Category Archives: Years

Peeing In The Park – Dogforce Seasons


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I just don’t know how to really present it with knowing authority for a recommendation, but I find it fun to be a dog for a while and scare birds and piss on fire hydrants and catch frisbees and shake water over men on park benches reading newspapers. Does that make me innately childish? – maybe. Is it a worthless experience – I don’t think so. It brightens up my day and it just lets me do something I haven’t done before. And rather than rationalise away it’s sense of unimportance, I’d rather just enjoy it for what it is.

There’s a fair bit more to it than that as well. There’s gameplay here – trying to chain together actions for a higher score multiplier, and I like the marriage of straightforward score attack with the idea of trying to uncover new actions to improve your strategy in the future. When to jump for the frisbee at the right time to keep the multiplier going, that sort of thing. Presumably there are unlockables, and different scenarios (the seasons!). There’s a pleasant lack of consequence as well – the playful actions of being a dog in the park provide the sort of freedom that I suppose wouldn’t be the same if it were a human avatar. Or would it?

Here’s the website

Flapping at Life


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To finish a mini-trilogy of hybrid game designs, this is Flapping Bird, which I suppose is more of a parody or a homage to the ubiquitous Flappy Bird. But rather than just copy the game into some sort of tweaked graphical style, the game more directly inserts a whole storyline into the equation. And transforms or maybe clarifies how this type of gameplay can become (or already is) a metaphor for the pressures of life, capitalism, the experience of working life in general. You can play it here.

It’s creator, Ethan Levy, runs an excellent blog focussing on his developing career as a monetization consultant having left EA’s mobile division a year or two ago. He writes about his experiences here

Matchstick Memories


2014_matchstickmemories_1Matchstick Memories is another enthralling hybrid of different game concepts. A succession of grid-based puzzle concepts is linked with the gentle adventuring reminiscent of early text adventures, but with a more airy, contemplative feel. For a game with text and a few symbols, it manages to evoke moods through use of simple colour schemes, and little icons that you almost form a relationship with over time.

Like Gridland and A Dark Room, it’s a game that builds a convincing holistic experience out of building blocks you’d associate more with abstract game experiences. Human nature is to look for patterns and meanings in the most abstract shapes and colours, and with a little guidance a series of squares and symbols are more than enough to form a convincing and memorable narrative.

It’s made by CH Buckingham – here’s it’s page on itunes.

 

Match 3 Equals Life – Gridland


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Thanks to Leigh Alexander’s fascinating interview with Doublespeak Games’s Michael Townsend I am now aware of his latest creation, called Gridland. Along with some of the thought processes behind it.

It’s one of a number of recent games that take the Match-3 formula, and twist it into something a little bit more meaningful. There’s another one I’ll be writing about in my next post. But I suppose if we think of Puzzle Quest’s battle system, but rather than playing a surreal puzzle game to score attack, Gridland actually makes the tiles both the resources in the game, and the actual embodiment of what will happen to the little stickman at the top of the screen. If we match stone or wood on the grid, he will pick up that resource and use it to expand his little civilisation. The game also has the superb twist that the same grid goes into a night-time nightmare mode of hack and slash battling.

And if it’s anything like Townsend’s previous game A Dark Room, which I really should have written about before (because it’s absolutely superb), there will be lots of other twists along the way. Like A Dark Room it is relentlessly and dangerously addictive. And I think the reason why is the way that every decision you take on the grid actually has a real affect in-game – it absolutely isn’t a time-waster in game terms, though clearly the game takes the form of a timewaster given the indelible connection to games like Bejewelled and Candy Crush. I suppose you could label this the anti-Candy Crush if one was a lazy hack :).

So there’s something indelibly elegant about the way this game is designed, and that beautiful elegance is something I treasure in games a lot more than plain ‘content’. There’s a connection to the games of Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow – the conviction that what we do in a game IS the message of the game, it isn’t just a meaningless platform for entertainment or content in a traditional way. You don’t just do things, things happen because of what you do. And the way that they happen is where the real heart of the thing is.

Oh, you should play the game!!!

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Creeping around The Evil Within


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The Evil Within does seem at face value to be a rather generic attempt to recreate the feel of Resident Evil for a next-gen audience, which is fine. But playing through the short demo at the EGX expo there does seem to be the beating heart of what could be a more offbeat experience. Typical, I suppose, of Shinji Mikami, who had a controlling hand in Resident Evil 4, Devil May Cry, Killer7 and God Hand.

Okay, wandering about dynamically light and dark areas with limited ammo and shuffling enemies to be knocked back, so far so good. But I was impressed by the open nature of the environments I encountered – part dream-sequence, part sense of dread, and part game-mechanic stealth sections. I’m intrigued to find out whether ‘The Evil Within’ suggests some sort of peculiar trip through aspects of the human psyche in the form of dream-like levels, with troubling dark imagery and bemusing symbolism throughout. Hopefully so.

I do think there’s a lot to be said for slow pacing in games. Wandering into a courtyard with a lit lantern, as the wind blows, with a sort of grainy indistinct look, and nothing really happening for minutes at a time, really gives you the space and the time to think for yourself and come up with your own internal monologue. So much more satisfying than the mainstream games that funnel you quickly from one experience to the next with barely a moment to catch your breath. I think you honestly need a brave creative vision to create a sense of emptiness within a game, and not have it pared down by groupthink pressure within a studio – that’s my theory anyway.

What frustrates me sometimes, with both mainstream gaming and mainstream cinema, is that its only the horror genre that seem to take any notice of the crucial importance of pacing to almost any experience. The problem with Call of Duty, for me, isn’t the content itself as I’m absolutely fine to play a good shooter, it is the absolute absence of any pacing. A slow section in a modern Call of Duty game is an entire stealth level where you knife people in the neck rather than shoot them in the face, but that’s really not what pacing means to me. It’s about letting the tension come out of the tone of the experience in the moment rather than turning the dial up to 11. It means letting the game breathe at times. And then letting the difference between each moment of the experience create the drama that we feel as players, operating almost as a montage of different tones and experiences to the way we respond and feel about the experience.

Um, I hope The Evil Within is a fine game. I was going to include a gameplay video on the post but the ones on Youtube seem to be a year old, and the game seems to look very different now.

Crimes and Punishments


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I really enjoyed the previous much-underrated Sherlock Holmes game, The Testament Of Sherlock Holmes. Made by Ukraine’s Frogwarez, these Sherlock mysteries have a bit of a reputation of being a little bit janky and rough around the edges, and also a little bit on the casual side, existing somewhere between the graphic adventures and the hidden object game. Which is no bad thing, in my opinion. Some of the tricky puzzles in Testament absolutely defy the ‘casual’ description though. And the depiction of London is easily one of the best historical milieu I’ve seen outside of the Assassins Creed games. But more importantly I sense a genuine attempt to be true to the style and content of Conan Doyle’s characters and stories, and to make intelligent material that is genuinely rich and fascinating – sadly still something of a rarity in mainstream gaming.

So I’m excited to find that the new Sherlock game, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, at least during the demo I played, offers some further significant improvements on the formula. Movement around the scenes seems natural, where before it certainly seemed awkward and gamey. The graphics now look absolutely superb, from detailed evocative environments to some genuinely awesome character models that seem to live and breathe and more importantly respond to interrogation.

The improved mechanics also seem quite fascinating. One can pause, during a conversation, to just look closely at the person Holmes is speaking to, to take note of a cross on the necklace, or a style of clothing, which will unlock new dialogue options. Holmes has a ‘detective mode’ ostensibly lifted from the Batman games, but totally befitting the character – in this mode Holmes was able to detect the dust outline of an object removed from a murder scene.

What I hope to find is a genuine tapestry of rich content within what will doubtless be a fairly linear adventure game storyline. In a way I actually hope that the same slightly weird atmosphere from the previous Sherlock games is retained, because I quite enjoyed the light relief of playing a bizarre level as a detective dog, or engaging in some slightly absurd mini-game to achieve some menial task in-game. It’s the mix of the absurd and the grotesque and the intriguing that whets my appetite here.

It’s also interesting to consider the game’s place in our culture. It’s very easy to write off basically, along with other hidden object games and janky adventure games from Europe, as something that only hobbyists or Germans would like. I don’t expect the game will be written about much in the gaming media. But I think this style of guided adventuring is actually much closer to the narrative darlings like Gone Home and Amnesia than many care to admit, and I think maybe it’s closer to the cutting edge in interactive drama than any of David Cage’s games, for example. For that reason, I consider it a bit of an underdog and a cause to champion.

Assuming the full game is worthwhile, of course :).

Playing with debt – Bad Paper


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Bad Paper – an intriguing set of text choices played out in a browser, based around the collection of debt. You get to play as either the debtor or the collector, and you would think that it would be easier to empathise with the debtor, but in practice there’s a number of considerations to play out on either side of the equation. The game humanises a common issue and puts it into an emotional context, and makes the player think about the struggles and choices at hand.

You can play the game here. It was conceived (I believe) as a companion piece to this fantastic New York Times article on debt collection by Jake Halpern, and is an extract from an upcoming book of his called Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street to the Underworld. Also worth noting the incredible hard-boiled photographs that accompany the text taken by photographer Jonno Rattman.

The Secret Shrine of Minecraft Doors


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I think one of the greatest things about Minecraft (2011. Various)  is that because your ambitions in-game are pretty-much entirely your own (there is a way of beating the game but you are never instructed of its existence) they actually tend to shift. You might start by thinking you just want to survive the night, but it quickly expands into wanting to improve where you live, explore mines or lands, build contraptions, upgrade gear, etc etc. In my experience it ends up with juggling several plans at once, and I like the idea that just doing a bunch of different things at my own pace can either feel like juggling several things at once, or feel entirely laid back and cerebral.

I have become fascinated with the workings of villages. Villages are reasonably rare occurrences in the endless lands of Minecraft, appearing on occasion in the middle of deserts or grasslands. They have a seemingly random assortment of buildings, and a bunch of inhabitant villagers wandering among them. There are buildings, gravel paths between them, and a few crops being grown – perhaps potatoes or carrots. These villages look like they have been dropped from space – they connect with nothing else, and they respond to the random occurrences in the minecraft landscape. If there’s a river there, the village will run straight through it with the paths underwater, if that is what is there. It makes them oddly fascinating. My village was slightly on the side of a hill, so some of the paths and buildings had a warped quality to them sitting on edges and having raw foundations visible.

Then there’s the villagers, a peculiar set of AI-controlled people who are each able to offer you a simple bartered trade according to their profession (from librarian to butcher) and who hide in their houses at night and wonder about in the daytime making little quizzical noises that sound a little like Vic & Bob’s classic comedy creation The Ponderers. I ran into this village in a grassland that also had herds of wild horses nearby waiting to be tamed (I’ve never tamed a horse in Minecraft). I immediately dreamed of a populated ranch on the edge of this village, and took up residence in one of the houses at the bottom of the hill that seemed abandoned by the villagers.

What I naively didn’t realise, is that by moving in at the village, I was by design subjecting these villagers to almost certain death. The way that Minecraft works, nothing ever really happens unless you’re there – ie as soon as you wander far enough away from a thing, it just waits in a kind of artificial stasis until you return. This is a simple practicality of running a game world – you can’t have the whole world alive at once, so Minecraft breaks it into chunks around you. By living in this village, by just being there, I was actually subjecting the villagers to the random occurrences that actually occur when near to an active player. So every night that I was pottering away in my house, zombies were spawning and bashing at the doors of the poor villagers.

I realised this very late, when I checked the village one morning and found a bunch of zombies in some of the houses, and only two inhabitants actually left alive from the bunch that I assumed would be endlessly wandering to and from their houses in perpetuity. There may have been a zombie siege, a rare phenomena that may or may not exist – there seems to be some confusion whether or not Notch actually removed this occurrence from the game at some point. I now know that some of these zombies in the houses were in fact infected villagers – there are very obscure and elaborate ways to ‘cure’ these zombies, but I had no idea and killed them. These zombies only came because I was there allowing random events to happen, and perhaps because I didn’t skip the night-time a few times by sleeping at sunset.

Now I’m no fool – with only two villagers remaining I was acutely aware that the ecosystem of this village was under threat. With no villagers all I have is a ghost-town, and the thought of living there with regret may be overwhelmingly unappealing. The first thing I did in my panic, was create walls of stone directly around these villagers to keep them safe from attack. Then I went to the internet.

This is one of the crucial successes of Minecraft – even in a solo game you do not feel alone, because the lack of clear instruction basically forces you online to look for potential solutions to problems. The funny thing about the internet, of course, is that knowing what information you can trust is an art in itself. Look up villager breeding on youtube, and you’ll see a bunch of elaborately designed building contraptions that may or may not encourage villagers to procreate with each other. Some of these I regard with great suspicion – the videos encourage you to make buildings ‘so wide’, because ‘it helps the villagers breed’. There’s a hell of a lot of pseudo-science basically. And of course with a game that is always being updated, a solution for an old patch may not apply to a new patch.

But looking for solutions online forces you into a duality of states that is rarely so clearly obvious. On the one hand an immersive world that you care about, where you create your own future often according to random encounters and chance. On the other hand a game to be endlessly grokked – ie with complex rules at which you can pick at a thread to try and understand and solve an issue about the way it works.

One example is light. Play Minecraft and you realise that light stops monsters spawning. But how much light, and in what precise spread, is left open to the player. I have never felt moved to find out exactly how much light in what interval stops monsters spawning. A general idea has seemed to be enough to carry on. But there is a precise answer – Notch at some point created the rules at which level of light a square will be x times more likely to spawn an enemy that could be a direct threat to the player. At one level the simple concept of light and dark, and its metaphorical connection with good and evil, safety and threat. On the other level a set of rules which can be understood and adhered to for perfection, but which in practice exist to approximate something more theoretical.

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0.35. This is number very important to villagers. Actually, more importantly doors. Doors are the key to villages and villagers. A villager responds not to houses, but actually doors that signify houses – the game looks at doors in the villager’s vicinity, measures that they have ‘outside’ on one side and ‘inside’ on the other, and deems that a house, ie a place of safety that a villager can exploit at night to be ‘safe’. But also doors trigger population growth – for every door in the vicinity, the game allows for 0.35 villagers to exist.

So in my panic, I actually came to realise that, despite the pseudo-science on the internet about the subject, all I needed was these two villagers to be together, and a third one will pop up at some point as long as I have enough houses (ie doors) to make something in the game system trigger. And hey presto, some love hearts started appearing between the two surviving, sexless villagers, and a little villager at some point popped up beside them.

But how to keep my tiny population alive? I proceeded to spend a panicked hour or so completely enclosing the village within a cobblestone wall. And making sure that the whole village was completely and relentlessly bright. So that most monsters cannot spawn there. This village will give its inhabitants a headache, but that’s the price of freedom.

The thing with progress, you get ambitious. I started thinking that the village currently allowed for a population of about 10, but that this wasn’t really that practical in the long-term. I think when things go wrong, there’s just a chance that a population of 10 could be wiped out in one night, as had nearly happened before. Get to 20-30 people, and your population is probably robust enough to survive the slings and arrows of bad fortune. And actually the game has a perk that it starts to spawn protective iron golems to defend the villagers once you get past a certain population level. This felt like the way to go. I started to dream of a city of bustling villagers who I could then call city-folk. Citizens.

And in my eagerness I started to grok the system. I built an entirely enclosed uninhabitable building enclosed in stone, but which was entirely full of doors hidden inside from view, each near enough to daylight to be considered as houses by Notch’s game. A secret shrine to doors. The doors that nobody could ever know about. And as expected the population soon started to explode – each door was being accepted as a house, and out popped a new villager. These villagers were being lied to, of course – there were no more houses, only hidden doors. But in my eagerness for progress I forgot the deception.

But with progress came new issues. Because this temple full of secret doors was actually the key to the population’s growth, I actually became aware that it was affecting the way my villagers lived. They were subconsciously being drawn towards the temple, without really knowing why, as if drawn there by an irresistible aura of door. Whereas the further reaches of the village were now desolate. The population was being concentrated in one area, just as London is at its densest in the very centre – nobody really wants to live in Croydon, they do because that’s where the free doors are. So my burgeoning village was actually a condensed, unsatisfying group of chattering villagers who just weren’t getting full value out of the facilities. And were obsessed with doors they couldn’t see or ever get access to. The population was bigger, the village itself seemed to become smaller in scope.

The way that villagers and villages actually work is fascinating I think.

The game is constantly measuring the world around each villager (around a 30-block radius I think). So their conception is of a village full of doors that they can potentially hide in at night. But if you think about it, they may be standing at one end of the village without being able to see the other end – in which case their perception is limited. But what Minecraft cleverly does is note the way that each villagers perception overlaps – imagine their 60×60 perception overlapping each others like a bunch of circles on a massive venn diagram. This is where the villagers ideas of a ‘village’ come from, their shared experience of how many doors they can see together.

But what happens is that the villagers will doubtless get drawn towards where the doors actually are. The only clear decision they really seem to make (other than running from danger etc) is at sunset, where they look for the nearest empty house (door) to go inside for the night. I think what happens is that regardless of the layout of a village, they will end up making a random decision each night that is nevertheless likely to eventually draw them towards where the greater amount of houses (doors) are. And the more central they become, the less likely they are as a group to be able to see the houses towards the edge of the village. They come to forget the suburbs, they like the bright lights.

This came to a head when a group of villagers started simply gathering outside the door temple where I had hidden my extra doors. They were looking for an empty house, were drawn towards the hidden doors, couldn’t get to them, and had no other empty houses to head for. So they simply stood outside the shack like eager worshippers waiting for a glimpse of their door God for some sort of empty salvation. Not only a dangerous way to act at night, but rather hopeless and depressing – a sort of malaise had descended on my village. I started to wonder if progress had been good for these people.

The only right thing to do seemed to be to tear down this shrine to doors, and destroy the hidden doors that were transfixing the villagers. At the time it felt like my only shot at redemption.

Then, tragedy. As I started to tear down the secret shrine, and the second that the hidden doors were exposed to the daylight, the villagers ran into the doors a full speed. They were simply going from door to door in there, opening and closing the door, and then moving onto the next door, and the next. It was like one of those disorientating funfair mazes full of doors. It was actually a cacophony of doors opening and closing. Every one of my 30 or so villagers just became transfixed and obsessed by these doors, each in a sort of mad stupor of simply opening and closing these doors for empty gratification.

Now the one warning I had heard about villager breeding, was that there is an inherent danger with doing it – one youtuber had mentioned that unfettered breeding can lead to a sort of villager-breeding disaster in which hundreds and thousands of villagers breed so quickly that it can destroy your game as it cannot cope with the demands of so many autonomous beings in the same world. Like crossing the streams, or meeting a version of yourself from the past, it just felt like one of those unspoken apocalypses that suddenly seemed like a potential reality as these villagers opened and shut these doors so that all I could hear was the opening and closing of doors, and villagers all stuck in a maze of doors from which they may never escape…

So I took out my axe and tried desperately to start smashing down these wooden doors to cure them. And as I hit the doors, so I started hitting the villagers too, and I didn’t know whether to stop or what else I could do! Collateral damage seemed like a unavoidable by-product of the situation, but for the greater good.

Of course what I didn’t consider was the stone golem trained to protect the villagers. He raised his giant fists and killed me with what seemed like one crushing blow. The last thing I remember was my inventory, largely consisting of wooden doors, spilling out onto the gravel path beside my broken body. I didn’t feel pain, only regret.

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Most great empires eventually fail.

I feel like I’m a more benign influence on my village these days. I build little houses for the village folk, and get a little sense of satisfaction if and when a villager might visit them for the first time. I feel like I’m running the village as more of a collective these days. I’m enthralled by the way the villagers act, the way that they spread changes a tiny bit with every door that I add to every new building. I respect their opinion – if the villagers tend towards one area of the village I get the message and react accordingly. One funny thing is that I no longer have my own house as part of the village, mainly because the villagers themselves might like to use it for themselves. At night I just look for any empty house and sleep there.

I never built my ranch. I just like the way the wild horses are already, running free.

Oregon Trail, The


Gran Trak 10