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Minimal Minecraft

minecraft alpha screenshot

There are few games that I would use the word “beautiful” to describe, but Minecraft is one of them.  I’ve been playing the game from one degree to another for the past four years – around the time that alpha version had been released and was in testing.  It’s been such a satisfying gaming experience for me because of the interplay between the game’s randomly generated environments, and it’s capacity for audience expression.  Even while utilizing a low-res aesthetic, it’s composition and depth have potential for beauty in surprising ways.

  • The audience would begin to explore their environment. (Listen.)
  • Then would create the tools and structures they felt they needed to respond to it. (Speak.)
  • And the game would challenge the player with enemies and offer new resources to expand on what has been built. (Respond.)

Even in the alpha version of Minecraft, this core game provided a tremendous degree of interaction between the game, the player, and other players.  And the game itself has continued to build on this pattern ever since.  I think it’s worthwhile drawing a distinction between earlier and later versions of the game, however.  After Markus Persson stepped down from leading development of the game, Mojang was still left with audiences that had a voracious appetite for more in their Minecraft worlds.  And to meet that demand, Minecraft expanded as a brand.

World’s in Minecraft can be populated by towns, dungeons, nether realms, many species of animal, and a never-ending series of new gameplay systems.  This isn’t even to mention the Minecraft brand expanding into physical merchandise. (I just received my collection of Minecraft handbooks today – a item that I’d been looking forward to for years.)  Minecraft is a game, a world, and a brand that has exploded to meet the demands of its audiences.  I still enjoy playing it quite a bit, but it feels noisier.

When I think of playing Minecraft, I think about that core cycle of interaction between players and the game.  And I think of my time playing the game during its alpha and beta phases.  It was a period of time where it was a polished core that encapsulated that cycle almost perfectly.  Today’s Minecraft still does, but with so many potential paths to travel down, or listen to, it’s difficult for the game to speak to one message.  And during that time that I remember playing it, the message I got was that the world is a beautiful place that we can participate in creating.




Happy holidays! Hopefully you’ve had a pleasant Christmas.  Seeing nice people, eating good food, and relaxing.  What have I been up to? Mainly, I’ve been playing an upsetting combination of Alien: Isolation, LISA, and PT.  It’s nice to have a current generation console again, but even just waiting a year after their release, I have a tidy backlog of games to play through.  PT almost fell off my radar entirely, being so limited in scope.  Since it’s release, it’s been revealed to be a teaser for a possible entry in the Silent Hill franchise, being headlined by Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro, and Norman Reedus.  It’s an exciting line-up of talent, but it’s still worth lingering on what PT accomplished as a self-contained piece of work.

I’ve yet to complete the game myself.  I’ve reached the final “puzzle,” which appears to be open to debate in how it is solved.  PT is not a game that can be completed on one’s own.  There are too many hidden details that the player would have to spend an inordinate amount of time to solve. It’s not impossible, but I have a hard time picturing the person who would solve on their own.  And while you will need to collaborate with other players, this only ends up reinforcing how alone you are when you play it yourself.  There are still problems that have not been entirely solved – you cannot rest easy knowing that you can just look up a guide when things get to be too intense.  It’s quite a wonderful accomplishment for a game of this scope and scale.

PT succeeds in creating tension between anticipation and confrontation.  Here, it is polished to a mirror sheen.  In much of survival horror, you have plenty of confrontation, which is amplified through use of spectacle (see Resident Evil 6.)  Anticipation is built in knowing something is coming, but not know what it is and when it will happen.  Your mind will be sent into overdrive in trying to prepare for the possibilities.  But when it’s left ambiguous enough, your mind will race ceaselessly, leaving you as a human pile of anxiety waiting to spill over into panic.  A game like Resident Evil 6 conditions you to always expect the confrontation, and leaves little room for your mind to race.  Instead, it tries to make the confrontations bigger, in the hopes that maybe doubling down on what might have once been a frightening idea will somehow make it more overwhelming.  But if you understand the trick that’s being used, then it doesn’t matter how big you make the confrontation.

PT offers you a drip feed of awful things to contemplate and leaves your origin and motivation entirely open-ended.  You will spin your mind trying to figure out exactly what it is and what you’re doing.  When PT does decide to pull the trigger on confrontation, it is incredibly effective.  And being such a small-scale game, it did not have to justify its existence with a great deal of marketing, signaling what you should expect so that you know what you’re buying (PT is free after all.)  It’s difficult to speculate as to whether or not PT translates to a full-fledged game – which will require a great deal of marketing and signaling.  But PT does tell us that those at the creative helm of the game have an aptitude for creating frightening experiences, and may have what it takes to put the Silent Hill series back on the same level as its earlier entries.


First Impressions of Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign

Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign

The fighting game genre is not one I typically find myself getting invested in, but I make an exception for the Guilty Gear series.  Over the years, I’ve tried to learn the game’s systems and characters.  The mechanics are deep, and the game is fast.  I’ve found it interesting for the intersection between speed and choice that it offers.  Having to invest a great deal of time and effort into knowing and memorizing move-sets and how they stack up against other characters is an aspect of fighting games that I’ve always found discouraging.  I know for others, it’s what makes a game like Street Fighter a classic.  But what I admire in the Guilty Gear series is that it’s fundamentals allow for interesting gameplay without having to invest a lot of effort in learning first.  It’s speed allows players to rely on being able to out-maneuver more-skilled opponents or force them to make moves without committing to being vulnerable.  It’s a less punishing experience for new-comers that still provides deep systems that reward you for whatever you invest in it.

Xrd: Sign convinced me to commit to the current generation of consoles.  I had always enjoyed it’s 2D presentation and style.  It was exciting to see that after years of iterating on Guilty Gear XX, there would be a true sequel to the fighting game series.  I was elated to see that Arc System Works managed to bring the series to three dimensions while maintaining its original look and feel.  While the gameplay remains on a two-dimensional plane,  it adds three dimensional flourishes to different points in battles.  It reinvigorates the gameplay and provides a great looking foundation on which to continue building the series.  I’ve also had the opportunity to try out the online multiplayer component, which worked seamlessly for playing with other folks on the west coast.  I’ve not yet delved deeply into the game’s other features, but am finding it to be a terrific entry in the series, which may yet convince me to become a bigger fan of other fighting games.


First Impressions of Alien Isolation

Alien Isolation

I think I’ve inadvertently spent the past several months preparing to play this game.  I started by reading through every volume of the Aliens Omnibus, picked up any singular comics that weren’t included, started reading one of the more recent novels, and watched through the 35th Anniversary of Alien.  Alien was one of the earliest Sci-Fi franchises I had ever become invested in (thanks to a ridiculous series of Kenner toys.)  I was ready.  And 15 years of experience playing survival horror games made Alien Isolation a prime candidate for me on the latest generation of gaming consoles.

At the same time though, I’m one of many beleaguered fans who have suffered through a series of underwhelming or flat out terrible Alien games and movies.  Creatively Assembly has tried to state that this was going to be different, and I was hopeful after seeing the initial media and press accounts of the game.  And now I’ve had the chance to sink a couple hours into the game, and what I can tell you is: so far so good.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here, or be hyperbolic.  At least initially, Creative Assembly nails it.  The aesthetic and tone are as close to that of the original Alien film as could be without bringing on the original creative team.  And it’s accomplished without just making the same handful of callbacks to the film.  From the loading screens, to the game’s puzzles, everything inspires an ominous dread and otherworldly quality.

Alien Isolation, so far, is also one of the most frightening games I’ve played in a long, long time.  This could easily change if I find “the man behind the curtain” and identify the game’s patterns and behaviors.  But right now, it’s a game that garners a physiological response from me telling me to turn it off.  Having immersed myself in the world of Alien recently has primed me for this.  Or is that even the right term?  It’s probably left me vulnerable to any and all of Isolation’s strategies to terrify me.


I’m joining the future, which is actually the present

Alien: Isolation

Greetings.  I’m going to be honest – I haven’t had a whole lot to say here since the events surrounding #GamerGate occurred over the last couple months.  I have a post sitting in the queue about it, which I’ll hopefully pull the trigger on soon.  It’s been tremendously discouraging, and I feel it’s inappropriate for me to write essay length posts about speculative elements of video games without acknowledging what’s been going on.

With that being said, I’ve experienced some gaming good will recently that’s motivating me to dive back in once again and start playing the latest generation of games.  I’ll be kicking things off with Alien: Isolation, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and The Last of Us Remastered.  After waiting for a year, I’ve been persuaded that the next generation of games are worth getting invested in.  I’ve got a PS4 now, and I’m learning all about it’s video capture and streaming capabilities, which will hopefully lead to more media-rich posts. Stay tuned.

You can also check out the Ruminatron Tumblr where I post other thoughts and interesting pieces of media.


Terra Battle


I’ve spent the past few weeks playing Terra Battle, a free-to-play game from Mistwalker.  Aside from Mistwalker’s previous games, Terra Battle caught my interest because of the involvement of contributors from some of my favorite game series, including Final Fantasy and Drakengard.  Even with the caveats of free-to-play game design, there was little to lose in loading this on to my phone and trying it out.

To my knowledge, this is the studio’s first attempt at a mobile game of this scale.  While many of those on the project have considerable experience designing games for consoles, I wondered how such an experience would translate to a touch-based system, or if this would be something entirely different from what I might be expecting.  From what I’ve seen so far, Terra Battle mixes elements from console RPG titles that have come before it with mobile puzzle games.  Let’s take a closer look.

Terra Battle’s gameplay takes place on a 6 x 8 board where your party, enemies, hazards, and power-ups can be placed.  Every turn has you moving a character around the board, and then any enemy with a turn counter of 0 can take a turn.  You move the character by dragging them across the board.  Enemies will block your character from moving through the board, but enemies and power ups will swap places with your character as they proceed through the square.  In this way, you can arrange multiple characters in the same turn.

Once you have arranged characters such that two have been placed side-by-side with one or more enemies in between them, you can execute an attack with those characters.  At the same time, any allies that are adjacent to the characters performing the attack (without an enemy in between them) will be activated and will execute certain skills (heal, buff) or add strength to the attack.  Similar rules apply to enemy turns, but there are options for them to execute attacks without lining up allies in the same way that you are required to.

So here, we find one of the tried and true role playing game mechanics: min/maxing.  You have a timer that depletes as you move your character.  They can move as far as you can drag them, but as soon as the timer ends, the character is placed and attacks are executed.  Your job is to arrange as many characters as you can in as little time as possible to maximize the number and potency of attacks in a turn.  It can be a bit of a mind-twister, but pulling off attacks that dispatch many enemies at once can be very satisfying, even if sometimes it’s not entirely clear why you have.

Outside of the core gameplay system, you are given a series of zones to clear on a map.  Each zone contains a set of 5 to 10 battles, and each battle has about 4 or 5 sets of enemies that have to be dispatched.  You can recruit generic characters using coins you’ve collected in battle, or rarer unique characters using “energy” which is given out sparingly in the game, usually when you’ve completed a zone.

Energy can also be purchased.  And here’s where the paywall comes into effect.  Each battle requires use of stamina in order to initiate it.  If you run out of stamina, you must wait to proceed, or use energy to replenish stamina.  I’ve only found myself running out of stamina on rare occasions, as I only play for short sessions.  More often, I find myself burning through energy to collect rare characters. Terra Battle does offer qualities similar to a collectible card game, though it does not lend itself to impulse purchases to serve that end (speaking for myself anyway.)

If it’s not clear yet, Terra Battle is a complex game that’s almost forced through a simple interface.  There’s a lot to dig in to, but given its complexity and chance in recruiting characters, the level design is not steep or uniform.  It offers a consistently low bar for quite a while that does not challenge you to form unique or novel strategies.  You can certainly still do this, and it is rewarding, but you’re not going to be stopping very often and racking your brain for strategies to complete battles.  This may something that becomes more important further along in the game, but I can say that it’s not a large part of the experience for the first half-dozen zones – a time where the game should be carefully teaching and reinforcing its vocabulary.  There’s plenty to do and learn, but not a whole lot to motivate you to do so.

Ultimately, the game offers some great music, art, and interesting ideas.  And initially, at the price of free, there’s little to stop you from trying it out, but there’s not a whole lot that’s going to keep you around either.  I’m eager to unlock more challenging zones, and collect more characters, but I think Terra Battle would be a better game if it had a more focused experience.  This may be a trade-off for its business model, which would be unfortunate.  I’ve enjoyed my time with the game though, and I hope that continuing development on the title only improves its value.


Third-person gaming

Bringing the pain.  Family style.

I can’t say that the concept of a “Let’s Play” or video game streaming grabbed my attention, or captured my interest.  Watching a stranger play a game that I, myself, could be playing instead didn’t make sense.  It struck me as an entirely redundant and unnecessary part of gaming culture.  But here we are, in a world where PewDiePie commands unrivaled success on what is currently the world’s most pervasive source of video content, making millions of dollars.  It’s not something I can claim to understand, but it’s becoming as much a part of the phenomenon of video games as the games themselves.  How does this fit into a vision of video games as art and expression?

For some, games are a sport with competitors and spectators.  That by no means comprises the majority of third-person gaming content that’s currently available.  Some of the most successful let’s-players cater to a younger audience – one who doesn’t have access to disposable income to purchase games they might like to play, and instead live vicariously through others who do.  That feels like a much more reasonable explanation in my mind, but not an exhaustive one.  This is a time when many more free-to-play and inexpensive games are becoming increasingly popular.  What makes third-person gaming interesting, and at the same time frustrating, is to consider that it seems to run counter to a core axiom to understanding games as a creative medium: that interaction forms the foundation of games.

Let’s take a couple steps back and consider games from another time.  Arcades, long gone for the most part, attracted those who wanted to play games, as well as those who wanted to watch others play them.  You could see people crowd around cabinets watching other people play games for reasons not dissimilar to why you might watch a “Let’s Play” today.  You might watch someone play a game in an arcade for a couple different reasons.  They might be participating in an entertaining competition with others.  They might be playing the game particularly well.  Or, they might be progressing further into a game than you’re able to and you’d like to see those later portions of the game.

I imagine the reasons for hanging out and watching people play games in the arcade extend to watching others play games next to you on the couch, or through a video stream.  Playing games requires time, effort, and money, which most folks have a limited supply of.  Younger audiences have time, but little money to facilitate the hobby.  Adults obviously have other responsibilities which limit their time and energy.  But these aren’t reasons that stop people from wanting to be able to enjoy these games.  And in some cases, watching the game being played might be the preferred approach to consuming it.  For myself, that game is Skyrim.  It’s a game that’s open, but not terribly motivating to me.  I’d like to enjoy the game’s sights and sounds, but without investing the time into learning the ins and outs of the systems.  As a result, I’ve ended up watching my wife play through much of it.

Are these inferior experiences?  Well, there wouldn’t be a Skyrim experience for me if I didn’t tag along for someone else’s game.  Wouldn’t that represent a failure of the game, by refusing to interact with it?  Are you not just watching a poorly composed film?  Well no.  You’re not accepting that thr person playing the game is acting as the author of the experience. And you’re not accepting that the play-through you’re watching is the only way to experience the game.  What you’ve done is delegate authority to someone to interact on your behalf; to do the things that you can’t, or won’t do.  You’re still acknowledging the game’s systems, mechanics, and rules, while designating someone else to make the decisions you might want to choose.  While the game’s design allows you to manipulate an avatar to perform actions that you yourself could not perform, a Let’s Player is another layer of abstraction to the experience.  Firing a gun in reality is not as simple as in a game.  But firing a gun in a game might still be cumbersome for others, and delegating authority to perform that verb is still about performing the verb.  The difference between direct and indirect interaction is like touring a museum on your own, and having a guide provide a narrative to the experience.  The art itself is not inferior for requiring that some consume it with the help of a guide.

There’s still value in this approach.  A game can be appreciated for it’s composition, even without playing it.  We don’t have to accept one player’s actions while playing a game vicariously through them.  But at the same time, we understand the consequences of the interactions we do accept.  These are not possibilities in a game or movie.  There is not an alternative experience in a film by playing with its rules.  But furthermore, the concept of third-person gaming has an added benefit of providing means for a more inclusive gaming culture.  It provides another way to consume games which doesn’t require an up front investment to be able to appreciate them.  This might be a “well duh” moment for me, being someone who’s not really participated in the Let’s Play phenomenon, but I think there are interesting possibilities for discussion and analysis of games beyond direct interaction, a concept that’s been a lacking crutch for expressing the aesthetic potential for games.  Most recently, I’ve been able to enjoy another open world game that I’ve failed to invest in myself, Fallout New Vegas.  and I’ve enjoyed the audience-based interactions that drove the game forward.  Hopefully, with the rising popularity of platforms such as Hitbox and Twitch, we’ll dig into games more through the lens of third-person gaming.

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