Over the last few years, I (like many players, I imagine) have accrued a massive backlog of titles on Steam. Between weekly deals, good intentions, and overestimating the amount of time I’d actually play, I quickly found myself with dozens of games I own but have never actually played. Instead, I’d play more Dota 2 (a game I’ve played SO MUCH MORE than any other, for better or worse) or other multiplayer fare that left me satisfied in the moment but longing for something more the moment I left my computer. My need for strong storytelling, interesting characterization, and more was not being met, and I was the one choosing not to fill it. Just before the new year, I put together a list of games and start plowing through it, checking the shorter, story-focused games I’ve always wanted to play off my list first. Here are my thoughts on those I completed in the last week or so.
Sagebrush is an eerie, empty cult compound filled with the stories of characters looking for a better life, for guidance, or for control (sometimes over themselves, sometimes over others). I was drawn to it initially by its unique, low-fidelity graphics. Evocative of early 3D PC games like Alone in the Dark, the presentation creates an unnerving haze over the entire environment. It is detailed enough to give a hint of motion in the distance, but not detailed enough to give you any real sense of the shape or scope of what is waiting there. It’s a style I found myself enjoying, especially as the atmosphere of the compound changes with the time.
Sagebrush is a very short experience, taking me around an hour and a half to complete. For its story, it was a great length of time. The story is dark and sad, taking characters from wide-eyed happiness to tragic ends in sometimes a matter of minutes depending on how you uncover information in the world. While it doesn’t overstay its welcome, there were a few points where the story could have benefited from a bit of additional space and time.
Exploring the cult compound and understanding what went on there, it feels increasingly claustrophobic, inescapable. A scenic ranch becomes the stage for a horror story for the player much in the way it does for the characters. Still, this is not a horror game. There is nothing stalking you in the dark, just remnants of the cult’s dark past. The game plays with player and character perspective in visually interesting ways, especially during the second half, that blends well with the twists in the story.
Sagebrush is extremely atmospheric, short, and well done. Its story may not be terribly original, but the entire package is one I came away feeling strongly about, especially the finale. It’s also real cheap on Steam.
I have thought about Tacoma every day since I finished it last week. You take on the role of a contractor sent to retrieve something from Tacoma, a space station hanging in space between Earth and the moon. When you arrive, you are alone, but it’s clear that the crew, wherever they went, left amidst a growing chaos. Tacoma comes to us from Fullbright, the developers of Gone Home — one of the earliest standouts of the now burgeoning “walking simulator” genre — so it’s no surprise really that the story at the heart of Tacoma and the way you go about uncovering it is exemplary.
Over the three-ish hours it took me to complete Tacoma, I came to really love two things:
The near-future universe presented in the game is one of capitalism taken to its present logical conclusion. Nearly everyone is a contractor, corporate and investor risk is minimized at all cost, and workers are granted opportunities only through decades of loyalty and immaculate work records. Workers are devalued, dehumanized, and replaceable. Despite that, some characters still work toward their dreams. We see how they rationalize their actions (or the actions of their employer) in order to stay afloat and how some take strength from fighting against the machine that ensnares them. Its personal, touching, and rings very true to my experience as a laborer and as a one-time boss. While that setup may sound like a dark cyberpunk tale, Tacoma is ultimately a hopeful story. It’s that wonderful sense of good things happening (often through characters’ hard work) that I find myself coming back to again and again.
The game uses an AR replay mechanic that has you scrubbing through 3D recreations of the crew’s position and voice data. You follow a crew member from their office into the central crew room and off on a conversation while other characters move and interact throughout the same space. The game rewards you greatly for replaying the scene and following other characters to learn more, access their individual computer interfaces by leading you to all the station’s nooks and crannies, giving added context, etc.. This system, coupled with the traditional walking sim environmental exploration, leads you from place to place throughout the ship such that the story unfolds uniquely but also completely (something I’ve found games like this to struggle with in the past). It breathes a sense of life into the station and gives weight to the events you see unfold in a way something like Gone Home simply doesn’t have. In Tacoma, we get to see how and why they navigate the polticial, social, and cultural superstructures they inhabit, and more importantly, we like them all enough to care.
While I doubt it will ever happen, I can’t think of a game I’ve wanted a sequel to more in recent memory. Tacoma ends with an invigorating bang, the kind of finale that made me wish there was a followup I could buy and play IMMEDIATELY. As is so rarely the case though in modern games, I always rather an experience leave me wanting more. I’ve grown tired of far too many games long before their end.
I cannot recommend this game enough. It’s well polished, has great voice acting, and has one of the most believable sci-fi settings I’ve ever seen.
Tacoma is available on a bunch of platforms and is absolutely worth the price on all of them. That said, I am, if nothing else, a frugal gamer so it’s worth mentioning that you can nab it for only $5 on PS4 until the middle of the month.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
I have no reasonable excuse for why it took me so long to play Captain Spirit. It’s free, it’s short, and it’s essentially a demo for Life is Strange 2. The first Life is Strange is a game that is very important to me, despite the fact that I’ve never actually played it. I watched a full playthrough of the game and, despite taking in the experience pseudo-secondhand, I loved it so much I went and bought all of the episodes the next day (knowing full well I would never play them). Life is Strange wore its heart entirely out on its sleeve and, eventually, made me do the same. It’s sappy and dramatic and riddled with all the stupid kind of things I said and did when I was a teenager. It’s just so wonderful. Even more importantly, it’s so unlike almost anything else in games.
Captain Spirit builds on the strong foundation of the first game, adds new tweaks to the established mechanics, and shifts the age of its protagonist a handful of years younger. Where Life is Strange plays with the well-tread territory of teen coming-of-age drama, Captain Spirit explores the overwhelming influence a parent has over the world of their child and how imagination works to overcome or counteract obstacles. When my in-game father drank himself into an early morning stupor, I found myself cleaning up in his wake. When another adult found the bruises on my arm, I lied to protect him. Even though I, the adult playing the game, know it is not the right thing to do, I, the child in the game, wanted to smooth things over, avoid future explosions of rage from my one remaining parent while just trying to care for him as best I could. If that isn’t an indicator of the game’s success (especially in such a short amount of time), I don’t know what is. Additionally, it is kinda the closest we’ve gotten to a Spaceman Spiff game, and that goes a long way with me.
With the second episode of Life is Strange 2 set to release later this month, I’m excited to finally get to that game. I want to see how the story bits teased in Captain Spirit will come to tie into the main game as well as see how the developers do with new characters in a fairly separate story. I’m very excited.