Gaming

I Fucking Love Life is Strange (and Why I Think Max and Chloe Should Return for Season 2) by Matthew Marchitto

Recently I played through Life is Strange and absolutely loved it. I haven't been able to get it off my mind since. Chances are that we're getting a whole new cast for season 2, but I wanted to make my case for why I think Chloe and Max should return for Life is Strange 2.

Spoiler warning for Life is Strange.

***SPOILERS BELOW***

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Mad Max (the Game): Is it any Good? (Spoilers) by Matthew Marchitto

Mad Max (the game) is one of the best licensed games I’ve played. In theory, it’s a prequel to Fury Road, but I don’t think the story is canon. The game starts with Max getting into a fight with Scabrous Scrotus, losing his Interceptor, and is left in the wasteland with nothing but his torn up clothes.

Enter Chumbucket, the deformed hunchback who believes in the Angel Combustion. He’s a black finger (a master mechanic) and thinks Max is his warrior saint. Max needs a new car, and Chum promises to build him the Magnum Opus—the car you will be upgrading throughout the game.

Max’s goal is to create a car that will be fast, durable, and able to carry enough fuel to get him to the Plains of Silence. As you get upgrades for your car, you’ll meet stronghold leaders, lunatics, scavengers, and a whole crapton of war boys.

The gameplay consists of two major parts, car combat and ground combat. Both are equally fun, but have their own little quirks and issues.

***SPOILERS BELOW***

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E3 2017 – Highlighting some of the Smaller Games by Matthew Marchitto

E3 had some awesome announcements this year. Stuff like Assassin’s Creed Origins, God of War, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, a Beyond Good and Evil 2 cinematic, and a weirdly good looking Mario + Rabbids tactical RPG.

But, there were a lot of other awesome games that are flying under the radar. So, setting aside all the big announcements, I’d like to highlight some cool games that aren’t getting much attention.

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Meaty Ka-Chunks and Overwatch's Reload Animations by Matthew Marchitto

I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch lately. It’s a great game, with a lot of clever design, and a team devoted to constant updates/tweaks. But one aspect that Blizzard always nails is their presentation. Their games always have that extra sheen of polish that makes them feel better, whether the game is actually better or not.

In Overwatch, the reload animations stand out. They’re meaty, filled with scraping metal and pulsing energy. Hitting reload makes Winston’s charging Tesla cannon feel heavy, or Roadhog’s scrapgun brunt and messy. Each one is damn satisfying.

On paper, I wouldn’t have thought reload animations added much to the game. But after playing some Space Hulk: Deathwing, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of those extra little details. In Deathwing (which is pretty neat, I’m not knocking it) the reloading is a sad lowering of the gun followed by a click-hiss that is oh-so unsatisfying. Especially when you’re playing as a big, bulky character like one of the Warhammer marines.

Presentation is something that’s become more and more important in gaming. The mechanics of gameplay will fall flat without the right sound effects and visual cues to make the player either feel rewarded or powerful. It’s why, in order to make a cannon feel good to shoot, it has to boom and shake the camera. All to make the player feel like their shooting some heavy ass artillery. The numbers and damage output aren’t enough.

It’s one of those sticky issues when talking about games. A lot of folks, generally myself included, think gameplay is king. And that’s true, but so much of what makes good gameplay is layered under good presentation. Good presentation is what makes the gameplay shine.

There are a lot of other good things about Overwatch, but this one finer detail helps bring the whole package together.  

Are there any other little details in a game that you felt added a lot?

Milkmaid of the Milky Way by Matthew Marchitto

Milkmaid of the Milky is a 90s style point-and-click adventure, where you play as a milkmaid on a journey to save her cows. Developed by Mattis Folkestad of Machineboy (essentially a one man team), Milkmaid of the Milky Way is a labour of love. And I think it shows. It has evocative visuals, amazing music, and is written entirely in rhyming verse. Passion was poured into this game, and it’s better for it.

Milkmaid of the Milky Way is both whimsical and melancholy. A story about being alone and coming together. The protagonist, Ruth, lives alone on a small farm. Her only companions are cows, but she is devoted to them. When a spaceship shows up and abducts her bovine friends, she vows to go save them. Here is where the story takes off, and I don’t want to say anymore for fear of spoiling it, but things get much more complicated as the story twists and turns.  

The dialogue is written in rhyme, and coupled with the hand drawn backgrounds, the game has a storybook feel.

Despite the spaceships and cows, the story is about moving on, fighting loneliness, and asking when your responsibilities are infringing on your life and happiness. It’ll leave you wondering if you’ll have any regrets when you’re older, and maybe put a fear of stagnation in you.

On PC the game controls like most point-and-clicks. You move by clicking on an area of the world, and you can double click to run. This is a nice feature that keeps you from lumbering back and forth as you traverse the environments, especially when you have to do some backtracking. You also click to examine or interact with an object (including items in your inventory), and dragging items from your inventory onto an environmental object will let you use it on the object.

The cursor also helps identify interactable elements by pulsating when you hover over them.

The puzzles are straightforward and not too difficult to figure out. Whenever I was stuck, I found myself backtracking a little more than I would have liked, but the run feature went far in alleviating that minor stressor.

The components of the puzzles fit nicely into the world. When Ruth uses a wooden spoon to reach something, or her knowledge gained from farm work to solve a problem, it’s believable. The puzzles never felt abstruse or out of place.

Milkmaid of the Milky Way is a beautiful game. Its characters are all endearing, and it manages to communicate personality through visual cues and terse dialogue. It’s a tightly made package, with a strong story, evocative music, and gorgeous visuals.

I highly enjoyed it and would recommend anyone looking for a point-and-click adventure to check it out. 

Buy Milkmaid of the Milky Way on Steam for PC and Mac, or on iTunes for iOS.

You can find Mattis Folkestad on twitter, at Machineboy.com, or visit Milkmaid of the Milky Way’s official site.

 

I was provided with a free copy for review.

Technobabylon by Matthew Marchitto

Technobabylon is a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure with retro style graphics. Wadjet Eye Games, the studio behind the Blackwell series and Resonance, bring this sci-fi romp to life alongside developer Technocrat Games.

Wadjet Eye Games have been making quality point-and-click adventures for years, and it’s no secret that I’m a big fan. I always enjoy their games and Technobabylon does not disappoint.

Mandala, Latha Sesame's avatar, in the Trance.

Mandala, Latha Sesame's avatar, in the Trance.

You play as three characters in the city of Newton. Latha Sesame, an unemployed Trance addict. Charlie Regis, an old curmudgeon-y CEL agent (basically a detective). And Max Lao, Charlie’s fellow (and far more lighthearted) CEL agent. The story starts with the investigation of a string of murders. Each victim has been “mindjacked” meaning information has been brutally torn from their brains. As the story unfolds, its scope grows to encompass a larger conspiracy.

Newton exemplifies the “high tech low life” of cyberpunk. Newton’s wealthy residents live in opulent high rises and bear their wealth like a shield against the law. While the poor live in assigned housing, wear assigned blue overalls (which are recycled instead of cleaned), and eat from food machines that belch protein slop.

Then there is wetware. Wetware are nanomachines that allow individuals to mentally connect to the web, also known as the “Trance.” Wetware is not only common, but expected. Charlie is the odd man out for not having any. I don’t quite understand the specifics of wetware, but form what I can gather people use gelatinous forms of wetware to smear onto the surface of terminals and electronics. The nanomachines inside the jelly then build a connection from the terminal to the wiring inside the user’s head. This grants the user access to the connection with their mind, allowing for all sorts of hacking shenanigans. 

Newton is filled with a diverse cast of characters of varied race, culture, sexuality, and gender.

Newton is filled with a diverse cast of characters of varied race, culture, sexuality, and gender.

Central is the A.I. system that runs the city, and it’s also who CEL agents take their orders from. Central sees all, and can predict—to an extent—when a crime is going to take place. Its overall purpose is to make sure the city runs smoothly, including the citizens, even if that means Central has to withhold pertinent information.

Beneath the genre dressing is a story about grief, coping, and getting out of your comfort zone. A recurring theme of the story is its willingness to challenge the characters’ coping mechanisms. As with all good stories, the people are the heart of it, not the sci-fi tech.

There are twists and turns that bring into question the loyalty of allies, or the nature of an enemy’s animosity. But what really drove me forward were the characters, and all the little details that I learned through the dialogue and action. I won’t say much else because I don’t want to spoil the story, but ultimately I found it enthralling and never felt bored. By the end, I wanted to see more of these characters and the city of Newton. 

There's lots of pointing and clicking, as you’d expect from most point-and-click adventures. Technobabylon emphasises using your environments and picking up items to solve puzzles. This entails looking around and using the right-click to examine items and learn more about them. The left-click allows you to use, pick up, or move items and objects. There’s a good amount of trial and error, but the puzzles are all logic based. Everything you need to solve them is in the surrounding area, and you’ll never get stuck if you didn’t pick up something earlier in the game.

The first puzzle involves tricking a food machine's A.I. so it'll make an unauthorized item for you.

The first puzzle involves tricking a food machine's A.I. so it'll make an unauthorized item for you.

There’s a good amount of combining items to move the puzzles forward. Sometimes the solution is obvious, and sometimes it’s not. There were a few instances where I found myself doing the tried and true combine-everything-with-everything method. The main characters never have a huge amount of items in their inventory (like in some older point-and-clicks), so your options are never overwhelming.  

If you’re ever stuck on a puzzle, you’ll know that the solution is somewhere nearby.

Latha Sesame will have to pop back and forth from meatspace to the Trance to solve puzzles. The mechanics in the Trance are the same as in the physical world. Sesame navigates the Trance with an avatar, but instead of pushing tables and opening doors you’ll be uploading programs and making connections—all of which are represented visually as either avatars or new environments (like a living room or park).

There are some especially creative uses of the Trance and how it affects the physical world.    

Generally my default opinion would be to say that a point-and-click’s real value is in its story, and that’s true here to an extent, but the puzzles were so interesting and creative—not only in their implementation but in how they also acted as worldbuilding elements—that it would be a disservice to count them separately. The story enhances the puzzles and the puzzles enhance the story.

I’d wholeheartedly recommend Technobabylon to anyone yearning for a cyberpunk romp.

You can buy Technobabylon from Wadjet Eye’s site, Steam, or GOG

Wadjet Eye Games has a new adventure coming out soon called Unavowed. Check it out on their website, and keep an eye open for its release. From some of the screenshots Dave Gilbert has been sharing on his twitter, it looks flipping awesome.

Game Structure and Narrative by Matthew Marchitto

Recently I played Rise of the Tomb Raider, which was a lot of fun, but it got me thinking about narrative and game design. Namely, the idea that they don’t fit together well. A lot of games, Tomb Raider included, are broken into two parts: gameplay and story. They’re both pretty self-explanatory, but I want to talk a bit about how they interact.

The gameplay is the part where you run around and shoot the baddies, get the points/experience/whatever. Rinse and repeat. This is usually the part where the protagonist gets shot in the head and chomps on a turkey leg to regenerate health. The gameplay is always the meat of the experience. It’s what we spend the most time doing and why we play to begin with.

If the gameplay is the meat, then what’s the story? Usually, it’s the framing (or the skeleton). The story is an excuse to bust in the tower door and decapitate the wizard. It gives us a reason and context for what is going on, why it’s going on, and how we’re going to shoot it in the face. The story is told in three to five minute cutscenes that break up the action (unless it’s MGS). Again, the gameplay is the meat so we don’t spend a lot of time in the cutscenes.*

*I know there are certain games and genres that buck this trend. I joke about Metal Gear Solid, but JRPGs are story heavy as well, though if you consider their 100hr length versus how much of that is actually story it might be a rough equivalent to the format mentioned above.

The story will always be regulated to a second tier, and that is why is loses some of its importance, its ability to unfold and pull the player in. But, on the opposite end, I’d rather play a game with good gameplay and a bleh story than one with an amazing story but bleh gameplay. Bad gameplay is much harder to tolerate than a bad story.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a great game, with phenomenal gameplay and action sequences, but a bleh story. It’s only there to propel us on the adventure, and we never get to dig deep into the subjects presented. The game did its best to set up as much as it could, to try and communicate through subtext of conversation, but there’s only so much you can do in five minute intervals. It favoured the gameplay instead of the story. Even the cutscenes seemed eager to remind you of this. They had a tendency to end with gunfire, an explosion, or a threatening helicopter as if to say, “don’t worry, the gameplay is still here.”

No one takes notice of how messed up Lara’s become. She lights dudes on fire and stabs them in the head.

No one takes notice of how messed up Lara’s become. She lights dudes on fire and stabs them in the head.

Gameplay and story have always been disconnected, and we don’t see it anymore. In gameplay mode the protagonist takes a shotgun blast to the face, ducks behind cover, and puts a band-aid on in. In story mode, a bullet to the gut means they’re dead. And we just accept it, because we all know the game wouldn’t be fun if the player died from one or two bullets. That’s why I dislike this structure. We’re used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The Last of Us melds the two together well, but still falls into some of the same traps. Joel’s combat sequences are more than just gameplay mechanics, they build his character. Joel isn’t a good guy, he’s a broken, selfish person, and each time he murders an enemy we get the sense that it’s affecting (or reinforcing) his mental state. The gameplay shows us what he is willing to do for self-preservation, and this is then supported by the story in the cutscenes. When it comes to the game’s final decision, we’re more likely to believe that Joel would make the selfish decision over the altruistic one. In this way the gameplay informs the narrative.

Story as a bookend is frustrating. It’s clear that it’s only there to set up some context, to be an excuse for the adventure. I like the adventure, I want to be on the thrill ride too, but I want the story to keep up. To be more than just set up for the next action sequence.

Of course, this isn’t all games and there are some that do both phenomenally (Witcher 3 comes to mind). Do you guys have any examples of games that you think intertwine story and gameplay in effective ways?

This was originally posted on Medium.

Rambling about Stealth Games: They Should be Puzzles by Matthew Marchitto

All the pieces are spread out before you. Trying to find the puzzle pieces isn’t part of the puzzle, it’s all about figuring out how they fit together. Stealth games should be the same. Videogames can do a lot of interesting things, but the stealth genre doesn’t seem to have the same traction as others. I think that’s because the code for what makes great stealth mechanics hasn’t been broken yet. So I’m going to pretend like I have some answers. 

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