Kentucky Route Zero by Night: Act 3 (Xanadu, Rock Mine)

I’m outside of time again, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. This time I’m headed to Belgium. I’m going to land in Brussels, and then I’m going to drive about an hour to a little town called Genk. It’s in the Flemish part of Belgium, so people are going to speak Dutch there, mostly—but practically everybody in Belgium also speaks French or German or both.

Later in this trip, I’ll learn that each linguistic group actually has its own government, federalized under the national one and existing alongside the figurehead monarchy. It sounds like chaos, and it maybe even sounds volatile, but everybody in Belgium, or in the Flemish part at least, or in Genk at the very least, seems to regard the system as first and foremost a waste of money.

Anyway, I don’t know any of that yet.

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I only know that they speak Dutch in Belgium, even, because I noticed that they were making flight announcements in Dutch as well as English and French, and I decided to wiki it. (When every announcement has to cycle through three languages, you have the time to wiki all sorts of stuff from the runway).

I barely speak French or German, but man, I really don’t speak Dutch. So there’s a better than even chance that, sometime on this trip, I’ll misunderstand or be misunderstood. Which isn’t usually a big deal. Usually it’s merely awkward. But occasionally it’s disastrous.

It won’t be at all clear what this has to do with Act III of Kentucky Route Zero unless you’ve played it. If you have, then you’ll probably know that it’s about misunderstanding, ambiguity, lapses in communication, leaps of faith. You’ll know about Ezra’s conversation with Junebug about how you can never be yourself until you’re sufficiently specific in how you describe yourself, and your relationships to others.

You’ll know that finally finding the Zero may be a matter of rendering the familiar unfamiliar, and vice-versa.

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You’ll know how ambiguities—including intentionally confusing, deeply nefarious ambiguities—have profoundly effected Conway’s body, and his sense of self, and how they may have just changed his career path as well. As he says at the end of the act, that’s just the way these things go sometimes.

And you’ll know about Xanadu, which (without giving away anything specific) is a Synecdoche, New York-style thought experiment about worlds within worlds, representations within representations, simulations within simulations—and also, appropriately enough, an attempt to create a surreal, alluring, vectory game-world within the surreal, alluring, vectory game-world of Kentucky Route Zero.

Not just a game within a game, but a version of this specific game living within this specific game.

Making sense of things, and sparring with the possibility that some things are nonsense, and worse, that you may lack the tools to know sense from nonsense.

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Like going to a country whose language you don’t speak, whose language you don’t even know until you’re already on the plane, harried business traveler that you are.

My misunderstandings were mild this time around. Misunderstanding how to use two lane roundabouts. Having a hell of a time finding my way back to the airport. Finding it more or less impossible to explain to the proprietor of the The Rock Mine in Genk that I’d like dinner as well as drinks—maybe because my German is awful and my Dutch is worse, or maybe because they play their metal at the appropriate volume, which is to say pretty loudly, at The Rock Mine.

That kind of thing. No big deal.

Nothing life-changing. Nothing urgent.

Not this time, anyway.

Lizardry, Technology, and What to Call Roguelikes, with Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett

ETAO Podcast, Episode 13.

 
At first glance, A Wizard’s Lizard doesn’t seem like a roguelike-alike, but more specifically like Binding of Isaac-alike, what with its distinctive combination of Zelda and Smash TV. But on closer inspection, A Wizard’s Lizard is a fairly different beast, owing more to A Link to the Past than to the original Legend of Zelda, and not exactly riding Isacc’s nightmarish coattails—more drawing from a common pool of Spelunky-afflicted design DNA.

Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett, the team behind A Wizard’s Lizard and the Lostcast, stop by to discuss their creation, the lizardry (sorry) behind its systems, the cult of Spelunky, and all manner of things that the three of us all really roguelike. (I’m so, so sorry).

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———

• Tiny Speck did indeed put all of Glitch’s assets not just into Creative Commons, but into the public domain.

• That Clay Shirky quote is from Here Comes Everybody.

Lars Doucet coined the term “Procedural Death Labyrinth.”

• For more about how games teach through their level design, take a gander at Anna Anthropy’s “Level Design Lesson” series, and also Extra Credits’ new “Design Club” series.

• Great Caesar’s ghost! There is a new Sequelitis about Zelda! (And it was in fact just two days old when we recorded this podcast).

• If you’re keeping score, Egoraptor hates Skyward Sword considerably more than I do, but still probably less than Alex Preston does.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“A Wizard’s Lizard” and “Buy Me Something!” from the A Wizard’s Lizard Original Soundtrack by Joshua Morse.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

The Oddness of Art and the Forgotten History of Sound, with Lila Newman

ETAO Podcast, Episode 12.

 
Self-described Actor/Writer/Comedian/Musician/Plant-Owner Lila Newman stops by to discuss her piece-in-progress about Ora B. Nichols—one of the most influential artists of early radio, and specifically of early radio sound effects.

You’ve heard Nichols’ work if you’ve ever heard the the 1938 version of The War of the Worlds. You know, the one produced by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air. The one that may or may not have freaked people all the way out when it was first broadcast. That one.

But despite being involved in something so iconic, Nichols herself is largely unknown and borderline-ungoogleable. At least in part, that’s because we don’t talk nearly enough about the history of radio, or of sound in general—and that’s because the aesthetics of radio have taught us all how to hear, to the point that we take those aesthetics for granted.

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Lila Newman walks me through a bit of that history, and along the way we talk about her work on A Prairie Home Companion, the endless oddness of making art (for lack of a better term) for a living, why not all performance art consists of “crying and punching meat,” and the importance of discussing women who did great work without essentializing or over-emphasizing their gender.

Also, we talk about Imposer Syndrome, which is quickly becoming a theme around here. (Ahem, and also-ahem).

———

• As I mention in the intro, arts.uchicago.edu made this interview possible. You can read my piece on Lila’s work and the Edes Prize over there.

• I mispronounce Descartes as “Dis cart” and Edes as “Eddie’s. And I say “Nakobov.” Ah well.

• Here again—hard to post it too often, really—is a link to the live Radiolab about The War of the Worlds.

• If you’re so inclined, you can go and listen to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, as well as some of The Mercury Theater on the Air’s other productions.

• And here’s that perform-your-own-4’33″ app.

• On the topic of trading in unhealthy compulsions for health(ier) compulsions, see also: Thomas Lennon talking about video game addiction/compulsion with The Indoor Kids.

Binaural recording is interesting stuff, and more people than you might think are giving it a whirl.

• Seriously, get out a pair of headphones to listen to Lila’s binaural recordings.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
Sound effects and ambient binaural recordings by Lila Newman.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

Evaluating Transistor

ETAO Podcast, Episode 11.

 
Transistor is Supergiant Games’ follow-up to Bastion—not a sequel, and definitely not a rehash, but just as definitely an iteration, a more refined approach to the same set of themes and gameplay ideas.

This time, the the skill system is a dizzyingly intricate mutation of Materia, rather than a more standard weapon combination system. This time, the beautiful ruined environment is a cohesive cyberpunk maybe-machine world, rather than a catch-all ersatz frontier setting. This time, Logan Cunningham is talking to you not as a semi-disembodied narrator, but as—well, spoilers follow.

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———

• Lucio refers several times to me interviewing Alex Preston of Heart Machine, and also to my conversation with Richard Terrell of Critical Gaming.

• I refer several times to Experience Points’ excellent Transistor debrief.

• For more on Apple-as-the-death-of-technoegalitarianism, look into the ignominious death of HyperCard.

• I didn’t know a damn thing about HyperCard until I read Anna Anthropy’s damn fine book on ZZT and the half-forgotten history of homemade videogames.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Impossible” from the Transistor Original Soundtrack by Darren Korb.

We’re on iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher. And let’s not forget Podbay.
You can also subscribe using good old-fashioned RSS.

Shovel Knight, Kickstarter, the Wii U Gamepad, and Magic

Shovel Knight is an adventure-platformer about a knight errant (who is, yes, armed with a shovel), rendered with the vivid pixel art and infectious chiptune fanfare of a late-period NES release. Critically, Shovel Knight doesn’t just look and sound like an NES game; it feels like an NES game. The levels have the fussed-over structure of Mega Man, the carefully choreographed enemy positions of Castlevania, and jam-packed nooks and crannies of Kirby’s Adventure.

Just as critically, the game doesn’t slavishly retread the stupider contentions of the NES days. There’s no lives system, for starters, and in its place is this Dark Souls sort of thing: the penalty for dying is that you drop some of your gold, and when you get back to the place where you died, the gold is hovering there in little winged moneybags. Die on the way back, however, and your beloved loot is gone.

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Shovel Knight occasionally feels like nothing more than a loving, catch-all tribute to a bygone era of game design. The spells have an Adventure of Link feel to them, and à la DuckTales, you can bounce around on enemies indefinitely, using your shovel as a lethal pogo stick. The more NES games you’ve played, the more parallels like those you’ll notice. (Am I imagining the similarities between Shovel Knight and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers? Is that just affection talking?).

That being said, the game more often feels like an actual NES game made in the the actual 1980s, but with the help of some alien futureperson, unhindered by 1980s technology and cognizant of the good parts of game design circa 2014.

There’s a special kind of magic, by the way, to booting up a game like that on the Wii U. You press the directional pad, and it feels like a Nintendo directional pad, and Shovel Knight moves like an NES hero (and the idea of a knight with a shovel, it occurs to you, is just the sort of agreeable nonsense that thrived in NES games).

You see that familiar font—they really got the fonts right—scrawling Shovel Knight’s oddly touching tale across the screen of of the Wii U Gamepad, and you think, this gimmicky piece of hardware contains all the same wonder that my NES did, and then some. Things are going to be just fine.

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Given all that, Shovel Knight is excellent news for anyone who wants to believe in the Kickstarter model.

We’ve known at least since FTL that truly great games can begin in that weird new world of crowdsourced funding and wild expectations, of fans-as-investors and carnival barker salesmanship. But it’s tricker when a project is sold at least partially on the strength of nostalgia—on the promise of some old form or genre or style being recovered, revived, revitalized.

It’s tempting to think of nostalgia-steeped Kickstarter pitches as shortcuts, and indeed, if you’re looking to rack up pledges quickly, tapping into your backers’ fond memories is a reliable way of doing so. But it’s a bit of a monkey paw wish. Once the dust settles and the kicks are started and all, developers are left with an impossible set of expectations: make it exactly like that older thing, but also make it totally new and fresh and exciting.

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What we think we want is for these new games to simply be just like those old games (which were better, we half-think). But on some level, what we actually want is new games that are the old games they’re recalling. We want Broken Age to bottle what it was like to play Grim Fandango for the first time.

It won’t. It can’t.

But what it can do—and still might—is feel like an adventure game built by an alien futureperson. It can bring new insights to old conventions, fresh eyes to hoary tropes, new worlds to old modes of world-building.

That might be what a generation of Kickstarted genre revivals has been aiming at, without quite knowing it.

Hacking It in Hack ‘n’ Slash

Somebody at DoubleFine has been playing FJORDS, I daresay. They’ve now got their own game that asks the question, What if, while playing a game, you could break it open and mess with its rules?

As the name puns, Hack ‘n’ Slash is a Zelda-style top-down action-adventure game where the hero’s sword is a USB key. Anything with a port, you can hack into adjusting variables much like you would if you were futzing around in the code itself. Need to push a block? Program it to do what you need it to do when pushed. Need to use a monster’s behavior to solve a puzzle? Rejigger the enemy.

Low on health? Find a bush and set its HEARTS_TO_DROP variable on that bush over there to a high number. Then (here’s the important part) change the bush’s ON_FIRE variable from “false” to “true.”

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Where FJORDS evokes the ragged arcana of early videogames, Hack ‘n’ Slash belongs to the plot-propelled milieu of the 16-bit era and beyond. As Leigh Alexander described them in Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers, the earliest games

were finicky about their syntax—”TIE ROPE,” you’d demand and “TO WHAT,” it would ask, and “TO TREE” would confuse it, but merely answering “TREE” would not. It was always, always possible that you had the right answer to the puzzle, but the wrong words, the wrong verbs.

Not so with the Zeldas of the world. Text-entry gave way to the endlessly pleasurable sensation of moving a little physical character around a little physical location, knowing what verbs you had at your disposal, and using them to gradually explore and master a fantasy space. Hack ‘n’ Slash feels much more like that, but the toolset is cleverly proximal to how the game-world is, in fact, working under the hood. You don’t need a candle to set that bush on fire, nor do you need better armor to reduce the amount of damage that spiky turtle does to you. If you can understand how something works, then that’s usually sufficient to change how it works.

There’s some typing, true enough, but it’s within the confines of orderly and context-specific menus. There’s no omnibus terminal for changing the whole of the world like there is in FJORDS—just a menu for that rock, for that raven. This makes the wider game-world feel a bit less thrillingly hackable, but it also makes the play feel less daunting, more inviting, even once you’re fairly deep into the freakin’ code of the freakin’ game.

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As a fullscreen, right-off-the-bat disclaimer is quick to remind me, Hack ‘n’ Slash is still a work in progress. It’s not always elegant in how it handles the stupider situations I can get myself into—stuck between two rocks, to cite the simplest example—but none of those foibles have so far impeded my progress or muted my desire to tinker.

And tinker I have. Things get markedly crazier in the game’s procedural dungeons. I won’t spoil those bits, but as the game’s marketing blurb promises, “You’re hacking the game for real! You can totally break it,” though you can also always roll back to some more innocent time before you broke it.

It’s the most accessible version of the hack the world gameplay idea that I’ve encountered so far, as it comes packaged with the snappy dialogue, pithy characterization, and lovely visuals that you’d expect from DoubleFine. It’s an awfully good little game that could end up being a truly great little game.

The First Few Days with The Last Federation

Another new Arcen game! Time for me to celebrate its singular vision and unmatched breadth, and then lament how much I suck at it. You know the drill.

The Last Federation combines the all-scales-at-once space strategy of AI War with the core concept of Skyward Collapse: managing the balance of power among competing civilizations. But the game gets much deeper into politics (both grand and petty) than AI War does—and whereas Skyward Collapse tasked the player with keeping two asymmetrical human societies from wiping each other out, The Last Federation asks you to manage a eight planets, each populated with a different alien race, each with its own strengths and weaknesses and its own history and its own political system, for Sid Meier’s sake.

To complicate matters further, your goals are a bit more nuanced (and/or nefarious) than simply keeping everybody alive long enough to erect something culturally significant. No, this time around, your goal is to establish a new and preferably everlasting Federation throughout the solar system. This could mean uniting every race under a common banner through cunning diplomacy, or it could mean bolstering the military might of one until it wipes out all of the others, or anything in between.

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But you’ve got to manage politics, and you’ve got to blow shit up in space. I’ve had no success trying to create my space empire just by one means or the other, and indeed, there are plenty of important actions that explicitly involve doing both: once you decide to bring spacefaring technology to some planet that doesn’t currently have it, for example, you’ve then got to physically deliver the goods to your would-be benefices. Between you and them, a whole lot of shit in space that must be blown up.

There’s a Spectator Mode where you can just watch the eight worlds interact, declaring war, reaching peace, holding elections—news crawling across the bottom of the screen in a sort of grand strategy Twitter feed—seeing populations rise and fall, economies flourish and falter, ships swarm from homeworld to frotnlines, swirling around like an incredibly violent and mathy lava lamp.

Observe this spectacle long enough, and you’ll see the planets forming alliances without any help from you—and sure enough, dive back into a hands-on campaign and you’ll find that you’ve got rebel alliances and rival empires to contend with. And from your perspective, rival empires are just rebel alliances grown to unwieldy scale. Anything that isn’t your intended Federation is a roadblock to be removed and dismantled.

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Worth nothing: The Last Federation continues Arcen’s recent attempts to be less impenetrable without sacrificing depth. The default campaign mode introduces new features gradually, slowly dialing up the variety and complexity of tasks—and there are two separate difficulty settings, one for space combat and the other for political intrigue. I tend toward simpler pew-pewing and more complicated diplomatic quagmires, personally. As a rule, I’m all for games letting me say make this harder in this specific way (like the shrine system in Bastion) rather than just make this harder, whatever you think that means. So that helps.

The Last Federation has a propulsive energy (not to mention a pulpy visual sense) that sets it apart from the rest of Arcen’s catalog. It’s a game about the desire to make order out of chaos, and about the grim totalitarian side of that desire, and it explores that theme with rigor, cleverness, and copious gallows humor. I instinctively get the game in a way that I never quite got AI War.

Though I do still suck at it. Let’s be clear on that point.

Jazzpunk as an Object of Unfathomable Density and Consummate Silliness

Jazzpunk is a brief, bizarre spy pastiche (kind of), structured around a few loose, goofy puzzles and packed to an unfathomable density with glorious little jokes. The game’s been published under the rapidly expanding purview of Adult Swim Games, and Jazzpunk does indeed fit in well with the Adult Swim legacy—rapid-fire absurdism, gloriously shameless punning, and assorted nigh-inexplicable hallucinogenic weirdness.

It’s been compared to Airplane!-era Leslie Nielsen movies as well. I buy that. Or imagine if Davey Wreden and thecatamites collaborated on an adventure game adaptation of Get Smart. Or if Gravity Bone took place in the same universe (but had none of the same characters) as Cowboy Bebop. That’s what Jazzpunk is like.

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The game is divided into four missions, each with a single central goal and bouquet of wonderfully pointless detours (which generally contain even stranger and even more pointless achievements, Matryoshka dolls of bizarre in-game actions, silliness for its own sake nested in other silliness, equally for its own sake). Affectionate parodies of other games and other styles of games abound, but always in service of the game’s primary goal, namely making it more or less impossible to know what’s going to happen next.

Few if any of the jokes in Jazzpunk are about ludonarrative dissonance or the strangeness of doing game stuff in the midst of a story. Rather, they’re about taking the strangeness of games and running with it. The game revels in the odd and the artificial and the awkward. The dialogue manages to be both clipped and rambling. The often limbless, peg-like characters rub up against things and each other in order to interact—tangled up in ambiguous verbs, frobbing forever.

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It’s the funniest game I’ve played since The Stanley Parable (though it’s funny in an entirely different way), and it’s probably yet another one of those games where you’ll get more out of it if you go in cold. (See also: Antichamber, Papers, Please, and every other game ever).

I feel like I’m beating that drum a lot lately, the give-yourself-a-chance-to-have-a-fresh-reaction drum. But that’s only because we’re at this critical, confounding, spectacular moment for games—this moment when there’s all sorts of stuff out there that’s ready and able to really and truly surprise you.

Jazzpunk will surprise you in all manner of silly-as-fuck ways. Go let it.

Unlocking TowerFall Ascension

TowerFall Ascension, that former OUYA exclusive and recent Steam arrival, gets so much of the big stuff right: intuitive controls and mechanics, fathoms-deep gameplay achieved without undue complexity, all that. But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is how right the game gets something small: unlockables.

I used to have a ritual for when I bought a new multiplayer game, and especially a new fighting game: I’d start by unlocking everything. The unlocks that required lonely singleplayer grinding, I’d grind through. The unlocks that required multiplayer stat-pumping, I’d cheat by messing with the match settings as best I could and playing through sham fights over and over, two or three or four controllers sitting on a table in front of me.

It just felt right. I vividly remember doing this with Soul Calibur II, and with Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl. It was a weird, compulsive, antisocial way to begin playing games that were meant to be played socially, and that I myself would in fact play socially—once I’d ritually prepared to do so, that is.

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Games have largely moved away from the opulent unlockathons of old—sometimes because those unlockables are unethically repurposed as paid DLC, but just as often because designers have come to see unlockables less as gameplay-lengthening value-adds and more as tedious homework.

When it comes to unlockables, TowerFall balances social and antisocial play better than just about any game I can think of. Some of its secrets require powering through the singleplayer-only Trials Mode, deciphering game-wide puzzles, and progressing in the new co-op-optional Quest mode. Other secrets are designed to be stumbled upon naturally, through multiplayer.

Happening on a new character or stage through sheer, undirected messing around feels fantastic, as does solitary, intentional puzzle-grinding. TowerFall rewards me for playing it the way it clearly wants to be played, and for playing it the dumb ritual way that I like to initially play games of multiplayer combat.

It reminds me that game design has grown up a bit. Sometimes more than I have.

Preparing for the Yawhg Alone, Together

The Yawhg is a game in which one to four players prepare for the titular, ill-defined, quasi-apocalyptic thing that will hit their town in six weeks. Each week is a single turn for each player, and so the pace is brisk and every choice matters. Dread hangs thick over the whole game, and there are in fact plenty of things that can go wrong before the Yawhg arrives. I’ve had characters who’ve been injured or incapacitated, broken physically or mentally, abducted by monsters or turned into monsters themselves.

But the most persistent and pervasive fear is that whatever quality you’ve been fostering—wealth, charm, finesse, physical aptitude, magical aptitude—will be useless or insufficient when the promised catastrophe arrives. That’s a fear that cuts deep, for me. I know that I find myself wondering whether the ways in which I spend my time really are valuable. I know that I find myself half-wishing, stupidly, that some urgent and decisive crisis would come along and truly test my mettle, once and for all.

We like survival tales and post-apocalypses because they’re so definitive. There’s no room for artifice or superficiality. You find out what matters, and what doesn’t. What’s sustainable, and what isn’t. There’s no room for ambiguity, and therefore, we like to imagine, no room for neurosis or anxiety. Dire situations makes the between cause and effect, between choice and consequence, entrancingly minuscule.

We’ll all know what we’re worth to each other soon enough. That’s the narrative, thematic, and emotional space that The Yawhg occupies.

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One of the game’s smartest design decisions is that, even in multiplayer games, the player-characters don’t directly interact with one another. They’re barred from, say, both spending the week in the town hospital treating the sick. They can take turns chopping wood or fighting crime or learning alchemy, and they can even save one another’s lives by doing so, but they can never do it together.

The Yawhg would be a pretty fundamentally different game if the players were an in-group of survivalists— or for that matter, if the game took place in a tiny village, or if it contained a bunch of NPCs with dialogue trees. The Yawhg doesn’t just threaten a handful of narratively relevant people. It threatens the whole town.

Isolating the player-characters’ doomsday preparations makes their relationships, and their responsibilities to one another, far more abstract, in that Benedict Anderson kind of way. You get the sense that your actions could save or doom a lot of people that you care about, without having to actually meet very many of them and without anything so trite as a save-the-world narrative being in play.

When we survive the Yawhg’s onslaught, we all do it together. And when we fail, we all fail each other. But what we’re all worth to each other is, ultimately, a measure of who we’ve each individually decided to be, and how we’ve each elected to spend our limited time. That’s heady stuff for a game (or anything else) to express so succinctly, through sheer consistency of tone and design. Which makes The Yawhg a fairly remarkable creation.