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

 

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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

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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.

Two Minute Game Crit – Drama and Composition

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Transcript:

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

Final Fantasy VII was a masterclass in storytelling. We’ve no shortage of dramatic, epic, expensive games these days, so the fact that a game might have Themes isn’t so unusual now as it was in 1997.

But what makes Final Fantasy VII so impressive, even by today’s standards, is how it related the drama through its broader composition, such as: its recurring motifs of a combined heaven and earth; the use of space and geometry to differentiate wealth from poverty; and the precariously attuned relationship of nature and technology.

One of my favourite things about it, though, is how it ties in themes of identity and existentialism.

There’s tons of scenes we could use to sample this but the best is probably this one here, during Cloud’s flashback to the Nibelheim Incident. Sephiroth‘s having a crisis of identity, and he locks himself in the library of the Shinra mansion while he researches his origins.

The way this scene is shot tells us that the farther he goes through the corridor, the deeper he delves into his past, and the more it affects his perception of his identity. Even though he’s kept centred on-screen, his stature diminishes, and he’s obscured by all the books piling after him.

When Cloud returns to check on Sephiroth, his whole demeanour has changed. The shot of the library’s corridor is repeated but now with reversed connotations. He strides right up to the camera, and takes a dominant position in the foreground, making good use of the Futch angle. There’s nothing this time to clutter him from view, and his trajectory brings him out from the diminished place of his existential crisis to this point here, large and emboldened.

The symmetry tells us a lot about his dramatic change in character, so this shot serves as a nice reference for when Sephiroth became a villain.

This is also matched in other structural ways on either side of the scene, like changes in his speech patterns and combat behaviour. Whereas before he used to revive people, after leaving the Shinra mansion…

[flames]

There’s no doubt he’s a villain at this point.

So the next time you come across a story-focused game, have a think about its composition and how it reflects its drama.

Kanoguti’s Walking Mesmerize

Kanoguti's Walking Mesmerize

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Kanoguti’s Walking is the quintessential walking simulator—sorry, phantom ride. The core conceit is you must oblige yourself to move through the length of a straight, linear corridor in search of meaning, granted through a number of less tangible avenues than is usual for a medium predicated on make-believe.

To this end, Walking slightly resembles titles like Sophie Houlden’s stripped-down The Linear RPG. It’s similar in that you walk a line in lieu of a corridor but differs by its message being more conspicuous to a wayward player. The Linear RPG flaunts the language of RPGs, but not their mechanics, to elicit what many read as a critique of the genre’s modern degradation. It stays aloof and above its kin while allowing the presence of structural similarities, seeming enough like an RPG to remind us of its generic subject matter without becoming it intricately.

Both videogames engineer their messages through reductionist sentiments; they have the luxury of drawing on oceans of precedent to form the basis of communally available metatextual foundation. While Sophie Houlden uses this embedded self-reflection to perform genre reference and (potential) satire, Kanoguti chooses instead to make the player the burgeoning subject matter.

Walking uses only two buttons in mutual exclusivity: one to move forward, and one to crane your neck around to look behind you. Releasing the latter button turns the camera back to its default direction, so you’ll never be able to spin on your heel and head off right the way you came. This initially jars against what we might expect from this sort of videogame: strict restrictions on our trajectory confine and repel, denying us the core appeal of wandering in Proteus or exploration in Bernband.

As a mechanic ‘looking back’ is a novelty, and as we adjust our mental model to fit these unexpected parameters, a curiosity. Why do I have the ability to look around if my path can’t be altered? Why would I want to re-examine the length of the corridor I’ve only just trod? What is ‘looking back’ for? It seems a thing-in-itself, the option to look back the way we came. Juxtaposed against the conventional ability to look around freely in games far and wide it’s ambiguously suggested as a statement, perhaps on all we take for granted, perhaps on the inexorable march of time.

There are a few motifs shared among Kanoguti’s videogames and software, many of which I can’t link directly but you can find here, that illustrate an interest in patterned structures. Sokoe Nobotte and Repeating Stories cycle us upward in space and forward in time before reversing to their origins in tumultuous climax. Evird3D speeds us down an eternal road to rack up a score; Watching fixes us in place while spying on a man creeping away and crashing towards us. Paradise MV hypnotises us with loops of geometry and music, while Re-SMP invites us to make our own loops.

Some of these thread what could be described as elements of horror to affect a sense of disruption inside their composition. Like Walking, Mortuary recalls more common systems of first-person perspective games while withholding the archetype as a whole: we can look freely at the boxed enclosure of a doll’s face but are unable to move, forcing us to writhe in witness as it melts to nothing. Although our powerlessness is important here, we are not stricken as passive due to all that we lack; rather, the act of looking, and our role as witness, is heightened to superluminal through our own raised self-consciousness.

While this runs counter to much conventional thought on the relationship between player and videogame, I should note that it works for Kanoguti because they swing us between the two states of sublime and superluminal by keying into the therapeutic nature of repetitious behaviour.

In allowing our minds to wander during a routine task, we grow self-suggestive and lull into a daze. Jolting us back into alert with a shock (a jump scare or unexpected twist) provokes us to become hyper self-aware[1]. We blush in realisation at our self-involvement—perception of ourselves as filtered through how we are seen by others. Trapped under another’s gaze, we’re reminded of being fundamentally perceptible creatures.

This is what Walking does extravagantly.

You play, anyway, and soon you grow accustomed to the hallway’s unpredictable and frightening nature. As your feet rhythmically beat out the steady crunch of a gravel path, the two-button layout maybe endears itself. Autonomy falls away behind you. You relinquish the old desire to turn and change directions, slowly mesmerized by the disturbing flow of music and imagery.

Dead in front of you, the flash of a white face stops your tracks. Trick of the mind? The walls themselves flutter through a ménage of now-familiar wallpaper—wisping clouds, human outlines—such that you’d drifted beneath the lip of consciousness. That brief white flick could have been the brow of a cloud, could have been a disappearing texture, could have been, could have been…

You resume on your path, now recalling the other thing allowed of you. A good hard look behind confirms nothing to be seen. Uncertainty in your vision seeds paranoia, turning back to glance across your shoulder every few feet now. The repeated stopping and starting achieves little except to impede progress, so you peter out that behaviour to make good your travel down the corridor. But the seed sits heavy in the pit of your gut, and every couple of minutes you remember to look back the way you came.

A monster is facing you. Impossibly tall, its head brushes the ceiling; its arms gradually end in long, curved claws stretching down below its waist; a small face cracked by a playful smile. It stands still, dormant, patiently watching.

You’re afraid to blink, afraid to move, until you decide, it seems, the monster is content just to survey for now. But still you can’t move because you’re facing the wrong way. As you unfreeze the muscles in your neck, you calm yourself into a course of action. It plays with you; do you play back and test the waters? See how you can affect its presence. See if you can exert some control.

You release the button and slam it again to catch the monster in an act. It’s gone. Nothing there now but the empty space of the corridor and the impenetrable curtain of shadow beyond. But it was there, you know with absolute certainty. You didn’t imagine this one. And it’s still there, inside the gloom. Haunting you. Stalking you. The daydream is shredded. Under its gaze you’re irrevocably changed.

 


 

[1] In the language of phenomenology, ‘pre-reflective self-consciousness.’ Calling it by this name is akin to using a ouiji board to summon the ghost of Wank Academia, so I’ve relegated this trivia to a footnote.