Category Archives: Video Games

My favorite way to waste time

New Adventure Game from Ron Gilbert: DeathSpank

So, perhaps there’s hope for the gaming world after all. Ron Gilbert, the creator of Maniac Mansion, the renowned Monkey Island series, and the famous SCUMM adventure-game scripting engine, is doing a brand-new action-adventure game, DeathSpank. Love the title already. The official site has barely anything on it, but there’s an article at 1UP, and some teasers were shown at PAX.

What the Best Games Have

My inaugural post to this blog was a short lament about the abysmal state of video/computer games.

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved since that time. If anything, it’s gotten decidedly worse. I love video games; and yet, a truly interesting and enjoyable game comes out around once or twice a year. In that post, written 2½ years ago, I mentioned Shadow of the Colossus as a breath of fresh air. It remains virtually the last game I can think of that was really, truly enjoyable in a significant way. I mean sure, episodes one and two of Half-Life 2 came out since then, but it’s pretty much just mild additional content to Half-Life 2. BioShock and Portal were incredible games, but Portal was too damn short, and I never got around to completing BioShock, for some reason.

Two other games that made solid impressions on me were the independently-released Aquaria by Bit-Blot, and Penny Arcade’s On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness. Aquaria was particularly good, though there’s a little too much freedom at one point, where you can spend a coupla hours futzing around until you figure out how to make some decent progress. Kinda like Zelda. But anyway, it was incredibly well-written, very engaging, and had an awesome ending. Plus, it’s loaded with a variety of game-play elements.

But anyway, we’re still talking about basically four games that I can remember from the last 2½ years that were decent enough for me to even remember. And two of them play well under ten hours. :\

In the meantime, I just keep on replaying the same favorite, classic, and yes, aging games that I’ve always loved. Every once in a while I’ll break out with Abe’s Oddysee or Syberia. I just spent the last couple of weekends reacquainting myself with some of the great old LucasArts games like The Dig and Day of the Tentacle. Every several months I’ll play through Half-Life 2 or F.E.A.R..

When you come right down to it, I’m definitely an adventure game fan. My favorite genre; though I also enjoy arcade-style gameplay. But adventure games are exceedingly rare these days. RPGs are often similar enough to adventures to be quite enjoyable; but it seems like lately all anyone wants to make are FPS and MMORPG games. I’m not really a “social” gamer; I don’t really enjoy playing my video games with other people, except when they’re people I’m already really good friends with, so I really just don’t get MMOs. As for FPSses, well they’re fine and all, but really, shot one alien while jumping out from behind a wall, shot ’em all. Half-Life 2, F.E.A.R., Bioshock and Portal are exceptions, since the first three are unusually immersive (rather similar to adventure games, really), and Portal introduced radical new gameplay (and was funny as hell. I can’t wait for Portal 2).

At this point, I’ve more-or-less given up on the game industry. I’m not going to spend hundreds of dollars to upgrade my computer to the latest-and-greatest if I’m only going to see four games in the next couple years that I care about playing; that’s just not value. I think my only real hope is for independant game development to rise up and fill the massive gaps that the industry has left. As part of mourning the death of all that I love about video games, though, I thought I’d write a little about what those things are.

Immersion. The moment that the game Myst was released, I knew it was something special. It was such a great experience, so deep and immersive (for the time, anyway). You really felt like you were there, actually exploring this interesting and mysterious island. It had a lot of the things I like about adventure gaming, too: reading, learning, problem-solving, exploring… I’ve loved most of the sequels in that series, too: Riven, Exile, Revelations. I have to admit End of Ages was a little disappointing, and I didn’t really get into their MMO thing, Uru (but then, pretty much no one else did either).

Syberia was another example of a really engaging game. Unique concepts, realistic graphics, a heroine you could identify with, a world that’s interesting and fun to explore.

To me, a large part of the immersion factor is the music and sound. Final Fantasy VIII had a particularly haunting sound track; so did ICO.

Story. I like books. I like video games that are like books (that’s probably another reason I loved Myst: its creators were clearly as enamoured with books as I am). I like it when interesting things happen, and I can’t stop playing because I want to find out what happens next.

I think the most masterful examples of story-telling in games were Final Fantasy games. I mean, for starters, FFVII having one of the main, crucial player characters actually die is of course one of the most famous and best-remembered twists. I think some people may actually have cried there (especially if they spent serious time leveling her up!). Finding out that Cloud’s not entirely in control of himself because he’s been infused with cells from an evil alien. Or that Cloud basically fabricated an entire memory of his life, because it’s what he had wanted for himself (which was a little corny, since it means he was nothing but a poser, rather than the supreme bad-ass he made himself out to be).

Even better is Final Fantasy VIII. Plenty of plot twists there, even if a couple are a little corny (like, finding out that you and several friends you thought you’d just met had actually all grown up together as kids, under the care of the person who’s now your arch-enemy, because she’s been possessed by the Sorceress of Time, but you’d forgotten all about it because using the Guardian Forces erases memories). When Squall’s elite battle-training schoolground suddenly transforms into a kick-ass giant battle-station, or when Rinoa gets possessed by the Sorceress of Time while she’s at the space station… what the hell were they smoking? ‘Coz I want some of it.

Unfortunately, Square-Enix’s recent fare has completely lost me. I no longer trust them to be able to make even a halfway-decent game, let alone a master epic.

The Dig‘s story was great. Finding an alien technology that raises your comrade from the dead. Oh, but it turns out it’s destructively addictive, too. 🙂

Novelty. Portal. I don’t need to say anything more about that.

That was a major draw for Abe’s Oddysee, too. I mean, a wimpy alien who can’t even fight, but can lead his alien friends to freedom, turns into a flock of birds when he dies, and can possess his enemies? Friggin’ awesome. Still one of my all-time favorites.

Variety of gameplay. One thing that some of my favorite games have had is gameplay depth. Aquaria makes a great example of that; it has a story, it has swimming around in a serene sea, it has magic-like abilities controlled by singing specific melodic patterns, it has morphing into kick-ass fireball-weilding maniac, it has a recipe system for creating potent items from ingredients you find around, and it has a pretty kick-ass story. Final Fantasy VII and VIII (especially VII) had  a lot of fun mini-games. And as bizarre as Final Fantasy X-2 was, it was fun, because it was basically just a big collection of mini-games. I could never play it all the way through, though. The Gameboy Color Zelda games did a really good job of this, too.

So, that’s pretty much the list of things that are guaranteed to make me love a game. …Provided, that is, that it doesn’t severely suffer from any of the following flaws…

Pixel-hunting. The infamous flaw of many graphical adventure games. Far too many otherwise fantastic adventures made progress difficult because you had to pretty much sweep the whole screen with your pointer, sometimes over teeny-tiny areas, to find everything there was to be found. No fun.

Cryptic puzzles. I don’t have the patience to spend hours trying to figure out how to progress in a game. I love a challenge, but frustration is definitely not fun. If it’s not something I can figure out in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll flip to the walkthrough so I can move on to the fun part again. And there are plenty of adventure-game puzzles I’ve encountered that I never would have figured out. Shame on them.

Sometimes, puzzles are hard to solve because you never would have believed that the game would have let you do that, in a million years. As much as adventure game advertisements can drone on about a vast world which can be “fully explored”, no game yet is actually as “explorable” to anywhere near the same degree as the real world is. As a gamer, you just get used to the things you’re not going to be able to do, so you stop doing them. Because trying them every time would quickly get really, really tedious. Or, more often than not, the game itself trains you that it doesn’t let you do things like that. But then, suddenly, in one puzzle, you can do it, and it confuses the hell out of you because the game failed to prepare you for an understanding that, just at this one point, you can break the unspoken rules. Or sometimes, it’s something you would never even try in real life, because it’s unrealistic, or silly, or some sort of pun, or…

To be fair, this is a tough thing to avoid when you’re writing an adventure game. You definitely want to challenge the players. But it’s easy to cross the line from challenge to frustrate. There’s an art to providing enough cues so that players begin thinking in the direction they need to. An easier solution is to provide a “help” or “hint” solution. That can be fine if not overdone, but if you can get the clues just right in the first place, it’s a much more satisfying, if significantly more difficult, approach.

Tedium. Some adventure games, some RPGs, a significant portion of the time is spent on getting from point A to point B. Counting that as a part of your “90 hours of gameplay!!!” is criminal, plain and simple. Tedium is not fun. It is therefore not “gameplay”.

When people discuss the MMOs that are popular today, “grinding” sometimes comes up. That’s where you spend hours of game time doing repetitive, boring tasks to level your characters up or whatnot. Fuck that.

A word on realism. Realism is awesome when it’s realistic graphics, or if it’s something you enjoy doing. But, if your character is a farmer by trade, realistic simulation of the tedium of doing farm work, unless something interesting is added to that, is not fun. Please let’s remember that gaming is an escapist activity. We do it to have fun, because we want a break from doing work. Police Quest may have been a relatively “realistic” simulation of what it’s like to be a cop (depending on who you talk to); but Police Quest didn’t have you spending all day filling out reports. :p

Forget realism. We want realism in the fun parts. If we wanted real realism, a single bullet would have a decent chance of ending the entire game when you get hit. And would cause excruciating pain otherwise. And you wouldn’t be able to start the level over or begin a new game, because you’re dead.

RPGs frequently suffer tedium when it comes to battles. Boss battles can be fun, because they’re an opportunity to be forced to switch to a different fighting tactic. But fighting wave after wave of enduring mindless, robotic, random low-level enemy fights is also not fun, and a fairly cheap way to eat up “gameplay hours”.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough of that. I’m pretty much resigned to playing the same great games over and over again, with only the very rare and fleeting breath of fresh air.

Rom Check Fail

Fun game: Rom Check Fail, Windows and i386 GNU/Linux. From the site:


Carefully place a dozen arcade classics in a large mixing bowl. Add a dash of awesomesauce, cover the bowl, and allow the ingredients to ferment over three weeks. Uncover in a well ventilated area, then mash until loud and glitchy. Serve over the internet.

Simple “get all the enemies” arcade-style game with a twist: the player’s type, the type of the enemies, the music and the background are randomly selected from a variety of the best classic video games (Super Mario Bros., Pacman, Zelda, Breakout!, Asteroids, Spy Hunter, Space Invaders, Tetris, Marble Madness…), and randomly switch to something new every few seconds. Simple, fun, addictive, and a little bit buggy.

Not Especially Common

Tycho Brahe of Penny Arcade pretty much summed up my feeling of the current state of Wii games:

If your Wii is not used exclusively for bowling when your parents are over, you probably get excited when even the most rudimentary sort of game is released. This is because Wii games that even reach the level of “adequate” are not especially common. Speaking from our own experience, we’re hungry for almost any opportunity to make use of the machine, and each time it happens we’re reminded how much we enjoy using it.

(This is the introductory paragraph to his review of a new game that they deemed enjoyable, namely Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox.)

Reflections on Wii

The Way Games Were Meant To Be Played

So, I’ve had my Wii now for over a month. I’ve had a chance to play several games, and feel like I’ve pretty much broken it in.

From the first moment that you play it, it’s very clear that the Nintendo Wii is something very special. It’s a completely new gaming experience. You play games in ways you’ve never played before, and everything feels just so surprisingly natural. Like, shouldn’t this be what playing games was always like?

Shooters, and games with shooter components to them, have you actually pointing at what you want to shoot, and pulling a trigger. Flying a spacecraft or feathered mount or what have you, consists of holding your remote sideways, and tilting it to be oriented just as you want your craft to be oriented. The same for the cow-racing game in WiiPlay: the whole game is controlled by the orientation of the remote: you never press a single button. Tilt the remote to the sides to turn the cow, tilt it forward and the cow puts her head down and runs faster, tilt it back and she slows. Jerk it upwards, and the cow will jump! It’s a very natural and fluid way to control things.

In Rayman: Raving Rabbids, one of the first challenges you face is cow-hurling, where you swing a cow around on a chain, letting go at just the right moment, to send the cow flying as far as possible. This is achieved by swinging the remote around in circles above your head. Another has you conking rabbits on the head as if with a hammer, by pointing at them with the remote with your right hand, and swinging the Nunchuk attachment down to conk them with your left.

The Wii is such a great way to play games, in fact, that I’m not sure I’d be able to enjoy games on the next “next generation” platforms, unless the Wii’s control paradigms have become an established part of how games are played on all systems. I’m not sure how likely that is, since I imagine Nintendo has patents up the wazoo for all this.

Games, Unworthy of Their Medium

Having said that, though, I’ve had a steadily growing sense of disappointment since I bought my Wii, and it shows no signs of abating. The problem is, that as terrific and amazing a gaming platform the Wii may be, I’ve yet to find any actual games that I can really sink my teeth into.

The games that I’ve enjoyed playing the very most so far, are WiiPlay, Raving Rabbids and WarioWare. and none of these are actually games so much as they are collections of minigames. That gives them tremendous freedom to really get down and explore the Wii control paradigms in fun, novel, and amazing ways; but you can’t very well play just minigames all the time.

Super Mario Galaxy is great. Super Paper Mario, Metroid Prime 3 and Zelda: The Twilight Princess are merely okay. What all of these have in common, though, is that they feel like their controls have been contrived to be Wii-like, rather than really “made with the Wii in mind.” Of course, in point of fact, some of them weren’t—Super Paper Mario and Zelda are both available for GameCube as well.

Sure, I may be swinging my sword/remote to make Zelda attack, but it doesn’t have the same direct immersion factor that, say, swinging your tennis racket in WiiSports has. Sure, Super Mario Galaxy may make heavy use of the “spin” move, which requires you to flick your remote, but no one can tell me they couldn’t just as easily have made that be a button press. There are levels and spots that take more direct advantage of the Wii controls, but they’re really not part of the core gameplay (despite all of that, Super Mario Galaxy is a gorgeous and fun game, and would be gorgeous and fun on any platform it was created on).

Similarly, the game No More Heroes, which features a protagonist with a friggin’ light saber, doesn’t have you actually swinging your remote around for most of the attacks: you press the “A” button. You do swing the remote for Fatality-style final blows, and swing the remote and nunchuk in unison to execute various wrestling throws, and the game play is, all in all, really great (if you completely ignore the incredibly boring and poorly done GTA-style gameplay of the intermissions between the actual fights). But it still feels like the Wii controls have been tacked on, rather than being a core part of the gameplay.

I picked up the brand-new release of Ōkami for Wii. I loved this game for PS2. It came out around the end of the PS2’s lifetime, though, when 360 had already been out, and everyone was talking about how great the Wii was going to be, and the question in everyone’s mind who played that game, I think, was why didn’t these guys wait and release this for Wii? It’s perfect for Wii! This is due to the fact that one of the core gameplay elements is the use of a “divine paintbrush”, where different strokes with the brush achieve various results. However, I’ve been disappointed to find that using the Wii to play Ōkami, has been less enjoyable so far than it had been on the PS2. It actaully feels harder to paint with the remote than it did to use the analog stick, which seems strange. I don’t think it’s that the Wii wasn’t as natural for it as we thought, but I suspect that the team that did the porting may have botched it a little: it feels like it could be more responsive than it is. And, the main attack is performed by flicking the remote, but somehow it seems not to register my flicks all the time; and even when it does, it doesn’t have the speed and agility that a simple button-press would have had.

I feel like the Wii is a terrific gaming platform that’s still looking for the right games, which is a real shame. This split between traditional-genre games which could really have been done on any platform, and these exotic and fun, but light minigame collections, makes me think that maybe Wii developers should be more adventurous in how they design the larger games. We live in an age when the accepted genres have long been established, nothing at all like the glorious 80s, when they were still trying to figure out just what the hell they were trying to make, anyway. Publishers perceive nowadays that any departure from the norm is a grave financial risk. But the Wii’s best bet, I think, will be in radically different, out-of-the-box game design. The minigames obviously recognize this, and maybe some of the better minigames could become springboards to larger, deeper games. But I think it’ll be a while.

Even Traditional Games, Finally Done Right

One thing that has struck me, though, about playing even “traditional” games on the Wii, is that even when you’re playing the sorts of games that could’ve been done on the GameCube or PS2, it still feels more natural on the Wii than it would elsewhere. As I already mentioned, Super Mario Galaxy isn’t, at it’s core, a “Wii game”: you’re still moving mario with an analog stick, and pressing buttons (or swinging the remote in a way that could easily be replaced by a button). But, when I’m playing it, my hands are sitting relaxed at my side, or on the legs of my lap: they’ve been freed. If I were playing this on any other system, my hands would be forced together, both grasping the same controller, less than inches apart. And forced into a position so that the thumbs are pointing toward me (to grasp the analog sticks).

But, since the Wii has split the control across two controller components, my left hand, while manipulating an analog stick and a couple trigger-like buttons, can still be laying with the back of the hand up, the thumb and analog stick resting on the side, in total comfort. The right hand, likewise, can be in pretty much any position I want it to be, since it’s not forced to share cramped space with the left. Hell, I can even just lay lazily on the couch, with my left hand laying on the floor, and still deftly manipulate my digital avatar in complete, as I lay in maximum comfort. It’s such a subtle thing, but it feels so right.

It makes me think of the controller revolution that the original NES brought about. Before then, controllers were like Atari’s paddles and joysticks, where you basically used one hand to do the actual controlling, and the other hand was just to hold the friggin’ thing in place; or you had the Colecovision/Intellivision controllers, with awkward an difficult (even painful!) buttons on the sides, and actual numeric keypads on the front. Nobody did things that way anymore after NES demonstrated the obviously right way to do it. Everything that’s come after that has been a copy of, or an improvement upon, Nintendo’s original controller design (though, sadly, I wouldn’t call Nintendo’s hideous N64 or GameCube controllers “improvements”). I sincerely hope that the same will be true for the Wii’s control designs: it should be the foundation for everything that comes after it.

At this point, the Wii has lost it’s “glow factor” for me, and I’m able to spend my evenings doing more important things, with occasional breaks to play Wii (as opposed to Wii monopolizing my spare moments). I’m still looking for the game that will excite me, but expect it may take a while. I’m still glad I bought it, glad I have it; but it hasn’t abated my hunger for the truly great game, that these days seem to come about once or twice per year (last year’s were Aquaria and Portal, and probably BioShock), and last only days.


I picked up a Wii yesterday. 😀

I’ve been calling over at the local Game Crazy every day since Monday of last week. I’d been told they get them in about once every couple weeks. Finally, when I called yesterday, I was told that they got them in, but already sold them—but I was told I should call around to the other locations, since they generally get them at the same time. So I called, and they had ’em, I sprinted over (but it took an hour to get out there, since Sara had the car so had to swing by to get me, after picking Joy up from school). Anyway, they still had one left, so I snapped it up. I spent more than I really wanted to, but they gave me a good deal on used games (buy 2, get a 3rd free), which was only available with the purchase of the console; I also had to purchase a second Wiimote and accompanying Nunchuk attachment. As I’d planned to, I got the second Wiimote by purchasing WiiPlay, which comes with the Wiimote and is only $10 more than a regular one.

Haven’t spent much time with it yet, obviously, but it’s blowing me away so far. It’s such a great gaming platform. Playing Tennis on WiiSports is fun—you play it by actually swinging your Wiimote like it’s a tennis racket, and you can actually feel the impact of the tennis ball (thanks to the rumble motor), and hear it ricochet off, from the Wiimote’s built-in speaker. Another game I’ve played is Elebits, where you’re looking through rooms for these little creatures. To pull something open, slap it aside, or push it over, you just… pull it open, slap it aside, or push it over. It really engages you to participate in the game in ways never before possible.

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BTW: Aquaria

A while ago I mentioned a great-looking new shareware game coming out, called Aquaria. Well, it’s out now, I’ve played the demo, I plan to buy it (birthday present to myself?), it’s great. Go get it!

The bad news? Only out for PC at the moment. Mac version will be out shortly; it’s unclear whether there will be a version for x86-based GNU/Linux systems, but I couldn’t get it to work under Wine—it might yet, perhaps, with a bit more tinkering… but on my laptop running Ubuntu 7.10 (“Gutsy Gibbon”), the framerate was something like a frame per second-or-two. 😕

Update: Apparently, it does work with the latest versions of Wine from the official Wine repositories (as opposed to the ones that ship for Ubuntu). Good news. 🙂

Firetop Mountain

Back when I was working at Transmeta, a couple of coworkers introduced me to a terrific play-by-email game called Firetop Mountain. It’s a fun game of intrigue, of magical duels, of predicting your opponent’s moves while obfuscating your own, of reverse- and reverse-reverse-psychology. Your mage casts spells by making sequences of gestures (there are six possible gestures) between his two hands. Most spells only require the use of one hand, so one can be working on two spells at once; though some spells require a little cooperation between the hands.

By combining these simple gestures, mages can cast magic missles or fireballs, blind their opponents or make themselves invisible, cause injury or fatal illness to their opponents, summon one of six different types of monsters, cast storms of fire or ice, take possession of an opponent’s monsters, and even manipulate their opponents’ minds, or time itself. Naturally, there are also a variety of defensive spells, which mages can use to thwart their opponents’ attempts at gaining the upper hand. Mages are also each equipped with a dagger, for inflicting damage the good old-fashioned way. 🙂

Normally, once having joined the Firetop Mountain server, the server will automatically notify users when a new open challenge has been made (you can also challenge specific mages). However, the Firetop Mountain mailing list seems to be down currently, so it’s necessary to manually check the current challenges to see what’s available. Fortunately, I have a friend or two that I can simply keep challenging again after every duel.

If anyone who reads this decides to check it out, my user name there is “Sillig” (an interesting Middle English word that originally meant “holy” or “saintly”, but whose meaning and spelling later changed to become our modern word, “silly”). As you can see from the challenges link above, I have a couple mages waiting with open challenges (at the time of this writing, natch).

Awesome-Looking New 2D Scrolling Adventure: “Aquaria”

I just discovered this totally fine-looking 2D game coming soon for the PC from an independant group of developers. The game is called “Aquaria”, and appears to feature a blue-elf who does a lot of swimming, and apparently can toss fireballs (underwater?) and stuff. I don’t really know much about it yet, but the trailer looks friggin’ awesome. Here’s the YouTube version, but you can get videos with a bit more clarity at the developer’s website.

I found out about this project from a Digg post from a few days ago that I saved away (I was at work) and finally got around to checking out.

Update: Looks like it will run under Linux systems, as well. This game just got that much sexier!