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.
I normally try to avoid spoilers, but in the end what I write here is to be considered more like the starting-off point of a discussion about the game rather than a recommendation/condemnation for the uninformed players so when my thoughts on a game hinges on the resolution, I will write about that. In short, if you are thinking about playing Firewatch you should do that before reading further – I would recommend that you do if forests, very light discovery gameplay and stories about damaged characters getting to know each other is your thing. It’s got more action than Gone Home, but it’s a similar vein of game.
Firewatch doesn’t do much in terms of gameplay – there’s light flirting with mobility mechanics being introduced to allow more exploration, but there aren’t really any places to explore and little reason to try – I did find a few things off the beaten path but other than very obvious nods they felt disconnected from the larger story. And the story is what Firewatch is about, really – it opens up with some background on why the main character found himself in the job, having escaped from a personal tragedy. The game immediately displays a proficiency with interactive storytelling as the player is free to make choices but are ultimately unable to make the situation better, it feels realistic and sets the tone of the game without spending too much time.
The setup is promising and when you tentatively start talking to your boss over the radio about the choices you made, it feels like a relationship is establishing and the game starts being about that. Then, the game throws some increasingly frightening X-files mysteries at you and the game slowly shifts to being scared and alone in the woods – still well done, though it is difficult to feel spooked by a game that so clearly will never introduce other characters or even animals. My beef is with the resolution – when all is said and done, subplots resolve themselves and the central scary piece of it turns out to be more or less a crazy guy doing his best to go around and scare you.
It was a bit anticlimactic. I admit I may have been placing undue weight on different parts of the plot – the game wants to use the horror element to advance the more personal stories without having to draw attention to the horror itself, and it did not succeed in my case. Maybe if I had made different choices or investigated more objects off the beaten path I would have gotten more out of it. Knowing that it is not going anywhere interesting kind of dissuades me from playing again though, which would be sad if the game is as dynamic as it sometimes seem to be.
I cannot deny having had fun while playing Firewatch though, before I knew how it ended.
In a small way writing a public reflection on the Witness feels dishonest – on several levels there is always something you’re not getting, some puzzle you did not even realize was there or some layer of the narrative you had not discerned. This is true for the vast majority of games I play, I suppose, but it calls attention to itself in a game that is more than anything inviting you to discover its secrets.
The Witness has puzzles in the form of mazes, but typically the maze is not in itself the puzzle – it feels more like the language you use to communicate to the game that you have solved the puzzle. Which does not seem like a fundamental difference at first, but it makes the game more about observing the world – witnessing, if you will – and finding patterns. If puzzle games are about the joy you feel when figuring something out, the Witness gives it to you from many different directions and then again when you figure out how it all fits together.
It is mechanically very solid. There are a few frustrating moments with timed puzzles and failed attempts forcing you to re-do earlier mazes, but ultimately this is to discourage the player from trying to brute-force them. On occasion the solution to a puzzle may be finicky to perform even though you have found it, but removing all but the most user-friendly puzzles would make the game less varied.
I don’t pretend to know the depth of its mysteries, but as a puzzle game the Witness is very elegant.
… I don’t usually write about really small games – there are a few different reasons for this but to say a few words about some of the games I played for the last month or so…
Ninja Pizza Girl is a pretty neat precision platform game with multiple paths, sadly the 3D visuals skew perspective a bit and make it less precise than it needs to be. In addition, the anti-bullying message with accompanying game mechanics feel very tacked on and hugely detrimental to the gameplay.
Jotun is a really good looking boss rush game with light exploration in between. It has some gameplay in the levels but the real challenge lies in the bosses that offer some neat action-RPG gameplay bordering in bullet hell at times.
Read Only Memories seems like a pretty straightforward sci-fi adventure game at first, but it later becomes clear that your behavior matters more than figuring out the puzzles. This adds more weight to the central story, a story fundamentally about privilege.
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human was much like Jotun, only the areas between bosses are more focused on Metroidvania unlockables than challenges. Both games had solid boss fights, but not very engaging gameplay between them – considering they take a cue from Shadow of the Colossus which had no gameplay between bosses I’m wondering if this is a bad thing.
2015 was the year I marked having spent 10 years programming for the AAA games industry – two games I worked on (or rather, a game and an expansion) were released and a few long-term goals of mine came fulfilled. Despite this 2015 has been pretty rough – I can’t really go into details why, but to give some idea I have worked more this last year than I have since we were racing to complete the Darkness in 2007, an effort that feels largely wasted. At least, it does right now – which brings up important points about the value of experience and how quickly it is felt, maybe next year I will have a different perspective.
As Jeff Vogel and others have pointed out, the market for smaller independent games is getting saturated – Steam being more and more open has shifted the fight for exposure back over to media and consoles. At the same time, the range of mid-tier games is growing and crowdfunding has evolved into a science at this point, seems fitting as Double fine Adventure – arguably the catalyst for the popularity of games crowdfunding – was finally released. As for AAA, we keep getting more and more focused on fewer IPs and spend more time on things outside of the core games. Change is happening wherever you are, it seems, and rethinking how you work is a near necessity even if you do not take personal development into account.
As for the games, I mostly played Destiny this year but a few story-heavy games managed to stand out…
Undertale came in hot just last week for me, it is funny and mechanically innovative but more importantly it is subversive and frames everything from genre tropes to limitations of early hardware as plot devices.
Her Story offered a system in need of exploration, but managed to elegantly sidestep the problems gaming literacy brings the genre while presenting a story well in a way most of us had written off in the nineties.
Life is Strange is the game I have talked more about with friends than any other game this year, and a game I still find more things to say about. A few friends have remarked that they put off playing it until all episodes were released which was kind of a shame, because Life is Strange somehow managed to use the episodic format to make the game better.
I really enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot, the continuation is mostly more of the same so I do not have a lot to say about it. Rise of the Tomb Raider is prettier, has some more interesting combat options and light encouragement for backtracking. I vastly prefer the serious (if a bit over-the-top) tone to the campy Indiana Jones-style Uncharted approach, but the story about Lara’s competition with a multinational shadowy religious organization feels a lot less interesting than the origin story told in the first game. Still, a very good game.
The interesting thing about Tomb Raider – this one in particular – is how it has the level layout and traversal mechanics of a metroidvania but the visual design of a much more railroaded game – there is a lot of debris, invisible walls and instant-kill zones that cordon off chunks of a game world that seems much more playable than it actually is. Being a completionist, I ran into a good amount of walls that did not seem like they should be walls, and out-of-bounds areas that did not seem discernible from the walkable terrain around them but not as many as I would have expected by far. While some of this is probably due to years of training to avoid noninteractive objects in videogames on my end, the level designers at Crystal Dynamics have done a remarkable job in making the playable areas subtly more inviting and Tomb Raider manages to present both a sandbox experience and a dramatically cinematic one, no mean feat.
On an unrelated note, having had time to play some games due to Thanksgiving conveniently coincided with my raid group taking a break from Destiny – previously I found new groups when this happened but this time I opted to dial it back with them. I don’t know how much of this is due to the raidgroup being more consistent and professional than my prior ones and how much of it is me finally getting close to my fill of the game (we are approaching the longest time the game has been around without a large content update and there have been no announcements), but it is comforting to know that one of the biggest things contributing to unhealthy amounts of gaming – peer pressure – can also be used to dissuade us from it.
Having played the original Dishonored in a stealthy pacifist manner, I opted to go for a more violent path this time around. The first thing I noticed was that this was not as much fun as it usually amounted to one intense fight where all the guards in the level were summoned to my location, then roaming the empty corridors to complete objectives and pick up loot. The second thing I noticed was that this was a lot easier and a lot quicker than sneaking.
When we talk about Ludonarrative dissonance the most common example is the extraordinary amounts of violence perpetuated by protagonists that we are meant to empathize with, but at least with stealth games a more commonly problematic one is the disruption between the fantasy and execution. The game sells you the idea of being a master spy or assassin, but in actual fact the player will frequently struggle with avoiding the gaze of random passers-by – something that should be trivial to the protagonist. Mark of the Ninja designer Nels Anderson did a GDC talk about this, mentioning how that game focused more on the fantasy and made avoiding detection trivial. In doing so, it becomes more about planning your approach – returning to Dishonored, these moments are when I feel it is at its best, and not when a stray guard randomly walks past a window halfway across the level and spots you being up to no good, forcing a restart.
Which brings up the question whether this is even a valid complaint – Dishonored does, after all, tell you any solution is good. In fact, unlike most other stealth games it recognizes when you opt for a more chaotic and straightforward approach and penalizes you for it with difficulty hikes later, so it is certainly not the worst offender. The original Mirror’s Edge, for instance, had a narrative that actively discouraged you from fighting and killing but gameplay mechanics that made attempting to avoid firearms frustrating and tedious. But I would argue that the reinforced enemies in a high-chaos playthrough of Dishonored do not add much to the difficulty, whereas the narrative chides you for being violent and the presented statistics aim to show you how good you were at sneaking regardless of the approach you take – it is at least interesting that the game allows you to coast through it rather than force you to deal with its unforgiving stealth systems, though I feel that it is simultaneously encouraging me to play a certain way and penalizing me for doing so. The expansions – Brigmore Witches in particular – take this even further with large open spaces with little cover, enemies that do not count as kills or detections, enemies that can teleport and an ability set that offer fewer opportunities for stealth.
That said, I mentioned in my reflection of the original Dishonored that it is an old-school approach to stealth gaming and I knew what I was getting into. Frustrations aside the gameplay is still tense and fun, the art is still beautiful and the narrative in the expansions – again, Brigmore Witches in particular – is a step up from the base game.
In some ways, Halo 3 was the high point of the series feature-wise – with dual-wielding, items, vehicle hijacking and a level selection that offered both the large battlefields of Halo 1 and the staged but engaging corridor fighting of Halo 2. ODST then made some cutbacks which at the time felt okay since it was a different kind of game, but some of the features never really came back. On the one hand, this takes away from the “combat evolved” tagline, the earlier Halo games felt more like sandboxes allowing you to play around with different systems. On the other hand, Bungie and 343 were clamping down on the core gameplay, always a strength in the series.
Halo Reach introduced the concept of classes that made gameplay more interesting without adding much complexity or otherwise slowing it down, and in a similar way Halo 5 has expanded on the basic moveset of the spartans to allow for some really nice close quarters combat. It still feels more staged and restricted than the earlier Halo games, but the second-to-second combat offers more complexity – I’m wondering if this is not a good thing in the end since the larger scope only really concerns the campaign.
The story still doesn’t quite agree with me – the dual-perspective storyline feels like it prevents it from going deep enough and it glosses over important character development by bringing up too many subjects. But that may be just me. In the end, I find most of the game to be okay to good but the shooting to be really enjoyable, not at all a bad place to be for a shooting game – even one with as much legacy as Halo.
My relationship with Call of Duty is a weird story of privilege – I was never really into the military escapism side of it. When it comes to FPS mechanics, I vastly prefer the snappier, more responsive and more obviously visually coded Halo and Destiny styles of games. I have mentioned before that I never really meant to get into Call of Duty, but it was easy to set aside time for – all the games in the “Modern Warfare” series had a campaign that was intense, varied and offered everything it had to offer in a linear path that took around six hours to follow.
In this sense, Black Ops 2 was the first game in the series – of the ones I played – that I kind of disliked, and for seemingly poor reasons. It was longer, had a branching plotline and some light RPG elements – not bad in any sense of the word but it does take away from the popcorn experience and I thought the series is nowhere close to providing the experience of other games that are focused on moral dilemmas and character progression. It felt like a wasted effort made it drawn-out.
There’s also the matter of story – on the last generation of consoles, it went from military drama to Tom Clancy-esque outrageous political intrigue – Modern Warfare in a slightly different way than Black Ops, but both moved away from focusing on the conflict to focusing on the characters. The three franchises of this generation have gone further away from the military sim with Ghosts being post-apocalyptic, Advanced Warfare being about drones and corrupt PMCs and finally Black Ops III being about even more drones and digital warfare. On the one hand, I do not really like the direction it has taken on any of them – the focus on the anonymous man-on-the-ground in Modern Warfare and the scenes showing the ultimate results of war like the nuke, I think those were stronger than anything the game has done since. On the other hand, I remember not really liking the story in Modern Warfare either so it is very likely I my opinions do not align with the people this game was actually written for. It’s still good as throwaway entertainment, the way I am playing it.
Black Ops III has some neat ideas going for it in terms of player upgrades and character progression – none of the abilities or weapons you acquire are particularly innovative in themselves, but there is a good number to choose from and even though the levels are not as varied as in, say, Ghosts, the game feels very different when playing with a different loadout. I started out emulating my Destiny playstyle and went for close- to midrange encounters with lots of mobility and aggressive territory control, then I switched to a Mass Effect Infiltrator-build and went for sniping with skills favoring stealth and positioning. Both fun, and feeling very different to play.
… So that’s a cool part about it. I could talk a long time about other elements from Black Ops III, but as I think it’s not really intended for me it feels at best superfluous and at worst misleading. Also, this has been long enough already.
When I first mentioned Destiny a little more than a year ago, I mentioned having played it for longer than any other game I could remember – there have been periods where I played less since then, to be sure, but I never really stopped. My original raid team disbanded and I finished all the challenges the game laid out before me, then I found a new friends through the game and made my own goals within the game world. Never having been this into an MMO (or any other game, really), it has given me some insight into the allure of a solid game combined with a persistent but grindy reward system and the social contracts involved in high-level multiplayer games. I also think I am playing a bit too much since there are other games I’m missing out on. But anyway, the expansion.
The Taken King has greatly improved the storytelling – there are whispers about how vanilla Destiny was ripped apart and patched back together less than a year before release, which could explain the bare-bones approach it took. As someone who appreciated the underlying narrative of the original, it is a welcome change but hardly a game-changer – the new approaches to quests and the variety of tasks to accomplish certainly is though. There is no end of things to do in the Taken King, and there is a lot less incentive to do any specific one – Bounties are easier and give smaller rewards, Nightfalls no longer give you a weeklong buff, PvP events no longer guarantee exclusive gear. Even the raid rarely gives you true top-level gear. In some sense this is good since it makes completing everything a fool’s errand, in another it makes the grind to true max level so long that it if you let variety take a backseat to optimization you are not going to have a lot of choice for a long time.
It is a different kind of grind – having invested so much time in the old game I’m inclined to dislike change of that magnitude, but a lot of small changes have streamlined the experience. The economy still never seems to settle in a good place, but that is one of the tougher challenges of a persistent world.
Another thing that is a more obvious improvement is the variety in gameplay itself – strikes and story missions used to be a sequence of corridor fighting and holdout areas with the occasional miniboss – still fun due to the exceptional shooter experience and weapon variety, but not particularly varied in a minute-to-minute perspective. The Taken King includes light raid mechanics more or less everywhere and makes bosses more interesting than bullet sponges – after you have done them a few times the puzzles are no cerebral challenge anymore but it’s still a nice change of pace.
Talking about Destiny as I would another game is difficult, because so much of my experience is tied to the community at large, the people I play with regularly and the massive amounts of time I have invested in my characters and how the game has evolved during that time. The core shooter is still very solid and everything immediately surrounding that has improved though, anything beyond that is probably too personal to be relevant to anyone else.