Today I examine two “walking simulators” and talk about why focus is a really important factor in a game without traditional gameplay mechanics, and why you might want to hold onto deeply personal projects.
The Beginner’s Guide is a game I love to talk about, and I have to be honest with the fact that I’m a bit biased about it. It’s a game that I would recommend to all artists – not just gamers and game developers – to give it a try. And I do mean play, don’t watch someones let’s play of it if you can – or at least without commentary.
It has a lot of topics ranging from the “Death of the Author” to “the artists in the artwork” to depression, interpretation of a work, game development, games – in general, the audience and critics (what I’m doing now, so jokes on me) and more.You can write a small essay on that game alone.
But sadly, I’m in that territory again that the game is a year old now and almost all things that could be said about it has probably been said by others. (I recommend Errant Signal’s video on it.) Me throwing a ball in this basket and talking about my experience, or Coda, or in-game Davey Wreden, or even the inevitable Stanley Parable reference just doesn’t amount to much. (Unlike other 3000 word entries I can mention.)
So if I’m not here for The Beginner’s Guide what am I here to talk about?
Well I do want to talk about it, but I want to talk about it in context of a relatively recent game (that’s a first), namely: Awkward Dimensions Redux.
Okay, it’s not a too recent game, it came it in the summer, and I first saw the game on the Steam frontpage this October and I thought “Hey, I haven’t played an indie walking sim in a while and I loved the Radiators and the Parables and the Dr. Langeskovs, and this one is free so why not?” aaaaand I didn’t exactly like it.
To be fair, I was a bit tired on my first playthrough, and it made me a bit more grumpy than usual, but I did give it a second try.
The Beginner’s Guide has this overarching theme (well, one of them) about seeing things into other people’s work that is possibly not there, that maybe it is simply a reflection of your own self. Basically what Yoda said to Luke in the The Dark Side Cave on Dagobah: “Only what you take with you.”
And while the Beginner’s Guide toys with this by having the narrator manipulate the game to put him in the spotlight, developing this theme further, Awkward Dimensions – it seems like – took the idea but took it literally without really thinking about the meta context.
And by that I don’t mean (or accuse) the game’s creator – Steven Harmon – didn’t get the meaning of the game, he just either ignored it or was too ambitiously inspired by it.
The Beginner’s Guide is fiction, Awkward Dimensions is (most likely) not…
But where do I get this idea that it’s inspired by Wreden’s games? Well… the soundtrack is heard in a footage in-game and it’s mentioned in the game’s developer commentary. But even if it weren’t, it carries some of the “motifs”- for a lack of a better word – that I could tell right away. Other inspiration like Blendo Games are also mentioned, but due to my sad lack of experience I cannot comment on it too much.
Before we get further, I want to talk about what exactly is Awkward Dimensions Redux? While writing this I almost wrote “Awkward Dreams” a few times, but that is no accident. It’s pretty much a dream game in the literal sense: The main character falls asleep and we get to see his dreams and nightmares.
It’s basically a lot of non-sequitur sequences and short gameplay snippets merged under one title with some weird, sometimes experimental music and the occasional text-based narration.
As you get further you kind of realize that the “based on trippy dreams” is just the cover story and the protagonist is really – in fact – you the player, and not Steven Harmon. You are basically “invading” his headspace in his dreams and seeing his literal dreams (things that he strives for) and past experiences. But you don’t need to feel uncomfortable, it’s not an invasion, you have been invited here in a form of a video game.
This doesn’t sound bad so far… what do we get?
Well you open up with an empty farm, go into a dark and creepy backstage of a theater, then a beach and so on. You get a title for each scene, like if you are watching a bunch of short films one after another, but not much more than that.
But all throughout my playing I got this constant nagging feeling that I seen these before. And this is the part I bring into this review, but still it was there. Where have I seen these… “Legible” – it’s the landscape from Courage the Cowardly Dog; “Nobody Wins” – felt a bit like Black Velvetopia from Psychonauts because of that bull; “Sabotage” – Really obviously The Beginner’s Guide with the machine in the middle. “On the Surface” – No Man’s Sky; The forest campground – Radiator: Polaris. “Just make it quick” – Dr. Langeskov (but most likely it’s Blendo). And the last level is a Mirror’s Edge de-make, but the developer commentary doesn’t attempt to hide that one.
Am I making the ridiculous claim that the author ripped on these or that no other game developer could go camping and make a game about it? Of course not.
In a sense, this is almost good… like it’s familiar and we all have dreams that are common…
But I was just pulling the “Wreden move” here and trying to interpret the work in my own way to make a point. So what can Awkward Dimension Redux tell about it’s creator… Well for me that he is young, eager, a bit naive, has the usual teenager struggles but might still be at the point when he thinks no one can relate to it. But otherwise clearly shows talent.
So what’s the problem?
My real problem with the game is that this a highly personal piece that was full of great and less-than-great ideas, but wasn’t “ready” to be published on a major distributor, free or otherwise.
Let me tell a story: Once upon a time, there was a teenager boy who wanted to be a writer. He once read an article in the newspaper that gave him the inspiration (and story) to write his first novel. It was about two young, orphaned teenagers falling in love, and their hardships that comes from this relationship. He eventually wrote around a 100 pages in one and a half years and was so proud of it. He wanted to show it to everyone, including more famous writers, to give him a critique. His literature teacher told him the quote(?) about “Put your work in the drawer and leave it there for 10 years. When the time is up, if you take it out and still find it good, only then you should publish it.” But of course he didn’t heed this warning… “Pfft… my work must be good, everyone likes it.” They liked it … as a work of a teenager. It didn’t even take that many years for him. After 2 or 3 years, his work seemed terrible and childish to him. But his passion for writing already died out by then. In his twenties he asked his family “Why didn’t you tell me my novel sucked?” – he remembered he thought about publishing it a few times, and how he become so famous – “Well, you were an eager teenager, we didn’t wanted to hurt your feelings. What were we supposed to say?” And the truth hurt, but it was fair.
And this is what I fear/suspect will be the fate of this game too. The only difference that it actually did get published. If not for the fact that it had a few relatable scenes, this endeavor could have backfired in a major way. The “Bullies taking away the diary of the shy kid and reading it out loud” kind of way.
It has too many personal life experiences – jumbled together – that Steven Harmon desperately wants us to understand but we can’t, we couldn’t and we shouldn’t. Doesn’t help that some of these are only understandable through the developer commentary and some that I expected more explanation to turned out to be not so “deep” than they actually appeared. (The space station comes to mind.)
How was I supposed to get that the camping ground level was an “In memoriam” without reading the developer commentary?Then there are the other – as the title of the game well reflects – awkward levels: “Sabotage” – with its tons of monologues. “Time to get over her” and “You are not good enough” which are great showcases for the teenage mind, but they present these problems almost as life tragedies and not what we “old folks” already know: growing into adulthood and facing the problems that come with it. Some scenes don’t fit at all, like the Dank Meme joke machine in “On the Surface” – Nothing ages a work more than slang, politics and memes. Or the desperate cry out for the USC to hire Harmon, because it is the place for indie devs. (I really don’t know that much about game dev courses but I recommend him Extra Credit’s videos on Game Schools as a sort of cautionary tale.)
And let me not even talk about the behind-the-scenes of the “Self Destruction room” and that video the player is forced to watch, because I can say things about it, but they aren’t pretty.
What I do say however, is this tiny option in the game when you press Esc:
“Skip this level”
This is a huge, huge NO! Not in this game, not in any game, especially not in this sort of game. Just no! You never EVER put a button in a game like this, I don’t care how frustrated your players or playtester were.
I was “frustrated” with the “Two Steps forwards, One step back” level, but I never in my life imagined to skip it. I choose to invest my time in this game and all the parts that come with it. You mean to tell me I could just sit down, press “skip the level” on all of them and that’s it? What did the player experienced of this game then? What did they get about what it tried to say? I mean I would get it if this was a statement, but it clearly wasn’t. This is not helping avoiding frustration, nor like the “Restart” button in The Stanley Parable; This is like if Dear Esther had a skip button, or Proteus. You get what I’m saying…
(The only time I actually skipped was when I couldn’t find the exit – like in “Sabotage” but that was due to the darkness and unclear level design – problems that could be fixed with some better player guidance and mapping.)
You also can’t imply to the player that your story is only worthy for those who sit down and listen to it/play it, because they already have a button for it: it’s called “Quit”. They already invested their time/money by playing the game in the first place, and they will keep going if they are truly interested. They embrace the puzzles and the “frustration”, that’s why they play.
You could think at this point, that I’m trying to pull this game down, but that’s far from it. This game has really good ideas hidden in all the clutter: The framing game was neat; I loved the Two steps forward, One step back; and Curfew gave back intended atmosphere greatly. Even the scary backstage in the theater level was a tense moment that delivered the dread he set out perfectly (after I read the commentary), even if the whole “scare thing” was a bit out-of-place.
These are the strong points of the game that made it worth playing and that Harmon should grab onto and develop further, but instead these are hidden between a plethora of other personal stories and in-jokes that are not intended for the average player like me, nor can they get it and overall and little or nothing to my experience.
“Games don’t have to be for the players” obviously. One of the most surprising moments in The Beginner’s Guide for me was when the narrator talked about how Coda never really made games to get validation from others. I knew what it feels when I practice drawing or something, but never imagined it might be possible with games (even if it’s coming from a fictional character) and made me realize how much do I rely on validation.
Awkward Dimensions is the same but wanted to go big. And I know Harmon did a bunch of other games, but these are small, indie project. This is too deep water for such a deeply personal project and – sorry for putting it so rudely – he didn’t put enough big name games on the table to pull this move so early in his career. This game probably should’ve stayed on Gamejolt or itch.io, shown to friends and family, used as a demo or portfolio… not thrown into the big leagues to compete. As I said before – I could’ve imagined a much worse fate for this game than some of the negative comments on Steam, and I don’t think Harmon fully realized how lucky he was that his players found relatable moments, and that he decided to publish it for free.
I imagine game schools don’t hire people on the fact that someone got a game published, not in the age of Gamejolts, Greenlights and AppStores. Also I would say similar things, even if Steam was more like these previous, free-for-all platforms mentioned.
But it’s on Steam that – as of 2016 – is still not like it, so this game went to play with the big dogs, and thus I reviewed as such.
In the last level – the Mirror’s Edge one – he talks in the developer commentary that you should try to copy someone’s work to find your own style, and this is a really great thought. But it also made me realize that this is what this game is. A bunch of little experiments trying to copy other games: from Wreden to Blendo. And he does a pretty good job of copying the style, the narrative structure, the “artsy stuff”, the “indieness”… but it forgets to do anything with the concept, just glues them together and tries to put an “unrelatable personal stories” spin on it, so “You just don’t get it.”
Yes, I don’t, but in this case I don’t think that it’s my fault.
And the “I know it’s teenage angst” defense the game presents you at a few points won’t shield it either.
You know how most people don’t like hearing other people’s dreams, and how the “It was all a dream” is such an overused, cliché trope? Same problem applies here.
It lacks focus. Something that holds it together – other than the title and intro/outro sequence.
Overall, I wish the best of luck for Steven Harmon on his future projects. You definitely got it in you, and you are a much braver soul than I am for publishing this game on a major distributor. I don’t want to discourage you from showing the world your creations, far from it. Games are a fantastic medium to work in.
This entry is just a cautionary reminder not to burn yourself in the fire while looking for validation. Pouring your soul out into the world like this is a dangerous move that can get you hurt unnecessarily, and there are “better” ways for artists to achieve this without becoming vulnerable to the trolls and bullies.
And keep on learning the craft, because its a worthwhile endeavor. Keep making games, keep failing faster.
I know most of this probably sucks to read – if you ever read this – but this is the way of the creator. They have to channel and focus their feelings to present it to the world.
I hope you understand what I mean by all of this.
I’ll leave with this Stephen King quote that says this better than I can:
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.“