Monday, October 20, 2014

Runers

I'm on the record as being interested in procedural content, but like a lot of things, procedural content is hard to do well, and when it falls short, it falls very short. Runers is a top-down twin-stick shooter. It's a "roguelike", which in this context means that you get a single chance per character to navigate a randomly generated series of dungeons. Unfortunately, it falls short. 

The primary mechanic of the game is that you can craft your own "spells", which are projectile magicks used to injure and defeat enemies. Sometimes, enemies drop a "rune" of a specific element. Runes can be combined to create specific spells, but it's up to you to discover the combinations. 
  
I love the sense of discovery I get when finding new spells. My first hour with the game was just trying to uncover as many spells as possible, slowly unlocking each one's secrets and nuances. Unfortunately, to combine two runes requires a special item which drops rarely. After a while, I got frustrated with how slowly my new discoveries came. That's always my problem with a roguelike. Your fate is determined as much as by luck as it is by skill and knowledge. If you get bad luck in Runers, you won't get any runes to drop at all, or plenty of runs but no way to combine them into more powerful elements. 

The dungeon generation is an example of procedural content gone bad. There seem to be a handful of custom-made rooms which randomly get linked together. Great level design plays against the mechanics of the game, allowing you to adopt different strategies based on the layout of the level. Unfortunately, these handful of rooms alternate between: a) large, empty room full of enemies, b) large, empty room with a giant block in the middle, full of enemies, c) small room full of crates. Games like Little Raiders do a much better job by creating varied rooms with different chokepoints, barriers, and patterns that play off of enemy behavior and player instincts to keep each room feeling fresh. Runers does not. 

Speaking of enemy behavior, every enemy either chases after you, or runs away from you. The most effective strategy for every room is to run in circles while shooting nonstop, and then trying to chase after the few enemies actively running away from you. This isn't necessarily about procedural content, but even the ghost movements in PacMan were more complicated than this. There are a few enemies who do something different, like steal upgrades and run away, or give you a fake aiming cursor to confuse you, or follow walls. There are a few bosses and sub-bosses who act slightly differently. Other than that, it's not interesting and dominant tactics rarely change from room to room.  

So there you have it. Runers could have been an awesome experience for mefiguring out combinations to increasingly cool spells and running roughshod over monsters. Instead, I got burned out pretty quickly on the non-existent difference between levels, reliance on sheer luck for getting new spells, and the monotony of enemy encounters. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Flappy Bird & Clones

There are different shades of game cloning. Frank Lantz wants us to acknowledge that cloning is complicated because declaring that a game is a “clone” is prone to subjectivity and personal bias. Cloning runs the gamut from ripping or recreating art and mechanics to be a 1:1 match, to taking the same code and wrapping it in different skins, to slightly changing mechanics, to being “inspired” by existing games, to participating in a genre without much variation. There are loving tributes, which combine elements of different games into a unique form. There are legal boundaries, which vary by jurisdiction and the language of which is sometimes impenetrable. There are ethical boundaries, which are wholly unenforceable. There are grey areas, and there are audiences who don’t know or care about the differences.

It’s really hard to be consistent in how you talk about cloning games. When it’s hard to be consistent, our natural biases—including societal biases—sometimes tip the scales of our decision. Awareness of these different factors should preclude any discussion of clones.  With all of that in mind, Mattie Brice asks why some games have value and others don’t. In order to shed some light on that disparity, let’s compare Flappy Bird to Threes.

Flappy Bird is a really incredible game. Every part of Flappy Bird, from the exact physics of the flap up and the plummet down, to the pacing of the obstacles and the precise gap you need to navigate, seems to have been lovingly crafted and fine-tuned.

However, my appreciation for Flappy Bird is not universal. In an article titled “Flappy Bird Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art”, Kotaku published an article claiming it achieved undeserved respect, using weak evidence tailored to fit that conclusion. Kotaku accused Flappy Bird’s creator of copy-pasting art from Super Mario Bros, but Kotaku’s evidence, consisting of side-by-side images, didn’t support their accusation.

The article was later updated to indicate Kotaku regretted the misleading headline, but the question remains as to why Kotaku boldly attacked the game’s financial success. Mattie Brice did an excellent job of breaking down some of the hidden assumptions embedded in the conclusions Kotaku reached. Essentially, Mattie argues, Kotaku was reacting to an unknown developer from outside the mainstream bypassing the traditional structures of industry.

When Flappy Bird’s developer decided to pull it off the market, the void was quickly filled by clones. Stephen Beirne followed up on the logic of the Flappy Jam, which was explicitly about creating Flappy Bird clones. Many of these clones did commit the crimes Kotaku accused the original of committing: stealing resources from Flappy Bird or Mario. Many clones were also inferior to Flappy Bird itself. [1] Months later, Kotaku published an article admitting maybe it was a bit harder than it seemed to create Flappy Bird.

Recently, something similar happened to the developers of the game Threes and Kotaku wrote an article about the controversy. Similar to Flappy Bird, Threes was an original game that resulted in a swarm of clones. Unlike many Flappy Bird clones, which all emerged roughly simultaneously, most of the Threes clones came from a single clone called 2048. 2048 is slightly different from Threes, and most clones of Threes are actually using the 2048 code base, so the Threes developers attacked 2048 specifically for riding their coattails by releasing their design documents in order to demonstrate that the 2048-esque mechanics were a possibility they investigated and ultimately discarded. Kotaku said of the controversy, “It’s easy to sympathize with the creators of Threes.”

In contrast, most of the Flappy Bird clones were straight attempts to recreate the original game and despite Flappy Bird clones being a more clear-cut case of cloning, sympathy was not extended to the creator of Flappy Birds at any point during Kotaku’s coverage.   

The way Threes was treated versus how Flappy Bird was treated is a little disturbing to me. Threes got to defend itself using their own design documents, in their own voice, and on their own site. Other sites were more than happy to link to the creators’ unreadably huge pile of emails explaining the concept behind Threes. Flappy Bird’s creator only got a few interviews, which by definition are controlled by the interviewer, so they didn’t give the Flappy Bird creator hardly any opportunity to give a lot of detail.

In a way, this information disparity makes sense. Threes is the product of a Software Company, where the employees followed formal processes and had design documents and a paper trail. Flappy Bird is, by all accounts, a personal project that suddenly exploded. There were no other team members. There was no need for status reports or accounting. It was a hobbyist making something amusing in his off time. When Flappy Bird became a huge, international hit, there was no material to assemble in defense. Neither was there an inclination to do so, because hugely successful games don’t traditionally need a defense.

So while it makes sense that Flappy Bird just didn’t have the professional structures in place to be able to defend its process, the contrast in how the two games were received disturbs me because it puts a lot of burden on hobbyist game devs. The message I get is, if you don’t follow the Industry Best Practice, and your game becomes popular, you are vulnerable to an unprovoked attack.

Mattie’s point is similar. If you don’t pay the right dues, follow the right formal processes, or don’t have the right support network in place, it doesn’t matter if your game is “really” a clone or not. The label of “clone” is subject to things other than passionless examinations of precise details. It is influenced by the surrounding culture. The next time we are tempted to call a game a clone, we should think long and hard about what we’re targeting and why.





[1] I wanted to prove a point about Flappy Bird’s polish by comparing every single clone I could find against the original game. It seemed like a fun project to dive into the nitty-gritty of a game’s mechanics and compare it to imitators to see what was the hardest aspect to mimic, what people got wrong and right, and so on. I ended up not following through on this.

I didn’t give up on this project because it was ambitious, or it was hard. I gave up on it because so many of these clones did what Flappy Bird was originally accused of (stealing assets and ideas), and on top of that, they tried to make money off it. In my opinion, it’s unethical to profit off someone else’s work so directly. I didn’t feel like justifying the clone developer's decisions by paying them in order to download their app, or by viewing ads on my device. This stance is apparently considered “unreasonable” by some. I disagree.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Stranded

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.