Turing Test, Talos Principle and Ben

subnautica1I’m gravitating towards more solitary, slightly cerebral videogames of late- the thought of multiplayer is just horrible, I play videogames to get away from people and the world, I don’t need to get stressed playing shoot em-ups getting mugged by eight year olds, thankyou. So I’ve spent far too much time than is possibly healthy probing the underwater depths of an aquatic alien world in Subnautica, which is a survival-adventure game, something I’m pretty new to (nearest previous title was No Man’s Sky I think, and the survival part of that game wasn’t really its core).  Subnautica is beautiful and fascinating and really hooked me in. Parts of it are like James Cameron’s The Abyss, and I love that movie, so it’s irresistible being drawn into it, being a part of it and having to use my wits to figure out its mysteries and manage to survive. I don’t know how far I’ve progressed into it, but there’s definitely more depths to discover (literally, so), but I’ve put it on hiatus for now.

turing1So  I’ve been playing The Turing Test, recently placed on the Gamepass library. Now this is brilliant, one of those first-person puzzlers where in this case you explore a series of rooms on a research facility on Europa (yep, Jupiter’s moon), figuring out each puzzle that unlocks access to the next room, slowly delving deeper into the abandoned base. As you do so, hints and clues are gradually revealed of the stations original crew, an unfolding narrative that so far (I’m about two chapters in) I’ve really enjoyed. Its another mystery, akin to that of What Remains of Edith Finch, your game progress unfolding a meta-narrative. As you play you are observed by an AI, brilliantly voiced by James Faulkner (unmistakable and a really great performance) who comments on your actions and the state of the base- clearly the rooms are a test, a Turing Test, infact, to distinguish between human and machine, and it’s fairly obvious that you are being manipulated by the AI and that it (Tom) knows more about the fate of the original crew than it is telling.

The tests so far aren’t particularly grueling and are quite refreshingly intuitive, slowly becoming more complex and adding complications as they go. I’m really enjoying the sense of place and mood, though. Its fairly routine in design but it feels real, a place to feel and adjust to. Clearly there’s a mystery to solve and no doubt there are inevitable twists, but I am enjoying the gradually unfolding narrative. I’m one of those people who like to just look around the virtual space, soak it up, read any old crew logs that are abandoned and reveal tantalising back-story and clues to what Tom may be up to.  I think there are about 70 rooms in all and I’m not half-way yet- I certainly hope the puzzles don’t become too challenging. Its a tricky thing, the developers raising the stakes/complexity but still encouraging the player to work harder and avoiding the player hitting a difficulty wall he/she can’t get beyond. Here’s hoping I manage to get to the end and figure out what’s  really been going on. Engrossing stuff though, and like so many examples of this kind of thoughtful game, a really good, atmospheric soundtrack (in this case courtesy of Sam Houghton).

talos1.jpgIt reminds me of The Talos Principle, which I played on PS4 a few years ago. That was a brilliant, brilliant game- another first-person puzzler with a really fascinating backstory. But I never finished it. I was deeply into it back when our dog Ben was really ill, and was playing it off and on during those last few weeks before he died. Unfortunately the game, its graphics, sound effects and music are just so tightly wrapped up in my feelings and memories of that traumatic period, well, I really can’t ever go near it again. I remember Ben on my lap as I played it, and I’d be talking to him as I tried to figure out the games quite ingenious (and increasingly tricky) puzzles. Of course I knew he was ill but didn’t really know how ill- well, I guess I did but we tend to fool ourselves with hope, don’t we?

Funny how music, film, or in this case videogames (which in a audiovisual sense can be an intense combination of both) can be such an arresting link to particular moments, good and bad- they can represent great joy but also such terrible pain.  I suppose it’s a pity that I’ll never feel able to go back and finish that Talos Principle. Its too much like a Time Machine that only ever goes back to that one time.

24th June, almost three years ago. The day we lost Ben was the day the Brexit result was announced. Its like we stepped out from one sane world and into a crazier one, in which our dog was gone, our country split in two and politics slid even further into farce. I suppose it’s a little like moving from one level of a videogame to the next, only I can’t find the exit to this one.

 

Searching for Paradise in No Mans Sky

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So I’m searching for Paradise, the Perfect World. I haven’t found it yet.

No Man’s Sky has received much criticism since its release. Certainly some of it seems deserved but I myself have thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. As someone who grew up in the early ‘eighties playing the original Elite, enthralled by its wire-frame graphics, No Mans Sky is the fantastic realisation of the impossible game I dreamed of one day playing. Young gamers today seem to expect more- more focused gameplay, more goals, more complexity; as if they need being told what to do, where to go. Just travelling around enjoying the view isn’t enough for them. They need a purpose.

 

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Sometimes the journey is the thing. Or the incredible alien skyline that just has me caught trance-like for minutes at a time, leaving me cautious of moving on. Its daft- it’s a computer fantasy, a videogame fabrication, but sometimes I just stop and take in the view. Sometimes I’ve been ‘walking’ on an alien world, just wandering around and enjoying the vistas and the sounds and I’ve been reluctant to leave. As if it were a real place.

Mostly this because you can never really ever go back to it. When you leave a world behind you, you can’t really go back (or at least, it would be incredibly hard to find it again). Impossible alien worlds, procedurally generated in such a way that, while some may seem similar, all are really quite unique. Maybe nobody else in the world playing NMS has seen the things I have,  and the sights once left behind are lost forever. So I save screen-captures like these here, like postcards of my fantastic journey.And then I move on. There’s always another world, another incredible sky.

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So yeah, these are some of my postcards from my journey. Postcards from The Future. From cosmic realms in reality forbidden me by where I am, and the epoch I am living in. Maybe one day humans will be able to explore the deepest reaches of space and see the sights that I can only dream of. This is the nearest I will ever get, other than watching some Hollywood space epic. Of course NMS is inspired by the sci-fi art of 1950s/1970s sci-fi paperback covers, its images full of impossibly saturated colours and fanciful alien creatures and spaceships and outposts. Things I dreamed of when I was a kid. The real thing won’t look like this stuff, but it’s no less valid for that.

 

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As for all those  frustrated gamers who have dropped this game like a stone.  Well, it’s clearly not the game they were hoping for (or hyped up to be). Whats wrong with just exploring, just enjoying the view? Imagine if someone did this kind of game set in the Star Wars universe, just so you could fly around and ‘look’ at Bespin, Yavin etc. Just explore around, not having to do anything (I did that with the Nostromo bonus pack in the Alien: Isolation game; I just walked around those rooms and corridors, swept up in the feeling of being ‘inside’ that virtual space so familiar from the film).

I guess many gamers would argue that wouldn’t be a ‘game’ at all, without having anything to do. I suppose they are right but to me just looking is the doing, just seeing something new. Of course some worlds are more interesting and visually rewarding than others. Its surprising how even the most strange vision could be mundane compared to others.

No Man's Sky_20160903105505.jpgSo I expect I’m one of the few who are playing the game just for the experience of it (if you are to believe the internet, I’m one of the few actually still playing it at all, if the stats are to be believed). I’m not racing to the galactic core or grinding for cash to buy a bigger spaceship. I’m just travelling around, looking for the Perfect World. I don’t know what it will look like, but I think I will know it when I’ve found it. It may not be the end of my journey, but it will be so visually arresting that I may well spend a few days or weeks just walking around it, or flying around it.

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So I’m searching for Paradise, the Perfect World. I haven’t found it yet.Maybe I never will. But it’s fun looking. And if I do find it, well, it’ll be posted here.

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