Toys in Games, Games as Toys, and Action Henk as Both, with Roel Ezendam

ETAO Podcast, Episode 20.


Action Henk is out (of Steam Early Access) today, and to celebrate, here’s my conversation with Roel Ezendam of RageSquid Games.

Action Henk is a game about momentum, perfectionism, and making things that actually are as amazing as we remember things being in our childhoods—not just recapturing former glory, but surpassing it. Or to put it another way, Action Henk is the game that we all expect Sonic the Hedgehog to be, but that it never quite is. Or it’s Sonic by way of Trials, maybe.

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Roel is the kind of guy who gets deep into the nerdery of in-game physics (albeit mostly in Dutch rather than English), and who talks consummately and lucidly about the hard science behind that most squishily of goals, making it feel good to control a character. (For Roel, this comes down to thinking of the player-character as a “toy” within the game, compelling even without gameplay context).

It’s such a tough thing to pin down, and yet it’s what puts Action Henk a cut above—and for that matter, it’s the main that separates Super Mario World from Shaq-Fu. Powerful stuff, then.

———
• Here’s that thing Ben Kuchera said about Spelunky. That quote was on my mind because Gabe Durham used it in his work on Bible Adventures for Boss Fight Books (which he also runs, and which is quite worth checking out).

• I haven’t written about Lethal League (yet), but it and Gang Beasts do both come highly recommended.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Henk’s Theme” from the Action Henk original soundtrack, by Wiklund.

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On the Semi-Unspoilability of Infinifactory, with Zach Barth

ETAO Podcast, Episode 19.


Zach Barth returns for a spoiler-centric look at a game where spoilers arguably don’t not even matter, his absolutely delightful engineer-’em-up Infinifactory. Mechanically, the game is in one sense unspoilable. Sure, seeing a solution to a given puzzle takes an open-ended head-scratcher and turns it into a set of IKEA furniture, but there’s still a process of building, and at least potentially a process of learning. And you’re only ever seeing a solution, never the solution.

The issue of narrative spoilers gets a bit more complicated. Just as SpaceChem offers a an allegory for humanist thought (as Zach said last time we talked), so too does Infinifactory offer and allegory for—well, again, that would be spoiling it.

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Infinifactory is about to be officially released from early access, but given that you’ve been able to play the game in near-finished form for quite a while now, what does it mean, really, that it’s about to be “released?”

The experience of releasing a game from Early Access into Right On Time Access is something that Zach and I will save for Part 3 in our series of interview—did I mention that we’re going to do a Part 3 in our series of interviews?—while this time ’round we talk about the Early Access experience itself, the drive to build beautiful things in a game ostensibly about utilitarian efficiency, and the origins of handsome animated Infinifactory gifs like the one above.

Seriously, by the way, in case you care: brimming with spoilers.

———
The Infinifactory subreddit really is a thing of wonder.

• And The Zachtronics Podcast really is off to a rollicking start.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” by George and Ira Gershwin, performed by Richard Glazier.
“Ragging the Scale” by Edward B. Claypoole, performed by Conway’s Band.

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Personal Glory and Filial Fealty in Hero Generations

Hero Generations is one among a recent spate of games that explore player-character mortality. But here everything overexplained or overcomplicated in, say, DoubleFine’s MASSIVE CHALICE, is stripped down to turn-based basics. Each turn takes a year of your current character’s life—though key events might elongate or shorten your life expectancy—and “milestones” govern character growth: adulthood brings greater combat strength and physical prowess; old age, not so much.

Mortality constantly hangs over you, yes, but so do certain inevitable rites of passage. You won’t be a vigorous young man much longer, so maybe stop thinking so much about slaying the evil dragon-thing Ragesquid and start thinking about finding somebody nice with whom to start a family.

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Once you do meet and woo your mate, you settle down. Adventure into your twilight years before doing so, and you could leave a stronger legacy for the next generation—and not incidentally, you might well win a more prestigious partner—but since you’ll have had fewer years with your spouse, the two of you will have fewer traits and stat bonuses to pass along.

With all these darkly playful RPG eugenics, the game requires you to weigh individual glory against caution and calculus, personal achievements against farther-reaching ambitions that House You could never hope to realize in a single lifetime. It’s a radically pared down MASSIVE CHALICE, crossed with a twitchier Desktop Dungeons, if you go in for that kind of analogy.

It’s gleefully bleak and carefully tuned, and probably the purest delivery system yet for the robust-RPG-where-you’re-for-sure-gonna-die-and-the-world-will-go-on-without-you idea.

Surviving, Protecting, and Building a Lynx Legacy in Shelter 2

The original Shelter cold-opened on a mother badger and her litter of cubs. It was a game of survival, but more than that, a game of protecting non-player characters in need of near-constant vigilance. Sometimes this was thrilling—Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but with badgers!—and at other times it felt more like a game-length escort quest, replete with dodgy pathfinding and undue (though thematically consistent) harshness.

Shelter 2 iterates on that idea in a number of fairly smart ways. First and foremost, this time you’re not a badger but a lynx. You’re able to hunt right from the start, occupying higher place on the food chain despite definitely not being at the top of it. You have a bigger environment to explore, and more to do in it, and the folks at Might and Delight have doubled down on the low-angled patterns-and-patchwork graphical style of the first game. At moments it’s literally breathtaking to look at.

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But no, that’s not what’s first and foremost. More importantly, the game opens with you as the mother lynx, alone, pursued by wolves, pregnant and seeking a place to give birth. There’s some unnecessary expositional text, some magical realism, fine fine, but you make it through and then you’re in the den with your litter, and your children all have names that you can change. And you can begin your next playthrough as one of your cubs, now all grown up, and continue your family tree. It’s remarkable how much those little touches do for my connection with my lynx family.

Seasons change, and you teach your cubs to roam and hunt. They’re better at following you, and eventually better at self preservation, than I remember my badger charges being. It’s still a game about exploration, survival, and most of all, taking on the role of a fierce and tireless protector. If the previous game left you cold, then the elaborations and iterations here might not win you over. But if the landscape above seems worth roaming, and if the little lynxes below conjure maternal feelings in you, then you’re likely to find some joy in Shelter 2.

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Games That Don’t Exclude and Foxes That Don’t Talk, with Erin Robinson

ETAO Podcast, Episode 18.


Erin Robinson of Ivy Games stops by to discuss Gravity Ghost, her work teaching game design at Columbia College Chicago, talking animals, not-talking animals, and the previously untapped power fantasy of terraforming planets with one’s long, beautiful hair.

I was really taken with Gravity Ghost from the first time I played it and, as I mention in the interview, the ending made me feel the need to snuggle my beloved game-designing dog for quote a while. It’s affecting, this game.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but my hair really is quite stunning.

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———
• David Sedaris made that comment about talking-animals-as-shorthand in this Daily Show interview on his book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

• And that BoJack Horseman quote came from this AMA.

• And here’s that interview that Erin did with the Phoenix Examiner.

• Yep, Frozen Synapse is still two-for-one, presumably forever. So that’s neat.

• I’ll go ahead and link that incredible Leigh Alexander talk again.

• For those unfamiliar with Cory Archangel’s Super Mario Clouds. (Seeing a screening of that in a class at UChicago was a surreal experience, to say the least).

• Ian Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames contains useful definitions of artgames and prodecuralism, a reframing of the David Carr/Clay Shirky dichotomy, and some helpful, hopeful words on the issue of “gamer identity.”

• Here’s Don Cheadle telling you not to be an actor and Charles Bukowski instructing “young men” not to be poets.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Terraforming” / “Flower Girl” from the Gravity Ghost Soundtrack by Ben Prunty.

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You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

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Seeking Out Hope and Maintaining Mental Health in This War of Mine

As I mentioned in my interview with Dan Teasdale of No Goblin, I’ve been tending toward games that exude joy, even in the face of intensely difficult circumstances. This means that This War of Mine occupies an odd place in my videogame diet—intensely engaging, ethically serious, and emotionally nutritious, but frequently short on exuberance or hope.

I wasn’t sure how much of that was purposeful bleakness, and how much of it was simply a result of me playing the game badly or reading it incompletely. Luckily, Pawel Miechowski of 11 Bit Studios was willing to talk with me about the team’s intent, and what he hopes that players will take away from their rewarding-yet-taxing creation.

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Drew M-M: Some of the most intriguing mechanics in the game involve the emotional stability of the playable characters—from general depression, to smokers getting edgy when they can’t find cigarettes. Would it be fair to say that this focus on mental and emotional health is meant to offer a contrast to the hyper-stoic heroes that are customary in military shooters?

Pawel Miechowski: It does look that way on the surface. However, we haven’t been designing This War of Mine with a focus on a contrast to traditional war games, but as an entirety to be an experience. What I mean is that the creative director Michal Drozdowski made a very reasonable point at the beginning (once the idea has been ignited) that we shouldn’t think of it as a some kind of genre, let’s say survival or strategy, but as an experience picturing civilians trapped in a city under siege, everything should be built around this assumption.

Every piece of the mechanics from that point was done with that in mind—to picture reality of war from [a] civilian perspective in every possible layer. Emotions of the characters say about few things: that people are different and have different personalities; that they are heavily influenced by the horribleness of war but also they do have little moments of joy, and finally that the emotional toll may be even heavier than the physical one.

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DMM: On a related note, I’ve definitely had playthroughs where I haven’t felt much hope. Things have gone bad early and stayed bad. It’s entirely possible that I need to get better at surviving in order to see my characters at their most hopeful, but I wonder: was your goal with the game to increase players’ empathy for real people in desperate (possibly hopeless) situations, and maybe also to guide players toward eking out moments defiant optimism?

PM: I think a good comment to this would be quotes from feedback from veterans or survivors of war—feedback that we got after TWoM has been released. In short words, they sent us supportive words that we’ve made a game that is close to their experiences. (Big thanks here for all people who gave us the support and feedback!) For some, it worked as a catharsis, for some it was an experience that brought the topic of how real war may have looked like, and for some it was a tool to tell their own stories of civilians in war.

The message behind TWoM is: war can happen anywhere, anytime. And when it happens, we’re all the same people, no matter what is your nationality. I am moved when I hear TWoM can increase empathy, this is something really inspiring, and I believe I can say it on behalf on entire team.

Constructing Characters with Game of Thrones

There are three things I know about Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series:

1. The Red Wedding is some fucked up repugnant shit that basically puts an end to House Stark.

2. Tyrion Lannister is a badass by default, if for no other reason because he is played by Peter Dinklage, who I’ve adored ever since his breakout role.

3. Characters die indiscriminately all the damn time.

Armed only with those three bits of information, I delved into the first two episodes of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series.

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A visual representation of my knowledge of the series.

Right off the bat, we are introduced to one Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Gregor Forrester. He is the player’s avatar in this world and all of the decision-making in the first part of Episode 1 is from his perspective. Just like in the other Telltale Games entries since The Walking Dead, the character is shaped within the parameters of the story by the player’s response to different character interactions and situations.

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If someone were to ask me what Game of Thrones is about, this is also a pretty good visual representation of my reaction.

We meet Gared literally minutes before The Red Wedding occurs and, as he is loyal to House Forrester, itself loyal to House Stark, things don’t go very swimmingly for him. He is quickly thrust into a world of chaos and uncertainty, which is absolutely a great place to suddenly drop the player into the narrative. We spend our time establishing our own sense of place in this strange world and adjust to what sort of person we want Gared to be and represent. Big decisions are made about the path that Gared will walk and when the time comes for Gared to embrace his destiny and move forward, we…

…switch characters.

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I’m hoping she can see where they’re going with this better than me.

That’s Mira Forrester, eldest daughter of House Forrester and handmaiden to Lady Margaery Tyrell. The transition from Gared to Mira is unexpected and, for me, a bit clunky. Still, I did find it interesting that we are now looking at the same narrative from two different perspectives and two different locales. After all, Game of Thrones draws heavily from history (I think) and warfare and political maneuvering varied greatly depending on different factors like social standing, sex and gender, and location. So I’ll bite.

The next part of Episode 1 is spent establishing the character of Mira Forrester: her personality, priorities, loyalties, etc. Basically what we just did with Gared, but with a different sort of environment to be aware of. Whereas Gared is an aspiring soldier, Mira must navigate the arguably more treacherous world of bureaucracy and diplomacy, where her every action is scrutinized and a mild social faux pas could have far-reaching consequences. We familiarize ourselves with King’s Landing and begin to understand Mira Forrester’s role in the narrative and then…

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…Yeah, me too, buddy.

Ethan Forrester is the third-born son of House Forrester who, through a series of unfortunate events, is made Lord of House Forrester at a very young age. During the last section of Episode 1, we (once again) establish all the things we need to establish about who Ethan is and how he responds to his abrupt and tragic elevation of status. He sort of bridges the gap between Gared and Mira, since he has to decide early on whether or not to take a more proactive and battle-ready approach or act in the interest of diplomacy, with the primary concern being protecting his family and house from the fallout of The Red Wedding. Things aren’t easy for him, and it’s definitely an uphill battle, but by making careful choices and acting accordingly and with resolve we…

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…well, shit…

Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series is an ambitious experiment in story-driven gaming in that it asks the player to assume several different roles, all active voices in the same overarching story. What little I know about Game of Thrones and its character-driven narrative suggests that this is a good decision, emphasizing the importance of interweaving actions that result in a dramatic story of cause and effect.

However, with the medium of video games having almost always been driven by the player assuming a single autonomous role in any given story, there are also several problematic components to consider. Chief among them: just how immersed are we meant to be? If we look at The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett as an avatar representative of the player, then Gared Tuttle is the Game of Thrones parallel. Both characters have a fixed past prior to the player assuming their roles, but there is clearly room to define and shape the character according to the player’s own sense of self and move forward from there. For all intents and purposes, they are blank slates.

Gared’s function as avatar is disrupted with the inclusion of Mira and Ethan Forrester. The focus shifts away from being an active player in a story and toward being a controller of characters in a video game. The game does attempt to let you establish your own Mira and your own Ethan, just as with Gared, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the game has now become less about interacting with the world for the sake of story immersion and more about “winning” some larger endgame. You’re no longer acting and reacting to the story and its characters, you’re building your own D&D team and you’re also kind of the dungeon master.

There is also the abundant source of canon to consider. I started this game knowing very little about Game of Thrones, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Drew (who is very familiar with the eponymous television series) made his decisions. Does the extensive knowledge of the series encourage players to stay on the path of R.R. Martin’s universe? Is it even possible to actually disrupt the canon and create something new? Do the Forresters even exist in the Game of Thrones canon? Is it “cheating” to use all that knowledge about canon in order to progress?

On our upcoming installment of Ready or Not, Drew and I will discuss whether those varying factors result in a beautifully executed game that pushes the medium of interactive narrative, or whether those same factors result in an unfortunately transparent, and therefore superficial, narrative that trips over its own convoluted ambition.

Sunless Sea Exemplifies Games-as-Imagination-Food

Sunless Sea is, fundamentally and at its core, a Fallen London roguelike. If you’ve played Fallen London (formally known as Echo Bazaar), then that might be all the information you need. Sunless Sea occupies the same frayed Victorian unreality, and it has the same grim erudition, the same vivid wordsmithing, the same penchant for putting the player in precarious, surreal situations.

But whereas Fallen London is essentially an elaborate delivery system for vividly described settings and branching storylines—some stats and RPG elements, some free-to-play-style cooldowns, but really, mostly, just the words and the choices—Sunless Sea aspires to hang all that on a frame of realtime nautical exploration.

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Sunless Sea arrived in Steam Early Access in an uncommonly complete state. It was already full treacherous movement and enjoyably unforgiving management, all enlivened by Failbetter Games’ eerie and inimitable writing. As of today, the game leaves Early Access, and I’m happy—giddy, actually—to report that the systems for zailing and fighting and trading now hum and cohere with greater resonance. Sunless Sea has grown into exactly what I wanted out of a Fallen London roguelike, which is to say that I’m a bit overwhelmed by how inventive and evocative the whole thing is, and also by how truly terrible I am at it.

Well, I’ll get better.

Then again, maybe I won’t.

As I’ve said in reference to Arcen’s oeuvre, there’s joy in mastering a system, but there’s also a thrill in loving a game that you’ll probably never see all of. Hell, I just recently referred to some bosses in The Binding of Isaac as the “final” ones, not realizing that—without spoiling anything specific here—they very much were not. More than a hundred hours in, that game has significant possibilities that I’ve yet to exhaust—key paths that I’ve managed not to wiki-spoil for myself.

Sunless Sea promises similarly well-hidden rewards. It’s designed to be played across numerous player-character lifetimes, with some resources and unlocks (and of course, some knowledge) passed along with each new attempt. The game has 30 Steam Achievements, and all 30 are of them secret achievements, meaning that you don’t know the conditions for unlocking them until you’ve already gone ahead and unlocked them. Sunless Sea is that kind of game.

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When I spoke to Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett about A Wizard’s Lizard, I offered lunch break roguelike as one possible way of describing the roguelike-alikes we love so well, and that not everyone is comfortable simply calling roguelikes. The lunch break-based terminology both does and doesn’t apply well to Sunless Sea.

I’ve definitely begun and ended in-game lifetimes in the space of an hour or less, but that’s more a testament to my own sloppy captaining than to the game’s intended pace. When I’m playing Sunless Sea well, I’m far more likely to start the game up, make a few key decisions, log out, and then go about my day with images of fungal swamps and beguiling devilesses floating around in my head.

I tend to play it kind of like Fallen London, in other words. That game’s free-to-play structures (entirely fair and ethical ones, it must be said) tended to limit me to quick bursts of play. Sunless Sea is friendly to that mode of engagement, but it’s equally well-suited to long sessions of arduous cartography (pushing ever further into the unknown) and wanton narrative gluttony (more story, more!)

Story and setting will probably always be the meat and potatoes of any Failbetter game. But the developer has now demonstrated great facility with accompanying flavors and aromas. Sunless Sea exemplifies games-as-imagination-food—and as long as I’m already straining this metaphor: it’s an uncommonly delicious meal, delicious friends.

On the Art of the Anti-Puzzle, with Zach Barth

ETAO Podcast, Episode 17.


Infinifactory feels like SpaceChem for the world that Minecraft hath wrought—which makes sense, given that it’s the latest from Zach Barth, who both masterminded SpaceChem and ushered in the Blocks ‘n Voxels Age with his seminal “infinifranchise” (Zach’s competitive mine-’em-up Infiniminer was the direct inspiration for Minecraft, and well, after Minecraft came the flood).

“They’re all terrible,” Zach said of his infinigames when I spoke to him. I respectfully disagree (and he’s at least half-joking anyway), but his larger point stands: Notch took Infiniminer and made “something totally different and totally better.” Infiniminer sees Zach attempting something totally different and totally better, as well, building on his older work in unexpected ways.

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Zach has been making games since those murky, pre-Kickstarter, “pre-Braid” days when, in his words, “nobody made money on indie games.” We’re now living in a world very different from that world, and Infinifactory sees Zach diving into the latter day indie development space with aplomb. (This means adding a layer of audiovisual and interface polish—again in his words, “making a game that doesn’t look like crap, and actually looks like something that you might like to give a shot to. Zach is a self-deprecating guy).

And also, Zach is a very chill guy.

You may quote me.

———
• Matthew Burns did in fact give us both that remarkable and highly useful article on “consumer-kings” and the Infinifactory soundtrack.

• Here’s Jay Allen on “this clash of anonymous imageboard culture with the parts of social media where people live and work”.

• And here’s Leigh Alexander on how gamer culture is sort of stuck in 1990, and what specifically she means by that is utterly fascinating and hugely important.

• I grabbed Max Barry’s Lexicon and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’m excited to read both. Do also consider checking out John Darnielle’s fairly spectacular novel, Wolf in White Van. And pretty much everything by William Gibson, obviously.

• And people, Over the Garden Wall really is just amazing.

• Toni Morrison was indeed the one who said the thing about being a conduit. Here’s what got me thinking about that idea recently.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by Spike Jones and His City Slickers.
“Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by The Raymond Scott Quintette, from the Microphone Music anthology.

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You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

Revisiting a Beloved Aesthetic Gateway Drug with Grim Fandango Remastered

Grim Fandango was something of a gateway drug for me, back in the hair gel-saturated Dark Ages of 1998. I’d just played The Neverhood, and been blown away by its fearless weirdness and its earthy religious allegories. Then I’d played The Curse of Monkey Island, and gotten lost in its lush cell animation, windblown piratey orchestrations, and groan-inducing puns.

I was on an adventure game kick, and that kick didn’t let up for quite a while. By and by, I played them all. But the thing is, I’m not sure I would in fact have gone ahead and played them all if not for Grim Fandango.

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Grim Fandango, like The Neverhood, dared to look absolutely nothing like videogames were then supposed to look. But here it wasn’t just commitment to looking like physically sculpted (or hand-drawn, as Nintendo, well outside of the adventure game space, had just attempted and then attempted again).

No, for me at the time, Grim Fandango wasn’t just notable for how little it looked like other games, but also for how many other things it did look like. It’s a film noir Art Deco Land of the Dead, a highbrow aesthetic bricolage the likes of which I’d never seen. (This was almost ten years before Objectivist Atlantis was a canonical setting or a first person shooter, remember).

It opened my eyes to the Dia de Los Muertos imagery (and Deco/Mayan Revival architecture) that, growing up in Los Angeles, had been around me all along. It got me interested in art history. It got me interested in film noir.

And yes, it was the first adventure game that sent me hurtling backwards, not just forward to the next big release, toward older adventure games. LucasArts’ previous work— the older Monkey Islands and the Indiana Jonses, Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle—back to even earlier, even more wonderfully weird creations.

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So the release of Grim Fandango Remastered gives me the opportunity to reminisce and evangelize, and also the opportunity to report that the game has aged really well. Part of that is due to the aesthetics being not just singular but smart from a design perspective. The pre-rendered environments scale up fairly nicely, and the characters’ sugar skull faces can wring a maximum of expressiveness and stylistic panache from a minimum of actual animation.

Yes, and I’m as fond of Tony Plana’s leading man turn as Manny now as I was then, and the story still packs more a few emotional punches, and the Land of the Dead still feels believable and (ironically) uncommonly lived-in.

And in the remaster there’s better lighting and a freshly orchestrated soundtrack, and you can now play with point-and-click, and with camera-relative movement—though you can also switch back to the old “tank” controls, and there’s an utterly perverse achievement for playing the whole game that way. I’d prefer a plain old black bar letterbox to the deco borders framing the game’s 4:3 images, but so far, that’s honestly the biggest complaint that I have about this rerelease.

Look, there’s no way I can be remotely clear-eyed about this game. Like I said, it was my gateway drug. Hopefully now it can be somebody else’s gateway drug, too.