Devil Daggers by Leo Powell

This article first appeared @ http://www.gamespew.com/2016/03/devil-daggers-review/

 

This was not life, and yet it was not death;
if thou hast wit to think how I might fare
bereft of both, let fancy aid thy faith.

Hell, Dante Alighieri (Canto XXXIV)

 

Devil Daggers is a demon spawn of the 90’s first person shooter Hexen, reborn as an even darker arena shooter. A simple, intense game that will either turn you away or – drag you in.

 

 

 

A little while ago, there was a huge graphical renaissance in game design, the ripples of which are still being felt now: pixel art. The retro throwback to the days of 8-bit graphics was a first a delightful shock, and then an eye rolling norm for countless indie games. This initial turn was analysed by Brett Camper in his essay that spoke of La Mulana, in which he makes the point that not all “retro” aesthetics are cynical or unthinking: “Retro media… is not that which innovates upon its direct parents, but rather those ancestors which are unequivocally outdated”.

Basically, the pixel art of La Mulana wasn’t retrograde, a back-step, but a reconfiguring of the old in our time. It was a “platform remediation”, which uncovered something in the old style that could work in the now.

 

"Devil Daggers excels in atmosphere, a lesson in “less is more” while capturing the frenetic violence of a horror-ridden, Doom-style hellscape."

 

I think the same could be said of Devil Daggers. You all feel it when you see it: that unique, long lost atmosphere of the 16-bit FPS. The effect is a mixing of the nostalgia of the old and the unique properties of its lineage.

And it’s all about atmosphere.

Devil Daggers excels in atmosphere, a lesson in “less is more” while capturing the frenetic violence of a horror-ridden, Doom-style hellscape. The arena plays like Asteroids or Robotron used to, and as an indie game you can appreciate that it falls on simple gameplay for its crutch. The gameplay is claustrophobic and heart-pounding, and it is the atmosphere that does most of the heavy lifting to support that. The sounds are crunchy and close, and the pixelation functions to blur the death­-creatures, making them more unknown and horrifying.

 

 

And honestly, the game deserves an award for its sound design. There is no music, but the sound cues are so important in the dark, that you realise just how lazy and unimportant sound design is in other games. It makes all other games boring to listen to by contrast ­ and again, we see how indie games can teach us not to take for granted the more basic elements of game design.

Even the lack of a story, and the ambiguity of the theme, is a strength. You don’t always need to tack on a theme or a plot to make sense of the gameplay. Devil Daggers is an example of how the lack of story actually helps the game function. The atmosphere is heightened, and true horror is invoked by the unknown. Why are you there? What is your goal? The lack of music means you have even less knowledge of that the feeling should be, and it’s left up to your imagination. The pixelation, the darkness, the lack of story, and the sounds all come together in this synthesis that hammers home a single point deftly: die endlessly in an arena of death, and die better every time.

 

“The pixelation, the darkness, the lack of story, and the sounds all come together in this synthesis that hammers home a single point deftly: die endlessly in an arena of death, and die better every time”

 

Blissfully, there are little non-diagetic elements to the game, but where present, they work. The inclusion of a global scoreboard and, amazingly, the ability to download and watch anyone’s best attempts are outstanding. It’s more “remediation”; the arcade scoreboard in our internet-enabled time is a fantastic and necessary addition. The ability to watch and analyse anyone’s game is crucial to getting better yourself.

However, the game presents me with a bit of a problem. Does the fact that I don’t want to play this game “constantly” undermine my love of it? 180 seconds feels like a lifetime, and it’s the best I can do (you might play five seconds and decide that you hate it). The fact that the top score in the world is 800 seconds should tell you something. I love Devil Daggers as an “object”, as a thing, an idea, and how it’s executed. However, I sort of want to appreciate it from afar – the value I get from it is partly through owning it, and dipping in and out. Perhaps you would say I’m a dilettante. Fickle. A poser even. But it highlights for me how complex our evaluation of games can be. I value it highly, but not because I think it’s great to play all the time. To play it constantly would indeed be hell.

 

 

Lastly, I think this game is worth our attention because it is an example of a genre of gaming largely gone unspoken, yet recently getting more and more popular: Masocore.  It sits among games like Flywrench or Super Meat Boy as “brief but brutal” in their design ethos. Perhaps this is a natural balance against the proliferation of long, story-focused games. Either way, I get the feeling that there is a fetishisation of this type of game, the coveting of the difficult and quick. If you are one of those fetishists (and you know who you are), then this is the game for you.

The rest can only sit back in horror, and watch on, gripped at the edge of their seats.

Or as Dante would say:

How cold I grew, how faint with fearfulness,
ask me not, reader; I shall not waste breath
Telling what words are powerless to express

80 Days by Leo Powell

This article originally appeared @ http://www.brashgames.co.uk/2016/01/20/80-days-review/

 

So many games promise adventure, but often provide nothing more than a lifeless sandbox, full of wooden characters and cartoon killing. Some games by contrast promise a story and meaningful characters, and leave you with a boring, linear mess. At a glance, 80 Days would seem to be a linear story that you click-through, like a ‘choose your own adventure’: but it’s so much more, and provides an adventure unlike any other game I’ve played in a long, long while.

 

"You must use trains, planes, automobiles, submersibles, rockets – or just about anything you can climb on."

 

You play Passepartout, the French man-servant of Phileas Fogg, an aloof English aristocrat, and your goal is to get him safely around the world in 80 days. You must use trains, planes, automobiles, submersibles, rockets – or just about anything you can climb on.

Akin to a board game, you must balance resources and decisions against the clock, weighing up whether it’s worth taking the train or the car, or exploring the city (and flirting with an airship engineer), or repacking your master’s bags to make him feel better. This feeling of pace is remarkably well done, and every second lands as hard as a bum on a locomotive’s bench. It really boils down the key issues that you face when going on long journeys: balancing your money, happiness, and time, leaving you exhausted and in need of a holiday, but satisfied at a job well done and a life well savoured.

 

 

The pace and game play is supported by a gripping use of music and sound, which captures a TinTin-esque sense of adventure mixed with lurking danger. It sweeps you away, swaddling you in a feeling of intrigue and motion, yet tempers itself by the bustle of a marketplace or the chatter of crickets at night.

The atmosphere is key here, and the game is worth playing for that reason alone. It will remind you in all the ways that big budget games fail in this regard. The stage is set for a great quest, and filled with excellent characters, all unique and interesting. That’s why your protagonist, Passepartout, works so well. It’s not that the game gives you a fully realised puppet to control, but that the characters you meet inform who you are through your actions. I regrettably was a bit head strong at times and literally lost my shoes because of it. I changed from a peerless valet to serial womaniser, and was chastised. All the while I kept an eye on the eerily quiet Mr Fogg, who never stooped to such levels, and yet I felt a sigh of relief when he approved of me sticking my neck out.

 

"The aesthetic choices are just right: bold enough to be obvious on a small screen for tablets, but creative and consistent, furthering the atmosphere."

 

As each part of the world slowly encroaches, you are forced to choose a route, some of which are only open due to your clever use of time at a previous city. That guard you chatted to on the train? Well turns out there is a route from Vienna to Zurich that is cheap and fast. However, the wine you bought in Paris sells in Berlin for several thousand pounds – so which do you value more? That money might be needed later to buy a ticket on a state-of-the-art airship! These short-term decisions are hounded by the long-term plans you make. You might want to avoid Berlin because really you were aiming for the Suez canal, so what do you do? Will the Suez even be worth it?

 

 

It’s hard to find fault with this game, and it will likely turn even the most cynical. It’s a blast. It’s the story-heavy single player game you were waiting for. The writer, Meg Jayanth, should be commended on managing to achieve the fine art of script writing: it’s never boring, always relevant to your interests, and never stands out as being laboured or obvious. I had a particularly hilarious run-in with some very ‘smiley’ sailors who I thought were pirates, but in the end… just turned out to be creepy (well, I locked myself into the cabin, so perhaps I’ll find out next time if they had ill intentions). The game is full of such wonderful characters and moments, expertly written.

The game’s direction is also peerless, and the aesthetic choices are just right: bold enough to be obvious on a small screen for tablets, but creative and consistent, furthering the atmosphere. The game is unique and I wish there was more like it, and  I expect that, despite the 80 day limit, I will play it over and over, each time discovering a new way around the world.

FlyWrench by Leo Powell

 

This article originally appeared @ http://www.brashgames.co.uk/2015/11/30/flywrench-review/

 

Flywrench is from the ‘fail quickly and often’ school of game design. If you think that N+ or Super Meat Boy were too easy, then you’ll love it. Even if you’re not inclined to such a game, Flywrench is interesting: it’s an old-new game, polished-up and Steam-released from the Artist/Game maker Mark Essen. Essen was an early figure in the indie gaming scene, and Flywrench was one of his first games to get noticed. How does the new, swankier, updated game compare to it’s original (semi-finished?) form?

First things first though: Flywrench a well made game – no doubt – but with a very niche audience.  If you’re looking for a relaxing little indie game, stop reading. The game is hard going, and relies entirely on your skill. To some, this probably sounds like heaven, but the way it handles this is arguably less than ideal. To say that Flywrench is a skill based game is only minimally true. The skill it teaches you is how to do the level exactly as it needs to be done: there is very little margin of error, and it doesn’t allow for a creative application of your abilities.

 

"The game would appear to inspire a sense of flow, but the sheer pace of it all leads more to daydreaming frustration."

 

It’s frenetic pace and harsh visuals rob it of a key element that draws many into other similar games such as Super Meat Boy and N+. In those games, you are given a moment to rest, plan, and execute strategies. FlyWrench gives you no such courtesy, and each level forces you to myopically scramble about, eyes jittering,  taking in as much as possible through a keyhole view. The games aesthetic design does grate somewhat with the underlying enjoyment that the game offers.

 

 

 

The way that Flywrench rewards you for your effort felt particularly problematic, and this is probably it’s principle issue as entertainment. In the classic game N+, a comparable skill-based, quick-reset indie game, the reward comes in the form of seeing your achievement replayed back to you – displaying the hard-won reality that you really are a super ninja. This, coupled with a planning element, makes you feel like you are building knowledge and skill. In Flywrench, the reward is too minimal for anyone other than masochists. The lightning-fast death is far too harsh, and time and time again I found my reward too brief. You can get a little buzz after spending 10 minutes on a single level, only to find that it gets farted away in the blink of an eye – oops, looks like you’re on to the next, even harder level. The game would appear to inspire a sense of flow, but the sheer pace of it all leads more to daydreaming frustration.

Visuals and gameplay aside, the music plays a big role in the experience. I’m a total fan of the music, and the genres in the soundtrack – I grew up on Squarepusher, Venetian Snares, etc, so this sort of thing is my bag. And yet, I couldn’t wholly say that the music is A Good Thing.

 

"Is it an improvement over the earlier iteration of itself? In terms of mass appeal, no doubt."

 

As a stand-alone mixtape, it’s awesome, and thematically it seems to blend with the spacey, colour displacing vibe. Most interesting, and a little disconcerting, was the inclusion of tracks with rappers/audience noises. It’s quite unique and peculiar for this, and it’s not de facto a bad thing. However, you soon start to think of it as a tacked-on soundtrack, rather than music composed for ambience, and it makes you wonder: why not put your own jams over this? It rams home the growing trend in small budget games of including a ‘soundtrack’ – that the music is this separate element which compliments the game. If done right it’s wonderful. In the case of Flywrench, it really broke me out of the flow, and I found it jarring. It forces you away from immersion, and robs the game of it’s ‘game’ status somewhat. It feels like a good idea, but it’s dashed with a seed of cynicism, and ultimately it makes the game a trinket for distraction, rather than a complex work of art.

 

 

Visually, the game works very hard to be just the right amount of eye-gouging without being actually hard to look at. It’s a master stroke for playability, considering how much your eyes will be glued to the screen. The inclusion of different ‘themes’ is great for people who are colour blind, although I wish I had the choice to alter them from the get-go, and not need to arbitrarily unlock the option. By the time I earned a better colour set, switching to it was a headache.

After all this, I’m left wondering.

Is it an improvement over the earlier iteration of itself? In terms of mass appeal, no doubt: the ‘helmet mode’, the hip soundtrack, the smoothed-out graphical style, and the online features are examples. In terms of it being a ‘game for games sake’, then I think that’s up for grabs. If you look at videos on YouTube of it’s original style, it was rougher, simpler, but more conceptually tight. It was brash, a big f***-you, an art-game punk-punch to the nose. It was an early example of lo-fi, devil-may-care indie gaming. The graphics and sound were originally harsh, but it was honest – a throw away headache, the buzz from a half-cut pill. It’s lost some of its freneticism, and rounded off the edges, and it’s weird to see it ‘update’ itself. It’s sad to watch that history be swept under the rug. Of course, I’m bringing this history to the game as I play it, so in terms of pure entertainment, take it with a pinch of salt.

Criticism aside, the final-form of the game is still compelling, and I suspect that if it’s your cup of tea, then it’s one of the best brews to be had.

Undertale, a game of characters not choices by Leo Powell

 

This article appeared on GameSpew @ http://gamespew.com/2015/11/undertale-game-characters-not-choices/

What you think of Undertale is probably largely effected by whether or not you are a fan of old JRPG's. It is undeniably the wry, cheeky offspring of Earthbound, and in some ways could even be interpreted as a bit of a dig at it. The humour is subtle yet clear, and it never misses a beat when backhanding the tropes and idioms of yore. If, however, your life is void of JRPG's up until this point, then the humour will surely morph the game into even greater levels of surreality. Everything from the tile-sets to the music is either going to appear strange or knowing. Thankfully, what makes the game compelling to play is that 'topsy turvy' design ethos, and it can draw you in no matter your previous outlook.

 

 

The combat is by far the most stand-out feature here. You are afforded the, in hindsight, obvious option of talking to your enemies, and 'vanquishing' them with mere words. Why this is absent from the slow, turn based, text heavy nature of JRPG's until present is beyond our ken. It's a joy to experiment with the needs of the 'monsters' that you come across, prodding and dodging their sensibilities and emotions until you appease them. Between bouts of chatter, the monsters tend to lash out at you, and you essentially engage in a rapid, skill based dodging game. We should really stop there for a second, however, and question what those actions actually amount to. Despite such an innovation, it could be arguably said that you are killing the monsters in all but name. The text is mightier than the sword here, but what is the actual, game play difference when the result is the same? We can obviously read more meaning into each encounter, as each monster has a micro-backstory of sorts. But spend more than 10 minutes in the game, and you'll find that for every random encounter you fatigue with the choice. It is ultimately easier to just whack most monsters with a stick. Like most random encounter RPG's, you begin to long for an encounter free area. They become a nuisance, and this game play isn’t fed back into the game in any intelligent way. It just is a pain. For every obvious, 'on screen' monster, you can bet that a consultation is more rewarding, interesting, and beneficial. However I can't help but think that the game makes me into a bit of a sociopath, drastically trying to discern the murderous monsters whims and desires. Having said that, the way in which you are rewarded for killing things is interesting: killing monsters gains you levels, which means extra health. This means that, every time you get bored and murder a flippant, annoying little creature (some just like to dance for you and waste your time), you are rewarded with an increased aptitude in murder. Solving things with violence made me feel guilty and lazy, and that is - arguably - the game's main achievement.

 

 

The other key element to understanding Undertale is the humour: how many comedies-as-games do you know of? Humour resonates throughout, from design to dialogue. Jokes range from the blunt "hit you with white stuff to make you feel the love" to the subtle (Papyrus the skeleton talks in the Papyrus font!). My fave subtle joke is the way in which, when someone laughs, the 'ha ha ha' is spelt out with a pace that makes the 'speech sound' (bloops) into a phoneme for a laugh itself. It's so very clever.

Graphically, the game is often confusing, and I suppose it would argue that its meant to be, to mirror the general flippant confusion that the game imbues. However, such flippancy can leave you feeling pretty cold. At times, the disparity between visual styles can make you jaded, almost as if the game doesn’t care enough to be consistent – it makes it harder to invest in. That sounds harsh, but it is a double edged sword: the way in which the first dungeon is a hideous, overly simple pink affair is also funny in its 'crapness'. The monster battle screen is Commodorian, which doesn’t technically gel with the initial NES like graphics, and the music is much the same: wafting in and out of 8bit/16bit/CD quality styles. 

The music itself of course being nothing short of masterfully crafted,  being full of ideas. It's also considerate of the current wealth of options for today’s game music composers, and picks and chooses delightfully from the tools and contexts at our disposal. By all accounts the wealth of disparity is every pedants wet dream, but for others is wonderfully post-modern. It's arguably a post-modern game, which is yet another quality which makes it stand out.

 

 

The key point is this: you will be interested in playing the game just to experience the many layered jokes, sounds, actions, atmospheres and graphics that the game has to offer. but it might not always be easy or fun. sometimes it will be boring. Like anything post-modern, it doesn’t always consistently aim to entertain, and you wouldn’t be blamed for putting it down. but you will go back to it, and each time you will discover something lovely and fulfilling. It's safe to say that Undertale's erratic picking-and-choosing of the past is it's strength. The cavalier design attitude is ultimately what draws your attention.

I'm not going to lie: you might very well be turned off by several elements of it. You might also find the humour, soundtrack, and novelty a great pull that carries you through.

A Lamppost and a Goat: the Satire of Simulation Games by Leo Powell

(Written for and posted on GameSpew @ http://gamespew.com/2015/10/lamppost-goat-satire-simulation-game/ )

 

Following the Zeitgeist of the weird, not-quite-a-game-but-still-a-game logic that fuels the likes of Goat Simulator andThe Path, I stumbled across a 4chan thread about a theoretical game in which you would play as a street lamp:

“> All choices are resolved by doing lamp post things.
God I want this game.”

Having hashed out what seemed like an absurdly boring notion, as the thread goes on, they actually end up with something that sounds quite interesting. What’s going on there then?

The poster child of this attitude is undoubtedly Goat Simulator. It plays on the notion that, rather than paying to experience the traditional empowerment fantasy – for example, being an Übermensch that solves problems with bullets – we are happy to pretend to be a stupid, frolicking goat. It also riffs off the morbid intrigue that many newcomers to the PC platform feel when they see German Waste Disposal Simulator (1988-1989 Frankfurt Edition).

This is really the beauty of the PC platform. Anyone can make any game and distribute it themselves. Interested in making a game so niche that only 10 people would enjoy it? Why not! You can make games that bore, or games that make you think, and the need to meet a distributors normative, cash-cow focus won’t stop you.

In some ways, the only real criticism one can level at Goat Simulator is that it isn’t actually a simulation game. It doesn’t allow us to empathise with being a boring old goat. You don’t live a life of pellet-pooping drudgery.

So in the language of 4chan, here’s my face when I realized that Goat Simulator is actually a Goat’s “Triple-A” empowerment fantasy:

 

 

Since the inception of Goat Simulator, there has been… more of Goat Simulator, from the same designers. An MMO parody and a copy of DayZ (called GoatZ) is the latest offering (and you can check out Rich’s review here).  It’s getting pretty clear that the Goat Simulator franchise has progressed on from a satirical piss-take to, if we’re being generous, a bit of a critique of current game design tropes. What’s most interesting is the way this is actually achieved: gamers can be an acidic lot when it comes to the analysis of the medium, locking themselves away in a castle of “it’s just a game”, but Goat Simulator manages to critique games through populist satire.

This is really why a lamppost simulator is a great idea. However, it goes beyond that. After all, the same brand of satire over and over will just become propaganda, pushing home a point. What “weird games” allow for is the freedom to play with games, freed from normative constraints. Who knows what a lamppost game would look like, and what it might unearth? Through making and playing it, you might find a fascinating, novel bit of gameplay that unlocks a new perspective. It could be fun. Then again, it might not.

 

In terms of Goat Simulator, it is fun to crash around as a goat. It is refreshing not to have the burden of a plot, even if the lack of one does somewhat hamstring a sense of… oh god am I going to say this? …character development. Your goaty self is ultimately pretty one dimensional. There is no depth here.

The burning question we have of course is: does it go beyond a gimmick? The answer is… sort of. The developer, upon realising that they had something, obviously put a lot of time and effort into adding content and fleshing it out. It feels like it developed itself into other tropes as a matter of play. It feels somewhere between Tony Hawks and GTA, because, once you start running around and doing flips in a sandbox, and once you start head butting the people, it makes sense to reward such play. It’s an interesting model for game design. I could play with it all day and think “you know, if only I could race my fellow goats…” and a new game play element would evolve. If you were the developer, you would add it in. Or as a player, mod it yourself.

If you fancy something interesting and irreverent, then playing around as a goat is worth your time. I like to spend 10 minutes here and there running around, being a goat, causing havoc. It’s an evolving, weird, tongue-in-cheek franchise. It also proves that we are ready for absurd or bizarre game ideas, even if it unfortunately shuns the potential for a proper “goaty” game play experience.

Now excuse me while I go and frolic.

I went to a Pinball Convention by Leo Powell

Imagine the endless din of a thousand ball-peen hammers, like some micro soviet factory tabletop model, coupled with a million strobing lights, and you have a pinball convention. Isle after isle of pinball cabinet, from the most obviously enfranchised designs (LOTR), to the most obscure (Mel Gibson's 'Maverick').

 

 

Many of these were intriguing for their obscurity. Who commissioned such an array of expensive movie tie-ins? I spent far too much time on the Johnny Mnemonic cabinet, which was complete with a spinning CD that had '320gb' printed on it. Hovering around like some kid who's too afraid to buy booze with a fake i.d., I survey the machine array. 20 minutes later, I had skipped between several brightly coloured metal mazes, and the whole thing started to grow on me. I went here, to the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show, expecting to see a concentrated mausoleum for old American culture. In Tacoma. But what I found was a tantalizing history of addictive games. The more I played, the more I found an alive-and-kicking Petri dish of game design, all centred around this highly arbitrary format: ball shoots up a slanted table, you knock it around for points. Each themed game was designed to incorporate that theme into its game mechanism, and the better games did it in a more intelligent manner. Arguably, the tables were a little light in how deep that theme and game play connection could go, and with that you're forced instead to experience the pleasure of unironic tackiness. It's undeniably wonderful to see a badly painted image of Mulder and Scully as you shoot a ball into the x-filing cabinet. Here is an artform filled with youthful sincerity. The older games were arguably worse, with shittier mechanics and often bigoted themes. Sexy stewardess? Dumb Indians? Whack 'em! Honestly before I went I thought it was a dead culture, but to my surprise the only dead element was it's cousin, placed alongside in the same hall: arcade games.

 

 

What struck me about the old arcade games was how shit they were - and not just, like, oh yeah these are obviously less polished but charming slices of history. More like: these were all cynically made to steal money from children, pumped out at an alarming rate with little thought or care or art given to their construction. They were both boringly shit and morally shit. It's no wonder that the most care was given to their marquees, that these identikit cabinets required snappy, eye-catching landscapes. These images are the most enduring aspect after all this time. The most interesting thing to get from this, of course, is how similar the games are are to today’s app-games: they are practically the direct decadent, using a very similar business model. Several of these games seemed to come from the 'coconut shy' school of design. Console games from the same period were arguably a different beast entirely, taking games into the direction of art, allowing 'play for play's sake'. The arcade games' obscene difficulty is much lauded with rose tinted, bleary eyes, and I think we should be pretty ruthless about such memories. When you have unlimited coins, you quickly see how insanely boring these games are. After all, the difficulty came from dubious business practices. Sadly, this is even apparent in newer arcade machines. My arm got tired before the end of House of the Dead 3, as I had to wank off a plastic robot-arm to endless corridors of polygonal clichés.

 

 

So, what did we learn? Pinball conventions are worth going to, even for those who have no interest: they capture the senses, provide a wild ride, and overload your ears. The culture is growing and innovating, and full of tournaments and such. I'm sad that, upon returning to the U.K., under the grey sky, that we don't have it that way. I'd take the garish machine culture, with its luminescent and beating ball-bearing heart over the empty shells of England’s arcades any day.