Corpse of Discovery (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
11Sep/150

Corpse of Discovery (2015)

Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

Step into the past with meWe're entering uncharted discussion territory this time around.  Our previous chats have either had us discussing games which have a pretty solid cultural legacy built (Myst), or which have been decent enough successes to be looked upon positively in gaming (Cities: Skylines, Octodad).  But Corpse of Discovery, as of our writing, is not even a week old.  This is usually enough time for critical consensus to coalesce in cinematic terms, but I've noticed video games have greater potential to be picked up in the long-term and become cult favorites (the game for our next discussion will be evidence of that).  It seems some games are difficult to evaluate unless placed into context with other games, which is a weakness of gaming journalism in general (better graphics than installment x with a new move for y!), but I admit that my bias here isn't going to be putting Corpse of Discovery against other games - but the wealth of cinematic knowledge it's clearly drawing from.

During my play through of Corpse of Discovery I thought of 2001 as I encountered the monoliths, Moon as AVA awoke on each planet to give my hapless explorer instruction, and Contact as the conditions the mission launched in gradually revealed the reasons for its existence.  There's an unspoken rule in movies where consciously recalling titans of years past had better be done well otherwise you're just reminding the audience of what they could be watching instead.  Some moments of Corpse of Discovery did make me remember watching those movies, but not stop the game to put them on.

This is where my tension with Corpse of Discovery kicks in.  Phosphor Games has oodles of potential and Corpse of Discovery shows that the overall experience they can deliver is greater than the sum of its parts.  Even when I felt myself drift a bit into boredom on some of the first planets I felt a tug to continue playing, and Corpse of Discovery quickly became one of the few games I've purchased in recent years which earned a single-sit (save for a bathroom break) play through.  I don't want to mislead, this is a flawed game, but the promise and overall experience Phosphor Games delivered makes me hunger for what they will do next.  We'll get into why, but I'd like to know what drove you to suggest this for our discussion, and what your first impressions were.Glove markersFor the benefit of readers, I'd like to note first that I played through this game on launch day and just mentioned it to Andrew as something I'd like to talk about. It just so happened that he completed the game in similar fashion (single-sitting play-through) a day or two later. I mentioned it because of all of my assumptions about what I was getting into as a gamer were subverted by interesting turns in the reality of the game's nameless astronaut explorer. Some of those assumptions were that I would be playing a space exploration game. There was exploration, but it happened that all of my curiosity was turned upon the astronaut himself and his internal world of emotion- the factors that weigh most upon his decision-making process.

It's not a very subtle game. The first couple levels, as you mention, have the potential to bore prior to the introduction of the surrealism that takes over. So there's this question, what am I exploring? What's actually happening to the protagonist and is ever going to complete his mission? A lot of those question are setup by giving the player answers first. The narrative says boldly: "Yes, this is your last mission." It says "Yes, you'll be going home soon." It says "Yes, the reward will have been worth the time and effort." And the game proceeds to do what few game do in this way... it screws with you. At first, it's a mental game of "What's going on? Are the game developers prepping me for some alien intelligence plot? Is this going to be a thriller?" But after a couple levels, it appears that they decided to screw with you by putting all the evidence against their thesis statement: that of completion and reward and return.

So, despite the rough edges, I was compelled by the juxtaposition between answers given as thesis and the increasingly disparate evidence of the world around. I too, was reminded of critically acclaimed titles of years past. Not just movies, but games also. I initially thought of Wall-E's Eve in the presentation of the AVA drone, and then later of Portal's GLaDOS as it took on hostile personality traits. I thought these assumptions were an indication of borrowed ideas and clunky narrative until those references got subverted right along with everything else as the AVA drone went through changes of personality.

All this added up to a surprising experience, which for me is the best way to get my attention. If you can surprise me, I will then have to assume there will be more surprises. That makes me curious (which is my ideal state of gamer-mind ). Since video games, like other entertainment media, are struggling to innovate as we find dominant combinations of money-earning gameplay, it's very hard to surprise anyone. There's such as tower of refinement upon base principles of mechanics established in the last couple decades that it's hard to catch a player off-guard in any facet of the experience.Butterfly with metal wingsCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawaySurprise is a good way of framing my reaction as well, but it was less from the narrative twists and more from the gameplay itself.  I'm a sucker for a good exploration mechanic, and while the first two planets were rough (especially the hand radar mechanism which is the primary focus of the second) there was a moment which shocked me and I didn't get the full implications of until a planet or two later.  Your path is linear, and the AVA until you awaken pinpoints exactly where you need to go to progress on each planet, but the addition of the "glitches" is a nice touch.  I phrase it that way because they don't actually seem to be glitches, but signals bouncing off of the information the AVA of each planet is feeding you but is coming in weaker because of the limited power supply AVA is running on.

That slight shift in presentation provides an interesting framework to what is highlighted as nav points later on - especially when you think you are finding ship parts to escape and are in for a surprise when you return to your home base.  Is AVA providing you guidance because it's programmed to reluctantly provide assistance, or is the hesitancy of AVA reflected in the programmers because of the unusual instructions we discover the game is founded upon?  In either case, it's a fascinating way to use an in-game mechanic to create complex suggestions about the world that you're inhabiting.  No matter how good things look inside the station, once you're outside it becomes readily clear that the mission is running on threads.

Which brought me to my first real shock and interesting twist to the nature of the in-game universe.  One of the "glitches" is a skull which, once you arrive, is actually a floating sphere that lets you peek back into what looks to be a part of the explorer's memory.  Now, the first time I encountered this I just inspected it and moved along my merry way, but the second time I discovered you could jump into the sphere by complete accident because I came in fast on my jet pack.  Then, full isolation in the explorer's memory and I was looking down streets instead of the beautiful isolation of the alien planet.  My fascination lasted long enough for AVA to bump right into my vision and remind me of where the explorer was.

I hesitate to read this as a bit of meta-game commentary, because AVA questions the usefulness of your actions and you're presented of a glimpse of the "real" world you're ostensibly missing out on by playing the game.  While I'm sure a strong reading could be made in that case, I was more interested in what Corpse of Discovery had to say about the sacrifices needed in the name of scientific progress.  It reminded me a lot of Europa Report, which is one of the finest science-fiction films of the last decade, and guiding your explorer into the unknown with little to go on but faith (in a fun twist of what we've come to expect in terms of religion and science), but your faith is rewarded by getting a glimpse of transformation into something new.  This is violent, as in the first planet, then curiously hopeful, as you come across the corpses of the other explorers become part of and nourishing new life.  Progress doesn't come without significant sacrifices, and I'm impressed that Phosphor Games managed to emulate this sacrifice in different ways without it seeming redundant or, worse, pointless.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSacrifice is definitely a major point. I was annoyed at first at how directly the game moved into what I will call an over-the-top lie. I think it may have been the second planet, when the instruction and AVA unit start talking VERY pointedly about how awesome your family is, with full knowledge that this is your carrot, as it were, to keep you plodding along. The voice acting is a bit unpolished (in an odd unpolished harmony with the rest of the game). The lack of subtlety in the performance came off as cheap as first, but this assumption only holds if you believe that the intended reveal is that you're not able to go home when you expect. But when you look at the whole game, there is no point where it hides that you're going to have a bad time at the mission. It's tradition of the exploration theme. But now I think that's not the point. That problem is just a backdrop for discussing sacrifice, in a couple different ways.

I was equally non-plussed, at first, with the holographic voicemail left by your family back home. It's effective but it barely does the job. However, around the same time as I was getting annoyed with what I thought was the AVA drone's super-obvious attempt at deception, something happened in the family narrative that I didn't expect (and the developers couldn't have expected this either), they started reciting details that match my life perfectly. My daughter sings all the time, my son is obsessed with deep-sea life and the aquarium. And the AVA commentary on the next level shifted into an existential conversation about whether people with families have merit in the realm of great accomplishments that affect the world. This is conversation I have all the time. As soon as I his this point in the game (or this point hit ME), my brain starts making all kinds of personal connection to experience, and I go "Oooooooooh."

And here's where I have offer up my interpretation. Whether the planets exist in any kind of objective reality or not, I couldn't tell. I gave a lot of space to the possibility that he might have been dead or gone mad, or in a purgatory. I don't know. But I can tell you what I felt like from that point on.

The space exploration became the symbol for a demanding career away from home. The voice of the AVA drone became an echo of my internal struggle with the dichotomy of family and career (which for some people can turn into mutual exclusives regarding the quality thereof). When the game gives me the chance to repair the ship, I didn't even think twice about it. Whether or not the game supported another option, I knew what I wanted to do- get home my family. During this process, the AVA starts naming all the horrible things that could happen if I opt to continue that path. And if you're ever in that position IRL, and you're weighing your priorities, reasoning through your fears... these are things that go through your mind. There's a voice that says "You will fail. You will be disgraced in your departure from this position of stability. Deception? Unfulfilled dreams broken promises? Nevermind all that, what you need is to do what you're told and keep that paycheck comin'!"

For me, this was no longer about the programming that went into that drone, no longer about the mission at all, it was about all my worst fears. Some of my friends and colleagues know that I went through just that process in the transition from my last job to my current adventure as independent developer- so it hit home with a force. Moreover, when that ship-repair mission failed... this is also the point I knew that was not going to be a happy game.

But, I also couldn't put it down. With all the subjects being presented: science, exploration, sacrifice, and this emerging, highly-personal emotional poignancy with the family narrative... I had to know what they wanted to say about it all. Could not put it down half-way.Your family needs your moneyCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThis is the second time one of us has linked adult responsibilities through game play.  We did it the first time with Octodad when we considered the stress of being a father and husband not mixing well with Octodad's past as a free aquatic being.  Now we've got the domestic drama unfolding slowly, and one thing I did enjoy about the holo-messages was how there are hints at the periphery that the wife is moving on without you, and the only kid who doesn't seem to realize this is the youngest who gets to talk about what she did that day (as kids are wont to do).  Considering the game industry's reputation for being something of a fiendish overlord (depending, of course, on the company), I wonder how many domestic frustrations get funneled into design like this.

Speaking of which, we should discuss the game proper, because this is where more of the flaws become apparent.  I had no qualms with the presentation, and I loved the way the HUD altered, cracked, and gathered dew depending on the environment.  It's a small, but nice, touch as more complex mechanics come into play.  I also loved the sound design, and what you called amateurish voice actin seemed more to me to be indicative of how the mission is seemingly thrown together on a wing and a prayer.  The specter of the explorer's mortality is nicely condensed in his out of breath run, which has a sharper more animalistic desperation at the end of each puff.  Plus, while I wish there was more to explore, I'm a sucker for a good jet pack plus gravity fluctuations mechanic.  One of my all-time favorite games is Solar Jetman and figuring out how best to navigate each of the new planets was a joy.

But, and this is where some game designer insight might be warranted, I wish there was more game to this game.  Too often the exploration mechanic is interrupted by internal thoughts telling you what to think instead of asking that you take notes yourself.  Maybe something like an internal note pad, or even a camera to document the changes within the ship (though, to be fair, it's questionable whether it's even the same ship or not).  I liked exploring, and there was little too explore when I wasn't being told what to think.  For a game about scientific explorers facing the unknown, this was a glaring spot, especially since the odd touches (like the fish tank slowly harboring something different) were underlined instead of part of the mission of exploration and discovery.  This is one of the few spots where I did wish I was playing something else, the completely charming and almost narrative-free Grow Home, because every leap felt a bit too predetermined even though the game is about exploration.

This is the sort of thing that makes me wonder what it would have been like if Phosphor Games scaled back the graphical presentation a bit and provided more exploratory meat.  The game we have is promising, but it's so close to greatness in spots that I can't help but speculate those little shifts.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSo, there a couple things I noticed on the technical side. There is very little animation in this game- one of the more demanding tasks that fall on the art department. The holo-messages from the family were a static snapshot. The animals presented never wandered anywhere, making them feel like statues instead of creatures. Only the little fish tank you mentioned really had any life to it in that regard. I have a feeling this game was put together in the same resource-limited manner as the mission portrayed within. Phosphor work on a number of projects at once, and Corpse of Discovery seems to be a bit of an anomaly in their lineup- perhaps an experiment of its own.

I had a similar urge to explore a bit more than the linear path allowed. It turns out... if I followed certain glitchy destination points, there seemed to be some that were optional. That was kinda-sorta, halfway like real exploration. Except that psychologically, none of those things were really difficult to obtain if you are willing to seek them out. The primary obstacle presented is that of distance. And this, sadly, is another facet of amateurish design - sometimes it seems like designing a big world (in terms of surface area) feels big. In fact, it does not. A world with a high content density feels big- or perhaps rich is a better word.

And I'm speaking from experience here- I have made this mistake, too.  Designing a game with points of interest very far apart just pads out the time you're spending at controls, it doesn't actually give the player satisfaction to cover all the ground. The cool parts are the points of interest and interactions designed to be challenging. The upside is that the introduction of the jetpack and difficulty curve of the jumping forced the designers to create more and more hand-placed content on which we could jump and land. I think the lava planet with all the big black cliffs was my favorite this in this regard. Low gravity, but with enormous jumps!  As a consequence, I decided that since the jetpack was most interesting control-mechanic offered, the game began to read more as the diary of a working man than as a game. My mental goal was less-and-less about exploration and more about the drudgery of getting through each day. Orb into the pastCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThe lava planet, then the full-on embrace of low-g jetpack platforming in the final "world", created a tight end to a rough beginning.  What you mentioned about content circles back to our first Myst discussion as well, because the first planet was abysmal for this.  It's ok that the progression nodes are so far apart, but the mechanic of "dying in the sun" loses its steam when there's shade within visible reach almost every step of the way.  Then it just because a dart to the already available shade instead of desperately hunting for some way to save my life.

But, as far as experiments go, this is a promising one.  Form should follow function, and it seems a lot of game designers end up taking inspiration from movies or written literature when they should instead be looking to other games.  I'm happy Corpse of Discovery has the good sense to take inspiration from classic science-fiction instead of emulating it outright, it just would have been that more impressive to see some of that Solar Jetman or Minecraft mix of exploration and danger really get into the mix.

Though, considering the flood of Minecraft clones, that last statement is a "be careful what you wish for" desire so I'll politely retract.  What I do hope is that Phosphor Games is able to follow-up on some of the excellent ideas presented here, and move on to something with the same zest for experimentation but working entirely within a game instead of seeking inspiration elsewhere.  If they look to themselves, I think they'll have something truly astounding.  For now, Corpse of Discovery is definitely a welcome addition to my memory and my Steam library.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThere's one other cinematic cue I picked up while going through Corpse of Discovery, which is Groundhog Day, another title that started off extremely rough for me and got better the more I sat with it. Each contains similar contrivances of repetition and the showing of "progress" (of one sort or another) by the variances depicted in each iteration. This adds weight to the personal diary-like experience I was feeling at the end.

And, yeah, as experiments go... this is a cool one. The story as presented doesn't lend itself to a direct sequel, but the general concept of taking a mission of exploration (perhaps from the same organization) and using that as a vector for the discussion of humanity and our quest for knowledge, greatness, money, stability, family and all those things... is right by me. Here's hoping they take another crack at it. Everything about this game matches pretty well the "promising student film" archetype in my mind, and I really want to see what can be done in this space with serious backing. Go for it, guys! You are doing a good thing.

What we're gaming this week

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayMy adventures through Bloodborne continue at a slower pace.  I'm finding that I require a certain amount of recharge time between attempts because I get too flustered and / or sweaty when I'm trying to beat a particular boss.  I haven't made much progress, only killed the Cleric Beast and Father Gasciogne, but what progress I've made is helping my friends who end up likewise stuck at points.  It's great playing a game where skill plays a huge factor in how you proceed, not as much if, and that it encourages communication versus a "press FIGHT now" FAQ to keep moving.  Nothing else has caught my interest much this week, but Bloodborne has my imagination quite nicely for now.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSo, I got on a tangent watching the wonderful series The Computer Chronicles (PBS 1983 – 2002, now available on YouTube) and got excited when viewing episodes that covered 8- and 16-bit Programming applications for various languages. Long story short, I setup a virtual machine with Windows 3.1 and started playing Chip's Challenge (and all those classics from Best of Windows Entertainment Pack). So, not only is Chip's Challenge a cleverly designed puzzle game, but it caught my attention for a simple little feature that I took entirely for granted back in the '90s: The Help System. It's implemented via little yellow circles that are always located in a safe place near the start of the level. The game itself teaches you quickly that stepping on colorful circles makes stuff happen. It might open a passage, or cause a reaction among the critters in the level, or whatever. The yellow circle pops up help text- except it does that in a way that makes it completely unobtrusive to the rest of the game. The conceit of this design is that it presupposes a scoring panel on one side of the game screen that is always reserved for information about the level you're on- in this case, how many Computer Chips you have to collect and the amount of time you have to collect them. In Chip's Challenge, this box is always there on the right side. The help system just borrows half of that space while you're standing on a yellow square. Maybe you don't want to read that text, but it's OK. The game doesn't pause. There is no button to click or overt interaction required make this text appear or disappear. It just grabs some space away from the main action of the game in case you want a hint. The help text always addresses the key feature the designers want you to pick up during that level, but it never tells you exactly how to solve the whole thing. Experimentation is both encouraged and required, and the elegance of the puzzles sit in the sweet spot where solutions can be difficult to discover but usually quick to achieve once the "Aha!" moment occurs. The combination of the great puzzles and most-unobtrusive help system EVER have put Chip Challenge back in my list of puzzle-favorites, and certainly... back into a special 16-bit place in my 16-bit heart.

Posted by Andrew

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