games


I can’t say I’ve truly explored the walking simulator genre, but I can say that What Remains of Edith Finch is the best so far. It’s deeply weird and beautifully done. I think I’d like it a lot better if it weren’t for the ending, but that’s true of a lot of games.

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You play as Edith Finch, returning to your family home after years being away.  And I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because the Steam store page reveals it and also I think the game does in the first few minutes: your rather large extended family is all dead, and you’ll spend the game learning their stories.

(You never really see Edith, but charmingly, you can look down and see your body. And you occasionally see your hands. For some reason you sport knitted fingerless gloves. Kind of goth, but so is the game.)

This sounds a bit like Gone Home, and you do spend a lot of time listening to Edith’s reactions, but as soon as you explore the first family story– Molly’s– the game veers off in a different direction entirely.  You don’t just hear Molly’s story, you play it, and it’s a weird but exhilarating burst of magic realism.

And that’s kind of the note of the game. It’s really a set of macabre short stories, each told in a different but very inventive style. There’s plenty of environmental storytelling (each person’s room is highly personal and packed with personal items), but the game is constantly exploring new means of interaction. I usually feel I should warn people in reviews of offbeat games that you don’t get to shoot anything, but here you do.

I have some reservations, though I also have reservations about my reservations. I mean, it’s about death, and it’s sometimes appropriately sad or creepy, but it’s mostly about a theatrical, Edward Gorey version of death. And it’s absolutely OK to grieve at death and also laugh at it, but I’m not sure if the game knows which it wants to do. Sometimes it seems a bit flippant– the death of one more Finch feels like a punchline.

On the other hand, sometimes it gets just the right amount of poignancy, such as in the story of the cannery worker, Lewis.  (If you’ve played the game, and NOT BEFORE, read Pip Warr’s wonderful breakdown of how this amazing sequence works and how the developers struggled to make it work.)

Also, as I said, I don’t like the ending.  (Mouseover to read.)  The deaths of Edith’s mother and Edith seem rushed and gratuitous. There’s nothing edgy or macabre or interesting about killing off the player character; it just seems mean. It left a bad taste in my mouth; and yet it’s literally the last few minutes of the game; they could have left it out and greatly improved the game.)

One more note: it’s short, about two and a half hours. (If $20 seems steep for that, wait for the next Steam sale…)

In gameplay and storytelling, I think people will be mining Edith Finch for years.  “Wait, we can tell a story in games without just relying on audiologs and picking up props?”

 

 

 

 

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Two game things.  One, if you’ve already read Concerned and you’re caught up on Freeman’s Mind 2, check out Robert Yang’s playthrough of Half-Life 2 concentrating on level design.

Yang actually teaches level design, and he was one of the creators of the HL1 remake Black Mesa, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll comment on the layout of the rooms or levels, the texturing, how NPCs move around, how the level designer is making things easier or harder for the player, how eager Valve was to show off its physics engine, and so on. But he’s also just a friendly and fun guy, and I like how he gets sad over the death of a lone headcrab, or decides to carry a sentry gun as far as he can.

He’s gone through other games as well, including Half-Life 1 and Bioshock 1.

The other thing: you might also go pick up Gorogoa, a fun little puzzle game.  I heard about it from this RPS article about how it was put together, and it sounded fun.

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It’s all gorgeously hand-drawn, and it shows you from two to four pictures at one time.  All you do is move them about or zoom within them, but this turns out to be a surprisingly rich game mechanic.  Sometimes you find pictures that go together, and aligning them will join them (usually advancing the story). Sometimes a picture changes depending on its position.  Sometimes it has holes in it, and that lets you move it over another picture.

It’s short, but that’s fine– you won’t get tired of it.  And I can’t think of any other game that’s quite like it.

 

As you know from Kingdom of Loathing— what, you haven’t heard of it?  It’s apparently a browser game, I haven’t played it either.  Anyway, West of Loathing is a standalone game and apparently a sequel to it.

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I think there was something horrible here.  It’s gone now.

Stuff to get across right away, if you haven’t figured it out:

  • It’s a Western.
  • It’s a comedy.
  • It’s really really low-res.

It’s also a pretty expansive RPG.  I’m about ten hours in, and I’ve discovered about 43 of 72 locations, so I suppose, or should I say I reckon, I’m about halfway through.

You play as a cowgirl, or I suppose as a cowboy, seeking adventure in a goofy, magic-infused West, inhabited by stick figure humans, round goblins, evil cows, and more.  You can be a Cow Puncher (melee), Beanslinger (bean magic– that’s me!), or Snake Oiler (snakes). In the opening town, you can find a pardner.  I chose Crazy Pete.

It’s a little like Jazzpunk, in that you’re missing out, and messing up, if you don’t talk to everyone, look at all the item descriptions, and scrub the current location to find all the jokes. The humor tends to wordplay and the absurd, and if one joke doesn’t land, another will come by in moments.

Unlike Jazzpunk, there’s a surprising amount of game in there. You have stats (starting with Muscle, Mysticality, and Moxie), there are clothes and hats and potions and edibles that change them, plus a wide array of weapons and spells.  And dozens of locations.  You can spend a lot of time in the game, and you’ll probably want to, because a) it’s amusing, and b) it’s not that hard, so it’s always painless to check out one more location or cross off one more quest. On the other hand, tedious things like inventory management are left out– so far as I can see, there’s no inventory limit at all.

(Edit: there’s a clever bit that other RPGs might well imitate. You don’t level up. Rather, you get XP, and you can spend XP buffing stats or skills; increments to one thing cost more XP each time.  So, they get rid of a concept (‘levels’) and let you control the process more.)

Combat is turn-based, a sort of simplified version of King’s Bounty. You and your enemies take turns using your abilities and weapons until one side is all dead.

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Wearing my Cultist Mask for extra Mysticality, wasting devil clowns.

It’s not deep.  In fact, I went through several nights of never losing a fight, and wondering what happens if you do.  Then I ran into nastier enemies and lost several fights in a row.  The actual mechanism is clever: losing a fight makes you Angry.  Anger increases your stats slightly, and you can stack it up, but there’s a limit, and when you reach it you faint from rage and wake up the next day back in town, losing the effect of any potions you’d consumed.  So it’s a setback, but pretty minimal. (I don’t think there’s a Save option, or a need for one.)

The stick figures are of course pretty minimal, but they’re animated with charm, and in general the game plays with its limited graphics in nice ways.  E.g. most things are black & white, but ghosts are gray, as are doorways ‘behind’ you (ones leading outward). The above screenshot shows a sepia effect you get at one point. (You can turn it off, but I like it.)

I’ve read a couple of reviews of the game that are near rapturous.  I think it’s a lot of fun, but I also think it’s best to play in shortish sessions. I probably would have been rapturous too when I was younger, because it’s exactly my kind of humor. But zany humor isn’t quite as satisfying as it once was. There’s not much in the game to care about, nor is there a lot of roleplaying choice or combat challenge. So the emotional temperature is fairly low.

Probably for this reason, when something frustrating comes up, it’s more of a turnoff than it should be.  That string of lost fights, for instance: all of a sudden I was facing enemies who could kill me (and my pardner) in two or three turns. Or the circus, which requires an extremely circuitous set of actions.  The sudden roadblock is jarring.

(If you run into the same problems: if you’re underpowered, spend some time wandering in the first region, near Dirtwater– it’s an option on the map– to clean up the easier locations. Keep accumulating stuff and explore the potions and such: you can build up your stats nicely.  And there are some good wikis and walkthroughs if you lose patience with a puzzle.)

I should also mention: I think it gets better a few hours in.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the initial encounters, but just tonight I ran into the funniest place yet (Fort Memoriam) and the creepiest (the Circus).

Edit: Farther along, I have a big complaint: there’s no journal. This makes it really hard to figure out what to do next if you haven’t played for a few days. You can ask your partner for suggestions, but this doesn’t give you an exhaustive list. I feel stuck right now: one location has a fight I can’t win; another requires a two-day wait which is tedious (and erases some of my current perks). I don’t have any locations on the map I haven’t been to. You shouldn’t have to look in a wiki to find things to do in a game.

 

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of a graphics snob in video games. I just don’t like the look of Half-Life, Fallout 1/2, or Morrowind. So, I was surprised that Robert Yang managed to convince me that, in at least one case, lo-res is better.

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This is a comparison of the original (2006) and a remastered (2017) version of a video game, Final Fantasy XII. And yes, Yang’s contention is that the fuzzy original is better.

(Why the girl is leaning to one side in the remastered version, I don’t know.  It’s distracting, but not the point here.)

His analysis of the “remastering” is helpful:

If I had to guess, the artists probably did this: (1) scale up texture by 200%, (2) increase contrast, (3) desaturated a little for that grayish next-gen feel, (4) apply a sharpen filter, (5) overlay a noisy detail texture on top to try to make the surface look more detailed.

He notes that you can automate this process, so you can handle a whole folder of images in a few minutes.

Now, my first reaction was that I liked the sharper image better. (I’ve never played the game, so I have no nostalgia here to invoke.)  In general, our eyes like sharpness! We can really see the intended patterns; the banner looks ten times better; the leaves are more recognizable.  It’s like putting glasses on!

And none of that is wrong. But look at the things Yang is pointing to: desaturation; the sharpen feature; a noise filter. The way I’d put it: the new image is

  • way too loud– it draws attention to itself, though it’s just a background
  • way too contrasty– if you looked at an actual wall, you wouldn’t be conscious of such a wide tonal range, it would mostly look one color
  • much less warm– look especially at the pavement, which has gone from a warm orange to almost black-and-white
  • too flat; because everything is in focus, it looks like a picture, not a world

You can certainly do realism well, but this realism done badly.

Yang points to another example, a fan remake of Half-Life 2.  I won’t name it, because I’m not going to say anything nice about it and there’s no need to embarrass a hard-working modder. Here’s a comparison.  (The top image is apparently another mod, but much closer to Valve.)

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Oh dear. Let’s go over the problems.

  • What the hell is going on in the screenshot? It’s wicked dark.
  • You can barely see what is supposed to be the focus of the scene: Breen and Eli Vance.
  • Contrariwise, the modder has inserted extremely bright lights where they do no good at all. “Here, I really want you to pay attention to this: the floor.”
  • In general, the physical modeling and the lighting effects are far better– e.g. the round hole in the ceiling isn’t an obvious polygon; the lights, like real lights, don’t just light up the air. But all this realism just hides the narrative.  We don’t get an idea of the shape of the area; we can’t see what’s going on; we don’t know where to go next.
  • Why did he blur the red highlights from the windows?  Why did he lose the overhead light? Come to think of it, why don’t those very bright lights actually illuminate anything?
  • Yes, you’ve learned how to do a shiny floor; but what’s the point? All it does is reflect some lights and thus confuse the scene further.  Does the Combine care that much about waxing their floors?
  • What the hell kind an outfit did he put on Mossman?

Not all the images from the mod are this dark, but when they’re not, they’re generally too busy, too desaturated, and less coherent. They look like someone Googled for hi-res versions of every texture in the scene, without any care to making them work together.

Realism is nice, but isn’t an end in itself. You also have to think about consistency of style, and focusing the player’s attention on what is important, and giving them the information they need to follow the story and navigate the world.  The old Valve was very good at this.

As an example of a game that properly shows off the increased realism that’s now possible, I’d name The Witcher 3. I haven’t finished it, but good lord is it gorgeous. And without losing the readability, consistency, and focus that’s needed for a game to work as a game.

I just finished Dishonored 2: Death of the Outsider, which I’ve been looking forward since seeing its fucken badass trailer. It’s the song that makes it.

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This is a really lovely steampunk dystopia

Now, I really liked Dishonored 2, so playing DOTO (terrible acronym) was relaxing with an old friend. We’re back in Karnaca, exploring the hell out of a small section of the city, either choking or croaking guards.

The main Dishonoreds suffer from the PC being too close to the top of the social hierarchy; the DLC for each is far more satisfying.  In D1’s DLC you played gruff assassin Daud, and in DOTO you play his assistant Billie Lurk– who also has a major role in D2. And you take on the biggest target of all: the dark god of this universe, the Outsider.

I’m impressed with how smooth the game is. The world is, by now, one of the most distinctive fantasy worlds in games. The level design is superb, and often beautiful.  I never needed a walkthrough– I missed a couple puzzles, but nothing that bothered me.  As ever, the game rewards exploring every nook of these little worlds, but they’re never so large that they feel like a chore. There are side quests (‘contracts’), but they’re designed so that you can take them on as part of the main mission.

This time, there’s no chaos system.  I read that the devs have explained this as meaning Billie is too insignificant a figure to change the way the empire works… which makes no sense, since how she treats the Outsider is a more cosmic choice than anything you do in D1 or D2.  A better explanation might be that the Outsider ran the reward system in the previous games– and you overrule his decisions here.  But on a gameplay level, it’s a good thing: it encourages you to play the game lethally or not, without worrying that you’re getting the “bad ending”.

I decided to play completely lethally.  It fits Billie, and it was a chance to play in a way I really hadn’t in any of the earlier games. It’s pretty fun!  For most of the game you rarely run into more than 4 or so enemies at once, which is doable.  It took me 14 hours, but I was still exploring everything, not trying to speed-run.  It would have taken quite a bit more in full stealth mode.

There are a few difficult enemies:

  • One level has those damn clockwork soldiers, which are really hard to take down. Fortunately there’s not too many of them.
  • One level has a load of cultists, and at first it seemed anything I tried would send all of them after me.  But finally I learned to provoke only a handful at a time.
  • The last level has a nasty rock creature, the “Envisioned”.  They seem way overpowered– I couldn’t kill any of them, and they can basically one-hit you. But it turns out you can avoid them.

Billie has a new set of powers, which frankly are nerfed compared to the earlier games.  But a full skill tree wouldn’t make much sense in a shorter game.  I missed the Blink ability, mostly because its replacement, Displace, is really bad at moving vertically. On the other hand, I liked Foresight, not least because it solves a problem with these detective-mode analogs: if you have detective mode, you pretty much want to stay in it all the time, which means you’re seeing the world with a dull filter on.  Foresight freezes time and lets you scout ahead briefly.  It gives you a very pleasing rhythm of clearing an area, using Foresight to scout ahead and mark enemies, and then moving in.

You can also steal someone’s face, which gives you some nice methods of getting past checkpoints and such.

At the end, you can either kill the Outsider– or not.  Storywise, I think they did a pretty good job making this an interesting choice. My own feeling is that the Abbey of the Everyman is far worse than he is, so I spared the dude.

The standout mission is a bank heist in the third chapter.  It’s not as spectacular as the Clockwork Mansion in D2, but as a game level, it’s far better planned.  Jindosh’s mansion is baffling on a first playthrough; the bank basically leads you through while making you feel like you’ve solved the puzzles yourself.

It felt like they had a far lower budget or something, and so re-used one map twice, and re-used another one from D2.  But this wasn’t really bad: in the first case, the second time you’re mostly in the bank, which is new; and in the case of the repeated Conservatory, it gives them a chance to show what happened after the events of D2, which very different people in charge.

My one complaint, perhaps, is that none of the enemies you meet are as vivid or memorable as Duke Abele or Jindosh or Delilah from D2.  The series works best with exaggerated, grotesque villains, and they didn’t really come up with one here.

(Well, one other minor complaint: on the Conservatory mission you can find a load of coins… and then you never get a chance to spend them.  I guess you could stop off at the Black Market on the way home. I kind of preferred D1’s system of letting you shop in the between-mission screens.)

I really hope, though, that this isn’t it for Dishonored.  I want to go blinking and assassinating in this strange nasty world again.

 

 

I picked this up and zipped through it tonight. It’s by the same people who did Gone Home. It’s similar in gameplay, only it’s set in spaaaaaaace.

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So: It’s 2088.  You’re Ami Ferrier, who’s been sent to grab the AI data from the unoccupied Tacoma space station.  It’s soon clear that something bad happened here, and you can snoop around to see what it was.

You can look at physical clues, but you also look at virtual clues: the AI kept recordings of significant crew interactions, in the form of augmented reality recordings. These are color-coded ghosts (with full audio). The clever bit is that you can’t just stand there gawking at them– the characters move around, and you have to decide which ones to follow. You can then rewind and follow someone else.

All this makes two big improvements over Gone Home:

  • The futuristic setting, which allows the art and story people a good deal more creativity.
  • The AR recordings, which just feel more involving and interactive than a straight audio.

But the overall method and even the story structure are similar.  You can root around offices and personal quarters, look in drawers and trash bins, solve a few simple puzzles to gain access to additional areas.  You don’t have to do any of this, but you’d might as well, because that’s the game… you don’t get to shoot anyone at all. You’ll very soon get to know each of the six residents of the station.

The story has been described as cyberpunkish, or Late Capitalism in Spaaace.  Let’s just say that you won’t be surprised to find corporate shenanigans going on, and some inscrutable and possibly dangerous AIs.

Gone Home had the advantage of being a low-key domestic story; it was unusual because we almost never see something like that made into a game. But I think Tacoma is a step forward in storytelling; without losing the interest in everyday personal interactions, it’s more streamlined and dramatic.  Rather than slowly leafing through a couple decades of family life, it focuses on a very stressful period of days, with a few key flashbacks. (I think there are fewer items to look at, but that’s because they rely on the AR for so much of the storytelling.  The games each take about 2 hours to play.)

The ending is also a lot more satisfying.  (Mouse over to read if you aren’t worried about spoilers.)  One, Ami actually does something, unlike the entirely passive PC in Gone Home. And two, the story manages to not replay every AI story ever told, which is refreshing.

One minor complaint: the low-detail ghosts. When they’ve obviously gone to the trouble of motion-capturing the performances and building 3-D models, I don’t get why they didn’t just show the characters’ faces.  It’s not like they were trying to hide them– there are pictures of each one.

Anyway, it’s a really interesting exercise in storytelling.  It could have been told as a movie or a comic, but the interactivity adds something, though that something is hard to explain. Perhaps it’s that it requires active curiosity, rather than passive acceptance. A lot of far fancier games could learn the lesson that it’s kind of annoying to grab the camera away from the player and just show them cutscenes.

I was thinking about some games I’ve started and not finished, and I think I’ve figured out why: there’s too much to do.

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Your to-do list

These games include Rise of the Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.  I loved the games they’re sequels to, I’ve started them, got some distance into them, and just never seem to start them up again. What I realized today is that the original games were mostly linear, and the new games are far more open-world.

And it makes me anxious. I feel like I have to find everything in an area before moving on.  I know I could skip most of the stuff, but then I worry that I won’t have mastered all the skills needed for the main quest.  I have other complaints– e.g. Faith and Merc in the original Mirror’s Edge were far more likeable characters than Faith and Noah in Catalyst— but I think it’s the size of the game that bothers me.

The irony is, I’ve put an ungodly number of hours into Mirror’s Edge. But part of that it is because it’s in nice digestible chunks. I will replay the game occasionally, or I’ll spend time on the time trials.  The game is so focused that there’s no paralysis of choice.

Dishonored and Dishonored 2 hit the sweet spot of “mostly linear, but with side stuff to make it fun to explore.” There are just enough runes and lore drops.  Arkham City is also well balanced.  (I did get all the Riddler trophies– once. If I just want to mess around as Batman or Catwoman, I’ll play the challenge maps.) Saints Row 4 has a nice approach: it’s sprawling, and yet the game will lead you through all the activities if you let it.

So if you’re a developer, I’d suggest that making an open world is not something you have to do, and can even make your game worse.  Embrace linearity.  I’d rather have a solid main quest to do than a huge number of fairly shallow activities, where it’s not clear what I should be doing.  (On the other hand, a good place for those shallow activities is in a separate challenge mode.)

If you’re Bethesda, however, you should just carry on. Fallout 3 and Oblivion, for me, did open-world in just the right way. Although I completed the main story in both, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t really have to. Plus these games, and Saints Row 3/4, are great at making so much of the world interactive. That is: an open world goes well with multiple playstyles and playthroughs: if you can be a hero one time and a rogue another, if you can wander down the road and find a new story, if you can make a home and find shops to customize your character.  Neither Faith nor Lara really have the opportunity to put the main quest aside for a few months, maybe buying a house or playing as a rogue.

All this is entirely subjective (it’s quite all right if you play games very differently), and it’s not intended as the last word on these particular games.

Edit: So why do publishers insist on making games open-world?  According to this scary article, it’s because they can monetize them better. Ugh.

 

 

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