From the box art of Kirby: Planet Robobot. (Photo: Nintendo)

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

Halftime Report

Yesterday, we shared a list of the Gameological staff’s favorite games of 2016 so far. And down in the comments, readers weighed in with recommendations of their own. Sandler’s List laid out a nice top five:

5. Stardew Valley
Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing are the jumping off points, but Stardew Valley distinguishes itself with a wealth of surprisingly robust systems. Every activity, from working your farm to mingling with the locals to hunting monsters down in the mine, becomes more elaborate and more rewarding the more you do it. And yet, you never have to do anything. Just do the things that you enjoy, and Stardew Valley will build a game around that for you.

4. DOOM
The new DOOM looks at the current state of the FPS and asks the hard questions: Is reloading actually fun? Is it fun to hide behind cover while you wait for your shield to recharge? Wouldn’t it be more fun if the game encouraged you to run into danger rather than away from it? And wouldn’t it be better if your guy ran really fast all the time? The result of all that soul-searching is a zero-bullshit, breathtakingly fast-paced shooter grounded in razor-sharp mechanics, and one of the most viscerally enjoyable gaming experiences in years.

3. Hyper Light Drifter
Lots of games go for nostalgia, but Hyper Light Drifter may be the only one to recreate the specific experience of renting a game from Blockbuster only to get home and find out that the instructions are missing. You may never quite know who you are or what exactly you’re trying to accomplish in this opaque action-adventure, but the detailed pixel art world is gorgeous beyond belief, the lush synth soundtrack is one of the best ever, and every fight is lightning fast and stunningly elegant.

2. Inside
From its in media res opening to its bonkers final act and unforgettable closing image, this nightmarish puzzle-platformer is damn close to flawless. Like Portal and Undertale before it, it’s a game best experienced by a player who doesn’t know what to expect. But is it right to push Inside on the unsuspecting? Who cares, I’m doing it.

1. The Witness
The ambition of The Witness borders on hubris: Drop players off on an island with no instruction whatsoever and count on them to teach themselves a dense and elaborate puzzle language from the ground up. The fact that it works—that it is not only playable, but compulsively, thrillingly so—makes it the most sublime achievement of game design you’re likely to see all year. The mental feats it asks you to perform are often mind-bending to the point of absurdity; its consistent ability to push your brain further than you think it will go to get at a solution is nothing short of awesome. Playing The Witness, my brain performed some processes that I honestly don’t think it should have been able to perform. That’s the best compliment I can give this game.

And Jakeoti repped an under-the-radar Nintendo romp:

If I had to pick, I would probably give it to Kirby: Planet Robobot, a game I just finished 100-percenting yesterday. It’s possibly the best mainline Kirby game, with the robot invasion theme helping them really amp up the game’s unique feeling. The past two, Return To Dreamland and Triple Deluxe, felt like they were just devoted to making a standard Kirby game for their new platforms, while Robobot feels like it wanted to give itself its own identity. It’s an all-around just-plain fun experience, with the usual goofy power-ups (Poison for life!) and the grin-inducing power spike granted by the Robobot armor. One of the new characters is now one of my favorite Kirby adversaries, and there are a ton of shout-outs to the past that feel like rewards for devoted fans but are hardly distracting for new players.

Screenshot: Firewatch/Campo Santo

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Campo Santo’s Firewatch, one of our 20 recommended games, was one of the biggest topics of conversation down in the comments, with readers largely turning their attention to its divisive ending. (Specific plot details for Firewatch incoming. You’ve been warned.) TheDronesNeedYou talked about learning to appreciate those events:

Being a somewhat thick sort, I didn’t know what to make of the ending at first. But reading a review by Jeff Grubb in VentureBeat really deepened my appreciation of the game and made me see what a deft stroke the ending was: examining how we perversely find relief from our own troubles by imagining an alien threat, creating a monster out there to make us forget our ugly, uncomfortable, real problems right here.

Campo Santo not only subverted games’ predilections for fantastical and extraordinary drama, but in doing so, pointed out our sometimes dangerous desire to make a neat story out of our messy lives because we think we know stories—their act structures, their character types, and their morals—and so we think we can control them. Good stuff.

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Needlehacksaw turned their attention to the ending’s other dangling thread:

While I thought that the mystery hook was the weakest part of the game (it just made me wish more for a game that would commit to being a screwball comedy/romance without having to bait and subvert players’ expectations by using generic game tropes), I actually liked how non-dramatically the relationship ended.

It really felt like an accurate depiction of that crazy accelerated circle of being interested, flirting, falling seriously and madly in love, and then—boom—it’s suddenly all over that you can experience, I’d say, in this intensity only when the relationship is initiated via a long-ish distance medium and a heavy dose of (temporary) loneliness is involved. These days, chances are you might have experienced something similar over the internet—I know I have—instead of walkie talkies, but even so, Firewatch‘s depiction of that circle rang true.

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Jimmy Cheese agreed and drew a nice comparison:

I think that’s a really good point. If there was something I related with most in Firewatch, it was the way the story invoked the feeling of a “Summer adventure.” I worked at a camp in middle-of-nowhere Virginia for three Summers of my high-school life, and it really was a roller coaster ride of experiencing a different setting, going on crazy adventures, making very close bonds with new friends (and crushes), and then having to give it all up two months later and return to the real world. It’s a lot of emotional experience to pack-in over a very short amount of time, and Firewatch captures that feeling pretty well.

A Beautiful Wall

Screenshot: Undertale

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This week, William Hughes looked back at Zero Time Dilemma, the third game in the Zero Escape series of interactive novel meets escape-the-room puzzle games. It’s a grim trilogy, full of Saw-esque scenarios where a handful of trapped people eventually devolve into horrific violence. Players are given choices throughout, decisions that send the story down all manner of varying branches, but in order to see the “true ending,” they’ll have to revisit all of these branching points and see every possible outcome using a replay system that’s built into the game. All of this, William argued, purposefully devalues the choices players are forced to make. The game takes advantage of the fact that many of us will go out of our way to see every possible piece of content a game has to offer and twists that impulse to its own nihilistic ends. Down in the comments, Venerable Monk ran down some other games that toyed with our tendency to retry and replay:

I like to think of it as meeting the player where they are. The developers accept that a certain portion of their player base is going to save scum, replay the entire game to make different choices, or even just regret the choice they made. What’s interesting is what the devs behind Zero Time Dilemma, Undertale, and The Stanley Parable decided to do with that determination to acknowledge that their stories will never be linear the way a movie or a song is.

Zero Time Dilemma clearly embraces this shift in the fourth wall. To me, they’re saying, “Okay. We both know you’re going to try everything you can in this game. We want you to do that, and we’re going to make it painful, but it’s the only way to see the last bit of end-game content.”

With The Stanley Parable, the devs also expect you to rerun things and go off the beaten path, and they even give a little head-fake with the narrator trying to discourage exploration. Here, they’ve pushed out the fourth wall for the sake of humor and to comment on the rigid nature of “freedom” in games. You can only ever do what the developers have programmed into the game, after all.

When discussing Undertale, I’m torn as to whether the developer moved the fourth wall in an effort to get you to stick with your choices. Folks seem to think it’s the standard against which other games should be measured in terms of permanent consequences. That would imply that the dev wants you to stick with the choices you’ve made, but at the end of every game, he offers you a way to wipe the slate clean and try again. Folks point to the permanent loss of your soul after a “No Mercy” run as evidence that choices are supposed to stick in Undertale.

I’d say the developer of Undertale encourages unlimited save-scumming and play-throughs and absolutely wants you to scour the game for secrets. Even more, he expects some players to dive into the code to look for secrets they missed. He even included a warning message there indicating that every seemingly “unused” file is actually used in the game, if you can find the right conditions to activate it. In this sense, the developer is still pushing the players to play the game in a certain way, by chastising them for their impatience in seeing all the game has to offer without actually getting at the content the old-fashioned way. Though, if he didn’t want players diving into their save files to get straight to content they missed, why include content that’s almost impossible to stumble onto and then put up an easily found warning not to look at it? That makes me feel like the dev is less interested in driving the way players experience his game, but more interested in saying “I see you.” through his design in ways the player doesn’t expect.

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And Otakunomike gave us an interesting and way more obscure example:

A game that took this concept even further, whether it meant to or not, was Kagetsu Tohya, a sequel to the Tsukihime visual novel. It’s structured very much in the Groundhog Day form of one day repeating endlessly, but since it only takes 10 minutes to get through the day, the developerspreempt save-scumming by making you get a Game Over every time you reach the end. When you start a “new” game, you find your options have shifted slightly based on what you’ve done. Additionally, the more times you play through it, the main character starts to recognize what’s happening sooner and sooner in the day, as all the repetitions bleed over for him. It really messes with the idea of what a “new game” means to a player, as opposed being a character in the game. It’s like the developers looked at save-scummers and completionists and decided to make what the players are doing (reliving the same scenario dozens of different, contradictory ways) into the whole mechanic of the game.

They would try this again, and arguably take it even further, with Hollow Ataraxia, the sequel to Fate/Stay Night, which manages to incorporate not just characters stuck in dreams, but alternate dimensions and possibilities colliding. Alas, it’s not quite as effective there because they try to do too much. This kinda commentary really works best when its secondary to the main thrust of the game, no matter how important a secondary it is.

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Elsewhere, one of the commentariat’s biggest Zero Escape evangelists, Shinigami Apple Merchant, dug into what Zero Time Dilemma has to say about choice and how it uses it do define characters:

As William states, Zero, the game’s evil mastermind, does everything possible to make the participants and the player feel like we have no choice, that life is unfair and everything we do will end up in some form of misery. But repeatedly there are moments that shine through, humanity that comes out of those choices, that can’t tied down to those decisions and can’t be boxed in.

From the get go, Zero’s keynote speech example of a daily jog gone horribly wrong is flawed, compartmentalized reasoning. Zero needs to take a page from Clara Oswald’s leaf story in Doctor Who. Sure, a snail could cause the end of the world, but a leaf falling on someone’s face could cause a beautiful romance and save another distant world. Existence is made up of an infinite number of variables. They give it poignancy and meaning, just as they could, from a different perspective, doom it.

But one of the underlining beauties and tragedies of this game is that no matter how boxed in everyone is, they can’t stop being human or having a choice even if they don’t see it in the moment. Choosing to keep going still counts. Choosing to trust in those around you still counts. Just because it doesn’t get its own puzzle room or a presentation from an announcer doesn’t negate its importance in that world. Zero wants his world to be binary—push a button or don’t—but the world just simply is not. It exists within and beyond that cage.

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That’s the part labeled as “without spoilers,” but there’s plenty more that goes into specific plot details. So if you’ve played the game and are interested in getting in on the discussion, you can check out Shinigami’s full post right here (and find several more throughout the thread), as well as the great responses from Griff.

That’s it for this week, Gameologeronis. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!