Adventure Gamers Awards
It’s a dark and rainy night. You can’t get that dame out of your head. You know, the one all wide-eyed and innocent, but she’s hiding something. You can tell because you’re the best damn teddy bear detective there is. That’s right, a teddy bear. In Bear With Me, a traditional point-and-click adventure from Exordium Games, Ted, the hard-boiled (he’s been shot at by the prime minister of Denmark!), world-weary teddy bear detective comes out of retirement to help out a bright-eyed ingenue, Amber, look for her missing brother. Players will help these two unlikely partners try to piece together a very meta but at-times incoherent story in a stylishly designed black-and-white mystery while solving a variety of inventory puzzles. Thought it’s just the beginning of the tale, and the narrative setup for the larger story arc can be confusingly clumsy, I found plenty of fun to be had helping Amber and Ted poke around a quirky house full of character.
Amber, a precocious child in a black shirt and a floral maxi skirt, is experiencing what appears to be a disturbing dream: dark smoke wafting against blood-red buildings, sirens screaming in the distance, and a mysterious hooded figure flitting back and forth in the background. As the picture fades to black, a voice calls out, imploring Amber to wake up. When the screen comes back into view, you find yourself in the young girl’s room rendered in clean monochromatic tones.
As you start to examine items in her room, you soon discover that Amber still hasn’t unpacked from a recent move. And you learn that she has quite the imagination. Click on an apparently empty glass, and you’re rewarded with an odd monologue: “The dried up milk on its edges now serve only as a reminder of the once full and meaningful life it had.” There’s also an old lady giraffe named Millie wearing a stately string of pearls. Clicking on Millie to chat with her provides a teensy bit more insight, letting you know that things are not right in Paper City.
And thus you’re dropped into the middle of a strange world that seems to be populated by Amber’s imagination. It turns out that some folks fleeing Paper City, including Millie herself, were able to find an escape route that exits directly into Amber’s brother Flint’s room – but now Flint is nowhere to be found. After convincing Ted, who has set up detective shop in her closet, to help her find her brother, Amber and Ted spend the rest of the game interviewing a variety of oddball characters, apparently all exiles from Paper City. What exactly is causing everyone to flee? There are some vague descriptions of fires and cover-ups, everything starting when the hooded figure, the Red Man, came to town, but nothing that really helped me understand why these particular characters needed to escape or why they all made their way to Amber’s house.
Everyone seems to have a backstory and history with each other, and Amber seems to be well acquainted with them, but we, as players, aren’t given much background into their relationships so far. Millie, the giraffe, has managed to escape Paper City with the help of some bunnies called the Mugshot brothers. But it’s never really clear who exactly the Mugshot brothers are, or why they are helping Millie. Rusty is a man made out of metal who happened to work at a steel mill in Paper City. I still don’t know who he is or why he wants to protect Amber and is hanging out in her hallway. At some point, Amber asks him about the “yellow king.” Rusty says he knows nothing and vaguely alludes to things being made up, but I don’t even understand why Amber was asking about this yellow king in the first place. It really seemed to come out of nowhere. Given so little backstory, Rusty seems to exist only to push forward a particular puzzle. He gets into a little detail about the mill’s boss, Deetz, but again, it’s an introduction to yet another character that we learn nothing more about. It’s likely these characters will all factor into future episodes if the series continues, but for now it’s easy to feel left out and confused.
We do learn a bit more about Amber and Ted’s relationship, at least. According to Ted, they have gone down the damsel-in-distress route many, many times. In a study in character contrast, Ted narrates wearily over a series of comic panels about how Amber always comes to him for help, how he always declines her requests but eventually comes around. Just as he’s trailing off about the hypnotic powers of autumn rain and booze, Amber pragmatically reminds him that his office is in her closet and he owes her rent.
There is a story somewhere in here, and I started to piece together little bits of it as I talked to various characters and clicked on more hotspots. But we don’t learn much about Amber or why she’s just moved, though we do discover a bit more about Ted (in a somber voice-over, Ted notes that he’s retired and had grown tired of pulling bloated dead toys out of Dredge river). Explore the house a little more, and we also learn that Amber’s dad is a photographer. Seems like a random thing to suddenly learn about her parents, but we know this because there’s a camera on his bedroom settee and a dark room set up right next to his bedroom. These little bits of environmental storytelling are nice, but they all seem a bit disconnected. I suppose this makes sense if you’re viewing the world from the point of view of a child using her imagination to bring her toys and stuffed animals to life, but it doesn’t do much to help a player follow the storyline through the game.
Much of the story is revealed as you click on anything and everything. There is so much interaction and plenty of little details, like a ticket stub you click on at the opening of the game to begin (are we watching a movie?). In every scene, you can interact with almost everything. Like the many, many signs that Amber is creative, from colored pencils (“The tools I use to transfer my genius on to paper”) to the art boxes on her desk. Hover the cursor over a gigantic shoelace that appears to be holding two walls together, and the caption reads: “Weird decoration.” Everything has an entertaining description, many of them humorous and sometimes even rewarding your inquisitive click with a pop culture nod. Click on a window in Ted’s office and Amber notes that since it’s in a closet it’s just decorative...but, why is there light coming through it?
As for that hockey mask in the corner of Amber’s closet, click on it and you’re rewarded with this amusing tidbit: “It’s my field hockey mask. My friend Jason wants to borrow it. As far as I’m concerned, he can have it. What’s the worst that can happen?” You can almost hear the sly wink from the game developers and a dun dun dun sound. There’s a balance to be struck between clever meta nods and those that pull you out of the story too much. I found there to be just enough to reward exploration, but almost... almost too much.
The mechanics are simple, as you simply click on the screen to move Amber (and at times Ted) around. The times you play as Ted are all straightforward and happen at specific points in the game, with no decision to make as to which character to use in which situation. With either protagonist, mostly you’ll be clicking on objects with either a magnifying glass to observe, a hand to interact with, or a speech bubble to talk to. These options are context-specific, so you’ll only be able to pick up things that the game allows you to collect.
These interactions are often voiced by Amber. It’s all nicely acted, with Amber being bright and engaging while Ted is dour and sour. The Mugshot boys, one slow and plodding and the other neurotic and paranoid, bring a funny comedy-duo dynamic to the game, frolicking in noir gangster banter: “We ain’t no kidnappers, see?” and “Go take a long walk off a short pier.” In addition to the fun voice-overs, ambient sounds like the constant tapping of rain, the rolling roar of thunder, and the tick-tock-tick of an old grandfather clock all work together to set an appropriately dark mood. While there is a small record player you can turn on in one room, there’s a noticeable lack of any musical soundtrack, which is surprising as it could have added another layer of atmosphere to the game.
The noirish characters exist against an equally noirish visual backdrop. It’s a black, white, and various-shades-of-grey world, with some spots of color, like the red string that connects different photos on a bulletin board. When you think of hard-boiled detective stories, you might think of ‘40s-era movies populated by sophisticated femme fatales with a hint of darkness and grim men in fedoras and ties. Bear With Me contrasts that mood and tone with a cartoony art style, filled with cute details like a little bear paw that you use for your cursor. Ted has the requisite suit and tie, but he’s also a teddy bear with super bushy eyebrows. Amber’s outfit mimics the long gowns with boxy shoulder pads of the forties, but she has the overly large head and eyes of a cartoon character. The “cutscenes” that break up different chapters in the story follow thread lines across pictures in the bulletin board with some nice chiaroscuro artwork. Everything is very moody and dark – or as much as it can be when you’re walking around a house with a teddy bear.
This is a mystery, of course, and to solve it, you’ll need to overcome a variety of obstacles, all consisting of fairly straightforward inventory puzzles. You’ll collect items as you explore Amber’s house, and before you can move into particular areas like the attic, you’ll need the correct objects to open up locked doors or convince the various toys... uh, people you find to help you. You must, at times, use inventory together, but the combinations are usually fairly obvious. You’ll also want to pay special attention to details around the house, as they could help you out with locks and puzzles, though there aren’t very many of these types of challenges. Because there are a lot of interactions, you may end up missing an item that might actually be useful to you due to observation fatigue. Still, I found that many of the funny comments helped with the tedium of clicking on so many things. And occasionally you’re rewarded with a funny easter egg: click on enough pieces of furniture and see what you find!
In addition to these interactions, I loved the little details in the scenes themselves, like the newspaper clippings that make up the walls of Ted’s office. Or the slow whir of a fan blowing in the background. Or even that the FBI on Ted’s coffee mug stands for Federal Bear Investigations. There are also quite a few times when the characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera, like when Ted says something that doesn’t make too much sense, and Amber responds: “Oh my god, Ted’s not supposed to read what’s in the brackets. Keep it rolling!”
One of my few complaints in the game is how much of the story and character background is thrown at you with no context. What is Paper City? What does it have to do with Amber? What is Amber’s history with any of the crazy cast of toys in her house? And what about her brother? We don’t learn anything about Flint, other than the fact that he’s missing. And you’re no closer to finding him at the end of the game than you were at the beginning. As Amber and Ted investigate how to find Amber’s missing brother, more of the story about a massive cover-up in Paper City, an exodus of toys, and a mysterious Red Man begin to trickle forward, but not nearly enough.
We end Bear With Me's debut, which took me about two hours to play, with Amber and Ted finally escaping the house and heading toward a neat-looking Paper City in the distance, clearly making this just the first installment of an ongoing series. My visit to Amber’s very limited world so far was fun and filled with a variety of quirky characters and interactions, but while I’m intrigued about continuing the story in a second episode, I’m hoping that the narrative begins to offer more cohesiveness than just a bulletin board full of disconnected clues and information.Continued on the next page...