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Character Design 101: Break Clichés Like Tana French

3 Dublin MS Novels
French saved me from mystery genre burnout.

I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.

One of the writers who's best captured my attention - and held it - is Tana French.

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Other images this page, source: www.tanafrench.com

When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds - yes, hundreds - of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of writing my own mystery series - the Dreamslippers - inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.

But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning opening paragraph, I was hooked:

In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.

Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.

However, I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy. 

Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.

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The debut novel in the series - In the Woods - follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon - it deserves five! - it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.

These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:

Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.

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Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:

Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.

Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.

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Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief - she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love - Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other. 

The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves - Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah - and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.

If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.

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Tana French.

Note: This post previously appeared on Cat in the Flock.


The Council: An Unappealing Game You Should Be Playing

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Tamsen Reed here with a review/narrative design analysis.

“It’s a really good game if you can ignore the visuals. And the voice acting. Plus, the dialogue is bad, too.”

My complex love affair with narrative role-playing game The Council has become something of a joke among my peers and friends. I’ll admit that my protestations may sound somewhat ridiculous.

Maybe it’s not a strong endorsement for The Council, an episodic RPG from Bordeaux-based Big Bad Wolf Studio. I don’t believe in misleading people. There’s a LOT you have to ignore in order to enjoy it. This game evokes so many mixed emotions that I can’t truly be sure if I hate it or if I love it.

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The PC is confronted by Cardinal Piaggi right as he enters the mansion. We can’t use the Diversion or Science dialogue options, as we haven’t unlocked them yet.

Yet, The Council succeeds because of its innovative use of RPG elements in a narrative-focused game. It makes for arguably a more interesting experience than is offered by most point-and-click adventures or Telltale Games. You play as Louis de Richet, a multitalented secret society member. As Louis, you navigate a 3D environment to solve puzzles and explore a mysterious island in the midst of a political meeting to find your missing mother.

Louis de Richet has a great many possible skills and talents, which are separated into three skill trees. Near the beginning of the game, you select one of the skill trees as your class: Diplomat, Occultist, or Detective. This gives you a baseline set of skills to start out with. As you complete chapters, the game alerts you to your successes, your failures, and ultimate paths you could’ve chosen. Each chapter earns you experience points that allow you to level up skills.

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Near the beginning of the game, you choose your occupation. This unlocks an entire tree of skills for you to draw on as Louis de Richet.

These skills prove quite useful in the main gameplay, where you manipulate political figures and investigate your surroundings in order to locate your missing mother. Each NPC has immunities and vulnerabilities to different skills. For example, in conversations with Napoleon Bonaparte, he may be immune to the Conviction and Politics skills, while he might be exploited by using Etiquette. The skills you select affect which dialogue options are available to you.  

Frequently, a character might approach you in a Confrontation—a high-stakes battle of wits where you have a limited number of mistakes you can make. In these player-vs.-NPC encounters, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents is vital. If you choose incorrectly and fail the confrontation, the consequences are tangible and, sometimes, quite harsh.  

Your skills also may assist you in uncovering clues and solving puzzles around the island. If you get stuck and need a hint, you can spend some of your limited effort points (which replenish at the end of each chapter) in order to use de Richet’s experience to give you, the player, some helpful information.

It is a game with high expectations when it comes to the player's intellectual capabilities. The only way to succeed is to thoroughly explore your environments and to think critically about the clues you uncover—though, for a game with such difficult puzzles, sometimes understanding its dialogue poses even more of a challenge.

I imagine that, in its native French language, the dialogue reads wonderfully. In the English version, there’s a laundry list of issues, the biggest of which is just awkward and clunky text that is frequently phrased in a stilted manner. A lot of the biggest offenders of this type seem to figure in Louis’s internal monologue, where he has such thoughts as:

“I absolutely need to find you, Mother”

“And if I can believe my vision, you don’t have much of a place in her heart”

“For crying out loud, why did you hide supplies in the middle of nowhere, Mother?”

Another issue is text that did not seem to be localized in any way, shape, or form. Localization, for anyone who may not know, is the process of editing text to make it more natural and logical for native speakers. It’s frequently text that’s been translated into English from other languages; however, localization may also occur if you have text native to the UK that you’d like to present to U.S. players. It’s an important process, seeing as unfamiliar and confusing slang may be immersion-breaking.

Another issue in The Council is the anachronistic language. It’s scattered throughout the game and tends to undermine the historical feel. Now, writing period pieces can be extremely difficult, and there is definitely room for some light anachronism, in my opinion. It disrupts the player’s immersion when, in a story that takes place in the 18th century, the main character says, “Pull yourself together, man.” Unfortunately, the quality of the voice acting sometimes draws even more attention to awkward phrasing and anachronisms.

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Throughout the game, you get to choose which path to follow. These choices carry quite a bit of weight, and most of the paths diverge quite drastically.

The tragic part is that most of the side characters are voiced reasonably well. The accents are fine, the dialogue seems believable, and the voice actors themselves seem to have changed the text in order to speak more naturally (which is evident in mismatches between the subtitles and the voice acting).

The main character is not handled quite as skillfully. For some reason, the choice was made to use an American actor who does not put on any sort of accent for his character (a Frenchman, born in Paris). It’s not just that they cast someone with an American accent… They cast a man who speaks in a whiney, Californian form of iambic pentameter. It’s what I’d imagine a production of Hamlet to be like if a casting director ever made the grave mistake of putting Hayden Christensen in the title role.

In my gaming experience, I’ve found that convincing acting can make up for mediocre dialogue. Wonderful writing can distract from a so-so performance. But to have awkward writing paired with unconvincing acting? Ouch.

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Gregory Holm, just one character who exemplifies the strange (and creepy) animation used throughout the game.

It’s an absolute tragedy that a game with such an intriguing story and incredibly innovative mechanics is so unappealing to two of the senses. Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend this game to anyone with a vested interest in how narrative games are evolving and what they’ll look like in the future. Playing it has been a valuable experience, and, despite its writing flaws, the game has a logical flow and tells a very compelling, original story.

In short, the animation style may be uncomfortable, the dialogue could use additional localization to sound more passable to native speakers, and the voice acting sometimes makes me want to use steel wool as earplugs…

… but it’s also incredibly well-designed from a gameplay standpoint. With puzzles that truly challenge the player, sleek UI and menus, and a leveling system that affects how your player tackles verbal confrontations, this game is simply one that should not be ignored.


Game Review: Who Killed Jason Leder? On 'Lifeline: Crisis Line'

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The "cover," or loading screen.

Junior Writer/Designer Dexter Woltman here with a game review for you. At Brunette Games, we're all big fans of the Lifeline game series, so I thought I'd take a moment to review Crisis Line. If you love the mystery genre, you should definitely check it out.

Who killed Jason Leder? That’s the question everyone is asking in Lifeline: Crisis Line, a game of interactive fiction that allows the player to shape the story as it unfolds. Written by Matthew Sturges, this mobile game sets the player in the position of a HelpText volunteer. After being contacted by Austin homicide detective Alex Esposito, the player is asked to assist in a murder investigation, one that spins a tale of suspense, mystery, and unexplainable circumstances.

Crisis Line is one of numerous installments in Big Fish’s Lifeline series, where players are put in contact with well-developed characters facing dangerous situations in real-time. Previously on the blog, Lisa conducted an interview with Dave Justus, the author of the original Lifeline installment and its various sequels, Lifeline 2: Bloodline, Lifeline: Silent Night, and Lifeline: Halfway to Infinity. This installment set squarely in the mystery genre proves the series has legs far beyond its first author.

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Your chat companion this time is Alex Esposito, a detective who unofficially deputizes the player into becoming his partner on a murder investigation. The victim is Jason Leder, a lawyer who had recently been put in charge of selling mysterious crystals with unexplainable powers. With the crystals missing and no suspects, it’s up to the player to help Alex progress through the investigation and solve the case.

While the original Lifeline story put players in contact with a stranded astronaut on a desolate moon, Lifeline: Crisis Line finds its main character in a less isolated environment, on the streets of Austin. With a populated setting and numerous characters for Alex to interact with, it feels as if there’s more to this world than just the player and the main character. In addition, the concept of Lifeline: Crisis Line also takes a different format. Rather than just trying to survive, as in the original game, in this one, players try to solve a murder. This allows the opportunity to choose which clues and suspects to follow, as well as orchestrate numerous interrogations and interviews with other interesting characters.

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However, with this expansion also comes a greater suspension of disbelief. Despite taking place in a more realistic setting than other games in the series, such as the original game’s desolate moon or Lifeline: Whiteout 2’s nuclear wasteland, it can be harder to accept that the player has been put in communication with Alex Esposito. In the populated streets of Austin, Alex could talk with anyone. There are several other people at his immediate disposal, from an official partner at the police station to his own sisters. The game puts a lot of emphasis on Alex’s career and his dedication to the law, yet he blatantly obstructs confidentiality to talk about private details regarding a murder case to a complete stranger on HelpText. However, there's a clever acknowledgement of this, with Alex sarcastically mentioning, “Usually I only open up to strangers on the Internet,” when talking about his difficulties with trust.

One core aspect of Lifeline: Crisis Line is its emphasis on choices. In this regard, Lifeline: Crisis Line is a triumph. In most situations, the choices the player is left to make truly do impact the game's story. There are only a few instances where choices feel irrelevant, such as Alex disagreeing with the player on whether to add Jason Leder’s wife to the suspect list, regardless of which choice the player actually makes. However, most of the time, the choices do feel relevant. Not only can the player make choices that determine Alex's survival, but the player can also frame choices regarding clues and suspects, all which play heavily into the ultimate goal of the game, which is to solve Jason Leder's murder. Depending on the player’s eagerness to explore or willingness to put Alex’s life in danger, it may be a lot easier - or more difficult - to reach that goal.

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The choices also allow the player to shape what kind of detective Alex Esposito is. One prime example is when Alex is interviewing a close confidant of Jason Leder. This confidant, truly heartbroken by Jason’s death, is presented in a very fragile state. It is up to the player to decide whether Alex should tell the truth about the gruesome reality of Jason’s death or instead tell the confidant that it was quick and painless, ultimately weighing emotion against duty. Situations like this are presented frequently throughout the game, allowing various opportunities to discover which manner of detective work is best needed for each encounter.

The choices presented give players the opportunity to shape the game according to their own needs. One example is when Alex describes the details of the murder to the player and asks whether the player wants him to leave the gory details out of his description. Ultimately, this allows players to filter the game to their own sensitivities. There are also choices that allow players to either stay focused on the main story or allow it to be derailed at moments to explore the depth of Alex’s character. It entirely depends on player choice.

One distingquishing aspect of gameplay for Lifeline: Crisis Line is its “idle” time. Idle times are moments in the game when Alex is occupied with something and is away from the conversation, intending to immerse the player in a real-world environment. In the aforementioned interview, Justus remarked, “The ‘idle' time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit.” Sturges upholds this aspect of idle time to good effect, often having Alex take breaks from HelpText to rest or drive. These idle times are also presented realistically, with one example being a drive taking 30 minutes instead of 15 due to traffic.

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Idle times also present players with opportunities to take a break from the game without becoming overly addicted. However, it should be noted that the game does also offer a “Fast Mode,” which skips the idle times entirely. But as Justus points out in relation to the original Lifeline game, “What we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of players chose to switch back to ‘real-time’ after trying ‘fast’ mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.” It is true that playing in real-time does add a greater sense of depth to the story that makes it seem more vibrant and present in everyday life.

Further mechanics of the game also include the ability to rewind the story to previous choices and re-make them. For players curious about all the possible branches for each choice, this feature will be welcome. It also allows players the opportunity to go backwards in the story if they reach an untimely situation in which a choice has led to Alex’s death.

However, this also means that the makers of the game were aware of this feature and thus, more willing to create intense situations with a lot of potential for failure. At several points in the game, Alex finds himself stuck in a difficult encounter where every choice seems to lead to death, truly forcing the player to double back and examine the outcomes of each potential choice. While this may become infuriating at times, it does succeed in demonstrating the danger and high stakes of this particular murder case.

 Justus laid a lot of groundwork for the Lifeline series, especially regarding the Greens, an alien species often referred to as “Occupiers” that like to take host in living bodies and assume control of the body’s mind. The Greens are a primary focus throughout the series, with Lifeline: Crisis Line even being labelled as part of the “Green Series.” In most cases, the story of Lifeline: Crisis Line stands on its own. However, there are multiple instances where Sturges works to connect Alex’s murder investigation with the Greens. It’s not necessary to have played the other games to understand these moments of the story, but these instances do take prominence and often distract from the ultimate goal of solving the investigation.

The presence of the Greens in Alex Esposito’s story is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nice for the game to reference other games in the series and maintain an overall narrative in the Lifeline universe. On the other hand, this alien story often distracts the player from the more grounded story of discovering who killed Jason Leder. Just when the game is cementing an emotional connection between Alex and the player, an alien shows up and traps Alex in a space-like realm, entirely withdrawing the player from the immersion of what should be the focus of the game. The aliens add a touch of surprise to the story, but it’s not necessarily the kind of surprise the game needs.

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Source, all images: 3 Minute Games.

The Greens distract from the main thread up until the ending moments of the game, which itself is a weak point to an otherwise fulfilling adventure. Without giving away any spoilers, the endgame does a great job of making players feel accomplished in their investigation of Jason Leder’s murder. However, the fault comes in the game’s very last moments, where even the best achievable ending of the game leaves Alex in an uncertain fate, ending on a cliffhanger that sets up a sequel that has yet to be seen. Even though HelpText assures the player they did the best they possibly could, certain players may not be able to help but feel their efforts less impactful than in other games in the series.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is a well-woven tale of mystery and suspense. Its main character is very well-developed and sure to entertain the player throughout the entirety of the story. Sturges takes the Lifeline formula and applies it to a new environment, cementing the player in a deep murder investigation that breathes new life into the series with a strong narrative and solid framework of mechanics. In addition, Sturges proves he can respect the original writer’s legacy by establishing the Greens as a factor in the story. While this factor may seem overly distracting to some players, others may appreciate its deep ties to the rest of the series. Ultimately, the promise of Lifeline: Crisis Line is to engage players in a choice-driven, real-time story. Not only does it succeed in this promise, but it may even surprise players with its extraordinary depth and numerous twists. All in all, this is an entertaining game with more strengths than weaknesses. However, the only choice that truly matters in Lifeline: Crisis Line is whether you’ll allow it the chance to entertain you as well.

Lifeline: Crisis Line is available now on the App Store and Google Play. It was developed by 3 Minute Games and published by Big Fish.

Full disclosure: Lisa Brunette is former manager of the narrative design team at Big Fish. She consulted on Lifeline: Whiteout.

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What a Blast! A Review of '60 Seconds!' and '60 Parsecs!'


What a Blast! A Review of '60 Seconds!' and '60 Parsecs!'

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Title art. Image courtesy of Robot Gentleman.

Is 60 seconds enough time to prepare for a nuclear apocalypse? Polish indie developer Robot Gentleman tries to give players the tools to answer that question—but you'll have to choose between saving your daughter and saving three cans of soup. 60 Seconds! is a dark comedy atomic adventure game that puts players in the role of a suburban dad. Much like the title suggests, players have 60 seconds to collect as much supplies from their homes as they can and evacuate to an underground bunker before an incoming nuke hits the ground. It’s a dark-humored game that contains interesting mechanics, unique characters, and plenty of groundwork for its follow-up, 60 Parsecs!

60 Seconds! opens with a fascinating blend of apocalyptic music and flashy animations. It’s a title sequence with multiple variations, all which fit the mood of the game quite well. The fun only continues from there in the tutorial, where a strict, yet humorous military general commands players through the basic mechanics of the game. Essentially, players have 60 whole seconds to run around their house and grab as much as they can. Players only have four open inventory spots, meaning that they have to make multiple trips from the entrance of their bunker to the rest of the house. One minute might not seem like a lot of time, but like the military general assures, it’s a very advanced warning system.

The intro sequence gets harder when certain objects take up more inventory space than others. A can of soup or bottle of water only takes up one space, but the gun on the wall takes up double. There’s also the factor of family members. Players, being put in the role of the dad, can choose to save their wife, daughter, or son. They can take all of them, take some, or leave them all to die in the blast. One might think it’s an easy choice, but that’s just more food players have to share. Plus, choosing to grab a family member means players have less inventory space to grab other things. Those three cans of soup could ensure survival for at least a few days, and the overweight daughter and her tuba might become a burden.

The opening sequence is fun in the way that players have to make a lot of quick-second decisions. However, the game also finds itself burdened by clunky controls. Moving around the house feels particularly awkward, and the constant maneuvering around random barricades certainly doesn’t help. This may easily frustrate players, and when they only have 60 seconds, every step counts. The animations for this part of the game also don’t suit the rest of the experience, subverting to 3D graphics over the rest of the game’s 2D visuals. It puts a damper on immersion and breaks consistency between different parts of the game. Players might even choose to play a different game mode where they start in the bunker with a randomized selection of supplies, just so they can skip this clunky first part. On the bright side, however, if players do choose to stick around for this first section of gameplay, the house randomizes its layout every playthrough, making sure memorization is never an unfair advantage.

Once the timer counts down, and the players are safe in their bunker, the real fun begins. Playing out on a day-to-day cycle, players get to watch their family slowly descend into madness as randomized events determine their future. It’s a bit awkward at first. When players start the game, they’re put in the role of the dad. However, once the players get into the bunker, it really doesn’t matter, seeing as how they now have control over the entire family. Despite this, what follows is still a lot of fun. Going forward, it’s up to the player to ration the family’s food supply, make important decisions, and send family members out on scavenging runs. There’s also a daily journal that keeps players updated on events and the family members’ thoughts and feelings. The best way to describe this part of the game is with only one word: hilarious. Does the player want to grow a mutant fern, worship a bunch of cats, eat his kid’s hamster, explore a crashed spaceship, play with a sock puppet, or all of the above? Just when you think you've seen it all, your daughter mutates into a giant purple monster and beats up a gang of raiders. It’s always entertaining, and always wildly unpredictable.

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Screenshot of gameplay, inside the bunker.

The bunker survival is definitely the meat of the game. Not only do each of the different characters play out their own stories in surprising ways, but the game is riddled with funny visuals that let the player know just how much their families have descended into madness. Day by day, players can watch as characters physically degrade, their eyes growing weaker and their faces going paler. Players will even see odd, yet disturbingly cute pictures being drawn on the pages of the daily journal. This part of the game also keeps great track of your collected items, letting players know when family members need food or water. It also tells players what items can be used in certain events, as well as what items could have saved them if they had only chosen to grab that from the house instead of their tenth can of soup.

The only major struggle with the bunker portion of the game is a clear end goal, at least in terms of story. There are hints dropped along the way that certain endings might happen, but the game makes itself so wildly unpredictable that finding a clear pathway can sometimes be tough. There also isn’t much given between the family members themselves. Players might think the mom character would be upset when they choose to leave the daughter behind, but the mom could hardly bat an eye. While there’s plenty of conflict in the world, characters have little conflict between each other, which is a bit of a missed opportunity when such diverse family members are thrown in an underground bunker together with zero privacy.

Despite the missed potential in story, the game does still propose an interesting conspiracy. Sprinkled throughout the game are clues about "Astrocitizens," people that may just have survived the atomic blasts from the far reaches of space. Did these people abandon Earth, or steal its supplies? All this theorizing finally pays off when it gets to 60 Parsecs!, the thrilling space-bound sequel to 60 Seconds!

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Title art. Image courtesy Robot Gentleman.

60 Parsecs! takes the formula of the first game, gives it a new setting, and fixes a lot of problems along the way. It starts with the very Astrocitizens themselves. Living on a space station in the orbit of Earth, players, now in the role of space captain, have only a minute to grab their crew and flee to the escape pod before nuclear devastation contaminates the Earth and erupts the station. From there, it’s up to players to pilot their crew across the galaxy and find a new home. Only, it’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that simple to begin with!

The first major difference with 60 Parsecs! is that players are now free to choose which character they want to play as. Rather than be forced to play as the suburban dad, they can choose to be either a male or female space captain. The captains, as well as the rest of the crew members, also vary in their races and ages, bringing some much-needed diversity to the series. Also, this game always makes it clear who the player character is. Unlike the first game, player characters can’t be sent on scavenging runs. As captains of their crews, it’s up to them to stay back and make sure everything on the ship remains operational. It brings a new level of immersion to the game now that players know it’s their character that is always making the decisions.

If 60 Seconds! does a fairly good job randomizing events to keep each playthrough fresh, 60 Parsecs! does a spectacular job. Not only is there an assortment of diverse crew members to take along on your journey, there’s also several different alien planets you can end up on, none of which are doing any better than Earth and its nuclear apocalypse. So, while one playthrough has players on a ravaged, stormy planet, another has them on a robot alien homeworld. And, as expected, each planet has its own assortment of events. For example, if players find themselves on the ravaged, stormy planet, they’ll also find themselves dealing with two alien groups battling for power. Because there are so many different scenarios that can play out, there’s also a lot of different endings. Much like the first game, some of these endings are good, some are okay, and some are downright horrible. It’s that diverse experience that keeps players always coming back for more.

With all the different planets and scenarios, there’s also a lot more story. Unlike the first game, the goals are more clear. Each planet seems to have a different main event line that gives players a clear end goal. This end goal takes a while to achieve, but it gives players something grounded to work towards. There’s also the aspect of crew members. Unlike in the first game, the different crew members must deal with conflict between them. Some of them might grow to hate each other, and others might grow to love each other. This also carries into the player character. Players might often find themselves with a crew member that has fallen in love with them, or a crew member that no longer wants to be their friend. So, even with the unknown dangers of space lying just outside, there’s still a lot of conflict going on inside the ship.

60 Parsecs! also fixes arguably the largest issue in 60 Seconds!, which is the awkwardness of the opening scavenging portion of the game. Like mentioned before, 60 Seconds! has the players running around their homes grabbing supplies in the first part of the game, a segment often weighed down by clunky controls and an odd 3D landscape. This segment always worked on a basic scale, but 60 Parsecs! improves it in many ways. To start, it switches the graphics from 3D to 2D. Not only does this make running around a lot cleaner, but it also keeps this portion of the game more consistent with the rest. The animations and graphics match the remaining parts of the game, allowing the entire experience to be more immersive. In addition, the new 2D layout makes the controls a lot smoother. Running around is no longer a frustration of walls and rooms, but rather a coast from one part of the space station to the other.

60 Parsecs! also changes up a lot of the base mechanics from the original game. Now the player has the option to romanticize and befriend other characters, allowing for a more personalized experience. It also includes a crafting machine, making sure players still have a way to get that one important item they may have forgotten on the space station 30 days ago. There’s also still the option to send characters out on scavenging runs. Only this time, players can choose exact locations to send them to, letting them weigh the risks and rewards of each area. It also adds more to the story, making it exciting and interesting whenever a new scavenging location is discovered.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 3.44.09 PM
Screenshot of gameplay, inside the ship.

The only base mechanic in the sequel that seems to have been changed for the worse is rationing. In 60 Parsecs!, players no longer have to care about rationing water. However, instead of one can of soup feeding a family of four for an entire day, like in the original, each crew member will eat his or her own entire can of soup each day. The game tells the player that each can of soup will last an individual crew member for several days, but, despite this, those characters can still be labelled as hungry just one day after feeding them. The revised menu system, although still an overall improvement over the original, also fails to let players know how many cans of soup they have left in a more convenient way. Despite all this, the soup humor in the game remains strong. Cans of soup can be found all across a multitude of planets, and even the captain will question how tomato soup is so universally widespread.

Speaking of humor, that’s yet another thing 60 Parsecs! amps up over the original. With all the different types of planets and aliens, there’s so much more potential for comedic encounters. One of the best examples that comes to mind is the Dancelord aliens, who abduct the captain and challenge him or her to an intense dance-off! There’s also the new journal system, which is actually a computer with a humorous mind of its own. And it would be a crime not to mention the ancient alien cow relic, which only raises even more conspiracy theories about the game and its wacky world.

Overall, 60 Parsecs! is definitely a worthy successor to 60 Seconds! Robot Gentleman did a great job of creating a series that combines simple gameplay with over-the-top humor and dangerous apocalyptic scenarios. While the first game explores life after a nuclear fallout, the second game journeys into the far reaches of space, diversifying the experience of each game in a multitude of ways. 60 Parsecs! also realizes the pitfalls of the first game, adding more diversity, smoother mechanics, and deeper story content. Really, the only question left is where possibly Robot Gentleman will take the series next. Give the games a try yourself, and you may be excitedly asking yourself the same question.

60 Seconds! Purchase Links:

Steam

Humble

Nintendo eShop

App Store

Google Play

60 Parsecs! Purchase Links:

Steam

Humble

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