Player Too: Episode 6 - Firewatch, Proteus, Mushroom 11, Limbo

Well it's been about four months since the last episode of Player Too, so as a reminder, or to anyone new, let me explain that Player Too is me documenting the attempt to get my girlfriend Claire to share in the wonderful world of games with me. I believe without a doubt that there's a game out there for everyone. If you're a gamer and have a friend, partner, or sibling who you'd just love to sit down and play something with, but who doesn't share your passion, maybe you'll find something in this series to recommend to them. We've certainly had some successes so far.

The reason it's been so long since the last post is basically that old excuse; "life happens". We hadn't played many games together until the last few weeks, both having been too busy for more than the occasional episode of something on Netflix. You may notice, then, that the games I'm writing about this time are pretty short. The Steam sale led to me picking up a few titles that I thought we could try whenever we'd a free half an hour, without feeling the need to have to finish the game (Firewatch being the exception - though it was short enough to be manageable).

So, let's begin..

Firewatch

Firewatch is a beautiful, beautiful game. If you need to classify it, it's a mystery / walking-simulator (if you can stand that term. I see no shame in it. Just embrace the irony. Own it, and move on). But the game is recognised first and foremost for its stunning art style. Not that it's photo-realistic (it's closer to cell-shaded, actually) but the colour palette used is perfect for capturing the stunning vistas of Wyoming's great outdoors.

After an Up-rivalling introduction, setting up your character's desire for some time away, you begin your Summer job as a fire lookout. Your only other real companion is your boss in the next tower a few miles away, which is always visible, yet always just out of reach. You really are alone in the tranquillity.. that is, until the plot turns from at-one-with-nature towards alone-in-the-woods as it becomes apparent that someone is watching you, messing with you, and you're unsure of their intent.

The game's story is linear, 4 hours long roughly, and any puzzle-solving elements are purely token gestures, but the plot is gripping. Claire and I, playing together, did continually stop to discuss our theories on who we could trust or who the antagonist might be, even questioning our only friend in the game, the woman on the radio. You do get to choose your dialogue responses, which carry some moral and ethical weight to them. Claire and I, each role-playing the same character at the same time, were often at odds over what the character's mindset was, and what was the right thing to do, given the game's prologue. 

Just wow.. This was captured from our own play-through. The subtitle is a coincidence.

Just wow.. This was captured from our own play-through. The subtitle is a coincidence.

The world is semi-open, but not in an Ubisoft kind of way. There's no side quests or radio towers to unlock, but as new climbing equipment gradually allows access to new parts of them map, you'll find that you're allowed the freedom to explore and approach your objective from multiple directions, actually using your map for orienteering. The game only has 5 achievements and they're all given for progressing the story. It's just that kind of game.

It's a lot like Gone Home, but better.  If you liked that, you'll love this! There's more character here, more suspense, and a far superior world to explore. It does occupy the same corner of the market, though. Indeed, the game has an easter egg - a book from Gone Home that you can find in the world in Firewatch. The Gone Home devs even reciprocated by putting a Firewatch easter egg into the newer console version of Gone Home.

Player Too Result:

Claire and I both liked Gone Home, and Firewatch is an improvement in every way. It's a short game, good for busy people. The plot pulls you right through and you're never bored. The scenery is one-of-a-kind, and the characters are compelling.

Claire and I would both play more games in this vein. Recommend if you know any.

Proteus

Whatever your feelings on walking simulators and saying things "aren't a game" I'll accept no chastisement when I say that Proteus isn't a game. We have to start defining things a big better than "If it's digital and interactive, it's a game". An architectural program could be a game, then. Mario is to Proteus as chess is to ironing. The former both involve a screen, the latter both involve a board. You can't say they're all games. If you ask Claire and myself, Proteus is interactive art. It's like a painting you can walk through. It's a digital way that you can calm down, relax, and just enjoy what's around you. It's certainly experimental. That said, for simplicity, I'm still going to refer to it as 'the game'.

My first impression, and later Claire's, were actually identical. I've so much to do that without a goal to accomplish I feel I'm wasting time. This is why I'm not into many multiplayer games. When I started walking around the world, I was rushing, looking for an objective; a thing to do that would let me say I'd 'beaten' (or 'finished with') the game. But I quickly realised I was playing the game wrong. It's not about a goal, or doing a particular thing. It's about just seeing what can be seen.

Graphically, the world is a bit simplistic, but acoustically it's rich! The world is so musical. Everything makes a sound. Rain makes plinky plonky xylophone sounds, bees drone up and done like a theremin, and startled flocks of chickens make a rattled bell noise. It really is quite a treat for the ears, and very soft too. No harsh sounds. 

As little as there is to 'do', you can still interact with a lot of the creatures. Most are startled and run or hop away, and I frequently found myself chasing a bunny or flock of chickens around the island for a couple of minutes before something else would tickle my fancy. Something like a sunset, a cloud bank rolling in, a bat flying by, or a magical particle effect swirling in the distance leading me to wonder "what's going on over there". It's hard to pick a point to stop playing the game. You just kind of stop after a few minutes, I suppose when you haven't seen something new for a while.

Dragonflies! At least that's what I think they are..

Dragonflies! At least that's what I think they are..

There's a lot to see though. Day and night cycles, a plethora of wildlife, a few structures, storms, magical creatures, and even an aurora borealis. I haven't seen this last one yet, which leads me to wonder what else I've missed.

It's hard to describe the game, but if you're really into your games, or you're a designer or audio person, this is definitely worth a look.

Something happened to me while playing it, also. I actually started to nod off. This may sound normal to some, but I've literally never fallen asleep playing a game, or watching a movie for that matter. I'm just not wired that way. I did play this around bed time, but I can play games all night when the mood takes me. This was just so calming and directionless that it was like meditation. Claire also fell asleep playing, but she often does, so it didn't surprise me. Maybe there's meditative merit in this game. Try it out if that's your thing.

Player Too Result:

I played this first, and just thought I'd show Claire because it's quick and easy. I think I only played it again so I could show someone new. Claire's the same. She can see value in the game, but wouldn't necessarily ever go back to it other than to show another person. And that person would probably not play again it other than to show someone else.

There isn't really anything like Proteus (and that's where its main value lies) so we can't exactly play more of the same, though I have many times started a new Minecraft world just to explore the random generation and see something that nobody's ever seen before.

Claire wouldn't be pushed to play this again, or more of the same. She never really liked the simple Minecraft aesthetic, and Proteus also isn't graphically that impressive. While she found the procedural element intriguing, she says it would take the world looking more like Firewatch to really get her interested in playing. I'm sure that kind of game is on the horizon (No Man's Sky, if stripped of the combat elements, might be what we're talking about) but for now, Proteus was a miss for finding a game Claire wants to keep coming back to.

I often go for a walk to clear my head and get some exercise. If it was stormy out I can see myself maybe playing this to center myself, though it's usually reasons to get away from the computer that I'm looking for, not another reason to stay, so I don't know. I really like the beauty of procedural generation and I'm an audio guy, so I'd probably play this for a few minutes from time to time, but if someone came up with a similar but prettier idea, I'd likely never come back to Proteus. It's a weird one. You can probably already tell if it's for you or not, so I'll leave it there.

Mushroom 11

Mushroom 11 is a physics-based puzzle platformer that brings something new to the table. You play as an amorphous blob that can shape shift to solve puzzles, and you'll have to do so with increasing skill and rapidity as the puzzles become more complex. There's even boss battles.

The movement controls are truly unique, and give the game its main value proposition. You don't even directly control the blob. Your mouse is an eraser with a large and small brush. You erase one side of the blob, and it grows out on the other side. So you erase the right side of the blob to grow out to the left.

The world is a nuclear wasteland with all sorts of crazy new lifeforms trying to survive - yourself included. Neither Claire nor myself have finished the game yet (I'm on level 4) so I can't say if there's any humans in the game ever, but I doubt it. I suspect that your blob is some sort of human creation. It looks like a printed circuit board crossed with flubber. I wouldn't be surprised if you're some sort of science experiment, but you could just be nuclear sludge. 

Interestingly, you move from right to left, not left to right as you would in almost every other 2D platformer ever. I do hope they work in a deeper meta meaning for this as the game goes on (like trying to go back and undo the disaster), but from what I've seen it's just a series of puzzles, not a story-driven experience. There may be no reason for the decision to reverse the traditional direction.

Claire was playing on the laptop with a track pad, not a mouse. She played before I did. It looked extremely difficult, but when I played with a mouse we realised it really was just down to the imprecision of the track pad. The game is fairly easy to control with a mouse. You don't use arrow keys at all. It's actually quite a pleasure to move the blob, especially as it squeezes rapidly up narrow cave or vent sections. It feels a bit like squeezing toothpaste out or something. Definitely quite different from other games.

The puzzles start simply enough, just to get you used to what you can do with the blob, but they do get more complex. Unfortunately, a few of them I think I just fluked by rapidly moving the mouse/eraser around to try force my way past an obstacle quickly, but others really did make me feel clever, like forming a claw shape to hang from a ledge while trying to carefully extend past a lava pit.

Player Too Result:

Claire was still on level 1, but did play enough to make the game worth mentioning. The controls were fun, the puzzles were fun, the visuals were nice, and the game really was unique. We've learned that Claire likes puzzle games already, and the skill required in Mushroom 11 isn't too prohibitive (if you use a mouse, anyway).

She does think she'll play more of this and so do I. But as a puzzle platformer we both preferred our next game.

Limbo

Limbo was briefly free on Steam for a day or two a couple of weeks ago. I made sure to grab a copy for myself and Claire. I didn't know why it was free but a few days later I first heard of developer Playdead's new game Inside which released last week. It's clearly coming from the same place so renewing interest in Limbo was a good way to generate some buzz about Inside. I'm just giving it the shout out in gracious repayment for the free copies of Limbo we availed of.

Limbo is a 2D puzzle platformer with a silent-movie and horror vibe. Pretty much every puzzle you have to figure out by dying first.. gruesomely. The puzzles I figured out without drowning, getting decapitated, impaled, or crushed really did make me feel smart. The violence is made all the more disturbing by the fact that you're playing just a young boy whose only motivation (at first anyway, seems to be to get out of the scary woods by travelling to the right). If you're afraid of spiders or squeamish, stay away.

Claire actually really likes spiders, and given that an early boss involved you removing all the legs from a giant one, I thought she wouldn't like it, but I was really enjoying the art and the animation so I wanted her to at least try it for a few minutes.

The main appeal of the game is the art style first, and the game feel second. When you start moving around and making little jumps, your arms reach out to grab the nearest ledge and you scramble up them. It's hard to see from the video, and even harder to describe in words, but the game feels incredibly smooth to play, and all the jumps and collapsing hazards are timed extremely well so as to feel tense and close, but not be overly difficult. You can clear most obstacles on your second attempt, if you were fooled by an unnoticed bear trap on your first.

ewwwwww... get away get away get away!!

ewwwwww... get away get away get away!!

Player Too Result:

Great success. Since the spider was evil, it was okay to kill it to save the innocent boy, according to Claire. With that sorted, Claire really enjoyed the feel of the movement and the spooky look of the game in the same way that I did. It's one of the few games that she keeps going back to herself to beat. With many of them we've beaten them together or finished with them in a single sitting. She's almost beaten the game now, and will.

After death, the restart checkpoint is always very close, and the respawn time is very short. This quick reset time is very important to stave off frustration. There's also nothing to break the flow other than death. There's no loading screens or levels. You can load the game at specific 'chapter' checkpoints, but the game constantly moves from left to right in a single, giant, continuous level. This really just keeps you in the game, which is a great strength. 

The game is hard, but not in a Super Meat Boy kind of way. Both are violent (ish) puzzle platformers (indulge me - I know there's less puzzling in SMB), but Limbo doesn't frustrate. Claire said that once you figure out a puzzle, it's pretty easy to get it right. And most aren't too hard to figure out. I got stuck myself a couple of times and checked a guide, but Claire didn't ever get blocked for too long.

Since she really enjoyed it, I asked her if she'd be tempted to play Inside, and she said that it looked like exactly the same thing. What's the point in playing the exact same thing? (Take that CoD fans! :P) She said that she would likely play it in the future but not as the immediate next game. So that's encouraging anyway. 

Mid-low difficulty artistic puzzle platformers for the win, then!

Next Time On Player Too

I bought Valiant Hearts (thank you Jack Gallagher and Michelle Burrell) so we'll get to give that a go soon. I'm a big history fan and think war games and movies are very important to be done right, and not overly-glorified. This looks like a good one. Very excited for it!

I've been saying it for a long time, but the full game of Stanley Parable (we played the demo) has yet to be played. I'd love to play Portal 2's co-op mode with Claire but it's a high-skill game, so it'll be necessary to build up her first person movement skills with games like Firewatch and Stanley first if we were ever to get there. Just because the humour and puzzles are something I know she'd enjoy, and playing together is always more fun.

Telltale games were a miss, unfortunately. Any other recommendations? Claire's skills are growing, but she is not a Jedi yet; lower skilled games are the requirement.

How's The Witness for movement difficulty, or is it all cognitive? Is Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime complex to control? How about the hacker role in Clandestine? Anything else?

Thanks in advance for any recommendations, and thanks for reading. Hope you got something out of these mini-reviews and that they help you find a game to share with a loved one.

Until Next time..