It’s been a tough month, and I’m sorry this isn’t more polished. This was made with other projects on the boil because it seemed the easiest thing to make that would get done. I hope you like looking at my castle.
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.
Hey everybody, let’s make some friggin’ jam.
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.
Buckle up, folks, we’re back at it with Fox, helping the channel explore the most important questions about Fire Emblem: 3 Houses, ie, which characters I already recognise from hanging around my gay disaster friends.
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.
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.
Once again, I’m going to talk about a Button Shy game, which I’m beginning to feel I need to construct some kind of template for. Let’s see about hitting the notes! Button Shy make wallet games (roughly 20 cards or fewer) in nice aesthetically pleasant wallets, focus on non-dexterity games from a variety of designers, and it’s smart, funny, clever, designed for fast iterations on play, rewards replay, and is absolutely perfect to keep in your everyday bag. The base floor on these games is quite high, and any criticisms I make of this thing is also made in the context of the game you get under the hood as already being really good and definitely worth having, especially at the very modest rates Button Shy charge.
We got that?
Good, okay, moving on.
With the cleansing ritual of excusing a number of physical games from my Game Pile, I decided it was also time to make a ritual of making it clear a number of 2019 digital games that had definitely, definitely left my Game Pile. Presented here is a lightning round of Games that I tried in 2019 and didn’t feel I had anything to say about them. These games largely went unfinished, unless something provokes me to give ’em a second look – which can include you specifically asking me about it!
I talk about games a lot.
The origin of the game pile, which I’ve explained a few times lately, was to be a sort of documentation as I worked through a large pile of games I’d gotten in part because of the generosity of a kind friend, and my own rarer purchases. It also focused heavily on my digital game collection at first, and way back when I even had the idea of starting a subseries of game pile, called cheap thrills which was about finding games that had twenty or more hours of reasonable playtime for only $5, and was going to feature a lot of older DOS and Abandonware games that still had their charms.
The original purpose behind Game Pile was, to an extent, a sort of documentation of the process of working my way through my presents. There’s guilt and all sorts of other feelings there, and ambitions for a life writing for some source like Polygon or Waypoint that has since dissolved in a mist since August 2014. Not only has its original purpose changed, though, It has since grown to incorporate board games, and board games are different to my steam library because board games are physical objects.
The physicality of these games means that when I’m done with a game there’s something I can do with them – it means that I can package that game up, and, assuming I haven’t broken it, I can let it go. I am not bound to the game, nor is it bound to me. A steam game is a little string of numbers next to my name in a directory that I access with a password that let me put a copy of a program on a computer. From the people who made it’s perspective, there’s no reasonable value to letting me treat that code like a physical object, but with a tabletop game… they can’t stop me. That’s kind of the default of how most products worked, up until we got used to this other normal.
Originally when uploaded, this video was completely blank. Here’s the video I meant to upload, sorryyyyy.
Oh hey, look at this! You’ve noticed the pictures to start with, because humans are visual learners, and you’ve probably heard this name before, and it doesn’t have a number after it so that suggests it’s either a 2020 reboot (and do you see me doing that?) or a super old DOS game (and hey, guess what). You may have put it all together and thought: Hey, Talen’s about to talk about an old DOS game, that started a famous franchise, and we’re going to get all sorts of talk about how videogames back in the day were so good and the pixel is the natural storage unit of fun, because he’s old and that means he’s going to speak to the value of retro games right?
I wanted to do that, because I have fond memories of, when I was a child, playing the demo of this game, a 1993 DOS strategy game by Blue Byte entertainment, a game company that has since been acquired by and made part of the Ubisoft coalition. It was for the time, technically impressive, and commerically, wildly successful.
And going back to play it again, this game is wildly unapproachable.
Overwhelm is a 2018 action-horror exploration platform game that uses a palette that feels gameboyish except instead of green and dark green its palette ranges between white and oh dear red. It’s not a specific hardware style I recognise – you wouldn’t call it ‘1-bit’ or ‘4-bit’ graphics as if that answers questions easily, but it does have that same crisp few- colours-deployed-sparingly of other indie classics like Downwell and Minit.
When I talked about Century: Golem last year, I referred to mastery depth, where the way that experience playing a game makes you better at playing the game – and that meant that for some types of game, playing with new players was an experience of watching them lose because they hadn’t yet learned to play at your level of mastery.
I also talked about how much I wanted to have more cooperative games, and how I also need some games that are kid-approachable for my niblings to play, because games without winners and losers are important for managing times when everyone is all a bit stressed and it’s a bit much.
Forbidden Island was a late addition to my collection last year, and I think it’s worth bringing up as an excellent game for a game collection, even if the game itself isn’t that big a deal, especially if your collection has games that maybe, to you, look a bit ‘better.’
I sometimes am cautious of putting something on my blog that feels like it’s basically one big tweet. This is especially so since we got 280 character tweets, which means it’s very possible to give a very clear, positive or negative impression very conveniently, especially with a single picture attached.
Also this is one of those games with such a beautifully ridiculous premise that if I just show it to you and tell you what you’re playing for, you will almost certainly know whether you want it or not.
Oink games are one of those companies I deeply appreciate in the same way most people appreciate art. They make beautiful, tightly integrated little games with a lovely visual aesthetic and a variety of play scales of difficulty, from a different cultural perspective than I’m from and they satisfy a variety of different play types.
But they’re also extremely pricey to get my hands on here, because I don’t know, we have a nice beaches tax, whatever. Attempts to buy Oink games tend to be kind of happenstance – you either see them for sale on a shelf and snap them up, or if you can’t, you deal with them being randomly unavailable. The internet, normal place I go to for this kind of thing, isn’t much help – shipping fees for Oink games can sometimes be as high as seventy dollars.
Still, these games are great and if you live in Europe, Japan, or America, they’re a lot more obtainable, and statistically you do, so I want to share with you a game of theirs that you can play yourself with just the bits and pieces you already have access to, and hopefully it’ll encourage you to check out their other stuff and give you something you can do at a family party this holiday season that doesn’t involve again, monopoly.
Wait a second.
Monopoly joke, family reference, talk about other games to pad the word space, talk about using components you already have…
… is this going to be another drawing game?
Okay, unfortunately, yes, but I promise it’s not the same thing and it’s really good! A Fake Artist Goes To New York is a drawing game where rather than everyone needing their own pad of paper, you instead need one pad of paper, and some scraps of paper and markers.
What’s going on in this game is that each player is part of a collaborative art asset to create an artwork together, except one of the players doesn’t know what you’re drawing. You draw one line of whatever you’re drawing and you hand it to the next player. They then do their line, and pass it on and on. And again: Some of the players know what you’re drawing, one of them doesn’t.
The thing with this game, and what separates it from Fax Machine, is that it’s a game where you don’t have to be good at drawing to win or lose. You’re adding one line at a time to your drawing, and that means that you don’t really have a luxury of being good or bad. Much like how I spoke of Poker earlier this year, it’s not a game of expressing your skill as an artist as much as it is a game about communicating with the other players. You’re trying to find the fake, and the fake is trying to make sure other players don’t catch them out.
This game is lovely and charming, and I recommend you don’t just check it out, but try playing it. But didn’t I say it costs a bunch? Well, you don’t need to buy it to play it.
You don’t need specialised equipment to play this game, you just need the rules, which I won’t explain in full, because I don’t have to. You can get them here at BoardgameGeek, hosted there with permission by Oink Games. This is a really impressive move, by the way, because the rulebook covers how you pretty much don’t need to buy the game. They’re giving a version of their game away for free, understanding that if you like it, you might buy it. I really respect that, especially in a game that’s so approachable and can serve as a gateway to get people into the games scene.
Normally, when I write about games on Game Pile, I’m writing about games you can buy, or maybe games you can have for free. I’m not often talking about games that are more practice than they are objects. For some of you, this time of year is a time when you go visit people you kinda like but don’t like much and there’s inevitably, someone who wants to ‘play games’ so I want to equip you with a really good game so you’re not stuck in an hour long slog of trying to remember how mortgages work in a dusty copy of monopoly nobody likes.
Now, then, our basics. First, a fax machine was a kind of email machine that could send a complicated text message over a phone line to a specialised device. These machines are pretty outmoded now, but for a while there they were fundamental to businesses and even had people doing ‘spam’ calls by randomly sending faxes to different phone numbers in the random hope they’d be picked up by a machine and you’d print something in a stranger’s workplace. They were also slow – a fax could take ten to fifteen minutes to arrive when they were new, which means fax correspondence always had a sort of slow stop-and-start nature to them. They were faster than mail, but they still had a sort of asynchronous communication feel to them. That’s the core of this game: People communicating badly with paper.
Okay, with that in mind: Fax Machine is a drawing game. Some people don’t like drawing games, they don’t like being put on the spot like that. That’s fair. Don’t try and make anyone play if they don’t like this kind of game. In fact don’t try and make anyone play games they don’t like the sound of. It’s just a dick move.
Okay, so, rules.
- Give ever player a way to draw (pen, pencil, texta, whatever) and a pad of paper or stack to draw on. They need to be able to turn the page, so whatever is on the previous page is hidden. You can make booklets using staples and typical printer paper.
- Every player writes a phrase, word, or name on the first page. People can get hung up on this, so for the first round you may want to ask people to write their favourite movie quote or their favourite vegetable.
- Then each player passes their work to the next player.
- Each player turns the page of their work and tries to draw what they just read. This will almost always be hard because nobody went into this thinking they’d have to draw that.
- Then, players passes their work to the next player.
- Players turn the page and try to write what they think that picture was trying to describe.
- Continue as long as you want.
Now I don’t mind drawing and I hang around with a family that are all pretty crafty so it’s not a game that goes badly for us. What it means though is that we don’t think of the same turns of phrase or the same ideas expressed by pictures, and so we get steadily more and more silly pictures. I’ve seen ‘All’s well that ends well’ concluding with ‘a microbe travelling through space and time.’
It’s cheap, it’s fast, it can be played with a big group or a small group and you’ll usually get a good laugh out of it, and if you don’t like it, you’re not out an expensive setup fee.
I don’t actually buy a lot of games.
Given that my job involves a lot of game literacy, that I’m constantly consuming games media on youtube and reading about it in books and articles and it’s just generally part of the media space that passes through me as I pass through it, it surprises me to track through a year and recognise just how few games I actually buy. My steam backlog for example is enormous but it’s also almost 50% complete, and that’s with my very rarely buying anything to add to it.
The fact is that the Game Pile is a sort of actual thing; for a time there, a friend of mine, who I now recognise struggled with anxiety, would buy me a game from my wishlist pretty often. If we had an argument, another game. If a sale happened, another game. My birthday? A few games. I didn’t really notice this pattern until I had a few hundred games stocked up in a library that once upon a time I hadn’t even considered something I’d keep running on my computer regularly.
What’s more, as an MMO player at various times, these purchases weren’t getting played. Some people talk about their game backlogs guiltily as if the person who they’re faulting is themselves, and I feel I should remind you that, no, in fact, that’s bullshit. You get to enjoy the experience of buying and owning the game and any time you treat the process as a sin that you have to exorcise by completing the game, you’re kind of doing the corporation’s job for you of putting control over things you bought in their hands. Buying a thing and having your interest change in it isn’t a sign you’re bad, it’s a sign that you enjoyed getting something.
In my case, however, the games I was being bought was by someone who loved me (and loves me!) very much and who was struggling with ways to show it. When I play my Game Pile games, it is in part to recognise that spirit in which the games were given, and in many cases, that’s led to me being more willing to consider a game for its best ideas rather than just lay into them for being bad.
(Not that I haven’t done that.)
Still, there are some games I bought this year explicitly looking forward to play them and I haven’t yet, not in a whole year, and that’s got me thinking as the end of the year draws up. Since the theme for this month seems to be games I didn’t actually play, let’s do a quick rundown of some stuff that I own, that is in my house and isn’t being played right now and what kind of reasons I have for that.
This is also something of a goal and a personal accountancy issue. After all, Christmas season is time to hang with family and maybe, just maybe get to play some of these boxes of cardboard I’ve bought. You might have seen me buy these, you may have seen me talk about how excited I was to play them, so consider this a followup.
I’m going to limit myself on this to stuff I purchased in the two big opening parts of the year: January’s Cancon and stuff I bought myself for my birthday. I bought Lanterns last month because it was cheap second hand, for example, and I’m not going to give myself guff for not playing that since it’s been a few weeks and I’ve played it before (just not my own copy).
I bought this game because I was at the time working on a presentation for DiGRAA about orientalism in board games and oh boy howdy did this game suggest it was going to be in that space. It was also however a big-box Days of Wonder hard euro with great production values and really pretty pieces, so I figured at least there’d be a solid enough game worth digging into there.
But when am I going to get a competitive hard euro to the table?
That presentation went off well in February, but I also went from having two people by my side on the project to doing it on my own (not complaining), which suddenly meant it just wasn’t as important, and that meant I just did not find the time to come in to the uni to play this.
I mean, I’m not going to feel bad if I never play it, I just would rather it be in the house of someone else who can appreciate this near-mint copy of a $60 game.
Korra Pro Firebending
I bought this at the same time as I bought Yamatai, for the same reason. This is a game about a – for lack of a better term – oriental theme with developers with actual cultural grounding in that space. That’s really cool.
Plus, I’m a big mark for Korra, believing it to be one of the many post-Avatar franchises that I like a lot more than I liked Avatar. This game should be an absolute breeze to get onto the table, right?
Well, again, the fallthrough on the paper meant that didn’t happen and this game is sadly a straight-up head-to-head one-versus-one sports game. My single most likely opponent for 2 player games is Fox, and we have something of a rule that it’s best not to play any head-to-head stuff outside of playtesting our games, just because neither of us handle losing all that well.
Now, sometimes I sit down at the table with other friends who are more for that kind of direct competition but that’s when I have three or more friends around and suddenly a 1v1 game means a bunch of people sit out. That’s a bummer.
This is a game I got for Christmas last year, and I was so excited to get it. It’s a game I already knew I wanted, because it was basically a second edition version of a game I already liked called Star Realms. That game had a fast deckbuilding experience but lacked in individualisation in the base game, where both players started as tabula rasa and the resulting game that followed was all based on who picked what.
Hero Realms instead gave you character classes so your starting decks were different and you’d look at purchaseable cards differently. That’s great, I like that. And I was wonderfully gifted an amazing game that I know I like (I’ve goldfished it) and even gotten to play once, and then… nothing.
That’s because Hero Realms is again, a head-to-head builder. Fox and I don’t play a lot of games in competition with one another, like I said. But, I knew, there was a co-op expansion for Hero Realms, which meant we could sit down and play this game together.
Which I haven’t yet played, and I don’t quite know why. I’ve definitely had the urge, and it even handles larger groups? But the stars haven’t aligned yet for me to sit down with some friends and make decks as we fight an evil sorcerer trying to animate an undead dragon.
It’s a bummer. I’m hoping that my niblings will be able to handle this game soon because hey, it’s fully cooperative and that means we can help each other, but who knows how that’s going to go. I mean it’s a deck builder, I’m asking kids to shuffle a lot of cards.
This game, ostensibly, was my birthday present from my parents, who gave me about the right amount of money that I then turned into a card game I knew I was really excited to play. Bloodborne has kind of haunted my 2019, a game that I couldn’t finish, informed one of my major creative projects in Hunter’s Dream and yes, sits on my shelf, wondering just why I haven’t gotten around to playing it.
It’s a co-op game! It’s about fighting monsters! It looks really cool! What’s stopping this one from getting to the table?
Wait for it…
Yeah, the minimum player count is three. I don’t tend to have three players. I usually have four (in which case we’re playing D&D) or I have two (me and Fox). And while Fox and I playing Bloodborne would be absolutely great fun, we are still ultimately two people, not three.
It’s a minor logistical thing, but it does mean I have to plan for who I’m going to play this game with.
Before There Were Stars
This is a game that got bought on its pure aesthetics. Fox liked how it looked and she grabbed it. This game is in that rare category of creative storytelling games that wants to be self-contained. Rather than a number of free improv games, though, this one builds itself around a number of really beautiful props made to set the tone of the game.
It’s not gotten to the table because… well, our main people who might want to play a storytelling game about mythologies are a little young to grapple with the idea of improvising a story on the spot with the idea of symbolism in cards.
This one I don’t feel too bad about being on the backfoot. It’s not my normal kind of game but I really want to play it with people who might want to enjoy sitting around in a circle telling stories, but not a story they already had in mind, nor a story that’s about getting a laugh.
It’s a little mystical, and I do love game experiences that take me to places I rarely go on my own.
I did an unboxing thread for this, so you may remember it. The basic idea is that this – well okay no the basic idea is you’re all nature druids trying to heal the land and build powerful connections to sites of sacred importance, but the way you do that is by getting points and prizes. It is a game where the cards are made up of transparent plastic with a few things on them, in sleeves, and when you buy powers, you add them to one of your cards, meaning that your deck never gets bigger but the cards in it still change over time to match your changing position in the game. Technologically speaking it’s a deck builder that never changes the size of your deck and it has all sorts of other cute mechanics, like a catch-up mechanic for the player who can’t buy anything.
Never got it to the table.
I don’t know why. It might just be that it’s the kind of crunchy builder game that currently only appeals to me. I know I love deck builders a lot, and my go-to builder game at the moment for new players is my beloved copy of Century: Golem, meaning that the more ornate, more complicated Mystic Vale has to wait.
It’s a beautiful game, I even got a replacement card from AEG when I pointed out there was a slight mangling of one, and I really do like what this game promises, but right now? I just can’t find anyone to play it with in my friend circle. It’s always going to be competing with other games, which makes me a bit sad.
That means it joins the other games in this part of the list where I’m going to make a concentrated effort to play them with other people going forwards. Trying to prioritise these suckers!
Gosh, hasn’t the visual novel been brought up a bunch of late?
It seems like only yesterday we had Dream Daddy getting conversations going about religious abuse, trans bodies, fatness in media, and gay dudes who knife-fight going. There was the Kentucky Fried Chicken Visual Novel that produced an eruption of conversation about ironically engaging with marketing and the way that our landscape of critics and reviewers is still ultimately a wing of advertising. Steam banned a Visual Novel (good) this year, there’s been a whole range of talk about where and how to get and market them, and all the while, the Visual Novel as a genre has just trucked on while discourse happened.
These past few years have basically not gone more than a month or two where someone in a position to pay writers has had their money return an article about The Visual Novel and the impact this one’s having or what this means.
The Visual Novel is even a weird phrase because just describing it, I know I’ve written about the way that the format can describe both a kind of game and a kind of amateurishly-constructed video. I’ve also compared them to mazes, where one of the most basic kinds of game challenges is made engaging by making the passages you travel down more interesting for their own sake than just the idea of ‘beating’ the maze. They’re mazes and they’re puzzles and they’re management games and they’re kinetic novels and they’re all these things.
But they’re also, definitely a thing called a visual novel, and we know what a Visual Novel is.
Spoiler And Content Warning: I talk about Doki Doki Literature Club; there’s a discussion of self-harm and suicide, and I’m pretty open about admitting I think the game is shit. You can just skip on if you don’t wanna see all that.
They see the outposts being built; the lines of communication falling from the the weapons of war moving slowly into position, the empires’ weapons being simultaneously sabotaged and subverted. Mystics preach to the mercenaries and the common folk doctrine about the fall of an old order, while that same old order strives to shore up what remains. What it has must be kept, what cannot be kept must be destroyed.
Chaos reigns. Tumult rises. The winds of war roll across the land of Yavaun, and there is no escape.
I guess as a disclaimer up front: I haven’t played Kingdom Hearts. The research for this video kinda means I wound up wanting to, even though it would be a kind of hate-play. But it’s about games, it’s about using Kingdom Hearts to talk about something in games, and it’s a chance to put forward some work I like.
The perfect is the enemy of the good. I know when I say this I’m going to be giving voice to some academic idea that someone in my circle either knows better than I do or that I’m going to come across sometime months from now and I’ll finally have it crystallised by people who are more focused on, more marinated in the field. Or maybe I’ll relisten to a podcast and find the quote – probably by Michael Lutz – explaining it.
For now, I want to get this out.
What is there to say about this, the longest night?
Bloodborne, for those unfamiliar with it, is a 2015 PS4 exclusive videogame by From software, the makers of Demon and Dark Souls, and joins those games as part of the genre we hamfistedly call ‘Soulsborne’ games, because videogames are a space where it’s very important to constantly reinforce brand loyalty, I guess.
The game starts with you as a hapless person dropped context-free into some space or other whereupon a game kills you repeatedly and gives you infinite chances to avoid dying again. It is largely considered to be one of the greatest videogames ever made, which doesn’t seem to be wrong per se but as I played it, seemed more and more to be an insult to videogames in general as a medium.
I took notes as I played the game, which is a transformative thing with a From software game. The experience of these games often melts away so you don’t really know – you don’t know – how many times you try things, how difficult a game experience is until you really look at it in a numerical context. I did, so I have a very reasonable measure of how much of my life I was spending on this game, and whether or not the progress I was making made me feel good enough to merit that exchange. It’s very easy when you don’t quantify these experiences to think a game is ‘hard’ and just let that one word cover all your sins, as opposed to having clear information about how many days of effort it took you to deal with boss monsters that, amongst other things, do behave semi-randomly.
I also haven’t finished this game at this point. I got the game in January of 2017, and haven’t finished it as of October 2019. I don’t think this colours my opinion of the game at all, and I think it’s actually very important to look at the game from this position, rather than from the perspective of someone who having finished the game, is able to dismiss all the time spent as being ‘worth it’ in the end.
Tides of Madness is a drafting game for two players by Portal Games that retails around $15. In the interest of not just being mean to this game, it’s made of very pretty parts. Each card is fully illustrated in postcard orientation with a full-art depiction of some generic Lovecraftian thing. Additionally, each card has a set it’s from, and a mechanic that says what set it rewards. This is a basic kind of set collection mechanic, where you get X, but it rewards Y. This divides your incentives, and you’re limited you to five choices each round, presenting the game’s tension.
I am personally pretty pleased by the challenge of making a game with such deliberately narrow constraints. I’ve made other games with eighteen cards, including drafting games, and conceptually, it’s an exciting design challenge. It’s not like ‘X feeds Y’ is a bad game mechanic, asking you to track the pieces. The puzzle then is what to pick, to force your opponent’s hand and deny them potential points. Of course, a problem that follows there is how obviously separated or clearly presented those pieces are. The set symbols are ambiguous and small, making it hard to keep tracking them during the game.
The first time I played this game, my opponent and I immediately complained about its generic feeling. Not just the Lovecraftian monsters theme – though you can bet I’ve got views on how that’s handled. We felt that all but three cards were very obviously just permutations of cards in other sets. When the art is so indulgent and the cards so large, this lack of depth stands out. This game retails for very little so it can seem reasonable to be charitable about its failings. I’m not feeling charitable, though, and you should buy my cheap drafting games instead, like Winston’s Archive.
You’re walking down the street, when a cardboard box opens, and you step out. You immediately impress upon yourself that you are, yes, you, and they need you to get into the box because that’s how the time travel that brought them here works, that you will appreciate it, that you will enjoy it, that you will understand such amazing things when you get in the box.
Get in the box.
GET IN THE GODDAMN BOX.
Time Fcuk is a game about time travel and being in a box.
Pokemon is a rich vein of hashtag content for hashtag content hashtag creators, who are trying to hashtag drive hashtag engagement. For that reason I’ve largely left the subject alone except when the tumult has grown so tempestuous I find myself driven to shout about it. I think most of my reviews of Pokemon main games would be a little tedious – I’ve talked about the difficulty of talking about them in the past, where these games are largely just really good, and critically engaging with them in any way is a matter of picking over a game that’s 99% positive finding the 1% that’s got something interesting enough to talk about.
Not so Pokemon Go, though, which is probably the most successful and widespread alternate reality game that exists in the world right now, at least as far as I, someone who speaks only English, am aware. Remember, there are more mobile phones in China than there are people in America – if it turns out there’s some amazing thing happening on the other side of the Great Firewall, I wouldn’t know about it. Anyway, point is, Pokemon Go is a big deal, and it’s not a sequel in a meaningful way and it’s not a refinement of a nearly perfected formula.
There’s a model for how the Game Pile works. When it started, it was almost a sort of penitence diary, a way for me to talk about the games in my Steam Library as I committed to play through them, with the idea that it would be a long process where I could eventually ‘finish’ my Steam Library. It was almost done as a sort of deliberate demonstration of engagement – hey, people who bought me these gifts, here I am, playing them, please have your money and time and belief in me respected.
Years ago now, I, on a whim, wrote an article talking about a little-known Master System exploration platformer (what you may call a metroidvania), called Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap. I wrote about it because it was a rare gem, it connected to my childhood and in all my time of watching a SNES-dominated game landscape, I never saw anyone bring it up, even in conversations about the entire genre of exploration platformer. It was a curiosity, and I tied it into a conversation about transformation and becoming, and how the different dragons, perhaps coincidentally, mapped to interesting themes of the world we live in and the way dragons represent power.
Then, about a week? A month? It feels like almost no time at all, but very much after I released that, a teaser dropped from Lizardcube showing that not only were they remaking this game, but they were doing so with a level of aesthetic devotion and purity that seemed too good to be true.
And then it came out, and it wasn’t too good to be true.
This was purely a coincidence, a completely unintentional and unexpected alignment between my random whims and the intentions of a group of other people who very clearly had not forgotten this delightful gem of a game. I wish it’d come from some place of insider knowledge, that I’d been able to guide this along or build hype, but it really was nothing but a coincidence.
It launched in 2017 and I haven’t goten around to talking about the remake.
First, I just waited; it didn’t launch on the PC at first, starting on the Switch. I was waiting to buy it on the PC, but it turns out Fox had gotten it on the Switch, in the hopes of luring me to play it (a thing I don’t really do much). Then as I got my life in order to get around ot playing games on the Switch, I finally got into playing it, and then something interrupted me. Then I went back. Then I hit a wall. Then I went back. It has been nearly two years of stop-and-start work getting to the finish of this game that was, once, a lofty ambition for me, a game I so wanted to say I had finished that its incompleteness haunted me for decades.
I still haven’t finished it.