Space, the final frontier. To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Such is the continuing mission of the starship Enterprise, but it could be yours too. Or at least that promise helped FTL: Faster Than Light‘s Kickstarter gather over $200,000 back in March, no less than 2000% of its initial goal. Now, some five months later, the roguelike is finally available on Steam, making it one of the first Kickstarter projects to reach commercial release and, it seems, success. In light of this, it’s impossible to assess FTL in isolation. Its quality, but also its reception, will inevitably set standards for future projects. How does the actual product compare to the vision that was sold not so long ago, and how will backers respond when the two differ? How has the game benefitted from going so far above and beyond its first humble goal? And of course, what of the game itself?
The goal of the project was to capture “the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy” and with those lofty ambitions in mind FTL can only be called a partial success. While you certainly get to feel like the captain of your own vessel, ordering around the crew and redirecting power to various subsystems, it would be wrong to say that said vessel is exploring the galaxy. In order to save the federation from evil rebels, your ship needs to deliver an undisclosed secret to federation headquarters by racing through a narrow, if randomized corridor of sectors. Exploration within individual sectors is somewhat more open, but still limited by the constantly advancing rebel fleet. Rather than letting you roam the vast distances of space, FTL puts you on a straight road with a clear goal. Its focus is not freedom, but combat and upgrading.
Your trip across the galaxy is no mere milk run, and most of the randomized encounters travelling from system to system will pit you against another ship. While combat in other space games is mostly concerned with navigation, FTL instead tries to simulate the interior of the vessel. To keep your boat running, let alone fighting, you need to keep a whole host of subsystems manned, powered and in repair, while trying to disable your enemy by attacking those same subsystems. FTL’s most ingeniously atmospheric achievement lies in making you realize just how frail a contraption your spacecraft really is: You’re never more than one or two unlucky hits away from big, big trouble. Hull breaches and fires might force you to surrender parts of your own ship, boarding parties and drones are dangerous to your crew.
FTL is full of wonderfully tense moments, whether you are forced to abandon all posts to fight back intruders while still taking missile hits or when you need to fight fires by opening entire sections of your ship to space. Unfortunately, the pressure to keep moving, fighting and upgrading means there’s no way to really recover from such a hit. The resources you need to pour into fixing your hull and hiring new crewmembers should be spent preparing you for the next fight. Without those upgrades, you’ll probably end up taking more damage, meaning you’ll have to spend more resources on repairs, meaning you again can’t upgrade and take more damage. Especially early on, such unfortunate events can send you on a vicious cycle. Half your crew burned up by solar flares, your ship smashed up in an asteroid field. Whether you go down now or limp away, you probably just lost the game.
But even though surviving by the skin of your teeth is frequently a vain triumph since the game affords you no respite, the frantic tension of trying to hold your boat together with duct tape and sheer force of will only adds to the atmosphere of FTL‘s tactical combat. The game is far more linear than its Kickstarter has led me to believe, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. To demand that there simply should be more of the game is criticism on a very high level. This little indie gem bears a very fitting name: FTL is quick, nimble and bright.
If you recall this years drunken birthday post, I announced my intent to pick up Andrew Walt’s efforts at building an amateur gaming publication. On July 1st, I sent out an email to my various contacts. After two months of hard work and relative silence on this here blog, our first issue is finally complete.
Barring catastrophic mishaps, Haywire Magazine will launch as planned on September 1st, featuring four articles and four column pieces, about 9,000 words of content by six contributors, excluding myself. Not bad. Not bad at all, if I do say so myself. Our next issue, on games journalism, will go up on November 1st and then every two months after that.
Keep an eye out for those on the basic WordPress site I put together. It’s currently still empty, but that will change soon, and I’d appreciate any subscriptions or future comments.
When I decided to go for this, I assumed it was going to be a lot of work. Instead, it has turned out to be completely exhausting. Between taking pitches, brooding over drafts, motivating writers and quite a bit of time spent arguing, I easily sank 50 hours into this issue. Maybe 100. Even if some tasks I won’t have to tackle again, like building a WordPress or setting certain standards and guidelines, I have no idea how I’ll keep this going when college kicks back in. But I will.
It’s been phenomenally weird, working on this. Never before did I have to beat a contributor into submission, never before did I go the press route of contacting developers, or visit developers at all (Fortunately Broken Rules have been very nice), and never before did I have to give so much writing advice, with authority.
Which has made me realize that I spend more time staring at small details, the flow of individual sentences, than examining the larger structure of articles. It seems I’m a more capable technician than a mastermind right now, and I still don’t know how exactly I should change. A project like this is never done. I could always spend more time looking at the drafts for even more fixes and cleanups. The only thing making the current versions final is my judgement, for better or worse.
But then, I’d sooner do too little to an article than too much. I don’t want to impose my own voice on every piece, and risk breaking their own burgeoning style. Working with an editor, or somebody trying to pass for one, is one of just two benefits I can offer, but the other is a chance to see your own article in a shiny .pdf magazine. Even if I had time to do so, I don’t want to polish those submissions past the point of recognition, and break any illusion of creative identity. Perhaps the articles are a little worse off for it, if you can believe I have any form of talent for editing, but will still be their own.
Considering how and why the previous amateur publication attempt failed, I wanted to stay pragmatic and set a guideline: Content is better than no content. It’s better to have flawed content, than no content at all. If this sounds like I’m defending myself, it’s because I am. It’s strange, when I read articles in other outlets I tend to think I’m getting the pure, unfiltered mind of the author. For Haywire, I assume everyone is going to read it as a reflection of my work as an editor, gate-keeper, strategist and guardian.
It may be in name only, but I’m Editor-in-Chief now. Bitch.
Despite the game industry’s fascination with big names, the influence a single designer, even one as prestigious as Jade Raymond, Sid Meier or Michel Ancel, has on a multi-million dollar title is minimal. The glossy triple A games of today are collaborative efforts of hundreds and hundreds of people, and while this has done wonders for the games’ polishing, their ability to express an individual, personal thought, idea or emotion has dropped in indirect proportion to the ever-growing size of development teams.
This expressive side of the industry is now often seen as the realm of the growing indie scene, smaller teams and bedroom developers that have given us wonderful games such as Audiosurf, Osmos or Limbo. Sipping moccacinos at some coffeeshop, Macbook in tow, these people spend their days carving art out of magical obsidian and their nights dreaming up new gameplay ideas to pursue, or at least that seems to be the rather romantic view the larger gaming audience has on the indie process. But what is it really like to conceive and create a game of your own, on your own? To make something this deeply personal and hold it up for public appraisal?
With the crowd-funded documentary Indie Game: The Movie, first time film-making duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky set about answering these questions with an in-depth look at the people behind the scenes of indie smash hits. By way of example, the film follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat through crunch time for Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish, as he presents his game Fez (at the time four years in the making and still in various stages of disarray) at PAX after a long public absence, while Jonathan Blow muses about his widely acclaimed mindbender Braid.
This trichotomy works well for the movie, as the three developers in question are not only stuck in different parts of the cycle, the outside interaction of promotion, media coverage and legal hassle, the deep-in-the-trenches coding and the “What now?” phase following success, but also add something through their varied personalities. McMillen and Refenes offer their own slightly weird and pessimistic, but ultimately grounded perspective. Fish, all nerves and need for appreciation, is more easily shaken by setbacks and he hides this vulnerable side behind a controversial facade. Blow, though calmer on the outside, is similarly sensitive when it comes to the reception of his work, which is shown through the amount of control he tries to exert over the creative discourse surrounding his game.
Indie Game: The Movie uses this wealth of footage to touch on more or less every problem and obstacle in the life of an indie developer: Financial troubles, karmic low blows, the frustration of shouting at the big, uncaring wall that is publishers, being so closely tied up in a project that it takes over your identity, being so closely associated with it that its eventual success or failure will be forever connected to your name, the fear of missing the forest for the trees, the nerve-racking realization that someone else is holding the legal kill-switch for your dreams. As McMillen, Refenes and Fish go through these hardships, we are presented with their raw, emotional, unfiltered feed.
We get to see them at their best, talking about design and art all starry-eyed, but we also get to see them at their psychotic worst: overworked, tired and stressed, facing a precarious future. In these moments, they make some rather crass statements, as artists are wont to do. People might take issue with some of the things that are said, but the film does well in presenting them. That is its job as a documentary, and while these moments never feel dishonest, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes McMillen’s, Refenes’ and Fish’s words do not so much show their genuine opinions as they do serve to express a spur-of-the-moment sentiment. Hell, some of the most controversial lingo in the movie is just them using language as a coping mechanism.
Aside from some brouhaha over content, Indie Game: The Movie is almost without fault. Not only has it been blessed with rich source material, but it also makes clever use of the footage at hand, melding the experiences of three teams into a cohesive whole. Through some great structuring and editing, three personal tales have been cut to play right into each other, highlighting the transcendent message behind. Effect-driven sequences and the narrow cast of expert opinions provided can feel a bit underwhelming at times, but on the whole Indie Game: The Movie offers an insightful and heartfelt look into gaming’s auteur scene. Whether you’re into indie games or the creative process in general, this movie is well worth your time.
Games and music have always enjoyed a strong relationship. The driving 8-bit tunes of yore now live on in their own reverent, nostalgia-flavored musical genre, while memorable recent songs have managed to transcend their own products to be elevated to celebrated hallmarks of gaming culture. But as tightly woven as the connection between games and soundtracks might be, relations of power and dominance tend to be one-sided. With the possible exception of rhythm games, music in games only exists to heighten your enjoyment of the game itself: its mechanics, its set pieces, the act of play.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP goes a step further. Sword & Sworcery is less a game unto itself than it is a palate cleanser, a collection of puzzles and fights designed to heighten your enjoyment of the game’s music. Its cryptic narrative, the deliberate pauses and breaks, all is intended to get you into the right mindset to appreciate Sword & Sworcery‘s peculiar blend of rock, jazz and electronic beats.
To that end, Sword & Sworcery‘s adventure game content is broken up into four individual sessions to click, click, click your way through as you help The Scythian on her woeful errand to save the game’s forest idyll from the dark spirits of nearby Mingi Taw. Everything along the way, from fighting to puzzling to sworcery, the eponymous act of magical song, is controlled through a streamlined system of pointing, clicking and dragging, a testament to Sword & Sworcery‘s iOS origins.
Something has certainly been lost in translation to traditional mouse controls, as some of the tactile challenges of operating on a touchscreen with broad strokes have transformed into the kind of frantic clicking and hot-spot searching that adventure games are now generally reproached for. However, Sword & Sworcery‘s Steam release might also have benefitted from this transition, since the game works best in the kind of calm environment one is more likely to find in front of one’s computer screen than on the subway.
In either case, the real star of the show is not the puzzles or swordfights but the well-crafted soundtrack they are supposed to highlight. In terms of music, but also in terms of ambient sound and the use of pauses and breaks, Sword & Sworcery features stunning audio, and the structure of the game has been designed around this fact, though to varying success.
After 15 varied and melodious minutes, Sword & Sworcery‘s first session ends on a high note by taking you out of the experience and suggesting to let some time pass before you resume play to prevent oversaturation. Unfortunately, this dedication to taut structuring doesn’t continue into the game’s second act, which sends you on two virtually identical fetch quests. The progression of these two is tied to the passage of time outside of the game, and while there is a way to speed up the process if you don’t want to wait, completing the session will require some running back and forth, whether in the digital world or the real world.
As interesting as this connection to the actual physical world may be, it was unwise for Sword & Sworcery to let go of the player’s hand for such a long time, for in games as in music, timing is key. Your mileage going through this section of the game may vary considerably. Not everyone is going to see fault, or experience the amount of frustrated wandering I did, but the fact that its structure even allows for mindless backtracking is a problem for a game that thrives on novelty and variety. Not a big problem, but a problem nonetheless.
However, my complaints about Sword & Sworcery‘s less than optimal structure are easily balanced by the simple fact that its songs, in a way the game’s real content, are really, really good. There is a brief bit at the end of the first section, in which the Scythian and her companion Logfella walk back to Logfella’s hut after the first bout of adventure. As they are walking home, they start to sing and we get to hear the instrumental cover of that moment.
That moment, in a nutshell, is Sword & Sworcery. Mechanically sparse and a little coarse, but nice to listen to. The song in question is called The Prettiest Weed. If you like it, you’re probably going to like Sword & Sworcery too.
It’s been a while since my last personal update here, presumably a sign that I don’t know how to run a blog, but today I’m going to break with tradition and bore you with details of my life, personal plans and worries. Why? It’s my birthday.
I’m 21 now. Just old enough to start drinking, in some parts of the world. Funny how that turned out huh? But while I do mean to repeat last years celebratory drunken retro-gaming get-together, festivities will have to be postponed until the end of exam season. I’ve going through this semester a bit lackadaisically, ignoring most reading and assignments until the last second. Well, now is that second. While I’m not enjoying this kind of crunch time, especially in the sweltering summer heat, the workload still looks manageable, even if I might have to skip some exams now in favor of the second sitting. These kind of delays are something I could probably avoid given a little more effort, but I am trying to keep a few other projects running as well.
I ran one of these updates last year, and much has changed since then. I used to think things we’re a little weird, now I see that they’re utterly bizarre, and glorious. Case in point, the amateur critic group contest type thing I was thinking about starting has now been running for a year. Instead of getting something for myself this year, I’m orchestrating a big giveaway to celebrate the anniversary, with a prize pool of no less than 16 games provided by me and a few other generous souls. I’m going a little overboard with this, certainly, but I enjoyed the idea of my own birthday roughly coinciding with the birthday of my little pet project, and using this fact to give it a ridiculously overblown send-off. Following this indulgent internet party, I’ll leave the group in the hands of one of the many, many competent people who have been kind enough to work with me for a while. I’ve taken it about as far as it will go, and I’ll keep it in good memory as the most gratuitous thing I ever created.
That’s not to say the experience has been entirely vapid for me though, I’ve certainly learned a few things about management, how to keep a band of strangers working and most importantly I’ve met plenty of new people, some of which now ‘work’ for me. This ought to prove helpful soon.
About half a year ago, my friend Maet decided to try he could create a gaming publication using just his experience writing for a college newspaper and the group of weirdos he had met online. The result looked very promising, but work on a second issue was slow. Maet’s schedule doesn’t leave him much time to get in his contributors’ hair, and unfortunately tasks on the internet tend to be left incomplete without constant bugging. I was sad to hear of its demise, but creating something like the Guardian Force is an uphill battle and I can understand why Maet can’t put in that kind of effort. He simply doesn’t have the time. I might.
On paper, it sounds like the perfect fit. The infrastructure is already in place. Maet has kindly agreed to keep on doing layout and design if I take care of, well, pretty much everything else. I’m in regular contact with most previous contributors anyway, and I know plenty of upstarts who might like to try their hands at this. Technically, being in charge of a big amateur publication is not all that different from being in charge of a small amateur publication and still, I feel that I’m in no way qualified to run either. When Maet left the project in my hands temporarily, or when people congratulate me on the constancy of the Showcase (as they do, occasionally), I can’t help but note that people now sometimes see me as a leader, worse, a skilled leader at that, and I don’t see myself that way at all. How does this have anything to do with leadership? All I do is talk to people.
But while I still believe I’m entirely clueless and have no idea what I’m doing here, the fact hasn’t held me back in the past and it’ll be interesting to see if I can figure things out as I go. I’ve compiled a tentative plan and schedule and have started contacting some people to see if I can find regular columnists before I throw myself into the fray. If all goes as planned, I’ll be ‘officially’ announcing the ‘new’ ‘magazine’ July 1st, so keep an eye out for that.
Of course, this project might well still crash and burn, as it did in the hands of someone much more capable than I. Especially since I might be starting a regular column for a local games site soon, because one new project isn’t daring enough apparently. I’ve met the guy in charge during a Subotron talk/meetup, and while initial contact was nothing more than his passing mention that they’re looking for writers and my ludicrous claim that I was a writer, we’ve been talking a bit since and it seems that we see eye to eye on a lot of things: the indie market, the role of reviews vs. retrospectives/opinions, recent interesting developments. I said I wouldn’t mind if they told me what to write about, but it seems they’re lenient enough to let me more or less do my thing. In German, too, which I’m sure one or two of you will be glad to hear. Again, there will be nothing before the end of exam season, but after that you should be able to catch me on Ingame.
These are the things that keep me up at night, while pretending to be a serious student.
World-building and game design – two conflicting forces?
Sometimes all the elegant solutions in the world, all the polish and smoothed down corners of triple A gaming only serve to remind us how artificial, how fake, the experience relayed to us really is.
The thought struck me while finally catching up on Assassins Creed II last week. Its rendering of 15th century Florence and Venice is nothing if not impressive, and I had a lot of fun playing on the rooftops. But for all the care that went into this detailed recreation, I was having a hard time losing myself in it. In its eagerness to provide an enthralling experience, Assassins Creed II imposes the logic of game design on the vibrant chaos of a renaissance metropolis. It’s clear that a lot of care has gone into hiding them, but for what it’s worth, the seams still show.
Why, for instance, do city officials place posters bearing my likeness on balconies and ledges high above the street, where nobody will ever see them? Why does the Assassin Order go through the trouble of designing elaborate trials for unlocking an ancient set of armor, but loses the Codex pages essential to figuring out the current conspiracy? Why are these then conveniently located in virtually undefended Templar dens spread across the nearby countryside? Why does Ezio go back and forth between killing dozens of Templars in a days work and spending two years brooding on a bench?
These things make sense from a game perspective. The elevated positioning of wanted posters works well for a character that spends most of his time somewhere in between the rooftops and the streets anyway, and it makes tearing them down slightly more conspicuous.
It’s reasonable to make unlocking an entirely optional set of armor more challenging than actually progressing through the plot. That’s not how the world works though. The uncanny realization that everything was so obviously geared to me destroyed any sense budding sense of immersion.
For a world to have its own idiosyncrasies, its rough corners and nooks and crannies, is crucial to its believability. The very first step to accepting it as anything other than a Truman Show experience is for it to convince me that I am but a part of this world, not its center. Not an expendable, ordinary part, mind, but not the end all, be all center of the universe either.
This is exactly why I love Gothic II and its spiritual successor Risen, though my reasoning must seem absolutely bizarre: Those games give you nothing for free. They are tight-lipped about the fine details of combat and character progression, they let you wander around freely only to be slaughtered by creatures far past your reach. They don’t even give you a map. They make you buy one. The feeling of adversity that pervades these RPGs makes progress all the more satisfying.
Or, you could say it’s lazy, inelegant or straight out bad design. I hear these complaints frequently when discussing the titles. They are broken. They are too difficult. The skewed difficulty leads to a sense of inadequacy and incompetence. It’s possible to mess up your build in a way that will render the game nigh unbeatable. Swords are too prevalent, while other weapon types are scarce. Quests don’t give you proper instructions or directions. Some missions even require bribery, tricks and rule bending to solve.
All of these are valid complaints to make. Taste can never be invalid. However, not only do these seemingly glaring flaws not bother me in the least, they are actually what draws me to Risen.
How do you feel about this? Can a game be too smooth? Has elegant design ever thrown you out of the experience, and poor design pulled you in? Am I just cynical in claiming that a game only feels real if it treats me with disdain? Or is nothing I said true, and everything I dislike actually permitted?
Games, and RPGs in particular, have always been eager to push technology to the limit to give us bigger playgrounds. They let us explore vast kingdoms, entire continents. Some have done away with borders altogether to offer endless worlds, procedurally generated just beyond the player’s horizon. More, more, more: In this industry, big is beautiful.
In a way, the Gothic series has always been a counterpoint to this trend, focusing on small but intricately detailed locales. The games are not sandboxes, but snowglobes: Limited in size, but very reactive. Gothic I & II, set in and around the penal mining colony of Khorinis, offered one of the most lively and rich, albeit tiny, game worlds the RPG genre had ever seen. When developer Piranha Bytes decided to expand to a larger, open world for the third installment, they ended up spreading content too thin while struggling to properly test, let alone balance, the sheer mass of new quests, skills, enemies and NPCs. The result was a bug-ridden, unplayable mess. Piranha Bytes lost the rights to the series during the break-up with ailing publisher JoWood, and nearly went out of business themselves.
So it was with some trepidation I took the news that after the reasonably sized and largely bug-free Risen, Piranha Bytes intended to return to its open-world ambitions with the follow-up Risen 2: Dark Waters. What’s more, the game abandons traditional sword and sorcery for a swashbuckling pirate theme, complete with flintlock pistols and voodoo magic. Not only does Risen 2 part with established settings, it also returns to the broad scope that almost destroyed Piranha Bytes not so long ago: For a project as daring as this, the mere fact that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight is kind of impressive. Sadly, not a lot more can be said for the game.
Despite his victory over Ursegor at the end of the first game (achieved at the price of an eyeball), the world of Risen continues to be ravaged by titans and, with no means to fight back, the nameless hero now spends his days guzzling rum. Having the first two steps of the pirate lifestyle down, when news arrive that a group of buccaneers has found a way to defeat the sea titan Mara, he is sent out to join them in search of the necessary magical artifacts.
While the first Risen focused entirely on the island of Faranga, Risen 2 has you sailing to about half a dozen islands of comparable size, at least, once you earn a ship of your own. The first half of the game, some rough 12 hours, are spent earning the pirates’ trust by taking part in all the necessary social rituals: fighting, looting, drinking and digging up treasures. During this phase, your travel options are limited to wherever your captain plans on going. It’s only once you acquire the first magical weapon that you’re given command of a ship, and are free to go wherever you please.
Risen 2 is definitely a lot bigger than its predecessor, but it doesn’t fall into the same trap as Gothic III by mindlessly trying to expand everything. The increase in size is offset by a simplified system of character progression. There are more sidequests, but less care has been afforded to each individual mission. There are more islands, but they are less detailed and contain larger sections of filler material. While I doubt that these decisions are wise, seeing how the series was originally known for its meticulously crafted settings, they aren’t technically wrong. The combat system is a definite step back, with the ability to block animal attacks now sadly a thing of the past for want of shields, but for the most part Risen 2 is on par with the original Risen in terms of quality. Content isn’t the problem, structure is.
The first few hours of Piranha Bytes‘ pirate adventure feel fairly focused, offering a small number of challenges and leaving it up to you to work out which to tackle first. This Gothic as Gothic does, and there few things as enjoyable as figuring out that the reward for fighting some harmless creatures is enough to buy you into the drinking contest, which will help you win a map to some buried treasure, which will pay for the combat lessons necessary to take on the next fight. The first half of the game offers a wonderful sense of challenge as you puzzle out what will kill and what won’t. It all leads up to a surprisingly decent boss fight and early climax halfway through the game, but after Risen 2 finally opens up the difficulty curve starts to fall apart.
Once you earn a ship and crew of your own, you’re free to go after either of the remaining McGuffins first, and Risen 2 seems to be crafted in such a way that any order is feasible. Unfortunately, this means there’s no difficulty progression throughout the entire second half of the game. In fact, since you continue to level up while fighting the same weak enemies, the game keeps growing easier. The final showdown in particular is obscenely short and disappointing, and it’s hard to feel accomplished after 30 seconds of fighting.
Now, this may sound like the first half of the game is brilliant, and the second half terrible, but in truth, the entirety of Risen 2 is something of a mixed blessing: The first half offers more of a challenge, but this also makes the dodgy combat more glaringly apparent. The second half can end up feeling needlessly long for want of challenge, but still spins a rather interesting tale.
All in all, I’m not entirely sure if I can recommend Risen 2: Dark Waters. On the one hand the first Risen, or even its spiritual predecessor Gothic II, offer more lively game worlds and wonderfully unforgiving RPG design. On the other hand, with its quest markers, autosaves, fast travel system and lower difficulty, Risen 2 is probably the closest this (extended) series has ever been to being approachable. The game might not prove entirely satisfying, but it’s certainly worth a look for the pirate motif, if nothing else.