The case of the missing Draugen

A few weeks ago, Brandon from That Green Dude very kindly nominated Later Levels for a Sunshine Blogger Award (a huge thank you if you’re reading this!). As seems to be the case with most nominations which involve a set of questions, one of those he’d posed for his selected blogs stood out: which video game company do you like the most?

I considered several answers to this quandary. LucasArts was an obvious choice as the creator of my beloved Monkey Island series and the studio which set me on the path to becoming a lifelong adventure lover. But there was also Cyan, developer of the Myst titles and behind the Kickstarter campaign for the 25th anniversary edition. And who could forget Wadjet Eye Games – I’d been a fan of their work since playing the Blackwell series and really enjoyed their modern take on a point-and-click with Unavowed recently.

How about Red Thread Games though? No other series captured my imagination in the same way as The Longest Journey and the releases are some of the finest examples of storytelling in video games in my opinion. Rather than share an individual story in each episode, everything is connected in ways which aren’t at first obvious: separate elements that appear unconnected are eventually weaved together in a way where it slowly dawns on you how significant they actually were.

As well as producing some amazing titles, the Red Thread team are such lovely people. I had the pleasure of first meeting Ragnar Tørnquist and Martin Bruusgaard at Rezzed in June 2013 where I’d positioned myself in the front row at their developer session after becoming a Kickstarter backer for Dreamfall Chapters. They remembered me when I saw them again at the expo in March the following year and were even so kind as to send me a lovely email after the show.

I remember that event fondly as it was where Tørnquist and Bruusgaard shared new footage from Dreamfall Chapters and played through a demo for the audience. The team then shared the world premiere of the trailer for their first-person psychological horror game Draugen which was, according to Tørnquist: “Sort of like Gone Home meets Amnesia… a game about story, a game about mood and atmosphere”.

Hang on… that was over four years ago. What the hell has happened to Draugen?

It was meant to be a title set in the north-western coast of Norway in October 1923, where players experience the story through the eyes of Edward Charles Harden. The American traveller is with his young ward Alice in the remote village of Graavik to investigate the disappearance of his sister Elizabeth. Over the following week, they end up unravelling a mystery which goes back decades but also start to question Edward’s sanity: can we trust everything he sees and hears?

Forget Elizabeth being missing though – it seems as if the entire game has vanished! It was originally due to be released in 2015 following a proposed crowdfunding campaign but there seems to be hardly any information about the project. The details on the official website are sparse; the last mention of the game on the Facebook page was over two years ago; and the Wikipedia entry for the title doesn’t exist. The only recent update I’ve been able to find is a tweet from June saying that the game isn’t dead.

Rezzed, expo, event, video games, Martin Bruusgaard, Kim, Ragnar Tornquist

Now that I’ve been reminded of Draugen through writing this response to Brandon’s award nomination, I can’t think of another title I want so badly. I became so invested in the overarching storyline of The Longest Journey instalments, so much so that I still haven’t been able to complete Dreamfall Chapters because I don’t want it to end. The thought of there soon being another narrative-driven game from the developer therefore makes me incredibly excited and I’ll be looking out for any further news.

To anyone from Red Thread Games: if you’re reading this, please tell me there’s some truth in that tweet about Draugen and give me something to look forward to. I promise I’ll love you forever if you do.

Lamplight City: an adventure worth investigating

After visiting the Rezzed expo in April, my other-half pointed out how many more narrative games were on display than in previous years. It then struck me that many of these had cast the player in the role of a male detective. What was this new obsession with investigating the unknown, upholding the law and bringing wrongdoers to justice?

Not that I was complaining though, because I really enjoy investigative titles where it’s necessary to interrogate suspects and seek out clues to get to the truth. There were a number which caught my eye at Rezzed with one of my favourites being Lamplight City by Grundislav Games. It stood out for several reasons, not least because it was being developed by the creator of Shardlight and was set in an alternative steampunk-ish ‘Victorian’ past; the fact you could move on if a case seemed unsolvable, with the story adapting to your choices, was intriguing.

The title takes place in 1844 and although it seems like the city is a beacon of progress and advancement in the New World, it rests upon foundations of poverty, class struggle and crime. These shadowy corners of Lamplight City are part of the territory for private investigator Miles Fordham. But with the murder of his partner Bill Leger unsolved and his grip on sanity slowly loosening, can he find justice for his clients and track down the killer before his entire world falls apart?

In a recent chance email encounter, I was very kindly put in touch with the team from Application Systems by PR Consultant Emily Morganti and offered a preview copy of Lamplight City. This started at the opening tutorial in which the circumstances around Bill’s death were shared before moving on to the first of Miles’s solo cases. I’ve wracked up almost 3.5 hours with the game so far so if future cases are of a similar length, I’m guessing we can expect around 15 hours of gameplay which is quite substantial.

The thing which surprised me the most about Lamplight City initially is the way it handles inventory. When you start up a point-and-click adventure, you expect the traditional inventory-management system at the top or bottom of the screen along with puzzles where the solution involves combining items. But this isn’t the case here as all of the action is instigated with a single click of a mouse button which is case sensitive – so forget about using every object with every other object in your possession.

For example, when Miles wants to test a theory about how a burglar managed to break into a flower shop after discovering a gap in a window frame, he says he needs something ‘long and thin’ to conduct an experiment. A quick trip downstairs and he picks up a hanging basket hook but this isn’t deposited in an inventory bank; instead, clicking on the gap again results in the action of using it to lift the latch. While this is initially disconcerting for experienced adventure gamers, you can see how it helps streamline the game’s interface, menus and puzzles.

Lamplight City, video game, conversation, dialogue tree, man, woman, faces, questions

So where does Lamplight City’s core gameplay lie if item-based challenges are essentially done away with? Most of your time in the private investigator’s shoes is spent examining crime scenes, interrogating suspects and getting information by any means necessary. The title is very dialogue-heavy with plenty of people to talk to and questions to get through, but it does a great job at weaving in the characters’ backstory in a natural and conversational way.

It also makes it possible for the player to misinterpret evidence or miss vital clues by throwing in multiple suspects, false leads and different outcomes, but still be able to progress. I’ve read that there’s even an option to mess up so badly you can’t play the final chapter and instead receive a totally negative ending. This freedom means you can follow the law or make your own rules but be warned: the way you act as Miles affects people’s attitudes towards you and can prevent you from accessing certain locations.

At one point during the preview, I interviewed a woman who seemed to be hiding something in her back room so I created a save here to test each option and see how much the outcomes differed. Ignoring the subject meant I could continue to talk to her and left her house on my map. But sending her off to make tea so I could take a sneaky peak before pulling her up on it caused her to become angry – I was thrown out, access to the location was removed, and the woman was added to my list of suspects.

Lamplight City, video game, detective, question, kitchen, cook, servant

This means your actions carry more weight than is standard for adventure games and can have real consequences. You don’t get infinite tries to convince a character to open up and, if a location is closed off because they don’t want to talk, there’s a chance you could miss an important clue and bring a lead to a premature end. It’s therefore entirely possible to accuse the wrong person of a crime and have choices made during earlier cases come back to haunt you later.

I found that thorough yet sensitive questioning made it easy to figure out who the real criminal was in Miles’s solo outing, although the title presented another possible suspect along with an interesting story element about ‘aethericity’. By the end of the preview I had two people in my sights and three options when it came to wrapping up the case. I could knowingly accuse someone who was completely innocent; I could throw the book at the suspect despite his extenuating circumstances; or I could give them a chance at a future.

In a blog post by creator Francisco Gonzalez (warning: it contains a few minor spoilers), he wrote: “In some cases you might be called upon to make moral decisions and determine if the person who actually did it deserves to be punished for their crime.” He also wrote about the option to declare a case as unsolved, adding: “Failing to solve too many cases will change elements of the story and have a negative effect on Miles’s self-confidence and mental well-being.” It’s all very intriguing.

Lamplight City, video game, Miles, Adelaide, Husband, Wife, home, living, room

It’s also worth mentioning how Lamplight City handles some of its themes. While they’re not a primary focus, the city is fractured by class, race and sexual orientation divides and it gives the sense of a society very close to the edge. For example, a conversation with a lowly assistant about his forbidden relationship with an aristocrat of a different race reveals some of the struggles Miles has experienced in getting others to accept his marriage to singer Adelaide.

There’s also the husband of a victim who reveals that his marriage is one of convenience; and although it’s never directly mentioned, it’s implied that it’s his sexual preference which gives him cause for public shame. Add to the city the increasing pressure of machines replacing people in the workplace through the use of ‘steamtech’ and you’ve got a game which seems to effectively resonate with the issues the real world is facing today, while not indiscreetly parading them in front of the player.

Something else picked up on by Gonzalez in his blog post was that we’ve been conditioned to accept that playing a video game means we always have to win, and that ‘winning’ means getting everything absolutely right. Here’s a game which offers something different and more realistic in certain ways, and that’s what makes it so interesting. To quote the developer: “It’s a much more rewarding experience when YOU solved the case, rather than when Sherlock Holmes wasn’t allowed to fail the case.”

Lamplight City is due out on 13 September 2018 so we don’t have long to wait. Visit the Steam page or official website for further details, and give Grundislav Games a follow on Twitter for all the news.

Come fly with me

I‘ve never been a competitive gamer. Adult responsibilities mean I don’t have enough time to improve my skills to an adequate levels to be able to compete and I don’t want to spend the free hours I do have being slated by my teammates for not being good enough.

This was something I pondered over in March last year last year after reading an article by a blogger about whether you could still enjoy gaming if you ‘sucked’. In that post I concluded that yes, you could indeed have fun but your teammates may make it extremely difficult if you’re playing in a competitive environment. It’s not the games or the genres themselves that are the issue, but the people we play with and our own attitudes when it comes to winning and losing.

It’s therefore understandable that I was hesitant when asked to step in for a round of Guns of Icarus Alliance while at Rezzed in April. My stepson had first encountered the game at the PC Gamer Weekender back in February and had fallen in love with both it and the guys from Muse Games straight away. They’d been extremely kind to him that day, taking the time to guide him through their project and giving him loads of trading cards which he keeps in his wallet even now.

They appeared again at Rezzed and, despite already having the game at home, Ethan made us go back to their stand six times over the course of the weekend. During the final match, my stepson and two other attendees sat down but they needed a fourth before they could start; and after being asked by the developer if one of us would mind stepping in (and my other-half nudging me forward), I found myself in front of the sort of title I wouldn’t normally touch.

Fortunately one of the team was on standby and told me what I needed to do to steer our airship after being put into the most difficult role of pilot. Once I had the dirigible in place to enable my teammates to blast the enemy from the skies, I dashed around bashing things with my trusty hammer to repair our equipment before leaping back to the steering wheel. The developer told me I’d not done too badly for my first go despite Ethan cheekily telling me I’d been rubbish.

The following weekend, he spent the entire evening playing Guns on my PC with us spectating from the sofa. A weird sensation took over as I saw him listening to his pilot’s orders and firing the ship’s weapons: I remembered what it had been like playing the game at Rezzed and had to admit I’d actually enjoyed myself. My other-half was watching me and asked me what I was thinking – and was amazed when I told him I thought I might buy a copy for myself.

A few days later I ended up installing it on our PlayStation 4. The developer had told us it had taken an awful lot of work but they’d managed to sort out cross-play, so I thought it would be cool if my stepson and I could play together. Obviously I needed to get some practice in first so he’d no longer think I was, so that’s what I’ve been putting hours into for the past month. And I’m not going to lie: I’m completely hooked. I’ve not even touched The Elder Scrolls Online for ages.

I’m currently a level nine Engineer for the Anglean Republic and, although I prefer the co-op play mode, I’ve participated in a few PvP matches and even managed to win on a couple of occasions. There’s something about working as part of the team, focusing on my role of repairing our vessel while listening out for their commands and doing what I can to help, that’s strangely addictive. Women are in the minority but there are more female characters than I expected to see so I feel at home.

I wrote last year that games which inspire extreme competitiveness and players who take winning incredibly seriously weren’t my idea of fun. There’s some of that in Guns, but on the whole everyone has been lovely to play with and supportive of their team. There are some who drop out as soon as the match isn’t going our way, similar behaviour to that I picked up on with Rocket League, but an AI immediately replaces them and so you don’t feel at a complete disadvantage.

If it hadn’t been for Rezzed and the developer needing an additional person to be able to start a match, I’d never have realised that maybe I can find a competitive game enjoyable. I’m not sure I’ll ready to move on to another any time soon (despite Pete regularly teasing me now that next I’ll be taking on Call of Duty), but I’m content cruising the skies with my teammates. I can imagine how much fun it would be to play with a group of friends rather than strangers…

…if anyone wants to fly and needs an Engineer on their crew, you know where to find me.

Rezzed 2018: the trouble with narrative games

Earlier this week, I picked up on the increase in the number of narrative games on display at Rezzed. The ‘detective’ theme seemed to be popular also, with several story-rich titles featuring male investigators who were trying to solve some mysterious or vaguely-supernatural case related to either unexplained missing persons or gruesome murders.

This was a great thing for me: everyone has their own individual reason for playing video games and mine tends to be for a good story. Give me a title where I can get lost in its world and wrapped up in its plot for hours on end, possibly with a few twists thrown in for good measure, and I’m a very happy gamer. But this increase in narrative projects on show at expos also comes with a downside.

Here’s an example. One of the games I’d added to my to-do list for Rezzed was The Peterson Case, a cross between The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Outlast by Quarter Circle Games. When I asked how scary it was, the developer I chatted to (I really should have made a note of his name) told me that it was less ‘jump-scares’ and more ‘atmospheric’; but they’d left the horror part of the project at home, feeling it couldn’t be adequately shown at the event.

I knew this would be a title I’d end up purchasing and playing shortly after starting the demo. The graphics were detailed and shadowy, impressive considering the game is being made by a three-man team; and I was enjoying the gameplay, getting to know Detective Franklin Reinhardt through items scattered around his office. But within five minutes, I stepped away from the keyboard and thanked the developer for his time.

Why?

Narrative games tend to get lost at expos. It’s the stands full of bright lights, loud sounds, over-enthusiastic PR staff and free merchandise that immediately attract attendees’ attention; and their projects are usually those full of explosions and gunfire. A seat in front of a monitor displaying a quieter story- or text-rich title is likely to not see as many bums and it means some excellent work gets overlooked in all the noise.

It’s particularly difficult to show games such as The Peterson Case at events like Rezzed, as Quarter Circle Games’ developer pointed out himself. They rely heavily on creating an atmosphere and its far harder to get the most from it in a crowded environment at an expo than at home on your own in front of your PC. This was why, he explained, they’d made the decision to not bring the horror part of their project with them.

Then there are titles such as Disco Elysium by ZA/UM and Lamplight City by Grundislav Games, RPGs and adventures which feature a lot of text in their gameplay. It’s hard to read every word and not be distracted by the crowds around you or the noise seeping in through the headphones; and not fully taking in their meaning properly leaves you confused as to what you’re meant to be doing, which compounds my next point.

Although I love going to shows like Rezzed, there’s one aspect of them I don’t completely enjoy: having people watch me play video games. There’s something about a developer standing there while you’re trying to work through their demo and not mess up which makes me feel really awkward (it’s one of the reasons why I no longer apply for press passes). I’d much rather play at home where nobody can see me struggle with a puzzle.

Narrative games deserve all the love they can get as their stories enable us to see through another’s eyes and form our own ideas about the societies we live in. Sadly though, expos and conventions aren’t always the ideal place to get that attention: the constant noise and crowds detract from the hard work and passion which has gone into making them and it can be hard to truly see the world the developer is trying to create.

That being said though, a great project which contains something special will stand out regardless of the physical environment around it. I’ve been attending expos for the past six years now and have had the opportunity to play a lot of demos in that time; and this experience has taught me how to recognise a title I’ll likely enjoy within the first few minutes of sitting down at a stand.

If you’re going to a gaming event this year, give these ‘quieter’ games a chance and you might come across something you love. If you’re struggling to fully experience a demo due to the noise and crowds, or if you feel awkward playing in front of people, don’t be afraid to tell the developer that and ask if you can contact them at a later date to find out more because their project has caught your eye. Trust me: they’ll appreciate both your honesty and interest.

And who knows, you might even find your new favourite video game this way.

Rezzed 2018: playing detective

While at the Rezzed expo recently, my other-half pointed out how many more narrative games were on offer than in previous years. It’s one of the highlights I mentioned on in my round-up post published this week: I came away from the Tobacco Dock adding more upcoming projects to my wishlist than I’d done during any other time at the event.

A few examples: handmade adventure Harold Halibut by Slow Bros. is one I backed on Kickstarter and looks impressive hands-on. Midnight Hub’s atmospheric Lake Ridden caught my eye at EGX last September and the new section of the demo was great. Futuristic thriller State of Mind by Daedalic Entertainment seems like something I’ll be able to get my teeth into; and my stepson was pretty taken with Backwoods Entertainment’s hand-painted Unforeseen Incidents.

After having some time to reflect since Rezzed, something else struck me. So many of these narrative games cast the player in the role of a male detective trying to solve some mysterious or vaguely-supernatural case, usually related to missing people or murders. What is this new obsession we have with investigating the unknown, upholding the law and bringing wrongdoers to justice?

Not that I’m complaining at all. The following titles look like they’re going to be excellent.

The Sinking City

First up is a game by Frogwares, developer of the Sherlock Holmes series, which is set in an open-world inspired by the works of Lovecraft. Players find themselves in a city dominated by a supernatural force and suffering from floods, and it’s up to them to find out what has taken control of the minds of its inhabitants before they succumb to madness themselves. There’s no release date as yet but this is definitely one to watch out for.

Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death

As the Ripper stalks London’s streets, players join Arthurian immortals Sit Lancelot Du Lac and Morgana Le Fey on a quest to stop history’s most infamous murderer and save the city. I was able to switch between both characters (the latter portrayed as a dog) in Salix Games’ demo in order to question people and solve puzzles. It’s hinted that Fey isn’t actually a canine, so that could add an interesting element to the project.

The Peterson Case

Described to me as a cross between The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Outlast, Quarter Circle Games’ project looks amazing; I had to stop partway through the demo because I didn’t want to spoil it for myself! Set in a location near the Roswell UFO incident, Detective Reinhardt must explore a deserted house to find out what happened to its missing residents. He soon discovers an unearthly presence within, which is hot on his trail…

Lamplight City

This turned out to be one of my favourites at Rezzed which is no surprise: it’s being made by Grundislav Games, the creator of Shardlight, and has a very ‘Wadjet Eye’ feel about it. Set in an alternate steampunk-ish Victorian past, Miles Fordham must solve five cases each with multiple suspects, false leads and different outcomes. I like the fact that you can move on if a case seems unsolvable, with the story adapting to your choices.

Disco Elysium

I didn’t get to play Disco Elysium by ZA/UM until the final day of the expo as the stand was constantly busy, but it was worth the wait. It’s an interesting mix of detective-show and isometric RPG where players can choose the type of cop they want to be through an original skill system which takes feelings, doubts and memories into account. Kick in doors, interrogate suspects, or simply get lost in the city of Revachol as you unravel its mysteries. This one was my game of the show.

The fact that more narrative games were on offer at Rezzed this year was one of its highlights for me; and I love a good detective story so I’m really looking forward to playing those above. That being said however, it can be challenging to give such titles the attention they deserve at expos and this is something I’ll be delving more into later this week.

If you got a chance to play the games above at Rezzed, what did you think? Were there any other titles which caught your attention out on the show floor? Let us know in the comments below.

Rezzed 2018: the Schafer experiment

Anybody who visits the blog regularly will know how attached I am to the Monkey Island series. The original was the first game I played on my Amiga 500 as a kid in the early 1990s and this was the title that sealed my fate as an adventure fan and wannabe-pirate lover.

It was therefore with some excitement that I learned Tim Schafer, one of the designers of the franchise, would be giving a developer session at 2018’s Rezzed event. I knew my blogging partner-in-crime Ben would be hyped about this too; when we first met in person around five years ago, he launched into an enthusiastic in-depth discussion on why Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle are some of the finest games ever made.

We made our way over to the room in the Tobacco Dock an hour before Schafer was due to appear on stage and eagerly took our place at the front of the queue. We had the pleasure of bumping into Luke from Hundstrasse while we were waiting and sneakily edged him into the queue with us, before quickly heading down to the first row of the hall once the doors were opened (thank you to the lovely EGX staff who made this happen for us!).

As Eurogamer editor Oli Welsh asked questions about his career, it became obvious that Schafer was the sort of guy who had plenty of experience along with great sense of humour: you’d love to take him to your local pub for a chat about his favourite video games over a pint or two. He gave some good advice for aspiring developers on how to handle crunch and avoid the mistakes usually made by people trying to break into the industry.

When discussing his design process, Schafer picked up on the concept of ‘free writing’: “I use a pen and a notebook, and you just have to write for a certain amount of time – it can be two minutes or an hour – and you just can’t stop writing. That’s the only rule. So even if you’re just writing one word over and over, you have to keep writing. It’s a strange thing where putting your mind in that position makes ideas come out.”

He continued: “I think it’s a similar thing to when you’re creatively stuck and then you go to lunch with somebody, and you’re telling them how you’re stuck. As you’re talking, you start to solve the problem out loud; they never say another word but you’re like ‘Thanks, I fixed it, that’s great!’. Sometimes it’s just the act of going verbal with your thoughts, it opens doors and it’s a weird phenomenon but it’s helpful.”

Schafer then went on to explain where this process came from: “I learned it in seventh-grade English class. It was just like, we had to write for two minutes and I just did it. At first you’re like ‘This is dumb, why am I writing, I’m hungry, I really have to go to the bathroom’ – then all of a sudden, poof! Some weird idea comes out, then you get excited and you start writing, and you’re turning the pages because you just designed an entire game.”

So on his advice (that everybody should try it because ‘it’s really cheap’) I’d like to propose a short experiment for anybody reading this who’s willing to give it a go. All you need is a timer, your keyboard and an active imagination. Simply set your stopwatch for two minutes, click into the comments box at the end of this post, write whatever comes into your head and don’t stop typing until the time is up.

Will the WordPress community be able to come up with a groundbreaking idea for an awesome new video game that we can pitch to Schafer and Double Fine Productions? I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody’s free writing experiment produces. Even if it ends up being only thoughts on hunger or needing to go to the loo – hey, existing games have been developed on lesser concepts than that.

Let’s end this post on a high point with a bit of inspiration for the rest of the day. In the words of the great man himself: “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”