Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

Jason Schreier, 2017, 275 pages (Amazon)


It’s probably no surprise that I’d buy, read, and love a book about video game development war stories, but Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made is a book really anyone with even a passing interest in the art of video games would enjoy (and should pick up).

Jason Schreier (kotaku.com), a veteran of the video game beat, weaves together several historical narratives from primary sources that describe in often-painful detail the difficulties most every game befalls on its way to launch, from the single-man production of Stardew Valley to the large-team blockbuster Uncharted 4.

The writing is approachable for non-enthusiasts but fills in knowledge gaps for even the most well-read fan. The chapter on Destiny is particularly special, building on the success of Kotaku’s excellent reporting to finally bring the details of that game’s late-stage reboot together into one coherent (if maddening) story.

The book left me with a renewed desire to check out The Witcher 3, another reason to dislike George Lucas, and a much healthier respect for the kinds of experiences Kickstarter enabled. Having lived through and managed a number of product launches over the past decade (though none nearly as intense), these chapters stoked memories of ownership conflict, poor management decisions, troublesome tooling, and the intense ups and downs of being a cowboy coder. The common thread of “crunch”, of working yourself to the bone to finish even somewhat on time, was all too familiar, and the picture Schreier paints of it being an almost essential ingredient in game development is simultaneously tragic and human.

It’s not entirely about failure, though. It was likewise a real treat to read about the Diablo 3 team consoling a downtrodden Destiny team after launch woes, showing how common some of these growing pains can be even from teams with radically different pedigrees. These stories, while bleak, are just as much about turning a lonely coder into a multi-millionaire and allowing a team of burned out and bored friends to risk it all and strike gold.

There’s a fairly ubiquitous quote by Shigeru Miyamoto: “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” Blood, Sweat, and Pixels shows that in today’s industry, any finished game at all is a special thing. Highly recommended.

tumblr_inline_oxih10aEkm1qlj7hx_1280

I digested a good chunk of this in the shade of a local Chick-fil-A. It’s amazing how quickly things return to normal after a major hurricane. I’ll miss this about Florida one day, I’m sure.

Mini Reviews (Sept 2017)

The games I’ve been playing have been piling up in my “to review” queue, so let’s flush that queue with some mini reviews! This is also a wonderful distraction from our collective impending doom at the hands of Hurricane Irma.

Ratchet and Clank (PS4): Damn near close to a perfect remake. Looks absolutely drop-dead gorgeous (and somehow even better on a PS4 Pro), controls fantastically, has plenty of compelling, fun progression and exploration hooks, and is loaded with diverse, playful weapons and tools. It’s an absolute must-buy for any PS4 owner.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves (HD Collection, PS3): On my continuing quest to be better informed about raccoon video game history, I recently finished the main story in Sly 2. The game, like its predecessor, offers smooth framerates, tight controls, and somewhat-muddy cel-shaded graphics. This iteration adds more playable characters and attempts more one-off mechanics, mini-games, and scenarios, and really doesn’t seem much better for it. Each game world is now an “open” world, which really just adds padding time of having to walk to each mission and little else. There’s still unskippable cutscenes and tutorials, atrocious turret controls, unnecessary upgrades, and the artifact of PS2-era character-driven platformers. It’s sad that these early 3D games that pushed the envelope are going to fall apart over time, but I’m glad the HD collection exists. I know this game is old, and feels like it would have been the best thing out there when it first came out. Recommended for raccoons and video game historians.

Axiom Verge (PS4, Vita, XB1, Wii U, PC): A Metroid clone that is too much Metroid and not enough Super Metroid. The game stands on its own with a decent story, interesting world, and lots of diverse weaponry to track down and utilize, but it leans on too many of the outdated, hardcore mechanics and traditions of the original, NES Metroid. Environments are forgettable, bland, repetitive, and often indistinguishable. Character movement is slow, every enemy encounter can be deadly, but the game requires lots of mindless backtracking and aimless wandering. Death is very painful (and annoying) when traversal isn’t fun. It was more fun on subsequent playthroughs for trophy hunting, but it’s hard to recommend to anyone outside of die-hard retro Metroidvania enthusiasts.

Risk of Rain (PS4, Vita, PC): I was a little late to this party, but thanks to Toya and Riloh, our household got a bit addicted to this marvelous little rogue-like. The pixel-art style is fantastic (it’s still my MacBook’s background). The characters and power-ups offer an exciting and insane amount of customizable and randomized variation (maybe too much). But the music is perhaps the best part and had me humming for days after each hours-long play session (a game is somewhere between 10 and 60 minutes).

Stories: The Path of Destinies

PS4, Steam | 2016 | Highly Recommended

Reynardo, Reynardo, what has thou donst (besides stolen my heart). Stories: The Path of Destinies is a brief but enjoyable hack-and-slash RPG that wraps simple-but-compelling combat, progression, and story mechanics into a bundle largely elevated by fantastic art direction and unique storytelling.

This action RPG sets itself apart by providing all the basics along with its uncommon approach to storytelling. The standard systems are here: snappy, fun combat; upgrades throughout; different weapons, enhancements, and techniques; and light exploration with crafting loot as a reward. Layered on top of this well-executed mindless fun is a choose-your-own-adventure narrative with all characters voiced by a single actor, lending a fairy tale aesthetic to its wonderful cutscenes and omnipresent narration. Characters are enjoyable, quipping at each other with an endearing rapport. The obvious love and polish coating the more basic elements of the game were more than enough to draw me into the world and story the creators wanted to tell, and the oddly-satisfying combat and systems kept me hooked well beyond the culmination of the main arc.

Each choice made in the story funnels the player to different worlds and outcomes, with each ending uncovering a “truth”. This truth is intended to help steer future choices closer to the critical path, with each play-through uncovering more and more until the “true” path is completed. It’s a fantastic and interesting mechanic; I just wish there were more “truths” to uncover and that I hadn’t found the critical path as quickly as I did.

The art throughout is amazing. Each gameplay sequence is book-ended by these emotive, lithograph-stye illustrations depicting Reynardo, the swashbuckling, dreamy, confident hero fox, adventuring into his fantasy world. The character icons accompanying subtitled narration smile, frown, and smirk while the narrator layers bedtime-story inflections over each one. Each world is bathed in color and style, and while most are short (each five-world playthrough is 20-30 minutes long), each defines itself with a unique palette and aesthetic. The blow-by-blow swordplay is accented with explosive particle effects and time slowdown, delighting visually as it does functionally. The visuals and voice work elevate Stories from good to fantastic.

There are some (but few) sour notes. Load times are long and frequent. The game suffers (at least on PS4) from some fairly major pop-in problems, both for textures and in some cases entire slabs of geometry, forcing me to navigate blindly to the next piece of the level. These minor issues never seemed to detract from the enjoyment, however.

The game design also seems to fizzle out past several playthroughs, despite the game’s hook being the intentional repetition of its story. While having tens of endings, individual choices don’t alter much of the story thread or have a large impact on the gameplay. It’s hard to knock the game too much for this, though; it seems to know it only works for as long as it needs to, and that’s mostly fine. Just know if you plan to grind out every achievement and ending, the mechanics will likely lose their appeal.

In all, Stories is just about a perfect package of RPG junk food, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s charming and original while keeping things short and to-the-point. Highly recommended for anyone looking to have some highly-polished dumb fun.

Zero Escape 3: Zero Time Dilemma

PS Vita, 3DS, Steam | 2016

Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma is, I’m heartbroken to say, just an okay game.

The Zero Escape series of games boasts a pretty unique and compelling mixture of Japanese visual novel and puzzle solving. Just like the previous two Zero Escape games (999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward),

Zero Time Dilemma (ZTD) opens with a motley crew trapped in some abandoned facility, forced to play a game where the stakes are literally life and death. It sounds corny, but in practice it’s pretty effective and compelling. In this iteration, the game’s narrative hinges on chance and probability; you can “escape” on a coin flip not five minutes in.

Every choice made in the game’s narrative branches the story, and the player is encouraged to go back and play out other choices to unlock different looks at outcomes and character stories. Most choices are followed by a puzzle room of some kind, and players must solve a series of simple-to-baffling escape-room-style puzzles in order to move the narrative forward. It can be an awesome flow when done right; a cliffhanger to motivate the solving of puzzles for one more bit of story. Unfortunately, the puzzle-to-story ratio throughout the game is uneven at its best and downright maddening at its worst. Add in a new “amnesia” mechanic, which allows the game to present the story Tarantino-style in seemingly random order, and each piece feels like a short, nonsensical look at a piece of a narrative that isn’t particularly interesting or engaging paired with 30-45 minutes of arbitrary puzzle solving.

Continue reading “Zero Escape 3: Zero Time Dilemma”

Review: INSIDE

Xbox One | 2016 | ★★★★★

Just as a painting can be described simply as a picture to hang, INSIDE (by PlayDead, makers of LIMBO) is simply a 2D puzzle platformer where a silent protagonist runs left to right, dodging danger. It’s about three hours long.

It’s also a complete work of art by every measure. It’s breathtaking, disquieting, and enthralling. It’s a procession of macabre set-pieces that beg to be taken in, interpreted, and put aside just in time for the next. It’s vicious: one wrong move and you’re murdered, often brutally, by a vague, dystopian world with no place for you.

And for such a work of art, it’s accessible to any gamer. Run left to right, swim, grab, and jump occasionally. But mostly stare, listen, breathe, gasp, and sit back, jaw open.

I’m not sure what I can really add to the discussion on this game, but it receives the highest recommendation from me, despite leaving me with feelings of unease and dissatisfaction. It’s not perfect, but it’s playable in one sitting and entirely accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It’s the best kind of video game.

Review: Pokémon GO

iOS | 2016

If ever there was a game that reminded me how little time I have left for games, it’s Pokémon GO, the new phenomenon from Niantic forcing everyone to rediscover Pokémon (or at least Bing it).

I snagged Rob on the first night and bummed around UCF for a short bit, tapping and swiping awkwardly and feeling accomplished with each new Pidgey and Ratatta. Just as often, the game lagged, dropped, crashed, didn’t respond, and above all didn’t explain anything. “But every online game has these issues at launch,” thought everyone reading. And yeah, that’s pretty much all of them these days, I guess.

Somewhat surprisingly, we ran across a bunch of people doing the same. Wow. Feels like middle school all over again. Except back then, I had a game that turned on and worked every time, had innovative mechanics, and excelled in spite of (and possibly due to) the constraints of the hardware.

A week and eleven levels later, I’m wading through crowds gathered at a PokéStop to go buy socks at Target. I’ve watched from my office as employees stroll by, phones out, stopping momentarily to swipe up a few times. While I’m nose-down in Visual Studio, my team is out hunting across the street. As I’m getting ahead on work Sunday, I read about my friends strolling through downtown, Disney, and UCF, wading through seas of other bodies exploiting the virtual map. Tonight my waiter asked about it, the booth one over full of seniors was playing it, and CNN was dissecting it. It’s viral in every sense.

Battling is horrible. Here’s hoping they revert this nonsense to a rock-paper-scissors game that’s derivative of the series’ type match-ups.

The best thing going for the game is its adherence to the Pokémon theme. The models are spot-on and cute as hell, and the animations for each creature draw that smile across the face with ease. If only it could maintain that throughout.

GO is genuinely good at making “driving so you can walk around aimlessly” seem like a thing I want to do, but it’s also really good at making me feel completely unable to keep up. It is genuinely great? Nah. Maybe eventually. It’ll probably be a lot better in a month or so. Until then, you can find me at my desk, twirling the PokéStop outside my office 90 times a day, wondering if I’ll ever catch up.

Recommendation: play it with a small group of friends and/or a significant other exclusively. Don’t drive and GO.

Review: Downwell

PS Vita, PS4, PC | 2016 | ★★★★★

Despite still struggling to platinum the game, Downwell is one of the best I’ve played in recent memory and is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for a dedicated gaming handheld to exist.

From Wikipedia:

Downwell is a 2015 vertically scrolling shooter roguelike platform video game developed by Japan-based indie developer Moppin, and published by Devolver Digital. The game was released on iOS, Microsoft Windows, Android, and on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Downwell centers around a “curious man”, who is at the local park one night when he decides to explore the depths of the well nearby. Knowing that monsters are waiting for him inside, he straps on his gunboots and starts his trip downwards, killing his enemies to proceed and collect treasure.

I’d heard mention of it a couple times on various gaming podcasts, but it sounded fairly basic in concept. I grabbed it on Vita for $5 (cross-buy with PS4) and dove in. After an hour of quick 2-5 minute runs, I could see the appeal for “fans of the genre”, but it felt like too much for me, too difficult, too twitchy, something.

But four or so hours of “just one more” later, I realized I was learning around the edges, progressing farther, getting better, all without consciously making a decision to change my tactics, approach, or strategy. The game pushes improvement and learning on you in a way I hadn’t felt since Spelunky (which is not a bad comparison for how this game bites into you).

Once you fall into this loop of learning and advancement, the game is just downright perfect. Between the rewarding combo system, the tough choices when presented with weapon swaps, the progressive character upgrades between each level, and the “play styles” that unlock over time, the game feels perfectly designed to ensure a consistent level of stress, engagement, and fun, despite everything being procedurally generated.

This game admittedly isn’t for everyone. It’s a fast, frantic, high-stress rogue-like that had my heart beating so fast at times I had to pause and put it down.

Upon first reaching the final boss, I had the temptation to look up strategies, thinking this was my one chance; my first trip to the bottom took probably 200 attempts. I stopped short, not wanting to rob myself of the same feeling I got from beating Olmec the first time in Spelunky. With a deep breath, I charged on, dying almost immediately. And I returned to beat the boss two attempts later.

The price of Downwell makes this a no-brainer. $5 on PS4/Vita, $3 ($1.50 as of writing) on Steam. Just make sure you play it with a controller.

It’s nice to be reminded occasionally how excellent games can be.