Tales from the Borderlands (Telltale)

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I’m going to talk about the whole season, but the badass vault hunter Athena (pictured) is one of my favorite side characters, so we’ll start with her

This post needs a big, big disclosure message before I say anything else:

1. Though I had no involvement in this series, I have done some paid work for Telltale Games in the past, and it is conceivable that I might do so again in the future. I was consulting with them during the period that Tales from the Borderlands was being made, and I talked with people who were on the team at the time. 

2. I have no prior experience with the Borderlands franchise. Everything I know about it comes from playing the Telltale series and from a little casual Wikipedia-reading.

3. I did not pay for my copy of this game. It was given to me to cover, though by someone who is not affiliated with Telltale.

I haven’t been reviewing (or even really talking at all about) recent Telltale work precisely because of the potential conflict of interest here. However, during last year’s IF Comp I offered to do some review swaps in order to get more coverage of the competition: if the other person would write a review of an IF Comp game, I write a review of some work of their choosing. One of the people who took me up on this was Justin de Vesine, who reviewed Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Midnight. Swordfight. In exchange, he asked me to cover Tales from the Borderlands and offered to supply a Steam code for it, since it wasn’t freeware. I explained the caveats mentioned above, and he said he was still interested in my take on the series. That seemed cool to me too – Telltale is doing some really interesting stuff, and I’d like to be able to talk about it, as long as I’m not deceiving any readers about my level of distance.

So here we are. Consider yourself warned.

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Firewatch (Campo Santo)

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Firewatch is a new narrative-and-exploration game from Campo Santo, put together by a skilled crew including Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, writers on season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

It took me about five hours to play; people who are more efficient or look at fewer scenery objects might make it through in four. It is effectively a short story, with a single emotional arc and minimal branching. I’ve seen people comparing it to Gone Home, but more happens in the present setting of the game; I also found a few moments that reminded me of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but it is ultimately a very different game from that as well.

Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a guy whose wife Julia is suffering from early-onset dementia. Henry isn’t really equipped to handle that fact. He volunteers for a position watching for fires all summer in Shoshone National Forest. His main – and for a long time really his only – point of contact with other people is through his radio, which allows him to communicate with his supervisor Delilah. He lives in one tower in the woods and Delilah lives in another, far away; Delilah manages other lookouts, but we never communicate with them. Over the course of the summer, Henry spends a lot of time hiking the woods to various spots to do errands at Delilah’s instruction. Gradually, they begin to realize that there are more people out here than they knew about, and that someone is watching Henry and Delilah specifically. There are also, here and there, notes from rangers who used to watch these woods but who have now gone on to other work elsewhere, and hints of the hikers who passed through these woods before.

The game sets up Henry’s backstory through a piece of choice-based text, a passage that could quite plausibly have been prototyped in Twine, interspersed with scenes of his arrival in the woods. The hypertext portion gives you a chance to do a little immediate personalization of Henry. I don’t have the impression your choices there pay into any major story changes, but they do lightly tweak what Henry will say about himself later, and a few props he has. We see the effects of this more or less right away in the game world, in that we pick one of two ways that Julia might have sketched Henry, and then shortly afterwards see the sketch itself: an early promise from the game that there will be perceivable consequences for your choices.

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Read Only Memories (MidBoss)

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Read Only Memories is a point-and-click graphical adventure set in “Neo-San Francisco”, in a cyberpunk future full of personal assistant robots; implants that let you experience VR right through your own head-hardware; and massive amounts of genetic engineering. Both the increasingly intelligent robots and “hybrid” humans (those with significant amounts of non-human DNA) are struggling for their rights, while the corporations have largely taken over the responsibilities of government. You are investigating the disappearance of an old friend who is at the forefront of the robotic research.

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That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games)

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Out today, That Dragon, Cancer is a game about the slow, painful, and confusing death of the author’s son by way of a rare cancer.

It tells its story through a series of vignette levels; in each, you have restricted navigational options to explore a 3D space, while audio and in-world manifestations of text fill in what is going on in the family at this point. Often you can hear the conversations of people whom you cannot see, which gives the sense of a ghostly dissociation.

The mechanics vary: sometimes you’re there only to look at a set number of things before triggering an advancement; elsewhere, you actually need to complete some small task, such as running a not-too-difficult platformer. Sometimes you need to spend a certain amount of time in a space with a screaming child in pain, and not be able to do anything about it. This is not a remotely pleasant or play-like experience, which of course is the point. But I often did feel that I was being offered an experience I haven’t seen anywhere else in games.

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IGF Narrative noms are out!

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The list of IGF nominees can be found here. That includes the games nominated in the narrative category, for which I was one of the jury members. I’m excited about this, and I also know that this is the point at which some people are sad, either that they didn’t place or that the IGF isn’t doing everything everyone would like from it.

I’m not sure this is possible to solve, and I do think the IGF is worth doing anyway. However, I also know that just telling people “oh, hey, if you weren’t nominated, that’s not necessarily a judgment on you!” isn’t as comforting as it could be.

Hence, this year I’m going to try to be as transparent as reasonably possible about my own judging process. (I have cleared this with the organization.) We are discouraged from discussing other people’s votes and reasoning: it should be pretty obvious why that is, I think, but in any case these conversations need to happen in confidence. I absolutely do not speak for the whole of the jury in what follows, and other people had other views. But I’m allowed to talk about my thinking.

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Cibele (Nina Freeman)

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Cibele is Nina Freeman’s game about being a 19 year old college student who spends a lot of time in an online game, and who meets an Internet Friend who becomes more; and about what happens to their relationship next.

It intersperses non-interactive video (in which Freeman plays her younger self) with largely agency-free segments where you’re playing the game (mostly endlessly clicking on enemies to attack them) and hearing voice dialogue between Nina and her new friend. There are also some more exploratory elements – you can poke around a bit on Nina’s computer and look at her email and the selfies she’s been taking to send to her internet companion, but they’re fairly limited and none offer diegetic agency that I can see. This is pure dynamic fiction in which the actual events will unfold in the same way regardless of what you do.

I’m not the first person to see Cibele as a kind of bookend piece to Emily is Away. (I am, for the purposes of this article, not getting into the concerns I had about consent in Emily is Away, which the author has said were not intended; there’s more that could be said there, but I’ve already talked about it elsewhere. Cibele does not present similar issues – it does directly show you how some of the main character interactions go down – and in comparing the two pieces for the rest of the article I am comparing the rest of the experience of playing EiA.)

So. These games are both stories of internet relationships that go wrong between people who have some difficulty articulating their feelings to one another, difficulty listening to one another. They’re about people who are too young and inexperienced to be skilled at relationships yet. They both trade on the likelihood that the player has actually had a relationship somewhat like this, sometime in the past, whose details can be pasted in even though the actual characters in each game are minimally specified.

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