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

Crank ’em if you got ’em

My thoughts about the Playdate and some of my favorite games for it so far

For the couple months or so, I’ve been obsessively following the release of the Playdate and responses to it. It’s been driving me crazy to read so many people’s opinions about it and not putting my own up on the internet.1Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.

I’m biased, of course, but I think the thing is just fantastic, both the actual device and the philosophy behind it. I think that even though I’ve spent so many years working on a game for it, I didn’t fully appreciate what Panic is doing until I saw its release and the response to it.

And it’s been many years. Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve marveled at the fact that a relatively simple, silly strategy game with 1-bit art has taken up five years of my life. Then I made the mistake of digging through my emails to find out when I first sent a pitch document to Panic, and I saw that the date was 2015. So it’s been seven years of my life.

To be fair to me, I haven’t spent that entire time working on Sasquatchers. I spent around a year working on the first game that I pitched, which was weirder and more targeted at an earlier conception of the season model, in which a game would last one week. But while I was pretty happy with how that game was looking, it never really gelled into an actual game. I put that one on hold — I would like to revisit it at some point — and switched to a more straightforward concept. After all, “Advance Wars plus Pokemon Snap” is an easier idea to wrap my head around.

Still, there were lots of redesigns and rewrites. The most compelling part of the game wasn’t even in until pretty late in the process, because I didn’t want to overtax my already strained art skills. Plus there were multiple job changes with accompanying crunch modes, and long stretches of time when I just couldn’t work on the game at all. If I’m being 100% honest, the pandemic and supply chain shortages and other delays are probably the only things that gave me a chance to actually finish the thing.

Even up to the point of release, though, I was still thinking of the Playdate — non-pejoratively — as a “hipster Gameboy.” Something that knew exactly what its niche was and which audience it was targeted at, and would attract a bunch of accomplished indie game devs wanting to make weird side projects.2And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!

But it’s only since the device has been released, and the SDK and developer forums have been made public, that I realized the full implication of Panic’s making a truly open platform for nearly-frictionless game development. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, geeking out over HyperCard and making games with it. I knew I was excited to be able to just make something without all the hassles of technical pipelines and production schedules and marketing and monetization and platform integration, but the real power of the Playdate is making that excitement available to everybody who wants it. It feels like it’s inherently not a device just for consumption; the games are cool on their own, but they’re even cooler as inspiration for you to make your own stuff.

Back when I started working on Playdate games, my old annoyances with Lua came back in a big way. Its simplicity and versatility are great for starting out, but gets progressively more time-consuming as the project gets bigger and more complex. Because the language (and the Playdate SDK for that matter) don’t impose that much structure on you, you have to make it yourself, which often means you’re given plenty of rope to hang yourself. I didn’t have a solid and flexible UI system until way too late in the process, for example, so adding new screens and features took way longer than it should. Once I devoted some time exclusively to setting that up, it made everything that followed much easier to development. So that’s my main tip for anyone making a Playdate game: invest in making a flexible UI system up front!3I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.

After I had to put my pencil down on Sasquatchers, the ideas for other games started coming fast and furious. I’m currently about 10 levels deep into a stack of game prototypes and proof-of-concepts; maybe one or two of them will turn into something? I was surprised how much the SDK has matured, too — what felt like a daunting blank slate when I started on Sasquatchers now seems like a trivial process. I’ve gone from “hey, here’s a weird idea” to having a few simple screens and UI running on the device in about 15 minutes. That’s absurd!

If all goes well, Sasquatchers will be released tomorrow to the people who got the first round of devices. I’ve already gone through multiple stages of “This is awful and is going to be such an embarrassment and no one at Panic will ever speak to me again” self-doubt, so seeing it get a pretty good response was an extremely pleasant surprise. Here are a few of the nicest reviews:

Edge magazine’s season one game recaps: “Advance Wars meets Pokémon Snap in this winning combination of strategy and photography.”

ArsTechnica‘s run-down of the 24 season one games: “…the absolute chocolate-and-peanut-butter combo to put Playdate’s library over the top. […] I’m always looking for fun games that prove challenging and engaging without any killing required, and Sasquatchers does that with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and cool, hand-drawn art design. What’s more, the further you get in the game, the more you have to adjust your crew to favor abilities like attracting beasts or opening up field vision, and this tactical spice keeps the game engaging from start to finish.”

The Verge‘s review of the Playdate: “My favorite part is how Sasquatchers uses the crank: it serves as your camera, so you have to turn it around to nail the picture or video you’re attempting. It’s very satisfying.”

Eurogamer’s Playdate review: “That same ambience permeates a game called Sasquatchers, which is basically Advance Wars but with people who want to photograph cryptids rather than deploy tanks and soldiers. Played out on a grid, regularly interrupted by moments in which you chat with your crew and turn the crank to line up pictures, it’s a playful, handicraft thing. I love it and I want to play more.”

People on the internet and in game review contexts actually being nice and supportive is such a weird and unusual experience for me, it’s yet another one of those aspects of the Playdate that reminds me of why I wanted to work in games in the first place: being able to experiment with weird ideas and focus on the merits of the game itself, instead of its value as a purchasable entertainment product.

I’m particularly grateful to my friend Seppo for playtesting the game, both for making suggestions4His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games, but especially for giving me the last boost of encouragement I needed to go from “this is an embarrassment” to “I actually feel okay releasing this into the world.” I’ve had so many ideas percolating and started so many projects over the years that the biggest achievement of Sasquatchers is that I actually finished it.5More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point? What I love about the Playdate is that it makes that possible for more people; there’s an implicit assurance that you can do this too.

Lots of people already have, the Playdate category on itch.io has dozens of entries from developers, several of whom just used the free emulator without having an actual device in hand! Some of my favorites:

And those are just out of the ones I’ve had a chance to play. Looking through the entries reminds me a lot of looking through listings of HyperCard stacks back in the late 80s. Weird, hyper-specific ideas not necessarily intended for marketability but just on the hope that at least one person out there might find it cool and useful.

Also, a few of my favorite games from Season One:

  • Star Sled by Greg Maletic
    Near-perfect rendition of the 80s Atari aesthetic, with some really cool glitch effects. This one hits exactly the right difficulty level for me — I’m still terrible at it, but every time I crash I immediately want to try again, instead of bouncing off in frustration. I’ve probably played this more than anything else.
  • Pick Pack Pup by Nic Magnier and Arthur Hamer
    A twist on the Match 3 game that actually changes how you think about the puzzle. Great presentation that keeps throwing new ideas at you, and the music is absolutely fantastic.
  • Inventory Hero by Steven Frank, James Moore, and Neven Mrgan
    A frantic RPG where you’re just in charge of managing your character’s inventory. This one captures “the spirit of the Playdate” because it starts with a weird twist idea, keeps riffing on it, and then nails the execution.
  • Omaze by Gregory Kogos
    This elegant game makes perfect use of the crank, wordlessly teaches you how to play, and its sfx plus simple but evocative graphic design make it feel like it was delivered fully-formed onto the device by an alien civilization.
  • Demon Quest ’85 by Crooked Park
    A very well-written visual novel/logic puzzle about a bunch of 80s teens summoning demons in their house. Kind of sells itself, really.

I hope people get their Playdates soon and love them. And I hope a lot of people are inspired to make their own stuff for it, and share it6And/or sell it! on the internet! Personally, I’m looking forward to finishing unpacking and finding my Apple Pencil so I can get back to work on my next game.

  • 1
    Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.
  • 2
    And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!
  • 3
    I’m also planning to rewrite the one I used as an open-source one available on GitHub, assuming I ever get the time to do it.
  • 4
    His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games
  • 5
    More or less. There are still plenty of things I’d like to add or rebalancing I’d like to do. Maybe at some point?
  • 6
    And/or sell it!

The Sasquatchers

My favorite team of paranormal adventurers

I’ve mentioned before that I’m doing a game for the Panic Playdate — coming soon! — but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned the inspiration for it.

A few years ago, I fell down a rabbit hole watching YouTube videos, and I landed on the most fascinating channel. It seemed to be a couple of guys (and an at-the-time unknown photographer) wandering through the woods at night, trying to get photos of a Sasquatch.

And I mean, that’s not all that weird on its own. Where it got weird is that I actually saw a Sasquatch, in the background of their video! At first I figured it must be one of those elaborate prank videos, or some kind of demo reel for a CGI compositing house or something. But to be honest, it didn’t look good enough to be either one of those. The way it looked uncannily real and not-real — plus the fact that they were so nonchalant about it — convinced me it could only be the real thing!

Anyway, the team is called The Sasquatchers. Their channel seems to have disappeared, and the website was down forever until they got some kind of legal issues squared away, but it’s back up as of the time I’m writing this. They’ve been doing this kind of work for years, but never got the recognition I think they deserve. It’s a shame that the only photo of theirs that still exists online is the one I put at the top of this post, which they said was a rare double-sighting of the Willow Creek Wailer.

Their videos are (or were, anyway) full of never-before-seen animal sightings, but the guys are completely nonchalant about it. They’re all about media impressions, and getting them in selfies and such. But they’ve had some funding issues on top of (and because of) the legal stuff, so they’re eager to get a little bit more exposure so they can get out and start spotting more dangerous and more obscure cryptids.

I had just left Telltale and had some free time, so I decided I had to meet the guys. I was able to talk with them for a little bit when they were in San Francisco researching some kind of video project1I could never figure out whether they were saying that the Zodiac Killer was a Sasquatch himself, or just that he used Sasquatches to move around silently and commit murders, and they seemed stoked to have a video game made about their adventures! It’s a simplified and highly-abstracted version of the real thing, of course, but I’m hoping that if people enjoy the game, they’ll be interested in checking out the team’s real work.

Oh yeah one thing: I don’t know how it happened, but somehow they got the impression that I’m a famous game designer at an AAA studio and had a team of dozens of people working on the game. So everybody just be cool and don’t tell them, okay?

  • 1
    I could never figure out whether they were saying that the Zodiac Killer was a Sasquatch himself, or just that he used Sasquatches to move around silently and commit murders

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.

  • 1
    Although Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis comes awfully close.
  • 2
    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.”

  • 1
    Or more accurately, a preview Create-a-Sim tool they launched to promote The Sims 4

Bandersnatch and Possibility Spaces

More like an extended-length episode of Black Mirror than an interactive movie, Bandersnatch reveals (probably intentionally?) most of the problems with interactive fiction.

I finally was able to watch Black Mirror: Bandersnatch last night, after years of the Apple TV Netflix app telling me it wasn’t supported.1As far as I know, it’s still not. I ended up watching it on the built-in app on my “smart” TV. Technological dystopia indeed! I can’t talk about it in any detail without spoiling it, which would be a shame because its best moments are when it does something surprising with the format.

My short “review” is that it’s absolutely worth watching. As an episode of Black Mirror, it’s pretty strong. As a 1984 period piece — specifically to being a young tech nerd in 1984 — it’s really fun. And as an examination and indictment of all the implications that come from interactive fiction, it’s interesting. My major criticisms are that it doesn’t do much that’s actually groundbreaking with interactive fiction, apart from delivering it to a wide audience in a different context. And ultimately, it doesn’t work that well as a coherent narrative.

I think the most remarkable thing about Bandersnatch is that it seems like Charlie Brooker (creator of Black Mirror and writer of this movie/episode) genuinely understands all of the implications of interactive fiction. Which is remarkable because I think a lot of people working in video games and interactive fiction full time still don’t get it.

That’s not to say that it’s a super-accurate depiction of video game development, even in 1984. There are several scenes where a programmer furiously types a few lines of BASIC code and hits the RUN button (?) to see semi-3D graphics or a perfectly-rendered high-resolution title screen, which I don’t think is all that accurate. But that’s creative license, and complaining about it is as pedantic as faulting a car chase for going through the most scenic parts of a city instead of a real-world route.

What Bandersnatch does get right are the fundamentals: the quickly-expanding complexity of branching narratives, the lack of genuine agency on the part of the player, and the lack of stakes in the player’s story.

Continue reading “Bandersnatch and Possibility Spaces”
  • 1
    As far as I know, it’s still not. I ended up watching it on the built-in app on my “smart” TV. Technological dystopia indeed!

My Favorite Games: Diablo II

Stay a while and listen

So I mean, I get it: yeah, no shit Diablo II is one of my favorite games. It’s the video game equivalent of saying you like Rumours or the White Album.

But recently I bought the Diablo II: Resurrected remaster, and it was uncanny how quickly I fell right back into it. I’m realizing I didn’t just play Diablo II, I was completely subsumed by it.

Strictly speaking, the first Diablo had a bigger impact on me. It was my first exposure to so many different things: roguelikes, procedurally generated levels, action RPGs, and narrative (more or less) in non-adventure games. Even more strictly speaking, it was the Hellfire expansion that had the biggest impact on me, by introducing the Monk character class. I had completed the first game a few times over before starting another play-through with the Monk, and I’d gotten to be level 10 or so before I tried unequipping his weapon. His attack power shot way up! Which made sense, because monks are supposed to excel at hand-to-hand combat. It’s one of those times I was shown how much a game can do not with a pre-determined story, but with interconnected systems.

But realistically, there’s no way that I’m ever playing Diablo again, even if they do come out with an opportunistic cash-grab a spectacular new remaster. With the sequel, it wasn’t even an option whether I’d play it again or not. I felt compelled to.

So now here I am with a backlog of dozens of Steam games built up over the years, which I’m ignoring to go back to playing a game that came out 20 years ago, for what might be the tenth or fiftieth time.

One of the most hilarious aspects of playing the remaster is the character selection screen, which gives you a button to toggle between the remastered presentation and the original. This is a pretty standard feature in video game remasters and re-releases, but here it’s used only in the pre-game screen, not the game itself. (At least, that’s the only place it’s easily accessible). I say it’s hilarious because without it, you might believe that Blizzard hadn’t actually done much of anything besides make new versions of the cinematic sequences — which shouldn’t be understated, actually, since they’ve improved the character designs a lot from the bafflingly ugly originals. Otherwise, the game looks exactly like you remember it. You need the button to be reminded just how generous your memories have been to a game that was still using turn-of-the-century technology. Oh no. That’s not what I remember at all!

Diablo II is my favorite of the series because it takes all the lizard-brain-dopamine-dispensing mechanisms of the original and expands on them in all the right, insidiously clever ways. I haven’t yet gotten past the first act with the remaster (because I keep starting over with new characters), but I’m still hoarding all the gems and jewels I find along the way, practically rubbing my hands together at the prospect of getting access to the Horadric Cube. The game has always been a ridiculously fancy and expensive overlay on a random number generator, but soon I’ll get a whole new set of random numbers to see!

I don’t know what other game are going to be in my “my favorite games” list, because I’m thinking of them as I go along. But I would bet that Diablo II is the game I most resent liking. I didn’t get nearly as obsessive as some others did — min-maxing has never been my thing, and I think I only played online a total of twice, quickly discovering I only enjoyed it as a solo game — but I still think of it less like a player and more like an addict.

I hate how it so perfectly doles out rewards so that I’m always looking forward to the next hit, turning over every loose boulder and opening every chest inexplicably left in the middle of an open field. I hate how it makes me carefully weigh the pros and cons of the bonuses of any two pieces of armor, even though I know it doesn’t actually make that much of a difference. I hate that I look forward to entering the next area, even though I already know what it looks like, or unlocking the next skill, even though I already know what it does. It annoys me how it’s such a brazen system of repetitive habit and exposed mechanics, and I find it so completely satisfying.

My disappointment with Diablo III is probably a good indicator of exactly what Diablo II does so well. None of these games are particularly remarkable for their storytelling (although you can tell that some of the people at Blizzard are very fond of the lore they created), but Diablo II has just the right balance. Enough so that you’re not just looking at a scroll of random numbers, but not so much to get in the way. When I was a couple hours into Diablo III and learned that the main story would have me traveling the world assembling the pieces of a magic sword, I could hear the low, raspy groan as part of my soul left my body.

I don’t have a ton of experience playing the smaller, simpler roguelike games out there, but of the ones I’ve tried, none have had exactly the same feeling of satisfaction as advancing through Diablo or its sequel. I’ve got no doubt that Diablo 4 will be huge and bombastic and meticulously crafted and balanced (full disclosure: I’ve got a friend who’s working on it), but I’d like to play something again that gets that simple feeling of risk, reward, and exploration.