I'm part of an ongoing group chat with friends I made in my latter days in Edinburgh. Only a few of us remain in the city these days but it's still a fun collection of folks. The other day my friend, Chris, realised that his PS4 controllers work with his computer and so he no longer needed his Steam controller. He offered it up for £20 and I jumped at the chance. I've wanted one for a while but only at a reasonably low price - there's no guarantee I'd like it after all.

I was rather hungry and tired though so I figured I'd sort out postage on so forth later. It was an exciting prospect though and so I told the ol' ball and chain. She immediately blurted out "Don't!", or words to that effect.

It turns out that she's spent the last few months trying to snipe just such a device on eBay as a present for me, knowing full well that they're often expensive. More amusingly though that morning the one she'd bought had shown up!

Mixed feelings! On the one hand, surprise ruined, but also how awesome is she? I felt terrible for ruining her surprise but in some ways it's better to receive it now. I'll be celebrating my birthday in Sweden this year and so will be away from my desktop PC. Sure, the controller would work with my laptop, but it's the Windows desktop I want it for. This also means that it doesn't need to travel to Sweden and then back again. It's not huge but one less thing, you know?

The reason I've wanted one for a while is fairly simple - my desktop PC is connected to my TV. I've not upgraded it in years but it's perfect for playing older games that are a pain to run on my Mac. A solid two thirds of my game library is available on macOS (about 450/700, rounded down) but some things are a nightmare to get running. I'm looking at you, Red Alert 2...

However even if I get them running on my desktop - how do I play them?

A controller is fine and dandy for many game types but it's no substitute for a keyboard and mouse if you're playing a point and click adventure!

It turns out that a Steam controller is perfect for that though. It's like using a trackpad/trackball hybrid with a load of programmable buttons all wrapped up in an ergonomic package that sits happily in my hands. Lovely.

I could probably gush about the controller for several more paragraphs but this post is more about the game I just finished playing through.

At various points in my life, usually following breakups or similar relationship problems, I've immersed myself in videogames while I process. I powered through Assassin's Creed 2, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin's Creed: Revelations during a particularly dark time, for example.

I'm not sure if this was one of those times but it could well have been. I'd softmodded a pile of Xboxes (Xb-oxen? Xboik?) that we'd ended up with (I say "I", Matt was of course involved in researching how to go about making it happen).

We had one each and another spare, I think? This was mainly to run XBMC on though as we ran a content server in the living room. Great times.

Some time later it occurred to me that I could play pirated Xbox games on the machine. Not that there was all that much I wanted to play but a few titles stood out so I got hold of copies of them. I may have played Sid Meier's Pirates! until the sun came up. Then some more. Certainly not more than twelve hours at any rate.

Another game I played was Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. I don't recall much of the plot but it stands out in my memory as a hauntingly beautiful experience. The game is set across two worlds and is the sequel to a game I remember reading the review of in PC Gamer in the early 2000s. A game I've been meaning to play for years.

The Longest Journey.

Oddly the game is incorrectly filed on Steam. It appears in my Mac library despite not being available. It's been a problem for years and I wish they'd sort it out...

Anyway I have no intention of faffing about with dual-booting on this machine. It's really not worth the trouble.

The game is from 1999 and so will run on even a low end Windows machine. Technically it wasn't available in English until 2000 but technology-wise it's pre millennium. For the most part it's still an excellent game though, although not without its irritating quirks. I spent about twenty hours playing through it using a Steam controller this past week and I've got to say that the controls worked wonderfully.

That said the game varies between sensible and maddening. Not so much in the "how do I solve this damn puzzle?" way (although I did get stuck on a few occasions) but more in the "Can we not just take it as read that if I go to this location it's to speak to that character? Do I really need to run through four scene transitions each way? Come on!" way.

A pleasant innovation is that when an inventory item can be used on an object it will flash. No need to rub everything on everything else, thankfully. There were several items my character carried for the entire game without ever using though which was annoying in its own way - inventory space is unlimited but becomes paginated eventually - a needless annoyance when those extraneous items could have been pruned during one of several costume changes.

Things that hold up:

  • The writing. Fun, fanciful, amusing, emotional.
May there always be soil between your toes.

  • The voice acting. How they had the budget for this many lines of dialogue I'll never know.
  • The setting. Both worlds, Stark and Arcadia, had their own charm and felt well realised.
  • Many of the puzzles.
  • Some of the pre-rendered cutscenes (The Gribbler...)

Things that aren't quite as good...

  • Graphics. The pre-rendered backdrops mostly look good (apart from the Marcuria harbour - something about the perspective looks off) but the whole game is in forced 640x480. No barn-door effect, it's distorted to fit the screen shape and damn the consequences! †
  • The animations - low polygon models are par for the course but did the animations have to be so dreadful? I enjoyed the game despite them and that's not the way it should be. There was no reason for Adrian to walk like a bloody zombie - he's frightened, not heavily drugged!
  • The UI for some puzzles. Particularly the "telephone" puzzle - why couldn't I click on each cylinder to rotate it left or right? Tedious. As a result I looked up the solution to the puzzle - too much faff. I could have experimented and fully figured it out on my own but life's too bloody short for that kind of busywork.
  • The chapter lengths. There's 13 chapters (a recurring number in the game) and some chapters are over in a few minutes. Others go on for hours! At times this was quite disheartening. Spending so long on chapter 1 and 2 felt like quite the momentum killer.
  • Oh and some of the pre-rendered cutscenes (mostly those involving April. Her character model looks nothing like her in-game likeness).
If I had a modern tablet or smartphone running iOS I'd have played through it on that - hopefully the port is slightly less agonising. However the game itself was still very much worth playing and now I'm ready to dive into the sequel.

After that... Dreamfall: Chapters! I did indeed buy it in the end and it's been sitting in my library awaiting the right time. I'm not sure if the desktop can handle it but it'll probably run fine on this Mac. 

Praise Unity, or should that be The Balance?

† - I played on a 1366x768 screen. To get around this distortion I used CRU to add a custom resolution of 854x480. I then forced the game to render in a window and used WinExplorer to strip away all window decorations and force the program to sit on top of everything (including the taskbar).

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