Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

Three Fourths Home LogoDeveloper: [bracket]games
First Release: 20th March, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Kelly talks to her family on the phone as she drives home through a storm.

This is a simple interactive story. The main story is the drive, though the extended edition also includes an epilogue and some extras. The art looks like monochrome cutouts, with the background shifting to reflect the conversations. It’s a simple and effective style. My main issue is the text was grey on white with rain cutting across it, which is not very readable.

The player chooses dialogue options during the drive to change the direction of the conversation. Choosing an option makes that what happened, such as deciding what happened when Kelly left home earlier in the day. There shouldn’t really be anything to go wrong with gameplay this simple, but the player has to hold down one of the trigger buttons for the entire game. When the button is held down, the car drives forward and the conversations continue. When it’s released, the game pauses. This is not an accessible design decision, as it can cause wrist and hand problems. I did like the way everything froze in time when it paused, but this could have been done with a single press to start the car and another press to stop it.

That criticism aside, it’s an interesting game. It’s a quiet story of family relationships. Kelly has been away from home and not kept in contact, so she’s got a lot to talk about.

Game screenshot

Image Caption: The top part of the screen has cutout-style art. Dark grey corn is in the foreground and background. A car drives along a road in the midground. In the distance, there are lighter grey power lines. White rain cuts across the image. The lower part of the screen is white, with the text: “Mom: What does that mean?” in grey with white rain cutting across it.

Mom is very critical of Kelly. It’s easy to see why Kelly avoided contacting home. Though it may come from a place of concern, it’s still done in a way that isn’t good for Kelly.

Kelly’s younger brother is Ben. It’s not stated directly, but he appears to be autistic. He has difficulty gauging the emotional reactions of the rest of the family. He’s very focused on certain interests. This might come across as a little simplistic in representation, but Ben’s stories help add some depth. He tells one story during the drive. The extras include a few more of these stories, which have themes like a sister going away forever and family problems. It’s made clear that Ben is noticing what’s happening and does care. He’s just having trouble expressing it. I did like that his interests included creative things, and changed over time, rather than assuming autistic people have one true interest forever and that interest has to be maths.

Dad had an accident at work that led to a leg amputation. Talking to him can reveal some of the issues he’s facing, such as pain management and trauma from the accident. There’s some discussion of alcoholism.

Kelly is partly shaped by the player choices, though there are things in her history that can’t be changed. The epilogue works well to expand on Kelly’s life, as it deals with the time before she came home. She’s very self-critical, in a way that doesn’t match up with reality. For example, her thoughts on her assignment are far worse than the actual assignment and teacher’s comments in the extras. A nice touch in the epilogue is the player can decide if Kelly’s partner is a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Mom does not comment on that, outside of being surprised that Kelly is dating.

It’s a short game and can be played multiple times. There are different branches through the conversations, though not to the point of it entirely changing the story. The ending is set and it’s not a happy one. This is also my main comment when it comes to the disability representation. It’s not that I had a big issue with how the characters were portrayed, as they came across realistically. But this is ultimately a tragic story, which tends to be typical rather than the exception when it comes to disabled characters. The game also lacks accessibility options, such as darker text and alternatives to holding down the drive button. Those things combined mean I liked it well enough, but not enough to go through the hand pain it causes.

She Remembered Caterpillars

Game LogoDeveloper: jumpsuit entertainment
First Release: 17th January, 2017
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

A girl is determined to save her father from death using the power of fungi.

This is a puzzle game based on navigating little fungus people (gammies) to launch pads, so they can fly away. Getting there involves crossing caterpillar bridges and other obstacles. The gammies are marked by a colour and a shape, which dictates which obstacles they can cross. The design of the puzzles is clear. Using colours and shapes gives a backup for anyone who can’t use one or the other, which is helpful for colourblindness or not being able to see fine detail very well.

The difficulty of the puzzles increases slowly. New mechanics have a simple level to show how they work. However, the text instructions for how things work are sparse. This won’t be a problem for most players most of the time, but some players may need a little more guidance to get started.

Progress through the game is split into acts, which slowly take the player higher up a structure. Each act has a distinctive art theme, which reflects the feel of the story at that point. I loved the style of the art. It’s hand drawn and whimsical, in a twisted fungal kind of way.

The story is told through text, which appears at the start of the levels and acts. It floats between memories of the girl and her father, and trying to save him using the gammies. Other uses of fungi are also hinted at, suggesting a world where fungal things are integral to everything. It’s a non-linear approach to storytelling that I see more often in short stories than games, and it fits very well here.

Gammies fly away

Image Caption: A raised structure of pathways is surrounded by mist. The structure has an organic feel in muted earth tones. Bright caterpillar bridges in blue (with circles), red (with squares) and purple (with Ds) join the sections. Three gammies fly helicopter-style from fungal launch pads. This is what happens on finishing a level. The gammies are little fungus people with faces and colours/shapes to match the bridges.

The progression of the art and story was balance well through the acts. The puzzles were mostly spaced well, as each act introduces a few new things. The exception was act seven, which saw a change in scenery, but no new mechanics. This was the weakest act for me, as the gameplay felt like it was staying on a level rather than advancing. That’s not a strong criticism though, as mainly I felt the game kept things fresh with new gameplay elements.

I enjoyed the game and would recommend it. The shape and colour concept of the puzzles was interesting, and it was very relaxed as there was no time limit. The art and story were great. Everything combined together to create something unique. It took me around five hours to complete the puzzles, but could take more or less time depending on skill. Though this is generally a cute game, note that the story does involve death and medical procedures. Lame is used as an insult at one point.

[A copy of this game was received from the developer for review purposes]

Actual Sunlight

Actual Sunlight CoverDeveloper: WZO Games Inc
First Release: 2013
Version Played: PlayStation Vita
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Evan Winter is depressed. Nothing has any meaning anymore, but he gets up for work anyway.

This game is about depression and suicide, based on the game developer’s own experiences. It’s mainly told through text transcripts. These can include imaginary therapist conversations or chat show appearances. Between these sections there are pixel art locations which Evan can explore, uncovering more comments about his life.

There aren’t any happy endings here. Evan has internalised a lot of bad things about himself, and nothing that happens causes any change in that. He hates himself because he’s fat and sees that as a reason why no one will love him. He feels alone and as though his life is worthless. He does things like watch porn (not shown in the game) and play games to take his mind off things, then hates himself for it.

Evan has a lot of prejudices and is highly judgemental of the people around him. He doesn’t believe he has privilege as a white man, as his life is hard and he doesn’t feel part of a community. At the same time, he shows some awareness of the issues faced by others, such as realising his workplace is very white and discriminates against talented non-white people. There’s also a woman with a chronic illness, who he almost manages to empathise with, but not quite. In the end, it doesn’t feel to me as though the game world reinforces Evan’s view as being correct. It’s more that he has a narrow perspective and he doesn’t see much beyond himself. Though that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to read for someone on the receiving end of some of his comments.

Actual Sunlight Screenshot

Image Caption: Evan, a small pixel art man wearing a red scarf, is standing outside an apartment building. The building has glass doors. Against the wall is an ATM, popcorn machine, lamppost, rubbish and trees/flowers. Ahead is the road with a streetcar stop.

As a study in depression, this game does a good job. Evan’s thoughts of worthlessness go round in endless cycles. He constantly thinks about jumping off the roof. When the destinations in the lift pop up, the option for the roof is always there. It’s clear from the start that things aren’t going to get better. Evan has no support network to notice or care that things are falling apart.

This is one of those games that could be exactly what some people need. Seeing someone else facing similar issues can help people. For others, it may be too much, particularly the frequent suicidal thoughts and lack of hope. There is also a message from the creator encouraging young people not to kill themselves, but at the same time, suggesting once people get to their late twenties it’s hopeless.

The game lasts about an hour and doesn’t have a lot of interactivity. It plays more like a short story with brief game interludes. I found it somewhat interesting, but it’s not something I’d want to replay. I always felt a certain distance from Evan because of his level of privilege. I’d never be in his situation, not because it’d be impossible for me to be depressed, but because it’d play out very differently based on my other marginalisations.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Game LogoDeveloper: The Chinese Room
First Release: 11th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Everyone has disappeared in a small village in Shropshire. All that remains are the things they left behind and a mysterious light.

This is an exploration game, where the story of the apocalypse is uncovered by searching around for scenes. These act out what went on before and during the event. The people are made from light, showing it’s a memory of what’s happened, not something happening in real time. Each area is named for a person, and finding all their important scenes unlocks the finale to their story.

Though it’s a story about strange events, it focuses much more on the human side. It’s about how people in the village cope with what’s going on. It’s about their relationships and history. Tying it all together is the story of Kate and Stephen, the scientists working at the local observatory. Kate is African American, a woman with a doctorate, and kept her last name after marriage. All things that don’t go down well in an insular village. Stephen, her husband, is a local lad. He doesn’t really understand the issues Kate is facing.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, from finding the first blood-stained tissues to the final revelations. There are some answers, but there’s also a lot left open to interpretation.

The village is a great setting for the game. The beautiful countryside is a strong contrast to the horrors. There’s a feeling of isolation from walking around the empty houses and streets. It’s also a little surreal due to the way time moves around the player. Each area is at a different time of day, so the sun swings around quickly at the transitions. Then it waits until the player moves on. I felt as though the light was trying to explain what happened, though why remains a mystery, as the character controlled by the player is never revealed.

A farm field in the game

Image Caption: An open gate leads into a field of golden wheat, ready for harvest. Trees surround the field. A barn and a windmill are in the distance.

Accessibility is a problem, due to the terrible save system. There’s no manual save. The autosave only happens at points where the player has to tilt the controller to see a scene. Nothing else makes the save happen, including story scenes that happen when close by (the majority of them), listening to radios, and finding collectibles. As there are a limited number of tilt scenes, this means it’s very easy to lose progress. My first two goes at the game, I didn’t get very far before I had to stop due to motion sickness. My next attempt, I avoided activating the tilt story scenes. Instead, I kept a list, and only backtracked to them when I needed to stop. Being able to save frequently is really important for people who need to keep playtimes short.

There is a decent density of things to find for the size of area. There are also quick routes to previous areas if required. However, the game does have collectibles and players may need to search for missed scenes. Which means the lack of a proper run to backtrack is an issue. There is sort of a run, as holding one button down will eventually increase the speed, but it doesn’t help much. Restricting players to walking speed only really works when there’s no need to go backwards. I probably felt this more because of the need to backtrack to saves all the time (often whilst feeling sick, so getting there quickly would have made it a lot more comfortable).

I realise developers do these things because they think it helps immersion and makes the experience more magical. So to be clear, this does not make me feel immersed and does not improve my gaming experience. Nothing kills the mood more than having to keep lists of where I can save and hoping I can get there before I vomit on my PlayStation.

In terms of story and setting, it’s an interesting game. It relies on creating a chilling atmosphere, rather than jump scares and the like. There’s some blood and dead animals, but it doesn’t go heavily into gore. It’s likely to appeal to anyone who likes that quiet horror feel. I only wish some of the technical aspects, such as running and the save system, had been as carefully done. It feels like the way someone who doesn’t play games might design those features, which isn’t very practical for actually playing.

No Man’s Sky

Game CoverDeveloper: Hello Games
First Release: 9th August, 2016
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Steam

A traveller wakes up by a shipwreck on an alien world. A message is left for them by an entity called Atlas, and sentinel drones patrol for unknown reasons. It’s time to fix the ship and go exploring.

Procedural generation is the core of this game. Every planet is a bit different. Animals are constructed from putting together basic parts, there are different plant selections, different climates, and so on. The art style looks rather like old science fiction landscape covers. It’s somewhat realistic, but much brighter and bolder.

My first planet was an idyllic world with green almost-grass, reddish-orange trees, and lovely weather. As I woke up next to my broken spaceship, I was told something by the exosuit voice that I couldn’t understand, because the voice is difficult to pick out and it didn’t have subtitles. This fortunately becomes less of an issue after that, as the suit voice is just reinforcing things shown on the screen.

Image Caption: My starting planet. The foreground has green grass, and a larger tree on the right with red-orange leaves. The distance has patches of brown earth and more grass, with a forest stretching into the distance. The sky is a pale green colour. At the top, there’s a black curve, which acts as a compass.

The game prompted me to fix the ship. After a long journey for minerals, and an encounter with angry crabs, I got it done. But I still left the ship behind, as planets are made for walking. This became easier when I realised I could call the ship from certain locations, so I didn’t need to worry that I’d wander too far. I quickly got the hang of the different things I could find, like ruins with alien backstory, and drop pods to upgrade my suit inventory. I looked for new animals on the way, to find all the species on the planet. It is a little strange that I was discovering things on a planet packed with alien outposts, where spaceships were flying above me. These things already had names, and there were logs from travellers who’d been here before me. But my traveller liked to think they were the first to discover it, so I wasn’t going to argue.

Just when I was wondering where I’d find the last few creatures, I had a stroke of luck. As I crested the rolling hills, I spied a flock of majestic penises bouncing along on their testicles. It’s said that players given an open creation tool will always make genitals, but it’s maybe time we cut them some slack. Procedural algorithms are no better. It was also at this point I decided that naming everything after what it resembled was a bad idea.

Eventually, it was time to head into space. This was an odd experience, as space was a thick coloured cloud with asteroids everywhere. The controls were like trying to fly in treacle. Planets were all very close, making it feel more like a pretty menu for the planets than being in space. I do give credit for it being a seamless experience, as I could go from space to the planet’s surface without obvious loading screens. It just didn’t feel like space.

The galactic map, used for jumping between systems, was awkward to use. I really wish it had a cursor I could move over the stars, rather than having to move the sticks around and hope it moved to the star I wanted to view. It’s unlikely I could ever find my way back to systems I’d previously discovered.

After jumping between a few systems, ships would sometimes attack in space, but I still felt like I was selecting planets from a menu rather than flying a ship. The combat was nothing special. There wasn’t any depth in weapon choices, with only two kinds of weapon with a few upgrades. Having to go into the inventory to recharge shields was a pain. All round, space combat was something to do for the game milestones (which also link to trophies), not because it was good.

My early experiences were generally fun. I liked exploring, and it wasn’t too difficult to mine stuff to keep my exosuit running. Inventory space is a little tight at first, but it can be expanded. The biggest issue was the game didn’t want to explain anything. Controls were only shown in a diagram in the options menu and there was no explanation of what icons meant. For example, selecting options requires holding the button, not just pressing it. A red shield icon appears on the screen, but it actually means the inventory is full, not that the shield has a problem. Scanned plants and animals have to be uploaded after scanning to count, and again after all animals are found. There’s no air of mystery in withholding basic game functions from the player. All it meant is I paused the game to search for the answers online, which was time I wasn’t spending playing the game.

As the game continued, I got the hang of the interface, and it was mainly down to exploring. I enjoy mining and exploring in games, so I didn’t mind wandering around looking for animals and gathering resources. It’s a relaxing thing to do. There were a few more exciting moments on planets with threats, which were also fun in their own way. I spent a long time on a planet with sentinels that attack on sight, as part of a set of milestones for surviving on extreme planets. I think the family were a bit boggled as I walked slowly over the landscape and said, “I can’t stop. A killer robot is chasing me.” Sentinels aren’t the fastest robots out there.

Encounters with aliens were mostly rather similar, but there were a few that stood out. There was the time I stuck a killer slug up my nose because of a misunderstanding between “don’t stick this up your nasal passage” and “stick this up your nasal passage”. I’d have liked more of those, and less of aliens needing some basic resource for their equipment. These alien encounters could be a good way of showing how their society is now, in contrast to their ancient history, but the game never really got there.

The planets were the highlight. I found rocky deserts with strange plants and stone pyramids, ocean worlds with swimming eyeballs, and lush planets with plants everywhere. Some things do repeat a little too often, such as there being a limited range of items that grow in caves, and resource items looking the same on most planets. Those zinc flowers are like an invasive species that have found a way to populate nearly every planet in the galaxy. But mostly, I was finding planets that couldn’t have been mistaken for the one before.

Another planet

Image Caption: Another planet, which contrasts starkly with my first planet. Giant red leaves twist towards the sky, growing from a bare rock surface. The air is hazy and orange. The compass is visible, and there’s a white dot in the centre which acts as a cursor in the PS4 version.

Animals have areas where the variation really works, such as individuals in a herd varying. They might have babies with them, for example. Some species have very different individuals, to the point that it takes a scan to see they’re the same species. I did get a feel for some of the elements used to make the animals, as some noticeably repeated. Angry crabs were pretty common on the worlds I visited. The range of animal sounds was also small. But I was always finding new things. The best was when a big animal was given tiny butterfly wings, and it flew along like the universe’s most clumpy fairy.

As might be guessed from the clumpy fairy, the biology isn’t realistic. Herbivores can have carnivore teeth or a planet might only have herbivores. Animal behaviour is not very detailed. There were some nice moments though, like the carnivorous cow trying to chase one of the faster herbivores. There’s a good reason why cows aren’t mighty hunters. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing.

My discoveries

Image Caption: A collage of some of my animal discoveries, showing the range of things found. Animals include a mushroom with eyes on their stalk, a bird with three butterfly wing segments, a biped bird-dinosaur with a unicorn horn on their nose, an eyeball with tentacles, a mite with six legs and a crest on their back, and a green zebra-striped pigcow.

Much as I like exploring, the game promised a story. The strongest point is the lore about the past. Ruins reveal the history of the main alien races. Old logs tell the story of an ancient traveller. Any player can find these by exploring, regardless of other choices.

Things aren’t good when it comes to story where the player participates. The crash site had an item that let me talk to Atlas. This suggested there were two main story paths: helping Atlas and rejecting Atlas. It turns out that wasn’t the case. By rejecting Atlas, I’d opted out of the story, rather than choosing a different story. For those who do follow Atlas, the additional story it unlocks is sparse. There’s also a little bit of information that can be picked up by talking to two other characters, which again, doesn’t add a whole lot.

The game also strongly suggests that getting to the centre of the starting galaxy would be significant. All systems are marked by how close they are to the centre, there are black holes as shortcuts to the centre, and the galactic map really wants to show the player how to get to the centre. But the game sets players up to be disappointed, as it doesn’t follow through on the promise of something special.

The central problem was a lack of satisfying rewards for doing any of these things. That would mean getting a reasonable chunk of story or visiting a unique place. The game could have done with taking a good look at walking simulators. Those games have using story and setting as a reward, often in non-linear ways, down to an art. It’s clear that’s what this game was trying to do, but it didn’t succeed.

There are accessibility issues with the game. The character head movement can’t be turned off. This is particularly a problem as the character sways when standing still, which removes my usual trick of taking a motion sickness break by standing still. Red and green dots are used to mark animals when scanning, which is a colour blindness issue. The dots are also tiny. Making the dots bigger, and putting a symbol in the dots, would make them a lot more usable.

The game has a wide variety of genders for the animals found, including rational, asymmetric, orthogonal, none, and non-uniform. Some aliens are referred to using gender-neutral pronouns. There aren’t any humans, so there isn’t a direct comparison to how well it handles human genders. However, all but one of the trophy descriptions are named after stories by men, which isn’t a good sign in that direction (the exception being short story “Symphony For a Lost Traveler” by Lee Killough).

A concern for how endless the game will be is the design decisions for galaxy creation. My top update would be more types of worlds to explore, more alien races, adding more assets into the pot for the procedural algorithms to use, and other things that mean there will always be more to find. But the universe is already created, so that’s unlikely to happen. It would mean remaking the universe, and destroying people’s discoveries in the process, which I’m sure they won’t do (and I wouldn’t want them to either). I’d have rather the game started out with a single galaxy and had new variations in future galaxies, than to have infinite galaxies that will all be the same.

This is a game that has its extremes. The weak areas, like the story and the space flight, are very weak. The strength is the range of planets produced from the procedural algorithms, which is something unique. It will appeal to anyone who wants to wander alien planets. I loved finding the animals, swimming in the oceans, and naming everything. The main thing is for players to know what they’re getting. Exploring other worlds and seeing strange creatures, for sure. A story that explores the mystery of the setting and great space combat, not so much.