796605 is a quasi-random number.

Shadow of the Colossus: 98% Lean Beef

August 3, 2009 essay,review

One of the many reasons to admire Shadow of the Colossus is that it did away with the nonsense that many games are constipated with: side quests and collectibles. Back when games were viciously limited by their host hardware, games were just things you played, or perhaps played through. They were not black holes for time and money

what went wrong

Without a timeline in front of me, I’m going to point the finger of blame at Square — specifically, at Final Fantasy VII — for beginning this spiraling trend of superfluity. The complexity of games bumped up the production cost, and the production cost inflated the retail price, and the retail price was mitigated by filler content. “Look“, it was said. “Look at how many hours you can squeeze out of this game. $70 for 70 hours. That’s a steal!” This, naturally, led to the escalation of arms.

This is apparently the norm of games now. Several that I’ve played most recently — Okami, Super Paper Mario, and current No More Heroes — have both of these sins. Okami is loaded with a pile of side quests, doing exactly what Beyond Good and Evil did by hiding findables all over the map. SPM had vast, vast catalogs of hidden trinkets through the whole game. Now, I enjoyed SPM quite a bit; it’s the most fun Mario game I’ve played in some time. However, the sheer time it would have cost to check everything off the list is staggering. I couldn’t convince myself that it was worth it. The game had treasure maps, recipes, and trading cards, along with an assortment of side quests. What is it about trading cards in games? No More Heroes is guilty of this, as well.

NMH seems something like a parody of games, gamers, and game designers. It’s an unbelievable mountain of wish fulfillment. It’s bloody, it has treasure chests where they make no sense, and it has those damn mini games. Even if I could accept the game as being an over-the-top satire of game culture, its mini games and filler content are what bug me. They are slowing me down, deflating any momentum the actual, core game gives me. Why should game designers feel pressured to add such nonsense? Why are they compelled — or cajoled — into littering their game with useless verbs?

what Colossus got right

Shadow of the Colossus shunned this nonessential gameplay and gave you two things to do: go to the Colossi and kill the Colossi. Although the game is not without its findables, it gets that right, as well.

SotC could be thought of as an adventure game with nothing but the bosses. There is no real concept of leveling up. There is no array of impressive power-ups. There is no wave after wave of baddie clones getting in your way. There is no sprawling, elaborate backstory. I make those sound like bad things. Maybe nowadays they are to me. Each year I lose more patience for such things. And shirking those things is one reason, among many, that I admire SotC.

As a game with verbs, it gives me nothing but the tools that will let me complete my mission. I can ride a horse, shoot an arrow, climb, grab, and stab. I do not gain super combos; and cannot bash my enemies’ heads in new and fantastic ways. I do my job. That’s all the game asks me to do. This might even encourage exploration, as I am not worried about dying; I am not worried about maxing my stats; I am not worried about crafting an ultra-rare weapon out of the many components scattered about the world, in its many nooks and crannies. I feel like the game values me, as a player, and doesn’t see itself as a carrot dangling on a stick.

The game does offer a few rewards to curious folk who wander about. The joy of its implementation is that these extra elements are so subtle and incidental that you could, perhaps, go the entire game without them; without even knowing about them. But. Not only are some of it put directly in your path, freely given, but these bonuses directly reward you for being found. They do not simply fill out a checklist. They are not pieces that, only together, unlock a mystical (and only marginally useful) artifact. They contribute directly to you, each individually, to assist you in those two primary goals: find and kill. Again, the game rewards those players who explore a bit, but do not handicap the players who go without; it still treats its player with dignity, without teasing.

The bottom line is this, game designers: I am going to die one day. It is the most inevitable event one can predict. If you are going to ask me to casually invest my money and my ever diminishing time into your game, you better offer me a rich, meaningful experience in return.

A Tale in the Desert, Tale 2: More Thoughts

November 20, 2004 review

There’s one word I’ve come across a few times in more sophisticated game design reviews that never really “clicked” for me. I’d have to look up the meaning, sorta go “oh”, and then immediately forget what it meant. Repeatedly. Now that I’ve played more of A Tale in the Desert, I understand fully what this word means. Furthermore, ATitD, I believe, suffers from a conflict between concept and execution. It’s ostensibly about building a society, but is, in effect, a micro-management game.

orthogonality

In Beyond Good and Evil — which I’m using only because it was my last review — you could switch fairly seamlessly between the main story, finding pearls, or finding animals. Doing one did not necessarily benefit doing the others (although, pleasantly, it often did). These were orthogonal design elements. That’s an academic froo-froo term for “perpendicular”.

ATitD doesn’t have this.

There are seven different tracks — jobs, more or less — in Egypt. You pass an initiation and follow down that path. You’re certainly not locked in place, and can, in fact, master all seven. This is unlikely, however, unless you are the android creation of Dr. Destructo and thus need no food or sleep.

You advance through each track via a series of tests. These tests are no small feat, and at times their completion is not guaranteed. For example, the initiation into Art requires you build a sculpture that is approved by some number of citizens and, I believe, not also condemned by some other number. This isn’t so hard, as Egyptians are not terribly finicky about art and you can usually just ask people to help out as a favor. But you get the gist; these aren’t just quests involving slaying the Ancient Dragon of Argokinoth.

Thus, it’s usually preferrable that a more casual player progress in one field, and not spread out too thin, otherwise he/she will not advance far in any field. Compound this with the massive amounts of item-construction that is required. An example for producing linen, a pretty useful item for “buying” certain skills:

1) Grow flax from seeds
2) Collect flax and rot it in water
3) Process rotten flax in a hackling rake in three steps to produce lint
4) Spin lint in a distaff to produce thread
5) Use handloom to weave thread into linen

Can you imagine doing this on your own, everytime you want linen? Keep in mind each step is not at all instantaneous. You need your guild(s) to help you. This is bad for unsociable people like myself. But I illustrate this point as a non-trivial example of the tedium, the micro-management, that this game necessitates. Moving linearly through one track can be such a time-consuming task for people who cannot spend over 20 hours of play a week that “orthogonally” taking a break from this tedium for something else — likely just as tedious — is not viable.

One solution to this is to provide a richer array of short-term activities that can both provide immediate enjoyment and add to long-term goals. Another solution is abtracting certain “tedious” tasks in a way that makes them more game-like (read “fun”). Yet another solution would simply be to make things happen faster.

micro-management

ATitD, lead design Teppy states, is supposed to be a game about building a “perfect society”. Not naively, he knows this is impossible but wants to see how a community will react when faced with long-term planning problems. So this lack of short-term goals is not, necessarily, accidental.

However, I have to take issue with the conflicts between high-level societal dilemmas and low-level chores such as growing cabbage and burning it to make ash. They are not necessarily in opposition, but the balance is very delicate. Simulations usually attempt this sort of thing. SimCity is certainly about long-term planning if you are trying to build a megalopolis, but you must resolve many low-level functions such as water and power management. ATitD’s flaw, I would say, has more to do with the extreme levels of and excessive time that needs to be spent on the low-level activites.

SimCity, and other simulators, will often provide instant feedback from your input; a change in city zoning could have immediately recognizable effects on traffic and population. But ATitD is not a simulator; it can rarely provide instant feedback. There is no immediate connection between time spent on one chore and reward for your efforts. A standard RPG will almost always give you experience points and/or gold for slaying an enemy. That’s instant feedback for a few minutes of combat. Was it worth it? No? Fight something else. But how do you know that gathering the material to build a mine, then finding a partiular mining location, then spending an hour or more excavating will produce sufficient results? Certainly you don’t know how this will better your society. Was it worth it? You don’t know. But you do need that copper ore. So you can smelt it. To make copper. For the copperwire. To donate to research.

One suggestion I have is to “tier” experienced players so that working the same amount of material will produce more results. This abstracts the process without changing it, meanwhile allowing players who have “payed their dues” to be more efficient.

wrap up

ATitD was my first MMOG exactly because it allowed me to associate with other players in a non-confrontational way. I found this to be important, as I was wary of games with newbies or elitists dragging down my gameplay experience. But these issues of orthogonality and micro-management, which overlap quite a bit, have made this game hard for me. Partly because I’m simply not social — which is a personal flaw, unrelated to the game — and because I simply don’t have enough time to be a very productive player and feel my monthly fee is being spent effectively. I believe the game is responsible for this.

I understand there are counterpoints to these criticisms. People say to join more guilds, especially those specifically suited to your goals. They suggest you find something you like doing, and stick with that, then trade with others for what you need. The first idea I find unworkable for myself; I do not have the time to organize or be organized by a guild, especially several. The second, I also find, would be much more workable if one had more time to play, and thus produce one’s wares, and had a bigger network of people willing to trade.

I believe that ultimately, I don’t dislike the system per se, but I believe it needs to be severely sped up, abstracted more, and needs to gain a better variety of engaging activities; not chores. I do feel A Tale in the Desert should be applauded for not being the same-ol’-same-ol’, but when exploring uncharted ground, you may not always arrive in friendly territory.

Beyond Good and Evil: Zelda, if it weren’t Zelda

November 9, 2004 review

Before I get into my opening remarks, let me be clear: I did indeed enjoy Beyond Good and Evil. Also, this is all based on the Gamecube version. And now, my opening remarks…

In the year something-or-other, Nintendo released a game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It went on to be the best game the face of the planet ever hoped to be blemished with, according to gamerankings. Years later came The Wind Waker, and, while enjoyed, didn’t quite possess the pizazz that its prequel held.

Somewhere in there the people at Ubisoft thought “Well. Hell, Zelda is great, right? But it’s too limited, you know? No story to speak of, and that’s a shame. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll make a Zelda game that — and get this —is not Zelda.” The Zelda parts of it: large dungeon-like facilities, a sword-like weapon that powers up, heart-container-style energy, water areas navigated by vehicle, taking pictures of things, and the general puzzling ethic. Non-Zelda elements: no octoroks.

Let’s explore what Beyond does differently and similarly from Zelda. Its main difference is its story, but there are some minor differences in gameplay. But there is, as mentioned, a whole host of similarities in style. Not a bad thing for Zelda-enjoying types.

The largest difference is not related to style, but to story. It is set in a semi-futuristic world of humans and human-like animals. And animals. Instead of rescuing a princess, you are trying to rescue something much more important… the truth. Yes, it’s painfully clear the ethical position of the writers. When one music track’s only lyric is “Propaganda!”, there’s not much room for misinterpretation.

On the other side of Ico’s perceived misogyny, Beyond tries to stand as a progressive voice, with a non-oversexed female lead: Jade. She has, in fact, a very modest chest. If it weren’t for the fact that her uncle (O.K… adoptive uncle) is a squat pig, she’d feel like a very normal, nondescript person. With bright green lipstick. Interestingly enough, it has been pointed out by one person that this difference — a normal human against a world of talking animals and odd cariacatures — is what makes her stand out. I do not think this is enough to trivialize her character, however.

The biggest difference in gameplay is the introduction of mostly unhelpful, but not aggravating, teammates. There are times when they are used for puzzles, and will often help distract an enemy whilst you take on others, but for a large part of the game they are either absent or simply “there”. It is nice, however, that they do not get in your way.

The game also has moments of strong cinematic touches — especially in the first and last battles. The introductory battle is, in fact, remarkably captivating. There are also a couple of well-realized set pieces which find a pleasing middle ground between game and action movie.

So what are these traits that Beyond borrows liberally? Progression is heavily linear; one item is needed to open new areas, which in turn will unlock new items. But Jade’s arsonal is much more limited than Link’s. In fact, she only has two weapons. (And really only three active items.) Most of the “items” are related to her vehicle. Jade spends most of her dungeon time sneaking, not fighting. The puzzles are, more like Ico, mainly figuring out how to get from A to B. It’s hard to describe this: if Hyllis were instead called Hyrule, and the DomZ were instead Moblins, you’d be playing Zelda, but without the need to switch between your boomerang and hookshot and fire arrows and music instrument and floation boots with every new room you enter.

However, the control is nearly identical. You interface with the game in nearly the same way as with Zelda, both physically using the controller and in your reactions in game-space. Again, a good thing, as you explore the environment in a very fluid manner, and exploration is a key play element here.

If you just put down Ocarina or Wind Waker, you will play through Beyond with no problem. It’s a strong game that breaks the rules just enough to be applauded, but treads too lightly in other ways. Almost every minute of the game was completely enjoyable and often rewarding. But the familiarity of much of the gameplay is what prevented it from really holding its own. An interesting note, this is much of what held Wind Waker back.


Let me take an aside to discuss one of the mini-games. We’ll call it “Future Air Hockey” (or “FAH”) for now.

The differences between FAH and normal air hockey are: there are eight pucks in the play field (each player starts with four on his/her side); there is a barrier in the middle of the field with a small passage in the middle; a player wins a round by getting all the pucks into the other player’s half of the field. A cursor selects the “active” puck; you pick and angle, and you send it flying. If it goes into your opponent’s play area, the cursor selects a new puck.

The biggest flaw of FAH is that you cannot determine which puck will become active. Thus, there are times with the computer will select the sub-optimal puck for you to deal with, and you may have to toss it randomly away so that you can control the puck you wish. I can live with the small passage in the middle of the field, thought I’m not entirely sure why it is diagonal and curved.

While not an impossible game, the cursor issue makes it more of a frustrating experience than it should have been. Naughty, naughty, Ubisoft. Shoulda used the +Pad!

A Tale in the Desert, Tale 2: First Impressions

review

(Note: this was written quite early in the game’s life. It’s now about two-and-a-half months old and I’ll be — in theory — putting up a follow-up soon. If not tonight.)

If anyone here’s played (and enjoyed) Animal Crossing, then you’ll understand what starting out in A Tale in the Desert is like.

The beginning is quite task-oriented. In AC, completing a series of tasks gets you a house to live in as well as serving as a tutorial; in Desert, you acquire citizenship and start understanding the tech tree scenario ahead of you. But I can’t say that once I had citizenship, I was ready to jump headfirst into the whole game.

In AC you really start getting the sense that there is a “living”, organic community around you, as well as an interesting (if small) little burg for you to explore. You’re eager to try things out, and acquire new tools so you can accomplish more things.

Again, many similarities in Desert. Egypt is much larger than your animal village, of course, and you’re just as interested in seeing what most of it is about. And you’re still eager to acquire new tools, both to further yourself and to further your guild, if you’re in one. (And, by extension, further all of Egypt.) The difference in the community, of course, is that it is living and organic; there is no fear that after two months of play, you’ll have all of your neighbors’ dialogue memorized.

Some differences abound, naturally. Because Egypt is so large, travel is somewhat cumbersome. There are a few ways to speed up travel — and some I may not know about — but overall your avatar will travel an impressive 1/1,050,000 miles per hour. And because there’s a good chance you’ll find nothing in your exploration, it could be a lot of time lost.

Another important difference is the evolving state of the game itself; over time, Egypt becomes wiser and has more technology open to it. At the “end” of AC (which is, of course, when you stop playing), you will still be fishing, bug-hunting, and pulling weeds. But the future of Egypt promises that you’ll be learning new skills and putting them to use. I don’t know what those skills are yet.

This brings up the issue of the tech tree; you either know it or you don’t. The only resource of knowledge you have are the other players, whether by asking in-game or by reading resources online. People who have played Tale 1 and Beta will know quite a bit about the technologies coming up and what will be necessary to prepare for them; you, as a novice, have zero understanding of any of this. You end up thinking “Wow, charcoal!?” or “Wow, camels!?” Half of me feels like knowing about it is a spoiler; half feels that knowing about upcoming techs is necessary to properly plan ahead.

A rather unpleasant feature the games share is that there are periods of monotony. In AC, you typically run out of things to do on a given day. In Desert, you may find yourself spending a half hour on one thing. Click, click, wait a moment. Click, click, wait a moment.

But ultimately, Animal Crossing and A Tale in the Desert seem to share one thing in common in their early days of play: I’m compelled to go back to it again — for just a few minutes, you know — just to see what else is going on right now. And then, well, maybe after I eat I’ll run around for a few more minutes, too… And, oh, just before bed I’ll stop by that School of Thought…

Ico: Feel the Love

review

(Two notes. First, I wrote this several months ago, back in May. Second, this articles contains “hidden” spoilers. They won’t reveal themselves until you click as instructed. Otherwise, you should be able to read it without worry.)

I recently tracked down and finished Ico, the PS2’s landmark puzzle game and general game geek favorite. I’m happy I did.

In Ico, you play the titular young boy with horns who is sailed to an abandoned castle, resting atop a cliff which is jutting out the water off the shore. (Got it?) Once chained and left alone, happenstance steps in. You are freed and begin your lengthy quest to escape from the castle.

The game has two important strengths that need to be considered in this review: puzzles and light and space. Being a puzzle game, the puzzle element seems obvious. But I found myself almost equally interested, if not more so, in the way light is used in the game. I’ll also get into the negative, which is the narrative aspect of the game.

puzzles

The puzzles weren’t, in themselves, a revolution in puzzling. Pull levers, push blocks. This is pretty well-travelled territory in 3D (and, really, 2D) mind-teasers. The important element here is Yorda.

Yorda is the princess you, as Ico, discover and release from a cage early in the game. She is weak and can do little more than walk where you lead her. This brings up a tangential point I’ll get to later on. But the way this alters your progression through the castle is the significant difference of Ico.

I’m not enough of a game historian to claim this as being the first use of this mechanic, but I’m at least tentatively willing to say this is the first time its use was central to a game’s design. If The Legend of Zelda copies it (as it did in Wind Waker), you know its something worth looking into.

If Ico were by himself, the game may have been half as long. But in guiding Yorda to places he can get easily, you must generally take detours that open up secondary, simpler routes for her. This leads to moments of contemplation, frustration, and relief. It also keeps you from getting selfish, which is a remarkably rare concept in games.

But — and this is a

*****SPOILER WARNING*****


click to show spoiler

***** END SPOILER *****

It’s not so much a problem that she slows you down, but rather that she becomes a frustrating management issue. Put her here, wait for her to climb, move her there. And I’m not entirely sure why leading her by the hand causes the spring-like bounce as Ico and Yorda run, but it was by far the most aggravating aspect of movement. This leads to a frustration that breaks gameplay enjoyment.

light and space

Once outside the castle, the sun washes over the landscape. Because of the castle’s location, you can view long into the distance at the cliffs across the water and, also significantly, at remote parts of the castle. It’s very large. It’s almost staggering to consider how the designers constructed the castle, as it is more or less a continuous and integrated setpiece, even if divided into bitesized chunks.

The entire game is low-contrast; there is bright — but not blinding — light beaming from the sun, against the middle-grays of the castle. The shadows are shown to be surprisingly lit once the game’s enemies show up. They are black, smoky spirits who stand out remarkably against the rest of the environment. They are the darkest things on the screen. And even they, I don’t believe, are 100% NTSC black.

When I mentioned that sunlight washes over the environment, I meant this somewhat literally. Its intensity bleeds into the castle, into Ico, into the horizon, and wipes away details. The effect is very dream-like. Standing atop the cliffs, looking out toward the sky, everything disappears into light. At times, you are forced to wonder if life even exists in the distance. The physical reality seems almost illusory. I loved it.

damsel in distress

I think you can tell by the heading where I’m going to go with this. And, oddly, I just read two articles (http://www.igda.org/columns/clash/clash_May04.php, http://www.gamespot.com/features/6093308/p-2.html) mentioning this. But: you’re a guy and you’re saving the helpless girl. Yea. But while I’m worried this is problematic, so far as this happens a lot in games, I’m less pessimistic about its use in Ico than these articles seem to be. Its not like males are the greater gender here — note the men who, in the beginning, lock Ico away. But also

*****SPOILER WARNING*****


click to show spoiler

***** END SPOILER *****

In general, I think this was just a very simple parable, pared down to its most simple elements, and one character happened to be a boy and the other a girl. It could have happened the other way around but, probably because the creators were mostly male, it didn’t. It’s questionable but, I believe, fairly harmless. Less harmless than the bikini-revealing ending of Metroid, which I’ve always felt undermined the “strong woman role model” kinda thing. And less harmless than Princess Toadstool. She seriously needs her own game, and one where she isn’t playing the dumb but brave blonde.

afterthoughts

Finishing Ico — I don’t like to say I “beat” it — I actually felt content. It came to a satisfying close. I really don’t feel like there should be a sequel. I do hope the sequel’s release, if the rumors are true, brings the first to a stronger mainstream audience. But I don’t hope it’s Ico: Harder and Longer.

Besides, as I was saying about the selfishness, this game may not be for the average game player. It was good, possibly great, and should be left to the archives of gaming as an important point in history. It is a game whose narrative is forged somewhat by its lack of narrative, whose sensations were brought about by the responsibilities given to you, the player, and also by the wonderful atmosphere of the environment.

Yeah. I liked it.

Balderdash and Sniglets: Thoughts

May 21, 2004 review

I don’t often play party games — i.e. games one typically plays at parties — as am I rarely invited to parties. This is O.K. as parties make me feel socially awkward and then I start crying. But that’s neither here nor there. Where it is, however, is that I’ve recently played two such games: Balderdash and Sniglets.

The important point to make about the two games is that they are the inverse of one another. The gist of Balderdash is to invent the definition to a given, obscure word. Inversely, for Sniglets, one must invent an odd but believable word to a given bizarre definition. Both work in almost precisely the same manner: The current “moderator”, we’ll call him/her, reads the round’s particular word or definition. We’ll call this the “play object” for discussion purposes. There is an official definition or word, respectively, that accompanies the play object. We’ll call this the “goal”. It is kept secret. Now each non-moderator player attempts to devise a new definition or word that is more believable than the given goal.

Once done, each player passes his or her response to the moderator, who then compiles them randomly into a list to show the others. The goal is included in this list. Now each player must decide which response is actually the correct goal response. You can, technically, choose your own response. The idea for doing this is to basically create peer pressure to have others decide “Well, if she picked that word, it must be a good choice!” I find that the circumstances must be very specific for this strategy to work.

There may also be another, more important, bit of bluffing going on. The moderator is awarded points if no one chooses the goal answer. This is much more important in Balderdash than in Sniglets, and I’ll tell you why!

Sniglets has little basis in real life. They were popularized on “Not Necessarily the News”, an HBO show that, I imagine, worked much like NBC’s “Weekend Update”. I wouldn’t know. For example, the goal word might be “frust”, and its definition might be “the line of little particles of dirt that you can never sweep onto your dustpan”. So already we’re in a rather nonsensical, somewhat comical place. Each player’s response word will typically be something whimsical.

Balderdash, by contrast, gives you a serious, if esoteric, word. What makes it work is that the word and definition may be so esoteric that it ventures into the humorous or bizarre. But players won’t know this. They will simply be devising a believable definition. But if you’re playing this game in the Standard American Party Atmosphere — i.e. some or all players are drunk — then there’s going to be some uncouth responses in the mix. And the moderator, who must read each response aloud, will need to keep a straight face for each one. In Sniglets, however, the moderator just has to write each word down, not having to read them in the slightest, and each response is expected to be a little silly anyhow.

So in Balderdash, the moderator has a stronger, more difficult, and more active role. The way he or she reads the responses can color the impression the other players have on them. If, for example, the moderator chuckles while reading a response, the players will probably believe it is a fake answer. Or maybe that’s what the moderator wants them to think.

That’s basically the gist of the two games. Various points are awarded to those whose responses receive votes, to those who guess the goal properly, and to the moderator if the goal is not chosen. Each point translates into movement across a board (just a party-friendly score card) and whoever reaches the end of the board’s track first wins.

Despite their many similarities — and that I’ve only played them once — I feel Balderdash is the superior game. If you read between the lines of my review — or just, you know, read the lines — you’ll see that the inherent comical nature of Sniglets is its undoing. This may make it better for more inebriated players — I wouldn’t know — but for more strategic players like myself, this quality makes it more difficult to work with. Not only that, but as a co-player said after the game of Sniglets, “It’s easier to lie with a sentence than it is with just one word.”

Which is a good point: another reason I was less fond of Sniglets was that it’s simply a lot harder thinking up single, clever-sounding words than it was full, official-sounding definitions. ::shrugs:: Maybe that’s just a skill I don’t have.

I didn’t win either game. Ah well. I’m not a very good liar.

Mega Man: get equipped… with suboptimal choices

October 16, 2002 review

Capcom released onto the game world something very magical and rare when they published Mega Man. They gave us the power of choice. They built in the possibility — even the likeliness — that players would choose suboptimal paths for the game.

For those not familiar with Mega Man’s system, here is the gist of it. Before playing, the player is presented with a menu of boss robots. But if you haven’t read up in your recent Nintendo Power, you wouldn’t know which to choose. Not only that, but you really wouldn’t understand why you must make the choice. Making that selection takes you to that robot’s stage, and you will battle your way to the boss, itself. Here is already part of the designers’ genius, which I will discuss in a moment. You may do well in your battle against this robot, but statistically you will do worse than average. Why?

Let’s say you managed to defeat the boss through shear skill and determination. Your blue hop-happy friend will be bestowed a new power; one which he steals from the very soul of the bested robot. This new power is typically a weapon, but occasionally it offers some utility. But whatever it is, you can be pretty sure there is one robot who is susceptible to it.

Ah-ha! Though they’ve presented it to you as a choice, Capcom has actually built a very particular order to the game. But the cleverness of Mega Man is that it won’t tell you want that order is. And this is why you likely made a suboptimal choice for your first level and first boss. Now you shamble through all the levels and note which robot is weak to your newest weapon.

Here is the other tricky bit that I made note of above. The designers have to know that players (who aren’t cheating) must trounce through most of the levels several times. And so each stage must be engaging. It must be interesting enough to bring players back, but not so frustrating as to cause them to give up. But they typically walk this balance very well.

Certainly this is not the first game that gave players choice in their exploration. Consider that Zork and its brethren had already broken that sort of ground. In fact, that is one of the things text games were very strong at, in a way that is very strange to players of today. Exploration is almost a prerequisite of our games. It is, sometimes, painfully restricting when the world is not opened up for us to poke and meander around.

Perhaps a game like Super Metroid would not exist if Mega Man had not prompted this idea of freedom to roam and end up in quite possibly the worst possible situation. The concept was tweaked and refined and expanded as the many millions of sequels came through the pipeline. The Mega Max X series is a prime example. Not only would Mega Man obtain the weapons of the bosses through combat, but exploration of hidden spots along the map would present the hero with power-ups. Imagine high-jumps, wall-breaking blasters, and the power to slide. These weren’t granted by the bosses, but were found in other places and offered their own new means of exploration. And so stages were intentionally developed to be revisited with both new weapons and new means of mobility.

What does it mean to give players the choice to pick a suboptimal path? How does it affect us to learn only by doing? Is the Mega Man system different from the try-and-die mechanics of some FPSes or the wonky kinetics of a physics-based game? Does it count as a puzzle? On the surface of it, one might not think so. But it does give the impression of a puzzle after some thought. The goal is to arrange the pieces in their proper order, through trial and error. Sometimes, perhaps, by logic. But sometimes it’s not straightforward: would ice disarm heat, or would fire beat cold?

Much of the fun in the Mega Man line is figuring out the correct order for oneself. Some of it comes from cursing graphically at the TV. But players owe Capcom a thanks for the blue bomber who, curiously, never really bombed that much after the first game.

I think Mega Man and Bomberman need to have words with one another.

FreeCell vs. Solitaire

May 16, 2002 review

When I went to my grandparent’s house as a kid, I started playing solitaire. Mostly because my grandmother plays a lot of solitaire. And also, I love games. But solitaire became mostly a last-resort option for boredom removal.

Then I got a computer. And I discovered a game called FreeCell.

My life is now 89% FreeCell.

FreeCell is something of an instinct for me now. When I turn on my computer, and I’m waiting for the Internet to connect, I will open FreeCell. There is no thought process involved. While writing articles such as this, I will stop every paragraph so that I may beat a game of FreeCell. But I rarely, rarely, rarely ever open solitaire. And, if I can remember correctly, I am not terribly pleased when I do. But, for the sake of fairness and also not being hypocritical, I will play a game right now.

Well. That was an interesting experiment in conditioned behavior. Indeed, I had to relearn the rules to solitaire. And try to stop double clicking on cards. Now, for purists out there, this is the version of solitaire almost exclusively played in the US called Klondike.

But my third… or maybe fourth, I lost count… deal exampled why I generally dislike solitaire: a game is limited to the deck’s shuffle. An unfortunate deal will ultimately bring your game to an end. This brings up FreeCell’s strong advantage: all games (except one, I’ve read) can be won. And even if there are a limited range of deals you can be given, you’re eventually going to forget them anyway. I mean, I’m sure I’ve played hundreds upon hundreds of repeat games. But I’ve never ever noticed it. Of course, if you want to be very picky, solitaire has a finite number of playable permutations. But it probably is in the millions so it’s not worth considering.

Another advantage that FreeCell has over solitaire — and this is a personal bias and I’m sure many will disagree — is that it can be played very quickly. I’m pretty sure a game of FreeCell can be played in anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute. Now, let me time myself in solitaire.

Well, dammit. In the first game I played, it took me about 30 seconds to realize I was stuck. The second time, it took me about 75 seconds to realize I was stuck. And for the third game, it took 100 seconds. I fucking hate solitaire now.

Now, these figures are somewhat unreliable since a) I’ve played very, very little solitaire in the past few years and b) my blood has been known to contain trace amount of FreeCell. But it’s my guess that solitaire is sort of the secretary’s friend. It’s simple, time-wasting fun. He’ll get a little peeved when he doesn’t win, but he doesn’t sweat it: it’s all in the cards. FreeCell, by contrast, is the programmer’s companion. She’ll switch over for a game and try to drive through it. When she loses, she’ll curse herself for making the wrong moves. She’ll be compelled to try it again. So which game you like is favored by temperament.

But ultimately, I have to say that FreeCell is the better game if only because it can (almost) always be beat. You have a clear goal, it can knowingly be achieved, and even through defeat you become better. FreeCell deals can be played until it is solved. Even if you know it was your mistake that cost you a game of solitaire, you usually cannot go back to solve it. And really, there aren’t too many times when player error counts too greatly in solitaire. To my knowledge.

And, as for how the games are presented, FreeCell is more intuitive. Useless cards are automatically removed, whereas in solitaire, you have to at least right-click to get rid of them. And maybe there are some shortcuts I don’t know about… but moving piles in solitaire consists of drag-and-drop. In FreeCell, you can usually get away with click, move, click.

FreeCell just requires more thinking. I really like thinking in my games. I know sometimes mindless blasting can be a good diversion… but my guess is that people who only play those kinds of games also rate their movies according to explosions and cleavage.

Which isn’t to say solitaire is a mindless game. Well… kinda it is. But FreeCell is like the smarter, older sibling. Except younger. And if your Windows or Mac didn’t come with FreeCell, I am sad for you. But also, I’m sure you can find yourself a freeware version on download.com.

Monopoly, Spawn of Satan

April 29, 2002 review

Happy families with young kids can oft be found around the table, enjoying one of the fine, fun games available at your local department store. But I always found it interesting that Monopoly is a popular staple of this setting, despite the fact that everyone hates playing it.

Let me start this article by pointing out two facts:

  1. I realize there’s a difference between games played for fun and games played for challenge. Just in case you start wondering.
  2. I hate dice.

The flaws of Monopoly expose themselves gradually during play, but they begin immediately. As soon as play begins, the first element of hate occurs:

flaw one: the car.
I always got to be the car because I was the kid and because I had a, um, peculiar temper. But I eventually realized that my desire to control the car wasn’t mine alone: it was universal. Everyone wants to be the car. Because, what else is there? A thimble? And if players are equally stubborn, then tensions are destined to rise before the game even starts.

Similarly, there’s the matter of who will be banker. This job will almost naturally go to whomever has the best math skills and, more importantly, whomever can be trusted most.

Money’s given out, cards shuffled, tokens placed on Go. And then…

flaw two: the dice.
Dice are evil devices, conjured to spread hate and depression throughout the land. I know no good use for dice, and far, far too many games depend on the roll of the dice to add an element of “fun” to the play. I won’t go into too much detail on dice, since I’m sure I’ll have an article specifically on them. But as far as Monopoly goes, dice seem to be necessary because the game itself is ridiculously boring.

I’m a little biased, as my family instated “safe” rules. Most important was the rule that made a color block off-limits once any one of that color was bought. And thus we have an example of:

flaw three: house rules.
No one plays Monopoly the same way. Which is fine for families and such, but when you – for whatever masochistic reason – decide to play with friends, be prepared to battle over what rules you will play by. This happens all the time. Recently, I had this problem playing friggin’ War! (Also known to some as “I Declare War”.) These kinds of things could be avoided more often if people would read the damn rules! I don’t think the rules to Monopoly have been read since March 1958.

So, what happens? People land on random spaces, buy or pay rent, randomly get thrown in jail, win random beauty contests, and, depending on house rules, randomly gain the Holy Grail of money piles, universally known as “the pot”.

There is no strategy. Players have no control over their destinies. The game builds up during the first two or three trips around the block, goes into a balance-of-power lull until someone owns Boardwalk, and settles into the slow, agonizing defeat of the less fortunate players who hand their money over to the player who owns every plastic hotel in the box, including a few pennies as placeholders. That player leaves the game with the warm, fuzzy glow of capitalistic success. The others have learned to hate the winner, plotting opportunities to spit in his or her drink.

The greatest flaw with Monopoly is that it doesn’t offer players any control over the game, except one: buy or don’t buy? And quite simply, if you don’t buy, you get screwed, so there really is no question.

Inevitably, despite any honest attempts at having fun via watching your friends drain their money by paying repair costs, it just leads to frustration, despair, and the chance that the precious car will be sent flying across the room.

If you own Monopoly, you have only one hope for peace: exorcism.