Tuesday, September 4, 2012

GAME REVIEW: RESONANCE (2012)

A Game by Vince Twelve

Producers: Dave Gilbert and Vince Twelve
Executive Producer: Irina Pinjaeva

Programmers: Janet Gilbert and Vince Twelve
Lead Artist: Shane Stevens
Background Artist: Nauris Krauze
Music by Nikolas Sideris, North by Sound
Dialogue by Dave Gilbert, Janet Gilbert, Vince Twelve, and Deirdra Kiai

Cast
Edward Bauer as Ed
Sarah Elmaleh as Anna
Daryl Lathan as Raymond
Logan Cunningham as Winston


A homicide detective, a physicist, a doctor, and a muckraking blogger are all caught up in a search for the secrets behind a highly destructive technology that may or may not be the cause of a massive lab explosion and a citywide blackout. The destructive technology has supposedly been designed as a potential source of unlimted clean energy, but it could also be exploited as a superweapon. There's also a computer database compiling the DNA signature of every man, woman, and child in the United States. Both of these things have been created within the same American city. Coincidence or conspiracy?

There's also some doubts about whether the four investigators can trust one another:

 A conspiracy seems to be afoot with roots in both the federal and city government--is the homicide detective, Winston Bennet, in on it?

 Raymond, the blogger, is looking for a scoop--is he working on behalf of an anti-government faction? Or is he just another stooge of an authoritarian government run amuck?

The doctor, Anna, seems to have some troubled memories in her head--is she sane? Can she be depended upon?

 And Tolstoy "Ed" Eddings is the physicist-and that guy just seems like a bumbling, neurotic loser. If the conspiracy starts hiring bulky men in trenchcoats with automatic weapons this is the guy you'd want to trip to distract the attack dogs.

All four of these characters are placed at the player's command in a point-and-click adventure/mystery that had me hooked from the opening screen. It is fully voiced by a strong cast, has clever writing, and appealing, well-crafted visuals with massive retro-charm. The original score by Nikolas Sideris is pefectly matched to the material, and I listen to the soundtrack quite frequently just to stimulate thinking in everyday life. (I have it cued up in a playlist with music from the Kemco/Seika adaptations of Shadowgate, Dejavu, and Uninvited for the NES. That's a playlist you listen to while gettin' to the bottom of things . . .) The dialogue is clever, humorous, philosophical, deadly serious when necessary, and strongly performed by a lively voice cast, especially the four leads. The story is soaked in the paranoia of the New American Surveillance State, and the plot is as twisty, darkly comedic, and cruel as a gonzo South Korean cinematic thriller. Resonance plays like a lost masterpiece of the 1990s PC point-and-click adventure game boom.

 Not only must you deal with the usual sorts of inventory, logic, and dialogue puzzles, but you must also deploy your foursome strategically in different situations to succeed. This element of team endeavor allows Resonance to play with ideas of perception, professionalism, and ambition. Each character has a different set of priorities, skills, tools, and access to different areas of the game world. It got me thinking, "In a crisis situation, it's almost never the lone individual who prevails." Resonance doesn't quite fully exploit this dynamic, but it makes a noble attempt. One of the dilemmas facing designers of games like this is just how complex do they want to make the various puzzles, and how many different solutions will they build into a given puzzle. Such considerations are measured against the desire to have a smooth flowing narrative, since games like this are much more story-based than a sandbox, open world 3-D type of game. A sandbox game is more about simulating the complexities of a virtual life as one damn thing after another, enlisting the player in crafting the kind of narrative they desire from a range of choices and complex decision trees woven into persistent virtual arenas. A 2-D point-and-click game is more like a movie or a stage play. In fact, I would say Resonance has a lot in common with a stage play, since it emphasizes dialogue, character, and a three act structure with reversals, irony, and revelations of both the plot and the people caught up in it.  It will be interesting to see if future point-and-click adventure games extend the scope and detail of implementing a kind of  "group protagonist" as a player character.

One of the interesting ideas driving the game is how it uses something it calls "Short Term Memory." In order to ask an NPC about something that does not come up as an automatic dialogue option, you must point at the thing in question and drag it into one of your STM boxes. Other items and events become seared into your player character's "Long Term Memory" by various circumstances. Memory itself is a theme in the game, and it is clever how the designers have woven it into the gameplay mechanics. I think that perhaps a bit more could've been done with both the theme and and the gameplay mechanic, but I only came to this conclusion after my fourth or fifth playthrough. It's a meaty, satisfying experience in terms of both gameplay and narrative.

Resonance is the product of a collaboration between the company Wadjet Eye Games, headed by the husband and wife team of Dave and Janet Gilbert, and game designer Vince Twelve. I am pretty familiar with the Wadjet Eye catalogue, but have yet to play any of Vince Twelve's previous games. According to the commentary track that you can switch on during the game (don't do it until you've played through the game once or twice) Vince Twelve had been working on the game by himself for four or five years and then hooked up with Wadjet Eye to bring the game to completion and to market. It will be interesting to see if and when these two entities collaborate again, and what comes of it. Wadjet Eye Game's previous efforts include the one-of-a-kind The Shivah, perhaps the only video game with a two-fisted rabbi as the detective hero. The Shivah is like a one-act or maybe a two-act off-off-Broadway play with strong dialogue and characters tormented by inner conflict. Wadjet Eye has also put out the Blackwell series of paranormal mysteries, which are kind of like a series of clever fantasy novels mixing ghosts and murder plots with a freelance journalist protagonist and her ghostly detective sidekick partner. Vince Twelve seems to bring more of a hard science fiction flavor to the mix. As a science fiction litearature fan I think it will be interesting to see Wadjet Eye and/or Vince Twelve come up with more games in the sci-fi mode.


Resonance is a pont-and-click adventure game that demands that the player think through some pretty tough puzzles. Well, they were tough for me. I've never been much of a math and quantitative skills kind of guy. I'm into literature, narrative, words, and there were times when playing Resonance where I became frustrated with this or that puzzle or problem. My frustration had nothing to do with the quality of the game or the design of the puzzles. I was frustrated with myself for not being up to the challenges at hand, and impatient to know where the story was going. But the game is worth the frustration. Of course, if you find yourself pulling your hair out, you can always hit up the various walkthroughs on the Internet. No shame in that. Only you and the NSA will ever know . . .

Which brings me to another set of musings: my enjoyment of Resonace, and point-and-click games in general, is largely a narrative one--in other words I come to these games for many of the same reasons I pick up a novel, or watch a movie. Although I try to tough out the most difficult puzzles, I must confess I often will consult walkthroughts because of my desire to know what happens next. With the exception of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Earth Bound, I've never really been an obsessive, hardcore gamer. So I don't feel shame when I come up against something I can't figure out and decide to "cheat." I also find that "cheating" in this fashion usually does not lessen my enjoyment of the games as narrative . . . but something bugs me. What if these games are really puzzles meant to test my will to prevail? What if the more that I cheat every now and again, the more my will to prevail declines, and I find myself, some day in the future, facing a real life locked room puzzle, and with no FAQs, no walkthroughs, no nothing to save me?! What then?! Let's hope it doesn't come to that. But I still can't shake the eerie feeling that each one of these games is a little test, a mini-trial, and I'm not doing so great . . .

I've read in other places that nowadays no one really plays video games alone anymore, at least in the sense that the Internet is now the repository of human knowledge of all kinds, including all the trivia about video games and their solutions. So, maybe, the true test is learning to use the internet, use that collective repository of knowledge, to get through the tough problems. After all, in crisis situations, it is rarely the lone individual that prevails. Such a notion also ties in with Resonance's themes of collective action and collaboration amongst a group of determined people. So, maybe, I'm not a cheater at all.

How about that?

Resonance game trailer:



Click here to visit the WadjetEye Games website.


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