For the next week, I'll be going over games nominated for the 2015 XYZZY Awards that I haven't played yet. Today, we'll be reviewing two games: Neon Haze, by Porpentine and Neotenomie; and Beautiful Dreamer, by S. Woodson.
Both Beautiful Dreamer and Neon Haze were nominated for Best Setting (and only Best Setting), so I felt it would be appropriate to review them both at the same time. Both of them have a dreamy atmosphere, but they use them to very different ends.
Let's start with Neon Haze
. If you're familiar with Porpentine's work, you probably can guess the milieu she's working with here. How would I describe the setting of Neon Haze myself, though? Um, if William Gibson's Neuromancer
and a Kavinsky album had a baby, and you hooked up a fancy brain-imaging machine to watch that baby's dreams, what you saw there would look a lot like the world of Neon Haze
. It's a spiraling rainbow cyberpunk dystopia, complete with memory hackers and fully-automated fast food joints. Porpentine's writing focuses more on allusions than straight-forward connections, breaking out razor-blade metaphors and tossed-aside details to set a scene; condensation on the city is said to "rain black and chemical", and air conditioners are described as muzzled sawblades. You can watch something called a "meme-wave opera" on a screen at one point, and there's a weather report that says "Opacity 80%, heavy kinetic water". It all adds up to a dark, hallucinatory nightmare. While I'm here, special props to Neotenomie, who did music and graphics for this game; their drony soundscapes and abstract art really help to set the mood of this game. Wear headphones!Beautiful Dreamer
, by way of contrast, has a more fairy tale-like setting, though no less dreamy in its own way. It is obsessed with the unreal: lunar moths eat the writing out of books and secrete their own nonsense literature; strange and wondrous monuments from precursor worlds litter the landscape; broadcasts from other dimensions can leech in and be heard on the radio; your bathroom is sometimes replaced by the Other Bathroom, where the showers are great, everything is always clean, and the giant creature that lives beneath the tiles is easy to ignore. There's a comforting mix of the fantastic and the mundane here. For example, thanks to corrupt zoning regulations, your apartment building was built above a submerged shrine that is rapidly emerging; thanks to this you're going to have to move out in fifty years, but hey! At least it makes the rent cheap.
Probably the easiest way to demonstrate the contrast between the two's approaches is to look at an NPC encounter from each. In Neon Haze, you meet a stalker with a mask of static, who tracks you down and assaults you to try to get some intel. The scene is creepy and violent; the stalker chases you across an empty parking garage before beating you up and taking you prisoner, they delete your memories in an effort to get you to talk, and you can end the encounter by crushing their windpipe (though I personally did not choose to do so). Meanwhile, in Beautiful Dreamer, there's a short conversation with the god whose shrine your apartment building is built on, and it's a much more pleasant experience. Topics can range from alternate worlds to other god-like beings to that shelf that keeps banging around, and the guy seems rather friendly, if a bit distant. Dreamer comes off as a light and fluffy eclair to Haze's cotton candy-flavored vodka. This is not to dismiss either game, of course! They're both very good, just for very different reasons.