Often, I troll video game shops for bargain basement games. Not that any of these shops have basements – in Houston a basement would be quickly flooded during the rainy season – but that if they did have a basement, these games would be shelved in them, never hoping to see the light of day.
This is not always because said games are bad. Often it’s because they are foreign imports. Or because they didn’t get the advertising push they needed. Or because they were simply overlooked in the crowded market and so the countless copies that weren’t bought are now being sold for $5 at your local five-and-dime.
I’ve found a large number of gems this way – as well as a larger number of duds. Tarr Chronicles would list as an unreserved gem for the price except for…
Except for that, in this case, said gem is broken (and I admit that such brokenness might be a result of some specific species of interaction between my computer setup and the game and that your mileage may vary).
But that’s not why I want to talk about Tarr Chronicles.
I want to talk about Tarr Chronicles because I feel like it is the first game that has fully immersed me in a world in a long while. I mean the type of immersion where I feel that my character is part of a living world rather than the focal point that the world revolves around.
In Tarr Chronicles your character is a nameless new recruit to a squad of fighter pilots stationed on the battle cruiser Talestra, a ship that has been sent to investigate a new scientific discovery in the hope that it will – for lack of a better cliché – save the universe. See, there’s this dark substance spreading throughout the galaxy called the Mirk and this Mirk devours planets, races, suns, everything. It even has its own zombie-like armada of ships. During the investigation, the Talestra is ambushed and manages to activate a gate that sends the ship far across the galaxy. The rest of the story – as you probably can already guess – follows the ship as it makes its way home.
This is the story that you are thrust into. Although you aren’t given a voice, the rest of your squad mates are, and they are extremely chatty.
Yes, there’s the fact that they spit out stock phrases that clue you in on the state of the battle waging around you (and that running conversation never gets old, if only because the battles are so chaotic and because the stock phrases are perfectly suited to the context). But they are also talking about their history and your history, they’re speculating on what’s going to happen next, on the politics of the war, and on religions that influence some of the forces you fight against, and some of the people you fight with.
In fact, there’s so much going on that it is easy to get lost in the moment. Hence, the immersion.
The missions are fast-paced as well and, except for the unskippable cut scenes, they would be interesting to play through again and again (on purpose, rather than because you failed) simply because each time you play through them you learn something new, or you hear something clearly that you let slide before because, well, you were in the midst of avoiding a missile or tracking an enemy fighter.
And, yes, the vast environments that you fly through are beautiful.
And, yes, I’m a sucker for dogfighting games, and I know that the sort of physics on display in Tarr Chronicles is probably (very) faulty.
But the real reason that the game was such a joy to play (and that I’m annoyed about the bug in the final mission that kept me from completing it) is that feeling of being lost in the moment. I can’t pay attention to everything that’s going on, and that’s what makes it most like real life (and so immersive).
It’s strange to be praising a game for being designed so that it’s impossible to appreciate all the detail that went into it, yes. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. And if you have a spare five bucks (and a bargain basement game shop nearby), I encourage you to do the same.