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Stream Recap – Firewatch

16020907294366307In which I recap streaming a game I just completed. Please accept this stream recap.

Firewatch came to my attention because I pay even a little bit of attention to the world of video games. It looked beautiful, but not photo-realistic. I always appreciate graphics with character, like most of Blizzard’s games. Firewatch is colorful and it stands out. It’s not a brown wasteland or grey war zone, it’s a forest with personality. Even just a few screenshots are so eye catching that it was no surprise that the game ended up in my wishlist.

I’ve heard the game called a walking simulator and, if so, it’s the first one of those that I’ve played. But it doesn’t seem any less complicated than Telltale’s The Walking Dead. If this had come out years ago, we’d be calling it a point and click adventure game. Except, it’s short enough to play in an afternoon and it doesn’t break my brain with puzzles that only The Riddler would find fun.

firewatch_150305_06I played the game over the course of two days with my wife, Kendra. She’s one of those weird people who is perfectly happy to watch someone else play a game. I don’t know if it’s conditioning from being a sister to a gamer or just a Totoro like spirit. Because of her enjoyment of watching there are some games she requires her presence. Bioshock Infinite will be one of those, as will The Wolf Among Us. I think she found the trailer for Firewatch interesting, because it was added to the list.

So, the first day we played, everything went fine. Easy streamy, lemon squeezy. The second day… well, I’m an idiot. I had the mics muted the whole session. Which is too bad! Because, near the end of the game, the music gets nice and atmospheric and I started singing a great song. Kendra would tell you that the song was just me saying the words “fire” and “watch” over and over again, but there’s no video proof of that! This is a case of the Tenecious D’s “Tribute”!

ub3gfzt3vo6muca8jcy1But, that’s okay, because we both liked the game. Not the ending so much, but the whole experience was fun. It was stressful at times, funny and just a new type of game for us. The story was depressing at times, which is why you sometimes need someone there to lighten the mood. But the excellent voice acting really did take this game up from just being scenic to actually being immersive.

Also, I like shorter games. I don’t need them all to be four hours like Firewatch but gone are the days when I want all my games to be fifty hours or more. I liked Xenosaga lasting eighty hours because I was fifteen and all I did was game. Now that I’m older and have less time to play a game taking a weekend isn’t the worst thing in the world. And something the length of Firewatch or Limbo can really leave a strong impression. Especially compared to the opposite situation, like when I was praying that Fallout 3 would just end.

In conclusion, the stream might not have worked out because I’m a dope but the game is a good time. I recommend it easily, especially if you’re looking for something different or to play in front of someone who just likes watching. I might even revisit it someday and it won’t be a crazy commitment to do so. Plus, you can take pictures of trees!

You can find my previous streams and other videos here or watch live at my Twitch channel!

Music is the Secret Weapon of Indie Games

At one point, I was incredibly behind in the world of video games. I had spent time away due to college life and budgetary reasons. But then, when my financial situation stabilized, I upgraded my laptop situation and with the help of many Steam Sales, I began to close the gap of time lost.

I finally played Doom 3 and Fallout 3 and the Arkham series and other big budget games I had missed out on during their releases. The older games I wanted to play were cheaper and that meant they were the games I was tackling first. No surprise.

It was a surprise, however, that I started trying out indie games. I had moved away from video games around 2006 and missed out on the rise of this world. If Braid was the unofficial beginning of this bright new era, then I was wearing sunglasses. I didn’t read articles about these games, I didn’t hear people talk about them. I was oblivious.

But Overclocked Remix changed that with one ReMix. They posted a track by contributor Dale North for the game To the Moon. It was a mix for a game that I had never heard about. The write-up for the song had a positive review for the game itself, especially the soundtrack. Combined with SNES-style graphics and a relatively cheap price, I was intrigued.

As a game, To the Moon was fine, more of an interactive movie than a game. But the story tore my heart in half, so it left an impression. And the music was as melancholy as the narrative, over-emotional and infectious. Too the Moon helped me realize that there was another world of games that I had missed. It wasn’t just the big titles like Bioshock or X-COM, but this new crop of indie projects.

Binding of Issac must have been the next game I tried. The Zelda-esque dungeon-crawling was something I immediately understood but the presentation was unlike anything I had played before. And I found the game’s soundtrack to be absolutely fascinating. It was dark, exciting, creepy and atmospheric. It felt like a carnival or haunted house, it has a sense of humor in it’s despair. It was also the first game I watched others stream, which means it opened a whole other world for me.

I found Faster Than Light soon after and fell head over heel. It’s a great game that feels like an action movie version on Oregon Trail, but, you know, in space. It’s difficult but incredibly satisfying. Even when you lose, you don’t feel like giving up. It’s endlessly entertaining and imaginative. I love it. And the soundtrack is killer.

I bought the soundtrack, actually. It’s on Bandcamp and I find it a great listen apart from the game. The battle music is thrilling but the tunes that play when you’re simply exploring are wonderful. They feel timeless, like the soundtrack has always been around. It creates the feeling of traveling through endless space and threatening nebulas perfectly.

Bastion also has a great soundtrack, which is good because the gameplay is, as best, fine. Actually, the whole presentation of the game is beautiful, with gorgeous graphics and a process of growing the world as you grow. But, still, it’s the music that I remember the most. It has a rustic soundtrack, filled with folksy guitar and lyrics that reminded me of the show Firefly. I can’t think of another game with music like Bastion.

Crypt of the Necrodancer is all about the music and it works because the tunes are great. You want to move on the beat of the current song, lest you die. It starts to become second nature because all the tracks are funky enough that you start nodding your head as you play. It feels like it could have existed back on the SNES, but I don’t think those games had the technology for the soundtrack. It music is a bit more intricate than what I remember from the early 90s. I might be wrong, because the soundtrack fits with the pixel art of the game so well.

I say all of this because it’s something I think modern video games have lost. I loved Bioshock but I couldn’t tell you if it had music or not. Nor can I hum anything from League of Legends, Arkham City or the new Fallout series. As games have become more cinematic, they’ve gone the route of having large, orchestral soundtracks that lack the memorable tunes of titles of old.

But indie games are smaller. They can’t afford orchestras. They get individuals who make smaller, more intimate music for the games. Because of the limitations, personality is more important than scope. They recall a time when video game music was memorable, when you would play certain levels just to hear the music. And now with Spotify and other streaming options, we can listen to that music whenever we’d like. The sound is quirkier, or maybe it wants to be more emotional, or has it more character. It’s not afraid to show it’s sensitive side or be silly. These days, it feels like, bigger games are less likely to experiment with their soundtracks. Or perhaps, because they’re longer, they’re afraid to play the same music over and over. A game like The Binding of Issac can repeat it’s creepy tunes on a more regular basis because you’re only on those levels for minutes at a time.

As someone whose iPod (yes, a classic, with the clickwheel and everything) is filled with video game remixes, I have a special place in my heart for the memorable side of video games. Music is one of the most important factors of those memories. Maybe the PS2/XBox/Gamecube era was the last time musical themes were an important factor for developers. Halo had a great soundtrack with an iconic theme, as did The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (so much so that it’s carried on through the rest of the series). But these days, it’s the indie games that are carrying on the tradition of catchy, interesting video game music. It’s their secret weapon.

Stardew Valley is My Therapist

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley.

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Like most things, I got to Stardew Valley late. The game has been out for more than a year and despite Steam Sales and fantastic word of mouth, I only recently purchased a copy for myself. You see, my wife got a new computer and since she likes Animal Crossing, I decided she might like another farming/village simulator.

She’s played it for a little bit and moved on. I’ve played it for weeks.

When I was younger, the PlayStation 2 got a port of the Sims and I got addicted for a week. That fire eventually died and I moved on to more complicated simulation games like Civilization IV and such. I figured since I missed the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing craze, I was pretty much safe from the farming/life simulator genre. I was wrong.

The game opens with you receiving your own run -down farm from your grandfather. This gift frees you from the 9 to 5 world of cubicles and city life. Let me tell you, I’m at the point of my life where I don’t know what I want to do and where I want to live. I’ve got my 9 to 5 job and regularly scheduled life and I’ve found the whole experience unsatisfying. Not bad, mind you, and it’s extremely helpful in allowing me to do some things I want and have dogs and a roof over my head and etc. But, I found the opening of the game to be highly effecting.

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In a way, it’s a meta opening. Your character is given a change to get away from the world and fix up his farm and start a new life. The player, in turn, is given a virtual farm that helps them escape from the busy day to day of life. More than most games, I’ve found Stardew Valley to be one of the most relaxing games I’ve played.

Which, is ironic because you stay b-u-s-y in the game. Days move by quickly, with hours gone in minutes due to the in-game clock. There’s never enough time in a game’s day to do all I want. Each time my character wakes up, I have to choose what my day will look like. Will I farm and milk my cows and plant new crops? Will I spend the day fishing and gathering? Or will I spend hours in the mines, fighting off slimes and digging for gold?

16There’s so much that I can imagine some players only doing specific things their whole play through. Me? I like doing a bit of everything and see all there is to see. As my second year in the game rolls around, I’m more excited for my crop choices and barn expansions. And I still want to do more.

The characters are probably the secret weapon in this game. Goals are nice and designing my farm is fun but the people you meet in town give it personality. I’ve played games that are huge in scope but only leave me feeling lonely because the characters I meet are empty vessels of conversation trees and quest markers. But each villager you interact with in Stardew Valley has their own goals, regrets and personal journey. Romancing has a simple charm to it, people falling in love through gift giving, but there’s a story to it all. AS you learn more about each character, you want to know more and soon you’re trying to unlock all possible stories.

When my wife has gone to bed and I’m left with the choices of what to do with the night, it all comes back to Stardew Valley. Nothing feels as relaxing as sitting at the beach while trying to catch squid or exploring the depths of the mines looking for Purple Mushrooms. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as harvesting quality potatoes or producing duck egg mayonnaise. Maybe this is more of a critique of my current life, my current contentment. It’s not like I want to own a farm myself.

But the Super Nintendo graphics are so charming, the music is so relaxing and the characters you meet are unique and funny that it’s almost a convincing pitch of farm life. And it keeps you coming back. I enjoyed Prison Architect but, after finishing the campaign modes, I haven’t returned. Stardew Valley has content to spare.

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Again, this is probably as much about me as it is the game. Medal of Honor: Frontline left a strong impression on me as a teenage because I was unhappy with my life at the time and I wanted to feel like a hero. But, joining the army would have been the wrong choice for me back then.

Stardew Valley is a great game. It’s addicting, it has personality and helps me wind down after the day. But it also taps into a part of me that isn’t satisfied, that isn’t excited to start a new day. It taps into the adult I’ve become and makes me wonder if I’ve taken the right roads.

In the game, I’m goal driven. I have long term and short term plans and I work towards them with determination. In the game, I’m people oriented. I work to find out the character’s likes and dislikes, befriend and romance and attend all the parties. In the game, I’m exhausted at night and jump out of bed in the morning.

In the game, I’m who I’d like to be in real life.

Did Eric Barone mean to make a Rorschach Test when he created this game alone? Did he mean for it to sell one million copies so that some people would rethink their life? I doubt it, but that’s what happened with me. I like my job and love my friends but where am I supposed to put down roots? Because no one is going to give me their old farm and save me from the mundane.

Maybe I can take the positive lessons from Stardew Valley and become more goal-oriented in life. Maybe I can take this discontentment and work for something that will bring me more peace. If I prefer the person I am in the game, maybe it’s time to be that person in the real world.