Fran Bow

I think I purchased Fran Bow during a Halloween sale.  It got lost in my vast backlog of adventure games until I was finally in the mood for a point and click story experience.  I spent the next few hours sending messages to my friend which all said something along the lines of “Wow, this game.”  “WTF.”  “This is like the most fucked up game I’ve played in awhile…”  It actually reminded me a bit of Year Walk, although not nearly as ambiguous and without the same level of puzzle solving.  Both games come from Sweden, so perhaps that’s less of a coincidence than I first thought.

Fran Bow is a ten year old girl who survives a terrible family tragedy, and is then placed in a mental asylum.  The game takes place in 1944, so this is an old-school asylum environment with all of its various mental illness stigmas.  Fran was separated from her beloved cat, Mr Midnight, and she embarks on a mission to escape the asylum and find him.  The game has some mental illness themes that I found intriguing, and unraveling what’s going on is an engaging journey.

The game has quite a few mixed reviews on Steam, and I think that’s because there’s a huge tonal shift in the third chapter.  The opening chapters are fucked up.  There is a lot of really disturbing imagery and suggestions of some really dark content, which is probably what a lot of people dove into the game expecting after looking at the synopsis (and possibly got even more than they bargained for).  The third chapter, though, loses a lot of that imagery and becomes a fairly generic point and click story.  It doesn’t really return to its disturbing roots until closer to the end, and even then it doesn’t seem to reach the same heights.  I can easily see how someone who was engaged by the opening chapters would lose a lot of momentum in chapter three and not really manage to stick it out.  And the ending was… strange.  Many reviews point it out for being too abrupt, but I felt it had enough closure to seal off the story.  I wouldn’t say it was disappointing, but it might have been a little more effective if they had been more concrete rather than leaving some of the lines to interpretation.

If you can handle the disturbing underlying suggestions of the game, it’s probably worth the 4-6 hours that it will take to see Fran through her story.

The Book of Unwritten Tales

I grew up on “adventure games”, and they briefly disappeared from the market so I find myself oddly drawn to them when I come across them.  Telltale sparked a new interest in the genre, and suddenly my Steam account is filled with the damn things.  The problem is, you have to be in a certain mindset to really enjoy an adventure game.  It’s almost like reading an interactive book, except it moves at a much slower pace, and it has bizarrely illogical puzzles scattered about that you have to complete before you can turn the page.  If you’re not in the right mindset, you lose patience quickly and drop the game partway through, and then when you come back later you can’t remember what’s going on, but you remember enough that you don’t want to replay the first part again.  It’s a tough situation!  But Steam keeps putting them on sale for 2 bucks and I have to buy them even when I’m not in the mood.

The latest sale to sucker me in was for The Book of Unwritten Tales.  It’s nice to find a well regarded title that isn’t Telltale, and I happened to be in the mood for some storytelling, so I fired it up right away.

The first thing I do in every game is go to the options and adjust all the settings.  I also ensured that subtitles were on.  The game immediately launched into a movie to start the story off and… there were no subtitles!  It wasn’t a big deal for me because I’m not actually deaf, but I feel bad for anyone who legitimately can’t hear the voiceover as the character sat there and did nothing but write in his book for several minutes.  He was explaining the story, but without subtitles it would make for a pretty god damn boring intro.

The other thing that surprised me was how low res the movies seemed.  The game obviously isn’t bleeding edge graphics, but the graphics are clear and bright.  In comparison, the actual in game movies were spilling compression artifacts everywhere and made it feel like playing a game from the 90s (which works for the adventure game nostalgia angle, I guess).  I’m relatively certain there are no more settings I can flip to improve them, which is too bad.

I liked the animation style they were going for in game – it feels fluid and cartoony, as long as you don’t nitpick their movements too much. Some of the animations are a bit repetitive and it’s obvious they just copied frames to save time. Don’t look too closely at how ridiculous some of the facial animations can be, either.  Probably my biggest complaint is that the animations can leave the characters feeling “wooden”. The faces animate in a fairly robotic way that doesn’t really bring across emotion like a hand-drawn cartoon can (and in a pixel graphic, your mind fills in the blanks, which is why they’re so damn effective).  It can push into the “uncanny valley” sometimes, watching a character break into a delighted smile that really only makes their mouth open a bit too wide, and leaves their eyes dead and staring… oh god, the nightmares…
But hey for the sale price I paid, I’m paying for the writing and the graphics are just a bonus.  It does make me wonder which costs more, though – the 3D renders they have here, or hand drawn cartoony graphics like in the later Kings Quest games.  Hrmm.  I feel like this game would really benefit from hand drawn cartoon graphics that could express themselves.

I enjoyed the humour of the writing, although some of the jokes felt a bit forced.  One of the conversations gives you three different options, and all of them go for the same, obvious joke.  Granted, I didn’t actually go through reloading to try each of them to see if they actually did all lead to the same outcome, but it felt like they would.  Which leads me to another comment: the game also has one of my pet peeves in that the options it gives you to pick from often don’t actually resemble what the character ends up saying.  That is not what I thought I was trying to convey when I picked that dialog choice and it annoys me that I am being misrepresented here!  Damn you, game!

Another problem – the game is one of those “Oh you want to inspect that?  Okay, the character will waddle their slow ass over there to look at it for you” games, which results in a lot of wasted time that does not need to be wasted.  I’ve given up on games before because of this, but they do somewhat acknowledge it by giving you the ability to double click and transition immediately, rather than waiting for the character to waddle across the screen.  Unfortunately it doesn’t help much when inspecting things.  A lot of the old pixel games solve this problem by having the character interact with things no matter where they’re standing, unless a specific scripted animation required them to move to it.  In Unwritten Tales, every bit of flavour decoration requires the character to stand next to it.  Especially annoying is later on when you need to swap between characters.  Each and every swap requires them to waddle over and tag each other, and all it accomplishes is an artificial lengthening of the hours played.  So easily solved… and (I would think) so easy to pick up on in testing.  It’s really too bad they didn’t polish that a bit more.

The story starts out interestingly enough and it grabs you with a decent hook right off the start which makes you want to keep going to see what happens next.  So many stories make the mistake of starting out banal and “normal” and get you to go do normal and boring things before the excitement starts, which is just a barrier to becoming immersed and involved.  Unwritten Tales has you do the banal everyday things (washing pots and chasing a rat… seriously) AFTER the hook scene!  So it gets a thumbs up there, I guess.

When people talk about adventure games, they almost always talk about “adventure game logic”.  Unwritten Tales arguably has some adventure game logic, but as far as these games go it’s very, very good.  Most “adventure game logic” is along the lines of “I have this box with an unusually shaped hole in it, and I have this peg with the same unusual shape carved into the end of it.  How do I open this box?!??! Hmm I’m totally stumped!  The player wants to put the peg into the hole in the box?  What?  No, that’s stupid. Why would I want to try that??  I see no reason to try that.  Hey let’s ask this guy over here if he knows how to open this box!  Hmm he says there must be a key with the same shape as this hole on the box… we should try putting this peg into the box!”
None of the puzzles in Unwritten Tales are stupid, and they all make sense (well… so far, anyway).  They’re just very linear.  I keep getting stuck because the only way to open up the option to do something is to talk to someone I’ve already talked to, with no indication that they should have something new to say all of a sudden.  I dislike that sort of repetitive “checking” in adventure games because it means puzzle solving ends up boiling down to clicking on everything 20 times until something new happens.  In fact, Unwritten Tales offers a time-saving feature where holding a key will highlight everything you can interact with, and once you’re out of potential interactions, they stop highlighting anymore.  So the solution to every puzzle is to click on everything until it stops lighting up.  There’s not a whole lot of “puzzling” involved. There are also some dumb things that MUST happen in order, even if it may not necessarily make sense that they MUST happen in that order.  The very first puzzle in the game revolves around trying to cut a bit of rope.  I did the stuff and got the necessary thing to cut it, so I selected the thing and pointed at the rope, and my character goes “Wait, I better tell him that I’m going to cut it now.”  Yet another conversation must take place before the actual cutting.  Sigh.  Fortunately subtitles work for these bits, so I can read them quickly and not wait for the voice acting to finish before I can go cut the god damn rope already.  At least the game sort of lets you feel like it understands that you’ve figured out the puzzle, instead of acting dumb until all the bits have been walked through.

And then the cutscene after that involved a pretty obvious zoom-in on elf cleavage.  Ugh.  One of the bonuses of story driven games like adventure games is that USUALLY it offers the opportunity to create full-featured female characters.  Nope, it’s an elf, so we better have her wear a leather bikini and zoom in when we can.  It’s too bad because I like her character, but having the defining feature be “female elf” is unfortunate.

All in all, it’s a decent addition to the adventure game genre, and I’m glad to see more developers getting in on producing more modern tales.  TL;DR – The game wins a lot of points for decent writing and not-infurating “puzzles”, but it loses points for the clunky animations and a couple of bad design decisions that end up wasting time.

[edit] And after playing further, I want to add that the game REALLY comes into its own as it goes on.  I enjoyed it almost as much as the classic LucasArts/Sierra stuff, which is saying a lot.  The time wasting stays true throughout, though.  Why do the characters have to slowly plod back to a specific spot when you switch?  Even if they must stand in a spot, why can’t they do that WHILE you control the next one?  It’s just clunky design…

Gemini Rue

Gemini Rue is a classic adventure game, complete with pixel graphics.  It’s so nostalgic that, even though I was aware it was fairly recent, I actually went and checked the publishing date, and was surprised to discover it said 2011.

I love adventure games.  I grew up on them.  All the horrible adventure logic in the world cannot make me not enjoy an adventure game, so this review can probably be considered biased to some degree.  That said, this game really kicked up some nostalgia.  It took me straight back to playing Space Quest on my god damn Tandy computer (I’m so ollllddd…).

Getting it running was practically an exercise in nostalgia, which is perhaps not quite to the game’s credit.  When I first booted it up, it started in default resolution, full screen.  Default resolution is 600×800 which is nostalgia for ALL the wrong reasons.  On a 1920×1080 monitor I think each pixel was the size of Texas.  The options had video settings for gamma and nothing else, so I did some quick googling and discovered you can change the resolution and set windowed mode via an executable in the game’s install folder.  That is so clunky it could only have been designed in the early ’90s.  Oh wait, 2011…
To actually change the resolution, you have to change the rendering mode, rather than change the resolution directly.  I switched it to antialiasing and it looked an awful lot like someone had dumped a vat of vaseline on my monitor, so I went back to nearest neighbor.

I set the options and booted it up again, only to find half the screen was not rendering.  I messed with settings a bit more only to discover that this pretty much happens on first load no matter what, but it’s easily (?) fixed by walking to a new screen and forcing a re-render.  It’s probably worth it to use windowed mode, I guess.

In the process of all this, I had gone through the intro sequence and gotten to the point where I could save a game.  I figured I could just load that game and skip the intro again.  I played for about an hour, then got distracted by something and went to save, and saw that my old save was no longer available to write over.  I figured all my settings fuckery had busted something and oh well.  Except when I came back, it loaded my original missing save – back at the start of the game (it autosaves at every important event, too, but the autosave claimed to be corrupt.  Ugh.).  I essentially lost an hour of progress to that, but since I was able to skip all the “flavour” exploration it only took me maybe 10 minutes to catch back up.  Still a bit disconcerting, but I’m done fucking with settings so we should be good from now on.

Now that I’m done bitching about the setup, we can talk about the actual game!  The story is intriguingly written.  It’s set in the future and bounces between a couple of player controlled characters, including a cop searching for his brother, and an inmate who keeps getting his memory wiped because he tries to escape.  There are plenty of hooks to keep you playing, and just enough left obscured that you want to dig deeper, but you don’t get frustrated.  Good job.  It’s a pretty typical adventure game setup, where you click to wander around a pixellated landscape, and right click to interact with certain designated interactable points.  The old standby of look, touch, talk, and um… kick… are the options on the right click menu.  In typical fashion there are plenty of interactibles in the environment which are just there for flavour and worldbuilding, and the occasional red herring.  Your inventory is accessed from the same menu, so you can take an item and attempt to use it on stuff.  Like your gun!



One of the clues that the game is actually modern is the fact that it is entirely voice acted.  Unfortunately, it is also pretty obvious that the budget “spared no expense” on the voice acting.  The main characters pull it off pretty well, but some of the side characters could take lessons from Shatner in how to read a line.  There are some really obvious pauses where you can just feel them looking down and finding their place in the script.  Then they over-emote to make up for it.  Fortunately the characters you spend the most time with are a bit better at delivery.

The game does have a bit of adventure game logic in that things tend to need to progress in a fairly linear fashion, but unlike many games, it actually tends to make some sense when it fails an action.  There are also multiple solutions to a number of the problems that pop up, which is always nice.  That said, I have noticed a LOT of cases where an action that should be obvious and completable is not actually completable until you attempt it to see that progression is not possible without further action.  Example:  There is a stick stuck in a sliding door.  The stick is visible (such as it is, in its pixellated glory) from the start, but you can’t actually interact with it until you yank on the door and realize it won’t open.  One of the things that really impressed me about the original Myst is that you could solve the game in a few clicks if you knew where to go and how to open things.  Actually solving those things and learning how to open and use them took the entire rest of the game, but once you had solved it once you could be all smug with your friends and go *click click click* “oh what, you couldn’t figure that out???”.  It really added to that sense of “this is a world that exists but I don’t know enough about it so I must explore and learn.”  Adventure logic such as that in Gemini Rue is more along the lines of “I am in this world and I quite possibly am smarter than this character but I have to walk them through it step by step until they figure this shit out.”  It’s just not as engaging…

As the story progresses, you are instructed in how to engage in combat.  Combat.  In a point and click adventure game.  I was pretty terrified, but I found the system kind of interesting.  You can duck behind cover (by hitting left or right, depending which orientation you are at) and from there you cannot fire.  The enemy is going to pop out and unload their clip at you and then duck for safety as well, so you have to time when to shoot at them.  Additionally, if you just pop out and start firing, your bullets will probably go wildly all over the place and not hit the guy, so you can hold your breath and get that perfect headshot.  The headshot system is sort of “golf game” style power meter thing, where the cursor moves around and the optimal time to fire is when it’s in the green.  Of course, you need to make sure the enemy is out of cover when it’s in the green or you’re shooting at nothing, too.  I was pretty interested in this system and ready to talk about how good it was, but then this happened:


And it happened over and over and over again.  (Also pictured: the screen only half rendering because I have been loading so god damn much.)  Fortunately, there is also an option to change the difficulty of the combat.  I am probably going to be a big pussy and change that, eventually.  I DID finally get the hang of it and got an achievement for a one-shot kill, so that’s something.

I confess to not being very far in this game yet, so I don’t have a lot of commentary on the story.  I have heard nothing but good things about the story though, and what I’ve seen so far makes me excited to dig in and see what happens.  If the gameplay and execution quirks are the worst it has to offer, I think I’m in for a good ride here (although the save bug kind of worries me).  As such, I’m going to go ahead and recommend this now.  If it turns out to suck by the end of the game, I will quietly edit this and destroy all of the evidence.

I suspect it is not going to suck, though.