Log entry GD8: Seven lessons I learned over spring break

Yay! Video games!

At the beginning of this month, we finally hit spring break and I was able to go through some of the pending games in my steam library. The thoughts below are not really lessons but more accurately observations that I made while playing through them. Some of them might interest you, so feel free to chime in with your thoughts and comments.

1. Battling the brain (Brothers - A tale of two sons / Starbreeze)

Brothers attempts to let the player control two characters synchronously in the same screen space. They designed the interactions around a single interact button for each character so your fingers do not end up all over the place and the emphasis remains on the teamwork. I would say this worked surprisingly well until my brain decided to stop working.

Here's what happened: You control two brothers on the screen with a controller (keyboard supported too but I would strongly recommend against it) using the two analog sticks. Let's say elder brother (L) is controlled by the left stick and younger brother (R) is controlled by the right stick. As long as L remains to the left of R, I had no trouble controlling the two. But as soon as they switched relative positions on the screen, my brain would just short circuit. I feel this is because our brains are hard wired to receive feedback which correlates the hand and eye movement. As soon as it's violated, we are unable to deal with the changes immediately.

Thus, when both the brothers had to move simultaneously, I would try to keep the younger brother on the right as much as possible to prevent losing track of their actions especially during action scenes. I saw a lot of people complain about the clunky controls in the game and I feel they might be experiencing the same limitations of the brain rather than a flaw in the game itself.

Brothers 1 Brothers 2

2. Trope train (Brothers - A tale of two sons / Starbreeze)

While, television and other media have been consciously steering away from stereotypes and predictable characters, video games are yet to break the mould decisively. I have no idea why this bothered me so much but I could not get over the typical behavior of the characters within the game: You have the younger brother, all brash and unabashed about discomforting others. And the older brother, the calm and reserved one who would make more informed decisions and save his sibling after his antics. This setup screamed about a life changing event that would occur at some point that would finally knock some sense and responsibility into the younger brother.

The actual transformation was handled really well within the game but I still felt like I had seen this play out a million times before. I would have loved to see a role reversal! And I personally know several siblings with opposite age based traits so it's not something completely fictitious. It might have actually made me associate more with the story.

NB: The above points might seem annoying but the game as a whole is really immersive and charming. I would recommend you to check it out if you get an opportunity to play it.

3. Lost in the wilderness (Hack 'n' Slash / Double Fine)

On the topic of novel game-play, another interesting game I checked out was Hack 'n' Slash. If you don't know about this, it's a bit of a geeky game where the 'Hack' is taken pretty literally and you can gain access to the properties of every object in the world and hack their values to suit your needs. I lost interest after an hour or two but I have read that eventually you gain access to the complete source code of the game. Sounds perfect for programmers / developers right? Not exactly.

Hack n Slash

The game does have an appeal for the computer oriented crowd and the possibilities are endless within their system. And that's where it gets too complicated. I feel this is because they gave all this hack functionality AND made it a sandbox style open world game. There is a burden of information placed on the players from the very first level. The hack interactions with each and every object start getting tedious and soon it begins to feel like work instead of play. I guess I might have appreciated it more if I had more time on my hands but even then I feel that the lack of direction would have made me frustrated. The mechanics were fascinating for the first 15 minutes but they lost their charm rapidly.

4. Why there won't be another Mario (Tom Clancy's The Division / Ubisoft Massive)

Mario and an FPS shooter? There is a link, trust me. I have spent 36 hours into this game so I feel my observations won't be completely superficial. One of the biggest complaints regarding this game at launch and even today is the difficulty of the enemies. Specifically, the boss or the special characters are 'bullet sponges' and all of this leads to 'grinding'. The thing that annoys me is the negative connotation that grinding has now. All retro games that people talk so fondly about now involved heavy amounts of grinding. There weren't even comprehensive video walkthroughs available then to finally end your misery. But in the world of instant gratification, grinding seems to frowned upon more often than not. Maybe it's a very vocal minority, maybe my rant is unfounded, but I still feel the backlash over the design was a bit unwarranted.

There are definitely flaws within the game. The fancy graphics cannot hide the weak story and shallow characters but that's not the essence of the game. The game promises an open world that you take on as a squad and it delivers in that department. And that's another thing people misunderstand. While it's possible to play the game as an individual (I played that way for about 6 hours), the essence of the game still revolves around squad play. And when you play as a squad you see a variation in the enemies and their tactics which is not visible otherwise. It's really difficult to curate an experience in a multiplayer game and it depends on the way individuals choose to play it. But it's unfair to critique something when you didn't buy into the world or its setting and never experienced the way it was intended by the designers.

5. Thank you for not tricking me (Tom Clancy's The Division / Ubisoft Massive)

Division

Downgrades or not, The Division is a visual treat! And they didn't spend all of the visual output on pretty explosions alone. One of the things that I liked the best about this game was the blizzard that would hit the city. While most games rely on using a filter on the camera / UI to give the effect of a splatter or rain, The Division decided to let the world communicate the same thing. When the blizzard hits at nighttime, your visibility is drastically hindered. There are no UI elements, no fade or vignette effects. The world itself makes it impossible for you see more than a few feet away or take aim at enemies. Indirectly, this situation demands that you equip one of the scanner techs in order to identify hostiles. This entire interaction provided a level of immersion I hadn't experienced in other titles and it left me very impressed!

6. I'm (not) coming back for you (Stacking / Double Fine)

Another Double Fine game I played over the break was Stacking! It's a pretty unique game with awesome stylized art and character movements. The game involves solving puzzles throughout the adventure while you work towards the story of reuniting your family. These individual puzzles have multiple solutions (usually 4 - 5) and you unlock different cosmetic rewards for figuring out all the solutions.

Stacking

However, after the initial few puzzles, I never bothered to find the alternate solutions to the later puzzles. I felt this was because these puzzles were not discrete units of the game. Every solution would trigger an event that advances the story and further solutions would not have any tangible effect on the story itself. Thus, my motivation to watch the story unfold would overpower any desire to spend more time with the puzzles. Comparing this to mobile games, the puzzles themselves are discrete units where there are rewards or varying challenges to complete games in a different way. Even in other games, the alternate solutions reveal more of the backstory about the characters so that it doesn't feel like a wasted effort.

7. Here we go again (To the Moon / Freebird games)

To the Moon is a very interesting game that involves time travel and has a story similar to 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. It took me a while to get into the game but eventually I was completely invested in it. The time travel aspect of it got me thinking and I started comparing it with other games that involve time travel. While rewind works to reset the progress by a few moves, actual time travel relies on a different level. One aspect which we don't think about consciously is the environment. We pick up a lot of cues based on the difference in objects and their visual style based on the reference we have from before. Thus, it's equally important to show changes in the surroundings in addition to the characters themselves.

To the Moon

To the Moon implements this well by beginning at a mansion where one of the characters is dying. As we go back into his past, we keep revisiting the house in different stages of its construction as well as to the spot of land when the house didn't even exist. During these points it would instead show us the circumstances that led to the current situation. The 'familiar but still quite not the same' surroundings do an excellent job of reinforcing the time travel aspect. This was also crucial as the game uses pixel art and it wasn't possible to show too much detail on the characters themselves. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within also did something similar where they make you revisit the same levels several times over different timelines to give you a sense of familiarity even though the setting and mechanics change.