Monday, November 18, 2013

The Madness: Puzzle horror

Here's my sister Andrea's review of a recently released Ren'py game. It's the first time I've seen Ren'py used to make a puzzle game, and I was impressed. Here's her take:

What does it mean to be insane? Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Or perhaps you know the legal definition:
Insanity. n. mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.

The Madness, a free psychological horror/puzzle game by Gliese Productions, explores both those definitions as you dwell in the mind of the disturbed protagonist.  As you change reality to match memories of the past, you start to uncover the awful truth…

Its puzzles, based on interacting with items in the environment, sometimes require connecting information from several clues.  Most are challenging; a few are maddeningly difficult.  Choosing one of the easier difficulty levels allows the player to skip some of the harder puzzles, but then they have to live with not knowing the solution.

Just as if you really were inside the protagonist’s head, there is very little exposition, but item descriptions and narrative subtly convey hints about the true reason for the madness and the protagonist’s character.  

While the puzzles are creative and challenging, where the game really excels is its ability to make the player not just notice madness, but to feel it. The game’s creepy sketches and evocative music also elucidate solutions to puzzles and unnerve the player.  

There’s only one thing that prevents me from whole-heartedly recommending this game, and that is the ending.  Though it makes sense and gives closure, it is disturbing and disheartening.  I certainly can’t recommend this game for anyone with trauma triggers, or who is sensitive to horrifying and/or depressing content.  But if you are yearning for a taste of dark insanity, The Madness delivers.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Okay, I understand exclusives now

Lately I've been playing my 3DS a lot with Animal Crossing, and in that weird everything-must-be-useful way, I felt sorry for my Vita. So I bought the visual novel Sweet Fuse: At Your Side on it, which has some elements of an otome dating sim (your character is a woman and you get to choose which guys to hang out with). The setup is just as artificial as Zero Escape, and the puzzles aren't interactive, but it hits the visual novel spot, and it's a game that's not on Steam.

Wait, I think a game not being on Steam is a good thing? What weird world am I in?

I think I'm finally understanding the psychology behind exclusives and why many of the commenters here refuse to buy Sweet Fuse because it's a PSP, not a Vita game. As a gamer with a lot of consoles, I have more than one console because there are specific games you can only play on each console. The PS3 has a lot of JRPGs like Ni No Kuni and the Wii has the Mario and Zelda games. I don't have an Xbox 360 because I don't care about Halo, and every other Xbox game I wanted to play has been available for PC (eventually). So when I see a new game available on the Vita that I can buy on Steam or Gog for half the price (or sometimes even 80% off on a good sale, I'm looking at you, Puddle), I'm not all that excited about it. I am, however, excited about PSP games because I've never owned a PSP.

I do want exclusive games to justify my Vita purchase (as if the 40+ hours I spent on P4 Golden weren't enough justification?). But the way I see the Vita going, it's turning into a more expensive vehicle for indie games, with a only a few cool exclusives. I'm trying to understand why everyone doesn't buy the same indie games on Steam when they're cheap. It's probably because a good gaming PC is a lot more expensive and complicated than a console, and maybe people don't know about nice, cheap PC games? Or maybe my question should be: Why aren't PSN sales as awesome as Steam sales?

I think Sony's fans are just willing to pay more for games, and maybe they aren't as cutthroat about prices as I am on Steam. There's also less expectation of huge sales on the PSN, so people probably buy games when they want them and don't wait for them to go on sale. I think people spend more money overall on huge sales though, but that depends on having a huge library. So hopefully with Sony going micro-console on the Vita (though not in the US yet), the library will get much bigger and I can feel more justified in waiting around for a good sale. Or maybe PSN prices will always be higher... thoughts?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Android's best visual novels

It's hard to find good visual novels for Android. I know, because I've played some awful ones. Thankfully, my sister Andrea has picked out three of her favorites in another guest post:

Visual Novels for Android

Combining the prose of a novella with the decision-making of a game, these are some of the best visual novels I’ve played recently:

Days of the Divine

Set in an ancient Asian-fantasy setting, ancient gods waken and you mediate their conflicts as a shrine maiden. Three vastly different endings, plot twists, and solid characters are accompanied by beautiful art and soundtrack. Available for Win, Mac, Linux, Android.


From the same developers, but with a completely different tone and theme, this visual novel has you take the part of an MMO character who thinks the game world is real. Funny and sweet.  Available for Win, Mac, Linux, Android.

a2 ~a due~ 

Polished, poignant visual novel about a young woman who’s forced to manage her father’s orchestra, with themes of overcoming language barriers and parental expectations. Available for Win, Mac, Linux, Android.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Non-disappointing indie Android tablet games

While I have a lot of gaming devices, I don't own an Android tablet. My sister Andrea does though, and she's written up some blurbs of some familiar (and some new) games as they play on an Android tablet (her words below):

Since I purchased Humble Bundle 6 (not available anymore, sorry!) full of Android games, I thought I would see how my Nexus 7 functions as a gaming device. I was pleased to find some real gems; Android is a great platform for indie developers because anyone can develop for it and release games with no fees.  While there’s still plenty of ad-heavy, clicky, freemium “games” out there, the games below are all polished gems worth trying.  

Note: Though I played all these on Android, some are currently only available on Android with Humble Bundle 6.


Beautiful, relaxing game where you play as an ocean creature uncovering ancient magical powers. Spells are cast by playing various notes (similar to LOOM, though much less cumbersome), and are used both to fight monsters and solve puzzles. Available for Win, Mac (Android with HB 6)

Organ Trail

Rachel mentioned this one; I played it long enough to beat it and it is quite fun, especially if you played the original Oregon Trail as a kid. Expect to die your first time or two until you figure out the game. Unlike Oregon Trail, it has several different mini-games and more complex dynamics; you can upgrade your car, or learn combat skills; you can do jobs for money or brave the zombies to scavenge supplies. Available for every platform.


Simple, yet addictive rhythm game with hip chillout music. Available for iOS (Android with HB6).

Frozen Synapse

Turn-based strategy combat game with fascinating atmosphere and brutal AI. Available for Win, Mac Linux, iOS, Android.


A hip, hexagon puzzle game that is both challenging and relaxing. Available for PC, Mac, iOS (Android HB6).


A puzzle platformer where you roll a ball across a twilit landscape.  It has a beautiful atmosphere and can be quite challenging (sometimes frustrating?). Available for Windows on Steam (Android with HB 6).

Broken Sword - Director’s Cut

Somehow I missed this adventure game when it originally came out in 1996. Full of mystery, conspiracies, templars, and artifacts, it’s a great point-and-click adventure, with remastered art, sound, new playable character, etc. Great fun for any adventure game fan. Available for iOS, Android, Mac, PC, DS, Wii.

Other Android Games


Speaking of point-and-click adventures, here’s another fantastic one. It deals with stolen memories, arcane rituals, and lost rites. The plot is well-paced, with delicious twists and poetic imagery. Mature content. Available for Win, Android.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Explanation of what it is and its appeal.

I've given in and I started playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I hesitated for a long time because I had tried City Folk for the Wii and found it kind of boring. I guess I feel like if I'm going to go to the trouble of booting up the Wii, I should be able to play something and get a tangible amount of progress done towards winning a game. But for some reason on the 3DS I've stuck with it thus far (I suspect that its trendiness, and the non-demandingness of the 3DS contributed). I'm both impressed and overwhelmed by how this game expects me to play almost every day.

If you haven't played any Animal Crossing games, it's kind of like the Harvest Moon franchise, in that you harvest/gather/catch various things and sell them at a profit, except Animal Crossing occurs in real time. So there are certain things that only happen on Sundays, and holiday events for things like Christmas and Halloween. In New Leaf, you are the mayor of a little town, complete with animal neighbors who ask you to give them things and make up catch phrases for them.

typical AC
Aside from the ecological carnage you can inflict (uprooting flowers, catching endangered fish, and chopping down trees being foremost), the game is non-violent. The social features of New Leaf are probably the best I've seen for a 3DS game (okay, they're the only online features I've ever used in a Nintendo game, period). If you so choose, you can open your town up to having visitors from your list of 3DS friends, or you can go visit them. You can visit the villages of non-friends through the dream world, and you can play minigames internationally through the island.

Having friends who will let you visit their town is also strategically important, as your home village fruit sells for more in other towns, and if you get into turnips you stand a better chance of not losing all your money if your friend has a spike in turnip prices while yours are declining (it's called the stalk market). I love how the social features aren't vital but make certain aspects of the game easier.

The day-to-day play of New Leaf isn't very gripping. You can dig up fossils, talk to your neighbors, buy furniture/clothes, and donate new creatures to the museum. I think the real satisfaction from New Leaf comes from watching your town and collections grow. Of course, all the hours you put in increase your emotional attachment to the game too. It's not just about collecting things though. It's also about how you display your items and how you design your town.

dragon quest tileset

In some ways New Leaf is like a more contained version of Minecraft. If you're good at pixel art, you can make custom designs for floors, walls, furniture, and clothing right in the game. It's possible to make your own skin for your Minecraft character, but it's not as accessible. Sharing and stealing patterns is also really easy in New Leaf; just scan a QR code and you're done. None of this downloading a file, putting it in the right directory, and rebooting stuff. It's really fun to wear a dress designed by someone in Japan, or put down a tile set designed by a hardcore fan. I hope other games can incorporate these creative features, because they're really fun (it reminds me of Little Big Planet and Sound Shapes)! Now if only I could create a cool tileset...

PS Check out this horror village, Aika village, that someone made their animal crossing town into (start around 4 minutes in). Remarkable!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Our Ouya arrived! Some blurbs.

It's small and cute.
Our Ouya arrived yesterday! Acius had to do some display wizardry with the TV to get the resolution right, but other than that it was pretty easy to set up. It's definitely running on Android! And anyone can develop a game on it for free! I love the graphic design of the Ouya UI so far--sans serif fonts with logical category names that don't have too many subcategories.

The controller came out pretty well. The batteries are actually in the handles, which feels both clever and kind of a pain to replace. The analog sticks work wonderfully, but I'm wishing the D-pad were more precise. I'm not sure why, but the D-pad doesn't always do what my fingers tell it to. I'm hoping there's some sort of pattern to the madness that I'll get used to.

There aren't that many games yet, but I played a few so I thought I'd give 'em some blurbs. All games on the Ouya have some sort of playable demo or trial; trying them is free! :-)

Favorites so far:
before Acius fixed the display it looked too large. Also, Harry Potter road trip!
The good:

Organ Trail gives me some nostalgia and makes me snicker like a 6th-grader. I love simulation games (yes, it is a zombie version of Oregon Trail), and so far the zombies aren't too scary (I didn't get very far though, since their trial is timed... I might buy it). There's also some real strategy going on with what kinds of provisions to take along and when to go searching for stuff.

I played the demo for Puddle a while ago on my Vita. It's a physics-based game where you're tilting liquid around to avoid obstacles and whatnot. I thought it was too hard then. I found it easier on the Ouya since you can only tilt so far.

Platformers are easy to make but hard to make well. League of Evil starts out with fun things like double and wall jumps and has kind of a Super Meatboy vibe to it. Playing this game actually made me want to get out my Vita and play some more Guacamelee, since I felt like the platforming was tighter there. It's hard to tell if it's the game or the controller who is letting me down here, but it's still fun.

The maybe-you-will-like them:

Abbigale and the Monster: a cute puzzle game that does the two-player-characters-mirrored-who-have-one-control thing. I found it frustratingly difficult, but I liked the aesthetic (simple pixel art) and music.

The Ball bills itself as a FPS puzzle game. Admittedly I didn't get too far but I really didn't like the horror vibe going on. I think it was the music and the skulls, and the promise of enemies later, but it turned me into a chicken. It feels like it's missing little things like foot noises and good voice acting.

No Brakes Valet is a silly, simple car manipulation game. Cars come into the parking lot at breakneck speed, and you have to slow them down and park them for tips. Difficult.

The things-need-to-change games:

Polarity is another FPS puzzle game and its puzzle rooms remind me of Portal. I want to like it but something is a little off about some of the physics. I should come back to it, since I like puzzle games, but I have some other more polished FPS puzzle games to finish.

Vector is a Parkour game the looks pretty sharp. You do things like jump, speed up, or duck depending on your environment. I think it has some in-app purchases, which rub me the wrong way (I much preferred Organ Trail's timed demo).

Maybe I'm being too harsh a critic on these mostly indie games. I feel like with Steam sales being what they are, indie games have to compete with professional studio games, and to do that they should offer something another game isn't already doing better. I'd love to see more games with an engaging, semi-branching story, although I know that the target demographic for Ouya games is probably the more "hardcore" set that people assume just wants platformers and shoot 'em ups. Anyway, I'm excited to see what other games crop up for the Ouya (and also relieved that Ouya made good on their Kickstarter promise).

For those of you still waiting on your Ouya--I got my "it's on its way!" e-mail about 17 days ago. After two weeks I was going to e-mail them, since my tracking number wasn't working, but it turned out it actually was in the mail.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What bad inventory puzzles can teach us about objects

Inventories in adventure games are getting a little hate, and perhaps with good reason. Ron Gilbert boasts that The Cave has no inventory; this review of Penumbra assures you that there are no inventory-based puzzles, and the makers of Hamlet have “no inventory” as a feature. If you’ve played more than one adventure game, you’ve encountered the frustrating situation of an inventory-based puzzle; sometimes you simply try every item and then try to combine them with themselves until you find a solution (or if you’re like me, you just look it up in a walkthrough). These types of puzzles are rightfully hated because all too often, an inventory item is a one-use hidden key that solves one puzzle.

The main problem with inventory puzzles arises when the expected functions of an item do not match the in-game functions of an item. Consider the monkey that’s later used as a monkey wrench in The Secret of Monkey Island. It’s a use that would only make sense in a videogame. Or consider the “put gems in a pile of honey” puzzle from Kings Quest V. While these puzzles are illogical, they ironically force us to see inventory items more abstractly, in a way that an object-oriented ontologist would be proud of.

Object-oriented ontology is just one way to describe the idea that humans and the uses they have for objects don’t describe the entirety of objects, and in my argumentation, their uses. When we look at natural resources, we’re always thinking of how they can help humans and other life forms (which is only natural, given our states of humanness). When an idea arises, it’s often dismissed if it doesn’t concern humans, or our wants and desires.

Now, it would seem like a videogame, which is designed for humans to use and enjoy it, would depict objects in a human-centric way--that is, most objects in a game are there to fulfill some kind of puzzle or make a joke. But the very strangeness of some inventory puzzles undermines our expectations of how objects can serve us, and further alienates us from how humans normally use objects. It forces us to confront the very nature of the inventory puzzle, which is that “x (with y) used in z way solves the puzzle.”

Inventories can include items that aren’t physical objects. Trauma Team has patient symptoms and murder clues as inventory items, and the Ace Attorney series has statements and ideas as item types. Lost in Shadow had your character collect memories, and Resonance allows you to refer to past events in your “long-term memory” section of inventory.

To name a memory, and object, or a thought--is to both reduce it to less than it really is and to allow us to manipulate it. An object is more than its name, but without using that name or icon, we cannot think about what we want to do with it. But virtual worlds are different. An item in a game will have a verbal and pictorial description (including within the game’s code) that completely describe how the item works in that world.

These ideas-as-objects in a game are both what they say they are and not. You’ve probably experienced a moment like in Hotel Dusk where you know what you need to do but your character doesn’t. That time in Ace Attorney where you present evidence that contradicts the testimony, only to have it not be the “right” thing. It’s frustrating, yes, and maybe the designers could have done better, but if we ignore them for a minute and just look at the game they produced as an object, it’s an object that teaches us how unsympathetic computers are. How computers do exactly what we tell them to do, and they don’t have feelings.

I’m in awe of how objects, even man-made objects, can teach us things unintended or unknown by their designers.

I initially write this piece for something else, and now a few months later I figure I might as well publish it here, even if it is kind of weird and might not accurately reflect OOO. Also it is kind of obviously/painfully inspired by Bogost's Alien Phenomenology.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Feminine Aesthetic in Game Design

I've been thinking about how gender influences design and narrative style in videogames.

In my graduate seminar on Western-American literature, we discussed the book Borderlands: La Frontera. The book is written by a woman who sees herself on the border in the ways she defines herself: in her ethnicity, her sexuality, and her culture. We talked about how a writing style can be masculine or feminine (of course using very stereotyped definitions of masculine/feminine). Academic writing is, according to this theory, very masculine: it's highly linear, hierarchical, orderly, and institutionalized (in its publication, who can write it, etc.). Feminine writing is more circuitous, expressive, and personal. Maybe feminine isn't a great word for it; maybe it should be called experimental or expressionist. But I wonder if gender plays into it.

If you've read Anthropy's Rise of Videogame Zinesters (I reviewed it), it's a good example of a "feminine" non-fiction narrative style. It includes personal experiences, videogame history from a non-AAA point-of-view, how-tos and inspiration for making your own games.

Recently I've been playing Magical Diary. It's a scheduling-type game where your decisions and stats determine how you pass your exams and who your romantic interest is. You need to play through the game more than once to see all the possible options; for this reason I'll label it "circuitous." This is different from a New Game + where your character is stronger or the bosses are harder on a 2nd playthrough. There are a few conversations where you get to decide what to say, so I'd say it's also kind of expressive.

Recently, many personal games have been coming out of the Twine scene, many written by women (not that a man couldn't write in a feminine style, just that he often chooses not to). They're experimental, personal, and/or branching. So I think if I were to apply this idea of feminine aesthetics to game design, it would look like this (and I don't think any one game is completely feminine or non-feminine; just some ideas):

  • circuitous, non-linear, cyclic
  • expressive: the emotions of the player or player character are central to the game's "message"
  • personal: since many games by women are made by small teams or individuals, they can put others in their shoes in an eye-opening way. Think dys4ia or Mainichi or Actual Sunlight.
Aspects of masculine design could be the inverse... but they don't have to be. For instance, Oblivion is a very non-linear game, but its hierarchical quest and level structure are very masculine aspects of the design. So masculine design aspects would be:
  • linearity or being "on rails" 
  • empowering: the game makes players feel powerful or special
  • hierarchical: tied to empowering; a linear structure enables a game to scaffold the player's learning (like in Portal), or familiarity with an arbitrary combat system (leveling, quests, etc.). 
This ties into videogame publishing and feminist aesthetics. This article, in describing the background of feminist aesthetics, describes the fear as "the systems of representation that are available in Western culture are so irredeemably male that a woman can only be heard if she adopts a male perspective, if she speaks as a man." Since self-publishing is easier, women's voices are out there, but are they being listened to?

Otome dating sims, where you're a girl looking for romance, are kind of hard to find. There are a few good publishers and they're small. There are a lot of visual novels out there too, and it's kind of hard to find excellently written ones. Is it because the feminine aesthetics that brought them into being are fundamentally opposed to an orderly distribution service like Steam? Or is it because Steam (or other large downloadable publishers) only listens to women's voices when the speak "as a man"? 

There are other games that include many feminine aspects but are still masculine in their design. Take Portal. You're making paths instead of killing people; your character is a mistress of the void, yet you are carefully led through a linear series of puzzles. I think Tomb Raider especially suffers from this conflict between masculine and feminine design aesthetics, but I haven't played it so I don't feel like I can write much more about it. 

I'm trying out ideas here; is it silly to designate some design aspects as "masculine" or "feminine"? Or do you think it's a distinction worth thinking about?

I consulted this feminist aesthetics article when writing this.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Best games for coping with pain

When people are sick, they usually want a familiar distraction. I read about various games people play when they're sick, and they come from all genres. Writer Coombs says he likes playing Super Mario Bros. when he's sick, since he's played the game so many times and his muscle memory can automatically get him through it. For me that would be crazy. I can barely get through the first few levels when I'm well. Coping with a sickness is a lot about waiting out your misery until you feel better.

Games that help me cope with pain are similar, but require a more specific type of game to be effective. SnowWorld, the VR game that helps burn victims cope with the pain of skin treatments, focuses on total immersion. The patients wear headsets and noise-cancelling headphones. When compared to a game like Mario Kart, SnowWorld is much better at distracting from pain. I know that games can be a powerful distraction, and I think a game's ability to distract depends on the genre of game and the player's experience with that game. 

For me, the best pain-distraction game is Lumines. It's a falling-block game where the difficulty waxes and wanes with the soundtrack, and I'm proficient enough to play for 30-40 minutes before losing. I loaned out my Vita and struggled to find a good replacement game.

Tetris and Dr. Mario got too difficult too quickly for me to "zone out" to them. It made me wish that either game had a fixed-difficulty "endless" mode. I also tried out a match-3 game Zoo Keeper, which had many of the qualities I sought: it requires continual attention, the task is not too difficult and game sessions last a long time. However, as you level up, you have less time to find a match; it made me panic (it's otherwise a fun and cute match-3 game). 

I tried out some other types of games to help with my pain. The DenpaMen,* a dungeon-crawler where you sit around watching your Denpa men automatically fight for you, was pretty good to zone out to, but it doesn't require enough of my attention to make me forget I'm in pain. RPGs are pretty good, but when the story gets going it's like I'm reading a book, which isn't as... interactive? So I've been trying to play more puzzle games in hopes of finding a good "zone out" game. Any recommendations?

*listen to parts of The DenpaMen soundtrack here... it's cute.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Inspiring Women Game Devs

I haven't participated in Critical Distance's monthly Blogs of the Round Table blog prompts for a while, but this month is about ladies in videogames we admire. And um... there are a lot of women in games I admire. I'll start with developers.

Christine Love: When I played Don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story back in 2011, I was first impressed with the mechanics/story of the game. Then I realized that Christine wrote all the code and story herself (it's also where I found out about Ren'py). Which is awesome. And after that I kept finding more women who were making games that I liked a lot more than the puzzle-platformers I keep seeing (they're fun sometimes, I just like a little variety in my indie games). 

Deirda Kiai's Life Flashes By was another game I played happily (remember when Brainy Gamer was like "you've probably never heard of it" thereby solidifying his position as indie game hipster?). I was impressed with how the story inspired reflection on my own life choices. And after I played it, I found out it was designed/written by a woman. The quality was a little amateurish at times, and I realized that at some point a game can still be really good, even if it doesn't always look/sound like a professionally-made game. I mean "amateurish" in the best way possible.

Lively Ivy is another woman who keeps making games, and has been making games for a while. After I played a little bit of Spooks I felt like maybe I could try to do some pixel art sometime. It's inspiring to see how these artists started out doing smaller projects which eventually get put on Steam and stuff.

I don't actually know Bentosmile's gender, but their small games have inspired me too. I love how cute the games are as well as how they say things about the world. Things like "the attitude you have affects how you see others." I really like Zoe Quinn's games too. Even the small ones.

Speaking of niche genres, I was so happy when I found Hanako Games. I felt like there were other people who liked simulation games and games with lots of story. I just found out that Georgina Bensley pretty much runs Hanako Games and... that's awesome. I loved Long Live the Queen and the demos of the other games. I'm so glad these genres aren't dying out.

Around the time I started going on Twitter last year, I read Anna Anthropy's book about how anyone can make a videogame. It inspired me to make a simple and stupid game in Stencyl, and then another game in Twine. It helped me feel like even if I couldn't make a really professional game, making a game is still worthwhile. It's kind of like how I cook all the time even though I'm not a professional chef. You don't need a food license to cook for yourself, and you don't need a degree in computer science to make a fun or stupid game. 

My older sister Andrea is also an inspiration to me. She made a math game on her graphing calculator for me when I was a kid, which was basically Data from Star Wars: TNG asking me math facts. She helps me feel like programming is something I can do if I sit down and think about it. You know, the logic of "well my sibling did it so I should be able to do it too." She also made a choose-your-own hypertext adventure game about a spaceship that I can't find anymore (maybe it was someone else?). She has written her own murder-mystery parties, and she and her husband made a mod for Neverwinter Nights. Oh, and she and I are making a videogame together about newlyweds colonizing a planet (I just help a little with writing). 

It's not just one woman making games who has inspired me. It's how multiple women have successfully made games that I really like, and how they keep doing it, even though their games have kind of a niche audience. So... thank you, women making games! You inspire me. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Virtue's Last Reward fixes all the annoying things about 999

Remember when I was whining that visual novels should learn a thing or two from sequential art/comics? I think a designer over at Chunsoft must have felt the same way, because Virtue's Last Reward (VLR) solved most of the problems I had with 999. VLR is the sequel to 999 and is in the same genre: visual novel with periodic escape puzzles.

The worst thing about the writing in 999 was that it was redundant to visual information. It was like they were expecting a blind person to play the game and describing physical attributes and degree of passion on comments when we had a picture of the person and their expression to learn that from. Thankfully, VLR cut back on this annoying literary technique. It made the dialogue go by faster and helped it feel like a game where characters are talking to each other and not a novel being read to you.

By far my favorite part of VLR, which I think other branching stories should adopt, was the story flow chart.
After you get one ending, instead of starting from the beginning and skipping through lots of text, you can go back to the last story-branching decision and choose the other option. Or you can go to some other branch and see how that part unfolds. You still end up skipping a lot of text, but compared to the alternative it is relatively painless.

The other nice part is that after you escape from a room once, you don't need to ever solve it again to escape. This feature isn't used very often though, because the designers made it so every single path has a different puzzle room to solve. So the writing is better and the branching story is easier to navigate.

Another aspect I liked was that the things you learn in some branches of the storyline unlock other parts. It made it feel more like you were building up to the "true" ending and less like you were just seeing all the possible endings. The fact that your character can sometimes remember things from other timelines makes this like... a modernist visual novel? Or you know, just ridiculous sci-fi. There are so many crazy reveals and it made me look forward to each ending. I can't believe I actually LIKED the ridiculousness of it all. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Depression Quest!

For a long time, I've been somewhat fascinated by depression. I've had friends who suffered from it. I studied psychology in college, and depression was a part of those studies. I've read personal essays and fiction describing the abyss and clustercuss that is a depressive episode. But none of these experiences have made the experience as clear as Zoe's Depression Quest (well, Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey). If you choose to isolate yourself and give in to feeling crummy, your depression gets worse. These negative feedback loops are the things that feed depression. But you can't "just do" things or snap out of it--depending on your depression level, certain options will be unavailable.

Playing this game fills me with compassion for those who suffer from depression. It also helps me recognize my own "depressive"* thoughts--like when it seems like everyone is doing cooler things than me, or when I feel useless, or when I don't feel like talking to anyone I haven't known for more than two years. I think everyone should play this game--it will make you more compassionate and understanding if you haven't suffered from depression, and it might help you feel like you're not alone if you have. 

*I don't have clinical depression. But we all get down sometimes.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ni no Kuni is bringing the airship back

"I want an airship in my game. Not an airship where you just select where you want to go, but one you can actually move around the world in." This was my husband's one stipulation about what an RPG should have. After a bit of discussion, I wasn't sure if such a game existed this-gen (although I think Tales of the Abyss has one). I remember googling "airship JRPG" to try to find a JRPG with whole-world exploration, and not being able to find one (it's not the most searchable topic... so please comment with your favorite explorable JRPGs).

So you can imagine how we've been enjoying Ni no Kuni, the JRPG that incorporates some aspects of old-school design (including a way to explore the world aerially), while at the same time making the genre highly accessible.

And by "accessible," I mean, "a good introduction to JRPGs for this generation." Some JRPGs get difficult very quickly, and require strategies that a 10-year-old might not think of. I'm glad we have games that are difficult, but I still appreciate games that are made with children and adults in mind; Ni no Kuni does this excellently. The pun-filled "pieces of art" quests might go over a few kids' heads, but they made me chuckle. I don't mind that Drippy always tells me how to beat a boss, and I've enjoyed playing on easy to just enjoy the exploration and story.

Being able to explore a world is key to my enjoyment of an RPG. In some games the amount of possible exploration is overwhelming (like Oblivion), but I'd prefer that to a railroaded course like in FFXIII. Repeatable battles still strike me as a way to extend the "fun" content of exploring and story-reading, which makes me wonder if I'd like an RPG that completely got rid of combat (I probably would; I really enjoyed To the Moon).

Combat in Ni no Kuni is what has bothered me the most. In an effort to make the game easy for children to understand, the AI controls are very minimal (but exist!). It's very common for an ally to dump all their MP out on a battle they could have won using only one ability (the alternative is "no abilities"). It's probably a sign that I've matured in my RPG strategies; I doubt I would have cared about ally AI as a teenager.

The lack of AI control is completely forgivable given how well-written and gorgeous the art is. The creatures you fight have funny names like in Pokemon--one chick creature is a "Teeny Bopper" while a cat creature is a "Purrloiner." Yes, it's that kind of humor.

Have you been enjoying Ni No Kuni? I-I think you would probably like it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Crayon Physics at a science museum

Do you remember Crayon Physics Deluxe? While I was in Portland I spotted it at the science museum OMSI in a display in their physics lab, alongside World of Goo. It made me smile inside. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An adorable adventure game you might not have played yet

I love how The Sea Will Claim Everything (TSWCE) looks homemade. It reminds me of the little mazes my older brother and I would draw during church. We drew little swords and shields to collect on your quest to the end to fight a static but scary boss. Other styles have their place, but Verena Kyratzes's illustration style is warm and inviting. The music makes me feel the same, like I've come home to something I can befriend.

TSWCE is a point-and-click adventure in a fantasy setting. Like in fantasy novels, circumstances mirror our own, like the financial ruin of governments and irresponsible leaders and stupid bureaucratic things. The home you start out in is a complex biological organism, and every mushroom and book is given a loving and humorous description that Terry Pratchett would be proud of.

We have so many games that are edgy and gritty and stupidly self-aware. This game provides the antidote to self-satisfied naval-gazing: a sincere story, warm, cute art, and characters who aren't either good or bad, but have opinions that you might agree or disagree with (unless they're the bad guys and well, yeah). Lana at Bit Creature wrote more eloquently than I of this game's loveableness.

I want you to play this game too. If you're not sure if you'd like it, try the free The Fabulous Screech, which has the same feel in a short-story game format. You can buy TSWCE for $10 and upvote it on Steam's Greenlight, if you like what you see. And if you do play it, let me know what you think! Part of the fun of playing games is discussing them.