After breezing through Super Mario Odyssey and slogging through Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I found myself without another new Switch title to really grab my interest. Looking at what I have in my collection, I decided to fire up Breath of the Wild again, to see if it still holds up on a second playthrough.

Short answer – yes. Even a year later, after the initial hype has worn off and we’re all getting excited about the next mainstream Pokemon title (…eventually…), Breath of the Wild is not only an amazing game but one that I suspect will come to be seen as a major milestone in game design and history.

It takes my breath away, every time

As with any true masterpiece, Breath of the Wild has a lot to teach us about good game design, specifically what makes a good adventure game. That’s what Zelda games are, at their core – the original in-development nickname for what would become the Zelda series was “adventure Mario.”

What makes a good adventure game? Or, even more concisely, what makes a good adventure? It’s a simple yet extremely difficult question. Each society has been working on it for millennia in the form of stories and legends passed down through the years. Clearly, this is a topic of great study, but a short laundry list of items an adventure should have could be:

  • Some number of protagonists, who are working towards some “good” goal.
  • Opposing them, adversity in some form. Either an “evil”, consciously working against them, or simply the natural adversity of life.
  • A trajectory of growth for the protagonists. Rewards for passing each trial along the way, both in tools needed to oppose their adversity and in skills learned in doing so.

From only these three aspects, we already have a rough outline of an adventure. There exists a goal that needs to be accomplished. An evil defeated, an object found, or perhaps just a world explored. A protagonist is chosen, by fate or chance, to accomplish this goal. However, at the start of the tale, they are not nearly ready to simply accomplish the final goal. They lack the strength, or the knowledge, or the resources. These things they lack become sub-goals that must be accomplished before the original top-level task can be attempted. Thus, the protagonist sets off to attack these subgoals. When they are finally ready, they can attempt to complete the original task, achieving their good end and completing the story. Everything that happens in the middle – the friends they make, the places they travel, the skills and knowledge they acquire – is the adventure. A good adventure game, then, is one that allows the player to do all of these things.

That’s what makes a good adventure game. What makes a great adventure game, however, requires allowing the player to feel like they are the adventurer. That’s a good deal harder.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an adventurer, and you need to slay a dragon that’s been torching the kingdom on the regular. So far, sounds like an adventure, right? Now suppose that in the center of the town square is a large red button labeled “SLAY DRAGON.” Your adventure consists of walking to the button and pushing it.

Doesn’t feel very adventurous, does it?

Unfortunately, plenty of adventure games are more like this than what you were probably imagining before the big red button part. In an attempt to make accomplishing the final goal feel awesome while keeping the game accessible, the adversity is removed. As we’ve noted, though, the adversity was the very source of the adventure: removing the adversity removes the adventure. Cosmetic changes involving the protagonist (“only the fated hero can push the button!”) or the nature of the button (“It’s actually a magical orb from the dragon-slaying dimension”) don’t help, no matter how much lazy game studios wish they did. No adversity, no adventure.

Back to the hypothetical scenario. Let’s remove the button since that’s an obvious dead-end. There’s still a dragon to slay, but no obvious, easily accessible Deux-ex device to utilize. However, this time, after asking you to slay the dragon, the king hands you a long parchment, detailing the exact steps you’ll take to do so. First, you’ll travel to the northern marshes to find the lost breastplate of fire-proofness. Then you’ll head east to the dark forest where the elves craft the strongest bows in the land. Along the way, you’ll meet a new acquaintance who will initially be skeptical of your abilities but will become a true friend in time. From there you will turn south to the great ports, where any good can be had for the right price. You will eavesdrop (completely by chance, of course) on a conversation between two merchants, letting you know the location of the illegal midnight market where the most contraband items are sold. Upon arriving, you will learn it was all a setup. You’ll barely escape with your life and, crucially, the very item you came to buy: the famed cowl of invisibility. (In the process your love interest will die. Just a heads-up.) Your checkbox-style inventory completed, you will track down the dragon in the steppes of the south-west, and after a long confrontation slay it with a cinematic shot through the eye.

If you were this protagonist and the king actually handed you this list, your eyes would probably glaze over halfway through the list. (If you actually read the whole paragraph above, your eyes probably actually glazed over halfway through the list.) If you were playing a game where you then had to actually go and do all of the listed things, the feeling of adventure would be dead on arrival. It would feel more like grocery shopping than adventuring. What’s the problem then? The above story has all of the things we need for an adventure. There’s a protagonist who wants to adventure, an evil that needs defeating, and a well-thought-out trajectory of growth and challenge to get the protagonist from A to B. What’s missing?

Aww, he wants a hug!

Choice. Choice is missing. The single biggest implicit prerequisite for any adventure is the ability to make choices in how to go about it. Without choice, everything else falls flat. Adversity loses its teeth, as you will only ever encounter adversity that you have the tools to beat. Protagonist growth goes out the window, as you have no need to learn and grow. As long as you remain locked on a railroad traveling towards the final goal, everything you’ll need at any point along the way will be effectively spoon-fed to you at just the right moment.

Boring, right?

The presence of real choice is where Breath of the Wild sets itself apart. For years, adventure games have tried to lay out series of events to create ever stronger senses of adventure. Bosses got badder, twists got twistier, and terrain more extreme. In doing so, though, they became more and more scripted, which has a way of killing the very adventure the script was supposed to create.

There are many ways Breath of the Wild breaks this mold. The extremely well disguised “tutorial” section of the game essentially hands you all of the mechanics in the game, restricted to a small part of the map. After completing that, you’re able to travel to literally any part of the map, completely ignoring the plot if you so desire. You can even travel to places you are woefully underprepared for and promptly have the shit kicked out of you. The main part of the plot of the game is broken up into discrete chunks, which can be tackled in any order (or, as noted above, simply ignored). The sub-goals, designed to increase your power and knowledge and prepare you for the final confrontation, can be completely ignored. If you want to, you can run straight to the final confrontation without so much as putting on pants. Not like a real adventurer would, but like a real adventurer could in a real adventure. You have complete freedom of choice in how to progress, in a way unlike any game I’ve ever played before.

Breath of the Wild – a game about climbing cliffs.

If I had to credit the abundant choice found in Breath of the Wild to a single game feature, it would be the ability to climb. Most games use cliffs as walls: If you’re walking down a road between two vertical cliff-faces, you’d have no choice but to take the road one way or the other, as those would be the only options available to you. Not so in Breath of the Wild. Just as in real life, you can decide you’re done with the road and try to climb one of the walls. Many landmarks you want to travel to in the game present no easy path, so climbing becomes a necessity. This creates a subtle but massively important shift in how the player thinks about exploration. Instead of seeing a far-off fortress and thinking “How can I get there”, or even worse, “How can I get there that the game will allow”, or even worse yet, “Will the game allow me to get there”, the player is faced with the choices involved in planning a route. Is there a road that makes sense? If not, what path is the shortest and the least steep? (In a symbiosis of realism and good game design, the stamina system allows the player to climb further when the ascent is less steep, incentivizing planning a route over blind climbing.)  Will taking a less standard path allow you to stumble upon something noteworthy? The presence of climbing alone in the game changes travel from logic and possibility-elimination into, for lack of a better word, adventuring. You feel like you are truly exploring Hyrule, limited only by your strength (health and stamina), the tools you’ve found so far, and your wits. You feel like an adventurer.

I don’t know how long it will take for another game to come along that captures the spirit of adventuring as well as Breath of the Wild does. I can only hope that game developers are paying attention to Breath of the Wild’s massive success and will try to emulate it in all of the right ways. That they will realize that engaging world design goes further than elaborate, scripted cutscenes in making us care about what’s going on. That they will give us a few multi-use tools instead of many single-use ones, as only multi-use tools allow for creativity. That rather than boxing us in, they will allow us to venture wherever we want, even when the plot turns right and we turn left. I hope that when the time comes to create the next great adventure game, these developers trust us, the players. Because they’ll have to trust us, in order to give us the ability to choose how we play.


Because It’s There

Every so often I stumble upon a game that I immediately know will be one of my all-time favorites. More and more, the games that fall into this category are indie games that only take me a single digit number of hours to clear. Despite being short by video game standards, they manage in this short time to demonstrate the very best gameplay qualities and innovate further within their chosen genre, as well as present a compelling and deep narrative, all along with art and music that link the two together. It seems like a tall order, but back when I started this blog I had just started Bastion and knew instantly that it would forever be one of my favorite games. Later on, Axiom Verge and Undertale joined the list. This week, the new inductee is Celeste.

Madeline: There's no way this ends well.
It doesn’t.

A glowing review from a co-worker convinced me to buy Celeste on Switch (though it is available on most consoles and Steam), and within mere minutes I was loving it. Celeste is a puzzle-platformer with a platforming difficulty level somewhere above Super Mario Bros but well below Super Meat Boy, which puts it right in the sweet spot of challenging but not sadistically punishing. That may intimidate some who aren’t huge platformer fans, but about half of the challenge (and in particular the hardest parts) are purely optional. Strawberries are distributed throughout the levels in hard-to-reach spots that will push your platforming skills to the limit. They’re there if you want to get them, but the game even goes out of its way to let you know that they don’t matter other than that.

Strawberries – the hardest way to impress your friends. Seriously.

So then what’s the point of the strawberries? Why do I (the player) feel such a gut-level need to at least try to collect them?

In Celeste, you play a girl named Madeline who is trying to climb the titular Mount Celeste. Along the way you meet a few other characters, including social-media-obsessed fellow climber Theo and a crazy old lady who seems to be more with it than she lets on. At the start, the lady warns you that strange things happen to climbers who attempt to summit the mountain and urges you to turn back. Of course, Madeline stubbornly pushes ahead, insisting to both the lady and herself that she “needs to do this.” It’s only in a later chapter that you meet the reason why – A physical manifestation of Madeline’s mental illnesses (mainly depression and anxiety) who springs from Madeline’s mind in a nightmare and retains physical form even after the sun has risen.


The girl (nicknamed “Badeline”, though this name is never used in the game) haunts Madeline at every turn, insulting her and telling her repeatedly to give up. At every success, she urges Madeline to quit while she’s ahead and at every failure trumpets her foresight and warns of even worse consequences if Madeline doesn’t throw in the towel. But Madeline persists, and persists, and persists.

There is a very interesting connection between platformers and depression. In any sufficiently difficult platformer, even the best player will “lose” to the game hundreds of times before they eventually succeed by the skin of their teeth. With every successive failure, the game is effectively telling you, “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. Quit. Turn the game off. Give up.” I am no expert in anything mental health related, but I wonder if these same feelings of frustration and hopelessness are what people who suffer from depression deal with constantly in their everyday life. If so, the game not only destigmatizes depression but praises those who carry its burden while continuing to push themselves to reach the highest heights. Within the game, continuing to play is telling the game that it is wrong. That after every failure you will try again. That you have the ability to succeed and the fortitude to see it through.

The fact that the mechanics and the narrative are intertwined at the deepest of levels really drives this point home. I yearn to collect strawberries just like Madeline yearns to reach the summit of Mount Celeste. Neither poses any reward of any sort, yet the very existence of the mountain (and the strawberries) issues a challenge to any who would dare lay eyes on it. Simply walking by would be admitting defeat, and neither I (the player) nor Madeline the character are ready to give up just yet.

Towards these ends, the musical score is truly magical. It seamlessly fits into the mechanics and themes, while also subtly re-asserting the plot throughout the game. For an example, here’s “Scattered and Lost”. Each of the songs blends light acoustic sounds (mainly piano and acoustic percussion) with heavy, dark and dissonant electronic sounds. In a way, this combination symbolizes the state of Madeline’s mind, with the acoustic sounds representing her optimistic and confident personality and the electronic ones representing the weight of her depression. Throughout each of the songs in the soundtrack, these two elements do battle, each vying to gain dominance over the other yet both unable to fully declare victory. The plot of the game, which I won’t spoil here, comes to the same conclusion.

One of my favorite parts of games as an art form is that they are able to unlock emotions in the player that other art forms (for example, books, movies, and paintings) struggle with. Platformers excel at causing the emotions of frustration and (in the non-medical sense) depression when the player fails while bestowing elation, confidence, and pride when the player succeeds. Celeste capitalizes on this unique ability of platformers to weave a narrative of challenge and suffering, of rising only to fall and yet still getting back up onto your feet. It instills a deep empathy for Madeline and respect for all who struggle with depression but despite its burden still continue through life.

In a way, the very frustration and challenges set up by platformers like Celeste make them the most optimistic and encouraging of games. By setting up challenges they make us better players by allowing us to overcome them. We collect the strawberries because they’re there. We climb the mountain because it’s there. We strive to make tomorrow better than today because that’s what it means to be alive. If the mountain could see our faces at the top, if it could feel our elation and our pride at conquering it, I don’t think it would curse us.

I think it would be proud.

Impulsive Decisions

This Thursday, I sat outside a Best Buy for four and a half hours! To tell this story right, I have to tell it as it happened. I wanted to blog as I went, but my phone died in the middle, so I have to rewind a bit. So here we go..!

Let’s do the time-warp agaaaaaain!

Friday, March 3rd at 12:01AM marked the release of the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s new console-portable hybrid. For the non-nintendo-fanperson, here’s a rundown: The “Console” itself is a medium sized tablet-looking rectangle. At home, the console can be placed in a dock which is then attached to a TV via HDMI cable. The controller is then two controller pieces with buttons and a joystick, each attached to a controller frame that provides the hand grips. On the go, the console can be removed from the dock and the controller pieces can be attached to the console, resulting in a device similar in style to a PSP.

The concept is exceedingly novel, but until Thursday at around 7PM (PST) I had decided not to buy a Nintendo Switch. More out of laziness than an actual lack of desire, I felt that I didn’t need a Switch. I had basically moved away from console gaming towards the glory (and sale prices) of Steam, and didn’t see a huge reason to change that policy now.

But gosh, LoZ: Breath of the Wild. That’s a link to Google results for “Breath of the Wild Reviews”. Click it. Seriously, click it. In addition to quite nearly flawless reviews across the board, we get link previews like:

So when I say Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild not only gatecrashes the list, but probably beats the lot as the greatest of them all, I hope you realise how serious an achievement it is. (source)


If everything remains the same, there’s a case to be made that Breath of the Wild is in the top three best reviewed games for as long as review … (source)

I was finally pushed over the top when Aaron (thanks Aaron!) sent me a compiled list of Breath of the Wild’s scores across some twenty-plus game reviewing platforms.

Anyone notice “Time” in there? Yeah, that’s Time Magazine.

Thus, at 7PM PST, with both the game and the system launching in five hours, I decided to jump on board. At that point, preordering was long past possible. The only way to get my hands on a Switch and the absurdly-well-reviewed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was to take matters into my own hands.

By which I mean wait in a line outside of Best Buy for four and a half hours.

Nerds. Nerds everywhere.

To be honest, I got very very lucky. The first place I called (a Best Buy) said that their line was too long, but to try a different best buy half an hour further down the road. I called them and they said if I arrived then I had a very good chance of being early enough, so I immediately called an uber. Upon arrival, I was at position forty-seven in line, which made me fairly optimistic (as fifty is a nice round number to have shipped to you).

And so we waited.

This is what I’m really writing to talk about. Not the Switch and Breath of the Wild (I’m sure I’ll get to it soon enough), but the experience of waiting in line for a new console and game. I’d never done it before, and after doing it once, I can say I’d absolutely do it again! (And that I’d prepare better).

I was surprised by how friendly and outgoing everyone around me was. After a few minutes of awkward silence, we started talking about our favorite games and systems and why we liked them. One of the guys who lived nearby left and came back with snacks for everyone, which was amazing because my hastily thought out plan didn’t include provisions for sitting in one spot for four and a half hours. One couple came with a huge fluffy puppy who immediately took a liking to me (along with everyone else) and spent the night moving from person to person and licking our faces.

[Picture of Dog would go here, but my phone died before I could get one. Just imagine a huge dog with long black and white fur and little sharply pointed ears. You doing it? Great! Good imagining. Who’s a good imaginer? You are!]

At around ten thirty they handed out tickets guaranteeing us at least a Nintendo Switch and a copy of Breath of the Wild. This, of course, raised everyone’s spirits and made the rest of the night fly by. The fact that I found a Game of Thrones book in my backpack didn’t hurt.

Finally, the time arrived. The doors opened and we were herded inside into yet another line. Slowly, the line progressed as people exchanged their tickets for products and walked out, tired but triumphant. A little while longer, and it was my turn.

“Aha!” You’re thinking, “a plot hole! You said your phone was dead.” Great detective work, hypothetical reader! I plugged it in when I got into the Best Buy.

Reflecting on the whole experience, waiting in line for four and a half hours was really, really nice. I cannot recall a single instance of assholishness. No one tried to cut, and when people left to go to the bathroom or pick up supplies, no one got angry at them for resuming their former position in line. When the time came and we were let into Best Buy, everyone proceeded in an orderly fashion. No one threw a fit when the specific version of the product or a specific add-on was no longer available when they reached the register. Everyone picked what they wanted out of what was available, paid, and left.

The contrast to standard Black Friday decorum in America could not be more stark. With that in mind, I have to wonder, what made this shopping experience so different? Some of it was the weather and the duration of waiting. We were waiting in the fifty-degree chill of a mild Californian winter, and for a mere six hours at the most. I assume that the atmosphere of waiting in a multi-day line in the snow would be exceedingly different. We’re also only waiting for a single product, and one who’s company makes a conscious effort to be family friendly and on the whole “nice”. I have to wonder what the same line would have been like if we were waiting for a new Playstation or XBox. (Here’s one theory).

There’s plenty to ponder, for sure. But for now, on to Breath of the Wild!


Spring 26, Year 17, Parallel Universe 3

It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 4 AM playing a video game. The onset of both college and post-college life meant that I would rather spend my fairly limited time doing many other things. I just couldn’t afford to ruin the next day by spending the time I would be sleeping on playing a game. In order to convince me otherwise, a game would have to be playable in an unlimited number of discrete increments, such that I would always want to play one more. Additionally, it would have to be non-competitive so I wouldn’t give in after losing a game. Growth and achievement are must-haves. Taking all that and tossing in pleasing visuals and sound, in an endlessly rich world, gets us to a fairly strict set of requirements.

Fortunately, I have just the thing.


A wonderful world awaits within!

Recommended to me a while back, I picked up Stardew Valley during the past Steam winter sale, and finally had a chance to open it a couple weeks ago. Since then, for better or for worse, I have been completely hooked.

If I had ever played a Harvest Moon title, I would probably say the game is reminiscent of Harvest Moon. Having not, it feels like a wonderful amalgamation of Animal Crossing and Minecraft, with some of the good parts of Farmville. The game is divided into days, each of which take about a half hour (though this can be highly variable). Each day you wake up promptly at 6 AM and have until 1 AM the next morning to do whatever you want, whether that’s planting, watering, and harvesting your crops, fishing in the rivers, lakes, and ocean, talking to villagers, or any number of other activities.  Your path forward is entirely up to you.


You know it’s not my farm because he’s not using his scarecrow efficiently.

And yet, the wide range of choice leads to a frustrating conclusion. Upon initially opening up the game, I made it to the first summer before giving up. In a game about open-ended cultivation and exploration, I nevertheless felt like I was doing it wrong. Over the course of that first spring, I had realized so many things I hadn’t been doing or did wrong. I didn’t know that all your crops withered at the end of each season unless they specifically are marked to carry over. I didn’t know that you could build a chest until I had already thrown away tons of useful material. I didn’t know that because of weekly gifting limits, you have to start early to become friends with the villagers.

Thus, after the first month, I started the game over.

On take two, I made it to day 13 of the first spring before giving up. I once again felt that I wasn’t doing it right. There were many days in which I didn’t get done what I thought I had to accomplish. On one day I even ran out of energy and collapsed in the mine, which is never a good sign. With so many successive days of perceived failure, I didn’t have it in me to continue.

So I started over. Again.

On my third play I finally nailed everything for the first spring. I went into the Egg festival with tons of money for strawberry seeds. I blitzed the mine up to level 40 to start gathering iron for sprinklers. I made a bunch of tree tappers to gather pine resin for fertilizer. Finally, I felt like I was hitting or even exceeding all of my goals. With more and more sprinklers, I had to water fewer and fewer crops each morning, leaving me with more time and more energy to do other productive things with the rest of the day. Summer came, and I spent my accrued fortune on as many blueberries as I could support. I’m now at Summer 4, year 1.

And I feel a little bit lost.


Not pictured: Me. I skipped the Flower Dance to keep fishing all day.

In my relentless drive to perfect my first month, I set myself up for failure following it. I did it; I hit my goal, I made every day count. But now what? Should I set another extremely distant goal and replay over and over until I hit it? It’s not quite that I don’t want to give up on my progress again, but that I don’t know what I should even be aiming for in the first place. What is the point of playing Stardew Valley?

In this way, Stardew Valley feels less like a video game and more like, well, life. There’s not really a “point” of playing the game. The closest thing the game provides to a singular main goal is repairing the community center, but that feels more like a way of marking your progress than your motivation to progress. When I finally decide to stop playing, I don’t think I’ll feel completed. Though I don’t know what the “end” of the game has in store for me, I don’t think it will feel like a fitting, all-inclusive conclusion.

And yet, isn’t that life? Living out one more day, reaching another little goal you’ve set for yourself, and making new friends along the way? Perhaps the all-consuming search for perfect and complete meaning isn’t the right way to play, nor the right way to live. Stardew Valley does not give a reason to farm, to fish, or to explore. Aside from an initial hint, it doesn’t even force you to meet all of your neighbors.

But then, it doesn’t have to. The world is so rich in color, in sound, and in personality. Blades of grass and flowering bushes dance everywhere you go. The music shuffles to match the season and the weather, as well as to punctuate key scenes and days. Each and every townsperson has a completely independent schedule that varies by day of the week, season of the year, and current weather condition. Additionally, all have exceedingly deep personalities that change and reveal themselves as the player gets to know them. I’ve never seen this much attention to detail in a game not for the purposes of game mechanics, but purely to create an amazingly rich world in which to play.

One day while I was farming away, I heard a train whistle. Immediately thereafter a notification popped up on the bottom of my screen, saying, “A train is passing through Sundew Valley.” Did that have any significance? I don’t know! In any other game, I would answer yes, beyond a doubt. But in Sundew Valley I’m not so certain. Maybe it didn’t have any meaning. Maybe, just as in real life, sometimes trains pass through your town, blowing their far-off whistles while traveling to far-off lands. As the sound fades, maybe you return to your prior activity, or maybe you start a new one. Maybe it had significance to you, and maybe it didn’t. Did it mean something? No one can say for sure. That’s just life.




Get Up and GO

So, Pokemon Go. Now that the moment has essentially passed, what the heck was that all about? After an initial record-shattering surge of downloads, Pokemon Go has essentially faded away. As with any fad of this scale, there are certainly important lessons to be learned from the sudden rise and exponential decay of the popular gaming app. Here are my thoughts:

The single most important thing that Pokemon Go proved is that Pokemon is very alive, with a wider fanbase than I think anyone realized. When I told my parents about the game and attempted to explain its appeal, each of their immediate, knee-jerk reactions were, “I thought Pokemon ended ten years ago.” As it turns out, that is very much not the case. Because the franchise aggressively markets itself to older children and pre-teens, it makes sense for those forty or fifty years and older to think about the franchise as an artifact of a bygone era, one that existed exactly when their children or grandchildren were at the targeted age, and died out swiftly thereafter. My parents stopped hearing about Pokemon when my brother and I stopped talking about it constantly, and so they forgot about it. With that mindset, the revival of the franchise in such a public way must seem very odd.

The issue is, not only did Pokemon not die (and as such it continued to indoctrinate new generations of players throughout its two decades), the past players… never really stopped playing. Yes, I stopped watching the cringe-worthy TV show, but I kept playing the games until very recently. Even friends of mine who didn’t keep playing the games remember their time as a Pokemon trainer fondly. When Pokemon Go was initially announced a long time ago (I think around a year ago but I can’t find a source for that), we were all suddenly brought back to that time, and given a chance to relive it.

Little by little, the hype built. News and details slowly trickled out, along with an eventual release date: July 2016. We got a commercial introducing the game, which led to hype. We got a super bowl commercial for Pokemon, which led to even more hype. Finally, the game launched, and we got scenes like these:

One particular corner of Central Park in New York. Quite literally everyone in this picture is playing Pokemon Go. This picture was taken in August, which means that the scene in July must have been twice as crowded.

People went absolutely nuts. All of the people who devoured Pokemon Red and Blue after their release in 1996 were oh-so-ready to jump back into the world of pocket monsters, now accessible through the device you already carry with you everywhere you go. Nintendo’s stocks skyrocketed after the initial launch (though, as the article details, quickly fell after the reality of Pokemon Go’s shared ownership among Niantic and Google surfaced).

After that absurd launch, however, players started leaving. What the hell happened?

Pokemon Go is only the second “augmented reality” game that I’ve played. Before Pokemon Go was ever announced, I was a Geocacher. In a nutshell, Geocaching is a worldwide, everyday treasure hunt. There are nearly 3 million players and nearly as many caches to find. Everywhere I go I spend at least a few hours hiking around, trying to find these little boxes hidden throughout the world.

Essentially, here’s how it works. Using your phone or computer, you locate a geocache near you on a map, like this:

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 5.44.06 PM.png
Here are all of the caches near me, right now. There are probably just as many near you, right now. What are you waiting for?

Then, using a geocaching app (on your phone) or a GPS, you navigate to the location of the cache listed online. This may be as simple as walking down the street, or as difficult as hiking to the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Once there, the real fun begins. Unlike in Pokemon Go, there is a physical prize, the cache, to be found. It can be as big as a large toolbox or as small as a fingernail, and it’s up to you and your puzzle-solving skills to find it.

Just today I spent a few hours walking around downtown Mountain View, grabbing a few caches (note the smiley faces on the map above). Some were easy, quick grabs I managed in under a minute. Others took between five and ten minutes, as I walked back and forth around the listed area scratching my head and contorting myself into strange positions to look under rocks and around poles. Two I couldn’t even find.

One cache, the second-to-last that I found today, took around half an hour and is easily my favorite cache to date. Never before have I felt so much on a treasure hunt as I did while finding the aptly-named Treasures Abound.  The listed location of the cache took me to a lovely park just behind the Mountain View Public Library. Amid the rolling green and lazily meandering paths, I set in to solve the puzzle.

Upon arrival, I immediately noticed a nearby sculpture, depicting a couple literary characters that some of you may recognize.

Two animal gentlemen talk near a home in a tree.. I knew I had seen them somewhere.

Noticing the sign on the right that says “Toad’s Book Club,” I googled around and realized that the shorter chap on the right is none other than Mr. Toad, a character in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The solution to the puzzle must be obvious now, yes?

Unfortunately, I still had no idea what to do. I walked around the whole park looking for another clue, but found nothing. In re-reading the description of the cache, however, I noticed that it includes the following restriction:

Note that the cache is only available:
Mon.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Sun. 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
These hours could change, and there is no access on major public holidays (and some days preceding or following the holidays).

If the cache were outside, there would be no such restriction. If it were inside, however, it could explain the warning. Sure enough, I went to the nearest door into the library and found that the hours synced perfectly.

As a geocacher, I have to be prepared to go anywhere, including…. into a public library

I was on the right track. Surely, now, the solution is apparent to everyone with a brain?

Apparently, I don’t have a brain. I spent a few minutes walking aimlessly walking around the library, wondering what I was supposed to be looking for and how it would lead me to the cache. Finally, a spark of inspiration – I should look up the book that features Mr. Toad! If I find the book, surely I’ll find the cache. I was pointed towards the children’s portion of the library and walked over.  I found the book and combed through the couple copies the library had in stock and found… nothing. Confused, I stood up and looked around. Suddenly, there it was.


Looking around to make sure no one was looking, I reached to the top of the shelf and pulled down the box. I sat on the floor, and, hoping no one would want to walk into the aisle, opened up the cache.

The cache! Full of trinkets of every shape and size.

The caches always contain a log on which to write your name and the date of your find. Many, like the one above, also contain a host of tchotchkes, knick-knacks, and the like. You never know quite what you’ll find when you open one up, which is part of the fun. The bigger draw though, to me at least, is the challenge of the game. It’s fairly easy to get to the location listed online, but going from a pin on screen to a cache in hand takes intelligence, skill, and patience. Each and every new cache you attempt to find will challenge you; I’ve been geocaching for years and still have to work to find them. Sometimes, you’ll have to go home without finding a single one, but that only makes the successful finds all the sweeter.

Challenge, in my mind, is what keeps Geocaching fun for cache after cache. In contrast, Pokemon Go didn’t die for no reason, it died because it lacked challenge and as such got boring. In the end of the day, it just isn’t difficult to walk to a spot, flick my finger on the screen a couple times, and move on. Every catching attempt, regardless of the Pokemon I found, was exactly the same. Even the illusion of challenge (in the form of higher CP) is just that: an illusion. Your success has more to do with the internal probabilities determined by the game than your skill at playing it.

Geocaching couldn’t be more different. Each puzzle has a set level of difficulty based on where and how it is hidden. You (not the game) determine if you are able to find it. Each successful find adds to your ability to play. Rather than aimlessly looking around the listed location, you begin to learn where caches are likely to be. Is the cache listed as very small? It’s probably magnetic, check everything metal. Are there a bunch of fist-sized rocks near the listed location? Roll them all over to check if any are actually plastic. In an urban setting? Check the free local newspaper dispensers, no one ever opens those. The list goes on and on, and only grows as you continue to play.

Moreover, Geocaching as a game has a host of positive qualities that Pokemon Go attempted to exemplify. It actually requires you to interact with the world around you (as opposed to simply going somewhere and then spending the whole time looking at your phone). You can actually work with other players to solve a puzzle, rather than just play along side them. Best of all, Geocaching is essentially FREE. You can pay to be a premium member, but so far I have found my basic member experience completely sufficient. There are official apps for both iOS and Android, though for Android I use and greatly prefer c:geo (as usual, Apple restricts what can be created for iOS through the App Store, so I am unaware of a free unofficial app for iOS). The only reason I never spent any money on Pokemon Go is that I was never so invested in the game as to actually be willing to pay for more resources, which are sold in the form of micro-transactions.

Geocaching is one of my favorite outdoor activities. Everyone I’ve shown it to has loved it, and has requested to accompany me on future caching trips around the area. It’s challenging, it’s truly outdoors, and making an account couldn’t be easier.

So what are you waiting for? Get up and GO!

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 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:

Less of a sandbox, more of a desert

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.