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Console-Tation: Finding the Ex Machina of video games
Hello everyone, and welcome to Console-Tation, a new feature series on SYFY FANGRRLS where we help you find your next favorite video game — one you might not have heard of, but are going to love.
I'm your host and SYFY FANGRRLS resident gaming expert, Laura Dale. I've worked as a full-time video game critic for the past five years, and it's my job to help readers like you discover the next game that's going to be exactly your jam.
Our recommendations are not just based on your taste in games. Tell us what movies you love, what book genres you're wild for, maybe even what music you like. Paint us a wide picture of your interests and we will try and find a game tailor-made to your tastes.
So, without further ado, let's help out today’s FANGRRL.
Do you want help finding that next game that's perfect for you? Well, we have a form you can fill out here. If you're selected, you might get your next game recommendation courtesy of Console-Tation.
Today’s email comes from SYFY FANGRRLS reader Val, who’s looking for some game recommendations that won’t take a million years to complete.
My name is Val and my pronouns are she/they.
Recently I just finished Firewatch and Sayonara Wild Hearts, and loved both of those, as well as having an absolute adoration for Splatoon 2. Games that have a definite idea of the vibe they want to be are SO my jam. As far as other media go, I adore Ex Machina and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.
My deal breakers are anything super long media-wise - I could get through it if I really liked the art style, but I'm the kind of person who's played through the intro to Skyrim ten times but has never seen a single save through for more than a few hours.
I have a Nintendo Switch which is where I play games most, however I do also have a modern-ish PC and a shared PS4 with my housemates which I'm cool to play things on.
The key things that stood out to me from Val’s email were:
- Games that can be completed comfortably in a couple of sittings, not big sprawling adventures.
- Games that focus on story as much as they do gameplay mechanics.
- Vibrant and unique art direction, with a well defined "vibe."
- Science fiction and fantasy stories that touch on surreal looks at a world not too unlike our own.
I thought of five recommendations that might scratch some of those gaming itches.
For anyone unaware of Superhot, the game is a first-person shooter, where the game only moves if you move. You can look around freely, but so long as you don’t take a step, bullets fired at you stay frozen in mid-air, enemies sprinting at you will slow to an infinite crawl, and you’ve got as much time as you need to plan out your moves. After you shoot, punch, and leap through a level at your own pace, watch your progress played back in real-time, and feel awesome doing it.
The game has a very clearly defined visual style, with crisp white environments contrasted against red polygonal enemy designs that shatter like glass when defeated. This is paired with dramatic on-screen instructions, and a plot regarding a computer program you were never meant to access, giving the game a really clear stylish identity. While the gameplay is what most people discuss when mentioning the game, the story is a really strong hook as you get deeper into playing.
The game is fully playable within a few hours, and is available to play on Nintendo Switch. If you really get on well with it, there’s a DLC expansion that was recently released for the PC and PS4 versions of the game, but it’s currently unclear if or when it will come to Switch.
I spent quite a lot of time trying to think about video games that feel tonally similar to the movie Ex Machina, and after some consideration, I settled on the idea that Her Story might be the closest thing we have in video games. Sure it lacks the movie’s sci-fi elements, but it makes up for that in its depictions of interactions with a mysterious woman held just out of the viewer’s reach.
The plot conceit of Her Story is pretty simple. You play someone sitting at a computer, accessing video clips in a police interrogation database. You search a given word, then clips where that word is spoken appear on screen and you watch them. Use those clips to think of new words to search for, and continue. At its core, the gameplay loop is that simple.
All of the clips you’ll find are interviews with the same woman, a suspect in a pretty major crime. While you can never directly interact with her, kept at arm’s length, you slowly get to know her personality, her mannerisms, and who she is through non-linear glimpses into her world.
The game can be completed within a few hours, but to find absolutely every clip in the game and understand the order in which they occurred may take longer. The joy in the game is coming to your own conclusions, finding your own path, and just letting your mind wander, exploring the woman and her alleged crime as aspects of it become interesting to you.
Her Story is a fascinating study in character work, where over a few hours you try to get to know a woman whose true motives are constantly a little out of reach. If nothing else, I feel like that captures the tone and energy of a movie like Ex Machina. Her Story is available on PC and smartphones.
To the Moon
A bit of a change of pace, To the Moon is a top-down adventure game, around four hours or so in length, about delving into the mind of a dying old man. Set in a near-future world, you play as a pair of scientists who can help the dying rewrite their memories in order to die happy, feeling like they accomplished everything they had hoped to in life.
To the Moon is very light on gameplay, with most of the game’s interactions boiled down to exploring environments frozen in time, finding objects of significance to the old man’s life, and hoping through his timeline trying to understand what he wanted out of life, and how to help him achieve it. Along the way, you’ll unravel mysteries about other important people in his life and the meaning behind a very special origami bunny rabbit.
To the Moon is at times adorable, at times heartbreaking, and at its best moments incredibly bittersweet. It uses light science fiction elements to explore a very human story about longing to connect with humanity, and it never fails to bring me to tears. It’s a beautiful story, well worth playing in a single sitting if possible. It’s available on Switch, as well as PC.
Trying to think about video games that might scratch a Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency feel, I kept being drawn back to recommending Superliminal, a recently released surreal adventure game about forced perspective and surreal spaces. It may lack a detective who just happens to always be in the right place at the right time, but the way it expects the player to look past the obvious and think outside the box felt very tonally familiar.
In Superliminal, you play as someone who has been dropped off at a lucid dreaming therapy clinic, designed to help patients take better control of their lives when things feel overwhelming. Objects you hold can have their size changed by shifting the way you hold them; a small object held up to the ceiling and dropped may appear to be far away now and appear to get larger as it returns to the floor. Watch the trailer above, it’ll all make sense, I promise.
Much like narrative puzzle games Portal and The Stanley Parable, things begin to go awry as you explore this facility, falling deeper and deeper into this world of surreal physical spaces and handle a potentially dangerous voice leading you through your dreams.
Superliminal is a couple of hours long, tells a very interesting and engaging story, and manages to pull off some very stylistically striking set-pieces with its use of forced perspectives. It’s available on Switch, PC, and PS4.
Today’s last recommendation, Donut County, is a charming and silly game where you control a hole to the center of the earth, which can slide around, and grows larger the more it consumes. You play a raccoon, busy collecting human possessions rather than delivering donuts to the citizens of a small town, and it gets adorably bonkers pretty quickly.
Reminiscent of games like Katamari Damacy, the challenge of most levels is simply working out what items you are large enough to engulf until you can consume the whole level. You can read up silly descriptions of consumed items, all the while exploring a story of a town trapped and frustrated at their local donut delivery raccoon.
Donut County is just a few hours long, but it’s a very silly and well-written puzzle game that’s mechanically simple and has a remarkable amount of depth. You know, because of the hole.