Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Didn't Know I Wanted: Trüberbrook

Life is weird, there's no denying it. Remember a few years back when we were all talking about how subscriptions were dead? Some of us were happy about it and some of us were angry but almost no-one pretended subscriptions had a future. (Yes, okay, maybe one or two...).

Now here we all are with subscriptions to everything. Music, television, movies, games, delivery services, phones... you name it, we're signing up to be billed monthly. And it changes things, doesn't it? The what and the how.

Yesterday I was writing about Stargirl. Would I have watched it if I didn't have a subscription? Well, maybe. But not the way I did, or when.

I'd have waited until it came out on DVD then I'd have put it on my wishlist and then I'd have waited until someone bought it for me for my birthday or Christmas and when they did I'd most likely have put it on my huge stack of DVDs waiting to be watched. I'd probably have gotten around to it about five years from now.

Did they really have palm-sized portable dictaphones in 1967?
This afternoon I spent the best part of three hours playing Trüberbrook. If Trüberbrook wasn't one of the games that comes free with Amazon Prime, not only would I not have been playing it, I would never even have heard of it.

This is far from an original observation. Quite a few people have pointed it out as part of the ongoing discussion over the wisdom of buying things on release, before release, at full price, in sales, in bundles and to which list we can now add getting them for "free" as part of some kind of membership or subscription.

I just mention it to put the core content of this post into some kind of historical perspective. I'm about to give my first impressions of a point-and-click adventure game that I neither sought out nor paid for. How did we get here?

Of course, on one level I did seek it out. Amazon Prime gives away a bunch of games every month and most of them I don't even download, far less play. I picked this one because it's a genre I generally enjoy, the thumbnail caught my eye and the short text description I read threw in a couple of keywords that triggered a Pavlovian reaction in me.

And why does it say "Gas Satation" up there in American English when we're in Bavaria?

"Inspired by TV series like Twin Peaks and The X-Files" will do it every time. Well, Twin Peaks will.  It's marketing shorthand for "we made this for people like you". Same thing goes for blurbs on the back of books that mention Catcher in the Rye. They're usually terrible but at least I can rely on them being my kind of terrible.

Trüberbrook is not at all terrible. It is peculiar, though. For one thing, it subverts the Twin Peaks trope by setting the game in 1960s Germany. 1967, to be precise. It's mostly made by Germans, I believe, so that explains the locale if not the time period.

Having played through the prologue and Chapter One, I'd have to say the game feels neither partiularly sixties nor especially German to me. It could be set in any generic central European country as imagined by someone who'd once spent a week or two staying in alpine guesthouses, doing a bit of hiking in the foothills. Some of the interiors look like pastiche Americana to me.

Not even when it's damn fine coffee?
As for it being the mid-sixties, other than a battered VW bus and a black and white cabinet tv, there's precious little that would have looked out of place on several recent holidays I've taken. Scenery is timeless and so are small hotels. And fashions don't really give much of a clue if all the characters wear either suits or windbreakers, hiking boots and blue jeans. The first world war spiked helmet is a giveaway, though, I'll give them that.

The milieu may not live up to the billing but the graphics most definitely do. Trüberbrook has an unusual design aesthetic, with all of the scenery and backdrops constructed as miniature scale models, then captured with a 3D scanner. The characters are digitally animated over the sets and the effect is odd, charming and delightful.

Graphically, the game is also fluid and functional. Moving from place to place is simple and straighforward with very few of those annoying stutters when you run up against somewhere the animators didn't intend for you to go. Character animations reminded me somewhat of stop-motion or possibly even puppetry. They're convincing without striving for naturalism.

Spookiest scene in Chapter One. Actually, the only spooky scene in Chapter One...
Point and click adventures live or die by the ease with which objects can be manipulated to solve problems. In that respect Trüberbrook is exemplary - providing you're not one of those people who thrives on picking up every possible object then stuffing them all in your voluminous backpacks so you can sort through all of them over and over before "using" everything on everything else until something clicks.

This game won't let you do that. Firstly, there really isn't all that much you can pick up and secondly if something can be used on something else the game generally tells you so. What's more, if a combination of different objects is required, the interaction will select all of them for you. 

I found that very helpful and perfectly satisfying. To an extent it does push the gameplay further down the slope towards "interactive movie" than some prefer but I always found plenty to think about and plenty to do.

Look away now if you don't want to know how to catch a fox in a box the hard way.

Another crucial component of a good point and click adventure is the puzzles. Without those you don't have any gameplay at all. My preference is for puzzles to be as logical and naturalistic as possible.

I do not favor the "pick the lock with a fishbone" approach. Far less do I favor those overly complex acquisition chains that expect you to first fashion a fishing rod from a car aerial and the elastic from an elderly aunt's surgical stocking so you can catch a suitable fish, before boning it with the twiddly bit on a Swiss army knife (the one that's usually reserved for removing stones from horse's hooves) which you won earlier in a game of gin rummy with a passing stable-lad.

When it comes to puzzles, Trüberbrook manages to be both simple and complex at the same time. The eventual solution to several of the puzzles, when played out, turns out to be positively bizarre and entirely unguessable. That would have been infuriating -  if I'd had to solve them myself. But I didn't.

Must have been some weasel!
What I mostly had to do was be assiduous in collecting the few useable items I found and diligent in using them when the game told me I could. At the point when I'd collected the correct items and was in the right place the game rewarded me with a sequence of events that on more than once occasion had me laughing out loud. Plus I got to feel clever without having to have done very much, always a nice feeling.

The final remaining pillar of a good point and click adventure is the story, along with which, for the purposes of this first impressions piece, I'm including dialog and voice acting. Let's take those three components in reverse order.

The voice acting is good. Everyone other than the nominal protagonist has a German accent of sorts. Probably an authentic one, given the game's provenance. The lead character is American, although given he's called Hans Tannhauser the nationality on his passport seems almost immaterial. Also I could have sworn he tells another character he's from Berlin at one point...

Fancy meeting you here!
I call him the "nominal" protagonist because he's not the only, or even the first, character the player gets to be. The pre-credit sequence, which I guess is a form of tutorial, all takes place from the perspective of Gretchen the paleoanthropologist. The two of them reminded me quite strongly of Nico and George from the Broken Sword series, a happy similarity, at least in my eyes, although where George and Nico like to engage in would-be sophisticated repartee, these two mostly deal in playground insults and pratfalls. .

The dialog itself is solid. I did notice a few solecisms that I'd put down to the writers either having been translated or not working in their first language but by and large all the characters sound like people having believable conversations.

The game describes itself as being "permeated with a subtle humor" which on the evidence I've seen so far might be pushing it a little. It is quite funny but I'm not sure I'd call it subtle. The promised Twin Peaks atmosphere comes and goes. The X-Files motif seems more consistent.

Yeah, but it's still up a tree. Explain that, Doc.

As for the central narrative, I'm not at all sure I've spotted it yet. What little plot there is seems to consist a quantum physicist and a paleoanthroplogist behaving like two seven year olds acting out their favorite Famous Five adventures.

So far, I'm having a very good time. Three hours in and I didn't once have to look anything up online, far less consult a walkthrough. That's a recommendation in itself.

Last and most certainly not least, there's a fox called Klaus that everyone seems to think is a cat. He climbs trees and likes fish, so maybe he is a cat. That's got to be worth the price of admission on its own.

The price of admission in my case, of course, being a subscription to Amazon Prime. Which I was already paying. So it's free. Or is it?

I don't know any more and, frankly, I don't care.


  1. Huh. I signed up for Prime because I wanted to see Tales from the Loop, and because I had several things to order anyway, so it felt like almost for free anyway. I ordered my stuff, watched one episode of the Tales, and then promptly forgot about it. I didn't even know Prime came with free games. And it took me surprisingly long to actually find their website, probably partially because of a recent rebranding (I found more than enough articles saying "Twitch Prime is now Prime Games!"). Then it first insisted to try and connect to the wrong country's amazon. Eventually, I made my way in though.

    Only to notice that I'm apparently too late to the party for this game. Couldn't find it in my list, and a little bit more searching makes me suspect the offer to get it for free rotated out on the 4th of September. Oh well... at least that gives me more time to finish Tales from the Loop then.

    1. I think I downloaded it last month but I only just got around to trying it. It's odd the way some things on Prime time out and others hang around indefinitely. When it was Twitch Prime it was a strict one month deal, I think.

      Tales from the Loop is defintiely worth making time for, though.

  2. I had no idea prime comes with games. I have been thinking about getting into some kind of MMO shooter lately, and it looks like they have stuff for Destiny 2 and Warframe on there this month.

    1. They always have a bunch of various packs and boosts for certain games. Not usually for anything I play, sadly. When they were still branded as Twitch Prime they gave away either four or five full games each month, different games every time, which were all only available to download during that month, although once you had them they were yours to keep.

      These days they seem to be a lot more fluid (aka confusing). There are still a bunch of new, free games at the start of each month but the time they remain available varies. It's always at least a month but sometimes its a lot longer. If you want any you have to confirm that but you don't have to download immediately. As far as I can tell, once you've confrimed you want a game you can download it at any time, possibly even after you can no longer select it.

      I have no idea why it needs to be so ridiculously complicated but it's "free" games so I guess we shouldn't complain.


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