I mentioned last year that 2015 had been rough, this was mostly for professional reasons that I cannot really talk about. Similarly, 2016 has had its fair share of triumphs but overall it’s been very rough – this time for personal reasons that I am not going to go talk about. The uncertainty and change of the industry I am in can be stressful in times like these, but at least I can appreciate that we are constantly delivered new experiences.

One thing that was positive though – we got more work done on Backworlds than we had during either 2014 or 2015 and we’ve set a good pace that make it a joy to work on even through the tough parts. And it doesn’t look like it will be slowing down soon, either, so that’s good. It feels comforting to know that even after so many long hours in the games industry, I can still make and play games just to relax. Speaking of which…

the Witness was a game with many more secrets than I could dive into, but it had a sublime purity of design to it coupled with masterful audiovisual presentation that made it one of the most fulfilling games I have played in a very long time.

Doom dared to be a game from an older time, a game with older values, but without turning itself into a gag. It didn’t quite have the over-the-top setpieces or outrageous weapons of Bulletstorm, but it was a more finely tuned game with bold ideas that came together to form an experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Rakuen is a memorable experience that starts slow and shallow – trite, almost – but slowly grows its narrative into something more complex and deeply moving. While it can take a while to let it build the mood it needs, it is a game that exists for its payoff.

Posted on Jan 21/17 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2, more than anything, is a game that rewards exploration. Exploration of the areas and their wonderful aesthetics. Exploration of the lore – the letters and notes left behind by the inhabitants, but also the stories the environments tell about them. Exploration of the mechanics and how different powers and tools can be combined for marvelous stunts, and exploration of the spaces and how every room opens a multitude of opportunities for how it is traversed. Much like the first Dishonored, you can choose to kill all enemies, ignore the secrets and reach the end of the story for a rather anticlimactic ending, and just like that one it is a lesser game if you do. On the one hand it seems risky to hide the good parts and I don’t really approve of games that artificially lengthen themselves by forcing you to wring an unspecified amount of content out of them, but on the other hand I’m not sure if it would have been as satisfying if it had been unmissable. And unlike most other games with so much player choice, Dishonored 2 rarely – if ever – sacrifices quality, every optional path is presented with incredible detail and balance.

I keep thinking that all developers of stealth games should be forced to play Mark of the Ninja – at the extreme end of selling the idea of being undetectable if you so desire, it offers unparalleled player agency without demanding nearly any skill in return. Dishonored, by comparison, frequently forces you to reload a save because someone happened to spot you from across the room, a stealth takedown wasn’t timed just so or a sleep dart caused an enemy to fall into an abyss and destroy your otherwise murder-less playthrough. It raises some interesting questions though – there are plenty of options for distracting enemies, and even more options for containing a situation where you have already been detected – Dishonored doesn’t aspire to be a pure stealth game as far as the mechanics are concerned, but the disapproving notices you get for being detected and the grading you get after each level strongly tells you that if you were any good at it, you would move through the levels as if no-one ever suspected you were there. The closest analogy is the first Mirror’s Edge, I guess, where the story pushes a barely functional nonlethal path on the player from the get-go. Obviously this is a personal preference thing and I’m certainly more of a completionist than most, but I am wondering if there are ways to sell alternate playstyles that are less obvious. Iji did a pretty good job of hiding its superbly executed pacifist mode, but that’s the only one I can think of that I liked personally.

One of the greater successes of Dishonored 2, though, is that even with all the choice and options given to the player most levels have a very distinct identity with some very unique gameplay opportunities. You can always rely on your staple of violent or stealthy techniques, but using them in different contexts and in tandem with the environment feels very different. Dishonored 2 throws up pretense of being an open world game by having each level start through a different part of the same city, but the missions are wholly unique experiences that the first Dishonored did not deliver on.

I did the quicksave-quickload carousel a bit more than I liked in some places, but Dishonored 2 is definitely a masterfully crafted and immensely well made game.

Posted on Dec 15/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Deus Ex – Mankind Divided


Mankind Divided fixes a lot of issues that plagued Human Revolution. The opening is decidedly stronger and sets up a mystery that is both more interesting and neater than the one in Human Revolution. It only has the one hub level, but it is a much stronger area than anything Human Revolution had to offer – the solid fashion designs have grown stronger and inspired the world around them to create a place that feels like a very realistic version of what a European city would look like in the setting provided. It is blessedly devoid of ill-fitting comic relief characters and boss fights that require you to use skills you can otherwise ignore.

Sadly, it also gives off some of the sloppy vibe that plagued Human Revolution – a lot of scripts seem malconstructed as conversations are repeated, callouts and button prompts do not work and information that is missing altogether. Those are just the overt things though, there are more subtle issues – animations are sloppy during conversations and do not transition very well, removing a lot of carefully established gravitas from heavy scenes. The game will occasionally task you with transporting unconscious bodies at the mercy of a physics engine that may flip out and throw them far away or so hard into a wall that they die. Navigation often has conflicting controls and enemies, enemies will spot you with little warning and frequently you’re not even informed that you screwed up – in a game that gives you bonuses for maintaining a pacifist, stealthy playstyle this is infuriating to say the least. I found none of the upgrades really offered me new and interesting ways to play, they only made the ways I already played the game less frustrating.

The world is still really well established though, and the story that’s set within it is compelling. The themes of mistrust and discrimination are very relevant and sometimes they become a bit overt, but all of the characters you actually talk to are well developed and relatable – with the rare exception of a few goons, no-one is unambiguously good or bad. It also gets bonus points for doing conversations right, I always felt like I had a good response and the lack of a morality system made it more about establishing character than scoring points – in fact, Deus Ex only makes the narrative difficult when it wants to by making you doubt your allies or forcing you into tough decisions. Whatever other faults the game has, it ties together scenery with characters, background and all other narrative elements.

It was interesting playing this right after Infinite Warfare as it is, in a way, the antithesis of it – a really solid presentation and a mystery to draw you in, but a gameplay that more frequently gets in the way of that than helps it. I really enjoyed the game though, and I am interested in seeing where it goes next.

Posted on Dec 01/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Call of Duty – Infinite Warfare


The last time Infinity Ward headed a Call of Duty game was Ghost, and I liked Ghost better than any of the games that came after – it was just long enough and it didn’t spend too much time getting lost in ill-constructed upgrade systems or branching paths. Instead, Ghosts offered a blockbuster experience with tons of variety – not all of it worked and some really did not fit into the Call of Duty mold, but it was a fun game.

Infinite Warfare has a lot of that – it has a few upgrades, but they are all passive things you get automatically and silently. You get to pick your loadouts, but in true Call of Duty fashion the weapons are all similar enough – and you change them frequently enough – that it does not matter much. The problem with too much player customization is that it becomes difficult to balance challenges for the player and a specialized character tends to approach problems in their preferred way, so in a sense the game opens up more possibilites but individual playthroughs are prone to being less varied – much like Ghosts, Infinite Warfare errs on the side of variety.

Now, it is where Infinite Warfare gets this variety that it becomes a bit odd – early on, you are promoted to captain a battleship and somehow still take part in dogfights and infantry assaults with marines – thematically and gameplay-wise it feels more like Mass Effect. Missions swap between the dogfighting and different styles of more traditional CoD – shooting, ultimately it is still a linear game and it feels like it could have gotten even more actual variety out of not pretending otherwise, but the core gameplay is solid enough to hold it. But it is hard to connect what is mostly a sci-fi experience to the military shooter legacy.

And the setting and gameplay is not the only place where Infinite Warfare diverges from its predecessors, the story goes more for high drama than a more subdued military recollection, and it does not really work. That’s not to say that other CoD games have not failed here, or that the series even at its height was some sort of literary masterpiece, but at least Modern Warfare had a sense of self. All the communication was wrapped in faux-military professionalism, the bomber mission had a cold distance to it that spoke volumes (and it did so without being as overt as the controversial “No Russian” mission of MW2) and when the nuke was dropped halfway through the game it did not ask us to empathize with a silent protagonist but rather dwelled on the sad fate of one soldier forgotten among many. Infinite Warfare, by comparison, throws a series of characters at you in a desperate bid to familiarize you with them only so they can make heroic sacrifices later – even without the legacy of a more subdued commentary on modern military, it feels shallow and taints a mechanically interesting part of the game.

There is still a very solid core of shooting there and the variety in gameplay – while not as great as in Ghosts – is compelling enough that it is a very enjoyable game, but it is a shame when you can see the ending an hour before it happens and the delivery almost makes you want to stop playing.

Posted on Nov 30/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Titanfall 2


Considering Respawn’s origins, it is hardly surprising that the Titanfall 2 campaign is a varied affair – levels start out by being merely distinct in theme and layout, then new mechanics are introduced and removed for a few levels before the climactic finale. It is the good kind of variation that serves to keep an action game interesting without lowering the pace, the kind of variation that does not betray the core gameplay. I’m thinking of Call of Duty: Ghosts and even to some extent Bulletstorm when playing this, although Titanfall has more to the core game than either of them and aspires to be more serious and less gimmicky with the gameplay variations. It does not necessarily work – while Titanfall throws some decent attempts at parkour, world-switching and gadgeteering in there it is not Mirror’s Edge or any game that have gone into more depth of these mechanics. Bulletstorm had a radio-controlled dinosaur with a laser, and I feel like if Titanfall did not pretend to have gameplay variation that was deeper than it really is, it could have had a tone more in line with the premise of big robots and acrobatic pilots.

That is not to say that I heavily disliked the Narrative – while predictable and having a gallery of European stereotypes as villains, the generic brown-haired army dude in the lead role takes a commendably small part and most of the player’s attention is on the titan and its “unintentionally funny societally impaired” – schtick. Not the most original of concepts to do, but it is pulled off well.

Titanfall 2 is – much like my favorite parts of the Call of Duty series – not a singleplayer campaign that wastes your time with things similar to what you have already played, or things that you will not appreciate. It is a smooth experience that dabbles in variation enough to keep things interesting, but not so much that it loses track of its core gameplay. I sometimes wish it had been bolder, but it is a very fun and well-crafted game.

… I’ve been meaning to write something about Destiny: Rise of Iron for a while now, but again it is hard to say something about a game I’ve sunk so much time into. The story is standard Destiny fare and not very interesting – I think it is hard to give the single-player campaign gravitas when the multiplayer endgame throws challenges at you that are on a cosmically different scale, and I think it is a mistake for them to keep trying. The raid Wrath of the Machine may just be the strongest content in all of Destiny though – unlike Crota’s End that prioritized individuals and King’s Fall that had very strict rules for how to play it, Wrath of the Machine somehow manages to focus on teamwork and mobility while still allowing every player to contribute in whatever way they feel like. All classes and subclasses have some use, all weapons have their advantages and all quirky exotic pieces can be made to shine with a little imagination. Also, it is current-gen exclusive so it looks much nicer than the previous raids. It is no small feat to have pulled all this off, and I applaud Bungie for it.

Posted on Nov 29/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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One of the largest advantages of living in greater Los Angeles is that going to Indiecade every year is not that big of a committment. As festivals go, it has a lot more experimental and esoteric content which makes it one of the most inspiring game-related events to attend, but it also means most games are not going to be relevant for everybody and being a AAA developer most of the presentations aren’t really relevant to me. So being able to swing by the festival for a day without investing more than a couple of hours on the freeway is a huge plus.

This year, Indiecade moved from Culver City to USC – I don’t know what effect this had on the conference part, put it did make the festival part worse. A couple of the spaces were cool, but overall it was difficult to get a good sense of how big it was and where the games were, everything was squared away which made it feel less alive and full of passionate people and introduced lines to even get into the spaces to see the games.  Night games were made notably worse as well, much smaller than previous years and with far fewer social spaces and opportunities to partake in arcade-style challenges. Also, not having it in Culver City made getting food a large problem. So that was a bit of a bummer.

Still, it is still Indiecade and there were tons of great games – some that were great right there and then, and others that were maybe not best presented in a short burst at a festival but whose potential and originality clearly shone through. I enjoyed Skytorn, a somewhat traditional take on the metroidvania genre, but it had some really fresh enemy mechanics to keep it interesting and promises to have more tricks up its sleeve. Kingdom: New Lands was a simplified version of a sidescrolling RTS that worked remarkably well, and I think my favorite game of the show was the Shakespearian tragedy Elsinore. It’s an amazing setting for a time-loop mystery plot that is executed very well, and I can’t wait to play it.

Posted on Oct 16/16 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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PAX West 2016


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.

Posted on Sep 09/16 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Song of the Deep


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.

Posted on Aug 23/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst


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.

Posted on Aug 15/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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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.

Posted on Jul 01/16 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »