Archive: Games Journal

I used to keep a game analysis diary of sorts. I wrote most of this before my MA degree, and some of it during. I kept this journal for my own reference, and learned a lot about game analysis and critical thinking in the process.

The journal is in the process of being moved to this site, and will be updated soon with further entries.


Beyond: Two Souls


Killer is Dead


Half-Life

In the first game of the Half-Life series the player assumes the role of Gordon Freeman, who has to break out of the Black Mesa research facility, where an experiment has gone wrong, releasing various different aliens from another dimension. As Half-Life was the first game released by Valve (1998), when evaluating the game one must consider the fact that this game is almost 20 years old now. For this reason the comments and highlights below are slightly different from those for more recent games. And for a game so old, all the little issues and bugs are much easier to forgive.

Objects

The player can interact with the following objects: Guns (including picking up enemies' guns), ammo, med packs (health), armour packs, turrets (fixed to the ground, allow rapid fire without using the player's bullets), mine carts, switches/valves, tanks (same as turrets), crates

The way the player can interact with these does not change throughout the game, except for when a new object is introduced (e.g. a new gun). All of the objects have a single specific use - the player does not have a vast amount of freedom in how to utilise the objects in their surroundings, as they do later in Half Life 2.

Interface

The interface does not have too much information, which allows a clearer view for the player, and a more immersive experience without health bars, etc. breaking the illusion of being one with Gordon Freeman. The information on health, armour, and ammo are displayed in numbers with a simple outline drawing showing what they are, on the bottom left and right corners of the screen (respectively), and the flashlight battery displayed by a small icon in the top right corner. Also, as the text and characters are all displayed in dark orange, they do not immediately draw the player's view, as for example red, or bright colours would.

There is a limited Oxygen supply for underwater movement, however, there is no feedback of how much Oxygen the player has, until they are about to start taking damage from the lack of it, at which point a red O2 sign starts flashing in the bottom left corner of the screen. While this is easy to notice, and provides a visible warning for the player, the lack of a bar showing the remaining amount of O2 left, it is unnecessarily difficult for the player to anticipate how much longer they can stay underwater before they will start drowning.

Interactions

NPC-s such as other scientists, and security guards can help the player by healing, and opening doors with access-codes. There are no active dialogues, only limited interaction by pressing 'E', which initiates one of the set responses from the NPC. If an NPC that would have been crucial for progression dies, the game is 'lost', and the player respawns at the last saving point. The scientists which allow interactions always use the same 3 models, which gets quite amusing, as they are often seen dead, and at times the player can kill them too without being punished.
Another character can also be spotted in multiple locations throughout the game - a man in a suit -, carrying a briefcase, looking towards Freeman. It is only at the very end of the game, that this NPC becomes interactive.

Gameplay

The game does not provide any direct hints or instructions. Subtle hints can be found by talking to NPC-s, and reading signs on the wall. While it does not tell the player what to do, if there is a path to go on, it always has a purpose - if not the main path, the player is rewarded by ammo and/or health packs.

Due to the way the engine is built, it is possible to do 'bunny hopping' in the game, gaining an increased movement speed by continuously jumping, which allows the player to reach places that would not be possible by standard running and jumping. This makes shortcuts possible (presumably intended, as the blocks are placed far enough not to be reached by normal jumps, but close enough to be reached by bunny hopping).

The game allows manual save, however, there is also an auto-save function which means the player does not have to manually save other than when they quit the game. The auto-save has two noteworthy problems: 1) The player is not told when they have reached a savepoint, and certain places which one would expect to be a save point are not, the real save points are at nontrivial locations. 2) Even though the map is continuous, to avoid having to load too much at once, there are 'Load' points in the game, where the player is stopped, and the screed displays 'Loading'. As there are no other forms of feedback on when the game saves automatically, I assumed for these to be overlapping with the save points. However, as I found out the hard way, sometimes the auto-save points are annoyingly far apart, which results in having to redo a substantial amount, including passing loading points again.
An amusing - but problematic none the less - side-effect of the way auto-save was set up, is that at one particular point in the game, if the player passes the auto-save line on low HP, they will die instantly, as just past the line a headcrab jumps at them. This results in the player respawning in the exact same place as where they died, with the headcrab jumping towards them. While possible, it is difficult to dodge it the instant they re-enter the game. Although I do not know the location of each auto-save point, this leads me to believe they were not designed with player safety upon respawn in mind.

Noticeable bugs

There is an underwater fish-like alien in the game, which the player has to kill to be able to progress. While it deals and takes a lot of damage, due to its limited movement and animation, if the player presses left and right movement keys (A and D by default) in quick succession, it will be unable to move forward, twitching between facing left and right, but staying in the same 3D axis position.

At times it is crucial for progression that a security or scientist NPC follows the player. Due to their limited capabilities for movement and interaction it is often difficult to get them to start following Freeman, and when they do, they can get stuck in bodies of dead enemies, or glitch out at corners.

As mentioned above, the game has to load between two areas, where the screen is frozen, and 'Loading' is displayed. However, after this happens, the player cannot press R to reload, but has to fire a bullet first, in order for that to be possible. As the player does not have an unlimited amount of bullets, and there are quite a few Loading screens, this adds up to quite a few bullets, if the player wants to reload at the start of new areas, so they won't run out of bullets too quickly in the next fight.

At one point in the game the player is required to open two valves after each other, each of which increasing the water level by a set amount. However, if the player turns the second valve quickly after the first valve, before the first increased water level is reached, it will register both valves to have increased the water level, and the player will be unable to progress unless he commits suicide, resetting the valves. The player then must turn the first valve and wait for the water level to stop rising before turning the second one.


ibb & obb

ibb & obb is a cute game to play with a friend, has great but simple artwork and relaxing puzzles. The mellow music and the artstyle also contribute to the relaxing atmosphere of the game. ibb & obb is designed for two people, so despite the fact that it is technically possible to play alone under the local multiplayer option (using WASD and arrow keys), it is not recommended.

Story/setting

You are ibb, and your friend is obb. Or the other way around. You are both controlling a cute little blob with two tiny legs and adorable eyes. The game does not seem to have a story, but in each level your aim is to help each other in getting to your friends at the end. The world has a ground line with two sides, the line always being the centre of gravity. You start on the opposite sides and at certain gaps (white fuzzy line) it is possible to switch over between the two, so you can both be either the right side up or upside down.

Objectives and Resources

Your objective is to reach the end of each level. The world is continuous, so the end of a level is practically just a checkpoint you walk through (see the picture at the end). Your main resources are each other - you can help each other to jump up to higher places, and the only way for you to collect points during your run is for one person to destroy the white bouncing (or stationary) balls, which turns the black spiky enemies into crystal balls, giving points when collected. As they are located on opposite sides of the floor, one character cannot pop the ball and collect the points most of the time. Other resources include neutral 'monsters' (?) who allow you to jump on them, and special platforms that allow ibb and obb to bounce each other higher on opposite sides. As the players progress through levels, there are new environmental resources introduced, but the goal never changes. It is truly a cooperative game where even though it might be fun from time to time to bait your obb into a spiky foe's trap, when one of you dies, you both die, even if you just managed to get past the hardest part, and obb was just a little too clumsy.

Mechanics

ibb & obb is a multiplayer online (or local) co-op game, played by two players. Two characters, ibb and obb, move through the continuous, linear game world. The 'floor' is represented with a thick line, splitting the screen vertically. The floor serves as the centre of gravity on both sides, so if a character crosses over (possible through the fuzzy gaps), they will stand upside down, and will have to press the down arrow to jump. Most fuzzy gaps (especially early on in the game) are white, allowing both characters to pass through. However, sometimes they are pink or green, meaning only the character with the respective colour is able to pass through.

The two characters are identical in abilities otherwise, the only difference being that the pink one is somewhat taller. However, this did not seem to make a difference while I played, as when a character stands on top of the other, the bottom one can jump to push the top one up (and the top one can then jump to get even higher). The characters can push each other from side to side, which allows one to help - or kill - the other. While it could be a negative feature, as the players are able to push each other into traps, the players are discouraged to do so, as if one character dies, so does the other, and they both respawn at the beginning of the area.

Gameplay

Positive
ibb & obb seems quite similar to Brothers (below) in that both of them have two main characters, who have to cooperate in order for both of them to succeed. However, as ibb & obb was designed to be a multiplayer game, it eliminates the one thing I disliked about Brothers - the awkward controls for one person. I also tried playing ibb & obb alone on my keyboard out of curiosity. Due to the changing gravity it was impossible for me to control the two characters at the same time, however, on lower levels it was possible to progress very slowly, moving the two characters separately rather than simultaneously. However, as I mentioned in Brothers, having the two characters controlled by two separate players makes the game much more interesting and fun. As there is no integrated voice (or any kind of) chat in the game, the designers have created a wonderful way to communicate: draw in your own colour. If you are pink, when you move your mouse, a pink sprayed pattern appears temporarily on the screen of both players in the trace of the mouse (green if you are green), allowing for easy and straightforward communication between the players.

Negative
While the game is enjoyable, due to the lack of story, and the relatively monotonous look and feel of the levels, it does not keep the attention of the players for a long enough time to progress through all levels. For example, Battleblock Theatre has mostly the same mechanics throughout the game, but having the funny narrative and voiceovers throughout the episodes keeps the player motivated. ibb & obb on the other hand, as mentioned earlier, is a more soothing, relaxing game. This makes it enjoyable for a while, but for a cooperative game, where two players must both have the same level of engagement for it to work, I do not think it offers enough to the players. Unfortunately, despite the great cooperative mechanics, this particular game might have been more fitting for a single player game, which can be played alone, and would be suitable for relaxation, and stress relief, similar to "adult colouring books".


Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I only stumbled across Brothers by accident on Steam (this seems to be a recurring pattern through my games). I was looking through games in Steam Summer Sale, where I saw it had outstandingly high ratings. When I looked at the tags and comments, two things caught my eye. First, that it is a story-driven, very emotional and sad game. Second, that it is a 'Single player co-op game'. Now, when I saw this, I thought I had to try it, I just could not imagine how that would work. And after playing it through, I must say, it worked very well, and the designers did an amazing job.

But let's go back to the first one for a little bit (this goes a little off topic, so feel free to skip if you only want to read about the game itself). Many comments on Steam said the ending made them cry, which, as strange as that may sound, made me want to play it a lot more. I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies/series that affect me emotionally and get me anywhere from welling up to bawling my eyes out. There is just something liberating in crying over something fictional, something that isn't your story. So as twisted as it may sound, I was looking forward to the end of the game. To my disappointment however, it had absolutely no effect on me. Yes, the ending is sad, yes you don't see it coming, but I felt nothing other than 'aww...'.
This got me wondering about whether this has anything to do with the fact that it is a game. As I thought back, I couldn't recall any game that I've played and made me at least well up, even though there were quite a few of them with sad plots. After discussing it with my friends, one of the most likely reasons we came up with is that the player does not feel as one with the character, as the character can die and respawn over and over again, so it doesn't feel 'real'. But then why does it feel real when you are walking in Dead Space or Amnesia and you are scared for your life? My thought was it could be the angle - when a game uses first person view, it is a lot easier to feel like you are one with the character. However, then why does it feel any more 'real' when watching Naruto for example, where the people get beaten up enough to kill them a thousand times over, and yet you still cry when you see Hinata stand up in front of Naruto to shield him? If you know the answer, do let me know.

Story/Setting

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (hereafter referred to as Brothers) is about two brothers, who have lost their mother, and their father appears to be very ill.

The old man (presumably the town doctor) tending to the father tells the two sons to go and get something very important, and gives the older one (Naia) a map for guidance. The player only finds out what it is they are looking for near the end, although the image on the scroll they show at the start of the game is a hint, which I am kind of glad I did not realise at the time.
The game is set in a large area, starting from the brothers' village, through mountains, valleys, rivers, castles, for the brothers to reach their destination.
The game has no understandable conversations, the two brothers communicate using a fictional language. The story is told using overly exaggerated gestures, emotions, and actions. For this reason, finding out the story is a journey on its own - telling any more before someone plays it would definitely spoil it.

Objectives

There is one real objective in the game, and that is to get what the doctor asked for, in order to heal the father. In order to do this, the two brothers have to set on a long journey. They travel far, solving puzzles on the way and cooperating to help each other past the more challenging areas. There are no specific mini-objectives in the game, unless one would classify passing each area as one. The player can get achievements through interacting with the environment, which is not necessary to be able to progress.

Mechanics

Brothers as I played it is a single player game, where the player controls both brothers at the same time (there is also the option to play it as a local co-op with two people). The lack of a specific tutorial helps the player to learn the game dynamics through experience, doing simple tasks in the beginning. The game has a Man vs. Nature/Environment type conflict, as the two brothers overcome obstacles such as climbing walls or buildings, swimming through rivers, etc.

As the player controls both brothers and has to get them to cooperate, it is very difficult to get used to. One cannot just simply do everything with one brother and then have the other one catch up, as the brothers need to help each other constantly, enforcing cooperation. Sometimes to distract an enemy while the other goes past, other times to carry something one of them alone could not lift, etc.

The game makes very good use of the age difference between the two brothers as well. The younger brother (Naiee) is more playful when interacting with the environment, and can get through narrow places where his brother can't. On the other hand, the older brother (Naia) acts more mature in interactions, and is a lot stronger - so he is able to lift his brother, move heavy objects, etc.

Gameplay

Positive
While normally I would classify this as negative - like I did in Remember Me -, the player cannot get off the dedicated trail. Here are the reasons why in this case I think this is a positive trait of the game nonetheless.
First of all, the characters do not speak in English but a fictional language (similarly to the way they do in Sims), so the only things you understand from what's going on is what you see in their body language as they are speaking. While this is enough to understand that the smaller brother cannot swim, it's not quite enough to understand what it is you're meant to do, if you don't have a set path you can walk and freely experiment on.
Secondly, as controlling the two players at the same time feels quite awkward, it helps the player stay on the path (and not fall off the bridge and die for example), which I know would have happened to me countless times in the first half an hour I played.
And lastly, this doesn't mean it's completely obvious at all times where to go, as it was very well integrated so that the player still has to figure out how to proceed, making the most of the collaboration between the two brothers.

Negative
Very hard to get used to the controls on keyboard, as the game was designed to be played on Xbox with a controller (although even so I find it hard to imagine a comfortable way for one player). The player controls the two main characters simultaneously. By default the older brother is controlled by WASD with Space as the action button, and the younger one is controlled by the arrow keys with Left Ctrl as the action button. This is incredibly uncomfortable for one person playing. It was not advertised as a local multiplayer game, however it would be both more comfortable and more interesting that way.


Remember Me

This was one of those games that I bought not because of the hype or the fame, but because it was on Steam Summer Sale. I read the reviews which obviously varied from one extreme to the other, but what got me interested is that someone said it is a game that is worth playing for the storyline. The last game that I felt like that was Mass Effect, where even though there are various elements of the game that make it engaging and enjoyable, the main reason for me to play it was to follow the story not to run around shooting bad guys.

Story

One of the obvious strengths of the game is the storyline. The game is set in the future where everyone has a device implanted called Sensen, which allows to alter their memories. This includes buying new memories, preserving old ones or deleting them. The company responsible for this technology is called Memorize, and they seem to have gone far beyond what one would accept as normal. They have the ability to completely wipe your memory, and that's exactly what they are trying to do to you at the start of the game, but you manage to escape before they complete the process.

I found this concept quite interesting, and the most fun part is: it lets you alter others' memories. The game focuses (a bit too much) on the story, which makes the player want to find out more of what happens - I believe that is the main reason for someone to want to keep playing it.

Objectives

Your main objective is to regain your lost memories. You have nearly no knowledge of yourself or your past in the beginning. As the game progresses you remember more and more of your abilities that allegedly made you the best and most dangerous memory hunter there was, and you find out more and more about your past. The game is made up of 7 main chapters, each with many small objectives, all serving as a stepping stone to the end.

Mechanics

Player type: Single player vs. game
Set in a city where you explore all areas from the slums through the fancy malls to the Memorize headquarters. As you can never leave the set path you need to go on for the current objective, the world's boundaries are never quite clear. However, it seems the gameplay is set in various areas of one city.

Gameplay

One major negative element of the gameplay is that it allows no freedom to explore your surroundings. There is a set map with a set path you have to follow no matter what, you can only climb up somewhere where this sign shows you can - which also means you have to, either as the main route or a sidestep to pick up a piece of information. After playing any of the Assassin's Creed games where you can run around and climb freely, this will be more than difficult to adjust to.

I suppose it is quite difficult to find the perfect balance so players have some freedom without getting too much off track, although in Remember Me there seems to be no effort for such balance. As I enjoy narrative games, I also enjoyed playing this game, but looking back at it I find it rather hard to justify why. For this reason I can also see some players being very unsatisfied, thinking the game is boring.

It was very disappointing to see that a game with such great potential sacrificed two main challenges that make gameplays engaging for the focus to be entirely on the story (whether intentional or not): the challenge of exploration (e.g. having to find the way to the next objective, being able to interact with the environment with some sense of freedom), and the challenge of combat (i.e. forcing the player to pay attention when fighting, whether it's choice of weapons or the necessity of tactics to defeat the opponent).

Controls

Standard attacks:
As you progress through the story you have countless fitghts and a boss fight at the end of each episode. In the beginning you have no fighting skills, but you remember more and more throughout the game. The basic fighting mode is to use left and right click for punches and kicks. These have a base damage, but the only way it is worth doing is to learn your combos. Every time you kill enemies you gain points which when you reach a limit you can use to unlock a combo element. There are three main types; attack, heal, and cooldown. The attack type ones deal amplified damage, the heal type ones deal base damage and heal you for it, and the cooldown type ones reduce your ability cooldowns by 10 seconds with each attack (see below). There is also a fourth rare category, which when used after a combo element, copies the previous one and doubles the effect.

Abilities:
You have 5 main abilities which you have forgotten when your memories got erased. You remember these gradually one by one throughout the game as the story progresses.

Resources:
Health bar - The number of blocks can be increased by collecting optional memories. The damage received can be healed in two ways: by using healing attacks in combos (mid-fight), or at healing stations (between fights).
Focus bar - Dealing or receiving damage in fights generates focus. Abilities can be used when they are off cooldown and you have generated enough focus (1 bar per ability).
Cooldown attacks - each ability has a set cooldown which can be reduced using cooldown attacks in combos.


Contrast

Story

Contrast is set in the 1920's, with beautiful Jazz music in the background (sang by Laura Ellis). The music and the surroundings perfectly blend with the game's art style, which resembles film noir.‚Äč

You embody Dawn, the imaginary friend of a young girl Didi, who you will be following and helping throughout the game. She lives with her mother Kat, who works late, having to leave Didi at home alone. This is where your and Didi's adventure begins. Every character in the game lives in the 2D shadow world, only you and Didi, in her imagination, are in the 3D world. You (unlike Didi) also have the ability to shift between the 3D imagination and 2D shadow worlds, which will be your main tool for solving the puzzles in game.

Objectives

At the beginning of the game it is unclear what the main objective is. What you know is you need to follow Didi, and help her. Your miniobjective is always given by Didi, e.g. get to a certain location, or make an area accessible for her, etc. Some tasks require you to use up luminaries you have collected, which indirectly give you a new miniobjective: look around and try to find more, usually by trying to reach a particularly difficult place, using moving shadows. The game keeps track of the number of luminaries you have out of the total available in the level, so you can collect them all even if you don't need to in order to proceed.
You are always free to wonder off and not follow the set path to some extent (but you are not allowed to go back into the area of the previous act). Since this means you may end up somewhere Didi would lead you later, when there are multiple objectives simultaneously at the same point in a timeline, and do not require one another to proceed, you might find yourself doing some of the objectives in a different order from how it was originally intended, thus getting Didi to appear where you are, not where she walked off to.

As the objectives are puzzle-like with no violence, together with the Jazz music, it sets a calm, relaxing tone despite the town looking abandoned.

Mechanics

Contrast is a single player game, using shadow - 3D puzzles as conflict. The world itself is the 3D projection of Didi's 2D town, and at the end of the reachable world the surface is broken and you can see everything is floating in space, supporting the concept of imagination. You control Dawn, a beautiful imaginary friend. Dawn has to shift between her 3D and shadow form to solve various puzzles. It is an outstanding game mechanic, and the game makes perfect use of the play between light sources, moving objects, and their shadows. You can also interact with some objects around you to move them, and create the perfect shadow path for yourself.

Gameplay

Already at the first scene it becomes clear how you can engage with the environment, as when you look around in the room you can see white sparks around objects, which when you approach, you have the option to interact with. This will follow you throughout the game, making it a little bit easier to find what you need. However, as you still need to reach it, most of the times it is not as much of a help as you would think.

All views are my own. © Laura Kampis. Theme modified from svbhack.