Monday, October 5

The Beginner's Guide

          This game hits hard for me. I think it will hit hard for anyone who gets lost in their creativity. I want to sound smart when I talk about it here. There were two spelling mistakes I had to correct in that last sentence. That’s a lie; there was one. The Beginner’s Guide requires very little of you. About 100 minutes. Please play it. I don’t know how good it really is or isn’t. I don’t know how much of it is artistic manipulation and how much is real. All I know is that it made me hopeful, scared, depressed, honest, and confused. The kind of confused that comes from too much perspective, from being able to see to much, from too close and too far away at the same time.

Sunday, October 4

100 Games 2015

Most recent article: Candy Crush Saga

Here is a list of 100 games I will be playing over the next year.  It's... daunting, and not the kind of thing I've ever done before, but it's also very exciting.  I'm going to be posting about each one, giving a general impression, but mostly trying to find the most interesting aspect of the game and talk about that.  If you have suggestions for future games, please let me know, and if you like what you read here, or think I'm missing an important point, speak your mind in comments.  Thanks, and here we go.

1.           A Mind Forever Voyaging
2.           A Ride Home
3.           Ace Combat 5
4.           Assassin's Creed: Recollection
5.           Babies Dream of Dead Worlds
6.           Bars of Black and White
7.           Beneath a Steel Sky
8.           The Binding of Isaac
9.           Bloodborne
10.        Brave Fencer Musashi
11.        Bushido Blade
12.        Cabela's Big Game Hunting
13.        Candy Crush Saga
14.        The Castle Doctrine
16.        The Cat and the Coup
17.        Chrono Trigger
18.        Combat
19.        Crusader Kings II
20.        Curtain
21.        The Dark Meadow
22.        Day of the Tentacle
23.        Day Z
24.        Deus Ex
25.        Digital Devil Saga
26.        Dungeon Keeper
27.        Dwarf Fortress
28.        Echochrome
30.        End of Us
31.        Ether One
32.        E.V.O.: Search for Eden
33.        Exploit
34.        Fallen London
35.        Fallout 2
36.        Fate of the World
37.        Grim Fandango
38.        Half-Life 2
40.        Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing
41.        Jade Empire
42.        Jet Set Radio Future
43.        King's Field II
44.        Kingdom of Loathing
45.        Kirby Super Star
46.        Knights of the Old Republic
47.        League of Legends
48.        Legend of Grimrock
50.        Lone Survivor
51.        Machinarium
52.        Madden
53.        Mass Effect 3
54.        Monaco: What's Yours is Mine
55.        M.U.L.E.
56.        No One Has to Die
57.        Order and Chaos Duels
58.        Passage
59.        Planescape: Torment
60.        Populous: The Beginning
61.        Procrastination
62.        Quest for Glory
63.        Realm of the Mad God
64.        Rehearsals and Returns
65.        Resident Evil
66.        Risk of Rain
67.        Road Rage
68.        Secret of Mana
69.        Shadowrun
70.        Silent Conversation
71.        The Sims 3
72.        Skies of Arcadia Legends
73.        Song of Saya
74.        Spacechem
75.        Spacewar
76.        Starcraft
77.        Suikoden II
79.        Super Metroid
80.        The Swapper
81.        System Shock 2
82.        Thief II: Deadly Shadows
83.        This War of Mine
84.        To The Moon
85.        Transistor
86.        Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
87.        Ultima VII: The Black Gate
88.        Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
89.        Uplink
90.        Valiant Hearts: The Great War
91.        Walk or Die
92.        The Walking Dead: Season 2
93.        Way of the Samurai 3
94.        Wing Commander: Privateer
96.        Xenogears
97.        Xevious
98.        Yakuza 3
99.        Yoshi's Island
100.     Zork I: The Great Underground Empire

Candy Crush Saga - Ascribing Amorality to Sugar

          I feel like I know exactly the wrong amount sometimes. When playing Candy Crush Saga, I could feel myself getting angry at their methods, getting angry at the way the game uses fantastic engagement techniques to make you want to spend just a few bucks to complete a level. I don’t like feeling like I’m being extorted, but I also feel like I’m not fully appreciating how good the design of Candy Crush is.
          Candy Crush is staggeringly popular, and brings in around a million dollars a day. I can see why. It uses tons of tricks and subtle pushes to make you want to keep playing. And when you were only a couple of moves from beating a level, it helpfully offers you the ability to purchase a few more. There are colours and sounds reminiscent of most Match-3 games, but there’re also elements that play on your competitive nature. When you beat almost any level, you’ll get a popup telling you about a player you just beat. Whether you pulled ahead of them in terms of level completion or you bested their score, the game congratulates you and makes you want to beat more people. It also doesn’t tell you how you rank really reflects on the world of the game. I know that I beat King52143578764 on this level, and that now I’m ranked #2, but I also know that I’m not #2 in the world. At best, I’m #2 out of all ten people playing on this partitioned area.
          But it works. There’s a part of me that gets excited when I think of being one of the best scores on that level, when I think about being a goal other players aspire to. It’s ridiculous, and constantly changing. I know other people passed me while I was playing, and I know some of them beat my scores after I’d gone by. But I wasn’t shown that. I’m only shown my successes, except when my failures can be a revenue source.
          I don’t hate games that want to make money. I buy games at full price all the time because I want the creators to be paid for their work and I want to support projects that interest me. But Candy Crush feels undeserving. It asks of me my time and money, but doesn’t seek to really give anything back.
          The first time I failed a level, I automatically dove back in, because I wanted to beat it. That feeling was stronger than I wanted, but that’s what the game does. Anyway, when I tried the second time, everything fell into place. I won with a bunch of moves left, beat the goal score about five to six times over, and had tons of lights and sounds and points flash on the screen. This is where I felt most in the middle on my understanding. I felt like I was being tricked, like the game made my return great to solidify my sense of accomplishment, rather than providing me with the challenge I wanted, to make me feel like I should always win. But at the same time, that style doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Shouldn’t Candy Crush just make me feel like I could win if only I purchased a couple more turns? This was an early level, so maybe the game curves into that, but the truth is, I only have a half-understanding of this strategy.

          Candy Crush is worth my time in the same way a McDonalds burger is worth my appetite. It will sate, but I’m probably going to look on it as a waste. I spent hours and hours of my life playing Bejeweled some time ago, and even in hindsight I don’t think that time was wasted. Bejeweled was a great way to relax, like meditating. Candy Crush’s sounds and visuals are a little too harsh to provide the same. I don’t want to play it, but I should learn from it, because it’s hooked its audience like few drugs can.

Saturday, October 3

El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron - Solum Visio

          El-Shaddai is a hack and slash 3D and side-scrolling platformer with very simple gameplay.  There are 3 weapons you can switch between or steal from enemies that have various movesets and affinities, and a variety of interesting boss encounters that use the simple mechanics well.  The game doesn’t sell itself on any of that.  It’s all about the visual design and narrative concept.
          Some angels have gone rogue, fleeing to earth and creating a pocket dimension to hide from God, rock and roll all night, and party ev-er-y day.  God’s all Old Testament about this and threatens to send another flood, but our protagonist Enoch volunteers to round up the angels if God will spare the Earth.
          Also, Earth has become the cover of a Yes album.  And Tron.  And  several other aesthetics that can be represented in high-contrast colour palettes.
          El-Shaddai is about as style-over-substance as I’ve ever seen a game be.  It’s got solid design where the design is, like eschewing a health bar (or any UI) for the amount of armour your character or target wears.  New elements to the combat are introduced far apart to make them easy to play around with and understand, but I don’t think it’s actually necessary.  The gameplay is simple and the additions minor enough that its learning curve is more of a gentle bump.
          I like the visuals.  The colourful environments don’t pull focus from the play, keep a consistent aesthetic for any given area, and do change to represent the power of the beings you’re up against.  I would almost expect the game to be a Soulsian difficulty wall, but even the more elaborate boss fights don’t give you a deep verb set. Enoch just doesn’t have enough moves to develop or master.
          I like the actual story design less.  It feels really pushed to the side, many times told in short clips between levels, rather than through the aforementioned visuals.  We get glimpses of what the angels have brought to the humans, like a futuristic city or fertile mountains, but they interact with the player in very minor ways, or not at all.  I also don’t need a narrator to tell me how half-angel nephilim eating one another works.  I can be shown that, super easily.  I get to see it happen, but I don’t get to draw my own conclusions. 
          And this game would be even better, weirdly, if the story was more open to interpretation.  Because characters are constantly talking about it around me while I do some uninspired, finicky platforming, I don’t get invested in the story.  I don’t have to engage mentally.
          Maybe that’s the most damning thing about El-Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, that it asks nothing of me.  There are no puzzles, the hack-and-slashing is easy button mashing, and the platforming  is rectangles hanging in the void.  The games sells itself on visuals and concept, but doesn’t back it up with engagement, which some people consider the core goal of game design.  It might be worth playing for the visuals and occasional silliness, but it doesn’t have enough fullness to be worth your time.

Thursday, July 30

Hearthstone - Whoa Whoa Whoa, It's Magic

          Magic: the Gathering is an extremely popular trading card game that began in 1993. It’s gone through some substantial rules changes, and new ones are getting introduced all the time. What’s weird is that no game has ever taken it over. There have been a ton a of trading card games since, like Bakugan, Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokemon Trading Card Game, and today’s subject: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.
          Don’t worry if you don’t know Warcraft, Hearthstone is simple and has a good tutorial, you probably won’t get lost. I’d recommend playing it, because it’s fun and shiny and new and deep.
          But is Hearthstone a better game than Magic? I’ve invested more than a couple hours in both (although only money in one), and there’s really only one major change Hearthstone makes to the Magic formula. There are minor things it does, like using persistent creature health that end up as memory problems in games like Magic.
          Magic is based on two concepts: 1) There are five colours of cards, each with unique abilities, flavour, and philosophies, and 2) You can only play cards of a colour if you have the correct resources available. Each colour of card requires different resources, so you can’t generally play a deck with all five colours, because you won’t have access to the right resources at the right times.
          This principle is the most major element of the game. Benefits include a strong sense of identity in the mechanics and colours, and opening design space for fixing and accelerating your acquisition of resources. The biggest negative is that sometimes, from no fault of your own, even a deck built as well as possible, with all the right ratios and nicely mapped curve, will draw too many resources and too little action, or the reverse. These events are known as Mana Flood, Mana Screw, and Godammit, again?! Really?!
          Most games that ape the Magic formula try to remove this problem by incorporating resources into other cards. In Yu-Gi-Oh!, you play bigger monsters by discarding smaller ones. In some other games, every card is an action and a resource, and can be played either way.
          There are some interesting arguments for keeping this problem in Magic. I think one of the more important ones, or at least the main argument for why Mana Flood and Screw are good things, is that it’s very helpful for newer players. It’s not fun for them to have it happen to them, but every so often, when I newer player is playing a veteran, the veteran will lose because of it. It’s rare; veterans know what hands to keep, what resources they need when, and just can generally outplay newer players. But, that one time it does happen, when that new player beats someone they look up to, it feels great. This is actually a really important part of multiplayer design. It’s the reason characters like Ike exist in Super Smash Bros., or weapons like the Noob Tube in Call of Duty. These are not the best strategies in any of those games, in fact they’re often some of the worst. But when they work, they work well.
          If every time you stepped into a new multiplayer experience, you just got wrecked by every better player, the game would lose its charm very quickly.
          There are always random elements in games. In Hearthstone, the game I swear I’m talking about, your deck is always shuffled, who goes first is random, and because it’s digital, it can do some random things with greater ease than paper games can. And those all help the balance in a variety of ways. But it does change the resource management. Not as much as other games, but instead of asking players to build a base of resources with cards designed around increasing its efficiency, Hearthstone loses a lot of really interesting design space.
          There are a lot of great things about Hearthstone: it uses small numbers, like most games should, the animations and characters have lots of flavour, the pool of cards is huge, and the player base is varied enough that you can find casual and challenging fun at all levels.  Is it a better game than Magic?  Couldn't say.  Give it a shot, and see what you think.