I used to write something about the various events going on in the games industry, but when I actually started partaking I stopped. In a few cases that is warranted – when judging some competition, for instance, it’s difficult to be 100% ethical when writing publicly about it – but other than that it seems good to reflect on their value.
So, PAX West. Also, PAX Dev. I’ll start with that, since it came first.
I’m not entirely sold on the concept of PAX Dev – that they disallow journalists or recording in order to allow presenters to speak more freely. Even if we could rely on people to keep their mouths shut, there is no vetting process of attendees so you have no guarantee whatsoever that the people who should not hear what you have to say will not be in the audience – this being the case, presenters stuck to topics they could have just as well given at GDC or Indiecade. The big drawback, of course, is that there is no way to watch recorded presentations after the conference.
As conferences go, there were a some really good presentations and some that were mostly rehashes of old content or thinly-veiled marketing ploys. Not quite the quality of GDC but good in terms of value for the cost – especially if you already live in Seattle. And they do get bonus points for having tables in all their rooms.
PAX West itself was a weird beast – the stores and panels felt like they were taken from comic con, the boardgames would have felt right at home at a PnP/boardgame convention, the AAA studios had smaller versions of their setups from E3 and the independent games were laid out in much the same way as you’d find them at Indiecade. But the variety works really well – for all of those shows, attending a single day is usually more than enough for me but with PAX I was still finding more things to do for the entirety of the show. I suppose part of that is the lines – like any consumer show, the lines are long to just about everything. Also, the panels are going to be interesting to the fans rather than educational. But when it comes down to it, PAX is a show that is more than the sum of its parts.
My favorite games of the expo included Owlboy, Pit People, Celeste, Enter the Gungeon and Fossil Echo. Not going to get into why for the unreleased ones just yet, but Enter the Gungeon had really tight controls and interesting varieties of weapons and enemies that made it fun to play, it also was very visceral and satisfying and clean art with consistent theming. I don’t play a lot of roguelikes since I like finite experiences, but I will make an exception in this case.
Song of the Deep is an interesting game – superficially, it has a lot in common with Aquaria. Visually, it has the same kind of environments – ruins, clockwork factories, caves and kelp forests – but to be fair those weren’t tremendously original to begin with and the visual style of Song of the Deep is somewhat different from that of Aquaria. On a gameplay level you have the same basic options – a way to grapple objects in the environment, a way to boost your speed, a way to light up dark areas and a way to shoot projectiles at your enemies. Again, nothing amazingly inventive on its own, but having played both Song of the Deep doesn’t ever feel like it’s mixing thing up with the core mechanics.
When you get down to the details is when the differences start to make themselves apparent though – Song of the deep casts a wider net than Aquaria, and has a less polished gameplay experience for it. Aquaria was always mostly about the exploration and to a lesser extent fighting enemies, but Song of the Deep wants to be about improvised physics-based mechanics, environment puzzles and chase sequences – sometimes this works, but frequently it becomes a frustrating experience where the controls aren’t quite what you want them to be and any failure is met with resetting to one of the sparse checkpoints. Physics frequently feel similarly awkward, with mechanically simple objects like doors and boxes being unwieldy and unintentionally difficult to pass.
There are not a lot of Metroidvania games with high production values and Song of the Sea is a competent game with strong presentation, but it often feels like its lacking something to make it great. The art is well-made, but lacks any distinct pieces giving the areas a sense of place. The idea of the map showing all pickups helps a lot, but it becomes a bit of a crutch and as such feels like a cheap solution. The movement and fighting is functional, but does not feel particularly satisfying and lacks any design depth.
It sets things up for a sequel and I do want to play it, but mostly for the game to get an opportunity to come into its own.
Mirror’s Edge makes me think about a lot of other games for various reasons. The original game from 2008, for one – it is clear they wanted to make more or less the same thing but do more of what worked (freerunning) but less of what didn’t work (fighting) without completely removing or restructuring anything. The biggest change is that it’s layered on top of a sandbox reminiscent of GTA IV’s mission structure, but functionally it’s not much of a difference since there’s little point in freely exploring and even though the pathfinder is not optimal it usually takes so long to find a different path that’s traversable that you’re less likely to experiment.
But the side missions draw other comparisons. Fundamentally it’s a first-person precision platformer with a really high skill ceiling – Dustforce and Super Meat Boy come to mind, as do the challenge levels in the last couple of Rayman games and countless other platformers. Like those games, the time windows offered by Mirror’s Edge are really tight and it can be high-frustration experience in learning the path you’re taking one obstacle at a time until you’ve memorized the entire route and can pull it off. In the beginning, it felt infuriating at times – Mirror’s Edge offers poor visibility of your options and gives you near no chance of succeeding in taking an obstacle well enough on your first attempt. It offers alternate paths and moves, but even when performing them making out which one is faster is anyone’s guess. Getting stuck in geometry or missing a jump that it looked you were about to make are common occurrences as it’s difficult to read just what’s going to happen when you press a button. Trying a new path in either challenges or regular missions will frequently lead to immediate death and loadtimes that aren’t abnormally long for a sandbox game, but incredibly disruptive for a high-frustration game.
Yet, I think about Gish – a game I’ve played from start to finish tens of times – and how long it took to get used to physics-driven movement and how smooth the movement felt once you had gotten the hang of it. I never quite got there with Mirror’s Edge, but I got some of the way and just moving around was a joy when I beat it. I thought about Uncharted 4, how Drake would extend his hand when he could jump to a ledge as to take away the guessing game, and how Mirror’s Edge refuses to hold your hand like that. It is sometimes difficult to tell when the challenge is intentional and when the developers bit off more than they could chew, but it is a game that thrives on giving the player challenges where beating them becomes its own reward. Again, much like the first Mirror’s Edge it’s a different beast from other games and the games industry is richer for it.
I also played through the Momodora and Shantae games over the last couple of weeks in a bid to cover gaps in my Metroidvania knowledge, they are different in interesting ways. Momodora – speaking specifically about Reverie Under the Moonlight since the earlier games feel too short to analyze – is a game that quickly establishes a form and then never strays much from it, honing it and providing alternatives along the way. Shantae, on the other hand – especially the Pirate’s Curse – feels more like a bag of tricks that lacks real depth in its core mechanics but constantly throws new mechanics and scenarios at the player. Both well worth the time needed to play them though.
In a way, Inside is a remarkably simple game to describe – it’s like Limbo, but better. The environmental storytelling is both more interesting and easier to follow. The movement is cleaner, the puzzles have less unforgiving timing and the checkpoints are better at reducing frustration. The art, while maybe not as iconic as the silhouettes of limbo, is at least as stylish with stark contrasts of light and shadow being used efficiently to set a mood that is similarly dreadful but more nuanced. I’m guessing some of the thematic differences could make one game appeal to a player over the other, but in general it feels safe to say if you liked Limbo you will also like Inside.
Long before it was released, I was talking about Limbo with a friend who was judging it for the IGF – he mentioned that it was a very animation-driven game, more concerned with how it looked than how it played. Not that this made it bad – Limbo still had controls that were more than good enough for the actions you were undertaking, and if Playdead made any concessions to end up with more coherent visuals it paid off in spades. Many people – several in my own circle of friends – who were largely uninterested in videogames were drawn to Limbo when watching the game being played by someone else.
Inside does what it sets out to do really well, but part of that involves a story that does not allow for too many sidetracks or too complex puzzles to break up the action. As such, it is typically immediately obvious how a puzzle is to be solved and executing the solution is a matter of busywork – sometimes with a degree of tedium. It is maybe not surprising that participation sometimes feel arbitrary in a game that can so easily draw curious bystanders in. Still, the story Inside tells is really interesting and it has the good sense not to drag it out.
I’m finding it hard not to compare Mighty no 9 to DOOM since I just finished playing both – but in a way it feels like it’s not entirely useful. Or, for lack of a better word, fair. Both are flirting with a kind of game that was starting to disappear some 20 years ago, but while DOOM tries to capture the essence of the original using new techniques Mighty no 9 seems to want to recreate the original as-is and pile new ideas on top of it.
A comparison between a kickstarter project – even though it’s backed by famous names – and a AAA project backed by one of the world’s largest publishers is not really fair though. Mostly because experimentation might – ironically – still be safer to do with publishers who understand that budgets are flexible, failures are a part of the process and have the resources to take care of practical matters for you. But I am honestly not sure I was the right audience for this game to begin with.
I wrote a few years back about Megaman 8, how it had a high level of frustration and seemed much more concerned about its level of spectacle than it being fair to the player and how criticizing it for doing what it set out to do said more about me than about the game. There are innovations in Mighty no 9 that I do like – the dash/combo system is fluid when it works, the recharging special weapons discourage the stockpiling that took so much joy out of the early Megamans and some of the later levels have really nice ideas, if not well-realized ones. Other times, it feels like the game is trying to shoot itself in the foot – certain sections are so hard to get through mechanically that the game flat-out tells you what you need to do since it might be hard to guess after failing at it. Instead of letting you experiment with strategies, the game tells you what weapon a boss is weak to before you enter the level. There is an abundance of instant-kill traps with poorly defined hitboxes and the archaic lives system will force you to replay areas that do not offer nearly enough challenge to warrant optimization. Bosses occasionally have interesting patterns, but are usually bullet-sponges with easily dodgable attacks. In short, playing Mighty no 9 is a game of attrition.
But I am not so sure that would have irritated me when I was younger. And there is some room for detailed optimization in playstyles – the upcoming SGDQ should give us some hint that there is a lot of desire for games that encourage mastery. I don’t know if Mighty no 9 manages to do that as the market for punishing platform games is rather crowded already, but it’s really not for me to judge.
I was in College when the Doom 3 leak happened, never did spend much time with the game but it was one of the early and clear examples of a trend where the added realism afforded by new hardware allowed games to be more serious and dark. A whole lot of games fell for it during the late 90s to early 2000s, as if videogames were in some adolescent period where they needed to abandon their colorful origins. I mean, in a lot of ways they were.
The cool part of DOOM is that after so many games have tried that modernization approach, it appears to follow a recent phenomenon (which I can only hope becomes more of a trend) where developers skip the tried-and-true methods of wringing an old IP for money and instead return to the roots of the game, changing it only when new techniques can further the original ideas. At the time, I remember Doom 2 being a technological marvel more than anything else but it did have a frenetic pace of the action that got lost somewhere among the cover-shooting and regenerating health.
I think it was Halo that popularized the idea of creating a simpler shooter with much less longterm economy – you didn’t really have to keep track of health between fights, and since you could only carry two weapons you were bound to keep replacing them with whatever you found ammo for. It was a brilliant way of removing the problem of players fretting over just how expensive a victory had been and how it would affect their path through the rest of the level – it allowed each encounter to be interesting and lethal in its own right. The problem with this, though, is that by allowing the players to rest to regain health, you encourage a playstyle that involves frequent lulls in the action.
Nothing wrong with that per-se, but it has been a crutch for many games – it is therefore refreshing to see DOOM flip the idea on its head and instead of rewarding the player for taking a break it rewards the player for keeping the action going. Not a lot of DOOM makes sense from a narrative standpoint but the flow of the game and the feedback from its mechanics justify it. It is a bold move to go back to the drawing board on a problem that’s already been solved, and no mean feat to pull off a completely new solution so well.
I did feel like some of the exploratory game elements introduced a bit too much of a pause in the mayhem, and the difficulty curve was uneven, but those are merely nitpicks in a confident and very good game.
It is very clear from the get-go that Quantum Break was made by the same people who conceived Alan Wake – story is front and center and the game in between is functional, but hardly inspiring. It is a very ambitious project – would have been even without the TV episodes that are interleaved with the actual game.
A lot of times and on many levels, Quantum Break feels like it is full of good ideas that could have used a little bit more attention. On the presentation side, for instance, textures visibly stream in when you’re standing right next to them and effects and environments frequently make the game very hard to read. Gameplay-wise, you get a sense of areas being designed to be realist first and fun later – it is never clear where you can go and the areas where you fight feel ill-suited for it. It is a particularly egregious example of ludonarrative dissonance with an upgrade system that encourages you to search every area thoroughly but a narrative that constantly nags you to hurry along. What makes this even worse is how the game gives you a rough idea of when you are supposed to find something, but if you happen to miss one it will almost never allow you to backtrack. For these reasons, and some ill-advised instant-kill moments, Quantum Break can be frustrating to play.
It is, however, very obvious that these choices were made in order to tell a better story – and it does tell quite the story. It is not as atmospheric as Alan Wake and it left less of a mark on me, but it is an ambitious project with some great performances both in voice and live – Aidan Gillen in particular shines as an unusually sympathetic antagonist. It is a game that is flawed in some ways, and I don’t think Remedy has quite figured out a good way to merge their kind of storytelling well with gameplay just yet, but I am happy that they are trying.
Amanita design have a short but incredibly strong history – after the first Samorost game being freeware and the second one modestly being half-free, they came out big with Machinarium after having sustained themselves on contract work. While Samorost and Samorost 2 were good games somewhat hindered by their small scope, Machinarium was a confident adventure that proved Amanita design could build longer games. Botanicula was a slight return to form for them in terms of puzzle complexity, but with it came the announcement of a full-length sequel to the Samorost games, one that was released a couple of months ago.
Like the other games before it, Samorost 3 is beautiful. Amanita have made a point of raising the bar with every game they release, each new game sounds better, has more beautiful environments and more vivid characters and animations than the previous ones. For a game that has no dialogue and takes place in truly alien settings, communicating character and intent clearly is no small task but Amanita pulls it off with grace. The larger scope of the game is immediately apparent – every screen is filled with objects that all have their own personality, all have different reactions when you interact with them.
… Which is something of a problem, since Samorost takes an approach to puzzles that is more similar to the other games in the series than to the more traditional puzzles of Machinarium. Objects in Samorost will require you to click, click repeatedly, drag, wait for or interact with the environment in various ways – most of the time, the puzzles themselves are trivial but figuring out how to interact with them is very difficult – especially since there are so many objects in every scene that will react to you without being a part of the puzzle. Much like Machinarium, Samorost has a hint-system to help you when you get stuck, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there’s really not much else to the gameplay if you rely too much on it.
In short, the puzzles are more about red herrings than interesting problems. Knowing Amanita can be clever if they want to it is a bit of a disappointment, but Samorost 3 is well worth playing for the art and music alone.
Hyper Light Drifter is a game that does the immediate very well. The art is top-notch, inspired by 90s pixelart but using shades and light in a subtle manner that makes it look evolved and modern without ruining its heritage. The combat is well paced and has heft – different weapons have different use cases and different enemies require vastly different strategies. Combinations of different enemies, or even higher numbers of the same enemy require yet more strategies. It is difficult enough that you will not get far if you do not play smart, yet forgiving enough to give you ample opportunity to learn how to fight and room for a few mistakes. In short, the simple acts of walking around, dashing, slashing and shooting are immensely satisfying.
What makes it curious is everything else – and I am not quite sure how much of this is an intentional attempt to be a game that has depth, difficulty and is always full of secrets. It’s not like the inspirations for Hyper Light Drifter were more forgiving, had less obtuse puzzles or easier-to-use abilities, but we are mostly talking about games that are some 20 years old here and accessibility is at a higher level these days. For instance, Hyper Light Drifter will mostly hint that there’s a secret around, but sometimes it will not – essentially meaning that you’re going to have to dash off every ledge and check every wall if you want to find everything.
Bringing me to the second point, that of health. Hyper Light Drifter does the Dark Souls bit with health kits you have to activate manually in calm moments during a fight – this works really well as a source of interesting economical choices and combat pacing, but there is no simple way to replenish them. At first it seems like the game is encouraging you to think about the long-term economy a well, but it quickly becomes apparent that you can farm full healthkits in a few minutes in a number of places, but that’s still a few minutes you need to opt to waste if you want to be better prepared for the next encounter.
Finally, there’s the matter of abilities – Hyper Light Drifter has the requisite setup of extra ammo and health, charged slash, dash-slash and a variety of ways to shield yourself. Some of these are immediately useful, like the upgrade that lets you deflect bullets with a slash, but most are really tricky to get the timing right for and usually punish you if you fail so they are not particularly useful unless you practice a lot. Which would make sense if there were anything to practice for, but I would guess most players would be good enough at avoiding attacks and dishing out damage to breeze through the entire game long before they become proficient with the charge slash.
There’s no real point to mastering difficult techniques, there’s no reason for the game to force you to collect health kits rather than just give them to you in safe areas and trying to find secrets is more punishing than rewarding. Again, the game is taking a cue from older faire but in this day and age it feels like it is pretending to have more of a challenge than it actually does.
That said, it is a great game for the simple reasons that it plays really well and has an excellent presentation. Most of the game is balanced just right. If you’re not a completionist that’s going to be bothered by the last 10% being artificially tricky to get, there is little reason not to play it. It is also very possible that I’m mistaken about the kind of challenges the game offers, or that more will be patched in.
Limbo is the first thing that comes to mind when playing Unravel, they are both platformers with physics puzzles that are fundamentally driven by their visuals. I didn’t think the puzzles were the strongest part of Limbo, but in Unravel they feel even less prominent – it is mostly a game made out of busywork, applying basic mechanics in obvious ways over and over. Occasionally you’ll see a new mechanic and some times there’s a clever puzzle about traversing the environment while preserving the most yarn possible but most of the time Unravel is an excuse to ferry the player through environments.
And the environments do look good, technically as well as aesthetically. The soundtrack accompanies the levels really well, and while there are some exceedingly frustrating puzzles made difficult by lack of information, unreliable physics or obscure additions to seemingly working solutions, the majority of the design is if not interesting, then at least frictionless to run through. As a content tourist, one could certainly do worse than Unravel.
When Unravel was revealed back at E3 less than a year ago, game director Martin Sahlin talked about the importance of exploring emotions in games – this message is reiterated when the game opens and it is very clear that it was the development focus. And while it’s always nice to see games attempting to say something, there’s not quite the shortage of emotional games that Unravel seems to imply – in recent years there have been quite a lot of them. Unravel goes a bit overboard in stating and re-stating its purpose and it often feels clumsy and on-the-nose rather than emotionally honest. Limbo promoted fear and loneliness with silhouettes and sound effects. Journey took us through the narrative three-act structure without so much as a written word. Brothers managed to use game mechanics to communicate loss and sorrow. I think Unravel would have been a lot stronger if it put more trust in the player and allowed itself to be more subtle with delicate subjects.
It’s a competent game and a technical marvel, but there are better offerings both for the puzzle fans and those looking for interesting narrative experiences.