Sunday, April 6, 2014


I hate to be so down on such a beautiful game, but I was pretty upset at Stranded by the end of the game.

The title refers to the astronaut you control, who is stranded on an unknown planet. You have supplies to last you indefinitely, but your ship is in pieces and you are unarguably grounded. There are local aliens are gigantic rock-robot-things. They are absolutely alive and intelligent. You see them breathe, move, and jump in the water for a quick… swim? Something. Despite their activity, though, they are inhumanly uncurious about the tiny human astronaut wandering around their planet and through their temples. It’s eerie how unmoved they are by your presence. As a stranded human, you are desperate to establish communications with them. They should be able to help you get off the planet, right? At the very least, it’s something to try. As you wander across the mostly barren plains, you don’t have a lot of options to choose from.

I don’t have a lot of patience for puzzles. If I feel stuck or frustrated, I have no problem referring to a step-by-step walkthrough. However, Stranded put me in the shoes of an astronaut encountering completely alien life. After poking around for some obvious solutions and coming up empty, I thought it was prudent to at least take some notes on my environment. Despite my aversion to detailed notes and other kinds of tedious work that I normally offload to the internet’s more dedicated puzzle-solvers, I figured a stranded astronaut with nothing better to do would absolutely start taking notes about their environment and the mysterious aliens that surrounded them. Out came the pen and paper, and I started mapping the locations of the aliens over time, what direction they faced, the runes carved on the temple walls, the sounds that each temple emitted when activated. I found matching sounds, matching runes, a thousand details that could be relevant when trying to unlock the mystery of the planet. To the game’s credit, there were a lot of details and distinctions. I felt like I was learning something about this planet and its inhabitants, even if I wasn’t sure how to apply it yet. It was progress for my doomed astronaut with nothing else to do with their time.

Eventually, your ship’s life support systems short out. Your time on the planet sharply reduces from “essentially unlimited” to “a matter of hours”. All of those clues gathered need to be put to use immediately, somehow.

Spoiler! The clues you gathered, the behaviors I observed, the runes on the temple, they didn’t mean jack shit. I walked into each temple, then I walked to a platform and clicked on the colored lights in no particular order, and then my astronaut was turned into an alien stone-robot thing. The game ended right then and there. My expectations were betrayed. The work I put into documenting and observing this planet was useless. My reward was a punishment. I didn’t unlock any secrets, I didn’t learn anything about the inhabitants, and I absolutely didn’t escape the planet. I just kind of…died.

My over-investment in the premise is probably my fault. I don’t mind a game with a dark ending, or even a completely nihilistic message. What happened was I got really excited at a chance to decode a truly alien civilization. I had high hopes, and I over-invested when I should have relaxed and enjoyed the ride. The fact that Stranded got such a strong reaction out of me is really to its credit for creating something that drew me so quickly and effectively. Also, to be fair, a story about an astronaut who valiantly tries to decode an alien civilization only to die without learning anything is pretty affecting. I just wish it wasn’t my astronaut’s story.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was pretty good, but I ran up against some major flaws.

In most games, the left analog stick controls the character’s movement and the right analogue stick controls the camera. In Brothers, however, the left half the controller belongs to the older brother, so he’s moved by the left analogue stick and interacts with objects with the left trigger, and the other half of the controller is dedicated to the younger brother. It was surprisingly difficult to get used to and as a result, I played with the older brother on the left side of the screen and the younger brother on the right so that my eyes and hands could more easily coordinate.

The levels mostly consist of climbing and pulling levers and leaping as pieces of the level collapse under your feet, which reminded me a lot of Uncharted minus the gunplay. You also had to complete some simplistic puzzles revolving around coordinating the two brothers and using their unique abilities. The older brother is strong enough to use big levers and is the only one who can swim, while the younger brother can squeeze into tight spots and can be lifted into inaccessible areas by the oldest. Despite the relatively straightforward level design, the controls were so alien I needed to think carefully about every move. As a result, I found the puzzling pleasantly taxing instead of completely brainless.

Many of the set pieces in Brothers really were unique and beautiful. One set piece was a giant-sized, Jack and the Beanstalk-esque castle, completely abandoned. Then in the next area I had to navigate the two siblings through a valley where the castle’s gargantuan former residents lay dead after a battle. Their still-flowing blood polluted the valley stream, which poured down a waterfall into a bizarre altar where tribesmen were performing a sacrifice. In another scene, I came across people crystallized into snow, apparently by a gigantic, yet completely invisible monster that I narrowly avoided.

Even though there is no English in the game, characters communicated in sim-like hoots and hollers, and wild gesticulation. They managed to convey a story about loss and growth without any English at all.

A few things really rubbed me the wrong way, though. When I rescued a woman from the sacrificial altar, she joined me on my journey. My first thought was, “I wonder if she will either betray me or die later?” As it turned out, she seduced the older brother… Then betrayed me. I thought that was a pretty tired trope in action. Also, there was a giant spider fight that only succeeded in mimicking Limbo. I’m really sick of giant spiders.

In the end, the older brother is murdered by the TREACHEROUS, SEDUCTIVE WOMAN and you have to endure a drawn-out scene in which you as the younger brother bury his body. It was slow and overwrought and made me more bored than sad, but in the next scene, you finally return home. The left side of your controller is useless, since you’ve lose your older brother. The first obstacle in your path is a rock cliff with two climbable protrusions, just like you’ve encountered all game. Previously, the two protrusions let the two brothers climb up at the same time, but now there is only one brother who can climb, and the right protrusion, where I spent the entire game guiding the little brother, isn’t high enough to let him leap to the next ledge. You must go to the left side, which I found to be an eerie reminder of the missing brother.

Then you go through all the obstacles you went through at the beginning of the game, but without the older brother to help you solve them. Instead, you need to use his ability button. The younger brother channels his dead sibling to pull harder on a stiff lever, to run farther to get up to a high ledge, and to swim on his own without relying on his brother to guide him. This was a much more effective memorial for the brother. It used mechanics to show how he had inspired and changed his younger brother, even after the eldest’s death.

Overall, Brothers was a great way to spend three hours. I enjoyed the quick pace and short length. The animation and mechanics did a good job of aiding the story’s narration. My only complaint is the quality and creativity of the writing wasn’t sustained over the entire length of the game. Murderous seductresses and giant spiders are something I can find in the majority of games. The fact that Brothers reached such great heights before stooping to such time-worn lows only made the sting of cliche worse.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

running CD: one man's experience

Critical Distance is, in all seriousness, one of the most ambitious projects on the internet. As a weekly list of contemporary discussions of video games curated by volunteers for free, it’s not a project for only one person to sustain, which is why you see different organizers and staffers over the lifetime of the site. I recently took two shifts and thought I would share my experience and thoughts.

Theoretically, the submission process is crowdsourced. Readers find good writing about games or authors write something they think is valuable, and a link to said article is submitted to the CD Twitter account. Then the organizer reads the submissions and puts them into a nice post at the end of the week.

In practice, that’s not at all how things work. I only received about seven submissions each week. What I actually did was create a new Google document for that week’s CD. As I came across something game-related, either through my personal Twitter feed or my RSS reader, I put the link into the doc before I even read the content behind it, which is ultimately where the majority of links in a given week’s CD originated. At the end of the week, I shared the document with someone who had access to the CD Twitter account, and they added that week’s submissions at the bottom. Of the approximately seven submissions, at least three would be duplicates of what I already had.

On Saturday morning, I would trawl through my list and each link would get read...more or less. If I thought the content was appropriate, I would edit the list to add in a sentence summing up the argument or otherwise describing the article for my own reference, as well as grab the author's full name for citation. If the article didn't seem appropriate, I would delete the link. The final step would be organizing the post. Topics and themes tend to congeal over the course of a week, and it’s just a matter of writing the connective tissue and a quick intro/outro. To be honest, cleaning up the post would be the easiest part.

Problem #1 with the process as it exists today is that the organizer needs to do all the footwork of collecting the posts as well as reading, evaluating, and summarizing them. Fortunately for me, I’ve spent the past four years building a network of people who continually write or link to great stuff. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty high bar to expect of anyone else who might want to help out with CD.

As a partial solution, now that I know how sparse submissions are, I will try following my previous habit of keeping links to everything I read in a week. Instead of a private Google document, I'll push new links to the CD Twitter account much more frequently. In order to solve the specific problem of the organizer needing to collect all the posts, we can start backing away from the idea that submissions need to be stellar, perfect articles. I think submissions need to be much broader in general, and we can leave the gating up to the organizer for that week. That leads into the next problem.

Problem #2 stems from the arbitrary and opaque criteria for selection. A common question about CD asks, “what makes for a good submission?” And in all honesty those criteria change from week to week.

There are some loose guidelines about what kind of articles CD doesn't want to curate. For example, straight news don’t tend to be a good fit for CD. We assume you’ll use one of the many daily gaming news sites. Reviews tend not to make it into CD because if you want to know whether or not to buy a game, you can just go to Metacritic.

However, I can easily come up with several counter-examples where daily news or commercial reviews of a game become stand-ins for larger issues in the community. Gamespot’s GTA 5 review was a critical part of understanding how the game community navigates misogyny. Rock Paper Shotgun’s interview with Blizzard broke a bit of news when Blizzard was caught off-guard by questions of the representation of women.

On the flip side, I felt quite comfortable linking articles I hadn't completely read or fully understood. If an article seemed as though it would provoke a more full discussion, that was good enough for me to include it. Similarly, I had no trouble throwing away a link if I felt it didn't belong for any number of reasons: it’s boring, it’s repeating conventional wisdom, it’s an isolated experience without enough context, or (this didn't actually happen in my experience) it’s presented poorly.

CD has two ways to handle the problem of arbitrary selection: 1) establish some sort of metric for selecting a piece and rigorously run every article through a rubric, or 2) embrace the inherent mutability of curation. Argue the benefit of curating CD for a week as the chance to feature what you think is important, as long as it holds up to some general community standard.

I’m fine with option 2 at this point. The community standard I believe in the most has been firmly demonstrated by Kris’ previous work: empathy toward others, especially the marginalized. CD demonstrates this standard by being accommodating to readers’ needs, especially by making it clear when we link to content that has the potential to be triggering. It would go against a lot of core principles of CD to link to a piece solely to mock it, although a laughably terrible piece might be politely linked if it galvanized a larger, more interesting discussion.

In general, CD would probably not link to someone arguing that women were objects due to biotruths and everyone should shut up about diversity in games because men have it really awesome right now. I guess someone will say that’s a “feminist agenda” or a “social warrior platform” or something, but to me it’s much more about building a welcoming and inclusive community in a space that’s historically been extremely hostile to anyone who isn’t white, straight, male, cis, etc. If CD is going to be a proxy for “what games can mean”, that ideal can’t be realized without embracing the full spectrum of experiences of everyone who plays games as well as all the reasons they do or don’t play certain games.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

the banquet is over

Things I have noticed about Porpentine’s games:

She places links at the ends of sentences. When you finish a sentence, a word links to the next sentence. Placing a link on a word in the middle of a sentence means I read the entire paragraph to get the context of the link, then go back and evaluate the linked word. When the link is at the end of the paragraph, I already have the context I need and I can immediately click to see more.

Macros control the rate at which sentences appear. A long, slow pause makes you consider what’s happening, or sentences rapidly appear to induce frantic scrolling. The choices she gives you make you consider “your” role in the story, as in this example from CYBERQUEEN:

flail scream breathe

It’s similar to Planescape: Torment, which gives you multiple ways to say the same thing. A literate player can recognize there’s not likely a difference between these options, so stakes are low. You aren’t going to “mess up” by choosing to flail instead of scream, so you’re free to experiment without consequence and choose the one with the most meaning to you instead of nudging you toward choosing the option granting +5 to diplomacy rather than strength. This nuance encourages role-playing and immersion.

In the above example, after clicking through all three options there’s a second where nothing happens. It’s an inversion of traditional game logic, where every action has an immediate reaction. In this case it has the effect of being a mind game. Surely “the game” (the designer) wouldn’t leave you hanging in this state, would they? It’s a fun example of the game designer making the player sweat a bit, mostly for the game designer’s own pleasure. (See also: Anna Anthropy, GLADOs in Portal)

Many of Porp’s games revolve around coercion, subjugating the player’s will. Howling Dogs and ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL both feature a central hub with mandatory routine activities: drinking milk, eating nutrient bars and drinking water. In both cases, the routine establishes a rapport with the player, makes the player comfortable. And when the player is settled into a familiar routine, the routine is disrupted. The player is unsettled, and the plot catapults the player into a new, less familiar, less safe routine. Until finally the routine collapses altogether, and the setting congeals into something entirely alien. As one ending to Howling Dogs says, “The banquet is over”.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Starseed Pilgrim

I gave Starseed Pilgrim several chances. So many people spoke with great respect about the exploration and beauty of the game that I went back again and again even after getting extremely frustrated. Normally I quit a game the second it stops respecting my time, but the vagueness with which people alluded to “spoilers” made me think I was honestly, genuinely missing something.

What I discovered on my own is that there isn’t really anything I would consider a “spoiler” about the game. Fifteen minutes of experimentation revealed: digging pink blocks gets you seeds. Seeds have different colors and behaviors. Plant seeds to make platforms. Black stuff comes from the bottom of the screen and from special blocks. You have to connect the special blocks to your platforms while avoiding the black stuff, but once you touch it you go into the negative space of your levelplatforms become corridors and empty space becomes walls. The special blocks become keys. Collect keys, return home, and you’ll take any excess seeds with you, which you can grow to reach new levels.

The game makes gorgeous music. Each seed chimes with a specific noise as it grows, and the void forms dissonant chords as it encroaches. Unfortunately, almost everything else about the game served to frustrate me again and again. Although some seeds are much, much more useful than others, the seeds you get are random and you have no say in the order in which they are planted. This causes trouble with specific kinds of interactions, like how the seed-replenishing pink columns grow extremely slowly, while the void only slows for specific kinds of blocks. This random element makes it difficult to act tactically with your plants, so most ventures into a level will end in failure before you even find a special key-block.

Even if you do find a key-block, any number of things can cause you to mess up. Since special blocks spawn voids, the void generates twice as fast when special blocks are connected. You can accidentally touch the void before you’ve connected enough platforms, making it impossible to grab a key. You can fall off the screen before returning to the beginning of the level with your key in tow, wiping your accomplishment altogether, and if you get to a special block and get the key and make it safely to the bottom of the screen again, you might not have any seeds left over. Your entire adventure, while technically a success, will bring zero reward.

I really thought I was missing something. I tried searching the internet. Here is the official walkthrough for Starseed Pilgrim. I tried watching YouTube videos, which seemed to confirm my findings and didn’t reveal any hidden depth. I asked for help on Twitter and John Brindle was the only one who offered anything approaching human advice. At the end of the day, though, I wasn’t able to find the depth that spoke to so many others in this game.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Endless Space and UI

I really love playing Endless Space. The UI is really frictionless in that it’s always pretty easy to get the information you need but is otherwise unobtrusive. A few simple principles in the interface make Endless Space really engrossing. In short, Endless Space:

  • Makes it easy to access information you need
  • Keeps the context of your decisions clear
  • Uses well-crafted icons to make your decisions as unambiguous as possible

Like many strategy games, ES puts a toolbar at the top of the screen. Each button represents typical strategy game stuff—taxation/empire overviews, research, military and ship design, diplomacy and special “hero” units—but what makes this really useful is how the toolbar is always present and always gives you a quick tooltip summarizing the most important information in each tab. Just hovering over the Empire tab will tell you your income, and hovering over the Military tab tells you your total strength as well as rankings compared to other empires. This may sound like small potatoes, but the tooltip is much more expressive than some of ES’s competitors:

Galactic Civilization 2’s toolbar spreads across the entire bottom of the screen. Tooltips only indicate what each button does. The graph above the buttons gives a really generalized view of each civilization’s progress over time, which isn’t useful when you want to know if your tax income is killing morale.

ES keeps relevant information close together and quickly accessible. In ES, my tax balance is shown above the tax management button, and has a green little smiley face to indicate my empire is happy, whereas GC2 keeps the balance tooltip on the far left, even though you need to go to the middle of the screen to change it. You can’t tell just by looking at the screen where to find a mood summary. On top of that, the entire interface is buried under a giant graph which isn’t really useful for turn-to-turn management.

At the beginning of every turn, ES stacks all the information you need next to the End Turn button.

When your turn starts, everything that needs your attention just sits there unopened until you take a look at it. Here, from top to bottom, the notifications are telling me that another player has something to say to me, that my science research is done, that I have two completed constructions and, slightly to the left of the End Turn button, I have two ships without orders. Just from a glance at the icons, I know exactly what needs to happen this turn.

To be fair, GC does have a notification icon too:
It’s a ship launch reminder / new ship finder. Planets also get a green globe when they’ve completed construction, but these notifications don’t stack, so you can easily end up with 30 of these if you’ve finished 30 ships on 30 planets. They aren’t readable at-a-glance, either. Every completed construction uses the same icon. Most importantly, GC’s stack isn’t inclusive of everything I need to do in a turn, but we’ll get to that in a second.

ES’s Completed Constructions window, accessed from the notifications above, is also really great. It very clearly lets you know when a planet’s queue has run out:

See? The next box is empty! Damn, I should really do something. Fortunately, clicking on a row will take me right to the planet so I can start editing the queue. Once I come back to the notice, it’s updated with whatever I added. This makes it really easy to just scan for empty blocks in the queue to know what I still have to do in each turn. If I want to leave this screen and come back, “minimize” returns the notification to my tray so I can get back to it later. This is useful when I want to check on a planet’s location to decide between making sensor arrays for border planets or ships for more centrally located planets.

Remember how GC doesn’t give you a notification icon for every task you need? That’s because it pops a giant box up at the start of a turn:

A few points in comparison to ES:
1) You can’t see what is next on the planet’s production queue for ships. This is because ships just repeat production endlessly. For buildings , you can see what’s next, but
2) For buildings, the queue doesn’t get updated when you change production of a planet. If I go to a planet to change production and come back, it will still report my planet as not having any construction planned for next turn. Speaking of going to planets...
3) You can’t click or double-click on the event listing to get to the planet, you have to select the right item and click “go to” in the bottom right. Once you click “done”, this screen becomes inaccessible for the rest of your turn.

Speaking of planets!

Endless Space extends its wonderful tooltips to the system management screen. Every output from a system can be moused over to see the breakdown of elements, and every bonus or penalty is clearly accounted for.

This also applies to resources found on planets, and the planet types themselves:

GC has something similar, but it’s cramped. ES lays out accumulated values like an accounting ledger from top to bottom. This lets the numbers line up so you can scan the column at a glance and see where your big bonuses and penalties are coming from. GC muddles its message with asides like, “You are only charged for half of this”. I don’t know what “charged” actually means in this context. A penalty to money? To production time?

Also, GC is more reliant on text than ES. This leads to ambiguous situations like this bonus on my planet:

“Influence bonus: Any cultural district built here will receive a boost in its effectiveness”. Okay, fair enough, but...
Which of these buildings will get the boost? There is no “cultural district” listed. There is a “planetary influence” building, and a “influence” building. Will either of them get the bonus? 
The building description at the bottom of the screen gives some insight, finally[1].

ES avoids ambiguity by relying on iconography. Because each planetary resource (production, dust, science, food) has a color and icon associated with it, it’s very easy to tell at a glance what any given building does. And the tooltip you get for any building is quick to resolve any ambiguity:

The marker in the upper left of each building is color-coded according to what resource it helps develop. The tooltips use the same icons found in the system status screen to unambiguously define the exact effect a building has, as well as any negative effects. If you’re colorblind, the triangles might not be too helpful, but that’s where the icons and tooltips come in.

So how can we summarize the UI decisions Endless Space has made versus those of Galactic Civilization 2?

  • Show the player the information they need in a way that’s easy for them to access.
    • Useful information tends to be values that directly affect player decisions, like net income, rankings or morale.
    • Sprawling graphs can probably hide behind a menu.
  • When you want to grab the player’s attention, use consistent messaging that makes the context clear.
    • Make it easy for the player to take action directly from the notification.
    • If you’re presenting information that needs action taken, keep that information up to date so the player doesn’t lose track of their progress.
    • Try not to rip the player’s context away through use of full-screen windows or unclear notifications
  • Icons and color-coding can prevent ambiguous wording from complicating player decisions.
    • Keeping consistent iconography through the game can make decision making much easier by keeping related concepts linked in the player’s mind

[1] As an aside: There’s a game design issue where GC loves giving percentage-based bonuses, rewarding exploration with 1% increases to this or that, and buildings that increase a value by “15%”. Someone once wrote a great article about why this is not as clear and effective as whole-value bonuses, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. In short, though: a percentage bonus makes me do division, rounding and addition in my head, whereas additive bonuses are much easier to figure out.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Nier is a game that is kind of unusual in structure but which would easily and quickly win a game of jRPG Trope Bingo. You briefly enjoy a text-adventure boss fight, but you then visit Desert Town and grind for items for villagers. Kaine might curse a bit, but her armor is not only beyond impractical, it’s somehow a plot point that she gets stabbed in the chest on three separate occasions. Boy, some armor would be really helpful in a situation like that!

One problem with the game’s structure is the dungeons. Like many games, you venture into dungeons to grab Macguffins, unlock new powers and fight gigantic bosses. In Zelda games, you get your new ability about halfway through the dungeon and you’re forced to use it to overcome the obstacles of the dungeon. In Nier, you wander through hallways, fight the same enemies over and over, take on the Big Boss and then you get a fancy new ability. Zelda uses dungeons as a training ground for new abilities; Nier’s dungeons are just filler. Zelda bosses have a specific weakness to whatever new weapon you’ve acquired; Nier asks you to take a wild fucking guess at the best strategy at defeating a boss through trial and error, and then asks you to go through the entire process three more times to see All The Endings.

I ragequit Nier twice during boss battles where the bosses spam magic bullets at you with very little chance of evasion. There’s a hard limit on how many healing items you can carry and no chance to replenish before facing the boss. Very, very few enemies require the same sort of tactics you’ll use on a boss. Zelda teaches you how to defeat a boss through its dungeon structure. Nier throws you into the dungeon and gives you a gimmick boss and dares you to get it right on your first try.

I did finish the game, but mostly because of the setting. There are only about eight locations in the world, which makes for a smaller, relaxed and more intimate scope. After a certain point, the protagonist mentions the world is in decline, and it seems like a well-supported conclusion. You visit the towns, see how they struggle to get by and understand how the frontier is pressing in on them throughout your travels. In the early acts of the game, it’s a quick journey through frontier areas to visit each town. A few quests challenge you to reach another town without dodging enemies or getting hit, which is feasible in the wide-open spaces linking locations. Once the enemies ramp up, venturing into the field is legitimately dangerous with tons of enemies spamming magic and swarming over you. Unfortunately, the limited scope backfires when Act II ends up repeating Act I scene-for-scene in almost the exact same order.

There’s also a nonsense plot, vaguely explained, about um, Shades? Betrayals where the bad guys spend 90% of their time straight-up helping you destroy their plans? “Sacrifice”? Whatever. Rest assured, this is a game where you Kill Bad Guys with a sword and then, after all the killing, the game tries to pretend you’re the real monster.

I was told that Nier subverted design tropes, that it was a meta-RPG, that it Tackled The System. It doesn’t. You kill bad guys, you get stronger. If it wanted to do something different besides a tacked-on text adventure, which in all honesty seems like a level sequence that got cut, it could have tried going backwards. If the game is about the decline of a world and the disappearance of humans, wouldn’t it make more sense to start with a horrifically strong protagonist with a ton of abilities, who gradually loses those abilities as his world collapses around him? A game where you lean on your abilities until they are taken away from you and then you are left only with the skill you’ve acquired over the course of playing the game? A game where your strength can’t save the world, not even once? A game where destiny is final and can’t be rewritten by The Chosen One? That would go a lot further toward subverting jRPG tropes than having a sassy sidekick complain about fetch quests.