Sunday, January 5, 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I finished Brothers this afternoon.  I went into the game expecting a serious but rewarding experiment with an unusual control scheme I had heard about, wherein you control each brother with the same controller, using the two joysticks simultaneously.  I was expecting a short game with OK graphics, and a strong story to make up for middling technical specs. 

In other words, I was completely unprepared for the experience of playing through this game.

Technically, the game is exactly what it needs to be, at all times.  It is at times as sunny and upbeat as Disney, as dark and tragic as one of Grimm's fairy tales, loud and intense, quiet and subtle... the presentation is masterfully executed.  It's never excessive. This finesse with its presentation only makes the rest of the game feel more credible.  The control mechanic which I have heard so much about works very well, and even if the puzzles are often fairly straightforward, they still feel inventive and fun to solve.

This kind of technical credibility is certainly a staple of a top-notch game. However, what Brothers achieves, which I have seen very few games achieve before, is an effective cashing-in of that credibility.  It opens the way to tie you so closely to the story of the two brothers, through directly helping them to overcome each challenge, that you feel a personal connection with what happens. I knew it would be an emotional game, but roughly halfway through I realized that it was punching way above its weight, in unexpected ways, and at the end would probably leave me an emotional wreck. I was not wrong.  It takes an awful lot of credibility with the player to pull this kind of story off correctly.  That is what makes this game such a gem.

This is the kind of game I would recommend very carefully, without mentioning many details, because the sanctity of the experience -- the gradual ascent, aesthetically, mechanically, and emotionally -- is something that requires a little bit of mystery to have the impact that it is capable of having. 

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a beautiful and sometimes painful experience, and one that I think is worth having for anyone with the means to do so.  It is what I think of as the best kind of story: one that tempers its beauty with tragedy, and its despair with hope.  Go and play it, if you get the chance.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Megabyte Punch

If you have a Steam account, upvote this!


Super Smash Brothers with customizable robots.  Go!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cards, Beautiful Cards: Online Card Game Roundup

JOY!  Digital card games are everywhere.

And I want to play all of them.

A disclaimer: I'm going to be looking at online card games. All of these games involve micro-transactions as a revenue model.  It comes with the territory.  You have been warned!

Currently playing:

Duel of Champions (Free to play)

A very polished and feature-rich online card game. The gameplay is very much tactics based, with cards going in the back lines, front lines, and attacking along rows. It also has one huge plus for me – a graveyard! Cards can be brought back from the graveyard, a nod to magic and one of my favorite resource systems.  And it's based on the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise.  (HoMM3 junkies, represent!)


One of the limitations are that there is no trading at all – probably a decision made to avoid a plague of phishers and gold-farmers overrunning the game, as seems so common with free to play titles. With no way to trade cards, there's no way to profit off of invading someone's account or farming.  It does detract from the social aspect of such games a bit, though.


Another annoyance for me is that the resource system feels a bit bland, and doesn't balance well with longer games; each turn you gain one "resource", and, eventually, you simply have more "resource" than you can possibly use, and the decision-making process breaks down into "how can I draw more cards?".  I feel some other games handle this in a more interesting fashion, though it certainly works well in shorter matches.

SolForge  (Kickstarter closed beta on PC; free open beta on iPad)

Interesting mechanics concept where cards you play more often during a single match will level up to be more powerful later in the match.  It requires different strategies as playing certain cards early can have big consequences later, positive or negative.


Despite the interesting mechanics, SolForge feels a bit further behind the other offerings mentioned here both from a feature-implementation standpoint  -- there is not even a deck builder yet -- and from a presentation standpoint, at least for the PC client.  It makes me realize how important presentation is for these kinds of games.  But more on that at the bottom of this post... In any case, I think it will be fun once there is actual multiplayer and deck customization in the game.  The card leveling is a very interesting mechanic.

Scrolls ($20.95 entry fee to beta)

From Mojang, creators of Minecraft.  Quite polished, with animations entirely separate from the card art. Something about the gameplay, with five rows and idols to be destroyed, reminds me of plants versus zombies -- though some of these plants can move around the board!


The resource system is also deviously clever, giving you the option each turn of sacrificing a card from your hand either for a resource point (that will then replenish each turn) or for two new cards from your deck.  This means that you are always making important decisions, instead of falling into a glut or drought of resources.  It also makes it very straightforward to mix resources in the deck, as you can each turn decide if you want to build one resource or the other with your sacrifices.


The card abilities and costs feel very well-balanced as well.  I think this one has a lot of potential and is worth the entry fee.

Card Hunter (Closed beta underway; release summer 2013)

Hilarious D&D theming.  The flavor is almost overwhelming.


Mechanics are also fairly unique, with equipment granting a character a certain array of cards which are added to their "deck."  I'm not sure if it really counts as an online card game in the same sense as the others, as it's an especially strange utilization -- the equipment represents cards which represent equipment... representational loop!


The focus seems more on single-player, but it's very fun, polished, and fast-paced, so it's worth checking out when it comes into open beta!  Worth noting that there is a PVP option, but I still feel the single player is a stronger element.


Also worth noting that the game appears to be browser based, so it's open to a wide variety of platforms/devices.

Eagerly anticipating:

Hearthstone (Public beta sometime in summer 2013)

From Blizzard. Say what you will about them, they sure know how to polish a game.  Watch this:

http://wow.joystiq.com/2013/05/09/live-hearthstone-stream/ (Epic game starts around 42:00 mark)

So, why such a glut of name-brand, microtransaction-supplemented online card games?

To me, it seems like a switch is flipped when you base your game on "cards": virtual tokens that represent some imaginary concept of thing or action.  You might ask the question, though: why base a game on "cards", which are essentially physical, when the game is already in the intangible space and could represent what is on those "cards" with actual functional objects?  Why not simply represent the actions using the game engine?

Well, for one, because it's damn expensive!  Programming realistic representational physics, graphics, animations, etc. is a huge development investment.  Cards seem to be the perfect balance of evocative representation, and manageable implementation within a digital space.  Cutting 3D graphics and physics out of the equation means you're basically just putting together logic that's going to move card images around and add up damage/etc.

That's not the only reason, though.  I would argue that we conceptually understand a discrete, representative token better than the actual virtual reconstruction of what that token represents. We can be convinced that we are looking at a card; they are, after all, two-dimensional.  And we can also be convinced that we're buying a "card" more easily than we can be convinced that we are buying a fancy looking dragon thing that lives in your computer -- the reason that micro-transactions are more successful for this kind of game.  They retain the symbolic power of the tokens used in physical card and board games, without little of the electronic overhead that makes it so difficult to reconstruct realistic looking humanoid in digital form.

Finally, and probably the most important reason these games are so successful, is simply because we are all hoarders who base our identity off of our possessions (at least, I know I am).  It's driven home for me when I play game that has very interesting mechanics, SolForge for example, and find that there are two things missing:

A. My cards aren't shiny enough and don't look cool when they do things, and

B. I'm not excited about playing with the cards because I didn't acquire them myself, and thus have no emotional attachment to them.

What these games tap into when they are working at full steam is both the primal desire to collect shiny objects, and the slightly higher level desire for sense of identity through cards the player "possesses" -- because, yes, it was they who pressed the button that said "get cards" and earned that rare Ghost Dragon.  When you look at Hearthstone, with its incredibly shiny cards, sound effects, and even the lore tie-ins with World of Warcraft, it's hard to deny that what these games are really all about is giving us little shiny toys to play with, toys that we value emotionally because they've been made (artificially) scarce and yet we still managed to get our grubby little claws on some of them.

In summary, I like shiny objects, I like collecting shiny objects, and I like it when my shiny objects hit someone else's shiny objects.  It makes me feel better about myself, and you should too!

Onward, to shiny objects!


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dwarf Fortress: Adventurer's Diary - The Killing of Lipi Sharkwhip

Dwarf Fortress distills down to its essence the reason that I play games, the feeling that hooks me the fastest and the hardest; I didn't become an EverQuest addict ten years ago because of other people -- what hooked me was that sense of embarking, of being thrust into an unknown world with only the most basic tools and one's own sense of resourcefulness to get by on.

What gives a game that sense of vastness isn't always graphical, or even geometric. A game can feel vast purely based on the level of detail it provides, the specificity and consistency of its presentation and interactions with the player. And this is what Dwarf Fortress gives you, it's bread and butter -- a ridiculous level of randomized detail, almost enough to lose yourself in. I chose Adventure Mode for this post, which filters the game through a roguelike sieve (as opposed to the more sedentary/simmish Fortress mode). In Adventure mode, you create the world, create a character, and charge out into the unknown...





Journal of Kadi Pujapestrat, Human Adventurer
Year 125 of the Age of Myth

Day 1

My name is Kadi Pujapestrat. I ran away from my family to join the circus when I was a child. And today, I am running away from the circus to become an adventurer. I recognize the irony and no, I don't think I'm indecisive. The circus just isn't exciting enough for me.

As I packed my meager possessions in preparation of my journey toward greatness, my trainer stood behind me and told me I was a fool, that I wouldn't last a day out in the world of swords and wolves and starvation. I think he will miss me. I was a great performer, if I may say so myself. But I'm tired of the farce battles, the lions in suits. I want to be an adventurer. I want to see the world, the untamed world, not just the inside of a series of colored tents and the faces of the fat townsfolk. And I want to show everyone in my family that I can do great things. I'm not a side show.

I am starting this journal so I will remember these words if my resolve runs low. I am going on to great things. Great things!



Destiny calls me with its first request. I spoke to a man in the hamlet of Delightstabs (the people here all seem to be very happy), and he asked me to kill a vampire.

A vampire!

Perhaps this task may be a bit much for a first time adventurer, but why am I doing this if not to prove my ambition?



The man said the vampire has killed over 500 in his lust for blood. Of course, I know that must be an exaggeration. Most of them were probably rats, or naive, untrained adventurers. Not like me. I have a sword! A real one, not a rubber one for fighting clowns or anything like that. Not only that, it's made of silver. Creatures of the night fear silver, or that's what everyone says. He'll probably melt the moment the blade touches his pale, sun-starved skin.

Still, I'm not taking any unnecessary risks. I'm not going to face this murderer alone. Any good adventurer has followers, friends and companions who charge ahead to fight, and shout your name enthusiastically after every battle, assuming they don't die a glorious death in your honor. I have recruited such fellows from the fortress Pristinelizard, and they are three in number: a bowman, a swordsman, and an axeman.

The axeman has a particularly frightening look in his eyes. He should make a fearsome ally. That vampire won't know what hit him.

I will give the axeman first watch when we make camp tonight, as we now set out for the capitol, 'Lashprairies', where the blood-sucker is said to be hiding.

***

On our way to Lashprairies we were set upon by wolves. My companions decimated them. I am inspired by their performance, but I worry a bit about the axeman. I saw him bite a wolf's nose off.



I suppose he's just a very enthusiastic axeman, but isn't that what his axe is for? He also jumped into a river to have it out with a Sturgeon on our way out of the fortress where I recruited them all. He's a risk taker, all right. A perfectly fine quality in a follower, but we'll have to keep an eye on him nontheless.



What Dwarf Fortress does is combine a love of fantasy worlds -- expansive terrain, numerous myths, various civilizations, and items, items, items -- with procedural generation. In a few minutes it can spit out a world full of ominously named locales, legendarily named monsters, and hilariously named characters. It creates interrelations between all of these things and splatters them all over continents, islands, and underground, leaving you with a realm all to yourself.

As you can see from the above screenshots, Dwarf Fortress's graphics are almost abstract, like absurdist ASCII art in motion. This might be a little off putting initially, but when you wrap your head around what it's doing, it makes complete sense. You see, what the abstract graphics give Dwarf Fotress is a blank slate for the words it will use to describe itself to you. And Dwarf Fortress loves its words.

The game can string adjectives and nouns together and produce something as unusual as an orca-skin long skirt, which can in turn be adorned with a variety of other materials, spikes, hoops, and so on. There's magic in the way that it can name a region of land, "The Hill of Crosses", for example, infusing literary significance into what otherwise would be an empty patch of ground.

The fidelity of interactions with entities and objects in the game mirrors the textual detail -- it is quite deep, and grammatically consistent. Individual characters have complex family trees that track other characters across the world, and their respective achievements. There is an entire sub-system dedicated to wrestling, in which you can grab specific body parts, with context-appropriate options following such as strangling, breaking joints, take-downs, etc. In combat, the game accurately refers to the outcome of events such as arrows piercing internal organs, cutting into various types of flesh, rending scales off dragons -- you name it, and the game seems to think of a way to word it.




Day 2

We arrived today in the town and capitol of Lashprairies. I know that our enemy is hiding somewhere in this region, but we still need to sniff him out. After some armor shopping and a sale of the wolf parts we had collected from our encounter, we are in fine shape. The word from the Lasher was that the vampire is to the east; we will find him soon, and show no mercy.

***

We trudged across fields of mud, clay, and sand east out of the city. How far do we need to go? I don't really know. My companions don't seem to tire, but I'm no soldier. I must keep on! The blood sucking fiend is out there, waiting to be stabbed through the heart. For glory!



Day 3

Lipi Sharkwhip, vampire and tormentor of peasants, where are you? These fields of clay are vast and suck at my alpaca wool shoes. Should have bought boots. We will try a spiral search pattern.

***

We can't find him. This is the place the Thresher told me to go. Where is he? I see no caves, no ruined castles, only white sand and reedgrass waving in gentle breeze from the west.

Would he be cowardly enough to hide during the day and only come out at night? Or has he entombed himself in the earth, knowing what fearsome host comes to claim his head?

***

In the evening, exhausted and downtrodden, our bowman spotted a light in the distance. It was not the vampire's den, though; it was an isolated hut, with a family living inside. They invited us in, and, weary from our difficult search, we rested.

On a whim, I struck up a conversation with the family's child, asking if he had seen any vampires recently. To my surprise, he told me that Lipi Sharkwhip the vampire is actually "their master"! Amazing. The night-fiend must be posing as a high ranking official in the capitol. Also, it appears his kill count is up to 572.



The family was good company and the child was very well spoken for a two year old. His parents must be home-schooling him. In any case, we would have wandered for ages without his knowledge, so I am thankful. We shall sleep here and head west in the morning, back towards the keep of Lashprairies, to send Lipi back to hell.

Note to self: refill waterskin at the next opportunity. Getting a bit thirsty.



Sure, some of the game systems may misfire at times. Sometimes the quests don't point you in exactly the right direction, and the people you talk to are not going to pass any Turing tests. But, there's no way to generate a world this complex without there being some holes.

A larger problem might be that the basic gameplay, taken at face value, becomes rather rote after you've completed a few quests (Adventure Mode is definitely not as feature-rich for progression as Fortress Mode, with its vast crafting system) and there is not a whole lot you will be explicitly rewarded for other than questing, which without fail involves going out and slaying some troublesome monster.


But even if the game sends you into a dead end from time to time, it also inspires you to make stories out of those dead ends. The problems you will face inspire legends on a personal, intimate scope, in the context of the world it has created for you. The game has a comprehensive legend-tracking system, meaning every monster you kill is entered into its annals, in full title, to be recounted to future generations... or future characters, if you're unlucky enough to experience one of the many possible ways to die in Dwarf Fortress. Burned by lava or dragonfire, drowned, choked, stabbed, thrown, pulverized, or starved -- death is handled in as much fidelity as anything in the game.



Day 4

We have lots of wolf meat. I will not go hungry. But I am so, so thirsty. No rivers nearby. Writing hard. Why did I leave my home? Why does this wanderlust possess me? What am I going to gain by killing vampires? Lipi Sharkwhip eludes us. And surely in this state, throat parched, head throbbing, he wouldn't break a sweat killing me.

So, so thirsty. Where do these people get water? Do they even know what a well is?

***

Finally, we traveled far out of the town, and found a river. I must have sat there for hours drinking, resting, gulping... but I fear we're almost out of time. Our quarry surely grows suspicious and may flee to some hole in the ground if we wait much longer. I must confront him.

We march to the top of the keep of Lashprairies, to what fate I know not, but surely knowing that if we meet our prey, either Lipi or everyone in my party shall die this day.

***



It is done. We stumbled into the keep in the evening, intending to search it top to bottom. And at the top, we found him. Now his blood is strewn about the keep of Lashprairies. My companions tore him apart hand and foot -- the final blow struck by the bowman, straight through the skull. He has eyes like a hawk.



Lipi Sharkwhip, scourge of Lashprairies, was hiding in the city as a law-giver. And Lipi was not the only thing rotten in the capitol. His cultists were infesting the keep, all of which we've put to the sword. Lashprairies is freed from an evil tyrant and the glory of our deeds will spread throughout Ashionra for ages to come.

And yet... I feel oddly unfulfilled. I did little more than throw rocks at him during our fight, a fact blissfully missing from the songs now being composed of Kadi Pujapestrat, vampire slayer extraordinaire. The truth is that I was terrified. Of him, of my companions, of the orgy of gore I was witness to, battle-hardened veterans tearing the pale-skinned one apart hand and foot, and allowing me all the glory after.

I feel hollow. The wanderlust is not sated. I think it has grown a bit stronger.

Perhaps I must set out on my own again. Away from the violence. Across The Sumerged Waters, to lands unknown to my kind. Perhaps what I seek lies on the horizon...



Despite the game's limitations and inevitable inconsistencies, I still find it oddly compelling. It is expansive. Vast. It has a way of winding bizarre words together in unusual ways. The legend system creates a sense of interconnectedness lacking in most sandbox games. You can scroll across the continent map and see the names of mountains in the distance and wonder what mythical creatures live there, die there, what terrors or wonders are hiding at the edge of the world.

It's a game that rewards the use of one's imagination, of setting your own goals, and wandering a huge system that exists only because you brought it into being, and which no other player is likely to ever know, unless you share it.


Dwarf Fortress seems to be is one of those games that herald a level of detail beginning to approach, at least from the player's perspective, infinite fractal depth. One can imagine games in the near future capable of summoning infinite contextually relevant details that expand out from the player as needed. Examine the ground, see an item. Examine the item, see it is an earring. Examine the earring, see it is adorned with hanging rings of bone. Examine the rings, see they are made of mole bone, with minor fractures and blemishes, the mark of the crafter pointing to a hamlet in...

An earring may seem like a small thing, but the little things are what make a world so big. The smaller the details, the larger the scale. Worlds of such definition are exceedingly easy and enjoyable to be lost in, and I'd like to see more of them, in whatever incarnations they may take.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hawken

This game looks really cool. I've been following it for a while:



I cut my teeth on mech combat with Mechwarrior 2, so I'm already a huge fan of big, metal machines blowing each other up. Although I haven't played Hawken yet, I can already see that with aesthetics so well developed the game will make an excellent spectator sport, and make for great YouTube fodder. I'm already imagining all the cinematic moments a game like this can generate, especially in a team combat setting.

I also find the design of the game's interface, mechs, and the associated animations fascinating. The piloted machines jitter and swerve in a way that seems distinctly life-like and organic, the spastic shaking / twitching making an interesting contrast to the deliberate, plodding motions of Mechwarrior's mobile platforms. It actually makes me of a (somewhat disturbing) creation by Boston Dynamics / DARPA, this four-legged bot with an intense desire to stay upright:



Games with functional but still visually pleasing animations aren't always valued for that quality alone, and it isn't always mentioned in games that lack it, but I think it deserves its own category of evaluation. Games with strong animation and strong multiplayer are some of the most interesting to watch -- animations made well add to the fidelity of the player interaction, helping both players and observers visually interpret what is going on more quickly and more fluidly.

Then there's the sound -- metal skin crunching, wire tendon snapping, actuators grinding -- I have no idea how the game will play, but I know its going look and sound like a gritty steel inferno, and that's enough to get me excited.


P.S.: Closed beta starts on October 26th. Check out their website for details.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"When I was a kid, I played a whole lot of video games."

When I grow up, I don't want to be the guy who tells his kids that he played a lot of video games.

It may be factually correct. But it isn't the truth -- not for me.

Games have made me scream, believe, try... I don't want to hear you say, when I was young, I played a lot of video games. Don't tell it to your kids, your friends, to anyone. Say that when I was young, my playground expanded into a dimension not previously explored by the youth of the world. My toys were limited only by the scope of human imagination. I learned just how weak the boundary between reality and non-reality is in our minds and how we can bridge that space. I shared the crossing of that bridge with others and was richer for it.

I want you to be creative. I want you to tell them about the parts of the game that made you hurt or laugh or wonder. I don't care if you flew ships or slew monsters or fought wars, or anything else off the grocery list of gaming tropes. I am the future youth and I want to hear about the time you realized that all along, you really weren't calling the shots. About every bug you abused and every object you launched into orbit. About how you came to understand the sordid destiny in store for you. Or the time you reached the end of the world, beyond the boundaries of logic, and looked over the edge.

These are the things we can't articulate properly without thinking hard and remembering. And there are so many games, now, that it is hard to remember the specifics. Please try. You must think hard now, while the experience is fresh. You must put what you experienced to words and keep the words safe so that one day, you can share these milestones with the future, before they are blown away in a wind of technological upheaval.

Because it's not just an illusion. The game is not real, the game is just a system, but that system can now and then access and expose a kernel of truth that you would never have unearthed otherwise. There is some part of the play that touched your mind in a way you can't quite explain -- though you can come close.

So get as close as you can, and say that. Say it loud and say it often and don't forget it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Follow-up to Creative Process, etc., yadda yadda...

This is pretty awesome.  Way simpler than I imagined, community driven, and it's backed by a serious publisher & content delivery system.


Hooray for the future.