And Now My (Fire)Watch Begins

Firewatch

Every once in a while, a game comes along that feels special – a game that manages, almost by accident, to transcend the genre and stumble upon the elusive achievement of being a milestone in popular culture.

I believe that Campo Santo’s 2016 release Firewatch is one such game. No words or description can prepare you for the masterclass of musical and soundscape atmosphere, combined with an emotionally-engaging story driven along by several simple, yet highly intelligent mechanics designed to involve and engage the player throughout. With the weather being predictably wet and anticlimactic for summer (at least here in England) now is the ideal time to pick up this gem for an afternoon in.

I often find myself easily distracted when playing a new game. However, from the moment Firewatch began, with a haunting acoustic theme laid down by composer Chris Remo, I found myself hooked. Your journey begins with a few simple, minimalist passages of text. We establish the main character, Henry, who after suffering heart-breaking loss, has willingly retreated from the world to take on a new job as fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. His simple home is a wooden tower, surrounded on all sides by lonely forests, lakes and mountains.

Henry’s only human contact is in the form of Delilah, a fellow fire watcher in the next tower along, who can be contacted at any time by way of a handheld radio. And here lies one of the game’s cleverest devices – you will never meet Delilah in person and are unable to travel to her tower – yet throughout the game Henry will come to emotionally rely on her as various dangers and mysteries unfold. For every new area and puzzle discovered, your unseen companion is there with you every step of the way.

It is fair to say that most games hold your hand to a certain extent, with clear indicators of where to go and how to progress. Yet in Firewatch, the sense of vulnerability, fear and paranoia are key to the story. Navigating the Shoshone National Forest requires the use of a map, compass, and guidance from your radio companion. At times it could almost be a day out with the scouts, apart from the fact that when you are alone and unsure of what danger could be lurking in the trees, all sense of a jovial ramble falls by the wayside. Firewatch is not a horror game, yet the ever-present spookiness and sense of unease throughout is one of its great achievements.

I was fortunate to play the game for the first time with my trusty group of friends mentioned in the about section of this website, and I have rarely seen them so gripped. The unique visual design of the landscape, combined with perfectly written dialogue and characterization throughout, lend this game a quality that is almost film-like in elegance. Upon finally completing it, we were unsure what to do next. No one felt bored or frustrated that they had watched a game unfold without ever having a go on the controls – it was that enjoyable to witness as an observer.

I will not delve deeper in the plot, as I do not wish to spoil the game or the sense of mystery for anyone who has not had the pleasure of playing it. Yet if I could lock every gamer in a room and force them to play one game, this would certainly be a contender. For this and the various reasons mentioned above, Firewatch will be the first game reviewed on this blog to receive the prestigious Tubular Bell award. General consensus seems to share my enthusiasm, as the game picked up a host of award wins at the BAFTA, NAVGTR, Unity, Golden Joystick, and the British Academy Games Awards, among many others…

9.7/10

Final Score

The Days Have Gone Down… Into Shadow

Stela

This month our prog spotlight falls on Stela, a side-scrolling platformer released in March 2020 by SkyBox Labs.

Stela is a stunningly artistic game that combines the exploration of cinematic landscapes, scenes and situations with ever-present dangers and fiendish puzzles at every turn. Way back in 2010, a highly regarded indie game called Limbo (eventually followed up by the even more richly-developed Inside) coined the term ‘trial and death’ to describe its gameplay. Stela follows in a similar vein, with most puzzles requiring a certain skill in timing, trial and error and learning from repeated failures to solve.

More cynical reviewers have accused Stela of being a straight clone of Inside and Limbo. An understandable opinion: however, I personally believe on this occasion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Stela easily stands on its own merits. Besides, it could be argued that this style of game hearkens even further back to the heady days of the PlayStation One, in particular the wonderfully imaginative Abe’s Odyssey, whose titular character was forced to navigate past gunslinging enemies and puzzles with nothing but speed and ingenuity. For all its fame, Limbo also owed much to its predecessors.

Stela begins in familiar style with an ever-silent protagonist awaking in a cave, with no indication of where they are or what to do. The female character appears dainty and lithe, touched with fatigue as their delicate dress flutters in the breeze. Fortunately, we will soon discover that they are more than capable of holding their own in the hostile world beyond.

Each of the game’s areas has its own distinctive style and colour palette, while the musical score that underpins your journey is perfectly immersive throughout. Before long, it becomes clear that you are witnessing the final days of a mysterious, ancient world, as per the game’s description. In true ‘prog’ style, you must piece together the story from vague narrative and visual clues, rather than relying on any narration or text.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the balance between exploring dramatic, atmospheric vistas, and stumbling into sudden danger. I will not spoil the game for those wishing to play it, but be warned that you are far from alone in this crumbling landscape. None of the puzzles are overly frustrating and I was able to complete the game in just under 3.5 hours.

Personally, I enjoyed this length. The days of sinking over 30 hours into a game as a teenager are sadly diminished, as time and energy is increasingly consumed by adult life. At this point in life, I find myself enjoying the luxury of experiencing a game from start to finish in one or two sittings. However, at the full asking price of £15.49, you might expect more. Perhaps £7.00 would have been a fairer price.

Nevertheless, I would rate Stela as a deeply enjoyable experience which ticks many boxes of the quintessential ‘prog’ gaming experience. If you are looking to immerse yourself in a mysterious world of splendid visual design one of these rainy afternoons, you need look no further…

6.7/10

Final Score

Can I Get A Witness?

The Witness

The Witness is the brainchild of designer Jonathan Blow, who’s previous 2008 game ‘Braid’ is frequently touted as one of the greatest indie titles of all time.

As the game starts, the player is placed without any clear instructions on an island, devoid of life and filled with mysterious buildings and objects, set beside natural beauty. In the distance looms a small mountain, shaped like an almost perfect cone. Sound familiar? To anyone who has played Myst, the godfather of the genre, it should come as no surprise that this was a heavy influence on the game.

My journey begins with a slow and thorough exploration of the island, taking in the atmosphere and taking note of potential puzzle elements and clues. The scenery itself eschews complex graphical textures, instead painting a picture of bright colour and geometry. Much like Myst, there is a pleasantly lonely atmosphere to the place. The soundscape mixes nature with your own footsteps, punctuated by a distant waterfall.

It is not long before I am forced to open a door by way of a simple maze puzzle involving drawing lines. Following this, I face the same puzzle several times over, each time with slightly increasing difficulty. There is a theme growing here. Before I can grow too comfortable, I eventually stumble into a new area where the solution changes to referencing an environmental clue – I must trace the correct branch of a tree leading to an apple.

Up to this point I have remained patient. An hour into the game, I would have expected the puzzles to change style by this point. But I am prepared to give the game the benefit of the doubt, as I am sure it will vary things up soon. It is not much longer before I discover my first real clue to the story – a sound recording hidden beside the shore. At least, I assumed it to be part of the story before I later realized that all such audio messages are merely philosophical quotes taken from the real world with no clear context.

Another hour passes and I find myself still solving the same puzzles as I work my way through the large island. There are more than twelve areas, each with its own unique theme and visuals. The ‘maze’ style changes slightly in each area, for example involving symmetry, isolating certain dots, or taking a route that passes through certain items, but essentially it is all the same.

Herein lies the game’s greatest flaw. When I picked up the title, I was very excited, having read 9 and 10-star reviews citing it as a masterpiece. As a huge fan of Myst, the supposed similarities piqued my interest even further. The Witness may be inspired by Myst, however it is not comparable is my opinion. Myst took place on an island considerably smaller than the one in The Witness, and yet still managed to contain a complex array of puzzles, story elements and mechanics, all packed within its softly lapping shores.

Despite the initial promise, The Witness sadly never moves into second gear beyond its repetitive puzzles and complete lack of story throughout. For me, this breaks the cardinal rule of these types of puzzle games. The puzzles themselves must offer a reward, in the form of progressing the story. Otherwise, you are essentially playing Tetris on an island.

I would praise The Witness on its visuals, design, and sound. Ultimately, however, the high reviews from other sources leave me wondering if I have played the same game. If you have a particular interest in solving ‘maze’ style puzzles, then this is the one for you. However, if you are looking for a rich storyline and puzzles that link smoothly into the environment, far more intriguing worlds await…

3.9/10

Final Score

If You Go Down To The Woods Today…

The Forest

I did not intend to write about Endnight Games’ The Forest on this blog. I actually picked up this gem of a game fully aware I would be taking a break from the usual non-violent journey I am accustomed to in a ‘progressive’ game, trading this in for something more visceral and terrifying, with a focus on survival.

Nevertheless, having now sunk in over fifteen thrilling hours into The Forest, I feel that I have to mention it.

The game takes place on a remote, heavily forested peninsula where the main character is the survivor of a plane crash. You are thrown into danger from the start, with hunger and thirst a constant thorn in your side, and no guidance on where to go or what to do next. Night is fast approaching, with shelter a priority.

Dawn is ever the hope of men

In a mad dash – reminiscent of a competitor in the Hunger Games first arriving at the Cornucopia – I scramble about the immediate area, breaking open luggage and collecting everything I can find, from clothes to cans of soda.

The game boasts stunning visuals throughout. I was immediately struck by the atmosphere of the place, as the wind shook through the trees and animals scuttered around in the undergrowth. It was a haunting, yet beautiful scene. As I would go on to discover, this is where the game’s greatest achievement lies: in its ability to cleverly combine vistas with a feeling of loneliness, beauty and fear, all at the same time. The game truly oozes atmosphere at every turn.

To my relief, I soon found myself approaching what seemed like a village of wooden huts. But soon my relief turned to fear. I nearly leapt out of my chair as a horrific, animalistic howling broke the silence, screeching through my headphones. In the distance, I could make out a naked humanoid running through the trees, reminiscent of one the vampirical creatures from the science fiction classic, I Am Legend.

I did not wait another moment but turned and fled in the opposite direction until I reached the coast about five minutes later. It was growing dark by this point, and with trembling fingers I gathered enough sticks and leaves to build a temporary shelter. To my relief, I awoke the next morning unscathed.

A peaceful morning on the cliffs

I felt strangely comforted by the proximity of the cliffs and decided to follow them for a time. Eventually, I found myself beside a secluded outcrop with a narrow way in and out, where I decided to build my main camp.

As time went on, I grew more accustomed to the game’s sophisticated building and crafting system. Before I knew it, I had sunk about six hours into gathering logs on a wooden sled, until at last I had built a wooden cabin, a protective wall, several rain collectors, and the addition of a drying rack for meat and animal skins.

I had managed to avoid stumbling across any more of the strange mutants, finding solace in my familiar routine of hunting and settling beside the fire to watch the sun set. During this time, I felt a constant emotion that few games have managed to replicate since I first played Myst at the age of seven years old. It was an ever-present unease and tension that the atmosphere would be broken at any moment, by a monster darting from the trees.

It may sound laughable, but I used to believe the same thing would happen in Myst. Try to remember, this was one of the first games I ever played at a young age, in the innocent times of the early 90s, when we had yet to understand the rules and limitations of video games. Never mind that Myst was essentially a slideshow of still images, in the imagination of my young self, anything could happen. Coupled with the deep mystery and lack of instructions, such games can easily morph into a subtle, fearful experience.

A place by the sea

To progress the game, you are eventually forced to explore the rest of the island, where slowly the vague storyline comes together. If I had to pick a fault, I would have liked to see more story development, perhaps in the form of journals or tape recordings. However, the other elements of the game more than make up for this.

As I finish this post, my character has just discovered a rope leading down a hole in the earth. As my climb into darkness continues, I can see that the developers were clearly inspired by the chilling cult horror film The Descent. In this film, a group of explorers make their way through a vast, forgotten cave network underground, which soon turns into a nightmare as they stumble across the creatures that lurk beneath.

I will not spoil the game further, except to say that if you crave a truly absorbing game experience this weekend, then you could do worse than picking up a copy on Steam. It is also worth mentioning that The Forest also includes a ‘Peaceful’ mode for Prog.Gaming purists who would like to eschew the more violent aspects of the story…

7.2/10

Final score

Transforming Mars

CAT Interstellar

We are now living through the early days of Artificial Intelligence. The rise of the machines is no longer a dream of science fiction, but a reality with each day that passes. This inevitability brings with it many fears, as well as bringing into sharp focus one of the subjects oldest questions – what does it mean to be human?

CAT Interstellar transports you straight into the shell of a robotic “dog” in a near-future setting. Your purpose is to assist the other, more human-like Androids on the surface of Mars, as they attempt to terraform the planet for human habitation. The game cleverly keeps the real humans restrained on planet Earth, many millions of miles away, allowing the focus to remain solely on the AI inhabitants of the mission. As the story progresses, you soon start to look on the blank-faced robots the same way as you would living companions, with their own day-to-day problems, hopes and concerns.

The game is richly filled out with AI characters, all struggling to complete their tasks on a hostile, barren world. I particularly enjoyed hearing one Android muttering about having to work on the air ducts, while soon after witnessing another attempting to fix some broken machinery by giving it a firm kick. Throughout the game, the robots continually display a nosy curiosity coupled with their own opinions, much like humans would. The addition of recorded dialogue adds to the overall humanity of these characters.

The game eases you in with some fun tasks to accomplish on the Martian surface, such as collecting some boxes blown away in a sandstorm, or assisting with fertilizing plants within a fully functioning greenhouse. Soon, you will descend below the surface of the planet into the mines, in order to fulfill your main purpose: locating several drones that went missing in the lower caverns and retrieving their data banks.

I would recommend taking your time to properly explore the Martian surface before taking the lift down into the mines. The game’s visuals are stunning throughout. And no more so than on the surface, as you travail a bleak landscape of rock and sand, battered by the sun.

The Solar Fields

It is within the mines where the more adventurous aspects of the story begin. Following an accident, you “awake” deep inside a natural formation of caves, alongside your companion, Android 42. Working together, you must find a way back to the surface. Throughout this section of the game, I was hooked by the thrill of exploring the unknown. It felt like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth had been updated from the early 19th century to a futuristic sci-fi setting.

As I do not want to spoil anything for those who choose to play the game, I will only say that the Android’s mission up until this point now fades into unimportance. Soon, our two AI friends will stumble across something that could shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.

CAT Interstellar in a true Indie game, created by a one-man development team at Ionized Games. You can sense the amount of work and passion that has gone into creating the game, along with a true respect for the science fiction genre. At times, the game felt like stepping into an interactive short story from the likes of Robert A. Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke, which can only be a compliment.

As a sole labour of love, it is natural that the game can seem a bit rough around the edges, however, in true Indie fashion, this often adds to the charm. The game is currently free to play on Steam and only $4.99 on the US Playstation Store. Clocking in at around one and a half hours to complete, it is a perfect for a an evening where you want to experience a story without dedicating yourself to a lengthy gaming session. Nevertheless, I found the story to be so engaging that a part of me wished it had continued beyond the rather abrupt ending…

6.8/10

Final Score

From The Beginning

For many, switching on a video game is no more than a source of quick entertainment. However, the evolution of games from the early days of 8-bit graphics and sound to the current world of rich, 3D environments, complete with orchestral scores, has paved the way for a respected form of art.

What is Prog Gaming?

The umbrella term Progressive (or Prog) Gaming loosely covers tags such as exploration, atmospheric, adventure, story-rich, artistic, puzzles, walking simulator and indie, usually favoring non-violent games (although this is not always a prerequisite) where the focus is on something deeper; a yearning for the unknown and experiencing a journey beyond the day-to-day mundane.

This blog is a chance to discover games which fit this mold, with a focus on exploring stunning environments, challenging ourselves through puzzles and ambiguous meanings, and experiencing rich storylines that transport us to new worlds.

Originally released for the Macintosh platform in 1993, Myst was a surprise hit that helped to drive adoption of the new CD-ROM format.

I will cover games from all eras, taking us from the rise of the consoles, where artistic freedom was often restricted by commercial needs, to the present day, where the advent of online platforms such as Steam has allowed smaller developers the freedom to release their games directly to a world-wide audience.

The term Progressive Gaming was first coined by me and my good friend Chris Myhill, who share a love of all things Prog Rock, and saw many of the similar themes and ideals of this musical genre reflected in certain games. What started out as a tongue-in-cheek method of describing them soon entered our own lexicon.

How can I join in?

Your own thoughts and opinions are priceless. As a valued reader, you are encouraged to join in the discussion by subscribing and commenting on each blog post. Don’t forget to let me know about any games you would like me to feature in future. I am always on the lookout for the next recommendation!

I will aim to provide a rating for each game, with a score out of 10. On occasion, certain games will receive the addition of the prestigious Tubular Bell award – granted solely to games I consider to have transcended the genre. Much like Mike Oldfield’s composition of the same name helped to define Prog Rock, we will discover certain games which have left a timeless mark on the world of gaming.

“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends

We’re so glad you could attend

Come inside, the show’s about to start

Guaranteed to blow your head apart

Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth

The greatest show in Heaven, Hell, or Earth!

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, from Karn Evil 9

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