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Monday, August 10, 2020

Quarantine Music Recs: SUPERBLOOM by MisterWives

I've mostly stuck to recommending video games for these quarantined times, but there's been a plethora of good music coming out these last few months as well. Maybe I'll release a short summer playlist at some point, but in the meantime, I want to give a short shout-out to one of the albums I've really liked.

MisterWives has always released music that reminds me of summer (I even included "Chasing This" from their last album on my 2017 Summer Playlist). Three years later, and they've finally released their third album, SUPERBLOOM, and it's looking like a strong contender for my Album of the Summer (which is saying a lot, given how much I've liked new entries from some of my other favorite acts, like The Naked and Famous, Neon Trees, The Midnight, Carly Rae Jepsen...).

Some of it is that MisterWives is always great at producing bright and exciting pop jams, and SUPERBLOOM definitely has its share of those, between songs like "love me true" and the title track. But there's also a deep tinge of sadness to the whole thing, which makes the whole thing feel especially well-suited to this summer, in particular.

The entire thing is pretty clearly framed around a recent break up, but entirely in retrospect. The first song on the album is literally "the end", and it moves on from there, nineteen full tracks of moving on from massive heartbreak. And consequently, the emotional arc of it is a little less straightforward. This isn't working through the five stages of grief; this is starting from the perspective of someone who is already at the acceptance stage of things, and moving on from there.

That’s not to say it’s not also still sad, or that the sadness of the breakup isn’t there, it’s just that the focus is more about moving on, processing your feelings, and trying to stay positive. The knowledge of the breakup adds a tinge of sadness to things, but it’s also framed positively, and it does feel like there’s growth over the course of the album.

It probably also helps that SUPERBLOOM covers a lot of ground; the whole thing is 19 tracks. It never feels too long, though, coming in at just over an hour despite the sheer volume of songs. And most of those are MisterWives’ usual brand of energetic, uplifting pop, which keeps the pace up.

Also notably, it feels like the musical equivalent of “pitching backwards”; rather than save most of the more downtempo songs for the back-half of the album like pop records usually do, they’re more to the front-middle here, which gives things a shot in the arm at the halfway through. And the last quarter in particular has four of my favorite songs on the album (“decide to be happy”, “muse”, plus the aforementioned “love me true” and “SUPERBLOOM”), which makes for a big bang to close out on.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of good music I’ve been listening to this summer, and maybe I’ll do a fuller playlist post later on going more in depth. And maybe my opinion will change with more listens, but for now, nothing this summer has hit me as hard as SUPERBLOOM.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

More 3D Platformer Design: Yooka-Laylee & A Return to A Hat in Time

It’s been a while since my last article on 3D Platformers, one where I looked at the level design of Gears for Breakfast’s wonderful A Hat in Time. Since then, they’ve released two new worlds as downloadable content, “The Arctic Cruise” and “Nyakuza Metro”, and finally been ported to the Switch. I recently decided to replay the game, including the new content, and at more or less the same time, I finally got around to trying Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee (which, for those not in the know, first got note for being a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series from the Nintendo 64, made by many alumni from those titles). Playing them back to back gave me a lot of thoughts on both, and 3D platformers on the whole, so it seemed like a good time to revisit my last article.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: Murder By Numbers

I’ve written before about my interest in video games that mash-up different genres and the interesting results that it can yield. Today’s mini-recommendation revisits that topic, with Murder by Numbers by developers Mediatonic (another title that I played on Switch, with a PC version available on Steam as well).

I haven’t covered it as much as some other things, but I’m a huge fan of Picross/Nonagram games. My gold standard for the series has long been Jupiter’s Picross S, which are sort of the platonic ideal of the format. The user interface is intuitive, there are a variety of modes and extra features, the puzzles are solid, and generally, they’re just all around well-executed games.

But they’re also extremely straightforward: if you want no-frills logic puzzles, you get no-frills logic puzzles. Granted, that’s not nothing! Plenty of other games try to offer that same thing, but don’t produce a Picross experience that’s as well-polished as Jupiter’s games. But it seems like something that one could easily build upon by combining it with something more than just super-refined Picross gameplay. I’ve seen a few games attempt that, but so far, Murder By Numbers is by far my favorite implementation of that idea.

The idea is pretty simple, although there are a few clever touches that add to the overall game. It’s a combination of mystery visual novels and adventure games with Picross puzzles, where one of your (amateur) detectives is a robot with a faulty visual processor. You look in the field for clues that serve as your items to use, but the robot needs to “decipher” what it’s seeing, by way of you solving the puzzle. It’s a really elegant explanation on a lot of levels (“Why do I need to “solve” the thing I’m looking at? Why is it so blocky?” etc.).

Of course, the biggest of those levels that it succeeds is the most basic one as well. It’s not really a secret that many detective games have a pretty major flaw, in that an investigation is a massive, open-ended thing, and it’s hard to map that onto a full range of choices for the player, particularly in a way that doesn’t also guide them to an answer.* It’s not something that totally ruins the genre, but it is a notable quirk that regularly pops up. I don’t know that Murder by Numbers totally solves that issue; it is entirely possible for you to figure out the solution to a case well before your detectives do, for instance.

*For those wishing for a more in-depth look at this and how other games have tackled it (to varying success), Game Makers’ Toolkit of course has a good episode on the issue.

But I do think it does a few things to help cover this issue. Part of it is, of course, going for a narrative justification. Honor and S.C.O.U.T., the detective duo of the game, are amateurs tackling a whodunit out of necessity rather than any sort of training or interest, and you’re very clearly guiding around these existing characters rather than inserting yourself into the player character role. That narrative justification… doesn’t totally solve or excuse the issue, but it does prime the player to be a little more receptive of things

The other trick, though, is more interesting, I think. Essentially, Murder By Numbers presents the player with in-game actions that operate on a symbolic level for the thing they’re standing in for, sort of like a Metaphorical Mechanic. For example, whodunit stories operate on some level with logical deduction; you take the separate pieces you have, fit them together based on what you know, and slowly, the explanation takes shape.

And that’s why Picross puzzles make for a genius stand-in, as a game mechanic: it’s a literal example of the same process. The puzzles give you a grid and a set of numbers telling you how many of the squares need to be filled in, and whether there are any gaps between them. Slowly by surely, you use logic to fill in squares and mark out gaps in some lines, which gives you a rough outline, which you can then use to get a more defined picture in other lines, and so on, a feedback loop based on all of the random data you’re presented at the start.

There are other ways the game’s systems line up with detective stories, too. For example, you find the evidence puzzles by doing sweeps of the crime scene visually, with a sensor indicating whether you’re close. And 100% completion of the game relies on finding every clue. So thoroughness is rewarded, and the easiest way to ensure that thoroughness is developing a systematic, comprehensive search of each scene, and being sure to check those scenes regularly to see if new context has made any new clues stand out. It might sound exhausting, but the developers did a good job of balancing things, so no one scene is too overwhelming in size, and there are also additional UI tells you come to expect to let you know when you’re done with a region. Once again, being able to observe the small details as a detective would is a plus.

There are other nice things about combining the two styles of games, too. Tying the puzzles to a story progression allows for a nice sense of forward progress that some purer Picross games lack. Sometimes, when playing the latter, I’ll find myself zoning out and just doing puzzle after puzzle, even when I’m no longer in the mood to keep playing them, just because the end of one puzzle and the start of the next can just bleed into each other, one endless string of filling out rows and columns. I never had that in Murder By Numbers, as there’s a pretty clear ebb and flow to the scenes that makes it clear when you can take a break and come back later.

It also helps that the non-Picross half of the game is a good, pulpy whodunit mystery serial of a visual novel that can stand on its own. The setup is simple: S.C.O.U.T. is a robot who wakes up in a Hollywood dump with no memories. He seeks out Honor, co-star of a popular network murder mystery series, thinking she’s a real detective who can help him rather than an actor. But the pair suddenly ends up being forced into solving real murder mysteries when Honor’s showrunner inexplicably fires her and immediately turns up dead.

The game is pretty clearly modeled after the type of show Honor stars in, subdivived into four episodes where the duo of new partners show up at places just after some murder has taken place and deciding to find clues and question suspects to piece together what happened (as well as find a few other clues pointing to a larger overall mystery). I don’t know that it will win over non-fans of the genre, but if you like this type of story, Murder By Numbers knows what it’s doing and executes the style well.

It helps that the character design and art direction are both pretty strong as well, with a distinctive cartoon style and a nice blend of archetypes and characters quirks for the former, and a period 1990s aesthetic that’s apparent yet tastefully understated for the latter. The music also leans into that era, with a smooth jazz-inspired soundtrack that’s a little cheesy, but I still appreciated it (especially in the context of soundtracks for other Picross games or similar titles, which often get repetitive much quicker than this one).

In all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Murder By Numbers. The game ends on a sequel hook, and its genre and episodic format would make it well suited to more entries, so I would be excited to see this become a recurring series. It’s certainly a bright spot amongst the sea of Picross video games out there, and worth checking out.