February 6, 2015

Atom Zombie Smasher (2011)

Atom Zombie Smasher
developed by Blendo Games (Culver City, CA)
self-published January 23, 2011 for Windows/Mac/Linux, $15.00
28 MB

Played until having completed (but lost) one full campaign, in 3.5 hours, 2/5/15–2/6/15.

[1.5 hr video of a successful campaign, in 4 segments, with commentary.]

By the end of Wednesday, August 3, 2011, my “Humble Indie Bundle #3” purchase contained eleven games (six of which I’ve just posted entries about). On Friday 8/5/11, Atom Zombie Smasher was added to the bundle, bringing the total to twelve.

Hey, he likes it! I liked it. Even though I lost and didn’t want to play again right away. It’s only 28 MB; it’s no problem to just keep it around and play again if the whim strikes me. 28 MB is the smallest game I’ve played so far (in this streak I’m on), and definitely the most value-per-byte. (I would say Steel Storm, at 930 MB, offered the least value per byte.)

Obviously, it’s no problem to just play anything when the whim strikes me, because this stuff is all on my permanent accounts with Steam and Humble Bundle and GOG and wherever. But I still think of local files as being more truly in hand than cloudborne files; and I also can’t help but think about hard drive space in miserly terms, even though all our computers have terabytes worth of space just sitting open. I still feel like I’m talking Star Trek talk to even refer to “terabytes.”

I had started up this game a couple years ago and managed only about 15 minutes of displeasure before I wrote it off. This time I was just as quickly put off, but soldiered through for a full hour. It didn’t help. I considered just stopping there, but I knew that I hadn’t really gotten my head around the real sense of it yet. Watching YouTube videos of people playing (like the one linked above) is what finally got me to understand what kind of a game this was.

This is a problem with the design! In retrospect I see it’s actually a very superficial problem, but to me it’s a serious one: there is way too much whimsical window dressing. The in-game help, which is supposed to explain what’s going on to those who don’t know yet, is all cuted up with ambiance in a way that makes it completely ineffective. I understood immediately that a lot of what I was looking at was mere decor, but that doesn’t mean I understood immediately which part was which; the task of sifting through it was pretty significant.

For example, when a game event occurs that I would implement as “YOU GOT A NEW UNIT: SNIPERS! Click to continue”…

…what actually happens is text pops up that says “REWARD: MERCENARY” and then an image of a piece of paper appears onscreen that says e.g. “NUEVOS AIRES MERCENARY CONTRACT / Department of Hearts & Minds / Contract 1 of 7 / 430 Wrath Plunders / Snipers. Long-range sharpshooters. / CLICK HERE TO RENAME / IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the parties hereto have executed this Contract to the Agreement for mercenary services. / _____ / broom” where “430 Wrath Plunders” is by far the largest text. (This example taken from the guy’s video, though it’s blurry.)

It turns out that “430 Wrath Plunders” is only prominent for cutesy reasons: it’s just an arbitrary generated name for the unit of snipers, of no significance whatsoever to gameplay, and “CLICK HERE TO RENAME” is just inviting you to replace it with your own cutesy inconsequential name. The rest of the text is just performance of the game-world premise that the player’s units are mercenaries working under contract to fight a zombie plague in some vaguely South American country. Clicking on the blank line will animate a scribbled signature and thus function as “click to continue.”

That’s not so bad, you might say, but this is just one example; every aspect of the game has been “skinned” this way, with real information couched in joke information. (And then there are occasional comic-book style vignettes that are a skin for nothing, and in fact barely even have to do with the game’s premise: they’re just whimsy.) Once one knows the ropes and is playing fluently, all that skin for the underlying game becomes transparent, and in its transparency starts to function the way it’s intended to, as flavor and atmosphere. But to a newcomer, all that stuff seems like genuine confusion about purpose, like the game has been eaten up by its style.

This is the essence of design as a discipline: how to put appearance and function in sympathy with one another, rather than at odds. It’s fine that Atom Zombie Smasher has some goofy story/aesthetic ideas, but I didn’t like that figuring out how it all fit together was up to me. Or up to the people on YouTube who somehow figured it out for themselves.

Once again, I’ll grant that maybe this was only hard for me because of my deeper gaming proclivities. To wit: I don’t enjoy games based on catalogs/leveling up/experience points. (You’ve heard it here before and you’ll hear it here again, a lot.) I think what happened with me and this game was that my blindness to the “sense” of that very basic gaming concept also blinded me to the sense of the way it had been decorated.

Why don’t I get “leveling up”? To me, “leveling up” feels like I’m being patronized and bullshitted; a game tries to give me the experience of getting better at something without having to actually get better at anything. “Oh, you earned the mega-cannon! You’ve gradually climbed your way to being really powerful!” But I don’t want to watch my avatar “get better” at things: I want to actually get better at them myself. Games where you get more and more stuff (but so does the enemy) feel like some kind of Escher staircase, for people addicted to the idea of going up up up, who nonetheless expect their level of struggle to remain the same, or, if anything, increase, as their supposed power rises. This feels terribly wrong to me! Expecting to struggle constantly while getting fancier and fancier medals is an unhealthy ideology! Greater experience creates greater ease, and it’s not doled out from on high; it’s accrued in the form of experience. I guess I don’t like experience points because “experience” is something that a game is perfectly capable of actually providing; it doesn’t need to be modeled.

That’s why I like puzzle games. They get harder and harder for real, and the player has to get better and better for real.

What leveling up and experience points and whatnot actually resemble is finance. The more money you have, the bigger the scale of both your opportunity and your risk. It’s a kind of geometric growth rather than the linear kind that makes sense to me. I don’t like to think of myself that way; in fact I kind of find it nauseating to think about my self and my world remaining the same while at the same time everything “scales” around me. It’s like a dolly zoom (of Vertigo & Jaws fame); it makes me feel wrong. And yet for many people it’s clearly their bread and butter; they fantasize it in games and live it in their businesses and finances. And my fear of such things has obviously put me at a real-life disadvantage. So I think it would probably be for the best for me to learn to love RPGs and other fantasies of scaling up.

But what can I say: it runs really deep. It goes down to the very core of my psychology, it feels like. Why am I like this? I don’t know. I’m also learning that knowing why is never really that important.

This isn’t really one of those games, it just has that stuff in it. I guess “real-time strategy” is the genre, but who cares about genres. The overarching campaign plays sort of like a board game — you vs. zombies on a Risk-type map — and then each turn consists of a city grid: set up whatever weapons you’re allotted, and try to airlift out the innocent yellow dots before they get touched by the purple zombie dots and turn into purple zombie dots themselves. The infectious chain-reation nature of zombie-ism is the most interesting game element — once you’ve herded the innocents together, the whole cluster will be lost in an instant if even a single zombie reaches them — but there are several good ideas here working in sync. I got it; I liked it. The strategy board-game playing part of my brain turned on.

I lost because it’s very hard. You can’t really afford to have even a single bad turn. I tried hard to hold myself to a very high standard in the first half so that I’d have a chance of holding out to the end (which is why my game took nearly 3 hours) but eventually realized the standard needed to be even higher. Final score was 5333 to 6000. That I blame my own skill (and not the game’s many, many elements of cruel luck) is a compliment to the integrity of the game. It’s good! But don’t try to figure it out by yourself, because it’s unhelpful. Watch people play it on YouTube.

On which subject, isn’t learning how to play games a drag? For videogames, I admire the intentions of the in-game tutorial approach, as gradually standardized over the past 20 years, but it has the drawback of making the initial stages of the game kind of asinine, such that the real gameplay design doesn’t get underway for an hour or more, sometimes, which can be itself kind of discouraging (“So everything up until now was all tutorial? But I thought that was what the game was like!”). And a lot of game designs can’t be broken down into constituent layers, such that if you learn layer one and then add layer two and then three, etc. etc., you will eventually build up to the gameplay proper; the best gameplay tends to exist as an interlocking unit, not a layered stack.

There can be no in-game tutorials for board games, of course, and don’t we all agree there’s always been something humiliatingly wrong with the pedagogy of instruction-manual reading? The natural way to understand a game is to learn it like learning a language: watch other people play it for a while and come to understand not just what they do but the spirit in which they do it. YouTube is good for this, though of course one would rather emulate nice, pleasant, intelligent people.

I saw that some new board games come with links to YouTube tutorials, which seems like a cool idea. The idea of a perfect video nugget of education, such that nobody could watch it without coming to understand something as intricate as a game, is exciting to me. I don’t think such a thing is possible, but I still like to muse about how one might get close to that ideal.

Have I gone far enough off topic?

The window dressing in Atom Zombie Smasher is some kind of deliberately obscure/wacky cold war 1961 South America comic-strip absurdist pseudo-political-satire thing, accompanied by surf guitar. I got kind of a wannabe Glen Baxter vibe. It’s sort of dry, sort of pointless, sort of self-indulgent. It turns out surf guitar isn’t a bad match for this kind of play. I’ll give the guy points for dumping his own idiosyncratic blend of stuffola in the mixing bowl, though I’m not sure it baked into anything. Still, I’d rather half-baked geeko-hipster quirk than half-baked mainstream comic book crap, any day. No contest.

This game was made by just one guy, Brendon Chung. This time I can believe it; the scope of the game seems about right for one guy working for 3 years or so.

Let me here wrap up by saying that Humble Indie Bundle #3 was $5 very well spent.

Out of 5:
Crayon Physics Deluxe: 2
Cogs: 3
Hammerfight: 3
And Yet It Moves: 3
Steel Storm: Burning Retribution: 1
Braid: 5
Cortex Command: 2
Machinarium: 5
Osmos: 4
Revenge of the Titans: 3
Atom Zombie Smasher: 3

Hey, where’s a good game recommendation engine I can plug this stuff into? I really do believe the Netflix engine gets things right, so I have faith in the concept. But I’ve never had that kind of success with anything else. Googling about it now. I’ll let you know if I find anything good.

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