February 15, 2016 Leave a comment
My 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.
Indie Gaming Reviews and Editorials
February 13, 2016 1 Comment
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
$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.
February 8, 2016 1 Comment
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?
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:
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.
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.
$3.99 (normally $4.99) said “too late, it’s already dead” in the making of this review.
January 20, 2016 1 Comment
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
January 15, 2016 7 Comments
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.
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.
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 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.
$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.
December 27, 2015 1 Comment
SteamWorld Heist is the long-awaited fourth entry in the Ocean’s Eleven movie series. This time, George Clooney’s ragtag group of professional thieves break into Valve’s headquarters to steal Gabe Newell’s tankers full of bacon grease. Okay, so the actual story is a ragtag group of space robots looting other space robots, but really, the first idea needs to happen.
I’ll give this to Image & Form: they have balls. Big, huge, brass balls that go “clank clank clank” like you’re listening to James Harden practice 3-pointers. SteamWorld Heist is not a sequel to their critically acclaimed mining time sink SteamWorld Dig. It’s a completely different style of game, with a new set of characters and new gameplay mechanics. It’s set in the same universe and features a quirky cast of sassy robots, with the same graphics style and same smooth play controls. Once again, if I played the game in a vacuum with no knowledge of indie gaming and was asked “who made this?” I would have guessed Nintendo without hesitation. The guys at Image & Form are very, very good. And this time around, they took even more care (this from an indie developer who has imposed a strict “no releasing games needing patches” policy) to provide a longer, more layered and complex experience.
So why didn’t I like Heist as much as Dig?
Before I continue, I should note that SteamWorld Heist is one of the best indies of 2015 and goes far to stake SteamWorld’s claim to the most unsung awesome indie franchise award. Heist stands on its own as a good game, and if I had never played Dig, I wouldn’t be so weirded out by the radical departure Heist makes from the established formula.
But weirded out I am. Because SteamWorld Dig was a relatively fast-paced title that took the time sink formula of XBLIG top-seller Miner Dig Deep and gave it a point. SteamWorld Heist, on the other hand, is a turned-base real-time action strategy game, or TBRTASG for short. Which is both a crappy acronym and a mediocre opening rack to have in Scrabble, with GRABS, GARBS, and BRAGS being the best words you can make on your opening turn, none of which are really that good. Turn-based games are inherently slower and more methodical, so I wasn’t expecting the kind of thrills I got from Dig. Actually, I’m impressed that Heist lends itself so well to playing on 3DS. Turns go by relatively quickly and stages are short enough that if you only have 10 minutes to kill, you could probably knock out any stage in the game with time to spare. The action revolves around how you aim and fire weapons yourself, giving the game an almost Worms-like feel to it. In fact, I hope Image & From is planning a versus mode for Heist when it hits consoles. It would be like Transformers, only you can tell the robots apart.
Having said all that, being fast-paced for a turn-based game is still relatively slow. The more deliberate pace can be exhausting. Whereas I had trouble putting Dig down, I could only do one-hour sessions of Heist before pretty much any other activity seemed at least 10% more appealing, and I needed a break. Even the promise of opening up new characters, weapons, and upgrades wasn’t enough to give it that “just a little bit further” quality that makes some games so memorable and successful. Like Dig, the story didn’t really stick with me at all. In fact, taking the game from the old west setting and sending it into space comes dangerously close to jumping the shark, and the characters are all of the cookie-cutter “lowest common denominator” variety. Probably great for both little kids and their child brains and also Nintendo fans whose brains are merely stuck in child mode. I kid.
Actually, I don’t know if SteamWorld Heist would hold your average kid’s attention. I had a couple of kids who played Dig and liked it a lot give Heist a whirl. It didn’t hold their interest at all, with one outright calling it boring. He’s wrong (and got a lump of coal from me for Christmas, serves him right), it’s certainly not boring, but I can’t stress enough that fans of SteamWorld Dig are by no means certain to love Heist. Whereas I think Dig could have appealed even to gamers who are not fans of the mining genre (which is a rarity given the blind hatred directed at those), I don’t think Heist would be as welcome to people who shy away from turn-based games of any type. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me, and my gut never steers me wrong. It also never fails to remind me when I ignore it, especially when we eat Mexican.
From a gameplay perspective, Heist is a very solid game, and the shooting mechanics are hugely satisfying. Again, think Worms in terms of how damn good it feels to hit those last-chance desperation shots that ricochet a couple of times and manage to find their mark. Heist is full of moments like that, those “I can’t believe I made that shot!” moments that make games like this worth playing. There’s even an incentive to come close but miss, in the form of collectible hats you can shoot off enemy heads that I can already visualize the achievements attached to when this hits consoles. It kind of makes bitter that I played this on achievementless 3DS, since I shot more hats off than failed Abraham Lincoln assassins. And the huge variety of weapons and characters assures that the firefights themselves never become boring. As far as action gameplay in turn-based games go, Heist ranks near the top.
But, I had a lot of complaints. I don’t like how movement and moves are represented. Instead of using a grid, the game draws color-coated lines (which will probably earn Image & Form the ire of colorblind gamers) to show the maximum distance you can move on a turn, or the maximum distance you can move while still being able to fire a weapon. That works fine for the turn you’re currently on, but I never got a good enough feel for movement, even after 20+ hours, to be able to plan the next few turns out. Since movement stats can change depending on your characters and what you equip them with, stronger on-screen visuals showing spacing would have made the game so much smoother. I can’t help but wonder if Image & Form avoided having a grid because they didn’t want the slower, dorkier stigma grids bring with them. Heist is certainly aimed at all ages, but kids might associate grids with math class or something.
My biggest complaint by far is how bland the levels are. I’m guessing this is mostly due to the levels being procedurally generated. Yes, the system put in place sets limits on how the levels can be laid out, assuring that certain things are in certain spots no matter what, and it’s commendable when a developer creates a really good random generator. As opposed to when they don’t. But, when you rely on randomness, you lose an elegance of design. The action in Heist would lend itself beautifully to levels designed around combos and making the movements and the actions puzzle/logic based. But, because randomness determines a good portion of where enemies are located, where loot is located, etc, you lose that higher-intelligence that I still feel can only be done by human hands. Some games are simply more suited for randomness. Spelunky was. Downwell was. Hell, even SteamWorld Dig was. Heist I don’t feel is. The irony of procedural generation has always been that, because of the limits you need to impose on it to make it work, it ultimately makes all levels feel kind of samey. Which seems to go against the point of making levels random in the first place.
Oh, and by the way Image & Form, I respect the shit out of you guys but you can’t advertise a game as being randomly generated..
And then immediately back off that and say “no no, they’re really handmade! Sorta!” when someone like me complains that randomly generated stages are a detriment to a game’s potential.
Which didn’t really bother me. It just made me laugh, in the same way a desperate used-car salesman says “no no, you don’t understand, it’s supposed to make that horrible noise.”
Of course, the real reason for procedural generation is that with it, you can claim “endless gameplay” and “never the same game twice”, padding out a game’s “replay” and giving gamers “more value for their money.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG!! Because Heist does no such thing. The story unfolds the same, and replay is tied directly to a game’s adjustable difficulty that rewards you for playing on hard, not whether the levels are the same each time you play them or not. Frankly, I didn’t realize the levels were changing during runs where I shot poorly, died, and had to restart. It’s not like Spelunky, where I can say “oh neat, the shop is right by the start of stage 2. That totally makes up for the fact that the damsel was behind seven fucking bombs worth of rock in stage 1!” I’ll take fifty amazing, intelligent levels over endless ones that are good at best, and bland at worst.
The problem is there’s an expectation on how much game a certain amount of money should get you. SteamWorld Heist is $20, and many gamers feel that for that price tag, you should get 40 hours worth of gameplay. But I paid $15 for Journey and got four hours out of it, and it was four of the best hours I had playing a video game. Strip out the random levels and SteamWorld Heist would have been good for 10 to 15 hours, easily. I put over twenty in it. As it is, it’s really fun, but I feel the ceiling was lowered because instead of giving us the best levels human beings can make, Image & Form took a lot of care and effort to create a system that can make the best levels a soulless computer can make. You can get away with that if you’re a fast-paced, white-knuckle score-a-thon, but not something like this. If not for the fact that the action is hugely satisfying, the variety of weapons are so fun, and the game has more charm than nearly any other indie franchise, I think people would remember this as a letdown. I loved SteamWorld Heist. It’s in my top-fifty as of this writing. I just know the potential was here to like it more, and I didn’t. Which is a shame. Then I could have ended this review with a cheesy line like “the only Heist involved stealing my heart.”
Which I just figured out a way to do anyway. HA!
$16.99 (Launch Price, normally $19.99) noted the irony that I negatively compared Heist’s attempt at doing random levels to better examples like Spelunky and Downwell, yet SteamWorld Heist outranks both of them on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard in the making of this review.
A review copy of SteamWorld Heist was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for in full by Cathy. On December 11, 2016, a full copy was purchased. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.
SteamWorld Heist is chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.
November 28, 2015 9 Comments
Two game critics were important inspirations for me when I started Indie Gamer Chick. One was Jim Sterling, whom I became friends with when he stumbled upon my Indie Ego editorial. The other was Yahtzee Croshaw, who is playing hard to get. I found both of them to be insightful, uncompromising, and hilarious. I hold both in high esteem. They’re what a game critic should be: informative but entertaining, and just egotistical enough to be adorable without obnoxiousness.
Both also moonlight in game development itself. Jim is a critically acclaimed voice actor. Yahtzee has made a series of free-to-play indies that inspired his Yahtzee persona. Given that I just reviewed a game Jim acted in, the hugely disappointing Volume, I figured I should check out my other idol’s work. Low and behold, he just happened to have two games release on Steam. One of them is a survival horror game, a genre typically as compatible with my epilepsy as a housefly is with a rolled up copy of the New York Times. So I chose Hatfall, the Zero Punctuation-based game. It’s actually a mobile game converted to Steam with a few upgrades. Which actually makes me wonder how dull the mobile version must be. Butter knife dull? David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives dull? BluRay special edition audio commentary on the David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives with special guest Ben Stein dull?
The core game is you move left and right catching hats one at a time. The further you make it, the more stick-figure lookalikes crowd the screen, forcing you to quickly figure out which one is you before the hat hits the ground. Sometimes the game also drops deadly projectiles in addition to hats, and it takes a little bit of practice to be able to tell the difference. Stages fly by quickly, eventually spawning a wizard event that has an additional effects challenge that earns you a present if you complete it. Presents open up mini-games. And that’s about it.
Call me crazy, but I sort of figured a game based on Zero Punctuation would be more satirical of gaming. I also figured it would involve some sort of fast-talking commentary by Yahtzee himself. But nope, there’s none. My family was elated. “Oh, so we won’t have to hear that awful man’s voice that sounds like the Micro Machine Man did twenty years in the Tower of London for doing terrible things with cattle? Oh um, what a shame, Cathy” they said while high-fiving each-other between toasts of champagne. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only voice overs from Yahtzee are two words. Sometimes he says “WRONG!” and other times he says “noooice!” That’s it, unless I missed something. The running gag of misspelled words in the background continues from his reviews, but none of them are funny without the context of his commentary. All the humor is limited to the minigames, which have a couple of laugh-out-loud gags in them, especially one based around insurance fraud. Maybe because of the Zero Punctuation title I was expecting a more scathing and self-aware satire on games and gaming culture, like the Beginners Guide if it was narrated by a fast-talking, British-born Australian psychopath. Hatfall is just sort of lazy. This feels like a game Yahtzee would shit on himself if he hadn’t made it.
Worst of all is the game isn’t remotely fun to play. Progress is slow. Items are too expensive. Scoring is low and grindy. There’s a multiplier you get at random from the wizard that could either double the points you get the next game or earn you another life during your next round. These only serve to make every round you play without those items feel like a slow waste of your time. You have to go to the game’s achievement page in Steam to view leaderboards (I currently rank #30 globally, which as far as embarrassing achievements go ranks up there with the time I watched the entire season of Power Rangers Samurai without getting up to use the bathroom). This is a shitty, shitty game. One that is occasionally funny, but not funny enough (especially when the awful Rondo stuff starts) to justify spending real money on it. There’s an old saying: never meet your heroes. For aspiring game critics, add to that “and especially never play your heroes’ games. Ever.” Well fuck, so much for the wedding. We could have made beautiful, horrible children together, Yahtzee.
$3.99 (normally $4.99) asked why, if he could make looking at Mega Man cover art so funny I nearly choked on my own tears, how come he couldn’t make this funny in the making of this review?