Category Archives: GMotW

GMotW: Push Crate

PuzzleScript is not a game. It is, indeed, an engine for creating games, but here I am, treating it as IF it were a game, and porting it into my Game Mechanic of the Week.

(There’s a huge discussion to be made with respect to “What is a game?” and frankly, it’s a kettle of fish I don’t want to get into, but you know. Maybe it is a game. Whatever.)

If you’re not familiar with PuzzleScript, it is an open-source scripting language for creating Sokoban-style puzzle games; that is to say, it’s turn-based, tile-based, and naturally structures itself around requiring players to move crates onto targets without getting them boxed into corners. You can create different kinds of crates, different kind of targets, and different kinds of walls, but the game, as an engine, is really made for that simple sort of interaction.

But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. I don’t just mean with respect to the complexity of the puzzles… Sokoban can be tricky when it wants to be. I mean… well, here’s what I mean. Today’s mechanic is a rule that loads up as soon as you open the editor to the fresh template:

[ > Player | Crate ] -> [ > Player | > Crate]

The language is a series of cells and arrows. The cells represent tiles, if they’re bracketed together, they’re adjacent. The “>” indicates intended motion, so ” > Player” means “The player character is attempting to move in this direction.” The “-> ” is an order for the game engine; it says “Whenever you see the situation on the left side of this arrow, turn it into the one on the right of the arrow.”

Taken together, it’s like this: “Whenever the player character is next to a crate, and attempts to move into the crate, try to move the crate in the direction they’re pushing.”

What do I love about this? I love how simple it is. I love how intuitive it is. I love, love, love how intensely VISUAL it is.

Look at it! Of course that’s what it means! How could it mean anything else? There’s a player next to a crate, you can tell because he’s NEXT to it. He moves toward it, so he gets a little arrow moving TOWARD it. If you want a player to pull crates as well, it looks exactly as you might expect:

[ < Player | Crate ] -> [ < Player | < Crate]

If you want players to crush crates against walls, then you just need to define a few extra things:

[ > Player | Crate | Wall ] -> [ | Player | Wall ]

Three tiles in a row, with an empty cell that means, well, “empty that cell, PuzzleScript.” But honestly, did I need to tell you that? If I say

[ > Player | Crate] -> [ Crate | Player ]

isn’t it clear right off the bat what that means? You can come up with any number of ways to interact with crates.

PuzzleScript, to me (that is to say, someone who does not code things for a living or for funsies) exists in a perfect point between “easy enough to be approachable” and “complex enough to get things done.” Certainly, I’m limited to a handful of 5-by-5 pixel objects, and rules regarding where they exist on a square grid, and exactly one action button, but within those limitations not only can I decide what happens, I can lay things out in a perfectly clear and comprehensible sort of way. If I don’t understand why the player and the crate keep switching places, I just have to look at the cells when I mention them, and realize that, oh hey. That’s what’s going on there.

Of course, it can be used to create complex interactions, with hundreds of little rules, and all sorts of crazy additional twists, but even at its most convoluted, the game boils down to looking at groups of tiles, and changing them to other groups. Even at its worst, you can go through the rules and SEE what’s going on.

Anyway, a week ago I sat down to try and make a game about a princess escaping from a tower, and then I figured out how to let her toss fireballs, and then things sort of fell apart and the long and the short of it is that I more-or-less accidentally recreated Portal as a sokoban-style puzzle game.

Here, check it out, why don’t you?

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GMotW: Overlord and the Button.

Let’s talk about Overlord.

Well, more specifically, let’s talk about Overlord II, which is what I’ve been playing lately. It’s the sequel to the original, one which improves upon its progenitor in numerous ways, sharing enough of the original’s DNA to be What We Liked, but containing sufficient nuances in play to be But Different, which is pretty much what sequels are supposed to be. For those unfamiliar, the protagonist of the Overlord series is, well, an Overlord, one in a series of Overlords who rule over hives of Minions–small, gremlin-like creatures with vague elemental attunements–and in so doing amass evil empires. Yes, evil. Intensely, parodically, self-aware evil. It’s a game about being evil, which is right up my alley. And the most important thing is that… oh wait, let’s me put this in traditional Game Mechanic of the Week bold italics, the rule from the manual itself:

To Send an individual Minion, use [the left mouse button].

You see, you are always surrounded by minions. Well, not always, there are a few plot points where the poor Overlord is alone, and you can lose all your little friends through severe mismanagement but the BASE state of being an overlord is being surrounded by twenty to fifty little monsters. And when you face a thing, and you press the Button, and one shoots off and goes to interact with the thing. If you hold the Button, then minions will flow off of you, toward the thing you want to interact with. You can send them all off into a frenzy of destruction, if you want.

Why is this interesting? Well, for one thing, I can never get over the primacy of the Button; I’ve yammered about it before, and the way that keying a particular action to the left mouse button (on a PC) or a trigger or the bottommost face button (on a controller) is an effective way to tell the player that THIS is the most important interaction of the game. Whatever the player will be most naturally inclined to do, whatever the most convenient point of interaction is, that’s the Button. When you pull the trigger to shoot the gun, then this is a game in which shooting guns is your most important skill. When the Button jumps, then it’s a game about jumping. Certainly, there is a hierarchy here… on a PC, I would say that the second most important action is whatever is bound to space, for instance (in this case, that is bound to swinging your weapon, because this is just That Sort of Game). But there’s a Button, and for the Overlord, that means your primary way of interacting with the world is by making something else interact with it for you.

This, coupled with the fact that the minions move much, much faster than the Overlord, has an interesting side effect. See, Overlord is far from the only game in which there are crates to break and chests to open because they contain potions and loot. That’s… that’s like an entire genre: games with loot in crates. But your speed is slow, and trundling over to crates takes a while, and since minions will break open crates and grab their goodies for you, if you send them forth, the player is less-inclined to have the Overlord walk over and grab the loot himself, and more likely to stand in a central place in this loot-filled room and direct minions to get to work.

This is great. Unlike in battles, where using minions is essential (they do piddling damage individually, but can gang up on enemies and succeed by being to numerous to effectively attack, or by sweeping around and getting enemies from behind), this isn’t a necessity, but it is a natural reaction; it’s easier, and players will tend to do things the easy way unless they have a good reason not to. And that’s fine and dandy.

But why do I love it? Because it means that my Overlord strides imperiously into a room, raises his arms, and sends minions to destroy everything! That’s what the game is about, not just being evil but being in command of a force! A force–and this is the important distinction between Overlord and, say, an RTS where I send tanks against my enemies–a force which I use for entirely petty ends as well. It sells you on your power as an Overlord, as a leader of these creatures: they do anything and everything for you, and you take advantage of that. Without thinking, it becomes nature to make the minions do it, not just when it’s necessary, but when it’s convenient. It’s a game, in other words, which mechanically encourages you to take advantage of those in your command for entirely selfish reasons, which, given that being an imperious and evil ruler is rather the point, is absolutely perfect.

Plus, there’s something wonderfully evil about being so evil that you don’t even smash things anymore, you just have people to smash things, while you stride forth, calm as the breeze. It makes for a beautiful moment.


GMotW: The Walking Dead and the lightcycle effect

GMotW

Licensed games have a… checkered reputation, to be sure. No getting around it, regardless of the strength of the creator, the love and devotion put in, the objective quality of the final product, the very nature of the project means that folks will think of it as being a shameless, hopeless, cash-grab. Certainly, when I sat down to play The Walking Dead: The Board Game I was… cautious? Despite being told that it was pretty okay, I still had my reservations, not the least of which being that this was the sort of game which lives and dies on theme, but I had never seen the show and I, like so many in the world, am beginning to find zombies teetering on the edge of “overplayed.”

I had a good time, though. And it did at least one thing I thought was keen enough to look into. Page three of the rule book:

Whenever you move, place a zombie token in the space you were on, as long as it is now empty.

Interesting, indeed. Especially given that at the beginning of the game, the board is cleared of zombies.

That’s strange, isn’t it? The board is fairly large, about 250 hexes, almost entirely open but for the barriers around Atlanta in the dead center, and no zombies anywhere. It seems counterintuitive for a game about traversing a zombie-filled wasteland… sure, they can appear when drawn by cards, but you still have these vast, untouched swathes of zombieless real-estate.

But when you start to move–and this is really a game about exploration, so lots of movement is necessary–they appear, a Tron-lightcylcle-wave of them left wherever you go (augmented by circular pileups when you fire your weapons and they come running from all angles). The narrative explanation is that your movement throughout the area is causing them to grow active; as I’m not familiar with the source material, I cannot say for sure how canonical it is to have zombies existing in a semi-dormant fashion until folk breeze past them, but from a player’s perspective I can say that this sells me on two messages, both alike in dignity:

1) Things are getting worse. I’ll level with you: dropping a zombie token every time I move? That’s really fiddly. It takes waaaaay more tokens than I want to deal with on the regular. It futzes with the pace of play. But it means that this beautiful, open, unsullied land starts turning to hell before your eyes, and that can create wonderful moments when two or three players pile up in an area which transitions, with a surprising speed, from an open world to a barely-navigable hellscape. Suddenly you have to ask yourself if it’s worth a hard slog to get where you need to go, or if it’s more effective to take a wide berth where it’s still clearish, or if you should just bugger on out of there. When it works, it works well.

2) You gotta keep moving. I think there are other aspects of the game which make it a less-than-perfect example of an exploration game… the lack of justification for the resource scouting, the arbitrariness of the location scouting, things of that nature. But by gum, is it a game that tells you from turn one that once you leave a place, you don’t want to have to come back there. But even better: you CAN go back there. Going home is never NOT an option, because saying that you can’t revisit a hex you left is the absolute worst sort of arbitrary rulesmanship. But you shouldn’t, not just because this is a game about moving to new places, but because this is a game about attempting to escape a dangerous situation… nominally, you are seeking out a safehouse, after all. What the game lacks, or which might be interesting, is a more purposeful benefit to moving back… not just to cross your trail or get more resources, but to re-scout a location you’ve already obtained. Its set up this nice worrying situation, in which going back isn’t fatal, but it is unwise… and then it doesn’t really give you a lot of cause to GO back, because it’s never not unwise. On the whole, it’s a mechanical interaction which I feel starts to go a great place but doesn’t quite get there.

But still, I had fun. I blew up some zombies pretty good, and the genre isn’t QUITE saturated just yet, so… good times.


GMotW: Superhot. Super. Hot. Super! Hot!

It’s that time again! Time for another Game Mechanic of the Week!

What’s on the docket this week? Well…

… good question. What with one thing and another, this is the week of Transitions, when I’m working three jobs simultaneously, and haven’t had a lot of spare time for games and game-related activities. Indeed.

So, does that mean there’s no game mechanic this week? No, just that it’s a brief-ish digression on a brief-ish game. Well, a not even a game, a demo. It’s time for Superhot.

SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.

This is a rule that doesn’t even get explained, but boy howdy is it a useful one. I’ll make up the terminology myself.

Right-click to ditch your gun.

Superhot exists in a fantastic space, and if you haven’t played it yet, do so right now. Seriously, even if you just take in the first level, you need to understand the style.

And boy, it’s all about style. It’s a first-person shooter; at the moment, an incredibly simple one, with little in terms of narrative besides the need to kill all the dudes trying to kill you and the last chapter which… well… is odd. But it exudes style, from the grey and red template to the core mechanism that makes the game function at all: time only moves when you do.

On the whole, it makes you a frightening berzerker, and it’s easy to come up with several options for what it’s actually simulating here… are you somehow supernatural, a thing literally unstuck in time? Is this an approximation of the thought-processes of the dangerously hypercompetent? Is this, as the last level indicates, indicative of some sort of crazy mind-control in action? Or is it just keen, a neat thing by virtue of being a neat thing without greater “story” attached to it?

(Me, I never accept the latter option, but what do I know?)

Regardless, you are an entity killing dudes, and though it’s too lo-fi to be brutal, it’s clear that you are a terrifying thing. Weaving between slow-motion bullets, reacting nigh-instantly to the sudden appearance of bad guys, and not stopping till everyone is dead. And ditching your gun.

Y’see, you pick up a gun, and it has six bullets, and once you fire them all, you’re out. Pick up a new one from where one of your victims dropped it. Or, if you’re getting low on ammo, just ditch your gun to grab a new one, or to go all melee on the mean men in sunglasses. Why do I love this? Because it sells me on the danger of the protagonist, whatever his (her, its) nature may be. You are unarmed and unprepared, logistically, for this battle. No weapon, no ammo, you take what you can get from the surroundings, and you don’t even have an option to reload. And then you proceed to unleash hell.

Obviously, Super Hot is not the first game to have its players take supplies from fallen opponents, but the lack of a starting weapon, the lack of ammo, and the frankly beautiful slow-motion arc of a disposed gun all combine to enhance the frenetic pace, which is a really interesting descriptor for a game which spends much of its time not moving. The ability to ditch a gun before it runs out of ammo is an implicit encouragement to take part in this dance as well… you’ll lose your gun automatically if you try to fire it when you’re out, but that means you click one more time than you need to. It’s a minor punishment, at best, but it can mean the difference between shooting a dude and getting shot, and when one hit is instant death, that can be important. Better, more effective a use of your resources (bullets and time) to keep flinging half-used guns, picking up fresh ones wherever they fall, and making sure that your litany of murders is capped off by plenty of littering.


GMotW: Lasers & Feelings & being prepared

It’s that time.

Game Mechanic of the Week!

This week: Lasers. Feelings. Together they are: Lasers and Feelings!

It’s a very light, very friendly game of space operatic adventure from John Harper of One Seven Design. If you haven’t looked at it yet, go do so! Don’t even read it if you don’t want to, just take in the design, which is beautiful and makes me wish I could make a thing that looks so lovely. Then read it, because it’s only a page, alright.

Characters come together basically instantly… pick a style, pick a role, set your stat (you only have the one, which represents your relative aptitude at Lasers and, conversely, Feelings), name yourself and you are out, onto the ship, ready shoot aliens in the face or, alternately, diplomacy aliens in the face.

Beautiful.

But not precisely what I want to chat about today. No, what I want to talk about is a bout conflict resolution, which is to say, dice rolling.

When you do something risky, roll 1d6 to find out hos it goes. Roll +1d if you’re prepared and +1d if you’re an expert.

Specifically, right there in the middle. Roll an extra die if you’re prepared.

Dang! Daaaaang, wowie zowie and YES, this is such a small thing but it’s so great. Obviously, with a one-page RPG, every rule has to be as small as possible, as broad as possible, as open-ended as possible. Everything has to be squeezed down to its purest essence, if it can’t be ignored entirely.

(And a lot is ignored entirely! There are, for instance, no rules about taking injuries, or performing injuries. No guidance for interstellar navigation times. No tables listing the difference between a polearm and a glaive. No enchantment system. All of which are essential for ANY game, obviously.)

+1d if you’re prepared covers so much space, though. Off the top of my head, the presence or absence of that die can used to represent:

  • Being surprised or ambushed in a combat situation.
  • Being on your own ship, rather than a completely alien vessel.
  • If you’re an alien, interactions with your own culture.
  • Setting-up complex maneuvers.
  • Tactical decisions made by leaders, either “on-screen” (the players have been planning) or off (we should logically have been prepared for this sort of maneuver).
  • Having your hyperspanner with you, versus jury-rigigng a repair with a laser-decoupler and a paperclip.
  • Teamwork. That is to say, knowing what others will do in a given situation.
  • Making a moving, emotional speech before your charge off into certain death.

And so on and so forth. All of those could be read as some sort of version of “prepared” or “unprepared,” and there are plenty more besides.

What really tickles me, however, is the fact that this is a system where you can get two situation bonus dice (well, plus some more if you have assistance, but that’s not important right now), AND where your character has two broad descriptors (style and role), but the two don’r relate one-to-one. It would have been so easy to say “+1d if your style is relevant, and +1d if you are working within your role.” But that’s not the way it works here.

Style and role are relevant, sure, but both of them would arguably contribute more to whether you are an expert or not; role, especially, but styles like “Sexy” or “Dangerous” have an obvious place in determining expertise as well. Being “prepared” attaches to the narrative more so than the character, which I like, because it encourages players to branch out, if just a bit, from only doing things that their characters are prone to do. You’re a doctor, sure, if if you can grab the appropriate manuals then you are arguably prepared to realign the engines before the ship explodes. And you can succeed at it as well!

And that’s a really nice touch, something that sells, more than anything else, the space opera aesthetic of, say, Next Generation. Anyone on the ensemble can do just about anything. It might be hard indeed for Troi to repair an engine (because she’s all about feelings, not lasers) but she can do it, because she’s an amazing person, a hero, superhuman. She just needs a little time to prep, a little help if possible, and a bit of luck.

And that’s Troi. I don’t even LIKE Troi, but if danger was about I’d trust that she could handle it. Because preparation can let you handle ANYTHING. Even lasers. Even feelings. Even laser feelings.


The Quiet Century

Hey you lot; it’s been an EXCITING week. Just found employment at the local community college, teaching English composition, rocking out. Escaping from the Halls of Retail. It’s a sweet gig, so I spent yesterday celebrating, but that’s no excuse to not come out with a Game Mechanic of the Week, now is it?

Today, it’s from a little game called The Quiet Year by Joe Mcdaldno. I know, I know, I did one about the Quiet Year before, in which I lauded the game’s economy of contempt tokens and the way it reflected the difficulty for a community to come to a collective decision. Now I’m going to talk about a different clever mechanic, but I’m really only using it as a springboard into a hack I’d like to try out.

Quiet year. Chapter 3, the mechanic holding my interest today:

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Year is the week.

Every turn one player draws a card, and it reflects the events of that week. Then they decide what else happens that week, whether it’s discovery, discussion, or the beginning of a project. Point it, it’s a game about the passage of time as reflected through weeks.

Pacing is a difficult thing indeed; it’s something I have been struggling with while working on Synanthropes, but it’s something that the Quiet Year does a fine job with, because it’s able to make that pacing absolute. Every turn, one card, one week. There’s only so much you are able to do in a turn, there’s only so long it can last, and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds is on the horizon, and time is moving implacably forward. Sometimes it seems too long, sometimes it seems too short, but it never actually changes pace. It’s really effective, and works, well, just like actual time in that fashion, ticking along at one second per second but never quite seeming like it is.

But tell me then, because I like to think about these things… imagine if we changed nothing else about the Quiet Year, but altered that basic unit of play.

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Century is the year.

(Well, the Quiet Half-Century, but who’s counting cards, right?)

A minor change, which makes the game last fifty times longer in terms of narrative, while covering the same time in the real world. Suddenly, change happens quickly, society rises and falls in a blink, and people can be children at the beginning of the game and dead at the end without it being a tragedy. True, the Quiet Year doesn’t really do characters, per se, but it is common to have a list of figures who become relevant and recurring, names that keep popping up, often attached to specific modes of thought. It’s useful to keep track of, for instance, that charismatic young girl who causes so much fuss, because she may be related to other causes of fuss later on.

The Quiet Century? Well, the next time you see her, she might be thirty years older. Or the matriarch of an entire clan or rebel group. That’s interesting. That’s one way in which we fit in a LOT of change in the same two- to three-minute turns (because remember, we’re changing nothing else. Yeah, that means seasons last thirteen years wherever we are. I don’t know, it works for Game of Thrones, so deal. Or just call them metaphorical seasons, that works too).

Of course, filling in the blanks is what The Quiet Year is about, metaphorically AND literally, but these year-long gaps will mean the blanks are MUCH larger, so filling them in becomes really, really important. Every event has to be notable… it’s not just some guy who goes missing, it’s that fellow who everybody knows for some reason, maybe he’s the richest man in town, or the mayor. He’s all everyone seems to talk about that year. Every discovery must be huge, because that was the only thing worth discovering for an entire year! Every discussion is going to be of massive import, because it signifies a year in which nothing happened except argument (imagine the horror of spending all year to talk about what to do about those folks in the next town over, only to realize that we were all in agreement the entire time!). And every project, well, instead of being something that takes weeks to occur, it’s something that takes years. Every project is, thus, an Undertaking. We’re not talking about repairing the old truck, we’re talking about erecting viaducts, constructing entire villages, inventing new technologies from scratch.

Scarcities too take on more power, because if we’ve been scarce on food for a few turns, we’ve been hungry for years! That’s not just a lack of food as a physical thing on our plates, it means there is a huge logistical problem in supplying our people with what they need. The longer it goes unaddressed, the more people are suffering, for YEARS.

At the same time, you lose a lot of the little interactions. It’s really easy for discoveries to get lost in the shuffle. The other community on the map? In a turn’s time they could be extinct, they could be indoctrinated, they could be the first leg of the empire. The world becomes divided into the extremely short-lived and the extremely long-lasting, because of the scale of the thing. And of course, though you might be suffering from scarcities, you would lose that sense of life on the edge… no matter how much things suck right now, we know society is stable enough to keep trucking for a few more years at least.

(That said, you can put in a lot of civil unrest, coups, instability on the personal level. We’ll just know that SOMETHING will continue, even if it is much changed over the course of a decade.)

If I were to play the Quiet Century, I’d probably be tempted to give folks an extra activity every turn… I know, I know, this is violating my “only change the basic unit of play” rule but… well. I’m spitballing. Roll with me. It would be “Check in on a situation.” Checking in is like discovering something new, except instead of putting an actual new thing on the map, you alter something that is already there to reflect the passage of time. It keeps the world from being too darn static, it happens after the card is drawn but before the action for that year.

The money question is this: Will this function as a game? Will it be FUN?

Answer: I don’t know. I’d like to try it. I don’t think it would take any real manipulation of the standard Quiet Year cards to be a viable game, either… a little creative interpretation as necessary, but even then, only a little, mostly come winter when events start feeling a bit immediate. Even then, only a bit.

I think if nothing else, it would be nice to give it a try.

(Those of you who follow me on the Twitter, @EddlyT, will likely know that hacking Quiet Year has been on my mind of late. Keep your eyes peeled for more on this topic in the near future.)


Game Mechanic of the Week: Tokaido is Delicious

Tokaido is a board game about being the best damn tourist you can be, taking in the sights on the long walk between Kyoto and Edo, Japan. You’ve got a lot to draw your attention: souveniers to buy, local cuisine to sample, shrines to visit, travellers to chat up… but you only have so much time, and so much money, so you have to plan a bit. You might decide early on that there’s no real reason for you to see the temples, which allows you to focus on visiting the small villages instead, which is good, because there are a bunch of OTHER tourists walking the Tokaido road, and what good is visiting a temple that they’ve already seen, am I right? Which is to say, once a player has landed on a space, nobody else can visit it, which is mechanically neat and thematically sound, but also way too easy to get excited over.

But let’s look at this related one, from page 5 of the rulebook:

A traveler cannot taste the same culinary specialty twice during his journey.

Now that’s bizarrely specific. There is a deck of food cards; when you land at an inn (and everybody must land at inns, they are waypoints along the road), you draw a hand, and get a chance to buy one. Later arrivals at the inn can buy from the smaller hand. Food means points, points are how you win, so you want to get food… but if you’ve already purchased a meal, you cannot purchase a matching one. So woe betide you if you’re the last at the inn and everything’s been eaten except the same crappy nigiri you wolfed down at the last inn. Oh, you can hoover it down, sure, but you aren’t going to GROW from the experience.

Everything about Tokaido is built around one great conflict, and it’s not conflict between the players, or the hard choice behind whether to pursue your own adgendas or block other players from pursuing theirs, or even where you spend your money. Its’ this: You can move fast, or you can dawdle. The faster you move, the more control you have over where you go and what you get. The slower you go, the more you actually get to accomplish, even though it’s going to be composed of the stuff nobody else wanted. It’s fairly useful to dawdle, though… since the player furthest back on the road gets the next turn, you can hit every single space between you and the next player for free, and in so doing earn a lot of one- and two-point bonuses, which add up!

But then there’s the issue of food. Mechanically it cements the lack of choice that dawdlers get; if you don’t make it to the inn on time, you run a very real risk of getting nothing for it, missing out on an easy six victory points. So that’s one aspect.

It also forces everyone to adjust their pace… nobody wants to be the last to the inn, so the worst dawdler is inclined to move faster to get there. It’s hard not to envision the slow, moseying old man who sees the inn in the distance and suddenly realizes “dang, I AM hungry,” and leaps past everyone in his way to get there.

It ALSO gives early players the ability to screw over slower ones. When you arrive at the inn late, and there are two cards remaining, you can see what the other player who has yet to arrive has eaten, and if you’re lucky and kind of a jackass, you can contrive to saddle him with a plate of tofu he’s had before, or a plate of fugu you know he can’t afford. And that’s delightful, in a game where the only real interaction is blocking places you know other folks want to go.

Finally, it’s a tacit encouragement to broaden your gustatory horizons, something I can totally get behind, and which has a wonderful thematic synergy with the game as a whole. Experience everything you can as well as you can, says Tokaido. Experience everything you can as well as you can, says the meals deck within Tokaido, a minigame microcosm of the game as a whole. Keen, that.


GMotW: Gone Home. Look Closer.

Game Mechanic of the… week?

Man, did I really do this every week, back in the day? I really did. What happened?

Oh right, I missed a day, and then collapsed under the pressure of having to create a GMotW that was epic enough in scope to justify having missed a day. This is the same reason my brother’s birthday gift is about two months late at this point (but coming, Bert, I swear!).

But if I actually start posting on the regular again, some of the pressure will come off. And THAT, I can get behind. So speaking of taking the pressure off, let’s talk not about Synanthropes and those pressures, but about the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a video game, an it’s called Gone Home.

And if you haven’t played Gone Home, well… do? I guess, I mean, I could sit here recommending it all day but I’m not going to do that, I’ll just politely point out that it’s the only video game I’ve purchased on launch week in the last… five years, I think, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. Maybe you’ll disagree! I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait for the price to drop to $10 or so. But it’s not one to miss altogether.

ANYWAY. For those unaware, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of a young woman who has returned from a year abroad to the house her family moved into while she was away, finding it mysteriously vacated. No parents, no sister, just the detritus they have left behind and the stories you piece together from it.

(Fans of Synanthropes may surmise that “piecing together stories from trash” has a particular resonance for me).

In terms of mechanics, it plays things pretty simple: you can walk, you can crouch, you have an “interact” button which opens doors and picks things up, and that about covers everything except the metaludic stuff… maps and journals and inventory and game menu.

And you can look closer. Indeed, at the beginning of the game, a tooltip pops up to inform you:

“Hold right mouse or left shift to look closer.”

I love this. I love this for a lot of reasons.

Gone Home is, at its core, a game about looking. Obviously, the list of video games that aren’t, to some degree, about looking at things is small indeed, but most of the games that feature looking are really games about A) moving to the goal or B) killing the dudes in your way, where the ability to visually conceive of the world around you is simply a way to ensure that you are moving in the right direction and killing the right sorts of dudes. But Gone Home doesn’t have dudes to kill, and while it does have motion, that is the secondary concern; there is, yes, an end point, beyond which the house is deemed to be “Explored” and the game ends, but the player is not meant to jump straight to that point. The player is meant to LOOK.

This is a fact missed by many, like the folks on this page, who are proving that the game can be beaten in less than a minute. Spoilers, obviously, if you wander over there, but the bigger concern is folks missing the point. Yeah, you can get to the end point in a minute if you feel like it, but you know what that doesn’t afford time for? Looking closer.

It’s a theme that pops up over and over and over; you look closer, zooming in on the screen to see it more clearly. Pick up an object and you can look closer, seeing it from all angles. You are presented with a house that seems empty, but you can look closer, discovering all the secrets it contains. You think you know about your family, but you know what? You have to look closer. At some point we’ve left the realm of what you can do with the right mouse button, but the transition was so smooth you didn’t even notice.

What makes this so mechanically interesting for me isn’t just the zooming, which is useful, but the presentation of the mechanic: we’re not zooming in. You zoom in with your sniper scope or what the flip ever. You look closer when you’re on an exploration.

But most importantly this: the player is informed about how to use WASD and the mouse before the game actually begins. That’s all well and good and essential.

The first tool tip to actually pop up while you’re playing? Before checking your inventory, before crouching, before the map: how to look closer.

It’s almost like “Look Closer” is the fundamental action underlying the protagonist’s journey through the house both on a strictly literal and deeply metaphorical level, or something. Or something!


GMotW: Gunpoint and punching!

Been a while since I’ve talked about a game mechanic, hasn’t it? Ah, well. Game Chef kept me busy. Let’s try to get back on the horse with some gentle over-excitement.

Gunpoint! Gunpoint! Game of the year for every year ever, or, if you are less-inclined to believe hyperbole, a really freaking good 2D action/espionage/cyber-noir/hacking game.

You are a small pixellated freelance spy named Conway, who is investigating a murder through a series of missions, most of which involve charging up your bullfrog hypertrousers and jumping several stories at a go, and using the crosslink device to rewire switches and sensors throughout the buildings you’re moving through. And also, punching guards.

Oh, punching guards. Strictly optional, and to be awarded the badge for being a Gentleman at the end of a level you mustn’t do any guard any harm whatsoever (it’s okay though, because there’s a Psychopath badge as well, if not-harmful isn’t your legerdemain). Leap on a guard to knock him over and…

Click: Punch

…is what the game informs you. You click, you punch, and the guard is unconscious but the phrase hasn’t gone away. You can click again. And again. You can click ten times, at which point a pool of blood appears an the guard will not be getting up again. You can keep going. You can punch a corpse a thousand times or more, because you can click forever.

That needn’t be. There are any number of options… you could bowl someone over and they’re instantly asleep, of you could click to knock out and hold to knock out Lethally (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s takedown moves) or you could just stop punching when the dude is dead, or, or, or…

Lots of options. But may of them take away a little bit of player agency, and I don’t want to undersell this but clicking to punch is a very tiny bit of player agency–it’s a very minor thing. But Gunpoint, as a game, lives in tiny decisions and little freedoms it offers its players, even in a genre and medium not known for offering lots of freedom!

Tom Francis, the designer, clever bug that he is, realized that people want to punch, however. The player is given control over his character, not just to be lethal or not, but to be as lethal as they want to be. Me, I tend to punch four or five times, to make sure those guards stay down. After all, trying to sneak around in a game where one shot kills me and I have effectively no weapon is tense, so when I get an opportunity to release that tension in the form of violence, I tend to take it. This is, mechanically, idiotic… one punch does the deed, and all I do is waste time better spent jumping around the rooftops like a lunatic. But punching guards is satisfying… there’s a little animation, a purcussive noise, and a sense that, yes, Conway is acting as an extension of ME, whether I’m hitting once for good measure, in a brief flurry because I’m tense, or nine times exactly so as to not murder the operative who’s been shooting at me but make sure he’s never happy again. Or, a thousand times because this dead guy has pissed me off right hard.

And that’s great. It’s not complex, but it doesn’t need to be… it pulls me into the game and makes a little part of my brain smile based only on a very simple action with a very direct control, which is really all the Gunpoint IS. I could say the same thing about jumping and hacking: both very simple, direct, and controllable by the player. But while those are essential for the action and puzzling aspects of this action-puzzler, punching a dude out is completely unnecessary, from a mechanical level. And yet, there is is, allowing Conway to seem all the more real, and the world to be all the more exciting and worth experiencing.

Gunpoint is out now and is totally great, and even has a developer commentary which is basically worth whatever portion of the price of admission isn’t being paid by punching dudes on the snout and then leaping away to hide in a corner and rewire a motion detector to open a trapdoor to open under a guy when a third guy runs after you. YES. Get it, and punch a guy.


GMotW: Candy Box and… hidden information

 

There is no instruction manual for Candy Box. There is just Candy Box. If you haven’t been there yet, do go, poke around for a minute, investigate all the options at your disposal, and then consider the Game Mechanic of the Week, which I am pulling from the FAQ:

“The sorceress, since she is a sorceress, can only work on magic swords. This is why you have to enchant your sword before being able to buy this spell!”

Now. Is the game mechanic I’m interested in the fact that there’s a certain linkage between magic elements, and that enchanted swords may only be worked on by enchantresses, and vice versa? Or is it the fact that there is a sword, a sorceress, and a spell, NONE of which you know about if, like I suggested, you only poked about for a few minutes?

I mean, did you meet the Candy Merchant yet? Did you get the special deal on lollipops? Listen. Candy Box gets weird, and quick. Point is, however, it’s also a game which doesn’t let on what it actually is, AT ALL.

And that’s really, really interesting. Lots of games are mechanically forced (for a given value of forced) to give away secrets early… TVTropes has a word for this: Interface Spoiler. If you have a sword slot, and it has an “Enchantment” value, then you can, as a player, reasonably assume that wherever you start off in the game world, you will ultimately end up in a position of owning an enchanted sword.

Games can hide the plot easily enough, but it’s a lot harder to hide what you can do… if you’re playing on a console, you will note early on if the X button has no use whatsoever, and be, perhaps, less-than-surprised when it turns out that that’s the one that activates the Magic you encounter in act II.

Obviously there are ways to maintain that level of surprise, but nothing quite as obvious (and effective) as simply not letting the player be aware that there is a surprise coming at all, by having the mechanical interaction completely secret until it comes to pass. Now, this needs a controller figure, be it the computer or, in the case of a tabletop, a GM figure who is there to let you know that, no, there’s magic now.

What I like about Candy Box for this, and this is a bit of a spoiler if you haven’t played for a while now, is that the ability to go on quests and use the sword is suddenly present where before, it wasn’t even noticeable by its absence. The game didn’t feel as if something was missing before (though it was, to be sure, extremely simplistic, sort of a “My First Game” introduction to coding assignment). It’s not re-using old rules in a new way, it’s just suddenly deciding to be DIFFERENT. It goes beyond merely not allowing the game to be spoiled by its interface, and into actively altering what the player thought the game WAS.

Imagine an RPG that begins with players sitting around a table, rolling dice and telling stories, and suddenly there’s a wrinkle in the plot, magic exists and also hand in your character sheets, we’re doing a diceless LARP now. It’s an utter change in what was expected, demands a complete new understanding of what’s going on. There’s no going back. Whether that’s welcome or not, who can say?

Candy Box is weird. That’s true enough, but it’s also brilliant, and it keeps throwing out surprises, just when you think you know what’s going on it turns into something entirely new. Neat. Friggin’ neat.