Monday, April 21, 2008

[Review] Wuthering Heights

If I were to say that I was surprised upon receiving the latest offering from Bronte Games, it would be a criminally lax understatement. After such flops as Villette II and Jane Eyre X-Treme Go-Kart Challenge, my doubt in the once great publisher of mid-90’s licensed games was understandably shaken. I’d read the preliminary reports from Japan, and they were guarded, but positive. Daily Dengenki Famitsu went even further, calling it, "a revolutionary new take on the visual novel, not simply a character game." While I may not agree with my kabuki quantum counterparts on all of the finer points, there is some truth to their words.

When a noble, yet politically unstable aristocrat flees the unfriendly streets of London for the rustic moors, he finds himself embroiled in a web of dark passions, mysteries dredged from the past, and wild, fruit-chomping action. A top-down, shooter-RPG that would not be out of place at a wedding joining the Xenosaga series with Zombies Ate My Neighbors in blessed matrimony, Wuthering Heights represents a bold step in blending survival horror elements with traditional CRPG gameplay. Eliminating the inventory management that is often the focus of such games, the player is instead confronted with a parade of delicate social situations that quickly ramp up in misery and violence until there is no recourse but to stare at the wallpaper in resignation at the leaden pressure suffusing the atmosphere.

The wallpaper won’t help; it is peeling and rotten, much like the second half of the game.

To say that the graphics are dreary would be insulting to the richness of the English language. You won’t see much color while traversing the game’s ever-present moors, but the textures on the crumbling garden walls and moldering leather more than make up for the limited palette. Unfortunately, the player is rarely privy to these visual flourishes on account of their hefty memory requirements. Unless the camera’s focus is directly on an object, the majority of the screen is obscured by low-resolution fog reminiscent of a second-generation PSX title. While the story team has taken great pains to work this murkiness into the game’s plot, it can become smothering at times.

Speaking of the story, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. Although presented in a novel fashion, the player rarely gets to take part. Instead, the core protagonist is strung along from cutscene to convoluted cutscene. This would have been bearable, if stretching the definition of a game within our post-postmodern society, if the characters were able to support the weight of the topics addressed. Instead we are faced with refugees from every modern RPG that has failed to be published in the last ten years.

Ever since Squaresoft made the switch from identifiable, heroic protagonists of its 16-bit days to the more mature, angst-ridden emopunks of its later hits, the market has been flooded in copycats with embarrassing social flaws and bad haircuts. The primary villain of Wuthering Heights offers nothing new to the discriminating gamer, although no doubt much will be made of his uncanny resemblance to superstar, Ralph Fiennes. I will be frank; he’s no Sephiroth, ladies. On the other hand, if you still haven’t had enough of the near-silent protagonist, the meek love interest, or the racially stereotyped groundskeeper, Wuthering Heights will make you feel right at home. The late Working Designs could have executed this translation to great effect, or current-era Atlus. As it is, however, characterization is warped and wholly obscured by despair.

Despite its flaws, I can’t help but respect Bronte Games for their decision to port Wuthering Heights to this side of the pond. While it won’t win any awards for furthering the video-games-as-literature argument, it’s a fine way to spend the occasional night where the moon is obscured by reaching, claw-like branches and the loneliness of your interior terrain is matched by the outside world. Moreover, it is clear that the localization team spared no expense in making sure that audiences stateside would be able to understand the complex Relationship Grid system. In addition to a faux leather relationship flowchart, the game comes with a dense manual that weighs in at over 300 pages. It’s attention to detail like this that makes Wuthering Heights worth your time if you’re able to push today’s flashy games out of your mind for long enough to appreciate the lengthy reward scheme that was the nourishing milk of yesteryear’s gaming elite.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thwomp Factory Fryday: Harvest Moon: Magical Melody

Thwomp Factory Fryday is a weekly feature in which Amelia takes recipes out of a game with a cooking system and follows it as closely as possible. It will be posted every Friday until she runs out of money or gets salmonella.

Welcome to the very first Thwomp Factory Fryday! I had been struggling to come up with a way to combine my love of cooking with my love of talking about video games, and I think I finally stumbled on something delicious. Sure, I could just review different cooking games and mini-games, but that won't tell you anything you don't already know from playing the game. Besides, the real test of any recipe is the actual finished product, and the real test of any cooking game ought to be the quality of food that all those little sprites gobble up.

At first it seemed only fitting to start with the mother of all cooking games, Cooking Mama, but that also seemed like a cop out. If I want to prove my dedication to culinary perfection I ought to start somewhere a little more challenging. Not only that, but I'd like to kick things off with a bang and a multi-course meal (with minimal effort). So, this Fryday's menu comes from Harvest Moon: Magical Melody.

Antipasto: Veggie Salad
Entree: Cream Salmon
Beverage: Strawberry Milk
Dessert: Caffeine

Veggie Salad:

Ingredients: Cabbage, onion, corn, tomato, boiled egg, mayonnaise
Utensil: Knife Set

I think I came pretty damn close to recreating what must be going on in the game, the one exception was that corn on the cob is not available where I live in April, so I had to use a can of corn, which I imagine Mr./Mrs. Harvest Moon does not do.

Cream Salmon:

Ingredients: Onion, Carrot, Salmon, Butter, Flour, Milk
Utensil: Pot

Wow. That little guy must be quite a chef, to be able to make Cream Salmon using just a pot. I had to cheat in a couple ways on this one. First of all I cut up the onion and one of the carrots, though I also left one whole to see how it would fare. Also I used a spoon to mix things up a bit while cooking. I imagine in the game they just toss everything into a pot and turn it on, so that's also what I did.

Strawberry Milk:

Ingredients: Strawberry, Milk
Utensil: Mixer

I used whole milk, because I imagine that's closest to what actually comes out of harvest moon cows, and an electric hand mixer. They probably did mean a blender, however I don't have a blender, so this seemed both the best choice out of tools I do have on hand as well as matching up perfectly well with the name.


Ingredients: Milk, Cocoa, Cayenne
Utensil: Mixing bowl

Well, yeah. Three ingredients stirred around in a mixing bowl, not much room for creativity or improvising here...sadly. Whew. I think this picture says everything. But nothing is too burning in the name of science! ...and video game cuisine.

The Final Product


My Impressions of food in the game: All Harvest Moon games are pretty similar, but something about the food in Magical Melody actually seemed less appealing to me than cooking in earlier games. I think it's because when, say, in Save the Homeland, you can do something as simple as put 3 berries in a pot and come out with jam you know there's some kind of magic going on to create the end product, and probably as soon as you turn your back on the pot the harvest sprites come by and hop in the pot with their jar of magic pectin and cast some spells and give you jam. As the cooking systems get more complicated, it seems less like you're making magic and just making sub-par food.

My impressions of the real food: Wowza, that was pretty good. Mayonnaise generally gives me the jibblies, but I would call "Veggie Salad" tolerable at worst. I didn't think the "throw everything in a pot until the salmon is done" method of cooking would work, but it resulted in some very tasty, buttery "Cream Salmon" and the broth tastes like a super creamy French onion soup (I think I will use it to actually make a pot of soup tomorrow.) The strawberry milk was delicious, pretty much just like a strawberry milkshake with some big chunks in it. The only thing I couldn't finish was the "Caffeine". When I was dumping in a little cayenne powder I accidentally dumped in way more than any recipe would call for, and the results were one the bitterest, spiciest things I've ever drank.

Final thoughts: I guess I have to take back those sub-par food comments. The good folks of Flower Bud Village, as with all things, have just discovered the most simple and delightful way of cooking without unnecessary baggage.

Remember to always do your best!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

An Ode to and Defense of Traditional Adventure Games

Looking at all the poopgasbord about cheating and making cheat-proof modern video games has got me itching to play some good ol' traditional adventure games. Or some good new traditional adventure games. Also because I was discusses blog names with one of the authors of Ms. Game and Watch and decided that the name Thwomp Factory if it has any connotations or relation to content at all shouts "We like fun" and if all I do is complain then Thwomp Factory isn't living up to its name.

So yes, I see the merits of designing games so no one can write a walkthrough that allows players to circumvent the whole challenge of the game, but to take a rigid stance on that issue would mean throwing out one of my favorite genres of game, the traditional adventure game. So, here is why I find adventure games delightful and brilliant, despite their many flaws.

It's like taking reading a book or watching a TV show to the next level. All the best (Loom, which I think is the single best adventure game and one of the best games ever, King's Quest, Touch Detective, Pheonix Wright) feature superb narratives but then use the video game aspect to reach a level of immersion impossible for stories in other mediums.

Here's a dirty little secret of mine. I've had a bad case of larprosy. Not only that, but I LARPed in a V:tM game. I may of just ruined my chances of anyone, even my own brother, ever reading this but I'll continue just in case someone did. What do all those foam weapons and fake guns those crazy larpers do, anyway? Well, one thing they do is make you feel less like yourself and more like the character you've designed, therefore able to act with more grace and confidence, and able to feel more exotic and create a better story. Adventure games do the same thing. Take a "puzzle" in Trace Memory. The player needs to stamp something, and does so by closing the DS screen, "stamping" the two screens (halves of a stamp) together. It's barely a puzzle, but being involved in little ways like that make the player really feel the story instead of being a distant observer. This isn't an adventure game, but take wandering from Colossus to Colossus in, of course, Shadow of the Colossus, since I think it's an excellent example of this phenomenon. It isn't one of the "puzzles" of the game the way beating the Colossi, more of a way to rile up the player before and calm them down after huge, intense struggles (for both the player and the character). Sure, in Loom, it could just as easily have had a list of words that say "unraveling" or "straw to gold" and when you click on them Bobbin would play his draft, and it wouldn't take any more thinking on the part of the player. In fact, it would eliminate the annoyance of hitting a wrong note at the last minute and having to do it over again. But oh, the beauty of actually hitting a combination of notes and hearing them as you do it! And you think "I have what it takes to be a magical weaver!" and you feel like you're doing more than watching a cut scene or story unfold before you, you're actually making it happen.

So think about it. You could watch CSI, or you could investigate crimes in Touch Detective. You could watch some lawyer show (I really don't know much about, how about Single Female Lawyer?) or you could BE that lawyer in Pheonix Wright. You could watch Die Hard or you could BE Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson while playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village! Adventure games throw you into storytelling in a way that no other medium can, and for that they should be applauded and preserved. I'm extremely happy they're seeing a revival on the DS as well as smart, awesome people's amateur projects for free online.

But seriously, when is there going to be a Loom 2?

First some thoughts on Designing Virtual Worlds, then some thoughts of sexism I've personally encountered

There's a lot of stuff I want to write about. DLC versus buying physical copies of games, educational games, more about cheating, and I ask myself: am I really qualified to write about those things? No, but I'm still going to. But first I'm going to write about something I am very qualified to write about. Sexism in MMOs. I'm a woman, I play MMOs.

So, here are some of my initial thoughts after reading Richard Bartle's take on gender in MMOs.

Dear Richard Bartle,

I recently finished your book, Designing Virtual Worlds. It is very apparent that you are a man. Not because most people with your name shorten it to Dick, not because you constantly feel the need to mention it, and not people who read your book know that already. No, it's obvious because of how much you enjoy speculating on how gender issues affect MMO gameplay, and whether or not MMOs are at all inherently sexist. For me, as a woman, there's really no debate about whether or not a female player could be alienated by a given game design. Because if I do feel like I don't belong because of my anatomy, well, that means it's possible.

Now, there was a lot of crazy talk about gender in your book, and actually I appreciate that. Even though I personally found a lot of the extreme feminist stuff you cited and discussed to be pretty bizarre, I like the completeness of all points of view. However, there was one opinion of your very own that is just plain wrong.

You suggest that maybe more men play MMOs than women because men are kept more rigidly in place by societal gender roles and taboos, and finally have a free and safe space where they can spend hours designing their face, spend lots of fake money on clothing, say and do and act how they want, etc. Well, shame on you, sir. You of all people should know that the real reason is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Earlier in the book you describe and even bemoan the start of MMOs, and the “no girls allowed” boys' treehouse mentality. Well, little boys' clubs become old boys' clubs, and MUD1 has become World of Warcraft, and as you can see things stay basically the same. I don't really care which gender is pigeonholed more overall in real life, all discrimination sucks, but that has nothing to do with the gender disparity in MMOs. No, they started stereotyped as something men did that women don't do, so women are going to look at them and think “part of me feels like those weren't designed for me.”

Thank you,


Now, here's are some slightly less knee-jerk things I've been thinking about since then, about what I think is the worst kind of sexism in the world of MMOs.

Even in online gaming communities where women may know they have a strong presence, plenty of men (I'm looking at you, Dick Bartle) still feel “this isn't something women do.” Now, there are a lot of different sentiments that come after that sentence, but pretty often it's “But it would be awesome if they did!”

For example, 6 months after I got legally married, my husband and I finally had the money, time, and organization to follow it up with one hell of a reception. We decided the browser based MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing provided a perfect theme, since a huge part of the game is making tasty food and alcoholic drinks. Not to mention most of our friends (and his mother) also play or have played. We posted pictures of our shindig to the official forums afterwards and got lots of comments from male players saying things along the lines of “Wow, you're so lucky to find a woman who will tolerate that kind of idea.” It was female players (either smart enough to look at my husband and my player ID numbers and realize I had been playing a lot longer than him, or just pretty savvy to this sort of thing in general) who replied with comments like “She is a player in her own right” or “notice who has been playing the game way longer.”

So I understand first hand that being seen as a novelty, or a tourist, or anything but an ordinary player is alienating and discourages in-game socializing, and that is the most common type of sexism in MMORPGs these days.

I disagree with lots of feminist criticisms of games. I mean, it'd maybe be nicer to see some smaller breasts or some lady characters over the apparent age of 18, but really, who the hell cares? It takes a lot of crap to make me actually believe designers had any kind of big grudge against women or actively wanted to demean them and make a whole generation of dudes look at women as nothing but sex objects (though Guitar Hero 3 did convince me), and I have yet to play an MMO that I felt that way about. The problem is with the players. And it isn't the kinds of problems people (again, including Bartle in most of his writings on sexism) like to bitch about, male players actually harassing female players. Seriously, I haven't had a dude use creepy internet pick up lines since I played Diablo on battlenet when I was in high school, and haven't had dudes shower me with in game gifts just because I had a female avatar since I played Meridian 59 (haha, they were hitting on, like, a 12 year old. Freaks!) But I still regularly get other players, even real life friends of mine, refusing to take me seriously as a player of various games.

Anything else I could shrug off as the reactions of a bunch of immature losers who have never been with a woman, but really, what I talked about above is the breed of video game sexism that actually gets under my skin and makes me feel like an outsider

Question time!

So thinking about rogue-likes made me wonder about this.

So Joe has said when a player checks a walkthrough to breeze through a challenge they didn't want to do it's probably a result of bad game design.

And as far as I can see in order to be a really competitive high quality nethack player (and other games as well, lots of rogue-likes, Kingdom of Loathing, other looser defined examples I'll mention at the end of this statement) you have to draw on the collected experiences and discoveries of lots of other nethack players. And if you are that high-quality of player, they'll of course be drawing on yours as well. There's a similar phenomenon I believe in games like Zack and Wiki, or Professor Layton, where you ought not NEED the help of other players, but you're probably in the same room as friends while playing, and it just makes the game a lot more fun (which games should be, thank you John Kovalic, you can stop repeating that) and uses different skills (socializing and sharing ideas with other people versus hacking your way though alone), and using different skills is a good thing for games.

So what makes those things good and running off to gamefaqs wrong (no matter whether it's because the designer made a mistake or the player is making one)? Sure, there's much more of a reciprocal thing going on the "good" examples, except even walkthroughs get expanded as readers volunteer their own information that they've spaded out.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Year of the Roguelike

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of roguelike games. For those who don't know, and who are too lazy to read Wikipedia, these are games that feature procedural, randomized content; statistical-based character advancement; deeply complex item systems, often requiring the player to try to identify items before using them; player-like AI; complex, often unexpected world interactions; death systems that severely punish; and a brutal attitude towards unskilled play. Diablo is probably the best known roguelike in the West, although it's also one of the shallowest. If you have never played one, NetHack is the canonical place to start (although I don't like it much anymore), and Ancient Domains of Mystery is one my favorite free ones.

What may be a secret, and what certainly caught me off-guard, is the extent to which the genre has revived within the past year. If you had asked me at the start of 2007 what my favorite roguelikes were, I would've mentioned NetHack and ADOM, Rogue itself, and Shiren the Wanderer for the Super Famicom. These are also the only ones I invested more than a few hours in anyway; if you were to ask other people you might hear Omega and Angband, and a dozen variants on all of these, but nothing particularly new.

But in the past year we've seen Pokemon Mystery Dungeon (millions sold in the North America! A roguelike with sales in the millions!), Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, Rogue Hearts Dungeon, much-enhanced remakes of Shiren and Baroque, Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon for Wii with a North American localization, Shiren 3 in Japan, and sequels to Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Izuna. We've also seen games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (player-like AI and procedural weather), Hellgate: London (random levels and items), Spore (animation and creatures), and Dwarf Fortress (huge procedural worlds) that are not, strictly speaking, roguelikes, but borrow design lessons and elements from them.

Seriously, what happened? Roguelikes have never been totally dead, but they've always been a very niche genre. Outside of Chunsoft, there aren't many commercial ones, and those don't usually meet with much success. So why the sudden explosion?

First, to be blunt, Pokemon. Getting the Pokemon license introduced roguelikes to a whole new generation, just like the Dragon Quest license did over a decade ago. While PMD isn't a great roguelike it's a good one, made by developers that love the genre and are exploring it trying to find a way to make it more accessible to younger and less involved gamers. In general though, bad games don't kind the kind of critical reception PMD did, and so there's something else going on too.

As games get more expensive to make, procedural and emergent content look much more attractive. It's easier to design (though maybe harder to balance) 100 interacting items - giving, at first blush, 2100 different combations - than to design 10,000 items, which is nowhere near close to the depth provided by the 100. Maybe most of those combinations are boring, but then so are most of the 10,000.

As graphics technology gets better, procedural content also looks much more attractive. NetHack won't wow anyone with its display, but Baroque and Shiren 3 look impressive despite the fact they're fundamentally laid out on a grid and assembled automatically. Pouring a modern graphics budget into a roguelike could result in something that looks spectacular.

Dwarf Fortress does very interesting things with modern physics-based gameplay, something that many roguelikes have ignored. Physics is deterministic, but in sufficiently complex systems becomes chaotic - which is exactly what roguelikes thrive on.

Roguelikes also provide a solution to the perceived problem of cheating by information sharing, regardless of whether it's a single, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer game. Raph Koster of course totally misses the point when he discusses static information - even if you have all roguelike data (like a friend at work who has a giant table of Fei's Final Problem item costs for ID purposes), the game still provides an insane amount of unique and interesting situations, that require real strategy, each run. In this way you extend the life of the game, not by passing around stupid information tokens, but by making so many potential data that the player has to play the system and not the walkthrough.

There's huge unexplored swaths of design space here. Where are the roguelike Castleroids or puzzle/exploration-based games (Dungeon Hack had procedural key/door puzzles, which I don't think I've seen since)? Where is capture-the-flag on a procedural map? Where are the RPGs with shifting economies and genetically-bred enemies?

Well, they're coming. Not this year, but soon; and when they do, three decades of research in procedural content and exploration-based mechanics that have been all-but-ignored by mainstream games is going to explode.