Thursday, October 25, 2007

Some Reviews (Off Topic!)

I want to make an update about my new direction for the monster/city game, but its a little tough to get my head around. So I'll settle for exorcising some reviewerly thoughts that have been bumping around. If you just want game content, skip it, come back in a bit.

Game: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
I just finished this game, and I liked it a lot. It was a legitimate return to the things I liked about the classic Link to the Past on the SNES. The game reminds me a bit of Diablo. It uses the DS touch screen in a click-to-go, click-to-get-item, click-to-attack-monster way that quickly becomes invisible, and keeps me in that flow sweet spot. Also, its good at capturing that almost-there feeling; you feel like you're always almost going to accomplish something new, and multiple, overlapping goals come and go in a way that keeps you engaged.

It's sort of a sequel to Wind Waker, and has a similar boating/island hoping thing going. But its 2d, and that combined with the genius control scheme, makes it much, much more imersive and fun for me. I'll give you the short version of my rant against 3d games, in particular those with free cameras:
1) Moving the camera is not an avatar action. Every time I have to move the camera in a game I'm no longer associating myself with my avatar, and my immersion is broken. If I swing a push a button to swing a sword and jump and whatever, that is invisible enough that I feel like I *am* my character. But when I have to dick around with the camera to get a look at something standing right in front of me, I quickly become some clumsy jackass trying to peer over the hero's shoulder, and that's not any fun.
2) Relative motion breaks immersion. When up-right doesn't mean move Northeast, but rather, "move in a direction 45 degrees to the right of the direction the camera is pointing", I am distracted ever so slightly. When I do this 50 times a minute, I don't have fun.
3) The camera can lead to cheap level design. I was unable to get into Wind Waker for a bunch of reasons, but what finally killed me was playing some level where I had a big leaf that could blow gusts of wind. I couldn't figure out how to proceed, and eventually found that there was some big fan/gear thing that I had blow. But you couldn't see it unless you craned the camera around in some outlandish direction. Once I saw the gear, it was obvious what to do, but the challenge was added by making it hard to see. I'd rather have the cards on the table and try to solve the situation, not screw around with the camera. I'd rather play freecell than 3-card monte. Not to mention, my character could have seen the stupid gear easily, so strike 3 for immersion.

Phantom Hourglass kept me completely immersed with actions that stayed invisible, and puzzles that I felt like I had to solve, not use the game to notice.

It is a little too easy, and it seems to end before you really have a chance to take advantage of all the bonuses and things you've spent the game earning. To the extent that I almost wonder if there's a later post-game-ending phase that I'm missing. In any case, a good use of your ds, you will wholly get your money's worth.

Television: Arrested Development
In a compromise to several people I know who insist that Arrested Development is the Bee's Pajamas, I agreed to watch the first 6 episodes in order (one DVD's worth). Having done so, well.. I like it better than I did. And I did laugh, and I appreciate the writing more. But my mind is generally unchanged. I still deeply dislike the characters, and find them completely unbelievable - and I generally have to either like the characters I don't believe in (30 Rock?) or believe that bad people like this could exist (Sideways?).

And while some of the plots are very clever, sometimes I just feel like I'm watching the writers show off. I mean, the stair car allows for some opportunities that are well exploited: getting people into trees, getting people out of jail, allowing people to be mistakenly lead onto a tarmac at the airport. Laughs ensue. But that car SCREAMS being written into a script so that it could set up jokes. It shouts that fact right in my face. And there are enough plot points like this that I have absolutely no sense of an actual story unfolding; it feels like the writers are trying to work more and more absurd devices into the plot that they can exploit. And even if I laugh now and then, the whole show gives me a growing sense of soullessness that is tough to get past.

It occurs to me that this is not all that unlike Seinfeld, which I like at least a bit. That show also felt very written, and also had characters that were tough to like. There's something subtle here though, I still liked the actors, and the creators. I felt like they were performing for me, that they wanted to make me laugh. In arrested development, there's something strangely snarky and hateful about the tone of the show. I feel like the show is laughing at me, not with me. I don't know how what that means, but it somehow sums up how I feel watching it.

Music: Gang of Four - Entertainment!
Somewhat relatedly, I've had this album for years, and while I like it, I never really got what all the hype was about. This week I decided to turn it up so loud it hurts.

I've always wanted to describe the guitar parts as "stabby", and there is definitely something violent about the metallic, staccato guitar sub-chords they use. When you get that shit cranked up, it makes you rhymically physically uncomfortable and angry, makes you identify with the songs' screeds against everything. And you grab onto those rolling bass parts for dear life, trying to ride your way out of the clusterfuck factory. To listen to this album, I think maybe you have to feel as pissed off as the songs do. Wearing a suit helps too. (This might seem at odds with my dislike of the discomfort in Arrested Development, but I guess there are some things I want in my post-punk that I don't want in my comedy television.)

Book: Scott McCloud - Understanding Comics
I (finally!) picked this up, and have been digging it something fierce, so far, two chapters in. There's something in his ideas about associating oneself with comics' protagonists that I feel like can be applied to games. I'll be keeping an eye on it.

I swear there is something about games in each of these, believe it or not. But I'm too pooped to go there for now. Also, is it just me, or is there something unpleasant about this post? I'm a hypocrite. Or maybe this post is more post-punk than television comedy.

Monster game update soon!

Friday, October 5, 2007

2-Player Monster-City Game Playtests

I spent a few solid hours creating and solo playtesting a prototype of my 2-player monster-city game today. I think its coming together fairly well, I made some early changes, but it seems like the game plays quickly, and with a lot of variety between runthroughs, which is a good recipe for one-more-time gameplay.

I'm a little concerned about:
A) strategy vs. luck - seems like sometimes one player just gets hosed.
B) ensuring that the game doesn't get stale over time - it needs a little more pop, that rare game-event that is exciting to hope for - the equivalent of shooting the moon, or a well-executed chess maneuver.

Also, right now, the Monster player is losing nearly every time, but I think I have enough knobs to turn to fix that eventually.

One thing I've started doing is taking a picture of the board state at the end of the game, along with a card with the result and game version (sort of like a little clapboard). For example:

I don't know if they will be useful artifacts in the long term, but it makes me feel more like I'm accomplishing something as I clear the board, change the rules, and start over.