Recently, I’ve been working on the italian version of Gemini Rue,  released on Zodiac today.

Gemini Rue was on my (constantly growing) “must play when I find enough time” list, and by having to work on it for the Zodiac release, I finally had a chance to play it (and to play it with the care and attention that it deserves).

I reviewed the translation (co-operating with my long time adventure games buddy, Cristiano ‘Gnupick’ Caliendo) and fixed some scripts in the source to let it handle properly the Italian texts (some strings aren’t automatically handled by the Adventure Game Studio i18n system, unless you take care of some details – but let’s avoid going technical).

I know that, given my involvment with the Italian edition and Zodiac, my opinion could be perceveid as spam, but I have to say that I really liked it, so kudos to Joshua Nuernberger, the game author.

The game came out in 2011, so there are already dozens of online reviews and it ‘s quite famous in both the adventure games community and in the indie game development scene, so let’s skip the part in which I talk about it and let’s proceed to the random thoughts I promised in the title. Some minor/indirect SPOILERS could be present.

In 2011, a single person can still publish a succesful game

Gemini Rue is not 100% done by Joshua, he received help in the music/sound area (and of course for the voice acting), but still, we are towards the vision of a single person that gets built after lots of hard work and passion. And you can feel that passion while playing the game, more than in some shallow big game productions.

How can this happen? I think it’s mainly about honestly evaluating the available skills (yours and of your teammates, if you have any), knowing what you want to do, and sometimes setting the bar low from the technical perspective (for example, using low resolution graphics and a domain-specific engine like AGS).

Atmosphere wins over pixel count

Gemini Rue graphics is 320×200 in 256 colors, something that might sound ridicolous in 2013. Smartphones handle more than that.

But it’s 320×200 256 colors graphics done extremely well: it’s not about exploiting some nostalgia factor related to “the nice days when I played Beneath a Steel Sky”, it’s about managing to have the player feeling immersed in the game world.

I’ve seen many high resolution 2.5 games with 3D characters not properly merged with the background, or full 3D games with horrible camera handling and user interface. It’s like someone from the marketing department shouted “FullHD/FMV/2.5D/full3D games are cool now, we have to do that too” , without evaluating if it was economically feasible for them to achieve a good result with that kind of technology.

Gemini Rue rooms are alive and rich of small details and animations, with some carefully placed lighting changes and an amazing sound design that consistently improves the immersion. From my point of view, definitely better than some high resolution static background or some low poly 3D world with clipping and lame particle effects.

A well told story doesn’t need to be original to be good

Gemini Rue has a good sci-fi/cyberpunk story, with dozens of direct and indirect influences that fans of the genre can point out: Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, Total Recall, Dollhouse, maybe a little THX 1138, and probably many more (there are some explicit Cowboy Bebop references in the game, but unfortunately that’s on my “must watch when I find enough time” list, sigh).

So, one might want to criticize the lack of originality of the game plot.
But you know, I think that really “new” ideas are quite rare nowadays (IIRC, Philip K. Dick once told that he had just a single good idea, the one of some artificial being that doesn’t know about being artificial), and this kind of criticism is not the smartest one can do: it’s not just about the ideas, it’s more about how they are put together and communicated to the audience. It’s about the way characters are used to carry on the events.

I mean, you can tell the “Reservoir Dogs” plot in 30 seconds, but it’s how is carried on the screen that makes it a cult movie.
And you can give some brilliant sci-fi background to some dumb action movie director/screenwriter and have a shitty film no matter how the basic ideas were cool.

If the characters manage to get us interested in their psychology, motivations, background, and have good dialogues, the originality and sometimes even the consistency of the story often become secondary. We have to care about the characters and feel motivated to impersonate them, because we want to see what’s going to happen to them as the story moves forwards.

A well designed adventure game keeps you interested

I played Gemini Rue from the beginning to the end and never got stuck or bored. My interest was always kept high, I constantly had some goal to achieve, and the puzzles were logical. Theres’s a good variety of environments and characters, the alternance between Azriel and Delta-Six sections of the game works very well, and the non-linearity of the story adds some interest to it without getting too complex to be followed on a first playthrough. There are some small action sequences, often looked skeptically by purists of the genre, but they’re well integrated into the story and didn’t bother me at all.

It’s a matter of rhytm and variety: getting a good balance between moments where you are looking for an object or a person, moments in which you must face some inventory driven puzzle, areas where you have to explore the surroundings, dialogues in which you get background information, cutscenes, action or time limited sequences.

Put too much of something and you risk having a too long cutscene, too much background info all in a place to be perceived by the player, too many locations to explore without being able to understand what’s useful in your next step, too many objects in the inventory… or, worse, you can get into stupid puzzles put there just to make the game longer, making no sense and having no connection to the narrative side. Good puzzles are the ones connected to the progression of the story, the others are mostly fill-ins.

I think that Gemini Rue does really a great job in this area, all is very well balanced and distributed during the whole game. There is maybe just a single puzzle that feels a little like a filler (the air flow management through vents opening), but hey, we had some stuff like that even in “The Dig” and it still is a masterpiece.

This kind of “balance”, in my opinion, is an instance of the often quoted Jenova Chen’s “Flow in Games” principle of keeping the player challenged but not frustrated. When talking about adventure games, to keep the “flow”, storytelling skills (similarly used in books, movies, comic books, tv shows etc.) are as important as technical skills strictly tied to game development (for example, providing a good user interface where the user can navigate the environment and handle the inventory without getting frustrated).

And while storytelling itself gives you endless opportunities, they escalate further when you add interaction: non linearity, adaptive details to provide a better suspension of disbelief, keeping the player active in the story-critical moments to increase the immersion… possibilities are endless, even forgetting for a moment about improvements that could come from the technical side (graphics, IA, NLP). And they say adventure games are dead… 🙂