An adventure for the iPad

"Yesterday" revives a long dormant game genre

Topics: The Chimerist, technology, Gadgets, Apple, Computers, ,

An adventure for the iPad
This originally appeared on The Chimerist.

Like Maud, I fell for text adventure games in the 1980s. They were exciting precisely because you couldn’t detect the boundaries and limitations of the world they constructed, and because it felt like you could navigate that world at will. If you turned left, you might discover a castle, while turning right would lead to a dark and menacing forest. Your choice!

But the earliest adventure games, like many of their graphical descendants, turned out to be a lot more constrained than they at first appeared. You could do “anything,” but somehow you always wound up looking for a crowbar or a box of matches so that you could execute some banal task that would ultimately give you access to another bit of imaginary space in which you’d have to perform yet another inane job. These games are fun in the way any puzzle can be fun, but they aren’t really stories. The best of the bunch, the game Myst and its sequels, could be gorgeous and absorbing, but not ever truly moving the way a novel or dramatic work can be. It was once fashionable to claim that games like Myst pointed to the future of storytelling, but the rudimentary stories offered by the vast majority of the genre are less compelling than the average folktale, let alone a play or film.

For that reason, Yesterday by Pendulo Studios is an intriguing departure. Yes, there’s a lot of rummaging around for pen knives and oil cans in order to fix machinery or unearth hidden keys, but the game is more story than puzzles, and the story itself is a gruesomely baroque concoction of satanic cults, renegade academics, mad preachers, gnomic martial arts masters, serial killers, reincarnation and a sinister billionaire.

The central narrative of Yesterday is like the plot of an adequate B-movie in the supernatural thriller genre. This may sound like faint praise, but this is the only game I’ve ever played in which the plot achieves that much substance. There’s a prologue involving a volunteer for a homeless center who falls into the clutches of religious fanatics living in a deserted subway station, then the action resolves around John Yesterday, a private detective with total amnesia striving to recover memories of his past after an apparent suicide attempt. Amnesia is a fairly common affliction for video game protagonists; the player doesn’t know who the character is, and memory loss puts the character himself in the same boat. But Yesterday is unusual in keeping the purpose of the game firmly focused on reconstructing the narrative of John’s life.

The characters, including John himself, are the robotic animated figures typical of many computer games, and the quality of the animation here is not especially high. (Particularly unsettling is the rendering of people’s mouths as they speak — they all seem to suffer from a surfeit of teeth.) This is, of course, a big problem in all such games, even those whose animation is much more realistic; however accomplished, these drawings will never be as emotionally engaging as a real actor’s face, although the player’s investment in scoring and achieving other goals will usually compensates for that.

You Might Also Like

A good test of the strength of any game’s narrative is to ask whether it would be at all interesting if the gameplay and goals were subtracted — if all the fighting/killing were removed, or all of the puzzles. What makes Yesterday exceptional lies in the answer to that question. To my surprise, I found myself genuinely curious about the mystery of John’s identity and how he lost it while engaged in some highly dubious research. This is largely due to the game’s ambiguous villain, Henry White, who looks like an over-dentated Ron Howard in the “Happy Days” era and whose true motives remain enigmatic up to the end.

Storytelling and gameplay, however, are almost always at odds with each other, if for no other reason that that a game hinges on the player’s volition while stories require the audience to surrender to the storyteller’s vision. With Yesterday, the tasks demanded to move the narrative forward feel like trivial, mildly annoying obstacles that don’t have much relevance to the player’s real concern: getting to the bottom of John Yesterday’s dilemma and figuring out what Henry is up to. This sensation isn’t helped by some fairly awkward game mechanics.

Yesterday offers a choice of endings, although there really isn’t that much difference among them. (Some are more gruesome than others, but the game overall is not for the squeamish.) That feels right; one of the great satisfactions offered by a good story is the feeling that its conclusion is both unpredictable and, when revealed, inevitable.

— Laura Miller

Laura Miller
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>