Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Review of 'Always Sometimes Monsters'

By Owen Jones (That bloke under your bed)

Morality’s a tricky one, because there’s always more to it than you think at first. So many factors affect how we make decisions so that judging someone for their actions is impossible. Always Sometimes Monsters is a game that attempts to portray this, yet like morality it’s tricky to judge Always Sometimes Monsters. Yet judge it I shall, or at least attempt to, after this trailer of course:

I’m in two minds about Always Sometimes Monsters and its various elements. Take for instance the character creation (or rather choosing) where you decide who you want to play as from a room filled with people. Yet it doesn’t tell you that you’re choosing which character to play as, instead telling you you’re deciding who to drink with. On the one hand this seems like a nice way of choosing your gender, race and even sexuality, but it doesn’t tell you this clearly. Sure, you can go back and chose again, but that kind of defies the point of the section.

And it does something similar with the decision making. Instead of declaring that you’re making a decision it tries to hide them, and whilst this is admirable it meant that I ended up following a path that I didn’t particularly want to. Starting a conversation would often mean I would be taken to a new location and path, and although I could leave it either didn’t tell me I could do so or offered the choice at a time that felt wrong. I really wished I could have protested more or been given a dialogue option that simply said ‘No’. It’s incredibly infuriating when the game makes a big deal out of something that could be explained or avoided by a simple sentence, yet that sentence wasn’t available. Sure, this is a problem in all games, but Always Sometimes Monsters made me painfully aware of that fact.

The distinction between what I wanted my character to do and what they actually did was a problem for me as they made some bold statements or decisions that I didn't feel that I had been given any choice in. Perhaps this is why I failed to sympathise with my character, in fact I struggled to become emotionally invested in the story other than through frustration. Looking back I just felt a sort of blank as the events took place, which is really detrimental to what the game was trying to achieve.
I’m also not entirely certain what to make of the working mechanic in the game. Always Sometimes Monsters uses mini games to simulate things like work, hacking and boxing (yes there’s boxing and it’s so dull I was very tempted to take the clearly labelled ‘bad’ decision instead of it). The mini games are incredibly dull, and whilst this serves the purpose of expressing how mundane manual labour is it’s still incredibly dull and often purposeless.

And this means money is in abundance as long as you’re prepared to suffer the mini games, which kind of ruins the simulation of desperation it’s also trying to create. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of these sections are plot centric or in order for the day to progress you might have to take part in these mini games.

The game also appears to be in two minds about itself. Sometimes it tries to create a feeling of desperation and hopelessness, while also attempting humour. It often is funny, but some attempts felt weak and I felt occasionally sacrificed what the game was trying to achieve. These conflicting atmospheres weren’t complimentary and I found stopped me from engaging or becoming immersed in the game.

It’s a shame because the writing is mostly pretty okay; it’s just that it could be uninteresting or uninspired. The characters were never realistic enough for me to care a great deal, and what they had to say often bored me.

The third section of the game was just tedious and I was struggling to carry on. It was worth it though, because the ending freed itself from the repetitive structure the rest of the game was built around, but even here melodrama undermined the more sincere parts of the story. It’s when the game concentrated on the plot focused parts it was far better than in the mechanical parts, and I could really feel that whilst playing the game. Dream sequences provided the best of these and gave motivation for me to continue playing, although I did struggle to reach the end.

The review might come across as particularly negative, which I feel is unfair to Always Sometimes Monsters. The fact that I gave up around 10 hours during a busy period shows that it was bearable, just not as enjoyable or entertaining as I felt it tried to be. It's attempts to grasp issues that aren't often covered in video games is really admirable, it just presented them in a way that seemed quite dull or inconsequential. 

It’s ambitious in its concept, and when it pulls it off it’s great, it’s just that these moments should have been far more common. I don’t think it’s too expensive at £6-£7, this seems to be a relatively modest price. The 8-10 hour game time feels drawn out however and although it may be ultimately worthwhile it’s a struggle to complete in areas.

Always Sometimes Monsters can be bought from Steam, GOG or the Humble Store. You can find out more about the game from the website or from Devolver Digital.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Forgotten Nightmares: A tribute to Amnesia The Dark Descent

 By Owen Jones (Amnesiac)

Let me tell you a story.
No, that’s not quite right. I’ll try again.
Let me tell you about a story.
There, that’s better. Now, shall we begin?

The story, like many stories before it, is a tragedy. It tells the story of a man named Daniel. Daniel’s story is a dark one. One that is best told late into the night, when all is dark and all are blind.
It is a tale of terror.
It is a tale of vengeance.
It is a tale of damnation.

But this story is not content for you to watch Daniel’s story unfold, oh no. You too must experience his terror, his anger, his confusion. And as you and Daniel descent into the darkness, that which separates you from him becomes obsolete and for a while you shall become Daniel.
Become his terror.
Become his anger.
Become his fear.
And upon waking from this twisted dream Daniel shall become you, and shall know what it means to experience true fear.

The details of this half-forgotten nightmare elude me, but I remember darkness. Though at first I feared the darkness I came to depend on it for my survival. But be warned, for though the darkness creates safety for the body it offers no comfort to the mind. It is in the dark that all becomes menacing, and fear takes hold.
And they can smell it. They can smell your fear.
And then they come looking for you.

What do they look like? Well, you’ll know them when you see them. My mind refuses to remember, refuses to even to look. All I can see are their mouths.
Oh god, their mouths.
Just don’t look. If the come looking then don’t let them see. And whatever you do, don’t go looking for them.
Besides, they’ll find you soon enough. They always do. They’ll find you and all you can do is hide.
Just don’t look. If you look you’re dead. If you look they’ll smell your fear.
Just don’t look. Don’t look at their mouths.
Oh god, their mouths.

But I’m afraid I must go. He’s calling me again, Daniel. He’s calling me back for another nightmare. Perhaps if I hadn’t looked, hadn’t seen those mouths it might be a different story, but how can I run from that which I fear the most?
Because once you’re afraid you have to look. Once you’re afraid you have to go back, back to the realm of the forgotten nightmares.
Now where was I? Ah yes, there was a house. I believe it was my father's...

Amnesia: The Dark Descent can be bought and played through Steam, GOG or whatever online gaming retailer you prefer. Frictional Games have a website as well as an excellent blog you should check out.
 You can also follow me as I play through Custom Stories and give my thoughts on this very blog. Additionally if you have made a Custom Story or know of a really good one I’d love to play it (or any mod/Indie game for that matter). 
Until then, sweet dreams.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

An update on NWAP

By Owen Jones (Writer of Words)

Sometimes I like to imagine that someone actually pays attention to my musings on No Work, All Play. I’d like to think that somewhere, someone is wondering why I never followed up my promises to review mods (mainly Amnesia Custom Stories) on a regular basis, but I know they don’t. So I wrote this article, because I like pretending.
 Perhaps I’m simply trying to justify myself, after all I’m the one who loses out by not posting reviews. I don’t suppose it really matters why I’m writing this, only that I am writing this, and that we have a lot to talk about, you and me.

  I don’t know who you are or where you come from; hell I don’t even know if anyone is reading this. I might know you, I might never even recognise you exist, and yet here we are, discussing games reviews. I’m writing this in the present (or at least my present) and you’re reading this in the present (or your present). Though this present will be gone and perhaps even forgotten by the time you read this it’s still as real as your present. In a way this is breaking down the boundaries between our presents (not the woolly socks type) and allowing just a small amount of my ideas and opinions to be transferred to you. These ideas and opinions will change, more to the point I’ll change, but in a way a record of this me (the present me) will still exist and can communicate with someone (more specifically, you) across the gulf of time and space, as pretentious as that seems. And that’s amazing, even if it is about something as mundane as the ‘present’ me’s laziness.
Look, my point is writing is amazing. Stephen King (to whom No Work, All Play owes our title) once described writing as telepathy, and yeah, that’s pretty accurate. The truth is it doesn’t matter what I think about gaming (or any subject, really). The very fact that we’re communicating in itself is amazing, and that’s reason enough to do it. As I’m sure I’ve made clear I find this is amazing, and I love writing. Which is why I feel bad about not having posted anything in a while. Which is why I’m writing these very words.

 And I also love videogames. Sure, they’re narratively imperfect and have a long way to go before they can compete with mediums like literature or even films, but that’s what’s going on right now. Video games are still a relatively new medium, and are still developing and finding their voice, and that’s something that can’t be seen in any other medium. Only now are games starting to push the boundaries of what makes a ‘videogame’ and realise their full potential as a form of interactive media, and I find that fascinating. I want to be a part of that development, even if it’s by doing something as small as writing my thoughts about why videogames deserve to be talked about. Which, you’ll note, is what I’m doing right now.

So why haven’t I posted anything in a while? There are a whole load of excuses for me to choose from, but what good would that do us? Let’s just put it this way, time continued its procession and I failed to keep up, resulting in a lot of things that I wanted to do ended up not getting done. Like this blog for instance.
And now I have to make sure that I do post stuff regularly, or I’ll end up feeling bad and slightly disappointed with myself. Sure, I could say that I’m busy and have exams coming up and I’ll start writing stuff more regularly later, but then I run the risk of never actually doing it. And you know what they say, there’s no time like the present, even if all time is a present (just not this present).

And this also gives me an opportunity to explain how my posts will differ in the future. There’s no point in me posting traditional reviews, because whether you buy/play a game shouldn’t be determined by what some bloke on the internet said. Besides, I can’t tell you whether you’ll like something or not, I can only say whether I liked something or not. I can say what a game did well and what it didn’t do well, but at the end of the day it’s how you personally react to the game that matters. So instead I’ll be concentrating on just giving my thoughts on games, whether that’s my opinion or interpretation on a particular game or on games in general. And I’ll try to concentrate on the more obscure stuff, stuff that won’t get as much coverage elsewhere around the internet.

I wasn’t sure where I was going with this post, and I’m still not too sure where I did go. Still, I felt that I needed to let the world what was going on with NWAP, even if the world wasn’t listening. So thanks for reading all of that, you really didn’t have to. But hey, seeing that you’ve made this far you might as well stick around for a while. You never know, you may well find it to be worth your while after all...

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Lost at Sea – Thoughts on Estranged Act 1

By Owen Jones (Shipwrecked Poltroon)


Estranged is a free mod-thing that released on Steam a while back (I’m lazy, ok?) Built on the Source Engine, but not requiring you to own any Source Engine game to play, it’s rather good. You should play it and form your own opinions on it, but if you’d rather inflate my ego then read on, but first a trailer:

Estranged stretches the Source Engine to its limits. The news about the Dear Esther port from Source only goes to show that Valve are concentrating on Source 2, and Titanfall may well be the engine’s final hoorah. When you consider this and the fact that Estranged is free then it’s hard not to be impressed by it.
The graphics are impressive, but it’s the lighting that really got me. The game is focused on atmosphere, so it’s understandable why the lighting is so important. The textures and entities are a mix of standard Source stuff and the developers own compositions (including a fully functioning swipe card, might I add). I’m not going to pretend to know a lot about the technology that drives videogames, but it impressed me and my limited understanding.

It is heavily implied that this person may have been injured in some way

Estranged plays out as you would expect from a Half-Life mod, though with a few alterations. Gunplay and physics-based puzzles make up most of the game, and whilst fairly standard it was enjoyable enough. The combat has been ramped up, with limited health and scarce ammo I found myself having to plan out enemy encounters rather than diving in.
The story is ambiguous, though sometimes needlessly so. The shipwreck and unexplained oddities created intrigue, but I can already start to guess at where the plot is headed. Then again this is only the first act, perhaps Estranged will surprise me. There’s no central idea here, or at least none that I could find, which is disappointing because I felt the devs could have done more with the setup. Still, the atmosphere is what’s important here.
I know for a fact that others found the whole experience tense, bordering on scary, but I was never personally engaged with it. Whether it’s my fault or the mod's, I always seemed to know what was around the next corner and wasn’t really worried when I turned it. Sure, there’s scarce ammo and the nasties remain eerily quiet (probably my favourite thing about the mod), but I wasn’t immersed enough to be affected by it. Still, this is my personal opinion, and I’m sure others will disagree.

I like the Monet-esque lily pads...

Basically Estranged’s first act is a nice little distraction and defiantly worth a look, but never any more than that. The puzzles and combat keep you preoccupied and exploring the island was a joy, but it never became immersed in it. It’s no masterpiece, but if you’re looking for a (relatively) short distraction this weekend then I’d recommend Estranged. Who knows, perhaps the next Act will be something truly spectacular.
Estranged has a website, modDB page and can be downloaded from Steam for free. Go play it.