Operation nostalgia 64

Since when I lost my Nintendo 64 in that dungeon we have as garage, I have been sad.

But one day Playtonic Games announced their Kickstarter campaign to fund a 3D platformer called Yooka-Laylee. Giving me hope. They did not try to hide the fact that it would have been an operation nostalgia for N64 enthusiasts. Nothing more, nothing less than a “spiritual successor” to Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie. As a fan of that mentally challenged bear (and his abusive companion bird), I believed in Playtonic’s project since the beginning and pledged my reward – a digital copy of the game – at day one. Crowdfunding went very well, and finally Yooka-Laylee is here in all its splendor.

Am I happy? HELL YES.

Does it meet the expectations? Maybe too much.

Has it major design problems? Of course.

I’m reading a lot of conflicting opinions these days. Some people is reacting with incredible enthusiasm, some other people is not – and I believe that both parties have their good reasons. For example, I have read a very interesting article regarding Yooka-Laylee’s level design flaws compared to other 3D platformers of the past (especially Banjo-Kazooie, the #1 comparison meter in this case). I agree, to some extent: Yooka-Laylee does not bring anything new to the genre, nor reflects the greatness of certain old glories.

Good ol’ times…oh wait!

However, I also think that Playtonic’s game is a great (huge!) success in what it does: delivering a specific experience straight outta the ‘9os, with all its pros and cons. Ok, it does not represent a paradigm shift, but that’s an acceptable issue. Not every game should be innovative, genre-defining, or a masterpiece. Especially this, that did not even try, want, nor claim to do such a thing. To understand the value of Yooka-Laylee we should consider its purpose, and how the game achieves that purpose – that is, being a modern antique.

This is a concept that I have been pondering for a while, since when I got to play Breaking BytesXydonia. Some developers nowadays try to replicate the play experiences from past games, crafting modern products that remind antique stuff. Just like brand-new furniture created using the materials, and sometimes the techniques, from a past era. Playtonic enforced the feeling of playing an old N64 game on new consoles by using design choices, both bad and good, from nearly two decades ago. Doing so, they created a product that emulates the features of antique games. And it does it very well, to be honest. Yooka-Laylee has everything from the vintage golden-era of 3D platformers, except it does not hide behind a veil of emotive conditioning: we don’t look at it with nostalgia-lenses, we see it as it is yet tend to compare it with its “competitors” from recent or remote past.

Of course, adopting design choices from the 1998 blindly – or rather, deliberately – has its downsides. And I’m not just talking about rusty gameplay, camera issues, oversimplified UI. Here is an insight by Ian Bogost as an example of what I mean:

In Yooka-Laylee there is way more than that. Almost every character I met in the game somehow displays a disturbing behavior. The fraudulent snake, the mass murdering mega-director, some sexually harassing plants, etc. I wonder when it stops being British humor and starts becoming an issue instead. We often associate violent games with abuse – GTA, Mortal Kombat, etc. – but rhetoric is not always related to portrayed gore. It can be hidden behind colorful worlds, smiling characters and a PEGI 3 logo as well.

This said, I am enjoying Playtonic’s first game a lot. It is my first chance to play with a N64 again, and I was starving for this kind of experience, with all its highs and downsides.

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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

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!

Toughts: Games worth mentioning 2016

Every year, at this point, we get a lot of “Top 10” articles by a vast number of websites concerning practically everything possible.

Top 10 vegetables.

Top 10 secondary characters in ugly movies.

Top 10 “Top 10s”. And so on.

Really annoying, but also amusing to some extent. I obviously couldn’t miss this opportunity to jump on the train of thoughts and have my say, so here’s my “not-exactly-a-top-10” of 2016. Also because it won’t include 10 games.

Rules are simple: games I played and completed (where applicable), released in 2016, worth mentioning for some reason. In random order.

Tyranny

Tyranny1

When a friend told me about its concept, I couldn’t help myself and asked my editor in chief for a review copy. It was the best decision I could ever make as a junior reviewer. In Tyranny, you play as a villain in a world where a Dark Lord – named Kyros – rules with the weapons of fear and violence. This ruthless RPG does not impose an evil conduct, but allows the player to walk a path of growth that could lead to any solution. You want to fight the establishment? Can do. You want to rise as a new overlord? Why not. You want to be a loyal slave of the system? Go ahead. I found this to be highly in contrast with (too) many games that let the player experience the narrative always in the same way despite what character she/he decides to play (Dragon Age, to name one I played recently). More importantly, Tyranny is worth mentioning because of its approach to the banalization of evil in digital media: choices have always a weight, and the player has to face consequences of her/his decisions. Exploring the concept is worth another post on its own, so let’s continue with the list!

Dishonored 2

Dishonored2

The first Dishonored instantly became a classic. For me, it was one of the best games I ever played – due to personal taste, mostly. Its setting has unlimited potential, the narrative was amazing, the Chaos System was well implemented, and the level design left me speechless. I was almost literally starving for a sequel, so when Arkane announced this second iteration in the series I decided to trust them and preorder the game. Since then, I stayed away from spoilers of any sorts: didn’t watch trailers, didn’t peek at gameplay videos, etc. I wanted my experience with Dishonored 2 to be as “pure” as possible, without any interference from the outside (*wink wink*). Dishonored 2 didn’t let me down at all. Despite a plot that shows some redundancy with the first game, its design took a step up not delivering just “more of the same” but improving here and there to deliver a rewarding and fulfilling experience to the player. Its best feature, for me, is the level design: it allows the player to traverse the game in so many different (and personal) ways that, especially in two specific levels, deserves an applause. No, more: a standing ovation. Here‘s an example of what I mean (minor spoilers in the link). Just fantastic design.

No Man’s Sky

NoMansSky1

This game is why I didn’t entitle this post “Top 10”. No Man’s Sky was a surprise to me in many ways, and I decided to include it in the list for both some good and bad reasons. Let’s start with the former: as a fan of PCG, I found this experiment to be as ambitious as extraordinary. The amount of content it generates procedurally is just…amazing. I believe that anyone who tried to code, program, or create a project including PCG has to acknowledge No Man’s Sky. Yet, Hello Games’ last fatigue won’t be remembered for its accomplishments. It represents a new low in gaming history with regards to hype and marketing. If it was a book, its title would be “how to NOT promote your game”. Everyone has responsibilities in this mess: devs, publishers, and press all created a huge amount of expectations that the game could not live up to, to say the least. This hype influenced in a very negative way the evaluation of a project that, in its own, is great and amusing.

Darkest Dungeon

darkest-dungeon

Man, I don’t even know where to start with this one. I just love it. Art design, gameplay, mechanics, dynamics…every element in Darkest Dungeon contributes to deliver a frustrating, cruel, ruthless experience that explores (imho) adventuring how it should have really been. Poor planning and desperate choices lead the characters to certain death, forcing the player to step back and restart from scratch. So many times over and over again. With a solid gameplay and a simple, yet clever, artistic direction (the narrator is extraordinary) it delivers what it promises, as simple as that. It’s not the perfect game, though: the randomness behind some main mechanics is understandable, but probably too much punishing for many players. However, it’s also appreciable how Red Hook Studios alimented its flame in the dark, continuing to release content and fixing problems way after the game was officially released.

The Magic Circle

TheMagicCircle

I know, I know: it was released in 2015, but I played the Gold Edition for PS4. However, The Magic Circle is a game where the player has to complete an unfinished project, stuck at 20 years of programming, and publish it. Behind mechanics that recall action-adventures and puzzles, it explores many layers of game design and game studies with actually a good level of maturity. Its satire is perhaps too harsh and sassy, yet delivers a quite interesting view on the “behind the scenes”. It also include some very interesting mechanics, which allow the player to “recode” some elements of the game in order to solve the said puzzles with a good dose of lateral thinking. While playing it I felt the urge to discuss its implications with someone, obviously starting with Huizinga’s work the title refers to. I promised myself I would give it another playthrough someday, just to write down some notes and maybe write words about it.

Pokémon Go

pokemongo

Probably one of the biggest events of 2016, the release of Pokémon GO is worth a bunch of words because of its consequences on social behavior all around the globe. This mobile title set a new standard for handheld gaming, but more importantly it generated a mass event that altered people’s perception of video games, and also led governments to take quick answers to problems caused by it. With regards to the latter, I’ve witnessed entire families, groups, and individuals interact with each other using Pokémon GO as an excuse to socialize – more, the game became, for many, a reason to go out. Meet friends. Walk around, doing exercise. It was – on its own – a cultural shock that influenced both western and eastern Countries, enforcing new laws and renewing the attention to the use of cellphones during other activities (driving, mostly). Observing how people reacted to Pokémon GO was amazing and worrisome at the same time.

The Last Guardian

the-last-guardian-ps4

The Last Guardian is also the last game I played (and completed) in 2016. I didn’t really know what to expect, but after all my experience with this wonderful looking game was a delusion. Despite its magnificent art and level design, Trico’s incredible animations, and melancholic narrative, I will remember The Last Guardian as a case similar to No Man’s Sky. To some extent, both titles built their fortune (or misfortune) on expectations, hype, fan bases. And both titles could not live up those expectations, failing. In different measure, of course, yet failing. Fumito Ueda’s game is, as said, wonderful to look. It delivers an experience that aims to stimulate specific emotions, but it is frustrated by an ancient gameplay, with rusty mechanics that squeak with today’s standards. I believe this is a game born old, an experiment just like No Man’s Sky. So it shocked me to see how many people (game analysts, expert journalists, players) worshiped it, acclaiming it as a spectacular success and closing both eyes to its deficiencies. Talk about two weights and two measures…

However, this is it: a list of interesting games and probably uninteresting thoughts that I wanted to share with the world.

Expect to read more of me in 2017, revamping this blog is among my good intentions for the new year.

That’s all for 2016, over.