With (at last count) 544 games in my Steam library, I'm not going to run out of things to play anytime soon. In this recurring column, I'll be offering my take what I've been playing on PC recently. Here we go!
Developed and published by PostMod Softworks
The Old City falls squarely into the genre of "walking simulator," the first-person, story-driven, exploration-based style popularized by the likes of Gone Home, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable. But while it delivers some beautiful environments to gawk at, it simply doesn't deliver on the story.
A plot synopsis? Well, the game is set in a desolate, abandoned city. You read diary entries by someone named Jonah, heavily alluding to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. There are references to some sort of past apocalypse, and the survivors splitting into three camps, overseen (I think?) by a group called the Minotaurs. And throughout, you hear unbearably pretentious narration from your unseen protagonist, musing on the nature of existence and so forth. And tying into the story of Jonah, there's also a giant whale involved (the titular Leviathan), which is probably just a metaphor and doesn't literally exist, but maybe I'm wrong. I don't really care.
And that's why it's so hard to recommend this game: I don't care about any of it. There's simply no human, relatable element to the story, like, for example, piecing together your sister's journey of self-discovery in Gone Home. All this game has to offer are pretentious philosophical musings and boring exposition dumps, mixed with a dose of largely unsuccessful mind-fuckery (remember the whale I mentioned)?
It sure is pretty, though.
Developed by Giant Squid, published by 505 Games; also on PS4 and Xbox One
This underwater adventure is heavily influenced by other dialogue-free, meditative exploration games, particularly Journey, a game with which it shares a composer and art director. I've admittedly never played most of those games, never having owned a Sony console, but fortunately, ABZU is more than capable of standing on its own.
There isn't much to this game, mechanically or narratively. As a nameless diver, you swim forward through beautiful, stylized underwater environments, pausing here or there to solve a rudimentary switch-flipping puzzle or two. As for the story, it's left implicit, told mostly through paintings on the ancient ruins you swim past that tell how a once-majestic civilization came to ruin, and how it might be restored.
But oh, what an experience it is. There's hardly a single moment in the game that isn't visually stunning; the game invites you to pause and drink in the scenery, offering meditation pedestals that let you jump into the perspective of various sea creatures, as well as the ability to grab onto nearly any creature larger than yourself and take it for a ride; neither of these features serve any purpose in advancing through the game, but both contribute greatly to making ABZU such a contemplative, relaxing, and absorbing experience.
At only about three hours from start to finish, ABZU is best played in a single sitting. But it's one of the best three hours I've spent on gaming in a long time.
Developed by Fiddlesticks Games, published by Curve Digital; also on PS4, Xbox One, and PS Vita
Hue is a charming 2D puzzle-platformer, themed, as the title suggests, around color. Specifically, your character, a boy oddly named Hue, has the ability to change the color of the background, which has the side effect of making any onscreen object that matches the background temporarily cease to exist; barriers disappear, deadly lasers vanish, and crates that were formerly being lifted up by colored balloons fall to the ground. You start out with only one color available to you, but as the game progresses, you'll gain access to a full rainbow of eight.
This may not sound like wildly inventive territory for a puzzle-platformer, and to be honest, it's not; while I'm not aware of another entry in the genre that uses this specific color-switching mechanic, much of what you do still boils down to pushing Block X onto Switch Y, or getting a key to unlock the exit to the room you're in.
But while Hue doesn't reinvent its genre, it does what it does with ample polish. The difficulty curve is wonderfully smooth, with new puzzle elements being gradually and carefully introduced to ease you in. Checkpoints are forgivingly spaced at the beginning of each puzzle, and time slows down while you switch colors, giving you plenty of time to avoid a laser or solidify a crucial platform in mid-air. And while the story is simple—Hue embarks on a quest to rescue his disappeared inventor mother—it's well told, through excellent voiceover narration. My only real complaint is that two pairs of colors (pink/fuschia and orange/yellow) are a tad too similar to consistently tell apart in the midst of gameplay, resulting in a few unnecessary deaths.
For any fan of puzzle-platformers, Hue is highly recommended.
Developed by Variable State, published by 505 Games; also on PS4 and Xbox One
Taking inspiration from the likes of The X-Files and Twin Peaks, Virginia is a first-person story-driven game with a stylized, low-polygon aesthetic in which your FBI agent protagonist, Anne Tarver, investigates the disappearance of a boy in a small town. What it absolutely is not, however, is a typical walking simulator.
Instead of allowing the player to explore an environment purely at his or her own pace, Virginia is a resolutely cinematic experience. Taking inspiration from indie classic Thirty Flights of Loving, Virginia tells its story by cutting from one scene to another, with the player continuing to see through Tarver's eyes the whole time. It can be disorienting at first, but by combining the techniques of film with the first-person perspective of more traditional narrative games, Virginia delivers an experience that couldn't be replicated in any other medium.
And have I mentioned that Virginia contains not a single word of dialogue or narration? That's right, this game almost completely avoids most conventional methods of storytelling in gaming. Instead, its primary methods are its simple but expressive character models, its ambient audio and music, and its cinematically cutting across space and time from one scene to the next.
And when I say space and time, I mean it. In true David Lynchian fashion, the story takes some very nonlinear, surreal, and even supernatural detours, culminating in a symbolism-laden final act that's open to myriad interpretations. In other words, don't come to Virginia expecting a conventional mystery story with an unambiguous ending that neatly ties up every plot thread from earlier in the game. But if you don't mind coming away from a game with a lot of questions, then stay for a two-hour experience that boldly challenges the conventions of video game storytelling.
Developed and published by Blue Wizard Digital; also on iOS, Android, PS4, and Xbox One
On a mechanical level, there's nothing that original about Slayaway Camp. It's a sliding-block puzzler with grid-based movement, where you have to slide your character to collect a certain number of objects in each level, and then over the exit. The twist is mainly in its theme: you're the killer in an 80s slasher movie, and the objects you must collect to complete each level are victims you need to kill.
Needless to say, Slayaway Camp is much gorier than your average puzzle game (though that can be toned down via the options menu). However, its simple, colorful Minecraft-esque pixels in 3D art direction goes a long way towards mitigating any unease that might result from the premise.
And there's no shortage of content: there are hundreds of levels organized into different fictional movies, each one themed around a setting like a summer camp (duh), an old mine, an amusement park, Santa's workshop, and even Hell itself. The game regularly introduces new elements, like mines that can be used to blow up your targets, objects that can be knocked over onto your victims but also block your path, telephones that can compel other characters to run to the other end of the line, and cats that result in an instant game over if you touch them (cruelty to humans is fine, but cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden here).
With its short levels and touch-friendly gameplay mechanics,* Slayaway Camp* is best played on a mobile device, but it's a great puzzler on any platform. Provided you're not squeamish, of course.
Developed and published by Krillbite Studio; also on PS4 and Xbox One
The strangely ungrammatically titled Among the Sleep is horror adventure with a twist: you play as a two-year-old. This translates into gameplay on several levels, because as toddlers rarely pose a physical threat to anyone, there's no combat to be found, and enemies must be avoided rather than confronted. You're routinely stymied by your height: you can't reach doorknobs without a piece of furniture to boost you up. Additionally, you can only run for short distances before falling over, and crawling is actually faster than walking. Finally, your main companion, and your light source in the game's many dark spaces, is a talking teddy bear that glows when hugged.
The game also does a decent job of translating this into its visual design. Starting with a tutorial area in a conventional child's bedroom, you soon explore the rest of the house, before beginning a series of levels that distort and remix mundane elements—the house you start in, a playground—in increasingly surreal ways.
Unfortunately, the moment-to-moment gameplay doesn't really deliver on the potential unique premise. Many levels boil down to basic block-pushing and switch-flipping puzzles, and there's a pervasive sense of clunkiness to the movement and mechanics that can't simply be ascribed to the limited physical mobility of its protagonist. As for the horror element, there are only a few areas where monsters pose any real threat to the player, and the copious hiding places available (monsters can't catch you as long as you're underneath a piece of furniture) mean there's little real challenge. And on a story level, well, there's a twist involving the nature of the game's monsters, but it's telegraphed pretty early on, making it anything but surprising when it finally arrives.
I still found Among the Sleep solid enough to be worth playing simply on the basis of its premise, especially at its short playtime of about three hours. But those looking for a more polished, original horror experience will want to keep looking.
Developed and published by Team Salvato
This is a particularly tough game to describe without going into spoiler territory, so be warned.
The Literature Club is full of cute girls! Will you write the way into their heart? This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.
That's the Steam description for Doki Doki Literature Club!, a viral indie sensation that, on the surface, appears to be a standard romance-themed Japanese-style visual novel. The premise casts you as a high school student who joins the titular literature club, which is indeed "full of cute girls." There's your childhood friend, Sayori; the bubbly Natsuki; the shy and withdrawn Yuri; and the leader of the group, Monika. In a typical visual novel, you'd select which of the four to romance and make decisions at various key points accordingly, but here... that "not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed" is no joke.
Suffice to say that despite its bubbly exterior and title, Doki Doki Literature Club ends up entering some extremely dark territory, not only breaking the fourth wall in some clever and unexpected ways, but also incorporating depression, suicide, and self-harm as plot points.
Notice that I said "as plot points," as opposed to "as themes." Because that's all they really are. The narrative ultimately doesn't use these elements to say anything about depression, suicide, or self-harm, or even to say much of anything about the genre conventions that they're presumably intended to subvert. They're essentially just there for shock value.
It's completely free, and the metatextual elements are clever, though, so if content warnings about the aforementioned plot points don't apply to you, Doki Doki Literature Club might still be worth a few hours of your time. Just don't show up expecting too much more substance beyond that.