Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Back To The Mountain : Trüberbrook

I finished Trüberbrook. It took me just over eight hours. I didn't use a walkthrough until the penultimate chapter. On the few occasions I did go for help it almost always turned out that all I needed to do was exactly what I thought I needed to do, only in a slightly diferent way.

That's a problem I'm very familiar with in aging MMORPGs, where quests have been designed and implemented by different developers over the course of many years. You don't really expect those kind of inconsistencies in standalone games but as flaws go it's a very minor one.

Overall, I'd rate Trüberbrook quite highly. Without a doubt its greatest strength is the visuals. Every scene is beautifully rendered, with a wealth of detail, but it never indulges in the kind of complexity for complexity's sake that turns an adventure game into "spot the hidden object". 

Almost every location would make a fine book illustration or jigsaw puzzle. There's a great illusion of depth created by the use of actual scale models for the sets and backdrops. Possibly for that reason, compared to almost any game of it's kind that I've played, Trüberbrook has very few locations.  

Far from feeling limiting or claustrophobic, it genuinely works in the game's favor. Hans, the protagonist, moves fairly slowly, even when you force him into his stoop-backed, shuffling run, so you wouldn't really want too many long treks. Even with the relatively small number of transitions, when you acquire a map late in the game that allows you to travel instantly from location to location, it comes as a welcome surprise.

One thing that makes the game feel more extensive than its limited number of scenes would suggest is the creative and satisfying way those scenes are re-used. As you progress through the narrative, places you've already explored demand further visits to see what may have changed. 

In other adventure games I've played re-tracing your steps can become tedious but in Trüberbrook it never does. The game lets you know quite plainly if there's no point returning to dead location but chances are you won't even try, since almost all the changes feel as though they're a natural consequence of the actions you've taken or the way the plot has turned.

There are a couple of occasions when something entirely unpredictable happens and that's when I would have welcomed a clue to point me in the right direction but mostly I found myself returning to the correct place to check on something I had an inkling about. More often than not my hunch was correct and even when it wasn't there was usually something else new instead, something that hadn't occurred to me but easily could have.

Obviously I'm being vague here because if there's one thing you don't want in an adventure game it's spoilers. It's possible I'm being too circumspect. If there's one area where Trüberbrook could do with some serious tightening up it's the plot.

I'm not saying it's bad. (It's pretty bad). It's no worse than any number of video game plots I've raised my eyebrows at over the years. If it wasn't for the claims made on the website ("a gripping sci-fi storyline", "a puzzling sci-fi mystery") it would be easier to ignore the fact that at no point does the plot threaten to make the slightest sense whatsoever. 

Much more accurate are the assertions that the narrative deals with "universal themes like love, friendship, loyalty, rootlessness, self-discovery and dinosaurs". It kind of does, although in an oddly eliptical fashion. This could be construed as a spoiler, in the way that just announcing a movie has a twist is in itself a spoiler, even if you don't say what the twist is, but Trüberbrook ends with a straightforward moral choice that I found surprisingly affecting. And it's certainly some time since I saw not one but two character arcs satisfyingly concluded through emotional commitment to inanimate objects.

Trüberbrook is very much a game that's more than the sum of its parts, which is just as well because some of the parts don't add up to much on their own. Those would mostly be the "game" parts. There were quite a few moments when I felt certain scenarios and set pieces existed more to justify selling Trüberbrook as a game at all than because anyone believed they would be inherently entertaining. 

Given that the team had gone to all the trouble of making the scale models and the sets I did occasionally wish they'd just doubled down and made an animated movie instead. They would have needed a better plot, though. Movies aren't as forgiving as games when it comes to that sort of thing.

Even so, I did have a lot of fun playing. There are plenty of times when something you do has an effect that's funny or surprising and that sense of agency is one thing no movie can give you. 

There's also a lot of genuine curiosity to be satisfied by poking around. Unlike most adventure games there seem to be an unusual variety of examinable and even useable items and objects that don't appear to further the plot in any way. 

An awful lot of work has gone into some of them, too. It's by no means uncommon in an adventure game to come across a journal or a guest book or some photos but to create ten or a dozen pages of a ledger filled with names and dates and times and notes, most of which don't have any obvious narrative or humorous value and none of which relate in any meaningful way to the plot seems to be taking verisimilitude to an almost obsessional level.

 It does make the place feel real, though. I'd rather they did it than not, even if it does feel odd to have spent five minutes reading something that isn't funny and doesn't help.

I have no such reservations about the superb set piece that happens late on in the game and which also has no discernible relation to the plot other than to leave a single item behind to be picked up and used later. That item could just as easily have been acquired through any regular conversation with an NPC but instead we not only get  to watch one of the better in-game musical performances I've seen anywhere but also to engage in some on-the-fly songwriting!

I was so taken unawares by this event I didn't have the presence of mind to save before it started so I could replay that segment and video the performance. Fortunately someone else did. This is definitely a spoiler in that I found the unexpected appearance of the event itself  to be the highlight of the whole game but it doesn't really spoil much, if any, of the plot.


Actually, the song wasn't the highlight. Here's another spoiler. 

There's an after-credit sequence. I knew there would be. The game just has that feel. There had to be one and there was. 

What it was, though, was completely unexpected and really quite beautiful. I took some screenshots and I was going to use one here but on second thoughts I don't think I will. It really would be a shame to spoil the surprise.

I'm generally not much of a one for re-playing games to see alternative outcomes or endings. I probably won't replay Trüberbrook. I might, though. The choice you have to make at the end is so stark the outcomes have to be very different. I am curious to know what would have happened...

Or maybe I'll just watch it on YouTube. I did say the whole thing would work better as a movie, after all.

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