Thursday, November 8, 2012

Steampunk Video Games

I play a lot of video games, but not that many mainstream games.  My true love is the classic point-and-click adventure game, although I branch out occasionally.  So you won't find me talking about Bioshock and Fallout here.  (I tried to play Bioshock, it totally freaked me out.  I get INVOLVED in my games.)


 Machinarium is a stunningly beautiful point-and-click adventure.  You control the world's cutest robot, who is on a quest to save his robot girlfriend from some robot bullies in a city of robots.  There's no dialog and no text in this game.  Everything is conveyed by the art and little thought bubbles with pictograms and drawings in them.  So this isn't really a plot heavy game.  For most of it, you are trying to move through this dilapidated, industrial city by solving puzzles, using inventory, and getting other robots what they want.  There are little mini-games throughout, some quite fun and some frustrating.

I don't think the people at Amanita designs ever set out to make this a "steampunk" game, but I do think steampunks will appreciate the design and the art style.  This is one of the most beautiful games I've ever played.  All the art is hand-drawn, in a sepia-toned sketchy style.  All the tech is both rusty and beautiful.  Well, look. This is pretty much a random screenshot.

At any rate, I think Machinarium is a game worth checking out if you have any interest in a puzzle-centric game.  There's a free demo available at the link above.

Fallen London

 Fallen London (previously Echo Bazaar) is a free online browser game.  The gameplay is similar to various Facebook games in which you build your stats by clicking on various tasks.  But Fallen London surpasses pretty much every other game of its kind by its incredible writing.  The story of the game is that London fell underground at some point in the Victorian period and now resides not that far above hell and is totally cut off from the sky.  In this subterranean London things are...odd.  Victorian in style, with supernatural and sci-fi elements, the world is difficult to classify.  Suffice it to say that steampunks will be at home with the combination of Victorian manners, sci-fi tech, demons and strange flora and fauna.

The gameplay involves clicking on different actions and cards in order to increase your characters basic stats: Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive, and Shadowy.  To do this you travel to various locations around Fallen London.  There are various plot threads you can follow based on your choices and your level.  The world of the game is ever expanding, with access to new lands as you progress to very high levels.  Like any game that relies so heavily on stats, there's a lot of grinding.  I get bored with the game and abandon it for months at a time, before returning to it and playing for a few months.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of the game is its writing.  The style is both Victorian and hilarious.  To get a taste, try this tidbit of information (from a random sidebar in the game):



Deponia, from German game company Daedalic Entertainment, is a point-and-click comic adventure game.  Think the Monkey Island series of games from the 90s.  Deponia is a planet covered entirely in trash, and the people who live there build their lives from what they can scrounge from all the junk piles.  Your player character is Rufus, an egocentric and mostly incompentent inventor who is continually trying to escape from Deponia to Elysium, where presumably the people who produce all this trash live.  Rufus isn't exactly a likable character, since he's pretty much and idiot and doesn't care about anyone outside of himself.  But he's somehow charming in his wildly inflated self-regard and his confident incompetence.  He is soon involved with uncovering a conspiracy surrounding an Elysium woman who falls out of the sky (well, sort of).

The gameplay is pretty standard for adventure games.  Most puzzles are inventory based and you end up combining items and using them in weird ways to achieve your goals.  I did find the logic of the game pretty out there, and sometimes had to turn to a walkthrough to know what I was supposed to be doing next.  Sometimes things had to be combined in a certain order and things like that would trip me up.  I was trying to do the right thing, but going about it just slightly off.

My only other complaint is that I found the game suspiciously sexist at times.  It didn't bother me that Rufus was sexist, because that's in character for him.  But the Elysian woman is less character than plot point and, literally "goal."  In fact, her name is Goal.  She's unconscious for most of the game, carried around by male characters who are trying to seduce her or use her or similar.  I was hoping that once she woke up that she would start kicking ass or something, but, not so much, really.

So, what makes this game steampunk?  Well, I wouldn't exactly call it steampunk, but a steampunk design aesthetic is definitely at work.  The surroundings are industrial and mostly made of junk.  Rufus's outfit would not be out of place at any steampunk con. (See screenshot.)  The cursor is a pair of gears.  Some of the better puzzles are mechanical in nature.  That's pretty much it.  But for me, this is a pretty cool vision of a post-apocalyptic steampunky world.  I'm looking forward to the sequel which is currently in development.

The main lab.
Nancy Drew and the Deadly Device 

This is the 27th (!) game in the Nancy Drew series of adventure games.  Although officially aimed at teens, I've recently come to appreciate these games as having well-designed and challenging puzzles, enjoyable mini-games (and I normally HATE mini-games) and a good sense of humor.  These games don't do any hand-holding when it comes to puzzles.  Expect a challenge, and bring a pen and paper.  The recently released latest installment is one of the most steampunk games I've yet played.  And I didn't expect to be saying that.  The mystery Nancy has to solve is a murder of a physicist by a Tesla coil.  The research facility is working on Tesla's idea of wireless energy transmittance and is close to revolutionizing the whole energy field when the head researcher is killed by a sabotaged Tesla coil.

The only screenshot of the room I could find online.  But it gives you a sense.
So there is a lot of content related to Nikola Tesla's life, work, and theories.  More than that, the main lab is thrillingly steampunk, with all the Tesla coils and other steamy devices.  I knew the designer was giving a gentle nod to steampunk when the victim's office featured a giant half-gear motive on one wall.  But I didn't expect to come across one of the coolest steampunk rooms EVER in this game.  It's towards the end of the game, and I am in LOVE with the decor of this room.  I was SO upset that I couldn't get my computer to take a screenshot in this game.   The gear-based stenciled wall, the airship and DaVinci wing models hanging from the ceiling, the gadgets...seriously, I want to RECREATE this room.

As a game, this is one of the stronger Nancy Drew games.  The puzzles tend towards the science and mechanical: you will mix chemicals, assemble circuit boards, make etchings, and hack into numerous computers and other secured tech.  The storyline is decent if not remarkable.  These games are never very long and are priced accordingly.  It takes me a couple of days to play each one, but I freely admit to checking a walkthrough if I get really stuck.


This is the only game on this list that isn't fairly recent.  The first Syberia game was released in 2002.  It's another traditional point-and-click adventure game, and considered one of the classics of the genre.  I played this game and it's sequel, Syberia 2, back at the time.  I enjoyed them but didn't fall as utterly in love with them as other people I knew.  Of course, that was before I had even heard the term steampunk.  So I was interested in revisiting the game(s) to see how steampunk they really are, and also to see how well they have held up.

First, I have to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed playing the first game, and how utterly steampunk pretty much all of the design is.  The plot is that you are a modern day lawyer from New York, Kate Walker.   You are sent to a small town in the French alps to finalize the sale of a company that makes clockwork toys to a large corporation.  The company has fallen on hard times due to a lack of interest in clockwork automatons anymore.  Things get complicated when the current owner dies before the deal is finalized and you have to track down the long lost heir.  Eventually this involves journeying across Europe in a clockwork-powered train with an automaton engineer.

The background art in this game is gorgeous, and the combination of clockwork, industrial, and art nouveau design makes for a wonderful environment.  Graphically, the game was fairly advanced for its time, so it doesn't look that out of date today.  The 3D character models hold up worse than the 2D backgrounds.

It's a good thing the backgrounds are pretty, because there are a LOT of them and you will spend a lot of time running through them, usually over and over again.  The game takes place in a series of different locations where your goal is just to get moving forward again.  The puzzles are inventory and dialog based, and aren't fiendishly difficult or illogical, but it's sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what you are supposed to be doing.  There is less narration in this game than most, so you don't get as much direction from your character.

Syberia 2 is the second game and is a direct continuation of the first.  You can't really call the story complete without the second game, which is a shame because I think the second one is much less well written and designed than the first one.  It also lacks any real steampunk elements beyond the already established train and automaton.  The first game, on the other hand includes not only a clockwork factory, automaton sidekick, and clockwork train, but a clock-spring powered space rocket, an airship, giant automatons, and many smaller moments of beautiful steampunk technology.  The first has a much larger variety of settings, tasks, and characters.

So, I'm actually quite glad I replayed these games.  I really enjoyed replaying the first game, since I think my memory of the second one had biased my memory of it.  The beauty and design of the locations are wonderfully evocative from a steampunk point of view.  And since you can get both games for less than $10, I think it's worth it.  Also, I had no problems running either game on my new Windows 7 laptop, which isn't always the case with older games.

I hope these recommendations encourage someone out there to try a game they might otherwise have missed, and if you do, I hope you enjoy it.

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