Since the rise of “casual” gaming, the explosion of online game publishing, and the rise of esports, video games have become mass culture for people of all ages. It’s only natural then to come across books like 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. The title a suggests grand curatorial ambition which the book never quite realizes.
It covers games across all devices and is organized chronologically, starting in 1971 (The Oregon Trail) and ending in 2013 (Bioshock Infinite). The book inexplicably focuses the bulk of its attention on titles from the 2000s (pages 416 to 921). So, prepare to read lots about the various Grand Theft Auto titles and Guitar Hero type games. On the other hand, Sierra Online’s entire catalog of adventure games is reduced to a single title (The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery).
Most games in the book are as lavishly illustrated as the ones visible here. Some reviews, however, are entirely without screenshots. (Credit: Universe Publishing / Quintessence Editions Ltd. Fair use.)
The capsule reviews of each title include plenty of criticism (sometimes so much that one has to wonder why the game made the cut at all), but no scores. With a large number of contributing writers, the quality of the writing is inconsistent. Some authors do an excellent job capturing a game’s ambience, story and gameplay; others barely describe the game at all, focusing instead on development history and other background.
My biggest frustration was that some games were included without any screenshots whatsoever—and we’re not talking about text adventures here, but titles like Elite or Nintendogs. This is fortunately the exception, but it’s a cardinal sin for this kind of book, and the reason I can only give it three stars.
All in all, I don’t regret keeping this hefty compendium on my shelf, but if you’re looking for video game curation done well (with a lot more love for older games), I would recommend checking out the many titles by Bitmap Books instead.
So, what is your robot going to look like? Will it be a box with eyes on wheels, a flying furry puppet, a spider-robot with 360-degree vision? Make your selection and be presented with—another screen of text.
Choice of Robots is a game by Choice of Games, a company that should not exist. At least not if gaming followed the conventional history in which video game genres are forged in the fire of one generation of computing hardware, only to be wiped out in the avalanche of the next. Text adventures? They have gone the way of the dodo and the cathode-ray tube, surely.
Not quite. In 2009, Choice of Games released “Choice of the Dragon”, a text-based adventure game that became a smash success on mobile devices. Since then, they have released more than 100 titles under the “Choice of” label. The company has also made its game engine available under a license that permits noncommercial use, and they publish an endless flow of user-created titles.
It’s hard to explain the appeal of “Choice of” games if you haven’t played one. So go ahead, and try the damn dragon game in your browser. While the games share similarities with “Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebooks (“to attack the dragon, turn to page 69”), they offer a much larger number of choices, track internal variables, and do other things that computers can and books can’t. One thing they don’t do: trying to parse text input (“GET LAMP”). If you’ve ever played an old school text adventure, the parser is the one thing likely to drive you bonkers, because typing the exact words the computer expects can be a stochastic nightmare.
Just a few paragraphs of text, next choice. A bit more text, next choice. The formula works beautifully to get you to read a book without realizing it. (Credit: Choice of Games / Kevin Gold. Fair use.)
Robots then! Choice of Robots author Kevin Gold knows
01 thing or
10 about them. An Assistant Teaching Professor at Northeastern University, he “received his PhD from Yale University in 2008 for research on how robots could learn the meanings of pronouns and other abstract words from examples.” Choice of Robots isn’t about pronouns, though—it’s more about fulfilling that fantasy of “conquering Alaska with your robot army” that you’ve always had. OK, you also do get to pick your robot’s pronouns.
You start the game designing your robot and then walk down your chosen path, to achieve your destiny as a reclusive robot tinkerer or a power-mad corporate overlady. Yes, those are the only two options. Just kiddding.
The game beautifully adapts to your decisions. If you want your Alaska fantasy, that’s what you’ll get (hey, no judgment). If you want a love story, that’s what you’ll get. If you want a tale in which hyperintelligent robots become good-natured shepherds of their obsolete human builders, that’s probably also what you’ll get, but ask your robot supervisor.
Aside from the romantic options being fairly limited—this ain’t a robot dating sim—none of these paths feel underdeveloped. Gold’s writing draws upon the real world (let your professor introduce you to the military-industrial complex), on myths and legends (dress up as Hephaestus at a party), on literary references (quote The Tempest at a funeral), and much more. It does so while staying lighthearted and unpretentious, even as Gold’s PhD ever looms in the game’s byline.
Choice of Robots may make you think about what the future holds, but most of the philosophical ground it visits is well-traveled. It’s in the nature of the game to not be morally prescriptive. In other words, you can be clearly quite evil, if that’s how you want to play it. As an interactive story, it’s a masterclass that’s sure to keep you entertained for a few hours. To send your flying muppet into the world, it’s well worth the six bucks.
The Last Birdling is a visual novel by indie developer Marcus “InvertMouse” Lam released in 2017, two years after Cursed Sight (review). It tells the story of the secretive relationship between two girls, a human named Tayo and a birdling named Bimonia. The birdlings are winged humanoid creatures that once dominated the wild—but after a great war with the humans, Bimonia and her mother may be the last birdlings alive.
As a young woman, Tayo is drawn further into the conflict between birdlings and humans. (Credit: InvertMouse. Fair use.)
A a child, Tayo befriends Bimonia in the forest near a human settlement. For both girls, their growing friendship is a chance to escape their protective and demanding mothers, and to experience the joy of discovering the world through the eyes of another. But humans still view birdlings as dangerous monsters. If Bimonia is spotted by the townspeople, the result will almost certainly be bloodshed—and Tayo will be branded a traitor for becoming a birdling’s friend.
As the player, your perspective alternates between the two protagonists, and you are prompted to make many small choices. As Tayo, do you swallow a rotten herb offered to you by Bimonia, even though it may make you ill? The effect of these choices is limited until the end, when the nature of the relationship between Tayo and Bimonia leads to one of five endings.
Regardless of your decisions, this is not a cheerful tale. While the game is generally not visually explicit, it includes textual descriptions of violence, death, and sexual assault.
A well-crafted tale
Technologically, The Last Birdling is a solid title that showcases InvertMouse’s growing mastery over the visual novel format. The characters are visually expressive and the game is well-paced, offering beautiful chapter transition screens as the story progresses. As a player, it’s easy to visit the different endings without re-reading old text.
The game attempts a fair bit of worldbuilding, including a glossary that fleshes out concepts touched upon in the story. The quality of the writing is sometimes uneven, but never distractingly so. As in some of InvertMouse’s other stories, the characters do have a tendency towards self-loathing that gets a bit tiresome.
The Last Birdling is a better title than Cursed Sight in almost every respect, but in spite of that, I found it less emotionally impactful. The ambiguous relationship between Bimonia and Tayo pulled me away from the characters to the larger themes of the story. As a result, even the most tragic events packed less of a punch.
Nonetheless, The Last Birdling is a good story. I would recommend it to fans of the visual novel genre, if you’re in the mood for a fantasy tale about forbidden friendship that visits some dark places. At $5 it’s a small price for a labor of love by a storyteller of maturing talent.