Sunday, 20 April 2014

I've Moved!

I've moved my blog over to a new site, here;

I've refocused the blog to examining narrative in games, as this is a subject that really interests me.

I also just want to leave a quick note saying thanks to all the developers and teams who kindly sent me press kits for their games, it was really appreciated!

You can still follow me on twitter @ MetagameMissive

Seeya on the other side! =)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Opinion - Hotline Miami

There's something deeply disturbing about Hotline Miami, but that's also what gives it its potency. Short, sharp and brutally violent, the game sees you smashing, slicing and shooting your way through a variety of interesting and varied levels. It's a top-down retro-influenced action game steeped in violence and a disturbing story. Your aim on the majority of the levels is to kill everyone, then escape.

I'll be honest, I was only a few moments into the game when I felt like I wanted to turn it off. Somehow, despite the low resolution pixel art, it still manages to feel terribly violent. The game has a vibrant colour-cycling neon effect that gave me an uneasy feeling, whilst there are elements of the UI that tilt and shake in an almost hypnotic way. Combine the art style and violence with the flushed and warped neon, the low quality VHS and TV effects, it all has a disquieting, disturbing atmosphere. It feels like you're playing through a snuff video nasty that should have been censored or banned. Now, strangely, I say this to the games credit.

This Hotline Miami PS3 / Vita trailer gives a good impression of the game (and a glimpse at the soundtrack).

Hotline Miami does an amazing job with remarkably little to convince you that something is wrong. And yet it plays so right... The gameplay is fast, amazingly fast... but still somehow manages to retain a feeling of being tactical. You can switch between stealth and action on the fly, drawing enemies to search for you with gunfire, before flooring them with a thrown weapon and jumping on them for a vicious finish. You'll die, a lot, and that is by design. You can restart the level almost instantly, trying again and again to clear the screen of people... you'll try a different tactic, or just a rush-job attempt, sometimes you get lucky. You can knock enemies over with doors, throw your weapons at them to knock them over (or, with some melee weapons, kill them with a ranged throw).

The basic gameplay is very addictive. As you play your score is tracked, rewarded for things like 'boldness', 'flexibility' and 'mobility'. These points count towards unlocking additional weapons to use, which can make replaying earlier levels fun and different. Achieving high scores on the numerous levels also unlocks additional masks to wear, each with their own abilities which will change your playstyle. I found myself getting a lot of use from the horse mask, 'Don Juan', which makes hitting enemies with doors an insta-kill. This particular mask had me sneaking about, timing my movements before bursting into rooms for brief fast-moving fights.

There's a story that runs through the game, it seems to be quite minimal to start, but it builds. There are various moments, some subtle some overt, throughout the levels and between-chapter interactions that add to the story. There's a feeling that everything is not-quite-right echoing through the game. A twist partway through the game adds to the interesting narrative and providing some depth, drawing you further into the seedy and depraved world of Hotline Miami. The story is disturbing, and surprisingly engrossing.

It's a game I'd describe as equal parts disquieting and engaging. I'd recommend it, and in the same breath warn against it. It felt like a guilty pleasure.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Currently Funding - Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is an ambitious project, aiming to mix together some of gaming's best ingredients into an artistically strong RPG adventure. The developer, Heart Machine, describes the game as 'a 2D Action RPG in the vein of the best 8-bit and 16-bit classics, with modernized mechanics and designs on a much grander scale.'

Currently seeking funding on Kickstarter (and now deep into stretchgoal territory), Hyper Light Drifter draws influence from past classics like A Link to the Past and Diablo. There is a focus on fluid combat, mobility and exploration, with an intriguing science-fantasy world to wander through. There is some preliminary detail on the combat and equipment on the project page, along with a little lore for the game. I recommend checking out the project's posts and updates as they're written in an effortlessly interesting and engaging tone that other projects could do well to take note of.

Something that really drew my interest here is the science-fantasy aesthetic. It may be personal preference, but something about this kind of setting just screams out to be explored... The varied dungeon and forest environments shown on the Kickstarter trailer hint at the greater world, and the titbits of lore shared on the project page sound intriguing. Whilst clearly inspired by 8-bit and 16-bit games, there are also aspects of the art reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki's classic animé Nausicaa, and Miyazaki's work is cited as inspiration for the animation and design. This blend of inspirations and influences have come together through Heart Machine's art direction and created something that is visually arresting.

The trailer is scored with an airy and energetic piece of music by Baths, who may also be providing an additional piece for the games soundtrack. Main soundtrack duties are being covered by Disasterpeace (composer of the phenomenal Fez soundtrack), which is pretty exciting. Between these two, the soundtrack is in good hands.

Between the gameplay, the setting, the art direction and the soundtrack... There's a strong foundation here for something quite special.

Hyper Light Drifter is initially aiming for a PC, Mac and Linux release in 2014. There is a stretchgoal for PS4 and Vita versions, with potential for other consoles further along too. You can check out the game on Kickstarter, vote for the project on Greenlight, or follow @HeartMachineZ on Twitter.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Opinion: Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone is an indie platforming puzzle game made by Mike Bithell. Billed as 'A game about friendship and jumping', what appears to start as a simplistic game about a rectangle becomes a absorbing game about an assorted crew of rectangles full of character.

Before I get into the characters, I should mention what an amazing job Danny Wallace does as the narrator of the game (check out the trailer at the bottom of the post for a sample). He's the only voice in the game, delivering the character's thoughts to the player in third person, whilst advancing the plot of the game from level to level. Each level has narration accompanying it, the writing is consistently great throughout, making what could be considered mundane levels with little detail feel worth navigating, whilst imparting character to the shapes you control.

So, you start out as a red rectangle named Thomas, able to navigate through levels by jumping over obstacles in search of an exit hole. This is the main mechanic of the game; steer shapes through levels, jump and find exits. Soon enough you meet a small squat orange square by the name of Chris. As a diminutive square that can't jump very high, Chris has something of a complex about his lack of mobility compared to Thomas, jealous of his comparative sprightliness. You swap between Thomas and Chris, using the two characters as boosters for jumps or to press buttons, allowing each of them to reach their respective exits.

The game continues in this fashion, introducing more and more characters, like Claire, the giant blue square who discovers she can float in water and starts to believe herself to actually be a superhero, blessed with a power and the responsibilities that come with it. Then there's James, the socially awkward green rectangle who happens to disobey the laws of gravity and feels like he doesn't quite fit in. There are more characters, each with an interesting and flawed personality that fits their 'ability', each has their thoughts shared through the narrator, building up an empathy with the player and becoming more than just simple shapes in a simple puzzle game.

The story is divided into chapters, each starting with a quote that frames the narrative of the chapter. These imply that the story we're playing through is occurring within a computer and that the events have great significance. The plot has a surprising amount of power considering you are just moving little shapes around to find exit holes, with each chapter being sewn through with character development, plot twists and a dash of suspense.

The overall plot arc is enhanced by the beautiful music. Composed by David Housden, it's a laid-back instrumental affair with a slight chip-tune edge that perfectly complements the game. It builds gradually in energy towards the end of the game, imparting a feeling of hope that, when combined with Danny Wallace's narration of the characters, really captures the feeling of an epic story playing out.

Whilst a very simplistic game overall, the puzzles never really become very tricky, I'd argue that the game isn't about the puzzles at all. It's about the experience. The strange and silly and captivating story of a little rectangle called Thomas, and the others who come to follow him. And strange as it seems, by the end of the game, I actually really cared about them and the adventure they embarked on.

Thomas Was Alone is avaiable on PC and Mac through Steam or direct through Mike Bithell's site (where you can also grab a demo of the game). It's also available on PS3 and Vita through the PSN store.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Opinion: Gone Home

Gone Home is an 'Interactive Exploration Simulator', which sells itself with 'no combat, no puzzles'. It's an unusual approach for a game, one that could be a bit of a hard sell to some, but it's definitely worth your time if you have any interest in a good story. The game is slow and pretty short; I finished it in about 3 hours, although I pored over each room and looked at every item (something I'd recommend, so you get the most out of the story and the experience). But what you have here is quality over quantity, a condensed experience that doesn't overstay its welcome and packs a punch with a well told narrative.

The game is set in 1995, it sees you returning home to your parents house after some time travelling across Europe. The house seems empty and there's a storm raging outside. A note from your sister begs you not to 'go digging around to find where I am', hinting at some larger mystery in play.

Whilst there is little 'gameplay' here, the game world itself is full of environmental storytelling. You'll be so busy snooping about, reading discarded notes, postcards, diaries and listening to cassette tapes you find in drawers that before you realise you're drawn in. Occasionally you'll find something particularly relevant and you'll be rewarded with a spoken 'journal entry' from your sister Sam, detailing certain events and moments from her life and their relevance. These aren't to be understated, these slowly form a very empathetic core for the story that pulls you through the game.

The characters in the game, notably your mother and father and your sister, all feel very real despite their lack of actual physical presence, thanks to the attention to detail within the environment. To take just one example from the game (so as not to spoil anything major), your father appears to be a struggling writer. He's lacking in confidence, his study has inspirational notes to himself to spur him on. The typewriter on his desk holds a partially complete review of a stereo system, whilst the bin nearby has crumpled up and discarded openings to his next story. Elsewhere in the house a copy of his first book lies tucked away carefully, stuck to back is a condescending note from his own father detailing his disappointment in what his son has written. The note scorns his use of science fiction, stating that he can 'do better'. The fact he has written this mantra on his noticeboard infront of his typewriter shows how this feedback struck him hard. This is just one little moment from many that weave together, building up layers to create a crossing narrative of lives, personal and flawed and raw.

Something I found particularly interesting is how Gone Home felt at moments that it was going to fall back on various video game tropes... The dark and stormy night, the flickering lights, the creaking house, hints of the occult. There are notes detailing potential spiritual activity in the house, there are many letters and diary entries that fill out the history of the house and rumours of a psychotic lineage that leave you half expecting to see something flitting across the doorways, or to hear someone approaching as you pore over old journals in the attic... but the game and the story it tells is much more human than that. I'd say it was mature, but that is not meant to be derogatory to other games, but is just to say that this game deals with sensitive subjects in way that doesn't need to fall back on anything else to communicate how powerful the events of real lives can be. There is a simplistic and honest story here, your own expectations for something beyond the mundane are constantly pulled back to earth, but in a way that I found invigorating.

Whilst the game closest in style would probably be Dear Esther, especially in terms of gameplay (exploration without much interaction), Gone Home is a much more transparent story, and much more immediately powerful one too. One that creeps up on you piece by piece until suddenly you realise you're crying, or at least I was. On a personal level I found a lot to relate to in the story, and I suspect it's one that will have a lot of impact and relevance to a great number of people.

If you're looking for something with a big twist, this isn't it. There's nothing supernatural here, nothing shocking or sinister, nothing out of this world. But what is here is a simple but potent story about family and love and heartache. It's one that is told with honesty and in a way that feels real. It's this element of reality that grounds the game and gives it its power.

Gone Home is available on Steam and direct through The Fullbright Company's website.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Currently Funding: Gods Will Be Watching

Currently Funding provides a look at games that are in the process of running a crowdfunding initiative.

Gods Will Be Watching by Deconstructeam

Funding Target: 8,000
16th July to 15th August 2013 on IndieGoGo
PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android

Gods Will Be Watching is a survival point 'n' click pixel art adventure. Originally conceived during a game jam, Gods Will Be Watching is an endeavor to expand the game into a fuller experience with new scenarios, animations and options.

In the original prototype (playable for free here) the player takes control of the leader of a group marooned on a distant planet, their only hope of survival lies in repairing their broken radio and scraping together food, medicine and firewood until another ship passes in range.

Each member of the group has a morale level that drops over time, with events and your actions influencing their fragile state further. Whilst the gameplay is relatively simple and minimalist, the decisions you are faced with, combined with the pixel-art and the effective soundtrack, work together to conjure up something that feels worthy of your time and is greater than the sum of its parts. The game manages to pass between being quirky and haunting. You will face some tough decisions when food, medicine and morale starts running low.

The demo can be over in a matter of minutes, yet it had me playing for a number of hours trying to figure out an effective strategy to survive the 40 days on the harsh planet... and going to some dark places on some of those attempts in the name of survival.

The larger game being funded by the IndieGoGo campaign promises 6 expanded scenarios, along with animations for each action you choose. One stretch goal already hit has brought in unlockable cinematics, with future stretch goals promising a free DLC in the future, and another for English voice acting.

Deconstructeam is aiming for a February 2014 release.

Check out their website, their Facebook and Twitter.
The IndieGoGo campaign is available here.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Vote of Confidence: Chasm

Vote of Confidence provides a look at games that have finished their initial crowdfunding period, but are still open for pre-orders or donations.

Chasm is a procedurally-generated metroid-vania game with rogue-like elements. It sports a 16-bit pixel-art style and promises a variety of dungeon tile sets, monsters, bosses and loot as you fight your way through the passages under an old mining town.

The Kickstarter Campaign was a success, gaining over $190K in total by the end of the pledging period. The game is still available for pre-order through the official site, with $15 getting you a copy of the game, a donation of $25 includes early access and the digital soundtrack, whilst $45 includes a variety of PDF materials like game art, development notes and a tabletop gaming module.

There's a free demo available on the website, to give you an idea of the gameplay mechanics and lets you get a good look at the art style, it looks really nice in motion. You can tinker around with the equipment system, explore two floors of the mine and see a few different monsters. It takes about 20 minutes or so for a direct playthrough.

The trailer for Chasm

Personally I think Chasm possesses an interesting retro-charm, it stole my interest as soon as I saw the trailer. The dungeon-delving aspects look like they'll be entertaining, and with randomised layouts and loot drops no two playthroughs will be quite the same.

Further Reading

More information, the demo and the three tiers of preorder are available on the official Chasm website:

Chasm was recently Greenlit on Steam.
You can follow @Discordgames on Twitter, and like their page on Facebook.