Pixel Harvest

I usually grab a selection of the best indie games each year, during the Steam Winter sale. Last year, the certified standout was Stardew Valley, an 8bit farming throwback to Super Nintendo RPGs of yore. The amazing and endearing thing about the game, beside the fact that all the programming, writing, pixel art and music was done by one guy, was the good natured charm of the game. There weren’t any dark world-ending villains forcing along a ham-fisted plot. Sure, there’s a little bit of sword slashing, but for the most part, you clear out a patch of land to plant crops, tend to animals, and wile away the hours fishing.

I’m by no means a completionist, but I spent a full year (four seasons) of gametime, growing my meager crops, renovating the cultural center in the middle of town, and catching some record-setting fish. It’s an addictive game, but not purely due the mining/crafting/exploring mechanics, like Minecraft or Terarria. Stardew borrows heavily from the elements of those games, but it’s an evolution of the genre. The biggest change is the clock. Your player grows weary in the evening, and must return to bed at midnight or soon after. If not, you’ll pass out from exhaustion, lose some of your hard-earned cash, and start the next day tired. Instead, if you follow the wise motto “early to bed, early to rise”, you’ll be bursting with energy and productivity. On top of the hourly clock is the march of days on the calendar. Each season is only thirty days. With a change of the seasons comes new weather, new town festivities, new crops to plant and harvest.

Instead of a simple day/night cycle, which passes unceasingly on in the other *craft games, the hard delineation of days and seasons gives a narrative arc to all the crafting and building. There’s only so much you can accomplish in a day. I started thinking of my days being dedicated to certain tasks. A day to clear the dense brush on the back 40, or till the soil, or forage for rare mushrooms in the woods, or spelunk deep into the slime-infested mines. If it was raining, I didn’t have to spend the half hour watering my crops and could rush directly to the mines, unless I was after the rare early-morning catch down on the shore. The townspeople also abide by regular schedules (includes store hours, and happy-hours in the bar). Most stores are closed on Saturday, so you’ll need to do your shopping before the weekend.

In the mid game, once you’ve hewn out your farm and are establishing a routine, there’s a joy to the game. You’ll see your crops blossom, and can bring your prize harvest to the various fairs. Townspeople will send you letters, and you can do errands for them and bring them gifts. You’ll learn their quirks and traits. There’s the jock and the goth and the skater and the science nerd. The cranky old couple, the perky school teacher. The uniqueness and charm of these characters is amazing, crafted with only a few lines of dialog and minimal pixel art.

The thing about all video games is that eventually the “game” part rears its head. Stardew Valley is absolutely lovely, but to truly complete the game you have to mine, farm and fish dozens of rare items. A sprawling farm entails an endless retinue of chores, from milking the cows, repairing the fence, to replanting seeds. I found myself starting up a play session only to race around, mass clicking a screenful of charming devices, watching them whirl and spit out yet more items.

It made me ponder the nature of work, and entertainment, and fun. I was spending my leisure time to play a game that was simulating work. Given, there were lots of charming touches, and all the messy unknowables and chaos of reality were ironed over. But it was still a nested tier of systems to master. All the charming NPCs were just state machines that had predilections for certain consumables. It made me wonder about why I played games. Was the game truly about escaping the daily grind, as illustrated in the opening cinematic, to revel in the freedom of the simple farming life? Or was it just a daily grind of another color?

Don’t get me wrong, Stardew Valley is an instant classic, a game that will stand the test of time. I was enthralled with the pixel-perfect little town, the planting and fishing and mining. Sometimes that life is better when its abstract memory, the wind gently rustling the leaves, birdsong in the air, and there’s not a grid of 64 yams to harvest click.

Soulsborne

I first discovered Dark Souls huddled down in a dingy basement, like one of the lost and despaired corridors so common in the game’s setting.  Since then the series has been one of my favorites.  The second installment made some dramatic shifts to core gameplay elements (backstabs, poise) and felt off, but I still powered through and slaughtered Nashandra.  But it was 2015’s Bloodborne and last year’s Dark souls III that the series hit its high point, mastering the formula.

After what felt like months of battling frustration, I finally beat both Dark souls III and Bloodborne last month (at least the vanilla game), so I feel like I can finally comment on the series as a whole.  What makes these games so appealing?

The fascinating thing about the game design of the series is they take the opposite approach to many of their peers.  other RPGs go heavy on dialog and exposition, Souls is sparse.  Other games rely on randomized enemies and events, everything in Souls is scripted.  Other games polish a user interface util its intuitive and clean, Souls sticks with a barebones tables and text.  It eschews difficulty modes or learning curves.  It simply presents a direct challenge to the player and gives them tools to work with.

All the praise of the original still stand: uncompromising difficulty, cryptic lore, unhelpful statistics, pixel-perfect collision and response.  But III and Borne honed the formula to a fine tip.

I will say that III feels like a remake of the original.  Certain zones are identical, from the architecture to the trash mobs.  Some zones *are* literally the same (Anor Londo), but experienced hundreds of years later, so the stones have experienced considerable weathering.  At times this is a bit of a letdown, that we can’t experience more of From Software’s brilliant originality, but it’s good that those motifs can be experienced on the current HD modern console generation.  III goes beyond the original for a number of zones and bosses (Abyss Watchers, Pontiff) and closes with a nice throwback (Soul of Cinder as Gywn).  

Bloodborne is a different beast.  Probably the darkest video game I’ve played, the setting is an unholy melding of victorian architecture and lovecraftian horror.  One of Dark Souls core mechanic – blocking with shields – has been abandoned (even mocked), in favor of guns, parrying and lifeleech rallies.

Beyond the fights, Bloodborne tells its story in fascinating ways.  Players gain “insight” from encountering and defeating bosses, or consuming Madmen’s Knowledge during the playthrough.  As insight increases, new details are revealed about the world.  Monsters grow dozens of eyes, like spiders.  And instead of merely a bloodred sunset, a huge spindle-legged monstrosity is revealed, climbing the steeple of the central cathedral.   Numerous characters have also blindfolded themselves, removing their vision of the mundane world in exchange for a glimpse of the eldritch truth.

The player’s journey moves through creepy plazas and grand cathedrals, along with dingy villages of wooden huts.  But it also warps in and out of nightmares and dreamscapes, trapped in some recursive figment of cursed and dying adherents of the blood church.

All that being said, Bloodborne’s dark palette and and motifs can be overwhelmingly dreary, and DS III is a nice change of pace to fight on glowing lava fields or sparkling snowscapes.

Even as the Soulsborne games are objectively solid, but it’s is the organic community that’s turned them into legendary hits.  The lore, secrets, and the labyrinthine level design requires multiple playthroughs and hours of erudite study, plenty of fodder for wiki communities to digest.  Beyond that, freakishly talented players have adopted the game as a prime candidate for speedrunning.  The various combinations of achievement possible in the games is astounding.  Some run through and slaughter all the bosses as quickly as possible.  Other’s find glitches and exploits to simply reach the end credits in twenty minutes.  Some even do it all naked, without getting hit once.  Others stick the online PVP gameplay, using exotic weapons, or trolling opponents.

I’ll never be that good, or have that much time and dedication.  I’m content to master the game to the level where I can defeat the bosses, maybe come around again in NG+ and defeat them a second time.  There’s nothing more satisfying than finally executing all the perfectly timed rolls and counter attacks to victory, hands sweaty, heart pounding.  In a way, that rush is behind me, which is a bit bittersweet.

From Software says they’re done with the Soulsborne series, but the formula has been such a wild success, I’m sure spiritual successors will abound.  I’ll be there, dodge rolling and backstabbing with the rest of them.  Praise the sun.

Games as Art – Recent Releases

BioShock Infinite

BioShock is a descendant of Deus Ex, which in turn grew out of System Shock. All those games were First Person Shooters, but they put on a layer of inventory management, skill sets, “spell casting”, and level based puzzle solving.

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BioShock’s big acclaim was the setting and world building – a sunken city decked with the trappings of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, lost beneath the waves. The player saw the results of the civilization, how unchecked greed and bioengineering led to a drowned hell. Big Daddies and Little sisters were probably the biggest gameplay innovation. Kill the “helpless” mutant girl to collect a large dose of ADAM and you’ll have to face the rampaging Daddy. Narrative was intertwined with gameplay in a way that improved both

Infinite takes the same spiritual DNA of its predecessors and evolves into something new. We have the fantastical dystopia – this time a city in the clouds, led by the charismatic religious leader Comstock and his zealous flock. There’s an equal mix of racism and beautiful neo-classical architecture. The color palette is big and bold and full of light, like a carnival on a perfect summer day.

Unfortunately, the carnival aesthetic is extrapolated a bit more than it should be. The entire game feels like a ride at a fair. You walk into a new area, floating buildings and zeppelins docking together, glorious sunshine beaming down, illuminating a huge statue or poster of religious or racist iconography. You walk around for a minute, marveling at all the detail built into the world (flushing toilets! Ice cream vendors!). Then some guards recognize you and there’s a quick and bloody battle, employing a variety of weapons and “spells”. You might jump onto the skyline, a sort of by-the-rails grappling hook. Then visit the vending machine to buy some upgrades or ammo.

The big narrative conceit of the game is Elizabeth, a wonderfully animated companion who you are rescuing/kidnapping throughout the plot of the game. She has big innocent eyes and Disney-caliber voice acting. And for an escort NPC, she’s surprisingly good at keeping up (she runs out ahead of you), and holding her own in a firefight.

But having Elizabeth at your side breaks the pacing and feel of what made BioShock, Deus Ex and System Shock great. No longer are you uncovering a decaying world at your leisure. You’re running an escort mission, racing through zones and enemies and plotlines. The game suddenly feels linear, as stuck to the rails as the skyline.

From a technical standpoint, BioShock Infinite is impressive. The graphical style is reminiscent of Dishonored (neo-Victorian, Steampunkish, World’s Fair 1910s). But the game suffers from Call of Duty syndrome – in the places of the most impressive action, the player’s utility is reduced and you simply see your avatar execute some animated acrobatics. The first time you jump on the skyline, or escape a crumbling statue: the game becomes a cut scene.

This is probably the biggest sin in my mind, aside from all the pretentious moralizing over turn of the century racism, or religious cults, or American mythology.

A few other annoyances: the game is so bright and colorful that the actual gameplay element (enemies, pickups, etc) are hard to discern. So you end up staring at the indicators (press X) to determine what can be interacted with. This leads to a sort of tunnel vision. In addition, the HUD clutter is horrendous (flaming hands, personal shield, checkpoint popups, press X) and fills the screen, almost to distraction. So you’re caught between a glorious world without and then all the video game clutter in the foreground. It’s claustrophobic.

BioShock Infinite is getting rave reviews from tons of game journalists, thinking that it pushes the boundaries games as art. But I was left feeling a bit nauseous, like I’d eaten too much cotton candy and ridden too many roller coasters at the fair.

Cart Life

I hadn’t heard of Cart Life until it won the IGF this year, which goes to show that awards shows have some utility.

It’s constructed with the darling elements of indie gamedev (chiptunes, pixel art), but brings enough of its own style to stand out. The palette is as monochrome as newsprint, the PCs are right out of a gritty 80s urban novel. The premise: sell newspapers or coffee for a week to try to eke out a living. There’s some backstory for each of the three playable characters that’s nuanced and compelling. I played as an Ukranian immigrant who’s trying to start his life over in America, selling newspapers. He translates poetry, is addicted to cigarettes, and takes care of a mangy cat.

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The actual gameplay sits somewhere between old school Sierra adventure and modern Sims. You walk around the city and visit different neighborhoods, talking with various people, buying food, cigarettes, equipment.

Running the stand is actually stressful work. To sell newspapers, for instance, you have to type “Folding Newspapers. Stocking Newspapers” exactly. Mistype a word and you lose a paper. Then you have to mentally calculate change, pulling out dollars and quarters from the till to break a 20.

A full day takes about 30 minutes, and then you go home to feed your cat, brush your teeth and fall asleep to troubled dreams. A screen tabulates your profits. All that hard work and you made $4.50.

Most video games give the player agency in order to instill a feeling of power. Defeating a difficult boss, solving a challenging puzzle, landing a tricky jump: all of these actions are balanced to push the player to the edge of their skill, and then reward them when they succeed. This creates a positive feedback loop.

Cart Life does the opposite. It gives the players video game-esque challenges, and even if they succeed, it doles out paltry rewards (a few dollars) and tidbits of depressing narrative. There’s a feeling that the game is unwinnable.

Modern games give players everything. You can sleepwalk to the ending, and the most exciting narrative events are essentially cut scenes.

But unwinnable games were actually pretty prevalent in the past. Most of my fond memories were of games I never actually “beat”. Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Nethack, even something like Oregon Trail. Everyone remembers fording a river or shooting a bear, but who actually made it to Oregon?

Cart Life is that same sort of game – endlessly replayable, difficult, perhaps unwinnable.

Deeper meanings are there too: life without a safety net, the false optimism of capitalism, immigrant stories, addiction. But these aren’t hammered home as they are in other “art” games, and they’re communicated via gameplay elements, instead of just window dressing.

Cart Life isn’t fun to play. It’s frustrating and depressing. But it’s innovative, visually original, and well deserving of its accolades. And it makes you think.