July 6, 2018

Game log 6/2018

“Humble Bundle: PC and Android 8” continues.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! …for the Awesome! (2011): Dejobaan Games (Cambridge, MA) / Owlchemy Labs (Boston, MA) [played for 1 hr]
Jack Lumber (2012): Owlchemy Labs (Boston, MA) [played for .5 hr]

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAA!!! is silly stuff. Mildly diverting for the one sitting I allotted it, but then what? Tongue-in-cheek dada-punk stylings leave me mostly cold but I don’t actually care; my real problem is with the basic idea that a “falling down past buildings” game is somehow different from a “flying forward past a bunch of random junk, with very sluggish controls” game. Is it? I’m not sure it is.

Jack Lumber is “Fruit Ninja but better,” and I’ve got to hand to them: it’s Fruit Ninja but better! They nailed it! The problem is nobody wants to play Fruit Ninja with a mouse. This is fundamentally a touchscreen game. And my computer, I’m proud to say, doesn’t have a touchscreen.

Hero Academy (2012): Robot Entertainment (Plano, TX) [played for .5 hr]
Anomaly 2 (2013): 11 bit studios (Warsaw, Poland) [played for 1 hr]

Hero Academy is a “tactics” game, which means that it’s not for me, at least as I am now. My attitude is: why would I ever choose to play a strategy game with a big ugly pile of rules and variables — a whole lot of different character classes with different strengths and powers and weaknesses and power-ups and power-downs — when I could play 1) a simpler and more elegant strategy game that’s just as deep, or 2) a full-on action game? Apparently there are great answers to this question, because lots of people love these types of games. Other people.

Anomaly 2 is “reverse tower defense.” I’m able to get some satisfaction out of the core task of keeping a system chugging along happily. The game is fine, truly. If the aesthetic were at all palatable, I’d play it. That is, if this exact game were reskinned to be monkeys throwing coconuts at alligators, with a string quartet playing in the background, I’d probably have played the whole thing. But did you see that trailer? This is a game that repeatedly plays a clip of a guy saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” in the middle of the action. I’m not sure the writers fully understood what napalm is, or indeed, where that quote comes from and what it signifies. Sorry boys, no time to think about that because we’re goin’ in — in three… two… one… LOCK AND LOAD, BABY!!!

That wraps up the games purchased on 12/18/13. Except it doesn’t, because a week later, on 12/24/13, the same bundle got three more games retroactively added to it:

Solar 2 (2011): Murudai (= Jay Watts) (Australia) [played for 2.5 hrs]
Bad Hotel (2012): Lucky Frame (Edinburgh, Scotland) [played for .75 hrs]

Solar 2 is a simple zone-out-and-float-around game. I like the scale of the thing: it’s just this toy; this is all it does. That’s how video games used to be: poems in one stanza. Limitations invite investment; they also give the experience of depth more immediately and quickly. My two and a half hours felt nice and full. I floated around listening to the nice music, getting bigger and smaller, growing little spaceman civilizations and then losing them, smashing into things, devouring the universe, and so on and so forth. Lovely, sweet. Not necessarily memorable.

Bad Hotel is a very literal tower defense game with a cheerfully conspicuous visual style (one which I would characterize as “so lately I’ve really been getting into graphic design”) and a music-generating feature (: the blocks go plinket-a-pop bip!, plinket-a-pop bip!, plinket-a-pop bip! until uh-oh two of them exploded; now they go plink-a smerr, plink-a smerr, plink-a smerr… and so on and so forth). It’s not exactly balanced but it’s perfectly playable. It’s also clearly an iPhone game, meant to be played with one finger, not with a mouse. And also not played for very long. 45 minutes isn’t me getting fed up; it was just the right amount of time.

The Bard’s Tale (2004): inXile Entertainment (Newport Beach, CA) [played for .75 hrs]

Yes, I agree, the trailer makes this look unforgivably tacky, but in action I got the impression that it might well divert me in spite of itself. Unfortunately it’s not properly compatible with modern controllers, and the keyboard controls struck me as ungainly. So I’m passing. Sorry, bard. (As a bonus, it’s also got ye olde 80s “Bard’s Tale” games embedded in it on an Apple IIGS emulator, but those would be fairly punishing to play now, I think, so I’m not even trying. I’m bad enough with RPGs as it is.)

Okay now I’m done with that bundle. Those were mostly-unwanted games that I played quickly, and now have logged pretty much solely to check them off my list. Here come the ones I actually spent time on this month.

Moving down the spreadsheet. On 12/21/13, I bought the delightful Escape Goat on sale for $1.49, then immediately played it to completion, so it needn’t be replayed now. (I exempted myself from the vicious-beyond-all-reason bonus levels that become available at the end. I think everyone does.)

That’s it for 2013!

This next game on my spreadsheet is listed as 1/14/14 because that’s when the first part of it became available to play. But the actual date of purchase was 12/11/12 ($30 for access to the ongoing documentary tracking the development process, plus an eventual copy of the game). I played the first half when it was released in 2014, but when the rest came out, 4/28/15, I never actually opened it up. So just now I played the whole thing start to finish.

Broken Age (2014–15): Double Fine Productions (San Francisco, CA) [10 hrs]

A wonderful, beautiful, transporting, misguided, frustrating, undercooked adventure game. The documentary is truly fantastic and I recommend it to everyone. It’s a fascinating look at a contemporary workplace, the subtleties and good intentions of time and resource mismanagement, and the rewards and challenges of a collaborative artistic production process. It’s also a great piece of pure peoplewatching. I have very fond memories of watching each new episode as it was released; I have a distinct and personal sense of each of the member of the creative team. The game is exactly the heartfelt/confused thing I saw them making.

The core of the problem is that given a budgetary windfall in advance, they decided to spend it on more lavish and elaborate stuff — art, music, voices, animation — rather than on more time to iteratively test and refine the actual game script and design. And then they compounded their error by repeatedly forgetting to give themselves enough buffer to deal with the additional production complexity entailed by that new lavishness.

So that’s what you get: by far the highest aesthetic production values of any point-and-click adventure game ever made. It’s a gorgeous and enveloping storybook. But what’s it like when you actually sit down and read that storybook? How’s the game itself? It’s, uh… well-meaning? A little weak? Seems like they kinda improvised the story, didn’t actually know where they were going, lost their own thread somewhere halfway through… then, finding themselves under the gun, fell back awkwardly on boring cliches that “explained” everything, and threw together a shrug of an ending. The end product is simultaneously a marvel and a damned shame. I’m rooting hard for it. I still am! Even now that I’ve seen it all and sighed my way through. Hey, maybe I got it wrong! Maybe it’s really actually a great piece of work, a big success! I sincerely wish it.

Part of the reason the documentary is so great is because it documents that, the creation of a thing neither very good nor very bad. It’s a thing. It’s a thing people worked on and made. Your relationship to the emotions of hope and disappointment is your own; it’s something you bring with you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Good luck out there.

On 1/21/14 the following game goes on 90% sale, for $1.49. I’ve been curious about it for a while and can’t resist that price.

La-Mulana (2005/2011): GR3 Project / Nigoro (Kurashiki, Japan) [55 hrs (plus maybe 1 or 2 more…)]

This is a marvelous and terrible game. I know, I just said something similar about the previous game. Well, it’s a thing that happens in video games. But where Broken Age was quietly marvelous and subtly terrible, La-Mulana goes BIG. In every way. It’s a masterpiece AND maybe it’s unplayable and shouldn’t exist. For better and worse I spent a lot of time inside it.

While playing Metroid-style action-adventures, a certain type of mind can’t help but entertain fantasies of ever more baroque mazes, ever more dense with secret panels, ever more intricately constrained and interwoven. Ever more more more. Wouldn’t that imagined game, that more elaborate game, be so astounding, thrilling, splendidly overwhelming! Well this is it! La-Mulana is the realization of that fantasy; it is this type of game “taken to its logical conclusions.” It is willfully, aggressively, flagrantly overvast and overcomplicated and overcryptic; it takes many tens of hours to complete; it sprawls through about 450 rooms; it requires the player to keep track of a book’s worth of maps and hints and symbols. It’s also pretty hard on a screen-for-screen level — the individual boss fights are often really, really tough. It is extraordinarily generous in scope and extraordinarily nasty in particulars. And that’s all awesome, as long as you can clearly distinguish between awesome and satisfying.

The fantasy is of being completely enveloped in a puzzle-womb, from which escape is theoretically possible, but only upon fulfillment of a maniacally overwhelming gauntlet of ordeals, indefinitely prolonged. The fantasy is here achieved and it is exactly as healthy and rewarding as it sounds. Its marvelousness and its terribleness both arise from doing such faithful service to a troubled compulsion. It’s a platonic ideal of something, which means it has a lot to answer for.

I am so close to being ready to love this, in all its grotesque hugeness — I’m even ready to embrace all the prankish sucker-punches — but there’s one thing I cannot fully embrace: that there’s no way to distinguish between “come back to this area later, it’s currently impossible,” and “push through this area now, it’s hard but doable.” When you’ve discovered 25 different blocked passages in various places and 100 cryptic fragments of text, you really deserve some kind of help in deciding which ones to focus your attention on and which ones to leave alone. I wanted to try my best to play without online hints but this aspect defeated me. That’s where my personal puzzle-compulsive psyche gives out, anyway; your proverbial mileage may vary. Whatever kind of person I am, I’m the kind of person who loves figuring things out for myself but who doesn’t love searching for needles in haystacks. Well, I mean, I kind of like that too… but it depends on the size of the haystack. This is a mile-high haystack. This is the Lost Temple of Haystack.

It has a lot in common with Aquaria — which I suspect was somewhat inspired by the original 2005 version of La-Mulana — which I played all the way up to the final boss only to discover I didn’t care enough to finish. In this case I’ve played all the way up to the final boss, died many times, and am currently ambivalent about whether to grind it out and get the “you did it” achievement on Steam. One way or another, I’m pretty much done here.

Is it coincidence that both of these games culminate in destroying your own ancestral creator-god, depicted as an alien maternal figure fallen from the heavens? Obviously no, it’s not. (Spoiler: The vast ruins of La-Mulana ARE the Mother God.) Maybe reread the description of the game with Freudian glasses on.

La-Mulana 2 is coming out any day now.

2/10/14. Tipped off by a post on the “GameDeals” Reddit forum, I obediently go through some kind of promotional rigmarole involving “liking” the Facebook page of some game retailer — maybe “Bundle Stars”? — in order to earn a free copy of game about which I know almost nothing, but which looks kind of attractive:

Pid (2012): Might and Delight (Stockholm, Sweden) [12 hrs]

An exceptionally pretty jumping-around game. For some reason the sensitive soft-focus aesthetic made me think this was going to be a gentle one-sitting indie bonbon. Not hardly! It’s tough and it goes on for quite a while. Maybe a little too tough and maybe a little too much of a while. The basic mechanic — plant little anti-gravity beams and then jump in them to float around — never really enchants. It just sticks around and wears you down. But the hazy, dreamy, murmuring vibe is as sweet and rewarding as it looks. I zoned into this with pleasure. The music is real and smart and human. As is the sound design. The rain patters on the windows of the game and you’re somewhere cozy inside with it. This is a tasteful and cared-for thing, of significant scale. And yet it has almost no presence on Youtube/Twitch/wherever. It has its flaws but its obscurity is unmerited. Glad I played. Wish it had been half as long.

Meanwhile in free play:

DROD RPG: Tendry’s Tale (2008): Caravel Games (Provo, UT / various) [14 hrs]

Next up in the DROD chronological marathon, even though it’s not a true DROD. Sure, it quacks like a DROD, but it plays like something else entirely, something very odd. It’s an example of what I propose to call a “trading maze,” e.g.: your goal is to get 100 Cs and you start with 10 As. Your current options are: 1) Trade 3 As for 1 B. 2) Trade 9 As for 2 Bs and a C. 3) Trade 1 B for 4 As. 4) Trade 5 As to open up a subtree of seven new possible trades. Etc. That’s all there is here — the graphics and monsters and movement and stuff are superficial. But the design invests in that surface in a strange way. You can’t see the whole map, so you don’t actually know what’s your trading options might be — what’s behind door number 3, as it were — until you invest some of your coin in sheer exploration, in the process of which you usually learn retroactively that you did things in the wrong order and have to try again. Which is a classic example of bad game design (don’t punish the player for failing to have information you didn’t give them yet!). The wrinkle here is that this game knows exactly what it is, and is cheerful about it, and wants you to be cheerful about it too. “Save and restore often! Try, fail, then try a different way!” Okay, so… hm, is that fun? It defies some of my intuitions for what constitutes an engaging game. But maybe those intuitions could benefit from being defied?

My experience with this was genuinely fun-confused. Hitting the point of “ugh, so apparently the last 45 minutes have been for naught, I have to redo them” would invariably make me feel irritable and consider quitting for good… and then I’d take some time away from the game, come back, and find that redoing the same stuff with the benefit of foresight was actually rather satisfying. In fact, over the whole 14 hours of the game I developed a deeper instinct for how to make blind gambles wisely, alternating with deliberate and efficient save/restore scouting missions, such that I was able to do the last few areas pretty smoothly, without any major backtracking. That was a satisfying feeling — a feeling of actual increased competence. But the thing I had become more competent at seemed like a meta-game, not the game itself. I recognize that maybe that’s a mental block but there it is. Even having finished, it feels to me like the game itself was the place where I had been unfairly hung out to dry many times over. Then I learned how to steel myself against that intrinsic unfairness, and that became a point of pride. Which is apparently what the designers wanted to offer me in the first place. So again: is that “fun”? I still don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter as there won’t be any more DROD RPG games. (Unless I download the user-made ones.)

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