My blog has hit a bit of a slump–the coronavirus has taken the wind out of everything that isn’t itself. But if I were to examine the more direct causes for the slump, I’d have to look at video games. Yes, I’m playing video games instead of blogging. Well why don’t I blog about video games?
In the past month, I played two narrative video games: Heaven’s Vault and Disco Elysium. These are my brief reviews.
Heaven’s Vault is a game about an archaeologist trying to understand the collapse of an ancient civilization. It takes place in a low-tech sci-fi environment where people sail between the “moons” of a nebula, but only really through the use of ancient tech. This game features four main gameplay loops: sailing between moons, exploring sites, dialogue trees, and translating ancient text.
The ancient text is clearly the most innovative part of the game. There is a constructed language that is complete enough to say just about anything. You start out by guessing words based on context, but eventually you can guess what individual symbols mean, and infer the meaning of entirely new words. Soon you gain new insight into how this ancient civilization saw things; for instance, “emperor” is a compound word that tells you what people thought was the main role of an emperor.
It was really satisfying to watch the pieces come together, and I say that as a person who doesn’t particularly enjoy learning real languages. Although, I should say that the language didn’t really become clear until New Game+, which features much harder translations.
I also think the dialogue is really well-done. It’s kind of like dialogue in real life. Because of the aggressive autosave, you can’t really take back anything you say. You just traverse a single path through your conversation, and that’s it. You’re never quite sure what consequences it had, if any, at least until you try saying something different in New Game+. It’s not great if you’re a completionist, but there’s an aesthetic to it.
I am less enthusiastic about sailing and exploring. They’re just really slow-paced, and feel like forced relaxation to me. Also, the sailing is very pretty but I have an old computer, it can’t handle pretty.
Disco Elysium is a story-based detective game. The protagonist wakes up in a hotel with a hangover and amnesia, and learns that he is a detective trying to solve a murder mystery that occurred in the midst of a labor strike. The way to solve this mystery is dialogue dialogue dialogue, and also skill checks. It’s kind of like a D&D game but with non-combat encounters only.
I thought that the most interesting part of this game, was the skill system. The protagonist has 24 skills, to be used in skill checks. But each skill is also a voice in his head, and they offer a running commentary during dialogue. Depending on the kind of character you build, different voices will be louder, egging you on to do different things.
The skill checks are performed by rolling 2d6, adding modifiers, and checking against the difficulty. In my opinion, rolling dice is not a particularly interesting mechanic, but what’s interesting is how they had to design the game with branching paths and multiple solutions to most problems. I also admit, it’s really funny when he fails a check, and the voice tells him to do something stupid and he doesn’t have any choice but to follow. I think you could save-scum to pass any skill check, but failure paths were entertaining enough that I didn’t bother.
I won’t say much about the story, but I’ll say that it allows you to roleplay as many different kinds of cops, from the doomsayer cop to the revolutionary communist cop to the free market fundamentalist cop, to all these things at once (like I did). Personally, I can’t roleplay for shit (I am bad at D&D), I tend to make whatever decision satisfies my curiosity for the moment, or a decision that seems morally correct. Which leads to a totally inconsistent character. But the game just rolled with it, and it felt like it made sense that the detective would have such an unstable personality.
This is all to say, I’m not much for roleplaying, but I still enjoyed the roleplaying element. It’s a good game.