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.

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)

 

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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)

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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)
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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)

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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.