Luftrausers

I kind of ignored Luftrausers for quite a while. It wasn’t even frustration with it not coming out that prompted this, I just didn’t really know much about Vlambeer. Yeah they made some silly little phone games, got cloned. Harsh stuff. Once again it’s proven that you have to be either a noble fool or someone without a soul to want to make games for a living.

I didn’t really care until I picked up Nuclear Throne. If the appeal of Early Access is in seeing exactly where a developer’s priorities lie, spawning in a desert to the sound of an airhorn and going nuts on some nearby fools with a beefy revolver to some sick tunes gave me a pretty good insight into these boys’ priorities. And in a world full of grey capsule colliders inertly rubbing against each other against that signature Unity blue backdrop, that counts for a hell of a lot.

Ridiculous Fishing came next. A lot of people seem to think that a good phone game is made by distilling a good game’s most basic traits into a form consumable on the device. Like blending a steak. What the simple little fishing game and ZiGGURAT (best phone game all years) have in common is their embrace of the platform and a willingness to build up from that.

Press [Up] To Raus

Luftrausers got me pretty psyched pretty quickly. Fundamentally, it’s just Asteroids with gravity (maybe?), but execution elevates. Big bullets, bassy tunes, buttery movement. Soaring through a cloud of bullets to pluckily slam into a battleship, the game is angry, righteous and capricious.

I quickly settled on a favourite loadout. Cannon, bomb, superboost. All the burst damage you could ever hope for, and when that fails - the ability to turn one’s tail and flee in an efficient manner. The hover booster was a good bit of fun to toy around with too. Man, the gungine sucked. After trying all the other weapons, the basic machinegun has a reliable, rustic appeal to it. No-one who plays shmups will ever let the phrase “I’ll use the homing missiles” even enter their head. But, in the midst of all this experimentation, I decided to do what one should never try to do with a Vlambeer game - complete it. (Get all challenges - including a 25k score on the hyper difficulty SFMT mode)

The second you start to try to do a little more than dick around with Luftrausers is the second you start to begrudgingly loathe it. Most of the challenges and scoring opportunities are created at the behest of a rather unpredictable spawning system - your combo will frequently drop because you simply have no enemies to shoot, will drop a split-second before that battleship erupts into 1/20th of the score it should be worth. Even after learning how to game it - destroying fighters spawns boats, destroying boats spawns fighters, and eventually a blimp happens - I was still dropping combo for no fault I was willing to accept. Any challenge to destroy a submarine or one of the dreaded laser aces will result in those enemies just not appearing. No matter how fast you fly, no matter how well you shoot, you’re at the cold, ungiven mercy of a call to random().

Perhaps this is all a huge commentary on the overreliance on fossil fuels in the bizarro-WW2 setting of the game, but Luftrausers’ scoring system is unsustainable. As enemies are destroyed, they are sometimes replaced with big ones. Doing damage to big enemies does not preserve combo, and the only way you’re getting any points is to destroy stuff at the maximum 20x multiplier. So, you ride that multiplier as long as possible until you’re not given any more cannon fodder to keep it going. Once your multiplier drops - if you played well, you are now surrounded by battleships and blimps, and the game has reached its hardest point with no scoring potential to show for it. A commentary on the futility of war, obviously. But inevitably frustrating, and even with all this in mind - a good play requires far too much luck for this game to really have legs.

Vlambeer’s undeniable ability, their biggest strength - lies in taking a core set of mechanics and polishing, roughening, shaking and stirring until they end up with something with all the feel, all the chaotic punch of the old masters of the arcades. Their biggest and most tragic shortcoming is that they don’t seem to know what to do after that.

This is currently their limitation. This is what burdens their games with the term “throwaway” in some circles, what causes the smiling dismissals of their games as something to waste a few blissful hours with - and the implied conclusion that there’s no way they could be more. (Transcendental games are either done in Twine or a bone thrown by the AAA - nothing else.) Unlock systems and achievements take the place of something meatier, doing a by-the-numbers rendition of your dime-a-dozen “retention game”.

The stuntman shmup

There is a subcategory of the shmup genre that most have forgotten. The stuntman shmup. Raiden Fighters Jet fits the bill most accurately, though echoes of the design ring through most Raizing works too.

In a stuntman shmup, you do tricks for your points. Singular moments of technical competence. A traditional combo system is about an odd intersection between flow and strategy - picking your line through a stage, adhering to it as much as is required to keep that multiplier going just a few moments longer. Restraint and aggression in equal measure.

A stuntman system is a little more stop-and-go, a little more esoteric. Cripple a tank to near-destruction and let it go to make a fairy appear. Destroy a bunch of enemies with no more than a few frames seperating their end. Take apart a boss in the least convenient way possible. Juggle medals. Make some medals hit others on their way towards your ship, turning them into bigger medals. 100 more silly tricks. Do as many of these throughout a stage while staying alive and you’ll get a good score. To really crank that number, figure out ways to combine the tricks.

A system like this would be a better fit for Luftrausers, in my opinion. Less about relying on enemies you can’t see to keep a combo going, less about making consistency work in a game governed by inconsistency, more about the rare moment of glory, more about the "hamburger moments". A more predictable spawn system is required, so required that I almost didn’t mention it. A lot of those tricks are based merely around making certain lucrative enemies appear, about frustrating a boss so much that he gives up and starts spewing out drones you can shoot down for 10k a pop.

My perfect mental game of Luftrausers includes a nuclear “luftbuster” smart bomb. Do tricks to charge it up (snipe all the guns off a battleship, drop a bomb on an ace, divebomb a submarine, etc, etc), build up tension, tension that is then released with a simple press of Z. Z drops the hammer, creates a signature screen-shaky explosion, and turns all surrounding enemies into a huge score bonus. Exhale, repeat. I thought about maybe having a try at implementing this, but felt cloning a game crafted out of anger about cloning would be… disrespectful at best. Oh well. Some other time.

Future

I have confidence in Vlambeer. It took a long while for those espoused, forgotten kings of the arcades to hone their craft and learn these lessons, and if a few Dutch fellas are going to “bring back the arcade” - it’s going to be one step, one lesson, one bullet at a time. Nuclear Throne is a hard one to gauge - the genre stands well on its own without any core loops or scoring systems, but their somewhat frustrating reliance on unlocks and randomness is still present. The day they put YV behind an unlock gate is likely the day I stop playing and start drinking heavily.

But, for now… *airhorn*

Dark Souls 2

We’re something under a week away from the release of Dark Souls 2. As I type this, many a streamer, leaked copy in hand, is already in the dire process of spoiling the game for others. Well, the console release, anyway. PC players are advised to wait a month before reading this post at 90% zoom with the font changed to Avant Garde and all the images run through a sharpen filter.

Meanwhile, the hype train runs rampant. Pre-order weapons, clothing deals, a car (?!). The odd news that Serafinowicz is on-board for voice acting is particularly strange. His uniquely quirky, stilted delivery will probably work a treat, but it’s still a really odd piece of marketing from a man who gets his biggest laughs selling gravy magazines and yelling at sulfur. Imagine the worst Guinness advert you’ve ever seen - now imagine it’s about a video game instead. And amidst all of this, no-one is really considering the fact that Namco Bandai are drastically misunderstanding this game. Or at best, considering and then immediately disregarding it. It’s just marketing, just the publisher, it’s not got anything to do with the actual game.

Revolution

Counterpoint. Deus Ex Human Revolution. A good Deus Ex game - if your notion of Deus Ex is a wide variety of playstyles from which you exclusively select “stealth man” time and time again. Except for one thing, one thing that got absolutely lambasted by just about everyone - the bosses. Some idiots went far enough to pretend the concept of a “boss” is antirequisite to any sort of multiple approach gameplay, but the simple and plain truth is that the bosses, as implemented, were not very good on any level. Bad as characters, bad as encounters. The bosses were so wildly out of tune with the rest of the game that it’s no real surprise that they were outsourced to a different studio.

Why? Well, the commonly understood reason these days is that Square Enix took a long, envious look at Konami. Took a long glare at Metal Gear Solid and decided they wanted a little piece of the calorie mate. And what does everyone love about MGS? The bosses. The good ones like Vulcan Raven, even the bad ones (The Pain). So, they made the decision to have bosses, regardless of how they could possibly fit in the game. Think hard enough and this might also explain why being anything other than a stealthy, OCD-ridden Jensen gets you in a body bag quicker than you can lament over just what you did and didn’t ask for. A publisher that misunderstands a game has a lot more weight than you might think - do you really think developers are just chomping at the bit to crank out all those preorder weapons? That old Namco Bandai quote about chasing the Skyrim audience is sounding a lot more ferocious as days go by.

Hidetaka Miyazaki didn’t want to do a Dark Souls 2. Not yet anyway. So, out he goes - the creative director for Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the man who speaks at length about his bizarre systems of ambiguity, community and anonymity, the man at the heart of it all is kicked out and summarily replaced with two fresh-faced new directors.

Direction

Dark Souls 2 will probably be a fairly hard game. It would be ridiculous for it not to be. It will also likely be a well-implemented difficulty, one that enriches most of the experience. It would be ridiculous and insulting to pretend that From Software somehow forgot how to make decent RPGs overnight, that Miyazaki was some form of load-bearing wall for the entire series. But, there is more to Dark Souls than difficulty and atmosphere. Subtlety, mystery, hostility. If all you want is a hard, fair game - play Ketsui. Play Alien Vendetta.

Voice chat will be in Dark Souls 2. As will ways to make summoning friends easier. Fast travel will always be available, and invasions are set up based on different metrics than character level (play time and total souls spent are the current favourites). These all seem like complete no-brainers, things that should have been around since the very start, and yet they weren’t. We’ve been through 2 games now, and it seemingly never once lit up in Miyazaki’s head to do these? As popular as it is to package game design as the result of technical constraints whenever convenient (titanfall only has 6v6?! fucking consoles!), These have been left out for a reason, and introducing such things under the banner of player-friendliness is missing the point in a series that won so many hearts based on its rebellious, mysterious, indifferent player hostility.

But the preorder bonus is only an early unlock! But you need a special ring equipped for voice chat! This is not an issue of game balance, this is an issue of design direction. People who play games are brought up and nurtured in worlds of perfect information, of value-adds and balance. It’s no wonder they have such an irritating tendency to take absolutely everything at face value.

Dark Souls told its story through not telling it. Tiny pieces of obscure, esoteric lore to be endlessly pondered and debated. A refreshing, community-driven alternative to the current AAA model. "[Dark Souls II] will be more straightforward and more understandable". That’s this sort of thing that’s in jeopardy here - the stuff between the lines, the stuff that you can’t explain with that microscopic focus on changing the backstab mechanics, tweaks to magic, etc.

Education

Difficulty is a crucially important element of games. Difficulty is how decisions are given context, given weight - and rich, weighty decisions are what a game is. It’s how we are personally invested into a game and how we go to others for help. If this was the main thing Dark Souls had to teach us, we didn’t listen. We’re still drowning in pitifully easy garbage, still offered a million options to do the same dull thing, still being told to press C to crouch. And we still eat it up. Dark Souls, on the other hand, became a meme - a punchline, not a lesson.

From escapistmagazine.com, Critical Miss

And so, instead of demanding other games learn from Souls, we buckle in tight and demand sequel after sequel, thinking that somehow “decent difficult action RPG” is something that only From Software should have a monopoly on. Everything else, the subtler characteristics of the series, can go to hell for all we care. If Namco Bandai can keep fuelling our narcissism, as shown by screenshots of an empty Ornstein & Smough arena after the phantoms disappear, then that’s all that matters.

I will probably not be getting Dark Souls 2. If you want a good, competent, difficult RPG this year, it’s the one to get - no questions asked. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get a little miffed and then try again when the big boss flattens you. But, if you want a Souls game, and properly understand what that means - this might fall a little flat for you. In the end, my desire to hit things with a sword and summarily be hit in a similar fashion doesn’t burn deeply enough in my heart that I’m willing to just meekly accept as they throw everything but that out of the window.

Score : 9/10. The best Souls game until Dark Souls 3.

Cortex Command

A pretty bad game, honestly. In a troubled state of development since at least 2006 or so, it’s not hard to see where it messed up. The surprisingly-buff code king Data built up an incredibly granular 2D engine, capable of satisfying any tech fetishist’s wildest, wettest dreams. Shots would leave actual indents in walls - a determined robot could tunnel from base to base with little more than an assault rifle and a few hours of peace. Limbs can be shot off with the unit hobbling or reacting appropriately - everything gibs magnificently into big piles of squishy rubble.

Of course, when it came time to make the game for this princely engine, what resulted was a strange action-strategy thing that worked on no levels and offended on every level. You couldn’t effectively control your non-active units, you couldn’t effectively control your active unit, base building was tactically facile and tedious to boot. The game was best played as a lone ranger, a one man army up against hordes of AI units. Free to enjoy the gibs and the almost pornographic physicalisation of everything.

And yet, despite this, people came to play in droves. These were the early days of early access, before anyone had been properly let down just yet, so the constant promise to finally make the game good was forever just around the corner, lurking potentially in every new build. Modders started to emerge, coming to add hundreds of custom units, weapons and tech to the game. A fairly flexible structure for the engine, and the game underneath it, meant you could load up the game with as many different custom units as you saw fit (generally accompanied by many hours of toil trying to fix the resulting crashes).

What was interesting here was the simplicity of how it all worked. Mods were flat data files - no custom code could be used (not for a long while anyway), no breaking outside of the systems that governed the game could be permitted. A standard human was little more than two thighs, two shins, two feet, two forearms, two upper arms, a torso and a head. Add armour plating and helmets to taste, specify his walk cycle and how much he costs. No code required. No code permitted.

Tech Wars

This was oddly self-balancing, in a sense. Every unit and every weapon was subject to the cold realities of the physics engine. Of course, it was always possible to have a grenade that shoots out a million tiny explosions and huge rustic chunks of shrapnel (which costs -10000 gold on top of that), but there was a surprising amount of intuitive nuance in modding if you were willing to reel it in a little bit :

  • A heavy unit is much less susceptible to impulse-based weaponry, but tends to comically sink into the dirt with every step.
  • Bullets with a low “sharpness” value will bounce harmlessly off enemy armour, but be incredibly damaging to more organic areas.
    • Too high a sharpness value and the bullet will pass cleanly through enemies, doing less damage than you’d be hoping for.
  • Heavy bullets have a better chance of leaving a dent in armour (bringing the armour plate one increment closer to its “gib limit”, eventually shattering it to pieces and leaving your foe exposed)…
    • …but are all the more susceptible to gravity.
  • Too high a muzzle velocity on your firearm and the bullet might just be going too fast for the collision detection to accurately handle.
  • Make bullets last too long before despawning and you run the risk of the shot wrapping completely around the (typically small) maps and plonking you right in the back of the head.
  • Recoil was calculated using the mass and velocity of the bullets fired. Newton’s third in glorious motion. A naively overpowered shotgun that fires 100 heavy pellets at a time would typically fly from the user’s hands on firing, rip his arms off completely or send him flying backwards a few feet into the ground.

Even semi-realistic ballistics data could be plugged into the system, forever settling debates like .45 versus 9mm as they apply to clone-based capitalist interplanetary conflict. Even more interesting were the strange clever hacks to bend the rules of the system - the right tweaking of values could get particles to deal negative damage, essentially acting as a portable medkit. But these tools had to penetrate the flesh to do so, creeping up towards that gib limit - overuse of these medkits would cause arms, legs and torsos to explode at random. Early “forcefield” systems would erode large holes in the ground over time. The act of modding the game started to become a richer game than the actual executable - Kerbal Space Program, but with a lot more ultraviolence.

And as more and more modders came along with their own unique brands of “factions” - cybernetic ninja, space nazis, some warhammer stuff, different approaches to these unique problems started to get matched against each other. A faction that relied on impulse-based weaponry - concussion grenades, heavy but soft projectiles, might easily blow most of the vanilla units away (quite literally), but instantly become useless when matched against big, heavy units. Those big, heavy units are as susceptible to the laws of gibbing as anyone else - an “acid launcher” that fires a fountain of extremely slow, heavy green projectiles with high sharpness would quickly eat through that fancy armour, provided you got in close.

What eventually happened, outside of the silly gimmick mods at least, was an arms race. A genuine, organic arms race, full of creativity, diversity and the type of “character flaws” generally reserved for edgy protagonists and Metal Gear REX.

Eventually, Lua scripting came to the mods. While this opened the way for more interesting tech, this richer system had none of the self-regulatory measures that the pure physics-based system had. Hits could be shrugged off with one line of code, lead effortlessly poured out with others. The modding stopped being a game, a fun bit of experimentation on how to effectively blow stuff up, and started being a craft. The much-vaunted v1.0 of the game eventually happened, with a big layer of confused metagame on a confused core game, and things generally dried up.

Loadout

Loadout is the hot new free shooter that everyone’s talking about. The bold revival of the arena shooter! F2P done right!1 I installed it and dicked around for an hour or so, never actually getting into a match due to some well-considered matchmaking. What I saw instead was harrowing.

The big draw here is that you build your own guns. Unleash your creative spirit, as dictated by a pay-to-win system (grind to win is pay to win, folks). How it works - you put a “spread barrel” on the bullet gun. Now you have a shotgun. Or you put a “light assault” barrel on it. Now you have an SMG. Everything else is a tweak of damage versus fire rate versus hipfire accuracy - you know, like you see in every other game since COD4. There is no creativity here - you can take one look at the weapon crafting and determine within 2 seconds what it is you want, now you get on that treadmill and grind for it, boy. Don’t forget to level up each individual part for 2% extra damage a pop, now! Aren’t you feeling engaged yet? Oh, forgot - you can have rocket launchers as well. Big, dumb rocket launchers that you can’t rocket jump with. Welcome to the utterly chewed-up and spit-out revival of the arena shooter.

There’s a dark autistic corner of my brain that gets utterly tickled at the thought of a really rich and interesting weapon creation system. I’ve been playing Armored Core games for as long as I can remember (not 5, it’s crap, haven’t played verdict day yet). Cortex Command, a deeply flawed and directionless game, somehow managed to do it right for a while by throwing just about everything to physics and trying to approximate real-world dynamics - at least, if you can edit a bunch of INI files.

The goal of a designer is to distill big, hairy, real world systems and draw interesting decisions and mechanics from the result. The goal of a designer is not just to constantly juggle sets of numbers against each other in the interests of fairness (and to keep people buying up those weapon parts), but to create and consider the systems that govern and enrich those numbers. Cortex Command might be quite a failure, but it’s an infinitely more interesting failure than Loadout will be a success.


  1. You can’t do F2P right. Free to play is in staunch opposition to what makes good games - unless, of course, you’re Valve and don’t actually have to worry about paying anyone. 

Anonymous asked
“Sup Danbo. Long time poster, first time caller. What's your fav Doom level and why?”

For vanilla doom.wad, anyone who doesn’t immediately say E4M2 should be subject to punitive measures. Romero cranked out his odd little collection of contradictions in something like 6 hours - open but packed with nooks and crannies, flowing but highly disjointed, crowded yet sparse. It’s a style of map that you don’t see much any more, but I’d say that you can see it live on (albeit just a little) in Ribbiks’ work.

If we’re diving into the land of custom WADs, you’ll be getting a different answer every day of the week. You Shall Not Pass in Deus Vult II is what I’m replaying right now, though. The “timed chase” is something that’s been tried a few times (Scythe) but never with great results. This map does it entirely naturally - the threat never being abstract and constantly putting the player under pressure to push forwards. This constant pressure made it necessary to have some extremely well-honed fights - there is no room for slack time like you might have in the wad’s finale. Doesn’t hurt that the map is one of the prettiest “gigantic hell cavern” maps I’ve ever seen. The invuln and ammo at the end is a huge cathartic cherry on top.

I’m not sure if it’s the only map I would ever want to play, but it takes a difficult concept and pulls it off with gusto.

Impoverished Starfighter Retrospective

My Ludum Dare 28 entry, Impoverished Starfighter, recently got 95th place out of 800-or-so jam entries.

You can see the game here. You can view a (slightly updated) version of the source here.

Motive

I used to post on the Something Awful forums. I still do, but in a much smaller capacity. I used to frequent the various shmup threads, and one thing invariably got on my wick - in the first 5 posts or so, directly beneath the lavish, ornate, faberge-egg OP comes some idiot with a mass effect avatar saying its not a PROPER shmup thread without a mention of Tyrian, Raptor, Jets ‘n’ Guns. And then he would leave, demonstrating the brief but intense attention usually reserved for bees, babies and stinger missiles, and a groan would come from somewhere - usually me. Those games, well, they kinda suck.

See, when stacked up against their proper, honourable Japanese-with-a-capital-J peers, those games invariably fall under the category of “euroshmup”. Their somewhat anemic core gameplay can’t support the weight of their complex systems. A health bar as long as your credit balance will allow makes dodging bullets unnecessary, a chore, an afterthought. An overreliance on collidable environments makes the game a twisted, constrained journey through static, uncaring mazes - less like being a zen butterfly in a hailstorm, more like a game of Irritating Stick. Pump enough money into upgrading your guns and soon enough you’re sitting there in the middle of the screen pumping out a 45-degree cone of death. You, as a player, become so completely bullshit that the only thing that could possibly challenge you is, well, more bullshit.

But let’s have another look at what’s going on here. Let’s not immediately assume that the only reason people like these games is for their sheer facility. If the only thing these games have going for them is a shop, why can’t we have a nice shop too? It’s not something I’ve seen any of the big danmaku boys really do. So my goal here was to reconcile what I loved about traditional bullet hell shooters with what I loved in other games, and what the euroshmups pursued so valiantly. Namely, interesting “character build” systems.

Homework

  • Ludum Dare winners are generally visually distinctive. This could be a maximalist or minimalist style, typically (though not always the latter). I have to thank Daniel Cook for his Tyrian graphics, but stealing another game’s face meant the game didn’t stick so well in the mind for a lot of people, though it did at least lend it the appearance of competency (despite the awful way I scaled and rotated some of those graphics…)
  • I found myself focusing on content above most other things. 12-13 enemy types, 2 stages, 2 bosses, 20 or so shop upgrades… not really a good way to do business in the land of LD, though a testament to strength in code architecture (and inner resolve)
  • In my flurry to churn out content, player feedback became sidelined at best, an afterthought at worse. The enemies do not react, flicker or audibly protest when shot - making it hard for some players to even tell if their shots were connecting. Vlambeer have many good things to teach about this - google “Art of Screenshake” for more info. Just a shame that I didn’t watch that presentation a few days earlier.
  • Stage creation was the big timesink over the fiddly bits like the shop. Good shmup stages have an element of reactivity - more enemies come in to plug dead air, enemies are kept from appearing if the player is visibly overwhelmed. Even consciously exploiting this lends games depth and urgency (simple example : the race to destroy ketsui’s first midboss in the hopes of spawning the two big, fat, chip-filled helicopters directly after). I completely neglected this - design flaws made stage creation so intellectually exhausting that I couldn’t deal with this.
  • Too much of the shop was offering the player ways to “fail more”. Extra armour, autobomb, deathbomb. Similarly, other purchases were seen as must-haves - eg. boss health meter. This made it overwhelming with false choice.

95th place was about right for this entry. Better than most in an inelegant, brute-force manner, but nothing special. A good programming exercise if little else.

D-

Unskippable

(I was a little bilious when I wrote this. Apologies.)

Rock Paper Shotgun is one of the worst places on the internet, offering a unique (well, not really) blend of begrudged, couldn’t-care-less games writing, a relentless vitriolic enthusiasm on anything other than games and a subhuman, anglophilic (whoops, redundant) readerbase.

It wasn’t until reading a (somewhat) recent "review" of Guacamelee that I fully realised this (or particularly cared), though. John Walker gets so upset about a difficult boss that he feels the need to complain about it for something over half the piece - though granted, after a few token paragraphs about the positive notions of the game. The other aspects of the game are so apparently fantastic that he didn’t feel it was necessary to really dwell on them - not when there’s an agenda to push.

Because, you see, this particular difficulty spike had the sheer audacity of being a boss fight, and Walker somewhere saw a connection between this and some previous bad gamethoughts.

I can’t think of a better example of why there should be a “skip” button for the utterly irrelevant moments that interrupt the fun, and have hung this one out because of it.

I’ve ranted at length about why boss fights should always be skippable on many occasions. (Disagreeing with this argument reveals sociopathy in the contester, of course. Either a mad conviction that they’ll be forced to use the skip button against their will, or a creepy belief that others shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy something without liking the same things as them.)

The phrase “disagreeing with this argument reveals sociopathy” is such a laughable, cartoon-villain thing to say that I can fucking hear the lightning and organ music in the background. The main argument here, it seems, is “why not?” If I say you shouldn’t be able to skip something, I’m clearly some sort of fascist imposing myself on others. The designer never knows better than the player and is merely there to make sure everything the player does results in a different kind of success, and of the broad emotional palette we recently demand games are spun from, frustration and hard-fought success are apparently off the menu (unless relegated safely to cutscenes or indulgences like Tomb Raider’s pole-climbing-hold-up-for-feels segment).

The simple fact here is that Walker is ultimately looking for some way to make bad games more palatable. And, like Dawkins and his honey, only really complaining about it when it causes him some personal inconvenience. If only the boss fight had been skippable, then he could give a clearly flawed game the glowing review it deserves! If he could go back and give feedback to the devs of Guacamelee, would it be to fix the boss fight or to make it skippable?

Gone Home probably won a bunch of GOTY 2013s for some reason, I’m not sure and can’t really be bothered checking. Here is a video of someone beating the game in 47 seconds. Since Gone Home is singly engaged with telling its own story and has, at best, casual loathing for the player, I’m pretty sure this was not the intended method of experiencing the game. In this sense, the game is entirely skippable- how grand! Finally, someone like myself, someone who has never given a toss about games narrative and likely never will, can also enjoy Gone Home. I mention Gone Home because it’s so universally admired among games journos that if I said a similar thing about any other game it would provoke that same milquetoast “well that’s how you want to play it” bullshit.

This skippability is how one props up bad games. The greatest failing of AAA is the desire, the requirement, to please everyone at the same time. Big gameplay, big characters, big story. Unfortunately, in doing this often all elements end up exceptionally bad, so bad that we want/have to skip them. Metal Gear Solid games have some of the best stealth gameplay ever done sandwiched between overlong, tedious cutscenes. This should make them bad games. The fact that I can skip over the bad parts with X makes them good - this isn’t right. A video game journalist, someone who should be utterly dedicated to pointing out flaws in games, is coming to us begging for the ability to skip over those flaws. If everything’s skippable, we need never play a bad game again. Finally, RPS and so many other bad websites can finally become what they so dearly want to become - consumer advice. A brief description of the story you can skip, the gameplay you can skip, some lovely screenshots, whether it’ll run on your PC or not (with appropriate technical complaints). A RRP. Everyone’s happy.

Games have become disposable, consumable, replacable. We buy indie games in bundles for pennies, wait for the multi-million dollar games to become about cup-of-coffee range before we even think of throwing down any money. This is a dark age, an overwhelmed age - but the solution is simple. Not many of these games are very good. Most of them are overbroad, unfocused, locked in an eternal desire to please everyone based on Steam’s model of a million $1 purchases. PC Gamer recently did a good thing in naming Spelunky its 2013 GOTY, and this came to the chagrin of a million and one comment-section fuckwits. The complaints? “It’s not a full game”, “not a full package”, “it’s a tiny indie game”. Spelunky is so focused, so bold and so uncompromised that my main criticisms of the game are as follows :

  • I wish you could quickly start the daily challenge from the intro much like you can the main game.
  • It really upsets learned behaviour and muscle memory from the freeware game that snakes and spiders in pots aren’t also hit when you hit the pot.

A game with a bad points list like this has no other place but to be game of the year. And yet, it is rejected by idiots on the basis that there are no in-game cutscenes, no dialog, no story, no grind and no graphical effects beyond the necessary1. It’s not Spelunky’s fault you spent a grand and a half on a computer that no good game truly requires. Spelunky is good because not one moment of the game is skippable (tunnel man being a practice mode, an active antirequisite for a proper clear of the game), and because it is so focused and balanced that it would be perverse to skip any moment.

If every cutscene in games was unskippable, you can damn well bet we’d start seeing less cutscenes, or more importantly better ones. The inverse is to be taken for skipping gameplay segments. Perhaps not more, but certainly worse. The only solution to an age of 8/10s, a bursting indie bubble and unending seas of trash - is to move towards games which are wholly and truly unskippable.


  1. And possibly that it isn’t made by Valve. 

Paying to win

I wrote a while ago about this, but the post was badly written and misunderstood. Allow me a chance to correct myself.

Free to play is an unavoidable part of the current games marketplace. From the piecemeal, pay-as-you-want system of something like Pinball Arcade to the crate-opening, item-purchasing tendencies of Team Fortress 2, and even now to such odd places as Capcom’s second apparent take at the Souls series - Deep Down. And, when there’s any disruption in games, people will pour forth to shoot it down - particularly for online multiplayer. Among a lot of people who have been playing multiplayer games for a long time, free is worse than a $10 price tag - the “free-to-play” tag is a blemish, not a selling point. The reaction to free-to-play can be so unrelentingly negative that I can barely even mention games like Hawken without appending a million “but”s to the end.

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Payday 2, and the perversion of persistence

Payday 2 came out a few months ago, sometime in August. The first game frequently came up against complaints that it felt a little too much like Left 4 Dead with cops, suffered a lack of polish, felt a little too railroaded down some (admittedly) impressive setpieces. The successor has been polished, fleshed out. Ongoing days, casing mode, equipment options make it feel like a heist game - but when the going gets rough, some nice guns and interesting skill trees make it an entertaining police murder / drill repair simulator.

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