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 iNK Stories; also on iOS and Android
Despite being one of the most important geopolitical events of the twentieth century, the story of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew Iran's brutally repressive monarchy and replaced it with a brutally repressive theocracy, is not one often told in any entertainment medium. Outside of Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novel memoir Persepolis and its animated film adaptation, most stories set in Iran during this period have focused on Americans caught up in the ensuing hostage crisis (i.e. Argo).
With impressive results, 1979 Revolution tackles this challenge head-on, using the medium of the Telltale Games-style cinematic narrative genre to put you in the shoes of a young Iranian—Reza Shirazi, an aspiring photojournalist—as he takes part in the collapse of the Pahlavi regime and its aftermath. The game plays out using a slight variation on the Telltale format: you'll explore environments and inspect objects by pointing and clicking, avoid death in quick-time events, face difficult moral choices under a time limit, and take photographs of characters and environments around you. You'll encounter a cast of characters who represent a diverse set of perspectives on resistance against the shah, including Reza's pacifist friend Babak; his much more violently inclined cousin Ali; and his brother Hossein, who serves in SAVAK, the shah's infamous secret police, among others.
I make no claim of any particular expertise on this period in history, but it's clear that 1979's developers put a great deal of effort into authenticity, both cultural and historical. The game is directed by an Iranian-Canadian, Navid Khonsari, who lived through the revolution as a child; the voice cast consists almost entirely of actors of Iranian descent; and it's full of collectibles that allow you to learn more about the actual historical events dramatized here. And simply through experiencing the narrative, I gained a better understanding of exactly how the noble aims of many of the revolutionaries were thwarted, resulting in the country replacing one autocratic regime with another.
1979 Revolution is rough around the edges: the graphics won't win any awards, and some of the quick-time events are rather clunky. And be warned that the game ends on a cliffhanger; while iNK Stories reportedly intends to continue the series in the future, don't expect any resolution to Reza's story. But all in all, 1979 Revolution is a shining example of how narrative-driven gaming can not only tell a compelling story, but also enlighten the player.
Developed and published by Finish Line Games
Yes, this is a game about corn. Specifically, sentient, talking ears of corn, created in a poorly conceived government experiment. There's also an ill-mannered Russian knockoff of Teddy Ruxpin who constantly insults you.
So lest the edgy-looking logo fool you, Maize is not a horror game. Rather, it's a first-person comedy adventure game set in a secret government lab and the surrounding cornfields, mixing some old-school point-and-click inventory puzzles with the environmental exploration of a walking simulator. This gameplay is decent but unexceptional, with few truly memorable puzzles, some levels that will have you hunting back and forth for the one item you need, and one extremely frustrating timed section, requiring you to navigate an ugly, claustrophobic maze within a narrow time limit.
But more so than gameplay, games of this sort live and die on the strength of their writing and voice acting, and fortunately, Maize is fairly solid on that front, delivering some very British humor (despite its ostensible American setting). There's the trio of nitwit ears of corn that constantly show up to bicker and fail to execute whatever their plan is; the possibly even dumber hulking corn villain; and a few others I won't spoil. There's also plenty of humorous text; every item you find has a unique description, setting up some amusing running gags (one of my favorites involves a particularly badly written series of mystery novels). And there's also a vast number of Post-It notes throughout the facility, detailing the feud between two of the former scientists who created the talking corn people, with the smarter one getting increasingly angrier at the stupidity and incompetence of his colleague.
Clearly, Maize is rough around the edges; its gameplay is nothing extraordinary, a few of the environments are more difficult to navigate than they should be, and load times are quite long on my PC. But it's genuinely funny, and it has talking ears of corn. What other game can say that?
Developed by Osmotic Studios, published by Surprise Attack
What if you controlled the surveillance state? What if you had access to everyone's Facebook feeds, email accounts, and text messaging? What if you had the power to invoke the police against individuals on the basis of their private messages?
This is the premise of Orwell, a Snowden-inspired narrative game that casts the player as an investigator using a secret government surveillance platform to track down the perpetrators of a terrorist bombing. Over five fairly short episodes, you'll search through websites to dig up obscure details on the suspects; look for suspicious transactions in their bank accounts; eavesdrop on phone calls; and browse social media to glean hints as to the suspect's motivations. This is accomplished mainly through a mechanic of finding "data chunks"—key bits of information highlighted on screen—and dragging and dropping them into the given character's profile. It's not a particularly deep or challenging mechanic; you can't drag them onto the wrong profile, and while you're often tasked with ignoring irrelevant chunks or reconciling two that conflict with each other, it's rarely difficult to figure out what's what. Orwell is also a fairly linear game, following a straightforward loop of finding the data chunks to trigger the next story event, which will in turn unlock more data chunks to find, and so on. Only the ending gives the player a real sense of agency.
Related to its limited gameplay, I should note here that Orwell is essentially a visual novel, despite its atypical premise and interface for the genre; there's no animation of any kind outside a brief opening cut scene depicting the bombing, nor is there any voice acting (even phone calls are only displayed in the form of real-time transcripts here). But the developers managed to do a fair bit with a modest budget, creating an interface that plausibly resembles a desktop, and keeping the storyline moving at a brisk enough pace to be engaging throughout the three hours or so the experience lasts.
It's a good thing that the plot, premise, and overall design of the game are well-executed, because the writing isn't quite up to par. Characters speak with similar voices; missing or misused commas, colons, and semicolons abound; the citizenry you monitor are implausibly cavalier about sharing their private information (a low point here involves one character inexplicably including his bank account number alongside his contact info in an email signature); and one character has a job as an opinion columnist at the country's largest newspaper despite writing on the level of an average high school freshman. Which I'd still take over your average David Brooks or Bret Stephens column, but I don't get the sense that this was intentional.
Despite this considerable flaw, Orwell delivers on its premise more often than not, offering a compelling story that turns from a straightforward criminal investigation into an examination of the surveillance state itself. And fortunately, some of its limitations look to be addressed in the brand-new sequel Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, which promises more fleshed-out interactions with a smaller set of characters, a new mechanic that allows the player to push propaganda on social media instead of merely monitoring, and more overall player choice. I'm definitely excited.
Developed by ACE Team; published by Atlus; also available on PlayStation 4
There's an unmistakable charm to old, low-budget sci-fi movies, with their crude puppets that are obviously dangling on wires, stop-motion animated creatures that conspicuously move at a different framerate from the live-action humans, stilted acting, and chintzy sets and costumes. It's these Mystery Science Theater 3000-fodder films, from Plan 9 from Outer Space to Zontar, The Thing from Venus to Robot Monster, that serve as inspiration for top-down shooter/brawler The Deadly Tower of Monsters.
Actually, it goes a bit beyond inspiration; the entirety of Deadly Tower of Monsters is presented as a fictitious 1970s sci-fi film (quibble: yes, 70s, even though everything about the aesthetics suggests a film from the mid-60s at the absolute latest, but I digress), with voice-over narration from director Dan Smith as he records his audio commentary for a DVD release. And yes, the game lovingly represents every trope of low-budget sci-fi filmmaking from the 50s and 60s—not just the stop-motion animation, bad acting, and obvious wires, but also things like reused sets from other films, "monsters" made from household objects (at one point, you fight puppies wearing vacuum cleaners on their heads), and props and sets with a suspiciously shiny, plastic appearance.
I haven't mentioned the gameplay yet, because there's much less to say about it than there is about the game's visuals and presentation. It's a competent, enjoyable enough top-down shooter with a wide range of guns, melee weapons, and some unique features (there's an entire shooting mode just for shooting downward vertically at enemies from the edge of a platform), as well as some fairly basic platforming. But "enjoyable enough" about covers it; the shooting just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi oomph, the parry mechanic never felt intuitive, and I couldn't get past the sense that the folks at ACE Team would have been better off including fewer weapons and focusing on the balancing and feel of a smaller arsenal.
That's Deadly Tower of Monsters for you: an above-average game elevated by outstanding presentation. It's well worth your time if the premise of a virtual recreation of bad 60-year-old sci-fi movies sounds appealing, but those looking for truly great top-down shooter gameplay will want to look elsewhere.
Developed by kikiyama; published by AGM PLAYISM (Steam release only, original release self-published)
Wander through a black void, empty of everything but street lamps and disembodied human limbs. Descend a staircase as endlessly long arms reach upwards towards you. Crude, MSPaint-style screaming human faces float above a mysterious Aztec painting of a human body. A hidden door leads to a not so-ordinary living room, containing a pool of lava and a bloody, unidentifiable object that spills further blood on the floor when you touch it.
These are just a few of the sights you might encounter when you play Yume Nikki (Japanese for "dream diary"). Originally released way back in 2004 by the pseudonymous developer Kikiyama and swiftly acquiring a cult following, this Japanese indie classic is now available on Steam for the first time. In the title, you play as a hikikomori (a Japanese term for people who live in extreme social isolation) named Madotsuki, with nothing to do except wander her tiny apartment and fall asleep. And from there, you can explore her dreams, starting with a hub containing 12 different doors, each of which leads to a different surreal and often nightmarish vision. Within, you'll find more doors leading to more bizarre dream worlds, doors that interconnect to other worlds, and seemingly random events that can occur in specific, highly obscure circumstances.
Despite being created in an old version of the popular RPG creation software RPGMaker, Yume Nikki contains no real RPG elements to speak of, and is better understood as a 2D, top-down, pixel art precursor to the current indie "walking simulator" genre. Unlike most of those games, however, Yume Nikki has no real plot to speak of, and is almost completely non-linear. There's no dialogue, next to no other text, and no explanation for anything that you do or that occurs in the game, outside a minimal tutorial screen. There is an ending of sorts, but the means to access it—collecting 24 "effects" which transform Madotsuki in various ways—are so inscrutable that I doubt anyone not following a walk-through will ever acquire them all.
And while various games have imitated or been inspired by Yume Nikki over the years, there's truly nothing else like it. The pervasive, creeping sense of dread and isolation; the continually surprising, nightmarish surrealism; the bizarre clash of differing art styles; the crude pixel art that leaves just the right amount to the imagination; the overriding feeling that none of this is just random for the sake of it, but that there's some unifying vision behind it, forever lying tantalizingly just out of reach of the player. It's no wonder that the game has inspired nearly a decade and a half of fervent speculation on its true meaning (is Matsudoki a victim of sexual abuse? A suicide victim in purgatory? Transgender?), reams of fanart, and recently even an entire podcast Dream Diary devoted to unpacking Kikiyama's history and vision for the game.
As a unique, surreal work of art, Yume Nikki is brilliant. As an actual game, however, it unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired. That's not because of the lack of puzzles, combat, or other traditional game elements, which is commonplace in the walking simulator genre. Nor is it because of the game's refusal to explain anything; its openness to interpretation is precisely what makes it so memorable. The problem is more a combination of its resolute lack of hand-holding and the limited technology available to its developer: many of the maps you'll explore are quite large, the tile-based scenery is frequently repeated, Matsudoki's walking speed is slow, and there's no means of teleportation or other handy shortcuts (short of choosing to wake up, but once you go back to bed, there's no option but to return to the hub area). Combined with the lack of a map or any sort of onscreen indication of which doors you've already gone through, this means much of your playtime will be spent trudging repetitively and aimlessly across maps in search of areas and other sights you haven't already found.
Yume Nikki is free, and despite its considerable flaws as a game, the overall experience is so unique and memorable that it's an absolute must-play, for at least an hour or two. And if the flaws I mentioned above don't bother you and you can't stop playing until you've found all 24 effects, more power to you.
As of this writing, a fully 3D reimagining, Yume Nikki: Dream Diary, has just been released. Early impressions suggest that it abandons the open-ended exploration of the original for more linear platforming and puzzle-solving in the mold of Limbo or Inside, however, so it's no replacement.
Developed by Double Fine; published by Adult Swim Games; also on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
Somewhat like Deadly Tower of Monsters, Double Fine's Headlander is an action game that excels in its use of a deliberately cheesy retro-futuristic aesthetic—in this case, one themed around the 1970s, where garish disco lighting, shag carpets, and plastic furniture abound. Think a heightened, more cartoonish version of Logan's Run, except one populated entirely by robots.
Which is where the title comes into play. Headlander is a 2.5D side-scroller in the vaguely Metroid-esque mold, wherein you play as, yes, a flying, disembodied human head in a jar, exploring a vast space station in the far future. You have the power to headland: to attach your head to a robot body and take control of it, gaining access to new abilities, optional upgrades, and a variety of bodies, ranging from heavily armored sentinels to disco dancers to dogs, all as you piece together the story of what happened to humanity.
Typically of games from Double Fine, the studio that brought us the likes of Psychonauts, Broken Age, and Stacking, Headlander's art direction, writing, and voice acting are absolutely top-notch. The chintzy Day-Glo aesthetic is beautifully realized with detailed texturing, reflection, and lighting effects; color-coded doors deliver puns ("ORANGE you glad?") when they shut you out or let you in, with full awareness of their groan-worthiness; homicidal Roomba-like vacuum cleaners threaten to kill anyone who makes a mess; you'll fight a boss obsessed with chess, who delivers all her lines in a wonderfully campy Natasha Fatale accent.
And unfortunately, as is also typical of games from Double Fine, Headlander's gameplay is merely above average. Oh, it's competent enough; jetting around as a tiny flying head is always fun, as is forcibly vacuuming enemy robots' heads off before headlanding to take them over. But where you'd expect, or at least hope, for different robot bodies to make for significantly varied gameplay mechanics and puzzles cleverly designed around them, Headlander only offers... color-coded robots to get through color-coded doors. Oh, and dogs and Roombas can get through certain narrow passages that other bodies can't. There's a tad more variety in weaponry, but overall, Headlander doesn't quite live up to the potential of the concept. It's still fun, but you might want to wait for a sale.
Developed by Access Games; published by Playism; also on Xbox One
From the mind of cult Japanese game creator Swery (best known for the 2010 Twin Peaks-inspired open world horror game Deadly Premonition) comes D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, which can be best described as a very strange, very Japanese take on the Telltale-style cinematic narrative genre.
Starting with a standard mystery premise (you play former detective David Young, who's investigating the mysterious death of his wife at the hands of a killer known only as D), D4 adds an ample dose of surreal wackiness, incorporating David's psychic power to travel into the past by "diving" into certain objects, a drug oddly named "Real Blood" that causes inexplicable, seemingly supernatural deaths, and a bizarre cast of characters that includes a cat-girl (as in a young woman who acts exactly like a cat) and a flamboyant, green-haired fashion designer who's apparently in love with a mannequin that he carries around with him everywhere. To make the whole thing even more off-kilter, D4 aims for American cultural specificity with a Boston setting and accent for its protagonist, which of course contrasts heavily with the overall tone of the writing, gameplay, and art direction.
And to top it all off, D4 adds some odd, extraneous subsystems that you wouldn't expect from this genre; David will need to find food to replenish his stamina (which is used up by interacting with objects and characters) and medicine to replenish his health, but such items are easy enough to find that you'll be in little danger of death. In addition to those subsystems, D4 doesn't adhere as closely to the Telltale formula as 1979 Revolution does; there's more environmental exploration and puzzle-solving involved, though it's still fairly rudimentary compared to anything you'd find in an old-school point-and-click game.
But of course, the main reason to play D4 is its story and characters, and no description of them can do justice to just how incredibly weird and over-the-top an experience D4 is. At only around three hours, it's well worth your time. Just be warned that, as with 1979 Revolution, the game ends on a cliffhanger. And in this case, it's one that will never be resolved, as Swery has said there are no plans to produce more episodes, presumably due to poor sales.