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Archive for January, 2011

I Am An Insane Rogue AI

This is a game, not a confession.

If you’ve been checking up on Kongregate.com lately, you’ll no doubt have noticed at least one game by nerdook. Most if not all of his games tend to feature randomly generated levels with a basic goal, usually being “get to the end of the level,” and some open room for creativity and customization. In theory, the randomly generated levels give the games endless replayability. In practice, the levels usually end up feeling repetitive and samey.

But I have to say that I do have a lot of respect for nerdook. Often times when a developer makes a game that gets popular he just clones that game over and over again. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, but nerdook has had a lot more ambition. He’s made action games, shooters, platformers, strategy games, tower defense games, and his recent titles have been very imaginative. His last game, Dungeon Developer, was a dungeon crawler in which you controlled the dungeon rather than the crawlers.

His newest game, I Am An Insane Rogue AI, basically applies the same idea to a different cliche. There have been many games and movies that feature an AI that goes mad and starts killing people. But in this game you’re the AI instead of a survivor, and you have to utilize robots, lights, and other machinery to distract the civilians while you hack computer terminals to take control of the world.

It may sound like a complicated game, but it’s not that hard to figure out. The early stages are fairly simple. As you go further into the game, more complex defenses are introduced and you have to use upgrades to get around them. It doesn’t throw too much at you at once, and it doesn’t get boring too quickly.

A lot of the upgrades give you ways to kill people, but if you complete a level without killing anyone you get extra money. You don’t necessarily need the extra money since you can play an infinite number of levels, but I like to use pacifism anyway.

This is what the gameplay looks like.

I’ve noticed that one thing that really makes me like games is when they allow you to use a variety of strategies to reach a goal. This game does that very well. Unlike a lot of games in which you just gradually upgrade your stats overtime, this game’s upgrades involve an array of different passive and non-passive skills that help you in different ways, including portals, sniping, poison gas, and much more.

The upgrades are certainly not perfect, though. Most of the upgrades give you ways to instakill enemies, and if you’re going for a pacifistic approach (which the game encourages you to do) then they won’t be of any use. And if you’re okay with killing the humans, then the upgrades will likely make the game very easy until you get to the late stages.

But if you are going for pacifism, then the game is going to require patience and strategy. You have to wait for the right time to activate your abilities and hack all the terminals without killing anyone. It’s a lot of fun.

I wouldn’t call it a great game, but it’s creative and entertaining, and I think it deserves a look.


Music in Games

Playing Bit.Trip Beat with my friends on the Wii made me realize something about all games.

You see, the gameplay is incredibly simple. It basically feels like a one-sided Pong. We had a blast playing it though. That is, until we missed so many bits that we got sent to the “nether,” which makes all the blocks gray and turns the background into a plain black. We hated being there.

This is what Nether looks like.

That made me realize that the appeal in Bit.Trip Beat lies in a colorful background and hypnotic soundtrack.

I always knew that visuals were important to a game, but I never thought about how important the music is. I’m not kidding when I say that Bit.Trip Beat would lose all of its appeal for me if it didn’t have music. The game even takes advantage of that by giving me the music as an incentive to stay out of the nether.

So as it turns out, music is very important in games. And I’m not just talking about rhythm games. Games have to appeal to our senses, and even if a game can entertain our sense of sight, we can easily get bored if it doesn’t have appealing sounds as well.

This doesn’t mean that every game has to have good music, but I have a good feeling that a lot of popular games wouldn’t be as popular if they didn’t have the appealing music. I can think of a few games right away that wouldn’t be as fun to me if they didn’t have as good of a soundtrack.

  • I already used Bit.Trip Beat as an example, of course.
  • Canabalt already has a lot of detail in the environment, but the techno song adds a good mix of tension and excitement to the whole experience. Playing with the sound off just isn’t as fun for me.
  • The recently released Man in Gap would probably have struck me as boring if it didn’t have hard rock playing in the background. Every time I die, it’s like the music is cheering me on and encouraging me to play more.

It’s disappointing that a lot of flash game developers don’t seem to care about the soundtracks for their games. I’ve played quite a few games that either don’t have music, or have music that was obviously put together in no time at all. I’m sure those games would have been more popular if they had music that fit well with the themes. I can name a few of those as examples too.

  • A few weeks ago I mentioned that Plain Sight would have been more fun if it had background music. It does have good sound effects, though.
  • The fact that Vox Populi, Vox Dei didn’t have any music seemed a bit eerie. Admittedly that worked pretty well with the scary theme, but dying over and over while trying to get through each room got boring without any background music. I think it would have been better if it had a horror track.

The fact that music is important to games probably doesn’t come as a surprise to some of you, and I’m pretty sure I always knew that music matters, but what I’m saying is that I think a lot of people don’t realize how important it is. And I’m glad I now know this, because I’m currently making the music for a game that my friends are designing. To me I guess this means I need to take my role seriously.

Why Canabalt is Awesome

If you’re connected to the indie PC gaming scene, you probably know about Canabalt. If not, click the link. Now.

Canabalt is a big hit among browser games, and I still hold it as the benchmark for visual design, minimalist gameplay and flow in flash games. Today I’d like to examine why so many people (including myself) love it so much.

Firstly, I want to address the misconception that Canabalt has no story whatsoever. While it’s true that the game doesn’t really have a structured plot, there is a lot of storytelling going on during the gameplay.

The world looks basic, but the attention to detail is exquisite if you look closely. Nearly every building is in decay. Every once in awhile you’ll see a hovercar fly by, shaking the camera. Sometimes you’ll jump onto a crumbling building that immediately starts falling down. It all combines together to give you the impression of a city in chaos and turmoil.

If you pay attention to the background, you’ll see giant robots with cranes that are walking through the city. What are these robots? It’s never explained, but it’s safe to assume they at least have something to do with this destruction. Every now and then a bomb will fall in front of you and you have to dodge it. Who dropped that bomb? Why? Clearly something is attacking your city. Is it the government? Is it aliens? Is it terrorists?

Bombs away!

What I love about the storytelling in this game is that so much is left up to the imagination. Clearly Adam Atomic understands that sometimes the less you tell the player, the more powerful the game’s effect can be. This is especially helped by the use of pixel art.

There isn’t anything really intriguing about the setting, but it’s a completely fleshed out and engaging world that I love to look at.

Then there’s the gameplay. The controls are about as simple as you can get; you press space to jump. Your running is controlled for you. All you have to worry about is when to jump and how high up you go when you’re jumping. This makes the game accessible to just about anybody, even people who have never played a game before.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t strategy involved. Boxes slow you down, and if you run into too many boxes you won’t be able to reach the next building. But if you’re going too fast, it gets hard to stop yourself from falling. You have to keep yourself balanced between too fast and too slow, and it can get tough.

Gotta watch out for those boxes and chairs...

I normally get bored of games that involve playing the same thing over and over so you can get a higher score, but this game has variety, a fast pace, and a thrilling song that further reinforces the tone of the game.

I play this game nearly every day, if only for a few minutes. Whenever I beat my high score I post it on my Twitter (by the way, you should totally follow me!). Canabalt may not be the most ambitious game in the world, but it does what it does so well that I can’t help but admire it.

Choices and Sequels

If I could enact one game-related law, it would be this.

If the game you developed features one or more choices that majorly affect the story, you are not allowed to make a direct sequel to that game.

You can make a prequel. You can make a spiritual sequel. You can do what Knights of the Old Republic did and make a sequel that takes place years and years after the original game. I don’t care. Just don’t make a sequel that directly follows the story of the first game.

You see, when the developers decide to make a sequel to a game that involves big choices, they can either take the Mass Effect approach or the Deus Ex approach. Obviously neither of these games were the first to use these methods, but I’m going to use them as examples.

If they take the Mass Effect approach, they make it so that none the choices you make in the first game have any effect on the gameplay of the second game, and only change the dialogue and cutscenes. This means that they can make all the choices work, which means you can let players export their files or choose which choices they made in the first game when they start the second game.

If they take the Deus Ex approach, then they pick whichever choices they like the most and follow those. This means they get to focus entirely on one story arc.

The problem with the Mass Effect approach is that the choices you made in the first game end up being so trivial that you’ll be doing the same things in the second game no matter what. The problem with the Deus Ex approach is that if you happened to choose a different ending than the one the developers chose, your ending means nothing.

I think both of these methods are terrible, because they effectively ruin the impact of the first game’s choices, but I think the way Bioware did it with Mass Effect is the lesser of the two evils.

I don’t want to spoil anything about Deus Ex, but let me tell you, the choice you make at the end is huge. You’re essentially choosing the fate of the entire world, and no answer is the right answer. It makes you contemplate the nature of humanity, and I’m not aware of many games that have ever been able to pull that off. The ending I chose taught me something about myself, and that means a lot to me personally.

I noticed that Deus Ex: Invisible War was on sale for $5 on Steam recently. I’ve heard people say that the gameplay was not nearly as good as that of the first. I would be perfectly willing to buy it for $5 and see for myself whether or not it lives up to the standards left by the first game, but I’m not going to do that, because I know that they didn’t choose the ending I chose, and I don’t want to have my ending for Deus Ex ruined.

In my book, Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be the second game in the Deus Ex franchise. It’s going to be a prequel that takes place a long time before the first game, and that’s how it should be.

Knights of the Old Republic 2 is the only game I can think of that didn’t diminish the effect of the first game. It worked because it took place so long after the original game that the choice you made didn’t matter anymore. Either ending could fit into the timeline. I was actually happy with that. So if you absolutely must make a sequel to your game, at least do something like that.

Accessibility and Depth

Recently I got my mom into Plants vs. Zombies. It’s been fun to watch her play, but it’s also brought something to my attention.

There’s a common presumption among gamers that casual games lack depth. Some people say that casual games are just too easy and lack the depth and complexity of hardcore games, and the reason casual gamers like them is because they don’t want to have to use strategy or skill.

I’d like to use Plants vs. Zombies as an example for why this presumption is wrong.

Plants vs. Zombies

I’m sure you all know by now that Plants vs. Zombies is basically a tower defense game. Tower defense is a very popular genre on the PC, and I imagine that’s because it’s easy to pick up on. You just put the towers on the map and watch as the baddies get shot.

However, from watching my mom play the game, I’ve noticed that there is a lot more depth to this particular game than I thought.

For me the number 1 indicator that a game has depth is when it allows for multiple play styles. This is something I definitely noticed when I watched my mom play. When I play Plants vs. Zombies I usually try to set up an impenetrable wall that blocks all the zombies from entering, but my mom tends to set up a basic defense and then use the one-time-use killer plants to take out the big threats as they come.

While my tactic tends to be more cost-efficient, neither of these strategies is really wrong. They’re just different ways to play the game; different approaches to reach the same goal. I use defense, while my mom uses offense.

Impenetrable Wall

My typical impenetrable wall at work.

I breezed through the adventure mode in Plants vs. Zombies, but my mom had to take several tries on a few levels close to the end. The reason I was initially better is because I’ve played a lot of tower defense games and I naturally know what’s efficient and what isn’t. Clearly that shows that the game has depth.

My mom didn’t have to take too many tries with any of the levels. The fact that my mom was still able to beat the game without too much of a struggle shows that Plants vs. Zombies is very accessible.

The fact that the game is both accessible and deep impresses me a lot. It’s easy to learn and hard to master. Isn’t that how all games should be?

I’ve been having my mom play games on Kongregate, but most of them aren’t accessible enough for her to have fun at all. I think it’s great that we have games like Plants vs. Zombies, because people who haven’t played games before need something accessible to bring them in while also having enough depth to show them how deep the rabbit hole of gaming goes.

Now I’d like to ask you this: Can you think of any other games that have both accessibility and depth? Feel free to comment and give your two cents. It can be a browser game, a retail game, whatever.

Plain Sight

Plain Sight Screenshot

Plain Sight is an indie game about ninja robot suicide bombers.

I have a feeling half of you have stopped reading so you can buy it now, but for the rest of you who want to know more, I guess we’ll talk about the game.

Plain Sight is an interesting game to me because it’s an online deathmatch game, but its gameplay is mostly based on platforming. It basically feels like Mario Galaxy on crack.

You jump around on a bunch of platforms in space and you’re always pulled toward whatever platform you’re closest to, so gravity can feel a bit wonky.

To kill an enemy, you lock onto him and do a dash attack. Once you kill an enemy you gain his energy. You can use the energy to self-detonate, which gives you score.

I got really pissed off the first few times I would get a kill or two and then die without getting any score because I forgot to explode. But once you get used to it, it adds a whole other dimension to gameplay. You have to decide whether you should explode right away to ensure that you get points or whether you should wait and try to kill more enemies before you detonate so that you’ll have a higher multiplier.

A lot of developers add depth to their games by making the gameplay incredibly convoluted and confusing. That just annoys me. This right here is the kind of depth that I like. The controls are simple, but using them takes skill and strategy.

Instant kills are the only kills you’ll find in this game. No death takes more than one hit. Thankfully respawn times are very brief and you won’t ever have to wait long before jumping back into the fun. One thing that turns me off about the multiplayer in Left 4 Dead is that the respawn times completely destroy the flow. This game doesn’t have that problem.

The gameplay is incredibly fast paced. To me it seems like the ultimate game for somebody suffering from ADD (i.e. me); you’re constantly moving, enemies are constantly flying around and trying to kill you, and above all, things are constantly happening. It feels very energetic.

Plain Sight Screenshot 2

A ninja robot standing on a pirate ship in space. I think that might be too awesome.

If that’s not your thing, and you don’t want to deal with the hectic combat, then you might enjoy playing on a server with only a few players or bots and explore the levels. Just the act of leaping around on the platforms in space holds a lot of appeal for me. The visuals add a lot to that, especially since you’re playing as a ninja robot.

One disappointment for me is that there isn’t any music in the game except for when you’re in the menus. I think some fast-paced techno soundtrack could have done a good job at making the experience even more of a thrill. Fortunately the game lets you adjust the volume, so I usually turn the sound all the way down and turn on the Deus Ex soundtrack while playing.

It’s nice to see such a unique and interesting game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 3D deathmatch game that revolves around platforming. It combines lightning-fast combat with a wonderful sense of freedom and flow. It has simple controls that demand skill in execution.

Seriously, if you like competitive games and platformers, this game is definitely worth a look. I think it should last you many rounds before it starts to lose its entertainment value.