Monday, May 18, 2015

May BoRT: How in-game decisions can make you miss content

I am the kind of person who likes to plan things out in my life. I like to plan out what meals I'll make for my family ahead of time, and if something has to change at the last minute, sometimes I freak out a little. Having a plan gives me a little control over my life, which now that I have a year-old daughter, is even more important to me. I've enjoyed games like Rune Factory 4 and Bravely Default which let me plan my actions out pretty far in advance. I hate it when games unexpectedly take you away from an area you could have done more sidequests in, or if I feel like I can't get off the narrative tracks.

When I first played Dragon Age: Origins, I left the first town, Lothering, before I had fully explored it and I missed out on Leliana and Sten. When I found out, I felt cheated. Two characters represented quite a bit of the story telling that I actively wanted to read! I probably should have noticed various subtle signals that I wouldn't be able to return to Lothering. I also felt cheated when [spoiler] I couldn't stay with Alistair because I was an elf! [/spoiler]

Another time I felt like I "missed out" was in Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. I found out that I could have returned a wallet I picked up for extra points, among other things. I felt both impressed that they included this detail and annoyed that it didn't follow other adventure game conventions where people don't care about their crap.

yes, of course you pick it up

what do you mean this was the appropriate reaction 2 hours of gametime later? [src]

I could have avoided this "missing out" if I had read through walkthroughs carefully. But as much as I like to plan things, I also enjoy not knowing what will come next. If never missing out on parts of games means never being surprised, I'm okay with missing out on a few things.

And perhaps it's more realistic to have some actions have big, unpredictable consequences (like what race you choose in DA:O). It's hard to simulate "fate" in a computer game, since the entire storyline is obviously "fated" by the writers. But when a decision you make turns out to affect more than just the immediate situation, it can give the world a richer feel. That is, as long as it's not a dumb decision like whether you choose vanilla or chocolate ice cream (an actual decision in the branching-path graphic novel Meanwhile that determines whether or not there's any story at all).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Four Narrative-Driven Indie Video Games You Should Take Seriously

Games are relaxing and fun, right? Just point and click and let all your worries slip away...

But sometimes it's more satisfying to face those worries head-on, and what better format to do so in than in the safe space of a video game? So, go ahead; ponder the existence and will of God, or the situational ethics of a Battle Royale, or the possibility of being the only survivors of a mass human extinction, or the idea that the most horrifying evil of all dwells in your own heart. Don't worry; it's only a game...

The Shivah by Wadjet Eye Games

(PC/Mac/Linux, iOS, Android; $1.99-4.99)


There’s not really a category for this game - you’re a rabbi investigating a murder in an old-school adventure game format.  Although it is set within the Jewish New York culture, it is still accessible to those not of that culture and its themes are universal. Even as you explore for clues, the dialogue makes you question what it means to be wise, what is God’s will, and what it means to belong to a religious community.  And there’s rabbinical fisticuffs.

Win The Game by Happy Backwards

(PC, Mac, Linux; free)

Actually being inside a fight-for-your-life game like the Hunger Games would be awful, no doubt about it. But, it turns out playing this game about that kind of survival scenario is not only strategic and adrenaline-pumping, but it’s also thought-provoking, morbid, and… fun?  Maybe it shouldn’t be fun. But it is!

Aloners by Sonnet009

(PC, Mac, Linux; free)
Post-apocalyptic romance is a saturated genre right now-- but this gem stands out above the rest for its flexible main character choices, characterization, and backstory.  While a lot of items in this genre suffer from too much romance or too much action, this visual novel gets the balance just right, with intricate character building and relationship exploration interspersed with wasteland scavenging and life-threatening situations.

Who Is Mike? by FERVENT

 (PC, Mac, Linux; free)


This psychological horror visual novel starts with you waking up in the same room as an identical doppleganger.  One of you has to be real.  Could you both be real? Or maybe one of you is trying to take over the real person's life. It has you wondering who the real enemy is, and seriously causes you to pause and consider if it might actually be YOU.  Don't stop until you've seen all the endings to make sure you see all of this clever story full of twists.

Monday, May 4, 2015

These sexy characters don't really want to be with you

My sister Andrea mentioned Taarradhin in a round-up post last October, and I finally got around to playing it. It's short, but it caused me to reflect on the role of romantic interests in dating games. Spoilers for the game follow.

On your first playthough of Taarradhin, you can choose to romance either one of two new slaves in your palace or simply get to know them both a little. The mechanic for choosing has a satisfying logic; if you choose to talk to one of them twice in a row, you're romancing them. In the end, it turns out the slaves were meant to be as a sacrifice to the goddess to petition for rain. You can save the one you romance but there's a feeling of incompleteness. Since the two romance-able characters are slaves, you get the feeling that they're slightly distant from you and trying to please you, even after a "happy" ending with them.

Often in dating games, each new character provides an exciting opportunity to woo and "win over." But the "true ending" in Taarradhin doesn't have you marrying anyone. The "true ending" only unlocks after you've seen the other endings, as if you, the player, needed to get your selfish romancing desires out of the way before you could start to care about the characters on a deeper level.

It's only in the final ending that your player-character really gets to know the two strangers and starts to change her own ideas about the world, shedding some of her entitlement and ignorance (but still retaining her youthful charm). She feels enough compassion to offer herself as a sacrifice in place of her slaves, and subsequently free them. It's much more satisfying than the romantic endings. Because while being married to royalty sounds like a nice life, it would be even nicer to choose one's own path.

I feel like this game caught me objectifying their characters and then gently reminded me that even handsome and beautiful people have their own hardships. Sure, if I'd had the option to talk to them more in the first playthrough, I would have done it then. But because of how the developers unveiled the information, it made me reflect on how I'm sometimes like Neqtia, blissfully unaware in my own little world and just seeing others as a means to achieve my own goals.

Friday, April 24, 2015

How the Internet liked Our Personal Space

It's been two and a half months since we launched Our Personal Space and it has been a great success! We've had over 3,000 downloads so far. We've received reviews from videogame websites, mentions on tumblr, and someone even did a let's play. It's possible you're sick of hearing me sing praises of our praises, and if so consider this post "for the record."

Probably our biggest coverage came from Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Freeware Garden feature. Konstantinos Dimopoulos enjoyed the game:
It’s up to you and the choices you make to help this wonderful game tell a tale of hope. A tale of cooperation, peaceful, interesting lives, democracy, love and community in a science fiction setting that masterfully blends future technologies with historical frontier sensibilities; thankfully this time without the brutal slaughter of indigenous peoples.
After the article went up our server went down and I spent the morning chatting with my sister about how to fix things. I found out that I didn't have the most recent installer anywhere! That's what I get for using git. Notes for next time: have a mirror link ready!

 Kimberly at JayIsGames also reviewed the game:
The cast of characters are well drawn and their interactions and the sense of community feel real. While the sci-fi aspect of the game is wonderful, Our Personal Space is not just about physical survival, but ultimately about relationship survival.
On tumblr, the Utah Games Guild, and Fuck Yeah Ren'Py blurbed the game (I actually submitted the post for the Ren'Py tumblr). Gwen at Welcome to Otome Hell wrote a lovely review:
This is a game that allows you to create a character that reacts in the same way you would yourself, and shows legitimate consequences for your actions. Do you want to leave your husband? You can. Do you want to be a loving and devoted wife? You can. Do you want to dedicate yourself to your work and make the colony succeed? You can. Do you want to laze around, learning and doing as little of importance as possible and causing the colony to suffer in consequence? Guess what: you can. I honestly cannot communicate how in love I am with this game. Play it.
Andrea got the game on the Google Play store and we had some very positive reviews there as well. My favorite is from Ace Penguin:
It teaches me to trust people and forgive them . This game makes me feel warm and happy. I wish there are more games like this!
Additionally, SuperPaulGames has done a complete Let's Play on youtube! His commentary is very crass, with lots of sex jokes and fart-type jokes. I didn't watch all of it, but I found it simultaneously annoying and entertaining.

We're grateful to everyone who has played the game and especially those who have said nice things about it. We're planning to submit our game to Indiecade!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Our Personal Space is live!

I'm happy to announce that Our Personal Space is now live! Download it here for Windows, Mac, Linux, or Android. We're giving it away for free!

My sister Andrea and I started on this game when we realized we wanted to see more games that explored a married relationship, and my sister-in-law Clarissa did all the character art. I had been playing around with Ren'Py a little, and it was a great way to get something working right away. 

I'm always hesitant to experiment with coding. It's one difference I've noticed between me and experienced coders like my sister and my husband--I'm always worried I'll mess stuff up, but they're quick to experiment and see how everything works. My "coding" was limited to things like changing variables and "if-then"-type clauses. But I did feel pretty cool when something I wrote worked!

Our Personal Space is like a dating sim in that you have a romantic relationship with a fictional character. But you're married, so it's more about the little choices you make from day-to-day than the excitement of "will we kiss?" at the end of a date. Like in real long-term-relationship, you have other things you're worried about too, like how stressed you are and, in this case, if your colony on another planet will survive. When I look back on the games with dating elements I've enjoyed, many of them have other elements to worry about. Since Persona 4 is part time-management game, when you choose to spend time with someone, it feels more like you're indicating you like them somehow (although if you're playing strategically, wanting to level up a relationship has other motivations). Each month in Our Personal Space you can choose to spend time alone, which decreases your stress more, or spend time with your husband, which increases your relationship (but doesn't decrease stress as much). 

One part of Our Personal Space that we might have gone a little overboard on is on choices. The above screenshot is from a New Game+, and the options in italics are only available if you have a certain skill at a certain level. So, on a first playthrough, you might only see one of these options in italics. We wanted to make the game fun to replay, not just to get different endings, but also to see what other options are available (like if you choose to have a baby or not). It's kind of a slow build-up, but I think it's pretty fun! Please try it out, and if you do, I'd love to hear what you thought of the experience--good and bad! There's some discussion going on over on the Lemmasoft forum. Here's the trailer:

Note: Content-wise, I think this game would have a T rating. There are some parts where it's heavily implied that you and your husband are having sex, but it's not explicit. If you were reading it I'd call it a "clean" romance. So feel free to let your teenager play!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

some Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney thoughts

I promised myself that I would actually take screenshots from a game I played and then make a blog post with them. I don't really feel like writing a coherent essay about it, but here are some screenshots and observations from Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney

They used a historical fighting stance! (img)

this trial... inspires her to sell flowers? I had some insight about it that I forgot.
If you're depending on a human being or set of humans to judge a court, logic isn't always the most persuasive thing.
the plot was weird 
Luke demonstrates that the first time you remember something is probably the most accurate, and further remembering actually changes the memory. I was kind of impressed to see this concept in a game, but they didn't go anywhere with it.
We are so tired of self-awareness that we need to be reassured it is fun in a meta-meta moment.
I enjoyed the game but it was basically half of a Prof. Layton game and half of an Ace Attorney game stuck together to make one game. I was hoping for a bit more synthesis of style, like with puzzles you'd have to solve to solve the court cases? No such luck. But it was still fun/ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October BoRT: A playtesting mask

This month's BoRT is about masks in games. I usually play choice-driven games very sincerely, so I don't feel like I'm wearing a mask when I play them. Obviously, I'm not a Japanese high school student or whoever the player-character is, but I usually choose options that make sense to me.

In his Designing Virtual Worlds, Richard Bartle discusses why players play in virtual worlds. He says things like "virtual worlds enable you to find out who you are by letting you be who you want to be." But he's clearly against the mask metaphor--if you become the character you're playing (your "mask"), then you're not really role-playing anymore, are you? For Bartle, role-playing is a kind of psychologically helpful exercise in acting. He's passionate that playing a character completely different from yourself is freeing. It inspired me to create a guardian character in Guild Wars 2 (since I usually play magic-users). But I found that simply playing a different character class didn't make me feel any different about how I played. For me, it took role-playing as a different kind of player (a playtester) to change how I played my characters.

My sister and I have been working on a marriage-relationship-sim game called Personal Space, and lately I have been doing a little playtesting. As a playtester, I want to try different play styles. Instead of choosing what I know will "win," I start role-playing different kinds of players.
no, I don't want to help you right now
My last playthrough, I maxed out my spiritual stat, but I chose somewhat impulsive or selfish replies when interacting husband character. I was studying spiritual writings every week, but there was nothing forcing me to actually change my character's personality. It's a simulation, so there's some limitations to what your character can do, but I felt like maybe I was more like this "impulsive" character than I'd like to be. I study my religion's teachings and I have aspirations at being a more "spiritual" or loving person, but on the other hand, sometimes I'm kind of an impulsive jerk. I'm sure it's possible to role-play a hypocrite in other games, but I hadn't really tried it until I felt like I had to explore different options as a playtester.

I don't think that catharsis or "venting" is helpful for controlling my emotions. But I do think that exploring my options in a videogame is a safe way to see that my habitual way of interacting with others isn't the only way (kind of an odd thing to discover while playing a game I helped write, but there you have it).