Minor spoilers are not indicated. If you want the full experience, play it first.
Reviewing something like Keys, a short, singleplayer art mod built in the Source engine, is extremely difficult. By definition art mods circumvent every convention of standard critique; stuck on a wall thanks to a bad bit of clipping? Its creator can say it's representative of mankind's struggle, or some other utter bollocks. In a subgenre of little meaningful interaction with a few puzzles here and there, does Keys fall into the trap of meaningless glamour and pretensions to depth, or genuinely hit some high notes?
Immediately there's a sense that Keys isn't trying to be anything more than it is. Some sequences almost have the feeling of a visual exercise of the game's engine, while others are beautiful for their own sake. It isn't part of the artist's ego or a flimsy 'edgy' idea; Keys presents its ideas and areas, and leaves you with them to figure out and play with. As a subjective piece, it may not have hit me where it did others, but I was thankful for the author's willingness to let me work through at my own pace.
On the technical side, the mod loads the first level on boot, skipping any menu time. This has the negative effect of needing a few moments to adjust the graphical settings, yanking you out of any initial immersion. Unfortunately, this is probably the opposite of the author's intention, but Source by default loads mods in a 4:3 aspect ratio. There are a couple of excessively dark areas, and one or two shonky level transitions that don't seem to function as smoothly as they could.
At one point - perhaps due to a little rushing - an ambient sound did not end on transition to next area and proved so distracting I had to use the console to stop it. The lack of a conventional menu also made the ending ambiguous at best - a 'thanks for playing' would have been appreciated. While I can understand the author's desire to not have a menu, sometimes you have to stick with convention.
|Keys touches on meta elements, but never reaches the|
heights of The Stanley Parable
Those ethereal sequences in turn are open to interpretation, and provide a solid foundation for interaction. They are strung together by a few common themes, and the storytelling finale puts a fair amount of the prior mod into an understandable perspective. The puzzle sequences are understandably simple, but sufficiently involving and unfrustrating, thanks in part to the brilliant soundtrack.
The soundtrack really is a strong point, and one of the stand-out features; haunting guitar melodies underpin your actions, and I have to give credit to the composer. It helps pace the mod, and sets the mood beautifully.
To be fair to the author, minimal gameplay is the name of the non-game here, and Keys is the first mod I've heard called an 'interactive art gallery' without it being a criticism. The line that art mods walk between game and interactive gallery is an interesting one, and the lack of a win/lose condition can raise interesting questions about whether they're really games at all. The question and presentation of art within a medium frequently interrogated for artistic merit haunts the game, and actual gameplay elements allow it to cast aside the complaints that the gorgeous-but-weak Dear Esther's recieved of being little more than a stroll with some narration.
Ultimately what Keys doesn't do is overreach - it's a piece of achieved ambition, and making a mod is no small feat. The creator is a long-time member of the same mapping community as myself, but chooses not to strive for the climactic heights of 99 Bolts, or City 17, mods that have reached for the stars and plummeted back to Earth with scorched wings. It is a short, simple, and extremely creative sequence that's worth a download if it's your cup of tea.
Arma, if you're reading this, well done mate.