A mysterious sentient dark blob collides with your home star. You watch helplessly as it is instantly transmogrified into the titular Shadow Planet. By corollary, the corruption spreads to your homeworld, enveloping everything in inky blackness. But as a good little alien, you’re not about to take this lying down. You hop in your flying saucer and head out in search of a way to teleport to the Shadow Planet to set things right.
While this War of the Worlds-type story may be nearly as old as science fiction itself, it is at least told in a refreshing way. Everything is presented through spectacular animations that establish the style, story, and player objective without a single word. This commitment to “show-don’t-tell” carries over to gameplay design as well. There is no HUD, your ship simply appears damaged if you have taken hits. There is no enemy health indicator, look at the hitsparks to determine if a weapon was effective. Once gameplay begins you are not burdened with any explanatory tutorials, you just take off in your flying saucer and explore the awesome and menacing landscape. Critical to this wordless design, your first upgrade is a scanner.This tool can examine any enemy or puzzle element to display a helpful image. With these symbols alone, the developers hint at the best weapons or tools to use to surpass any obstacle in your path.
And in the same vein as the Metroid games, most of the tools you acquire are useful in both combat and exploration / puzzle solving. Whether it’s a saw blade that cuts enemies as well as it cuts loose rocks, guidable missiles that can be steered through sections too small for your craft, or even your basic manipulator claw that can toss enemies into other hazards, practically every tool is multi-purpose.
The puzzles are very intuitive, with excellent visual cues highlighting objects of interest. They are never terribly challenging, but still enjoyable applications of your acquired tools. However, I felt that more combinations of gadgets would have been more interesting than focussing each section primarily around the item you most recently obtained.
I also felt that the checkpoints were placed too liberally. Now I’m no fan of having to replay long sections after dying, but coming across these health-restoring safezones so frequently undermines the tension of exploring dangerous territory. As it is, I was only really challenged during the boss fights. The bosses are well-designed, and are probably the highlights of the game. Difficult without being too frustrating, they task you with figuring out what to do while under threat: a solid mixture of discovery and execution.
And that’s probably the best way to sum up ITSP: solid. It’s a thoughtfully designed game with standout visuals. It’s not re-inventing any wheels here, but everything looks good and works smoothly. It’s been available on XBLA since last year, released on Steam this month. Metroid fans, what are you waiting for?
Balloon Diaspora is a whimsical, elegaic chat ‘em up, point and click adventure. Ambiently scored by Oliver Blank it follows your quest to repair your hot air balloon; a quest you accomplish by talking to an assortment of odd symbolist stick figures who seem as happy fishing for seagulls as they are labelling ice with songs in a chilly black and white dreamscape. It is, in brief, a remarkably faithful adaptation of the experience of taking ketamine in an Icelandic field while listening to ambient Sigur Ros remixes.
In Far Too Long:
The world of Balloon Diaspora is glacially beautiful.
Before we even get to the gameplay of this short title (and it is short), it’s important to note how much Cardboard Computers does with so little. The characters may be largely motionless and the environments rendered in flat monochrome but the stark design of the place, the nonsensical floating architecture and the sheer uniqueness of the world do make for a genuinely memorable terrain. A fellow with a fishing rod sitting on a floating island in the night snow is a lovely visual and the slight soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the visual style of this little indie title.
Beyond the sheer design of the world the animation, though smooth is fairly rudimentary (as befits the throwback style of the game).Though you do move smoothly through the world after every click you clack on the screen, and the transition between areas is cut with an interstitial scene of your balloon ride with your buddy, make no mistake: this is a game that transports you from dialogue tree to dialogue tree. This is a game about conversation. We’re here to get our talk on.
But in rather an odd way.
Pretty much the first action you engage in after you take your first point-and-click steps in the world find you encountering Silas, who will be your companion, guide and hot air balloon provider for the rest of the game. The standard operating procedure of many games at this point would be to have your character be informed by Silas in some way since he is the inhabitant of the world. After all, game characters- especially in introductions- are there to be information safes for your character to crack, but this game is not interested in that structure. Instead you’re asked to define your own story. Is it your balloon? Where are you from? What’s your name? From an array of answers you pick your own backstory. There is no ‘best’ outcome, the answers do not inform a skillset and no answer will bar any content from you. The game will remember your responses to all of the questions, naturally, but the only reason to pick a particular answer is because you want that little piece of information to be attached to the character you’re building and to hear the lyrical responses of the questioner.
One of the main subquests (though the term seems absurd in this no-peril adventure) involves relating sets of finding to a professor-like character. Having gathered the information you have several choices when relaying them- but none of them are ‘good’ or ’bad’, ‘sabotage’, or ‘aid’ in a way that you may expect. There is no fail state so the choice you make simply comes down to your own whim and what sounds good to you- what character are you making for yourself within the dialogue system. For instance one option had me choose from telling the Professor “Their poetry is similar to their prayers” or “Their prayers are close to poetry”. The thought put into the distinction is what elevates the game’s dialogue: the player should slow down, appreciate the words and the ideas and make a choice based on this.And then enjoy a little poetic response informed by this choice.
This is not about getting a good ending or succeeding at your task -since i cannot fathom a player who would be challenged by the actual central ‘problem’- rather, it’s about building up a picture of your past through the questions you are asked and informing other characters by your answer choices, then enjoying their frequently gnomic and seagull-based responses.
It’s an interesting game that puts a focus on character agency by asking you to freely choose between a whole set of dialogue options in a consequence free world, where the point is the ambience and the imagery, both in graphical terms and writing terms. There is no question about your victory so the focus shifts to what kind of chacracter you wish to be and what effect you want to have on those you interact with and, as a mood-piece or experiment it succeeds quite memorably.
In terms of the negative, the game does re-use the same sets of questions for many of the encounters, which introduces a slight rote feel at some points and the whole experience could be run through in around twenty minutes quite easily. But for a unique and meditative slice of balloon-based point and click surrealism, you could do far worse than Balloon Diaspora- and let’s face it, there aren’t that many other games aching to fill that niche.
The game is free to download and short to play through. So, if you enjoy this kind of experimentation with the medium and a genuinely aesthetically unified and interesting little world to play in, you should definitely give it a look. Just don’t expect that many high speed motorbike karate battles.
The game is free and short. If you like games as art you will like this, if you don't it was only 10 minutes.
The part where I gush a little:
As I have mentioned before, sexuality is something rarely discussed in games. Thankfully due to the general positive feedback games like A Closed World have been getting, more and more have begun to crop up. Dys4ia is a game about choosing to and then actually starting gender reassignment therapy. The creator, Anna Antrhopy, is actually a serial game maker and writer of a new book titled Rise of the Video Game Zinestars.
I have played games by this developer before so I wanted this critique to be a bit of a comparison. My favorite game by Anna would have to be Lesbian Spider-Queens From Mars. Though any storyline or pretense to a message is essentially non-existent the gameplay sucked me in immediately. I was pleasantly surprised at how such a simple game could be so much fun.
Now around the time that I first played A Closed World is when I first stumbled across Anna's blog. At the time Auntie Pixelante seemed not so thrilled about the game and wrote this seathing blog post. Additionally creating a game called A Closed Mind which seems to be a more realistic portraiyal of the struggle to be accepted in a world that frowns upon being transgendered. Although a bit heavy handed and by no means a fun game it did illustrate a point.
Dys4ia in my mind is a more thought out and carefully realized response to A Closed World. It is heavily story driven with mini games between each story piece which serve as a sort of sampler to what the author was going through. And it works. More importantly I liked it more than A Closed World.
There is a bit at the beginning of the game where your avatar is an oddly shaped sort of puzzle piece trying to fit through a different, but equally oddly shaped hole in a wall. The narrator explains that this is what it feels like to be them every day. With such a simple game mechanic (almost barely a game mechanic at all) Anna is able to convey so much meaning.
As some of you know I am a big advocate as games as a form of expression and Dys4ia is the best example of that I can think of to date. If you are into games as art or really your just curious about gender reassignment check out this game.
Anna Anthropy has a blog you can check out here.
Hummingbird Mind isn’t as much a game as it is a visual story about the distractions of everyday life. Unlike Cardboard Computer’s other well-known game Ruins (check out Lynchrabbit’s review), it features absolutely no gameplay, just text choices. Even though my suggestion is to skip it, it’ll take you less than 10 minutes if you want to give it a try. You can find it here.
Since the game engine is nothing more than text selections, the screen images are (intentionally) pixelated and lacking color, and the music is bland and repetitive, all that I can talk about is the story...
Unfortunately, though some of the metaphors and anthropomorphisms that are used to describe Attention Deficit Disorder are vaguely interesting, ultimately the writing isn’t anything special and plot development is not terribly intriguing.
It is important to understand that Hummingbird Mind is not a game but rather is an “interactive story” or “visual novel.” You select response options from the text choices put in front of you. There is only one way to get to the end, so if you make the wrong choices, you will just be led back to the options again until you select the right one. It feels a bit like driving a streetcar: you can go forward or backwards, but never off the rails and never at the speed you desire.
In theory, I’m OK with interactive stories. I think they are a means to get people to read something that they otherwise wouldn’t, but honestly, I would much prefer these stories be made into narrative games. For instance, even though the story was linked by nothing more than walking, Ruins was a narrative game that was able to give you some sense of immersion through basic exploration.
Still, Hummingbird Mind could have been a good experience if the story was compelling enough to get into. I understand the creator’s desire to portray daily distractions in a unique way and I think there is a really good story somewhere in there, but none of your choices contribute to the resolution of the almost non-existent plot. In the end, the character simply does what he has needed to do from the beginning, despite no real revelations or changes in motivation. I know Hummingbird Mind is supposed to be abstract and impressionistic; nevertheless, if a story is going to be interactive, it should feel like you are actually interacting with it.
I’m not saying the developer was foolish or untalented; it’s just that Hummingbird Mind doesn’t quite work for me. I appreciate the subject matter but just don’t feel like the story is even trying to do anything with it. The whole thing seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. There are certainly worse ways to spend a few minutes of your day than playing Hummingbird Mind, but, like its main character, you could probably be more productive.
Developed by Jake Elliot and friends at ‘Cardboard Computer,’ Hummingbird Mind was released in August of 2010. It’s available online at cardboardcomputer.com. The game has been well-received by the internet community and adds to the developer’s growing list of short computer games.