99 – Massive Disap–I mean, Massive Chalice

image1I was all set to make a point about the battles in Massive Chalice taking way too long; I had set a timer and was about the six-minute mark. The battle I was in was not a particularly significant battle: It was one of the bog-standard random battles that happens periodically throughout the game. Every time I moved my heroes, another few enemies appeared–it’s one of those games that hides its enemies behind fog-of-war until you have line of sight.

This battle introduced an enemy type called Cradles. Each of Massive Chalice’s enemies has a little gimmick–some take away XP; some explode, leaving behind poisoned squares; some give themselves a defensive buff after being attacked. The Cradle’s gimmick is that it spits out other enemies, and they also happen to have high HP. Defeating one of them took several rounds, both to cross the featureless level to the area where it is, and a couple of attacks to take it down. Finally, at about the 7 minute mark of my timer, I defeated the thing, whereupon it added three enemies to the already large pile on my screen before it died.

It was at that point that I uninstalled Massive Chalice.

Double Fine is a wall that I keep hitting myself against, getting more and more disappointed every time, and I think a lot of people feel that way. Remasters of Lucasarts classics aside, I’ve never met anybody who’s loved a Double Fine game. There’s something appealing and likeable about them that’s doesn’t really carry through to the quality of their games. All of their stuff of theirs that I’ve played has a really nifty premise, a confidence of voice, an uncontestable stylishness that just tumbles into bullshit. Psychonauts was hilarious and experimental and varied–and was also a collectathon platformer with finicky jumps that became more and more unpleasant to play as it went out. (Ah, for a Psychonauts that had the balls to be a straight up adventure game.) Brutal Legend was–again–hilarious, looked amazing, was an unabashed love letter to heavy metal–that threw too many ideas at the wall and didn’t do any of them well. The Cave was an interesting experiment that begged you to replay it and then bogged you down with repetitiveness. Hack and Slash had some great ideas but was ultimately incomprehensible. Broken Age was beautiful and eerie until it ran out of funding and didn’t release its lackluster second half until everybody had forgotten about it. Spacebase DF-9 was unfinished. Every one of their games I’ve played starts off shiny, full of promise, and then just crumbles.

In my most cynical moments, I want to say that the only thing that Double Fine is really good at is getting funding for their games. They’re that kind of faux indie giant that feels sorry for itself, tramples over the bedroom developers, gets itself on itch.io, and crowds everybody out of Kickstarter. And that would be unfair. Because the employees of Double Fine fucking love games. Every piece of their copious behind-the-scenes media shows a bunch of people who genuinely believe in what they’re doing, who love what they’re doing, who are living the dream.

There’s just always some issue between the idea and the execution. It always falls flat.

Massive Chalice is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of X-Com, a game that I liked but didn’t love. Its premise is that your kingdom is under attack by something-or-other, and that in 300 years you’ll be able to launch your superweapon, so in the meantime you’ve got to manage your kingdom, build up your armies, do your research, and fight some skirmishes until the final battle. It, like X-Com, is an attempt at marrying grand strategy to squad-based tactics. By and large, the grand strategy sections are very good. I love checking research off a tech tree. You appoint people to be the regents of various keeps and you get to marry them off and have babies, and while I’m not one of those creeps who loves Fire Emblem (seriously, if you’ve ever met a Fire Emblem fan, they’ll always go on, in very disturbing terms, about marrying their characters together, and there’s always a faux-veneer of self-awareness about, ha ha, I’m breeding these people together like cattle, but one which quickly falls apart because oh my god they do not shut up about how they’re breeding these people together like cattle) there’s a depth to that. And it’s all tied to a timeline that scrolls through–the UI is really pretty (everything Double Fine does is really pretty)–in a very satisfying way.

The actual battles fucking suck.

As I said: They all take too long. The grand strategy is where my heart is; every time a battle pops up, it feels like an interruption. They all take place in generic, procgen areas that are too large and have too many enemies hidden in the corners. And they are all exactly the same. Oh, sure, there’s different enemy types–as I said, they all have their gimmicks–but every single one i encountered is a simple, defeat all of the enemies. X-Com had the decency to sprinkle some bespoke setpieces at particular moments, ones which represented major parts of the storyline. Which felt like accomplishments. I know it’s one of my personal bugbears, being down on procgen, but I can see the use of it, when it keeps a game being surprising, it can add to some nice tension. In Massive Chalice, the effect is a flatness–there’s no major strategic difference from battle to battle. There’s some different wallpaper to the environments, but otherwise, you’re just going to be fighting a smattering of too-many enemies in a featureless, boring set of corridors forever. Were the battlefields half the size, were there a third as many enemies, it might be a pretty good game–the battles being quick things you duck into for a minute or two. But every one seems to go on long past the point of being interesting. It all feels like padding.

Massive Chalice has made me aware of the passage of time. As the years go on in the game, people are born, and people die–both in battle and of old age. The baby born in your keep grows up and becomes a fighter so quickly. The scholars you have researching will die of old age. And what it has impressed upon me is this lesson: Life is way too fucking short to waste on the same fucking battles over and over again.

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73 – #altgames and Fear of Twine

I wrote Zest with the help of lectronice and PaperBlurt and released it under the name Fear of Twine. We wanted to release under a band name of sorts, and after a few failed attempts decided that the potential confusion would be funny: Fear of Twine was the name of a Twine exhibition I curated last year. We talked about the idea of expanding it into a sort of loose collective, about other projects we could do together under the name–and if those went nowhere, it’s because we all got distracted by shiner projects.

(That we were releasing Zest in the Interactive Fiction Competition, which has a fairly complex relationship with Twine, was part of the impetus for the name: Never let it be said that Blurt, lectro and I aren’t cheeky.)

lectro and Blurt were the first people I noticed to use the hashtag #altgames to talk about their stuff. It’s a logical term: Indie and Alternative, in music, are two ways of talking about roughly the same aesthetic, and while genre scholars will certainly weigh in on the formal differences between the two–a conversation that, as a musician, I’ve had many, many times in smoky basements and will again until the day I die–for our purposes, they’re just different decades’ words for the same thing. #altgames comes with the understanding, as well, that Indie has become meaningless–it covers both Double Fine and bedroom games. There’s even a tinge of success that Indie implies–that, even if you’re not exactly making your rent payments, you’ve got enough Patreon subscribers to help you afford to go to GDC where you show off your game to people who are interested in it.

One of my big challenges has been keeping my eyes on my own paper; I don’t know if this is a universal thing, although I suspect it might be, but it’s certainly something I have in common with most of my friends. It seems everyone I know is either bitter or naive, or, hell, both. I don’t know anyone who’s making a Minecraft clone but I see so many of them in Early Access on Steam and I can completely imagine their mindset: This is popular, I can make a better one and make even more money–and, inevitably, Why am I not as successful as notch, that piece of shit in his goddamn mansion.

I mean, can I point out that most of my friends are Twine devs or otherwise working in extremely niche forms? There is no money to be made in niche game forms. And every single one of us is bitter: About the lack of attention, about our relative successes, about the fact that we aren’t satisfied with what we’re doing. And that you’re a heretic if you express doubt. I remember I said, at IndieCade 2013, that “there’s no money in indie games” and three devs I’d been having a pleasant beer with suddenly snapped: What about Minecraft? What about Braid? What about Fez? It’s considered almost offensive to question the premise that anyone can be a successful game dev. But it’s a lie. Anyone can form a band, but you’re probably not going to be even a minor rock star. How many of us with creative writing degrees sold that novel? How many famous actors do you know? How many high school football players play professionally?

Indie games feels like a club we’re not allowed into. And we are tired of seeing the same people insist, time and time again, that it’s not a clique; of hearing people with dozens more followers than us talk in interview after interview about the lack of attention paid them–and when you consider how unusual notch’s case is, that even the most successful #altgames devs aren’t making much money at all, you can’t blame them for feeling like they’ve been sold a bill of goods even as they’re selling it right back to the next tier. Let’s stop bullshitting ourselves and fucking admit it, cards on the table: No one in indie games is happy or satisfied or having a good time.

I mean, really: Are you?

The arguments about #altgames that I woke up to this morning on my twitter feed: What I am hearing are the sounds of yet another meaningless pissing contest–Game scene politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low. My understanding is we’re arguing about people arguing about whether or not they’re #alt enough, about the money that you can or can not make in #altgames, about who has the right to use the term. To take a cue from Orange is the New Black, we’re trying to strangle people so we can sell mascara in prison.

I’m thirty two fucking years old and I could not find this funnier. Over the past few years  I’ve meditated a lot, smoked a lot of grass, gotten a prescription for antidepressants, dropped acid and yelled at my reflection in the mirror, made some new friends–it’s been a lot of work to get even this much perspective, and I still find it remarkable how awful I feel when I think about stuff like GDC or whatever. I don’t have it in me to do the con circuit, I don’t even want to do it, if being a game developer means doing that shit all the time then I’m taking my ball and I’m going home.

Here’s the secret: Everybody feels left out. Nobody is happy. I’m friends with a bunch of people at different levels of success, guys making Twines in their bedrooms, people whose games have won awards–and they’re all lonely. Maybe it’s inherent to the game developer experience. There’s an alienation to developers that a lot of musicians have too–that most artists have. You don’t get good at playing guitar unless you spend a lot of time practicing. Hell, if I had been the type of person who wanted to go to parties and who got invited to them, I wouldn’t have had the time to learn to play. If you love games enough that you want to make them–and that your games are idiosyncratic and niche–then it’s not unlikely that you spend a lot of time alone, playing or writing. That’s what I do.

There was a bunch of all of that going around when I did the Fear of Twine exhibition–an element of I’m gonna throw my own party and it’ll have better music and a dog. I’m a little heartbroken at everyone who feels left out of the indie scene, of #altgames, of Twine, and I see how upset everyone is that the indie scene, that #altgames, that Twine completely ignores them.

So the only way I can think of to clean up my street corner is to basically open up my house and pray no one breaks my TV or anything. I’ve got this Fear of Twine name and I want to do something with it. I want to see if I can turn Fear of Twine into that loose collective in a way which is inclusive. I think there could be some basic guidelines about how to credit things and stuff like that, but beyond that, if you want to declare your game as a Fear of Twine game, you can.

In terms of intent, I’d like this to be a club in which membership is entirely self-determined. I don’t want people to be arguing over whether someone’s game is FoTty enough or whether they’re really a member–fuck that. I want this to be something that you almost agree to a certain behavioral standard–in other words, if another Fear of Twine member gives you the secret handshake, you’re friends.

This is, of course, utterly impossible, and is either going to fail from not enough people being interested or from too many people doing it and this going the way of all groups–as Carlin says, after a while groups of people formed around a common purpose start to get these nifty hats and armbands. I reserve the right to shut this down when it gets to the armband phase. It’s an experiment.

What I’m thinking in terms of guidelines are something like this:

–It’ll have to be in Twine. Naturally. Whatever that means is up to you, I don’t care about version or genre or anything, but it’s just got to have been created with Twine at some point and running in an .html file at the end.

–I’d like to restrict this to unreleased works, just because that makes more sense to me logistically; if you’re expanding or rereleasing something, we can talk.

Now I will be making an exception for Zest, since that was released under the name. I’m going back and forth about whether I want to include the games from the FoT exhibition or keep that as a separate thing; I might also want to talk to Blurt and lectro and see if they want to include some of their stuff…I guess basically I’m saying that initially there will be some exceptions to this rule–I’d like to start with a few works in the catalog so it doesn’t look empty, frankly–but it’s my house and I’m allowed to do that and you probably won’t be one of them. We can still be friends.

–If you want to put a game under the name, drop me an email. I’ll be putting up a main page on fearoftwine.com that’ll list all the games, maybe give them a catalog number so it’ll seem fancy, maybe put up a description, I’m a little fuzzy on this right now but I’ll come up with some general info.

–I don’t want to host anything but I’ll link to it. Drop me a line if you change where it’s being hosted.

–I don’t care if this is something you’re releasing for free in a Dropbox link or if it’s something you’re selling on Itch. I will, of course, not take any money you make.

–I’ll work on the language, but there will be need to be something along the lines of “Fear of Twine presents…” or “by Fear of Twine” on the title page or first screen, and authors credited separately. I would like there to be an About page with a link to the fearoftwine.com site, but this is all boilerplate that we can figure out later.

–If you’re a Tweeter, I’d probably like you to use the #FoT hashtag as much as humanly possible.

–I’m serious about the secret handshake, though. I know a lot of people on Twitter and in the community feel very–uncomfortable around strangers, let’s say. People worry about randos in their mentions, people worry they’re not good enough to talk to other people–it’s stupid and understandable. So I guess I’m gonna be open to anyone who approaches me, and I want it to really feel like if you’ve got a game in Fear of Twine, that you can talk to anyone else who does. Maybe it’s as simple as “you both know me, now play nice”. Consider it a letter of introduction.

–I’m not going to be curating this in any way beyond updating the list. I don’t want to be in the business of deciding what does and does not belong on the list. Listen: If you’re sending something in, make it a serious entry, don’t be an asshole or an idiot, just be an adult. You know how you’re supposed to act and so do I. So let’s act like that, I guess.

–Showing a version of this to a couple people, the idea of a forum was floated around, as well as some kind of moderation.

Like I said, I don’t want to be in the business of gatekeeping, but at the same time I can totally get that we don’t want troll entries (at the same time as I realize that the concept of a “troll entry” is a nebulous term and that while I think there’s a sniff test for them, I’m not sure if that’s enough). I know I full stop don’t want to do something like “well we can have the members vote on it!” because, well, you know, and I *really* don’t want to do something like finding a subsection of people to make these decisions, because that’s falling headfirst into the problems we’re trying to avoid. Any thoughts?

A forum will be easier–if there’s enough interest, I’d be happy to look into one. There’s a few options: We could do an entirely private forum limited to people who have Twines in the collection; we could do one limiting FoT people to post but which is open for people to read; we could have a completely public forum, a public forum with a FoT section–there’s basically a lot of options; either way I would probably assume this would be something for the future–nothing worse than a forum no one posts in–but it’s something I want to keep in the back burner.

 

That’s basically where my head is at on this. Don’t take any of this as set in stone or anything, but is this the kind of thing any of you readers would be interested in? Do you have any ideas, or spot any potential problems I can’t?