Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

gravekeeperhero_0

I’m not quite ready to give a full review of Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games; I’m about eight hours in, and I can’t stop playing. Just know that I’m missing a lot of time in Minecraft and Final Fantasy XIV performing autopsies, burying “sinless” corpses in the local graveyard, throwing “sinful” corpses into the river, and giving sermons at the local church in the hopes that someday mods will be developed that make this already very engrossing game perfect.

So yeah, I guess that’s a good early review, at least.

I’ve never played a game that gives you the gameplay options it does without throwing out the following message in nearly any way:

randomfalloutthingsswedeniamdoingthingsagainsweden_8ba6c6_6193365

I say nearly because the main character, the titular graveyard keeper, upon learning what his job entitled (namely, the dismemberment and disembowelment of human corpses in order to dispose of them) complains about it. Just once, though. After that, you, the player, are free to harvest all that meat, blood, bone, and brain matter to your heart’s content (and the corpse’s heart’s content, too, don’t forget those). No need to worry, however. It’s all in the name of… SCIENCE. Besides, they’re dead; they’re not going to need all those entrails and flesh. Why not put them to better use instead?

If you’re at all familiar with Fallout 3, you might remember the story of the little town of Andale and the families that lived there: not only were the only two remaining families incredibly inbred, but their source of food in that dark urban wasteland was none other than the visitors and raiders that happened upon the small collection of still-standing homes and shacks. Don’t agree with the lifestyle the residents of Andale enjoy? Don’t worry, you’ll soon change your mind… once they invite you to dinner.

You get one but two trope/memes out of Andale: “DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT” and “STAY OUT OF MY SHED” (specifically SHED.MOV, NSFW but entertaining). Choosing the “good” ending for Andale ends with defending yourself from these well-dressed and well-mannered knife-wielding maniacs.

The Wanderer: “Bring home the bacon? Those are people, not bacon! What the f-ck?”

Jack Smith: “Hey! I’ll have none of that language in this house!”

The Wanderer: “I can’t believe I’m being called a potty mouth by a cannibal…”

Jack Smith: “Okay, that’s it. I warned you. Now I’m going to sock your jaw, mister.”

maxresdefault

Mmm, strange meat.

Unfortunately for Jack, his wife, and his neighbors, death by the Wanderer’s combat shotgun and his companion Charon ensues. Yes, that’s the “good” ending, the murder (admittedly in slightly self-defense) of all the cannibal adults. The two children go to live with their grandpa Old Man Harris (yes, they are cousins, and they were set to be married once they grew up, meaning their parents were siblings, incest did in fact occur…). From one point of view (the karma-aligned “good” choice), these children will grow up as normal as one can in the Wasteland without the influence of their cannibalistic lineage. But at the same time, while the parent’s crimes were great, these children are left bereft of their parents in a very unforgiving world without a source of food, employment, or protection. Would Old Man Harris and the children abandon Andale? Likely, if only to distance themselves from their destructive heritage. Will they move to Rivet City or Megaton for protection? Likely, as Andale is fairly remote and dangerous for an old man and two kids. Will they all have trouble integrating into normal society? Very likely; the only contact with the outside world the children had was with visitors that disappeared pretty quickly and reappeared as a breakfast menu item.

Of course, the binary karma system of Fallout 3 doesn’t take into account many of these particulars, and time constraints in game design mean the family never moves away from Andale in-game, despite how little sense it makes to remain there. In Black-And-White-Land, cannibals = bad and dead cannibals = good, no matter the other consequences.

Old Man Harris: “Better an orphan than a cannibal I guess?”

Graveyard Keeper, on the other hand… is definitely not Stardew Valley.

Right after learning how to butcher- er, autopsy a corpse, you’ll learn how to cook! And what’s the first thing you’ll learn how to cook? Baked meat! And where does this baked meat come from?

…th-the corpses!?

2018-05-28-14

Just don’t tell ’em you’ve turned into a cannibal. Keep that on the way down low.

Worse, you learn that the village for which you gravekeep is in the midst of a meat shortage, and the only way you could sell meat is if you had a royal stamp proving that it was well-sourced and fit for human consumption. After all, there’s been rumors going around of someone forging a stamp and selling suspicious meat… and we wouldn’t want to be caught selling strange meat, would we? No, especially since everyone’s pretty sure the Graveyard Keeper doesn’t own livestock! Haha! No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?

But we can. That’s a thing you can do in Graveyard Keeper. Not only are you encouraged to chop up and eat corpse meat (for a guy from the present day looking to return to his own time, he sure takes to cannibalism like a duck to water), you can “disguise” the meat with a royal stamp and sell it to the tavern owner as “legit” packaged meat for a pretty good profit. And as long as you toss the bodies into the river or cremate them afterwards, the bodies from which you procure the meat won’t spoil your pristine graveyard with all their icky red skull “sins”.

And you get all of this without a single hint of this:

I’m not sure which is worse: Fallout 3 with its ambiguous and overly-simplistic expressions of morality, or Graveyard Keeper with its unambiguous uncomplaining evil that would become obvious to even the most ignorant villager if they tailed behind the graveyard keeper for even half a day. In Fallout, you can choose to be a raider or a slaver, and spend all day slapping slave collars around the necks of children and the elderly. You can murder almost every NPC you meet. These are things you can do. In Graveyard Keeper, you can strip the skin off of the recently deceased and refine it into sheets of paper upon which you can write a church sermon to present to your ignorant congregation. You can turn human flesh into delicious burgers that restore your energy. These are things you can do.

But one game tells you what you’re doing is evil and one doesn’t. Two important questions: should a game alert you when you’re doing “bad” things? And should the game be responsible for telling the player what they’re doing is evil?

#1: I don’t think so.

#2: I believe so, to a point. What that point is depends on the message the game wants to send. And Graveyard Keeper is anything but a solemn soul-searching narrative of inner darkness.

Of course, Fallout 3 and Graveyard Keeper are two entirely different beasts, and not entirely comparable. But I find it fascinating how cannibalism in Fallout is a trait that must be sought out and used, all consequences be damned… And in Graveyard Keeper, it’s pretty much acknowledged from the beginning that harvesting meat from the dead is a good and expected way to make money. Is this lack of a “morality system” a fault on GK’s part? Or is the ambiguity the only thing that separates it from Stardew Valley and other resource management and crafting games?

I’m not sure! But time willing, the game’s review will be my next blog!

My 10-Hour Tale- My Time at Portia

I have hundreds of games in my Steam library, and I’ve only actually reviewed… two. Including this one. Sad, I know. So I’ve decided to dedicate at least ten hours per game and give my thoughts on what I think is good and what needs (or needed) improvement. From early access to AAA games, here’s Chains and Tales’ first 10-Hour Review!

##########

Untitled-5

Release Date: January 2018

System: PC (Steam)

I saw My Time at Portia come up in my Steam queue a couple of times before I decided to pick it up, though it was mostly from being poor that I didn’t pick it up sooner. As of now, it has a “very positive” rating and equally positive reviews. I liked the fact that some of the reviews hinted to the fact that calling it a Harvest Moon clone wasn’t quite fair, and from what I’ve seen so far, I agree with that sentiment. While you can farm, the game has a lot more going for it than just farming.

Kickstarter

While I’m generally wary of kick-started projects with great ambitions, it seems like this one is a success.

My Time at Portia was kickstarted successfully at 146,697 dollars of a requested 100,000, and while it was a little late on delivery, I think it hit the mark really well considering its influences were Animal Crossing, Dark Cloud 2, Harvest Moon, and the Miyazaki animated films. That’s what I like about it: it’s a mixture of my favorite design styles and gameplay mechanics.

The closest comparison I could make is a three-dimensional Stardew Valley. Is it as complete as Stardew Valley? Well, it is in early access. Considering it’s only been out since January, this game has an amazing amount of design polish that I haven’t seen from other early access titles. In fact, in the ten hours I’ve played so far (and going in blind without assistance from guides), I can genuinely say that this is one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had with an early access game.

It’s not without its problems, of course. Once you get past the playful and cheery art style that really reflects well on the game, one of the first things you might notice from the opening scene of the game is the voice acting. Some of it is okay.

Some of it is… a bit cringey.

Untitled-1

Mei’s voice wasn’t bad. The voice of the bartender named Django was… memorable.

Some Steam reviewers had issues with the main character having a voice. I had no problem with it. The option to turn it off is available in the character creation screen, just for those people that like the strong and silent type. And for the rest of the NPCs, there’s always the volume controls. In my mind, however, an early access game with dozens of fully voiced characters is impressive. Maybe needs a bit of polish before an official release, but not game breaking. I don’t personally mind it.

Of course, as any farm game begins, your Pa went and disappeared, leaving you a ramshackle workshop and home of your own to develop from scratch. Will our hero ever discover his/her father’s whereabouts? It is unknown! When introduced to our rival, who is currently the wealthiest builder in town, of course he’s a snobbish jerk. Does he get a redeeming character arc beyond snobbish rival character? Not sure yet. I’d be surprised, but then My Time at Portia has already surprised me a few times.

Like any game that involves resource management and crafting, My Time at Portia features a system that takes a bit of getting used to. It can be a bit grindy, especially in those first few in-game days… Or whenever you realize you don’t have enough wood to fuel your stone furnaces. Stamina management is a bit dull in those first days as well, and like Stardew Valley, I found myself having to cut my days short just to sleep and restore my stamina.

Untitled-2

Home sweet home, after the holes are patched. I found the couch in an old ruin. The Ancients didn’t need it.

When it came to ruin delving and acquiring my first bit of copper and tin, I was actually a bit surprised that mining was actual underground tunneling, complete with a jetpack for escaping deep holes and x-ray goggles for finding the really good stuff. This game was suddenly Minecraft with cheat codes on. Considering the world in My Time at Portia just recently suffered a cataclysm of some type in its recent past and the local church is confiscating and destroying what it calls ‘forbidden’ technology (including those oh-so-valuable data disks you’ll dig up in the ruins), it sure lets its explorers have some fun toys.

The game starts off slow with quests and character progression, but I think it already has a good balance once you get past the initial hurdles. Pretty soon you’ll be drowning in quests from the NPCs living in town, and I found I could complete many of the minor ones simply by building up my manufacturing capabilities. Grinders make pipes and parts, civil cutters make boards, skivers make leathers and fabrics, and your assembly station makes all your heavy equipment. You’ll go from copper axes and pickaxes to bronze and then iron, all the while making larger trees and rocks harvestable.

And then there’s combat. Remember when I mentioned that My Time at Portia felt like a three-dimensional Stardew Valley? The combat is very similar. You can dodge for a chunk of stamina and swing your sword in front of you. That’s about it. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. Your character can be upgraded with perks as you level up to increase loot drops, damage, healing rate of items, and other bonuses, although leveling can take a while. Fortunately, everything you do counts towards leveling, from slaying llamas to chopping down trees.

Untitled-3

Give me your fur, your meat, and your fleeeese!

In fact, while going about my business slaying llamas for their fur and experience, I came across one of the children NPCs, a boy named Toby, walking around outside of town. Normally, I don’t think twice about NPCs, children in particular, because in many other games children are a bit of a letdown in the character development department. But in my quest to get everyone in town to like me, I talked to him. To my surprise, instead of the normal conversation menu appearing, my character spoke up (as in, the voice actor for my character spoke up) and asked Toby what he was doing. The kid responded (fully voice acted) that he was going to pick apples from the trees outside the walls. This started a simple quest to kick some apples down from the trees for the kid for some experience, some pocket change, and a relationship increase. This simple interaction surprised me; not only did the developers take time to record actual dialogue with voice actors for such a simple quest, I might have overlooked it completely had I had chosen not to interact with Toby at all. All of a sudden, as a player, I feel more obligated to talk to NPCs on the off-chance they may have something for me that’s simple to do but worth my time.

This is a challenging and time-consuming aspect of game design for a developer, but so vital for player retention. Place the burden of success on the player. Once you reveal that rewards can be found in unlikely places, the player is going to continue to search for them.

It’s one of the main reasons I love farming/role-playing hybrid games like My Time at Portia and Stardew Valley; characters in the world are allowed more time to be given a personality, likes and dislikes, and not just a few repeating chat lines. Don’t get me wrong, My Time at Portia has repeating chat lines. But simple interactions with NPCs like this gives the believability of a populated world.

A populated world, multiple monster-slaying dungeons, crafting, farming, marriage, and more. And this is an early access game, remember, and only my first ten hours in the game.

Untitled-4

Do da jerb, get da rewards. Repeat ad nauseam.

Overall, my first ten hours with My Time at Portia has been very enjoyable. I’m interested to see where else the game will go, and how else it plans on surprising me. If you like would like a laid-back adventure in colorful if a bit unpolished and incomplete world, you could definitely do worse.

Rating: 8.5/10