Quick Review: Dear Esther

Pretty but shallow. Lovely visuals and sound, but it gains nothing from being in a game format. The story is evocative but never completely gels. I am told that there are semi-random elements, which would be an advantage of the game format except nothing makes that apparent and how many people want to walk through the game again in the chance that the verbal part will vary randomly? Also a reason why the story may not gel; it must support multiple, conflicting stories at once.

Great atmosphere, marginally worth the time (~hour), certainly not worth the price. You would be happier watching someone else play through the game, which is the same effect except for holding down the W key.

: Zubon

Quick Review: The 7th Guest

I remember when The 7th Guest came out. It was cutting edge for its time, with amazing graphics that made the first real use of a CD-ROM. I acquired it in some pack or another on Steam and tried it recently.

Yep, it plays like the cutting edge of 1993. The puzzles are not as hard as you may have heard but as potentially incoherent. Historically notable but not something you should go back and play.

: Zubon

Challenge Selection Paralysis

I have gradually been getting started on Dishonored (yes), and the achievements for the game are giving me ideas of how I might go about playing. Several amount to challenge modes like “play it as a pure stealth game,” “don’t kill anyone but your target,” and “don’t kill anyone” (I presume you can defeat the bosses without killing them yourself). But I have been finding myself somewhat paralyzed by wondering what closes doors and which achievements are mutually exclusive in ways you will not find out until half-way through.

Some are obviously mutually exclusive. “Don’t kill anyone” does not work with “kill lots of people quickly” or “kill people in a variety of ways.” Some are less so. It is not a priori obvious whether you can go through the whole game without (1) alerting or (2) killing anyone or (3) learning the magical powers. For example, maybe going undetected in some area requires killing a guard or possessing a rat or something. And then most games have non-obvious ways of failing challenges, so presumably keep lots of save files.

I am trying to plan ahead to economize, because it would be disappointing to learn that I could have passed a challenge if I had done one thing slightly differently 10 hours earlier. Dishonored is gratifyingly non-spoileriffic with respect to that, having big ticket challenge achievements (“play the whole game this way”) rather than highly specific things you would need to read in advance to know about (“acquire the herring before chopping down the mightiest tree in the forest but do not use the herring to chop down the tree”). This is also an virtue of Dishonored’s reportedly short (~20 hours) playtime, because playthroughs are not epic commitments. Dishonored has the downside that you can repeat missions but cannot retroactively un-fail challenges by not killing anyone on a second try.

Or maybe you can now? Probably not, but researching a bit has led me to many questions whose answers changed over time. For example, it seems that killing the assassins in the tutorial prologue used to count against “don’t kill anyone,” but now it doesn’t, and there are several other places where players found challenge-failing triggers the developers decided should not count against you. So researching turns up answers that may be outdated or inconsistent, and for best fun find a discussion between people who played different versions of the game where the rules changed, so we have experiences and maybe even videos verifying inconsistent answers.

I could alleviate some of this by not badge-hunting, but I like badge-hunting, and “challenge mode” is a special sort of badge-hunting that I think most of us can endorse. Now if only I could set the game to recognize which challenges I was trying for, indicate when they have failed for some reason, and give me the chance to rewind back through auto-save points to fix that. That would be a nice little feature.

: Zubon

Quick Review: Gone Home

Gone Home is an interactive story, not a game. I loathe visual novels but I enjoyed Gone Home a great deal. It is a small story, about which not much can be said without spoiling it, but the comments are open for spoiler-filled discussion.

Gone Home has a short play time, around two hours. There are no monsters nor puzzles nor combat, just exploration and discovering the story at your own pace. You arrive home from the airport to find the house deserted. Go inside and find out what happened.

Two things made the game for me. First, Sarah Grayson’s voice acting as Sam. She’s great, especially when [spoiler]. Second, I really enjoyed the contrast between what the game seems to be and what the story is. Negatives: the main story is not something you cannot find better in a book; the side stories are more sketched than written (also perhaps their strength); the locked doors that structure the narrative are an obvious artifice. But seriously, Sarah Grayson.

I got Gone Home on sale, and I might hesitate to recommend it even at the 75% off, $5 price point versus “worth playing if you get it in a Humble Bundle.” I found it worth the time.

: Zubon

Metacritic reviews are very polarized, with the negative anchored by folks who missed the “no puzzles or combat” thing and spent $20 for a 2-hour non-game.

Customer Service

When you support an online application, you are supporting the entire computer. This past week, I have troubleshot network connections through VPNs, pop-up blockers in Internet Explorer, and file problems caused by the latest update for MS Office for Macs. Anything that keeps the user from using your system is a problem for you to solve.

: Zubon

I still don’t have a solution on that last one, but I have a workaround.

“Contested”

I’m typing this while listening to David Sirlin’s new podcast. Around 20:12 he discusses “contested” skills, which I think is a good term and one I may start using. This reaches back to a comments discussion from 2012, where we had a brief exchange about the fundamental nature of PvP. I think “contested” is the distinction we were looking for, and preferences for or against contested actions determine many opinions about gameplay.

For those not listening, “contested” means that actions are brought into direct conflict and you must react to opponents’ actions to be successful. SynCaine’s apt term contrasting competitive PvE from PvP is “PvE with a leaderboard.” Golf and bowling are non-contested sports. Football of either sort is contested. Golf and bowling are competitive, but your game does not vary at all based on who you are competing with. Games with less interactivity are less contested, so many Eurogames try to have relatively few contested elements. A game of Dominion with no attacks is almost perfectly uncontested (although someone else could buy out the cards you want).

Some players, like David Sirlin, really like contested skill competitions. That is the heart of gaming for them. These are PvP enthusiasts. They want skills to be brought into opposition. Some people favor engaging in non-contested activities. The heart of the activity for them is individual excellence, developing a skill and seeing how well they can do, where they would consider reacting to an opponent to be a distraction from the core activity. Later in the podcast, David refers to winning by best exploiting their opponents, not by playing optimally. In a contested game, reacting and exploiting opponents is vitally important. But if “optimize” has a better emotional valence for you than “exploit,” you might be more interested in something like less contested like running or Freecell.

: Zubon

Growth Mindset

Yesterday I tossed something important in as a one-liner. Let’s unpack the concept a bit and apply it to gaming.

“Growth mindset” is the idea that your abilities are not fixed. Failure is not final, just an early step in learning. It is the difference between “I can’t do that” and “I can’t do that yet.” A fixed mindset leads to conservatively sticking with what you’re good at, because “what you’re good at” is fixed. A growth mindset embraces neuroplasticity.

Most games inherently encourage growth mindset. If you fail, you try again. You get better, face greater challenges, and save the world. At its best, gaming is a system of productive optimism.

Some gaming communities are toxic. They talk about “bad players” instead of people who are still learning. People are good or bad, in a way that reminds me of the Spanish distinction between “ser” and “estar.” Some games and communities make it hard to start and implicitly drive away new players. Some games are structured with painful learning curves that punish failure or create long-term costs for common learning mistakes.

Or am I exhibiting a fixed mindset to say the communities are toxic? Are they just not good communities yet? Riot has gone to great effort to reduce LoL community toxicity. Some games and forums seem to be moving as fast as they can in the other direction.

: Zubon

Best Player Wins?

A friend recently speculated that he was having trouble getting people to play Hyperborea because the best player tends to win. Hyperborea has some variability between games but a very small amount of uncontrolled randomness. It is not as pure a strategy game as chess or go, but it is far to that side of the continuum even for a Eurogame. If someone is significantly better than you, you lose.

I can see why that would not be fun. I frequently object to games where it is unknown whether victory is even possible. This is the opposite case: victory is known to be possible just exceedingly unlikely. All your decisions are meaningful, but the outcome is still pretty certain because you do not (yet – growth mindset!) know how to make better decisions. Instead of the frustration of an unavoidable loss that is out of your control, this is an unavoidable loss that is entirely your fault. You can still have Theory of Fun fun in learning to play better, but many people are not excited about diving into a lost cause.

This is a frequent theme in skill-based PvP games. In a fair fight, half the players will be below average, and the average skill of your opponent tends to increase as s/he plays more and the worse players quit. Even if everyone is friendly, polite, and supportive of you as a learning player rather than cursing you as a newb, the average player would rather be a wolf than a sheep.

For tabletop games, this is often less a worry because you are playing with your friends, which is usually the point of playing. Rivalry is friendly, and more casual players can use how much they lost by as a measure of progress (serious but poor players are harder to satisfy there). Another player I know counts herself as “not losing” so long as she is not in last place. In friendly games, the stronger player might take a handicap or provide advice to competitors.

Players want a chance to win. If that means devolving the game to almost pure chance, so be it. I am reminded of children who like to play ridiculous variations on existing games, partly because kids will try most anything as a game but partly because it nullifies others’ experience with the standard game. A work event at a bowling alley included three “fun frames” whose main purpose was to keep the serious bowlers from getting too far ahead; if you have trouble bowling 100, bowling between your legs or with your off-hand won’t make you do much worse, but it forces the pros down to the novice level again. Randomness helps the weaker party.

Personally, I find little satisfaction in winning through no merit of my own, although it can still be nice to win. I don’t have a reference handy, but I recall that many (most?) people would happily trade getting credit for their merits so long as they did not get blame for their faults. It seems an even easier trade to say you’d rather win through no merit than lose by your own fault.

: Zubon

Kickfinish

I was enthusiastic about Kickstarter projects a while ago, but I have recently been seeing fewer that excite me. What has been exciting recently is the arrival of things I backed a while ago. My Tinker Dice arrived last week (the d6s look especially good, but I now covet the copper ones, having seen how they came out). Tiny Epic Kingdoms arrived yesterday (quick review Tuesday; it plays like a pocket-sized Hyperborea). Kingdom Builder is shipping now. After a lengthy drought, I am being flooded with tabletop games.

I hadn’t realized how long Kickstarter has been around. It has had some great, successful releases and some games still under development “Estimated delivery: Oct 2012.” Developers may not always be the best project managers, which is I suppose why I have a job.

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: Diablo Clones

Do we have a term like “MOBA” for Diablo clones yet? “Action RPG” feels too broad. I think we’ve settled on “Diablo clones,” even if that is a bit pejorative. There are quite a few games like Titan Quest, Torchlight, or Marvel Heroes that are Diablo II plus or minus x percent. Personally, after Diablo II and Torchlight I, I feel tired of the genre. I have tried others and seen improvements to the formula, but the difference is not enough to give me anything that feels new or fresh, so I guess I’m comfortable with “Diablo clone.” Despite that, I tried a couple that looked promising this week. One thumbs up, one thumbs down.

Path of Exile is best known for its talent tree, “a vast web of 1350 skills that provide passive bonuses to your character.” Customization, great! Starting out felt very Diablo II, except everything looked darker. The graphic were better than they were back in 2000, but the game is clearly a Diablo clone. When I got to start on that talent tree, all I could see was the prospect of grinding for hours on a loot and level treadmill, plus the expected effects of having a cash shop, plus the community that comes with a F2P game. I played a few zones and uninstalled. This is not so much a fair review as a reasonable expectation of grinding and grinding, one 3% passive improvement at a time. I did like the use of scrolls as a standard currency.

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was another Humble Bundle acquisition, the first in a while that I would recommend. It bought a lot of benefit of the doubt by not having those same expectations. It is a small scale Diablo clone, a single player game where you buy the box. It has on the order of 10 hours of gameplay for 100% completion of the base story (I have not tried anything else in it), so it has little of the fake longevity garbage you have come to expect from Diablo clones. It is more of a Torchlight clone for its “remove the annoying bits” take on the formula. You start with your “pet,” a sassy ghost who can tank or shoot, can be specced to fight or buff you, and who will even do the Torchlight “go sell my trash loot” trick. “Town Portal” and “Identify” are not scrolls but rather skills you start with. I’m spending most of my time here talking about what Van Helsing isn’t, because that is what was so refreshing to me: not having the things that annoy me about Diablo clones. The Quarter to Three review is pretty fair (there have been some improvements since initial release), except that most things he counts as negatives about the game, I count as positives. No, I don’t want to play through Nightmare 10 times to try to complete a set. And oh look, I completed three sets during one playthrough of Van Helsing.

So what is TIAoVan Helsing? Diablo clone, leaning Torchlight in its details, in a steampunk setting. It mixes dark and humor. Katarina, your ghost assistant, is one of the better bits of that; the final boss leans a bit silly for my taste. You do all the standard things of fighting/stabbing monsters and running quests from people with exclamation points over their heads. The game rewards a bit of exploration with non-obvious quests that announce themselves as you stumble upon them or gradually assemble them over the course of the game. The gameplay is a bit easy, particularly with the practically no death penalty (outside the hardcore mode). The gameplay is on the good side of standard. It borrows liberally from other games, from the Torchlight bits above (including a fame rank for defeating champion enemies) and a “glory” system like Borderlands 2’s badass points. The content is not quite varied enough for its length; you will notice maps repeating, including one particularly egregious re-use of a large map. Still, it rarely pretends to be what it is not, and I strongly prefer a game that does pretty well in 10 hours what most games stretch to painfulness over 40.

: Zubon