Steam Machine + Steam Universe Impressions

SteamMC

Steam Machine: An Alternative to the Next-Gen?

Imagine a next-gen console that came in various consumer-chosen models, each with their respective tiers of hardware specs and price ranges, that ran through an intuitive open-source OS and a massive online distribution system  that offered access to nearly every major and independent title in modern gaming? For some, this is the fever-pitched dream of the all-too-hopeful enthusiast trying to keep the ever-encroaching tide of invasive DRM-laden gaming and closed-console dominance at bay. But with the introduction of the Steam Machine, Valve Corporation might just succeed in making that dream a reality. But will it take hold, and for how long?

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‘Routine’ is like a First-Person Dead-Space, except if it was actually Scary

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I don’t know exactly where or remember when I first heard about Lunar Software’s Routine, but I definitely know it’s stuck in my mind ever since. Routine is a neon-tinged, cerebral sci-fi first-person horror game set on an abandoned Moon base.  You play as an engineer responding to a distress call (sound familiar?) Your job is to find enough data to uncover the truth behind the strange disappearance of everyone stationed on the Lunar Research Station.

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The game’s website promises an immersive, non-linear experience exploring a derelict space station, deadzone ironsight aiming with a multi-use modular pistol, and a brutally merciless Permadeath system with full-body awareness accentuated with the awesome Oculus Rift peripheral. Run, Think, Hide, Shoot, and Survive against a host of psychotic drone robots, an automated security system dedicated to liberating your skin from your skeleton, and whatever unfathomable cosmic horror that happens to be left dead and dreaming beneath the station’s crisply antiseptic veneer.

Routine’s technically-exquisite Alpha footage brings to my mind two unapolegtically favorable comparisons.  The first is obviously Dead Space, but the second is a little more obscure. Nevertheless, this game looks like  what the original Dead Space should have played like.

Where Dead Space emphasized desensitizing, gratuitous body-horror devoid of the phantasmagoric nuance of the genre’s forebears, Routine looks promising because it puts atmosphere first, stoking the terrifying long draw of brewing fear past the brink of bearability before exploding into a fierce, deliberately disadvantageous confrontation. That, and it looks like you’ll actually be doing some actual engineering in this game (e.g. computer hacking, mechanical node switching, etc.) instead of just chopping Eldtrich flesh ghouls in half with comically-overpowered laser pointers.

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My other comparison is that of the 2012 Half-Life 2 mod  BLACK SNOW by Team MONOTHETIC. The BLACK SNOW mod is probably one of the most terrifying and thoroughly satisfying horror games I’ve ever played; a brilliant homage and diligently thought-out video game equivalent to John Carpenter’s The Thing. If Routine approaches even a fraction of BLACK SNOW’s execution, I’ll call it a victory for horror fans everywhere.

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Lunar Software have yet to announce a definitive release date, but odds are pretty favorable that with their recently ramped-up press initiative, the humming neon-saturated light at the end of this game’s long development tunnel is nearly in sight. Let’s hope for a Routine-rich end to 2013!

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: ‘A Case To End All Cases’

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‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ is a first-person, supernatural horror game from “The Astronauts“, an independent game developer that, like so many its other peers, was formed by ex-employees of a major video-game developer (in this case Epic Studios-owned “People Can Fly, creators of Painkiller and Bulletstorm). The game first showed up as a blip on my radar when Kirk Hamilton wrote a Kotaku post focusing on the developer’s impressive online promotional comic this past July.

Impressive digitally-painted panels, disillusioned noir-infused dialogue, and a beautiful  low-key piano track looping in the background do much to stir one’s initial curiosity, but do little in the way of holding one’s attention. So it got shuffled to the back of my memory. Until now.

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Our hero seems to be in a bit of trouble.

The Astronauts have released the first formal batch of screenshots for the game since their announcement and they do look gorgeous. In “The Vanishing”, players assume the role of “retired” paranormal private detective Paul Prospero (AKA the man taking it easy in the promotional comic).  

Prospero has been enlisted to investigate the disappearance of Ethan Carter, a young boy who had contacted previously about strange markings and paranormal activity in his hometown. While on the case, he must contend with foes both human and anything but to get to the heart of the truth behind Carter’s disappearance. The game is said to be built around a “Weird Fiction” angle, a sub-genre of speculative fiction centered around the absurd and disturbing erosion of an otherwise tepid reality by malicious “alien” forces.

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I suppose the main draw of my attention stems from the way the game’s presentation, from its story to its location and even to its graphics, seem to emulate the vibe and aesthetic of Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake, one of my favorite games of this past generation. A jaded every-man thrown into a rural setting slowly being twisted and corroded by malevolent supernatural forces that apparently only he can sense or stop? Looks like a dead ringer to me.

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But seriously though, I sure there’s more than enough variety between the two titles to differentiate them despite initial appearances. I’m hungry for an experience like Alan Wake, a psychological-horror experience laden with niche pop-cultural and classic horror literature references. Linked below is tantalizing and subtly unsettling  promo video for the game. I don’t like the looks of that teddy bear.

According to The Astronauts’ Website, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is inspired by the weird fiction stories and other tales of macabre of the early 20th century”, and  is a game “to be played at night, alone, and with headphones, coming to PC in 2013.”

With the release of a new generation of consoles and high-profile first party titles, I wonder how a niche horror title from a small team will fair in the last quarter of 2013. Still, I’m optimistic and look forward to seeing what The Astronauts can offer us in the months ahead.

You can check out The Astronauts’ Official Website Here, as well as the the Game’s Impressive Promo Comic Here.

‘SUPERHOT’ is an Inspired, Downright Infuriating Action-Puzzle Shooter

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Holy crap, that was a trip. When can I play it again?!

SUPERHOT is a short, browser-based First-Person shooter set within a white walled, unconnected set of nondescript corridors and warehouse. The main draw of the game is in its use of time and movement, namely that time will slow to a crawl and in some cases outright stop as you stand still, speeding up and resuming its natural state only when you begin moving yourself. The game had already premiered earlier this year, becoming a showcase winner at the WGK 2013 Game Developers conference, and with the effusive praise of tech writers and veteran gaming icons alike I can totally see why.


“Brilliant. FPS where time moves only when YOU move. Slick, clean, even the tutorials don’t f&#k around.”
Cliff Bleszinski, Co-creator Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal, Gears of War.

“Like you’re playing through Quentin Tarantino’s version of the Mad Men opening credits.”
Philippa Warr, Wired

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“Imagine a FPS where time only moves when you do? Oh, it’s been done. #superhotgame”
@PeterMolydeux

“…like Braid With Guns”
Mark Serrels, Kotaku

By way of this short online proof of concept, the developers behind SUPERHOT have created the abstract minimalist video-game equivalent to a John Woo action film. SUPERHOT combines the frenetic chaos of a cinematic shootout with the meticulous precision and coordination of a puzzle game.

The developers are currently petitioning for the game to be selected for the Steam Greenlight program. If they get enough support, a full-fledged version of this game could be commercially released, and wouldn’t that just make one mistake (i.e. the absence of such a game) all right and well in the world?

Seriously, go play this game, it’s wicked fun!

http://superhotgame.com

And go vote for it on Steam Greenlight!

http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=177990278

#SUPERHOT

Kickstarter Highlight: ‘Hyper Light Drifter’

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I hope that readers won’t think that I have some superficial infatuation with dark premises, cloaked anti-heroes, neon-tinged graphics and pixelated art styles. I just thoroughly enjoy them, and think that they look cool 😉

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Should have brought a guitar…

“Hyper Light Drifter” is a top-down action platformer that feels reminiscent of SuperGiant Games’ Bastion meets the aforementioned art style of SuperBrothers’ Sword & Sworcery and thematically inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Naturally, that all sounds like a strong batch of delicious nerd gumbo, and all that is brought you by Alex Preston and Beau Blyth, who worked on the upcoming 2014 multiplayer samurai fighting game “Samurai Gunn” (which looks bad-ass in and of itself), and a core team including two music and sound designers (Disasterpeace and Baths).

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I think I see an Evangelion “Angel” in there somewhere…

Drifters of this world are the collectors of forgotten knowledge, lost technologies and broken histories. Our Drifter is haunted by an insatiable illness, traveling further into the lands of Buried Time, steeped in blood and treasure hoping to discover a way to quiet the vicious disease. Echos of a dark and violent past from the dead eras resonate throughout and he can’t help but listen.

The graphical design reminds me vaguely of the music video for ‘Aldgate Patterns‘ by Little People, where a nomadic wanderer with a weird geometric mask goes on a search for his long-lost memories, stored on a floppy disk.

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Automaton Golem

The game is projected to release in June of next year, and has already reached its initial goal of $27,000 as of its first day! The team is still looking for funding pledges beyond though, with stretch goals that include expanded levels, hiring additional animators, fleshing out the music score, more enemies to fight and more weapons and gear to fight them with!

If you’re interested (C’mon, how could you not be?!), Check out their Kickstarter page and consider becoming a backer.

Is that a God Warrior I see in the corner?(!)

Is that a God Warrior I see in the corner?(!)

Gone Home: ‘Every Love Story is a Ghost Story’

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You come home to a house that is not your own. But this is your home. The date is  June 7th 1995, and for over a year you’ve been on an abroad trip touring through Europe as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your parents and younger sister Sam have moved into the estate of a late relative in your absence. You take a taxi from the airport and arrive at the front porch just ahead of a massive storm that rocks the county. Travel bags piled in a heap, You find an ominous note tacked to the front door signed by your sister. The words “Don’t look for me“, “I had to do it“, “Meet again someday” nail themselves at the forefront of your mind. You find the spare key and open the front door, stepping into a house that is not your own.

‘Gone Home’ is a first-person, interactive mystery game produced by indie game developer “The Fullbright Company”. The game drops you into the shoes of Katie Greenbriar, who must search through her new family home in order to answer the most salient question. “What happened to your mom, dad, and sister?”

The Greenbriar Family Portrait

The adventure is marked along the way by spoken excerpts from Sam’s private journal, documenting her first year at her new school, her personal journey of maturity and her blossoming revelation of self-identity. To go into anymore detail would be a supreme disservice to how the game tells its story (i.e. a spoiler). These excerpts guide the narrative and the course of exploration throughout the game, as I moved from one corner of the house finding keys and passages that wrap around back to where I needed to go.

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I think that one of the biggest strengths of ‘Gone Home’ is that the compulsion to investigate and delve into the story says a lot about how the “character” of a living-space says about the character of those who inhabit it. A crumpled piece of paper, a hand-scrawl note on the underside of an envelope, a bottle perched on top of a bookshelf; We know these characters, their quirks, concerns, and conscience, by the little innocuous details they leave behind, sprinkled about the house.

The “level” design of this game is a pure labor of love, a typical 90’s suburban household captured with such a keen verisimilitude that the game almost feels like a time machine skipping back to a quiet pocket of private history. Pizza boxes, discarded pieces of clothing, cassette tapes and couch cushions, the artifacts of a rich inner family life are yours to explore and piece together. Environmental storytelling is king here, ex-developers of Bioshock 2 count among some of the members of the Fullbright Company’s development team and it abundantly shows.

A “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” reference?

My initial play-through took me around 2.5 hours to complete, not including the time I spent gawking at the scenery and puzzling together theories in my head along the way. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t really discovered “everything” that the game has to offer, as one minor but persistent mystery still eludes me.

By the end of the game, I loved Sam as though she were my own sister. I was happy for her accomplishments, wounded by her challenges, proud of her growing maturity, and concerned for her deliberate attempts at misguided teenage rebellion. By the end of the game I had the answer to almost all my questions, and I will sincerely miss my time with the Greenbriar family.

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Gone Home is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, through the Steam store and direct sale.

‘The Stanley Parable’ Incentivizes Player Dissent In Service Of The Bigger Picture

You will play a game you cannot win.

When I played the original Stanley Parable mod back in 2011, I was nothing short of enraptured. That may seem like a hyperbolic compliment at first, but it’s nothing less than the honest truth. I thought that The Stanley Parable was an intelligently crafted, concise and interesting experience that more resembled a thought experiment than a traditional game, and it turned out to be one of my favorite “games” of 2011.

To make an even bolder claim, I’m willing to throw the full brunt of my endorsement behind The Stanley Parable in stating that it may in fact be one of the most important video games to have been released in the past decade. And with the imminent release of the definitive HD remake later this year, I thought it was about time that I write about why I love this game so damn much.

The game is more than just a gleefully tongue-in-cheek take on the emphasis (and futility) of player choice in a deterministic system. it is more importantly a conversation, an interactive repartee between the player’s interactions and the condescending cajoling of a fatalistic Narrator that brings to light the unconscious baggage of assumptions that both players and designers alike bring into creating a game experience.

The Stanley Parable hinges on drawing the player’s attention to the unspoken assumptions of game design subtlety ingrained over the years into the collective gaming community’s unconscious arsenal of navigational/problem-solving strategies.

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You play as the eponymous Stanley, a worker drone happily content to “push buttons” and “listen to voices” all day from the safety of his cubicle office. The game opens with Stanley realizing that he is no longer receiving any instruction from his handlers any more and ventures out into the eerily deserted office building in search of answers, all the while accompanied by a mysterious disembodied voice seemingly narrating all of his actions. At any time you can diverge from the beaten path of the narrator’s story, but not without incurring some consequence.

What follows is an experience that is both gratifying hilarious and vaguely terrifying if you think about it too long. The Stanley Parable not only  pushes but outright defies the conventional systems of gratification inherent in almost all commercial video games (see: “choices”, “endings”, “winning”), and instead substitutes it with the opportunity of allowing us, the player, to peer behind the proverbial “fourth wall” of game design and see the great and powerful “wizard” of choice for what it truly is.

A contrivance. A myth. Shadow puppets posing as reality on a wall.

You will follow a story that has no end.

At the same time, even though choice in The Stanley Parable is openly mocked and criticized ( even one of the game’s maxims is ‘You will make a choice that does not matter’), the choices that I made throughout my playthrough(s) of the Stanley Parable meant more to me than most of those I have made in any other commercial video game in recent memory.

When playing modern choice-driven narrative games (ex. Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Skyrim) it’s typical for players to try and consciously ‘game’ the system of a game in order to reap some long-anticipated endgame down the road. Players do mindlessly repetitious tasks ( “pushing buttons”, “listening to voices”) in order to farm currency in order to buy upgrades or weapons with diminishing returns, safely coasting along through starkly color-coded morality systems and unchallenging dialogue trees in order to get the “good” ending. “Good” in this sense meaning “not glaringly cobbled together at the last second by the developers in order to justify the word ‘choice’ featured prominently on the back of their game’s box.”

In contemporary game design, the merit of a choice is weighed by its outcome, with in most cases little to no recognition or actual “involvement” on part of the player’s agency.

The choices in Stanley Parable run counter to this.

The game offers six endings, each of them prompted by a diverging tree of choices that come down to either taking a certain corridor or pressing a certain button. None of these endings is definitive or “canon”; there’s only one ending where the words “The End” are featured, but in no way does it feel like a conclusion. Stanley Parable is a game whose enjoyment and “message(s)” rely on and thrive through replayability.

The difference between choices in Stanley Parable and other contemporary games is that the compensation isn’t some piece of gear or an arbitrary “achievement” pop-up, but the lucidity of watching these past choices and endings from previous “lifetimes” culminate with one another upon repeated breakthroughs, gradually building into a Jenga block tower of an epiphany that can fall apart at any given moment.

The Stanley Parable holds a mirror up to players and ask them to describe what they see. Why do we make the choices that we make? Why do we feel an almost innate desire to “break” a game? Why does playing point to point through a scripted story about rebellion and liberation feel so hollow and contrived?

Those and many more questions are up to the player to pose and perhaps, hopefully, come closer to answering while playing the game.

How I felt after playing the Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable follows in the iconoclastic tradition of Jacques Derrida; grappling with norms, demolishing presumptions, and leaving the audience to sift through the rubble to draw their own conclusions. It’s a lamentably rare experience and one of the most important video games of this generation. It is worthy of your notice.