2021.

Note: This is a really long round up, just so you’re aware.

This year I decided to go with a theme on what games I will be playing from the backlog, and it was Assassin’s Creed. I’m not sure why I chose Assassin’s Creed because if you know me you know I am usually peeved with Ubisoft’s cookie cutter design. And of course, their little thing in the beginning that says their team is “diverse” seems like a cheap way to try not to take responsibility of the problems that are still going on over there.

Regardless of all that, the journey through all the main Assassin’s Creeds games was an interesting one, because I get to see what they improved on, as well as what they didn’t really learn from. Currently, the latest one I have completed is Assassin’s Creed Unity.

The Lows of Assassin’s Creed

One of the low points is something that I’m sure all Assassin’s Creed players know about, climbing, I am lucky in the reasoning that I am playing these games after many glitches have been fixed, so climbing was relatively unglitched, but the system of climbing itself is really frustrating. Always jumping where I don’t want to, or being unable to grab that darn ledge diagonally even though it is RIGHT THERE. Randomly climbing when I did not intend to do so, especially while I’m chasing someone or in the middle of a fight. Those kinds of things were quite irritating. This frustration was slightly ameliorated by the changed climb up or down prompts introduced in Unity.

Another bad thing is stealth. Ironically, this is a huge thing for Assassin’s Creed, but I mean the stealth play after you have been found. Good stealth games provide enjoyable gameplay after you’ve been spotted or recognized. Either that, or they might as well just straightway cut you off from the mission. This is not really something that Assassin’s Creed handles well (so far). Too many times if I get spotted, I can still go on, but instead of some cool escape, I am sent dozens of guards that overwhelm and I can only watch myself be slain. I can run and hide of course, but the climbing system frequently gets in the way a great escape. While there have been times that I was able to make a dazzling escape with my tools and climbing, they are far exceeded by the times I’ve been foiled by unwanted jumps, falls, or unusually sharp AI. I definitely make my own mistakes and they can be the reason for my demise, but it should be pretty obvious when I want to grab a ledge to my side, I want the ledge to my side, not the one below. I know you can grab it, Ezio, and that’s what makes it really frustrating.

Ubisoft tends to do this typical thing where they tell you to do something, and sometimes when you do it, you fail. If you display yourself as an open world, the player should be able to expect to make their own way around things. Another unfortunate happening is trying to do those things, and…being told you’ve failed. Chasing enemies, but not being able to cut them off by taking shortcuts in the open world city that you’ve become accustomed to because you know it better now, and then being desynchronized, which is pretty much failing the mission in the series, is not a very pretty thing to see all the time. (That…was a sentence.) It is common in Ubisoft open world games to fail because you’re trying to be creative in it and it is still a thing in Assassin’s Creed. Some of the newer Far Cry games are bit better at this though, but there are some definite and unique problems for those as well.

The friggin’ unconventional storyline. It’s possible to have a good, unconventional story, but I’ve found it to be way more bothersome here than needed. It was alright in the beginning, but it got more and more convoluted and flipped inside out on itself. It could’ve been a simpler thing about an eternal war between Templars and Assassins, but they bring up this semi-futuristic world and how it connects with that war and it gets so out of hand. The story about Templars vs. Assassins itself is quite alright, it’s just the weird disconnection every time you are removed from that that doesn’t feel okay. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, they kind of get out of your hair mostly in that, so that was nice.

“True ending” if you spend 1,000 of your life’s hours. These should not be a thing. There can be true endings by choosing different choices, but don’t make a true ending because you didn’t collect every speck of your parent’s dead ashes.

Menus in menus in menus. Map icons. Reward-based collectathons. Everywhere.

The Highs of Assassin’s Creed

Okay, let’s talk about the good stuff. Climbing. BUT ELISE– I know. I know what I said. I’m saying climbing again here because I think it’s rather impressive that they’ve been able to make a system that allows you to climb on pretty much every single ledge in the game. Even though it can be pretty wonky at times, we weren’t able to have something this versatile until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m sure a random reader could point out another as well, but they’re still pretty scarce. So, I still commend them on this.

Your tools and abilities are pretty fun. I like using firecracker distractions and smoke bombs. All the classic sneaky stuff all play out pretty well. Ranged weapons are mostly okay. Most of them are super satisfying, but they’re fairly limited because we should be using melee like an honorary assassin. (I mean, it’s not really like that, but still.)

I do like being able to visit different time periods and locations. If you’re like me, history becomes very muddled about 100 AD to 1800 AD. Playing through all the different times in between those two ages helped me learn a lot. I know some of the stuff is in just for gameplay or aesthetics, but it also raised interest in those time periods for researching myself: something that is highly valued here at Game Praisers.

Ship sailing. There are only two Assassin’s Creed games that have won any sort of personal awards for me. The first Assassin’s Creed earned an Honorable Mention because of it’s breakthrough and impact it made. The second Honorable Mention is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The ship sailing gameplay is actually really fun. It was quite refreshing to go through and sometimes that’s all I really wanted to do. This makes sense, as Ubisoft is supposedly also making Skull & Bones, which is Assassin’s Creed but mostly, if not all, sailing. I mean, if they ever finish that. Assassin’s Creed Rogue also was a sailing game in a similar vein, but I liked Black Flag more overall concerning story and characters. Also, by the time I finished Rogue I was pretty seasick. Still fun though.

In conclusion, this journey has been great to see how a company has and has not changed over time, and I think there is value in being able to see that. However, I would not personally recommend doing this unless you actually, really, really want to do this. I like doing stuff like this, and I would not want anyone to do this out of obligation or anything. I will continue my journey through Assassin’s Creed next year simply because I tend not to quit on my plans.


But that’s not all I played this year. I played filler games to make sure I didn’t die of monotony.

Time for the list of games that deserve mention, in order of when I completed them.

Crysis: Warhead and Crysis 2

More Crysis! These two games were really enjoyable, but I really loved Crysis: Warhead because it was literally more of the first game. The new weapons introduced were really fun. Crysis 2 was also pretty good, but it for all the changes it made, it didn’t feel super amazing. It’s still a good game though that is fun. Crysis: Warhead earns an Honorable Mention.

Yoshi’s New Island

The underrated Yoshi game. I love the visuals, but I can understand where the low ratings are coming from. It all feels very simple, but what I love is that it still carries the Yoshi’s Island feeling from the SNES. This game earns an Honorable Mention. Admittedly it’s because of more of an emotional thing.

Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2

It took me this long to get to Halo. This is what happens when you like too wide of a net of things in life. Both of these games get an Honorable Mention. The first game gets it because of the cultural wave it brought with it. I remember people downloading the demo on school computers and playing them secretly, or even not secretly with the teachers. Honestly though, it doesn’t hold up well, especially the campaign.

Halo 2 was where multiplayer got really crazy and I remember all those LAN parties. Oof. That was insane, but the campaign is much better and more interesting. It feels more than a thing attached because they wanted a platform for multiplayer. This game gets the Honorable Mention also because it’s better overall as a game, not just emotinally.

Celeste 2 and RAYKA

Two really tiny games that came out this year. Both of them great in their concepts. Celeste 2 is a mini Celeste game just like the original started. Who knows…maybe something will come of this. Just kidding, I think they’re working on other stuff right now. But just as enjoyable as the other Celeste games. RAYKA is one of those concepts that only work because it’s a small studio and has very little red tape in the way. It’s a first person shooter that kind of reminds me of Game Boy Advance style FPS games. However, there’s not too much I should give away because that’s part of the fun of it.

You can play Celeste 2 here and RAYKA here. UNFORTUNATELY, because of something…in the game, there are spoilers for all the fun right at the page for RAYKA. But… ..oh well. They both receive Honorable Mentions, but nothing more because, like a certain frog, they’re too darn short.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

…I already wrote an entire article about it. It’s a lot to explain, but in the end, great game. Not overrated. Some games deserve the praise and this is one of them. This game made the 12 Bests list and is currently #89 on the ULTRA.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I have a fear of finishing series. If I get to the last one I have, or that is released, I hesitate to play them. But I finally got off my butt and played the last Deus Ex game that is available at the moment. This is the Game of the Year for me. I feel like it improved nearly everything that needed to be improved. Just when it felt like it might get tedious, it moved on. Great pacing, atmosphere, everything. Also Adam’s voice is still so great. The small, but hand-crafted and concentrated, open world feels really great and not too overwhelming. This game now sits at #5 on the ULTRA. Also…finally a Deus Ex game I feel like is better than the very first one in the series, nostalgia goggles and all.

Mortal Kombat X

A fighting game that doesn’t beat me to death on “medium” difficult. But enough to have fun and get better at. This is such a good game and I can see why people loved it when it came out. This is especially significant after Mortal Kombat (2011). This game is #169 on the ULTRA.

Quantum Break and Control

These games. I love them so much. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve been following Remedy since Max Payne now and I’ve seen their growth. I love the cinematic feel in Quantum Break. I love the Shawn Ashmore and the other actors. This is one of the few pieces of media that I think handles time travel really well. In fact, I use this game as an example of an ideal time travel design for story. This is #81 on the ULTRA.

Control. I am so biased. I can’t rate this game properly. I started playing this game during a difficult time in my life and it helped me a lot. I love the environment style and the lore. I melt at everything in this. The only thing that got to me is the Alerts. I thought there were like, side quests, but they’re just extra stuff to do if you want to kill things for rewards. So I got overwhelmed by them until I realized they weren’t side quests. The shooting feels great, movement feels great, characters super awesome. I sound like a kid. I’d go into more depth with these games that are on the ULTRA, but they deserve an article themselves, so I won’t go any further. Control is #6 on the ULTRA. I know the ULTRA is supposed to include emotional bias, but Deus Ex still comes out on top.

Hyper Light Drifter

This game is so cute, especially because it does the ol’ show, don’t tell. For the entire game. I absolutely enjoyed learning to navigate a dangerous and relentless world that is so beautifully designed. I found it a little difficult to be motivated to get all the secrets, but there are many and I think it’s cool that they are there. What really drove me to play this game a lot was the boss fights. I loved them so much. They were so much fun and really well designed. #168 on the ULTRA.

Risk of Rain 2

Risk of Rain, but it’s 3D. That’s…that’s literally it. #160 on the ULTRA. Still has that same, “It’s time for you to get owned and die in 0.5 seconds.” kind of thing. Still has that same fun too though.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

It’s rare to have a unique open world take, and this game is one of those. I really like the characters and the monster designs. Hunting feels great. It still has some older style open world designs where you’re chasing icons, but I am really overwhelmed by how well they implemented and handled this post-apocalyptic robot arc. #79 on the ULTRA.

Fallout: New Vegas

More Fallout. People say it’s so different from Fallout 3, but if we are to be honest with ourselves, it’s not. It’s more of the same gameplay wise. Story-wise it’s pretty stretched like the old cRPG days, and I think that is something people LOVE. And it’s definitely a good thing too. I think it does indeed improve on all things of its predecessor and deserves all that love the fans give it. However… it is so. insanely. GLITCHY. I’ve played glitchy Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, but nothing as bad as this. I don’t play with mods because it is the developer’s responsibility, not the fans, to fix all this stuff. The fans do great things for games like this, but really, the developer needs to be responsible. Save losses, game crashes, load glitches, movement glitches, all amounted to a game I could only put on Honorable Mentions because it is just that frustrating. The players should not have to suffer such annoyances that debilitate such a great game.

But in the end I will still respect that gameplay and recommend to anyone who loves these kinds of open world games.


There were a few other games that I played that did not earn any awards at all, most of them consisting of Assassin’s Creed. But…that was the year’s round up. I finished a good amount of games this year because I was a little more motivated. And of course, I am still playing Genshin Impact, because I love that game to death. Ironically, or perhaps unironically, it brought out both the best and the ugliest side of gamers the world has to see. I’ve seen such great support, and such great racism and colonist behavior, but in the end, it’s been great.

Was 2021 good? Does it deserve and Honorable Mention?

No. It is you who deserves it. You made it through this ridiculous year. I seriously can’t believe we had to go through another year of this, and it will likely last until at least 2023. In fact, you deserve to be on the top 12 for surviving this darn stuff. As gamers we have been through a lot, but even after all the hate and stuff, I commend the community for being decent during this difficult time and understanding how difficult it is to live life and make games during this time. Perhaps it’s because we’re all suffering and not just the developers that brings about this sympathy (or empathy) in the community. Although things seem frightening for game developers at this time, I feel like there is a lot more support for better work environments for women and minority groups in all of the industry.

Regardless, you did it, player! I hope you were able to enjoy a good amount of gaming this year and wish you fortune and good luck next year. Whatever your endeavors may be, even if they’re not gaming related, I hope you have the strength to carry on.

Elise

Committing to Never

Designing and playing games that don’t end

There are a lot of reasons why we play video games.  And for a good amount of us, and I can definitely say for myself, we play for the story.

So what about those people still playing after the story?

The design of games that don’t end have been there since the very beginning.  It’s certainly not as common anymore, but remember high scores?  Arcade games carry this in nearly all genres.  If we look back with the games we have now, they don’t even seem necessary.  We see this in top down shooters like Space Invaders, platformers like Donkey Kong, and even fighting games like Street Fighter.  As I have said, these are all arcade games, which means playing them for longer periods of time means more coins out of your pocket.  So of course they want you to be ambitious.  However, this kind of thing continued on even when arcade cabinets were no longer your main source of gaming.

Super Mario Bros., a game that was beloved by many people in their homes, still has a high score counter.  In fact, people use the high score things for other meta-competitions as well.  We have people winning the game with the fastest speed, but lowest score possible.  You can actually watch some of those speedruns online.  They are fantastic and awe-inspiring.  But, Super Mario Bros. hair-thin story does end.  The challenges eventually do cease.  And these kinds of things are normal for all these story games.  And yet, people keep playing.

Around the time when less arcade-y games removed their scores, ew kinds of designs started popping up where there was no end.  These can go from optional multiplayer games like Diablo and Genshin Impact, or we can go with MMOs like Lineage, Maplestory, Guild Wars, all those other MMOs we see online.  Then there’s also games made for multiplayer like Battlefield and new genres like battle royales and MOBAs like PUBG and DoTA 2 respectively. 

What is driving these games to exist forever?  And…why do we keep playing them?

Where is the fun?  

Never ending games exist solely because of where the fun comes from.  If a game’s fun is the story, it ends where the story ends.  We already talked about arcade games and them siphoning money out of you, so let’s start with games like Super Mario Bros. where the ending is meant to be exactly that, the ending. 

People create their own games with the games.  I’m talking about the speedrunners and the meta-competition.  I remember playing Super Mario Bros. where the main goal was to not kill any enemies, making some platforming elements rather difficult.  

I think a great example of this is GiantGrantGames on Youtube where he played Starcraft II and he had to play through the story without losing a single unit.  I’ve had times playing critically failed games and we set our own rules to laugh and joke throughout the whole thing, even if the controls were terrible.  Ultimately for these situations, we are the ones creating the game and we are the ones creating the fun.  That was where the reward, the fun, was.

Some games keep us having fun by having solid gameplay.  I replay Mario games because the platforming is so solid.  I keep playing Genshin Impact because the fighting gameplay is very enjoyable, even if I’m just fighting a similar group of Hilichurls for my dailies.  A lot of people play battle royale games or shooter games like Battlefield over and over again because each bit of adrenaline rush is what they’re chasing.  It’s all about that energy and (hopefully) fun.

Many MMO games like The Division series or the Destiny series have reward-based fun.  The gameplay can be great, but the goal that is frankly placed by the developers is that you need item X.  You need that next thing.  You need that next skin/cosmetic.  While this is okay, it walks dangerously close to negative game design.  If we’re only playing for the final reward, it is easy for the game to feel like a chore.  

These kinds of items are usually dropped from events or other time-limited situations.  It’s about chasing that next thing, but if the gameplay or the story within is not enough the game can end up being unfun.  And who wants to play something unfun? 

I think it’s a mistake to believe that the endgame is the only thing that matters with games like these.  Both the main game and the endgame have their strengths to keep them entertaining, but it’s all about how they are implemented.  Genshin Impact’s events usually have great rewards, but there is usually some overarching story as well, so it’s not just mindlessly killing mobs.  While I am not a professional game designer by any means, I believe there to be a solution to making things like the endgame more fun. 

Not surprisingly, most of it can be solved by having the gameplay itself be fun, so when there are new things to be done, new goals to be reached, it is still fun to play.

There are, even still, outliers that continually bring people back to certain games: the prestige of holding your rank, or if you’re like me, forgetting some of the story and you simply want to enjoy it again.  There are also things that can be predatory things like daily quests that make you feel like you missed out if you’re not coming back.  Ironically, I could point that finger back at Genshin Impact again even though I previously praised that.  But that’s just the thing, isn’t it?  For me, it is not a problem, but for others, that is definitely a negative.  

So after all this, the meta-games, the competition, the stories, the gameplay, the reward-based goals, the ranks.  After all these things, which of them brings the fun for you?  That’s what matters.  I’m not trying to play the “everyone’s a winner” kind of play here, but I’m asking the question of how can we enter, or even create, an environment that helps us have fun?  I think some developers do this in earnest and truly try to create good, infinitely fun environments, while others are there just for your money (or that could be a corporate thing, it depends).  

I know I’m always doing this kind of thing where I put the responsibility on our, the gamers, shoulders.  But…where is the fun for you?  Find that out, and then use that time to enjoy it.  Don’t feel guilty about it.  Don’t go back to the game that isn’t fun for you.  Don’t let that sunk-cost fallacy catch you.  

Let your voice be heard by having fun, because remember, we’re committing to never having an end.

Unfortunate Hiatus

You’ve probably noticed I’ve been posting few and far between my posts.

I have run into some unfortunate circumstances that have rendered me less able to post very much at all. If it were up to me, I would continue this as much as I can, but I just would like to make it officially known that there will be some sort of hiatus going on for the foreseeable future. This website should remain up until at least the end of the year, should you be interested in perusing the previous articles.

It is still possible that I will post new articles, but I cannot guarantee it. Should these circumstances change and I am able to I will return, but otherwise I am stuck a difficult situation.

Thank you for your patience and time. I hope to see you again.

Elise

Why I Love: Dark Souls

Death and Conflict

For clarity, I played Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, not the Remaster.

Dark Souls.  What a troubled game.  Remember when I talked about that toxic culture in the article Why I Love: Celeste?  Well, I’m not going to talk about that here.  We get it.  

Dark Souls is an action RPG with paced combat.  The absolutely fantastic artistic direction makes this fantasy game very beautiful and interesting.  It is brutally difficult and challenging.  Wait, did I say brutally difficult?  I meant, it’s brutally different.

I played through so much frustration thinking to myself, “I just need to get good.  I just need to practice.  Everyone says this game is so hard so I just gotta train myself to be more skilled.” 

After a series of frustrating boss fights, I told a friend, who is really into Dark Souls, “This game is just stressful and frustrating.  There is a limit to certain design elements that just make it seem lazy.” 

And he replied by saying, “ No, it’s just eccentric.”

I continued my argument of game design, but I also continued to give his side more thought.  And then after more frustrating failures against the enemies of Dark Souls, it finally dawned on me.  Earlier in the game my friend said that I just wasn’t good enough.  Which was not very nice of him to say, but now he said something different that was the solution to everything.  The game isn’t hard.  It’s just different.

And then everything clicked.  The game isn’t difficult.  It’s just different.  Here I was floundering about for hours without end because all I was trying to do was get better, when in reality I was supposed to just learn how to play differently.  Dark Souls went from “the thing I’m trying to enjoy” to “the thing I am enjoying a lot.”

I think the whole idea of this game being super insanely difficult really dug into my mind and misguided me. Dark Souls is hard, yes, but I think one of the things that could be more important against certain aspects of the game is that sometimes it’s more about how you go about doing things, rather than how good you play.  It’s more about thinking of different ways, than being more skilled.  I rooted out the idea of not being good enough, and replaced it with, when, what, and how should I do anything.  Or…if I should anything at all.  If I should just watch and think.  I think the problem is that I was so used to just getting better and better at doing the main thing in a game, like jumping, aiming and shooting, using combos and elements, or building in better patterns.  So while skill is important in Dark Souls I think there is a process of interpretation that is just as important.  

Dark Souls’ main game mechanic is that when you die you leave behind your souls, which acts as both experience and currency.  If you don’t spend your souls on stat points or items in stores, you are prone to dropping them upon death.  After you respawn, you must go and grab your souls.  However, all the enemies respawn, and should you die again, that old pile of souls despawn to make way for your new corpse’s souls.  

I played through the game with a broken controller, and which button was the broken one?  Ah yes…  the block button.  So I was extremely frustrated playing as a melee character.  The block button only worked some of the time, and “sometimes” is not a good way to go about blocking.

I struggled a lot in the beginning.  I didn’t know my block button was broken yet.  I thought it was me being terrible, but once I realized that I found out how to rely on the times when the button did work.  I did this by holding down the block button when it worked so I don’t have to risk pressing it again only to not raise up my shield.  And if my shield was down, staying out of combat until the time when pressing it did work.  A bit dreadful.

And the second thing is time.  I hate wasting time.  I don’t like sleeping.  I don’t like taking breaks.  And I especially do not like my souls going down the drain after killing a boss.  See, in games like rogue-lites and other RPGs your exp and new unlocks/equipment are always a little step forward after you die.  Even if you die, the time spent is usually accounted for by loot or some exp leftover after an exp loss.  Or maybe you unlocked a new item.  But in Dark Souls…they dump your time into the abyss.  And that makes me really upset. 

Until.  Until I realized that is exactly what Super Mario Bros did to me as a wee child.  Because in old Super Mario Bros and in Dark Souls, sometimes the only thing you have after your death is the skill you gained in playing and nothing else.  Personally, I think this was the biggest thing to overcome for me in my entire playthrough.  It was understanding how to not be frustrated with myself.  This is something that I have trouble with all the time in real life.  If I am not showing progress, I get really upset and sad (or angry).  But Dark Souls is like any other game concerning how it handles your time.  And if you’re not looking at the right way to go about things, whether it’s getting more skilled, being patient with yourself or the game, or learning how to interpret the game, I think it can be pretty frustrating.

Someone else questioned me about why I was trying to play a game that made me so angry in the first half when I was not enjoying it.  And honestly, the thing that kept me going, were the boss designs.  Wow. Most, if not all, of the boss designs are just so good.  From an art standpoint, they’re designed so well.  It gives me goosebumps.  They’re innovative, yet clear.  They’re themed and emotional.  So, that’s what pushed me.  I just really wanted to see these things and fight them.  In the half of the game where I learned to enjoy it, it became a joyful experience to have a new enemy to learn to understand. 

I guess this can feel like an enormously large and vague explanation of why I love Dark Souls, but it all ends well I believe.  I think the whole game is an unconventional way of allowing the player to interpret how to approach enemies without having systemic game design like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Dishonored.  And I honestly really like it.  The semi-open world feel fits well too.  I think it takes the idea of “every enemy is different” from games like The Legend of Zelda series far enough to make you have to work hard for it.  To die for it in many cases.

And so that kind of leads to my last points.  I’d like to make a statement about “souls-likes”.  I hate when people develop a game just for it’s difficulty, because it creates a very toxic environment.  There have been a plethora of souls-like games that try to copy the formula and many of them do not do it well.  I think they put too much focus on the game being hard or having slow and/or paced combat.  I really don’t think those are the things that make a souls-like game.  I think the souls system makes a souls-like.  I don’t think any of the previously mentioned aspects are without purpose in Dark Souls.  The game is difficult, but in a way of design and approach.  The game is slow and paced, but in a way of allowing you to observe, think, and react.  And the souls system backs up the paced combat, forcing you to do those aforementioned things because your experience is on the line.  

And…. maybe that’s just it.  It doesn’t do things “just because.”  It’s different for the sake of game design, and not just for being different.  Dark Souls is so great because it is so deliberate.  And the way it’s designed makes it so we have to be deliberate in everything that we do in the game.  That kind of design is what makes some of the hardest games I’ve played challenging, and not frustrating.  And Dark Souls has managed that in possibly one of the best ways I’ve ever seen.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is #82 on the Ultimate Loosely Thought Ranked Analysis, or the ULTRA, which is basically my top games list.  I guess at this point is getting less and less loosely thought.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that Dark Souls doesn’t turn out to be a toxic or super frustrating experience for you if you play it. As much as I am not wont to say it, take breaks if you need to.

Blast that broken block button though.
– Elise

Why I Love: Celeste

Humble Beginnings, Humble Endings

My Introduction to Indie and Thanks to Maddy Thorson

Sorry for the hiatus.  I had an unfortunate episode with something, but now I am back and hopefully that doesn’t happen again.

The origins for me loving Celeste go all the way back to when I was young and indie games were a super niche thing.  My family didn’t have a lot of money, so games were a special occasion.  However, I began to wander the internets for more games that I could get for free and stumbled upon indie games.  The ones that really stuck to me were a group of developers that seemed to be connected.  A lot of them proved to be so in a website that, unfortunately, no longer operates today: the eo community.  Then from there my interest in indie skyrocketed.

One game I obsessed over was released a couple months before I got into all of it: Jumper 2.  I was tired of the glitchy platformers that inhabited many indie websites, but when I found Jumper I was so excited because platformer games were the thing back then.  The graphics were great and the game wasn’t glitchy.  The main character is a failed experiment named Ogmo, who looks like a red block with legs.  Ogmo is adorable and I love him so much. I bet I can find sketches of him in the margins of old school notebooks if I somehow have not thrown them away yet.

And that was it.  I was sucked into the world of indie games.  I made levels in the editor all the time.  I wasn’t super good at platformers, but I think I managed to make it an okay distance through the game while not being pro.  I have followed Maddy Thorson’s career ever since.  I even got my friends to play Jumper: Redux on LAN.   I’ve seen how Thorson grew over time in their designs and it has been an incredible journey.

And then Celeste was released and it took me a long while to play that one.  I was bogged down in everything in life.   Eventually Celeste was being given for free on Epic Games Store.  It brought a renewal of attention, so I decided I would finally play it.  I am immensely grateful for this game.

Why I Love Celeste

Celeste is not an easy game, and it is not a hard game either.  In fact, I don’t know what to say about difficulty in Celeste.  For me, the difficulty curve is the prime example of well done difficulty curves.  And yet, I can say that it was not easy.  

Good video game design usually involves teaching the player without having them read blocks of texts or having them look at a video.  But I would like to propose the idea that Celeste takes good design one step further than pretty much any other game I’ve ever played so far.  The game is humble.  This is not because the game is modest in content or gameplay or anything.  The movement designed in the game is insanely well done.  No, this game is humble because it feels more like a teacher and it feels more like a human, than any game that attempted psychological strategies (or even tricks in the case of some horror games) that I’ve ever played.

Celeste already does the established good designs with good level layouts and quick respawn with little consequence.  Through the game’s story and mood, the game helps you with one more thing that so few games do: it wants you to improve and it makes that clear.  I’ve recently finished Dark Souls 1, and while the game has many good designs in it, the whole attitude and system it has encourages a strong culture of gatekeeping, which is a definite no-no.  There’s always the “You’re Not Good Enough, Scrub” attitude.  I said that it encourages, not creates.  While the culture definitely surrounds it, and I found friends whom I didn’t expect to be enveloped in it too, it does not create it.  Because of the universal struggle in the game, there have been good experiences with other players as well.  But I just can’t say that the culture of the game is good.  It unfortunately, just isn’t.  It wasn’t a good experience, but I’ll talk more about Dark Souls in its own “Why I Love.”  (So at least I still love it.)

Celeste successfully brings difficulty without that kind of attitude.  It shows its tough side with extra objectives and B-Sides to stages for those who want to push themselves to breaking limits, but it does all this with the note saying “You can do it,” or “If you want to.”  I don’t feel like this aspect is “weak” in any way.  In fact, I think it shows that it knows the player, or rather I should say, the person.  

The best professionals and inspirational people in my life are always the humble ones.  The ones that made it through without becoming hardened.  The ones that chose to stay soft so that they can truly uplift.  It is never the easier choice.  These are the kinds of people that when they teach, they teach with heart because they still choose to remember what it was like to struggle not only with the limited skill set of someone just beginning, but also the limited knowledge as well.  

The honor of their prestige is based on being able to share their experiences rather than boast about how others cannot get them.  I think this is what Celeste embodies, in both story and gameplay.  This is why I love Celeste.  The game is no slouch.  It will push you, but in a way that allows oneself to commit to learning and becoming better.  It teaches the player to push themselves more than the game pushes them.  That’s what I’m all about, I’m sure you know.  It is something that I hope that schools one day better integrate into their systems.  It is the optimistic hope that humans can be like that to help each other, because let’s face it, life is not easy alone.  

Celeste is #9 on the ULTRA.  Thanks for reading.  Stay safe out there.  I hope that we all can stay humble, remember to stay soft, and remember that it is not a weakness to help others.


– Elise

Unsurprise! Why I Hate People Who Spoil Things

And Not Really The Spoilers Themselves

Spoilers are not bad.  There is no “right” path to choosing when it comes to whether or not you want spoilers.  It is merely that someone chooses a path, and you respect that path.  

I am apparently one of those people in the world that don’t enjoy things well when things are spoiled.  According to studies it seems that most people do enjoy things well with them, but I can’t even count any games or films that I actually enjoyed when it was spoiled, even when critically and/or popularly acclaimed.  I don’t care if people want to spoil things for themselves, it’s whether or not they care about spoiling it for others.  It’s not so much a matter of entertainment for me, because it is something I can lose.  It is a matter of gauging people’s respect for others.  The only thing someone can lose for not telling a spoiler is the pride that someone can have of telling someone something they don’t know.  Which, frankly, is a very douchey reason to do it.  Most websites put pretty good spoiler tags, so if you spoil those for yourselves even when it’s obvious like that that’s your own fault.

So it’s mostly the same thing you can realize for how they react to other life decisions, and for this one, it’s really shopping cart-esque.  To put away the cart is of little effort, and there is no consequence for not doing it.   There really is very little loss in not spoiling something, and whether or not someone can hold their tongue in that aspect is quite a tell of someone’s respect.  Accidents happen of course, especially when vocally speaking, and that’s fine.  People make mistakes.

For me it all stems back to what the person is like towards me.  It’s so much more than just the game or the film.  And what worries me the most goes even further.  I am worried for the people who think that, at any level of anonymity, it won’t affect them.  But again, this is a matter of respect, and nobody lives in a vacuum. Sooner or later they will have to learn respect, and I just don’t want their experience to end up being worse than just words.

Leaks are a bit different.  Leaks are more like a surprise party.  I find it even more selfish in this situation than spoilers to give away leaks because the creators are withholding information for the sake of our enjoyment.  I just think, “We just wanted to make you happy,”  kind of thing is a sad expression to see broken.  I also don’t like leaks because they create an unwarranted and unexpected level of hype.  The audience may grow an expectation that is much higher than normal because usually only a little bit of information is let out and at too early a time.  Then they are disappointed when it was they themselves that set up the situation.  A good marketing team sets up times for announcements for a reason, and a lot of it is this.  You want a controlled situation when you show your product to the public.  You’re not being a superfan by sabotaging the creators.

So by all means, if you want to know the stories for yourselves, go ahead and look them up.  If you want to feel ahead, just do it.  Leaks can be illegal, so I would discourage that.  But don’t feel bad about spoiling things for yourself if you consent.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been gatekept out of a situation just because I am someone who doesn’t do well with spoilers.  Not because they can’t talk about it, but because I am both actively and passively removed from the group the same way some women won’t work in some places because the atmosphere is just too toxic.  I am always seen as a lesser person in this community because of this, and, let me tell you, as part of a minority group in real life I get enough of that.  So for goodness sake, all I want is some respect.  The fact that I have to actively ask for that in the entertainment community I exist in is such a low standard, and I care enough to actually vouch for it.

Elise

Why I Love: Alan Wake

Two Sides

I love Alan Wake, for the same reason a lot of people found it mediocre.  Alan Wake is a third-person action (shooter?) game.  Alan Wake, a writer of a thriller series, goes on vacation to a lake house, only to be haunted by shadowed entities that remind him of his own works.  He can expose and destroy these entities by shining a flashlight at them.  That’s mostly all you need to know about it for what I want to talk about today.  

It is a good game.  It is very crisp, and it feels like playing an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Were it not for good game design it probably wouldn’t be on the ULTRA.  But what I really like about this game is that it is truly a simple game about fighting the darkness, both outside and within.  

I don’t feel like Alan Wake is that psychological, but it’s what defeating darkness within sometimes feels like.  It feels helpless and frustrating (not game design-wise, just for Mr. Wake).  It feels like we’re in an episode of a TV show we can’t get out of.  Ultimately, it’s a fight of light and darkness.  We can also mean that literally because of his flashlight.

I remember when my brother and I were so excited for Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, and we were watching the trailer.  In the trailer Raynor says, “Because the one thing I know; some things are just worth fighting for.”  And I remember my brother saying something about how that is so, so cheesy.  I love cheesy things, and over time I’ve learned why I love cheesy things like that line or the fight between light and darkness.  I love cheesy things because they’re the most real, and Alan Wake emphasizes that in an age where we’re supposed to be so unique in themes.

The struggle against ourselves and knowing what is light in our lives is real.  That’s a real thing.  Knowing what you fight for?  That’s real.  “I’m doing this because I love you”?  I need that.  I wonder if the reason we don’t like cheesy things sometimes is because they remind us of what is real.  This is why I love Alan Wake.  We’re just some random person fighting to find their way out of the darkness. 

Isn’t that what most of us want to do?  We want to be a light to those around us.  We want to truly find light and what is good in all the travails of life and use it to banish the darkness.  When it comes to those that we love, isn’t that what we want to do for them?  It’s cheesy, but it’s true, and Alan Wake embraces it.  That is one of the big reasons why I love the game.

Alan Wake is #116 on the ULTRA.  I hope that we can all endeavor to be a light in the darkness especially during these strange times.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.
– Elise

Why I Love: Team Fortress 2

Less is More is Less

I said I would talk about some of the design side of video games.  I have been sitting on this idea for almost two weeks, because the more I think about it the more I realize this is such a big chunk of something that I do not believe I have the skill capacity to do so.  I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but even more so, it’s just so much.  

But I said I would.  It’s going to be watered down, but I’m going to do it.

Clarity is something the developers choose on whether or not it is an important factor.  It is not something that is required, but in many cases it is helpful or important to the game.  Fast arcade style FPS games are a good example of good clarity.  You want the brain to be spending as little time as possible understanding what you’re shooting at.  Team Fortress 2 is an excellent example of one of the most common forms of clarity in design, silhouettes.

Team Fortress 2 consists of 9 classes, each with very different functions and important approaches one must consider to remove or run from.  They’re all men, and most of these men are of similar body type.  These characters move through bright terrains and shadowed caverns, which means things like contrast, in color and line, are not always up for consideration.  Let’s take a look at Breath of the Wild.  

Just looking at the trailer, you can see how contrast is used.  Shrines stick out like a sore thumb because of their bright contrast with the desaturated landscape, towers break from the silhouetted forms of the hills, and enemies bring your eyes to them with their many tangenting and crossing forms of line.  The simplicity of other colors, brings your attention through complexity.  Line, value, and color contrast are all done in Breath of the Wild.  But color and value are diminished in an environment that can have the lights be on and off like Team Fortress 2.

And that’s where the strong silhouette design comes into play.  One of the reasons personality is such a strong concept to push for in Team Fortress 2 is because it shows in their demeanor, and that gives a perfect idea/excuse to change silhouettes.  The squat stance of the Scout makes him stand out.  His running animation has his legs swing wildly compared to other characters, which makes him even more obvious.  This is especially important as the Scout will almost always be moving when you see him.  The Medic’s trenchcoat sways in a shape that is not common with other characters.  Small things allow for extra clarity: the Soldier’s poofy clothes, the Pyro’s smooth suit, the mountain that is the Heavy, etc.

It really wouldn’t be so much of a complaint if we saw them all pretty similar.  There are plenty of games where realism is the focus, and clarity may be a matter of combat awareness.  But having the characters just different enough so you can tell from their shape helps in such a hectic environment. 

This is just one of the many things that Team Fortress 2 does so well in visual design that makes it stand out as a class based shooter.  Unfortunately, a lot of this deteriorates when everyone is wearing hats and holding different guns, but in return they (the guns at least) provide a different gameplay variety.

There is more to just these that make Team Fortress 2 a great design though, and there is definitely more that I would encourage you to check out from their developer commentary in game.  I choose Team Fortress 2 as a model multiplayer game, not because other games are bad design, but because Team Fortress 2’s designs are the most clear cut and obvious to a normal player that has no experience in design.  It is sometimes difficult to find out the why behind game designs, but Team Fortress 2 does an amazing job at that.

These kinds of things are also the reasons why “feedback” from players in a competitive environment is oftentimes more dangerous than helpful.  The spectrum of skill that spans the players always looks different when you’re supposedly very skilled, because developers don’t design only for the very skilled, and to encompass all of that without creating two separate games is just terribly inconvenient.  Team Fortress 2 takes in a lot of those variables and makes things like level design, gameplay mechanics, and art design work together as best as possible and makes a fairly balanced game within all of that.  Too many times I read of players who want something changed without considering all sides of the equation, which is to say programming, art, and balance at high levels, low levels, and those in between.  

There are SO many things that Team Fortress 2 does well in art design that involve the other elements, but I love that the silhouettes work so well when all other elements are absent.  So please check out the developer stuff to learn about those other things if you have the time.  The game is free to play and is available on Steam.

Team Fortress 2 is #105 on the ULTRA.  And it’s still a fun game to play now.  I really wish I could speak more in a better descriptive manner, but I’m just a normal person who plays a lot of games.  I just have a desire to talk about games.  I hope I can point you in a direction that helps you appreciate games, as that seems to be the best I can do for now.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.

Why I Love: DOOM

Not Just a Nostalgia Thing

The classic game DOOM is an obvious icon in video game history.  The series still lives on today with the newest release of DOOM Eternal.  But all the way back in 1993, this little thing came into the house through a set of floppy disks and introduced my family to first person shooters.

I admit there are some games on the ULTRA that, although good, have not aged very well.  They are upheld by my emotional values and experiences or their historical achievements.  But DOOM is still a strong contender even today.  The most common things that do not age well are graphics and movement processes, and DOOM still conquers both.

I used to say graphics are the least important part of judging a game, but I realize that the point isn’t being given clearly when I say it like that.  What I mean is, the generation of graphics is the least important part of judging a game.  Bad graphics can make a game less appealing, but good quality graphics at the time make them stand out more.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the graphics have to be insanely amazing, but rather that the graphics have to be good at conveying what they mean, and DOOM successfully does that.  It’s entirely clear what you’re shooting at, whether demon, barrel, or just a wall.  Just two or three years before DOOM, there were games where some of the sprites, I really have to use my imagination to understand what they are.  I will write an article on the design aspect of that next.  I feel like it is a concept that I only recently learned as an artist and I want others to be able to learn about that from a game design perspective.

But moving on from that, the character movement of DOOM is one of the things that makes DOOM such an easy game to play as of 2021.  DOOM is one of the first, if not the first, to set off on the arcade style FPS.  The time it takes for your character to go from standing still to top speed is very short, and that top speed is no slouch.  Reloads are minimal and, in this case, non-existent.  The movement is contemporary.  So many games don’t age well because things like movement are outdated.  Characters walk super slow (or can’t even run), dialogue is sluggish, or doing random tasks take five times longer than they do now, regardless of load times.  DOOM is smooth like butter compared to most games of its time.  It even outpaced its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D.

If you open up DOOM today, it feels like some indie FPS game.  Few things about it have really felt out of place.  Okay, so maybe the movement is a little bit slippery, but arcade shooters are still like that today.  I think it’s important to learn video game history, and DOOM is a fun way to learn what it was really like back in the days when it took several floppies just for DOOM to run, and then you realize it was a shareware copy all along.  But it didn’t matter, because back then we had a ton of shareware and it was pretty much like free games for a kid.  

So yeah, DOOM is still an amazing, relevant game, even though it’s super old.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
They also just updated the multiplayer in September last year.  Definitely still relevant.  DOOM still holds its place at #133 on the ULTRA.  …oh man, I am not going to get anywhere near the top at this rate.  Although I want to say, “Keep up the pace, Elise,” I also don’t want to write articles that are not as fun to talk about, so I am cherry picking a little more as we make our way to the top.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll see you next time~

Being an Active Audience

No Backseat Directing

I’ve talked about this before, but it’s something that I always feel so pushed to emphasize all the time.  This applies to books, movies, games, or really, almost any medium that delivers a story or rise in interaction.  

You’ve run into them before.  You know, the people who say they saw that plot twist coming, or the person who knew that character arc.  “Ah, this character is this trope again? I’m so bored of that trope!”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with understanding the workings behind how a story tells itself, a character arc has its growth, or a game design teaches you how to play.  In fact, these are all things I have had to study as I go along my gaming and art-ing life.  Recently, I read a post on social media platform X on how learning how to write books sometimes takes the fun out of reading books.  You know the designs and the elements.  You know the turns and the descriptions.  Sometimes, for worse and for better, you can see the mistakes.  “Oh, I used to do that too!”

So after all is said and learnt, are these things not fun anymore?  This is where I think there begins a need for effort on a player’s part.  An effort…to make less effort.  To let ourselves be tricked.  To let ourselves be gobsmacked.  The same way we let ourselves take the expected (and sometimes super unexpected) parts of children’s imaginations and go with it, especially if we’re the parents.  To act like a humble student and take it all in as if the world was filled with wonder again.

Sometimes plot holes exist.  Ahem, plot holes always exist, but perhaps, hopefully by an accidental existence, they are now there to be filled with our imagination.  I guess there are people who, when brought a movie, expect the films to do it all for them.  And the same way for books or games.  I suppose the perspective of what it means to be the audience differs from one person to another.  But, should you feel that you are not being satisfied because they’re too predictable, perhaps taking a step into letting ourselves be stunned again, is the step to take.  

Skeletonizing a game or a movie can also take the fun out of it, if you let it.  Stories and designs, when stripped of their emotional and cosmetic bearings become technical rigs and concepts, with little entertainment value.  These shells and skeletons have their functions, but if we rip everything off of it, how can we expect more?  I can’t help but feel like it’s a little pretentious when people start talking about how the story wasn’t enough to entertain them or how it was so predictable.  

In the end, it’s not really a wrong perspective.  I mean, without hindsight bias, if they really found out, then they really found out.  But, I don’t know.  Were they thinking about it the whole time or were they watching the movie?  I guess it’s easier in games ‘cause there’s a good amount of downtime in between plot points.  It just feels really weird that people are setting up their own roadblocks to getting entertained by what they want to be entertained by.  I guess the reason I argue for the other side is that this is Game Praisers.

That’s what we do.  We take whatever is good.  That doesn’t mean that we ignore the bad, but the more we appreciate what we can appreciate the less we act as if starving kings and queens who can only partake in the exquisite.  You can be ahead of the game, but you don’t have to be snooty.  Ultimately, it’s also one of my goals in life to just be more accepting and open-minded to what can be good.  To never forget that just because we eat better food now, doesn’t mean food in general is forgotten of what it provides.  Of course the top-notch games and films are what we’d like.  Of course we love the non-broken game design, but we never, ever forget humble beginnings and the child-like wonder that made video games so fascinating in the first place.

Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.
– Elise