Playing: Torment: Tides of Numenera

Continuing in the attempt to bring more content to this blog, today I’d like to spend some words about another game I’m playing lately: Torment: Tides of Numenera. Be aware, however, that this post could contain some minor spoilers on the game’s narrative.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a great RPG that mixes traits of “old school” games with recent technologies and features, resulting in a very neat overall experience. As its title suggests, it is a spiritual successor of Planescape: Torment, just with different setting and rules. The two games have more in common than the genre and a word in the title: they both address gray areas of ethics, philosophy and (I dare to say) metaphysics as well. Behind their narrative focus, lies a very interesting set of mechanics that somehow strengthens those core concepts. There is one in particular that I think is worth discussing: in Tides of Numenera (like in its predecessor) your character cannot die. As an embodiment of a death-cheating inventor known as “Changing God”, the protagonist is a sort of vessel that cannot perish. Whenever his health points reach the zero, he just wakes up in his mind – represented as a metaphysical place, a Labyrinth – and then comes back to the physical world by entering a simple portal.

This is interesting because in certain situations death does not represent an ending state, but a possible development to exit an impasse or solve dramatic circumstances. A very elegant take on the matter, and a choice that I consider difficult to implement consistently as inXile devs were actually able to do. Nevertheless, there is something that bugs me a lot about this mechanic. The fact is that it doesn’t apply all the times, as the protagonist can face some (really) deadly dangers. As in: there are certain specific situations in the game where the rule doesn’t work, and your character might die definitively. From a narrative point of view this is ok. I mean, it fits the setting and the whole storyline without doubt. But when this happens, Tides of Numenera shows you a classic “load previous save” screen – somehow throwing away all its consistency.

Not the wisest Castoff

Tackling the topic of death in digital games could be hard, I am well aware of it (especially if you plan to do it in a concise blog post…). I remember this concept being specifically explored by Ceccherelli (2007), for example. And I believe that it’s relevant to my analysis to also mention Aarseth’s (1997) reasoning over cybertexts’ not-linear reading flow, because loading a previous save kinda “breaks” the narrative construction that the game was trying to achieve with the player’s interactions. Changing the interpretation, the understanding, and the memories about Tides of Numenera as a text.

However, my point here is to focus on the value of a design choice in relation to the game’s credibility and coherence. We have a game, Torment, where the main character cannot die. This mechanic has a strong relation to both the scripted narrative and to the generated story that emerges from player’s interactions with the game (Calleja, 2008). We could say that death, and how to cheat it, is the very main focus of this game. Since the protagonist is an immortal of some sort, including playable situations where his powers are not enough to cheat death appears as a very intriguing design choice. It gives death a value, a meaning, as the possibilities of its happening are scarce, and hence represent a rare resource.

But then, when death comes, the game breaks this dynamic. It grants the player a chance to load a previous save file.

Goodbye, suspension of disbelief.

Hello, meaninglessness of a design choice.

How can death be so central in Numenera, and yet have so trivial value? Could this devaluation-by-design be avoided?

I don’t have an answer to solve the riddle, to be honest. In my reasoning I’d say: for the sake of coherence, let the character die, involve permadeath mechanics in the game so that death actually has value. Force the player to be very careful when taking risks. Enhance the whole experience and its significance. I can see why this was not forced into the game: to constrain permadeath of a character in a 40+ hours long RPG could be lethal for the player’s acceptance. Players commit to their creatures, and they value the time spent playing. As Tides of Numenera is, each player has the chance to go back and try to traverse the game with a different approach. At the same time one could say: “All right, my character died. Let’s start from scratch again.” Which is the reasoning with survival games, for example. There, commitment to the character and its story is completely different.

So probably the choice to devalue death was all about commitment. Or not.

As I said, there’s no real answer to this issue. The designers did nothing wrong, they chose a path.

Still, I’m not sure if I like to walk that way.

References

Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press

– Calleja, Gordon (2009). Experiential Narrative in Game Environments, DIGRA

– Ceccherelli, Alessio (2007). Oltre la morte. Per una mediologia del videogioco. Napoli, Liguori Editore

Playing: Stardew Valley

If I remember correctly, blogs were born as online diaries. Hence, in order to post here more often, I’d like to share some of my ongoing gaming experiences. Like a diary, but without teenage-ish blues.

Today I want to write some words about Stardew Valley. This pixelart farming simulator with RPG mechanics, designed and developed by the one-man studio ConcernedApe (aka Eric Barone) already drew my attention some months ago, but I couldn’t afford it back then. I never played Harvest Moon nor any other game like this before, so this was a completely new experience for me on pretty much all levels.

In Stardew Valley you control a guy (or a girl) who inherited a farm from his grandad, and therefore decided to quit his job in order to dedicate life to farming in the countryside. Now, the first thing I noticed about this game is its contradictory nature: it portrays, and somehow encourages, a rustic lifestyle where staying outside and social interaction face-to-face are showed as positive values; on the other hand, Stardew Valley is a game where the player can invest hundreds of hours of single player activity in front of a screen, just to grow pixelated plants. Odd.

I’m afraid I cannot stop that, Alex

However, after a short while I could see in Stardew Valley a vast set of possible playthroughs. Its nature creates the conditions to simulate more than just a farmer’s life. In fact, the playable characters I imagined were a bit off the spirit of the game: the serial killer, the idler, the hobo, and many more. I tried some unconventional approaches, and started to take notes on what was or wasn’t allowed by design.

Here’s a provisional list of what I tried to do. Some stuff is very weird, on purpose. Sorry-not-sorry.

Can do

Cannot do

  • Pick up the trash from public cans
  • Kinda look into other people’s lives (spying on unattended diaries and such)
  • Enter other people’s houses
  • Dig (superficially) on graves
  • Plant stuff on graves
  • Drink alcohol (probably get drunk as well)
  • Have heterosexual and/or homosexual relationships (with adults)
  • Cut down trees outside of specific areas
  • Break doors
  • Steal
  • Enter private spaces uninvited (nor follow people in their rooms if they open the doors)
  • Hurt people
  • Die of fatigue (lack of sleep)
  • Steal from the store
  • Sleep during the day and work at night

This is what I got after a few hours of play, but the list could become even bigger as I progress

So far, the most interesting point for me has been collapsing. Basically, when your character is very tired due to hard work and his Energy Bar goes empty, he faints. The day after, he wakes up in his bed, healed, with a new letter in the mailbox: the town’s doctor saved him, and took 50g (money) as payment. The resemblance to USA’s healthcare system was evident to me. As in: if you need medical assistance, you have to pay. My next move there was to spend all my money and see if the doctor would have let me die because I couldn’t afford the treatment. I went to a store, bought a lot of useless things, and then worked like there was no tomorrow with 0g in my pockets. Long story short, the doctor healed me nevertheless (while still leaving a message that said “I took 50g from you […]”). Conclusion: in Stardew Valley you need an insurance, unless you are really poor. Then, Obamacare becomes operational.

Jokes apart, I find this design choice quite elegant although it implies some ethical reflections. After all, it allows even the most spending player to avoid negative consequences, such as permadeath, and somehow it reflects the spirit of the game. Which is okay. Many other actions allowed (or not allowed) point at the same direction, as the game theoretically wants to deliver a specific kind of experience. Something that I would summarize as “polite”.

Hopefully I’ll be able to provide more play-diary from Stardew Valley soon. In the meantime, if you found some other relevant Can/Cannot Do’s feel free to share!

Thoughts: Starving for a routine

Lately I’ve been struggling.

I have many projects going on, and even more ideas pending. Yet, I find it difficult to establish a proper productive routine that eventually will lead those projects to conclusion. This frustrates me a lot. It’s one of the reasons I made Perfectionism – Episode 2: I felt the urge to complete something, start to finish, and leave it alone. The jigsaw puzzle reference in the game isn’t accidental. Puzzles have a tangible final state, an ending that draws a line from “undone” to “done”, and I’m indulging a lot in the feeling of reward, of self-fulfillment and personal achievement that comes from a completed puzzle. It’s like typing the final words in a short story you spent months trying to write. Or playing the last mission of a 40+hrs game. Or just delivering an article on time to your editor in chief. Satisfying, to say the least.

However, productivity for me rhymes with routine: I realized that I function better when stuck in a methodical set of activities. It’s common sense. After all, results come through hard work and dedication. Trivial? Yes. Kinda true? Also. The problem with me is that I am prone to distractions, and also tend to play games too much. For example, yesterday I was playing Don’t Starve instead of writing.

dont-starveThis is fine.

Don’t Starve is a survival game made by Klei Entertainment in which the player’s character wakes up in a procedurally generated world filled with random resources. In order to survive as long as possible, the player has to harvest those resources and combine them into elaborate tools, in a loop that eventually comes to an end. Alongside health, there are two more stats to keep track of: sanity and hunger (hence the title).

Ironically enough, it’s a game I love, but never completed (as in, “reached the final state”, if there’s one). While reasoning on how much Don’t Starve reflects my recent inability to complete almost anything, yesterday I also realized that in survival games there’s a rhetoric for a productive routine. The rhetoric potential of video games has been already taken into account (Frasca, 2003; Bogost, 2008), so I’m not certainly claiming anything new. What I see in survival games, however, is how they encourage the player to organize each day, to plan ahead, and to make the most of the scarce resources available. Which is, more or less, what productivity is about.

In survival games time is probably the most crucial resource. To exploit it means to be able to obtain more, and better, results. The clock ticks and you, as the player, cannot stay idle. If you want to survive another day, you must gather or hunt food, build shelter, create tools to be even more productive the next day. There is clearly a representation of primal human nature (and history) at work here, but that’s way beside my point. The rhetoric I talk about emerges when the player realizes that the same rules apply to everyday life, and tasks are one after the other.

dontstarve2

Livin’ the dream

For example, to build a Crock Pot (cooking device) the player requires 3x Cut Stone, 6x Charcoal, 6x Twigs. The latter can be harvested by shrubs, pretty commonly placed next to the starting point. Charcoal is a little bit trickier, as it can be found after chopping down a burnt tree (hence, the player needs a way to lit a fire -> other resources). Cut Stone must be refined by raw Rocks, found after digging with a Pickaxe (again, more resources needed to craft one) on proper sites. But not all these things can be gathered in a single day of the game world. This forces the player to set a list of priorities in her/his mind, answering questions such as: “Should I build a Crock Pot or a Farm first?“, “Can I find these resources nearby or should I move far away?“, “Do I have enough food to survive until this project is complete?“. Then, each day has to be scheduled in detail for an optimization of the time/results ratio. And so on.

Now, this is exactly what a productive routine means to me: set a goal, organize priorities, make the most out of every day, but also make room for leisure (sanity level decreases over time!), food (do-not-starve!), and all the relevant things in your life. The rhetoric of survival games lies there, and if understood could help in establishing a daily set of tasks. I think it’s fundamental, though, to not let the routine in the game overlap or substitute what should be outside it; the sense of fulfillment can be tricky sometimes, and mislead to contentment.

So, well, don’t be hungry…nor foolish.

References:

– Frasca, Gonzalo (2003). “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” In The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge. 221–37

– Bogost, Ian (2008). “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 117–40

Short story: American Resurrection

This is a short story I wrote a long time ago, inspired by the song “Inception” by Ad Vitam. I’d like to say thanks and dedicate this to them (especially to my bro, Mattia).

Any feedback, either positive or negative, would be very appreciated.

Enjoy.

Continue reading

Thoughts: Global Game Jam ’17

The last few days have been exhausting, but in a very good way: for the first time, I took part in a Global Game Jam event!

I couldn’t resist the urge to participate: since I got my Master’s degree in Digital Games, a lot of stuff happened and I didn’t really make games at all. Plus, I spent a long time pondering how to build a network of game developers, analysts, or just game enthusiasts here in Sardinia. So when I heard that Cagliari had its own jam site this year, my decision was made. And looking back, it was a hellagood decision.

It all started on Friday, with cold winds blowing from the far East. The site was a former tobacco factory of some sort, a huge structure with a lot of separated buildings on the inside. At first it seemed a scary place, but after a while it looked familiar, secure and kind of cozy. We (the jammers!) gathered in a secondary building where a conference room met a cafeteria and a laboratory and an office. Considering that the local University didn’t really cooperate to help the organizers, what we got was way more than fine.

Jpeg

(the jam site in Cagliari)

Organization was cured by Fabbricastorie, a local cultural association armed with a lot of expertise, enthusiasm, and professionalism. For a prime time, I think it went even better than expected: there were food, drinks, clean restrooms, cooperation, and an ear open for suggestions. Which is always a good sign. There’s clearly room for improvement, but let’s face the truth: thanks to them, Sardinia has started a proper network of game developers. From now on, things can just get better and better.

However, as hours passed, my astonishment couldn’t but grow. The vibe there was fantastic: every jammer, from the youngest to the oldest, cooperated with passion, showing mutual respect and interest to learn something new. There was curiosity. There was reliability. There was a sense of membership to a group that, just a few hours before, was a bunch of strangers. It was as I always imagined a Game Jam should be. The most memorable moment, anyway, happened in the night between Saturday and Sunday: a late cross-over chat between jam sites, a video call with my fellow Maltese bros jamming on another island. Mediterranean jammers, assemble!

Obviously, there was trouble as well: making a game in 48hrs is not an easy task, and it gets even more difficult if you are not used to teamwork, or you have to coordinate your efforts with complete strangers. But this is what makes Game Jams so cool, interesting, and challenging. In face of all these difficulties, the satisfaction of having a playable game at the end of the event is indeed priceless.

smart-sharks

(credits to Marta)

My team (we were five, four game designers and an artist) went for a board game with asymmetrical gameplay. Developing something analog felt strange, yet fulfilling. It was a challenge in the challenge – a way to prove our skills on a different ground than the others’. The result of all our efforts on the theme “waves” is a crazy game called Smart Sharks (tentative title), and you can find it here!

To summarize, my first experience at a Global Game Jam was a success. I met some really nice people, had fun, enjoyed very interesting conversations and finished a proper game. Now it’s time to reflect on what I learned, and make plans for the immediate future, but I can’t wait to see what next year’s Jam will bring!

Unplaced: Don’t Look Sea in the Eyes

« What is that you fear, woman? » The captain was asking questions like a teacher during a lecture. Sharp and direct, already knowing the answers.

« …y–you » her voice was trembling, unsure. Her eyes low, full of promised tears.

« Me? Do you fear me? »

A laughter erupted from the surroundings, as his crew accompanied his moment of amusement. He did even perform a shocked, impressed expression for such a crowded audience. When the sound of laughs faded, only the ocean lapping on the keel remained. It was relaxing and frightening, at the same time.

« And why is it so, may I ask? » On his face, behind the beard and the sickly teeth, a glimpse of curiosity emerged. But his glare was that of a ravenous beast awaiting for the right moment to strike a defenseless prey. « Could it be…because I hold a gun? »

To underline that thought, he pulled back the hammer – an unmistakable sound, a click! followed that gesture – and pointed the weapon to her forehead. She repressed a scream, but could not avoid a little sigh. Closing eyes, her thoughts were probably for a higher power, seeking for salvation. But that was hell, and no God had any power there. Except him.

« Or maybe it is because of my reputation. » Many men nodded, grinned, and some even applauded. It was a triumph of self-congratulation through the condescending bodies of almost-mindless slaves. Too afraid to contradict the man, too weak to stand up against his fame.

« Might be ‘cause she’s naked, cap’n » a voice brayed. More laughter, including the captain’s.

« Bright observation, mister Morrison. That could be a reason, yeah. Rape is a strong deterrent for women, they say. I bet it could drive a poor soul mad, but here we’re discussing fear— » he stopped behind the girl, putting the gun between her blonde hair made stringy by saltiness and humidity. « -and fear is not about being afraid of the immediate future. It’s about not knowing what hides in the days far ahead. If there are days ahead. »