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Wordle

I’ve written a few times about the idea that good games are beacons in design space pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby and how much I like seeing the exploration and experimentation this creates. My new favorite example is Wordle.

There’s a lot to be said about Wordle (and a lot that has been said), but in this context the really cool thing about it is how simple it is, and the democratizing effect this has on experimenting with it.

Like, sure, once it got popular we saw a proliferation of rip-offs trying to profit from someone else’s design work, which sucks and which we always see when a game gets popular (especially in the mobile space but that’s a separate rant). But because Wordle is so simple, it’s very easy for individuals with some coding skill and zero budget to get involved out of interest and passion. Pretty soon there were solvers and reimplementations as people used Wordle to inspire their own projects. Next the exploration came, starting with jokes like “what if Wordle, but it hates you” or “what if Wordle, but it’s horny” or “what if Wordle, but for prime numbers” or “what if Wordle, but for single letters”. These vary in how actually-playable they are, but I think all of them make the world a better, more interesting, more amusing place.

But what really got my attention was seeing a version that was “what if Wordle, but twice”. This is a genuine evolution of the concept applying the existing mechanics in a new way resulting in a similar but distinct gaming experience that’s equally valid but which appeals to a slightly different audience. That’s awesome and I hope to see more evolution like this.

And the coolest part is how fast this is happening. Like, what happens when a AAA game becomes very popular? A year later, other AAA publishers put out one or two games that superficially copy some of its more prominent design elements. What happens when a tiny, simple, indie game like Wordle becomes very popular? An immediate explosion of innovation. Within weeks individuals are putting out dozens of variations with their own spin. The really promising ones get more attention and the cycle repeats in a positive feedback loop of creative energy.

You love to see it.

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My Top Ten Games of 2021

Based on how much joy they brought me, not on objective greatness.

  1. DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power
  2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (this would probably have the number one slot if I had savored it instead of powering through it in a weekend)
  3. Star Trek: Legends
  4. Five Dates (not the sort of thing I enjoy solo but was a good time to play with Allie)
  5. Wide Ocean Big Jacket
  6. What Remains of Edith Finch (this would probably had been higher if I hadn’t gotten most of the payload already from Joseph Anderson’s plot analysis)
  7. Alto’s Adventure
  8. Galaxy Champions TV
  9. Death Come True
  10. Arietta of Spirits

This is based on much less play time this year but still seemed worth posting. A tradition is a tradition.

Also, honorable mentions to games I enjoyed but which are ports or re-releases of games I already played in previous years:

  1. SteamWorld Dig 2
  2. Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force
  3. Disney Magical World 2: Enchanted Edition
  4. Torchlight II
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Nintendo Switch Year in Review

So, Nintendo has sent out these emails about your “Nintendo Switch year in review”. For the past couple of years, the Switch has been my main place to game, so while this isn’t a complete look at my play history (plus it doesn’t have the final week of 2021 because that hasn’t happened yet) it’s the majority of it. And it casts into pretty sharp relief how much my gaming has dropped off this year.

On Switch in 2020, I played 84 games for a total of 637 hours.

In 2021, I played 46 games for 257 hours.

My most-played game in 2020 was Animal Crossing: New Horizons with a total of 270 hours. That’s more than I played all Switch games this year. But the difference isn’t just because it’s Animal Crossing - subtract those hours and 2020 still has 110 more hours than my overall total for 2021.

In 2021, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was still my second most-played Switch game, but with only 22 hours (most of which were right after the big final update). Third place was Hatsune Miku Logic Paint S with 21 hours - almost as many as Animal Crossing. Even my most-played game didn’t break triple digits - it was DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power with 54 hours.

(Y’all are sleeping on DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power, by the way. It was surreal seeing how little coverage this game got in any channels I see and it was a good reminder that gaming culture is not a monolith.)

I’ve mostly accepted and embraced that I game less these days, so I’ve started to cancel the various subscription services I have in that domain. I dropped PlayStation Plus months ago and now I’ve dropped Gamefly (which I’d had continuously for thirteen and a half years). Apple Arcade will probably be next to go and Nintendo Switch Online may not be far behind.

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Follow My Instructions

I swear this post is about video games.

So, the above video by one of my favorite ASMRtists is intended to reduce anxiety. It does so by presenting a series of cognitive tasks - none of them are especially difficult, but they all require constant attention. The idea is to distract the mind so that it doesn’t have enough bandwidth left over to worry or catastrophize. Do this for several minutes and runaway anxiety loops should collapse and the mind should return to something like a base state where recent memories are instead about succeeding at several basic tasks. (In theory. This video is not made by a licensed mental health professional.)

I don’t know for sure that things actually work this way, or for what segment of the population it might be effective. But I do know that this formula sounds really familiar to me, and in fact is one of the main ways I’ve used video games over the years.

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#neurodivergencies #L-theanine #Cozy Games #anxiety #asmr video

Tags: Thought, Video

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Framing device plot tumors

So there’s a pattern in fiction that I haven’t seen discussed or found a name for. It is, in short, when a framing device becomes a plot tumor.

There’s a specific kind of framing device I have in mind - more than the simple in medias res of, say, a tale told in flashback, this is when the frame story has an unusual premise which exists to enable and string together certain kinds of inner stories. For example, the Assassin’s Creed games (at least the first several - I fell off the franchise after Ezio and maybe this has changed since then) are technically near-future sci-fi where technology enables people to relive their ancestors' memories and secret societies use this to hunt down powerful artifacts from a precursor civilization. This allows each individual game to focus mainly on adventures taking place centuries in the past, connected by the common thread of the present-day hidden power struggle over the artifacts.

I think there’s a conflict with this sort of setup that is really hard to escape. There’s a very real sense in which the frame story only exists for the benefit of the inner stories - yet the stakes of the frame story are almost always going to be higher and more unusual than those of the inner stories. For the storyteller (and for some portion of the audience) this can cause the frame story to be more intriguing, which can easily create a trend where early installments have just enough frame story to carry the inner story and later installments spend more and more time and focus on the frame story.

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Harmonix in Fortnite and Purple Arcade

Two things happened yesterday that messed me up a bit more than they should…

First - Epic Games bought Harmonix “to develop musical journeys and gameplay for Fortnite".

There was a time when I would have named Harmonix as my favorite game studio. It’s been over a decade since I felt that way and I’ve been baffled by some of their decisions in the interim, but I still can only think of them as one of the purest examples of an indie developer with a clear vision and passion. There’s the old chestnut about how some studios make games to make money, while others make money to make games - Harmonix has always felt like the latter. They have a consistent history of developing innovative games and franchises that find new ways to empower players to create music - they’re the ones who invented the plastic instrument rhythm genre, before Activision came along and ran it into the ground. They don’t belong in the same universe as something as nakedly commercial as Fortnite.

So as inevitable and unsurprising as developments like this may be, there’s still something deeply disturbing about seeing Harmonix get swallowed by Fortnite. It’s like watching Cthulhu eat Big Bird.

Second - Welcome to Purple Arcade!

So, there’s this YouTube channel that used to be called “Game Design Wit”. From 2014 to 2016, this guy put out a couple dozen video essays about game design. They were great! I consume so much game commentary and analysis that it’s rare for me to find someone who consistently shows me new insights, but this guy did. I linked to his channel on my blogroll, suggesting starting with the video Why PS1 and N64 Games Were Different. (Guess I’m gonna have to update that listing.)

After 2016, he stopped with the video essays. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume it’s the same reason most small YouTube channels stop doing that kind of thing: too much work for not enough reward. He later put out some lower-effort videos - a handful of book reviews, a rambling discussion of why people like Dark Souls, and some Let’s Plays - things that didn’t require script-writing or video-editing. I didn’t like any of these, but I’m certainly in no position to throw stones when it comes to an internet person dramatically lowering the effort level of their game analysis output. I missed the essays but I couldn’t begrudge the decision not to invest in them.

Yesterday, a new video was put out on his channel, which had been renamed “Purple Arcade”. The video advertises the eponymous company’s services of developing advergames. At first I thought his account might have been hacked, but it’s clearly him in the video, so then I thought maybe it was a joke, but it seems to be 100% serious.

And, like, I can’t be mad about the guy trying to make a living in the area of his expertise and passion. I’m a little frustrated he turned his existing YouTube channel (with over 10k subscribers) into one for his new company - I get why people do that kind of thing but it still feels rude to me. He could have left the old channel as-is and still posted the video and linked to a new channel. Somewhat alarmingly, he also apparently removed or de-listed all the Let’s Play videos, though thankfully the video essays are still available (and collected in this playlist, though it also includes the low-effort Dark Souls ramble at the end which I suggest skipping). I’m assuming this is because he currently considers them beneficial to his brand, as they show he’s a game design expert - but if he ever decides they are insufficiently polished and are a detriment, presumably they’ll vanish too.

The impact of this one small YouTube channel is obviously much less than the impact of Harmonix and Fortnite, but this change feels much more personal in scope and hits much closer to home. It makes me think of what I recently wrote about cottage industries and the dying middle ground between hobby and profession. I never co-opted Pixel Poppers for, like, an adjacent career, but if the relevant dynamics had hit me with different timing - if I weren’t already somewhat successful in a completely unrelated career when Pixel Poppers was no longer viable as a hobby - maybe I would have.

This might not be a rational reaction, but both of these events just give me a vague sadness for the inevitable swallowing of art by commercialism. I feel like I’m watching beautiful sandcastles get washed away by the tide, unable to fully ignore the gnawing feeling in the back of my mind that the tide is just going to keep coming further and further in.

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Nintendo Switch Online + Experiment Pack?

So I feel like by far the most interesting thing about the recent Nintendo Switch Online announcements has gone completely unremarked.

As a quick refresher - Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) is the paid subscription service for Nintendo Switch, roughly analogous to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. Some of what NSO provides is standard for this space - the ability to play multiplayer games online, cloud-based backups of save files (well, mostly), occasional game trials and discounts and other little bonuses. The unusual thing is that it also grants access to a library of NES and SNES games.

Recently it was revealed that a higher subscription tier dubbed the Expansion Pack is coming. By paying extra on top of the normal NSO cost, you can additionally get access to a library of N64 and Sega Genesis games.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the merits of these offerings and whether they are worth the cost and how they compare to previous-generation’s Virtual Console offerings and the approaches taken by Microsoft and Sony (not to mention how things work on PC) and so on and so on. I’m not here to talk about any of that.

What’s much more interesting to me is that the NSO Expansion Pack will apparently also include access to the upcoming paid DLC expansion for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’s fascinating.

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