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 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.

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    Posting unsolicited opinions is what the internet’s for, after all.
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    And people like me, who were lucky enough to have a friend with connections to people at Panic!
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    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.
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    His suggestion led to the choose-your-own-title screen to differentiate save games
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    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?
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    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?

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    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.

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    The full ingenuity of that one only became clear once I started trying to design adventure game puzzles.

My Favorite Games: Day of the Tentacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Games: The Sims 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”
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    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.

My Favorite Games: SimCity 3000

You can’t cut back on nostalgia for the SimCity series! You will regret this!

(SimCity 3000 art borrowed without permission from Ocean Quigley’s blog)

I think SimCity 3000 was the first game I ever lost a day to. I was at my parents’ house for a holiday break, and I stared playing it in the morning, and just never stopped. I got up for meals, but spent the whole time distracted thinking of city improvements and rushed back to the computer. I stayed up too late in the den, redistricting and listening to jazz long after my family had gone to bed. And I say that I “lost” the day because by the time I went to sleep myself, I didn’t feel like I’d actually accomplished anything except for learning the game’s systems.

One of those systems was the land value calculation, which was the first time I remember recognizing how video game abstractions aren’t the pure simulations that they might seem to be. There’s an inherent bias in SimCity 3000’s simulation, in which you were incentivized to maximize land value over having a more balanced city. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate, or just a side effect of having such gorgeous building art and lots that responded to rising land values by transforming into perfectly landscaped green spaces.

Whatever the case, it felt as if providing all the basic city services and building parks and recreation wasn’t some kind of altruistic responsibility, but a game about attracting rich people. It was essentially a game about making Lafayette or Ross, CA.

Years later, even after I’d worked on the sequel, I read the observation that the economic model for all the SimCity games was some kind of Reagan-esque fantasy of using tax cuts to solve any problem, and shaping a city with the ultimate eminent domain. I guess it seems obvious in retrospect, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d been subtly indoctrinated with Republican ideologies.

But the reason it remains one of my favorite series is that for me it was ultimate case of getting a bunch of interconnected systems and figuring out how they all work together. Cities: Skylines has become the best city-building game available, largely by mimicking the SimCity games almost slavishly, fixing the rougher parts and taking advantage of improving computer power to expand on it over and over again. But the games feel very different to me. Cities: Skylines feels like building a city, while SimCity 2000-4 feels like encouraging a city to grow.

I think SimCity 4 is pretty great, by the way, and it’s one of the games I’m proudest to have worked on, even though my contribution isn’t really part of what makes it great. The only reason I picked 3000 as my favorite is because I can’t play 4 anymore; I spent so many days building the same roads over and over again during development that it feels robotic. I do wonder if I could go back to it now and enjoy it.

I should also mention that the reason I’ve still got so much love for the SimCity series that I’ve never had for Skylines — even though Skylines is a better game in several ways — is that there was so much creativity applied to the rewards for understanding the systems. The buildings in every version, especially the most recent SimCity, are just beautiful, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they instilled in me a better appreciation for architecture as I drive around a city. The music has also been amazing in every version, and 3000‘s might be my favorite. But so many aspects, from the often-gratuitous animations, to the sound effects, to the digitized portraits of your advisors in 2000 that conveyed so much character in so few lines of text, feel that they were put there for no other reason than to be delightful.

My Favorite Games: Final Fantasy Tactics

Possibly my favorite video game of all time, and one that’s apparently impossible to recreate

I think I’d already declared Final Fantasy Tactics my favorite game of all time before I’d even finished my first play-through. I’d never played anything like it; it was my first exposure to tactical strategy games, story-driven strategy games, Final Fantasy as a years-long franchise that existed separate from blockbuster hit Final Fantasy 7, the job system, and even the super-deformed character style.

That’s probably why no attempt to recreate it has gotten it just right: so much of it depended on novelty. I get the impression that very little in the game is completely new, since it existed in Ogre Battle or Final Fantasy IV or any of dozens of Japanese games that I’d never heard of. But it was all new to me. So it defined not only how that type of game should work, but also how many details and interacting systems a single game can, and maybe even should, contain.

After all, this is a game where the damage an attack can do will be based on attack power (of course), defense (sure), level (naturally), resistances (standard RPG stuff), which direction the characters are facing (interesting), differences in elevation (very interesting), faith and bravery scores of the characters (okay I guess), gender (now hang on a second), and zodiac signs (what?). On top of that, there are all these interesting ways to manipulate the time and turn order of a battle. Then there’s an entire job class called Calculator whose abilities take effect based on esoteric arithmetic properties: every character whose level is a prime number, for instance.

There’ve been two sequels for the GameBoy Advance that added some interesting aspects to the game’s setting of Ivalice, but they feel like shallower imitations instead of full games in their own right. And there’s been something of a remake in the form of the War of the Lions version, which brought new cut-scenes and a new translation clearly intended to bring the English-language versions of the game the depth and gravitas the story clearly delivered.

Which I don’t like at all. And it annoys me that War of the Lions has become the only version of the game that’s still playable without digging out my old CD and my original PlayStation. I miss the awkward translation of the original. A few memorable lines from the original were kept for the new translation, but it seems like the vast majority of the dialogue in the game was carefully edited to remove any poor translations and instead have the stately, flowery English that was no doubt intended by the original writers.

I used to think I was being condescending when I preferred the awkward original, in a sense saying tee hee look at the funny Engrish. But now I don’t think it’s actually that, so much as missing the earnest charm that comes from these cute characters waving their tiny hands in the air and shouting nonsense before they incinerate each other or stab each other to death. The original seemed happy to be bizarre to American audiences, while the remaster feels as if it’s desperate to be taken seriously.

Which is a problem when the story is so humorless and overwrought and frankly, such a mess. It’s about factions and houses in decades-long wars conducting impossibly convoluted schemes to form alliances and undermine the power of the church to ultimately summon demons who will take over the planet. Or something like that. I’ve played through the game four times now, and I obviously couldn’t figure out what it was all about through any of it. I’m not even that embarrassed, since characters are named like Zalbag and Dycedarg and you’re just expected to be able to keep up.

I’ve spent the 20+ years since I first played Final Fantasy Tactics looking for a tactical strategy game that I enjoyed as much. Advance Wars is pretty great, although nowhere near as deep. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is probably the closest I’ve found to capturing that feeling of figuring out how a bunch of interconnected systems work with each other. But the holy grail of a true successor remains elusive: something with just the right combination of complexity, expansiveness, depth, and charm.

My Favorite Games: What Remains of Edith Finch

An ongoing list of my favorite games, starting with an astounding, metaphor-filled, exploration game by Giant Sparrow

One of the more pointless aspects of social media that I miss is the “what’s your favorite?” list-making. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back and updated my list of favorite video games, so why not do it as an ongoing series of posts instead of a one-time list? No order except in the order I remember them, and I’ll keep going until I run out.

On the one hand, I hate being reductive with What Remains of Edith Finch, distilling an hours-long experience into a declaration of what it “means.” But I also feel the need to state over and over again just how much it accomplishes, quietly, in the same way that watching someone perform actual magic would have me looking around in wonder, asking other people if they just saw the same thing I did.

As a good illustration of just how much I was impressed with this game: the writing is near-flawless, and it’s one of the least remarkable things about the experience. When I first got interested in writing for video games, the bar was set so impossibly low that competence seemed exceptional. But over the years, the industry — or at least the small part of it that I’m interested in — over-corrected with what was frankly pretentious over-writing. More and more, I saw dialogue with little sense of character voice, and passages more interested in chasing some kind of literary flourish instead of practical effect. What Remains of Edith Finch could easily have devolved into something insufferably maudlin or twee, but instead, it’s accessible, varied, often poetic, and often joyful.

But the most remarkable thing to me is that there’s no imbalance in the game. It’s not a game with weak mechanics but good writing, or an interesting environmental design but shallow interaction, or any of the trade-offs you’d expect to find in even an excellent game. Instead, every aspect of the experience works together to deliver its meaning, which is an extended metaphor for death and how it informs our understanding of human existence.

The stories in What Remains of Edith Finch are varied in length, tone, interaction style, and presentation; it seems that the only thing they have in common is that they all end in death. The first story suggests that the game will take off in the direction of magical realism — which, to be clear, would’ve been charming on its own — but it’s not long before you’re dropped into a new situation as mundane as a child sitting on a swing. You have to figure out not just what’s going on in the narrative, but how you’re supposed to interact with it and drive it forward.

There’s a little bit of confusion: are they really going to make me go through the entire process of doing this? Because, you quickly realize, it’s not about being told a story, it’s about sharing an experience. The thing that makes these stories poignant is that you’re going through them, seeing them first hand. For those of us who were raised to believe in an afterlife (and are still undecided about the question), it echoes one of the most fundamental questions we had as children: if heaven’s so perfect, why do we have to spend all this time miserable on Earth? The answer, such as it is, that satisfied me, more or less, was that you can’t fully understand the wonder of our flawed and joyful existence unless you experience it yourself.

And as you wander through the Finch house, you can peek into windows on the door to each room to get a rough, distorted idea of the person who once lived inside. But you can’t really know each person’s story until you’ve experienced its end. These aren’t mysteries, really: you know that each story ends in death, and more often than not, you know how the character dies. And since death is as inevitable in this game as it is in the world outside of it, the deaths aren’t always tragedies. They give context to the lives that came before them, letting you experience first-hand what made these characters more than just a collection of random memories.

As a result, the stories have moments of startling impact: turning a senselessly tragic death into an experience of curious joyfulness, or showing the wondrous imagination that coursed through a life of seemingly tedious sadness. You’re left with a feeling of profound connection, to everyone who’s lived and everyone who’s going to die.

Friday’s All Right for Even More Crankin’

Friday link post featuring Panic! at the Bluetooth Speaker

I imagine that most of the people reading this blog will have already seen it, but just in case: Panic put out a video with lots more info about their upcoming Playdate handheld videogame machine, with pre-orders starting in July. Mentioned in the “Season One Games” section of that video is my own game, “Sasquatchers,” which makes sense because it’s one of the Season One games. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it on here as it gets closer to release, because for such a small game, it’s taken up a surprising amount of my life over the past several years.

Congrats to Christa Mrgan and the rest of the team there at Panic for managing to get across so much of (what I think is) the personality and core appeal of the project. I’m a fan of the company and just the whole notion of wanting to do something weird and different, and to do it well and responsibly. Now I have to find out how to get one of those audio docks for it, because the Poolsuite FM screen with 2-color dithered video of a plane running in the Mac classic interface as a music player triggered intense feelings of need I wasn’t aware I even had.

If you don’t have patience for the whole update but would rather see an extremely Portlandish 2-minute ad describing what it is, that’s available separately. (It’s at the end of that update video as well).

The company’s been adamant about encouraging development on the device to anyone who wants to make something for it, a philosophy underscored by this video. On top of releasing a lowest-possible-barrier-to-entry development system called Pulp, they’ve pledged to make the SDK public and already released a 50-minute video with Steven Frank demonstrating how to use the SDK to make an app that runs on the device.

Plus, they’ve been running a developer preview, to expand the number of people testing out the SDK beyond just the devs in Season One. There’s been some really imaginative stuff already hinted at; you can get a good sample from Arisa’s Twitter feed, since she’s been handling developer relations for the Playdate project. One of my favorites from seeing screenshots and previews is Dustin Mierau’s “Playmaker,” which seems to nail the whole aesthetic of the Playdate and its philosophy of creative exploration.