Impressions: Serena

By John Walker on January 29th, 2014 at 12:00 pm.

Serena is perhaps the most peculiar tribute anyone could pay to a person. A dark, gruesome adventure game, portraying loss and misery, named for someone who went through tough times at the hands of a prize jerk. I mean, flowers work too.

It’s also free, designed to show off Senscape’s Dagon engine built for their Kickstarter success, Asylum. Senscape being the new company headed by Agustin Cordes, he of notorious horror adventure, Scratches. And Serena being a game made by him, with contributions from a whole bunch of other indie adventure developers, including Space Quest’s Scott Murphy and John Mandel.

It is, without doubt, a curiosity. A horror adventure short starring Josh Mandel as the main voice, with Pushing Up Roses’ Sarah Wilson as the missing Serena. You play a husband, in a very small wooden house in the middle of the woods, trying to get a grasp of your memories. Everything you look at triggers thoughts, memories, or confusion, most especially a photograph of you and your wife, with her face entirely missing. You can’t remember her properly, and you can’t work out why. By exploring all the items and furniture in the home, you attempt to put the pieces back together.

What’s most odd about this is how clumsy it feels while working perfectly. I think it’s a good thing. Memories start to change after you trigger certain moments, but the route to these feels haphazard. I kept thinking, “Well, it’s a good job I just happened to do that, then, or this wouldn’t work,” before realising that it seemed an awful coincidence that it did keep happening to work. That’s what most impressed me about a game that is arguably walking very worn ground, and certainly doesn’t have a very original story to tell. This scatterbrained feeling made it stand out, in a ghostly story for which the ending is enormously apparent.

I do remember thinking, “I wonder how they’re going to twist on the [censored] meme here,” before they ungracefully didn’t. However, the inevitability of its reveal doesn’t take away too much from the experience.

What does, I fear, is the engine. I’m complete at a loss as to why anyone would deliberately create an engine that glues your feet to the floor in 2014. Myst and its evil hellspawn children were a long, long time ago, and it’s been years since the exceedingly great Penumbra games demonstrated superbly how the same effects of intimate exploration can be achieved while allowing the player to roam free. Having to be transitioned from spot to spot feels archaic, and detached me from properly engaging in the little world.

A curiosity, like I say. The list of contributors features the likes of Kill Monday’s Natalia Figueroa, AGS master Ben Chandler, Quest For Infamy’s Jenny Pattison, The St. Christopher School Lockdown’s Laney Berry, and on and on, all throwing in a bit of art, or some content, a book name, and the like. And all because they just really like Serena Nelson. She’s very popular! She also had a pretty shitty time last year, and a whole bunch of industry colleagues rallied together in what is the strangest way imaginable! A horrible, grim game about sadness! It’s worth noting the concept for the game existed before Serena’s crappy time, then called Helena. It evolved.

“She’s a great person,” project lead Agustin Cordes explained to me. “A staunch supporter of adventure games, and played a big role in many Kickstarter campaigns (including ours). It made sense to dedicate the game to her.

The game comes out on Steam tomorrow, and is completely free.

A quick note: if I ever get horribly treated in public (um, more than usual?), could the rallying industry make me a game about fluffy clouds and happy kittens? Just in case.

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10 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge golem09 says:

    You suck.

    (Triggering the creation of a fluffy cloud kitten game hopefully)

    • lautalocos says:

      so, technokitten?

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  2. GamesInquirer says:

    What about the quality of the engine as what it is, rather than what it isn’t? I won’t be able to move the camera behind the back of the party leader in Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera like I can do in Dragon Age, or in first person like I can do in The Elder Scrolls, but that doesn’t necessarily make them worse and I very well hope the games will be superior as they can be, while if they aren’t I wouldn’t say it’s the engine’s fault (unless of course it’s also shit).

    I think that’s a decent comparison to how this engine is used for an adventure game as there isn’t any combat so the lack of precise positioning doesn’t seem able to negatively impact gameplay by itself, since if you find the atmosphere lacking that would be their own failure (I’ve seen plenty atmospheric text games to mention an extreme). The main difference is in how the areas are visible to the player from preset angles so they both look the best they can for their artists’ capabilities and may also steer the gameplay in a given planned direction and feel, like for example in how puzzles and item hunting will work screen by screen rather than in a freely explorable environment where much of the walking about could be considered padding if it’s there just to be there.

    Going full 3D would likely also need far more work done so that every scene and object looks good enough regardless of angle and distance (and it’s not like inconsistency would be better with areas of interest more detailed than the corridors that led to them or something along those lines). Therefor the decision probably also helps their workflow and I imagine they focused on what they felt mattered the most for their game rather than just to be retro. If the result is clunky then I should think there’s room for criticism even outside that lack of free roaming 3D (and could still be the fault of something other than the engine’s technical specifications, if for example the UI and core controls aren’t actually well designed and implemented).

    Amnesia needed to be fully 3D for the way it handled enemies and gameplay, I can’t really say if Asylum or a different game would be better in Amnesia’s engine. For now it just looks like a different type of adventure game engine, like Amnesia’s is another. In Broken Sword you also can’t move the camera through the environments as you move from screen to screen at preset angles and even though you see the characters move about the environment it’s still different and technically less advanced than Dreamfall where you both see your character and explore in full 3D, but I didn’t see any real backlash for that game style.

    Anyway in general I don’t think such decisions should be based on what year it is. Then we might no longer have 2D games, turn based games, single player games, games without micro transactions, and so on as everybody these days pushes things as some kind of universal future that everyone should chase after (or avoid) rather than just as one choice of many that worked (or didn’t work) in that unique instance.

    Edit: seeing the Might & Magic WIT posted, I’m glad that game wasn’t shunned for being different as well!

  3. Felixader says:

    I haven’t played this but has the main character, by chance, killed his wife? X-P

    • Asherie says:

      *spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers**spoilers*

      Nope. But it does look that way if you only play 99% of the game then quit thinking you “saw it coming a mile off”. Which is why I chuckled when I read John’s “the ending is enormously apparent.” – Of course it’s just an impressions article so he can be forgiven for not playing it all the way through, even if it is only about 40 minutes long.

  4. SillyWizard says:

    Who are any of these people.

  5. strangeloup says:

    I feel entirely confused that of all the people/groups/games etc. metioned herein, the only one I’ve ever heard of is Space Quest. Did this fall through the Adventure Game Dimensional Rift, are these things obscure, or do I just have bizarre lacunae in my knowledge? It is a mystery.

    (Full confession: Upon reading the line “I wonder how they’re going to twist on the [censored] meme here”, I fully hoped it would be the doge meme, just popping up in mid-game to totally confound people.)

    • MuricanMayonnaise says:

      You’re not far off, strangeloup. Most of the people mentioned are likely pretty familiar to long-time adventure fans like myself who follow the current “indie adventure gaming scene,” but they aren’t necessarily well known outside of that.

      Josh Mandel worked for Sierra Online in the ’90s, doing voice acting or design work depending on the game; he voiced the protagonist of King’s Quest V and VI. Ben Chandler and the Quest for Infamy team are part of the Adventure Game Studio community, a niche within the adventure game scene that focuses mostly on original pixel-art point and click adventures in the early-to-mid ’90s tradition… Obviously, that’s a very niche niche, but the adventure scene is actually thriving more than it may seem.

      The rabbit hole goes much deeper than Broken Age and Telltale, which I’m pretty thrilled about personally.

      Edit: I haven’t played this yet, but a doge meme being worked in would be pretty hilarious. I don’t like most memes but that one is hard to resist.

  6. ItsDarthChaos says:

    Kind of saw the ending coming about halfway through, but it didn’t fully sink in until the ending began… I would not classify the game as a horror in itself, but the realization in the end is haunting to say the least… I beat the game two hours ago and still cannot stop thinking about what the sequence of events must have been. I want to go back and figure it out, but that would mean feeling those same dark thoughts again.

    Great game, but mind-boggling when you learn how it ends. If you are like me, the clues to the ending would be somewhat obvious, if you click enough to find them. The story is pretty depressing. It’s music, setting, and raw emotion in the voice acting all make you swallow the bitter feeling the game wants to feed you. You feel the character’s emotions so flawlessly, that you need to do a double-take at the end to comprehend what just happened.