walking simulator

[Review] Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PC)

I’ve been on a real Walking Simulator kick thanks in part to a recent playthrough of What Remains of Edith Finch. So naturally I wanted to dive into Dear Esther, a seemingly popular Walking Sim by the developers who brought you the grand Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Dear Esther is a story that begins with you walking around a large island. As you hit certain targets in the game, a male voiceover starts to speak, “Dear Esther…” The voice tells you stories about himself and some history of the island. The sequence of the story is disjointed, but you quickly get the sense that what you are hearing are letter excerpts from a man to his beloved.

The island is pretty bleak for the most part as sunken ships dot the shoreline and hollow houses perch on the edges of the path. Items are located that indicate someone was once there. A large lighthouse can be seen in the distance. You walk and find obscure clues in caves. Just when you think you’re at the end of one path, another one opens up to you.

You are alone with only this inner voice to piece together why you are wandering the island. You definitely have a palpable sense of dread and sadness. Something happened here. Something happened to Esther. Something is about to happen to you.

Dear Esther is a simplistic game: you use your WASD keys to move and there are no save states. Largely, it’s a mystery waiting to be solved. I normally relish mysteries, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this one. The story is obtuse, and left me starving for clarity. I was also largely disappointed in the game’s overall graphic environment. Rocks looked like turds, and there were a lot of rocks! For the most part, the graphic jewels occurred towards the end of the game, but until you get there, you get smeared dulled landscape and blocky objects devoid of tonal gradation. Puzzling especially considering I was playing the Landmark Edition, an overhauled version from a very pared down release from 2008 that was supposed to be a vast improvement.

Probably the nicest scene in the entire game…at the game’s end.

Jessica Curry composed the acoustic music in this game, and I wish I could say it was the best I ever heard. It probably was except my quick-draw thoughts of “Geez, this is one ugly game” overpowered the background noise. Sorry, Jessica…

Yeah, I can’t say I enjoyed my stroll through Dear Esther

2/5

Dear Esther (Landmark Edition)
The Chinese Room
2012

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[Review] What Remains of Edith Finch (PC)


The Finch family have seen their share of tragedy. Edith Finch, 17, knows this all too well. As the last living member of her large family, having gone through the death of her mother, Dawn, a couple of years earlier, she reluctantly sets out to document her family’s legacy. Her Mom left her with a key she thinks gains her entry into the old Finch homestead on Orcas Island, Washington. The house itself is an interesting structure; its profile, strange. It stands perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. It was abandoned 6 years ago when Dawn decided in haste to take Edith and leave. Grandma Edie was left behind; the nursing home was to pick her up in the next morning.

Just looking at the home from the grown-in path, you can see it holds some secrets. What happened there? What is this place? Why did they leave? Edith gains access to the property and begins her journey. What she finds is a house that has been left untouched. The dining room table is still set with plates from their last night’s Chinese meal.

A lifetime was lived here as books are stuffed in every corner, and pictures fill the walls. This house is out of the ordinary, however. Some would say it’s cursed as each bedroom belonged to a Finch family member who has since passed, and the door to each is sealed up from the outside. Edith gains access to them via elaborate secret pathways, and finds shrines to her relatives, as well as clues and stories around their passing. All the while we also learn why Edith has come here; her discoveries are memorialized in a journal that will remain a testament for the next generation…

When I first started What Remains of Edith Finch, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A Walking Simulator, your journey begins at the mouth of a trail leading up to the Finch home. A fence and a gate stop you. “No Trespassing” signs are posted, and immediately I said, “Oh goody!” An armchair urban explorer for DECADES, I have always loved to read stories, look at photos and videos of abandonment, and wonder “what happened here?” What makes people leave a house and all the contents behind forever? I have quite an imagination…

(The truth is usually less glamorous; an estate dispute among family, or the property gets sold to a developer, and they are slow to do anything about it…but I digress).

What Remains of Edith Finch does everything right: the graphics, the atmosphere, the story, the music, the character development…I’m gushing. I can’t help it: this game is pretty darn good. It explores the connections between family and the mortality we all must face. Each member of the Finch family is given their own time; and some of the tales told are disturbing, but for the most part, heartfelt. Don’t get too hung up on it being about death – I mean there is plenty here. But, the stories are touched with a bit of legend, humour, imagination, but most of all, love. The interactivity is wonderful and there is something to like that would appeal to everyone.

This game is short (under two hours). You can easily replay it and notice something new you never did before too. The beautiful and emotive score by Jeff Russo (from the band Tonic) adds to this rich story; and vinyl natch fans will dig the brown smoke vinyl release the score was given that I have yet to pull the trigger on (a lil $$ for this Canadian…).

I highly recommend What Remains of Edith Finch. Do yourself a favour and PLAY IT!

5/5

What Remains of Edith Finch (PC)
Giant Sparrow
2017

[Review] Drizzlepath (2015)

From Tonguc Bodur, the creator of Bottle (a game I reviewed last year), comes another walking simulator called Drizzlepath. This one has mixed reviews on Steam, but what the hey, I must have got it for $1 on sale. It was touted as “a relaxing journey to the top of the mountain”. Who else needs a stress-free trip up a mountain? Count me in!

Drizzlepath starts with you amid a landscape of mountains, falls and a lake. You are in the lake treading water and make your way to shore. Immediately you are met with a bale of turtles basking in the sun. Now, this was a surprise! Turtles happen to be one of my favourite animals ever, so I couldn’t help but feel encouraged this game was going to be something special.

You follow a fenced trail around the hillside and eventually you navigate to the top of a mountain. As you traverse, you are met with a drizzle of rain, and a serene landscape. I was excited to encounter more animals along my way, including chickens, frogs, and even lobsters. Several homes dot the landscape along the way, but you can’t access inside of them, and no one is around to talk to.

I’m the type who likes to break the trail and explore the surroundings…I quickly realize why the creator put up fencing along the path: the areas outside it were not graphically developed quite as nicely as along the path. That’s not to say the imagery along the path was overly polished; often, the mountains and grass missed detail; areas were blurry or filled in with streaks of colour. Although not a complete wash, I do wish there was a bit more attention paid to the detail in the landscape, especially when energy was obviously spent on such a minute detail as rendering droplets of rain precisely as I walked along the landscape.

Admittedly, I was disappointed there weren’t more interactions with people, places and things in this game. Perhaps if you were able to pick things up, collect things, read or enter some of those buildings, I would have gained some understanding as to what the goal of Drizzlepath was. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to grasp on to, and the game’s disembodied voiceover wasn’t much help with my enlightenment. I am figuring the narration plays a role in the overall plot, however, the female they got to narrate speaks with a thick accent that I can’t place, and was difficult to understand. There was no closed captioning here to help; where are the subtitles, people?! From what I could understand, most of the dialogue sounded like nonsense: all I caught on to was something about knives and donkeys, and waking “your Apache friends up” (?!). Obviously, the narration of Drizzlepath must be an important element of the game and I didn’t catch any of it at all. I am certain there is a story behind this walk, but I have no clue what it was. Particularly puzzling was the weird and abrupt finale:

[scroll over for SPOILERS]

You find yourself at the end of the path where you find a tent and a roaring fire pit at the edge of a precipice. Three men with their backs to the camera are standing just beyond at the edge looking out into the distance.

[END OF SPOILERS]

Others were saying how relaxing a game Drizzlepath is, but frankly I felt unsettled most of the time. To me a relaxing walk is wide open spaces. Very often in this game, I was wading through thick brush or squeezing through crevasses or walked along very narrow paths. Not to mention the time near the end when I tumbled down into the drink…and I think, died. I made it back to life through a checkpoint in game.

There are other games in the Tonguc Bodur universe, including sequels to both Drizzlepath and Bottle, but I am holding off exploring those for now. Overall the stroll in Drizzlepath was more enjoyable than its younger sim sister, Bottle, but Bodur needs to do much better with making the plot lines in his games much more accessible than he has been, especially if he wants a wider audience. To appropriate a phrase, “man cannot live on scenery alone…” That is pretty much all you get here.

2.5/5

Drizzlepath
Tonguc Bodur
2015

[Review] Bottle (2016)

It’s been a couple of months since I played a game. In this time I had some upgrades installed in the ol’ PC that required a total wipe of my hard drive. Although some might find this bothersome, I always see some opportunities in starting fresh. So, I took some time to set up the computer how I like it, and this week, I felt like playing something. I decided to break ‘er in with Bottle, a very simplistic walking simulator.

You are a solitary man living in a cabin in the woods in the dead of winter. In the first scene you hear a cork pop and liquid pouring into a glass. You open your eyes, and immediately walk around collecting notes from someone presumed to be your loved one, and by the tone of the notes, you can deduce they are no longer with us. You travel through the woods, following a path and encounter apparitions of your loved one. She says nonsense and then vanishes. You also encounter deer. Sooner or later you encounter a monument, a hollowed-out church and more notes in broken English. The game then abruptly ends with confusing finality.

Bottle was created by Tonguc Bodur, a developer known for creating Drizzlepath, another walking simulator that is sitting in my Steam Library. This game was cheap – I paid a buck – and it’s also short, concluding after an hour with no save point. Bottle forces you to play the entire game in one sitting.

The controls in Bottle are simplistic, using the keyboard WASD keys to move, and the mouse for direction. I got to hand it to Bodur: the graphics are ambitious – beautiful – but, at times they were confusing. As a gamer, you are often searching for visual cues that signal an area that needs to be checked out or interacted with, and often this comes in the form of twinkling objects or areas. In Bottle, every rock and tree top shimmered, making me think every hemlock and boulder needed attention, when all it was was sunlight on snow.

Glowing Orbs

There are also similarities to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in golden orbs of light that appear a few times in the game; I am assuming these indicate where the dead once were, but can’t be sure. Nothing much happened for me when they appeared except a crescendo of piano music. There is also a “Bottle Dark” feature in the game that allows you to play Bottle at night; it’s the same game but you travel by the light of the moon.

Bottle Dark

The objects you interact with are few and far between in Bottle; aside from collecting notes, there was your overcoat and an axe you are allowed to touch once. The deer don’t move when you walk up to them and there isn’t much else to interact with. There are some unsettling moments in Bottle, especially when you are alone and see apparitions, or hear the noises of the wind and wildlife filling the soundtrack, but the feelings quickly pass. After 30 minutes of the same I asked myself what more there was to all of this. It’s an afternoon trek through a wintry forest where the enjoyment is supposed to be in walking around.

If you are looking for a juicy plot, Bottle is not your game. I found it mostly dry in the plot department; I couldn’t see the point to any of it. If you are looking for an hour trek through a pretty simulated forest, this is what you are looking for. Don’t expect much else though.

2/5

Bottle
Tonguc Bodur
2016

[Review] Journey (2012) (PS4)

It was a Sunday night whim that got me playing the game Journey for the PlayStation 4. The hubs, BuriedOnMars, had tried playing this game earlier in the week and dropped it. But, he encouraged me to try it out to see how I liked it. I knew nothing about it going in, except that it was a type of walking simulator, which I very much enjoy (Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture).

In the first scene of  Journey we see an expanse of desert sand and a hazy sun in the sky; a sweeping violin music sets a melancholic mood. A star falls from the sky, and what we see rise up is a striking robed figure which is the character you maneuver. You lead this character across the sandy plain to come upon hilltop stone markers with bits of ripped cloth tied to them, blowing in the breeze. A high mountain presents itself in the distance, a bright beam of light shining at its apex. This is your destination – your destiny – as you traverse the desert. The bits of cloth are your life line. You play a tiny chime and the rags come to life by extending yours, and by chiming in, your character develops a scarf-like garment that flows behind them in the wind – an important garment that allows your character the ability to jump and fly to great heights.  This trait is important as it gives your character the ability to complete brief but important tasks to allow you to pass on to the next level.

Along the way, you encounter other figures like yourself – these are actual gamers in their own game networked in through the PSN, who like you are trying to reach the mountain. At this point you encounter a handful of companions that help you complete levels and get to the end. The game takes under two hours to complete.

The first thing that drew me in was the graphics and the music. The game had a middle-eastern flavour, which I particularly liked. The music was beautiful, and reminded me a lot of Glass Masquerade as it really gave the game that mystery flair. I am also a sucker for odd-looking characters with a mysterious past, and Journey‘s main character certainly fits the bill. The game looked great. The controls were simple enough: using the PS4 controller, besides the sticks, you really only had two buttons to worry about – X and O – which I can definitely get behind. Great music, neat-looking characters, gorgeous graphics, easy gameplay…what’s not to like?

Well…I kept wondering what the punchline to Journey was…what was the end game…the point?

Was I leading this character from birth to death? …The harsh landscape they must travel to reach higher heights…the fluidity of relationships as people enter the game and depart just as quickly. The symbolism is palpable which wasn’t the issue for me – I could actually get behind the theme. I had one serious problem with an integral part to the gameplay: I did not like the fact other players could enter my game to “help” me.

I encountered about 6 other players while in Journey, and found most to be a nuisance. Aside from one guy who stopped by to chime “Hi” and disappear, the majority walked in and took over everything, completing important tasks in the game before I was given a chance to even figure out what I was supposed to do. They were just too damn fast for me! I remember turning to BuriedOnMars and saying, “WTF? Get the eff out of my game! Whose game is this supposed to be anyway??” I was trailing behind these strangers like some pathetic chump while they leveled us both up.

I didn’t get that sense of accomplishment obtained by completing the game myself. This goes beyond co-op: when the hubs and I game, we are doing things together and taking turns on tasks that make sense for a multi-player game. Borderlands is a great example of co-op done well. Journey, on the other hand, had one linear task to complete at a time, and tasks that were really only meant to be completed by one player. So when you have two people, and the stronger player completes all the necessary tasks like they were trying to beat the game in record time, what am I left with?

I don’t like feeling inadequate when gaming, let alone in my life. I know myself well enough to know Journey‘s multiplayer component did not match my will at all. I am stubborn, I have endurance, I am passionate, and I am fiercely independent. If anything, my journey in playing this game highlighted those characteristics in me. So, I suppose I can say then that Journey has the “metaphor for life” analogy nailed down…especially when you’re dealing with me.

3.5/5 graphics

2.75/5 the rest

Journey (PS4) (available for the PS3 too)
thatgamecompany
2012