“Electric Highways” Review
Verdict: 4/5 stars. It looks old, but it’s got a beauty to it that most games don’t reach even when they’re really trying to be beautiful. This sim is dignified and wondrous and something like the Web we always wanted, but never got.
It’s time to review another art game. Hopefully there will be less casualties than last month’s exhibition, where a lot of stick figures died and my will to live moved down several percentage points, from 177,242% to 177,235% — an all – time low. Where last time we had a deliberately low – resolution pixel art game featuring awful graphics and a whingy soundtrack making a poorly – thought out statement about mental illness, this one is a deliberately – low resolution 3D game featuring cool graphics and a good soundtrack, who doesn’t say anything poorly by not really saying anything at all. You see, your English teacher was right to teach you how to make connections, so long as you’re one of the 0.1% of people who do literary writing on a daily basis and also part of the 0.008% of writers who use anything they learned in high school.
So this game is called “Electric Highways”, which also infects the dreams of android urban planners. It’s a game in the sense you have to explore levels and pick up keys to advance, and also there’s a bit where you have to smash glass, but beyond that it’s just an excuse to go through some blocky levels courtesy of the Build engine. Given this is a modern port of the engine, I know some of you would be worried this game wouldn’t look as shitty as it did in the old days. But don’t worry! It’s just as shit as you remember it! Yes, there’s no need to upgrade your Mach 64s and your GeForce TI 4600s! Only the humblest of graphics cards like a single Titan X is needed to enjoy this engine from 1995.
Also, it’s stunning to think today’s integrated graphics kick the asses of top video cards from just under a decade ago. Despite this massive amount of privilege, games developers still have no idea how to optimise their games for anything other than a $300 piece of bloatware that most gamers, by all rights, should have no business needing at all. I speculate the graphics card industry is kept alive by virtue of developers who have no idea how to program and so just throw off – the – shelf shaders from their spaghetti – coded proprietary engines into a 4K resolution scene and call it a day. New PC builders then overestimate just how much they need to spend on parts because the video games they want to play are some of the most poorly – designed pieces of software to have ever existed. Now we have indie games, and your old laptop from 2011 finally gets the second wind it deserves…
Except for Unity games, obviously. Fuck Unity. Also the Unity desktop environment, but it’s dead now, so mission accomplished.
Highways slightly optional
Yet another environmental sim — yes I’m going to keep pimping that phrase until it’s as ignored as “spunkgargleweewee” — from the minds of Russia’s finest, the alleged nationality of the developers being responsible for the allegedly insanity I am presented today. The intro cinematic begins with some light prose about how the digital age is making us all separate, emotionally – detached human beings, and how a virtual reality engineer who is supposedly male but looks totally like a woman unless long hair is the haute couture of Russian men’s fashion creates another virtual world in order to make him feel something. From here the box art says: “Everything in this game, especially visuals and music, has been created for the purpose of giving the player a certain kind of emotion”.
I don’t know how well the sim accomplishes this goal, but I will say up front it’s a game with a lot of variety in the æsthetics, being all at once fantastical, disturbing, non – Euclidean, and with some harsh commentary lurking underneath it all about the staleness of modern life, the fragility of humanity, and how we can only really cope with reality if we decide to ignore it in favour of the fiction we create. Most of these themes are just brain farts being peppered in, adding some variety to what would otherwise be a lifeless representation of imaginary realms. Also, don’t let the game confuse you: the 30 minute timer at the start is completely spoofed and advances irrelevant to how fast you actually complete each level.
The sim is also a great creator of atmosphere, especially in the sound design, which goes from some Deus Ex ishii to some spooky creepypasta dank darkness, never being headbangers but would be at home in a noticeably nostalgic nightclub where nobody is expected to get drunk and go hog wild. Even in the deliberately scary level, featuring no jumpscares, the music still stops one from feeling like they are at the mercy of the game, and is an encouraging force even in the claustrophobic darkness. It’s not at all like SCP: Containment Breach which is constantly breathing down your scruff with inorganic sounds and industrial instruments. It’s a very classy type of unease the composers have pulled off here, and it’s one worth remarking on.
And there’s the issue of my way
If I had to sum up the point of this title, it would be as a series of “look at this” moments, where through cleverly predicting what the player expects to look at and where they’re probably going to go, the advancement feels more directed and less nonsensical than in other environmental sims, and all of this is done without words and with a minimum of signposts. A sim like this, if one feels lost in it, will make you feel like there’s no point to going further in it because each level would just be a series of mazes. It doesn’t have the privilege of The Beginner’s Guide where you get a narrarator who controls everything you see in the work and can manipulate reality itself to fit their aims. It’s just you and what the environment presents to you, and it’s a sign of technical greatness the developers managed to pull off without feeling contrived.
And what you do look at is very interesting indeed, with the levels feeling like what you would find on Second Life or on Worlds, although with a much more consistent and professional visual design that makes the worlds engaging without being flat – out weird. There’s this vague sense of organicness to the world where it all feels like it was designed by humans instead of coming out of thin air, but you can still see it as this deliberately artificial and inhospitable series of places that doesn’t want you being in it, and yet exists to serve you anyway. The contradictions come because of the level design, being friendly to get through quickly yet still invites exploration through inviting our natural curiosity, and I think making a game like that — a game you want to explore by yourself instead of as a means to get to the next setpiece or item — is so rare that it’s something we need so much more of in the scene. Only a few games like Spyro, Minecraft, and RuneScape manage to pull that off, and I think the type of developers who deliberately make their games like that understand why we even play games at all: to get lost in all their bounties and all they have to offer us. It takes a special type of empathy to create these experiences, the same type of emotional connections that one would need to create a project like Electric Highways.
While the old look of the Build Engine gave me a headache, which is exceptionally rare for me and I think is only caused because of exceptionally low resolutions, it’s the perfect engine to support such an environmental sim. Dressing up the levels in so much pomp and circumstance would have damaged the player’s ability to appreciate all the levels, making it about the graphical capabilities of the engine rather than what the engine is making possible. One of my biggest pet peeves is overdesigned work, where you keep on adding not because you expect it to be of use to the audience, but because you expect to dazzle them with smoke and mirrors. And it might work initially, like it did in Bioshock Infinite, but once the initial charm wears off all you’re left with is a bunch of bullshit. And that’s what makes me glad this title is so free of bullshit: it’s a testament to great minimalist design, saying the right amount in its design and no more. Every level brings across what it wants to say perfectly, if not with any amount of depth, and for what this game is, it’s a great game.
I feel like such an asshole sometimes rating these games because you know there’s going to be people who end up playing what I recommend and end up not liking them, thinking less of me for having my own opinion like a damn human being. The silent majority will go through the archives page and wonder why I gave such and such a two out of five while I gave so and so a four out of five. I give perfectly functional, even engaging, titles like Ravenfield and GUN☆CAT two stars, and I’m sitting on my pretentious ass giving more “artsy” titles like The Difference Between Us and ULTRA ADHD four stars. So what gives, dawg? How do I justify this blatant bias?
The same as I justify any other inconsequential bias: there’s no accounting for taste. Let’s disregard that I’ve also given typical action games like Gamma Bros and Don’t Get a Virus my highest regards, and have given pretentious crap the low scores they deserve. But when some pretentious crap comes along and actually make me appreciate them on an artistic level, having felt my life without them would have been nowhere as complete as my life having been privileged enough to experience them? That’s the crap I will shovel all day long, because it’s the type of work I set up this website to find: the best of the best, and those which are worth your time actually playing. It doesn’t matter to me if a game uses so few words or as many words as possible, or if its art style is sparse or brilliant, or if it’s just a damn fun piece of work that I would want to play again and again. If it speaks to me, then I must answer, and it would be rude to say I was not moved by a game if all my prose is dedicated to expressing why I was so moved.
Look, I get it. Environmental sims aren’t for everyone. Hell, they aren’t even for me most of the time. But seeing the amount of competency on display here in almost every aspect it could demonstrate — barring the writing being the weakest part and not having much of a plot so to speak — makes me appreciate the work that goes into even simple experiences like this. It’s got the feels and the charm and even a little bit of philosophy going on, all of which is a lot more than what most “artsy” games can pull off even on the most modern tech. I’ve passed up a lot of nonsense in my time that just wasn’t fit for review on Kratzen. This is a work that’s far from nonsense, and one which I appreciate for its existence.