Recently played: Lacuna

If you go and look at Lacuna’s page on Steam, it will tell you right up front what it is. “A sci-fi noir adventure.”

And what we get is exactly what it says on the tin. Our hero lives on the planet Ghara, the big dog in its solar system, working for this universe’s equivalent of the FBI. One evening, you’re preparing to do protection detail for a diplomat…except that he gets shot before you have the chance to so much as say hello, and then we are off to the proverbial races.

What follows is indeed an extremely noir-ish story, both in presentation and content. We have the protagonist with the estranged family and the brooding voice-overs (the only fully-voiced lines in the game). We have the murder plot that leads, in a roundabout way, to something complicated and infrastructural. We have a little blackmail, even, for that extra frisson.

We navigate all this in a very point-and-click sort of way, roaming from grandiose hotels for VIPs to the rough-but-colorful neighborhoods of the lower layers, always taking the train. (And yes, I do mean literally “lower layers” – the stratification of society in this universe means that your only shot at regular doses of direct sunlight is to be wealthy.) At each locale, we meet a character or two, chat with them, and gather clues from the environment. So far, so normal.

And then we get to the tricky bit for any detective-themed video game: How do you gamify detection? How do you make a process that is so very essentially internal to the player’s brain manifest on the screen? How do you try to guide them through working out the right answers to key questions, rather than brute-forcing it with guesses?

Lacuna’s answer to this is…homework.

No, really; when there’s a problem that needs to be worked out you receive a “sheet” to complete with a series of multiple-choice questions, and when the game determines you’ve advanced far enough that you ought to have the clues, you’re invited to submit it. These are typically not incredibly complicated – two or three questions – but in order to identify the right answers, you must first have asked the right questions of the NPCs you interact with, found all the clues in the environments, and then trawled back through your chat logs, etc., to work out what you ought to submit.

I have mixed feelings about this as the major detecting process. On one hand, assembling the pieces into a confident answer can be quite satisfying. On the other, one thing that Lacuna seems to really enjoy doing is obfuscating information. In one early case, you are told very explicitly by the NPCs at one location exactly what the answers to some crucial questions are – except that those NPCs are wrong, and the only way you can possibly know that is to correctly deduce a different set of answers, open up a different location, and then complete a mostly-unrelated side task that will eventually lead to a single casual mention of the right answer you need.

Here’s the wrinkle that makes this especially important: Lacuna does not allow you to manually save. Ever. All choices you make are permanent, so it’s very easy (presumably by design) to lock yourself into a kind of cascading failure state. We did not do this, for the record; both of us have fairly well-honed detective-game instincts, but it seems remarkably simple to end up on a path to doom from pretty early on without knowing it. (A post-playthrough review of the game’s discussion boards on Steam suggests a number of people had this kind of experience.)

There’s also a feature that will add an additional layer of pressure to this by putting a timer on all of your answers to questions. We somehow managed to disable this without ever knowing it was there – or perhaps it defaults to “off” and is only enabled if you want an extra challenge? Some of the choices were plenty difficult even with time to think them through, so I can only imagine how much easier it would be to miss a key piece of information, or accidentally piss off an important NPC with that timer bar ticking down.

I appreciate the commitment to the “choices matter” approach to storytelling here, but I’m not sure I am completely behind these design decisions myself; at the very least, an option to go back and replay some scenes to make different choices without having to start the entire game over again from the beginning would have been welcome.

Oddly, despite the massive difference your choices can make in terms of story outcomes, your actual progress feels somewhat “on rails”; there are a number of occasions where we were barred from trying out something or following up with an NPC rather arbitrarily (usually by someone attempting to move or carry something very large and heavy. The effect is a bit more Marx Brothers than perhaps the designers intended.)

All of this sounds a bit like I didn’t care for the game, doesn’t it? Not quite; whatever I might think of some of the design choices, the story itself is enjoyable and nicely told, and the art – of the “pixels + dynamic lighting” variety that seems popular lately – is evocative and has a lot of fun little background detail that I wish we could have interacted with a bit more for additional flavor.

If any of this has piqued your interest, perhaps it might also be helpful to know that the game is quite short, even for thorough players like ourselves – perhaps 5-6 hours if you’re taking it slowly, and easily complete-able in a session or two. (The ending we got was pretty satisfying, but if you ended up with one you didn’t care for I expect a second playthrough would go even faster.)

If you find yourself with a few hours and the inclination, give it a shot; perhaps you’ll have different feelings about the detective system than I do, and then we can discuss it.

Recently played: Death’s Door

The bus pulls up in front of the office on a gray, rather bleak day. We hop out, making our way up to the quietly grim edifice, making our way slowly through the halls, claws ticking against the tiles.

Did I mention we’re a crow?

More importantly, we’re a crow with a job to do. This is Reaper headquarters, and we’re running late to pick up our assigned soul for the day.

It does not go as planned.

What follows is a dungeon-crawling adventure that is simultaneously charming and melancholy. You trek through three major “worlds,” a la Zelda, each with its own whimsical cel-shaded theming. Each is home to a boss monster and a power-up that you’ll be using to revisit earlier areas and scoop up all the little hidden goodies. I wasn’t driving this one, so I can’t speak to the combat elements, but it’s certainly fun to watch.

So far, so normal. And I suppose there isn’t much that is new here exactly…this isn’t trying to deconstruct or revolutionize the genre so much as put forth a well-presented iteration on it that is polished to a sheen and mostly free of unnecessary fiddly bits. (For us – and, I suspect, for most who tend to be thorough explorers, there really wasn’t all that much backtracking even at the end of the game, when one would ordinarily be scooping up all the leftover collectibles.)

The twist here is more philosophical than aesthetic or mechanical: Everything that happens in this story comes about because someone feared their own death and sought to stop it. The little Reaper-crow you play very quickly finds themselves facing it; a Reaper is mortal while on the job, and unless and until the soul they seek is returned to the great vault, they will age and die. (Or very possibly worse…but to say more than that would be a spoiler.)

I think my favorite bit of this one is the little blend of humor and melancholy. The silliness of Barb the Bard and her quest for a banger (or the barkeep at the Stranded Sailor). The mononoke-like forest spirits. The little eulogies the gravedigger provides for each fallen boss.

It’s a worthy play. If any of that sounds interesting to you, hypothetical reader, give it a try.

Adios, July.

It’s August already. How on earth did THAT happen?

I mean, I know the answer. Same way it was just March of 2020 like, three weeks ago: Nothing’s happening.

I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant in a year and a half. I fear my efforts to write here are already monotonous, even though the only point of them is to try to keep expressing myself, somehow. It’s hard not to imagine my hypothetical audience being bored out of their minds with me.

And now I’d better start keeping an ear to the ground for Christmas ideas.

Time is really ripping by out there. It’s a little like being in a ship when the sea is stormy outside. It’s been so long since I last touched the water, the idea becomes alien, a little frightening.

We played a little game called Adios the other night. It’s a tiny indie game about a farmer who’s been helping the mob dispose of bodies while feeding them to his pigs. He’d like to stop now, thanks.

Except, as the lanky man in the sharp suit keeps saying, first patiently and then not so patiently, they are the ones who cut ties. Not you.

You feed the pigs. You look after your horse. You ponder the blight of the chestnut tree. You insist.

So does he.

Irresistible force meets immovable object.

This is not one of those elaborate games with branching paths and multiple endings. It’s not trying to be. This is a sad, quiet little story, earnestly presented and oddly moving, where some of the most impactful moments come from things our POV character can’t bring himself to say.

(I won’t lie, the part with the dog kind of killed me, and it’s been years since I last lived with a dog. You will know exactly which part I mean when you get to it.)

A little janky, sure, and perhaps the art style’s not for everyone. But who cares? Glossy perfection isn’t what we’re here for. If this sounds interesting to you, trade it for a couple of hours of TV.

Just, uh, maybe have a little something cheerful on hand as a chaser. No reason. Just saying.

A spirit log for the campfire: Cozy Grove considered

There is a genre of game that isn’t so much meant for playing as it is for “tinkering around with for a little while, regularly.” Commute games. Games for waiting in the lobbies of doctors’ offices or for fidgeting with on long car trips.

Last year’s Animal Crossing was one of these, and one I know was a bit of a pandemic savior for many, as it gave us all a little something to do in the mornings besides read the invariably-terrifying headlines and ponder, you know, the seemingly inevitable degeneration of the world into a blazing mess as we bear witness to the unholy convergence of the accelerationism of the desperate and the indifference of the powerful into…well. This. Screaming a little inside every day. Y’know.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that 2021 has brought us something of the love child of Animal Crossing and Edward Gorey, the creepy-cute Cozy Grove.

No, this was not followed by a rampage.

Here’s the elevator pitch: You are a Spirit Scout, a member of a community-service group for kids that will look suspiciously like the Scouts we all know with the serial numbers filed off. Your avatar is a bright-eyed young thing with a sash just itching to be filled with merit badges by providing assistance and comfort to the spirits of this world.

Unfortunately for you, you’re stranded on the island of Cozy Grove, which has something of the vibe of a state park and its accompanying small rural town if both had been broken up into jigsaw pieces and scattered about in Limbo. (Not the video game, Limbo as in “a kind of ever-shifting purgatory.”) The only points of true stability here are your campsite (where Flamey, your trusty…familiar? Demon pal? hangs out) and the homes of the spirit folk (mainly bears) you’re assisting in working through their afterlife issues; everything else is constantly shifting.

Each bear (like Patrice the mail-bear above) has their own set of quests for you to do, and their own story to tell, revealed in chunks as you complete said quests. In and around that, you will fish and tend gardens and catch bugs and dig up treasures and do all the other classic things one does in games like this. (At least there is not an exorbitant mortgage to pay off, so there’s that.)

The game is structured so as to reward frequent play in small increments: Complete enough quests and you will be advised in no uncertain terms that you’re done with anything major for the day.

…Like so.

You’re still free to putter about making money or catching fish or decorating or whatnot, but otherwise you’re good to head out and go make of the rest of your day what you will. Tomorrow there will be a few more story bits to complete, and thus the cycle shall continue.

Aesthetically, the game’s certainly appealing – the creepy-cute visuals are accompanied by an extremely chill soundtrack heavy on summer-camp-flavored instrumentation, mainly guitar/banjo-adjacent. The same creepy-cute quality extends through the narrative as well; nearly all of the game’s little plotlines so far have wavered between bleakness and adorability, and the regular emails from your scoutmaster acknowledge what ought to be a rather dire situation (a single child stranded on a remote island) with a remarkably blase cheeriness. There has not, thus far, been any indication that I am likely to be rescued. (It’s certainly possible that your Scout is in fact Dead All Along as well, but I suppose we’ll find out.)

…So how do I feel about it?

I wouldn’t class it as one of my favorite games of all time, or even of 2021 so far: this is a type of game I’ve seen a lot, and other than its black humor it’s not bringing much to the table in the way of novelty. However, as a commute game, it’s solid enough; the little stories are entertaining, the art and writing are amusing, and I appreciate that the experience is deliberately self-limiting to just an hour or so before one is encouraged to come back later.

It definitely beats watching the news while I have that second cup of coffee before work.