Stay a while longer, and listen some more

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Games: Subnautica

Subnautica seemed to come out of nowhere and quietly do everything right.

For some reason, I can never remember that Subnautica is one of the best experiences I’ve had with a video game. I only first heard about it as an interesting VR experience, so I downloaded a pre-release version to try out on a headset. It was so clearly still in early development that I wasn’t very impressed.

But it hooked me just enough that I started playing the non-VR version of it, and it was completely captivating. It was engrossing, clever, funny, terrifying, and somehow epic in scope but still the perfect “indie game” length.

I was reminded of it during a recent conversation on Mastodon, where I was insisting that my preference is for sandbox games to remain sandboxes, and narrative games to stay focused on the main storyline. I’ve been adamant about that — and then I remembered that Subnautica exists, merging multiple types of game without doing a disservice to any of them, all seemingly effortlessly.

Subnautica presents itself as a survival game. You start out as the sole occupant of an escape pod jettisoned from an enormous spaceship that crash landed onto an alien planet. You’re alone and adrift in the middle of a vast ocean, and your first task is to find food and shelter, just to survive long enough to start finding a way to be rescued off the planet.

Over time, your priorities shift. Not just as you gradually work your way up the hierarchy of needs, but as the focus of the game changes from survival, to exploration, to base-building, and then to story-telling. Not only is the difficulty curve so well-balanced as to be nearly invisible, but the presentation shifts as you go along. Once your basic needs are met, you can be focused on uncovering more of the story about what happened.

There’s a wry sense of humor throughout, as you learn more about the soulless mega-corporation that you worked for, and the lengths it’ll go to to exploit the natural resources of a newly-discovered planet. But it never overwhelms everything to become too self-consciously jokey. And the game not only has long stretches of tension — driven by needing to reach an objective while your resources are dwindling — but a few of the most effective jump-scares in any horror game.

The game’s presentation and pacing are so well-done that it’d be perfectly understandable if the base-building component were left as an afterthought. But it’s not; it’s a lot of fun and allows for a good bit of creativity while never feeling like a completely separate activity from the main game. Many of the additions you’ll make to your home base are purpose-driven: they’ll let you explore longer and reach distances farther away, efficiently store the tons of stuff you collect during exploration, and have more efficient food and energy production so that you’ll be generally more self-sufficient. There’s tons of room for customization just in terms of aesthetics, but that all feels like a reward for your hard work, not just an unnecessary tangent.

I haven’t yet played much of the sequel, Subnautica: Sub Zero, but what little I have seen suggests that they play up the story and character aspects even more. Instead of the anonymous every-person of the first game, you’re a more well-defined character with personal relationships at the game’s start. I don’t know how well that will work in practice, but the concept is a solid one: the storytelling in Subnautica wasn’t just more substantial than I’d expected from a seemingly open-ended survival game; it was masterfully done, period.

I still say that video games in general should focus, instead of trying to be all things to all audiences: side quests and mini-games are anachronisms left over from a time when games needed to be padded out to reach some vague threshhold of being “worth the cost,” and nobody’s got time for that these days. But I’m still very happy that Subnautica is out there, proving me wrong, showing that it is possible to be both open-ended and narrative-based, and to do both extremely well.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Sasquatch

Fun with old reference photos

I was looking through photos from 2019 and found a bunch of goofy reference photos I’d taken while trying to draw characters for Sasquatchers.

One of the advantages to looking like I do is that I’ve got a live reference at the ready whenever I need to draw Sasquatches or big dumb guys. Bonus photo of me trying to capture the perfect expression of a Florida Skunk Ape.

Lessons from the BearPig

Learning to think of myself as an ever-improving artist instead of a bad artist

Something I realized tonight is that a lot of my perception of my own art abilities is probably due to having my first job in video games be at LucasArts.

I was pretty over-confident when I started there, and I thought of myself as at least a pretty good artist if not an exceptional one. I didn’t have any aspirations of taking a full-time job as an artist or animator, but I figured I wasn’t bad for a programmer, and being around so many talented professionals would be a great opportunity to get better.

The attitude at the company — or at least, the parts of the company that I came in contact with — was a lot more binary than that: you either were an artist, or you weren’t. “Programmer art” was at best disposable, and more often something that was to be sought out and destroyed as early and as thoroughly as possible, lest it somehow infect the game and bring shame down upon the entire company.

To be clear, I don’t think it was at all unreasonable. There’s no sense in having art made by amateurs in a place that was hiring some of the best professional artists in the business. And I get it on a personal level, too. I wouldn’t want somebody coming in and trying to do my job, even if they were good at it. But it did have a permanent side effect: it made me start to think of my own art skills not just as “not professional,” but as “not fit to be seen by humans.”

It’s only recently that I’ve started to break free from the Talent Binary. It doesn’t have to be either professional-quality or worthless. I’ve slowly started to appreciate that the stuff I draw doesn’t necessarily have to be great, that it’s okay if it’s just good enough. Does it convey what it needs to convey, and does it seem “genuine” instead of just an uninspired copy of someone else’s work? That’s probably good enough.

I also started to appreciate that it doesn’t even necessarily need to be good, if I enjoy doing it. It’s only by being in environments that literally treated art as a commodity that I got locked in the mindset of art as being a product. It’s okay to just have fun trying. And I also started to accept that while I might be able to reach a level of skill that I’m completely satisfied with, if I put in the work every day to practice and get better, I don’t actually enjoy it enough to do that. It feels pretty good to let myself off the hook, without thinking that I have to give it up entirely.

There was a piece of programmer art in The Curse of Monkey Island that was a perfect example of the lessons I should have taken from LucasArts instead of the ones that I did.

For quite a long time during development, the title screen of the game was a DeluxePaint creation by my boss, the lead programmer. It was a simple scene with a calming, light blue background. In the center was the text “The Curse of Monkey Island,” in the usual SCUMM dialog font which some nerd out there probably knows the exact name of but I don’t. Below was a curved line depicting a beautiful sandy beach, and on either side were delightfully abstracted palm trees made from an assortment of brown and green polygons. And in the center of the screen was a face: a perfect brown circle, with two light brown semi-circles representing the ears, two black circles for the eyes, and a light brown circle that was the snout. As the title text suggested, it was the Bear Pig of Monkey Island. At the time, and being the arrogant little shits that we were, we made fun of it. Even the artist himself called it “bad programmer art.”

But was it? It did exactly what it needed to do, which is provide a backdrop for game initialization and indicate where the final title sequence would begin. And during development, it set the mood. This wasn’t just some numbered sequel, but a story with a title and everything. The island evoked the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches of the Caribbean, to envelop us in our tropical setting every day while we sat inside a dark windowless office in Northern California.

And the Bear Pig was a reminder of the folly of arrogant men trying to tamper in God’s domain, daring to create blasphemous, hybrid monstrosities that could serve no possible purpose other than to be a lesson in human fallibility. A valuable lesson to all of us not to get too cocky while working in one of our favorite franchises!

So was it “good” art? No. Oh God, no. No no no no no. But was it good enough? Also no. But… did it serve its purpose? Considering that 25 years later, it’s still a fun memory of one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a team I’m still amazed I was lucky enough to work with, I’d give it a qualified “maybe.”

I, Too, Am An Adult With Very Strong Opinions About Mario Mario

Lazy dunking on casting Chris Pratt has revealed something I never fully appreciated about the franchise

For a minute, I was confused by how people were having such a strong aversion to the Super Mario Bros trailer, considering that Chris Pratt only has a total of two lines and some assorted grunts. Then I remembered the thing that I always forget about Twitter, which is that it’s all about being first, not about being insightful. People have been gearing up to scoff and/or be outraged ever since the first (admittedly weird) casting announcement, and it’s way too late at this point for anyone to say, “we will remain cautiously optimistic until we see more footage from this family-oriented animated feature film” I often forget how the internet works, and for that I apologize.

But as I was getting more baffled and annoyed at people getting so worked up over nothing, I started to realize something that I never fully appreciated about the Mario series: Miyamoto and Nintendo DGAF. Or rather, they care deeply about the right things, but don’t particularly care about the things people on the internet expect them to care about.

Because pretty much all of the Mario games show such a great amount of care and attention to the smallest details — all of the main-line ones, definitely, and most of the side games, even including many of the licensed ones — it’s easy for me to take for granted that they’re obsessive over the same stuff that I’d be obsessive over, if I were in charge of a hugely profitable, long-running, global franchise: world-building, character development, continuity, and so on.

What’s weird is that I’ve kept thinking of them in those terms, even though there’s absolutely zero evidence in any of the games or licensed material. Each of the games1Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2 takes place in a different universe. Many of the characters and settings are recurring, but new ones are constantly being introduced and old ones re-imagined. Everything is based on the central mechanic of the game — he’s got a magic hat! he’s got a spray gun! he can turn into a cat! he’s in 3D! — and, like 1984, is treated as if it’s always been that way, of course: “King Koopa has always been at war with the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario has always been able to jump through star gates between tiny planets.” Mario has been doing multiverses since before it was cool.

Granted, it’s not the most insightful epiphany I’ve ever had, but it gives me even more appreciation of the brilliance of the franchise than I had before. If Miyamoto and Nintendo were as precious with Mario and the associated characters as some people expect them to be, obsessed with lore and continuity, it would’ve quickly become a soulless, repetitive, and predictable run of decreasingly inspired sequels. Instead, they’ve generally shrugged about the sanctity of the characters2As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’. and only insisted that the games themselves be imaginative and polished.

Instead of being overly fixated on a style bible, they’ve allowed the characters to be re-interpreted in dozens of different (and highly marketable!) ways. Why shouldn’t they play tennis together, or golf, or race go-karts? Why can’t they have plumbing side-jobs as doctors or ghost-hunters or typing instructors? Instead of being overly possessive of their “classic” assets, they made two whole games just giving you all the pieces and inviting you to remix your own games. Instead of being risk-averse with casting, they agreed for their flagship character to be played by a professional wrestler, and a British guy.

I initially thought it was weird to cast Chris Pratt as Mario, but in retrospect that was a dumb reaction. Why not cast a personable movie and TV star with experience doing comedy in both live action and animation as the lead in your animated family action comedy? Mario actor Charles Martinet (who is also prominently credited in the trailer) is extremely good at suggesting a ton of character with just the occasional “it’s-a me!” and “okey dokey!” but that specific voice would be hell of grating over an entire feature film. And having Mario stare blankly and silently while the surrounding characters are all energetic and interesting would just rob Mario of any personality; he’d end up Gordon Freeman-ed.

So to sum up: I think the new movie looks pretty neat and fun, and I’m more interested in it than I was before. I think Nintendo’s handling of the Mario characters is even more clever than I did before. And a lot of people on Twitter seriously need to chill out, go outside, and touch some mushrooms.

  • 1
    Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2
  • 2
    As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’.

Haven’t Got Time for Immortality

Immortality is both a masterwork and a frustrating example of the limitations of interactive storytelling. Spoilers within.

Immortality is a fascinating and frustrating interactive movie that asks the audience to solve the mystery of what happened to a promising young actress by watching and scrubbing through clips from her three unreleased films. I can’t remember ever having this kind of reaction to interactive entertainment, where I can recognize that it is both a fantastic achievement of ambition and execution, and also a disappointment.

I’ve been careful to say “interactive movie” and “audience” instead of “video game” and “player,” because Immortality is not a game. I don’t consider calling something “not a game” as a pejorative, and it’s absurd that people get so hung up about it, but this is kind of a weird case. The main thing that keeps it from being a video game is my biggest issue with it: you navigate the experience with insufficient information, so you’re essentially wandering through a collection of very well-made video clips, instead of making meaningful choices.

But this is a perfect example of how I’m of two minds about Immortality, because the thing that made it ultimately not work for me is the same thing that made it an amazing experience for the first several hours. It’s structured so that it’s front-loaded with discovery, as you’re uncovering more and more stuff and marveling at how deep and layered the whole experience is. It’s honestly unlike anything I’ve experienced in games or interactive entertainment before, and to come up with any kind of comparison I’d have to go way way back to the early days of the internet, when following a hypertext link could result in diving down a rabbit hole that seemed to have no end.

I read a review that promised no spoilers, but then talked about something crucial to the game that I really wish I’d discovered myself. So I recommend going in cold, with just one piece of advice: play it with a game controller if at all possible. I spent the first evening using just a mouse and keyboard, and while it was still fascinating, it turned out that I was missing a crucial part of the experience, and I was just going around in circles. The rest of this post is going to necessarily give too much away, so I recommend giving it a try even if just for those spectacular first few hours. It’s absurdly affordable considering how much work obviously went into the production, and it’s also currently included with Xbox Game Pass, if you want to take a risk-free dive into it.

Spoilers follow

I Don’t Know How I Feel About Dreamlight Valley

Disney’s new “kind of free-to-play but also not really” game is confusing the heck out of me and I can’t stop playing it

Disney Dreamlight Valley is like if you took Kingdom Hearts, removed all the traces of a Japanese RPG, and replaced them with The Sims and Animal Crossing. Or, if you want an unfairly uncharitable interpretation: if you made an IP-synergy game mashing up most of Disney’s characters, applied free-to-play mechanics, and then sold it as a retail product.

To be clear, it’s not actually a free-to-play game, and its mechanics don’t feel anywhere near that exploitative. It’s more like the Sims 4 model, where there’s an endless supply of purchasable content, except you can get much of it just by playing the game normally. Even though “normally” does often feel like doing fetch quests or variants on “collect these 3 things” or “cook these 3 things,” or waiting for timers to expire.

It’s odd, is my point, which might be entirely because I’ve largely been out of the whole “casual games” environment for the past several years. Maybe this is just how these types of games work now, and I’m unfairly equating the mechanics with the types of free-to-play games that I absolutely hate?

Whatever the case, the end result is that I’m absolutely hooked on it, even as I’m constantly wondering whether it’s “okay” for me to be hooked on it. I keep wondering whether I can just enjoy it in perpetuity until I get tired of it, like Animal Crossing, or whether the other shoe is going to drop at any moment, and I’ll find the seedy underside of the business model. I suspect that I’m either just paranoid, or too set in my ways, where you paid your 50-60 bucks and got the entire game until the sequel came along a few years later. I get nervous when I see any sign of the business model in the game design itself.

Which isn’t entirely fair, because Dreamlight Valley is charming as hell. I’ve played this kind of “let’s throw all of our IP together in one place” type game a few times before, from cheaper mobile games to more ambitious stuff like Kingdom Hearts and Disney Infinity, and the art direction and production value of Dreamlight Valley is some of the best yet. It feels aimed at a mid-range, widely accessible game engine, instead of being thrown together on the cheap. The characters and locations I’ve seen so far all stay close to their on-screen versions — without radical redesigns to give everything a common art direction — and I think it all works pretty well.

I’m also very happy that they’ve continued the trend of the Disney Animation Studios 3D character designs for humans that started around Tangled or Frozen, which allow for customization and skew towards cartoons, but are all inherently appealing. I can only dream of hitting the level of Daddiness that my in-game avatar pulls off effortlessly, even if I do still wish that the game had representation for people like me, i.e. those whose hair and beard are completely different colors.

It looks like they’re ready for a full suite of dozens of different characters, so they’re not all exhaustively animated, but each has a set of standard animations that’s still full of character. Merlin does his happy dance, Maui slaps his chest, Remy acts enraptured by what he’s smelling, and so on.

Also, for all my uneasiness at the systems and “compulsion loops” seemingly laid bare, the systems do all fit together in clever and frequently satisfying ways. I’m too much of a Gen Xer to ever be completely comfortable when Disney starts laying it on thick with the power Dreams and Magic and Imagination, but I still am extremely pleased to be playing a game where you level up by doing nice things for your friends. It’s just a really nice, comforting suspension of disbelief to be able to ignore the fact that you’re looking at a semi-randomly-generated list of craftable items, and instead tell yourself, “I’m going to take the time to make Mickey Mouse a vegetable casserole, because I know it’s his favorite.”

I’m playing the game on PC with Xbox Game Pass, which might be part of why I can’t quite get comfortable with it. I still don’t fully understand the business model of subscription services. At least with free-to-play games, I had a vague understanding that they were exploiting “whales” who contributed more money than the average player. I hate it, but at least I understand it. Playing a game like Dreamlight Valley — with its roped-off hallways suggesting near-infinite expansion packs and downloadable content in the future — might feel more relaxing if I’d paid for it up front.

At least for now, though, I’ll keep doing favors for Scrooge McDuck (more or less the Dreamlight Valley version of Tom Nook) and trying on different outfits and cooking meals for Mickey Mouse to take on picnics and do my best to ignore the feeling that the rug is going to get pulled out from under me.

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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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
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    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

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.

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    Cloud Strife alone must’ve had at least a dozen polygons!
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    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.”