Thursday, July 30

100 Games 2015

Most recent article: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

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
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
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

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.

Wednesday, July 29

Way of the Samurai 3 - Historical Sunglasses

          Japanese culture is very interesting to me.  Not so interesting that I’ve ever really sat down and studied it, more through the occasional glimpses into attitudes an perceptions.  I wasn’t sure what kind of accuracy I would find in Way of the Samurai 3, but I was excited to see what the designers and developers decided was important about experiencing Japanese history.
          Way of the Samurai 3 is the tale of you as a samurai who has just been through a violent and horrific battle, trying to discover what your place in the world was, and what you want it to be now.  It seems to be set pretty concretely within the Warring States period, with that kind of historical chaos reflected in the game.
          Here’s what I did in my playtime: Picked radishes, slept in a shack, defeated a bandit on the road, joined the local regent to shore up castle defenses, fetched supplies, wandered for a while, joined a bandit clan, took over the bandit clan, and made war on the local regent.
          In 3 in-game days.  In Skyrim I’d still have been learning to smith iron.
          Permadeath is a weird concept to me, just because it seems so antithetical to games.  But then, it’s strange that we ever came up with anything else.  Games needed to keep you playing, keep you pumping in quarters or hours of your life.  There was a system representing the number of attempts you had to play, which became lives, which became save points, which has become autosaving.  And now iterative death is back in a big way.
          Way of the Samurai 3 comes off like it’s a Japanese Skyrim experience, promising a growing character and changing open world, but it doesn’t deliver in an accessible way.  When I spend hours building my character, acquiring weapons and slick sunglasses, I want that character to stick around; I’m invested in him.  When he dies and is effectively gone forever, that’s running seriously counter to that desire.
The game has save points but no autosaves.  And I’ve been spoiled by autosaving.  Many of us have died nine or more hours into a play session without saving, and losing all that time is immensely frustrating.  Way of the Samurai just sees that moment as the end of my story.  I can choose to ignore that and go back to my save point, but then I find the whole treatment incongruous.
          Is this a Binding of Isaac style iterative attack on a varied and practicable gamespace, or is it a Skyrim style empowerment fantasy where I, a lowly wounded warrior, grow to be the greatest Samurai in the land, on the backs of my power and servants?  Way of the Samurai 3 balances precariously somewhere between, in a way that I don’t think is meant for me.  I would like to delve into this kind of world, but preferably with options beyond “fight” or “grovel.”

          Extra note, while searching for an image to accompany this post, I saw some nutty things.  I don't think there's really supposed to be any historical accuracy here.

          And while that's silly and neat, it'd be nice if the game would've led me to it and not to the boring fetch quests and characters that I found.

Sunday, July 19

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.