at the same pace and just chilled while watching the other. If this was Super Meat Boy or something then our gaming experience would mean we’d advance at totally different paces and might have gotten frustrated watching the other.

So yeah, this game is great for playing together, though I don’t mean online together as you’ve no solid way to know who the other player is or deliberately join their game.

Player Too Result:

We both liked this a lot. There’s something universally appealing about a game with nice controls and visuals and it’s short enough that you just don’t get the chance to get bored with it. I can see why people replay this a lot. I’ve since given back the borrowed PS3, but if there’s ever a PC version I’d give it another go, for sure. As would Claire, and she hasn’t said that about many of the games so far. Often she’s been willing to try something like that, but not that same thing again.

What would you call this game genre though? Meditative? Journey-like (from now on)? The Playstation Store page says simply ‘Adventure’, which fits, but in a 100% different way to how Broken Age is an Adventure, game. I’m going to say “Chill-sim” for now, okay?

As a play experience it feels a little bit close to the walking-simulator (we’re taking that term back, by the way. I mean it positively) narrative games, for me at least, but where Firewatch and Gone Home are asset-light, easy-to-use games and emphasize story, Chill-Sims would be story-light, easy-to-use games that emphasize aesthetics and environmental storytelling.

Abzu, the diving Chill-Sim 😉 from Journey’s art director Matt Nava (new studio is Giant Squid – not ThatGameCompany) has come out recently and I’ve played it myself, loving it for all sorts of similar reasons to this, and some new ones. Claire is looking forward to playing that, and thinks the trailer looks gorgeous! So that’ll be next. 

Are there other chill sims out there besides the following?..


I was so eager to play Journey, it was the first thing I did when I got the PS3, so it was a week or so later that I came to ThatGameCompany’s earlier 2009 game Flower. There’s a lot of similarities and I’d call this a chill sim also, but it’s definitely the inferior product, albeit with its own merits.

As such, I hadn’t planned to see if Claire would play it for the blog, but she came in near the start and we wound up playing together and swapping control each level, as with Journey.

In this game you start the levels as a petal floating on the breeze, and, quite uniquely, use only the controller’s tilt functions, and not the sticks, to steer. What you control is essentially the breeze, as you travel around the level sweeping up more and more petals from other flowers to bring more colour into the world. Controlling the game really was a joy and I still remember Claire getting way into it and raising the whole pad up behind her head in that unnecessarily-full-bodied-controlling sort of way that is iconically associated with ‘people enjoying games’.

 Flower felt a little like this, but with less litter. Don't litter!
Flower felt a little like this, but with less litter. Don’t litter!

The minimalist instruction approach and lack of fail states made it unmistakable as Journey’s forerunner, and I really enjoyed the early levels, but I thought the last few did get repetitive and lose the run of themselves a little. And this is only a 2-3 hour game as well so that’s a real criticism. For me, I like the early levels where you were literally a petal on the wind and the simplicity of the meadows and the beauty of nature were great themes. But unlike Journey, there’s less contrast from level to level, and when the aesthetic actually does change, I felt it was for the worse. 

More literal magic is introduced as you start to somehow move rock formations by ‘activating’ enough of the other flowers. For me the game spoiled a little there. Then in later levels you’re introduced to deliberately ugly electricity pylons and city-elements that, while the contrast is deliberate, really didn’t sit well in the game for me. They’re used in unnatural shapes and the city parts, rather than just being a dilapidated urban environment, was closer to a Picasso painting in terms of how the urban elements were arrayed. It deviated from the ‘natural’ part of its ‘natural beauty of the world’ theme where I felt it could have perfectly contrasted itself by sticking closer to the real world.

Even though Journey has more of the unnatural going on, it begins in that way, and so doesn’t feel like it changes direction on you. I actually have this same criticism of Abzu, but that’s for next time (and don’t let me stop you, it’s a gorgeous game).

Player Too Result:

We both enjoyed the game early on and started flagging about half-way through, wishing it was over by the last couple of levels. Because I knew how short the game was, though, we powered through. There’s no point suggesting how they might improve, as they next made Journey, so every possible lesson was learned perfectly.

If we’d played this game first, we’d each have said “I like that, but I’d like to see it done bettter”, then played Journey and said “perfect, give me more!”. So there’s not much worth saying here that I didn’t say above. Look to Abzu next. If you’ve played both Journey and Abzu, Flower is still worth your time if you want more, but you won’t get as much out of it.

The Stanley Parable

Since as far back as episode 2, I’ve been saying we’d get to The Stanley Parable sooner or later. It appears ‘later’ was correct. Claire did play the demo late last year and really enjoyed it, but it’s somehow taken this long to play the real game. We’ve had our walking simulators and I’ve explained that they’re a good way to get used to first person movement in a “safe” environment. Claire doesn’t have decades of FPS training. She had none before we started Player Too, in fact. So these games, enjoyable on their own merits, are hopefully getting us closer to where we could play Portal 2’s co-op mode together, which I’d love to do. Baby steps though.

The catwalk jump is actually the only skill-based thing you can do in the game, and while it took her a few goes not to go splat, she did get there and experience an extra 10-15 minutes of the game’s content that lies down that direction. Including the part where.. ah, just play it yourself. One word though, ‘Portal’. It felt like foreshadowing and I forgot it was there since I first played.

If you don’t know what The Stanley Parable is, as the trailer says, to say too much would be to spoil it. It’s unlike any other game (well, that was more true before Beginner’s Guide and Dr.Langeskov came out). It’s sort of like what I imagine the Monty Python guys would have made if they made games instead of a TV show and some movies.

If you know nothing about games, you’ll really enjoy it. If you’re aware of gaming tropes and criticisms then you’re likely to love it. The joy is in trying to subvert what the game wants you to do (as we often do in other games – to see what happens) and realising that the designers were one or two steps ahead of you. Every time! They’ve every single thing handled, and you’re in a constant state of contention (well, sometimes cooperation) with the game’s narrator, with hilarious results.

Again, there’s no failure states (even the two places where you can try kill yourself are handled) but the game is simultaneously all about failure.

 This game within a game says more about games than any game I've ever gamed
This game within a game says more about games than any game I’ve ever gamed

I’m really not doing it justice and don’t want to spoil anything with specific examples. All I can say if you haven’t played it is to make sure you do. Play the demo too. It features none of the same content as the main game so it’s like a free mini-game. Even the trailer is its own beast, with little to none of the game’s actual content, but all of its character, featured.

Player Too Result:

I really enjoyed this game when I first played it. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and refreshingly different as a gaming experience, and I really enjoyed watching Claire experience it for the first time, too. Her first instinct was always to not do as instructed, and getting stopped in her tracks, or dismaying the game’s narrator always resulted in outbursts of laughter.

We’d already played Dr.Langeskov so when I was asking would she like to play games like this, I couldn’t readily think of any. So I’ve suggested The Beginner’s Guide, which is more an autobiographical drama than a game, and with very little comedy. She’s interested to play that, though.

She explained to me then that her resistance to games was always that she saw them as very skill-based ways to entertain yourself, and that she had neither the skills, nor time to develop them, to start enjoying games. Seeing things like what we’ve been playing on Player Too has shown her that there’s all sorts of gaming experiences out there, and that they’re a great alternative way to tell stories, to challenge your brain, or in this case to experience comedies, without needing lightning-fast reflexes or platforming skills. She’s really enjoyed a lot of the games that we played recently. I believe that there’s a game out there for everyone, and it seems more true than ever today. Hooray!

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

The trailers for the game are a little cringe worthy, and this one actually implies a few things that don’t actually happen, but they’re touching all the same.

Okay, this game. I love it. I can’t believe I passed it over for so many years. I was actually starting to watch a Let’s Play of it once, but from the first few minutes I knew it deserved to be bought and played. Jack Gallagher and Michelle Burrell also recommended this game for Player Too around that time and so I’ve had it waiting in the wings for a couple of months. Thanks guys!

I played the first level or so, but because of the Steam + U-Play sign ins required, it meant that Claire had to play using my profile and so playing simultaneous saves at the same time wouldn’t work, so for once, she played a game that I hadn’t. I only beat it last night. It’s not exactly a short game either, emotionally it’s a roller coaster (if you’ve any soul at all – and I’m not known for mine so that’s an extra strong recommendation), and there are more than a couple of quite difficult skill-based segments, as well as a couple of more challenging puzzles, so after beating it myself, I was more than a little impressed that Claire had done it all before me without referencing guides or asking for help to beat any of the harder sections. I know she got frustrated with it at times (we played in the same room while I played Punch Club) but it didn’t stop her, whereas Talos Principle and Telltale’s Game of Thrones had, so that says a lot for either her growing skills, or the quality of the game that kept her coming back. Both, most likely.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War / Soldats Inconnus: Mémoires de la Grande Guerre” (to give it its absolute full name, which I feel it’s earned. The second half is French for “Unknown Soldiers: Memories of the Great War”) was made by Ubisoft Montpellier (France) and released in 2014. It centres on the lives of four playable fictional characters and is set in France and Belgium from 1914-1917 (for once a war game actually mostly excludes the US period of the war, rather than focusing solely on it), during World War 1. It plays like an adventure/puzzle game most of the time, but with a lot of other types of sections like dodging bombs in a tiny car driving down a country road, or administering medical aid to soldiers with a rhythm-style mini-game. You can even drive a Mk1 tank, and it’s as unexpected as it is fun when the moment arrives.

It’s presented in a stylised, almost comical fashion, but in no way does it make light of the war. On the contrary, it handles its subject matter with the utmost respect, and even goes so far as to attempt to educate players by offering them to read short passages with real-world photos, whenever something relevant shows up in the game, though this is optional. Before playing, I actually thought this was an indie game. I was a little surprised to see a AAA label, Ubisoft no less, using stylised 2D art, and I was all the more impressed when I saw the educational segments. The fact that a AAA studio made a war game that doesn’t glorify war, in which none of your characters ever handle a rifle or directly cause the death of anyone on screen, and that then actively seeks to educate players, is a small miracle in and of itself. I’m so encouraged that this game exists. I’d never have believed that that pitch would get past Ubisoft higher-ups, so my hat’s off to them for that. I’d love to hear more about how it came to be. Edit: Here’s some further info, but it doesn’t cover the pitch or approval.

 The game didn't pull many punches when it came to the hard truths.
The game didn’t pull many punches when it came to the hard truths.

We should be so lucky if the upcoming Battlefield 1 (name sounds no less stupid to me this many months later) handles the Great War with any hint of delicacy. They’ve already relegated the contributions of the French and Russian forces to the DLC. However I am eager to see what they do in the campaign. BF3 and 4 certainly didn’t try very hard to humanise the Russians or Chinese in their fictional wars, but maybe they will be more considerate of a WW1 setting.
Edit: This new gameplay footage has me a little encouraged as to the more respectful treatment of the war, but I do think it’s only for one level, and I’d far rather the narrator were a British, French or German soldier who’d been in the trenches for 4 years, rather than America-washing a largely European war. And I can’t resist to nitpick this: It says that these events happened over a hundred years ago. Some of them did. But 100 years ago we were in the middle of the war (1916), and the Americans hadn’t yet entered (April 1917). This gameplay level is clearly set in 1918, which is less than a hundred years to the time of the game and trailer’s release. Hey, I’m detail-oriented. Particularly when it comes to important history.

Most war games seem to try and say “war is hell, sure, but look how many dudes you can roast with a flamethrower”. Valiant Hearts says “war is hell, and real tragedies happen to real people like you who don’t deserve them. Now here’s a little info on how chlorine gas reacts with the water in your lungs to create acid and burn you from the inside”. I love that this game exists, and wish more games would follow its lead.

Despite the heavy tone, the dog companion is with you throughout most of the game to lighten it a little and make you feel love and care for something in these hellish settings. The credibility of the story does sometimes flounder, like when you’re reassigned to a new front, but get to take your dog, or you’re leading a charge in a new battle, but still don’t have a gun like everyone around you does, or when the dog puts on a gas mask and they’ve still animated its tongue hanging out, but these are small complaints.

The game paces itself well, too. After a tense opening chapter, we go back in time a bit and solve a puzzle involving repairing a taxi so as Anna can transport soldiers to the front (there is info available on how thousands of taxis were requisitioned to bring soldiers from Paris to the front during the Battle of the Marne) and the next section involves dodging speeding traffic to the sound of can-can music, before anyone has realised just how horrific the Marne is going to be, and patriotism was still the order of the day. Indeed, one the game’s final moments is sure to make a note of the mutinies that soldiers eventually carried out over continually being sent “over the top” to their deaths, and how the subsequent courts-martial were handled.

 while it's light on gore, and shies away from having you do much in the way of killing, valiant hearts doesn't fail to impress the brutality of war upon the player. it's actually all the more effective for the fact that you can't retaliate. You can only keep charging.
while it’s light on gore, and shies away from having you do much in the way of killing, valiant hearts doesn’t fail to impress the brutality of war upon the player. it’s actually all the more effective for the fact that you can’t retaliate. You can only keep charging.

I could continue to gush over this game, but I should stop. It’s worth a play if you want to play either a good looking game, a different war game, an educational game, the most indie-style AAA game I’ve yet seen, or just a game that will make you feel.. things.. emotions. Claire was near-bawling when it was over, and even my cold cold heart-strings were tugged upon.

Player Too Result:

Something amazing happened with this game. Claire would come home from work, and straight away take out the laptop and continue playing, eager to beat a challenge from the night before, or to see what happened the characters (there are cliffhangers). This is real gamer behaviour and I haven’t seen Claire as eager to play something in this way since Race The Sun back before episode 2, and with that she soon grew tired as the game doesn’t really take you anywhere in a narrative progression sense. So I’m encouraged. With everything else she might play if I suggested it, or join me playing as with Flower, but so far she hasn’t been this eager to pick up and play any of the games. So major success with this one!

Her single favourite feature was hands-down the dog companion (she even repeatedly whistled to it) but she loved the game for what it was, too. A respectful war game and a challenging adventure. It’s probably the most difficult adventure game she’s played so far, and it definitely sharpened her reflexes somewhat (Level Up!!), but the love for the characters pulled her though the harder sections. 

It would be great to hear of games on a par with this for emotional weight. The characters in Valiant Hearts are just too sympathetic because the context really happened. Karl, for example, is a German married to a French woman and living in France. At the start of the game he’s called up to fight for Germany, and then the woman’s father Emile is called up to fight for the French, leaving her alone with the harvest in a soon-to-be-occupied St.Mihiel, with the two dearest men in her life shooting at each other. These are real people’s stories and that’s hard to compete with.

I struggle to think of many games with a good dog companion (not COD: Ghosts) that would interest Claire, but maybe something will come up.

Essentially our take-away from this one is that adventure games are still good, furry companions are great, slightly more challenging games are now maybe an option, and that games with an interesting angle are worth considering for Player Too.

Next Time On Player Too

 Next up, abzu!
Next up, abzu!

So, great success this time! I already have Abzu ready to go, hot on the heels of Journey, and we’ll keeping sharpening those first-person skills by next looking at The Beginner’s Guide. After that I think Claire could try her first ever “shooter”, with Super Hot, which is really more of a puzzle game, but is also definitely a shallow step into the shooter pool that would move us towards Portal.

We tend to play 4 games for an episode, so are there any other suggestions? 4 is a lot to write for at once (though it makes a nice square picture at the top) so I might actually reduce to 3 anyway.

I liked Punch Club and it’s quite accessible, but it’s quite long and grind-y and while I know Claire would appreciate the humour and references, I doubt she’d put the time into the mid-game to get through it.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an option for a puzzle/adventure with the feels, but we’ll see.

Can anyone recommend games with low-ish skill and good canine (or maybe robo-canine) companions? How’s the recent ReCore, if you’ve played it?

I got Spore and I know the first stage is a lot like Agar which Claire liked, so that may be an option, but I haven’t yet played the rest and I know that game isn’t the most wildly popular game out there, so maybe not.

Anyone played Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime? I keep seeing it and thinking that it might be appropriate but I really don’t know how it would suit 2 people with different skill levels? Is it friendly to all? It seems kind of hectic.

In real life, Claire’s also gotten really into planting trees. I wonder if Stardew Valley might get her through the Winter, but we’ve really not tried a game anywhere near that long..

Edit: Never Alone! Seems perfect.

All recommendations appreciated, guys. And thanks so much for reading! Hope you enjoyed it and try some of these for yourself!

Until next time..

PS Claire says she’ll write a foreword for the next Player Too, so I can finally stop feeling that little pang of guilt about putting words in her mouth every other month. We just think it’d be nice for readers to hear from her for once.

Player Too: Episode 6 – Firewatch, Proteus, Mushroom 11, Limbo

Well it’s been about four months since the last episode of Player Too, so as a reminder, or to anyone new, let me explain that Player Too is me documenting the attempt to get my girlfriend Claire to share in the wonderful world of games with me. I believe without a doubt that there’s a game out there for everyone. If you’re a gamer and have a friend, partner, or sibling who you’d just love to sit down and play something with, but who doesn’t share your passion, maybe you’ll find something in this series to recommend to them. We’ve certainly had some successes so far.

The reason it’s been so long since the last post is basically that old excuse; “life happens”. We hadn’t played many games together until the last few weeks, both having been too busy for more than the occasional episode of something on Netflix. You may notice, then, that the games I’m writing about this time are pretty short. The Steam sale led to me picking up a few titles that I thought we could try whenever we’d a free half an hour, without feeling the need to have to finish the game (Firewatch being the exception – though it was short enough to be manageable).

So, let’s begin..


Firewatch is a beautiful, beautiful game. If you need to classify it, it’s a mystery / walking-simulator (if you can stand that term. I see no shame in it. Just embrace the irony. Own it, and move on). But the game is recognised first and foremost for its stunning art style. Not that it’s photo-realistic (it’s closer to cell-shaded, actually) but the colour palette used is perfect for capturing the stunning vistas of Wyoming’s great outdoors.

After an Up-rivalling introduction, setting up your character’s desire for some time away, you begin your Summer job as a fire lookout. Your only other real companion is your boss in the next tower a few miles away, which is always visible, yet always just out of reach. You really are alone in the tranquillity.. that is, until the plot turns from at-one-with-nature towards alone-in-the-woods as it becomes apparent that someone is watching you, messing with you, and you’re unsure of their intent.

The game’s story is linear, 4 hours long roughly, and any puzzle-solving elements are purely token gestures, but the plot is gripping. Claire and I, playing together, did continually stop to discuss our theories on who we could trust or who the antagonist might be, even questioning our only friend in the game, the woman on the radio. You do get to choose your dialogue responses, which carry some moral and ethical weight to them. Claire and I, each role-playing the same character at the same time, were often at odds over what the character’s mindset was, and what was the right thing to do, given the game’s prologue. 

 Just wow.. This was captured from our own play-through. The subtitle is a coincidence.
Just wow.. This was captured from our own play-through. The subtitle is a coincidence.

The world is semi-open, but not in an Ubisoft kind of way. There’s no side quests or radio towers to unlock, but as new climbing equipment gradually allows access to new parts of them map, you’ll find that you’re allowed the freedom to explore and approach your objective from multiple directions, actually using your map for orienteering. The game only has 5 achievements and they’re all given for progressing the story. It’s just that kind of game.

It’s a lot like Gone Home, but better.  If you liked that, you’ll love this! There’s more character here, more suspense, and a far superior world to explore. It does occupy the same corner of the market, though. Indeed, the game has an easter egg – a book from Gone Home that you can find in the world in Firewatch. The Gone Home devs even reciprocated by putting a Firewatch easter egg into the newer console version of Gone Home.

Player Too Result:

Claire and I both liked Gone Home, and Firewatch is an improvement in every way. It’s a short game, good for busy people. The plot pulls you right through and you’re never bored. The scenery is one-of-a-kind, and the characters are compelling.

Claire and I would both play more games in this vein. Recommend if you know any.


Whatever your feelings on walking simulators and saying things “aren’t a game” I’ll accept no chastisement when I say that Proteus isn’t a game. We have to start defining things a big better than “If it’s digital and interactive, it’s a game”. An architectural program could be a game, then. Mario is to Proteus as chess is to ironing. The former both involve a screen, the latter both involve a board. You can’t say they’re all games. If you ask Claire and myself, Proteus is interactive art. It’s like a painting you can walk through. It’s a digital way that you can calm down, relax, and just enjoy what’s around you. It’s certainly experimental. That said, for simplicity, I’m still going to refer to it as ‘the game’.

My first impression, and later Claire’s, were actually identical. I’ve so much to do that without a goal to accomplish I feel I’m wasting time. This is why I’m not into many multiplayer games. When I started walking around the world, I was rushing, looking for an objective; a thing to do that would let me say I’d ‘beaten’ (or ‘finished with’) the game. But I quickly realised I was playing the game wrong. It’s not about a goal, or doing a particular thing. It’s about just seeing what can be seen.

Graphically, the world is a bit simplistic, but acoustically it’s rich! The world is so musical. Everything makes a sound. Rain makes plinky plonky xylophone sounds, bees drone up and done like a theremin, and startled flocks of chickens make a rattled bell noise. It really is quite a treat for the ears, and very soft too. No harsh sounds. 

As little as there is to ‘do’, you can still interact with a lot of the creatures. Most are startled and run or hop away, and I frequently found myself chasing a bunny or flock of chickens around the island for a couple of minutes before something else would tickle my fancy. Something like a sunset, a cloud bank rolling in, a bat flying by, or a magical particle effect swirling in the distance leading me to wonder “what’s going on over there”. It’s hard to pick a point to stop playing the game. You just kind of stop after a few minutes, I suppose when you haven’t seen something new for a while.

 Dragonflies! At least that's what I think they are..
Dragonflies! At least that’s what I think they are..

There’s a lot to see though. Day and night cycles, a plethora of wildlife, a few structures, storms, magical creatures, and even an aurora borealis. I haven’t seen this last one yet, which leads me to wonder what else I’ve missed.

It’s hard to describe the game, but if you’re really into your games, or you’re a designer or audio person, this is definitely worth a look.

Something happened to me while playing it, also. I actually started to nod off. This may sound normal to some, but I’ve literally never fallen asleep playing a game, or watching a movie for that matter. I’m just not wired that way. I did play this around bed time, but I can play games all night when the mood takes me. This was just so calming and directionless that it was like meditation. Claire also fell asleep playing, but she often does, so it didn’t surprise me. Maybe there’s meditative merit in this game. Try it out if that’s your thing.

Player Too Result:

I played this first, and just thought I’d show Claire because it’s quick and easy. I think I only played it again so I could show someone new. Claire’s the same. She can see value in the game, but wouldn’t necessarily ever go back to it other than to show another person. And that person would probably not play again it other than to show someone else.

There isn’t really anything like Proteus (and that’s where its main value lies) so we can’t exactly play more of the same, though I have many times started a new Minecraft world just to explore the random generation and see something that nobody’s ever seen before.

Claire wouldn’t be pushed to play this again, or more of the same. She never really liked the simple Minecraft aesthetic, and Proteus also isn’t graphically that impressive. While she found the procedural element intriguing, she says it would take the world looking more like Firewatch to really get her interested in playing. I’m sure that kind of game is on the horizon (No Man’s Sky, if stripped of the combat elements, might be what we’re talking about) but for now, Proteus was a miss for finding a game Claire wants to keep coming back to.

I often go for a walk to clear my head and get some exercise. If it was stormy out I can see myself maybe playing this to center myself, though it’s usually reasons to get away from the computer that I’m looking for, not another reason to stay, so I don’t know. I really like the beauty of procedural generation and I’m an audio guy, so I’d probably play this for a few minutes from time to time, but if someone came up with a similar but prettier idea, I’d likely never come back to Proteus. It’s a weird one. You can probably already tell if it’s for you or not, so I’ll leave it there.

Mushroom 11

Mushroom 11 is a physics-based puzzle platformer that brings something new to the table. You play as an amorphous blob that can shape shift to solve puzzles, and you’ll have to do so with increasing skill and rapidity as the puzzles become more complex. There’s even boss battles.

The movement controls are truly unique, and give the game its main value proposition. You don’t even directly control the blob. Your mouse is an eraser with a large and small brush. You erase one side of the blob, and it grows out on the other side. So you erase the right side of the blob to grow out to the left.

The world is a nuclear wasteland with all sorts of crazy new lifeforms trying to survive – yourself included. Neither Claire nor myself have finished the game yet (I’m on level 4) so I can’t say if there’s any humans in the game ever, but I doubt it. I suspect that your blob is some sort of human creation. It looks like a printed circuit board crossed with flubber. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re some sort of science experiment, but you could just be nuclear sludge. 

Interestingly, you move from right to left, not left to right as you would in almost every other 2D platformer ever. I do hope they work in a deeper meta meaning for this as the game goes on (like trying to go back and undo the disaster), but from what I’ve seen it’s just a series of puzzles, not a story-driven experience. There may be no reason for the decision to reverse the traditional direction.

Claire was playing on the laptop with a track pad, not a mouse. She played before I did. It looked extremely difficult, but when I played with a mouse we realised it really was just down to the imprecision of the track pad. The game is fairly easy to control with a mouse. You don’t use arrow keys at all. It’s actually quite a pleasure to move the blob, especially as it squeezes rapidly up narrow cave or vent sections. It feels a bit like squeezing toothpaste out or something. Definitely quite different from other games.

The puzzles start simply enough, just to get you used to what you can do with the blob, but they do get more complex. Unfortunately, a few of them I think I just fluked by rapidly moving the mouse/eraser around to try force my way past an obstacle quickly, but others really did make me feel clever, like forming a claw shape to hang from a ledge while trying to carefully extend past a lava pit.

Player Too Result:

Claire was still on level 1, but did play enough to make the game worth mentioning. The controls were fun, the puzzles were fun, the visuals were nice, and the game really was unique. We’ve learned that Claire likes puzzle games already, and the skill required in Mushroom 11 isn’t too prohibitive (if you use a mouse, anyway).

She does think she’ll play more of this and so do I. But as a puzzle platformer we both preferred our next game.


Limbo was briefly free on Steam for a day or two a couple of weeks ago. I made sure to grab a copy for myself and Claire. I didn’t know why it was free but a few days later I first heard of developer Playdead‘s new game Inside which released last week. It’s clearly coming from the same place so renewing interest in Limbo was a good way to generate some buzz about Inside. I’m just giving it the shout out in gracious repayment for the free copies of Limbo we availed of.

Limbo is a 2D puzzle platformer with a silent-movie and horror vibe. Pretty much every puzzle you have to figure out by dying first.. gruesomely. The puzzles I figured out without drowning, getting decapitated, impaled, or crushed really did make me feel smart. The violence is made all the more disturbing by the fact that you’re playing just a young boy whose only motivation (at first anyway, seems to be to get out of the scary woods by travelling to the right). If you’re afraid of spiders or squeamish, stay away.

Claire actually really likes spiders, and given that an early boss involved you removing all the legs from a giant one, I thought she wouldn’t like it, but I was really enjoying the art and the animation so I wanted her to at least try it for a few minutes.

The main appeal of the game is the art style first, and the game feel second. When you start moving around and making little jumps, your arms reach out to grab the nearest ledge and you scramble up them. It’s hard to see from the video, and even harder to describe in words, but the game feels incredibly smooth to play, and all the jumps and collapsing hazards are timed extremely well so as to feel tense and close, but not be overly difficult. You can clear most obstacles on your second attempt, if you were fooled by an unnoticed bear trap on your first.

 ewwwwww... get away get away get away!!
ewwwwww… get away get away get away!!

Player Too Result:

Great success. Since the spider was evil, it was okay to kill it to save the innocent boy, according to Claire. With that sorted, Claire really enjoyed the feel of the movement and the spooky look of the game in the same way that I did. It’s one of the few games that she keeps going back to herself to beat. With many of them we’ve beaten them together or finished with them in a single sitting. She’s almost beaten the game now, and will.

After death, the restart checkpoint is always very close, and the respawn time is very short. This quick reset time is very important to stave off frustration. There’s also nothing to break the flow other than death. There’s no loading screens or levels. You can load the game at specific ‘chapter’ checkpoints, but the game constantly moves from left to right in a single, giant, continuous level. This really just keeps you in the game, which is a great strength. 

The game is hard, but not in a Super Meat Boy kind of way. Both are violent (ish) puzzle platformers (indulge me – I know there’s less puzzling in SMB), but Limbo doesn’t frustrate. Claire said that once you figure out a puzzle, it’s pretty easy to get it right. And most aren’t too hard to figure out. I got stuck myself a couple of times and checked a guide, but Claire didn’t ever get blocked for too long.

Since she really enjoyed it, I asked her if she’d be tempted to play Inside, and she said that it looked like exactly the same thing. What’s the point in playing the exact same thing? (Take that CoD fans! :P) She said that she would likely play it in the future but not as the immediate next game. So that’s encouraging anyway. 

Mid-low difficulty artistic puzzle platformers for the win, then!

Next Time On Player Too

I bought Valiant Hearts (thank you Jack Gallagher and Michelle Burrell) so we’ll get to give that a go soon. I’m a big history fan and think war games and movies are very important to be done right, and not overly-glorified. This looks like a good one. Very excited for it!

I’ve been saying it for a long time, but the full game of Stanley Parable (we played the demo) has yet to be played. I’d love to play Portal 2‘s co-op mode with Claire but it’s a high-skill game, so it’ll be necessary to build up her first person movement skills with games like Firewatch and Stanley first if we were ever to get there. Just because the humour and puzzles are something I know she’d enjoy, and playing together is always more fun.

Telltale games were a miss, unfortunately. Any other recommendations? Claire’s skills are growing, but she is not a Jedi yet; lower skilled games are the requirement.

How’s The Witness for movement difficulty, or is it all cognitive? Is Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime complex to control? How about the hacker role in Clandestine? Anything else?

Thanks in advance for any recommendations, and thanks for reading. Hope you got something out of these mini-reviews and that they help you find a game to share with a loved one.

Until Next time..

Player Too: Episode 5 – Broken Age, Dr.Langeskov, Snozbot’s Text Adventure

Welcome back to the Player Too series, where I slowly beg and cajole my patient girlfriend, Claire into playing games with me as I document the process.. more or less. It’s been two months since we last left off.

This is the first entry of 2016, and also my first non-technical blog of the year. I’ve been looking to write less and develop more, but I haven’t given it up. The current pace seems to be one post per month instead of 2015’s one-per-week. The breather has been nice. Sons of Sol is also coming along more quickly and I imagine the newly found downtime allowing me to just chill sometimes is partly responsible.

In the past few months we’ve tried a few new games that were all very successful for Player Too (i.e. Claire liked them) and which shared some commonalities (‘similarities’ is so last week). Those would be that these games were all cheap (or free), humorous, and you couldn’t die. Spoiler alert; we’d recommend them all! First up..

Snozbot’s Text Adventure

 Click to play the game.
Click to play the game.

Despite the name, it’s not a text adventure. It’s more akin to the funnies section in a Sunday paper (do those still exist?..) by way of a platformer. It’s a five minute (less, probably) experience in which you’ve little in the way of challenge or gameplay, but you’re just along for the humorous ride. It’s the 4th entry in the Spaaace Faaarm series by Snozbot in Ireland, which is still releasing episodes regularly.

Snozbot are the guys behind the Fungus tool, a free plugin for the Unity game engine that excels in simplifying the development of narrative or text driven games (or those sections of larger games), to put it simply. The Spaaace Faaarm series (as well as Pipsville) is something of a free sample set of the great things that can be made easily with Fungus. That’s great for us because it means there are some fantastic free games being made on a regular basis. Think of them as 5 minute comedy sketches that are loosely tied together with some common threads and references and you won’t be too far off.

Snozbot’s Text Adventure is probably the most game-y  entry in the series so far. You play as Snozbot, a robot who wakes up to find that his brain has been stolen! Oh no! In a quest to find it again, you platform around the environment, but with a twist. The platforms and floor are all made out of the words that are narrating the story! The simplicity and beauty of this design instantly blew me away the first time I played it, and the same for Claire when I showed it to her. The carefully chosen words, sentence structure and the animations on choice verbs are delightful. 

The tone is adorable, the characters, gags, and resolution are heart-warming, and the writing is hilarious in a Pixar kind of way.

To say more would be to spoil it. You could play it in as much time as it took you to read this far. Do play, and check out the other entries if you enjoyed it. I particularly liked episode 6 – Cooking with Cthulhu.

Player Too Result:

I actually heard Claire squealing with delight at some of the gags and revelations, and she laughed throughout. Who doesn’t like good comedy?! What surprised me was her instant enthusiasm to see (and create) more of the same. So I briefly explained what Fungus was and how it worked and she was all up for tackling a game jam with me some time in the future. To paraphrase here “if games can be like this then, yep! Count me in!”.

That’s the thing! Games are so much broader than just Call of Duty or Civilization. I knew we could find a genre Claire would genuinely take to, not just enjoy-but-please-stop-making-me-play-your-stupid-games.

Look out for a Player Too game jam in the coming months, so, hopefully!

Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist

 This screenshot won't do a single thing to help you understand what the game's about - guaranteed!
This screenshot won’t do a single thing to help you understand what the game’s about – guaranteed!

While this is a short game (finish reading the title and you’re probably a decent way through already), I can’t believe they charged no money for this! It’s hilarious and really enjoyable. As with The Stanley Parable (many of the same developers/writers were involved, including William Pugh) this game defies a summary, though I shall attempt one.

It’s a comedy experience with a very British sense of humour. I remember thinking that if the Monty Python guys made games, this is probably what they’d be like! Again, just play it. It’s free. It only takes a few minutes. Play while dinner is in the oven some time and your life will be better for it!

Player Too Result:

I broke a Player Too rule with this one in that I played and Claire watched. It was only a short game at the end of a long day and she didn’t want to ‘steer’ so I did, but I still think that creates a barrier. If you’re trying to interest someone in something, let them do it! I can name countless games from my childhood that I’ve seen but never played because a friend wasn’t so generous with giving others a go. Starcraft 1, Descent and Baldur’s Gate were games I may have loved, and I saw many hours of them, but I’d no idea how they felt to play and can’t call myself a fan, really.

Stop! Digress time! There was little missed though in Claire not playing herself this time around and we both laughed through the experience. She’s played The Stanley Parable demo before and really liked it, but as she hasn’t played the full SP yet I’ve held off on writing about it in this blog. Playing Dr.Langeskov has bumped Stanley back up to the top of our list (next to Life Is Strange, which we’ve started but not gotten very far in yet). Again, we’ve found a game that Claire really enjoyed and would like to see more of. Humour goes a long way in endearing you towards something, and Dr.Langeskov oozes finely crafted, excellently timed humour.

Broken Age

Okay so, the “real” game. The high profile one you may have actually heard of, seen in shops, and can pay for.

Loved it!

I’m not personally an adventure game fan per se. I played bits and pieces of them before but never actually owned a Lucasarts or Sierra one. I bought the Grim Fandango Remaster last year and it was the first time I’d played it outside of the original demo. I also gave up on it by the second chapter, so I wasn’t going to be the one championing the genre to anybody, though I knew that shouldn’t stop me from seeing if Claire liked them. 

A “Daniel” commented on the very first Player Too blog and recommended this, so thanks for that, but our coming to play it was a little less direct than that. I read PC Gamer’s The 50 Most Important PC Games of All Time article and there was an entry for Broken Age. They liked the game and all, but were touting its importance as a Kickstarter project and how the Double Fine Adventure documentary on the game’s development had been a very important insight for the public into how games are made, particularly in an era of crowdfunding.

I’d forgotten that there had been such a series and started watching it while making dinner in the evenings. Claire joined me a few episodes in to it. Won over my Tim Schafer’s charm (who wouldn’t be?) and rooting for the hard working people at Double Fine who were putting their hearts and souls into Broken Age’s development, Claire decided that she’d like to play the game, so we got it.

This was her first adventure game, but the formula isn’t too complicated and Act 1 of the game is actually beautifully balanced for new players (we think, anyway) so she took to it right away. This is actually the first game she’s played that I’ve seen her come home to and want to play. To tackle a puzzle or just move the story along. She really enjoyed it. I never came to suggest (as with many of the other games) that we sit and play together for a while or convince her to return to tackle a challenging puzzle. She just grabbed her laptop and launched the game because she truly wanted to. I really enjoyed watching it too, and was soon convinced to start my own playthrough. We both finished the game at almost the same time yesterday, hinting each other through some of the frustrating final puzzles as we arrived at the final confrontation pretty much neck and neck, each on our own machines.

 That's Vella. She's my friend. I love her..
That’s Vella. She’s my friend. I love her..

I hardly ever laugh out loud at anything (I’m dead inside, you see) even if I find it funny, but I laughed at this a lot! I also found the game to be a much smoother experience than older adventure games. There weren’t any puzzles that I solved by blindly trying every item in my inventory against every item in the room. Broken Age always left me with a few working theories, and Claire said the same.  There are two lead characters; Shay (Elijah Wood) and Vela (Masasa Moyo) whoa are both teenagers disillusioned with their worlds, albeit for quite different reasons. The genius of the game (whether it was intended originally or not, I’m not sure) is that who you can swap between both sides of the story at will, meaning if you’re ever stuck and feel frustration coming on, you can swap characters and try out the other puzzles for a while. This will also often lead you to hints in one world that spark an idea of how to solve your problem in the other, and it’s actually required to solve some of the last puzzles.

The symmetry in the game is fresh and very well done from a gameplay point of view, with each character getting equal screen time and equally challenging puzzles. My only criticism (if I’d even call it that. More of a ‘huh’ moment) is that this doesn’t exactly extend to the narrative side. Throughout the game, Vella is the one directly confronting overwhelming odds and rallying people to her cause, while Shay is struggling to catch up. Vella’s achievements narratively carry a lot more weight than Shay’s. That’s fine; their stories are different and the first 5 minutes of each thread make it plainly clear that each lives in a very contrasting world with different things at stake, but after watching the final cutscene for the second time, I realised that Shay didn’t exactly do anything in it. This was Vella’s moment. Shay didn’t contribute in any substantial way to changing the world for the better or saving people, either during the game, or come the ending. It was all Vella! She’s awesome! I love her (bit of a crush, actually)! I love Shay too, mind you. He’s amazingly voiced and carries the adventure game tone perfectly. But for a game that champions symmetry in almost every aspect, from box art to intertwined puzzles, this stood out a little. However, we get an even more awesome heroine for that, so I’m not complaining, and I’m really stretching just to get even that one criticism in (well, I could mention one or two very minor bugs but who cares?). This is a fantastic game with a great story and Claire and I enjoyed every minute of it!

 Adventure games never had to make sense, in case you don't remember.
Adventure games never had to make sense, in case you don’t remember.

Player Too Result:

Very positive! We should take into account though that watching the documentary predisposed us to appreciating every little detail that went into the game. We were rooting for Double Fine and for Broken Age before we pressed play, and that’s an unfair advantage it has over any other game we played during Player Too.

 Amongst a stellar cast of larger-than-life characters, it's the talking cutlery that stand head and shoulders above the rest (at 6 inches tall)
Amongst a stellar cast of larger-than-life characters, it’s the talking cutlery that stand head and shoulders above the rest (at 6 inches tall)

But it is what it is! The fact is that Claire played a game and loved it! It was a Tim Schafer adventure game. She wants to play more. As there’s no Broken Age 2 (which she said she’d definitely buy/back) Claire’s up for trying Grim Fandango next. Would Monkey Island be a better choice? Or Day of the Tentacle? The pixel hunting and complex unintuitive puzzles of the second chapter made me quit Grim, but I’ve never tried the others. Were they worse for this? None will have that Broken Age advantage of swapping characters when you’re stuck (that I know of). Broken Age was also designed with those older frustrations in mind and they were deliberately minimised. The trick here will be finding modern adventure games to play in an era when they’re just not made, or finding old ones whose puzzles aren’t typical of a time when impossibly ludicrous puzzle solutions were the norm. Recommendations very welcome!

Next Time on Player Too

Well I’ve sort of said it already. Grim Fandango or maybe Monkey Island (please make recommendations) is on the cards, as well as (at least the demo of) Life Is Strange and the full version of The Stanley Parable.

More Snozbot games will be played, for sure, but they’re all under 5 minutes and free so I won’t write each one up. Text Adventure was just a gem I had to share!

Telltale games are kind of on the back burner after the failure of Game of Thrones to do anything for us in episode 4.

Skill based games like Portal are still out but the Stanley Parable may improve first person movement skills to the point where Portal could be tackled, because who doesn’t like Portal?!

Until next time..

Player Too: Episode 4 – Game of Thrones, Speed Runners, & Sherlock Holmes

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays everyone! This is my last post of the year and completes my goal of doing one post every week for the year’s duration since I started in April. I didn’t set a time limit then but in my head I said “6 months or to the end of the year, then we’ll see”. I do think I’ll keep it up, but maybe less frequently. If you’d like to see the blog continue weekly, please do let me know. A lot of time goes into it every week and it’s nice to hear back if people are finding it worthwhile. Alors (it’s French)..

Finally, I return to Player Too! Sorry to anyone following this particular series that it’s been so long since the last one. Claire and I took our holidays in the intervening time and were each busy enough before and after that we didn’t get many opportunities to game together. That said, I’ve a lot of games backed up now to talk about today. So without further ado..

Game of Thrones (A Telltale Games Series)

Disaster! I mentioned at the end of the last episode that I’d just bought (in a Humble Bundle, admittedly; so not too expensive) almost all of the Telltale Games, including Game of Thrones. I, and just about everyone else who made us recommendations (thank you, guys. Keep them coming), figured Claire might really enjoy these since she was liking puzzles, narrative, the Game of Thrones books/show, and was still a bit of a novice when it came to skill based games.

The first Telltale game we tried was GoT, and it was not a success. We started up the game and the story began. We understood that your character is an original character from a new family, but who will tie in with characters and events from the main GoT story eventually. That’s grand. A few minutes and a couple of minor choices in, a big battle starts in your camp and along come the quick time events (QTEs). At the risk of sounding redundant, this is where the game limits your control input to just a few buttons. It plays an action like somebody about to hit you, then prompts you to quickly hit a given button or direction to avoid the danger and progress.

The first action is to press up to raise your shield as you run at somebody firing arrows at you. If you fail once then you die and actually have to re-watch about 20-30 seconds of cutscene just to try that again. It’s unskippable. Most people would see this as a minor game design failure. Anyway, what I didn’t count on was that Claire’s laptop wasn’t quite up to the recommended specs and the frame rate was very low. This made the QTE responses (especially where you have to move the cursor into a small moving circle to hit a target) feel very sluggish and much harder to perform. Claire had also never seen QTEs before (and doesn’t readily know where X, Y, A, and B are versus each other) so when as I wasn’t present to explain the first one, she kept at it, rewatching the same cutscene and death about 20 times before asking for help. This built her frustration. I tried passing the section (very hard with the low frame rate) and moving to the next QTE later in the battle.

 Quick Time Events demand that you press a certain button within a very short space of time to progress.
Quick Time Events demand that you press a certain button within a very short space of time to progress.

Claire asked and I acknowledged that a lot of the gameplay and obstacles to progression in any Telltale game would be based on QTEs and she said in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to play any of them. 

Player Too Result:

We can’t say anything to recommend or not recommend the game. It has very positive reviews, and I’ve always found the Telltale Games to be very engaging (if depressing), and their QTEs to be quite intuitive. If danger approaches from the right, you’ll press left. If you have to hit something, it’ll usually always be the same button. 

The problem was that Claire is unpractised in QTEs and the laptop’s frame rate was adding an unwelcome handicap. The game forcing you to rewatch the same cutscene every time you fail was a major frustration though. It took over a full minute to retry the same two seconds of QTE each time, and the first one wasn’t terribly clear on whether you had to press up on the left stick, right stick, mouse, or W key. So it actually took trial and error, too.

I think it’s a shame to fail such a recommended series at the first hurdle. However, Claire feels strongly that it’s not the kind of game she wants to play, and that’s a result too. It brings us one step closer to finding the type of games that really are for her. Speaking of which..


This was on a Steam Free Weekend a few months back (if I remember correctly. There is a free demo too but I think we played the full version) and we played it then. It’s a 2D side-on racing game. You pick a character and the game starts you running. You always run so your main input is to decide when to crouch, jump, or use power ups as appropriate to gain the upper hand. There is also a grapple that you use to swing from certain environmental objects to reach a shortcut or just to gain momentum. You can also use this to grapple on to the person in front of you and pull them back to overtake them. You can play either in multiplayer or with bots.

It works a bit like the old Micromachines games in that the camera tracks all players at once. If one falls to the back of the screen they are eliminated and the round continues until only one player is left. This means that the player at the back can see the furthest ahead of them and can more easily avoid obstacles than the player at the front can. It’s a very simple mechanism that simultaneously balances the game and creates tension.

As you can tell from the trailer above and from my description, the game is fairly skill based, but this didn’t stop Claire from competing. This was the first game where we both played on the same screen simultaneously and we had a lot of fun. Claire usually lost and after a few rounds I went to play online multiplayer while she continued against bots. In the multiplayer arena it was my turn to get my ass handed to me repeatedly. Skill levels are all relative.

I enjoyed this game for what it was; a fun party game and a short, simple distraction. Claire felt the same. She liked it in the same way that she liked Race The Sun. It’s a simple, action-packed game with very few inputs. It’s challenging but fair and with quick restarts when you die. This last point is very important, and is in stark (pun intended) contrast to what I said above about Game of Thrones. The learning curve is also fairly soft but you definitely get better every single time you play.

However, after an hour or two, each of us was kind of done with the game. We weren’t tempted to buy it to play more. I guess this speaks to the value of games nowadays. They’re (sadly) a dime a dozen and as gamers/ rabid consumers, we tend to just have a taste and move on. There are so many great games to play that games often have to be more than just “very good and a lot of fun” to get sales. That said, anyone who’s more into racing games, skill-based platformers, and/or party games than me (and those three are not what I tend to go for normally) might find that this is exactly the game for them and get hours out of it.

There is a free demo of the game and I’d encourage anyone to try it. It’s quite fun and if you want more do consider buying it. I realise I sound hypocritical encouragin you to buy when I didn’t but it didn’t have staying power for me and as an indie developer myself I’m in the unfortunate position of very much wanting to play and support all manner of indie games, but having neither the time nor money to do so. Sometimes the best I can do is spread the word. Go here and find the ‘download demo’ button to try SpeedRunners.

Player Too Result:

The fact that Claire liked the game reinforces what we found with Race The Sun. Simple but engaging gameplay, a small number of input controls, short but challenging rounds and quick restarts (not to mention speed, apparently) make for a solid an enjoyable gameplay experience. 

However, the fact that we both liked both games yet didn’t purchase or return to them suggests that round-based games without a story or greater progression are not exactly what we go for. I already know I prefer story-based games or tactical ones with a greater overall progression (like X-COM or FTL. I’m currently playing The Witcher 3 and Satellite Reign). But this series is about finding the type of game that makes Claire lose hours to fascination, to look for new releases along the same lines of this undiscovered game, and to voluntarily declare herself a gamer.

The most Googled game of 2015, believe it or not! This game is fantastic, and Claire agrees. It’s an extremely simple online multiplayer game played in your browser (or now on mobile), and it’s completely free! You can go to the address and just play. Signing in will track your progress and allow upgrades (like your own avatar or entering your name) but it’s not necessary.

You play as a small circle, very reminiscent of a cell. The camera keeps you centre-screen as you move around a flat and empty (but large) square-shaped arena. There is graph paper in the background for scale. You move your mouse to guide your circle towards smaller circles and as you meet them you consume them and grow larger. There are some small static cells to eat, but most are other players, and it will seem at first that they’re all bigger than you. 

It’s ingeniously simple. You flee bigger (but slower) cells and chase smaller (but faster) ones to climb the ranks. It feels like evolution at its most basic. The ultimate game! You catching a smaller, faster player often means that you succeeded in trapping them against the outer wall or simply between other players. There are only two additional controls. You can split yourself so that you become two or more (faster) cells of smaller size, all of which now follow your mouse in a cluster. This can help you catch smaller targets or (half) escape larger ones. You can also dump mass which makes you smaller and faster but allows your pursuers to eat up what you leave behind.

That’s almost all there is to it. There aren’t even sounds or music. This is a great example of raw gameplay done right, and its appeal is universal. There are millions of players around the world, and the servers are never empty. 

Player Too Result:

 Some of the names or avatars you see really add to the game's unpredictable character. Some are offensive, But being chased by a giant Angela Merkel is pretty hilarious.
Some of the names or avatars you see really add to the game’s unpredictable character. Some are offensive, But being chased by a giant Angela Merkel is pretty hilarious.

Both Claire and I loved this game, and you will too! We both played at least an hour longer than intended on the first day, and went back to it several times. Even today as I looked it up while writing the article I spent about twenty minutes on it when I didn’t mean to. It’s a very “one more round” kind of game. Claire swore off it so as she could get other stuff done. Games that don’t end can be kind of addictive and dangerous for productivity, but the fact that she forced herself to stop rather than start playing is a testament to how good this game really is, and real progress for the Player Too project. 😛

The fact that Claire really liked a game as stripped-back (dare I say “casual”?) as this proves at the simplest level that she engages with games. I posit that anyone who plays even one round of this game and doesn’t enjoy it simply doesn’t like computer games. I bet I could even get my dad to play, and that’s saying something!

This was also her first time playing a competitive online multiplayer free for all death match! I wonder if, as her skills improve, she’d take to online racing or shooters. What is Call of Duty multiplayer if not Agar in 3D with guns? Thank God there’s no voice chat in Agar. That said, I did see people renaming themselves as Star Wars spoilers and getting the high scores. The world is full of ass-holes, and it’s generally what turns me away from multiplayer games.

So, from gameplay at its most basic, to today’s last entry; a full modern mystery game.

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

Given our relative successes with the mystery games Gone Home and Her Story, as well of the fondness Claire and I already share for Sherlock Holmes in general (we’ve each read all of the books), a Sherlock Holmes game was pretty much a no-brainer. Of the plenty to choose from, Crimes & Punishments by developer Frogwares was the best rated and most recent.

The game presents six unrelated cases that you can play in 90 – 180 mins each, depending on how stuck you get or how sure you want to be about the result. The first case is lifted directly from the books with only a minor change, so it wasn’t all that challenging for us. The rest seem inspired by the stories but not directly lifted from them. The first case is naturally a bit simpler as the game introduces you to the mechanics, of which there are actually quite a few. Mini-games and set pieces abound, and the game doesn’t often let you wonder what to do next. If it wants you to press X, it’ll damn well tell you.

I’d often complain about that but not here. There are a lot of mechanisms to remember and without prompts you’d be more likely in this game than most to get stuck and give up. Indeed, there is still plenty to slow you up. Gathering clues amounts mostly to wandering a scene looking for pop up boxes to press A on until the game tells you that you more or less have them all, and reveals more story. In a sense, this eliminates any meaningful ‘examining’ of the crime scene, but as players aren’t generally trained detectives, maybe this is for the best.

What does that leave you with?

Fortunately, quite a bit. Each case features a number of locations that you reveal as the story of that case goes on. You can travel between the discovered ones at almost any time. This could have been done without but they left it in, allowing you more agency over what to do next. When you’re a bit into each case, you’ll have a few leads suggested to you and generally you can pursue them in whichever order you like. The negative side of this is that you can often miss just one clue hidden somewhere in one of four locations and waste half an hour or more scouring every inch of multiple levels to find the one clue that will trigger the game to progress, when you may have already figured out what the clue was/meant, but you need the game to trigger that the Holmes on screen knows it. That’s unfortunately a disconnect that can come with story-based mystery games, and the best that developers can do is to minimise it. If you’re a fan of mystery games, it’s likely that you’ve come across this before and it doesn’t bother you much.

The real value this game offers is that each case can be solved incorrectly. You actually can have two or three results, and within those you can choose the ‘punishment’ that the game’s oddly pluralised title refers to. Generally this means you can absolve the criminal or let the police handle it. It’s a moral choice. There may also be a quick time event where the accused attempts suicide or to murder another party. You can fail or succeed at stopping them and still proceed. At the end of a case you can choose to see if you found all clues, if your conclusions were correct, and what other players chose to do. If not for this feature I think the game would really have been very dull as you’d just be walking around pressing buttons and revealing the story, but here you really have to think! That’s the real promise of a detective game, and this one delivered.

It’s achieved through the ‘Deduction Space’ mechanic, shown above. As you reveal clues in the game, they populate your brain. You combine some of these as makes sense to reveal little nodes in the deduction space. Many of these nodes allow you to make two choices about what the clues mean. See ‘Missed Chesterfield’ above. It’s half blue and half grey, showing that you can make an alternate conclusion there. When enough conclusions join up, those white lines connect and reveal the golden node, which triggers an ending if you select it. The thing is it’s very possible to get the wrong conclusion, or partly wrong conclusion, which is where the gameplay happens. You have to intuit things and decide who you believe to come up with the answers. This can be very fun when done with another person. Claire and I played the first two cases together and actually got the second one partly wrong. She then played the final four by herself over the following weeks.

Player Too Result:

Very positive! This was at least a twelve hour game, and while Claire initially refused to play as she was frustrated by the dual stick move/camera controls coupled with over 8 other inputs (so I played the first two cases), she did pick up the controls herself and solved four additional cases with little or no input from me, beating the game! 

I mentioned already that Quick Time Events aren’t her friend at the moment, and she failed to stop one or two suicides, unfortunately, but the fact that the game allows that as a consequence only speaks in its favour.

We both found this quite an engaging detective game, though were at times frustrated looking for one trigger clue when we already knew the answer. The developers could have done more to minimise excessive backtracking, as it came into almost every case we played and really slowed the pace. That, and long loading times on Claire’s laptop broke the immersion for her, but it’s telling that she stuck with it. The game engaged her and she looked forward to beating each case. She went back to it night after night in the last couple of weeks. Those are some telling habits.

At the end, she said she really enjoyed it and would be quite interested in playing other similar titles. Frogwares have previously made a number of Sherlock Holmes games, but as this is reputably the best, it’s unlikely that we’ll look backwards. They are releasing Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter in Spring 2016 and it’s quite possible we’ll take a look. The only reason not to would be if it doesn’t feature original stories but instead borrows from something like A Study in Scarlet, in which case we’d know the ending already. I doubt this is the case, but there isn’t much information available yet.

Next Time on Player Too

I think that the ‘project’ (for lack of a better term) is coming along quite well. It was nice over the Christmas days to be playing something myself with Claire sitting next to me on her laptop frowning at clues or gasping at revelations. This is also the first time she’s beaten a long game and wanted to play more.

The Stanley Parable isn’t long but it’s still on the list, as is Life Is Strange (which has a new free demo out, fyi). Given that the Telltale Games games were a bit of a fail, has anyone got other suggestions for games based on what you’ve read today? Skill-based games are still a no-no, but Claire’s definitely improving in that area and we’re getting closer to Portal, I feel, but aren’t really there yet. Valiant Hearts has also been recommended.

Sorry for the long post today, but we had a bit of catching up to do. See you all in 2016! And do please drop a comment if you’ve been following and would like to see the blog continue weekly.

Until next time..

FREE game. Shadow Complex (Remastered).

In August I did a two-parter about PC Gaming on a budget. Taking advantage of the occasional free game was one of the obvious pointers, and this ties nicely in with that.

Donald Mustard from the developer ‘Chair‘ was at the Game Awards 2015 a few weeks ago to reveal the trailer for Shadow Complex Remastered and to make a comically awkward announcement that the game was free to PC users who downloaded the game this December from The game will return to normal price in January but (and I’ve confirmed with Epic Games by email) the game will remain in your library if you downloaded it this year. It’s yours for keeps!

Intrigued, I downloaded it. The only catch is that you have to download the Epic Games launcher (whose shortcut icon now joins the rapidly swelling ranks of game launchers on my desktop alongside Steam, Origin, UPlay and GOG Galaxy). The promotion seems to serve the dual purpose of hyping the game in anticipation of console sales, and getting more PC users aware of and using the Epic Games launcher. If doing that and creating an account sounds like a step too much for you, fine, but let me tell you that you’re actually getting a quality game in exchange for just your email address.

Admittedly, another minor annoyance is that you can’t shortcut to the game directly. You have to launch it from within Epic Games’ launcher; something the other launchers don’t force you to do. However, opening it did remind me that Unreal Tournament (the new work-in-progress one) is free to try through the launcher as well.

Okay. Enough logistics!

What is Shadow Complex?

So it’s free. But what is it? Is it worth your time? 

The original game released for Xbox 360 in 2009 and was fairly well acclaimed, scoring as high as 9.4/10 from certain media outlets, IGN being one, and being nominated for several Game Of The Year awards. This remaster seems to be an attempt to capitalise on that success by releasing to a wider audience via PC, PS4, and the new Xbox. But we on the PC are the only ones getting it for free! Go Master Race! (I kid, I kid).

I never played (or even heard of) the original so I was totally going in blind.

The game is a 2D side scrolling action game (‘Metroidvania’ as the kids are calling it) set inside a top secret facility run by a masked (and therefore, evil) antagonist and his gigantic hidden army who are intent on “liberating” the United States from its corrupt government. Again, these are supposedly the bad guys. Go with it. Your character stumbles across this secret base (one of many, as I understand it, though the game is set in just this one) while hiking in the mountains with your new girlfriend who is kidnapped while you’re separated. I finished the game feeling like there was a lot of story I was missing, and indeed, it turns out the events of the game are set alongside events of the novel Empire by Orson Scott Card. Hidden Empire is a follow-up novel. The story you do get is humorous and silly in a B-movie kind of way, and dutifully takes a back seat to the gameplay. All the same, I’m tempted to pick up those novels.

Note: There was controversy surrounding Card because of his positions on homosexuality and some called for a boycott of the game (Card had nothing to do with this game, though). In 2013 Card reversed his positions against gay marriage. Do with that info what you will.

2D Open-World

What’s very interesting about the game is how it feels. While your character moves in 2D space, the environments are fully rendered in 3D, and enemies even utilise the whole 3D space at times (mostly when entering the area, but sometimes positioned on catwalks slightly behind your playing area). There’s a healthy amount of auto-aiming the game does to allow you to hit the enemies in the background if you’re aiming in their general direction, though it can get frustrating in certain sections. I started the game on the hardest difficulty but quickly lowered it.

That all makes the game feel very fresh, however. I really haven’t played something quite like it before (though I’m sure people can point me towards a few examples). The 2D plane is also broken up a few times when you hop into turrets and pan around, and this really gives you an interesting perspective that you won’t find in other games.

Navigating the world is a treat. The base is gigantic, and you reveal more and more of it on your map as you progress through the game and hack into terminals. There are secret rooms and powerups that you may never find before you beat the game. For example, I got a grappling hook eventually that felt awesome but I was only ten minutes from the end at that stage. Given where it was, I realised I could have explored and gotten it earlier. 

 This game is NOT small! The map reveals to you only gradually so it takes a while to find out just how much you're in for.
This game is NOT small! The map reveals to you only gradually so it takes a while to find out just how much you’re in for.

You can nearly always back-track (or find a way around if you have the right equipment) and there are often two or more ways to get to where you want to go. The story gives you a waypoint to the next goal but you don’t always have to follow the planned route, and ignoring it in favour of exploring an older part of the map with a new missile launcher can pay dividends by finding you upgrades behind formerly impenetrable blast doors.

Exploring in this way reminded me of Metal Gear Solid 1 &2 (the walking robots helped there too, and they feature in plenty of cool boss battles) but this is not (at all!) a stealth game. The action can be quite basic, in fact, and it’s one of my few complaints. You pretty much just always shoot until the enemy dies. You have unlimited bullets but limited health, grenades, and missiles. While there are plenty of environmental hazards to take (usually hilarious and satisfying) advantage of, it still often feels like choosing whether or not to use your limited explosives is the only meaningful choice you make in combat, at least early on. This is definitely somewhere that 3D games have the 2D action genre beat. If you want a 2D open(ish) world stealth game, I recommend Mark of the Ninja. However, I mean it when I say I really enjoyed this game, regardless.


 You at the start.
You at the start.

This is handled really well. When you start, you can only do a single jump and shoot bullets. You’ll see areas that you think you should be able to go to (your map often confirms this if you check it) but you can’t quite reach it. Similarly, you’re taught early on that your grenades can grant you access to areas that are hidden behind green highlighted obstacles (when you shine your torch on them) but you also see red and purple ones and it’s a long time before you reach the powerups required to get through them, which encourages (but doesn’t demand) back-tracking and exploration later on.

Your character finds an incomplete suit of advanced armour and collects more components of it as the game goes on. The scuba gear allows you to explore the sections that you flooded earlier in the game and finding the jet-pack grants the ability reach greater heights, and later to double jump. Finally reaching a balcony that you’ve seen ten times before can feel greatly satisfying. There’s a wealth of other upgrades rationed out to you over the 6-8 hours that it might take to beat the game’s story, and I really liked when I realised that the game wasn’t actually going to take me to some of them if I just followed the waypoint directly. Player agency is a great tool in games and I love it when developers ease up on the hand-holding a bit to let you play your own way.

The flip side of this freedom is that you can spend a long time going back to somewhere you think you can get to (twenty minutes for me in some cases) only to realise there’s one locked door or high-jump at the end that made the journey fruitless and then you have to spend another twenty minutes getting back to where you started from. I can see why some people report the game taking them over 20 hours to get 100% completion. However, later in the game the whole map does become revealed, including the locations of the remaining armour pieces. Once you have those you know you can reach everywhere, so I’d recommend holding off a little before doing too much back-tracking.

 You towards the end.
You towards the end.


This release is a remaster, so if you’ve played it before the gameplay and story that I mentioned won’t have changed. I also didn’t play the original so I can’t speak to how much better the game is in the sound or graphics departments. I do know that there are (of course) improvements that have been made in those areas, as well as the addition of a lot of new close-combat animations and new achievements. I can’t speak to how much mileage you’ll get out of this if you played the original, but I can say that the game looks beautiful. The environments have been very convincingly created, rendered, decorated and lit. I’ve no complaints about the music or sound effects and the voice cast includes Nolan North (you may remember him from EVERYTHING!!) and Eliza Schneider (almost everything).

In Summary

The game is basically what would happen if Metal Gear Solid, James Bond, Metroid, and Uncharted all got together to make a fun B-movie-style game that you can enjoy in 6-8 hours. I had a lot of fun with it. I recommend you get it for free on PC before December 31st and enjoy it over the holidays. I’d even recommend you buy it (price dependant) when it comes out for general release early next year.

Until next time.. 

Making Crow’s Nest (part 2 of 4): Influences

Hi! This is part 2 of me offering some insight into the creation of Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest. In Part 1 I talked about my “Asteroids meets Total War” pitch and what, exactly, the hell that meant.

This week I’ll be basically talking about some of the games that are having a big influence on the development of Crow’s Nest. If you’re a space and/or strategy game fan, this may be of interest to you. Fair warning; there’s going to be a lot of Star Wars games in here!

These aren’t “games that are similar to my game”, but instead they make up more of a history of the games that I have personally played that influence Crow’s Nest in some way.

First up..

Asteroids (1979)

Last week I talked a bit about this and Total War as influences so I’ll be brief. Here is one of the very original space shooters, and a classic game. There’s the three-life formula with a single hit and you’re dead. There’s extra lives, speed, intensity, high scores, and great use of limited technology to deliver imaginative graphics. The key ingredient to itss addictiveness is the quick restart. You can instantly hop back in for another round to try and beat your previous high score. It’s a simple, but proven method of keeping players pumping in quarters (or nowadays, playing and seeing advertising).

The computer room in my school when I was a kid had this on some machines so I’d race through our typing lessons so that I could play. In years since I see it every now and again as a web link and I always click in for a few rounds. The thrill of dodging through asteroids at high speeds and evading incoming laser shots never gets old, and it’s a mechanic that I’m endeavouring to capture in Crow’s Nest.

Total War series

 Shogun: Total War (2000)
Shogun: Total War (2000)

Again, I talked about Shogun specifically last week, but to reiterate, I loved the two-sided approach to a strategy game. Until Shogun, I’d only played strategy games like Command & Conquer (C&C) where you fight one battle at a time and it never influenced the next battle. It didn’t matter how many losses you took in exchange for victory, and if you lost you would just restart the level. In Total War, you finally could say “we may have lost this battle, but we’ll win the war” and it would mean something.

At the time, I was unaware that XCOM had been doing this since 1994, and there were probably several other games too, but this was my first and the experience of playing Shogun for the first time shaped how I would view games forever more. Now, as a designer, the strategic depth of Total War and games like it is something I want to incorporate into my games whenever possible.

I also liked how special units could affect the war. Diplomacy and assassinations could drastically change the course of the war. I’ve always kept in mind the influence that special units could and (I think) should have on a strategy game.

X-COM series

 X-COM: Ufo Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown) (1994)
X-COM: Ufo Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown) (1994)

There were a whole bunch of XCOM games starting with 1994’s original, but the series wasn’t well managed, wasn’t always in the hands of the original creators, and really took a dive until the 2012 remake by Firaxis and 2K, ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’. When the latter was announced, it was the first time I really noticed the series. I’d never played it. I picked up the original before the release of the remake, and played both games in 2012. My world changed!

I’d always avoided turn-based strategy games. I just had never liked the few examples I’d played. I thought they were too unrealistic because you wind up with two soldier just looking at each other instead of fighting. What I didn’t appreciate was that in the moments between the action, when you’re making your decisions like in a chess match (ironically, I loved chess), you’re getting a whole different type of gameplay. Instead of trying to simply react quickly like in an RTS, you’re really trying to solve a problem in the most efficient way possible (like a puzzle game) but with the added element of random chance getting in the way of your best laid plans. RTS games have this plus speed, but turn based games forego the speed in favour of really making you think about the consequences of your actions.

I’ll be talking next week about a design challenge that this posed to my game. The turn-based element buys you gravitas insofar as the player has made every move and so they have nobody to blame for the consequences. In any real-time game where you have allies, they’ll likely by controlled by the AI, and if they die you may be inclined to blame the designer or the AI, and not your own command skills.

 Chances are they're not all coming back!
Chances are they’re not all coming back!

What I love about XCOM is the same thing that I love about Total War: persistence! The game allows you to fail and recover, not just restart. What XCOM does that Total War doesn’t really do is make you care about individual soldiers. In dealing with small squads over dozens of missions (and especially if you choose to name and customise them yourself) you get to form relationships with individual soldiers. Sending your best veteran sniper into a risky situation to try and rescue your best medic is a weighty decision that C&C or Total War can’t really deliver. The tension is immense because the consequences are permanent. That means that success is vastly more rewarding here than in normal games. You’re always glad to see troops come home alive. The range of emotions you can evoke in the player is what earns the XCOM series such devoted fans.

I also loved the base management, particularly in the original game (or the fan-made Xenonauts (2014)). Having to actually buy replacement rockets, bullets, grenades, and med packs may have been too heavy on the micromanagement side, but then again, a shortage of finances really affected your tactical options when you went into battle. You might fire a rocket to keep your troops safe from an ambush, but you wince as you see thousands of credits go up in smoke! Also in those games I loved that your home base could be attacked, but may not be. 2012’s XCOM and its expansion Enemy Within didn’t have this. EW had one mandatory base attack mission. In the other games you could attack enemy bases or leave them be, and they could do the same to you. Each side could have more than one base, but they were expensive to run. The decision was up to you!

I haven’t decided how many of these design influences will appear in the strategy layer of Crow’s Nest, but some of them definitely will.

Star Wars: X-Wing series (1993-1999)

Now we get to the combat influences! I’ve said before on this blog that 1993’s X-Wing was my first ever game. I played the hell out of it! Its sequels TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance were also hugely influential for me.

I must acknowledge that, like many of the Star Wars games, these were cashing in on the popularity of other games. Wing Commander (1990) paved the way for X-Wing. Lucasarts said “we could do that, but with iconic Star Wars ships, music, and sound. People will go insane for it!” So my influence’s influence was really Wing Commander, but I never actually played any of them until I backed Star Citizen and started looking up Chris Roberts’ older games.

Tragically, X-Wing Alliance (1999) remains the last game in this series, but it’s one of my favourite games of all time. The series centred around dogfighting in the Star Wars ships, exclusively in space. Alliance was the first one where you could fly bigger ships like the Millennium Falcon, jump sectors in hyperspace during a mission, or dock with craft to rearm or “board” them (you just sat in the turret while other people on your ship supposedly did the boarding, but it was still cool).

 X-Wing Alliance (1999). Fly the  Millennium Falcon  against the second  Death Star !
X-Wing Alliance (1999). Fly the Millennium Falcon  against the second Death Star !

It had over 50 missions and (what I thought) was a great story set alongside the events of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, culminating in you (changing characters to Lando) flying the Millennium Falcon in the Battle of Endor, all the way inside the second Death Star!

Wing mates would take your orders, get chatty with you, call for help, and taunt the enemy! That’s not unique to this game, or anything, but it adds greatly to the atmosphere and it’s in Crow’s Nest too!

The briefings, the mission types, the dramatic set-pieces, the in-game reinforcements and dramatic turnings of the tide of battle are all fresh in my memory and are heavily influencing the way I’m designing the combat missions of Crow’s Nest. While Alliance was a linear game, and mine is more dynamic, I feel I can still deliver a lot of the same drama, action and intensity but with the added benefits of the tension gained from the possibility of loss.

The one major thing I wanted to change is that in 3D space you see very little of the battle. When an enemy goes past you you lose sight of them. When a big ship explodes spectacularly, you may not be looking in the right direction at the right time to see it. I wanted to take 3D space combat games and put them in 2D so you have greater situational awareness and can see more of the action! That’s my big departure, but otherwise, the combat in Crow’s Nest is heavily influenced by the X-Wing games; far more so than it is by your average top-down space shooter.

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998)

The original was out on the N64, and later the PC. Two sequels came out on the Gamecube too. These were also 3D Star Wars ship combat games, but now mostly focussed on planetary combat, against TIE Fighters & ground units, instead of TIE Fighters & Star Destroyers.

If you played these games and the current Crow’s Nest demo, my big take-away from Rogue Squadron should be obvious: The orders system.

You have two wing mates with you most of the time and they can largely take care of themselves, but you can give them a few orders on the D-pad. D-up is to “Form Up” and they increase your overall fire power by flying on your wing and shooting when you shoot. I’ve used this order directly (it’s not stealing if you declare the influence, right?) as well as the ability to keep your wing mates safe by telling them to retreat. Beyond that, the orders system starts to differ, but feeling like you’re not alone is important to a game where you play a fighter squadron, and Rogue Squadron handled it well!

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014)

Can anyone have played this game and not loved the nemesis system? This Lord of the Rings game has you play a human Ranger & elven ghost (sharing the same body) and travel around Mordor… eh, doing things.. revenge, mostly. It played a bit like the Batman Arkham games in the fighting systems and like many open world games otherwise, but the nemesis system stood it apart, and it even won a few Game Of The Year Awards.

In the picture above, you can see one of dozens of enemy commanders. These exist in a ranking hierarchy. You can “ally” with some of them and assist their rise to power in order to get rid of certain other nemeses in the game.

Each nemesis (as long as they’re alive, anyway) will remember having met and fought you, and they’ll comment on the result of that battle. As seen above, they all have different strengths and weaknesses. At first, these are unknown to you but you can interrogate underlings and rivals (forgive me if I’m not exactly right, there) to learn these traits. For example, a nemesis might have beaten you down the first three times you tried to fight him, then you learn he’s afraid of a ‘caragor’, so you show up riding on the back of one and he’ll flee with his tail between his legs! Another nemesis might hate caragors, and so this same tactic would only enrage him, boosting his stats!

This latter part of the system is something I’m interested in implementing into Crow’s Nest. You will benefit from spying on enemies by learning things about their movements, or what types of ships they favour using. You could just approach the battles blind, but intel gathering will pay off.

I don’t necessarily plan to have you ally with factions or control pirate groups, but I’m at least taking inspiration from the nemesis system insofar as learning about your enemy and having them remember you goes.

Honorable Mentions

Star Wars: Empire At War (2006)

This is one of my favourite strategy games ever, especially the two player competitive campaign, but there’s not so much I’m taking from it that I didn’t already credit Total War for.

Your armies persist across a galaxy map, space map, AND individual planetary maps. It’s very unlike Empire at War, though, because you control fewer units. The loss of the only Star Destroyer you may have in your fleet really hurts, even if you win the battle. You can steamroll the enemy for a while, but you’re taking losses as you go and will run out of steam, thus having less units left to defend your new territories from counter-attack.

The land maps also host buildings like Ion Cannons or Hypervelocity Guns which can be used by the defending team in the space battle above that planet. If you are wise, you might raid the planet with a small force (small raid forces can bypass the space battle) with the sole aim of destroying that one building before launching your space battle. If you hold the space above the planet, you can hit the land battle with bombing runs and orbital strikes. This interplay of systems is another great example of what multi-layered games can achieve.

X-COM: Interceptor (1998)

I only played this for the first time in 2015, and development on Crow’s Nest was already well underway. It’s not far off what I’m doing, as it turns out, but nobody thought this game was all that it could be either.

You command a base on a strategy map and manage its resources, as with other XCOM games, but instead of the turn-based battles you have a fighter ship battle. The problem is that these battles were nearly all the same and they got very repetitive.

The only influence I’m taking from this game is in what not to do. I need to ensure missions in Crow’s Nest are varied enough, and that there are real characters and stories playing out during the campaign. To what extent, I don’t yet know, but this is a good example of a game relying 100% on its systems producing all the gameplay.

Star Citizen (20??)

How can I make a space game in 2015 and not be influenced by Star Citizen/Squadron 42? That said, my game is a single-player war game, not a multiplayer space-everything game. I’m very excited for Star Citizen, but even moreso for the single-player side, ‘Squadron 42’. If we get to play S42 early next year I imagine it might influence Crow’s Nest somewhat, but probably not in many ways that X-Wing and Wing Commander haven’t already. If the game takes longer than that to come out, Crow’s Nest may already have been released. Time will tell.


I could also mention FTL for its art style, actually, but the art in Crow’s Nest so far is just my placeholder stuff and I don’t believe that I can draw. I certainly won’t be the final artist, so it’s not worth mentioning visual influences at this stage, really.

I’ve found that when making a game, a lot of people will come and say “oh, you must have been influenced by this” or “have you played that”? There are so many games out there that chances are the answer will be “no, actually. I haven’t heard of that one”. I’ve listed my main influences here, and very few of them are actually 2D space games. 

If there’s anything you think I should check out, either because it’s similar to what I’m doing or just because it rocks, please let me know!

Next week I’ll be focussing on a design challenge posed by trying to do some of what XCOM does in a real-time action game. If that sounds interesting to you, please subscribe to the RetroNeo Games Facebook or Twitter accounts (link icons at the top and bottom of this page).

Until next time..


Star Wars: Battlefront (Beta). How is it?

It’s been some week for games news and I’d no shortage of choices for what to write about today. Far Cry Primal was annoucned, Star Citzen revealed a lot of news at Citizen Con last night, (including the fact that Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson, Andy Serkis and many others are acting for the single player story) and the Star Wars Battlefront Beta is in full swing. I decided to write on Battlefront in case it convinces anyone to give it a go tonight. It ends sometime tomorrow but it’s worth a look. 

The game launches on November 17th in North America, and a few days after that in different regions. That’s just over a month away and means that this “Beta” is not really a beta in the usual sense of the word. The game is 99.9% complete. This is more of a demo of a few modes while they stress test servers for a smoother launch. They’re not (particularly, even though they have a survey) asking for gameplay suggestions. Any major features are now set in stone. This means that anything people see and don’t like in the Beta is probably still going to be there in the €60 release. Warts and all.

First, a brief history of Battlefront (3) and what led to this newest iteration.

  • In 2002, Dice and EA (the same pair responsible for this game) released Battlefield 1942, and have continued that very popular series ever since, with Battlefield Hardline being the most recent release.
  • In 2004, Lucasarts, as they have always been wont to do, hopped on the latest game craze with a Star Wars version of Battlefield called Star Wars Battlefront (1). This was well received and Battlefront 2 came out in 2005, but there’s been no new entries since.
  • Now, in 2015, Dice and EA, the makers of BattleFIELD are releasing the newest BattleFRONT game, with the same name as the original. Just to be confusing.

I’ve played all games in question, and the new Battlefront stands apart from all those others. Sure it’s a large multiplayer shooter set in large levels with vehicular combat, but it very much has its own take on things, so anyone fearing that it was just going to be a Star Wars skin on Battlefield can set those particular fears to rest.

How Is It Different?


The biggest departure from any of those games is that vehicles are now not lying empty on the map waiting for a driver. You find power-ups on the map for all sorts of things, including vehicles. The spawn points are semi-random. When you get one you can activate it to spawn a vehicle at the edge of the map and you hop right into it. You can’t exit the vehicle and are basically in it until you die (which won’t likely be too long).

This is a bold new take on a core mechanic of the Battle-x games. It has pros and cons. On the plus side, the vehicles can’t be damaged or stolen by the enemy team before they’re in use. This is a huge benefit to gameplay. It would annoy me to see Stormtroopers owning the sky by flying all the TIE fighters AND Rebel X-Wings on the map. This keeps the balance better, which is a huge plus.

On the downside, if you actually want to play primarily as a pilot or tank driver, the new Battlefront does not have you covered. There’s no practice mode (at least in the Beta) and you can never deliberately get a vehicle if you want one. In my first ten games I probably only flew two ships and drove one AT-ST, and my familiarity and skill with them were nil, so I couldn’t even enjoy them before being destroyed. You have to play hours of the game (mostly as infantry) if you want to start getting good in vehicles.


 You are very dead!
You are very dead!

Battlefront 2 (and I think #1) did have the hero feature, but we haven’t seen it in the Battlefield series. In it, you would gain control of an overpowered hero or villain like a Jedi or Sith if you reached a certain kill streak or points goal. You then had a limited amount of time to control a hero character. The heroes given depended on the map and would fit the theme for that time setting in Star Wars history, so Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker were never on the same map, but Luke and Vader were, or Anakin and Jango Fett were.

I’m not sure how careful Dice are being with that attention to detail. It’s a minor issue but fans have complained that on the Hoth level in the Beta, we see Luke from Return of the Jedi (so, a full Jedi with green lightsabre) fighting Vader, instead of a younger Luke in pilot or snow gear.

You also now get heroes the same way as vehicles, and they’re even more rare. I’ve played 7 hours and been a hero character twice, for about twenty seconds each time, and I still have no idea how to use their powers to good effect. Also, when they’re defeated, they just kneel down looking sad for a few seconds, then completely disappear in an instant. This is a very poor animation, as are many others on the heroes, and it seems that the game would be stronger without them at this point.

Iron Sights

It was reported earlier that there was no aim-down-sights feature to the game. There is now. Possibly it was added due to the unpopularity of that announcement. All guns seem to have the same sight (a low-zoom scope, with the sniper rifle’s zoom also being very low). Crouching also gives no aim or stability bonus, as it does in Battlefield. Jumping or running while shooting doesn’t seem to hurt the aim that much either, so this game is quite dumbed down (/made more accessible) in that regard.

No Single Player

The Battlefield games have mostly had story campaigns, or at least single player campaign modes. The two Battlefront games also had some single player options. The new game just seems to have a Survival mode which is a wave fighting mode that you can play solo or in co-op against AI bots. This is big negative for me. You can keep playing multiplayer matches forever if you like, but I like a game, particularly a €60 one, to also give me something to enjoy on my own with some narrative or strategy. I would have loved to see the Galactic Conquest mode from Battlefront 2 in here. Instead I’m basically looking at paying €60 to kill and die in equal measure for as much time as I like. It’s not always what I’m after, and I have plenty of other multiplayer shooters to go to if that’s what I want.

There is one other single-co-op mode but it’s not in the Beta.

Spectacle & Polish

The Walker Assault level of the Beta, set during the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, is one of the best levels/experiences I’ve ever come across in a game. Dice have absolutely nailed the sounds and visuals! The clunking walkers, the punchy lasers, the snow crunching, the graphical fidelity, and then the level design itself all serve to craft one of the most immersive Star Wars experiences anyone has ever had. If you’re still reading and the Beta is still on, please just load up the game and run around the battle for a few minutes. This has to be experienced! I don’t know if I’d pay €60 for it, but for free, go for it! 

The other two levels also look beautiful and all have interesting starship battles happening overhead as part of the scenery. The lengths they’ve gone to with immersion here are spectacular.

Frostbite Engine

There’s none of Dice’s trademark ‘levolution’ going on here, at least not in the Beta. The levels are pretty rigidly set up. And AT-ST in the Survival mode blew through a few boulders near me and I was actually surprised. It looked great, but the fact that I was surprised by environmental destruction happening in a Dice game shows that there’s not much of it going on here. Don’t expect falling skyscrapers or crumbling buildings. There may be more environmental destruction in other levels, but I thought they’d have shown it off a bit more in the beta if it was much of a feature.

No Server Browser

The game doesn’t let you choose where to play. You can form a party with friends, but you can’t choose your server, and this will probably annoy PC players in particular. However, I have to mention that from my desktop, I can launch the Beta, find a full Walker Assault server, and be on the ground shooting in literally under 1 minute. If the full game can accomplish close to those times, I don’t care about not having a server browser, and players would be far more likely to hop in for a few quick rounds. Loading times were some of the biggest obstacles to me returning to the Battlefield games after a few weeks.

More ‘Rule of Fun’

They’ve tried to make more of a game for everyone here. Opinions will vary on whether this is good or bad but I actually found myself enjoying the game more for the presence of certain unrealistic features, and I’d normally be a fan of realism.
For instance, there’s no friendly fire. Unrealistic? Sure. But it removes the ability for the inevitable assholes on your team to grief you too much. They also can’t steal your vehicles. I found myself less frustrated playing this than I have playing Battlefield games, which is a huge plus for me, even if the tactical considerations are lessened. A shooter with 40 people is not where I’ll go to get my tactical fix anyway, so for fun, this was a good move in my books.

They also put all your abilities on ‘star cards’ that you equip. You don’t automatically get grenades, but you can chose them as 1 of 3 possible power-ups. In here are also jetpacks, a one-round sniper rifle, other grenades, or a personal shield. You don’t carry grenade ammo, but instead they are on a simple cool-down before you can use another one. Your health also recharges fully moments after a firefight. This basically means that if you don’t die in a fight, you’ll have full health and ammo very shortly afterwards. This allows the game to keep flowing at a decent pace, I think. I’m in favour of it.

No Classes

All the other games had a character class that you choose from with your primary abilities. In the new Battlefront you’re basically all the assault character, but you can choose a variation on your primary weapon, and then choose 3 star cards to give yourself some level of customisation. This also serves to keep more people in the battle though and not hiding on the edges fulfilling repair or sniper roles. This does make for a better battle experience, even if it alienates some players who have a favourite class. There’s no medics or engineers here, and while they are mines, they are only available as random pick-ups on the map. You can’t plan for them.

No Revives, Quick Respawn

If you die, you die. There’s no bleed-out time, defibrillators or medic classes. You do respawn very quickly though, without a 30 second timer. Again, this keeps the game flowing, removes frustration and also stops the game getting stuck in situations where medics keep reviving somebody from around a corner. You can also spawn on your partner (you get only one, no squads) to get into the action sooner.
The levels are also well laid out and it never takes too long to find the action again.

No Map or Spotting

While you have a local radar to show objectives, team mates, and enemies who have fired recently, there is no larger level map. The Hoth map, and presumably others, are good at filtering you towards your goal, but early on I was confused as to where in the world I was at a given time. The ‘spot’ feature of recent Battlefield games is also not present. This is a simpler action game, and less of a strategic one.

Anyone familiar with Battle-x games will probably have realised that, while the core mechanic of shoot-the-enemy is still there, this game is quite different from its compatriots. For me, it’s pleasantly different, but not all will agree.

The Beta Itself

There are 3 modes you can play in the Beta.

Walker Assault

This is the 40-person Hoth level, and very addictive. The rounds are quick enough, the spectacle is amazing, and I kept going back for more, despite saying several times that “this” would be the last round. If this is representative of the game at large, I think this game might really have some legs. However, it’s very same-y. Apart from maybe missing out on playing a hero or vehicle, you’ve seen 95% of the gameplay after playing a couple of rounds on each side. There won’t be much variety and there’s not a lot of room for improvisation. It did keep me coming back, though, so what does that say?.. It’s addictive, anyway.

The only thing was that the Imperials nearly always win. It’s extremely difficult for the Rebels to destroy the 2 walkers in time. They have to hold an uplink station a fair while to start a Y-Wing strike. If they can do that, the Y-Wings only make the AT-AT “vulnerable”, and only for about 10-15 seconds. This window is your only chance to chip away at their (considerable) health. Snowspeeders (often the only way in a Star Wars game to take down an AT-AT, by tying up the legs) can for some reason only attempt the tow-cable manoeuvre during this vulnerable time. This is both non-canon, and extremely unbalanced in its current form. In my 7 hours of play, I only once saw the Rebels win, and I never saw a Snowspeeder successfully kill a Walker, though this may change as players become more used to the game and if the walkers’ health is adjusted by the developers. The walkers I saw die all died to blaster fire and grenades.

Drop Zone

I didn’t like this mode at all. Sixteen players fight with no vehicles in a volcanic, rocky map, over control of drop pods. It’s basically King of the Hill but each hill gets captured very quickly and then a new pod gets dropped. If you died at the pod, even with the instant respawn, I still never had time to run back and attempt to take it a second time before the timer was up. Also, on this map, the Empire team is at a clear disadvantage as their white armour makes them stick out like a sore thumb, while the rebels are harder to spot. The map is also very small with not much going on compared to Walker assault. I kept getting placed on teams that were outnumbered (like 8 vs 5 or 6) and there was no auto-balance. This inevitably meant that we lost every match 5-0 and it was no fun. Even if I was on the winning team, though, I wouldn’t think much of it.

The troubling thing is that if this is their 2nd-best multiplayer mode, then I don’t hold out much hope for the overall quality of the full game’s levels. Surely they’d only have put their better modes in the Beta?

Survival (Single or Co-op)

 Those TIE Fighters in the shot aren't actually part of the level. They stay way off in the background as part of a looping battle animation. They don't get this close.
Those TIE Fighters in the shot aren’t actually part of the level. They stay way off in the background as part of a looping battle animation. They don’t get this close.

In the Beta, my friends weren’t online and you can only play co-op with friends, it appeared, so I had to play solo in ‘normal’ difficulty (only difficulty in the Beta). The Beta was limited to 6 waves, each increasing in difficulty. The final game will have ten I think. Even so, I didn’t die once, and to have another player making those waves even easier would be no fun at all, I think. The AI bots animate well but they die very quickly, don’t often stick together, and provide very little challenge unless you’re swarmed. Even the AT-STs aren’t that hard to beat as you can easily escape them with your jet pack, recharge your health and powerful attacks, and then come back around the canyon behind them to take off another chunk of their health. 

The Full Game’s Other Modes


 Screenshot from the Beta multiplayer menu
Screenshot from the Beta multiplayer menu

There would appear to be seven multiplayer modes available in the full game. I said that I don’t think much of Drop Zone, but that Walker Assault is great! I believe Hoth isn’t the only level for this mode, because there’s also an Endor one in the trailer. I’m not sure if there are any more beyond that. Presumably with EA’s (almost) entire marketing push being focussed on Walker Assault, the other modes aren’t up to the same standards.

  • Supremacy: I believe this is like Conquest from many games. Your mileage may vary.
  • Blast: Don’t know.
  • Cargo: Don’t know.
  • Droid Run: I don’t know what this is but presumably is some sort of glorified escort mission. Hooray… no, wait.
  • Fighter Squadron. We’ve had a trailer for this. This seems to be the only mode that will satisfy those who were looking for some good Star Wars spaceship warfare, and even then it’s not in space (admittedly, planet surfaces are more interesting to look at than endless stars), and it’s not like the Space Levels of Battlefront 2, which featured ship-to-ship boarding, flagships, and smaller escort ships to be destroyed. Without playing this mode, I can’t guess how much fun it will or won’t be, but it is at least different. See the trailer below.

Single player (slash, co-op) only has 3 offerings; the aforementioned Survival, a Training Mode, and Battles. Training obviously won’t have much longevity in it, but I don’t know what Battles are. 

In Summary

The Battlefront Beta is definitely worth playing. The Walker Assault mode is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a game, despite countless Star Wars games of the past having taken a shot at it.

The beta has some graphical glitches that may or may not be cleaned up by launch, but which aren’t deal breakers either.

The game is definitely its own monster. Managing to find a gameplay spot that stands apart from both Battlefield and the original Battlefront games gives this new release some validity. The graphical and audio quality push this even further. But the gameplay is now 90% focussed around close-range infantry combat, with vehicles and heroes only presented as rare bonuses to shake up your experience, rather than being legitimate roles.

The game is obviously timed to maximise sales by releasing only a few weeks before Christmas and the release of Episode 7 in cinemas. I do think that it will do well for all of these reasons, but does it deserve to?

From what I’ve seen of the Beta, the game only has one noteworthy mode, which I think has only two levels (Hoth and Endor). I’ve had my fill of Hoth in less than 7 hours of play, and Endor will probably not even keep me interested that long, having already experienced the mode broadly.

While there are six other multiplayer modes, and two single/co-op modes, none of them have been well advertised so I’m presuming that they’re not particularly worth mentioning. I feel like I’ve seen the best that the game has to offer already for free. And that much wasn’t worth €60 to me, personally. 

I’ll definitely be waiting for reviews, and then probably sales, if I’m ever going to pick up this game. Still, though, it has its merits and I definitely think it’s worth a look. If you can get on the Beta tonight or if EA offer “Free Time” to play like they do with some other games, take advantage!

Until next time..

Player Too: Episode 3 – The Talos Principle & Super Meat Boy

Hey. So it’s been a few weeks since the last episode of Player Too. To remind you, this is my documented approach to trying to introduce my girlfriend Claire, who identifies as not being a gamer, to the wonderful world of games. We try out games that might appeal to her inquisitive side, and that might have a lower skill-barrier to entry. Then we discuss the games themselves and, particularly, their value for developing a gaming interest in a self-proclaimed non-gamer.

Click the link if you want to catch up on Episode 2. In it I closed by saying we’d probably get into Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments or a Telltale Games series. While we’ve bought and just about started those (Game of Thrones by Telltale), we’re not far enough in to have enough to say about them. What we have played in the last few weeks is The Talos Principle and Super Meat Boy! For the first time, I played very little of the games and Claire chose to pick them up and play without me helping or watching or whatever. I think that’s progress!

The Talos Principle

So this is puzzle game. As I’ve said before, Claire is into mysteries, crosswords, sudoku, logic puzzles, etc. We figured this would be a good one to do. Having developed some walking skills in Gone Home we thought she could tackle this, maybe on her way to Portal, which does require a lot of skill. I’ve heard this game compared to Portal before, but the only similarities I can see is that they’re both first person puzzle games.

Graphically, this is the best game we’ve played so far. I heard Claire raving about how good it looked, then I came to check it out on her laptop and it was running everything on minimum. I loaded up the demo on my PC with my GTX970 and absolutely blew her mind! So, points there, but I think graphics are at their most important when you’re trying to sell a game through screenshots or videos. Once you’re in a flow, you don’t care what a game looks like, and gameplay trumps graphics for overall experience. Personal opinion disclaimer; whatever. I’m saying I don’t think good graphics will convert Claire to gaming. And they didn’t. She resumed play on her laptop happily enough.

She put about 12 hours into the game but has called it quits. I saw her solve a bunch of different puzzles and learn new mechanics, but in the end she was frustrated by a few things.

The story didn’t grab her at all. I also found the deity to be more annoying than intriguing. I can’t even say, from what I saw, that the story is drip-fed to you. It’s more like it’s totally withheld until presumably some later point that we didn’t reach. So without the story pulling you through those tougher puzzles, frustration sets in.

I think that with a puzzle game you should have one problem preventing your advancement. “I don’t know if I’ve figured this out correctly”. Then you use your skills and the mechanics you’ve been shown to test your hypothesis and either you were right, or you create a new hypothesis. 

Claire and I both suffered from a second hindrance, though, which I feel is a fault of the game. “I don’t know if they’ve introduced a new mechanic”. I didn’t play much of the game but I beat the demo, and even in that I was frustrated when I found a puzzle had to be beaten by doing something with a fan. You assume that a fan blows something, and it does. So the device is introduced and you see it needs to blow something. However, you also need to know that the fan is weighty enough to function like a box does on pressure pads. So you actually had two things to figure out with a brand new device that wasn’t explained.

Apparently this occurs a bit more in the full game. It feels a bit like time wasting to me, where other games make a point of introducing new mechanics in easy to understand ways. We’re used to a device having a function in a game or puzzle. Figuring that out and then testing new hypotheses with no clue that there’s another function all along feels like a cheap way to make a puzzle harder. At least there are only a handful of different devices so this doesn’t hold the game back too much but regardless, I think many would agree that in a game, particularly a puzzle one, both new and old players should be clear about what the rules of the game are.

 Okay, now how many things did you say I could do with this?..
Okay, now how many things did you say I could do with this?..

Claire was also frustrated that she wasn’t always clear where she should go next to even find a new puzzle. This is her experience, as a new player. I’m not saying all players would find these same frustrations, particularly if they’re used to an open-world or hub-and-spoke model of game world. Maybe they would. I can’t say.

A third problem she had, as someone less experienced with a first-person control scheme was “I don’t know if I’ve figured this out but can’t pull it off because of my control skills, or if I haven’t figured it out yet”. This isn’t the game’s fault, but contributed to Claire’s frustration when combined with our afforementioned second problem. This led to a lot of attempts wasted trying to do something because she believed she needed to just up her skills to accomplish it, when really there was a new mechanic in play. Once or twice I was called in to see if she had it right, by manoeuvring around enemies with more finely tuned timing. I proved her hypothesis right and she moved on, but had been frustrated because of her skill level.

This is my fault for recommending the game at this stage, perhaps. I heard that the game didn’t demand much skill in terms of movement, but maybe we should have still come via The Stanley Parable to get some more movement experience first. Claire’s skills improved over her 12 hours of play, and she had some of the satisfaction you get from beating a puzzle game, but overall she didn’t enjoy it.

Claire’s Score: 7/10. Yes, I know the game frequently scores 9/10, but understand, there’s a value in knowing what a first-time (or thereabouts) gamer thinks of a game too, not just what the games press thinks. This is more a score of Claire’s personal enjoyment. She found herself frustrated by not knowing if she hadn’t figured a puzzle out correctly yet based on the current rules, if she hadn’t figured out a new mechanic quietly introduced, or if she had figured it out but couldn’t prove the hypothesis because of her skill level. All the same, she spent a lot of time with it and enjoyed it a lot. She says she could return to do the odd puzzle in the future.

A better story might have pulled her into the game, but it didn’t intrigue her (or me) in the slightest at the level we got to. She didn’t mind the deity character like I did, but he didn’t exactly interest her either.

Player Too Result: A bit of a fail. Claire retains an interest in puzzle games, but we’re still a fair ways off playing Portal. We need to up her first person control skills if she’s going to get the most out of what gaming has to offer. I may have introduced this game a little too soon. The Stanley Parable should help with this, and Sherlock Holmes should satisfy the puzzle game side in the meantime.

Super Meat Boy

So, I’ve just stated that Claire’s gaming skills may have hindered her enjoyment of The Talos Principle. How do you think she got on with Super Meat Boy, an extremely difficult skill-based platformer? Quite well, actually.

Her first reaction was quite comical, though. The face she made when seeing the blood splatter everywhere and hearing the squishy sound effects was.. well I thought she was going to throw up, let’s say that. She didn’t, however, and after a few minutes she started to find the pitter patter of bloody feet even a bit funny.

Claire really enjoyed this game, although she only has two hours on it so far and doesn’t really intend to go further. Again, the story isn’t really there, so you’re just left to enjoy the game level by level. I watched her get to grips with the controls (using a game pad for the first time since she was a kid, bar a few minutes with Race The Sun one time) and clear the first couple of levels. Then I left her to her own devices. When I returned she was stuck on the last level of Chapter 1. So that’s level 17 or so. She knew what to do (this game isn’t often hard that way), she just hadn’t gotten there yet.

She offered me a go and after a half dozen attempts I cleared it. I have to say that the game is a lot of fun, and that replay feature where you see all your failed attempts die alongside your one success is inspired! Claire then had a few goes at the boss level, then passed it to me and I beat him in about a half dozen goes again (probably more, let’s be honest). She had somehow managed to clear the first chapter without realising that tapping A gives a short jump, while holding it gives a longer, higher jump. This becomes quite important.

We then tried a few fan made levels which were infuriatingly difficult. We quit and returned to Chapter 2 where the levels were now set in a hospital (of sorts) and there were piles of syringes everywhere to kill you. We couldn’t figure out how to beat the first level (I tried jumping from a very specific spot but never felt like I had the right idea as I kept hitting a pile of syringes no matter what I did) so we skipped it and I played the next couple. At this stage, the syringes made Claire lose her mettle for the game and cast her back to the squeamishness she’d had at the start, so she decided that she was done with it. She liked what she’d played but felt she’d reached the limits of her skill and enjoyment as the difficulty was ramping up fast.

 The wonderful replay mode in action!
The wonderful replay mode in action!

Claire’s Score: 7.5/10. She found this very entertaining, and gross! She often got full-bodied laughs out of her own death, but all the same she doesn’t intend to play more of the game. She found the difficulty a to get significantly beyond her as the game progressed and had no desire to die upon piles of needles come Chapter 2.

Player Too Result: Hard to say. Here we tried a platformer that’s supposed to be difficult and Claire did pretty well at it. Like I said, I only got a few levels further than her. So she’s becoming more confident in her ability to take control of a game and succeed. This would have been a barrier before in a “no, I couldn’t possibly” kind of way. We also got her using a game pad and finding the fun in death and a quick restart.

These things would all indicate good progress towards the realm of gaming, except that she doesn’t intend to play the game again. Would she like a similar style of platformer that was less gross and a tad less difficult? Perhaps. Do comment if you can recommend any, as they’re not my area of expertise. We played Bro Force together once before but it was just hopeless. This was before the Player Too project so maybe it’s worth trying that again. Or Nidhogg, perhaps. Fez? Braid? Do comment.

 Pretty cool first boss level, with all the feels in the post-boss cutscene
Pretty cool first boss level, with all the feels in the post-boss cutscene

So that’s it for the current episode. I’d like to state that Claire’s scores for games aren’t based on any particular criteria. They’re more like her personal enjoyment of the game, tempered by a bit of consideration for the objective merits of the game, whether she connected with them or not. They’re pretty arbitrary and I don’t encourage anyone to look back at older episodes and compare scores to conclude that Meat Boy is any better or worse than Race the Sun, for example. They’re basically the scores of a first time gamer, and by design, are becoming less meaningful as such since the aim of the Player Too series is to attempt to turn Claire into a gamer. 

Basically, they’re just a bit of fun!

I can’t say if we’re any closer to turning Claire into a gamer this time, but her skills are definitely improving and she’s realising that there’s fun to be had in all types of games. So the project continues! Although we’ve learned to stay further away from blood and gore.

Next Time On Player Too: We’ve a lot of games to choose from for next time. We bought nearly all the Telltale games in that last Humble sale, as well as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments and I’ve Fez and Luftrausers and Stealth Inc. 2 too! We will probably go with Sherlock and either the Stanley Parable or Game of Thrones (or both) for next time.

In the meantime, if you’ve any game recommendations or stories of how you brought a loved one into the world of gaming, do please share in the comments!

Until next time..

Player Too: Episode 2 – Gone Home & Race The Sun (and more)

Click for Episode 1..

Welcome to the second instalment of Player Too, where I try to turn my girlfriend Claire into a gamer by exploring games with low barriers to entry. After all, you can’t expect to play a shooter without having learned movement controls at some point, or a 4x strategy game without playing something simpler like Command & Conquer or a tower defence.

In the time since the first episode, we’ve played Race The Sun and Gone Home, as well as Irish games Darkside Detective (demo) and Curtain.

Gone Home

A few people recommended that we play Gone Home if we liked the mystery of Her Story and needed something with a low skill level. Again, I thought it was important for Claire to play herself, and not just watch. You’ll never consider yourself a gamer if you don’t actually get ‘hands on’.

I know this game is referred to by many as a “walking simulator”. I know it’s intended as a derogatory term, but that doesn’t mean a game is without merit, and in fact, since Claire has never ever controlled a first person character with a keyboard and mouse, a walking simulator actually sounded perfect. She could get used to movement in an environment where you can’t die and don’t have a time limit. I figure if she could get used to first person movement, then she might eventually be able for the extremely enjoyable Portal games, maybe by way of the Stanley Parable or Talos Principle first. If she liked Gone Home for what it was, then maybe we could stop off at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or something like that. said that Gone Home takes about two hours to beat. We figured we’d beat the game in a single evening, even with the need to learn how to move first. I positioned Claire’s fingers on the WASD keys. She asked why she couldn’t use the up/down/left/right arrows. I said that she could technically but that she’d just have to treat this like a driving lesson and take my word that it’s better to have more keys in range of your fingers (like tab, q, e, f, etc) for when a game requires more controls. Plus on her laptop the arrow keys would just be horrible to try and use. Look at this!

 Ewww.. Okay we're definitely going with the WASD keys, then.
Ewww.. Okay we’re definitely going with the WASD keys, then.

So the next ninety minutes for me were kind of painful. Like sitting alongside a new driver as they grind the clutch, cut out the engine, slam on the brakes, and over steer. But that’s just me. I wanted to see the story but it was really being held up by learning how to move. Claire did really well, though. She remembered to keep her fingers in place, and before long didn’t have to keep looking down for the crouch button. Using the mouse to look around was natural, and I think for a first go she did as well as could be expected. First person games aren’t ruled out, then, but it might be a while before she’s circle strafing and rocket jumping. All the same, I got exhausted watching. Claire finished the second half of the game without me and I played it myself the day after that so we could talk about it.

Because it’s such a short game, heavily based on plot, it’s hard not to discuss it without spoiling a large percentage, so I won’t. I think that’s probably a telling criticism of Gone Home. You nearly need to come at it knowing literally nothing to get the full experience (a bit like the movie Signs). If you know what does or doesn’t happen then the occasional red herring won’t add to the experience. Wondering what’s happened in the house is all you’ve got. Gameplay-wise, you wander around a fairly large family home, wondering why your family aren’t there, and examining notes, phone messages, and newspaper clippings to develop the story. Every few clues your sister will “speak” to you in your head and continue narrating the story. You don’t really need to work anything out for yourself, solve puzzles, or test theories. It’s all given to you in a logical sequence. You can choose which of the unlocked rooms to explore yourself and how deeply to explore them, so the experience isn’t ‘on the rails’, but it still feels like there’s nothing to DO! There’s very little you even have to remember or backtrack for.

Unprompted, Claire said things like “it’s not really a game” or “there’s nothing to do”. Without her being aware of the “not a game” debate that circles experiential games like this, it was interesting to hear her get there on her own. She felt like she had no input into the experience. There’s nothing to ‘beat’. There’s no element of competition. No win or lose state. It was just like watching a movie but where she had to move the plot on herself, and that that’s not really what she would call a game.

 You can pick up and rotate objects to examine them, but rarely need to. A properly-opening cassette box was the best though!
You can pick up and rotate objects to examine them, but rarely need to. A properly-opening cassette box was the best though!

Legendary game designer Sid Meier said that “a game is a series of interesting choices”. That’s a great definition, but excludes interactive fiction as games. Claire and I think that’s fine. Saying something “isn’t a game” shouldn’t be offensive. Not every piece of recreational software has to be a game. Interactive fiction is probably a better way to describe ‘games’ like these. But I digress..whatever that means..

In terms of it being a worthwhile experience though, she said it was, and I think it is too. I do think games should be about more than just shooting and platforming. “Experiential games” can be a great way of telling a story. Gone home would have been a decent short story if done in print, and using technology to bring you into the story is definitely worth doing, but the word ‘game’ has definitions and expectations. Broadly speaking, there’s a player or players, an objective, and a set of rules. Gone Home, or Telltale’s games could meet this at a stretch, but they’re far better described as ‘interactive fiction’. Telltale themselves said in a panel at GDC when asked if what they made were games, that they didn’t really care! They are what they are.

Claire’s Score: 6/10. Worthwhile as an experience, but not worth the €20 asking price as it’s too short with not enough going on. Get it on sale for €10 or less.

Player Too Result: Claire and I reached a common consensus pretty easily with Gone Home. We felt that it was useful as a walking simulator to train Claire in movement in a consequence-free environment. We felt that it wasn’t really a game (how dare we use such profanity) under certain definitions. We felt that it was a worthwhile experience, and that more interactive fiction like this would be a good thing. But we felt that the story wasn’t particularly great. It was nice, different, and worthwhile, but if there were more similar games to compare alongside, Gone Home probably wouldn’t stand up all that well as, insofar as twists, red herrings, and mystery go, it could have done better. We think people only recommend it because it’s different and there isn’t yet anything better. The developers, Fullbright, are releasing another game called Takoma next year. We’re definitely interested in checking it out.

Claire is interested in a similar experience but with the ability to make decisions and affect the story. Sounds to me like it might be time to introduce an RPG on Player Too, though we still have to keep the controls simple. Any recommendations?

Bonus Mini-Review: Curtain

As I wrote this blog, I got Claire to try “Curtain”, by Dreamfeeel, winner of the Grand Prize for the Most Amazing Game at Amaze, Berlin 2015. It’s a 20-30 minute experiential game that focuses on abusive relationships. It has a very distinct art style that looks off-putting at first, but stick with it if you try the game. It uses that imagery, as well as sound and level design in great narrative ways that experiential games should take note of.

I asked Claire what she thought when she finished and she said “that was awesome! So simple, so clever” (note that after ten seconds of playing the game she said “I don’t like this, I want to quit” so do stick with it if you try it).

 Click to see Curtain's page on
Click to see Curtain’s page on

You can name your own price  (including €0) to get the game on Itch. Click the GIF above. We downloaded for free just to see (I thought Claire may have hated it) but she liked it enough to go back and pay the asking price. You can’t say fairer than that!

Second Bonus Mini-Review: The Darkside Detective

At the end of the last Player Too I said we might try point-and-click game The Darkside Detective which, though not out yet, has a downloadable demo (scroll to bottom of that page) covering a single complete chapter.

It’s a comedy point-and-click adventure game with an X-files vibe and is divided into ‘cases’ like monster-of-the-week episodes, with a larger ‘seasonal’ plot running through them. In reference to our above “not a game” debate, I’m conscious that a point and click linear story is not that far removed from interactive fiction, but they’ve always been called games no-question. I suppose the fact that you have to think about how to advance the scene counts as input and challenge enough to use the word ‘game’. Anyway, I think I’m really making two blog posts out of one thing today so I’ll digress once more.

As I said in Episode 1, Claire has always liked puzzles, crosswords, etc and so I thought this genre might suit her. She did take things a little too literally, though. Because you’re exploring a mansion and the kitchen isn’t important, it’s not included in the game. A policeman character makes a fourth-wall-joke about it being odd that these rich folks don’t have a kitchen and so Claire started to focus her efforts on finding the hidden kitchen, so she could use a phone to ring the number on the box of matches she’d been given and verify the father’s alibi. I thought this was funny. We don’t think about certain things as gamers too much. In a point-and-click game we tend to just use the items we’ve been given on the scene to try and advance the plot, whereas Claire was approaching the given situation as a real detective and fully role playing.

She was disappointed to find that the experience was narrower than she thought, but when she had the right frame of mind she found the fun that this genre had to offer, particularly the comedic aspects. Everyone enjoys having a guess at the solution or the plot and being proven right, then rewarded with more story. It’s a great core game loop that made the genre huge in the 90s and is likely why the genre is seeing a comeback now.

Claire said she’d definitely buy the full game when it comes out so, again, I think we’re doing well at turning Claire into a gamer. 

Race The Sun

Four games in three weeks, across three genres. I’d say project Player Too is working pretty well so far. Race the Sun is an endless runner, meaning there is constant movement and your only input is to avoid obstacles. You can’t get off the rails that the game proceeds on. More can be build around that core but that’s an endless runner.

In Race The Sun you control a solar powered spaceship racing towards the setting sun. You collect time-warping powerups to make the sun climb a little in the sky, but if you stray into the long shadows cast by tall obstacles, you lose sped, and the sun sets faster, bringing you closer to death. When I played, I never saw death by sunset, I always smashed into a wall way before that.

As you can see from the images, the art style is as simple as it needs to be. It does everything you need, and the game runs at a high number of frames per second, essential to giving this game is smooth feel.

The reason I came to try this game with Claire is that it was on a Steam promotion. For one day the game was free to install, and if you installed it you could keep it. This coincided with the release of some DLC so they were quick to offer you to buy the expansion if you did get the game for free. I knew of the game before but thought it a bit simplistic for me. I’ll try anything once though (for free) so I downloaded it and found that I liked it. It’s a great little way to spend a few minutes.

This prompted me to create a Steam account for Claire and download it on her laptop. I thought that the fact that you need only steer left or right, and that there’s a fast reset time after death meant that Claire might get into it. I’d seen her enjoy Angry Birds because of its fast reset time, and even an early build of my game Sons of Sol when I had all hits cause instant death, but a quick tap of the R key reset the level. Difficulty didn’t matter if the consequences to death were minimal and you could get back into the action quickly.

Claire was soon riveted! She was jumping around in her chair (“full body steering”) as she’d swerve to avoid a large column, then wail in frustration, arms up in the air as she hit the one behind it. After one second she’d be back at the controls, eyes inches from the screen, tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth, concentrating and vowing to get further this time. “One more go” was never one more go.

She’d be intimidated and put off by the amount of controls you have to think about with a racing game, but with left or right being her only decisions, she had ‘mastered’ the controls in a minute and was all about beating the challenge. Race the Sun challenges you very well. When you’re about to pass your record distance you can see a big banner text with your old distance float up from the horizon in front of you, egging you on. There’s also several achievements that let you feel like you’re progressing even if you still can’t get past level 2 (things like “beat the first level without bumping anything”, etc). 


I played it just on the first day, but Claire has returned to it several times without me being around. She’s taken it upon herself that she wanted to play this game more. That’s encouraging. We’ve found that she can be drawn in by a game experience and look forward to playing it again. She’s said that she spent all day in work wanted to come back and try and beat that damn level.

This is extra interesting because the levels change daily. The feel of the zones and the types of obstacles encountered are consistent, but the specific layout changes daily, meaning you can never really learn the course  and improve that way. Every day it’s about your reactions versus the game, with no cheating.

Of particular interest to me was that you can get a powerup that allows you to jump once with the spacebar. This adds a button to think about while your mind is already constantly racing. It wasn’t long before Claire added this jump move to her repertoire and added finding the powerup to her mental list of objectives in a turn. Further on, there’s some sort of teleport on the shift button that she’s also mastered. She’s now much further into and better at the game than I am.

Claire’s Score: 7/10. Loads of fun!

Player Too Result: We’ve found another genre that Claire can get into.  Endless runner! We’ve proven that skill based games are totally within her grasp as long as they’re not too punishing, and indeed that they can be more fun for being difficult but with a shallow learning curve and little encouraging objectives.

Claire’s skills are increasing, but still need work if we’re to take on Portal. She’s finding that she enjoys more and more genres of games and types of games that she didn’t know existed, but that she enjoys them in small doses. Her willingness to try new suggestions is increasing because of the good games we’ve found so far, and she’s starting to think she’d like try try games with more input in to the narrative, or more games with a simple skill challenge.

I think we’re a long way from getting into an epic 20+ hour RPG, but that Telltale games are definitely where we should be heading next for a positive narrative experience.

As far as building her first person skills, the Talos Principle has a free demo and is discounted on Steam this weekend. I’m not sure if the puzzles are skill based at all, but we can learn from the demo and buy it if she think’s she could handle it. The Stanley Parable demo would also make a good low-consequence ‘walking simulator’/training game.

Next Time On Player Too: All of those possibilities aside, on the strength of her enjoyment of the detective game Her Story, we’re next trying out Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, which is the newest and best rated of the Holmes games. Claire and I have read and both really enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes books, as well as the Benedict Cumberbatch TV show and Robert Downey Jr. movies, so this will hopefully not disappoint.

Have you any suggestions for what else we should try next? Or which is the best Telltale game to go for (she think zombies are stupid, so not Walking Dead)? Have you had a similar experience with a friend or loved one and want to suggest any games you tried together? Please comment!

Until next time..