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February 12, 2024

Filed under: gaming»portable

Pocket Change

The lower-right corner of my desk, where I keep my retro console hardware, contains:

  • A Dreamcast, yellowed
  • An Nvidia Shield Portable, barely charges these days
  • A GameBoy Pocket Color, lime green
  • Two Nintendo DS systems, in stereotypical colors (pink for Belle, blue for me)
  • A Nintendo 3DS, black
  • Various controllers and power cables
  • A GBA SP, red, with the original screen
  • A GBA with an aftermarket screen, speaker, and USB-C battery pack, black
  • An enormous Hori fight stick for the XBox 360, largely untouched

I wouldn't say I'm a collector so much as I just stopped getting rid of anything at some point. I was lucky enough to have held onto the systems that I bought in college, long before the COVID speculative bubble drove all the prices up. And most of these have sentimental value: I wasn't allowed to have anything that hooked up to the TV as a kid, but I saved up and bought an original GameBoy, and it got me through a lot of long car trips back in the day.

Still, this is a lot of stuff that I barely use, and most of which is redundant. So of course, I gave into my worst impulses, and ordered an Analogue Pocket.

A Brief Review of the Analogue Pocket

If you don't have original cartridges, the Pocket is hard to justify: emulation has reached the point where it may not be flawless, but it's certainly good enough, and there are much cheaper handhelds that can imitate more powerful consoles. But I do own about 20 GB/GBA carts that I go back to fairly frequently, and although I did rip them to ROM files last year just in case, I like playing them on actual hardware. About half of the systems listed above were purchased with that in mind.

A modded GBA will actually cost more than the Pocket in 2024, which is wild, and the result is an uneven experience. Retrofitted hardware is still old, meaning that the buttons on mine can be sticky, the d-pad is a little stiff, and I had to re-solder the power switch this winter. Obviously the Pocket might age poorly too, but if you're examining your options today and you don't actually want to do console repair as a hobby, it's probably the more reliable choice.

But the big draw on the Pocket is the screen, a high-range panel that's sized specifically to display classic GameBoy games with integer scaling (at a 10:1 ratio), including a number of uncanny display filters to mimic different original hardware color aberrations, refresh rates, and quirks. It's very good, and even on systems that don't round evenly to the 1600x1440 resolution, it's so sharp that you'd be hard-pressed to see any scaling errors.

You can, of course, also run ROMs and non-portable hardware systems on the Pocket through OpenFPGA plugins, as long as they don't exceed the complexity that the internal FPGA chips can model (topping out at around the 16-bit era, including some arcade machines like CPS-2). It does this quickly and accurately, and with relatively little fuss. I'm more suprised that it borrows some traditional emulation features for actual cartridges: since the Pocket runs its "virtual hardware" on an FPGA, it actually offers save states for physical media, which is frankly unhinged (but entirely welcome).

Permacomputing and modern ROMs

Uxn is a virtual machine designed by and for the Hundred Rabbits artist collective, a two-person team that lives on a boat. It's a stack-based graphical runtime with four colors, so more like a simplified assembly with SDL bindings than, say, a Forth. Like a lot of fantasy consoles, it runs "ROM" files even though there are obviously no actual read-only memory chips involved. In other words, there are a lot of aesthetic choices here.

This may seem like an unconnected topic, but Uxn was designed in conversation with gaming and its preservation. Hundred Rabbits had worked on iOS games and seen how they had a lifetime of about three years, between Apple's aggressive backwards incompatibility efforts and the complexity of the tech stack. They were inspired by the NES, as well as the history of game-specific virtual machines. Out of this World and the Z-machine, for example, are artifacts of an era where computing was so heterogenous that it made sense (even on limited, slow hardware) to run on a VM. This works: we have access to a vast library of text-based gaming history on modern platforms, because they were built from the start to be emulated.

There are two conceptual threads running through the design and community of Uxn. The first is permacomputing, shading into collapse computing: the idea that when we revert to an agrarian society, we'll still want to build and use computers based on leftover Z-80 or 6502 chips or something. This is, generously, nonsense. It's a prepper daydream for nerds, who imagine themselves as tech-priests of their local village.

The other thread is implementation-first computing, which comes out of the nautical experience of living with extremely limited connectivity. Devine Lu Linvega, the developer for Uxn, has a very good talk about the inspirations and thought process behind this. Living at sea, they can't rely on Stack Overflow to answer questions, and they certainly can't spare gigabytes of bandwidth to update your compiler or install dependencies. Whereas it takes about a week to write a Uxn interpreter, and from that point a person is basically self-sufficient and future-proof.

Most of us do not live on boats, or in a place where we can't get to MDN, so the emphasis on minimalism and self-implementation comes across as a little overdramatic. At the same time, I don't think it's entirely naive to see the appeal of Uxn as a contrast to the quicksand foundations of contemporary software design. I'm always tempted to be very smug about building for the web and browser compatibility, until I remind myself that every six months Safari breaks a significant feature like IndexedDB or media playback for millions of users.

In a very real sense, regardless of the abstract threads underpinning the philosophy of Uxn, what it really means is choosing a baseline where things are "good enough" and sticking with them — both in terms of the platform itself, but also the software it runs. It trades efficiency for resiliency, which is something you maybe can't fully appreciate until you've had cloud software fall over in transferring data between applications or generating backups.

The end of history

In addition to old GBA carts, this month I also started replaying Halo Infinite, a game that I think is generally underrated. It was panned by hardcore fans for a number of botched rollout decisions, but none of those matter much to me because the only thing I really wanted out of Halo is "a whole game that's made out of Silent Cartographer" and that's largely what Infinite delivers.

Unfortunately, sometime between launch and today, Microsoft decided that single-player Halo was not a corporate priority. So now the game starts in a dedicated multiplayer mode, and you have to wait for all that to load in before you can click a button and have the executable literally restart with different data. There's some trickery that it does to retain some shared memory, so the delay isn't as bad the second time, but I haven't been able to discover a flag or environment variable that will cause it to just start in single-player directly. It's a real pain.

I think about this a lot in the context of the modern software lifecycle, and I hate it. I don't think this is just me getting older, either. Every time my phone gets an OS upgrade, I know something is going to break or get moved around — or worse, it's going to have AI crammed into it somewhere, which will be A) annoying and B) a huge privacy violation waiting to happen. Eventually I just know I'm going to end up on Linux solely because it's the only place where a venture capitalist can't force an LLM to monitor all my keystrokes.

In other words, the read-only nature of old hardware isn't just a charming artifact. It ends up being what makes the retro experience possible at all. The cartridge (or ROM) is the bits that shipped, nothing more and nothing less. I'm never going to plug in Link's Awakening and find that it's now running a time-limited cross-promotion with a movie franchise, or that it's no longer compatible with the updated OS on my device, or that it won't start because it can't talk to a central server. It'll never get better, or worse. That's nostalgia, but it's also sadly the best I can hope for in tech these days.

December 27, 2022

Filed under: gaming»impressions

2022, Mediated: Games

This year, I kept a log in a spreadsheet of the media I took in: books I read, movies I watched, and games I played. As 2022 wraps up, I want to take a moment and look back. I don't do this kind of record-keeping every year — it has the downside of making enjoyment into homework of a kind — but it can be an interesting view into something that might otherwise blur together.

I'm going to start with games, because they're the longest experience of the three. As a result, while I only wrote down books and movies if I finished them (or came very close), I wrote down games when I started them. I was more likely to abandon a game if it turned out I wasn't actually having a good time, and while I may add some titles to my book and movie lists before January 1, I feel pretty confident that I can write now about the shape of the year with relative accuracy.

At the time of this writing, I played about 90 games in 2022. That sounds like a lot, but I finished less than half of them (a metric that's complicated by "evergreen" games like Devil Daggers or roguelike games like Atomicrops or Risk of Rain 2. A number of these were also short, or I just dipped into them and then dipped back out: Landlord of the Woods is about 45 minutes long, and I loaded Rez Infinite up just long enough to run through the new levels again on a whim. I'd estimate half of them were actually serious time investments.

Roughly two-thirds of what I played was new to me, although rarely new releases. However, there's a fun correlation here: I actually completed 2/3 of games I replayed, while those proportions are reversed for new games. I suspect this is because I was more likely to get back into something that I already knew I enjoyed, whereas a lot of the new titles are "browsing": trying out GBA games that I missed during the console's lifetime, wandering through my Steam back catalog, or impulse purchases during sales.

The Year of Souls

In retrospect, soulslikes loomed prominently over my habits this year (as, indeed, they've become pretty influential across the industry). It started in January, when I replayed Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game that I thought was fine in 2019 and grew to strongly appreciate through a second run.

High off the Sekiro experience, I tried Bloodborne again, and I also gave Dark Souls Remastered a sustained attempt. In both cases, I got through a significant portion of the game (up to Vicar Amelia in the former, and most of Anor Londo in the latter) before admitting that while I am sure I could get farther, I just wasn't having fun. I just don't think these games are very good, personally — they feel sluggish (the parries in both are trash), and Dark Souls in particular has not aged well visually, with a real "asset pack" AA-budget vibe to it.

Unfortunately, what I've realized is that the stuff I really like about Sekiro — its mechanical purity, responsive combat with (limited) action cancels, an explicit narrative — are mostly outliers in Fromsoft's catalog. Simultaneously, the things that I find infuriating, like its befuddling and opaque quest chains or cheap encounter design, are in fact the aspects that draw in their most devoted fans.

Still, many of my favorite titles this year were non-Fromsoft soulslikes. The Surge 2 tries a high-risk-high-reward mechanic for parries that's initially frustrating but ultimately feels rewarding to master. Remnant: From the Ashes is a semi-procedural shooter with some great environment design. Tunic is playing more in the adventure space, but there are elements there in its combat and narrative design that are clearly evoking Miyazaki.

There were also some missteps. Ashen is probably the closest to a Fromsoft game (and has at least one dungeon that almost drove me away) but the art direction and writing kept me interested, as each victory builds out your hometown. Darksiders III is a cash grab in a franchise whose brawler roots don't mesh particularly well with punishing checkpoints, but it managed to eke out a few last drops of charm. Neither of these was bad enough to stop playing, but I also can't see myself revisiting them, or recommending either to other people.

(From last year, but also illuminating: Jedi: Fallen Order is blatantly pulling from Sekiro for its lightsaber combat (no complaints here), and its late-game character reveal had me cackling. Death's Door was in many ways a precursor to Tunic, with its Metroidvania progression and isometric combat, and I would argue it's a better game even if it doesn't have the latter's clever manual gimmick.)

As a genre experiment, this year was clarifying. I think I've got a better grasp now on what works for me, and what doesn't. I also feel freshly inoculated against, for example, Elden Ring, which should save me the frustration of playing 30% of a 120-hour game. We'll see whether that lasts.

Other noteworthies, in chronological order

Don't be too put off by the weird, swollen art style of Atomicrops. The underlying combination of light farming sim and bullet-hell twinstick shooter ate up a lot of hours in January. I played it on Switch, and while it's beatable (and fun) there it also feels like it wasn't optimized for the platform — the final boss turns into a slideshow. I'd recommend it, but probably on PC.

Halo Infinite took a lot of criticism for effectively being "what if we made the whole game out of Silent Cartographer," and parts of it do wear thin when it turns into an Ubisoft Map Game. But as the Master Chief Collection rolled the games out on PC, I'd played through all of them fairly recently, and I think you could do a lot worse than an entire game made out of Silent Cartographer (you could, for example, play Halo 4). I would argue this is the game they've been aiming toward for two decades.

I'm as surprised as anyone that in 2022 there would be a game that is A) based on a Marvel property, B) specifically Guardians of the Galaxy, and C) actually pretty good. Eidos Montreal's 2021 title is chatty, irreverent, and pulls a lot of the touchstones of the James Gunn films (a non-stop commentary from the team, Quill's tape deck, the Bautista take on Drax) while ditching their more obnoxious tics (some needlessly fatphobic humor, Chris Pratt). I think the combat does often feel weightless — my advice is to set it to easy so you can get through it faster and get back to the writing and performances.

Immortality is one of those games that's going to have a big influence conceptually but not mechically. It's an FMV title where you're essentially handed a big box of isolated clips from the career of a b-movie actress, roughly grouped into three films: a giallo-style religious tale, a noir in the style of Basic Instinct, and an extremely 90's thriller that wouldn't be out of place on the Lifetime Movie Network. As you scrub through and build connections between the clips (linked by clicking on objects in a paused frame), a second, more sinister narrative emerges. As a film buff, this felt like it was aimed right at me, and while it can drag a bit when you find yourself hunting the last few segments, I think it achieves exactly what it set out to do.

Off the Hook

Finally, I don't think I can wrap up without mentioning Splatoon 3, a game that was only released in September and probably has more hours in it than anything else I've played. I was S+ rank in Splatoon 2, meaning fairly high-level but not elite (I believe the rank roughly translates into the lower end of the top 10% of players). So I was really looking forward to this.

In design, Splatoon 3 is pure Nintendo. It feels good play, with varied weapons and precise motion controls. It's brightly colored and fashionable, and has a non-toxic and notoriously LGBT-friendly community with lots of in-game creativity on display. The game's lore is weird and surprisingly grim. Taking team shooter concepts like map control/movement and translating them into literal painted areas is brilliant. Also, the soundtrack is fantastic.

The other classic Nintendo move is the networking stack, which is one of the most atrocious technical foundations for a multiplayer game that I've ever seen. It's barely dysfunctional: connections drop regularly, which completely cancels matches and counts as a loss for the disconnecting player, and the matchmaking is laughably bad in the regular ranked mode. It's a tribute to how good everything else is that it can be addictive despite a glaring central flaw.

Splatoon 3 adds a bunch of things that are different from its predecessor, but not always better. For example, the end game poses are no longer gendered and the clothing options are massively more flexible, but to work around that they've added a "catalog" season pass system that unlocks new ending poses or nametags as you play. Since players need to show those off, the game now only shows the winners at the end of the match, which means they cut the adorable tantrum/sulk animations and the more distinctive music after a loss. I do miss it, even while I do enjoy the new variety (and the vastly improved lobby area).

Gripes aside, at the end of the day, if you want a Splatoon experience (and I do), this is where you have to go for it. Nobody else makes anything like this. There's no "splatoonlike" genre, as inconceivable as that seems. It's Nintendo's way or the highway.

There was a lot of noise in 2022 about how the Switch hardware is aging. This isn't wrong! The Tegra chip that the console is based on was not really cutting-edge when it launched, and it's certainly not competing with other consoles — or even phones — at this point. Even so, the Switch is probably at least 50% of my gaming time, and although I have a PS4 hooked up to the same TV, it's almost always used as a DVD player instead.

If you think back to the PS3/360 era, there was a lot of noise made about the first real "HD" consoles. This was, to be fair, a real shift, one that meant games looked sharper but were also radically more expensive. But there were also changes in the kinds of games that became possible at that level of power. This is the time when we first started seeing open-world games like Assassin's Creed or Oblivion, which were not only very big, but also had bustling populations of NPCs and emergent behavior. There's a real case here of new kinds of game design being unlocked by the new generation of hardware.

In the Switch's case, these are often the same kinds of games that it struggles to run at full fidelity (Breath of the Wild excepted, and even there, it's a full world but not a busy one). But when the developer takes more control over the camera or the gameplay, it can return really good results. And in some cases, it can be pretty incredible — the Neir Automata port this year is certainly not as detailed as it is on a PC, but it's shockingly good.

It may be that there are some designs that are unlocked by the PS5/XB1 consoles, just as the open-world genre only really hit its stride a couple of generations back. But it's not clear to me what those are, and in the meantime, I do kind of wish the treadmill would slow down a little. Obviously there's an incentive for them, but Splatoon is a reminder that the Switch can be plenty compelling when developers target the hardware they have, and not what they wish they had.

January 25, 2021

Filed under: gaming»software

Perfect n+1

Everybody says that Paradise Killer is tough to explain, but it's actually quite simple:

  • It's a detective game in the vein of Phoenix Wright, wherein
  • You play as Lady Love Dies, an immortal cultist and detective-slash-"investigation freak"
  • Who was exiled from the series of artificial utopias designed by her fellow immortal cultists
  • (in an aesthetic somewhere between "Zapp 'n Roger album" and "Windows 95 Plus Pack screensaver")
  • To revive their dead and entombed gods via ritual sacrifice at the island's peak
  • Except this time, someone killed the ringleaders before they completed the ceremony
  • And it's LLD's job to find out who and why, and then execute the perpetrators in the name of "justice."
Practically Death of a Salesman, really.

A couple months after finishing it, it dawned on me that one of the interesting things about the game, for as much lore as it packs in (and it is just stuffed with flavor text), is how little it's interested in redeeming its characters. After all, everyone involved (including the protagonist) has been kidnapping and killing ordinary people for millenia in religious rituals that they don't even really seem to like very much. They're monsters, but in the most self-serving, "it's a living" kind of way.

You can (and plenty of people have) read all of this as a metaphor for late-stage capitalism. Especially as we're re-opening for the third wave of COVID-19 because The Economy Must Grow, it's hard not to see the comparison to an upper class that joylessly and incompetently tosses people onto the pyre if it'll increment GDP by a percentage point or two. But I'm less interested in the political implications than I am in how this plays against modern redemption stories.

I suspect that game narrative is often a lot closer to classic television writing than it is to movies. Part of it is the length of the experience, but some of it also has to do with the ways interactive fiction has evolved, particularly in open-world games. Ashley Burch mentions this in an interview on Kotaku about her voice career, noting that once the player has control over the order and timing of activities, it puts limits on the amount of change that a character can believably accomodate — naive and hopeful voice lines in an early quest will seem wildly out of place if the protagonist has spent 40 hours becoming gradually more embittered, and vice versa. The result is that the writing has to have a central core that's largely unchangeable, much in the way that episodic TV used to reset at the end of every show.

For TV, arc-based narratives changed that. Once there are consequences across multiple episodes, and the longer you spend with a character (especially in genre fiction), the more tempting it is to find an excuse or rationale for their actions. Jaime Lannister isn't necessarily evil, he's led astray by his sister. Darth Vader is made a monster by the Emperor, and we'll see how it happened across six movies before George Lucas washes his hands of the whole thing. These kinds of heel-face turns are classic drama, they give actors and writers a lot to chew on, and they are often comforting to the audience, since they serve to reinforce our moral compass.

In contrast, Paradise Killer's cast isn't interested in rehashing their crimes, and so the game just... doesn't do it. It's not unaware — side characters, especially outsiders, will mention how inhuman the whole thing is — but it would be wildly out of character for someone like Lady Love Dies to have a change of heart and deliver a lengthy monologue about the terrible unfairness of it all. She's at the top of the heirarchy and she got there by committing awful, banal atrocities — the kind that aren't fun for an "investigation freak" to dig into. This game is not going to help reassure you that the evil-doers just need to come to their senses. In fact, it argues that they already have.

September 7, 2020

Filed under: gaming»software»sekiro

Live Die Repeat

In a burst of cherry blossoms, the blog is resurrected!

(It's a Sekiro joke. That's what the post is about.)

There are certain models that have become ubiquitous in AAA game design over the last five years, inspired by MMOs: randomized gear (both from enemy drops and loot boxes), player and enemy level progression, and crafting. In "live" games like Destiny, these gameplay loops are meant to keep the game sticky, making sure there's always a goal just out of reach. But they've become common in single-player games as well, a way to extend the length of campaigns that are increasingly expensive in an era of HD assets.

I generally find this off-putting, and I suspect many of the designers do as well. In Control, for example, grafting a loot system onto one of Remedy's quirky, cinematic stories feels extraneous, and the game seems well aware of that fact — the ubiquitous shelters containing exactly one (1) loot box could not possibly be more desultory and half-hearted compared to the exuberant weirdness of Dr. Casper Darling's musical stylings.

All of this provides context for my extremely mixed feelings about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It's the first From Software "souls-like" title that I played to completion, and it'll probably be the last. I don't know that I would recommend it to anyone. But in its purity and its rejection of the "live game" grind, there is also something admirable that sticks with me.

The core mechanic in Sekiro is the relationship between two meters, vitality and posture, possessed by every combat entity in the game, including the player character (the Wolf). Vitality is basically a standard health bar. Posture is similar to a fighting game's guard meter: it increases as a character defends against attacks or when an attack is parried with perfect timing, and when it maxes out, the guard is broken. In the player's case, this leaves you open to attacks, but for enemies it means you can land an instant-kill "deathblow." Even still, vitality isn't useless since posture recovery speed is directly related to health.

Different enemies have different thresholds for their posture and vitality, and the interplay between these two meters is what makes Sekiro's combat interesting and aggressive. Since timed parries inflict extra posture damage (and reduce the posture you'd normally take from defending), many battles revolve around punishing enemy attacks to bring down vitality and slow posture recovery, then baiting counter-attacks strings in order to break posture and land a deathblow. At its best, it feels like a great samurai battle: fast, dynamic, and deadly.

The problem, honestly, is that it's too deadly. To win a fight in Sekiro, you need to learn an enemy's attack patterns well enough that you can parry or dodge them, a task that's made more complicated in fights where a mid-string parry may change the pattern. But mistakes are incredibly punishing: it's not unusual for many bosses to kill the Wolf in two or three hits, and a surprising percentage of them are one-shots. Realistically, you're only going to learn one or two patterns per run before you get to stare at the loading screen and start over.

And that deadliness only really goes one way. Yes, the deathblow is an instant kill — but only after you slowly tick down the target's vitality and then engage in risky exchanges of posture damage. Compare this to Bushido Blade, an obvious inspiration but one where everyone (player and opponent alike) could die in an instant. In Sekiro, you might as well be fighting with a butter knife compared to everyone else. I wouldn't mind the perfectionism so much if it felt like I got more impact out of it.

From Software is known for games where growth comes from player skill, and not from a mechanic or in-game reward. They're also known for masochism and cheap shot tactics. Sekiro feels like the purest expression of both. The result is an experience that I respected more than I enjoyed it. For all that it's thrilling when everything clicks, those moments are punctuation in long stretches of frustration — running the same route over and over, getting just a little bit farther before a lucky shot or a botched parry sends you back to the checkpoint.

This is, of course, part of the appeal for long-term Souls aficionados: your brain remembers the highs, and tends to ignore the long valleys of frustration between them. It's not for me. But I appreciate what it's trying to do, and the pressure it hopefully exerts on modern design. There is a middle ground between loot boxes and "get good," and maybe with HD development becoming increasingly unsustainable, the AAA industry will finally find it.

November 10, 2018

Filed under: gaming»design»aaa

Loot Pack

If you wanted to look at the general direction of AAA game development, you could do worse than God of War and Horizon: Zero Dawn (concidentally, of course, the last two titles I finished on my usually-neglected PS4). They're both big-budget tentpole releases, with all the usual caveats that come with it: graphically rich and ridiculously detailed, including high-priced voice/acting talent, but not particularly innovative in terms of gameplay. But even within this space, it's interesting to see the ways they diverge — and the maybe-depressing tricks they share.

Of the two, Horizon (or, as Belle dubbed it for some reason, Halo: Dark Thirty) is the better game. In many ways, it's built on a simplified version of the A-life principles that powered Stalker and its sequels: creating interesting encounters by placing varied opponents in open, complex environments. The landscape is gorgeous and immense, with procedurally-generated vegetation and wildlife across a wide variety of terrain with a full day-night cycle. It's pretty and dynamic enough that you don't tend to notice how none of the robotic creatures you're fighting really pay attention to each other apart from warning about your presence — you can brainwash the odd critter into fighting on your side with a special skill, but otherwise almost everything on the map is gunning for you and you alone.

In fact, Horizon's reliance on procedural generation and systems is both its strong suit and its weak point. It's hard to imagine hand-crafting a game this big (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding), but there's a huge gulf between filling a landscape according to a set of gameplay rules and depicting realistic human behavior. One-on-one conversations and the camera work around them are shockingly clumsy compared to the actual (pretty good!) voice work or the canned animation sections. Most of the time, during these scenes, I was just pressing a button to get back to mutilating robot dinosaurs. But you can see where the money went in Horizon: lots for well-rendered undergrowth, not so much for staying out of the uncanny valley.

By contrast, God of War is really interested in its characters, as close-up as possible. The actual game is not good — the combat is cramped and difficult to read, ironically because of its love affair with a single-take camera (which is kind of a weirdly pointless gimmick in a video game — almost every FPS since Half-Life is already a single-take shot). It's small and short by comparison to open-world games, with its level hand-crafted around a linear story. I was shocked at how quickly it wrapped up.

But there's no awkward "crouching-animation followed by two-shot conversation tree" here: it may be a six-hour storyline, but it's beautifully motion-captured and animated. When Jeremy Davies is on-screen as Baldur, it's recognizably Jeremy Davies — not just in the facial resemblance, but in the way he moves and the little ticks he throws in. There's maybe five characters to speak of in the whole thing, but they come through as real performances (Sindri, the dwarven blacksmith with severe neat-freak tendencies, is one of my favorites). In retrospect, I may wish I had just watched a story supercut on YouTube, but there's no doubt that it's an expensive, expressive production.

Where both games share mechanics, unfortunately, is a common trick in AAA design these days: crafting and loot systems. Combat yields random, color-coded rewards similar to an MMO, and those rewards are then used alongside some sort of currency to unlock features, skills, or equipment. It extends the gameplay by putting your progress behind a certain number of hours grinding through the combat loops, as this is cheaper than actually creating new content at the level of richness and detail that HD games demand.

If your combat is boring (God of War), this begins to feel like punishment, especially if it's not particularly well-signposted that some enemies are just beyond your reach early in the game. It bothered me less in Horizon, where I actually enjoyed the core mechanical loop, but even there playability suffered: the most interesting parts of the game involve using a full set of equipment to manipulate encounters (or recover when they go wrong), but most of that toolkit is locked behind the crafting system to start. Instead of giving players more options and asking them to develop a versatile skillset from the start, it's just overwhelmingly lethal to them for the first third of its overall length (a common problem — it's tough to create a good skill gate when so much of the game is randomized).

Ironically, while AAA games have gone toward opaque, grind-heavy loot systems, indies these days have swung more toward roguelikes and Metroidvanias: intentionally lethal designs that marry a high skill ceiling with a very clear unlock progression. It may be a far cry from Nintendo's meticulous four-step teaching structure, but since indie developers aren't occupied with filling endless square miles of hand-crafted landscape, they've sidestepped the loot drop trap. Will the big titles learn from that, or from the "loot-lite" system that underlies Breath of the Wild's breakable weapons? I hope so. But the economics of HD assets seem hard to argue with, barring some kind of deeply disruptive new trend.

January 30, 2018

Filed under: gaming»software»splatoon

Spilled Ink

I took a risk on Splatoon 2. Multiplayer shooters are not, generally, something I enjoy, and I'd never played the first game. Also, it's a weird concept: squid paintball? This is Nintendo's new franchise?

It turns out, yes, Splatoon is pretty great. It hits that sweet spot between the neon pop aesthetics of Jet Set Radio and the swift lethality of Quake 3, like a golden-age Dreamcast game decanted onto modern hardware (thankfully, without Sega's torture controller). And yet I'm surprised that there doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion of the game's central design mechanic, which is odd (but maybe common now that streaming has taken over from blogging).

Splatoon is not technically a first-person shooter, but it plays much like one. A typical FPS is about navigation and control of space, although the precise application of this depends on a number of other design decisions: switching from respawning power-ups to hero abilities, for example, emphasizes strategic position over an optimal path. Regardless, like many video games, play is less about the literal violence onscreen and more about range, line of sight, and predicting (or manipulating) the opponent's movement. You very much see this in the 2016 Doom reboot, where monster speed is actually quite low, and all the mechanics encourage players to rapidly pinball from one to the next in a chain of glory kills.

What Splatoon does is take all this implicit negotiation over space and make it explicit, by letting players alter the "distance" of the map with ink. All weapons in the game inflict damage, but they also paint the floor and walls with your team's color. Areas belonging to the other team damage you and slow down movement, while you can get a speed boost in your own color by swimming through the ink with the left trigger. In the primary game mode, you don't win by damaging the other team, although that helps. Instead, the winning team is the one that covered more of the stage floor when the timer sounds.

The paint mechanic is simple, but a lot of really interesting strategy falls out of it:

  • Offense needs to balance broad territory coverage (slow, but stable) against aggressive movement on a narrow path (faster, but easier to cut off).
  • This balance shifts throughout the match, especially since narrow paths don't establish a defensive bulwark to slow down the other team.
  • Inking the walls is the best way to get height on a map, but doesn't count for points at the end of a match.
  • Spraying around a player to slow them down makes them easier to target. Likewise, creating an oblique path and dashing down it is a fast (but risky) way to alter range.
  • Swimming through ink refills your ammo faster than staying still. Covering new territory boosts the special meter, but you're vulnerable during most specials. Between the two, you're incentivized to constantly alternate between moving forward and dashing back.

Since players are effectively redefining space within the geometry of the level itself, and because its weapons are still aggressively short-ranged, Splatoon levels are less like the sprawling expanse of a map from Team Fortress 2 (I suspect the most of them would fit neatly in the gap between that game's historic two forts) and more like Gears of War combat bowls. They're relatively open, with long lines of sight and maybe a few chokepoints to force the teams to interact. The question isn't whether you can find the other players, because you almost certainly can. It's whether you can reach them, and what paths you'll take (or create) to get there.

This leads to one of my favorite moments in the game, at the end of the match, when the screen displays a top-down view of the paint-covered map. It pauses there for a moment to build suspense while you eyeball this Pollock-esque splatter and try to figure out which color covers more area, then a pair of tuxedo cats (don't ask) award the game to "good guys" or "bad guys" (your team is always the "good guys"). But beyond the raw score, you can see the history of the game written on that map: this is the place someone got behind our line and painted over one of the less-traveled nooks, that is the stippling of the ink storm we fired off to clear out that sniper position, and over there is the truncated brush stroke where I was chasing someone with the paint roller when the buzzer sounded.

It's been suggested that building a shooter around an oddball mechanic like this is very typical Nintendo: just as they have built consistently profitable business around novel use of less capable (read: cheaper) graphics hardware, they carve out a niche within genres by refusing to compete directly with the standard design conventions. If you want a Halo-like, you have plenty of choices. There are few other terrain-painting shooters to compare (favorably or otherwise) with Splatoon. The closest I could imagine was Magic Carpet — and that's a wildly different game from more than two decades back.

But while this is to some extent true, none of that matters if you can't execute, and Nintendo is very good at execution. The paint mechanic at the core of Splatoon is interesting at a macro strategy level, but what actually makes it successful is that it feels great. Painting every possible surface for your team is a really satisfying thing to do. The art design is bold and colorful (as it would have to be). The music is great, and syncs up perfectly with the timer in the last minute of each match.

This has been a rough year, and the trend isn't upward. Splatoon has, to some extent, become my pomodoro exercise for anxiety: alterating a three-minute round of neon vandalism with a couple minutes checking RSS feeds for our impending doom while the lobby fills back up. The in-game experience is relentlessly upbeat and cheering — even while, apparently, the background fiction is a dark post-apocalyptic story about climate change. Welcome to 2018: even my coping strategies are terrifying.

December 13, 2016

Filed under: gaming»design

Guns and glory

If you'd told me a few years ago that my favorite shooters in 2016 would be reboots of Doom and Wolf3D, I'd probably have been surprised, or depressed, or both. Surprised, because both of them were very much games of their time, and it would seem impossible to recreate their peculiar arcade-oriented chemistry now. Depressed, because I probably would have seen it as a part of the stagnation of the shooter genre, with which I have a love-hate relationship.

But it's true: after I upgraded my graphics card as a birthday gift to myself, I've been going back and replaying a bunch of FPS games (for better or worse, they're the graphical showcases in my Steam library), and the two standouts have been DOOM and Wolfenstein: The New Order. I'm as shocked as anyone! They're both excellent revivals of old id Software franchises, and part of what's so interesting about them is that they're excellent in such completely different ways.

Of the two, The New Order (and its prequel mini-expansion, The Old Blood), have a heavier lift: although it's vaguely connected to the 2001/2009 games, most people are only aware of the original, which was (despite mind-blowing graphics for its time) two-dimensional in both gameplay and character. They weren't great games even back then, and they haven't aged particularly well (TNO includes "nightmare" remakes of the 286 levels, in case you forgot how tedious and confusing Wolf3D could be).

The team behind TNO is the same group that made Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness at Starbreeze, both of which took ridiculous licensed properties and stretched them past both the source material and the Steam category: Riddick asks players to engineer multiple prison-breaks with not much more than a knife, a black-market night-vision mode, and a lot of Vin Diesel dialog. Half of The Darkness is shooting light bulbs! The shape and flow of a Starbreeze game could be odd — linear chunks connecting free-form adventure hubs — but they were almost always as interesting in the downtime as they were in the action sequences.

By virtue (such as it is) of this being a Wolfenstein game, going too far outside of "open door, shoot Nazis, repeat" was probably too much to ask. But The New Order does pack a surprising amount of pathos into what is otherwise a totally bonkers 1960's alternate history in which the Fourth Reich won the war via mad science. It tilts on the action side of things, but there's still definitely a Starbreeze flavor, if you liked their other titles. Parts of it are brilliantly cinematic, including a ten-year flash-forward sequence that separates the first and second acts.

And while the gameplay doesn't go full retro, it has elements of old-school flavor. There's no regenerating health system or trendy cover-hugging mechanics here, and the use button gets a workout. My favorite refinement is the commander system, where many of the battle setpieces will introduce one or two radio-equipped officers. If you're spotted, they'll call in reinforcements, so a good approach is to stealth-kill them before mopping up the troops. Or you can play the way I do: take out one officer and then charge the other with guns blazing, before they can stack the odds too far. That this is still a viable (and fun) strategy strikes a nice balance between players who want the stealth experience, and those (like me) who are mostly in it for the instant gratification.

DOOM has no such such balance, and does not suffer for it in the slightest. There is no clip reloading for any of the weapons, and the run speed is entirely unrealistic. Unlike most shooters since Halo, everything in DOOM is designed to encourage non-stop movement toward (and through) enemies. Which is a big part of the reason why, even though it changes from its predecessor in significant ways (mouselook, a jump key, lots of upgrades and collectibles), it still manages to feel like playing deathmatch in 1996.

The two primary mechanics for maintaining player momentum in the game are a fast mantle, which gives players the ability to very quickly ascend vertically, and the "glory kills," which reward players with a half second of invulnerability (during the animation) and a quick piƱata pop of health and ammo. There's no reward for staying still — in fact, like a bullet-hell shooter, players are immediately punished for remaining stationary. The goal is not to block or absorb damage, it's to avoid getting hit at all.

DOOM levels are primarily structured as a series of loosely-connected arenas, which also keeps the deathmatch feel: while hallways and platforms are used to set the mood and create checkpoints, the most intense gameplay is set in wide, 3-D spaces with multiple "circuits," just like the best Quake DM levels. Gears of War is also famous for "combat bowls" as a gameplay tool, but it strongly emphasized cover over movement, whereas DOOM almost never places waist-high walls to serve as partial cover (and they'd be useless in a game with lots of high vantage points anyway).

There's a moment at the very beginning of the game where your character, having ripped out of a set of shackles and punched through the initial set of undead, pulls up a video screen reading "DEMONIC INVASION IN PROGRESS." As mission statements go, this is pretty much DOOM in a nutshell: crank everything up to 11 and embrace the inherent, b-movie absurdity of the thing (a similar process took place music direction, which started with no guitars at all and ended up a metal shredfest).

All combined, the end result is about as pure a video game as you can get with a high-budget, AAA studio product in 2016. It's the interactive equivalent of a Fast and Furious movie: mixing comforting aesthetics (as far as the intended audience is concerned, at least) with the maximum amount of intense parallax motion. Nobody's going to mistake it for fine art — it has none of the thoughtful playfulness of, say, Dishonored — but not everything should be fine art. It's a great game.

July 14, 2016

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Emu Nation

It's hard to hear news of Nintendo creating a tiny, $60 NES package and not think of Frank Cifaldi's provocative GDC talk on emulation. Cifaldi, who works on game remastering and preservation (most recently on a Mega Man collection), covers a wide span of really interesting industry backstory, but his presentation is mostly infamous for the following quote:

The virtual console is nothing but emulations of Nintendo games. And in fact, if you were to download Super Mario Brothers on the Wii Virtual Console...

[shows a screenshot of two identical hex filedumps]

So on the left there is a ROM that I downloaded from a ROM site of Super Mario Brothers. It's the same file that's been there since... it's got a timestamp on it of 1996. On the right is Nintendo's Virtual Console version of Super Mario Brothers. I want you to pay particular attention to the hex values that I've highlighted here.

[the highlighted sections are identical]

That is what's called an iNES header. An iNES header is a header format developed by amateur software emulators in the 90's. What's that doing in a Nintendo product? I would posit that Nintendo downloaded Super Mario Brothers from the internet and sold it back to you.

As Cifaldi notes, while the industry has had a strong official anti-emulation stance for years, they've also turned emulation into a regular revenue stream for Nintendo in particular. In fact, Nintendo has used scaremongering about emulation to monopolize the market for any games that were published on its old consoles. In this case, the miniature NES coming to market in November is almost certainly running an emulator inside its little plastic casing. It's not so much that they're opposed to emulation, so much as they're opposed to emulation that they can't milk for cash.

To fully understand how demented this has become, consider the case of Yoshi's Island, which is one of the greatest platformers of the 16-bit era. I am terrible at platformers but I love this game so much that I've bought it at least three times: once in the Gameboy Advance port, once on the Virtual Console, and once as an actual SNES cartridge back when Belle and I lived in Arlington. Nintendo made money at least on two of those copies, at least. But now that we've sold our Wii, if I want to play Yoshi's Island again, even though I have owned three legitimate copies of the game I would still have to give Nintendo more money. Or I could grab a ROM and an emulator, which seems infinitely more likely.

By contrast, I recently bought a copy of Doom, because I'd never played through the second two episodes. It ran me about $5 on Steam, and consists of the original WAD files, the game executable, and a preconfigured version of DOSBox that hosts it. I immediately went and installed Chocolate Doom to run the game fullscreen with better sound support. If I want to play Doom on my phone, or on my Chromebook, or whatever, I won't have to buy it again. I'll just copy the WAD. And since I got it from Steam, I'll basically have a copy on any future computers, too.

(Episode 1 is definitely the best of the three, incidentally.)

Emulation is also at the core of the Internet Archive's groundbreaking work to preserve digital history. They've preserved thousands of games and pieces of software via browser ports of MAME, MESS, and DOSBox. That means I can load up a copy of Broderbund Print Shop and relive summer at my grandmother's house, if I want. But I can also pull up the Canon Cat, a legendary and extremely rare experiment from one of the original Macintosh UI designers, and see what a radically different kind of computing might look like. There's literally no other way I would ever get to experience that, other than emulating it.

The funny thing about demonizing emulation is that we're increasingly entering an era of digital entertainment that may be unpreservable with or without it. Modern games are updated over the network, plugged into remote servers, and (on mobile and new consoles) distributed through secured, mostly-inaccessible package managers on operating systems with no tradition of backward compatibility. It may be impossible, 20 years from now, to play a contemporary iOS or Android game, similar to the way that Blizzard themselves can't recreate a decade-old version of World of Warcraft.

By locking software up the way that Nintendo (and other game/device companies) have done, as a single-platform binary and not as a reusable data file, we're effectively removing them from history. Maybe in a lot of cases, that's fine — in his presentation, Cifaldi refers offhand to working on a mobile Sharknado tie-in that's no longer available, which is not exactly a loss for the ages. But at least some of it has to be worth preserving, in the same way even bad films can have lessons for directors and historians. The Canon Cat was not a great computer, but I can still learn from it.

I'm all for keeping Nintendo profitable. I like the idea that they're producing their own multi-cart NES reproduction, instead of leaving it to third-party pirates, if only because I expect their version will be slicker and better-engineered for the long haul. But the time has come to stop letting them simultaneously re-sell the same ROM to us in different formats, while insisting that emulation is solely the concern of pirates and thieves.

August 19, 2015

Filed under: gaming»design

Free Electron

When GitHub released Atom last year, there were a lot of people who thought the underlying technology — a web-based mashup of Chromium and NodeJS — was a terrible idea. They may yet be right, but Atom has gotten steadily better, to the point where I can recommend it to my students. Meanwhile, GitHub made the app runtime, Electron, available for hacking around, and it's becoming increasingly common (along with NW.js) as a way to build simple, network-savvy desktop applications.

While I'm hardly sympathetic to the people who complain about web-over-native, one complaint that does seem reasonable is the size of these applications. Electron takes up 113MB even before any user code gets loaded, and while that's not a huge footpint in today's world of terabyte hard drives, it may seem redundant when users probably already have a browser installed. If you run multiple Electron apps, they don't share runtimes, either.

That said, there is one genre of software that routinely ships its own dependencies this way, and nobody bats an eyelash: games. Looking at my Steam library, there's at least five titles there that run on Unreal Engine, each with its own copy of the engine and supporting libraries. And engines like Unreal or Unity are huge cross-platform monoliths these days, used by AAA studios and small teams alike. Many of these games probably embed a web browser anyway, since it's a great way to build UI. What if we flipped that around? Could Electron be a viable development platform for independent games?

I started thinking about this question earlier this year, after reading a post by Greg Tavares, one of the WebGL architects for Chrome. He points out that as platforms go, the browser is pretty good: features like GL are well-tested and reliable, JavaScript is a great rapid prototyping language, and cross-platform support is pretty decent. If your needs are relatively humble, or you're already well-versed in web development, why not use something like Electron, paired with Three.js or another framework as your "engine?"

I've been meaning to test out Electron anyway, so I spent some time tonight trying to answer that question. The result is You Don't Know Electron. It's a simple party-style trivia game, with a twist: instead of crowding around a keyboard or using controllers, players scan a QR code to use their phone as a "buzzer." Everything is in sync, so when the first person presses the correct answer, everyone else's device will switch to a "get ready for the next question" screen almost instantly.

Behind the scenes, the app opens up a native-looking window on the host computer for displaying questions and scores, but it also spawns a hybrid HTTP/WebSocket server for the mobile clients. The result is a little slapdash, but surprisingly responsive in practice. UI is all done through a super-simple Angular thin client, with most of the state living in the persistent Node server. And while the look of it isn't anything fancy, it's also only the result about about 3 hours of work — a little extra polish, and I legitimately think it could be a fun party game. Feel free to clone it and try for yourself.

If you know Node, Electron turns out to be an surprisingly pleasant development experience. I'm no indie game dev, but based on tonight's experiment, I'd seriously consider it if I wanted to start a new project. For casual games, WebGL (or even 2D canvas) and HTML are a solid foundation, especially since Electron's browser window is up-to-date with features like flexbox and web components. It's no Unity, but it is free and built on well-documented standards.

The fact that it's web-based under the hood opens up a whole range of exciting possibilities around little custom servers: phones or tablets could be used to show hidden information to each player (a hand of cards, personal inventory, secret messages, etc.), or additional computers could instantly turn a single player session into multiplayer. All with no installation friction: just connect to the host with a browser and start playing.

(In fact, I've had a long-standing idea for an asymmetric "virtual board game" of Alien vs. Nostromo crew that would work perfectly with this setup. If only I had the time...)

Meanwhile, we're seriously considering this at the Seattle Times as a way to package up our tools for newsroom users. We're not the first people to do it — NPR's Lunchbox bundles up some of their social tools — but since our workflow is almost entirely Node-based, we're in a much better place to take advantage of everything Electron can do (NPR basically just bundles the static output of their Flask apps). Don't be surprised if you see more Electron-based tooling news from us in the future!

August 7, 2015

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Mess Affect

There's probably not a better modern space opera than the Mass Effect games, which is what makes its wildly incoherent plot all the more bizarre. Replaying the first title, it's hard to miss that the way that it eventually gets undercut by everything in the third. I can't decide which one looks better in hindsight — Mass Effect 1 is less ambitious (and not nearly as good mechanically), while 3 is ultimately lazier and, I think, more dishonest — but I think it does point out a really interesting problem in the way that Bioware builds their big, tentpole franchises.

Let's recap: in the first chapter, Commander Shepard (that's you) stumbles across a galactic double-agent named Saren while on a rescue mission, and is given carte blanche to hunt the traitor down. Eventually, it's revealed that Saren is working for a giant murderbot right out of central casting, and their plan is to open a gateway that lets all the other murderbots into this universe from whatever pocket dimension they've been hiding in. But surprise! the gateway is actually the ancient space station that galactic civilization picked as its center of government (living in Seattle after that New Yorker article, I know how they feel). Lots of stuff explodes.

By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, it would make sense for people to have thought, geez, maybe living on a massive, prehistoric portal to robot doom-town might not be a good idea. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. In fact, during the plot of the final game, not only are people still living on the Citadel, but Shepard finds out that it doubles as the power source for the super-weapon that will wipe out the bad guys. Handy! And by handy, I mean tremendously lazy in a narrative sense.

Truthfully, the overarching plot is the weakest parts of the Mass Effect franchise. The first game is too small to sell "epic scope" — when characters like Wrex die, they haven't been around long enough to feel important, or for many players to even realize they can be saved. The third spends too much time trying to wrap up plot threads instead of actually telling a story.

By contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a heist flick. The beginning is nonsense, as is the ending (the less said about the giant glowing skeleton boss, the better), partly because those are the pieces that connnect to the other storylines. But the middle 95% of the game is brilliant, because it mostly tosses the Reapers and their Robot Death Party out the window. Instead, you wander from planet to planet, assembling your crew and settling their debts so they can join you in the final mission. It's in these smaller stories that the writers can actually explore the universe they've built, with all its weird little corners and rivalries.

At some point, it starts to feel like the quest for spectacle is not helping Mass Effect, or Bioware games, or games in general, in much the same way that the "huge crashing object" finale is the worst part of our society's superhero movie infestation. Maybe it's a broken record to say that we need more AAA games that are more about character and less about saving the city, country, world, or galaxy. It's still true, though, and the best evidence for it is the games themselves.

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