Category Archives: Zarf on Games

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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When we talk about MMO games and their problems, the first question is "Who's running the server?" We take for granted that an MMO is a machine with a trusted server and a bunch of not-very-trusted clients. (I myself have been working on a multiplayer MUD-like game, and while it is open-source, there's still a trusted server that players log into.)

This assumption is fundamental, but it's bunk. Let me explain.

Continue reading Bitcoin and MMO-RPGs: somebody get on this.
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(This post is not about the definition of "game".)

Eleven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Characterizing Interactive Fiction. I wanted to put the pin in what I called "IF" and, more usefully, why I found that category to be interesting and distinct from other kinds of games.

My definition at that time -- here, I'll quote it:

A program which reveals a story (or related stories), created by an author (or authors), to a player (or players); such that the range of action available to the player is only partially known to him, and must be understood in terms of the story world; and such that the majority of important results of the player's actions are unique results, specifically created by the author to support that part of the story which the player is experiencing.

Notice that I don't say anything about a text parser, or even about text. This is because I was pointing at a structural similarity between (parser-based) text adventures and (first-person) graphical adventures.

I still find this a useful category. But it's not much of an observation these days, and designers have managed to incorporate those sorts of elements into lots of different kinds of games. (When I reworked the essay for the 2011 IF Theory Reader, I went with "a game that is controlled by textual input..." Mostly because the Myst-style adventure genre had more or less faded away.)

These days "interactive fiction" is a whole different argument. My 2002 essay relegated "those pesky CYOAs" to an end-note. That wasn't even controversial, because you could (at that time) still regard choice-based games as the genre of the simple branching plot tree -- Cave of Time on a computer. Those games that elaborated on the model did so in the direction of adding CRPG elements (potentially interesting, but not adventure-like) or by trying to become more like Zork (generally not interesting).

Continue reading Time for the decennial definitional post.
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The longer than I expected Versu post

Picking up the thread from my last post...

Versu is an engine for choice-based, conversation-focussed narrative fiction. It is currently available as an iPad app; support for more platforms is planned. Authoring tools are also planned, I believe. What you get right now is a free download with a tutorial, a short adaptation of a scene from Pride and Prejudice, and a longer ("30-45 minute") Gothic-ish story. For $5, you can buy an additional story about a polite family dinner party that turns to... well, I shouldn't spoil it, should I?

Versu is the project that Emily Short and Richard Evans have been working on for the past several years. Their team was acquired by Linden Labs, so this is coming out as a Linden project. (In later discussion, I am told that Linden just released an unrelated interactive-environment-authoring tool called Dio. Thus the perils of companies acquiring smaller companies; integration is a bitch.)

Continue reading The longer than I expected Versu post.
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Favorite game mechanics of 2012

I am initiating this seasonal tradition here at the Gameshelf -- which may turn out to be a singleton tradition, that's always a danger, like New Year's resolutions, but we'll give it a shot, right?

Frequently I play a game and think "Hey, that was a well-designed game." It's not so often that I play a game and think "Wow, that one design element really stands out -- and I've never seen it before! Clever." So I wanted to pick out a few of my favorites from this year.

I'm not talking about featured gimmicks here. I'm talking about ideas that other games might reasonably think about adopting. Yes, Portal has a core game mechanic, it's very clever. If you use it, you're writing Portal 2. (Or Darksiders, but let's not get into that here.) There have been a spate of these core-puzzle-mechanic games -- Quantum Conundrum and Unfinished Swan were two fine examples I played in 2012. But I want to talk about the mechanics that quietly make your game better.

Behold, my choices for 2012. No doubt I'll think of another favorite tomorrow morning.

Continue reading Favorite game mechanics of 2012.
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Okay, I did my moral homily, now I'll talk about the game. It occurs to me that some of my readership may not have played The Fool's Errand.

Well... probably most of my readership here has, because my friends include a lot of Mystery Hunt types. Plus people who (like me) were already gamers when TFE came out in (oy) 1987. Plus people who played System's Twilight, my TFE homage from (gah) 1994.

So, for the rest of you! The Fool and his Money is a puzzle collection wrapped in a narrative, with more puzzles hidden in the gooey center.

It's not an adventure game. The early example of TFE played hell with my notion of what an adventure game was, because it had puzzles and text and a story just like Zork, but it... was... something else. Years of research and meditation (--playing more games) clarified the distinction: The Fool games do not present you with an explorable game world. You don't find a puzzle by looking under a rug; you find a puzzle on your screen. This is not a flaw, this is a different outlook.

Continue reading The Fool and His Money -- talking about the game now.
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The Fool and His Money is up

I was planning on writing this blog post Friday afternoon, and cueing it up to hit the streets at 9:01 PM. But that rat Johnson has tripped me up yet again and released The Fool and His Money a day early.

My download meter says "5 min 29 sec remaining", so that's how long I have to finish this post.

I was going to make a speech about not being a sardonic smartass about this sort of thing. I guess I still want to make that point. The past seven years have been punctuated by a lot of comments from That Guy -- you know who I mean -- the Guy Who says "Ha ha, 'the fool and his money', you're the fool, Cliff Johnson stole your money, he's never going to finish the game."

If you're that person, be ashamed. Doubt is easy; I've doubted. Calling somebody a liar is also easy, but it costs more. Don't impugn someone's honesty just to make a weak pun about the game's title. That's jackassery.

(Some of my friends are That One, and I'm sorry for lecturing you about this. I think it's important to say this.)

Yes, I am a biased commentator. I am a dude who is late with a game. Nobody's called me a liar yet, but I'm sure it'll come along. It won't break my spirit. That's not the point. The point is this:

If you have been 100% confident all along that Cliff Johnson would finish his game, today you are riding high. Your game is here and you're excited to play it.

If you have been hopeful -- or even doubtful! -- that Cliff Johnson would finish his game, today you are riding high. The world has justified your hopes, or the world is brighter than you expected; you are excited to play the game.

If you have been going around telling people that Cliff Johnson would never finish his game, that he was a liar, that we were idiots to believe it -- today you are horrified. You are disappointed. You're not the smart one after all. You invested yourself in believing the worst of someone, and the world has crushed your hopes. Your soul is smaller today.

I am here to tell you that you can be better than that. Your heart can grow three sizes today. It will hurt, though. Apologies always do.

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Kairo, quick comments

Kairo was one of the two extremely abstract first-person puzzle adventure games that excited me at PAX this spring. (Is that an acronym yet? EAFPPAG? No? No.) (The other one was Antichamber, which I'm still looking forward to.) Kairo was just released for Mac/Win, with Linux and iOS promised later this year. I grabbed it on Sunday and jumped in.

Kairo is pleasant, but quite short; I finished it in two evening play sessions. Why evening? Because the stark architectonic worlds work better with the lights off. It's not exactly a beautiful game, not like Dear Esther or the highly-rendered graphical adventures of decades past. But the author chose his style and worked the living hell out of it. With little more than rectangles, distance fog, baked shadows, a little focus-blur, and a few concrete textures, Kairo builds an impressive range of architecture -- thematically unified but not repetitive -- and invests it with a startling sense of scale.

Continue reading Kairo, quick comments.
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Two notes on Darksiders 2

Last night I finished an epic -- for me -- drive through Darksiders 2. I've been playing it for two weeks now. (It was my self-reward for the last HL milestone.) I think the counter on my save slot reached 36 hours. I know that's not large for a modern RPG, and weighs as a feather in the MMO world, but I don't play those genres much; for me, this is an enormous game.

Fortunately for me (I count my ambivalence quietly), the immersive, 3D, explore-puzzle-fight genre is in a gentle recession these days -- at least on consoles. I suppose its golden age ran from Tomb Raider to Sands of Time? There have been some excellent ones recently, mind you; Arkham Asylum counts, Bioshock counts, and we shouldn't neglect the finely-written Enslaved. But, again, those were rather smaller. I won't expect to burn this kind of time again until (presumably) a Darksiders 3 appears in (presumably) three years or so.

My first comment mirrors what I said about the original Darksiders: The writing is adequate. The acting, ditto. The plot is an overcomplicated mess, floating in a tepid goulash of Milton, Revelation, and second-string Vertigo. The characters are stock cardboard ("oh, look, a big grim muscleman") and every single game mechanic is lifted from an earlier game. But so what because the level design and puzzle construction are the best all-around work in the genre.

Continue reading Two notes on Darksiders 2.
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Thoughts on Dear Esther

Dear Esther came out in February, but I don't have a Windows box (worth mentioning) so I skipped all the commentary and waited for the Mac port. That just showed up; huzzah! (Unironic cheer there. Three months is sharp porting. I'd love to see Fez three months from now, but I doesn't expect it.)

Because I skipped all the commentary, I won't try to do a full-on review. I'm sure it's mostly been said. Instead, you get assorted thoughts about interactivity.

Continue reading Thoughts on Dear Esther.
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by Miyuki Miyabe; translated to English by Alexander O. Smith

I suppose I should write two reviews here: one for folks who love Ico the videogame, and one for folks who have never heard of it. (If you're in between, flip a coin and read both.)

Ico was a 2001 videogame (for the Playstation). I loved it; I still love it. It remains a landmark in atmospheric, engaging videogame storytelling. Notably, it was almost entirely wordless. Everything was conveyed through architecture, lighting, the body language of the protagonists, and -- most important -- the physical struggle of the game's challenges. If you haven't played the game, this makes no sense to you. Let me put forth that the most important button on the game's controller, the one about which the story revolves, is "hold hands".

So how does this experience translate into a novel?

Continue reading Ico: Castle in the Mist (book review).
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The Night Circus

I never got around to playing Echo Bazaar, despite a weltering wave of friends who washed through, happily tweeting little fragments of louche Victorian storyline. I had a day job at that point, and I didn't want any addictions that could embarrassingly sneak up on me at the office. (The brownie bars from the cafe down the block were bad enough.)

Now the company has released The Night Circus, a smaller -- I assume smaller -- game in the same model, as a licensed promotional thing for an upcoming book. The boss is no longer looking over my shoulder (his head is now firmly positioned on top of my neck) so I figured it was time to give the thing a try.

Continue reading The Night Circus.
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And now, the part where I review DASH and BAPHL (spring 2011 editions). Okay, not really review. The part where I call out some interesting aspects of each, and compare them. Because I like it when game design improves over time.

Continue reading Local puzzle hunts, part 2: Daffle and Bash.
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I've played through two puzzle hunts in the past two weeks: DASH and BAPHL. I want to talk about these events, and in fact I've been asked to compare them (hi Julia!). But I also want to talk about puzzle hunts in general, for the benefit of people who have never tried them. This leaves me writing a post which is more than usually disorganized.

(Some people would ask "More than usual?")

Continue reading Local puzzle hunts, part 1: Puzzle whats?.
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Interactive fairy tales

This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.

What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?

We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.

(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)

But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)

What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?

Continue reading Interactive fairy tales.
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The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Continue reading Inevitably I am drawn into the games-and-art thing.
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Life Flashes By

I played Life Flashes By last year, when the first public release appeared. The author had previously demoed the game at the IF gathering at PAX Prime in Seattle, so I'd already seen a "middle" chapter of the work.

I didn't write anything at the time, because I am lazy and then because Emily Short wrote a column that was more perceptive than what I was thinking. However, now it's been another few months; Life Flashes By has circulated around the various gaming communities and been discussed some; it's been featured in the recent IF Demo Fair; and Deirdra Kiai is declaring a full, final, let's get this thing on the road release. (Available as free download or collector's edition.)

"So now what do you think, smart guy?" Hm.

Continue reading Life Flashes By.
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