CONTENT WARNING: This piece contains graphic images from Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season Two.
Through months of blood and betrayal, Clementine emerges from Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One a survivor. Though just a child, she is prepared by her guardian, Lee Everett, to contend with the treacherous living and ravenous dead. But this comes with a price: Clementine’s group is shattered, Lee is dead, and she is left alone in a golden field. It’s a bittersweet victory; Clementine is alive and capable, but her future remains uncertain. This is emphasized by a pair of silhouettes that appear on the horizon. Clementine hesitates, clutching her handgun, but the season ends before we see who they are and what she does. It’s an indistinct moment, an ending that functions both as cliffhanger and conclusion: Clementine is a child no more, burdened with emotional maturity and expectation which belies her age. But in this new world, if she is to honor Lee’s sacrifice and continue to survive, then childhood must end.
Strawberry Vinegar is an acquired taste, pardon the pun. It is a visual novel centred around a precocious girl, Rie, who finds a small, ravenous demon in her kitchen, scoffing all of the chessboard cookies she just made. When the demon announces that she intends to stay with Rie and be served delicious meals, otherwise she will subject Rie to her wrath, the reserved girl is forced to entertain the ever-vivacious demon, Licia, for six days. Rie is forced to break with her tendency for solitude, possibly making a new friend (or future soulmate?) in the process.
The chessboard cookies which Rie never had the opportunity to taste. Poor Rie.
As well as telling a story of the Underworld manifesting itself on Earth in a surprisingly sweet package, Strawberry Vinegar emphasises the importance of food in the characters’ lives and what it has to say about particular relationships.
Many Steam reviews advise against playing Strawberry Vinegar on an empty stomach, and these warnings are justified; the dishes are described in minute detail and the artwork manages to make even dull dishes pretty. The power of these meals is augmented by how they feed directly into the plot.
In the foreword to a second printing of The Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about critics who saw his work as allegorical of his experiences in the first world war and its aftermath. He dismissed these ideas, claiming they had mistaken allegory for applicability, that the former lies “in the purposed determination of the author” and the latter “in the freedom of the reader.” I sense in these definitions some acquiescence that parts of The Lord of the Rings may indeed be based on Tolkien’s life, but as he did not pursue these inspirations consciously or deliberately they are “applicable” rather than “allegorical,” and what critics of his time saw as an evocation of contemporary history was in actuality drawing from the cultural zeitgeist of that fraught era.
This all leads to an interesting circumstance when I play Ready At Dawn’s 2015 third-person cover-shooter The Order: 1886.
In the fifteen years since the release of Grand Theft Auto III, videogame design has come to venerate, if not outright fetishize, openness. It’s now taken as a sign that a AAA developer is “entering the modern era” when one of their games is set in an open world, and some publishing houses—who shall remain unnamed in this piece, but you know who they are—have turned open-world design into a formula of capturing towers and rote activities in nominally unique environments. I believe this veneration is where a lot of the scorn directed at The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks originates; by putting Zelda on literal rails, it’s easy to assume that its spirit of adventure has been stifled and its go-where-you-want-when-you-want conceit has been betrayed. This is a fallacious assumption, as the truth is the Zelda series betrayed its open design from its second entry.
While it’s an elementary statement to say that all videogames predominantly communicate with a combination of light and sound, I think Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is of particular note for how it uses these sensations to depict its gameplay and tells its story. When chapters finish, the area goes dark and players are guided to the next by a starscape on the ground; they pulse to the beat of the swelling and suspiciously apropos music. The sound is anything but diegetic, a tapestry of effects and music that intertwine, bombarding me with a feeling of what the area sounded like rather than a specific examination of it. In its best moments, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture becomes an overwhelming combination of visual and auditory effects, but even in its slightest moments it’s a meticulously rendered and curated collection that captures the spirit of Shropshire.
All of this is wrapped up in what, specifically, the Player Character in Rapture is. Who are they, why are they in Shropshire, and most importantly, why are they seeing and hearing the world in this state? Is this the way the world exists now, and any survivors of the “Rapture” would see it as I do, or do I perceive the world this way because this is how the Player Character in particular does? The landscape and the human alterations remain intact, but the people themselves are gone, leaving behind lights which spring to life when I draw near.
“I can tell the light wants me to go that way, but I’m a rebel.”
And with those words, I got off to an awkward start with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
It helps that I went into Rapture knowing nothing except that it is a so-called “walking simulator” and has developed a reputation as the crème de la crème of high-brow pretentiousness in videogames—right up my street, in other words. I’m also a bit of a paradox when it comes to videogame narratives; I want them to be there, but I also make an effort to see everything else in the gameworld before I pursue them. So as I descended from a hilltop observatory into the quintessentially quaint English village of Yaughton, the name “Jeremy” flashed on the screen and a noisy ball of light flew off to the left. I’ve played enough videogames to know that I was expected to have my curiosity peaked and follow it. Rejecting that, I went right.
I didn’t expect much from The Walking Dead: Season One’s Bonus Episode, “400 Days.” It struck me as a gimmick release, cynical even, a quick cash-in on a fanbase salivating for the release of a “second season” after the breakaway success of the “first season” which still hadn’t even been retroactively rebranded as such. I purchased it on a Steam Sale but never got around to playing it, so wary was I of its content. Getting it free through Games With Gold and packed in with the PlayStation 4 re-release of Season One still didn’t do the job—I replayed the core episodes with enthusiasm, but never touched “400 Days.” Wanting to give the entire videogame a thorough licking for Play Critically, I finally sat down tonight to play it. I came away from it equal parts impressed and deflated.