Author: jbevan70

Belladonna Review — Rushed Representation

by Jim Bevan

Even though popular video games often lack positive LGBT representation, independent and alternative games have stepped forward to fill this gap, offering deeper, more personal stories that strive to make players empathize with LGBT protagonists. Admirably, Talks With My Mom places players in the shoes of a young woman coming out as a lesbian to her narrow-minded mother, while Dys4ia uses a series of mini-games as metaphors for the struggles of a transwoman. However, even the best intentions can suffer from faulty execution. There’s a difference between a complex narrative focusing on a gay person’s life and a trivial tale with a gay protagonist that doesn’t say anything substantial. Belladonna, the debut title from Swedish developer Neckbolt (Niklas Hallin), is regretfully in the latter category.

Belladonna is yet another game that has potential to tell an intriguing story but never manages to convey its ideas. It’s quite a pity as there’s a wealth of topics that could have elevated the game beyond a simple Frankenstein pastiche. In the short time I spent playing Belladonna, I learned about a marriage crumbling after the death of a couple’s infant son, a previously loving husband’s descent into an abusive, domineering maniac, his neglected wife’s turning to the affections of their maid to rekindle her appreciation for life, and a sad fate for all three once this clandestine romance is exposed.

This material could have made for a gripping character drama if I had been able to see it develop rather than learning about it after the fact. Belladonna shares the same significant flaw that hindered Gone Home — practically every important aspect of the plot is revealed through exposition. You never observe the von Trauerschlosses as a couple and are left to simply assume that Wolfram and Belladonna were madly in love before their son passed away. You never witness that first spark of desire between Belladonna and the maid Klara that rejuvenates the former’s spirit. There’s no montage of Wolfram slipping further into darkness as he becomes obsessed with his experiments and more paranoid that his wife is having an affair. Everything that is supposed to define these characters is merely spelled out in journal entries. Not even the epistolary revelation of the backstory is properly handled because of how ubiquitous these journal entries are. At least one page is located in each room, and at one point I found three in the same area. Such rushed delivery greatly hurts the pacing since there is hardly any time to absorb the information before dealing with another turn of events.

The story in the journal entries doesn’t even match up with how the game’s events play out. Belladonna’s notes suggest that she was madly in love with Klara, that she considered the young servant her true soul mate and didn’t care that the society they lived in would condemn their relationship. Yet when Klara finally locates her lover and restores Belladonna to life, there’s no sense of a deep connection between them. Aside from one or two hollow uses of “my love,” their dialogue is just more exposition. Nothing indicates that these two had been in a serious relationship. While this could be due to the fact that both women had returned from the dead, the lack of emotion between the characters makes no sense given Klara’s behavior after her resurrection; she shows some feelings, though usually it’s either a sense of confusion or curiosity. Why does the game heavily emphasize a forbidden love only to have it fail to manifest when Belladonna and Klara reunite?

The romantic subplot isn’t the only concept that needed more exploration. Near the end of the game, Belladonna reveals to Klara that she wishes to use her husband’s research to create a race of clockwork-powered undead, and that they will find their own home where they can be safe from the outside world. Is this supposed to be an allegory for the gay community feeling threatened by a society that ostracizes it, or is it a simple rehashing of a generic science-fiction plot?

Before embarking on this plan to create a new species, Klara confides in Belladonna that she fears the revival process has made her into a monster. Klara shares that she felt no guilt killing a cat that was guarding a key she needed, so she is concerned she is now devoid of a soul. Belladonna then confesses she had no qualms about murdering her husband (which is justifiable considering the hatred she felt toward Wolfram for killing both Klara and herself) and tells Klara to ignore her fears. Why ignore it? Why not discuss the nature of humanity and the possible existence of a soul? Why not examine whether Belladonna is unleashing an army of merciless killers upon the world or if they have some semblance of a conscience? But the issue is never again discussed: Klara gathers the parts needed to create a new patchwork corpse, she flips the switch to infuse it with electricity, and Belladonna declares “It’s alive.” With this unthinking ending, the game announces that it’s just the latest indie project with aspirations of high art held back by lazy design.

Grow Home: From Birth to Puberty

by Jim Bevan

Grow Home from Ubisoft Reflections is deceptively simple. You control a Botanic Utility Droid (B.U.D.) that must cultivate an alien flower, known as a Star Plant, so that its seeds can be brought to a spaceship for further analysis. The story echoes Jack and the Beanstalk along with Wall-E (see the robot’s janky motions and ability to “speak” through electronic sound effects). But I interpreted B.U.D.’s journey as more than a massive gardening mission. Grow Home is a compelling depiction of the growth from childhood to adolescence.

B.U.D. is very much like a child at the start of the game. Aside from the double meaning of his floral acronym, consider how his adventure begins. Like a newborn baby, he’s launched out of the ship that carried him for more than three years. After landing on the surface, his first movements are unstable and awkward, making it difficult for you to maneuver him. It’s incredibly easy to fall, and the robot often must hold onto surfaces to stay balanced. Aside from providing some challenge, B.U.D.’s loose control hints at damage caused from the massive fall and parallels the struggle of learning to walk.

Grow Home

B.U.D.’s mission is dangerous as he learns about the perils of the world for the first time. Various things seem innocuous until you engage with them. Giant flytraps lay buried under the ground, ready to snap B.U.D. up if he walks over their leaves. Several climbable surfaces have loose rocks that will fall if grabbed, sending the robot hurtling back to the earth. Even spending a small amount of time in the water will short B.U.D. out and cause him to collapse. In a clever stroke that suggests childhood learning, some energy crystals needed to improve B.U.D.’s performance are located near these traps, leaving you to evaluate whether or not the reward is worth the risk, or if there’s another way to obtain the crystal that is safer than the first obvious solution.

The most compelling evidence of Grow Home’s metaphor for personal growth comes from the only dialogue in the game, provided by a computer intelligence referred to as MOM. MOM supervises B.U.D. on his mission, offering advice on how to proceed, providing insight on the parts of the world he discovers, and urging him to “play nice” with the creatures he encounters. It’s a not-so-subtle mother/child relationship, but initially I did have trouble understanding why MOM would say B.U.D. is “doing very good” after he’d been destroyed by falling or drowning. These comments can come off like a sarcastic jab, but they also reflect the parental urge to encourage children when they fail or suffer setbacks.

Grow Home

Some critics, such as Jim Sterling, have suggested that Grow Home contains sexual undertones, particularly in regard to the phallic imagery of the Star Plant’s growths. At first I dismissed these claims as easy jokes, but I can’t deny the connotations. After seeing B.U.D. guide a giant vine straddled between his legs, like Major Kong in the climax of Dr. Strangelove, as well as the pulsations of the growths when they make contact with an energy rock, it’s difficult to say there isn’t some suggestive imagery. But these visuals are an illustration of growth and maturing of the body rather than an immature innuendo.

The growths that B.U.D. activates aren’t the easiest to control. It’s fairly common for the camera angle to become inverted and throw you off as the growths desperately try to find the location of an energy rock and get back on track as quickly as possible. There’s always a risk of crashing the vine into another part of the landscape or of the vine’s growth to stop before reaching the glowing stones. If the growths are genitalia, their unpredictability represents the struggles of puberty, the recklessness associated with raging hormones.

The finale of the game cements the significance of B.U.D.’s journey, both mechanically and metaphorically. Standing atop the now blooming Star Plant, players can look down from their mile-high perch and observe how far they’ve come. Every mistake, every pile of remains from a previous robot that was destroyed, every alteration made to the landscape, all preserved in a persistent state to offer a tangible sense of progress. Yet the task isn’t over. Transporting a seed to the ship is more difficult than it might appear; it’s easy to misjudge the jumping angle or the necessary thrust of a jet pack before you successfully make the leap. The final transition in Grow Home suggests maturation is stressful and satisfying.

The Sailor’s Dream — Hardly a Fantastic Voyage

by Jim Bevan

Swedish developer Simogo is one of the few studios that knows how to create stellar games for mobile devices. Simogo’s catalogue stands out not only because of highly refined touchscreen controls but also because of creative narrative and design. Bumpy Road was a unique take on platformers where players controlled the road to move a car forward while collecting photos that revealed the history of an elderly couple’s life together. Beat Sneak Bandit combined elements of puzzle, stealth, and rhythm games to create a surprisingly addictive experience. The heavily text-based Device 6, while being fairly sparse in its puzzles, kept me intrigued with its psychedelic mystery that felt inspired by Alice in Wonderland and The PrisonerHowever, originality is not the sole factor that determines a game’s overall quality, as evidenced by Simogo’s latest game The Sailor’s Dream, an inventive yet lackluster work.

The greatest, and perhaps only, strength of The Sailor’s Dream is its intriguing story. As a mysterious young girl dreams, her subconscious takes her to a vast, seemingly endless ocean, one she has longed to travel for years. She discovers several islands, each home to its own building. The memories found on the islands flesh out her past, specifically her sad solitude in an orphanage that she could only break free from during summers, when she would spend time with a kind woman in her cottage on the cliff. On occasion the girl and the woman were visited by a handsome sailor, implied to be the woman’s lover. The woman and sailor were the closest thing the girl had to a family.

The story fragments are scattered with no specific order required to collect them, so the story will be told out of sequence, much like a troubled memory. The player learns that the sailor failed to return from the sea one day, that the woman he loved vanished without a trace, and that the woman’s cottage was burned to the ground, the girl suspected of starting the fire. Without enough context to know when each event took place, the player can be led to some rather disturbing assumptions about what incident preceded the next. Even when additional information is gathered to paint a clearer picture, it’s still upsetting to learn about the tragic fates that befell all three major characters.

Like Simogo’s previous work Year Walk, there are two endings to The Sailor’s Dream, the second “true” ending only unlocked after completing optional tasks (which I’ll discuss later). Without going into too much detail, the conclusion is simple, melancholy, and fairly realistic in depicting the girl’s efforts to acknowledge how her past shaped her. It’s not a very happy ending, as the girl doesn’t find any closure to reduce the sorrow of the ghosts that she carries with her. I understand why the developers took this route: a saccharine, joyful ending would negate the game’s overall theme of how our life’s influences, good and bad, cannot simply be ignored.

Aside from finding notes, there’s nothing to do while exploring the islands. None of the items connected to a memory can be interacted with. The only objects that can be manipulated are glowing shapes and symbols that produce musical notes when moved. This design is quite disappointing considering that several of the objects are set up in ways that could have made for puzzle scenarios, like pulling five hanging paper cubes in a specific order or rearranging stars as a moon passes by. Even simple activities like finding an object that could only be used in another area — such as taking the rusted key from the Secret Lighthouse to a locked box or bringing a telescope to the highest point in the Celestial Sanctuary to look at the stars — would have added some tangible sensation that I was part of the dream rather than a mere spectator.

Clues to unlock the true ending are revealed in two notes. One note explains that the old sailor speaks into a radio at the top of each hour, hoping someone is listening and will respond to him. The other note mentions that the girl would sing into a bottle and toss it into the sea each day for a week. From these hints, players are supposed to deduce that they must visit the Transmission Horologe at the start of each hour (a.m. or p.m.) to hear all 12 sailor transmissions and collect a new bottle every day to complete the music box set at Seven Song Cottage. These quests aren’t pointless as they do provide more insight into events that happened before the start of the game. And in a way I can understand the delays in progression, which symbolize the frustration felt by the sailor and the women during the time they spent apart, waiting to be reunited yet never knowing how long it would take. But the execution ultimately detracts from the experience rather than enriching it.

Unnecessarily forcing players to wait until they can proceed is one of the greatest sins a mobile game can commit. Simogo doesn’t compound the problem with exploitative microtransactions, but that doesn’t make up for how taxing the game’s delays can be on the player’s patience. This real-time waiting system works in games like Animal Crossing, which offers other activities until the desired objective can be accessed again. In The Sailor’s Dream, the player can only travel back to previously visited islands to play with the musical objects, or quit the game and do something else until it’s time to return and unlock the new secret. Any game that encourages its audience to stop playing is clearly doing something wrong. These delays can be avoided by adjusting the iPhone/iPad’s internal clock and calendar, but this process quickly becomes a chore.

While I have no real intention of playing The Sailor’s Dream again, I can’t say it is awful. It’s very imaginative, presents an unfolding mystery that I found captivating, has incredibly touching songs, and manages to create great atmosphere. I just wish the game allowed the player to do more than moving from screen to screen looking for the next part of the story.  The Sailor’s Dream is definitely Simogo’s weakest game to date, but I won’t fault the studio for trying something new. Experimentation is crucial if art is to evolve, even though it doesn’t always result in success. Hopefully the developers will remember that a game’s world is most enthralling when players are allowed to be a part of it rather than being restricted to wandering around while a story is told.

Death Plays Favorites — Postmortem: One Must Die

by Jim Bevan

Postmortem: One Must Die is one of the few games that knows how to illustrate the concept of player choice effectively. As an agent of Death, the player must claim the life of one of six people at a fundraising event in Galicia, a nation torn apart by civil unrest. The results are not only determined by who dies but also by interactions with the potential targets before the decision is made.

Each nonplayable character has personal views regarding the national conflict, with quality dialogue trumping the need for voice-overs (though there are a few insignificant spelling and grammatical errors). Some characters advocate preserving traditional culture by any means necessary either because of deeply ingrained pride for their heritage or outdated prejudices. Other characters favor progress no matter what, not caring about those unable to adapt or believing that social advances should be reserved for a select few. Conversing with the characters provides the opportunity to learn more about their views and to challenge thought, whether to alter agendas or, at the very least, to inspire reconsideration of more extremist opinions. Newspaper clippings and journal entries provide further information on the national conflict, which can further influence your decision.

Once the player takes a life, articles will appear describing the national implications of the death. Did your decision prolong or shorten conflict between rival factions? Did Galicia become more progressive, or did it remain stuck in the past? The final outcome is unpredictable since conversations with the nonplayable characters, both the prominent members of society and the common people, have a greater effect than originally considered. In my first playthrough, I inadvertently convinced a waiter to quit his job, persuaded a young student to join a violent rebel group, and, most shockingly, influenced a woman to become a serial killer because she needed human corpses for medical research. The game is a great analysis of how something seemingly insignificant can create a strong ripple effect, how “the right decision” can result in something much bleaker than intended. In this way, the game reflects current feelings on the electoral system. In almost every election voters must select from several undeserving candidates by deciding which of them is the “lesser evil,” hoping that they’ll choose someone who won’t necessarily make things better but less worse.

Poor Richard’s Almanac had a short poem titled “For Want of a Nail” that examines how seemingly innocuous events can lead to massive consequences. Postmortem is one of the strongest pieces to embody this concept. While each playthrough can be completed relatively quickly (about 20 or fewer minutes, depending on how invested players become in conversations), I imagine many will return to the game in order to see how different decisions play out, to see if they’ll finally claim the necessary victim and influence people in a way that will bring about peace. The dilemma of whether we can foresee the results of our political actions makes Postmortem a relevant challenge.

The Gods Are Frowning

by Jim Bevan

Despite invoking the gods in its title, there’s hardly any intelligent design in Gods Will Be Watching. From the start the game doesn’t do much to impress. The story is an overdone space opera where a galaxy-spanning government force (the Constellar Federation) is embroiled in conflict with a rebel group (Xenolifer), a struggle that can only be overcome by one man, Sergeant Abraham Burden. Even a clichéd plot can work if the writers subvert the formula or create enough intrigue to draw you into their world, but this game does neither. Characters frequently discuss the evils they’re dedicated to fighting against (or in some cases for): the Constellar Federation’s policy of treating non-human species as slaves; Xenolifer’s acts that could be labeled terrorism or freedom fighting; the barely touched-upon Hollistic Empire that is described as a brutal, despotic regime. Yet none of this is ever shown. Even for a game intended to showcase minimalism, the rule of “show, don’t tell” should still apply.

Developer Deconstructeam promotes Gods Will Be Watching as a title centered on “despair, commitment, and sacrifice” yet fails to realize any of these concepts. Throughout the game’s seven missions, Sergeant Burden is faced with incredibly difficult decisions that affect those around him (usually his crew members or hostages). Scenarios typically involve managing rations, keeping team morale high, or intimidating enemies to make them give up important information. There are several moments, most notably in situations when resources are low, when the player is presented with the possibility that allowing some to die for the sake of others is the best option. Should a few suffer and perish for the greater good? Is killing one so that many might live cruel or pragmatic?

These questions represent a great moral dilemma that video games rarely address. However, the potential ethical quandaries are rendered moot by one massive mistake. If any member of Burden’s team dies in one chapter, they will be present in the next chapter simply because the plot requires them to have a role. This design does no justice to the concepts of sacrifice and the needs of many versus the needs of few, removing any possible drama or suspense when it looks like an ally may die. Since none of your allies can be killed for good, you only need to focus on keeping Burden alive to complete a chapter. It’s impossible to convey themes of commitment and sacrifice when the central priority is looking out for yourself.

As a final narrative failure, all of the characters are bland. Only two are given vague attempts at personality and backstory, both very poorly executed. Sergeant Burden, the protagonist, is nothing more than what fan fiction writers would call a “Marty Stu,” practically flawless and insufferably dull. He inspires awe from allies and enemies, makes all the heroic decisions, and has a dark, mysterious backstory that makes absolutely no sense and is never explained. Liam, the leader of Xenolifer, could have been interesting if the developers took the time to explore his motivations, that is, what pushed him from civil disobedience to planning mass murder. Burden even expresses sympathy for Liam’s cause, hoping to sway him from violence, but their interactions boil down to little more than trite pseudo-philosophical banter on the nature of humanity and what lines must be crossed for the good of all. Every side character is completely forgettable, existing solely to spout exposition or heavy-handed social and political ideologies. Making the dialogue more insufferable are the numerous spelling and grammar errors in the English translation, from stilted sentences and incorrect tense use to absurd lines like “We’ll have to dosify smartly our efforts.”

Gameplay is an odd hybrid of point-and-click adventure and turn-based strategy. In each chapter you have to make several decisions, observe their outcomes after execution, then tailor the next set of choices based on the results. Time management, job delegation, rationing supplies, and behavioral modification play a role in the outcomes obtained. It’s a clever concept ruined by the developers allowing for random negative outcomes. Several actions show the probability of success based on preparation, but even if there’s a 90 percent chance that a bluff will deceive an interrogator or prevent a computer’s security system from being hacked, you could still fail and suffer a setback.

Making things worse are the setbacks that come as complete surprises. In the first chapter you need to watch over a group of hostages, intimidating them so they don’t revolt while keeping them calm enough to avoid making a suicidal run for freedom. Ideally their body language and statements should make it easy to see how far on either end of the spectrum they are and whether more cruelty or compassion is required to keep them in line, but sometimes hostages will attempt to run without warning, even if they seemed relatively relaxed. Chapter 4 presents the threat of wild animals that can raid your camp and kill everyone if there isn’t enough ammunition to drive them off, but there’s no warning about what nights they’ll strike and no chance to prepare. I could understand if this scenario were intended to be a metaphor about how even the best plans can go awry due to events you cannot control. But in a game that emphasizes the importance of planning and strategy, it gives the impression that you’re wasting your time, that no matter how well you’re doing you can die whenever the game wants you to.

The most annoying part of failing a mission is starting the entire chapter from the beginning. There’s no chance to manually save, no guarantee that a strategy that almost carried you to the end the first time will work again. During the second chapter when Burden is interrogated under threat of torture, his captor repeats questions that have already been asked and answered because the section needs to continue until its predetermined end point. The final section, the battle between Burden and Liam, is drawn out to the point of frustration. Liam has several attacks that can kill you in one hit, but they are never telegraphed and always follow the same pattern. Defeating him requires you to die several times to memorize the order of his attacks and know how to counter them. This battle’s poor design is another example of how luck and endurance are more important to victory than skill. There are also several bugs that can lead to mission failure and force a replay of a chapter. The worst instance was when I had to play a Mastermind-inspired game to find a cure for the Medusea virus, figuring out the right compounds and the order they need to go in. I got three of them in the right locations but was told that the final compound, while correct, was out of sequence, even though it was in the only remaining open spot.

Visuals are very unappealing. I’m not a snob who’s opposed to pixel art and games with a retro aesthetic, but some effort must be put into the art. Character models have nothing resembling faces, the levels are either dull wilderness or generic spacecraft that have dozens of monitors lining their walls, and the limited animations make it difficult to read body language. Sound design is just as unimpressive, nothing but a collection of electronic clicks, beeps, and other assorted effects from the Atari 5200 era.

The entirety of Gods Will Be Watching can best be summarized by its second chapter, the torture scene. It’s a long, painful, repetitive experience that expects you to ride it out to the end no matter how bad things get. Gods Will Be Watching’s sadism is not worth your money or the hours it will steal from you with its tedium.