Wot I Think: Cognition, Episodes 1 & 2

By Richard Cobbett on January 30th, 2013 at 5:01 pm.

They say that in adventure games, when you give the player character a gun, every problem becomes a target. I have a gun. You are presently my problem. Shall we test an idiom together?

Cognition is a four part psychic serial thriller about the hunt for a psycho serial killer. Episode 1: The Hangman launched in October. Episode 2: The Wise Monkey lands today. That makes this the half-way point, and so the perfect time to take a look and see if this investigation is worth signing up for. We sent Richard to catch some killers. Here’s Wot He Thinks…

Sorry, sorry. You know how you suddenly just start thinking of 'well hung' jokes at the worst time?

Given that it’s a game whose obvious inspirations include Saw, saying that Cognition has its heart in the right place rather suggests it might be in the second drawer down, next to the severed spinal cords. It’s a game with definite issues, especially in tone. It’s also one with a genuine love and, more importantly, appreciation for the classic adventure games it takes its cues from, and a Kickstarted budget allowing for stunning indie production values. Also, unlike certain other episodic games, the wait between these chapters was only three months.

Cognition is the story of FBI agent Erica Reed – a red-haired psychic solving crimes with her ghostly partner Joey the power of ‘post-cognition’. This seemingly simple ability to get helpful flashbacks from objects soon becomes a full-on Swiss Army Knife of psionics, including recreating crime scenes, and helping people recover faded or repressed memories.

Handy stuff for any FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer or four.

Both these opening episodes have a different target, as from the look of it will the third, though it’s no secret that Erica’s real target is the Cain Killer – the guy who gives the final chapter his name, and the Jigsaw style trapmaster responsible for her brother Scott’s death during the first episode’s atmospheric prologue. Oddly, that happens even if you save him, at which point he just drops dead of inexplicable plot-related causes, and Cognition pretty much just hopes you didn’t notice. No matter though. It’s not as if serial killers are known for playing fair.

Your plan was almost perfect, but you forgot three things! My knee, protection for your balls... and breath spray. Jesus CHRIST, you stink.

This prologue provides a pretty good snapshot of Cognition’s attitude – not a gorefest by any stretch, but not a game afraid to embrace the darkness of a world where people get hanged to ensure maximum agony before expiring, innocents get eyes carved from their heads for no good reason, and serial killers can capriciously craft challenges of flesh with near complete impunity. It’s an adventure that knows that the shudder of a knife about to slice an eyeball is usually worse than seeing it happen, with graphic novel cut-scenes that paint the disturbing content in unpleasant ways rather than relishing the change to draw it in full.

At the same time though… diplomatically, it can be pretty silly. Scratch that. Things can get really silly, and it’s not a good idea to think about the details too much. As an example, here’s an extract from the prologue of the Cognition novelisation I’m currently pitching.

The man who most called Cain, but secretly thought of as the Hilariously Overcomplicated Killer, peered into the tomb. The woman Reed was there at the control panel, still bleeding at the knees from the sadistic spike trap he’d made her subject herself to in the graveyard. He gazed at her; admiring that pretty red hair. Red… ooh, like Reed, he’d just spotted that… all slick with delicious sweat from straining her nascent psychic powers in a futile bid to save her brother from needlessly showy crossbow bolt related death.

Why crossbows? Ah, they would ask themselves that many times, staring in the cruel night. They would never know that he’d just found them on eBay and been inspired. How life worked out. It could so easily have been a cuddly hippo stuffed with Semtex.

Cain smiled, teeth glistening in the unnecessary but rather attractive candlelight. Finally. Finally all his unnecessarily time-consuming plans were coming to fruition. The buried clues. The sinister graffiti on the tomb. The sacrificial altar inside, and the short but effective electrical engineering course required to set this fiendish trap for his sibling prey. Now, all that remained was to kill Reed in her moment of final despair. He reached for his gun and- fuck! Gun! How had he gone and left it on the dresser? What a monumental arse!

They’ve not gotten back to me yet. Their spam filters must be on the fritz.

'Red, I know this is really going to suck for you, but please forgive me if I start laughing at the insanity of this spike-through-the-legs trap this sicko bothered rigging to torture you with. It's just... I mean, think of the effort involved. The equipment, designing it, sneaking all of this stuff in here... if it was me, I'd just have had me smash your shins with a sledgehammer in front of that camera there. Not that I'd want to do that or anything. I'm just saying, if you asked me to do that, or maybe pee on you a little in a friendly way, I'm here for you. You hear me, Red? Red?'

I kid, obviously, and to be fair this tends to be a problem for games that take themselves this seriously – a kind of in-built pressure valve. My favourite is that the way that the hint system (which isn’t really necessary – these are easy games) involves Erica text-messaging her cop father for his expert advice on anything from breaking into her boss’ office to defusing traps. You’ve really got to pity the guy, repeatedly getting messages like “Hey, Dad, I’m in a serial killer’s lair and I’m totally having one of my derpy days. Any ideas? LOL.”

A big part of the problem is the villains being too keen to show off. As Episode 2 demonstrates, a crazy person with a knife is a more visceral threat than any mastermind with lots of fancy toys. The spike trap in the intro just about gets away with its ridiculous nature because of how much it hurts, and the integration of Erica’s pained screams with having to keep turning the wheel causing them. It’s a close run thing though, and if Cognition needs to focus on one thing as its story gets more serious, it’s preventing its horror descending any further into camp “Mwah-ha-ha!” level villainy. The Cain Killer at least is already pretty much there.

Boss, can I borrow some of the shampoo you use? I need to varnish a table.

Mostly though, the atmosphere works. Cognition is smart enough to space out its more horrible moments so as to retain the shock value, and ground its magical elements to keep the horror on a human level. Erica and her colleagues for instance don’t have deep relationships, but they do have a sense of history. She and her first partner (in flagrant violation of current indie adventure laws, played by neither Abe Goldfarb nor Logan Cunningham), have a respect that’s obviously been earned, while her semi-boyfriend Sully hits a kind of safe level of well-meaning blandness that you can understand Erica being reluctant to get too excited about. Only her boss really drops the ball on the FBI side, coming across as schizophrenic rather than layered.

Civilians and suspects are a mixed bunch, with a couple played for comedy but most relatively straight. In part of the tonal confusion I mentioned earlier, they’re from TV police procedurals like Castle and Bones rather than serial killer stories. In the second episode, one even starts singing. It’s a jarring transition from the opening of the prologue, but done reasonably as long as you’re expecting it. The nasty stuff and real monsters are almost all book-ended in both chapters, which feels like a deliberate bid to stop it getting too familiar. If so, it works well enough, while still saving a couple of unpleasant surprises to keep you on your toes.

Damn, Slimer, you got faaaaaaaat.

While that lighter tonal shift may be a touch disappointing given the premise of the series, the writing is very good so far – give or take a few head-scratchers, and misjudged attempts at humour. There’s nothing wrong with characters being snarky or doing jokes in a situation like this, as long as it feels like it’s actually coming from them. Here, it’s really jarring to suddenly get hit in the face with a Quest For Glory joke out of absolutely nowhere, see FBI computers display official crime categories for vampires and werewolves in a universe where they don’t exist, and have this be the second time Erica’s voice actress’ band The Scarlet Furies has been given a clue cameo in an adventure game. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong narrative genre.

These quibbles aside, the dialogue is strong, the characters have definite voices, and the plotting good well, even with some major eye-rollers when Erica and co forget they’re under time pressure or that “backup” is a thing. The first episode’s mystery suffers from having so much to set up, but the second hits the ground running with a great opener and well-executed twists.

It’s immediately obvious that Gabriel Knight is a very prominent branch on Cognition’s family tree, even without knowing that Jane Jensen was its story consultant and her step-daughter plays Erica. The music too, while not composed by Robert Holmes, also follows suit with its piano pieces and other shared vibes. This familiarity is a good thing though, with Cognition openly acknowledging its obvious inspirations, but not at the cost of its own voice and attitude. It’s a much nastier, darker game than any of the Gabriel Knights, and certainly Gray Matter, but in a way that works for it and helps carve out its own niche. With a serrated scalpel.

Woo! Instagram gold!

The rest of the production is impressive too – admittedly, with a mandatory “for an indie game” grafted on the side. No, you certainly don’t get the best quality textures and animation, and the scrappy 3D models do clash with the hand-painted backgrounds. At the same time though, it’s high-resolution, has a ton of incredibly detailed 2D and 3D design, for the most part looks great, the music fits well, and about half an hour in, the joins stop being noticeable. Cognition may not be a big AAA production, but the money it had to work with has been well spent – it’s a very pretty, very atmospheric game whose pieces come together more than acceptably.

Big dramatic moments are almost all saved for graphic novel style panels that look good in their own right, and spare the 3D models too much acting – a definite advantage, proven by the moments when they have to try – and the style is very effective. There’s usually just enough animation to convey the sense of movement and flow while retaining a textured look, with the style allowing for emotion, and as much pain as the game needs to invoke.

Needless to say, most of the unpleasantness happens in these shots – and some of them are very unpleasant indeed. There are plenty of others for conversations though, quieter moments, scene-setting introductions and artistic touches that make these scenes feel like a firm part of the aesthetic rather than just a cheap way to throw together some cut-scenes.

What's got two thumbs and made the mistake of playing Cognition Episode 2 the day before a dental appointment? This guy!

Erica herself feels a little underdeveloped though. She’s not a bad character by any means, and certainly not a blank. She has proper motivation, her psychic powers are well implemented, and the game takes enough time out to explore her fears and feelings about exactly what she’s walking into. That said, while she’s seen as hot-headed in universe (and surprising nobody, her office nickname is “Red”), it tends to come across as immaturity and inexperience instead, to the point that she often seems to forget she’s an FBI agent with authority on her side.

She can also come across as a real ass at times, with the game oddly choosing to have her constantly berated for things we didn’t see her do or that the ignorant complainer has no way of knowing are more complicated, while shrugging off things like her stealing flowers from a stranger’s grave. The game’s not oblivious to her flaws, and there may be good reasons for some of the characters to tolerate them that have yet to be revealed, but still, any sane FBI branch director would have unceremoniously fired this woman years ago.

Hi Dad. Can you pretend I'm calling you on an iPhone? I'll explain later. You'll laugh.

Probably her biggest problem though isn’t her fault, but the fact that she rarely has a partner to bounce off. That inherently restricts many of her reactions to just-the-facts narration, as well as making absolutely no logical sense. One of the two guys she works with knows about and completely supports her psychic powers, and even if the big twist is that he’s really the Cain Killer or something, it’s silly in the here and now to see him spend an episode sitting behind a desk doing paperwork while she walks alone into serial killers’ lairs to play mind games.

Oh, and speaking of silly; yes, this is childish and even unfair, but by Episode 2 a number of Erica’s character traits were really making me laugh inappropriately. I know “wicked” is valid Boston slang, but an FBI agent saying things like “She’ll be wicked pissed!” still makes her sound like a naughty teenager to my English ears. That feeling only got worse when she started breaking out “Oh SNAP!” type gestures at suspects… and sometimes, well…

Didst thou do it, or didst thou not: that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fibbery, or avoid lying to an FBI agent who knows the ol' wet towel trick...

Her psychic powers claw back a lot of this ground though, giving her unique skills that are well-woven into the story and believably handled – at least, as much as ‘psychic FBI agent’ is ever going to be. At any point in the game you can switch into Cognition mode, which adds a filter to the screen and lights up areas of interest. Cognition is apparently a plot-sensitive power though, and only ever flags up areas of direct relevance to the job at hand. Despite Erica’s Sookie Stackhouse complaints that she can’t even touch a guy without things getting dodgy, the only time they seem to get out of control is when she gets particularly frazzled.

Initially, you can only get flashbacks, but that soon advances to offer personal character moments, back-stories, and a couple of very dark puzzles. The one at the end of Episode 2 is particularly clever, really embracing the series’ creepy premise in a way that only these powers and this kind of story can enable. It’s a bit long though. Have a notepad ready.

The one clunker of the set is the first episode’s Regression power, which involves fixing memories by changing things like the colour of a woman’s dress and the sign on the wall. It’s one of those puzzles that looks fine on paper, even clever, but in practice is immensely tedious and takes forever – especially coming after a deliberately time-wasting puzzle. Thankfully, as of Episode 2 Regression just pops up the necessary flashbacks directly.

Regress... regress... okay, I'm thrilled that you were a courtesan in the court of Louis XVI, but if we can keep our minds on the murder thing, that'd be wicked cool, okay? I can say 'wicked cool' because I'm from Boston, just like everyone else around here with our incredibly strong Boston accents.

The puzzles in general are much tighter too. Episode 1 is surprisingly long, while Episode 2 is a little too short, but the main reason for the difference is that the first is padded out with some absolute drivel. A witness who won’t talk to Erica until he’s been given three different foods. Silliness like a gadget that lets you look through paint, but only when you give it a magic colour code. Worst, while both games suffer from a lack of pace in their middle act, a good third of Episode 1 is spent actively avoiding advancing the plot in favour of running variations on the theme of “Erica Reed’s Colleagues Are A Bunch Of Obstructive Dicksacks”.

As with the padding and psychic irritations, Episode 2 tones that down dramatically. It’s not as ambitious an episode, but it’s a more grounded one, and the clear attempts to sand down the rough edges bode well for the rest of the series. It still dips into silliness on occasion, but builds on the plot in interesting ways and makes good use of what’s been established. As long as the series doesn’t escalate too much, and the gore never goes all the way to grand guignol levels, the next couple of episodes should be equally entertaining dark little adventures.

Would you like to know how she got these scars? Her daddy worked in novelty envelopes, and he brought his work home with him. Envelopes that tasted of strawberry; so tasty. His little girl couldn't resist. She had to have a taste. So she put one in her mouth and she dragged her tongue and oooh, she likes that. She likes that a lot. Then she tries another, and another, and then in an unrelated trip to the cinema her father put razorblades in her Pick and Mix.

Episodic games are always a gamble, and Cognition is far from flawless. It’s a series that anyone who remembers serious adventures as fondly as the comedy ones should definitely check out though. When it slips up, it’s usually at least funny about it. The rest of the time, it ducks in and out of actually feeling like the thriller it promises to be, but has more than enough edge to its design when it really counts. It’s an unashamedly old-school take on the genre rather than a reinvention, with everything that implies for good and bad. I’m definitely looking forward to playing more though, and seeing where the story goes when the next episode lands.

Cognition Episodes 1 and 2 are out now. You don’t want to skip straight to the second, it’s got its own focus, but is far from a self-contained story. A Season Pass covering all four episodes is available for $30, with individual episodes costing $10 each. For the next day or so, you can also snag Episode 1 for whatever price you like over at IndieGameStand.

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35 Comments »

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  1. CaspianRoach says:

    It is also on Steam Greenlight: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=92915746
    And it looks like everybody will get Steam keys once they are available:

    Once we are Greenlit, all existing customers will be eligible for Steam keys!

    from IGS storepage.

  2. Premium User Badge

    DrAmateurScience says:

    Sterling alt-text work as always sir.

  3. Triplanetary says:

    Picked Episode 1 up on Indie Game Stand earlier this week. It’s really good and I like the art and gameplay. Gotta be honest, though – I’m really tired of crime thrillers about serial killers. There are other crimes, you know. Still, everything else about the game is good so I look past that detail.

    • Juan Carlo says:

      I played “Still Life” after hearing good things for years and it is honestly one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played. The storyline is a stupid hodgepodge of serial killer movie cliches, and the puzzles are either incredibly mindless inventory puzzles or completely out of place and overly complicated to the point of not being fun “puzzle” puzzles (fuck that lock picking puzzle…..seriously). And on top of it, the game is basically a “Who done it?” mystery that just ends abruptly without ever solving “who done it.” Like the game just stops halfway through and the credits roll, which left me scratching my head. I don’t understand the love that game gets from some corners of the adventure gaming universe. I suspect its reputation was just inflated by the fact that it was released in that period during the middle 2000s when no adventure games were being made at all.

      Anyhow, I just hated the game enough that I feel compelled to rant about it everytime someone mentions serial killing and the adventure games genre.

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      maninahat says:

      The one thing that put me off was the most is the psychopath serial killer hunt. What is this, the late 90s? Very unoriginal and hard to take seriously.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Lacero says:

    Hi RPS. I like adventure games but unlike (it seems) everyone else who likes them I don’t like torture. What should I play other than Walking Dead and this?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Hit up Wadjet Eye Games for some indie stuff. The Blackwell Bundle is definitely worth a look (the first part is ropey as all hell, but they keep getting better and Deception is terrific – as a series, it’s actually fairly close to Cognition if you replace the torture and cynicism with heart) and Resonance is also great. I didn’t like Primordia, but many did. Gemini Rue is also good if you can get past its sterility.

      I’m not sure that ‘liking torture’ is something I’d ascribe to adventure gamers though, with the possible exception of King’s Quest fans. Thievery, maybe, but the most popular games tend to be comedies rather than face-rippers.

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        Lacero says:

        Thanks. After Heavy Rain I kinda gave up a bit. I’ll go looking.
        Gemini Rue was good though.

        • Triplanetary says:

          Whoa, whoa, don’t go judging the entire genre based on Heavy Rain. That’s a serious outlier (and to its credit, it’s marginally less ridiculous than its creator’s previous game, Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on).

          Anyway, I strongly second the Blackwell games. I even enjoyed the first game, though I think it was just over too fast to start annoying me. The subsequent games in the series are both longer and more solidly built.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I’m liking Resonance so far, for it’s flaws (odd drag-heavy UI, a lot of dialogue not being spoken, etc.). It’s quite happy to be a point and click (or drag) adventure game, and focus at being good at that.

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        Lacero says:

        Wow, I had no idea the gemini rue people made so many. Thanks, this is perfect!

        • Hoaxfish says:

          If I understand it correctly, Gemini Rue is the only published game made by the people who made it. Wadjet Games is a publisher, but not the maker of that specific game.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            Yep. Wadjet Eye is Dave Gilbert, who created the Blackwell series and an earlier game called The Shivah, and his wife Janet, who does a lot of the heavy lifting on the programming side. Along with the Blackwell series, they publish (and work on/provide support for) other adventures so that they can be polished up, have voice work, and get better distribution – Resonance, Gemini Rue and Primordia are the big examples of that, along with Puzzle Bots and Da New Guys.

            They’re good people. Really glad to see WEG doing so well at the moment, and can’t wait for the next Blackwell game.

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            Stellar Duck says:

            It really can’t be overstated that Dave and Janet are Good People(TM). They really are. Every mail I’ve sent them has been replied to and and sorted. They’re really awesome.

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      Faldrath says:

      There’s also the Amanita stuff (Machinarium, Botanicula) for a rather different, and beautiful, experience.

    • Grey Ganado says:

      Or go take a look at the many many brilliant games made in AGS:
      http://www.adventuregamestudio.co.uk/site/games/

    • gritz says:

      Don’t forget Machinarium and the Ben There, Dan That games!

      I’ve got my eye on The Journey Down and the Deponia series too, but I haven’t given them a try yet.

    • elfbarf says:

      I’m sure that you’ve played some of these, though I figured that it can’t hurt to post them.

      The Longest Journey + Dreamfall
      Monkey Island series (well, the first 3 at least)
      Stacking
      Myst series (especially Myst Online; it’s a free, open source version of the complete Uru chronicles)
      Broken Sword series
      Sam & Max series
      Syberia series

    • Cowboybibop says:

      Torture??

  5. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Wait, you have the opportunity to save her brother, but when you do he just drops dead for no reason? I have the feeling, I am misunderstanding something here… :/

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yep. There’s a puzzle involving pulling wires out of a control box in the right order, which is pretty trivial given that you have psychic powers and ages to do it. If you fail, he gets shot with the crossbows pointed at him. If not, you rescue him, help him to the door and then he just goes “Urk!” and dies for no reason.

      • LionsPhil says:

        That’s…kind of ridiculous. Really frustratingly ridiculous because it’s such a blatant arse-pull, moreso than the puzzle being just plain unsolvable in time.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Yeah, I was confused by it. It’s not impossible to justify – say the Cain Killer shot him with poison or put a bomb in him or something – but it comes across very much as “Shit, didn’t expect you to succeed!” The only vague handwave I’ve seen is that in his police file there’s a note about him not necessarily having any plans to let his victims go even if the second sibling beats his game.

          (Narrative wise, it kinda smacked to me of them having to kill Scott, but not wanting Erica to be seen as incompetent in her first real challenge. Which in fairness isn’t a horrible trade-off. If she’d just failed miserably, she’d have been seen as a bit of a clutz forever. If it’s obviously the designer making a hash of a dramatic moment, the character’s credibility is somewhat protected.)

  6. zbmott says:

    Holy shit the RPS feature title is the most brilliant thing I’ve read all day. What a pun! And in Latin, to boot!

    I am in awe, Mr. Cobbett.

  7. Bassem says:

    Oh hey, alt-text! Good stuff too.

    This series sounds good, but seeing as I still have – in various unfinished states – Gabriel Knights, the Broken Swords, the Blackwells and many other adventure series, I’ll have to pass for now.

  8. jfrisby says:

    It’s worth noting that these same developers are working on Mobius, the Jane Jensen Kickstarter game. In a way it seems like that general crew of folks double dipped, getting funding for both projects with varying levels of Jane Jensen prominence (I backed them both, as well).

    I’ve only made it halfway through the first episode, still need to give it more of a chance… but the unintentional hilarity is VERY present – the barely passable Boston accent, and everything about Erica’s partner made it hard to handle. As a fan of Jensen’s work that never wants to hear another Scarlet Furies song again, the lovely Raleigh Holmes was a little too present.

    It’s clearly a huge step-up from their work on the King’s Quest fan games.. guess it’s time to give it another go.

  9. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    More Cobbett please!