Month: September 2018

Beckett Review — New Look, Old Habits

by Jed Pressgrove

Few things have escaped the cynical crosshairs of the noir genre. So when you come across the line in the detective game Beckett that reads, “Beckett stopped believing in any notion of God the day his baby sister died,” the prose fits the noir profile, regardless of whether you have faith of any sort. Developer Simon Meek, like many crime fiction writers before him, always stays on script; his protagonist’s observations about life are dark and to the point. But Meek’s way of executing the formula — his unusual mixture of text, full-motion video, photographs, and strange audio within a point-and-click adventure format — makes it more difficult to reject Beckett as another case of fatalistic mimicry.

As the titular private investigator, you are trying to find Peregrine, the adult son of a woman named Daisy, who spends most of her time watching television. Peregrine is an awkward young man who can’t take female rejection and has essentially ran away from home. Beckett himself has his own psychological issues, which stem from his childhood, a general sort of world-weariness, and the loss of his wife.

This game constantly undercuts the predictable framework of the 2D point-and-click adventure as the story advances. You never know what kind of storytelling device or audiovisual cue will be triggered by your clicks. When you click a person, sometimes a text conversation starts immediately, but you won’t hear voice acting. Instead, every character has a repetitive sound associated with their dialogue. For Beckett, it’s coughing, most certainly a result of his smoking habit and age. For others, it might be the sound of lips aggressively eating and kissing (Daisy), the din of a typewriter (a receptionist), or a jackhammer (a construction worker).

Other times the game will perform visual gymnastics when you click something. After you initiate contact with a city representative, the camera zooms in on the character’s avatars, and the background becomes blurry and starts to rotate, eventually resembling a spinning vinyl record. During another pivotal conversation, the typical text-based exchanges evaporate as you begin to hear one of the character’s voices, and humongous words start to fill up the screen. From there, the game shifts to a display of prose with full-motion-video worms writhing in the background. Meek’s off-the-wall style, somewhat reminiscent of Jack King-Spooner’s use of kaleidoscopic audiovisual elements in RPGs, is always intriguing and defies the tried-and-true structure we’ve come to expect from adventure games.

The game’s script, while concise and engaging, isn’t as exceptional as its balls-out presentation. The resigned atheism of the protagonist makes sense initially, as you gather that Beckett’s mother had faith and probably pressured her son to follow in her footsteps. You also learn that religion-inspired guilt plagues the investigator: “Beckett seeks forgiveness. From whom he doesn’t know.” The storytelling falls apart, though, when Beckett sees a crying baby in the alley and muses, “Leave it be.” Why would a guilt-stricken man, whose baby sister died, be this apathetic about a helpless child?┬áMeek never provides an answer. It’s as if the player is supposed to assume the worst just because the game is within the noir genre.

The protagonist’s puzzling lack of compassion is perhaps explained by one interpretation of the story’s ending. There is reason to believe after the conclusion that Beckett is not a real person but rather a projection of an aspect of another character’s psychology. While this reading can leave room for weird inconsistencies, it doesn’t help the game step out of the large shadow of numerous crime and psychological thriller stories that use a similar type of plot twist.

One of the game’s most memorable final lines is “There is no meaning to this world beyond which we give it.” At best, the absurdist philosophy of this quote doesn’t ring true in the context of the story’s relentless negativity. At worst, the thought registers as an excuse for Meek’s game-ending obfuscation. Beckett is compelling for how it says what it says through provocative images and sounds, but its overall message is confined by the typical nihilism of a genre that, for years, has had nothing new to point out.

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Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Metatexual independent games have become more popular over the last few years, but the works of this movement — The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club!, among others — have been more egotistical and shallow than humanistic and insightful. Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary rejects the cynicism of this trend by daring to have players empathize with a stereotypical unemployed gamer who lives with his Bible-thumping mom. In showing how video games can serve as both escapism and inspiration, Rogers offers a mature cultural perspective that transcends the manipulative tricks of his too-cool-for-school indie peers.

As Gary, you always wind up playing an RPG called Legend of the Spear. This game allows Gary to forget the commentary of his mother and girlfriend and to exist in a world that, while challenging to survive in, lacks the more serious problems of real life. But responsibility soon demands Gary to get a job to support his mother, and as he navigates the very dubious politics at his grocery-store gig, he starts to notice that the events and people in Legend of the Spear mirror those of his everyday life.

Every day after work, you move Gary into his room to resume gaming. The sense of isolation is initially freeing, but when Gary’s worlds start to clash or reflect each other, wake-up calls abound for the protagonist. During one session with Legend of the Spear, Gary abruptly quits the game when he learns his friend has had an overdose. And when Gary begins to see similarities between his boss’ questionable orders and the quests given to him by a reptile queen in Legend of the Spear, his sense of integrity is doubly called into question. Through such occurrences, Gary learns how to care about people other than himself.

This story of coincidental redemption might sound sappy, but Rogers infuses wit throughout Legendary Gary to underscore the silliness of the game’s premise and the hilarity of human behavior and thought. At one point, Gary, tired of his mother’s constant references to her faith, declares that God doesn’t make video games. His mother’s response is sharp, believable, and ridiculous: “How do you know what God makes? Are you his accountant?” In a later scene, Gary’s boss has been fired for her unprofessional approach to management, and Gary is interrogated about his dealings with her by two corporate stooges labeled Serious Man and Other Serious Man. The sliminess of the situation is beyond palpable when one of the men advises Gary, “Just remember to keep it profesh’ from here on out.”

The audiovisual approach of Legendary Gary is a perfect fit for Rogers’ blend of humor and drama.┬áThe hand-drawn art of Legendary Gary is cartoony but exquisitely detailed, highlighting both the absurdity and complexity of Gary’s life. The soundtrack is an unusual mix. When Gary engages in turn-based combat in Legend of the Spear, you hear songs that seem like they were composed by a Talking Heads cover band. At first, it feels as if you’re listening to the most unorthodox score for RPG battling ever, but the music complements the dance-like movement of the characters when they all take their turns simultaneously — half spectacle and half nonsense.

Legendary Gary’s conclusion implies that life and video games are better when they have cathartic value, as opposed to when they only seem to suck away our spirit and our time, reducing us to human shells. The final scene is in a graveyard where Gary’s father was buried. Both Gary and his mother come to grips with the massive hole in their family unit, and the newfound bond between them suggests a sense of hope for the future. At the very end, the game visually confirms that every character in Legend of the Spear is an analogue for someone in Gary’s life. Legendary Gary is as meta as they come, but more importantly, it’s far wiser than the norm for imagining a more positive relationship between art and humanity.