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)


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!