So soon in my short reviewing career and already I’ve discovered the bane of all game reviewers, scoring. Scoring a AAA game out of ten is simple, these games all release with similarly high standards: a minimum amount of “stuff to do”, minimum levels of polish and a minimum runtime. A few exceptions spring to mind of course; Star Wars: Battlefront, Assassin’s Creed: Unity and The Order: 1886 respectively, to name a few recent fiascos, but for the most part big publishers have become very good at delivering on these three criteria. We know the drill, ten out of ten for games where the writing was clearly an integral part of the game’s design, a la Naughty Dog, and somewhere between five and seven for everything else, for their impressive graphics, or reload animations, or hats or whatever. Think Homefront or (recent) Resident Evils.
But what happens to the games to which these benchmarks don’t apply? The mobile games, the indie titles, the one-man passion projects? What does our obsession with pound-per-hour-of-gameplay mean for games like the Stanley Parable, arguably one of the most important games to date? By this metric £9.99 is far too much for an experience that can last less than two hours. I’ve clocked almost five hours because I’m the kind of person who makes you, and everyone you know play it while I cackle knowingly over a steaming cup of redbush.
Perhaps I revealed a little too much about myself there but the themes explored in the Stanley Parable and the conventions broken by it and its powerless narrator (spoiler) are worth far, far more than a buck an hour. At the opposite extreme, should we be paying hundreds for Elder Scrolls titles at launch? A microtransaction following each Overwatch gaming session? Or £2 to see the Avengers destroy New York (spoiler)? No, this kind of thinking is toxic and impairs indie devs and would destroy Hollywood overnight. So stop it. Not you, I’m sure you don’t do that.
But I digress.
Memoir En Code is one of those games that is impossible to score. It’s by one-man Kalopsia games and is perhaps best described in the creator, Alex Camilleri’s own words, “an autobiographical game album”. What that means is a little unclear but if you’re thinking Guitar Hero, you’ve gone a few stops too many. There are nine distinct levels, or “tracks” as they are called and each is certainly accompanied by sounds but they never take centre stage. Some “tracks” do have background music while others have something more akin to soundscapes, all have the sound of a needle on a record as an accompaniment. But these are just semantics I suppose, potentially some meaning lost in translation.
Each track is a game in and of itself, each one a different take on a few genres. There are a few interactive fiction tracks, one button games, top-down exploration, real-time simulation, point-and-click adventure. But each one serves as a page in Camilleri’s young-adult diary, deeply personal accounts of times abroad, struggling to fit in, heartfelt goodbyes, a crippling breakup.
At first glance these are all painfully mundane, but look again. The act of gamifying has somehow added profundity. We see the world through his eyes and so empathise more readily. We feel frustration, pain, confusion in a more visceral way with video games than with old media and Camilleri exploits that in a somewhat delightful way.
I find it hard to find any faults with Memoir En Code. I also find it nigh impossible to recommend. I’m glad it exists and, having played it, feel a degree of hope in the industry that I didn’t feel before if experimental games like this can sustain devs such as Kalopsia.
But now I have to give it a score, even though I can’t. 8?
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