Time and time again

The culprit: Braid (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, available through Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam, respectively)

What if you had made a terrible mistake? And what if you could manipulate time to rectify it? No, this isn’t Prince of Persia, but Braid, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed download-exclusive indie games to date. Initially available on XBLA, it has since found its way onto other platforms, thus becoming available to a wider audience. As such things often go, at first glance, it appears to be a simple platformer with a Castles in the sandchildish design and storyline. But if the game’s cover art, depicting a broken hourglass and a crumbling castle made from the spilled sand wasn’t indication enough, playing the actual game quickly reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it display treasures of ingenuity, but its plot also wanders off into distinctly non-childish territory, both wistful and ponderous. All in all, this is still one of the cleverest, most interesting games I have played, and I heartily recommend it.

The"There are some who call me..." game’s protagonist is Tim, a little red-haired fellow in a suit and tie who is trying to rescue a princess. If you did a double-take at the “suit and tie” part, you’d be on to something. The narrative, which consists of Tim’s memories and is presented in the form of short introductory texts before each of the game’s levels, is ambiguous on what the exact relationship between them was, but Tim appears to have made some kind of mistake which resulted in the loss of the princess, and would now like nothing more than to rectify it. This is all very vague, and, on a certain level, remains that way, were it not for several small clues interspersed within the texts which hint at a different kind of story behind Tim’s apparently disjointed musings and his strange quest.

The gameplay revolves around manipulating time by various means to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, some of which are deliciously tricky and require the ability to think outside the box, as well as a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Tim first appears "Our house, in the middle of our street"against an ominous backdrop of a burning city to eventually reach a quiet, night-time street and a house, which serves as the game’s hub. It contains six rooms, each with an empty picture frame and a door which leads to one of the game’s six levels. Each one of those is subdivided into several sub-levels, which contain puzzle pieces that Tim must collect, to then complete each picture frame. The last level is located in the attic and can only be reached by a ladder which gradually gains new segments as Tim clears the other levels.

Each level features a different time-related mechanic, which is reflected in its name. The first (which is actually number 2; you’ll understand why later on), called “Time and Forgiveness”, introduces the concept of rewinding time if Tim makes a mistake or plummets to his death, although you can also fast forward it when required. The second level is named “Time and Mystery” and introduces objects, outlined in sparkly green, which are unaffected by temporal manipulation (e.g. if Tim activates a green lever, it will remain activated even if he rewinds). These objects also reappear in later levels. “Time and Place”, the third level, links time to Tim’s movements: if he moves to the right, time moves forward, if he moves to the left, it Go ahead, I'm right behind ya...moves backwards. The fourth level, “Time and Decision”, introduces objects outlined in purple: whenever Tim rewinds time, his shadow will proceed to repeat his actions prior to the rewind and will be able to interact with the aforementioned purple objects. This effectively allows him to perform multiple actions at the same time. The fifth level, “Hesitance”, introduces a ring which, when dropped, will create a time-slowing bubble around itself: objects nearer to the centre of the bubble will move slower than objects nearer its perimeter. Finally, in the last level, simply titled “1”, time continuously flows backwards (meaning that rewinding makes it flow normally).

Pastoral symphonyVisually and aurally, the game is enchanting. Each level has its own atmosphere and beautifully rendered, vibrantly coloured, environments and backgrounds, which are somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh paintings. Each also has its own lovely musical theme, but both look and sound take a distinctly more sombre turn once you reach the final levels. This is also the second major clue as to the game’s most widely accepted interpretation. From then on, it’s very much a ‘so that’s what it was’ process.

You don't say...The game also contains some humorous references, including numerous callbacks to Super Mario Bros.: not only do the most common enemies in the game resemble goombas and piranha plants (and the former can be defeated by stomping on them), but the final sub-level of each level contains a small fortress with a flag, which rises as Tim reaches it, as well as a small, Where's the Holy Hand Grenade when you need it?plushy-looking dinosaur which informs him that the princess is in another castle. Apart from that, another commonly-encountered enemy in the game is almost a dead ringer for the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether Tim’s name isn’t another reference to that film…

Somewhat uncommonly by download-exclusive game standards, Braid has also put some real effort into optional goals. Some of the game’s levels contain hidden areas, accessing which rewards Tim with a star (yet another Super Mario Bros. reference). There are eight stars in total; one of them can be missed if you complete the picture-frame puzzle for the corresponding level before obtaining it, and another one requires obtaining an alternate ending for the game (which isn’t as satisfying as the normal one). "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"Each new star is added to the Andromeda constellation, which hangs above the entrance to the house in the hub level. Tim can look up at it to check his progress, and once all stars have been collected, it will slightly change its appearance, all in coherence with the game’s themes. And if that wasn’t enough, when you’ve finished the game once, a speedrun mode becomes available, netting you an achievement if you manage to complete one in less than 45 minutes.

There are very few genuine gripes I have with Braid. The major one would probably be the fact the game autosaves your progress, but does so on a single save file. Meaning that, should you fail to obtain the aforementioned missable star, for example, you would have to restart a brand new game to do so. It also means that the speedrun must be achieved in a single sitting and that, should you make a major mistake somewhere, say, in level six, you’d have to restart all the way from the beginning as well. I don’t think I need to tell you how aggravating that can be. Another gripe would be that another one of the stars takes an unnecessarily long amount of time (almost two hours simply waiting!) to obtain. Some people have also complained that the game was too short. Obviously, when you’ve cleared it once and are practicing for a speedrun, it may, On fireindeed, seem like it whisks by in no time. Although, if it’s your first playthrough, and you’re racking your brain to figure out a puzzle, but also taking time to admire the artwork and music, chances are you won’t have that impression. Bottom line: do give this little gem a try, it’s well worth it.

He should’ve listened to his old man

The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)

That can't be good...It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.

Cursed legacyPenumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, Dude...BEHIND YOU!but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.

The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would I sure hope these beams are safefeel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully Where's the cleaning crew when you need it?executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.

Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes The bare necessitiessome getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.

The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile Now would be a good time to...RUN!creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.

Gives a whole new meaning to weight-liftingAnother part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.

Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I Do I really have to go this way...?shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.

Saving Neverland

The culprit: Myst (PC, Mac, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS)

Myst was a surprise to everyone when it saw the light of day in 1993: to the public, who didn’t expect such a unique experience, to the industry and critics, who were baffled at how what was essentially an “image slideshow” could garner such success, and to its developers, who certainly didn’t expect their offering to become the best-selling PC game for almost 10 years, up until 2002.

To this day, the Myst saga remains one of the most famous and iconic game series, despite having seen its last instalment in 2005. With its characteristic style and atmosphere, which has since been widely copied, its intelligent, inventive and organically integrated puzzles, its trademark gameplay feature of books literally whisking the player off to different worlds (or ages, as the game calls them)–a smart and rather poetic metaphor for imagination–, and its storyline, bolstered by three books published in parallel to the games, which uses the fate of one family as a stepping-stone to explore the history and heritage of an entire civilisation, it stands tall among other adventure games. I’ll even take it one step further: this is my favourite game series, full stop. The name of this website should be ample evidence of that. So unless you’re 120% certain that the premise will not work for you, I’d urge you to give it a try.

If there was one word to define the entire saga, it would be ‘immersive’. No other game has given me the impression of ‘being there’ quite like this, made me wonder whether it would be warm or cold, how the breeze would feel, what the texture of the stone would be or what the plants would smell like. It’s a rare occurrence when the environment is so beautifully crafted that you’d simply be happy to walk around and take in the sights for a while. Everything conspires to engage your senses, pique your curiosity, encourage you to explore every nook and cranny to try to ferret out clues, and stimulate both your intellect and imagination. Obviously, if you’re expecting action, shootouts, acrobatics…or even lots of dialogue, you will be disappointed. This is an eminently solitary, contemplative, atmospheric and slow-paced experience, designed to make you think, feel and piece things together at your own rhythm. But then, the human mind is a wonderful tool, and when that is being put to work, beautiful things can happen. This is clearly what the developers were banking on, and, in my opinion, they’ve definitely succeeded.

Still, objectively speaking, the first game is far from being perfect, especially in its original form. In comparison to its successors, the graphics are dated, the scope feels fairly limited, the puzzles are rather simple, the age names are throwaway, and the ending is comparable to a wet firecracker. This is all a first-comer’s prerogative, however, as the subsequent entries in the series clearly try to address these issues (and mostly succeed). A remake titled RealMyst was released in 2000, and while it only addressed graphical and interface issues, it did so remarkably well. It was a bit of a chore for most computers to run, back in the day, but it should no longer be a concern: in other words, I highly recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.