Friday, July 8, 2022

Short, Satisfying, Occasionally Sweet: Developing A Taste For Demos

Following on from the post where I wondered which games I could play for short periods without worrying about having to walk away from the keyboard at a moment's notice, it occurred to me that I'm already taking full advantage of one such option: demos.

There are only a couple of dozen posts here with the tags "Demo" or "Demos" (I really need to make my mind up.) but I only started using it a year ago. Many of the posts feature more than one game so it's plain I've played quite a few in a short time.

I really like them. Demos are a kind of gaming tapas and who doesn't like tapas? Granted, some of them turn out to be albondingas or ensalada rusa rather than patatas bravas or aicetunas and once in a while, god forbid, you might get a zarajo (I have never had an actual zarajo, let me make that perfectly clear, and I fervently hope I never will.) but if it's not to your taste it's soon gone and on to the next.

Like most of the tapas I've had over the years, demos are also free. It used to be the custom right across Spain for the waiter to plonk down a little dish of something you hadn't asked for with every drink you had. I've eaten some unexpected things that way. 

Sadly the custom seems to be dying out other than in the south, although last time I was in both Extramadura and Castile y Leon there still seemed to be plenty of traditionalists handing out free food in the country towns and villages. I know the local cats did well from all the free meat tapas I couldn't eat, having been a vegetarian since the late '80s. I do relax the rules a little on holiday, just to be polite, so I'll eat a small slice of ham or some cold bacon if it's put in front of me but I'm not eating a meatball or a bowl of something with bits of chorizo floating in it for anyone, politeness be damned.

Hmm. This metaphor seems to be on the verge of developing sentience. Let's get back to the point.

I could have done with more scenes like this one.


Demos tend to last anything from a few minutes to a couple of hours. They don't cost anything and they're widely available. There's no need to wait for special events like Steam's Next Fest. Half the demos are on Steam already anyway and Steam's not the only place to find them.

The thing I'm beginning to find about demos is that they have almost the opposite effect on me from the one the developers and marketers presumably intended. Demos differ from tapas (No, really? You're going there again?) in that no-one expects you to go back to the bar after a tapas and ask for the same thing as a meal. Game demos, conversely, are meant to get you do exactly that - buy the full game.

Except I hardly ever do. I might go so far as to wishlist it but how many of those wishes ever come true? Not one in ten. Not even one in twenty.

The ones I think I'm most likely to convert when I add them to the list are probably those where the demo has a strong storyline that ends with a cliffhanger or at least a lot of loose threads. At the time I very much want to know what happens next so I wishlist it and look forward to the full game coming out so I can find out how the story carris on.

... for about five minutes. Then I forget all about it. When I get an email months or even years later, telling me the game's now available to buy, I'm lucky if I can remember it at all. I certainly won't be able to recall the plot and even if I do, any fervent desire I had to know what happens next won't come back.

The games on my wishlist I end up buying have precious little to do with the demos I may have played. Purchases tend to be either entirely on a whim or because the game is the latest from a developer or creator I already know. It's like buying the latest album by a band you like. You just do it, you don't have to listen to a few tracks first to make your mind up.

Isabella has a dog. You can see it asleep on the bed. Sometimes it gets up and wanders around and barks. Granted it's a robot dog but they seem to be the in thing right now.


When I hold back on buying the less-familiar titles, it's not because I don't think the finished games will be any good. I'm sure most of them are fine. It's that an hour or two, maybe a chapter or a single episode is enough to satisfy my interest.

If the appeal of the game lies in the mechanics, that's usually something I can burn through in the first few minutes. Similarly, much though I love new graphical experiences, a fresh aesthetic already feels familiar during the course of an hour-long demo. Thereafter it's more examples of the same style, which is nice but not necessarily compelling.

I tend to come away from most demos feeling satisfied, which is a problem for the people trying to sell me the full game. Ideally, they'd want me to feel unsatisfied but in a good way, the old "leave them wanting more", but it's a difficult trick to pull off.

Not showing enough of your gameplay is a risk but so is showing too much. Leaving everything up in the air at the end risks annoying or even alienating your prospective customer but if the demo ends with all the loose ends neatly tied in a presentation bow, it can feel as though the whole experience is complete. No need to see what happens next.

Adventure and detection games, two of my favorite genres, suffer from this more than most. Adventure games, by definition, have long, often rambling or convoluted storylines that take dozens of hours to unravel. Whatever snapshot you present in a sixty-minute demo is likely to feel truncated, abridged, incomplete.

I have a dog, she has a dog, they have a dog, we all have a dog.


That, I would suggest, is still a lot better than detection games, which tend to offer up a single case as the format for their demos, while hinting at a wider story arc they then don't reveal. Several I've played recently have done that, including the one I played a couple of days ago, on the suggestion of Krikket, who reviewed it as part of her #JustOnePercent series.

The game is the awkwardly-named Song of Farca, "Song" being the last name of the protagonist and "Farca" being the Mediteranean island on which she lives. The game has already released and enjoys a "Very Positive" rating on its Steam page, where it describes itself as "a dark and cruel Black Mirror-esque novel", something that doesn't help me much, never having seen a single episode of Black Mirror.

It also claims to have "the narrative structure of a US crime procedural", by which I think they mean you ask a lot of questions and then pin all the answers on a big board so you can connect them with bits of string. And of course it's set in a dark, cyberpunk/noir near future because why wouldn't it be? Everything else is.

The main reason I decided to give Song of Farca a look were the screenshots in Krikket's post. Her review made the game sound interesting if flawed but the images and the text gave the impression of something a little more subtle and nuanced than the average crime-solving adventure. 

Having played through the whole of the demo I have to say that the shots Krikket chose, all of which are from the very start of the game, do the game a favor it may not deserve. Not that it's a badly written or illutrated game, far from it. It's just not as different from the baseline standard of its subgenre as I'd imagined. Well, at least not in the way I'd hoped...

First game I've ever played where I had to sign an NDA in the game as the protagonist. It's three pages long, too.

All of the screens in Krikket's post focus on the personal elements of the narrative, which gave me the idea the game would revolve around personal interactions and situations. There certainly were moments in the demo that veered in that direction but once the investigation began it was very much all business.

I was particularly disappointed that the AI assistant, Maurice, plays absolutely no part in the investigation. The introduction sets up a very interesting relationship between Maurice and Isabella but if it ever develops into anything it's not in the demo. I never got Maurice to say a single thing after that.

Weirdly, the case once again revolves around a child's missing robot dog. I thought it was an unusual scenario the first time I encountered it but to find myself tasked with doing the same thing just a couple of weeks later struck me as bizarre. If it happens a third time I'm going to have to call shenanigans.

Although the two cases begin with a very similar premise they develop entirely differently. Whereas the Hill Agency investigation revealed nothing more sinister than an extreme case of pester power, Isabella Song finds herself drawn into a web of underground dog-fights and regional crimelords.

Her methods are very different, too. Instead of wandering around the neighborhood, chatting to the locals, Song sits at her computer, hacking into everything from tablets and phones to cleaning droids and security drones.  

It's not as though she has a choice. She's under house-arrest for an unspecified crime so all her casework has to happen online. That makes for a somewhat clunky but quite enjoyable minigame as you take control of various devices, piggybacking from one to the next to get to where you need to be. There were a few times when I thought I'd run out of options but in the end I always managed to find one more chip to hack. 

I have a suspicion Farca is future-Malta. Looks like a nice place to live.
The dialog options felt less solid. I realize it's a game but being able to go back over and over again to the same people who just hung up on me so I could try a different approach felt false. They'd surely have blocked my calls. Either that or sent the boys round. 

As for the part where you pull all the threads together and make accusations or confront people with their actions, well, it works... but I never felt I was in control of the outcome. When someone caved and did what I asked it seemed more like luck than my sound investigative skills,

As for the odd split-screen staging, Isabella in her apartment above, the maps and schematics of the investigation below, the hint of gameplay associated with the format suggested in the introduction to the demo never resolves into action. Krikket complained that "if Isabella is not sitting at her desk, you cannot interact with the game in any way", which is true and you're warned about it in-game, but once Isabella sits down at her PC, at no point in the demo does she ever get up again, so the point is moot.

Krikket's review of the full game, or at least the first couple of cases, which is twice as many as I played, suggests if I bought it I'd get more of the same. Clearly the game is a police procedural first foremost and everything else has to fit in around the detecting. I like a bit of procedural work as much as the next pretend policeman. I have read almost the entire 87th Precinct series, after all. I'm just not sure I'd want to play-act my way through the process repeatedly using these particular mechanics.

None of which is to say I wouldn't play the full game. I almost certainly would. I just don't think I'd want to pay for the privelige. If it turns up in a free offer on Prime or Epic someday I'll happily grab it but I'm not going to pay £15.49 for it or even half that in the inevitable sale.

I'll play more demos, though, that's for sure. And review them here if I can find  anything interesting to say about them, which I fancy I usually can.. Enough for one post, anyway. 

It may well be as much as most games are worth - and most readers can stand.


  1. Personally I have the opposite problem with demos. I know I cannot play them because I'll end up wanting more RIGHT AWAY, so I never play them. Steam Demofest is a giant bundle of "nope, no thanks, not even looking" and I suspect I've missed out on a slew of games I'd love because they insist on putting all their marketing heart and soul into a limited-time demo.
    Just as well, really. My wishlist's already up over 1000, who knows what it would be if I started playing things I might find interesting...

    1. When it gets above a thousand is it even a wishlist any more? Isn't it just a catalog?

      And contrary to the thrust of the entire post I am actually going to buy something from my wishlist that just became available yesterday. I put it on there after playing the demo, so maybe demos do work on me after all. Well, sometimes.

  2. I'd be up for demos a bit more frequently if it weren't for my experiences with them back in the early mid 2000s. I don't know what they're like now, but the ones I tried back then --most notably Age of Wonders 2 (can't recall the official name)-- were a hot buggy mess. The easiest way to get me to not buy a game was to try out a demo and find it crashing and/or have major graphical errors left and right.

    1. They do vary a lot but generally they seem to be fairly bug-free these days. I really can't see why anyone would intentionally release a buggy demo as a promotional device - it seems entirely counterproductive. Makes you think whoever made it simply didn't notice the bugs - or couldn't fix them - which is pretty much a guarantee the finished game will be unplayable.

  3. I misread your post title.


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