Resonance (2012)

Sometime in the near future, something is amiss in the city of Aventine. A damn-the-rules cop has just been reprimanded by his supervisor for pursuing what looked like a perfectly ordinary case (thus piquing his interest in the first place). A blogger who likes to fancy himself an investigative reporter has been following leads which may lead him to a conspiracy bigger than he could have imagined. A medical doctor is about to meet a dear relative after years of having heard nothing from him. And a mathematician and assistant to a brilliant scientist has to deal with a strange phone call by his boss.

Said scientist has made a revolutionary discovery, one that could change the world for the better — or for the very, very worse. An incident at his lab at the beginning of the game sets into motion a plot that brings the four characters of the first paragraph together. Through them, the player has to solve the mystery of what happened to the scientist, what happened to his research, how it might tie into other ongoing investigations, and what the ethical implications are.

Like the previous sci-fi point-and-click adventure game published by Wadjet Eye Games, Gemini Rue, Resonance can be categorised as “semi-hard” science-fiction: certain technologies are at the center of the plot, and other devices in the games’ worlds are extrapolated from existing tech; but it’s not technology porn and the technobabble is also kept to a minimum. Both games are interested not so much in technology in and of itself, but in how new inventions impact the lives of people. In a similar vein but on a separate spectrum, the games are more science-fiction of the heart than science-fiction of the mind. That’s not to say they’re not intelligent or that they’re not intellectually stimulating. They are. But more than that, they are emotionally stimulating. They do this by crafting interesting, complex characters that the player is made to care about, and by giving the player (the illusion of) a choice in a given character’s actions.

Resonance is not a sandbox game and its storyline is told in a fairly linear fashion, but within the limits of its genre, it tries to integrate its themes (which partially revolve around the question of determinism) with the gameplay. Over half a dozen times, the game offers the player alternatives to solve certain puzzles, and there’s often a moral dimension to those decisions, involving the player more closely in the decisions of the characters. These choices don’t affect the game’s storyline in a significant way (there are three alternate endings, but they only branch off of each other very late in the game), but the player is still put in a position where he or she has to think about the situation and make a decision for the character. There are also a couple of points in the game that have little to do with puzzles but where the player is nevertheless asked to steer a character in one of two directions, and always in shades of grey instead of black and white.

Another element that plays into this, and which is a minor adventure gaming innovation, is the game’s inventory concept. Recent games had already played around with having two fully interactive inventories: the traditional bottomless pockets stuffed to the brim with every item that isn’t nailed down, and a notebook of sorts holding important information. The latter can also double as a hint system/quest log; Gemini Rue uses the detective character’s communicator for this purpose, for instance.

In this case, the “log” is represented as long-term memory; important pieces of information are automatically stored away, able to be replayed at any point to refresh the player’s memory, and able to be brought up in conversations with other characters. In addition, however, there is also a short-term memory inventory with a limited number of slots which the player can fill up how he pleases. I expected this to be somewhat annoying – I complained about the redundancies in Gemini Rue‘s gameplay in the other review -, but it surprisingly wasn’t. After the first couple of screens, it became completely natural to choose important-looking objects to drag into my short-term memory because I guessed I’d have to refer back to them later on. Calling it just another inventory is quite apt. Once I got the hang of it, using the memory system wasn’t difficult nor particularly tedious. In fact, there probably weren’t enough puzzles in the game that made good use of particularly the short-term memory. I would also have preferred it if the inventory had been a little more interactive; you can only use the memories in conversations, not in combination with other objects or the environment to get the played character to figure something out (that was something you could do even in Discworld Noir, 1999, which is a very early example of an adventure game with a notebook feature). There aren’t really enough combining puzzles in the game period, as far as my tastes are concerned.

What there is in abundance, unfortunately, is “logic puzzles”, by which I mean puzzles requiring you to figure out in advance the dozen-odd moves required to move and lock an abstract pattern of some kind into place. I know lots of people like them, but I don’t; my brain just isn’t wired that way, and I’d prefer it if those kinds of puzzles were relegated entirely to games which freely admit they’re about nothing else (e.g. Myst) so I know not to play them. To developer Vince Twelve’s credit, many of these puzzles are either completely optional (worth a couple of extra points, but with no bearing on the plot if skipped) or “work-aroundable” (with alternative puzzles provided as a secondary option), and it’s the latter where once again choice comes into play. For instance, in one scene I need to gain an NPC’s cooperation; I can do that either immediately upon meeting him by solving a logic puzzle, or I can wait until another, more traditional inventory/dialogue puzzle presents itself. In this particular case, the second option is the morally more questionable one because it involves an illegal act. That’s how it should have been done throughout the entire game. So it’s unfortunate that the biggest and most tedious of these puzzles isn’t skippable at all; I’m not ashamed to admit that I used the internet to acquire step-by-step instructions for how to get past that particular obstacle. (The logic puzzles aside, the game features a couple of puzzles that are quite a challenge, though they’re never prohibitively and punishingly difficult. And there’s one in particular which is so easy I couldn’t figure it out because I was stuck thinking about the problem in an abstract way instead of taking the puzzle at face value.)

There are also a number of minigames and things that probably don’t quite qualify as minigames but come close (barely interactive interfaces of mostly computer screens and occasionally more primitive devices). This is another area where I had complaints about Gemini Rue‘s implementation of these ideas; Resonance, for the most part, does a better job of integrating these diversions into the story and making them short and simple enough that they don’t outstay their welcome. They also help easing the player better into the world the characters live in, making it seem less “game-y” and more real.

I don’t want to keep comparing the two games; briefly I would say that while Resonance is the better game, the older adventure still has a slight edge when it comes to characters and story. Neither game is perfect. Minor annoyances for the fresh release, beyond the ones I already mentioned, include:

  • Some keyboard shortcuts would have been nice; pressing “1” to select the first dialogue option is normally pretty standard in AGS games. Also a possibility: shortcuts to switch more quickly between characters, and maybe even to move objects from one character to another more efficiently.
  • There was a weird sound issue in later parts of the game where the soundtrack briefly lagged every time a character entered a different section of a location. I don’t know if that’s a bug, something to do with my computer, or something to do with the game settings which I could have repaired had I changed something. It never became bothersome enough to try getting rid of it.
  • Both the memory system and the fact that the player had four characters to control could have been utilised more than it was, either in the way of puzzles and/or (RPG-like) character development via conversations.
  • The game is a tad short for $10. Admittedly I cheated by not figuring out that one huge logic puzzle on my own, and I’d also already played parts of the demo, enabling me to breeze through some early parts of the game. Still, 7 hours (add one, maybe, to account for those circumstances) is less than I had expected. There’s probably not much room for padding in the story (which is not something I’d advocate anyway), but there would have been room to elaborate on alternate endings/alternate pathways to the end. Not every game needs to be as intricate in this respect as Fate of Atlantis (1992/3), but Resonance is the kind of game that could have benefitted from letting the player experience how different choices lead to different outcomes.

Nevertheless, Resonance comes very much recommended for its story, its mostly engaging gameplay, and the ethical questions it forces the player to ponder. I’m not mad I paid full price at the time, just to make that clear. Back in the day when I had more free time than disposable income, I paid much more for some big-studio games which might have technically offered more play time, but weren’t nearly so skilled at roping the player in and delivering, on the whole, both a satisfying story and game experience. And it is an independent game; these guys deserve some cash so they can continue making more and even better games.

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