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Stranded

Journey, the third game from thatgamecompany (the makers of  of Flow and Flower) is out now, the reviews are in and I’m left with a bittersweet taste in my mouth.

Jordan Mallory said:

Journey is, for lack of a better word, awesome. It has not only raised the bar for video games as a storytelling medium and a form of artistic expression, but it has also expanded the definition of the term “multiplayer” and changed my perception of what a cooperative gaming experience can be. Every single aspect of its design, be it aural, visual or conceptual, is deliberately and meticulously orchestrated, resulting in a wonderful, harmoniously joyful expression of love.

Kirk Hamilton said:

Journey‘s pacing is impeccable. You’ll never repeat an area or challenge, and not a single moment of the game feels wasted. In fact, you’ll blow through each bit so quickly that it won’t be until later, looking back, that you’ll realize how far you’ve come. [...] It leaves itself open to interpretation not by chance but by design—this game can be a metaphor for nearly anything, yet it feels entirely distinctive. It’s a delicate and admirable balancing act.

Jim Sterling said:

Its greatest achievement, however, is showing the world exactly how to make a piece of interactive art that is both compelling and fun, without compromising any one element. So many self-styled “art games” feel that in order to evoke a feeling, one must confuse, irritate, or even totally disregard the player. Journey is a defiant bridge between art and game, managing to emotionally connect without being cloying, and succeeding in being mysterious without becoming pretentiously vague and obfuscating. Journey’s interactive, visual, and aural elements work together, rather than fight with each other, in order to provide a flowing, seamless, influential, and utterly exhilarating experience.

This is interactive art.  This is how it’s done.

Yes! This is the kind of game that I would absolutely love to play. I’d probably analyze every single detail, from how the mechanics are introduced to the pacing and storytelling methods. From the character designs to the musical instruments used in the background score. From the sand engine they’ve built to the particle system.

*cough*

Sorry, let me wipe the drool off the floor. One sec.

….

There, done.

Well, what more can I say? I’d absolutely love to buy Journey and give it a go but I technically lack a PS3 so … yeah. No Journey for me.

Critiquing The Marriage as a commercial game

In the previous post and peppered throughout the history of this blog, I’ve expressed my thoughts on how mechanics can drive the story of a game and how mechanics can add meaning to the story told by cutscenes. I’ve talked about how mainstream games waste or directly disregard the power the mechanics have to affect the story. I’ve talked about how many indie games have experimented with that power to varying degrees of success.

Basically, I’ve focused on what could be accomplished if the industry at large decided to experiment with this very subject, but I never sat down to think about the problems that games with “mechanics as meaning” have.

The short version:

Mechanics alone can’t work in and off themselves.

The long version:

For example, Rod Humble’s “The Marriage” is too abstract for its own good. Or in other words, I enjoy the explanation of it more than the game itself. It’s use of mechanics as metaphors was something unique at the time (2007), and so it got a lot of press and has been used as an example of what could be done with mechanics ever since. The problem is, as I’ve said, it’s too abstract. The only context provided is the title of the game itself. Without that, all the player sees is a bunch of squares and circles with strange spatial behaviours.

“Just like Tetris” you might say. Fair enough, there are similarities between the two, but the main difference here is that the purpose of Tetris is to provide challenge and nothing else. It isn’t trying to convey any meaning whatsoever, it’s a pure abstract game.

The Marriage certainly could be played as a challenging diversion but the focus of the game is nowhere near that. This game wants you to take the blue square and pink square and think of them as a married couple and that all the mechanics that surround them represent the nature of the relationship. The hardships they must endure, the sacrifices and so on.

It’s a very nice concept, the theory behind it is stellar, but the execution lacks any appeal as a game.

Other than for pure curiosity, there’s no other reason to play this game. In fact, given that it’s all explained by Humble himself, I find it more interesting to read about the mechanics than to play with them myself.

I’m hesitant to call the game a failure since, hey, I’m talking about it 5 years later, aren’t I?

Mmmhhh, let me put it this way then: It’s a failure as a game, but a success as an experiment.

But I’m left wondering … if The Marriage had mechanics that could stand on their own, could it be marketed as a “proper” game and be a success at it? My guess is that, yeah, why not? The problem I see with the game in its current state is that most players will become bored with it pretty fast. There’s no tutorial whatsoever, the mechanics are quite complicated and the context is almost non-existent. But if that weren’t the case, then it might serve it’s purpose better. Asking players to play and experiment just for the sake of play when there’s no apparent goal, there’s no context and no expressed challenge… well, not many people will be able to decipher what the game is trying to communicate.

There’s no reason why The Marriage can’t have more context to it. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a tutorial-like phase at the beginning as to make the player acclimated to the game before the metaphors and complicated interactions surface.

Mechanics alone can’t work in and off themselves. You need context. You need a tutorial. Basically, you have to acknowledge that the player exists and he/she has a minimum set of requirements that need to be fulfilled before they can actually enjoy the game they’re playing. Only then can an interesting conversation begin between the player and game designer.

As an addendum: Yes, I do know that this game was intended to be an experiment and nothing more. That doesn’t change my point though, and even then it helped me clear my mind about certain things I’ve talked about here.

If I get a little more inspiration on this topic I’m more than sure I’ll be talking about Passage next time around.

Playing with wires

Greetings people! I have great news to share! Many months have passed since the last time I uploaded something to this blog of mine. So hey, I thought “You know what? I have something to upload now!”. And so it begins the great tale of …

Yeah, I’ll stop now.

Sorry about that.

So… what I was trying to say was that I have an ongoing project that I’d like to share with you my dear readers. It’s nowhere near finished, heavens no, but I think I’m at a point where there are a sufficient amount of mechanics to get a sense of how the game works.

But let me warn you first: There’s no tutorial, no objective, no consequences and of course all the graphics are crude “programming art”. So, basically it’s just a small sandbox to play around with.

Having said that, here’s the sandbox itself:

Wires sanbox screenshot

Explosions! Wires! A protagonist! NPCs! Buttons! Blocks! Traps! A squiggly grey thingy!

Download link:

  • Download here! Sadly, it’s made with Game Maker 8.1, so it only works on windows platforms.

Controls:

  • Enter key restarts the sandbox.
  • Mouse over to select.
  • Left click + drag to operate wires (create and/or move) and to move the blue circle.
  • Right click to cancel wire operations and to delete wires themselves.

Game elements:

  • Circles represent characters. The blue circle is the one you can control and move around, while the green ones will be enemies at some point in the future (right now they don’t do much).
  • The grey blocks and the squiggly thingy are impassable walls.
  • The cylinders are buttons that can be pressed by characters.
  • The holes are actually spike traps. They don’t do much apart from being able to be activated/deactivated.
  • And finally, the wires.

Oh, the wires. Let me tell you this, if you enjoy discovering how a mechanic works, then stop reading right now and go play the damn thing.

Alright?

Good.

The wires, as you might expect, are the most important element in the sandbox. By connecting a button to a trap you can activate said trap by making the blue circle go through the button. That’s fairly simple, but then things can get more interesting. For instance, you might connect two traps in a row! Exciting, I know. But seriously, things get a little more complicated once you figure out that there’s no limitation to the wires (apart from distance … and even that has a loophole) and on top of that, characters can be connected to wires, even the blue little guy can. What happens when a character is sent a signal from a button? Well, that screenshot might give you a clue.

And that’s about it for now. I know that it doesn’t seem like much, but this simple sandbox took me quite a while to develop, certainly more than I expected (something like 6 days of work if I recall correctly).

Cheers.

The game is in the endgame

For quite a while I’ve been recognizing a trend in the way nintendo designs some of it’s games. I’ve mentioned it before but it seems I’m not the only one noticing it. As of late, games like Zelda, Pokemon and now Metroid follow a very simple formula:

  1. The first time through, guide the player from place to place. Locked doors, ridiculously broken paths and rude people blocking every single possible alternate path. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.
  2. Pepper the experience with cutscenes to make up for the loss in exploration. In case of emergency, throw in a long conversation about nothing that explains a tiny bit of story just for the sake of having the player read your beautiful prose.
  3. Prolong the tutorials as much as possible, make them unskippable and be sure to insult the player’s intelligence if necessary.
  4. After the credits roll, let the player finally go about the world however he or she pleases. Go ahead! Explore all the places you’ve already been to, just to get all the thingies you couldn’t get to before that only amount to basic rewards that could have been VERY helpful the first time through the game.

I realize that that wasn’t a very … objective description of this trend but I can’t help getting mad about it. I can see why they are bastardizing their franchises, but that doesn’t mean I agree with the direction they’re going.

Look, I get it, players can get lost if you don’t make it clear where to go. But you know what? Just outright telling them where to go every single chance you get is not the perfect solution, far from it. It’s just lazy. It’s an easy solution to a difficult problem that insults the player’s intelligence just to make sure everyone gets to the end of the game. And still, not everybody does get to the end because of various reasons. They may not have the time, some other game might catch their attention… or maybe they’re just tired of following the directions of the game designers, yearning to be free and to express themselves. To play.

Let me know how does this idea sound: Let the player do whatever he or she wants. If you make everything within the game interesting and build systems that point out the interesting things you can do, why not trust the player?

After all, Fallout 1 and 2 did this exact thing and they weren’t exactly punished for it. They’re remembered as classics for a reason: Because they did what almost no other game dared to: They let the player play and explore at their own pace. Sure, it was a hostile world and the way the player is introduced to it could use some work. We know these two games aren’t perfect… but they’ve aged well because we’ve not seen any other games with the same philosophy, save for a few exceptions that I’m not currently aware of.

I just get mad because there’s so much that can be done with that same philosophy of design. Many years have passed since that game came out and we’ve grown as an industry, our tools have matured and our knowledge about design has been increasingly growing in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the indie movement.

But we are still clinging to the same rotten way to circumvent a single (yet difficult) problem.

Nintendo… please, man up.

Link Compilation vol. 3.14265

Wood Link

Visual pun go!

Alright, it’s been a long while since I did one of these things so why not do another link compilation? After all, I have quite a few interesting things to link to:

Activision is evil. I know that, you know that, we all know that. They continually do the most douchy things they could possibly imagine and then expect to get away with it without their image being tarnished. Well, now we have a new interesting (and by “interesting” I mean “appalling”) look at how Activision works. The piece is centered around the company refusing to have female leads, but the system that leads to that conclusion is what’s most inexcusable. One thing is to want to avoid risks by making sequels and a whole another one is to require from a developer to include a checklist of features because “that’s what needs to be done in order to sell”. And don’t get me started on the focus groups and how they’re manipulated to suit their particular views instead of the other way around.

The comments section of that article however is the most infuriating thing I’ve read in a while. Apparently some of those juvenile idiots are developers (no surprise there) so … yeah.

This comment by Joe Rheaume summarizes the whole thing in a rather amusing way:

Article: Activision says games with female leads don’t sell, but here’s a list of games with female leads that do sell.
Commenter: Why do you want Activision to lose money? Only men are good action stars.
Me: /rolleyes.
Other Commenter: Here’s a list of Action movie heroines that made a lot of money and were awesome
Other other commenter: Oh no! Liberals! I am afraid of vaginas! Games must be sausagefests because they are now. Why do you hate capitalism?

Anyway, let’s change the mood, shall we? Hey look at this random youtube video. And this one! And this other one:

… yeah, I know, it’s awesome.

*clears throat*

Not so long ago, Jesse Schell painted a very very grim picture of the future where game designers would basically morph into the most powerful tools of the marketing business. Basically, we’d have to actually engage with advertisements on a daily basis and not only that, but we’d do so willingly because of the power of achievements and meaningless points that can be converted into fabulous gifts! …. yeah, that really sends a chill down your spine, doesn’t it? But something rings hollow there: it’s assuming that the masses are a bunch of idiots who are easily distracted and engaged in the most meaningless tasks as long as they are rewarded at the end. Even if the rewards are meaningless. Which is true because of the novelty value such a thing would have, but when it wears off… well, it ain’t going to work no more boy. Still, some people are just wired to fall for such traps and even they can get burnt out.

This whole dystopian future is even more unlikely when one considers how human motivation actually works and the possibility that achievements can be ultimately harmful. In fact, if one were to look at what some game designers are thinking and doing as of late, one would come to the conclusion that we are in for some very strange but interesting concepts in the next few years.

On one hand we have Brenda Brathwhite who dumped electricity to further her study of game design among other things and found some very interesting ways of expression involving some very personal and difficult topics. On the other hand, we have Clint Hocking who in this talk muses about (among many many things) the different ways of immersion and how the holo-deck is doomed to remain as pure fantasy just like jetpacks and flying cars are.

On the third mutant hand we have Ian Bogost who basically made a social game that makes fun of social games by making the behind the scenes calculations and motivations apparent to the user. You’re not taking care of your farm, you’re just clicking on a cow.

And finally, on the fourth self-serving mutant goro knock-off hand there’s me, actually reading all of this stuff and getting excited about what the future might hold for us. Sometimes even being inspired by some of these people to finally take a step in the direction I actually want to go, even if that direction is guiding me to a particularly difficult to traverse path.

Source of the image.

Why money isn’t everything

If anybody ever found the “indie movement” to come out of nowhere and wondered why would someone leave a major company to work on a small game of their own, please just watch this little video. To everyone else, watch it either way, it’s a very interesting subject on it’s own and the video is littered with research material worth hearing about.

Plus, it’s just fun to watch. Ooooohhhh, pretty drawings!

Summing the whole thing up: money, purpose, mastery and autonomy are the factors that drive us to work. What a coincidence that two of those, mastery and autonomy, are so prominent in every single game! Though this research does get me thinking on one thing in particular:

Say, if you were to equal getting paid in real life with leveling up in an RPG …. doesn’t that mean that the whole leveling scheme of RPGs works best when the task at hand (battle) is only mechanical and doesn’t require any cognitive thinking? The same goes for achievements and the like. They’re external rewards designed to incentivize a (more often than not) mechanical and mindless task.

Though I don’t know if this holds any water since I’m comparing two very different reward schemes, one being vital to, you know, live and the other being an ethereal reward with little to no actual impact on your real life.

Still, we don’t see this line of thinking or even subject very often in the blogosphere.

Humble Indie Bundle Part 3: Open sourcing

I’ve already talked in great detail about this bundle, I know, but things are getting more and more interesting as time passes and expectations are blown out of the water.
The major news is that the Humble Indie Bundle has reached a million dollars, 319,658 of those going to charity (Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child’s Play), the rest to the developers. Due to this fact, not only have they added 3 more days to the timer, but they’ve also kept their promise made in the video at the 1:17 mark: As of 5/11/10, Aquaria, Gish, Lugaru HD, and Penumbra Overture pledge to go open source.

I love indies.

At this moment, only Lugaru’s source code is available since this kind of thing requires some preparation, but the others will probably follow suit shortly thereafter.

The numbers right now are:

  • Total raised $1,030,205
  • Number of contributions 113,797
  • Average contribution $9.05
  • Average Windows user contribution $7.95
  • Average Mac user contribution $10.18
  • Average Linux user contribution $14.54
  • Windows users contributed 54% of the total raised
  • Mac users contributed 22% of the total raised
  • Linux users contributed 24% of the total raised

Every single average went up, but one has to consider that the big contributions some people did might have something to do with the high averages:

  1. Anonymous    $3333.33
  2. Anonymous    $1337.0
  3. Anonymous    $1000.0
  4. Anonymous    $500.0
  5. Muhammad Haggag    $500.0
  6. Anonymous    $400.0
  7. Anonymous    $327.67
  8. Phil B.    $313.37
  9. Manuel Calavera    $281.0
  10. unsigned char    $255.0

Confirmed: Programmer and internet humor are  always present wherever you look. I’m kind of surprised nobody contributed the sum of 80085 dollars.

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