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ESCAPE

Heads up: This week’s Egg McMuffin’s Morrowindian Adventures will be streamed on Thursday. Same time as usual. Assuming construction workers don’t show up to stomp on my roof again.

Anywho, ESCAPE is a browser game that was recently repurposed for android phones and iPhones. This seems like a perfect opportunity for me to play it on my BRAND NEW SMARTPHONE!, but as it turns out, that version costs money. So I’ve been playing it on my laptop instead.

It’s not exactly a complex game. In fact, as far as control schemes go, it’s about as simple as you can get. You only press one button; fittingly, it’s the Escape key. You press it to jump, and you hold it for longer to jump higher. You’re jumping from wall to wall to escape from a red laser beam that’s rising up from the ground for … some reason. And there are spikes on the walls that you have to avoid touching.

As you can expect from arcade-y games like this, there’s no story whatsoever. You’re just jumping to get as high as you can before your inevitable demise.

So why have I been playing this game so much that I’m in danger of breaking my Esc key?

Well, what it lacks in context and complexity it makes up for in a carefully crafted challenge and a wonderful sense of flow. On the surface it might look like the player is just mashing the esc button over and over, but you have to be careful about your timing to avoid jumping into spikes. Holding the button down for a split-second too long can result in death. You can’t be too slow and steady or else the rising laser will get to you, but if you try to rush through you’re pretty much guaranteed to jump face-first into spiky failure.

It reminds me of Canabalt in a good way. It tosses the needless cruft of upgrade points and concept-art cutscenes that we generally find in flash games and gives us a fast-paced and engaging test of speed and reflexes. I’d still rate Canabalt as better, since it actually has atmosphere and a setting that looks relatively cohesive and interesting, but this game is still fun for a good few minutes of jumping, dodging, dying and retrying.


Anaksha: Female Assassin

Yeah, this game is over three years old. I feel like talking about it anyway, namely because most of you probably have never seen it.

I generally consider it a good thing when a game can make some sort of statement, some lesson about how the world works. That’s what constitutes “art” in my mind — if a game can explore a topic in a meaningful way. And Anaksha: Female Assassin has a very distinct and memorable lesson: Men are evil.

Before I go on, I want to clarify that I haven’t beaten the game. I only got to the beginning of Act 2, because that’s when I felt the game had taught me enough.

Anaksha: Female Assassin is an assassination game, as indicated by the title. In each mission you’re given the description of your target (along with a lengthy cutscene establishing why he’s a super horrible person) and then you’re set into a sniping position where you wait for your target to appear and then shoot his face.

And every single target is a cartoonishly-huge jerk who abuses his wife. Often he’ll also be a drug dealer, or a regular visitor at a strip club (which is apparently just as horrible). The exact atrocities of each target varies slightly, but the general gist of it is always the same: He’s an abusive asshole.

The protagonist, Anaksha, is established to have been traumatized when she saw her best friend abused and murdered by her husband (of course). As such, she feels duty-bound to kill every single ‘scumbag’ in this great big city until they’re all dead. Now, this could make for an interesting character, but only if there’s an interesting character arc to go along with it. It would have been very interesting and compelling if she was forced to mature and face the fact that her actions have ethical ramifications and consequences.

Amusingly, this almost happens at the end of Act 1. She kills someone who apparently abused his wife (obviously) and deals drugs to kids. Then she hears on the news that this man who recently mysteriously died by a sniper shot to the face was a good guy who donated lots of money to charity and was super nice. She freaks out and goes to an old friend of hers, a man who sort of serves as a surrogate father figure, and confesses her crimes.

Wow! This might actually become interesting!

Then he tells her that the news reporter lady was wrong, and that the guy actually was a horrible person, and that what Anaksha did was totally okay and cool.

Oh. Never mind then. I guess the world really is that black-and-white. There are Good People and Bad People, and the best way to make the world a better place is to kill the Bad People.

See, this is what bothers me. The game constantly glorifies Anaksha’s line of work, even though she’s ultimately murdering countless people in cold blood. Yes, those people may have committed crimes, but does that make it okay to kill every single one of them without a second’s hesitation?

I’m really reminded of Rorschach from Watchmen. The crucial difference here, though, is that Watchmen never glorifies what Rorschach does. He’s never envisioned as some amazing do-gooder who’s making the world a better place. He’s envisioned as a fucking sociopath, which is what Anaksha is. And it seemed like the game was so close to actually embracing the concept, and then it completely turned the other way.

I really hate to give this game such a beating, because it’s clearly trying to do some good for the industry. This isn’t a game about a white man; this is a game about an Indian woman. And it’s supposed to be about female empowerment. But it isn’t, really. It’s just another game about a hypocritically violent, self-righteous psychopath who’s considered the “good guy” because her enemies are even less likeable than her.


Ultimate Assassin 3

Okay, so it’s no secret by now that I like stealth games. I like to keep my eye out for any stealth games in the indie scene, but there typically aren’t many to be found because stealth is not easy to do well, and if you do it badly then the game will turn into an adventure in tedium and frustration.

Case in point: Ultimate Assassin 3.

On the surface Ultimate Assassin 3 actually seems like a pretty solid concept. You’re dropped into an warehouse-esque building with guards patrolling around, and you have to assassinate some dude dressed in green (possibly symbolizing capitalism) and then escape through a manhole that doesn’t appear until after the target is dead. You can see the guards’ vision when they’re anywhere near you, and you have to avoid being detected since you can’t kill the guards and can only withstand a few shots before you die.

We’ve seen this all before, so the game gives you two abilities to make the experience more interesting and to give you a bit of an edge; you can use a speed boost and you can turn invisible (but only when standing still). Both of these drain your energy bar. Once you get the hang of using your abilities it helps a ton.

So this sounds pretty cool, right? Well there’s more to it than that, trust me.

The big, glaring flaw in the game is that the enemy AI pathfinding is pretty much completely random. They generally move in one direction and turn every once in awhile and they won’t turn around too often (until they go into alert mode, in which they’ll go completely haywire) but the directions they walk in and their general movements are arbitrary and randomized to the point where you can never predict how to evade the guard’s sight until he’s already moving toward you. Oh, and if that isn’t enough, the location of the escape manhole also appears in a randomized and unpredictable location.

It isn’t a big deal in the early stages of the game, when guards are fairly sparse and you can easily move around them, but later levels are so crowded that you’re going to die a lot in each level of the Hard stages before you can finally beat them.

Expect to see this a lot.

And it’s worth noting that you’re not dying because you aren’t good enough. You’re dying because the guards happened to go in unfair directions. In other words, it isn’t really about skill. There is skill involved, but in the end it really all boils down to luck.

You can argue that this is to make it more “realistic,” since guards aren’t always going to move in rigid unchanging patterns, but if you’ve played the game yourself then you know that the guards in this game do not act realistic. Guards that move like clockwork would be more realistic than these attention-deficit children that stare at walls and will go hyperactive and start running in circles as soon as one of them sees a suspicious figure.

If you ask me, a stealth game should at heart be equivocal to a puzzle game. You have to analyze the situation and come up with a carefully timed maneuver to evade detection. Afterwards you can feel proud of yourself for having the necessary skill and strategy to pull it off. Ultimate Assassin 3 is at its heart equivocal to cranking a slot machine. You’re going to get it eventually, but you just have to keep trying until you get a jackpot.

The tutorial made sure to emphasize that the game is all about patience, and I guess it is, but likely not in the way the game designer thought.

Not pictured: Fairness

There are certainly other criticisms aside from that, though. The areas all look the same; gray buildings littered with brown crates. There are a lot of levels but they feel very repetitive, and this feeling gets worse once you realize that some of the later levels are literally copy-pastes of old levels with more and more idiot guards sprinkled on top.

I feel bad for ripping on a game that’s clearly trying to be the exact sort of thing I love. But sadly, it’s not enough for a game to let me play as a ninja to make me like it. It also has to be a good game, and that’s where UA3 falls flat on its face.


Run 2

I was actually going to write about something else this week, but I haven’t been able to get myself to write about it and have instead been playing Run 2 all day. So I figured I might as well talk about that instead.

I kind of want to know what they're doing in this shot. Are they getting to race?

The original Run came out over two years ago, and it was pretty good. The concept was pretty simple: you control a weird gray alien thing and freerun across platforms in space. The big innovative feature was the fact that when you jumped onto a wall, gravity would shift so that the wall became the floor. It made for some entertaining and challenging gameplay where you’d have to observe the level to figure out which way is the best way to avoid falling off the map.

My problem with the game was that while the game made a fairly big deal about how you were navigating in a 3D world, the platforms themselves were completely two-dimensional. This made the level design very limited. Yeah, some of the levels came up with pretty creative ways of throwing you off, but eventually it all started to feel samey.

Well I’m happy to report that this problem is gone in the sequel. Now the platforms are all three-dimensional, and you have to jump between blocks that are set at different levels of height and depth. This opens up all sorts of new possibilities for level design, and if you thought the first game was tough and confusing, you’re gonna have a lot of fun with this one.

That innovation alone probably would have been enough to hold up a whole new game, but it’s only the first of three new ideas that this game came along with. The second one can be seen right on the title screen, and it sort of renders the name of the game half obsolete. See, this game only involves running in half of the levels. In the other half of the levels, you’re skating. The skater is a lot harder to control than the runner, but he can jump farther, so he’s essentially like Luigi in Mario: The Lost Levels (that’s Mario 2 in Japan). Oh, and when the game says that he’s “harder to control,” good lord, it is not kidding.

Could someone please tell me what the hell is going on?!

The last new feature is probably my favorite. In each level there’s one glowy thing called a bonus, and if you collect them you can unlock extra bonus levels. This obviously isn’t an original idea in the slightest, but it adds a lot to the gameplay. They’re always hidden in clever places, and you have to come up with alternate ways of getting through the levels by jumping onto the bottom side of a platform or going on a very dangerous jump to get to it or even just to see it. It makes every level at least twice as replayable. I still haven’t gotten them all yet.

So in summary, this game is really creative and clever. I see no reason not to like it, unless you aren’t experienced with platformers (which is totally understandable, mind you). On the whole, I say you should definitely give the game a shot if you have time.


Rebuild

Lately I’ve found myself becoming more and more pessimistic with flash games. Developers know how to write descriptions that paint pictures in my mind of huge, epic, exciting adventures, and then when I open up and play the actual games I find them to be bland, boring, inaccessible, repetitive, unimmersive, or any number of other mean words. The point is that I rarely ever seem to find a flash game that actually manages to satisfy me these days.

Most strategy flash games I play tend to get overly bogged down with tutorial text and slow pacing, and I get bored of them very quickly. When I saw Rebuild on the front page of Kongregate I thought to myself, “Oh, a strategy game about managing a town after the zombie apocalypse. That sounds interesting. I bet it’ll bore me to tears.”

Well I’m happy to report that not only did the game not bore me to tears, it sucked me in like a whirlpool.

It may not have swallowed my soul, but it did swallow a few hours of my life.

Here’s how this works. As is explained in a text wall, zombies take over the world and you are tasked with rallying all the survivors you can and rebuilding a ruined city. You have to search for survivors and food, expand your rule and take control of more land, and constantly provide protection from the legions of zombies that regularly attack you for some slightly arbitrary reason.

Rebuild really reminds me of Civilization IV (and the other Civilization games as well, I’m sure). It has the same gameplay routine: Press “end turn.” Look at what your enemies do in between turns. Look over buildings and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Press “end turn.” Rinse and repeat.

Some people seem to think that a game has to be visceral and have involving combat to really be able to provide a thrill, but I disagree. I spent a lot of my play time in Rebuild glued to my laptop screen, rapidly going through each turn just to see if I was going to survive. The game does a great job at keeping the constant threat of the zombie horde looming over your head, which gives you a feeling of tension even when all you’re doing is managing resources.

Yes, I named my city Black Mesa. Not pictured: city leader Gordon Freeman.

Another concept this game has in common with Civ IV is the variety of ways to win. You can either find a cure for the zombie plague, establish a government, or close the portal that’s bringing the monsters in. Frankly, the “establish a government” path confuses me a bit. How, exactly, does writing a constitution or whatever defeat the zombie apocalypse? Maybe zombies are disintegrated by the shining light of democracy in the same way that vampires are burned by sunlight. Say, this would make a good propaganda ad for kids!

Unlike Civ IV, this game isn’t painfully complicated. I was able to follow all of its mechanics with ease, and that may be because I’ve played a decent amount of strategy games, but I don’t think the game is hard to follow at all, even if you’re new to the genre. If you’re having problems, there’s no shame in playing on easy mode until you have the basics down. And if you find the game too easy, there are plenty of harder difficulties. I still can’t handle hard mode at all.

One concept from Civ IV that this game sadly misses is the feeling of growth and development over time. When I look at my city at the beginning of the game compared to at the end of the game, there isn’t really a sense of accomplishment there. In Civ IV you can clearly see your empire evolve and adapt over time. The only thing that changes about the appearance of your city in Rebuild is that it gets a lot bigger. I would have liked it if subtle visual changes came from each research advancement, especially electricity.

But I don’t really want to nitpick too much. All in all, I had a lot of fun with the game. I’ve beaten it three times so far, and I’m tempted to play through it again right now. If you like strategy games, you should totally click that link at the beginning of the post. I think you’ll like it too. I need to keep games like this in mind when I’m looking for more flash games to play. It helps keep the optimism going.


Guy of My Dreams

Okay, so if you’ve been checking my blog regularly you saw that three weeks ago I gave praise to the Kongregate developer Nerdook for his wide variety of creative and imaginative games. I said a lot of good things about his game I Am An Insane Rogue AI, applauding its original gameplay mechanics and clever story concept.

Well, this week I happened to stumble over one of his previous games, Guy of My Dreams, which seems to be a game designed specifically to piss me off.

So here’s how this game works. You start off as a 16 year old girl who wants to find love and happiness in her life (and apparently she’s suffering from some sort of illness that causes her life to end at the arbitrary age of 50). So she sets out to find love the old-fashioned way: by finding a guy that looks cute and latching on to him.

Actually, that’s not exactly fair to her. She isn’t the one latching on to the guys; it seems to be quite the opposite. When you see a guy you’re interested in, you just walk up to him and his head becomes glued to yours. Then you can take him wherever you’d like, and if you find another guy you’re more interested in you can press the space bar to drop the first guy off at the nearest dump.

Other ways to lose your boyfriend include walking into a skull which causes him to die, and colliding with any other girl in the game, who will instantly steal him from you. Yeah, apparently no other girl can pick up a guy on her own; she has to steal him from another girl (i.e. you).

Anyway, the amount of happiness you can receive from your boyfriend is measured by how much he looks like your “dream guy” and three randomly generated personality traits, and the amount of happiness each of these traits produces is laughably arbitrary.

Well he may be rude, bad tempered and over-emotional, but he looks just like my "dream guy," so I guess I'll stay with him!

Don’t worry if you can’t find a good-looking guy though, because there are other ways to gain happiness! You pick up folders that apparently make your career better somehow, and you can collect three one-time-happy-bonus items: flowers, chocolate, and jewelry. That’s right, folks. If you want to make a girl happy, you give her flowers, chocolate and jewelry. That’s all she needs.

Oh, wait, let me fix that. Flowers and jewelry won’t make her happy unless she has a boyfriend. So I guess girls can’t appreciate flowers and jewelry unless they have someone to share it with?

Honestly, the way men and women are portrayed in this game just comes off as incredibly sexist. This game seems like it was made by an alien who learned everything it knows about human love by studying romantic comedies.

And I know that at least one of you is thinking this game might have been made ironically, but I really don’t think that’s the case, because Nerdook himself said that this was his attempt at making a “girl-ier” game — meaning this game was meant to appeal to girls. That much is also very clear from the cute, colorful visuals and soft soundtrack. At this point, trying to defend this game by calling it ironic would be like trying to defend Twilight by calling it ironic.

Virtually the only positive remark I can make about this game is that the song that plays in the background during gameplay is great. And of course it’s great, because it’s a remake of a classic 60’s song, Georgy Girl. And I actually think that was a great choice for this game, because it really fits the theme of a sad young girl wanting to find love and happiness.

Other than that, the gameplay is dull and repetitive, and the concepts behind the game are mind-bogglingly offensive.

Incidentally, I know that Nerdook saw this sort of backlash coming, because look at the bottom of this picture:

I get that he doesn’t want us to take it seriously, but the three words that jump out at me are “just a game.” Oh yeah. It’s just a game. Silly me, I forgot that games aren’t capable of making any sort of artistic or meaningful statement, because they’re just shiny little toys for us to play with.

A lot of gamers (myself included) and game developers have been trying to make people take the medium of gaming seriously for awhile now, but Nerdook seems to be on the other side of the fence for that topic.

After I played I Am An Insane Rogue AI, I really didn’t think I was going to ever encounter a game by Nerdook that I would give a rating of one star to. Life is just full of surprises, I guess.


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.


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.