On The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
People call them “aha! moments”. They’re the moments in games where you figure something out on your own and you feel clever for it. Sometimes it’s applying an item in a new way and sometimes its just finding a solution to a problem you’ve been butting heads with for a while. Good “aha! moments” make you feel like you understand the game better, less good ones feel more like relief.
That’s why I think a lot of people praise the Portal games. Both games have a lot of these moments that make you feel smart. The game is designed around that feeling of discovery. In a lot of ways, it’s a game about learning.
I like games that teach well through their design. It’s rare because throwing up instructional text is safer and easier—which is also two words to describe some fair criticisms of big budget games. We’re told how and when to do things so explicitly in games nowadays that the first 20 minutes are incredibly overwhelming and a real bore for those already familiar. By definition games need to explain mechanics somehow, so I’m not here to fault the games that do it by text. That’s one option. But there’s another way. A more elegant way. And that’s through these “aha! moments.”
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, like Portal, seems designed around these eureka moments. It runs at a much faster pace than previous Zelda games and uses that constraint to emphasize its dungeons. Access to them and their respective items is almost completely open from the start. I spent about a week doing a dungeon a day. Each one was like a puzzle with multiple layers of thought to solve.
The dungeons themselves are incredibly dense. The game uses very simplified geometry and doesn’t get too complex in the arrangement. It works great for the top-down perspective. Any larger and my mental capacity would have failed, and the game would’ve probably been frustrating if I had to revisit areas to simply remember where things were. See, a lot of the dungeons operate on multiple floors. Some require you to jump back and forth from different floors to reach keys and items you couldn’t before. You need to master the whole layout, and in the end, you will. The level design reaches a Dark Souls level of intricacy at times. And I adore Dark Souls’ level design. Absolutely adore it.
In Dark Souls, those “aha! moments” are mental feedback, and Zelda mimics that. Instead of opening a door, which is quite often the case, discovery in A Link Between Worlds also gives you another layer of understanding. It’s almost more rewarding than just progressing further into the dungeon.
When you do finally squeeze the dungeons dry, you get a boss fight. For me, good boss fights are like thesis statements. Even though they go on top, it’s usually best to write them last. They summarize. I think the best boss fights call upon all your previous learning. Bad ones introduce new mechanics, which A Link Between Worlds is guilty of in one particular instance.
Most of A Link Between Worlds’ boss fights are good, although some of them are far too simple for how complex your understanding of an item is. Some of that is the game wanting to be a direct homage to A Link to the Past. Many bosses are very similar to the previous game. I would have liked bosses that really test your knowledge under pressure, but I’m probably a fool to forget how important tradition is to Nintendo.
I should also mention that A Link Between Worlds is the first Zelda game I’ve ever really dug into and finished. It’s very modern compared to the rest of the series. And by that I mean it’s fast and open. It’s crazy to see that a game so different from the others exists, but it’s also great that I can finally have a Zelda game that I find satisfying and incredibly well-designed.
When I finished A Link Between Worlds, I was surprised. I’d like to think I wouldn’t be if I would’ve played any other Zelda before it, but I didn’t so let me have this one. I had many, many, “aha! moments” and I enjoyed every one. It disperses them like some kind of drug I needed a fix on every few hours. It’s just plain fun to explore and conquer the world in a sort of pure sense that was sadly absent from the best experiences I’ve had with games this year. It’s so weird for me to say it considering my history with the series but I like it. I like it a lot.
Notes on: BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part 1
I wrote down some scattered thoughts about the Burial At Sea Part 1 DLC for BioShock Infinite while I played through it. I’ve cleaned them up and put them below in the same style as freelance writer Brendan Keogh does on his blog.
1. The idea of seeing what Rapture was like before it collapsed is compelling, even if most of it was easy to guess from the many little stories packed into the original BioShock. The playful divide between the people who support Andrew Ryan’s growing objectivism and those who do not is fun to listen to, only because you know what is coming. I feel like it’s too binary, though, maybe even a bit artificial since, at times, it feels like an excuse to develop Fontaine, which leads to the game’s excuse for combat.
2. BioShock Infinite’s ending makes it easy for them to bring back a lot of the systems you use in Columbia to Rapture. Everything from the guns, plasmids, tears, and equipment are at your disposal. Anything goes, really. It’s hard to tell if it’s lazy or acceptable.
3. The combat is poor. There are like five large arenas that have fights that don’t make use of them at all. Almost every fight gives you the upper hand on how you’d like to approach it. On normal difficulty I could kill all of the enemies before they had time to spread out. And because of the easiness, there was little reason for me to use plasmids. I imagine they wanted the one-on-one fight with the Big Daddy to be dramatic. You fight him in a huge room that’s only made for him! But it wasn’t. When he doesn’t stand still, he has the saddest looking move that shoots a drill at you and pulls you in. The Big Daddy fight is robbed of all the ruthlessness they had in the first game. It was incredibly anti-climactic.
4. There’s a new weapon. You hold down the trigger at close range and it explodes enemies. Since I didn’t realize I had the code to unlock the door to it early enough, I barely got to use it. My combat style is to shoot enemies from far away and then whack them like mad when they get close, so I don’t know if I would have used it much anyway.
5. Speaking of codes for doors, the majority of the scenarios have to do with you having to get what is essentially a key to open a door, whether it’s a plasmid or a code. Because of that, the pacing was slow and the combat had no stakes.
6. I feel bad for the people who rushed through it in 2 hours. I dragged it out for twice that (still forgot one damn audio diary) and I thought it was okay. The whole thing would have probably felt a lot more hollow had I just pushed through it. I bought the season pass when it was on sale for like $5. Understand that, so, when I say, purely in terms of the amount of and value of the content, it’s not worth $15.
7. The art design is still stunning. It’s still very grand and awesome. The more I think about what I actually liked about BioShock Infinite, it’s the art. Hearing that Irrational Games built it from scratch makes that $15 price tag make a little more sense, but there’s got to be meat to the all the pretty dressing.
8. There was one really good moment where I was lured by an Infusion, the things that let you upgrade health, shield, or salts—haha, upgrade your salts—, in a room with a bunch of mannequins. You probably see where this is going, but I still jumped when a female mannequin yelled at me and jumped down from the display case with a gun.
9. Believe me, I tried to figure out what happened in the context of BioShock Infinite’s crazy story and I still have no idea. I’m starting to wonder if it really matters. Someone will make a visual guide, right?
10. I can’t tell if the severely limited ammo was not a new thing for BioShock Infinite, a way to make it survival horror-y, or because I am a bad shot. Either way, it was more annoying than tense.
11. There’s still a lot of the weird narrative things where you find ammo and guns in shoe boxes and trash cans. Also, Booker has to have a mask to get into a party and Elizabeth, for some reason, does not. Maybe I missed something.
12. Booker is a bad police investigator. I drank and gambled my way through the whole thing. Meaningful choices in games working as intended.
Image credit: Flickr user Deaf Spacker
I worry about the open world game
In Grand Theft Auto 5, you can play tennis. You can play golf. You can play darts. You can walk. You can run. You can swim. You can drive. You can fly. The entire range of activities, both high and low, are available to you. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to participate in the story Rockstar Games wants to tell. You don’t have to use the game’s character switch mechanic. There’s a sea of content, of things to do, and it’s all up to you.
This sandbox, this open world, worries me. There’s so much to do in GTA 5, the meaningful parts of it can get clouded. The parts that aren’t just increasing numbers and bars on a character to make them drive or shoot better. The parts where the game is serious about something, whether it’s the act of torture, a character’s frustration with life, or another character’s anger and betrayal. They get lost in the density of the world.
Or worse, they break apart under the reality of your actions. The reuniting of a family with a serial killer isn’t relieving, it’s terrifying. The hesitation of a character when asked to kill someone isn’t dramatic, it’s confusing—I remember the bloody corpses in my wake not an hour ago. All three characters can fly planes, helicopters, operate cranes, forklifts, evade the police, the military, kill without getting caught, and all they want are normal lives? Please.
The open world doesn’t always serve the story. Most of the time, it ruins it. And when games are finding new and interesting ways to tell stories, some not possible in other mediums, I worry that games like GTA 5 set a bad example.
In Gone Home, you never leave the house. You can’t read the books, you can’t take the board games out and play them. Your character has a goal, and she doesn’t stray from it. In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, you move forward in your journey and never look back. You don’t have time to ride goats for hours or sit idle on a bench. In both games, there’s importance to the linearity to the smaller scope, there’s a craft to the illusion of a world just beyond your reach.
Open world games lift that illusion. They give you an abundance of options, and there’s detail in the most granular things. In GTA 5, San Andreas is amazing, beeming with creative talent. From the architecture, to the street design, to the traffic flow, and the various vehicles that pass by. There’s precision to the handles on a glass door versus a wooden door.
Think about the time and the money that created those things. Think about the time and the money that went into Gone Home or Brothers. Are we spending too much on the wrong things?
With $800 million in the first 24 hours, GTA 5’s sales and popularity worry me. I worry that it sends the wrong signal. I worry that creative, affecting game design is being overshadowed by an abundance of content, of things to do. I worry about the open world game.
My Gone Home review was challenging to write. How do you write about a game that only asks you to observe? It was difficult not to spoil all the best moments of The Fullbright Company’s debut effort. In the end, I think I did a good job, although I do hope to improve at explaining how the game works in future reviews.
Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer podcast with the game’s writer Steve Gaynor is touching and you should listen to it.
Jason Killingsworth is writing a book about Dark Souls with Press Select. I’m jealous. I want to write a book one day. At least it’s a goal now.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is disappointing, but Chris Plante’s deep dive into the development history of the game isn’t.
I’m getting used to this smartphone business. The screen is nice?
I installed a new hard drive into my PC, and I’m using it to test some game capture. Maybe a “Let’s Play”?
I’m grumpy because I’m not at PAX. Didn’t think I’d regret it, but I do.
Breaking Bad is still rad. The Newsroom is okay. And I returned to The Killing—I forgot I liked that show.
Back to video games, I guess.
A little late
My feature on the independently developed game Richard & Alice was published at Pixel Enemy. I spoke to the game’s writer Ashton Raze about creating probably one of the best five-year-old characters in games. I actually interviewed him a few months ago, but family complications and job transitions caused the story to be late. I regret that a little bit. I think the story would have been better closer to the game’s release. But it’s up, and I can move on to whatever’s next.
I’m mulling over giving freelance writing another shot. I’m already sitting on some pitches. I just need to send them to some editors. Maybe Monday.
I purchased my first smartphone this week. My previous phone couldn’t handle calendar appointments, let alone “4G” internet. I think this thing will come in handy once I get deeper into freelancing. It turns out, Android is pretty great, if a bit overwhelming.
Oh, and I was also on the Pixel Enemy podcast this week where we talked a lot about pizza. And video games, of course.
Back in the review game
I took a long break from writing reviews. Partly out of frustration with my own writing ability, and partly to explore other forms of writing. My first real return to proper review writing was at GotGame last month.
That said, 400 Days creates five distinct characters to return to in season two with more baggage and nuance than games ten times the length. We learn about its characters just by their body language and their cadence. And Telltale doesn’t stop at its main characters. One example, because it’s not worth revealing the other weirdos you’ll meet, is a rock-and-roll loving, truck-driving, sexist who is also probably an alcoholic. Telltale asks you to trust him with your life for five minutes. He may have turned out to be a cold-hearted murderer, but I kind of liked him.
Review | The Walking Dead: 400 Days
Spartan Assault struggles to sustain the back-and-forth of Halo’s combat loop, the rise and fall of its territorial and kinetic battles. The overhead perspective ruins the surprise of a flanking enemy, the adrenaline of confinement, and the small environments choke the wide-open dynamism of the series’ signature firefights. Enemies often rush toward you or sit behind cover, admittedly a potent tactic in the game’s bottle-necked level design.
Review | Halo: Spartan Assault, GotGame
It was fun breaking back into the rigid structure of reviews. Which is a relieving reaction to have, because I’ll be contributing a lot of them to Pixel Enemy in the coming months. For now, though, I’m writing news there with the occasional feature article.
Right now, I’m reading Nathan Meunier’s book on freelance writing Up Up Dow Down Left Write: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism. So far, it’s good!
I’ve also gotten back into playing Guild Wars 2 for some reason.
After listening to almost all of the Dark Souls season of Bonfireside Chat, I’ve started looking through hosts Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross’ other work. They do a similar podcast about retro games called Watch Out for Fireballs! I just finished the Silent Hill 2 one and now I’m starting up the Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth episode.
I’m transitioning this blog into a self-promotion hub. I needed one and this is it. I will shill all of my creations here. I’ve also linked my contact information and Résumé in a new “About Me” page.
I will still write whatever I feel like here, but I wanted to make it clear that this page now serves more than one purpose.
I’ve played several hours of the Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn beta and I’ve got some stuff to say.
Music intro - “Field 3 (Gridania)” - Sounds of Eorza: Final Fantasy 14 Official Soundtrack, courtesy of YouTube user Christian Semmler
Direct download (right-click “save as …”)
It still hasn’t sunk in that Ryan’s gone.
The first time I really talked to him was on the subject of podcasts. Norm and I were new at Whiskey and we had no fucking clue how little we knew about the REAL internet. Ryan taught me how to produce and then host a podcast. It began with a…
Ryan Davis and my father
I should have walked up to Ryan Davis and said hello last year at PAX, but I was too shy. Davis was a personality in my mind, a charming, affable personality that I couldn’t believe existed in a real human being. He was the voice and the figure I had spent hours listening to and watching on Giant Bomb. I didn’t want to ruin the image I had of him.
My only interactions with him were small. He “blocked” me on Twitter for revealing that I liked the banana-flavored Runts exclusively, and he private messaged me once to inform me I had won a copy of Dragon Age 2. The private message’s subject was simply, “dragons,” because that’s how he rolled—reduce the most arbitrarily complex things into what they really were about.
That’s something I took away from his (too) few reviews on Giant Bomb. His ability to choose the perfect, perfect words to express specific things about a game, left me feeling inadequate. I can only hope to one day write at a level he did.
And that was just the writing. His personality reminded me of my father’s. (They both even had the same beard!) My father, like Davis, didn’t understand the concept of “breaking the ice”. For him, the ice was broken for everyone. He would talk to anyone like a long-time friend, grounded and humble. My father spent the last few years of his life in and out of a hospital. You’d think it would be constantly depressing and stressful, but not with my father. Every nurse would know him by the end of his stay. Like Davis, he would pick on people, call them out, but never in a mean way. I think he used it to bring people down to their real selves, to ease them from any kind of social anxieties.
Unlike my father, I’m quiet. Yet, he never tried to force me to open up more. Instead, I wanted to be like him by example, his personality was contagious, and I can’t think of anyone that didn’t like him. That’s special, and I wish I had that ability.
I had been listening to the Bombcast a few years before my father passed away. When he did, it was Davis that reminded me of him every week on the podcast, and eventually every day as I consumed more and more of Giant Bomb’s content.
When I glanced over at Davis and Jeff Gerstmann at the Double Fine panel during PAX last year, I wanted to get up and meet him. But I couldn’t do it. I don’t know if I was scared or nervous, or both. It would be like seeing my father again for the first time in two years and I didn’t know if I could handle that. I had planned to get over it and meet him this year at PAX.
I never met Davis, but he still had a considerable impact on how I view games and in many ways, life. Like my father, I admired him by example.
But I’ve made a mistake if I let him stay an example. Ryan and my father would have went over to say hello. They wouldn’t have anything to regret.
So, I’m not going to make the same mistake again.
Review: August Burns Red - Rescue & Restore
August Burns Red’s Rescue & Restore is a compromise. It finds a space between the impact and speed of Constellations, and the inventiveness of Leveler. What you find in that space is a band that still sits at the forefront of the metalcore genre, finding a complexity in tempo shifts and quiet moments.
What they gain in sound, they lose in messaging. Rescue & Restore sees the band preach about typical Christian themes of forgiveness and acceptance without the universal metaphors that defined earlier albums. “Animals”, a shocking, savage song that feels nothing like August Burns Red, is where the album trails off. What follows is an anthem in the wrong genre and a concussion of blatant lyrics and jarring noise. The better album ended 12 minutes earlier with “Creative Captivity”, where the band encapsulates their sound into one, dense journey, with little words and a lot to say.
ABR_Logo_Big on Flickr.
Made with Make Pixel Art.com.
Several times while I was playing Naughty Dog’s latest game The Last of Us, I stopped playing and went outside into the warm air of Washington state, where I live. It’s summer, so the sun is obligated to make a few appearances. When I was out there, standing on my lawn, I heard the many familiar sounds of life. Birds and dogs and bees and cars and people. After a few minutes of listening, the life that had been drained out of me returned, and I was ready to play again.
I went through this routine every few hours as I made my way through Joel and Ellie’s journey to find the Fireflies. I felt like I had to. The things that happen in The Last of Us aren’t triumphant like in most games. There are no high scores or flashy loot. There are empty clips, broken bones, pools of blood, shattered glass, and dirt. My emotional state mirrored that of The Last of Us’ world: drab and hopeless.
I have a limit, the characters in The Last of Us don’t. I could go drink some fresh water, eat a banana. Joel and Ellie could check for leftover canned foods in an abandoned cabin, risk being shot, and end up finding nothing. I had the freedom to leave their world, to take a break, and I took advantage of it. I felt for them, but I physically couldn’t live what they were living.
Games let us interact within the world of others. They let us feel what it’s like to do something, happy or sad. I buckled under the weight of The Last of Us’ post-apocalyptic America. I chose to stop feeling what Joel and Ellie felt. It was too much.
Yet, I never stopped when I killed a hundred men. I never stopped when Joel was torn apart by the infected. I never stopped when Ellie was stabbed to death. I never stopped when the man staring at the end of my shotgun screamed, “Please don’t!” I never stopped when I saw those piles of burnt, dead bodies.
It was never a single thing that forced me to stop. It was like everything added on and on and on until it reached a tipping point, and then I paused the game and walked away. I don’t know if it was that I had seen too much or done too much. I wanted to leave that world as fast as I had entered it.
Imagine what it would be like if you could never leave. Imagine what it’s like for Joel and Ellie. When they wake up in the morning, they don’t get the chance to cook up an egg and some bacon, watch a video, pet a cat. They wake up and keep going. As Joel said, “”No matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.”
I feel guilty, like I gave up too easy. I wouldn’t last a day in their world.
Thank God it’s just a video game.
Image credit: Maciej Kuciara
New logo over at Polygonal Grass!
Review: The Yawhg
The Yawhg is a storytelling machine.
An independently developed choose-your-own-adventure game, The Yawhg weaves a different story every time you play it. How each story plays out depends on your choices and some amount of luck. Its blend of tragedy and triumph keeps you engaged long enough to see several 15-minute-long stories through. But The Yawhg has a pre-determined life span. Eventually, you reach a point where you’ve discovered everything there is to see, and the mechanics behind the stories are revealed, losing the novelty.
The Yawhg is best played with friends. Its four main characters have no backgrounds or motivations, they are defined by the decisions they make throughout the game. Alone, you can play multiple characters, but it’s tough to maintain up to four separate narratives by yourself. With friends, on the same PC, each of you can create unique stories and feel the effects you have on the way it plays out, for better or for worse.
The Yawhg has a simple and grim setup, ripe for stories of defeat and victory. An impending danger is six weeks away from destroying a town, and its fate depends on your choices. You can try to prepare yourself for the end or disregard everything for pleasure. Not every decision is simple though, sometimes what you thought was doing good, turns against you and dooms the entire town.
The Yawhg is structured into six rounds, representing the final six weeks before the mysterious Yawhg decimates the town. Each round, you choose locations to visit from an overhead map screen. Once selected, you’re presented with two actions, one selfish and one selfless. For example: If you visit the slums, you can either fight crime or pickpocket. One will earn you wealth, and the other will help clean up the streets and possibly affect a later decision. Where your decisions have the most impact are the randomized events that occur after you choose one of the two actions. These events can affect the entire story, like infesting the towns water supply with deadly leeches or rendering the palace inaccessible after your failure to disarm a bomb. The repercussions of your choices can be as small as a single event, or they can happen throughout the story.
How successful you are at each decision is based on a set of attributes increased and decreased depending on your actions. Stats like strength will help you battle in the arena, mind will let you solve complex problems, and wealth determines how much money you can spend. It’s not always clear which attributes can affect a given choice, sometimes you’ll need to put yourself in your character’s shoes and make the decision purely on your own terms. These types of questions deal in moral grey areas and are rare, but they’re what keeps you coming back to The Yawhg for subsequent playthroughs.
Emily Carroll’s Scandinavian-styled art gives The Yawhg life. Each drawing compliments the emotion in a given scene. They’re detailed enough to portray an action, and vague enough for you to fill in the blanks. Combined with the folk soundtrack that ramps up as the story progresses, The Yawhg soaks you in its themes until you exit the game.
The Yawhg is built to be played multiple times. But there’s a hard limit. Eventually, you start to see the systems underneath it all. The Yawhg is at its worst when you play it like a game, focusing too hard on the attributes and not going with your gut. After enough playthroughs, in my case five, you start skipping through it just to get to something new, and the game loses almost all of its novelty.
That’s the most disappointing thing about The Yawhg. I wanted more, pushed too hard to find it, and soured myself on the game. But that’s doesn’t render the wonderful stories I created with it moot. Some left me stunned, and others had me laughing and theorizing what might happen next with friends. The power of The Yawhg is its ability to tell an exciting story filled with both highs and lows based on your input, and to leaves you wanting to go right back in and do it again.