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.
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.