How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Category: Mechanics

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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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.

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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Losing and other such nonsense

by anbrewk

Despite my enjoyment of playing games, I do sometimes get frustrated when a game is not going my way – that is to say, when I am losing.  I’ve spent some time thinking about those feelings afterward and wondering what causes them – if it is really my losing that makes me frustrated or something else.  There is an inconsistency in my feeling frustrated that does not always coincide with losing. Sometimes I lose, or am losing, and I am perfectly happy to continue playing.  Other times I lose, or am losing and I want to quit or leave.  Recently, I had a similar feeling of frustrating and coupled with a desire to escape that mirrored this feeling of frustration I feel when losing in games: I was a guest at a persons home who kept insulting me (probably unintentionally) yet consistently enough and in such a way that I felt there was little I could do to stop it. I wanted to escape. In that situation, I had a similar desire to quit and leave. I had the desire to quit the activity which was frustrating me and leave the situation which marked my frustration.  I wanted to distance myself from something that wasn’t working for me.

The common denominator in my frustration is not that I am losing, because sometimes when I am losing I don’t feel like leaving or quitting and I often lose and have a great time. It isn’t as though every game I play I win and only the games I win at I have fun at. I have never won a single game of Brass yet I like that game very much.  I have won games of Through The Ages that I have been frustrated with because I felt my decisions didn’t matter and I won for arbitrary reasons.  More so than in either of those cases, I have won and lost games of Roma that I thought were trivial in both cases: I would now just as likely ignore a request to play a game of “flip the coin!” then play Roma.

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The powerful nature of games.

by anbrewk

First, the idea that games have a ‘nature’ requires some kind of explication which I am totally unprepared to do.  However short-sighted my title may be, I’m am excited enough about games as to consider that ‘game’ is some kind of limiting concept that not everything falls into and in this very liberal sense, I think games have a nature that other things don’t have.  Essentially I am saying there are things that are games and there are things that are not games and that the things that are games are of the same kind, despite perhaps appearing different. In this limited sense I’m saying they have a ‘nature’ – something that ties them together as being the same kind. Before I continue with what I know is going to be a feeble attempt to describe what strikes me as the nature of games, allow me to direct you to another post on another blog that does a really nice job talking about games. Now that you have that, I feel less bad about what I am going to write and what you’re going to end up reading.

I don’t really want to set out to define games so I don’t know why I started with such an epic opening paragraph. And I don’t even like the term ‘nature.’ It’s so messy and normative. But I’m going to leave that paragraph up anyway and continue on just like we were talking. All I really want to do is talk about games. I want to express my enthusiasm for play and gaming and maybe organize the thoughts I’m having in my head.  I think I’ll start by saying that play and games are different.  While play may be described as a  joyous expression, games are structured events.  If play was an ephemeral moment of joy, a game would be a mechanism to capture that moment.  Though maybe not all games. War games are not about joy, they are about practice and training. Play amongst predatory animals is closer to war games than hopscotch and hopscotch isn’t much of a game at all.  But let’s not worry ourselves with answering the questions these examples seem to bring up. Let’s worry ourselves with thinking of examples and then maybe try to sort them. I don’t want to solve anything here. I just want to talk about games and then maybe make a couple helpful distinctions here and there.

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Strategic Bluffing: A Review of ‘Lord of the Rings – The Confrontation’

by frangibility

I’ve recently been introduced to Reiner Knizia‘s Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation by one of my room-mates and I have to say that it is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. If I had any trepidation going it, it was simply due to the good doctor’s prolific output: over 350 games at last count. As such, even though he has designed some of my favourites (including Tigris and Euphrates, Modern Art, Samurai, and Battle Line), you will also see his imprimatur on far less noteworthy titles. Fortunately, I didn’t need to worry: LOTR – The Confrontationis a clever and engaging two-player game that packs a lot of strategy and enjoyment into 30 minutes or less.

So, what kind of game is LOTR – The Confrontation? If you imagine taking the fun part of Stratego (i.e., the initial stage of planning and set-up) and combining it with a system of semi-blind bids for combat resolution (think: Dungeon Twister), as well as asymmetric player powers and victory conditions, you basically have this game. To be more specific, it plays out as follows: each player selects one of the two sides (Fellowship or Sauron), retrieves their single-sided counters and freely positions them upon their side of the diamond-shaped board, following some fairly simply placement rules. The Fellowship player’s goal is to run the ring-bearer into Mordor – the region that represents the Sauron player’s “base;” conversely, the Sauron player’s goal is either to kill the ring-bearer (easier said than done) or to run any three of its units into The Shire (the Fellowship base). The movement rules are very simple: on each turn, a player *must* move a unit forward (or sideways if you are in the forest squares on the Sauron side). Since the board is diamond shaped, this means that each move on your side of the board allows you to choose between two different target squares, whereas moving onto enemy turf is always going to be unidirectional.
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Another one bites the dust.

by anbrewk

Today, I died in my hardcore game of minecraft. Today’s death was an important death as it marked the end of a two week run at trying to reach The End. In order to reach The End, I had to find a stronghold, place 12 Eyes of Ender in the end portal and then beat an enderdragon. In my two weeks of playing, I didn’t get to do any of those things because I never managed to find a stronghold.  I built an entire suit of diamond armor, multiple enchanted diamond swords, built pillars of gold, found multiple records, cocoa beans, pig saddles, and all the rest but never a stronghold. I searched through huge underworld caverns, I followed the paths of a dozen Eyes of Ender but never did I find a stronghold. I traveled to the Nether world, killing blazes for their blaze rods but never did I find a stronghold.

The experience of hardcore minecraft is much like many experiences in hardcore mode games – that of a hard life followed by a sudden, meaningless and final death. But looking back on that run, I don’t consider it a defeat.  My lil’ guy died with a diamond helmet of underwater breathing on his head that let him swim down to the bottom of the ocean where he happened to accidentally fall into a lava filled chasm that, combined with fall damage, burnt his health down to one little half heart. If it wasn’t for my quick thinking and preparedness with that bucket of water, he would have died right there but he put out the fire and lay standing on the hard rock floor of that chasm for a good full second before that creeper showed up and blew his little half heart body apart.  He was an adventurous lil’ guy with much to show for.  He lived a long and prosperous life in search of an elusive stronghold that he never did find.  He died like he lived, uselessly searching for something seemingly impossible to find. R.I.P. lil’ minecraft dude.

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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