I spent a few hours on my recent vacation playing through the computer game Zed. I’d backed it on Kickstarter a while ago, and it was eventually published with the help of Cyan Ventures, an arm of the company which produced the Myst series, which I adore.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Zed, though it helped clarify what I enjoy about games of this sort. While the art, sound, animation, etc., are all important elements in providing a sense of being present in the setting of the game (which was the breakthrough triumph of Myst, I think), the main factors are having an engaging story, and having interesting gameplay usually puzzles or challenges to walk through the story (and usually not combat). The gameplay also allows the player a certain amount of agency, or at least the illusion thereof.
Cyan’s games do a good job of balancing both elements, particularly in Myst and Riven, as well as the sequel (not by Cyan) Myst III Exile. Cyan’s most recent game, Obduction, also hit this sweet spot for me. (I reviewed it here, though it seems I thought some of its puzzles were a bit too far on the hard side, which I’d forgotten.)
Zed is heavy on the story but very light on gameplay. The framework is that you’re playing the role of an artist with dementia walking through memories of his life to collect ideas for a final gift for his granddaughter, but it’s a heavily guided experience where you roam regions of his memory in sequence, being exposed to the narrative of his life, and collecting a small set of objects in each area, but that’s really all there is to it. There are no puzzles, nothing else really to do, and negligible agency. It looks great, the story works pretty well, but it feels like doing a walkthrough of a game rather than playing a game. I worked through it in about 4 hours (by contrast, Obduction took me about 20 hours).
Zed is the first game of this type that I’ve played which has leaned so far in this direction; I’ve seen some which leaned too far in the other direction. I vaguely recall a 90s game called Obsidian which I played and felt was all gameplay (and surreal settings) and not much story. (I didn’t finish it.) Quern: Undying Thoughts is a more recent example: It’s full of puzzles (and takes a long time to work through them), but the story is pretty thin.
Another nuance is when the puzzles are too obscure or difficult, or which are tedious because they involve too much walking around (which takes time and is no fun if you’re not discovering anything new). Myst IV: Revelation is unfortunately an example of this, with several puzzles that made very little sense to me, and I ended up using a walkthrough for a lot of it. (The story was pretty good, though.) I suspect Myst V: End of Ages was similar, but the game was buggy enough (I think it didn’t play well with the video card I had in my Mac at the time) that I didn’t get very deep into it before getting frustrated and giving up. Quern had the too-much-walking-around problem in spades.
Anyway, I do love this style of game, and will play most games of this type that I come across as long as they’re on platforms I own (Mac and iPad, basically). Here are some others I’ve played:
- Alida (2004) This one was pretty well balanced, with maybe a couple of puzzles that were too obscure.
- The Talos Principle (2014): I’ve been playing on my iPad. The puzzles are pretty good, but the story is nearly nonexistent.
- The Witness (2016): All puzzles – often very frustrating puzzles – and no story at all. I ha-a-ated this game and gave up after about 5 hours. The graphics are pretty mediocre for a modern game, too.
- Tipping Point (2007?): Another game I’ve played on my iPad. It’s okay but I lost interest about halfway through and haven’t gotten back to it. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t found it satisfying.
- Grim Fandango: Originally released in 1998, I bought the remastered iPad version when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure this game really belongs in this category, though it seems adjacent at least. I didn’t get very far in it because it involved a lot of walking around from place to place, and frankly I got bored. It sure is stylish, though!
Are there are others currently available that I should try?
I’ll also try games that are clearly not really intending to quite be this sort of game but are similar in some key ways. Some games by Simogo feel adjacent to Myst but not quite the same thing. Device 6 is more of a story with a few small puzzles, as is The Sailor’s Dream. I enjoyed both, although Sailor left me feeling a bit empty at the end. I also tried Year Walk, but it felt like it was all walking around and not much progress.
Anyway, my disappointment with Zed isn’t going to dissuade me from playing more games of this sort. In fact, I backed Cyan’s next game on Kickstarter, Firmament, once they committed to a Mac version. And heck, I kinda feel like playing through Obduction again.