Archive for Games

Why not Undertale?

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , on December 29, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

Undertale screenshot
I’m not sure what to do about Undertale. I have gotten multiple requests to write some kind of piece or video about it. I obviously want to do things that my backers want and request sometimes, but I also am a bit torn about doing in-depth work about games that I don’t particularly like. (Way to not bury the lede.)

I suppose I should preface all of this by saying that I have not actually played Undertale and am perhaps still open to the possibility that there is some great aspect of the game that I am just not getting. I did play the demo version of the game that was released way back in 2013 ( a full two years before the final release), which consists of a somewhat less developed version of the start of the final game, and I have watched a decent chunk (the first 4-5 hours) of the release version being played by my brother.

So, I don’t offer my opinion as coming from some place of authority about the game. This is really just more of a rant. I would obviously make a further effort to play the game if I were doing a real in-depth analysis piece.

But…thoughts

I feel like, generally speaking, it isn’t my thing. The core value proposition of the game is its humor. Not really the story per-se, as the plot itself is pretty threadbare, mostly proceeding from one non-sequitur anecdote to another. And although it’s a genuinely funny and charming game, there have been lots of other genuinely funny and charming games over the years, including the game that Undertale so clearly borrows its aesthetics from: Earthbound.

Earthbound is a game I heard people raving about for so long that I decided to check it out a few years back. My conclusion there is much the same as it is with Undertale: It’s a clever game, with some genuinely effective humor and quirky characters. Earthbound in particular had some quite innovative design decisions in the genre for its time, but my overall experience with Earthbound was that once I put it down, I didn’t feel very compelled to pick it back up. The game seemed overly long, as most JRPGs are, and the humor felt stretched a bit thin.

On the plus side, Undertale appears to be a much shorter and digestible game than Earthbound, but mine and my brother’s continued thought when watching him play through it (which he says persisted through the rest of the game that he has played), was “this is fine, but is it ever going to blow my mind?”

And yes, I know about the replayability factor of the game, and how the choices that you make in combat or even by reloading earlier saves affect how characters react to you, but there’s really nothing about what’s already there that’s making me starve for more of it.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to see why anybody is that crazy about the game.

Hype

So, let’s talk about the hype for a second, because I feel like Undertale may be one of the most unfortunately over-hyped games ever. That’s a bold statement, but we’re talking about a game which was literally voted “Best. Game. Ever.” by a community of enthusiasts at GameFAQs, in the year it came out. Perhaps I shouldn’t take that award’s merit too seriously, but it’s fair to say that a lot of people really were crazy about this game.

The other question about hype in general: is hype the fault of the game? I think this question is particularly salient if, as in the case of Undertale, it’s word-of-mouth that lead to such astronomical popularity. It’s not as though Toby Fox was out promoting the game left and right. He certainly wasn’t on stage at Sony press conferences at multiple E3 like some other unfortunately over-hyped game that was released this year. I have never even seen Toby Fox’s face, and the most promotion I saw for the game pre-release was the demo, which I don’t even remember where I found.

So I think in this particular case at least, the answer is no. It’s not Undertale’s fault that it was over-hyped. Perhaps it would be much easier for me to appreciate it for what it is if it weren’t being heralded from the heavens. It is certainly a cute and funny game with clever twists on classic Dragon Quest style combat. It also makes a solid effort to offer the player a sense of freedom about how they approach situations in the story, even if many of your choices are seemingly as binary as “murder” or “not murder.”

Aesthetic

I’d like to go back and talk about the aesthetics of the game. Simply put, I find Undertale to be an ugly looking game. Apart from a few scenes which were not illustrated by the game’s sole author Toby Fox, most of the time the game looks like an early NES game. It’s a similar style to Earthbound, but it honestly looks much worse than that. Thankfully the music is catchy and usually appropriate alongside the story scenes of the game. But overall, the game is not selling itself to me on aesthetic.

Aesthetics perhaps are overvalued by myself and our culture at large, what with plastic surgery and celebrities and all, but it definitely makes an impact on how much I want to play a game.

Conclusions?

I’m not sure that I’ve really done much of use here other than rag on a game that I haven’t even played, but it’s been rolling around in my mind for a bit and there’s certainly a couple thoughts that I think are interesting to think about, in terms of what it is that one person likes about a game versus what another person dislikes. People have wildly differing tastes in the media that they consume, and that’s great. I would never want to tell someone that they are wrong if they really do think that Undertale is the best game ever. It’s just hard for me to see why they feel that way, and I hope that they can appreciate that.

dunceCast Episode 50 – 3 Is Just a Rotated E

Posted in Podcasts with tags , , , , , , on June 28, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

Welcome back! This week we talk about the big gaming event (or is it getting smaller?) known as E3. We talk about a few of the interesting games that we saw in our brief perusal. Take a drink when we mention Dark Souls or The Witness.

Direct Download (mp3 27.9MB 1:01:02)

Subscribe via: FeedBurner, iTunes

The music for this week, in order of appearance:
“Don’t Let Me Down” by BAND-MAID
“Dying to Know” by Tegan and Sara

Traces to Nowhere

Posted in Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games with tags , , , on February 13, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

Pincushion

Please note this article could be seen to contain SPOILERS for The Witness. It does not contain specific details of puzzles or their solutions, and is more of a response to the broader conceptual underpinnings of the game. But, if you have not seen the secret ending to the game, you should probably read no further.

This is an idealized world. The rules are much simpler here.

Everything around me has been constructed immaculately. These panels were placed here with great intent. They bring joy, and yet remain indifferent even to my agony. As I step away from the glowing panel in my living room, I realize that I cannot see a complete picture by studying within its boundaries.

Much like an Escher painting, this game struggles to pull itself inside out. To deconstruct itself down to its constituent parts, laying its internal organs bare for my inspection. A strange loop, both inside and outside itself at the same time.

As I close my eyes at night, I dream of mazes.

Who built this place? What was the nature of his character? There are signs of him all throughout this island. I grasp blindly. As I am put through the paces of this labyrinth, I cannot help but imagine his face.

Perhaps he is a sculptor, a man obsessed with splendor, magnificence, as well as hidden meaning and metaphor. His creations often remain incomplete, perhaps abandoned, yet their innate beauty is undeniable. They are solid and fully formed, cut off from future possibility. They cannot be improved without risk of destroying them. They are designed not to be changed, but merely contemplated. They hint at motion, but are forever lifeless.

Perhaps this creator is an artist. A visionary viewing the world through her own singular viewpoint, appreciating the utter aesthetic beauty of it all, and eager to capture her personal point of view. She stands poised to put paint to canvas. The colors shall be mixed. The possibilities remain endless, open.

Perhaps this creator’s face is as that of a preacher, a holy man who often denounces this whole endeavor as pointless. The preacher seeks the fulfillment of his spirit. He may occasionally find markers on this island, traces which point towards the divine, but perhaps this observation has more to do with himself than some innate aspect of this creation. He seeks to grasp at the infinite, but finds his mind cannot comprehend. He remains alone and unsatisfied with his answers.

Perhaps her face is that of the scientist, exploring the world through meticulous methodology. She probes outward at the universe, searching for understanding; not aimlessly like the philosophers and the religious, but instead with a strong rigor. “This is the way forward”, she says, “this is where Truth lies, insomuch as we can know it”. Her life is prescribed by the outline of a puzzle panel, content not to know what lies outside it. She is, in fact, satisfied in not knowing. And she is deeply skeptical of those who claim to know what they clearly cannot.

Perhaps the creator is in aspect all of these, or none of these. Perhaps this entire island lies only in the back of the mind of game designer, as he dreams away in his own personal virtual reality, utterly disconnected from the real world that lies outside it, yet obsessive in his attention to detail. He cannot help but see his real life distorted through the lens of his creation. Every situation, every interaction an opportunity for a new idea: a new grace note to round out his masterpiece. Seeing patterns everywhere, he digs his way outward. Maybe there is an answer out there. Maybe he has found it.

The creator is searching for truth, that cannot be denied, but of his approach we cannot be sure.

As I ponder the recesses of this island, I am left with perhaps one conclusion: this entire island is the surface of a mind. Its gnarled trees the synapses of the brain; some dead and disused, others flourishing. It is at once beautiful and full of life, and all the same desolate and lifeless.

One cannot truly understand the mind without probing at the brain. And one cannot probe very deeply while it remains alive.

Even still, I am disquieted. There is something else on this island. A malicious force. A calmness occasionally giving way to show sparks of anger. Branches twisted and snapped from trees. Panels smashed with such violence that the walls around them are distressed. A face twisted in agony, hidden beneath a mask. A torturous self-destructive entity that pushes you away when you get too close. That denies you when you seek to become intimate with it. That will never allow you to understand it in full.

It is serene on its surface, one could almost be forgiven for missing it, but there is pain in this place. A darkness which must not be named.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

I must go now. I am being watched.

In Defense of Collectibles

Posted in Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games with tags , , , , on February 9, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

collectibles

This article is a response to the video “Into The Black”, which is in itself an elaboration on some of the thoughts and ideas expressed in these two articles. The video is sort of a treatise on how the intrinsic value of exploring virtual worlds is damaged by the introduction of gameplay, pulling out collectibles as a particularly bad example.

I do not think that the point of “Into the Black” is that collectibles are universally bad. Although the video itself is somewhat vague on this, the articles upon which the video is based are quite clear in their terminology. Joel Goodwin uses the term “mass-produced collectibles” to refer to a very specific type of collectible which he despises. These are self-serving items, which exist with no other purpose than to be collected. Like the thermoses in Alan Wake, they are scattered across the world with no regard for believability or relevance to the rest of the gameplay or story.

I don’t think that these mass-produced collectibles (those that more or less serve no other purpose than to be collected) are that interesting. I am typically a holistic game designer, so I like to have reasons for things that I put in games. The reason could be as dead simple as the strings of notes in Banjo-Kazooie levels, where they are used to lead you to a point of interest, but you should not put anything into a game willy-nilly without thinking about how it affects the whole of the thing. If the only reason you have some item hanging around in your levels is “because you could”, then that’s not a good enough reason.

However, it is actually very rare in games to find this pure type of collectible. Usually the collectible is intended to encourage a specific type of behavior in the player, a way of playing that they would not have normally done. Now, in many cases the behavior is really just an obsessive Easter-egg hunt, but this is not the only possibility. Generally the best uses of collectibles are when the collectible really only exists to set up a challenge.

However, before I continue, I must digress that for many years people have used this same argument in favor of achievements—that they encourage alternate forms of play. In that sense, the achievement acts in much the same way as a collectible, as an integrated part of the design. But definitely achievements can be and often are bad, primarily because they are usually seen as an afterthought, when in fact they are a core part of the game design. Their mere existence can sideline the inherent enjoyment of interaction and play. This is why some people are less likely to play a game if it isn’t going to contribute meaningfully to their overall metagaming score.

As a game designer, you cannot ignore anything that affects how people play your game. So that argument that achievements “don’t matter” is utter bullshit. They, just like collectibles must be an integrated part of the game design process. Unfortunately, the industry has treated them as more-or-less a bullet point marketing thing. “Every game should have achievements, and it is really more the purvey of the marketing department to decide what they are”.

I can see why someone would want to say that collectibles are universally A Bad Thing. Design trends have swung so far in favor of their liberal usage that it’s reasonable to take up an aggressive stance against them. Collectibles can ruin games when used carelessly (see Donkey Kong 64 or modern Ubisoft open-world games), but I’m not about to go out of my way and say they are always bad. Some of my favorite games have loads of collectibles in them (Banjo-Kazooie), and although they perhaps could be better without them, there is really no way to prove that without building a version of the same game that does away with them.

Collectibles give space meaning in games and drive player behavior, so whether or not they are good or bad really comes down to how they are used.

Returning to the idea of collectibles as mere setup for a challenge, at perhaps the far end of that spectrum you have Braid; where the entire game is built upon collectibles, but the collectibles themselves only exist to provide structure for the game’s puzzles. I’m not sure you can make the argument that Braid would be better (or even still function as a game) without the collectibles. Yes, there is perhaps a version of Braid which exists as simply a big sandbox which you can explore at your own volition, but I think the game gains essential clarity through its use of collectibles as a motivator for player action.

Perhaps something is lost in that transition to a more structured game world. The loss is ephemeral, but I believe Braid does at times try to preserve some of that open-endedness through “soft puzzles” that are not marked by any particular reward. The primary path that most people will follow with the game remains highly structured, though.

I suppose it depends upon your opinion of Braid, but I argue that, in this case, structure and collectibles do not make the game worse as an absolute, but they do change the way in which the player relates to the game world.

Sometimes designers do use the “mass-produced collectible” somewhat carelessly, engendering an obsessive easter egg hunt. I think in open-world games this is a particular design failure. Unless the designers were really intending to encourage obsession, they were likely just following what they see as game design best practice: “never let the player find a dead end with nothing there.” This comes from a desire to not have the player be frustrated. And it is true that it just feels bad to be exploring a level and reach a complete dead-end with no reward. If you are viewing the world as a place that has been thoughtfully designed around you, in that moment it feels like the designer has betrayed you and disrespected the value of your time.

Although game worlds can be centered entirely around the player, that is not the only type of world that exists in games.

I would set out two main types of spaces in games: virtual realities and levels. In order to explain the difference between them, I need to define a term which I call “sense of place.”

Sense of place is the feeling that you are really exploring a world that exists beyond the confines of the screen. A world that the player is not at the center of. This feeling exist whether or not the design was intended to evoke it, and is not limited to 3D open-world games.

A good example of how sense of place is separate from the intent to evoke it is Yoshi’s Island. Unlike games like Grand Theft Auto, that have an obvious attempt to echo things about the real world, Yoshi’s Island is a side-scrolling platformer with discrete stages that you progress through in a linear order. It’s a highly directed experience, and yet it still has a very strong sense of place. Going into the exact reasons why is beyond the scope of this article, but the point stands that sense of place can be present whether or not it was intended.

So, therefore the difference between levels and virtual realities is not defined by whether or not they have sense of place, but whether their intent was to evoke it. Virtual realities intend to evoke it strongly. Levels do not.

Unlike many early games, with discrete and highly artificial levels, modern games are often sprawling and miles large. They strive for a verisimilitudinous experience, with sense of place as a core part of their appeal. The continued dominance of open-world games is evidence that this type of experience is very compelling to both designers and players.

However, because of these differing goals, I think that some of those old game design rules don’t necessarily apply. Dead-end alleys with no gameplay purpose are fine in virtual realities as long as they do not damage the suspension of disbelief. In fact, when the design goal is believability, adding collectibles actually has a detrimental effect. The real world does not have collectibles scattered about randomly, so adding them changes the nature of the the player’s relationship to the world. They can no longer see it as a world like our own, but instead see it as a big level. Thus, if they do find a dead-end with no reward, it is fair to see it as a waste. The player rightly expected a collectible, because there very well might have been one.

Once collectibles have been added to this virtual reality, the player feels obligated to explore, not because they enjoy the scenery, but because finding all the collectibles is part of playing the game effectively. The collectible has become a red herring to the player’s pursuit of enjoyment, because it actively encourages a degenerate method of play. Hunting collectibles obsessively might be the least fun way to play, but players will do it in misery because they feel it is the correct way to play.

Collectibles give space meaning. They are the hands of the designer reaching out to explicitly shape the experience of the player. So be careful what you incentivize.

I can understand the frustration with collectibles, since they are perhaps the most basic boiled down form of game design there is. Sometimes I find myself burnt out at the repetitive nature of game design. Why do we always need to collect, to expand our empires, to build bases, to loot, to kill? Just the other week I made a joke game about the futility of many of our core activities in games.

The lack of collectibles is a big reason why Far Cry 2 is one of my favorite open-world games. Unlike its more polished sequels, in Far Cry 2 you don’t “clear” a bunch of outposts by hunting down icons on your map. You don’t expand the borders of your burgeoning empire piece by piece. You don’t skin a shark to make a wallet. The world in this game has a obvious disinterest in the player. The mission design is always very light, never having that moment that other open-world games have, where you feel as though you have been pulled out into a separate world for a story mission to occur.

Playing Far Cry 2 feels like a seamless lived experience of a real place. The enemies in this world are not mere toys for you to express your dominance, but instead are set up as equals to the player. You will die a lot, often without warning. Some players even enjoy playing Far Cry 2 without using saves. They start a new game and when they die for the first time, they shut it off. The enjoyment of the game comes from its sense of virtual reality.

But I digress somewhat, as this article is not for me to gush about Far Cry 2, but instead to talk about world design in games and how it is or isn’t affected by collectibles. And in this sense, I think Far Cry 2 is perhaps the best evidence that for a certain type of game, not having collectibles is of great benefit to that world’s believability.

In a game that intends to create a world that is analogous to the real world, collectibles will tend to push it back towards the other end of the spectrum, where it feels more like a video game level. This is essentially a restatement of the argument in “Into the Black”. By turning virtual worlds into video game levels, you lose something pure in that transition. I agree and won’t argue with that. But I would also say that you can still gain things through use of collectibles.

I collected every single Riddler Trophy in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and had a lot of fun doing so. It was a valuable part of the game for me. Even still, perhaps the riddler trophies themselves were not entirely necessary. Many of them are earned by using an in-game camera to take a picture of something hinted at by a somewhat obtuse riddle, therefore the trophy itself is somewhat inconsequential, and could easily have just been represented by a number. The riddles are the core of the gameplay, and the trophy is really just a trinket showing your level of completion.

That leaves an open question as to why they decided upon having the collectible items at all. There are a certain number of them which are in hard to access areas in the environment, which makes sense, but there is no reason that those couldn’t have been replaced with other items which actually served a gameplay use.

I suspect that there is some sort of market research saying that a game is less likely to be resold if there are a large number of collectible items in it. This may be the reason that Asylum’s “bigger, better, and more badass” sequel stumbled over itself to double the number of trophies and took something that was an enjoyable activity in its predecessor and turned it into a chore.

So again, like achievements, business concerns can sometimes be the reason for adding collectibles to a game. To that, I will simply restate my earlier point: If the only reason you have some item hanging around in your levels is “because you could”, then that’s not good enough.

So let’s take a moment to think about the other question posed by “Into the Black”: whether or not the process of adding gameplay at all to a virtual world diminishes it. An example that comes to mind is Raph Koster’s bird flapping toy, which became much less fun to play with after goals were added. Adding challenge stripped out most of the joy of the thing. This perhaps means that there is merit to the argument. Either way, I am convinced that games are not the end-all-be-all of virtual worlds. As for what’s next, it is difficult to be sure, and definitely the subject of another article.

So, let’s sum up.

Collectibles, like their dark cousin achievements, need to be used wisely. You can’t just toss them around frivolously without thinking about how they affect the design of your game. If you’re making a game that demands sense of place, where you want to emphasize that the space may not mean anything, then collectibles are probably bad. If instead you’re making a game where space has very explicit meaning–such as a puzzle game– collectibles are not an inherently bad way to go about that.

Still, if you can achieve a design goal without having some sort of collectible bauble, then that is probably the better way to do it.

Variety MegaJam 2016

Posted in Game Design, Games, Released Games with tags , on January 12, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

This past week I participated in a game jam called the Variety MegaJam. The goal of the jam was to create 10 games in 10 days in 10 different genres. I only completed 4 games within the time limit, but I still had a lot of fun and learned a lot. I think the primary thing I learned was that I have a hard time putting down an idea before I feel like I have adequately expressed the core of the concept. And one day is not really enough time to do that most of the time.

Anyway, if you want to download the games, they are available here.

HandmadeCon 2015

Posted in Handmade Hero, My Life with tags , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander
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From left to right, Me (Matthew VanDevander), Abner Coimbre, Casey Muratori (holding the Owl of Shame), Andrew Chronister, Dustin Specht

So, I’ve just got back from one of the craziest trips that I’ve ever taken in my life. I headed out to Seattle last weekend for HandmadeCon, a convention which is centered around a low level game engine programming tutorial series which Casey Muratori broadcasts weeknights live on the Internet.

I’m not sure that I necessarily want to cover every single thing that I did while I was in town in excruciating detail, especially since there’s literally no way that I can put into words how awesome of an experience this has been for me. But I guess I’m writing something so I may as well talk about some of my thoughts about the experience.

Heading Out

I’ve never been on a plane before, so of course that was a little bit nerve-racking. It turned out to not be as big of a hassle as I thought it would probably be (what with the TSA being totally banana-cakes and all). I had some friends telling me before I left that they would never fly anywhere because they were scared of being on the plane, but much as I suspected for me: that turned out to not be a problem at all. I actually enjoy flying–insomuch as you can when you have a four-and-a-half hour flight packed in like sardines next to somebody that doesn’t want to talk to you.

Arriving in Seattle was just a surreal experience for me. I’ve never been so far away from home and everything that I know. I started to feel little bit alone, but luckily I met up with some people that I knew from the Handmade Hero chat at the airport.

About Seattle

The city is cold and rainy. Apart from Friday–the day I arrived, it rained pretty much the whole time. The city seems to have a lovely culture, feeling much more like a smaller city while still having lots of things to do. I had some of the most amazing food of my life while I was there, and overall I had a really good time, apart from the weather.

Because sometimes I think about getting outside of my bubble of Tennessee and maybe moving somewhere else, I naturally evaluated whether or not I could live in the city. My overall assessment is that I like it much better than, say Manhattan, but I’m still not sure I could live there if the weather is like that all the time. There’s also a little bit of just my general uncomfortable feeling about being in cities because of growing up living in rural areas. I always get a sense when I’m in the city that I can’t relax because something terrible could happen at any moment.

Meeting Online Friends

We ended up throwing a few meet-ups together for some of the conference attendees that wanted to socialize: the first of which was the night before the conference at a Szechuan place called Seven Stars Pepper. (Those Dan Dan noodles were amazing.) I had booked the reservation for 10 people initially, but I quickly had to double that. Thankfully somebody else reserved a table too, because we ended up having about 38 people show up in total (including Casey). So that meet-up was awesome, as were all of the social gatherings that we put together around the conference.

The Con

Since I was heading out there for HandmadeCon, it only makes sense for me to quit stalling and go ahead and talk about what I thought about the conference itself.

Overall, the conference was amazing. It was packed from beginning to end with amazing speakers who are totally at the top of their game in terms of what they do. Because Casey decided to go with a more informal “Fireside Chat” style discussion with each speaker, I feel like the conference was easier to pay attention to and felt more relaxed than the typical PowerPoint-centric type conference.

The best way for me to talk about what I think about the conference is to break it down by each speaker and give a few thoughts about each of them.

Tommy Refenes

In my assessment, even though he is often known as “and Team Meat” in favor of Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes contributed immensely to the design of Super Meat Boy. The controls and the physics of a platformer are a significant portion of the game design. To that point, the part of the discussion with Tommy about how early the controls, jump height, and movement speed were set in stone was interesting. My experience designing Duet showed me that the level design of an entire game naturally follows from those early low-level decisions, so it was cool to hear some familiar stories.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to discredit Edmund as a designer, because he obviously brought his own massive contribution to the game, both from a level design standpoint, and from a character and art standpoint. (The odd one out in this was Danny Baranowsky, who received no mention during the discussion for his amazing contribution to the soundtrack. It seems that the working relationship between Team Meat and Danny has soured somehow, as the latest ports of the game do not feature his music. I am not certain of the details though, so it may be possible that there are no hard feelings. )

The discussion with Tommy was overall an enlightening and interesting dive into Super Meat Boy. It was often technical in a way which I don’t think I had seen before, naturally because we were at a conference for programmers. (Not to say that there weren’t non-programmers that attended.) A lot of times when you see an interview with a programmer, everything gets talked about on a very high level. You rarely hear concrete technical details about how something works. So it was pretty great to hear about how the art pipeline has evolved over the years and some of how it was implemented.

Mike Acton

So Mike Acton is mostly known inside the Handmade Hero community for a talk that he gave at CppCon 2014 called “Data-Oriented Design and C++”, in which he made the argument that programming should be seen as problem solving using a computer, and that finding effective ways of solving problems requires focusing on the nature of the problem. Since most computer problems are primarily about manipulation of data from one form into another, as a programmer, your job is to focus on whatever the most effective way of doing that transformation is. The common Object-Oriented approach often misses the point, and focuses instead on world modeling using objects, which only makes the problem harder than it really is. Mike Acton’s approach, as outlined in that talk, is very much in line with the kind of programming that Casey does on the Handmade Hero series. Casey often calls his particular approach “Compression-Oriented Programming”, but I feel like any programming methodology with “Oriented” in the title is destined to become abused at some point. So my personal preferred description would be “Pragmatic Programming”, because I feel that puts the focus on the mindset: solving problems using a computer.

Mike Acton works at Insomniac. Being a AAA developer, he’s in sort of a different sphere then Casey or myself in terms of being at a big company with a lot of programmers and multiple projects. However, that’s really why it was important to have him at the conference. He stands as exemplary proof that Casey’s straightforward method of programming does actually scale up to very large and complex projects.

The discussion with Mike was perhaps less specifically technical to a certain game than Tommy’s, although that could be because Mike mostly works on more generalized technology, but there is still a hell of a lot of knowledge that he shared. As with the rest of the conference I definitely plan on re-watching it to try to absorb as much of that as I can. Also Mike was hilarious.

Pat Wyatt

So, I’m just going to go ahead and get this out of the way: I didn’t know who Pat Wyatt was before the conference. But wow–he has an unbelievable amount of expertise with network programming, which is a topic that gets brought up all the time in the Q&A on Handmade Hero. Unfortunately, Casey does not have a ton of experience in that arena, and the nature of Handmade Hero is to be single- player. So, Casey has been unable to really give people a good idea of how the system like that should be architected.

It was super cool to hear from Pat about how he managed the complexity of network infrastructure supporting Guild Wars, and did so in such an effective way that the game launched without the seemingly industry standard server issues.

Hearing the nitty-gritty details about how some of the content management systems for Guild Wars worked was really cool. It functions in a similar way to what Casey is doing for Handmade Hero, where if the game is unable to successfully load an asset during runtime, It just keeps going with an empty asset instead of crashing.

Again, this will be a great talk to go back through and refresh because there was just so much information there. Also Pat offered to come on the Handmade Hero stream to talk more about network code, which will be awesome if it comes to fruition.

Jonathan Blow

So, if you have known me for a while, then at some point I will probably have talked to you about Braid or The Witness. Braid has been my favorite game for a while and is probably the only reason that I’m still working on games now instead of pursuing some other career option. It literally changed my life.

Naturally, it was an amazing opportunity for me to both hear from Jon at the conference, as well as to briefly introduce myself and talk to him before he grabbed some lunch. ( Hopefully I wasn’t too awkward. )

I feel like the discussion between Casey and Jon was almost a breather from all of the technical details of the earlier conference. As much as Casey tried to push Jon to talk about very concrete things, Jon still talked about stuff from mostly a high-level. Jon does love metaphors, even if perhaps sometimes that means that the point that he’s making can get a little bit lost on some people with less experience doing the type of game design that he does.

That may seem like a criticism of the talk, or of Jon in general, but it’s really only a response to what I heard from some of the other conference attendees. I highly enjoyed the discussion between Casey and Jon, and my personal nitpick criticism would be that there was a few times where Casey failed to ask for elaboration on certain things that were highly understood between the two of them but completely unintelligible to me (and presumably the rest of the audience). At the start of the discussion, Casey brought up this possibility, saying that he would try very hard to pretend to forget everything that he knows about Jon and his games. I think he did probably as good a job as could be done, but there was still a little bit of that conversational short-cutting that you do among friends and people that you know very well. I’m not really sure i would be capable of anything better with my close friends if I were asked to talk for an audience.

Overall it was great, as always, just to hear Jon talk about whatever comes to mind. In particular I liked that the talk ran over a little bit into the break for Jon to go on a rant. His point about the apparent lack of results despite the increased prevalence of university game design and programming courses is apt and quite damning.

I definitely geeked out about getting to see Jon in person, since he’s been such an important influence of mine. I’m super excited to play The Witness when it “probably” comes out on time next year.

Ron Gilbert

What can you say, Ron is the definition of a game industry legend. He created the point-and-click adventure game genre (which has recently seen a little bit of resurgence, after a long period of being possibly deservedly dead). Not only that, but in creating The Secret of Monkey Island, he perhaps created the best game the genre has ever seen. Of course, games are a collaborative art, and there was a team involved in making that game besides Ron, but by creating a strong technical foundation for the game–in a similar way to Tommy–he contributed an undeniable amount to the game design and what made the game feel great to play.

It was totally awesome to hear a perspective from someone who had been in the industry since before I was even born. To learn about the challenges and perks of dealing with a completely different set of technologies and tools for producing games. The live reloading of assets on the Commodore 64 was a particularly awesome tidbit to hear about, but also amusing was the fact that they manually encoded all of the walk box information by hand for way longer than was probably reasonable.

It was also cool to hear about Ron’s current project, Thimbleweed Park: how as much as it’s a nostalgia project for fans of Ron Gilbert’s early work, it’s also a way for Ron himself and the rest the team to recapture their own past. It was a reminder that, at the end of the day, the reason that we all program games is simply because we enjoy it. There really doesn’t always have to be a better reason. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the feeling that I always need to be pushing game design forward and I shouldn’t be living in the past or whatever, but I think sometimes it’s okay to feel comfortable with doing something that’s purely for self-indulgent reasons.

Conclusion

I haven’t been to any other conferences but I’ve certainly heard from people that have that this was one of the best if not the best that they’ve ever been to. I don’t doubt it. I thought it was amazing and there was not a single speaker that I would not have gladly listened to for another hour at least. The discussions were extremely enlightening and enthralling to watch. I had a great time and I definitely plan on going next year. I look forward to the next speaker lineup, as well as getting to see all of the great friends that I met once again.

P.S. Campfire BBQ was the greatest barbecue I’ve ever had in my life. No scratch that: it was the greatest meal I’ve ever had in my life. If you’re in Seattle, do yourself a goddamn service and go get some of that barbecue now.

Under the Sea

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid

This article can in some sense be considered a continuation of my previously shared thoughts about Alien: Isolation and horror simulators, but also should generally stand alone as a review of SOMA. It is also spoiler free.

I’ve backed myself into a corner, in a room with just too many windows. The monster growls behind me, and I duck behind a support beam in the wall.

“Go away,” I say under my breath, as it paces back and forth in the hall. Instead, it decides to come into the room. My mind races as the creature continues to come closer. “What do I do? What do I do?” Soon it will come around the edge of this beam and surely see me.

Finally, I decide my best chance is to just make a run for it. I step out from behind my hiding spot.

The music crescendos as I am spotted. I sprint as fast as possible out the doorway and down the hall. I hear echoing footsteps behind me of something inhuman. Suddenly all the lights go out.

The terror is palpable as I realize I’m headed right for the only room that still has the lights on.

“Great, I’ll be a sitting duck…”

I rush in anyway and make my way around the desk to the computer. I fumble with the interface a bit, but manage to get the door locked down before the monster arrives.

I hide in the corner of the room. The monster thrashes at the door but is unable to open it. I wish I could sink further into the corner.

Suddenly I do.

I look to my right and see the backside of the wall. Turn behind me and there are distant inside out structures.

“Ah fuck,” I say, “the game glitched out,”

I try to step back into the room. There is some sort of threshold I have passed, and I can no longer return. I turn around and look down into the yawning void, make peace, and leap into the abyss.

SOMA is a difficult game for me to write about. It’s a game that I had been looking forward to for a long time. It’s ambitious. It’s certainly worth playing. But somehow, it’s also a disappointment.

SOMA is Frictional Games’ follow-up to their 2010 horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the intervening 5 years since Amnesia’s release, there have been a slew of games to follow in its footsteps, including the notably big budget Alien: Isolation. One could happily call these games “Amnesia clones,” as they borrow so much from that game, but I have preferred to consider it a new genre, called horror simulation.

Most of these games put a small twist on the formula established by Amnesia, without really making any huge strides forward. SOMA is intent on changing that. Whereas most horror sims, including Amnesia, tend to tell the story primarily through audio and text logs, SOMA pairs these with strong environmental storytelling as well as dramatic scripted sequences and dialogue scenes. The game is intent on minimizing the limitation on player agency due to cut-scenes, and allows the player to continue to move freely unless the character is physically restrained.

Opinions on whether or not SOMA is “scarier than Amnesia” seem to vary wildly. Horror, like humor, is quite subjective. As for myself, I found SOMA to be much more intensely terrifying that it’s predecessor, although it’s much more of a slow burn than last year’s Alien: Isolation. Whereas that game felt as though it turned the volume up to full blast and never stopped, SOMA is much more content to explore the dynamics of horror, crescendoing into intensely terrifying set-piece moments, and then gently falling down and giving the player room to catch their breath and relax.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the game. It succeeds in more ways than it stumbles. The story is compelling and left me with a lot of interesting philosophical questions that I’m still pondering weeks later. The art direction and overall polish is super high for a game made by such a small team. And the storytelling is often effective, reminding me at times of Half Life 2 and Gone Home.

So what’s so damn perplexing to me is why I have this overall sense of disappointment about the game.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of how long I have been waiting for its release. It’s not uncommon for lengthy development times of games to grow hype to unmanageable levels (Just imagine what Half Life 3 would have to be at this point to not be a disappointment).

Thomas Grip, the designer of both SOMA and Amnesia, has written and spoken extensively about his “Four Layers” approach to narrative design for games. It’s some heady and ambitious stuff for narrative-focused games that don’t want to leave the player feeling like a bystander. In a sense, the idea is to keep the player constantly engaged in the storytelling even down to the moment-to-moment gameplay, a point at which most games struggle to maintain that connection.

SOMA can be seen as a field test of those ideas. And for the most part it’s successful; resulting in what is one of the most ludonarratively consonant (there’s that word again) games that I have ever played.

But even though SOMA effectively executes on its storytelling approach, there have been plenty of other games which have focused on storytelling in the past several years. Many telling stories that lie well outside the established sci-fi/fantasy safe-zone which games have typically stayed in. This often leaves SOMA feeling like it is playing catch-up more-so than innovating. Credit should be given where due, as much of the game’s storytelling is strong, but it is perhaps impossible to not draw comparisons and find the emotional core of the game to be lacking in honesty or vulnerability. When it comes down to it, it’s a sci-fi horror story set in an laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, which can only be so relatable.

Because SOMA considers the moment-to-moment experience to be the core of the story, at any given moment, the game is typically very compelling. However, this focuses the player’s attention so narrowly that the game struggles to effectively integrate its big ideas. It can be a thrilling roller coaster ride, but when the game tries to probe at deeper questions it often feels like it’s just paying lip-service; draping philosophical window-dressing on what is essentially a haunted house.

I hate to bring up the issue of length in video games, as it’s so often a major sticking point for people in a way that I usually find unsavory. Many players will look at SOMA’s roughly 13 hour playtime and see it as being woefully short. However, as I get older, I find that my time is increasingly valuable to me, and I tend to not like it wasted. At a certain point, I knew there were going to be two possibilities with the game. Either I was going to put it down and never finish it, or I was just going to have to steel myself and marathon through until the end. I chose the latter.

In that sense, I found SOMA to be significantly longer than necessary. This is not to say that I found any of the moments in the game to stand out as particularly low quality, or that I would find it easy to say where cutbacks should be made. It’s simply a personal observation that the depth of the story felt as though it was not requiring of a 12 hour game to communicate effectively. It feels as though a third of the game could be hacked off and the story would come across just as well. Again, this is somewhat of a vague criticism, but is reflective of my feelings as I pushed myself to finish the game, expecting to be very close to the end, but rather being many hours away from it.

It’s hard for me to be comprehensive about SOMA, and in many regards, I still feel as unresolved in my thoughts about the game as I was before writing this article. It’s a good game, almost a great one even. You should probably play it. I wish I could point to one thing and say what’s holding it back, but it’s not that easy. Somehow though, SOMA never quite lives up to its potential. Even though all of the parts of it are high quality, the whole is not the sum of its pieces. It’s like a bicycle made of high quality aluminum, with new tires, but with wheels that are just a bit too square.

dunceCast Episode 21 – Western Civilization V

Posted in Podcasts with tags , , , , , , , on October 13, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Bet you didn’t think we would be back again! Well, we are, and unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about it. Today we run a little bit (a lot) longer than we really intended to, but we talk about some of dem dere vidya gaems. Namely, we cover David’s exploits in finally trying Civilization V, The Long Dark, and talk (somewhat spoilerly) about SOMA.

So yes, SPOILER WARNING for SOMA, but we will also warn on the podcast when we are about to begin discussion of the game.

Direct Download (mp3 31.4MB 1:08:48)

Subscribe via: FeedBurner, iTunes

The music for this week, in order of appearance:

Firelink Shrine from the Dark Souls Soundtrack
There’s Something Wrong from the SOMA Soundtrack

Gettin’ Paid

Posted in My Life with tags , , on October 10, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Obviously the change of the Patreon from being a “per work” thing to being a monthly thing would be a big change in the relationship between me and the backers so I felt like I would need to think about it a lot. I thought it may also be a good idea as part of this process to share some of my thoughts and reasonings.

It’s always uncomfortable for me to talk about money when it comes to my work. It’s never been a thing that I have done for the money, I just love doing it. So it’s a weird transition to try to start thinking about the work as also something that maybe I could (or god forbid, should?) get money for. However, I have definitely gotten a lot of support and positive feedback on stuff lately from friends and people that I admire. Also people tell me that artist-types (and maybe I am one of those) tend to greatly undervalue their work. I am still super wary of falling into being an entitled douchebag who expects people to pay him, but maybe it is worth something.

When I started the Patreon, I didn’t know how much support I would get. Since I tend to produce things somewhat sporadically, I felt it would only be fair to ask people to pay if I actually put something out. However, I’ve only charged the backers for one thing since I started the account about seven months ago, and many of the backers I have never charged at all.

This could really be a sign of two things. That I haven’t put out any good work over the past seven months at all and therefore the backers shouldn’t have been charged. Or that what I put out I must’ve undervalued greatly.

So, what have I even done in the past seven months?

Well, one obvious thing which I have put out is a monthly mystery box, exclusive to backers. There could be an argument that these are not worth anything, since I never originally had any intent on charging for them. But on the other hand, although I was thinking the mystery boxes would just be me sharing some of my unfinished/unreleased projects, I greatly underestimated how quickly a monthly thing churns through all of your things. (Especially considering I lost about ten years of my stuff due to a hard drive failure, so I only have fairly recent stuff) This means that it’s actually mostly been me making new stuff to put in them, which kind of turns it into a different thing than my original conception. That in and of itself has had me considering putting an end to the mystery boxes, so perhaps a monthly Patreon payment is a way to help me feel more like I have a good reason to keep putting those out. (Plus people like them)

Additionally, I worked for a while on an unnamed project with the lovely Martin Cohen (of Disposable and Hale fame), which although I loved and was super promising both from a gameplay and aesthetic perspective, I have put aside until I feel I am up to carrying the weight of my own ambitions there. I have not yet reached a point where I can have the productivity level needed to complete a large project like that.

So, instead I have returned to a small project which I began a couple years ago. Initially called Dive Dive, it will probably be renamed Ushanka Jones, and it is a roguelike game with heavy design inspiration from Zelda 1. I have been slowly redoing the artwork for that before I move on with adding more gameplay complexity, but I have a lot of fun ideas there.

Time is continually an issue. I have a reasonably long commute (around 45 minutes) to my day job and back. Also, I have been working 6 day weeks for 5 weeks now. So my free time for personal work is actually quite limited and consequently progress on things has been a bit slow.

Even still, I’ve started a new season of the dunceCast, a podcast featuring myself and my brother, doing what we do best, which is basically just goofing off and being morons. Maybe that’s worthless, but I prefer to consider it “priceless.” 😛

Anyway, this has perhaps become a digression, but it answers the question of “what I’ve been up to lately” pretty well. It does perhaps fail to answer the question of if all that stuff should be worth cash monies from all my lovely backers. Unfortunately I guess I can’t answer that one, but I did put a poll out and around half of the current backers feel as though they would not be being ripped off if I switched the Patreon over to monthly.

I suppose that’s really the core of my concerns. I don’t want to rip people off or leave people feeling like I tried to trick them by changing the terms of the Patreon out from underneath them. That’s why I’m making such a concerted effort to draw attention to that I’m even thinking about changing it.

So let’s go into another reason why it would be good to switch over, which is what I like to call the “Strategic Reason.”

As I have said earlier, I have never gotten paid for my work on games or essays before so it’s terribly unfamiliar to me to see it as having anything beyond intrinsic value. Still, for some time now I have seen going full-time indie again as a long term goal. Achieving that really means that I have to start taking some steps in that direction. I’m not a very hasty person, but there needs to be some forward momentum and risk taking in some capacity to make any progress at all. I don’t want to always feel like I am spending the vast majority of my time not doing what I should be doing with my life.

I see the Patreon as a possible path towards financial independence from my day job. Even a relatively small income from backers would be enough for me to be able to spend less time at the day job and more time on games and essay work. And if I somehow miraculously could reach $1000 a month or something, I wouldn’t need the day job at all. (I only make like $15,000/year now)

So, there’s the “Strategic Reason”, and maybe it’s a good reason or maybe I’m just entitled. After all, it’s just one possible path, and (for better or worse) it happens to be one that is within my comfort zone. It doesn’t require me to set aside my timidity and take a big risk by jumping out of my job without a real safety net or plan.

On an additional note, I also have backed a few people on Patreon over those months, so having set up the account has actually been a net financial loss. That’s my choice to back other people, so it’s not really the responsibility of my backers to foot the bill for that. But it’s worth mentioning since I’ve been thinking about that as well.

Anyway, this post has all been a bit rambly but I wanted to share some of my thoughts and reasons for considering making this change. I hope you will understand, and be sure to answer the survey if you haven’t already.

❤ Matthew

Opposition Remix

Posted in Games, Released Games with tags , on April 14, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

oppositionA short while ago I made a game called Opposition. It was a short puzzle game designed in an afternoon. I was pretty happy with the design for how much time I had spent on it, but some of the puzzles towards the end of the game felt a bit too fiddly to me. So I have “remixed” the game so to speak, redesigning most of the puzzles to make them simpler. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it more, perhaps you’ll enjoy it less. 🙂

Play Opposition Remix

Again, both this game and the original on which it is based were made with Stephen Lavelle’s excellent PuzzleScript tool.