Snakes and Ladders

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[Minor spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 3, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments.]

Before I talk about Sherlock Holmes, I’m going to talk about my favourite moment in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s the most lauded game in a series a dozen titles long, each one full of the maddest stuff you wouldn’t believe. Comedy ghosts and philosopher warriors and soviet space magic. And the best bit is when Snake climbs up a ladder while music plays.

If you’ve played the game you know what I mean, but for those who haven’t here’s the story. You’ve just finished up this immense sniper battle with The End, the oldest and weirdest of the foreshadowed boss characters. It was spread across several densely-packed forested areas, each one enormous and scattered throughout with viable sniping spots that both you and the old bastard cycle through in vying for an upper hand. You can win in any number of ways – you can poison him, stealth him, outwit him, track him, goad him, outwait him, or snipe him hours before the battle even begins and bypass the whole affair. It is the perfect ‘systems’ moment where all these mechanical aspects thread together in one beautiful tapestry from which the player traces their own narrative of strategy and improvisation.

Once it’s done, the forest exit opens up and you can progress to the next area. You know you still have two more foreshadowed bosses to go, plus the three major antagonistic characters, plus the mechanical behemoth Shagohod that is ostensibly (but not actually) the story’s McGuffin. The End was exhausting and invigorating but, finally, you’re halfway there.

So you enter this small room and there’s a ladder. Continue reading

Two Minute Game Crit – Competing Ideologies


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Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit and I’m Stephen Beirne.

So, here’s a simple and useful way to look at videogame narrative.

If a game has a story, a good thing to check for is how the ideology of the protagonist meshes with those of the villain and the player. If they resonate or clash, the character interactions will probably be more interesting and satisfying.

The Assassin’s Creed games do this blatantly in these lovely soft moments after a kill. Stabby Man will have a chat with Dying Man where they briefly discuss their ideologies. He’ll either say ‘your ideology is stupid and I hate you’, or ‘I like your beliefs but you’re a bit of a prick.’

Let’s look at a less obvious example, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Like many Japanese games, there’s a big thing in the Ace Attorney series about building a positive legacy for future generations. Phoenix Wright is symbolic of this in how he fosters an extended family of apprentices and kids who’ve been neglected by fate. Throughout the game, he puts stock in the importance of community to the point where he’ll operate purely on blind faith in his client. Usually, his investigations reveal some tragic moment in the past that must be respected and remembered for us to be able to move on.

On the other hand, Manfred von Karma is driven by pride and vanity. He’s manipulative and selfish to the point of enacting revenge on the son for a slight caused by the father.

If we extend these as ideologies, Von Karma, who is shown as westernised, would be a classical liberal: egoistic, self-governing and individualistic. Whereas Phoenix is more communitarian: a reformist, communally responsible, and with values for tradition.

This is why von Karma makes for a good villain: antithetical to Phoenix, he sees himself as above the law and exploits the system to enhance his reputation. To some extent, all the villains in Ace Attorney hold positions of power or place themselves outside of society.

So, how are we, as players, involved in all this?

Puzzle solving in Ace Attorney is all about finding the hidden relationships of objects and people, or of people and events, in order to discover their history. It’s highly focused on building these connections to lead you first down the wrong path and then down the right one.

Like Phoenix we solve each case by delving into the past, even 15 years into the past, to receive the future with an optimistic note. We have to trust there’s a solution to each puzzle which means we have to trust our client is innocent. And because it’s linear we have to depend on Phoenix’s rambling to get us there in the end.

A Paddy Plays Folklore

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[Minor early-game spoilers for Folklore]

I can count on no hands the number of games I’d played with Ireland in them, despite the disproportionate tendency for Irishness to pop up in various media as a sort of fascinated idiom. This I’ve always known but never realised – like, I think, many Irish people, as a child I grew up with a significant lack of genuinely Irish people in my cartoons, the closest being a talking French snowman named Bouli dubbed over with the Irish language.

Even now, Irish characters who show up in our imported entertainment exist mainly as a gag, and Irish identities more closely resemble by far a taxonomy of Americans who once, perhaps, knew someone from Kerry. On this, I am lead to believe you can populate an entire American town solely with detectives named O’Malley.

One consequence of this is that when the TV tells me someone, somewhere, or something is Irish, little internal fact-checking mechanisms whir to decide whether or not I can latch onto this and cherish it. For someone thinned to invisibility from being ignored, the faintest glimmer of authenticity becomes a token of pride, which makes for a rather weak standard when it means we’re letting our national identity be encapsulated, for instance, by a green M&M.

It’s not often that an outsider impression would offer anything beyond a jab and a self-centred wink, which makes it all the more special when something comes along that seems to show a genuine interest in this land and its people.

A Paddy Plays Folklore

Although it’s made by a Japanese studio, Folklore is the first game I’ve played that’s set a real Irish location: the village of Doolin, County Clare. This fact alone sets it apart from most titles which vaguely allude to the Irish people, since they usually satisfy themselves by calling us all elves and saying we live in trees, when in reality only some of us do. With this prestigious feather in its cap, let’s take a look at how else Folklore handles its setting.

The story here is our protagonist, Ellen, has received a letter from her long-dead mother summoning her to Doolin to investigate her past. There is another playable character, Keats, with his own intertwined storyline, but Ellen is the more interesting character so let’s stick with her. Understandably, Ellen finds it a bit suss that her ma is sending her post and she 17 years in the grave, but her apparent longstanding loneliness overpowers any hint of sense in her trip to the village. This begins with her taking a boat. Continue reading

Two Minute Game Crit – The Games of Sophie Houlden

 

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we’re going to be looking at the games of a specific developer, Sophie Houlden.

Sophie’s a one-woman indie machine, carving out these absolutely gorgeous, beautifully designed games by the dozen. Let’s look at just three from her catalogue which I think lend you a good idea of what she’s about.

Sophie has made a ton of puzzle games, my favourite being BOXGAME. You move around the faces of a box and you have to trick the camera into giving you a new direction of gravity so you can kind of… fall the right way.

Sophie’s a wizard at designing these genius mechanics that are simple to grasp but hard to master. Where you intuit solutions by playing around rather than through planning.

It’s good, so, that she’s also an incredible animator.Even just moving your wan around in BOXGAME gives this sense of elegance in motion.

This is partly why I love TheLinearRPG. It’s a stripped down mock-up of a lot of modern RPGs. You run along the line to make the mechanics happen, meanwhile the story unfolds rather detachedly as a backdrop.

The crisp aesthetic is a veneer of polish over this skeletal frame, which can be interpreted as a mockery of design priorities in the industry. But, what fascinates me most this is how it uses abstraction of form to convey its point, given it’s not actually an RPG.

When she wants to, Sophie has some hand at spinning narrative through form, as is the case in Runcible Sky, with its hub-and-branches structure.

It focuses on inspiration in one’s mortal life and the disbelief of life after death. Each vignette is a snapshot of your wan’s past, and on viewing them, the final moments in her fading life slowly gain their substance.

“Runcible” is an inkblot word, it has no meaning other than what we infer from it. And likewise, we can search each vignette for some great authorial design, but maybe we’re better off taking what we got from them and accepting that as our meaning.

Sophie’s games are many and varied, you can find most them by visiting her site. The best are on her shop though so be sure to pick something up for just a few bob.

 

In which I try not to title this article ‘More than a Feeling’

In which I try not to title this article More than a Feeling

[This piece was first published exclusively to patrons on 28th February 2015. If you like what you see and wish to support my writing while gaining access to patron-exclusive articles (one per month) and artwork, zoom on over to Patreon and sign up as a patron.]

There are two things I don’t mention very often, you may have noticed, the first of which is how I go about finding games worth discussing. It is an exhausting, scary universe, I don’t deny, and trawling through the starlit cosmos of cold, lifeless duds can be a soul-sapping endeavour if the proper precautions are not taken. Play discriminately. Don’t be afraid to follow a crowd, and then, don’t be afraid to shirk it. Know your own tastes but keep an open mind.

Once I’ve found a game that grabs me, I ask myself what’s valuable about it. A deceptively simple question—it’s worth noting, however, that it’s not prescriptive. I don’t need to talk about what the game does, exactly. I don’t need to talk about my childhood, or what I had for dinner over the Christmas. I can if I want, but it’s not a requisite, is the point.

It was on this basis I found Roguelight. Browsing Gamejolt’s desperately categorized library of Newly Added and/or Featured games, this one stood out impressively on the twofold basis of its title being a pun (like ‘roguelite’, ha ha) and its artwork being glorious.

Game Feel and Roguelight

You play her, and you do what she’s doing, which is nocking arrows and treading darkness. It is, as you can guess, of the genre known as roguelite or roguelike or roguelike-like depending on how pedantic you want to be. I have briefly researched the matter and decided I don’t quite care, so: it is a game where you jump around dungeons and kill baddies.

What distinguishes it from its likes is the mingling of offensive and defensive techniques through its use of lighting. Your arrows are both the main light source in the pitch-black dungeons and your sole means of combat, gliding you into an affectionately streamlined game of resource management of health, arrows, level knowledge and visibility. Eventually you run out of arrows and wander blindly through spike pits and ghoulies, promptly die, shop for upgrades, and respawn at the beginning. It is enjoyable to play and that is that.

Which brings me to the other thing I rarely mention: the amorphous and self-explanatory concept of ‘game-feel’. I say self-explanatory but honestly, this term begs for an explanation-no, a justification for its existence. ‘Game-feel’ has the unfortunate fate of being irredeemably wanky-sounding, leading many writers and designers to empty their pockets in pursuit of a suitable alternative. ‘Kinaesthetics’ is often the agreed-upon result, although how that solves the issue of a) clarifying the idea or b) making anyone look less like a shower of bastards is beyond me. Personally, kinaesthetics in relation to videogames seems to speak of the sensation of pushing a button with one’s thumb, which is decidedly not what most people gun for in using it. Instead, what is meant by both ‘kinaesthetics’ and ‘game-feel’ is this: the feeling of a game. It is about as sensible as using ‘food-taste’ to describe the taste of food. Nothing is lost by shortening it to feel.

So, I seldom talk about the feel of a game, largely because such a thing tends to be difficult to talk about despite how crucial it can be to the play experience. Or at least, while we can use gorgeous flowing prose to suggest the fluid feeling of moving through whatever game’s thingamabob, analytical approaches hit a wall when it comes to adapting the same into more technical, drier formats. How a game feels is cursed to lend itself better to demonstration than description.

This was the tact of Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer when asked to deliver a talk on ‘game-feel’ (a word he hates, too, and so substituted in ‘screenshake’). In his illustration, Nijman started with the bones of an action game and added decorative elements until it felt sufficiently bombastic—bigger bullets, deeper sound effects, camera recoil—some of which, but not all, invigorated the basic original mechanical aspects by tweaking them to reflect his aesthetic. Despite how Vlambeer is famous for games that are pleasing to play on a base level, Nijman admits he has difficulty articulating what makes a game feel appealing and instead works on intuition.

Fun fact: my own experience of Vlambeer’s shoot-em-up Luftrausers is as follows. First I gorged, and then it repulsed me. I walked away hollow despite the inarguable swish-ness of flying its war-machines. I thought, and I still think, it loved nothing more than the smooth sensation in the instant of play and its vapidity filled me with an emptiness lasting long after that time had passed. Unlike Roguelight something about it just didn’t stick—they’re not the same type of game, I know, but lookit, if the feel of a game is all it takes to make it pleasant, rausing above the lufts shouldn’t now revolt me.

Linssen’s back-catalogue shows he’s an ear for twists on an old formula. Birdsong is a metroidvania-style dungeon-crawler of exploration and backtracking, but sidesteps the need for level memorization by sticking a fisheye lens on the camera to allow the whole map to be shown at all times. It takes a minute but once the concept clicks and you learn how to interpret and benefit from the perspective, it’s a weird and wonderful feeling.

Game Feel and Birdsong

Elsewhere, The Sun and Moon is a traditional platformer—jump; collect the good things; avoid the bad things—whose gimmick is in turning the negative space of terrain into positive space through which players can swim. Javel-ein is an action-platformer restricting you to only one weapon, a javelin to be recovered each time after lobbing it away. Haemo has you painting out the borders of the level by bleeding on them. It’s needlessly frustrating, not one of his strongest games.

For most of the bunch it’s the combination of his little novelties together with the veneer of polish you get from feeling swish to play. His characters move just right, when you press whatever button they flow nicely to where you want them to be. The Sun and Moon is good for this, since moving through terrain feels substantially different to moving through thin air. Each puzzle gives you a twinkle of mastery as you gradually learn to think of it in terms of gravity and buoyancy rather than positive and negative spaces.

And this is why Roguelight is so compelling, why most of Linssen’s games are really enjoyable and clever even for me, who finds jumping to be one of the more stressful modes of videogame transport. Like Vlambeer he taps into some of the more generic types of videogames and morphs their basic mechanics into something enjoyable to play on a surface level. But unlike Vlambeer he carries in his aesthetic the ambition to toy with conventional forms, so welcomes the feel of a game as one of its dramatic components. Lightness and darkness in Roguelight becomes its central tenet rather just a condition of spelunking, distinguishing light and dark as tolerances and affordances. Although we may become blind we’re not necessarily powerless.