Thursday, June 23, 2022

Do Alligators Dream Of Electrodogs?

If you were browsing Steam's selection of Next Fest demos, looking for something to play, Brok the Investigator and Hill Agency: PURITY&decay wouldn't necessarily strike you as having an awful lot in common. One features a cartoon alligator in the title role, the other has an indigenous Cree/Néhinaw protagonist; one benchmarks "classic 80s/90s cartoons", the other "Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner". Hill Agency emphasizes thinking and investigation; Brok offers "Beat'em up" and RPG elements."

Perhaps most significantly, Brok promises "A deep and emotional narrative-rich experience", while Hill Agency comes freighted with advisories: "Violence, sexual assault, human-trafficking, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicide, body disorders and body hatred, racism."

Despite those wildly differing pitches, the two share a number of key elements. They're both set in the deep future, quite specifically so in the case of Hill Agency, which opens in 2762. Brok is a little vaguer about the timeframe but it's far enough from now for animals to have replaced humans and for the environment to have collapsed, driving everyone who can afford it to live under domes.

In both futures machine technology and AIs have taken some semblance of control. Meeygen Hill, the eponymous owner of Hill Agency, inhabits a "cybernoir Indigenous future", while Brok lives in "a futuristic "light cyberpunk" world".

Each of the two leads scratches a living as a private investigator, picking up cases from people who either pay late or don't pay at all. They both live and work from homes they share with extended family, an arrangement that comes with all the privacy and respect you'd expect.

Both demos eschew anything even close to an explanation for how the world came to be the way it is. They each adopt one of my favorite science fiction techniques, presenting the narrative as though it takes place in a contemporary setting as well known to the player as it is to the characters. Context explains much; conversation, interior monologue and in-game reference material fill out the rest as you play.

Finally, both games employ a similar set of mechanics to bring a case to its conclusion, requiring you to collect, collate and present evidence in order to satisfy the client. There are other similarities but those should be enough for now. 

To avoid creating any spurious sense of competition as I discuss them in detail, I'll get the verdict out of the way at the start. I enjoyed both these demos but I only wishlisted Brok. 

Of all the demos I played during the most recent Next Fest (I still have two more to try.) Hill Agency was the least polished. I spotted a few typos and ran into a couple of bugs. Nothing game-breaking but indicative of a project in need of considerable work.

It's an impression reinforced by the way the game looks. While it's a very interesting aesthetic choice and one that appeals to me personally, the highly sylized visual approach with its denatured color palette and the somewhat awkward character movement leaves the whole affair with a vaguely unfinished air. 


More worryingly, the demo scenario bears remarkably little resemblance to the kind of game I was expecting from the description on its Steam page. One thing you'd really hope for from a demo would be a clear impression of how it would feel to play the finished game. It's hard to see how that could be the case here, given the extreme disparity between what you get to do, hear and see and what the game's sales pitch leads you to expect.

The Brok demo, in contrast, is slick, polished, well-designed and thoroughly entertaining. It offers precisely the experience you'd hope from the Steam page and the website. It's also huge, almost long enough to be a standalone game, something that gives me great confidence the team behind it is capable of producing something very substantial as a finished product. And it ends on a cliffhanger that really makes me want to find out what happens next. Can't really ask more of a demo than that.

The basic format of both demos consists of taking a case, investigating it, then presenting your findings to the client. The natures of the cases are wildly different and I'm pretty sure that if anyone was to guess from a precis of their plots which belonged to which, they'd get them the wrong way round. 

Brok takes an apparently simple lost property case only to find it spiralling into a dark and dangerous adventure involving drugs, stolen guns and a policeman being doped, stripped and dumped in an alley. Meeygen Hill is tasked by her irascible Aunt with finding out what happened to a child's toy, Meeygen's nephew's missing Electrodog. (Spoiler! He trashed it so his aunt would buy him the latest model.) About the only thing the two have in common is that no-one gets paid.

The Hill Agency demo is wholesome enough to deserve a PG certificate. All you do is stroll around the block you live on, chatting to local kids and people you already know about whether they've seen the Electrodog. Everyone's friendly and co-operative as you put together an almost cosy picture of life in the neighborhood. Well, everyone except the aunt herself, who clearly thinks finding a missing toy is about the limit of your abilities.

The investigation itself is fairly perfunctory, most of the value coming from what you learn about the world Meeygen inhabits. The ending is very sudden and quite disconcerting. When you finally think you've worked out what happened to the E-dog you present your evidence to your short-tempered client, at which point she just goes "Hmmm..." and the demo ends. I wasn't even sure I'd come to the correct conclusion but if I was wrong I'll never know.

The strength of the Hill Agency demo is all in the setting, which I found intriguing. Achimostawinan Game, the developers, are correct when they say this particular future has never been seen before. Well, I certainly haven't seen it, anyway. 

That said, for a time almost three-quarters of a millennium from now, not all that much seems to have changed. My routine complaint about near-future settings is that they assume far too much change in too short a timeframe but this goes way too far the other way. Both technologically and socially it looks like it might be nearer a hundred years from now than a thousand.

In part, I think that may be because the demo just doesn't include most of what's in the broader  description, specifically the elite society living in the Risen city, accessed by a space elevator. There's not even any real sense of the "thriving Indigenous (Néhinaw) Metropolis" because all you see are a a few residential locations that look as though they could be part of any contemporary North American dormitory town right now. 

The re-indigenizing of the North American continent is a very interesting concept but the demo doesn't really have much of a chance to focus on it. There's a smattering of Cree language, as promised, and the characters have what I take to be Cree-appropriate appearances and outfits but of course having a science fiction setting undercuts all of that. Everyone in SF looks and speaks differently so the impact is dissipated.

All of that said, it's still an enjoyable demo, although the mechanics need a little polish. The characters are amiable, the writing is approachable and the graphics are striking. The rough edges can be sanded down and the mechanics can be tweaked. I don't worry too much about that. The trouble is, I don't feel it's given me much of an impression of what the full game might be like. If anything, it may have done the opposite. That's a real problem for a demo.

I'm confident I know exactly what Brok the Investigator will be like on release, which is why I wishlisted it. It's going to be solid, well-written, well illustrated, charming, funny and satisfying. Assuming it comes out at a sensible price, it's also going to be great value for money.

It's already clear it'll have an intriguing setting, about which I want to learn more, personable characters I'll want to spend time with and puzzles I'll enjoy solving. It will have mechanics that let me play the way I want to play, choosing my own difficulty levels and letting me solve puzzles my way. It will even have considerable replayability, unusual for a genre which revolves around finding out who did what to whom, when and how.

As a demo, this one's got everything, really. I can't fault it. As I mentioned in my last post, it's quite possibly the longest demo I've ever played but at no point did I find myself getting impatient or hoping it would finish. On the contrary, I found the story involving and the gameplay fun. The time zipped by.

According to the developer's description, Brok the Investigator is "15 to 20 hours long on first playthrough" although if that's an accurate assessment I must have already played at least a quarter of the game just in the demo. Seems unlikely. 

Partly it's because I really took my time but even the playthroughs on YouTube, where everyone clearly already knows exactly what to do and where to go, mostly take between ninety minutes and a couple of hours. The game uses a branching narrative structure, with different paths depending on the choices you make, there are multiple ways to handle problems and there's a collection feature, too.

I had been mildly apprehensive about the beat-em-up aspect of the game but any concerns I might have had were settled even before the first scene. COWCAT would seem to be one of those rare and exemplary developers who understand that players like to play games according to their own preferences, not those of the designers. 

There are several difficulty settings including one for people who only care about the story. I chose that one, which meant I had absolutely no difficulty whatsoever with the fights. Even if I had struggled, it wouldn't have mattered. Each fight also offers the option of skipping it entirely, allowing you to completely disregard the beat-em-up side of the game and play the whole thing as if it were a straight point and click adventure, should you so desire. 

The fights are too much fun to skip. Brok is an ex-boxer and he knows how to handle himself. Beating up Squealers (Bad guy rats... or are they?) for picking on innocent down-and-outs (...Or are they?) and rumbling with robots gives the game a robust tactility often lacking in adventure games.

In addition to the numerous logic problems you'd expect in any adventure game, there are several mechanical or practical challenges to overcome. Each is a different mini-game and for once I can honestly say they were all fun to play. I particularly liked the one where you have to push items along a maze of pipes with an extendable "snake". I got the item I was looking for on the first try but I carried on and got the rest, too, just for the fun of it.

Conversation with the various characters is a pleasure to engage with for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it's very nicely written. Characters have recognizably different speech patterns and they express themselves in a manner appropriate to their situation. Some have smart mouths and crack wise, others have too much on their mind to throw out casual jokes. 

One of the annoying things about Hill Agency is the way NPCs repeat the exact same dialog every time you revisit them, unless you've triggered some plot element to change it. It's not a criticism of that game so much as it is one of the whole genre. In Brok, you never have to hear any of the dialog twice if you don't want to. There's an option to suppress all previously-heard conversation. I used it with great satisfaction.

The game is fully voiced and the voice acting is good to very good. Brok himself is excellent, full of character and able to convey a wide range of emotions, something he's required to do by the fast-changing circumstances of the plot. Graff, his stepson, is almost lugubriously adolescent. In the full game he can be played as the main character, "switchable at any time" with Brok, although if that's an option in the demo I didn't find it.

The dialog keeps throwing up one-liners worthy of screenshots that would make excellent posters or T-shirts, as you can see from some I've used for this post. Ironically, the one issue I did briefly have with the demo was the Steam screenshot function not working. Even though the instructions said to press F12 as usual, doing so had no effect. 

For some reason, the functionality has transferred to PrtScr, which works but also minimizes the game window. A text box pops up telling you where the screenshot has been saved. It's not in the Steam folder. I got used to that soon enough. Taking shots that way had no deleterious effects on the game despite all the opening and closing of windows. Other than that, I had no technical issues whatsoever.

I could go on at length about the dialog, the plot, the characters, the world building. Any and all of them would make a post of their own. It would be overkill for a demo, though, or so I'm thinking. I'll save it for the full game, when it launches, something that's scheduled to happen later this year.

I have two more demos left to play, one of which, according to Paeroka, is as exceptionally short as Brok was exceptionally long. With luck and dog willing I'll get to those tomorrow.


  1. One of the annoying things about Hill Agency is the way NPCs repeat the exact same dialog every time you revisit them, unless you've triggered some plot element to change it. It's not a criticism of that game so much as it is one of the whole genre.

    Yeah, in an era where memory, database, and executable size are no longer an issue, that becomes more akin to lazy design. What worked for, say, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Leisure Suit Larry doesn't work anymore in the genre.

    1. Oh, and thanks for the Philip K. Dick riff on the post title. I enjoyed that.

    2. I'm not going to miss the chance to shoehorn a PKD reference in if I can help it!


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