It was early on whilst playing through M1 A Death in the Desert (M1 from here on out, I'm nothing if not lazy) that one of my favourite topics surrounding games popped into my head. Obviously, I'm a nerd. So, when a game presents a number of choices, I always immediately find myself asking if the choices have far reaching consequences or, as is more often the case, am I just being shown the illusion of choice? To find out if choices matter in M1, carry on reading! (I am not sorry for this shameful attempt to entice you to read more).
Amnesia is so synonymous with being a cliche that it's become a cliche to even point it out. Alas, a cliche is a cliche for a reason and you can understand its use in video games even more so than in any other format. It's with that, then, that M1 opens up with our protagonist, M, waking up with no memory. The old amnesia switch-a-roo never fails to dredge up tedious questions. "Who am I?". "Where am I?". "Why am I in a hotel room?". "Where are my pants?". So, it is with much intrigue that our short tale starts. A gun and a kill list consisting of three names sit beside us in the hotel room. More questions. "Why do I need to kill these people?". "Did I write that list?". "Just how much did I drink last night?".
Quickly, we bump into a fellow (?) human being and learn that the world has ended. 77 bombs dropped from the sky, wiping out all but a few hundred survivors. Post-apocolyptia. Yummy. The scene is wonderfully set, and at roughly an hour and a half running time, it has to be too. It's at this point I should mention that M1 is a visual novel. No half-arsed puzzles or fetch quests to make it feel like a game. Just a visual novel. With that out of the way, let's review the gameplay, shall we?
Click, click, click. Simple. Reliable. Masterfully done, then. Sarcasm aside, the game presents simple scenes that progress at the click of your input device of choice (mouse, keyboard, controller are all supported), whilst text runs across the bottom of the screen. Every now and then, you'll be faced with a choice. I was intrigued to find out if these choices matter, oh wait, I've said that haven't I? Anyway, when I was prompted with two early choices to enter different rooms with absolutely nothing going on, I was left a little perturbed. A meaningless choice or two afterward and I was left feeling a little bit more perturbed. And then, M1 turned all that on its pixelated head as something important happened. "Wait, wait, wait! Could I have stopped that!?". Everything that I knew came crashing down around me, "these choices do matter, don't they?".
In truth, if this lazy reviewer had done his homework, he'd have known that they matter. M1 has five different endings, you see. That's usually (read, always) a good indication that the things you do, actually matter. It was with trepidation that I moved on, watching the story unfold around me. As a visual novel, the story is really all that matters. M1 won't blow your mind, this isn't Vonnegut at his worst, never mind at his best but despite first impressions, I ended up completing the game five times. That's a testament, not to the story but to the story-telling. Funny, if sometimes unintentionally so, easy-to-read, intriguing. The story leaves enough loose ends and mystery, that you want to find out everything that M1 has to offer.
Even with that ringing true, even at just 90 minutes long, I probably wouldn't have completed this five times truth be told. There's enough that changes to want to but, at the same time, plenty that doesn't, at least in terms of dialogue. This is where a smart feature comes in to play. In the ever-present menu floating at the top right of your screen, there sits a 'Skip' option. This gleefully progresses the game at the speed of light (potentially not that fast) and stops when there is a choice to be made. This reduces that 90 minutes to a just a few. Not only does the game pause at choices, it also pauses when the dialogue branches, meaning that you get to see everything without an overindulgent time investment. "Back in my day...". In less than 3 hours, I'd seen everything that the game had to offer. Not an insane 'bang-for-your-buck' but at just a couple of quid, more than worth two of your shiny English pounds.
M1 however, doesn't have an alibi. The pixel art leaves much to the imagination. At the risk of making an ass out of you, and me, I assume that this is due to technical limitations. That and time. Not every game can look like something Naughty Dog would throw out, and neither should it. Whilst it can be a detriment to a game, making games should be celebrated in all forms - except in the form of bad semi-pornographic Dead or Alive games, obviously. In reality, if you're in the market for a visual novel, chances are you've decided that graphics aren't everything in this world. A poor story with nothing going for it would highlight this as a yet another stick to beat it with but M1 has enough to offer that the graphics are a means to an end. A simple way to tell a story which is exactly what you get.
Review code authorized and provided by Dracula's Cave.
M1 isn't going to blow your mind, it isn't a literary classic in videogame format, it's hardly the ugly duckling's big sister but it offers a charming story with choices that matter. If visual novels aren't for you, this isn't the one that will change your mind but, at a couple of quid, you could do worse.
- Branching story with choices that matter
- Fun, easy-to-read dialog which does a perfectly good job of telling a story
- Excellent 'Skip Mode' lets you see everything the game has to offer in a reasonable amount of time
- Pixel art leaves much to the imagination
- A less than impressive soundtrack
- A visual novel which means no actual 'gameplay' (if that bothers you)