Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review – Gone Home – PC

Games finally grow up and rebel against their parents

Video games have largely won the battle over whether the count as art, yet genuine, emotional experiences are few and far between.  Most entries in the medium are the rough equivalent of popcorn flicks.  The goal is largely to entertain and any message they impart is secondary to whatever thrill is most associated with the genre.  Gone Home is not that kind of game.  It feels more like an indie film as a powerful work that eschews genre convention to avoid entertainment in favor of a message.  Gone Home isn’t for everyone, but for those looking for more narratively meaningful experiences, video games have few better things to offer.

You play as Katie, a college student who returns home to find an empty house and a message from her sister saying she has gone.  As you wander, you investigate clues in the form of everyday objects left strewn about.  Letters, notes, books, and trash are your window into the world that continued on while Katie bounced around Europe.  These objects tell an intimate tale of a family embroiled in the everyday struggles of life with stories expertly written and voice acting that brings these characters to life.  Though there are postcards and old items of Katie’s, she feels like an intruder.  Katie’s return is less of the focus than the people she left behind and the lives they led.  By the end, Gone Home has created a number of fleshed out characters without ever showing their face.  It’s quite an achievement.

Gone Home is most charitably described as a game about exploration.  You wander through the house guided by locked doors and limited corridors with only an “interact” button to engage with the world.  The game’s very limited puzzle solving feels more like an extension of its exploration element than an attempt to interject actual gameplay.  Still, the story is so interesting and the game is so short (under 2 hours) that you’ll easily finish it in one sitting.  This is a game meant to be experienced in one shot anyway.  Anything more and you risk undermining the feeling that developer Fulbright Studios worked so hard to create.

Gone Home isn’t perfect.  Gameplay is lacking, the young love story can get nauseating (in the developer’s defense, young love is always nauseating), and it flirts with horror themes before jumping into the meat of the experience.  Still, this is as close to art house cinema as gaming has gotten.  It imparts meaning in a way that few games can and introduces characters all the more real for not being there.  If you’re looking for the potential of video games, consider this one.

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Opinion – Sales are good. Fo serious.

Somebody hates sales?  Really?

 

Gamasutra recently ran an article (here) by Jason Rohrer that attacked the value of video game sales.  Specifically, he argued that sales hurt fans by allowing them to pay more when they could pay less and promoting a culture that encourages waiting to purchase thereby undermining multiplayer user bases.  I’ve boiled down the argument below:

  1. Fans pay full price – Fans buy at launch when they should wait a few months and buy for less at a Steam sale.  Fans won’t derive enough enjoyment from playing at launch to outweigh the cost of paying full price.
  2. Sales culture – Frequent sales create a culture of waiting for sales and therefore creates a dependency on those sales.  That culture of waiting reduces the number of players at launch thereby undermining the initial player base for fans of multiplayer games.
  3. Sales might reduce developer revenues – If half the players who bought in during a 50% sale paid full price, you’d break even.  Rohrer suspects more would pay full price if they didn’t know a sale was coming.
  4. Sales promote hoarders – People buy tons of games that they will never play because they are cheap.  Sales take advantage of the lure of saving money to influence people to buy things they wouldn’t normally buy.
  5. Minecraft is the model – The price for Minecraft increased as the game reached its final development stage.  Fans bought in cheap, whereas newer players paid more for a more finished product.  This prevents people from feeling cheated when a sale hits, because the player will never have a chance to buy in at a cheaper price than the current one.

There are a number of issues with Rohrer’s argument, but I will only highlight two (others are included below).  The first is the issue of purchaser agency. Rohrer assumes that most purchasers are intelligent enough to anticipate sales, but, fans, for unexplained reasons, are not.  Give the prevalence of Steam sales, this is a hard argument to make.  Far from being hidden, Steam sales are a celebrated part of the service. A fan who is ignorant of that potential is a rare and strange bird who should not have access to a credit card.  Instead, we should accept the more likely answer: Most purchasers will pay full price completely aware that delaying their purchase would likely net them a good discount.  Similar to the previous argument, Rohrer’s belief that accessing a game “early” couldn’t possibly make up for the potential money lost is also untenable.  Players have long known that game prices will decline as time goes on yet have persistently purchased said games, at launch, in large numbers.  Unless we’re prepared to write of a large portion (majority?) of the game buying public as ignorant of that concept too, we must accept that they see value in having a game now as opposed to later and cheaper.  In that Rohrer cannot conceive of that value does not mean it doesn’t exist.

The second point is that early access purchases promote the buying of games before sufficient information is known about them.  An early access game, by definition, has not yet been completed.  Without reviews and hands-on information about the game, it is extremely hard for a player to make an intelligent judgment.  Most players who wait to purchase a game until it’s released are doing so because they require additional information before being sufficiently confident to pay money for the game.  Instead of supporting this, Rohrer’s pricing model actually penalizes people for wanting to make an intelligent purchase.  The more time they have to know about the game, the more they will have to pay.  Smart choices cost money in Rohrer’s pricing scheme.  This is in conflict with the goal of ethical game selling.

I should note that the above argument appears to contradict my earlier point that Rohrer failed to treat the player as a reasonable adult.  If I’m identifying waiting for reviews as the intelligent move, then isn’t pre-purchasing stupid and therefore pre-purchases undermine the theory that players are intelligent enough to make their own decisions?  Put simple: No.  Players can and do look at the available advertising material and intelligently decide that a game is so far into their wheelhouse or that a developer is so solid that it’s worth an early purchase.  They also may buy games to support the developer.  My argument is not that pre-purchases are the wrong move rather that they are only the right move for a small group as compared to the general gaming scene.  Rohrer seeks to lump all fans into that small group, and penalize those who don’t fit.

 

The above two arguments are my biggest problem with the “sales are bad for fans” theory.  If you’re interested, there are plenty more:

Sales hurt the bottom line – Point 3 is easily dispatched.  Rohrer’s belief that sales might reduce revenues is totally unsupported by any evidence and relies entirely upon conjecture.  He suggest possible scenarios where sales would undermine revenues, but there isn’t a shred of proof that this is the case.  On the contrary, a limited review of the data suggests the opposite.  Both Dustforce and Defender’s Quest more than covered the cost of the sale through sheer numbers.  Even more interesting, the number of copies sold returned to the exact same level the following day and continued selling at the previous rate.  While I have only presented limited data, it strongly suggests that point 3 is wrong.

Minecraft as a model – Generally speaking, anytime your argument relies on mimicking the success of an outlier, it’s usually a bad argument.  Minecraft’s meteoric rise is an oddity.  The game practically created a new genre.  The idea that other indie games can follow its pricing model ignores the fact that the game’s massive popularity meant that just about any pricing model would have worked.  The case of Minecraft is a poor one to generalize from.

Sales hurt the launch player base – This is Rohrer’s strongest point, but even it has flaws.  He is right in that the initial player base will likely be hampered by an anticipated sale.  Again, he doesn’t have any numbers so it’s hard to say by how much.  However, what we can say is that sales drastically increase the player base once they occur.  Sales benefit the player base of multiplayer games by reducing the barrier to entry for players on the fence.  While the early adopters may lose a little, once the first sale hits, they have a lot to gain.

Hoarding is irrational – The purchasing of far more games than the player will likely play (hoarding) seems irrational.  After all, an unplayed game is just a waste of money.  However, the decline in the cost of games actually makes hoarding a smarter strategy than the previous pricing model.  With the substantial decline in the cost of games, gamers can now by five games for the cost of one.  For the same amount of money, gamers can purchases a greater variety of games thereby increasing the chances that one of them is a winner. If two of those games are winners, then the player has achieved twice the success for the same price.  This only works if game costs are substantially reduced.

Fans just know about your game – Rohrer never explicitly defines the term “fans”, but seems to mean the individuals who are enthusiastic about a game before it launches.  It’s the pre-launch crowd that he focuses on and so creates a privileged class that he seems to believe is defined by its love of the game.  While this is undoubtedly a key part of being a fan, he seems to ignore another part of defining fans as pre-launch.  Those fans have the benefit of information.  Rohrer wants to reward those people who believed in a game before its potential was realized, but the people who would believe in a game and do believe in a game are not the same population.  There are 7+ billion people on this planet and only an extremely tiny subset are aware of a given indie game at a given time.  Even if the entire planet would be interest in a game, if they don’t know about it, they cannot become “fans” as Rohrer implicitly defines them.  By rewarding pre-launch fans, Rohrer is unintentionally rewarding the well informed.  By refusing to do sales, he is penalizing those who love his game, but heard about it too late.

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Review – Dust: The Elysian Tail – PC

It’s the end of the year which means it’s time for reviewers to put on their pretentious hat and shower love on their favorite indie developer and the occasional mainstream juggernaut that is too hard to ignore.  Major reviewing websites are filled with the best and brightest that will surely obliterate all you know about gaming until, well, next year.  It can be a bit much.  If you’d rather not have you mind blown and could stand to play a game with no greater desire than to be fun, look no further than Dust: The Elysian Tail (DTEL).  This delightful  action-exploration game is an excellent pallet cleanser for the award frenzy that surrounds this time of year.

DTEL patterns itself off of the Metroidvania mold.  The player assumes the role of Dust as he explores a variety of levels fulfilling quests, explored worlds, and unlocking secrets.  Dust fights waves of enemies with an unambitious, but solidly constructed, combat system of attacks, parries, and magic.  Limited leveling and equipment management rounds out the package nicely as it provides a welcome sense of progression without major depth.  Enemies aren’t particularly intelligent relying on sheer numbers to overwhelm the player.  Unfortunately, the weak AI carries over to the boss fights which lack the large numbers of enemies required for a challenge.  About the only difference between a regular goon and a boss is the boss’ tolerance for a savage beating.  Special enemies are introduced to break up the hack and slash monotony, but their lack of fine tuning make them more annoying than fun.  Fortunately, these enemies comprise a comparatively small number of encounters and can be skipped.  Even with some of the weaknesses, combat remains button mashing fun throughout the 10 hour game.

The story is similarly unambitious, but has such strong supporting elements that you won’t care.  DTEL begins with the amnesic titular character Dust awakening in a field with the talking sword Ahrah and the childish Fidget.  The introduction harkens back to the archetypes of old RPGs, but the characters are wonderfully voiced and fun to hear.  Solid dialogue and emotional delivery make the interactions between Dust and his companions a joy to watch.  Developer Dean Dodrill nicely balances drama, humor, and character development in a way that seems organic and engaging.  Even when the story overreaches and demands too much from its characters, the voice acting and writing carry it through.

Joining the quality character work is the water color visuals that help a fairly traditional fantasy world come alive.  Every level feels vibrant with both broad, lush landscapes and tiny details such as rabbits playing at Dust’s feet.  Character models move fluidly making combat surprisingly fun to watch until the screen is mobbed by enemies.  The suitably cinematic music adds a feeling of epic adventure to most of the undertaking, though that diminishes as the same song is replayed for the tenth time.  The lack of variety is disappointing, but understandable given the care evident in many of the other aspects of the game.  Regardless of its shortcomings, DTEL is always entertaining to watch.

DTEL doesn’t change the genre and certainly won’t change the way you view the world, but it doesn’t need to.  DTEL is just plain fun.  Go play it.

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Review – Antichamber – PC

Antichamber’s biggest selling point is apparent from the very beginning.  It’s pared down aesthetic of white walls with occasional bright colors contrasts with the busy, murky, and brown world of most games.  Peel back the stark visuals and Antichamber is a mind bending puzzle game that succeeds at what it tries, but never aspires to be anything more.

Antichamber’s puzzles rely on two basic mechanics: perspective and blocks.  In one of the most creative twists on the puzzle genre in a while, Antichamber uses the player’s view on a situation to solve problems.  Manipulating what the player sees is key to changing the environment.  For example, one puzzle has the player stuck in a room with no exit and a window in the center of the room.  The window looks into another room, but walking on the other side of it the reveals no such room.  The answer is to make the window take up the player’s entire screen whereby they are transported to the next room.  This is just the tip of the iceberg of a series of very clever puzzles.

Joining the perspective puzzles is the use of a block manipulating gun.  Blocks can hold open doors, act as stairs, and open locks.  The player discovers additions to the gun that allow for further manipulation and clever puzzle solving.  Accompanying these puzzles are a series of written clues that nudge the player towards a solution.  Developer Alexander Bruce appears to have intended for the clues to also provide some philosophical meaning, but they’re too shallow to achieve that goal. The clues come off more like fortune cookie writings than anything of substance.  Still, they provide thoughtful hints without bludgeoning the player with the answer.

The visuals of the world are the clear standout of Antichamber.  Eschewing detailed worlds and clutter, Antichamber consists largely of white walls outlined with black borders which are occasionally highlighted by bright colors.  In addition to creating a feeling of strangeness, the bare levels help the player focus on what matters in a given space.  Important gameplay elements are immediately apparent allowing for the player to know what tools they have to work worth and dispensing with the confusion of wondering if the player is missing something.  Often they are, but it is a conceptual leap, not a digital object.  In a game without significant explanation, the choice of a stark environment is extremely helpful in reducing confusion.

For all that is interesting with the visuals in Antichamber, the narrative is non-existent.  A game need not have a compelling narrative to push the player on, but Antichamber feels like one of several missed opportunities in the indie gaming world where the developer creates an interesting world, but fails to create a compelling story to support it (See Limbo or Super Brothers Sword and Sworcery).  Often these games are critically lauded for the inventive settings, but they lack a narrative hook that give their worlds meaning.  Antichamber’s visuals stand triumphant as a way to minimize explanatory intrusion into the player’s experience, but it could have also used this environment to place the puzzling in context.  Instead, it joins the aforementioned games as possessing an interesting foundation that it does not building upon.

At its core, Antichamber is a visually striking, mind bending puzzler.  Lovers of the genre will appreciate the clever ideas Alexander Bruce introduces and the stark visual design he employs.  I recommend they take a look.

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