28 January 2012

On reviewing indie games, and the "indie game bias"

As you may be aware, the issue has come up in gaming press before of what exactly constitutes an "indie" game. My understanding is that, it's not a trivial matter, and, well, nobody really knows.

You can say that it's indie if it's self-published, which is the traditional definition (eg. for music). But unlike the music industry, there are huge game devs which self-publish, too. Valve, for one (and now with Origin, arguably EA as well). And then with online distribution, it gets really messy.

You also leave out companies like Paradox, which act as publishers quite often, but seem closely associated with the "indie game" thing despite that.

You can think about the budget, or studio size, but there are plenty of small developers who make decidedly non-indie, very mainstream games.

You can try define it in terms of ethos, but that's a downright titanic job. So is there a simple way of resolving this? I think so.

What is an indie game?

To me, for present purposes, none of this really matters. The only reason that we, as game consumers, even have a use for the indie/not-indie distinction, is that there is a certain class of "indie" developers who try to innovate and be original, and there is a pole of "mainstream" devs who just play it safe and take as little risk as possible, producing more of whatever is popular at the time.

There's the things associated with these indie games, too: They tend to be quirky, weird, they don't fit nicely into the traditional genres of gaming, they're difficult to describe quickly in terms of existing genres and conventions (unless you do something like "Game A meets Game B meets Game C! With dinosaurs and a leveling system!"). And this is why we, actual gamers, care: Because it's so common to just not want to play more of the same old, and because there's this pleasure of being exposed to an unfamiliar combination of narrative style, visuals, sound, gameplay mechanics and game structure, in other words an unfamiliar game. Remember the first time you played Portal? Yeah, kinda like that. (Incidentally, by this logic you could also reasonably rate Half-Life as not really that indie, since all it did was take a formula and refine and improve it greatly, as opposed to breaking any molds. It was, after all, a textbook FPS.)

Big, mainstream developers with managerial departments and shareholders can almost never afford to gamble by making games like this (or at least they never try), and independent developers often do. But just because nobody will distribute discs of your game, and you sell it from your own store at your website, doesn't mean you can't just make a clone. But it so happens (and if you think about it there are good reasons for it) that most people don't, and indie devs are more likely to produce these "indie" games.

So, I think "originality" is a good definition of "indie-ness" as far as a game consumer is concerned. In simpler language, it's good enough for reviews! Except... Well, originality is hard to define, and harder to measure. It's not very practical. It's hard to give games a score on originality, and do it right.

Well, there, I think I have come up with a clever idea: One other thing that seems to happen is, "indie" games are scarcely marketed, while soon after (and often before) release, a big mainstream game will be everywhere. When you have non-gamers asking about that game they have plastered all over the billboards, you know it's not an indie game you're dealing with. And if you don't advertise a cookie cutter title, who will possibly play it? (By the way, marketing departments are arguably the worst thing to happen to games media- they're the ones who pay for the reviewer bribes.)

So, why not use this as a heuristic: A game is "indie" (in the sense of being original and innovative; at this point we have abandoned any relation to distribution methods at all) if its marketing budget is big (either in relative or absolute terms, or both). Certainly, there is nothing stopping oh, Notch, from buying ad space left and right. But he doesn't. Nobody who produces indie games seems to.

Perhaps it's because indie devs are small, and can't afford it. Or perhaps uncertainty that comes with taking risks complicates return-on-investment calculations for the advertisement budget. Maybe the guys who like making original games just aren't good at marketing. Who knows? But in the end, it doesn't matter: I can't think of a counter example- an innovative game with an oversized marketing budget. And until the developers realize marketing exists, it seems like a decent enough criterion to use.

Note that, for my own convenience, I do not consider even the most blatant viral/stealth marketing to be"advertisement", nor are these part of my "marketing budget" as I use the term here - even though I imagine in reality the viral marketers would be paid by the marketing department. My reason is that, mainstream developers and publishers rarely seem to bother with large-scale (small-scale wouldn't matter) viral campaigns (if you don't count bribing or otherwise coercing reviewers), and when indie developers do, they are never large budget ones, so this doesn't interfere with our classification according to marketing budget. The other reason that it's really tough to decide where word-of-mouth ends and actual advertisement starts. What if you happen to know the dev, and you write a slightly more positive review because of that? What about if you trust and like him based on personal experience, and then say his upcoming game will probably be good? Not an impossible distinction, probably, but also not a very productive one.

There's an obvious exception to this: No one in their right mind would call either the post-EA acquisition Bioware an indie developer or Dragon Age 2 an indie game. But there was that scandal with Metacritic... So here, I'll apologize and take yet another cop out. You see, seeing as how blatant and obvious this was, I'll simply say that stealth marketing doesn't count as stealth unless it's kept well-concealed. You may say that kind of appeal to the consequences is nonsense, but suppose ElectronicVision Marketing decides to spend a trillion dollars on building a laser and burning an enormous ad on the moon for their Call of Honor: Modernfield 5. Suppose they then make a press release saying, "gee, thanks fans! Guess you thought our game was so good, you built a moon-writer laser just for saying so!". Would you really consider this stealth marketing, when nobody is being fooled?

Lastly, this is, after all, a heuristic. It's a rule of thumb without guarantee of absolute accuracy. It's a simple and easy to use one, which why you would want to use it at all. But for instance, if a hypothetical game were to exist with a minimal marketing budget, which clearly does not innovate in any smallest way, there's nothing stopping you from overruling that rule of thumb.

Who gets special treatment? 

So now that we've properly identified our indie, and not-indie, games, we come to my original motivation for writing this: It's fairly common for game journalists, especially ones which are regarded as having more integrity (read: not known shill for games with gigantic marketing budgets), to be biased when reviewing indie games, and overlook flaws which they would not ignore in mainstream games. I won't dig for examples of this- it's an impression I am very confident about, and have had others similarly express confidence in. I will just hope you know what I'm talking about: the infamous indie game bias.

Now, assuming we agree so far, we can discuss the reasons for this.

Firstly, if one likes original games, as you and me and the supposed audience of this blog and the journalists who cater to people who care about integrity (read: intelligent adults) are wont to, one may simply let fondness for a game that supplied that much-sought originality to get in the way of being objective. I mean, sometimes you just like a game so much that you stop noticing its most obvious flaws: just ask the Dwarf Fortress players (ask me).

Second, it may just be that different is confused with better. The concept of (objectively non-superior) novelty by itself producing, temporary positive reactions is a well-known psychological phenomenon. And really, psychology aside, we're all familiar with the expression "until the novelty wears off".

Probably you could come up with a number of other, similar reasons besides the above two. But I'd like to skip those, and go straight to the one I consider most crucial: There are some big players in today's industry, and historically there usually have been. They're businesses, and they try their best to keep the competition down. The indie games, with their non-existent marketing budget, are at a disadvantage against the latest big release. A reviewer who thinks that indie games do more good for the industry and the medium than big name releases (a common sentiment) would be tempted to "level the playing field" by giving indie games an easier time.

Now, here's why I call it crucial, and what this post (or essay, if you're feeling generous) is really about: Would that be so wrong?

Before I continue, I'd also like to mention that aside from the above, there's also another complication: It's easy to not be corporate shill. I mean, you know when a game sucks and you are only giving it a good score due to conflict of interest. You could hypothetically have a game reviewer who was taken in by the ads on TV and fooled into writing a great review for a crap game, but we're discussing here people who write for an audience of intelligent adults. Thus, the reviewers themselves are assumed to be intelligent adults. Seeing as how they set out with the explicit aim of writing an objective critique of the product, I think it's safe to also assume that they will be more or less immune to the effects of marketing.

On the other hand, especially with my first two stated reasons, you are giving a game a better score because of subconscious bias. By definition, you may be doing it without noticing it, no matter how much you want to avoid it. There's scientific methods of dealing with this, but video game reviews are not science, and they are not even necessarily objective. So the best that can be done is to try really hard not to be biased.

The issue of those whom I quite callously call "shills" is doubtless a much bigger, serious and damaging one in today's video game journalism. But on the other hand, the indie game bias is insipid and much harder to deal with, both for the reviewers themselves and for the audience trying to decide if the reviewer is biased or not.

Leveling the playing field

To get back to the main topic: All the rest of the above aside, in the event that a reviewer is faced with the choice of whether to speak more highly of a game simply because it's an "indie" game (according to my above, bizarro, marketing-related definition), what should he do?

Well, I'm sure this is ultimately another complicated issue, and it's certainly not a trivial one to me. But some things are clear: You cannot simply praise every old indie game to high heaven, because you'll end up saying to people that a game is great when in fact it's crap, with arguably the only redeeming feature being that it has a novel gameplay mechanic -and nothing else- and doesn't even do that mechanic well. That's not nice. Besides, if games have or are to have artistic (or even intellectual in general) value, and be anything beyond simple escapism (which I and others believe they can be), we (that is both the reviewers and the game's target audience, and really if a game is to serve intellectual function then the whole audience should be considered critics) as the audience have a duty and obligation to inform the game creators of their shortcomings, so that they are able to improve. So I think there is no doubt that whether indie game bias is fundamentally bad or not, too much of it is bad for sure.

But then, if you just acted completely impartial, (if that is even possible, and I already made the point that it probably isn't), the big-names might crush many indie attempts and the end result is innovation being stifled in the industry in lieu of compensating for unoriginality with enormous marketing budgets. We definitely don't want more of that! That's already what we complain about!

So, here's my compromise: Be as biased as you like. Give the game crazy breaks for being indie. Overlook glaring flaws. But at the end of it all, acknowledge your own bias, and specify exactly how much of your praise is due to the game's merits, and how much is simply coming from the "indie game brownie points pool".

Of course you can't ever know perfectly well when you are being biased- but it seems if you try, you can still catch a lot of it. And if before you are about to misrepresent a game, you come right out and say "I am now going to misrepresent the game according to my bias", there's not much risk of anyone being misled or deceived... Unless they want to be.

You see, there is one last thing I'd like to bring up, and that is the, in retrospect obvious, observation that indie game bias is not exclusive to reviewers. It happens with consumers, too. If you just think about it for a moment, the underlying causes of reviewer indie game bias that I've talked about earlier are perfectly applicable to consumers. I can easily recall times when based on reviews, trailers, screenshots and what not, an indie game seemed to be crap and not something I would waste time and money on, but I decided to give it a shot simply because it's indie and I thought it deserves a break. Then there's all those games which you buy, and they are unplayable crap, but you're fine with it because you believe it has potential, and you want to support the developer and make sure they have a chance at realizing that potential!

Thus, disclosure of bias in a biased review also serves the function of reminding the reader that, while the game may not necessarily measure up to the same standards as mainstream games would be held up to, he should remember that it is an indie game, and that if he has a habit of embracing his consumer indie bias, now is a great time to lend it an ear. It's also a handy way of maximizing the longevity of a review- because a game which is remarkable for being original today will no longer be original, and thus as good (because we already consider originality a merit in and of itself), to someone reading the review years after the release - you can just subtract the bias and use that score.

I'd like to add, too, that this isn't simply about saying a game is better than it really is, simply because you like it for some subjective, very personal reason. Indie game bias is very relevant precisely because it's not personal: It's prevalent with reviewers and consumers, and it has rational basis (as I have hopefully shown above), being a moral imperative consequent to the dynamics of the market that the video game industry is dependent on.

Review: Boss S01

It seems I tend to write mostly about negatives in this blog, and if I do write about the positives of a thing it's usually because they inspired me to some idea which I thought was interesting. I'm actually quite okay with this, except...

Neither of this applies to Boss. There aren't any significant flaws that I feel are worth complaining about (shock!). While I intensely enjoyed the experience of watching Season 1, and can't wait for the next season, I find myself at a bit of a loss at describing exactly what is so great about it. But it is great. The greatness is not underrated- currently the Metacritic score is 78, and the user score is 7.7. I would have been happier with something like 85 or 90, but it's not a huge deal. I started this blog in the first place because I thought I had something to say that wasn't really said- and while I didn't really make a detailed survey of Boss's reviews, from what I've seen, most of what I thought should be said, was, and is said.

I suppose I liked the characters, even though they are all corrupt, vile scum. It was interesting how the justification for their evil-ness was not ham-fistedly shoved in my face, nor was it ignored. I don't know a damn thing about what politicians are really like, granted, but they seemed real enough. The correspondence to reality aside, I was not irritated by any nagging "But why does he simply not do that!?" type questions.

It's a bit weird, really. Everyone in this show is a despicable, contemptible asshole. I think some were meant to be "sympathetic"- in that they aren't explicitly and deliberately conniving jerks who rub their hands wıth glee in anticipation of their future exploits as jerks. I still hated those "not-deliberate-jerks"; perhaps in part because they were the good guys but they didn't win, and I didn't like that, admittedly. But even so, they were also cowards, or weak-willed, or stupid, or delusional. While unlike the "villains" of the show I was somewhat sorry to see them get screwed, they always "brought it upon themselves" in a sense. The funny thing is, sometimes they only brought things upon themselves because they really had no choice, or they were simply unaware of certain crucial facts which changed everything... Yeah, I liked the story, too. I guess it's sort of the thing that TvTropes would call a Thirty Xanatos Pileup- everyone is constantly scheming and the schemes inevitably overlap and collide.

It's not just that everyone is a chessmaster character, though. That's another thing I liked- they're just reasonably intelligent people as you would expect from those in their station, and they are understandably doing the best they can to look after themselves. It all rather makes sense.

The story, similarly, is enjoyable to follow as it constantly casts characters in very different lights from episode to episode. The finale's "big reveal", in particular, was incredible to watch.

I liked the stylistic aspects of it, too. For one, the dialogue was lovely. It was perhaps somewhat fantastical compared to what such people would sound like in real life, but who cares? It was wordy, it was fancy, it was elegantly convoluted, it was half-poetry, especially during the monologues, and I loved every bit of it. It was interesting, unique and fresh. I didn't feel like I was being fed lines from some big book of stock TV-series lines. They weren't probably weren't very original when judged by actual literature standards, but for a modern, mainstream TV-series? The dialogue in Boss blew me away.

The music was also perfect. For others it may have been just good, perhaps, but when I heard Erik Satie playing not once, not twice, but three times, I was already in love with the show as far as the music is concerned. There were plenty of slow, tense scenes with characters sitting in silence, and the minimalist piano score worked great for me in those.

Boss is basically a story about a corrupt (he's not exactly corrupt in the sense of being a cartoon kleptomaniac embezzling politician- but just like everyone else, he's not above ignoring ethics when his career is at stake, and it often is) Chicago mayor (played by Frasier!) trying to hold on to his power. It's a series where half the characters are magnificent bastards, and the other half, just bastards. You hate all of them, but there's this morbid fascination with which one will screw over which one next, and how they will all get out of the most recent trainwreck.

Yes, thematically, it's about corruption, unrestrained ambition driving underhanded measures, but also grim determination. "You survive one day at a time." the characters keep reiterating, and it actually works. It's very interesting to watch it work, too. Not just because the plot is interesting, and the characters are interesting, but because the whole spectacle is so polished and sleek in its rendering.

Score: 5/5

27 January 2012

Spoilers, and why you should love them

There's this idea that you should avoid spoilers in reviews. Or rather, if you do spoil something, legions of drooling imbeciles assault you in staggering waves, foaming incessantly at the mouth with rage at your vile transgression. One might almost get the impression that spoilers are a bad thing!

Now if you've read even a bit of this blog, you'll know that I don't care if there's spoilers. I tend to make the token rejection of spoiler etiquette and just get on with my spoiling. Well, good news is, I've decided to actually explain myself! Bad news is that I never realized what an awful decision that is... But anyway, spoilers.

Spoilers usually means narrative spoilers. You can spoil other things. The chaps over at RPS think you can spoil mechanics. Personally, I find that silly. Car maintenance is a difficult, thankless job, with plenty of stress, dirt and physical labor. Calling these working class men spoiled is quaintly bourgeoisie... Oh, what? Oh! Oh. I see... But seriously, it's a legit class of spoiler they've found, and a nice concept. But in practice spoil-able mechanics are very rare, and ones which matter if spoiled are rarer still.

So what was I saying? Right. Spoilers? That means narrative spoilers.

And with regard to narrative spoilers, there are two kinds of stories: The whodunit, and everything else (let's call those "hedunnit"). What is a whodunit? It's a logic puzzle in narrative format. It's a story which is written such that the primary enjoyment is derived from trying to guess the ending. The name comes from, well, those books where you have some guy kill some other guy, and this guy tries to find out who's, well, done it.

Why is it special, the whodunit? Because there is only one reason to read the whodunit, and that reason is eliminated by a spoiler. I say read, but it can easily be a movie, or a video game, or any kind of narrative medium. It doesn't actually have to be a narrative, either. Any logic puzzle with a non-obvious solution is also, in a sense, a whodunit, because the point is to figure out the mystery, and once you know the mystery, it's no longer interesting.

That's my point in a nutshell; it has two parts:
  • Spoilers are bad only if it's a whodunit
  • Whodunits are crap (for this reason) and you shouldn't read them anyway
This, of course, implies that I should always spoil, and if you're not upset, it's okay, and if you are upset, I've done you a service: I've spared you from hours of reading the whodunit just to find out that one bit at the end.


By virtue of my definitions, it's already okay to spoil non-whodunits, or "hedunnits", as it were. Because a hedunnit is not written with the assumption that the mystery is enough of a draw, it will have other positive qualities. Perhaps the narrative style is unique and revolutionary. Perhaps the characters are fascinating. Perhaps the analysis of the events and moral dilemmas that come up is insightful. Perhaps the story is simply told in such a way that it's exciting even if you have heard it before.

You know, all those positive qualities that we are used to look for in real books (snap). The draw of any book is a combination of the mystery plot and the literary merits. You could theoretically have a book which is evenly split between the two: it would not be rendered worthless if spoiled but would lose significant power. In fact, I might say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was such a film. (I keep talking about books, but that is for convenience's sake; if you pay attention you will see this is applicable to works in any medium which tells a story) However, in practice, this doesn't happen often- partly because there's no reason to try to do it. You either write a whodunnit, in which case it makes no sense to bother with serious literary pretensions when you could get the same bang for less buck and simply add lots of mystery, or you write a serious book in which case any mystery aspects are superfluous- you have to assume that your book will eventually become famous, the plot will become common knowledge, and yet it should still have the same value even then.

Thus people crafting stories will either make a whodunnit and focus on mystery, or ignore the mystery and focus on the other positive aspects, because no matter what your aim, it is always counterproductive to try to do both at the same time.

I mean, think of all the great literature that are regarded as classics. Does any of it really become less interesting after you learn the plot? If that was the case, they wouldn't be regarded as classics in the first place. (The season finale of HBO's Rome is one of my favorites. It's the one where -spoilers!- Brutus murders Caesar. If only those asshole historians hadn't spoiled it, huh?) And what about people who will hear about something, read the plot synopsis on wikipedia, and then decide that it's interesting and they want to read the whole thing? Obviously some books (and film, and games...) are spoiler-immune.

So if you know for sure that you have something with artistic value, there's no question that spoilers are fun. To claim otherwise is to suggest that this thing has no artistic qualities besides, and is only interesting for its mystery value (hence not being interesting to people who have read it, quite paradoxically).

Moreover, as I will show next, there is no reason to read whodunnits in the first place. Not only are they artistically bankrupt, they are bankrupt, period. When you have a whodunnit, it is still okay (and better!) to spoil it, because once you spoil, the uh, spoilee will no longer be compelled by their curiosity to waste time reading a book which becomes worthless the moment they finish reading it. You're doing them a service. Regardless of the situation, you should always spoil everything.


That's all well and good, but how is it that a whodunnit is objectively bad? People enjoy reading them sometimes, don't they? Then, by spoiling it, you are taking away their enjoyment, aren't you?

Well, true. However, we need to consider what a whodunnit is. A whodunnit is not great art, as established. In fact, it's not even a matter of degree; whodunnits are fundamentally different than other stories. Hedunnits tell a story as a way of artistic expression. A whodunnit is not art at all, and has no such pretensions, it is essentially a logic puzzle which just happens to be exist in narrative form.

Now, looked at in comparison with puzzles (and math problems) in general, I think whodunnits don't measure up in that way, either. They are the simplest, most worthless kind of logic puzzle. My reasoning is similar to hedunnits: A really good puzzle is good, because its solution is not a gimmick- it's a genuinely intellectually enriching thing, and even after you know the answer, the solution (or how that answer was obtained) is still very interesting by itself, and thus the puzzle loses almost no value even after being spoiled. The whodunnit as a puzzle is the worst kind of puzzle- there is just one simple trick to it and if you've seen it solved you know how to solve it, and the solution is so simple that you gain nothing from knowing it. It's a waste of time.

If you complain about spoilers on the basis of liking whodunnits, which you can only like as logic puzzles anyway as I earlier explained, then you are still better off just not bothering with them at all- if you like logic puzzles, there are far better logic puzzles out there and those are still interesting even after you spoil them.


So, in the end, for people who have no interest in whodunnits, a policy of casually spoiling things is perfectly fine. It's better than not spoiling, because if they realize that their interest wanes as they find out about the plot, they can safely deduce that it's a whodunnit you're talking about and it's not worth their time.

On the other hand, the people who like whodunnits, can only possibly like them for the logic puzzle aspects, and thus if they see their interest being diminished by spoilers, they can also safely say that it is a shoddy puzzle you're speaking of, and know that they can easily find much more worthwhile ones.

Once again, I've spoken mostly in the context of books, but obviously you can talk about a whodunnit film (just take a whodunnit novel and make a movie out of it... Not that a movie of a whodunnit book is not precluded from having artistic value- it's perfectly possible, otherwise no one would see a Sherlock Holmes movie). You can talk about a whodunnit video game. In fact, the whodunnit is most defensible in books, where the story is more central. It is far easier (as if it wasn't already easy) to think of a game that remains enjoyable after you know what happens. Hell, there's a whole class of games without any plot to begin with!

As an aside, since I mentioned mechanical spoilers in the beginning: I think Kieron's example is that in Amnesia, you don't die from being insane, although it sort of seems like you would. This is nonsense. For one, it make no sense for you to not save the game as soon as you encounter the insanity mechanic, and see exactly how much of it you can take before dying. As a player consciously attempting to beat the game, you are being stupid (ie strategically inefficient) by not doing so. There's nothing to spoil. And incidentally, for me anyway, the mechanic was still kind of creepy after figuring it out- it distracted me and enhanced the feeling of danger because I couldn't properly see what's going on.

I mean, it makes perfect sense if you believe in not spoiling things, to avoid spoiling mechanics. It seems like a slippery slope, really, where you can't talk about anything for fear of spoiling, but whatever. The point is, I don't believe in spoilers, and to me the "mechanical spoiler" is equally irrelevant.

PS: Actually, it seems spoiling a thing, even a whodunnit, makes it even more enjoyable, according to science.

20 January 2012

Review: Fate of the World - I'm not amused.

So supposedly, this game was great and balanced and what not, and it wasn't easy, and it didn't beat you over the head with its hurr environment message. So I decided to play it.

Couldn't wait for the install to finish - to think of it! A game which models both climate, and the complexities of geopolitics. A game where you have the juggle stability, development, environment, complicated interplay of different forces, blah blah blah... I was expecting something mind-bending and incredible!

So then I start the game and boy oh boy, what do I see? It's a card game. You have a fucking budget, from what I can tell it goes in $5 increments too (you bloody cards, you could at least have written "blns." or something next to it!), and then you use the money to buy cards. You buy "agents" - that's just a fancy name for how many cards per turn you can play. It's not even a fucking two player game! You don't even play "against" an actual computer. There's just a bunch of stats that randomly go up or down, and your cards also make them go up and down. It's a very boring exercise in fiddling a linear combination of a handful of scalars, and because the game only lasts like, 10 turns or so, you can barely tell what's even going on.

The moment that I realized that this was a fucking card game, and this was like 2 turns into my first game because it's such a confusing mish-mash you can't tell how you're supposed to play it, I already relinquished any hope of some relation to reality. I mean, a fucking card game! Whatever. But even so, the whole thing is absolutely ridiculous - if I'm the leader of some global organization in charge of fucking everything, how come I can't hold a meeting more than once every 5 years? What, do I have 10 hours left to live so they only bring me out of suspended animation at critical times? Fucking card games.

You may have caught on by now, I fucking hate card games. If I wanted to play a card game, I wouldn't be on my bloody computer, I'd be playing with a deck of cards, dammit! I can understand maybe doing something like an MtG game - Magic is a solid game (I don't like it because I don't like memorizing a million numerical rules masquerading as cards) but finding players in real life is hard sometimes, so digitizing it into a niche product makes sense there. But Fate of the World? This could not possibly be an actual card game. For one, it's boring as FUCK. It would be you sitting in a room, dicking around with cards and some dice on your own. Not only that, you would be doing obscene amounts of bookkeeping all the time because of the many stats. Why was this game made?

If you're gonna make a computer game, you might as well use all the simulationism potential that a computer gives you, because frankly, simulationism is all a computer is good for! If you're not gonna be simulationist as fuck, you might as well skip the busy work and play with pen and paper.

I guess if you like this sort of card-game-on-your-own bullshit, you'd love this game. I mean, the interface is pretty and everything. And it's topical. And people say it's hard - I don't really know, I wouldn't know about card game balance. Although, then again, people also said this was fun. Thing is, if you go into it expecting an actual computer game, and not a playing-cards-by-yourself-like-an-autistic-manchild simulator, the experience is very shallow and unsatisfying. If I was a real reviewer, I'd give it 3/5 or 4/5 (depending on balance), for how well it has been able to be the kind of game it's trying to be.

But I'm not a real reviewer. Fuck the kind of game it's trying to be. I'm assuming only a certain kind of person will be reading this, and to those certain kinds of persons: Stay away unless you're feeling really masochistic.

I mean, God... A fucking card game! What is wrong with the world?

Score: 2/5

Reviews: To score or not to score?

For some time now, I was of the opinion that reviews should not have scores. After reading Alex Kierkegaard's writeup on the topic, I changed my mind.


Alex's post is long. It's well written, and you should read it sometime, but I think I'll still be an enormous hypocrite and provide you with a summary of what he says anyway:
  1. It should be possible to read a review, and then answer the question, "Did this guy like the game? Was it a waste of his time? Does he regret playing it? Would he recommend it to others?" If you cannot answer this, the review is worthless, rambling drivel which literally does not make any sense.
  2. There is no such thing as a score-less review. To demonstrate, take any given group of reviews (ostensibly) without scores. Now label each review as "positive" or "negative". You should be able to do this easily due to 1. When done, go back and replace each "positive" with 1, and each "negative" with 0. Even though the reviewer did not give a score, you have correctly approximated the score that he would have given, with scores on a scale of 0 to 1. Now, repeat this procedure with 5 tags: Strongly positive/negative, mildly positive/negative, and neutral. Replace them with 1-5. You have now approximated a score on a more familiar 1-5 scale.
  3. It follows that a review, any review, even if it claims to not assign a score, must describe a score implicitly. That is, even if there isn't a score, you can read it and say, oh, this looks like a 6/10 (from 2). If you can't say this, then the review is nonsense (from 1).
With these, it is ridiculous to continue refusing to include a score. You are already giving a score by the act of writing a review. If you don't state the score, you are hiding it. Why hide it?

Alex also talks about perfect scores. He's wrong there: If you think 100/100 is a perfect score, I don't see why you can't or won't think 5/5 is a perfect score. It doesn't really matter to me- I don't have a problem with scores being out of 5 and not 100.

Another thing he complains about is close scores like, for example, 76/100 and 77/100. His position boils down to "I cannot imagine myself making very precise judgements about games, therefore it is impossible." It is a laughable position. Alex seems to have a habit of confusing the negligible with the actually non-existent: Just because it's hard to see that 76 to 77 difference, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I agree that if you are really using a score system with 100 values (or worse, decimals!), you should probably think again. But that doesn't mean it's inherently bad, and it doesn't mean there can't be some guy out there who really can review games so finely that he can discern a 1/100 difference in quality (although, most that score out of 100 probably can't do it). This part is also tangential to my purposes.


So what are my purposes, then? Well, as I said, it's clear that I can't just not score my reviews. That would be sticking my head in the sand. However, I have one problem with scores: Suppose you have a scoring system out of 100. You have 4 categories: Graphics, Gameplay, Story, Replay value. Each one gets a score out of 25, then you sum them all for the final score. Reasonable enough, and many mainstream reviewers actually do this. (To make it Alex-friendly, you can make each category 0-1 and then sum them to 0-4.)

Anyhow, the problem: With this scheme, Dwarf Fortress gets 0+25+0+25=50. But Dwarf Fortress isn't a mediocre game! To fix it, you can make it so that gameplay and replay value are out of 45, and others out of 5. Then DF gets 90. Cool, right? Yes, but now Limbo gets, oh, 5+30+5+0=40 if you are really generous. I mean, I didn't think Limbo was perfect1. But I certainly didn't think it was below average crap that deserves a 40/100.

So, for some games, graphics matter and replay value doesn't. For others, the opposite. Rather than come up with a complicated weighting scheme to solve this, I tried to find a lazy shortcut. I think I succeeded.


If you give a game a 10/10, what does that mean? Essentially, it's the same as saying, "dude, this game is awesome, you'll love it". 0/10 would be saying "piece of shit, don't bother". Reviews are, at their basest, for answering the question, "should I play this game?" Yes, they serve as commentary and can be very valuable in that respect as well, but that question is what gave rise to "reviews" in the first place.

So how would I deal with, say, DF, if I was to give scores? Probably I'd give it a 9/10, and say something to the effect of "if you like roguelikes with ASCII graphics, then it's really a 10/10, and if you really care about the graphics it's 6/10 with tilesets and 3/10 without". Tastes vary. Review audiences are heterogenous2.

However, the review isn't necessarily going to be an absolute endorsement (or disapproval), either. It will probably say, "some such people will like this, some such people will not". Now, if you see a 5/10 game, what if you can't tell whether you're the guy who will like it despite its flaws, or the guy who will definitely hate it?

Sometimes, it's obvious from reading the review. Oftentimes it's not. And in that case, you'll guess. And with a 5/10 score, you will probably guess that you're equally likely to be in either camp... Wait, hold on. Isn't 1/2 the chance of success for an unbiased binary trial? Hmm, what if... What if review scores are probabilities? What if, when I give a game score X out of Y, that means I'm estimating X/Y of my audience will like it, and consequently3, that there's an X/Y probability that you will like it?


Yeah, I'm kinda proud of myself for this. I think it's a great idea - I'm perfectly happy with a score system like this, both as reviewer and review reader4. So how would it look in practice?

Now, I don't want to make 1% resolution estimates, there aren't even 100 people reading my reviews. So I will use this scale:
  • 1: a game only an indy dev could love - 10% chance you'll like it; 10% of my audience will like it.
  • 2: mostly shit, but has noteworthy positive qualities - 30% chance you'll like it; 30% of my audience will like it.
  • 3: absolutely mediocre - 50% chance you'll like it; 50% of my audience will like it.
  • 4: recommended, but not for everyone - 70% chance you'll like it; 70% of my audience will like it.
  • 5: if you don't like this, you don't have a soul - 90% chance you'll like it; 90% of my audience will like it.
I think that looks pretty good5!

In fact, if I happen to decide that "indie game bias" is relevant for a game, I can just bump it up one level. That seems reasonable. If the devs are, say, literally curing cancer and disease, I can totally see bumping a game 2 levels. I like that - I'm okay with foldit being a 3/5 game, and I'm okay with treating it like a 5/5 game because of its mission.

Furthermore, the above may be written in the context of video games, but there's nothing about this system specific to video games. There's no reason not to use it for movies, books, what have you.

Lastly, the nice thing is that, while I've never heard of a reviewer using this system explicitly, all the review scores out there are very compatible with it. Good games are likely to get high scores, and you are likely to enjoy good games. Ergo, high score means more likely to enjoy. You can assume these are just traditional scores, too, if the "math" is confusing, but if basic probability confuses you, what on earth are you doing on my blog?

1: If you look now, you will see my Limbo review does include a score. That was added after the fact, after this post was written.
2: I don't know if you can even target a homogenous audience of non-trivial size, but I know I wouldn't want to even if I could.
3: It's just basic probability. If a persons in a room like a game, and b persons don't, then when you pick one of them at random, the chance that you get someone who does like it is p=a/(a+b). Since you are only thinking about this because you have no idea which group you belong to, we can assume you are equally like to be any one of those persons. So the chances of you liking the game are also p, which is equal to the fraction of people who like it.
4: It also solves all sorts of problems we weren't even trying to solve: Among other things, it means that even if you buy a 9/10 game and hate it (or buy a 1/10 game and love it), that's fine, because it's a probabilistic prediction, and you are still better off trusting it (assuming the reviewer is trustworthy and reliable).
5: Two things you may notice: First, I'll never have to say you will definitely like a game, or definitely dislike it. Second, no matter how many times I'm wrong, I can always blame it on probability. Man, I'm so clever! Seriously, though: Sorry about this, but them's the breaks. I don't think a system that allows 0% or 100% probabilities would be productive, and I'm not sure if it would be mathematically sensible. Nor do I intend to find out.

19 January 2012

Review: Skyrim (PC) - Can mods save an imperfect game?

Bethesda - hire these guys already!

It has been quite a while since I wrote about Skyrim, and frankly I only played for a short while after the last post. Nothing new happened that could affect my opinion of the game as I have so far expressed it.

My intention was to finish at least the main plot and before finishing the review. However, on yet another day of trudging through the endless tundras of Skyrim, doing one fetch quest after another, clearing this fort and that fort of identical bandits and evil mages, I had a friend IM me. When the conversation turned to what I was doing, I watched myself awkwardly explain that I was playing Skyrim, a game he probably would not like, as it was not very good, and I wasn't much liking it either for that matter, and then... Wait, so why am I playing this again?

I didn't have an answer then, and it's been nearly a month now. I did other things in the meanwhile. I still can't find a compelling reason to play Skyrim, other than this notion that one should complete a game in order to review it (which I don't really believe in). It slightly bothers me.

Eventually, I decided to compromise. You'll recall (and hopefully I correctly recall) that my major complaints were uninteresting gameplay, an agonizing interface, and a sordid color palette. Turns out it's not all bad! Bethesda did one thing right and added decent modding support, and there's plenty of mods out there that fix at least the latter two.

Namely, the SkyUI seems to improve the interface quite a bit. I am especially excited about their quick-menu redesign. There is little that needs to be said, the Skyrim Nexus page quite adequately describes it.

Second is the FXAA Post Process Injector. Based on the name alone, it sounds like some amazing work on the modders' part... But anyhow, what it does is saturate the colors, among other things. Unfortunately, when the Skyrim 1.3 update came out, it apparently broke the PPI compatibility (some DRM nonsense code that took issue at messing with the memory, I gather). Currently the PPI's page on Skyrim Nexus is hidden.

Besides these, there is a plethora of texture, bump map, model and game content packs. But really, SkyUI and PPI are the make or break factor for me here. If the PPI (or another alternative) works again, while SkyUI and preferably some of texture packs don't stop working, I'll try to complete Skyrim, and hopefully will post about whether it becomes a worth one's time with mods.

Without mods, it isn't. I mean, the story is sorta neat. The new lore is sorta cool. The free-world exploration is sorta interesting and the weird TES monsters are kinda nice. The engine is obviously great but the art style is a bit dull, and the voice acting is plentiful but the dialogues are bland. Hell, if you wanna write a poem, about the merits of the game - you can! (Heh heh) But really, all the games pluses are all "sorta" pluses, and the games few but important minuses are deal breakers. You don't play a bad game for a sorta nice thing. It's not worth watching a playthrough of Skyrim, either. Unless the person doing it was extremely entertaining, there's just so much grind and doing the same things over and over again that most of it would put you to sleep, and you couldn't skip to the interesting parts really because the fun parts of Skyrim are those random things that just happen suddenly and unpredictably while you are just getting along with it. The plot and the dialogues are certainly not fun (not so much as to justify spending time on the game anyway). And those random things, well, they're random. You'd have to watch the whole playthrough to know where they are in the first place, and it could be hours.

I mean, the only way to properly handle a game like this is to have most of your let's play be a time-lapse, and I haven't seen too many of those. Now that I think of it, a time-lapse Skyrim LP would be pretty cool... Hmm. If anyone does find a good LP, incidentally, let me know: I just might do something shocking and scandalous like review a game based on the LP!

But, back to the matter at hand: Skyrim is a very long game, and not really that interesting. You won't lose much you don't sink weeks of your time into it, and if you do... Well, you'll lose those weeks of time, for one, and most of it won't even be very enjoyable. If you feel terribly curious, and the price aside, it's worth taking a weekend or two to check out what the game is like, maybe take a look, but I wouldn't try to complete any at all sizable portion of it.

Score: 2/5

Bias: This was an early version with no mods. I am jaded by the media constantly raving about it, and all the awful, cancerous memes the fanbase has spawned. If I review it again, with mods, after patches, and after the goddamn children in the media shut the hell up about it already, I'll probably give it a 3 (all else being equal).

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I love Half in the Bag. Which is odd, because you would naively expect a critic's value to be how much they are able to predict your reaction to a film, and I'm not sure HitB could even outperform a random number generator for me in that sense.

Still, though, they always manage to make interesting points about a movie. They're not even necessarily true, in my opinion- I disagree with a lot of what they say, especially for movies that I have seen myself. But it makes no difference. I'm still glad they bring up their points, because even though in my mind they are wrong, being forced to stop and think and figure out exactly why they are wrong, and to be made aware that it is even possible to have an opinion on the issue such as theirs, is a very satisfying thing for me. They've hated a few movies I thought were good, and they've raved about quite a few which I hated, but in either of situations it has never felt like a waste of time to watch the movies on which I disagree with them.

So ultimately, they are excellent critics- whenever I decide to see a movie based on what they say, I never regret the decision. They even supply something like insurance: Even if I think a movie sucks, I can still think about their commentary on it, and I will have gotten something worthwhile out of it anyway.

To get to the point...

So that's how I was convinced to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Their episode dealing with it is quite good, so I'll just point you to it if you haven't seen it yet.

I guess I'll start with the rape scene. The way they talked about it, I was expecting something truly amazing and clever. What I got was a scene which is basically only there as a quick and dirty (har har) way of signalling to the audience that "this is bad guy, you should hate this guy". The floor polisher man, too, did nothing for me. Maybe the theater I was in just had a really shitty sound system, but I could only hear him before the blowjob part started. So, yeah.

They did manage to make the guy intensely unlikable, though. Granted, it's hard to fuck that up, when the character is one-dimensional and his one dimension is that he is a slimy sack of shit who rapes an adorable awkward, shy Rooney Mara. Still, it was interesting how they managed to make the second rape scene really uncomfortable.

I didn't really catch many "beautiful Sweden" scenes. There are several scenes where you glimpse the Swedish landscape, mostly covered in snow, but the landscape isn't really the focus of those scenes, and I didn't find any of it particularly captivating (maybe it's because I'm a bitter old man). What I did catch was how soul-crushingly bleak Sweden looked (probably also for the same reason). It was full of gray streets and gray houses with gray-blond people drinking gray tea in their pale rooms filled with beige-gray, blocky furniture. It was just like playing Skyrim! This time, though, it was at least appropriate, considering the tone of the narrative.

It was also interesting how some of the scenes were shot. One of my favorites is near the beginning: We see a character's office from where his laptop is sitting. He walks in, fiddles with something on a small table, then sits down behind the computer. Ordinarily, we'd watch him walk in, lean over the table, then turn around, walk to the computer and sit down. Instead, the movie cuts abruptly from him leaning towards the table to him sitting behind the computer like a little time-lapse video. It's not the first time it was done, of course, but it was still kinda cute.

Speaking of the Dragon Tattoo-Sweden, it was hilarious how everyone spoke with this Scandinavian accent, because you know, we're in Sweden, for 95% of the movie. The other 5% is when they travel to London, and even then, most of the talking in London is done by two Swedes with accent intact. I don't know what the point of it was, really.

The story

The development of the narrative follows the book very closely, and it seems the book is one of those books where it is obvious the author cares nothing for producing well-structured, "good" literature and just writes about whatever the hell he damn well pleases. It's a bit jarring and quite funny when some of this seeps into the movie- there's a part where Lisbeth, the eponymous (is it really an eponym if it's a narrator-given nickname?) girl with a dragon tattoo, just randomly goes to a bar and picks up a chick and sleeps with her. This serves no purpose other than show two chicks making out. It establishes Lisbeth as bisexual (as if it wasn't obvious already), and I guess you could draw some link between that and her history of sexual abuse, except it makes no difference. Her bisexuality has no bearing on anything at all in the rest of the movie (and it's kind of silly to consider sexual preference a big part of someone's personality, isn't it?) and it would have changed absolutely nothing if she was straight, so I dunno what's up with that. It was this funny "oh, and did I mention she's bi? Cuz she totally is, guys!" moment from the movie. Ssssure, movie. Whatever you say. :rolleyes:

Speaking of pointless things, what's with the cat? There's this cat that Mikael, the other main character, adopts and gradually bonds with over the course of the movie, and then the cat just... Dies. I mean, yeah, spoilers, but whatever. Anyway, they find the cat's mutilated corpse. And then... Nothing. The movie just forgets about it. What on earth was that for? It's not like the movie needed padding, it was long as fuck. Nor did Mikael need further establishing as a goody-two-shoes softie. And it was such a cute cat... What the hell, movie? Poor kitty. =(

Besides that, I had a very similar opinion of the structure and flow of the narrative to another "book movie" I saw recently, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. They both appear to follow their book pretty closely -I read neither- and the movie ends up feeling quite different from movies which are made straight from movie scripts. The plot doesn't have the familiar, simple, obvious elements that movie plots have, and you can't really break it down into "the story starts like so, then this guy does that, and then it concludes when this thing happens". It's just, "stuff happens", and the main plot isn't that central to the whole thing. I'm not sure if it's a good thing or bad, but it certainly makes for an interesting (and slightly odd) movie.


It was a bit of a hassle keeping track of who is who and whose relation to who is what. I imagine it was one of those thing which is described adequately in a book, for a book, and when it's a movie it's suddenly not as easy to follow anymore. I mean, in a book, a name is very prominent and effective as an identifier, partly because just about every book talks a lot about third persons. Watching people talk about other people is boring, on the other hand, so movies have characters say only their dialogue; and it's unnatural to say someone's name often when interacting with them, so I'm not surprised I lost track of all the Wernerströms and the Jorgens and the Hurgens and the Gurgens and what have you. Although, maybe it's just that I'm bad with names.

Lisbeth, and Mikael were quite interesting in general, though. Lisbeth herself is really weird, and has some weird (and nasty) stuff happen to her, and deals with it in cool ways which are interesting to watch. Mikael is actually quite boring, but it just so happens that a boring character like that is a perfect counterpart for Lisbeth, and it's funny to watch them interact.

I'm also not sure how I feel about Lisbeth looking gradually more "conventionally pretty" as the movie progresses. In her first appearance, she shows up with this weird mohawk and leather outfit. Then we keep seeing her looking much more conservative: She ties her hair in a ponytail, dresses in more usual clothes and puts on less crazy black make-up. The first time I saw Lisbeth, I thought, "man, what a weirdo", but later on I just thought she looked cute. It seemed somehow cheap and against the spirit of the character. Obviously, I'm supposed to think she is weird because that's her character, but I'm also supposed to like her because she's one of the protagonists. While the "normalization" of Lisbeth accomplishes both, in a sense, by the time I liked her she wasn't at all anymore, even though it seemed to me like the kind of character you're supposed to like despite them being weird.


From what I've seen, I get the impression that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while not badly written, is hardly great literature. It seems like one of those "good bad books" (hope you don't find the hyperlinking too pretentious, but that's what I mean by the term). The movie is certainly a "good bad book movie". You don't take away much if anything from it, but you do enjoy seeing it.

The plot is really predictable (down to the cute bittersweet end), in that it's often obvious what kind of development (usually there's only one possibility) would make for an interesting story at any given point, and the movie doesn't disappoint in orchestrating exactly that development. On the flipside, although you can easily see what will happen next, it's not that obvious what will happen after that, because you can never tell where the movie goes with anything, so it's not such a tedious experience. As someone who has neither seen the older Dragon Tattoo movie, nor read the book, I can recommend seeing this movie if you are likewise unfamiliar with the franchise. Otherwise, well, you've read my review, make up your own mind.

Score: 4/5

17 January 2012

Review: Fort Zombie - The awesome game that never was

How does one start a review which doesn't primarily consist of whining like a spoiled brat? Oh, lovely. I'm already doing one of my least favorite vidya reviewer cliches and being meta in my introduction... Ok, let's try this again.

Fort Zombie is an RPG. It goes like so: Zombies have happened. They have taken over your small town of Piety, Indiana. They fucked it up good. You find yourself in the middle of all the chaos and decide to take over a building for use as your stronghold, scavenge supplies and gather survivors, and make a last stand against the zeds.

It's 3rd person. There's skills that increase as you use them. You need a search skill to discover supplies, you can pick locks. Each weapon also has its own skill: Suppose you have an M16, your final skill is determined by your "M16 skill" (starts at 0 and increases as you use the M16) + your assault rifle skill. This is a great idea- it's not too complicated, it's not too simple, and since weapons are scarce and you don't often have much freedom deciding who gets what gun, this leads to people developing favorite weapons that they are very good with. You often get situations where you find, say, a shotgun better than the one you have, but you are so used to the current one, that sticking with the old one is a better idea. This does wonders for naturally making your team organic and differentiated.

You embark on expeditions to the town everyday, the town layout is procedurally generated. You can find food, medicine, supplies (to build base defenses), fuel (to power base defenses) and survivors. The survivors will not want to join up with you if you don't have good social skills, or if your entourage has high attrition rates. Sometimes you can find random quest NPCs.

There are many types of zombies. Now, I don't really have a zombie fetish like a certain group of people out there. I think the idea of a zombie apocalypse is stupid for many reasons, which were quite well described by Yahtzee in his Dead Island review already. Zombies are stupid, the transparent escapist power fantasy aspect of it stupid, and they don't really make for particularly interesting stories. I don't hate them, though. I think zombies are a great game concept- they're a slow, lumbering, dumb cannon fodder which is only threatening through sheer numerical force. They are a perfect antagonist whenever gameplay relies on hordes or waves of enemies: They are capable of making decisions, but not too smart, they are numerous but not fast, they are durable but not powerful. They have no self preservation instinct and no apparent leadership. But best of all, they have all these qualities without seeming dumb and illogical like an army of slow zerg, or a horde of human soldiers running to their death would be.

Fort Zombie uses zombies very well. The zombies in this game are supposed to go on doing whatever it was they used to commonly do in their former life: You get jogger zombies running after you, footballer zombies tackling you, cop zombies shooting you. It makes for a nice variety of enemies. Their AI also has the right idea: They'll chase you, and try to overcome obstacles, but break line of sight and they forget about you instantly, like the brainless idiots that zombies should be.

Also, not all missions this game generates are winnable, many are not worth your time and ammo. You often encounter powerful groups of zombies that you cannot beat. The game makes little effort to scale the difficulty- you have to choose your battles and know your limits, and know when a fight is winnable but still a waste of time. It's done very well and makes for a very fun, strategically complex game, especially for someone sick of the mainstream's dire fear of ever having the player lose or walk away from a fight.

Altogether, Fort Zombie is a wonderful little game. It's as if someone took one of the "awesome video game idea"s that everyone inevitably comes up with thinking about zombies, and made it real. It does everything right. It's gritty, it's harsh, it has lots of detail in places you want and no pointless micromanaging of things which don't matter. It's pretty much perfect... Pretty much.

You see, there's one unfortunate flaw: The game is unplayable. It's broken. It was never finished. The whole thing came out of Kerberos Productions's efforts to create an engine for their party-based space game Northstar, when they realized the engine they had could be quickly turned into a nice zombie game. The graphics are like those of a 2001 game, which isn't a big deal by itself, if only the game didn't also run like an 2001 game on 1999 hardware (and the game is quite recent, being released in 2009). There is a mod that removes physics, which supposedly speeds up thing quite a bit (I haven't tried it).

It also crashes, often and unexpectedly. To be sure, the autosave isn't awful, so you don't lose that much progress, but the long loading times make the each crash quite painful.

Strangely enough, there's also no music, except for the menu. And, while the silence does add to the atmosphere a lot of the time, there were certainly points when I felt like some music would have made the game seem less sterile.

So, it's a bit of a predicament, really. A great game, but I just wasn't able to play it. The controls are clumsy, the follower AI gets stuck and lost easily, the load times are too long, it crashes too much and the graphics performance is really sub-par. If only development on this continued...

If you are feeling brave enough to give this a try, you will need the wiki, because vital info is missing from tooltips. If you feel like you can't handle it, I would definitely recommend watching a Let's Play series. Even though the game is difficult to play in its current state, the kind of game that it was supposed to be is quite unique. There are probably others out there which are quite decent, but I was watching Revocane's videos. Incidentally, he rambles and mumbles like a paranoid schizophrenic, quite aptly given the game and character he is playing. Anyhow, good luck, and enjoy!

Score: 4/5

Bias: Would be 3 if this wasn't a Paradox game (MARRY ME PARADOX).

Goblin Camp

So, I saw this video:

And now I must play this. What can I say? It's dorfort with an interface. I'm a sucker for dorfort with interface. I hope there's a tileset out there... Not much of an ASCII fan, really.

If anyone has ideas/suggestion/stuff they want me to check out, feel free to let me know.

Castle Story, or, oh shit did these guys make a Dwarf Fortress with actual graphics!?

You have little guys. In a 3D world of floating islands. Which you can make them dig. And tell them to build castles. They fill up stockpiles with dug up earth and when a block is full it becomes bricks and you can use the bricks to build walls but you must build stairs or they won't be able to climb and also there's explosions and physics and...

Oh my god, I sound like a retarded child. But god fucking dammit, just try watching this without ejaculating forcefully:

It's called Castle Story.

That's the good news. Bad news is, you can't download Castle Story yet. They don't seem keen on releasing a quick alpha. It's a two-man team so maybe with enough demand they will... That would be so glorious! But anyway, their expressed attitude seems to be "we want to make a great game and not release before it's fun" with the implication that bugs and incomplete features != fun. Oh well.

I hope they don't repeat the failures of Minecraft with the same cavalier attitude to discarding planned features. Coming with a proper slicing function to see inside tunnels properly will make loads of difference, as will proper fluids (like dorfort did, cellular automata or bust baby) and sufficiently detailed production chains.

I'm also not asking for DF-level creature diversity, but pulling a Notch and adding like 5 enemies would be... Oh who am I kidding, I would still derive hours of orgasmic pleasure out of it, especially if they were actually unique mechanics-wise like Minecraft's enemies. But still, a few dozens of enemies, maybe some harpies and dragons and burrowing worms... Oh god, I'm getting hard just thinking about it.

Goddammit Sauropod! Release a beta already! I will hunt you down and whip you until you have a playable build!

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

You thought this site was just for ridiculously late, lazy, loquacious video game reviews? Well, guess what: turns out I can also bitch about movies months after their release!

Trailers are like scam artists. Everyone knows full well you shouldn't trust them, and yet this one just seems so trustworthy, and then you fall for it anyway. I had been waiting for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ever since I saw the trailer back in last summer, because the trailer is a work of art.

I mean, look at that fucking trailer. That's fucking beautiful! You almost seriously consider whether you'd pay a full movie ticket just for the trailer. I mean, my god. That music. That dialogue. That delivery.

But, after seeing the actual movie, I was very surprised at the utter disconnect between it and the trailer. In fact, I think I can cover a lot of the problems with the movie by tracing the divergences from the trailer- this will probably end up being as much a review of the trailer as the film.

As I've already said elsewhere, I don't believe in avoiding spoilers, but a significant part of Tinker Tailor's allure is the mystery plot, so I'll make an exception for it. Most of the things I want to discuss don't involve big plot points anyhow.

So let's start. One of the first few things you notice is how beautiful the music is, and how brilliantly it works with what's going on in the scene. The way those fucking violins underscore the tension, it's amazing, right? Well, there's not much of that in the film. Sure, it's still got plenty of parts that should be tense, and they are not wanting for tension- in fact I was literally on the edge of my seat, and holding my breath all the way through. It's hardly the mind-blowing experience the trailer promises, but if you don't think too hard and let yourself be taken in by the abstruse exposition, you can get a fun, tense experience watching it. I mean, the film is good. It's just not great, and nothing like the trailer, nor is there such skillful interplay of music and pace.

To use a fog-of-war metaphor...
Shortly after, in the trailer, there's that oh-so-alluring promise of pithy, succinct exposition dialogue, landing with the momentum of a sledgehammer, all crammed into a handful of short words. There's a mole. Right at the top of the circle. He's been there for years. Short. Quick. To the point. Within moments, it's perfectly clear what's going on- to you, to the characters. This part effectively projects the idea that the characters are shrewd men, who are able to analyze complicated crises at a moment's notice. This is not the case in the movie. Nobody, including you, ever has any idea what's going on. Everything and everyone is always confused. When the movie is over, you still struggle to piece together the various plot points to figure out what actually happened.

Now, loath as I am to berate a book movie for being too faithful to the book, some of Tinker Tailor's problems do appear to stem from the adaptation being so close. It's really not the same to receive a given quantity of information by reading a few pages about it and to do so by seeing a few scenes in a film with a combined length of several seconds. This isn't really bad per se. In the worst case you can simply familiarize yourself with what happens in the book and the issue evaporates. Unfortunately, however, it is clear that if exposition and pacing was handled the same way as they were in the trailer, the film would have been so much better, and they weren't, and that's somewhat irritating in a "what might have been" sense.

Just to elaborate even more: This "right at the top of the Circus" line (it's "Circus", the codename of the intelligence directorate) appears quite a while into the movie. That's not Simon McBurney briefing Oldman- he's actually paraphrasing someone else, and the impact is far smaller. It's also a superfluous bit- by then you have already learned much of what this line would tell you from other scenes.

Anyway, moving on. We see Gary Oldman again. He is also a shrewd man. He listens to the facts with an aura of easy confidence- it is obvious he will approach the task methodically, break it down into pieces and take simple, but amazingly brilliant steps to unerringly approach the resolution. How do you find an enemy? You call an old friend, and ask him to do something for you. But what? Surely some secret contingency plan only Oldman and Cumberbatch are privy to, indicated by the camera looking at them from a distance, with obscuring scenery in the foreground. Oldman gives some parting advice- he has to assume they're watching. What is this secret, dangerous thing they are planning? Oh my god, how exciting!

Well, in the film, Oldman and Cumberbatch do indeed work together, in secret. But Oldman asks for a favor as part of a long planning session at his house. With you, the audience, already "participating" in the meeting, it is irritating to feel as if you should know what they are talking about, but not having a clue. Anyway, the something Cumberbatch needs to do isn't that exciting, and you find out what it is soon enough, and then you watch him do it, and it's all ever so slightly modest in the way of suspense.

Oh, and that part about them watching? That's a third unrelated scene, where Oldman tells Cumberbatch to cover up their tracks.

The point I'm trying to make here is, the trailer has one perfectly made scene. All the movie has to do is continue from there. Instead, they've gone and broken it down into two (well, three, the street meeting in the trailer is yet another unrelated scene) different scenes with nowhere near the impact. I mean, of course it isn't exactly like that- I'm sure they didn't wait until the trailer was done to start making the movie! But the trailer clearly demonstrates that the film has all the elements needed to produce some brilliant sequences. Why were they absent from the actual film itself?

Moving on, Oldman's (and our) unwavering confidence in his competence, takes a sudden blow. David Dencik informs him that things aren't always what they seem in a casual meeting at some airstrip- perhaps he is about to set off on his way elsewhere, leaving Oldman bereft of his just recently revealed capacity for assisting him in this matter.

This is one of the worst offenders. In the movie, Oldman has kidnapped and forcibly brought Dencik there for interrogation. Seconds later he is about to fall apart and desperately beg for his life. He thinks the plane is transporting his executioner. The movie version is still a good scene and the acting is enjoyable, but it's nothing like the trailer one.

Moscow planted the mole, Oldman discovers to his shock. Nevertheless, he is drawing closer to his target: He is one of five men. Actually, it's three, and for some half of the movie, two men. One of those five is Oldman, the investigator, himself, but nothing much is made of this little quirk. Another one is Ciaran Hinds, who is not suspicious, gets eliminated from the list very early, and is given little attention therafter. A third suspect is revealed to be innocent halfway through. Anyway, meanwhile, time is running out, as every minute Oldman spends gives the mole opportunity to cause further damage: He killed their man in Istanbul!

Well, for one, the thing about Moscow planting the mole, and the five suspects, are things established outright from the very beginning. There is no clear sense of Oldman's character gradually narrowing down the possibilities- he just stops caring about certain people and you have no choice but to assume he has decided they are no longer suspect. And the killing in Istanbul, that has barely anything to do with the mole. They're talking about some other character who is assumed to have defected but who hasn't, and thus has to be proven innocent.

The image of Mark Strong firing a rifle seems to indicate some pivotal confrontation near the end of the movie, but in fact there is no such confrontation anywhere in the movie except the brief firefight in the beginning that gets the story going. I'm okay with there being no confrontation, but it's still an example of the trailer being blatantly dishonest and misleading and that I'm not okay with.

The line about everything becoming so ugly would have worked perfectly if used to underscore the mess of a problem that Oldman has to deal with, as the trailer suggests. It's used in an entirely different capacity, and yet again, has nowhere near the impact. Oldman's apparent verbal duel with his nemesis is actually a part of his drunken, rambling monologue in the beginning of the film, and all it accomplishes is some clumsy backstory exposition. Well, to be sure, he's reminiscing about how he met who later turned out to be Karla, the enemy commander. But Karla never shows up, and the movie is about Oldman vs. the Mole, so yeah.


Really, the trailer appears to show some very unforgettable moments from the film, and a very well put-together experience. The elements are still there in the film, and they are very well crafted elements individually, but the way they are jammed together a bit awkwardly. All the great lines and acting you think you see in the trailer is squandered on unimportant things, and the important points of the movie are nowhere near as well done as the trailer hints at.

Yeah, yeah. I know. A trailer, misleading? Well I never, stop the presses! But with Tinker Tailor, it's extraordinary how much the divergence from the trailer defines the inadequacies of the film.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a decent movie, though. It's not a great movie like the trailer implies, it's not really insightful or poignant. It's almost like a whodunit, except it's about spies and not murder. It's very enjoyable to watch - the cast did do a great job, the art direction is great, the whole movie is beautiful. Just make sure to completely forget everything you saw in the trailer, and don't expect something extraordinary.

Score: 5/5

16 January 2012

Review: Rochard (PC)

There's not that much to say about Rochard. It's like, remember those gravity gun levels from the original Half-Life 2? Those were a laugh, weren't they? Rochard is like a whole game of gravity gun silliness, except in side-scrolling platformer style.

They added most of the rudimentary, no-brainer things. There's a spiffy trajectory predictor, for instance, to use when tossing crates. There's a targeting laser, and so on. All those little, obvious things that help make the game less annoying and more fun.

A few relatively minor design decisions are a bit bizarre. Aiming, for instance: You would expect your mouse cursor to freely move around the screen in a game like this, and Rochard (yeah, it's the name of your guy. And a horrible pun, too, as the game reminds you a few times too many) to always aim at the cursor. The first Trine, I think, did it like that. Any sane platform shooter would do it like that.

But Rochard? Oh no. Rochard is too cool for normal human controls. Instead, there is a very weird mouse-look thing. It seems to lock what would have been the "crosshair distance" to a constant number (or rather, or mouse translations are transformed into polar coordinates with origin at Rochard, and then the r component is discarded), the end result is that you can move your mouse to the right quite a lot, and Rochard will look right, but then the slightest leftmost jerk will still make him turn to the left immediately as if the "crosshair" was still next to the middle of the screen. If it doesn't make much sense, don't worry. Having finished the game, it still doesn't make any sense to me. It feels like simulating an analog stick with the mouse, and it's really awkward. Well, I say feels like, but really it's obvious they made the game for a gamepad (it's a Windows and PS3 release), and then never really bothered porting the controls, which doesn't really work because an analog stick is nothing like a mouse.

And while we're here, there's a lot in Rochard that's half-assed. The whole thing feels like someone had a good idea for a game (and it is a good idea- who doesn't like gravity guns?) and coded up a quick prototype full of placeholders. The visual style is lame (the characters look like plastic molds, like the CGI in those cheap TV commercials). The levels are badly designed, with uneven and jarringly heterogeneous difficulty. The puzzles are really easy and boring. There's no real point to many features (the flashlight, the gun/health upgrades, the grenades). The voice acting is bad, and some of it has obviously not been checked at all before inclusion into the game assets; some bits are obviously voiced completely wrong. Crucial animations are missing in important cutscenes (the characters just use some stock animations and stances from the rest of the game which don't fit some scenes at all). The story is ridiculous; it's a huge mess of cliches thrown haphazardly together. It just doesn't feel like a game that people were actually meant to play and enjoy.

I mean, you think, "it's okay that it's corny". You think, "oh, it'll be campy. It'll be fun." Who cares if it's rough around the edges? Dicking around with gravity puzzles is fun, right? And then fast forward a few hours and you are sitting there, wondering why you are even playing this, and what exactly you are doing with your life. You think about these things, because the game's puzzles occupy as much of your brainpower as staring at a particularly uninteresting section of wall- your mind finds itself dreadfully idle. The level design just isn't interesting or challenging, the graphics or voice acting aren't beautiful enough to keep you interested regardless (the game would probably be better overall if they straight up removed all the cutscenes and dialogue!), and the story is downright painful to listen to.

Having grilled it like that, it's not that Rochard is a horrible game or anything. The core idea is solid. But honestly all they have is a solid idea (gravity puzzles and a gravity gun!) and a placeholder game. I feel kinda bad calling it crap, because the devs seem kind of small and they've at least tried to be original, but I'd feel worse calling a game good when it isn't. Rochard is a chore to play, and you get nothing out of the experience. I wouldn't bother unless you were utterly obsessed with puzzle platformers.

Score: 2/5

Bias: Probably would have given it a one if the developer was bigger.