Updates Tuesdays and Fridays.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Games I've Been Playing

I've been having to cut back on my output a little bit - it might only be one a week, or maybe a couple short ones. I have been playing some games though and just wanted to document said.

Zelda: Wind Waker HD

The Wii U is still lacking anything resembling a Killer App, and if you don't own one already this is probably not the game to get you to buy one. However, if you do own a Wii U, and you didn't actively hate the original Wind Waker, then the HD version is definitely worth the a play-through. Screenshots aren't going to do it justice; it really looks leaps and bounds better than the original, while still maintaining the charm and vitality that made the first release so memorable. The main changes are visual - brighter colors, more detailed shadows - but the handful of gameplay changes are also welcome, easing some of the repetitiveness that the game was originally criticized for. All in all, I was very happy to get to return to this game, and eagerly, if futilely, await the day when Majora's Mask receives the same treatment.

Plus, selfies!
Oh, that reminds me - the ability to take and share pictures, messages, hints, etc. is actually really cool;. It helps keep the Great Sea from feeling so sparse, gives you something to keep an eye out for on long sea trips (you collect bottles floating on the water or washed up on beaches), and is a neat, if very limited, content generation tool. I'd be psyched to see more stuff like this from Nintendo in the future - useful, but not intrusive, interactivity.

The Stanley Parable

I tried to write a post about this game awhile back, but realized I had very little to say about it.

There isn't much TO say about The Stanley Parable that doesn't give it away; if you haven't played it I'll just spoil it for you, and if you have played it, you already understand the experience. Certainly it's a funny game, and a clever one, and I enjoyed it. There's very little actual game to be had here, though; skill doesn't play into it at all, and you rarely get any kind of signal  ahead of time about what any of your decisions mean, or what they might lead to. This is probably another one of those games that makes us go "Well, what is a game, really?" However, I'm not sure it's asking those questions much better than Soda Drinker Pro did, and Soda Drinker Pro asked with more subtlety (and possibly accidentally). So, play it for a funny, new experience, but if you prod it with too many questions you might find it a little flat.

As an office worker, I also just found it a bit too real, down to the omnipresent, condescending internal narrator.

Starcraft 2

It surprises me that this game still holds a lot of appeal for me after so long - it is probably to do with the fact that I enjoy watching competitive SC2 so much. Watching streams or tournaments of pro gamers is still a favorite way for my housemate and me to relax; the games remain dynamic, and slight changes take months to manifest themselves in gameplay. The effects of a recent change that slightly reduces the damage of a particular attack are still unrolling, as some players try to adapt their existing playstyle to accommodate the change, and others look for radically different strategies that take advantage of it. As for me, I'm still too afraid to actually go on the ladder, which means a lot of battling against the AI's, but that can only last so long; human opponents are much less predictable, and much more fun, and eventually the fear of losing will be outweighed by my desire to irritate the Gold League by perpetually going mass Swarm Host.

Pokémon Y Version

After spending a ridiculous amount of time creating a team to be almost kind-of competitive in the game's most difficult single-player mode - the Battle Maison - I've reached the point I always eventually reach in each Pokémon game, where I realize that I like making a team more than using it. I've always had this issue with Magic: The Gathering as well, where deckbuilding interests me more than actually using a deck. For some reason. I care more about theory, about coming up with a tool that actually works, than in seeing it in practice and negotiating with the chances and risks that make up a game. I'll enjoy a few matches of Pokémon before I start wanting to tweak my team a little more, make a slightly better Dragonite, find a move that gives me slightly better coverage to deal with a particular common enemy. Eventually I find it stops being worth the time investment, so unless I find more people to play with I'll probably shelve it for a little while.


I spent only a few minutes on this, and though I'm told I should spend more, I'm having trouble motivating myself for it. Everything I heard about the game before starting was that it looks beautiful and has one of the best soundtracks in games, and so far that's borne out. However, the core gameplay underneath it hasn't been enough to keep hold of me. I've never really into these kinds of click-and-run games - they remind me too much of Diablo II, which I've played too much of in my life.

It IS quite pretty, though.

I may go back to it after I get through Journey, Heavy Rain, and Assassin's Creed IV; we'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Subspace Emissary: Lots of Characters, and Where To Put Them

For some reason my roommate and I have been playing a lot of the adventure mode in Super Smash Bros. Brawl despite having more recent purchases I haven't explored as completely as I want to. Now, Super Smash Bros. Brawl's adventure mode - also called The Subspace Emissary -  is not renowned as one of the best parts of the game...

Boss battles are kind of fun though!

...but I lost all the hidden characters on my Wii when I migrated save data to the Wii U, and you can't use GameCube controllers with a Wii U, so you can see I was in quite a bind.

Pictured: The Old Way

The game itself is basically a series of platforming levels and fights with smaller enemies, big bosses, and the game's characters, and you slowly add characters to a number of separate parties that occasionally come together or separate. Since I was playing through it a second time, I thought I'd talk a little bit about some of the design decisions that had to be made in order to create a gameplay mode like this. Things like...

What characters go where

For any given level you'll have a choice between a number of different characters, switching between them when you lose a life. What this means is that the characters you're using have to be appropriately matched to the level. Given how broadly the characters differ, this is a bit tricky, and there's definitely a lot of variation in the levels. For example, one level with Mario and Pit - two characters with high jumps - is relatively vertical and includes a number of complicated platforming pieces. In a level with Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong - one character with very little vertical jumping ability, and another with a complicated and difficult third jump - there are few jumping pieces, with barrels that can launch your characters used to vary the movement through the level. So when designing a level, deciding what characters can be used affects what the structure of the level might be, and vice versa. It also brings up our next question:

What characters go with each other

Sometimes the lowest common denominator sets the level up, and a character without much jumping ability (Marth) is found on a flat level with a character with a lot of jumping ability (Meta Knight). Once Meta Knight is included on a level with characters who can jump (Ice Climbers), the design changes dramatically, forcing the player to continue jumping upward. The designers have balanced stages relatively well for jump height, but less well for movement speed; fast and slow characters do occasionally appear in the same level. This isn't usually an issue for a single player, but with two, one may often leave the other behind, which can be frustrating since the action centers on the first player. Moreover, because the story focuses on a number of different groups of characters in several different places, characters tend to stay united once they've met up in the story - meaning that subsequent levels have to be accounting for any of four, five, or more characters. Later levels reflect this, tending to be more about combat than platforming, but this feature results in more complexity:

What characters go with the story

The Subspace Emissary is not strictly on the same playing field as the Odyssey, or even Ocarina of Time. It clocks in maybe around Donkey Kong Country in terms of narrative sophistication - though it does make the wise choice of omitting any dialogue whatsoever, which by itself would have made Metroid: Other M about 300% better. Still, it has a story of sorts, one that involves characters fighting each other, rescuing one another, travelling across weird, disappointingly generic landscapes, and teaming up to defeat a big scary final boss. This doesn't complicate the gameplay, but it must be managed - if four characters will be in this level you need an explanation for why, and if one leaves but two more arrive for the next level, you again need an explanation. Sometimes the story and gameplay tether nicely - for example Bowser and Ganondorf, two of the main antagonists, are also very heavy characters who can't jump very high. Setting them up as villains means they aren't playable until the end of the game, and obviates designing levels that accommodate their lousy jumping. Other times, things are a little weirder - characters like Olimar are shoehorned into the plot without much accommodation, and in general (as you might expect with such a huge cast) a lot of them end up being vestigial in the story. Which is basically fine until you take a step back and consider...

What The Subspace Emissary has to do with the rest of the game

This, to me, is the mode's biggest failing. My favorite criticism of Starcraft 2's plot goes something like this: The purpose of the single-player game is to creat a context for the multiplayer game. In the original Starcraft, the single-player has all three races - Protoss, Terran, Zerg - fighting one another, and themselves, over everything, and it's all we needed for that multiplayer to work. It's like chess: the pieces represent a royal court, and the game is two kingdoms going to war with each other. Actual war provides the context for chess - it helps us make the stakes clear in our minds - and the single-player mode of Starcraft sets the stakes for the multiplayer one. This is (one reason of several) why the plot of SC2 disappointed; it didn't set up enough of these conflicts clearly enough, and happened in a section vacuum-sealed from the multiplayer elements.
Similarly, The Subspace Emissary doesn't really give us a reason for why the characters are fighting one another. Why anyone's fighting Bowser? Sure; he's a bad guy. Why Peach is fighting Pikachu? Um...

There is hate in those eyes.
It doesn't provide much context for the levels, either, since the adventure mode's worlds are all kind of vague and uninteresting, and only a few settings are even linked to the multiplayer backdrops. Not that the story doesn't kind of work as its own standalone - it's fun watching Mario and Kirby have a friendly bout, and it's funny watching Diddy drag a petulant Falco away from his ship, and both these things add to the characters. Its biggest success is giving us a sense of how these characters might all interact if they were in the same place together, which is the whole point of Smash Bros. in the first place. This mode could have provided us with the context for the rest of the game, and didn't; however, it sets the tone of the game nicely, and gives an excuse to use all the  many characters in a number of different contexts. So, mixed bag on this point.

All this said, I've been having an enormous amount of fun playing with my housemate. Smash Bros. is hard to take too seriously because it's always just been about fun, sometimes nonsensical. There's an element of humor, of randomness, of "that just happened for no real reason, go for it", and on the balance it works. 

Also, we've now unlocked just about every character, so we can go back to everybody just playing as Snake, all the time.

It is how the game is meant to be played.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Female Characters I Like

I wrote a post on Tuesday about gender and games that was pretty general - it's one thing to say "I think stuff is bad!" and another to say "I think these particular things are bad!" and a third to say "I think these particular things are good!" Today I want to do the last.

One of the issues when talking about women and gaming is media in general, and games particularly, have trouble portraying women in a way that's not stereotyping, short-sighted, or otherwise problematic. Some do better than others, though, and I'd like to talk about some representations of women in games that, while not perfect, do certain things well, avoiding common mistakes and generally writing women that behave kind of like, you know, people.

Terra and Celes, Final Fantasy 6

Pictured: Terra.
In general, I feel like Final Fantasy doesn't do great at characterization period; many of the characters are pretty shallow, with the male leads especially tending towards mopey existential crisis in a way I could identify with as a teenager but which I find more than a little ridiculous now. And even though a lot of the female characters tend to be kind of one-dimensional and/or oversexualized and/or fall too easily into stereotype, it still does better than other games through sheer volume of characters. Having a lot of them indicates that you're at least aware that women can fill multiple roles, even if none of them are particularly progressive.

But! Final Fantasy 6 does really well, I think, through a couple of its main characters. The player begins the game as Terra, a part-magical-being-part-human woman who spends a lot of the game trying to figure out what of her emotionlessness is due to being half-monster and what is just due to being a Final Fantasy character. She struggles especially with love, wondering why she isn't attracted to any of the super-sexy male characters.

By the end of the game, Terra's realized that she doesn't actually need a man to experience love, having found an orphanage full of children to take care of. Granted, she's trading one traditional female role for another, but the active rejection of a male relationship is something you don't frequently see in video games (or, hell, a lot of other media). Oh, and also she acts as a lynchpin for the plot by being a bridge between the modern technological world and an ancient magical one, and also she saves the world once or twice by herself - she's got a lot going on, especially given that she's one of fourteen playable characters. Besides, that character turn would bother me more if it weren't for Celes.
Celes begins the game as a military general for the evil empire (evil, because empire) but changes her mind to support the heroes and pursue a romance with the main(est) male character, Locke. In the middle of the game, when everyone gets separated after a worldwide calamity, Celes is the first person able to get it together enough to search for everybody, reuniting them so that they can take on the big baddy at the end of the game. And, yeah, she has a male love interest, and though they stay romantic partners throughout the game, you don't actually need to collect Locke to beat the game (if I recall right - feel free to correct me on that). These two characters drive the plot forward not by being objects or by being love interests, but by having goals, ambitions, and initiative, and it's something I've always enjoyed about this game over others in the franchise.

Alexandra Roivas, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

If you missed Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, you missed out. It's a survival-horror game in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft tales, where you follow about a dozen characters across four locations and two millennia to uncover an unspeakable horror's slow plot to unleash itself on mankind. So, business as usual. Tying the threads together is Alex, a modern-day woman investigating her grandfather's mansion after his untimely demise and piecing together the stories of the other characters.

This is her "Not having any of your BS" expression. It is her only expression.
Alex is an example of a very reasonable way to make a good female lead character: not making a big deal out of it. No mandatory love interest, no moments where her femininity causes her to be weak or submissive, no point where she doesn't get done what needs get done. Again: not a big deal, except that there are so many main male characters like this, and so few main female characters like this.

Tetra, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Ok, spoilers, etc., but really if you haven't played Wind Waker by now you're letting yourself down.

Pirate-form Tetra.
Tetra is a boss, chipper captain of a gang of pirates. She acts tough, but underneath it, she's . . . no, actually, she's just tough. Link has more personality in Wind Waker than in any of the other games: he's kind and courageous, but pretty dense, and to say he acts before he thinks would suggest that he does much thinking at all.

Tetra is a counterpoint to Link, taking care of some of the more practical considerations during his quest and bailing him out on more than one occasion when his courage gets in the way of proper decision making. Even in the final fight scene, Tetra and Link have to work together, with him distracting Ganondorf as she takes shots at him, and vice versa.

so happy this picture exists
The big objection to Tetra in this game is that once she is revealed to be Zelda, she immediately cedes a ton of agency and becomes a way more passive, standard princess to be saved. Until that point, however, she's a fun and fascinating character. More importantly, within the context of the Zelda series, which has very few active women, Tetra stands out as one of the more memorable characters period, and helps make Wind Waker one of the best titles in the series.

So! If we were really going to take this apart in a feminist reading, there are clearly objections you could make to any of these characters. But in general, what makes them work is pretty simple: they have agency and goals beyond fulfilling stereotypes. That's all! In practice there are complications because as people who consume media, we have ideas about what tropes and character archetypes make for a compelling story - but those archetypes can be problematic, and reexamining them can help keep characters feeling more fresh, relatable, and realistic.
Do any of you have examples of favorite female characters? Or, as an alternative: favorites characters of any kind that's often presented either unfavorably or unrealistically? 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gender and gaming

I am only infrequently on Twitter, but sometimes I run into something excellent there. Today I came across this article, which explores the history of the gendering of video games in an explicit, in-depth, and very well-illustrated way. The quick summary, which does the article a disservice, is this:

-Video games as an industry began as a generally unfocused, and specifically ungendered, endeavor, where developers made the games they thought would be fun;
-The market became flooded with low-quality games in the early 80's, bottoming out consumer confidence and crippling the industry;
-When the market was revitalized by the likes of Nintendo in the mid-80's, it had a more focused marketing approach that included specifying a target demographic - mainly males.

Again, the article itself is an excellent history, and very good at explaining how video games as a medium came to be aimed primarily at men. Males don't inherently prefer video games; demographic imbalances in gamers are manufactured, deliberately. Which to some extent is just business sense; as the article describes, it's preferable to pin down one market when trying to sell a product, rather than to try to catch everyone at once and miss all of them, as initially happened to the gaming industry. But it's resulted in a couple of big, weird assumptions that to my mind do a lot of damage to gaming as a medium/industry:

First, the idea that women don't enjoy the games already being made (since they're made "for males")
Second, the idea that the only games we should make are games for males (since women don't enjoy games)

See how these are circular, and kind of stupid?*

Clearly, more and more game developers recognize that women play games, or make games for women (or at least with women in mind). Bioware's response to the straight male gamer a couple years back demonstrates this hard. But in general, feminist explorations or criticisms of video games are not entirely well-received (And if your response to Anita Sarkeesian is to roll your eyes, read through the comments on those articles until you start to feel sick). As consumers, male gamers have been pandered to for so long that we don't even really recognize it anymore, which is a giant problem if we want gaming to be a welcoming, exciting, engaging medium for everybody.

In my capacity as a person who wants to make video games, I want the art I produce to be accessible to and enjoyed by a wide range of people. In my capacity as someone who wants to sell video games, I want the games I produce to be BOUGHT by a wide range of people. And in my capacity as a feminist/human being, I want to acknowledge that the demographic our industry picked when it was getting started isn't the only one it should produce for now, and that if we get games that are intended for and reflect a broad variety of experiences, we'll all be the richer for it.

*One note: I talk in this post about "male" as the target demographic for gamers and "female" as the not-target-demographic. I'm doing this because this is the split the original article focused on. However the target demo isn't just males. It's white, straight, cis males, and the issue in the industry isn't just about men and women; it's about every group that is focused on and catered to at the expense of appealing to other demographics and exploring other worldviews. Complicated, but important.

**Two note: I've thought for awhile about doing a post about gender and games, and every time I've avoided it because it doesn't deserve a blog post, it deserves a doctoral program. It's complicated and uncomfortable and it pisses people off, and it's absolutely necessary that we talk about it if we want to mature as an industry. So, this probably won't be the only post I write about gender/sexuality/race/privilege/ableism/etc. in games, because these things deserve a lot more consideration than one guy (particularly one white straight cis guy) can give them in a few moments of writing. I'm still going to write about other aspects of video games, because they interest me, but I definitely think there's much, much more to be said than what I've said here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Off Week


For those who haven't noticed, I'll be taking this week off - visiting family and generally relaxing a bit. I'll be back with more biting witticisms and incisive commentary on Tuesday.

Enjoy the holidays!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Game Day: Soda Drinker Pro

This won't be a long post. Soda Drinker Pro is a really weird game and to enjoy it you have to be in a particular mood, or have a particular sense of humor, or enjoy questioning stuff for no real reason and without any real hope of answers. Preferably, all three.

Pictured: Art.

In this stirring title - which I was fortunate enough to get to see in a booth at Boston FIG earlier this year - you control a nameless everyman, exploring landscapes rendered in almost-unequaled beauty with a soda in hand at a snail's pace, to better enjoy your surroundings and soda. At any time, you may take a sip of your soda - or not, at your decision! As you drink, your Soda Meter slowly depletes, until the whole soda is consumed. But not to worry! You will immediately receive a new soda and be transported to a new level besides!

As you wander, you find yourself confronting questions that normally we can dodge in day-to-day life. Where am I? What of perception is real, and what is merely spraypainted onto boxes surrounding me to create the illusion of reality? What world exists after this one? Where do we go when we finish our sodas? Why am I moving so slowly? Should I drink soda now? What about now? Maybe now? Now that I'm drinking soda, should I stop? As you ask yourself these questions, your avatar will make comments about his surroundings, and the soda you are drinking there.

This continues for 100+ levels.

I can see three possible reactions to this:

1) Decide that this is all incredibly stupid, and ignore it entirely;
2) Decide it sounds kind of funny and play it for as long as the humor lasts;
3) Treat it like an actual art object worthy of attention and critical consideration.

Is Soda Drinker Pro actually intended as art? Maybe to probably not, but to a person who likes overanalysis as much as I do, it does pose some interesting questions. Why the hell does this game exist? Why are we playing it? For that matter, why are we playing ANY game, when so many of them amount to something similar - walk around a static environment and push a couple buttons to win? What distances Soda Drinker Pro from those other games? The game itself doesn't offer much in the way of answers, but if you enjoy asking them, or if you enjoy simulated soda drinking, it has a lot to give to you anyway. Personally I find it pretty funny that, among so many games trying to be art and so many people asking questions about games as art, this game can be so casually uninterested in those questions and still do such a good job of making me ask them.

And, yeah, for the record it IS the very best first person soda simulator you are ever going to play.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Demo Night Lessons: Criticism

The Boston Indies meetup happened yesterday, and it was demo night, so Andrew and I brought a couple of laptops and a couple of burritos and set into full BostonFIG-style "Play our game!" mode, and it was totally awesome.

One of the best things about the Boston Indies is that it's full of indie game developers, many of whom do what I do, except they do it for a living, and it's intimidating as hell to put our game in front of them, and next to their games. But we did, and I wanted to talk just briefly about what we learned and what it makes me think of.

We put this game in front of a lot of people last night and got a ton of really useful feedback. Nobody had only negative things to say, at least to our faces. Even the people with criticisms phrased them in a helpful way, and included positive things on either side, compliment sandwich-style, and generally went way far out of their way to be kinder than they had to be. That said: the negative comments did hurt a bit, and they're the parts that I've been mulling over constantly since I heard them.

The most frequent or most troublesome feedback we got was:

-Not enough of a sense of progress through the level
-Not enough narrative/driving force
-Jumping feels "floaty"/platforming elements feel imprecise in general
-Animation is obviously rough, esp. in contrast with more refined features
-Some puzzles seem more like guesswork than like solving

And, the strangest thing I heard,

-Characters are unusually tall and slender for a platformer

Some of these criticisms don't really hurt (I don't mind that the animation is bad, it's a stand-in and I made it myself with no animation experience), some are frustrating truths but things I already knew (jumping is floaty despite hours of messing around with it, but we know it needs to be fixed), and some are things I feared and was saddened to have confirmed (a "puzzle" I spent a long time on isn't really that puzzley or fun). All of them were useful because they indicated what stood out to experienced players and developers, and told us what we need to sharpen.

In any creative medium, criticism is an incredibly tricky thing to deal with. It takes a lot of energy to pour hours of your life into a project you care about deeply. It takes even more energy to share that meaningful project with others, flaws and all. And it can be pretty tough to stand there while those flaws are listed out and to see it not as a tear-down of what you've so carefully sculpted but as advice on where to chisel next. So, yeah, unfortunately it can be kind of painful to have your project dissected and have people pointing out everything wrong with it, but it's also probably the single most important part of revising your piece into something worthwhile. If you're making your art for anybody but yourself - to share, to give, to sell, to show - you'll want to refine it not just against your own preferences, but those of as many people as you can convince to look at it.

So, with that in mind, this is a cycle I've found to be helpful in accruing feedback:

-Pick something to work on. If you're making a game, this might be as simple as a mechanic or as big as a level; it might be a paragraph of a story or a chapter, a sketch or a painting. Decide what it is you want to do, and set your scale small enough that you don't mind revising or redoing a lot of it.
-Come up with an idea of what you want it to be. This is in general just an important step of design - figure out what it should be before you start messing with it. Sometimes art arrived at organically without much forethought is great - it's not the norm, though. Planning will save you a lot of time in revision and help give you a clearer idea when you're done of what to improve. Include others in brainstorming if it's helpful.
-Work on it until you get stuck, or until you think it can't be improved. If you get to a place where you think what you've made is perfect, you're wrong; this is one of the best times to seek outside input because you'll be getting help for problems you weren't aware existed. That said, don't spend forever honing something to "perfection" before getting an outside view; show it to people along the way, especially when you see a need for improvement but aren't sure how to go about it.
-Find someone (or a group of someones) who will give you precise, honest criticism of the piece. It's definitely nice getting praise, but for this step you need someone who isn't afraid to hurt your feelings. Boston FIG was great for us because we got a lot of praise, which told us that Candlelight was worth making; at the same time, it didn't really inform the creative process much. You want somebody who cares about what you're doing enough that they'll wound your pride, badly if necessary, to make your piece into the best it can be.
-Listen carefully and do not talk. Don't offer defenses, excuses, or apologies; don't tell people you knew about the issue they're describing; don't do anything but take earnest notes on what they've noticed. Even if you think you know it already, write it down -  it matters that the flaw is big enough to be seen both by someone as close to the project as you, and someone as far from it as your critic. I am very bad at anything requiring me not to talk, and this is no exception. At this stage you need to separate yourself from the work; it doesn't matter how it got to the state it's in or why you let it get there, what matters is how it's going to improve from where it is.
-Identify problems. I mentioned earlier that someone said my characters were the wrong shape for a platformer. I took note of this, but didn't bother to ask why they're the wrong shape - that is, what problem their shape creates, and how changing it would solve that problem. This phase is very, very important. If someone tells you "Oh, you should do X" and you do it blindly, you might not solve the problem they're trying to address, or create new problems, or simply compromise your vision of the project. Find a clear way to actually state the problem underlying their criticism or advice - this is what you need to address.
-Repeat. Great! You've found things that need improving! Go improve them, then bring them back up for inspection. You won't solve every problem this way, and you won't please everyone, but neither is the goal. The goal is to create the best product you can within the limits of your abilities, resources, and vision - all of which will be expanded by this revision process.

Throughout this process, it is important to seek out positive feedback as well. Unless you're unnaturally gratified by getting your work criticized, the whole process can start to wear on you. It helps, a lot, to have people reassure you that you're producing something good, that the block of stone you're sculpting still has a masterpiece somewhere in it and you've managed to identify some of those contours. The more of your mistakes you can identify, the more you can learn to correct them, and the better your art will be for it.

I'm going to go try to find a way to make sure my characters don't keep smacking their heads on ceilings when they jump. Wish me luck.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Game Day: Neocolonialism

Why, yes, Boston does have a thriving independent game dev community, full of excellent people making excellent games . This particular game I've been curious about since I first heard about it at the start of the year, and since its release was earlier this month I'd like to share my experience with it.

Neocolonialism is about unabashedly being a bastard in a way that's smarter and more topical than any other recent game seeking smart and topical.

But you're ruining everything in a way that benefits you so it's ok.

As the head of a multinational corporation, you use your clout to buy parliamentary votes in countries worldwide. These votes let you elect prime ministers from among the players, who in turn present proposals for the parliament to vote for. Collectively, you'll propose and ratify mines and factories, set up free trade agreements, intervene in international crises, and build up your political power, letting you buy more parliamentary votes in other countries, slowly bleeding the world dry. After twelve turns of this, the game ends; before then, you'll want to liquidate as many of your parliamentary votes as you can, funneling the money into your Swiss bank account. Whoever's account is flushest at the end of the game is the winner, triumphant amid the ruin of the rest of the planet.

The play itself is simple, with a few choices spiraling out into a lot of possibility and nuance. Each turn has three parts. In the investment phase, players taking turns buying or selling parliamentary votes around the world until no player can or wants to make another move. In the policy phase, players vote on issues in each region in turn, and if they're the prime minister of that region, they can make proposals, including mines, factories, and free trade agreements, that affect the value of votes in that (and possibly other) regions. Because multiple players may benefit from a region, and no player collects income on a region if it has no prime minister, it's sometimes in your interest to cede power to another - especially if you can set up a shady backroom deal with them over it. In the IMF (International Monetary Fund) phase, some national crisis - a strike, a collapse - occurs in a region, possibly changing the value of resources in that country. Each turn, one player gets to decide what intervention, if any, should take place there. This can ruin strategies or open up new ones if you're clever enough to find them.

The map is upside-down.
I'll admit that I haven't had a chance to play against actual humans - I've only gotten to play against AI opponents with names like Thatcher and Reagan, whose policies the game is an obvious parody of. That said, it's a lot of fun - there are a lot of different strategies to take, a lot of different ways to conspire with and against the other players. The tutorials are a little dense, but helpful for the uninitiated - once you're through them, you'll have enough to play a game or two and get the hang of things. At first it just seems like getting as much income as possible, but by the end of the game, when there's a lot of money to throw around and not that many votes left to buy, you'll wish you'd cashed out some parliamentary votes a little earlier - just don't make the mistake I did of selling too much too early and watching in horror as the other players swallowed up the free votes I left behind. Even once you hammer out a strategy you can still get thrown for a loop if some unexpected disaster blows a hole in one of your investments. There's a lot to account for, but when things work out it's immensely satisfying to burn through all your votes on the last turn and watch your bank account fill up.

Help or hinder another player for personal gain, to set a trap, to strike a deal, or because why the hell not?
So far my favorite thing is the deadpan sense of humor combined with incisive politics. It's a clever presentation of insidious policy that is, unfortunately, all too real across regular, right-side-up maps. It's not just "corporations have too much influence;" it's "the policies of money infiltrate, manipulate, and ruin more nations than the ones where they originate." It's a statement not only about how we screw ourselves with our financial and electoral decisions, but about how we screw everybody with those decisions, which is a much less comfortable truth. It's not being said loudly enough in any medium, and seeing such an excellent representative in video games, which are often behind the times on social issues, is satisfying as hell.

In summary: Support it because it's important, play it because it's fun.

Subaltern Games website: http://subalterngames.com/

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Art of Game Design

When I started designing Candlelight I asked for  resources on game design to get started, and someone directed me towards The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell. This book does not contain instructions on what programs to make your game in. It does not teach you how to code. It does not tell you which market to strive for. It is, however, the most important $40 I have spent on Candlelight, and some of the best money I've ever spent in my life, and it's time I gave it the due it deserves here.

The Art of Game Design contains the word "Art" in its title for a reason: its focus is on the craft, on the process, of creating a refined game. In any art, there are certain physical tools - paints, clays, cameras, etc. - that are required for success. However, these are not the substance of the art itself, and simply understanding them is insufficient to produce great works. Schell recognizes this; though he does spend time addressing the tools and technologies of game design, much of the book focuses on the intangibles of design. Art is difficult to teach, and game design is no different. Schell offers frameworks and rules for practicing game design, which the student can use to hone their mastery of the craft.

These frameworks come in the form of 100 lenses presented gradually throughout the book. Each lens offers a way of looking at the game for the sake of refining it. For example, the lens of Flow asks the designer to look at the player's skills and how they develop as the player pursues goals; the lens of Accessibility asks the designer to look at how easy the game and its challenges are to understand to a newcomer; and the lens of the Raven asks the gamer to only focus on what's important by constantly asking "Is this worth my time?" Schell posits early that the game isn't merely its game board, or dice, or installer package; it's an experience, shaped by the designer, explored by the player, and influenced by a hundred other factors besides. The book slowly draws a map of that experience, and the factors the designer must consider when constructing their experience for the player.

What I personally enjoyed so much about this book, however, was that it was not only useful for me as a game developer but also expanded my view of the world in general. Schell's discussions of art, psychology, people, architecture, and dozens of other subjects are certainly all presented with game development in mind, but are also useful more generally. In attempting to grant enough perspective on a subject to use it to design games, Schell does an excellent job of quickly illustrating the salient points of the subject in a way that I found eye-opening and very enjoyable. The book would have been worthwhile without such moments, but the frequency of these moments are what make it an exceptional read.

The Art of Game Design is as general as possible, and can be applied to games of any type, from simple card games to MMO's. Obviously not all of the content is applicable to every game, but there's plenty to be had regardless of the experience you hope to produce. Even non-developers with an interest in games will find much of value here; if nothing else, it can do a lot to develop the skills of anyone looking to analyze games critically.

I don't know Jesse Schell and nobody is paying me to endorse this book; I sincerely think it's amazing enough to warrant my spending the time telling you about it, and I hope you look into it and pick up a copy if it's at all up your alley.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Game-Design-lenses/dp/0123694965
Website: http://artofgamedesign.com/book/

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Someone accused me of writing my last post because I just wanted to write about FEZ. Not so! I'm writing this post because I just want to write about FEZ. Yes, I'm writing this pretty late, but it's decidedly worth checking out if you missed it, and even if you didn't I wanted to mention what I enjoyed about it.

Pictured: Only part of the picture.
The most basic premise of FEZ is that you control a 2d character who discovers one day that he is living in a 3d world. It plays like a 2d puzzle-platformer except that you can use the A and D keys to rotate the world to see it from 90 degrees to the left or right. This has some obvious effects, like letting you see doors or objects that aren't visible from a different angle, and non-obvious effects, like moving two platforms that were distant from one another closer together so that it's possible to jump between them.

Armed with this ability, you'll proceed through a maze of non-linear levels, collecting cubes that can be used to open doors to new areas. The cubes are usually either out of reach, requiring tricky rotating to access, or hidden by puzzles ranging in difficulty from "cute" to "absolutely diabolical." You'll be accompanied by a tesseract-shaped sprite who's a bit like Navi but less helpful and more annoying - it's part of the charm.

I'll get the "review" part out of the way quickly; it's well-written, well-scored, beautiful, clever, and an excellent use of your time if you're at all into puzzle games. Go play it.

So! Particulars. The two things I like best about the game are the incredible amount of emergent puzzles that appear out of its simple mechanics, and the open-world exploration mentioned in the previous post.

The ability to rotate the world is one of those mechanics that can make anyone with a trained eye for development drool. It's simple to use, its implications are subtle, and its uses continually unfold throughout the game in a series of incredibly satisfying discoveries. You might be climbing up a ladder, and rotate the screen so that your ladder segment lines up with a more distant one, allowing you to climb further - except that you rotate yourself into a glitch and die (which is a nuisance but not a major setback). You can grab hold of a lever and rotate the screen to rotate a piece of the level with you, relative to the rest of the screen. Some levels impose additional restrictions on you, or offer you a couple toys to play with, but the core of the mechanics never change - you just discover new ways to use them.
You can also just hang out by this lighthouse indefinitely. It's a pretty good lighthouse.
Which leads me to the open-world exploration I mentioned earlier. The fact that the world is open, varied, nonlinear, and easy to explore is great, but it's the effect it's put to that makes it worth mentioning. Despite having very little in common in terms of gameplay, FEZ actually reminded me quite a bit of Myst. The world you're exploring is not untouched; other people clearly existed here, but everything about them is mysterious. As you fill in your map, you'll also start painting a picture about the different places you're travelling to and what ties them together. As Myst showed a couple decades ago, exploring ruins is lonely work, and FEZ knows how to capture that atmosphere perfectly. The more observant you are, the more puzzles you'll notice that are outside the scope and scale of your more immediate tasks; without giving too much away, I'll say that hardcore puzzle fans will be thrilled at all the riddles and fun rewards secreted away in FEZ's many rooms. If you're dedicated, you'll be amazed at what you can unearth.

There's a lot of game here, and it's all fantastic.

The game can get a little frustrating in places, and if you're impatient it can definitely be tempting to throw up your hands at the more complicated puzzles. But push past it! If you miss being challenged by puzzles and love to explore and map out the secrets of a world, you'll get pulled in immediately - and it's a pretty great game to get pulled into.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Freedom in games - World space

I've been talking a lot with a friend recently about what makes games fun, or what makes the kinds of stories they tell different from other stories, or what the ideal "Gaminess" of a game might look like - and how many lack it. This is an interesting discussion but also kind of a headache; I'd like to come at this problem sideways, maybe over the course of a few posts.

One thing, maybe the main thing, that makes a game different from other media is choice on the part of the audience. This, too, is kind of a big topic - choice in games is about risk, reward, consequence, and discovery. So we'll break that down further, into the kinds of freedoms a player is afforded: the kinds of choices they can make. And I'll go ahead and narrow it down even more. So! Today we're going to be talking about choice and player freedom as a function of the world - the space the player's virtual avatar occupies in a game.

World space and freedom are pretty strongly linked in the mind of many players. Most of what we think of as "Sandbox games" are games with large worlds that don't restrict your travel, allowing you to use all the actions of your character anywhere in a large gamespace, and limiting your travel between parts of the gamespace in relatively few ways. The best recent example is Skyrim, where, upon completing the game's introduction, you're free to more or less go anywhere in the world and do whatever you like. So, when we think of a space as offering freedom, we tend to think of that space as:


This doesn't need to hold in every space within the game - dungeons in Skyrim are usually quite linear, with relatively little exploration - but if the world, the highest-level gamespace, has these qualities, we tend to feel that we've been given freedom in that game. 

In all gameplay elements, freedom is about finding a balance between too little and too much freedom. When a game space fails at providing freedom, it is because moving through the game space no longer feels meaningful. If our choices about exploring a space are very few - we can move forward, but not backward, through world 1-1 in Super Mario Bros., and can jump along the way - this won't necessarily make us feel constricted. However, it limits the developer's ability to use space as a means of granting the players freedom. (This particular game has a powerful counterexample in world 1-2, where you can jump up above the top of the level to bypass the level's hazards and reach a special warp zone to take you later in the game - in this case, the earlier limitations imposed cause this moment to feel intensely freeing/gratifying.) 

We all felt so clever the first time we figured this out.
Conversely, if we have many opportunities to explore, but little reason to go one way or another, the player can lose interest; if there's no evident advantage to going one way or another, players start to wonder why they're exploring at all. FEZ, for all its delightfulness, feels this way a little bit at the beginning; with a vast web of rooms to explore, and little benefit to selecting one over another (each one containing mostly self-contained puzzles and rewarding you with the keys needed to unlock other areas), it's hard to know why you're going in any particular direction.

Don't worry, we'll come back to the stuff FEZ does right with space in a minute.
As a game world gets bigger, the requirement that choices be meaningful becomes weightier; if you're going down one path instead of any of seven others - each of which has its own four paths away from it - you're going to want to feel like your choice served some purpose, and preferably that it was distinct in meaningful ways from the other choices. 

The right amount of freedom in space is incredibly local to the specific game experience. Some games don't need much; like Super Mario Bros., they're not interested in using game space to create a sense of freedom. Half-Life creates a game space that's large and feels natural, but whose linearity and cramped quarters limit freedom in a way that contributes to its horror atmosphere. Some games need to vary the amount of freedom based on the part of the game you're in; Wind Waker's dungeons, which are fairly linear and directly goal-oriented, create a more challenging contrast to the free sailing that takes up much of the game.

In which we could be any-damn-where.
Wind Waker and Skyrim are both games that afford the player a great deal of freedom. To keep this freedom from being paralyzing, they both:

-Make the player's path clear, so a player pursuing the a particular objective doesn't get lost in the vast world;

-Make side objectives and exploration rewarding enough to feel meaningful and worthwhile

In combination, these aspects create worlds that seem larger than they are because at any point, the player can detour from their primary objective, go on some side adventures, and easily pick up the main thread again, usually better off for their dallying. In Wind Waker and Skyrim, this creates an enormous feeling of freedom and helps the world feel huge, continuous, and immersive. FEZ, meanwhile, never gives you a path through its world that's especially clear. However, whatever path you choose allows for progress, and ultimately all or most of the game must be explored, so choices made rarely feel frustrated. Combined with the fact that the game is gorgeous, and exploring and learning about the world is a puzzle unto itself, FEZ turns the wandering exploration into its own reward, letting you slowly discover and claim the various levels.

Owls creep me out.
So! If you want to have a big, open game, you've got to find a way to structure it such that players never feel lost, and always feel like there's meaning in the decisions they make about where they go. If you've got a narrow, linear game, then you don't have to think about it as much! It does mean you need to find other ways to keep your game engaging, though. Used improperly, open space and freedom of movement muddies the experience and makes your game feel overambitious or padded or simply boring; used correctly, it can create a lush, memorable world that acts as a backdrop for emergent stories players write themselves.

Here the player controlling the ball gets to explore an exciting world of numbers, lines, and other lines.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Game day: Pokémon Y

The 3DS came out awhile ago, and I wasn't really paying attention. 3D Ocarina of Time came out for it, and I didn't really care - I've bought that game about six times already, 3D didn't do enough to make it worth it again. Starfox 64 came out for it, and I didn't think my old ears could deal with Slippy's mewlings long enough to make that satisfying. Nothing else really piqued my curiosity.

Then: Pokémon, in 3D, with lots of cool new features and moves and everything. All pretty. Welp.

So, I picked up a 3DS XL, and Y version, and I think my housemates think I'm dead now? Or at least the part of me that isn't playing Pokémon. After a little over a week of it, I'd like to weigh in with my impressions.

TL; DR: It's super effective!

First: It's hard to oversell how pretty the game is. For those of us who patiently waited through five generations of still or mostly-still images of our dueling monsters, it's pretty cool to see them coming to life in battles. It's no longer just "oh, that's a neat design"; the Pokémon are actually quite cool looking. As my fiancée has been saying over and over, "It's the way I've always wanted to play Pokémon," from the spectacular (in the most literal sense of the word) battles to the ability to, y'know, walk diagonally. It feels like it could be a console game.

Plus you get to rollerblade around everywhere, which is sweet.
Much is getting made of some of the new additions to the game, like Mega Evolutions (which are basically Super Saiyan mode, letting select monsters temporarily evolve in battle into an even stronger form) or the first new type since Gen 2, Fairy Type, with many classic Pokémon (like Clefairy here) being retconned to the new type.

It seems that most - but not all - pokemon from Gen 1 are now Fairy Type. Maybe they're rolling it out in phases, and eventually all 700-whatever will be Fairy-Type? sure looks that way
These features are neat, but they kind of feel like the business-as-usual changes to the game required to keep core play feeling fresh. The past 2 or 3 generations haven't seen too many changes past this, and suffered as a consequence. Even a couple tweaks to breeding - which cut breeding time for a high-power, competitive Pokémon by about an order of magnitude - feel a little more like a bug fix than a major shift. The impact they'll have on the competitive scene (where your options used to be hack, cheat, waste hours of time breeding, or lose) is significant, and may substantially reduce hacking, but many casual players won't even notice the change.

To me, the best changes to the game are how accessible the global community has become. In past iterations of the game, it's always felt as though other players were kind of tricky to come by - especially as my peers grew up and I didn't. The Player Search System lets you interact with friends and strangers alike, allowing easy trades and letting you give little boosts to other players, like earning more money or catching Pokémon easier. My personal favorite feature is the Wonder Trade system, which lets you trade a Pokémon for a another completely random Pokémon that someone else is Wonder Trading. Obviously you get a bunch of level 3 Caterpies this way, but sometimes you get cool stuff - I've gotten a couple of starters and other rare Pokémon this way, alongside some that I simply wasn't far enough in the game to get. When Pokémon start coming in from Japan or Australia or France, it really gives you a sense of how huge the game is globally - and when you get something valuable or rare, it feels like a generous gesture from a complete stranger.

This is how I feel, all of the time.

To me, Pokémon X and Y feel somewhat like the advent of Netflix streaming years back (I swear to God I'm going somewhere with this). When that happened, it felt like the product had been engineered for just such an occurrence: the framework had been established, and once the technology - bandwith and storage - became widespread enough, it was easy for them to transition into a streaming system that made a lot of sense for most customers. With X/Y, it feels as though everything is in place: the player base, the community, the IP, and now they've connected all those players and made the whole experience feel a lot more friendly. You can go to Reddit for news on the game, or to find people to swap friend codes with for trading or battles, and it's easy to add them into your game. The game rewards this behavior by giving you access to some unique Pokémon for each new friend code you add, and as I said you and your friends can give each other minor boosts that are a nice perk.

If you strongly dislike the games in general this may not be the one to sway you, but if you're a fan who skipped or was disappointed by recent entries, this is definitely worth looking into. To my mind, each iteration of the games has improved on the formula, with tighter gameplay and finer graphics, and the change up to X and Y is probably the most dramatic yet.

For my part I ain't even beat the Elite Four yet and then I still got hella Scythers to breed so I might weigh in on this again next week. Meanwhile, let's get some friend codes goin', I got some good stuff to trade.

Oh, and I leave you with this from my picture search for the article:
Whyyyy. ;__;

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Linking story and gameplay

For my first blog back in awhile I'd like to talk about Candlelight, the game I've been making, because it's been on my mind and it's a nice way to ease back into things. Specifically, I'd like to talk about the relationship between story (/atmosphere/mood/theme) and gameplay (/mechanics/rules/abilities).

Our game is, at least at present, pretty darn opaque about backstory. We haven't provided information about the characters, their relationship, or their purpose, and that's deliberate, so information we impart about the characters needs to be done through gameplay.

We give hints about our characters through their abilities, which are differentiated according to their personalities. For example, our boy is given the use of a lantern whose light changes the environment:


This ability is central to how the boy plays, and to his character as well: he is first of all perceptive, able to see things that others can't. Underneath this are related personality traits: creativity, imagination, thoughtfulness. When exploring a new area it makes sense to traverse it thoroughly with the boy to uncover hidden secrets.
At the same time, his lantern sometimes reveals obstacles:


He's creative, but also a little stubborn or even pessimistic, constrained by imagined (if not imaginary) problems that only he can see.

Meanwhile, our girl is able to jump a little higher than the boy:

This may seem a little less dramatic than the magic lantern, but at its base it shows off the girl's athleticism. Moreover, the levels are designed to give her a lot of places to jump to that the boy can't reach. Together with the fact that animals are more likely to interact with her, this means that she spends a lot of time interacting with the level, exploring corridors that are inaccessible for the boy, coaxing animals into helping solve puzzles, flipping levers and pushing buttons to help the boy progress. These reveal more about her personality: curious, energetic, friendly, enthusiastic.

These abilities also inform the characters' relationship with one another, while at the same time illuminating one of the main themes of the game: separation.

Between the lantern creating paths and obstacles, and the girl's extra mobility, many of the game's puzzles require that the characters separate from one another to proceed. In the puzzle below, the girl and boy are separated when the girl opens a door for the boy that she cannot follow him through:

Then, in order to keep the girl from running into the spikes on the ceiling, the boy has to create a path for her to walk through:

Insert light-related pun here
Very often, the edge of the lantern forms an important boundary; the boy is always encompassed by it, and for the girl, finding the correct side of it to be on is important to moving forward. Sometimes this means that the girl must create an escape for the boy from an obstacle created by the lantern; sometimes, the boy must cast his light on a lever that will open a door for the both of them. The characters proceed by separating and reuniting, with puzzles structured to create a feeling that each character is helping the other, showing them things they aren't able to see on their own. 

The above are provided as examples of a concept that I feel is important to game design in general: using the gameplay to inform the player about the story and about the characters. When I spoke to playtesters about the game, I found that many of them became quite uncomfortable at the moments of forced separation; they felt like the characters belonged together, and tried to reunite them as quickly as they could. This feedback has informed other design choices: tweaking levels so that no character may progress too far without the other, changing the display so the characters can see more when they are united and changing the sound so that music fades or becomes more sinister when they separate. 

The more text or cutscenes used in a game, the more emotion or mood can be conveyed using voice acting, or word choice, or animation. However, even in a game using these tools, gameplay is an important way to help the players feel involved and invested in these stories, and ensuring that your mechanics and controls inform the player about the world they're inhabiting is an excellent way to make that world more attractive to spend time in, and more memorable. 

Friday, October 25, 2013


Hi, all!

After months of silence, I've decided to start doing a little bit of writing again, now with New and Improved format!

The last few months have been incredibly busy for me - lots of work-related tasks, and I've still been making Candlelight in my non-work hours (lunch counts as non-work). I've certainly missed writing, though, and am trying to find a way to work it back into my schedule. So, starting next week, I'll be back with new updates! I'm looking at a 3-day a week format:

-Tuesdays will be Dev day. I'll be discussing some aspect of games from the developer's perspective - either some insight I've seen about my own game's development, or something about design in general.

-Thursdays will be Other People's Games day. I'll be writing something about either a game I've been playing or a favorite game of mine. This might take the form of a review, or it might just be something pretty I enjoy and a couple reasons why. I'm always a dev, so I always think in a dev-y way, but I'll try to prioritize the gamer experience for this section.

-Saturdays will be Play day. I'll sit down with whatever game I've been playing and just livetweet the hell out of it. Just, whatever comes to mind. This will be more for fun, because games should be fun! I'll also be happy to answer questions or chat in general during this time. I'll try to make this happen at a set time each Saturday, or post the tweets on the blog for posterity, or both.

So! Expect posts, starting Tuesday. If you've got a game you'd like me to play, or talk about, or promote, let me know.

Looking forward to being back!