Amphora Review

In Amphora, you command a wisp of smoke that lives in a, well, amphora. Like a genie or spirit, your smokey form watches over the life of a girl, guiding her and her family through the major scenes in their lives. Each scene is displayed in colourful environments that draw inspiration both from shadow theater and stained glass windows. The amphora is located somewhere in the level and your area of effect surrounds it. This means that you are not able to manipulate objects everywhere in the scene and may lose control of them if they end up outside this area. If the objects are important, they will spawn back in, giving you a chance to try again. Your task in each scene (or level) is to manipulate certain objects in a certain to complete the task needed to proceed. Usually, the levels are fairly straightforward and the goal is clear from the beginning.

What is not always clear is the way how to solve it. While most scenes are easily breezed through, there were two in particular that were difficult, the sheep and the ship levels. In the sheep level, it was not made clear how to solve it and I got through it by breaking the game. Later, while watching a video of how to complete the level the proper way, the solution required an idea that had not been introduced before and wasn’t used after. The ship level was difficult because the controls were janky and fiddly. This resulted in trial and error as I continuously swept my mouse back and forth trying to launch this item correctly.

The questionable controls and physics prevail throughout the game, but it was only in this instance where I felt it had a detrimental effect on my play. The rest of the puzzles more or less worked as they should have, though if you are going to achievements, you will encounter more jankiness.

When trying to toss objects across the screen is not enough, the smoky amphora unlocks a new mechanic, wispy silver lines. These lines can be drawn and cut and drawn again to hold things in place, kind of. There are some strange rules around how exactly these lines work and what they can do, so experimentation is a must. This mechanic becomes essential in certain puzzles, where you need to hold things in place in relation to other objects or keep certain things in place. A few of my solutions had these ugly spiderwebs all over as I was frantically drawing lines to get one that worked.

Each scene looks great and is something to look forward to, and tells the story of the life of a girl and possibly her family. We see stereotypical phases of her life – falling in love, marriage, playing with toys, going to war, traveling – but there is no explicit narrative. This often leads to confusion about the context of what is happening in the scene. In the aforementioned ship scene, the player has to moor a ship so a passenger can get on and supposedly go to a far away land. We don’t know why, or where and while this may not be important for the actual game, it made the narrative seem superfluous.

A story might be necessary to include to give some context and structure to the puzzles, but I wish it had been implemented a bit better. Since the game is without speech or written text, the stories of each scene rely solely on visuals (and the cultural references of the player) for delivery. Some scenes are quite complex and delightful, but others are bare by comparison. Perhaps more time on each scene and a less ambitious story with more straightforward set pieces would have improved it.

It does not take away from the experience except in implanting the feeling that I had missed something profound. What is this amphora anyway?

In the end, it comes down to inspiration. Some of the scenes are great. Reading bedtime stories to the young girl, love at first sight in the marketplace, the man under the rain of arrows are all superb. The craft of these really highlight where the developer’s inspirations lay and make the less well-thought out scenes stand out even more as filler scenes. Amphora is a game that feels like it started as an aesthetic first and a game second.

But it is a great aesthetic. If you can deal with the inconsistent inspiration and the inconsistent difficulty, it is a nice puzzler for a handful of hours.

 

Waypoint, The Red String Club, and Videogame Criticism

Recently, an opinion piece was published on Vice’s Waypoint gaming site talking about the recently released The Red Strings Club by Deconstructeam. The response was, in general, quite critical and with pretty good reason. Coupled with the podcast episode, the message from Waypoint about this game was to not purchase it because it was transphobic, greatly upsetting one of the members of Deconstructeam. Upon release of this article and podcast, one of the three developers from Deconstructeam, sat down with the writer to talk about the story decisions in the game which resulted in another article which was also poorly received.

The contentious point in question was the use of a trans character’s deadname as part of the puzzle and Waypoint staff taking a hard stance that one should not deadname, ever. While there are plenty of smarter and more qualified voices that have talked about deadnaming and trans portrayal, the writing of these two pieces highlighted for me not only a challenge for Waypoint that it keeps bungling up but also the shortcomings of the dialogue around progressive games and media.

One of my initial problems with the pieces was that it blanket equated a negative aspect of a minority identity’s life to the piece being phobic. In The Red Strings Club, Waypoint claims that the inclusion of a deadname makes the game transphobic because it was handled without context and acted as a “reveal”. The follow up piece with the developer confirms that the intent was to show an unpleasant side of being trans while also using deadnaming to paint a character in the game in a negative light. Danielle, the writer, didn’t seem to have picked up on this context, even in retrospect after speaking to the game’s writer.

This throws up a huge red flag, because the game is decidedly transphobic for including negative things that trans people have to deal with in their daily lives, and this translates to other groups as well. Media should be able to tell stories that include racism, homophobia, transphobia and other unsavory elements if they are talking about the lives of those affected. By discouraging the portrayal of the negative aspects of someone’s experience, we are denying people who might not be familiar with a given person’s life experience, the chance to learn. Additionally, the blanket discouraging of the depiction of negative experiences is a reminder that the group in question is still not a fully accepted part of our society. If they were, we would give the creators the benefit of doubt as we do to straight, white, cis creators.

While I do not think it should be a requirement to speak with a creator when critiquing the work, the fact that the writer thought that 99% of the game was amazing and that this one mistake made her denounce it, should have been a sign to pause. Even if the game’s writing does not handle the deadnaming well (I have not played it yet) it is worth to do some research if there is one glaring flaw in a game which has dealt with the subject matter perfectly until that point. I am not claiming that Danielle’s reaction is unwarranted, but the strength of the condemnation feels misaligned alongside other criticism, or missed opportunities of, on Waypoint’s site.

Some say that it is more worthwhile to be harder on smaller developers such as Deconstructeam because their small size makes them more receptive to change and more agile to enact it. To criticize a major developer seems futile due to the large amount of people involved in the creation of their games and other factors such as appealing to a mass audience that make it much harder for them to change. In progressive discourse around the Internet, the other side is often forgotten. Punching down hard on small developer teams who are trying to be progressive and share their life experience via the medium only discourages others from doing the same, and potentially shuts down further work from that developer. There is little or no incentive to release your work when the audience it is made for loves searching for why the game is problematic, even making great leaps of logic to justify their conclusion. Where is the support and the celebration of these creators and their works?

I am not saying small or indie developers do not get praise, but games that try to be inclusive and try to break free from the status quo are often more harshly picked apart and more harshly condemned. Such actions do more harm than good by actively discouraging other smaller developers from stepping beyond the status quo and deny people’s education of others’ lives.

Secondly, the whole things was based on one situation in the game which initially was not discussed at length on either the podcast or the article. Telling people not to spend their money to support the developers because they made a transphobic game without explaining the one instance in the game where you felt transphobic is asking for a lot. Without background context or reasoning, we can’t begin to fathom what actually happened or if the reaction is justified. Not only does this tell us that avoiding spoilers is more important than having a discussion and not harming the developer, but additional thought should have given the criticism more depth and nuance. This is something that I also took issue with in Waypoint’s description of Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. The site reduced the situation revolving around Ashley Burch and Deck Nine (the developer) to “beware, this game was made with scab labour.” Nowhere in their, or the internet at large, was there a discussion about why the strike affected Deck Nine when they were not the target of it, whether or not Ashley chose to do this in a show of solidarity, or how negotiating individual exceptions during a strike undermines the purpose of the strike. Instead, we get that it is a scab game and “in a perfect world, the developer would have waited for the strike to be over.”

First of all, in a perfect world there would have been no strike. Second, the SAG-AFTRA strike took almost a year before it was resolved, and asking for Deck Nine to put development on hold (the game had started in some capacity, with first announcements coming out about 4 months before the strike began) which would have put the studio out of business. For a site which claims to take labour issues seriously, Waypoint’s criticism here to shallow to reflect the message they are all about. Ashley was hired on as a writing consultant writer and as soon as the strike lifted, she was recast in her role. Not quite so simple as denouncing the game for using scab labour.

This lack of depth was also present in the Red String Club critique – apparent in the complete dismissal of context and intent in an otherwise great game.

To clarify, I am not trying to say that Waypoint’s criticism is not valid, or that they shouldn’t criticize games through their lens. Waypoint is positioning itself as a very important voice in videogame journalism and critique and I personally like most of what they do and actively cheer them on. I also realize that they do not have an easy job.

However, they need to be extra careful and develop their ideas. The shallow “us vs. them” and taking extreme positions as an initial reaction cheapens their message. It also fails to explore the complexity of the world and how these issues fit into it, realistically, in a larger scale. Instead of an exploration into deadnaming, what separates a transphobic character from a transphobic work, or even a celebration of the game’s achievements with a caveat (though delivered softer) – we get “Don’t Deadname. Ever”.

Instead of a discussion about how strikes actually work from both sides, an exploration into what Deck Nine’s options were, or just an overview of the politics around hiring and getting around strikes – we get “don’t forget: this game is made with scab labour.”

From¬† a site that publishes great pieces on games in Prison, the connection between a Police Quest game and a corrupt cop, and many more, I expect more consistency. At the very least, if there are not enough resources to adequately cover all the issues (and of course there aren’t – there never are), then go easy when it is clear that the world is not so clean cut. It damages any worthwhile discussion around an issue, forfeits the ability to educate people, and ruins the image.

 

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