Skip to main content

Get British!

hms_spiffing

As the token Brit on NHS, it’s obviously my remit to drink copious quantities of tea, discuss the vagaries of the weather and get typecast in Hollywood movies as the villain. However I also take it upon myself to bring you occasional snippets of news from the UK games industry.

Here’s the latest: a kickstarter for a new British game, made in Britain starring British people and full of typical self-deprecating British humour. It’s a point and click adventure entitled Her Majesty’s SPIFFING and you can back it at the usual place. Take a look, have a think about it. We’ve fallen a long way since the 8-bit glory days, and frankly, we could do with the business.

Knock-Knock Review

knock-knock1

Knock-Knock is the latest game from Russian developer Ice Pick Lodge. That may mean nothing to you: it meant nothing to me when I first downloaded the game. Some of their previous titles did chime a little as names I’d heard now and again – Pathologic or The Void. However I soon came to understand that for those more familiar with this studio and its titles, the name presages a unique combination of inventive gameplay and jarring oddness.

Almost everything you need to know about Knock-Knock can be gleaned from one brief anecdote. About halfway through the game I spent one level wandering aimlessly around a darkened house, turning on lights and began to grow pretty bored. Then I opened a door, walked through and found myself in a dank corridor which I had to wander up and down through a series of more doors before discovering I was back at the start of the tedious level again. Infuriated, I wanted to stop. But I kept on playing.

You’ll spend a lot of time doing nothing in Knock-Knock. Pretty much every other level consists of you walking through a series of perfectly safe rooms to a clock, starting the mechanism and then wandering out into a perfectly safe forest where you’ll perambulate aimlessly until you find yourself back at the same house again. On the alternate levels where a little more is demanded of you, play involves walking into rooms, holding space to fix the lights and occasionally coweing behind furniture while ghoulish haunts drift by in a freakish parody of hide and seek.

The game tells you virtually none of this. You’re left to find out almost all all the mechanics for yourself by guess and by trial and error: what I’ve revealed is the obvious stuff that will become clear after a level or two. And there is more to it than I’ve described. Indeed it’s entirely possible given the way the game offers you absolutely nothing on a plate at all that there are vast abysses of labyrinthine mechanical complexity hidden beneath this simplistic surface.

But I doubt it. I think that play wise, it’s often grindingly repetitive and frustrating, occasionally bordering on the tedious. So why was I compelled to play through to the end?

knock-knock2

Your avatar in Knock-Knock is some sort of hermetic insomniac who clearly seems himself as a scientist or academic of some kind. What he actually is, it rapidly becomes apparent, is completely deranged. As he makes his nightly rounds through his randomized and ever-shifting house, he whispers to you in an unsettling soprano gibberish about his past and his current predicament. But it’s never clear what, if anything, is reality and what is the creation of a mind badly unhinged by lack of sleep and the suppression of guilty secrets.

You can play through to the end and you won’t get all the answers to the questions that plague the game. You can play through to the end more than once – there are different endings – and you’ll still be wondering what the hell it’s all about. About why there’s a freakish ghost who drags a wheeled leg behind her as she shuffles through the rooms searching for you, or the pitiful apparition of a crying child whose sobs follow you through every level where she appears. About the unsettling inferences to authoritarian dystopias, or the bizarre “fragment of reality” cut scenes you’ll stumble onto occasionally. There are never concrete answers. It isn’t that sort of game.

What it does give you is a lot of intrigue puzzling over the narrative scraps that you’ve been fed and also in marveling over the creative manner in which they’re delivered. It’s kind of hard to describe the way in which the game uses its unreliable narrator and the fourth wall to really communicate the idea of a mind in turmoil. But here’s one example: a missing diary is a crucial component of the plot, and sometimes the game will interrupt the narrator’s ramblings with flashes of diary pages that actually make sense in the context of the conversation. You feel like you’re talking to yourself for no good reason.

While the plot does most of the grunt work in terms of pulling you on through the more turgid bits of gameplay, it’s aided and abetted by the visual and sound design. Don’t let the cartoon graphics fool you: when the lights fizz and go out and eyeballs start coming through the walls you’ll still jump like a five-year old. And the disembodied voices of the phantoms that stalk your home, searching for you, whisper messages you may prefer to forget.

There was more than one occasion in Knock-Knock when I wished that ephemeral things like the narrative and the sound weren’t quite so compelling and I could abandon the game over the poor mechanics. But they are, and I couldn’t. Whether this can really be recommended, especially at launch price, depends strongly on how patient you are with repetitive play. Sadly there’s no demo version to try and find out. But perhaps that’s all part of the mysterious and alienating themes that pervade the game from the outset.

Cracked LCD- Kings of Air and Steam in Review

kings of air

Kings of Air and Steam, new from Tasty Minstrel Games, had two major strikes against it before it landed on my table. One is that it has a Steampunk theme, which I almost categorically despise, and the other is that it is another Kickstarter title which at this point tends in that particular “movement” to mean an underdeveloped product. I’m very particular about what review copies I request from publishers and I won’t request games that I don’t think have a decent shot at earning a favorable notice, but I gave this game a chance because I love simple rail/transportation games and this one had an interesting combination of a traditional trains-and-tracks scheme paired with a programmed movement airship thing. It sounded kind of crazy and pretty unique.

The game is both of those, but there is a pretty nasty thematic disconnect in the fiction that creates an unusual dissonance. The idea is that you’re tasked with transporting goods from production facilities to cities that demand them (a classic train game mechanic), but the catch is that you’ve got to move the goods from these facilities by zeppelin to your rail depots and from there take them into the cities. There’s some nonsense about how the blimps aren’t permitted to land in the cities, but it’s impossible to play this game without asking the five dollar question “why wouldn’t they just skip the trains and deliver the goods themselves?”

If you can get over that- which is oddly difficult because the entire game is predicated on this concept- what you’re putting on the table is a very nicely done simple rail/transportation game just like I like with some novel gameplay elements, a fluctuating economy, upgrade paths, and occasional airship piloting blunders. The goal over the course of the five round game is making money by dropping off these products and earning current market price for them, and the game has some damn fine paper money to track this- something this paper money lover appreciates.

On a turn everybody locks in four cards from their movement deck to determine where their airships are going to move. There is a mobility limitation keyed to upgrades that controls how many cards with a diamond on them that you can play and upgrades also control cargo capacity. You flip your movement card, move your dirigible, and then take an action. Actions let you claim rail routes with train depots, upgrade your airships or trains to increase their ability to travel over more links, or move goods from your depots to cities. Or, if you’re broke, you can solicit the bank for funds. I like the movement card/one action structure because it keeps the game moving- at least once everyone has their airship movement planned. Be warned that players prone to analysis paralysis may labor far, far too long over picking those four movement cards. Put ‘em on a sand timer if you have to.

The game supports two to seven players thanks to a modular board, but the two player game feels thin and the seven player game runs too long. I really like for this game to be a 90 minute, four or five player game because that length fits the depth and development curve just right. With that said, I appreciate the support for more players because it gives groups like mine that often wind up with six or seven people another choice. Competition is meaningful in the game, with players racing to pick up valuable goods before each other and getting them to market before city demand dries up or changes.

With optional (and very recommended) variable player powers and factional differences along with the dual transportation mechanic, there’s a little more going on in Kings of Air and Steam than in something like Railways of the World, although the turnaround is that it is slightly more complicated to explain- and strategies may seem more elusive for the first few games. It’s not quite as straightforward. The more sci-fi oriented theming and artwork might lure those who aren’t very interested in 19th century transportation into playing what is at its core a well-made and easy to play train game that has nothing to do with tickets or riding.

This leads to a question I’m asking more and more of the games that I play- “what is this game’s argument for itself.” I’ve got to put this game on my shelf next to Railways of the World, which is my all-time favorite train game, as well as Merchant of Venus- my all-time favorite pick-up-and-deliver game. I’ve also got to compare this game to outliers with similar arcs or processes like Fire & Axe, and I also need to consider it in regard to games that I don’t currently own like Chicago Express, Age of Steam, and others that are more squarely comparable in terms of gameplay. In sum, why should you play Kings of Age and Steam over those games?

The answer is, I think, is that this design is one of those that comes dangerously close to packing too much into its box. If you took out the airship movement or the train element and left one of them behind, you’d likely still have a pretty solid and more economically designed transportation game. Without the airships, it would feel almost like a very stripped down Martin Wallace title. Without the trains, it would feel almost like Roborally repurposed as a pick-up-and-deliver game. Yet the game needs both of them to tell its wonky, frankly nonsensical story, and I think the differentiator is that the design pulls of a pretty neat stunt by making these incongruous elements work. It’s one of the better, more complete-feeling Kickstarter games I’ve played.

But more significantly, I think, is that disparate elements in the design work well and without bowling players over with tons of process, rules, or subsystems. It’s the kind of “just right” porridge I like the best, editorial in its design sense and cutting it close in the balance between abstraction, narrative, and context. It’s also worth noting that Kings of Air and Steam is a good-looking, inexpensive game (around $40) with decent curb appeal. But I am going to have to ask you to take the brass goggles off if you’re going to be at my table.

Cracked LCD- Gunship: First Strike in Review

gunship

What I like best about Gunship: First Strike, a new crowdfunded spaceship combat title from Escape Pod Games, is how defiantly old school it is. I don’t mean “modern hybrid design with some old school trappings”. I mean that this is a game that you could send back in time and publish in a late era Avalon Hill game box circa 1990 or so and nobody would notice anything amiss. Back then , Gunship would have fit right in with games like Gammarauders, Attack Sub, Naval Battles, or Road Kill. In 2013, it’s anomaly in a sea of circuitous, repetitive, cannibalistic, or syncretic design. That means it’s really not quite like anything else on the market today, for better or worse. It is a singular game designed with a great deal of passion and commitment on the part of designer Steve Wood, and its homespun charm and out-of-time idiosyncracy count for a lot- if you’re receptive to those qualities.

Two to four players take command chiefly of the titular Gunships, sort of a corvette-class attack ship. Each player also has a card representing a fighter escort that provides screening for the gunship, but these craft can’t attack the enemy’s Assault Carrier, the capital-class ships player must attack and defend. There’s an odd mix of abstraction and specificity, with the Gunships represented by a diagram upon which players can slot cards into hit locations representing weapon systems, shields, and armor. But both the cruisers and fighters highly abstracted. There is no map, only three positions encompassing the space near each Carrier and a zone between. This means that the focus is sharply tuned to action- not anything so polite as resource management or area control. It’s a pew-pew and ‘splosions game.

gunship2

The idea is that you want to get your Gunship over to the other Carrier and drop a couple of torpedoes or thruster bombs on it, knocking out its shields and eventually carving into its hull damage. But along the way, you may want to try to cripple the other player or players by knocking out their fighters in simple, die-rolling dogfights. You can also go after their Gunship to reduce their striking capability. Modular weapon cards might be hit, or you might have to deal with engine damage. You might find yourself limping back to your carrier with the residual effects of an ion cannon shot disabling systems, your weapons trashed, shields depleted, and with your wings blown off but you can land, repair and refit, and get back into the fight.

Time is of the essence, in a way, because in addition to the direct damage the Gunships inflict there is also a card draw at the beginning that does one or two points of damage to each carrier in an abstraction of the ongoing barrage between the vessels. It’s really just a timing mechanic, but when the right cards are drawn, it can result in a tense, dramatic endgame. Or it could end in anticlimax.

Despite the medium-weight rules, which seem to me to be pared down to a still somewhat unwieldy minimum, the game plays light and fast. This is, as stated, a good example of old school American action game design. This is not a hardcore strategy title, it is not rife with tactical decisions and shot through with strategic depth. This is an ass kicking, bloody nose of a game where dice and cardplay mix things up with unpredictability and surprise.

The core mechanics of battle include matching cards with weapons systems to deliver attacks, ranged combat abilities, variable damage, and in the case of the fighters a mild strategic consideration in blocking movement or attack targeting. It’s nothing fancy, and it’s actually kind of refreshing to play a game with decidedly non-clever resolutions.

The production is kind of mixed bag. I would have liked to have seen some better component quality and cardstock overall, but I could level that complaint against any Kickstarter title. The look is fine but it lacks character, and given the potential of expansions, add-ons, campaigns, additional ship classes, and other content I would have liked to have seen a better concept for a game world to contain all of the above. There’s some fluff about the usual galactic civil wars and such, but there is an overarching whiff of the generic that keeps the story material and setting at arm’s length. This is a good game that has a lot of promise, but I’m afraid that the more Spartan elements of it don’t make a convincing case for Gunship as a brand name.

There are already numerous add-ons from the Kickstarter campaign and promos, most of them worthwhile. I particularly liked the crew members, as they increased the asymmetry and customization between sides. Asteroids and experimental equipment demonstrate further the range this game could be capable of and I’m definitely interested to see where else Mr. Wood takes it. If there’s any danger in expanding the game, it’s that it could become more cumbersome and top-heavy when it needs to remain close to the core action gameplay concept.

Pondering Tuesdays – Reality Check Edition

Tomb Raider - Lara on Radio

I’m just going to keep putting random “thinking about stuff” synonyms in the title field until I run out. Let’s get started…

Wanted: Strong Female Role Model. Ashelia (no full name given) played Tomb Raider and had a powerful reaction. Go read it and then come back.

I wish I could have my daughter read this. You hear about the need for female empowerment and role models all the time. It’s almost always well-intentioned, but there’s a point at which those become buzz words and not something genuinely meaningful. As a father, it makes it hard to know exactly where to steer her because you want so badly for your little princess, as she becomes a person who’s not so little anymore, to choose role models that represent the best in human nature and not Twilight’s pitiable Bella or some camera-starved reality TV whorelet.

Also, Justin Bieber. Le sigh.

No, I want Ana to know about real strength, the strength to persevere in the face of adversity and not be dragged down by it. Not Lara’s strength in a video game, though certainly she’s a well-conceived character in the reboot, but Ashelia’s in writing that piece. And not just to write that particular piece but to endure what she did and carry on, going out into the world and having a voice. Not everyone rises above that kind of experience. A lot of us sink and never get our heads back above water level.

Ana is nine years old. She’s too young to read this article, too innocent of the world still to understand what it means. She doesn’t yet know of the myriad things that go bump in the night and I want her to have that last for as long as possible, though I know there are far fewer of those days of blissful ignorance ahead of her than there are behind. No, she can’t read this yet, but there will come a time when this will have resonance for her, when it will mean something. And when it does, I’ll have the link stored away. I don’t mind waiting a little longer.

Where’s the Love? In a world where Bioware is something of a sad pinnacle for the idea of character love stories in games, I find this PAR article quote, from Torment creative lead Colin McComb, comforting:

“We do plan to have relationships in the game. I don’t know if we’re necessarily approaching romance, at least not in the way it’s been explored in games recently. There’s a lot more to the word love than simple flesh coupling,” McComb explained. “That’s frankly the aspect of it that’s least interesting when you get right down to it. It’s the interpersonal intimacy. It’s learning the depth and turmoil of another person that I think is more fascinating. That’s the aspect we want to explore with relationships with people.”

Mass Effect 3 Ending

It’s not that I think Bioware games are embarrassingly bad in this regard. Liara (pictured) has some magnificent turns to her character. And I’ve defended Bioware’s use of relationships in the stories for their games more than once. It’s just that they’ve never really done better at it than they did with Baldur’s Gate II and the original Knights of the Old Republic. They’ve never found the next level. They’ve designed relationships in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series such that sex is the goal and that’s an anathema to telling stories with believable, meaningful relationships between characters. Great storytelling, stories that reflect the human condition as it were, need to be able to reflect that love is a powerful driving force in the proverbial Hero’s Journey. That the Torment team appears to get this is encouraging and, if they execute, it should make for an interesting step forward in how romantic character relationships play out in the framework of a story-based game.

Gaming: The Next Generation. King Art Games hit up Kickstarter, hoping to get six-figures for their turn-based strategy project, one that’s inspired by games like Advance Wars. It’s a solid, compelling proposal that was, not coincidentally, fully funded in a week’s time. There are 32 days left.

What Kickstarter is doing is making responsible game development possible again. What do I mean by that? I mean that in a world where Square can publish some very good AAA-budgeted games and still have their president forced to resign because of inability to make financial numbers, we see yet more evidence that AAA publishing is, in two words, Teh Stupidz.

The jury is in and the game industry is not nearly the big business it wants the world to think it is. It is not Hollywood. Trying to make the business of producing games into Hollywood, no matter how great $200M Bioshock: Infinite may be, is not a recipe for industry-wide success. These are exceptions to the rule, though I have my doubts that even this critical darling will deliver a serious return on investment. (It’s worth pointing out that $200M number could be completely farcical. My point still stands.)

This is what makes Kickstarter-backed games important. In a world with very few responsible game publishers, the upper-echelon of Kickstarter projects bring game development back into the real world. They’re taking game development out of the hands of supposedly Very Important Men and letting real gamers fund real projects based on real budgets; small teams of passionate designers making their kind of game, selling it for one fair price with the goal, not of making gobs and gobs of money for shareholders, but to earn a living. Yes, there are exceptions and there are plenty of pitfalls to spending money on games that may never see the light of day, but I’ll take my chances with inXile and Obsidian, Conifer and Stoic. They’re in the business of making games I want to play and they don’t need $200 million to do it. That’s something that I want to be a part of, both as a gamer and as a consumer. Clearly, I’m not alone in that.