Month: March 2019

Unforeseen Incidents: a punchy vindaloo

That’s right, I’m now rating video games on a curry scale.

On reflection, using ‘unforeseen incidents’ and ‘vindaloo’ in the same heading might give the wrong impression.

Anyway, now that I’ve put you off your lunch…

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Unforeseen Incidents (Backwoods Entertainment) is a modern point-and-click adventure following handyman Harper Pendrell as he uncovers a mysterious epidemic sweeping the nation.

I finished playing it last month and it left a huge smile on my face. Here’s why.

1. The lovingly hand-drawn artwork

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From the first screenshots, the artwork really grabbed me. I’m a big fan of Quentin Blake and this style reminds me of his work. The sketchy line-drawn art is really captivating – despite the similarities with Blake I didn’t find it at all childish or gimmicky, but raw and edgy. The use of colour and shading dramatises it so well, as do the gorgeous wild, outstretching Canadian-style backdrops. With every scene change I took a moment to take in the detail. Clearly a lot of thought has been put into these elements.

2. The self-referencing, tongue-in-cheek humour

Much of the dialogue and characterisation is amusing and slightly satirical, letting you know that despite all the drama the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. But what really hit my funny bone is Harper’s commentary as he struggles with the absurdity of what’s going on. His frequent asides also did a lot to draw me into the story and make me feel like we were discovering things together.

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The voice acting from Matthew Curtis (Harper) is spot on – his cynical remarks are delivered perfectly deep and deadpan, but with the right amount of agitation when it’s called for in moments of sheer panic towards the end. Harper is a totally relatable dude, not a caricatured superhero – and like most of the characters in the game he’s believable without being dull.

While some of the story is slightly predictable, it tries not to pander to the usual stereotypes and the humour really helps that. One of the best moments for me was right at the end.

**MILD SPOILER ALERT**

Harper and Helliwell’s relationship seems to be following that well-trodden path of dopey guy meets smart girl; girl teases guy; guy tries too hard; girl relents; they live happily ever after. Sure enough, in the final shot Harper leans in for a kiss – oh, here we go. But then Helliwell cuts him off, dryly informing him that ‘it’s not one of those moments’. The way that scene slices through the heavy drama and crashes us back down to Earth is just perfect.

**SPOILER-FREE ZONE**

3. The inspiration – The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Canada

Fans of cult TV shows are in for a treat. The Pacific Northwest landscape and eerie goings-on are heavily inspired by the likes of The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Fargo, and there are some nice little references (but not enough to get annoying).

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There’s also a strong Canadian inspiration. Many of the characters are named after streets in British Columbia – such as Harper, Pendrell (where Scully’s apartment was!), Rupert, Denman, Jervis and Cardero. Helliwell Bluffs is a set of cliffs in Helliwell provincial park. Yaletown – like the game’s Yelltown – is a hip neighbourhood in downtown Vancouver.

Canada is my favourite country outside of my own, and its best elements – stunning scenery, rich culture and dry wit – are well represented here.

4. The harmonious soundtrack

I’ve talked about this in an earlier post, but the music in this game is so beautiful. It’s integrated in a way that’s complementary without being imposing, to the point where you barely notice it.

I particularly love the hotel track, which is so very Twin Peaks. That whole segment is put together perfectly – the gentle, creeping music; the glow of the TV and aquarium; and the humble reception manned by a downbeat bellhop. It’s one thing to nail the atmosphere, artwork, characterisation and music in a game – but harmonising those things together takes skill.

5. The eclectic mix of puzzles

The style of puzzle varies throughout the game, keeping it fresh and challenging. Some are your standard point-and-click fare – combine item A with object B to make item C. Others ask you to follow instructions such as a recipe book in your inventory or notes from a friend. There are also recurring visual puzzles in the form of hacking computers (Pipemania style), or triangulating radio signals to find a new location.

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A lot of the bigger puzzles rely on memory (sometimes notetaking), and it’s important to listen carefully to the dialogue. Don’t let that put you off – the puzzles are pretty logical if you pay attention.

Having said that, there are a few that left me absolutely stumped and begrudgingly resorting to online help (there’s no in-game hint system). I won’t spoil them here, but if you know what I’m talking about – the reservoir puzzle, and the pads on the island.

Add to that anything that involves working out a password. I just didn’t see the logic or clear pathway that would lead to those solutions – they were a bit of a stretch. In the case of the pads puzzle, I think the main problem is that more than one answer seems to fit, so there’s a lot of trial and error.

6. Reactive gameplay

One thing I really noticed playing through the puzzles and interactions is that the game responded dynamically. That is, I got different responses or outcomes depending on where I’d got to in the puzzle chains or story. If Harper didn’t know why he needed a sandwich, he wasn’t interested. This is one of the few games I’ve played where that’s achieved almost perfectly. It’s logical, and the characters are behaving like real humans instead of churning out dialogue that doesn’t make sense or giving hints to something out of sequence. In my experience of adventure games, that’s not easy to accomplish.

Not without its niggles

While the game itself was great, I did experience some of the technical issues that others have talked about.

The transitions between scenes hang quite a bit, and I was often left in darkness wondering if it had crashed. Unfortunately the game actually did crash at quite a crucial moment towards the end (when Harper is in the ‘chair’), meaning I had to redo a lengthy sequence to get back to it. From what I’ve read this doesn’t seem to be hardware related. But not enough to put me off playing, or recommending.

So… buy it!

Unforeseen Incidents is available from Steam, GOG the Humble Store and directly from Application Systems Heidelberg (Unforeseen’s German distributor).

At the time of writing, Backwoods have just announced a Switch release – so even those people don’t have an excuse now. Settle down, engage your brain and let the mystery pull you in. Maybe even seal the deal with a curry.

9/10

The Ultimate Video Game: antagonist

antagonist

I’m trying my darnedest to keep up with the challenges posed by the Ultimate Video Game, because it’s fun and gives me an outlet for creative ramblings.

March’s element is the antagonist. I’m continuing with the ideas that came out of my setting and protagonists, because I want to finish what I’ve started – but who knows, I might jump in on the main competition at some point!

The game so far

The story is set in an abandoned IT room, excavated in 2019. Our heroes are Earl, head of the IT department in 1989; and Pete, an architect sent to renovate it in 2019.

The antagonist

It turns out the antagonist is a fundamental part of the game. This element brings Earl and Pete together, uniting them across time in a bid to uncover a conspiracy and set the past right.

1989

The antagonist takes the form of a shady organisation, known as The Suits, who are hacking into Earl’s IT network, though he doesn’t know it yet. Nor do we know their master plan – that will come later for the story element (I hope there’s a story element otherwise I’ll have to come back and edit this, which will be awkward).

The Suits consist of six members, ranging in age and background. Two are father and daughter; two are acquainted from their time in the police force; one is an ex-Army sergeant; and the other is the silent one in charge, a powerful presence with an entirely erased history. None of them question him – they simply follow.

2019

The more Pete delves, the more he gets sucked into Earl’s world. At first, he relishes the simple times of the 1980s, indulging in its music, tech and video games. But as the layers peel away he stumbles upon clues left by Earl revealing something much more sinister. The IT department was not as isolated as it seemed. They were watching, and waiting.

Earl thought it was over when the last of the Suits was found dead, but in 2019, in the flicker of the monitor, Pete discovers there are ways for our consciousness to live on.

Adventure gaming: can you take a hint?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hints and walkthroughs, and their role in adventure gaming.

I’m someone who hates being told the answer to anything. If someone throws a riddle at me and I can’t get it, I’ll happily mull over it for weeks. The same with quiz questions – if I don’t know the answer straight away I still like to think on it, and I don’t want any hints. I’m not talking about obscure sports questions where I flat-out won’t know the answer, but those that just take a bit of thought.

And I guess that’s why I’m a pretty stubborn adventure gamer. I can be stuck on a puzzle for ages (cottage, Monkey Island 2) but it just feels like cheating to ask for a hint or look up a walkthrough. I feel like I’ve invalidated my game if I get too much help along the way.

Luckily, most adventure games worth their salt encourage puzzle-solving without brute force or reading a step-by-step guide. Some have hotspots that highlight important objects; others give textual clues at the press of a key; and most utilise dialogue with other characters to nudge the player in the right direction. This is important, and I feel like few games get it right. Reveal too much, and you’ve ruined the experience and the satisfaction. Reveal too little or give clues out of order with the gameplay, and your player’s left frustrated or confused.

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Monkey Island 2’s in-game hintline

I guess that fine balance of challenging puzzles vs keeping the player interested comes down to the golden rule of adventure games: puzzle chains must be logical. If there’s absolutely no reason why I would think to use that monkey on the water pump, I’m not likely to get there. Even if I could justify a small hint from a friend, they’d be hard pushed to give me one.

(This isn’t a monkey-wrench-bashing post by the way. I’m really not that upset about it.)

Back when I was scuffing my knees and typing commands into Space Quest II, there were none of these options if I got stuck. No internet for walkthroughs or tips, and none of my friends were even into adventure games (I know, right?!) Sure, Sierra had an extortionate overseas hintline, if I wanted to get myself grounded for a month.

They also had hint books you could order, but I had no idea at the time. Which is a shame because they were pretty good, and discreet – to read the text clearly you did so through an ‘adventure window’ card. Though there are some ‘fake’ hints – this is Sierra after all.

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Pages from the Space Quest II hint book, published by Sierra On-Line, 1989

Perhaps if I’d started with significantly more forgiving Lucasfilm games I’d have fared better. They were also much more creative in their hint-giving – see Zak McKracken, which came with a newspaper containing subtle hints and tips in the articles. That way it feels like you’re just enjoying another element of the game, not cheating.

So anyway, the lack (or ignorance) of resources explains why I didn’t complete Space Quest II until much later, and also perhaps why I’m so resistant to help. Uh oh, here comes grandma again. Back in the day there was no help, sonny! You let that alien kiss you, you pay the price!

I realise my innate stubbornness is detrimental to my gaming sometimes – especially with puzzle-focussed games like The Witness, which is still sitting there unfinished after about two years. I did look up a few solutions, but felt I couldn’t do that with every single one. I guess I’ll resort to a walkthrough, eventually.

My obsession with ‘failure’ aside, I think it takes the enjoyment and the purpose out of puzzle-solving to have a walkthrough constantly on-hand – it’s also a symptom of poor game design (or, cough, adventure games just aren’t your forte). But it’s also a shame to abandon a game because of one relentless puzzle, and if it’s just a case of admitting defeat and moving to the next bit, who’s to judge?

So what kind of adventure gamer are you? Do you happily use hints or walkthroughs along the way, or do you torture yourself until you get it?

Sources

Space Quest II hintbook image courtesy of www.sierragamers.com/Hint-Books [accessed 03/03/19] and the painstaking efforts of SierraVault reader, Vasyl.