How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Month: November, 2011

Hit the ground running: Dungeons of Dredmor and roguelike design

by berv

Dungeons of Dredmor: a fairly standard roguelike dungeon crawler, built on familiar structures and subject to the same high points as well as the same pitfalls  as others in its genre.

As is standard in such games, the gameplay is highly unforgiving, requiring you to be constantly alert or risk the end of your character and start over again from square one. This can be rewarding, as the high stakes can require the player use every asset at his disposal to escape a uniquely dangerous situation. However, the flipside is that in the situations that are either not unique, not dangerous, or neither of the two, you are essentially forced to run through a self-programmed set of actions to overcome them. Use power, hit twice, use other power, fire crossbow, repeat. The moments when you are forced to innovate are the golden core of the roguelike experience, but are unfortunately too few and far between to justify the time cost.

As a result, whenever I am partway through a run, I fatigue very quickly. I’ve specced my character to do one thing really well and that’s what he’ll do until his inevitable death. Monsters either hit you or shoot you and more loot is just better loot; it doesn’t change your playstyle as  you’ve essentially determined that through your character build. If you pick swords as one of your seven starting skills, you’re not going to switch to maces halfway through. You can’t, unless you want to get your head caved as you fumble to find which end you’re supposed be holding on to.

Yet, a day or two after every death, I start thinking about character design and return to bash my head against the dungeon floor once again. Why is that?
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Adventures with Storytelling

by anbrewk

Recently, I had the good idea of tricking my partner’s twin sister, Cassie, into playing Dungeons and Dragons with Maia and I. It wasn’t particularly hard. I just told her we were playing a storytelling game. I said, “We’re all going to tell a story together. I have an idea for the story arc and I want you and Maia to help me populate that arc with ideas and events – starting with the two main characters.”

From there, it got a little awkward. I found myself having a really hard time avoiding terms and phrasing particular to D&D: referring to her as a player and talking about her character (her player character is what I wanted to say). In themselves, those two particular phrases aren’t strange but in the context of just telling a story I thought they came off as very roleplay-ee. Despite my efforts, though, I found them to be unavoidable. The language of role playing games is ingrained in my conception of that type of storytelling. Those sorts of ingrown assumptions (that inform how one explains roleplaying by what roleplaying is) are exactly what I was trying to get away from. I didn’t actually want to trick Cassie into playing D&D. I wanted to expose her to an experience she may otherwise have been closed to – that of collaborative storytelling.
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Snowball Fortress Assault

by berv

This weekend was unseasonably warm in Saskatoon, calling for another attempt to integrate snowballs into our usual game of Capture the Flag. The idea was to introduce snowballs as an additional tagging mechanism, allowing defenders to more easily close distances between their positions and the onrushing hordes. Though this would certainly have been an interesting experiment, we unfortunately had only six people show up. What better things people have to do on a Saturday afternoon I cannot imagine.

But there we were! In a park full of snow with a group of people eager to play in it! So, drawing on my many good experiences making up playground games on the fly with the Trifecta, I proposed a 3v3 king-of-the-hill style game incorporating the snowballs we were all so eager to throw at each other.
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On a lighter note: The mechanics of Isaac

by berv

I’ve been playing a great deal of The Binding of Isaac as well and, having exhausted my political energies responding to Frangibility’s previous post, would like to get into greater depth about the mechanics of the game. Specifically, I’d like to examine the multiple-playthrough/procedurally-generated-content/progressive-unlockable nature of the game and how that’s so damn compelling.

When Isaac was first released, the available media did little to recommend it to me. It looked like a sluggish shooter with simplistic arena design and no interesting obstacles to contend with. Then it came down the pipe as part of the Humble Bundle’s latest package and I, being the sucker for indie bundles that I am, had no choice but to pick it up. If I’m lucky, one of the three games will give me a couple hours’ enjoyment. If not, I’ll throw it on the Steam pile and resign the cash spent as a donation to indie devs.

Once I began playing, I found that, as a shooter, the game is indeed very simple. Power-ups that change the way your shots work are few and far between and the combat rooms are extremely basic. The variety of the enemies and the relatively high level of difficulty led me to keep playing. Then I died. Then I realized that the levels and powerup distribution are procedurally generated. Compelling +1.
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Gaming, Shame and Self-Reflection: My Adventures with ‘The Binding of Isaac’

by frangibility

As with so many things, my opinions on The Binding of Isaac are a little… conflicted. On one hand, I can’t help but concur with the (near) universal chorus of adulation that this little downloadable title has received. Trying to describe exactly what Isaac does right brings up a (slightly cliched) image: it’s like a video game bouillabaisse, flinging together a morass of different ingredients and somehow ending up with a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. It features a darkly cartoonish aesthetic, well-designed boss encounters, the occasionally frenetic pace of a bullet-hell shooter, and, a robust set of [unlockable] items and character upgrades, many of which significantly alter the play experience. It’s also considerably indebted to the ROGUElike genre, incorporating many of its key features, such as procedurally generated maps, randomized items and boss encounters, and – the old-school standby – perma-death (i.e., the lack of any ability to save your progress). While the arcade-y, SmashTV-esque gameplay is compelling in its own right, the combination of those traits with the game’s unforgiving difficulty level and the promise of a consistently varied experience transforms Isaac into a particularly potent blend of gamer crack: knowing that those punishing, random levels hold a compelling challenge and a huge number of surprises (in terms of unlockable items, weapons, and hidden bosses) fuels the game’s seductive appeal. For one example, I’ve somehow spent a total of almost twenty-four hours playing it in the last two weeks, in spite of the fact that I’m nearing the busiest time of my academic semester.
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Sanctum: Clash of the interfaces

by berv

I picked up Sanctum as part of the most recent Indieroyale bundle, not because I was particularly interested in the game but because I thought the economic model was neat (the next bundle opens up this Thursday!). Regardless, I ended up with an independent game that not only looked pretty but promised a unique spin on the tower defense genre: the entirety of the game is played from the first-person perspective, allowing you to get in to the midst of the onrushing waves and add your own firepower to the line. A neat concept and perhaps a way around the monotony of simply watching your towers do their job or fail miserably in their attempt.

Once I cracked it open, I found it did exactly what it promised, putting the player onto the TD battlefield and requiring the player to run around during an assault, lending support where needed. All too often, though, I found myself acting as more of an auxiliary to the towers than as a separate and meaningful entity. Most frequently, my time on the ground was spent following particularly tenacious enemies, mindlessly exhausting one weapon after another into their backs in a futile final bid to keep them from reaching their goal. It reminded me less of the combat in an FPS and more of that in an MMO: toggle attack on, occasionally hit a special power button, repeat until victorious.
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