Saturday, April 22, 2023

"Coffee Talk 2": First Impressions

It's a clear sign that I'm getting soft in my old age (or, rather, my thirties) that Opinions Can Be Wrong has become a place where I'm not using my increasingly infrequent posts ranting about how my favourite childhood TV shows have been revived badly or how stupid people on the internet are and am instead waxing sentimental about characters in an Indonesian visual novel. Coffee Talk, by Toge Productions, which released in 2020 and which I played in early 2021, is one of my favourite games of the last couple of years. That's probably for two reasons; one was that it was a game about going out and meeting people that I, like lot of people, first played during the isolation periods of the Covid-19 pandemic. The other is probably that a number of the characters were regulars, and one was a writer who came to the titular coffee shop to write fiction, just like I used to when I was a regular at a Sydney bar that closed when the pandemic began. Coffee Talk is a visual novel about making drinks for the customers in an urban fantasy Seattle that come to your late-night café, chatting to them and listening as they chat to each other. You have no control over what your character says: this isn't an adventure game or an RPG. You only have control over what drinks you serve them. Serve the right drinks and you might make their lives a little better and make it easier for them to communicate with each other. Throw in pleasing pixel art, ear-catching lo-fi music and a generally relaxing tone and, while the writing occasionally came across as a little naïve, the atmosphere was practically perfect for what it was trying to be.
It felt natural that there should be a sequel to Coffee Talk. It's the kind of premise that could be continued more or less indefinitely, with characters coming and going. I think for a long time there'll be places where people looking for good drinks and good conversation will go to spend a little while. Thus it wasn't too much of a surprise when Toge announced in mid-2021 that the game would have a sequel. Since then I was waiting patiently but with fairly constant anticipation, as the game was delayed from a 2022 release to 2023 and the Indonesian game development scene was shaken by the untimely death of Mohammad Fahmi, the first game's creator. I played the Coffee Talk 2 demo when it came out, searched in vain for whether anyone had uploaded the trailer and demo's lo-fi rendition of a classic Erik Satie piece anywhere, and wishlisted the game when its "Coming Soon" page went up on Steam. When the day finally arrived, after initially thinking "I'm not sure I'm actually excited", I found myself counting down the hours for it to release.

So far I'm four hours into Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus and Butterfly, and I think I'm about halfway through the game. However, I don't want to wait until I've finished the game to get some thoughts down, and I don't want to rush through it. One thing I noticed fairly early on is that while the visuals are still of the same style, and the music is by the same artist, and still excellent, something felt a little different. Coffee Talk 2 doesn't have the same writing team as the first game; this is, apparently, unrelated to the passing of the original creator, who from what I've read had not been closely involved in the sequel's development. While many of the characters' voices are brought over very well, and largely feel like an evolution of who they were before, it does feel different. The barista player character, in particular, feels a lot more bubbly and a lot less uptight than in the first game, and there's a rather more frequent use of exclamation marks in the dialogue which, for a game without voice acting, rather affects the tone.

This, as it turns out, isn't a bad thing. I have to admit that there was a point on one of the game's early days, the third I think, in which the game came close to losing me, when it was focused on the new character Amanda, the extraterrestrial sibling of the fan-favourite alien character Neil from the first game, who now calls himself Silver. This almost seemed too much like fan fiction of the first game to me, too much of a "wouldn't it be funny if this happened next." However, the game quickly won me back when on the next day it drew a little attention to the slight change in the characters' voices, intentionally or otherwise, and generally I think it feels as if the characters' continuation makes sense from where they were at the end of the first game, and that the new writers cared about the first game's characters (if, sometimes, a little too much, throwing in a few too many nods to continuity).
The one thing that really stands out is the absence of Freya, the main regular from the first game, who is said at the start of this sequel to be out of town. Freya was by far my favourite character in the first game, probably because she reminded me a bit of myself. I know from the trailers that she shows up at some point (I'm guessing she'll come back from her trip on the final day), and she's still the first character to appear when you start up "Endless Mode" to experiment with making drinks, so I recognise her absence, as conspicuous as it is, to be an intentional device, and one that was probably necessary to give this game a bit of a different feeling. As such, ultimately I think this was an effective choice on the part of the writers. Freya was such a major presence in the first game that she almost had to be moved to the peripheries here in order to create space for some new stories. In this regard, however, it's worth noting that the game will probably make a lot more sense to people who have played the first game, as almost every character from the original shows up in the sequel and there are actually only a few new faces.

So far I think Coffee Talk 2 is a decent sequel. By its nature it can't be as fresh as the first, and at times the writing isn't always entirely a natural continuation of the original game, but it's doing a pretty good job so far. Back in 2021 I tried to write a review of the first game that I never published because I felt like I was unable to say anything that other reviews hadn't already said. Perhaps after this I'll see if it's worth doing any kind of holistic retrospective on the two games and the general idea of a sequel written by new authors. In the meantime, I think I have a good few hours of Coffee Talk 2 to go, and I have to say if anything it's just nice where I don't feel like I have to force myself to pace myself but nor do I feel unmotivated to play a little more each day. So far it's all pouring out quite smoothly.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Hindsight: A 2021 Cinematic Retrospective

Due to a combination of lockdowns and apathy I barely watched any new films in 2021, so perhaps for the first time ever for that year the list of films I didn't see vastly outnumbers the list of films I did.

Didn't see:

Willy's Wonderland

I think I wanted to see this initially because the premise (despite being based on the ongoing popularity of Five Nights at Freddy's with kids) isn't terrible and Nic Cage has done some good weird films in the last few years like Mandy and Color Out of Space but apparently this isn't much cop.

I Care A Lot (technically 2020)

This is technically a 2020 film but I don't think it got a release out here until 2021. Rosamund Pike is usually good value so I wouldn't mind giving it a go.

Zack Snyder's Justice League

I don't care if it's better than the theatrical release of Justice League; I still don't care.

A Quiet Place Part II

I also didn't love the original A Quiet Place enough to bother seeing this one.

Black Widow

If this had been released before Avengers Endgame I might have cared but I'm only going to watch this if I feel some desperate need to catch up on Marvel films before, I don't know, the Fantastic Four film they say they're gonna make.

The Suicide Squad

I actually do want to see this since I've heard it's quite decent.

Don't Breathe 2

Same with A Quiet Place Part II, I didn't need to see a sequel to this film about being silent either.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I should really watch this because a friend of mine did stuntwork in it. I'll get around to it eventually.

No Time to Die

More like "no time to waste on another James Bond film I already know I won't enjoy."


What's this Marvel instalment even about? I once considered myself reasonably knowledgeable about superhero comic books but these characters are too obscure even for me.

Ghostbusters Afterlife

I don't want to watch a serious tribute to an Eighties comedy film. Why has Ghostbusters become so sacrosanct?

Spider-Man: No Way Home

I've heard this is good but seriously, didn't the previous Spider-Man film only come out about a year before? Too much Spider-Man for me. I don't care enough about the Raimi films to be excited about Maguire and his enemies coming back either.

The Matrix Resurrections

There's only one good Matrix film and it came out in 1999. Not remotely interested.

Films I actually saw:

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

I knew this was going to be bad. James Wan didn't direct it and, like so many of the awful "Conjuring Universe" spinoff films, it was directed by a nobody whose only other noteworthy work was on another shitty Conjuring spinoff. I think the bits where Ed and Lorraine are in the woods investigating the case are the only decent bit in this piece of garbage that completely fails to have any of the tension or dread of the first two films. It's an absolute farce.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson does his Wes Anderson routine. Visually engaging, stylish and at times amusing, but sexist and oddly repugnant in its advocacy of the prescriptive and the doctrinaire, the celebratory nature of the concept at times strikes rather as fearful and conformist.

Munich — The Path to War

Based on one of Robert Harris's (in my head) endless stream of World War Two thrillers, this is a relatively well-made period piece with a decent bit of tension for the fictional protagonists, but I thought the pacing was weak; it goes for two hours but felt to me like it went for about four. The highlight is Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain and the film probably would have been a good deal more interesting if it was just about the 1938 Munich conference, Chamberlain's rationale, Hitler's psychology and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia without the go-nowhere spy thriller stuff added on. I didn't actually watch this until late 2022.

Halloween Kills

After the mildly decent 2018 continuity reset, the Halloween franchise immediately reverts back to being about Michael Myers killing stupid people in ridiculous ways. Full review here.


By default my "best film of 2021", this Palme d'Or winner about a disturbed young woman who has sex with cars, murders people and impersonates a desperate man's missing-presumed-dead son was a visually engaging if at times slightly obvious portrayal of frustration, alienation and grief. Not for everyone, but I liked it.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

"The Excavation of Hob's Barrow"

Full spoilers for The Excavation of Hob's Barrow within.
For some reason it's taken me a while to warm up to the idea of playing adventure games made in Adventure Game Studio (AGS). I don't really have a good justification for that beyond perhaps having played Yahtzee Croshaw's Chzo Mythos games too many times as a kid and not being terribly interested in the urban fantasy or cyberpunk genres, which seem to be a recurrent setting for a lot of commercially released AGS games such as those developed and/or published by Wadjet Eye Games. Regardless, the itch to play some more point and click adventures struck me this year and on recommendation I initially played Clifftop Games' Kathy Rain, followed by Wadjet Eye's Shardlight and, most recently, Cloak and Dagger Games' The Excavation of Hob's Barrow (published by Wadjet Eye), and while none of these games are quite the sprawling puzzle-driven experience of, say, a classic LucasArts title, they've all shared strong atmosphere and decent if not always massively original approaches to story and characters.

I was actually reminded of the approach of The Excavation of Hob's Barrow when some promotional material for it was shared by Airdorf Games, developer of FAITH, on Twitter, and given that Return to Monkey Island had put me in the point-and-click mood it was more or less an instant purchase. I like stories set in Victorian England and I also enjoy weird fiction and folk horror, so everything I saw made me think that Hob's Barrow would probably appeal to my sensibilities.

And indeed I spent a good part of a recent long weekend playing Hob's Barrow and I found myself coming back to it each day wanting more, which I think is about the strongest recommendation I can give. It's far from perfect, but given that it was apparently developed in the developer's spare time I think it's an admirable achievement. It took me about eight hours to play through, and that was with a fair bit of wandering around following the game's various objectives, but I wouldn't be surprised if it took less time for an experienced player. Regardless, I think it was worth the twenty-ish bucks Australian that I paid for it.

In Hob's Barrow you play as Thomasina Bateman, a "barrow digger" or, to put it in more contemporary parlance, a Victorian-era paleontologist-archaeologist who has come to the small town of Bewlay in northern England at the invitation of one of the locals to excavate an ancient grave site. As usual with this kind of folk mystery experience she faces a good deal of obfuscation, superstition and reservation from the locals while getting to know the town and countryside. Over the course of the game her own backstory is revealed, and the mystery of the titular barrow, and her own involvement with it, is uncovered.

The strongest element of Hob's Barrow is the atmosphere. The game is set in a small rural town in the north of England, amid sweeping moorland and beneath overcast skies. Rain and foggy evenings add to the feeling of both quietude and sublimity of such a landscape. The music contributes to this significantly as well, with a strong ambience pervading many of the scenes. The game is also rendered in the kind of engaging pixel art that I personally really love and which has become a convention of these kinds of games. It's only let down on a few occasions when elements are scaled at different resolutions, which creates a visual clash; old LucasArts games would compress sprites when they were intended to appear at a more distant perspective, which looked crunchy, but at least they still fit within the image because a pixel was still a pixel. When you have low-resolution pixel art blown up to a higher scale to fit modern screens, it doesn't work so well when some sprites in the "distance" seem to be at a higher level of detail than the rest of their environment. Nonetheless, the game has a decent amount of sprite animation, and isn't too reliant on the fade-in fade-out technique that a lot of lower-budget adventure games use to avoid having to animate complex actions.

My biggest critique of Hob's Barrow would largely come down to the story and characters. There's a curious recurrence in all the AGS games I've mentioned in this review of having the protagonist be a young woman with an absent father or father-figure, and for her relationship with her father to in some respect drive her motivation or characterisation, and I find it also noteworthy that all three of these games were written, as far as I'm aware, by men. Thomasina's father William was a barrow-digger before her, but has been a silent invalid for decades as a result of an unexplained accident during her childhood. Thus her motivation begins with trying to carry on her father's legacy; it ultimately ends with her trying to cure her father of his ailment. Perhaps it's just me, but I find this parent-driven characterisation, while realistic, a little tired as a character device.

Similarly, the plot is perhaps too conventional for its own good. Thomasina is invited to excavate the barrow by one of the locals, and it's ultimately revealed that not only had her father excavated the same site previously, but it was the cause of his accident. While the discovery is naturally disturbing in-game for the character, it's a little neater than I like in this kind of strange story. Further, it's ultimately revealed that certain locals have brought Thomasina there for the very purpose of uncovering a powerful force that was previously sealed away by her father, in the hope of releasing it so that it will grant them power and plenty. If you've ever seen the original The Wicker Man from 1973, elements of this conspiracy plot aren't too surprising. Further still, while the game spends a good deal of time introducing the town of Bewlay and its inhabitants, the dénouement with the actual barrow excavation and the uncovering of its secrets is rather hastily done and doesn't give itself too much time to build up a sense of dread and inevitability. When friendly local Arthur Tillett reveals to Thomasina that he overheard her two apparent allies discussing the plot to lure her to the town, it gives away a bit too much too unambiguously (and too soon). Similarly, the game builds up and up to the actual excavation, only for the entire process to occur in a narrated cutaway, when having the excavation take several days and have its own complications would probably have heightened the tension. Further, once she enters the barrow itself and comes across strange ruins and eerie purple lights, unfortunately I found it all rather too much in keeping with a typical pastiche of a story by H.P. Lovecraft or one of his imitators. The game's commentary mentions the ghost stories of M.R. James as an inspiration, but I don't quite see it. A clearer inspiration is the point and click horror adventure game series The Last Door.

I also wanted to add that the use of the period setting feels a little inconsistent. At times the characters speak and interact much as I imagine Victorian-era people would, especially with an outsider. However, I can't help but suspect that in reality an unaccompanied young woman arriving in town, asking lots of questions, frequenting the local pub and getting about in breeches would probably have caused a massive stir at the time. I appreciate that this is partly the point of Thomasina's character but sometimes it makes it difficult to take the setting entirely seriously. One thing I noted in particular is that some of the characters are implausibly familiar with Thomasina and vice-versa, using first names and nicknames; it's also not very realistic, I don't think, that Thomasina, as an upper-class or at least upper-middle-class woman of the time, would need (or even think to use) a maid to introduce her to the local aristocracy. These are just nitpicks of course but they stand out when at times the characters do seem to speak mostly in an appropriate idiom and behave as people of the era would.

As far as gameplay is concerned, Hob's Barrow isn't a particularly difficult puzzle game. The puzzles generally require more exploration than lateral thinking, taking the opportunity to re-explore the environment after certain conditions have changed. The town of Bewlay feels large enough and each day there is a list of goals, which helps with keeping track. A seasoned adventure game player won't be slowed down by any of this but it does given the opportunity to let the environments feel well-used, which, given that the game's atmosphere is its strongest feature, makes them complimentary of the broader picture. I should also add that apart from some children's voices which are clearly just adult women adopting squeaky tones the voice acting is strong overall, as is the use of appropriate regional accents and slang.

Overall, despite my view that it's lacking a certain degree of originality in terms of its story and characters, and has some issues with pacing, I enjoyed playing The Excavation of Hob's Barrow. Folk horror is an interesting concept, preferably when it isn't too needlessly Lovecraftian, and this game certainly kept me invested. Further, as I've said above, I have to give the developers credit for making this game as a side project. The main takeaway, I think, with all of these points is that atmosphere can be a huge factor in the success of an adventure game, and creating a world that players want to stick around in goes a long way, even if other elements are very familiar.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

"Return to Monkey Island"


Full spoilers for Return to Monkey Island contained within.


I’m one of those people for whom Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman coming back to Monkey Island was a big deal. I’ve been a huge enthusiast for these games since I was about four years old, having first played The Secret of Monkey Island in 1993 and LeChuck’s Revenge not long after, and playing each of the subsequent games in the series as they came out. LeChuck's Revenge is my personal favourite, and since I was old enough to understand that the development had changed hands several times over the years I’d been aware of the desire for the original designers to return, and with the announcement of Return to Monkey Island it seemed like that was what was finally going to happen. When it did come out m’colleague and I even did things as we would when we were kids, playing together and passing the mouse back and forth.

Playing Return to Monkey Island was a fairly intense experience for me because of the significance it holds for me, but after replaying it on Switch (my first play-through was on PC), and then again on PC, I think I’ve more or less settled on an opinion: I like this game. I love parts of it. But it’s also an absolute mess, with way too many ideas, uninteresting unfunny secondary characters with too much dialogue who Ron and Dave clearly loved a lot more than I did, plenty of elements that feel out of place even for a concept as ambiguous as Monkey Island, an unnecessarily convoluted plot and an over-reliance on uncompelling MacGuffin-hunting to structure the story.

By the standards of traditional puzzle adventure games, Return to Monkey Island is very easy. It's certainly a good deal easier than Gilbert's previous adventure game, 2017's Thimbleweed Park, some puzzles of which stumped me for quite a while before I figured them out. I played Return on “hard” and didn’t need the game’s built-in hint system whatsoever, although I admittedly solved a couple of puzzles more by accident than because I grasped the logic behind them or found all the necessary clues. As a result it also doesn’t feel terribly long, although the original games weren’t either. It’s probably about the same length as the second game, albeit with easier puzzles.

In terms of presentation, the visuals won’t be to everyone’s taste, as pre-game discourse (and the now seemingly de rigeur online histrionics that accompany any pop culture artefact's fanbase) already established. While I didn’t have much of an issue with the art style I do think some of the character design wasn’t entirely successful and the animations at times lack a bit of weight and momentum, especially compared to the other “2D” entries in the series. The music, however, is as good as ever, with a number of tunes from the earlier games appearing and some memorable new ones; my favourite new composition is the Brrr Muda throne room tune.

As a new entry in the Monkey Island series, Return to Monkey Island at times feels strangely out of place. The unsettling Terror Island and the icy Brrr Muda feel more like elements from a fantasy game than a Monkey Island game, as does the game’s eventual hunt for a set of golden keys. None of these islands are fleshed out; indeed there are rooms on Terror Island that serve no purpose, and it is possible to find a sunken machine-themed island which was otherwise cut from the game due to a lack of time to implement its content. The very piratey world of the first three games in particular is not to be found here, which is a bit of a shame. At the same time, the game reprises locales in the shape of Mêlée Island and Monkey Island, which Escape from Monkey Island already did, albeit many years ago, so the novelty of returning to them is not as fresh. I think the game would have been better served by taking place in entirely new seas, much like LeChuck’s Revenge, Curse and Tales.

Like the worldbuilding, the character work and plot of the middle of the game also aren’t great. A lot of time and attention is devoted to fleshing out new characters, especially the new Pirate Leaders and LeChuck’s crew, but despite the swathes of dialogue devoted to them they’re not terribly interesting and most of them you barely interact with after Part III. Madison, Lila and Flair in particular all feel rather interchangeable, and Trent is pointless. Only aspirational zombie cook/chef Putra and workshy demon lookout Flambe stick much in my memory. Returning characters similarly aren’t amazingly engaging either. LeChuck has neither the menace of LeChuck’s Revenge nor the ebullience of Curse, feeling like a relatively generic villain (although that may be intentional, but given the game's themes almost any criticism could be labelled as intentional or at least explicable). A little drama seems to be building with Elaine and her disapproval of Guybrush’s selfish actions, but this ultimately ends with her just offering him a warning not to get too caught up in his obsessions rather than generating any genuine conflict between the two of them. Indeed Elaine’s writing is so inconsistent that at times I was wondering if it would be revealed that she wasn’t real, wasn’t alive or wasn’t really Guybrush’s wife; in the end, however, it just seems that she's mildly concerned but ultimately not especially bothered by his shenanigans, and it all feels a bit tepid. Guybrush himself seems to be more of the dopey incarnation from Escape and Tales, rarely exhibiting either the wit and dry humour of Secret or Curse or the mischievousness of Revenge. The earlier games, especially the first two, greatly benefited from the brevity of writing necessitated by disc space limitations; this game has a “Writer’s Cut” mode with “more blather, worse pacing”, but it feels like a lot of the blather and pacing problems stayed in regardless. I completed my third playthrough with the voice acting turned off so that I could read the dialogue at my own pace and this improved things quite a bit, and I wonder if part of the issue is with the dialogue not really having been written by Grossman to be performed aloud.

And from the characters I move onto the plot. It’s perhaps intentional, given the framing device, but the plot is also messy, with Guybrush chasing his goal to Mêlée, to Monkey Island, back to Mêlée Island, to a bunch of other islands and then back to Monkey Island again, and with the involvement of an over-large group of new antagonists who aren’t very important and don’t contribute much of significance to the plot besides providing a few narrative explanations for things that were relatively incidental. Unlike the Monkey Island games of old, in which Guybrush generally had a relatively broad general goal to work towards with several sub-goals, much of this game apart from the fourth part and the overall quest for the "Secret" feels very much like a series of small consecutive incidents in the manner of the story pacing of an interactive fiction game, but without the necessary character work that makes this kind of thing compelling in the best examples of the genre. The game opens up in its fourth part with Guybrush searching for five keys, but the very arbitrary-feeling MacGuffin-hunt nature of this is also not massively compelling. Searching for map pieces in Monkey Island 2 at least felt "piratey". While some have complained that the game’s ending feels like a rehash of the second game, it’s probably this part which has the most in common with it.

Perhaps it’s time for me to get to the best part of the game, the framing device and the connections this games makes to the mysteries posited in LeChuck’s Revenge. This game purports initially to resolve the mysterious ending of that game, and in the eyes of many it does; little Guybrush and brother Chuckie emerge from the tunnels of an amusement park — but no, now they’re just pretending that the couple they run into are their parents, and soon enough it’s revealed that these two kids are not Guybrush and child-LeChuck at all, but rather Guybrush’s son and his friend Chuckie playing at “the end of Monkey Island 2”. My interpretation is that this doesn’t affect the ending of LeChuck’s Revenge at all and is rather these two kids re-enacting what they think happened at the end of that game, just like two fans playing that game and then speculating about what it all means or what would happen next — note that they’re not brothers in this game and the Big Whoop amusement park from the end of that game which initially appears here is soon replaced with some run-down beachside facilities that still seem to exist in the pirate world. This opening really leaves the player with multiple interpretations: you can still have the original LeChuck’s Revenge ending standing with all its own ambiguity, and it’s just a coincidence or an extension of fantasy and deliberate ambiguity that friend Chuckie here looks like brother Chuckie from back then, that the couple look like Guybrush’s parents from the second game and so on; it also leaves Curse intact if you want to believe that they’re just re-enacting based on a story they’ve heard and that in reality Guybrush was under a spell in LeChuck’s evil carnival; and then if you want you can imagine (although I entirely doubt this was ever anyone’s original intention) that when we saw those two little kids in the amusement park in the second game it was actually just these same two little kids pretending the whole time. I’ve already seen people saying “this reveals that the ending of Monkey Island 2 was actually Guybrush’s kid son and his friend pretending,” and I don’t think that’s quite what we’re meant to take away from this, but the strength of this device is that it leaves it entirely to the player’s imagination.

And this ultimately extends to the entire story, as Guybrush is telling the tale of how he went looking for the Secret of Monkey Island to his son, and we can choose how much or how little it or any of the other games are true. Guybrush emerges from the tunnels beneath Monkey Island at the end to find himself back once again in the alley of Mêlée Island, much as Dinky Island led to it in Monkey Island 2, and it’s much more explicitly an amusement attraction this time. However, even this is captured in the framing device, and you can choose to believe that Guybrush really was in an amusement park, or that it was just a deliberately weird ending he made up to amuse (or annoy) his son; all that the ending confirms (arguably) is that Elaine and his son exist and seem to in some respect live in a pirate world with galleons and maps to lost treasure, which ultimately suggests an amusing and engaging kind of recursion in which Guybrush is a pirate who goes to an amusement park in which he pretends to be a flooring inspector who pretends to be a pirate who lives in a pirate world which is secretly an amusement park and so on. There’s no beginning or end to what’s “true” and Gilbert and Grossman both give a common but often forgotten insight about storytelling (“what’s true or not doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a good story”) and, I think, display a certain degree of benevolent indulgence of (or perhaps bemusement at) some members of the Monkey Island fan community’s slightly ridiculous obsession with the “canon” and continuity of a series of silly pirate adventure games. And indeed while the framing device reflects a general passing down of stories from one generation to the next, like original fans of the early games who are now old enough to introduce them to kids of their own, in some respects older Guybrush is also like Gilbert and Grossman, and little Boybrush represents the fans, theorising about the mysteries of the game and needing to be nudged toward the idea that maybe said theorising was always the best part of the experience.

Thus while Return is in some respects similar to Revenge, it’s a much less cynical game than that one. Monkey Island 2’s ending could be argued as a rather negative or pessimistic one, cruelly tearing away a comforting fantasy or, if you want to be more metaphysical, implying that, like Guybrush, we are all victims of a vast cosmic hoax with no perpetrator and that everything we think is meaningful is actually a façade maintained by the crude mechanisms of existence hidden behind the scenes. But if Big Whoop was nothing, then the Secret discovered at the end of Return is everything, whatever the player wants it to be, and as the letter from Gilbert and Grossman unlocked after completing the game attests to it’s a viewpoint that, at least in some cases, comes with age. Further, somewhat surprisingly, Return to Monkey Island is quite comparable in its message to another 2022 adventure game I reviewed on this blog, Who’s Lila?, which also argued that the point of a truly great mystery was to be a mystery and not necessarily to really be resolved. Return also re-asserts the message of the first game of the importance of the journey over the destination. But perhaps the most important thing about this device is that Gilbert and Grossman quite generously set the Monkey Island series free from the notion that has plagued it for years that on some level it “belonged” to Gilbert and his original co-creators and that only he could tell the true story. Instead, he and Grossman say that all of the games are true because all of those stories are told. Guybrush might be a guy who loves to have fantasy pirate adventures in an amusement park or he might be a pirate who playfully embellishes the stories he tells his son with out-of-place nods to amusement parks and anachronisms, or both, or something in between. Monkey Island thus isn't any one story and doesn’t “belong” to anyone in particular; it’s been shaped by Gilbert, Grossman, Schafer and their colleagues who made the first two games, but also by the teams who made Curse, Escape and Tales, and it’s been shaped by the fans and indeed anyone who’s played it over the years. The game even offers an out, albeit an amusingly somewhat mocking one, for people who hate the idea that the Monkey Island world might not be real; you can use Stan’s keys to go back into the Monkey tunnels, climb back up to the entrance and, to quote the game’s interface, “deny what I thought I saw downstairs and return to the world I know.” That’s okay too — if a player really needs it to be.

Overall, Return to Monkey Island is a mixed bag. It was never going to be, nor was it ever intended as, the nonexistent “true” third game in contrast to Curse, and to be quite blunt, even if it were intended as such, it wouldn’t have succeeded, because Curse is a better, funnier adventure game than this. But as a commentary on the series, its baggage and what it means to both the many people who have worked on the various instalments over the years as well as its players it succeeds admirably. It’s both less than I hoped for and more than I expected. But it was probably always going to be that way, and the game knows it. Whether that’s enough is up to the player to decide, but the game knows that too.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

The "Return to Monkey Island" Announcement

On April 5th it was announced that a new entry in the Monkey Island series of adventure games, "Return to Monkey Island", has been in development and is due for release in 2022. For the first time in over thirty years the game is being designed and written by series creator Ron Gilbert and one of his two collaborators on the first two games, Dave Grossman. M'colleague and I recorded some thoughts on the announcement which can be heard here:

I wanted to add something that only occurred to me after recording: that this is, in a manner of speaking, a "Return to Monkey Island" in multiple senses. The game may (or may not) involve player character Guybrush Threepwood's return to the fabled Monkey Island. But it's also a return to the franchise and is also Gilbert's (and Grossman's) metaphorical return to "Monkey Island" as in the series itself. And this leads me to imagine that there's a good chance that the game is going to be just as much about the idea of what a text or series of texts is in the hands of its original creators as opposed to continuations by others. But perhaps I'm overthinking it and it won't be about that at all.

Speculation is rife online about how this new game is going to fit in the game's admittedly messy storyline. Publisher Devolver Digital is marketing it as "the long-awaited follow-up to the legendary Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge" and also as "a new game by Ron Gilbert that picks up where Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge left off". However, Ron Gilbert has also tweeted that "MI3 doesn't go out of canon. We were very careful about that. Murray is in this game." The inclusion of this fan-favourite character from non-Gilbert-developed instalment The Curse of Monkey Island suggests that the game is set after that sequel. However, I have seen many people online assuming that it is set between LeChuck's Revenge and Curse.

Personally I doubt that the game has been designed to be a mere bridge between the second and third games, and that it's much more likely to be a continuation of the storyline that doesn't contradict anything from the non-Gilbert games without referring to them in any detail. It's noteworthy that Devolver are using terms like "follow-up" and "picks up where Monkey Island 2 [...] left off." They're not saying "a new game set between Monkey Island 2 and The Curse of Monkey Island." I have a suspicion that the new game is going to still be, technically, set after Tales of Monkey Island and will simply treat the intervening games as more of a digression, returning to the story as it was set up at the end of the second game. Are Guybrush and LeChuck really brothers? Are they really children in an amusement park (and perhaps games three to five were merely a continuation of the fantasy)? What is the secret of Monkey Island? And does any of it really matter? I have a strong suspicion that the answer will be "no", and that the game will poke fun at fans who have taken the storyline of this silly series of comedy pirate games so seriously for the last three decades.

The Secret of Monkey Island created a fantasy that captured the imaginations of adventurers all over the world. LeChuck's Revenge gleefully tore it down. Perhaps a third game in this story will propose a resolution to this conflict. Perhaps it will encourage us to return to Monkey Island in the sense of going back to the idea that we shouldn't worry so much about what's real and what's illusion, and just enjoy the ride.

Friday, March 4, 2022

"Who's Lila?" and Lynchian mystery


Who's Lila? is a point-and-click adventure game with an emotion mechanic heavily influenced by the works of David Lynch. It's about four and a half hours of gameplay and I liked it. Can I get into the analysis now?

Full spoilers for Who's Lila? and potentially a bunch of David Lynch films follow.

Initially, Who's Lila? appears to be an experimental adventure game about the role that facial expressions play in how we interact with the world. Saying something while frowning will contain a wholly different meaning to saying it while smiling or with no expression at all. We are seemingly controlling a possibly-neurodivergent young man named William Clarke who struggles to convey how he feels and must force his emotional reactions when interacting with others. A standard play-through of the game's narrative establishes a few mysteries: what happened to Tanya Jennings, who was last seen by William himself? Why, when William receives a phone call early in the game, is he referred to as "Lila"? And, indeed, who is Lila?

It seems from following the game's directions that Tanya was a young woman William knew; he murdered her and dismembered the body. Lila is William himself or something inside William. In the end William is arrested and enough evidence found to convict him of the crime.

However the game does not have one storyline but many: when you confront Tanya's friend Martha, who is assisting the police, on the roof of the school, it's possible for William to get thrown off the building by Tanya's boyfriend Graves and end up in a surreal other-world. It's possible, after being arrested, to confess to the murder, frame Graves for the murder, or confess to being Lila and not William. It's possible to not bother going to school at all: to go to the train station instead and confront Strupnev, the last other surviving member of the Lila-summoning cult of which William was a member. It's possible to explore the burnt-out ruins of the cult's headquarters. It's possible to take the bus back in time to the night of the party at which William and Tanya first met. Each of these storylines has its own end, after which the game returns to the menu screen. Apart from some information conveyed in some storylines which grants the player knowledge of how to find others, and a few items carried from one storyline to the other, many of the storylines can be played in any order.

As this might indicate, the game touches upon a number of philosophical ponderings: the nature of time and possibility; the concept of identity as merely a momentary perception of the self on the part of one's own mind; whether consciousness and ideas have an existence in and of themselves which humans merely access or perhaps imitate. The most central, however, is implicit in the game's title itself: who's Lila?

"Augmented Reality" elements of the game suggest that Lila the character is a kind of sentient idea which feeds on human attention, summoned by the cult of which William was a member. The game of course mockingly addresses a number of other common analyses of such characters, such as that Lila is a demon, or a ghost, or a representation of the character's inner psyche. Detective Yu, whose name is an obvious pun, seems to represent a player who wants the mystery to have clear answers. In that sense Lila is the game itself, which "feeds" on players playing it, thinking about it and discussing it. But speaking to a hidden character in the game reveals that "Lila is the mystery of who Lila is."

Before I go into this it's worth discussing the overt influence of the works of David Lynch on the game. This influence is not at all subtle. There is a Blue Velvet poster on Martha's bedroom wall, and William/Lila hides in her closet like Jeffrey does in that film. The bin area outside William's building resembles the yard behind Winkie's in Mulholland Drive. And at several points William encounters a silent character who resembles but is not quite identical to himself, identified as "The Stranger", whom the game's developer has compared to the Mystery Man from Lost Highway but is evocative of the many doppelgangers and not-quite-doppelgangers throughout Lynch's works (the latter always being more effective, in my view, than the former)[1]. And these are just the ones the developer has acknowledged on social media; there are plenty more. For instance, the creatures like Lila appear to travel through plumbing the way Black Lodge entities use electricity in Twin Peaks. Further, at one point seemingly the "real" William is encountered by the player (seemingly as Lila) in the form of a hissing, clanking mechanism not unlike the presentation of Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks' third season.

Throughout Lynch's work there is always a sense of something which is more intuitive than it is explicit. In some interviews Lynch refers to this as "think-feeling" and associates it with "dream logic", the idea that things which would not conventionally make sense in the cause-and-effect, object-permanent world of what passes for waking reality are accepted unquestioningly and appear wholly natural and correct in dreams. That is why when people watch Lynch's films they often try to piece together "clues" to explain what is happening in some rational, waking-world way. For example there is a conventional interpretation of Mulholland Drive which perceives the first two-thirds of the film, about Betty and "Rita", to be a mere dream on the part of Diane in the final act, an interpretation I largely reject. Similarly Lost Highway is interpreted as a parable about jealousy, and Inland Empire as a metaphor, much like Mulholland Drive, for the exploitative nature of Hollywood. And despite the fact that I have stated that I reject at least one of these (partly because it is just an effort to explain the story's events and not actually an attempt to contemplate its ideas), this is not to say that these interpretations do not lack validity, that the films do not address these points at all; they do. But the dreamlike nature of the presentation has a greater scope than those themes, which I think is not always grasped.

It is that reaching for a solution, an explanation, an interpretation which is one (but not the only one) of the main purposes of the dreamlike elements, because by resembling a dream Lynch conveys in his films the impression of things implicitly, intuitively, making sense, even if to the waking mind there appear to be gaps, omissions or inconsistencies. An enthralling intrigue is created by the feeling that things almost make sense, that there is key to all of this that, were it merely discovered, would put everything into place, like the dénouement of a detective novel. It is that feeling that these things make sense, that they must make sense, but it is not clear why, that gives truly dreamlike narratives their impact.

And thus the answer to the question "Who's Lila?" is that Lila is the mystery of who Lila is. The mystery is the answer, it is the point. The question is its own answer. And thus Who's Lila? functions effectively as an interpretation of more or less any Lynchian mystery without, despite its heavy and often overt influence, being a Lynchian mystery itself. This is not to say that the game is not Lynchian at all, regardless of influence; it is, but it's much more willing, perhaps even eager, to explain itself than one of Lynch's own works, a few ambiguous elements notwithstanding. I was probably enjoying the game the most during my first couple of plays-through in which, as far as I could tell, by a wholly dreamlike reckoning it seemed that William, Tanya and Lila were all the same person, and no further explanation was necessary.

It may seem a bit trite to simply say "the mystery is the point", and this arguably does not in itself fully address the impact and significance of Lynchian mysteries, but it is at least refreshing to experience a piece of media which is willing to state that rather than trying to either explain things neatly or, by contrast, explain them away metaphorically or symbolically. There's more to go into concerning how the gameplay extends outside the game itself, with the augmented reality elements, the "Daemon" program which can run alongside it, and even the online sharing of hints and datamining being part of the gaming experience, and that's not even getting into how the game's visuals and control scheme relate to the experience. But others will, I think, explain that better than I can right now.


[1] A particular highlight for me was noticing in the interrogation scene that, when William is shown Tanya's photograph by the police, Tanya, who at all other times is shown as being exactly identical to Lila, is here shown as strongly resembling her but not actually looking the same.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Hindsight: A 2020 Cinematic Retrospective


Understandably, I really didn't see many films in 2020 (let alone 2021) so this is a short one:


Films I'm interested in but haven't seen as of writing:

Palm Springs

I've heard this is good even if it's a Groundhog Day ripoff. Redlettermedia didn't rate it though. Who knows. I don't want to have to subscribe to Amazon Prime in order to watch this.


I heard this was good. Just never got around to seeing it.

Wonder Woman 1984

Apparently this sucks, which is a shame since the previous one was decent. I still wouldn't mind seeing it.


Films I actually saw:

The Assistant

A rather uncomfortable-to-watch representation of workplace sexual harassment and the exploitation of young women in Hollywood, all framed through the experiences of an office assistant who notices what's going on but is powerless to do anything about it. An interesting way of framing the narrative and pretty chilling. Definitely recommended.

Horse Girl

Alison Brie plays a woman with an undiagnosed mental illness who thinks aliens are trying to communicate with her and possibly travels through time. She's good value as always and the nature of events is left sufficiently ambiguous to have a degree of mystery. The dream-hallucination sequence near the end is a particular highlight. I also enjoyed her character's obsession with a fictional paranormal mystery drama called Purgatory which appears to be a cross between Bones and Supernatural. Rather amusing.

The Invisible Man

An interesting take on the concept, presented as a story about gaslighting, stalking and controlling behaviour, with a satisfying ending. Probably the only unnecessary part is the explanation for how the villain's invisibility works. Elizabeth Moss is a little typecast in the role of "woman who is treated like crap by man or men" but she's a good fit for these parts. There are some decent twists, it's compelling and it takes an old idea and updates it effectively for modern issues. Another highlight.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

A decent-enough sequel to the original two Bill & Ted films. Full review here

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Creepy film slightly let down by spelling things out too much. My thoughts in full here.

Favourite of 2020:

I saw so few films it's hard to say, but oddly enough I feel like Horse Girl was the one that stuck in my mind the most. But it, The Assistant and The Invisible Man were all good watches.


Worst of 2020:

I actually can't award that this year because of a lack of trashy superhero films and/or exasperatingly bad Star Wars sequels/spin-offs. Probably a good thing.



This is all I got so far:


Interested in:

Palm Springs


Wonder Woman 1984 (apparently this sucks)


I saw:

The Assistant

Horse Girl

The Invisible Man

Bill & Ted Face the Music

I'm Thinking of Ending Things


Best? Dunno.

Worst? Dunno.


Happy 2021!