Prepare to Live ( Dark Souls Diary, Part 3 )

Rest for the Wicked
Dark Souls is a unique game. Simultaneously planting one foot in the checkered video game past, and the other so far in the future that you will find yourself lost as you try to keep up. There is something truly special at work here. Even if you don’t enjoy the experience, it is impossible to deny admiration for the boldness of its conviction. It is truly a work inspired by a unbending philosophy and a belief that games can and should offer different experiences.
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Dark Souls Diary, Day 2

So I cheap-shotted the Taurus Demon.

After grinding for a while, I begin to grow weary of the Undead Burg, so I try to tackle the tough monsters who were holding me back earlier. I gather enough Souls to purchase eighty or so bolts for my light crossbow. The merchant seemed upset when I walked off without closing his menu screen. Stingy guy I guess.

I try to aim the crossbow to no avail, the shots just seem to go off randomly if I don’t lock onto an enemy with a click of the right thumbstick. Eventually I get the hang of the crossbow. And I seem to be getting better at this Parry-Reposè thing. The undead still swarm me occasionally and I die, but the combat is something I’m at least grasping now. So, with much ambition, I head off to fight the big black knight. I shoot him from as far away as possible.

He smashes me.
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Dark Souls Diary, Day 1

I stumble into the house at 1 AM. There is a package on my porch. I think to myself, “That seems to be a rather large box for just a video game.” I bust open the package to reveal a collector’s tin box.

Dark Souls. They sure do make this an event. Free upgrade to the collectors edition with a pre-order. The tin has a plastic sleeve around it, emblazoned with the usual box art amenities. Prepare To Die, it says. So I open the tin to find the standard box as well as a fancy-smancy hardcover art book that smells of fresh ink and dead tree pulp.

Hope the game lives up to all this packaging…. I go to sleep.
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Laugh a little. Seriously.

Seriously...

It’s so easy to get attached to a project when you work on it for a long time. I’ve already been looking at Duet for a year. Despite that, for the past six months or so I haven’t made much progress. This is partly due to laziness and working a full time job. Staring closely at what you are doing can make it seem so much bigger than it really is.

The fact is that Duet is a small game. If I’m being realistic, it probably won’t change the world; it probably won’t change much of anything. But I’ve become so intimately close with the project that it has grown an importance to me that isn’t really due. I’ve created an abstract idea of what Duet is, and it seems imperative that I must create that. I can feel the importance of what I’m doing, and I find that paralyzing.
Continue reading “Laugh a little. Seriously.”

Silence.

So, I haven’t been playing games recently.

After finishing Catherine, I haven’t really found myself in a financial affordance to purchase anything new, although I’ve been thinking of purchasing something old. Quite old, in fact. The game I’ve been considering is a PC game called Planescape: Torment.

Planescape has a reputation for being one of the most well-written RPGs ever. It is often brought up anytime a new RPG is about to be released, as some sort of evidence of a by-gone era of good game writing. Unfortunately, I never played this game and find myself somewhat intolerant of my ignorance. It is uncomfortable for me to proclaim the utter failure of games as a narrative medium when compared to film and books when I have not experienced what many consider to be such a great story.

Discussion of narrative in games is always a bit challenging, because the terms are so poorly defined in most cases. By which, I mean, most people do not understand any clear difference between the terms “narrative”, “plot”, and “story.” Plot being a unchanging linear sequence of events; narrative being an all-encompassing term for a collection of characters, plot, setting, dialogue, and themes; story being the cohesive experience created by the narrative as it’s parts come together in the mind.

Most of the time, people think of these as basically the same thing. But if narrative were just plot, there would be no room for the story to exist separately in the mind of the person experiencing it, and thusly there would be no need or room for discussion of a narrative. We would all be in agreement about the plot, and there would be really nothing else to say.

I think that games can be privy to many of the elements of narrative. But plot is something that they just do not excel at to the same extent as other mediums. However, they can effectively communicate themes, characters, and dialogue. And in the case of setting, I would argue they do better than any other medium.

So if I do choose to buy the game, ( which is conveniently available for download on Good Old Games, along with a bunch of other older PC titles ) I will be interested to see the way in which the game communicates it’s narrative. Especially if it is not as plot-driven as most modern games are.

On an entirely different note, I have just purchased two great books on games. I read the sample previews and just knew that I wanted to spend a little more time with them. The first book is “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster. The second is “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” by Tom Bissell. I will hopefully have more to say about those books very soon.

Catherine is all grown up, in a good way.

Vincent runs for his life.

Two cords hang from the ceiling. “Has anyone ever called you stingy?” I put the controller down. I’m not even sure what stingy means, but I’ve never been called it.

I get up and walk to the kitchen for a drink of water.

What does that even mean? Why does it matter?

Suddenly I remember that I’m playing a game. I sit down on the couch, push the stick right and press a button.

“No, no one has called me stingy.”

Catherine asks me questions, it makes me think. It beckons me and tempts me to indulge in it’s intoxicating cocktail of self-reflection and devious puzzles.

I blast off in my confession chamber. Off to solve another staircase. I die. I try again.

“Now’s not the time to be dead.”

I make it to freedom. I help the lost lambs around me. Another question beckons ahead. I feel my eyes burning. I shut off the game.

In my sleep, I’m pushing blocks around. Trying to find a way up. Desperate. Katherine needs me to commit. Catherine tempts me with candy.

There’s something a bit addictive about the game’s blend of seemingly unrelated ideas. Part dating simulation, part pure puzzling pain, and definitely straight from Japan.

Japan. When was the last time I even cared about a game from that faraway country. The sun has been set for too long. Catherine is delightfully quirky. And that follows through all the way to the end credits.

Even though there are eight endings, only one was needed to make me think about myself in ways even okCupid’s dating match questions have not.

Perhaps you should indulge yourself. You might be surprised at what you find.

The importance of critical thought on games…

Case in point:

I find it funny that people can catch flack for actually critically reviewing a game. Readers spout back nonsense like, “This review didn’t tell me if it was a good GAME or not, though.” Worshipping “gameplay” is like looking at the cost of the pigments in a painting to decide if the painting is good or not. Gameplay is just a piece of a puzzle, and critical thought about games is not about gameplay. It’s about the experience as a whole. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that gameplay is a factor. It’s just that critical evaluation must look at how gameplay jives with the artistic purpose of the entire work. Building games around mechanics is fine, but as a designer, you have failed if you haven’t look at what the mechanic is saying. If mechanics were all that video games were about, then I would be done with Duet already. Gameplay is just half the story. You need to do the extra work to make a complete game. And judgement of a game definitely involves looking at the gameplay, but a half-rotten banana is not saved by the half that’s still good.

The FPS is dead, if your game is not going to do something about it. Then I don’t give a damn. I don’t want to play it.

I’m currently in the middle of L.A. Noire. And although it’s certainly not the crowning achievement of what video games could be. I must commend it for being a step in the right direction. Even though some would criticize me for supporting something that is only a small step, that seems to be the best that I can do. I try to vote with my wallet, and currently my vote is “no” to more thoughtlessness.

A brilliant game is not afraid to bore me. Games are slices of subjective experience, and all the possibilites of experience in life definitely over-shadow the “fun” section. Games like GTA and Gears are great, but mindless fun is overrunning the mainstream industry. Why can’t game with a budget actually deal with something besides how cool explosions, space marines and goblins are.

Culling

I suppose it is unrealistic to suggest that performance is never an issue when creating a video game. Since the better a game performs, the more graphical tricks you can cram up your games proverbial sleeves. But with the speed of modern computers, 2D games tend to not require much optimization. And as they primarily use tile-based graphics, it is relatively trivial to determine which tiles in the level are on screen (and therefore should be drawn), and which are not.

However, there are some newer 2D games, such as Braid, or Aquaria which use a entirely different method for their graphics which is not tile-based, but instead uses images which can be repeated positioned, rotated, and scaled arbitrarily to build a level. These images are rendered to the screen using modern 3D graphics hardware, which—being designed for 3D games—is rather fast for this application. Even still, there can be quite a large number of these images building up a level, so it is useful to devise an accurate and speedy method for determining which objects are on screen, and which are not. Continue reading “Culling”

The creative process…

The game that I am making currently is about cooperation. So what exactly does that mean? It means that every mechanic, every puzzle, and even every piece of art must be scrutinized to determine if it is core to this concept.

The process by which I create new mechanics for the game goes something like this:

Idea – From somewhere, either through playing the game, or from other games or other media, get a possible idea for a game mechanic.

Mentally Prototype – Imagine how the idea would affect the game. For some ideas, this is very easy. For instance, if the element has already been in another game. For others, I may have to skip mental prototyping, since the idea cannot be easily imagined.

Mentally Check for “Core-ness” – An interesting idea that does not fit with the games core theme is not worth implementing. For my game, the core theme is cooperation. In life, people like to establish relationships with people who have strengths where they themselves are weak. (In addition to common interests and similar experiences) Based on this aspect of human relationships, the players in my game must always have different abilities. Usually the bad ideas are those which do not create a give/take relationship between the players. Bad ideas are those do not create interdependence, but instead spur self-centered behavior.

Prototype – If the idea that I have cannot be discarded through mental prototyping, and seems like it may fit in the core of the game. Then I program it in, in the simplest way possible. Usually creating a bunch of dirty code. (But that’s okay, if it’s a bad idea, it’s a waste to write clean code)

Test – I try the mechanic out in many different situations, and in combination with existing mechanics. If the new mechanic creates any interesting puzzles that I couldn’t imagine when I first thought of the mechanic, then it is a candidate for the final game.

But how do I decide which things are interesting enough to make it in the game? That is certainly a tough problem, and there are many solutions. The simplest solution is to include everything that might be interesting. However, for my game, I have some fundamental guiding principles. I believe that the player of my game is an intelligent person, and should be treated as such. They are not stupid, and will be able to solve any of the puzzles that I can create for them, without breaking them down into simpler elements. I also believe that this player’s time is valuable to them, and I should respect their time, and not waste it. So therefore, I should never put filler into the game by repeating ideas that I have already explored.
Based on these principles, I will remove any puzzles which either waste a lot of player time on execution, or have very obvious solutions and may only be different than a previous puzzle in insignificant ways.

Even still, I struggle with this game every day. Sometimes I have to ask myself if the entire game is not just a waste of time for the player. It is certainly possible. But I am a game designer, and I want to make games, not incomplete products. So it is better to ship a game that I found interesting, even if no-one else will, than it is to not ship a game. As the Duct Tape Programmer says, “Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.”

So time marches on…and there is much work to be done.

Jumpman

Jumpman in Paradise
Jumpman in Paradise

The 2D platformer genre is one of the most common among indie games. And lo-fi graphics seem to be all the rage these days, So why should you play Jumpman?

Because Jumpman brings the platformer back to life in a beautiful way and then hammers a few more nails into the coffin. Despite the familiarity, Andrew McClure has created a game to which all platformers following should be compared. Jumpman not only feels like something new, but it raises the bar for inventiveness so high that you will be left wondering what more can be done with the genre. If you are a game designer, it’s a damn tough act to follow, and every bit as important as a study of the genre as Super Mario Galaxy. If you’re not a game designer, this is a crazy inventive and mind-bending game which may just make you feel like a kid again, in a good way.
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