Category Archives: Digital Games

Toward a Sustainable Resource Escalation Game

An emerging form of games, born out of Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, has occupied my thoughts lately. It doesn’t seem to have a name yet; it grew out of some Minecraft mods and had its seminal work in Factorio. It’s a cousin, or even sibling, to the idle/incremental game, but usually looks more like a management or survival sandbox game. You could call it a resource management and automation game, or a factory simulator, but I’ll use the term “resource escalation game,” because its primary features are:

  • resources to collect, usually from a world you must explore
  • crafting of resources into more complex or rich forms
  • structures for automation of the crafting, allowing you to take a higher-level conceptual view where you are concerned with the logistics of automation rather than foraging
  • and an escalation created by those resources, where your initial low-level needs become inconsequential and the pace of progression is governed primarily by what complexity of resources you have instead of a more abstract research system1

These games borrow gameplay loops from sandbox games like Terraria, where you collect resources that are rare or located in dangerous areas in order to craft equipment that lets you gain access to even more exotic resources. Resource escalation games also often include logistic challenges that bring to mind puzzle games like Infinifactory, although the goals are much less clearly-defined. They even evoke the space-claiming and hygge of farming or town-building games like Stardew Valley or Populus.

However, there’s a problem with the conventions of this new game form. It’s viciously exploitative of nature, celebrating some of the worst excesses of capitalism and colonialism. Let’s look at one of my most anticipated games at the moment, Satisfactory:

Look at the beautiful dance of conveyor belts; the delight of seeing your labor multiplied ten-, a hundred-fold; the creativity of making your own design for a factory, tweaking and optimizing it. And now look at a team of masked corporate employees clearcutting a conveniently-uninhabited valley, replacing greenery with smoke-belching smokestacks. Knowing the sense of humor of Coffee Stain, the developers, the player’s relationship to the in-game corporation is likely to be fraught. Still: this is a game about colonizing land and commodifying its resources.

The Problem

This sinister undercurrent is inherited from the budding game form’s roots. Joel Goodwin has a beautiful piece on his experience as an eventual Minecraft conservationist that also exposes the fundamentally amoral, individualistic bias at the core of a game that presents a fantasy about being the One Settler (or Few Chosen Settlers) in a world of bountiful harvests, conveniently uninhabited ruins, and residents that are either inarguably monstrous or placidly accommodating. Many of the criticisms of Stardew Valley can also be applied to these games, in that they celebrate the fantasy of the gentleman farmer without exposing the social context that surrounds agriculture and production in the real world. Finally, resource escalation games are usually violent, assuming that the player will develop weapons to fight back against an environment that is unavoidably hostile.

In short: resource escalation games see their worlds as threatening, their production as unencumbered by morals, and their characters as entitled to utilizing3 and consuming the resources they gather.

Is there a way to create a resource escalation game that is nonviolent, morally-driven, and ecologically sustainable?

The Cruces

First, let’s examine violence. I’ve written before about the potential of nonviolence in video games. We have too many games about fighting, and it’s unnecessary. While I enjoy many violent video games, I think of it as a crutch, an easy trope that plays into the worst ways our culture casts challenges as battles and treats violence as an acceptable, even inevitable, solution. This is the easiest of my criteria to satisfy.

Next: is it possible to avoid the moral quandaries that come with a lone explorer utilizing the resources of a hostile world? I believe so; these arise mainly from unexamined capitalist and colonial assumptions: for example, that it is better for a thing to be used than for it to exist for its own sake4; that the ability of an actor to do a thing inherently justifies that action; and that the appropriate way to thrive in an unfamiliar environment is to shape the environment to your existing way of life. While it’s a challenge to resist these assumptions (in part because they’re part of my real-world cultural hegemony), none of them seem essential to the appeal of resource escalation games.

Notably, industry and technology does not require capitalism. While their history is intertwined, there is no reason why manufacturing must be privately controlled, any more so than roads and other infrastructure. Likewise, much (perhaps most!) of our technological innovation occurs outside of a corporate context, and there is substantial evidence that common resources tend to lead toward triumph, not tragedy.

Finally: can we have a game which is about collecting and processing resources using built structures which is ecologically sustainable? I find this criterion the most challenging, in part because the vision given by the existing canon of these games is universally one of replacing the existing ecology with industrial sprawl. Factorio not only assumes you will be stripmining its worlds, but even models pollution — not as an encouragement toward responsibility but as an inevitable escalation of challenge, making the world increasingly adversarial as it responds to your activities. You can minimize this impact, but eventually you will come into conflict with the planet’s immune-system-like fauna5.

Resolving this issue will require a more fundamental re-examination of how we think of resources in these games. The prominent resources in play tend to be material and difficult to replace: wood, minerals, fossil fuels, and so on. The rules are designed so that sources can be expended, encouraging wider exploration. Sometimes resources can be farmed, but this often takes the form of replacing native forest with “efficient” orchards. As the resource escalation proceeds, play requires less player attention and effort for the same low-level tasks, but often resources are consumed at a rate that scales with the complexity of the player’s focus.

It may be that the very concept of resource escalation is inherently anti-environmentalist. The joy we take in playing these games may stem directly from our elimination of the wild and the interconnected and in our distillation and concentration of the natural into the “useful” or “productive.” I hope not. In the spirit of that hope, let’s look at some potential angles from which we can pursue sustainable versions of this game form.

The Promise

I would love to provide a completed formula for the sort of game I want to see, but I don’t have one. This style of game hasn’t even quite solidified into what it wants to be, and I am presenting some tricky problems. Instead, here’s some brainstorming. Below are seeds for ways to resolve the problems above, and I’d love to hear more suggestions for resolutions in the comments.

Eliminating violence

  • The resolution to a violent threat could be placating or creating understanding with the threat instead of battling it.
  • Survival games already present tension and danger in the form of starvation, exposure to the elements, and hazardous environments. These can provide the same thrill as violent threats with strategies that involve crafting and mastery of the space.
  • We may not need danger at all. It serves a game design purpose of limiting the pace of exploration and lending weight to decisions, but we may be able to do that by making use of things like character speed or player time investment instead.

Finding value beyond productivity

  • Instead of treating the environment simply as a source of harvestable resources, we could attach a value to in situ resources. Look at how The Sims attaches value to the environment of a room, and consider how that could apply to tradeoffs between consuming a resource and benefiting from it remaining untouched.
  • We could move away from interchangeable or fungible resources. Similar to how players of games like Diablo soon ignore items of common rarity in favor of ones with random benefits, we can attach value to diversity or uniqueness over quantity.
  • Perhaps resources in the fiction of the world are not consumed, but provide benefits when discovered or understood. See resources in Civilization and other 4X games, where their presence is useful but they are not always spent like currency.
  • Assign value to aesthetic expression. Perhaps the player’s labor does not derive its value from harvesting resources, but from curating them or using them in a creative way.

Eliminating colonial entitlement

  • Justify the player’s activities by making them a request of local stakeholders, or an active reclamation of a space previously spoiled, or make the resources sapient and explore the complexities of acquiring their consent.
  • Alternately, set the game in an active society, with the player character(s) either part of that society or coming from an underclass, where their actions are not performed with unilateral authority.
  • Contrast the player’s actions against a colonizing or exploitative force, where the player is defending against incursion instead of acting as a settler. This would require thought to avoid an implication of paternalistic oppression, where the player is “protecting” a weaker and subordinate group.
  • Incorporate peers for the player, requiring compromise and communal use of resources. These can be abstract rather than detailed AI agents.

Rejecting erasure of the existing space

  • Instead of transforming local resources into more easily-digestible forms, try transforming the player character(s) to more easily exist in this new environment.
  • Explore roles like “host,” “caregiver,” or “custodian” rather than “settler” or “entrepreneur;” make the player responsible for maintaining a space or providing joy to its inhabitants rather than transforming it.
  • Make the “structures” involved in automation less intrusive. Think treehouses rather than buildings with concrete foundations.

Exploring sustainability

  • Place a greater mechanical focus on maintaining resource health; for example, instead of penalizing overharvesting by slowing production until the player finds or creates a replacement source, consider prohibiting overharvesting altogether and requiring sustainability to be a proactive practice.
  • In many resource escalation games, renewable non-biomass energy is presented as a high-tech luxury, painting bio and fossil fuels as unavoidable for development. Disrupt this by using low-tech renewable sources like waterwheels and windmills, but don’t ignore the environmental impact of activities like damming water sources.
  • Explore environmentalist approaches to resource use, such as sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, and recycling. Keep in mind the way in which these can become moral luxuries for the privileged when the poor may not be able to afford sustainable sources.
  • Instead of resource escalation allowing for consumption of resources at a higher rate, try focusing on more efficient use of existing resource supplies. At the very least, allow for the prevention of waste due to obsolete equipment, spoilage, or lack of energy storage.
  • Maybe even reject any appearance of zero-sum simulation by making the resources less concrete. Have the player collect information, or inspiration, or something mystical that avoids the problem of environmental exploration entirely. See how Cultist Simulator makes heavy use of lore, relationships, and moods as resources as opposed to physical objects and assets.

The Hope

This discussion explores the things that I would like to see in this emerging game form. I like many of the existing resource escalation games, but I want to see their successors build on their best aspects while also improving on their shortcomings.

If you’re a developer like me, let’s all work to create games that reflect our values while still providing the experiences we seek. And if you’re a player of resource escalation games, especially those in early access or ongoing development, consider compassionately advocating for these moral priorities when you give feedback on the games you love.

  1. Factorio gates a lot of things behind research, but research is driven by manufactured resources, not the more typical research-over-time approach seen in strategy games.
  2. Note some issues with how RimWorld handles identity and the dev’s not-great response.
  3. I specifically use “utilize” to mean “make useful,” in the sense that these games take resources that exist in one interconnected system and reduce their value to their usefulness for the player’s purposes.
  4. Which is not to say that there is inherent value in “authenticity” or an ideal state of nature. Some purposes are absolutely good justifications to utilize resources, but not because unused resources are valueless.
  5. On the default difficulty. You can turn off automatic escalation, but the game is designed with the assumption that it is active.

Your Only True Choice – Complicity in Unavoidable Tragedy

Complicity is the most important distinguishing feature of games.

Other media still requires your interaction. You choose the order in which to experience a series (broadcast or DVD order of Firefly? publication or chronological order of Narnia?), the way in which you experience a painting or sculpture (from a distance? different angles? different lighting?), or how you experience a play (what cast? what seat? do you read it first? do you watch it staged at all?).

However, only in games do your actions involve a complicity with the diegetic1 events of the game. When you choose not to watch an episode of Supernatural, you do not absolve yourself of the injuries the Winchesters experience. There is no way to examine Guernica which makes you responsible for the depicted atrocity. Listening to the 1812 Overture on MP3 rather than live may save on real-world gunpowder but does not inform your relationship to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, fictional or historic.

However, when you choose to punch a reporter in the Mass Effect series, your action (with the assistance of the games’ developers) causes an assault on a (fictional) civilian member of the press. You probably feel emotions as a result of this that are related to that complicity: “personal pride” or “embarrassment”, not simply “just satisfaction” or “disappointment.” The experience of consuming this work is different because it requires your active participation: pressing a button to trigger an action, not just turning a page to advance the narration.

This responsibility the player bears for the events of the game is what I’m calling complicity.

But what about when a game makes you complicit in something that you do not want, where you do not have a choice in the matter? I’ve written before about the tragedy in the ending of Prince of Persia (2008), but the most apropos in-game examination of this is the “Museum Ending” of The Stanley Parable.

Created For You Long in Advance

The Stanley Parable2 features the titular player character being guided by an unseen Narrator through a physically- and narratively-branching absurdist story, steered by more-or-less blatant binary player choices. In one ending3, Stanley is given a respite from certain death when a meta-Narrator takes over, commenting on the illusion of control the game presents and showing “behind-the-scenes” material, before returning Stanley to the previous deathtrap and entreating:

But listen to me. You can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail.
Press “escape” and press “quit.” There’s no other way to beat this game.
As long as you move forward, you’ll be walking someone else’s path. Stop now, and it’ll be your only true choice.
Whatever you do, choose it! Don’t let time choose for you! Don’t let time choose for you!

And if you don’t quit before the end of her narration, Stanley is killed.

This ending frames all other choices in the game as “false,” saying, “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. ” In this view, you are complicit in the choices Stanley makes, but you have no agency in them. You are only selecting from a menu of actions not of your own creation… but this, paradoxically, makes you responsible for interacting at all with this broken system.

Is the choice to end the game at any time a “true” choice? Is it a choice that you are complicit in, within the “magic circle” that circumscribes the play space, or is it a choice akin to closing a book before the end and imagining that it preserves the fictional world in stasis?4

The Stories Themselves Might Be the Problem

What Remains of Edith Finch, by Giant Sparrow, has the player embody Edith, the youngest of a family that suffers from a “curse” that purportedly causes the dramatic death of every member. You explore the now-abandoned and implausibly-architected Finch home, uncovering accounts of these deaths. Each time you find one, you then reenact the final moments of each character.

These reenactments are tragic and brutal. Many of them involve children and require you to take action that you know will lead to their deaths. While this is thematically consistent — the game explores concepts of fatalism, death-seeking, and self-defeating self-narratives — it is a traumatic experience for many players. The game arguably avoids becoming exploitative by couching the reenactments in fantasy, but the fact remains that the player must become repeatedly and deliberately complicit in the death of a child and experience what is, on its surface, their ensuing dying fantasy.

This is a story in which the player is the villain. In any interpretation, you are repeatedly taking on the role of the cause of the characters’ demise, whether that is a literal curse, a familial disposition toward risk, or just a dangerous framing of the family’s narrative. There is no opportunity to continue experiencing the game’s story without being complicit in death.

The fact that the deaths have “already occurred” in the past of the game’s central narrative thread is immaterial, as is the fact that the player, after the first death or two, is sufficiently warned what they’re getting into. These facts don’t change the traumatic experience of embodying and enabling each death.

When I played Edith Finch, I found the experience tragic and harrowing but ultimately cathartic; my complicity in death felt worth it given the concepts and aesthetic journey it allowed me to explore. However, this experience is (of course) not universal.

Writer and sustainable technologist Aurynn Shaw writes about Edith Finch in her piece “On Forced Complicity in Games.”

What Remains of Edith Finch was rated as one of the best games of 2017… but I’m not going to remember the story or the themes or the writing. None of that touched me, because of the alienation of discomfort. All I remember is that discomfort. All I will remember is that discomfort.

Chances are, if you create works, you want those works to be read, understood, and retained by others. Traumatic emotional experiences, such as being complicit in the death of a (fictional) child, tend to override memory and perspective. To require a player be complicit in deliberately uncomfortable acts in order to experience your game is to alienate and exclude a player that might otherwise be a prime audience for your work.

There will always be (and should always be!) games which challenge the player emotionally and force them to be complicit in tragedy. However, doing so not only gives players a deeply unpleasant experience, but also undermines the retention of that experience by those most affected. The people who most strongly feel their own complicity in the tragedy of the game are those most likely to only remember that unpleasantness instead of the underlying message or story of the work.

This is yet another reason why considering choice, agency, and accessibility is vital to the game design process. If Edith Finch had allowed me to skip the reminiscence of the tragic death of children, it would have been less effective for me; that discomfort was acceptable and essential to my appreciation of the work. However, it was actively disruptive to Shaw’s appreciation of the game.

Design is always a task of considering a diverse audience and making tradeoffs. Designers must consider how they force their players to be complicit in the events of the game.

Because the designer is complicit in however the game affects those who play it.

  1. Diegetic: within the game’s fiction or world, as opposed to part of the way that world is translated into a work
  2. I’ve written about The Stanley Parable previously, discussing its paradoxical lack of agency and its unsettling uncertainty.
  3. Arguably the second most “obvious” ending, as it requires doing everything you’re told until you see a large “escape” sign
  4. Spoiler: as I discuss in “Candyland: Game as Critical Lens,” this sort of choice doesn’t count and is often a cop-out.

“The Majesty of Colors” Remastered and Released

In 2008, I made a game called “(I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors.” It got played millions of times, won awards, and is still recognized by many people I run across randomly.

In 2016, in part as a response to the impending death of Adobe Flash, we at Future Proof Games announced “The Majesty of Colors Remastered”, a rebuild of the original game in Unity with enhancements. We estimated that it would take a few months.

Today, two years later, the game is finally released on five platforms: iPhone/iPad, Android, Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Buy The Majesty of Colors on the App Store Get it on Google Play Get it on itch.io

Every game release is scary for a different reason. One of the reasons I’m nervous about this one is that “The Majesty of Colors” is real short, and we’re asking money for it. Even on mobile. In the end, our estimate wasn’t far off; it took the two of us a few person-months of actual work, but that was spread over two years of working at day jobs. Even with the low price we’re asking, it will still take tens of thousands of sales to “break even,” making the game pay for itself. It’ll take even more to make a profit, supporting more steady work on future games and maybe even justifying further enhancements like extra interactions or (no promises!) more story.

We’re tentatively buoyed by the response to the game we’ve gotten so far today. Folks are excited, and we’ve gotten some press interest and are hopeful for more. But “The Majesty of Colors” is a work very close to my heart, and I’m still afraid that its time has entirely passed. We’ll see.

I’ve written this in various places over the last few days: thank you for dreaming with us.

Ludus Novus 027: Imposition of Order Results in Escalation of Disorder

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast: Prey 2017. The lie of a power fantasy is that power over others is something you deserve. Prey is a consequence fantasy: to take agency, you must incur risk. To escape a cage of lies, you have to open the door onto a world of new danger.

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.

Headless Swarm Released

Headless Swarm” has landed.

It’s the first season of paid story for Exploit: Zero Day, our cyberthriller puzzle game about social justice hacktivism. The game’s still in alpha1 but buying “Headless Swarm” will get you immediate access to the game, the free season of story “Black Echoes,” and the first couple of jobs in the new season.

Our living story approach to plot in Exploit: Zero Day means that we release story gradually over time during the first run of a season. It means that you get to play story sooner and lets us adapt our approach as we see how story is received. “Headless Swarm” will be nine jobs in total, released over the coming months and all included in the single purchase.

This storyline is pretty cool, I think! It focuses around a real, scary hacking technique and explores the growing ubiquity of drones, the effect cyberintrusion and hacktivism can have on society, and how corporations use the fear of cyberattack to collect power. I’m also proud of the new characters and organizations we’ve written: Kilroy-sama is weird and silly, OnyxHorde feels like a good balance between sinister and contemptible, and Shay Oakes legit creeps me out. I hope players enjoy it, too.

Check out “Headless Swarm” here!

  1. With free access given periodically through our newsletter.

Exploit: Zero Day – Headless Swarm Landing December 1

For years I’ve been working at Future Proof Games with my partner Melissa on Exploit: Zero Day, a cyberthriller with living story where you roleplay as a hacktivist by making and solving puzzles that represent computer systems. It’s been in closed alpha testing for a while, but on December 1, 2016 we’ll be releasing our first season of paid story: “Headless Swarm.”

You can read more about the release and the game on our announcement blog post, but here I’ll just say that I really hope people check the game out and spread the word about the release. Even if you don’t want to buy the season right now, please sign up for the newsletter and you can get free alpha access when the season comes out. Make some puzzles, play the free story, and let us know what you think. And if you like it, consider picking up “Headless Swarm!”

With everything going on in the world right now, both Melissa and I want to feel like we’re making a difference. We’re trying to do that in a bunch of different ways but one of them is with Exploit: Zero Day. We want this game to be a way to explore difficult moral topics and modern technological ethics and encourage players to think hard about them, especially if they’ve never done so before. The more people hear about the game, the more successful we can be at that.

Please let your friends know about the game! If you’re press or a streamer, please reach out to us for free media keys on distribute().

Invisible Design in Picross 3D: Round 2

Why is no one talking about Picross 3D: Round 2?

Picross 3D Round 2 Complete Puzzle

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

“The Majesty of Colors” Remastered

Majesty Greenlight PromoBig news! As part of Future Proof Games, I’m remastering my classic Flash art game “The Majesty of Colors” for modern technologies. Instead of Flash, the game will be available natively for Windows, OSX, Linux, iOS, and Android. We’re polishing some rough edges but otherwise staying true to the original.

This feels very odd! “(I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors” is one of the first games I made that got any attention and remains one of my most-recognized games. It can be a bit frustrating sometimes that a game I made almost eight years ago is more familiar to folks than my recent work, but the truth is that “Majesty” is one of my favorite projects I’ve worked on, along with Looming, Ossuary, and Exploit: Zero Day. Out of all my games that are becoming inaccessible due to the fading of Adobe Flash, “Majesty” is the one I most want to preserve.

I’m hoping that there’s an audience for weird little art games in the modern gaming world, especially on Steam. If you think there is, please vote for us on Steam Greenlight.

Otherwise, you can see the trailer and get more information on the official website of “The Majesty of Colors”.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch

Symmetra_Overwatch_001Symmetra 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”1), 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

  1. I find Mei infuriating to play against.

Challenge is a Calibration

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.

But that’s not the point. My perspective was summarized pretty eloquently by Rob Fearon but I feel like it can be distilled even further. The argument: what is hard for you might not be hard for me.

Look at it this way.

Continue reading Challenge is a Calibration