(iOS/PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) I previously castigated games that want to be films and, by the standards I set in that write-up, SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE hits every note. Sure, you can navigate your character around, explore a bit from here and there, choose an emotional response to someone’s remark, but it’s first-and-foremost a linear experience to tell a single story, to imbue a specific sort of emotional hurt.
However, I did note that — if done correctly — those grievances could be forgiven, and SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE is one of those works.
SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE opens with a pilot (Floyd) and a British climatologist (Peter) in the cockpit of a plane that’s crashed in the middle of nowhere Antartica. Floyd is immobile, as one of his legs were crushed in the crash. Peter sets out to find help at one of the few neighboring research stations, following a pulsing beacon that pierces through the snow. As he goes from station to station, he intermittently recalls the events that brought him here: his initial struggles with his research, in finding a like-minded fellow scientist who helps inspire him with his work that is meant to help Britain which is in the midst of the Cold War, in falling in love with said fellow scientist, then faced with the dilemma that the school overseeing his research doesn’t want to give the fellow scientists co-credit for the research because she’s a woman.
Notably, said partner is not onboard the crashed plane.
While SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE dabbles with thriller and espionage elements — Peter’s higher-ups are constantly fretting about the Soviet menace — it’s first and foremost about two people bonding over their scientific curiosity, how they inspire each other, how they trust each other, and how institutions can cause someone to betray a loved one.
It’s an extremely potent and effective tale, bolstered by the sparse but simplistically dazzling presentation. While the game consists of flat colors and simple shapes, it all comes together in a brilliantly evocative way. It’s a series of gorgeously austere set pieces that alone make it worth playing.
As previously noted, the game does feature some emotion-based interactivity. Occasionally, when Peter has to contribute to a conversation, you get an ‘emotion prompt’ that allegedly can affect how the game progresses. (I’ll note that they do often mirror the beacon that is clearly visible in the opening of the game.)
As I’ve only played it once, I can’t attest to the efficacy of that, but I do have a hard time imagining that the game significantly plays out much differently in the end, regardless of your emotional choices and that’s fine by me! It is telling the story it wants to tell. As with most stories, it’s not about the conclusion, but the journey.
(PC/PS5/Switch/Xbox) Developer Don’t Nod are mostly known for creating decision-centric, narrative-forward works such as their LIFE IS STRANGE series, so it’s not surprising that their latest game — HARMONY: THE FALL OF REVERIE (HARMONY from here on out) — takes narrative branching and decisions even further.
However, unlike any of their prior games, this is a visual novel. You aren’t navigating a character through 3D environments. You aren’t pressing ‘X to interact’. You talk to a number of characters who inhabit the town of Atina on a slightly-not-too-distant-future cyberpunk Earth trying to overthrow an exploitative and immoral corporation, while also juggling the needs of almost-gods (called ‘Aspirations’) — the likes of which go by the names of Chaos, Bliss, Power, Glory, etc. — who live in Reverie which is another realm altogether and have helped guide humanity over the ages.
So, basically cyberpunk mythology. If you’re into that, you’re into it. However, don’t go into this game thinking “Oh, it’s Don’t Nod! More teen angst and tears!” because you will be greatly disappointed. (Or you may be elated; I don’t know your taste.)
I’ll note that, if you think this is a thematic departure for Don’t Nod, it is not. Their first game was REMEMBER ME, a 3D action/adventure cyberpunk thriller that had a number of inventive techniques and a very striking design. Sadly it bombed, however the poor sales caused them to course correct into smaller, more intimate — and less-expensive to produce — games like LIFE IS STRANGE.
To backtrack a bit: you play as Polly, the daughter of Ursula — an impetuous free-spirited poet — who has disappeared, and Polly is back to help search for her, despite the fact that there’s a lot of bad blood and estrangement between Polly and her mother. Polly then becomes embroiled in both the scheming of the Aspirations as well as the revolutionaries in Atina, while still trying to maintain some sense of herself.
It sounds dense and complicated but, as noted above, it’s boilerplate cyberpunk mythos. However, it is very pretty boilerplate cyberpunk mythos! The background scenery is immaculately imbued with details but also really sets the disparate tone of the two realms, and it’s colorful! So much sun and surf and what I would call cozy urban landscapes. (You may disagree.)
I’d also like to note that, while the character designs aren’t as bonkers as say, PARADISE KILLER, they are sharp, and I really appreciated some of the more unconventional static postures, such as Polly consistently tugging at her own shoulder as a sign of apprehension, or the exuberance of Bliss’ gestures.
I’d be remiss to neglect the musical contribution of Don’t Nod staple Lena Raine, whose indelible work on LIFE IS STRANGE still rings through my head. It’s an aural treasure.
However, a visual novel is only as good as the story it tells, and while HARMONY spends a lot of time place setting, it pays off in the fourth act. (Yes, the game does explicitly break itself down into acts and chapters, just in case you weren’t absolutely aware that it is a visual novel.) The fourth act leans hard on a lot of Don’t Nod tropes — don’t worry, I won’t detail them but, if you’re familiar with their games, you’ll know them when you read them — but also serves as a humanist breather for the game. While it takes a while to get there, that’s when the game really comes into focus, narratively and interactively.
Yes, the interactivity. This is the real marvel of HARMONY. Don’t Nod takes dialogue trees to the next level here, swapping what’s usually just a ‘Select a Response’ prompt to a full-fledged actual dialogue tree that looks like a skill tree you need to continuously manage in a FINAL FANTASY game.
I’ve only played through the game once, although I will eventually make my way back as I don’t care for the impact of some of my initial decisions. (I’ll note: while the game does provide text hints as to the repercussions of your choices, they can often either be misconstrued or downright misleading.) It’s an extremely inventive implementation, but also feels like something a programmer definitely enacted because it’s basically just one big flowchart. I’m not going to complain about it though, as it’s a breath of fresh air.
One quibble: the text size? Way too fucking small. This is a complaint I’ve had since HD gaming was embraced, and it’s only become more of an issue: too many developers design these games on dev stations inches from their face, as opposed to playing on a TV several feet away.
I understand designers who get frustrated when variable font sizes are incongruent with their finely planned layouts — I remember the websites of the late 90s — but seriously. I know I’m getting old, but allow folks to adjust the font size, as well as subtitle drop shadow intensity. I don’t want to have to squint or lean towards the screen to read some superficial lore that may or may not aid me in my journey.
More and more game developers seem to be aware of this, but apparently not Don’t Nod, which seems strange (pun intended), and — for myself — resulted in an often frustrating experience given that this is a visual novel and text is paramount.
Last but not least, I’d like to underscore how refreshing it is to see a combative mother/daughter relationship in a game, one that isn’t fully explained but one that the player intuits. (Perhaps if I’d chosen a different branch here and there, I would know more, but I don’t!) Families are complicated, and HARMONY hones in on that in ways that some might find unlikeable but I simply find to be part of trying to live one’s life the way one wants to. Is that selfish? Perhaps. Whether you feel it is or not depends on which branch you choose.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) There’s a thin line between cozy, fun puzzle games and cozy, frustrating puzzle games. Some video games look cute, swear that they’re a breezy affair, but then a few hours in you’re searching for walkthroughs and then shouting out to no one: “How the hell was I supposed to know to do that?!”
CARTO is from Taiwan developers Sunhead Games, and the central conceit is basically: “What if we had a Zelda game with no combat, and you could move and rotate the tiles that make up world maps?”
It’s a fantastic idea that they endless exploit, and it has more than a few other facets going for it: the art design is cartoonishly spectacular; it has a great score that I have accidentally fallen asleep to more than once; and the writing is an appropriate amount of whimsy and melancholy for all ages.
You play as Carto, a young girl who gets lost during a storm and is thrust onto islands where, when someone comes of age, they are forced to leave their family behind. Carto helps heal a lot of these people as she pushes forward to be reunited with her grandmother.
Like I said: whimsical, but also melancholy.
However, some of the puzzle design felt lacking to me. I rarely try to lean on walkthroughs and while I love logic and lateral thinking puzzles, I found some of the puzzles simply maddening and, when I found out the solution, I knew I would have never have solved them on my own.
(It doesn’t help that every fucking site that features walkthroughs now is just an endless array of modals, pop-ups, auto-refreshing and ads.)
That said, I do not regret my time with it, or my cheating. If you use walkthroughs when you realize you need them, it’s a very cozy and very cute experience. At first blush, you might think that it’s an adorable mobile game ported to consoles, but no — it’s far more substantive than that.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox) Modern video game creators love space, especially abandoned space stations. Take TACOMA (which I recently wrote about). If you want a deeper dive? Sierra’s adventure game SPACE QUEST, which has five-and-counting sequels. SYSTEM SHOCK of course. PREY, the one specifically developed by Arkane (because I never played the predecessor).
Why is that? I think part of the reason is that you can get away with more rigid geometry with space games — organic matters require more complexity — and space outposts and vehicles are very specifically angular. Also, you rarely have to render other humanoids. Overall, the development experience for such games can be perceived as less-taxing in financial and technical ways.
That said: I’m not complaining. I love a good haunted space station tale or game. It’s perfect for feeling isolated but also slightly in touch with humanity, as well as imbuing the awe of the cosmos on you. Consequently, I was surprised to see that — via my PS+ Extra plan — I could play the Dutch game DELIVER US THE MOON.
I’ll admit, I partially wanted to play it because that is one amazing title. It unconventionally tells you everything without telling you anything.
DELIVER US THE MOON is a high-concept sci-fi justified rant against the short-sightedness of our use of Earth’s resources. In the near future, all energy resources have been depleted, but they discover a new one on the Moon, Helium-3, which they can then beam down to Earth.
Of course, it took them a good decade to build the tallest man-made structure ever, but they did and, for a while, all was good. Then it all goes terribly wrong and the Helium-3 station goes dark, effectively causing the same to happen on Earth.
After a number of years, a shuttle is cobbled together so they can send a scientist up to investigate and get the station back up and running. Matters escalate.
While DELIVER US THE MOON might look like an exploration simulator or — to use what far too many consider a pejorative — a walking simulator, it’s far more like a less-intense PORTAL. A lot of puzzles — sadly, many of them feel rather familiar to me — and even a few first-person platforming bits. They also mix in some timed action events, which are not my favorite things, as well as moment that evokes Alfonso Caruso’s GRAVITY.
I’ll note that TACOMA was released after DELIVER US THE MOON, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities: both feature an abandoned space station, both are hardly action-centric, both are first-person, and both tell their narrative mostly through found spectral, abstract holographic records. In my opinion, TACOMA pulls it off better; it has puzzles, but no platforming, no time-limited scenarios, no quick-time events, and the holographic storytelling is far more interactive and inventive. (See my write-up for more.)
Yes, both games set out to do different things, but they dovetail quite well together. If you like one, you’ll probably enjoy the other and vice versa. Either way, if you are a sucker for slightly-creepy jaunts in the isolation of space, it’s worth your time, although you might find one more frustrating than the other.
(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.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) If you’ve played any video games released in the past twenty years, you’ve probably encountered a feature that allows you to rotate and zoom inventory items around to scrutinize the fine detailing the art department put into the work. Usually it feels like a bit of fluff, and I rarely take part in exploring the items because I waste enough time on games as it is.
Indie developers Hollow Games — and quality publisher Annapurna — took that conceit and built an entire game around it, and the result is an amazingly poignant and melancholy narrative puzzler experience.
I AM DEAD plainly lays out its narrative conceit: you play as recently deceased Morris Lupton, a longtime denizen of the fishing island of Shelmerston, New Zealand. He’s reunited with his long-lost dog Sparky, who somehow can talk now because it’s initially hand-waved because of the afterlife.
The island has a volcano that’s been dormant for years and years, but has started roiling and rumbling again, and Morris is tasked with finding a ghost who would like to placate it by minding it, replacing the current volcano minder. Sparky helps to guide Morris through finding a suitable replacement through seeking out memories from the living to help sniff out and materialize the ghosts of the past. Even better, the game sidesteps what could easily be a journey of grief and sadness, and instead celebrates a life well-lived.
The cartoonish art design is colorful and pops — it feels like COSTUME QUEST meets THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: WIND WAKER, but don’t let the aesthetics fool you. The game is properly mature and — while there’s no gore or even swearing — it’s about complex folks that may have had a rocky life, and have had their lives taken from them. Yes, you’ll be spending most of your time rotating and zooming items, but I AM DEAD breaks up the flow with an ingenious bit of storytelling that requires you to bring a memory into focus, and not in the usual lens-like focusing that most games attempt.
It is an emotional game, and a fantastical one that features fish people and an assortment of creatures (and even some robots) that wouldn’t be out-of-place in the game NIGHT IN THE WOODS (2017) — but in a way that pulls at your heartstrings instead of pulling your heart out. Also, for an indie game, it’s not your standard four-hours-then-you’re-done affair; it’s extremely substantial — about 10-15 hours, depending on how patient you are — allowing Hollow Games to serve up a multi-faceted world.
I admit, I did balk at playing it for some time, solely because of the potential dread of the title, but it’s a charming item of a game, and one that deserves more attention. (I’ll note that I had a hard time finding many fans of it, much less videos. There’s one folk song that they insert that I really wanted to embed because I love it when a game inserts a folk song as part of the adventure, but alas, it was nowhere to be found.)
(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!
(PC/PS4/PS5/Xboxes) Pacific Northwest. Character-forward. Narrative-based decisions. A middle-aged woman computer programmer trying to navigate her life in 1986.
This game couldn’t fit more squarely into my wheelhouse.
While a lot of the game does remind me of LIFE IS STRANGE, this is far cozier than LIFE IS STRANGE’s teenage drama. (Except for WAVELENGTHS, naturally.)
It is absolutely worth noting that this game is little more than a small-scale tale of said woman taking a break from her normal life, temporarily running her father’s mail job in their hometown while finding a more permanent solution. In the meantime, you get to re-familiarize yourself with the locals and, if you’re so brazen, can even attempt to romance them.
(I’ll note that I tried so hard to romance the twenty-years-younger woman running the video store, but that didn’t work out. The dude lumberjack was super into me, though. Not my type so I gently let him down.)
This is a quintessential cozy game. You just drive around, you deliver mail, you drop off packages, you listen to townies grouse, you try to help them out, and at the end of the day you talk to your parents on the phone. Roll credits.
I love it. The town is well-drawn, it involves a frickin’ BBS and ASCII graphics, but that nerdiness isn’t meant to alienate folks; it simply serves to show the prior world that the protagonist — Miss Meredith Weiss — existed in.
I’ll note that, at least the PS4/PS5 version, is buggier than I’d like. For a game that relies on dialog trees, highlighting your responses can be very unpredictable, and there were a few spots where I had to restart the game, and there are a lot of visual hiccups. Heck, even just watching the final credits proved to be a problem as I had to pause them partially through, then had to replay a good chunk of the game to get back to them.
Nonetheless, it’s worth the effort, as this is one of those rare games that feel like a memory without being nostalgia-bait. It’s sweet and earnest and low-key, and so few games provide that comfort.
This post includes links to, and discussion of, severe depictions of violence.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox) I’ve never loved the faux-noir of MAX PAYNE or its sequel. (Don’t even get me started about the film adaptation.) Those games felt terribly adolescent, which isn’t the vibe you want from noir or neo-noir. Even BRICK, directed by Rian Johnson — an entire neo-noir film about adolescents — feels far more mature than the first two Max Payne games.
MAX PAYNE 3 is a completely different beast. It’s neo-noir by way of Michael Mann in COLLATERAL mode, all hedonism and nihilism and neon-soaked coastal digital backdrops with rude black drop-offs, letting you know you’re just so close to falling off the precipice.
MAX PAYNE 3 came out around the time of KANE & LYNCH 2 which, while KANE & LYNCH 2 is an extraordinarily remarkable visual triumph, it is also a terribly unplayable game (and I actually enjoyed the first one despite the fact that it was one of the first games to cause a major rift in games criticism), and both share a very stylized, very heightened but also very surveillance look to them. (Also, both clearly owe a debt to the missed action director Tony Scott.)
Are you playing as an irredeemable shitheel? Yes, yes you certainly are. Is there any fun to be found in this personal hell that you’re playing through? No, not really — you’re barely an anti-hero — however, there is one fucking amazing set-piece scored by electro artists HEALTH featuring a looped version of “Tears” that I will never, ever forget. I play a lot of games and, while I am normally prone to hyperbole, this moment is absolutely in my top 10 gaming moments of all-time.
There’s a specific melancholy to it while, yes, it has a lot to do with HEALTH’s initial “Tears” video which is definitely NSFW and features a lot of dystopian zombie toddler stuff, but the devs finessed it slowing down and back up and looping, and the level is designed in a certain way that is emotionally evocative.
You can go long stretches without seeing anyone. You simply feel beaten down, like you’re on your last legs, but you still have to circle around the airport. There is no hope for Max here, but he’s trying to do the right thing, get to the exit, and the brutality of trudging through the endless folks in the airport is a testament to that.
(Again, I will note that this excerpt is very violent.)