(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/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.)
(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.)
While I first played LIFE IS STRANGE waaaay back in 2017, I’ve been intensely playing/replaying all of them pretty much non-stop for the last two months.
“I want to look at everything.”
I realize that’s not healthy. Emotionally, they’re absolutely brutal. My wife remarked: “Everytime I see you playing these games, someone is sobbing or you are.”
However, I’ve been going through a lot over the past year — to the point where friends have reached out and asked me: “Are you okay? Because you don’t seem like you’re okay.”
“I thought if you heard my voice, it could be a little bit like I was there.”
And no, no I’m not. Not at all. While I don’t want anyone’s sympathy, I do appreciate the outreach, and that’s exactly what LIFE IS STRANGE encapsulates.
(I will be fine. I have a quality support network. I’m just over-emotional in general.)
LIFE IS STRANGE: BEYOND THE STORM — FAREWELL [REMASTERED] (FAREWELL from here on out) supplies a short and bittersweet closure to the Arcadia Bay series. It’s simply Max and Chloe lounging around as young carefree teens until the end.
That’s all. That’s the entire game.
It’s delightful, and as someone who has lived through too much, to be able to relive the lighter moments of the past brings a smile to my face. Is it sheer nostalgia through another’s eyes? Yeah, but I’ll take it.
Two facets that I haven’t quite touched on with prior LIFE IS STRANGE entries:
1) The goddamn soundtrack. The music programming and the original scoring is absolute perfection. It encapsulates the ennui and conflict and ebulliency of being a youth. No notes.
2) Chloe’s physicality, height, and lankiness. As someone who is taller than most, often thinner than most, and prone to leap up on curbs as if they were a balance beam, I absolutely loved the animation work here.
FAREWELL sees Chloe before she literally feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. She springboards around, leaps around, bounds down stairs and jumps onto tables. She’s still slightly awkward and feeling matters out, but supremely confident in her command of her body in a way I’ve never quite seen in a video game.
I realize that may sound odd given that 90% of video games are all about physical activities, but there’s a personal exuberance here that feels fresh and makes me feel very seen.
“Even when we’re apart. We’re still Max and Chloe.”
To re-iterate: this has been an enormously exhausting but fulfilling journey; one that finally has me exhaling. At least until the next game. If you want to put yourself through the emotional interactive wringer, as opposed to mindlessly shooting dummies, I highly recommend it, but it does come at as cost, as does simply living life. There’s absolutely nothing like these games, and I’ll treasure them always.
In my prior BEFORE THE STORM write-up I noted how I relate far more to Chloe than I did to Max, which seems to be an unpopular opinion but I am who I am. I didn’t go into details so here are a few additional reasons that dovetail with my youth.
Chloe is a quintessential young punk, whereas I was a quintessential young gothling; she sneaks out of her house to attend illicit live band shows in sketchy places; she feels all alone in the world, at least until she finds a friend in Rachel Amber who presents as a perfect straight-A student but is actually a hedonistic, rebellious queer youth.
Been there, done that (although not necessarily in that order).
“It’s okay not to be okay, Chloe Price.”
BEFORE THE STORM sees Chloe trying to heal after the abandonment of Max and the death of her father, and she finds solace in Rachel’s hands. For three episodes, we get see the joy in her eyes, the wonder of discovery, a whole new queer world opening up in front of her.
Again, if you’ve played the prior games, you know how this ends, and it is not good, but goddamnit, I just love to see Chloe — as angsty as she is in this point in her life — happy, if only momentarily.
Upon replaying, I was surprised at how much foreshadowing and groundwork was laid, although I definitely suggest playing this after the first game.
Also, upon replaying, I had Chloe interact a bit more aggressively and was happy I did so; the call-and-response is far more interesting than the rather milquetoast approach I took the first time.
While the game lacks any supernatural or superpower elements, it does have spectacle with fire. Again, these are not subtle games — it’s subtext to communicate the burning urges of youth — but I can’t help but love it, and visually the billowing smoke ever-present in the background is so very striking.
And while you don’t have Max’s rewind powers, the developers have nicely added a few new features to the dialogue trees to keep matters fresh. Never at any point in time does it feel like you’re simply watching a film — you feel like you are in control, and that your decisions make a difference.
Lastly, I’ll state: this post is concerning the remaster, which … is not great. It is not polished. It has a ton of bugs and crashed several times and honestly? Doesn’t even look good enough to merit the term ‘remaster’. However: I bought it simply so I’d have a physical copy, so I could play it on my Switch on a desert island until the batteries died. That’s how much I love this game.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) One of my favorite things about LIFE IS STRANGE is its episodic fragmentation because it allows me to detail specific things I love about the series without having to write everything into one long post.
So, yes, I’m totally using the remastered version — which includes the first game and BEFORE THE STORM — to summarize everything I wasn’t able to shoehorn in before about the first game. (There will be one last post about the BEFORE THE STORE remaster!)
[Slight spoilers below!]
The fourth episode of the initial game is absolutely brutal, but also very memorable. Max’s time use inadvertently affecting her best friend is heart-rending, and the two of them reconnecting — a second time — is extremely emotional in a way that I’ve never felt in another game.
At the end, well, I’ve witnessed others going through what Max is tasked to do, and — the way I played it — goddamn, in real life I was just an observer, there for comfort, but holy hell. My face gets wet just thinking about it.
I’ve said it before: this is just life. Life is hard. Nothing and no one can prepare you for what you’re going to live through, because everyone’s journey is different. But if you can find folks that can help navigate you through, you’re very lucky, and that’s why the fourth episode is so tough for me, because of the loss, and because of the changes.
While I absolutely love this series — it’s certainly one of my all-time favorites — this remaster? It kinda sucks. Visually, sure, it’s slightly glossier — oddly, Rachel seems to have the best glow-up — but doesn’t add much except for major loading times and overly severe and distracting lighting. (I’ll note that I played it via Switch — loading times may be faster via your Xbox.) While the original was slightly janky, this feels terribly unpolished and I encountered a number of bugs and crashes, which is weird for a remaster. Frankly, I’m pleased I played the original digital copies when initially writing about this series, because that felt more natural and playable. It certainly doesn’t look as crisp or play as well as TRUE COLORS.
Nonetheless, I was very happy to see Chloe and Max together again, although watching Chloe and knowing what will happen made me constantly well-up. I kept thinking: “This isn’t fair. I just want the best for them!” Granted, that’s the sort of emotional response any writer wants to hear when they pen something, but goddamnit, as someone playing the game, it’s rough. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I did try to lighten her load.
I hope I’ve convinced you to at least try the series, no matter which way you can. It’s absolutely something special and evocative and overly emotional and I love it. This is a series of games that will most certainly inspire and influence future game designers and developers, and it’s extremely rare to know that upon initially playing a game. It’s so raw and heartfelt and, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to believe it even exists. It was a huge swing on behalf of Don’t Nod and they knocked it out of the park, and it’s something that will live with me always.
While I said that LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM is my favorite of the series I, somewhat intentionally, neglected to mention that LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS (TRUE COLORS from here on forward) is the one I identify with most.
TRUE COLORS centers around Alex, a twenty-something who reunites with Gabe, her big brother, in the fictional town of Haven Springs, Oregon. Their mother died of cancer when they were teens, their father abandoned them shortly after, then her brother was locked up in juvie for carjacking, and Alex was scuttled from foster home to home, essentially until now.
(I’ll note that there’s a spoiler below, but it literally happens in the first chapter and it is a major part of Alex’s journey, and really not spoiler-y! But go forth, play it, then come back if you’re squeamish!)
Of course, LIFE IS STRANGE being LIFE IS STRANGE, her brother is killed under specious conditions.
Also, LIFE IS STRANGE being LIFE IS STRANGE, it’s revealed that Alex has superpowers: she’s an full-blown empath who can literally see how people are feeling, hurting, and intense emotions cause her to lash out.
All my life I’ve been called out as someone overly sensitive, someone overly emotional, someone too observant, and when I am emotionally overwhelmed, I too explode.
So, yeah. This hits a bit too close to home for me. When I described the game to my wife, she explicitly asked: “Are you sure you should be playing this?” and I replied “No! I definitely should not!” but proceeded to do so anyway, and proceeded to cry through the bulk of the first third of the game, and I’m a better person for doing so. For as much as the game underscores the trials and tribulations of being emotionally oversensitive, it also extolls them. Alex is not only finding the truth out about the death of her brother, but finding what she wants out of life.
It also serves as one of the best renditions of a rural town’s Main Street I’ve ever played. I’ve previously harped on how the LIFE IS STRANGE series mirrors my time growing up in Vermont and TRUE COLORS is the absolute pinnacle of that. Haven feels like I’m wandering through Church Street — downtown Burlington, Vermont — even down to the indie record store. (Shout out to Pure Pop!) The only thing missing are the gravy fries from Nectar’s.
(I’ll also note that TRUE COLORS features the following exchange: “Greatest Northwest band of all time? Go.” “Sleater-Kinney, if you were wondering.” and Sleater-Kinney is only one of my favorite bands ever, so thanks game for validating that you are solely for me.)
I’d be remiss to neglect to mention the glow-up imparted on TRUE COLORS. While the prior LIFE IS STRANGE games had striking visual character designs, TRUE COLORS is absolutely gorgeous, all rounded features, glossy and fluid animations, and even better: it imparts a sense of tactility that was lacking in the prior games. It’s not just that characters touch each other, it’s that they rub and wear and scrape against works around them. This is a world well-crafted.
This game contains details of familial death. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning those details.
If you’ve been following along with the prior posts: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL (FAREWELL, going forward) is a very short prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM, going forward), which is the prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE.
In other words: you get to see Max and Chloe as very early youths, just as Max is about to leave for Seattle and just when Chloe’s life turns to shit.
BEFORE THE STORM was far smaller-scale than LIFE IS STRANGE, and FAREWELL is even more intimate. It details one of Max’s last days with Chloe before she moves to Seattle. She hasn’t told Chloe yet — she’s afraid of ruining the mood and just wants to hang out with her best friend and riff on the good times; all of their pirate games and treasure maps and blowing up shit and languid lounging sleepy days, hanging around Chloe’s room, occasionally popping out for a stack of her mother’s pancakes.
One of the most remarkable features of LIFE IS STRANGE is its indulgence in reminiscing and introspection. Each and every installment features a number of places to sit or lay down on and mull over feelings and revel in memories. For the majority of FAREWELL, it’s Max laying alongside Chloe on her bed as they idly listen to music, the breeze flowing through the windows, as she recounts her feelings about her best friend to herself. The camera cuts to specific areas of Chloe’s room, occasionally glimsping the outside, even after Max has completed her inner monologue.
It’s techniques such as that which makes LIFE IS STRANGE a game instead of an interactive novel. You can exit out of these vignettes at any point in time. Hell, you don’t even need to enact them. However, when you do it enriches the characters and the world that they inhabit.
FAREWELL is quietly brutal, with a gut-punch of an ending but, for a short period of time, you get to live in the idyllic world of their youth and see them simply having fun and enjoying life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself opting out of works that unnecessarily put their characters through unrelenting traumatic circumstances and, while LIFE IS STRANGE most certainly does that — I realize it’s basic narrative necessity — it also finds time and space to give them joyful experiences, and I will miss them.
“Even when we’re apart, we’re still Max and Chloe.”