Gaming on a Timer

On the Clock: Thirty-Minute Gamer, Relaunched!

In this bi-weekly column, we’ll be taking a look at some of the games I’ve been playing, on a limited time budget. Short cell phone games played over a half-hour lunch break? Longer, more “core” experiences played over several sessions in the weekend? Anything and everything in between? Let’s talk about them all! This forthnight, I watered some crops, fought some eldritch abominations hell-bent on destroying humanity and…. force-fed a fish?

I recently came to the realization that free time is something that should be managed carefully, especially when it’s in such short supply. This was brought on, in part, by my recent return to “regular” streaming (for now, Tuesday evenings and a weekend evening, family obligations permitting), as it gave me a handy point of reference around which to structure a gaming schedule, so to speak.

As a result, the last couple of weeks have been… interesting, in regards to the games I’ve been playing.

For the sake of brevity, I’m only going to be discussing my most played games of the last couple weeks – leaving out any titles that I feel I haven’t played enough to comment upon. Therefore, honorable mentions go to Persona 5 (which I’m loving so far, even if it’s going to take forever to finish), Bayonetta (the PC re-release, for streaming purposes, also a very fun spectacle game) and Dead Cells (which I feel merits a post of its own, possibly under the “A Rogue’s Journals” heading).

So, to begin with, the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing an old favorite of mine, the cult horror game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Initially I played it as part of a throwback stream, but soon that changed into playing both on- and off-stream, mainly because it’s just that damn good.

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A skeletal hand holding an eldritch tome? Doesn’t seem too dangerous…

For those unfamiliar with the game, Eternal Darkness came out in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, as far as I remember to critical acclaim. At its core, it’s a 3rd-person survival horror game, with controls and presentation being reminiscent of the first few Resident Evil games – featuring levels with mostly fixed camera angles, an awkward combat system and an emphasis on resource management (although, contrary to Resident Evil, items are not quite as important in Eternal Darkness).

However, Eternal Darkness differs in a few key aspects; aside from certain superficial differences (combat being more melee-friendly, having the ability to use spells created via a simple “crafting” system, the ability to save anywhere as long as you are not in immediate danger), its biggest departure from the Resident Evil formula is its theme, story structure and – uniquely –  the way it takes advantage of its interactive medium to really mess with its audience.

Story-wise, the writers went with a more non-linear presentation; the game, taking heavy inspiration from the works of Lovecraft (most notably the Cthulhu mythos), alternates between present-day segments starring the game’s protagonist Alexandra Roivas and chapter-long flashbacks that go from as far back as the Middle Ages to as modern as the Gulf War era. These chapters star Alex’s ancestors and certain other individuals that are closely involved in the game’s story and make up the bulk of the game’s story.

More importantly, while the game’s cast and time periods are numerous, the actual locations you visit are very limited – a cathedral in France, a temple complex in Cambodia, an underground tomb in the Persian deserts and the Roivas estate (a mansion, naturally) – but visited throughout different time periods. This, aside from being a clever way to save up on file sizes, affords the story both a feeling of continuity and an excellent way for the developers to exploit the player’s expectations for dramatic effect.

Indeed, throughout the game the player will revisit a location seen in previous chapters, only to discover that the passage of time (and the influence of the antagonist(s)) has changed things in subtle but significant ways. A door might be blocked by a cave-in in a further chapter, a small sanctum will have been expanded into a maze of tunnels, an underground chamber might have suffered from ground erosion  – it all adds up to create that nagging feeling at the back of your head that things aren’t quite as you expect them to be.

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Join the army, they said… See the world, they said… No one ever mentioned the ancient horrors, though.

Adding to the unease is the sanity system, where each character has a meter depicting their mental health; this sanity is often depleted by in-game events, such as being seen by enemies or witnessing a particularly disturbing vignette. When it drops to certain thresholds, the game’s insanity effects begin kicking in – at first something as mild as a statue’s head turning to track your character’s movements or a painting’s contents changing to become more disturbing.

Later on, the loss of sanity begins to affect the game in more profound ways – triggering effects such as a character exploding if they try to cast a spell or enemies growing to gigantic size when you enter a new room – only for the screen to fade to white and the character finding themselves back outside the room, gasping and whispering to themselves that “this can’t be happening!”.

Taken to its extreme, the game even begins to directly mess with the player – from warning screens emulating game crashes to a fake cliffhanger ending  followed by a trailer for a sequel, the game makes sure that the player is never once left at ease while playing.

Combined with the story’s structure, a distinct lack of jump-scares (saved for a few key moments rather than being used and abused constantly) and a generally good level of writing, I feel that Eternal Darkness is a true classic, one which demonstrates that horror can also be a cerebral, rather than a visceral, experience.

If you’re interested in seeing the game in action, you can find an archive of my previous streams here (series is ongoing, with one full playthrough already archived and two more to come).

In between Eternal Darkness sessions, I’ve also been… tending to a farm. Calling Stardew Valley a Harvest Moon clone feels a bit unfair, but is frankly on-point; the player, as the new owner of a dilapidated farm inherited from their grandfather, is tasked with restoring it back to its former glory, while trying to balance exploration, combat, farming and a social life.

Disclaimer: I’ve only played Stardew Valley for a handful of hours, which I suspect is not nearly enough to scratch the game’s surface; below opinions are based solely on the first 5 or so hours of the game so some of the things I mention may well change radically further into the game.

Stardew Valley should feel familiar to Harvest Moon veterans; all the staple systems are here – growing crops, tending to livestock, trying to be on good terms with your neighbors, the occasional wilderness exploration segment – complemented by a lightweight combat system that tasks the player with exploring a multi-level dungeon and fighting its denizens for a chance at gaining precious ore and metals (as well as other useful items).

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Just call me Farmer Gore…

So far, if I had to describe the game in one word, it would be “relaxing”. There’s an almost zen-like feeling to be had from following the day-to-day routine of farming, visiting the village, partaking in a few side activities (such as fishing, foraging or exploring) and repeating. Pretty soon I found myself subconsciously planning out fields according to crop type, slowly unwinding as I played the fishing mini-game, quietly relaxing as I settled into my new farming life.

I bet this is how cults get started.

Joking aside, there’s certainly a lot to like in Stardew Valley,  though it isn’t without its flaws; combat feels slightly forced upon the player initially, as it’s the main source of minerals with which to upgrade your tools and craft some of the more advanced farm facilities – I constantly kept wondering if there’s a less aggressive alternative to gathering said minerals, since combat directly clashed with the aforementioned feeling of relaxation.

Furthermore, while the game does a good job of teaching the player the basics (via a series of introductory quests), it feels as though a lot  of the more advanced functions go unexplained – for example, stuff like where to buy livestock or what produce you get from some of the more advanced structures (and yes, I am aware of the existence of wikis but it is a point in the game’s favor that I don’t want to be spoiled by out-of-game material).

What I find most interesting, though, is how good the game is for short gaming sessions; unlike Eternal Darkness, which is structured in chapters that might take upwards of an hour to complete, Stardew  Valley has its most prominent exit points occur every 5 to 20 minutes, depending on player actions (going to bed at the end of the in-game day); an ideal amount of time for those of us that are either unwilling or unable to devote longer periods of time during gaming.

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Oddly… specific there, Stardew Valley.

Coupled with its relaxation effect, the ability to have short play sessions should appeal to anyone gaming on a busy schedule, yours truly included.

Which brings me to the third game I’ve been playing these last couple of weeks, Magikarp Jump!. This is a cell phone game recently released by Nintendo, in which you are tasked with catching, training and eventually entering the titular Pokemon Magikarp (plural) into high-jump tournaments.

Magikarp Jump! feels very simple, both in presentation and mechanics. Gameplay revolves around your Magikarp’s Jump Points stat, which determines how high it can jump. Feeding it or putting it through training raises this JP up to a predetermined maximum limit (which in turn, is raised the further you progress in the game), with higher JP allowing you to advance further in the aforementioned high-jump tournaments.

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And now, for something completely different.

Jump! seems to have gotten a lot of inspiration from idle and/or clicker games, one of the more recent trends in gaming; in a nutshell, these are games that require little input from the player – and even then, it’s mostly limited to “housekeeping” actions such as purchasing available upgrades or deciding what statistics to raise, while the game does all the progressing by itself.

This is evident in the similar gameplay loop these games share with Magikarp Jump!; a cycle of starting fresh, raising stats as high as they’ll go, reset progress so that your next cycle can progress a bit further, rinse and repeat. In this case, once you’ve reached your ‘Karp’s maximum JP, you then retire it, receiving experience for it (which, at certain milestones, raises the maximum JP your next ‘Karp can reach) and start over with a new one.

Of course, there’s a few supporting systems as well; an achievement system with in-game rewards (mostly currency, which is used to upgrade your JP-earning capabilities), certain randomly-triggered vignettes that play out between events, some small degree of customization and a few other collectibles to keep track of, ancillary mechanics meant to fill in the gaps between training and competing in the tournaments. As fun little distractions, they work pretty well; both their length and occurrence rates feel fine-tuned to neither be incredibly rare nor outstay their welcome.

I’ve found that, ideally, Magikarp Jump! is best suited for short sessions, perhaps 10 or 20 minutes at a time – perfect for lunch breaks or during downtime – with just the right amount of engagement to be an enjoyable, if slightly forgettable, experience.

On a side note, I’m also impressed by how Nintendo integrated micro-transactions into the game; it’s all done in a way that feels respectful of their audience, with little touches like limiting the maximum lifetime amount of currency you can purchase to around $50’s worth, or the inclusion of easy-to-read, simple-to-understand warnings regarding purchases (no doubt aimed more at the younger parts of their demographic). It’s great to see a company of Nintendo’s magnitude setting a positive precedent here; I only hope that other companies take note and follow suit.

So there you have it; the games I’ve been playing on a tight schedule for the last couple weeks. Have you played any of the above-mentioned games? Got some recommendations to make? Feel free to leave a comment below!

 

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