We have traveled to Disney parks a few times now. On each trip I spend a percentage of it just studying the construction of, well, everything. There are so many small details in those parks that aren’t the products of chance. Each small scrape carved into the artificial stone, each crack snaking its way through a wooden pillar, each trail of rust drifting down from simulated steel rivets. All of those details have been placed there and maintained meticulously in the hope that you will never notice them. Individually these details are works of talented craftspeople worthy of respect and praise. Combined, they become invisible. Just one one small contribution the intended effect; to transport an audience of park attendees to another place and time. They will become wrapped up in the story going on around them. The real magic to Disney parks is that you are never supposed to know it’s a trick.
Game designs are, for the most part, linear. This is a feature built into the medium. The player is supposed to play through each level, area, or challenge, completing them and moving forward until they reach the end. Game designers are taught to always direct the player in subtle and overt ways. The grandest sin is to leave the player feeling directionless and lost. The design drum beat repeatedly since the arcade days that the objective must always be clear and the path too it must be obvious. There is no other way, or other ways have been tried and failed. I mean, why would anyone question the wisdom of decades of game development?
Disney theme parks have one major guiding principle. Everything is built to tell the story. Everything. After you walk through the main gate the imagineers who designed the space have no control over what you look at, where you go, or how you experience it. The story of the place, the experience, must be everywhere and built into everything. Park designers can’t control what you do, but they can try to give you some hints. Sightlines, color pallets, angles, indicators, pathways, all tools in the designers kit. The fact remains that when you are in a theme park no one will be there to tell you how to enjoy it.
For years in video game design we clung to the platitude that the designer can’t tell the player what to do. The player is a rogue element and as soon as they are let loose on a game, all bets are off. For the most part, that hasn’t been true at all. Press A to start, press start to start, move left to right, move bottom to top, jump here, shoot here, defeat all enemies to open doors, find keycard to open doors, have this adventure in this way for this amount of time. I’m not saying a directed experience isn’t valid. Some truly wonderful games have been made that are absolutely on rails. For a very long time, that was really the only practical way to make games. Technical limitations required more or less linear experiences. It is now technically feasible to create unconstrained spaces, but let's not kid ourselves, most “open world” games are rail lines with switching stations. Design wisdom would say that you can’t really do it any other way. The Imagineers would say otherwise.
Then there are the other games. Games like Skyrim, games like Breath of the Wild, games like Outer Wilds. These games are theme parks. Subtle hints and gentle nudges are all that can be detected of the designers intent. The trick of the game, the pathing of the space, the push toward a narrative conclusion is, like the Disney parks, mostly invisible. The story is told too and by the person experiencing it, at the pace they want to experience it. Story is woven into every little detail but asks nothing specific of the player.
When you wander around a Disney park they know that you will be waiting, they know that you will back track, they know that you will see each attraction and feature from different angles and vantages. All of these eventualities have been considered and planned for. The design language for truly wonderful open world video games was being developed before the integrated circuit was even a viable technology.
I literally wrote all of this to say that Outer Wilds isn’t an adventure game, it’s a theme park and it’s wonderful and you should play it.
I got an Ipad for Christmas (and all ensuing gift giving holidays and events). Paired with the Apple Pencil we have had for a while it makes for a hell of a sketching platform. The drawings of varying quality will continue until further notice.
When I was at the Reboot Develop conference I attended one of the best talks I have ever seen. Thierry Boulanger talked about how he and the rest of Sabotage Studio made their game The Messenger. When the audience left the theater, I saw a lot of red eyes and sniffly noses. My own, I’m not ashamed to say, were also red and sniffly, but I’m sort of a softy so a particularly moving commercial might set me off.
A talk about how a developer created a game isn’t really something that anyone would usually classify as emotional. There are a lot of them out there. Most are about the trials of game development, some are about a specific issue or problem the team tackled. I find a lot of them very, academically, interesting. Something was very different about this particular talk.
Thierry Boulanger did talk about his own personal journey, his struggles and hardships, but that wasn’t the only thing that made an entire audience well up. There was something about the way he talked about the game that tugged at me. At the time I hadn’t played The Messenger but I knew I would have to. Now it’s a few months later, and I have played The Messenger, and I get it.
As a game I think that The Messenger is very good. Not earth shaking, not genre defining. It’s not the type of game that will be written up as having historic significance. I’m certain that it will be someone’s favorite game, because, like I said, it is very good. That someone isn’t me, but I am glad that I played it.
Structurally I thought the game had some issues. It is longer than it needs to be. The controls are very sharp and precise but some of the mechanics feel mushy. There is a randomness to some of the boss fights that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the game. The graphics and audio are excellent but don’t always feel cohesive area to area. The music is perfect. The music is absolutely perfect.
Despite any flaws, I can easily recommend The Messenger. The one thing it is absolutely not lacking is heart. The people who made this game put absolutely everything they had into it. The Messenger gives you the impression that the Devs thought they might never get to make another. They jammed in so much stuff, so many mechanics, so many jokes, so many stories, so many choices, that the game is filled to bursting.
I’ll never know if I would have had the same response to The Messenger if I hadn’t heard Thierry’s talk. That’s fine. The two creations work well together. Complement and reinforce each other. I think I understand the talk a little better now, but more importantly, I think I know why he felt he had to give it. He put everything he had into it because he didn’t know if he would ever get to make another one.
At the end of a year you are supposed to look back at what you did, the things that happened, what you learned. I did some game dev work on the art side, I did some game dev work on the coding side, I did some previz and mapping work, I did some prop modelling, I did some writing, I did some graphic design. Having a logo I designed show up on Japanese, British, and American websites is pretty fun. I learned several new tools, did some work with powershell and python scripts, and experimented with art styles I’m not used to. Creatively and professionally it\s been a pretty good year. Here’s hoping that 2020 is as good or better.
sparks of joy like dust
spread wide by years wild breezes
crushed in loving hands
Best Games - Soulcalibur
Sure, it doesn’t have the banger of an intro cinematic that kicked off the previous game, Soul Edge, but Soulcalibur is an absolute masterpiece. Soulcalibur did more to elevate the fighting genre than any other game of it’s time.
In a year that also saw the release of Super Smash Bros., Street Fighter 3: third strike, and Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter, Soulcalibur stands apart. You see, fighting games are way too hard to play. I love them, but they are absolutely impenetrable to new players. I love that they are complex, and rich with nuance. I love that fighting games are very free-form and fluid. No matter how many times you have played a fighting game you can always work out new techniques and timings. Everything that I love about the genre makes them terrible for people new to them.
Of course difficulty in games is nothing new and a certain amount of learning is expected every time you play an unfamiliar game. The main problem is that most fighting games are absolutely obnoxious in their refusal to teach you anything at all about how to play them. Of the other major fighting series I mentioned up there, only Super Smash Bros. makes an attempt. Poorly.
Soulcalibur started as an arcade game. Simple, straight forward, 1 on 1 combat designed to eat quarters. When it made its way home as a North American launch title on the Sega Dreamcast, the developers could easily have left it at that. Basic 1 on 1 fighting, and maybe a tournament mode or something.
Instead, they added Mission mode. A massive sprawling story based around different types of fights with different rules and requirements. It would be easy to think that this was just a way to extend the playtime of a basic fighting game, but Mission mode does something fighting games just don’t do. It teaches you how to play the game. Not in a tutorial “hit this button now” kind of way, but in a deep many hours of practice kind of way. You won’t be able to mash your way through all of the fights and you will have to use different techniques and characters to pass the challenges. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and you won’t realize how much better you are getting at it until you play against another person and chain together some massive combo, or sidestep a potentially devastating blow. This is a fighting game that makes you better at it while you are playing it. Truly a rare bird.
I can set aside how I was obsessed with the Kilik kata animation before the game even came out and how I must have watched it a thousand times since. I can set aside how I played it on the Dreamcast until my thumb hurt and I burnt out a VMU while playing it. No, I’ll go with this; Soulcalibur is a fighting game that makes you better at playing it while you play it, and for that it will always be one of the best games.
I did some work over here but as always I can't recommend anyone read it. I mean, sure, go ahead, but it's all sorts of broken. The new changes are an attempt to fix that.
This screenshot is the beginning of at least the next year. I'm making a game. It's a roll'a'round, demolition derby, beat'em'up with a heavy metal soul. Wish me luck.