The Alpha Device (Review)

Source: Free
Price: Free
Where To Get It (Free) : Steam

For all that the “Walk in a desolate area and listen to audiologs/read notes” subgenre of computer games is much maligned (and sometimes rightly so), when done well, minimalism can be turned to advantage, and the story becomes so much the richer. So it is, for me at least, with The Alpha Device, a game that definitely has its flaws (One of which confuses me greatly), but, storywise, enthralled and entertained me.

Simple geometric shapes are fun when you put them together, kids!

Let’s get those aforementioned flaws out of the way first. If you’re not a fan of the school of graphic design among indie games of “Return unto the mostly untextured, if not uncoloured polygons”, then odds are you’ll be predisposed not to like this. Which would be a shame, as the game does clever things with simple shapes (Clever things like using simple shapes as templates to poke holes in other simple shapes… To make shapes that become both more full of holes and chunky bits.) Furthermore, the game is gamepad only, which, I must say, confuses the hell out of me, considering it’s coded in the Unity engine, which makes both multiple control schemes and other quality of life improvements… Well, not a doddle, but certainly not beyond. Still, the game is effectively free, so it would be highly impolite of me to do more than express my confusion there.

Now… The voice acting is an advertising point of the game, and considering that the sole voice actor, David Hewlett, is well known, and has proven his chops multiple times, this is a good point. He really sells the bitterness of one of the last human beings well, that loss and confusion, swinging easily into the undercurrent of hopeless anger that characterises his own storyline. It helps that the story surprised me with how, like Mr. Hewlett’s acting, it swings comfortably between scales, moving from the galactic to the personal, back and fore in a slowly closing gyre, to its twist conclusion. The twist, admittedly, felt a tiny bit off, but only a tiny bit, as it was more that it relies on you realising the dissonance of the audio logs (and your discovery thereof) , than a not-twist, or some other, completely out of the blue revelation with no foreshadowing.

Not pictured: Some good voice acting.

And then… Ah, well. While the game is, technically, quite short, lasting approximately an hour, this is a technically. I won’t spoil the precise mechanics of that technically, but it was fitting, it was clever, in its way, and it satisfied my black little heart, for, listening to the story, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of anger of my own in sympathy with the protagonist.

As such? Well worth a look if you like minimalistic storytelling.

Simple. Geometric. Shapes.

The Mad Welshman has done his best to keep this review spoiler free. That is all.

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Mandagon (Review)

Source: Free
Where To Get It: Steam

Let’s begin this review with the most important facts of all: Mandagon is free. It takes, on average, less than an hour to play. Also, it is meant to represent Bardo, which is described as “Limbo” in the game’s description.

This is, presumably, a good thing. Also, proof the game is somewhat pretty.

This is, presumably, a good thing. Also, proof the game is somewhat pretty.

These are important things to note, and indeed, look up, because the last one is pretty much going to be the focus of this review. So let’s get the mechanical and visual stuff out of the way first: There is no death, it’s just exploration. It tells a story of a man who has sacrificed himself for the sake of his daughter. It’s visually pretty, and the music and sound are all chill as heck. Also there is a not-bad representation of Palden Lhamo, who you may confuse for Kali (Indeed, there are some schools of thought stating that she’s an emanation of Kali.) The controls, as such, are simple, although the “maps” do not seem to show where you’re meant to go… Although the six sacred tablets do show you where they’re meant to go if you activate them in your inventory.

Bam, mechanical, visual, and aural stuff over with. Let’s get to the meat of things, and why, despite the game being free, I’m being a bit critical. Not of the game mechanically, but culturally. It should also be noted that I am not, myself, a Tibetan Buddhist, so my own criticism should be taken with a grain of salt. All that being said, let’s start with the elephant in the room: Cultural Shoehorning. We see this a lot, even within Europe (Wales, Brittany, the Scandinavian nations, pretty much anything that’s been shoved under “Faerie”… The list is a pretty long one), and to be honest, it annoys.

Bardo is not Limbo. Heck, this is only one sixth of what Bardo appears to be (Chönyi Bardo , the Luminosity of the True Nature, commencing in between the final breath and the transmigration of the mindstream to its next existence, going back to the first Bardo, Kyenay bardo, which encompasses a person’s life.) Making it worse, not even Limbo is Limbo as most folks understand it, and yet the term continues to be used for a transitional state between lives (A concept that mainly came into the consciousness via Dante’s Inferno, which was, itself, a sort of discussion of the theological concept), despite being… Er… Not really a transitional state.

As you might have guessed, this is a game world. The map is showing me where I am.

As you might have guessed, this is a game world. The map is showing me where I am.

Yes, I know that’s some heavy shit to lay on you this early. Stick with me. Anyways, Chönyi Bardo is when those who have finally died experience visions, and the nature of those visions depends upon how they practiced and/or understood Buddhism during their life, and whether they recognise this in the first place. Spoilers, the main character of Mandagon must have been someone spiritually buff as hell. I mean, we’re talking enlightenment muscles out the wazoo.

Not that, you know, enlightenment is like muscles. Or maybe it can be. Enlightenment’s odd like that. Anyway, the point is, that only if you are a spiritually aware person will you have the chill as heck experience as you do in game. Otherwise, to simplify things a little, you terrify and delude yourself, adding this baggage to your next existence because you didn’t prepare to shed said baggage. However, that they do not get reborn is perhaps another sign of this, as adherence to the precepts of Karma allow one to escape the beginningless cycle of rebirth that Buddhism calls Samsara (In many forms of Buddhism, a less than ideal state, as opposed to a state of acknowledging unbeing or non-self.)

This may seem like grumping, or nit-picking, but it’s actually kind of important to note, because too often, we simply accept a thing for what it seems to be, rather than what it is. A good example of this would be the Steam discussion on what actually happened in game, where there’s a sadly unsurprising lack of awareness of a lot of this, even with the individual who appears closest to “Getting it”, as it were. Games abstract things, sometimes to the point of misrepresentation, and Mandagon, while very pretty, very chill, and having some great moments, does this by its very simplicity.

Palden Lhamo. Kind of important. ;)

Palden Lhamo. Kind of important. 😉

So this isn’t so much nit-picking, or grumping, as helping you be aware that yes, while this is a pretty game, a chill game, a short game, and a free game, it’s also a game referencing a thing that’s a lot more complicated and interesting than the game presents it as. So go enjoy it, it’s all good, it’s free… And then do what I did, and look at the bigger picture. Otherwise, it’ll end up like that Bill Bailey line about the Gandhi Pinball Machine, where you have to light the three Magic Naan-Breads to… Oh, you get the picture!

The Mad Welshman is a long way from breaking out of the cycle. And he likes it that way.

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Emily Is Away (Review)

Source: Free
Price: Free (Donations accepted)
Where To Get It: Steam Itch.IO (The latter has details on donation)

Emily Is Away is a game that can make you uncomfortable. In fact, as I’m writing this paragraph (I don’t write these things all in one go), I’m staring at the login screen for the third chapter, after 15 minutes, thinking very hard about what’s just transpired. I’m not entirely sure I want to continue. But obviously, this is a review about a game that isn’t “fun”, but needs to be talked about, so… Later.

"Nothing much" is going on. And yet...

“Nothing much” is going on. And yet…

[Later] Damn, that was just as harrowing as I thought it would be, two chapters in. Time to talk about it. Because talking is the core of the game, in a sense. In another sense, it’s about not talking. About the things you don’t say as much as the things you do. About pain. And, to me at least, a reminder of what an asshole I was in university (College to american readers.)

If you’re expecting something flashy, something glitzy in this donationware game, think again. This is set in the age of AOL Instant Messenger, and shitty icons and blocky text are the order of the day. And it’s all messenger. It’s all talking, and hitting the keys to type the words that your avatar in game actually types. And I find it both very clever, and harrowing, to type myself to make those words appear. It makes me feel complicit. And I don’t mean that in a good way. I am responsible for those words, even in that fictional world, and it hurts. Theoretically, I could play this multiple times (It took me just over half an hour the first time), and there are multiple things that could change the story, but I want to talk about it as it stands. And I’m going to do it by talking about relationships.

...Why did I say that? Why didn't I say what I was *going* to say?

…Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say what I was *going* to say?

Relationships can seem easy to many, but they’re not. Even keeping a friendship can involve a surprising amount of work, but it’s work we do gladly because friendship is, in a very real sense, its own reward. But this applies even more so in bad times. In bad times, we may find ourselves asked to give more than we receive in a friendship, and sometimes to do so in a way that, in the short term, risks losing the friendship. Sometimes we’re not strong enough, for whatever reason. Sometimes, Things Happen. And Things Get Awkward. And trust is broken. Trust is important in relationships, especially if you genuinely wish your friends and loved ones the best.

This, folks, is a game filled with the pitfalls of real relationships. And what you say may have little bearing on what happens. Eventually, either Emily will be Away… Or you will. And it’s only the voice of experience that told me how bad things would be so early, and that knowledge, unfortunately, makes this game more affecting. In this case… I was the one who left. The words that needed to be aired never were. And I won’t play again (Although I’m sure regret over my fictional avatar’s situation will force me to play “What If?” later), not because this isn’t a well written gutpunch of a game, but because I want to hold on to that feeling, despite the fact I’ve experienced it personally before, on both ends. The same feeling my fictional avatar seemed to be afflicted with toward the end, where he wanted to say things… But didn’t, instead writing inconsequentialities while the elephants in the room (Multiple elephants) stared fixedly into his brainpan, before awkwardly saying that he had to go. Wondering where it went wrong. Wondering why he can’t say those words. Wondering, while secretly knowing, whether things will ever be the way they were.

...Of course, by the time it's reached this point... It's too late to say *anything*

…Of course, by the time it’s reached this point… It’s too late to say *anything*

They won’t. Something potentially valuable has gone from this world, because two people did stupid shit at the wrong times, because they didn’t know how to say what they needed to say, or to hear what they needed to say. And it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I won’t recommend this game to people just seeking “Fun.” It’s not. As soon as you realise the threads that simultaneously bind and tear apart these two people, the feeling of losing control, you know, instinctively, that Fun isn’t on the cards. But if you want a well written, emotionally affecting game that, in its way, talks about not talking, and bad relationships (Whether starting bad or going bad), you have a winner. If you want a game that makes your heart ache, and think very seriously about how lucky you are to have the friends you do… This game is worth playing, and very possibly worth a donation so the creator can make more.

Okay, that’s the end of this review. Goodbye.

The Mad Welshman Is Away.

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