Gaming on a Timer

On the Clock: Thirty-Minute Gamer, Summertime Edition!

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 distractions 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 fortnight, I escaped some rooms, tried doing sweet tricks with a skateboard and… mopped up some blood and entrails?

As with last time’s post, I’ll be skipping on a few of the games I’ve played in the last couple weeks, mainly due to either finding them too interesting (therefore warranting a blog post of their own at a later time) or not interesting enough. As such, honorable mentions go to Ziggurat, a clever if simplistic fusion of FPS and rogue-like mechanics with a medieval fantasy theme, Bioshock: Remastered, (which has been my go-to game for streaming alongside Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the last few weeks) and Her Story, which takes a very interesting approach to non-linear storytelling (and probably something I’d like to talk about in more detail in the near future).

This week, I’ll also be adding a few useful statistics for each game played, mainly to help out anyone that is thinking of picking up these games but isn’t sure of the time commitment they require. Any comments, criticism or thoughts on this addition are more than welcome in the comments section below!

Game: Zero Escape – The Nonary Games

Genre: Visual Novel/Puzzle

Mood: Mystery/Drama/Horror

Theme: Sci-fi

Average Session Length: 45 minutes to 1 hour per segment (depends on puzzle-solving skills and reading speed, can interrupt play at any point during game)

The first game that’s I’ve been spending time on these last couple of weeks is Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, a remastered compilation pack of 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (originally released on the Nintendo DS) and its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward (which initially saw concurrent releases for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita).

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Until The Nonary Games, I never thought it’d be this hard to not spoil something.

Mechanically, the Zero Escape games are a mixture of escape-the-room puzzle solving punctuated by lengthy visual novel sections. This constant change between story and puzzle segments works surprisingly well, both at establishing a good baseline for pacing and at providing frequent exit points to the player – something I find more and more valuable with my limited amount of free time.

Puzzles take the form of individual “rooms”, where a series of smaller riddles must be solved for the player to be able to escape. These are well-designed and sufficiently varied for each room to feel unique; aside from a disproportionate reliance on math-based puzzles (often requiring examining clues in different number bases, with the majority encountered in 999), the player can expect to experience everything from lateral thinking to sliding to mechanical puzzles during the course of both games.

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Still not a spoiler, promise!

Similarly, story segments (the visual novel part of the game) are well-written; barring a few minor plot holes I felt were inadequately addressed, both games in the compilation feature very good stories, primarily by building upon the supporting cast. Both games in the series feature an ensemble cast of nine individuals, covering a wide variety of archetypes, which are central to the plot.

Unfortunately, the above strengths of the games also make it hard to talk about while avoiding spoilers; I am finding it extremely hard to describe what makes the Nonary Games collection so good without inadvertently spoiling it for anyone reading. If you are interested in character-driven drama with certain science fiction elements and some really good puzzle design, I would highly recommend both The Nonary Games and their sequel, Zero Time Dilemma.

Game: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD

Genre: Sports (skateboarding)

Mood: Exhilaration/Exploration

Average Session Length: Around 2 minutes per run (career mode); free play option with no time limits available; certain optional modes between 1 and 3 minutes per run.

In between puzzle sessions, I’ve also been playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, the 2012 remake/mashup of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2. Impressions here were, sadly, not as good as the Zero Escape games; having been a fan of the Tony Hawk’s franchise back in it’s heyday, I found this newer offering to be a big disappointment.

Similar to the older games of the franchise, THPS HD takes place in a succession of enclosed, playground-like levels, tasking the player with completing a set number of objectives before being allowed to proceed to more varied and difficult levels. The levels in question are taken from the first two games in the series, with a slight emphasis on THPS 2 content and have the usual objectives – perform enough tricks to reach X score, locate certain collectibles, do specific tricks at specific areas of a level – on a two-minute time limit.

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Oddly prophetic trick name…

The foundation is, therefore, kept intact from earlier titles; players can have a lot of fun exploring each level, chaining tricks and trying to learn the best routes in each area for maximizing their points output – that is, when the game works properly. One of the biggest issues I’ve had is the seemingly-random appearance of glitches, mostly physics-related, which tend to mess up a successful run through a level.

Most prominent are clipping issues, with my skater often falling through the level geometry and off the map, especially when transitioning to flat surfaces from a jump. Further to that, a lot of the time the character will clip through rails (which you can grind on) during the initial grinding animation, which also seems to affect the skater’s speed (something that can mess up your routing – referred to in the game as a “line” – by causing you to overshoot/undershoot the surface, ramp or rail you are aiming for).

Even worse, these glitches serve to highlight the weird “respawn” mechanic that was implemented in THPS HD: in the older games, if your skater lost their balance and fell to the ground, there’d be a short animation where they’d stand up and keep going. Here, however, it has been replaced with a much lengthier, much more annoying fade-out/fade-in sequence in which the skater is placed back on whichever surface they initially were when they fell.

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Note the button prompts, also note that I had a controller plugged in at the time.

Aside from being visually off-putting, respawning doesn’t even seem to work properly, as in more than one occasion the game would return the skater to the very edge of whatever environmental hazard had caused my fall to begin with, setting up a vicious cycle of falling, respawning and falling again. In a game with a two-minute time limit, this is doubly aggravating.

Unfortunately, while these occasional problems would be easy to overlook in any other genre, in a game which requires efficiency, good timing and precision they only compound the problem further.

To add insult to injury, THPS HD also suffers from a plethora of other issues, such as button prompts defaulting to keyboard icons (with no provision for controller icons appearing at all), song select being mysteriously absent (which was a feature in the initial Tony Hawk games this version is based on) or that certain menu options (such as the Gap List, which provides a handy list of all the “special” jumps and gaps in a level) only being accessible if you’re not currently in a level. The list, sadly, goes on and on.

Which is a damn shame, because THPS HD would otherwise be great for short gaming sessions; the aforementioned two-minute limit provides ample exit points, while the modular structure of the levels means that you can hop in, get a few objectives done and put the game down without having to devote a lot of time to it, still getting a sense of progression and achievement.

Game: Viscera Cleanup Detail

Genre: First-Person/Physics Simulation

Mood: Comedy/Collectibles/Exploration

Average Session Length: Varies depending on player’s preferences; fully clearing a level (with 100% and above clean rating) takes anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hour 30 minutes; both manual and auto-save functions are provided at any point during a clean-up operation to break up an operation into multiple play sessions.

Finally, I’ve also been putting some time into Viscera Cleanup Detail. This game is… weird, but in a good way. The player takes the role of a “Space Janitor”, specialized in cleaning up the sites of disasters that are inspired by sci-fi staples, such as a laboratory where a bio-engineered plant got loose, or a space base in the aftermath of an alien invasion. The janitor is then tasked with cleaning up, most often by locating and scrubbing out blood stains, gathering and incinerating body parts and generally tidying up the levels.

Mechanically, the game is competently executed; as with most physics-based games, there are some minor annoyances, especially when attempting to move items that never seem to want to be moved. Thankfully, these issues are few and far between, leaving the player free to tidy up with impunity.

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Welp, time to tidy up…

The janitor is initially provided with only a few tools; a mop for cleaning up blood and residue, a scanner for locating problem areas and a clipboard that keeps track of your objectives in each level. These are complemented by a variety of in-site machines, such as an incinerator (for burning any body parts or other inconveniences they might come across) or a scissor lift (good for getting to those hard-to-reach stains and trash). Further into the game, more tools are unlocked, with a storage system used to ferry them between levels.

The objective here is, naturally, to clean up the mess. To this purpose, the game keeps track of everything the player has cleaned, with stuff as major as blood pools and body parts to trash as minor as a discarded soda bottle, being tracked separately and contributing to an overall completion ratio. If you are the kind of player that likes to explore areas and locating every single prop and item, this might be the game for you.

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Control? We’re gonna need a lot more bleach….

While I haven’t played much of Viscera Cleanup Detail, what I have seen is cleverly put together; each stain, each spent bullet casing, every body and prop, all are placed deliberately, with every location telling its own mini-narrative. Which is impressive in its own way, considering that the game is presented as a jokey parody of janitorial work.

The environmental storytelling is also extremely well-presented. As an example, let’s examine a scene presented in the game’s first level, Athena’s Wrath:

A couple of bodies, clad in military fatigues, are slumped against a wall. Bullet casings are strewn around their feet, with bullet holes peppered on the opposite wall where a weird green residue is splattered unevenly across its surface; evidence that these soldiers had fought in vain against the mysterious bio-engineered plant whose escape caused all this mess.

A crate nearby lies on its side, most likely having served as cover for the two unfortunate soldiers against the monstrosity before being toppled over in the ensuing attack; the edge of the crate is now soaked in the blood of the soldiers who, bereft of their cover, took one last, fatal hit.

A deep gash runs across the wall, where the soldiers were backed against, as the plant apparently slashed through both flesh and the metal surface behind in that final attack.

The above tableau conveys a lot of unspoken backstory, giving the place a sense of being, well, alive, in a way that most AAA productions fail to deliver consistently. The best thing? These are set up everywhere in each level, making it a joy to explore them and try to puzzle out what happened

In short, I feel that this game is a master-class (or at least, an excellent example) in environmental design and storytelling, which is even more impressive considering that the game never goes out of its way to draw attention to these visual vignettes.

Have you played the above-mentioned names? Found them fun? Crap beyond comparison? Somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Gotta Go Fast! – GDQ Fever 2017

GDQ, or Games Done Quick is – as the title implies – a bi-annual week-long event centered around speedrunning games (that is to say, completing them in the least amount of time possible). In recent years, both the summer and winter versions of this event – titled AGDQ and SGDQ (Awesome Games / Summer Games respectively) have exploded in popularity, with tens of thousands of viewers tuning in from all around the globe to watch streamers run their favorite games almost 24/7.

I’ve always found speedruns fascinating – to “run” a game requires a lot of practice and skill on the player’s side (the speedrunner, or runner for short) but, more importantly, it also demands an intimate knowledge of the game – break points, potential glitches, a very good understanding of level layouts and gameplay mechanics…

These are basically people that can break a game down and make it dance to their own tune. 100-hour long JRPG completed in under 3 hours? They did that. Old-time classics from your childhood destroyed in under 20 minutes? Ditto. Competing against other speedrunners in themed races to see who can complete a game the fastest? Done, done and done.

For me though, the best thing about GDQ isn’t the actual runs (since the event is planned around a strict timetable, the speedrunners tend to play it safer to avoid restarts or other unfavorable states, so “event runs” aren’t usually as flashy as their world-record-pace ones) but the amount of knowledge and insight there’s to be had by watching.

Nearly every runner is more than happy to explain the ins and outs of their game of choice, all the little breaking points they exploit to shave time off the clock, engine quirks and faults, the minute differences between movement types and which ones work best depending on the level in question. Coupled with “the couch”, where other runners provide commentary while each run is ongoing, there is a lot to learn here.

Even better, all this knowledge is eventually archived in the event’s YouTube channel, making it a great way to acquaint oneself with the concept of speedrunning in general.

Finally, as with my other favorite marathon streaming event, Desert Bus for Hope, Games Done Quick directly benefits certain charities; in SGDQ’s case, this year’s donations and bids go towards Medecins Sans Frontieres (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) so viewers can both benefit from the veritable treasure trove of knowledge and do good – something that the gaming community has time and again proved to be one of our most positive attributes.

It’s also worth noting that the previous event, Awesome Games Done Quick (Jan 2017), managed to raise over $2,000,000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

If you want to check out this year’s Summer Games Done Quick, you can head over to their Twitch channel, where the event is ongoing until the end of this week. Additionally, if you’re interested in a specific game, you can find a timetable here, adjusted for your local time.

What are your favorite games to watch being ran? Have you ever tried running a game yourself? Drop us a line in the comments below! And as they say… gotta go fast!

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!

 

On the Clock: 30 Minutes Gamer, November – December 2016

One of the unfortunate realities of updating a blog revolving around gaming on a time budget is that, sometimes, that budget runs out. Between end-of-year crunch and a series of pressing social obligations, my gaming time has dwindled to a bare minimum, which naturally means that I’ve run out of material to update the site with (at least consistently).

Thankfully, there are a few options that I’ve been checking out; mostly games that are designed with a good frequency of exit points. In specific, I’ve been playing a lot of id Software’s 2016 shooter DOOM, as well as managing to complete Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma whenever I could spare 20-40 minutes.

For a good summary on what exit points are, I’d recommend watching this Extra Credits episode, which does an amazing job of explaining the concept. In a nutshell, exit points are parts of the game where the developers have had the foresight to include ways for the player to more easily quit the game (temporarily or permanently) without feeling they are punished for it. Both DOOM and Zero Time Dilemma work beautifully to illustrate this point.

First of all, DOOM. The game is an absolute blast to play – it’s frantic, fluid, has really good level design (even if it has a tendency to lock the player in any given arena until all enemies are dead), the collectibles/secrets are usually fun to seek but don’t feel absolutely necessary, while the weapons, power ups and leveling system all combine to give the player a lot of playstyle options.

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The new Arcade mode offers even more bite-sized content for those lacking on time.

However, while good examples of proper game design, the above reasons are not why I’m mentioning DOOM in this post; rather, it’s the way the game is built, with a lot of short but fun challenges and fights to accommodate players with less time to spare, as well as a refreshing lack of focus on exposition and “cinematic” cutscenes.

In DOOM, there are 9 weapons (not counting the BFG-9000 and Chainsaw), and most of them have a tiered leveling system as well as two alternate firing modes; these offer a good deal of customization and options to the player but, more importantly to this post, they offer additional challenges when their respective alt-fire mode is leveled to its maximum. These challenges include doing things such as scoring a number of headshots with the Assault Rifle’s zoomed-in Tactical Scope or killing multiple enemies with one burst from the Plasma Rifle’s Heat Blast (which stores heat from firing it in regular mode, that can be released for massive short-range area damage).

Where this “mastery” system (and to a lesser extent the entire collectibles / challenges / runes system) truly shines for me is that this progress is saved as soon as it is made. There’s no losing half an hour’s worth of progress if you die before reaching a checkpoint here; every bit of progress you make across any challenge is saved across the entire save file instantly.

This allowed me to go into the game for  short sessions of high-adrenaline gameplay, rack up a few points for the weapon challenges or rune upgrades, then exit with that satisfying feeling that I was progressing (slowly, for sure, but steadily) through the game.

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Challenges a-plenty!

DOOM’s maps are also designed around this philosophy, in what feels like a deliberate attempt to allow players to have a lot of exit points from the game. The majority of the levels are designed so that the action is (mostly) contained in arenas of various sizes, while collectibles and what little narrative is offered are placed in the (comparatively) quiet interim parts used to connect said arenas. Checkpoints are always given after discovering major secrets or when completing a fight, which meant that I got to play the game in short but satisfying sessions without feeling that my lack of time hurt the game experience.

For the more narrative-inclined players, though, DOOM might not be quite what you’d want to spend your precious little time on. Interestingly, I’ve also had a blast playing Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, a sort of cross between visual novel-esque exposition and escape-the-room puzzle solving.

While I’d normally give a plot synopsis for Zero Time Dilemma, the way the narrative is structured and the fact that it’s meant to be the capstone to a trilogy of games that are heavily dependent on plot twists (therefore having a lot of those itself), a basic outline will have to suffice; if narrative-focused games are your thing, you should really give these games a try yesterday (for reference, the two previous games are 999: 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors and VLR: Virtue’s Last Reward; which, while originally being DS and 3DS/Vita exclusives, have been slated for a package release on PC and current-gen platforms in the near future).

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Spoiled for choice(s).

Boiled down to the bare basics, Zero Time Dilemma follows 9 characters, split into teams of three. As the player, you control the leaders of each of these teams, guiding them through branching paths, which are split into story and puzzle segments respectively. The genius of this system is that you, as the player, don’t actually play the segments in chronological order, but rather, you have the ability to access them in any order so long as their unlock conditions have been met (for example, solving a puzzle with one team might reveal some information about the other teams, thus unlocking further segments for those teams to explore and yes I am being deliberately vague because spoilers, duh).

The story itself is written in such a way so as to allow this non-sequential style of game to function; segments are mostly self-contained initially, with a handful per team accessible at the game’s start, while later parts mostly build up on previous segments while keeping the same average length per segment. As a result of this modular structure, the game is incredibly easy to pick up, play for 30 minutes, then walk away for the night without feeling that you’ve missed on content because of your shorter play sessions. This is also greatly aided by the inclusion of tools that track your progress and allow for easily reviewing your previous choices.

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The fragment system meshes really well with the game’s narrative.

As a side note, Zero Time Dilemma is a great example of how story and mechanics can support one another, as the “jumping between events/segments” mechanic is used to enhance the non-sequential narrative style while the story itself does a good job of justifying the game’s puzzle segments. Such intertwining of story and mechanics has always intrigued me; perhaps, at one point, I might do a more in-depth follow-up post for Zero Time Dilemma in the future.

Thankfully, the gaming industry is slowly starting to realize that the overworked demographic is worth catering to; smaller, but more “valuable” (content-wise) content seems set to become the norm in AAA titles.

Which games do you play when you’re short on time? Feel free to comment below with your go-to games or other gaming alternatives for short play sessions.

Time’s A-Wastin’ – Achievements on a tight schedule, part 2

In the previous “achievements on a tight schedule” post,  I talked about one of my biggest pet peeves regarding achievements – specifically, how they are becoming a crutch for developers to inflate their game’s playtime through forced repetition or by relying heavily in otherwise out-of-context or out-of-place RNG events.

While I’ll admit this was less of an issue back when I could afford the time investment required, they still felt boring and uninspired, something that was implemented by the developer with the sole goal of padding out a game’s run time – in short, in otherwise perfectly good, engaging games I felt like I was wasting my time by going after 100% completion.

Achievement Get
Getting 100% can be a way of life…

As a counter-point to the above, let’s have a look at the way some games make good use of achievements that extend your play time without being boring. For example, let’s take Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and the way it handles class achievements (and yes, I know there’s a lot of RNG or grind-based achievements in that game as well, but bear with me, I’m trying to illustrate a point).

In Team Fortress 2, each of the playable classes has a series of achievements that the player can unlock by utilizing their chosen class’s capabilities beyond shooting enemies; in essence, they are achievements that reward the player for learning the intricacies of each class.

In this example, let us consider the Heavy, the game’s “tank” class. Heavies come with the highest base health of all classes in the game, as well as a moderate-to-high damage output and rate of fire, while suffering from the lowest base movement speed in the game. Consequently, this makes them ideally suited to defend locations against other players, where their low movement speed does not matter as much.

Valve has worked these mechanics into the game’s achievements, positively reinforcing the good practice of Heavies defending objectives; by awarding players that stay near or on control points with the Purge and Gorky Parked achievements (killing opponent’s that are capturing their team’s capture points and killing opponents while standing on a capture point, respectively), Valve ensures that players are subtly clued in on the Heavy’s main function without so much as a tutorial message displayed.

Another good example comes from the Scout class; Scouts are generally the most fragile class in the game, with medium damage output and high movement speed (plus the ability to do a double jump) – this makes them ideal for… well, scouting and hit-and-run tactics. For example, the player is encouraged into adopting this playstyle with the Brushback (stun 50 enemies who are capturing points) and Closer (destroy 3 teleporter entrances) achievements, again without the need for overly long tutorials or loading screen tips to inform the player of their options; just for taking advantage of their chosen class and its strengths.

One of the less-known side effects of Pacifism. Inventory Clutter!
One of the less-known side effects of Pacifism. Inventory Clutter!

Achievements that reward mastery of the game’s systems aren’t the only good examples, though; if done properly, they can give the player hints on how to play the game in a non-standard way (and also acknowledge the player’s ingenuity). A good example of this kind of achievement comes from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and by extension, its DLC The Missing Link.

In particular, the Factory Zero achievement is awarded for completing the entire DLC campaign without upgrading your character, firing any weapons or using any explosives. While restricting exploration somewhat, this achievement also encourages the player to rely on the game’s non-combat systems: mainly stealth and melee takedowns/kills. This makes a Factory Zero playthrough feel significantly different than a “regular” one (also partially due to how the game is designed), which increases playtime significantly without resorting to mindless repetition.

For a Factory Zero run, hope you like the "bloodied" look.
For a Factory Zero run, hope you like the “bloodied” look.

In The Missing Link there is also a great example of how achievements can provide hints on progressing through the game; without wishing to spoil much, there is a certain decision you need to make in the latter part of the DLC campaign which forces the player to choose one of two groups of people to save – saving the one dooms the other to death.

However, for players that have been thorough enough, the All of the Above achievement can be gained by finding the hidden third option, which enables you to save both groups. For players that have discovered this in-game, it is a great way to acknowledge their ingenuity; for players that have read the achievement description, it is a good way to hint at other outcomes they might not have considered.

So, there you have it! A couple ways where achievements can be both fun and beneficial to do (at least in-game), which also tend to be somewhat lighter on time requirements – or at least, they make time spent not feel like time wasted.

Do you bother with achievements in games? What are some fun achievements you’ve done, or which ones did you have the most trouble with? Let me know in the comments below!

 

 

Time’s A-Wastin’ – Achievements on a tight schedule

I have always been fond of achievements; even back before their actual appearance (be it Gamerscore, Steam Achievements, PSN Trophies etc), I’ve had fun competing with friends for high scores, scouring games for 100% item completion, trying to find easter eggs or secrets – in essence, the exact same things achievements are awarded for nowadays.

It's all about the percentages...
It’s all about the percentages…

Fast-forward to the present, however, and I find that I don’t have the time required to actively hunt achievements any more, at least in most modern games. This, of course, is in part due to tight schedules and the ever-dwindling amount of free time I can spare nowadays, but another, not quite as important (but by far more annoying) reason is the increasing popularity of what I like to call  “filler” or “padding” achievements.

In my mind, the biggest offenders that fall under the “padding” category are ones that require that the player(s):

  1. Play through the exact same content X amount of times to unlock,
  2. Perform a certain in-game action for X amount of time to unlock or
  3. Do in-game actions for a random amount of time, until the achievement randomly unlocks.

The first type is usually prominent in most (if not all) modern games; they usually go a bit like Kill 1000 Enemies or Collect 100,000 Resources – forcing the

player to replay content long after it’s stopped being fun in order to fill a bar with an arbitrary number of kills or items collected and so on.

I don’t mind this type if the game is built around content repetition (i.e. MMOs, competitive online or Diablo clones), because when going into those, I already have the understanding and/or expectation that I’ll be replaying content multiple times (the reason for which this expectation is OK is best left for a future blog post).

Take achievements like Batting 500 in Diablo 3, for example; this requires that the player completes 500 bounties, randomized mini-quests that have a chance of awarding certain, otherwise unavailable pieces of gear. As Diablo 3 is built around repeating the same content constantly, in the hopes of receiving better items to improve your character(s) with, this achievement feels less like an arbitrary inclusion to extend play time and more like a means of acknowledging the player’s efforts.

In sharp contrast, I recently completed the achievement Temper, Temper in Typing of the Dead: Overkill, an on-rails typing/rail-shooter hybrid. In this achievement,  you are asked to kill 30 Rage mutants across all playthroughs, but with your average playthrough only having 8 or so of these enemies, what you are actually asked to do is to replay certain levels multiple times in order to accumulate enough kills. Seeing as there’s little to no reason to replay the game, achievements notwithstanding, this achievement felt a lot like a slog, something that the game’s developers might’ve put in to pad out game time.

A few games do this type better, though. When these achievements happen naturally (i.e. can be completed in a single playthrough i.e. during the regular course of the game), they are just fine in my books – perhaps pointless in a way, but otherwise harmless. Even better? Some games might use this achievement type to encourage players to experience content they wouldn’t have otherwise seen; for example, having an achievement that requires just enough enemies and/or items to be found including the ones hidden in secret or out-of-the-way areas would (hopefully) make the player want to explore the game world, getting more out of the experience without having to replay content they’ve already seen.

The opposite of time-wasting achievements: Speedrunning ones!
The opposite of time-eating achievements: Speedrunning ones!

The second type, however, has little redeeming value – while at first glance the “X amount of time doing Y” achievements might seem to be a subset of the “Kill X” or “Collect Y”, their key difference is that they require specific amounts of time spent rather than certain content (re)played.

One of the most egregious examples of the above achievement kind is One Year in Universe Sandbox, where the game requires that you spend an actual year’s worth of time playing it (for reference, that means an approximate 8,640 hours playing a game which is basically a a set of physics models and interactions between planets).

While I can’t think of any good examples of this type of achievement, the inverse kind is usually fun, if no less frustrating for a casual player: speedrunning achievements that ask the player to complete certain parts (or the entirety) of the game in as little time as possible. At their best, these achievements are doable in less-than-perfect times, as long as some research and critical thinking are applied – see as a great example DLC Quest’s Man That’s Fast! achievement.

The worst kind of achievement for the starved-for-time gamer, however, is the third type; achievements that are in some way or another have criteria affected by randomness. For a great example of this, let’s take a look at Borderlands, specifically the Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution DLC. In this DLC, there is a series of achievements that are solely luck-based – specifically What A Party!The Lubricator and It’s So Realistic!

These achievements require that the player collect a series of nonsensical items with no value, gameplay or otherwise (such hilarious examples as panties or oil cans) until a certain, arbitrary amount is collected. Setting aside the fact that these are not shared between team mates (thus penalizing people that play multiplayer over those playing single player), the main issue is that the rate that these items appear is utterly random, if not downright atrocious; from personal experience (back when I could afford such time-wasters more comfortably), it is quite possible to spend upwards of an hour just to get one out of all the above items, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to get the ones you’re missing instead of duplicates of ones you already have.

But it’s not all doom-n-gloom for the achievement hunter on the clock…

Up next: How developers (sometimes) get achievements right.

Lunchtime Gaming – A Sorcerous! Adventure

Allow me to forward an opinion: mobile gaming is the greatest technological boon to the modern-day constantly overworked adult. When the average workday totals around 12 to 13 hours, daily, the 30 or so minutes I can put towards gaming (admittedly, while having my lunch) are slowly becoming invaluable.

During one such session, I recently purchased Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! from the Google Play Store – the name having brought back memories from the Fighting Fantasy series of playbooks – and set out to see how well this kind of text adventure/RPG hybrid is suited for small bursts of gaming.

In Sorcery! you take on the role of an unnamed hero, male or female, who has just embarked on a perilous quest to retrieve a magical McGuffin (in this case, the Crown of Kings) and save the Kingdom in the process.

In-game screenshot courtesy of developers Inkle!
In-game screenshot courtesy of developers Inkle!

My first impressions are good; there’s a lot of text here, but it’s broken down into well-written vignettes of your chosen protagonist’s adventures throughout the Shamutanti Hills (the location of your adventures for most of Sorcery!’s first episode). The writing itself is reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, especially his Lord of the Ring trilogy – with a slightly less verbose tone.

Navigation in this game is pretty simple; you’re presented with a world map, with various interactions available to you depicted by flag icons. Dragging your character’s miniature to any of those will bring up an event, with either combat or adventure vignettes being available for your reading pleasure.

Combat in Sorcery! is also interesting; it’s mainly a rock-paper-scissors affair, where you try to figure out the opponent’s next action – light attack, strong attack, defend – and counter it accordingly. All attacks draw from a pool of your overall strength, which you can use to determine your attack’s strength; stronger attacks negate weaker ones, weak attacks waste less strength versus a defending enemy and defense lowers your received damage to the minimum possible amount while restoring strength gradually.

Between the game being split into small encounters and combat being simple but fast-paced means that the game naturally lends itself really well to short play sessions, especially for faster readers, which in turn makes it great for those 20 minute long gaming sessions within the day.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with Sorcery!, even though the short play sessions result in not having progressed too far into the game (which is why I’ve not talked much about the story), but I’ll be looking into doing a few short posts describing my thoughts as  I play through the game, Let’s Play-style, in future posts.