Monday, December 31, 2012

TRAUMA and Tower of Heaven

I'm going to talk about two games I played yesterday. I actually played a lot of games yesterday, but these were the two that stayed with me the most.


I'm going to start with a link to the soundtrack's BandCamp page. Listening to it will give you a good feel for the kind of atmosphere it gives off.

TRAUMA is a point and click adventure game that requires you to explore the environment to acquire photographs. There are 4 stages to explore, and 9 photographs are hidden within each one. Each stage is a dreamscape that the injured--and unnamed--main character explores in her subconscious. The main character is recovering in a hospital from a car accident.

In order to explore the environment, the player learns to paint a number of symbols with light. Interestingly, the light looks a lot like a car's headlights, in reference to the trauma the main character has suffered.

The game's difficulty isn't particularly high, but some of the photographs can be in tricky, out-of-reach places. Each stage has three separate alternate endings, brought on by symbols that are learned in other levels. What this means is that if you learn the symbol to cut something for one stage, it will be integral for the original finale of that stage. You can, however, use it in other stages to produce a different ending. Once you achieve all three alternate endings and the original ending in a stage, you unlock a photo radar that will help you track down any missing photos. This is extremely useful as some of them are hidden very well.

What I find interesting about this game is that it explores some facets of the main character's identity, but it's all very subtle. She doesn't come out and say much, but the player can tell she's disgruntled with her parents for forcing her down a path she didn't want to take, and not supporting her with other desires she had in the past. She was always struggling to meet their expectations, but perhaps they were too high. The "What they expect" stage is very implicit of this. Because the game rarely says anything outright, it makes some narrative decisions that allow the players to draw their own conclusions.

Reading other reviews online, I noticed that the voice actress, Anja Jazeschann, was criticised, in some circles, for not putting enough emotion into the narrative and thereby distancing the player. I would like to take this opportunity to disagree. The character in this game is not just recovering from her trauma, but also stuck in a period of deep unhappiness that, to me, sounds like she's been suffering from for awhile, but hasn't really begun to address it until she is hospitalised. The alternate ending implies that her problems are there to stay, as well. As such, the voice actress' hopeless tone is both accurate and immersive.

This game was somewhat reminiscent of MYST for me. When I was playing MYST, I always found the intense puzzles to be a distraction from what, in my mind, was the true star of the game: the moody and atmospheric environments. This game delivered what I've been wanting for a long time.

Tower of Heaven

This game was simply beautiful, and I mean that in the most literal way possible: the graphics were simple, boasting a palette akin to that of an old school GameBoy (and, in fact, inspiring the palette for this blog), but still managing to achieve stunning visual effects. The music was almost too good to be true. For chiptunes, they achieved a beauty and quality that I didn't expect. If you want to see what I mean, here is the soundtrack, also available for purchase on BandCamp. I love the soundtrack; it's one of the main highlights for me, especially the track Indignant Divinity. Wow.

One of the first things I noticed about this game was how hard it was. The creator even has a disclaimer stating as much. You will probably get frustrated getting to the end, but it will be worth it. You'll feel accomplished, too. You get unlimited lives, which is great, because you'll probably need them.

Imagine if you will: you're on a timer to defeat the already dangerous level, then you're told you can't touch a certain colour of block, the sides of any blocks, nor can you walk left. If you do any of these things, you will die. Also, touching so much as a vine or a blade of grass will kill you in later levels. Oh, and you're timed, too. That is what happens in this game. You receive a tally of deaths at the end. I got 297. Yikes.

You start the game and you're alone on the stairs to a tower where a deity lives. This deity is insulted at your insolence for daring to climb up his tower, and he threatens you with smiting if you don't get to the next level in the right amount of time.

It's a platformer with some puzzle elements. Usually the levels are arranged in such a way that it becomes very difficult for you to complete them without dying at least once. Or at least five times.

I very much enjoyed the game, particularly for the atmospheric quality the soundtrack and graphics give it. Some levels were frustrating because I'm really bad at games but that made it all the more satisfying when I got to the end. What I liked about the difficulty level was that while yes, the game was very hard, it was never hard to a point that I didn't think I could do it. The unlimited lives helped with that, I think.

Here's a clip of a Let's Play of it, as it's a Newgrounds game and it sadly doesn't have a trailer. It's not a very long game, so if you really want to get the full experience I recommend only watching a few minutes.

That's it for those two games! I recommend trying them both. If you have any recommendations for me to play, give me a shout in the comments section.

This is the first actual post here at thisindiegameblog, so I wanted to take this opportunity to say thanks for reading. I'm a big lover of indie games and I feel that the more indie games are talked about, the more they'll be played, and the more they're played, the better the creators will be recognised. Happy New Year! May 2013 be filled with many new wonderful indie games for us all to play!


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Finishing the Swan

Today, I braved the Boxing Day shopping rush to grab something other than a deal. It was a PSN card, so that I could download and enjoy a breathtaking PSN title called The Unfinished Swan. I played the demo last night and was immediately drawn (or painted, in keeping with the theme) to it, so I knew I had to play it as soon as I could.

This game was released as a partnership with Santa Monica Studio's incubation program, which also released other fine independent titles such as Flower and Journey. Naturally, I had high hopes for this game.


You play as a young boy named Monroe whose mother has passed away. She loved to paint pictures of animals, but she would never finish them. When she died, he got to take one of her paintings as a memento, and it was a picture of an unfinished swan.

One night, Monroe awakens from his sleep, and the swan has gone missing from the painting. He goes to look for it, and he's pulled into a white world where he must begin by throwing balls of black paint to reveal his surroundings. All the while, he is following the golden footprints of the swan to try and track it down.

As the player, you watch the surroundings evolve from simplistic white canvas that reveals pathways and creatures through the thrown black paint balls, to landscapes that feature simple white with grey shadows, to all-around elaborate, inverted dark-to-light levels. The gameplay evolves from splattering paintballs, to using water balloons to grow vines that you can climb across, to creating blocks in an alternate dimension that will transfer to the regular dimension. Each chapter of the story teaches you how to play the game through sheer experimentation and simple puzzles that will bring you closer to completing the story. The puzzles never get too difficult, and the gameplay is very minimalistic, making it a good choice for experienced gamers and casual gamers alike. You can simply pick it up and play it.

Some of the game's concept art.
Design-wise, it relies on minimalistic colours, shapes and designs, and the character designs possess a nostalgic, Petit Prince-like quality. The world, though mainly empty of characters, is full of breathtaking scenery, reminiscent of ICO. Its gameplay, though it uses a number of different mechanics to bring it to life, can be summed up as a platformer, though, as many games are, this game is so much more than that. It's one of those refreshing games that is simple but complex. It creates a new idea of what gaming can look like, and the direction it might be headed.

Another interesting component of the story is the unexpected dual storyline. At first, you're witnessing Monroe's story alone, but as the game progresses, the story of a self-absorbed king begins to unfold, to the point that his story is as important as Monroe's. It also draws a lot of parallels to Monroe's story, and to his mother's story.

While the game deals with some dark or sad themes, it is considerably lighthearted. Part of this is because of the game's fairy tale-like storytelling. It deals with the subject of death in a way that is overt, yet sensitive and honest. To me, this is saying that death is a normal part of life, and how you accept death says a lot about you. The theme of leaving things unfinished is an interesting theme, as well, but I won't go too far into detail, or else I risk spoiling parts of the game.

The game is a triumphant voyage through the imagination. It's beautiful, uplifting, strange, mysterious, and just a little bit sad. I felt compelled to talk about it in detail after playing it, but I also know I'm not quite finished with it yet. Something about this game begs to be revisited. It's one of those games that, to me, feels almost allegorical, like a good piece of literature. It further cements the video game's place as a form of art and a storytelling device. While video games have been debated over for their artistic merits for a long time, to me there is no question that it's a remarkable art form. What other medium allows you to immerse yourself so wholly into the experience?

The game is available for purchase on the PSN for your Playstation 3 system. You can also download the demo for a free trial. For more info on the game, you can read an interview with Ian Dallas, the game's creative director, here. To add, Journey-lovers should check this game out. You may just find a little surprise hidden within.

(Note: This post was originally published on 12/27/12 at this link.)

More on Journey

Not to beat a dead horse, but I have more to say about this game after a week of playing it. As I said in my last post, I don't want this to turn into a video game review blog. That's not my aim. Instead, I'd like to have a discussion about this game, because I absolutely love it. I love this game.

Here is some background music for you while you read the article. Please listen to it; it's one of my favourite pieces from the game's soundtrack.

Since my last post, I have played through this game 4 more times, making for 5 in total, and my husband has played through once. I've convinced 2 other friends to play and it affected them similarly. The 4 other playthroughs were vastly different from my first, and two of them I found profoundly sad.

What I've learned from the playthroughs of the game is that finding a companion who wants to travel with you is absolutely golden. I was spoiled during my first few plays, and I had partners who were helpful, engaged and patient, then moved on to partners who were mostly goal-oriented in the latter plays, some of whom didn't think twice about running ahead. I got separated from many of them. It didn't sour the experience, but it did make me feel very sad, and lonely. This is especially true for the last one, in which I had a few not-so-patient partners, then finally came across one who was very friendly and let me teach them a little trick (how to trip). Momentarily afterward, though, we were separated, and then I was forced to complete the rest of the game alone.

One of the main things this game has taught me is that you can find kindness in anyone. In that the game is anonymous (until the end--but even then you can retain a level of anonymity), any person you meet on the street can be a person you played with. Regardless, I've been rethinking how I interact with people I don't know, even if it's obvious that they wouldn't play Journey. To me, the people you play Journey with are the same as the people you encounter randomly on the street. They each have that capacity for goodness and kindness. The person you're playing Journey with is, figuratively, the person who holds the door for you, or the person who bends down to help you pick up something you dropped. They may not be directly or overtly changing or affecting you, but what they do for you certainly means a lot. It's like graffiti or yarnbombing, but instead of witnessing a physical imprint, the player gets to witness an emotional imprint. The game's anonymity is also a nice reminder that you could be playing with anyone, making discrimination virtually impossible.

That also means that in this game, any first impression is not a first impression of you. You don't need to wear specific clothes or look a certain way for someone to like you. Racism is gone. Language is gone. A whole new level of anonymity is achieved. Because of that, nothing can be personal; it's simply not possible. Though, of course, with a game like this, the player just might end up taking things personally, because the game feels personal, even if it really isn't. The game is really an extension of yourself: it is how you project yourself uniquely in a world where people don't look so unique.

On a more plot-driven point, this game can be seen as many stories converging into one. This game has seven chapters: the Prologue, the Broken Bridge, the Desert, the Sunken City, the Water Caves, the Sand Temple, and the Snowy Summit. Other things that have seven chapters are the seven stages of grief and the seven stages of life, both of which can have nuances which hint to themes used in the game. I will leave that for you to explore with your own experience of the game, and if you haven't played the game yet... well, why haven't you played the game yet?!

The game is also highly reflective of the hero's journey, which Jenova Chen himself spoke of in an interview. Once again I'll let you read it and draw your own parallels.

Part of the problem I've had more recently with finding partners not quite so engaging might be me. I've realised that I have gone into the game more recently with a goal: to show people things and to make friends. But, it's the journey that's important. The point of this game is not to have goals and things you absolutely need to do or succeed at. It's the journey that counts!

To end this, I have a different article for you to read. This one is about Jenova Chen, co-founder of thatgamecompany and artistic director. I find his vision to be fascinating and genuine.

I think part of the reason this game has affected me so strongly is because I am on a journey, myself. Like Chen, my desire is also to move and touch people, but with words instead. It is my wish that some day, I might be able to write something that moves someone in the world as much as Journey moved (and continues to move) me.

(Note: This post was originally published on 4/5/12 at this link.)

A Petal for your Thoughts, Part 2

...And then, I played Journey.

As the trailer suggests, it's a game in which the journey is the most important part. As the trailer also suggests, there is a co-op mode, meaning you can play alongside someone else. The co-op is very unique, however, in that you don't choose who you play with. In fact, you don't even choose if you get to play with someone. The co-op is randomly selected, depending on whether or not someone is playing in the same area as you at the same time. They could also leave at any point, making your experience different every time. Sometimes they'll be replaced by someone else and you'll have multiple companions. You can't talk to your companion. You can only communicate in symbols, song notes and chirps. You may not believe this, but it actually becomes a feasible means of communicating, and you may find yourself understanding what your companion is saying by the end of the journey.

I was lucky, in that I had the same companion throughout. I wasn't sure if I had switched companions, but my suspicion of having the same one was confirmed at the end when I was told the screen name of my buddy (thanks for the great time, mrconkin! Sorry I kept falling off stuff; I have terrible depth perception).

Near the beginning of the game, I was walking alone when my companion, very suddenly, appeared beside me. We were both overjoyed, and we sang back and forth and chased each other in circles before progressing in our journey. The wide expanses of the game's setting are enough to make a player feel very small, so having a second person just like you to help you and stand beside you is startlingly powerful.

My companion was very helpful, and tried to protect me and signal me where to go when monsters appeared. He would sing to me to get my attention when he found something. At one point near the end of the game, we had been momentarily separated. I knew we were near the end, and I couldn't even see the white bloom glow that hinted at his whereabouts. I felt lonely and sad that we wouldn't be completing the journey together. I actually started crying as I looked up at the beautiful, glowing expanse I was soaring through, quietly wishing that my companion was there to see it with me.

My husband, who was watching me play behind me, saw the golden glow of my companion soaring up a long line of scarves at the same time I did. Knowing how attached I had grown to this guy in the mere span of 2 hours, he pointed him out, saying "there he is!". I laughed, and the two of us were reunited once more. After another brief separation, we were rejoined again, and we completed the journey together, walking into the bright white glow side by side.

Reading this, you would think I went on some sort of life-changing pilgrimage. I almost feel as though I did, and I don't care how stupid that sounds.

The game made me think of communication, and the inner workings of things like language. The entire game, nothing is ever verbally communicated, and it's not needed. You form ways of communicating with your companion, and you learn more about the story by visual representation. Your relationship to your companion reminded me a bit of ICO, in which you also can't communicate other than by calling out. The bond is made stronger, though, in Journey, by your companion actually being a real person on the other side. A story I heard online was that someone played a game of Journey with someone and sent them a message afterwards. That person replied to them in Japanese, meaning they were both able to play this game together when they may otherwise not have been able to do so. It's incredible that a game can bring strangers together like that.

I am truly captivated at the way these games can convey strong stories without using any words. They both have linear stories with a beginning, middle, and end, but the only way to communicate those stories is through strong images and powerful music. And yet, I feel I have a stronger response to these games than from any game I've ever played. It seems that the games with the most minimalist storylines and gameplay are the ones that really tug at me and make me think outside of the story.

I don't want to turn this into a video game review blog, obviously, but being that both Journey and Flower are games that have heavily inspired me (and the blog is called "When I'm Inspired, after all) I felt compelled to share my experiences in writing.

If either of these games appeal to you at all, I really urge you to play them. My experiences are just that: my experiences. You cannot truly know these games by listening to someone else's commentary. You have to play them yourself to truly know. Some people have talked about which is "better", but in my opinion they can't be compared. They are separate, unique experiences that stand alone.

Both of these games are great advocates of non-violence in video games, as well as art in video games. Journey is an excellent example of teamwork, as the only reason to work with someone else in the game is for the sheer gratification of it. I feel there is a little something in each thatgamecompany game that suggests harmony and peace. If we all had that little something in us, I believe the world could be a better place.

Our world is so full of "stuff"--cars, buildings, and machines. In a world like this, it's nice to find some simplicity, such as the simplicity you find in Flower and Journey. The landscape and scenery can make you feel this unexpected elation. It's too bad that can't be enough for all of us.

That is how these games have affected me. Have they affected you, too?

(Note: this post was was originally published on 3/16/12 at this link.)

A Petal for your Thoughts

Anyone who has ever tried to pass off video games as mindless entertainment really owes it to him/herself to check out the game I have posted a trailer of below.

This game is Flower, a game in which you control the wind and a stream of petals to make flowers bloom. Each flower that blooms adds another petal to your stream. It sounds simple, but watching the trailer alone should tell you that it's actually a very intensive emotional experience. It's a game that is directed at everyone, and that anyone could pick up and play and enjoy.

I don't want to spoil the ending, so I'll recommend that if you have a PS3, you at least download the demo and give it a shot. I hope you won't be disappointed.

Playing through this game got me thinking about the things we do to this planet and have been doing, and all the things that are happening because of us. The bees disappearing, climate change. The earth is slowly falling into ruin. It's not pleasant to think about, but it's sadly what we face from day to day. Most people prefer not to think about it at all (including myself, some days), and some deny it. The reality is that the planet is declining, and we aren't helping that. In fact, we're helping it decline.

I notice a lot of negative connotation when the topic of environmentalism is brought about, and I've always really wondered why. I read a letter to the editor in a local newspaper once that said that "tree-hugging" wasn't the way to secure a sustainable future, and that a creating jobs (that negatively impact the environment, in this instance) was. I can understand and support the need for jobs in any community, but why would that ever take precedence over the world we live in? If it's an immediate threat to our world, why would we choose that over our planet?

We've taken the earth into our own hands, and we haven't been very careful with it.

I'm not saying I'm perfect. None of us are. But we can all find ways to live a little more purely, whether it's by recycling more, composting, turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, planting more flowers, or turning off the light when you leave the room.

Earth Hour is coming up on March 31, 2012, 8:30 PM. If you're able, try to make an effort to use little to no energy during that time. Light a candle and read a book. I plan on doing just that.

(Note: This post was originally published on 3/25/12 at this link.)