Monday, May 28, 2018

Thimbleweed Park is very 90s but has an unsatisfying ending.

This year I'm trying to review every game I finish. I've tried to review the game in the store I bought it in, because I think that's more helpful to developers. So far I've reviewed five games on Steam and one in Apple's app store. I recently finished Thumbleweed Park on the Switch and there isn't a way to leave written reviews in the Switch eShop, so it's back to this old blog for this one.

Last year I started watching Twin Peaks because people kept making references to it and I felt left out. I found it weird a compelling. The surreal small-town melodrama, its fantastic soundtrack, and its quirky characters stood out to me. I can see why it has a cult following. A lot of people compared Thimbleweed Park's aesthetic to Twin Peak's, and they both have the surreal, small-town murder in the 1990s going on. Twin Peaks was great at contrasting mundane things that would really happen with surreal ways things could go wrong. It was full of abusive relationships, mental and physical illness, secret illicit relationships, secret communications and liasons, and references to dream symbols.

I didn't make it to the end of Twin Peaks's second season, so I don't have to be unsatisfied with whatever ending they came up with... but I'm sure it was more satisfying than Thimbleweed Park's. Exploring the town and talking to characters in Thimbleweed Park was the best. The art style was so spot-on I just took it for granted. The tones from the phone and the soundtrack really brought me back to the 90s. I also made the mistake of calling a character's home phone instead of their business's phone, forgetting that most people didn't have cell phones back then!

The characters were zany and weird, and I loved Delores's flashback sequence where she applies to work at a videogame studio. I was really impressed with the sheer number of titles in the in-game library, which I guess were part of the Kickstarter rewards and were mostly written by backers, but they made it possible to hide information within the library. I thought this was a good integration of Kickstarter content. Similarly, having an entry in the phone directory was part of a Kickstarter reward, and there were over 3,000 of them. It definitely prevented me from dialing every single number in the phone book just to see what would happen.

Despite these things that I liked, there were quite a few things I disliked. Many, many puzzles were unintuitive. I found myself dialing the hint number many times in the middle of the game. I guess weird puzzle solutions are part of "classic" point-and-click adventure games, but it's not a part I like.

spoilers for Thimbleweed Park follow

The "twist" ending was that the characters discover they are in a videogame and want to delete it to escape the cycle of being characters in a videogame. This is a narrative conceit that has been done a few times before and I don't find it satisfying here. Zero Time Dillema, and Undertale made certain aspects of save games part of their games in brilliant ways that furthered the narrative. Okay, so the characters know it's a videogame... how does that help the narrative in Thimbleweed Park? From the build-up surrounding the mystery of the factory and Chuck's diary entries, I was expecting to engage in dialogue with the rogue AI, a highly traditional scene ripe for subversion. I was also expecting the text adventure to be a LOT longer, considering its build-up. I was hoping for some explanation for Chuck's madness beyond his highly transparent and convenient diary entries. I also expected one of the characters to go on a surreal vision quest and receive divine aid. I thought we were going to find out that some of the small-town residents were complicit in Chuck's crimes or at least that two unlikely people were making out. Instead, computer Chuck gave characters easy ways to fulfill their personal goals and Delores turned off the computer in a more primitive form of the game. It was very disappointing. It made me wonder if the developers were rushed to finish the game's script and came up with that?

I know that it's easy to establish a mood of weirdness and hard to write a satisfying ending. I would have been okay with lots of unanswered questions if the given explanation hadn't been so trite. I wish I had stopped in the middle of the game when I got stuck so I could just imagine the great ending I thought was coming. But since I finished, I get to gripe with everyone else about a genre I love. :-)

Friday, December 30, 2016

How and why to stop buying videogames on sale

Last January I resolved to not buy any games on sale. I mostly stuck to my resolve, although I ended my resolution a bit early. I bought more new games, mostly for consoles, and I did play the games I bought. When I got a PS4, I allowed myself to buy three games on sale, but I've only extensively played one of them. The games I impulse buy are rarely ones I devote much time to playing.

If you have the luxurious problem of having too many games to play, and you find yourself impulse-buying a lot of games, I recommend not buying games on sale. When you invest more money in a game, you feel more obligation to actually play it, and hopefully have fun and feel some fleeting sense of  "accomplishment". But if you don't have a lot of money to spend on videogames, definitely shop the sales (and remember that Nintendo rarely puts Pokemon/Mario/Kirby games on sale)! I didn't buy any humble videogames bundles this year and at first it felt like I was missing out, but I actually didn't miss out on much.

Here's some helpful self-talk for talking yourself out of buying more videogames:
"If it turns out I really want that game later, I can buy it at full price."
"It's not saving money if I don't play any of the games I buy."
"When will I play this game?"

I pretty much stopped buying games in genres I don't actually play. As interesting as the FPS genre may be, I don't like the gameplay. I also tend not to get into strategy videogames. I like visual novels, but I only like to play one at a time. I think I have way more platformers than I'll ever play. Basically, I have enough videogames, and the main reason I buy more is to feel like I'm a part of the gaming community at large. But that also means that the games I do play tend to be things like Pokemon or Final Fantasy XV. I like the idea of playing hipster videogames, but I'm such a snob that the only things that draw me to indie games are really cute art or unusual storytelling mechanics--like Pony Island.

I also think a helpful rule for me would be to play games within a week of buying them. When I can still remember what the game was about and why I bought it, I feel more excited to play the game. There is a certain charm to "discovering" a game you've owned for a while though! I know I'm not the only one with this problem. Do you consider spending $8-$15 a month on games you won't play to be useful for the thrill of shopping? Or is it more efficient to spend $40 every few months on a title you're hyped for? My rate of videogame consumption is pretty low, so I think my current system is working well for me.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Undertale and determination, power, and passivity

SPOILERS for Undertale

I was pumped to beat Undertale. I had given up on learning how to dodge all of Asgore's attacks and I decided to go back and get the Temy armor. I farmed glasses for gold and sent Tem to college for 1000 G, and then farmed some more to get the armor. And... I was able to beat the boss this time! Except he wasn't the final boss! I died a few times to Photoshop Flowey, but I soon gave up. I watched the endings on YouTube. I might not have beaten the game but I enjoyed the time I spent playing it, and it made me reflect on the nature of determination, power, and mercy in games. I wish I had time to make these thoughts longer and more organized, but I don't, so I'll consider myself lucky to just get them down. Also I LOVE the soundtrack.

Undertale is a game about determination--the determination to forgive or kill everyone. By giving up, did I lose the game? In a normal RPG, if I had lost to the boss, I could go level up some more, or make some cooler armor, or possibly go do some sidequests and just forget about the final boss. But since Flowey takes away your ability to save (the game goes straight into his fight, and there's no option to run away or defer the fight), it makes the game more frustrating. And while the game's bullet-hell-based combat system is innovative, I suck at it. I don't have the patience or determination to play those kinds of games, so I didn't get to officially exercise mercy or "get" to the end. I think game-wise, I'm okay with that, because boss fights have never been my favorite part of a game.  

Control and power and major themes of Undertale. I didn't like the parts where I lost control over what happened to my save file, but it was necessary for the plot. And the best, pacifist ending doesn't give you any levels, which is a way for the player to say, "hey, I care more about seeing what happens if I don't kill anyone than feeling powerful right now." Undertale without leveling is kind of an anti-rpg because there's no satisfaction from seeing arbitrary numbers climb up (so by necessity, combat must be skill-based). The idea that you'll be happiest if you give up power and control over the world is a very religious one (and one that many religions share--Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism at least). The way the game lets you choose between fighting and "action"ing an enemy feels like the difference between choosing "fight" and "skill" in a JRPG. It doesn't even feel like it will be relevant later on, but it definitely is. Oh, and the way you could actually "flee" the boss fight with Undyne was genius, even though I felt stupid when I had to look it up.

The idea that you have to get to know someone before they'll stop fighting you is an interesting metaphor for relationships--are there some people that you have to put up with some quirks or even abuse before you can really forgive them? The protagonist's passivity in the pacifist route is admirable, but in real life not everyone will change if they encounter someone who is nice to them. But I think the charming and heartfelt part of Undertale is that everyone can and does change in the pacifist route. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I'm not buying games on sale this year

I love shopping for videogame sales, and it's sort of fun to "hold out" on buying a game until the price drops. I have bought and played some cool games from bundles and oh-my-gosh-it's-only-$1-sales, but now I have a giant library of unplayed games, many of which I don't feel excited to play.

If I were more disciplined, I'd resolve not to buy any more games until I've played more of the ones I already own. But instead, I'm going to restrict myself to paying full price for any new videogames I want (and yeah, I'm trying to buy fewer games in general too). If I buy a game for full price, then I'll feel more invested in playing it and maybe writing about it (how would you feel if you never played a game you paid $1 for? $20? $40?). Of course, I have the luxury of being a rich woman who can afford to buy games at full price too. And if the "thrill" of getting a good deal is gone, my videogame shopping can be more purposeful.

I'm also sort-of trying to play certain games before buying certain other ones. So here are the games I'm most looking forward to playing more of this year:

The Talos Principle - I love looking at this game, I feel smart when I manage to solve its puzzles, and the story is enough assassin's-creed-y to be exciting, but not so much that I feel cheezed out... yet, anyway. 

Undertale - I love the soundtrack for this game. I'm just stuck on the final boss fight the first time through--I did a pacifist run not realizing that was a new game+ thing? So it's really hard :-(. I love how the choice to kill or interact with enemies was more meaningful in this game. I just really suck at dodging stuff. 

Dragon Age 2 - When I play this game I feel like I don't want to rush through it to be "done" with it. Sure, I wish I could just skip all the combat and cut to the conversations, but sometimes the combat is narratively interesting too--like when you do the companion quest for the dwarf guy and he goes it alone, slaying guards left and right with his crossbow, only to find his brother and have him grovel before him... but oh wait, that's now how it happened! I also want to finish this game before playing Inquisition because I'm methodical like that.

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask - great for if I can only get intervals of a few minutes to play something between entertaining my daughter. After I beat this one I'll have played all the Professor Layton games for the DS and 3DS, which I consider some sort of achievement, I guess. 

Steins; Gate - I'm at least halfway through this visual novel, and I've been sticking it out because I've heard so many great things about it. The SF elements are very interesting, but the internet-bro characters are really annoying (but I'm hoping the main character has some cool explanation for his weird personality). After I play this one I'll let myself play either Norn 9 or Code:Realize. I played through Amnesia (an otome VN) which I liked pretty well, although some of the consequences of conversation choices were frustratingly opaque. 

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer - sometimes I just want a break from frenetic games where the world is ending. When that happens I design houses for adorable animals. I love the Animal Crossing community on Tumblr--I like posting designs there occasionally. Accessible, shareable pixel art! I don't really ever plan on "beating" this game, it's just always there for me. :-)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Indiecade 2015 Overview - Lots of cool games in a creative atmosphere

The best part of Indiecade is seeing games and their designers together, and seeing games you can't just download off the internet. There's a playful, creative atmosphere that I really enjoyed. My sister Andrea and I showed Our Personal Space at the gametasting on Thursday.
Andrea made the cute paper doll diorama

I got the all-access pass so I could see some of my videogame idols (? famous people in games that I like?) at the panels. I'm glad I did that, but if I go again I would just get an exhibit pass (the 3-day  all-access pass was about $500, while the exhibit pass was about $100). Many of the panelists talked off the top of their heads about admittedly interesting topics. Adam informed me that most panels are like that. But I'd rather read and essay or play a game those people spent a lot of time preparing. And if you want to spend money to get close to a writer or artist, that's what Patreon is for. So part of me thinks that panels at conventions are a weird thing that should change into something cooler. But another part of me knows that some people really love panels and it's a good way for conventions to support artists in the industry.

I wish I had been able to spend more time looking at all the games, especially the digital selects and the finalists. And the VR games! I didn't realize the lines for games would be so reasonable! All my convention experience is basically MineCon and the Salt Lake Comic Con, which were both super crowded. At those conventions, the panels were a welcome respite from the chaos of the exhibit hall. But at Indiecade, the exhibits didn't feel chaotic and stressful; they felt welcoming and accessible. So big kudos to the organizers for not overselling their convention and keeping it manageable.

We brought my 16-month-old daughter along. Adam was long-suffering and watched her most of the time. There were a few games she was able to interact with, but she's basically too young to enjoy non-tablet games (although she loves Patatap on the iPad). She liked the fountain near the Culver hotel. There weren't any changing tables in any of the restrooms, except for one in the women's restroom in the IndieXchange venue. She didn't mind having a few diaper changes next to her stroller. Luckily we were able to find a babysitter for night games!

If we can't go next year I want to do my best to replicate the experience at home. I think a party where everyone brings a laptop/phone/tablet with an indie game on it they want to share could be really fun. 

This ended up being more of a newsy post. I took photos of my notes and I want to write more about the panels I went to! I definitely have things to say about them.

One thing I've been thinking about is that sometimes I feel like I have to play ALL the games before I start trying to make (another) one. It's like I'm worried that someone else will have already made a game like the one I want to make, and I'll be rude to have made something so similar. But like the games advice presentation was saying, there's value in making games that have already been made. They help you learn about how to make games. I need to worry less about making something original and ground-breaking and more about actually making something. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Animal Crossing integrates features into its landscape

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is coming out at the end of September and I've been getting excited about it, so I went back to my New Leaf town. I decided to make things how I want them! I admit that when I first started playing I was really into collecting furniture, bugs, fish, and bells. But now that I've done that I'm much more interested in the personalization aspect of the game. You can design cute little shirts and dresses! What's not to like? And I think Happy Home Designer will make it easier to make things "just so." 

The in-game integration of many play aspects is one of AC:NL's strongest design features. Instead of having a pop-up or extra window, there's a place or person you can go to in order to explore other game features. It makes it so the UI can be simpler; instead of having a special menu that you have to go to to enable a feature, there's a place within the game you go to instead. Here's some examples from the game:
  • Achievements: When you earn a medal, a special walrus shows up in your town. When you talk to him, he presents you with the medal you earned. It's much less invasive than a corner pop-up! 
  • To visit another player's town, you go to a train station (how cute is that?). You can also "open" your town for visitors.
  • To play multiplayer games you go to a special island. 
  • To visit another player's "dream town" (a snapshot of the town that anyone can visit/mess up at any time without any consequences), you go to a dream spa-like place. 
  • Making "pro" designs and their QR codes can only be done at the clothing shop. 
  • Moving furniture, adding patterns to the ground, digging holes, and other "editing" aspects are done with your avatar (like Minecraft), not an "editing" menu. Sometimes this is really frustrating. I suspect it makes it easier for children and people who don't play lots of other games to figure out how to manipulate things quickly.
  • Ordering furniture and managing your money are done through special kiosks. 
Nintendo games are really good at using in-game locations for game features; I know Fantasy Life and Pokemon Black/White have similar places you go to do multiplayer stuff. It only works with games that have persistent locations or towns where it makes sense for some building or feature to be standardized. Sometimes I think AC:NL goes a little too far with it, especially with the inventory management (you can only access your large inventory from lockers/shelves in your house, and there's no way to auto sort, and there aren't very many inventory slots). But it's an extreme example I think we can all learn from. 

Now I have some other thoughts and a bunch of screenshots from the game... view them here after the break!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Does suffering increase hope? Danganronpa 2 thinks so.

Danganronpa 2 is a visual novel murder mystery game where you help solve the crimes. You're one of sixteen high school students stranded on an island, and you can't leave unless you murder another student and avoid detection. If someone can do that, everyone else remaining on the island dies and they can go free. But if you and the group successfully deduce the murderer, the murderer dies and the rest of you can continue to live to play this sick game.

SPOILERS for Danganronpa 2 below.

One underlying theme of the game is that your situation pushes you to a deep despair to allow you to enjoy a greater hope later on. The game presents this hope as vital to your continual survival in a world full of despair. 

Not every religion sees hope as a virtue. Buddhists urge us to abandon hope or "give up all hope":
One of the most powerful teachings of the Buddhist tradition is that as long as you are wishing for things to change, they never will. As long as you're wanting yourself to get better, you won't. As long as you have an orientation toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or already are.
In Christianity, hope is a virtue. It's part of having faith to have hope that you will live after death, and assuming that Christianity is correct (that's where the hope comes in), that you will be forgiven of your sins and live eternally. In Danganronpa 2, Chiaki represents the Christian ideal of hope, especially since she saves the group from their deaths through her sacrifice and enables them to return to the world outside the game.

Chiaki represents Christian hope
Christian hope in anime games is all about believing in yourself.
Chiaki is the "regular" flavor of hope, and Nagito represents the diabolical inversion of hope. Nagito is one of your fellow students who seems a little too enthusiastic about the death game. His idea is that by helping to make a completely hopeless or despairing situation, he can actually increase hope when such a situation proves fortuitous.

He attributes this twisted sense of hope to his "ultimate talent," which is that he is ultimately lucky. If he participates in a lottery, he'll win it. If he plays Russian roulette, he'll succeed at not shooting himself.

He orchestrates his death so that the murderer is random. Because he's ultimately lucky, the person he wants to kill him does so unwittingly. If you and your friends hadn't figured it out, he would have ultimately contributed to the deaths of everyone except the murderer. In this way he's also kind of an inverted savior figure, but he is unsuccessful.

In the end, Chiaki does some kind of computer magic, and you're able to break free of the computer simulation and defeat the virus that represents ultimate despair. Why couldn't you go all super-powered earlier?

The way Danganronpa 2 ends, it seems like the authors are rooting for the "ultimate despair leads to ultimate hope" version of things (especially taking the original Danganronpa into account). It certainly makes for interesting, possibly benevolent motives on the part of the characters who set up the death games. 

Certainly in Christianity, there's an idea that everyone goes through "trial by fire," or that the difficulties of life will make you into a more faithful person. But taken to an extreme, this idea is a little disturbing. If hard things in life can make you more faithful or even "better," why not cause other people to suffer so they can reach their ultimate potential? I'd like to think that Christianity has some safeguards against this, like commanding adherents not to murder each other. But what if it was all simulated suffering? Why not incite despair to create hope in a safe environment? Right now my best answer is "because that doesn't seem right, fun, or good" which is pretty unsatisfying. Thanks, Danganronpa 2, for making me think about these things.