Christmas Steam Games (2019)

Another year, another crop. I put this off for a while because I was hoping to be able to rejigger a few games that had trouble playing on my computer, but no such luck. You’ll have to wait for reviews of FezMages of Mystralia, and The Talos Principle when (if) I upgrade my hardware.

Inside: Hexcells, Her Story, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, Gravitas, Disoriented, OVIVO.

Hexcells
Puzzle

This is Minesweeper, but with preset level layouts. Every level is designed as a genuine puzzle; while you can guess, it is always possible to figure out your next move with certainty. Later levels also feature additional mechanics, such as telling you not just how many targets are adjacent but whether or not they are consecutive.

I found this to be extremely fun and the exact right level of reasoning and abstraction to be engaging without confusing me. It’s a great application of spacial and predictive reasoning that reminded me quite a lot of programming logic, which I love. Additionally, the music and sound effects were very pleasant and soothing without ever being distracting. Highly recommended.

Her Story
Puzzle/Visual Novel (?)

This was recommended to me as being structurally similar to Virtue’s Last Reward, a game I enjoyed for being, as described by one reviewer, “A Metroidvania of plot.” I can definitely see the similarities here, though I’d say the structure is actually closer to Zero Time Dilemma.

The premise is this: In 1994, a man went missing. His wife was interviewed seven times by the police. However, the interviews are split into hundreds of short clips. You are given access to a database containing every clip, and have to figure out the right search terms to use to find the clips you need to piece together the story.

The game is a very interesting concept, though I think the puzzle aspect is a bit clunky. See, to prevent you from just searching a really obvious term and blazing through most of the database, you’re only allowed to see the first five chronological clips of any search result; the trick, therefore, is to figure out how to narrow your search to eliminate the clips you’ve already seen. …But of course, it’s pretty hard to do that when you don’t know the contents of the other clips and therefore what you might accidentally eliminate with a narrower search. The game is set up very well: The clips in the initial search result give you a clear set of keywords that you can follow in any order, and there are a number of clear thematic words and plot threads that you can follow up on pretty intuitively. (The interviewee is also wearing different suits in each interview, which allows you to easily distinguish which one the clip belongs to at a glance; I appreciated that.) But I still feel that it’s not user-friendly enough; once you pass a certain threshold (maybe 60-70% of the total clips), it’s really hard to get further without just guessing randomly. Additionally, the clips aren’t actually complete; they cut out the interviewer’s questions, sometimes making it hard to figure out what the interviewee is answering or talking about — made worse, of course, by the purposefully maddening use of pronouns and vague language. There were a lot of times when I went, “Okay, but who is ‘he’? What do you mean, ‘what we were just talking about’?” It’s a clever puzzle technique, but it did make things a bit too hard to piece together, I thought.

(There are also quite a few cheap shots that are clearly just to pad the clip count and make it harder to get 100%; there are several clips of the woman answering questions for a lie detector test, each of which are one second long and contain only the words “Yes” or “No”. How exactly are people supposed to find those naturally?)

I think the game could really have used a feature like automatically slotting viewed clips into a linear timeline — they’re all timestamped, so it’s not like that’s a mystery. I noted down a few important timestamps, but for the most part I just stopped bothering trying to keep track of what was happening in what order.

(I also think I accidentally got to the big reveal before I was supposed to — I prioritized searching for characters’ names, and if you do that for one that sounds innocuous early on you end up unraveling pretty much the whole mystery, likely before you see the foreshadowing for it.)

Overall, I think this was an interesting idea, but it needed clearer means of progression and a few more quality-of-life improvements. And unfortunately, after watching the whole thing in order, I actually do think the mystery works better as a linear story; the non-linearity doesn’t really enhance the experience in the end. I think seeing a single narrative in arbitrary chronological order just doesn’t work. What was cool about Virtue’s Last Reward was how you were given complete but separate narratives that each explored a different facet of the overall mystery plus their own self-contained arcs.

Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
Metroidvania

This was recommended to me as “Like Hollow Knight, but smaller.” Unfortunately, I think that’s too generous. This is barely a Metroidvania; you get only two movement upgrades throughout the entire thing, with progression mostly being gated through literal locks and keys. The individual areas are genuinely quite open, but the overall progression is still very linear. The combat was, somehow, simultaneously more simplistic and less intuitive than Hollow Knight’s — maybe I’m just not as used to combo systems, but I found it really awkward and clunky, especially since your attacks move you forward and there are some very narrow platforms. The lack of aerial combos also annoyed me and only seemed to serve to make aerial enemies a huge pain to deal with. The character’s movement speed was also much too slow; I spent as much time as I could in cat form just because it’s slightly faster. (And that slowdown in water, why.) I also felt much more fragile than I ever did in Hollow Knight; spikes are instant kills, which I hate, and even in the mid-game the character can die from only a few hits.

In terms of lore and story it has barely any, though that may be because this is part of a larger series (the rest are straight action platformers, like Castlevania). I was disappointed that the path to get the true ending had no story relevance; it was just a matter of poking the right secret area, with no indication it was anything special. Almost all the characters were women, but I genuinely couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be a fetish thing or not. Most of them don’t raise any red flags, but there’s a recurring boss whose weak point is her boobs. They jiggle when you hit them. So yeah.

But I’m still putting it in recommendations because, well, it’s not bad. If you don’t mind this kind of action-platformer-with-Metroidvania-elements as opposed to an actual Metroidvania, it’s perfectly fine. But it didn’t really scratch the right itch for me. (The price is pretty inflated, though; I beat the whole thing in 5 hours, admittedly without 100%ing it, and it goes for $10. For comparison, Hollow Knight is $15 and I’ve currently sunk 88 hours into it.)

Gravitas
Puzzle

This is a shameless Portal ripoff: You solve spatial manipulation puzzles in a mysterious facility while being lectured at by a vaguely-menacing AI. The key change is that you use gravity spikes instead of portals. I thought it was enjoyable and the Curator was really funny, though I feel gravity manipulation is less suited to this first-person format and less inherently interesting than portal manipulation. It was much shorter and simpler than the original Portal (in particular, I’m surprised you never got the ability to place multiple gravity wells or reverse their direction), but it’s freeware, so I can’t fault it. Give it a try!

Disoriented
Puzzle

A first-person spacial puzzler where moving up slopes changes the direction of gravity, and a prime example of why people need to question the assumptions of their default engines. This game badly needed a “turn 90 degrees” button instead of the standard 360-degree rotation of an FPS: Every platform and pathway is completely straight, so you will constantly find yourself just slightly off and needing to readjust every time you move. Also, falling off boots you back to the next checkpoint. None of this was necessary; plenty of puzzle games have a “reset to last checkpoint” button for if you get stuck, so all this accomplishes is making you lose time if you can’t navigate with the screwy camera. I was playing with a trackpad instead of a mouse, which made it even worse because I can’t walk and rotate the camera at the same time. There were many times where I knew what I had to do, but actually walking over there took ages.

The actual puzzles feel a bit bare-bones. The “tutorial” segment goes on for way too long and consists of incredibly simple levels that are all basically just walking along a linear path, but afterwards there are still only a few mechanics. I might have enjoyed it more if walking and navigating wasn’t such a chore, but overall it’s still just some pretty simple puzzles in a featureless white void with no narrative or other flavor to hold your interest. It’s an interesting concept, but not worth money.

OVIVO
Puzzle Platformer (sort of)

OVIVO is very reminiscent of SHIFT, a Flash game that was popular in my childhood. The levels are all black-and-white, and your avatar, a simple dot, can switch between the two by merging into the ground and flipping the scene. The key here is that you cannot jump: you instead must use the curvature and layout of the often-complicated level designs to slingshot yourself between locations. I thought this weird at first, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly, and you can fall into a really nice rhythm when you do it right. I overall enjoyed navigating the strange levels and the additional challenges and obstacles that appear as time goes on. I’d say my only issue is that the levels have lots of points of no return due to the aforementioned lack of jumping, and it’s not always clear when this happens. There are often cases where the path will branch, with one route leading to an optional collectible and the other progressing the level, and it’s rarely clear which is which. Still, the levels aren’t too long and you can replay them at any time, so it’s not too much of a loss.

 

I also got two games that Act reviewed last yearCat Quest and SteamWorld: Dig. SteamWorld: Dig was very good and I second her recommendation. Cat Quest… It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t enjoy it as much. Maybe I’m just not as into open-world wRPGs. I felt the combat got repetitive around the mid-game, and the quest style of each area having a continuous storyline but requiring you to gain a ton of levels between each step so that you have to jump back and forth between plotlines was really weird.

12 Comments

  1. Tulip says:

    Almost all the characters were women, but I genuinely couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be a fetish thing or not. Most of them don’t raise any red flags, but there’s a recurring boss whose weak point is her boobs.

    It’s odd to me that this is a thing that you reflexively think about when encountering a mostly-female cast.

    On consideration, I guess there are two main points where it seems odd. First, that the possibility of fetishiness is prominent enough in your mind, based purely on the cast’s gender ratio, for your connector of choice to be ‘but’ rather than ‘and’. (And, for that matter, for your mind to have gone there in the first place). Second, the implicit premise that fetishiness is bad, judging by the ‘red flags’ descriptor.

    Neither of those matches my own experience of stories with mostly-female casts, wherein fetishiness is (a) relatively rare and (b) not inherently bad. Possibly the two points are connected to some extent, where because I don’t find its presence bothersome I’m less inclined to notice it, or something to that effect? But even given that unifying hypothesis there’s still the open question of why we differ in how bothersome we find it, and I’m not sure how to answer that one.

    Any chance you could explain your own experience of those two points, for purposes of helping me to improve my theory-of-mind on this front?

    1. Second, the implicit premise that fetishiness is bad

      Uh, yes, objectifying a minority is bad. It’s doubly bad when the game is not explicitly a porn game. I would like to play action adventure games without getting boobs shoved in my face, please.

      The reason I’m so uncharitable here is because video games in particular have this problem. There have been far, far too many times when I say, “Oh cool, an action game with a female protagonist!” only to find that what they actually mean is “Hey, we made a sexy lady for you to stare at while you’re playing!” I think I’m justified in being suspicious.

      1. Tulip says:

        Thanks! That’s helpful for me, in terms of grasping your viewpoint. With that said, though, I think I disagree with a couple of the premises you’re running on.

        Uh, yes, objectifying a minority is bad.

        There’s a big difference between emphasizing characters’ sexual traits due to personal appeal and objectification. Objectification is about ignoring the traits characters have which aren’t relevantly appealing (reducing the characters to Objects of Hotness from a baseline where they normally have more characteristics than that, in other words), not about giving them traits which are relevantly appealing, and the latter in no way implies the former.

        It would be ridiculous to claim that I’m objectifying myself when I dress in ways I know my girlfriend finds attractive, even though my doing so is pretty clearly fetishy. The same holds when I dress in ways I find attractive; that’s still not objectifying myself, just making it more pleasant to look at myself in the mirror. I don’t see fetishy character design as any different from those, unless it’s done in concurrence with removal of previously-existent non-fetishy elements from a character.

        It’s doubly bad when the game is not explicitly a porn game. I would like to play action adventure games without getting boobs shoved in my face, please.

        It is, indeed, good for people to be able to avoid media they’d rather not consume, and to have access to plenty of media they do like to consume. If the full substance of your objection here is ‘I personally dislike overly-prominent boobs in games and would prefer that they not pop up in games I otherwise enjoy’, I apologize preemptively for misinterpreting you and wish you the best of luck finding more boob-free action-adventure games. (Speaking of which, Hollow Knight: Silksong is on its way! I’m excited.)

        But, with that said: it sounds like you’re trying to make a deeper moral objection than that, to the effect that it’s somehow inherently bad to put porn-adjacent elements in non-porn games. And that seems as ridiculous to me as it would be if someone were to claim that it’s inherently bad to put action-adventure-adjacent elements into porn games. Genre-blending, and inclusion of minor elements from non-primary genres, are well-established traditions that frequently produce excellent media.

        If someone dislikes horror sufficiently intensely that they don’t want to play any games which contain horror elements, they shouldn’t play Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines; but that doesn’t make it bad that VTM:B has the horror elements it has. Those elements make it better, even, for those of us who enjoy horror. And most non-porn-centric games, even the relatively fetishy ones, still have far less in the way of porn-derived tonal influence than VTM:B has horror-derived tonal influence.

        So, unless the claim here is that porn as a genre is somehow inherently bad and objectifying (which, once again: my girlfriend and I acting sexually in one another’s directions doesn’t mean we’re objectifying ourselves—we’re still whole people while doing so, not flattened out into purely our most appealing elements—and fictional characters acting sexually in each other’s directions strike me as essentially analogous), I don’t think the case against cross-genre inclusion of porn elements is any stronger than the case against cross-genre inclusion of action-adventure elements or horror elements.

        The point about third-person seductresses is fair enough, though. I don’t particularly associate those with primarily-female casts, admittedly—I usually encounter them in relatively gender-mixed stories—but they are definitely relatively prevalent in the industry as a whole.

        (I mean, I don’t share your dislike of them—a female protagonist being sexy doesn’t make her not a female protagonist, and I lack your apparent distaste for boobs in action-adventure games—but it’s nonetheless true that they’re a well of fetishiness in video games which I was forgetting about when I wrote my initial comment.)

        1. There’s a big difference between emphasizing characters’ sexual traits due to personal appeal and objectification.

          Not when the characters are fictional. This is the age-old “But the character (who I, a gynophile, made) chose to dress exactly to my fetishes, so it’s okay!” argument. If a real person did that, sure. But no, you made that choice to make her appeal to your fetishes. Even if she does have personality on top of that, it’s still an uncomfortable reminder to a lot of women about how society views them.

          (Like with many things, this can be helped by making a lot of female characters and only having some “choose” to dress sexily — The Logomancer did this well, I think. But when all your female characters look suspiciously fetishy, as in this game, that’s worse.)

          And that seems as ridiculous to me as it would be if someone were to claim that it’s inherently bad to put action-adventure-adjacent elements into porn games.

          That is a false comparison. Porn is a very sensitive topic that upsets a lot of people, action-adventure isn’t. I would say the same things about gore in video games like Bioshock, which I often feel is similarly excessive, unnecessary, and unwanted. If devs want to do this, they should state clearly up-front that this is a porn “crossover”, just as I would expect them to advertise if a game includes gameplay elements from a different genre. If you must include surprise sexytimes in your action adventure game, I think it is reasonable to at least request I not be surprised by it.

          your apparent distaste for boobs

          Yes, I am asexual. Our media is, by and large, extremely oversexualized, and that is something that bothers me and which I will comment on when I see it.

          1. Tulip says:

            Not when the characters are fictional. This is the age-old “But the character (who I, a gynophile, made) chose to dress exactly to my fetishes, so it’s okay!” argument. If a real person did that, sure. But no, you made that choice to make her appeal to your fetishes.

            But I (who I, a gynophile, am) chose to dress exactly to my fetishes, so it’s okay!

            Or, put less glibly: I’m not at all convinced that this is a relevant distinction. Why is it objectification when someone like me dresses a fictional character to fit her tastes, but not objectification when someone like me dresses herself to fit her tastes?

            (If the latter is objectification too, under your preferred definition of ‘objectification’, then it’s not obvious to me that that sort of objectification is a bad thing at all. I, for one, am very happy to ‘objectify’ myself in that particular way, and my life would be the worse for it if I were for whatever reason impeded from doing so.)

            If you must include surprise sexytimes in your action adventure game, I think it is reasonable to at least request I not be surprised by it.

            Agreed wholeheartedly. Everything should be tagged to arbitrary degrees of detail to make sure people are as well-enabled as possible to decide whether a given thing is for them.

            (Said enabling, of course, includes people having the option to not look at the tags so as to avoid spoilers. I, for one, place great value on that option, because tag-induced spoilers hurt me far more than unexpected-and-unpleasant story-content does. But nonetheless having the tags be available for those who would benefit from them would be a big improvement over the status quo.)

            Yes, I am asexual. Our media is, by and large, extremely oversexualized, and that is something that bothers me and which I will comment on when I see it.

            So am I, although I’m not bothered by sexualized media any more. (I was for a while, when I was a teenager, but that ultimately turned out to be more about dysphoria than about asexuality and went away given sufficient application of antiandrogens.) It’s perfectly reasonable to be bothered by that sort of thing. It just seems odd to frame that botheration in terms of media being oversexualized, rather than in terms of you having unusual tastes.

            It’d be good if more media were made which complied with your tastes, of course. But it’s also good that there’s plenty of sexualized media out there for those people who do enjoy it.

            1. Why is it objectification when someone like me dresses a fictional character to fit her tastes, but not objectification when someone like me dresses herself to fit her tastes?

              Because you are a person who makes your own decisions and is in control of your own body. A character made by an artist is not.

              There can be gray areas, especially when it’s say, a woman drawing a woman, but overwhelmingly when this happens, it’s men designing women for other men to leer at. And I do consider that objectifying.

              Agreed wholeheartedly. Everything should be tagged to arbitrary degrees of detail to make sure people are as well-enabled as possible to decide whether a given thing is for them.

              Mmhm but my point is that it wasn’t tagged here, and rarely is. Softcore porn in T-rated games is just seen as par for the course nowadays, and oh the hue and cry you’ll get if you ever dare object to it. That is a problem.

              It just seems odd to frame that botheration in terms of media being oversexualized, rather than in terms of you having unusual tastes.

              Because this is a media criticism blog and we look at overall trends. Media is incredibly oversexualized on the whole, and in particular tends to cater to straight male sexuality, and I believe that’s a problem.

              Reply
            2. Tulip says:

              There can be gray areas, especially when it’s say, a woman drawing a woman, but overwhelmingly when this happens, it’s men designing women for other men to leer at. And I do consider that objectifying.

              So women drawing women for other women (and a side demographic of men) to leer at isn’t objectifying, but men drawing women for other men (and a side demographic of women) to leer at is? That’s where we disagree, I think. The same character drawn the same way for the same purpose isn’t sometimes objectified and sometimes not depending on the gender of the artist, as far as I’m concerned; they’re just either objectified or not, depending on whether or not the non-sexy parts of their characterization suffer as a result of the increased focus on sexiness.

              Media is incredibly oversexualized on the whole, and in particular tends to cater to straight male sexuality, and I believe that’s a problem.

              I agree with the second half of this. There should be more sexualized media designed to cater to straight women and various permutations of gay people, to balance things out. But the idea that the problem is too much sexualization, rather than media focusing disproportionately on appeal to a single non-majority demographic, strikes me as wrong. There should be plenty of non-sexualized media for those who dislike it, and there should also be plenty of sexualized media appealing to the various different groups to whom it appeals.

              To the extent oversexualization is a problem, the problem is only that there’s not enough non-sexualized stuff, not that there’s too much sexualized stuff.

              Reply
            3. Act says:

              You keep framing this in terms of personal tastes, but that’s not really what this is about. People should find the porn they want. The beauty of the internet is that by and large they can. This should continue to get even easier as more and more people and communities make the content they want to see.

              We’re talking about the very separate issue of what happens when popular media only portrays women and young girls in a sexualized way, which has very well-documented deleterious psychosocial effects. The solution to this is not to also cause these problems in men and boys, it’s to stop causing them in women, girls, and nonbinary people.

              Reply
            4. Tulip says:

              We’re talking about the very separate issue of what happens when popular media only portrays women and young girls in a sexualized way, which has very well-documented deleterious psychosocial effects.

              I probably won’t have much more to say in this conversation in that case, since I don’t recall having previously heard of these effects and if they’re heavily informing your viewpoints then we’re unlikely to end up getting anywhere. If you have the energy to link to the relevant documentation, though, I’d appreciate that; I might want to read through it at some point in order to improve my picture of the topic.

              (Especially if you can point at a good meta-analysis; meta-analyses are trustworthy in a way that individual studies aren’t so much, in my experience, for all that they still sometimes get things wrong.)

              Reply
            5. Act says:

              This is one of the rare topics my own personal experiences preclude me from reading too closely about, so I don’t have as many recs on hand as I do for some other things.

              That said, I highly recommend Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln as an examination that media portrayals of women have on women. There’s also Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, which is a look at how the pressure to be pretty and feminine affects young girls.

              I would also just rec plugging “narrativeology” into like JSTOR or something, because “how does fiction affect us (spoiler: a lot)” is an entire area of literary study. Though honestly at that point just googling “social psychology” might not be a bad idea.

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  2. Actislazyandwontlogin says:
    Momodora always made me uncomfortable in the same way as Touhou, where despite there not being a hugely over sexualized element the all-girl cast feels squicky in a way I can’t quite articulate. It’s all women, but it’s clearly by and for men, and that comes through enough that it makes me feel on edge.

    I’m not sure what it is that my brain finds so suspicious and distressing, but this is definitely part of a subgenre that is very much not about representation.

    1. Act says:

      Also, I really loved OVIVO. There are so many artsy puzzle-platformers out there and it’s the only one I’ve played that I’ve thought was really successful.

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