Category Archives: Zarf on Games

Bruno Dias's space-text-RPG Voyageur was released this week. I spent a bunch of time playing it, which reminded me that I'd just spent a bunch of time playing Out There, and a bunch more time last month playing FTL. Three games about flying through space -- a randomized construction of space, with many hazards between you and your (distant) goals.

Let me start by describing each game. If you're familiar with all of them, skip on ahead to the comparing and contrasting. :)


Voyageur is prominently tagged as "procedural". That is, every planet you land on is described by a little paragraph:

The spaceport district you land on is busy, and surrounded on all sides by endless cityscape. You hurry along the roads past a group of threatening-looking locals. Crimson political graffiti is sprayed across the walls, although you don't understand the context of the slogans. Trash piles up on the roads, sometimes collected by sullen-looking recycler drones.

The sentences and details within them are randomized, based on a set of general stats about the planet. (Urbanized/agricultural/industrial, terraformed/desert/iceball, and so on.) The markets are loaded up with randomized goods ("high-grade computers", "cheap whisky", "curious gold ore", etc). And each planet might have one or more special features: religious centers, alien satellites, universities.

What you do: travel, trade, try to accumulate enough money to keep going. Long-term goals involve accumulating enough special items to make life-changing science-fictional discoveries.

The solar systems in Out There are also randomly generated, but without the detail of Voyageur. Each one has basic stats (rocky, gas giant, or habitable; high-resource or low-resource), but the only distinguishing marks are special events which might pop up:

The gravitational waves in this area have played havoc on my equipment. I fiddled around and some of it is working again, but the rest is completely out of order. What a mess--

These text paragraphs are not procedurally generated; they're selected from a large database, effectively a library of micro-sci-fi stories. On the other hand, the effects can be randomized. In the above example, a couple of your ship's systems are randomly selected to take damage.

What you do: travel, mine, try to gather enough resources to keep going. Long-range goals involve reaching various distant points on the map, where life-changing science-fictional discoveries are hidden.

Finally, we have FTL, which is much less textual; you spend most of your time fighting hostile starships. Small textual encounters are frequent:

A Rebel captain appears on the screen. "I thought we had been doomed to backwater assignments. This is my chance to get back in Command's good graces! Charge the weapons!"

Some of these offer choices (trade with a smuggler or attack him?); others, as in this example, are simply announcements (time for a fight!). In either case, you spend much less time reading text than you spend on the action (combat, upgrading your ship, etc).

What you do: travel, upgrade your weapons, try to gather enough money to survive the fights. The long-term goal, which is presented up front, is to reach the final sector and defeat the Big Boss Rebel Flagship.


Each game offers short textual riffs, but the texture of the texts is quite different.

Continue reading Text in spaaaace: FTL, Out There, Voyageur.
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More 2017 IGF nominees

More assorted comments on games!

Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.

(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)

Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.

In this post:

  • Rusty Lake: Roots
  • Able Black
  • Neptune Flux
  • She Who Fights Monsters
  • Islands: Non-Places
  • Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
  • Mu Cartographer
  • Inside
  • Burly Men at Sea
  • A Normal Lost Phone
Continue reading More 2017 IGF nominees.
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2017 IGF nominees: my comments

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.

This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!

The narrative nominees:

  • Ladykiller in a Bind
  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
  • Virginia
  • Orwell
  • Event[0]
  • One Night Stand

In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)

Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!

This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!

Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.

In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.

(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)

Continue reading 2017 IGF nominees: my comments.
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When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.

Continue reading Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations.
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I finished up all the games I bought from Steam's summer sale, so I bought a bunch more in Steam's Halloween sale. Nice how that works out, right?

Note: I am involved in IGF judging again this year. However, I played all of these games before I started doing that, and I bought them all on my own dime (minus the Halloween sale discount).

Hue: A short casual-puzzle game. It's a 2D platformer with a theme of color-shifting; any object that matches the background is invisible and therefore doesn't exist. The puzzles explore this premise adequately -- no enormous surprises but everything is solidly designed. The platforming requires light jumping-reflex skills, nothing hardcore.

As for the story, well, it's in the genre of sentimental art games about children. A lot of background voiceover about Love as the silent protagonist jumps around. We've seen a lot of these, I'm afraid.

Pavilion: Another short casual-puzzle game. The puzzles are decent; they have a playful, exploratory variety of mechanics, but they're not very difficult or complex as puzzles per se. But the real point is the game art and the soundtrack, which are hallucinatory and fantastic. (Warning: designed for game controller; awkward on keyboard. The developer swears that they're working on a mouse UI.)

Apartment 666: Yeah, I dunno. The combination of highly repetitive environments and a cheesy there's-a-murderer "horror" story turned me off quick. I quit out before finishing, and I gather the game wasn't long to begin with.

Abzû: I'm glad that Journey wound up defining a class of games (a form). Sometimes I just want to sit down with a couple of hours of narrative experience that has arc, theme, variation of interaction model, a bit of challenge, and (not tangentially) is really, really pretty.

If you add serious puzzles to that you have a short adventure game. If you add blood and jump scares you get horror. If you add boatloads of text you get some kind of IF. I am sometimes in the mood for each of these, but then sometimes I'm not, so Abzû is a good sort of game to have around.

Subject 13: Another old-school adventure game; this one is third-person. Even has the classic pop-up verb menu.

The early puzzles take excellent advantage of the 3D engine; you have puzzle-boxes to examine from all sides and manipulate. I like those. And then... bam! Slider puzzle. The first two chapters have some simple slider puzzles, which I don't mind, but chapter 3 throws you the classic tedious squares-and-rectangles slider puzzle. It is 2016 (or 2015 when the game was released, same difference). That means you have to pay me $50 to solve the slider puzzle again. This game didn't pay me $50. Discard.

Haven Moon: A Myst-clone. Small and enthusiastic, but I can't say it's an outstanding example of the genre. It's not a bad game either! It has a lot of good ideas and puzzles. But the visuals are a little weak (the world gets samey-samey as you explore); the puzzles are a bit sparse and many of them are underclued.

I suppose this gets into a philosophical game-design debate. Here we have a solo project, an adventure game built by one author. If it were text IF, I'd expect it to be totally solid -- text IF can be built solo, we all recognize that. But for graphical adventures? Modern tools (Unity, in this case) let a small team build a high-quality graphical game. But going it alone is still hard!

So the author gets my respect for doing it at all. But, on the other hand, is this the right tack? I said both the world and the puzzles felt sparse. This implies that the author could have done better -- or made me happier, at least -- by tightening things up, packing the same amount of work into less floorspace.

But then, of course, there is a joy to architecture and open space. I don't want to squash that. (I recall The Guest, a charming example of a right-sized adventure in a claustrophobic hotel room. Must every game look like that? Of course not.)

So I don't have a simple "you should have done this differently!" message. Which is good, because who wants to hear that? I will just gesture at the range of possibilities, which includes tiny, densely-packed puzzleboxes.

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It's IFComp time! And I haven't played any of the 58 IFComp games! But I have been playing down my backlog of random Steam walking-simulator-and-other-exploration games. So here are some more notes.

Metrico+: Stylish little platformer which attempts to substitute observation and cleverness for twitch-jumping. I don't think it completely succeeds. That is, it succeeds at avoiding too much reflexology. You have to combine jumps, shots, horizontal and vertical motion, and so on in various ways to solve the puzzles. However, the specific effects of those actions are left for you to determine in each level. This produces a slogging rhythm: every level begins with a bunch of pointless button-flailing as you try to guess what's connected to what. I wish the "infographic" style had been used to convey that information.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Begins with an outright apology for its gameplay flaws. ("This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.") I respect that.

So my expectations were low going in, but I wound up deciding it was quite strong. Remember when I said Everyone's Gone to the Rapture needed one more element? Ethan Carter had the right number of elements to grab me. Pretty scenery, mostly exploration, simple puzzles -- or interactive pacing challenges, if you like. Just enough of them. Story threads that felt disparate but looped together at the end. Surreality.

Ilamentia: Another "bunch of disparate levels" abstract platformer. It brags of having 96 levels; I solved the first and then stopping making progress. I tried five or six other levels, failed at all of them to various degrees. Clearly not on my puzzle wavelength.

NaissanceE: Yet another abstract platformer. This has a thoughtfully minimalist chiaroscuro style: nothing but light, shadow, and cubes. Artfully composed! However, an endless maze of that with no story gets wearing. I eventually hit a point where I had to chase a racing dot, which worked poorly on my controller, and I decided it was time to give up.

The Guest: An unrepentantly old-school first-person adventure. I could have reviewed this in 1998. Okay, in 1998 it wouldn't have been free-roam 3D and it probably would have been a bit longer, but otherwise, yeah.

Anyhow, perfectly pleasant puzzle excursion. Did not overstay its welcome. Many puzzles verged on being arbitrary, but generally on the right side -- I only had to look at one hint. Not much story but so what? Enjoyed.

The Ball: Very much in the first wave of post-Portal physics-gimmick platformers. The gimmick is okay, but the graphics feel a few years pre-Portal instead. The designers try to keep varying the scenery and the puzzles, but there's only so many ways they can mix up their elements, and there's no story to speak of. I found myself getting weary a quarter of the way through; gave up.

(If the later chapters have more elements mixed in, I apologize, but I didn't have the stamina.)

Rise of the Tomb Raider: I wanted more Tomb Raider, and that's exactly what this was. More of the 2013 game. Lots more. I enjoyed all the pieces, and yes, I spent the time to scour every corner of the game world. But by the end I was wishing the game had been half the size for half the price.

I played on easy-combat mode; I would have skipped the big fights entirely if that had been an option. If there are any non-combat acrobatic-climby-puzzle games out there, please let me know. (More acrobatic than Submerged, ideally.)

...I feel like I should talk about the story. (It's credited to Rhianna Pratchett, whom I trust to stay at least a notch above the usual videogame plot-stodge.) The 2013 TR was full of dramatic events, most of which involved Lara Croft's friends and allies dying horribly in front of her. Over and over. Well-written, but a strain to play, honestly.

This iteration avoids that trope, and does some quiet subversion on the TR standards. For example, there's a Lost Tribe who are good guys; quite a lot of the story involves Lara helping and being helped by them. There's a pair of villains who are not only characterized but have some plot arc.

However, these scripted scenes are still embedded in a Tomb Raider game. So on the one hand you have Lara Croft, junior explorer of the world's wonders; and on the other hand you have Lara Croft, bloody-handed slaughterer of armies and destroyer of every antiquity in arm's reach. (The friendly tribe is up against faceless mercenaries and faceless zombie Byzantine warriors. Lara gets to murder scores of both.) (As for the antiquities, we never see Lara close any of the fragile reliquaries and sarcophagi she cracks open.)

Conclusion: AAA gaming is just not kind to the creative writer. I bet you're all surprised to hear that.

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My Obduction nonreview

Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.


I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.

But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.

Continue reading My Obduction nonreview.
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Very quick takes on recent games

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

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I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)


You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)

Continue reading Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations.
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Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

Continue reading Soma: meanderings by a wuss.
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Firewatch: afterthoughts

I finished Firewatch last night, only a bit later than everybody else on the planet. (Catching up!) (I am not in fact catching up at all.) I see that Jmac has already posted about it, and I don't have a whole essay's worth of thoughts. So this will be a bit of a response post.

My immediate thoughts upon finishing the game:

Firewatch was a nice little story game that worked well for me. I enjoyed walking around in the slightly-stylized wilderness. The park was big enough for me to explore over a few days, but not so big that I got tired of crossing it (in a given chapter) or inhabiting it (over the whole game).

The designers had a great sense of how to vary the feel of the environment. Different "biomes" had different color, texture, and audio palettes. Time-of-day changed the environment, which is old hat; but FW had the additional axes of season (beginning of summer to the end) and the slowly-encroaching wildfire.

Yes, I had a sense of compression -- it was a pocket world made up of micro-worlds. But that's appropriate, really. I didn't want to spend a real-life week hiking back and forth. Similarly I appreciated the magical map locator. Yes, orienteering would have been more realistic without it, but I would have gotten fed up with that aspect of the game quickly.

The biggest strength of the game, obviously, is the voice acting. The biggest weakness (for me) was the midgame tease of the "you are a psycho" trope. I spent a fair part of the game thinking "Oh, they're going to do that damn ending" and disengaging from the story thereby. In fact they didn't do that damn ending -- spoilers, you are not a psycho -- so I got back into it towards the end. But it was a misfire of the story construction.

I also felt somewhat harassed by the radio-response UI, which was notably terrible on MacOS. Momentum scrolling made it difficult to stop on a given choice, especially with a short time limit, especially if the frame rate was down (as it often was on my middle-aged iMac). I feel like one particular misclick changed the whole ending of the game -- that is, not my character's ending, but the interpretation-of-what-happened discussion that occurs at the end. So that was annoying.

As for the overall narrative structure... FW doesn't push any particular boundaries; it grabs some familiar structures and makes a good job of them. E.g., the interpretation-of-what-happened discussion at the end. Or the way it reflects dialog choices into the game world later on. Or the game's introduction, which is not just CYOA-style IF, it's practically a Twine clone. (For example, it adopts the convention of highlighting the last few words on a page as a "next page" link, rather than having an explicit "click to continue" button. This isn't something inherent to Twine, but it's evolved in Twine story-game culture.)

That's all I've got. Glad I played it. Glad it was the size it was.

Now, onto Jmac's post, which I see is also about pacing...

Well, I didn't have the same problems. The transition to the focus on the two lost campers was kind of rocky, yes. But the game offered it up and I went with it. I'm generally complacent when the author gives me a push. (That's why I'm terrible at reading mysteries. I'll follow any misdirection without complaint.)

I did feel that the game did a poor job of linking together the two backstory-stories: the protagonist's sick wife and the lost campers. It's not that either of them disappeared from the game; but when one came up, the other faded away, and vice versa. So there was a disconnection there, but it wasn't between me and the scenery.

No, I did not find the cabin. Yes, I adopted the turtle. Then I forgot about the turtle until the last day. That could have been kept more on-surface. The turtle was fine, don't worry.

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IGF nominees: my comments

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (March, San Francisco, expensive). This year I was invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative (along with Emily Short and some other folks you might know).

As I understand the awards process, it's a three-phase thing. A large pool of game experts and designers nominate a large list of games, and then spend a few months playing and commenting on them. (The long list was over 750 games this year.) Smaller groups of experts then look at the top-voted entries on the long list and select six finalists. The final winners will be announced from GDC on March 16th.

I was involved in phase 2, which meant playing a bunch of games (but like a dozen, not 750!) and then talking them over with the other folks on the narrative jury. I have permission to post my game notes (although not, of course, anything the other jurors said!) and that's this post.

The finalists in the Narrative category were (in alphabetical order): The Beginner's Guide; Black Closet; Her Story; The Magic Circle; That Dragon, Cancer; Undertale. Congratulations to all of them! And to the finalists in the other categories, too.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. I don't feel I've played enough games this year to have a sense of what's best overall. I had enough trouble squeezing in the time to play the Narrative nominees!
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.) I had already purchased (and played) Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide on my own account.
  • I wrote these comments in the order that I played the games. Except for Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide, which I wrote up pretty much when they occurred to me.
  • Nearly all of the top-voted narrative games were available for Mac! Good news for us Mac folks. (I asked about this in advance; I wouldn't have accepted the invitation if I couldn't play the games.)
  • See also Emily Short's post of comments about the voting process.

My voting criteria were... well, Emily's post has a good list of points: mechanics that support the story, observant writing, and substance. I care about all of those things, but it's an extremely subjective process. I certainly didn't give a finely-graded point-based score to each game. I also didn't simply vote for my favorite games. Obviously my preferences color everything! But the audience here is people who follow indie gaming, not just me, so I tried to keep that in mind.

In the end, I tried to pick the games which will make gamers say "Holy crap, games are even more narratively awesome than I thought."

Games that I discuss in this post:

  • The Writer Will Do Something
  • Sun Dogs
  • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald
  • The Beginner's Guide
  • That Dragon, Cancer
  • Her Story
  • The Magic Circle
  • Emily Is Away
  • Cibele
  • Read Only Memories
  • Oxenfree
  • Sunset
  • Undertale

Onward to the comments!

Continue reading IGF nominees: my comments.
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The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

Continue reading The Room 3: design ruminations.
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Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

Continue reading Designing alchemy in a puzzle game.
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Trinity: design ruminations

This is not a detailed review of Infocom's Trinity, because Jimmy Maher has just finished that job. His sequence of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) puts the game into its context in Infocom's history and, more broadly, in the history of the Atomic Age (remember that?) and the Cold War. Go read.

Inevitably Maher comes around to the question of the ending -- the "...what just happened?" denouement. (You can read just that one post if you're familiar with the game.) It's not the first time, of course. Maher links to a Usenet thread in which we went 'round this topic in 2001.

It's generally agreed that the plot logic of the ending doesn't really hold together. In fact, my teenage self was moved to write a letter of complaint to Infocom! I received a gracious response -- I think it was written by Moriarty himself -- which basically said "The game ends the way we felt it had to end." Which is unarguable. (This letter is in my father's basement somewhere, and one day I will dig it out and scan it with great glee.)

But today I am moved to be argumentative. If I were the author of Trinity, what would I have done?

(Oh, sure, I'm being presumptuous too. All due apologies to Moriarty. But we're both thirty years older; we're different people than the author and player circa 1986. It's worth a rethink.)

(I will assume that you've played the game and read Maher's post. If not, massive spoilers ahoy.)

Continue reading Trinity: design ruminations.
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The Talos Principle: design ruminations

As it happens I replayed Portal 2 right before The Talos Principle launched. That's gotta be the last thing a game designer wants to hear, right? "We don't use the term 'Portal-like', but, sure, Talos is... wait, you just replayed Portal? You couldn't have waited a couple of weeks in between?"

(I haven't gone to check whether the designers used the term "Portal-like". Nobody's going to disagree with it, nohow.)

Talos is a pleasant puzzle game with a nice script and good art and bullet-holes in several of its own feet. I recommend it but I wish it had fewer self-inflicted wounds.

(Note: in a "ruminations" post I don't offer an overall review. Instead, I focus on particular areas of design that I find interesting -- or problematic. So don't freak out just because I complain a lot.)

Continue reading The Talos Principle: design ruminations.
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Gone Home: design ruminations

I don't imagine that Gone Home suffers from lack of reviews. I heard about it from several directions when it came out, and that was over a year ago. But I just played it.

(Yes, I am slowly starting to dig into the past four years of indie IF that I was too busy writing my own game to play. Yes, I will also get to Bioshock Infinity one of these months.)

I don't have anything to add to the discussion of Gone Home as a story game, or as a game about gay folks, or as a flashpoint of hatred from jerk-gamers. That's all been covered. Nor am I going to tell you why you should like or dislike the game. I liked it, a lot of people liked it, that's not news.

Instead, I'm going to give my impressions as a game designer. This is what I would have said if I were on the team building the thing. Or, more likely, having muffins with the designer during the wild-idea stage. Maybe that'll hit some new ground. If not, well, too late -- I've already written this post.

Continue reading Gone Home: design ruminations.
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I talk about the gaming mess

As you probably know, online discussion in the gaming world has recently gotten noisy and nasty. Plenty of people have written about this. I haven't written about it.

I have solid reasons for not writing about it. I am in the final stages of writing a game. I am prone to being distracted by the Internet, and particularly by big ugly Internet arguments that make me feel terrible but I can't fix them. When these arguments fall my way, I reach for the mute button. I need to finish my damn game.

Plus, my Internet security is imperfect (because security is always imperfect). I'm a straight white guy, so maybe not the most likely target of ire, but if someone takes against me I'm hosed. My web sites could be compromised. People could demand their Kickstarter money back. The worst time for this to happen would be right as I'm shipping four years of my game-writing life.

So I've been keeping my mouth shut -- which makes me a coward. Screw that.

On Monday an open letter to the gaming community went up. It is a simple statement:

We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.

If you see threats of violence or harm in comments on Steam, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook or reddit, please take a minute to report them on the respective sites.

If you see hateful, harassing speech, take a public stand against it and make the gaming community a more enjoyable space to be in.

This was organized by Andreas Zecher. A lot of names appear below it; you will see mine there.

That's a start. As we all admit, signing a letter is easy. I want to say more. I'm not sure where to go, though. So I'll say some pro-forma stuff, and then I'll tell a little story, and then I'm done.

Continue reading I talk about the gaming mess.
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Raetikon, Fract

This week I tried two different puzzle/exploration games. They were both pretty cool, but I only finished one of them. Does this mean I am going to delve into details of game design? Yes!

Oh, sure, it'll boil down to personal preference -- but details can be fun.

Continue reading Raetikon, Fract.
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I spent the weekend at a delightful little game-dev conference at NYU. Much cool stuff happened there. However, I want to focus on Saturday morning.

Saturday's first talk was by Warren Spector, who has recently switched from developing games (Deus Ex, etc) to teaching the subject at UTexas. His thesis was simple: emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay are you listening people.

Here's a writeup of Spector's talk, thanks to Leigh Alexander and Gamasutra.

(Footnote: the quality of emergent gameplay should be referred to as "emergency". As in, "Yeah, that game had a lot of emergency." Hat tip to Vernor Vinge for pointing this out.)

Spector tried not to say "Everything else sucks." He stated right off that he was oversimplifying, and that he's just presenting the kind of games that interest him. But it was hard to avoid the subtext that any scripted, linear, or single-solution interaction was inferior -- bad game design. Inherently. That if players tried the emergent (simulative, rules-based) gameplay they'd be happier and never go back.

Continue reading Emergent gameplay vs whatever the other kind is.
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