Dear Esther Not-A-Review

When I was in fifth grade, we had The Talk. However, I went to a private Christian school, so we only discussed the dangers of STDs and pregnancy; how the actual baby making happens was never mentioned. I had no clue what went where. Thank God the internet was around, else I may have never figured it out.

Once more, I have no idea what I am doing, and unfortunately, this time the internet may cause my downfall. Last week my blog was freshly pressed. All the likes and comments I’ve received have been incredibly gracious, so I have to admit the truth: I don’t know where to go from here.

My post Hello, World laid out lofty goals. How can I consistently write about games in a deep manner? My first “review” was on Auraluxand I was fairly happy with how it turned out. But that post was intensely focused on one major aspect of the game. I’m not sure I will always be able to achieve such depth on a single theme in a game nor do I think that would supply a complete picture of many games. At the same time, I cannot lengthen pieces by writing  simple sections on graphics or gameplay; that is the exact issue I railed against previously. A format for my posts eluded me.

Then I played Dear Esther. Developed by thechineseroom, Dear Esther is a first person adventure game where the player explores a deserted island while a narrator talks about the history of the island and himself in a series of letters to a woman named Esther. After finishing the game, I found I wanted to talk to others about the game. Dear Esther tells a vague tale, open to many interpretations, so drawing concrete conclusions from it is difficult. I only wanted to discover what others took away from it and if anyone had the same thoughts as myself.

That is what I am thinking this site can be: a place for discussing the deeper aspects of a game after your completion of it. This “review” and others to come will be a few disjointed points about what I found intriguing or misguided in a game.

If you haven’t played the game, you might still get something out of these discussions, and I would love to turn you on to a new game that you end up enjoying. But from here on out, expect to find full spoilers in these “reviews”.

This takes a lot of pressure off of me, especially with Dear Esther. While I loved the game, not everyone will have the same opinion. In fact, I’d estimate that as many as 90% of gamers would hate this game. At $10, recommending Dear Esther is difficult when only 10% may appreciate it.

But if you did enjoy Dear Esther or just want to see what others saw in it, press on.

**SPOILER WARNING FOR DEAR ESTHER**

The Island

Truth be told, I hated this game when I picked it up during the Steam summer sale and gave up halfway through the buoy chapter. There’s nothing happening on this island, I thought. Giving it another chance recently, the same boredom occurred at the beginning.

Then I saw a ghost, and I immediately bought into the game. The ghosts are barely noticeable, but after seeing one, the player understands that this island is more than just a rock in the Atlantic. I started paying attention to the scattered books and organic molecule diagrams, and what I found was a world rich in detail.

That detail is only eclipsed by the island’s beauty, particularly in the cave section. My computer is not a powerhouse. Most games look poor on it, and the rest don’t even run. But Dear Esther‘s island shows that stunning visuals are not completely the result of GPU-intensive feats, but also superb design.

After the game was done, I wanted to spend more time in its world, which is a feeling I rarely encounter in single-player games. Many games have impressive levels; the first time you emerge into Requiem’s open territory in Halo 4 is a good recent example. But those beautiful landscapes are thrown aside as the player only wants to progress to the next area of the map. The island in Dear Esther is not wasteful and is a standard more developers should strive after.

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The Narrative

The Stanley Parable is a Source mod that showcases the power that the narrator can place on the player, compelling him on his journey without supplying any real choice. Dear Esther‘s narrator is similar; he gives context to the player and foreshadows future events. Just by listening to the narrator, the player will go into the caves and climb the beacon.

But the game also does a great job of pushing the player through the narrative with its level design. For a game that is about exploring an island, the events are surprisingly linear, although by the end of the game you feel that you’ve explored almost all of it. Getting lost or turned around is rare. The most common tool that the game uses to do so is changing the z-axis of its routes. For example, the player may be climbing up out of the caves or winding down a path by the lighthouse. If the player gets turned around and lost for some reason, it is much easier to remember that they were going up than it is to remember they had already walked past some landmark and are heading in the wrong direction. The level design is a powerful mechanic to keep the player progressing forward on a narrative that is nowhere near as “random” as many players have claimed.

In fact, the narrative leaves absolutely no control to the player, particularly in regards to dying. Halfway through the game, most players will have realized what their objective is: Climb the beacon and end your life. It is a game where you kill yourself, but you have to commit suicide in a very specific manner. If the player dies from drowning, he sees images of the beacon before restarting. The game is telling you that your previous death is insufficient. Only one ending can occur, and what an ending it is.

The Ending

The ending is definitely flawed. I hate that the game takes over control for you and forces you to climb the beacon’s ladder. Players are ready to climb that ladder anyways. There is no need to take away control from the player until, at the earliest, the player is at the top of the beacon and preparing to jump.

But the moments after the jump tie the game together perfectly. You see your shadow; you have become a bird. When else did you see a bird? At the very beginning of the game, a bird scares you when you are leaving the first abandoned house. This is obviously meant to be an important moment, or else the developer’s would not have made your character automatically react to the bird.

**SPOILERS FOR JOURNEY**

 This is very similar to Journey. Both games bring the player back at the end to where they started; reincarnation is arguably the leading theme in both. But it seems unlikely that the reincarnation in Dear Esther is a literal one. Instead my guess would be that these are the delusions of a malnourished and injured man who is about to die. (This is arguably the case in Journey as well.) Dear Esther is one man’s story. Others have and will come to this island for similar, heartbreaking reasons, and their fates will be the same. Dear Esther is a far more pessimistic take on cycles than Journey.

**END SPOILERS**

In any medium, endings this skillful are rare. Thus hearing accusations that Dear Esther is a “non-game” is infuriating. You may not have liked Dear Esther, but an estimated 10% of players found it brilliant. Why wouldn’t you want that piece to be a shining part of our medium?

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How to Make Games

Disclaimer: I suck at making games. The screenshot below is from a prototype I’ve been working on over spring break. It took me two days to produce that crap. My drawing abilities are even worse than my poor programming skills. Outside of a few friends, no one has played any of my games since I do not think they are good enough to show to the world. But do you know what you call the guy who makes crappy games? A game developer.

A not-so-impressive shoot 'em up with time control mechanics.

A not-so-impressive shoot ’em up with time control mechanics.

For years, I was just a wannabe. In middle school, I started visiting gamedev.net and doing the tutorials on cprogramming.com but gave up once I got to DirectX and imposing function calls like int MessageBox(HWND hWnd, LPCTSTR lptext, LPCTSTR lpcaption, UINT utype);. Through high school, I made a few more attempts at getting into game development, but they all stalled when I could not build my overly ambitious ideas.

Then a few semesters ago, I grew tired of never producing anything, so I learnt how to use the XNA framework and made a Pong clone. From there, I continued making small, simple games and learnt to use some new libraries like LibGDX.

Making games has become a passion of mine, but I get depressed knowing that if I had better guidance my skills could be years ahead of their current state. So I have written this piece to give advice to newbies like the past version of myself. This advice may not be valid for everyone, but in a world of 7 billion, there’s at least a few who will be aided by this. Continue reading

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A Response from E McNeill

On Tuesday, I made a post about the indie RTS Auralux. The game’s developer E McNeill was incredibly kind and sent me his thoughts on my piece. Here are his comments:

It’s interesting that you start with the analogy to writing. I had a very similar experience, except that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language opened my eyes instead of On Writing Well. I don’t think minimalism is the objective best of all aesthetics, but it’s one that appeals to me, and (equally important) it’s far easier for an indie to pursue than most other strategies. Auralux’s design and presentation are as much a product of my limitations and constraints as my desires and preferences. That’s not to say that the game is incomplete or handicapped; the same could probably be said of most creative works, I imagine.
I’m very happy to see that you found meaning and value in Auralux’s gameplay. I definitely hoped to expose something meaningful in the gameplay, but I’m usually hesitant to make that sort of claim myself. I’m still reticent to make concrete connections to real-world systems, though. I think that most good abstract or fictional art can teach us something within its own context, but that it’s then our job to figure out how to apply it to other contexts. So, for example, Auralux might teach something about power dynamics between single-minded and aggressive actors, and we might learn something about the concept of realpolitik from that, but Auralux makes no claims about the real-world validity of that perspective. Continue reading
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Are Games “Better” Than Art?

Thought experiments are frequently misunderstood. Readers often look for absolute conclusions where only hypotheses exist. No matter what The Big Bang Theory says, the purpose of Schrodinger’s cat is not to show that opening the box is the only way to know the unknowable; Schrodinger is only saying quantum mechanics is weird, complicated, and not analogous for macro-level phenomena. Yet quantum mechanics is still an accurate model at the subatomic level even if it does not make sense in our world.

The argument that follows here should be thought of like a thought experiment–an interesting proposal whose conclusion even I don’t agree with. I believe games are just another art form, no better or worse than any other; they just happen to be the one I am most passionate about.

The conclusion that games are art is not an uncontroversial one. But I believe the easiest argument to support the “games are art” side is induction from experience. The reason this debate brings out so many virulent opinions is because claiming games are just a bit of meaningless fun is equivalent to accusing gamers of lying. We have seen games supply the same emotional experiences found in movies, literature, and music. The hallway scene of Metal Gear Solid 4 comes to mind. Those few minutes aren’t “fun”, in the same way that Sophie’s Choice isn’t lighthearted entertainment. Just because some haven’t experienced those moments in games doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is infuriating to be told that the obvious truth before you is a lie (see Ignaz Semmelweis).

But I do think there is an argument to be made that games are not art. Rather than being of lesser importance, however, games may be, in some sense, superior than traditional mediums. Continue reading

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Auralux: The Art of Simplicity

auraluxScreenshot

UPDATE: Auralux’s  developer, E McNeill, replied to me with his opinions on this piece.

How did you write essays in high school? My process for a 2 page paper involved writing one page’s worth of material and stretching it with needless adjectives and repetitive sentences. Papers on World War II never involved “the Nazis”; the Axis was instead lead by “the evil German Nazis of the Third Reich”. I also felt very strongly to always write “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet”, in order to avoid any confusion with some other Romeo & Juliet story. Good writing was long writing, as my grades reinforced.

Then I read On Writing Well (aka William Zinsser’s On Writing Well) in my junior year English class. That book, coupled with my teacher’s high standards, made me gain some self-respect and treat writing like a craft. The biggest discovery was “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

But simplicity is not just the secret to good writing. The most beautiful truths in physics are the simplest (e.g. E = mc^2, F = ma). Google’s less-cluttered homepage is vastly superior to Yahoo’s. On Writing Well is the most influential book in my life because it showed me the importance of simplicity in all forms.

Right now, I am building a few video game prototypes. I want to make simple games. I want to make games like Auralux.

Auralux, created by E McNeill, is a real-time strategy game stripped to its core elements. You compete in a free-for-all against two AI opponents in a variety of levels. Stars, which can only be built in designated places, pulsate and create your units, dots of stardust. Those units can be used to build and upgrade your stars or attack the opponents’ stars. When two units of a different color collide, both units die. As such, Auralux is about creating numerical advantages to defend and take over spots in space.

Many people would say there is not much to the game. I disagree because A.) I was clearly able to write 1,000 words on this game and B.) this is an RTS almost 100% about actual, real-world strategy and tactics.

Good games should leave you with some new understanding. That knowledge can emotional, like understanding the perseverance of friendship in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or technical, such as the conservation of momentum in Portal. But either way, playing New Super Mario Bros. should not only make me better at playing that single game.

When games fail to do this, your experience can feel like a waste of time. Too frequently you are expending genuine effort for trivial accomplishments like trophies or a better ELO.

The density of valuable information in most RTSs is poor. Warcraft III has many universally valid aspects to its gameplay (such as the importance of economy to wartime efforts), but they are diluted by game-specific details (like the importance of using ensnare against frost wyrms). General MacArthur never needed to know that hippogryphs only attack air units.

This is not to say that Warcraft III is a bad game; it is one of my favorite games of all time. But it’s false to claim that Auralux has very little to say of any importance. A few of the lessons in Auralux include:

1. The difficulty of taking enemy bases Successfully attacking the enemy requires more than a slight advantage. Even if you have more units than he does at the time you order an attack, you still require additional units to:

A. Kill the new enemy units being produced by the star during the attack
B. Destroy the enemy star
C. Build your own star

Thus, quite frequently you need to have triple the number of units as the enemy does at their star in order to attack, while still maintaining your own defensive capabilities. Additionally,  accurately determining the size of a force  is a challenge when each unit is represented by a few pixels.

Attacking your opponents in Auralux is easily analogous to attacking entrenched soldiers. It is very easy to see why World War I was such a deadly conflict after playing this game.

2. The effects of uneven battlefields While Auralux has several levels that are completely symmetrical, the most interesting matches occur when the number of star sites is not equally divisible between the three sides. The leftover star site(s) quickly becomes the most contested region in order to prevent giving one side a massive advantage.

After all if you always have more stars than your opponents, your victory is virtually guaranteed. Your resources and battlefield positions win you this game, just like in actual war. One soldier is not going to turn the tide of battle no matter what Call of Duty tells you.

3. The fluidity of alliances Most RTSs tell you who your allies are and prevent you from attacking their units and buildings. Auralux never needs to be so explicit; you learn to team up with red to do damage against green (For example, each of you attack a different green star simultaneously). Of course soon enough, you and green will do the same to red. Other times, you remain neutral and let your enemies fight by themselves. This fluidity can also work against you, especially in the harder levels. Frequently you will be stuck between green and red. The two share no love but will still gang up on you first.

Within a single match of Auralux, alliances are forged repeatedly and betrayals occur over and over again, all driven by each side’s self-interest. International politics has never been so well encapsulated.

All of these lessons are incredibly easy to pick up on because there is little else there to obfuscate them. In large part this is because of the game’s slow pace. When you destroy a enemy star, it’s not because you outmaneuvered him in battle, but because you exploited a weakness. Tactics rule over execution, clarifying the game’s message.

Auralux feels almost like a turn-based game as there’s no real element of surprise, and this makes the game incredibly relaxing. On the other hand, the endgame when victory is assured can drag on even longer than in most RTSs, but the slow pace is still the right choice for both aesthetics and design.

Unfortunately, this game isn’t only about basic, universal tactics because the AI does have some glaring holes that would never occur against human enemies. The AI seems only interested in what is occurring at each star site. Therefore, you can move a massive group of units behind an enemy star and the enemy will do nothing to prepare or deal with the threat. To some extent, Auralux is about seeing through the AI algorithms, and that is the game’s biggest weakness.

However, there is a much larger criticism possible: Why is an understanding of elementary tactics important in the first place? Most gamers aren’t going to command armies. There are several answers like historical context, business applications, and pure curiosity.

But if you ask that question, then ask yourself one more: Why play any RTS? Either they’re meaningless entertainment or most of them are doing a much worse job at getting across what Auralux does for 1/12th of the price.

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Hello, World

I have murdered countless innocents, even children. Armies have bowed before me. I have sown genocide across worlds. Worst of all, my atrocities entertained me.

Of course, my horrific acts all occurred in video games, so I am about as well-adjusted as any modern twentysomething. Like most my age, the massive sum of time spent in digital worlds is a subject not to dwell upon.

Today is the first day of my final spring break. During elementary and high school, this would have been a week spent mostly in my pajamas with a Nintendo controller because girls were either A.) icky or later B.) not talking to me.

Yet sometime during my undergraduate education, video games stopped being so important to me. My murderous, virtual campaigns began to bore me.

Think of an ex-girlfriend that you no longer care about. Looking back, you get annoyed remembering all the times she didn’t laugh at your jokes or wasn’t sensitive about that common problem that happens to plenty of guys and is definitely not a big deal (, right?). Yet you still miss the way you felt around her.

My passion for video games has decreased, but I still want them to be an important part of my life. Halo 4 was a good game, but I am nostalgic for breaking out of Ivory Tower in Halo 2. However, I can play Halo 2 anytime, but I know it won’t be the same. In the words of Tim McIlrath, “Maybe we’ve outgrown all the things that we once loved.”

Why has my passion diminished? Most video games make the same mistakes:

1. An oversaturation of violence When I was a kid, violence was cool. I wasn’t watching Power Rangers for the fascinating interpersonal dynamics; I watched to see the Rangers beat up on poorly costumed bad guys (and to see the Pink Ranger). My fondness for violence only increased when playing with guns and blood in Quake.

But there’s an upper limit to the violence after which you just become desensitized. After gouging out Poseidon’s eyes or destroying a planet-sized monster, who cares about blowing soldiers’ heads off.

Plus, a large part of my enjoyment was its taboo nature. At the time, you wanted to be the kid whose parents let him watch South Park at age 6, but looking back, playing GTA3 was sweetened because you had to to convince your mom that the game wasn’t that violent and was very respectful towards women. This parental interest about what you watch and play ends sometime during your early teens when drugs and sex become more pressing concerns than arrangements of pixels.

2. A disrespect of my time I am a pretty lazy guy. Most of my friends are either in grad school or working at engineering firms. As a fifth year philosophy student, my schedule is probably not as hectic as most other adults. So if I can’t find time to play most games, how the hell can anyone else?

RPGs are the worst offender. If I only have a few hours a week to play, an 80 hr experience can easily stretch over a few months. My interest in the plot simply cannot be sustained for that long.

This problem extends to more than just the sum of all playtime. Too many games require a large investment of time before I can even be sucked into a game and see some noticeable progress.

Too frequently, my use case with many RPGs is:
1. Listen to some dialogue to find out I need The Item in another town.
2. Start heading towards that town.
3. Fight wolves.
4. Fight more wolves.
5. Realize I am heading in the wrong direction.
6. Fight giant rat.
7. Drop some loot from my full inventory.
8. Fight wolves again.
9. Arrive at town.
10. Listen to more dialogue to discover that The Item is somewhere else.

15 minutes in, my dog will decide now is a perfect time to demand a walk. I’ll shut off the console, take Kiva out, realize I accomplished nothing, and put the game aside until tomorrow.

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Kiva, the game time killer

As limited as mobile games like Temple Run are, at least I get a full experience playing them while on the toilet.

3. A meaningless virtual adventure This is the most fundamental problem of the three. Too many games rely on the monomyth, where a young hero heads out on an adventure to save the world and improve themselves along the way. This trope brings grandiosity and a sense of importance to games, but once you reach adulthood in real life, the virtual monomyth becomes hollow.

When you are in high school, it is hard to realize that you’re imprisoned in a fake life. Paul Graham, partner at Y Combinator, explains it best, “Your teachers are always telling you to behave like adults. I wonder if they’d like it if you did. You may be loud and disorganized, but you’re very docile compared to adults…Imagine the reaction of an FBI agent or taxi driver or reporter to being told they had to ask permission to go the bathroom, and only one person could go at a time…If a bunch of actual adults suddenly found themselves trapped in high school, the first thing they’d do is form a union and renegotiate all the rules with the administration.” Your actions and responsibilities are limited until age 18.

But once you hit adulthood, you are free to go on any adventure. Although the idea may seem distant, improving the world is a real goal you can fight for. Bill Gates does it every day. But adventures can also be personal. Visit Spain. Write a novel. Get the girl.

Real adventures trump virtual ones. This holds true at both a macro and micro level. Why climb Death Mountain when you can climb Mount Kilimanjaro? Why grind mobs to increase my level when I can grind at the gym to lose weight? While your virtual goals are normally easier to achieve, your real ones have more importance.

For this reason, games aimed at adults cannot rely so heavily on a sense of adventure to impart meaning to the player. Of course, real world responsibilities hinder our chances to work on real goals, so video games can fill a need for accomplishment quite easily. But games need to expand beyond this.

Video games are interesting because anything can happen inside their world. Physics and logic are the programmer’s plaything. The goal of a game should be to provide a unique experience not possible in any other medium.

For this reason, I’ve been drawn to mostly indie games recently. So many of them let me do something new, something I have never experienced.

As such, I have created this site to talk about all the indie games I am playing. Upcoming posts will be in-depth discussions on a single game. You can call them reviews. You can call them criticism. You can call them rants or ramblings.

But two major guidelines will instruct my writing.

1. No scores, hence the name of this site. If you can’t tell how much I like a game by only skimming the post, then that’s a problem with my writing ability. Dumbing down my thoughts to a single number is disrespectful to you.

2. Don’t read my reviews before playing the game. Most game reviews help you decide whether to purchase the product. In that case, telling you about the details about the graphics and game mechanics makes sense.

But that does not interest me. I want to talk about the higher-level concepts a game addresses. The themes that stay with you are more important than when the FPS lags.

If you agree with my philosophy, stick around. My first substantive post will be coming soon.

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