Coming Home

“It’s been a while, since we’ve seen you in these parts.” The old woman didn’t look up from her glass, rolling a couple of ice cubes in what remained of her whiskey.

“Meema?” Clementine’s face lit up at the familiar voice, she turned and rushed over, embracing the old woman tightly from behind. “I’m sorry it’s been so long. I’ve missed you all so much.” She had a thousand excuses on the tip of her tongue, a thousand stories to tell, but none of that mattered. She was back with her family and things would continue on right where they left off.

“Oh, why don’t you take a seat, hun?”

Clementine plopped down in the chair next to Meema, “Whew, well I could sure use a drink.” The bartender had been staring at the reunion, slightly puzzled. Her eyes darted toward him, catching his before he could look away. “Cold water, please”, she yelled out and with a nod he went for the cooler.

“We should have something a bit more to celebrate, if you staying long enough,” Meema gave Clementine a pained grin, hopeful but fearing the worst.

“Oh ya, I’ll be here a while now. We’ve been on the move all day, ran out of water a few miles back. I’m parched something fierce.”

“You traveling with someone?”

“Ya,” Clemetine grinned. The lack of elucidation stocked Meema’s curiosity.

“Dangerous to run out of water in these temperatures.”

Their conversation took a pause as the bartender swept by, delivering a tall frosted glass of ice cold water, and picking up Meema’s empty tumbler. With him out of earshot, Clementine continued in a more hushed tone, “Ya, we ran into some trouble, well, we were just trying to avoid the trouble… might not have even been any real trouble, but we kind of hoped to keep a low profile coming in, so we left our supplies behind the wall. It was a straight shoot from there to here, though! Pretty easy when you’re traveling light and got something to look forward to.” She took a great big swig of her glass.

Golden Land

The holy man came out of the orchard, a golden apple cradled against his chest.

“See what has finally sprung up from this hallowed earth. The trees have long known what lies in the depths beneath us. Their roots have grown deep and they have found the salvation we were promised.”

Onlookers were in awe, enraptured by the apple’s otherwordly incandescence. The holy man’s words seeped into their souls.

A sudden shout broke the spell. “We must dig! We must find that which gives such power to these trees!” For the trees grew amidst a barren land.

“Yes! We must take it from this place and hold it where we can keep it safe, where none might steal or threaten it.”

“We should take it to the mountains, and build it a fortress, so that none deemed unworthy might approach.”

One after the other proclaimed a new idea to take this miraculous power. Fortifications, weapons, rules, rituals, a new society, whatever it would take to ensure that the gift would be safe from destruction or abuse by any potential enemy.

These people had faced much hardship in their lives. Fear fuled their anxiety, and a promise of new fortunes, of the power to take control of their destinies and shape the land and people around them for generations to come filled their imagination.

The holy man cleared his throat, cutting through the endless milieu of the crowd. Silence fell. Naught could be heard but the rustle of leaves, chirps of birds, and buzzing of insects. The shade of a cloud passed over the group, a chill running up the spine of everyone.

“The power is in the earth itself. It cannot be moved. It is not in one place, but everyplace. Try and pick it out, and you will find nothing. It will be as if it was never there. We shall make our home here. We cannot defend it, and so we shall not try, nor turn away any stranger. But should any threaten us, we shall leave this land to them, and it will defeat them for us, for none who are unworthy will be able to hold it, and if they destroy that which we hold dear, we shall be no poorer than we are now, but in fact enriched by the time we had in this land.”

The crowd stared at the seer, and contemplated their fears, desires, and hopes.

The Dais

He brushed away at the tablets, slowly revealing the ancient etchings. The heat was unbearable and dehydration was creeping through his body, but there was no time to spare. He was meant to be gathering the last of his belongings. The camp was to be evacuated by sundown, but he couldn’t abandon his research now.

The answers were all right before him. Each stroke of the brush brought another secret into the light of day. The knowledge carved into the earth here was worth dying for. It could change the entire course of the war! He had demanded more men be sent across the desert, to delay the onslaught even for just another day, but those betting against him won the day and the decision was made.

Their heads would roll if he could even bring back a fraction of the stones, and what he had uncovered so far was enough. It was time to record his findings, report back to camp, and get something to drink. There was no way he could stop himself at this point. Every new glyph brought another epiphany. He could feel the breadth of his consciousness expanding, becoming ever closer with the universe. Life was not worth living if it wasn’t this every moment forward.

A gust of wind, like dragon’s breath, rose up from beneath the tablets. Panic suddenly broke him from the spell. A coughing fit overtook him. He reeled back, grasping for breath, only to get lung fulls of grit. The ground rumbled, and he fell atop a smooth surface. The banks of sand that had surrounded him were gone. Peering through sand filled eyes, he noticed the entire area was suddenly clear. And he was at the center of it.

Shopping

The aisle seemed to stretch for infinity. Staring down it, his eyes burned in the harsh artificial light. The visual noise of all the labels blending together like a nauseous fractal. The path was narrower than usual, the whole store seemed to be in disarray, actually. A result of the construction going on.

Why was there construction going on inside the supermarket smack dab in the middle of the day during open hours? Couldn’t they do that after hours? For the customers? Weren’t they worth it? The jackhammer began again. So did his headache.

Stuck between two perusing shoppers, he had no choice. Contact would have to be made. He couldn’t turn the cart around, so it would be the person in front he would have to negotiate by. Coming up slowly along the aisle to his right as she browsed the left, he came to a pause, ready to make eye contact, totally unnoticed.

“Errr, excuse me.” She looked over. He saw she understood, and nodded to confirm his unspoken request.

“Oh! Sorry,” she said as she pulled the cart beside her.

He left her with a thanks as he picked up steam moving past, finally on his way again, getting somewhere, getting things done.

The end of aisle was in sight.

“Whoa, sorry.” He came to a halt as someone appeared around the corner. The other fellow also paused. The two waited to see who would make the first move, who would let the other know where exactly they wanted to go. He started forward again, continuing along the right side of aisle, as the other fellow continued along the left side. Disaster averted. Finally, he was free of the aisle.

Searching For Something?

The lamp flickered erratically as she jerked it from one nook to the other. Panic had begun to stir deep within. Like a siren seeking to lull a waking giant back to sleep, she let out her frustration in a throaty growl. It was time to refocus, to not lose sight, of what was most important.

There had to be something down here. She knew it. Why else would anyone have been guarding the entrance? People didn’t live in caves unless they had something to hide. Everyone knew that. At the very least they may have been wanted criminals. Too many heads to take for the bounty, though. Perhaps she’d only take the biggest one. That had to be the leader. He was probably worth the most.

It was a shame she hadn’t been to town in so long. The locals didn’t really agree with her. She found them too judgmental. If you couldn’t do things their way, you were better off doing nothing. Plus they were lazy. Day or night, she would do what needed to be done. That was only right. There was so much that needed to be done, but there was never enough time.

The time! Already she had spent too much time here, and there. There was nothing in the cave worth taking. The fools had died for nothing. They tricked her and wasted her precious time. Obviously their fates were deserved. What kind of people wasted another person’s time?

Back at the cave entrance, she paused to let her sight adjust. Her eyes burned in the light, but she would not back down from the pain, would not allow herself to squint one iota. She would stand firm, eyes wide open, gazing upon the grossly incandescent world. A snap rang out from the depths behind her. She took a step forward to steady herself against the impact of the arrow now lodged in her back. Seemed that someone had survived.

In Space

It was another day on hull maintenance. Turned away from the sun, the only illumination came from her helmet’s floodlight. It did the job, but Jen couldn’t shake the anxiousness of the oppressive darkness that surrounded her.

The job had almost become routine. A cloud of micro meteors had moved into the same orbit as the station. The plan was to move higher, out of range, and most of the rest of the crew was busy performing a long overdo survey to make sure switching on the engines wouldn’t threaten the station’s structural integrity, if they would even switch on.

In the meantime, it was up to Jen to look over impact sites and make sure things would hold together until they were clear. She had 37 hours until the station crossed paths with the meteor cloud again. Plenty of time, but leaving the station was never easy. It was a colossal structure, and the nearest airlock was at least 20 minutes away. Her only guide was her operations officer, patched in to her helmet’s comm system, seeing what she saw through the on board camera.

As Jen welded small tears and removed loose debris, Sam made small talk over the comm link. Sam enjoyed talking, and Jen found it calming to hear something other than her own breathing. Satisfied with the repairs in her immediate vicinity, she swept the area for any remaining damage and confirmed with Sam that no other hits had been registered.

Daily Writing Exercise

I haven’t had the opportunity to do much creative writing at work the last few years, and I’ve finally reached the point where I would really like to just write again. I’ve decided to make sure I make the time each day to write for at least half an hour. No real rules besides to just write and not dwell much on getting that one sentence just perfect. Ages ago at University, my Creative Writing teacher, Cynn Chadwick, got across, if nothing else, that the most important part of being a writer is to just write, and not let the anxiety of the blank page overpower you. So here’s my first little story and hopefully I can keep this up mostly daily:

The cool night was sobering. I felt pride in breaking from the haze as I entered the car park. I knew how to moderate myself. I was good to go. The drive home was nothing to worry about. I should have had a few more drinks.
Illuminated by the single street lamp in the area, I saw a small bundle in the empty stall next to my car. Instantly I felt a surge of childish excitement, a brief glimmer of that naivete from ages long past, as if this treasure I found came with no strings attached. But there are always strings. Some we attach ourselves. Some have been set by others.
It was a wallet, fairly full looking, given its bulge and nearly open state. The markings on the leather were unfamiliar, perhaps the emblem of some hip local store’s brand. Picking it up, it unfolded in my hand. No driver’s license. The strings were being attached. It felt quite weighty, but I certainly couldn’t keep it. I couldn’t leave it there, because someone might take it! Bringing it to the police would be so far out of the way… why did I pick this thing up again?
What kind of wallet was this anyway? There were absolutely no cards inside. Opening up the billfold, it turned out there was no money inside as well. It was stuffed with paper scraps, all neatly folded. I pulled one out and unfolded it. There was a date, three days away. I pulled out another. It was blank. In fact, all the rest seemed blank.
I gave the car park one last look over before unlocking my car and heading in. “Guess I’ll drop this off.” It seemed like no big loss to whoever had owned it anyway, given its contents. That was before I understood the true context of those contents.

Mystery Legends Beauty and the Beast

Mystery Legends Beauty and the Beast

Our latest hidden object adventure game has finally released! Check it out, as some say it’s even better than Phantom of the Opera.

Once again I did extensive work on the writing in this game (moreso on the in-game text and dialog, as opposed to mainly just writing the cutscene dialog for Phantom). As I got in closer to the ground floor of this project I was also able to do a lot of walkthrough and puzzle design and then implement it through our scripting system. It was great to contribute so much to this game, though I still have a sweet sport for Phantom!

The Melancholy of Bayonetta

I finally got around to playing Bayonetta but I have to admit I’m pretty disappointed. I loved the media related to Bayonetta. How shamelessly over the top and tongue in cheek it seemed to be. But then we finally get to the gameplay and all that built up personality and character feels shattered by the game constantly tripping over itself.

Where the non interactive parts seem firmly planted in the vein of God Hand, the gameplay strays little from Devil May Cry, and, especially after Arkham Asylum, Devil May Cry’s combat just feels a bit too dated for my tastes. The controls feel too unresponsive (I think fighting games should have some sort of lag adjuster like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have), it’s too hard to tell if you pressed a button too early or too late, it’s hard to even see yourself when things get chaotic… there’s lots of small issues (especially on the PS3 perhaps), but the crux of the experience comes down on the combat.

When I play a power fantasy game I mainly just want to have my character doing the awesome things the character is supposedly capable of doing, without having to memorize complex formulas or jump through a ton of hoops (like switching between weapons to jump cancel air dash *brain explode*). Maybe I’m not just the target audience for a game like Bayonetta, but then I wonder why I felt advertised to.

Going into this game with God Hand in mind might have spoiled my experience, but I think it helped me realize something really unique and critical to its enjoyment that God Hand did. God Hand lets you get to the meat of a moveset without having to keep in mind a seemingly endless index of button combinations.

In Bayonetta a punch isn’t always just a punch. What sort of punch you punch is dependent on context: whether or not you are jumping up, falling down, moving in a particular direction or standing still, have punched or kicked immediately prior to this punch or a second before this punch, and whether or not you have enough magical energy to pull off whatever your move is supposed to result in. In God Hand you get at most like 6 different punches, through which you’ll cycle through as you progress your combo, otherwise formulating combos is up to the player to tailor fit to their play style and level of comfort.

Now, I don’t think God Hand’s system is perfect, setting a movelist is pretty complex stuff and it would be nice if the game could just dynamically generate your moveset based on the situation. This is how Batman Arkham Asylum sort of feels like, but even there more powerful moves are buried behind a combo limit. The good thing is you only have to build up your combo to a certain limit for Batman to start really kicking ass, you don’t have to build up any one specific combo for every single badass move though, which is what Bayonetta stubbornly requires.

Perhaps I’m just bitter because the final moment in the game involved me mistaking how awesome it would be to punch the final boss through every planet AND THEN into the sun, rather directly into the sun. I’m sorry that my version of awesome doesn’t match up with your version of awesome, Platinum Games.

The End of Linearity? A Review of The Path

Playing through The Path, I began to wonder what it was that was so enthralling about it. How I could spend an evening accomplishing little but still enjoying the simplicity of wandering around an unending forest looking for “something?” I realized something wonderful: Despite blindly running off into the woods, I never once felt lost.

The game reminded me of the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Except it’s more like, “Wherever you go, you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
It’s a cool idea, but the level at which Tale of Tales pulls it off is what’s impressive. I’ve read that FarCry 2 was also modular and designed to lead the player into the story no matter which direction they head off in. I’m still interested in seeing how well it works with the idea, but based on The Path’s implementation (and my previous positive bias towards the idea) I am, more than ever before, convinced that such a design structure is the way to go whether your game is open world or linear, unless you specifically want to give the player an on-rails experience. In fact, I would say that this design structure eliminates the need to distinguish between linear and non-linear types of progression. Perhaps now we can begin to discuss games more in the sense of deterministic and non-deterministic, far more universal concepts.

Contrast The Path with Prince of Persia (2008), which was desperate to constantly remind you that you were, in fact, always on the path. It was like they couldn’t put enough of those light orbs as obviously as possible straight in your path. In fact, the platforming was so restrictive you could never even leave the path if you wanted to. The level design was so linear this didn’t necessarily obstruct your ability to move through it all, but it completely killed any potential the world had to spontaneously generate a sense of surprise and discovery. It certainly left me longing for the days of Super Mario Bros where some fluke of poor control or innocent curiosity could suddenly leave you walking on top of the screen. Prince of Persia was simply incapable of surprise (as far as gameplay went).

The Path’s design succeeds in allowing infinite aimless wandering, encouraging it, and making sure that no matter how far off the path I get I’ll always feel like I’m moving forward in terms of my objectives. Sure, I might not find exactly what I’m looking for, but eventually a flower will pop up, and dammit, that alone makes all the wandering worthwhile, not that they seem to do anything, but that doesn’t matter, I’m making a pretty garland around my inventory. It does well in setting long term and short term goals, a dichotomy far too many games ignore or obfuscate. It lets me set the pace of progression, and an intoxicating power indeed.
It succeeds where every open world game I can think of (Oblivion, Godfather, Mafia, Saboteur, Infamous, the Silent Hill games, all of them (though mostly the less linear 1&2)) fail on a basic level. Those games have plenty to do and discover, but ultimately you’ll find yourself walking in circles, hitting a border, forced to use your map and follow the arrow.
The Path has just the right mix of ingredients to maintain a feeling that’s never frustrating, that never feels like time is being wasted, that doesn’t make me feel helpless and lost, and there’s never that nagging feeling of “Ok, I know I should be advancing the story, time to get serious about this game and get back on the critical path.” Its level of ambiguous hints (the briefly appearing map, the swirly lines along the edge of the screen), concrete goals (the empty boxes in the basket), filler (the 144 flowers), hand holding (literally with the girl in white) and randomness (in forest layout and relative relation of items/appearance of flowers) all help to assure the player never feels, “Well… nothing’s happening… what do I do now?” And if the player ever does come to a stop, unable to take another step, they’ll be shown straight back to the path. I never really felt an inclination to consult a walkthrough.

Most importantly, throughout all this aimless wandering, the player gets to know their character. That’s the true reward, the most delicious carrot: Someone for the player to connect to, to see a part of themselves in, and a world for the player to reflect on. It’s not just a journey of discovering the outside world, it’s a journey of realizing what lies within our own inner universe.

The only point the game fails on is when a wolf area is encountered. Usually there are several things to interact with, but which will trigger the wolf? These were the only moments I felt uncertainty and apprehension. Interestingly, this anxiety only arose upon first discovering its existence. Perhaps what triggers the wolf should have remained unpredictable, as once I learned what clue there was to danger (triggering the camera flyby cutscene) I became much more careful in my interactions.Otherwise, the game was like rolling about in a huge bed or splashing about in an Olympic sized pool, not having to worry about the repercussions for wildly exploring.

In these days of giant yellow !’s we’ve ignored or failed to build being lost into the experiences we craft, and more importantly, surprising the player by showing how they weren’t lost after all, how they were, in fact, contributing to their overall progress with their seemingly aimless and random acts that don’t turn out to be so extraneous after all. This might be mostly due to our audience (and ourselves) having far too many experiences with bad design, where if you feel lost you probably are actually lost and will never get back onto the main path without a walkthrough. Perhaps those early games were a bit too traumatic for one too many game developer and we became too eager to shift toward the ideology of making sure the player never doesn’t know what to do. Not only do we try to keep the player informed, but we take it a step further and do our best to tell and convince the player why they should focus on staying on the path, to reject the temptation to push the boundaries of our games. I’ll forever see the mini-map and its ilk as quick-fix, knee-jerk overreactions that treat a symptom but not the underlying problem of the player failing to progress. A linear games makes it easy for the player to feel as if they are progressing, and that’s an important feeling to impart, but I feel The Path shows linearity isn’t needed for that in the least. Maybe now we can consider designs similar to those of old which inflicted trauma of aimless wandering without decrying them for their failings, but hailing them for the opportunity they provide to us in being able to create a deeper, more positive experience for the player.

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