Impressions: FRACT OSC

By Alec Meer on April 21st, 2014 at 2:00 pm.

FRACT OSC is a semi-open world puzzle game themed around electronic music. It looks like Tron with more dodecahedrons and sounds like some impossibly cool Berlin club only 12 people have ever heard of. It’s out tomorrow, but I spent a few days with it last week.

Ultimate first-world problem: I didn’t find FRACT particularly enjoyable until I played it on a biggish telly with some reasonably capable speakers attached.

Before that, I trudged through its Tronish world aware that I was expected to be awed by the towering abstract shapes around me, transported to somewhere by its looping, languid beats and blinking lights, but my feelings stopped short at cool admiration, not quite progression to the wonder I wanted to experience.

God, I worried about myself. I thought about those I’d harangued for saying how Audiosurf left them cold, or how Proteus was boring. Was this how it felt to be on the other side, to be resentful that I didn’t click with something sensory that other people took to their hearts?

Two truths should be told here. The first is that I have no idea how others are going to respond to FRACT, as it isn’t out yet, but its website is festooned with enough awards to suggest that the game’s got under the right skin somewhere.

The second is that, even once FRACT’s scenery was made genuinely massively and its customisable soundscape was booming around me rather than squeaking through earphones, I liked it more but still didn’t love it. Every time I thought about going back to it, I felt disconcertingly similar to how I do when I gaze at a stack of unwashed dishes in the sink.

A gamepad helped too. This is a languid game that’s far better suited to leaning back than hunching forwards. It wants to wash over you, and I got more out of it when I let that happen.

On a bigger screen that happened – its architecture towered over me and enveloped me, and I felt transported rather than merely observing. Twisting paths of light, enormous suspended dodecahedron (maybe – I didn’t count the sides), trails of glowing jewels, vast and impossible turbines powering a sleeping world back into life: as a pure tour (and with the above qualifiers) FRACT is a beautiful creature.

Thing is, it isn’t a tour. It’s a puzzle game, in the Myst vein but nowhere near so obtuse or painstaking. Puzzles are often elaborate, but they involve stuff like rotating massive floating discs in order to orientate a vast beam of light in the correct direction across the sky, or rotating parts of a circuit board to carry a beat into an alien engine. Solutions are precise and unforgiving, but the difficulty stems more from slowly learning the game’s wordless language than the actions required.

Once you’ve worked out what the game is trying to tell you using light and sound, acting on what you’ve learned is reasonably straightforward (although it’s far fiddlier than it needs to be as a result of a retrograde ‘interaction mode’ activated with the right mouse button, which adds oft-annoying over-complication apparently purely to keep the standard view as minimalist as possible).

Dials must be turned, pipe-pieces must be rotated, light-beams must be aligned: again, the trick is deciphering wordless language, assessing what’s around you and seeing how the world shifts when parts of it are fiddled with. To some extent this is a matter of gazing at everything in interaction mode until you spy the only usable items in the area, but although FRACT strives to make each puzzle different, a common visual dialect establishes itself and often enough it’s immediately obvious what you’ll be tinkering with.

I’m afraid to say that, while many of these puzzles could be said to be ingenious, I did tend to find them something of a chore. Here’s where I admit that I bounce off Myst games for similar reasons. FRACT and Myst have a lot in common, even if this is by a big margin prettier, stranger and cooler. Puzzles are guided by audio cues (a pounding beat that locks in when a series of parts are correctly aligned, or a row of doors which open and close to match the rhythm ) so there’s an instinctive, self-contained quality to them.

You fiddle and you learn the language and you see what happens, and eventually it clicks into place – a far cry from memorising piano key positions. The visual and sonic results of solving puzzles can be dramatic too, as darkened places spring into urgent life – again, FRACT achieves everything wordlessly, and somehow that makes for a more satisfying, more personal outcome than written or spoken messages could.

Even so, there is that sense that a journey of wonder is being repeatedly interrupted by busywork. After a time, the thought of going back to it seemed faintly oppressive even though I wanted to admire more of its light-fantastical world, and that’s why I hesitantly settled on calling this piece ‘Impressions’ not ‘Wot I Think.’

What I think is I’d like FRACT more if it was a Going For A Walk game peppered by various buttons to press to create beats and loops and other things that a DJ might say. Proteus in an avant-garde night club, basically – but then The Game Police might come for it. For all FRACT’s weird-beard presentation, its being so puzzle-centred means I don’t believe it contravenes any of those cheerless, unforgiving Not A Game laws.

I suppose I should talk about the music generation element. As you solve areas you unlock new elements for a music sequencer meta-game, where you can create music of your own in an easy, immediate, kinda cool system that I’m going to sweepingly generalise as “like Daft Punk redesigned Garage Band”.

Throughout the main game you’re doing elements of this anyway, but returning to the ‘studio’ every time you complete a room and unlock a new system and seeing what it adds to your ad-hoc tunes is a great way of feeling you’re gradually adding life to this strange, cold place. It’s a fine music toy in its own right, even where the surround semi-open world and its puzzles removed.

There is a haughtiness to the whole affair though – its music didn’t ever move me, fill me with life, but instead seemed to declare ‘hey look how cool this is’ as it throbbed and pulsed around FRACT’s neon scenery. It’s that as much as tiring of Pipemania-derived puzzles which eventually stopped me returning to an otherwise fascinating world – a certain coldness, an absence of joy or celebration, a degree of posturing.

FRACT is a beautifully strange-looking game, and that big telly and speakers certainly made it look and sound more vital, but after a few hours I could no longer tell just what it was I was trying to commune with. I was consistently impressed by FRACT, but it couldn’t quite find a way into my withered, ashen heart.

FRACT OSC is out tomorrow.

__________________

« | »

, , .

36 Comments »

  1. Foosnark says:

    Seeing videos of this game just makes me want to play Rez. But not enough to find my PlayStation and plug it back in.

    • strangeloup says:

      There was a rather good HD rerelease for the 360, which oddly didn’t make it to any other format. Not sure if that’s any help, mind.

      • Seraph says:

        The RezHD port was excellent. The music and sound effects were remastered into 5.1 (which adds sooo much if you get to experience it), and the anti-aliasing really lets all those laser lights shine. I’m strictly a PC gamer now, so it’s a huge bummer to me that Q Entertainment never took RezHD beyond the 360 – I’d buy it full price for my computer without hesitation. If anyone hasn’t played it yet and gets the chance to, jump on it!

  2. Prolar Bear says:

    I was one of the beta testers, and I liked it a lot. I have to say it’s the sort of game somebody with an interest in electronic music would love, not a game everybody could enjoy. By the way the studio is going to become more complex post-release, and with a couple of added tweaks and features it could very well be a neat, if simple, music studio.

  3. MadTinkerer says:

    So… It’s main downside is how much like the Myst games it is, and I actually enjoy the Myst games as well as the original free version of Fract. I guess it’s a day-one purchase for me!

    • Geebs says:

      I’m starting to believe that, at some point in the 90s, Rand and Robyn Miller cooked and ate the parents of every single games journalist (that or they made a game for the Mac, which is generally considered to be worse).

      In other news, I am going to buy the hell out of this.

    • Seraph says:

      Yeah, the RPS staff seems to look down on anything approaching the adventure game genre, which is kind of weird coming from a website with an emphasis on PC gaming – there really is no game genre more closely tied to the PC than that! Nevertheless, I’ve been following FRACT ever since I played the original build way back (which I found out about from RPS, summing up my love/hate relationship with this site), and all indications are that the developers have made exactly the game I’ve been hoping to play. Richard Flanagan and his team have put >>years<< of hard work and sacrifice into this game, and Meer's flippant critique of their efforts, which reads as "eh, it was pretty cool I guess, but it was kinda like Myst, and I don't like Myst" seems tremendously insulting to me. I'm going to avoid going full nerd rage here, and just close saying that I can't wait to play this game tomorrow, and my wallet is at the ready.

      • bill says:

        They like adventure games. They like walking and exploration games. They like first person puzzle games. They liked games like Penumbra. They just seem to really hate Myst. I think myst actually did eat a lot of game journalist’s parents.

        • Seraph says:

          That hasn’t been my experience, bill. The majority of reviews I read on Rock, Paper, Shotgun are negative, including for games which receive nearly unanimous praise elsewhere (looking at you Broken Age and Dear Esther). As a whole, the RPS team seems like a very cynical crowd, kind of like too-old indie rock hipsters who know all the new artists and hate almost all of them. They find lots of good stuff though, even if they’re incapable of enjoying much of it.

      • joshg says:

        Yeah, they’d never award an adventure game their Game of the Year award or anything.

        • Seraph says:

          Good for them, by all accounts Kentucky Route Zero is a wonderful game.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        “Meer’s flippant critique of their efforts”

        In Alec’s defense, RPS’s uncompromising attitude towards expressing their honest personal opinions, even in the instances where I enthusiastically disagree, is precisely why I check this website every day. Also, he did explicitly make this an “impressions” post and explained why.

        There’s really no need for nerdrage, especially since the whole article is basically explaining why he thinks it’s not right for him; as distinct from a review saying he doesn’t think the game is good. Which is fair. Some lunatics can’t get into Parappa the Rapper. Some drooling neanderthals don’t enjoy Bust a Groove. Some disgusting amoeba-like puddles of gunk just don’t understand Space Channel 5. And that’s perfectly all right.

        • Seraph says:

          In my defense, I did my very best to abstain from angry keyboard slamming – and you’re right, Alec does a fair job expressing that the game is just not his thing, despite its merits. What I find frustrating is that RPS felt that it was appropriate for Mr. Meer to be the one to “review” this game. Alec, by his own admission, does not enjoy the pensive gameplay associated with games like Myst, where one explores a serene environment, and then interacts with puzzles in that environment, whereas there is an abundance of information to clearly demonstrate that exactly such gameplay has always been intended to be a major component of FRACT OSC – indicating that Alec almost certainly was not going to enjoy the game, regardless of its quality. These developers spend years of their lives crafting these experiences; sacrificing their health, sanity, and financial stability to make something that they can be proud of. Surely they, and those who are or might be interested in their game, deserve a review from someone who is actually capable of engaging with what they have created.

      • AngelTear says:

        I wrote a more verbose comment about reading reviews superficially below, but, allow me to correct your reductionist reading of this review:

        “It’s kinda cool, but it’s a lot like Myst, and I didn’t like Myst, but maybe you do, in which case go nuts. Here is why I didn’t like it, if you don’t care much about these things, here’s what there is to like, I didn’t enjoy it but maybe you should decide for yourself according to your taste!”.

  4. SillyWizard says:

    Slow news day…?

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Bank holiday.

      • Vinraith says:

        You’d think that would matter less than it used to, what with so much of the staff being in the U.S. these days.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          Hey, I’m scottish and I don’t even understand how bank holidays work! I guess any excuse is good enough for a day off.

        • SillyWizard says:

          Mostly, being in the US, I’m just envious of all the time off everyone else in the world gets.

          Yay capitalism. :/

        • The Random One says:

          I’m just surprised that the UK celebrates the martyrdom of Tiradentes. I mean, they’re still a monarchy, right?

          • Sleepymatt says:

            Indeed – next year this Bank holiday will be comemmorating Julius Caesar’s victory in the battle of Thapsus, one small step on the way to abolishing the republic to be replaced a single ruler. Yay, monarchy!

  5. LionsPhil says:

    Views video.
    So, it’s Myst with a step sequencer bolted on, then.
    Reads article.
    Yep.

  6. Baines says:

    I thought about those I’d harangued for saying how Audiosurf left them cold, or how Proteus was boring. Was this how it felt to be on the other side, to be resentful that I didn’t click with something sensory that other people took to their hearts?

    No, that’s not how it feels to be on the other side. The other side isn’t resentful. The other side just finds a game/experience like Proteus to be a waste of install time. They might have gotten annoyed if you actually “harangued” them, and might have been annoyed that such games got so much praise in certain circles, but I really doubt that they were “resentful” that it “didn’t click with something sensory that other people took to their hearts”.

    • Risingson says:

      Absolutely. That was a shameful comment that only tries to alienate the readers. You never tried to understand the arguments, Alec Meer.

      • bill says:

        Calling it a shameful comment designed to annoy readers is a bit overkill, don’t you think. It took me 3 re-reads to work out what you didn’t like, and that is purely the use of the word resentful. I guess that if you micro-analyze things you could argue that word might not be the best choice, but I hardly think it was shameful or designed to alienate.

        It is probably true that most people aren’t resentful, just unmoved or confused about the appeal. But like it or not, Proteus did become one of the key games in the whole ‘not a game’ argument that was going on at the time. And that argument did seem to be largely fed by a group who seemed to consider ‘not a game’ games as some kind of threat to ‘real game’ games. Gamers by their nature seeming to be defensive and to like categorisation.

        I’d have thought the later comments and the ‘not a game’ genre could have been more easily taken as calculated. Or just defensive.

        Were there any arguments to understand?

        • Baines says:

          When I made the reply, I wasn’t even thinking about responses at RPS about Proteus and the whole ‘not a game’ debate. The remark that I quoted just struck me as a bit conceited and simply wrong.

          It wasn’t the word “resentful,” though that word choice certainly helped to cast a particular view of the general message.

          Wrong because Alec doesn’t describe what the ‘other side’ feels. The ‘other side’ doesn’t believe in the touch-the-heart super awesomeness of such games, and thus isn’t bothered when they play such a game and don’t feel that super awesomeness. What Alec describes is the view of someone still on the same side. Someone who believes such games have some super awesomeness, facing the fear and/or confusion encountered upon not feeling the super awesomeness of a communally accepted super awesome game. (Though if you harangue the real other side, then yes, they may get upset. Its just not because they are jealous or resentful that they don’t experience the super awesomeness. It is because some guy keeps haranguing them.)

          A bit conceited because Alec sees that disagreeing ‘same side’ view as the ‘other side’ view. Also the implied belief that those games are indeed super awesome and that to disagree with that enlightened view is wrong. While the article says “other side”, the way it is delivered carries the message that it is synonymous with “wrong side”.

          EDIT: I wasn’t trying to call Alec out, or restart an old ‘not a game’ argument, or anything of the like. I just pointed out a mistaken opinion in a short post. Then ended up writing an overlong explanatory response to a reply anyway, sigh…

          • Geebs says:

            Proteus is a game for people who derive an intense spiritual experience from standing in stone circles. I agree, I don’t think it’s possible to communicate that to “the other people” because a lot of them just aren’t wired up that way.

            (on a more practical note: Proteus is, however, a rip-off. Its quality control is so bad that the Steam support page actually says “It might take 60 seconds of staring at a grey screen for this to start, we don’t know why”, it crashes randomly in the menus and it judders when you look over the main body of the island despite the fact that it has an extremely basic renderer. That would have been acceptable for a couple of quid but is a joke at 7)

      • AngelTear says:

        If a person engages with something in a way that creates a valuable and worthwhile experience, that person will most likely want to share that experience with others, they will want others to feel the same, precisely because they found that experience so valuable.

        Unfortunately, the gaming community at large has mostly decided that that experience is not worthwhile, therefore what that person wanted to share does not actually exist, if it exists it doesn’t have any value, and it’s shameful that they want others to feel the same.

        (By the way, I’m sure “harangued” was a consciously hyperbolic choice of words, born from frustration at not being able to share said experience.)

  7. Armante says:

    It seems strange to me that RPS persists in getting to staff to write up games they admittedly don’t like, either directly or as a genre. If I were to review hardcore RPGs there would be a string of bad reviews. If I bury somewhere in the copy that “I don’t like hardcore RPGs” that doesn’t let me off the hook. If a reviewer doesn’t like racing games, how will they be able to tell the readers that the latest entry in a racing franchise is any good or not?

    I know very little about Fract, but I have to agree with many opinions expressed above that it makes little sense to post this, even as an opinion piece. It reminds me strongly of the Banished review,where there was a bit of a clusterf*ck whereby menu options were not enabled by the reviewer, and said reviewer complained about the lack of info. I would like to know how many people read that review and disappointedly decided against trying Banished? I was on the fence about it, read the review, and came away disappointed to hear it had problems. It was only when I read through the comments that I learnt of the menu options and other issues that the reviewer encountered through their ineptness at the game itself. I have since tried it, confirmed the errors in the review, and love the game.

    As someone who did very much enjoy Myst way back when it was released to see this website simply slam anything that tries something similar rather puts me off. So many people skim-read and will glance over this piece and come away thinking it sucks and tries too hard. As RPS does carry a lot of weight in the industry I find the lack of open-mindedness disappointing.

    I hope the team behind Fract doesn’t lose sales because of it.

    • AngelTear says:

      1) You’re partially correct about the Banished review, but I wonder, if someone who plays and reviews games for a living didn’t manage to make sense of the interface, how many “normal” non-hardcore gamers will find it easy to use, or will find the game manageable without having to look for a wiki or a LP first

      2) I always get the sense that people need to reduce reviews to “it’s good/bad”, instead of actually reading it with all its nuances. That’s why it’s several paragraphs long, and not just a twit about the objective value of the game. It explains what it is, it explains what it is like, why he did (or in this case didn’t) engage with it. If you actually read the review instead of skim-reading it, you’ll find it’s perfectly understandable whether you will likely enjoy the game or not, based on past experience with other games and the description of what is going on. The reason why he bounced back from it are equally valuable, both to explain why someone may not enjoy it, but also, if you don’t care about that sort of thing, why you may in fact enjoy it even if he did not.

      At the same time, a review from a super-hardcore fan of the genre may only be useful to the minority of super-hardcore fans of that genre, and who will probably buy it anyway, rather than the majority who aren’t. A review from someone who is broadly interested in that genre, but not super-absorbed in it may be better for the majority of people who would look to get the game.

      I really don’t want to sound confrontational, but I have the sense that people read reviews too superficially…

      • Armante says:

        Not confrontational at all – we all have our opinions and points of view.

        Your second point is very valid; when a piece like this is read in its entirety nuances can be picked up. It’s a bit like knowing a movie reviewer and their personal preferences. If you know a critic doesn’t like modern horror, but adores Hammer classics, then you know how to read their reviews. This can almost become a “If they hate it, I will love it” situation. Given time, that works. I’m concerned, however, that with the internet at large and the TL;DR approach to everything that it all can fall by the wayside.

        As for Banished, the tutorial itself points out the menus, and is remarkably comprehensive. It does leave you to discover what works and what doesn’t, rather than holding your hand.

    • Seraph says:

      Preach it brother.

  8. The First Door says:

    I must admit I’m really looking forward to this and rather glad that it’ll be coming so soon! As someone who adored most of the Myst games (Uru in particular) because they threw you into strange worlds where you had to decipher and figure out the underlying logic, I’m really looking forward to having a new, weird world to explore and new alien machines to learn.