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The Backseat Game Designer: Keepsake

This is the addendum to my Keepsake Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Keepsake yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Keepsake

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe these game designers'll be Googling around for their title, read this page, and be inspired to pick the pace up a little in their next game. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Keepsake that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Every once in a while I find myself playing a game and thinking "Boy, I really OUGHT to be enjoying this." Keepsake was one of these. On paper, this is an excellent game on multiple levels-- good puzzles, nice artwork, an interesting storyline that really made me care what the resolution was. What more could you ask for from a point-and-click adventure, really? I mean, sure, the gameplay is linear and uninteractive, but that's a flaw shared by 95% of all graphic adventures, and I ordinarily enjoy the genre anyway. But Keepsake just dragged so much I frequently had to force myself to keep playing. The plot unfolded so slowly, with so much tedious and unskippable filler in between each interesting tidbit, that I spent a lot of the game frustrated and tapping my fingers in impatience. This should have been a 20-hour game, and it took almost 40 to complete. It felt even longer.

Keepsake wasn't a bad game, not by any stretch of the imagination-- but it could have been a great one, and as far as I can tell the only thing standing in its way was its glacial gameplay. A few commonplace technology advances and a little bit of attention to pacing and suspense would have made all the difference in the world. I hope next time they give that a little thought.

Keepsake Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) One of the nicest features of Keepsake was its in-game help system. Most of the time, clicking the "help" button just informs you of the next location you're supposed to visit, which is only helpful because of this game's design flaws (i.e. excessive linearity and the utter boredom of wandering around the environment on your own.) While solving a puzzle, however, the "help" button offers you a gradated system of hints, beginning with explaining the goal of the puzzle and ending with actually solving it for you. This is an outstanding feature because, face it, every puzzle-adventure game has a really crummy puzzle or two in it. There are badly translated riddles, or a puzzle mechanism that is ambiguous, or a really easy concept that requires 200 clicks to execute, or SOMEthing. There are also some types of puzzles that certain gamers just can't stand. Personally, I really don't enjoy mazes; some people despise sliders. Normally when you hit a lousy puzzle or one you would pay good money to skip you have to either muscle through it with trial and error or leave the game to get a hint from a walkthrough. In Keepsake, you can just glance at hint 1 and think "Oh, so you're supposed to put four different symbols in each row? Ok, I can solve this now." Or you can take one look at a puzzle and think "I see exactly how to go around from dial to dial sending power to each of these machines in order but it will take me 15 minutes of excruciating boredom moving my character around to accomplish this so please skip this part, thanks." There weren't too many bad puzzles in Keepsake, but even the best game has a few, and being able to circumvent them is refreshing. This is a particularly nice feature in a game that was translated from a foreign language (Keepsake was better-translated than most but still had an incomprehensible riddle puzzle at one point.)

2) I wish they had been less disruptive to the gameplay (see below), but I really liked the flashback visions of Celeste's past life imparted by her magical keepsake. This gave insight into the characters and added depth to the plot without having to impart this information through long-winded NPC monologues. It's not a coincidence that this was the part of the plot I felt most emotionally invested in as I played (whereas Zac's backstory, though equally interesting from an objective standpoint, lost much of my interest after having to click my way through dozens of speeches by him.) Any time part of the plot can be shown rather than narrated, it's a really good idea to do so.

3) Lydia also gets a thumbs-up from me for being a relatively normal-looking woman in relatively normal clothing. I'm really pleased to see how many games have picked up on this trend since I first praised it in The Longest Journey six years ago. Obviously I'm not the only one who was really sick of playing either an overly-large-bosomed action heroine or an overly-large-eyed anime woman-child.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Keepsake a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Oddly enough, two relatively small gameplay improvements would have made the biggest difference: making all animations skippable with the escape key (especially dialogue animations!), and making locations a player has previously visited accessible by clicking them on the map. Keepsake's single most aggravating lethargy is having to sit through the many long dialogues, which are made particularly tedious by a total lack of conversational choices on the player's part and by several NPCs with agonizingly slow and ponderous voices. Worst of all, it is totally impossible to skip a line of dialogue-- there's a button that claims to allow you to do this, but it only skips the audio. You still have to watch the animation of the character's mouth moving and hands gesticulating as they would have if he or she were speaking, so it doesn't save you any time at all. Unskippable movement animations are also annoying, especially those you have seen before or initiate by accident (it is easy to click the "hint" button by accident as you try to access the map or inventory, and then you have to sit through a slow video of the next place you're supposed to be going.) The puzzles, too, are laden down with unskippable animations every time you experiment with their mechanisms, which keeps them from being as much fun to explore as they could be. There's never a good excuse to force gamers to sit through time-wasting crap like this, but for a game as slow-paced as Keepsake, it's a near-fatal flaw. Same goes for the clickable map-- too many adventure games artificially stretch out their play time by making the player walk their character manually back and forth across the same landscape dozens of times, but in a game as slow as Keepsake, this goes beyond the usual annoyance level into the realm of a quittable offense.

Honestly, a good implementation of those two gameplay improvements might have been sufficient to compensate for Keepsake's passivity and slow pace all by themselves. It certainly would have made it easier to ignore them. To really make it a great game, though, these problems could have been avoided in the first place. Jerking the player around is never a good idea, and Keepsake does a horrible job at this, constantly interrupting player-initiated actions to launch into a random conversation with Zak instead or give Lydia a vision that ends with her standing in a different location far from the one the player was originally trying to accomplish something in. The transition between chapters was particularly awful-- with no warning, just as you thought you were headed into the endgame, the inventory and information screens suddenly expand to show that you have finished not 95% of the game as they had previously led you to believe, but less than half. This wasn't a happy surprise. There's also no action in this game. In and of itself that isn't a critical problem, but adding a little suspense to the mood would have made the game less soporific, and giving the player a few choices-- even choices as superficial as picking between different lines of dialogue-- would have been a big help.

Best Puzzle: It's hard for me to pick a single favorite, as many of Keepsake's puzzles have well-constructed logical mechanisms that you can figure out by yourself with a little trial and error. The puzzle to move the dragon to its cave by swapping tiles was probably the most challenging one to me.
Lamest Puzzle: None of these puzzles were what I'd call lame by graphic-adventure standards... no contrived "use the butterfly on the coal miner to cause him to sneeze" inventory puzzles, no pointless mazes. The runes-and-books puzzle in the Trial of Wisdom was annoying due to the fact that the riddles (unlike the rest of the game) were very poorly translated into English and so their answers made little sense.
Best Plot Twist: The whole story arc with Celeste and Nathaniel was very well-done.
Lamest Plot Twist: The thing with the treant was kind of pointless. He talked for about 15 minutes and didn't say anything useful or interesting at all. Everything would have made just as much sense if he had only existed in Celeste's flashback memory.
High Point: I really enjoyed walking down the Escheresque staircase in the upper part of the school and realizing that I was actually winding sideways around the tower. That was a very evocative moment.
Low Point: There wasn't any one point in this game that truly sucked-- it was more the accumulation of aggravation after agonizingly slow aggravation. But the Trial of Triumph was particularly notable for epitomizing the problematic passivity of this game. You walk in, listen to Lydia monologue for a while, click the burning building, listen to her monologue some more, repeat this five or six more times, and eventually she runs over and succeeds at the trial, all without any input from the player besides periodically clicking to hear what she says next. Too much of Keepsake's gameplay had a feel reminiscent of this particularly boring task.

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