Half-Life: Alyx is not an immersive life sim

How the Half-Life series has all the ingredients of a perfect VR game and then subverts most of them

Valve released a new Steam Link app for the Quest headsets that lets you play wirelessly connected to a PC running your Steam library. At least with my particular home setup (Quest 2 connected via WiFi to a Windows machine in a different room connected via Ethernet), it runs flawlessly.

This is pretty huge, since it removes one last bit of friction that’s kept me from playing Steam VR games for a very long time. There’s not really enough space to play VR games comfortably in the room with my PC. And the whole process of starting up Steam VR with a physical USB connection was always more than a little clunky, especially compared to the just-pick-it-up-and-turn-it-on nature of the Quest1Ironically, the Quest seems to have gotten some updates since I last used it, and they make it kind of clunky and unwieldy to get into the experience. I especially enjoyed how an app designed to demonstrate hand controls would refuse to start up unless I had the controllers..

Now there are only a couple of stumbling blocks left: I never have time to play games anymore, and I’m so bad at them that experiences designed to last a few hours will for me stretch out over months or even years.

On that note: I always imagined I’d write about Half-Life: Alyx once I’d finished the game, or at least gotten farther than the first chapter. But I’m realizing that that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, partly because I rarely get time to play, partly because of the weird time-dilation in video games caused by my ineptitude, and partly because being trapped in confined spaces with zombies is so creepy that I need to frequently take the headset off and take a break.

But Alyx is the absolute gold standard for VR experiences, easily the best one I’ve played at home and likely even better than location-based stuff like The Void. And it’s tonally perfect for the Half-Life series; in particular, the slow build-up to action, as you’re dropped into a mundane moment in a bizarre world. I think of the series so much as clicks and explosions and gunfire and shrieks and expository speeches and electronic music, that I forget how quiet it often is.

There’s a ton of fascinating stuff that happens before you even encounter your first zombie. And I found myself running out of superlatives for the whole design experience by the first time I fired a pistol.

Continue reading “Half-Life: Alyx is not an immersive life sim”
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    Ironically, the Quest seems to have gotten some updates since I last used it, and they make it kind of clunky and unwieldy to get into the experience. I especially enjoyed how an app designed to demonstrate hand controls would refuse to start up unless I had the controllers.

Super Mario Bros Wonder: The Conversation

Super Mario Bros Wonder is relentlessly delightful and in constant conversation with the player

Super Mario Bros. Wonder is gloves-down the most delightful experience I’ve had playing a game in years. Even by Mario standards, it’s over-stuffed with surprises and moments that had me laughing out loud just from an unnecessarily over-the-top secret discovery.

There was one addition, though, that seemed out-of-place with the franchise, and I wasn’t sure it would work. Throughout the levels, there are flowers that talk to you as your character passes by, in plain, unaffected English1Or whatever language you’re playing in, I’m assuming.. They comment on what’s happening, give clues to things you might have missed, or just give you a bit of encouragement before you’re about to pull off a difficult stunt.

Todd Martens has a nice column in The Los Angeles Times about the game, where he says the flowers serve as a recurring source of encouragement and a reminder of the healing power of play. They serve as kind of a bridge between the game and the player, reminding us to appreciate the joyous details the game keeps throwing at us:

I’ve returned, for instance, throughout my playthrough to an early level featuring a bounty of Piranha Plants, those chomping, polka-dotted, Mario-biting flora that have long been a staple of the series. Only here, they walk, and at one point in the level can break into song. “They’re singing!” exclaims our flower pal, and indeed they are, with a high-pitched, childlike voice. […] It’s an easy, early level, but I revisit it because it never fails to make me smile, and it serves as a reminder that the so-called ordinary is often extraordinary if we’re willing to pay attention.

He’s absolutely right about the Piranha Plants On Parade level, which is a highlight of the entire 40-year series of Mario games, and which warrants a replay any time you’re feeling even a little bit down.

But the Mario games have always been about fun and surprisingly delightful moments. One of the things that sets Wonder apart is that it’s all about discovering those moments, even more than skill. There’s no timer in the standard levels, for one thing. As a result, there’s a sense that they’re more about exploration than just completion.

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    Or whatever language you’re playing in, I’m assuming.

Sound Mind, or, Committing to the (1) Bit

About my recently-announced game and some recommendations for other Playdate games

Wednesday morning, Panic ran a Playdate Update video that previewed some upcoming games for the platform, including one I’m working on called Sound Mind.

It’s a two-player game where you play as siblings fighting over your father’s inheritance. On your turn, you’re trying to find the bag of money and keep it all for yourself. Then you hand the Playdate to your opponent, and your character is frozen helplessly in place, while your sibling is trying to steal back the money for themselves. You can’t see what they’re doing, but you can hear every step and every movement.

The idea for the game came during a road trip down to southern California while we were getting ready to move. At a car charging stop, my fiancé was playing with the Playdate. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but the device has a pretty great speaker, so I could hear every bit of it. And the sound effects were distinctive enough that I could piece together a reasonably accurate image of what he was doing.

Since 2023 was supposed to be the year of my glorious voluntary unemployment, I thought I’d be able to casually finish up this game in just a few months without even breaking a sweat.1Honestly, I was well aware my schedule was comically over-ambitious, but I wanted to try and keep myself on task. Then I had to go and ruin everything by getting a full-time job. My pace has slowed way down, but I’m still plugging away at it to be released next year.

I submitted a bunch of ideas2Well, okay, four to Panic, and I suspect they’re more perceptive than I am at seeing the potential in a half-baked idea. As I’ve been working on Sound Mind, it’s kind of gone from just a novelty to something that fits in well with what I think is the whole gestalt of the Playdate: it’s kind of a weird idea that wouldn’t work as well anywhere else, it’s a fairly simple concept that’s going to succeed or fail in the execution, and the platform itself is small and lo-fi enough that there’s room for me to get goofy.

So I can fill it with homages to Edward Gorey and extremely dated references to 1970s horror movies, for instance, and I don’t have to look at anybody’s stinkface reaction that it’s too niche to be marketable.3Hypothetically speaking.

Plus I can’t say enough what a fan I am of Panic. Everybody I’ve dealt with has been surprisingly and unnecessarily nice and supportive, without exception. And I’ve been grateful for their patience, as they’re a lot more laid back than it seems like a company that’s so famously detail-oriented could get away with being.

Or to put it more simply: come for the crank, stay for the supportive environment and platform that favors novelty and creativity and seeks to empower people to make cool stuff.

And finally, here are some game recommendations for the Playdate, since it’s been a while since I’ve made any. (This isn’t in any way exhaustive, since I’ve had very little time to play anything, so I only catch about 5% of what’s out there).

Continue reading “Sound Mind, or, Committing to the (1) Bit”
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    Honestly, I was well aware my schedule was comically over-ambitious, but I wanted to try and keep myself on task.
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    Well, okay, four
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There Is No Triforce

I finish my first Legend of Zelda game and commit heresy against the franchise

When I was a freshman in college, I was trying to make a point in English Literature class by comparing a character to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. The teacher of the class casually responded that she didn’t get the comparison because she’d never read The Catcher in the Rye. I remember feeling an all-new-for-me combination of disappointment, condescension, and pity that to this day I hope didn’t show on my face.

To be clear: I wouldn’t have that reaction now. While the book influenced me a ton when I read it1As a teenager, which is exactly when you’re supposed to read it for maximum effect, there’s no reason to suspect it would even appeal to a lot of readers, much less that it would have the same impact for most people that it did on me2If I remember correctly, sobbing at the beginning of Chemistry class for reasons I could not explain. But as a smug seventeen year old, I knew with an unshakeable conviction that the book was a modern classic that should be required reading for anyone who claimed to be at all literate.

I mention all that for two reasons: first, I feel like the “video game community” as a whole, as much as it can agree on anything, would agree that The Legend of Zelda series has a similar position of reverence and importance for video games as an art form.

Second, in all my years of playing video games, I’ve never been able to finish a Zelda game. And I suspect that kind of admission would trigger the same feeling of disappointment and pity in a lot of players.

But! In a new development, I’ve just finished my first entry in the series. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which was originally for the GameBoy. It’s the one game in the series that I have bought three times: the original, the GameBoy Color version, and the Switch remake3For the record, I played and finished it on the Switch version after my GBC save game got corrupted.
I’ve been told several times over the years that it’s a perfect introduction not just to Zelda but to RPGs in general, since it’s compact compared to the mainline games but still feels like a moderately epic My First Adventure.

I’ve got to object to the idea that this is a Baby Game for Babies, though. The story is quite juvenile, but the puzzles are baffling, and the boss fights are infuriating. Combined with the other Zelda games I’ve played, it makes it clear what really is the defining aspect of this series: instead of being RPGs that have been streamlined and had more arcadey elements added, like I’d always believed, they’re actually arcade4However that’s defined at the time action games that borrow thematic elements from RPGs. I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that Link’s Awakening is structured more like a Metroid game than like any other RPG I’ve ever seen.

There were several times that I had to consult a walkthrough, and I rarely felt as if the solution was something I would’ve figured out if I’d had more patience. More often than not, it was arbitrary — like the sleeping powder is the only thing that will work against this particular enemy, even though there’s nothing that telegraphs that — and I would need a kid’s patience and endless free time to experiment with solutions until I stumbled onto the right one.

More often than that, though, I had figured out what the solution for a dungeon room or a boss fight was, but I couldn’t execute on it. There are repeated puzzles where you have to drive a moving walkway to fill in a bottomless pit to “solve” the room. It’s extremely clever the first time you encounter it, but by the time you have to do it the third time, it’s asking you to fill up an entire room with extremely fiddly controls with no margin for error.

With the boss fights, it was the Mario-inspired standard, repeated over and over again: it wasn’t enough to figure out the solution, but you had to do the same thing several times. Unlike Mario, it rarely required only three hits, but demanded you keep doing it long past the point it became interesting or satisfying.

Now, my objections to this game are largely the result of being a 52-year-old man (who tends to play (and occasionally make) graphic adventure games) bouncing off of a 30-year-old GameBoy game. But looking back at the other Zelda games that I’ve started with high expectations but have never quite been engaged enough to finish, I can see what they all have in common, regardless of scope, and that’s that they’re not really my thing.

I respect the whole aesthetic a ton. The Legend of Zelda series has some of the best music of any video game. The game loop is so elegant and ingenious that it’s a marvel to anybody interested in game design. I can understand why people love these games. And now I can understand why I always start out eager to love them, but bounce off of them a few hours in.

(And to be clear, I’ve played a ton of these games, trying over and over again to find the one that I can appreciate as much as everyone else seems to. I’ve tried every mainline entry since Ocarina of Time, gone back to A Link to the Past, and tried most of the portable entries. Breath of the Wild‘s weapon durability mechanic annoyed me enough that I wasn’t interested in continuing, and I haven’t bothered with Tears of the Kingdom).

Maybe I’m being overly generous to myself, but this feels like a double victory. Not only did I finally finish a Zelda game — and I hardly ever finish any games these days — but I feel like I can finally ignore the conventional wisdom and acknowledge that even outstanding games might not be suited for everyone who loves video games.

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    As a teenager, which is exactly when you’re supposed to read it for maximum effect
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    If I remember correctly, sobbing at the beginning of Chemistry class for reasons I could not explain
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    For the record, I played and finished it on the Switch version after my GBC save game got corrupted
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    However that’s defined at the time

My Perfect Console

What I would choose if I were more famous. And surprisingly, it’s not just “the Sega Dreamcast.”

Lately I’ve been enjoying the podcast My Perfect Console with Simon Parkin, in which he asks guests to choose five video games that have had a particular impact on their lives and/or their careers, and assemble them all into their version of a perfect game console. My favorite entries that I’ve heard so far have been the ones with Jake Solomon and with Phil Wang.

I’m not famous enough to be on the podcast, but I’ve still got a blog and a fervent belief that the internet needs to have my opinions on it. Except I’ve already got a running list of my favorite games going, updated periodically whenever I remember another one and have time to write a blog post.

And I mean, let’s be honest: that’s all the people on that podcast are doing, is making lists of their favorite games. Even if it were a thing for video game consoles to include five games on them, most of the lists that I’ve heard so far wouldn’t make for good console games. Cool that some Infocom text adventure from 1985 forever changed your perception of how interactive narrative can work, but nobody’s playing that on a console without a keyboard and mouse.

It’s almost as if they chose a format best suited to thoughtful discussion on a podcast, instead of an actual “perfect console!”

Anyway, I aim to fix that. Here’s a list of the five games I’d choose. They aren’t necessarily my favorites, but they’re the games that had a big impact on me and would be ideal for including on a home video game console.

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My Favorite Games: Morrowind

You’ve been having strange dreams, Outlander?

Featured image is taken from the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages wiki

The Elder Scrolls III was my first game in the series, and probably the first time I got completely engrossed in an RPG. I’d played Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy Tactics by that point, two games whose mechanics I’d loved, but the stories were overwrought and confounding.

I’d also played Might and Magic VI, and enjoyed it a lot, but I thought it was about as generic a fantasy RPG as you could possibly get. And I adored Final Fantasy IX, but it felt strangely like borrowing other people’s nostalgia — I could never shake the feeling of how all of it would be so wonderful and familiar to people who grew up playing JRPGs, but since I never did, I felt like I was kept an arm’s length away from being entirely absorbed.

But Morrowind hooked me completely: story, setting, mechanics, visuals, everything.

It’s extremely rare for me to finish any video game, much less super-long ones, but I felt like leaving Morrowind unfinished simply wasn’t an option. I had to see what happened. Even though the last third of the game is an extremely tedious slog through a volcanic wasteland in the middle of an ash storm, and I was tempted to abandon it so many times.

I’ve got two key memories of Morrowind that help explain why it made such a huge impact on me.

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My Favorite Games: Half-Life 2

The video game that fundamentally changed how I think about video games

To manage expectations: I don’t have any new epiphanies about Half-Life 2 or anything, but I’ve been seeing lists of people’s favorite or most influential video games going around, and it occurred to me that I forgot to add Half-Life 2 to my own running list. The problem is that I forget about Half-Life 2 simply because it had such an impact on me; it seems as trivial to say that I like it as it would be to say that I like chocolate or puppies.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this game changed how I think about video games, and what I think they’re capable of.

Until I played it, I’d been perfectly happy with the hard divisions between games that had become calcified over the years, to the point where I believed that different aspects were inherently mutually exclusive. You can have a well-written cinematic story… but at the expense of action. You can have puzzles… at the expense of pacing. You can have systems-based game mechanics… at the expense of direction and “authorship.” Half-Life 2 just said, “Nah, we want all of it.”

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The Worst Jedi

Being tragically bad at video games means getting stories with bad pacing

One thing to know about me is that I’m extremely bad at video games. Whoever was making my character neglected to put any points into dexterity, so I’m pretty hopeless at anything that requires quick reflexes or precise hand-eye coordination.

(You might think it’s weird to spend most of your career working in video games if you’re bad at them, but I’d counter that most of the games I’ve worked on have been more modest, story- and puzzle-driven adventure games. You might then go on to assume that I must be better at adventure games, then, but I have to say that I’m bad at those, too).

I’ve been reminded of how bad I am at games, brutally and repeatedly, because I’ve gotten the chance to put some more time into Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order over the past few days.

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One Thing I Like About Diablo 4

Leveling up in Diablo 4 is one of dozens of moments of carefully orchestrated bad-assery

I feel like I’m supposed to mention up front that I’ve got a friend who worked on Diablo 4, even though it won’t make a difference in what I’m writing about the game, I’m not a game reviewer, and I’ve got a new policy where I don’t waste time writing about stuff I don’t like when there’s so much stuff that I do like.

After I tried the open beta, I said that I was impressed enough by the game’s introduction that I was re-considering my belief that story is superfluous in Diablo games. As much as I love these games — I have bought at least two versions of every entry so far, across multiple platforms and remasters — I’ve always had this condescending idea that all of the art and lore and such are just fancy dressing on a random number generator.

Now that I’ve played through that opening sequence three times1Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game, I’m not so sure that it holds up as well to repeat viewings. It’s still extremely well done, but this is a game that encourages you to create multiple characters, but then puts them into a story that ostensibly relies on surprise and discovery. I was starting to fear that the game had gotten so much larger than its simpler action-RPG roots that it had succumbed to the scourge of ludo-narrative dissonance.

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    Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game

Card Tables of the 21st Century

Some of the most exciting applications of AR in gaming have nothing to do with having Kratos in your kitchen

I read a column by Brendan Sinclair where he suggests that AR for gaming doesn’t have much of a future beyond the novelty factor. On Mastodon, he was even more blunt, suggesting that AR is good at attracting venture capital but will inevitably run the same course of underwhelming reality as current-day VR has.

My overall take on that column is that Sinclair makes short-term observations that I entirely agree with, and then he makes conclusions that I think are myopic and unimaginative. To be fair: the column is about games as business, which is all about analysis of existing product more than speculation about the future, and Sinclair acknowledges as much in the column.

For instance: it’s tempting to point to Pokemon Go’s success as a sign that AR is a potential gold mine, but as Sinclair points out, that game was successful because of its IP and its geolocation more than its AR functionality. We’re in agreement there, but I disagree that you can extrapolate much about the viability of AR games from that.

Pokemon Go’s AR element was doomed to be uninspiring (in my opinion at least) for two reasons: first, it had to be compatible with a broad range of devices, which limited it to the lowest-common-denominator in terms of AR functionality. Second, it had to work with a game that was literally designed to be played anywhere on earth, with zero predictability in terms of environment.

The main takeaway I got from Sinclair’s column is that most people’s thinking about the realistic potential of AR and VR — including my own! — has been both defined by the limitations of existing implementations, and also set to an impossibly high standard.

The devices — and by extension, experiences — that we’re familiar with have all been limited by necessary compromises: some of them because the tech just isn’t there yet; some of them because companies rushed products to market before they were fully baked; and some of them because the devices were intended to be prototypes, to generate ideas about what the future of VR or AR could be instead of presenting any finished and polished technology.

And to be clear, when I talk about products being rushed to market before they’re “ready,” I don’t think it’s entirely sinister. I fundamentally disagree with Meta’s overall take on VR, for instance, but I do think it was a reasonable decision to emphasize lower cost, wider adoption of headsets over the absolute best and most expensive technology.1In retrospect, I don’t agree with Google’s versions, though, even though I thought they made sense at the time. Sure, technically Google Cardboard and Daydream brought the potential of VR to more people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it or be interested in it, but it also set expectations impossibly low for what VR could be.

But it’s also put us in a weird position in which current implementations of VR haven’t lowered the bar, but raised it. In other words, for some reason, it’s not enough just to fix the problems with the existing technology. Supposedly, we have to make it perfect, or it’s not worth pursuing at all.

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    In retrospect, I don’t agree with Google’s versions, though, even though I thought they made sense at the time. Sure, technically Google Cardboard and Daydream brought the potential of VR to more people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it or be interested in it, but it also set expectations impossibly low for what VR could be.

You’ve Got a Transactional Friend in Me

More thoughts about the Disney Dreamlight Valley game, since I think I’m finished with it

The last time I talked about Disney’s Dreamlight Valley, I said that I was enjoying it well enough, but it felt like waiting for the other shoe to drop, when the game would suddenly reveal itself to be a monstrous pay-to-play horror trying to sneak its tendrils into every one of my revenue streams.

I think the game finally revealed its true nature with a recent update, and… it’s fine. Its shop model seems to have been established, and it involves entire chains of objects and outfits and cosmetic items that can be bought with one type of the game’s many in-game currencies — they can technically be saved up, but it’s all structured in such a way that you’re much better off paying money for them.

But everything else in the game is wide open, and the studio seems to be releasing regular updates — free of charge — that add more characters and quests to unlock them. I don’t have any intention to pay for the cosmetic items, but then I’ve easily gotten my money’s worth for the purchase price of the game. It’s an often-charming game that served as an excellent distraction during a stressful stretch of work, and it’s delivered just about everything it promised.

As a bonus: I’ve realized a few moderately-interesting things over the course of playing it:

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Stay a while longer, and listen some more

Thoughts about Diablo 4 after the open beta, and how much storytelling is actually “necessary” in one of the most successful game series of all time

Featured image for this post is from the Diablo IV website.

Last weekend, I played through a little bit of the Diablo IV open beta — long enough to get past the tutorial section, but not long enough to form any kind of solid opinion on the game overall. Disclosure: one of my friends has been working on it, so I’m not going to do any kind of real “review” of it, even after I’ve played it for much longer. I will say that I enjoyed the beta a lot, and while it was probably inevitable that I’d end up buying the game no matter what, I’m actually looking forward to getting back into it now.

But while I was playing through Diablo IV, I was struck with the uneasy realization: this franchise isn’t made for me! I don’t mean that in the usual sense where any white American male gets uneasy when confronted with any media that isn’t made specifically for him. I mean that I’ve put dozens if not hundreds of hours into the Diablo games over the years, more than any video games apart from The Sims and maybe SimCity and Civilization, but I don’t think I’m the target audience at all.

I just play these games as single-player action/adventures. I don’t care at all about min/maxing. I’m actively repulsed by multiplayer. I don’t pay much attention to weapon or armor stats, beyond the slot-machine “this number is higher than that number” dopamine hit that forms the basis of all Diablo games. I don’t care about the ideal build of a character, only about what’s the most fun to use to smash shit up. And I play the games for the story.

Continue reading “Stay a while longer, and listen some more”