I was a little worried about American Arcadia because of its departure from Call of the Sea, the first Out of the Blue game, which I really liked. Why abandon a model that seemed to work so well? Why abandon first-person mystery adventures for a platform game set in the 1970s? Like I said, I was worried.
I should not have. American Arcadia East a departure from Call of the Sea, but now that I’ve played it, I’m happy to say that the hallmarks of Call of the Sea are absolutely still there. There East a first-person puzzle adventure game, it’s just not immediately apparent, and there’s a fascinating mystery running through the game. And while 1970s America isn’t as As attractive as Call of the Sea’s tropical island, American Arcadia manages to distract the eye, and there’s plenty to recommend it.
Let’s look at the basics. American Arcadia is a game in which a man escapes from a television show, which has so far represented his entire life, much like The Truman Show – with one crucial difference. This is not just a TV show about his life, but about the lives of everyone who lives in the utopia known as American Arcadia.
You start out playing as Trevor, who is as extremely average and forgettable as a name like Trevor suggests. Sorry to all the Trevors. He’s 28 going on 40, comfortable in his mundane job and tank top, and seems to have a life that involves no excitement but lots of work. Trevor is nobody. No one notices him and, more importantly, no one watches him in the American television series Arcadia. But one day, things start to change. A good friend disappears: where did he go? Strange sounds start coming out of the speakers – what do they mean? Quickly, the facade of Trevor’s world begins to slip.
This is when the game hands you its fundamental conceit and you play as someone else: the person playing the strange sounds to Trevor. He’s someone outside of American Arcadia but involved in its management – a hacker secretly working for a freedom group, who wants to help Trevor escape. But why? And can he went out ? Thus, the seeds of adventure are planted.
You then play both sides of the story – both the person who guides Trevor and Trevor himself. And that means the game is roughly divided into two parts. There’s the Trevor part, which feels like a 2.5D platformer, and there’s the hacker part, which feels like a 3D first-person adventure game. And often the two parts overlap.
As Trevor, you might be on the run and come across a door you can’t open. But since the hacker is watching you on a camera in his office, you’ll be able to activate a CCTV overlay and activate elements in Trevor’s environment for his benefit. You might open a door or turn a light on or off to distract someone. Or you could move a crane. This is the main way the game adds challenge to Trevor’s platforming sections.
Then, when Trevor’s section is over, the view changes and you will be the hacker watching Trevor’s camera feed on his monitor. And now it’s their turn: they can get up and explore their surroundings – sometimes the same environments Trevor walked through from a different perspective – and solve their own puzzles. The puzzles the hacker faces vary – they vary a lot. I don’t think any two puzzles are the same. This involves things like rewiring, matching camera feeds, entering codes, and sometimes all of these things together. These sections feel much more like Call of the Sea.
Basically, this is how the game goes. You’re Trevor running and jumping, then you’re the hacker walking around and solving a puzzle, and one runs into the other. The way this happens is pretty clever. And there are some nice overlapping moments where the hacker is interrogated while looking at a camera of Trevor at the same time – which, in gameplay terms, means you have to answer the interrogator’s questions while moving Trevor . It’s fun and inventive, like much of the game.
However, there are also problems in these sections. Both sides of the game seem slightly underdeveloped to me. I’m not talking about underdevelopment in a broken or unfinished state, because the game is not that at all, but underdeveloped in the sense that the individual core game mechanics lack detail and inherent feeling of joy that comes from their use.
Let’s take Trevor’s platform as an example. He runs left and right, jumps and climbs, and can pull objects. But that’s all, it’s very basic. And too often these sections feel like you’re just holding a stick in one direction and jumping intermittently. They are boring. There’s no fun in discovery as you discover new things that platforming sections can do.
Video surveillance hacking mechanisms are supposed to make a difference, but they don’t do much. You can turn certain things on or off and move them around, and that’s it. I want – and wait – for this to turn into a meaningful puzzle, but it never does. Worse still, it can be annoying to use. The game encourages playing with a controller, which is what I do, but with a controller, CCTV interactions seem really imprecise. It’s difficult to get the controller to recognize exactly which interaction you want to use, which is a real problem when you’re trying to do it quickly in a time-pressed situation.
It doesn’t help that the game also favors a sort of trial-and-error approach in these sections, as if it wants you to die multiple times before you figure out what you’re supposed to do. Normally this doesn’t bother me, but when I die because I have trouble using the controls, I do it. These outbursts of frustration stand out even more because in general the game is only a light progression. You’re often taken for a ride, so when you encounter bumps like these, it’s truly jarring and threatens the enjoyment of the game as a whole.
The puzzles are better when you’re the hacker because there’s usually no time pressure, but there’s still a lack of detail here. Maybe it’s because the game keeps launching different riddles that none of them have time to develop on their own. This means you end up going through a dozen different things rather than diving deeper into just one, and it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying because of it. And there is frustration here too due to the trial and error approach, especially when it takes time to redo sections.
Overall, it feels like the story portion of American Arcadia was the most important thing and what you do in the game came second. Sometimes it feels like there’s a puzzle just because time has passed and the developer thought there should be a puzzle, if that makes sense? They stand out a bit for that. Coupled with an inability to much influence the outcome of history, this theory gains strength.
Yet I still find myself smiling at the memory of American Arcadia, and I felt compelled to swallow the six or so hours it lasted, even with the occasional frustrations. I love how he transformed the idea of the Truman Show with a modern twist, and even though I had an idea of the direction it was going to take, he still managed to throw in some surprises along the way. Presentation-wise too, it’s a winning package. Out of the Blue clearly has a sense of design, as even though the game doesn’t use densely detailed environments, they still manage to look photogenic and radiate dynamism and warmth. There are hanging vines here, clever layouts there, vibrant orange stripes there, curved plastic edges there. It’s surprisingly effective.
And that lies in the way the game is set up – the sense of director control felt throughout the film. The game takes you through a series of playable but brief vignettes at first, to fill the days leading up to your escape, and it provides a humorous snapshot of the characters and world without even a break in the action. It’s so quick and I really enjoy it. I think it shows real confidence and real know-how. Add in oversized ’70s disco letters to tease the upcoming chapter and exemplary performances from the entire cast – Cissy Jones is back from Call of the Sea and she’s brilliant again – and it makes this something that’s a pleasure to be around.
So yes, American Arcade doesn’t ask you to TO DO a lot, and there are problems and frustrations with what you are doing TO DObut overall, since it’s a light adventure that takes place over a weekend, it’s hard to resist.