Hopping Numbers in Pocket Frogs


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.

Continue reading Hopping Numbers in Pocket Frogs

A Whirlwind Heist

whirlwind-heist-control-roomDr. 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.

Degeneracy and Competing Goals in XCOM

One of my patrons posed this question:

If “be cautious!” is the dominant strategy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, why is the game still interesting?

This is a complicated question, in part because it makes several assumptions I disagree with. The short answer is “because being cautious in XCOM is hard.” But let’s tease apart the details.

Continue reading Degeneracy and Competing Goals in XCOM

It’s So Easy When You’re: Evil Genius

Evil Genius Map ViewThere’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.

Continue reading It’s So Easy When You’re: Evil Genius

Overcomplexity in Nom Nom Galaxy

Heart from the tutorial to Nom Nom GalaxyPixelJunk‘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

Helping RPGs Play Themselves

Rosette LogoA 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.

Continue reading Helping RPGs Play Themselves

  1. Formerly LORE.

Beauty of Frozen Waves – Mind: Path to Thalamus

"Just keep swinging ♫" by Zephyr from Mind: Path to Thalamus
“Just keep swinging ♫” by Steam user Zephyr from Mind: Path to Thalamus
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a staggeringly beautiful game.

Let’s set aside its silly name and its wince-inducing narration. We’ll pretend the game was made as it should have been, as a series of evocative vignettes that trust the player to put together the pieces without forced explanation. The waves scene is a great example of how the beautiful imagery of the game, created by Carlos Coronado, serves its narrative purpose.

Take a moment to click on the picture above and view it at full size. As a screenshot, it’s pretty, but you must understand that the wave in that screenshot is still, frozen, even in the game. Take a look at it in motion (or lack thereof) in the below video, accompanied by some awed profanity in a rich, lovely accent:

The evocative imagery in this game is simply sublime. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of true multimedia sculpture. Let’s look at this level in depth.

Continue reading Beauty of Frozen Waves – Mind: Path to Thalamus

Unsettling Uncertainty in the Stanley Parable

A screenshot from The Stanley Parable with papers scattered on the floor of an officeYears ago I wrote a piece on the original mod version of The Stanley Parable.1 It’s since been remade and released as a for-sale title with very high production values, which I got just after release.

I’ve played a few remakes of old games or overhauls of mods, and it’s always an uncomfortable experience. Everything in the game is familiar but different, and I constantly find myself wondering, “Did this happen in the original and I’m just forgetting? Is it totally new? Is it similar to an old bit but different enough that I don’t recognize it? Did I just miss it the first time?” Stanley weaponizes this feeling, even for new players who didn’t experience the original.

With The Stanley Parable, you never know what to expect.

Continue reading Unsettling Uncertainty in the Stanley Parable

  1. Looking back, that piece comes across as very critical, but I remember loving the game. A tonal error on my part, I think.

Theft, Murder, and Morals in Skyrim

Maven Black-BriarSkyrim made me want to murder.

I’m usually a kind video game player. I choose non-lethal options when available, act morally, and generally roleplay as a responsible (if sometimes abrupt) character when given the option. The character I played in Skyrim was an ambitious but magnanimous barbarian-mage, seeking the power to rule and protect. I didn’t seek to kill anyone unprovoked… until I met Maven Black-Briar.

Maven1 is the rich de-facto ruler of the city of Riften. She is rude, cruel, and entitled. In a world of racist Vikings and execution-happy Imperials, she stands out to me as the most loathsome humanoid character. Sure, there are strange avian hags that eat people and vampiric assassins, but she is just a brewery owner who’s happy to kill and torture and extort for personal wealth and power. She mirrors her city, a place that represents corruption and villainy, and in doing so says a lot about Skyrim‘s attitude toward morality.

She’s also immortal.

Continue reading Theft, Murder, and Morals in Skyrim

  1. Despite sounding like a title, “Maven” is her first name.