(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5/Xboxes) Every gamer has encountered a game that desperately wants to be a film instead. (I’m looking at you, METAL GEAR SOLID 2.) You know the type: long-winded cut-scenes, overly flamboyant camerawork that often gets in the way of interactivity, shamelessly cribbing from other films — usually Tarantino — all with the intent to make the player feel something.
LAST STOP, from VIRGINIA developers Variable State, is one such game.
LAST STOP consists of an intertwined story of three primary characters: John Smith, an aging father who has a precocious eight (excuse me, eight-and-a-half) year-old daughter named Molly; Donna, a teen girl who sneaks out at night to be a bit rebellious with her friends; and Meena, an agent with a nebulous intelligence agency that deals with the supernatural or aliens — that isn’t quite clear out of the gate — but it also leads to some body switching and other high-concept notes.
While ostensibly it’s interactive fiction by way of Telltale’s games (THE WALKING DEAD), the dialogue choices really don’t matter, and most of the interactivity consists of walking to a door or clumsy item finagling, a la David Cage (the ‘auteur’ behind HEAVY RAIN, DETROIT: BEHIND HUMAN, who also desperately wants to create ‘cinematic experiences’ and they often ring false).
When you get to the third chapter of LAST STOP, which nakedly indulges in the trope where a camera circles around a table during what is ostensibly heist planning, well, yeah, it becomes crystal clear that this should just be a film rather than a hackneyed patchwork of filmic gaming experience.
That may sound harsh, but I couldn’t scrub that feeling from my mind and it’s a shame, as their prior game VIRGINIA managed to navigate those interactive narrative waters far more smoothly, partially because it felt more thoughtful and thought-out.
So why am I grousing about it in this blog that’s all about recommending works? It’s because I’m still a sucker for these sort of games; they’re perfect fodder for tucking into on a lazy Sunday. Also, Meena? (See above.) She is one hell of an ice queen and one of the best modern video game characters of our time. However, it’s a far cry from the silent meditative and askew nature of VIRGINIA.
While it’s far from perfect, it is quite playable — for as little that you actually can play it — and while I played, I was quite invested to see where all of the high-concept facets would lead to. Additionally, the visual design and artistry is quite compelling in a LIFE IS STRANGE simple, but effective, way. When the story hits, it lands well; these are complex people living different but vastly similar lives to the way most live.
I’ll note that it is extraordinarily British. One chapter practically feels torn from a Mike Leigh film.
Again, it’s a bit of a misfire and isn’t for everyone, but it is a fun lark and we all need that sometimes.
One nice touch: one of the lead characters has a very visible caesarean scar, perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen that in a video game.
(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5) VIRGINIA was the first game from Variable State, and it made quite the mark. Not only is it 100% dialogue-less but it frequently quits scenes, leaping forward in time and to different locations, even if you aren’t done interacting with them.
I’ll note that Variable State was inspired by the experimental indie game 30 FLIGHTS OF LOVING — they even included a special note in the credits to underscore what they owed to 30 FLIGHTS — which also jumps around in time and locations a lot.
While 30 FLIGHTS OF LOVING felt thrillingly chaotic, VIRGINIA is the other side of the coin.
VIRGINIA is a slow burn of a thriller. You play as Anne Tarver, a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent whose partner is seasoned special agent Maria Halperin. The two of you are in Kingdom, Virginia, investigating the disappearance of a young boy named Lucas. Tarver then gets drawn deeper into FBI schemes, and matters escalate in a dreamline way.
(Unsurprisingly, the game also takes a few notes from TWIN PEAKS, as one location practically recreates the Roadhouse, even down to a Julee Cruise-ish backing band.)
I’ll note: this is essentially an experimental point-and-click adventure game, albeit first-person. While it is a ramshackle indie game, Terry Kenny’s simple but evocative art styling does a lot to imbue the spirit of the game, but the silence is what I find most intriguing. Occasionally, the game even lacks room tone — it’s dead silent. Everyone speaks with gestures and motions and physicality. It’s a glorious limitation to place on a modern narrative-forward game, one that makes VIRGINIA so memorable.
And when the game isn’t silent? When the score swells? It resonates volumes.
This isn’t a game for everyone. If you’re impatient, if you expect proper answers, if you want fire off a gun, this is not the game for you. However, if you’re looking for a surreal, atmospheric, story-driven mystery that isn’t the most interactive game ever, but looks and sounds great and can hit where it hurts, it’s a great Sunday experience.
(Linux/Mac/PC/PS4/PS5/Xboxes) TACOMA was the second game from GONE HOME creators Fullbright Studios. It’s worth noting that Fullbright barely exists at this time due to founder Steve Gaynor’s toxic behavior. In fact, all fifteen employees decided to quit — leaving only Gaynor — which uh, says quite a lot.
TACOMA is a narrative-forward atmospheric exploration game that takes place on an abandoned space station. It consists solely of walking around and immersing yourself in the story of just how the station fell apart. (Spoiler alert: it mostly has to do with AI.)
It’s saddening to hear of Gaynor’s behavior, especially since both TACOMA and GONE HOME are very inclusive and features complex women, but so it goes. Either way, TACOMA is a gripping ride if you have the patience for it, can willfully ignore the bad working conditions that led to the game’s creation, and especially if you have a penchant for thoughtful sci-fi narratives and striking approaches to interactive storytelling. Plus it has a very inventive rewind/fast-forward mechanic to help you scrutinize matters.
It’s also worth noting that, while I played the game without issue on my PS4, playing it on my PS5 gave me nothing but problems. It’d repeatedly lock up, would lose progress, and just in general felt pretty janky. It’s still worth the trouble and, if you’re playing on other platforms, you may not encounter the same issues, but buyer beware.
I just saw that TACOMA will be added to the PS+ Extra lineup next month, so if you have a PS4 or PS5, wait a bit and you can play it for free!
(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) UNPACKING is an adorably short but impactful indie game from developers Witch Beam that is basically an isometric interior design game. All you do is age and move from place-to-place, from apartment to apartment and so on. It’s one of the few games I’ve played that, while I imagine some 20-somethings might understand, really, it’s all about proper adulthood. The kind that requires a mortgage or, at least, striving to get to a point in which a bank will allot a mortgage to you.
This is a game about aging and compromising and figuring out what works for both you and your partner, and also just enjoying the space you’ll spend the bulk of your time in.
I realize that sounds heavy, but Witch Beam lightens the load for you. You can think about all of that, or you can just mindlessly open boxes and try to find where every object should live, because that is the entire game, and it’s supremely satisfying to do so. The narrative is just the icing on the cake.
The game leans on a lot of 16-bit era tropes, from the pixelated visuals, the isometric viewpoint, as well as the soundtrack, but that works in its favor — at least for me. It comes across as simple and endearing in a soft way, although the audio and sound design? Way better than the days of the SEGA Genesis. Goddamn, I am not one for ASMR, but this is a balm for your ears.
Again, this is a very short — but very fulfilling — game. Is it for everyone? Well, no, particularly if you’re consistently seeking videogame thrills. However, it is very sweet and cozy and amazingly designed and something I think most folks would enjoy.
(If you watch the trailer, pay attention to the pig. That’s all I’ll say.)
This game contains depictions of abduction, abuse, familial death and suicide. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning most of those details, but not all.
LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative-forward videogame from French developer DONTNOD (now known as Don’t Nod). The game will be eight years old around the time of publishing this post. In other words, a tad more than a full teenage generation, which is fitting for a work that focuses so much on the time between being a youth and being considered an adult. It’s a game that zeroes in on how every choice — and the results of your choices — feel amplified, how the choices ripple through your life, and how you may learn to regret or embrace it. It’s also a game about highlighting traumatic incidents you’ve lived through and whether you are willing to confront them or push them aside. Often, the choice is up to you, but also intractable.
LIFE IS STRANGE takes place in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, a fictional burg that was once fine waters for fisherman, at least before an old-money family by the name of the Prescotts strip-mined the area. While doing so, they buy out the long-standing local elite school for gifted artists and scientists: Blackwell Academy. (It’s worth noting that Blackwell is a rather loaded name, given Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.)
You play as Maxine Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who goes by the shorthand ‘Max’. Max previously lived in Arcadia Bay, spending most of her free time with best friend and science nerd Chloe Price, at least until Max’s family moved to Seattle when Max was was an early teen. Unfortunately, right around the same day Max moved to Seattle, Chloe’s father died in a car accident.
Max attended the funeral, left town, and never contacted Chloe the entire time she lived near the spire.
Five years later, Max is back in Arcadia Bay to attend classes at Blackwell taught by her favorite living photographer: Mark Jefferson. In the meantime, Chloe has dropped out of Blackwell, having become a quintessential burnout punk — all dyed hair and anger issues — but is also desperately in search for one Rachel Amber, a gregarious all-star Blackwell student, and the person that helped prop Chloe up after Max had left. Rachel has been missing for six months and, while her family and police assume she’s just jaunted off to Los Angeles to act or model, Chloe knows better, and plasters the town with MISSING flyers.
Inexplicably, Max becomes imbued with the ability to rewind time, which allows her to save her prior best friend from being shot in a Blackwell bathroom — despite not even recognizing Chloe, thanks to five years of passage, as well as her newly shorn and cyan-colored hair.
Matters escalate in a very neo-noir/VERONICA MARS sort of way that includes all sorts of teen high school drama, drugs, men taking terrible advantage of their positions and power, you have a number of romance options and oh, Arcadia Bay might be totalled by an F6 tornado that only Max can foresee, and very few folks believe her.
In other words, this is perfect teenage fodder: small decisions result in huge consequences, emotions are perpetually heightened, your protagonist is gifted and has superpowers, and everyone is thirsty.
While LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative work, it manages its gameplay elements better than similar story-first games: the time-rewind feature is perfectly honed for a game where the result of choices ripple, and the interface for newly discovered dialogue branches is far better than anything BioWare has come up with. The visual design is artfully simple while also being striking with its colorful hues and stylized environments — especially notable is how it portrays Oregon, all lush leaves and wind streaked. While it’s not my home state of Vermont, it evokes that same rustic, rural feeling.
However, the real appeal here is in the character work: Max is a shy, restrained nerd and surrounded herself by similar folks. Chloe is a problem in search of a solution, a frustrated youth who lashes out unpredictably and still lives with her mother who works at the local diner. When Max and Chloe reunite, the game crystalizes; if you were lucky enough to have a best-friend as a teen, especially if you two were weirdo misfits, this game will almost certainly hit amazingly close-to-home. If you weren’t, it’s such an earnest and honest and emotional depiction that you’ll still feel their bond, their strife, their push-and-pull.
I know a lot of folks feel like the game cribs from TWIN PEAKS. It’s literally spelled out on Chloe’s license plate, and it mimics a lot of the ‘small town with secrets’ vibe. However — thematically — I don’t feel it, even though it does indulge in abused/dead girl tropes. The game is about survival and confronting circumstances, as opposed to innocence lost, unheard pain and senseless death. Does it dovetail with TWIN PEAKS? Yes. But no one here is actually Laura Palmer, the crux of a town.
I first played LIFE IS STRANGE way back in 2015, as the episodes were slowly doled out. As such, I forgot a lot over time, but certain scenes you do not forget. To be blunt: the ending? Spoiler alert: there is no good ending, although you’re still forced to choose one.
It’s rare that I replay games. I often say it’s a time thing, but more often than not it’s about retaining my initial experience of the game, how I felt about the characters and environments and conflicts and obstacles and victories. Also, most videogames are narratively linear, even if they pretend they aren’t, and most videogame stories suck. Sure, you occasionally have a SILENT HILL 2 that upends everything, but more often than not, it’s just banal. And that’s fine and I find fun in it!
I did replay LIFE IS STRANGE a few weeks ago. (I’ll note that I haven’t played the remastered version.) The entire game came back to me as I advanced chapter-by-chapter, not unlike how memories would unfold for Max. I remembered the choices I made. I remembered the choices I wish I hadn’t been forced to make.
I made a few different choices this time around, but mostly skewed to trying to be a good friend like I did the first time. This time around, I did kiss Chloe, but then felt bad because they’re really only always going to be friends and Max — well, my Max — is pretty straight and it just felt weird and awkward, and the game plays it out that way. This isn’t a story about queer awakening — it’s a story about friendship.
However: that’s exactly why this game, this series exists: it recreates the awkwardness of becoming an young adult, and the culmination of everything and everyone that influences it, as well as everyone who supports — or exploits — you along the way.
Emotionally, it is a lot, and in more than a few ways I don’t love how the game ladles on momentous decisions as it didn’t need to push so hard. However, upon replaying, I slowly and sadly came to realize that this one game is firmly focused on reconciling losing close friendships and ties.
It’s a game I wish I had as a teen, but I’m so happy that it exists now, and so ecstatic to see what it inspires in the generations to come.
(PC/macOS/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) AFTERPARTY is another narrative-forward videogame from OXENFREE developers Night School Games. Unlike OXENFREE, a deft interactive teen horror adventure, AFTERPARTY focuses on two platonic 20-something best friends — Milo (Khoi Dao) and Lola (Janina Gavankar) — just about to graduate from college.
Then they die and go to Hell and, in order to escape they need not only outdrink Satan, but also come to terms with each other, their past, and their future.
What follows is an extremely visually striking and darkly comedic game, perhaps containing some of the filthiest, well-crafted jokes I’ve ever encountered in a game. AFTERPARTY is also brilliant with its character work — not just its honest and complicated portrayal of a platonic friendship between a man and a woman — but also with its ancillary characters, including psychopomp ferrier Sam (HORIZON: ZERO DAWN’s Ashly Burch) whose life/death is both over-shared and enigmatic at the same time.
It is worth noting that, while OXENFREE featured some intriguing interface tools apart from dialogue trees, AFTERPARTY’s non-dialogue interactivity is reduced to a number of routine mini-games. While thematically that makes sense — beer pong and rhythm mini-games make perfect sense for the material — they often feel like they emptily get in the way of what you’d rather be doing: advancing the story and learning more about the characters.
Nonetheless, it’s perfect for playing over the Halloween weekend with a friend. AFTERPARTY doesn’t overstay its welcome, and while it actually takes place in Hell, it’s more emotionally substantive than scarring.