Monthly Archives: April 2014

Opinion – What I’ve learned from reviewing games

6 months? This is getting serious.

Having passed the 6 month mark, this seems like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned from this process. I’ve long been interested in game reviewing and commentary, but it’s hard to understand what goes into those things unless you actually do them. Beyond simply playing games and writing about them, the review process rewired my approach to gaming and changed my favorite hobby into something else entirely. Since everyone likes lists, below are the three big things that I’ve learned from doing this blog:

Writing about games both destroys and improves gaming – As I said before, the review process is more than playing games. It’s actively evaluating and engaging with the material presented to create a meaningful critique that has some meaning to the author (and, hopefully, the reader). Prior to this experience, I played games in a fundamentally passive way. I played for enjoyment and could easily drop a game that failed to meet that standard. As I started to review games, I took a hard look at what it was that actually bothered me and what I liked. I developed the vocabulary to express my specific critique and trained my mind to be on the lookout for those factors. This has a negative effect on the enjoyment of games. It becomes harder to tune out the flaws because writing about the flaws is a key part of the process. This bleeds into games I play for fun and makes it difficult to just enjoy the playtime. I also note the similarity across games. With the constant playing of games, I have become used to, and sometimes bored with, the same overused mechanics. If you ever wonder why reviewers tend toward flawed indie titles, it’s because those titles often introduce something new. When you’ve played the same game type to death, unique things rise in value.

As much as reviewing degrades games, it also improves them. Having seen a number of mechanics and stories done poorly, I can better appreciate when they’re done right. Also, I have a better idea of why they’re done right. It is immensely satisfying to me to understand the underlying principles that explain why a game works. Furthermore, reviewing games has forced me to seek out new and different titles I would not have tried before. GTA V, Anodyne, and Gone Home are all things I would never have attempted. I may not always like playing them, but I appreciate having played them and adding that knowledge into my repertoire.

The hardest thing is being consistent – I wasn’t sure what the hardest thing about reviewing was going to be when I started, but I know now that it’s being consistent. I have a job and a life I’d like to maintain so playing, thinking, and writing can be hard to fit in. My weekly schedule isn’t punishing, but I’ve got to come up with an idea, put enough time into a game if that’s required, and then write up an article. I don’t have an editor and my deadlines are self-imposed so maintaining my schedule is entirely on me. Perhaps even more difficult is maintaining consistent quality. Writing these articles takes time and thought. The temptation to bang them out and go doing something else is very real, particularly when I’m reviewing a game I don’t like.

It takes effort to make this worth it – In keeping with the previous comment, reviewing is only worthwhile if I put in the time to make it so. It’s easy to play a game or come up with an idea, write a few lines, and call it a day. I’ll admit to doing that on some occasions, but the benefit of increasing my skills and thoughts on games only comes when I take the time to make it work. It requires taking notes, playing interesting games, and challenging the ideas present, even when it would be more fun just to play through. Games are no longer a seamless flow, instead, they are broken into pieces as I take time to write down and idea or think over an issue.

In the end, reviewing and commentary have been a very rewarding experience. I’m glad I started and I look forward to doing this in the future.

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Opinion – The Rise and Fall of the Video Game Empire

Mine, all mine!

The sense of progress and success means different things in different genres. In an RPG, progress might mean better loot, increasing stats, or a new and dramatic plot point. For fighting games, progress is better measured in the player’s ability to execute moves and defeat opponents. For the 4x genre, progress is often best represented in the feeling of expansion. Tiny, single city empires hurtle outward into unexplored lands and, ultimately, enemy territory. Inherent in almost any 4x game is the obvious and visual sense of conquest and loss. Unfortunately, most 4x games stop there and so limit the many avenues for a sense of progress. The result is that success rarely feels like empire building.

One of the most common stumbling blocks is the visual representation of empire and expansion. Most games choose to show major cities and planets as the focal points of a player’s realm with little concern for the land in between. The result is that the player’s empire feels less like a singular entity and more like a collection of semi associated cities. The sense of empire is fragmented across the cities without any real connection between them. The worst offender of this kind of visual failing is the Galactic Civilizations series. In addition to placing large voids between each planet, the game also has absolutely nothing to do with all that space. The occasional space station or fleet does nothing to knit together the vast emptiness of the empire. The Civilization series overcomes this issue with the inclusion of terraforming, but even the most cultivated land is obscured by the city beacons that dot the landscape. Singular points, be they cities or planets, dominate the player’s view and reduce the feeling of a united empire.

Visual failings are joined by technical problems. In many games, the cities are replaceable cogs in the machinery of an empire. Remove a city and resources are lost, but rarely is that city a vital part of a given civilization. Most 4x games do not allow cities to become specialized entities serving the larger empire the player is building. Imagine the loss of New York City to the United States. The results would be economically and culturally devastating despite the city only taking up a comparatively small (under 5%) percentage of the total US population. New York City is not just another city, but a key part of the idea of the United States. Compare that to the loss of New York City in Civilization 5. Yes, it’s probably important to an American player, but its loss could be overcome by taking a similarly developed Paris or Amman. The unique place it holds for the American player can be reproduced by another civilization’s city without the sense of cultural, economic, and infrastructure whiplash that should result.

To fix this problem, developers must move beyond the city-centered landscape and into the sense of an empire as a unique entity the player is building. To begin with, cities should develop natural connections over time that are outside the player’s control. Trade, cultural exchange, and sprawl should all occur without the player’s direct input and should consider things like terrain and recent changes in borders. Cities should further develop unique identities within the context of a given empire that relies on the creation the player is building. Also key is the visual representation of this growth. Roads, festivals, and landmarks should pop up organically across the landscape to fill out the barren spaces in between. Watching as a once bustling stream of trucks dries up when land is taken with have a much greater visual impact than the sudden disappearance of territory.

More important than any of my suggestions is that 4x games should help the player create something unique. Each empire should have a feeling tied to the circumstances of that particular round. A sense of progress isn’t tied to merely the expansion of territory, but instead to creation of a special land inside that territory.

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Review – South Park: The Stick of Truth – PC

It’s got all the poop jokes you can handle…and more!

 

Good news South Park fans! This is the game you hoped for. Not that you needed my recommendation, but I can happily support the purchase you’ve already made. South Park: The Stick of Truth (SoT) is a competent RPG built on a lovingly crafted homage to the TV series. All the old characters, favorite jokes, and iconic locations join new humor built around the silliness that is video games. SoT feels like a playable episode that is sure to delight casual to stalwart fans.

The core of the game is a fairly simple RPG. Players control Douchebag, a mute child who recently moved to South Park under mysterious circumstances and runs across the South Park gang after looking for someone to play with. Combat is turn based with attacks linked to timed button presses to do additional damage. Enemies have specific resistances and vulnerabilities that the player must exploit to win. In addition to combat, the game has some small puzzle mechanics left around town. There are treasure chests to find, chinpokomen to collect, and secret passages to explore. While the base gameplay is simplistic, that also makes it approachable. SoT’s gameplay is designed to provide a base level of fun and interactivity and then get out of the way for the flavor of the world. In this task, it succeeds. SoT isn’t the most innovative of games, but it is fun.

The real star of SoT is the world. Chock full of classic locations and references, the South Park of SoT has every favorite joke and character from the TV series. Quests exist largely as call backs to nostalgia like ManBearPig or the underpants gnomes. The newer jokes largely speak to the video game audience and are spot on. In many ways, the mere existence of South Park in a RPG is a criticism of the genre. RPGs, particularly those hailing from Japan, often rely on extremely young heroes who use magical powers to defeat terrible foes with little adult intervention. SoT does all that, but takes it to the extreme. The heroes are younger, the magic is farts, and the terrible foes are hobos, fetuses, and zombie Nazis. South Park was built on satirizing the world in general, but it seems tailor made for video games.

The game isn’t perfect. As my previous article alluded to, SoT lacks the basic polish one would expect from a full priced game. Quests can be completed before they are assigned, characters utter the same catch phrases ad nauseum, and many of the game elements feel like a jumble of mechanics from better games. This never rises to the point of killing the fun, but many of these issues break the flow of the game. It’s hard to laugh at the humor of collecting underpants when I only discovered their purpose much later in the game. At that point, SoT becomes less about a given quest or the character of the world it presents and more about making sure you search every drawer. Again, not game wrecking, but disappointing.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is exactly what it was meant to be. It is a fun romp through the world of the TV series and a constant call back to the show’s greatest hits. Your mileage with the game is tied very much to your enjoyment of South Park. For hardcore and casual fans, this is the game you’ve been waiting for. For those who have never seen the show, check out a few episodes first. For those who hate the show, you’ll hate the game too.

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Diary – South Park: Stick of Truth – Polish

More than just a spit shine

(Note: While South Park: The Stick of Truth is the negative inspiration for this article, the game is quite enjoyable. Using my amazing powers, I can say that the review of the game will go up next week and it will be positive.)

It struck me as I was picking up a dildo for Mr. Slave that the quest didn’t make sense. Not because a child was going to the post office to pick up a sex toy for someone he didn’t know, but instead because I never had any reason to grab the package in the first place. I had not yet met Mr. Slave and had no reason to believe that he was in need of mail. Stick of Truth allowed me to start and complete a quest without having to go through the trouble of acquiring that quest. More than not making sense in our world (much of this and other game worlds don’t), the quest didn’t make sense in the context of the game. This was an example of a lack of polish and it ever so briefly pulled me out of the game.

Polish is hard to nail down, but the general idea is that the developer has removed the aspects of the game that pull the player from the experience. Obvious examples of polish are things like bugs. Crashing to desktop is a sure way to ensure that any momentum is lost. In many cases, polish is more subtle than that. Polish also includes things like difficulty spikes, poor translation, or terrible interface design. It effects all aspects of the players experience and prevents them from interacting with the game as easily and cleanly as they would like. Whenever the play begins to question the game world, chances are the game lacked polish.

Polish matters because a lack of polish disrupts the experience the game maker is attempting to create. Most games have a feeling they wish to impart on the player and failure to remove the roadblocks can destroy that feeling. For example, I still remember the Hades level in the original God of War where the player is forced to climb rotating bladed pillars. They spun so quickly and became frustrating quickly. They destroyed my feeling of invincibility and replaced it with wonder as to why such a challenging but fun game devolved into a twitchy Frogger knock off. I began to think, not about Kratos and his mighty struggle, but why the developers decided to squeeze in this terrible idea. When I’m ripping apart Greek monstrosities, I shouldn’t be encouraged to pause and consider the merits of a certain section of a level.

That’s not to say that polish guarantees a perfect game. A polished turd is a polished turd. Polish reduces the friction between the player and the base game, but it does not ensure that the game itself is any fun to play. Poor story, mechanics, or level design won’t be hidden by a well-tested interface. Instead they are more exposed as they provide contrast with the problematic aspect of the game. If the controls are tight and the graphics are clear, then the player knows that the problem is the game mechanic and not the input surrounding the mechanic. The same can be said of even good games. It’s a fact that players look for different things in their games. A well-executed game in a genre I don’t like isn’t likely going to change my view of that genre. It might convince me to continue playing that game long after I would have put down similar games and that is worth considering.

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