Monday, December 17, 2012


Here is how you scale gigantic buildings in the Assassin’s Creed series:

Hold “up” on the left control stick.

You are now ascending to dizzying heights! Sometimes, you don’t go anywhere when you press up. In these cases, try pressing left or right.

Climbing is not complex, but it is my favorite part of the Assassin’s Creed games. Compared to other aspects of the game, like combat or mission constraints, it doesn’t require reaction time or varied button presses or balancing multiple concepts. It is, however, rhythmic. Each swing and grasp has a timing to it, which you can manipulate if you are so inclined. You can leap and re-grab to accelerate your progress, at the risk of falling to your death. Or you can just keep pressing up and watch your assassin ascend brick by brick, handhold by handhold.  It’s very contemplative.

The ultimate payoff is getting up to a vantage point and being able to see the world spiral around me. The experience is a kind of vacation. The game is a place. I am in it. I am enjoying it at my own pace.

Vantage points reveal the location of other vantage points. When you’re in the mood to climb, and not much else, this leads to a virtuous cycle of scaling one structure to reveal more places to climb! Or to break the monotony, complete the new missions revealed on your map by the vantage point and then find a new place to climb. For me, items like feathers aren’t an end unto themselves as much as they are an excuse to spend even more time climbing and exploring roofs/treetops. When you run out of towers to scale, buying a feather map (thank god they added that feature) is just another way to spend time climbing at a leisurely clip.

The principle reason I play AC (or really, any open-world game) is for the self-directed pacing. The strength of AC is in the languorous scaling of walls and delicate traversal of rooftops. Yet the story seems bent on ignoring that aspect of the series. Instead of self-direction, the main missions just feature...direction. The main quests of the games increasingly feature 1) people talking at you, while you stand perfectly still 2) people talking at you, while you are forced to walk in lockstep with them and 3) watching a cutscene that ends in a frantic “Kill this guy RIGHT NOW”. There is very little slow, careful scouting of an area and quiet takedowns of guards while you mull your options over. When the game wants you to Do Something, it doesn’t hesitate to get shouty at you—and not in the consequence-free “You’re misbehaving” way but in the game-ending “You’re doing it wrong!” way. As with many other aspects of this series, the writers don’t seem to work to support the strengths of the series, and instead insist on dwelling on the weaknesses.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

side project: games and food

I started a tumblr to document the appearance of food in games. Unfortunately the hardest part is actually finding decent screenshots of games. If they aren't on the PC and they can't be emulated easily, then I have to rely on the mercy of Let's Play folks to capture some of the delicious, weird, and sometimes irrelevant pictures and uses of food in games.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur

It’s really cool to go into the ancient temples of Teeth of Naros and find historical documents and accounts of the people who worked on that specific temple. I enjoyed it a lot more than finding Volume XII of Disappearance of the Dudes. It was relevant to what I was doing, so I didn’t mind stopping and reading a few pages of the background.

And honestly that’s all I have to say about Kingdoms of Amalur. It was an amusing way to spend forty hours and what happened to the studio is horrible, but at the end of the day, yeah, it was a High Fantasy RPG.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Driver: San Francisco and Design

An important element of any driving game is the actual cars. An open-world driving game, like Burnout, is specifically about the right car for the right mission, but one of the biggest drags in Burnout was returning to the garage to pick out a new car, then driving back to the event destination. An interface that lets you arbitrarily pluck a car out from the ambient traffic of the city is more than a plot device. It’s also a great way to encourage the player to screw around with different cars without penalty.

My favorite missions in Driver are the open-ended “dares,” which give you a ridiculous condition (drive 150mph in opposing traffic for twenty seconds), but without a time limit. You can swap cars in and out at your leisure without breaking flow until you achieve your goal. Then you can zoom out to a city-wide view and pop directly into the next story mission without driving across the city. It’s extremely handy and a great design idea that really simplifies the act of playing an open-world game. (As opposed to Prototype 2, which forces you to walk to a specific transport point, in costume, in order to switch areas.)

Another great feature of Driver is the minimap. As per its name, the minimap normally shows a very small area of where you are, maybe two or three blocks at the most, but you can press “Y” to make the map expand across the screen, which reduces your field of vision while you’re still barrelling down the wrong lane at 90mph. It makes me think of unfolding a paper map across your knees while trying to keep an eye on the road.

You can pause the game and go to the Big Definitive Map, but 1) it kind of breaks your flow and 2) unlike the minimap, it doesn’t adjust relative to your position, so you can suffer a bit of confusion as you reconcile which direction you’re facing against the absolute direction of the Big Definitive Map against the relative positioning of the minimap. Those two factors meant I used the minimap-expand feature way more than the Big Definitive Map, and really enjoyed doing it since it kept me in the flow of the game.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

papo y yo

There’s a whole host of things I thought Papo y Yo did really well. The setting of a magical neighborhood where houses stand up and walk around was a great use of architecture. I often lament (privately, to myself, into a stiff drink) that even though architecture in games is not constrained by reality, too many designers still think in terms of strict realism.

The music also carried a lot of the mood for the early game. The transformation of Monster wouldn’t have the same impact without the intense drumsor for that matter, the way his transformation happens in dreamlike slow motion before he chomps into you and throws you away.

I thought the puzzles in the game was the right amount of “filling.” It gave you time to enjoy the goofy emoticons Monster popped out whenever he unthinkingly trotted between two fruit-spawning trees, which let you develop a weird connection with him, but it wasn’t too hard or too frequent such that it really got in the way of the stuff you wanted to seethe horrible realization of Quico that Monster is really someone else. I think the worst thing the designers could have done was given us a full Zelda-like experience, where we fiddle with items and inventories and side quests. That would have diluted our time with Monster.

And that final scene, Jesus. Since Monster is often a walking puzzle piecego here, stand on this switchwe get a very systematic view of his motivations. He likes fruit, but if there’s no fruit he sleeps. He likes frogs more than he likes fruit (and will knock a frog out of your hands). He behaves docilely but selfishly when he’s normal. He behaves aggressively when he’s tripping on frog juice. The last puzzle in the game makes the pieces of that puzzle clearas clear as you were afraid it would be from the first scene. It’s not a shocking revelation to the player (or even to Quico, I guess), but disposing of the pieces of the puzzle has an element of finality and closure as you strip away the metaphor and dispose of Monster once and for all.

Speaking of finality and closure:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I finally got to play Journey. For reference, I think Flower is one of my favorite games, so I had high hopes for Journey as well.

I liked it. I thought it was fun and cute, like an experimental Disney film. Occasionally it was beautiful. I loved seeing the terminal mountain in the background. Like Flower, the musical cues were gorgeous and perfectly authored to keep themes dropping in and out at thematically appropriate times.

However, these horrible players kept popping into my game. They were unable to keep up with me even as I carefully explored all corners of the screen, and I ended up leaving them behind. I guess some other people had really great experiences with these mysterious figures who join their games, but I got people who just mashed the chirp button and ran around in circles and off cliffs. I felt a little bad about abandoning one person in the snowfields after we kept each other warm through tempestuous snowstorms, but uh, he ran right into a dragon’s line of sight. It’s like, why did you think the pipes were placed in the level? You’re supposed to hide and time it, not charge ahead and hope for the best.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

30 Flights

30 Flights of Loving was a great proof-of-concept. I played Gravity Bone immediately beforehand, and I enjoyed the setting (a kitschy spy thriller) as well as the complete lack of expository cutscenes or text. 30 Flights was very similar: a great set-up, a great sense of how to tell the story, and an amusing thrill ride through and through. However, while the technique was impeccable, the actual story was pretty unremarkable. Like Gravity Bone, it was a quick tale about betrayal and love in the spy world.

The best moment in 30 Flights is definitely navigating through an airport. You’re lost, but you pick a direction and start going. There’s a sudden hard cut, and regardless of which direction you were going, you end up where you needed to be. Normally, most games will either: 1) punt you into a cutscene where the correct path is chosen for you, or 2) make you walk the entire length of the corridor to reach your destination.

A hard cut shaves off that obnoxious empty walking time, and avoids the helplessness of watching a cutscene.  It’s a great showcase of how to tell a story, and that’s awesome and badly needed, but (“by design” and not by accident) the threadbare plot isn’t anything more than an instruction manual. It’s not a complete and worthy story in its own right.

P.S. Over at This Cage is Worms, Cameron has a completely different reaction to the game.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Encountering an alien ship, near a flaring sun, while their boarding party tries to take out my oxygen supply

I ended up with some pretty strong feelings about FTL.

I really like the combat. There are lots of decisions, but they have different consequences.  Rowan advises: Missile to the shields, lasers to the weapons - a missile can slip through shields and take out the subsystem, and your lasers have enough time to take out the enemy ship’s armaments before the shields pop back online.

In a lot of games (the example that springs to mind is Skyrim) you eventually end up in a state where you one-shot most enemies and any damage they might incidentally deal to you is easily recovered. The system progresses to a point where it carries very little consequence. In FTL, damage might be survivable but can still have deadly consequences. A breach in the hull is never fun to deal with, even outside of combat. A breach and fires on deck are even worse.

At higher levels there are enough moving parts that you get a lot of frantic maneuvering in. A boarding party might engage your crew just as fires engulf the engine room, but you can pause, order your chief engineer to brawl with the boarders, and open airlock doors to vent oxygen from half the ship to put out the fire, while diverting power from the engines to the medical bay in order to heal your crew.

During combat, your skill at management might dictate whether you survive, but your longer-term goal is to avoid getting damaged in the first place so your precious currency doesn’t get consumed by repairs. It’s a lot like Arkham Horror in that combat is all-or-nothing. Maximize your chances to hit instead of maximizing the values of your hits. Getting a hit in is harder and more important than having bigger numbers come out of the other guys’ head. You decide between taking down an enemy’s shields or their damage-dealing capabilities, not between doing 35-40 or 25-60 damage in a hit. It’s “crunchy” in that it has few hits, but each is a discrete action with severe consequences or major successes, as opposed to mashing the attack button 10+ times until the enemy runs out of HP.

Skyrim just opens itself up to inflation, in economics and in combat. You can create amazing health potions for nearly free, or turn around the minor artefacts you constantly discover for significant amounts of cash. Enemies get more “difficult” by getting more HP, so the only consequence is needing to mash attack for longer. FTL is smaller scope, but that means the economy doesn’t have the time to spiral out of scale. Enemies become more difficult by receiving new and dangerous abilities. Really dangerous situations arise when you’re in a poor position (trapped behind the encroaching lines of the enemy fleet) and you don’t get resources for killing an enemy. I don’t think there’s a single analogous situation in late-game Skyrim, where you almost always have immediate access to a crate full of life-replenishing cabbages.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those boring gamers who gets irritated and put off by relentless difficulty. What I’m really missing from the game is a sense of progression. I can get a lucky run and take out the rebel flagship once, but on my next round I’m just as likely to make my first jump too close to the sun while a pirate attacks me, getting us both killed by solar flares. FTL might not have a ton of inflation, but narrowly losing a game and having nothing to show for it is pretty deflating.

If I were to brainstorm a bunch of bullshit for a game I didn’t write and have no claim to:
I would love to be able to export my “story,” just a quick writeup of what happened during my last game in a simple text format for me to pretty up and share with others. Crewman X died putting out a fire caused by the Slaver’s attack, etc.

I would love to see the ability to connect Facebook/Twitter/whatever and import crew names, and use that in conjunction with the export feature to share what happened with them.

I really want just a little bit more progression across all my games, maybe a “casual” mode where one crewman can keep the training acquired across the course of the game. There are some unlocked abilities but they seem pretty difficult and random to get, so they aren’t very satisfying to me.

An option to auto-pause after weapons have fired would help me remember to come up for air during particularly frantic battles.

Monday, September 10, 2012


We played Sanitarium with two friends at PAX. Since we’re generally not competitive people, we were attracted by the cooperative mode and the short time commitment.

What was interesting about the game was the “board” is constructed every turn by drawing an item card and placing it face down, so the board constantly expands in strange and unpredictable directions as the Bad Guys chase you around. Since the game is about escaping a sanitarium (by collecting your personal totem items and shedding whatever neuroses you’ve acquired), it becomes an exploration of the Psychic Space of a Sanitarium.

Unfortunately, I can’t really tell you about the Psychic Space of a Sanitarium because the game wasn’t very good. There wasn’t any mechanic that hooked me. There was nothing that made me say, “Oh, I’ve got to play another round.” We finished the game and asked, “Wait, how could we have even lost?”As it turns out, the last page of the rules said the game ends when you run out of item cards, but the Bad Guys chasing us were pretty easily evaded or diverted, and even if one “caught” you, rolling dice to pass an increasingly difficult horror check meant nothing because the consequences were not that dire.

The concept of spreading nebulous, hidden information onto a map that connected distant safe rooms was a great concept, but it didn’t go any further than that. Probably without the cooperative goal we would have been reduced to betraying each other (the real monster is MAN’S INHUMANITY TO MAN), but then we wouldn’t have been playing a cooperative game, which was our #1 goal.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Via Robert Yang’s post on contextual narrative, I spent 20 minutes poring over the details of this GDC talk about dynamic dialog. There’s some great stuff in the presentation I wanted to pull out and discuss.

Essentially, the talk boils down to the difference between this (page 49 of the pdf):

and this (page 50):

The two slides illustrate the exact same “facts”, but anyone who isn’t a C programmer can’t understand the line (((C_orb*)), while it’s a bit easier to parse “MagicOrb.charges = 12” (It means the magic orb has a property called “charges” which is equal to 12).

However, the big difference is that the first slide needs to be embedded in the game logic - which, as the talk points out, means only programmers can go in to add places for dialogue to get triggered. This results in a “homework assignment” for writers, where they go fill in the places where programmers thought there should be dialogue. Obviously, that’s a problem:

In a lot of games, the AI programmer looks at all the events that happen to a
character and tries to guess, “Well, for which events would this character want to say
something?” The programmer puts in code hooks for each of the sites he can think of
and then hands the writer a big spreadsheet and says, “Okay, fill out a line for each of
these events.”
Well, the problem with this is you’re basically reducing your writers to filling out a
series of mad-libs. That kind of cramps their style. It also means that it’s really the
programmers doing the writing, and the intersection between the set of good
programmers and the set of good writers is pretty small (unless you’ve got Vernor
Vinge or Ted Chiang working for you).
Also, any time the writer finds a new circumstance in which she’d want to have a line,
she has to go back to the programmer and ask for a new code hook to be added.
That’s slow and it means less stuff gets written, so we really wanted a way for writers
to decide which circumstances got lines and how finely those lines were specialized. (pdf pg 46)

So Valve ends up solving this problem with a tool for its writers. The tool strips away the complexity of programming and ends up exposing all of the facts about the world. Then the person writing the tool talks to the writers to find out how they want to edit scripts (e.g. a database program or Excel or a fancy graphical tool). This way, the writers have a tool they can use practically that gives them the information they need. The result is dialogue that is varied, interesting, and not limited by how many times a writer goes to the programmers and begs for additional writing cues to be added.

End Summary.

The idea is basically the right tools for the right job. In this case, programming tools aren’t the best tools for a writing job. The corollary is Valve has great dialogue in part because their tools allow for great dialogue to be written. It could be done the complicated way, but it’s faster and easier to do it this way.

The tools we use shape the end result. Better tools lead to better results. The trick is spending the time and effort on creating the right tools for the job.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Xenoblade Chronicles

If you’ve heard of Xenoblade Chronicles, it’s probably in connection with the story of how it came to the United States. Nintendo refused to bring it to the US because it saw the game as a niche title for an increasingly small audience. Fans of jRPGs organized a massive letter-writing campaign and Nintendo eventually relented, distributing a limited supply of the game through its own online store and with Gamestop as the only retail partner.

In a more literary world, Xenoblade Chronicles would be about the journey from alienation to acceptance, the virtue of tolerance, and trying new things, but our world does not spit out literary tales, and Xenoblade is about a magic sword that cuts up bad guys.

Well okay, that’s not entirely fair. It’s a jRPG and it deals with a lot of jRPG motifs like friendship, teamwork, and revenge. It’s not a spoiler to say at the end you kill God because that is something so deeply embedded in jRPGs that you could probably guess it just from hearing the setting of Xenoblade: “The bodies of two ancient gods inhabited by sentient beings such as your party.”

One interesting thing about jRPGs is they aren’t necessarily defined by their country of origin, despite having “Japanese” right in the genre name. It’s like how Westerns don’t really have to take place in the American West. jRPGs aren’t grouped by their battle mechanics, either. Xenoblade is pretty clearly a jRPG despite lacking turn-based menu battles in favor of a World of Warcraft-like action bar that rewards positioning and skill combinations. The jRPG comes from the motifs--the player controls a group of adventurers who band together and learn about teamwork and friendship. As you shuttle them from area to area, from scripted cutscene to scripted cutscene, you’re hit with ideas about fate and inevitable destiny. The party grows in power through equipment and learned skills while fighting against increasingly powerful enemies. By the end of the game, they’re the most powerful force on the planet, and so the only force that can give them a challenge is a god.

The plots are often built on top of the mechanics, in other words. It’s hard to argue for free will in a game where areas are tightly bounded, dialogue is resolutely out of the player’s control, and you have to advance the pre-scripted plot to go anywhere new. What’s cool and unique about Xenoblade is how it throws new mechanics into the mix and uses them to give meaning above and beyond the normal jRPG stuff by reinforcing each mechanic with another.

For example, the battle system is an integral component to almost every jRPG. Xenoblade has a unique implementation of “burst affinity” where critical hits, misses, or evades can be rewarded with a chance to hit a button to gain more on the combo meter, as well as gaining affinity between party members. The affinity between characters affects what skills they can share with each other, the likelihood of getting additional combo chains between them, their shared crafting ability, and unlockable “heart-to-heart” cutscenes wherein characters gain even more affinity with each other. You can also gain affinity with NPCs, which builds a social graph in a menu screen where you can see the relationship between different NPCs. You get more affinity by doing quests for NPCs (and various members of your party will chime in while receiving or turning in a quest, boosting their affinity with the party leader), and doing quests can repair or destroy relationships between NPCs. High affinity with NPCs increases the number of rare collectibles they have to trade, unlocks additional quests, and eventually lets you invite them to come live with you in the town you rebuild with rare collectibles.

From that convoluted description, it’s apparent that these systems all heavily rely on each other. Whether your goal is increased combat ability, exploration, or making shiny things, you end up wanting to buy into the affinity chart in order to expedite your goal. As a result, you accidentally start caring what Riki has to say to Reyn, or that choosing the easy way out of a quest destroyed a marriage. As a result, the themes of friendship and teamwork, and even the shared goal of revenge, carries more weight in the unchangeable plot.

Even the magic sword has an interesting mechanical component. At the beginning of the game, a little fuss is made over the fact that the sword is the perfect weapon against evil machines, but it won’t harm human flesh. It’s easy to ignore this point because you spend a lot of time killing rabbits, giant caterpillars, birds, frogs, lions... However, you eventually come against a class of enemy you can’t damage with your magic sword. When the reason is revealed, the game pivots to make a moral point: “How far will you go for revenge [against the machines]? Will you kill another human?” You retrace in your mind to all the combat you’ve been through at this point and you realize every single enemy you’ve faced has been non-human. The moral question actually has some weight because unlike other games, you actually haven’t killed any other humans at this point. The enemies you’ve faced have all been positioned as a threat, and most of them attack you first if you’re weak enough.

A rule I find interesting that doesn’t really affect the meaning of the game is if you’re about 5 levels above a monster’s level, the monster will generally ignore you. You’re free to wander and explore areas you’ve already been through, searching for collectibles and secret locations and finishing up dangling side quests without engaging in perfunctory combat. It’s a rule lots of jRPGs miss (with Earthbound being the notable exception, eighteen years ago). This single rule makes it possible to spend hours in the game without accidentally starting a fight. If you want one, you’ve got one! But if you don’t, there’s plenty of other things to do: crafting, side quests, reconstruction, collection, and relationship building. That sort of thing is why I spent a hundred hours on the game...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Prototype2 is full of cheap shots. The game starts with Blackwater--I MEAN BLACKWATCH (subtle!) being referred to as “baby-killers”. Every other word of almost every line of dialogue is “fuck”. Collectible audio logs are almost all variations of “hey should we kill some civilians?” (yes). The bad guys are bad because their “tests” are “what happens if we release some monsters onto some caged civilians?” Oh, and a prominent plot point involves torturing an eight-year-old girl.

I almost had to stop playing at that point. Between torturing a child and the incessant, overwhelming amount of gore, the game was actually starting to affect me. I had dreams full of the red, gushing organic material that coats the Red Zone. I put down the game for a few days. Picked it up for another hour to finish it off, just to get a sense of closure. Haven’t picked it up again since.

Weirdly, the game features a priest as an informant/sidekick/confidant for a bit. One might think that could lend a degree of moral concern to the game. Nope. This priest isn’t concerned with your actions as much as he’s concerned with dispensing plot points obtained through questionable means: “Hey, sucks your family is dead. Check out this military conversation I intercepted!” Well okay, and then he dies and is replaced by another informant who dispenses missions. Then another informant shows up, but she dispenses plot points while sexily bending over to use her laptop, which appears to be placed at thigh level. It’s like, there’s a counter right there. I can see it. If you moved your laptop there, it would probably improve your posture a whole lot.

Anyway. Prototype2. Life is cheap. In case you couldn’t tell while you’re mowing down a crowd of civilians to regain health or pop an achievement.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

saved games

Do the rules of a game include reloading? Or is failure permanent?

A saved game is a bookmark. You save when you’re done playing, and when you come back everything is just as you left it.

A saved game can also be a backup, e.g. before confronting a boss because if you lose you’re going right back to that point. Some people save before making a big decision in case they don’t like the outcome. Obsidian games autosave when you enter a new “area” (maybe a dungeon or a house) because the developers half-expect the game to crash while taking one area out of memory and putting in another one.

Saved games are also memories. When you finish a book, you don’t leave a bookmark in it permanently as an act of conquest, yet I can’t bear to delete save files from games I’ve finished long ago and never intend to revisit.

Saved games are not always so static.

Back before cartridges had allocated space for saving progress, we had to copy down passwords and re-enter them to get back to where we were. These passwords were saved and shared. We fiddled around with the passwords, trying to break their code and give us an extra Energy Tank.

And before achievements, save files weren’t encrypted. Therefore, they were often susceptible to alteration through a hex editor. Take the value of a variable you care about, like score or number of lives. Then do something in the game such that the value changes, like raising your score or losing a life. Save again. Comparing the two saves, watch for the one location in the file where value X becomes value Y, and the secret of the save file is revealed.

In fact, as we go further and further into the past, save games become less of a bookmark or checkpoint, and more of a conversation. In tabletop games, there is no “save” procedure in the rules, even though many games can span several hours going into days. A “save” is a social agreement--we leave the pieces where they are, and it’s your turn when we get back. Don’t screw around with the board, please.

Anna Anthropy makes the point in this Another Castle podcast that we seem to spend an awful lot of effort into making games that act like humans. We’ve replaced dungeon masters with scripting, playmates with AI bots. Save games are another example of social agreement morphing into technological mandate.

There’s a practice called “save scrumming”, most often applicable to Roguelikes. Roguelikes are a genre of dungeon crawler where each save overwrites the last, and when you die, your save is overwritten. This effectively creates “permadeath”, since you can’t reload after making a bad decision. “Save scrumming” is the practice of illicitly preserving save files through some method, usually copying the save file so the game can’t delete it, and copying it back after that potion you drank turned you into stone. “Save scrumming” has a special name since it’s considered cheating. You’re circumventing the rules in order to alter the outcome.

I used to play Settlers of Catan quite often and one of my friends had a house rule where if one die landed anything other than perfectly flat on one face, she would shout “COCKED DIE”, scoop up both dice, and re-roll before anyone saw the outcome.

Now we play Arkham Horror quite regularly. The game structure is very complicated, with each turn having several phases, and tons of abilities that can only be used during a specific phase in a specific order. It’s not uncommon to hear at our table: “I forgot to adjust my stats. Is it okay if I bump up speed now in order to make it to the Black Caves this turn?”

Why is save scrumming different? In a tabletop game, you are only held to the rules by the people at your table. If you beg and cajole and threaten and cry, yeah, we’ll probably let you re-roll a “cocked die” or change your stats outside of phase order. Some players might be more resentful than others, but that’s a social problem resolved with social skills.

In Nethack, the rules are enforced by something else entirely. You can’t yell at the Nethack random number generator when that egg you picked up turned out to be a Cockatrice egg. There is no begging for mercy from your fellow players with implicit threats of social catastrophe. You can’t contest that you totally hit RT in time to trigger that Renegade Action and the game just didn’t see it. The computer has decided. There is no leniency. You either fail or succeed, a strict binary. Your only recourse is what the game allows.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dwarf Fortress Tutorial

I've published my Dwarf Fortress tutorial to this site. Right now it takes you through the setup and early game. 

I tried to keep it as simple as possible. Comments are enabled for people to complain if they get lost, intimidated, or otherwise annoyed. 

I deliberately did not include steps on how to use tilesets with the game. Your mileage may vary, but there are plenty of tutorials that use tilesets.

I plan to update later with more information about mid-to-late game. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dear Esther

A series of questions and answers about Dear Esther:

What makes you finish your first “round”?
The simple joy of walking around a beautiful landscape. The slight mystery of the island. The music. The view.

What makes you start a second round?
For me - I did not realize the island could be explored thoroughly in a single pass. I thought I missed some places.

For others - Discussing the island turns the player into an unreliable narrator; “I heard X” is not true for other players, which prompts a replay to prove one person right and ultimately prove them both wrong.

In particular, “I saw a ghost”, “I saw a car”, “I heard no one died in the accident” all made me replay the game.

What makes you start a third round?
Realizing there is a very large script with a huge amount of variation. Realizing the repeated symbols across the island change. Starting to dig into where symbols are repeated and why. Letting the island inhabit your brain, to the point where you start feeling sympathy for the boredom and endless repetition to which the protagonist sometimes refers as you start at the lighthouse again.

What makes the game compelling to replay?
Realizing it’s a ten-minute investment to play a single chapter over. Not being afraid of encountering endless, pointless combat or searching for that one last collectible that eludes you.
Here is the first choice in Dear Esther.

Do you take the high road, or do you take the low road?

If you are unfamiliar with the game, your question is probably, “Why does it matter?” The joy of this game is that it doesn’t matter. There is no “left for loot” rule, no minimap to consult, no collectibles, no change in difficulty, not even a time limit. You could walk down to the beach, come back up, and walk along the cliff.

The game asks, “What do you want to see today, right now? The cliff or the beach?” I choose the cliff almost every time. I like being up high and looking at the water below. You might choose the beach in order to hear the waves and look at the scrawlings in the sand. There is no “correct” answer, no metagame. There is only your personal preference. When you take a walk, do you go on the high road or the low road?

How come when we talk about 8-bit systems, we talk about the beauty that comes out of working within constraints (four sound channels, eight colors, 16x16 pixel sprites), but when we talk about playing a game, the game becomes worthless if there isn’t a branching ending, different styles of play, or high scores? Isn’t the act of playing a game also an act of creation? When we start a new Settlers of Catan board, we proceed to tell the story of that board--the person who immediately gets a monopoly on wheat, the three players who start too close to each other, and so on. When we start a new season in Madden ‘12, we tell the story of our franchise team. Maybe you’re playing the underdogs as they climb their way to the top, or the established veterans who falter in your unworthy hands.  We get invested in outcomes, we curse and scream when we are betrayed, and we laugh and gloat when we succeed. These are things we create when we play, so if it’s still an act of creation to play, why is it that games aren’t allowed to be constrained?

Some people might not enjoy constrained games, but people hate RPGs and sports games and board games. We don’t allow them to redefine those things as “not a game”.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Okay, hi! That was enough of a diversion. Let’s talk about video games again.

I'm juggling several different games, which makes it difficult to carve out time to write a detailed blog post for each one.

Shin Megami Tensai: Devil Survivor 2 - SMT:DS2 is a great strategy RPG, a great jRPG, and a great monster-collecting RPG. It's also a bit grind-heavy, but that makes it ideal for short bursts of play on my bus ride into work. You can spend twenty minutes grinding and ten minutes rearranging teams and skills, then close the lid of the DS and head into work. On the way back, you can spend ten minutes taking care of plot events and another twenty minutes fighting, then close the lid and head home.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - Well, here's the deal. The Editor, as a hardcore Bioware fan, gets first dibs on Mass Effect 3. I, trying to avoid spoilers, lock myself in the next room and play through games I wouldn't otherwise play. So far, I've skipped through most of the plot of KoA, but the conflict between the immortal Fae and the mortal...other people, seems unique enough. Movement is fast and fluid, and combat feels pretty crunchy (on Corvus' exhortations, I've picked up some chakrams and I enjoy their weird rhythm). I don't feel particularly constrained by the class system, unlike Skyrim. Right now, I do feel a little rushed through some areas--again, unlike Skyrim, wherein I felt quite comfortable taking my time to do shit. I'm not sure if it's my mindset (FINISH MASS EFFECT SO WE CAN DISCUSS GARRUS-SEX, KATY) or if it's some property of the game.

Star Wars Online: The Old Republic - At the release of Cataclysm, The Editor persuaded me to give WoW a try. We played for about two months, I hit level 65, and then I quit after reaching The Outlands. The first twenty levels of WoW felt great--levels popped frequently (almost too frequently, although I understand that was intentionally tweaked to get players to the endgame faster), crafting was rewarding, and in general I Got It. I started playing SWOTOR with a friend and I'm just about to hit the 2 month mark. Again, the first twenty levels felt great. On top of that, I loved my giant yellow Twi'lek Jedi Knight, her yellow lightsabers, and her slightly sassy take on the Light Side. The mission structures really contrasted WoW's goofy plot, which is now patched together across several different expansions. However, the honeymoon is starting to wear off. I hate paying $15 to maintain an account that I only play for 6 hours a month. Crafting is prohibitively expensive for my level, so I have to let the interesting parallelization of crafts grinding lay dormant while I build up cash. As fun as the plot is for my main Jedi, I can't bear the thought of going through Dromund Kaas again with my Sith alts. That said, I heard a rumor that the next content patch will have new lightsaber colors, and as a hardcore Star Wars nerd, I'm not sure I can resist giving my Twi'lek a yellow/purple lightsaber set.

Dwarf Fortress - New release, new excuse for me to pick up one of my favorite games again. This time, I wrote a beginner's tutorial since the Wiki's tutorial is nigh-unreadable to me, and doesn't flow through the game in a way that's useful to a first-timer. The tutorial is currently being playtested by random DF first-timers. Once I get enough feedback, I'll release it on this blog.

Dear Esther - I find this game a great blend between very relaxing and very emotional. I want to write a ton about it. I will soon. For now, I'll just say that very few games ask little enough of me that revisiting them is not a chore, and very few games reward me so much for deciding to revisit them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Modern Living & Proceduralism

“By procedural literacy I mean the ability to read and write processes, to engage procedural representation and aesthetics, to understand the interplay between the culturally-embedded practice of human meaning-making and technically-mediated processes.”
-Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost

“If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy. The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity. To these qualities that Mr. Glendenning ascribed to the code I would respectfully add one more: boredom. Opacity. User-unfriendliness.”
-The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

“Training videogames become educational when they stop enforcing a process as a set of arbitrary rules in the service of the organization and begin presenting a procedural rhetoric for the business model that the employee has been asked to work under. Once the worker has a perspective on this business model, he can interrogate it as a value system rather than an arbitrary condition of employment.”
-Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost

“The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air [...]  find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. [...] It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
- The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

digital goods

Originally, I was planning to take a short break from writing about games and talk about some books I've been reading. That attempt was frustrated when my Kindle informed me the notes I have been taking were too numerous, and thus I could not have easy access to my notes. So, feel free to look up these locations yourself and draw your own fucking conclusions.

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 5067-69 | Added on Friday, November 04, 2011, 04:44 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 5517-18 | Added on Monday, November 07, 2011, 04:38 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 5537-38 | Added on Monday, November 07, 2011, 04:40 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 6677-79 | Added on Tuesday, November 08, 2011, 05:15 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 7075 | Added on Tuesday, November 08, 2011, 05:46 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 9048 | Added on Thursday, November 17, 2011, 04:51 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 11896-97 | Added on Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 05:45 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Note Loc. 11897 | Added on Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 05:45 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 13878 | Added on Monday, December 05, 2011, 05:23 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 25170-71 | Added on Friday, December 16, 2011, 04:32 PM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 18030-31 | Added on Monday, December 19, 2011, 09:51 AM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 18093-94 | Added on Monday, December 19, 2011, 09:55 AM

Infinite Jest: 0 (David Foster Wallace)
- Highlight Loc. 19467-68 | Added on Tuesday, December 20, 2011, 05:06 PM


Have I ever told you about my senior year of college?

I was bored. I had essentially finished my degree, and I was sick of school. Me and my buddy Jake decided we needed a project. For our last semester, we took turns coming up with fake posters and putting them around campus.

I opened with:

Jake deftly responded with:

I decided I would match his proposal with a threat:

Jake took this populism to the extreme:

I responded to his broad, inclusive club with a very narrow lens:

Our posters didn't stay up for very long, but a few of them lasted the entire semester in some fairly high-profile locations.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Braid Podcast w/ Critical Distance

So Eric Swain generously allowed me to discuss one of my favorite games in a podcast for Critical Distance. It can be found here:

Eric always does a great job editing, and everyone was a great speaker, so it's quite easy to listen to.

I really enjoyed the format (and the other guests!). I sometimes struggle to fit everything I think about a game into a neat little monologue, so being able to hear other people's opinions immediately after I said something was very valuable. If you don't have the entire hour, I put out my entire thesis at 24:53 and then Maggie jumps in with an incredibly clear explanation of her opposing view. It was really, really good. I think if we had this conversation via blogposts, it would have been a lot less helpful. Blogging sometimes can get a bit digressive and insulated, and it's hard for other people to keep track when discussions spin out into comments, Twitter, other blogs... It's just nice to have instant feedback from wonderful people.

Towards the end of the podcast, I mention David Hellman as the incredible artist for Braid. I specifically reference one of my favorite comics he did for A Lesson Is Learned, which can be found at:

His explanation of the art underneath the comic was one of the things that really blew my mind when I first read it.

That's all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reasons I Have Quit RPGs

I have 6 or 7 unfinished RPGs in my collection right now. RPGs are one of my favorite genres, but they also can be some of the most tedious and frustrating games to play. I’ve been fooling around with the idea of constructing some sort of “best practices” rulebook for RPGs; this list would inform part of that rulebook. Not the parts that are obviously my idiosyncratic opinions, though.

Reasons I Have Stopped Playing Your RPG

1) Your save system sucks. I can load up inFamous or Prototype or any number of amazing open-world games and be sure that when I start up, I will be placed right into the game world. If I die, I might lose some progress in a quest, but I’ll keep all my equipment, experience and skill allocations. If the game crashes, I know the autosave has my back. Last Remnant on the PC autosaves every time you change location and after every battle you’ve won. That’s brilliant! I’m not playing a file management minigame, I am playing a “kill shit and get loot” game.

So, other jRPGs, why do you still insist on manual saves and only at save points? Why doesn’t every game do what Baiten Kaitos did and give the option to restart the fight I just lost? Because I am telling you right now that I will quit your game if I die and lose progress.

2) Your first hour sucks. Let’s not talk about all the RPGs I have sampled for less than an hour and then abandoned. If in the first hour, I sit through a long cutscene with an elaborate backstory, I will quit. It’s all nonsense to me at this stage. If in the first hour I don’t experience any combat (aka “gameplay” aka the reason I am playing your game), then I will quit.

Throw me into a battle and let me experiment with the system to see what works and what is effective. Give me a level or a new item so I see how those systems work, too. If your characters have character, let me see a little bit of that. Give me structure so I can understand how combat, items, equipment and towns interact with each other in a controlled way, but don’t get bogged down in a bunch of details. If your combat is so complicated that it needs a tutorial, sure! But let me skip it if I feel I got the basics, and only give me what I need to know for the first hour. Advanced tutorials should be optional, but always available.

Incidentally, I’ve played a shitload of RPGs. If I can figure out your combat system completely and totally in under 30 seconds, I’m done.

3) Your text speed sucks. I’m an extremely fast reader. Extremely. Some people are extremely slow readers, too. They need time to get through things, but I need to blow through your bullshit exposition as fast as humanly possible. I turn on subtitles and read them before people finish speaking their lines. If I have to sit through your text ticking out at one word a second, and I can’t skip to the next line? I will quit. If I can’t skip spoken dialogue? I will quit. As a player, it’s really up to me to decide what is important and what isn’t.

4) Your game speed sucks. I love the Spiderweb Software games. I really, really do. However, there comes a point where I have to revisit an area I’ve been to before, and I have an objective that’s on the far side of a map. So I scroll there, I click, and I wait for my characters to walk there. And wait. And wait. Maps are big in this game. I’m sitting here, staring at the walking animation for twenty or thirty seconds. Then I talk to the complete the objective and walk back. And I wait another thirty seconds. Hey, congratulations, I just spent a minute twiddling my thumbs!  Let me go fast - and if I can’t, at least give me a button to mash endlessly while I am pressing “up”. I’m one of those people who rolls or dashes everywhere, if I have the option.

The same goes for battle animations. Look, on my twentieth encounter with a group of three skeletons, I think I know what I’m doing. If your battle animations take ten seconds each, then after twenty battles, I’ve therefore wasted three minutes just watching the screen and doing nothing.

5) Your equipment screen sucks. I love The World Ends With You. I really, truly do. It’s a game with a unique setting, a fun character-based plot, and an interesting, unique, challenging battle system. Yet as I play the game, I have to keep a notebook next to me with my current equipment stats written down. When shopping for new equipment, the game doesn’t tell you what your current equipment does. Tactics Ogre has the same problem: look at your current stats screen, memorize your stats, and then go into the store and try and purchase things that are better than the arbitrary numbers you keep in your head.

Your store screen needs to show me the number of items I already own, the exact change in stats that occurs if I equip a character with the selected equipment, and ideally some sort of icon to indicate general goodness or badness. Otherwise, I have to start writing shit down and doing calculations in my head. You know what’s good at the arbitrary calculation of numbers? Computers! You know what I’m holding in my hands? A fucking computer!

Incidentally, an explanation of what each statistic means should also be readily available.

6) Your levelling curve sucks. A good RPG gives large, discrete stepwise power shifts. A bad RPG kills you with minor +1s and +2s here and there. If I buy new equipment, I need to feel how powerful it is next time I take it into battle. If I get a new spell, I need to understand how much more effective it is than the old spell I’ve been using. This is what keeps me coming back to your game! The dungeon/town/explore cycle doesn’t work if I don’t care about what I just bought in town, and if I don’t care about what I buy in town, then your game is just a dungeon crawler with bad distractions in between.

7) Give me shit to do. Speaking of dungeon/town/explore cycles, I don’t want to just go into combat after combat. If I wanted to mindlessly murder mobs, I would probably be playing a shooter. Crafting games are great, because they give me something to focus on besides gold and experience grinding. Skill systems like FFT or Lost Odyssey are great because they give me other objectives to focus on in combat besides getting to the next quest point. Side quests or mini-objectives or optional combat modifiers like chaining mobs all let me do more than one thing at once, which keeps my mind off the tedium of combat and always makes me feel like I’m progressing.

8) Bizarre difficulty spikes. This is admittedly amorphous and hard to pin down. Long story short, I shouldn’t hit impenetrable walls. This could be something like two boss fights back to back with no save in between (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep), or a massive scale-up in battle that I need to grind indefinitely in order to overcome (Last Remnant). If you can’t nail down difficulty, at least make it obvious to me how hard something should be with a challenge rating based on my level versus the enemy’s level. Give me the information I need to understand if something is too powerful for me, and let me know what I need to do in order to correct the imbalance.