Keeping Score: The Real Texas

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Like many people, I have a large backlog of games that I’ve purchased but have not yet played. As I was looking through it to choose another game to play, I realized that many of them had their soundtracks included. Given my love for both games and music, I decided to start playing these and write about both the games and their soundtracks. This is Keeping Score.

The first game I chose is one I’ve been meaning to play for some time. It’s The Real Texas, by Kitty Lambda (aka Calvin French), which I bought way back in 2012, shortly after its release. It came to my attention again a couple of years ago when Calvin French emailed me to tell me a mini-sequel called Cellpop Goes Out at Night had been released, and I got it for free since I was an early supporter of the original. That made me want to finally play it, but apparently it takes me two years to actually do that once I think of it (Solium Infernum may have delayed things, too). Well, I’ve played it now, and it’s certainly an odd one.

The Real Texas tells the story of Sam, a cowboy dissatisfied with how much time he spends behind a desk when running his ranch. He decides to take a vacation in England, staying in an old castle that’s been opened for tourists. When he arrives, he finds something odd afoot, including a blue portal leading to the purgatory dimension of Strange. Strange adapts itself to each new visitor, so Sam finds himself in the town of Strange, Texas, which, despite many familiar aspects, is almost certainly not the real Texas.

The Real Texas is billed as “an action adventure game that plays like a mashup of Zelda: Link to the Past and Ultima VI.” I’ve actually never played any of the Ultima games, somehow, although they’re on my list for future History Lessons treatment. But I have read about them, especially later entries which were famous for their detailed simulated worlds, full of the objects you’d expect to find, many ways to interact with them, and characters who have daily routines and lead believable lives. While the similarities between The Real Texas and the classic Zelda games are more immediately obvious, with a top-down view of the many interconnected “screens” which make up the world, the Ultima influence soon becomes clear. As I guided Sam — depicted, as all the characters are, as a sort of blocky cardboard cutout that wobbles and bounces along as it moves — I found I could interact with nearly every object at a high level of detail. Not only could I search cabinets and cupboards and find spare blankets or stashes of food, I could search anything. I could poke around under rocks, pick flowers out of vases, and check under chairs, to name a few. And while a given object will list a few obvious ways to interact with it when clicked on, there’s also a box labeled “try sum’n” that lets players type in their own keywords to, well, try something. Like, as the introductory sequence suggests, kicking it.

Accustomed as I am to games with less interaction, I initially started hoarding everything I found, assuming I’d need it at some point. I soon discovered that, as in the real world, a lot of stuff is just junk. Sure, those cupboards may be full of dinner plates, but that doesn’t mean I need to start carrying them around with me. Inventory space is very precious (although clever players will discover means of carrying more items) so I started only carrying things I was confident I’d actually use. That’s easier said than done, since many items have hidden uses that are not immediately obvious. Clothing, for example, is often cosmetic, but sometimes confers overt or subtle benefits that are highly desirable. So I found myself juggling items in and out of my inventory constantly, as I debated what I might want to have on hand.

Actually doing this is intentionally clunky. Hotkeys are conspicuously lacking, so players must manually click on everything, including a button in the corner of the screen to open the inventory panel. Picking up an item means clicking it to open the interaction window, and clicking on “take” from the list of options. Using an ATM means clicking on the ATM, choosing “insert” from the list, dragging an ATM card from the inventory window into the machine slot, then going through the transaction menus. Oh, and don’t forget to manually remove the ATM card when you’re done. Some items are too big to fit into Sam’s pack, so he must carry them in his hands (and only one at a time!), preventing him from using weapons. Switching between different weapons — an instant, easy process in many games — here requires manually opening the inventory screen and dragging a new weapon into the appropriate slot (at least at first…). This sounds annoying, and it can be, but it was also kind of endearing. Like me, Sam could be a klutz under pressure, often bodging his way through without much grace. Rummaging around in a backpack to find a particular object is annoying, and if you’re in a fight and you spend too much time fumbling for another weapon in your bag, things won’t go well for you.

Speaking of weapons, I should clarify that fighting is not the focus of The Real Texas. But, true to its Zelda inspirations, there are occasional critters to dispatch, and here there’s some intentional clunkiness too. Moving Sam is easy, either with the mouse or with WASD, but to shoot at something he must stop moving, and use the mouse to aim. Players can still slyly relocate him using the recoil from a gun, but most of the time Sam will alternate between moving and shooting. This, coupled with the short effective range of most weapons, means fights often become frantic and imprecise. Which actually suits the game fine. I did find the way Sam’s health works frustrating, however. He’ll recover from damage over time, but getting hurt slows him down, and he’ll occasionally stop and double over in pain. The more hits he takes, the slower and more useless he gets. This meant that, sometimes, taking just one or two hits led to a failure spiral from which I could not escape. Sam will respawn in the same area upon death, but will usually lose some of his money; unless I’d visited an ATM to deposit it, of course. It’s not too punishing but in certain segments I died often and was not enjoying myself.

But I usually found that whatever was giving me trouble could actually be circumvented in some weird and not at all obvious way. The Real Texas takes clear inspiration from the Zelda series in its set of highly distinct, puzzle-focused dungeon areas, but hews towards Ultima in how those puzzles work. Players must pay attention to their surroundings, look for clues, and use a surprising amount of imagination to figure out how to bypass obstacles. The first major “dungeon” area in the game, The Garbadge Mine (sic), is perhaps the toughest, in that players who haven’t figured out the right mindset with which to approach The Real Texas may attempt to brute force their way through and end up exasperated. A general rule is: if things seem too hard, you’re probably missing something.

I missed several things, which all seemed obvious in hindsight. But I was pleased to find that The Real Texas had no problem letting me muck about while I sorted it out. While I spent some time working through the Garbadge Mine and other areas, I spent more time simply wandering around the town of Strange, as well as the real world castle. They’re not large locales, but they are detailed. Every character in The Real Texas has their own backstory, and I enjoyed figuring it all out through the open-ended conversation system that let me type in my own conversation topics, and rewarded me for going off script. I found hiding places for secret objects that gave me clues into others’ lives, and I worked out ways to help people out or solve puzzles long before it was necessary to do so. I often sent Sam to wobble and bounce back and forth between different locations (made more convenient by a fast-travel system and unlockable shortcuts) just because I’d had a weird idea I wanted to try. The best part is that, occasionally, those weird ideas actually worked.

It certainly helps that The Real Texas is well written. In fact, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the story and characters. The game is often funny, occasionally sad, and rich with many themes that run throughout. I’m actually glad I didn’t play it earlier, as many of the themes resonate more strongly with me now than they would have then. I found myself pondering them long after any given play session. I liked the laidback pace to everything, which gave me a chance to get to know everyone and work out what Strange was all about. And the extremely low-fi look grew on me as well. It’s impressive how much character is imbued into these blocky people with just a few colored pixels in a low resolution texture map. The character design is excellent; I was able to recognize each character on sight from their distinctive outfits and behaviors, and each spoke with a distinct voice as well. I found myself caring about the residents of Strange far more than I care about characters in most games, which inevitably meant I was invested in The Real Texas’ story. Many games — especially those focused more on mechanical challenges than narrative events — can easily fade from memory once finished, but The Real Texas will stick with me.

So it was easy to forgive The Real Texas for its few weaknesses. It’s refreshing to play a game that has such confidence in its own identity, something that I’d venture is due to its single author. It’s easy to see the influence of Kitty Lambda’s cited inspirations, but The Real Texas feels anything but derivative. It sits defiantly outside of defined genres and conventions, which means that playing it felt fresh and interesting, even if I was frustrated at times. The games industry always seems to be chasing the latest fads, with endless copycats and titles with the barest minimum of new ideas — at the time of writing, these include battle royale games and survival sandboxes — but we must not forget all of the lesser-known developers out there who are making really interesting games.

In short, I recommend The Real Texas. And I look forward to playing the mini-sequel, the full title of which is “The Real Texas Part 2, Part 1: Cellpop Goes Out at Night”, that I was so graciously granted for free as a thank you for buying the original game on release. I have some other games to play at the moment, but I hope to get to it soon, and will be sure to write about it here. If you want to give The Real Texas a spin, it’s available from Steam, GOG, the Humble store, and itch.io, with the non-Steam options providing the game DRM-free. The Dusty Skies Edition comes with Cellpop Goes Out at Night as DLC.

The Score:

The soundtrack to The Real Texas is entitled Notes From Purgatory, composed by yesso. It’s not actually bundled with the game, but is available for free download here. In fact, the original tracked compositions are on offer, letting listeners muck around with them, create their own mixes, or write new compositions using the same instruments. Or you can simply download the music in mp3 or FLAC formats, which is what I did. This features roughly 87 minutes of music, spread across 39 tracks, including two short bonus tracks which do not appear in the game. In-game the tracks are looped; in the downloadable version of the soundtrack, each is looped once and faded out, but listeners can of course use the original tracks to create longer versions and remixes if they wish.

I admit that, before playing the game, I was hoping to find some more classic cowboy music similar to the Outlaws soundtrack. I figured that mariachi trumpets were unlikely, but maybe there’d be some Spanish guitar or even some norteño accordion. But only “One Sad Cowboy’s Dream”, the track that plays on the game’s title screen, has a particular cowboy vibe, with its twangy guitars and country and western melody. Like the rest of the soundtrack, it does not feature actual acoustic guitars, instead using low-fi synthesizers to approximate the sound. This means it would feel out of place next to Outlaws’ compositions that largely use real recorded instruments, but the sound is a good fit for the visual style and generally scrappy mentality of The Real Texas. Apart from this piece, the soundtrack veers away from country and covers a wide variety of musical styles, including funky jams, laidback jazz tunes, upbeat melodies, wistful laments, and even a faithful recreation of the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

Timbrally, things are just as varied. Guitars, flute, electric bass, strings, piano, vibraphone, acoustic drums and drum machines, accordion, electric organ, mandolin, harpsichord, smoky horns, bells, and more overtly synthesized sounds are all present. There are even some steel drums and koto in there. If there is a common thread running through it all, it’s the melodic style. Simple, catchy meolodies abound, and the distinctiveness of each track means that it instantly calls to mind the portion(s) of the game in which it is featured. Which, of course, is one of the great joys of listening to a good soundtrack. The compositions are strong throughout, with a few particular standouts that I like a lot. Any disappointment I had at not finding more mariachi-tinged pieces was quickly forgotten.

Given the eclectic nature of the music, I suspected I would not often listen to the soundtrack straight through, but I surprised myself by doing just that several times recently. Still, I predict that I might find even greater pleasure when one of the pieces crops up while listening to my music library on shuffle, bringing fond memories of an uncommonly affecting game with it. Notes From Purgatory is therefore a welcome addition to my collection. I was curious to find out about more music from yesso, but can’t find much information online, aside from the fact that yesso also provides new music for Cellpop Goes Out at Night. Since the only information seems to be associated with The Real Texas, I wonder if yesso, like Kitty Lambda, is actually Calvin French, but I have no evidence for this conclusion. If any readers know more about this mysterious composer, let me know in the comments.

In the meantime, you can enjoy the soundtrack even if you haven’t played the game. Just head over here to start listening.

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