Triad

This is part of an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What can games teach about design? To anyone, not necessarily industry people. It’s important to discuss because there are a lot of people talking about games who might not fully have a grasp on design. There’s a lot of criticism about this, that players and critics focus on non-interactive elements when they talk about video games. We often see critics talk about how games fit into certain contexts of our lives, be it as a product or an autobiographical metaphor or an example of systemic oppression. Rarely do these analyses come from the directly design itself, rather by-products or echoes of the design. Which isn’t necessarily bad, that’s what design is supposed to do, make a person feel things.

I just finished reading through anna anthropy’s section of A Game Design Vocabulary, a book co-written with Naomi Clark, just in time to talk about her work on Triad (it only takes a little bit to play) with Leon Arnott and Liz Ryerson. What I like about anna’s writing and talks is how she aims not only for good games and good design, but for a lot of the excess to be cut and manageable for people who aren’t already in video games design to understand and do themselves. I’ve become a fan of saying the idea of minimalist games is misleading, and that most games are overwrought. I want to detail a little about anna’s proposed language around game design through Triad and how it teaches on its own.

anna uses syntax as a way to talk about design. Of most importance are verbs, which she defines as doing rules. In Triad, the player’s main verb is to move around the three members of a relationship into proper sleeping positions on a bed. anna is really good about boiling things down to essentials and makes everything else revolve around this verb. You only use your mouse for the entire game, and a click becomes a decision making action, punctuated by the lamp being the finish button. This seems trivial information at first, but for anna, giving the player the smallest amount of information and input needed to play is an important part of design, because it ties the player stronger to them. I could imagine, and have seen, different keyboard buttons for rotating the people, turning off the light, or advancing the dialogue. We can push this a little further and say that the verb is actually arranging rather than moving, or another word that carries a nuance that would be good for interpreting. I can see a possible avenue for criticism to take and interpret verbs this way, because it allows you to change the light design decisions are seen under. This arranging feeling echoes back out to the objects and context of the game.

I should take a moment aside to talk a little bit about rules. I myself do not really see games to be, essentially, rules or instructions one plays with, but we are in a paradigm that sees rules as the smallest building blocks of creating games. Rules as a concept are also stretched beyond the typical meaning of rules here. The broadest way I can put it is rules are things that are designed to happen. In Triad, this can be that the light can’t turn off until all body parts are on the bed or that to win is for everyone to not be bothered during the night, and down to clicking being what forwards the dialogue and the bed being pink. I see rules more to be a lens than things that really exist on their own, we read rules and systems into design to explain them. Rules as lens is another good place for a critic to start when talking about a piece, such as, how does the rule of the cat jumping on the bed relate to or affect player decisions and behavior?

She uses objects pretty much how you think one would in a sentence structure, the rules verbs act on. anna advises for having interesting objects that help advance verbs. In the game, the main objects are the people being arranged. All of them have different qualities that make them interact with each other in unique ways. One of the bedmates rolls around in their sleep, another flips on their side. These create relationships between the characters, particularly with the one that rolls; they somehow have to be contained in the bed without being kicked. Most interesting and resonant with me however is how these objects are coded to hit each other out of the way unless you are precise and methodical on how you place them. The rules of objects are almost like personality traits; you can read in a sort of frustration yet care in arranging these people on the bed. These objects are fussy to work with but there *is* a solution (well, sort of).

Context is the layer where critics and player tend to sit in the most. It’s important; without context, this would be a simple puzzle game not too unlike other things you’ve seen. This is probably another good practice in criticism, imagining a game stripped of its context compared to its actual one. Because this is depicting a triadic relationship, there’s more going on than pieces fitting together. It’s trying to have different needs met, and requiring a lot of trial and error. My favorite part of the game is actually the interludes between each night, because it mounts the pressure of getting it right the next time. I could only imagine that this triad was also having lots of other things in their relationship going on, and they had to end every night with one of them constantly rolling off the bed.

And, for me, that’s really where design-focused criticism stops. Not much interesting comes out of analyzing in a design-centric manner to connect the game to the outside world. These critiques are pretty much from a user experience standpoint; a lot of anna’s writing is about how to be clear to the player and how to have a less is more approach to design. It is meaningful that there is a game that depicts a triadic relationship, and I think that ends there. This doesn’t mean that this game nor others can’t be significant because of this, rather, I don’t think design analyses can hold up without cultural criticism. I can see a larger piece about themes of restriction in games with queer content and how that manifests, but design-by-design points typically boil down to ‘it’s fun’ or ‘it’s elegant.’ To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the games themselves are void of value, rather, I think design analyses are stuck on what’s good design and how to make a good game on a product level. There is more to be said about the game being about a triad than the puzzle itself; that’s not a critique, more like a sign we need another way to look at games, and why autobiographical connections to games are in vogue.

I find anna’s work both as a designer and theorist to be the terminus of contemporary design ideology, boiled down to its essentials and ready for more people to pick it up and use it. I find that this design paradigm is rather, well, videogamey, and is too down the entertainment rabbit hole to really be mined for something other than that. This isn’t downing her games, knowing her personally I am privy to her non-digital work and ideas that are interesting. Just that I don’t think we’re ever going to find much to talk about in this era of games with a rules-based design paradigm. I definitely suggest buying and reading her and Naomi’s book however, because it will make a lot of contemporary video games clearer, and allows you to understand design-speak better when you hear it. As for my criticisms or difference to this work, I hope to detail that sometime in the future. For now, consider that a game doesn’t need to say something profound through its rules to mean something to someone else, and that players don’t necessarily have to have a designer’s logic to be affected by design. Smaller games like this are like drops in an ocean that can make a wave. We don’t need one or a few games to be especially profound, rather, getting game making tools and methodology into more people’s grasps.

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Benthic Love

This is the first in an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What does subversive play look like?

Subversion has quite the range of people interested in its manifestation whenever it comes to creative expression. For many scholars and critics, it usually marks a piece of work as culturally relevant by crossing over into the metafictional, appropriated by the public. We see this fascination expressed often, when we see instances like Minecraft being used to build a processor to mod culture in general. The piece becomes more than just itself, it stands as a medium for the public unconscious to express itself. There is also a more grassroots activist, though not completely unrelated, take on subversion as well. It revolves around upsetting the norm and creating room for the other and the yet-known. Both of these concepts are hard to imagine designing for, and I think they follow the conversation around values like agency and choice.

Games can be both subversive and allow subversion without handing the player an entire world to make choices in. Often all we need to be subversive is our minds. I found Mike Joffe’s Benthic Love holding many different kinds of subversions, much of which flies in the face of what critics would typically look for in subversive play. It shows how games don’t have to be apparently radical or sandboxes to offer the player subversive opportunities. It doesn’t take a long time to play, so I suggest you go through it a couple times before continuing.

The main part that really makes Benthic Love a good example is how it obviously references a genre, dating sims, but doesn’t require the player to be aware of dating sim tropes to take meaning from the piece. It’s not just that this is about anglerfish, but how their mating process shapes their identities. Typically, protagonists in dating sims are near-ciphers, with enough of a personality to provide speaking lines to other characters, but leaving enough room for the player to insert themselves. This cipher is typically a heterosexual boy who is at a life juncture of some sort that implores him to find a girl to date or just straight-up have sex with. Sex is typically the end-goal, even if the story revolves around romance; the sex scene is a reward for the player for successfully gaming the system to achieving a girl character’s affections. Within the tradition of visual novels, the genre dating sims is a subset of, players are encouraged to go through the same motions over and over again until they view all the story paths.

In Benthic Love, the image and disposition of the male angler fish serves as a reflection on the usual motions of these protagonists. Particularly with the concept of nature, and how it propels life in the deepest part of the ocean. The male angler fish quite literally needs a female, starvation acts as a main motivation to on this journey rather than happening upon a romantic situation. Nature forces them to seek out the female fish, even when, at least in the fiction of the game, they will lose their identity and being after fusing together. The apparent inevitability of nature, and why it is this way, reverberates throughout the entire piece. The slow struggle between the sperm whale and colossal squid, the bones on the ocean floor, the commentary on the poop of over animals floating down to fertilize the benthic region. The ocean worked this way all along, and the main character’s existence is just a small notch of a cog in the clockwork. There is a still violence about it all, but that violence doesn’t necessarily come from an identifiable source. What is it about human nature that depicts men the way they are in dating sims? What is this quiet violence and where is it coming from? In a way, this was a very succinct through line to contemplating masculinity that I haven’t seen before, because usually art frames masculinity through forcing a man to prove his. While there are some choices that give your angler that tone, they aren’t challenged on the basis of who they say they are. Women being the more interesting and aware agents, at least through the metaphor, in the story is also an interesting twist. These males attach and wither while the female moves on with life, using them for their genetic material. The female wants it to mean something, even if it’s a little, and the male just wants his last meal.

Because nature and its slow but forceful cycle is so present in this piece, and given the replayable convention of visual novels, players are easily enticed to resist. Your character can simply choose not to mate and fuse with the female angler, and they will slowly die from starvation. This is treated as a positive however, and even if it seems undramatic, it’s powerful to me. It’s the option that completely rejects any more participation in the cycle, a sort of self-deterministic ending. The game doesn’t treat it as bad, and acknowledges this path as one fine to take, even if the narration doesn’t quite understand fully why you would. This stands in contrast to games of all sorts that essentially shame players who don’t win. Yet, is there any real winning when you are just a cog swept up in inevitability?

Of course, the most powerful, and weird, scene comes when you meet another male angler fish who seems to be struggling with the idea of mating with a female. This scene is interesting to me because of how uncommon vulnerability between men occurs in our reality and media. It is the site, if you will, of where masculinity is enforced, stabilized, transmuted, or discarded. This scene allows for a lot of interpretations, maybe the most salient being queerness. Though what is more interesting is how queerness still, in some way, follows the flow of nature, but co-opts it at the same time. As Mike mentions in his note about creating this, there is something to conceiving the opportunity to subvert the story and then the surprise when you can actually do it. Subversion isn’t the complete disowning of nature, or in sociological terms, nurture, rather reshaping culture to fit your own needs. Quite poetically, when the male anglers mate, they create a cycle of their own, both conjoined and independent of the cycles going on around them.

While this ending is given a little extra treatment than some of the others, there aren’t fireworks going off to celebrate how subversive you are as a player, nor would anyone look at these playthroughs and see some exercise of player agency. This is the power of playing with text. Instead of players being preoccupied with gaining choice or exercising it, they get prompts to consider why the choose the things they do. What do their choices mean? Why are they getting to choose this? Games typically want to communicate the importance of the power to choose, while pieces like Benthic Love have you contemplate the function of choosing anything in the first place.

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The Stanley Parable Review

(Spoilers??? for The Stanley Parable)

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stanley

3¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup warm whole milk
1/3 cup warm water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons honey
1 envelope instant yeast

calling

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It was like any other day. I don’t know how I got here, but I have the memory of living. The oatmeal in my rice cooker beeped every morning, 10 minutes after I wake up. I don’t drink coffee. The shower drain is clogged again no matter how many times I get someone to fix it. I always have an important meeting to go to, the one that will change my life. My name is Mariella.

I pull my hair back into a ponytail as I slip into my shows for work. I don’t really like my hair this way. A man, or maybe many of them, said I should wear it this way. Behind my reflection in the mirror, there is a bowl full of apples. They look bright and sickly at the same time. I take one and leave.

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Escape

He never liked being where he ought to be. He ran and I chased, with my legs bound and arms stiff. But now, like Nyx, I am the black in everything and can no longer touch him. Kiss or kill? The greatest gift would be to put him to rest. My eyes are forced closed when his are open. I don’t have hands anymore; when the time comes, can you press the button?

Eat this blessed bread

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calling

1.
adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 200 degrees
maintain the heat for 10 minutes
turn off the oven

2.
mix 3½ cups of the flour and the salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook
mix the milk, water, butter, honey, and yeast
turn the machine to low and slowly add the liquid
increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and satiny
turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface
knead to form a smooth, round ball
15 seconds

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It was like my life so far was for this moment. I crouched, knees at an angle to keep my skirt from rising, to place my briefcase on the cement. His body was perfectly sprawled on the ground, like it was his job to be dead.

Standing back up, I couldn’t shake a sense of home. He smelled like bread. My house always felt like it was made for two, but didn’t think until now that someone was missing. It feels like I created myself in someone else’s world.

I leave the body to its own story. I take a bite of the apple, and I feel better.

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The fall of man into knowledge.

There is a trail of breadcrumbs we are all following. His goes in circles, and makes me dizzy. I am irrevocably grafted to his story, like hanging on to driftwood out at sea. He floats on without any regard for my splinters. Can I really be blamed for burning it all down? And though I am released from my porcelain casting, I am evoked to serve in this nightmare patriarchy. Which is why I need you; only the living can make choices.

Stanley’s always been dead.

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3.
place the dough in a very lightly oiled large bowl
rub the dough around the bowl to coat lightly
cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the warmed oven until the dough doubles in size
40 to 50 minutes.

4.
gently press the dough into a rectangle
1 inch thick
roll the dough firmly into a cylinder
turn the dough seam-side up and pinch it closed
place the dough seam-side down in a greased 9 by 5-inch loaf pan
press it gently so it touches all four sides of the pan
cover with plastic wrap
set aside in a warm spot until the dough almost doubles in size
20 to 30 minutes.

5.
keep one oven rack at the lowest position
place the other at the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees
place an empty baking pan on the bottom rack
bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan
pour the boiling water into the empty pan on the bottom rack at set the loaf onto the middle rack
bake
195 degrees
40 to 50 minutes
remove the bread from the pan
transfer to a wire rack
cool to room temperature
slice and serve

calling

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I arrived at the usual meeting room, room number 104. I fidgeted in my chair, the only one, again, staring a large opaque pane of glass. I was hyper-aware of my clothing, a toupe I would have never chosen for myself. I felt the temperature of the room, the dull shine from the light above.

I stood up, took the chair, and smashed the window. No one was there. There was a body-shaped void of noise behind the door of the room, waiting for me to open it and enter. There was a gross familiarity to this scene.

And that’s when remembered him, the person who was supposed to live with me: Stanley. I vaulted through the window to save him.

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But listen to me, you can still save these two, can stop the program before they both fail, push escape and press quit, there’s no other way to beat this game. As long as you move forward, you’re walking someone else’s path. To stop now would be your only true choice. Whatever you do choose it, don’t let time choose for you, don’t let time-

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Ghosts

(Spoilers for Gone Home)

1987

I really like saying that. Nineteen eighty seven. It was the year I was born.

I’ve come to learn it is one of the years that birthed impostors. When I think of the 90s, it’s Nickelodeon, Spice Girls, laser tag. I guard these memories with the fiercest of passions, because I like to think nothing in my childhood after 1999 existed. There were always older friends of mine cynical of the aughts, its lack of culture and honesty. They would tell me of rock shows I was too young for. My first mixtape was a CD.

Now, when I’m asked about games from those outside of the scene, I’m asked about what it is to be indie. There are indie films and indie bands, so do indie games fall into the same pattern? Rebel against The Man, bootstrap it? I never like to confirm this line of thought, because it isn’t true. Indie game culture is still preoccupied with being commercial enough. To me, this particular scene is more defined by its nostalgia, its pining for the past. And though I might be considered a contemporary to this scene, it’s a past I don’t share.

Playing Gone Home, it’s obvious much of the game’s presence was drenched with reminiscence. The environment begs you to dig through it, smiling at the TV listings and cassette tapes. We’re in the pacific northwest, the birthplace of nostalgia for anyone in or near their 30s. I grew up in South Florida, on the opposite end of the country with its nightclubs and Caribbean restaurants. The ghost haunting me wasn’t an estranged uncle, but the specter of the early 90s; feelings of longing and familiarity I just didn’t have. But it was there, baked into the play. Welcome home, it says.

Instead, Gone Home felt like a past I wished I had. A house with secret passageways, TV teenage drama. Everything felt just a little off from reality for me, and into the sitcom I wish I lived.

I am an older sister, but never had the chance to be. I grew up queer, but never had a lover to sneak through my window. I had a two parents, two kids, and a dog family, but my mother and father were immigrants and didn’t have that wholesome American culture to pass down. Playing Gone Home was like watching Nick at Night and wishing the TV would suck me right in. I’ve left home for good before without my parent’s knowledge, and I’ve returned to a hollowed-out family, but it didn’t have this ‘authenticity.’ I hope that reads as a merit to the game, instead of a criticism. Just a little bittersweet.

I don’t remember much about 1995. I had a second grade teacher with an over-powering vanilla-scented perfume who always sent home complaints that I talked too much in class. I thought you had to marry anyone you really liked and probably watched reruns of Deep Space Nine with my father. Nirvana was just that one song on the top 40 radio station my mom listened to and Jagged Little Pill would be the first album I’d buy with my own allowance. All of the blocky electronics were being swapped out for newer technology. It’s possible my nostalgia is shitty 3D graphics and a missing history. I wonder if there’ll ever be a homecoming for so-called millennials. What is the reference for our high school days? 9/11? Post-punk bands no one admits to liking? Hopefully it’s the awkward social dynamics of livejournal and the J-Pop.

That might be what makes me feel so distant from current going-ons; the difference between missing the past and missing having one at all. We’re going through a stage of reference, used to bond people together with a shared history. This might speak to why I won’t allow my work to hint much of anything cultural past my own skin, and I want people to feel foreign reading and playing what I create. It’s curious to me that counter-culture games evoke nostalgia, and counter-counter-culture ones with such present, and sometimes future, individuality.

I liked Gone Home, a lot. I just still feel its ghosts grabbing at my fingers.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows Review

Both horror games and visual novels are in interesting places right now. Players have seen much of both, gotten used to their tricks, and very quickly started looking for something more. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows provides a unique cross-section of these genres, attempting to take the best of both worlds and provide a compelling experience, but this game is definitely made for the fans; genre conventions are in full effect and offer little explanation for those unfamiliar.

The premise of Corpse Party centers around a botched seance performed by some high schoolers. They’re transported to a haunted school in another dimension where murderous monsters and ghosts pursue them. The player goes through different chapters of this experience, switching characters and moving through time to see different angles of the situation. Each chapter has multiple endings—a good one that grants progress, and several death scenes that require a retry. As with most visual novels, there are a bunch of features to scratch completionist urges and to encourage replaying through the chapters, like a library of the artwork the player encounters, and audio diaries from the voice actors.

Playing is mostly a reading affair, watching scenes between characters and seeing how the stories connect. Corpse Party is also part adventure game, with the player taking control of a character and moving through a ‘board game’ rendition of the school. Between scenes, the aim is usually to get items for the ultimate goal of trying to find a friend or escape the school. Events are changed by a “Darkening” feature—a number that raises whenever the player enters particularly creepy rooms or witnesses something horrific. This adds a certain sense of randomness to the game one would expect out of a haunted house, and also adds some scare factor as creepier things happen when the Darkening is high.

Though it has a good base, Corpse Party has trouble utilizing its genres for maximum effect. The biggest sign is its attempt to explain the structure of the game as a narrative device.

Early on, it’s implied that the characters are revisiting the same moment over and over again, which ties into the usual way a player interacts with a visual novel. This idea, however, is dropped after the first chapter and we don’t get much of this meta commentary to help rationalize why we restart the chapters. This is important to note because players will be repeating in order to advance, and will often have to fast forward through cut-scenes, rediscover all the items and such.

There are various tricks to this (such as saving before every choice) and other tactics those familiar with visual novels will employ, but at the same time, many of the endings aren’t that interesting. A character will often die, but since little is shown, nothing special or noteworthy comes of it. This will still be enjoyable for those who savor the usual visual novel structure, but for those like me who are looking for something more, Corpse Party doesn’t add much new to the palette. In particular, the main drag for me was the lack of dramatic tension, since every chapter stars a different character. Sometimes there’s insight on past chapters and the game goes to various locales to switch things up, but for most of the game it felt like I was being thrown around in the dark with little substance to it.

This leads me to the horror aspect of Corpse Party. There are some genuinely frightening moments, usually of the jump-scare variety. However, most of the horror centers around the various terrible things that only seem to happen to the girls in the cast, including gruesome accounts of disfigurement, abuse, and murder. Much of the art in the game avoids showing it graphically, so a player’s mileage may vary on how much this is actually capable of inducing the creeps. I found that the game was weightless because it ostensibly contains “intense gore,” but doesn’t make the player witness it. And really, some scenes just aren’t convincing—nothing’s scary about having the screen flash red while playing an attack sound effect most likely heard in another game.

The game would have done better relying on ambient horror instead. There were a few sequences when the player character is running away from or trying to avoid spirits that will kill them. It made going into rooms that extra scary, especially when random, mysterious dialogue would appear on the screen, hinting to the overall story and creating a lot of tension.

There is something to be said about a horror visual novel on a portable platform—it’s nice to switch between playing Corpse Party on the train and hoping no one catches sight, to trying to complete a chapter before bed and freaking myself out a bit. The content can get a little convoluted and fan servicey in the way anime can get, especially with its treatment of girls and women. It will at least provide an interesting in between pastime, even if it’s not really something that will blow your mind.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

If the philosophies concerning the criticism of sequels weren’t convoluted enough, the Final Fantasy series makes things even more complicated. Given the reception of Final Fantasy XIII and the framework that Square Enix created for it, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is explicitly about correcting the mistakes of its predecessor and providing as much fan service as possible while doing so. XIII-2 is XIII with a different story and a checklist of changes requested in popular reviews and on message boards. Contrast this with Final Fantasy X-2, which had a completely different set of mechanics than the game before it and just how transparent XIII-2 is as a fix becomes clearer. A lot of XIII-2’s value comes from the correct choices that it made to improve, but it also makes you wonder if Square Enix improved the right things.

All in all, this is a testament to a company listening to its fans. Players complained about not having areas filled with NPCs, and they got it. Freedom to explore? Check. Flexibility with the party? More item creation? Mini-games? All there. We even got quick time events just to cover all the bases. However, all of these qualities are grafted onto what was XIII and feel especially hollow. Sure, you don’t get tunnel-like maps anymore, but instead, you get a whole bunch of one-area maps that you still barely interacted with. You can choose what sequence of places you visit, but there is still a very strict, unchanging storyline that forces you to complete them in a certain order. These mechanics might calm the fans that just want their old JRPG back even if it results in pointless grinding and uninteresting battles, but the main issue is that fans don’t always know what they want. Grasping for the familiar is everyone’s gut reaction, but not necessarily the correct choice.

The problem with XIII is that it was already trying too hard to cling to the past. The development team involved didn’t construct all of our favorites, yet they are trying to implement all of the series’s mainstays. XIII-2 perpetuates this attitude of “We don’t care what the game is like, just give us ATB, moogles, and spiky hair!” The series found itself at a crossroads as a result of some bad timing. With the boom of open-world games and player-driven narratives, there’s an expectation for Final Fantasy to change alongside the evolution of other RPGs and to have a reason for its design decisions outside of providing fan service. Because Final Fantasy has been gliding on its laurels for so long, not even the fans actually know what they want except just another Final Fantasy. In XIII-2’s case, adding in more traditional elements didn’t make it a better game, it just shows how little ingenuity went into these games.

Something that did need to change from XIII is the battles and the strange dissonance that players feel when when they are used to controlling the actions of their party members. Instead, players were given a system that makes them a director or general, who manages tactics. XIII-2 doesn’t try to rectify that strange feeling of wanting to do more than wait to hit ‘Auto.’ Rather, it tries to add in more spice with monster collecting. Unfortunately, the monsters that the player collects actually hinder the team because they are only accessible by roles, and the main characters are typically better at said roles than the monsters. The Crystarium was only slightly edited, really just a glorified aesthetic makeover to typical leveling, as you can max out your characters’ abilities easily before the end of the game. This feels out of place in both games, whose narratives imply tactical moves and attention to cause and effect. It makes the beginning seem more interesting, but as you get closer to the end it becomes reminiscent of the blandness that was Final Fantasy XII’s class system at the end game. Square Enix tries to jam choice into a system that is not built for it. Something successful about XIII was how many elements reflected the dramatic situations of the characters. Choice wasn’t something those characters had the luxury of, rather, running and adapting was. And really, there is no choice in the narrative of XIII-2. Instead, the use of time travel gives the illusion of flexibility. The series has long relied on the illusion of choice to manage its narrative, and slapping on time travel to a game very focused on one particular event reveals the games’ innards, and they aren’t pretty.

Can this game placate fans upset about XIII? Sure. However, for anyone who mostly enjoyed or wanted something different from XIII, XIII-2 is going to look like a company grasping at straws to keep their cash cow intact. There are some that won’t blame Square Enix for regressing to serve its fans, but that doesn’t mean a good game is a result of doing so. It shows that the series is failing to adapt to the changing landscape of the gaming industry and is satisfied with just cranking out numbers instead of fantasies.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

Art has had its periods of depicting reality as plainly as possible, an emphasis on painting or writing exactly the actual object or scene. At those times, gone were hyperbole, mythic interventions, and patchy brushstrokes. One such moment was the advent of Naturalism, whose practitioners usually told stories of characters faring harsh environmental situations and struggling with the uncaring figure of nature. Sound a little familiar? Skyrim is a revitalization of Naturalism as its graphic achievements added a new layer to The Elder Scrolls series.

But it isn’t just being pretty that makes Skyrim feel like a Jack London story but instead its philosophy of striving for a photorealistic depiction of a reality. Bethesda didn’t choose to go with a static cut-scene or interface-heavy opening, they had the player observe the world as that world ‘happened’ around them. This is a set-up for the rest of the game, in which you’ll do a lot of pausing, looking around, and feeling, oh, so very small.

The minutiae that Skyrim keeps and throws away in respect to its predecessors aims to pull down as much of the barrier that exists between the player and the world of Skyrim. The player will quickly unlearn their habit of picking up everything that they can touch and that stealing and killing have consequences. There is a logical consistency to the world’s physicality and social norms; there isn’t magic or dragons in reality, but Skyrim presents a good guess at how such things might look. The ability to look out at the picturesque landscape and know that you could also see it up close in fine detail adds to the feeling of being in another world.

Skyrim benefits from its many mountains and plains, which give the scene a depth lacking in past games. The sheer amount of things in Skyrim are equal parts boring and exciting—and random. The player expects to find many dull items in caves and houses because, well, that’s most likely how it is in reality. The distribution of random events that frustrate or help the player feel brutally honest within an uncaring system.

Bethesda’s changes to the interface of The Elder Scrolls and having its character creation communicated during gameplay suggests an ideal situation for the player to participate more in the world and not in the meta-game of menus. It serves a utilitarian role, mostly to update your character’s skills and assign favorites, a contrast to the information-heavy and cluttered feel of past games. This is, in part, due to a character creation system that moves the non-superficial choices out of the beginning of the game and allows for a more long term, active role in how a player molds their character. Instead of ordaining a strict role from the beginning through numbers and attributes, there is a strong focus on the skills that the player uses determining character development.

The skills and roles themselves aren’t innovative at all, in fact, the player will most likely be choosing to do the same exact things done in Morrowind in Skyrim. The active development of character skills allows the player to react to the world instead of being constrained to the choices that they made in the beginning, involving the player more with the world than the ‘game.’

Photorealism sets a high bar for graphical fidelity, as it’s easy to see imperfections and slip into the uncanny valley when the game misses the bullseye. Characters are vapid and openly show their artifice with stock lines and a small cast of voice actors. Your companions, especially Lydia, remind you that they are a traveling AI inventory instead of characters with their own thoughts and interests. In a world meant to be explored, the character population that makes the locale interesting in the first place should also be worth investigation. Skyrim shows that nature and society are inescapable, but actual people are easy to ignore.

The large amount of critical bugs in the game break Skyrim’s illusion of another world, as frustration builds from starting the game over so often. I restarted over five times on the PS3 version, not counting the bugs that I just rolled with. The attempt to provide such a real world is undermined by the technical consequences involved with making it. While Bethesda’s fanbase excuses glitches based on its other merits, its reliance on mods and post-release patches force the player to be aware of the actual game itself when Skyrim’s design philosophy seems to imply otherwise.

Skyrim is a natural progression of the series, fine tuning mechanics that reach for an ideal Naturalism. Players still write about losing hours of their time to navigating its landscapes and describe the surprise, chance events that they encounter. The system, acting as nature, demonstrates the harsh reality of an adventurer’s time spent traveling across tundra and valleys but also causes the player to be made aware of their own body with the reminder that they are playing a flawed game. Nevertheless, its differences from the rest of the series show a welcome effort at further involving the player completely in a world, and Skyrim’s success shows that Bethesda is on the right path to do so.

Girl with a Heart of Review

There is something to how a game describes itself. A “2-D interactive narrative” straddles the ‘is this a game or not?’ fence, encouraging the player (reader? participant?) to develop their ideas about both. I see Bent Spoon Games’ Girl with a Heart of within the history of games drawing upon the aesthetic and mechanics of 90s adventure games. It mixes nostalgia with trope flipping, dialogue trees, fetch quests, a world governed by the elements made fresh by practicing philosophy and describing a world where darkness isn’t evil. As well, there aren’t many games that you play as a young girl in a mature situation. Girl with a Heart of is simple and honest in its intent to be engaging, with a title that acknowledges your role in completing it. The aesthetics follow this mentality: brief music pieces accompany characters and scenery changes as if recalling a memory, and visual details highlight the verisimilitude of this fantasy location.

The contention that exists between the character dramas and the exercise of philosophical rationality sets this adventure apart from others. Girl with a Heart of places the player in a crisis similar to many other games, but provides choices different in nature. Typically, a player would be thinking about which weapons and abilities to fight and enemy with or the nuances of strategy in battle. The progression of Girl with a Heart of doesn’t focus on the combat that you do prepare for, but what values you take to save the world. The player learns a few lessons in rationality, boiling decisions down to numbers, but also interacts with a cast of characters that inspire you with their personal problems. Reinforced by separating the experience into days, the player watches the progression of the mental states of those around them. Struggling with morals is the main part of the game, and the ending of your quest rests on what moral decision you arrive at. While there does seem to be a ‘right’ answer, Girl with a Heart of finds meaning in the process of deciding what to do, not necessarily in choice itself.

This leads to my main criticism of Girl with the Heart of. While the game had me question myself, it handled choices much like mainstream games. Playing through multiple times to get different endings, I found many choices yielded very similar results. It would work if the nuances built upon each other, but ultimately the characters came to the same conclusions and acted the same way. I feel if a game provides a player with choices, there should be meaning behind the results that necessitate those choices. I didn’t find extra perspective playing the game multiple times, much like other games, and felt I should be rewarded with discovering new things by taking a different path from my prior playthroughs. The choices at the end are the most important because they influence what kind of ending the player gets more than anything else does. Furthermore, these endings are anti-climatic text explanations of your protagonist’s future that offer little incentive to play another round.

Interpreting Girl with a Heart of as a game or just an interactive narrative can complicate things. It does have some stats, fighting sequences, and the usual trappings of a certain niche of games, but I’m not sure what the goal was other than to complete the story. This goes for all games that associate the success state with the story—because you can say the same for other mediums. For books and movies, the goal is to finish them. While you do a lot more in adventure games and RPGs, the success state is the same. Girl with a Heart of exposes this complication without answering for it. It relies on the conventions of story heavy video game genres, but doesn’t address why those genres are much less of a force in contemporary gaming than they were in the 90s. There’s research, talk, and general musings on how to involve narrative elements through interactivity that remain unused, so I wonder why Bent Spoon Games chose such a retro method to explore the complex issue that it wants to handle.

In a time of multiple remakes of the same game and HD updates to classics, it’s nice to have a contemporary example of what we loved about in an era that we probably won’t recreate. However, the game doesn’t reflect on the fall of the adventure genre and suffers from the same issues as previous titles of this sort. Girl with a Heart of ponders what an interactive narrative is as opposed to a game and how to exercise philosophy no matter what medium it is, but it forgets that we’ve moved on from the tools it currently uses.

Okabu Review

Let’s get this out of the way: Okabu is freakin’ adorable, no matter what demographic you claim.

Hand Circus’s PSN-exclusive puzzler looks like a cross between Katamari Damacy, World of Golden Eggs and some inspiration from those childhood books by Eric Carle. The aesthetic created by both the visuals and soundtrack is succinct and fantastically so; much of the reason I pressed through the game was the result of feeling immersed in this zany, super-stylized world. With so many games looking to grab gamers with photo-realistic graphics or unashamed anime art direction, Okabu pulls off every on-screen moment of eye candy.

The art style invites a spectrum of players, enjoyable to children and adults alike. They also prime the player for a certain experience, one that involves head-bobbing to electronic tribal-esque music and randomly zooming across the landscape. Okabu looks like a game for kids with the smooth controls of one for more mature gamers. It’s a game a player wouldn’t feel too embarrassed about when someone walks in on—they’ll mostly like be curious as to what all the spectacle is about.

The developers brought together their ideas by making Okabu’s environment the puzzle; there is little abstraction and every skill learned has a direct application. Players control cloud-whales (one with a whaling hat, ironically) that can absorb water and spit food items that have an effect on the environment. Mostly, though, they serve as loyal steeds to characters with unique abilities (such as harpooning, also ironic I might add). The puzzles are straightforward and physics-based, but require a little finesse and smarts considering the wacky ways the characters solve them.

Where Okabu succeeds is implicit; described as saving “the once-peaceful lands” from an “army of industrial contraptions,” the player is ready for a lecture on how to be more environmentally conscious. While there are some overt stereotypes of environmentalism such as technologically-advanced enemies or using recycling bins, the message is rather subtle. Gameplay takes precedence over any sort of moralizing, making the puzzles feel like community work without being completely drab.

Okabu seems to shoot for a younger demographic with the potential for a family-play experience as its target audience, and towards that goal, the pacing is spot-on and accessible. The physics puzzles are moderately difficult, with older players finding much to do while younger ones feel challenged. However, the game still struggles with its identity.

With Okabu’s appeal to children and parents, including scores and leaderboards felt dissonant with the communal, cooperative feel of the game. Gathering fruit that grants points and then racing to the end felt like a competitive ploy taken from a triple-A game and inserted where it didn’t belong. Including a timer doesn’t promote any ingenuity when solving the puzzles.

Another issue is that Okabu’s mechanics encourage the player to think multiple steps ahead using their character’s abilities, but strangely, there are often arrows to follow and text that outline what needs to be done. A particular level comes to mind where the player saves a village and proceeds to clean it up using tactics familiarized in previous levels. Instead of empowering the player to figure everything out on their own, the game blocks action until a villager triggers pre-scripted events. Spots like this could have been a powerful moment where the player synthesizes all of the lessons learned beforehand, but Okabu shies away from asking them to use their grey matter.

The merging of single player and co-op into one mode also throws off the balance in Okabu. It isn’t difficult to run through the game alone, and there isn’t any change to levels when someone joins in. Some points are easier with a partner, but they’re simply ‘less annoying’ rather than requiring two-player-specific strategies. Two competent players in co-op is also redundant and sometimes a drawback as there isn’t enough to do simultaneously to keep the pace going. The co-op seems designed for an older player guiding younger one, which is a great way for an adult and child to play. However, not all other combinations benefit from this setup, and Okabu seems like a single-player game that could-have-been.

It’s worth noting that small bugs and a lack of options or any sort of menu made Okabu difficult to get through at times. The elimination of interface and customization makes the game seem more approachable, but something as simple as a manual save isn’t available. During my playtime, the cloud-whales often caught onto terrain, and more than once glitched through objects. In a game that forces a restart of the entire level instead of saving your progress with checkpoints, this is extremely frustrating.

Okabu is a game that begs to be liked, and it deserves recognition for taking risks in a family vein; few games manage to be fun for children yet still accessible to adults. As a bonus, the environmentalist angle isn’t in conflict with the gameplay, but is instead used effectively to add context to the players’ actions. However, it’s a shame that the balance seems off and that minor technical issues exist—these things make it hard not to be ripped out of the beautifully crafted world.

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