Wednesday, May 26, 2021

I am a person who will buy a SteamPal, sure, why not

The game industry froth of the day is "SteamPal", a mobile console that Valve is maybe-sort-of-probably developing. (ArsTech article; Polygon article.) The rumor is a Switch-shaped device that can run any Steam game with a Linux port. Which is a lot of games, really.
Everybody's got the same take: the Steam Machine was a flop, but whoa, this looks nice. The gaming PC market is saturated, but this is a portable. The portable market is dominated by the twin kaiju of Switch and iPhone, but both of those are proprietary platforms with locked-down app stores. There is no portable "regular computer" device. If there were, and if lots of people had them, then lots of developers would support it because it's pretty much just a checkbox in the Unity build.
(I know, it's never just a checkbox. But I hear good talk about Valve's Proton. That's a Wine-y layer for getting your Windows app up and running on Linux.)
So what the heck. It's a Tuesday and six years ago I wrote "I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine". I might as well weigh in here.
First obvious point: that Steam Machine purchase didn't work out great, did it? Nope! It sat around for six months and then I installed Win10 on it. So why will this new thing be different?
Because in 2015 I had a specific problem: I couldn't play Windows-only games. And I didn't want to buy into Windows! I was hoping that Valve's support of Linux -- with a Windows emulation layer -- would get those Win-only developers to cross-compile. Then we'd have a solid gaming OS, free of the Microsoft tax and the Microsoft love of completely changing the UI every few years.
To be clear: there were plenty of Linux ports on Steam. But those were the cross-platform Win/Mac/Linux developers! I could already play those games. I was trying to get at the games that weren't launching on Mac. (You know, like the initial releases of The Witness and Obduction, both of which I was slavering for by 2016.) I wanted Linux ports for those.
Didn't happen. Drat. So I bought into Windows. I wasn't happy about it, but the problem was solved.
Today I have a different problem: I want to play games while I eat lunch. But I don't want to buy into Nintendo.

Roughly, I play two(*) kinds of game. Either:
  • I want to sit down and fall into a big screen for hours at a time. Or...
  • I want to screw around with it for ten minutes every time I need a break.
These are very different models. But don't make the mistake that one is "immersive" and the other is "casual". They're both ways of focusing my attention! But they are appropriate for different kinds of games.
Obviously, Witness and Obduction are all-enveloping visual environments. Those are "big screen for hours" games.
But plenty of great games aren't that. Sneaky little puzzlers where you just have to fiddle with the pieces a lot. Micro-roguelikes where a run takes ten minutes. Card games where the bot crushes you. I want to play those over lunch!
If a game is on iOS, I'll grab my tablet and do exactly that. I've racked up immense time on Cinco Paus, Ascension, FTL, and puzzlers like Pipe Push Paradise. I would never sit down in front of my big PC and play them for hours at a time -- but I play them a lot of hours in total.
On the flip side, games like Altered and Inner Tao gaze woefully from my Steam library. I'm stuck in both. (They're hard!) But if I sit down for a Steam session of either, it'll just end in tears. No progress. Quit out. I don't even want to launch them any more.
But if they were on my tablet? Sure, I'll pick one up during lunch and flick the pieces around. Why not? And sooner or later, I'll have a breakthrough. (This is exactly how I finished PPP. Which is hard!)
Now, Altered and Inner Tao aren't on my tablet, because porting to iOS is a headache and the overstuffed app store makes that effort a bad investment. That's the general sense I get from indie devs, anyhow. But if there were a mobile device where Proton/Wine handled 90% of the porting load?
Tempting. I hope. And that's not even counting the "gold rush" period, which the Switch enjoyed for a good few years. A SteamPal has the same potential upside. No guarantees -- but I'd certainly put in some work to make sure that Meanwhile ran clean on it.

(*) Footnote and digression: Of course there are more than "two kinds of game". The obvious third class is: "I want to lie on the couch with the lights turned down and fall into a small cozy screen." Which is to say, The Room. (And riffs like House of Da Vinci, the Faraway series, Isoland, Rusty Lake...) These have a sweet spot of not being overwhelmingly visual -- they can be pretty, but you don't have to live them from the inside. But they are intimately touch-oriented. You want them in your hands.
I don't need a SteamPal for these games, because they do get iOS ports. They're mostly iOS originals. They're the natural natives of the platform.
I'm sure Valve's device will be D-pad-centric. That's fine; it just means a different set of native inhabitants. Indie grid puzzlers? Maybe! I can hope, anyhow.
(And if the SteamPal fails... nah, I'm still not getting a Switch. Sorry; the Wii left me feeling unloved.)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: exploding with delight

And so we come to the end of another review post run. I have naturally saved my favorites for last.
As I said up top, this year was about delightful games. And that's a personal reaction! This post is not about flawless games, or universally loved games. It's about games that I played through with a big goofy grin on my face because they made me happy. You may feel differently. You may say "But that game utterly failed to do what I want!" That's fine. Just recognize that it did something, and it did it with a whole and joyful heart.
(Okay, A Monster's Expedition is flawless and universally loved. I don't make the rules, nor the exceptions that prove them.)
  • Lost Words: Beyond the Page
  • Blaseball
  • Genesis Noir
  • Umurangi Generation
And while I'm here, a few titles that I already wrote up. But this is the exploding-with-delight post, by gum, and I can't not mention these:
  • A Monster's Expedition
  • Cloudpunk
  • NUTS
  • Paradise Killer
And thus I close. Plenty of games I haven't talked about. Spiritfarer, OMORI, There Is No Game, Signs of the Sojourner are obvious omissions -- sorry! I have not yet played Chicory, Teardown, Bugsnax, Welcome to Elk, or many others. Ynglet and Moncage look like they'll be awesome when they're out. Jeez, I didn't even mention Kristallijn.
Plus, I just got my second Pfizer dose. I should probably get this posted before the fever comes on.
Here's hoping for a better summer and fall. Yow -- if things go well, IGF 2022 judging could start again this October! I better rest up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: tiny adventures

A bit of a mix here. These aren't classic adventure games, but they're not the abstracted explorations that I call "story devices" either. I'd say the common strain is the old Flash adventure genre -- the weird little narrative worlds like Submachine. Of course there are plenty of other influences too. That's just the fuzzy center that I gathered this group around.
  • The Flower Collectors
  • HoloVista
  • The White Door
  • When the Past Was Around
  • Mirages of Winter
  • In Other Waters
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Mirages of Winter. I bought the others myself -- mostly last fall.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: puzzle time

Puzzle games and narrative games have a natural tendency to collide. I mean, yes, all genres want to hybridize these days, but the original "adventure game" was puzzle-narrative before anybody thought to disentangle the two. Besides, your narrative wants pacing -- that's puzzles -- and your puzzle game wants some kind of push-pull beyond "see the next room".
All of which is just to say that even though these are narrative game reviews, I also play a lot of puzzle games. I'll list some notable ones here. Not gonna be long reviews, and anyhow I've written some of these up before.
  • A Monster's Expedition
  • A Fold Apart
  • Carto
  • Shady Part of Me
  • Creaks
  • Lightmatter
(Note: I was on the narrative jury. I bought and played all of these games before IGF judging started, though.)

Monday, May 10, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: story devices

Sometimes I say "interactive storybook"; sometimes I say "story device". Usually textual (except when it's wordless). No model world or explorable map. Focus is on direct interactions with the text, or the story, or an abstract puzzly interface that makes no sense (until it does). What can I say, it's a "know it when I see it" category.
My comments in this post came out pretty mixed; I wasn't entirely into this year's story devices. This doesn't mean I was unhappy to see them, though! This is a relatively fluid sub-genre. There's more scope for exploration of form than there is in, say, parser IF. So it's always fun to see what people are going to do with it.
  • unmemory
  • Utility for the Soul
  • Arrog
  • Stilstand
  • LOVE - A Puzzle Box Filled with Stories
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)

Sunday, May 9, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: visual-novel-like-likes

And now some games in the visual novel orbit. Or outside it.
  • Neo Cab
  • Across the Grooves
  • Haven
  • Pendragon
I think "visual novel" is going down the same road that "interactive fiction" and "roguelike" have travelled over the past several years. On the one hand, they're enormously influential genres. On the other hand, that influence plays out in a lot of ways; maybe not ways that old-school VN fans would consider important.
Are we talking about visual novels as design tropes? (Dialogue-centric, no map or model world.) Or UI elements? (Talking heads over that dialogue.) What about themes? (Character-heavy with romance.) Art style? (Anime.) What about when those elements get hybridized into other genres? (Everyone talks about Hades, but is Disco Elysium also VN-inspired?) (Some recently asked me if Disco Elysium was an example of "choice-based interactive fiction", to which I had to say yes, pretty much...)
It's the same situation that led to the hairsplitting of "roguelike", "roguelite", "roguelike-like"... not that that clarified much. Ultimately it's up to the fans to decide where the center of gravity lies. Visual novels aren't my home turf, so I'll just throw some titles into this blog post and hope.
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Across the Grooves and Haven. I bought Pendragon and Neo Cab myself.)

Saturday, May 8, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: cosmic horror and not-horror

Today's batch of games are Lovecraftian horror. Or games which are reacting to Lovecraftian horror. Or games which are Lovecraftian, but not horror. Or vice versa. Turns out there's a lot more room for experimentation than ol' HPL ever considered.
  • Call of the Sea
  • Transient
  • Paradise Killer
Also, it turns out I already wrote this post! I bought and played all of these games over the winter.
Read reviews here: Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians (January 2021)
(That post also covers Old Gods Rising and Moons of Madness, which were not IGF entrants.)
Don't worry, I'll be back with new reviews tomorrow.

Friday, May 7, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: stunning environments

The IGF finalists have just been announced. Usually this happens in January, so that the winners can be revealed at GDC. Guess what, this year is different! Again! But here we are.
Last year, I wrote:
2019 was a heck of a game year, folks. There were so many brilliant narrative games rolling around jostling for attention like fuzzy puppies in a sandbox.
You know what? Even more this year.
They're not easy to talk about, though. Not like last year. What happened in narrative gaming in 2019? Heaven's Vault, that's what happened. State of the art: vaporized.
2020 wasn't about new frontiers in narrative technology. It was about games that were delightful. In lots of ways. Often in flawed ways! You're going to see a lot of comments about "what's wrong with this game" or "why I had trouble with that game". Or even "this game wasn't for me." But the theme of 2020 was, a game can be janky or fiddly or underimplemented or frustrating -- and still be a delight to play. If the creator wanted to do something and did the hell out of it, that shines through.
As usual, I'm going to group these games in rough categories. I'm not ordering them from best to worst (or vice versa) -- it's just games that seem to go together. Also, despite the post titles, I'm not limiting myself to nominees and honorable mentions! Any IGF entry is fair game.
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Beyond Blue, Nuts, and Mundaun. I bought Cloudpunk last year. I played South of the Circle in a free trial month of Apple Arcade.) (My second free trial month; I dunno how that works.)

In this first post: a batch of games whose environments just blew me away. They don't necessarily have the most intricate gameplay -- although some of them pull some fascinating tricks! But if the ambience pulls me in, I'm sold.
  • Beyond Blue
  • Cloudpunk
  • NUTS
  • Mundaun
  • South of the Circle