A Lasting Federation

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on August 9, 2014 by trivialpunk

Have you ever wanted to role-play as the last member of a defeated empire attempting to mend fault-lines of political conflict in order to prevent the kind of genocide that wiped out your people? How about as a four-headed space-faring Hydra with hyper-advanced technology? Both at the same time? Well, I’ve got a game that will perfectly sate your oddly specific desires!

The-Last-Federation-Review

 The Last Federation is an inter-galactic politics sim with a smattering of top-down turn-based, click-controlled space-combat. Your goal, as a space-faring dragon-ambassador, is to form a lasting Federation from the most shockingly diverse spectrum of races I’ve ever seen in a single solar system. (Don’t worry, they all speak the same language.) Why is this your job? How do you accomplish this monumental task? It’s a funny story…

You see, your race has been space-faring for a while now, and it was using that technological edge to… well, to be a dick. So, someone launched a moon at your home-world and, long-story-short, you were away when it happened. (Was it a big anniversary? Why was everyone else on the planet? I don’t know) BUT, you weren’t just away selling Choco-melties from planet-to-planet, you were on a good-guy mission. Naturally, that means you’re a good-guy. And what do good-guys do?

No, not kill all the Peltians! Dammit! They were dive-bombing the Thoraxians because they ate an entire colony of… Let me explain a little more clearly. There are eight remaining planets in the solar system, so there are eight races. Each race has strengths, weaknesses, political agendas, a unique style of government, a preferred method of attack… These attributes aren’t just flavour, either, they’re expressed through the mechanics of game-play. Let me give you a brief description of each race and we’ll get into how they’re brought to life:

Thoraxians – These are hive-mind spider-people with a near-insatiable appetite. They can, and may, devour the entire solar system. They’re not the best in the air, but they’re incredibly strong in a ground-engagement and nearly impossible to dig out of the tunnels of any planet they inhabit.

Peltians – Furry, lovable owl people that will dive-bomb the shit out of you from orbit if you piss them off. They’re incredibly weak, so giving them space-faring tech first will actually provoke the more combat-centric races, but don’t count them out, because you never hear an owl coming.

Andor – The Andor are a race of Utopian robots that don’t have time for your shit. They abhor conflict, so they’ll start to hate anyone that starts a massive war that includes lots of death. They’re willing to fight for peace, though, and they’ve got the tech to back it.

Skylaxians – The Trade Federation. They’ll trade with everyone all day, every day. They love science and industry, and they’re very… persuasive. If you need a persnickety race forcefully pulled into your current Europe-esque powder-keg, then just get them trading with these guys. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Evuck – Tribalistic monkey-people that don’t want your nose in their business. They’re paranoid, because they’re voyeurs, or was it the other way around? If you need dirt on another race, then just ask for some info from the Evuck spy-probes that totally don’t exist.

Burlust – The little Khanate that could. These guys are always fighting. Always. You’d think that would weaken them over time, but you’d be wrong. It only seems to feed their power. Trying to get them off a planet that they are resolutely on can be a long, gruelling and, possibly, futile task. Good luck. I hope that constant warfare doesn’t result in any Federation turmoil…

Boarine – A tribal race of boar-people that is headed by whatever ruler the race generated to deal with its current problems. They’re normally pretty isolated, but if things are going poorly for them, then they might just change their tune. Unfortunately, the longer they’re locked in combat, the harder it is to get them out of combat and the stronger they become. Heaven help you if they’re fighting the Burlust.

Acutians – Robotic capitalists that will continue to build as long as there is space to build. They’ll give you a fair deal, from their perspective, and they only really care about what’s popular with their constituents, but, let’s be fair, they’ll do almost anything for money. Of course, don’t think you can take them for granted in the political power-struggle, because they haven’t been building pogo-sticks with all that cash.

So, yes, these are the players in your little game of chess, but you can’t just make them dance whenever you feel like it. You have to gain influence over them: you’re the one dancing. If they like what you do, then they’ll give you big ups. However, if they don’t think your plan is in their best interest (like if it involves nuking them from orbit), then they’ll like you that much less. Of course, if you nuke a helpless planet from orbit, then you’d better have a damn good reason for it, because that ruins the environment.

No, seriously, that’s a metric. Each planet has RCI values (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) that define how things are going on that little ball of dirt, water and molten metal. There are four different metrics: Environment, Economy, Health and Public Order. These are the metrics that define how well the Boarine think things are going for them, in general, but each of these metrics has unique events and effects that will reverberate through your solar system.

For instance, if a planet’s economy plummets, then many of its inhabitants will take up smuggling to survive, so the planet will haemorrhage pirate armadas. However, if you’re having trouble clearing a planet of its population, then you can always dump poison into their atmosphere. That’ll bottom-out the Health metric, which starts affecting birth-rates and death-rates. Unsurprisingly, this makes a population far easier to annihilate. Then again, if you want to aid in a planet’s development, there’s nothing like investing in their Social Order or their Environment. That’s assuming that the other two RCI metrics are healthy, of course.

The RCI metrics are all important to a race’s health, and they allow you to predict how different races will behave, based on your understanding of how they react to their current situation. Playing with a planet’s RCI in order to effect a specific change is a delicate balancing act. That’s the whole game, really: a delicate balancing-act.

There are metrics that define inter-species relationships. Metrics for defensive strength, troop strength, planet-race compatibility…. there are so many freakin’ metrics, but the game’s tutorial introduces them at a friendly pace, so you’re rarely in a head-space where you’ll get completely over-whelmed by data. And all of these metrics are made meaningful. The Thoraxians don’t have a Public Order metric, because they’re a hive-mind, and the Andor are Utopian peace-lovers, so you’ll get a drop in inter-species relationships if someone starts a war. The ground-troop strength of the Burlust is really all you need to know about them.

You’d think this might get a little confusing, but the information is cleanly presented, polished with tool-tips and thoughtfully implemented. There’s even a log-book. All of this information will allow you to clearly understand why your solar system is on fire. You should probably do something about that!

But, what?! Well, you started this mess by crash-landing on a planet and giving them the technology necessary to build a kick-ass flag-ship, which you then stole, so maybe giving more people technology will solve your problems. Well, it’ll certainly make them like you more, but it might also turn them into Universe-spanning terrors. It’s hard to tell, sometimes. You’ve got to take chances, but what’s stopping you from just playing the same game over and over again until you get it right?

Well, the planet and the race placement is randomized. The race you start by stealing from is non-trivial, because it defines the order in which people enter the solar stage and who hates you, when. It also affects who starts fighting with who right away, especially if the Thoraxians are floating about space sooner than later, which seems to be the case more often than not. There are also events, based on the game’s current situation, that can really mess up your day, like the formation of an Anti-Federation.

Anti-Federations are a liiiiiiittle annoying, and they can be very difficult to dissolve, especially Federations of One. And the situation of the simulation’s Anti-Federation is beyond satiation: it does not like your rag-tag group of gadabouts one bit. Sometimes, you’ve got to undermine some inter-race relations in order to break a Federation, but some Federations are Fear Federations of One, so even if you beat them back to their homeworld, they’re not going to be friendly towards you, at all. As long as they exist, you cannot win, though, so the game forces you to start making some tragic choices. But, before you get to genocide, how do you “stop” an Anti-Federation, or even just a ravenous hoard of death, from controlling or cleansing your solar system?

Gain influence and martial the other races behind you. Research powerful technologies. Destroy their planetary environment. Call off wars using influence. Or, if your problem is space-based, get into your fighter and deal with the issue directly. The pieces of technology from your lost race, the Hydral, are amazing, and they’ll give you a huge leg-up in the turn-based RTS combat. Of course, you could always get someone, like the Acutians, to launch a moon at someone. Hey, wait a minute, didn’t a flying moon destroy your…

Oh, I haven’t talked about the combat at all, have I? Here’s a picture to help me clarify the almond-cluster-fudge that is fighting an armada with a single, hyper-advanced ship.

The-Last-Federation-Turn-Based-Strategy-to-Launch-on-Steam-for-Linux-on-April-19-437227-2

The top right is your map. Top left is your ship’s systems. The three primary colour-coded bars underneath that are the power you’re devoting to your Weapons, Shields and Engines, which can be manipulated in real-time. The bottom left of the picture is a quick over-view of who’s involved with the current fighting, and that colourful bar in the middle-bottom is your selection of special abilities. Everyone plans their route, weapon-target and system power-settings ahead of time, then a turn is played. Like a D&D character’s… every single day, it’s life in six-second Intervals.

There are different weapons and upgrades that you can find or research. The enemy fleets become more powerful and elaborate as their technologies improve. Of course, the same is true for your allies. And there’s not really much that I have to say about it that you haven’t figured out from that brief description, except that the auto-resolve button -in the bottom left-hand corner- will be your friend, if you’re too powerful to care about the current engagement. Don’t let it burn you, though.

 This is a really long, involving game; I’ve only begun to skim the surface of what can happen in your solar system. It’s fun to tinker with, and it’s made all the more interesting by the interactions of the races and their places in the solar system. There’s always something to do, or something you should be doing, and you’re never quite safe. One time, I thought I’d saved the solar system because I’d used technology from the Skylaxians and Acutians to buff the Boarines to the point that they could deal with the Thoraxian-Burlust Anti-Federation of Pain. Unfortunately, once that Federation had been “dealt with,” the Boarine realized that they now controlled half the solar system, so they turned into a Federation of Fear and attempted to “deal with” the remaining races. The Federation ended up beating them into the ground, but not before it had to kill every last Boarine.

At least, the remaining Peltians that were making a living as pirates got their world back. At least.

On Difficulty, Dragon Age: Origins And Streaming

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2014 by trivialpunk

As some of you may already know, I’ve started streaming on Twitch. You can find my channel here. Stop by sometime and game with me. I’ll still be putting out YouTube videos, but Letsplaying through Twitch is incredibly convenient. I used to spend way too many hours of each day editing and rendering videos. Now, my computer’s down-time has been cut in half, so expect more impromptu streams and a larger variety of YouTube videos.

A schedule? Well, I’ll be streaming Thursday nights with Boris and, occasionally, Squid. If we’re playing Skyrim, then that means we’re playing with Alignment Randomization. Every time we level, we roll a die and get a random alignment from the Lawful-Chaotic, Good-Evil scale, then we play for the next level as that alignment. We’ll be playing Captain’s Chair in FTL: Faster Than Light. One of us gives the orders, and the other carries them out. We’re going to try it with two Captains next… I’ll be gaming solo most nights of the week, otherwise. I’ll tweet about impromptu streams and start putting together a coherent schedule that I’ll post on this site. I’ll be playing Minecraft, Shovel Knight, Geneforge 5: Overthrow and anything else that strikes my fancy. Also, horror games. I’ve got lots of those.

I’ll have my tablet open next to my keyboard for chat. I’ve got microphone hot-keys nailed down and a few pre-made signs for BRBs and the like. Learning how to stream has been a lot of fun! I’ve been doing it for the last week straight. I slept and streamed and slept and streamed. I got kidnapped on Wednesday for socialization purposes. Then I streamed. That’s just how I’m going to game now. I like having people drop in to chat, and I like doing character voices. I do the voices when I’m alone, too, but then I feel weird. With that admission safely tucked away, let’s move on to…

 Valid And Sound

Oh, sorry, that’s our Twitch logo. I wanted to share it because Squid did the pixel-art. He’s mad-talented. I can’t wait to show you more from him in the future. Today, we’re talking Dragon Age: Origins and Difficulty.

Now, I know this is an endlessly reviewed game. There are plenty of reviews on Metacritic and if you’re looking for someone with a personal connection to the game, then look no farther than Simpleek. Many of those reviews will be better than anything I can put together without having finished the game recently or being immersed in the Dragon Age lore. Go check them out if you’re looking for a concise review of the game. I want to talk about what changed between the first time I played Dragon Age: Origins and when I began streaming it this week.

Let’s jump aaaall the way back to 2009 (is a sentence I never thought I’d write). At that point, I was living in a one-room dorm and writing about things on the internet. My computer was a clunky remnant from my broken engagement and my writings were tinged bitter-sweet by loss. It was in this miasma of despair and caffeine that I began playing Dragon Age: Origins. My computer chugged to render the game, but you’re damn right I played the whole thing. It was a beautiful mix of hopeless and triumphant that left me inspired to press on into the fog of the University and the ever-baffling expanse of human relationships.

Jump forward to this week. I’m renting a room in a house and gaming on a much nicer PC. Yeah, I just went through a break-up, but I’m not bitter about it. I’ve learned that you need to love for love and do what you can to accept that it’s not always going to be a thing. Sometimes, things don’t work out, but you press ahead, Dragon Age-style. This time, I sat down to play the game and decided to stream it on Hard-mode. I’ve already beaten it on Normal, so why would I start streaming it on Normal?

Well, the answer to that question came to me pretty quickly. I didn’t remember anything about the game. I knew some plot-points and where some armor was kicking around, but the combat mechanics were utterly alien to me. There was depth to it that I had never really looked for. Now, I needed to dive right into that depth to avoid the fireballs that were splashing across my wounded party. Oh geeze, no! DOGS! AUGH!. *ahem* I started to wonder why I was so bad at this game. I had beaten it, hadn’t I?

That’s a question that still lingers over me when I complete a game on Normal, especially when it seems too easy. Because, maybe it is. But, too easy for what? What does “too easy” even mean?

There’s something to be said for designing a game that everyone can experience and beat. It makes playing something like Dragon Age more accessible to those that just want to pick up and play one of gaming’s most epic tales. There’s a lot of whinging that gets done about games being too easy, but that’s why we have difficulty settings. They’re entirely adjustable. I don’t care what setting someone plays on; I care about how those settings change the game.

When I played DA:O on Normal, I experienced almost none of the depth in the game’s combat system: the game didn’t really require me to. I didn’t have to consider the stats of enemy types, because I just had to move my rogue into back-stab position. I built a really sloppy tank-build, but that didn’t really matter because the enemies didn’t do that much damage. I Never Ran Out Of Poultices. Now, I never HAVE poultices. I have elfroot, briefly.

Oh, I played well at the depth the game required on Normal. I believe you have to in order to beat the game. It’s not like it was easier, but it was simpler. And if you meta-game hard enough, then simple looks like easy. The game isn’t any harder to execute on Hard-Mode, but the decisions I’m making rely on more complex considerations. Does that mean it’s harder?

Or does that mean it’s a different type of game? The Dragon Age: Origins game I played on Normal was a Final Fantasy-esque real-time RPG with MMO controls. The Dragon Age: Origins I’m playing on Hard-Mode is more like an RTS with a pause button. The considerations I need to make to survive are different and the chances that I’ll die are far higher. Is that harder or just more complex?

I will definitely agree that DA:O would be a much harder game if I had to play Hard-Mode in real-time from the word “Go”. That’s not the case, though. The ability to pause the game and zoom out changes the player dynamic a lot. Being required to do so in order to survive alters it irrevocably. That’s not a bad thing if there’s something for the player to experience in that dynamic, though.

Switching to Hard-Mode changed the game, but that change opened the game up. It forced me to engage with its systems in a completely different way. It’s also made streaming the game a lot of fun. I’m learning a ton from people that come by the chat. Strategies and builds are rich areas of discussion, and helping each other survive in DA:O is part of what makes it a gaming community. Sharing knowledge is, well, it’s still sharing. Nothing brings some people together like a challenge we can work on. I mean, look at Dark Souls.

But, let’s focus. The depth of the game was unchanged between Normal and Hard. However, my relationship to that depth changed immensely when I switched difficulties. There’s a depth versus complexity trade-off that’s discussed briefly in this Extra Credits Video and it has interesting implications for what we’re discussing here. These differences led me to have to dive further into the game, but greater depth often leads to greater complexity. The question I’m left with is: how foreboding is that complexity?

Well, the game encourages you to start on Normal. The first time through, I’d guess that most people probably experience most of the game’s content in N-mode. If they’re looking for a little more bite from the combat system, then they can skip up to hard. There, they might discover, as I did, that there’s more to this game than an MMO re-skin. The story pulled me through the first play-through, but the gameplay is pulling me through the second one. That’s a damn good engagement curve, if you ask me.

Does Normal sell the depth and complexity of the game’s combat mechanics a little short? In my opinion, yeah, but it does so to make the overall game more engaging for more people. If you’re someone who knows they like a challenge, then Nightmare and Hard-mode are ready and waiting for you. If you decide that you fripped up, then you can always scale it down (at any point). That’s really thoughtful in a game as long as this one, especially if you want to bump the difficulty up later on.

It’s hard to define what makes something “Hard”. Execution challenges, decision-moments and reaction times are nicely quantifiable variables, but they’re meaningless without the human experience they create. After all, it doesn’t matter how strong your twitch-kill game is, I guarantee that a computer could do it better. The fact that a game is tuned to specific human reaction times and sensory modalities is part of what makes it difficult. The game asks us to push the edges of our awareness and pwn that much harder, but that difficulty is a reflection of the game’s interaction with the player. The game that emerges from a multi-player match relies on the players’ relative abilities mediated through the game, but the game considers those relative human abilities in its design. That’s why we have noob-toobs  for effpeaesses and a Pause function in Dragon Age: Origins. The games provide the tools you need to succeed.

You can go elegant, the way Dive-Kick did, or you can sprawl the way DA:O does, but you still have to be accessible. And while it could be argued that Normal is too simple to Require a deep understanding of the mechanics and Hard is too complex to invite newbies to engage with it (if you’re not already familiar with RPG mechanics, then it’s even more-so, because this shiz is relative), I think it’s an elegant use of the difficulty setting. Normal makes the game approachable. It lets people experience the story without having to spam F5 and F9, but, when you’re ready, the Darkspawn lurk in Nightmare. It’s a gateway I’ll pass through someday; I’ll see you on the other side.

Addendum: If you’re interested in Difficulty Scaling in DA:O, then check out: DA:O Difficulty and DA:O Challenge Scaling

Crafting Horror Mechanics and Mindsets

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Last time, we were comparing the elements that create a jump-scare to the elements that create an entire horror movie. Today, we’re going to expand on that and talk about creating player mind-sets in horror games.

Finding primary sources for this is difficult, because horror experiences are so personal. I can tell you what I was thinking at a given moment of gameplay, but it might not be the norm. We can discuss what designers wanted their players to feel, but whether or not that translates to the player experience is going to depend on a lot of factors external to the design.

So, we’re going to go broad and stick with a few concrete perspectives. To do that, we’re going to start with Dead Space 3.

Now, we all know the crafting system in Dead Space 3 rocked our immersion with its micro-transaction frippery, but is that the only issue with it? I would argue that it also creates entirely the wrong mind-set in the player. When you’re crafting a weapon in DS3, what are you thinking about?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking about how much damage it’s going to do. I’m thinking about how many pieces they’ll fly into. Or, I’m considering the merits of perpetual-stasis ripper-saws against those of a glowing death-ball cannon. If you watched my Painkiller video of yore, you’ll have probably figured out my point already: in none of the scenarios I’m considering am I the prey.

I’m preparing for battle, so I’m preparing to hunt, or, at least, to take down a dangerous opponent. The dynamic I’m thinking in is that of a predator. That’s empowering; that’s the opposite of the way I should be thinking. I should be thinking, “I hope this will keep me alive, but I’m not sure if it will.” If I’m going to min-max, then it should be for all the right reasons.

But my question is, if you’re already thinking about your strength and how to combat an opponent, aren’t you already in the wrong mind-set? This is one of the things that makes horror RPGs so questionable to me: RPG elements are usually about growth towards success and away from dis-empowerment.

The way we usually employ leveling systems isn’t going to cut it; we need our level-ups to reinforce our position in the monster dynamic. There are several ways to do this. One way is simply to ensure that your growth never makes you equal to the monsters. This can be accomplished by simply making the monsters more powerful, but then it’s pretty hard to distinguish between standard monster progression and an atmosphere of oppression. Lulz.

Again, though, if we’re in that mind-set, then we’ve already lost the first battle. Let’s step back: what does our level-up system tell the player about how they’re growing? If you can grow in strength, then your ability to combat the enemy grows, as well. But, what if you grow in pivoting speed? I know it sounds silly next to Strength, but that’s why we just don’t include Strength.

Our character could grow in areas that reinforce its prey-like nature. The ability to pivot quicker or sprint longer would give the player the tools to escape enemies more easily, but it wouldn’t make the escape itself trivial. An ability that allows the player to sense their enemies seems like a good idea, but that also increases the player’s ability to combat the enemy.

Another thing to remember, here, is not to allow the level-up mechanics to interact with the puzzles or the challenges in any way that makes them easier. Doing that gives the player Avatar-strength, which is exactly what we’re avoiding in the combat. The message should be: your growth helps you survive, not succeed.

For example, let’s say we give players the ability to unlock an emergency u-turn button. That ability shouldn’t then interact with some puzzle that requires that you turn around more quickly, unless the speed with which you turn has no bearing on the challenge.

Let it be a convenience. What do I mean? Well, if you’re doing a riddle that requires that you pull on six hang-man’s nooses that are spaced around a room, then quick-turn lets you navigate to them more easily, if you’re in a third-person shooter. However, if there’s a timed-element, then quick-turn makes this portion easier by making the navigation easier.

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Now, this can be contextual, as well. If the puzzle is just a random timed puzzle for reasons, then it’s not really a big deal that your level-progression assisted you through it. However, if it’s a timed puzzle because the forces of darkness are slowly possessing your soul, then your level-progression has assisted you in fighting them, altering the dynamic once more.

Growing empowered doesn’t have to be a negative aspect of a horror game. It could always be shown to be an utter illusion, but, since it’s already an illusion, it’s difficult to experience the difference, at times. However, if progression leads you towards something awful, then we’ve altered the dynamic, again.

Think about Cthulhu. (but not too hard) As an entity, it is beyond grasping. However, in their studies of Cthulhu and the Occult, many adventurers find fantastic powers and strange, overwhelming artifacts. The deeper an adventurer quaffs, the madder it becomes. That’s another way to look at a power-progression.

Let’s say we’re in a house with a small ghost. Every day, that ghost grows slightly in power. In order to combat that ghost, we’ve got to learn about it and grow in power, as well. However, in order to grow in power, we must make sinister deals with Otherworldly creatures. These deals let a little bit of something slip through and we’re suddenly racing our madness with our intellect.

I envision this as a haunting-Occult sim that grows in insanity as you make deals with more and greater numbers of spirits. I’d include a Pact system that would eventually allow you to banish the evil from your house, but only after you’ve endured some messed-up shit and if you don’t die. However, it could also be a platformer that grows in complexity as you begin seeing more and more of the spirits populating the levels. You could probably get some funky level-replay value out of that. Remember the ! blocks in Super Mario World? Like that but with demons.

My point isn’t necessarily the gameplay: my point is the player mind-set. We must never stop asking: how do the systems we’re utilizing work together to influence how the player is thinking about their gameplay experience and, thus, their choices? That experience is where we need to concentrate our unnerving efforts: a frightening back-drop is nothing without it.

Speaking of backdrops, what about those environments and our relationship to them? Well, that usually depends on the systems in the game. If you’ve got a standard physics system, then you and the floor are well-acquainted. If you can swim, then water’s your buddy, guy! How about stealth mechanics? Shadows are your friend! And barrels. I like hiding behind barrels.

Think about how your relationship to the environment and the creatures changes between Outlast and Amnesia. Both of these games are about exploring the creepy-dark and finding baddies therein, but Amnesia has a stealth mechanic and Outlast has a hiding mechanic.

If you’re cornered in Outlast, then you can make a break for the next bed or locker and hide there. There aren’t really a lot of decisions to make about that: you just sprint and hide when you’re out of LoS. That’s about as much as you need to think about the environment, and that’s about as much as I did think about the environment.

However, in Amnesia, where every box might hide you and every shadow conceal you, you’re paying attention to the environment. You’re thinking about what the monster can see. You’re engaged with your surroundings. Yes, not being able to look at the creature helps, but only because you’re concerned about what the creature can see, so you’re thinking about the creature.

If you’re just thinking about avoiding the creature, then you’re not really threatened by it, because you’re not thinking of it as a threat. You’re thinking of it as an obstacle. You don’t think of its parameters, because they never come into play. You just react. See monster, run out of sight, hide, repeat. Or, see monster, stay out of sight, use sounds to avoid it, repeat.

A monster in Amnesia is an artificial intelligence to be played around. There are unknowns in its programming and risks you can take. You can successfully stack two boxes on top of each other and cower in a corner without knowing if that will hide you. That’s a qualitatively different experience to picking a locker to crouch in for a while before being found or not. One’s a coin-flip, the other’s a die roll.

For our player, the math behind it is not as important as the experience. That experience informs their mind-set, which informs their choices, which folds back in on their experience. Yes, that is a conceptual cluster-fuck, but we’re self-aware beings, so you weren’t expecting an easy answer, now, were you?

In any event, this is just a handful of perspectives. As I said last time, horror is like a finely-tuned melody. Any one of these elements that I’ve discussed, in good light or bad, can be part of a successful horror experience. The difference lies in how well the pieces fit together. It’s a difficult puzzle to navigate; I’ll see you on the other side.

The Jump-Scare Microcosm

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Often, I get the urge to go back and edit my old posts. Usually, there’s a typo that’s bothering me, but sometimes it’s just the post itself that needs to be changed. You grow a lot over the course of a couple years, but you always start somewhere. Thankfully, I’m not regurgitating all of Yahtzee’s analogies anymore, but that doesn’t diminish the urge to go back and change the posts where I did.

But, that’s where I was at the time I wrote the post. This is a blog, so its integrity relies on its temporality, which is a ridiculous way of saying that I’d feel weird about editing old posts. So, I’ve just got to do better next time. I wrote a pretty glowing review of Titanfall, but I haven’t really played it since. And I hated Dark Souls, but I’ve got a Letsplay of it now, and I love it.

I’m going to learn from those experiences and do a Letsplay series on Clockwork Empires as it develops. For the people listening to my opinion, I feel compelled to back up my words. Also, it’s fun.

But we’re not here to talk about FUN, are we? We’re here to talk about FEAR. Well, horror, actually, of which fear is a principle component. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in, the important experience is the end-user experience. And when you’re talking horror, that means that you have to take things like lighting, stress-levels, pop-culture and interface into account.

But, that also means that you’re working with a complicated apparatus. Inducing the experience of fear is like playing a complicated emotional symphony. You know how those laughs that follow tense moments are always extra poignant? Part of the reason for that is that laughter is an emotional stress valve. The process of building emotional tension is also the process of building physical tension (stress). Striking at a point in the arc creates a related reaction.

This is one of the mechanisms that makes the jump-scare work. Whether it pays off for a viewer usually depends on their individual reaction; whether it will work on anyone usually depends on the designer.

But tension is not enough, even something as brief as a jump-scare requires a lot of thought to put together and relies on a lot of things going right. Even if it all goes off properly, it’s still being fed through self-aware systems of such sublime complexity and variation that no two will remember it in exactly the same way. That being said, they’re also creatures of such immense sophistication that they could still describe it in exactly the same way if they were asked to. That’s us.

I’m talking about the jump-scare because it’s like a horror-movie microcosm. It relies on most of the same elements: physiological reactions, context and timing. So, if we break down its elements, we can see part of the system we’re working with. Because, despite the fact that each person is different, the reactions they have are in relation to their steady-state, so you can still scare most people a little bit.

For instance, sounds can build physical stress. Let’s paint a standard late-night scene in a deserted park. Our character is walking beside a row of hedges as the wind whips up a little, shaking the leaves. Now, if we were watching a movie, you could start building a deep, subtle sound in the background that would arouse the attention of your audience and begin building some physiological stress.

You can start using restrictive camera angles to let your audience’s visual system know that it’s not getting enough data by using the auditory one, because there are sounds in the background that they’re hearing: strange, out-of-sight sounds. Cut the angle out to a wide-angle of our character walking beside the hedge, edging slightly away from it but clearly feeling foolish about it.

At this point, your audience knows from the music that something’s wrong. This is where people begin yelling at the character to get away from the hedge! It’s dangerous! I think that’s a stress-release valve that opens because the danger is apparent but unknown. This is where you need to be subtle, because your audience wants to get stressed out. However, if the character’s acting foolishly, then they might opt out of buying-in entirely.

We’ve all watched scenes that we thought might have been frightening but were completely ruined because the character didn’t act in a logical manner, right? We are, after all, relying on our audience to project into the mind of our character. If our character acts in a manner that they don’t understand, then our audience can’t really connect with them in any meaningful way. At that point, our character is no longer embodying our audience, so neither will they.

So, back to the scene… Our audience knows that there’s something up, because the music has aroused their attention. They’ve understood that the character feels creeped out by walking alone, at night, beside a hedge, but that the character feels silly about it. The background noises have combined with the camera angles to give the audience the impression that they’re missing some information. But, the wide-angle has communicated that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. Everything is benign, but it feels dangerous.

Now, what of context? We just painted a random park somewhere. Are we watching a slasher-flick? If so, then we know what’s probably waiting in the hedge. Or, at least, the worst thing that could be waiting in the hedge as far we know. That’s kinda meh, honestly. What if an unknown creature escaped from the Lab somewhere and our character doesn’t know about it?

Well, now we have another element of mystery. Not only do we not know if something’s wrong here, but we don’t even know what it could be. That’s not AS helpful as it could be, but it does do some work for us. What if we knew it smashed a cage? Then, it’s strong. How about if it melted its way through a wall? That’s pretty visceral. What could it do to our character?

Still, that might be a little too descriptive. What if we just know that it escaped, but it shredded the corpses of the guards on the way out? The more details we restrict, the more each detail increases in importance in the mind of the audience. However, we still need to give their imaginations enough to work with.

Let’s go back to slashers for a second. If he’s skinned two people so far, then we can imagine that he’ll probably skin his next victim. That’s a gruesome thought, but it only engages the imagination so far. If, on the other hand, he has only removed certain body-parts from each victim at random, then our audience might imagine what would be next.

However, we can encourage them to imagine that by introducing a pattern into the dismemberment. Buffalo Bill, for instance, was building a body-suit. If the reader was given enough details to be encouraged to imagine which ones he’d be after next, then we have further engaged their imagination, and, thus, deepened their immersion. Human curiosity and imagination are essential tools for creating horror.

So, that’s context. For variety’s sake, let’s just say that a creature escaped from a lab. It burned its way out of its cell, then it shredded the skin from each guard, absorbing their blood through the tears in their flesh. (If we want to get really specific later, then we’ll say that a guard who died from severe acid burns wasn’t drained, suggesting that their heart-beat aids the process) That’s pretty graphic.

Now, we have a colorful potential fate for our character. We’ve told the audience that something’s up, but we didn’t overdo it. Then, let’s say their cell-phone rings. If we did it suddenly, then it might act as a mini-jump-scare, relieving some physiological tension. That can be good if we plan to build it up again or catch our audience off-guard. However, if we wanted to build towards a single big scare, then it would build slowly.

Does it build up alongside a rustling in the bushes? Does our character notice something shuffling in the leaves, ignoring their phone to pay attention to the new thing in the shadows? Does our character answer the phone and end up getting stalked by a camera? Does our character not believe their friend? The next few seconds are crucial, and they’ll define the entire tone of the jump-scare.

For our single instance, let’s say that our character pulls their phone out of their pocket, the volume increasing slightly to show why it was initially muffled. Then, they look at the call-return, still walking as they go, putting the phone up to their ear, the camera cuts to a typical walking-talking-head angle, at which point something pounces from off-camera. Our sound-cue here is essential. The scene cuts to the other end of the phone, where we receive more of the plot and a small bit of information about what’s happening to the character we just left.

We want to catch the audience off-guard, but we don’t want to contrive camera-angles or plot-devices that will let them know when we’re planning on catching them off-guard. That defeats the purpose of contriving them, unless they’re a meta-contrivance, and that’s a whole other ball of wax: horror movies for people who love horror movies. (<3)

At the same time, we want to ensure that the angles and mechanics that create the jump-scare are still present. We still want to restrict their vision and menace them with sounds, but we don’t want them to feel like those things exist solely to accomplish the task of creating a jump-scare. That line of thinking runs through everything I understand about creating horror.

You want to create horrifying situations, but you don’t want your audience to have to think about the fact that you’re doing it. You’re not just creating a situation that’s horrifying for the character: you’re using your character’s situation to horrify your audience. It’s their physiology that you need to worry about. It’s their tension that is ultimately played-upon. It’s thrilling to experience when it all works out, because it was created to be experienced.

Games have a huge leg-up when creating horror because they engage the audience directly. However, the job becomes that much more complicated as you add elements, like volition. Creating truly great horror in a game universe means understanding and manipulating someone’s decisions in the same way that jump-scares use physiological tension: they must contribute to the horror in their own way.

Each decision should be part of a string of events that bring you to a horrifying moment. It doesn’t matter if the decision is to walk forward or to choose between two doors or to apply the lotion from one vaguely-labelled bottle instead of the other. The decisions should be themed around creating the experience of horror. They should engage the imagination.

You should have to think about what moving forward might bring. You should be worried about what’s behind each door. The consequences of the choosing a lotion should be frightening. Of course, you’re not always going to be able to do that with every game, so it’s just something to think about while you tackle the realities of putting together any piece of media.

Horror is a difficult thing to produce, and its personal effects are so variable that it’s difficult or impossible to create any piece of media that will engage everyone in the same way. But, that’s the beauty of horror. Strike out into the dark and try something new. Good luck navigating the shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

The Clockwork’s Empires Tick On

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hey you! I’ve been crazy busy lately, but this blog is where I started, so it deserves my love, regardless of the time I have. Today, we’re going to keep it brief and talk about a small subject: Early-Access.

Okay, it’s not a small subject, but the things that I can definitively say about it today are limited. As with any monetization model, it has its risks for both the developer and the consumer. It can easily be corrupted; it can easily fold in on itself. You never know if the game’s going to be finished, and you never know if you’re going to like the finished product after you’ve seen the original. There are many things to consider. But, there is something to be said for watching a game develop. I was in the Minecraft Beta, but I know folks that were in far earlier than I was. They, like me, recall watching the game grow with a fondness that I still feel for it today.

There was passion and dedication behind the dev(s) of that special little game that could and did. It didn’t feel like there were huge expectations for success; Minecraft was basted in the love of the game. And while Minecraft wasn’t the very first early-access game, it’s certainly the most salient success-story among the people I know. So, clearly early-access can work. However, there are some crass individuals who will turn anything beautiful into something sleazy for a quick buck. So, it’s best to know all you can before buying into an early-access game. Incidentally, Jim Sterling does a series of videos about a selection of Early-Access titles. Here‘s a playlist. But, please read on before you run away, because I wanna show you something…

ce_slide

Today, I’d like to talk about Clockwork Empires. It’s an early access game that is being put out by Gaslamp Games, a small indie studio in Victoria, B.C that you might remember for developing Dungeons of Dredmor. And, I think Clockwork Empires was designed specifically to make me love it. It’s a civilization game with a Cthulhian-Clockwork bent. It’s darkly funny and incredibly ambitious, and that’s why I like it. However, it’s also being thoughtfully put together and frankly discussed, which is why I love it. My friend grabbed the game the day it dropped for Earliest Access (Yes, that’s a thing), and we started playing it immediately.

It’s as Alpha as you can allow, because the devs want to make sure the engine’s humming before they add on the spoilers. Okay, there wasn’t much there, really. No save files. Only one spawn-point. A barely functioning Job system. Bugs out the butt. Game-breaking glitches. But, shit, we loved it. We loved it because we expected those things. The devs have been clear on what’s going on and how they’re progressing with implementation, so none of that was surprising. However, in the midst of those issues, we saw glimmers of potential. Potential that we felt would be built upon by a company that’s dedicated to the game’s quality. A stance they’ve wisely embodied in their dealings with their community. After all, trust is the life-blood of early-access.

When the game did work, its grid-based building system and Sims-esque placement mechanics were a lot of fun to tinker with. The character behaviours were wonky at times, but watching your pilgrims mill about and do their own thing is kind of what brings them to life. Also, watching the influence of the Occult spread through my little hamlets was always engaging. Harold the Baker and Susie the Blacksmith having frank discussions with George the Militia-man about the necessity of The Murder Act is always going to be a little bit intriguing. Watching a hungry settler wallow in depression and hunger before deciding to tear off the leg of a fish-person to quiet their wailing stomach seems like it will always be equally fascinating… even if it is a little macabre…

But, those are the cold realities of the life on the Frontier amongst the Cthulhian horrors that haunt us, so it all fits together. Even the writing is charming, which is a big plus to me. The fact that the Cultists occasionally rename your buildings as their influence grows is just icing on the companion cube. I mean, really, why call it a Kitchen when you can call it The Wailing Death-Pit?

You can take this as a recommendation to check out the game and the developer blog to see if you’re interested. But, mostly, I just wanted to tell you why I’m buying into this early-access game, because I think Gaslamp Games is going about it the right way. Hopefully, this game, and/or other games with similarly thoughtful developers, will do well. I’d like this to be the early-access norm, and I like to think that it is, but I had to give them some love, because they’re exemplifying exactly the kind of pro-consumer, we-love-games-too attitude that I like to see.

These are bold, new frontiers, and we’re the first wave of settlers. Whether this model will be corrupted into a tentacled monstrosity is beyond my ability to predict as it sits concealed by the dark wall of our unknown future. However, in the penumbra of our experience, there are shapes of glimmering knowledge interspersed with the Eldritch architecture. Reading those runes is the only way we’ll avoid the miasma that lurks in the dark… Have fun exploring! I’ll see you on the other side.

Among The Sleepless

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2014 by trivialpunk

What a ridiculous life I lead, sometimes. How insane can you make a banal life-style? I’m not sure, but I do know a lot of it has to do with perspective. And, luckily, that’s the theme of the game we’re reviewing today: Among The Sleep. However, before we cut to that, let’s mention Dream Journal (Cancelled due to circumstances beyond our control).

It’s my first web-series -written and produced by me. How weird could it be? Follow that link, and you’ll find out. There’s plenty more to come. However, if you’re in more of a Letsplay mood, you can follow this link to my Letsplay of “Among The Sleep”. You know, because it only makes sense to mention it here. Alright? We good? Let’s drift…

 Among The Sleep 1

 Among The Sleep is a first-person psychological-horror game developed, using the Unity engine, by Krillbite Studio, a small, dedicated indie studio based in Norway. So far, they’ve put out this game and “The Plan”. Would You Like To Know More? You know what to do. From this small sample of games, we can start to get a feel for the company, because they’re both dripping with atmosphere.

Pains were taken to craft these titles, and while I’d like to advertise for the devs and talk about The Plan, that’s not our business today. Today, we’re a 2 year-old; what the hell do we know about game-development? We’re talking to a teddy bear!

Sorry, flash-backs. But, that’s the basic idea. Your first-person perspective is roughly two feet off the floor and mounted firmly in the eyes of a child. As a result, you see the world a child would: one full of magic, wonder, imagination and danger. I know, that’s more adjectives than I’d like, too, but it’s from this miasma of descriptors that the game takes shape. Because, it’s a game about perspective.

I’m not talking about the angle, I mean how you perceive the world. The meat of the horror elements come from your childish view of the banal world you inhabit. For a child, everyday things are new and strange. Behaviors and understandings that we take for granted can be alien and disturbing to a naive viewer. It’s like landing in a new country, but the place you came from was an existential nothingness. It’s hard to relate the two.

The game is full of perceptual tricks and thoughtful arrangements that guide you intuitively through the levels. Of course, they’re not particularly huge levels, but you are playing a toddler. The size of the maps and the size of the character are well-matched, so the house becomes an Eldritch landscape, unlike any you’ve experienced for quite some time.  The puzzles are clever and very well themed. Although, the door-handles can be persnickety, at times.

But, it’s more than just a good horror-game set-up; it’s a well-executed horror game: one that understands that jump-scares are tools, not building-blocks. The horror is deep; it suffuses the shadowed textures and the narrative completely. There’s a lot going on here. To truly discuss it, we’re going to have to go a little psycho-literary on it, so we’ll finish the game-play first, then we’ll talk shop.

The physics engine works fairly well, and there aren’t any puzzles that rely on it in any annoying capacity. The game-play is tutorialized in an unobtrusive manner, and there are plenty of things kicking around the background for you to find and pick up on. I can’t tell you exactly what I mean without ruining some of the experience, but the obvious example is the drawings you find. (We’ll come back to those later) They’re scattered all over, and you don’t need them to understand the story.

However, if you start finding them, then you’ll start to see a disturbing situation unfold. But what is the story? (We’ll come back to that, too) Well, your mother has gone missing, and you’ve been dropped off at the toddler’s center somewhere in Silent Hill. So, it’s up to you to find the four items and rescue… the… Prin… cess. Well, maybe not. But, that’s the general idea: where’s Mom?

From there, it’s mostly fetch-quests and a little stealth. The stealth mechanics aren’t great, but they’re serviceable. I didn’t really feel like either the shadows or the bushes provided any sort of protection, but if you can put a wall between you and your hunters, then all the better. That’s the game; and it’s an intense experience. Try it out if you feel so inclined. (Its Score is highlighted at the end) Good? Let’s talk psychology, literature and horror.

Much of this game relies on the dissonance between your experience as a child-character and the reality that it’s masking. But, that’s just the start; they made that meaningful by masking something incredibly disquieting: abuse. What kind of abuse? Ah, that’s where they made things more interesting by using alternative narratives.

Crafting alternative narratives can be difficult, but here’s the basic idea: take all the elements available to you, then remix them. Simple, right? Well, if you change the presentation of some of those elements by translating them through a naive understanding, and a wonderful visual aesthetic, then it can become far more complicated. You can suggest far more stories that way, because you’re asking your player to interpret an interpretation of their interpretation. The possibilities are enormous, and engaging your player in that capacity is half the battle of a horror game.

So, how do you cull the divergent pathways? You pick strong symbols, almost archetypes. Then, you pick well-known cultural situations. In this case: a single mother and an abusive male voice at the door. That’s a text-book Disney-Dickensian broken-family set-up. Blend that with some suggestive drawings on the floor, and you’ve got a completely understandable story… (**SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT**) that you can begin to immediately call into question.

Because, the broader a symbol is, the more believable interpretations it can stand-in for. Why is that figure white, but that one’s black? Why are there two figures here? Why is the white one doing that? What is that shadow?

You see, in the beginning, you’re truly worried for your mother’s safety. Something has taken her away from you, and it seems to have had sinister intent. But, again, that’s only your interpretation of the event through the eyes of a child. These are strange, magical events, because they’re unbelievable. Why is Mom acting that way? Who is this other person?

Now, I know I saw the end-game interpretation pretty early, because I lived this. But, I’m not sure it’s as obvious if you haven’t. The Abusive Father-figure narrative is far more culturally salient where I’m from, so I feel like that’s going to be the general interpretation. But, there’s another narrative that can help you get there, and it exists within the pages of psychological theory.

When I was first playing the game, I was looking at things from a Freudian perspective, because there are clearly mommy-issues at play, here. But, are Mommy-issues a real thing? Is Freud really relevant? Here, he definitely is. You see, as unreliable as Freud’s theories are in a scientific capacity, their scope and internal consistency make them valuable literary fodder. His symbols and ideas are frameworks that we can use to communicate complex, emotional ideas to each other.

Which makes it all the more hilarious that I should have been thinking about Jungian psychology. Seriously, this Wikipedia Page is basically all the game’s narrative symbols in short-hand. They took their time with this. One in particular I’d like to point to is the Shadow. The Shadow is that space between who we think we are and who we really are.

The thing is, every person we meet has a shadow, for them and for us. They are different from the way we perceive them, and they’re different from the way they perceive themselves. It makes figuring out who someone is a far more complex problem than we often give it credit for. For a child who implicitly trusts their Mom? You know there has to be a long, dark shadow there.

And, that’s what kind of tipped it for me. The shadows that encroach on you in the opening are literally figurative. Even the goal of the game, to collect enough memories of your mother to access her current location, smacks of braving that dark wall of terror. Of course, I didn’t realize that until I was falling asleep after my first Letsplay session, because the streams of alternate-narrative are well-maintained.

It’s difficult to guess what’s really going on. And, in the dark, you begin to wonder what you’d prefer, which is almost more disquieting. It’s a lonely, frightening place to be for such a small person. (Protag-wise, you can’t get much more dis-empowered than an abandoned child) But, what makes it more frightening is its immediacy and the terrible truth it hides.

Because, for many people, this isn’t a game. I lived through many of those moments myself; I had to make the tough choice that you see at the end of the game. It brought me right back there. But, it did so with some grace. Powerful stuff.

Issues of family conflict writhe deep in every culture and nest silently in every mind. They’re not always our conflicts, and there aren’t always a lot of them, but it’s something we can all understand. You might say that it’s in our collective unconscious; we all know how important family can be, especially when it’s not around.

By carefully suggesting the elements of all sorts of family conflicts (by staying broad, remember), Krillbite Studio was able to weave many different possible interpretations into one game, making us consider all of their unnerving implications, before bringing it all into focus for the finale.

The dissonance between what we thought was going on and the terribly unfortunate reality is another shadow for us to explore in ourselves. Bring your teddy.

I’m giving Among The Sleep a score of: Candle-Lit Ghost Stories In A Thunderstorm out of The Thrill Of Your Darkened Basement. Enjoy exploring the void of The Shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

All-New Advertising Gimmicks Really Aren’t Much

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’m shared between the rich and clever;
I’m the heart of each endeavor.

I gleam in every artist’s eye;
I’m the awe that fills the sky.

I am love, both old and new;
I’m the reason you can “do”.

Despite our clashing; I’m your friend, too;
You’ll use Me to figure out if that’s true.

Who am I?

The first letter of my name is the first clue.

The second letter begins the Tweet that holds the second clue. It’s the only one from June 26, 2014 that begins with that letter.
Ditto for the third letter.
The fourth precedes the beginning of the end;
And, even though it’s jinxing the entire thing, it refuses to move.

Yes, I absolutely put this together to spoil the title of my first ever web-series.
If I must advertise, then I want it to be enjoyable and challenging for everyone involved!

Good luck!

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