Torchlight is like a job you don’t get paid for

Attention universe! I have completed the primary Torchlight campaign! Why did it take me three months of halfhearted, intermittent play? I will tell you. It is because there is no point to Torchlight.

See, unless clicking on colorful enemies is what you enjoy most in life, there’s almost no reason to ‘finish’ playing the game. Because Torchlight has an Endless Dungeon mode, finishing the primary plot only enables more and more of the same-old same-old: you get to go further down, and you get to click on baddies and receive loot. Nothing new there. There’s also no emotional or narrative reward to finishing the plot itself. Quite a lot has been said about the skeletal nature of the game’s plot, about how tepid, uncommitted, and unclear it is.  Not only does it provide no resolution—the dungeon continues—but it makes no sense. The final boss-fight is a tedious and largely-unfair low-framerate ass-raping in which the game’s evil mastermind—a badly-explained, overpowered something called ‘Ordrak’—spams mobs at you for twenty minutes. When you’re done you get a shit-ton of worthless loot.

So why did I keep at it? Frankly, I’m a sucker for numbers that go up. Preferably, numbers that go up very high, and very quickly. It’s why I bothered finishing Infectionator: World Dominator, even though I broke the game, balance-wise, while still in Africa. In Torchlight, the numbers never stop going up. It is impossible to play for an hour without leveling up twice. You are presented with improved gear so frequently that it is hard to keep track of how fast those numbers are rising. There’s not too much need for strategic assessment: each weapon has a tooltip detailing its DPS and bonuses and providing a side-by-side comparison with your current loadout. You simply look at the numbers and choose whatever has the bigger ones. At times, this kind of constant reward feels very sinister, as if the game is trying to keep you sated with numerals while it simultaneously performs a subliminal and evil reconstruction of your brain. You stagger away from the computer, a lizardlike numbness reigning in your mind, and all night long digits scroll before your eyes while the clink of gold rattles in your ears. This is Torchlight. It’s addictive like a Facebook game, but with all the garish stupidity of that genre replaced by Diablo nostalgia. It is a powerful and scientific designer drug.

But the habit is relatively easy to break. Like I said, it quickly becomes clear that there’s no higher reward to playing the game. No dramatic conclusion, no ultimate weapon, no satisfying plot twist. Just more and more of the same. This was apparently the aim of the design team, and by gum, they seem to have accomplished it. If ‘the same’ isn’t enough for you, I can’t see why you’d bother finishing the game, unless it’s for street-cred-related reasons. Instead of dragging me onward, it only left me exhausted.

This raises questions for me, though: do I play games because I want a continuing experience, or because I want a story or a progression that eventually comes to an end, the way a book or a movie does? For me, I’ve discovered that it’s the latter. I don’t want to play the same thing for ever and ever; it’s only human that our tales come to ends. If a game doesn’t want to tell me a serious story, fine, but it’s at least got to resolve itself somehow, because that, too, is human. Currently, my conception of a ‘good game’—and I understand that, with social games, casual games, DLC and so on, this isn’t the way the industry is heading—is something with a beginning, a middle, and a proper, conclusive end. A death. A max level. A final challenge that unlocks extras, maybe. Anything but an infinite perpetuation of identical play experiences. I don’t need to be able to win it—I just need to be able to feel a sense of closure, or to have a chance to find my own kind of closure. Me, personally. Any thoughts on this, guys?

Here’s a secret about me and Torchlight: I almost didn’t quit. Apparently, there’s a secret level filled with horses for characters in the 40s level range, based on the cow level in Diablo II. I consider this idea incredibly attractive. But you have to grind the incredibly dull fishing minigame to get there, so I’ve decided that I won’t be bothering.

Max Payne and the Pictoralists

Kent’s post about games and their relation to old media got me thinking. It’s best to read this one if you’ve read his first.

Because my 360 is at school and my computer is too shoddy to handle Bioshock 2 right now, I’m currently playing Max Payne. In case you never played Max Payne, here’s what you need to know: it is The Departed crossed with John Woo crossed with every B-movie cops-and-robbers flick you’ve ever seen. All the cutscenes are comic strips. They’re not even real comics: they’re photographs layered over with ultra-cheesy Photoshop art filters, with speech bubbles and word boxes slapped on top. The language is such a heavy kind of noirish nonsense that it gets hard to handle after a while. Constant references to the dark nature of the city, the predatory howl of sirens, the call of the night, that kind of thing. In short, the game wants so badly to be everything that crime novels, action movies, and gritty thriller comics have ever been that it’s practically bleeding out the anus to accomplish this.

Nevertheless, it’s fun as hell. The John Woo fighting moves are incorporated as bullet-time dodge-jump-and-shoot attacks—at one point, Max even remarks that he’s about to get “all Chow Yun Fat” on his enemies’ collective rear ends. It’s marvelous. The whole game crawls right up into that sweaty place under the armpit of twentieth-century pulp fiction and sits there grinning like a monkey and clapping its hands, and there’s nothing you can do but love it.

Aside from the bullet time effects, which were very unique and awesome when the game came out, there’s not much special about the stuff the player does in the game. You’ve got a million different weapons, grenades, rocket launchers, et cetera. Stupid boss fights. A couple halfhearted puzzles, because every game in the universe needs a puzzle, right? It’s the standard shooter rigmarole through and through. A few hallway laser-bomb puzzles are direct references to situations found in Half-Life. What saves it from being derivative is the style: By accessing that whole antihero-thriller- noir-cops-and-robbers heritage, Max Payne transformed itself from a poorly-balanced shooter into something completely magical.

Its aims are a bit like those of the Pictoralists, described in Kent’s post, but with a bit more punch. Max Payne adopted non-gamic inspiration in the most audacious manner possible by flaunting its relationship to movies and comics. It’s trying to be a movie and a comic, at the same time, while also being a game. The basic attacks are obvious homages to Woo’s Hard Boiled, for crying out loud! It doesn’t try to be a movie in the same way that Heavy Rain does, but it’s still trying, and it cleaves so tightly to that heritage that it inherits all the excitement and energy of the old media. It knows why we love movies and trashy books and comics, and plays up to that. We don’t keep playing Max Payne simply because the game itself is well-made; we love it because it’s a bombastic send-up of everything pulp and horrible. In spirit and attitude, it’s the ultimate action movie and the ultimate comic.

So: Demons’ Souls is fantastic, on a gamic level. But not every game has to be Demons’ Souls. And not every game should be. Games that go in the exact opposite direction are often just as marvelous.

Guest Article: Your Social Network Sucks

Morgon Kanter writes about an irritating new trend in game design.

The first time I ever played an MMORPG online was in 1996. It was called Medievia, and it was back in the days when “MMOs” were really just called “MUDs”, short for Multi-User Dungeons (anyone remember those?). The first time I ever played a video game online was in 1999. I was 11 years old, and I had just gotten my hands on a shiny new copy of Unreal Tournament. For those of you not old enough to remember, Unreal Tournament was, at that point, considered to be the greatest multiplayer shooter ever made. It even managed to accomplish this when most of the world was still playing it on dial-up.

Unreal Tournament, in all its account-free glory

Medievia was the first and last time I ever felt it necessary to make an account for a game. It was natural, really: it’s a persistent world where you’re expected to log in and continue where you last left off. Medievia was even a little unusual about that when compared to other MUDs, because you didn’t lose your equipment when you logged off. Unreal Tournament did not require me to sign up for account. I don’t even think the developers had conceived of the notion of requiring dial-up users to log in to their weak, easily-DDoSed servers in West Nowhereville before playing the greatest multiplayer game ever made. If one of them did, I have this little fantasy in my head wherein said person walked into CliffyB’s office and brought it up to him: “So, CliffyB, do you think we should make everybody sign up for an account and log in to play multiplayer?” To this, CliffyB would dutifully reply: “That’s the most fucking retarded thing I’ve ever heard.”

Fast forward a bit under a decade, and the most fucking retarded thing that my fantasy CliffyB has ever heard has gained some traction. I don’t really know where this idea started, though I have a few ideas: Xbox Live for the original Xbox, and Steam. On both places it makes sense: the former because you had to pay for it so of course you had to log in to play, and the latter because all the games you bought ended up tied to the account so of course you had to log in to play. But wait! Now the concept has expanded…to individual games? Now I need to log in somewhere to play multiplayer on a PC game, where I don’t have to pay for the privilege? This isn’t like Steam, where you log in when your computer boots up to access your games — all your games. Now I’m expected to launch an individual game, then fill in a username and password in order to get online and shoot people.

UT3, on the other hand, demands you make an account.

My first brush with this terrible idea came, rather ironically, with Unreal Tournament 3, where after booting the game up I was expected to do these foreign actions like “create an account” and “log in” in order to play with other people online. I don’t see why this is necessary — it wasn’t necessary in Unreal Tournament, or Unreal Tournament 2004. (The realistic answer is probably “it’s not necessary, but they want to see and control who is playing their game” or in industry-speak “preventing piracy.”) Part of me is glad that that game did so terribly for that reason; I absolutely cannot stand having to sign up for an account to play a game I already paid for. It’s even worse now that the game is on Steam, where first you download it to your Steam account and then once you launch the game you have to make another separate account. WTF, man? Could you imagine if you had to do that for every game you own? But wait, you say, that’s just for multiplayer. UT3 is a multiplayer game, so making an account is okay, right? What about single player? Funny you should mention that…

Turns out that requiring accounts for single-player games is also gaining traction. Dragon Age: Origins with its “social network” is a well-known example (required for the DLC), and anything made by Ubisoft now gets a special mention for the doubly asinine requirement of remaining online while you are playing even though it’s a single player game! Now, Ubisoft is absolutely terrible, and there is absolutely no redeeming feature in that model. But the thing with Dragon Age: Origins, that doesn’t have to be so bad. But there is just one thing…and it’s the same thing that bugged me so much about UT3. How many people bought Dragon Age over Steam? Given how it was in the best-sellers list for a while, I’m willing to bet the answer to that question is “a lot”. Now, with Steam, I am already signed up for an account. I signed up for this account the first time I bought games with Steam. This account is used for multiplayer in a number of Steam-based games (not just games published by Valve). Does it seem a little annoying to anyone else to have to sign up for *another* account, solely for Dragon Age, just for the DLC? Couldn’t they have just used my damn Steam settings?!

All things considered, Dragon Age is pretty tame. I don’t care about their stupid “social network”, but at least it doesn’t require me to run the Games for Windows Live client to play the game, which some games on Steam do require. That makes even less sense to me — I bought the game on Steam. STEAM. Why do I have to download and run ANOTHER stupid client just to play the fucking game?

Really, Bioware? You want me to blog about my DA experiences on your social network?

This deal with creating new accounts to play games (multiplayer or otherwise) is getting out of hand. I recently bought a pack of indie games on Steam. I generally expect indie games to be free of the nonsense and general stupidity over these meta-gaming issues that plague larger development and publishing houses. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that I had to sign up for accounts — separately — for two of these games. I see no reason to not name and shame, so let’s do that: Altitude, and Galcon Fusion. Seriously guys, what were you thinking? I have over eighty games in my Steam account. Just think of what that would be like if I had to sign up for a separate account for every one of these. Think about that for a minute, developers. Can you start to see the problem?

I’m not entirely uncharitable here. I can understand why even small game studios would want people to have accounts for stat tracking or other sorts of persistent information (or “fighting piracy”). But making me sign up for another account when I bought your game over Steam is inexcusable. If you want to handle your own accounts, you need to come up with a way to make the Steam account details automatically transfer over. I actually brought this up to the developers of Altitude, to which they replied that they couldn’t because of privacy issues. That’s a good joke, guys. Privacy issues. As if I’m not going to go sign up for an account so I can play the game I just bought. Make it transfer! Bother Valve until they make some API calls to support it, if Steam doesn’t already! It’s not impossible. It’s not even that hard. So do it already. Stop dodging the issue or issuing these weak mea culpas, because I don’t want to have to make and remember separate accounts for all 83 of my Steam games.

CAGE MATCH: PART TWO: Indigo Retrospective*

I haven’t played Heavy Rain, as I don’t own a PS3, but I have played the hell out of Indigo Prophecy, David Cage’s prior attempt at the interactive-story genre. When I picked it up, I’d just returned from an exhausting term abroad, and I wanted to sit back and enjoy a reactive game, something without statistics or strategy—basically, anything that wasn’t Dragon Age. So: Indigo Prophecy. I finished it in under two days. Then, like Jane Goodall emerging from the sweaty depths of the forest, I reemerged into society, slightly the worse for wear. Like Jane Goodall, I’d made important discoveries about the animal kingdom. Namely, I had discovered that David Cage is an absurd beast with a humorlessly bad taste in pulp fiction.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Indigo Prophecy. I thought it was an absolute riot. But the story was awful, and the controls were absurd, and I never knew exactly what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, which was also pretty unpleasant. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoy bad community theater: it was comfortable, not too taxing, and charming in an embarassing kind of way. Whenever I see bad community theater, I want to leap up onstage and protect all those terrible little actors from the criticism of the outside world, and I felt the same way about Prophecy. I didn’t want to compliment David Cage myself, but I wanted him to receive comments, abstractly, from somewhere: I wanted him to feel good about himself, even though he’d made a pretty questionable game.

What makes it so terrible? The controls are, in fact, awful. The disconnect between what you are doing with your hands (infamously, of course, playing Simon Says) and what your characters are doing on the screen is occasionally so unreasonable that it bears no excuse. So much has been written about this. I find it unnecessary to add anything.

According to Me, reader of this many books, the plot is also horrifically bad. I can’t justify turning this into an outright spoilerfest, but those who haven’t played it should know that they may understand only around 60% of the plot. It is a mélange of unrelated science fiction and horror tropes, cobbled together in the least convincing way. The final hour of the game consists of a showdown between, basically, two opposing tropes: teams of secret soldiers who represent different science fiction clichés actually fight and kill each other with guns. I found this hilariously symbolic. Furthermore, that final hour develops jarringly: a very filmic ‘cliffhanger’ signals a kind of act-switch, and most of the player choice that took place in the beginning is rendered meaningless afterwards. The tropes move in and take over, the illusion of agency dissolves, and the player is left wondering how the hell the plot got where it seems to have arrived. Game suffers to story here in a big way, yeah, but story suffers too, in that it’s a bad story.

But: independence? Uniqueness? Yes. The game has it.

I played Prophecy off a 10-day Dragon Age high, and I was sick of the kind of choice-making that characterizes DA. The choices in Bioware games are simply too present. Will making this decision cut me off from awesome content? Will I lose a chance at a cool party member? There’s so much content and so much choice in these games that the player can actually reign with a crazy tyranny over the plot, doing whatever he or she pleases to see whatever content he or she wants. Mass Effect, with its stupid achievements for playing through with different party members, actually encourages this kind of illusion-breaking manipulation. Now, I know that you don’t have to play a Bioware game this way, but the temptation for me is overwhelming. I want my party members. I want my absurd dialog options. If they’re there, I’m going to game the system until I get them.

Prophecy eschews this kind of analytical, manipulative play. Stuff happens, fast. You don’t have time to think about it. In order to enjoy this game, you have to give in to the writers and just let their silly story play itself out.  And when you do that, it’s fun! Nonsense occurs, and you react! You punch those fucking buttons! Snap at your boss? Yes, please! Today we’re angry! Comfort your brother? Totally. No time to think. No matter what you impulsively choose to say, characterization stays pretty solid throughout, and even when the player makes discordant decisions—decisions along the lines of the much-maligned Heavy Rain sex scene—those crazy lines are delivered with conviction by the darling cardboard cast. It’s diverting, in the Jane Austen sense of the word. It doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s the weirdest thing ever, and it’s got a confidence and a ballsy drive to be unique that more than makes up for the fact that its foundational element—its story—is a load of steaming bullcrap.

I hope Cage wasn’t too set on changing lives when he made Prophecy. It doesn’t. I think people are nervous about Heavy Rain because Cage wants it to change your life, to change the way you perceive games in general. And it seems to be actually working as a challenge to the industry, a cannon-shot over the bows, so to speak. Prophecy was more like a challenge fired out of a potato-gun. But if Heavy Rain were about nonsense science fiction instead of serial child-killers, if its emotional plot was mostly-shallow twenty-something romance instead of nervous broken-dad misery, people wouldn’t feel so challenged. David Cage figured out that battling giant green Aztec beetles was less than emotionally-compelling, so he refocused: when he says that he’s working along the same tradition as the rest of his previous work, he’s wrong. There’s something pathetic and nonthreatening about Prophecy, but Heavy Rain’s been doing a whole lot of threatening. I’m pretty sure Cage figured out that the best way to hit people emotionally was to drop the canned sci-fi chatter and go for situations that were (marginally) more-relatable.

*AW YEAH. I just typed that.

Galcon Fusion is good times, some of the time

The gulf between multiplayer and singleplayer Galcon is like the gulf between an adorable puppy and a dead puppy that is already rotting.

Actually, that’s very unfair. But there is a huge divide. In my opinion, this iPhone-game-turned-PC-clickyfest is practically only worth playing on multiplayer. Multiplayer, particularly the team multiplayer, is a strategy-rich experience; the singleplayer is a dull, brief, staccato process that seems particularly ill-suited to the PC. I’ve heard good things about it on the iPhone, but when you’re playing thirty-second strategy games in your hand, while, as one reviewer put it, brushing your teeth, that’s a very different experience from hunching in front of your computer while the whole screen fills with robot strategy triangles. It’s simply not interesting enough to deserve all that space in front of your face.

Somebody got owned. By triangles.

Because that’s what this game is all about: circles and triangles. Lean, lean visuals. Admirable depth evolving out of a very slight, pared-down set of mechanics. And the developers tried to give this PC version some more totally unneeded complexity by including a seething mess of ill-explained singleplayer game modes that seem to have no reason for existing. And then there’s the AI. It comes in ten levels, some or most of which I could not actually tell apart from one another while playing. So, make of that what you will. This is a game which deserved more than to be weighted down with a million irrelevancies.

This is mainly because the multiplayer is so fantastic. I played multiplayer once last week—during finals week at my college—for over three hours straight. And it did not feel like a waste of time.

See, Galcon multiplayer is is more explicitly a kind of communication than it is in any other strategy game I’ve tried, simply because it’s so stripped down. The units are triangles; they point where they’re going. More triangles means more troops. No triangles means a player’s turtling. Everything that happens is right there on the table, ready for players to draw their own conclusions from. The pull and play of triangles is like a conversation between opponents.

The result is an incredible range of strategy—incredible, really, for a game with only one kind of troop, one kind of command, and automated unit production. By manipulating your troop output, you can trick enemies into thinking you have more or less troops than you actually do; by changing your troops’ direction mid-flight,y ou can pull off some impressive feints. And because your enemies here are people, not AI, the kind of strategy and trickery you can pull off is so much broader, so much more satisfying. There are such a diversity of viable strategies that by the time you’ve grasped the basic mechanics you’ve probably developed a distinctly personal play-style. And these styles stick out. The game is so slight in visuals that player behavior takes the absolute center stage. Other players in your game will know you by your favorite tricks. And you’ll know them by theirs. And team multiplayer is even more glorious—those games are all about wordless cooperation, about games turning on a dime, about perpetrating a fantastic kind of human chaos. It’s something that simply isn’t possible in the singleplayer.

So, the game has terrible music, unimpressive graphics, and a singleplayer mode that struck me as a waste of time. But it has a multiplayer that, out of a few bare-bones elements, inspires a pretty-much endless strategy experience. This is some really tight design. I am incredibly impressed with it. What I’m not impressed with, though, is the fact that the multiplayer servers go absolutely cold during much of the day, which makes it impossible for me to enjoy the one aspect of the game that I actually adore.

Actually, this is what the game looks like most of the time. A bit more placid, I'd say.

I got the game for two bucks as part of an indie bundle; knowing what I know now about the singleplayer and the multiplayer server situation, I’m not sure I would have bought the full ten dollar game just by itself. At any rate, there’s a free demo on Steam. I’d certainly recommend that, but since I bought the game already I don’t even know if that demo has multiplayer in it. I hope it does—this game certainly wants to show potential customers the best it has to offer, not the worst.

Wondered where we were all last week? We were doing finals. It was kind of a bitch. But we’re back now, and you’ll be seeing some interesting stuff soon!

Also, we are going to PAX East. More about that later.

ALSO ALSO, Galcon, regular iPhone Galcon, won the Innovation in Mobile Game Design award at the IGF last year. Here’s the dev’s– Phil Hassey’s–website.

That Badass Portal ARG

So, you’ve probably heard about the glut of crazy Valve news that’s popped up in the past week: Portal 2, Steam for Mac, all that jazz. When the alternatereality game announcing Portal 2 came up, I heard about it within half an hour or so and spent the whole night camping out on the Steam forums, watching people with actual tech skills solve it while I pretended to do homework. Fantastic times. Later, when I had the chance to describe the scope of the ARG to a few of my friends, I found time to reflect on what Valve actually did with that stuff. And it was still pretty astonishing to me, even after seeing it all come out.

Change the ending to a game you released three years ago to build hype on a sequel? If they’d done it badly, people would have been pissed, but since Valve are digital wizards whose fantastic PR and mastery of our fanboy/girl brains amounts to some kind of crazy blood magic, and because they’re effin brilliant, everyone was excited about it. It’s a new kind of game marketing. How often does that happen? Some people in the Valve forums were suggesting that Valve’s hiring of super-skilled MINERVA: Metastasis creator Adam Foster, who used to like to do his releases and updates in the style of ARGs, had something to do with this. Even if they hired him just for his crazy-good map design, they would have been justified; hiring a smart-as-hell mod designer for his self-promotion techniques is a bit more than that. It’s yet another example of how much Valve know what they’re doing.

Apparently some people hate ARGs. But I am not these people, and I have never met any of them. I actually prefer it. Television advertising for games is usually a bit condescending, when you think about it: all that prerendered video, all the absurdly-brief in-game footage, clipped down to just the finishing moves and the glitter, as if they’re trying to hide something. And the enormous quantity of advertising they do on game review sites, which are ostensibly there to provide consumers with unbiased opinions, can actually be unethical.

But stuff like the Portal ARG is special. It treats consumers with a certain amount of praise and consideration that traditional marketing techniques don’t: it’s an intelligence-stimulating, community-flattering kind of thing. If Valve thought we were all dumb as bricks, it would never have decided to do the release as an ARG. If Valve didn’t give a shit about its community, it wouldn’t have done an ARG. The other kinds of hilarious advertising they do, like the TF2 updates, are drenched with an exuberant irony that also grants intelligence to the consumer, but without being exclusive, or telling jokes meant to leave anyone confused. It doesn’t take much brainpower to appreciate the Saxton Hale comic, but it’s dumb in a current, conscious kind of way. AN APE WILL DIE ON EVERY PAGEThere are plenty of cultural references in there, such as the fake comic covers, for anyone who has the context to understand them. It speaks of extraordinary care on Valve’s part. But this is what we’ve come to expect from Valve, so even though we’re excited, surprised, and appreciative, we’re not as surprised as we would have been if, say, Ubisoft pulled this.

But if this kind of thing catches on elsewhere, what could happen? Will it become typical for game studios to produce, say, mid-season DLC designed to link games with their sequels? That would be cool, but it would be coolest if the DLC was free. Will more companies start putting the attention and care into their fanbases that Valve already has? I bet a lot are trying, but they don’t have Steam, so it’s harder for them. Or is this a sign that games as products could become more fluid, that auto-updates to official game plot could become a typical phenomenon? Maybe, but there’s a lot of danger in that: mishandling such a thing could be seen as an invasion of player experience, a breach of trust. Or will this inject more energy into PC gaming as a platform experience—the only platform where games and the internet lie so close together? PC games have always been particularly creative in comparison to console games, and today we’ve got an indie community with a lot of energy and innovation—a community Valve draws from. It would be nice to see more developers get excited about PC gaming again because of that innovation, but we’re always going to have to deal with the hobbling millstone of piracy, too, won’t we?

Ambiguous situations and troubling questions aside, I see the ARG as a good sign for PC gaming. People still care, guys. There are a million bajillion of us out there, and not everybody thinks we’re idiots. It’s awesome.