I’ve read one too many “git gud” posts arguing that challenge is essential to games and that including an easy mode on, say, Dark Souls would ruin it; if you don’t want a hard game, don’t play Dark Souls. They’re wrong. Firstly, challenge isn’t an inherent aspect of games: it’s just one way of evoking certain player responses. Challenge is partly a personal preference thing: some people want a smooth experience and I do think that Dark Souls is a poor choice for that, and that experiencing Dark Souls as a cake walk won’t let you understand Dark Souls.
Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by MachineGames and published by Bethesda, should have been awful. If you’d asked me before release, I’d have predicted that the ninth game in a franchise, an alternate-history game set in the 1960s where the Nazis won World War II, featuring B.J. Blazkowicz as a recovered locked-in veteran, would only be good for a few hot takes and maybe some mediocre shooting with nose firmly held.
Instead, this game is one of the best I’ve played. It’s not just great, it’s well-crafted. That is to say that, beyond the things that appeal to my personal preferences (alternate history, cool sci-fi, a diverse cast, a dark tone, a considered pace) it shows great skill in how it executes what it sets out to do.
The credit for this success belongs to various factors—the expressive visual art, the excellent voice acting, and the well-polished rule systems—but more than anything, it’s thanks to the excellent writing.
Hyper Light Drifter, from Heart Machine1, is an inscrutable game: one which presents you with various mysteries and challenges, inviting you to overcome them, but doesn’t bother guiding you along that path. It’s part of a new trend in so-called “retro-inspired” games that recontextualizes the challenge and low fidelity of console game from the 1980s as intentional, stylistic choices. Because of these choices, it has limited accessibility but provides a specific mood and emotional journey that would be difficult to evoke in a more populist game.
I love it when games wear their math on their sleeves. I also like when games are based on real-life systems, even when those systems are twisted or simplified for the purposes of smoother design. Pandemic is a good example of the former: the way the Infection deck is constructed and manipulated makes it clear how the game’s randomness works and why the same cities keep breaking out in more and more disease. Spacechem is a good example of the latter: it takes the concept of chemical bonds and process engineering and turns it into a brain-twisting puzzler.
Pocket Frogs, by Nimblebit, does both of these things. It takes the concept of genetic inheritance and uses it to make a sort of gambling game where the math is always visible and calculable.
It’s a game where you breed frogs, trying to produce certain special collections. But let’s pretend it’s not.
Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist is a weird little free game that’s a whole lot like the demo to The Stanley Parable, which was designed by the same person. No, not Davey Wreden, the creator of the original mod; his followup game is The Beginner’s Guide, a first-person experiment in form that explores the creative process as relates to video games, inspired in part by the impostor syndrome triggered by unexpected popularity. Heist is designed by William Pugh, who worked with Wreden on the standalone remastering of Stanley, and this followup is a first-person experiment in form that explores the creative process as relates to video games, inspired in part by the impostor syndrome triggered by unexpected popularity.
I need to write more about The Beginner’s Guide.
Pugh, who is probably responsible for Stanley‘s visual polish and environmental cleverness, uses the same premise here as that game’s demo, even beginning with the same joke of showing what initially seems to be a title screen but turns out to be a poster on the wall. A Whirlwind Heist follows the earlier game almost beat for beat: a narrator admits that they’re unable to let you play the game immediately, but offers you a behind-the-scenes tour, there’s jokes about video game concepts being real-world machines operated by people, and finally you never get to play the game that you were promised. They’re even roughly the same length.
The difference here is that you’re asked to be complicit in the inept “live” staging of an underfunded game, operating behind the scenes and not getting to do any of the cool stuff that the real player gets to do. The narrator is harried and unsure, unlike Stanley‘s pompous, commanding narrator. This is a funnier game than Stanley because it places you in the role of antagonist.
Most any action you choose to take contrary to instructions is met not with a tut-tut but with a shriek of frustration. The game sets up a joke for you and lets you knock it out of the park, instead of making you the butt of the laugh. The jokes in this game are like the “speak button” joke in Portal 2 or Face McShooty in Borderlands 2. You are the comic demon sent to make the narrator’s life hell, and they seem to deserve it.
I love to see games that give you a short experience, not asking for any big choices or presenting any challenge. Just giving you a little vignette of humor or pathos and then signing off. Gravity Bone, “Room of 1000 Snakes,” A Whirlwind Heist, and the like are not using the full potential of the medium; they don’t provide interactive storytelling and the joy of mastery over deep rules systems. But I love them so much.
There’s a rich tradition in video games of villainous protagonists. One of the most interesting things about this trend is how it encourages you to understand and assign personhood to characters that you might otherwise demonize.
At Future Proof Games we’re motivated by a concept we call “audacious compassion:” exercising players’ everyday empathy skills by encouraging them to have compassion for characters that seem alien, evil, or irrational.
Villainous games align with this concept. Tie Fighter shows you how the underlings in a dictatorial government justify their actions as preserving order. Overlord depicts a character who does the right things for the wrong reasons. And Evil Genius depicts a supervillain who’s inordinately concerned with keeping people happy and entertained.
PixelJunk‘s Nom Nom Galaxy is a hard game. It’s a well-crafted resource-gathering and automation game in the vein of Terraria or Minecraft, but with a focus on factory production and automation. It’s hard because it’s far too complicated.
One of the classic problems of game design is the dominant strategy. A dominant strategy occurs when one way to play the game is so much better that it becomes the only option a player should pursue. The simple solution to a dominant strategy is to add a complicating factor that acts as a tradeoff, weakening the strategy and leading to interesting player decisions.
Nom Nom Galaxy, however, goes through this cycle a few too many times. Dominant strategies are complicated by challenges that can be overcome with strategies that are further complicated by new challenges. The end result is a frantic, frustrating time that keeps me from experiencing the joy of mastery. Continue reading Overcomplexity in Nom Nom Galaxy→
A big secret of tabletop RPG design is that roleplaying games play themselves. Get the right group of people together and they’ll have fun telling a good story, regardless of which edition of which game they’re playing. The hard parts of RPGs are things the designer can’t control: social dynamics.
What good are rules at all, then? Rules serve two purposes: to enable and constrain the play. The rules of an RPG serve to make the creative process easier by enabling story, and they constrain the scope of the story to keep the group within a manageable narrative space.
In my role as lead designer on Future Proof Games‘s upcoming tabletop RPG Rosette1, I’ve made tons of decisions regarding how the rules work. By the request of one of my patrons, I’ll go over that process from a high level.