In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the election and GamerGate and how we can make a difference with games. I start with an excerpt from Austin Walker’s recent, amazing piece “A Note on Trump, Waypoint, and Why We Play.” I move on to discuss mirror neurons, Gone Home, my presumptuous racial awareness thanks to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, my plans to survive violent abuse, and the power of games to promote compassion.
The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon.
The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a ccby3.0 license.
Why is no one talking about Picross 3D: Round 2?
To put it another way, what can I say about Picross 3D: Round 2?
It is an ideal game. It’s not perfect; I could list flaws like the error-prone controls if I were ever inclined to write a review. But as someone who likes to write about games as works of art and craft, it’s almost too ideal to grasp. Like the smooth carved-wood toys you produce when solving puzzles in the game, there are no hard corners or rough spots to get a rhetorical grip on.
The game just follows. It follows from its ruleset and its heritage and the decisions made in its design are all either necessary or arbitrary. The decisions are hard to even notice and games like these receive less attention in the critical space due to this invisible design.
Continue reading Invisible Design in Picross 3D: Round 2
Symmetra is the most strangely-designed character in Blizzard’s Overwatch. In a game where most heroes’ roles can be summed up in a few words (“fast flanker,” “mobile area-denial tank,” “AOE healer,” “slowing defender”) and their story concepts naturally arise from their roles (“time-traveling jet pilot,” “leaping electric gorilla,” “portable DJ,” “cute ice Satan”), Symmetra makes little sense.
She builds many tiny sentries, gives minor shields to allies, builds teleporters, and can attack with either a short-range cumulative auto-aim beam or a slow-moving death orb. This is explained by her being a combination architect and sci-fi construction worker, shaping solid forms out of light. She is the only character with “photonic” technology, and it is not explained how being able to project physical holograms also lets you bend space and time to craft a teleportation portal.
I have no special insight into the Overwatch design process, but I can speculate with some confidence about how it proceeded. Symmetra (and indeed all the heroes) were not designed from the ground up. They were assembled using an accretive process, where abilities were assembled piecemeal and then unified with a story-based concept.
Continue reading Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch
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.
Continue reading The Transformative Power of Good Writing – Wolfenstein: The New Order
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
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
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.
Continue reading It’s So Easy When You’re: Evil Genius
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 Rosette, 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
Years ago I wrote a piece on the original mod version of The Stanley Parable. 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