How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Category: Game Design

This might not be the place

by anbrewk

This year, I participated in the IFComp, a place for interactive fiction to convene and be judged. Though the competition is very real and the judging taken very seriously, I take it that at least in some way the competition is simply an excuse for IF writers and enthusiasts to create and share things.

What I’m discovering in my first foray into this community as one to be judged (or, whose work is to be judged) is that the kind of work that is expected and highlighted and adored is maybe not what I’m into… My work, Labyrinth of Loci, is not off to a great reception and not for no good reason. The one review I’ve read is quite damning and the other feedback I’ve received give me the stark impression that I did not judge my audience very well. While the review I read (which can be found here) brought up critical bugs I was unaware of (a damning indictment of any game (and a real bummer that I didn’t find them despite my efforts…)), some of the other criticisms were about the effectiveness of binary choices and the game’s failure to evoke a sense of ownership of the character. Criticisms which I took to be well thought out and not untrue. Given these were my two main goals, I’m distressed to have failed.

Even if I decide I might not really like the kind of IF that is praised by the community, I still respect the IF judges devotion to substantive criticism, regardless of whether I subscribe to their conclusions or even premises.

Given that choice was the main goal of my game, what I am most interested in, rather than my placing in the IFComp (especially since that is looking to be very poor), is the efficacy of my use of choice in the design and implementation of my project. The review quoted above thought the binary choices at the beginning of the game epitomized the problem of player ownership as the player must, at the outset, choose between two things they have no reason to care about. Yet, in those uninformed choices the player is given who their character is and what their character can and cant accomplish (in terms of paths and unlocks or what have you). Not unfair criticisms and not untrue.

My intention (not in my defense) was to provide the player with some context for the character they would then create by playing the game. I can see how that might just be a misunderstanding of a well known genre-conceit (it’s called character creation for a reason) and not at all a realistic expectation on the player.  Yet, I wonder now how I might have changed my approach to actually accomplish what I set out to do. My vision was for a ADOM-light character creation through narrative, where in-lieu of assigning points, you make narrative decisions which then assign points (of a sort).

Or NEO Scavenger where the character is a blank slate minus some simple characteristics (up until you discover who you truly are, though, that is optional and not all that definitive either).

Yet, I just said I didn’t really want it to be character creation at all, at least not in the sense that you are taking a fully formed individual and putting them in the world. I wanted it to be the creation of character context for the player to then make more substantive choices in a world they themselves were discovering. I can see how my implementation of that idea may have been misguided.

I wanted to avoid a linear narrative, to avoid given the character any sense of self whatsoever. Even the character choices at the beginning are, for better or worse, intentionally lacking in character. They’re just blank slates.

I wanted to create a little place where a player could experience a narrative arc of their own experience (yet of my design). I expected the player to make choices because they wanted to avoid, or experience, certain things. I thought that the more absent the character was, the more the player would fill that in. Yet, it may just be a (not so well-made) standard high-fantasy dungeon crawl. Oh well, not for trying.

Back to work: FO4 is over (for now)

by anbrewk

So I stopped making my game! The Sadness overwhelms me and then is replaced by the memories of the winter wasteland holidays. Parties and friends and family so soon replaced with horrid arid radioactive wastes. My partner, Maia, naively convinced me to buy Fallout 4 just as the holidays were ending and I’ve spent the last three weeks playing it and doing very little else. Now that I’ve sunk my first one hundred hours and change into it, I feel it is time to take a break and get back to work. But before I do, I wanted to share some of my experience with the game and thoughts on its design, of which I have more than a few favorable comments to make.
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Time happens and we play games

by anbrewk

Or actually I don’t know what time does, only that it’s not what it used to be. And it’s not the playing of games that I wanted to talk about, though I have been doing a lot of that, but the writing of a game proposal.

Over the last three weeks, thanks to Berv’s suggestion, I’ve been working on a game design for N Square’s Game Challenge: design a game that “[inspires] creative solutions and novel approaches that foster greater understanding of nuclear proliferation and its related safety and security challenges”(NSquare).

Its been difficult not actually designing the game but rather making the broadest (most exciting!) pitch for NSquare to then, hopefully, be enthused about. It needed to be concise (800 words) but also capture whatever it was that made the game. It’s strange trying to describe ideas without actually refining them. It seems to me, and I think Berv has said this too, that so much of designing comes down to rethinking, reevaluating and redesigning as part of the process of making.

Even if you have some consistent idea in mind, an unchanging focus throughout the process which you might say was your “design,” that could be so broad as to be near undefinable. Or at least not accurately representative of what you actually end up making, despite having a strong family relation.

It makes me respect clear execution of vision. When someone follows a thought to an end which matches their original intention, that’s actually impressive.

But the most satisfying and exciting part of this process, and what I really wanted to talk about, has been the  successful collaboration with Berv. Separately we came up with some fledgling ideas, then shared what we’d come up with and gave feedback on what we’d done. Then splitting up again we worked on our ideas some more and reconvened again to share better ideas made better by having worked on them with each other.

And now we have two distinct proposals each with added insight and consideration from another trusted perspective. It’s awesome.

Collaborating with a partner in design is much more invigorating and exciting than working alone. Even while meeting to talk about this project, we talked about future projects and working together like this again. It’s exciting to think we could design and maybe build things together.

I hope that as time passes, we get better at this: working together and making things. Working together better and making better things. All the good.


The Juice: Megaman X’s Sub Tanks

by frangibility

Megaman X (1993) is great! It’s a superb example of Capcom at the peak of their 8- and 16-bit design powers, combining energetic music, expressive and whimsical sprites, creative bosses, and tough but fair level design. But rather than penning another paean to the game in general, I’d like to focus on one particular design decision that I think helped give the game a little something extra… the juice, if you will.


Previous entries in the series included special power-up items called Energy Tanks (or ‘E tanks’), which were typically hidden throughout the game world in locations that required some combination of precision platforming, keen deduction and/or unlocked Robot Master weapons to discover. Their function was simple: provide the player the option to refill their life-bar during the course of a particularly challenging boss battle or platforming section, which would potentially allow them to avoid the demoralizing appearance of a Game Over screen. In their earliest incarnation, using them was a serious strategic consideration, as they were single use items: once you expended an E-tank, it would never respawn or replenish, meaning that if you *still* failed to defeat the boss after expending one (a very real possibility if one was facing the Yellow Devil or any of the series’ other malevolently difficult robot foes), the only way to get it back was to restart the game (or re-enter a previous level select password).

In Megaman X, however, the developers tinkered with this formula with the invention of the Sub Tank. Though initially indistinguishable from an E-tank (given that they too are hidden throughout the game world’s various levels), upon finding their first one, the player quickly realizes that they are a somewhat different beast. Upon initial discovery, the item enters the player’s inventory (without any explanatory text) and sits there inert and unusable. With further play, however, the player will inevitably – at some point- run into a health power-up while their health-bar is already full, at which point they are treated to a previously unused sound effect, alerting them to the fact that *something* has happened. A quick glance at the inventory screen explains it: the previously empty bar in the center of the Sub Tank has begun to fill up. Once topped up, the player hears another new sound, signifying that the tank is now available for use.


Though a seemingly small change from the E-Tanks in previous franchise iterations, I noticed that it had two pronounced effects upon my engagement with the game: first, it provided a fun sub-challenge – namely, trying to get through the game’s levels without being injured, so as to fill up my sub-tanks as quickly as possible. In the process, it took a minor gaming annoyance (unusable power-ups) and turned them into an asset. Second, it also broke down a psychological barrier to using the tanks. As the type of player that typically makes it to the end of a game without ever making use of my best weapons or items (read: hoarder), the fact that these tanks could be refilled easily via good play not only lowered the stakes of using them, but also implicitly suggested that doing so was the intended way to play. Rather than being a crutch, they became another weapon in the arsenal. As far as I can tell, the only downside to sub-tank is that, when squaring off against a particularly challenging boss and failing repeatedly, one can be forced to visit prior levels in order to farm health power-ups, though in the right areas, this can be accomplished in less than a minute. Regardless, it is still much more forgiving than the evanescent, “one-and-done” E-tanks of yesteryear.


The gameification of power-up drops (through the creation of an additional “victory” condition), as well as the elegant, non-verbal manner through which this new game mechanic was explained to the player, were clever, thoughtful design choices. Though Mega Man X would certainly have remained an excellent game without this innovation, its inclusion took an already polished reinterpretation of the Mega Man formula and gave it a little extra juice.

Game Dev Log #3: Prototype

by anbrewk

My prototype is almost ready! The main components of the prototype are one main screen and two “rooms.” The main screen acts as a point of reference for the player to return to. It’s meant to represent a hallway in some type of labyrinth with each iteration of the hallway containing two randomly assigned doors from which the player chooses one. I had already made a bunch of pixel-art doors and written up a bunch of text that I am now slotting into the framework I’ve built. The door images are taken in a random order from an array along with their corresponding door descriptions. When the player clicks on a door, they then enter the corresponding room. The player can then return to the labyrinth’s corridor from the that room and then again enter further randomly assigned rooms.

I still have to build the interaction response/prompt system for each room, which I think is going to be difficult. I had originally thought I would make one room template and have all of its text and options populated from arrays but that’s proving to be hard to even get started. So my current plan entails  building every room as a distinct level which I think from an organizational standpoint will be a lot cleaner and easier to edit/change. So it’s probably a win my first idea proved too difficult/not possible.

Before I tackle the response/prompts though, I’m going to make a game over screen and link it to a bool for player health. At the end of each room, the player will either be dead or alive. Alive, go back to the hallway. Dead, go to the end screen and either try again or quit. Then from there, it’s the response/prompts …and an abilities screen with variables tied to choices that will be available conditionally on those abilities being chosen. Which I think after building the response/prompt system should be a relatively straightforward  addition. I think…

Regardless, I’m very excited about the kind of progress I’ve been making given what little experience I have. It’s gratifying how much the final game is coming to look and feel the way I want it.

The deluge, in brief

by berv

This week has seen me cycle through a whole bunch of games in my Steam library, some sort of attempt to clear my mental gamespace so that I might be more productive in my own work. Ha. We’ll see about that. Regardless, I did pick up a number of experiences I thought were worth sharing (and even if they’re not, they were certainly worth having). So, in brief:

Serious Sam 2: For an FPS predicated on fast, mobile gunplay against hordes of baddies, getting across the game world sure is a trudge. The huge areas with all sorts of unpopulated crannies make secret-finding a chore (unlike in Serious Sam Double D, which I loved to bits).

realMyst: I’ve got lots to say about revisiting Myst after almost 20 years, but for now I just want to comment on this version’s shift to free first-person movement (as opposed to the static pre-rendered scenes of the original). Filling in all the gaps, letting you walk behind and around all the points of interest, and letting the player’s eye fall where it may (rather than artfully directing it) really steals a lot of the magic away from the setting. Suddenly there is nothing beyond the limits of your vision. It’s all there, and because there’s no new content jammed into these nooks, the world is suddenly bounded and less fantastic because of it.

World of Goo, Blocks That Matter: All I wanted was to outthink some clever puzzles. The core of these experiences is understanding the mechanics, which, on their own, are solid. But why do I have to grind through a tedious and repetitive process every time I want to try a new solution?

  • WoG: Why do I have to manually grab goo blobs? The fact that they don’t automatically jump to my cursor is irksome. And why, if the same sort of structural building pattern is the foundation of all constructions, do I have to manually make the building blocks one at a time?
  • BTM: Solving two thirds of a level, then making a mistake on the last bit sends you back to the start to repeat the whole thing. This is not an action game, where challenge is increased via setting obstacles in sequence. I solved those puzzles, please don’t make me grind through them again.

Dark Souls: Quite possibly one of my favourite games ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to recapture the experience of my first time through. It’s just not the same when you know what you’re up against. Until that point, though, it’s absolutely thrilling.

Darksiders: Boy, I haven’t played a game this console-tailored as this in a long time. It’s strange that that’s a type of game: heavy on action and cinematic elements, low on nuance and depth. There’s so much more that video games have to offer that’s completely overlooked here. This is closer in its content to a bad movie, really.

Red Faction: Armageddon: My second outing with the series made relevant through its core inclusion of destructible terrain. However, the reasons I quit RF: Guerrilla are the same reasons I stopped playing Armageddon. Though it’s satisfying to destroy a building piece by piece, there’s not much reason to do so. Wouldn’t it be cool if this game didn’t have guns at all, instead relying on clever use of structure collapse and environmental manipulation? Yes it would. I did, though, quite like the ability to quickly rebuild cover that had been destroyed. A neat addition to a firefight, but only fun defensively. Hmm. What if players only had environmental manipulation tools and had to try to off each other while avoiding AI gunners?

Cargo Commander: Procedurally-generated platformer roguelike a la Spelunky? Yes please! Minimal variation in level elements and very few ways to interact with the world? No thanks. I liked the setting (blue collar sci-fi; reminded me of the original Alien) and the some of the mechanics (zero-gravity space jumps & drilling panels off of floating cargo containers) but got bored pretty quickly with the gameplay. Also, the always-on DRM got in my way more often than any other game ever has. That is a shame.

The Walking Dead (Episode 5): Though the journey of this game was not without its faults, I felt really jazzed upon finishing this. It’s exhilarating to have a story with so many untidy resolutions. I want to play through it again for the alternate dialogue options, but can’t bring myself to slog through the non-dialogue gameplay a second time. Ah, alright, I did like the panicked zombie combat scenes, but the “puzzles” can take a hike.

Shattered Horizon: It is a great tragedy that multiplayer games live only as long as they have a community to support them. I thought there was interesting potential in the zero-gravity arena combat, and some wonderful vistas of planets far below the floating wreckage of the playfield. But alas, it’s gone derelict now, adrift with a fleet of empty servers.

Planetside 2: I was instantly overwhelmed by the mess that was the battlefield. Where am I supposed to go? Why? Who am I supposed to be shooting at? Why? People like this game? I couldn’t find any satisfaction here.

Analogue: A Hate Story: I was surprisingly drawn in by the sci-fi setting of this interactive fiction game and how it drew heavily upon Korean history. Sure, there weren’t a lot of consequential decisions to make, but the story was well worth reading, and tactfully revealed in tantalizing bits at a time. I do wish, though, that there were an easier way to further flesh things out than having to go through it all the same bits again with a different character.

Endless Space, Space Empires IV: I should like this sort of game (broad scale space empire management), but I just can’t invest as much as they ask of me upfront. Let’s go back to Dark Souls for a second. There’s enormous depth to the combat, character building, and lore, but you can play the game without understanding it all in its entirety. Can this be done in one of these space games? Maybe in having the gameplay complexity scale at the player’s pace? This is a difficult problem.

Auditorium: Lately, I’ve been developing a distaste for physics-based puzzlers. Finickiness seems inherent to them, and I find myself getting frustrated with them more often than not. Again, my ideal puzzle game makes it easy to execute a solution once it has been seen. Here, I got stuck too often trying to find pixel-perfect placement for my puzzle elements.

Legend of Grimrock: Despite the trailers and reviews I looked up, I hadn’t realized this old-school(ish) dungeon crawler played out in real-time. The necessity of stick-and-move combat got tedious fairly quickly, though I don’t know that I would have enjoyed the fighting any more were it turn based. I did, however, like how secrets were hidden, sometimes with easily-overlooked visual cues, sometimes within clever combinations of mechanics.

Looking back over this list, I am more than ever made aware of just how particular my gaming tolerances and intolerances are. I’m picky, for sure, and perhaps I’m a little too short with certain elements and genres, but I really believe that there are enjoyable experiences at the core of each of the above-listed games. With a little je ne sais quoi, those that are more deeply buried might be teased out and make for a better experience.

Did you make one of these games? I would be more than happy to give you my expanded thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. It’s only my opinion, but I like to think that I give these things an appropriate amount of consideration.

Are you anybody at all making a game? This is an open offer. If you provide me with a way to do so, I will play your game at least once and give you constructive feedback. You can dismiss it outright if you’d like, but I promise it will be lovingly considered.


by berv

Last night, I came across an interesting call to action:

If you haven’t played any of the Grow games, I highly recommend you check them out. They and the rest of EYEZMAZE’s games claimed many of my adolescent hours. The premise is fairly simple: choosing from an array of eight objects, apply them one at a time so that they transform the playspace, building on each other progressively to reach the optimal outcome. Didn’t work out? Try a different order!

Fortunately for me, today worked out just beautifully to take a shot at Arnott’s proposal. Twine is an absolute breeze to use, so if you’re at all interested in writing interactive fiction, you ought to have a look. I’d also like to highlight Anna Anthropy’s introduction to Twine, which helped me get up and running.

Taking Arnott’s Tweet as written, I began to map out eight verbs in the workspace. After a short amount of work, I realized the colossal number of possibilities that that worked out to. Beginning with eight choices, the number of unique chapters adds up to over 40,000! Certainly more than I’d be able to get done in an afternoon. So, after some further math, I decided to go with a much more manageable four verbs (65 chapters).

Here is my story, “bluelit.”


It was an interesting project to undertake and I rather surprised myself with the setting of the story. Initially, when I was still looking at eight verbs, I was thinking of beginning in the void and then progressively building a world by taking broad, general actions like “love,” “doubt,” “run,” “remember,” and so on. I still think there’s some interesting potential there; perhaps I’ll revisit the idea. Or perhaps you will? If you’d like to use my four-option framework, you can download the Twine file here. Simply use “Replace Across Entire Story” to swap out my numbers for your chosen verbs.

Anyways, I ended up with romantic relationships as a theme, and was surprised to find some of the corners I ended up in. Having to write narratives in such a way that every single one of them contains every possible verb was an interesting thematic challenge. Though I think I did an alright job of tying things together, I feel like a bunch of the stories are kind of samey in their arc (especially when it comes to endings). Perhaps some greater advance planning would avoid this, or perhaps the setting was just too narrow.

Another issue I found with creating a story like this is the vagueness of player (reader?) choices. I tried to account for this as best I could, but there’s really no assurance that choosing “cry,” for example, will lead to the sort of crying or what-have-you that the player has in mind. This has often been a frustration of mine in choosing from among dialogue options in other games: “No, I didn’t mean it that way!” These might be unavoidable limitations of the format, though I would be curious about the possible applications of adverbs in these situations. Or dynamic AI, but that’s way beyond the scope of a Twine game.

Either way, it was fun to run around in this space for a little while and I must thank Leon Arnott for the impetus. Let me know what you think!

On Mastery of Systems

by berv

This morning, anbrewk sent around a link to the Wikipedia article on Chess960, a chess variant that randomizes the starting positions of the back row of pieces. Much as in those days of yore when we all lived under the same roof, a conversation started up.

berv: OH GOOD

anbrewk: I think this actually looks really exciting and eliminates the frustrations presented with playing someone who simply memorized opening moves (something I think you, berv (or maybe Frange?) had expressed as a negative component of the game).

“The random setup (if it did not equate to the classic starting position) renders the opportunity of obtaining an advantage through the memorization of opening moves impracticable, compelling players to rely instead on their talent and creativity.”

berv: Yeah! It was me. I hadn’t thought about it that way. That would indeed solve some of my issues with chess (which were some of the same issues I had with the original Starcraft) while retaining the mind-fuck ten-moves-in-advance challenge of the game. I’m still not sure if it’s for me, but it’s a step in the right direction, IMO.

Upon further reflection, I think this actually makes the game a degree harder. Across multiple plays, one can’t get used to where pieces begin, and so would be forced to better understand the pieces in multiple contexts. No longer could you rely on bishops to guard your king; you’d have to adapt and find your new and alternate guard. I wonder if there are setups that would make for faster games (i.e. king in a particularly vulnerable position)? Hm.  A knight in a corner has only one legal move at the beginning of the game. Interesting.

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Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoned

by berv

I had downloaded the demo to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning about a week ago, watched the intro cutscene, ran into graphical issues, and promptly uninstalled it, but yesterday’s launch event persuaded me to give it another try.

First, I’d like to talk about the launch event. A sizeable number of popular videogame webcasters, many of whom I recognized from Starcraft 2 casts, agreed to promote the game on launch day by streaming themselves playing it. Being able to check in with each of these personalities as they explored the game did a great deal to win me over to the merits of the game. Seeing each enjoy the game despite their different approaches and in-game character builds drew me in and, on a basic level, made me want to have the same fun they were having.  Additionally, some of the streams featured interviews with particular bigs involved in the game (Curt Schilling, R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, Ken Ralston), which added a little bit of additional spice to the presentation and context for the product. All this was combined with periodic giveaways of the game itself and larger sweepstakes running over the course of the day to produce a very successful kick off and managed to get me excited about a game I had given up on.
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Choice, challenge and satisfaction

by berv

Last night I attempted to express my frustrations with grinding in games in the form of an epithet. My first off-the-top-of-my-head attempt was:

The simpler the computer program you would need to play the game for you, the worse a game it is.

Andrew quickly pointed out that Tetris is easily played by a computer and remains a well-designed and satisfying game. And I’m sure many examples exist of games that require complex human input but are still not very good games.

So I was forced to return to the question of what exactly I was trying to express. What I’m looking for is a way to describe why it is I get frustrated by repeating certain tasks but not others (e.g.  digging through the earth in Terraria but not retrying a level in Super Meat Boy for the 100th time).

What I begin to suspect is a key connection to meaningful player input. Read the rest of this entry »