Square Heroes

My apologies for this review taking forever. I haven’t felt well in the last few weeks. As it turns out, my gallbladder was causing issues, and possibly committed suicide thanks to me viewing Terminator Genisys for a second time. This is sort of a trend with me. When I was a teenager, I had my appendix removed the night after I watched the two Mortal Kombat movies back-to-back. Last night, Brian and I watched Taken 3 and I woke up this morning thankful to not be coughing up blood.

Anyway, Square Heroes. It’s an online arena-brawler/shooter that supports up to six players, or four locally. Players control squares that can move freely in all directions. At the start of the game, you’re armed only with a clubbing weapon. Enemies spawn on the map that drop coins when you kill them. Early in matches, in addition to killing opponents, you have to kill the enemies to acquire coins. The faster you collect coins, the faster you gain access to weapons. Games can be straight up death matches (by kill count or on a timer) or territorial control, with team options for both. A few of my fans said “oh goody, another Towerfall clone” when they saw screenshots of it. It’s not remotely like that. There’s no platforming. You just move around the stage. It’s also not nearly as deep, frantic, as full of options, or as fun. But hey, it has online play!

Decent enough looking game, but kind of bland in overall artistic design.

Clean enough looking game, but kind of bland in overall artistic design.

Actually, Square Heroes is decent enough for a budget online title. The team at Gnomic Studios sent over a ton of copies for me to distribute to readers to assure that I had a full slate to play with. We all had fun to varying degrees. Especially early on, when we had no concept of strategy, ammo conservation, or the power of the weapons you acquire over the course of the match. We were quick to engage each-other. Early scuffles where you use the starter weapon to club at each-other with all the desperation of freezing arctic explorer who just stumbled upon an abandoned seal pup were hugely satisfying and even a little thrilling. We all more-or-less acquired the second and third weapons at the same time. Most of the players agreed that the third gun (a sniper rifle type of deal) is too slow and clumsy to be reliable. Still, we had a few fun shootouts and everything was fine. She said as ominous music gets cued up in the background.

AND THEN, some asshole got the fourth weapon, a rocket launcher, and made an astonishing comeback when previously down by a few points. Suddenly, matches became less frantic and slowed to a crawl while players focused on gathering coins and AVOIDING combat so they could be the first player to get the balance-crushing rockets. Square Heroes, no matter what mode we played in it, degenerated into a plodding race for that fourth gun. While it never became outright boring, I missed those insane early matches. We had enough people waiting that when someone quit, a new player joined in. The newbs would briefly liven things up, until they caught on to the concept and the action slowed down. With only a few exceptions, the first player to get the rocket launcher (or grenade launcher if they leveled up enough, though I thought the rockets worked better), typically won. I wish Square Heroes had options that either locked that gun, or just made it more accessible, since the race-for-it aspect caused almost every issue I had with it.

Didn't play much of the single-player stuff, but from what I did play, the AI was pitiful.

Let it be said: in the very first match we played, I got the first kill on my friend Cyril of DefunctGames.com.

Another problem is that there’s unlockable weapons that are based on experience points. I’m spoiled by Rocket League, an online-centric multiplayer title which anyone can jump-in and play without the need to grind up experience. Granted, the second big gun you unlock (the grenade launcher) was almost unanimously declared by the players I was with to be “not as good”, but just the presence of an experience system potentially spoils the “anyone of any skill level can play” nature of the game. I’m sure the developers included this to keep players invested in the game, or to give them a reason to play through the boring single-player stuff. But really, they should have focused on refining the gameplay itself instead of throwing more weapons and items in. The thing is, all the first weapons of each type you get are perfectly fun. Even the balance-adverse rocket launcher, provided you’re the one who gets it first. Gnomic should have left these as the only weapons, and focused instead of creating more gameplay modes or making the maps more interesting. Heck, even a “run” button would have been appreciated, especially since the game degenerated into a dash for the coins and an emphasis on running away from fights instead of picking them. A digital version of Ding-Dong-Ditch perhaps.

Square Heroes certainly lays the foundation of a pretty fun online game. We all enjoyed it, which is all you can really ask for. Of course, with any online game, it’s up to whether there will be a robust lineup of players a year from now. It’s just past 1AM on a Wednesday, about a month after the game came out, and there’s enough players to get at least one match going as of right now. Will that last? Who knows. Assuming enough players are there, you’ll have fun. Not an astonishing amount of fun or anything, but enough that the $4.99 price tag doesn’t feel like too much. It could use better maps that have interactive aspects instead of just caverns and nooks to hide in. It could have used a run button. It doesn’t live up to its potential at all, but hey, fun is fun. So Huey Lewis was right: it’s hip to be square!

HEY GNOMIC!
Square 4
Square 5Square Heroes was developed by the corpse laying on newspapers in front of me.
Point of Sale: PlayStation Store, Steam
This review only covered the PS4 version.

igc_approved1$4.99 couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with the third “sniper” style gun in the making of this review.

Square Heroes is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Multiple review copies were provided to Indie Gamer Chick by Gnomic Studios. The copy played by IGC was paid for out of her own pocket. For more information on this policy, read the FAQ.

Multitasking

Hello, old friend. It’s been a while. You look.. um.. great? You really wear dying a miserable death, barely mourned and unloved well.

Playing an XBLIG in early 2016 is like visiting a dying relative in hospice care. You know any visit could be the last you’ll have, but you go anyway in secret hopes that they’ll leave you something nice to remember them. For those confused by the situation, yes, Xbox Live Indie Games are still alive. The last rites have been administered and happy families have been notified that a donor for Daddy’s faulty platforming engine has been located, but it’s technically still alive in the same way Ben Carson’s campaign is still technically ongoing. For now. No new games will be uploaded after September, 2016 and the marketplace will shut down entirely after September, 2017. Will you be able to access the games you already bought after that? The fuck if I know.

I do know that here it is, nearly two years after my last XBLIG review and I’m still basically known as “that girl who reviews XBLIGs.” And you know what? I’m proud of that. Plus, a few last second hidden gems that savvy indie fans have come to associate with the XBLIG market are still showing up. Take today’s game, Multitasking. It caught my attention because it twists the formula of WarioWare (my favorite game ever) by making you play multiple microgames at the same time. My family had a terrific chuckle at the thought of me playing such a game. Some people have coordination that makes them capable of rubbing their bellies while patting their heads at the same time. Meanwhile, I have such good coordination that I once broke my ankle falling three-inches off a Dance Dance Revolution platform at a bowling alley. I wish I could say I was joking, but I’m not. Given that and the fact that I can’t chew gum and talk at the same time without either biting my cheek or gagging on the gum, they said maybe I should rethink my choice in games to play. But fuck them and their lack of faith in my ability to step up my abilities. I was determined to prove them wrong.

Four games at once? Ha, yea right. I couldn't even do three games at the same time.

Four games at once? Ha, yea right. I couldn’t even do three games at the same time.

I failed. Not even with honor either. I was just awful at Multitasking. Except on Easy Mode, but this is one of those games where success there carries an undeniable shame with it. Again, the idea is “WarioWare, only playing multiple games simultaneously.” Your TV is divided into four screens. The top screen is controlled by the bumpers, the left screen with the left analog stick, the center screen with the face buttons, and the right screen by the right analog stick. The games are very basic, many of them lifted directly from WarioWare. The difference here is, instead of the speed increasing, the amount of games thrown at you increases. The games play fine and control solid, with one exception involving moving the analog sticks at bullseyes, which feels a bit too loose. It’s kind of annoying because I can’t blame being awful on the controls. It’s all on me.

For what it’s worth, Multitasking is fun. But, unlike games where my comical badness didn’t affect my overall enjoyment (Spelunky for example), I have to admit that my ceiling of fun was lowered here. I was damn near ecstatic about it at first, but the further I played it, the more I realized I just could not get better at it. God knows I tried, but no strategy seemed to work. The games are spit out at random, and my best runs by far were the ones where one of the games being displayed required simple button mashing with no finesse. If both games required my attention, I was screwed. On the rare instances where I made it far enough to have three games on-screen, I never survived the first wave of it. I’m just not wired for games like this. Multitasking is fine, albeit basic and kind of boring in how it’s presented, but fine. The online scoreboards suck to use (presumably to be corrected in the upcoming PC port), but fine. I probably would have ranked it higher if I could get better, but it’s hard for me to get worked up over a game that’s as impossible for me to play well. Yea, I love WarioWare, but I wouldn’t want to play two of them at once. I already feel like a douche for that time I played WarioWare Twisted using my GameBoy Player. This isn’t helping.

xboxboxartMultitasking was developed by yyrGames
Point of Sale: Xbox Live Indie Games

igc_approved1$1 jumped the gun so many times in the Wild Gunman minigame that she lost count in the making of this review. Though I do have to ask, when people had those duels in the old days, what happened if someone shot too soon and hit? Did the person shot get to come back from the dead so they could pace off again? If not, damn, I would have been the best gunfighter in the west! How come nobody else thought of the “just shoot first and say MY BAD” strategy before me? Someone get me a time machine, I need to try this shit out.

Multitasking is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

My Name is Mayo

Mayo

No.

headerMy Name is Mayo was developed by Green Lava Studios
Point of Sale: Steam

$0.59 (normally $0.99) were murdered in cold blood when I purchased this in the making of this review.

Kingdom

Kingdom, the first of 2016’s challenge-reviews from Indie Game Riot (they select a game they think I’m unlikely to select for myself, I purchase and review it, and they match my purchase price as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation) is one of my favorite indies ever. It didn’t start that way though. It’s follows the recent trend of giving players very limited instructions and almost no tutorial. Because, you know, “back in the day we didn’t need no stinkin’ instructions!”

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn't read?

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn’t read?


The idea is you play as the ruler of what looks like an abandoned KOA who must recruit people to help you build-up and defend the land, while you ride around on a horse and look stylish while wearing your crown. At the start of the game, you’re given a handful of coins, one of which you must spend to start a campfire that becomes the center of your kingdom, two of which you’ll need to recruit the first two guys at the camp you seemingly commandeer from them, and the rest you’ll spend assigning them their jobs. There’s only two available jobs at the start: builder and archer. Archers (poorly) hunt animals during the day to nab you coins, and (poorly) defend you from monsters at night. Builders (slowly) construct stuff for you. What kind of stuff? You have to figure that out on your own. The stuff you can assign them to build has no label identifying what it will eventually be. It’s mostly defensive in nature, but still, it assures that you’ll spend your money unwisely and die quickly your first few go-arounds.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins. I find this comical for some reason.

I’ll never understand the “figure it out” mentality of some developers. I think the idea is supposed to be “tutorials are boring.” Yea, they can be, but so can aimlessly wandering. Solving the tutorial problem by such an extreme measure as not having one at all seems a bit drastic. Not to mention you might fail to hook people outside of your target audience. Like me. Imagine if you could spring one person from North Korea, and then give them $2 to buy one of our delicious American soft drinks. But then you unleash them in the soda aisle and give them no clue what are the good ones and what are the bad ones. You run the risk, even likelihood, that they’ll select something disgusting like a Dr. Pepper and be soured on carbonated drinks forever. I was hoping Steam starting a refund program would slow down the volume of them, since most gamers don’t have the patience I do when it comes to games like this. Sadly, it hasn’t. I would be curious what the refund rate is for Kingdom. That opening hour can be pretty demoralizing, and actually, really boring too. The only games that should have players repeatedly mumbling “oh, I get it” are puzzlers. Kingdom is a world builder/strategy/roguelike without the faintest hint of puzzles.

For what it’s worth, once you figure stuff out, the game genuinely is exhilarating. Not the “ta-da” moments where you figure shit out. There’s really nothing all that fun about that. But, once you get going and you start making progress, every extra day you survive is cause for celebration. I settled for starting with two archers, using the first coins they nabbed me to recruit a builder (you find more people at campgrounds), and spending everything else on the first two basic defensive walls. From this point, I fell into a good rhythm and went from only making it to day five to making it to day ten, upgrading my home base a few times, building a decent army, and having a sprawling land that is actually too big for anyone to reasonably expect to maintain on their own. Given the frankly so-absurd-it’s-practically-sarcastic difficulty spike that happens every fifth day when a blood moon causes a large army of monsters to attack, I was fairly proud of myself.

Kingdom’s main problem is that those spikes in difficulty completely throw the pacing out the window. They’re not remotely balanced or fair. Intentionally so, as it turns out. The trailer for the game is centered around its extreme difficulty, how little progress you’ll make, and how often you’ll die. It’s one of the worst trailers for a good game I’ve seen. It turned off at least one friend who I raved about Kingdom to, because it’s about as inviting as a fence made out of urine-soaked barbed wire and rabid rottweilers.

That’s one thing even the smartest developers, indie or otherwise, fail to grasp. In games where you die a lot, the dying part isn’t what’s fun. It’s surviving that keeps players coming back. Take my best run thus far. I finally made it to the dreaded day fifteen, which I had been warned was a roadblock for many people who were satisfied with Kingdom, but not in a happy-glowly kind of way. I had never made it that far before, but I had poured my resources into a defensive strategy AND had buffed-up my archers. Additionally, I had a large bag of coins and I knew that if you drop the coins, any enemies who pick them up leave the current raid. I was ready.

Ha.

Yea, I got FUBARed something good, losing roughly 80% of my total resources. Most players told me they would just quit and start over when this happens. Me? I’m no quitter. I persevered. Low and behold, I not only survived, but by day 18, I was actually in better shape than I was before I lost almost everything. “Bring it!” was my motto. Which the monsters did. On day 20. This time, they were flying. I was so not ready to fight flying things. Eventually, every person I had was dead and all that was left was me getting my crown knocked off, which is half of the fail-condition for the game, the other half being if one of the monsters picks up the crown. But, I kept recovering the crown just enough that the sun started to rise and I finally completed level 20, earning an achievement and literally dying a second later.

It was fucking awesome.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it's in the top tier. I only wish the characters & enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it’s in the top-tier. I only wish the characters and enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top-notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

The good stuff is really good. Once you figure it out, at least. Another problem with the lack of explanations is you could be having a killer run only to stumble upon something new that costs coins. Since you don’t know the effect of the new thing, it’s a gamble on whether you’ll benefit immediately or if it’s something you shouldn’t invest in at the stage you’re at. This is a roguelike. Making the wrong guess (and really, it is a guess,) could cost you hours of playtime investment. I found something that looked like a fancy outhouse and couldn’t resist the temptation to put money in it. Honestly I’m not sure what benefit I got out of it, but the result was my run went to crap. Which, in retrospect, I should have anticipated.

Kingdom frustrates me, but not in the way it wants to. It’s so intentionally unintuitive and unfair that it’s practically pretentious. But, despite that, it’s a really fun game. I mean, I’m going to get back to playing it some more as soon as I finish typing this. In fact, as of this writing, it’s one of the ten best indie games I’ve ever played. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. I’m not. That’s why I’m so annoyed. Because I love spreading the word on understated, unsung indie gems. As someone who isn’t a fan of games that take joy in high body counts or throwing players in the deep end on their first day of swimming lessons, Kingdom was not a game made for me at all. And I love it. For all the muck I just raked up, every moment past the first hour or so had me dazzled AND on the edge of my seat. Amazing. Imagine what it could have been if it found a healthy middle ground. Maybe adjustable difficulties, or an optional tutorial that could be skipped by the type of sadomasochistic dweebs who get off on stuff like this. “Oh yesssss, I’ve been a naughty, naughty little twat. Whip me more you sexily aggravating game.”

headerKingdom was developed by Noio and Licorice
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$9.99 wants to know when someone will port the board game Key to the Kingdom to digital form in the making of this review?

Kingdom is Chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Thanks to Patrick Scott Patterson and his Video Game Media Archive for the instruction book pic.

Kill the Plumber

Kill the Plumber is the latest “turn the tables” game. Turn the tables is typically a smoke and mirrors genre in the sense that it’s really just the same kind of games you’ve played before and only gives the illusion that they do something different. Take Default Dan, which appears to twist the Mario platforming formula by doing things like making coins and items kill you, while making enemies and spikes help you. In reality, it  just reskins the formula, changing nothing but the appearance. A moderately skilled ROM hacker could do the same thing to Super Mario Bros. on the NES, swapping the mushrooms with the goombas, or the coins with stationary fireballs. It would still be Super Mario Bros, a perfectly fine game, but the novelty would wear off quick. That’s why Default Dan was just alright as a game. Once you got past the novelty of good = bad and bad = good, the game had to stand on its own, and in the sense, it was just okay. Of course, in game reviews, people associate “just okay” with “likely to resurrect Hitler.” You guys do realize it’s okay to be okay, right?

It looks the part, no question about that.

Kill the Plumber: the name of this game, not Sega’s unofficial corporate slogan circa 1991.

Kill the Plumber genuinely does turn the tables, in the sense that you control the bad guys and legitimately do attack Not-Mario like enemies in real Mario game do. It still feels more like it’s done for novelty value than being a truly inspired concept, but at least the foundation is set properly. Unfortunately, everything past that crumbles once the game starts.

Say it with me, everyone: controls. Having good play control will not make your game, but having bad control will almost certainly break it. The controls for Kill the Plumber are atrocious. All movement feels like you’re underwater. Even worse, the controls can be very unresponsive. This becomes especially annoying with levels where you have less than one second at the start of the stage to begin moving. Like this one:

I should also note that, because the screen flashes white when you die, and because you will die instantly on this stage and immediately restart, I had to have someone else complete it for me because of epilepsy risks. I quit shortly thereafter. If no effort was made to make the game good, I don't really feel the need to suffer through it.

I should also note that, because the screen flashes white when you die, and because you will die instantly on this stage and immediately restart, I had to have someone else complete it for me because of epilepsy risks. That this could happen again was enough of a worry for me that I decided to walk away before finishing it. No regrets for that, it’s awful and kept getting worse. Thankfully, there’s a cheat code (type “warpzone” on the title screen) that unlocks all the levels, so that I could sample later stages and see if they got better. For the most part, they didn’t.

(For those who played my Mario Maker stages, I’m perfectly aware of the hypocrisy.)

You will die in just under one second if you don’t move to the correct spot immediately at the start of this stage, and that’s BEFORE you take the sluggish response into account. How sluggish? You can PAUSE THE GAME and the response time to that is slow enough that not-Mario can still be moving while the game is in the process of pausing, leading to you getting killed while the pause menu fades into existence. Holiest of all shits, that’s inexcusably bad design. This is hardly the only level with this problem, too. “Think fast” is a great mindset for a punisher like 1001 Spikes, but for a game that feels more like a puzzler submerged in liquid nitrogen, it just makes the whole thing boring.

The final boss fight (where you control the boss) is remarkable: the gravity is too heavy while the jumping is too light AT THE SAME TIME!

The final boss fight (where you control the boss) is remarkable: the gravity is too heavy while the jumping is too light AT THE SAME TIME! Credit where it’s due: Kill the Plumber kept coming up with new ways to annoy me.

Which is not to say Kill the Plumber does nothing right. Again, this is a genuine reversal of roles. Playing as not-Mario baddies who behave reasonably close to their real counterparts isn’t the worst idea a game has ever had. The concept is eye-catching and serves it purpose: you see it, you want to play it just based on the premise. That’s why I’m so frustrated with it. It’s sold brilliantly, but the execution misses in every way a game can. Awful control, some of the worst I’ve experienced for a game like this. Incredibly irritating levels of unfairness. Even the scoring system seems clumsy, and because of the tedious gameplay speed, you probably won’t want to replay stages to go for three-stars. The levels are short enough that it could be an enjoyable quick’n’quirk experience. Instead, it’s just a slog. There’s nothing wrong with Kill the Plumber that couldn’t have been fixed with more time and care, but as it stands, I really hated this game. Kill it indeed. Kill it with fire.

headerKill the Plumber was developed by Keybol
Point of Sale: Steam
Also available to play for free on Newgrounds

$3.99 (normally $4.99) said “too late, it’s already dead” in the making of this review.

Interview with Ryan & Amy Green and the Development Team of That Dragon, Cancer

Nearly everybody who has played That Dragon, Cancer has walked away impressed by what it accomplishes. Personally, I consider it a milestone in gaming as a medium for telling real life stories. For that reason, I wanted to talk to the family featured in the game, the Greens, and the development team behind it.

Indie Gamer Chick: The emotions are what stick with people playing That Dragon, Cancer. The sincerity of them. Did you find it difficult to articulate those in game form?

Ryan Green: Not really for my own writing in the game. I usually started from a place of exploring how it felt to be in a place like the hospital, or in the moment of hearing hard news over and over again.  Some people have called it “confessional poetry.” And that seems to be an appropriate categorization.  Much of what I wrote during Joel’s illness was either poetry or art that I would post on Joel’s blog.  I think starting from that place is very disarming for people and they’re willing to sit with me in the midst of those thoughts because they can relate to the things we don’t always say out loud.

Amy Green: The emotions were easy, because we lived them, and we had nothing to hide.  However, there were lots of times I wanted to add dark humor to the game, because that’s a part of living with terminal illness too, but Ryan always said no.  He was probably right.  You never question that someone should be heartbreakingly sad about their child, or desperately hopeful, but some people might have struggled with the idea that we made jokes too, because it was our regular day-to-day life and humor is important. You can’t live through three years of a terminal illness and never joke about it.

Woo hoo! Amy said "dark humor!" That means I can use jokes I cut from my review in the name of good taste. Like this one: "You have to intentionally lose this fight featuring a family friend of the Greens' who died from cancer, as he fights a literal dragon. I mean, if you have to INTENTIONALLY lose to cancer, shouldn't this have included power-ups like packs of cigarettes, sunbeds, unguarded X-Ray machines salvaged from hospitals, and now even bacon according to the World Health Organization."

Woo hoo! Amy said “dark humor!” That means I can use jokes I cut from my review in the name of good taste. Like this one: “You have to intentionally lose this fight featuring a family friend of the Greens’ who died from cancer, as he fights a literal dragon. I mean, if you have to INTENTIONALLY lose to cancer, shouldn’t this have included power-ups like packs of cigarettes, sunbeds, X-ray machines salvaged from unguarded abandoned hospitals, and now even bacon according to the World Health Organization.


IGC: That Dragon, Cancer is one of the most emotionally exhausting games ever made. I can’t imagine how taxing it must have been on the team that made it, having to work with it every day. Was there any time where you guys couldn’t take it anymore and needed time to just breathe?

Ryan Cousins (3D Artist): Breaks were always welcomed and needed from time to time. It was most taxing when I first joined the project, and when Joel passed away. But over time you could focus on the love and the repeated scenes no longer impacted me with the same intensity in which they originally had.

Josh Larson (Artist/Programmer): I spent a lot of time polishing and bug-fixing the first iteration of Dehydration, so I spent a lot of time trapped in that room of anguish. I recently realized that I have subconsciously avoided working much on the second iteration of it. Otherwise, there was a period when personal life was stressful and this felt like the hardest project I’ve ever worked on.

But, strangely, there were other times when the project felt easy to work on. I think that speaks to how great our team is, along with how wonderful of a family the Green family is. In addition, I’ve spent a long time in small group Bible studies at church, and I now realize how well that has prepared me for emotional difficulty and has taught me compassion and empathy.

Brock Henderson (Designer): There were quite a few days during development that I shed tears. Some days it was reading a backer’s submission, or hearing a voice over clip, or testing a scene over and over again. Often times during the day I would pray while working, which helped me continue on. At night, I would make sure to make it to the gym each day. Strenuous exercise really helps me reset emotionally and mentally.

IGC: Even though the visuals can be surreal, the game captures emotions so authentic that many people are unable to finish That Dragon, Cancer. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. How hard was it to work those real emotions in?

Cousins: Adding emotions to a scene is always difficult. We spent a lot of time translating emotions into color and light. Iterating on the lighting and animation for every scene. Talking with Ryan Green about key moments and asking him to play them back for me or act them out. Many times we looked through home video for moments I could reference and put into the game. Transcoding Joel into the game was always hard and it couldn’t have been done by one person. Each of the team members helped breathe life into him via sound, animation, coding, and writing.

Josh:  I’ve found the hard part is not working the emotions in, but rather not getting in the way. The emotional part felt easy because of the vulnerability and honesty of Ryan and Amy, along with their skill as writers and voice actors. At times it was very hard not to ruin the moment with half-finished game logic due to the difficulties of finding a good design, or with some ridiculous bug that shattered one’s suspension of disbelief. Every video game I’ve worked on has essentially been a house of cards. To me, this house is more sacred when it stands, but that also makes it more disappointing when it falls.

IGC: Was there any aspect of your experience that you chose not to include because you felt you couldn’t properly translate it to a game?

Ryan G: There were things that we wanted to do that we just couldn’t get right.  The Joel with the service dog scene was one that we iterated on three or four times.  We had Joel playing fetch with the dog, we had the dog doing tricks.  But in the end the core was how much Joel loved dogs, and finding a simple implementation that highlighted that fact, in the end seemed like the right move.

IGC: There are many notable movies that focus on cancer and loss. My Life, My Sister’s Keeper, etc. Do you feel that games are a better medium for expressing personal experiences than the passive experience of a movie?

Ryan G: Yes.  I think we’ve only been able to hint at what is possible with expressing personal experience in video games.  I for one am really intrigued by the new possibilities in VR.  Not just in presence and connection between the player and the NPC, but also in terms of expression.  We may still be a long way off from natural language processing, but I think body language, and gaze, and player emotion will all serve to draw the player into a conversation as a friend more than just a disembodied observer.

Mike Perrotto (Project Manager): I would agree with Ryan.  I’ve been a gamer since my first Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987 and I’ve always related more with video games than any other form of entertainment.  I think for many people like me, in the video game industry or not, it’s an exceptional medium to share personal experiences.  Honestly, I think the first time a story made me cry, it was told in a video game.

IGC: Without exaggeration, the most common response I’ve seen to That Dragon, Cancer is “I don’t think I can play it.” Especially from parents. People are buying the game because they want to support you but don’t want to actually play it. Were you expecting that?

Ryan G: Yes.  It has always been hard to ask someone to come for a few moments and sit with our grief.  However we haven’t met anyone yet, that regretted playing the game, once they took the step.  And so for that we’re very grateful, because our hope is that players feel as though something was added to their life, not just that we dragged them through mud.

Amy:  I think a lot of people would be surprised if they gave the game a try, because it is captivating and whimsical. It hits many different emotional tones, it’s not just a vault of sadness.

IGC: No, seriously, how do Ryan and Amy get on that porch swing in the game?

2016-01-14_00024

Ryan G: I may be large, but I am like a cat. You should see me parkour.

Josh: Speaking of, Ryan Cousins, our animator and lighting designer, is an actual certified ninja warrior and parkour-er!

Ryan G: He taught me everything I know. In fact I think he would take full credit for my parkour skills.

Cousins: Ahhh Yes G’s parkour skills.. It was like putting a cat into a bath to get him on that swing, but we got there.

IGC: Your family did the voice acting for the game, and I felt did very well. Was there ever a point where you said “this is going to be too emotionally draining, maybe we should pass it off to voice actors?”

Ryan G: Never. It was always very important to me that Amy, Joel, and the boys voices were in the game.  I did have a brief moment of doubt with Isaac and a line we had him read.  It was “well that Dragon is going to kill Joel, Joel is going to lose. Because Joel is just a baby and babies can’t kill dragons.”  Even though the scene is scripted, that is actually something Isaac said to Amy when he was younger.  Children have a way of cutting through euphemism with frank revelation.  The reality is Joel was not able to kill that dragon. And babies can’t kill dragons. Others have to kill dragons for them.  For us, we couldn’t and wouldn’t shield our sons from Joel’s death.  It was something we believed was important to face and have frank discussions about (even if we dressed it in stories of knights and fire-breathing dragons).

IGC: Speaking of which, even though I (unknowingly, and regretfully) poo-pooed on their artwork, I thought your children were pretty dang good in doing their voice work. Do you think that’s something they might want to do more of in the future?

Ryan G:  The boys have always been amazingly expressive in their reading, and are fine little actors.  We would love to give them the chance to work on other games.  They are budding game developers themselves, learning Scratch, and most recently Caleb and Isaac have been creating character concepts in Blender.  I love the fact that they want to do what we do and as kids in gaming culture, they’re growing up with an identity as a creator.  I think that’s really special about the games industry and we want to encourage that.

Amy:  After reading your questions, I asked them if they would want to do more voice acting for video games and they both heartily said yes, and then asked if they would get money for it. Unfortunately, the next day they asked me, “So, wait, do we get to do more voice acting?  Did someone ask us too?” and I realized I was like that terrible Hollywood agent that never tries to get anyone work but just talks a lot about what might be possible.  Maybe I’ll write fake scripts and let them record them and tell them it is for a video game, and pay them whatever quarters I can find in our sofa.  If they ever ask if they can play all the video games they acted in, I’ll have to tell them, “Oh sorry babies,  all of those video games were scrapped, but it probably wasn’t because of your acting.”

IGC: The religious aspects of the game are drawing a lot of criticism, unfairly so in my opinion. I didn’t feel I was being preached to. Was it hard to find that balance between explaining how your faith factored into your life without sounding like religious agenda?

Ryan G: We’ve actually been surprised that there wasn’t more criticism. On the whole we find any criticism to be very mild and we’re encouraged by that.  We welcome criticism that engages us in productive conversation.  The games industry is not really known for honest portrayals of personal faith.  Often we get the fringe and cult-like behavior of the faithful, or the type of religion that leaves a wake of destruction behind it, or portrayals of institutional abuse, greed and power.

So just to have our faith be respected by our peers and validated as appropriate to share in the context of our story, even if they disagree with the entire premise, and encouraged to share the core of what makes us who we are, and causes us to believe and act the way we do, is a real blessing.

True story: the day before I played this That Dragon, Cancer, I watched the awful (but entertaining) Face/Off with Nick Cage and John Travolta. As I entered this church, the only reason I was able to keep myself from crying was a lingering hope that an epic Mexican standoff would breakout in this scene. With doves. Can't forget the doves.

True story: the day before I played That Dragon, Cancer, I watched the awful (but entertaining) Face/Off with Nick Cage and John Travolta. As I entered this church, the only reason I was able to keep myself from crying was a lingering hope that an epic Mexican standoff would breakout in this scene. With doves. Can’t forget the doves.

Amy:  We couldn’t take our faith out of the game, because it was the most vivid part of that season when Joel was ill.  However, we weren’t making a game for Christians, so we wanted to be sure someone could value the game without sharing our beliefs.  We tried to make most of the strong faith elements of the game something you could skip over if you wanted to, or really dive deeply into if you were curious. We hope people see that faith is not some easy crutch that you fall back to by default, it is challenging. It is a wrestle, but it added so much beauty to our life.  Even hope was beautiful even though there were times that the weight of hope felt crushingly heavy.

IGC: Joel was a beautiful child. What’s something about him that wasn’t in the game that you would want the world to know about him?

Ryan G: Joel loved babies.  He would squeal in delight if he could tackle and cuddle Elijah when Elijah was first born.  We have many videos of Joel crawling into Elijah’s car seat with Elijah in it, or fully subsuming Elijah’s head in a warm wet embrace.

Josh: He loved to play peek-a-boo on Google Hangouts.

Amy:  Joel loved mischief.  He loved to sit at the top of the stairs where there was a small bookcase.  Almost on a daily basis, he pulled every single book off that shelf and threw it down the stairs.  Laughing hysterically as they thumped all the way down. He also loved to find the eggs in the refrigerator and throw them all over the floor in the kitchen, eventually we had to put a child lock on the fridge…oh wait, I guess that did make the game last-minute, but a lot of people don’t find that part.  If you’ve never tried to clean a dozen eggs off of a kitchen floor, let me tell you, cancel your plans for Saturday night, because it is a hoot.

IGC: Did more gameplay elements, be it mini-games or more point and clickery, get cut from the final game?

Ryan G: Oh yes, and I am not kidding, at one point we had a claw grab mini-game and a shooting gallery and possibly a boardwalk carnival game.  We explored many, many things.

Cousins: After Joel passed away we needed to think of the game in a new light. We re-evaluated where we were with the game and decided to strip it down to its core element. Loving Joel. This was a harsh cut but necessary in order to finish the game. Half of the scenes were cut, and many were retailored to fit our vision of how we want to memorialize and love Joel.

IGC: Why do I suddenly crave pancakes?

Cousins: I’ll just leave this here..

IGC: Well, that’s going to be stuck in my head for about a week. Thank you so much.

Amy:  How was that video 10 hours long?  Please never show that to my children.  I can not add “making bacon pancakes” to the never-ending playlist of inane YouTube songs my children have chosen to soundtrack my life with.

Ryan G: So say we all?

Mike: Because Manju.

Heaven is an endless supply of pancakes. Hell is too, but there, they're supplied by IHOP.

Heaven is an endless supply of pancakes. Hell is too, but there, they’re supplied by IHOP.


IGC: The scene with Joel hugging the dog caused 10% of all players to slip into a coma via over-warmed hearts. What do you have to say to the families of your victims?

Jon Hillman (Composer): We iterated on the dog interactions more than almost anything in the game. Joel loved dogs immensely, so we really wanted to get this right. What made it into the game includes the audio from home videos of Joel playing with dogs, and some simple loving animated gestures. If we had taken the animations any further, that 10% figure would have been more like 99% – so we’re glad we showed some restraint there.

Cousins: There was a lot more to this scene that ultimately got cut. About roughly 6,000 frames of animation never got used. Just think of how much more you could have loved that dog!

IGC: Oh trust me, if I had loved that dog any more, we’d be legally married in 27 states.

Josh: Amy’s idea to use the stethoscope to explore memories of Joel with the dog saved that moment from getting cut. Thank you Amy!

IGC: One of the more overwhelming parts of That Dragon was the scene with all the cards, especially when you enter the hallway and see how many there are. Those, along with the pictures on the wall and the bottles not written by Amy Green were supplied by the game’s backers on Kickstarter. You guys actually had to input those into the game. What was your reaction when you saw just how many there were, and how many lives you stood to touch?

Cousins: It was one of the most powerful scenes for me. We would get submissions for the art and cards throughout the year. Some of the submissions were incredibly powerful and moved us deeply. But we never felt the real weight of them until we added them all together and got them into the game. I remember taking a short trip and then coming back to see all of the cards implemented. It was a heavy emotional hit and made me realize the true weight of the scene. Many of the scenes we work on a little bit at a time and slowly build it up over the course of months. Incrementally building it like this lessens the emotional impact, but when you take a step away from a scene and come back to it, you can truly appreciate it.

Hillman: Once all the cards were in, I sat down at the piano to figure out how to support that moment musically. Several hours into playing various things, I was flailing, feeling like I would ruin this sacred space in the game, and starting to think silence might be the best option. I stopped, played the scene again, and read each of the 153 cards very intentionally. Then I went back to the piano and recorded what’s in the scene in one take – it might not ever feel perfect to me, but I’m honored to get the chance to help all these people memorialize their loved ones in such a beautiful way.

Brock: The backer submissions really hit me even before they were even in the game. While compiling and organizing the artwork and messages for production, I experienced each submission for the first time. When you think about the loss each person has experienced and the pain and longing those families are still feeling, it becomes too much to process.

Be honest, who else besides me caught themselves saying "Who's a good boy?" during this scene?

Be honest, who else besides me caught themselves saying “Who’s a good boy?” during this scene?

IGC: I have to ask this because I’m getting asked this a ton: any plans for a console release, or a physical copy for PCs?

By the way, if you do go the physical media route, you can do us Californians a solid and include some kind of jar with it. The collected tears could end our drought conditions here.

Ryan G: but then what about all of that salt?

Amy:  Well the jar is free, but the desalination kit is only included in the upgraded bonus edition of the game. If you kill all your house plants by watering them with your tears that is on you. Honestly, we would love to expand the reach of the game onto other platforms, but we will have to wait and see if we can afford to invest more time.

IGC: (Cathy’s eyes go shifty while she silently hugs her “Tear Desalination Machine” patent) Soon my pet. Oh, ahem.. You guys did a really remarkable job of putting a difficult story to a visual form. What’s next for your studio? Something cheerful maybe? With, like, puppies and caramel corn?

Cousins: An FPS for sure..

Hillman: Perhaps, our best idea so far is centered around cupcakes, so yeah

Ryan G: Yessss Cupcake Carnage.. (IGC note: Simpsons did it first)

Mike: And icing! Lots of icing!

Amy: You guys, she would hate that idea. (It involves more drawing from our kids.)

IGC: I’ll never live that down.

headerThat Dragon, Cancer is available now on Steam.

Check out Cathy’s review here.

The Greens support the Morgan Adams Foundation. Visit their website and if you like what you see, how about giving them a couple of bucks?

If you took a drink for every use of the word “iterate” or a variation of it over the course of this interview, you would be dead by now.

That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer is not the most technically solid game. The mechanics can be clunky, the next thing you’re supposed to click can be unclear, a driving section literally controlled worse than the time I played Pole Position at a pizzeria with a broken steering wheel (how is that even possible?), a section framed like a retro arcade game has extraordinarily ugly hand-drawn art instead of pixel graphics (EDIT: Which I just found out were drawn by Ryan Green’s surviving children. Well fuck, I now feel like I’m just about the worst person ever. I’m grateful Ryan found humor in it, and hey, with all the dosh he’s making here, he can afford to buy them art lessons! I stand by my point that it should have had pixel art though). the character models make the game look like it could be an origin story for Silent Hill’s monsters, and I’m pretty sure if you hung your porch swing like this, your insurance would cancel on you.

Perhaps this is to set up for a sequel, where you grieve for a family member who died from an unsafely hung porch swing.

Perhaps this is to set up for a sequel, where you grieve for a family member who died from an unsafely hung porch swing. Given the success of this, they have to start thinking “franchise” somewhere.

Really, nothing I said above can’t be applied to any other point and click game, except the steering part (which lasts roughly a minute and has no fail condition) and maybe the graphics in general being ugly. A lot of the criticism being pointed at That Dragon, Cancer has to do with it getting a “free pass” on technical flaws because the game is the true story of a family who lost their child to brain cancer. I’m not, just like I didn’t excuse it for Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us. Games I enjoyed despite technical flaws. But That Dragon, Cancer is not presented or sold as a technical show piece, just as those games also aren’t. They’re story-driven experiences that use video games as the delivery method. Some of those I like (Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us) and others I loath (The Beginner’s Guide, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture).

Of course, what makes That Dragon different is that it is based on real people. In this case the Green family, who lost their beautiful son Joel to brain cancer in 2014. Many indie devs have used their real life experiences as the driving force for their creative endeavors, but this one is different. It aspires to present you the emotional journey as it happened. The ride you’re taken on is not a pleasant one, and every fleeting moment of joy is quickly (sometimes startlingly) replaced with feelings of emptiness, helplessness, disconnect, apprehension, fear, anger, loneliness, and most crushingly of all, that terrible feeling that you might just want it to be over with. For better or worse, it’s all here, and it’s more authentic than you can possibly imagine. While the imagery can be surreal, the emotions are always real. For that reason, many people don’t want to play it. It’s just too heavy.

A duck? Ducks don't get cancer. They choke.

A duck? Ducks don’t get cancer. They choke.

But, what impresses me a great deal about That Dragon, Cancer, is the dignity. Nobody would have faulted the Green family for turning the story into a fluff piece where the characters behave the way they wish they had. Where they stood steadfast and strong at all times, their faith never wavering. Gaming is escapism, after all. Story telling is too. It would have been easy to tell a story of a family so confident in their faith and so full of love and family unity that a little thing like cancer couldn’t break them. Maybe even have the Life of Pi style reveal at the end where you learn that the person relaying the story admits they told it the other way because it was simply easier to live with. Hell, I don’t think That Dragon would have been any less moving or critically acclaimed if it had gone that route.

But it didn’t.

The blow is not softened here. At all. Cancer sucks. Learning your child is terminal sucks. Watching them die sucks. It’s going to cause you to feel things that are unspeakable. You’ll feel lost, and you’ll feel hope, and you’ll realize that life goes on, and sometimes that will feel okay, and sometimes it won’t. That Dragon, Cancer is unflinching, and unkind, because that’s what cancer is. It doesn’t push an agenda. It doesn’t present the Greens as some exceptional family. Some people are walking away from That Dragon with hope, though most of that I got from the fact that they’re still standing. I questioned myself whether I would be, given their circumstances. That they could make it makes me hopeful.

The most common question I’ve gotten about the game is the “religious angle.” I don’t feel there is one. That would suggest That Dragon, Cancer pushes a message that “through faith you will overcome all.” It doesn’t. Not even close. Religion factors into the narrative because religion is legitimately a part of the family’s life. The father even questions not only his faith but the nature of his deity. You know, sort of like any person in their right mind would given the circumstances. This is not a religious game. It’s a game about a religious family. It even ends noting that their prayers were not answered, and it doesn’t really try to spin that. While their faith remains strong, it doesn’t tell people they only made it through prayer and church. In fact, I was left believing the family themselves sometimes question how they made it at all. There is no ultimate message here, except that your life will be changed, in some form, and while you can come to peace with that, a full understanding of it is likely unobtainable. That they told THAT story with such class and dignity is one of the most remarkable things I’ve experienced in any medium.

This happens in my office every time I drink too much Gatorade.

This happens in my office every time I drink too much Gatorade.

This might sound weird, but I found That Dragon, Cancer to be insightful above all else. Statistically speaking, we’re all going to have experiences losing someone to cancer, and it’s never pretty. But, there’s something about watching someone lose their child that strikes us in a way that’s almost primal. When it happens, we all say the same thing: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Now, I think I can to a small degree. That’s the mark of a wonderful storyteller: that they can make you imagine the unimaginable. That’s why I’ll never forget That Dragon, Cancer. It articulates an experience even those who live through what the Greens did seem to struggle to put into words. You’ll cry, and you’ll hug your loved ones, and you might even wish you had never played it. But you’ll never forget it. And that counts for something.

headerThat Dragon, Cancer was developed by Numinous Games
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$14.99 said “fuck cancer” in the making of this review.

That Dragon, Cancer is Chick Approved. I’ve decided not to rank it on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. It just didn’t seem right, since I don’t feel I can quantify the value of a game like this over games that are not real life experiences. That Dragon, Cancer is very good. I highly recommend this game.

 

Speaking of watching something slowly rot away while loved ones watch helplessly, guess who in part staked this game?

Speaking of watching something slowly rot away while loved ones watch helplessly, guess who in part staked this game?

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 444 other followers

%d bloggers like this: