The only thing more important than finishing & shipping—yes, those are one thing—a Ludum Dare 48 compo entry is then rating the hard work of all the other clinically insane brave competitors. Well aside from eating, drinking, & sleeping but that should go without saying. Shouldn’t it?
In the earlier days of LD48 this was a relatively easy task to accomplish, even for the competitor with a day job. A couple hundred entries could be leisurely played over the course of the allotted two weeks.
Then somewhere along the line LD48 became more mainstream—this said without a hint of hip irony, I mean come on, it’s the truth—attracting larger numbers of participants each time.
The most recent event saw some 2,347 (supposedly) playable video & analog games submitted for peer evaluation.
Competitors are given 3 full weeks to play then rate each entry, & leave a comment if they’re feeling egotistical/snarky/fancy. I tend to leave a lot of fancy, ego-driven snark. It shows I care.
So 3 weeks. That’s 30,240 minutes. Assuming you do nothing but play & rate entries that allows just under 12 minutes for each one.
The key question then becomes how much time should you allot for playing vs. offering stars & design advice? It takes me about 8 minutes to complete my own entry, & I know exactly how to complete it. I imagine it could take some folks upwards of 30 minutes to finish. If their goal is to be completely, magnanimously fair with the ratings process they wouldn’t even have time to finish & would be forced to offer a rating based on an experience not wholly experienced! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, game journalists & forum commenters do it all the time but that’s beside the point.
A person is then forced to make certain compromises if they want to go sifting through the entries for the gems. There are gems in there, trust me, but unless you just want to sit back & wait for others to find them, not bother rating—which ends up reflecting poorly on your own entry—, & shun the process entirely you need some form of filter.
This was my 8th Ludum Dare 48 in a row. I’ve gone from rating all of them to not giving a damn & then realizing I have to give a damn if I’m to get rated myself, so I’ve run the gamut.
It’s a “do unto others” sort of framework, & I’m horribly selfishly biased because I’m capable of producing web builds. But I’ve stomped my way down that route only because I kinda wanna get as many people as possible to play my game. If I was just in it to show off I’d just pull a SOS.
Rate early, rate often. Rate with purpose.
It’s only time that you’re wasting. Too bad it’s the only thing that you’ve really got.
That’s 8 in the can. 8 times I’ve answered the call, 8 times I’ve delivered a working videogame in under 48 hours.
This is the first time I’ve finaled with time to spare. The game proper was done roughly 3 hours before the deadline, then another 2 hours spent on spit-polishing before submitting.
Play PRISMA, if you wish. Rate it, if you’re in the compo, & if you want a priority rating back leave a comment. Even just a “nice effort” would suffice.
The official project page is sparse this time, for reasons explained therein. I’ll paste this out from it as it neatly summarizes:
To me the Ludum Dare 48 compo has always been a sort of mid-term exam in a never-ending course on game development. It was one of the first public jam events I participated in when I first went independent back in September of ’10, & now with 8 in a row under my belt there’s a lot of positive retrospection to be had.
LD48 no.19 was nothing but sweat & stress. LD48 no.26 was a calm & considered process that left room for polish & testing. The improvement is palpable, & with each passing one—in addition to the terrifying amount of entries indicating the depressing growing number of developers out there—I find myself wondering why I haven’t buckled down & started to make real money with this craft.
So that’s that, then. I’ve further submitted this as this month’s entry for the #1GAM, ensuring that I have something for the first third of the year.
Thanks for reading & if you participated in the Ludum Dare 48 I hope you succeeded & didn’t bitch about the theme.
Took 35 days off after failing to deliver #1GAM no.03. Played a lot of videogames, commented on a lot of forums/blogs, & remembered what it was like to be a gamer. It’s been the most productive time I’ve spent since going full independent videogame developer back in ’10.
I’m back in shape, more or less, after a month of running & cycling & yoga. It’s impossible to stress how important it is to maintain good physical health while doing any kind of long-term sedentary pursuit. If you’re a lazy bum then that’s what you are; the kind of motivation & discipline it takes to maintain a regimen can only come from within. While I avoid telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, if you’re spending most of your days sitting on it you should get off your ass & sweat a few—preferably all—days a week.
Ludum Dare 48 no.26 is this coming weekend. This’ll be my 8th compo in a row, & I’ll deliver an 8th completed entry. It’ll also serve as this month’s #1GAM, conveniently killing two birds with one stone.
Attempting to develop a videogame in 48 hours is important. Not for the sake of making a videogame—I don’t buy into that—but as a mid-term exam to see where I’m at skills-wise. Nothing highlights the gaping holes in my production abilities than scrambling to achieve a result. I make sure to take notes & work to shore up those deficiencies once the competition’s done. Otherwise I might as well have just slept in all weekend.
One month left until I can legally re-post my novels for sale. It’s really starting to bug me. Amazon is a great service & platform for publishing, but extracting myself from it has highlighted just how much control they exert. “Indie” for many is just an illusion, & in as many cases we’re just trading one taskmaster for another.
At least I’m still writing.
Dark Acre Relocating
After wasting 31 months in Vancouver I’ve decided to move to a cheaper location. There’s been zero benefit to me staying here since I don’t participate in the indie scene here (it’s too depressing to face the ever-growing number of other sweating & desperate amateur developers who, despite glad-handing & rickety grins to the contrary, are my competition) & the cost of living is stupid high.
I think Colin Northway‘s got the right idea with the “traveling indie” lifestyle. Then again he’s got a couple of successful money-earning products on the market & a partner with the same, so like many indies who’ve found success he can make bold pronouncements about “how to be indie”. I don’t have that luxury, & after re-assessing the finances it seems that moving to a more rural area could add 3 to 4 more years of survival as a developer. Staying in Vancouver would have killed the dream in 2015. So it’s a good decision all around & one I’m looking forward to.
Rah Rah Rah
No matter what anyone tells you, the only rule is “make an amazing videogame & make people play it”. Good luck if you’re trying to do that.
Working on a free-to-play videogame to fund your indie game is the new “stripping to pay for college”.
“There’s nothing you can learn from a failure. If you sit there with a failure & try to figure out how you failed, then you just fucked yourself… ’cause then all of a sudden it’s ‘be careful’.” – George Lois
One way to reframe that would be: “When shit’s not working out, go on to the next bold adventure”.
#1GAM no.03, the March entry, wasn’t working out. It’s the first of my games to offer a true branched dialog system, and while the system itself was a clean implementaton that was easy to use the results were less than satisfying.
I refuse to release mediocre work into the “canon”. I started asking for funding with the release of the Apartment, and that went well. CONCRETE, the second entry, had no traction. I’m proud of both results, and as VAULT spiraled out of control I became ever-less impressed with what was happening.
Good things take time. The question of whether to keep to the 30-31 day production schedules has become evermore pressing as time goes on. I’m in a luxurious position compared to many other developers: I can devote 100% of my time & attention to producing whatever I want.
A lot of good has come from participating in McFunkypants’s initiative. 2.25 new games for the ludology & a very promising & robust 3D point-and-click adventure framework are nothing to sneeze at.
It’s time to go bigger again.
Ludum Dare 48 no.26 is coming up in April. That should provide an “easy out” for a #1GAM entry for that month. From now until then I’ll be leaving the realm of the point-and-click & working on something with a bit more mechanical depth. There should be more to report on in 30 days.
Dark Acre Books
As part of the drive for full self-publishing the Solarus books have been removed from Amazon.com. Unfortunately Amazon’s rules for books enrolled in their “Prime” system are strict & state that they hold exclusive publishing rights for 90 days after de-listing, even though they are no longer hosting the materials themselves. Further reason to be wary of who you get in bed with.
That’s it for March. Thanks as always for staying tuned & we’ll see you again soon.
In spite of the reduced number of days in February I pulled everything together & published “CONCRETE” an hour before midnight on February 28th, 2013. It is monetized in a manner identical to “The Apartment” before it. Even though I spent 16 days more on this project than the previous, I feel that it’s something of a flawed execution. I’ll get into the details below.
As before a debt of gratitude is owed to friends, family, & fans. A special heartfelt thanks goes out to the following people:
Kelly Wright, for his expert advice & precious time.
Nao Enomoto, for her undying patience.
Chris Kaitila, whose continuing administration of #1GAM is about the only thing keeping me going on this road.
What Went Right
As with the previous entry, the drive to complete & publish was fueled mostly by the structure the #1GAM initiative provides. If I find financial success through these 12 games, I’ll owe most if not all of it to Christer.
2. Expanded Framework
Unity is my engine, but on top of that engine the chassis & transmission that make these games possible is an improved version of my Ludum Dare no.25 codebase.
I took 6 days at the start of February, & I’ll likely take as long this month to continue to maintain the code & make adjustments where necessary. Having a base of code that I know inside & out has been essential to achieving results.
3. Being Ambitious
This is a double-edged sword, as you’ll see in the “wrongs” below, but I feel it’s critical to push the envelope as hard as I’m comfortable with.
“It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.” – Arnold Toynbee
That & although there’s no clean quote to pull from I also admire musician Jack White‘s attitude towards his performances, in how he’s said that he’ll make things ever-harder for himself to avoid falling into a comfortable routine. I’ve known for years that the feeling of discomfort is a warning sign, & something to fight with tooth & nail in order to be constantly improving myself.
4. Keeping it “Art”
The artist statement established with The Apartment remains the same here. I’m exploring the same themes & ideas founded in that first project, & carrying them forward in search of some kind of logical conclusion.
Although I’ve added more “game” to the experience of CONCRETE, it still remains at its core a narrative search for meaning in isolation.
This also frees me up from having to discuss the mechanics of the thing at too much length. It is what it is, & barring any serious game-breaking bugs will remain intact as it was published, warts & all.
5. Keeping it Primitive
Left this for last, but it could have easily been first. I did not add a single note of audio, nor one pixel of texturing until I was certain the game systems were working well enough. I say well enough because there’s always something that needs polishing or tuning, but by making sure the actual game worked before implementing any of the audio/visual assets was a huge boon.
For one, it lowers the build time & keeps the project lean. For another, art—generally speaking—does not bug out or break the game. It may bloat the size & load times, but those types of optimizations & fixes are far easier to make than finding the holes in your for-loops or mis-triggered bools.
What Went Wrong
1. Working Until Drop-Dead
So last month I said I’d be leaving more time for testing & polish. I guess I lied, or was naïve in thinking that somehow trying to produce a game that was easily twice if not three times as large as the previous would somehow magically produce an equivalent amount of QA time.
I was recording & implementing all of the voiceover two hours before publishing. Fortunately it slotted right into the framework without issue, but had it not I would have been hooped.
There is also a list sitting next to me of featured I’d meant to implement. I’m not going to go into them, but the list is long & taunts me. I’ll be slowly adding them in over time, but it would have been nice to have them “out in the wild” & gathering feedback now.
2. Playing With Cached Versions
I wasn’t doing this & didn’t catch a major game-breaking OSX bug that involved ripping out the entire function set for the cyberspace deck & replacing it with an ugly but functional alternative.
3. Gamedev > Health
Oh this terrible, terrible pit. It’s like a black hole that sucks you in.
I used to run marathons. Lift tons of iron. Fight a lot. Now I’m becoming that archetypical blob of a developer who’s prioritized the computers over health. This is absolutely something I must change, without delay.
As soon as I post this I’m going for a run.
4. Insufficient Testing
The experience has 3 endings, a complete voice-over, a dialog system, a weapons-use system, a crafting system, & numerous other improvements & additions. Unfortunately all of that tinkering left precious little time to tune & improve the playability of the thing.
Had I added no new features & just produced content for a month, would it have been better? Perhaps, but then there’d be no cyberspace deck, no other characters talking to you, & no sniping.
The life of a game developer is largely one of decision & compromise. If you are uncomfortable or unable to do those things, you may wish to choose another career/hobby.
5. A Tendency to Push Verts
Next month I’d like to add “didn’t bother producing finished 3D models until late in the cycle” to no.5 of the rights above.
I have this habit of polishing a primitive placeholder model in 3D Studio Max until it’s more or less final before dropping it into the game, even in the early stages of development. I like to make sure it’s ready to take textures & is “game optimized”. This eats a ton of time away from ensuring the game system is working, so going forward I’ll hopefully be able to reign in this crippling desire.
As of this posting the response to CONCRETE has been rather flat. I’m totally okay with this, as I made something I’m proud of & enjoy playing. Yes, it has more than a few warts but each one of those is a hard-earned lesson that I can apply to future projects.
This is the real gift that Christer’s #1GAM has given us, the incentive & drive to publish our stuff. There is great truth in the axiom that as long as you continue to produce & learn from your mistakes that you will never truly fail, & that you’re only ever 3 feet from gold.
See you in 24 days.
“A failed Kickstarter only means that the people who have disposable income, access to computers, the Internet & the spare time to swallow your pitch & sundry materials didn’t feel like paying you to make whatever it was that you wanted to make. Also a stark reminder that the world doesn’t owe you one fucking thing.” – DAJ
At almost-midnight on the 31st of January, last month, I watched the upload progress bar in Filezilla fill to 100% & deposit a build of “The Apartment” on my personal webserver.
It was the first piece of work I’d done in more than 2 years as a solo independent game developer that I’d felt was worth both my name & your time. I know I’ve said that particular phrase over & over but it bears repeating because it’s the truth. I care about integrity.
Even then it was just barely. Taken at surface value, The Apartment only represented maybe 15 days of full-time effort. Just over two weeks. It was one thing to toss it out on the front stoop for the world to interact with. It was another thing entirely to suppose that it was worth money.
It’s a hell of a thing. Like nearly all human beings living in the modern world I have my own junk-drawer filled with eccentricities. One of those is that although I know—know!—in my heart that what I’m producing is art, I’ll never call myself an artist. Some little mental roadblock has been erected, from some unmemorable event in my past, where I decided that it wasn’t the artist’s job to determine if what they were producing was worthy of the name, no. That was the job of the beholders. Or, in this case, the interactors.
Let’s not get too metaphysical here, lest it comes off as self-aggrandizing horseshit. But all throughout the development of The Apartment there were many over-riding design principles at play. Yes, I work from various manifestos: some fully-realized & others mercurial. I have rules, & one of the main ones for The Apartment was “let the players figure it out”.
So I went for what may seem at times wanky levels of obtuse & indirect explanation, if any at all! Judging by the reaction of many players who’ve taken the time to write me or otherwise publicly express their opinions on it, this product has been something of a success. Oh & while we’re on the subject of self-aggrandizing faffery let no one tell you that product isn’t a viable term for the results of a videogame development. You produced it, it’s a product. It’s also a game, experience, piece of art, nightmare, fantasy, dreamscape, diversion, waste of time, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
The name by which a working videogame may be known, dear friends, is Legion.
I spent the first 5 days of this month refactoring the codebase of the Apartment. Cleaning it up, culling redundancies, improving efficiency, & retooling it for this month’s work. Then I’ve spent that gulf of time between the 6th & now building new content & herein lies the next stage of terror:
Will it be as interesting? As engaging? As worthy of the player’s time as the previous one?
And if it is will the one following that continue that upward trend? If it isn’t will my work then start a long, nightmarish slide into obscurity?
To all burgeoning & struggling developers & artists out there: if you think the stark, electric-naked fear you feel when compiling your work into a presentable form is anything, there is much worse ahead.
You just keep working. And hoping.
THE LAST WORD ON MONEY
There’ll be no detailed sales breakdown. I feel that talking about the money you make is horribly gauche, and not befitting a person of manners. Not that I’ve really got any manners, but in this I’d like to have some resolve.
Let me just say here that creating a free-to-play piece of art, publishing it for the web-browser, & asking for public patronage has netted me several months worth of solo independent development funding, & if the trend continues I should be able to keep doing what I’m doing at this level for a long time to come.
I’ve decided to create a mailing list since, at long last, I’ve started gathering a small but interested audience for my work. I wanted an intimiate way to keep in touch with you on a monthly basis, with information that I wouldn’t necessarily be sharing across the global networks.
To that end I’ve put together the DARK ACRE FARMER’S ALMANAC. It’s a bare-bones mailing list that will send you a simple e-mail once—possibly twice—a month with some words directly from me.
Ignoring news of a deadline relaxation for January I pushed through and published “The Apartment” at a few minutes before midnight on January 31st, 2013. I also monetized it, and as of this post I’ve made sales. This is the first project that I’ve felt worthy of both the Dark Acre name & people’s money. I hope you feel the same.
None of this would have been possible without the support & encouragement of friends, family, & fans. A special heartfelt thanks goes out to the following people:
Mike Renwick, for putting up with my rants & madness on GChat.
Kelly Wright, for sharing the meatspace & putting up with my insanity first-hand.
Nao Enomoto, for being the best damn cheerleader my world has ever known.
When Kaitila announced the jam a couple of month ago, I was skeptical. I’ve stated on more than a few occasions that I only have the time, energy, & brainspace for a single focused game jam once ever few months, & up until January ’13 that had been comfortably addressed by the Ludum Dare 48-hour competition.
I’d also just spent two years wrestling with what the ideal production schedule for myself & Dark Acre was supposed to be. Initially it was 8 weeks. Then it was whenever. Most recently it’s be a year-long earmark for the Cyberdrunk project. But for whatever reason, as January moved forward & more progress was made on the Cyberdrunk thing I figured I should allot some time for other public efforts.
And maybe, just maybe, publish something for money.
2. New Framework via LD48 no.25
When the last Ludum Dare entered I was pleased to discover I’d finally put together a reasonable framework for communicating narratives. In other words, I had built—from scratch—a story-telling engine that took some advantage of the Unity3D platform. So began the Cyberdrunk project.
I realized that I should also spend time iterating on & polishing the framework, so at first I thought I’d do that via Darkades. But adventure games require a fair amount of time to complete; they’re not just poopy little projects that can be spat out in a day. So combine a month-long “jam” with some emerging self-built technology & maybe there’d be something cool at the end of it. And there was.
3. Kontent Kreator
Coupled with no.2 above, having a solid framework meant more time spent making stuff for players to interact with & less time worrying about whether it would all work. I think for this project I spent more hours in 3D Studio Max, Photoshop, & Google Docs than I did in Unity3D. That was an amazing feeling.
4. Calling it “Art”
I think there’ll be more to say on this in the coming months, as I prove out more of these projects. For now, I’ll refer you to the “artist statement” that adorns the main menu:
My work explores isolation and decrepitude both mental and physical.
With influences as diverse as Brutalist architecture and post-modern cyberculture, new models of narration are created from exploring the discomfort of the human psyche and emergent digital mediums.
Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by storytelling and its effect on the imagination. The fugue state entered when enthralled by media becomes the definition of immersion, and it is this feeling that the work tries to capture.
As the narrative unfolds based on a willingness (or unwillingness!) to explore the environment, the player is left with a sense of relief or emptiness at their condition.
Approaching this work with this kind of attitude informing my creative decisions seemed to make all the difference in the world. I leave it up to you to decide if the resulting experience can be classified as art or not.
What Went Wrong
1. Working Until Drop-Dead
I was adjusting content in the finished commercial build right up until 23:55, five minutes before putting it up for sale. A very risky maneuver, and going forward I’ll be leaving far more time for final polish & testing.
2. No Warning
As of this post I’m working on a way to put in a personal warning to players that the content may be disturbing to some. I apologize if the work has caused anyone undue duress, & it is certainly not intended for a very young audience. I blithely assumed that since most of my followers were adults that it wouldn’t reach too-young eyes. Also such is the danger of self-publishing without a standards & ratings board to pass through.
3. Long, Long Nights
My obsession with this project only seemed to grow as the deadline loomed, & by the end of it I was nearly manic in my efforts to bring it to completion. The pacing is something I’ll be looking to improve in the future to avoid going bonkers with stress.
A Few More Words
It’s worth noting that on January 24th I had my final face-to-face depression counseling session. I also seem to have not needed my antidepression medication since the 20th. Can making games you believe in cure depression? I don’t know. But I do know I feel a whole hell of a lot better about everything than I did a month ago.
For the past 3 weeks the habits of 27 months of focused discipline have been waylaid in favor of freeform scheduling that respects neither time nor body.
If you’ve been following along diligently—and you have my utmost love & respect for doing so—you’ll know I’ve been a creature of some rather diligent habits. Rising & sleeping early, subjecting myself to the physical rigors of, as the Rock likes to say, “clangin’ & bangin’” in addition to ashtanga yoga & distance running. That all changed when I embarked on the Cyberdrunk Project.
My daily routine has consisted of rising past noon, drinking all day & well into the night, finally collapsing into bed around six in the morning. I’m certain many other independent workers can relate to this “schedule”, with or without the alcohol abuse.
Production is at an all-time high. Not only in volume but in quality. I’ve shoved reams of C# & PHP training into my brain, consumed vast swaths of cyberculture, & built a brand new commercial-ready experience that—with a little luck & a lot of labor—will launch in time to qualify for the #1GAM entry for January.
Development log? I suppose. Some kind of record feels necessary: a chronicle of this thing that’s growing inward from without, like a reverse hangnail, consuming my processes & subverting me to its will.
When people talk about their work having a life of its own? This is where I’m at right now with PROJECT ZERO EIGHT.
Fuck. It needs a proper name.
Just finished re-reading William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome“. That’s part of it, part of what this process has become. A subconscious-cum-conscious desire to consume certain facets of media like mana, as though I could fill myself to the brim with a near-dead subculture in the attempt to understand it in a new way. To apply a new lens through which its weakened light might refract, then project fresh images.
Cyberpunk. What does that even mean, anymore? Is it still relevant?
I don’t remember when I first read Burning Chrome. I was young, it was before the drugs. Gibson’s words had had a profound effect on me; his poetry-like prose. Hadn’t inspired me to write, but had in some way supplemented my burgeoning love for technology, & computers. I knew “hackers” back then, when the entry into secured systems was announced by the horrible electronic gnashing of low-baud modems. Sounds like broken robots mating. Chewing our way into bulletin board systems & multi-user chat rooms, hanging with actual phreakers who spoke in languages I couldn’t comprehend, but feeling a sense of belonging nonetheless.
Maybe that was it. The discovery of a place where I felt like I belonged. In & among the dim promises from phosphorescent LED displays, tangled in the wires, lost in the code.
A shame then, that the drugs became a far more interesting & rewarding escape than the hardware/software. But we have to see certain things through in order to appreciate them better, & without experience our words are only noises without substance.
So here we are, some 20+ years later & I’m once again finished reading words that still resound with the same strength they did when I was an idiot teenager.
Somehow, this is important.
And now this, this record-making in the middle of the night. Compiling & consuming lists of films, books, animations, websites, Wikipedia articles, & important persons all somehow connected to this endeavor I’ve undertaken for 2013. This project. This thing.
2012 was a banner year in gaming for me. I went out of my way to play a lot of videogames, & had more than a few run-ins with analog boardgames.
To qualify for this list, these games:
Were “beaten” in 2012, beaten meaning seeing the end credits roll and/or exhausting normal gameplay.
Were released at some point before January 1st, 2013.
Okay here we go, & in no particular order other than how I remembered them so there’s probably some scale of favoritism here. Click any of the images to visit that game’s website.
RPG of the Year
Gungasm. Gunporn. Gungy. That last one’s a gun orgy. Probably not as clever as the first two but you get the point.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this stellar outing from Gearbox? The previous version, Borderlands, was kinda shitty. Shitty to the point where I didn’t really have any hope for the sequel. Then Randy Pitchford & the 2K marketing geniuses banged their penises together & sparks started flying. The hype was more or less impossible to resist, particularly if you were a shooter fanatic.
Even watching that now makes me want to pile more hours into the 120+ I’ve already dumped into this thing. Perfect controls, perfect characters, perfect environments. Perfect.
And the thing is, they keep adding to it! Gearbox is doing DLC right, carefully positioning each new module with the same care they did the original release.
Just one last quick sentence about this beauty: it’s in RPG of the Year because after you play it for 50-odd hours you start to realize that its design owes far more to the addiction-inducing grinds of Blizzard opuses Diablo & World of Warcraft than it does shooters like Call of Duty. And that’s a good thing. And this is actually 3 sentences.
Adventures of the Year
I didn’t want to like this game. The initial previews & bullshotty trailer had me thinking it was a lot of hype without substance. Sure enough, the game itself is nothing like that cinematic trailer.
This, however, is a good thing. A very good thing.
When I got my hands on a copy & went through the first level that introduces you to Dunwall & the world of Dishonored, I was spellbound. Dumbstruck. Another developer (the other being Gearbox with Borderlands) had taken the Unreal game engine & applied some common sense to it, going with a stylized look over the plastic lens-flared grit of Gears of War/Mass Effect. It was more like stepping into a watercolor painting, an experience similar to playing Sega WOW’s “Valkyria Chronicles“.
Then the game gave me reason to hate it. The first actual gameplay level is horrible. The stealth systems are not clearly communicated & very frustrating. I’m a huge stealth fan, having cut my teeth on Metal Gears & Splinter Cells, & I was woefully underserved by the opening of Dishonored.
HOWEVER, I overcame this by resorting back to something I hadn’t done in ages: the old save ‘n reload trick. Old-school PC gamers will remember this as the life-saving tactic that prevented many a broken keyboard back in the day, quicksaving before a suspiciously difficult challenge in a game to avoid having to do it all over again, & reloading upon failure.
Now, a lot of this has elements of DIAS, or “do it again, stupid” game design that I loathe. I prefer quick-time button mashing events to trial-and-error gameplay, that’s how much I hate DIAS. But the thing with Dishonored is that the bulk of the frustration is confined to that first area as you come to grips with playing the game a certain way. The way I wanted to go about it was stealthy, sneaky. If you want to murder everything in sight it’s actually a pretty easy game, even on the hardest setting. But you’re rewarded for not killing anyone, & not being seen. Plus I’d heard that the “best” ending was only shown after completely ghosting the thing. So I persevered, & after an hour or so I got my epiphany.
Once the game starts giving you powers (again, a mis-lead from the trailer as it appears that you get powers immediately, though such is not the case) the game opens up in breathtaking ways. The game designer in me was floored by the amount of choice offered in terms of combining powers to overcome levels. Make no mistake, it’s not an open-world game, but each “level” is beautifully crafted to serve the myriad abilities you have at your disposal.
When I finally beat the game & got my hard-earned “best” ending, all I wanted was more. From what I hear, Arkane is hard at work providing that more, & I’m looking forward to further exploring the world of Dishonored in 2013.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Yes, Deus Ex: HR was late ’11. I only completed it & its accompanying & much-improved DLC in the middle of ’12, so it gets a place here.
It’s no secret I’m in love with transhumanism & cyberpunk. A lot of what I plan to do with Project Zero Eight revolves around these topics. The world of Deus Ex is a superb realization of a lot of the “possible futures” in store for humanity with the rise of cybernetics & augmentation.
I’d also finally beaten the original Deus Ex in ’12, & it would have earned a place on this list had it not been so overtly frustrating & soul-crushingly long. But what Deus Ex did for 3D cyberpunk games was a lot like what Blade Runner did for dystopian cinema. Although Philip K. Dick never got a chance to see the actual film, he had some words to say about it:
“Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment [that I saw] I found my normal present-day “reality” pallid by comparison.”
I felt the same when I first experienced Deus Ex back in ’00, & a lot of that feeling was renewed with Human Revolution. Combining bold visualization with an open-ended story & gameplay that supports the player’s moral choices & style, Deus Ex:HR is an absolute treat for futurists & transhumanists.
If you could approach this with an open mind & an appreciation for the level of detail that Starbreeze is known for, you had an unrivaled experience. While Deux Ex was superior for overall narrative, there’s no denying the incredible visual fidelity present in Syndicate. For the first time in ages I felt like I was actually in the game. People bandy the term “immersion” around a lot, so much so that the word has almost lost its meaning in modern game design. But when you, as Kilo, jump down an elevator shaft & the camera adjusts to catch your landing, & you see your hand splay out & knee come up, & the sublime audio just melts in your ears it’s hard not to be present for those moments.
There’s plenty of homage to the original here as well, if you take the time to look for it. The environment design is the most detailed & fully-realized I’ve come across in any videogame outside of perhaps Half-Life 2 or Portal, & the handling of cybernetics is unparalleled. Another gem for the transhumanists out there, but make no mistake: this is a shooter at its core & a difficult one at that. But if you’ve got the chops it’s a hell of a ride & chock full of futuristic goodness.
The Walking Dead Season One
I wrote about this one back in July, & while it didn’t end as strong as it began it’s forever changed the face of what an adventure game can be. I have high hopes for Season Two.
Mind-Fuck of the Year
Spec Ops: The Line
Also mentioned in the article alongside the Walking Dead, this was a shooter that really made me think. Anyone who criticizes shooters for being shallow experiences should shut up & play this game.
Stealth of the Year
Mark of the Ninja
For a few days after its launch Mark of the Ninja was the highest-ranked videogame on Metacritic, & with good reason. Klei managed to perfect the stealth genre with this outing, & the sheer amount of design that went into it is staggering. It’s a reductive experience, one that you’d be tempted to call “casual” but in the long run it proves quite contrary, offering ever-increasing levels of challenge that await the player’s eventual skill improvements.
Mark of the Ninja is a triumph of game design, & is a must-have for any game enthusiast. Even if you’ve never liked stealth games, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find something of value here.
Sandbox of the Year
Saints Row: The Third
A late ’11 release I only got to in early ’12. As K-Wright so aptly put it, “Saints Row is all the fun“.
Yes, it’s bawdy. It’s rude. It’s crude. It’s over-the-top, gratuitous violence & glorification of a cartoon-like thug life. It’s all of those things that make the game what it is, & it’s a thrill-ride from start to finish.
I could talk about the variety of open-world activities, the hilarious campaign that can be played both solo & seamlessly co-op, or the great DLC support that followed the main release. But all this reading is stopping you from going out & playing it. If you’re one of those people who takes all videogames with deadly seriousness, you’d best avoid this title. But if you can enjoy games for what they are, your time will not be wasted in Steelport.
Touchtronic Experience of the Year
Infinity Blade 2
I bought the iPad 2 on release day, after standing in the cold like an asshole outside of Future Shop for 3 hours. I think that marked the beginning of the end of my love affair with Apple & its nefarious devices. Let me just go on record here by saying “fuck Apple” & “fuck iOS“. I’ll refer back to this post whenever people ask me if I’m making my games for mobile.
Despite my growing hatred for the horribly useless & insanely over-priced gizmos that Apple produces, I did manage to squeeze some blood-like enjoyment from the stone that is the iPad in the form of Infinity Blade 2. So much so that I managed to strain my shoulder joint from lying in bed on my side swiping & slashing for hours on end. This is a good game that makes full use of the device, & one that I couldn’t imagine playing with any other interface.
See, people? That’s the thing. To qualify for being a “killer app” on these over-priced pieces of glass & silicon, the products have to make full use of the fact that you interact with it with your greasy, fatty fingers. 99% of the (cr)apps don’t, & would be better off with a mouse, keyboard, or gamepad.
It’s worth noting here that I got my hands on a Wii U a week ago, & am still working my way through New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. Had I managed to finish the game by the end of 2012 it would have occupied this slot on the list. Nintendo gets touch interface in the way that so many other touchtronic developers don’t. Do yourself a favor & play a few Worlds worth of NSMBWU co-op & thank me for it later.
Boardgame of the Year
Every year I tell myself I’m going to play more analog boardgames. Every year I fail. I have a shelf full of them, but lack the social motivation to gather folks together to partake.
In 2012 I was fortunate enough to get the invite over to Lentz’s place enough times to form some opinions on what’s hot & what’s not in the cardboard token universe.
If you’re familiar with games like Puerto Rico, you’ll enjoy the systems in Power Grid. If you’re not, get off your ass & go play some of those types of games. I’d go into a lengthy description of how amazing European boardgame design is, but it’s something best experienced first-hand.
Yes, it’s a game from ’09. I started playing it when it came out & the VFS Game Design resource library got a copy. K-Wright & I bundled off to the games lab a few times to put the first few levels through their paces. I later bought it & forgot about it.
Then K-Wright & I came full circle this year & cleared it together. Is it smutty? Sure. Violent? Check. A pinnacle of action beat-em-ups with stunning graphics, interesting characters, fascinating enemy design, & that classic edge that Hideki Kamiya is so famous for? Hell yes.
Haters need not apply, & if you want a razor-sharp game that turns you into a better gamer whether you like it or not, I can’t recommend this one enough.
Game I Play Every Year of the Year
Red Dead Redemption
There are a few rituals that I observe on a yearly basis: shaving my head on spring equinox, watching “There Will Be Blood” on the anniversary of Dark Acre’s founding, re-reading George Lois’s “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!) & playing Red Dead Redemption in the fall.
Like a beloved vacation spot, Rockstar’s American Old West is a place I have yet to tire of visiting. Even though I know how it ends, I still enjoy riding the range as John Marsden. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve memorized a fair share of the dialog, but still refuse to skip cutscenes.
Only one thing would make it perfect: a PC version. You hear me, Rockstar? A PC VERSION.
Ludum Dare 48 Entry of the Year
You didn’t think I’d crank out a few thousand words on other people’s videogames without dropping a couple hundred on my own, did you?
Of the three Ludum Dare 48 competitions I entered this year, I finally hit my stride with this one. It’s very short, the controls are borked & there’s a modicum of bugs, but it’s far & away the most solid outing I’ve had to date.
I’ve talked all over this blog about my relationship with the Ludum Dare, so I won’t bore you with that any further. But as a yardstick by which I measure my progress as a solo independent game developer, this year’s last entry hit the high-water mark. Fingers crossed that it places equally high in the final peer-rated tally.
Disappointment of the Year
Now, this may seem like I’m throwing the game under the bus and in fact I probably am. But bear in mind that I spent my money on this at the insistence of pretty much everyone on my social networks & in the gaming press, & also on the strength of thatgamecompany’s previous outing, “Flower“.
Flower was fucking amazing. Absolutely stunning. Peerless visual communication, flawless use of the PS3′s Sixaxis motion control, & an all-around gorgeous demonstration of innovation in game design & storytelling.
TO ME, Journey tried to be all of that but came off feeling empty & pretentious. I guess the anonymous multiplayer aspect was new & exciting? But the obtuse story & endless hiking just wore me down. I played it to completion, enjoyed the hell out of the sand graphics, but in the end the clunky controls & opaque narrative left me cold. Don’t let my shitty opinions stop you from playing it! By all accounts, it’s the perfect game for people who don’t play games, & if that was the developer’s intent, to get non-gamers into gaming, then all the power to them. It just wasn’t for me & after all the hype I was like, “so what was the big deal with this?”
There’s a ton of honorable & dishonorable mentions, but I won’t get into those because no one remembers or cares about games that weren’t gripping enough to play longer than it took to load them.
Just a quick shout-out to you folks who still rail against AAA & incite the “games industry vs. the indies” argument at every opportunity spouting sentences filled with words like “innovation” & “sequelitis”: pull your heads out of your collective assess & go play some videogames, because clearly you ain’t.
P.S. To game developers who say they don’t play videogames: it shows.
All images copyright their respective owners, you’re welcome for the free marketing.