How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Category: Video Games

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.

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!


by berv

I had been having a particularly difficult time keeping my troops alive for more than a mission or two, and by mid-April I still didn’t have a sergeant. Things were looking especially bleak when the first terror mission hit and I had only rookies to field. Fortunately for me, the eggheads in the lab had just finished developing lasers and, with the help of the grey market, I had just enough cash to equip each of the rookies with a laser rifle and a scope. Here’s hoping.

With one of two chrysalids being killed the moment it entered the map by four-way reaction fire and the other being handily dispatched on the following turn, my rookie squad leisurely made their way across the map, knocking out floaters and thin men as quickly as they could arrive. 14/18 civilians saved, promotions all around, and not a scratch on them. Mission complete.

Again, I say: lasers.

Today’s Lesson in XCOM:

by berv

Never fail.

By early April, I had 5 satellites in the air, covering the whole of Africa for the +30% income bonus. My estimated end-of-month income was over $500 and I had just finished outfitting my troops with the latest in laser rifles and carapace armour. A very strong start.

Then that first terror mission hit. It was only rated “difficult,” and set in Nigeria, where panic was only at 2 out of 5, so I had high hopes going in. Still, one can never be too careful, so I sent in my lieutenant sniper, lieutenant heavy, a corporal support, and a squaddie support. My sniper couldn’t get the high ground he was looking for, but still provided good covering fire from across the map as my supports sussed out the enemy positions. My heavy was midway up, laying down the hurt with two shots per turn and the option of double reaction fire. This is when I learned of the hidden dangers of two-storey buildings. My heavy was just gearing up to launch some rockets on a cluster of three when a chrysalid, unseen because of the height, dropped down and eviscerated him. Then a zombie (also unseen) flopped down from the second floor terrace and mauled the better of my two supports.  This was the turning of the tide. In the absence of an extraction point, my sniper and squaddie support ran and ran until they were grossly outnumbered by the growing wave of enemies and overwhelmed.

As a consequence, Nigeria withdrew from the project, costing me not only their income and the satellite I had deployed there, but the 30% Africa bonus. Forever.

Never fail.

Return to DOTA

by anbrewk

Recently, I took it upon myself to get an invite to the DOTA 2 beta. Upon successfully receiving an invite, I have been playing the figurative shit out of the game.  Well, not actually. But I have played a number of matches, to some success! Aha! The best thing I thought about DOTA 2 was that I didn’t have to learn anything new. As it turns out, having not played in 3 years left me not knowing a lot about core changes to DOTA, let alone remastered versions of heroes and items tweaks in DOTA 2.  For example,  they gave big hulking Sven an ability that gives every local friendly a mad speed bonus for a short time. It totally took me off guard when him and his whole team bum rushed me. It took me 3 deaths before I figured out why he was so damn fast. There are so many little things one has to keep track of that one might think the game sounds unplayable for new players, but the hurdles for new players are being addressed in some serious ways by Valve and let me tell you, I’m really impressed.

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An open letter to Bioware and EA

by berv

I can’t remember what turned me on to Mass Effect in the first place, but somehow I ended up borrowing an Xbox, buying the game, and proceeding to get utterly lost in the world that lay before me. Adrian Shepard explored every corner of the galaxy, chasing down every last side quest, pursuing each conversation down every possible branch, and mining every single rock on even the most remote of planets. Suffice it to say I was hooked.

When I heard Mass Effect 2 was incoming, I scrambled to prepare, no longer having access to the Xbox I’d begun on. Once more, I recreated the story of Adrian Shepard on PC, down to the tiniest detail, so that the character I had imagined might continue the story. And so we did, enjoying the second chapter even more than the first.

From the moment the last boss went down, I craved closure to the story we had woven together. Mass Effect 3 was little more than two years away, and slated to be released on my birthday, of all days! My anticipation and excitement couldn’t have been more palpable. But as the day drew nearer and nearer my enthusiasm began to fade. “Might not be on Steam?” It would have been nice to have the trilogy in one place, but no biggie. “Requires Origin?” I don’t really have a problem with other distribution platforms; let’s just have a look at the EULA here…

And that’s when my heart sunk.

Read on…

The 2012 IGF Pirate Kart: 323 x 10 Words

by berv

Some months ago, I heard of the Pirate Kart: a collection of quick jams, abandoned projects, works-in-progress, and strange experiments deemed by their creators to be unworthy of entry into the annual Independent Games Festival. Fool that I am, I decided it would be a good idea to play through all 323 entries and attempt to review each of them in exactly ten words.

I’ve since found that expressing anything in ten words is, at its best, a damned challenge, and at its worst, not at all fair to the items under review. Attempting to balance description of the games with my reaction to them while at the same time trying to make the snippets enjoyable to read was quite a challenge that I definitely won’t claim to have overcome. I’d like to apologize in advance to those developers who I haven’t really done justice to and applaud everyone who participated for doing your thing, regardless of how much or how little I might personally have enjoyed it. I also appreciate that many of these games might never have been intended for review and so have tried to curb my snarkiness where possible.

I’d definitely recommend giving the Pirate Kart a try, if only to see sampling of the huge range of work contained within. The best way to appreciate it, I think, is to boot it up, take the random ordering it provides you, and start working down the list until you’ve had enough. Iif you’d prefer a little direction, though I’ve marked a few of the games below that I thought stood out. Games that are bolded and italicized are my top picks, notable in some way that made them clearly stand out from the pack. Games that are simply bolded had some sort of stand-out element and are certainly worth your time, if only to appreciate the idea or it’s potential.

But really, what I’d rather you do is throw yourself against the will of the Pirate Kart and see where you end up. Best of luck.

Reviews follow

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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