Category Archives: Blogs

Drowning a Deity – Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode 2

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BurialatSeaEpisode2_WEB
The Bioshock series is about power and history. Power from flesh and history transformed. I’ve explored its biopunk underpinnings before, but I haven’t explored the most recent and oroborosian entry in the series: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 2. It strips the wings from a deity in the service of motivating events in the first game that didn’t need justification, but in the process it introduces some interesting stealth elements in a game not originally built for them.

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Orcs Must Die: Blocking Strategies

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I have a confession: I’m a turtler. And Orcs Must Die 2 doesn’t want me to be.

The game I think of when I read “tower defense” is “Desktop Tower Defense.” It’s my mental archetype of that form, which arose from mods for Starcraft and Warcraft III: a game about preventing waves of invading enemies, or “creeps,” from reaching the exit of a map using stationary towers that attack when the creeps come into range; these towers are built with a budget you earn by killing creeps.

The strategy for “Desktop TD” is primarily about crafting a path for the creeps, one which is circuitous as possible. The towers in “Desktop TD” are solid, so they block creeps, making your towers also serve as your maze. Mastering “Desktop TD,” therefore, requires you to craft a perfect maze, a gleaming labyrinth made from the cheapest towers with just enough addition of special tower types and more powerful, upgraded towers.

Some tower defense games, like “Desktop TD’s” contemporary “Flash Elements TD” have a simpler approach where the creep paths are static and unobstructable. Towers can only be placed in the spaces around the path. I find this approach less interesting, as it allows for less creativity and diversity of play. The most a player can do to affect the process of the creeps, beyond killing them, is by slowing them, often with a tower themed around ice or viscous fluid. Orcs Must Die and the other games I’ll discuss here owe more to the “Desktop TD” style.

The Orcs Must Die series by Robot Entertainment belongs to a subfamily of tower defense games, probably birthed by Sanctum. These tower defense hybrids add a mobile player character with weapons that can supplement the stationary towers. In the case of the Orcs series, the player character is a martial wizard defending a fantasy world against hordes of orcs and other creatures. But unlike Sanctum, its differences go beyond just letting you help your towers with their work.

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How to Fix D&D 4e Combat

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I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition campaign for going on five years, and it feels like we’ve finally figured out how to fix the combat system. D&D 4e is intensely tactical, more so than any other edition, and I find the grid-focused combat quite fun, but it suffers from some severe problems. The biggest of these for us is that combats stretch on too long without enough excitement. Here’s how to solve that.

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Ossuary is Coming to Steam

Our unsettling dialogue-focused adventure game Ossuary is coming to Steam. The torturous Greenlight process is over, a bit mysteriously, and now we’ve started the work of preparing all the material we’ll need to be released on the largest video game storefront around.

I’m prone to a sort of postpartum depression around game projects. When I release a new game or finish a major milestone, I often have a flare-up of my chronic depression and find it very hard to motivate and care for myself. I’m definitely experiencing that right now: the Greenlight process for Ossuary took so long and occupied enough emotional space in my brain that its resolution leaves me feeling a bit bereft. I’m managing it pretty well, but it seems ironic that a success, or at least a big step of progress, has brought me so low.

The circumstances around the final approval are weird, but that’s a post for another day.

Recent Play: April 2015 Week 2

Lately I’ve played the following small games that stuck out in my mind:

  • “Softelevision” by James Shasha of Sundae Month is about music and anticapitalism and being in a place, I guess. I’m a sucker for any game that opens with the sound of waves. This makes me think of Outer Wilds. There’s a place, and you can do things that feel like goals, but there’s not really a challenge or a win condition. And most of the time you just kind of want to hang out for a while. This game reminds me that I need to play Crypt Worlds.
  • “MINKOMORA” by Kikopa Games (Joni Kittaka and merritt kopas) is another gentle exploration game. It’s also a gimmick game. I don’t mean that it has some gameplay gimmick like gravity control or slow motion. I mean it’s one of those games that steps outside the normal limits of game. In this case, it comes with an NES-style manual that has background and hints for the game world. The game itself is rather abstract and stylized, but the manual has more representative art that makes the shapes in the game make more sense.
  • “Here Is Where I Carve My Heart” by kittyhorrorshow is an architectural Unity game, one of those for which my personal archetype is Richard Perrin‘s Kairo. There’s a structure, usually all of one material (shiny pink, in this case) which you explore with a fairly standard first-person approach that might just be a tweaked version of the example controller code that comes with Unity. That sounds dismissive, but I love this kind of game. “Carve My Heart” uses a very floaty, low-grav approach that means I was bounding through and around the excavated floating pyramid that was built in a cool-looking voxel tool. You’re searching for floating gems that deliver affirmations. The whole time you’re hearing atmospheric music-box tones. It’s a chill and charming game that only took three hours to make.
  • “Juxtapose” by zillix is a game for Ludum Dare 30 that I found through Warp Door. It’s a moody, pixelly game with a bunch of multiple endings. It feels like some of the classic Flash artsy games circa 2009. I’ve gotten seven of the 13 (!) endings, and they’re pretty varied. There’s some resource and time management that reminds me a lot of Eyezmaze games.

Recent Play: April 2015 Week 1

Lately I’ve played the following small games that stuck out in my mind:

  • Kittens Game is an idlegame from bloodrizer. It feels like a less horrific A Dark Room and it’s probably bad for you.
  • “Saturn V” from Archie Pelago felt like an interactive art gallery, and had the same pleasant ambiguity I experience in actual galleries and museums, where I’m never quite sure where the line is between art and architecture: which of this is exhibit and which is window dressing? I actually suggest playing or downloading it without reading the description/artist’s statement first, like I did, to enhance that sensation. My speculation intensified when I came across the lovingly-rendered beer kegs in the basement.
  • I’m glad I didn’t have an Oculus to play the original game-jam game “SightLine”, despite the creators’ recommendation. Early on there’s a set of physics-y bridges that are all wobbly and bouncy, so much so that several times I physics-ed straight through (maybe thanks to the “tunneling” or “bullet-through-paper” issue, maybe due to the elastic rope of the bridge stretching too far). This is weird; genuinely wondrous misdirection and legerdemain, with stuff disappearing, reappearing, and changing when you look away, mixed with some overwrought Stanley-Parable-aping narration and puzzles requiring mindreading. I’m glad they’re making a new game based on the old one’s mechanics. This sort of vision tracking is presumably ideal for VR headsets.
  • “The Burrow” by Fewer Words is one of those interactive art pieces where I’m not sure if I’m done at the end of it. The artist statement says, “Every exchange is significant and becomes a part of the narrative.” If so, actions aren’t mechanically significant, from what I can tell. The first two sections of three give you minor camera control but no real agency, and the third is an odd exploration mobility puzzle thing that reminds me of some of the more esoteric Ages of Myst Online.
  • “HASTE” by VR-Gamers is a prototype with a really cool concept and style but it feels like a brick wall. “Freerunning and when you go fast time slows down” sounds awesome. “I’m not sure if I can make any of these jumps and if I mess up I have to reload from the beginning of the level” feels really frustrating. The creator says “Be prepared to lose often – this game is for hardcore players only.” But one of the things about games is that they’re teaching devices. A good game teaches you how to use it. This one made me wonder if there was an extra key I didn’t know about that would make me succeed at jumps. There wasn’t. I gave up.

On Cultural Appropriation

I started a blog post here and decided it belonged on the Future Proof Games devblog. It’s called “On Cultural Appropriation,” and in it I talk about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, how critics muddy the waters to try and get people to dismiss it as an issue, how we’re complicit in cultural appropriation in our game Exploit: Zero Day, and how we’re working to make sure we behave respectfully.

If I point out that something in a work is problematic, it doesn’t mean I’m condemning the whole work. Critics of social justice often react to concerns about a work by pretending that people are saying the work is unredeemable. Again, this reframes the discussion in such a way that the concerns can be ignored. Avatar is a great show; how could you question the way it uses Inuit cultural elements? You’re saying it’s a terrible show! End of discussion.

Don’t do that.

Read more and comment at the Future Proof Games Development Blog.

Hot Tin Roof Is Queer

Logo of Hot Tin Roof
Glass Bottom Games‘s noir, mystery-solving metroidvania Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora is queer. Maybe it’s better to say that it queers: it takes the normative and twists it in the direction of the feminine, the feminist, the genderfluid, and the non-hetero. It’s a joyful celebration of subversion.
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The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign

A map of the campaign setting I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons 4e game called “Urgo” for almost five years. All of my original five players have been replaced except one. It was always a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods, and it’s escalated from there. The player characters are level 16 of 30 and we’ve reached a point in the game where it takes some effort to maintain the tone and even more effort to properly prepare. For some background, here’s the current situation:
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Conscious Incompetence

I like thinking and talking about stuff, but when try to I do so I often suspect that I don’t know enough to say something genuinely interesting. It’s not impostor syndrome (though I totally suffer from that). It’s a fear that if I talk about a complex subject that I don’t fully understand then I will come across as foolish (and therefore provide no benefit) to someone who knows it better. I’ve experienced this from the other side: seeing people write naïve things that aren’t even wrong about how software development works.

There are a few topics that I’m comfortable discussing because I know my limits in them:

  • Computer science and software development
  • Game design and development
  • Creative writing
  • Social justice, maybe?
  • Cooking

While there are plenty of topics that I’m sure I don’t know much about (beekeeping), there are a few that I consistently hesitate to write about for fear of creating a naïve argument. Some examples are Discordianism (due to my uncertainty with postmodernism and theology), economics, and narrative. I’m not even sure where to start to learn more; I don’t have much time for learning outside my focus fields, and I don’t even know enough to optimize that time. I don’t want to waste time reading a bunch of poorly-written texts before I gain enough understanding to tell what the good sources are.

I’m part of a mailing list that deals with art in games, and I often feel like one of the least-informed members. There are academics with years of theoretical underpinnings talking about complex things and I hesitate to spend an hour crafting what I think is insight only to discover that I’ve wasted the time and attention of an expert who recognizes my thoughts as that of an underinformed beginner.

Short of learning more (which I’m trying to do, despite the time it takes), I’m not sure how to deal with this dilemma. Any advice? How do you know when you’re well-informed enough to discuss something outside of your comfort zone?