Friday, October 12, 2012

Glitch by Tiny Speck


My MMO history has been very briefly detailed on a previous post, but the even shorter form is that I've played nothing for more than a week. Glitch doesn't buck that trend, but it was still a damned good week.

I came to Glitch because of the news that Keito Takehashi, of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy 'fame' was seduced back to working on video games (from his brief retirement spent designing playground structures) by the promise of this game. He even moved from Japan to Vancouver for it. Yikes! Worth a moment of my time at least.

I got on the beta invite list as soon as I could and played it, and I don't really remember it, except that it was boring and I milked a bunch of butterflies. The art was pretty, but the game was dumb. That was probably a year ago. A few weeks ago, I decided it was worth another shot and I don't think I did anything but for the next three days.

There is no combat in Glitch, and this is its genius twist. Combat can never be anything but a competition, and this competition infects all other MMO like the selfish meme it is. Even if the frame is 'us vs them' the spirit of the world is inevitably dragged into blades and conquest. By never bringing combat into the picture, Glitch has the potential of being a peaceful world about sharing and love and butterflies and nibbling on pigs.

Of course, potential could go bad, which is why it's so valuable that Glitch does everything it can to convince you to give, and give, and give. For instance, the tutorial grants you an item  called Random Kindness which enables you to bestow 50 Energy on another player in the same zone as you. One of my early experiences involved bestowing Random Kindness on another player who was hanging around mining, who jumped for joy, but then promptly wandered off. Five minutes later, she returned, accompanied by a mate. A little speech bubble popped up over her head: "this one". Her friend jumped once, then gave me a rather valuable bowl of chili, and the two were on their way.

What was the benefit of going out of their way to reward my sharing? I don't know what was on their mind specifically, but I do know that I never hesitated to share. And others never hesitated to share with me.

Glitch is a game about economy, and while it's an economy based primarily on personal accumulation, the impetus for accumulation is not a sense of competition and miserliness over the goods you have but rather endless trading. That this trade is rarely a barter per se, but rather an exchange of gifts and mainly with strangers, is a true triumph. And a triumph not just for games, but for society in general. I'm not sure I can overstate this game's effect on my optimism while I was ventured into it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

VoEC: Personal Trip to the Moon

When I'm not writing about videogames (and I seem to be writing about videogames very infrequently these days) I enjoy writing poetry. And in those poems, I betray an obsession with the moon. I don't think about the moon all that much in my daily life, but as soon as pen hits paper it's moon moon moon moon moon. If I could replace all subjects and objects with "the moon" I would feel not limited, but thrilled my the opportunity presented. Maybe in a few years I will find a moon cult to join and everything will be alright forever.

With that content, maybe you will understand my excitement when some of my favourite corners of the internet began buzzing about a game called "Personal Trip To The Moon", a flash work on Newgrounds. I don't normally think about the moon as something to "go to" but now that the idea has been planted in my head, I'm thrilled by it. I wonder though, if a work is called "Personal Trip To The Moon" by its creator, how personal can it be for the player?

I’m not going to answer that question right away, even though I’ve decided on the answer. That’s a way of making you read more. Sneaky, huh?

Yesterday, Kay and I were out for a walk and I told her about Personal Trip to the Moon. Specifically how similar the visual style was to Jasper Byrne Lone Survivor (which I still haven’t finished, if you’re following my game completion exploits). Both games feature very textured pixel art under heavy filtering. The result is all the charm of pixel art with the self-awareness to acknowledge that the game is on a device capable of more. This kind of visual, musical, narrative, or mechanical quotation is particularly common in games because of the scope required of such a multimedia project. Not every designer can be a jack of all trades, and even if they are, how does one innovate in each area on each project? So, I don’t think that the quotation is a downside, or requiring of an excuse. Furthermore, I really like this kind of style and it’s very fresh, and I think here very well executed. It was splendid to watch in motion.

The motion in question is a slow walk, following by a swimming sort of flight. Doing the breaststroke in space. Your avatar wears a nice suit with a necktie, and appears to only have one eye. Is the titular journey best called one small step for man but one giant leap for a cyclops? I won’t spoil how I interpreted the story, because I thought it was a good one. But it will take you to the moon and back at least twice and into a new body. It knows well one of the most important elements of a narrative, namely where to cut at the beginning and the end, creating a perfectly framed narrative. This is really enhanced by a sound design which cuts in and out suddenly, and at the right time. It feels like a very controlled experience. Which is part of the problem.

The beginning and end are very deliberate walk and read affairs, with plenty of well written dialogue. In strong contrast is the entire middle section of the short game which features meandering through space and receiving microfictions about the various goings on in the area between earth and moon. But space is empty. And I got bored. The exploration section was either too long, or too short. And the freedom granted was both too much (giving me the freedom to bore myself) or too little (giving me so little to do or see). When the game decided to snatch back the narrative reigns I felt a bit cheated.

I feel like this may be the biggest insult I can give, but I have to say it, and I say it through mostly closed lips, as quietly as I can... but I think this game would have been better as a movie. It breaks my heart to call this game anything other than brilliant, because so much of it excites me. Maybe it did become my personal trip to the moon. And I was disappointed in the beginning, middle, and end.

But I look fondly toward first time designer VOEC`s next game. I suspect she may have further excellent stories to tell.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

la la land 1-5:

So I was, like, surfing for some new games to game, and they were all about cats. Pages and pages of games about cats. Why? I don't know. Priority Cats, Cat Astro Phi, Cat Cat Watermelon, Nyan Nyan Stack, Katwalk, Cat Poke, Feline Feeling... is it some cosmic coincidence? What's going on???? This is a serious question.

But anyway, amongst the felines I found la la land. I was pleased to find nowhere in the title any variant of cat, and downloaded it. I was pleased to find I had downloaded not one, but five games. Pleased, I opened this first file. My computer warned me: "This application has been downloaded from the internet and may be harmful. Do you want to open it anyway?" The fact that my computer says this every time I download something from the internet aside, maybe this time, this one time, it knew something I didn't...

la lal and:
My character looks like a cat. I am slightly crestfallen. The game is flashy, literally. It reminds me of Kidpix, which I like. My only controls are left and right, and my little kitty is often destroyed, replicated, multiplied, popping into and out of existence. Numbers began appearing on the screen, slowly, one number at a time, 1 through to 14. At 14 it stopped, or I just got tired of playing, I'm not exactly sure which. Honestly, I was a bit confused, but also pleased that it wasn't about cats, but something more meta and existential. Right?

la la land 2:
I am a cat. My name is biggt. A fishhead tells me it needs money, and to steal from the rich! There are tears and there is anger and I learn a lesson about money and people, I think.

la la land 3:
It appears I (biggt the cat) am tired of oranges. I get dismantled in a number of ways. The music sounds like some sort of castle quest. I keep smiling. Everyone has baggage, right? I learn a lesson about greed or hermits or something.

la la land 4:
This one is really good, but it's like a nightmare. Maybe I just like it because biggt is a chef and I like chefs and I wish I were a chef. But there are several settings (including the moon ?!?!???!?) and a really Twin Peaksy noble bird man. Like the first one, however, I don't know if I actually made it to the end. Maybe? Maybe. Be persistent, okay? Persistence is key.

la la land 5:
The music is really fun and well chosen in this one. Kind of eerie, really. One is about Amway, how it's so great, and how when you buy in you'll make so much $$$$$ (but, you know, it's being used sarcastically, okay guys? Do you get sarcasm? Sometimes it can be hard.) And the other song is about evolution and how we didn't come from monkeys, no sir! A stubbornly-stuck-in-their-ways comment, perhaps? Watch out for those stubbornly-stuckers, they'll suck you dry.
Also, everything reminded me of Vidiot Game, and I think we all know I like Vidiot Game, or anyway now you know I like Vidiot Game, so that's a good thing. But that aside, in this game you get to throw bibles at people/fishheads and prance around to chipper music, so it's pretty cool.

Everything said, this series is pretty awesome. Also has some super replay value, but not in the "hey you'll find lots of easter eggs" kind of way (although really who knows?). I guess it's probably more like rereading a book. I was surprised and delighted at how frustrated such simple, 2-control games could make me. In a good way! In a good way. If you like to think about the meaning of life and video games. Do you? I do.

And biggt cool cat. Maybe I should not be so swift at passing over the cat games? Maybe. But I played one called, like, Parkitty where you have to lead a very bouncy, sleepy cat outside and it was pretty stupid. Well, it was fun to be a bouncy cat for about 2 minutes. Then I got bored. So... yeah, I don't know.

Here is a link to play the games! Have fun! Use your brains!

My rating:
I could...
a. break my teeth.
b. take it
c. leave it

Monday, May 28, 2012

E4: Get Lost

This is not a difficult game to play. I do not need to tell you how to play it, unless you’re like “OH NO MY ARROW KEYS DON’T WORK!” Then I could be like, “Whoa, bro. Clam down. You just have to click the arrows in the bottom left of your screen.” Past that, though, there is not a lot of mastery involved in J. Allen Henderson's “adventure game with a twist,” Get Lost.

But simple, my friends, can be beautiful. Or in this case, witty, sarcastic, delightful, confusing, and bizarre. It’s really great.

Get Lost is a point-and-click visually, aurally, and gamerly enhanced ode to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, which I’m sure were a part of your rich childhood. Well, now can enjoy them anew in your maybe-not-so-rich adulthood (though who am I to judge?). Do you want to be a man? A woman? A rabbit? It’s your choice! All the characters, though their lives be nasty, brutish, and short (à la Hobbes), had a whole bunch fascinatingly diverse and twisted paths to explore. Maybe this time you should go northeast? Southwest? Up? Left? You will get lost. But it’s okay. That’s life.

Now listen, the game looks great. It really does. Everyone has a moustache. There are many candy stores. You can click on things and they do stuff. It’s cute and weird and maybe you’ll like it, too. On top of that, it sounds great. Really excellent use of piano as a sound effect paired with just the right music to match every scene. Every once in a while you run into some out-of-place 8-bit aspect of the world, which is charmingly and frankly described in the narrative as “8-bit” and are accompanied by some rambunctious action-game chip tunes.

Like any good game, there aren’t very many repercussions when you die. Sometimes you go back to the beginning, but come one. It’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. That’s really not so bad. And all of the narrative descriptions, including those of your deaths, are blunt and sarcastic. I greatly appreciate this.

Along the left side of your screen, you’ll see two bars: one labeled “bugs” and one labeled “eggs.” For a long time, I thought these were for absolutely nothing at all and were just some odd joke from the game designer. This was funny. Then I found an egg and realized they were actually for something, but just barely. This was also funny. Maybe I should keep playing and find them all, if that’s a thing. Maybe something cool will happen. I almost hope that nothing happens. That would be brilliant.

All in all, this game was great. Every time I started getting bored, something delightfully unexpected happened, often resulting in my demise. This game truly has fabulous and inspired writing. You should play it. If you find all the eggs and bugs, tell me what happens, okay?

My Rating:
I could…
a. be a rabbit, I guess.
b. Take it
c. Leave it

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jon Caplin: Reprisal

Bothering little virtual people possessing simplified or nonexistant emotional behaviours is an important part of the cathartic function provided by videogames. When I was in elementary school, The Sims were a big thing, and everyone was playing virtual dollhouse. Making endless denizens of computerland mate, soil themselves, or start a cooking fire in a two-metre square room with no windows or doors was of constant entertainment to our young minds. cuteso101 on Yahoo! Answers even wonders if The Sims 2 is the best game ever. 

As seen above, she is helpfully reminded by another user that because she is a girl she is unnaturally predisposed to enjoying The Sims and that it probably isn’t the greatest game ever. Too bad. If it were the greatest game ever, I could comfortably write this article as follows:

So like you know that game, The Sims, guys? Duh, of course you do. It is literally the greatest game ever [no sarcasm here in the alternate universe]. It came out in 2000 and still won six awards at the 2012 gaming Oscars. Well listen, I know you’re mostly playing The Sims right now so you don’t care, but hear me out: there is another game. I know!! CRAZY, RIGHT?

So like in this game--which is kind of like The Sims--you like move dirt and stuff--which you can totally do in The Sims too, and it’s better there--and then all these people like build houses and stuff on them--just like in The Sims, except that you don’t have to build the houses, they do it for you! [cue angry screams from the audience in this alternate world that this is just The Sims for girls or moms or whoever those gamers look down on] And then you tell them to do stuff and they do and it’s great! You can also put fireballs on people, which you can’t do in the Sims, and there are like levels and stuff. If you have a minute while your Sims game is busy Reticulating Splines, you should probably give this one a shot.

(un)Fortunately, we live in a world where there is not consensus that The Sims is the greatest game of all time. That being said, there still exists the hypothesized game of pushing around soil and dropping fireballs on little people, and it’s called Populous. 

Populous was released in 1989 by Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog Productions and invented the “God” genre of games, where your avatar is an unseen deity ruining the day of many little worshippers who you rely upon for the magical power of prayer, but not much else. How you keep them faithful is up to you. And to most players, the fun is all Schadenfreude and Sadism.

Through the next decade and a bit beyond, Molyneux used Bullfrog Productions, as well as its successor, Lionhead Studios, to continue to build on the experiences birthed by his first God game through the dystopian corporate future of Syndicate, to the slightly more humble Magic Carpet (you only get to be a wizard this time), and to its peak with probably the most majestic God simulator, Black and White, which took advantage of 3D graphics to make the cruelty of the “miracles” you provided much more thrilling.

Designer Jon Caplin has released a flash game called Reprisal which takes very fondly after Populous. It is very faithful to the original in feel, but also seems quite modern in its elegance. Reprisal is a good bit of neo-retro flashback to the early days of computer games, and if you don’t feel like loading up DOSbox to run creaky old Populous, it’s your best bet.

Scratch that, even if you have the energy and will to play Populous, play Reprisal. It’s well put together, cute, and I really feel for the little guys running around on my screen.

A thought has struck me: maybe I’m facilitating the murder of many electronic citizens by sharing this link. So, for my own moral well being, I beg of you to have a bit of mercy.

Here is the link. Now go forth and play.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jasper Byrne: Lone Survivor

The first time I played Bioshock, I got to the second level, and then turned it off in disgust and wrote a great big blog post (thankfully lost) about how much I was disgusted by its exploitation of violence and fear to prove its point. If you were trying to make a game with a message, I thought, why stoop to that level?

After putting it down for three weeks, I picked it back up again and raced through most of the rest of the game. It won me over. I was just being pretentious. The viscera was pretty thrilling once I got past the shock value. And that game--despite its flaws--is still something of a masterpiece.

I get an echo of that first reaction every time I pick up a new horror game. I’m deathly afraid and a bit grossed out by them. Maybe that’s the point. That hasn’t sullied my eventual respect for many titles, because even if the only emotion horror games can conjure up is fear, that’s a pretty strong feeling.

Predictably, I had the gut-disgust frustration reaction to Jasper Byrne’s side-scrolling survival-horror Lone Survivor after playing the first twenty minutes. Too many scary zombies and darkness and flesh-walls. But I’d heard so many good things. And it looked so neat. And the music was fantastic. And the writing was charming. And I pushed through.

Twenty minutes or so into the game, after it had almost completely frozen my mind with terror, my character trundled up to the first destination; tired, hungry, and scared. And through the outside wall of apartment 204, a faint sound. Could it be? Salvation? Human life?

Cool Jazz. There was a party in there. And everyone was piss-drunk.

OK game, you’ve got me.

But damn, do I still get really tired of dealing with zombies. Add to those shivering undead nightmares an oppressive and not especially transparent system for hunger, as well as for energy, and it’s a game which I find emotionally exhausting to play. A typical scenario follows: being chased by non-descript (read lovecraftly awful) bits of walking flesh through corridors while your character is bleary from sleep and hunger and you know you have only got enough bullets left to take down one of the zombies and they’re right behind you and oh no the battery is almost out on this flashlight and now you can’t see the buggers who are after you and you pause after you have some distance and open the inventory where there isn’t any food to be found and you collapse of exhaustion.

It’s a relief then that Lone Survivor builds in some really interesting ways of dealing with the horror around you. The player character’s comments on his environment are occasionally silly, in the way that someone suffering from cabin fever in an inexplicable situation must be expected to be. Furthermore, a truly surreal scenario is never but ten more minutes of play away, at which point excellent music usually kicks in, and twin peaks inspired oddity ensues.

And if things are getting really trying, there’s always the pills...

Early in the game you find a handful of differently coloured pills which aren’t accompanied by instructions. If you scour hard enough, some vagueities on their purpose can be found scribbled on pieces of paper or alluded to by a man with a box on his head. Through either non-clinical self-trials of these medications or careful extrapolation from the hints I found, I figured out that I could use the green or the blue pills before I went to sleep to end up in a few dream sequences where mysterious individuals appeared to be able to answer my questions. Ah, but of course, as can be expected from narcotics induced lucid dreams, more questions are asked than answers given.

As the horror ramped up, and my concerns about where to go to move on, and where to find light, and where to find bullets, and where to find food began to overwhelm me, I found myself running back to bed more often to eat some cheese and crackers, take the green pill and fall asleep. The man with a box on his head was always there, and each time had a new question for me. Each time, a reveal of what is going on in this zombie-world is teased, and each time that relief is denied. But I take more and more pills. 

“Maybe a blue next? No, why did I take a blue, what a waste of a night, I could have taken another green. He would have had an answer this time.” The whole while the food is running out, the days are passing by, and I’m staying in bed, dreaming.

I haven’t finished Lone Survivor yet because I’ve been busy with real life. Some mornings I wake up, and I don’t want to go to work. The customers can seem a bit like a horde of emotionless zombies. Often enough in real life, I would love to take an ibuprofin and go back to sleep, rather than facing those zombies outside. So while I’m not done with the game, I feel I can safely thank it for giving me another world in which to contemplate staying in bed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Double Dog Ludum Dare Vol I: Geometries Around Explosions

Double Dog Ludum Dare is a series where we explore games made for Ludum Dare events, a series of game jams with a time limit of one weekend. The most recent iteration, the 23rd, was held from April 20th-23rd, 2012. The theme this time around was “Tiny World.” Because of the stringent time limit, the finished products range from haiku-like pieces of inspired design, to completely scattered, dysfunctional skeletons. We subject ourselves to it all. (to try out the games, click the blue headers, duh.)

Birchmountain: Cylcubere Origins

Right off the bat, a real winner. A sinister smiling face greets you and a downwards pitch-shifted voice says, “Hello.” Then, “What is your favourite geometry?” Your choices are Cube, Sphere, Cylinder, and curiously, Cylcubere, a portmanteau combining the three previous geometries. The idea of a cylcubere freaks me right out, and I don’t want to think about it.

Next, the face asks your favourite colour. Then the lights come on. In my case, a red sphere was in the middle of the room. A personification of my particular affections. The face was revealed to belong to the cylcubere, who proceeded to test my typing abilities, followed by my abilities to keep my mouse cursor in a moving square. Both very important skills indeed. The difficulty came when for whatever reason the mechanism which was supposed to recognize that my mouse cursor was indeed in the square malfunctioned and the malicious cylcubere roasted my sphere in jets of flame.

And so for me, the game was ended. Like I said, a real winner.

Naouak: Fire Around

You play a spacecraft trapped in orbit around a tiny world. You can adjust the radius of your orbit, but otherwise, your craft keeps spinning around and around and around and around. If you fire your green bullets they spin around and around and around and around as well. If an enemy spaceship happens to appear in the path of your bullets, it goes boom and falls to earth, the remainder burning up in the atmosphere.

Of course, those enemies are shooting back at you, and you get stuck in this loop of bullets which goes around and around and around and around the world and eventually you can’t deal with the shots orbiting around and around and around and around. And then your spaceship goes boom and falls to earth, the remainder burning up in the atmosphere.

A great execution on a nice concept for a shmup, and the perpetual rotation made the whole ordeal pretty disorienting. Very difficult to wrap the head around (and around and around and around).

Tempest: Materia

Made in only 24 hours, Materia is a bit like playing nuclear jenga. You are tasked with collecting cubes of various colours without compromising the integrity of the Materia. Because then it explodes. And the game’s over. No one wants the game to be over, do they?

You expend energy to collect cubes. White cubes give you few points, but at little consequence. Orange cubes give you many more point, but require more energy. Pink cubes eat away at the integrity of the whole structure. Finally, red cubes give you a lot of points, but almost completely compromise the integrity of the Materia. Every 100 points, you can progress to the next level, where a new structure is displayed for you to dismantle.

The play field is presented similarly to the sadly unheralded Picross 3D for the Nintendo DS. For those who haven’t played that game (most people, I’d imagine) let me explain. You have a structure which you can rotate along all axes with your mouse by holding the right button and dragging. Because you’re working with a 3D object, it’s important to be able to see it from any angle so as to catch any pesky, lurking cubes. By left clicking on a cube, it is chipped away, revealing what it underneath.

I find the execution of this project very impressive for a game developed in 24 hours, but it does show obvious limitations as well. It suffers from being repetitive very quickly (similar) because it involves the repetition of basically the same one mechanic for the entirety of the gameplay. The addition of a time limit per level may have helped this. One feature I found particularly interesting was that you aren’t forced to move on to the next level as soon as it is unlocked. Instead you can harvest more points off of the one you’re on, and carry those through. By completely mining the first two levels out, I could completely skip the next three levels, because I’d already achieved the point requirements for them. This kind of idea would work very well if the scoring of points was based on skill, rather than tedious tenacity. By playing well and proving yourself, you would earn the right to skip through a few levels, to find a real challenge.

I think this is worth a play, if just to marvel at what the developer made all by himself, in one day.

This is what Ludum Dare is all about.

The Men Who Wear Many Hats: Organ Trail

Remember Oregon Trail? That game you played in grade 2, eagerly stuffing a floppy disc into one of 5 of the school's computers, slyly smiling to yourself that those teachers thought this was an educational game. Little do they know!

Or little did you know. You actually did learned a lot of stuff in that game, didn't you? I bet you didn't know what dysentery was until this stage in your life. Perhaps you didn't know where Oregon was. Maybe this little game sparked your interest in 19th century American history. Or maybe it gave you the idea of one day following this trail yourself, fording streams and hunting for your own food. Real woodsy. (Of course, it wasn't until later that you realized that hunting is harder than the click of a mouse, when your wagon tips over in the stream it's actually a big deal, and writing funny epitaphs for your friends isn't so funny anymore.)

But Oregon Trail was a teaching game about the pioneer life of the past. The Men Who Wear Many Hats' game Organ Trail is all about the zombie-fighting life of the future. No stream-fording or ox-feeding here. Oh no. Here, at the end of the world, you will learn about fighting off hoards of ravenous undead, scavenging for canned soup and bags of chips, and repairing your beat-up, wood-paneled station wagon. (Okay, so that part might not be so futuristic. But you have to admit, they don't make them like they used to.)

I must admit, I didn't manage to complete the Organ Trail. In fact, it was a complete disaster. Karen wandered off somewhere near St. Louis, never to be found again. We had to leave her behind. Robert kept breaking all his limbs (who knows how he managed that, seeing as we all just sat in the car all day and night). Food was always scarce, we were all weak, and Robert and Mitchell kept getting seriously ill. Sometimes it rained. Sometimes it snowed. It was never quite clear what season it was. Despite the fact that we travelled by day as much as possible, Theo got a zombie bite somewhere around Memphis and we had to put him down. (Yes, "Kill Party Member" is an option available to you.) Soon after (perhaps of a broken heart?) Mitchell became "incapacitated" and passed away. Robert and I made it 13 miles out of Salt Lake City before disaster struck: we ran out of fuel. With his broken arm and leg, Robert didn't stand a chance. After losing all hope, he too became incapacitated and quietly passed away. Alone, I was unable to fend off the zombies. Night fell, and I surrendered to my twitchy green fate.

I was pretty pleased with this game. Food-scavenging is just as fun as hunting, but scarier. You get to chat with your fellow trailmates. Most of the mechanics work just like Oregon trail, but with zombies. My two complaints: 
1) there really isn't very much innovation or improvement from the original game; and
2)you don't get to put up a tombstone for all of your departed comrades! While this would really suck in real life, I would argue it's one of the best parts of Oregon Trail, particularly when you play the game again and get to see all the clever bullshit you wrote on all of those tombstones.

Still, this is not a bad way of spending an hour. I don't know if I really want to play it again, which tells me that either Organ Trail has failed to be quite as compelling as its ancestor or that I've no longer the same drive to play this sort of repetitive, downtime-heavy storybook sort of game. Not quite sure which. I guess I'd better mosey out once more onto the Oregon Trail and find out.

My rating:
I could...
A. probably not kill a zombie in real life.
B. Take it
C. Leave it.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Hutch Games Ltd: Smash Cops

Smash Cops by Hutch is a game in which you play RoboCop if RoboCop was a police car instead of a police robot. In the world I live in, the word arrest means to accost a lawbreaker with the minimum necessary force to allow the arresting officer to charge the individual with whatever crime they have committed. In the world of Smash Cops, the word arrest means to render the lawbreaker’s vehicle (and presumably the human contents of said vehicle) to a charred mess. Perhaps in this world, people are cars, and this is just the logical violent extension of the Pixar film Cars’ anthropomorphic four-wheeled characters.

The problems with this otherwise enthusiastic game begin with the fact that you cannot listen to a podcast while playing. The game’s audio overrides any external audio upon startup, even when you have silenced all in-game audio. This seems like a move of arrogance for two reasons: firstly, any application which overrides the primary functionality on what is essentially a glorified MP3 player for nonessential reasons demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the platform; and secondly, the game is not nearly rich enough to warrant a demand of one’s full attention regardless. This kind of override is annoying (and thankfully, is going out of fashion in iOS games), but is almost forgivable on a complex story-driven game, or one which makes use of its sound design in a fundamental way, but in this case, the 70s cop show knockoff theme tunes are--while amusing--not nearly amusing enough to warrant such a hobbling of the user’s device.

Further problems include repetitive level design, not helped by the relatively few ways you can effectively confront situations; properly annoying in-app purchases; and a disappointingly shallow collectible system (more on that later).This is another conceptually interesting game marred by a lack of follow through. That being said, I do believe this could have been something special, and now that my pessimism is out of the way, I can gush over how much fun the concept is, and over the few things it does well. Phew!

The controls are properly innovative. To best understand, a metaphor: imagine your fingers, nay, your whole body has turned into water. There is a droplet of oil in front of you. By putting your finger to one side of the droplet, it goes speeding off in the other direction, because of course, oil and water do not mix. This is how you drive your car in Smash Cops. Make sense? Also, this is how every iOS game should handle driving cars in the future. Please, heed my words, developers.

Most missions consist of trying to “arrest” a number of vehicles participating in gang activity, joyriding, or street racing. Remember of course, that in this game, an arrest is a euphemism for a vehicle which has been rendered a smoking carcass. The easiest way I’ve found to make an arrest is to pass an offending vehicle, pull a hairpin turn, and tap the screen for a “ram” boost ability, propelling your police vehicle headfirst into the front bumper of the criminal. This will execute a “smash” and hopefully an “arrest”. Other missions involve ones where you’re trying to race to a specific destination before pursuing vehicles destroy you, which are generally fairly simple, because your opponents tend to take themselves out in the process of trying bash into you.

My favourite mission has the description “Destroy as many illegally parked cars as possible” and suitably ended in carnage as I slid around a parking lot and the surrounding streets completely destroying vehicles parked in comically poor places, including one parked perpendicular to traffic in the middle of a road.

Sometimes other cops enter the fray, ostensibly in your support, but they mostly get in the way, and you are harshly penalized for destroying them, despite how bloody annoying they are. The mirthful violence and cops vs gangsters theme of this game reminded me pleasantly of Crackdown, and makes me wish that game had had driving missions like this one.

Smash Cops isn’t a bad game, it’s not a particularly good one either. There are much more interesting games available for the asking price, and to be perfectly honest, I feel a bit insulted by the in-app purchases, which consist of Super Cop powerups as well as early unlocks of cars. I really don’t feel those purchasing options were necessary in this game, though I suppose talking about in-app purchases in your design docs makes investors pretty happy, so I don’t really blame them. The controls are really pretty neat though, and this carmageddon has a charmingly RoboCop sense of humour. Your call on this one, Officer.

My rating:
I could...
A. Eat a bunch of donuts right now.
B. Take it.
C. Leave it.

PS. (on the semantics of collectables)
When I collect donuts in the world, don’t tell me I’m collecting pieces of donuts, when I am clearly collecting whole donuts. Furthermore, if I work hard each level to assemble a full donut out of three donut pieces, the least a game can do is acknowledge that with some sort of reward.

Now that I think about it, maybe the game is implying with the donut synecdoche that my cop is eating two thirds of each donut, leaving only a part, and requiring two more donuts to assemble those parts into a whole. Which is probably an off-hand insult to cops, because any reasonable person would just eat the two whole donuts and save the third to present back at the station, or to whoever it is that is so interested in this one-donut-per-level.

Let’s go easy on the persons in uniform, Hutch Games Ltd.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Amanita Design: Botanicula

I know I call most games cute. That must be annoying. But don't worry, this point-and-click puzzlin' story book from the Czech gaming studio Amanita Design isn't cute—IT'S ADORABLE. AhhhhhhHHHHHH it's just so darned loveable! Everything is little and makes funny little "yeehooooo!" noises (like Baby Mario but better) and your character isn't just ONE character. Oh no. You play as FIVE BEST FRIENDS! Okay, so it doesn't come right out and say they're best friends, but you know what's up. I mean, they're always together: a mushroom, a Mr. Lantern guy, a little flying feather man, a stick and a tall, hatted nut thing. Dawwww.

Anyway, premise: you run around on trees and underground and meet other creatures, like worms and singing bugs and chestnuts and bacteria or something, and they all make cute noises, too. And you're trying to save everyone's home from the big, black spider thing that is sucking the life out of the trees and plants and cute little creatures (think Ferngully, but without Tim Curry). On the way, you collect creature cards (like Pokémon! Except you don't fight them. This is a game about cooperation, guys), mementos of all the little beasties you meet on the way. Like the flea circus! And the bitty micro tree-squirrel! And the scary flying beetle guy!

So your little super-team of best friends runs around and solves puzzles tries to save everyone from the meanie spider. Everyone keeps telling them stories about how the spider ripped their head off or killed their friend or pulled a whole tree RIGHT OUT OF THE GROUND. Super tragic stuff. But the friends know their mission! And apparently so does everyone else. At one point, they all sit down and watch a little puppet-show-creature give them a puppet-performance of how they're going to pull the legs off the spider and murder it with a giant knife and eat it for dinner, or something, and everybody cheers and makes various other happy noises. And it's all very cute. I mean adorable. Very adorable.

Something I learned: you have to have some pretty agile cursor skillz at some points in this game. I played it through on my laptop, but my fingers just weren't fast enough. I had to connect a mouse. I should have probably known that from the start. But look—unlike Theodore, I wasn't given video games instead of a soother. I'm STILL LEARNING GUYS, so shhhh. But hey, if you're still learning, too, just remember to connect a mouse!

Back to how adorable the game is: there are lots of puffy floaty things to play with, and lots of musical things to click on. The whole landscape is super whimsical and beautifully designed and sort of vascular and explicitly alive. I don't really know how else to describe it. It reminded me of studying cell structures in biology class:

But it's also kind of cosmic and spacey. And usually pretty sensitive to the cursor: you can brush through the glowy wormy grassy stuff, and pop bubbles, and blow fuzz around. And that's before you start clicking on stuff! So much stuff to click on. If you like clicking on stuff you will like this game.

My rating:
I could...
A. Ummm
B. Take it.
C. Leave it.

The soundtrack is really great! You can listen to/buy it here. And it comes on vinyl, you know, if you're hip like that. Neat!

And remember: when all your little friends die (in the game) don't panic. It will be O.K. The power of friendship will prevail! Or something! I mean, as long as you actually keep playing.

Anna Anthropy: Dys•4•ia

A very sincere little game we have here from Anna Anthropy (a.k.a. Auntie Pixelante). It's like an interactive storybook! What's the story, you ask? Well, it's about hormone therapy. It's an autobiographical interactive video-story about hormone therapy. And it's super cute and colourful and engaging.

Although there's a spoiler right at the very beginning (something along the lines of "this is an autobiographical story about my experience with hormone replacement therapy), you don't really know what you're in for. It's no puzzle-solving, code-breaking, shoot-em-up thriller—it's really very intuitive and easy to play. It's the ideas that are challenging.

Maybe play the game through once before reading the next stuff. (It doesn't take very long, I swear!):

Anna Anthropy is a transgendered activist game designer, and this is a game about the 6 months she spent on estrogen-replacement therapy. She started designing the game mid-therapy, and didn't know what direction her game—or her life—was going to take. Luckily, it's a happy ending!

But the first time I played the game, I honestly didn't have a clue who Anna Anthropy was. I didn't know she was transgendered. It made me sad to think people feel the need to go through hormone-replacement therapy in order to look like one of the two polar sexes society has deemed acceptable.

Learning that Auntie Pixelantie is trans changed my reaction to the game, but it still had my brain churning. Yes, it does make sense that if you are a woman you would want to look like a woman. But that just got me thinking: why do we all (think we) know what it means to "look like a woman?" I mean, what does that mean? That you don't have hair on your face? That you have big tits and a small waist? That you have narrow shoulders and wide hips? That your hair and your fingernails are long? I want to be careful here: I'm not saying that it's wrong to have any of these traits. I'm just saying that it's not concretely right! There are TONS of women who don't look like any of that, and that's not wrong either.

So even though it was a happy ending for Auntie P., it was difficult going to get there. The game shows that it's pretty darned taboo to be obviously in between the gender poles (and let's face it, to be on one of those poles is like hitting a bull’s-eye). And that made me rather sad and troubled. I mean, it's one thing to want to look a certain way for personal reasons, and another thing to feel socially stigmatized until you look that certain way.

Cool game. The graphics are really cute. The little people are funny are lovely and wonky. The sounds are great! Like womp and zoop and tick and waaaa. And it makes you think! Or it makes me think. And think and think and think and think and think and think and...

I could..
A. Have played that game about jumping elephants, but instead I learned something.
B. Take it.
C. Leave it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Good Sister

Firstly, I have no interest in rating this game. I don’t think it’s necessary.

In The Good Sister, you read a tragic tale about a family birthed from abuse.

The player’s role is to provide the Poe-ish incessant tapping which serves as the soundtrack.

For turning guitar hero’s rhythm timeline into a cringe-making horror, this game is good.

The author of this The Good Sister is Stephen Lavelle and it can be found here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Boats vs Space Boats vs Pirates

I’ve always had an embarrassing thing for games about boats. It has a connection to the books I read when I was a kid. I read a number of the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, while sitting by the ocean at my grandparents’ house. That’s a good experience. My stepfather also read the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian and recanted all the stories of the horror of grapeshot and mealworms in the biscuits. I’m not sure which I find more frightening.

I remember playing a lot of Sid Meier’s Pirates as a kid, and a whole lot of KOEI's Uncharted Waters series (the two first games--that is, being the only ones translated into english). I even fell into the trap of trying to play some free-to-play Korean online game about being a naval person (it wasn’t very good). Furthermore, the one and only week I played World of Warcraft was spent almost entirely in the water as I skirted the continents and saw just how far I could get with my character through the world using the night elf powers of invisibility (the answer is pretty far). But even that fun wore thin pretty quickly after the novelty wore off of being the only trial-levelled night elf in the human starting zone on the other side of the world from my own.

For some reason the myriad space exploration, trading, and combat games based on Elite fail to sustain my interest, despite having virtually identical mechanics to the Uncharted Waters games of my adoration. I will still play them, but feel that guilty grime afterward of time wasted pretending to be in a spaceship, instead of the satisfied thrill I have upon buying a whole lot of silk in Istanbul and then sailing down the Nile because I can, before starving to death in Ethiopia, reloading my save, trying to sail around Greenland and to Newfoundland, before starving to death again, and then turning it off, all warm and fuzzy and tired, and responsible for a good number of crew deaths. Space sims commonly deprive the player of crew management, maybe this is their downfall? Or maybe it is the lack of that feeling of being at mercy of the winds, rounding the cape of africa?

Or more likely, it’s for the same reason that playing the original version of the board game Risk, set on our very own earth, is infinitely more compelling than playing one of the versions set in space, or on Middle-Earth; and the same reason that Civilization continues to include an ever popular map to play on, which is an approximation of, again, our own earth.

I haven’t a connection to the journey to Alpha Centauri, because we haven’t gone there yet. It’s a part of the narrative of human culture as a hypothetical, not as a collective memory, as for instance, sailing across an ocean is. When I watch my little boat sailing across a screen, I remember the salty air, and the wind in my ears. I taste stale hardtack. I smell sweat of a hundred crewmates.

...I remember why I’d rather play a game made from this experience, and why I haven’t signed up for the navy.

Every year that goes by I legitimately mourn that there aren’t more games about boats released. Why weren’t the later games in KOEI’s Uncharted Waters series of naval rpgs ever released? Why does every re-release of Sid Meier’s Pirates have to be exactly the same game? Why aren’t more developers trying to push the naval genre forward? The answer must be that not enough people care. But I do. And I must find relief that the ones that do exist, no matter how imperfect, at least do scratch that junkie’s itch.

Anyway, go play Sid Meier’s Pirates (just released for iPhone at 3.99) and cry with me. It’s not fantastic; but it’s kind of the best we’ve got.

My rating
I could:
A. Crush this game with the back of a spoon and snort it.
B. Take it.
C. Leave it.

PS. (in Uncharted Waters news)

In research for this entry, I’ve come to be aware that they DID finally localize Uncharted Waters Online for English players. This is a dangerous realization. Tortuga, here I come!

Playdead: Limbo

Limbo is scary. I'm not talking the west-Indian dance in which the dancer bends backwards in order to pass under a wooden pole, which is progressively lowered, although that can be scary, too. Do you watch Futurama? You know Hermes Conrad? He used to be a professional limboer, but quit after a young boy died trying to limbo like Hermes. Poor kid!

Speaking of dead children, let me get back to my original topic: Limbo, realm of unbaptized souls. I hear you asking, "Someone made a game about dead, unbaptized children?" Yeah. Yep. Someone did. It was the Danes. Mmmhm.

But gee, I sure am glad I didn't stuck there forever, like poor Limbo Boy. Poor Limbo Boy! He's too damned cute! But he just keeps getting impaled by spiders and poison-darted by meany other limbo boys and squashed and drowned and crushed and sawed in half and exploded and spiked and brainwormed (just think about what a brainworm entails for a moment) and otherwise violently exterminated. All exterminations come with all the yucky sound effects of breaking bones, and squoochy bloody messes, free of charge! 
look out for the brainworm...

That said, this game is FUCKING RAD.

Maybe, if you're squirmy like me, you should play it with a friend because I certainly had to turn it off a couple times, around 2AM, on account of all the creepy, gorey, violent surprises. Sometimes it is dark and foggy and you can't really see, so you run around because if you walk it gets boring, and even though the eery silence tells you something AWFUL is about to happen, you just keep running until right into an electrified post and sizzle, or someone throws a spear at you, or you fall into a tiny pool of water and drown (I guess Limbo boy died before he learned how to swim). On the plus side, you can die as much as you want/have to. You just keep coming back. Maybe this is just another cruel form of torture imposed upon the poor, child inhabitants of Limbo. But it's also helpful, because I die a lot in every game I play, and I appreciate when the game doesn't tell me I suck. I already know that, guys. I don't need it written in some wittily sarcastic phrase below a big, menacing skull accompanied by some doomy-dooms day music, okay? Okay. So, thank you Playdead.

But damn. This game is pretty sick. Sick like cool and sick like gross. And graphics get an A+. And gameplay is glitch-free and challenging. And the puzzles are always interesting enough to make you want to solve them without a walkthrough. And Limbo boy is super cute. I just liked it bunches and bunches.

My rating
I could:
A. What?
B. Take it.
C. Leave it.