Sunday, July 19

100 Games 2015

Most recent article: Echochrome

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 Devi Saga
26.        Dungeon Keeper
27.        Dwarf Fortress
28.        Echochrome
29.        El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
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
39.        Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
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

Echochrome - Relentless Motion Sickness

          Echochrome is a perspective-based puzzle game that makes me want to throw up after about five minutes of play. I’ve tried many times and from different angles to see if I’m doing more damage to myself than I need to be, but nothing has helped. It’s the kind of game that makes me need to lie down, not least of which because it’s frustratingly hard.
          The puzzles in Echochrome are clever, and the way it makes me think about space is interesting, but in the opening bits of the game I pressed a button and accidentally skipped the tutorial and could not find my way back to it, so most of my puzzling was left to self-discovery. Fortunately I’d learned enough to have a stable foothold and after a quick lie-down waiting for the room to cease spinning, I got through a few puzzles.
          It really does feel like the game is intentionally trying to make me sick. Even the visual effect for hitting a checkpoint is nauseating.
          The game is clever. It’s fun to figure out all the neat perspective tricks you can do, but I never felt the puzzles were inventive, like the system would let me find my own solution. It always felt like there was a right way I wasn’t finding. You can connect pieces of each area together seamlessly and your character can cross over them, but only if the connection is pixel-perfect. Countless times I would push the Go button and the figure would take a step, see my shoddy work, and turn away in disgust.
          Echochrome has a staggering number of user-designed levels that seem so complex that I have no interest in hunkering down to learn them. It’s that kind of thing that happens to new Magic players when they hear about Legacy. I don’t know if the tutorial would’ve helped my feel much less stupid. The basics aren’t complex, but their iterative execution is intolerably precise and slow, made worse by a goal time for each puzzle.
          As far as pure puzzle games go, try Professor Layton. Those puzzles have great variation, theme, and a hint system that lets you decide how important a top score is.
          Echochrome is cool, really, it’s just not what I want. I imagine it was hard to make, and its visual trickery is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t give me those great “Aha!” moments like other puzzles seem to.  I feel bad that the makers clearly worked on realizing this vision, and I couldn't even give it two hours.  But it's just one of those things.  Some people can't watch 3D movies, and I can't play Echochrome.

Tuesday, July 14

Lone Survivor - A First Foray

          I don’t know that this is a good intro to the horror genre.  I’ve played Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil 4 in the past, but the former I played with a friend so we could laugh and be afraid together, and the second is really more of an action game.  Horror games have always been fascinating to me, this idea of exploring something that’s genuinely awful, something that express a fundamental weakness of being alive.  The Souls games touch on these themes and have some attractive body horror, but I find them more interesting than frightening.
          So I chose Lone Survivor as the first of my horror excursions because its art style made me think I could handle it.  And I can, for the most part.  I even went so far as to obey the horror rituals of turning off all the lights, cranking the sound, and playing alone at night.
          The game is freaky.  There’s a great sequence in a tunnel early on that shows me just how intricate creating horror is.  Pixelated or no, the creeping darkness, shlupping monsters, and cacophonous soundtrack create some real fear deep in my gut.  This game reminds me why I get afraid of the dark.
          Lone Survivor also does a great job of showing me what a real engagement curve looks like.  In most games, I can get a feel for what’s happening.  When I have to backtrack in a Zelda or Souls game, I know what enemies will be where and what they’ll be doing.  But Lone Survivor changes its enemy layout in ways that keep me cautious and on edge.
          Lone Survivor is about the horror I can see coming.  It doesn’t actually work on surprise or jump scares.  It takes the time to show the player that something’s ahead, and lets them fret and stress over what that thing might be.  There’s one scenario where you can see an enemy through the barred window on a door.  The enemy isn’t significantly different from the others encountered so far,  except that it’s easily twice their size.  And the first time you see it is not the time you need to interact with it.  It’s a promise.  It’s the game telling you that this thing is coming, and letting you panic for all the time you need.
          Silent Hill 2, which is lauded as one of the best horror titles of all time, does the same thing with the first appearance of its iconic monster, Pyramid Head.  There is a cutscene introduction to the monster, but your very first encounter is just seeing it standing there, behind some bars, unmoving, waiting for you.
          Lone Survivor has some mechanics that I don’t like as much, like upkeep of hunger, thirst, and sleep.  I’m not sure of all the effects surrounding these stats, but they provide more annoyance than the tension and desperation they’re supposed to evoke.
          Otherwise, the game is a great collection of mystery and horror.  The few NPCs are appropriately creepy, you get a great sense that your character is probably more than a little wrong himself, and the world keeps getting more upsetting and twisted.  I haven’t yet finished the game but I do want to go back to it.  I feel like it’ll give me an unfamiliar sense of satisfaction, a sort of relief that I think is a valuable first real step into the genre.

Friday, July 10

Stick it to The Man: A Silly Diversion

          I really thought Stick it to The Man was on my list. I played the whole thing through, I kept the best notes of any game I played this year! I’m not going to cross anything on my list out, but I played this game, and damned if I’m not going to talk about it.
          Stick it to The Man is a sort of spiritual sequel to Psychonauts, a fascinating game about a kid who runs away from the circus to go to a summer camp for psychics. It’s wacky, clever fun that churns out so many inventive scenarios and characters that it’d be impossible for me not to love it. Stick it to The Man is a game about a working-class shlub who has an alien land on his head which gives him mind reading and the abilities to pull thoughts and items into his head as stickers, which he can then implant into others’ minds or the real world.
          The first thing that struck me about Stick it to The Man is its ugliness. The game is aesthetically consistent, put people tend to look kind of upsetting, with black bags under their eyes and bulbous purpled lips. The world is mainly 2-D, and it apparently made of paper, which it why things turn into stickers, I guess? The whole premise doesn’t have as much internal consistency as Psychonauts manages, but it’s never enough to break the experience.
          The gameplay is weirdly designed to me. Each area consists of a series of puzzles with an Adventure game sort of logic, but limited enough in variation to be reasonable. Basically it’s find Key A that finds Key B that finds Key C, and so on. The puzzles are logical enough, but the real thing I noticed about them is how they are laid out. Each area is at least somewhat free-roaming, and the first Key in the chain of moves I mentioned above is always the furthest away, or the one you are least likely to get first. By the time you have it, you’ve collected four or five other bits of the chain, and you get to end the area with a satisfying series of entertaining scenes where you see how a man undergoing electro-shock treatment can charge a Car Battery in his mind, or how turning TVs to specific channels get the watchers to think of certain items.
          Puzzles are hard to design well. As a guy who’s played D&D for a fair number of years, puzzles are hard to fit in without making them boring or inscrutable. I don’t know which of those two it worse. Sometimes it’s tempting to resort to riddles, but riddles are almost never easy to figure out. You either know the answer or you don’t, and so the party sits around for an hour, tediously taking shots in the dark until they get it by chance.
          A puzzle is a problem you have all the information for, and the joy in a puzzle comes from what is called “The Aha! Moment.” You know this feeling, it’s when you do a little fist pump when a jigsaw puzzle piece fits where you thought it would.
          Stick it to The Man illustrates this very well. Before you get all the pieces to your puzzle, you will have little to know idea why they aren’t fitting together. But when you get that last piece, you have this cascade of “Aha! Moments,” and the experience really comes together. There’s enough varition in the way these puzzles are set up that it’s never rote, it’s always neat to explore the areas and find the new item. Plus, the game is only about three hours long, so you can knock it out pretty quickly.
          I like looking at and analyzing puzzles, but the real enjoyment of solving them usually is watching the funny little interactions and strange logic that brings you from puzzle too puzzle. Inflate a clown’s dad with helium, plant a target on his belly, fire his son at him out of a cannon, and steal his proud smile at the end. Yep. Ryan North is credited with the writing, and it largely hits home. It has a couple problems comedy often does, but finds a nice middle ground for its plot twists and fun recurring characters. Charting the life of a snarky nurse who gets zombified and forced to sing show-tunes is the kind of inventiveness that made Psychonauts so great.
          There are a couple of moments of tonal break that really took me out of the experience, but overall I liked my experience with Stick it to The Man, and if you’re looking for a quirky gaming experience in between Tales from the Borderlands episodes, you’ll like it too.

Tuesday, July 7

Chrono Trigger: An Element of Time

          I started gaming in the PS1 era.  My first two platforms were a PS1 and a Gameboy I covered with Pokemon stickers.  I had an aunt and uncle that owned an NES, and I would play the heck out of Super Mario Bros 3 whenever I was there.  But I never got to experience the glory days of the NES or SNES.
          The more I go through this list, the more I realize what important machines they were.  There must have been a bunch of crap for them, but so many of the games are held up as classics.  Even the graphical styles have made significant comebacks.  I’m taking too long.  The point I want to get to is that I’m sad I don’t have the time and patience I did when I was younger.  Or even just the time.  I use this excuse a lot, many people my age do, but it really feels like I could've marathon-ed my way through Chrono Trigger in a weekend.
          And I think that I would.  Chrono Trigger really has a lot of great things going for it.  It is fusion of all the understandings and techniques gaming was building upon at the time, when the turn-based RPG could rule the world.  Chrono Trigger is an educated game, it has learned well from its predecessors.  It even has an understanding of the gaming mindset in a way uncharacteristic for its time.
          An example:  Early in the game you visit a carnival, where all kinds of thing are going on.  NPCs are wandering about, people say random things, you can loot garbage for no reason, etc.  It’s a pretty typical setup.  A little more than an hour later, you are brought on trial, and all those NPCs show up as character witnesses to testify against you and your thieving, evil, gamer ways.  I realize now that gaming is slowly moving away from this style, and I'm wondering if the twist will have the same kind of effect the next time the game is remade.
          It’s also a more creative game than one would typically expect for its time.  The time travelling wins big for me just by going to a post apocalyptic future, but it even plays great games with moving between relatively close periods to emphasize the progress of the world.  It tells several grand and small stories at once, and the density is one of those things I love about 80 hour RPGs.
          I can see why Chrono Trigger is the classic it is, why the combo-and-position based combat stands out against the typical lining-up-on-either-side-of-the-field model, and the game eschews a lot of sillier trends of the time, or just improves on the general experience of the genre.
          The game isn’t perfect.  It has good variety and some nice twists in style, but there are still times when I found myself grinding, and I was generally unimpressed with the level and dungeon design.  It may be the compilation of a lot of great learning, but it shows just how much further games had, and have, to go.  I can't wait until I look back at Dark Souls as tedious and uninspired.  That will be a great time for games.
          Also, it’s a strange thing to mention, but the DS has a specific text it uses in almost every game.  It’s bland and utilitarian, but in a game so clearly built on older aesthetics it stands out and really ended up taking me out of the experience.
          Chrono Trigger is good, and worthy of its place in game history, but it’s not the kind of game I’m excited to play more of right away.  I know I’ve been saying this a lot, and maybe it’s the thesis of this project, but Chrono Trigger created trends I’ve seen iterated on over and over.  I wish I could be more solidly in that mindset, in that time, but I can’t.  I can’t be someone who didn’t play Bloodborne earlier this year, and I can’t be a person who has the time in his life to perfect a game asking so much of me.  So, apologies to Chrono Trigger... It’s not you, it's me.