Friday, February 20, 2009

This month in wacky little art games

Beautiful. Engaging. Short. It provides an experience, inflects into an emotional arc, and then it's done.

I ate twenty sumo wrestlers. Then I ate my own ass.
  • ...the comparison...

One is gorgeous. The other offers me the opportunity to eat my own ass.

I should outsource this entire post to Yahtzee for the pure joy of hearing him say "eat my own arse" over and over.

What do I actually think?

I am pleased with Flower. I am not very pleased with Noby Noby Boy. (I also can't type "Noby Noby Boy", which is a separate problem. It always comes out "body" or "nobody".)

Keep in mind that Flower is ten bucks and Noby Noby Boy is five, so I'm not complaining of a horrible purchasing decision. I spent five dollars on soup today and I enjoyed Noby more than that soup. But:

You have to read Noby's manual.

Flower drops you in with one screen of "tilt the controller" diagram, and then a few heads-up reminders for tilting and button-pushing, and you're set for the entire game. It's all built around that single interface.

Noby starts with a quick interface lesson in the form of a quiz -- which is brilliant, actually. Getting you to guess the basic controls (in a highly prompted, controlled context which guarantees success). If that covered the entire game, I would be kneeling at the designer's feet.

But it isn't; you still have to figure out the house controls and the rest of the camera controls and the stats-scanning controls. The early gameplay is larded with modal "Do you want to read the manual?" queries -- and I did have to read the manual, a couple of times, before I had everything down.

All of these interactions are good. They're tactile, you can feel them in your hands -- even the menus and the camera controls. But there are a lot of them.

I can see how the designer got there. Noby is a software toy. You have no goals -- nearly, hold off a sec -- no goals which are not self-generated. That means you need a rich enough set of interactions to be able to reach surprising outcomes for quite a while. In contrast, Flower has just one interaction; it surprises you with new environments and new plot developments.

My problem is, I feel like I've played out Noby's surprises already. Two hours, four or five maps, I'm done. I don't know if it's true, but it feels true, because there's no goal structure to lead me into exploring further.

Now, Noby's one overt goal (which I glossed over just now) is to stretch yourself a lot. When enough players have stretched enough, we are given to understand, more game areas -- "planets" -- will open up. (I was around 6100th in precedence on the stretch leaderboard, last night. Yay me!)

So with my droit eye, I see all sorts of crazy new game mechanisms appearing, one by one, over the next few months. With my sinister eye, I see another bunch of levels that are exactly like the current ones, only with alien sumo wrestlers to eat and poop out.

(Did I not mention the sumo-wrestler pooping? Sorry.)

I like the idea of globally-expanding cooperative game experiences. But the Myst Online lesson is, keep the players entertained in between new content. And ideally, match the cooperative goals to the entertainment. So far, Noby is not doing that. (Note that the most efficient way to stretch yourself the the boring way. Straight out, unencumbered. If you tangle yourself around things, you don't stretch much.)

And that's why being done with Flower is satisfying, but being done with Noby is not. So far. I'll give it a few more chances.

Then there's the whole "Boy" thing. I don't think I'm the right person to write that post, because, okay, the last console game I played was Prince of Persia and that was just as emphatically male-protagonist, female-bait-and-reward. But PoP was in the classic hardcore gamer market and it had a script, I mean, it had the self-justification of being about this man and this woman, Thief and Elika.

Noby has as generic and asexual a protagonist as an anthropomorphic protagonist can possibly be. And it's in the casual, for-everyone-including-kids market. It would be dead easy to present this experience as being gender-inclusive -- except for the commentary text and the manual repeating over and over, you are Boy, you are Boy, you are Boy. And Girl is your reward way up in the sky.

Sometimes I find this annoying. And then I remember, right, Keita Takahashi's first game was about your emotionally abusive, passive-aggressively-insulting, quite possibly substance-abusing father destroying the universe and then forcing you to clean up the mess. And he's got enormous genitals. So, the designer is batshit insane. Check.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Interactive Fiction Writing Month

Lea has announced Interactive Fiction Writing Month:

IF Month is a loosely-organized set of tasks assigned one per week for four weeks, from February 15 to March 15, 2009, hopefully coupled with a few informal live discussion sessions (location-dependent, of course). The goal is to get a group of participants familiar enough with the Inform language to produce some simple games, and to promote discourse on game design in general through the medium of IF.

The organizer is at CMU in Pittsburgh, so that's where the initial "location dependence" is, but interested people may be arranging other meet-ups.

Further details at the IFMonth Blog.

The personal note: CMU is my college stomping ground, and I've met Lea and some of the other CMU folks involved on various visits back there. They are cool. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Fool and his Money playable demo

Go get it.

Ooh, shiny.

(Requires Shockwave Player 11 from Adobe. When I ran the teaser app on my Mac laptop, it told me this and then sent my web browser to get Shockwave Player 10, which was confusing and unhelpful. Go to Adobe's site and get it directly.)

EDIT-ADD: The web site says the full game will be out in "early summer" -- he hopes.

A friend comments that one of the early puzzles is unduly hard if you're using a trackpad (as opposed to a mouse). I believe him. This is primarily a game of word and image puzzles, but -- as with Johnson's earlier games -- there are some click-fast elements.

How to destroy hope

Around New Year's Eve, Cliff Johnson posted a note on his web site saying that he had tried to get out a playable demo of his upcoming game, but hadn't quite made it. Soon, he said, the teaser/demo would be out soon.

The "upcoming game", of course, is The Fool and his Money -- Johnson's long, long, long-delayed sequel to The Fool's Errand. As in, I pre-ordered the thing in December 2002. If you go to Johnson's pre-order thank-you page, you'll see my name scroll by in the first minute. The original ship date was April Fool's Day, 2003.

That didn't quite happen.

Skip past six years of countdown clocks and disappointment. It was a month ago that Johnson first mentioned the teaser release. A week ago I saw this:

January 26, 2009: This week, I will release a teaser of the game containing the Prologue and eleven puzzles.

And then on Monday:

February 2, 2009: Last week, I almost released a teaser of the game containing the Prologue and eleven puzzles. Today, I’ll be ironing out one last pesky bug and then I’ll be releasing it. Stay tuned.

And, you know, I was with him that far. Month, week, day -- that's a convergent series. If he'd posted at midnight saying "It'll be up in one hour!" I would have stood up and cheered.


February 3, 2009: I have my fingers crossed that the current WIN and MAC versions of the teaser are indeed the final versions. I eagerly await news from my beta-testers. Stay tuned.

(Jmac's comment was on the order of "Oh, so now it's the beta-testers' fault." Frankly that didn't even occur to me. The beta-testers never promised me anything.)

The sad, or perhaps the pitiable or risible part: on Monday, I wrote a blog post saying "The demo is out! Download it now!" Yes, before the fact. Counting my chickens before I'd even seen the egg. I wanted to have the post ready to slap up here at a moment's notice.

Tuesday, I updated the post a little. Today... I wrote this one instead. I can't go that far out on the limb, and then pretend it never happened.

Sorry, Cliff Johnson. I don't hate you. I'm still checking your web site. I want to play your game teaser. Maybe you'll put it up ten minutes after I post this.

But for a week I had hope, and I invested in that hope, just a little -- just enough to write a blog post, just enough to be optimistic and not cynical. Just enough that now I feel like a sucker. My mistake, I know.

(For what it's worth, I can promise that the day a demo -- or the full game -- lands in my hands, I will forget all past disappointments. It's not that I'm a particularly forgiving person. I just have a minuscule attenOO SHINY!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

How to watch the football

(What? It's a game. This is a gaming blog.)

Since I am American, I watched the football last night.

This is a lie. I did watch the football last night, but it was only the second time I have watched the football on the Football Sunday. I was an American all the previous times, but I didn't care about the football. I still don't care about it, but I had a good time anyway. I write this article to explain how you too can have a good time watching the football that you care about not.

Since I am an American, I am explaining about American football. European football doesn't need any explaining. The ball is round, it runs up and down the field, and the people all follow it. If the ball makes it all the way to one end, everybody yells. It's very obvious once you see it.

(The trick to American football is, it works exactly the same way. The ball is pointy but it's really the same otherwise. Now you know. The rest of this article is about how to enjoy watching the football.)

  • Locate a bunch of friends who plan to watch the football. Ask if you can join them. They might ask first.

  • There will be lots of food. Bring more food. Everybody likes it.

  • And beer. Explaining how to enjoy beer is beyond the scope of this article. (I don't.) Beer is such a complicated subject that, at several points during the evening, even the television will express an opinion on it. Ignore this.

  • Okay, ads. Some groups of people gather to watch the football, but secretly they're there to watch the football ads. With other groups, it's the other way around. You don't have to worry which group is which.

  • Find out which team your friends are going to cheer for. Cheering for that team is not mandatory. Cheering for the other team should be negotiated in advance.

  • Do not ask how the game works. This is a common mistake. Your friends will start by saying, "The offensive team has four tries to move the ball ten yards." You will nod, because that's straightforward, and then your friends will continue with ten minutes of uninterrupted High Martian gabblespeak.

  • This is perfectly normal. It's like Vancian spellcasting: you are a first-level football watcher, and so your brain can only retain one sentence of football. Once you work your way up to third level, you will be able to understand the second sentence, which is this: "Galanzaghire zel felvnic nil combustavlio der panta zel infeild flie rule."

  • Whenever anything happens, you can ask "What just happened?" All of your friends will immediately start explaining it. It's no bother. Really, you'll have more trouble making them stop.

  • Don't try to cross-reference the explanations with the rules you just heard. The critical point will always turn out to be what some guy did halfway across the field from where the ball was, or where some guy's knee touched the ground, or which way some other guy's elbow was moving.

  • Really. His elbow.

  • If you're really, really lucky, you will find a group of friends who can explain why stuff is cool. For example: that guy who ran the entire length of the football field? His job is to be a concrete wall. Sprinting a hundred yards is not his job. That was like watching a Formula One race accidentally won by the Hoover Dam. If you find a group of friends who can tell you that, stick with them. Get them to watch an actual Formula One race with you. Those are cool too.

  • That clock in the corner counting down? It's to the game being one-quarter over, not completely over. Also, it runs in football seconds, which are different. Pace yourself on the snacks; there's plenty of time.

  • Yes, those fans are waving yellow towels. I don't want to talk about it.

  • (I am an adoptive Pittsburgher now living in Boston, for all the sense that makes. This forced me to learn some things even before I started watching the football. I'll spare you.)

  • I don't want to talk about Springsteen's crotch either.

  • Speaking of crotches: yes, everybody knows how homoerotic this whole football performance is. You are among your own friends; only you can decide whether comments on this phenomenon will be greeted by enthusiastic agreement or sullen opacity. The men in shiny tight pants will be up on screen either way.

  • Jokes about "tight ends" are taken for granted, not spoken aloud. This is a token of solemn respect to the memory of George Carlin.

  • You may talk during the game, although people may interrupt you to scream at the television. You may not talk during the ads.

  • You are allowed to applaud a clever Coke ad even if you're drinking Pepsi. (The converse case would also be allowed, if it were possible.) You are allowed to applaud an ad for a product you despise. You are allowed to cheer a trailer for a movie that you know will suck.

  • That Land of the Lost trailer? Will Ferrell hates everything I ever loved.