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An early access look at Reflections, a real-world adventure game

Reflections is an ambitious indie title that promises a lot, and it would be great, if only it delivered on half of it

Reflections, the third game from Broken Window Studios is described as a ‘real-world adventure game where every action you take has meaningful consequences that radically shape the experience’. Reflections entered Steam’s Early Access program in June after being successfully being greenlit by the community. It aims to offer a drastically changing story that responds to the way that you play, transforming its black and white world to one with colour before your eyes as you progress through it’s multiple story arcs. I recently sat down and spent some time with it and have finally gathered my thoughts, for what they’re worth.

 

Full disclosure: Broken Window Studios provided us with an early press copy of Reflections, for which we are truly thankful for!

Before I begin I should state once again that Reflections is in early access. Any and all aspects of it are subject to change as it is not a finished product, my initial thoughts and feelings on it do not necessarily reflect that of a finished game.

‘The walking simulator’ genre is a term that has only been coined in recent years, most notably after the release of The Chinese Room’s chilling Dear Esther back in 2012 of which I am a huge fan. It paved the way and opened discussion to what role storytelling truly plays in a video game. The next game to really poke and prod the minds of gamers in the same fashion was of course¬†Galactic Cafe’s The Stanley Parable in 2013; a game that received much more favourable feedback from core gamers for its experimentation with branching paths, player interaction, unique sense of humour and methods of storytelling. Since then we’ve seen an explosion in this field of gaming, games that toy with the idea of a narrative and aim to tip gamers on their heads.

Developers everywhere are rushing to put out the next one-of-a-kind definitive storyline experience, something that will generate hot discussion and garner praise from the bearded culture aristocrats desperately awaiting the next Gone Home while sipping fizzy water on the rooftop of a hotel, discussing politics in the Philippines because they’re too cool to play Rock Band.

Reflections ventures into this territory and seeks to deliver something special. It promises a ‘powerful storyteller engine’, ‘dynamic progression’ as well as ‘full environment interactivity’ with Oculus Rift support to boot.

Players start a new game and are given their first options: ‘Who are you currently involved with?’ and ‘Who were you previously involved with?’. After making their choice they find themselves in a black and white bedroom on what appears to be a bright morning, birds are chirping and an annoying little dog is yapping in the distance. We move across the room to a set of drawers, as we open and close each one, each drawer begins to glow and springs to life in colour, a visual indicator that we’ve now fully interacted with this object. We come across a key and logically carry it over to the locked door (why we would lock ourselves in our own room is beyond me). In our cupboard is a football (or as we’d call it down under, a rugby ball). After throwing the ol’ pigskin ’round a little, we head down stairs and find find our supposed partner (in this case I chose the girl) standing in our lounge room. After briefly being talked at with a few dialogue boxes we learn that it’s our last day at home and we’re packing up to move away to college.

That’s all, we’re not given the chance to pick a response let alone reply at all, something I find rather odd about a game whose biggest selling point is player freedom and interaction.

After our brief conversation (can we even call it that?) she continues to awkwardly stare at me with that thousand yard stare as I explore the rest of my typical black and white mid-western American home.

Reflections’ models have a rather nice little aesthetic, but the lifeless animations leave them feeling creepy and unemotive.

Entering the kitchen we come across a to-do list on the fridge left behind by our mother with a list of instructions for us, none of which truly excite me. “Pack your things, call the movers, don’t forget your school papers“. As I shuffle about the house from room to room completing these various chores in addition to fixing a sink, repairing a calculator with a soldering iron and putting items in a box (stimulating!), it becomes apparent that Reflections isn’t quite as engaging as it thinks it is, there’s a slight satisfaction that comes from interacting with the objects in each room, being rewarded with the strum of an breezy acoustic guitar and a splash of colour to occupy the once colourless rooms. But the purpose of completing these menial tasks does not seem to play any sort of role in the overall narrative.

There are no choices to make, no people to properly engage with and the repetitive sound byte of that little dog parking down the street is starting to get on my nerves, all the while my girlfriend(?) is still quietly watching me from the living room as the day progresses.

By now I’ve interacted with every object in the house at least 3 times, put every item that isn’t nailed to the floor in the cardboard box on the floor, grown bored and thrown the football at my girlfriend’s head (the highlight of my experience) out of boredom and still it is not clear how I am supposed to progress beyond this area. I try to leave the house and explore the neighbourhood a bit but am stopped in my tracks by the dreaded invisible wall.

Eventually night time arrives and I’ve grown weary of my surroundings, the distractions littered around the house which would otherwise serve as a silly time-waster in any other game just don’t serve their intended purpose, the only way they could be more engaging would be if I were using the Oculus Rift to bounce football off my girlfriend’s head in virtual reality. But even then, virtual reality has already passed beyond this kind of gimmicky gameplay and is aiming for something a little more wholesome, something Reflections just doesn’t deliver.

After turning to a guide I found on the Steam Community, I learn that the only way to progress is to actually wait for night time before getting into my car and driving away after carrying my stuff out to the moving truck without saying goodbye to anybody (I’m sorry Emily, or Jenny, or whatever you name was, our time together has been great but I must go to college now and I’m taking the football with me). From there we fade to black and I’m given some text about what I’ve done since college, apparently 10 years have passed and I landed myself a nice cushy white collar job working in an office. Okay.. and this is related to my choices how exactly? If this is the ‘powerful storyteller engine’ I’ve been promised then consider me let down, where are my choices represented here? What were my choices? Don’t tell me that 60 seconds of precious time I spent fixing the house’s plumbing went to waste!? I could have been a plumber, a bloody good one at that! Somebody please make an Aussie Tradie Simulator so I can know what it’s like to wear a high-vis shirt, take smoko breaks and leave people’s toilets in a terrible state.

Graphically, Reflections' isn't bad at all if not a little empty. The lighting can look especially good.

Graphically, Reflections isn’t bad at all if not a little empty. The lighting can look especially good at times but the unfinished details especially outdoors take you right out of any experience it has to offer.

The next level, or ‘arc’ as it’s undeservedly referred to, takes place in my new place of work; a busy office building in the city. Where 10 years down the track I’m still apparently working in the mail room delivering mail to my superiors working higher above me on the corporate ladder. Even in a video game I cannot rise above mediocrity.

After I drop a few envelopes in to Tim from Finances, Heather in Accounting and George from Sales, I’m on the brink of giving up on Reflections. Not even the terrible comedic commentary in my head as I sludge through its bare levels can make it enjoyable. The grey colours are making me depressed and I’m not sure even colour can save this office environment from being as uninviting and soulless as it is. What is my goal here? Where is this going? How are my actions reflected in the world let alone in the story? Where is the replay value? I just don’t understand the purpose of anything Reflections is trying to do.. I-

“Reflections.exe has stopped working.”

And there it was, the tipping point that brought my time with Reflections to an end.

I was curious as to whether I had been wrong about my assumptions, maybe my choices did matter, maybe the game had tailored itself around the things I had done. I did a quick search on YouTube to have a look at some other people’s experiences with the game and sadly I discovered that no, my experience had not been one unique to me. Reflections was as linear as any other ‘walking simulator’ yet had to nerve to sell itself as something different. A few dressed-up test projects made in Unity strung together with some text in between attempting to be some kind of adaptive storytelling experience and a statement about our life’s journey but ultimately delivering neither. Its claims are too ambitious and it will likely never meet them, this is something even an AAA studio would struggle with even if they did have the funding for it.

Reflections has its redeeming qualities though, and it would be dishonest and cynical of me not to mention them. For one, it looks quite pleasing once you’ve brought colour into its world through exploration and interaction. Despite it’s lack of choices, its environments are quite full of little things to interact with, like a few vinyl records hidden around your home which you can play in your living room to hear a few nice little mid-western American indie tracks as you pack your things, quite fitting I think. American Football, anyone?

Graphically, its style is simple and rather cute at times. The character models have a pleasing aesthetic to them but it’s a shame they hardly move let alone have animations or voices when speaking. Little activities such as shooting basketball outside or throwing darts around are kind of fun for a while even if not very polished. I imagine the little things like that that take advantage of Unity’s great physics engine would be even better in virtual reality, but I could not experience them.

According to Broken Window Studios, Reflections is planned to spend only 2 months in Early Access, which is a relatively short time compared to titles such as DayZ (don’t get my started on that one) that have spent over a year in early access and have not even made it to beta. It’s important to remember this is still a work-in-progress. But one has to wonder, how much more can the developers add in just 2 months? Will it see more content updates after release? I would sure hope so as the amount of content on offer here is quite small. I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with Reflections if it wasn’t already promising features that it just doesn’t have at this point. Could it deliver them in the future? I sure hope so, Reflections has the potential to be something unique but I just don’t see it happening.

Emily? Are you sure?

Emily? Are you sure?

So what does it need?

For one, a story. An actual story. A typical life story of the average middle-class person going to college, working in an office, getting old.. it just does not suffice. It’s not engaging, it’s not interesting. A few paragraphs stuffed between levels does not constitute a story, it’s jarring and a complete slap in the face to the player. What Reflections needs is an actual story that does radically change to reflect the choices you make, this ‘storyteller engine’ it claims to offer is a complete fallacy. Which brings me to the next thing it needs.

Choices, actual choices. Why can’t I choose where I work? Why don’t my actions actually matter? I don’t even have dialogue options when interacting with the only other person in the first level. Why can’t I respond to her? Maybe I want to break up with her if I’m moving away, maybe I don’t want a long-distance relationship. It doesn’t feel like my wishes as the player are accommodated for in the slightest. I was pretty good at shooting hoops, especially at my girlfriend’s face. Shouldn’t she respond to that accordingly? Why can’t I pursue a career in basketball instead? Maybe I don’t want to work at a desk as a wage slave. Give me actual choices! Even TellTale Games offer the illusion of choice even when all paths lead to the same destination. Which brings me to..

Branching paths. The same 3 levels strung together in the same order as far as I know don’t count as a branching story. Why not offer multiple career paths and levels that are decided by your actions before leaving home? I poked and prodded the stiff and characterless world of Reflections in every way that I could and not once did it respond accordingly. When the phone rang as I was packing my things I would try answering it and sometimes not answering it, yet neither choice had an affect on how anything played out. The world is stagnant, devoid of life, it may as well be on-rails, it would make no difference.

I admire the ideas of Broken Window Studios, even if they cannot execute those ideas properly. I see them reply to almost every piece of feedback they receive on Steam and they seem like genuinely nice people, that’s why it pains me to see Reflections be the first game I cannot write about favourably. I will keep my eye on it and take another shot at it once it is released to see how far it has come and whether it goes on to deliver that which it promises. But for now Reflections is simply not worth the time. It has the potential to one day be a great game, and some day; I hope it can become one.

 

Release Date: Available now
Available from: Steam Store – $9.99 USD
Developed by: Broken Window Studios
Published by: Broken Window Studios