My Favorite Games: Device 6

A brilliant, Prisoner-inspired game for iOS from way back when iOS felt like it had limitless potential as an inventive gaming platform

As I said back in 2013: Device 6 is a painfully good game for iOS by Simogo. From inspiration to execution, art direction to technical implementation to music, it’s just a masterpiece.

Everything I loved about it in 2013 is still true. It’s so imaginative, so slick and inventive in its presentation, that I was scrambling to solve the puzzles just so I could get to the next scene. It still feels like they approached the project as if they could do anything they wanted, and every decision they made was exactly the right one. It’s even got a few really catchy songs!

One thing that’s changed since back then: a while ago, I realized that I’ve been absurdly fortunate that people have made the effort to get in touch with me a few times and tell me that they really enjoyed something I worked on. It makes me feel great every time, but my imposter syndrome always kicks in before I can really appreciate what a gift it is. And yet I never do the same for the creators of stuff I like, instead just coming here to gush about stuff on a blog that essentially might as well be private. So one night I wrote a fan email to the Simogo website, sending thanks for the game and a link to the above blog post. And I got a kind and gracious response from one of the makers of the game, assuring me that yes, the homages to The Prisoner were very much deliberate.

Looking back at the game now just reminds me of how, early on, it seemed like iOS was a platform with infinite potential for imaginative new games and an install base big enough to make development of those games sustainable. Thinking of non-shooting games a few days ago reminded me of another favorite iOS game, Helsing’s Fire, which had such charming presentation and a central mechanic that was a) ingenious, and b) really only suited to a pocket-sized, powerful computer with a touch screen1I’d forgotten how clever that game was. “DRACULA: What are you doing? Stop it.”.

Unfortunately, iOS didn’t go in the direction of Device 6, but instead encouraged a race for the bottom and the overwhelming preponderance of free-to-play2Or more accurately, pay-to-win games. Lately I’ve been using the Duolingo app again, and the ads for Unity puzzle games just make me feel like they’ve found a way to take all of my optimism from the early days of the App Store, crystallize it, burn it to cinders, pee on it, bury it in a deep hole near a sewer, plant a tree, pee on the tree, cut the tree down, set the remnants on fire, eat the ashes and shit them out, bury the shit in the same hole, point and laugh at the ground where my optimism is buried, and then come to my house, ring the doorbell, and when I answer the door, slap me in the face.

But Device 6 is still really, really great.

  • 1
    I’d forgotten how clever that game was. “DRACULA: What are you doing? Stop it.”
  • 2
    Or more accurately, pay-to-win

My Favorite Games: Portal

Looking back on a masterpiece that lets you take a peek through the fourth wall but never breaks it

I’m not going to be the guy who suddenly has a breathtaking new insight about Portal. Even if it hadn’t been analyzed and re-analyzed and over-analyzed over the past 15 years, I’ve already had multiple chances to write something clever about it. And I’ve never come up with something better than “Damn this game is good, huh?”

While I’ve been making this ongoing list of my favorite video games, I’ve been trying to come up with a concise1At least, as concise as I ever get explanation for why it’s so memorable to me. That’s especially difficult with Portal, because it gets everything right.

It’s the perfect length, lingering on each idea just long enough for you to get it before moving on2Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel. Its antagonist is one of the best-written and best-realized characters in any game. Its aesthetic is instantly unforgettable and fits perfectly with the tone of the game. And that tone was a revelation: confidently hilarious, sinister, and self-aware while never coming across as trying too hard. It’s obvious why it more or less became the default “voice” of the whole company.

And while a lot of people (including myself) were navel-gazing and trying to figure out how narrative games function at their core, trying to solve the unresolvable tension between what the game wants and what the player wants, Portal just did it without making a big fuss about it. “What, is this supposed to be hard?”

Now that it’s been so long since I last played it, and I’m so far removed from it, what sticks with me is how it seemed to be making a point of shattering the fourth wall, when in reality it was doing anything but. While there seemed to be a fad at the time for game developers to wave their hands like stage magicians and whisper “ludonarrative dissonance!” as if they’d just blown your mind, Portal just seems to treat the whole question as if it were silly.

The game’s most surprising moment — when you first “accidentally” get a peek outside of the test chamber — is still fantastic, but in retrospect, it’s not actually as performatively avant garde as I’d thought at the time. The designers weren’t suddenly turning around in their high-backed chairs, taunting us with a sneering “Well well well, it seems you have discovered that this is a video game. But the question remains: are you the player, or are you being played?!” In reality, it was just an unprecedentedly ingenious way of saying “hey, the tutorial is ending.”

I have to be a curmudgeon here and admit that I’m now unimpressed with the games that did make a much more overt assertion that they’re meditations on the nature of player choice and free will. They seem kind of obvious and clumsy now, like the people who act astounded that the Rescue Rangers were designed to look like Indiana Jones and Magnum PI and nobody ever noticed! It’s kind of silly for a game to act like it’s making some deep philosophical observation about player agency when they’re all observations that every player makes the first time they’re allowed to jump on a table or teabag someone during a mission briefing.

So what’s remarkable to me about Portal now isn’t that it breaks the fourth wall, but that it keeps the wall completely intact. It embraces the “gameness” of the game in a way that makes players feel like we’re all in on the joke. The last half of the game, outside the test chambers, is constructed of puzzles that are every bit as contrived and artificial as the ones in the first half; the only difference is that the goal of the puzzle and all of its components aren’t as explicitly spelled out for you.

At the time, I misunderstood that to be a minor flaw in an otherwise perfect game, since all of the “real-looking” environments just drew attention to the artificiality. Now, I feel like they were never all that interested in making it feel “real” at all, but instead assuming that people buying and playing a video game understood how suspension of disbelief works.

It’s not a comment on narrative game design, it’s just really good narrative game design. It keeps the player and the player’s character perfectly aligned throughout: what you want is always exactly the same thing that she wants.

  • 1
    At least, as concise as I ever get
  • 2
    Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel

My Favorite Games: Pokémon Snap

My favorite game I’ve barely played

There are two video games that have delivered moments of pure, unrestrained joy for me, but that I never bothered to finish. To be clear, I don’t finish the majority of games I play, but I usually at least play enough of them to feel that I’ve gotten the bulk of what they’re trying to deliver. With these two, though, I stopped early on, partly out of a desire to preserve my memory of that one moment where I laughed out loud from sheer delight, as if I were in an advertisement, or an early 80s Spielberg movie.

One of those was Super Mario Galaxy, which I stopped playing not long after the first time seeing Mario getting launched gleefully from a volcano, shooting through stars along the way. The other was the original Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo 64.

As somebody with a long-running obsession with Disney parks, I tried just about every Disney-published game that promised to deliver the experience of their best dark rides. It seems like it would be a natural. Put the player in a ride vehicle, set it off through the level, give the characters more freedom of movement than would be possible with an animatronic, boom, you’ve got a best-seller.

But Disney Interactive never seemed particularly interested in recreating the theme park experience — probably a good thing, actually, since it likely would’ve felt like an unimaginative retread. Of the few Disney-licensed games I know of that are actually set in the parks, the most interesting was probably the cart-racing game through Walt Disney World, and still the novelty wore off fairly quickly.

So I was surprised that the game that best captured the feeling of being on the best of the Disney dark rides wasn’t a Disney-licensed game at all, but Pokémon Snap. The first time I set out on a photo safari, riding the vehicle along a preset path while creatures jumped out from all sides to have their pictures taken, took me right back to being a little kid at the Magic Kingdom.

It also bears pointing out that the creators of Pokémon Snap did a better job of creating an interactive dark ride than any of the actual interactive dark rides that have come out in the 22 years since. Not just because even a Nintendo 64-era virtual environment is capable of being more fantastic and dynamic than a physical one, but because the interaction itself is more interesting. You’re taking photos instead of shooting. I haven’t seen or heard of a single actual ride with an interactive element1Maybe the Mario Kart ride at Universal in Osaka? I still don’t have a clear idea of how “interactive” that ride is. that isn’t built around shooting at a target in some form or another.

Whenever you complain about games — and entertainment in general — being over-reliant on guns and shooting, it’s always interpreted as some kind of scolding, liberal pacifist agenda. As if you’re being too uptight to just let people have the kind of fun that everybody knows they really want to have. And while I do in fact believe that the pathological obsession with guns as entertainment is a significant part of what keeps America’s epidemic of gun violence alive, that’s not even my main objection to guns in interactive fiction. My main objection is that it’s boring. It just shows a lack of imagination.

Obviously, there are some great games that are based on shooting as their primary mechanic2And rides, too. I’m a fan of Toy Story Midway Mania, for instance. But when you have a game like Pokémon Snap (or Fatal Frame, or Portal, or Luigi’s Mansion) that’s giving you a template for how to design an experience that lets the player interact with the world in a new way, it seems like a shame to keep going back to the same old thing.

I’ve always meant to get back into Pokémon Snap and play more than just the first set of levels, but then they released New Pokémon Snap for the Switch. I figured I’d enjoy playing the 20-years-newer version with all the various improvements on the basic formula. I’ve still only played the first set of levels.

But I still feel like I got my money’s worth! It’s not as much of a novelty as the original was, obviously, but it’s still a uniquely satisfying experience, with a gameplay loop not like anything else I’ve played. And now that Universal’s building Super Mario Lands all over the world, maybe one day there’ll be an actual dark ride version of the best dark ride video game?

  • 1
    Maybe the Mario Kart ride at Universal in Osaka? I still don’t have a clear idea of how “interactive” that ride is.
  • 2
    And rides, too. I’m a fan of Toy Story Midway Mania, for instance

My Favorite Games: You Don’t Know Jack Movies

Did someone order an 8-inch sausage?

Warning I’m about to be extremely Gen-X here: out of all the multi-million-dollar budgeted AAA games I’ve played, none of them have managed to give me as strong a visceral reaction as the first time I played You Don’t Know Jack, and the pre-show voice said, “All right, lose the desktop.”

That was the first sign that the Jellyvision/Jackbox writers knew how to speak directly to me. In fact, I found out several years later that one of my other most impactful moments in video games — when the Seaman responded eerily insightfully after I told him my favorite movie was Miller’s Crossing — was also written by the team at Jellyvision. The thing that’s been consistent across different games and different genres is a commitment to ignoring conventions and expectations and instead making something that really connects with the audience regardless of the medium.

Or more specifically: the You Don’t Know Jack series isn’t funny for a video game, it’s just plain funny. Even back in the 90s, there was already this whole subculture of in-jokes and self-reference among video games, as if the medium could only ever appeal to a subset of nerds. You Don’t Know Jack defied that by making stuff that engaged with the audience on its own terms, instead of targeting a specific pre-existing audience.

And the Movies version remains my favorite because it felt like they were relentlessly experimenting with the format throughout. All of the question bumpers were built around movie references — my favorites being the bomb countdown, and the porno — with a confidence that the audience was going to get it. They also experimented with the format itself, like with the repeating questions about Groundhog Day. The whole thing gives the impression that they were making video games because they wanted to make video games, not because they were slumming until they could find jobs in “legit” media like television and movies.

I was especially impressed to find out just how much thought went into it, as well. At my first Computer Game Developers Conference1Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference, I saw a fantastic presentation from Harry Gottlieb in which he explained the philosophy behind the You Don’t Know Jack games (and Jellyvision in general), and how it could be applied to non-game platforms like banking and medical assistance. Seemingly every single detail was designed to tear down the interface — or specifically, assumptions about the interface — and establish a more direct and natural connection between the user and the developer. Among other things, that meant more natural, casual language; and a responsiveness to everything the user did, including stuff that was traditionally ignored in interfaces, like interrupting a prompt.

It’d be well over a decade before those ideas took off, with corporations’ brief fascination with chatbots a few years back. The reason that failed wasn’t concept, but execution: they never really felt natural, so it just felt like adding unnecessary complications to what should have been a much simpler process.

But back to video games: the You Don’t Know Jack series remains the best-written comedy video games ever. And they did it by deliberately not targeting just an audience of video game nerds, but an audience of real people who could be trusted to get the joke.2And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

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    Long enough ago that it was still the Computer Game Developers Conference
  • 2
    And also by responding to my taking too long to type in a name by calling me “Loose Stool” for the rest of the game.

My Favorite Games: Suikoden 2

The game that changed how I think about Japanese RPGs and how I think about Kobolds

Featured image is from a post about Suikoden 2 on VG247.com

None of the main-line Final Fantasy games will show up in my list of favorite games, because I haven’t loved any of them as much as I loved Suikoden 2. (Final Fantasy 9 comes close, though). It’s my favorite JRPG, and it showed me why people like JRPGs so much. And I probably wouldn’t have heard about it at all, if I hadn’t worked at Infinite Machine.

Final Fantasy 7 was my first introduction to JRPGs, and I was every bit swept up in the hype as every other video game player at the time. I thought that not only was that game representative of the entire genre, but that it was the best possible example of the genre. Did you see those cut-scenes, after all? That epic story that just seemed to keep growing and growing? The absurd production value? I was stunned that they’d drawn or rendered a different combat background for every single environment you could fight in!

By that standard, the Suikoden games seemed like unambitious throwbacks. Why were my coworkers so obsessed with this game? You want me to play a sprite-based game after I’ve just finished this huge adventure with fully-3D characters?1Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons! More than that, though: Final Fantasy 7 genuinely pushed video game storytelling forward, both with its more cinematic presentation and also its more complex world-building. Suikoden 2, on the other hand, starts with the most cliched premise for a video game RPG: the main character is a boy whose quiet home town is destroyed in the game’s opening.

As it turns out, that feeling of “old-school JRPG” is a huge part of Suikoden 2‘s charm. And the appeal of a somewhat simpler and more straightforward story, where more focus was put on the game mechanics than a linear storyline, felt like comfort gaming even to those of us who’d never actually played the old-school JRPGs. (There’s a reason Final Fantasy 9 went back to the basics, combining all of the aesthetics of its roots with the series’s newfound focus on more linear and cinematic storytelling: it felt like welcome fan service for people who’d loved the earlier games).

But for being “somewhat simpler,” Suikoden 2 is still enormous. Its basic premise is the same as the other games in the series: the main character must recruit the “107 Stars of Destiny,” characters who will combine to summon some divine power to defeat a great enemy. That means finding each character and completing some type of quest — sometimes simple, but often surprisingly involved — to convince them to join your side. At a certain point in the story, you unlock an abandoned castle as your base of operations, and you can return to the castle and have conversations with all of the characters you’ve recruited.

More than that: an absurd number of those characters can join your adventuring party, using their unique skills in combat. You have a party of six, cleverly split into a front row and back row based on close-up and long-range fighting. There’s a version of Yojimbo, whose animations even include Toshiro Mifune’s mannerisms from that movie, with devastating sword skills. There’s a chef who fights with his frying pan and ladle. There’s a makeshift robot made from a barrel. There’s a squirrel, as well as a noble Kobold warrior and the Kobold puppy who idolizes him.

Many of the characters who don’t join you in combat will instead open up shops in your home base. Meaning that as your team grows, you can buy and craft better items and equipment. Some of the characters will continue their storylines after they’ve been recruited — for example, the chef will frequently be visited by people challenging him to an Iron Chef-style battle mini-game, using the ingredients you’ve found during combat.

And the characters combine in interesting ways. Having similar characters in your party, or in specific placement within your party, will unlock special combination attacks. The two kobolds can unite to unleash a pack of hundreds of dogs onto your enemies, for example.

In terms of game design, it’s just an immensely satisfying combination of systems, all building on top of each other and feeding into each other. But in terms of experience design, it perfectly captures the appeal of the first adventure game or the first RPG that you truly loved: the feeling that the story allowed for limitless exploration, and it would just keep growing and surprising you without end. To be clear, none of the characters’ stories in Suikoden 2 are particularly deep. But they’re all appealing, and there’s so many of them!

I’ve forgotten many of the details about the game, but I can remember the point where it really hit me that this was going to be one of my favorite games.2I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.” I was exploring the castle that was serving as my home base, and I was surprised that it seemed to keep going and going. It felt as if it’d been clearly set up with areas where a character was obviously going to set up shop, but it also felt as if there were a lot of wasted space. Then I found a cave with an underground lake. What was going to be there? I had no idea, but I couldn’t wait to find out. It struck me like a moment from a Hardy Boys novel. It occurred to me that the real appeal of this game for me wasn’t depth, but delight.

  • 1
    Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons!
  • 2
    I’d already fallen in love with Gabocha the Kobold puppy at that point, but I was still thinking of the game overall as “basically charming.”

My Favorite Games: Myst

The first mega-hit CD-ROM game still doesn’t get enough credit for what makes it so special

To start with, two personal notes about Myst:

  1. The dialogue poking fun at the game in Curse of Monkey Island was not written by me, because I was a big fan of the game. And I respect the people I worked with too much to throw Jonathan Ackley under the bus by saying who did write it. (Seriously, though, he’s always said he liked the game, too. The gags in Monkey 3 were just a side effect of Myst being the 900-lb gorilla of CD-ROM adventure games at the time, making it ripe for parody).
  2. My first surprising1Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect crush on a video game character was Achenar in the original Myst. You guys be cool and don’t tell Rand Miller I said this, but Atrus could get it. But I only met Atrus later. For most of the game, the way Achenar would get uncomfortably close to the camera and ham it up, begging me for the pages just got me confusingly twitterpated. What can I say? I admit I’ve got a type: mentally unstable guys trapped in inter-dimensional voids via magic books.

A glance at all the Myst-related wikis tells me that the “trap books” were retconned in subsequent games, although even after reading two separate accounts, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how or why. The ensuing lore after the first game — built in novelizations, several sequel games, and a seemingly never-ending line of remakes of the original — never managed to grab me. I read The Book of Atrus and played Riven, but that was about as much of D’ni as I could handle.

But that’s not a knock against the extended lore so much as an acknowledgement of what made the first game so special. It was perfectly evocative of a deeper and weirder fantasy story unlike any I’d seen before. The possibilities suggested by Myst were more intriguing to me than any book or game would be able to make explicit.

I think over the years, we’ve collectively come to an over-simplistic explanation for why Myst was such a huge hit: it came at exactly the right time. Both CD-ROM drives and 3D-rendered imagery were still a huge novelty, and the people buying new computers wanted something to show off the potential of a machine with all this newly-available storage. Everyone at the time was talking about the potential of multimedia and new media, but there was little to show for it, apart from discs filled with uninspired shovelware, The Seventh Guest, and Myst.

I think that explains why it became so huge a hit, but it doesn’t explain why Myst has had such longevity. Creatively and artistically, it was all novel and stunning. It went beyond the “steampunk” aesthetic to combine classical architecture, early-20th century sci-fi, contemporary science fiction, and high fantasy. Even the presentation was completely novel to me: the windows into the trap books appearing like static-filled television broadcasts is such a formative idea, and I’d never seen anything like it.

It’s perfectly fitting that a story whose core conceit is the ability to create new worlds by writing in books — worlds limited only by the imagination of the creators — would hop across so many different genres.

Also, I loved it because it was originally made in HyperCard. It seemed like the ultimate realization of what was possible with the software many of us had fallen in love with for its seemingly limitless potential.

A VR version of the original game came out not too long ago, and I tried it on the Oculus Quest. It was not for me. Not only did it give me motion sickness that lasted over 24 hours, but I’d forgotten the degree to which it requires note-taking and generally being aware of the world outside the screen. I tried taking off the headset, updating the notes on my phone, putting it back on to get more information, taking it off again, etc… and it almost immediately felt like more trouble than it was worth. It’s a reminder that VR games in general come from a different age2So to speak: when Myst first came out, it was still pretty common for games to require you have at least a note pad handy, if not a full supplement of printed maps, guides, and code keys. VR took off only after games demanded that everything be supplied in-game3And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials.

I’m usually the exact opposite of one of those people who says “In my day, we made graph paper maps for games, and spent hours figuring out ciphers and logic puzzles, and you kids today are too damn soft!” But I’ll make an exception for Myst, since it’s so good at giving you the feeling of being trapped in a world with nothing but clues and scattered pieces of paper, and it’s entirely up to you to puzzle your way out of it.

  • 1
    Surprising at the time, completely obvious in retrospect
  • 2
    So to speak
  • 3
    And often with over-long and too exhaustive tutorials

My Favorite Games: Dark Castle

Along with Uninvited, the game I played incessantly on my Mac Plus in college was Dark Castle. (And then, Beyond Dark Castle). Unlike Uninvited, I can call Dark Castle a classic without any qualifications or reservations.

It’s easy to fall into comparing the two games, not just because I played them both around the same time, but because they were very much of an era in Macintosh games. I was late to the Mac because they were so expensive, but even in 1988, there was still a novelty to a home PC with a mouse and a GUI. The standout Mac games are the ones that capitalized on the novelty.

Dark Castle ran in full screen, so it didn’t adapt the Mac Classic UI (but its sharp 1-bit display made it look 100% Mac-like), but it did embrace the mouse. Even though it was ported to other PCs, using the mouse to aim your character’s arm and throw rocks made it feel made for the Macintosh at its core.

The other novelty was digitized audio, which Uninvited also used to a more limited degree. The first thing players of Dark Castle are likely to remember are the Curly noises from the one-eyed goblins, or the sound your character made when running into a wall or falling off a platform. (And in Beyond Dark Castle, it’s like the sound of the torturer cracking his whip at the hanging prisoners).

Another aspect of the game that I didn’t fully appreciate until reading The Secret History of Mac Gaming was how fluid and detailed the animation was. I hadn’t played Karateka or Prince of Persia at that point, so having a characters move in ways more like traditional animation instead of simple Atari 2600-era sprites was completely new to me. If I remember correctly, the animation for Dark Castle was first done analog before being converted to Mac pixel art. It really paid off, as the game felt more like an interactive cartoon than the flashier but more limited Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace.

It only occurs to me now how often games go through the same cycle — new hardware brings an initial burst of creativity as developers make games tailor-made to take advantage of it, and then everything gradually becomes more homogenized as it’s streamlined, simplified, and cross-ported. Some of the first and best games for iOS took advantage of everyone on the planet having a touchscreen with an accelerometer, resulting in games like Flight Control and even Fruit Ninja. But people still were eager to just slap a virtual joystick on the screen and keep making the same types of games they were already familiar with. I think that’s another part of the appeal for the Playdate to me — yes, the crank is a novelty gimmick, but it also tempts developers into thinking of novel ways to use it and entire game mechanics based around it.

My Favorite Games: Uninvited

One of the first games I played on the Mac was one of the most influential games I ever played

If for some reason you get cornered by a gang of hostile media critics1Redundant? demanding a good example of the difference between format and content, show them Uninvited by ICOM Simulations. I can’t in good conscience call it a “good game,” but its interface and presentation were amazing and hugely formative for me.

The premise is that you’ve crashed your car outside of a haunted house, and you have to go into the house to find your brother. There’s really not much more to it than “random haunted house things,” although I do vaguely remember a wizard being involved. There’s one unforgettable jump scare near the beginning, and it is well-rendered and pretty well-executed; I showed it to some friends in my dorm, and they screamed out loud, and it was the first time it occurred to me that a video game could get such a visceral reaction out of anyone.

But it’s also full of puzzles that aren’t sufficiently set up, obstacles that you can only get past from dying the first time you encounter them, nonsensical additions, and a long, tedious maze in the final act. The ending is also the ultimate anti-climax: you find a static drawing of your brother sitting on a balcony against the sunrise, and as a MIDI version of Ode to Joy plays, there’s a 10×10-pixel, one-frame “animation” of him giving you a thumbs-up. Then you got a full-screen certificate of achievement that you could print on your ImageWriter. I played the game with my college roommate, and that became a running joke: we said “congratulations” by sitting stock still for a minute, and then raising a single thumb.

But the interface was entirely ingrained in the Mac GUI, in ways that made me think “this is how all video games should be.” Everything was point, click, and drag between separate windows. One showed the current scene, one showed push buttons for your verbs, one with the available exits, one for your inventory, and a mysterious one called “self”2The full ingenuity of that one only became clear once I started trying to design adventure game puzzles.. The Inventory was the best, since it adopted the “Clean Up” menu item from the Mac Finder, but also added a “Mess Up” option to make everything disorganized again.

As a HyperCard devotee, I immediately tried to recreate that interface with my own adventure game. As I recall, I only made it about three screens into the project, but it says a lot that I was so quickly inspired to make my own.

If I like the format but not the content, then it seems like I’d like one of ICOM’s other games, Deja Vu and Shadowgate. I’ve only tried them in the past few years, and they were already so dated that I couldn’t get very far before being too frustrated. Once I played The Secret of Monkey Island, I embraced the SCUMM philosophy and never looked back. Puzzle games with fail states just seem like bad design now.

  • 1
    Redundant?
  • 2
    The full ingenuity of that one only became clear once I started trying to design adventure game puzzles.

My Favorite Games: Day of the Tentacle

I’ve said several times before — to anyone who will listen, with or without their consent — that the demo plus first “Meanwhile…” cut-scene in The Secret of Monkey Island is what made me want to work in video games. Playing Sam & Max Hit the Road is what made me feel like I “belonged” at LucasArts and had to work there someday. And almost immediately after finishing Full Throttle, I decided I had to apply for a job no matter what.

But if I had to pick one of the adventure games as my favorite, I always thought it was Monkey Island 2. Its pixel-painterly backgrounds have a style that’s been unmatched in any other game1Although Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis comes awfully close., and it felt more endlessly expansive than anything I’d seen or played up to that point — there seemed to be no shortage of new, evocative locations. And up until the end, it felt like I was in sync with the game; it was setting up jokes and giving me tools to deliver the punchlines.

Now, though, I’m realizing that I don’t have any desire at all to revisit it. I tried playing the remastered version for a bit a few years ago, but there wasn’t much “magic” left in it for me, and I didn’t get very far before losing interest completely. I’m sure that much of that is due to over-familiarity, and I’d be happier with my memory of playing it than actually playing it again.

But more than that, I think that the feeling I had of set-ups and punchlines was surpassed several times over by Day of the Tentacle. That’s the entire game, after all. The initial storytelling does its thing pretty quickly and then gets out of the way, leaving you with a long chain of setups and payoffs. It feels much smaller in scope than Monkey Island 1 or 2, but what you lose in exploration is instead spent directly engaging with the game, looking for connections and predicting the solutions to puzzles.

It’s really a masterpiece of adventure game puzzle design. In my opinion, the gold standard of adventure game design is giving the player the feeling that they’re actively telling the story, instead of triggering moments of passive storytelling. So many of the puzzles in Day of the Tentacle are just setting up a gag or a piece of slapstick, rewarding you for being able to predict the punchline of the gag, and giving you the tools to make it play out yourself.

As for whether I’d like to play it again, or just be content with my perfect memory of it, I can’t really say. I will say that every attempt to add to it has left me cold. It was one of the first (maybe the first?) of the SCUMM games to be released on CD, and I played the “non-talkie” version of it on floppy disks. I remember that a while after I’d finished it, a friend called me to ask for help getting through some of the puzzles. At one point I told him to take an item and put it in the Chron-o-John. I heard a toilet flushing from over the phone and asked him what the hell was going on; I’d never heard the voices or sound effects. I did play the “improved” version later on, and I have to say it left me cold. The voices were all fine and performed well, but I’d already spent hours with the characters, and the voices didn’t match the ones in my head.

Also, while looking for a screenshot for this post, I kept finding images of the remastered version instead of the original. It actually surprised me how much I dislike them. I’m not typically precious about pixel art in the slightest2Unless it’s on an original black-and-white Macintosh, in which case it’s sacrosanct, but there’s just so much charm in the original art that’s completely lost in the attempt to make it smoother and higher detail. Even more than the Monkey Island 2 backgrounds, the process of translating analog art into lower-resolution pixel versions ended up creating a visual style that’s inseparable from the games that made me want to get into video games in the first place.

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    Although Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis comes awfully close.
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    Unless it’s on an original black-and-white Macintosh, in which case it’s sacrosanct

My Favorite Games: The Sims 2

Memories of the game series that taught me about abstractions, and about how profitable video games can be (for other people)

The featured photo on this post is my attempt to create my own likeness in The Sims 41Or more accurately, a preview Create-a-Sim tool they launched to promote The Sims 4, and it came out pretty close. The character creation is still my favorite aspect of the otherwise-unremarkable The Sims 4, mostly because it wisely chose to embrace the cartoonish aspect instead of trying too hard for photorealism. (Also because it let me make a character whose beard color didn’t match his hair color, allowing me to finally see some representation in a video game!)

When I say “otherwise-unremarkable” I should probably clarify: even though The Sims 4 is my least favorite in the series, I’ve still put more hours into it than just about any other video game apart from SimCity. Maxis games for me tend to be less “entertainment” and more “all-consuming obsession.”

My favorite in the series is still The Sims 2, because it built on everything that made the first game work — and make the first one become absurdly profitable to an unprecedented degree — without straying too far from the core focus. The biggest improvement there was the Create-a-Sim mode, which allowed for more customization of characters without any hint of straying into the uncanny valley.

I happened to be working at Maxis on SimCity 4 while The Sims 2 was in production. I can still remember the first time I created a family in Create-a-Sim mode, and then when I launched into the game, it showed me a screenshot of the whole family posed together, smiling and waving. It was mind-blowing. I was still unfamiliar enough with 3D that it had never occurred to me you could render into a 2D texture. That moment in the game seemed to epitomize everything that made Maxis games so appealing: applying technology to something that wasn’t intended to be cool to nerds, but to give more universal audiences something charming and delightful.

It’s wild to read about the history of The Sims franchise. At every step, they made a decision that seems like it should never have worked, but it all came together to work magnificently. The process of building and decorating a house feels so different from the actual simulation that they could be entirely different games, and yet they build on each other in a perfectly elegant curve that seems like under-appreciated genius: a better and more efficiently-designed house helps your Sims do better in their daily lives, which in turn helps them afford better stuff and bigger houses.

Of course, it’s at least as much a Republican Capitalist Nightmare abstraction as SimCity‘s economic model is, but the sense of humor in The Sims is what makes it work. In contrast to the more blatant slapstick throughout the game, it’s more subtly satirizing consumer culture and its own promotion of that culture. At least in the earlier games. I felt like The Sims and The Sims 2 made a clear delineation between its abstractions and the real world, for instance by playing 1950s shopping mall-style music when in “Buy” mode. Along the way, the people shaping the franchise seem to have forgotten — or never understood in the first place — that it was all supposed to be a joke.

The genius of The Sims as a core game mechanic was being able to recognize people’s moment-to-moment lives as a coldly impersonal abstraction: to put “I’m lonely” and “I have to go to the bathroom” as roughly equal imperatives. The genius of The Sims as a classic video game franchise was recognizing the absurd humor of that abstraction, and leaning into the absurdity.

When I first saw The Sims, with its characters speaking gibberish before spinning around in mid-air to change clothes, or peeing themselves, or setting themselves on fire, I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen. Eventually, I began to appreciate it as brilliantly stupid and let it take over an enormous chunk of my free time.

My favorite story about The Sims is one I’ve told dozens of times, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on this blog but can’t find it at the moment. In short: the game recognized I was gay before I did. When I first launched the first game, it included a starter “family” of two women called the “Roomies,” and it invited you to move them into the neighborhood and make friends. My plan was to make another family of two men and move them into a different house. I’d thought I’d introduce them all to each other, have them pair off into couples, all go into the Music career, and eventually I’d have my Sims recreate ABBA.

I hit a snag early on, though, when I tried to have my two male roommates develop a friendship with each other. They got along a little too well, choosing to have long conversations with each other at the expense of all their other needs. Before long, they had the option to “Hug” each other, which was nice to see. One of the guys had a different idea of platonic relationships that I did at the time, though, since a heart appeared over his head. At that point, the guys had the option to “Try for a Kiss.” What could it hurt? I thought. It’s only a video game.

From there on out, the guys were inseparable. I brought the girls over and tried to start conversations between them, but the guys showed little interest, and things got somewhat awkward. As in real life, I tried to force one of the guys back onto the “proper” path and had him constantly striking up conversations with one of the women, inviting her over frequently, offering her back rubs. It was during one of these interchanges that his “roommate” entered the room, went into a jealous outrage, slapped the both of them, then stormed off into the kitchen to make dinner. Being a character in a Sims game, he set himself on fire almost immediately. The other Sims panicked and tried to put out the fire, but they were too late — the spurned man, just after a breakthrough in realizing his true orientation, died in the fire. I moved his urn into the backyard, which automatically created a tombstone.

His former roommate was inconsolable. He’d go out to the backyard and stand over the grave, unable to do much apart from “Cry.” His new ladyfriend eventually got bored and came out to join him in the backyard, trying to start up a conversation to cheer him up. The two Sims now had the option to “Dance,” which I chose, causing the man and the woman to dance on his former boyfriend’s grave.

For years, I thought of that story as being the perfect example of how even a seemingly absurd and comical abstraction could expose so much of my suppression and frustration while living in the closet. The best intentions. The repression. The curiosity. The guilt. The secret desire for retribution and a different life. When I told that whole story to my first boyfriend, though, he said, “You should’ve known you were gay when you bought a new video game and the very first thing you wanted to do was recreate ABBA.”

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    Or more accurately, a preview Create-a-Sim tool they launched to promote The Sims 4