Archive for November, 2016

Stranger’s Wrath: Mechanical Experimentation

I have to say, Stranger’s Wrath is a vast improvement over Munch’s Oddysee. It just feels more professionally put-together, more detailed and varied. Even the menus feel better. I was a little worried that the shift to a more established gameplay genre would force a mold over it, and there is something to that: much of the environment is FPS brown, including the player character. But it makes up for this with a number of game-mechanical innovations on the formula.

I’ve already mentioned one: living creatures as ammo. Then there’s the approach to health recovery. When this game was made, the fashion in shooters had shifted from recovering health by picking up health packs to recovering health by simply not getting hit for a little while. Stranger’s Wrath is closer to the latter: by holding down a button, you attempt to “shake it off”, standing still and hitting your torso to literally expel the bullets that hit you from your body like a wet dog shaking off water. The one limitation is that shaking off damage uses up stamina, effectively trading it for health. But stamina is restored at a fairly rapid clip as long as you’re not doing anything strenuous, like running or fighting, so the end result is effectively the same as in those stand-still-for-a-while health recovery systems, except for one thing: it requires an action of the player. Really, it feels a lot like reloading, just for health rather than ammo.

Then there’s the bounties. In order to get money for upgrades (or to save up for your surgery), you have to bring people in, dead or alive. Alive is preferred, but tends to be harder. To bring them in alive, you first have to disable them or render them unconscious — in a clever bit of cartoon/reality merging, nonlethal damage is displayed as the number of stars swirling above an enemy’s head. There are some ammo types specialized for capturing rather than killing, but successfully capturing a boss still tends to require extra puzzle-solving, because of another factor: the bounty-collection device. To collect a bounty, you have to stand over a fallen foe (subdued or dead) and spend a moment sucking them up into your bounty-collector. If you leave a corpse uncollected too long, it disappears. If you leave a subdued enemy uncollected too long, they recover and have to be subdued again. If you try to collect a bounty while people are still shooting at you, you tend to die. And you can’t do it at all if you can’t get near the fallen enemy. There’s one boss who stands on a ledge that you can only reach by climbing along an electrified wire. You can only climb it while the power is turned off, but as soon as you turn it off, she’ll try to turn it on again. The easiest way to keep her from turning the power on is to kill her; to take her alive, you have to subdue her from a distance before starting the climb, and reach the ledge before she can recover. So that’s a nice little puzzle, but even when fighting ordinary grunts, this is a ruleset that encourages finesse, like separating enemies from each other so you can safely subdue and bounty them one by one.

As I said about Killer 7, the experimental mechanics are enabled by the weirdness of the story and setting. This game isn’t trying to represent reality, so it can afford things like living ammo and a bounty-sucker-up device. But at the same time, it’s not as driven by gratuitous weirdness as a Suda game.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

Back to Oddworld, then. The fourth and (as of now) last of the series is something of a break from the previous games, but not as much as you’d think from first glance. It’s a shooter rather than a puzzler, but it’s a fairly puzzly shooter, in a stealth-and-tactics way. It’s Western-flavored, putting you in the role of a bounty hunter in a series of dusty frontier mining towns amidst mesas and badlands, but the outdoors sections of the Abe games had a significant Western vibe as well. It’s more overtly macho than the previous games, with a gruff brawler for a hero, but the previous games had their macho side as well.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that where the character of Abe was a tough guy disguised as a weirdo, Stranger — that seems to be his name; he isn’t “the Stranger”, he’s just “Stranger” — is a weirdo disguised as a tough guy. He’s a bit animalistic, with a face that’s a bit like a lion and a bit like a goat, and an odd way of using his feet when climbing a rope. If you make him run for a sufficiently long distance, he drops to all fours to run faster. Even weirder, his ammo consists of animals as well: small living creatures scavenged from the wild and fired from a sort of hand-mounted double-barreled crossbow. Instead of looting ammo from your fallen adversaries, you go hunting for it.

The one really big difference from the previous games is motivation. Abe and Munch were out to save their people. If Stranger has a people, I haven’t seen them. He seems to be the only one of his kind in a land populated by lumpy outlaws and the chicken people they prey on. No, Stranger’s motivation is money. In the previous games, that was the motivation of the bad guys. It’s been mentioned that he needs the money for a life-saving operation, but the result is that he’s not much concerned with causing destruction if it doesn’t get in the way of his bounties, and is even willing to steal from the chicken people himself if given the opportunity. It does, however, inspire him to take some care with those bounties. Part of the basic mechanics of the game is that bringing them in alive is worth more than killing them. I’ll probably go into that more fully later.

Pandemic Legacy

Before I go back to posting about videogames, I’d like to talk a little about a board game I’ve been playing that has relevance to this blog, because it draws so much from videogame design. I’ll be avoiding spoilers here.

First, the basics: Pandemic is a cooperative board game about disease control. Four diseases have cropped up in different parts of the world, and the players, a team of specialists with different abilities, jet around the globe trying to limit the damage and ultimately find cures. Finding cures is how you win the game, but failing to limit the damage is how you lose it, so the greater part of the strategy is in finding the right balance between these two things. Pandemic Legacy takes Pandemic as its basis, but adds an ongoing campaign mode, where each session has lasting consequences for future sessions. For example, Legacy adds rules about “unrest”: neglecting a problem city can lead to riots, which impede travel. The level of unrest in a city is indicated by a sticker permanently affixed to the board. A player character who’s in a city during an Outbreak can receive “scars” — permanent disabilities that last from game to game — or even be killed, in which case you rip up the character sheet.

The very existence of a campaign mode is something of a videogamism, although it has precedent in tabletop wargames as well. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s this whole very videogamey system of upgrades: after every session, win or lose, you get your choice of two, which can give minor enhancements to a character’s abilities, make a specific disease easier to cure, make a research station you built during that session permanent, or various other effects. Now, the overall structure of the campaign is that it proceeds in a sequence of months, the full campaign representing a year of game-time. If you win a game, you go on to the next month. If you lose, you get one do-over: your next game is the same month, but after that, you go on to the next month regardless of the outcome. Consequently, the more you lose, the more upgrades you get. This is a sort of self-balancing of difficulty that I mostly associate with single-player videogames; it resembles the way that the Ratchet & Clank games, for example, let you keep all the money that you accumulate over repeated failed attempts at a mission. There’s an even more obvious self-balancing in the “funding level”, which determines the number of helpful Event Cards you shuffle into the deck: it increases every time you lose, and decreases every time you win.

The game’s biggest novelty, though, is something that’s fundamental to videogame campaigns, but virtually unseen in board games: it continually introduces new elements that you have no way of anticipating and have to adjust to on the fly. New rules, new characters, new objectives, new actions you can perform. Some make the game easier, some make it harder, but all make it more complex. Their introduction is managed through a special deck of cards, the “Legacy Deck”, which you work your way through over the course of the campaign, each Legacy card stating on its back the conditions under which you draw it. The instructions on the face of the Legacy cards frequently involve opening sealed boxes containing new game tokens, or punching concealed stickers out of a special sheet and pasting them into the rulebook. There’s generally a Legacy card for the beginning of each month, so that you never quite know what the next month is going to bring. Greg Costikyan has written an entire book about uncertainty in games, titled Uncertainty in Games, arguing that it’s an essential feature of games and analyzing the various forms it takes: randomness, analytical complexity, unpredictability of your opponent’s decisions, etc. The Legacy Deck brings uncertainty through hidden information into a portion of the game were it’s usually absent, and even bleeds it into the negative space between the games. For me, at least, the revelation of the next month’s Legacy card is the part that I find myself most anticipating between sessions.

Since this game draws so much from videogame sensibilities, would a videogame adaptation be a good thing? I’ll say this: It does fit my critera for a good asynchronous online multiplayer game pretty well. The turns are longish and self-sufficient, and you don’t get to do a lot of forward planning because it’s hard to predict where the next emergency will be. It even puts the “draw cards” step at the end of your turn rather than the beginning, so that you have something to stew on between your turns. However, being cooperative, it involves coordination between players in a way that works against asynchronous play. Players may need to arrange to meet in a particular city in order to exchange cards, for example. And when they meet, the rules require both players to agree to the exchange, which means out-of-turn confirmations.

Moreover, there’s a charm to the board-game-ness that I think would be lost in any electronic adaptation. As I said about the Solitaire Hangman puzzles in Games Interactive, part of the enjoyment of the game is in the analog component, the exercise of hidden information via player participation in punching out stickers and unpacking boxes. Hidden information in a videogame is facile by comparison, and leaves the player out of the process. Even when you have to click or drag or swipe to reveal something, it doesn’t feel the same.

IFComp 2016 wrap-up

The Comp’s judging period has ended, but the results will not be posted for another day. All in all, it was a good year for the Comp, and also a large year: in terms of number of entries, it was the biggest Comp in the Comp’s history. I didn’t play all the entries to completion, but I did manage to play each one at least to a point where I felt comfortable casting a vote on it. Some time back, I set myself a goal of writing posts about half the entries, and I have done this. The ones I skipped were not necessarily the ones that I disliked, but just the ones that I felt I had little of interest to say about. But there are an awful lot of people writing reviews this year, and many of them have insightful things to say about the games I passed over. I particularly recommend Emily Short’s take on Take, a piece that baffled many, including myself.

My personal top pick of the Comp is 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds, but due to the large number of entries, I don’t have any confident predictions about what will actually win, or even what will take the Golden Banana of Discord (the unofficial award for highest standard deviation of ratings). I take something of a personal interest in the Banana, because one of my own games holds the all-time standard deviation record. There are a number of strong contenders for it this year, due to all the formal experimentation and “But is it IF?” going on. My best banana guesses are 500 Apocalypses, Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!, and Mirror and Queen.

It seems like there was an unusual tendency this year for games to come in pairs: there were two pieces about vampires, two about zombies (neither of which I’ve covered in my posts), two in steampunk settings, two in settings loosely inspired by Greek myth (both of them first chapters of a larger story), two about gaming tournaments, two where you oversee the development of an entire alien species, two that start with the line “You are a [type of animal]”. There were two Texture games and two Quest games. There were exactly two authors who submitted two entries! I suppose this is just the sort of thing that happens when the number of entries gets large enough, but if it all turns out to be hints towards another hat mystery, I’ll be really impressed.

IFComp 2016: Stuff and Nonsense

Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2016: Sigil Reader (Field)

Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2016: Rite of Passage

Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2016: Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles

Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2016: Screw You, Bear Dad!

Spoilers faollow the break.
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IFComp 2016: Fair

Spoilers follow the break.
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