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Little Inferno, PISS, and Doing Real Things

In December of 2012, I played a game called Little Inferno. My purchase followed that of my friend Iceman’s, and both were due to Chris Franklin’s video on the subject (warning, total spoilers):

(By the way, if you aren’t familiar with Chris Franklin’s work, I highly recommend you rectify this situation.)

The game isn’t perfect and one can argue over the price point for a 3-hour experience you’ll probably never revisit, but it stuck in my mind and left me thinking. The obvious reading of the game is an attack on freemium games of the time-and-money-sink variety. I think one could make a pretty strong argument that its themes apply to games or trivial entertainments in general. But for me, the game is about growing up.

Achievements are Broken; Here's How to Fix Them

Fundamentally, an achievement is just a publicly-viewable checkmark indicating the completion of a particular action. The Xbox 360 added points gained from each achievement that accumulate into a total across all games. The PlayStation 3 followed suit, as did Apple’s GameCenter. (Notably, Steam did not. Steam achievements have no point value and do not add to a cumulative total.)

In order for these points to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of equality across games. The 360 mandates that each full retail game must provide exactly 1000 points worth of achievements (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes let’s keep it simple). The PS3 has a similar rule, though its numbers are obfuscated (for convenience here, I shall refer to their point value as also 1000). This prevents oneupmanship between game developers, who might otherwise put out games with ever-increasing amounts of achievement points available, which would quickly render the running total meaningless and destroy much of the marketing value of achievements.

So what happens when a game launches with bad achievements? It’s become standard for games to be patched, but it’s unusual for achievements to be patched, and even then it’s generally just to avert controversy via a cosmetic change. Because of the need to keep a consistent point total, you can’t add new achievements without removing old ones - and removing or replacing an achievement is almost certain to upset people. No matter how ludicrous the achievement, somebody out there has it - and they don’t want the proof of their hard work stricken from the record. If you leave it up on their profile but make it no longer available for new players to get, then the new players may feel slighted that the opportunity to earn it has been taken away from them.

But the inability to add new achievements is severely limiting. It means you can’t fix problem achievements (of which there are plenty). It also leaves out a powerful way to grow a game - just look at how Valve has kept Team Fortress 2 fresh by adding, among other things, batches of new Steam achievements. (Steam achievements don’t have points, so they can freely be added without running afoul of point imbalance.)

The Choice Is Not Yours: Why Prince of Persia Has The Best (And Worst) Ending In Modern Videogames

WARNING: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS EXTREME SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED PRINCE OF PERSIA AND INTEND TO DO SO, DO IT BEFORE READING THIS ESSAY.

The game is called “Prince of Persia.” But it’s not really about the Prince. (He doesn’t even seem to be a prince this time. We call him “the Prince” because he has no name.) Really, the game is about (legitimate princess) Elika.

Princess Elika

As the game opens, the Prince is lost in a sandstorm, calling out for Farah. Franchise veterans will recognize the name as that of the love interest from the Sands of Time trilogy - but it is soon revealed that Farah is actually the name of this Prince’s donkey, laden with the riches the Prince has recently looted.

It’s a nod to the previous games, but it’s also a dig at Princess Farah’s characterization and gameplay role. She was little more than a pack animal. The Prince, lost in the storm, is trying to reconnect with her, trying to return to that simplicity. Instead, he finds Elika.

PSA: Don't Buy Sonic Chronicles. Seriously.

I don’t usually post anything in the middle of the week. This isn’t a normal, full essay. But I had to get it out there. I had to save people who might otherwise have bought this game.

Sonic Chronicles box art

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a terrible, terrible game. Did you notice I didn’t link the title to the Amazon page? That’s because I don’t want you to buy it. I don’t even want to risk the possibility of you accidentally buying it. I can only imagine the wrath I would have right now if I had paid any money for it myself. As it is, I ripped it right out of my DS, stuffed it back into the GameFly envelope, and shoved it into the mail slot with as much contempt as I could muster.

Play Me A Story, Part One: Metal Gear Solid and the Cinematic Game

Recently I’ve been watching my friend Iceman play through the Metal Gear Solid games. It’s been both entertaining and edifying. My own much-delayed foray into the series ended shortly after tossing grenades into a tank in the first game, and it seems that for every hour I watch Iceman play, I suddenly understand another previously-baffling joke or reference I’ve encountered somewhere.

As we watched the credits roll on the third installment, Snake Eater, Iceman turned to me and sadly confessed that he was starting to doubt the ability of videogames, as a medium, to tell stories.

It’s a surprising thing to hear after watching the videogame ending that holds the record for producing manly tears. But I knew exactly what he meant, and why he’d said it.