Friday, May 11, 2012

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC)

Time Played: 30min OnLive Demo

What Happened:
I'm definitely not counting this one as a real game journal entry, since I didn't get far enough to get a real grasp of the game - but I learned some things, and I wanted to capture my notes.

To start, I'm a super-huge chicken when it comes to horror. I've always had a talent for scaring the crap out of myself with my own imagination (I had night terrors when I was 5), so it's been a general policy of mine to avoid adding anything new to my repertoire of Terrifying Things that pop into my brain at 3am when I'm alone in the dark. Really, it doesn't make a lot of sense that I even tried to play this game - but I was just so curious! Particularly as someone who is interested in alternatives to combat, and ways that games can explore emotion, I had to at least try to check it out. (I definitely recommend watching Thomas Grip's GDC Europe 2011 talk about the development of Amnesia here:

Luckily, the demo was short enough (and I moved slowly enough) that I didn't see anything particularly damaging. Simply put, Amnesia is a first person survival horror game. You walk through a dilapidated castle, finding messages from your 'former self' who gives you general hints about where to go, and fills in the story a bit. You are avoiding some sort of mysterious monster that you cannot kill. You find things like tinderboxes and oil to light your path - which is important, since your character's sense of reality breaks down when you stand in the dark for too long, or if you see something particularly disturbing. (I don't actually know what happens if you let it run down... the effect generally panicked me into moving as fast as possible towards a light source to calm Daniel down.)  

It's neat because I've been considering some similar techniques for an arty game I'd like to make! The subject matter is much different, but it deals with the idea of nerves. This game is a great reference point for me to learn from.

Focal length. There is a constant, slight movement to the camera that's super unsettling. Even if you are standing perfectly still, the focal length is animating just enough to make you feel perpetually slightly off balance. It also makes the castle feel a little more alive.

Camera moves. There are times that the game takes camera control away from you for a moment, as though you're involuntarily jerking your head towards the source of a scary sound. It makes a surprising sound sound much more startling - and is much more like how you would react in real life.

Speed. Similarly, sometimes your speed is also out of your control. I think I mostly just noticed it in the beginning, when you are waking up and are in some sort of stupor. I believe that I've seen this in other games, but I like the idea of unbalancing the player by removing control that they are used to.

Distortion. The more panicked you get, the more the visuals distort. You can see it a little in the image above - particularly on the bookshelves. You're already scared, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see what is happening around you.

Audio. Sound is always a vital part of horror! It's the stuff you can't see that scares you the most. :) I think sound was used effectively - but since I've never played any other horror games, I can't say too much about it.  

My friend, Daniel. Weirdly, I didn't ever think of Daniel as 'myself.' I don't know if it was because of the amount of control that was taken away from me (I hope not, since I would like to play with those ideas!) . I'm hoping that it had more to do with the noise that Daniel made when he started to get scared. I might have been breathing a little faster than normal, but his panting & whimpering made me feel like it was my job to take care of him and lead him to well-lit areas. I don't know how many times I actually said out loud "it's ok, buddy, let's just go over here..." This separation is probably also due to the fact that I built up a lot of walls in order to have the courage to play this game. Perhaps it caused me to draw a line between myself and Daniel that I wouldn't have if I'd been willing to let myself fully experience fear. I will never know!

How Do I Feel About Continuing: 
After googling for some images to stick on the blog, I realized that there is some pretty messed up stuff in this game that I have no intention of ever seeing in context. I went into it not ever intending to play more than the 30min demo, and my plans have not changed. I am simply too much of a wuss. :)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fez (XBLA)

Time Played: ~5-6 hours

What Happened:
Note: I'm still playing through the, I dunno, 'first part' of the game? I don't know anything about the alphabet yet, or any of the note-taking that seems to be required, or why you can get more than 100% completion of the game - I'm still just naively collecting cubes, taking things at face value. :)

For anyone that hasn't heard of Fez somehow, it's a 2D platformer where you have the unique ability to turn your perspective on the world in increments of 90 degrees. This opens up a whole, crazy world of things you can do with spatial relationships. At its simplest, it works in terms of being able to walk around something to find a path. For example, you're generally trying to move upwards in most levels - if I can't simply jump up to the next platform, I can shift my perspective, and now I see that the back of this building has some platforms that I can reach, or maybe some ivy that I can climb on. More complex: doing things like lining up ladders that aren't actually connected, or hopping onto a moving platform that needs to travel on a path, and lining up the completely separate pieces of the path while I'm in motion so that they connect. It feels hard to explain, which I think is a good sign that something interesting is being explored.

The goal of the game (at least at this point) is to collect cubes and cube fragments - I believe because the world is falling apart? You occasionally get to experience this destruction in levels that are being filled up with space tears, but it's really not a big focus. Gomez can die pretty easily, from falling from too high up, or touching a space tear, but you just start again at whatever platform you were last on with minimal delay -- which I really like because it encourages risk-taking and I'll talk about it below. There's no real sense of urgency about the world breaking down, it's much more an experience of quiet exploration than survival.  

What I Liked:
Sound design! Oh man, I'm putting this up first! I, like many people who make games, often make the mistake of not thinking about sound very much through most of the design process - but this game is a wonderful example of what great sound can do for an experience. The soundtrack is great, (you can listen to it and/or buy here:, but more than that there are a number of small touches that make the world feel so satisfying. When you go behind an object because of the camera view, the music muffles and distorts a little bit. There's a woosh that happens when you've dropped from a high ledge and you're approaching the point that your landing will kill you. When you run along the ground in the more industrial areas, it sounds as though you are walking on metal. Sounds couple with the animation in a way that makes the world feel much more physical, which I think is incredibly important in a 2D game with simple graphics, which could easily feel very flat and unreal. The best, best part is the voice of your little Navi companion who guides you through the world. I can't describe it well - it's like this cross-dimensional, otherworldly, adorable yet low key and matter of fact voice that makes a little floating cube drip with character.

Concept. A huge part of the reason this game is so interesting is because it takes a simple concept - experiencing a 3D space in 2D - and just keeps on exploring it. It would have been easy to make a whole game based on the more simple idea that I described above, like "oh, I just keep rotating it until I find a path" and while that's a large part of it, I have been continually surprised by new devices that take advantage of this concept. Parts that require you to physically turn chunks of the level via cranks, platforms that rotate laterally in space rapidly (super disorienting!), ladders and paths that you have to construct by turning your perspective. I think there is a significant depth to the idea, that could not have come without a serious amount of real thought and exploration - maybe even 5 years worth. ;)

World! Sense of Place. Mystery. Ambiguity! I've said it in other journal entries, and I'll bring it up again - one of my favorite things is when I can think about a game I've played and remember it as a place, as opposed to just a series of actions - and this seems to happen most easily when game worlds have a certain sense of mystery. In high school I printed out pictures of temple ruins and stuck them in my sketchbooks so I could stare at them, and my favorite book was Gormenghast - I love it when you get the sense that this great, extravagant thing has been built and has completely outlasted the people that built it. I think Fez has quite a bit of that. Here are all of these weird, elaborate, empty places that totally invite you to use your imagination to think about how they could have gotten that way, or who might have lived here, or what purpose this thing was used for.

Charm. The way Gomez moves (particularly the flop and weight of his body when he latches onto a ledge), the generally friendly & usually bright style of the world, the way your cube companion talks, Gomez's drum kit, the way NPCs address you - there is a sense of playfulness that is friendly and inviting. Couple that with the sense of mystery, and I'm totally, head-over-heels about the overall vibe of this game.  

No death. The fact that you do not lose anything significant by dying makes a huge difference by allowing you to take much bigger risks. I don't need to plan my route ahead, or know that I'll be successful before trying a certain unknown path. I can learn by doing without needing to worry about the consequences. I don't think anything is lost by the exclusion of punishment for failure.

Challenge. At least right now, I feel like "I can beat this game." I have a sense that I can solve these puzzles, and I can find things and I'm not totally out of my depth like when I tried to play Mirror's Edge. It seems to be the appropriate amount of challenge and a good pace for me personally.  

What I Didn't Like:
Long. Personal taste! For all that I love about it, and while I do think it's important that the world is large enough to feel like a 'grand adventure,' I'm starting to feel like it's getting a little long for me. I might be close to the, I dunno, 'ending?' in that I'm close to getting all of the cubes - but from what I understand, there is quite a bit more, and I feel a slight sense of anxiety related to this. Will I actually be able to finish? How many more hours will I be putting into this game?

World Map? I have developed a complicated relationship with the world map! Somewhere around my 2nd session playing the game, I declared via Twitter that I thought the map was the reason behind my dropoff in motivation. On one hand, the map is incredibly helpful because it tells you if you've gotten all that you need to get out of a room. It's also just helpful in terms of helping you organize information. There are a LOT of levels, and if I think I missed a door in that room with the owl, I'd never be able to find it again if there wasn't a world map. On the other hand, I feel like I've just been handed a gigantic checklist of things that I need to do, and omg I'll never finish ever because there are a thousand rooms. I also feel bad when I leave a room without the map turning it gold to tell me I've done everything. There are things I don't currently have the means to solve, which means I'll have to go back there again eventually... which feels tedious.

Slow start? As much as I loved the game during the first session that I played it, it took me a full week to go back and pick it up again, which I think is mysterious, and I've been trying to figure out. I think it largely has to do with the world map, as mentioned above - but I think the other part is that I had an expectation that the rest of the game was going to be more of the same, and I would just be gathering cubes forever. Since I don't feel that way at all now, I'm going to take a leap and guess that the game might have just started a little slowly for me. Maybe there weren't enough of those little surprises in the beginning that I've come to expect now?

How Do I Feel About Continuing?
I suspect that this game would have easily become yet another game that I enjoyed, but never finished (simply because of the length of the game) - but I'm trying a thing right now where I make myself play games for an hour a day (I know, revolutionary!), and so I think I'm going to end up sticking with this one for a while yet. Maybe it will even enter the exclusive pantheon of Games I Have Actually Finished.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Super Crate Box (iOS)

Time Played: ~2hrs

What Happened:
I played this game a couple of months ago, but never got around to writing about it!

Super Crate Box is a simple game - you play as a little guy and try to collect crates, which appear at random points in the (single screen) level after the previous crate has been picked up. Enemies appear from the top of the level, a la Super Mario Bros, so you either have to avoid them, or kill them with the various weapons you pick up from the crates. The order of enemies is also randomized, although the longer you play, the greater the diversity of enemies. Each time you get a crate, you get a new, random weapon.

Crate collection gives you 2 different numbers: per life, and cumulative. At least in the first two levels, you need to collect 10 crates in a single life to unlock the next level (I'm going to make the assumption it continues on this way, but I only ever unlocked level 2). Also, all of the crates you collect while playing, regardless of your number of lives builds up as you play, and is used to unlock new weapons (and maybe other things? I only noticed weapons).

What I Liked:
Retro Aesthetic. I think the old school inspired visuals and music were great, and fit really nicely with the concept of a simple, yet brutally difficult game. The music in level one in particular helped to keep the energy high, and I think played a big role in my continuing to play for so long. 

Concept. Totally simple, super smart idea: your weapon changes each time. It works because there is a huge variety of weapons that often completely change the way you need to play - I would say the biggest part of the game is rapidly adjusting your actions to fit the weapon. I think the most fun part of the game was when I was still unlocking new weapons, since it was always surprising to see what each new one would do. Every weapon has its own advantages and disadvantages - the flamethrower covers a wide area, but isn't as strong as other guns, the disc gun and mines kill in one hit... but also hurt. I think the katana is probably really strong, but I've never managed to hit anyone with it without dying, since you need to get in so close.  

What I Didn't Like:
Controls. Sometimes it seems like the buttons aren't quite responsive - I feel like at least 30% of the time that I die, it has more to do with the controls than me. Also in level 2, the buttons actually block a bit of the level. I found myself making incorrect assumptions about if the crate was on the left or right bottom side of the screen since I was in a hurry and couldn't see.

Randomization. Obviously, randomization is part of what makes this game work. You never know what weapon you're going to get, or what enemies are going to come out, or where a crate will be. But it also makes for a lot of lives where you're just really really lucky and do well, and lives where everything just went wrong and there was pretty much no way you could have made it. Maybe it's because I never got to a point that I was really good at the game - but I felt like I had very little control over how well I was actually performing. It was more about if conditions had been favorable or not. For some reason that didn't stop me from playing though... so maybe I'm overstating it after the fact. I must have felt like I had some level of control if I was so willing to keep playing. Or maybe I just felt like I did at the time? :)

Some AI. I'm pretty sure some of the AI are like, impossible to beat. Maybe it's because I'm bad at games... but man, some of those guys. It was like "oh, he showed up. I'm dead."

How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
This game is definitely a 'time waster' - so while I found the experience enjoyable (...and incredibly frustrating) and I may pick it up again every once in awhile, I think for the most part my time with it is over. It was definitely worth what I paid for it! :)