Quick, short, often niche posts about games. Sometimes they are brief looks at concepts in art, design, culture, and psychology. Other times they are reactions to specific news items or just something silly that came to mind.


Breaking the World

This is a post about why I stopped playing Lost Sphear. It contains plot spoilers for the first few hours of the game. They are behind the cut. You have been warned.

I wanted to like Lost Sphear. I considered I Am Setsuna to be underrated, with much of the criticism levied against it unfair, so I had plenty of benefit of the doubt to give Lost Sphear. And at first, I really did enjoy it! Like I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear has beautiful visuals and music. I immediately found its world comforting, its characters likable, and its storytelling compelling. The initial group of characters, their relationships, and their role in their town are well established and feel real enough to invest in.

But after a few hours, the story started going in strange directions that felt less grounded and less plausible.



Breaking Momentum

This is a petty complaint, but I’m gonna whine about it anyway.

I Am Setsuna has an active time battle system very reminiscent of Chrono Trigger. One wrinkle added on top is the momentum system - your characters gradually build up “momentum” over the course of combat and can store up to three full “charges”. When taking an action, a character can expend a stored momentum charge to enhance that action, with the nature of the enhancement depending on the action. This increases the strategic complexity of combat - if you almost have a full charge, you might delay an action slightly in order to finish out the charge and then perform the better version of that action. And depending on the state of the combatants, you might want to spend your momentum charges to hit the enemy harder or save them for improved healing spells. And so on.

That’s great. The problem is how momentum is activated. If a character has any momentum charges, right before they perform their selected action, there’s a quick burst of light around them. If you press the Y button (on Switch; I assume it’s Square on PlayStation) during that burst, they’ll use one of their charges and enhance the action.

That probably sounds fine in isolation, but keep in mind that this is real-time menu-driven combat. The way this sort of system is supposed to work is that you keep an eye on the state of combat and plan ahead, making quick decisions and issuing commands rapidly without burning a lot of time in menus. As implemented, the momentum system breaks that flow, because commanding a character to use momentum becomes a delayed, multi-step process. You might decide to attack with momentum, but you can’t just pick “Attack with momentum” from the menu and move on to the next character. You have to pick “Attack” and then keep an eye on that character so you can react quickly and hit the momentum button when they flash. The flash is very quick so as not to delay battle, and in my experience if I stop watching the character and start thinking about what I want the next one to do, when the flash comes I don’t react quickly enough and don’t get to use the momentum as planned. And it’s unwise to just train yourself to hit the button for every flash, because sometimes it’s very important to save charges.

This is frustrating and incoherent. Turn-based RPG combat is about preparation, strategy, and tactics - not action. It’s one thing to add some action flavor via timed hits like in Mario RPGs - those are fully turn-based and don’t split your attention. But a system like this adds the action in a way that directly interferes with the tactics that you signed up for, and in an uninteresting way - you’ve already made the decision to use momentum, and the execution is just about noticing the flash and hitting the button quickly enough. It’s a failure to ensure that what’s hard about combat is also what’s interesting about it.

It’s also totally unnecessary. The Y button is otherwise unused during combat (which is why it’s safe to use for this purpose even when you have another character’s menu up). Why not just attach it to the actual command? Normally you hit A to issue a command - why not just make it so that hitting Y instead means that same command, but with momentum? This would have no effect on the actual strategic depth of combat and is no harder to learn, but would make issuing the command single-step and immediate, allowing you to immediately move on to the next character and keep the flow going without having to pause and waste time on an uninteresting reflex test.

Ultimately it’s not that big of a deal, and overall I still liked I Am Setsuna just fine. But little touches like this can make surprisingly large impressions. Recently I got around to starting Lost Sphear, the next game by the same team, and was disappointed to discover that while the momentum system has been somewhat refined and improved, you still activate momentum the exact same way. I found myself immediately (and unfairly) assuming that this meant that Lost Sphear had failed to learn the right lessons from its predecessor and wasn’t going to resolve its flaws. I’ve played a few hours now and I don’t think that impression is accurate, but I still wish they’d changed this.


Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact...

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that Animal Crossing: New Horizons, through NookLink in the Nintendo Switch Online app, will allow you to scan and use QR codes for custom designs - including ones created in New Leaf and Happy Home Designer? Meaning that over seven years of player-created content is still usable?

I like when Nintendo makes its games into platforms and then doesn’t abandon them.


Island Name Generator

Now that we know that Animal Crossing: New Horizons will support island names of up to ten characters, maybe you’d like some inspiration? Well, Angie’s Town put together a bunch of themed words, and I went ahead and made a generator based on it!

🏝️Animal Crossing Island Name Generator🏝

By the way, I like making little web tools like this. If you’ve got a name generator or some other guide or calculator or something that you wish someone would make an interactive version of, let me know!


Sparking My Interest

I’ve finally gotten around to trying all the free QubicGames titles I picked up in December. Most of them I bounced off pretty quickly as not the kind of gameplay I’m interested in, but one surprised me: Mana Spark.

Mana Spark is a roguelike. I never get into roguelikes, but I figured I should give it a fair shot. I played it until my first death and then put it down.

The next day, I found myself thinking about it again. The combat had felt great and the music, sound, and art were excellent. I played another session, enjoyed the atmosphere and game feel, and thought it was a shame the game was a roguelike and I’d never be able to get into it. After a few more deaths I put the game back down.

About an hour later, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the game and I picked it right back up and went on to play it obsessively for days.

I’ve thought a lot about why this happened. It actually reminds me of my experience with SteamWorld Dig 2.

Metroidvanias are all about remembering what’s where and how to get back to it, so my terrible sense of direction renders most of them borderline unplayable. But SteamWorld Dig 2 has a fantastic map and generous fast travel. It fully solved my problem with Metroidvanias, allowing me to enjoy what’s good about the genre.

Before, when I’d seen someone talk about how satisfying it was to bring a new tool back to an old area to conquer a previously-encountered obstacle, or to figure out how to skillfully use your tools to sequence-break and get somewhere early, I’d roll my eyes at this bizarre celebration of backtracking and subversion of carefully-designed pacing. But now I finally understood it! That stuff was fun, now that my poor sense of direction was no longer getting in the way. What I disliked was frustration and wasted time finding my way around with sub-par navigational aides - not Metroidvanias themselves, which it turned out I actually liked a lot!

Mana Spark provided a similar entry point into the roguelike genre. What I dislike about roguelikes is their permadeath punishment and their random layouts, and how those factors combine to create exactly the wrong kind of repetitiveness for me. Starting over each run from the beginning means you replay the early content long after it’s ceased to be an interesting challenge, and if you die to a late-game challenge the randomized layouts/upgrade/enemies prevent you from practicing or retrying that challenge even once you get back through the early content again.

Given my reliance on novel challenges, it’s unsurprising that I’d be turned off by roguelikes. When I fail, what I want to do is try again on the specific challenge I failed, to learn how to handle it. The last thing I want to do is be forced to make my way through the early levels that are no longer novel or challenging.

But Mana Spark has combat unlike any other roguelike I’ve played. Its deliberate pace and varied enemies requiring different tactics made for a high skill ceiling and kept even the early areas’ combat engaging for me for quite a while - long enough for me to get hooked. With that problem solved, I could finally enjoy the things I’d heard people say they liked about roguelikes - experimenting with different upgrades, finding effective builds, having great runs that take you farther than ever before. And so Mana Spark showed me that it really is that reliance on novelty and learning, not the core structure of roguelikes, that causes my dislike of the genre.

More and more, I find myself thinking that most of the analysis we write about games is really about justifying automatic emotional responses that we’re not even aware of and which vary widely between players.

For a while, I thought Mana Spark might be the first roguelike I’d actually finish. It’s looking unlikely, though, because the novelty problem gets worse the further into a roguelike you get. By now I’m consistently able to get past the second boss and into the third and final area where the game’s strongest enemies appear. It’s taking me a while to learn to fight them effectively, and every time they kill me I have to get through the first two areas and first two boss fights before I can try again. And by now I’ve seen all the upgrades, and there’s basically nothing new going on in those first areas - it feels like a run doesn’t even really start until I get past the second boss, and it takes a while to do that.

If I could spend some in-game resources to restart a floor when I die, without starting completely over - or to skip the gameplay up through the last boss I beat, getting the random upgrades I’d have gotten along the way - I’d probably still be hooked, and would expect to finish the game. As it is, too high a percentage of my time is now spent on non-novel gameplay and I’m losing interest.

It’s a shame that Mana Spark couldn’t permanently solve my problems the way SteamWorld Dig 2 did. But I still had a good time with it for a while and am glad that I can now understand the appeal of its genre.


Where You Put The Subversion

So there’s this post by Andrew Haining called “Outer Wilds critical analysis” but what I find most interesting about it is a digression that has little to do with Outer Wilds.

Haining discusses what he terms a game’s “core loop” - the direct interactions with the game that take up most of your time - and the “metagame” - the long-term progression and goal framework laid on top of the core loop. I’m not a fan of using the term “metagame” in this way since it’s commonly used with a very different meaning, so I’m going to use the term “progression” instead.

What I found interesting is that he points out that games that want to be enjoyable but carry dark or difficult messages can generally choose between two major approaches. He gives Frostpunk and This War of Mine as examples of games that have engaging and enjoyable core loops but progressions that he terms “subversive” and describes as deliberately unsatisfying. You do fun stuff but you do it in service of an unsatisfying goal. I’d probably add Spec Ops: The Line to this list.

The other approach is that taken by, for example, Pathologic. It inverts the arrangement - the core loop is subversive and unsatisfying, but it’s in service of a more traditionally-satisfying progression. Haining notes that this is a much riskier approach, as the vast majority of players will be turned off by the core loop before they get any satisfying progress. And indeed, my sense is that many more people found Pathologic unpalatable than the other mentioned games.

I just thought that was interesting, and something to keep in mind when trying to make a game with dark themes or messages.


#gaming #video games #subversive games

Tags: Thought


Logical and Lateral Puzzle Games

Some puzzle games establish a set of consistent rules and then task the player with applying those rules to varied situations to accomplish goals. We might call these “logical puzzle games.” Prominent examples here would be Portal, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and the pre-Eliza Zachtronics games.

In these logical games, satisfaction comes from mastering the tools the game gives the player. Thus, it’s vital that the rules be communicated clearly. If the game hid or obscured anything about how it works, it wouldn’t be playing fair and it would be actively preventing the player from achieving the game’s satisfying experiences.

Some other puzzle games instead task the player with figuring out the rules at least as much as applying them. Even if there is a set of consistent rules somewhere deep down, they express themselves in a way that seems to change frequently and defy generalizable logic. We might call these “lateral puzzle games.” Prominent examples here would be Antichamber, Superliminal (according to this review though I haven’t played it myself), and Gorogoa.

In these lateral games, satisfaction (I think) comes from pleasantly mind-expanding reveals. The game deliberately hides things about its world or rules so that the player may be surprised when the curtain is pulled back. In logical games, that would block off the game’s satisfying experiences - but in lateral games, it’s required for them. You can’t have a reveal without having misdirection first.

But like I said, I only think that’s where the satisfaction comes from, because for me lateral puzzle games are wholly unsatisfying. Daniel Weissenberger characterized Superliminal as existing “only to show off how clever its developers are” and I felt similarly about Antichamber and Gorogoa. It tempts me to dismiss the entire subgenre, especially in contrast to Portal being famously designed to make the player feel clever instead.

But! I know these games are well-liked by their audience - I tried both Antichamber and Gorogoa due to their enthusiastically positive reviews. So I suspect that what’s actually going on isn’t that lateral puzzle games are bad and all these people somehow failed to notice. Instead, this is likely another case where we enjoy different games due to different wirings. Much like with large games that make you work to find their quality content, I don’t get a thrill of discovery from lateral puzzles - to me they feel like exercises in reading the developer’s mind more than stretching my own. But if I did experience that thrill? If I found those surprises genuinely rewarding? I’d probably love these games and be grateful for the journey they took me on.


Crafting a Progression

Like many folks, I was skeptical when the early reveals of Animal Crossing: New Horizons showed that it had a significant crafting element. But when I thought about it, I started to get genuinely excited because I think crafting could be the key to solving the single biggest problem I have with Animal Crossing: its randomness.

A significant long-term appeal of mainline Animal Crossing games is customization. As you get more and more customization options like furniture and decorations and clothing and so on, you can increasingly make your own mark and express your own creativity and personality in the game’s world. The problem is that those options are doled out on a largely random schedule. You can plan to decorate your house in a particular style, but you can’t really take steps toward the goal - you mostly just have to wait and hope the relevant furniture and such becomes available. In the meantime, you make do with what you get - and even if you have most of the furniture in a theme, you might be waiting a long time for the last piece or two and have to make do with mismatched sets in the meantime.

It’s not yet clear exactly how crafting will work in New Horizons but if it follows the precedent established by other games, it could solve this cleanly. Crafting can provide a progression that allows you to actually make plans and take steps toward your goals, and often themed sets of furniture and such are all on the same tier of that progression, craftable with the same materials.

For the first time, my Animal Crossing home decor might reflect a purposeful progression rather than a random mishmosh of whatever the Nooks have deigned to sell. I like that idea a lot.


Time Enough for Chill

Here’s something I don’t understand - why is it so hard to find chill life-simulator (and especially farming) games that don’t have time pressure? (I complained about this before and it runs counter to best practices for making “cozy” games.)

Like, whenever I’m looking for relaxing games, Stardew Valley is always recommended. And that makes no sense to me. With the game’s short days that penalize you for being out too late, plus your slow walking speed, plus the fact that the villagers you’re supposed to befriend keep moving around throughout the day, I found it tense, not relaxing. I couldn’t freely wander around looking for someone because I was constantly aware of the ticking clock and the need to start heading home with plenty of time left on it.

When I look at other similar games, my eyes instinctively go toward the top corners of any screenshots to look for in-game clocks and I almost always find one. And I don’t get it. These games tend to also have stamina meters limiting what you can do between sleeps. Crops can usually only be watered or otherwise tended once a day. NPCs can only get one gift per day or whatever. There’s already plenty of systems to limit what the player can accomplish in an in-game day, guaranteeing the calendar will advance and the player will see birthdays and holidays and seasons. Why not let that be it, and have time advancement be under the player’s control? Why also tie in real-time pressure to punish players who aren’t thinking fast enough or planning hard enough for what is ostensibly a comfy, relaxed gaming experience?

Is it really just because everyone’s imitating Harvest Moon?

What if we did this instead: you wake up with your full stamina bar. Doing farmwork or other hard labor depletes your stamina bar, but walking around, shopping, talking to people, etc., does not. It is morning until you use up half of your stamina, at which point it becomes afternoon and everyone moves from where they are scheduled to be in the morning during that day/season to where they are scheduled for the afternoon. Once you use up all of your stamina, it becomes evening and everyone moves again. One could easily imagine townspeople manning shops and other services during the mornings and afternoons, and then in the evenings heading to the bar or park or social spaces. So you can do your shopping alongside your farmwork and such, and then once you’re done working for the day you can head into town and relax by shmoozing with the locals. And then it becomes nighttime when you go home, and when you go to bed it rolls to the morning of the next day.