The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts.
-John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf
“The following is a contributor post by the Badly Backlogged Mage.”
A while ago I played and reviewed a little sci-fi iOS game from 2014 called Out There by French developer Mi-Clos Studios. The game had several unique features, of which two bear repeating – it was very hard, and it was excellently written.
It’s fitting then that two years later, in 2016, Mi-Clos returned to Out There with a visual novel; Out There Chronicles – again, very-well written, but this time much easier to reach the end. And it’s quite good; although again, only sci-fi fans and people who like reading need apply.
It’s set in the same world as Out There, but from a completely different perspective. It’s the far future, and strange creatures have detonated Earth’s sun. In an attempt to survive, humanity has sent up “ark ships”, one from each continent. The ships have no planned destination so they scatter throughout the cosmos, looking for a planet to settle. Those lucky enough to board the arks are placed into cryo-sleep. Those who stay on earth…enter a different kind of “sleep” altogether; the kind that Hamlet talks about.
You play Darius, a passenger from Ark Europa who (like the protagonist in Out There) is awoken after a million years in slumber. Darius finds himself on a strange and seemingly paradise planet settled 10,000 years ago by the descendants of Ark America, who (fittingly) named the planet “Planet America”. It’s at this point that it’s worth repeating that Mi-Clos is French.
But if Star Trek has taught us anything, it’s that paradise planets are not to be trusted, and neither, it seems, is Darius, whose first thought is of escape.
Out There Chronicles is a very simple game, so much so that it’s easy to miss that there’s a lot to talk about here. Specifically, there’s three big topics I want to discuss:
- Is it a game?
- To the extent that it is a game, how do the “game” aspects change this experience from reading a comic book?
- What does it have to say about religion?
I’ll try and cover each of these as succinctly as I can, although each could be its own blog post. So let’s get to it.
Out There Chronicles – is it a game?
It’s the first question I had when looking at this work. It’s picked up the hackneyed “Chronicles” subtitle from video games (I pray it never gets zombie DLC), but is that it? Is it a game?
Short answer – yes. Long answer – yes, although it’s a bit misleading to call it that because the word “game” carries baggage that doesn’t apply.
I find the word “game” interesting because it has two meanings. One, the traditional meaning that you’ll find in a dictionary – “a thing that is played”; and two, meaning “belonging to video game culture”. Think I’m crazy? Look at it this way…
Most of the hard-line definitions of “game” that I see out there (pun!) appear to be post-facto attempts to distinguish between things that gamers want “in” their culture and things they want “out”. Gamers play games. Gamers, by definition, do not play things that are not games. If something is not a game, it is not played by Gamers, who are too busy either writing long articles on WordPress or racially abusing strangers in COD.
Animal Crossing is often called “not a game” because it doesn’t have a win state. But the same is true of, for example, Gauntlet II or Skyrim. The difference is that gaming culture is quick to own “whacking creatures with swords” but less enthused about “cute animals arranging furniture”. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that things often called “not games”, like Farmville, tend to be played by Gamer’s mothers. And who wants to let their mother into their secret club?
Let’s look at a more immediately relevant (if less inflammatory) example. It’s easy to believe that Choose Your Own Adventure books are not “games”, but Fighting Fantasy books are. But mechanically, what’s the difference? Yes, Fighting Fantasy has combat that’s determined by dice rolls. But those dice rolls make combat entirely random, so all you’re doing is making some choices determined randomly instead of by the player. That’s less player interaction not more.
The real reason that it’s tempting to consider one a “game” and not the other is that we associate killing fantasy monsters with gaming culture, but associate Choose Your Own Adventure with children’s libraries. It’s the associations that we have with those two games that is the real cause of the distinction, not the mechanics themselves.
Which brings us to Out There Chronicles. But any formulaic definition you care to apply, it’s a game. It has win/lose states, it has puzzles, it has meaningful player interaction. Personally I’m calling it a visual novel because the point of the work is not gameplay, it’s narrative. The gameplay exists only to try and get people to engage with the singular pre-set narrative. On the few occasions that gameplay comes to the fore, the work often becomes worse, not better (but more on that later).
Like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” the gameplay here consists of regularly selecting one of three to four options, be they different responses in conversation, whether or not to pick up an item, choosing which location to visit next or choosing to attack an NPC.
But what distinguishes this work from Choose Your Own Adventure is that there is actually very little freedom. The point of the “game” is to continue down the game’s solitary critical path; any deviation results in Game Over. Choose Your Own Adventure books normally have dozens of different satisfying endings. Out There Chronicles has two – you either finish reading, or you die.
I appreciate that this is a fairly surface-level discussion of a highly sensitive issue. But it’s not the central point of this post so I’m going to move on. Arguing “what is a game” is like arguing “what is art”; everyone’s got an opinion, but ultimately it normally comes down to gut feel and not prescriptive lists of criteria.
How do the “game” aspects of Out There Chronicles make it different from a book?
Excellent question. Have a gold star.
Out There Chronicles is not a book. While, many times, the available options only offer an illusory choice, the format is significantly different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The screen may have four choices, it may have one. But in reality the number of choices is two – keep playing, or stop.
Let’s look first, technically, at what limitations this form has.
The big one is sentence length. At all times the screen has a large, visible picture in the top two-thirds of the screen. This means that long sentences won’t fit on the screen at once, significantly affecting readability. That has a related problem – paragraph length. If an interaction goes on too long, the player will be unable to easily flick back and re-read or cross reference to earlier text; doing so would completely destroy the flow.
Those are two massive handicaps to any writer. Fortunately, doing a lot with few words was one of the big strengths in the original Out There, and that same strength is on display here. To show what I mean, it’s easiest to take a look at an example I used in my original Out There review:
This is just flavour text when entering a new location. Within about 85 words, the writer has closed a plot hole, engaged us in the game world and reinforced the themes of alienation and loneliness. 85 words. Brilliant.
Still, the “game” aspect has forced the writer to do a lot with very little. Is it worth it?
Well, sometimes. The key here is to recognise that this game has a lot of (literal) dead ends. If you die, you’re forced back to the last checkpoint – which requires clicking through every sentence that you’ve already read from that point on. It’s tedious.
Very quickly you learn that you do not want to die, which forces you to pay close attention to the descriptions and options for clues on where to go and what to do. Games can do this very well – motivate you to engage with the work by using a reward/penalty structure that books lack.
For an example of where this works well – at one stage during the game you’re shot out of an airlock, wearing only a spacesuit. When it’s starts you’re given a message – oxygen 100%. With each action you take, even if it’s just to look around, you get a new message – oxygen 92%, oxygen 74%, and so on. The knowledge that you can die, and the desire to not have to repeat all this again gives your decisions weight.
But it doesn’t always work. I don’t think I’d ever want to play a puzzle game from Mi-Clos Studios because some of the “clues” are ambiguous or non-existent. One sequence in particular is burned into my memory; I had to figure out how to take over a ship by force. I had to replay it about 5 times. By the end I was ready to punch the screen. It was like the worst bits of the old Sierra adventure games.
As a general rule the “game” aspect of this game is best when you don’t notice it’s there. But when it comes to the forefront, when you start thinking of it as a game first and foremost, you begin to wish it was just a book. Fortunately that doesn’t happen, but when it does happen it’s a real slap to the face.
Out There Chronicles and religion – what is it saying?
Out There Chronicles is unusual in that it’s one of a comparative handful of games that not only talks about religion and faith head on, but does so in a reasonably nuanced way.
The original Out There touched on religion insofar as its world was incompatible with the concept of a caring God. The universe was hostile, man is insignificant. Not only do you not matter to God, you don’t matter to anyone.
Out There Chronicles takes this a step further by dealing not only with religion, but also with faith.
The initial premise of Out There Chronicles is that Darius is (or appears to be) a hardened atheist. He has seen and done truly terrible things. He reminds me of a film noir version of Australian author and WWI veteran AB Facey, who recounts in his autobiography A Fortunate Life:
“Anyone who has taken part in a fierce bayonet charge (and I have), and who has managed to retain his proper senses, must doubt the truth of the Bible and the powers of God, if one exists…No sir, there is no God, it is only a myth.”
Darius is, of course, almost comically over-the-top compared to the far more genial (and non-fictional) Facey. But the central theme of their beliefs is the same; religion is a thing for the soft and weak. That theme is reinforced with the naïve inhabitants of Planet America who waken Darius, who have known no war, no suffering, no violence and who are almost comically religious with their constant references to God and God’s will. Darius’ perspective is narratively strengthened by both his presentation as the protagonist but also his sympathetic portrayal – despite the horrible things that Darius has done, we want him to win, which to an extent pushes the reader to also want him to be proven right.
But if that lop-sided non-debate were all the game had to say on religion, I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning it. The point becomes more interesting with the introduction of two new characters. The first is Nyx, an American ship’s captain who is staunchly religious despite being as hardened as Darius (and despite having never seen violence, but let’s skip that plot hole); and the second is god. Not the God but a god, or to be more precise, a powerful being that many aliens worship as a god.
“Give me my war and violence! I don’t deserve this world of idiotic fools!“
The interaction between Darius, god, God and Nyx is a bit unique in video games because it raises some interesting questions about religion and faith. Is “the god” really “a god”? Or is it merely a being so advanced from humans that its powers and motivations are inscrutable to a human mind? Is there a difference? Is Darius’ path or Nyx’s the better one? Nyx at times (in non-religious matters) seems almost incapable of accepting the blunt evidence in front of her when it doesn’t suit her world-view, but at the same time her faith gives her a sense of belonging and purpose that at times seems almost mystical – she is able, for example, to achieve a physical feat that the more pragmatic Darius had written off as impossible (and is impossible for him, should he attempt to achieve it). Despite her inflexible nature, Nyx seems more in sync with the universe than Darius, she seems to understand it in a way that he cannot.
It’s also telling that even Darius, that hard-bitten nihilist, finds himself repeating The Paratrooper’s Prayer when under stress.
The game, thankfully, does not attempt to answer any of these questions. But it asks them – I think that’s to be celebrated in a medium that tends to shy away from serious subjects in favour of the comparatively safe ground of wanton violence and murder.
But enough waxing lyrical. Let’s get to the numbers game – how does the game stack up on the 8 bit review? Let’s see.
The 8-bit review
There is almost no animation in Out There Chronicles, it’s mostly still artwork. But personally I think that’s a strength – the emphasis here is on the words; it’s a comic book, not a TV show with the sound off.
The artwork is also quite effective at conveying a lot of character information, which is essential when the word limit is so tight. The artist is particularly good at showing personalities through faces and feature design, take a look at these for example:
The biggest weakness though is that the artist almost entirely uses a single perspective, and that perspective is very bad at showing locations. When you’re shown a picture of a location, it feels like it’s a portrait where the subject has got bored and wandered off.
The music is also a highlight – eerie, lonely, isolating. It sets the tone without ever taking the spotlight. I found myself refusing to play this game if I couldn’t listen to the music, which says a lot.
I consider this the selling point of the game.
As stated above, the game deals with the topics of religion, faith and the place of man in the cosmos. Loneliness and isolation, which were so prominent in the original Out There, also feature quite heavily, although this time that particular theme is handled with much less subtlety.
Welcome to the future. Here everyone screws, eats and enjoys themselves, and you’re still all alone.
– Out There Chronicles, in one of its less subtle moments
This game’s narrative is pure pulp sci-fi. It even begins on a “paradise planet” for goodness sake.
But is it compelling? Yes. There’s a nice setup/payoff with Darius’ history, the setting and locations are interesting, the plot sets up a mystery (in fact several mysteries) but you’re left feeling confident that it’s going to payoff nicely. It’s quite tightly structured, which is essential for the format, and you’re left wanting to know how the story ends.
Put it this way – I’m keen to see what’s in store in the recently-released Episode Two.
This is not a subtle work. As you can see from the few passages reproduced above, its language tends towards the hyperbolic and its characters are simplistic stereotypes. But considering the limits of the format, it’s nothing short of astounding how much Mi-Clos is able to achieve with so little. Mi-Clos are extremely good in not only communicating their key points, but doing so in an engaging way with sharp brevity.
If you don’t like sci-fi then you don’t like this. It relies on some well-established sci-fi tropes and a large part of the joy is in learning about the world. If sci-fi worlds don’t interest you, then that’s hardly a selling point.
On the plus side, playing or finishing the original Out There is not necessary. This game is set in a completely different location with totally unrelated characters; it does not assume any prior knowledge.
I’m unaware of any other visual novels that so seamlessly spring from a video game. Or at least, no other examples that work so well.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I was quite chuffed by Out There Chronicles. Yes, it suffers from occasional trial-and-error puzzle sequences. No, it’s not going to win a nebula award.
But it’s an engaging story, interesting environment and most importantly, it (mostly) uses the game aspects of the medium to enhance the experience without overshadowing it.
If you like sci-fi, and particularly if you liked Out There, then I recommend this piece. It only takes a few hours and it’s quite cheap, so what have you got to lose?
Aggregated Score: 6.8
The Badly Backlogged Mage courageously fights a rearguard action against his unfortunate spending habits. You can follow his crusade at https://mrbacklog.wordpress.com/
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Categories: Game Review