Recommended: The Novelist

January 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dan, Linda, and their young son Tommy have moved into a beach house for the summer, hoping some time away from the city will do their family good. Dan types up his novel, haunted by deadlines, but unbeknownst to him, a different presence is nudging his thoughts, peeking into his memories, and affecting important decisions.

That presence is me.

The Novelist is advertised as a game of decision and compromise. For the duration of play, I have haunted the Kaplans’ beach house, staying out of sight and reading their thoughts, which help when choosing which direction their story will go. But even with every clue available, every decision gives and takes. After all, you can’t please all people all the time, although sometimes you can compromise between disparate desires.

And compromised I have. One month has passed at the house, and so far I remain unseen. Without spoiling too much, I’ve watched the family go through some mundane scenarios, some of which seem very familiar, but it’s amazing how different they seem as I view them from the outside in, in a manner of speaking. I’m a ghost; I’m disinterested in the short-term outcome of the Kaplan’s problems. As far as I’m concerned, no one has to be right or wrong. But for someone trapped in their own skull, such clarity can be impossible to find. So it is for the Kaplans. So I must choose which needs are met and which go unaddressed.

Small spoiler: It’s never easy.

I’m only about a third of the way through the game, and it already makes me hurt and hope. Anything that makes me feel so much so early deserves mention.

The Novelist is available for purchase on its official website and on Steam.


Update: Mental health

January 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

Hello, readers!

Anyone concerned probably can tell I haven’t been writing in a very long while, at least not about the games I play. I’ve neglected many such things in the past few months. I know I’ll return at some point, but at least for now, posts may be infrequent and uncustomarily brief. I’ll put in a word if I find a game worth playing, but right now the games I was writing about no longer give me joy or inspiration. It’s a psychological thing and probably not permanent, but it could be quite a while before I get back to The Path and Thomas Was Alone.

Thank you all for bearing with me so far. I promise to keep this blog better.


P.S. From now on, call me Grayson.

Update: Eating mochi and becoming a food critic for a day

September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hello, all! Just an update to say that I am alive, not necessarily well, but not planning on giving up on any of my endeavors here. Consider them…well, it’s like their updates are on pause. At least I like to think of it that way.

In the mean time, I’m eating diverse mochi and recording my comments about them on a spreadsheet. Anyone curious which brands make the softest mochi and the tastiest Asian treats? If so, you’re in luck, because I plan to write something like a review and post it here. Why? Because what gaming experience is complete without snacks?


Thomas Was Alone: Part 3

September 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

Thomas Was Alone is available through Mike Bithell’s website and on Steam. Potential spoilers, et cetera. 

*     *     *     *     *

When last we left Thomas Was Alone:

Chris fell in love with kindred spirit Laura, who seemed to reciprocate his affections—or to appreciate them, at any rate. General ambivalence followed when her introduction to the group precipitated the entrance of the ominous pixel cloud.

Thomas, Chris, Laura, Claire, and John each inevitably fell into the pixel cloud’s snare and all hope seemed lost.

But then we met someone new. Our story continues at level 5.1 with a turquoise rectangle named James.

*     *     *     *     *


James is different, though apparently turquoise, not green. From his narration, it sounds like he suffers derision for his somewhat unorthodox gravitational tendencies. It happens when you’re unique.

And to be honest, it took a little time to learn to see the world as he does. But before long, running along what we might call the ceiling became second nature, and I learned to perceive gravity in reverse. It actually took some time to get my floor-legs back when James encounters our red rectangular friend.

Thomas sees the gift that James possesses. Working together, they break free from the confines of their cyberspace prison cell and hover their way towards the great stream of knowledge we know as the internet.

I think the interaction between Thomas and James is just so cool. Together, they defy gravity and anti-gravity alike, walking on each other’s underside like mutually-supportive floating rectangular platforms. This is teamwork. Furthermore, Thomas sees greatness in James that apparently no one else has been able to see, which allows him to take the leap to try this mode of travel in the first place. And James, for once in his life, is having fun.


(In case there are any doubts: I ship it.)

Enter Sarah. Achievement Unlocked: “Winter is Coming.”
Indeed. She’s a real spitfire dame, proof positive that people (and AI) can be bigger on the inside than they seem on the outside. Her double-jumping abilities prove very useful, and they take me back to a time I played more platformers and had more ledges and precipices to navigate…


She seemed rather displeased that she couldn’t join Thomas in his internet experience, but perhaps it’s for the best that she couldn’t. I feel the disillusionment would have been much harder for her than it was for Thomas.

But I must admit that even playing such a short session (only two complete levels), I did sorely miss the others—Claire, John, and the little dots who fell in love. Despite the ingenuity of Thomas’ and James’ teamwork and the Sarah’s dauntless energy, I wished that things could be as they had been before Thomas’ imprisonment—which I’m sure isn’t far off from what Thomas feels at times. Or what I thought he feels.

A change in direction occurs after Thomas’ network connection. He seems to have a new sense of purpose, and the first step to fulfilling that purpose is finding his friends again. But I don’t feel good about this.


The excerpt above seems to come from another AI, more recent according to the Thomas timeline. Certain phrases make me uneasy—act of selflessness, knew their fate. The architects the speaker refers to are, I believe, Thomas and his friends (+ James + Sarah).

Now I know Thomas is just a little red rectangle who lives in a fictional universe with whom I’ve only spent a couple of hours. So some may not understand why these omens inspire such dread for me. Whether or not it makes sense, I’ve grown quite attached to Thomas. Now I think something irreversible is about to happen, and it makes me hesitant to go on.

Scythians’ sakes, Thomas, don’t die.

Previous: Part 2

An aside: Towns

September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I tend to post about games that make me think. Predictably, I tend to play such games more than others. But every so often I need a mindless time-kill. Thus, I bought Towns. (…And thence I had technical issues starting Towns on Steam. Troubleshooting forums gave confusing results, ultimately driving me to get my computer a (probably) long overdue Java update, after which the game launched properly and ran fine.)

And so I spent six hours of my day in ‘Heatherville’, trying to balance planting, harvesting, and crafting in order not to have my townsfolk starve or get killed by Tree guardians and ‘Froggies’…

Some background: Towns is a bit like Sim City meets Dungeons & Dragons—or, if you ever played this one on Windows 2000, Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim. You get about a dozen townsfolk in the middle of some wilderness that sits on top of a dungeon. You must delegate labor amongst the townsfolk, making sure they till enough farmland to grow their food supply, build shelters and furniture to keep themselves safe and content, and manufacture enough weapons and armor to guard themselves against creatures of the frontier—namely Tree guardians and spear-wielding Froggies.

I first saw this game in a sort of Let’s-Play montage from Youtuber 666theheartless666. (Warning: Language?) Maybe it was the implicit challenge to best Heartless at town-keeping that made this game so attractive to me. Maybe I just wanted to collect my own little stockpiles of tree-fruit. In any case, I held off on buying it until today. Don’t know why, but today seemed like the right time.

I didn’t play the tutorial. Word to the wise: Play the tutorial.

After an hour or so I gained a vague understanding of how to work the system. Players have no direct control over their townsfolk’s behavior; instead they must pull certain strings to affect a change in the level of resources, like laying down the foundation of a pig farm that the townies may or may not start building right away. Task ‘Priority’ and given limits on a townie’s set of ‘jobs’ dictate which tasks townies perform and when.

Given that I didn’t play the tutorial, I can easily guess why I stumbled through the first hour. There are a number of menus, some for architecture and furniture, some for more landscape-related tools, and one through which players can set quotas for various products from sweet-cakes to longswords. It can be a little confusing. For much of the time my townsfolk teetered on the brink of starvation, though casualties from actual combat remained low throughout my session thanks to my aggressive armor- and weapons-crafting policy.

If you’re lucky, more townsfolk will migrate to your settlement. Build taverns and heroes will take notice. Heroes are more or less autonomous AI that make use of your town’s resources while delving the dungeons below. They’re supposed to bring back loot, and I did notice a few special weapons lying around after their arrival. Keep them fed, or they’ll leave your town, taking with them all the levels they earned and any protection they may have provided against monsters.

After the initial floundering and near-cataclysmic scenarios, the game plays at a more lax pace. Once you get things running, you can leave your town alone without fear of mass casualties. Gameplay thereafter is like monitoring a machine—you check in on it every so often and make small tweaks, but otherwise it keeps running without you. Some may prefer a more hands-on experience, but I found this game strangely addictive for its independence.

Such was my experience with Towns. The game and its demo are available on the official website and on Steam.

Thomas Was Alone: Part 2

September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Thomas Was Alone is available through Mike Bithell’s website and on SteamSpoilers, etc.

When last we left Thomas Was Alone:


I had assembled a capable team of four polygons and reached level 2.2 of their challenging world of platforms, switches, and dangerous-looking pools of water.

First I met Thomas, our titular red rectangle, observant and optimistic.

Thomas made friends with Chris, an orange square, who immediately detested Thomas and hoped for circumstances to separate them.

John joined them, lending his height and excellent jumping skills to assist the little dots in exchange for their unwavering admiration.

Lastly I met Claire, whose life gained new purpose when she discovered that she could float. She met John, the first AI she would save as a superhero.

And so the story continues in level 2.3.

*     *     *     *     *

I quite like Claire. I think I established that in the last post. But if I had any doubts, levels 2.3-3.1 quelled them. I learned several things about her—she’s a fan of Superman in particular (or at least knows who he is), spikes are her Kryptonite, and, most exciting, she can jump while other AI stand on top of her. (Only in water, but still. Comes in handy when you have to outrun a wall-o-spikes, but more on that later…)

I think I like Laura as well, even if she does attract trouble in the form of ominous pixel clouds with a taste for colorful polygons. She reminds me of my high school years. I also think she resembles an eraser, not least of all because of her rubbery consistency. Anyway, Chris takes a shine to her even while the others distrust her, and it isn’t every day you see Chris taking up for someone. At least I imagine not. Then again, it isn’t everyday you meet two AI with so very much in common who still complement each other so well.


Chris was in love. She was perfect. He had to tell her so.

I have to admit, Laura does present her own unique challenges, voracious security programs aside. As much as she does to enhance Chris’ jumping abilities, I wish Chris could pull more weight in the relationship. Kind of a drag when your boyfriend uses your help to get out of a hole and then leaves you in said hole indefinitely.

But with critical thinking and assistance from Laura’s taller and skinnier friends, I brought the gang through each of her puzzles, proving her talents invaluable even if she does require some help. (A familiar story, I am sure. Tunnel crawlers of the world unite!)

I noticed the music again this time. I always seem to notice the music, though I usually lack the terminology or theoretical knowledge to explain why I notice it. Here, though, I know that the music in Laura’s levels stands out for its minor key tonality. Such a difference creates an atmosphere of foreboding, which feeds into Laura’s introduction to the rest of the party and the resulting tensions between Chris and his fellows—and, of course, their anxiety over the looming pixel monster of darkness.

Music plays an equally important role in the next sequence, wherein the system security snatches up Thomas and each of his comrades. I don’t remember the piece quite as well, but I do remember the effect it had on me.

*     *     *     *     *

When Thomas disappeared, I thought, Surely he’s just detained somewhere.

Then Chris entered his long fall and reflected on his role in bringing the monster to the rest of the team, how if he hadn’t fallen in love with Laura and brought her along, the monster wouldn’t have found them. He, too, disappeared at the end, alone as he had wished before.


Laura took notice and realized that the friends she’d thought had left her in the past may have met a more sinister fate. Knowing at last her grave error, she lost hope. The pixel-cloud whisked her away.

With Claire and John left, I became distraught. I started calling John names because now, of all AI, he seemed most useless. At least I said so whenever he failed to keep his footing on Claire and fell in the water, or didn’t jump soon enough to catch the edge of a moving platform. I called him many names, among them “you stupid French fry” and, in keeping with the theme of office supplies, “most worthless pencil I’ve ever had the pleasure of not using.”

I was quite unfair to John. His final puzzle was a bitch, but more importantly I felt the end coming. As John reflected on the emptiness of performing without an audience, I lamented inwardly with him. I, too, missed Thomas and the other little dots. I made that lonely journey to the final portal and watched as the last of my all-star team surrendered himself to the pixel-cloud, never to be seen again.

At least I thought as much.

After John’s inevitable disappearance, a new contender appeared. He could have been Thomas’ twin brother, if AI have anything like sibling relations. Yes, James bore strong resemblance to his red predecessor, but very importantly, James was different.


*     *     *     *     *

Further thoughts:

Claire indicated early on that she thought Chris might be a villain. I wonder what she thought, then, when he emerged from his suspicious absence, towing a new girlfriend who happened to have a malicious achromatic guard-dog.

I didn’t pay much attention at first, but the blurbs in between levels give interesting perspective to Thomas’ story. Being a fan of both framed narration and nonlinear storytelling, I very much appreciate this aspect of the game.

John’s last level, 4.10, plays like a 2D platformer. This may be why I started raging around this time. Word to the wise: Patience. Even if you must perform several attempts, allow yourself time to do each jump the right way. It’s all a matter of following the plan. (And exhale…)

Previous: Beginning

Next: Part 3

Thomas Was Alone: Beginning

August 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

Somewhere in the corridors between RAM and cache memory, a small red rectangle dropped into existence.

His was a simple world, it seemed. If Thomas had known about three-dimensional space, he would have noticed that his environment was completely flat width-wise. Thomas did not, in fact, have any notion of a third dimension. He did, however, possess keen skills of observation—or, at the very least, the willingness to observe, which is still better than some can say.

Thomas made use of his observational abilities to navigate his new little world. He devised hypotheses about the purpose of the environmental hazards and obstacles, and the meaning of his own existence.

It was a great pastime, for a while. But inevitably Thomas found that he was a social creature—and still very much alone.

On the other side of the computer screen was a different creature, one who lived in three dimensions and observed Thomas as Thomas observed his world. Through the hard plastic smudged with thumb-prints and speckles of dust, this other creature whispered, You’re not alone, Thomas.

*     *     *     *     *

The preceding anecdote is actually true. Last night, I began my adventure with the geometrical AI in Thomas Was Alone.

Of course this game isn’t about my relationship to Thomas. This is a game about loneliness, friendship, and teamwork in a changing, often dangerous world. Or so it seems, after about 30 minutes of gameplay.

Already I’ve met a pretty able-bodied (or able-pixelled, if you prefer) team of quadrilaterals. The most recent member, Claire, has taken on a quest to find a cape. She is a superhero, you see, and she will do her utmost to save her new friends, using her powers of…flotation.

I quite like Claire. Her ability to float in water may seem a meager superpower to some, but in a world where moats of water pose a very real danger to wandering AI, Claire’s skill is indispensable.

Like Thomas and Claire, each character in this puzzle game has their own unique ability, but perhaps more importantly each has their own ambitions and character flaws.

I could get along very well with the curious and ever-hopeful Thomas. John—well I am very much like John sometimes. I am tall, and I do have a certain preoccupation with my appearance, though I do wish I had something more of his self-confidence, not to mention his grace.

I sympathize for Chris. John goes leaping off like a gazelle, and Thomas possesses a certain optimism that just isn’t in Chris’s nature. I might be grouchy and cynical, too, if suddenly someone with Thomas’ jumping abilities crashed into my world, making notes of everything around him when it had all clearly just been here, just as I had been before he came crashing in with all his noise, before he started ‘helping’ me get to somewhere else, and who even knows if somewhere else is any good anyway?

As some of you might know, I’m new to the whole game-critique thing, but as far as I can tell the puzzles seem fine—tricky at times, but nothing I can’t figure out in five minutes. And they’re fun. That much I know.

But it seems to me that this game is more about the story and the characters. Really, I was sold at Danny Wallace’s narration, which frequently gets a chuckle out of me, and David Housden’s music, which seems to lend a sense of hope and humanity. Somewhere between those elements and Mike Bithell’s skill of making small geometric shapes very much alive, I began to wish I could assure our red rectangular protagonist that he will find friends in his brand new world.

Thus I begin Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone—with great hopes and a delightful fondness already firmly fixed in my heart.

Thomas Was Alone is available through Mike Bithell’s website and on Steam.

Next: Part 2