Archive for games

These Wars of Mine

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by trivialpunk

     It has been a long, strange journey. I’ve considered picking up the metaphorical pen again many times, but there’s never been anything I’ve considered worth saying dripping off the end of it. Tonight is a little different. Tonight, I’m thinking back to my time with This War of Mine. It’s not so much a review as a look at what games can do for us. It’s a bit personal, so fair warning.

"Are you gonna kill us?"

“Are you gonna kill us…?” the old man asked.

 

     Let’s begin with the game, because none of this is going to make any sense unless you understand what I’m talking about. If you aren’t familiar with the Metacritic darling, This War of Mine is a side-scrolling survival-strategy game inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. You control a variable number of survivors that are using a bomb-torn house as a shelter. The day-time segments are spent inside to avoid the eyes of snipers; your characters spend this time improving their shelter and taking care of their daily needs. You’ve gotta cook food, filter water, build beds, clean up rubble, break down or reinforce walls, construct a grow-op in the basement and make liquor to sell for more sugar to make liquor. If you’re successful enough, you’ll be able to supply an entire neighbourhood with cigarettes and home-made vodka. But, you’ll hoard it and trade it for medical supplies.

     Becaaause, the night-time segments are spent gathering the very limited resources from the surrounding buildings. There’s very little food left in This War of Mine. There’s very little of everything, and what’s left is hoarded, guarded or rotting in ruined shelters. So, in the spirit of adventure, you can send a character out at night to do some jolly looting. It’s dangerous, though, and these fragile characters often have very limited inventory space. If they die, you lose everything they’ve gathered, an entire night of looting, a useful set of hands, and a very dear friend. It’s an insane, but necessary, risk. Your character can be shot dead or break a leg. They can be attacked by other looters or become insanely depressed by the proposition of stealing from helpless senior citizens. War-time is a dark, dangerous time, and your characters are twisted by their war into horrible, selfish shapes. It remains to the player to decide what you take and if you take it, but your choices will end up killing people either way.

     This War of Mine is a stark world, and it is unforgiving when it comes to compounding failure. If you lose a good scavenger, then you’ve gotta send out someone else with fewer slots and a slower run speed. You have to make crucial decisions about finding chances to sleep, preparing water to drink, and reading books to steel your sanity. Everything takes times, and time is the most important resource in the game. Scavenging resources buys you time. Finding food buys you time. Recruiting survivors increases or decreases the survival time-value of your remaining resources and the number of things you can do with that limited time. Your entire goal is to outlast the war, to survive it. That is the war in This War of Mine: a tooth-and-nail fight for both your flesh and your humanity. You will lose chunks of both, but you can survive. You will not always do well, but you may do better. It all comes down to how you use your time. That brings us to my metaphorical war.

     This war of mine was more about surviving a financial crisis. In the last few years, I’ve gone through many ups and downs. I went from my friend’s couch into a single room, through a bachelor suite, and now I’m snuggled into a one-bedroom apartment. It was shortly after I moved into this apartment that this story takes place. I quit my Tim Hortons job to start my dream career as a writer that supports people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It was gonna be great! Exceeept, they called and said they didn’t need me after all. I was fairly heartbroken and extreeeeemely unemployed. I had just paid my rent, so I had some time. I went over my finances. There was no way to pay next month’s rent, and I couldn’t sink any of it into my bills. I’d need food and bus tickets, resume paper and clean clothes. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it all.

     I looked at the numbers I’d written down. The duration of my survival quantified before my eyes. It was like staring death in the face again. I would have to make my bed on the street or hope to use someone’s couch, again. I’ve done it before, and it’s never pleasant, but it’s always enlightening. My anxiety welled, and I felt the dread wash over me, a great surge that left me shaking like a leaf. I held on and let it pass through me. Fear overwhelmed me, frothed like a raging hurricane, then subsided. There was much to do. It was time to survive.

     That night, after handing out dozens of resumes, I double-streamed Saint’s Row 4 and This War of Mine to ease my mind. For someone in my position, it was a real relief to solve my financial problems in Saint’s Row with the elegance of violent theft. This War of Mine, on the other hand, seemed to resonate with the same atmosphere my life had taken on. It became a mascot for my financial struggle and a vague reassurance that survival is possible. The rhythm of This War of Mine is a lot of setting instructions, planning while you wait, then reaping the benefits of those plans. That low-key pattern is intercut with sections of tense stealth and violent death, which proved both engaging and oddly relaxing. It was a perfect heat-sink for my anxieties. It helped me think about my own survival in more proactive and productive ways. I rationed out my remaining food with greater care and made smarter purchases with my remaining funds. I contacted my local foodbank and made my first ever withdrawal. Most crucially, I asked for help from my friends in a way I never had before. And they fucking came through.

     My city was in the midst of a terrible job drought. None of my unemployed friends could find work. There was a local group of us that would check in with each other to see how the hunt was going. Like the traders in the game, we had developed a support network, exchanging information and providing solidarity. It was rough. I never actually did find new work at the time. Later in the month, the agency I’d dreamed about working for called me back. They had room for me on the team, now! Which was great, except that I would never get paid in time to make rent. I would get my first cheque three weeks later, exactly two weeks too late to save my apartment. I was devastated, but I would survive. I would start looking for a new one-room place in the morning. I left a post on my facebook about it and went to sleep. When I woke up, an old, dear friend had sent me a message. She’d read about my troubles and wanted to help. She straight-up gave me the remaining seven hundred dollars I needed to make rent and stave off my bill collectors that month. No strings attached. “Pay it forward,” she said. Never tell anyone who did this. I’m not gonna, but you still saved me.

     Now, all I had to do was ration my food and bus tickets through five weeks of work: three weeks to pay my rent and two weeks to get money for food. My cousin, who also happens to be one of my two god-mothers, was in town and took me shopping for groceries. Thinking back, I did better than I had that first time I’d been given a timer and some resources. I remembered everything I had learned from those days with This War of Mine. There are no guarantees in life, and you will not always do well, but you can always do better. The goal of survival becomes more nebulous outside of the framework of war, especially when the harbinger of your doom is Capitalism. However, the game’s mechanical assertions that patience, planning, humanity and community are crucial to survival rings true in every setting.

     Games are imaginary spaces where our decisions are evaporative, and that makes them a perfect mirror for the kind of logical considerations that make your blood run cold in the real world. I had trouble facing the spectre of my own imminent doom, but I could assist a world full of animated puppets with their struggle to survive. Using that space, I was able to be more honest with my circumstances and overcome them more efficiently. It all fell to shit again later, but that’s another game for another time.

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A Brief History of Trivial Gaming

Posted in Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Welcome back. Today, we’re going to do something a little different. You see, I’m approaching one hundred posts on Trivial Punk, and it’s got me thinking. I know a hundred is a pretty arbitrary number, but it reminded me that I’ve been at this for a while. For almost two years, I’ve been bringing you weekly essays on video games, movies and horror. That’s a lot of time and effort being poured into any project. So, I’m starting to wonder, should I end this journey here and pour that into something else? The novel I’m writing, perhaps? Valid and Sound? PsychWrite? Forgotten? University?!

This is post number ninety-eight. In this post, we’re going to talk a little bit about why being a gamer has been amazing for my life. Ninety-nine, I think we’re going to review a game. For one hundred, we’re going to do… you know, I’m not sure. I’ve got a few things planned, but I’ll save it for the day. On that day, I’ll either recommit myself to the cause or tell you about where we go from here. Today, we’re getting a little personal, so here’s a picture of a younger me.

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Look at that guy. All in his dorm, getting ready to go out for Halloween with a little red star painted on his face. Do you think he has any idea what he’s in for? I’ve been a freelancer, a hotel manager, a sandwich artist, a cook, a baker, a candlestick recommender, a clerk, a bartender, a porter… it’s a long list. I’ve been a fiancée and a boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend and a bachelor (I’m reeeeally good at that). I’ve been a wanderer and a homebody, a hitch-hiker and a student. The one thing that has always remained consistent is gamer. I have always played games. From pogs to Pokemon cards, chess to poker, all before the age of six. I have vague memories of playing an adventure game on a black-green monitor in daycare and booting up King’s Quest on a computer with less total memory than my current CPU.

Its been a long ride. People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you feel like you’re wasting your time?” while watching Dancing With The Stars without a hint of irony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting show, but it’s weird to judge someone on how they spend their free time when you’re spending it in an equally innocuous way. Has it, though? One of the things I’m interested in studying at University is the way in which playing games effects your brain. Yes, that’s the right “effect.” But, more than neurochemistry, how has being a gamer effected me?

Well, it’s definitely affected the way I compete. When I was in my early teens, my friends and I used to spend a lot of time and money playing games at our local LAN parlour: Fragz. We were teenage boys, so it was a pretty competitive scene. I still remember spending hours perfecting my rocket jumps and twitch-killing. I got pretty good at using unconventional weapons, too, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. When we played Counter-Strike, I would always start and play with a pistol then scavenge machine guns from the battle field, but you can blame Trigun for that one.

We played Star Craft a lot. Huge multi-hour, multi-player matches that taught me how to deceive and plan. In fact, a lot of my tactical management abilities came out of playing Star Craft. Getting the right units to the right place at the right time is essential to any management scenario, whether you’re running a Casino or crushing the Protoss (Zerg 4 life.). I wasn’t the best at any of these games, though. There were plenty of players that spent a lot more time gaming than I did. They had their game specialities, and I was trying to be pretty good at everything on a budget. I was playing Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering at the time, so you can guess that I didn’t have a ton of cash lying around to buy game time with.

Still, there was a certain synergy to it all. Playing cards games is a great way to learn how to read an opponent, plan an overall strategy and execute logical functions. Seriously, when I studied Maths in school, nothing helped me more than the time I spent pwnings nubs and taking Life Points. Even here, though, I wasn’t the best. I didn’t have to money to buy the shiniest new cards, so I had to think differently. I had to start using unconventional strategies in every game I played to compensate for what my opponents were good at.

When you’re playing against someone that practically breathes rockets or trips over Ultra Rares, you can’t engage them on their ground. You have to get them to play your way. I started using the grenade launcher, because its insane projectile trajectories were difficult to figure out without the necessary experience, and their long fuses often caught people off-guard, especially in a game as fast-paced as Quake 3. Yet, when I really needed to unloaded some damage, a direct hit would cause the grenade to detonate instantly.

Card games were the same story. In MTG, I started playing Blue: the trickiest colour. I learned how to read my opponent’s expectations and violate them as often as possible. The expectations, not my opponent. When it came to Yu-Gi-Oh, I just built decks to beat the standard decks of the time, because there were like three of them. Nothing like a little imagination to slide past roadblocks to success.

However, even with all this, the most important thing I learned was not to hate my opponent. There’s a lot of vitriol that gets spewed on the internet, but that’s not just because those people are gamers. That’s because those gamers are mean-spirited or angry gamers (I know I’m simplifying, but run with me). When I was playing with my friends, we would have to switch around teams constantly. So, my greatest ally could become my deadliest opponent in the time it takes to press free-for-all. It was because of this that I learned how to learn from my mistakes and from my opponents. Love thy neighbour; love thy enemy, because we’re all playing the same game.

Now, when I play on-line, I don’t see some stupid nub who can’t play. I see someone whose schedule is too busy to play every damn day. I know that maybe they’re just having a bad game. Maybe they’re just starting out. I love games. I love playing games. If I want to share that, sometimes that means being patient. Playing at Fragz taught me that I don’t always have to play the way my opponent does, but the flip-side is that my opponent doesn’t always have to play the same way I do. We’ve all got our lives, but if we love games, then that should bring us together, not harass us apart.

Honestly, that’s been my experience. I read quite a bit as a youngin’… still do, actually… and reading isn’t really a social activity. Talking about and loving books can be, but the act of reading is usually a solo activity. Gaming was the key to breaking the shell around me that travelling in a literary universe helped erect. And it wasn’t just social gaming, the fact that someone was a gamer instantly gave us something in common. Let’s ignore sub-cultures for this and just think about it as connecting person-to-person over a common interest. In fact, I met my ex-fiancée because we both played games. I remember it like it was years ago…

She sat behind me in Chemistry, but my friend was sitting behind her. One day, when we were discussing Resident Evil, she piped up with, “Yeah, but Zelda’s better.” I stopped, mid-sentence, and stared. She said that she just didn’t like getting talked over and wanted to say something. From there, we just sort of clicked. Over the years we were together, we had the conversation that followed about the comparative merits of survival horror and action-adventure over and over again. On our third anniversary, I got her a Wiis on launch day, and she got me a PC. We even ran a WoW guild together, nurturing and nudging the newbs we recruited until they were a well-honed fighting force. Eventually, we broke up, but that’s just life. Whatever the reason for it, it was gaming that had brought us together. Let’s see… at about that time, I was wearing this Halloween costume:

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Aww cute. He’s all tuckered out from raving. I didn’t stop running the guild after we broke up, though, because it taught me responsibility. No matter how hard it was, I owed it to my friends and players to keep going. We’d worked too hard to build the Guild to just abandon it. Plus, and this is where things are going to get really strange, World of Warcraft honed my social skills to a fine point.

Do you know how long you have to establish good will when you’re the leader of a 25-person pick-up group or the tank for an instance? Minutes, even seconds. You have to make your players believe that they can trust you, depend on you, to get them to the end of the instance in a decent amount of time and, then, to distribute loot fairly. At the same time, you have to be able to correct people and chew them out without damaging their position in the group or hurting their feelings. Making people feel bad about a performance is NOT going to improve their play. Nerves and all that. It gave me my voice and taught me to be confident in my decisions. Even today, I can always use a little of that.

We can skip over what I learned about economics from the Auction House and mimetics from Trade Chat. Suffice it to say that I’ve written roughly five papers on topics gleaned specifically from World of Warcraft. MMOs are their own human ecosystems, after all.

Problem solving, social relationships, academic considerations… there’s no part of my life that gaming hasn’t touched. Even family. One of my best, clearest memories of my dear departed mother is playing Mario 3 with her. She did that thing that people do where they flick the controller while they jump like it’s going to help them go farther. I bet she would have loved the Wii. Tailor-made. My sister and I still talk about playing Wave Race on the N64. Even my dad helped me solve puzzles in Myst and learn how to catch a baseball. Together, we would play Chess and Go. And we all used to play cards. Poker, Bridge, Rummy… the whole family would gather round and play Sevens or Hearts. When I was eight, I won a lot of money at extended family gatherings from playing Rummy. Well, it seemed like a lot.

The important thing to me was the play, though. We might call it engaging today, but I just called it fun. We call it social media and social gaming, but the truth is that the social comes from us. It comes from players –People– spending time together, telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. That large family has sort of drifted apart. I’m far away in another city studying every day and writing posts, making videos and playing games. But, I still have that memory. Those memories. I have gaming to thank for that. I have my family to thank for letting me join in their play.

From all that, I learned the most important lesson of all: how to include someone. Gaming with my family, friends and significant others taught me that no matter what game I’m playing or who I’m competing with, the person on the other end is a human just like me. It’s shown me how to treat them like a person and, if need be, to help them learn how to play. Most of all, it’s ingrained in some deep, secret place of my self that games are more fun when everyone can play.

So, Dear Reader, while I don’t know who you are or what you’re about, I can appreciate that you’re a person. Gaming links us. Sports, cards, PC, Playstation or XBox, we’re all gamers. It’s part of the human condition. Now, the next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time gaming, you can say, “Because I’m human, and it’s a thing we can do.”

And, you know, while I was going to wait and think about whether or not I should continue writing Trivial Punk, writing this post has made me realize that I should. Sure, it costs time, money and energy, but, like my Guild, I’ve worked too hard at this to just abandon it. So, many happy returns! And, just to show you how far I’ve come to get here, here’s a picture of last year’s Halloween costume… I’m sure you’ll recognize the mouth, if you look up.

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Crying Over Cry of Fear

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

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It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

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Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Gloam: Entry 2 – Day 6 – Status: Disoriented

Posted in All the Things, Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ve been ruminating on this one for a while. I guess I kind of backed myself into a corner with Gloam. I spent so much time trying to figure out how to address the topic of “Writing” that I neglected the most obvious solution: split it up.

Writing:

…for player freedom

Role-playing games are very open-ended. The suite of potential tools available to your players is limited by imagination and game-master enforcement. I would encourage you to do as little enforcing as possible. If you can get your players to imagine interesting, novel solutions to problems, then you have them engaged. You can run into problems, though.

The first time I ran Gloam, it was a city-wide campaign. I went for a full-scale, county-wide apocalypse. I spent hours writing open-ended script events and making up rules for improvised weapons. I wrote long descriptions and multiple solutions to problems. I slaved over creature design and atmosphere. I crafted an entire room to run the game. Then, about thirty minutes in, my players got in a car and said, “We drive towards the edge of the city.” Oh. They’re just leaving.

For one reason or another, I’d gotten so mixed up in the specifics of the game, that I forgot the overall reason my players were there. I managed to sputter out a weak excuse about giant holes in the road, ripped straight out of Silent Hill, and tailored it to fit the game. It wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn’t a great start. I suppose the take-away here is that you’re not going to be aware of everything your player thinks to do. My players solved the hospital problem by asking probing questions about its architecture.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I had an architecture-based solution prepared for a one-off puzzle and nothing ready for my players’ attempts to just flee the city. Well, the truth is that I had to cobble it together from three other potential solutions. As you already probably know, running a role-playing session is part story-telling, part improv and part gaming. Your players will hit you with curve-balls, and you’ve got to be ready to dig in and swing. Be confident. The last thing you want your players to think is that they’ve caught you off your guard. Ideally, they’ll think that any subtle dissonance or uncanny scenario is a clue. If you can convince your players to try to dig into the mystery here, you’ve reversed a serious battle.

There are many ways to mitigate this. The least useful of all is to deny your players an action. Once you’ve defined the limits of the experience, your players should be given as much freedom as possible. Naturally, you’ll be puppet-mastering events behind the scenes, but be prepared to let them use a soda machine. Open a door with a crow-bar. Investigate a light. Naturally, they shouldn’t be able to fly if that’s not a part of the world. No four-story back-flips or Matrix-style bullet-play. Your players will understand that, but they’ll be a bit unnerved if they can’t take a nap on a bench.

You can actually benefit a lot from this natural predilection to try things. Small events within the world can help bring it to life, and, if you act quickly enough, you can use those events to drive the central plot. I’m a big fan of letting players sign their own death warrants. That’s why I recommend that you steer away from death-traps or ambushes. When it comes to role-play, it’s never going to be the description of the events that gets your players. It’s going to be the anticipation of those events animated in their imaginations. It’s going to be the other players’ reactions. So, make use of foreshadowing.

To do that in the realm of horror role-play, I come up with a short list of possible clues and multiple routes to acquire them. For instance, in that first game, I had a cult attempting to use the city to complete a large, apocalyptic ritual. Now, in order to let my players in on the events, I had to find a way to let them know it was happening. Here are the avenues they might have used to discover the cultists’ plans:

-One character type was an investigator that was looking into a rash of recent disappearances. He’s in town following up on a leather-bound book one of the families that hired him gave him. It’s written in some strange language and it’s his only lead. The linguist recognizes the ancient language and can decipher the book. It details the rituals and practices of an ancient cult. However, despite the age of the text, the book itself is quite new. The binding is bent in one place. This particular section has clearly seen heavy use. (Unfortunately, neither of these characters was in my player-party)

-Recover a copy of that same book from a dead cultist’s house. The linguist can still translate it.

-The opening scene involves dead kid walking on stage during a reunion dinner. Upon investigating his death, the team discovers his family’s involvement with the cult. This leads them back to the school and the first ritual site.

-If the players stumble upon a ritual site and interrupt it, then they can find a nearby map outlining the other locations.

-If players go to city hall, they can discover the involvement of the Mayor in the cult’s activities, as well as that of the finance officer. If they root through his office for a while, they’ll discover a hidden compartment in his desk. In it, they’ll find financial information and a cultist robe, along with related paraphernalia. With a little thinking, they’ll figure out that the cult has sunk a large amount of money into renovations on particular buildings, as well as made several land purchases. Investigating those areas will lead players to the ritual sites.

-Interrogating a cultist with yield some of the data. Interrogating many of them will uncover the truth.

-If the security guard is in the party, he can reveal that he worked for the cult. He didn’t know much, but he knows where a lot of man-power was concentrated.

Any one of those situations will lead players down the same rabbit hole. All of them point players in the right direction, and they can be picked up and employed almost anywhere, especially the “How-To Cultist” guide. Yet, they allow your players the freedom to discover the truth in their own way, and the extra work you put in gives you the draw-cards you need in case your players throw something at you you’re not quite prepared for. Now, you’re prepared without being prepared. Although, if all else fails, you can go the old mysterious text-message route. I’ve had to pull that one out a couple times, I’m ashamed to admit. Just… make it make sense.

I find it helps to have someone to write with. You can’t be expected to see your work from every angle, because you’re right in the middle of it. There are things you know about the world you’ve created that you can’t just forget. However, those things might be completely foreign to your players. It helps if you create a unified world, where the rules always apply even-handedly, but having someone on hand to tell you something doesn’t make sense is invaluable. If you can’t find someone who wants to sit and jam out horror riffs, then write your work down. After you’ve finished working on something else, come back to it and see what things you’d think of doing with the information you’re providing.

Taking time to clear your head is incredibly valuable, no matter what you’re working on.

…for flexible encounters

It’s all well and good to talk about creating flexible puzzles, but what about flexible events? Believe it or not, this has by far the simplest solution: modular encounters. However,othere are going to be location that you want your players to visit. For those, I’d recommend writing personalized, flavoured encounters. I’ll provide you with an example of each to illustrate the difference:

Stage Specific: Breathless (The Manifest Symphony)

-Beams of light spill across the monstrous pile of flesh quivering on the floor. A horrible high-pitched whine, a cacophony of tortured lungs gasping in the darkness, shakes the air around you. The impossible beast before you, seemingly cobbled from the bodies of the restless dead, rises. Air sacks, once lungs, inflate, holding the creature erect. The sacks under one of its many appendages puffs violently, flinging the arm upwards like a reckless marionette. As the arm slams into the trunk of the enormous body, a howl from the skull at the end of the limb racks your ears. Lungs on the trunk send the arm crashing down towards you.
> 1-3 “Heavy” Shoulder wound
> 4-6 The creature is clumsy, newly formed. The appendage smashes into the wooden stage, teeth chipping off and wood splintering.

-The creature, at its full height, is a collection of lungs and ribs, skulls and spines. Well over 10 feet tall, the creature flails its 6 limbs in the air, a symphony of wailing that inches the body forward.

Hoo wiiii daaaa…”

-If the investigators choose to leave the area, the creature will not follow, unless they jump into the gym, whereupon it will topple over on the other side and pursue them. It can strike from all sides.

-It’s easy to outrun. Shooting a lung will puncture it. Cutting it open once all its arms have been disabled, will reveal a hollow core. Light shone inside of it will instantly kill it.

-Killing the creature will yield 1-2 candles of psychological empowerment.

Alright, I know some of that was a bit confusing. Candles and such, but I’m sure you get the gist of it. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense with time. Now, let’s look at something purely modular.

Modular: The Wittigo (The Empty Man)

-A slow, methodical crunching sound, like the careful chewing of meat and gristle, draws your attention to the corner of the room, farthest from the door, most shrouded in darkness.

-Panning a light across it reveals a man, huddled in the corner of the room, crying. Crying and gnawing on a hunk of fresh charred flesh.

-Startled, the man looks up. Squinting in the glare of the light, it takes a second for you to realize that his lips are mangled stumps of red. They’ve been chewed off. In morphed, half-slurred words, he wails, “I was just so hungry! I didn’t know! How could I have known?!”

“Here piggy, piggy…”

The Wittigo will dive upon its victims, attempting to tackle them to the ground.
>1-2 He has a fire axe.
>3-6 He is unarmed

-If he has an axe, treat it as equivalent to a pistol if it strikes.
>1 – Strike in range
>2-5 – Miss
>6 – Strikes self

-A bite transfers the delusion, which doesn’t dissipate until The Grey One is scared off. [Motivation: Army building]

-The original Wittigo is beyond redemption. Having consumed his family, he must be killed. This leaves you thoroughly shaken. 1 candle of psychological damage.

The Wittigo encounter can be deployed anywhere and at any time. Granted, Breathless isn’t restricted, either, but he’s thematically related to the stage. Writing area-specific encounters allows you to direct some of the action of the story. Having modular encounters allows you to inject a little fear into your players, regardless of where they are. With a little quick thinking, any encounter can be re-written to serve your purposes on the fly. This approach balances the warring factions of narrative direction and ubiquitous threats quite nicely. It is by no means the only solution, but it’s one I’ve found to be effective.

The Original Gloam Manifesto

Posted in Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2013 by trivialpunk

The gloaming is the edge where night meets day. It’s a game about the fading of the light in the face of an incontestable darkness. Of course, the light can technically persist, but only with some quick-thinking and careful planning. Created in the void of systems between gaming and story-telling, Gloam attempts to pare down the elements of meta-gaming and rules-lawyering that pull one out of the experience; it is, after all, a horror game.

Simplification and freedom put a strong emphasis on imagination and a heavy burden on the part of the story-teller to make decisions fairly and on the players to trust in those decisions.

Atmosphere, attitude and immersion are key elements. Psychological warfare is also encouraged in playful, creative ways. Chance plays a role (roll lol) in deciding the direction, occasionally, but a clever move by the player should always be rewarded.

Help your players become attached to their characters, but don’t be afraid to kill them. There has to be some risk involved.

Keep in mind the strength, but also the intense fragility of the human being. A large portion of the terror comes from that weakness. After all, what is a small group of regular humans in the face of the hordes of the unknown?

Bastion – Unspoiled

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week, I sat down to play a game from my list of “Have to’s.” You know the ones, like Portal, Amnesia and SpecOps. The ones people won’t stop going on about. It’s rare that I’m disappointed by one of these games. In fact, with the exception of SpecOps, I’ve usually ended up playing them through in a sitting or two. I tried doing that with Skyrim and almost failed a class. I also ran dangerously low on snacks, but that’s another story altogether. My point is that this week, I span-up Bastion and gave it a go. And, in stark contrast to the way this usually goes, I finished the game in one sitting, then decided to play it half-way through again. Then, I slept and finished it for a second time. So, if anyone was wondering where I went for that couple of days. Yeah, that’s where. By the end of the second play-through, I had so many notes covering the four-page spread I keep by my computer that it looked like the scribbling of a mad man. In truth, that’s kind of what it was. I’d lost it, fallen absolutely in love with the game. At the end of the experience, though, I looked back and couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. I’ve played games with better combat. Better graphics. More nuanced stories. I was flummoxed. So, I loaded it up again. I realized, while playing through for the third time, that I’d simply been suffering from a broken heart. I couldn’t see the positives of it, because this game isn’t something you can just pick apart and expect to hold up. Every element of it has been polished and placed with care. Like a well-made BLT, it was the combination that elevated it. In combining so well, it had created an atmosphere that drew me into its world. Once it was over, though, that world ceased to be. Then, like a rejected cultist, I was forced to sit outside and think about what I’d done. What I’d done was spent 16 hours playing a 7 hour game (give or take, depending on whether or not you do replay + and finish all the challenges). I’d lost myself in the world, but I couldn’t get that part of me back. So, all I wanted to do was criticize it.

So, that’s where we’re at now. Part of me is forever lost in Bastion. However, maybe with enough analysis and a couple snippets from its truly excellent soundtrack, I’ll be able to get through this without crying. More than the once I already did. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to take a page out of Bastion’s manual and rebuild myself from the shards of the game I get by killing… windbags… Does that mean I have to commit to brevity? No, that’s never going to work. Oh well, roll the dice. I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to go over everything I wanted to without ruining your experience of the game. So, I split the post in two. This one will focus on its art design and some of the game-play mechanics that interact with it. Next post, I’ll talk about its story-line, narration (<3) and the mechanics that interact with that. Then, I’m going to load up a good old-fashioned horror game and cleanse this warm-fuzzy feeling from my cartilage.

bastion
Let’s get a little background first. Bastion is an isometric hack-and-slasher with customizable difficulty from Supergiant Games (Published by Warner Bros.) that emphasizes rebuilding your shattered world from the remains of your once-great civilization using a powerful Deus Ex Machina. As you wander through the levels, the world forms underneath your feet. However, it’s only reformations of structures and places that once were, so there are edges to it that you can fall off of. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “An isometric game about platforms that float in space that you can fall off of? That sounds like a nightmare!” And yeah, it really could have been. Knowing your precise positioning in a game like this is crucial. They didn’t have much margin for error. One tiny step in the wrong direction could have made this game an absolute pain to play, but Supergiant pulled it off without a hitch. It’s quite an accomplishment! So, let’s talk about how they did it.

bastion5

Open up the picture in a new tab. It becomes quite large, so you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about. Supergiant had a couple big challenges with this game right off the designing board:

1. Creating a fleshed-out, atmospheric world with limited levels on platforms that were easy to navigate, even as they were forming up underneath you.

2. Making the characters fit into the world, while still allowing them to be easily discernible for the more hectic portions of combat.

We’re going to use that one picture as our primary example for now. Like much of the game, it features a central platform connected to others by bridges and smaller sections that appear under your feet. It’s pretty easy to tell where the edges of the larger platforms are in this one, but I want you to appreciate with me for a moment how fantastic the art in this picture is. How incredibly detailed it is without being cluttered. For the most part, it’s those details and differences that let you know where the edges are. Between railings and embossments, it makes sense from a design stand-point. That’s how you would make a bridge. That understanding helps us to define those boundaries. It’s also intuitively ergonomic. The center of each area is where most human interaction would take place, so things like barrels and benches line the outside. That all being said, it also happens to be perfect for combat.

To get from place to place, the bridge platforms form up in front of you in relation to your walking and rolling speed, so you’re never stepping out into thin air. It’s designed well enough that you soon get a feel for where you can and should not step. If you’re right at the edge and one isn’t popping up, then I’m sorry to say that nothing’s going to be breaking your fall, except perhaps the ground. I’m not even kidding, when you fall off the side, you get blasted up by a wave of tamed wind that thumps you right back on the platform again. Face-first. The wind-taming narrative mechanic is actually brilliant here, because it gives the game an excuse for getting you right back up on the platform and provides you with a primary mode of travel between levels. That way, they can stay disjointed but accessible. The timing of each fall is short enough that it doesn’t become frustrating, but it stills punishes you by taking away some of your life and breaks your combat flow a bit. It’s a lovely balance. They also give you quite a bit of leeway when it comes to being “on” a platform. You’re basically wearing snow-shoes.

For those of you that pay attention as psychotically as I do, you’ll probably have noticed that the picture features four different art styles crammed into one. Well, I say crammed… but that’s because it sounds better than masterful combined. I feel like I’ve worshipped enough for one day. The background is a beautifully detailed, high-definition watercolour. The platforms look a little more computer-rendered, but bathe in the same static art-style as the background, relying on shading detail and simple animations to bring them to life. The Kid, and the other characters you interact with, are a little more dynamic again, constantly moving to help them pop out of the background. At the very foreground of the screen is a screen-saver like effect. In this particular picture, you’ll notice leaves on the screen. They and other objects, like feathers, drift straight down to give you a thematic sense of the level. It’s kind of like how liquor commercials always feature really attractive people. They have nothing to do with the actual product, but it’s an encouraging association.

These different art designs are wrapped together by their placement. More detailed movement takes place closer to you, adding another layer to the fore-shortening perspective tricks that make up isometric geometry. They all also share a common pallet. The platforms are slightly different designs based around the same theme with colour-schemes that alter only enough to let you know they’re different platforms. Nothing bleeds into the next thing, but they’re also quite unified. Talking about pallet actually brings us neatly into character design. For this we’re going to focus on The Kid, as opposed to the stock-samurai, the tooth-paste creatures or the old guy, so let’s get a look at him…

bastion2

There he is! Sombre little guy. Now, let’s toss in one more landscape shot just for good measure.

Bastion4

Notice again the criss-crossed boards and crumbling walls that define the edges. Now, take a look at The Kid. He’s got white hair (yes, they address it), darker skin, a red scarf, dark-brown boots, grey-green armor and a dark shirt. Now, look at the environment. Each and every colour on The Kid is echoed in the environment. There are hints of white everywhere and accents of red all over. The boards are similar to his skin and the lanterns reflect his armor. Without being too obvious about it, they’ve made us intuitively aware that he’s a part of this world; he belongs there. Look at his trade-mark weapon: The Cael Hammer. The handle is his hair, the head is his skin, the end of the handle is his armor and it’s even accented with a red slash. It’s basically him, but like… a hammer.

Of course, all this palette resonance might have made him difficult to see and, in an isometric game, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where your character is facing at a given moment. For hack-and-slashers, these things can be devastating, especially for the block-shield-counters. That’s why The Kid has an asymmetrical design. You’ll notice that his shoulder plates and glove stand out, so you can easily tell which direction you’re facing in terms of left or right. For forward and back, there’s a big, bloody hammer to assist you. However, there’s more to it than that. Look at the details and you’ll notice that every point on his body is accented by a bit of white/grey: hair, wrist-wrap, boots and shoulder. In combination with the dynamic quality of his idle and run animations, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a pseudo-point-light-walker. Our brain is very good at reading patterned and biological motion in these cases, and Bastion takes full advantage of that to let us see where we are in relation to the things we’re bashing over the head. Or cutting open. Or shooting. I’m not going to judge you for your combat preferences. When you run, you also leave tiny dust clouds behind you to let you know what direction you’ve come from. This, alongside a static-dynamic camera, is a big help in creating a realistic sense of motion.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got to say for the art direction in relation to game-play. The rest of it is basically going to be you applying what I’ve hinted at here to understand how the game’s art makes its mechanics more tenable and its world richer. Creating depth and atmosphere can be difficult, but if you unify everything, from the palette to the design, then you’ll have an easier time of it. Every part of a game is going to influence every other part when it’s experienced by the player, so its important to keep unity in mind during development. That’s why everything in Halo is so bloomy-shiny. That and, you know, the engine. Geeze, will you look at the time? We’ve still got plenty of space. Let’s talk combat.

Bastion-Screenshot

You didn’t think I was going to talk about a hack-and-slasher without at least mentioning the combat, did you? The things I’ve mentioned about the environment are inversely applicable to the enemy models. They share almost none of the same palette as The Kid, so you don’t really confuse the two. They’re mostly blue-green. However, their palette, again, reflects the environment, while small accents of brown reflect The Kid. They also move in very different ways. The ninjas dash. The gasfellas float. The scumbags… skid. So, you’ll never really lose yourself in the fray, no matter how cluster-fucky it gets. Biological motion. Yee-haw.

All of the weapons experiment with difference aspects of the combat engine. Some of them do great amounts of damage at large distances very slowly. Some quickly do a lot of damage at close range. It’s the standard play with the variables of range, speed, damage, influence on enemy placement, armor-penetration and personal manoeuvrability gambit. It’s pretty effective, too, because the levels you find each weapon on are designed to showcase their usefulness. Of course, you can switch back before too long if you don’t like the style. Each item also comes with its own training ground that you can use to improve your skill with the specific features of a given weapon. Do well enough and you’ll unlock items or special moves. Oh yeah! Each weapon also comes with its own special move that you can equip one at a time and use. They draw from a small pool of uses, but you can increase that pool by equipping Spirits. You know, like liquor but magically formulated to improve your dexterity, in stark contrast to the way spirits usually affect you. Different liquors have different passive buffs and you can equip up to ten at a time, one for each level you gain. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve and compensate for their various variable features to further fit your own personal combat style. So, combat-style is quite customizable. Each level of weapon upgrade makes you choose between one buff or another. So, you can make a really middle-of-the-road weapon or pimp yourself out for doing one thing really well. You can always change your mind for no cost at any forge, though, so you’re free to experiment.

You must be thinking that, between levels, spirits, weapon upgrades and a full range of customizable combat-styles, your enemies aren’t going to be able to stand much of a chance. You’d be mostly right. The base-line enemies are still challenging, though. They’re not going to give you a run for your money, but you’re not going to be so bored that you fall asleep mid-session. HOWEVER, you can upgrade their combat abilities, as well, by evoking the power of the Gods. One of the later buildings you unlock allows you to evoke the various idols of the Pantheon of the Gods of the old world. Each idol you evoke gives you a small money and exp bonus, but also provides your enemies with increased capabilities. You start out with only one, but you can unlock more through play or buy them at the store. It’s a sort of free-market Godconomy, if you will. So, if you’re ever feeling cocky, then take on fast, damage-resistant, randomly reflective, self-healing, occasionally invincible, heavy-hitting, enemies that injure you when you collide, don’t drop health tonics, damage you when they die and slow you with each hit. You might not be stopped in your tracks, but you’ll definitely be frustrated. Then, try the final, unlockable, Game-plus gauntlet with all those on. I assure you, it’s a challenge.

So, that’s Bastion. There’s lots more to talk about, but I think you should experience it for yourself. Next post, I’ll be talking about how its mechanics and narrative coalesce to create an immersive, or at least interactive, experience. It’s going to be a raging spoil-a-thon, though, so read at your own risk. I urge you to play the game first. It’s cheap and well worth your time. I promise you. Also, use an X-box controller. It’s just better. Take care and I’ll see you on the other side!