Player Too: Episode 7 - Journey, Flower, The Stanley Parable, Valiant Hearts

Hello again everyone and thanks for coming back to read these sort of mini-reviews that are Player Too, as I document the journey (word choice! foreshadowing! real writing!) to hopefully foster in my girlfriend, Claire, a real interest in games so we can share one of my favourite ever hobbies together. 

At episode 7 I have to say we're really getting somewhere. At this point she'd be tired of humouring me and I'd just be being cruel to pester her this much just for writing material. No, we've actually had a great couple of months for the games, following a very positive period for Episode 6 as well.

So during the last couple of months, my good buddy Ian lent me his PS3 so I could finally get around to playing some games that had been on my list a long time, but I hadn't had a TV or PS3 console to really use them. We worked out that I could use my PC monitor for the visual, and output the audio separately into a portable speaker. This hassle was of course just weeks before Sony made PS Now available on PC anyway, but whatever.

I finally got to play a whole host of games over a few weeks. Uncharted 1-3, The Last of Us, MGS4, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Killzone 2 & 3, Resistance, Flower, and of course, Journey; a game people still haven't shut up about to this day. It must be good!

I didn't play all of those games to completion, but I did most of them. Claire joined for for the evenings I played Flower and Journey. If anyone's wondering, this was a couple of weeks before Abzu came out. I knew they'd be good games to try with Claire as they were chill, beautiful, short, and didn't really have failure states. These are all things we've mentioned that Claire sees as positives in previous Player Too episodes. I'm increasingly appreciating short games too, as you get a well crafted experience that doesn't eat up all your time over a few weeks - just one or two evenings. When you're trying to play as many trending games as you can, that's a Godsend.

Anyway, let's get to it!

Journey

Journey, by ThatGameCompany, is a visual masterpiece from 2012 that still holds up, and it also now has a HD remake. It's a gem of a game that throws many gaming conventions out the window while mastering others. For instance, there isn't a single line of dialogue, nor popups, wrong-way warnings, health bars or even instruction. Everything you need to know is communicated visually or by example. There's a very floaty feel to the controls as you soar, slide, and glide across magnificent landscapes towards a mountain in the far-off distance. Why we're trying to get there isn't directly explained, but is implied enough through environmental story-telling and short, wordless cutscenes that you can come to your own conclusions - and everyone's theory will be a little different.

One of my favourite things was the multiplayer implementation. As long as you're connected, this will work seamlessly. You start the game solo, but may be paired up with just one other player at at time, at any point, and you travel in tandem. There's no indication that someone has joined you until you literally spot them moving around nearby, and there's no indication that they've left until you look around and really can't find them any more. There isn't even a name tag until the post-game credits when they mention all the other users who joined you. Claire and I were debating as we watched another player move about if they were really another player or just an NPC (I had to look it up, and there are no NPC journey-ers). You have one way to interact with them. You have a sort of jumping, twirl animation that sends out a small pulse. It's basically your only way to say hello. But, correct me if I'm wrong, it seems to charge your companion's flying ability, and not your own (again, this isn't explained in-game), so they're encouraged to stay near you and you're encouraged to reciprocate their charge.

This also means you kind of miss them when they're gone. Aww.

Another nice thing is that your character's gender is non-defined and you couldn't tell by looking as they're so stylised (and also they fly a bit so they're clearly not exactly human), so again the game insists very little upon you and it's easy to get in to. Claire saw the character as female, but me, having seen that character all over games media for four years, just saw them basically as "the Journey avatar", though I do find it easier to lean towards female than male if I had to choose. The stylised skinny legs and graceful movement just imply that to me. Anyway.

The game is only 2-3 hours long so I won't spoil anything other than to say "just play it".

And I haven't even mentioned the music, which sort of means that it did its job perfectly. It's only watching the trailer again today while I wrote this that I remembered how gorgeous and seamlessly integrated that it actually was, sitting in with the visuals and theme at any given moment without ever demanding your focus directly, or worse, lifting you out of it by being overly dramatic at the wrong moments.

So preeeeety!

So preeeeety!

Claire and I played together just swapping controls every other level and it's so passive and low-skill level that we both advanced at the same pace and just chilled while watching the other. If this was Super Meat Boy or something then our gaming experience would mean we'd advance at totally different paces and might have gotten frustrated watching the other.

So yeah, this game is great for playing together, though I don't mean online together as you've no solid way to know who the other player is or deliberately join their game.

Player Too Result:

We both liked this a lot. There's something universally appealing about a game with nice controls and visuals and it's short enough that you just don't get the chance to get bored with it. I can see why people replay this a lot. I've since given back the borrowed PS3, but if there's ever a PC version I'd give it another go, for sure. As would Claire, and she hasn't said that about many of the games so far. Often she's been willing to try something like that, but not that same thing again.

What would you call this game genre though? Meditative? Journey-like (from now on)? The Playstation Store page says simply 'Adventure', which fits, but in a 100% different way to how Broken Age is an Adventure, game. I'm going to say "Chill-sim" for now, okay?

As a play experience it feels a little bit close to the walking-simulator (we're taking that term back, by the way. I mean it positively) narrative games, for me at least, but where Firewatch and Gone Home are asset-light, easy-to-use games and emphasize story, Chill-Sims would be story-light, easy-to-use games that emphasize aesthetics and environmental storytelling.

Abzu, the diving Chill-Sim ;) from Journey's art director Matt Nava (new studio is Giant Squid - not ThatGameCompany) has come out recently and I've played it myself, loving it for all sorts of similar reasons to this, and some new ones. Claire is looking forward to playing that, and thinks the trailer looks gorgeous! So that'll be next. 

Are there other chill sims out there besides the following?..

Flower

I was so eager to play Journey, it was the first thing I did when I got the PS3, so it was a week or so later that I came to ThatGameCompany's earlier 2009 game Flower. There's a lot of similarities and I'd call this a chill sim also, but it's definitely the inferior product, albeit with its own merits.

As such, I hadn't planned to see if Claire would play it for the blog, but she came in near the start and we wound up playing together and swapping control each level, as with Journey.

In this game you start the levels as a petal floating on the breeze, and, quite uniquely, use only the controller's tilt functions, and not the sticks, to steer. What you control is essentially the breeze, as you travel around the level sweeping up more and more petals from other flowers to bring more colour into the world. Controlling the game really was a joy and I still remember Claire getting way into it and raising the whole pad up behind her head in that unnecessarily-full-bodied-controlling sort of way that is iconically associated with 'people enjoying games'.

Flower felt a little like this, but with less litter. Don't litter!

Flower felt a little like this, but with less litter. Don't litter!

The minimalist instruction approach and lack of fail states made it unmistakable as Journey's forerunner, and I really enjoyed the early levels, but I thought the last few did get repetitive and lose the run of themselves a little. And this is only a 2-3 hour game as well so that's a real criticism. For me, I like the early levels where you were literally a petal on the wind and the simplicity of the meadows and the beauty of nature were great themes. But unlike Journey, there's less contrast from level to level, and when the aesthetic actually does change, I felt it was for the worse. 

More literal magic is introduced as you start to somehow move rock formations by 'activating' enough of the other flowers. For me the game spoiled a little there. Then in later levels you're introduced to deliberately ugly electricity pylons and city-elements that, while the contrast is deliberate, really didn't sit well in the game for me. They're used in unnatural shapes and the city parts, rather than just being a dilapidated urban environment, was closer to a Picasso painting in terms of how the urban elements were arrayed. It deviated from the 'natural' part of its 'natural beauty of the world' theme where I felt it could have perfectly contrasted itself by sticking closer to the real world.

Even though Journey has more of the unnatural going on, it begins in that way, and so doesn't feel like it changes direction on you. I actually have this same criticism of Abzu, but that's for next time (and don't let me stop you, it's a gorgeous game).

Player Too Result:

We both enjoyed the game early on and started flagging about half-way through, wishing it was over by the last couple of levels. Because I knew how short the game was, though, we powered through. There's no point suggesting how they might improve, as they next made Journey, so every possible lesson was learned perfectly.

If we'd played this game first, we'd each have said "I like that, but I'd like to see it done bettter", then played Journey and said "perfect, give me more!". So there's not much worth saying here that I didn't say above. Look to Abzu next. If you've played both Journey and Abzu, Flower is still worth your time if you want more, but you won't get as much out of it.

The Stanley Parable

Since as far back as episode 2, I've been saying we'd get to The Stanley Parable sooner or later. It appears 'later' was correct. Claire did play the demo late last year and really enjoyed it, but it's somehow taken this long to play the real game. We've had our walking simulators and I've explained that they're a good way to get used to first person movement in a "safe" environment. Claire doesn't have decades of FPS training. She had none before we started Player Too, in fact. So these games, enjoyable on their own merits, are hopefully getting us closer to where we could play Portal 2's co-op mode together, which I'd love to do. Baby steps though.

The catwalk jump is actually the only skill-based thing you can do in the game, and while it took her a few goes not to go splat, she did get there and experience an extra 10-15 minutes of the game's content that lies down that direction. Including the part where.. ah, just play it yourself. One word though, 'Portal'. It felt like foreshadowing and I forgot it was there since I first played.

If you don't know what The Stanley Parable is, as the trailer says, to say too much would be to spoil it. It's unlike any other game (well, that was more true before Beginner's Guide and Dr.Langeskov came out). It's sort of like what I imagine the Monty Python guys would have made if they made games instead of a TV show and some movies.

If you know nothing about games, you'll really enjoy it. If you're aware of gaming tropes and criticisms then you're likely to love it. The joy is in trying to subvert what the game wants you to do (as we often do in other games - to see what happens) and realising that the designers were one or two steps ahead of you. Every time! They've every single thing handled, and you're in a constant state of contention (well, sometimes cooperation) with the game's narrator, with hilarious results.

Again, there's no failure states (even the two places where you can try kill yourself are handled) but the game is simultaneously all about failure.

This game within a game says more about games than any game I've ever gamed

This game within a game says more about games than any game I've ever gamed

I'm really not doing it justice and don't want to spoil anything with specific examples. All I can say if you haven't played it is to make sure you do. Play the demo too. It features none of the same content as the main game so it's like a free mini-game. Even the trailer is its own beast, with little to none of the game's actual content, but all of its character, featured.

Player Too Result:

I really enjoyed this game when I first played it. It's laugh-out-loud funny and refreshingly different as a gaming experience, and I really enjoyed watching Claire experience it for the first time, too. Her first instinct was always to not do as instructed, and getting stopped in her tracks, or dismaying the game's narrator always resulted in outbursts of laughter.

We'd already played Dr.Langeskov so when I was asking would she like to play games like this, I couldn't readily think of any. So I've suggested The Beginner's Guide, which is more an autobiographical drama than a game, and with very little comedy. She's interested to play that, though.

She explained to me then that her resistance to games was always that she saw them as very skill-based ways to entertain yourself, and that she had neither the skills, nor time to develop them, to start enjoying games. Seeing things like what we've been playing on Player Too has shown her that there's all sorts of gaming experiences out there, and that they're a great alternative way to tell stories, to challenge your brain, or in this case to experience comedies, without needing lightning-fast reflexes or platforming skills. She's really enjoyed a lot of the games that we played recently. I believe that there's a game out there for everyone, and it seems more true than ever today. Hooray!

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

The trailers for the game are a little cringe worthy, and this one actually implies a few things that don't actually happen, but they're touching all the same.

Okay, this game. I love it. I can't believe I passed it over for so many years. I was actually starting to watch a Let's Play of it once, but from the first few minutes I knew it deserved to be bought and played. Jack Gallagher and Michelle Burrell also recommended this game for Player Too around that time and so I've had it waiting in the wings for a couple of months. Thanks guys!

I played the first level or so, but because of the Steam + U-Play sign ins required, it meant that Claire had to play using my profile and so playing simultaneous saves at the same time wouldn't work, so for once, she played a game that I hadn't. I only beat it last night. It's not exactly a short game either, emotionally it's a roller coaster (if you've any soul at all - and I'm not known for mine so that's an extra strong recommendation), and there are more than a couple of quite difficult skill-based segments, as well as a couple of more challenging puzzles, so after beating it myself, I was more than a little impressed that Claire had done it all before me without referencing guides or asking for help to beat any of the harder sections. I know she got frustrated with it at times (we played in the same room while I played Punch Club) but it didn't stop her, whereas Talos Principle and Telltale's Game of Thrones had, so that says a lot for either her growing skills, or the quality of the game that kept her coming back. Both, most likely.

"Valiant Hearts: The Great War / Soldats Inconnus: Mémoires de la Grande Guerre" (to give it its absolute full name, which I feel it's earned. The second half is French for "Unknown Soldiers: Memories of the Great War") was made by Ubisoft Montpellier (France) and released in 2014. It centres on the lives of four playable fictional characters and is set in France and Belgium from 1914-1917 (for once a war game actually mostly excludes the US period of the war, rather than focusing solely on it), during World War 1. It plays like an adventure/puzzle game most of the time, but with a lot of other types of sections like dodging bombs in a tiny car driving down a country road, or administering medical aid to soldiers with a rhythm-style mini-game. You can even drive a Mk1 tank, and it's as unexpected as it is fun when the moment arrives.

It's presented in a stylised, almost comical fashion, but in no way does it make light of the war. On the contrary, it handles its subject matter with the utmost respect, and even goes so far as to attempt to educate players by offering them to read short passages with real-world photos, whenever something relevant shows up in the game, though this is optional. Before playing, I actually thought this was an indie game. I was a little surprised to see a AAA label, Ubisoft no less, using stylised 2D art, and I was all the more impressed when I saw the educational segments. The fact that a AAA studio made a war game that doesn't glorify war, in which none of your characters ever handle a rifle or directly cause the death of anyone on screen, and that then actively seeks to educate players, is a small miracle in and of itself. I'm so encouraged that this game exists. I'd never have believed that that pitch would get past Ubisoft higher-ups, so my hat's off to them for that. I'd love to hear more about how it came to be. Edit: Here's some further info, but it doesn't cover the pitch or approval.

The game didn't pull many punches when it came to the hard truths.

The game didn't pull many punches when it came to the hard truths.

We should be so lucky if the upcoming Battlefield 1 (name sounds no less stupid to me this many months later) handles the Great War with any hint of delicacy. They've already relegated the contributions of the French and Russian forces to the DLC. However I am eager to see what they do in the campaign. BF3 and 4 certainly didn't try very hard to humanise the Russians or Chinese in their fictional wars, but maybe they will be more considerate of a WW1 setting.
Edit: This new gameplay footage has me a little encouraged as to the more respectful treatment of the war, but I do think it's only for one level, and I'd far rather the narrator were a British, French or German soldier who'd been in the trenches for 4 years, rather than America-washing a largely European war. And I can't resist to nitpick this: It says that these events happened over a hundred years ago. Some of them did. But 100 years ago we were in the middle of the war (1916), and the Americans hadn't yet entered (April 1917). This gameplay level is clearly set in 1918, which is less than a hundred years to the time of the game and trailer's release. Hey, I'm detail-oriented. Particularly when it comes to important history.

Most war games seem to try and say "war is hell, sure, but look how many dudes you can roast with a flamethrower". Valiant Hearts says "war is hell, and real tragedies happen to real people like you who don't deserve them. Now here's a little info on how chlorine gas reacts with the water in your lungs to create acid and burn you from the inside". I love that this game exists, and wish more games would follow its lead.

Despite the heavy tone, the dog companion is with you throughout most of the game to lighten it a little and make you feel love and care for something in these hellish settings. The credibility of the story does sometimes flounder, like when you're reassigned to a new front, but get to take your dog, or you're leading a charge in a new battle, but still don't have a gun like everyone around you does, or when the dog puts on a gas mask and they've still animated its tongue hanging out, but these are small complaints.

The game paces itself well, too. After a tense opening chapter, we go back in time a bit and solve a puzzle involving repairing a taxi so as Anna can transport soldiers to the front (there is info available on how thousands of taxis were requisitioned to bring soldiers from Paris to the front during the Battle of the Marne) and the next section involves dodging speeding traffic to the sound of can-can music, before anyone has realised just how horrific the Marne is going to be, and patriotism was still the order of the day. Indeed, one the game's final moments is sure to make a note of the mutinies that soldiers eventually carried out over continually being sent "over the top" to their deaths, and how the subsequent courts-martial were handled.

while it's light on gore, and shies away from having you do much in the way of killing, valiant hearts doesn't fail to impress the brutality of war upon the player. it's actually all the more effective for the fact that you can't retaliate. You can only keep charging.

while it's light on gore, and shies away from having you do much in the way of killing, valiant hearts doesn't fail to impress the brutality of war upon the player. it's actually all the more effective for the fact that you can't retaliate. You can only keep charging.

I could continue to gush over this game, but I should stop. It's worth a play if you want to play either a good looking game, a different war game, an educational game, the most indie-style AAA game I've yet seen, or just a game that will make you feel.. things.. emotions. Claire was near-bawling when it was over, and even my cold cold heart-strings were tugged upon.

Player Too Result:

Something amazing happened with this game. Claire would come home from work, and straight away take out the laptop and continue playing, eager to beat a challenge from the night before, or to see what happened the characters (there are cliffhangers). This is real gamer behaviour and I haven't seen Claire as eager to play something in this way since Race The Sun back before episode 2, and with that she soon grew tired as the game doesn't really take you anywhere in a narrative progression sense. So I'm encouraged. With everything else she might play if I suggested it, or join me playing as with Flower, but so far she hasn't been this eager to pick up and play any of the games. So major success with this one!

Her single favourite feature was hands-down the dog companion (she even repeatedly whistled to it) but she loved the game for what it was, too. A respectful war game and a challenging adventure. It's probably the most difficult adventure game she's played so far, and it definitely sharpened her reflexes somewhat (Level Up!!), but the love for the characters pulled her though the harder sections. 

It would be great to hear of games on a par with this for emotional weight. The characters in Valiant Hearts are just too sympathetic because the context really happened. Karl, for example, is a German married to a French woman and living in France. At the start of the game he's called up to fight for Germany, and then the woman's father Emile is called up to fight for the French, leaving her alone with the harvest in a soon-to-be-occupied St.Mihiel, with the two dearest men in her life shooting at each other. These are real people's stories and that's hard to compete with.

I struggle to think of many games with a good dog companion (not COD: Ghosts) that would interest Claire, but maybe something will come up.

Essentially our take-away from this one is that adventure games are still good, furry companions are great, slightly more challenging games are now maybe an option, and that games with an interesting angle are worth considering for Player Too.

Next Time On Player Too

Next up, abzu!

Next up, abzu!

So, great success this time! I already have Abzu ready to go, hot on the heels of Journey, and we'll keeping sharpening those first-person skills by next looking at The Beginner's Guide. After that I think Claire could try her first ever "shooter", with Super Hot, which is really more of a puzzle game, but is also definitely a shallow step into the shooter pool that would move us towards Portal.

We tend to play 4 games for an episode, so are there any other suggestions? 4 is a lot to write for at once (though it makes a nice square picture at the top) so I might actually reduce to 3 anyway.

I liked Punch Club and it's quite accessible, but it's quite long and grind-y and while I know Claire would appreciate the humour and references, I doubt she'd put the time into the mid-game to get through it.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an option for a puzzle/adventure with the feels, but we'll see.

Can anyone recommend games with low-ish skill and good canine (or maybe robo-canine) companions? How's the recent ReCore, if you've played it?

I got Spore and I know the first stage is a lot like Agar which Claire liked, so that may be an option, but I haven't yet played the rest and I know that game isn't the most wildly popular game out there, so maybe not.

Anyone played Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime? I keep seeing it and thinking that it might be appropriate but I really don't know how it would suit 2 people with different skill levels? Is it friendly to all? It seems kind of hectic.

In real life, Claire's also gotten really into planting trees. I wonder if Stardew Valley might get her through the Winter, but we've really not tried a game anywhere near that long..

Edit: Never Alone! Seems perfect.

All recommendations appreciated, guys. And thanks so much for reading! Hope you enjoyed it and try some of these for yourself!

Until next time..

PS Claire says she'll write a foreword for the next Player Too, so I can finally stop feeling that little pang of guilt about putting words in her mouth every other month. We just think it'd be nice for readers to hear from her for once.