Monument Valley

Many people lament the current state of the games being developed:

“There’s too many games, that are not really games.”

“Games are too easy today.”

To me, none of this is a problem. It simply goes to show that there’s an increasing diversity in the games being made and the people playing them.

This is a good thing. In fact, I’ve already written about my love for diversity in games:

All of this is to say, that if you think the term “game” refers to a homogenous field, you should probably look a bit closer.

Games are not just about shooting or sneaking or walking or jumping or solving puzzles or driving cars or even overcoming challenges.

Games can make us smile and laugh, they can make us feel fear or hope, they can make us feel small or invincible, they can make us question what we take for granted or they can, when they’re really good, make us think about what it means to be human.

Games are simply experiences, that can be about anything, that can come in any shape and size, and if we prove unable to ever come up with one label, that catches what all games has in common, that’s not a problem at all.

No, it’s actually a testament to why I love games in the first place.

Now I just finished Monument Valley, and it made me think again about some of these discussions.

Shaun Musgrave wrote about this in his review over at Touch Arcade:

There are games that lean more on giving you interesting play mechanics and challenging you to master them in order to overcome some sort of challenge, and there are games that lean more on the side of giving you an experience. You get rare cases where the line is straddled fairly evenly, but for the most part, games are going to do one of those things very well and give less attention to the other. Both types have their fans, and many gamers love both, but when a game comes along that strongly favors one type and does it well, you often see confusion from the opposite camp. I say this because even though I expect it to get a lot of well-deserved praise, a lot of people aren’t going to like Monument Valley very much.

Monument Valley is a fairly short game, and while there’s definitely more game-like features (e.g. challenges & puzzles) in MV than, say, Dear Esther, a huge part of my fascination still has to do with “just being there”.

The first thing that struck me was how absolutely gorgeous the game is, and how the combination of aesthetics create an atmosphere so dense, that sometimes I just stopped playing altogether to take it all in.

The game is clearly inspired by M. C. Escher, and works like the impossible stairs of “Relativity“:

Escher

Ken Wong, designer of MV, talks a bit more about sources of inspiration:

“Escher is just an easy way to explain the game to people, there are so many other bits and pieces that inspire the game. Windowsill, a game by Vectorpark was a big influence. We talk about Fez, Portal, Sword & Sworcery and Ico a lot too. The aesthetics of the game have been informed by everything from bonsai plants and poster design, to arabic calligraphy and Tarsem’s film The Fall.”

With a direct connection to Escher, the primary challenge in MV lies in figuring out the quirky and impossible (but very consistent) spatial logic. Most levels are very straightforward, but an occasional one had me experimenting for a bit before moving forward.

Sometimes, solving the puzzles sent me straight back to just absorbing the atmosphere, watching how the turn of a lever made the world change in beautiful ways.

As a whole, Monument Valley may not be the most gamey or challenging of games, but who cares?

Well, many people do, and that’s just fine.

This game or any game can’t be all things to all people at all times. To me, it was simply a wonderful, condensed and completely captivating experience of exploring a beautiful universe with an intriguing spatiality.

Candy Crush Saga

I usually try to play all the games, that people talk about. The big AAA hits, the small indie gems, the hugely popular games for handheld devices and anything in between. I do this out of a mix of professional interest and my eternal personal curiosity. I have much to learn about games, and playing as many games as possible is one way to further my insight. Therefore it’s a bit odd, that I, without making any particularly conscious decision, haven’t paid much attention to the biggest free-2-play games recently. Games such as Clash of Clans, Hay Day and Candy Crush Saga (though I have played a fair amount of Subway Surfers). Regarding Candy Crush, the situation has changed recently.

The frustration embedded in that tweet is a nod to the amount of time, a game like this can easily consume. I don’t believe games are “addictive” the same way cocaine is addictive (this is not to say, that games can’t be part of, let’s say, “addictive-like issues”, but it’s a complicated matter, that I might talk about in another context. Not now). I also don’t think “addictive” is anything to strive for as game designers. BUT a game like CCS, it’ll devour hour upon hour.

Many people seem to experience this:

First impression? Yeah, as everybody has pointed out by now, the people at King has certainly played Popcap’s Bejeweled:

At the same time, CCS adds many new mechanics & challenges to the mix, and there’s a nice variation from level to level. Score a certain amount of points (sometimes within a certain time frame), clear some (increasingly tough) gel, move “ingredients” to the bottom of the screen, combinations of these etc.

Without knowing Bejeweled in detail, I definitely don’t see CCS as a rip-off. It’s clearly inspired, but that’s the case with any game.

Is it a deeply rewarding experience?

No, I don’t think so.

That, however, does not mean it isn’t satisfying to play. It very clearly appeals to the human fondness of identifying patterns, as described by Raph Koster:

Games are puzzles. they are about cognition and learning to analyze patterns. When you’re playing a game, you’ll only play it until you master the pattern. Once you’ve mastered it, the game becomes boring.

All the crazy visual & auditory feedback also adds to the pleasant feeling of accomplishment (though you can certainly argue, that the feedback doesn’t always feel meaningful or proportionate):

These elements make up a game, that brilliantly captures my attention, and even though it’s perfect for brief playing sessions, I often play for as long as I can with the lives I have.

candycrush_iapBeing a free-2-play game, it, unsurprisingly, makes numerous attempts to make me buy stuff (in-app purchases, IAP). I can buy “boosters” that helps me blow up the candy, and when I run out of lives, I can pay to continue playing. If I don’t, I’ll have to wait. Now, I don’t have any qualms with free-2-play as such. I don’t think it’s evil or unethical or that it’s killing gaming. It can be done in good ways, it can be done in bad ways.

But, as I suddenly remind myself, this is not an essay on free-2-play. I don’t think I’ll ever write any such thing. Other people are already doing that, and that much better than me.

Suffice it to say, that so far, I haven’t felt the urge to pay anything, yet I’m having a good time. This stance might be a self-induced challenge – how far can I get on the cheap? I have a feeling, that as levels are getting harder, it probably becomes increasingly difficult to maintain my approach (though this piece suggests, that “70% of the people on the last level haven’t paid anything”)

You get obvious advantages from paying, as the game becomes easier and playable for longer stretches of time, but the game is perfectly enjoyable without them.

Summing up, this video is not entirely fair, but it’s also funny, so I guess it all evens out:

GTA V

Initially, GTA V mostly just annoyed me. Annoying characters, annoying gameplay, just annyoing. I don’t care much for driving around, waiting for something to happen, and I had absolutely no interest in the characters. I found the light (yes, the actual light) in the game world to be awfully pretty, though.

GTAV_light

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point, I started to care. It’s not comparable to the way I cared about Walther White or Ellie or the entire cast from The Wire, but I do care. I want to know, what happens to them. I want to be there, when it happens (yes, I would also like to actually influence what happens to them, but I’m afraid that’s not an option, as someone decided most of that beforehand).

GTA is an unruly beast, a giant mess, trying to be so many things, all at once.

It’s a huge open world, where you, allegedly, can do more or less what you want to. Thinking about it, I don’t want to do all that much, really (though some of these stupid things are somewhat funny). I don’t care about the possibility of playing tennis, buying stocks, going to bars, doing a triathlon, or even chasing the infamous GTA easter eggs.

I am impressed by the scale and the attention to detail. I genuinely am. That excitement wears off ,though. Sometimes it’s just irritating, because everything is so far away (yeah, yeah, you can get a cab, I know) and driving does get old.

At times, the scale allows for a wondrous sense of exploration, and some of the missions use the world really well.

To an extent, it all feels alive. Like it’s all happening, with or without me.

GTA is pretty obviously satire, a caricature of society, of people, of technology, of popular culture. While often not particularly clever, but there are moments, where I just sit and laugh. Like this conversation between two (of the three) main characters, Michael and Trevor:

“Protohipster”. Yeah, I laughed.

The same goes for some of the in-game commercials, which are mostly experienced when listening to the radio while driving:

Lifeinvader

What GTA is, is a game for people who play games. It’s not a game I would readily recommend to anybody not familiar with games. It’s simply too unwieldy and overwhelming. Too much.

Just look at this “gameplay trailer”:

I’m convinced that only people playing games like GTA would care about most of what is promoted as “unique” about this game. The three characters. All the things to do. The scale. The technical prowess.

Oh, and I guess only people playing games like this could possibly accept or ignore the terrible ways, in which GTA depicts women. It’s a huge discussion, and many fine pieces have been written on this topic, so I’ll do nothing more than to quote Helen Lewis:

“Yes, it’s misogynistic and violent, but I still admire Grand Theft Auto”.

All this being said, I am happy that I care to spend this many hours with any one game. Even though both game, story and characters are terribly frustrating at times, and often just plain terrible. I like a lot about this game, but damn, there’s much that I don’t feel particularly excited about.

…but now I gotta see it through to the end (meaning the end of the story, not the end in any completionist “gotta-do-it-all” kind of way).

If you want to read more about GTA V, here are some of the articles I can recommend:

Johnny Kilhefner – Death by Los Santos

Tom Bissell – Poison Tree: A letter to Niko Bellic about Grand Theft Auto V