Category: Game Pile

My Game Pile is my stack of videogames that I’ve been working my way through over the course of the years, and writing about them. The plan is pretty simple: I talk about the game and I talk about the things that that game inspire. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s long – and always, I try to give you an idea of who the game might be fore, or why they might want to buy it.

Let’s use Games to talk about Everything!

Game Pile: Void Bastards

This here’s an experiment! This video was made with a strict time limit: Create something in half an hour. This means no script and minimal sound editing. There is one thing about it that bugs me – the game audio wasn’t being recorded and I didn’t check that until it was too late. I like this, and may do a few more like this if it continues to be this easy.

Game Pile: The Magical Land of Yeld

Here is a list of things you are going to find in the book The Magical Land of Yeld.

  • A Witch class whose first benefit is literally saying “No one understands me. But that’s fine! I understand myself!”
  • A christmas sweater you can give to an enemy at the start of combat and if they’re never attacked, they will become a friend
  • Rules for food that improve your dice, including vegan options
  • Comics that explain what happens with at least one funny talking dog telling you how to knife a baddy
  • Character creation bases that let you pick archetypes such as Princess, Big Sister, Know-It-All, Brat, Dog, and Liar
  • Chaining combat mechanics that require you to say ‘excuse me!’ to interrupt monsters
  • Death mechanics that let you haunt the baddies until your friends get back to an inn
  • A calendar tracking the holidays and festivals your characters will get to experience
  • A bunny postman
  • A Secret of Mana style job system that starts out basic and expands to Badass
  • A spell that lets you summon a horde of sheep
  • Beautiful, clean artwork illustrating everything
  • A basic adventure where you fight a person who is quite clearly a Messed Up Adult In A Fandom Space Being An Asshole To Kids
  • A Sweater Shop
  • A Battle Kite
  • Fumble systems for spells that lets your existing spell effects work, but also add on interesting disasters
  • An extensive discussion of structuring stories in terms of their stages and consequences to build anticipation
  • Folding character sheets
  • A monster called a bean whale
  • And I guess, if I was going to try and convince you to check this book out, it’d be with this:

So go buy it, jeeze.

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Game Pile: Bit Rat Singularity

I have, in my time, played a lot of Pipe Dream.

It’s got other names. Runoff was one I played a lot in the MS Dos game days. There was also Oil Spill and Lava Flow. It became a Windows title, and had names like Pipe Mania or Pipes! and related games like Laser Squad, the same sort of general construction puzzle game where you had a source to flow from and you had to construct from that source to achieve some end. Usually, these games were timer based, sometimes they were limited components based. Perhaps most famously, Bioshock used the Pipe Dream mechanics to represent their hacking mini games.

These types of games are in my mind as path constructors. And you know, they’re an underexplored genre.

Bit Rat Singularity is meant to be a kind of teaser game. It’s a smaller game than you’d expect, with probably fewer levels than you might like if you’re a hardcore puzzler. I’m not, I’m not great at this kind of puzzle, but I still had fun playing it, exploring it, and listening to the story the game presented.

It’s a path constructor, but rather than connecting pipes so water can flow through it, you’re connecting nodes on a network. Great, a simple expansion, and an existing one we’ve seen in other games like Uplink. In this case, the network is simplified, all the rules are abstracted, and once you get the basics handled, it starts to introduce things like limitations on how many nodes you can maintain, how you can connect them to one another, managing different resources as you try to construct your path out of the level.

It’s a great execution and part of what I love about it is that the game is often about constructing destructive pathways. Sometimes, to get your path to the end to work, you have to wreck what you’ve made – sometimes risking marooning yourself while you work, using one or two temporary measures that you need to dismantle, step by step, in the right order, which makes the whole thing more interesting than just a linear ‘from A to B.’

There’s a narrative that ties into the idea of retrotech, that sort of ‘a past’s vision of a different future,’ where you’re dealing with big chunky server boxes that managed to create, and lose track of, a sentient AI. You’re that AI, and you’re making your way out of the space you’re in, with variable degrees of menace as you befriend the rats that live in the place. There are employees you may need to puppet a little bit, because, uh, they have chips in their head, and it’s all presented as a result of massive breakdown in the culture of the company.

I got this game as part of the Bundle for Racial Justice and equality. It’s only $2. It’s a really good little game, and odds are good, you bought that bundle and didn’t really check everything in it out. I’m trying to make a project of checking games in this bundle, because it’s full of gems, and it’s worth it to look at them, and think about how all these games, all these products, are made by people, and those people wanted to sign up to give away something to try and help this problem we’re dealing with.

You’re not alone in the struggle. There are so many people who don’t want the world to be like this.

We just gotta find one another and make friends.

Game Pile: Gray Matter

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but everything happens so much, and there can be all kinds of complicated problems in the way of our plans and projects. While I talk about it a little bit in the video, this month (last year), I wanted to play the Jane Jensen game Gray Matter, and do a video on it. That became too hard to do as acquiring the game at first, and eventually, a whole year later, I finally got around to the game.

The plan for this month was always going to do a chill let’s play game. I was just going to play the game for a bit, hang out, and talk about it. I did so, and what I wound up with was a video that is definitely a bit disappointing, because I hit a wall in the game super early.

Don’t worry, I intend to return to this game, maybe even more thoroughly next Magic Month. I don’t think the game is a lost cause. Just this is sometimes, how these things go, and why you’re more likely to see me playing games I’ve played many times, and write about games I played for the first time.

Game Pile: Volume

I remember really anticipating Volume when it was on the horizon after how much I loved Thomas Was Alone, which I wrote about seven years ago (gosh, seven years ago, amazing, and look at how the Game Pile posts have changed!). But strangely, when it did drop, I didn’t get it – maybe 2015 was just a bad year for me for handling new stuff. This one slipped me by, I bought it at some intervening sale with an idea of I’ll get to it.

And I didn’t.

And now I got to it, and I’m kicking myself, but also, kind of glad I took so long to get around to it? Because freed from the need to have a hard opinion about it early, free from the need to rush through it, to get it perfect to validate my opinion of it, I am free to just look at Volume and how it makes me feel and get a really stupid, goofy smile on my face.

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Game Pile: Hugo 2: Whodunnit

Oh, this isn’t going to be insightful.

This is just going to be me, mad.

Okay, so Hugo’s House of Horrors was a shareware adventure game distributed in the early 90s, with an honestly admirable monetisation model: When you quit the game, the game mentioned to you that the person who made it would appreciate it if you registered it. If you did register it, with a small fee, they’d send you all three games in the series, registered, and… that was it. There were no special offers or extra bonuses for getting a registered version of the game, no bug fixes, just… the same game, without that screen at the end.

Like I said, honestly admirable. You let people play your game, and you give ’em a little message at the end saying, eheeeey, how about twenty bucks? You get a hint book.

The problem that follows on this is that these games struggle to reach the lofty heights of not bad, and one of them, in particular, has one of the most enraging things I’ve ever dealt with in a videogame, a videogame detail for which I hold a grudge, a grudge that has lasted for over twenty years.

Okay, but what are the games.

At the root, Hugo’s games are sequels to the first game, Hugo’s House of Horrors, where you play Hugo whose girlfriend, Penelope, has been abducted and taken to a house full of monsters. You go into the house, solve puzzles, avoid monster, pick up items, answer some riddles, and move on. It’s also a poorly future-proofed design, because some of the puzzles mostly only are solvable to people who were adults by the 1980s, based on retro TV shows, or they’re stupidly easy because you’d just google questions like ‘who was the Lone Ranger’s dog?’

Then there was the sequel, Hugo 2, Whodunnit, which wound up being a game that had a serious enough seeming subject matter and a low enough price point (free) that growing up, a lot of people I knew had it. And that mean that when I, a little kid, visited their homes and they wanted to keep me busy, I wound up playing Whodunnit a lot. I got pretty good at it, but I always got walled at the same puzzle. And this is a game with multiple mazes, including one of your classic ‘don’t touch the moving bees, don’t touch the lines on the ground’ sets of terrible vintage puzzles. Oh, and the solution to those was to save and restore, and save and restore.

The game was advertised as a mystery; at the start of the game, you witness a murder, which makes you faint, and then you find yourself trapped in the wrong part of the house. You have to then get back into the house, find your partner – Hugo from the first game, because in this one, you play Penelope, the lady – and hopefully solve the murder, based on what you see on the way in. That’s not a terrible premise for a game.

I wanted to talk about some point-and-click or adventure games that have a sort of magical or heisty air this month, because the adventure game is the perfect genre for doing magic tricks. You know, the kind of magic trick where you need to construct materials for a trick that only needs to work once, there’s the room for that kind of nonsense, and there are surprisingly few games that fit the template from the time. Perhaps because, like I said, magic was easier. I could find a few, but not many…

And that meant I found this one, this murder mystery where there is a magic trick, but it’s not one you play. What’s more, it’s one that’s played on you.

See, the thing that walled me in this game, I always figured that I, as a child, just couldn’t work it out. I was dumb, after all. Maybe it’s like the Lone Ranger thing, or the Leisure Suit Larry copy protection that wanted me to know about a President who was gone before I was born.

Twenty years later, I saw someone play this game on a let’s play channel. I watched as they, as if revealing the hole in the bottom of the hat, walked the character down out of sight and picked up the item that was otherwise seen as impassable. There was a ditch on screen, and the character could just walk around it.

this is maddening.

This is terrible.

It isn’t even clever or funny. It’s just there, just some way to delay you that held me up from the game for years, and maybe made that hint book seem like a reasonable purchase.

Here’s the lesson of Hugo 2: When you control the audience’s attention, it behooves you to not misuse it.

 

 

Oh, and you didn’t witness a murder, you witnessed people practicing a play.

Game Pile: Fat Bear Week

Fat Bear Week is a three-level long game about playing a big, lumbery, hard-to-control bear that wants to get enough food to winter, in a time limit. You maneuver around with WASD and the mouse and try to contend with momentum and want to hit as many targets as you can, which can be static or mobile. You’re eating a bunch of things, which may be mushrooms or berries or whatever, or they may be birds or bunnies that try to get away, and at some point in your exploration, after you get enough food, your bear transforms into a Big Chonky Boy, and now you’re not chasing things, you’re rolling around and trying to manage what is essentially, a big spherical ball that wants to eat things.

It’s pretty fun and its control mechanism is just bad enough that wrestling your bear around is satisfyingly fun, in the same way that you’re kind of bowling your bear around. There are some unlockable bears, there are stars for doing a good job, and there’s a ‘complete’ stat with getting stars.

I like this game just fine, and it’s free, and it will take you less time to download it and play all of it than it took me to write this article and put the pictures together.

I found this game because I was browsing the games I bought in the Racial Equality Bundle on itch.io a few weeks ago. I did so by jumping to the end of the list of games, then worked backwards, page by page. I showed this one to Fox, and she played it, then I played it, we had a giggle, and that was pretty much it.

The bundle in question is so big that this game could have escaped my notice, and that’s a little sad and a little weird when I think about it. I even wonder if it’s worth doing a Game Pile about the game itself – it’s basically a tweet fodder.

There was also some idea, kind of kicking around in my head, that it was worth doing a Game Pile and going in on body normativity for this game, where it’s okay to be a fat player character, a big chonker, in a comedy game, but the conversation about fatness in a game seems best to be brought to bear on something that does a terrible job of it, something with multiple characters, and something that’s being made by people with large quantities of power and a clear means and obligation to do better like Capcom or Ubisoft, rather than an itch.io free game.

The thing is, this game is just… good fun? I like it? I wish there was more of it? And as much as I have a platform, as much as I can offer attention to it, I feel like it’s worth drawing attention to this kind of small project, something that could, hypothetically, be better, if the people making it knew that people wanted more of it. It’s part of an enormous bundle, and even outside of that bundle, it’s free.

I like to make a point that games of all varieties are worth talking about, worth consideration. My definition of games in an academic space is explicitly extremely inclusive, but I tend to not talk about games from this middle space. I’ll talk about a game my dog plays, but this game, which was made by people and I played and I found lots of fun, and may even yield more content if enough people are interested in it, somehow lives in a space where it’s too small to go off on but too big to be treated as one of those small games I promote and pick apart. A game I spent half an hour on is doing me a service, and my desire for more of it isn’t really a reason that the game should be discarded.

Anyway, check this one out, it’s free and it’s fun. And tell the people who made it what you think of it!

Game Pile: Planet Lunch

Sorry, this isn’t going to be about a game you can play. But maybe you can. I wouldn’t advise it.

In Homo Ludens, the work that is often seen as base camp for clambering up the entire horrible mountain of games scholarship, a peak that is dotted about with just a stunning amount of racist, sexist, and ableist bullshit, Johan Huizinga begins, in the introduction by talking about how game playing is not a human activity, it is a cultural activity. Generous readings of Huizinga even go so far as to extrapolate from his position that games are important to culture because culture is made up of play.

It is not so much that cultures need games, but that without games, cultures wouldn’t exist; the capacity to give and take, to test and tease, is part of how cultural entities react to one another, and that, Huizinga-interpreters suggest, is one of the building blocks that means you transcend from existing as groups and packs, and begin the communication interchange that forms a culture.

I’m by the way coddling this because I read Huizinga a few years ago, and I read a translation so I’m always nervous of telling people what was in the text if I can’t provide chapter and verse quote. There’s a lot of stuff in Huizinga that isn’t really as prominent as you’d think it would be considering you have the phrase The Magic Circle bandied around everywhere but which Huizinga kinda only mentions once, and not in much depth.

Anyway, the thing is, any human reading the book is a byproduct of a culture and that culture has play already in it. If you want to talk about universal traits of cultural projects one of the easiest ways to prove you’re not just supposing things out of the air is to look around and find places where we can find the rule holding that aren’t necessarily obvious and which reinforce your point Where Clown-Hater and Skulldick Cultist Roger Caillois favoured pointing to ants getting high as his proof that there’s a fundamental desire for what he called ilinx, an idea that exposes a lot about how what he thought about how ant brains work, Huizinga’s introduction examines something a little more relatable as far as humanlike minds go:

He draws the comparison to the fact that wolves, without human interface, will play and invent games.

This is a point that I can remember because it shows up in the introduction and I was deathly afraid of mentioning it in my essays for fear that I would be asked about something much later in the book that I hadn’t gotten to yet. It’s also not a thought I think about too much, because I don’t tend to think about Huizinga much at all.

Then we got the Kong Gyro Ball.

We have a dog. His name is Elli. He is a good dog, and his name is a great litmus test for who can pay attention to being corrected on pronouns. Elli is a whippet, and Elli has anxiety. Elli doesn’t like other dogs much – he’s intimidated by them, and his reaction to them is to try and run at them very fast and bowl them over, or while making a lot of noise. This is non-ideal behaviour. Elli is also extremely energetic when he’s active – he wants to run really fast for about… a minute then come home and flop down for a few hours.

Lockdown has not been kind to Elli. First, due to the cold air and existing respiratory problems, Fox has been unable to walk him very regularly. That means I’ve been doing it mostly, and when the weather is rough, it’s not doable. Plus, because of his anxiety, we want to walk him when nobody else is – which has made for midnight walks, in the extremely cold weather, which isn’t great.

Fox has done something for him, though; of late, we’ve been feeding him out of the Kong Gyro.

This isn’t sponsored, by the way! This really is just a product we use in our house, and just because Fox or I play a game doesn’t mean we’re the only people who can or do play games.

It’s a pretty simple little toy; you put his food in the ball, and then he chases it around the house trying to get the food out of it. Thanks to a sense of smell and a sense of disappointment, when the ball stops paying out food, he’s pretty able to extrapolate that it’s empty (thought not always). It extends meal time, it adds interest and it gives him something to do in just about the right unit of time. Elli is not a dog given to enormous expenditures of stamina after all.

I didn’t think that much of it – it’s a thing we did, because it gave him exercise. We were making his dinner and breakfast difficult, and we were doing that because it needed doing in the circumstances of the world right now.

One night, we couldn’t find it.

We went to feed Elli, in his normal bowl, and – like, it’s hard to say for sure how to explain this to people, but he seemed profoundly disappointed when Fox went for his normal bowl. Oh, excited – because biscuits are biscuits and chicken is chicken – but still, he looked around for the Kong. And then, in response to that, I resolved to go looking, to try and find it, even moreso because because damnit, he wanted his lunch planet.

When I found it, it was in his bedding curled up, and under a blanket.

He had emptied it, eaten out of it, then carried it with him, empty, to be near him while he slept.

Now, the next big lift here is the question: are dogs non-human?

Game Pile: Timespinner

There’s chances are you’ve seen this game on Steam. You may have seen it show up in Pride lists. You may have seen screenshots out of context. And what you see is a pixel art metroidvania with upgrade paths and a female protagonist and she has a little buddy dragon and you may be asking yourself hey, is this too good to be true?

Turns out no.

It’s just good enough to be true.

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Game Pile: Hyper Light Drifter (But Not Really)

Oh hey, this game, this atmospheric and thoughtful and meaningful game that’s really good and looks really good and it’s full of execution-based skillful exploration and look we’re talking about Dark Souls and then we’re talking about the statements the author made about the game being about living with a terminal condition and it’s ten dollars and here have a review score, pick the one you like, 7/10, 90% and 5 stars.

Oh and hey here’s the image for the thumbnail, that’ll make people intrigued enough to click.

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Game Pile: Purrlock Holmes

I got this game from a Ding-And-Dent at Cancon2020, with an initial idea that it would make a good pickup for my mum, who’d enjoy it, because it was about detectives and cats, and you know, so on. Then when I got it home, I considered that I needed to make sure it was a good gift for her (since, you know, when does my mum get to play games like this), and if it was kid-valid, so I decided instead of making a gift of it, I’d play it with the family a bit, and see what she thought before handing it over, rather than just impose it on her and assume everything would be fine.

Then we played it.

And we played it again because the first thing someone said after we finished it was let’s play again.

And anyway now I’m keeping it.

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Game Pile: Spaceshipped

Button Shy card game good imaginative clever bright fun engaging eighteen cards stylish wallet kickstarter pleasant customer service thoughtful high quality available at pnparcade funny hard challenging stay safe was hands.

Boy, hasn’t it been a recent time for board game talk? because suddenly, this year, people have spent a lot of time hanging around the same people, and getting lots of stuff delivered to their homes and I’m trying to circle around mentioning the andemic-pay, but basically, we’ve had a lot of people talking about board games that you can play solo, and board games that you can get access to without going to a store and board games that you can maybe even try out cheaply because right now people are a bit pinched for money because andemic-pay.

Perfect time, then, for me to put up a piece on Spaceshipped, which is another Button Shy game, a cheap game, a game that jams on 18 cards, that’s a solo game, and, it’s available for $10 from Button Shy, and $3 at PNP Arcade. I know it’s a bit weird to lead like that? But it feels like I should get all that basic stuff out of the way first, because, as with Sprawlopolis and Tussie Mussie and Handsome before them, I just freaking love Button Shy games and there’s a sort of inherently dull status to being so consistently excellent. The article follows a pattern, a sort of sloughed out, well damnit it’s amazing and what am I going to do around that?

What Space Shipped is is a space trader game. In eighteen cards. And if you’re like me, and a game designer, you might have an immediate moment of hang on, wait, what? It’s eighteen cards, print and playable, no specialised equipment or dice, and there’s a full space trader game about travelling from planet to planet trying to buy goods low, sell them high and deal with the random events that make that particular kind of job hard. Your aim is to buy two Xeno Crystals, rare and expensive properties, before space pirates steal two, and lose you the contract to acquire the crystals. So far so boilerplate.

This kind of game is something I’ve tried to capture on cards in the past because I like these games and space ships are cool and all, but it’s often very difficult to emulate a market and space – like, an actual movable zone where you transition from point to point, not outerspace specifically – when you have limited resources like card design. Videogames handle this really well because if there’s one thing videogames can generate really easily, it’s spreadsheets and vast distance between doing your accountancy homework. My go-to work for this kind of game is always Lavamind’s Gazillionaire, a game that I wouldn’t go so far as to describe as good but definitely a game that was influential, in that it influenced me, with its ugly Windows 3.1 ass interface and resolute, unfailing, absolute demand that we continue doing things exactly the same way, forever, and ever, which is why even though that game is on Steam right now, despite being thirty years old, it’s still expecting you to pay like, forty bucks.

Anyway, what happens in this genre of game is you load up your pockets with stuff you can afford to buy, go somewhere you think you can sell it for a profit, and something along the way either gives you a candy or kicks you in the teeth. The gameplay loop of buy low sell high is mastered pretty quickly especially in games where you can learn things like supply and demand in other neighbouring places, but you play them because there’s this pachinko-ass effect where if you were just making sensible economic deicions, you’d be fine but the game mixes that up by periodically punching you in the face.

Spaceshipped doesn’t have a great sense of space to it, but it does do a great job of jamming that same feeling where you load your ship up anticipating the demand for your supply next turn, or two turns later, and then hope like hell it’s not going to go terribly for you on the way. The way it does this is through the kind of card face design that makes me disgustedly happy.

 

A single card in Spaceshipped is used in three different zones. You’re looking here at one card, both sides. The first face, with the encounters and market on it, is one of three cards that represent the travel from market to market. Each card shows you what happens when you arrive in the orbit, then on the planet, then the market – but crucially, the three cards together show this combined. That is, you get the orbital effect of card 1, the planetary of card 2, and then the marketplace of card 3 is what you have to care about. This means you can anticipate some things going to happen in your future, and you can compare the marketplaces of your current card and future cards. But sometimes orbital encounters will transform the effect of the planet encounter.

What you then get to do is make purchasing decisions based on what’s available in the market, what prices you can get them for, what future prices you can get for those goods, and upgrades and all that. You don’t have a sense of freedom – not really – you don’t get to pick the planet you go to, so the part of the space-faring trader fantasy the game exchanges is a the freedom of going where you want to try what you want. Instead, you’re given a sort of ghost train experience, where you ride in the cart as the game flings things at you, and that’s okay.

I mean you’re fitting a space trader wallet game on something that fits in your pocket and costs a tenner. It’s easily more playable while you wait for things than Solitaire, and I’ve talked about how that game is pretty good, too.

If you want to check out the rules and play through, here’s a helpful video they shared on the PNParcade page for it:

I think one of the most damning things about my mind as a developer is that my reaction to playing with Spaceshipped was realising how much I wanted to use the card face template for something else. It’s not like the game is perfect; there are some wrinkles about it I wish were a bit better. I rarely ever bother buying upgrades or ships – I just find myself too financially desperate for that. The upgrades and ship changes are too visually indistinct to stick in the memory, and the fact the game is more like a ghost train than an explorer makes it feel like the game narrative could use a little more room to flex in the rules (but how are you going to do that!?).

Still, once again, this game’s excellent, you can have it for cheap and it’s good enough that as with many Button Shy games, I’m kind of mad I didn’t think of how to do something like this myself.

Game Pile: Lanterns

Sometimes I feel a tiny bit bad talking about board games that are just really good here. There’s always some sort of impulse to make an examination into a story, for there to be perhaps a certain degree of turnaround or some surprising element to the whole experience of reading it. I know when I talk about Pokemon games, and Button Shy games (usually, though not always), I have a certain, hands-in-the-air ‘well it’s excellent and worth your time, I guess,’

Still.

Chris Chung’s Lanterns.

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Game Pile: Dungeon Drop

Sometimes you might see me crow about how board games and tabletop RPG space is a place where you don’t need to do the same old stories and the same old games about a heroic adventuring party going into a dungeon and you can make games about anything? Well here’s a game about the same old story about a heroic adventuring party going into a dungeon but wait.

This one’s weird.

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Game Pile: System Shock

System Shock is a 1994 first-person action adventure roleplaying shooter game with dialogue puzzles and a hacking minigame that pretty much stands as one of the many points we can say the Immersive Sim as a genre was born. In this game, you get one of the coldest opens you can get – you awake in a cryogenic chamber with your memory in tatters, in a strangely quiet space station, looking for weapons, medication, cybernetic upgrades and mind-altering drugs that you need to piece together what happened, what’s going on, and whether or not you’re going to get out of here alive.

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Game Pile: The Ur-Quan Heresies (Star Control 2)

Surely I’ve done this already.

Surely.

Digging back through my history on this blog, I’m stunned to find that I never did an article espousing the classic MS-DOS era space exploration game, Star Control 2. In fact, if you go back looking for it, the closest you get to me commenting on it is that I once said Mass Effect 2 is a worthy second Star Control 2, a point that doesn’t feel like hyperbole in hindsight. It only took eighteen years for them to catch up.

Star Control 2 was a 1992 PC Game, which was released on a handful of platforms, including the 3D0. In the past few years, it’s been subject to a mess of copyright nonsense, and I’m mostly disinterested in talking about that, except to mention that Stardock is a bad company run by a raging asshole who a reasonable industry would have driven out.

Anyway.

Star Control 2 is a game that’s hard for me to talk about because it is both so old that it’s really quite annoying to play and yet so important you’ve played thousands of games that do all the game and infrastructure bits better. Star Control 2 is a game from 1992 that might as well have been an MMO for the scope of its lore and its attempted breadth of interactions; you explore, you map planets, you collect information, you do space battles, you manage resources, you connect story tidbits between people, you negotiate treaties and you can even manage multiple routes towards races collaborating on the way to the end of the game, which is about destroying an important military resources of an empire that would otherwise be the doom of all freedom in the galaxy.

It is a lot and it was distributed on two 3.5 inch floppies.

I never got to the end of this game as a kid because the game was really quite vast. You can make mistakes in the game that mean some tasks take ages, and you need to sometimes compensate for weaknesses in one area with strengths in another – like being really good at ship-to-ship combat to make up for being terrible at fuel management (damn Slylandro probes).

I don’t really want to talk to you about Star Control 2, the game though. You can go download the Ur-Quan Masters and play the game for yourself. Instead I want to talk to you about specific lore from this game universe, to talk about one of the things that this game world is about.

I want to talk to you about the Ur-Quan.

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Game Pile: Traffic Department 2192

You used to get a lot of game for nothing.

I think it’s hard to convey to people just how fantastically ridiculous the CD-Rom was to PC gaming when it first occured – games that were originally designed to be distributed in increments of four to six were suddenly being given over to increments of six hundred. Doom, in its original incarnation, lived on six floppy disks, and could be transported in the amount of data it takes to load the webpage of a single tweet. There were two ecosystems of technology at the time, and it wasn’t as simple as ‘more space means more big games.’

For a few years there, games were being made to try and exist in both technological spaces: the disk distributions, and the CD Rom distributions, with bulletin boards and early internet being more geared towards the former than the latter. You’d see illegal download websites proudly touting that they had ‘stripped’ versions of CD rom games, with all the audio and video removed, making the ‘game’ that remained something like twenty megabytes.

In the early days of the CD Rom, then, there were companies that – a little unscrupulously, really – collecting as many shareware or widely distributed titles as they possibly could, compiling them into 600 meg collections of games originally designed to fill 1 or 2 megabytes, sometimes with nothing but a text menu to show you hundreds of completely indistinguishable games from one another, and sell them to you. You could spend $15 and get a CD of shareware that, really, was ostensibly free to copy from someone, but then you’d have to find it.

That was part of the trick when it came to shareware CDs. They gave you a few hundred things to ‘play,’ but be honest, if it was on the third page of possible directories when you typed ‘dir /p’ then you probably weren’t going to go looking in that directory. They were garbage, the AOL Free Trial CD of the PC gamer set, with everyone having one or two of them and the task of looking through them being genuinely difficult.

Sometimes a bloodstained demon asks me why I seem to know all the DOS shareware garbage from this period, and I tell her, please, sheathe your blade when you ask questions like that, but also it’s because I had the free time as a church boy. That’s how I found all these shareware games, these free games, and the rare gem of a whole game that was somehow just being randomly pirated. Crystal Caves. Sam the Secret Agent.

One of those games – one of the good ones – was Traffic Department 2192, a project who had a 12 year old working as a composer and which presented as its shareware ‘chapter’ a range of about twenty levels and thousands upon thousands of words.

I learned from the best.

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Game Pile: Star Realms Frontiers

Oh hey, Star Realms again! Didn’t I already wax lyrical about how much I liked this game?

Well, yes, I did! And the thing with this tiny little tight box of a game that lived on your phone (if you wanted it to) is that in addition to having a great core game, the people over at White Wizard kept making it. Over on BoardgameGeek, the interconnected wikipedia of people brave enough to ask ‘but who’s to say racism is bad per se?’ the nonetheless fantastically detailed database lists Star Realms as a game with 51 expansions.

Today, then, we’re going to look at at an expansion that doesn’t need the base game, otherwise known commonly as an expandalone, called Star Realms Frontiers.

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Game Pile: Sushi Go

Sushi Go is a Gamewright card game defined by a charming visual aesthetic of cartoon sushi pieces going around the table as a sushi train. Each turn, you take a piece from the sushi in front of you (your hand), and pass the rest of your cards to the next player, representing a rolling line of sushi that you can pick and choose from to cultivate a plate of complementary flavours. There’ll be some things you don’t quite want as much, some things you enjoy, and in the end, the stakes for winning or losing are all very low.

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Game Pile: Cute Demon Crashers

Porn gets a bad rap.

It’s weird for a term we wield so freely. We talk about pornography, the porn industry, we use ‘pornographic’ as an adjective for something fundamentally unsettling, and there’s the way we use porn as a term for all-purpose ‘kind of disgusting’ term, like a positively pornographic sum of money.

I’ve used that phrasing, I know I have.

Porn also gets appended to describe things like photography of nice landscapes or photos of good food or bubble wrap, and as I discussed in my examination of Tickled last year, there’s also a bunch of stuff that we file as definitely not porn that absolutely is porn (for the right people) and that complicated relationship creates a space where all those systems for controlling pornography can be leveraged against people who didn’t expect it.

Infamously, we don’t even have a description of porn, really. You know, ‘I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.’ I’ve even referred to stuff this month – The Knight Before Christmas – as ‘comfort pornography.’

Personally, when I talk about pornography what I mean is media that seeks to maximise an indulgent element of the media experience, and is willing to sacrifice all other elements to do so. And Cute Demon Crashers is a porn game.

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Game Pile: OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write about games and smooches.

The theme of smooch month in movies gets me watching stuff I’d never touch otherwise, and occasionally finding gems (honest, there’s positive reviews coming). But for games, it’s a desert. Oh, there’s a whole genre of games which are ‘about’ smooching – you have lots of romantic phone games, lots of gacha romance games, and a wealth of romantic novels, but finding any given one of them to write about is needle-in-a-stack-of-needles hard, not to mention often extremely thin for a critical surface. I know I don’t like most of these games, finding ones that differentiate themselves is hard enough and then sometimes, when I find one that sets itself apart somehow, it still upsets me.

I took it a step down and tried to write about games of a different genre where romance is important and you know what, that’s super hard too! Lots of games have a romantic element where you’re seeking to rescue or satisfy some lover or romantic partner, but that is almost all it seems being written by dudes with issues! I went back to look into adventure games from the 90s in the hopes of finding something with even an engaging romance subplot, and boy howdy,  I was reminded that Space Quest was not an exception.

There is something to be said about Kings Quest, but even those romances are fairytale style, and therefore kiiinda spring up out of nowhere once you get the two destined characters in the same room.

Then when I went looking for games that detailed the course of a romance through the game play and wow those are thin on the ground in my space, too! I could find more games about rescuing a dog than I could find about working with a partner!

And that’s why I came back to this classic rhythm game, OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!

Ouendan is a game whose name you don’t have to shout but come on, you should want to, you should be shouting in your heart, that was the original progenitor of a game you might have heard of called Elite Beat Agents. It’s a rhythm game on the NDS and 3DS, where you tap the screen in time and place to correspond with the flow and movemen tof the music, and that’s kind of it. If you know what a rhythm game is, you probably can work out how to play Ouendan in just a few minutes, even across the language barrier for non-Japanese speakrs.

In fact, it was that accessibility in part that led to the game being picked up in the west, and enjoyed so much we got a American localised version of the same game, Elite Beat Agents. This was in fact so much of a thing that at the end of the credits for Ouendan 2, there’s a thank you note in English.

That approachability is only part of the reason why you can play Ouendan without literacy, though; another element is that the NDS doesn’t have region locking, so you can just buy a Japanese copy, jam it in your Belgian NDS (I assume you have one of those) and it’s going to work, rather than requiring you to pay distributors in your country. And then, the thing that pushed this game from a good, solid game to an absolutely amazing game is the framing device of the narrative.

In Ouendan, you play a squad of cheerleaders roaming around town (and history) finding people who need help, then cheering them on to do their best, and what you get in this is a collection of tropetastic preposterousness that scales from ‘helping a kid with their college entrance exams’ and ‘getting a noodle shop guy to get over his problem with a stray cat,’ to ‘helping cleopatra build the pyramids’ or ‘bringing back the dead,’ finally culminating in ‘saving the world from a asteroid strike through the power of rock and roll.’

What’s important about this, though, is that in each of these stories, you aren’t playing the people who the story is about.

You’re playing cheerleaders.

One of the stories that you help out with is a story in a festival, where a dude is being blocked from dating a girl he likes by her crappy dad. The dad is willing to let him ask his daughter to marry him, if the dude can win a race against him during the festival. If you win the level, he succeeds, and they get to get married. Not only do they get married, their kid shows up in the sequel game.

Now I pulled deep to find this game because I think this successfully breaks a lot of my problems with videogame romances. First, you don’t control the agents in the romance; you’re not the boy or the girl, and your relationship to the other has nothing to do with how well you play the game. These two characters are into each other, and their reactions to how well you play is how well you get them towards a goal they both want (where they want to get married). You want to do well, because you want them to have their chance to get married (and you get a rewarding tish sound).

It’s a sweet story, it’s about something nice, and in amongst all these games I’ve been digging through to find just a romance that didn’t make me clutch my insides, the worst thing about this one is that the story written fifteen years ago still does the ‘dad won’t let couple marry because he has some sense of ownership over the daughter,’ which is a total asshole thing, but he’s presented as being a dick for it.

Incidentally, I did consider doing this with Elite Beat Agents instead, because, you know, it’s slightly more available and didn’t get a sequel. Thing is, it’s uh, it’s not got a story like this one in it. The closest we get to this song is Queen’s I Was Born To Love You, which shows us Leonardo Da Vinci harrassing Mona Lisa until she agrees to pose for him as a model, which is so much worse as a story.

Ouendan! It’s great, go check it out, oh my god videogames are bad at love.