Monthly Archives: January 2017

Review – Owlboy – PC

What the hell happened?

Owlboy had me going.  For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on.  This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened.  Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation.  Make no mistake; this is a good game.

It could have been a great one.

The interesting bit starts right from the beginning.  The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio.  Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters.  Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds.  The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters.  Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events.  Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come.  It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off.  Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all.  At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members.  The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does.  The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game.  Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.

Sadly, the level design does the same.  Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands.  Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up.  The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter.  Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time.  This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game.  D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun.  The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly.  The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump.  Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights.  None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems.  It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.

If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design.  The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level.  They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment.  Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene.  Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.

It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is.  The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience.  Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time.  Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.

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Opinion – World building is tough

A little bit of sugar helps the ridiculously complex narrative go down.

World building is tough.  Adding something on to the tasks video games must complete (controls, gameplay, graphics, sound, art design, etc) seems cruel when many games can’t even get the basics right.  Even so, if a game wants to draw the player into the world of the game, that world needs support.  The player must appreciate its intricacies and be intrigued by its mysteries which requires considerable support throughout the entire game.  The variety of gameplay types compounds the difficulty of world building.  One size does not fit all.  Depending on the type of game, the developer must approach world building in a different way.

RPGs and open world games

In many ways, RPGs and open world games have it easiest.  These styles of game, regardless of genre, tend to have a slower pace, more time to explore locations, and a greater emphasis on story telling.  This allows developers to give the player time to actually walk around the world and interact with its inhabitants.  Through conversations, exploration, ambient noise, and questing, developers can overtly and subtly interweave information about their world into every facet of the game.  Even with all of the available opportunities, some prefer to shove exposition dumps down the player’s throats.  This should be resisted.  With the many ways to draw the player into the world, developers should limit lectures on history, culture, or any other aspect of the game world to sideshows for interested players or only when the situation absolutely necessitates it.  Exposition dumps only appeal to the devoted while even casually interested players tire of reading when they should be playing.  Where possible, the developer should work world building in a way that works with gameplay rather than conflicts with it.

FPS

The pace of a first person shooter often dictates the way it builds its world.  For the fast paced shooters, the developer can’t let the player stop and investigate their surroundings.  The narrative of the environment must be told primarily through the visual elements because the player won’t have the time to stop and absorb text or conversation.  Even the visual cues lose subtlety for every second of gameplay devoted to speed.  FPS players may only appreciate the world in the corners of their vision or through stand out moments that temporarily pause the action.  Players can’t appreciate small details if the game moves too quickly for them to absorb putting a premium on blunt delivery mechanisms such as cutscenes or large visual elements.  Alternatively, some FPS’ take a slower pace allowing for more nuanced world building.  Audio logs detailing story can provide rich context for visual and aural cues, provided the player has time to listen to them.  Even a slow FPS tends to focus on visual cues due to the first person view, but it can augment those cues with the RPGs rich armory of tools.

RTS

The real time strategy game suffers from a decidedly different problem than the FPS.  Yes, RTS games are fast paced making nuanced approaches to world building difficult, but their real problem is that they, by necessity, must take place on a battlefield.  Whereas other games have gameplay justified reasons to explore peaceful areas, RTS games are defined by their combat.  If a player isn’t directing armies, then they aren’t playing the game.  World building in an RTS must rely on the same visual cues of the FPS, but also with a heavy dose of cutscenes.  Since the peacetime version of the game world is always off screen, the RTS must use the story breaks to fill in the non-fighting bits that it can’t communicate otherwise.

Action platformer

Action platformers are also severely limited by their style of gameplay.  In games about movement and action, there really isn’t much time to focus on the areas where those things are not.  Unlike RTS’, an action platformer developer can turn more peaceful aspects of the game into a world for the player to explore.  Hub worlds allow the player to absorb lore and engage with characters taking the load off of the environment.  A player can explore a ruined castle and then hear about the terrible battles that occurred there from a small town where they restock on items.  Developers never get the same level of depth that an RPG or open world game might, but they still have time to add in elements that engage the player with the world.

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Opinion – Fixing Steam

That’s a big pile of shit.

Steam has a problem.  The now dominant delivery method of computer games can’t seem differentiate good games from bad.  Once the light of hope for all computer gamers, now Steam is clogged with half finished “early access”, buggy trash, and crap left over from yesteryear.  Indie developers used to rely on getting to Steam’s front page for instant wealth, but now must compete with the dreck of the community.  How does Steam deal with the flood of terrible games?

Welp, it would help to learn from the past.

This isn’t the first time the video game community has dealt with this problem.  Back in 1983, the video game market crashed after customers stopped buying games.  The consoles of the day got greedy and decided to allow large numbers of low quality games as a way to take advantage of the video game “fad”.  As a result, the developers flooded the market with low quality products and the unsavvy game market couldn’t tell which games were worth buying and which games were shit.  After buying several bad games, customers pulled out of the market resulting in the devastation of most of the North American video game community and an effective reset of the market.  This phenomenon happened again with the Wii.  Nintendo produced an ultra-popular console that brought in tons of new players.  Studios produced terrible games to take advantage of the fad resulting in the unsophisticated players buying bad games and leaving the market.  Interestingly, it was the same console maker, Nintendo, that found a solution to this problem 20 years earlier.

After the 1983 crash, the North American market lay dormant until the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  The NES boasted better graphics, a brilliant game bundled in, and the Nintendo Seal of Approval which gave Nintendo’s guarantee that the game met a minimum standard.  Nintendo knew that Atari and its compatriots lost their market due to the flood of bad games.  As a result, Nintendo both limited the number of games a developer could make and played them to ensure they weren’t terrible.  By limiting the number of games, Nintendo incentivized publishers to focus on the quality of their games (as they only got five shots a year) over dumping as many games on to the market as possible.  By playing the games, Nintendo weeded out the shovelware and ensured that customer’s knew the game would work if it had the seal.  Finally, Nintendo published the Nintendo Power magazine to review games and provide strategies to both bolster its quality assurance efforts and help players get the most from their games.  The effort worked and laid the foundations for the games industry as it stands today.

In many ways, Valve, the creator of Steam, has it easier.  The decades old game market educated many gamers on how to recognize quality products and the healthy reviewing ecology ensures that reviews are available for those who want them.  Steam doesn’t need a “Steam Power” to educate its customers.  What it does need is a Steam Seal of Approval and a limitation on the number of games a publisher can make.  Unfortunately, the Seal requires something that Valve is very bad at: people.  Valve generally strives to automate its processes which is why all of its business initiatives (reviews, curators…Steam itself) have little human intervention and the bits that require people (its god awful customer service) are weak or lacking altogether.  To implement a quality review process, Valve would need to get a handle on hiring and managing people rather than just automating everything.  Understanding that isn’t likely to happen, limiting the number of games per publisher would help.  Many bad games come through shovelware publishers and limiting said publishers to a few games a year would force them to support better games or rely solely on the meager profit of a few terrible titles.  This system would still require additional people, but would only need a savvy few over the numbers a quality control system would take.

Whatever Valve decides to do, it needs to act fast.  The digital distribution market has grown in the past few years with major titles now available on a number of sites.  Steam still commands most of the market due to sheer size, but that need not continue.  If customers find it too difficult to discover the games they want, they can move to greener pastures.  Valve has time to fix this problem, but they don’t have forever.

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