Everything is (not) under control

What better chance there is to get back to write (about games) than a damn rant? Exactly: none.

So here I go and spend some words just for a personal vent.

Today I re-started Never Alone, a platform imbued with Inuit culture, that is a masterpiece in the field of cultural heritage representation on digital media. Which means that the game is all about you discovering a foreign culture through play, in a nice, emotional, powerful, and meaningful way. It is an important game to me, as I tried to achieve the same goal with a project, learning (the hard way) how difficult this could be.

However, as beautiful and mind-blowing this game is, it grinds my gears nevertheless.

IT DOES

The reason is simple: controls are difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. Not all of them, yet enough to become annoying in certain moments of the game. It is the same situation I found myself into when playing The Last Guardian: all is beautiful, deep, and spectacular, but then you find yourself swearing because things went wrong when they should have gone right. Not to mention any FIFA.

So let me be really straight about this: controls, in video games, are not important.

They are fundamental.

We are talking about artifacts that, for their very nature, require some kind of input from the user to properly function. There is a lot to be argued around this topic, but I believe that what I mean is common ground for many of us. Ok, sometimes the input from the player can be scheduled and automated, or received from uncommon hardware (did someone say BANANAS?), but remains a fundamental component of this medium.

Then what happens when a player is unable to send the desired input to the game? It just does not work. The experience becomes frustrating, and that frustration distracts the player from other stuff. In Never Alone’s case, an enraged player pays less attention to the message that the game tries to convey. He disregards the informative videos or, in the worst scenario, uninstalls the game. Losing an opportunity to learn something new, while the game lost the chance to teach that something.

>inb4 “But Dark Souls has major control flaws as well!”
>”[any Behtesda-related comment]”
>”Just git gud fam.”

Jokes apart, I think this is a serious matter, too often underestimated. When designing a game, it should be very important to be sure that the control scheme works properly or else the risk is to make something that no one would ever play. Or enjoy. Or even understand.

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!