Sunday, February 20, 2011

Braid; Achievement Unlocked; Upgrade Complete; Desktop Dungeons; Starcraft 2; Torchlight

Those who keep an eye on the IFDB will have seen that for the past few days I have been playing IF like there is no tomorrow -- basically a belated attempt to play everything that has been nominated for a XYZZY award. But I would like to take the time to talk about some of the non-IF I have been playing as well. So without further ado, we start with

Braid

After the phase of frustration and despair, and the phase of bafflement and anger, there is the phase of careful reflection. One thing I have learned from the encounter with this game is that one should not persevere, or at least I should not do so. If a game frustrates you with its gameplay, then you are not going to be in the mood to appreciate anything it does right. If you dislike playing it, don't play it.

This is not as much of a no-brainer as it may seem. It is, for instance, not true for books. I dislike reading Sein und Zeit because of the style, and yet the book gives me insights that make it worth persevering. To a lesser extent, this is also true for fiction: I found the first half of Ulysses very rough going, but the whole experience is one of the most amazing literature has ever given me. But neither Heidegger nor Joyce enraged me, while Braid did. Presumably this is because (a) reading is less active than playing, and it is worse to be made to do something one dislikes than merely being made to sit through it; and (b) challenging as they are, those books were not constructed as challenges to stand between the player and progress, while a puzzle game like Braid (or for that matter, a skill game) is.

Lesson: if you dislike a game, don't play it.

Normally, this isn't a very important lesson, because one follows it automatically. But Braid had so much good press from exactly the right people that I felt compelled to continue playing long after it had become apparent that I was not enjoying myself -- a kind of compulsion one must (obviously, in retrospect) not succumb to.

Emily Short writes:
Not to mention that the frustration level when I fail for the Nth time is off the scale more annoying than any frustrating moment in IF. I am in most aspects of life a pretty low-rage person, and I don’t get vehemently upset when my luggage gets lost, I have to stand in line for a long time, I have to spend half an hour on hold with customer service, the IRS screws up my tax return information yet again, etc. But failing the same platform level over again after many many tries, and seeing nothing specific I could improve for next time, does make want to scream obscenities and throw things. Which is ridiculous and out of character, and also a big fat hint that I May Not Be Having Fun.
This was basically what happened to me (though Emily specifically excludes Braid). Whereas other people were enjoying trying things out in order to find out the exact rules of the game, I was getting so little enjoyment out of platforming and so much frustration out of failures, that every puzzle that could not be solved by logical thinking alone felt as a personal insult. That is of course a stupid reaction, and says more about me than about Braid, but I think it is interesting in the context of the debate that is raging right now about some of Blow's comments about interactive fiction. For me, interacting with the IF parser feels good, while platforming feels bad -- it's not that I'm bad at it, it's just that it feels like an unnatural and unenjoyable form of interaction. (I have no problem with platform-like games that do not involve dexterity tests, such as Professor Fizzwizzle, nor with 2D-shooters like the original -- the original original -- Duke Nukem. But anything even remotely like Mario makes me cringe.) For other people, it is the other way around. Does this mean that game criticism is doomed to be more subjective than other forms of art criticism? If one enjoys reading canonical literature, one will probably appreciate all the central works -- taste plays a role, but it is hard to imagine any lover of canonical literature who finds Shakespeare or Homer or Aristophanes or Tolstoy literally unreadable. But it is easy to imagine lovers of computer games to find whole genres literally unplayable because of a basic distaste of the kind of interaction around which the genre is built.

Since I have said enough about what I disliked about Braid, let me end by saying two positive things. First: I loved the way the music reacted to the time mechanic. Second: the art was good. Not really my taste, but good, and I love seeing a game that looks differently. (Has anyone ever noticed how DirectX has made every single 3D game look exactly the same way?)


Achievement Unlocked

Achievement Unlocked is a small platform game -- wait, I just said I hated all platform games, didn't I? The good thing about this game is that you don't really have to succeed at anything, so the mechanics don't really matter. Basically, this is a game with very little gameplay but a ridiculous amount of achievements. You get achievements for playing for 30 seconds, dying five times, and so on and so forth. As a satire on the achievement systems that are so in vogue, it is quite funny.

But what really made this game for me is that fact without thinking, I googled an achievement guide and started trying to collect them all. Ouch! You have shown me how easy it is to manipulate me.

(By the way, achievements are probably defensible if they function as interesting challenges. Thus, many of the Starcraft 2 single player achievements ask you to do something that makes the mission significantly harder, which adds a level of depth and replayability. This in contrast with other achievements in that game, e.g., "Win 250 1v1 league games as Terran".)


Upgrade Complete

From the people who brought you Achievement Unlocked, there is also the perhaps even funnier Upgrade Complete. This is an up-scrolling 2D space shooter, in which you can buy upgrades. Upgrades that make your ship better. Upgrades that enable more options in the menu. Upgrades that add music, or a mute button, or copyright text, or better graphics. Fantastic stuff, and of course another send-up of a familiar, effective and yet mostly empty form of game design.

The best thing about the game is that you need 0 skill to get through its 20 levels: whether you win a level depends perhaps for 10% on your skill, and for 90% on your upgrades. Which is as it should be in a game like this, but which is also frighteningly close to the reality of, let's say, many MMORPGs.


Desktop Dungeons

A blog post by Andrew Plotkin made me download Desktop Dungeons. Unfortunately only for Windows and OS X, and it doesn't run well under Wine -- but on the other hand, perhaps that is good, because that way it cannot tempt me away from doing productive things when I'm booted into Ubuntu.

This is a fantastic little game: a one-screen (mostly) deterministic rogue-like with stationary monsters. Can that work? Yes, it works perfectly, and the range of tactics made possible by only a small amount of differences between the races and classes can serve as an inspiration to all prospective designers of tactical combat games.

(By the way, it is pretty trivial to turn ATTACK into a deterministic combat system. I'll try to add this to the documentation for the next release.)


Starcraft 2

This is the game that has been eating most of my gaming time over the past few months (though I am deceasing this). It is, of course, brilliant. If you like RTS at all, you ought to play Starcraft 2. Both the single player campaing and the multiplayer experience are incredibly polished and well thought-out. The game is not very innovative (to say the least), but perfecting an old design can be a perfectly respectable thing to do.

One thing that makes me sad, however, is how tactical (rather than strategical) the game is. You will spend most of your time and mental capacity on controlling small groups of units and keeping track of the many details of your base, and very little on large-scale strategic decision making. This makes me sad because in games like these I prefer strategy over tactics. Supreme Commander, though evidently less well-designed than Starcraft 2, is in principle much nearer to the RTS game of my dreams.

There seems to be little hope of that RTS of my dreams materialising, though.


Torchlight

 This Diablo-like game has gotten very good reviews, and I can understand why: accessible, friendly, easy to look at, fast-paced but with as much down-time as you wish. But you're mostly just clicking on things. Great game when you are feeling mentally exhausted, but a bit empty when played in any other state of mind.

6 comments:

  1. As someone who teaches Ulysses, I found it curious that you found the first half to be tough going, at least implicitly compared to the second, which has "Ithaca," "Circe," and "Oxen of the Sun."

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  2. I'm not claiming that the second half is easier (although I did find several of the last section -- the play, the catechism, the stream-of-consciousness -- easy to like). It just took quite some time before I got attuned to the book.

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  3. I googled an achievement guide and started trying to collect them all.

    Isn't there an in-game achievement guide? In fact, I think one of the achievements is earned by consulting it.

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  4. Also, everyone says "Oxen of the Sun" is the hardest part of Ulysses, but it's one of the few parts I feel like I've really been able to appreciate. Or even to understand what's going on. I always hit a big roadblock around "Ineluctable modality of the visible."

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  5. Supposedly in expert-level play (where everyone's tactics are up to a certain level) it becomes a more strategic game. But I would never be able to click fast enough.

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  6. Jason, you are talking about Starcraft 2 I presume? Even in expert-level play, there's a lot of "Wow! That were some amazing storms!" micro-tactics going on. On all levels of skill, strategy helps. But it doesn't help as much as tactics and unit control.

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