Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beyond Good & Evil

No, the name of the game is never explained. With Christmas well and truly behind me and the flood of blockbuster next-gen titles temporarily receding, I've taken the time to catch up on some overlooked gems from my PlayStation 2 collection, in particular Beyond Good & Evil.

This is a game from Michel Ancel, the creator of Rayman. At the time of its release, it sold poorly, but it's picked up steam as a cult classic and the general consensus on the blogosphere is that it's time to revisit Beyond Good & Evil with kinder eyes.

I'm glad I did. The game is excellent. After playing through the recent Prince of Persia I had been thinking to myself, "I want more like this," and now I'm feeling a little stupid because it turns out I had "more like this" sitting on my shelf for the better part of two years, completely unplayed.

In Beyond Good & Evil you play as Jade, photographer and surrogate big sister to a gaggle of assorted orphans. When Jade's adopted planet of Hillys is attacked by the militaristic DomZ armies, Jade is pressed into service to find out what the DomZ are up to and why, exactly, the local defence forces aren't doing much about it.

I say that it's a bit like Prince of Persia, and by that I really mean that it handles relationships between the core characters well. Jade is aided by her "Uncle Pey'j", an avuncular pig-man with a gift for mechanics. (Actually, Hillys is populated by all manner of animal-people, although it spurns catgirls and bunny-women in favour of antropomorphic sharks, rhinos and goats.) Later on you'll also team up with "Double H", a likeable resistance fighter who's forever quoting his role models "Johnson & Peters". These characters are really enjoyable to be around, and when the game makes you go solo you'll really feel their loss. The interactions with Pey'j and Double H form the emotional spine of the game.

Really, though, the gameplay is more like Metal Gear Solid meets Pokemon Snap. Jade's role as a photographer isn't a mini-game or sidequest - it's the core of the game. All your efforts are ultimately directed and getting access to places where you can take photos which reveal the truth of the DomZ plan. You compose and shoot your photos yourself, and the game stores the photos you've taken and weaves them into the game in unexpected places, notably to excellent effect in the game's final scenes.

To keep you busy between plot photographs, you're also challenged to photograph every animal species on Hillys, of which there are I think 50-something. Some of these are ubiquitous but others will require finding some very specific environments. The animals are beautifully unique and make sense in the context of the biosphere; finding the rarer specimens can be really breathtaking, whether it's turning out the lights in a deep cave to capture an unrecorded bioluminscent algae in full glow, or catching a giant blue whale in mid-leap as it breaches the waves. The nature photography is so excellent that I found myself wishing that it could have been the main plot.

Sadly, the other half of the game is stealth. Despite my love of Metal Gear Solid I've never enjoyed having to be stealthy, and I like it best as a vehicle for getting myself in the prime position for completely eliminating every guard in sight. Beyond Good & Evil does a pretty passable job at this type of gaming - the controls are tight and responsive, for example - but it still doesn't quite get it right.

The camera doesn't give you anywhere near enough information. It's not clear how many guards are around, where they're walking, or where they can see. This turns the stealth sections into frustrating trial-and-error processes where you'll proceed halfway across an area, realise there's an extra guard you couldn't see, get caught, and have to restart. Thankfully checkpoints are extremely generous and well-placed. Also, the consequences of detection vary. Sometimes you'll merely end up fighting the guards, which is an appropriate punishment as you'll usually win but at a severe cost to your health. On other occasions, however, detection results in immediate death from a previously-invisible hovering laser orb that can apparently shoot through walls.

Were it not for the stealth sections, this would be an extremely casual-friendly game. Nothing anywhere else in the design comes close to replicating the frustration and repetition of the sneaking missions; every time I started into a guarded area I came close to giving up the game for good and I ended up playing with a walkthrough in hand to minimise my negative experiences.

Everything other than the stealth is perfect, though. You can cruise around the watery surface of Hillys in a hovercraft, compete in suprisingly entertaining hovercraft races, discover hidden nooks and crannies, collect valuable pearls, and explore the pedestrian district of Hillys' main city.

That city, by the way, is a triumph. The main canals that connect everything are packed with an amazing variety of water-borne and airborne vehicles moving in every direction at once, while giant television screens hovering in the air boom out propaganda messages. This kind of business is something we've seen in videogames elsewhere, but the fact it intrudes out into the player's space - the other vehicles are using the same areas that you can use - makes it feel real and immediate and alive. It has an effect something like the cantina from Star Wars, giving you the impression of this being a real, diverse world, through the use of only a single scene. The city also grows and changes as you play, with the propaganda messages changing to reflect your exploits and growing numbers of citizens protesting in the streets as you take more photographs and uncover more of the truth.

The graphics are gorgeous. Despite being rendered on a last-generation system I had no cause to fault anything visual about the game. This is largely because it relies less on technical prowess than it does on genuine art; good aesthetics is good aesthetics at any level of resolution. These are clearly deliberate choices - for example, the art uses simple lines and blocky, childlike shapes for all the Hillyan characters, while making the Domz significantly more visually complex, with assymetries and irregular silhouettes. (The only Hillyan to copy this design style is Pey'j, presumably to reinforce him as a "grown-up" and set him apart from the "child-like" Hillys. It's worth noting also that, story-wise, he's not a Hillyan native.)

Jade is a textbook example of how to do a modern female protagonist. She's dynamic, interesting, competent and attractive, without being sexualised, gimmicky or shallow. Part of what makes her work is that she's "just a person", and a late-game twist that sheds new light on her background feels weak precisely because it violates her identity as someone "normal".

The music is fantastic. I've had it stuck in my head for days after I've finished playing the game, and the main theme is a genuine gaming classic.

I love the story, I love the art, I love the characters, I love the thrilling unexpected action set-pieces (in particular an amazing rooftop chase), I love that the action facilitates the story rather than vice versa, and I love that after such a long hiatus it's finally getting a sequel.

Finding a copy of Beyond Good & Evil is easy. It came out for every last-gen system, it's available for the 360 through XBox Originals for PC direct download via Steam, and if you live in Canada they're apparently giving it away for free with certain packs of cheese. If you haven't played it yet, get yourself psyched to complete some annoying stealth in pursuit of a greater good, fire up your system of choice, and sit back for one of the best gaming experiences ever produced.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Trailers, Trailers, Trailers

- Capcom have announced Lost Planet 2. I'm not sure who, exactly, was clamouring for Lost Planet 2, as the original was pretty dire. Its biggest problems were its clunky controls, horrible scripting and terrible voice acting, so it's pretty funny that to "fix" the franchise they've given it to the Resident Evil 5 producer.

- Bioware have announced Mass Effect 2. You'll recall that the original was my Game of the Year 2007, so I'm pretty hyped about a sequel. I understand you'll be able to port your save game from the first game and continue the same character, so that's pretty awesome. I'm not sure how that squares up with this trailer, though.

- I've been quietly enjoying the rise of "disaster survival" as a new genre of game, and while none of the entries in it have so far been particularly great, I figure it's only a matter of time. Ubisoft's I Am Alive will probably not break the mold, but you never know. (This is actually an old trailer but I figure you probably missed it in the E3 buzz so it's worth digging up now.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Simple English

I used to be in favour of writing in Simple English. I rarely achieved it - I lean heavily towards verbosity - but it seemed to be a goal worth aspiring to.

Today's xkcd directed me to the Simple English Wikipedia. A cursory inspection has reminded me that Simple English is disturbingly close to Newspeak, which I note with amusement is a concept that doesn't have a page in the Simple English Wiki. Fifteen things described as "good" and "very good" in under a minute was enough to scare me off the whole Simple English movement. We have a complex language so that we can express complex thoughts; sometimes simpler really is dumber.

I'll probably swing back to simplicity eventually but in the mean time I really want to revel in the fact that I have a whole rainbow of words for expressing approval above and beyond "good".

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Hope is a new multi-part fanzine raising money for bushfire relief in the Australian state of Victoria.

It is edited by the awesome Grant Watson, with contributions donated by writers, artists and fans in Australia and from overseas. It is supported by the Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation (WASFF), and has received assistance from the Film & Television Institute of WA, Supanova and Big Finish Productions.

Issue #1 is now available in a PDF edition in return for donations. How much you donate is up to you - Grant recommends a minimum of AUS$5.00. If you wish to subscribe to the entire five issue series, make it AUS$20.00 or more.

Hope #1 contains contributions from Mo Ali, Sophie Ambrose, R.J. Astruc, Lyn Battersby, K.K. Bishop, Matthew Chrulew, Stephen Dedman, Mark S. Deniz, d.n.l, Paul Haines, Simon Haynes, Kathleen Jennings, Ju Landeesse, Damian Magee, David A. McIntee, Simon Petrie, Andrew Phillips, Gillian Polack, Robert Shearman and Daniel Smith. The cover is by Rebecca Handcock.

I can personally testify that almost everyone on that list is like a loaded shotgun ready to fire entertainment in your direction; I say "almost" only for lack of exposure to some of the authors rather than any dissatisfaction with their shotgun-like qualities. Personally I'd buy the thing just to get Rob Shearman's contribution; he's the guy who did the Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who story "Dalek" as well as most of the best Who audio plays and the amazing short fiction collection "Little Deaths".

Also, I'm led to understand that an upcoming issue may feature content by me. You should therefore buy the whole series in order to find out.

For information on how to donate and obtain your copies of this excellent project, head on over to Grant's LJ and get out your credit cards or PayPal accounts. I mentioned it's all for charity, right?

Cell Warfare

I was hoping this was going to be some kind of jail simulation and was horribly disappointed.I'm still busy working through Beyond Good & Evil - too busy even to play the new Mirror's Edge DLC, if you can believe it - but in the mean time I've got some browser gaming for you.

Cell Warfare is a shameless attempt to recreate the winning formula of Amorphous +. Simple gameplay? Check. Coloured globular enemies? Check. A constant stream of badges and achievements? Check.

It wants to be a dual-stick shooter in the style of Geometry Wars. The arrow keys fly you around the play field, and you click the left mouse button to shoot in the direction of the cursor. It's initially a clunky control scheme but with some practice you'll develop surprising precision. The basic gameplay is fun, but as always with this kind of thing the real hook is trying to score all 78 achievements.

In the end it's more accessible than Amorphous +, if such a thing is possible, although not quite as tactical. Definitely worth a bunch of your time but I can't see myself racking up the four hours or so that I did with Amorphous.

You can play Cell Warfare at Kongregate, or alternatively at Newgrounds, if that's more your thing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sex and Violence - Never The Twain

Okay, I originally wasn't going to touch this, but Leigh Alexander (who I recently discovered to be awesome) has posted on it twice in a week and I think it's probably something that deserves a wider discussion.

If you are reading The Dust Forms Words, the chances are you already have an opinion about violence in games. Probably you think that violence is a legitimate element to include in videogames, it can be fun, and it would be a sadder world if every videogame was non-violent. Certainly violence does not automatically enrich a game, and occasionally it subtracts from the fun. On some occasions violence can be completely tasteless and worthy of condemnation - but we express that condemnation by not buying the product, not through censorship.

For some reason people feel differently when it comes to sex. We're all excited about Madworld, where you can skewer someone with a streetsign and then push them into a meat grinder, but games about sex are in a different realm. Perhaps the debate is murky here because of the domination of the market by Japanese hentai titles, which cheerfully confuse consensual with non-consensual and have no particular bar against including incestuous or underage scenarios at the drop of a hat.

Does it matter, though? These games neither victimise real people nor encourage the consumer to do so; they have no more real-world impact than Wile E. Coyote getting hit by a falling anvil. We make a judgement as to whether we're amused, and if we're not, we simply choose not to reward the creators with money and attention.

But sex in games is not limited merely to the overtly erotic. Indie game Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble, a mature and clever title currently winning all sorts of praise for both its gameplay and writing, has been de-listed from Big Fish Games over complaints about a scene where the player prevents the rape of a friend. Is this worse than saving a friend from being eaten by zombies? Is it worse than any of the various murders that happen in something like Grand Theft Auto?

And then there's a rank further again; Leigh reports on the delisting of RapeLay from This is a game where the gameplay is, effectively, the violent rape of fictional women. People who would defend Madworld to the death are surprisingly ready to erase RapeLay from society.

What's the line? Isn't fiction fiction? If Madworld doesn't encourage or condone real-life murder, how does RapeLay advocate rape? Can we not agree that fiction can be tasteless without also saying it should be forbidden?

More Of McGee's Alice

My real beef with Alice is that it ripped off a roleplaying game I ran once.  True story.American McGee's Alice is better remembered for its eye-grabbing visual style than for its quality gameplay (or lack thereof). In fact, American McGee as a person is better remembered for his unusual name and his penchant for attaching it to subpar products than he is for creating anything particularly wonderful.

Still, Electronic Arts seem to be willing to give him another shot. Completely ignoring the evidence of Bad Day L.A., Scrapland and Grimm, they apparently think good old American can make a bestseller, and they're therefore producing another Alice-themed title for consoles and PC.

I'm not sure what this goes to show, but I'm personally confused whether to groan, sigh, or roll my eyeballs. Protip: don't do these all at the same time or people will think you are having a seizure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Inglourious Basterds Trailer

If you want to be a serious director, there comes a time when you have to make a movie about Nazis. We can all trust Quentin Tarantino to do his in a tasteful and historically accurate manner, I'm sure.

Above is the trailer for Inglourious "Not A Spelling Error" Basterds, and as someone who's loved a lot more Tarantino than he's hated, I'm quite willing to say: hell, yes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game

This boardgame was created by man.  It evolved.  It rebelled. Fantasy Flight Games are, hands down, the majestic emperors of the licensed boardgame market. These guys know how it is done. They make really excellent games that play well and capture wholesale the spirit of their source material.

I loved War of the Ring, I was an enthusiastic convert to A Game of Thrones, and now I am thrilled to bits with Battlestar Galactica.

This is, naturally, a game based on the modern incarnation of the show rather than its prehistoric origins, and most of your favourite characters are involved. You can play as obvious choices like Adama, Starbuck or Baltar, or some less overexposed characters such as Tyrol, Zarek and Helo.

Gameplay focuses on the first season-and-a-half of the show and, although the box art shows the bearded Baltar of Season Three, you won't find anything in the cards or rules that spoils stories further along than the discovery of the Resurrection Ship. Every player is, at least notionally, a human, and the co-operative goal is to guide Galactica and her civilian fleet safely to Kobol (not Earth).

However, every player is dealt a "loyalty card" at the start of the game, and another one halfway through. These cards can reveal to a player that they're secretly a Cylon, at which point they begin discreetly sabotaging the fleet either alone or in conjunction with another Cylon player. The Cylons, naturally, win if Galactica runs out of any of the key resources: fuel, food, morale and population.

Play revolves around the handling of crises, one of which is randomly drawn from a "crisis deck" each turn. These are problems which typically involve a choice between two unappealing options (lose 1 food or lose 1 fuel, etc), or a "skill test". In skill tests, players play numbered and coloured cards from their hand secretly into a pool. Cards of the correct colours for the test count towards a goal and cards of other colours subtract; if the total goes over the difficulty of the challenge, the humans pass, but otherwise they fail with disastrous consequences. Cylon players, of course, will normally be secretly playing aganist the vote, masked in their schemes by the contribution of a "destiny deck" which adds random cards to every vote and thereby obscures any toaster shenannigans going on.

The real hook to the game is finding and identifying the Cylons; this can be a really gripping political challenge, with everyone prevaricating as though there is no tomorrow. There is no way to test for Cylons (barring a quirky ability of the Baltar character), so if you think you've figured out who the robots are you'll have to send them to the brig - an action that involves a skill test. Brigged characters are essentially powerless until voted out.

The Cylons can also reveal themselves, which results in them getting shot in the head and sent to the Resurrection Ship. Once revealed, they gain new powers but lose the opportunity to sow dissent; it's clearly intended to only be a valid gambit once the jig is well and truly up.

Looking for Cylons is great fun. This is the core of the game, and it's what brings you back for more. The characters are also really interesting, each one packing unique and surprisingly well balanced abilities. Baltar, for example, is more likely to be a Cylon, but has the ability once a game to test if one other player is a Cylon. Saul Tigh can steal the Presidency and give it to the Admiral. Helo, the ship's "moral compass", can turn a traitorous decision upside down when pressed.

Unfortunately, if there are no Cylons in the first half of the game (because they're coming up in the later "Sleeper" phase) or if all the Cylons have been revealed, the game gets quite dull. With the "possibly a Cylon" factor eliminated, there is generally a clear "best" move in any given situation - the game can practically play itself. Playing a revealed Cylon is also not terribly exciting.

The game also uses a "Sympathiser" mechanic in games with even numbers of players as a way of balancing out the game - Sympathisers join whichever side is losing at the halfway mark - but this mechanic doesn't seem to work very well or be much fun for anyone. Another role that isn't much fun is being a pilot, who's typically expected to fly around Galactica shooting Cylons, but this gameplay is far shallower and less fun than what's happening on ship so few experienced players will volunteer for it.

There's a lot of pieces in Galactica, and the setup time is about 10 minutes, but the profusion of components is generally justified. The pieces are high quality, starting with a really excellent board and moving on to full-colour cards featuring art assets from the show. You get little plastic Cylon Raiders and Human Vipers, and the tokens for each character are a thick piece of card wedged vertically into a plastic base.

Battlestar Galactica isn't a perfect game, but it's still a strong game, and the thrill of playing something which captures the feel of the show so well more than compensates for its mechanical weaknesses. Trying out different characters provides a lot of inherent replayability, and the dynamic also substantially changes with different numbers of players, so there's always something new to see and do when you sit down for a round of Galactica. If you're not a Galactica fan the game is strong enough on its own to support you for two to three playthroughs, and it generally makes sense without having to understand the scenarios and characters involved.

If you're a fan of boardgames and of Battlestar this is a must-buy. It's excellent. For everyone else, it's still strongly recommendable, and a steal if you happen to see it at budget prices.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

WTF Theatre Presents: Major Minor's Majestic March

The guys who did Parappa the Rapper are at it again, trying for the WTF Theatre Award For Excellence In The Field Of Sweet Jeebers What The Hell.

If this doesn't sufficiently blow your mind, the Destructoid guys did their own trailer, featuring their own "music". Some might say it is better than the real thing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Midway File For Bankruptcy

Midway have filed for bankruptcy, taking them another step towards the end of their prolonged struggle against insolvency. This is really less to do with the global financial situation and more to do with their ongoing inability, over a great many years, to produce games that don't suck.

Bad news (unless you work at Midway) is that they're nevertheless going to continue trading rather than going into liquidation. That allows them to keep perpetrating Mortal Kombat vs DC upon an unsuspecting world, and, if we're extra unlucky, maybe even keep releasing new games.

None of these developments have suddenly taught Midway how to create things that are fun, so the future almost certainly involves some winding-up at some point. Hopefully such talent as they have employed there will wash up on sunnier shores, and the villains responsible for Gauntlet: Dark Legacy will flee to Argentina to escape the wrath of the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Fine, Star Trek Online Looks A Little Bit Awesome

Okay. Everyone being the captain of their own ship - that's bollocks. Playing a small part of something big is what brings out the very best in MMOs, in my book. I was really looking forward to working in engingeering and saying "She just canna take it" a lot.

But - play any race in Star Trek canon or create your own? Brilliance. It embraces the idea of the Star Trek universe as this vast and infinitely diverse place, it pokes subtle but loving fun at a franchise where a million alien races are differentiated only by skin colour, forehead design and nose architecture, and in the unlikely event that two players make characters who look identical it's not immersion-breaking - it's cultural solidarity.

STO is coming from the guys behind City of Heroes so it's probably no surprise that a robust character creator is front and centre, but still, bravo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Loose Morals And Go Fish

I pity the fool who tries to pass Go.In case you're not yet sold on the videogames-and-violence controversy being largely a case of selective reporting, boardgaming blog Purple Pawn has taken the effort to round up no less than nine stories in the last week linking violence to traditional family boardgaming. Go check it out.

These probably came about because people bought playing cards whose contents were not adequately classified. The inherent difficulty in keeping unclassified boardgames out of the hands of children is a real and ongoing issue in our modern society.


State College, PA: Man plays board games with a few guys, and then one of them later breaks into his apartment and wakes him up by molesting him.

Winona, MI: Sex offender charged with molesting a 6 year old girl during a game of Go Fish.

Chicago, IL: Four women beat and stab a man to death after he breaks one of their cigarettes at a card game.

Alameda, CA: Man stabs to death his friend over a game of chess.

The Genius of Tails

Miles Prower my ass.  He is and always will be merely Tails.These days I don't play many platformers, but there was a time when I did. And in that time, the undisputed king of the genre was Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

I love this game. It keeps the speed, the simplicity and the gorgeous graphics from the original, notches down the difficulty so that everyone can enjoy, and makes the whole thing work as a two-player co-operative experience.

One of the ways that Sonic 2 works is that it doesn't try and make the two characters equal and separate. Sonic is the same hedgehog we know from the first game, with a couple of new moves aimed at helping him retain momentum. He's powerful, he's vulnerable, and he has to tackle the levels in the way intended.

Tails, by contrast, is cheerfully broken. He is a fox who flies. He can helicopter around wherever he likes, completely oblivious to the jumping sequences and the avoidance of enemies. The only catch is that the screen is locked on Sonic, so if Tails gets too far ahead or behind, the player will lose control and Tails will magically come flying back to wherever Sonic is.

Sonic 2 is a game built for its demographic. When it imagines two players, it does not see two trash-talking 15-year-olds exchanging yo momma jokes over XBox Live. It sees parents playing with children and older siblings playing with younger siblings. It envisages a skilled player, and their friend.

Only one player is challenged; only one player is called on to perform. The other player merely has to join in; they can be useful, but never a liability. They can interact without detracting from the fun. It is a roadmap for bringing together the hardcore and the casual and for facilitating intergenerational play that will create lasting memories for the participants.

This is a lesson that Sega had learned in 1992 which most developers (including Sega) have forgotten today. It is perhaps ironic that Nintendo, once Sega's chief competitor, has wholeheartedly embraced this strategy while Sega struggles to find even a single audience, let alone two to bring together.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Valedictorian's Death

Crap, I almost forgot to put hilarious alt text on this picture!  That was a close one!Speaking of excellent tabletop RPG design (we were, weren't we?), I just noticed The Valedictorian's Death.

This is by Paul Czege, the guy who did My Life With Master, and it is both stomach-churningly creepy and awe-inspiringly brilliant. It is a game about looking through the real-life yearbooks of people you don't know, roleplaying the graduating class, and working out who is the culprit in the fictionalised murder of the year's valedictorian.

It's co-operative storytelling, where player stats are entirely about influencing narrative rather than resolving conflict. These rules are actually solid and gamelike, rather than vague and wishy-washy, and at the end a winner is determined in a way that promotes both competition and storytelling. Also, it is 100% free to the public.

You have to check it out right now. Right now, dammit. I am five kinds of envious.

Straight Outta Compton

"Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A, rendered as an introspective acoustic femme-rock ballad by Nina Gordon. Unmissable.

UPDATES: While we're talking covers, and while I'm ripping content from Copy Cats, who's heard Sean Connery doing a cover of The Beatles' "In My Life"? Hilarious! Very much in the style of the musical outings of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but Scottish.

Also, Greg Laswell does "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" as a depressing Eternal Nightcap-esque suicide ballad.

Bars of Black and White

So three confused protagonists walk into a bar...I'm not typically a fan of room escape games, considering them point-n-click's vapid cousin, but this here's a good 'un.

Bars of Black and White comes from Gregory Weir, the talented fellow behind Majesty of Colours, and it's less of a full fledged challenge than it is a really entertaining proof of concept. You start off, as is typical of these things, trapped in a room with no memory of how you got there, but soon you get your hands on a barcode scanner and you'll start scanning every barcode you can find.

There's really only a couple of puzzles and most of the game consists of some clever jokes about the conventions and limitations of the genre. There's also plenty of shout-outs to other games including the greatest room escape of all time, Silent Hill 4.

As you're probably expecting, it's a browser game, it's undemanding, and it's on Kongregate, among other places. Go have a play, you'll smile.


Note to developers: green plastic is not actually a viable building material.Monopoly is a bad game. Monopoly is a bad game that people play. Monopoly is a bad game that prints money as if it had secretly shackled an army of gold-summoning leprechauns to its factory floor.

Monopoly, as a study in game design, is all about the difference between quality and the perception of quality.

We've all played Monopoly, right? I'm talking about the Parker Brothers game on the square board where you're buying property and charging people rent. The one with the fistfuls of paper cash and the little plastic dog.

Yep. It's a bad game.

What does Monopoly do wrong?

The game uses an unfeasibly large amount of paper money that players are forever having to pass around the table. You spend as much time adding, subtracting, and making change as you do actually playing the game. To make matters worse the game regularly uses the concept of "ten percent" just to make things that little bit more complex. Admittedly, to some extent the accounting is the game, but I can't help but feel that the satisfying feeling of passing cash around the table could have been retained without turning every player into a mathematician-slash-retail-clerk.

One way to do this would be to standardise the denominations. Remove the $1, $2 and $5 notes and have everything come in denominations of $10. You'd have less change-making over trivial amounts, less game components to sort through, and the maths would be simpler throughout. (You could just as easily deflate the currency and remove the $500 note but (a) humans find big numbers and multiples of 10 satisfying and (b) the big numbers are part of the flavour of the game.)

Slow resolution / exclusive victory condition
A game of Monopoly is decided in the first three passes around the board (often even sooner). After that point the relevant property has been bought, and, barring some truly unlikely dice rolling, the rich are only going to get richer and the poor poorer.

Despite this, it can take hours to actually meet the victory condition in the game. The victory condition is, specifically, to be the last man standing on the board, so you're not winning so much as being the last to lose. Losing is based on running out of assets, and there are relatively few ways for wealth to leave the table, so with each player bowing out everyone else tends to become comparitively better armoured, making it take even longer until the next elimination.

The game should instead declare a victory condition of a player accruing a total of X cash, or being the first to build X hotels. The rulebook does include two alternative victory conditions; one finishes the game after two player bankruptcies, while the other sets a real-world time limit. These are both sloppy solutions to an easy problem. Victory conditions should be based on specific criteria, they should be individual (ie contingent on the success of one player rather than the failure of others), and they should be easily and quickly achievable as soon as any player displays a clear and sustained edge over their competition.

Jail is just not fun. It might be an icon of the game, but there is nothing exciting about being arbitrarily removed from play for one to three turns. If the element was going to be included in the game, it should have been tactical - contingent in some way upon deliberate player actions.

Mortgage and bankruptcy
First up, mortgage and bankruptcy are just not fun words. Playing a game about mortgages and bankruptcy is not inherently entertaining. Secondly, the rules for both of these parts of the game are complicated, slow, and heavy on accounting. No surprise, then, that these are the two most heavily house-ruled aspects of Monopoly, at least in my experience. It seems everyone I've played with has their own custom way of handling these situations, and almost all of them are better than the game as printed.

An example of the problems with these rules: you can avoid bankruptcy by selling swathes of your property. This is a losing move - you don't recover from selling property in Monopoly. The rich will get richer faster, and you, without a source of income, will get poorer faster. You're still losing, but not straight away, so the game has been unnecessarily prolonged while you continue not having fun. The rules for bankruptcy use, in one paragraph, the terms "one-half", "10 percent", and "principal", which really makes the whole thing sound more like tax law than a family boardgame.

Few meaningful choices
It is always the correct choice to buy property when given the opportunity. It is always the correct choice to build houses once you can. The only meaningful choices come in trades with other players, and trades are easy enough to assess that two good players won't enter into one as both will only offer deals that advantage themselves over the opponent. A lack of hidden information makes for poor trading gameplay.

What does Monopoly do right?

It's tactile
It's fun to play with the Monopoly pieces. Bundles of fake money, tiny little houses, title deeds to property and so on make your accrual of assets feel very real and immediate. You can see and hold your successes.

Expressive avatars
Monopoly wouldn't be the same if you couldn't be a dog, a cannon or a top hat. These icons have little to nothing to do with the gameplay, but they give players a way to express themselves. Everyone has a favourite marker (I like the top hat), and if you've played with young children the idea of "being the doggy" is disproportionately likely to lure them to a game that otherwise has "grown-up banking game" written all over it.

Primary colours
The Monopoly board is bright, clean and distinctive. It's full of primary colours, thick black lines, and iconic cartoons. The board suggests that things in this game are easily understandable and clearly delineated.

The "if only" moment
Humans assess long odds poorly. The hotel on Mayfair happens late in the game, rarely gets landed on, costs a lot to set up, and by the time it gets triggered is unlikely to really upset the apple cart. But the penalty for landing on the Mayfair hotel is so big that rookie players will quite happily descend into bankruptcy while claiming that if only someone had landed on the hotel, everything would be different. The "jackpot" is akin to the "shoot the moon" scenario - the highly unlikely situation that, if achieved, would turn defeat into victory. It doesn't need to ever actually happen - it just needs to be clear that it could. People love these things.

Fast turns, interactive turns
Turns go by quickly. You need to pay attention on other players's turns as you can only collect rent on your properties if you notice someone landing on them. This keeps everyone at the table engaged in the proceedings.


None of Monopoly's successes make it a good game. The gameplay is, objectively, broken. What it does do is make the process of experiencing that broken gameplay as enjoyable as possible. This makes it an attractive game for casual players, who will be able to enjoy the novelty of the setup for at least a couple of games before they realise its deficiencies. It also makes it a good game for young players, who aren't able to interact with a game on its competitive level but are able to use it as a tool for imaginative and social play, particularly in conjunction with older players. (Monopoly is also pretty good for kids who are at the right age for learning addition/subtraction math.)

Monopoly is not a good game. But it is a good product. It sells, and to some extent it sells deservedly (although it continues to float on brand recognition far more than on its inherent worth). If you have created a game which is, genuinely, a good game, you should probably spend some time looking at Monopoly to work out how to make it a good game that sells.

BONUS POINTS: If you made a list of why Monopoly works (which I just have), and then made a list of why World of Warcraft works, they would be, largely, the same list. Not coincidence.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wrath of the Lich King

Lich Train's a comin'!  Toot, toot!The other night I finally got around to rolling a Death Knight in World of Warcraft and playing through the starting areas. It was good, I guess - a huge step foward for World of Warcraft, anyway - but it wasn't the Second Coming of Blizzard that I'd been promised.

The more bells and whistles Blizzard hangs on the DikuMUD formula, the more it reminds me that the entirety of WoW is built on the bones of an 18-year-old text adventure. It's like if Namco were still devoting the totality of their corporate effort to getting Pac-Man just right.

In a way it even feels like a step back. The much-lauded "phasing" content, whereby your perception of the world changes as you complete quests, is only a short step from instancing, and the knowledge that other players aren't seeing the same world as me brutally grates on my suspension of disbelief. When I'm taken to the Death Knight assault on Light Hope Chapel I'm unable to forget that this isn't the real Light Hope Chapel but rather an ersatz copy spawned entirely for my benefit, and that elsewhere, in the real Plaguelands, people are interacting with these NPCs entirely oblivious to the devastation I'm wreaking.

I'm hopeful that in as little as five years we'll be looking back on this as the unbelievably primitive scratchings of neanderthals on cave walls, but in the mean time it's perhaps appropriate in an expansion about undeath that the bleached skull of Azeroth should show through so clearly. It feels like in the attempt to hear the story of Warcraft I've lost that sense of it being the world of Warcraft.


Children: do not attempt to play this game using real crayons!  Hilarity will not ensue!Time for a browser game, and today it's Scriball.

I was indifferent to this one at first, but I'm finding I keep coming back to it. You have a yellow ball, which you have to move to the green dot on each level, and the way in which you achieve this is by drawing a line on the screen with your mouse. Make a slanting line, and the ball rolls down. Make a cup, and you catch the ball. Your line can only be so long so you can also pull it out from under the ball to send it plummeting. If you need to get more height, the mouse button tosses your ball into the air.

Simple concept, and familiar to anyone who's played Canvas Curse or Crayon Physics, but still compelling and challenging. Scriball's also got significantly more content than your average Flash game, with 40+ levels, three difficulty settings and a create-your-own-level mode.

Check it out on Kongregate.

Monday, February 09, 2009


I'm glad Prince of Persia opted for a woman instead of a pig.Not feeling particularly gifted with the eloquent tongue of language this morning so instead of substantive comment I leave you random observations.

- I've turned off the 360 for a while in order to go back and play Beyond Good & Evil on the PS2. I was exactly in the mood for Metal Gear Solid meets Prince of Persia, which is, largely, this game, so I'm feeling a little silly for having had it sit on my shelf for two years without being played.

- Saw Slumdog Millionaire the other week, which is truly as good as everyone says. Danny Boyle's made some fine films in his career but to some extent I've sat through them all just wishing he'd make another Trainspotting. Now he has.

- Some boardgames that are good: Battlestar Galactica and the expansion to Race For The Galaxy. Some boardgames that are really not very good at all: Last Night On Earth, which is officially the worst of the five zombie-themed boardgames that I have played.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Goonswarm Take Down BoB

This is my Titan.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.Goonswarm took down Band of Brothers on 4 February, bringing an end to the most epic battle in MMO history.

I don't play EVE Online, but man, I love hearing its news. Originating on the Something Awful forums, the Goonswarm guys are notable for their superficially irreverant approach to the game and their propaganda videos. For years they have been at war with Band of Brothers (BoB), who have a reputation as the corporation that the game developers are members of.

On the 4th, Goonswarm subverted a BoB director, used them to dismantle BoB by kicking out the members, stripped the assets, and scrambled the political directives. The alliance is dead and Goonswarm is holding on to the name to stop it reforming. Some estimates value the lost assets at upwards of $5,000 US, possibly significantly more.

Destructoid has a more complete report. Congratulations to the Goons, you've made gaming history.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Star Strike Television and Print Ads

1982 saw the release of the "exciting new Intellivision space game" Star Strike for Mattel's Intellivision console. The game was heavily influenced by the Death Star trench run sequence from Star Wars and saw the player flying down a scrolling trench and firing missiles at targets. Failure could result in the on-screen destruction of the Earth. The print ad promises "special effects so realistic they appear three-dimensional".

The television ad below features American journalist George Plimpton comparing Star Strike to the Atari VCS port of Asteroids, a game which at that time had already been on the market for three years. Star Strike may have had the prettier graphics, but history has shown Asteroids as the game with infinitely longer-lasting appeal.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Diana, Warrior Princess

Humorous alt text!  Laugh now! Sorry to be roughly five years behind the times, but my attention has just been drawn to Diana, Warrior Princess, an indy RPG put out by Marcus Rowland and Heliograph Publications.

From the Wikipedia entry:

The game is a parody of Xena: Warrior Princess, and its setting tries to portray the present day with the same level of accuracy that Xena portrays Ancient Greece – i.e. not much. Historical figures are distorted and confused with each other. Diana, Princess of Wales rides around in shining white motorcycle leathers on a semi-sentient motorbike, doing battle with the war-god, Landmines, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, from whom she took her mystic powers of Royalty. She is aided by Fergie, the Barbarian Red Ken and Wild Bill Gates, while Tony the Vampire Slayer battles the sorceress Thatcher and her masked assassin Archer. The milieu also includes figures such as Emperor Norton, Queen Victoria and the "disease" lepus.
Steve Jackson's download service e23 sells copies so I might have to pick one up and give it a spin.

Left 4 Dead DLC, Battlefield 1943 Live, Lego Battles

I call zombie bullshit.Tidbits for those of you who don't obsessively trawl the gaming news:

- Left 4 Dead downloadable content on its way in the form of a "Survival" pack, featuring one new game mode (Survival) and two new Versus campaigns. I assume these are less "new" campaigns than they are adaptations of Blood Harvest Death Toll and Dead Air, the two single player campaigns that didn't make the jump to Versus first time around. (link)

- Battlefield 1943 (a sequel to Battlfield 1942, which I like to refer to as "the one that didn't suck" - take that, internet!) is getting a release on XBox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, which makes me all happy inside. (link)

- The next Traveler's Tales Lego game will not, apparently, be the rumoured Lego Harry Potter or Lego Lord of the Rings but instead the much less exciting Lego Battles, which features no licensed properties but does have plenty of action from classic Lego lines such as "Castles" and "Pirates". Yay? (link)

Equivocation / Meaningful Choice

I'm unclear whether this guy is tossing a coin or merely giving the concept of currency a hearty thumbs-up.Hey, if you're not reading my D&D 4th Edition blog, Eleven Foot Pole, it's probably because you're one of the many people with absolutely no interest in D&D 4th Edition.

But I put up a pair of posts yesterday that you might be interested in if you're enthused by game design generally. I rate them as "worth checking out". On a scale of one to five they score a resounding "Probably!".

In Equivocation I talk about offering players an illusory choice while still running them headlong down the story you have laid out for them. Sometimes treating your players like stooges results in good times had by all.

In Meaningful Choices I shoot down exactly that sort of fake decision, and go on to suggest that there's really only three reasons to give the players a choice at all, being the test of skill, the self-expression, and the player feedback.

Go feast your eyeballs; I'll wait.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Lego Batman

Game developers are a cowardly and superstitious lot.Regular readers of The Dust Forms Words know that I've had a tumultuous relationship with the Lego games. The original Lego Star Wars was an upstanding gentleman of a game, but the sequels have done little more than steal beer from my fridge and pass out on my sofa. Lego Batman is the best and least stinky of those surly hoboes but it's still not the champion whom once I lionised.

The principle of the Lego videogame is simple; you walk into a world constructed of flimsy, breakable lego, and you start punching until your fists go numb. Repeat 30 times to complete the story mode, repeat 30 times more to finish the sidequests. It's a solid premise - who doesn't like punching stuff?

All these fisticuffs are, of course, dressed in the livery of a well-known franchise, and this time around it's Batman. This isn't the Batman of the recent movies, or even of the comics. It's instead a mash-up of the Tim Burton films and the animated series. It's a shallow exploration of the brand, and Batman devotees will be disappointed that the amount of fan-service on offer is approximately zero.

The place where Lego games go wrong is that the developers invariably feel that punching is somehow not enough, and throw some jumping into the mix. The jumping is the closest you will come in this life to feeling the tangible presence of Satan intruding into our mortal world. Apparently when a Lego minifig jumps it enters a kind of floaty demiplane where the rules of gravity warp and twist. Distance has no meaning and whether or not you land at your destination is dictated by variables understood only by MC Escher.

What's worse, platforms are possessed of a kind of malignant sentience and scorn the tread of your little Lego feet. Frequently you'll land squarely on a ledge only to watch your avatar drift inexplicably sideways as if compelled by magnets, before plummeting over the edge to its doom. For bonus laughs, occasionally you'll respawn only to immediately be victimised by the same deadly drift again.

The Lego games are built around the idea of co-operative play. At all times you have not one but two heroes on screen, and a friend with a second controller can drop in and out of the festivities at their whim. This worked well in the original Lego Star Wars but has been a cause of histrionics and grief ever since. Both players are bound to a single screen, despite some puzzles which really need you to split up. Attempting to move more than a screen away from your partner will drag them along behind you, usually to their death, or cause them to pop out of existence and respawn closer to you, sometimes in a location which is either fatal or inescapable.

There's no option to play two-player over XBox Live or the PlayStation Network, but that's okay because the co-op here is a friend-losing proposition anyway. Sadly, letting the computer control your buddy isn't much better, as the AI takes a cheerful pleasure in getting in your way, pushing you to your death, and refusing to help you with the co-operative puzzles.

The buggy AI may serve to distract you from the rest of the game, which is also riddled with glitches. Respawns occur in broken positions, secret canisters refuse to appear, characters get stuck in inappropriate animations, and Achievements inexplicably don't unlock. There's only so many times that you can write the woeful playtesting off as all part of the childlike joy of Lego before it becomes time to bring out the murderin' axe.

Just to round it all out, Lego Batman features some of the worst level design to every appear in a videogame. Distances can't be judged, threats can't be evaluated, and goals are seldom if ever clear. You can rarely tell what can be smashed up and what can't, and occasionally there are wierd hierachies at work (you can't destroy a street light until you first blow up its light bulb). Boss fights range from the repetitive to the obtuse, and key locations are obscured by horrible camera angles and unbreakable scenery.

That's the bad. There's some good, but none of it in any way compensates for the bad. I mention the good only to explain why Lego Batman is, while objectively awful, still a better game than Lego Indiana Jones.

First up, Batman is awesome. This has been proven by science. If you built a scale replica statue of Batman out of human crap, it would still be pretty awesome simply because it was Batman.

Secondly, there's a good roster of characters, and they're actually fun to use. You're shortchanged on the hero side, as you only get Batman, Robin, Nightwing and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl (and Nightwing looks like he fell into the mutant-vat). But for the villains you get no less than two costumes for the Joker, along with Poison Ivy, Bane, Mr Freeze, the Mad Hatter, Man-Bat, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, the Scarecrow, Hush, Ra's al-Ghul, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Clayface, Harley Quinn and, for some reason, Killer Moth. It would have been nice to see even more familiar faces such as Zsasz, Black Mask, Talia, Oracle, Azrael, Huntress, Spoiler, and the Cassandra Cain Batgirl, but it's nevertheless a solid list.

The music uses the Danny Elfman theme from the first Tim Burton Batman movie, which is a fine piece of music. Unfortunately, it uses it exclusively, again and again, until your ears are bleeding and you're begging for it to stop. Some variety might have been nice.

Combat has been tightened up from the previous games. The hard-to-target whip from Lego Indy is gone and some very satisfying fists and guns have replaced it. Getting into battle is no longer a chore. You might even enjoy it. Also, while there are still waves of endlessly-respawning enemies, there's notably less than in the last two Lego games, and they're less inclined to turn up while you're trying to do something fiddly.

That's pretty much all the good points. If you've enjoyed the prior Lego games you're in for a treat, because Lego Batman is very definitely an improvement, but if they frustrated you to tears then you'll find all the same mistakes on display in Lego Batman.

These Balls Are Made For Hiding

From the same factory: also sausage. These Balls Are Made For Hiding is your browser game for today.

You're presented with a black field, which conceals invisible circles. You can fire a straight line into the field, which will bounce whenever it hits a ball, or when it hits certain walls. You can take as many shots as you like; once you're happy with one, you click to remove all the balls touched by that shot. Every time you remove balls, all the remaining balls in the field move downwards. If any balls touch the bottom of the field you lose.

So very simple, so very addictive. It doesn't seem to be on any of the good game portals but you can play it at the rather ugly page I'm linking to here.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Icons of Gaming #1: No Gods Or Kings

Ryan has had it with these motherfucking gods and kings in this motherfucking society.
This is the screenshot that sold me on BioShock.

BioShock has a lot of memorable imagery - the Big Daddy, the player's hand dispensing lightning, the art deco interiors, and the excellent sound scheme that pervades the entire game. But "no gods or kings" is what made me sit up and pay attention.

This banner hangs over an early entrance hall in the game - above the main elevator, from memory - and in addition to establishing the game's visual style, lighting scheme and dark tone, it tells you that this will be a game about something. BioShock might not be the deepest philosophical exploration in gaming history but it's not for lack of genuine effort, and the objectivist foundations of the city of Rapture are a big part of what elevates BioShock above the pack.

Long before I played the game I saw this screenshot, and once I'd seen it, I knew I had to find out who had hung that banner and what it meant.

What are the images that have attracted you to games - for better or for worse?

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Trailer

This is the secret movie included at the end of Japan-only release Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix. It follows on from the Keyblade War teaser which appeared at the end of regular-style Kingdom Hearts 2.

Birth By Sleep is coming to the PSP only and is a prequel to the original games. My love for Kingdom Hearts as a franchise is at war with my dislike for the malformed little portable that I refer to as "the hand-mangler".

The Haunting (1963)

Who actually bites their nails in horror?  Seriously. Anyone?I finally got a chance to see Robert Wise's original 1963 version of The Haunting the other night, thanks to Dalekboy.

I am a huge fan of William Castle's 1959 House on Haunted Hill, in which an unapologetically B-grade spookfest is elevated to greatness by one of Vincent Price's signature performances. My highest hope for The Haunting was that it would be like House on Haunted Hill only moreso, and that hope was both met and exceeded.

The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill share some superficial similarities. They are both "spend the night in a haunted house" tales; they both feature groups of strangers drawn together by a charismatic gentleman; both stories have a creepy caretaker couple, an emphasis on the layouts of bedrooms and hallways, and a plot largely driven by a hysterical ingenue who may well be hallucinating more ghostly activity than is actually occurring. House on Haunted Hill, though, is strictly confined to the realm of cliche, despite some wonderfully ghoulish dialogue by screenwriter Robb White, whereas The Haunting is a full-fledged adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, complete with gorgeous narration of that book's opening paragraph:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
The Haunting is unusual for a haunted house story in that it consistently underplays its hand. Eschewing ghosts and gore, it instead builds a pervasive horror through nothing more than sound effects, rattling doorknobs, and the continuous internal monologue of lead character Eleanor (played by Julie Harris). The monologue, which in other films would have been a crutch for bad storytelling, here is the star of the movie, and the growing discrepancy between Eleanor's narration and the objective reality on screen is the source of much of the movie's power.

Harris gives a fantastic performance as Eleanor, although Claire Bloom's understated and sympathetic portrayal of lesbian sidekick Theo steals the show. (Compare Bloom with Catherine Zeta-Jones' one-note rendition of the role in the 1999 remake.) The only weak point is Richard Johnson as gentleman host Dr John Markway; Johnson plays the role as a genial, wholesome father figure, while the reactions of the other characters suggest his intentions are considerably more dubious than the acting supports.

This is horror done to perfection; it's easily one of the great creepshows of film history and ranks with The Shining and The Exorcist as a movie that exceeds its genre. If, like me, you'd been slack on seeing this piece of our cinematic heritage, take the time to catch up at your earliest opportunity. And if you see this on DVD at a physical storefront in Canberra, let me know so I can go grab a copy for my own shelf!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

E3 2009 Sign-Up Open

None of the Es stand for Easy To Get ToHey, E3 2009 has started pre-registration. After two years of limpness, the show's apparently going back to the giant mix of tacky-meets-awesome that we all loved.

So if anyone is going to be in Los Angeles over June 2 to June 4 and wants to try for an all-access press pass, let me know and I'll endorse you as a Dust Forms Words official reporter. In return you will owe me at least five exclusive photos and a selection of your show-floor loot.

That is not a deal to be scorned! I think I still have some of the business cards I used to get my industry pass to Tokyo Game Show around somewhere. Let me know.


Hilarious alt text?Here's your browser game for today: Dreams. This provided me not much more than some quick entertainment, but the art style and simple gameplay seem to really appeal to people with less exacting tastes than myself. It's racked up a lot of attention and won some awards so I'd expect there'd be more than a few readers of The Dust Forms Words who'd enjoy it.

It's basically a spot-the-difference game but the clean interface and attractive storybook art make it stand out of the crowd. If you'd like ten minutes or so of quality picture-sleuthing, head on over to Kongregate and check it out.

A Kingdom For Keflings

Looking forward to them taking this franchise in a 1940s historical direction; I'm all aboard for An Anschluss For Keflings.A Kingdom For Keflings, available through XBox Live Marketplace, is the game I've been hearing people ask for for years, and now it's finally here.

If you're a gamer who's played Age of Empires or Rise of Nations and wished you could just design your city in peace without worrying about fighting your neighbours, then this game is for you. If you're someone who's played Sim City and felt that managing budgets and approval ratings was taking away from the fun of just building, then this is your game.

In A Kingdom For Keflings you play a benevolent giant who's come to the aid of a tribe of tiny Keflings. The Keflings need to get a town built, and you're just the giant for the job. You'll chop wood, mine stone, and commission construction to get houses, schools and suchlike built. You can also put the little Keflings to work doing the grunt work for you - they're not very good at following orders but they're still faster than doing things yourself.

You make buildings out of components - a house, for example, might require a furnace, a bedroom, and a platform. As you finish buildings, you gain access to new blueprints requiring more complicated combinations of components. Your eventual goal is to complete the blueprint for the massive Castle.

There's no obstacles in A Kingdom for Keflings - nothing takes cleverness or skill. It's just a matter of time. With enough perserverance, you will get things built. You're free to arrange your town as you see fit, look for optimal configurations of Kefling workers, and generally wander around the place getting things done.

You can play as one of a couple of pre-made characters, but you'll probably want to ignore them and instead import your XBox Live avatar, which this game was specifically made to use. It's a great use of the avatar system, and the graphical styles of game and avatar mesh well.

You can also co-operate over XBox Live with one or more friends to build a town together. This is a vast improvement over the single-player game, but unfortunately there's no local co-op (online only), and most of the Achievements won't unlock in multiplayer.

A Kingdom For Keflings is a surprisingly fun game aimed at filling a largely unexplored niche, and as a social platform it's exponentially better. If it remotely sounds like something you'd enjoy, you're probably right in the target market, so download the free demo from XBox Live and check it out for yourself.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Aether's gameplay is best described as Privateer meets Spider-Man.After I talked about Edmund McMillen's intruiging-but-flawed game Coil last month, I promised I'd say a few words about Aether, which I liked a lot more. JayIsGames have just gone and named it their Casual Adventure Game of the Year 2008 so I suppose now is a good time to ride the Media-Train to Consensus City.

Aether is really, really beautiful. Edmund teams up with the equally talented Tyler Glaiel to deliver a game about loneliness, introversion, exploration and adventure, all of which runs in your standard browser window. You control a boy and his squid-balloon on a mission to the depths of space to help out some emotionally-challenged anthropomorphised planets. Edmund's art is in fine form, understated but effective, and Tyler's piano soundtrack gets the emotional tone flowing from the first screen through to the end.

Unusually for one of Edmund's games, Aether features neither gory violence nor extensive body-horror. In Aether no one is getting raped or murdered, but people are discovering important lessons about life and experiencing simple coming-of-age fables. If you liked things like Gish and Meat Boy you might find Aether a little different, but it's all the better for that difference.

The whole game really feels like a single extended piece of mood-art, like I Wish I Were The Moon or Night Raveler. Its success is less about the story it tells and more to do with how you feel as you experience it. It's gamey enough to avoid alienating the very people most likely to play it, but arty enough to leave an impression long after you've forgotten every other Flash game you played that month.

You can play Aether at Armor Games or Kongregate, and as it will only take you about ten minutes to enjoy there's really no excuse to not.

Strange Chinese MMO Advertising

No, seriously.  Make Friends to Against Finance Crisis HERE.  Or else.I've gotten used to seeing some amusing Engrish on game-related banner ads. Those Chinese MMOs really want us to play, God bless their little hearts.

Tales of Pirates is currently depicting itself as a "FREE! Adventure online game!" with "Dozens of Professions to Develop!" which is pretty much par for the course.

The bit that has me puzzled is its exhortation to "Make Friends to Against Finance Crisis Here!" I don't even know what that means. Pirates have not typically been known for their firm stance against the evil of financial crisis.

Any clue?

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia: now 100% more Zoroastrian.Prince of Persia is one of those rare games that is recommendable to absolutely any gamer. Regardless of who you are, it's simply a great experience.

This game, as I have mentioned previously, has a confusing title. It features neither Princes nor Persia in any explicit fashion, it's not a remake of Jordan Mechner's original game, and it has nothing to do with the recent Sands of Time trilogy.

You play as a nameless adventurer who gets lost in a sandstorm while escorting a donkey laden with gold. This "Prince", as the game seems to imply he should be named, soon finds himself caught up with a rogue princess named Elika and involved in a battle to save an abandoned kingdom from the ancient evil of Ahriman.

Prince of Persia is an athletic platforming game in the style of Tomb Raider and ... well, Prince of Persia. You'll be leaping across bottomless chasms, scuttling up and down cliff faces, wall-running along vertical surfaces, and generally clinging in a painful fashion to poles, wall-brackets, and improbable tangles of vines.

The athletic platformer is generally at the mercy of four key design elements. Known collectively, these are the Four "C"s: controls, checkpoints, camera and cartography. By cartography, what I really mean is level design, but Three "C"s And An "L" is not quite so memorable.

The controls are sharp and forgiving. Press a button to jump, and the Prince immediately jumps. When you hit a wall, you cling to it. You can press a button from that position, or more usually as you're approaching the wall, to turn the cling into a horizontal run along the wall or a vertical climb upwards. Wallruns and climbs can be extended at places denoted by a special brass ring; again, you need only press a button as you approach the ring. Timing windows are extremely generous; in my entire journey through the game, I never failed any obstacle by missing the timing.

This is part of a new game philosophy - that the fun is not to be had from overcoming punishingly hard jumps, but merely from experiencing them. The player is encouraged to explore their world rather than fight against it. This is not, inherently, a better or worse way of producing fun than other methods, but it's certainly a much more accessible one. And that ties into the checkpoints, which are plentiful; the game effectively remembers the last time that you had your feet on level ground, and if you fall that's where you'll be taken back to, with no further punishment. That's normally only one or two jumps backwards, although towards the end of the game there are a couple of annoyingly long sections without checks.

The camera is not so excellent. There are two styles of gameplay in Prince of Persia, and only one features a useful camera. Each level is initially linear, asking you to travel a fixed path towards a boss fight. The camera is excellent at presenting this action in a dramatic and understandable manner. Afterwards, though, you need to explore the level to find "light seeds", which are usually tucked away in the level's most remote corners. There's no free-look mode for the camera, so really you can only see the seeds if you're right on top of them, or if you happen to get a lucky glance from a distance. For a lot of the game, you'll have your face pressed right up against a wall or pillar, so spying out these concealed objectives is frustratingly difficult.

Luckily, the level design compensates. The layouts are beautiful, and it's almost always clear which jumps you can achieve. This allows for frequently thrilling action sequences where you're calculating your next move on the fly. Traversing these environments is always entertaining, and it doesn't hurt that they're nice to look at, too.

The only complaint is that the levels are supposed to be representative of a genuine city that people lived in, but the designs don't bear this idea out. Your companion Elika describes how it was all once a bustling metropolis; however, the actual levels are highly abstracted and nothing about them is remotely evocative of real architecture or daily life.

Elika herself is one of the most important elements of Prince of Persia's success. She's an interesting ally; she often has things to say whether you want to hear them or not, but to supplement that you can press a button to start a conversation with her, even in mid-jump. These conversations reveal additional information about the area, about your enemies, and, most importantly, about Elika's relationship with the Prince.

She's worked into the gameplay, too, and her magic provides the explanation for the Prince's ability to double jump and to survive fatal falls. When you miss a jump, Elika, imbued with unreliable and life-draining magic, dives after you and flies you back to safety. There's a great deal of hand-waving as to exactly why she doesn't just fly you to your destination, but the game isn't so much concerned with power and magic as it is with relationships and sacrifice, so these mechanical conveniences prop up the game's tone rather than undermine it.

Each of the 24 levels culminates in a boss fight; with a few exceptions, these are the only real combat situations in the game. The same four bosses are repeated across all the levels, although with different twists, and the game relies on the strength of its fighting system to keep you entertained rather than a variety of opponents. The fighting system is strong, although not THAT strong, but the side benefit of this design decision is that it builds these four bosses as villains who you develop a relationship with through repeated conflict.

The thing I love most about Prince of Persia is that it knows that every good story is about its protagonists. Almost every level, every challenge, and every character in the game is a reflection of that philosophy. When you're solving puzzles in The Windmills, you're not just turning cranks, you're exploring the Prince and Elika's different approach to relationships. When you're fighting The Warrior, you're not just slogging it out with an invincible behemoth, you're looking at Elika's feelings towards her father. This is an example of using game mechanics to tell stories rather than telling stories that happen in between the game mechanics.

By contrast, the worst element of the game is clearly the coloured plates. In order to gate content and attempt to keep the gameplay fresh, the game lets you start making use of magical coloured plates once you've collected certain totals of light seeds. The developers probably saw this as necessary, given that the Prince unlocks his full range of athletic abilities before finishing the first level, but it was still, with hindsight, a horrible mistake.

These plates come in four colours, and you can unlock them in any order. The red and blue plates are fairly unobjectionable, merely flinging you through the air to a new destination. The green plates warp gravity to make you run headlong up vertical walls, and these are mostly fun, although not as much fun as not using them.

The yellow plates, though, send you on a kind of magic carpet ride along a fixed-rail sequence where you have swerve to avoid obstacles. A sparkly camera effect during these segments makes it almost impossible to see what you're doing, and the gameplay's fundamentally misconceived in any case - you'll constantly swerve left to avoid a pillar only to have the fixed-movement drag you right into the very obstacle you were trying to dodge. The yellow plates are so bad that they almost ruin the entire game. It's not hard to imagine someone who accidentally unlocked the yellows before the other colours giving up in disgust, thinking that the rest of the game was going to be just as stupid.

Thankfully, though, the plates stand alone; the rest of the game comes together to produce a genuinely engaging and memorable story. It's capped by an ending which not only brings the game to a satisfying conclusion, but sets up a story worth telling for the second and third games in this inevitable trilogy.

There's little genuine innovation in Prince of Persia; we've seen all this done before, in Sands of Time, in Shadow of the Colossus, in Ico and in Okami. But Prince of Persia brings it all together into a solid, accessible package which anyone can enjoy without requiring legacy skills or being shut out by uneven difficulty. It's not a niche market, it's not an acquired taste, it's just a resoundingly good game.