My Favorite Sandbox

Suddenly beset by an unusual amount of free time, I had an urge to recapture a little magical chunk of my youth during the remaining months of my pre-career life. Using only $5.99 on Good Old Games.com and a nifty application called Winebottler, I made my past dreams a present reality – I’m able to play Roller Coaster Tycoon again.

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Just beat Leaf Lake with this fabulous park, holding a company value of $175,000

Whenever I’m asked to choose my favorite game of all time, I usually end up picking RCT. Whenever I’m asked to pick a single game to play for the rest of my life, I always pick RCT. I could write and talk forever about why RCT is absolutely amazing in essentially every regard. If you haven’t noticed, it’s the banner at the top of my blog, and will always remain there. I could even make an argument for why it’s one of the best games of all time. That discussion, however, is inherently extremely subjective and I would be heavily biased in promoting RCT. I just have too long of a history playing the game. Instead of doing that, I’m going to focus on one particular genre: I believe Roller Coaster Tycoon is the best sandbox game of all time.

That claim is easier to defend than “best overall game”, but there is nonetheless one looming opponent to defeat. Namely, this one:

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Less of a sandbox, more of a desert

Hold on, you have no idea what that is. Let’s zoom in a bit.

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Lifelike graphics are so yesterday

Minecraft! The gargantuan behemoth of a game that has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide and has over 40 million monthly players. It has education applications that span grade levels and has inspired educators on the national level. It has been under continual revision since its inception in 2009 and reached massive new mobile audiences after Microsoft purchased the game for $2.5B in 2014. It is the epitome of a sandbox game, allowing complete freeform manipulation of the truly unreasonably large map.

And somehow I’m going to argue that Roller Coaster Tycoon is a better sandbox game.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft. I joined moderately late in the game during my junior year of high school and basically spent the second semester of my senior year constantly playing. I’ve fought zombies and skeletons, built four-story victorian mansions, and farmed wheat and sugarcane from sunup to sundown and back again. Yet whenever I’ve tried to get back into the game after years of not playing, I can’t get hooked again.

During my early days of Minecraft, there was magical wonder-dust sprinkled throughout the whole game. I climbed every mountain and spelunked every cave with the burning desire to know what was around the corner. Would I look down upon gently sloping plains or a massive verdant rainforest? Would the next corner reveal diamonds? A bottomless pit? A zombie right in my face? Everything was new and shiny and surprising and wonderful. On the sandbox side, there is an endless ladder of construction rungs to climb. You want diamonds? First you have to chop down a tree to make a pickaxe to mine some stone to make a better pickaxe to mine some coal to make some torches to go deeper down the caves to find iron to make an even better pickaxe… You get the idea. Just about every block of the world is usable and even necessary for some pursuit.

There comes that moment in playing Minecraft, however, when you suddenly look up bleary-eyed at the clock that now reads 4:31AM and wonder why you just spent eight hours moving virtual blocks around. With all the freedom granted by Minecraft comes a disconcerting openness: challenge and goals and achievement within the game are almost entirely self-determined and self-enforced. Yes, there are achievements granted for picking up new resources. Yes, there is now a “final boss” to defeat to “win the game” that was not present in the early versions of the game. Both of these elements are so secondary to the main mission of the game – do whatever you the heck want – that they feel irrelevant and almost artificially attached.

The “challenge” of Minecraft is not game-like at all. Rather, it is much more similar to gaming’s distant cousins, art and design. The game is effectively a blank canvas. It’s up to you determine what you’re trying to accomplish and to find some meaning in self-defined achievement. Many players have created scale replicas of famous locations and structures both real and fictional, while others create mine track rides or functioning computers out of redstone, the game’s electricity equivalent. The options are, quite literally, endless.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that it makes Minecraft fairly unorthodox when compared to most games, so much so that it’s actually hard to justify calling Minecraft a game. There’s no score, no adversity beyond a few monsters aimlessly walking around, and no meaningful goal. Sandbox? Sure, so much so that at this point Minecraft is the textbook definition of the gaming category. Sandbox Game? That’s harder to claim.

For comparison, I present Roller Coaster Tycoon.

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Your mission, should you choose to accept it – build a bomb-ass amusement park

There’s something very special about the way RCT displays a fresh map. As shown above, you are greeted by a short description of the park and given your objective. That objective is front-and-center, yet easily dismissable and forgettable. If you are the true sandbox sort, just close the goal window and play your own way. The game doesn’t even notify you when you’ve lost; the specified goal time comes and goes without any popup or other announcement. You are 100% free to play at your own pace with personally-defined goals.

If, however, you’re anything like me, it’s hard to turn down a decorated finish line far off in the distance. It’s like running a 5K for charity, but being told that everyone who gets under a certain time wins a prize. If you know you have a shot at winning, why not try your best and see if you can win? To make another comparison, a true sandbox is cooking for yourself. You decide what you want to make and upon completion decide if you did a good job. A sandbox game is cooking for a friend or customer who says “surprise me.” You can still cook anything you want, but now there’s a clear metric of success. You’re welcome to ignore that metric; it’s your right as a chef to disregard the customer’s opinion as uncultured, unrepresentative of diners as a whole, or plain wrong. The very presence of that metric, however, will motivate you to perform to the best of your ability.

Building an amusement park in Roller Coaster Tycoon is a lot like cooking a meal for this metaphorical friend. Essentially every park requires you to build a “good” park according to one of a few metrics, usually attendance or company value. What’s in a good park, though? Probably a few awesome roller coasters, that’s for sure. Gotta have smaller rides throughout as well. And people need to eat, so we need some food and drink shops. Oh and don’t forget staff or every bench will be smashed and every ride will break down. We need more money? Take out a loan or two and buy some advertising to draw in more customers, and raise park entrance fees but lower ride fees to make sure people keep riding. Good, that worked and our coffers are full; let’s build another roller coaster!

In short, building a “good” park takes a little bit of everything. There are many right ways and many, many wrong ways. That decorated finish line is way, way off in the distance. How you choose to get there is entirely up to you. From that standpoint, RCT is undeniably a sandbox game, containing essentially unlimited choice.

Each different map proposes a different twist on the same essential challenge of building and running a park. Some give you a blank slate, while others have some rides already built, while still others have partially built rides that you have to finish in order to win. Underneath it all is a fairly complex AI governing the action of your guests, from what ride they want to head to next to how likely they are to smash the trash cans and storm out of the park. Building a good rollercoaster requires balancing physics constraints like velocity, vertical Gs and lateral Gs, with economics constraints such as available money and building space. Each component of the game, from finances to scenery to ride construction and placement, is an intricate system that can only be understood via repeated use and study. You need to understand all of them to succeed, and consecutive victory is both thrilling and addictive. Finally, the pride of the sandbox achievement is no less strong. It’s really cool to look at a screen full of intertwining roller coasters and buzzing with people, knowing that it used to be a deserted area full of nothing that you molded into a winning park.

Let’s go back over the checklist. Daunting but simple and technically optional goal set way off in the future? Check. Infinitely complex (essentially unsolvable) underlying subsystems that require trial-and-error to overcome? Check. Full control over park progress, leading to infinite possible avenues of moving forward? Check. Huge collection of maps, each with their own unique spin on the core challenge of the game? Check. Written 99% in machine code????? Check. (Aside – HOLY SHIT. The best comparison I can draw is that Chris Sawyer managed to build a functioning, real-person house out of linkin logs, duct tape, and drink coasters.) Massive replay value? Check. Completing the deluxe version of the game, which has 81 scenarios and a couple extra bonus maps, would take hundreds of hours.

All that for a game from 1999 that you can now get for $5.99. It’s truly miraculous.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to playing in my favorite sandbox.

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Forging a Path – How to Capture Replayability

As luck would have it, the steam summer sale fell in the middle of my awesome vacation. I, therefore, had no time to play any games. Luckily though I managed enough of an internet connection to buy a few and have them waiting for when I got back to America.

One of the games included in my haul this summer was Valdis Story: Abyssal City. The game is listed under the tags Metroidvania, Action, RPG, Platformer, and Indie, so the chance that I wouldn’t at least semi-like it was already slim.

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The art throughout is bright and bold, similar to Dust

In short, I really loved the game. The single best thing I can say is that the game has extreme replayability. As soon as I finished the game the first time (in around 6 hours), I immediately started up another file on a harder difficulty. There are a bunch of reasons for this, all of which symbiotically reinforce the others. First, there are four difficulty levels: normal, hard, veteran, and god slayer. When I first started the game I opted for hard, but found it too challenging and moved to normal. Now I am replaying it on hard and having no difficulty. That leads into the second quality that assists replayability – the game is heavily skill based. Initially I could not even progress through the game on hard, and now on this second try I am flying through it. Third, the RPG element of the game is no pushover. The skill, spell, stat, and alignment systems ensure that you get fairly comprehensive control over your character and reward different play styles. The system, on the whole, is complex enough that you can make mistakes, again ensuring that more experienced players who make smart choices early on have a better chance as the game progresses in difficulty. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, there are four playable characters, each of which is drastically different – entirely different skills and spells, as well as weapon choices and attack patterns. Just because you’ve mastered one character doesn’t mean you’ve figured out the game.

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Each character does have loosely defined attack, defense, and magic skill trees, but even within them the differences start to appear. Because of the system of prerequisites for skills (denoted by connecting lines downwards) it is important to pick skills not only for what they do but for what later skills they help unlock.

Secondly, the game gets a solid B+ for story and an A-/A for visuals and sound. You very quickly begin fighting against both demons and angels, so rest assured that it’s not a standard you’re good/you’re bad go fight the other people kind of thing. The story also manages to create a fairly fleshed out and engaging world to explore, which is always a really nice thing to have in any metroidvania (which by definition require some amount of exploration). I can’t give top marks for the story only because it is a little short, and that the dialogue is a little shallow and cookie cutter.

Visually the game is beautiful. Areas are bright and diverse, colors are bold and the fast paced action is accented by quick flashy animation. The overall feel of the game is helped by the epic soundtrack which wonderfully captures the difference between demonic and angelic settings. I particularly loved the boss battle (of which there are many) music, which contributes to both the epicness and the time sensitivity of the fight.

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The first of many, many boss battles. You are graded on your performance on each one, which is yet another reason to replay the game over and over again.

Where the game starts to stumble, ironically, is in being a metroidvania. Some features that should really be considered standard are simply missing. For example, one big one is the ability to access the world map. As it stands you can only access the map for the area you are in, so it’s up to you to remember how that area connects to the other areas you’ve explored and what path to take to a specific one. On a related note, there is no hint feature telling you roughly where to go. It was really nice when the game would at least point you in the right direction after you’d wandered for half an hour or more not sure how to progress, a feature that became fairly standard starting with Metroid Prime. Without such a system, you’re stuck re-checking every reachable room to see if there’s something to do there with a new ability you didn’t have the last time you were present. This isn’t all that bad here, as the whole map in Valdis Story is pretty small, but I did have to look up a guide once just to save myself an hour or more of useless wandering trying to find where to use a newly found key.

Secondly, the game expects you to make certain logical leaps without giving literally any suggestion towards them. This is more of an RPG problem, and is an area of challenge that isn’t fun. Rather than understanding the puzzle and upon completion think, “YES! I am the best”, you are forced to try every possibility, eventually get lucky, and then think, “How was I supposed to know that was the answer??” After getting a new set of spells, it’s fairly standard throughout the game for you to have to use one of them to escape the newly sealed room, but (even after realizing that you now can’t leave) you have to go into the menu and read through all of the descriptions to figure out which new spell can get you out of this mess. It would have been really nice for an unobtrusive line of text to appear a few seconds after gaining the new spells, hinting you towards what new ability to use. Furthermore, the game would vastly benefit from a built-in glossary of game terms. It uses arbitrary fantasy words like affliction and reckoning, which clearly have in-game significance, without ever defining them. Even simple words like stealth don’t have a clear definition listed anywhere. I’m all for not throwing walls of text at the player, breaking immersion and slowing the game down, but that information really should be available somewhere in case I want to look it up.

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Do you know what stealth means by default? I don’t.

On the whole, though, the game is incredible. Even as a metroidvania I loved it. It struck the right balance of exploration and fun “ooo I remember an area where I can now use this new ability” backtracking. The combat is intense and extremely skill based (as opposed to button mashing), and even the platforming was challenging and kept stages fresh.

More than anything else, Valdis Story: Abyssal City truly shines in its replayability. Capturing replayability in single player campaign-based games is a challenge that designers are constantly trying to defeat. Unlike sandbox games, multiplayer games, or single-player match-based strategy games, single player campaign games usually struggle to present any value after completion. In this regard, they are closer to books and movies than their other game companions. Once you’ve experienced the story and seen what’s behind each hidden turn, that’s kind of all it has to offer. You might re-read your favorite book or series a few, maybe even ten or more times, but that’s nothing compared the thousands, even tens of thousands of matches enjoyed by the standard LoL or Smash player. Stories are, inherently, finite. So long as it is pre-programmed or pre-written, it has to come to a hopefully satisfying conclusion at some point. Yet, single player campaign games are nonetheless judged by the same expectations of playable hours as other games, and thus are constantly looking for ways to give the player more to do.

One avenue of doing this is to create more and more subquests, small but branching storylines allow (but don’t force) the player to explore the world while simultaneously continuing to experience story content. This isn’t a bad option, but for better or worse it always seems to detract from the main story. One example that comes to mind is Skyrim. Yes, there is a central story in Skyrim, but most people don’t seem to care. All Skyrim discussion that I’ve seen bleed onto the other parts of the Internet (i.e. Imgur, Facebook) usually refers to weird physics quirks and funny NPC interactions, as opposed to interesting plot points and underlying themes. Despite Skyrim’s certainly epic story, it is discussed more like Minecraft than like Harry Potter. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the last thing you want to do when crafting an epic story is to add content that detracts from it.

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I think I can say with confidence that this is the most important thing to come out of Skyrim. This meme.

Valdis Story, for all of its missing help features, does something so right that the story is both important and central, and yet I want to play again. The answer, I believe, is the right combination of challenge and choice. Give me enough challenge that I am basically unable to complete the game on the hardest difficulty on my first playthrough, and am instead forced to use an easier one instead. It is thus clear that I have not bested the game; there remains a further challenge to conquer. Give me enough choice that I am aware that I may be making mistakes on my first play through, ones that I could make better if I knew what I was doing. It is thus clear that the path I took through the game was not the only one, nor likely the best one.

If the game doesn’t have additional levels of challenge, no amount of choice will get me to play again. If I’ve already gotten the gold medal, so to speak, using set of choices A, there’s no point in doing it again with set of choices B. I’ve already won, no need to do it again. If there’s not enough room for choice, on the other hand, additional levels of challenge will feel redundant. I did the best I could with the options available and was able to attain a high enough proficiency at the game to beat it. Allowing me the ability to try again at a harder challenge, but not make significant alterations to my play style, means that the only way I’ll beat the harder level is to, as they say in the biz, “get gud”. I, the player outside of the screen, have gained knowledge by my first play through the game. Let me use that knowledge!

Crucially, none of this detracts from the story. I approached and beat the epic final boss of the game for the first time with the guilty knowledge that my victory would be a bit hollow. I knew that I was playing on the easiest of the available difficulties. In the real story the final boss would be impossibly difficult to defeat. I’m still invested in the story because it was made clear that a full and fulfilling conclusion was still just outside of my grasp, and that I would have to play both smarter and better in order to achieve it.

Overall, I give Valdis Story a 9/10. Would I play it again? I already am.

The Puzzle of Railroading

Ahhhhh… Spring break. Time to pour yourself an orange juice, kick off your shoes, and finally open all of those games you bought during the Steam winter sale but didn’t have time to play. To that affect, I’ve spent the last few days playing through two games on opposite ends of the spectrum – Fez and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. While both are amazing games, contrasting the two sheds some light on what aspects of entertainment video games excel at, and what other qualities they are still lacking. Minor spoilers ahead – minor meaning these are things you would find out within the first half hour of the game or less. If you do want a completely pristine experience, skip this post.

I’d heard about Fez from countless friends, and knew I had to play it after watching Indie Game: The Movie. (Yes Phil Fish isn’t a very nice guy but he made a cool game so whatever.) The core concept of the game is that you belong to a people who spend their whole lives believing that the world is 2D. The game begins when you wake up one day and journey to the top of your village where you meet a magical cube. Think about that for just a second. What would happen to the way you think if you woke up and just saw something in 4D? There it was, right in front of you, existing in all of its four-dimensional goodness. Nothing about you has intrinsically changed, and yet in that moment of perception your entire understanding of spacial geometry is flipped on its head. You can never undo your realization, and therefore can never go back to your old life. In any case, the cube blesses you (Gomez) with the ability to rotate around the different 2D views of the truly 3D world. In doing so, however, the cube is destroyed. It is up to you, therefore, to traverse this new 3D world and put the cube back together, one block at a time.

There’s a piece of the cube right there!

Fez is a puzzle game with no danger mechanic whatsoever. There are no enemies, no attacks, no health to lose. If you fall off a cliff, you simply respawn at the last solid location you touched. In spite of this lack of punishment for making mistakes, Fez is exceedingly difficult because the game is nearly text-free. When you come upon a puzzle, there are no instructions. It’s just you in a room with the puzzle elements. For example, in one room I found a huge bell at the top of a tower. I further found that the bell made different pitched rings when I rung it from each different side. I have no idea what to do with that bell. I assume there’s some order of sides to ring, but given that it could include duplicates it’s simply impossible to “try them all”. Hints in the form of treasure maps are given throughout the game, but even the maps are their own form of puzzle – they’re just pictures with no description or title given, so half of the challenge is figuring out which room the map even corresponds to. With every new puzzle I come to, I wonder if I even have enough information to solve it or if I can’t make more headway until I find a map somewhere else.

This intellectual difficulty is very refreshing at a time where many big games are guilty of over-explaining their gameplay. No one needs to be told to run away from the people shooting at you, or that you are in danger because your health is low (thanks Fi). Fez almost has the opposite problem – there were times I audibly exclaimed “I don’t get it!” while playing the game. Fez poses an unadulterated puzzle challenge. There are no time limits, no enemies, and only very modest platforming requirements. The only thing standing between you and the next room is whether or not you get the puzzle the room poses. It’s something that video games do very well. I don’t think I realized how much I hate reading pages of text in a video game (I’m looking at you Braid) until Fez came along and showed me that you can have both a moving plot and unfathomably complex puzzles without text entirely. The relative lack of text makes the few sentences you do get all the more important.

In contrast to Fez (in the first of many ways), I had never heard of Shadowrun: Dragonfall (or any of the Shadowrun series) before the steam sale. When I did stumble upon it, however, I knew I had found something good. To put all of the steam tags together, it’s an indie-cyberpunk-rpg-TBS. The first element to hit me was the rpg part – the moment you open up the game you are presented with an extremely intimidating character creation screen. Pick a race (human, elf, dwarf, orc, troll), pick a class (Street Samurai, Adept (Unarmed Combat), Decker, Rigger, Shaman, Mage), and start allocating stat points. It’s an electronic RPG dream, from the tabletop tradition. I went with my gut and played a drawf adept with plenty of points in strength and chi-casting. Because I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t, I went with the “just don’t die” strategy. It’s worked relatively well thus far.

SR:DF Combat – You know you wanna get a piece of this action

The combat – whole party movement with AP as time currency, buffs/debufs, line of sight, AOE attacks, and simultaneous cyber-battles – is intensely complicated and plenty to chew on. I initially had the game set to hard, but quickly had to shift back to normal after getting destroyed a few times in a row on early missions. The upgrade and item system surrounding the stat system is equally complicated, but you get enough money to play around a little with your build. You are given just enough control of how the rest of your party upgrades to be useful, but not the full set of stats which would simply be laborious. All told, there is so much to think about in SR:DF, from the micro of how to emerge from this battle in one piece, to the macro of which team member deserves an upgrade with your limited funds. It’s one of the most tactical games I’ve played in a while.

Where SR:DF lost me, surprisingly, is at the plot. To get you up to speed, here’s the opening scenario, which I imagine may pertain in part to the original Shadowrun: It’s the mid 21st century and everything is topsy turvy. Through some not well explained means, our world went through a fantastical transformation, with dwarves, trolls, and other mythical races simply appearing. What’s interesting is how the game portrays this transformation in realistic and even bleak terms. At one point you confront an evangelical organization bent on the mass murder of all meta-humans (all the other races) for reasons that should seem old hat by this point in human history. A troll, running a soup kitchen for meta-humans on the streets, pays you off to “shut them down”. Needless to say, things aren’t at all rosy.

Most importantly, as you discover in the first hour of the game, the fantasy transition came with one more unsurprising surprise – dragons. As dragons are want to do, they quickly established their dominance over different areas of the globe. The dragon ruling Europe where the game takes place decided to show her power – by burning the continent to the ground. She was eventually stopped, but people who know too much continue to disappear. Clearly SR:DF doesn’t have a simple or by any means traditional plot. It is intense and gut-wrenching at just the right moments. Good level and character design play into the intensity and push the plot forward. So why do I feel like I’m blindly clicking dialogue buttons?

The best part of going grocery shopping, ages 4-6

Remember when you were very young, and a parent let you “steer” the grocery cart/racing car – the ones with the little steering wheels in the kiddy seats? If not you had a deprived childhood, and I’m very sorry. Assuming you weren’t a toddler, you probably knew that the steering wheel wasn’t actually attached to the grocery cart in any meaningful way. So when you felt the cart start to turn, you turned the wheel to pretend that you were the one causing the change. And it felt cool – it was the first step in the path to driving that included bumper cars and Mario Kart. But what happens when the cart doesn’t do something you want it to? For example, you’re passing right by the candy aisle. You bank hard to the left to turn in, but the cart continues straight. Right at that moment, you are suddenly aware of how little control you have over the cart (and start complaining that you want candy, etc etc). You only know and care that you’re railroaded – that your current and future path is already set out for you – when it takes a turn you don’t like and you’re powerless to stop it.

Plot-heavy games are a lot like this grocery kart (shields self from thrown rocks and tomatoes) metaphor. The game already has a plot set out from the beginning, and it’s up to you to follow that track. When the track takes sudden and illogical turns, or has uninteresting scenery, it becomes stale and boring. What’s worse (and what seems to be the case in SR:DF) is when the game asks you to put forth effort in the name of the plot, but has all choices map to the same outcome. If this becomes a pattern, I’ll just default to clicking the first response option in any dialogue chain. It’s not going to matter anyways. I don’t care about the plot when it’s merely a gift-wrapping for the gameplay to make it pretty.

My standards of railroading, however, are fairly high. My RPG experience comes from a DnD Dungeon Master background, where railroading is a cardinal sin. If I create a dungeon and you, a player, decide to simply skip the town, it would be frustrating on both of our parts for me to not allow you to leave (through a variety of means) until you complete my dungeon. In short, if I haven’t made you want to explore my dungeon, I’ve failed my job as a DM. If you can see my railroad tracks and resent the direction they go, I’ve failed my job as a DM. Video games, especially plot heavy ones, do this regularly. It doesn’t matter if I know who the murderer is, I still have to find the clues and walk in on the suspect as he murders the main love interest, because that’s how the plot has to go. That’s how it’s programmed to go.

Pen-and-paper RPGs (a-la DnD) will forever have this advantage over electronic RPGs. One of my favorite DnD experiences was when my party and I decided to rob an armory in the town we had just entered. Just to see what would happen. When electronic RPGs go the sandbox route, the main plot is usually laid by the wayside in favor of doing just this kind of weird stuff. Only in pen-and-paper RPGs, with no pre-programmed response to anything, can a skillful DM seamlessly integrate your latest random exploit with a greater plot and leave you begging for more. The moment-to-moment feedback that occurs between players and DM isn’t something that can be replicated in a preprogramed video game, no matter how sophisticated.

So wrapping it all together, both Fez and Shadowrun:Dragonfall are intensely difficult and strategic games. If you’re looking for a mental workout, I can heartily recommend both games. SR:DF pushes against the boundaries of what video games can do well a little too much for my tastes, and as a result has a strongly railroaded, if very interesting, plot. In contrast, Fez is a game that can only exist within an electronic medium, and fully takes advantage of the relative strengths of video games contrasted with their paper cousins – sound, lighting, and graphics as a game element. The plot simply comes along as an added bonus. And if anyone knows what to do with that freaking bell, let me know.

When Everything Changes…

“Look, whatever you’re thinking, do me a favor; don’t let go.”

It’s taken just under two days, but I’ve finally made it home to the good old VA. Driving is nice, especially given how awful dealing with air travel has gotten these days, but upstate NY to central VA is just a bit too long of a trip for my tastes.

There were many things I wanted to do during the semester, and now I finally have the free time to start checking items off that list. The list (as with all mental things) is in a constant state of flux, but it looks a bit like this:

  1. Hug my two miniature poodles.
  2. Arrange music for next semester.
  3. Continue working on the game I’m designing. Hopefully have a playable prototype by the time school starts up again.
  4. Boot up steam and see what’s new.

I checked off number one immediately upon opening the door, not that I had much of a choice. With my desire for poodle hugs briefly sated, I flipped through the other three. In browsing Steam, however, I stumbled upon a game I have been waiting for forever, and everything else would have to wait until I finished it. Usually I wait for sales to make my Steam impulse purchases, but Transistor, released for Mac since I last checked, couldn’t wait.

I loved Bastion. Like, a lot. So let’s get the biggest disclaimer out of the way first: Transistor, the second game produced by Supergiant Games and spiritual successor to Bastion, is not Bastion. This isn’t at all a bad thing, but it means that in evaluating Transistor we can’t ask it to fill Bastion’s shoes. We have to judge it based on its own merits and flaws, and come to an unbiased conclusion.

A gorgeous travel cutscene
Even combat is beautiful

Let’s start with the good. Transistor, like Bastion, is absolutely beautiful. Bastion’s art style was full of vibrant colors drawn in a way to convey mystery and build the world. This strategy is applied once more in Transistor, to even greater effect. Transistor’s world is furnished with unending high rises that are at once indestructible and in a state of disrepair. Just as Bastion’s use of thin terrain and muted backgrounds created a sense of being alone in the middle of nowhere, Transistor’s never-ending urban sprawl creates a different kind of isolation – being alone in the largest city in the world.

Also like Bastion, Transistor makes use of a dynamic soundtrack with narration that follows you through the game. The music, along with the various bits of plot information thrown at you throughout the game, completes the feeling of isolation. Moments of silence drip with dread and desperation, punctuating key plot moments in the game.

The biggest way Transistor moves beyond Bastion is in its combat system. Bastion was a simple hack-n-slash. The weapon selection and upgrade system went a long way to allow all kinds of players to find something they liked, but at the end of the day everyone still selected two weapons and a special ability, and mashed buttons until everything stopped moving. Transistor starts at the same point, but moves far beyond it. Your core weapon is the Transistor but you get to pick four abilities to use at a time from a bank of learned abilities. Thus at the very start the level of customizability is higher – choosing four different abilities leads to a much higher number of combinations than three. Add on to that the fact that the upgrades and the abilities are the same resource – every ability you learn has three functions: an active, an upgrade, and a passive. You can only use each ability for one of its three functions in a given setup, however, so choose wisely. With this system, the number of different setups is nigh infinite and creates an extremely fun framework in which to experiment.

Thus far in the description, Transistor is still a hack-n-slash, though notably a complex and well-explored one. Transistor, however, doesn’t stop there. While you do have the option of playing the entire game in real time, you can instead treat it as a turn based strategy. Whenever you start a “turn”, all movement stops and you have free reign for a given amount of “time” – in turn currency. After you’ve planned out your turn you are able to execute it, seeing your immaculately planned series of strikes become reality.

The turn() interface. Admit it – you want to see how this works.

This turn() system is what allows the complexity of Transistor’s ability selection system to truly shine. Where the distinctions between your four abilities would likely be lost in a truly real-time setting, the ability to plan a combo allows you to use your set of abilities to their fullest and incentivize picking a set that you can really work with. It also creates a strange hybrid between a real-time strategy and a turn-based strategy, as you can seamlessly switch between the two even within the context of a single fight. At a minimum, it’s certainly an idea I would like to see more of.

Now, on to the bad. Transistor suffers from a few issues, but all are rooted in one core problem – the game is ridiculously short. I bought the game last night and had played about five hours when the credits rolled. I may play the “recurse” mode, but by the title I am lead to believe that I won’t see anything new. The combat system is amazing, but I felt that I had barely gotten the hang of it when I beat the game. The plot begins promisingly, but ends in a rush without real resolution because it just didn’t have enough time to develop. There were a few hard fights, but I never felt extremely challenged. It’s possible that the real difficulty of the game comes after the first victory, but I don’t think that’s good planning – the final boss fight should feel hard, on any play through. I came away feeling like I was ripped off. Not because of any monetary reasons, but because I really bought into the concept of the game in all aspects, from combat to plot, when it suddenly ended.

Overall, Transistor was a very good game. It proves that Bastion wasn’t a mistake – Supergiant knows how to use art, music, and gameplay to build a world and shape a plot within it. Moreover, Transistor brings up enough new ideas in its combat system that show that Supergiant isn’t skittish of trying new things that depart from the Bastion formula. At the end of the day though, Transistor’s short playtime is just too much of a handicap to argue for it being on the same level as Bastion. The real test, however, is what Supergiant will do from here. They had one hit game and managed to make a second one that, despite suffering from a key flaw, contained both the things that made the first great and new innovative material. I’m excited to see what they can do for their third game.

The End of the World (Part 2)

Turns out a lot of people actually enjoy reading my stuff. Whodathunkit? That said, the comment I’ve received from the most people has been “I didn’t read the heavy video game stuff but….”. What you choose to read of my posts is of course up to you. That said, I try to put everything I discuss in simple terms such that it is accessible to everyone. I suppose what I’m saying is perhaps you should give the heavy analysis a bit more of a chance. Maybe you still won’t like it, but maybe you will. Finally, to this point, I’m going to do a rotation of the topics I mentioned in my first post, meaning after this post I’ll do a few that aren’t about video games (maybe).

So back to Bastion. If you haven’t read part one, give that a quick review to catch up. From part one it is already common knowledge that I love Bastion and think the plot is amazing complex and one of my favorites of all time. Discussing it further, however, would edge too close to spoiling the game. Instead, I’m going to touch on some of the more subtle points that make Bastion incredible that a less ambitious game would have either ignored or executed poorly.

First up is Bastion’s score. Bastion features magnificent musical track that complements the game design and defines the tone of the game as a whole. Overall, the score is an interesting blend of western instrumentation and themes with the addition modern sounds. This creates a unique feel of a modern world that is unstable and gritty like the old west. Every song throughout Bastion was chosen to convey a specific tone upon the player to emphasize the narrator’s words and the settings the player is exploring. I’m going to write a bit about what I feel these songs are communicating, though because the first two are without words there is plenty of room for debate. Because there’s nothing to watch in these videos (just audio), set them to play while you continue to read.

First up “In Case of Trouble”, the main theme of the Bastion. It is the song that plays while you are home at the Bastion, where you return to after every level of the game:

Initially, in the game, the song has a more limited instrumentation, but as you progress through the game the bastion theme becomes more and more filled out – the version you are hearing is the final, completed song. Each added instrument is a new personality, cooperating with the others in its own rough yet harmonious fashion. The song speaks of hard-earned progress and human resilience against all odds, a fitting theme for the Bastion. It makes no reassurances about success in one’s toils – the frequent minor chords injected into the song warn of future challenges. But more than anything else, as the number of instruments grow and the base deepens, the song about the power to make the right decisions even when they are difficult, and the power to change one’s own fate. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s all up to you.

Next is “Twisted Streets” – the exploration song, which plays while you run through new areas.

The song begins grimly – the strong downbeat of cymbals on the first beat of every other measure accompanied by snare rolls throughout is reminiscently of a funeral march. Winds play along to with the darker notes, reminiscent of good times lost, with harsh pads combining to form terror. The song is about suppressed implications. The kid has a job to do but every passing ruined town burdens him further, mixing sadness at what was lost with horror at what has become.

Finally, one with vocals. This is “Build that Wall”, Zia’s theme.

The song speaks of two people – the singer, digging a hole, and some other person, building a wall. Many times, the singer alludes to the failure of the other person – “one day that wall is gonna fall” and “some day those tears are gonna spill”. The lyrics are very aggressive towards the other person: “so build that wall and build it strong ’cause we’ll be there before too long”, but the music doesn’t match. The singer knows that conflict is coming, but doesn’t rejoice or speak to her party’s strength. The lilting tone and simple plucked tones lament what will soon come to pass. At the same time, the singer expresses no emotion that would indicate the possibility of peace – all of the verb tenses imply certainty. Cities will be built, walls will fall, tears will be shed, and there’s no way to avoid any of it.

Overall, Bastion’s music is powerful and an ever-present force in the game. It conveys a number of emotions, but one is notably missing from the entire score: Happiness. There is accomplishment and pride, but all emotion throughout the game is accompanied by an undercurrent of remorse and regret. You’ll learn more as you play the game, but take my word for it that as the game progresses it is impossible for a character or the player to feel purely, simply happy about any turn of events.

Next let’s look a bit at the level design – the core level mechanic in Bastion is that the level assembles itself as the player walks along it. The first extremely clear benefit of this mechanic is that the player is never at a loss of where to go – just follow the self-creating path. Second, this mechanic lends itself to very narrow and uneven levels – terrain can follow any visual pattern because there is no surrounding terrain to connect it to. Finally, wide open areas gain significance. Where in other games narrow areas are more dangerous because of the possibility of being pinned down by enemies, wide open areas in Bastion are far more dangerous because they contain far, far more enemies, and every so often bosses.

Game Design Key Point: Terrain Graphic Contiguity. The terrain in Bastion is special specifically because it is so minimalist. Almost all of the generated terrain is walkable, and every bit of terrain receives extra focus as it moves into place from below the screen, perfectly suiting its surroundings. This is something that many designers forget – players notice when things look out of place. For an example of this, let’s take a look at the terrain of the Pokemon series.

Ruby/Saphire (GBA, 2002)
X/y (3DS, 2013)

In Ruby/Saphire (on right), everything is blocky and square aside from you, Prof. Birch, the Poochyena, and Birch’s bag. Therefore the terrain looks contiguous, with nothing out of place. Contrast this with the screenshot from X/Y (at left). Nintendo made a very conscious effort to make the terrain more real. The path curves well, the shrubs and trees are fairly well drawn, and the wild grass look like real ferns, though notably a bit too symmetric with one another. However, one thing is drastically out of place, and attention is drawn to it right away – the hills on the right. No dirt hill is an even 60 degree slant with perfect line divides drawn across it. It’s not the fact that these hills are so far off reality – clearly the hill in ruby/saphire, the brown line in the middle, is less accurate – it’s that the hills in x/y are the only thing that still looks unrealistic after the graphics update, and are now hilariously out of sync with their surroundings in terms of realism and quality. Players are willing to tolerate any level of graphic complexity – see the resurgence of pixel art games as of late – but seeing inconsistencies within a game’s graphics is like an un-sanded and un-painted edge on a piece of furniture. It speaks to a designer’s laziness in not finishing the feel of the game, even when that wasn’t the intention.  Designers have to be careful when asking for a graphics update, because performing an incomplete upgrade can do more harm than good.

I regret that I cannot talk more about Bastion’s plot, because it wouldn’t be fair to any who want to play the game for themselves. Therefore, that’s all for now. I’ll be back soon with something non-game related.

The End of the World (Part 1)

"Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one...."

—-> Extremely brief aside: A lot of the time I’m going to want to talk from the view of the player. Sometimes that involves the use of pronouns. I’m going to use “he” exclusively here. I know, love, and constantly support the fact that girls play video games too. In the interest of clarity and brevity, however, I’m going to stick to “he”. Feel free to mentally replace “he” with whatever pronoun makes you most comfortable were you the one playing the game. SMOKEBOMB <—-

Winter break last year found me with a newly-earned Musical Director position and a lot of time on my hands. Between arranging new music and the various holidays I needed to find something to distract myself. The answer to my problem was fairly simple and may even be already evident to some – Gamer + Too Much Time + Winter Break = Steam Winter Sale! For an unbelievably low price I acquired the full Bioshock series, an in-development game called Particulars, Tower Wars, and one other game. A game that I purchased for $2.99, and that is now in my favorite games of all time.

That game is Bastion.

A friend recommended Bastion to me, but I never could have known just how much of an impact it would have on me. Not only is Bastion an amazing game and enjoyable experience, but the story is more complex and thought provoking than most books I read throughout high school. Despite the narrator’s haunting warning that opens the game, I’ll try to start at my beginning with Bastion.

After waiting for my sluggish internet to download the game, I immediately sat myself down with a mug of hot chocolate and booted it up. My first impression was of the art – Bastion is beautiful.

Bastion's Menu Screen

The art style uses a bright palate to paint exquisite texture throughout the scene, but mist encroaching at the borders gives a sense of mystery and intrigue. The pail and lantern in the foreground imply a setting somewhere between the medieval and the renaissance eras. The font is bold but has many interesting twists and branches off of the main letters. Finally, you may not have noticed, but the arch on which the title structure is supported is floating in mid air – its support pillars are not attached to anything. Other islands float in the background, solidifying the fact that, in the world of Bastion, things are for some reason floating. I assumed from the title sequence this implied the existence of magic, of some sort. I was wrong.

So press any key, start a new game. Here’s the first 15 minutes of the game (which I can show without fear of spoiling things because of how deep the game goes). Watch as far as you care to, though for the sake of things I’m going to discuss watch at least through the first two minutes.

My impression of Bastion as a joyous, magical setting was shattered from the very first low, discordant chord. The gritty narrator continues the feel with a quote that sets a mysterious and frightening undertone. Let’s break down that opening quote a little.

“Proper story’s supposed to start with the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one… “

So we learn a couple things: The narrator is (or believes he is) an experienced storyteller, this story isn’t any old story, nor will its recalling start at the beginning. Already we’re being thrown into a setting where the player is aware that there are details kept from him, to be filled in on the narrator’s whim.

“… Now here’s a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.”

After quickly inferring that the kid mentioned is the only human on screen (and probably the main playable character of the game), the player immediately sympathizes with the kid. He’s asleep on a bed, a small piece of solid ground surrounded by a lucid, vast abyss. The kid doesn’t seem to know any more than us about why the world is this way, where he is or what happened. Setting the scene in this way does something very important for the game. Explaining what important idea this accomplishes requires a game design tangent. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to Bastion

Game Design Key Point – Main Character Empathy – One key thing to do when opening a game is make sure your main character is someone the player wants to be or to see progress (depending on the point of view). One example where this doesn’t go well is in Metroid Prime. [Disclaimer: I love Metroid Prime and will probably gush about it in a future post. This, however, is one of its few rough spots.] Very quickly after meeting Samus Aran, the infamous bounty hunter, we watch her stand still for a good three seconds while a bridge explodes behind her. This hurls you against a wall and causes you to lose all of your powerups. I (at age 14) was quite literally shaking the controller and yelling “MOVE” at the TV during this cutscene. This is a character who (supposedly) has lightning reflexes, has survived hundreds of near-death encounters and will go on to survive a thousand more. The idea that she can’t move out of the way of a slowly advancing series of explosions is forced and unconvincing, and a lame way to lose all of your abilities. It makes the player lose interest in Samus’ plight, and thus the plot of the game.

Notably, this is a challenge that games have to face that other entertainment mediums (books, movies) don’t. Even if you don’t like the main character in a novel, you can’t re-write his or her dialog. The very best you can do is put the book down and give up. You can’t re-write the scripted plot of a video game either, but you feel that you are the one leading it. When you have a book in your hand, the plot is set out for you the reader in a very visible fashion. Were you to flip to the final page, you would read the end of the plot, no questions asked. From the very moment you pick up the book its progression is set. In good, non-open-world games, the player moves the main character through the plot in a way that should feel natural and justified. He should feel as though he as the main character is leading the plot, not a hopeless puppet who is straining against his boundaries at every turn. Good luck convincing your player to advance the plot by playing your game (a task that may take quite a lot of effort on the player’s part) if they don’t like where it’s going.

Bastion, however, hits this nail right on the head. From the very first time the player meets the kid, you need to see him succeed because you share a common goal: to understand. Both the player and the kid need to know why the world is a mess of floating pieces of earth and stone. In only two narrated sentences, Bastion forges a bond through the fourth wall that persists through the entire game. You, the player, are the kid. With all of his desires, fears, and determinations.

Back to the game! If you watched the video, you’ve noticed that there’s a few seconds where nothing happens. Though the narrator has fallen silent, the music continues playing. This is because, though the player hasn’t realized it yet, the cutscene has ended, seamlessly transitioning into the game itself. Nothing will happen until the player hits any of the arrow keys, at which point the narrator continues…

“He gets up. Sets off for the Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble”

Looks are deceiving: This isn’t a cutscene. The narrator is continuing to narrate, even though the game has begun. He’ll continue to narrate the kid’s actions throughout the game, occasionally adding his own input. To my knowledge, no game before Bastion has ever been narrated in this continual and complete fashion. One more thing that makes Bastion unique.

As the player begins to move to the right – there’s nowhere else to go – ground shoots up from the bottom of the screen to form a pathway. The narrator acknowledges this, showing that it’s a real part of the universe, not just a design style. Continuing along the path nets the player the Cael Hammer, the first iconic weapon of the game. The swing animations do a wonderful job of showing off the hammer’s weight and unwieldiness, but also its brutal power. A little further in, and we get two key pieces of plot information from the narrator:

“He sees what’s left of the Rippling Walls – years of work undone in an instant… In the Calamity”

The first isn’t shocking, given that the name of the current location was briefly floated over the screen at the start of the game. These are, apparently, the rippling walls. Even that, though, deserves study. Walls are only built when there is need to keep something, or someone, out. Our kid is on top of the wall – thus likely a member of the society that built, maintained, and enforced it. It was a long and hard task to build the wall, and now it’s in shambles.

Because of the Calamity.

For some reason, something somewhere went seriously seriously wrong. Wrong enough that massive wall built over the course of years is now floating chunks of stone in the sky. Wrong enough that the kid, a occupant of that very wall, is left alone on its remnants with not another soul, living or dead, in sight.

How? Why? If you weren’t empathizing with the kid’s need to know, to understand, to seek an explanation: You are now.


I want to stop here for a couple reasons, chief among them being length. I also want to give anyone who is interested a chance to play the game for themselves. I can analyze all I like about my love for Bastion, but the greatest beauty of a video game is that you can only truly experience it if you play it for yourself. It’s available on Steam right now for all major computer operating systems and has mild hardware requirements. I’ll resume in The End of the World Part 2 some time this week. Unlike this analysis, in part 2 I’ll be taking a more broad look on how the narration, music, and level design define the feel of the game and are intertwined with the plot. I won’t be giving any more plot past this opening sequence because I don’t want to spoil anything at all for would-be players.

All I’ll say is that the end of the game involves two choices. The weight of the world rests on the kid’s and your shoulders.