Whispers in the Dark

It took about thirty seconds of playing Whispers in the Dark to realize this wasn’t going to be my happiest gaming experience. A first-person puzzler where you play as a camera hovering five feet off the ground in a world where the concept of diagonality (a word I invented about three seconds ago) doesn’t exist. I’m not sure why I chose this as my first XBLIG II to review. First-person games on XBLIG tended to be about as fun as when my parents forced me to have a funeral for my Chia Pet (who knew you had to water them?). However, I like both whispering and darkness. The thought never occurred to me to combine the two. That’s why you guys are the game makers and I’m the whatever the fuck you call this shit.

So the idea is that in 1974 two kids are found wearing glowing runes. Then in 1996, the sister dies but her body goes all Obi-Wan on everyone and just disappears. Then in 1997, the brother apparently speaks his last words at his own funeral before his body also blinked out of existence.

“Hey, did you hear something?” “Probably just air escaping from the body.” “It sounded like last words to me!” “Was it a Soliloquy?” “I don’t think so. The second sentence had only six syllables.” “I think you’re thinking of a haiku.”

Wait, was he dead before the funeral? Or was it his sister’s funeral? Why would they have it a year after she died? Did she die on December 31, 1996 and get buried a couple of days later? Wait, if she disappeared, why would there be a funeral? So it must be his funeral. Where he apparently spoke his last words at. Was he being executed? Was he euthanizing himself? Is this a metaphorical funeral? Like that time when I attempted to beer-batter Lucky Charms and Brian told me “Whatever. It’s your funeral, Cathy.” You see, people don’t typically speak at their own funeral. That’s the beauty of funerals. The corpse has to actually yield the conversation to other people, and in exchange for that people pretend like they didn’t hate them.

Anyway, he disappears too (I hope the attending priest was quick-witted enough to yell TA DAH!) and wakes up in what I, based on the gameplay, can only imagine is Hell. Whispers in the Dark is *terrible* to actually play. It’s the movement. It’s so laggy and sluggish that I can only imagine the game is being streamed to my Xbox via telegraph. I don’t understand how this happened, considering that the graphics are so ugly that star-nosed moles would be able to talk shit on them if they would get with the times and upgrade their relic Xbox 360s.

“Hey fuck you Indie Gamer Chick! You’re just jealous that we’ve only bricked one of our 360s so far!”

It’s a real shame too. As a proof of concept, Whispers in the Dark isn’t bad. The idea is you solve puzzles by collecting runes and combining two of them to cast spells. Hey Doodle God, see, this is a video game. I mean, wait, don’t see. I’ll find a better example. But seriously, there’s an idea in here that seems fun and refreshing. There’s no combat, though stationary robots that apparently lack peripheral vision occasionally show up to audition for the role of “most useless security robots this side of Volume.” And there’s a large number of combinations you can use to cast spells to solve puzzles with them. But, not all combinations actually cast something, which only serves to contribute to the “unfinished proof of concept” issue. But hey, unfinished, under-polished digital-trainwrecks. Oh XBLIG, it’s like you never left.

“Holy fuck, she wasn’t kidding.”

I never did get resolution for the story. The further I played into Whispers in the Darkness, the worst the lag became, to the point that the game was nearly unplayable and I quit about an hour in. So yea, it’s pretty awful. But, it’s actually free. In fact, a lot of XBLIG II launch games are. As bad as this is, I’m going to stress once again to those behind this game and any free games out there: your time is worth money. Throw a buck on your games and use the revenue for better developer tools or game programming lessons, or just have fun with it. But put something on it. Hell, if people like me are going to be saying your game sucks either way, you might as well be getting paid for it.

Whispers in the Darkness was developed by Voszcura
Free to play off Xbox One & Windows 10 Marketplace. Not sure why Xbox.com doesn’t have XBLIG II games yet.

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Peggle 2

Two things of significance happened in 2007 in the Vice household.  #1, I turned eighteen.  I could vote.  I could smoke without breaking the law.  I was also obligated to, you know, get a job and pay taxes and do adult types of shit.  And #2, my family was held hostage for several months by a productivity terrorist dressed in bright, beautiful colors.  The terrorist called itself “Peggle” and it not only enslaved me, but also my decidedly non-gamer parents.  At least my Daddy had some experience with games, in that he bought all the new hip and trendy consoles when he was younger.  He didn’t really play them all that much, but he had an Atari, Colecovision, NES, and SNES.  My mother, on the other hand, was an unexpected victim.  Before games on phones became prevalent, I had seen her play exactly two games.  One was Wii Sports, and the other was Peggle.  I can not stress enough how much time Peggle consumed amongst the three of us for around a four-month period.  If it wasn’t eight hours a day at its peak, I’ll eat my hat.

Now that I’m a game critic, I think I have a better appreciation for what PopCap accomplished with Peggle.  For all the moaning that gaming elitists do over “casual” games, I appreciate any title that can bring my whole family together.  I fell in love with video games when I was seven years old, but gaming wasn’t an activity I shared with the people who I loved the most.  So called “casual games”, which is a dirty word in many circles, are exactly the type of games I can share with them.  So to snobs who hold their nose up at casuals, I offer you a hearty FUCK YOU, because I wouldn’t trade the memory of playing Peggle with my family for anything.

Same old Peggle.

Same old Peggle.

Having said that, wow, was Peggle 2 ever a let-down for me.

It’s not that Peggle 2 is a badly made game.  The problem is, it’s the same fucking game as before.  No new twists were added to the formula, beyond the special powers you gain from each world’s mascot.  If they had done something more with the pegs, like added new ones that do weird, unexpected things when hit, it might have freshened up the experience.  Instead, this feels more like an expansion pack than a sequel.  But, they already did that with Peggle Nights.  I didn’t get into that either.  It’s safe to say, after our months-long bender of Peggle, I was burned out for life.  Nothing short of a revolutionary gameplay mechanic could win me back.  Peggle 2 takes no risk, playing it safe and samey.  As a result, over the five or so hours I spent playing it, I was never once having a good time.  Not once.  Not even for a second.  It was all been there, done that, when is this going to feel like a sequel?  The answer was never.

Some concepts were added to pad out the playtime.  Each stage has three special objectives that you can complete to earn points.  As of this writing, there’s no online leaderboards, which renders the point of points kind of moot, but I guess it was thoughtful.  There’s also special “trial” stages where you’re tasked to do things like earn three bonus balls in a single shot.  It sounds like it will be fun, but this is still Peggle.  It’s a game where randomness and luck are going to factor in more than any form of skill nine times out of ten.  I found the trial stages to still be boring and repetitive, only with the additional strike of being too hard.  There’s also online multiplayer battles, which again, are tough to love because the game is based around luck more than anything else.  The same effect could basically be had if they had made Kinect Bingo the big digital launch title.

Yawn.

Yawn.

Also, a not-so-quick technical complaint: Peggle 2 way overuses the Xbone’s DVR function.  In theory, it would be cool to have it record your coolest, high-scoring shots, so that the whole world can bask in your, let’s face it, dumb luck.  But, in practice, the damn thing records every shot over a small threshold of points, so much so that barely a level passed without at least one shot on it being recorded.  In five-hours of playing, I never once had a single shot I thought was worth saving, but there’s no option to set what level of scoring should and shouldn’t be saved.  You also can’t turn off the DVR function for just Peggle 2.  You have to turn it off for every game (at least as of this writing), or have it on for every game.  I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come with the Xbox One’s DVR, but I fear it might be.  They really do need to get on the ball about being able to turn it off and on for specific games.  They also should try to figure out why some sessions had the achievement notifications pop up and others didn’t.  I’m surprisingly fond of my Xbox One, but it is a buggy little bastard.

Do you know what’s most baffling to me about Peggle 2?  That it’s an Xbox One exclusive.  It just doesn’t seem like it fits with their image or their target demographic or any aspect at all, really.  I’m sure Microsoft paid a king’s ransom for it, but I can’t help but wonder if PopCap (and corporate parent EA) lost out on a lot more money going this route.  Peggle made its name by being on everything.  It was on computers, phones, consoles, handhelds, microwaves, pacemakers, the works.  I don’t know if I’m right.  Who knows?  I have no idea what kind of revenue Plants vs. Zombies 2 generated as a freemium iPhone game, but I do know they would have moved millions of copies at $20 a pop if it had been on PCs as well.  I don’t know.  Maybe EA doesn’t believe in PopCap themselves and this whole exclusivity bullshit with their marquee franchises is some kind of ploy to try to legitimize “casual” games as viable system-movers.  First off, Nintendo already proved that they can back in 1989 with Tetris.  Second, casual games are already legitimate to any gamer whose head isn’t stuck up their ass.  But Peggle 2 doesn’t suck because it’s an Xbone exclusive.  It sucks because I’ve already played it to death and it offered me nothing new.  Just to make sure it wasn’t just me, I invited my parents in to play a few rounds with me.  They still enjoyed it, though this time around they had no problem putting it down.  Then my father asked me if people were seriously sinking $500 on a new platform just to play this, which I’ve really seen mention of on Twitter.  I reminded him that if this had been 2007, he would have probably spent that for a sequel during our Peggle addiction period.  “$500?  Psssh, I would have traded you for a sequel.”  Gee, thanks Daddy.

Peggle 2Peggle 2 was developed by PopCap Games

$11.99 noted that some people are complaining that the game is too short, so if you’re not burned out like me, you might not like that there are only five “masters” to beat and one final world in the making of this review.  Me?  When those credits rolled, I felt like I had been paroled. 

What an Age We Live In

So a birthday editorial is now officially a thing with me.  I did it last year to talk about the age thing.  It’s one of the things that tickles me pink about being Indie Gamer Chick: my average reader is over ten years older than me.  In terms of what that means from a generational perspective, it means someone who is, say, 34 would have grown up firmly in the era of Atari 2600, Colecovision, and NES just as it was launching.  Whereas I got my first console in 1996 at the age of seven.  And it was the original PlayStation.  That’s a pretty big gap.  I spent my teen years with PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube.  You spent yours doing Sega Screams at each-other and talking about Super FX chips.

This gives me a different perspective.  It also leads people to write off my opinion on gaming history as irrelevant.  After all, how could I, a person who more or less grew up in the modern gaming era, understand what games meant to you.  Games were totally different back then.  The industry was too.  The culture.

Ha.

Remember how at E3 this year, everyone was hating on Microsoft and doing the dance of joy for Sony, who were coming off like the plucky underdogs?  Yea, that’s already happened.  Only it was Sony who were the assholes and Sega who were the guys everyone was cheering for.  Back in 1999, Sega announced the American release of Dreamcast, with a very modest $199 price point.  Just days later, Sony announced the specs for PlayStation 2, which rendered Dreamcast obsolete before it even released.  Sony also positioned PS2 as more than just a game machine, thanks to its DVD playback capabilities.  They touted their consoles as the future of entertainment, where being just a video game device was passé.  Sega’s American CEO Peter Moore responded by saying “(Sony) said they are not the future of video games.  They are the future of entertainment, and God bless them.  We’re the future of video games.”

Sound familiar?

Sony

Well, at least Peter didn’t tattoo that on his arm.

Sony had a ton of swagger for years at this point.  In 1996, Sony purposed a Gentleman’s Agreement that neither they, Nintendo, or Sega would make price change announcements at that year’s E3.  Sega and Nintendo accepted.  Sony then broke the agreement and said that they were dropping the price of PlayStation by $100.

It’s worth noting that Nintendo had to announce the price of Nintendo 64 at the show, and Sega had planned on reneging anyway by having signage touting Saturn’s $100 price drop printed up.  Still, Sony offered an olive branch and then immediately set fire to it once Sega had grabbed it.  It’s not that they broke the agreement though.  It’s that they were such dicks about it.  On the third day of the show, Sega’s spokeswoman Angela Edwards was carrying heavy signs that said “Saturn: Now only $199” (an extra $100 price drop that they were forced into despite corporate’s wishes) into the building, only to be harassed by Sony employees who mocked her and called her pathetic.  The jerks involved were never named but rumored to have been fired.

Let’s see: arrogant console manufacturer with antagonistic employees opening their big yap and getting fired for it.  Sound familiar?

Gaming is no different today than it was when you were young.  Technology is better.  Roles might be different.  But the overall picture is basically the same as it’s always been.  This generation, we have three main consoles and a couple of upstarts who would walk on rusty nails just to capture a 1% market share.  For the main consoles, one is more consumer friendly and has better licensing deals with third-party partners.  One is facing all kinds of criticism for draconian policies despite having major technical advantages on its platform.  And finally, one is struggling to keep its head above the water due to lack of third-party support, poor marketing, and inferior hardware.  In this context, I’m talking about PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U in that order.

But if I replace “this generation” with “the 16-bit generation”, then I’m talking about, in order, Genesis, Super Nintendo, and TurboGrafx-16.  The parallels between that particular console war and the current one are striking.  But gaming history is full of that.  For that reason, the age thing really isn’t that big a deal.  Times change, but nothing really changes.  In the 80s and 90s, Nintendo fought tooth and nail against game rentals.  Right up until it became clear that the courts, not to mention the court of public opinion, would never side with them.  This year, Microsoft was absolutely crucified by the journalists and the game community for their DRM policies on Xbox One.  Make no mistake though.  If a console manufacturer can succeed in creating an environment where used games don’t exist, they would absolutely do it in a heartbeat.  We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming.  It’s inevitable.  Not only that, but when the time comes, nobody will care.  It will be expected.  It will be the norm.

I tried my best to somehow compare 3DO to Ouya.  Gave up when I realized it wasn't possible.  The 3DO was $700, hard to develop for, and would have been lucky to capture 1% of the market.  Well, I guess Ouya has that.

I tried my best to somehow compare 3DO to Ouya. Gave up when I realized it wasn’t possible. The 3DO was $700, hard to develop for, and would have been lucky to capture 1% of the market. Well, I guess Ouya has that.

Sure, the game industry of today isn’t exactly the same as it was for you.  Indies for example.  They couldn’t exist back then without getting dragged to court, and even the act of selling third-party development kits would likely get you sued.  Being indie on consoles meant acquiring a development kit (typically through the black market), getting distribution, a publisher, or the capital to make a production run.  Today, thanks to digital distribution, pretty much anyone can make a game and see it published on a console.  Anyone can make a game for Xbox 360 and publish it to XBLIG.  For the next generation, there might be a few more barriers, but someone with the desire to create a game can see their title published to a console’s marketplace.

But otherwise, it’s still the same game industry.  Nintendo still relies on the same handful of IPs.  Sega still relies on Sonic.  Gamers complain that games are overpriced or that there’s not enough variety.  Fanboys pick sides and get in shouting matches over which console is superior, only it’s done on the internet during their lunch break instead of at the playground during recess.  One company is positioned to be the gaming press’ darling.  Lawsuits are flying left and right.  I live in the same environment you did.  I’m a gamer of the new school variety.  You might be a gamer of the old school variety.  It’s actually the same school.  I was born twenty-four years ago today.  On the day I was born, old school gamers were drooling over pending release of Duck Tales.  Today, those same gamers are all grown up.. and drooling over the pending release of Duck Tales.  How times have changed.

PlayStation 4 is The One

“What are you going to do when XBLIG is gone?”  I’ve been getting this since the start of the year.  It’s something I’ve thought about myself.  I figured the obvious answer was “I’ll be doing everything!”  I’ve always owned the full slate of consoles and handhelds, and indies are hot right now.  Not just hot, but courting indies makes sound economic sense.  They assume all the costs of development.  They put in all the R&D.  The console manufactures just take a royalty off the top and that’s it.  Easy money.  Indies also serve other important functions.  They prepare a new generation of super-star game developers.  Today’s indies will create tomorrow’s triple-A titles.  Indies provide content during off-peak months, which is the very thing that got Indie Gamer Chick started in the first place.  They also provide much-needed content that is not on-trend, assuring that a platform has something for everybody.  They take the risks that major studios can’t (even if they want to), because they have to be fiscally responsible to employees and shareholders.  Indies have no such limitations.

In short, indies are now necessary to a platform’s health.

Whether anyone believes it or not, representatives from all three major console developers have a fondness for indies and a desire to shine the spotlight on them.  They understand the drive to create and the need for creative freedom.  They also know that it just makes sound business sense.

Xbox One, named as such because it weighs one stone.

Xbox One, named as such because it weighs one stone.

Some out there will probably argue against this.  “No, Microsoft couldn’t possibly care less about indies.  Nintendo too.”  Um, no.  You’re just wrong.  Maybe their corporate policies don’t always reflect it, but people who love indies do hold key positions at these companies.  If you can’t grasp that, you should probably just stop reading now.

Indies will factor into the Xbox One.  More than just Minecraft too.  Whether Microsoft has said anything yet or not, that’s irrelevant to whether indies will exist on the platform, or whether it ever allows for self publishing.  They know the economics of it.  Trust me, I’ve spent my entire adult life in business.  When Microsoft had to cut million-dollar checks to a couple of XBLIG developers, it made ripples in Redmond.  I can’t fathom it being otherwise.  If it’s not true, then they have problems beyond my scope of comprehension.

Nintendo is on board too.  I know they’re taking indies seriously.  They’ve eased off of some pretty silly policies.  Stuff like only allowing for development on their platforms if you make the games in a dedicated office that has a lock.  Yes, because industrial espionage is what’s going to bring about the downfall of Nintendo.  Not the fact that, you know, they haven’t released a first-party game since launch.  But Nintendo has thrown that rule in the trash.  Not only that, but they’re openly courting indies.  They’re opening up their platforms for self-publishing.  They’re attempting to give indie developers a platform to not only exist on, but profit on.  I’ve been hard on Nintendo here, but they’ve earned my respect in this regard.  Nintendo’s tent has room for indies.

Can't believe I'm saying this, but the Wii U's console is actually the nicest looking one of this generation.  The Gamepad?  Not so much.

Can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Wii U’s console is actually the nicest looking one of this generation. The Gamepad? Not so much.

I’ve never understood the whole “this console is my team” mentality of gamers.  I get it when it’s done among children.  Mommy and daddy only buy Junior one console, and that console becomes his team.  He cheers his team on and boos his team’s opponents.  But for adults who can choose their own consoles, and presumably own more than one, it just baffles me.  Now while I’ve certainly made it clear what console I think is posed to be the most successful, that shouldn’t be mistaken for them being “my team.”  I don’t have a team.  I have three consoles that will each provide me with a vastly different experience.  I’m excited for my future as a gamer, because gaming just keeps getting better and better.  Today, Microsoft and Sony both showed me games that will dominate my free time and drain my wallet, and I expect more of the same tomorrow from Nintendo.  I’m only Indie Gamer Chick on here.  I’m Cathy at all other times, and Cathy has three shiny new consoles to make her imagination run wild.

But, for Indie Gamer Chick, the choice is clear.

PlayStation 4 is the one.

It’s Sony who has told indies “we want you.”  They’ve said it publicly.  They’ve said it clearly.  They’ve given the sentimentality that you’re part of our family, not a party crasher.  For Nintendo, they were too slow to woo.  Before that?  They treated indies like a house guest that you welcome into your home but then follow around like you’re afraid they’re going to steal something.

And Microsoft?  They deserve a tip of the hat for creating the first self-publishing platform on a major console.  But XBLIGs were the black sheep from day one and Microsoft did nothing to alleviate that.  They were something that just sort of was allowed to be there, like a child whose parents force him to invite the freckled kid with the bad body odor to his birthday party.  I’m not saying the games should have been promoted to the determent of titles from major third parties.  Anyone who believes that is delusional.  I’m saying that Microsoft showed total disregard for the platform they created for indies, and they’ve given no reason to believe they’ll be any better this next generation.  And hell, that’s not including their treatment of those lucky developers who got a game published on Xbox Live Arcade.  Just ask the guys behind Fez.  I do fundamentally understand Microsoft’s want for glitch-free games on their platform, but modern game development is a complex thing.  The best, most-well funded developers on the planet struggle with debugging.  Patching of games is now simply part of game production.  Doing so shouldn’t put smaller producers in fiscal danger.  Spin it any way you like.  It’s just plain morally wrong.

Comment of the day from Twitter: "It looks like an italicized Xbox One." It really does.

Comment of the day from Twitter: “It looks like an italicized Xbox One.” It really does.

Indies will always be more dominant on the PC scene, and newcomers like Ouya (which yes, will be covered soon at Indie Gamer Chick) are arriving and openly courting the development community.  They’ll all have a place at Indie Gamer Chick.  I’ve already had a little coverage of Wii U games, and trust me, more is on the way.  Xbox One’s indie scene, no matter what form it takes, will be a part of this site.  My new writers Jerry and Kalle will cover those platforms I don’t.  And, until someone turns the lights out, Xbox Live Indie Games will be featured here, and prominently at that.

But for the next generation, PlayStation 4 is it.  It will be the primary focus of my site, the same way XBLIGs have been for the last two years.  Why?  Well, it has nothing to do with the focus on non-gaming applications.  Hey, I use those too!  It has nothing to do with the used game stuff.  I’ve planned on taking a no-plastic, all-digital pledge for this generation anyway.  It has nothing to do with Kinect because.. well actually I hate Kinect, but it still doesn’t factor in.  It’s because this is the platform I feel indies are most positioned to thrive on.  Where their creativity will be nurtured, their passion will be unchained, and most importantly, where they have the best chance of making something of themselves.  For two years, the indie game development community has been incredible to me.  You guys have changed my life like you can’t believe.  I might be harsh on your games sometimes, but I’m always hopeful of your success and proud of you when you’re triumphant.  I want what’s best for you.  I’m going with PlayStation 4, because that’s where your best chances are.  But, no matter what platform you develop for, the Golden Age of indies is about to dawn, and I’ve never been more excited.

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