To be honest, 2010 has been kind of tough. Not that there hasn’t been good things happening, but after 2008 and 2009 offered grand new experiences the main thing I learned in 2010 was that it was time for me to leave my job. The conclusion came as a matter of necessity and I did not have a hard time doing it, but I still have not resolved everything it actually means to me. For almost 20 years I wanted to work with games and when I finally got employed I did not imagine I would ever want to leave Starbreeze – reaching this decision has created a lot of questions I never really thought about before. Luckily, I am free to follow my dreams yet again and it looks like 2011 will be a lot more interesting. But enough about that! A lot of games were noteworthy this year but I have boiled it down to four, three of which are rather obvious.

Mass Effect 2

I played a lot of JRPGs when I was younger and I distinctly remember not liking Lufia 2 because I could not sympathize with the main character – despite the game being fairly good otherwise. The problem with story in games is just that – it is hard to write an involving story without giving the main character a personality, and this means games usually have bland stories or stories that some people just do not like. Mass Effect 2 is fantastic in this regard as it gives you an involving story where you really feel that you play the character you want to play and that the game responds accordingly, and I am really looking forward to the third installment.

Hero Core

Hero Core had a pretty long polish phase for a game of its scope, but playing it it becomes clear that it was worth it. Daniel Remar is a master of creating more with less and makes creating great design – core mechanics as well as level design – look effortless. It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a line between “mainstream” and “indie” games, but that hardly matters as long as lone developers create virtual masterpieces and inspire hopeful future game developers.

Starcraft 2

Starcraft 2 oozes refinement and as a gamer who is increasingly more interested in a good story it is very refreshing to see a game that has such intriguing mechanics and careful balancing that you can play it in a multitude of different ways for hours and hours and still learn something. Sure, a game made with professional gaming in mind is bound to be deep, but even for a rookie or casual gamer Starcraft 2 is fun to just mess around with.

Alan Wake

Returning to the heavily story-based games, Alan Wake takes a completely different approach than Mass Effect and instead embraces a very static script with heavy influences from Stephen King and Twin Peaks. Now, the game sometimes feels tacked-on as the story is central, but it is very well-written and immensely well-presented both aesthetically and technically. I suppose if I hadn’t liked the source material my opinion would have been more in line with the reviewers’, but as it is I really loved the game.

Posted on Dec 31/10 by Saint and filed under Meta-blog, Reflections | No Comments »

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Epic Mickey


Back in the 8- and 16-bit eras, you could usually peg Disney-games (almost always by Virgin) as looking very nice, playing fairly well but being very easy and rather short – what was there was very polished. This has changed over the years, though, and Epic Mickey is almost the opposite as it drags on a bit too long and feels decidedly unpolished.

In theory this is a 3D platformer with the feature that you use paint and thinner to hide or show parts of the world, but this mechanic is more or less reduced to a lock-key mechanism. Specific places require a specific element in order for the player to proceed and although you can paint or thin parts of objects there never any reason to do it. The different elements also function as ways to express morality with paint being creative and helpful but thinner destructive and mischievous – the mechanics are essentially the same as any other game with moral choices, but it is mostly handled well and adds some replay value. From a platform game standpoint the mechanic is rather bland, but thematically it is handled very well – especially against the promising backstory of the old and unused Disney characters.

What brings down the game is the lack of polish, both in terms of core mechanics, level design and minor details. The game does a very poor job communicating to the player what is what, what areas are accessible and in general what is possible. It is also frustrating and unforgiving, providing plenty of instant-kill moments and areas you only have one chance of finding everything in. Epic Mickey does not allow the player to choose when to save so a bad decision stays with you, this might be a good idea in more roleplaying – oriented games but when failure is reflex-based and can usually be blamed in part on poor camera and controls it is especially irritating when you cannot try again.

The camera is probably the worst thing about Epic Mickey. Controlling it is tricky with the given button configuration, and very often it does not even respond as a lot of the viewing angles are limited. A fixed camera can work wonders if it actually shows what it is supposed to, but in Epic Mickey there is often details just outside of view and tricky jumps that require an angle you aren’t allowed to set. Now, making a smart camera model is very hard but making a simple one is relatively easy so if you cannot pull off the smart one you should go for the simple one or the game will break. Granted, making a simple third-person camera with the Wii controls is a bit more tricky than on the other consoles, but there are plenty of games that do it better than this.

It feels like Epic Mickey could have been a lot better with more intensive focus testing and a willingness to fix things that made the game frustrating, but it is unclear whether this is due to lack of time, lack of ambition from the developer or publisher or if they simply did not agree that it could be improved.

Posted on Dec 31/10 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Hecker and Blow

Edge magazine recently did an interview with Chris Hecker and Jonathan Blow, it should be in the January issue but is now – fortunately – available online. As both of them are well-connected and outspoken veterans of the industry, it is an illuminating piece about everything from the state of Independent games to game design and polish and touching briefly on heavier, mainstream titles. It is opinionated, yes, but critical of both mainstream games, independent games and academia and not built up on the usual “this way is better than that” – arguments.

There was also some controversy as parts of the article was reposted with a different focus, Blow wrote about it and brought up a couple of interesting points on how this matters. He also provided a link to an earlier piece by Hecker who went more into detail about the state of games media. Also opinionated, but interesting anecdotes nevertheless.

I used to be kind of wary about any opinion piece written by Blow as I thought he tended to be a little harsh and self-righteous – brilliant designer, but sometimes a bit too negative and oblivious to the aspirations of other people. I am warming up to his way of thinking though, and I appreciate him being blunt with his opinions. Maybe he has toned the negativity down a bit since releasing a game of his own, maybe I have just been reading the sensationalist pieces that he mentions all this time or maybe I am growing weary of reading articles gushing uncritically over the latest big thing and then promptly forgetting about them.

Posted on Dec 23/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Those who have known me for a long while know I like handicrafts and used to do it quite a lot when I was younger… Like any pretentious developer I like to be creative, and I like to keep my hands busy. It is not that I prefer knitting to other crafts, but it can be done without paying too much attention to it which is great when enjoying non-interactive entertainment such as watching movies – hence I occasionally knit stuff. Long story short, I decided to get rid of it a few months ago and started selling for the Child’s Play Charity in the beginning of November through this page.

All in all, the auctions gathered somewhere around $600, thanks in no small part to Terry Cavanagh who helped out by offering a bonus to those interested in the VVVVVV socks… I am not sure what to do next, but for those interested there is this thread on TIGSource.

… That is all. This was an extremely egocentric post, but it was fun to something out of the ordinary for Child’s Play instead of just buying something from amazon.

Posted on Dec 02/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, Homegrown, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Thinking further

A GameSpot reporter wrote an article about Limbo’s lessons for the mainstream and interviewed a few people regarding it – a piece that surely took some work, but it seemed to me there must be more important things to spend your time on.

It is the classic argument that most mainstream games are “…off-brown shooters requiring you to mow down hordes of vaguely foreign nationals and/or aliens” and that AAA developers need to be inspired by the independent developers, since they do not have to care what anyone thinks and therefore everything they make is amazing. Well… Maybe not that harsh, but that is the general idea that seems to fuel articles like these.

Sure, it is a valid point – most hobbyist or otherwise independent developers do not care about what people think and so you are more likely to see something you did not expect coming from them – but there are also loads and loads of games that are too uninspired, too weird or just plain too badly implemented to ever get any mainstream attention. Similarly, there are plenty of mainstream games that do new and interesting things well – the definition of an AAA game is muddy but I would say a higher percentage of them try to do something new and interesting than the collective indie catalogue.

The difference is – and here the article states a very good point – there are a lot of AAA games that try to give customers only what they want with minute improvements, and a lot of mainstream games that for one reason or the other are marketed heavily even though they are not very good. Games made by independents usually have little to no marketing other than word-of-mouth so no-one will push a bad indie title on you – hence, it does not get recognized and people with a good grasp on games in general but a poor grasp on independent gaming will hold up “indie” as something synonymous with “innovative and amazing.”

And is Limbo that good an example, really? I really like the game, it is atmospheric and genuinely creepy with it’s unique visual style and dramatic, silent scenes. In the end though, it is just a solid puzzle/platformer with really good art direction – not a bad game, but the only innovative thing about it is pairing the silhouettes and hazy backgrounds with one of independent gaming’s most common genres.

I do not really want to encourage more infighting between indie enthusiasts and… well, I suppose some claim to be fighting “mainstream games” but few people seem to be fighting back. I am just tired to see the entire AAA games industry be discarded as derivative and boring every time an indie game reaches the mainstream game media.

Can’t anyone look at a list of AAA games of the recent years and talk about the important innovations they brought to the industry? If no-one else will, I’ll write an article myself.

Posted on Dec 01/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »