2018 In Review

Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, I almost never play games the moment that they come out.  I’m too busy, or I’m in the middle of something else, or (more often than I’d like to admit) I don’t even realize that a game I’m interested in has shipped.  I miss out on a little of the zeitgeist that surrounds the launch of important games, but generally I feel better equipped to analyze (and enjoy!) a title with a little distance.

Here are some of the games I played in 2018.  Not all of them shipped in 2018, but I played them last year so they are 2018 titles to me.  I’ve omitted VR games from this list as I work closely with many of the developers who produced my favorite VR titles this year, and so calling them out seems a little disingenuous.

Interesting Reads

Zero Time Delimma is the third game in the Zero Escape series.  Like its predecessors (999 and Virtue’s Last Reward), it is a puzzle-laden visual novel that operates on a (genius) trick.  This series is the most self-aware video game series I have ever played.  Not only is it built around the way games are actually played, it takes advantage of those patterns in fascinating ways.

Danganronpa 2 and Danganronpa V3Like the Zero Escape series, Danganronpa grew out of the visual novel genre, and alternates between wacky characters and deadly serious murder mysteries.  These games try different approaches to world exploration, but the real magic (and massive frustration) is all in the class trials that reveal the killer behind every murder.  This series has struggled with finding ways to mix mechanical challenges with the long expository sequences common to visual novels, and though it’s not perfect, the story itself carries it through the rough patches.

OK, you’ve got my attention.

MUVLUV Extra.  The jury is still out on this one.  After hearing that Hajime Isayama got the idea for Attack on Titan from a video game, I was determined to figure out what it was.  I was surprised to find out that he was referring to a visual novel series called MUVLUV, specifically MUVLUV Alternative, the third game in a series that started off as an adult visual novel.  These days the naughty bits have been removed and the series ships for consoles and Steam.  The Steam reviews for MUVLUV Alternative are fascinating, with many players with hours and hours of game time on record claiming that the title fundamentally changed their life.  I am not a fan of visual novels (with the massive exception of the two series I just wrote about above, and Kamaitachi No Yoru), but after reading all that my interest was piqued.  Apparently the third game can only be understood after the first two have been completed, so I dove in with the first MUVLUV this winter.

So far the results are pretty disappointing.  MUVLUV Extra is exactly what you would expect from the visual novel genre: you play as a high school boy who must select one of his busty classmates (all of which are secretly in love with him) as his mate.  The writing is funny and the characters are not entirely one dimensional, but yep, it’s a visual novel dating game with no hint of turning into something more.  I’ll report back after I’ve finished the other two games in the series.  Fingers crossed this time investment pays off.

Doki Doki Literature Club is a parody of what MUVLUV Extra is exactly, with some fun twists and a couple of super great puzzles.  It’s free and you should play it.  It takes a little too long to become interesting, but stick with it.

Horror Games

World of Horror.  A Japan-themed game that looks like an old B&W Mac game?  This is so, so my jam.

White Day is a remake (by the original director) of a 2001 Korean horror game by the same name.  These days it’s cleaned up nice and you can play it on a PC or PS4.  It’s exactly the kind of game I want to play (and pretty similar to the types of games I want to make), but suffers from a punishing stealth system that blocks all progression for hours at a time.  Meh.

Yomawari 2.  It’s exactly like Yomawari, which I adored.  These games do not care about you.  You will die.  Don’t let the cute RPG art style fool you.  These games are out for blood.

DetentionA Taiwanese side scroller horror game that is a) super scary and b) super interesting.  Exactly the combination I am looking for in an horror game.  Play this.

The Evil Within. My entire review of The Evil Within is summed up by this screenshot of a bird with a collectable item on its back standing in the middle of the air where the item cannot be collected.

The Evil Within 2. Much better than its predecessor.  Some really nice scenes.  Story doesn’t matter.  Too long.

Stories UntoldA series of interactive puzzles that, over time, become a single narrative.  The presentation quality is top notch (if a little too Stranger Things) and the puzzles themselves are pretty fun (I liked the text adventure the best).

Other Good Stuff

Thimbleweed Park. A great adventure game by the guy who invented adventure games.  So many lovely modernizations and little innovations to fans of the genre.

VirginiaLots of game designers secretly wish they were film directors, but  this is probably the first time I’ve played a game that actually is (pretty much) a film.  Super interesting approach.  I wonder if this style is repeatable.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Amazing achievement in the history of video games.  The first Zelda game I have ever enjoyed.

Hidden My Game By Mom 3.  This is what your phone was made for.

2018 Game of the Year

These last three fucking doughnuts are going to kill me.

The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.  The first release from SWERY’s new studio is a queer platformer in which the protagonist has to intentionally hurt herself by jumping into spinning blades and setting herself on fire in order to progress.  Like all SWERY games, the mechanical challenges (which are good and hard) yield new story details, which in turn make the level mechanics more interesting.  One of the best bits is the story reveal mechanism itself: you learn about the protagonist and her friends by reading text messages on her phone, complete with stamps, memes, and emoji.  Add in some Twin Peaks dream talking and puzzles that involve rolling around as a decapitated head and you’ve got a title that is fun, weird, and thought provoking.

Searching South Korea for Obscure Horror Games in 90 Minutes

The directions on my phone said that I should take Exit 4 out of the subway, turn left at the light, and continue through a commuter tunnel (which, from the picture, looked a bit dank, the way we used to use that word before it was about drugs or memes).  I would emerge before a giant billboard positioned above a squat door that was the only entry to my destination.  From there my online guide assured me that I would descend into a sprawling network of hallways where video game treasures, both contemporary and obscure, could be purchased for a song.  I was on my way to Video Game Alley, Seoul’s premier electronic entertainment emporium / basement.

I glanced at my watch.  I had abandoned my family in a Western-style department store owned by a chewing gum company, skipped lunch, and spent the better part of an hour navigating color-coded subway lines until I managed to arrive at Sinyongsan Station.  I had just under an hour and a half to find this flea market of dreams and get back to my hotel in time to catch a taxi to the airport, ideally reuniting with my wife and children at some point before I left the country.

As I climbed the steps of Exit 4 I mulled over the potential consequences screwing this up.  If I got lost I would miss my flight, then miss our subsequent connecting flight in Tokyo, which would almost certainly wreck the ensuing trip to the countryside my in-laws had planned for us.  The cascade of failure events wouldn’t end there–my programmer brain decided that, depending on how badly my luck went, there were plausible scenarios in which I would be renounced by my family and forced to live as a vagrant.  I speak no Korean whatsoever, my destination was a vague sequence of directions, and my only means of communication a rapidly-dying phone with 2G international roaming.  On the butterfly effect scale I rated this outing A Sound of Thunder.

Still, I’d already come this far.  Besides, I was on a mission: I’d learned of an ultra-obscure, South Korea-only survival horror PS2 game (from fellow horror enthusiast / broken person @Grendesu) called Mystic Nights, and I had to have it.  I’ve trawled Akihabara and Den Den Town, the street markets in Hong Kong and the night markets in Taiwan, looking for weird, obscure video games, and these days it is rare to come across something in this genre that is entirely unknown to me.  But Mystic Nights was something new, something I wasn’t going to find on Amazon, something worth searching for.  It might be a terrible game, but the only way to find out for sure was to delve into this subterranean cavity of electronic entertainment.

To my dismay, Exit 4 looked nothing like the photos attached to my guide.  Worse, the subsequent directions didn’t make sense: there was no light to go left at, no commuter tunnel.  I was standing in the middle of a major business thoroughfare which was definitely way too modern and swank to accommodate a dingy nerd den.  The blog I had sourced for this trip was only eight months old, but apparently the entire Sinyongsan area had been rebuilt in that time (such is the rate of growth in Seoul these days, I guess).  If I had a mechanical watch I would have been able to feel the minute hand moving.

I don’t know exactly how I figured out which way to go.  Maybe it was my programmer brain, debugging the problem in the background while I stood around looking like an idiot for ten minutes.  Maybe it was my rising level of panic.  Whether asynchronous problem solving or panic-induced adrenaline, it somehow dawned on me that the subway exits had been renumbered.  This lead me to another exit, the True Exit 4, which linked up to a pedestrian tunnel (which was nothing like the photo, but I was running out of options fast), which deposited me at the edge of a broad intersection that looked like it might be seedy enough to conceal a sanctum of digital entertainment.

And there I stopped. This is where my sherpa blog fell silent.  Rows of sketchy vendors selling decrepit flip phones by the pound stretched down the street before me.  The key landmark in this area, a giant Playstation billboard, was nowhere to be seen.  To my right a man was selling printers of all shapes and sizes, similar only in that each was built before the invention of USB.  He had them stacked like skulls at the border of his stall.

I had just under 60 minutes.  Half that, my programmer brain warned me, to account for the train ride back my hotel.

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indy, hot on the trail of the Holy Grail, has to take a leap of faith into a deep underground cavern.  He steps into space and comes down unexpectedly upon a stone bridge that is hidden in plain sight.  The stone color of the bridge is so similar to the chasm below it that it is nearly invisible until the camera pans across the scene and it is revealed by the power of parallax.  Wishing I felt/looked more like Harrison Ford, I extended my foot over the edge of the curb and stepped forward towards the flip phone vendors.

If you’re ever in South Korea and need old games, this guy will hook you up.

The billboard, it turned out, was right in front of me.  It had been stripped of its Playstation advertisement and stood naked against the side of the building, identifiable only by the thin metal frame that surrounded it.  Nestled below it, as promised by the outdated blog post to which I had pinned my dreams and possibly my future, stood a little unmarked door.

Video Game Alley is less of an alley and more like a narrow hallway, a gauntlet of five-foot stalls holding tables jam-packed with plastic game boxes.  At 1 PM on a weekday it was deserted.  Many of the stalls were empty, covered in black cloth.  In a few, middle aged women snoozed in their chairs, barely visible behind great stacks of CD cases.  I was the only customer in the entire place.

I found a stall that sported both PS2 games and a conscious proprietor and made a bee line for it.  It was immediately apparent that neither of us spoke a word of each other’s language, but I was able to communicate my goal via the universal tongue of pointing at a picture on my cell phone.  This guy didn’t have Mystic Nights for sale, but he hurried me over to another stall, threw back the black cloth that market it as closed for business, and began sorting through a massive library of PS2 games.  I ran my finger along the opposite side of the stack, desperately trying to remember what the Hangul for Mystic Nights looks like.

I could tell you about finding the game, waiting for the man to call the owner of the closed stand, and paying about $30 for it.  I could tell you about how the middle aged women all woke up and stared as I left with my prize, probably wondering what single game could drive a clueless tourist into their domain.  I could tell you that, as I left Video Game Alley, I realized that the massive Yongsan Station is literally across the street.  I could tell you about getting home, booting Mystic Nights, and playing for about ten minutes before consigning it to the pile of unfinished horror games that I keep telling myself I will complete someday.

But instead I will tell you this: after I deciphered the train fare, after I made my way back to the station near my hotel, after I collected our bags and found a seat in the lobby, I looked at my watch.  I had made it back to our rendezvous point with ten minutes to spare.  I pulled Mystic Nights out of its bag and looked at the case, turned it over in my hands.  It wasn’t just an obscure video game.  It was victory.

I Hope This Is Not Chris’s Blood

Everybody likes a good voice acting joke.  Part of the charm and legacy of Resident Evil has always been its terrible (and terribly-delivered) lines.  We’ve been laughing about Jill sandwiches and masters of unlocking for two decades.

I used to wonder how those lines made it into production in an otherwise high-end (and generally well-translated) game.  Perhaps there were no native English speakers involved with the VO production? Maybe the team just didn’t care?  In some deep trench in my brain, beyond the reach of my skepticism filter, a little whisper wondered if the poor voice acting in the original Resident Evil might have been intentional.  Could the latent ridiculousness of that entire series perhaps be the product of design and not just a reflection of American media in a warped Japanese mirror?

This entire train of thought jumped the tracks when I started adding voice acting to my own games.  The answer was suddenly very clear: good voice acting in video games is hard!  Like, really hard!  It’s hard to write good dialog, it’s hard to find (and direct) a good actor, it’s hard to make a 3D game character emote in a believable way while playing a sound file that is supposed to be words coming out of their mouth.  If you’re not careful, there could be a massive delay between the writing of the script, the recording of the dialog, and the actual integration of the recording into the game.  By the time you figure out it’s not working very well, it might be too late (or too expensive) to change.

It was with more than a little trepidation that I approached voice acting for DEAD SECRET CIRCLE.  I had fun writing the dialog system itself, but found the prospect of getting lines recorded daunting.  With text, I can noodle on the word selection or the speed at which information is released to the player all the way up until the launch of the game.  But with voiced dialog, I had to commit to my own writing a lot earlier than I wanted to.  My fear that the actual words would sound lame once played in the game was unassuageable.  Nothing destroys the mood in a horror game faster than a poorly-delivered line.

Finally I did the sensible thing and turned to an expert for help.  I called my good friend and fellow narrative game design geek David Chen.  David wrote the story and ran production for Narcosis, and he’s quite the veteran when it comes to dialog and voice production (look for his name in the credits of any recent Metal Gear Solid game), so I asked him to handle recording and editing for DEAD SECRET CIRCLE.

David sliced into my text like a surgeon removing a tumor.  Editing for vocal performance seems to be a completely different skill from editing for readability. He inserted strategic ellipses, added notes about emphasis and context, and removed weird words that nobody actually says out loud to convert my ~300 lines of dialog into an actual script.  We recorded the entire game over the course of two days, using actors and a (fantastic) engineering team David sourced.  This was the point at which I had to finally let go of my dialog and let it get chiseled into stone.  I was thankful to have an expert to run the session for me.

Something weird happened over the course of the recording: my dialog took on a life of its own.  I have read these lines to myself in my head a thousand times, but coming out of the actor’s mouths they suddenly sounded different.  The performances were stellar, but it was more than that.  These weren’t my words anymore–I was hearing the voice of my characters.  The sensation was very strange, a sort of deja vu, like seeing your reflection wink.  I guess this probably happens to script writers all the time, but it was a first for me.

After recording wrapped the lines were cut up into files, integrated into the game, and hooked up to animation, and we saw our completed characters for the first time just a few weeks before the game was scheduled to be released.  The result was shockingly better than I had anticipated, even though we’d had placeholder VO integrated for months.  Now that the game is out and we can see the reaction of real players, I feel even better about how the dialog, VO, and character animation came together.

But it could have gone the other way.  Dialog recording always comes late in the project development cycle because there are just too many other parts of a game that need to be operational before the final script can be decided upon.    Dialog recording is expensive and time-consuming to redo, and yet the overall quality of the finished scene can’t be properly assessed until all of the lines are in place.  I wonder if bad voice acting in otherwise high-end games is the result of time pressure more than anything else.  Maybe by the time those games realized that something was wrong it was simply too late to change.

Many thanks to the actors that made Dead Secret Circle’s characters come alive: Deena Odelle Hyatt, Clifton S. Romig, Gwen Loeb, Regina Morones, Charles Parker, Anna XL Wong, and Jeff Mattas, not to mention our amazing audio engineers and sound designers Chris Colatos and Michael Cox.

Finding the Path Through Walking Simulators

I wonder, did they assign chapter and verse to the stones and grasses, marking the geography with a superimposed significance; that they could actually walk the bible and inhabit its contradictions?
– Dear Esther

As a game developer interested in the mechanics of storytelling within my chosen medium, I have found myself fascinated with the genre known, somewhat pejoratively, as walking simulators.  These are titles that have traded away nearly all of the inner mechanisms of video games, the cranks and belts and springs, to focus on story above all else.  These are vehicles for narrative, although as vehicles they are more like the cab of a roller coaster than an automobile.  There is no gear to engage, no gas pedal to depress, and certainly no race to win.  In a walking simulator you simply move forward through the story until you reach the end.  The folks who coined the term by which the genre is now named intended it to sound boring, as if walking is the most mundane activity you could possibly engage in.  But the term has stuck, probably because it captures the core design tenet of this genre: it’s not what you do, it’s where you do it.

A more accurate (but less punchy) label for this genre might be “exploring characters as space.”  Most of the titles I’ve played in this genre present a beautiful environment for the player to explore, but the real topic of investigation is the inner lives of the characters in the story.  The environment is a 3D interactive expression of those characters and their relationships, though at a glance it might look like Ye Olde Haunted House, The Abandoned Space Station, The Destroyed City, or any number of other common video game locales.  In Gone Home, the unlocking of an abandoned Oregon home is also an unearthing of the lives of its residents.  In Here They Lie, we are perhaps threading our way not through a bombed-out city, but through a ruined consciousness.  What Remains of Edith Finch goes as far as to assign unique rooms to each of its mysteriously missing characters.

The mapping of physical space to narrative space is easy to understand.  Video games have good, mature systems for navigating physical spaces.  We all know how to WASD our way through a first-person doorway, or drive our perspective through a landscape by rotating the right analog stick.  The idea of the walking simulator is to use the systems of navigation originally built for shooters to deliver narrative.  In a book you read a sentence, in a game you walk down a hallway.  In virtual space, what’s the difference?

The problem that these titles face is pacing.  An author writing a book knows that their work will be consumed linearly, starting at the first page and ending at the last, and it’s up to them to decide how quickly the events of the story unfold.  Less than four paragraphs ago I described walking simulators as roller coasters, but a book or short story is actually a better fit for that metaphor.  There are ups and downs, anticipation and thrills, but ultimately the reader is not in control.  They are traversing a track that the author has laid.

Choice is a fundamental aspect of modern video games.  Not all games have meaningful choices, but most at least attempt to give the illusion of choice.  It might be as simple as deciding to visit the room on the left before the room on the right, even if both must eventually be visited for the story to continue.  One of the key challenges of the walking simulator is deciding how much flexibility to give the player.

Many titles deal with dilemma by trying to separate choices from traversal.  If the story has been mapped to 3D space and, in the interest of drama, we want to control its pacing, the traversable field must be narrow.  Firewatch has a (fantastic) dialog system that presents interesting choices that are mostly decoupled from the space.  Tacoma integrates dialog directly into traversal by providing the player with recordings of conversations that move through space.  Asemblance features a small set of memories that the player visits over and over, finding new ways to interact with them at each visit.  SOMAHere They Lie, and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (arguably the forefather of the modern walking simulator genre) all include stealth and escape sequences.  Still, these titles are traversal-heavy and activity-light.

I think this is a very delicate balance for these games to tread.  On the one hand, walking simulators are built on the theory that the narrative can carry the player though to the end.  On the other hand, the medium that has been chosen to express this narrative is one that is intrinsically interactive.  There’s a sliding scale of interaction here, where increasing the player’s ability to affect the world decreases the author’s ability to control the delivery of the narrative (and, consequently, its impact).  This approach also puts all of the engagement weight on the story.  While other genres can supplement game mechanics for story to keep a player engaged, walking simulators cannot.  What Remains of Edith Finch tries to solve this by changing the traversal (and therefore narrative expression) mechanics with a series of vignettes, but most games in this genre live and die by their narrative’s hook.

It’s interesting to compare the walking simulator genre to other narrative-first genres, such as the visual novel genre.  Most visual novels are really just Choose Your Own Adventure affairs, with dialog and branching story options and little else.  But recently titles like Danganronpa and the Zero Escape series have shown how this model can be used for something more complicated.  The Zero Escape games, particularly Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma, are just a series of dialog sequences that are glued together with escape rooms.  You listen to a lot of characters talk for a while, then solve some light escape room puzzles, then make a decision.  These titles are just as narrative-focused as the walking simulators, but instead of 3D traversal they’ve put their energy into activities.  What makes them so special is that they explicitly, in the course of the narrative, address the structural requirements of video games: dying and restarting, going back and changing a decision, the illusion of real choice.  This activity-heavy/traversal-light model is also be able to sustain attention for longer: these titles clock in at 20 or 30 hours of play, compared to the 2 ~ 5 hour terms of most walking simulators.

Somewhere in between the walking simulators and the Zero Escape titles are the traversal-heavy/activity-heavy games.  Shenmue is probably the root of this genre, although classic Adventure games and golden age horror games also seem like related influencers.  David Cage’s games fall into this category, as does Until Dawn and Life is Strange.  These are titles with lots of story, lots of dialog, and lots of detailed spaces to explore.  But they also have activities to perform, puzzles to solve, and (occasionally) enemies to defeat.  When they work, these games are amazing.  But they are also exceptionally complicated and expensive, in many ways the antithesis of the simplicity that walking sims value.

I wonder about the space in the middle of this triangle, an area that blends these three extremes.  A linear (?) story, expressed as traversable space, with some sort of activity structure bolted onto it.  Virginia but with escape rooms?  Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture but with puzzles and an inventory?  Would the addition of more activities to the standard walking sim structure devalue the narrative itself, or produce a more engaging result?  Is there a way to balance these competing ideas that doesn’t involve the massive investment required to build something like Until Dawn?

I don’t know the answer, but this is the type of game I’d like to try to make.  I guess you could see Dead Secret Circle as my latest attempt at finding that balance.

A Scarlet Skate

It was with considerable disillusionment that I hit my 30s and discovered that eating whatever I liked and never exercising would no longer result in a consistent weight.  Over the last decade I have switched to computing my mass in kilograms so that the increases can be represented with smaller numerical values.  My diet has improved and the force I exert on the bottoms of my shoes has stabilized, but so far I have had little luck lightening the load.  Perhaps I should not be surprised: I spend my day hunched over a computer screen.  When not hammering a keyboard I am usually driving my children to and fro along HW101, Silicon Valley’s central artery, now so congested that it will almost certainly deliver the Bay Area’s eventual cardiac arrest.

I am lucky enough to live just a few miles from work, and have often considered building some exercise into my commute.  I bought a fold up bike, which is fun to ride and has tiny little wheels, but the distance is barely sufficient to break a sweat.  I walked to work a few times, a lone pedestrian threading my way along the concrete network of avenues built only to be passed through and not lingered upon, dodging construction sites and used needles.  Once, on a weekend, my family away at some function, I rollerbladed my way to work, which was fast and exhilarating and only required a small sacrifice of pride.  The rollerblades, however, are bulky and heavy, and require a separate pair of shoes to be carried to the destination.  My commute experiments have too many demerits to deploy as a regular practice.

It was one evening, as I sat at my display (now for leisure rather than work, but in the same bowed position), deeply frustrated with my inability to burn calories reliably, that I chanced upon the Cardiff Skate S1.  This device, a marvel of modern engineering, is a skate that you strap to your regular shoes.  A contemporary version of vintage clamp-on roller skates, rendered in high quality rubber and metal, which costs $139.99.  I immediately pictured myself skating to work, popping the skates off at the door, and casually walking to my desk.  It seemed to me, in that moment, that the Cardiff Skate S1 offered the blend of exercise and convenience that would finally allow me to banish my second chin.  Amazon even had it on sale.cardiff2

I can distinctly remember a period of my youth in which every child in my town held their birthday party at the local roller rink.  It was a dark, low ceilinged building with mustard shag carpet bordering the smooth floor.  A scary old guy would sit at the counter and crack glow sticks for anyone with the guts to approach him.  A row of pinball machines hugged the back wall.  It was the definitive birthday party spot for every kid my age.  At some point the birthday party vogue shifted to a much newer (not to mention better-lit) ice rink, and I went with it.  Oregon in the mid-1980s did not have a wide variety of structured play options to offer parents.

I suppose the decrepit roller rink left an impression.  Nearly three decades later my own children are good skaters.  We get up early to play ice hockey on the weekend, we frequent the inline skating sports center near us, and our garage is now home to a variety of bladed and wheeled foot contraptions.  Somewhere, deep in the withered cellular mass that passes for my calf muscles these days, the memory of how to stay upright with wheels strapped to my feet has persisted.  I am a permanent carrier of a skill virus I picked up trying to learn how to shoot the duck under a mirror ball in the fourth grade.

Despite our family enthusiasm for the skating sports, my wife was skeptical of the Cardiff Skate S1.  First there was the question of safety: did I really want to navigate the concrete tundra that separates our home from my office with wheels strapped to my feet?  Moreover, the three-wheel triangle design of these skates failed to impress her.  “They look lame,” she told me.  She is patient with my white male engineer obliviousness to cool and never even complains about my Prius.  But there are limits, and the S1 obviously crossed the line.  I argued that the convenience of a strap-on skate was worth a tiny shame investment, and anyway I’d be moving so quickly that passers-by would see only a blur as I rocketed down the street.

The Cardiff Skate S1 box was surprisingly heavy, and indeed the skates themselves proved to be industrial strength.  I stowed them in the garage and waited for the weather, my morning meeting schedule, and my stamina to form a syzygy.

cardiff1Finally the day arrived.  I strapped the heavy metal contraptions to my shoes and tooled around the garage.  The skates took some getting used to, particularly the weird double back wheels, which make turning difficult.  But soon enough I was confidentially zig zagging across the concrete floor like an overweight nerd ballerina.  I could almost hear the opening bars of The Nutcracker.  At 8:30 AM I rolled out of the garage and into the street, pointed my toes in the direction of my office, and set off.

I decided to take the most direct route to work, which involves skating on sidewalks rather than in the street.  This proved tougher than I expected.  The large back wheels of the S1 bumped uncomfortably at each gap in the pavement, and I found it difficult to get any sort of regular momentum.  I pushed myself harder, and after a block had almost managed to reach a respectable speed when I realized that I had no idea how to break.  I fumbled to execute a half pivot, which is an easy way to slow yourself on inline skates, and nearly collided with a tree.  When I had regained my composure I remembered that the S1 has a rear break, a strange secret fourth wheel which adds friction when you lean back on your heels.  After testing this a few times I felt confident enough to continue.

It was like skating through mud.  The heavy skates refused to glide, and the only way to reach any sort of interesting speed was to concentrate every leg muscle into every push.  I had travelled only a few blocks and was already drenched in sweat.  About a mile from home blisters on the back of my heel developed and burst all at once.  Despite my discovery of the break I was barely able to keep myself upright, the skill virus in my limbs apparently incompatible with these alien foot wheelbarrows.  I became keenly aware that I was traveling along the street that nearly all my coworkers take to reach our office.  I could feel the cars slow as they passed, perhaps to stare at the logo of my employer that covers the face of my backpack.  It occurred to me that I had perhaps failed to assess the gravity of my wife’s advice.

Halfway to my goal I trundled to a stop.  I was exhausted and clung to a stop sign for support.  My feet felt like they had just returned from an unfortunate date with a weed whacker.  My face was burning, both from the excessive physical requirements of the Cardiff Skate S1 and the immense shame known only to those who suffer the consequences of their own incredibly poor decisions in public.  I had been wrong, totally and completely wrong, more wrong than I can recall having been ever before.

There was nothing for it.  I sucked in my gut, gathered up my Hawthorne shame, and started back towards home.

Resident Evil 7

feature-influenceI gave an IGDA talk a few years ago about the horror genre’s roots in Adventure games.  You can draw a line of influence, I argued, from Colossal Cave Adventure and King’s Quest all the way through modern titles like Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  This line, which crosses through all of the survival horror classics, is best understood in terms of feature iteration: each new derivation adds new features and drops some of the traits of its predecessors, and the rest stays the same.  Resident Evil is an iteration of Alone in the Dark which added item rationing, inventory management, and puzzle interfaces to the formula.  Alone in the Dark itself was an iteration of early Graphic Adventure games like Maniac Mansion that added real-time combat and third-person player-centric control to the mix.  Like Y-Chromosome DNA tracing, we can understand the lineage of these games by following the addition and removal of features to the core design over time.  If you’re interested in this idea, you can download my slides from this talk.

Looking at game design this way, at the mutation of a core feature set over time, reveals some interesting patterns.  One thing I learned was that horror games reached “peak complexity” with Resident Evil 4.  Resident Evil 4 has nearly every feature of its predecessors and a few more to boot.  Part of what made that title so outstanding, and so difficult to duplicate, was the shear volume and intricacy of its game systems.  After Resident Evil 4, popular horror games tended to shed more features than they added.  Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and Slender were all part of a new wave that removed as many design features as possible, starting with combat.  The Resident Evil titles went the other direction, adding features and game modes until they became top-heavy and nonsensical.  Unable to find a balance between the various game systems it wanted to include, Capcom duct-taped four mediocre games from different genres together and called it Resident Evil 6.

It is within this context, then, that Resident Evil 7 is something of a revelation.  It is unquestionably the best Resident Evil game since Resident Evil 4 (which is over a decade old now!), and it can easily compete with some of the earlier gems of the series like Code: Veronica.  What is most impressive about Resident Evil 7 is how simple it is.  The game system tropes are all there, but in miniature.  Combat, puzzles, item management, keys items, and locked doors all make an appearance, but only as supporting actors.  The focus is on exploration above all else, and nearly all of the game design effort has gone into making the environment detailed and intimate.  Put in terms of my feature variance chart, Resident Evil 7 is the equivalent of shaving your head, giving up all of your worldly possessions, and becoming a monk.

This is particularly significant for a series known for bombast rather than subtlety.  The over-the-top tentacle creatures and daring helicopter escapes that have been a mainstay of the Resident Evil series for twenty years still make an appearance, but like other hallmarks they have been reduced to a footnote.  The focus in Resident Evil 7 is intimate environments and high fidelity interactions, and in that respect it has more in common with Amnesia than its predecessors.

Indeed, similarities to the seminal PC horror title abound: in addition to being a first-person flashlight crawler with maximum drawer-sifting game play, RE7 forces you to run and hide from relentless, unkillable enemies.  Resident Evil has a history of exceptionally tough and occasionally invincible antagonists designed to knock their superhuman protagonists down to size.  But in RE7, the protagonist is already disempowered, often has no weapons, and his recourse is almost always to run for cover.  And like Amnesia, cover isn’t always easy to find.  There are no Clock Tower-style pre-determined hiding spots: you just cower behind a rotting couch or something and hope that Leatherface’s dad runs out of gas for his chainsaw before he finds you.  This isn’t just a mutation of the core feature set, it’s a significant shift in tone.

grandma

This doesn’t look like a Resident Evil game, and that’s great.

Resident Evil 7 is a contemporary horror game that is hyper aware of the other players in its genre.  In addition to Amnesia, we can see clear influence from P.T., primarily in the awesome playable videotape system, which is used to foreshadow areas the player will subsequently explore.  P.T. was also the obvious influencer of Capcom’s early Kitchen demos (which displayed a VR scene using RE7 settings and characters without revealing the connection to the RE license), as well as the release of a “playable hour” demo six months early.  This is the first Resident Evil to flirt with an etherial, supernatural antagonist (before eventually, and somewhat awkwardly, tying everything back to yet-more-corporate-bioweapons), which has become a common conceit in modern indie horror.  And it’s the first Resident Evil to include complex, multi-step escape-the-room style puzzles (most obviously in the form of Lucas’ birthday cake puzzle).  I wonder if this title features a scary version of the folk song Go Tell Aunt Rhody because Until Dawn has a scary version of O Death.  For a series that has alternated between radical innovation and dated chunkiness, Resident Evil 7 feels uniquely current.  On the Influence Lineage chart, Resident Evil 7 would appear way down at the bottom, directly descended from modern PC horror design.

It goes without saying that the production quality of Capcom’s latest endeavor is, as usual, exceptional.  What is more interesting to me, and significantly more surprising, is how far down the genre spectrum they were able to move Resident Evil 7 without losing its soul.  Resident Evil 7 is a tight, contemporary game that is designed to modernize the dated trademarks of its predecessors, a task that it executes with significant skill.  It is the rare title that has retained much of its core DNA and yet shed its sequel baggage like a snake discarding its skin.

Until Dawn

untildawn3

The character art in Until Dawn is unbelievably great.

It’s pretty hard to write about Until Dawn. It is probably the highest-end horror game ever made. The art, cinematography, acting, and overall presentation set an exceptionally high standard. In addition to this impeccable production quality the gameplay is pretty great as well. The controls are good and the camera system is a glorious evolution of the best Golden Age horror games. Everything about it is stellar, even the theme song. Until Dawn sets itself apart by choosing the Slasher genre as its story frame (haven’t seen that done well since Clock Tower: The First Fear), and its approach to a branching storyline with significantly different outcomes is its key hook. Any way you look at it, Until Dawn should be a phenomenal horror game. But it’s hard to write about because despite oozing with quality, Until Dawn made me more angry and frustrated than any other game in recent memory.

There’s an Orson Scott Card short story called But We Try Not to Act Like It about a dystopian future in which the government forces constant TV exposure on people they deem to be living on the margins. The protagonist is stuck with a soap opera that he recognizes as the story of Penelope, waiting faithfully for Odysseus to return from certain death.  When the soap veers from the archetype the protagonist has a nervous breakdown and eventually kills himself.

Hiram stood transfixed, watching the screen.  Penelope had given in.  Penelope had left her flax and fornicated with a suitor! This is wrong, he thought.

This story has been lying somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain for twenty years, but playing Until Dawn hoisted it from the silt.  To explain the connection, and why Until Dawn made me want to bury my Playstation in a hole in the yard, I need to back up a bit.

The key feature of Until Dawn is its branching storyline.  Decisions that you make can have consequences later in the game, and there are so many choices that there are hundreds of ways that the story could end.  Until Dawn goes out of its way to explain this to you.  It introduces the Butterfly Effect concept in its introductory movie and lets you know every time a branch has been selected.  Characters even refer to the idea in the game’s dialog.  It’s really, really important that you understand that your choices lead to different outcomes.

This is especially true because Until Dawn uses a “fail and continue” model of storytelling.  You never restart a sequence to try again.  If you mess up the story just moves on.  Until Dawn does a good job keeping the story cohesive even when characters die at unexpected times or discover optional story details.  If you didn’t know that the game was built around branching you might not even realize that a decision had been made.

There’s precedent for that kind of mistake: Beyond: Two Souls attempted a similar branching system and failed miserably.  In that game the decisions you make are almost always implicit, and as a result the connection between your actions and later events is unclear.  Many people played Beyond and thought it was a absolutely linear story game.  The Until Dawn developers clearly understood that their fancy branching decision tree must be very obvious so that players understand that their actions have consequences.

untildawn1

The Butterfly Effect guarantees that your skill in decision making is meaningless.

The problem with this model is that it doesn’t actually give the player control over the outcome of the game.  The whole point of the Butterfly Effect is that you cannot predict the consequences of an action.  In Until Dawn, decisions range from ominous (“stick with the group or venture out on your own?”) to mundane (“go left or go right?”) and there’s no way to guess what the effect will be.  Unlike other games with highly branching stories (such as Virtue’s Last Reward, which actually shows you the tree and lets you jump between branches), you cannot easily experiment with a decision before electing to move forward with it. As a result, the decisions are almost entirely meaningless.  Since you can’t predict the outcome there’s no point in thinking about the decision itself.  Go left or go right, it doesn’t matter.  Whatever is going to happen is going to be arbitrary and unpredictable, so you might as well flip a coin.  Your ability to make good, rational choices is not a very valuable asset in Until Dawn.

The reason to do it this way, I think, is to encourage replays.  Sure, the decisions are unpredictable, but if you chose left last time and choosing right this time leads to a significantly different outcome, that’s pretty cool, right?  Maybe you should play it over and over again and see how the outcomes change depending on your coin flips.

The major drawback to this model is that it completely guts any power the story might have had.  A horror game needs you to be invested in its characters so that you’ll be scared for them when you play.  But your favorite character could be killed at any time, and you might not even understand the conditions that lead to that death.  Until Dawn makes the point over and over again that nobody is safe, any of these people could die, and that you can’t go back and fix it.  Rather than making you work harder to protect them, this turns the characters into disposable nobodies.  Your control of the story is obfuscated across a thousand decision points.  Even if you try you cannot ensure the safety of these people.  So you stop caring about them.

Contrast this with Life is Strange, which uses a very similar branching system (right down to similar Butterfly Effect iconography).  The difference between these two titles is that Life is Strange’s decisions usually have a nearly immediate result, and if you don’t like how it turns out you can rewind time and try it again.  At a few specific points Life is Strange asks you to make bigger decisions that can’t be so easily undone.  But when it does this, it makes the potential consequences of each choice clear.  Decisions are hard in Life is Strange not because of the law of unintended consequences, but precisely because you can imagine exactly what might happen.  This may seem like a small tweak on the system proposed by Until Dawn, but in practice the difference is enormous.  Life is Strange was my game of the year last year, and Until Dawn makes me want to crack my controller in half and slit my wrists with the plastic shards.

To be fair, there are a few big decision moments where the immediate result of your decision is obvious.  Will you let a character live or sacrifice him for another?  But even these decisions, while clear in the short term, have unknowable consequences in the long term.  After a while it doesn’t really seem to matter.

untildawn2

Dr. Michael Kaufmann Dr. Alan Hill is my favorite part of Until Dawn.

One of the famous tropes of Slasher films is that they have an implicit moral code.  The sexually active teens are sluts and will die.  The arrogant jocks will die.  The most suspicious character will die.  The character who cares for the main character will die, just to show how cruel the psycho killer can be.  This system is so codified that we actually have terms, like Final Girl, to describe it.  But here’s the thing: these films are not trying to preach.  The “moral code” doesn’t exist to teach you that sex is bad, or that jerks will get their comeuppance.  It’s there to telegraph to the audience who they should be rooting for.  It’s a way to identify the protagonist, who will ultimately survive, so that the viewer has something to latch onto and become emotionally invested in.

The problem with Until Dawn is that a branching storyline doesn’t necessarily produce a good story.  If you are emotionally invested in a character who gets killed, you feel bad.  If you don’t identify with the characters then their achievements are meaningless and you feel bad.  You can’t even really take ownership for the story outcome because branching doesn’t actually lead to agency.  Despite making choices left and right, you aren’t really behind the wheel.  I felt more like a rat in a maze, and that’s really the source of my immense frustration with this game.

Until Dawn is a Slasher film in which your Final Girl can die in the last reel.  To make good on the promise of branching and unintended consequences Penelope might give up on Odysseus and choose a suitor, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  The result, at least for some, is a terrible story that makes you feel bad.  And that’s why, despite being exceptionally well-produced and designed for heavy replayability, I never want to play Until Dawn again.

It’s Been Surreal

Surrealist games have it rough. Surrealism is about taking your assumptions and twisting them in a way you did not expect. You should come away with the cogs in your head grinding furiously.  The best surreal titles juxtapose the insane with the mundane to show you their contrast and, if you’re lucky, a startling similarity or two.  But to do this, to startle you and make you think, the surrealist title has to defy your expectations.  It has to tell you it’s one thing and then be another.  And in the world of video games, where titles are sold on trailers and box art and numerical review scores, that’s a rough spot to be in.

here-they-lie-1You can’t sell a game on surrealism.  It doesn’t work if you go in expecting some weird-ass shit.  Metal Gear Solid 2 is a surreal game, but you don’t sell it by talking about the part where the President of the United States grabs the protagonist’s crotch, or the part where the mini-map is replaced by a pin-up model, or the part where the game tells you to turn the PS2 off.  You sell it as a stealth military action game and then you let the weird stuff seep in in the second half, when the innocent player is already invested and doesn’t realize he’s about to have his assumptions challenged.  You sell it as a game about a white dude shooting masked terrorists so that you can pay the bills.  The surreal stuff has to be surprising.  You gotta ease them into it.  And still they’ll say that Metal Gear Solid 2 is the worst Metal Gear because it makes no sense.

I played two surreal horror games this year, Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby.  I played both in VR, and VR has a lot to do with the way those games operate, but  for today I’m going to ignore that aspect.  Oh, and, full disclosure: I worked with the Albino Lullaby team on their Oculus Rift version, which launched earlier this year.

Both Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby received mediocre reviews, and I think that’s mostly because they are just too weird for the mainstream crowd.  There are legitimate complaints as well, of course: both titles are sickening for some people in VR (but not for me), Here They Lie has some problems with the fidelity of its graphics, and both are mechanically very simple (no combat, no items, minimal puzzles, some stealth).  But I think the real complaint here is that these games appear to be building towards some narrative conclusion and then, part way through, take a left turn to Weirdville and never come back.  They are designed to make you think after the game machine has been shut off, and that’s not generally what the mainstream review system values.

Here They Lie starts out looking like it’s going to be a scary walking simulator with some enemies and a bit of stealth.  From the beginning, it’s clear that there is more going on than what appears on the screen.  In fact, the game goes out of its way to use color contrast to highlight the idea that the world is not what it appears to be.  But then Here They Lie takes a turn and drops you in the a city of people with animal heads.  If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that the enemy design is pretty Freudian, and that raises questions about who exactly you are playing as. But if you aren’t paying much attention you probably just think the freaky animal people are some weird shit in a horror game.  Eventually the twists get more dramatic, and if you didn’t think much of the breathing subway tunnel then the flying space mandala is almost certainly going to seem like it came out of nowhere.  The “problem” with Here They Lie is that it’s asking a lot of the player, and as a surreal game it’s not about to make any of the answers easy.

albinoAlbino Lullaby is thematically a completely different beast.  It uses a crazy, tongue-in-cheek art style that looks more like the box art for a ’80s direct-to-video horror flick than a surrealist video game.  Albino Lullaby is more straightforward with its narrative too, and you can easily play it with your brain on autopilot.  That is, of course, until you find something that gives the weirdness meaning, and makes it more horrible than it was before.  Despite its bombastic style, there’s a method to Albino Lullaby’s madness, and the clearer the truth becomes the more thought it requires.  If it sounds like I’m speaking in vague generalities here, it’s because I am: it’s very hard to talk about this title without undoing it.  Suffice it to say that Albino Lullaby is a level designer’s game, with crazy architecture that is surprising and occasionally genius.  But under the hood, the real meat of the title is its surrealist, dreamlike quality, and its penchant for posing uncomfortable questions without providing answers.

Both of these titles sell themselves as horror games with unique visual styles.  And that’s what they are.  But that pitch doesn’t prepare you for what Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby are really up to, and I think some players come away surprised and confused.  They were expecting some spooky monster shenanigans and ended up with cryptic meditations on the structure of consciousness and the complicity of victims in abusive relationships instead.  They expected the latest Stephen King novel but got Fyodor Dostoevsky.

But that’s how it has to be.  You can’t sell Here They Lie on space mandalas.  If you did, it would be expected and would cease to be thought provoking.  The whole point is to subvert the player’s expectations.  But some players don’t like that.  Some aren’t ready for it.  Some were just looking for a way to relax on a Friday night with a beer.  And those folks aren’t interested in the dramatic difficulty of what Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby are attempting to do.

I’m telling you, surrealist games have it t

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Back in 1995

“These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” — William Gibson, Johnny Mnemonic

If you’re an indie developer, making a pixel art game is pretty attractive.  First and foremost, it’s pretty cheap and easy to develop, at least in terms of art production.  A one-man-band dev can put together an 8-bit game without needing a lot of art skills.  As a reductive art it allows the designer to evoke imagery that might be much harder to produce with a more complex style.

But the main appeal of the pixel art game is surely nostalgia.  I had an interesting conversation with Raph Koster a few years back in which he commented that indie pixel art games seemed to mostly be about the childhoods of their authors.  That’s not a value judgement, but I think some indie devs I know would have responded to that classification poorly.  To them, they are working in a style, in a format, and are not intrinsically limited in their message.  I suspect Raph would side with Marshall McLuhan on this one.

1995

Do you remember this? I do.

Back in 1995 is a different type of retro indie game.  Though it still seeks to evoke nostalgic imagery through a retro art style, it doesn’t use pixel art.  Rather, Back in 1995 goes to great lengths to recreate PS1-style graphics on your modern PC.  Low poly environments, fixed-point texture projection warping, and a full-screen CRT effect that looks like NTSC interlacing.  Back in 1995 even emulates the polygon cracking common on mid-90s consoles.  The style extends to the game play as well: the protagonist walks slowly, rotates in place even more slowly, and wields his weapons as if in slow motion.  It’s a style that seeks to replicate full 3D games of the era, and reminded me particularly of Silent Hill and Overblood.

As a retro game, Back in 1995 is pretty different than its pixel art counterparts.  It’s not an easy style to strike.  When I talked to developer Takaaki Ichijo last year, we discussed the technical challenges of pulling off this look in a modern engine.  He ended up working directly with some of the folks at Unity to achieve the visuals he was going for.  And even with simple geometry, the camera cut, 3D motion, and collision detection requirements of these sorts of games are deceptively complicated.  This is not a style that one selects in order to cut cost.

Looking at reviews on Steam, it seems that most of the complaints about Back in 1995 are that it is short and the game play is simplistic.  And that’s true–if you’re expecting to play something of the scope of Resident Evil, you’re going to be disappointed.  Back in 1995 last a few hours, and during that time it hits on many of the important patterns that were common to games of that era, but it is not particularly lengthy, challenging, or deep.

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CRT scan and NTSC color interlacing in full effect.

But then again, that’s not the point.  Speaking of Marshall McLuhan, the purpose of Back in 1995 is to make you remember what that era was like, warts and all.  The medium is the message: Back in 1995 simultaneously tickles that nostalgic nerve while reminding you how clunky many of those titles were.  PS1 full 3D games have not aged well, and Back in 1995‘s main message is that we shouldn’t always view the past with rose-tinted spectacles. The game mechanics and story are secondary to that main point: the developer loves this sort of game but he has no illusions about living in the past.  In a world of retro games that warship at the alter of a bygone era, Back in 1995′s perspective is refreshing.

The game ends, and then it doesn’t, and then the developer shows up to talk about the work.  It’s definitely worth playing all the way through.  For $10 you could do a lot worse than this experiment in the value of nostalgia.

 

 

Virtual Haunted Houses

My daughter, a second grader, loves ghosts and zombies and Halloween.  We read Grimm fairytales together and she is now old enough to enjoy films like Ghostbusters.  It is to my considerable delight that she is not easily phased by the macabre.

This place is legit.

But last summer I made the mistake of taking her to a haunted house in Eiga-mura, a theme park in Kyoto that looks like a samurai movie film set.  Almost every haunted house I’ve ever been to has been something of a disappointment, but this one was incredibly well done.  It’s a bit like stepping into a Fatal Frame level, complete with dilapidated tori gate and women with long hair in white funeral garb.  It was way scarier than I expected, and way beyond what a reasonable parent should expose a second-grader to.  My daughter lost it after the first jump scare and I had to carry her the rest of the way.  A significant investment in ice cream was made immediately thereafter.

The most effective thing about the Eiga-mura haunted house is that it is free of hokey animatronics and plastic skeletons.  It’s dark, it has a well-made set, and it employs actual humans to run up behind you and scream bloody murder.  This is like the ultimate pop-out scare because it’s literally a person popping out of a hidden door, dressed in all sorts of scary makeup, yelling at the top of their lungs.  I don’t care how stone cold you think you are, that shit is startling.

I was reminded of this parenting fail the other day while playing some horror games in VR.  Since Dead Secret is a VR game, I’ve spent some time playing other VR horror titles to see what the state of the industry is like.  Most of these games are just experiments, little vignettes designed to explore one aspect of VR horror.  I like the way Dreadhalls plays with perception by moving things when you aren’t looking at them.  I like how Alone forces you to focus on one spot and then makes sure you know things are happening behind you.  And Alien: Isolation was the VR experience that convinced me that the medium had finally arrived.

Pretty much just like this.

But a lot of the horror games I’ve seen in VR boil down to virtual versions of that haunted house in Kyoto.  A convincing environment that you wander through, followed by a screaming monster that comes out of nowhere and gets all up in your face.  Some of these “virtual haunted houses” are really well done in terms of art and sound production.  A few of them even try to do interesting things to ratchet the tension up before the inevitable jump scare.  And if you had any questions about the effectiveness of this sort of scare, there are a thousand YouTube videos of people screaming their guts out.  If you want to make a virtual haunted house, now’s the time.

Maybe I’m a jaded cynic, but I find all of these virtual haunted house games to be terrifically boring.  I thought about it for a while, and I think the main reason is that there’s just nothing to them beyond the immediate experience.  Like a real haunted house there is no story, no characters, nothing to really work the brain.  Just dark hallways and women with bleeding eyes lunging from the occasional nook or cranny.  To me, this is the simplest, safest form of horror you could possibly make.  These titles remind me of the types of games Richard Rouse III has called “empty calories,” the interactive equivalents of junk food.  While satisfying in the short term, they have no real value or longevity.  They don’t tackle the problems that make horror a difficult genre to do well.

With so many developers now working on horror projects in VR, I wish that more of them would tackle those hard problems.  Haunted houses are great, but they are short, shallow affairs.  Given the powerful feeling of presence that VR affords, it seems like a missed opportunity to use it for pop-out scare factories.