Saturday, May 23, 2009

More Game Reviews

I wasn't much surprised to learn that A Vampyre Story was created by a group of developers who'd previously worked at LucasArts: it's very much a part of the tradition established by adventure games like the "Monkey Island" series, "Day of the Tentacle" and "Sam & Max Hit The Road". You play the part of Mona, a French opera singer abducted by the vampire Baron von Shrowdy. Turns out Shrowdy did more than just kidnap her, as she can now turn into a bat and the sight of a crucifix sends her into convulsions; but Mona remains in denial about her situation, insisting that she's simply developed a taste for warm, salty, thick red Merlot. Along with her wisecracking sidekick, a bat named Froderick, Mona has to find a way out of Shrowdy's castle and into the nearby village, in the hopes of curing her "condition".

If it weren't for the graphics, I'd think I was playing a game from the mid-'90s. And that's not a negative comment: "A Vampyre Story" plays like something from the height of the adventure game genre. It's got an amusing script, it's comfortable to play, you can't get permanently stuck, and the puzzles range from easy to complicated without tipping over into You'd Damn Well Better Have A Walkthrough. Voice talent is a bit of column A and a bit of column B: though Mona herself is unbearably shrill, the Jersey-accented crypt rats and Shrowdy's channeling of Peter Lorre (among others) suit the comedic atmosphere perfectly.

The drawback? Length: the story stops at an arbitrary point, just as things are getting interesting. Now, this was ostensibly done to set up the sequel, and it's a tactic that seems to be getting more and more popular ("Starcraft II" will apparently have only one campaign, with expansion packs to follow), but as a result what you get here is an incomplete story with only two settings: Shrowdy's castle and the village. Granted, both locations are large enough to keep you busy, but I seriously doubt you'll get any closure once you complete the last puzzle. It might be better to hold off on playing this game for now, at least until the sequel comes out (no release date yet).

And now, a Microids marathon! Without realizing it, I ended up playing three adventure games from this French company in rapid succession.

Let's start with 2002's Syberia. As Kate Walker, an American lawyer, you must set out on a journey across Eastern Europe to find the long-lost heir of a toy factory, uncovering the legacies he left behind in the process.

Visually, "Syberia" is absolutely beautiful: designer Benoit Sokal went all-out to create stunningly detailed environments, from the pristine university of Barrockstadt to the desolate, rusted ruins of Komkolzgrad. Each location leads you to discover pre-eletronic mechanical wonders created by Hans Voralberg, the object of your quest - wonders that are often as meticulously detailed as the settings.

By the time you complete the second area, though, you'll probably figure out the game's biggest weakness: there's minimal character interaction. Kate spends most of her time alone, occasionally receiving a phone call from her friends and family back in New York (these ultimately prove to be significant to Kate's character arc, such as it is, but they're scattered at random intervals). The only other character you consistently interact with is Oscar, an automaton designed to run the train you're riding - and the whole point of his character is that he can't deviate from his programming, so... yeah. Not exactly the most engaging partner. Every other character is just a stock piece that's meant to present (or complicate) whatever objective you're working on; this becomes especially blatant in the epilogue, when Sergei does an abrupt about-face just because the game demands one last puzzle before proceeding. Despite lovely graphics, the story rings a little hollow, especially once the whole Syberia/Mammoth Island bit works its way in (wait, we're supposed to take that seriously?).

Post Mortem, released in 2003, is a step in the right direction: it's a murder mystery with an engaging protagonist straight out of the noir tradition. Gus McPherson was a private eye working in New York until something bad happened (we never learn more about his past, which is appropriate given the atmosphere). He moved to Paris and tried to become a painter, at which point Sophia Blake, a typical femme fatale, knocks on Gus' door and demands he solve the grotesque murder of her sister Ruby.

So far so good... but right at the very beginning of the game you're going to notice two very annoying flaws in the gameplay. First, there is no way to skip dialogue or cinematics. At all. This might not seem like such a big deal until you take it in conjunction with the other problem: the dialogue tree.

Like many adventure games, your interactions with the various characters of "Post Mortem" take the form of dialogue trees: you choose a line of dialogue out of several, and the conversation continues in that vein. You're usually able to go back and select other lines in the course of the talk, to get as much information out of the other character as you can.

Not so with "Post Mortem". To begin with, there's minimal causality in terms of the choices you're offered: you can actually ask Sophia about her sister's murder before she even tells you about the case. And there's no way to backtrack: if you say the wrong thing, or ask the wrong question at the wrong time, you'll have to find the information another way. (Which, I suppose, is a nice counterpoint to this problem: you can make mistakes, but the game will always offer you different opportunities to regain ground.) Since you can save anywhere, you might think that saving before any conversation would be the best way to properly navigate the dialogue tree... but since you can't skip dialogue, you'll be dooming yourself to repeating certain lines over and over again until you figure out the ideal sequence of options.

Unpleasant? Try doing all this with a first-person mouse-controlled camera. The good news is you'll never have reason to look up or down; the bad news? Try finding a pencil at a hundred paces. Not as bad as a pixel hunt, but getting there.

The plot holds its own for the first half of the game or so: as he investigates the various characters connected to the murder, Gus discovers the prime suspect is Jacques Helloin, a private detective who was working a very similar case right before Ruby's death. When you find Helloin, the game switches perspectives, allowing you to play as Helloin in an extended flashback, allowing you to basically set up the clues that Gus will later uncover. It's an interesting approach to the conventions of the mystery genre - it actually reminded me of "Fahrenheit" in that you were playing both the "criminal" and the detectives tracking him down.

The game also reminded me of "Fahrenheit" because an absurd supernatural twist comes out of nowhere shortly after the Helloin segment. Psychic visions, alchemy, an immortal who - surprise surprise - has connections to the Knights Templar (and if I never play another adventure game referencing the Knights Templar I'll be a happy woman), and a magical statue that transfers your mind into another body. Rather tellingly, the writers of "Post Mortem" try to have their cake and eat it too by providing an alternative, realistic explanation (ie: maybe the bad guy's just crazy and it's all in his head), but it's kind of late for that. Like SF, mysticism doesn't really work with the detective/noir genre (at the very least, I haven't seen it performed successfully yet), so the story just goes off the rails.

The same is emphatically not true of the sequel, Still Life. A major improvement over "Post Mortem", "Still Life" splits its story between Gus in 1920's Prague and his granddaughter Victoria in present-day Chicago, as they both seem to be investigating the same serial killer. As a protagonist, Victoria's quite entertaining, with a sharp tongue and enough wit to make you want to pursue every possible dialogue option with her. Gone is the awkward camera and the impossible-to-navigate dialogue tree: when speaking to other characters, left-clicking is for matters pertaining to the investigation (ie: what you need to hear to proceed with the game), while right-clicking (when available) will tell you a little bit more about the character - for example, Claire might mention some trouble she's having with her daughter. Not really relevant to the game plot, but it certainly gives you the option of fleshing out the cast.

The story is divided into seven chapters alternating between Victoria and Gus. I was quite happy to see that while Gus still suffers from utterly irrelevant psychic flashes, the possibility that he and Vic are chasing the same murderer is never raised. No hocus pocus here, thank you very much. A lot of supplementary exposition is relegated to the journals - in fact, Victoria can access both her own logs and Gus', which makes the growing similarities between their cases all the more evident.

The puzzles are much more complex here than in any predecessor of "Still Life" - lots of sliding tiles, navigating a robot through a laser maze, using fingerprints and Luminol to gather evidence... though, again, it's impossible to get yourself stuck, you might find yourself spending a lot of time trying to pick a complex lock by holding various tumblers apart at different intervals. Quite challenging.

Bad news: as with "A Vampyre Story", the conclusion of "Still Life" is quite unsatisfying, with countless loose ends left up in the air. Good news: "Still Life 2" was released a few weeks ago. I'm hoping to pick it up by next Friday so that I can continue Victoria's story...

So it looks like the adventure genre is alive and kicking! Good to know.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dollhouse: Season in Review

I'd love to say that sticking through to the end of the season has earned me some great insight into the nature - and problems - of "Dollhouse"... but the truth is, I'm as frustrated now as I was at the end of the pilot.

It's all well and good to run a relatively bold experiment in serial narrative: can you identify with a protagonist whose basic personality changes every episode? Can you have continuity without memory? Conceptually speaking, these are certainly interesting avenues for exploration.

Unfortunately, the sum has turned out to be considerably less than its parts.

The central moral issue (if you can call it that) in "Dollhouse" has to do, unsurprisingly, with the Dollhouse itself, and the way its Actives are used. Throughout the season, we were basically given three points of view represented by Paul Ballard, Adelle DeWitt and Topher Brink. Ballard sees the Dollhouse as an evil institution enslaving and pimping helpless victims, but he's also a slightly obsessive freak with a one-track mind whose investigate skills are, shall we say, slightly less than impressive. DeWitt wants to believe she's helping people, but more often than not things go horribly wrong (and she's kind of a hypocrite too). And finally, Topher doesn't much care about the moral implications of his work: he just likes playing with shiny toys and human brains.

In other words, there probably is a moral quandary here worth exploring, but none of the characters are capable of expressing that properly. And rather than remain neutral, the show seems to vacillate between taking the Dollhouse's side (ie: the traumatic revelations about Echo, Victor, November and Sierra in "Echoes", as well as Echo's innate desire to protect the Dollhouse in "Spy in the House of Love") and condemning it (because November's fate in the finale certainly looks like liberation in a uplifting sense).

The reason this is such a problem is because the Moral Issue is really the only thing that could even remotely qualify as an ongoing storyline. There's very little plot consistency: at best, the events of an episode will have consequences in the next one, but that's about it. Alpha is introduced, built up, and then forgotten until the penultimate episode; the threat of Echo snapping seems to appear and disappear whenever it's convenient, and so on. There was no sense of structure at all; the first five episodes seemed devoted entirely to world-building, with Whedon asking viewers to stick around a bit longer until the good stuff would kick in. And yes, later episodes improved somewhat, but none of the glaring flaws in this series were corrected (or, apparently, even noticed at all).

As for the season (possibly series) finale, "Omega"... well, I will say this for Whedon - he's still very good with misdirection, as the whole Whiskey revelation proves. And I enjoyed much of the dialogue. But now, a plea to all TV networks: can we have just one science-fiction series that doesn't engage in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo?! As soon as Ballard started talking about souls (and, guess what, he seems to be proven right given what Echo becomes) I just rolled my eyes and strongly resisted the urge to stop watching. Enough with the metaphors, enough with the childish navel-gazing, enough with invoking higher powers: just once, I would like to see a story that unfolds without invoking questions of divine intervention and the human spirit (literally).

I suppose the question of whether I'll be watching season 2 is moot, given the vultures circling over this show, but I'm going to have to chalk this up as another disappointment from Camp Whedon. And those are really starting to pile up. I do hope he comes out with something in the near future to remind me why I used to love his work...