N8 D-B8: Emily is Away and “Volitional Fiction”

So last week I said I was going to play more Ludum Dare 34 jam games… But I’m suuuper burnt out on those liddle diddies, so I’ll come back to them at some distant point in the far post-The Witness future.  Instead, this week marks the first meeting of this little discussion group I’m trying to start. The idea is to come together in classic book club format to chat about ‘games that matter.’  Check out the subreddit here if you’re interested in having some meaningful conversation about some meaningful games!  For our first discussion, we talked about Emily is Away – a short narrative-based game by @KyleSeeley23.

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But rather than talking solely about the game as I normally do, I wanted to turn my focus to an article by Casey Muratori I recently happened upon. In his article, aptly titled Volitional Fiction, he focuses on two terms that are necessary to “…make a game feel like you’re actually playing it, not watching it.” Intention, to Muratori, is exactly what you’re familiar with. In the frame of video games, it is the ability for the player to make a plan or construct a goal, and then take actions in concordance with the known rules of the game universe to attempt to see it through. Perceived consequence, is the reaction the game has to the player’s action. In a very basic sense, I intend to do something in a game knowing the rules it’s presented to me so far (the goomba killed me last time, this time I’ll jump on it) then, after I take action, the game reacts and creates a feeling of push-and-pull (the goomba gets squished.) This push-pull is essentially what Muratori means by ‘play.’ The game throws some shit at me and I react to that shit. Then, if it’s a good game by his standards, I get some feedback, which then informs my future intentions. He says, “The cycle leads to a satisfying feeling of real interaction where the player chooses both what to do and how to do it, and the reaction of the game to their actions doesn’t feel arbitrary.”

This should all seem pretty straight-forward and agreeable. A game feels good and legitimate if the game’s reactions to my input make sense in the simulated world that has presented to me. Quite easily, you can see why this understanding of what makes a ‘good game’ will lead to the conclusion that there is something ‘wrong with current interactive fiction games.’ Going by the standards of intention and perceived consequence, there’s something wrong with games like Dear Esther, The Beginner’s Guide, or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by default. In this type of game, there’s no ‘intention’ and no ‘consequence.’ You just walk around and experience things. How can a Good Game™ possibly ignore these fundamental design paradigms??

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So let me wrap this back around to Emily is Away. You take on the role of a teenager at the end of his last year of high school. The entire game is constructed in a simulated AIM window in which you have instant message conversations with your long-time friend Emily. One of the first choices you make is to either go to a party or stay at home. So putting it in our earlier terms, let’s say my intention is to get Emily to fall in love with me. (The game rings loudly with the tone of dating sims, so this is not an unrealistic goal.) So I think, “well if I don’t go to the party, maybe she’ll wish I was there and we’ll have more of a chance later on.” So I choose not go to the party and she winds up dating this other guy and life goes on until later Emily tells me that if I had gone to the party, she would have taken off with me on a romantic escapade. So my action resulted in a consequence that I did not expect, which is fine. That happens. The game world is teaching me its consequences. I simply restart the game and choose to go to the party with her, that way I’ll get my intended result! But that’s not what happens. She just winds up with a different guy. This throws dirt in the face of the ‘perceived consequences’ the game had previously established. Mr. Muratori would hate Emily is Away.

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And it’s not just because the game’s internal logic appears inconsistent that this game would rub him so wrongly. It’s because there’s something inherently non-volitional about narrative-driven games as we currently know them. He says, “These choices are merely single, scripted instances in time, presented to the player without their initiation — the player never makes a plan or decides what to do. They have a situation thrust upon them and are asked to decide which to do.” You can either go to the party or not. You can either invite Emily over to your dorm or not. You can decide between fork A and fork B, but the result is rarely what you intended. Indeed, I am unable to disagree with Muratori here. Fiction by default is NOT push-and-pull in the gamey sense that he’s so invested in. And interactive fiction merely gives the illusion of that push-and-pull. It presents a range of options from which the player can choose (but never bypass) and then sends them down a scripted, static road based on that choice. There is no emergence, no dynamism, no give-and-take. A narrative-based game like Emily is Away can’t be a good game without those integral elements of complex interaction.

What a load of bullll shit.

Again, imagine my intention is to get Emily to fall in love with me.  I therefore interact with the few choices I have based on the world the game has presented me. But I still find that nothing seems to work in respect to achieving my desired outcome. I could go on a tirade and start complaining about true choice and volition in interactive fiction. I could criticize these narrative-driven games because they don’t allow the player to truly assume the role of the main character and don’t actually allow me to make real decisions about what and how I want to do things. But why? Why does the player deserve that much power? Since when has that been how stories (or even most video games) work? Are we supposed to feel so in control when we play through a work of narrative? Is the goal of fiction to give us the impression that it is truly us in the role of the main character? Or is it to communicate something important, to give us a slice out of someone else’s biography, to remind us that it is not just us here with these memories and emotions and experiences? Interactive fiction gives us the ability to assume the role of another, from the intimate first person.  That does not mean all narrative fiction ought to be about ME and MY volition. I don’t want the future of interactive narrative to be more like Façade.

facade screencap

Emily is Away succeeds as a narrative-driven game because it allows us to explore a relationship in a way that a classical piece of fiction AND a classical volition-heavy game would not be able. It doesn’t use groundbreaking technology to give us the ability to interact at any moment or in any way in order to achieve our intended outcome. It gives us a severely limited range of choices followed by a highly constrained set of responses. But how is that so different from real life? When you were talking to your crush on AIM way back when, did you really have the option to say anything you wanted? Were you really able to bypass the boundaries of social conventions, ignore all historical and personal context, and just tell that person you loved them? And if you were able to do all that, were you ever really able to choose otherwise? All this determinism junk aside, Emily is Away presents a look at how a real relationship works. You don’t actually plan out your every action based on what your goal is. Most of the time the ‘perceived consequence’ is vastly different from the actual consequence. The world is messy and relationships are messy and Emily is Away doesn’t need to give the player more volition just to appease control freaks. The game is short, sweet, and a solid slice of life.

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N8 R8S 8: Ludum Dare 34 Part 3

Just as the last 2 times, N8 is R8ing a wonderful bunch of Ludum Dare games – this time picked more or less at random.  Even though the jam is officially over and the votes have all been cast, I’m still digging through the hundreds and hundreds of games that have been released.  Next week I will be playing the top 8 games from the jam and the compo, so look out for that!


1/8. Lawn Mower Fight – You’re a lawnmower (the machine, not the person) and you gotta mow more grass, hay, and ascii characters than all the other little lawnmowers. There are powerups that make you mow better. The three levels are all easy. It’s a neat game! It’s got an explosion sound! Definitely a mark of progress for a developing developer!

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2/8. Golden Rush – You take control of a golden fish and swim around a small, linear passageway. The fish is animated so fluidly, kind of like a straight up 4 real fish. Seriously looks good. The movement (which is really all there is to this little experiment) is smooth and feels really nice. I would love to play a version of this when it’s actually a fleshed-out game. But since there are other games in this jam that are just plainly more ‘game-y,’ I don’t have more to say.

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3/8. Agropolis – A click-and-drag growth game with very little to it in turns of objective. You grow your plant-like structure higher and wider as you get new types of blocks that have different growth patterns. A peaceful game, which would be far more interesting with some type of basic objective. All-in-all, though – it’s a little lacking compared to some of the other games in this selection.

Agrop

4/8. Milgram – A pretty silly little story game where you have to follow instructions by pressing two buttons (cute lil’ rip on the jam theme there.) There are three endings to discover and they’re all pretty obvious and I’m not really sure what the point is in terms of morality or meaning, but I like games like this, even when they’re this basic. The voice acting is kinda bad, but hey. And I was worried it was just a corny rip on the Stanley Parable, but it gets a pass cuz of memes. Just what the world needs more of.

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5/8. Kubble – A turn based puzzle-platformer (though platformer isn’t really the right word) with a pretty snazzy synthy background track. I found this short game pretty difficult at times, but when it wasn’t difficult, it was realllly easy. So it was in this weird spot of being hard for the wrong reasons and easy in a way that wasn’t really fun. Twice, I won a level without really understanding how or why. I really like the turn based concept, and though the game was pretty cool, there wasn’t much more to it after level 2.

kubble

6/8. Personal Valley – One of the cool things about playing all these jam games is that you get to see all the talent that is out there. A game consists of so many moving parts – the sound, the music, the static graphics, the animations, the gameplay, the story. All of these little pieces combine into something that can be tremendously beautiful. And even though that’s not quite what I’d call this little game, it is the game that made me think about it. This game is such a little slice of fantasy with the ambient music and gentle pixelated graphics. Even though there isn’t much to it in terms of gameplay (I played the pre-finished version), it does bring you a feeling of having your own little ‘personal valley’ to spend some time in.

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7/8. Drought – Peaceful little puzzle game with some wonderful atmospheric music that reminded me a good deal of the music from English Country Tune. The game consists of tile placement. You place water, dirt, grass, and seeds which grow into trees with fruit. It’s not at all complicated or difficult. Honestly speaking, I was having a stressful day when I tried out Drought, and though I didn’t find the gameplay intensely exciting or even very compelling, it relaxed me and brought my mood up in a way that kind of surprised me. It’s cool how something so plainly nice can come out of a game jam.

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8/8. Orb Lords – A two-button pinball game in which the only way is up. Hitting left shift and right shift will flick flippers as you’d expect, but doing so has the interesting side effect of turning on/off orange and blue coins, boosters, and warp pads. The game is over when you reach the top of the board, and the objective is to either do this as quickly as possible or pick up as many coins as possible on your way up. Easy to get into and challenging to do well – just as pinball has always been. Though it did get a little janky with the ball physics at a time or two, Orb Lords is good shit for a jam game and definitely worth the play.

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I’ve got nothing else this week except to say that I’m also hosting a discussion group for ‘thoughtful’ games that will be taking off this week.  The idea is to play a game once every 2 – 4 weeks and discuss, criticize, and understand it better as a form of art – kind of like a book club might.  We’ve got a (quite barren atm) subreddit set up for this and we’re looking forward to finding out how this goes!

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N8 R8S 8: Ludum Dare 34 Part 2

Last week I bounced from page to page on the Ludum Dare site, just selecting 8 jam games at random to play, rate, and present to you. This week, I was a little more selective in my choices in that I picked games out arbitrarily and played ones that seemed interesting from a first glance. For this reason, the games I played this week were undoubtedly of a slightly higher quality than the ones from last week.  Just something to keep in mind.


1/8. Burger Run – This game is so simple it’s kind of hard for me to say much about it. You run and jump, and you’re on a treadmill. You get hit with burgers as you go and those slow you down. But if you just hold the run key down and constantly jump, you can run forever. So there is no real challenge. You just listen to the catchy song, hold the right arrow down, and tap on the up arrow as you watch your crazy looking giraffe dude run infinitely. It’s silly. It’s not the worst jam game I’ve ever played. But it’s… it’s… Well. Watching this gif is just as good as playing the actual game… So there…

giraffe

2/8. Source Tree – A music game, with similarities to Stepmania or DDR, but with only 2 buttons. Which is as easy as it sounds. The music is quite lovely and it got me in a game groove, but for the most part I was just tapping the keys to no real rhythm because the game didn’t keep pace the the music that well and it didn’t punish me for not paying attention. The growing plant is totally irrelevant. The game just went on forever after I finished one song, so I didn’t really play much after that.

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3/8. Urbo – I don’t know what a ‘win-state’ is in this little click game, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun or good or anything like that. It’s simple int that you choose one of two possible societal directions (like education or health) and then your city grows. I’m not sure how your choices affect the gameplay, but I assume there was some sort of link… At one point as I was playing, I clicked off the screen for a minute and 15 new city tiles popped up all at once when I clicked back in. I had no idea what I was doing pretty much the whole time I was playing. I just kept choosing health, education, and sometimes wealth but I couldn’t notice it having any effect. Still, it was very pretty, smooth, and a solid entry. No quit button tho. :/

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4/8. American Excess – Excellent sound and visual detail. A fairly cute game but truly hilarious. The controls are a bit gimmicky, in my mind – but they worked for sure and were challenging to work with at times. The theme was right up my alley but the actual mechanics and aim of the game didn’t really have much to do with the anti-consumerist message that seemed to be at the center. Altogether a fun game with fun visuals and audio. Favorite line from the game spoken over the intercom: “Mr. Costello, can you please come to the front desk. Your vibrator has been repaired successfully”

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5/8. noa noa – First thing you’ll notice are the amazing 3D animations and the super-fun music and sound effects. This game feels so polished and smooth, even if it is only a 2-button jam game. It takes the form of a classic Tamagotchi-style virtual pet in which you have to play simple mini games, shop for accessories, and show love to your little creature. It has stats that are all affected by how you interact with it and how well you play the mini-games. Though I never actually owned one of those little plastic eggs back in their hey-day, I had a lot of fun with this one. Unfortunately, I grew impatient with the repetitive ‘exercising’ minigame and left my little pet at the virtual SPCA along with the millions of forgotten ’90s Tamagotchi. Still a great jame entry.

noa

6/8. Seeds of Sky – Upon beginning, I dug myself into a hole and was left trapped. Restarting, I found myself in a pretty well-made homage to Starseed Pilgrim. The platforming is smooth for the most part and I only encountered one or two little bugs in which I would either phase through a wall or glitch out one of the goats that ram you off edges. I actually played through the whole thing and enjoyed it completely. The growth mechanics weren’t nearly as in depth as Starseed Pilgrim, but with 48 hours to complete the game, that’s to be expected. Not without its flaws, but a good entry.

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7/8. GROWEES – Visually impressive hexagonal tile-based Othello game in which you play through 10 levels where you’re objective is to swap all tiles of one type out for tiles of another type. The gameplay is extremely simple and plays the same way as many games that have come before – such as Reversi or the good ol’ flash game Hexxagon. I could see this working really well in its current state on a mobile device, or as a more fleshed out puzzle game in general. Relaxing atmosphere, calming music. Easy. Very solid entry despite its simplicity.

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8/8. Conga Master – Two-button controls masterfully utilized in what is probably the most fun Ludum game I’ve played so far. Worm your way in and out of all the people on the dance floor as your grow your chain of conga liners. It’s just the right level of challenging as you work to keep your momentum up and your chain growing. The music is catchy and the pixelated graphics offer the perfect level of goofy flashiness. I was happy to play this game a time or two again after I lost the first time. More music, dance floors, and maybe an extra mechanic or two would make this game stand up to a huge portion of the small titles out in the ‘real’ world already.

conga


Check back next week!  I’ll be playing one more round of jam games before the end of LD 34 and the finalists are announced.

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N8 R8S 8: Ludum Dare 34 Part 1

Ludum Dare #34 is in full swing with it’s TWO concurrent themes: Growing and Two-button controls. Over the next few weeks I’ll be diving into a random selection of this jam’s games and giving my brief thoughts on each, all the while ranking them from 1-8 according to my personal whim and unseasoned taste. When the Jam comes to a conclusion, I’ll also be taking a closer look at the winners to find out just what makes a great jam game. Without further prelude…


1/8 Neon Junk Collector – While visually stimulating, this game barely worked for me. The two-button control scheme was interesting and collecting smaller blobs to keep your larger blob growing is a well-tested gameplay mechanic, but the two combined into a clunky mess of vaporwave space trash. When I finally got the controls down, I was terrible at the game. Not sure if that’s because it was a hard game or because I just suck.

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2/8 Escape of the Alien Invader – The only procedurally generated game on the list – which is saying quite a lot for a jam game. Lots of placeholder art for what I imagine could be a neat addition to the realm of ‘roguelike-ish’ games out there. Weapon upgrades were fun and the gameplay – while simple – was still challenging. A few glitches in the level-generation process, but a decent jam game, to be sure.

Escape

3/8 Dead Silence: A Walk in the Park – If it weren’t for the fact that this game had me laughing the entire time I played, it would have been ranked lower than the other two so far. You play a killer snowman who chases victims around and eats them… or something. It really had nothing to do with either of the possible Ludum Dare themes, but the ridiculous screams of the innocent villagers was enough for me to ignore the many flaws.

Snowman

4/8 Gravity – Essentially an Asteroids-style game but without the ability to actually move your character independently. Instead, you place ‘black holes’ (attract objects) and ‘white holes’ (repel objects) around the field of play. You need to move your crazy-looking celestial being icon around space, avoiding asteroids and collecting spaceship parts all using this mechanic. I had fun playing the web version and it controlled quite well. I was killed when I accidentally touched the edge of  the map, and felt no compulsion to play again. The two-button controls scheme was solid and I like the idea (repel and attract), but I think it could be implemented in a different type of game to give a unique and generally better experience.

Gravity

5/8 Fight or Flight – A highly-simplistic top-down shooter with smooth controls (space to aim, click to move and shoot) and some really nice lighting effects and sound/music. I could easily imagine these mechanics transferring over to a more complex game in which I’m not simply navigating my way through a linear maze. Nothing negative to say, but since it was so basic, there’s not much in particular positive to say, either.

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6/8 Delta Swing – Left-click to shoot, right-click to use your grappling hook. A really smooth 3D game in which you’re constantly moving forward. After playing this prototype, I really like the idea of a 2 button first person game. It’s pretty exciting using the grapple to navigate the world while keeping the spiders, ants, and bees at bay. I didn’t notice the mushrooms growing all over the map until I read the description, but this is a neat jam game that met both of Ludum Dare’s themes. Hopefully this will turn into something more polished!

Delta

7/8 Immune – Intuitive 2-button controls with some solid graphics and a killer background song. And all of it available in your browser! The game was fun and the difficulty ramps up as your little infectious blob gets larger and larger. I can easily imagine this game getting some more work and detail and becoming a significant web or mobile game. Met both of the jam’s two criteria.

immune

8/8 Growing Sakura – An impressively difficult puzzle game with two-button controls and a theme around growth in a hexagonal grid. This game comes with 40 levels and I struggled for several minutes with just the first 4! I usually imagine myself as a pretty decent puzzle-solver, but Growing Sakura had me stumped in more than one spot. And it was the kind of stumped that didn’t feel unfair or annoying. These levels can be solved – and it’s a good feeling solving them.

sakura


So that’s all for this week. I’ll be playing another 8 this coming week and will update N8R8 accordingly. Cheers!

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N8B8: Fallout 4 is bad.

I haven’t made a post on this blog in a little over a month – back right before Fallout 4 came out. The idea I had in my head was to make some sort of silly series on the game, detailing my experience in short blog-snippets. I would do a goofy run through with a melee-only character and update N8R8 every time something particularly funny or otherwise noteworthy would happen, or maybe I’d just give the game my time, consideration, and care and write a thorough review. But now that I’m sitting at thirty hours of gameplay and zero blog entries, I’ve decided to give up on both.  I will not make a happy-go-lucky series in which a nudist with iron fists scours the wasteland in search of his adult son and I will not write a review for this game. Instead, I’m just going to ramble and sputter vague complaints and give Fallout 4 a N8R8 of N/A because I don’t think it’s wise to try to rank a monstrous AAA game like this in the same way I rank the games I actually care about.

I hopped into Fallout 4 riding on everyone else’s enthusiasm even though I had none of my own. I stupidly thought I needed to be in the same boat as everyone else. I wanted to have some content ready on a bi-weekly basis so I could get people to read N8R8, right in the midst of the F4 explosion. I ignored my gut reaction after watching the trailer, reading the details, and watching the gameplay. I told myself, “hey it’s a huge Bethesda game. It’s going to be a good time no matter what.”

ugg

But I was wrong. I spent thirty hours playing this game, and while i can’t say I wasn’t entertained, the quality of entertainment was pitiable. I felt stupid as I played this game, somehow detached and shut-off from the world of video games I care so much about. I trudged through the trope-infused story, played a few dozen repetitive side quests, crafted, modded, and built up a clunky settlement or two… all with this easy, vapid smirk across my face.

Fallout 4 offered nothing challenging in terms of gameplay or narration. It confronted none of my expectations about what a ‘typical’ Bethesda game consists of. If anything, it reinforced how I’ve felt about their games since my time spent with Skyrim. This is not a good RPG. This is not a good adventure game. This is not a good FPS. This is not a good exploration game. Fallout 4 is a purely mediocre mish-mash of game mechanics that belong to all of those ‘genres.’ It aims to please the everygamer, and so fails to accurately please the fans of any one camp, or even those who would say they’re a fan of every camp. The game’s scope is too wide. A fundamental layer of depth that existed in previous Bethesda titles has been getting slowly sliced away since the last generation of consoles.

Or maybe that’s the wrong analogy. Maybe a more accurate picture of what’s going on here is that of Frankenstein’s monster.  Bethesda thinks that by conjoining all the best parts of all the most popular types of games, a good game is guaranteed. The fact is that we’re presented with a chunky, clunky, buggy mess of nothing in particular. It’s not an adventure game. Or an RPG. Or a crafting game, exploring game, or a shooter (OK well maybe it’s that, at least). It’s a Bethesda game. And it’s got all the birthmarks, blemishes, scars, and handicaps that Bethesda games are so known for. In their movement toward creating games for the ‘modern gamer’ (AKA the everygamer and everyone in his immediate family) we wind up missing something genuine and serious. In place of a a feeling of uniqueness, the games have grown more accessible, more homogeneous, and more entertaining.

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And that’s a weird thing to say. How could a ‘more entertaining’ game possibly be anything but positive? And I guess the answer lies in the true question, which is, ‘entertaining to which audience?’

Compare what I’m talking about to TV. It’s all entertainment. But the quality of entertainment is intrinsically dependent on who is doing the watching and critiquing. To many, Family Guy is quality entertainment. To others, The Big Bang Theory is quality entertainment. I don’t mean to say anything about the people who like Family Guy, or The Big Bang Theory, or Fallout 4. But I can’t help but consume those sources of entertainment and feel worse because of them.

So that’s why I haven’t posted, I think.  The whole time I played Fallout 4, I was trying to figure out how I could turn that mediocre experience into something that people would want to read. Rather than looking critically at the shitty time I was having, I just kept on playing, clearing dungeon after dungeon and skipping every shitty dialogue scene I could. I was being entertained, but in that mind-numbing, life-sucking way. That same way your uncle is entertained by Fox’s 24-hour news cycle and reruns of 7th heaven.

So the next time I encounter a piece of entertainment that gives me that rotten feeling in my stomach, that feeling of wasted life, I’m going to make sure I don’t sink thirty hours of my real-life time mucking around with my stupid companions in my trash-hole of a settlement. There are better games, made by more genuine groups of people. Those are the games that deserved to be played and praised.

 

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N8B8: 8 Nuggets of Undertale Beauty

N8 R8S 8: Charmingest Scenes from the charmingest game of the year 2015 Undertale.


1/8. This riverboat that’s also a cat dog

We should all travel by cat dog.  Greenhouse gasses wouldn’t know what hit ’em

cat man

2/8. CAMERAS EVERYWHERE

What is Alphys even doing with all that footage?

Cameras hidden in objects all over Snowdin

3/8. Sexually Repressed Guards

You can avoid fighting these guys by rubbing one guard’s armor until he gets too hot and has to take it off, revealing his sweaty, beefy torso. This triggers his partner to confess his true feelings, so they stop fighting and go on a date.  UNDERTALE: pushing the LBGT agenda since 2015.Two guards. One shirtless. Bobbing in Unison

4/8. Burgerpants, the insightful spazzy cat

Having the same insight as me in my college years

I'm 19 years old and I've already wasted my entire life.

5/8. Nightcrawlers – solo style

You can bedbug around like it ain’t no thang.  I wish .gifs could have sound :[

Bed bug

6/8. Hotland Outsourcing its cooling jobs to Snowdin

Knowing this ice cube has traversed miles of river, just to cool off the core fills you with DETERMINATION.

Ice wolf chucks ice cube into waterice cube cools the core

7/8. This self-defeating janitor

Looks busy…

Slime janitor cleans his own goop

8/8. The most comforting ghost

Right in the middle of the least comforting area of the game, no less.

Ghost tucks in lil Frisk


THIS GARBAGE UNDERTALE CRAPBAIT ARTICLE IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY N8

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Tripping on Mushroom 11

The N8R8 award for innovation in 2D physics-based puzzle-platformer design has found a reason to be called into existence! And while technically the only contender for this newly established yet prestigious prize, Mushroom 11 is a prime example of what games would be if developers stopped rehashing the same junk and just tried a little harder to open their minds to something new, interesting, and a teensy bit experimental. There is no jumping, no walking, none of that sticky platformer goop that immediately makes us think of that red-suited, Goomba-bopping plumber we all know oh too well. A truly welcome variation on the genre is what you get for 14.99 on Steam (10% OFF NOW!) N8s got the deets, N8s got the gifs, N8s got the stupid 8 gimmick thing goin’ on – all the shit you need to get a good, firm feel for this mycological treat of an indie platformer.

main screen

One of the first things you’ll notice after doing yourself the favor of buying Mushroom 11 is that there are no real characters in the game. There is no dialogue, no narrator, no signposts telling you how to play, not even the slightest suggestion that you have a goal or a mission or an end-point. It’s all organic. The only direction you get is through the classic effect of side-scrolling. You move your green, radioactive-looking blob of an avatar toward the edge of the screen and the screen moves along with you. Interestingly, side-scrolling occurs from right to left in this game, possibly for the sake of comfort as your means of progress comes from heavy use of quick up-and-down mouse flicks. Even more interesting is the primary source of challenge in the game – movement. All of the platforming done in Mushroom 11 is done with the abilities of an amorphous amoeba. You push yourself to the left by destroying yourself on the right. You rapidly erase your blob with the click of the mouse and it rapidly rebuilds itself in the opposite direction. This is easily visible in the trailer or in any one of these fancy-pants gifs I’s gots.

MovingThis fundamental change in the way the player is required to think about movement lends itself to a vast new array of level design options. The player can climb up walls, squeeze through the narrowest of cracks, cling to tiny or oddly shaped platforms by becoming the perfect shape to suit the scenario. The destructive method of movement and shaping is quickly shown to be a double-edged sword, of course, as it is easy to chop away too much too quickly and wind up with a tiny hopeless speck of green plummeting into a pit of acid or bottomlessness. With time, you become more skilled at trimming the ol’ globule so it’s moved and shaped in just the way you intend. The devs have taken full advantage of the perks of blobiness by crafting some truly unique and challenging levels, all littered with extraneous collectibles and hidden tasks for the perfectionists out there. And while the basic progressive task of moving to the end of each level is a formidable undertaking for just about anyone, the real test is in collecting all that hidden blue flora and fauna.

Collectibles

Puzzles in Mushroom 11 are a little less Braid and a little more Portal. They are not the toughest brain-benders in the sense that the solution probably comes to the player pretty quickly. The hardest part is actually putting your idea into practice and molding your blob into the optimal shape for the solution you’ve got in mind – and doing it quickly, too. This is not frustrating and annoying a la QUBE, but rather stimulating and encouraging as you get closer and closer to the right move after each attempt. That’s not to say the game is never frustrating. It gets increasingly difficult and I often found myself getting pissed off at the spacing between certain check points. Most of the time these were well-placed without being too easy to reach, but occasionally there’d be one next to a death trap I had persistent trouble with. Fortunately, these checkpoints are rage proof and bring you right back where you left off when you spaz out and alt-F4.

Spread in increments throughout the levels are also Intense, cinematic experiences in which the player sets in motion a chain-reaction and gets the pleasure of following the event to its conclusion. In these moments, the player must continue interaction with their blob while it rides a mine cart, gets shot through the air from a catapult, or bounces along on pistons above lava. The conclusion of each level is also marked with my favorite bits in Mushroom 11. The boss-battles are a classic but ever-welcome method of ending the levels with a bang. To prevail, each boss requires the player to utilize specific skills taken from the level in a new way. Unlike other similarly-styled platformers, however, you never gain new abilities or upgrades. While these cliches would be nothing but awkward and unnecessary if added in haphazardly, some type of variety from level-to-level would have been welcome, as they do sometimes get a bit repetitive, though no where near enough to want to stop playing.

Ramp

To pile more meat on the positivity pl8, the background and foreground art in Mushroom 11 is a charming display of mutated landmasses, dilapidated factoryscapes, and post-apocalyptic cities. Brief stories of the once-great human civilization are told via buried skeletons, barbed wire, and graffitied signs, leading the player to a vague understanding of how the world came to be succeeded by squishy green blobs, mutant spiders, and mechanized slugs. The background music is an atmospheric mixture of synthetic wind instruments, percussion, and chimes layered with the sounds of each specific level, like mechanical clangs and hums for the factory setting and the chirps of unknown bird species for the forest level. In my mind, all of this rich atmosphere would have fit perfectly over top of some direct story elements, though doing too much with the story would detract from the cohesiveness of the game overall.

pretty

The one undeniable downside of a game like this is that it reminds us that the rest of the world is full to the brim of copy-cut 2D platformers. Even though this classic genre is far from dead, it feels like a miracle when you finally uncover that beautiful shimmer of life in unique titles like Mushroom 11. With level-design that meshes consistently well with the mechanics and an atmosphere that fills the game world with color, sound, and excitement, it’s hard not to imagine what the gaming world would look like if more games were created with this amount of care and precision. Though Mushroom 11 occasionally felt a tiddly bit monotonous, the game is too solid and fun to speak of in a negative tone. If you’re looking for the freshest of paltforming produce, Mushroom 11 is as local-grown, organic, non-GMO, cruelty/cage/ISIS-free, and hella-tight as you can find on the deep web. Check it.

N8

R8

7/8

mushy3

Side note: Mushroom 11 is eventually coming to mobile, which I can imagine being a great experience assuming the devs get the controls down solid. It was difficult enough with a mouse.


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ON N8S PL8

I picked up the Humble Indie Bundle (Number 15) for two particular side-dishes:

The first: Q.U.B.E.

QUBE is what I’d imagine 2001: a Space Odyssey would look like if Kubrick made video games and if those games were for stupid people. The puzzles in this game are SERIOUSLY easy and the narrative is so stale I can still feel the rock-hard bits of story in my teeth. Over an intercom, a lady-representative from mission control talks to you about literally nothing useful or important or even vaguely interesting. Occasionally, her orbit takes her conveniently out of signal range (Save a little cash on voice acting fees!) leaving you to solve clunky puzzles that are only difficult when the broken physics get in the way of the one possible solution. Each time she comes back around, she blathers on about amnesia and your former life and saving the planet and a whole bunch of junk you are quite incapable of caring about due to the convoluted logic and well-worn trajectory the story takes. But the environments are pretty cool looking with those very basic soft white cubes and primary colors, not that it takes much effort to get a nice looking environment using the most rudimentary shapes and colors, but hey. I have to find something positive about this trip.

Qube1


The second: Sir You Are Being Hunted

Sir You Are Being Hunted is like kinda like a first person Don’t Starve with a lot less detail and polish. What I can say about this game is that the tracks have been laid for an authentic, thrilling, and engrossing survival experience. Considering multiplayer has just come out and the fact that this experience is actually pretty solid despite being an indie title, this game’s future chock-full of promise. What you’ve got right now, though, is a pretty boring world in which you collect rocks and food and get nice and spooked by all those creepy robots. I found my heart racing more than once as I was tracked down, but I didn’t feel compelled to survive just so I could say “I win!”, so the experience had a bit of a dull edge. The best aspect of this game is the feeling that you have to move around, even though it makes you extremely vulnerable. Your instincts tell you to stay put, but you know you need to move around for food, weapons, and to feed that overpowering hunger for exploration. I really hope this game grows beyond this point, especially visually, because I have not been so scared of robots since those stupid animatronic bears and rabbits.

hunted


Some others:

Undertale

I spent several hours of my gaming time the last few weeks finishing this game. You can read my review for it heeere.


The Beginner’s Guide

I finished The Beginner’s Guide just the other day and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. In my mind, this is a perfect example of “games as art.” Davey Wreden does a wonderful job of providing his personal commentary on the enigmatic games of “Coda,” and when I say that I mean it exactly as that. This game is highly personal. Wreden does a wonderful job of framing these little abstract games inside his narration, which is deeply intertwined with the experience as a whole. There are some serious flaws with his opinions and his reliability as a narrator is highly suspect, but to suggest Wreden was not aware of these problems ignores some of the brightest parts of the game. I will be writing more about this game.

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Bodily Functions, Synchronized

We’ve been meeting like this every day for some time now. Always after that first cup of coffee. Maybe a doughnut or a piece of fruit if I’m trying to be good.

Sometimes, I’ll be sitting here for a few minutes, playing a level of Angry Birds or Candy Crush, waiting for that familiar pair of dusty, well-worn loafers to swish into my neighboring stall. Other times, I’ll enter quietly and take my seat, only to notice you’re already there. Waiting for me.

I’ve been keeping it all in too long… These moments between us – wonderful moments where I know you know we’re feeling the same thing. The way we skirt around our bliss, afraid to get too close. There is something powerful brewing here. Something real and beautifully human, separated from the anxieties outside. A release.

And it’s not just how our cycles are so in sync. It’s how you only go for the paper after I’ve flushed. The shy way you wait until I’ve washed my hands and left the room to finish up yourself. The too-quick way you murmur “bless you” when I sneeze. Those soft, gruff words. A hushed baritone that makes me quiver.

But the truth is I need to let go. I sit here now, writing this. My body is pure tension. Everything is clenched, backed up. You’re so close and so unreachable. You mutter subdued grunts, scratch the stubble on your neck. I wonder… Do you have a mustache? More scratching noises echo from your stall. Flakes of dandruff fall to the floor between us. They dissolve in a tiny puddle of unknown moisture.

I place my hand on that beige divider and I imagine you doing the same. The fantasy fills me with warmth, and I am able to push again. The dispassionate would cry “unsanitary!” but my lips crave this contact. I place them gently on our wall and whisper forbidden words of encouragement with gentle flicks of my tongue. I am emptied of all reservation.


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The Hilariously, Wonderfully Weird RPG: Undertale

Despite all the hype and good vibes going around about Undertale, it took me a few weeks to actually buy in and give it a shot. I had just finished Lisa: The Painful RPG a few weeks prior and then Ossuary a few weeks before that and the whole realm of dreary, pixelated bizzaro-worlds was getting a bit stale. I was pretty burned out on the random-encounters, the cutesy pixelated characters, and all that goddam dialogue. I really didn’t expect much from this game… The stills I had seen were a bit underwhelming and to be honest, I think the trailer could do with a makeover, too. But in this instance, I am really glad I didn’t just shrug it off and go with some flashy, fast-paced, triple-A fun-fest. Fifteen minutes into Undertale, and that feeling came over me. That amazing feeling you get when you are expecting nothing but get EXACTLY what you didn’t even know you were craving.

Whimsy

For me, this is one of those games that you can not appreciate from afar. You have to pull the curtains aside, throw the window wide-open, and really stick your head into it. The screenshots fail miserably at conveying the delightful atmosphere and the reviews (like this one) can do even less to exhibit what this game has to offer. The first thing that truly clicked with me was the humorous tone that persists even through the most serious moments of the game. In the beginning, you’re introduced to the mechanics through a typical hand-holder character, Toriel, who instantly had me smiling if not cracking up at all the heavy-handed guidance she has to offer. The jokes are completely self-aware, extremely clever, and so well-paced that at times it seems like the game was designed from Day One with the comedy set in stone. I could compare the humor in the game to the humor of Lisa, but unlike Lisa, Undertale’s humor comes in the form of gentle, subtle, happy jokes. In my mind, Lisa’s humor is far more abrasive – based on weird, demented characters in a violent, gruesome world. In Lisa, you had flammable orphans. In Undertale, you’ve got a sim-date with a skeleton.

Skeleton date

Another welcome difference between Undertale and other run-of-the-mill random encounter-based RPGs is that Undetale doesn’t base it’s ‘combat’ on statistics involving ATK, DEF, M. ATK, and M. DEF. Instead, what you get each time you’re faced with a monster is a choice. You choose between fighting, which prompts a time based skill-check, or an action like ‘talk,’ ‘compliment,’ or ‘hug.’ If you choose to go the friendly route, your objective is to figure out which action to use in order to get the monster on your side. Once the monster is properly tamed, you can choose to ‘spare’ it, allowing you to win battles without killing a fly. The other difference is that each time a monster attacks, a short Wario Ware-esque/shoot-em-up experience begins. You use your soul (a little heart shaped icon) to dodge incoming attacks, as you might in bullet dodgers like Ikaruga or Geometry Wars. Bosses provide derivations on this, keeping the battles fresh, exciting and extremely challenging as you push on. Each encounter plays like a new and fulfilling experience, rather than the bland battle you have to win in order to grind on.

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Like I said earlier, when I picked up Undertale I was very close to being totally burned out on the genre. And I am absolutely sure that if this game went in the same status-effecty, attacky/defendy, item usingy direction as LISA, Earthbound, Pokemon, and literally every Final Fantasy game I can think of, I would have quit after an hour and let it sit in my pile of unplayed Steam games. But one little on-point change to the whole system made me realize that there is so much more to be had in a game like this than I was previously getting. When your enemies attack you and you get those little bursts of shoot-em-up gameplay, you don’t feel like your playing the same old thing. You get the refreshing genre-crossing benefits that only come when a game developer is willing to take a few chances. I’d love to see this genre-sharing strategy utilized in games of the future.

wiggle

While the shmup-style crossover gives the player a sense of newness in terms of mechanics, the ‘friendly’ route offers a sense of newness in terms of narrative. The simple ability to spare your opponents rather than annihilating them in classic gaming style grants you a new perspective, one from which you may look critically at the violence-happy whole of video games. Playing Undertale, you may notice this weird thing called ‘guilt’ creeping over you after simply dispatching an annoying dog or stupid frog. This is a weird and novel emotion, considering the fact that ripping off limbs, torturing middle-aged men, and murdering dozens of innocent civilians are all considered “objectives” in the majority of gaming. Each character has a little story behind it. Each has its own desires and urges. Each just wants the chance to live on and live happily ever after. The challenge is that sometimes an enemy is persistent in its attacks. Sometimes, it seems like the only way out is to kill.

Kill everyoneBut it is possible to finish the game without killing; though, and this is one of the few serious criticisms I have with the game, it really feels like Undertale is wayyy too hokey along the pacifist route. When I finished the game, I tried to do as little lasting damage as possible. In return, I got cutesy, funny, happy cut-scenes, with a bit of seriousness at the end in the form of an incredible, final battle and some back-story told by all the monsters I had spared. However, when I watched the “evil” play-through on Youtube, I realized just how amazingly serious the game could be. When you play the game in ‘genocide’ mode (killing everything you possibly can) you get some amazing, 4th-wall breaking exchanges that the game is completely devoid of on a more peaceful play-through. I have to admit… I felt a bit gypped.

mushroom danceAll-in-all, Undertale is a beautifully novel experience. The mechanics offer a form of genre-bending that I have only ever seen a few other games take a chance on. The environment suits the tone of the game perfectly, and the amount of detail is astounding for a one-man dev team. The humor is consistently on-point and is guaranteed to have you smiling. The story is full of whimsy, wit, and wonder with intermittent moments of moral gravity and thoughtfulness. The one problem I had with the end of my peaceful playthrough was the “happily ever after” vibe I got instead of anything legitimately thought-provoking. It seems a shame that you actually HAVE to go through with the same acts of depravity you are trying to protest in order to see Undetale’s more serious side… But perhaps that’s the point.


 

N8

R8

8/8

burger guy

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