What I Played, What I Made 1

What I Played

Slime Rancher - I can't quite say that I enjoyed playing Slime Rancher, but for a few minutes, its loop had me. It is satisfying to check the plort stock market each day and make a plan for how to get those high value excretions. What keeps me hooked on these farming games is knowing that once I put in the time doing the tedious tasks, I am guaranteed a payoff. Then I can purchase upgrades that ease the tedium and increase profits forever and ever, amen. Unfortunately, Slime Rancher kept throwing wrenches in my plans. There was this one time I was keeping chickens in a pen to feed to my slimes with the most lucrative BMs. I bought higher walls for the pen, and in the description for this upgrade I was promised that they would keep out the garden-variety pink slimes. After an afternoon of foraging I returned to find that those adorable bastards had invaded the pen and devoured the hens. This and other events like it were an unwelcome dose of chaos in a game that presents itself as a peaceful farming simulator.

pink slime Look at this jerk

Super Bunnyhop has a video review that gives a much more complete analysis. Even if it doesn't quite nail the pastoral treadmill I'm looking for, it's impressive that this is Monomi Park's first game. I can't wait to see what they do next.


illi - illi has my favorite jump of any one button platformer I've played on the iPhone. I've included a GIF to sway you, so imagine you're doing that cool jump with your very own digits. It works just as you would expect. Tap for a short jump, hold for a higher, further one. When you land, there is a satisfying screen shake to indicate your impact. Nailing a landing after leaping across your whole phone screen is genuinely exciting.

jumps so ill...i Yes, you are a furry horned slug. No, I don't want to think about it.

The only thing you need to do in each level is get to the exit, but the game smartly challenges you to do more. There is always the chance to earn up to 3 badges for things like hitting collectables, getting some sweet hang time, and even speedrunning. Every once in a while there will be a badge for, I kid you not, rolling some rocks around. It's bizarre and feels super tacked on, but doesn't detract from the game.


What I Made

I am slowly cobbling together my first semi-original game. It's a weird top-down stealth game made in GameMaker. The concept is that you are a disgruntled office worker eating everyone's lunch and trying not to get caught. Right now, it looks like this:

MMMbezzlement

The hooks are hard to see in the GIF. One is that you can only be caught when you are eating food, represented by green and yellow circles. Otherwise, the enem-uh-coworkers do nothing when they see you. The other is that the "health" bar on the food only goes down when you alternate pressing the left and right arrow keys. As rudimentary as this looks, I've already learned a lot about those ideas and game making in general. Here are two of the lot.

1. An interesting twist may not translate into good gameplay. The vision cones shown in the GIF don't affect you at all unless you are holding food. If you get caught holding food, it's an instant game over. My initial thought was that this would allow for unique ways to plan routes and breathers between hectic vision cone dodging and arrow key mashing.

What actually happened was that people avoided the vision cones at all times anyway. It seems like that mechanic is ingrained so much that it's reflexive. Even worse, it made the game too easy and boring. I have some ideas to improve on this, so hopefully some form of it can survive. This brings me to my next point.

2. I have no idea when to stop. I get now why games can get drowned in mechanics. I only have like, two, and I'm still wary of adding more. At the same time it's impossible to know if something will work without just doing it. I think about the least amount of work I could do to implement an idea and do that just to find out if it's good. But if it's bad, I worry that it's only bad because I used a half measure. Maybe if I dove in and devoted a ton of time and effort it would be good, actually?

This constant inner struggle also made me realize why I've read about so many games not being fun until they're almost finished. That sounds crazy until you try to make a game yourself. You assume the developers must be doing something wrong. How could they not have known this feature really doesn't add anything, or that this mechanic kind of breaks the game? The answer is that they probably do know but maybe they found out far too late, because estimating is hard and deadlines are a thing.

I'm going to put at least a little more time into this game (working title MMMbezzlement, which might be the best thing about it so far) and see where it goes. I'll keep updating because it feels good to share progress and gives me some small amount of accountability. Til next time.

Grow Up

I was itching for a change. I think I grew tired of fighting. I didn't want to shoot, or be attacked, or fiercely compete. I needed to relax. I needed to explore without fear, and to take it slow. I needed a BUD.

This month (July 2017) the Xbox Games with Gold program brought me exactly what I needed. Grow Up, the sequel to Ubisoft's experimental 3D platformer/climber Grow Home is exquisitely easy-going. You're a robot plunked down on an exotic planet after your spacecraft blows up. Parts are scattered around said planet. You need to find those parts, along with some fun movement abilities and crystals to augment them. That's it.

The basic climbing mechanic is simple, but can get a bit fiddly. The repeated left trigger right trigger, hand over hand movement feels pretty good. But, more than once I thought I had crested a mountain, mushroom, or floating hunk of rock only to find that my uncontrollable feet did not agree. I would then tumble off and deploy my parachute. Ironically it was during one of these moments, gently floating through the sky and watching the gorgeous sunset, that I realized I wasn't bothered by imprecise climbing.

Enemies? No way. The native species mean you no harm. Some may follow you at a polite distance for a time, others ignore you completely. I once grabbed a beetle and flipped him on his back. Horrified that he could no longer move, I refused to abandon him until he was right side up and on his way. Be the change you want to see on this heap of polygons hurtling through space.

As I grew to love Grow Up, I wondered why it appealed to me so much more than a traditional 3D platformer that has you running all over a world, collecting things. I think I've narrowed it down to three great strengths:

  1. For the most part, it leaves you alone. You have a companion that lets you know when you're near a ship part or new ability. There are no other characters giving you chores to do or locking you out of part of the world.

  2. The world is truly open and fun to explore. You won't find anything to do other than collect things and look at things. But the things you collect often make it easier and more enjoyable to get around, and thanks to a day/night cycle and exotic, glowing plants, it's pretty interesting to look at too.

  3. No pressure. You can do what you want, whenever you want to do it. There are no enemies harassing you and no clocks ticking down unless you start them yourself. I tried a time trial and was instantly turned off. The controls just aren't precise enough to make quickly hitting checkpoints more satisfying than frustrating.

Grow Up has quickly become my game to pair with a podcast and a drink. At the end of a demanding day, it's a wonderfully undemanding treat.

V

The mission was simple enough. Cripple Soviet communications by destroying three satellite dishes at an outpost in northern Afghanistan.

I was told any old explosives would do, but all I had were hand grenades and C4. I was not about to let this mission depend on lobs.

A night time infiltration seemed like another smart choice, and when I got my first glimpse of the base I was relieved. Two out of the three satellites were backed against a cliff face, overlooking the rest of the outpost. The final satellite was, of course, dead center and surrounded by most of the guards.

My initial position put me at the same elevation as the easier satellites. Each dish was mounted on a metal container and only accessible by ladder. I scurried up the first, placed a charge, and was back in the bushes in under 10 seconds. Too easy. My journey to the second dish was slowed briefly by a single unlucky guard patrolling through the dark. With the second explosive placed, my attention turned to the final dish.

The late start to my mission had a second benefit I did not anticipate. Two guards headed inside one of several squat brick huts for the night, and one was actually going to sleep. Seeing my chance, I crept down the hill to the final satellite, mounted on top of another hut. Finding the ladder was simple enough. Picking the right time to climb it was harder. After reaching the roof of the building a guard spotted me briefly before I could lie on my stomach. He convinced himself that his eyes had fooled him and went about his business. I crawled over to the dish and planted the third charge. The rush of a perfectly executed mission was within reach as I descended the ladder. Then I realized I was trapped.

The plan had been to set all three charges and watch the post-detonation mayhem from a safe distance. As I crouched in the grass, back to the building I had just rigged with explosives, I saw 3 guards that would see me if I moved another inch. Taking out any one of them was no problem. Taking them out without being seen by any number of other guards in the outpost was not feasible. I needed a distraction. Luckily, I had three.

In hindsight, it would have been smarter to set off the first two charges and wait for the investigators to move away from me. I made the very American assumption that three explosions were better than two. With the damage done, I took my first step from cover. I was spotted immediately, but one silenced pistol shot made for an easy fix. Unfortunately, all attention had been drawn to the final explosion. A strange man emerging from the bushes after three bombs go off should be targeted by any reasonable guard.

I dropped all attempts at stealth when the first bullet whizzed by. A full sprint away from the outpost was the only thing for it. When it was clear I was not going to get caught immediately, I managed to whistle for my ride. D-Horse emerged from the rocks and I saddled up without breaking stride. A dust cloud covered our retreat. Pequod was inbound.

You could say I'm enjoying Metal Gear Solid V.

On Nuclear Throne

Before playing top down 2D shooter Nuclear Throne, I could not fathom why anyone would play a roguelike. Now I realize that other games made me think that way.

The trend in shooters (and most games really) since at least COD: Modern Warfare is to add some sort of progression mechanics. We like it when the numbers go up. That's where my expectations have been set. Progress is guaranteed and you can never go backwards, only forward at different rates.

Nuclear Throne is not like those games. It does have experience in the form of little green rectangles called Rads that you find in the level or retrieve from dead enemies. Collect enough Rads and you gain a level. Gain a level and choose a single upgrade which stacks on top of others you may have. If you die, you lose everything. This, to me, sounds profoundly unappealing.

What keeps me clicking Retry at the end of each run for the Throne (I have yet to peep it) is the low friction and addictive feel of the game. You can be right back in the thick of a firefight in 5 seconds. The guns are varied and fun to shoot, and the procedurally generated levels have you itching to see what the next room will look like. It's also simple, which is great. You have one special move and can hold two guns at a time. I don't want to spend a bunch of time in inventory screens if everything I'm looking at could be taken from me in an instant.

There is certainly a slot machine aspect. Which weapons will be dropped in each area? Which upgrades will you have to choose from after leveling up? Will you spawn near a den of radiation-spewing scorpions or a single unlucky grunt? All of these things affect your chances of surviving to the next round, but they never seem to outweigh the influence of your own skill at the game.

Your skill is still the only thing that will allow you to reach the end. The developers at Vlambeer are boldly asking you to, in the common parlance, git gud. A lot of big games that need to sell well literally can't afford to ask you to do that. That's part of the reason this resurgence of difficult games is taking place.

Nuclear Throne has shown me that there is still a place in my life for hard games. The minute-to-minute action needs to be engaging, but not overly complex. Most of all, this type of game needs to do what other games only simulate with ever increasing numbers. They need to give you the feeling that what you are doing is very difficult, but you're getting better all the time.

The Next Something

I started Good Game Reads because I thought I was reading a lot of good writing about games that wasn't easy to find. I love stumbling upon long-form, insightful, technical, and emotional pieces that provide a unique perspective on a medium I love. I wanted to make that stuff more accessible and maybe even discuss that kind of writing with other people. After publishing these weekly blog posts for about four months, I've realized a few things:

  • All this writing has shown me how many great games I missed and continue to miss.

  • The Good Game Reads articles combined with a book on how to get started programming games has motivated me to take a shot at making my own games. It's...time consuming.

  • I don't have the time or know-how to get enough readers for a games writing curation blog to make much sense.

  • I have started to enjoy writing the prologues to Good Game Reads posts more than finding and writing quick blurbs about the articles themselves.

  • It is entirely possible, though unlikely, that I could write interesting things about games instead of linking to others.

All those things together have brought me to the decision to wrap up the Good Game Reads posts for now. Finding all these inspiring words about games has been a great experience. I want to take that forward and focus on making, playing, and writing about making and playing good games. Look out for that in the future. For now I have to get back to my latest hot new game purchase. I hear it's pretty good.