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.


What Remains of Edith Finch

edith3I don’t write about video games here very often. Which is a little strange, considering I’ve played them since Space Invaders on the Atari VCS back in 1979 and have owned most of the consoles that came out since, over the years. But anyway, I suppose this means that a game has to be something really special to warrant a comment here.

So What Remains of Edith Finch– what a lovely game. Maybe ‘game’ is the wrong description- this was more of an experience. I think this genre of game is called a ‘walking simulator’, and basically consists of the player, through a first-person perspective, exploring a richly detailed creation, usually uncovering some kind of mystery or larger narrative by just looking around and, well, your natural curiosity tells the story. The genius of these games is how subtle they can be, and how the player doesn’t feel ‘forced’ to follow any direct path. At its best, any progression should feel natural and honest, and it can be surprising how intense the experience can be.

Intense is how I would describe my favourite game on the PS4 –  Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, another ‘walking simulator’ and a spooky and mesmerising work of real beauty. Genuinely a piece of art rather than ‘just’ a game, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging and really transformative experience as I explored a 1980s English village at the end of the world. It was so affecting that I can still recall moments in it as powerful as anything in a recent movie. Well, What Remains of Edith Finch is right up there with Rapture in quality, possibly aided, ironically, by it being a much shorter experience. I think a playthrough of this would take between two and three hours- which might seem a bit short, but the quality really makes up for it. This is a fantasy that can haunt your dreams and linger in your daylight fancies.

edith2.jpgWhat Remains of Edith Finch is a story about stories, of memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Its mostly a story about loss and grief, fairly heavyweight topics for a game, but quite enthralling here in an exploration of the past, of a family history, and what may be a curse. Through the games magical setting (unwrapping each memory/story room by room while exploring the Finch family home, deserted out on a misty, lushly forested island) the player experiences, through gameplay, the memories of each departed member of the family, slowly building a map of the Finch family tree and one final ‘twist’.

I would love to describe some of the pleasures and surprises of this game and its stories, and at this point with the game having been out for a few years I’m hardly in spoiler territory but really, I can’t do it. I just don’t want to risk spoiling anything of this beautiful experience- it looks utterly gorgeous and is blessed with a lovely soundtrack from Jeff Russo (who scored the Fargo tv series, as well as Altered Carbon) that complements those images. As I’ve gotten older and somewhat weary of the huge 100+ hour epic experiences and noisy violent gunfights of modern gaming, I’ve really leaned towards these more thoughtful games. You can lose yourself in them and realise part of the joy of videogames of old- back when they were new and we didn’t know what they could be, these are experiences to treasure and remember.

edith4.pngWhat Remains of Edith Finch has just recently been added to the Xbox Gamepass service, so is free to play for subscribers.