Blues and Bullets: Review of a Dead Game

Episodic games always come with the chance of never getting to the end of the game. I tend to avoid them at all costs, choosing to purchase only after the entire season has been released. However, when Blues and Bullets came along, it looked exactly like the kind of game I would enjoy so I went in early and purchased both episodes when they were released. I haven’t seen a game do Noir this good. It takes all the tropes and jams them into a story with kidnappings and grotesque cults in an alternate reality 1930’s United States. The Volstead Act is still in effect, so prohibition is in full swing and Capone was never caught.

You play as Elliot Ness, former hard-boiled detective turned pie baker in his diner. Life is pretty good, despite being alone and having your police career end after an insidious case of missing children. You spend your days serving burgers and getting shit from your old police buddies until a messenger from Al Capone, your old arch-nemesis, arrives to summon you. The old criminal needs your help to track down his kidnapped daughter, and you reluctantly agree to do it for her. Ness’s guilt of his past case failing fuels the fire he brings to investigating this new case, and Capone’s daughter is just one of many children that have gone missing.

Are they connected? Probably, but it doesn’t matter.

The game is a series of scenes where you either explore and talk to people a la Life is Strange/Telltale games or investigate crime scenes. This latter part is probably the best, where you look for clues and then have to piece them together to deduce what happened. The challenge is more so in finding the clues than putting it together but it is done in a way which proves satisfying. The clues are presented as photos and you need to attach the correct photos to the bulletin board much like the standard web created in procedural police serials.

There are also some shooting bits, but these get boring fast. They are no more than hiding behind cover and shooting like laser gun arcade games and don’t serve much of a purpose besides adding some violence to an already gruesome tale. It also did not make any sense within in the narrative. Brutal murders and occult dismemberment is fine, but having Ness gun down 15 of Capone’s men and then spare him made the bodies meaningless in a game which everything should be meaningful.

It is noir as hell and draws heavily from the genre, but it still finds ways to include humour and one instance in particular, a bit of refreshing but completely unexpected slapstick. The choices you make have an affect more so on future conversations and how characters react to you than how the story unfolds (as far as I could tell anyway) and give the player the power to determine what kind of person Ness is.

We know he is tormented by his past and has a reliance on alcohol (which is illegal and Ness is somewhat a crusader against it, in public anyway) but how does he act in the situations he is in? We can play Ness as a person bent on revenge at all costs, a person who hides his flaws through poor jokes, or maybe we want Ness to be pragmatic and honest. Whatever you choose, the characters you interact with respond accordingly. This isn’t some false choice where whatever you choose results in the same response.

Early on in a scene in the diner, one of your former co-workers is hassling you about his burger taking too long. From the manner this guy talks you can tell he is an asshole. He asks Ness to go easy on the chilli sauce and as you prepare the burger, the game prompts you to ask if you want to add some sauce to the burger. And then some more. Maybe there should be some more? Depending on how much chilli you add the police officer’s response to your burger is going to be different.

It is kind of funny but it can also be sad. As the police officer leaves, whether you spiced his burger or not, Ness can respond in different ways. The game does not tell you what Ness will say, but instead will give you an adjective – friendly, angry, reserved? – the game asks. Play it angry, and it looks like these two have some bad blood between them, maybe they have never liked each other, or maybe something happened between them. Respond friendly, and these two are awkward colleagues who tease each other.

The dialogue system defined the way the relationship was between Ness and the police officer and you can interpret it as much as you want. I really liked this because it didn’t stress me out that I would choose the “bad” option or have to go through all of the options to get the information I needed.

It takes the Telltale formula and throws a lot of stuff in it – elaborate sets, investigations, shoot-outs. The content of the game is almost as diverse as the story and setting. It sometimes feels too much, and this might have had a hand in the game’s ultimate demise.

The setting was intriguing and I broke my rule of staying away and I was rewarded with a very good, sometimes awkward, and stylish as hell narrative game. I also rewarded myself with a game that will never be finished. Although there was never an official statement saying that the studio closed down, Internet sleuthing revealed that the company was slowly losing its key staff. Now, it’s been a over a year (Episode 2 was released in March 2016) and A Crowd of Monster’s website no longer exists.

No one knows what really happened but it’s easy to speculate that the studio’s plan was to use sales from each episode to fund the next – a risky business move considering the new IP and relatively unknown status of the developer, which was further complicated by porting the first episode to consoles as soon as possible. This not only drew resources away from completing the other chapters, but it delayed the release of chapter two. There was a year between the first and second episode as well, which is a lot of time for fans to maintain interest.

A Crowd of Monsters did a few unusual, if not controversial, things with Blues and Bullets. The first was to offer a season pass. Customers who got the pass paid a higher price up front but would get access to all future episodes. Coming from a brand new indie studio working with an original IP, it’s a bold ask. It might be cynical, but maybe they knew they would run out of money even if the first episode did modestly well.

Another red flag came when they were initially offering the second episode only with a season pass, effectively making people who only bought the first episode to buy the second episode at a much greater price than the first. This was later taken back and changed by the studio with an added discount. It didn’t look good and the “sorry!” discount probably hurt a lot more than it helped. At that stage, they weren’t trying to incentivize people on the fence to get the game but rather convince people who were already fans that they had insulted to feel better and buy.

I understand the benefits of episodic released from both a developer and a consumer stand-point. Developers get to stagger their release schedule and recover some costs up front which should allow them to lock in resources for the rest of the episodes. Consumers get to experience the game at a set pace which helps keep “the conversation” manageable for those who do not have much free time to play and the costs associated with the game are lower and more spread out which make it more manageable for some.

Blues and Bullets failed to make the most of both of these advantages.

First off, I believe that A Crowd of Monsters was hurting for resources early on and needed to desperately show some returns for the studio and its investors. It is clear that they were going for a highly polished game but for whatever reason they implemented pricing practices that were dubious at best. The thing with episodic games is that you have to be pretty sure you can get it done one way or another before you start releasing the episodes.

Telltale games and DONTNOD are both successful from the episodic format so we know it works. Even a small indie game like Dreamfall is getting complete (if it isn’t already) and so is Kentucky Route Zero, even if time between episodes is incredibly long. The point is that these developers most likely planned on being able to complete most of their game in time whether it did well or not.  An episodic business model is not sustainable if you can’t foresee delivering on the majority of the episodes from the beginning.

Secondly, the time between episodes helps build hype and anticipation. We saw this during the release of Life is Strange’s episodes and the conversations that happened on Twitter and Reddit. We see this in TV, in Game of Thrones, where time between each episode is used to build interest and anticipation from the fans discussing their theories and speculating about what might happen next week. The suspense between episodes prevents the game (or TV show) from ever completely leaving the minds of its fans. However, with a year between the two episodes, there was plenty of time for Blues and Bullets to become a mere memory.  The core story of Blues and Bullets doesn’t lend itself to the nail-biting suspense either.

There was no real cliffhanger at the end of the first episode. It was mostly an introduction and it did it’s job very well but the episode ends on a character – most likely Capone’s daughter – surviving in the dungeon she is being kept in. The central mystery of the game is to find out what happened to her and who took her prisoner. The problem is we know the payoff will come later and what was needed was a cliffhanger about the characters we got to know and care about. Otherwise we don’t have anything to talk about between episodes.

And there’s a lot of messed up stuff in Blues and Bullets – body mutilation, cultists wearing the skulls of what look like deer, zombie bodyguards, and a Russian Nuclear submarine. Even though each episode ended on an attempted cliffhanger, there was nothing to really talk about. The Russian guy is a small bad guy and the deer cultists are the real big bad guys. The game doesn’t give us a lot to speculate about. Compared to Life is Strange, Blues and Bullets feels hollow because it is based so much on noir tropes that we already “know” the characters. We are here for the setting and craziness. Life is Strange takes place in a relatively boring place but the characters are unique and relatable in a way that Blues and Bullets’s characters probably will never be. And that is not an inherently bad thing – two different games and all that – but its also a lost opportunity.

I like the characters in Blues and Bullets but I also know that they are mostly cardboard set pieces to move around. Even Elliot Ness, the heart and soul of the game, follows familiar tropes of noir detectives we have seen time and time again since Philip Marlowe.

Looking around the Internet I see a small but dedicated fan following that has been almost erased by the lack of communication from the now non-existent studio. I stumbled across it on Steam and vaguely remembered someone on a podcast talking briefly about it. I believe it could have survived if more people had heard of it but it is a moot point now. I really wish I could see the end of Blues and Bullets. Maybe five episodes is what was needed to work on the not so great parts of the game. The ending of Chapter Two definitely had some great potential.

 

 

 

No Pineapple Left Behind: My Own Experience in Cultivating Pineapples

“I think you should look into another profession. Either way, I hope you stay in touch. I like to keep in touch with all my trainees even if I don’t think they are suitable for the job”

That was the closing statement by my overseer on my last day of student teaching. My teacher-tutor, who coincidentally was also my high school history teacher, was no where to be found. No doubt he was drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge, paying as much attention to this moment as he did to my time in front of my class. This was the fourth and last time I would meet the supervisor from my University. We shook hands, and I never contacted her again.

The few emails I would send to my teacher-tutor went unanswered.

Regardless, I received my teaching certificate but I didn’t really have the patience to become a substitute teacher so shortly thereafter I returned to Europe to teach English as a second language. I knew I wanted to teach, but I wanted to explore my own ability in teaching without the constraints of treating students like pineapples.

I can admit when I do something wrong or make a mistake, usually anyway. This last exchange baffled me though. I had done some faux pas during my tenure as a student teacher, but the majority of feedback from my students and the vice principal was favorable. I taught a class of 14-year-old students to think critically about American History and was mostly successful but I don’t think this is what was required.

Even though my life in the US public school system was short (but not nasty or brutish), it left a bad taste in my mouth. The room for improvement I saw while a student became even more clear when the curtain was pulled back. I learned some things about teaching though, and I am grateful for the experience. The students and some of the faculty was great, but the ones in charge of my progress let me down.

No Pineapple Left Behind, a game which is a scathing critique of the US school system and in particular the No Child Left Behind Act, was something I looked forward to try because I wanted to see if my experience was reflected in it. In short, it is a management game about running a school and trying to turn children into pineapples by removing their humanity. Humanity is removed by continually doing rote tasks and memorization and protecting the children from any outside stimuli that might flavour their life, including making friendships. Once they lose their humanity, they turn into pineapples which don’t do anything except study and try to pass tests. Nothing else matter for these pineapples; they lose all human traits and their names become a string of numbers.

There is a little bit of the fantastical in the game. Teachers don’t teach lessons, but cast spells. School buses are teleported around the city, and to influence students, teachers can zap them. The difficult part is the management of money. Your success is dependent on the scores of daily tests. The better grades your students get, the more money your school has. However, if your students do not succeed, your school gets no money. On top of that, teachers have energy and the better spells for teaching cost more energy. By the end of the day, your teachers barely have enough energy to do anything but turn on the television.

No Pineapple Left Behind’s days are full of hiring and firing staff (to save money and replenish energy), dealing with complaints from parent phone calls, and making sure you meet the goals for the scenario (sandbox mode also available.) all the while trying not to run out of money. It quickly becomes tedious as newer, harder scenarios force you to become more granular. Pause, adjust, start, pause adjust, start. Much like teaching to the same curriculum over and over, it becomes a slog. Maybe that is the point, but I feel the game could have fared better with some additional polish and depth.

I wanted to play it because Seth Alter, the creator, used to be a teacher who stopped teaching because he no longer liked what we was doing.

“My special education class was on the same curriculum as everyone else with the same expectations and resources–my question was, what ultimately distinguished it as special education? Eventually, the answer resolved itself; the special education room was a stats tool. If the average grade of the school is per class, grouping all of the struggling students together boosts the average; it served no further function. This is where the dichotomy of pineapple and child ultimately originates.”

Seth Alter, A FRUITY EDUCATION: AN INTERVIEW WITH SETH ALTER, Comics Game Magazine

Maybe he knew a little about how I felt about my short experience in the education system. From his interviews, he saw that the administration treated its students as statistics to be manipulated to get funding. In the game, this is demonstrated by turning children into pineapples, in my experience, its guidance counselors encouraging my friends to drop out of school. The pineapples are diligent students, who lap up what you feed them and because your job depends on how well your students do on a standardized test, you teach to the test. Memorizer spell anyone?

Of course, this means the students lose any practical application of their skills. They might be confronted with a problem they could solve in a context they do not understand.

When I was student teaching, I was put in charge of the hybrid Social Studies – English class at the school. As a dual citizen and someone who spent significant time of my development in two countries, matters of national identity was important to me because I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. In my university studies, I was fascinated by the notion of American Exceptionalism and just how bad it was as a lens to look at the country’s history.

In my class, I decided to introduce the concepts of American Exceptionalism early to give some structure for the entire course. We would not only go through the necessary materials, but as a class, we would scrutinize the historical events and context and see just how closely the history of the country followed the ideas of freedom, liberty, and all that good stuff. This was probably not what the other teachers wanted to see.

I started student teaching right after No Child Left Behind was passed. My approach attempted to add a layer of critical thinking on top of history that I felt was sorely lacking having been through the curriculum as a student myself. I did not want pineapples in my class, and a lot of the material I was covering was not beneficial for standardized testing (even though History is not one of the important subjects according to NCLB.) In retrospect, I think I came to feel the same as Seth Alter did, but at the time it was just a feeling and I couldn’t quite formulate it in my mind. I was too busy with school, with my job, and with student teaching to do anything but go forward as best as I could.

In the end, I don’t think I learned anything from No Pineapple Left Behind because I had seen it before. What I did get was affirmation that I wasn’t alone in that moment in front of the school when my supervisor told me to get another job. Then, I was hurt and confused, and more than a little angry. I felt that the whole experience had been unfair, that I hadn’t gotten the support and guidance that I had needed, and that I had been trying to do something different but important that had been ignored. I don’t know if I was good at what I was doing then or if it got the students to think critically about history at all, or if it was a waste of time.

My tutor-teacher spent most of the time not in my class while I was teaching and I was left to fend for myself.

What I do know, is that I did not want pineapples in a system that increasingly wanted them.

I only got through about half the game before I decided to stop playing. I know there were some features and mechanics that I didn’t see. Sorry, No Pineapple Left Behind, but it got too much and too dull. If I had stayed in the US education system and made an attempt to make it work for me, I would have eventually felt the same, until I got sacked right before I got tenure to save the school some money.

Hmm. Maybe Seth Alter and No Pineapple Left Behind taught me something after all.

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