May 12, 2017

Game log 1–4/17

Not a lot of game-playing these past few months. But a few things.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001, for Game Boy Advance): Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (Kobe, Japan) [played for about 6 hrs?]

(I can’t find any original ads. Maybe there were none. Here’s a trailer from a 2014 Wii U rerelease.)

This turned up in the Raspberry Pi dragnet. All those GBA games were looking pretty tasty so I told myself I’d pick one, imagine I had a GBA back in the day and it had been one of the few games I owned, and play it to completion with that kind of dedication. After about 6 hours the make-believe wore off and I realized I should stop.

As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of games where little numbers fly off the characters like sparks. Hey designers: I want to be to processing either symbolically or aesthetically, not both at once. But in this instance I swallowed it, because the big picture strongly appealed to me at the moment: to be questing through subterranea, trying to acquire and master, acquire and master. I disparage RPGs for conflating inflation with progress — is the “level 2017” USD really all that awesome? — but there’s something undeniably reassuring about any game where your only possible trajectory is upward. Found a new power, a new ability, a new card for your deck? You never have to do without it again; it’s not going anywhere. Eventually you’ll have the full set and be the monarch of all you survey. Personal aspiration modeled on baseball card collecting. A fantasy to soothe the real-world angst of losing things, slipping backward. Here the only possible struggle is forward, forward for hours toward the distant exit. And as you work your way toward the light you have all that wonderful tunnel waiting for you, a haunted house to be savored. In this context struggle is indistinguishable from ease.

I enjoyed the jump-whip-jump-run flow state, but the stingy checkpoints seemed to insist on cautious and strategic play. At every death: aw, c’mon, guys, that’s my flow state you’re messing with! I’ll cheerfully follow your twisting thread of tasks, and if you leave me be, you’re welcome to spool it out forever. But if you insist on interrupting me again and again, I’m gonna come out and say it: this thread is too long.

New release that I bought on launch day ($19.99) because I wanted to be able to relate to the reviews:

Thimbleweed Park (2017): Terrible Toybox (Seattle, WA) [11 hrs]

I mostly give this a thumbs-up. Atmosphere and loving care, sure, but above all: the sense that this really is a product of the same people and the same sensibilities that generated Maniac Mansion 30 years ago. A rare sense of authentic cultural continuity. “Nostalgia” gets sold a lot but this is the real thing: it lives! The only other example I can think of is Cliff Johnson’s 25-years-later sequel to The Fool’s Errand — the production of which seems to have killed the man’s spirit.

Two major problems:

1. Fake-o pixels that get manhandled. Different sizes of “pixel” show up on the same screen, “pixels” get rotated diagonally, “pixels” shake and warp in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the grid. This is such a profound aesthetic error that it’s hard for me to understand how these designers could blithely get it so deadly wrong. But they do.

Need it be said? “Pixel art” is only meaningful to the eye insofar as it is a rigorous constraint. Otherwise you’re just using a lot of little squares. Why? God knows. “I’m officially obsessed with little squares! They’re kind of amazing. OMG little squares hahahaha ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ lol .”

2. The game is run through with wocka wocka meta-commentary on adventure games, game development, etc. etc. In the old days that sort of thing was an occasional puckish indulgence from the coding side of the curtain. Fine. Here it’s given free rein and a major role in the story: a bit much. Then at the end of the game the meta actually takes over outright, which is far more than a bit much. Monkey Island 2 ended by yanking back the curtain and thumbing its nose at the audience, but that worked because the whole thing had been a paper-thin genre goof all along. (Compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Whereas Thimbleweed Park is a very weird amalagam of stuff, not just a straight parody, and the trajectory of its plot isn’t at all obvious. To punch holes in the screen (so to speak) instead of paying off in full feels like a failure of imagination rather than the daredevil leap it seems to want to be.

That said, these were an enjoyable 11 hours. I resorted to googling for hints three times. One was worthwhile, one was a wash, and one of them I regret.

I didn’t Kickstart Thimbleweed Park — I’m not going to Kickstart any game until a game has Kickstarted me — but I followed along with its development blog. Two years ago, when they crowdsourced the names of the books in the “Occult Book Store,” I totally submitted some that are now in the game (alongside about 6000 others). They’re dumb. But they’re not nearly as dumb as the other 6000.

Backers above the $50 level got their names in the in-game phone book (again, thousands of entries) and were given the option of recording an audio voicemail message, of which there are 1848 in the finished game. I listened to quite a few (including one from Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer, known videogame enthusiast). Hearing the actual voices and senses of humor (and German accents) of the people whose money made the game possible is a rich and rewarding bonus feature to stick in a game. It’s of course an ocean of meaningless monotony but there’s some real depth there too. Hey, just like: the internet!

Okay, now back to the backlog. More from “Humble Indie Bundle 9,” purchased 9/23/13. Four games left.

FTL: Faster Than Light (2012): Subset Games (Seattle, WA) [played for about 7 hrs?]

Not my cup of tea but I drank about 7 hours worth of tea anyway. People love this game and, you know, I get it. I just don’t get it as me. I was pretending to be another person for a while.

The dream is: hey, when Captain Picard says “divert all power to forward shields,” could that be a game? Yes, it could. But what goes on in it? Space battles, naturally, where you do your best to divert all power etc. Beyond that it’s basically just a board game, shuffling Chance Cards at you. It tells about as much of a story as Monopoly. I was able to play it with my board game mind, with occasional interludes for my video game mind. It goes in the long line of board/realtime hybrids extending back to “Archon.” Of course it’s also a direct descendant of the hallowed old “Star Trek” BASIC game circa 1971.

I had heard a lot of indie hyperventilation about this dinky-looking game for the past several years, and accordingly brought some cynicism with me. I’m very pleased to find that this is what engendered all that nerdy enthusiasm: an unpretentious, extremely old-fashioned thing through and through.

People go on and on about the brilliance of “roguelike” games when they’re really just talking about the way card and board games have always been. Thoroughly shuffle the deck and away you go.

Yes, there’s a kind of freedom and perhaps dignity in such games that Mario et al. lack. There’s a certain sense of independence, of maturity, in randomness. A rigid adventure game gives a man a fish; a deck of cards teaches a man to fish. (By saying “go fish.”)

But actually I’m skeptical of equating independence with maturity. Dependence has its own dignity and meaning. A rigid adventure game dares to say something directly to the player; it’s sociable. There are great human joys and depths in the experience of giving a man a fish. You can cook it for him, for one thing: add spices, add a side dish, make it particular. Being connected isn’t inferior to being disconnected. They each have their place. I like video games because they’re connections, because I like encountering the human in cultural works. If I’m going to play a true Game, a system game, a tokens and shuffling game, why would I play it on a computer? A real deck of cards is always a superior tactile experience, a superior social experience. I spent some of my FTL hours fantasizing loosely about a hypothetical tabletop version. It seemed to invite it.

No, I never beat the boss. Yes, I was playing on Easy mode. I made it to the final phase of the boss battle once, but then it got me.

FEZ (2012): Polytron Corporation (Montréal, QC) [13 hrs]

This lived well up to expectations. A mood piece smack-dab in the middle of “video game culture” — pixels as ontological fixation + wistful synth sunsets — and yet it didn’t annoy me in the least. This is the fully committed game all other hipster indie games want to be. Credit the excellent soundtrack, but also the concept and design. Mario World as Flatland is an inspired link-up, and while you’re gently jumping and climbing your way through the game, the environments are taking the premise more seriously than you may at first notice. When the finale goes the full Kubrick it feels earned and appropriate; it’s genuinely spectacular.

One of those games where the unfurling of the content corresponds to methodical exploitation of the various potentials of the “core mechanic,” as they say. That kind of structure is satisfying not just because it keeps the level of interest up — something new is always happening — but because it feels formally unified and whole. For these 6 hours (or 13 if you stick around like I did) you are doing many things because you are doing one thing, and that one thing is synonymous with the game. This was what gave such force to Stephen’s Sausage Roll (and The Witness) last year. I think this structure is probably the platonic ideal for video games: an exhaustive guided tour of a single idea.

Navigation is the weak spot here. Having to re-traverse completed areas over and over becomes increasingly irritating as things drag on. (I assumed some kind of warp power would be granted to the player late in the game, but it wasn’t to be.) For me this had the unfortunate consequence of making me reluctant to leave an area with any unexplored secrets — because it would be such a pain to get back — and thus more inclined to look things up online. Which turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the game was designed with some lovely puzzles in its second half that I had spoiled for me while still in its first half. I imagine that a few tweaks could have clarified to the player that some areas simply weren’t meant to be solvable until — not just “later,” but “much later.” The idea of “not until much later” is its own thing in game dramaturgy; if it had been signaled to me more explicitly I would have recognized it, and been spared the spoilage.

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