As I mentioned in my interview with Dan Teasdale of No Goblin, I’ve been tending toward games that exude joy, even in the face of intensely difficult circumstances. This means that This War of Mine occupies an odd place in my videogame diet—intensely engaging, ethically serious, and emotionally nutritious, but frequently short on exuberance or hope.
I wasn’t sure how much of that was purposeful bleakness, and how much of it was simply a result of me playing the game badly or reading it incompletely. Luckily, Pawel Miechowski of 11 Bit Studios was willing to talk with me about the team’s intent, and what he hopes that players will take away from their rewarding-yet-taxing creation.
Drew M-M: Some of the most intriguing mechanics in the game involve the emotional stability of the playable characters—from general depression, to smokers getting edgy when they can’t find cigarettes. Would it be fair to say that this focus on mental and emotional health is meant to offer a contrast to the hyper-stoic heroes that are customary in military shooters?
Pawel Miechowski: It does look that way on the surface. However, we haven’t been designing This War of Mine with a focus on a contrast to traditional war games, but as an entirety to be an experience. What I mean is that the creative director Michal Drozdowski made a very reasonable point at the beginning (once the idea has been ignited) that we shouldn’t think of it as a some kind of genre, let’s say survival or strategy, but as an experience picturing civilians trapped in a city under siege, everything should be built around this assumption.
Every piece of the mechanics from that point was done with that in mind—to picture reality of war from [a] civilian perspective in every possible layer. Emotions of the characters say about few things: that people are different and have different personalities; that they are heavily influenced by the horribleness of war but also they do have little moments of joy, and finally that the emotional toll may be even heavier than the physical one.
DMM: On a related note, I’ve definitely had playthroughs where I haven’t felt much hope. Things have gone bad early and stayed bad. It’s entirely possible that I need to get better at surviving in order to see my characters at their most hopeful, but I wonder: was your goal with the game to increase players’ empathy for real people in desperate (possibly hopeless) situations, and maybe also to guide players toward eking out moments defiant optimism?
PM: I think a good comment to this would be quotes from feedback from veterans or survivors of war—feedback that we got after TWoM has been released. In short words, they sent us supportive words that we’ve made a game that is close to their experiences. (Big thanks here for all people who gave us the support and feedback!) For some, it worked as a catharsis, for some it was an experience that brought the topic of how real war may have looked like, and for some it was a tool to tell their own stories of civilians in war.
The message behind TWoM is: war can happen anywhere, anytime. And when it happens, we’re all the same people, no matter what is your nationality. I am moved when I hear TWoM can increase empathy, this is something really inspiring, and I believe I can say it on behalf on entire team.
There are three things I know about Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series:
1. The Red Wedding is some fucked up repugnant shit that basically puts an end to House Stark.
2. Tyrion Lannister is a badass by default, if for no other reason because he is played by Peter Dinklage, who I’ve adored ever since his breakout role.
3. Characters die indiscriminately all the damn time.
Armed only with those three bits of information, I delved into the first two episodes of Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series.
Right off the bat, we are introduced to one Gared Tuttle, a squire to Lord Gregor Forrester. He is the player’s avatar in this world and all of the decision-making in the first part of Episode 1 is from his perspective. Just like in the other Telltale Games entries since The Walking Dead, the character is shaped within the parameters of the story by the player’s response to different character interactions and situations.
We meet Gared literally minutes before The Red Wedding occurs and, as he is loyal to House Forrester, itself loyal to House Stark, things don’t go very swimmingly for him. He is quickly thrust into a world of chaos and uncertainty, which is absolutely a great place to suddenly drop the player into the narrative. We spend our time establishing our own sense of place in this strange world and adjust to what sort of person we want Gared to be and represent. Big decisions are made about the path that Gared will walk and when the time comes for Gared to embrace his destiny and move forward, we…
That’s Mira Forrester, eldest daughter of House Forrester and handmaiden to Lady Margaery Tyrell. The transition from Gared to Mira is unexpected and, for me, a bit clunky. Still, I did find it interesting that we are now looking at the same narrative from two different perspectives and two different locales. After all, Game of Thrones draws heavily from history (I think) and warfare and political maneuvering varied greatly depending on different factors like social standing, sex and gender, and location. So I’ll bite.
The next part of Episode 1 is spent establishing the character of Mira Forrester: her personality, priorities, loyalties, etc. Basically what we just did with Gared, but with a different sort of environment to be aware of. Whereas Gared is an aspiring soldier, Mira must navigate the arguably more treacherous world of bureaucracy and diplomacy, where her every action is scrutinized and a mild social faux pas could have far-reaching consequences. We familiarize ourselves with King’s Landing and begin to understand Mira Forrester’s role in the narrative and then…
Ethan Forrester is the third-born son of House Forrester who, through a series of unfortunate events, is made Lord of House Forrester at a very young age. During the last section of Episode 1, we (once again) establish all the things we need to establish about who Ethan is and how he responds to his abrupt and tragic elevation of status. He sort of bridges the gap between Gared and Mira, since he has to decide early on whether or not to take a more proactive and battle-ready approach or act in the interest of diplomacy, with the primary concern being protecting his family and house from the fallout of The Red Wedding. Things aren’t easy for him, and it’s definitely an uphill battle, but by making careful choices and acting accordingly and with resolve we…
Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series is an ambitious experiment in story-driven gaming in that it asks the player to assume several different roles, all active voices in the same overarching story. What little I know about Game of Thrones and its character-driven narrative suggests that this is a good decision, emphasizing the importance of interweaving actions that result in a dramatic story of cause and effect.
However, with the medium of video games having almost always been driven by the player assuming a single autonomous role in any given story, there are also several problematic components to consider. Chief among them: just how immersed are we meant to be? If we look at The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett as an avatar representative of the player, then Gared Tuttle is the Game of Thrones parallel. Both characters have a fixed past prior to the player assuming their roles, but there is clearly room to define and shape the character according to the player’s own sense of self and move forward from there. For all intents and purposes, they are blank slates.
Gared’s function as avatar is disrupted with the inclusion of Mira and Ethan Forrester. The focus shifts away from being an active player in a story and toward being a controller of characters in a video game. The game does attempt to let you establish your own Mira and your own Ethan, just as with Gared, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the game has now become less about interacting with the world for the sake of story immersion and more about “winning” some larger endgame. You’re no longer acting and reacting to the story and its characters, you’re building your own D&D team and you’re also kind of the dungeon master.
There is also the abundant source of canon to consider. I started this game knowing very little about Game of Thrones, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Drew (who is very familiar with the eponymous television series) made his decisions. Does the extensive knowledge of the series encourage players to stay on the path of R.R. Martin’s universe? Is it even possible to actually disrupt the canon and create something new? Do the Forresters even exist in the Game of Thrones canon? Is it “cheating” to use all that knowledge about canon in order to progress?
On our upcoming installment of Ready or Not, Drew and I will discuss whether those varying factors result in a beautifully executed game that pushes the medium of interactive narrative, or whether those same factors result in an unfortunately transparent, and therefore superficial, narrative that trips over its own convoluted ambition.
Sunless Sea is, fundamentally and at its core, a Fallen London roguelike. If you’ve played Fallen London (formally known as Echo Bazaar), then that might be all the information you need. Sunless Sea occupies the same frayed Victorian unreality, and it has the same grim erudition, the same vivid wordsmithing, the same penchant for putting the player in precarious, surreal situations.
But whereas Fallen London is essentially an elaborate delivery system for vividly described settings and branching storylines—some stats and RPG elements, some free-to-play-style cooldowns, but really, mostly, just the words and the choices—Sunless Sea aspires to hang all that on a frame of realtime nautical exploration.
Sunless Sea arrived in Steam Early Access in an uncommonly complete state. It was already full treacherous movement and enjoyably unforgiving management, all enlivened by Failbetter Games’ eerie and inimitable writing. As of today, the game leaves Early Access, and I’m happy—giddy, actually—to report that the systems for zailing and fighting and trading now hum and cohere with greater resonance. Sunless Sea has grown into exactly what I wanted out of a Fallen London roguelike, which is to say that I’m a bit overwhelmed by how inventive and evocative the whole thing is, and also by how truly terrible I am at it.
Well, I’ll get better.
Then again, maybe I won’t.
As I’ve said in reference to Arcen’s oeuvre, there’s joy in mastering a system, but there’s also a thrill in loving a game that you’ll probably never see all of. Hell, I just recently referred to some bosses in The Binding of Isaac as the “final” ones, not realizing that—without spoiling anything specific here—they very much were not. More than a hundred hours in, that game has significant possibilities that I’ve yet to exhaust—key paths that I’ve managed not to wiki-spoil for myself.
Sunless Sea promises similarly well-hidden rewards. It’s designed to be played across numerous player-character lifetimes, with some resources and unlocks (and of course, some knowledge) passed along with each new attempt. The game has 30 Steam Achievements, and all 30 are of them secret achievements, meaning that you don’t know the conditions for unlocking them until you’ve already gone ahead and unlocked them. Sunless Sea is that kind of game.
When I spoke to Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett about A Wizard’s Lizard, I offered lunch break roguelike as one possible way of describing the roguelike-alikes we love so well, and that not everyone is comfortable simply calling roguelikes. The lunch break-based terminology both does and doesn’t apply well to Sunless Sea.
I’ve definitely begun and ended in-game lifetimes in the space of an hour or less, but that’s more a testament to my own sloppy captaining than to the game’s intended pace. When I’m playing Sunless Sea well, I’m far more likely to start the game up, make a few key decisions, log out, and then go about my day with images of fungal swamps and beguiling devilesses floating around in my head.
I tend to play it kind of like Fallen London, in other words. That game’s free-to-play structures (entirely fair and ethical ones, it must be said) tended to limit me to quick bursts of play. Sunless Sea is friendly to that mode of engagement, but it’s equally well-suited to long sessions of arduous cartography (pushing ever further into the unknown) and wanton narrative gluttony (more story, more!)
Story and setting will probably always be the meat and potatoes of any Failbetter game. But the developer has now demonstrated great facility with accompanying flavors and aromas. Sunless Sea exemplifies games-as-imagination-food—and as long as I’m already straining this metaphor: it’s an uncommonly delicious meal, delicious friends.
Infinifactory feels like SpaceChem for the world that Minecraft hath wrought—which makes sense, given that it’s the latest from Zach Barth, who both masterminded SpaceChem and ushered in the Blocks ‘n Voxels Age with his seminal “infinifranchise” (Zach’s competitive mine-‘em-up Infiniminer was the direct inspiration for Minecraft, and well, after Minecraft came the flood).
“They’re all terrible,” Zach said of his infinigames when I spoke to him. I respectfully disagree (and he’s at least half-joking anyway), but his larger point stands: Notch took Infiniminer and made “something totally different and totally better.” Infiniminer sees Zach attempting something totally different and totally better, as well, building on his older work in unexpected ways.
Zach has been making games since those murky, pre-Kickstarter, “pre-Braid” days when, in his words, “nobody made money on indie games.” We’re now living in a world very different from that world, and Infinifactory sees Zach diving into the latter day indie development space with aplomb. (This means adding a layer of audiovisual and interface polish—again in his words, “making a game that doesn’t look like crap, and actually looks like something that you might like to give a shot to. Zach is a self-deprecating guy).
And also, Zach is a very chill guy.
You may quote me.
• Matthew Burns did in fact give us both that remarkable and highly useful article on “consumer-kings” and the Infinifactory soundtrack.
• And here’s Leigh Alexander on how gamer culture is sort of stuck in 1990, and what specifically she means by that is utterly fascinating and hugely important.
• I grabbed Max Barry’s Lexicon and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’m excited to read both. Do also consider checking out John Darnielle’s fairly spectacular novel, Wolf in White Van. And pretty much everything by William Gibson, obviously.
• And people, Over the Garden Wall really is just amazing.
• Toni Morrison was indeed the one who said the thing about being a conduit. Here’s what got me thinking about that idea recently.
“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by Spike Jones and His City Slickers.
“Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by The Raymond Scott Quintette, from the Microphone Music anthology.
Grim Fandango was something of a gateway drug for me, back in the hair gel-saturated Dark Ages of 1998. I’d just played The Neverhood, and been blown away by its fearless weirdness and its earthy religious allegories. Then I’d played The Curse of Monkey Island, and gotten lost in its lush cell animation, windblown piratey orchestrations, and groan-inducing puns.
I was on an adventure game kick, and that kick didn’t let up for quite a while. By and by, I played them all. But the thing is, I’m not sure I would in fact have gone ahead and played them all if not for Grim Fandango.
Grim Fandango, like The Neverhood, dared to look absolutely nothing like videogames were then supposed to look. But here it wasn’t just commitment to looking like physically sculpted (or hand-drawn, as Nintendo, well outside of the adventure game space, had just attempted and then attempted again).
No, for me at the time, Grim Fandango wasn’t just notable for how little it looked like other games, but also for how many other things it did look like. It’s a film noir Art Deco Land of the Dead, a highbrow aesthetic bricolage the likes of which I’d never seen. (This was almost ten years before Objectivist Atlantis was a canonical setting or a first person shooter, remember).
It opened my eyes to the Dia de Los Muertos imagery (and Deco/Mayan Revival architecture) that, growing up in Los Angeles, had been around me all along. It got me interested in art history. It got me interested in film noir.
And yes, it was the first adventure game that sent me hurtling backwards, not just forward to the next big release, toward older adventure games. LucasArts’ previous work— the older Monkey Islands and the Indiana Jonses, Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle—back to even earlier, even more wonderfully weird creations.
So the release of Grim Fandango Remastered gives me the opportunity to reminisce and evangelize, and also the opportunity to report that the game has aged really well. Part of that is due to the aesthetics being not just singular but smart from a design perspective. The pre-rendered environments scale up fairly nicely, and the characters’ sugar skull faces can wring a maximum of expressiveness and stylistic panache from a minimum of actual animation.
Yes, and I’m as fond of Tony Plana’s leading man turn as Manny now as I was then, and the story still packs more a few emotional punches, and the Land of the Dead still feels believable and (ironically) uncommonly lived-in.
And in the remaster there’s better lighting and a freshly orchestrated soundtrack, and you can now play with point-and-click, and with camera-relative movement—though you can also switch back to the old “tank” controls, and there’s an utterly perverse achievement for playing the whole game that way. I’d prefer a plain old black bar letterbox to the deco borders framing the game’s 4:3 images, but so far, that’s honestly the biggest complaint that I have about this rerelease.
Look, there’s no way I can be remotely clear-eyed about this game. Like I said, it was my gateway drug. Hopefully now it can be somebody else’s gateway drug, too.
Dan Teasdale stops by to talk about Roundabout, the debut game from his newly-founded two-person indie studio No Goblin. We discuss the game (which is awfully good), his previous work on Destroy All Humans! and the Rock Band series, and why we both love The Jackbox Party Pack.
And yes, he does divulge the origins of the name “No Goblin.” I then proceed to get kind of obsessed with Dan’s colloquial use for the word “goblin.” Sorry again if that got weird for you, Dan.
Roundabout is a game about driving an ever-revolving stretch limousine through an open urban/suburban landscape—an activity that is amusing as hell to learn, remarkably satisfying to master, and physically nonsensical in the videogamiest of ways—with a sweeping story in the style of Behind the Music, told through purposefully dodgy full motion video.
There’s really nothing at all like Roundabout, in other words. It’s funny, heartfelt, genuinely original, and audaciously weird. Count me all the way in.
• Here are Dan’s ten favorite games of 2014, as written up for Giant Bomb.
• I hunted down a (definitely totally not emulated) copy of Kuru Kuru Kururin, and just as Dan says, it’s exacting beyond all reason. Like, seriously.
Gravity Ghost is a game about jumping and flying through lush, physically plausible star systems of painterly planetoids. The most obvious point of comparison is Super Mario Galaxy—not only because you’re hopping tiny planets and collecting stars, but also because of the game’s emphasis on invention, surprise, avatar acrobatics, and colorful, exuberant visuals.
Here, though, each level is a bounded 2D playground rather than a semi-3D, quasi-scripted obstacle course, and the gavity has an Osmos-like verisimilitude. There’s “no dying, no way to fail” as the game’s Steam page says, and there’s certainly no vestigial, incongruously arcadey lives system. There’s just you, and the galaxy, and the question of exactly who you are and what you’re doing there.
There’s no dying, but that’s not to say that there’s no death. As that second half of the game’s name implies, you’re not simply in space. There’s something a bit more metaphysical, and also a bit more melancholy, going on. “Welcome to the afterlife. Here is your hug,” protagonist Iona says in one of the earliest levels of Gravity Ghost, summarily setting up the game’s wistful tone and its warm-and-fuzzy gallows humor. Everything is wondrous, magical, even joyful, but that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be alright.
It’s a world of uncertain (but intuitive) rules and incompetent (but generally well-meaning) care-takers, and Iona approaches it with the stoicism that actual kids can bring to actual adversity—that same dauntless, unafraid forward momentum that keeps Wren and Reynold going in the Costume Quest games.
I’m pretty entranced with Gravity Ghost, not least because its emotional beats and its playful physics both ring true, but also because its tone is so precise, deliberate, and distinct. It’s clearly a deeply personal work, and its numerous earnest eccentricities make it sing.
Also, key point, the game contains a very cute fox:
LISA looks and feels like a miserablist Earthbound, taking that game’s bright, flat, abstract pixel art and contorting it into something outwardly grotesque. Likewise, it takes Earthbound’s fractured Americana and playful JRPG battles and bends them into full-on cartoon nihilism. It’s generally uncompromising, sometimes harrowing, frequently oppressive, and absolutely worth your time if the preceding description didn’t send you running in the opposite direction.
There’s been some apocalypse or other, and as far as anyone knows, there are no women left, so this is the end of the line for humanity. Civilization has swiftly regressed and scattered into bands of endlessly warring, semi-nomadic, hyperviolent man-children, who have no higher aspirations than fighting, amassing power, and hoarding petty possessions. (LISA runs in RPG Maker, with some of the seams left visible, as if to nastily suggest that fighting and collecting until the end of time isn’t that far removed from most videogame scenarios).
Then our protagonist, Brad, finds a baby girl in the middle of the road, with no idea of where she came from. He raises her in secret, forming his small circle of trusted neighbors into a functional, even idyllic makeshift family—but he returns home one day to find her gone, and so he sets out to rescue her. (Again, this is a nihilistic mutation of the two most commonly stated goals in videogames: rescue the princess, and save the world. Here the kidnapped princess trope is whittled down to its queasy subtext, and the world is very probably not worth saving).
LISA is at its best when it’s earnestly and unremittingly bleak, forcing the player to make awful decisions with far-reaching implications. (See above image).
When the game attempts gleeful, smirking gallows humor, playing the horrors for laughs, it doesn’t always land quite so well. I think I’m supposed to find it hilarious, for example, that the tutorial had be beating up on a cute dog, and that I got railroaded into setting a bunch of children on fire.
I’m not offended or affronted by that kind of grimdark slapstick, but it does cheapen the tone a bit. The emotional core of LISA is Brad trying (and maybe inevitably failing) to do a modicum of good in this awful, awful world. So when Brad himself gets casually implicated in some manner of awfulness, it doesn’t feel horrifying so much as deadening and sophomoric.
It’s actually quite possible that deadening and sophomoric is how the world is supposed to feel, at least in places—but I’m playing in order to get invested in extreme situations, not to be a tourist in an environment of gore-strewn extremity-for-extremity’s-sake.
Thankfully (I guess), the game has no shortage of legitimately wrenching features, my favorite being that just about every enemy you fight is a distinct individual with a unique appearance and a full name. Your foes are never a mass of infinitely regenerating, haphazardly recolored skeletons. They’re people. But they’re no more sacred, and no less fragile, for being people.
On the other side of that coin, your party members are numerous and (if you can stomach it) disposable. And resting at a campfire always carries a certain risk that a member of your gang will abandon you, or get kidnapped or injured. The game sells the theme of life being cheap by refusing to generalize its characters—that’s not just some bard who died in a game of Russian roulette, it’s Nern Guan—but being entirely willing to sport a sky-high body count nonetheless.
It’s a counter-intuitively delicate thing, crafting a world this blunt and scorched and making it ring true, and LISA mostly pulls it off. My ideal version of this idea would focus more on terrible choices, less on punishing JRPG combat—I think I was hoping for Space Funeral: A Telltale Games Series, and LISA only occasionally resembles that particular pitch—but still, this is not an experience that I expect to shake or forget anytime soon.
Matthew Cox recently wrote that, in the recently released beta version of Kerbal Space Program, he prefers Science Mode to Career Mode, specifically because “experimentation is so much of what makes KSP fun, and it’s far easier to do that in science mode where there are no real consequences when everything inevitably explodes for no discernible reason.”
I agree wholeheartedly about that specific example—Science Mode provides something of a concrete goal without sacrificing the game’s roots as a physics sandbox—but Cox also got me thinking about a more general principle in game design: Games are more interesting when I, the player, can fail completely at my main objective and keep right on playing. I’ve written about desperate situations in the original Legend of Zelda, and mining order out of chaos in Super Time Force Ultra, and what I called spectacles of attrition in King Arthur’s Gold.
Scott Juster and Jorge Albor, meanwhile, have said that Mario Kart 8 is the best Mario Kart partly because you can have fun while losing at it (which is a hard thing to pull off, from a design perspective—especially in Mario Kart, where luck plays an undeniable role). I buy that. But let’s go with another, even more recent AAA example, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Shadow of Mordor is essentially two games at once, the first and more obvious one being a series nightmarishly rigid quests. Go here and do this, and be sure to do it within the designated mission area. Oops, you failed. MISSION FAIURE. Reason: You tried something novel and/or something interesting happened.
But as you’ve probably heard, there’s a second game semi-hidden in there, a fucking brilliant procedural open world masterpiece where any uruk who kills you gets promoted to Captain, and where Captains duel, feast, hunt, grandstand, bicker, grow powerful, and defend or betray their Warchiefs—where you can undermine and subvert Sauron’s forces or, better yet, make them into your forces, orchestrating a civil war among uruks and winning it by proxy.
The main thing that differentiates these two experiences, I would argue, is that the latter makes room for things to go wrong. Let’s say I’m trying to help one of my uruks win a duel, and I fail. My uruk gets swifty dispatched. The other dueling uruk (the one I don’t control) becomes more powerful, which could be bad for me, but the game doesn’t GAME OVER me, nor does it force me to start the section over. Rather, the game just keeps going, adapting to the new circumstances.
I can claim this other, apparently more powerful uruk as my own. Or I can seize the opportunity to kill him, or to interrogate him about one of the other Captains. There are lots of ways to salvage the situation—and even if things go truly wrong and I die, that simply means that my killer will become a Captain—a rival, a revenge target—and that all of the currently active feasts and hunts and such will resolve themselves without my intervention, leaving me with (possibly harsh) new difficulties and (probably exciting) new opportunities.
Basically, the game shines when it lets me ignore the main story and slip into another, stranger, messier one. This other story is built on the fly, and it embraces fuck-ups and unforeseen complications rather than finding them intolerable and insisting that I do it again and please have less fun this time.
This is the kernel of truth in Anna Anthropy’s half-serious adage that “AAA” refers to “a type of videogame that is only interesting when it breaks.” When everything goes according to plan in a big budget spectacle of a game, the play can get dull. Polished, and maybe even engaging, but never exactly exciting.
I’m confident that Kerbal Space Program will find the right balance between openness and hand-holding. Likewise with Prison Architect, that other slow-burning Early Access darling. But there are plenty of other games that could stand to let everything inevitably explode for no discernible reason. Within a sufficiently robust and flexible system, that chaos will only make things better.