My First Experience with Garry’s Mod

So, thanks to this year’s Steam Summer Sale, I’ve been able to better manage my budget and time for playing video games. Thus far, it’s included such purchases as The Shivah (wherein I play a rabbi trying to solve a murder mystery) and the much-acclaimed Garry’s Mod (wherein I wreak havoc on the physics of an open sandbox world).

It’s quite a pleasant world when you first appear, but really, that’s just an invitation to litter it with junk and blow up as many things as possible (or so depraved gamers like me think). First thing I want to do is get rid of my default old man avatar and try someone nicer. Like Chell from Portal 2, but with blue pants!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And oh look, you can summon an NPC like Alyx Vance! Except something must have gone wrong when I tried out the face poser controls because oh dear God that’s way too much mass and too many angles for a human face.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then one thing leads to another and you find that you can experiment with matching things together.

Exhibit A: a folding chair with wheels and a thruster. Goes nowhere, but it looks great! Kind of!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Exhibit B: a high-backed leather office chair… with wheels and a thruster. Better-looking than the first construct and about as operational (which is to say, not very).

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then the next thing you know, you’re tapping into user-created and pre-existing mods, and then you’re flying modified airboats across the maps, leaving devastation and brilliant colored vapor trails in your wake.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

I’ve got to say that I have some mixed feelings about these open sandbox games. I mean, I love the fact that I can go anywhere in a game environment instead of the pre-defined course from Game Start to Game Over. But on the other hand, having the whole world to yourself can be a little intimidating. When is it enough? How many hours do you want to spend trying to cobble together fantastic vehicles and buildings out of a million odd pieces when you could just be playing Half-Life 2 or any of the other Valve games that this mod was based on?

While it’d be easy to complain about camera angles and random glitches, I will say that Garry’s Mod ultimately leaves me feeling with an odd sense of satisfaction. I may not have gotten much done while I played it (at least, compared to other players), but I walk away knowing that I played and provoked my little virtual world for a few good hours and not a second more.

Which is a roundabout way of saying why I won’t ever be a Minecraft addict anytime soon. Plus, only in Garry’s Mod can you have endless fun blasting away watermelons with a Gravity Gun.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Garry’s Mod is available for download and purchase on Steam.

Update (8/1/2014): I’m taking a break for the rest of the month to focus on my job, catching up with old friends, and getting through my ever-growing list of shows to watch, games to play, and other forms of media that I’ll ultimately write a review for. See you all in September!

Bibliography: Garry’s Mod. Developed by Facepunch Studios. Published by Valve Corporation. Source (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux. Original release date: December 24, 2004.

Wander the Maze for Days: The Stanley Parable

Let me be perfectly clear: The Stanley Parable is not a game. It is an experience.

A tragic-comical, mind-bending, soul-crushing, sly-winking experience.

Originally developed as a Source engine mod by a gamer named Davey Wredren, The Stanley Parable has since become a proper high-defintion game released through the Valve Corporation. Its story is minimal at best and farcical at most.

Copyright 2013 by Galactic Cafe
A perfectly ordinary office… right? Copyright © 2013 by Galactic Cafe.

You play Stanley, a man working in an office. With the help of the Narrator, you navigate away from your job of pushing buttons on a computer and wander the abandoned office. From a pair of doors, you can either go on the “correct” path and have a short and heroic triumph against a faceless enemy in control of your life… or take the other door and see what kind of havoc you can wreak.

Never before have I played a game that made me feel so self-conscious. Every choice matters here because the developers have thought of everything a player might do. Activate cheats? The Narrator will call you out on it and put you in the Serious Room. Try to escape the “correct” ending after choosing the right door? Then prepare for a violent death every time. Keep restarting the game? Even the office layout will change on you, giving new options to screw around with the Narrator’s abused script and see what else lies in store. And so many random events you can trigger, just by restarting the game over and over. Phones ring out of nowhere, asking you about groceries and cardboard boxes. And the worst jump scare of all: when you glance out a window in the second office at a purely random playthrough… and see yourself walking by.

This is what happens when you try both the "Heaven" ending and the "facepunch" challenge. Copyright © 2013 by Galactic Cafe.
Dear God. This is what happens when you try both the “Heaven” ending and the “facepunch” challenge. Copyright © 2013 by Galactic Cafe.

This game wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if not for the fine voice acting of the Narrator, as played by Kevan Brighting. His dry British accent starts off as cold and detached, but it’s so much fun to mess around with the game, seeing what new emotions and confused reactions you can unlock with each new action. He’ll run the gamut from confused to upset to vengeful to ecstatic to sad and terrified. As much as you want to play around with the game and see what new textures or locations you can unlock, half the fun is trying to see what dialogue the developers thought to include with every single option—and there are dozens upon dozens of options.

One could argue that the Narrator in The Stanley Parable is simply a male version of GLaDOS, exerting control over the environment and taunting the player toward the appropriate actions. However, there are some clear differences. While GLaDOS is only interested in running tests for Science™,  the Narrator is far more humanized. He has dreams and hopes—all of which the player usually finds a way to dash by testing every little quirk the game has to offer. He’s both an ally and an antagonist, depending on how you play.

Around the third or fourth hour of gameplay, it occurred to me just how meta the whole experience was. My character, Stanley, spent his whole career sitting at a desk, pushing buttons based on an endless series of computer prompts. And while I’m trying to “outwit” the Narrator and do my own thing… all I’m doing in real-life is sitting at a desk, pushing buttons based on an endless series of computer prompts. In any other game, staring at a screen and sitting motionless would be considered a waste of time, but only in this game does it make sense. Because, after all, if you wait long enough, you just might get the super special extra secret ending that you read about on all the forums.

As a matter of fact, at the time of this writing, I’ve completed nearly every single possible ending for the game (I think the “Museum” and “Secret Disco” endings are my favorites). The only one I haven’t finished is the “Art” ending, because it requires you spend exactly four hours doing nothing but pushing the same two buttons over and over again. No scene changes, all in real-time, going through enough Narrator jokes before you reach the end. I suppose I could say I’m already spending hours pushing the same buttons for the sake of this game, but at least in all the other endings, I’m moving the game in new directions with every minute and not staring at the same image for hours on end, risking my health and the chance of total insanity for one last gag.

On the other hands, some gags are totally worth it. Copyright © 2013 by Galactic Cafe.
On the other hand, some gags are totally worth it. Copyright © 2013 by Galactic Cafe.

This is the best kind of commentary on video game culture I can think of. It’s not trying to be a self-referential FPS game, with big glowing arrows to mark “This is the Hero and This is the Villain!” It turns a camera right into the player’s face and asks “So why are you playing this game? What do you actually get out of this experience? Why not just hit ‘Esc’ and be done with it—?”

The Stanley Parable is available for purchase and download on Steam, with the demo available for free. The original mod is available at ModDB.

Bibliography: The Stanley Parable. Developed by Galactic Cafe. Original mod by Davey Wredren. Microsoft Windows, OS X. Original mod release date: July 27, 2011. Remake release dates: October 17, 2013; December 19, 2013.

Slip And Slide Through Dimensions: “Quantum Conundrum”

Copyright © 2012 by Airtight Games.

Rhapsodist Note: Taking a quick break from my Post-Cyberpunk short story reviews to touch on this recent release, especially since I don’t always get to talk about video games, which are of course a big deal on the Web.

I’m not normally a gamer.  My first real exposure to that world was Portal, which is fantastic, funny, and challenging in a good way.  I love how inventive I can be with portals and use physics to my advantage.  So, naturally, when I heard that one of the creative minds behind the Portal games, Kim Swift, was leaving Valve to develop her own game, I got interested.

The result was a puzzle platformer called Quantum Conundrum.  Is it good?  Yes.  Do I love it?  No.

Let me explain.

At first glance, this game seems a lot like an homage to Portal.  You play a faceless, nameless boy who must navigate a fantastically huge setting with multiple layers and deathtraps, armed only with a curious handheld device that lets you manipulate the local physics of your environment to solve puzzles that let you ascend to the next level.  All you need do is replace the voiceover by Ellen McLain as GLaDOS with John De Lancie as Professor Quadwrangle, the Enrichment Center with his mansion, and the portal gun with the dimension-shifting glove, and you’ve got this game in a nutshell.

I love the fluffy dimension in particular. It’s adorable, user-friendly, and provides for a lot of great aerial maneuvers when used on a spring platform. Copyright © 2012 by Airtight Games.

Again, this isn’t a slam against the game.  It still feels like a very complete work.  The puzzles themselves are rather inventive.  With access to a fluffy dimension, a heavy dimension, a slo-mo dimension, and a reverse gravity dimension, you can pretty much jump across great distances, beat timing challenges, weigh down platforms, and break through a surprising number of windows.  It’s very creative and catchy, much like the original Portal.

But here’s where I lost it: the timed puzzles.  The kind where you have to jump back and forth between two fast-moving conveyor belts to avoid getting burned by one-hit-kill lasers, with only an endless fatal fog below.  The kind where you must jump up high, catch a flying object, and toss it into a hole while cycling through fluffy and heavy dimensions just as quickly.  I know that timing is a standard part of any puzzle game, but I wasn’t a fan of them in the Portal series and I’m definitely not a fan of them here.

That being said, if you happen to be any good at timing puzzles, then kudos to you and I think you’ll have a blast with this game.  I would never want it said that I’d discourage anyone from being interested in this game because, on the whole, it is fun and Kim Swift has proven her worth as an independent creator just as much as she proved herself as a contributor at Valve.

 Bibliography: Quantum Conundrum.  Developed by Airtight Games.  Published by Square Enix.  Designed by Kim Swift.  Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360.  Release dates: June 21, 2012 (Steam), July 10, 2012 (PlayStation Network), July 11, 2012 (Xbox Live Arcade).

Science Can Be Fun Or Deadly, Take Your Pick: “Portal”

Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

I don’t normally play video games, but when I do… I prefer it to be something like Portal.

A first-person puzzle-platform game developed and released by Valve, Portal is perhaps the most fun I’ve had in a game.  It’s got inventive puzzles, a quirky soundtrack, great voice acting, and some of the most brilliant black humor I’ve ever heard.  I didn’t originally get into it when it first came out (having not done much in video gaming before), but after years of going through all the Internet memes about “there will be cake” and “thinking with portals”–not to mention a few strong testimonials from my gaming friends–I was finally convinced to play and downloaded a free copy through Valve’s delivery system, Steam.

The Story: So Much Science To Be Done!

You play the game as Chell, a protagonist with no backstory who wakes up inside the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, where you are promptly let loose into a world of bizarre and sometimes (okay, half the time) deadly tests.  The only way to beat some of these tests–and the AI running them, GLaDOS–is to both obey and break the laws of physics by the way of a handheld device that lets you shoot portals.

And occasionally, you’re promised cake if you succeed at all the tests, because who doesn’t love cake?

The Cast: The Player Vs. The World (As Run By A Lunatic AI)

No word yet on whether or not the Companion Cube counts as part of the cast. Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

The player character is Chell, a woman whose face we really don’t ever see (being in first-person view) and whose backstory we don’t really know except that she’s probably an employee of Aperture Science, where all the tests with the portal gun are being done.  Her only goal in this case is to succeed at the tests and survive both them and GLaDOS when things don’t go as planned toward the end.  She never speaks or gets moments to emote; she just goes through the tests and does her best (and by “her” best, I mean, the player’s).

GLaDOS is the AI running the tests.  She doesn’t appear in the flesh (so to speak) until the last part of the final level.  For the rest of the game, she’s just a voice on the loudspeakers in every test chamber, documenting your every move with sardonic wit and some very dark sensibilities along the lines of…

“The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.”

“The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Companion Cube cannot speak. In the event that the Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”

In contrast, around Level 16, you encounter the Turrets.  These plucky little military robots can’t move or turn on their own, but if they get you in their cross-hairs they will open fire and most likely kill the player in a heartbeat.  However, what offsets their lethal presence is the fact that they’re so gosh darn cheerful about their jobs, even to the point when knocking them over only warrants a response of “I don’t blame you…”

The Gameplay: Better Start Thinking With Portals

Copyright © 2007 by Valve Corporation.

The way you play is this game is the entire basis for its existence.  There’s no real plot beyond “Solve the puzzle, survive attempts on your life.”  But beyond that, the use of portals is spectacular.  For one thing, momentum isn’t lost when you travel through, so trying to clear a long distance or jump a barrier isn’t a problem once you know how to turn gravity and momentum into assets.  Timing is also crucial to this game, not so much on the time to complete each level but to starting one process via portals, then manipulating an entirely different process with a new set of portals in order to advance to the next stage.  It’s quite clever when you think about it, although I would also say it’s frustrating as hell.

But in a good way.  Seriously, even as I got frustrated trying to figure out some of the harder puzzles, I was still having some fun along the way and that’s a sign of good game development.

Final Verdict: High-Quality Testing For The Brain

This game is a challenge at times, but a worthy challenge at that.  It doesn’t have a giant cast of characters or a detailed story.  It’s just fun and creative and isn’t terribly long.  And while some might take exception, I love its dark sense of humor, which goes nicely with the brightly lit Test Chambers.  It both honors and mocks science, just as its honors and mock the ability to play this game.

Bibliography: Portal.  Developed by Valve Corporation.  Published by Valve Corporation and Microsoft Game Studios.  Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360.  Released on October 9, 2007.