Friday, July 3, 2015

What I'm Playing

Hey look, a short-ish post!
While I wait for Witcher the 3rd to go on sale (I'm sorry, 10% is not a real sale in my book), I'm currently playing two games from the Summer Steam sale.  The beautiful platformer Ori and the Blind Forest, and the college freshmen simulator/adventure game Life is Strange.

What I can say about Ori and the Blind Forest is that I initially thought the game had blown its aesthetic and emotional wad in the first few scenes, and shown me everything it had to offer. I didn't think my interest would stick after getting into the actual game.  However, every time I come back to it, I can't get away from how much fun it is to watch this little guy scamper around.


The game is very Zelda/Metroid-esque in hiding sequentially powerful upgrades all over the place. I've played a million games like this, but none of them look like this.  The only way that I can describe the animation is: "joyful."  Another interesting feature is that saving your game is integrated into the gameplay. Although there are regular checkpoints as well, you can also save in the middle of a level if you expend a little bit of one of your energy resources. Energy is also used to open certain locked doors, and to use certain attacks.  Tying a gameplay focused resource to an optional save feature is honestly a brilliant idea, especially in a game as challenging as this one.  It makes for lots of interesting decisions.

The other game, Life Is Strange, is an adventure-ish game in which the main character, Max, is a 19-year-old girl with the power of to reverse time at will. Off to a great start.  I was a transfer student, so I never got that freshman year in the dorms. Also I'm not female. So this game offers some interesting social perspectives, in addition to the time travel.

The game seems to be about toying with reality and undoing decisions that you don't like, in an interesting inversion of the typical consequence-focused adventure game such as the Telltale Games, which seem to discourage you from "rewinding" so to speak and undoing your decisions.  My assumption is that they feel the mystery of not knowing what would've happened if you made the other choice tends to give your decisions much more weight, but here, the game encourages you to try to cheat, weaseling out of bad situations, orchestrating good ones, and gathering every piece of information before you commit to a choice.  


In Life Is Strange, you can literally rewind a conversation you didn't like and redo it, entirely within the fiction of the game.  You can do something crazy and piss someone off, and then un-piss them off.  It feels a little sacrilegious at first, but really, it's tons of fun.  I'm excited to see how they toy with this later in the game.  And the writing seems pretty good.  There are some hefty allusions to the Butterfly Effect, as you'll see from the video...


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alternative Input: The Devil's Due

I want to talk about something that is not very fun. Pain. Thanks to a life integrated with computers, I have been dealing with chronic wrist, hand, and shoulder pain for the last two years. Some of my friends know about this, but I've never really revealed the extent of how it's affected my lifestyle.  It has affected a lot of things, but it hasn't affected anything like it's affected my gaming habits.  It has affected what I can play, how long I can play it for, and how I can play it.  And it's affected one game more than others…

Let me start by saying that I love the Diablo series of games. I have loved them since the very first game.  I can remember it as one of the first truly addictive experiences that ran on our first family computer, a Pentium 90.  The dark, Gothic aesthetic; the atmosphere drenched with morose and yet slightly folksy music; the writing, which I found to be pretty strong with the original game; just an overall sense of being pitted against a grotesque menagerie of things you could never understand or predict (it was one of the first games I remember playing with random dungeon layouts). And it had some truly memorable enemies.

Still, one of the incredible things about the first Diablo game was that, in multiplayer mode, when you died, your character simply dropped everything on the ground.  It was the original hardcore mode, and while playing this way, it was actually quite easy to lose every single one of your items if you died in the wrong place on a high difficulty setting. I can remember playing as the Warrior getting into a particularly bad situation somewhere in the caves section, the third major environment you encounter.  I believe it started with me walking into a small enclosed cage with a treasure chest inside. I was then murdered by a pack of invisible ghouls.  Coincidentally, these monsters have some great backstory:

But back to the story.  When I died, all of my equipment was dropped inside a small cage filled with murderous invisible ghouls. You can see that this was a problem.  I also wasn't left with very much money. Without a full set of armor, the ghouls would likely kill me in one hit, so it would be pointless to buy a new melee weapon.  If I died again, I probably wouldn't have enough money to buy a single item, and I'd have to start over punching rats on the first floor.  The only thing that seemed useful for purchase in town was a Staff of Firewall.  This is a staff with a limited number of charges of the spell Firewall, which, predictable, creates a wall of fire.  So I spent all my money on the staff and trudged down to the floor I died on for an all-or-nothing charge.

My valiant charge went something like this:
  1. Enter level.
  2. Hear the sound of an invisible ghoul moaning at me.
  3. Panic.
  4. Spam-right-click Firewall on every visible open space, filling the ENTIRE SCREEN with fire.
  5. Hear the sound of dying ghouls.
  6. Wait for the inferno to dissipate, walk out and claim my equipment, then flee.
I can remember many experiences like this. The prospect of losing all of your equipment added something that I had never experienced in gaming - true fear.  We actually played in multi-player mode, even when playing alone, for that feeling.  The adrenaline kept me playing, and my Dad who played alongside me as well, for a very long time. 

When Diablo 2 came out, it was more of the same, with better graphics, more spells, and more items.  You can probably imagine how much time I spent with that game.

Let me take a moment to point something out about the Diablo games. Although they can definitely be challenging, they have extremely simple controls. Left click, move or attack. Right-click, cast a spell.  Some assorted hot keys for other spells (most of which also are mouse targeted). Easy. But when you're facing rooms full of 50 monsters at a time, you end up clicking quite a bit. I would venture to say that there are few games that require you to move the mouse and click as much in the course of playing.  Diablo is a game about slaughtering hordes and hordes and hordes of monsters. And you have to click on each and every one of them.  Not only that, you need to click on every single item you want to pick up, often sorting through piles and piles of trash to find the one good item that dropped.  Lots of clicking.

Now, the first two Diablo games I played back when I was in school and not working so much.  For a moment, consider that activity added on top of an eight-hour workday spent almost entirely using a computer, respond to emails, doing database entry, etc. – basically, clicking and pressing keys tens of thousands of times in a day.  And that sets you up for the dramatic conclusion to this story: the release of Diablo 3.  A Diablo even more fast paced than its predecessors.  A greatly enjoyable game, especially with friends; and, one that I couldn't play for more than an hour without my hands hurting.
It was a hard thing to acknowledge. My body has limits? Surely in avoiding physical sports throughout most of my childhood, that was no way I could hit these kinds of limits!  But as I kept trying to keep up with my friends, it became more and more obvious that I had hit a very firm limit. Diablo was no longer the type of game that I could really play and enjoy. And it was not the last casualty. As I came to acknowledge the price of interacting with physical interfaces all day, and to acknowledge the cost of all that information burning along my wrists and down my fingers and into the keys, it was clear to me that a lot would have to change for me to continue to be able to use a computer in any recreational sense.

So began an era of experimentation with input devices that continues to this day.  I have programmed a WiiMote to control the mouse cursor on my computer using software called GlovePie; I have set a mouse pad on the floor and used the mouse with my foot; I have purchased piles of devices, touchpads, trackballs, foot switches, joysticks, gamepads (many of which I configured with the excellent utility Joy2Key); all eventually winding back to the same point, the point of strain, the point where the game is asking more of me than my body can give it without undergoing stress. 

And that's the reason that I'm typing this post with my voice, and not with my hands. 

It's quite hard to play Diablo with your voice.  I haven't given up on games; I have found that there are still games out there that I can play and enjoy. Games that ask a little less of the player than 100% twitch reflexes, and constant input.  Yet, I can tell that this is not something that's just going to go away. What this has really taught me is that staying healthy for me will require a lifetime commitment to using the resources of my body in moderation.  And, unfortunately, charging into the fray with a Staff of Firewall is probably not on that menu.

Staff of Apocalypse, on the other hand...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Want to Play This

Very badly.  I've been following No Man's Sky since RPS first posted it.  I am of course a huge fan of procedurally generated worlds, prime examples Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, yet I've not found one that approaches the term "world" on the scale, at least visually, that this game is presenting.  It's just plain beautiful.  Sniff... something in my eye...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Storytelling in MMOs

I want to talk a little about storytelling in MMOs. I have been playing the Wildstar Beta on and off over the past week, and it has really made me realize just how much I am craving something new in the storytelling department when it comes to online games.

It amazes me that these games focus so much on creating an individual "identity", in character appearance, class, abilities, equipment, etc., and yet focus so little on changing the story to match that identity. Everyone wakes up in stasis, performs the same series of quests, and follows the same main plot line. If that's the way you're going to do things, why even give players distinct characters? Why not give everyone characters with firm identities in the story, dialogue of their own, some reason to be notable in the world other than "I am a player, not a nonplayer"?

One of the few MMOs I have played them attempts this path is Dragon Nest. In it, you do name your character, and customize them, but the role that you plan story is treated as the role an actor might play in a film – when the performance is going on, everyone who chose the "warrior" class is actually playing the role of a specific character in the story of the game. Of course, the problem is, you then have a bunch of players running around as clones of each other. The illusion of individuality wouldn't be possible. And, in my eyes, the real point of these games is not to tell a story, but to provide that sense of individuality in a fantastic yet mundanely social setting.

So why am I complaining about the story when I've just admitted that the story really isn't the point? Because I feel that it could be the point. You can create a feeling of individuality purely through aesthetics, but you can create something much stronger by tying the player into a store unique to them, supported by the game's mechanics and not just sprinkled on top like confetti. Imagine the extreme – a game tied into your Facebook account which pulls elements of your life into the plot as obstacles or discoveries for other players. Or a game where every element of the story is spun up by players, with little worlds being born, dying, and reborn to support the cycle.

What kind of mechanics would make these games tick? Any kind of mechanic where the player makes a meaningful choice that impacts their relationship to other players more than it impacts their standing with the world's fictional characters.  Mechanics that take player behaviors into account, turning grief causing players into outcasts and nemeses, turning benevolent players into allies. One might argue that these kinds of events are already built into our psychology and don't need to be supported by game mechanics, but I would reply that for the story to be the focus of the game and something that distinguishes one player from another, it must be able to etch itself into the game's reality in meaningful ways. That is why such a game would exist – to be a blank canvas upon which the players detail, elaborate, and record their stories.

I guess I'd just like to see a lot of the fun storytelling mechanics that come out of many pen and paper role-playing games make their way into online games.  So many interesting stories are being told and can be told, that aren't really recognized by online games and leveraged into giving their worlds more life. And without that extra injection of vitality, I fear that more and more the bones of the grind at the heart of games like World of Wacraft and Wildstar will be visible underneath the story that comes in the box.

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: (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!