Archive for Indie

Rat-in-a-Maze: The Merits of Organic Horror

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2013 by trivialpunk

What were we talking about? Oh right, organic horror.

No, I don’t mean the giant plant monsters from Resident Evil, Bulletstorm, or Little Shop of Horrors. I mean organic mechanics within a horror game. A little while ago, I did a small series on Silent Hill, comparing Cry of Fear to my old favourite title and contrasting their approaches to monster mechanics. After that, I sat back and really thought about why I thought Silent Hill’s approach was superior. The answer that jumped back at me was that it was more “organic.” The creatures move around on their own accord, only reacting to you when you come into range. Now, I realize they’re loaded as you approach the area, but the user experience is what’s important for this discussion, not the technology behind it.

Cry of Fear’s creatures spawn at specific points, so you always know when they’re going to jump out at you. What’s more, and this is important, they’re nowhere else the rest of the time. You’re assured of safety as long as you stay in specific spots. There’s no stand-still tension. You could argue that there are safe rooms in Silent Hill, and there are, but you have to get to them. Take down an enemy in Cry of Fear, even if you know one spawns just down the hallway, and you’re safe enough to take a breather.

These two have had their moments, so let’s move on to another couple of horror games that I love: SCP Containment Breach and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Let’s start with Amnesia, because it’s one more removed from Cry of Fear. In Amnesia, the monsters often come to you, or you have to go to them. Now, there’s a slight but knowable difference between this and monsters spawning: how much you’re in control. If you’re crouching in a corner in one of Amnesia’s dark basements, a monster can very easily path by you. And you have to wait, breath caught, for it to pass before you can do anything. In that instant, you become prey: helpless, frightened… alone.

Most of us have played hide-and-seek, and this approach plays on the excitement of evasion. We’re all set up to understand that experience. It’s visceral. Worst of all, we’re completely out of our element in the dark. Light makes things worse and the sanity meter adds a timer to our game of hide-and-go-shriek (Obvious pun…. aaaand it’s GOOOOOOOD!) You can’t look at the monster, but you have to know where it is. It’s a combination of being prey and not seeing the monsters; it’s powerful. I could talk about Amnesia all day, but there’s one more thing we need to discuss first: SPC: Containment Breach.

If you read my love-letter to SCP: Containment Breach, then you’ll know all about it. You’re in a facility full of unknowable horrors. Said horrors escape. You’ve got to escape. Your primary, but by no means only, antagonist on this journey is SCP 173, this little guy:

SCP_Containment_Breach

When you’re looking at him, he can’t move. However, when you look away, or blink, he barrels towards you and, well, kills you. The game implements a blink meter that forces you, over time, to blink. It’s almost the opposite approach to Amnesia’s. You’ve got to have your eyes locked on him, and he’s an inexorable wall of death. That can be dreadful, even terrifying, but the truly brilliant part is its omnipresence. You have no idea where SCP 173 is in the facility. It kind of wanders around and kills things. However, you know he’s somewhere, and, when you run into him, you’d better have your eyes on him.

So, you’re tense, constantly on the look-out. You are a rat in a cage. A helpless individual being hunted by a psychotic killer. It’s as close as you’ll get to Jason Voorhees without a machete wound. Actually, come to think of it, Jason moves an awful lot like SCP 173. As long as you’ve got your eyes on him, he’s a calculable force. However, take your eyes off him, and he can show up anywhere. Mike Meyers does the same thing. Horror movie icons in general, actually. Well, now it’s a game mechanic.

The combination of not knowing where SCP 173 is and having to know exactly where it is produces just the right blend of terror for me. Slender uses much the same approach. Terrified, rat-in-a-maze running from the unbridled hand of death is an experience that must be had. Being randomly plucked beyond the vale of tears is horrifying. It would not be the same if SCP 173 showed up at readily memorize-able spawn-points, especially not when you do multiple play-throughs.

Once you realize that you are in control of the where and when of monster spawns, the game loses a lot of its teeth. Now, I’m not saying any one of these approaches is superior. They can each be used to create a different kind of horror, but they must be implemented with a considered hand. Survival horror is pure gaming psychology. Player experience is paramount. SCP: Containment Breach may look like it’s held together by clay and twine, but it has a solid experience at its core. One that keeps me coming back for more, even though I know the ins and outs of the game.

It’s organic. It’s memorable. It’s terrifying.

Oh, yeah, and it’s free.

So, those are some examples of organic horror. I know there are more, but I like to keep the number of games I refer to to a minimum. That way, we can use a minimum of knowledge to have a maximum of conversations. Oh yeah, Cry of Fear is also free. You can get it through Steam. It’s really quite a decent story. I wouldn’t talk about it so much if it wasn’t worth checking out. Cheers!

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.

542476_308446645887233_104860890

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.

cry-of-fear-15-700x438

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.

Life Goes On Trial

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Don’t get too excited, we’re not talking horror today. Although, we’re staying in the lovely field of morbid I like to call my home. You see, I decided that it had been too long since I’d stretched my legs and taken a walk in the outside world. So, I tagged along with my room-mate to a gathering of local game devs. Thankfully, there was a terrible storm suffused with funnel clouds and hail going on, so I didn’t melt in the sun. While I was there, I realized that I haven’t done any work with the local publishers in my city, unless you count ragging on BioWare occasionally. And by ragging, I mean completely forgetting to include Dragon Age: Inquisition on my E3 wish-list. Of course, that might have something to do with my relative disinterest and the fact that you’ll hear about it everywhere else anyways. Yeah, it’s a good series, but… Wait, we’re not here to do a break-down of Dragon Age.

We’re here to talk about Life Goes On from… Ian, Susan, Erik and David. That’s right, this isn’t a studio project. It’s a passion project from four people with a concept, some skills and a dream. That’s about as indie as you can get without just being that NotePad fan-fic you won’t let anyone else see. Or, maybe that’s just me. Anyways, it’s good, or I wouldn’t be raving about it. Without further ado, let’s delve into…

LGODemo_130613_1922247

There’s something a bit weird about reviewing a game based solely on the demo, because any criticism I might level at it can be countered with, “What do you expect? It’s not done yet!” That’s very true, and we should do all we can to support the independents, but… well, let me tell you a bit about the game first. It’s a puzzle-platformer that requires -requires, no less- you to kill your character in order to proceed. Basically, to solve the traps and get past the puzzles in the game, you need to be in two places at once. To deal with this ordeal, the best solution would probably be to go home, learn to use your sword and die happy knowing you didn’t waste your life so someone else could claim a prize. However, there is an alternate strategy: use the corpse of the last sucker to do the work for you. I mean, there’s no way what happened to him could happen to yo-ugh!

Anyways, sorry, what was he saying? Right, you direct your little minion into death-traps so that it leaves its corpse in a convenient location to weigh down a switch or act as a platform. There’s one particularly nasty puzzle where you have to jam yourself onto the bottom of a rotating bed of spikes so that you can act as a moving platform for the next yourself. Sound confusing? Here are a couple illustrAUGH!!!:

dead knight on switch with respawn landing on knight

>.> …. It’s a wonderful example of that mechanics-as-metaphor thing I keep banging on about. The basic message being: “Every life makes a difference. It’s a continuous stream of effort.” This sentiment should be familiar to anyone in the field of science. Or arts. Or making bloody good sandwiches. No work is ever THE final word in the process. No civilization has ever been the unquestionable peak. Even though you may fall, others can pick up your work and continue on towards the goal. All it takes is a little inspiration and a nearby spawn-point: perhaps, a hospital. Effort is made to give each of the little guys a bit of personality by giving them individual names that get scritched out and scroll by on parchment when they die. They’re even differentiated by gender. Sweet. Although, honestly, they die so fast that it’s difficult to notice any differeEuuugh!

Iiiiifff…. I had to offer any criticism, and I do, it would be that the game-play feels a bit flat. There are some really cool puzzles here, but the life-line of the game is going to be its level design. There are cannons to shoot you around. Switches and moveable spawn points to act as logical puzzle-gates. Spikes and conveyor belts to get you to and from. But you, as a player, don’t do much with the environment, besides move through it or die on it. I feel like you could replace the knight with a ball and experience the same game-play. There’s very little conflict outside of the obvious timing-execution requirements, and that’s going to damage the amount of the engagement that the final product can offer. This is why Mario had coins, moving power-ups and enemies; and why Donkey-Kong had bananas, collectibles and enemieEEEEKKK!

LGODemo_130613_1923342

There IS this little guy. You can find him in each of the levels. He’s kind of a collectible, but he actually collects you. I know, I know, he LOOKS cute, but step too close and he’ll make a quick meal of you. That’s not quite enough, though, and adding too many extra elements like the cannon to the environment risks making the play feel gimmicky. You’d need to add different ways to interact with the environment, like using your sword or writing out a last Will and Testament, to produce the emergent game-play properties that will keep things fresh. However, this is a puzzle game, so maybe it IS just about getting from one room to the next. The designers even made sure to zoom the camera out to give you a better view of the environmental hazards you’ll be dealing with. I guess I’m just not a fan of puzzle-platformers. I feel like it could be more engaging, especially with how cool the concept is. Oh yeah, and it controls a bit wonkily when it comes to turning around, but it’s still in beta, so what do I expect? Although, besides the turning around bit, it controls like butteh.

…<.<….. >.> …. umm… okay, thaAGUGH!

The graphics are good, the aesthetics brilliant, the environments charming and the humour legitimately funny. I’d recommend downloading the demo and giving it a try for yourself. Despite all the negative things I’ve said about the game, I’ll still be keeping an eye on it. After all, the credits are extremely clever. Who’s to say that they couldn’t carry the game on charm and level design alone?

<.<

*phew*

Bastion – Spoiled Rotten

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. Welcome back to part 2 of our look at Bastion, the action-RPG from the lovely developers over at Supergiant Games. The first part of this literary tongue-bath looked at the art-style of Bastion and how its aesthetic assisted… nay, was an integral part of… game-play. If you want to take a look at it before you read this one, then it’s the post directly before this one. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by linking to it. Today, we’re going to look at Bastion’s story, as well as some of the game mechanics and game-play features that added an extra punch to its narrative. It’s going to be an avalanche of spoilers, though. So, if you haven’t played Bastion, and I very much suggest that you do, then save this post for a rainy day. That, or go buy and play it. It’s worth your time. If you don’t have the time, then I hope you enjoy my look at it! Maybe if you close your eyes and let your imagination take over, you can explain to me how exactly you’re reading with your eyes closed.

Bastion-Now-Has-100-More-Linux-Shows-Up-on-Steam-for-Linux

We begin the story of this isometric hack-and-slasher with a boy’s bedroom floating in nothingness. The hauntingly epic voice of Logan Cunningham begins to narrate the tale. Here we see the first example of the combination of narrative and game-play integration that will become the staple of your Bastion experience. Nothing further happens until you move the control sticks. Then, your character, The Kid, will wake up and get to his feet in response to your movement. This will trigger another piece of exposition from the narrator. At triggered points, the narrator will break in with an explanation of what you’re doing or with subtle directions to your next objective (Occasionally assisted by giant blue arrows). However, they’re not fourth-wall breaking most of the time, because the game is framed as a third-person perspective story. So, it makes sense for him to be recounting your actions. By keeping the story tight and the levels small, Bastion is able to ensure that you’re never quite without direction or observation. Of course, the narrator isn’t omniscient, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

The events that trigger a bit of exposition are varied. There’s one part early on when you get your first weapon and fight your first monster that illustrates how these triggered exposition flashes can bring you into the story and make you feel like you’ve got an effect on events. In the area you receive the weapon, there are a lot of boxes and assorted bazaar paraphernalia. If, after the fight, you stay around to test your weapon on the scenery, the narrator says, “The Kid just rages for a while…” However, if you don’t, then that line is never spoken. Doesn’t do much for those of us that just moved on, but if you stuck around to wail on things, then it only added to the world and your sense of immersion within it. It’s also a good example of the developers’ understanding their players. They knew that if they handed you a weapon, then the first thing you would do is take your curiosity out on the surrounding scenery. So, they wrote it into the narrative. This is one of the advantages of linear game-play. If you plan far enough ahead, then you can make your players feel like they’re having an effect on things, being allowed more freedom, than even most sandbox game can allow. Or, should I say, especially most sandbox games. That genre’s getting out of control, guys.

Other than brief moments like that, the exposition comes before, after and between combat sections. By keeping the wording succinct, punchy and symbolic, Bastion manages to let you enjoy a deep narrative without being distracted from the game-play. It doesn’t shout important lines at you when you’re trying desperately to keep your eye-sockets pick-axe free; it makes sure that you understand what’s going on. You’re aware of the stakes, so they become a part of the experience. By becoming a part of the experience, they alter the game and make you think about the implications of the events and your part within them. This is the kind of immersive, linear story-telling that Far Cry 3 and BioShock: Infinite got so right, but without the first-person perspective. I think this demonstrates quite heartily that you can use a directed story-telling method in any modern linear game without sacrificing immersion, even if you’re not playing as a 5’9” camera on legs.

Bastion-review-1

Let’s come back to that standing up thing again, because it’s soooo fascinating. Well, actually, it is. When you’ve got a limited number of actions and animations, then you’ve got to pick and choose carefully which ones you want to employ. Then, you’ve got to use them effectively to tell your story. Far Cry 3 has a massive range of available animations, and they could make new ones on the fly, but Bastion reaches back through a long-standing tradition of communicating through simple sprite movements. One of my first memories of something like this was in Mario RPG. At one point, you were asked a question and then responded by jumping. It seemed like an enthusiastic hop and came to perfectly describe Mario’s personality, despite the fact that it was one of a very limited range of available animations that he did. I mean, Mario jumps. That’s like… his thing. The Kid, however, gets tossed around a lot, either during travel or by falling off of ledges, so his thing is standing up. It’s quick and simple, but it’s also very effective.

There’s a portion near the very end of the game, after the climax with Zulf, where you travel back to the Bastion. After the game finishes loading, we find The Kid sprawled out on the grass in his normal fashion, but something’s very different. He was clearly hurt by that last encounter. He’s tired; it has been an extremely draining adventure with almost no time for a proper rest. He’s weathered it all, but you can only handle so much. His body is beaten. His mind taxed. You try to get him to move; his body responds sluggishly, lifting him slightly. But, he collapses. The screen fades slightly. The narrator gives a heart-felt, “Come on, Kid. Get up.” You try again, and he moves a little further, but the effort is too much. He collapses again. The screen fades a bit more. The narrator’s heart is breaking. You give it another go and slowly, achingly, you bring The Kid to his feet. It’s not a lot. It’s just the same animation you’ve used throughout the game to get up with a couple alterations, but it’s used to great effect. It’s also a big part of what we know about our character: he always stands up. Him struggling with that tells you exactly how taxed he is. It’s elegant and engaging. Bam. There’s no half-cocked joke here. This is how you use your mechanics.

Let’s talk choice for a bit. Bastion isn’t a game about building a character around a set of moral choices, but it does a good job of communicating who The Kid is through a couple of key junctures. It doesn’t change anything about the overall game-play. That’s okay. The story is our primary means of engagement. So, let’s start with the climax with Zulf. When you go to wrest the last shard from the hands of the Ura, you end up wiping out waves of their people. This, understandably enough, they aren’t happy with. Far from only blaming you, they also don’t take kindly to the man who led you here, who taunted you into attacking. The man who also tried to warn you away from the Bastion to save your life. So, they assault him. You find him on the ground, broken body bleeding, close to death. At this point, you’ve got a kick-ass special weapon. It’s a blessed bull battering ram with the power to literally rain fire from the sky. Zulf needs help, though. You can’t carry him and fight at the same time. You have to make a choice. Do you pick him up or leave him to die? (Remember that point about omniscience? This is where the narrator’s knowledge runs dry. He has no idea what you do here, so the choice is left up to you.)

If you don’t pick him up, you use your amazing battering ram to fight your way home. After the final fight, you arrive back at the point I talked about with the standing up mechanic. However, if you choose to pick him up, then an entirely different thing happens. You still run through the same gauntlet, getting fired at from all sides, moving slowly under the weight of Zulf’s body, trying desperately to stay alive, but something happens. Eventually, the Ura begin to fire on you less and less. Finally, near the exit, one of the Ura kills the last remaining soldier still firing at you. Clearly, that guy was committed to your death, even as the rest of the Ura honoured your commitment to Zulf. Your commitment to saving what you could. Putting your body on the line for your ideals. Between the music and the pacing, the sentiment and the story it tells through simple symbolism, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the game. Following it up with the scene where The Kid is trying to stand up brought me closer to tears than I’d like to admit on the internet. That is, it brought me to them. It’s incredibly memorable.

What makes it so effective? It follows the video game adage: do, don’t show. You can feel the slow, desperate struggle of The Kid as he walks through the gauntlet because you’re moving at that pace. You can almost feel his health bar dropping, and, by the middle of it, you can’t help but feel that you’ve made a horrible mistake. This is how your life ends. There’s nothing you can do about it, except try to carry on. You might say that you could put Zulf down, but that’s not who The Kid is. See what I was saying? Excellent character development. What are the motives of the Ura? Well, the Ura are basically a quasi-samurai-like race. So, I’m tempted to say they’re moved by your sense of honour. Either they’re given an order not to kill you, or they all believe in their way of life enough that they draw the same conclusion about your actions and cease attacking. It could be both, even. But, you still represent a lot of evil deeds to them, and more losses, so it’s easy to understand why that one guy keeps attacking you. To him, you’re a monster. Then, when he’s put down, it’s either because he is disobeying orders or because it’s the only way he’ll stop attacking you. Couldn’t have been easy. One life for another. It’s a harsh world. A harsh culture. A harsher lesson.

These are all things you understand intuitively through the game-play. You don’t have to sort it out in your head. You can just look at the deeds of the characters, the Ura, whose actions are all expressed within their normal game-play animations mind you, and say thanks. Thanks for understanding and giving me a chance to make this right. Simple and effective story-telling that’s executed so beautifully that my mind almost revolts at calling it “simple.” Yeesh, I’m going to have to pick a truly horrible game to hate on next week or you guys will think I’ve gone soft!

bastion_1_0

That brings us to the final moments of Bastion and the choice that defines the game’s meaning. Up until the 9/10’s mark of the game, the narrator is speaking as if to you, using a third-person perspective voice. Then, as you enter the final level, you find out that he has been talking to Zia, the singer, this whole time. He’s been telling her the story that you’ve been playing through during the moments leading up to when you get to activate the Deus Ex Machina. You see, a great cataclysm tore through the land and shattered the world. Thus the floaty platforms and ash-statues. It’s an allegory for nuclear war, obviously. Well, actually, just for the apocalypse. The Bastion, the structure you’ve been rebuilding, can take the memories stored within the Cores of the City and the shards of the Wilds to and use them to restore the world. The entire world. You can jump the clock back to before the apocalypse. It’ll never have happened. However, in the closing level, the narrator reveals that, while he designed The Bastion, he was never able to test it. Even if he had, there would be no way for him to know if it worked, because he would be reset to before he knew the results of the test. That being said, there’s no way of knowing whether The Bastion has already been used or not. Even if you undo the apocalypse, there’s no way of knowing if it will happen again… or not.

In the final moments of the game, the narrator turns to you, addresses you directly, and asks you to make a choice. Do you wind back the clock to the way things were before or use The Bastion to evacuate and start a new life in a changed world? This may seem easy — you prevent the apocalypse, duh — but it’s not. You see, an apocalypse is just a great change. It’s a sweeping reordering of the current world. Bastion asks you to consider if setting things back to the old order is really the answer. It suggests that, perhaps, the structure of that world was what brought it to its end. After all, in the old world, you’re an orphan without a cause. The narrator is an inventor working for the City. Zia is a peasant girl. Zulf is, well, he’s doing fairly well. In the world changed by the cataclysm, you can forge something new. Will you be able to learn from the mistakes of the past or do you not feel like you can make that choice for the millions of lives that The Bastion will restore? You might realize, then, that it’s not just the people that are to blame for the cataclysm. It’s also the world they live in. You might even be able to change something if you wind the clock back, but you won’t have any memory of the events you’ve struggled through. This world, your new family, will be undone so that the old one can re-assert itself.

Will it make a difference? Or, will you end up back at the cataclysm? This is suggested by the New Game Plus option. You start back at the beginning and the first words of the narrator take on a whole new meaning, “A proper story is supposed to start at the beginning…” Where, though, is the beginning in the story of The Bastion? It’s a time loop, a paradox.

Using this framework, Bastion also asks us a couple of other hard questions. Is setting things to rights (Read: the way they used to be) justification for doing ill now? Is it okay to murder someone now because they’ll be resurrected by the time-loop? What happens to that justification if you decide to evacuate? You’ve got so much blood on your hands. Can you possibly just move on from that? If that justification is so flimsy, so reliant on a future promise, is it any justification at all? Is it an excuse for forwarding your own morality? There’s an uncomfortable truth about the way we tend to look at the world in the narrator’s words, “Don’t let anything you’ve done get to you. You can save all these creatures here and now.” “Save” is an interesting term here. The Cores represent the memories of the past that hold the world in place the way it is, but that raises a greater existential question. Are you saving those creatures or just a copy of them? Yeah, the Cores may be great big USB sticks for the God-puter, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not still deleting the original file. Or, is it the original? There’s no way to know.

This is the narrative that unifies the game. It’s complex, tragic and unfair. It asks questions that we can’t possibly answer and explores morality through intuitive choices that aren’t easily made once you think about them. By the way, if you save Zulf and choose to evacuate, then he’s in the closing credit pictures with you, escaping on The Bastion. If you don’t save him, well… There’s no ticket to the past. I’ll close with a quote from the narrator, Rucks, that plays if you choose the evacuation option:

“You could have undone the calamity itself, but, instead, you want to stay in a world like this… we can’t go back, but I guess we could go… wherever we please.”

Don’t be afraid of great change. You can choose to move forward.

That’s how you tell a fucking story.