I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and came across an article/review of a mobile game called Wayward Souls. Truthfully, I only read it because the byline mentioned Secret of Mana, which is relevant to my interests; it is, incidentally, probably my second-most played game of all time right behind A Link to the Past. Did you realize that SoM came out in the US 20 years ago this past October? Two decades.
Anyway, Wayward Souls is whatever – doesn’t seem to capture much of SoM’s magic beyond the pixel and music style based on the video alone. What was interesting to me though, was when they mentioned in the video that they’re going with the MineCraftian business model, e.g. selling it for $5 at first, and increasing the cost as time goes by. To me, this raises a number of interesting questions. First… is there a term for this payment model? I use MineCraft as perhaps the most well-known example, but surely it was tried beforehand.
Second, does it feel bad to anyone else?
I mean, I understand the logic behind it. Traditionally, game companies are going to want to charge full MSRP at release to capture the dollars of whom we now term “whales,” e.g. the people who would have paid $100 for the game, if they had charged that much. As time goes by, the price comes down via sales and whatnot to capture the players who would have bought it for less than MSRP. The MineCraft model seems like it should never work, but actually makes a lot of sense when you realize that the traditional model relies on a well-informed and excited playerbase for your game – in an ocean of crappy mobile games, you’re not going to have the whales spending money out of the game. This alternative model lets you build buzz somewhat organically, and then try and capture the big spenders as you ride the wave home. Plus, it sort of short-circuits the “wait until the Humble Bundle sale” strategy insofar as it will supposedly be more expensive the longer you wait (which ironically sorta is how Humble Bundles work).
Like I mentioned though, the MineCraft model doesn’t particularly work for me. It grates, like a piano out of tune. But I can’t fully articulate why though, especially when you consider nearly all games do this via cheaper preorders. Damn near everything is 20% off on GreenManGaming before it comes out. Sometimes a game will drop in price within the first three months (and sometimes faster these days, if they miss the forecasts), but it’s usually quite some time before it drops below the preorder price. So… what’s the difference, really? I can’t even claim that it’s because of psychological manipulation, because that’s pretty much behind all sales strategy. It just feels… bad, somehow. And causes me to mentally dig my heels in and wait for the Humble Bundle because screw you for defying the natural order of things. Or something.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzlers, Hilarious but too short games
Gunpoint is a short, 2D indie puzzler with some of the most hilarious writing I have ever seen in a videogame. You take control of Richard Conway, a freelance spy whose latest customer was murdered before he could get the details. From that classic film noir story hook, you get a classic film noir plot broken up by bouts of mildly interesting puzzles.
At their simplest level, the puzzles in Gunpoint revolve around interacting with a computer and then exiting the map via subway station. The central conceit is Conway’s ability to rewire a building’s electronic systems, such that getting caught on a surveillance camera actually opens the locked door instead of triggering the alarm. Some of a building’s circuitry is “hardened” (it has a different color), which means you have to reach a certain (color) breaker box before being able to reroute that circuit’s wires. Completing maps will give you currency to purchase more gizmos, including the ability to electrify certain devices or even the ability to (temporarily) reroute a guard’s gun – causing them to either open a door when they pull the trigger, or forcing them fire the weapon at a buddy when you flip a light switch.
The puzzles are fun, but… well, they end up being only mildly interesting. Rewiring electronics turns out to be fairly powerful as a sort of default ability, which is reflected by the fact that the latter half of the game basically features only 2-3 things you can actually interact with (one light switch, maybe a camera). There are some mechanics that prevent you from simply pouncing/shooting your way through all the guards (the subway gets locked down after any gunshots), and as a result the game becomes incredibly abstract by the end. Normally, that might not matter for, you know, a puzzle game, but I actually enjoyed the early gameplay over what it ends up “evolving” into.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, Gunpoint is extremely short, clocking in around ~2 hours of gameplay. Given that, and given my ambivalence towards the later gameplay, I would suggest waiting until Gunpoint hits $5 or a bundle. It is a game definitely worth your time to play at some point – trust me, the dialog alone is almost worth it – but that time doesn’t have to be now.
Game: Rogue Legacy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Harsh action platformers, RPG-esque indie games
Rogue Legacy is a sort of indie hybrid RPG roguelike action platformer. The developers describe the game as “Rogue-Lite,” as the central premise is that while the game features permadeath, your children will take up the family mantle and invade the procedurally-generated castle to avenge you. This design is actually pretty compelling, especially considering that while purchased equipment/abilities cary over from one character to the next, the gold used to purchase these things do not. So what ends up happening is failed runs (usually!) end up leaving you with enough gold to be stronger for the next one, while not encouraging you to hoard gold in the meantime.
The castle itself is divided into four main areas, each with a boss at the end. While the general location of the areas are stable, all of the individual rooms and transitions are randomly determined. I say “random,” but the vast majority of rooms have a high level of coherence, as opposed to the truly random nonsense of games like A Valley Without Wind. You do not technically need to clear a room of enemies to move on, but it is generally a good idea considering getting better equipment and stats requires gold. That being said, there is an entire class (Miner) that encourages you to avoid combat as much as possible while quickly snagging as many treasure chests as you can.
The gameplay itself is pretty unforgiving. While you can equip a bunch of Vampiric gear later on, and occasionally find a piece of health-restoring food when destroying furniture, for the most part damage you take is permanent. This can lead to frustrating scenarios in which an otherwise solid-looking boss attempt is stymied on the way to the door because you landed on some spikes in the prior room. Or misjudged a screen full of projectiles. Or faced one of those goddamn wolves that seem to charge half a second earlier than you’re prepared for.
And by “solid-looking boss attempt” I mean that at least one of the three children you can select for your next castle run had a good class/characteristic/ability combination. For you see, sometimes your favorite class might be Farsighted (makes the center screen fuzzy), or the screen is upside down, or they have an enormous character model (increased weapon reach, but increased hitbox too), or maybe everything is good except they have a weak magic ability.
I am not attempting to dissuade you from purchasing Rogue Legacy, but I do want to point out that while the devs say “Rogue-Lite,” the game is still pretty roguelike. I had a pretty solid 9 hours of fun, and a less fun 4 hours of being stuck grinding gold and new abilities to give me the hope of downing some of the bosses. Admittedly, being better at the game might have reduced that time, but then again, being worse would have increased it exponentially. So in your game purchase decision, be sure to take into consideration how good you are at semi-twitch platformers.
Game: Don’t Starve
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 20-60 hours (variable)
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes that don’t kid around, amazing indie games
Don’t Starve is a harsh, survival indie roguelike with dark humor, a fairly unique visual style, and a pointed lack of hand-holding. You control a man named Wilson who suddenly wakes up in the wilderness, is told that finding some food before dark would be a good idea, and then… you are on your own. From there, the basic idea is to scrounge for some carrots/berries while using available materials to craft torches, tools, traps, and other basic gear as you do your best to survive in a world that wants you dead.
Moving around and interacting with the world is surprisingly easy and intuitive. You can move around via left-clicking the ground/objects or by using WASD. Interacting with objects is done either with left-click or right-click. Pressing the Spacebar will cause your character to perform some context-sensitive activity, like start chopping a tree if equiped with an axe, pick up something if it is nearby, or attack an enemy. Combat is not particularly deep, but the “shallowness” combined with the roguelike nature of the game lends a tremendous amount of gravitas to battles. It reminds me of survival horror games that have clunky combat on purpose, to ratchet up the implicit difficulty.
The default game starts you in Survival Mode, which is really more of a Sandbox mode. While there is not really an “endgame” in this mode, the game’s structure naturally (and ingeniously) lends itself to a sense of progression and escalating danger. Establishing a base camp is pretty typical and allows you to stockpile materials and research structures, making the maintenance of your Hunger, Health, and Sanity easier. On the other hand, resources generally do not regenerate very quickly, which forces you to forage farther and farther from your base camp with each passing day. And ultimately, the arrival of Winter will stretch your capacity to survive to the very limit, given how traditionally easy sources of food dry up (plants don’t grow, ponds freeze over). This is on top of an escalation of random hostile encounters by the Hounds, or other boss-level mobs.
Those in search of a more structured endgame can seek out Maxwell’s Door, a set piece randomly located somewhere on the map. Once entered, you are in Adventure Mode, tasked with surviving five randomly-determined theme worlds while collecting four Things in order to open the gate to the next world. Even if Don’t Starve consisted entirely of Adventure Mode, it would be enough to cover at least 20+ hours of gameplay. Especially given how the brutality of Survival Mode holds nothing to Adventure Mode worlds in which you are trapped in an endless Winter, or constant rain, or even a world with zero sunlight.
While I have been infatuated with Don’t Starve for quite some time, the game isn’t for everyone. Don’t Starve is extremely unforgiving, even in roguelike terms, where death is both easy to stumble into and results in a deletion of your save file. That said, while death is easy, it is almost always going to be due to mistakes you have made, rather than randomized deathtraps. Even if you get one-shot by a particular mob, that is only because you chose not to wear armor at the time, or because you were being reckless in not running away. Compare that to a game like The Binding of Isaac, where a white pill might randomly give a buff in one game and permanently reduce health in another.
If you are someone willing to play and lose dozens of hours of progress in a roguelike though (or cheese the system via console commands or making backup save copies), I cannot recommend Don’t Starve enough. It has style, it has substance, and it is receiving developer updates every 3 weeks (at the moment). It is simple to get into, impressively complex when you start planning ahead, and always engaging while you struggle to survive.
Okay, I am contractually obligated to divulge that I sit on a THRONE OF LIES.
To be fair (to myself), I already mentioned how I was was getting bored with Don’t Starve’s Adventure Mode, in part, due to not being able to change characters. When I created a new Save with a new character in an attempt to start Adventure Mode with them, I was stymied by the requirement of trudging across the map trying to locate Maxwell’s Door. So what changed?
As befits my new (?) seating arrangement: cheating. Specifically, I enabled console commands. And with my new god-like powers, I… just teleported to Maxwell’s Door. Problem solved.
Now, it should be noted that I still feel a bit wary. Cheating is, well, cheating. I don’t actually care what other people think about the act per se, but I wonder if this will diminish the accomplishment of actually beating Adventure Mode. Technically, I haven’t actually cheated in Adventure Mode – just getting there. And considering I was at the end of my enjoyment with the game proper, any entertainment gleaned at this point is entertainment that would not have existed otherwise.
On the plus side, the character I chose, WX-78, is a robot that starts with lower stats in exchange for the ability to eat Gears to both replenish Health/Hunger/Sanity and increase their maximum stats. And he also takes damage when it rains. So, of course, my very first world is A Cold Reception, aka Waterworld, aka the world where it rains (frogs) for approximately 14 hours every day.
Nice try, Maxwell, but I’m still coming for you like a hungry ghost.
Game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Turn-ish-Based RPGs, Indie Humor
Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is an indie roguelike RPG wrapped in a fluffy layer of humor and genre in-jokes. The goal is simple: navigate your way to the bottom floor of the dungeon and kill Dredmor. Along the way, you will explore rooms, evade traps (a LOT of traps), kill monsters, loot treasure, and level up.
The core of DoD is its extremely interesting combat/exploration system. Essentially, everything is turn-based: for every step or action you take, all enemies make one too. These “turns” occur instantaneously, so you are never waiting on some action on the part of the AI, which makes the action go as fast or slow as you want. This ends up feeling rather amazing, as it avoids the “spacebar fatigue” that accompanies other tactical games. This system ends up putting a premium on actions though, and it’s quite easy to get surrounded and murdered if you’re not careful.
The statistics part of DoD is intentionally obtuse – your six base stats affect 18+ other stats – but the “joke” belies a pretty robust equipment and talent system. When you first roll your character, you can choose seven different categories of talents, which either grant new abilities or a direct increase in stats as you spend skill points. For example, taking the Swords talent will let you get new abilities (not all of which require a sword), and perhaps some bonuses for using swords. There is a pretty huge number of talents though, and it’s entirely possible to pick a combination that simply won’t work. On the other hand, you could pick 6 warrior-ish talents and then grab the one that let’s you shoot fireballs. Armor generally decreases your magic ability, but it’s possible to either craft or come across armor that hurts it less.
DoD is definitely a roguelike (although you can turn off permadeath at character creation) and thus contains certain abilities/scenarios in which you are likely to die pretty quickly, if not arbitrarily. This is… dangerous, for lack of a better word, in a game where you can spend 22 hours on a single character exploring every room of each level (which you may want to do to stay ahead of the curve). Indeed, in the titular Dredmor encounter, I about died within three moves before I “cheesed” the rest of the encounter via judicious use of invisible mushrooms and the all-powerful ability to close doors.
At the end of the day, I spent 28 hours in Dungeons of Dredmor and could see myself replaying it again with another character setup, or perhaps after picking up the two DLC. It’s a fun game, perhaps a more cerebral version of Binding of Isaac, but where Binding of Isaac and FTL come out ahead is giving more focused gameplay with their permadeath. Had I lost my 20+ hour character, I probably would have quit altogether right there. Luckily for me, I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I did not make three backup copies of my savegame. So if this game sounds fun to you, I recommend turning off permadeath until you wrap your mind around the game’s many idiosyncrasies.
I think I’m done with Don’t Starve. For real this time.
Thrush’s comment from yesterday sort of gave shape to the amorphous feeling in my mind:
I hate doing things twice. If I go for a walk I go in a loop because I don’t want to see the same scenery twice (weird I know). […] I just can’t get into the roguelike genre for this reason. Once I’ve done 2 hours of work, I don’t want to start from scratch again.
That’s what I was getting at yesterday, even though I couldn’t nail the words down. While my displeasure at what amounts to recycled content is not quite as “extreme” – I have/had plenty of alts in WoW – each subsequent Don’t Starve Adventure Mode attempt generated more bile than the last. It is not about the dying; each death was a novel experience I learned from and won’t happen again. It is not even about the lost progress, really. No, what really pushed me over the edge was the rote, mechanical early game.
Wake up, grab Diving Rod, and then spend the next hour of game time picking shit up off the ground, desperately trying to find a piece of gold ore to build a Science Machine to unlock basic items like the Spear, backpack, and Crock Pot. Subsequent worlds in Adventure Mode are almost always different though, because you retain knowledge of past schematics and are able to bring in four items (and stacks thereof) from before. You might not be able to bring a backpack with you, but you’ll be able to whip one right up after gathering some grass and sticks.
If it’s your first world… well, better start praying for gold.
So, basically, I’m fine with permadeath and roguelikes if they don’t ask you to do the same shit in the same sequence with no possible variation every goddamn time. Or if they do, at least minimize the time spent in what amounts to an unskippable tutorial.
I did start a new Survival Mode map with a different character in the hopes that a new set of pros/cons would liven things up a bit. Then I realized that even a custom map with abundant food and no enemies would require hours (!) of otherwise meaningless exploration trying to find Maxwell’s Door before I could even start again. While I appreciate the commitment to the game’s harsh internal logic, I no longer have time for this shit. By which I mean I’m bored.
Time to play something else.
Do you know the worst part about a roguelike? You can’t even rage-quit! “Oh, I just died? Well… fine! I’ll just delete my saves and… oh.”
The roguelike genre is one I had avoided for years, rebuffed by the mere word “permadeath.” Is that supposed to be an appealing characteristic? It’s like, I don’t need to know anything more about scrotum piercing to understand, at a fundamental level, that it’s just not for me. And so I happily carried on in my non-permadeath gaming, leaving behind the empty husks of my peers who had just lost their 60+ hour Diablo 2 Hardcore characters.
The problem I am having though, is with all these roguelikes that choose to, well, bend the (unwritten) rules. For me, it started with Dungeons of Dredmor. After dying a few times getting a feel for the game, I went full optimize-the-fun-out-of-the-game mode. Explored every floor, room by room, while collecting and refining every resource. It was pretty clear that I had vaulted over the difficulty curve and would be coasting my way to the very end. That’s the point of permadeath though, right? To encourage conservative play?
Regardless of the answer to that question, the fact remains that I was on hour 22 of my roguelike save. To me, that is starting to border on obscene. I feel like the roguelike structure works perfectly for games that can conceivably be won within a few hours or a single (marathon) session. Anything longer is simply suspect – what useful purpose does permadeath serve then? I have 52 hours /played on FTL and 27 hours on Binding of Isaac, both of which can be finished within 2-3 hours. Permadeath in this scenario, and procedurally-generated encounters generally, thus increase the play-time of an otherwise short game. But if you are already spending 20+ hours on a single life only to die in some asinine way… well, what’s the point of trying again?
If you can’t tell, I’m writing this post because I’m pissed at dying in Don’t Starve. I made it all the way to the final world in Adventure Mode, which I could not even start until I found the doorway on Day 30+ in Survival Mode. You have no idea how close to the end I was. I had collected all four Things and was on my way to the Wooden Thing to assemble them. The last world is exceedingly harsh though, and my sanity was leaking out at a precipitous rate (it didn’t help that I was traversing a swamp). I stopped to pick a Blue Mushroom in the hopes of regaining just enough sanity to push me over the finish line.
Alas, a tentacle I couldn’t even see spawned and spanked me twice. Dead. I resurrected at my Meat Effigy in total darkness, and was one-shot a few seconds later. Dead again. Spawned back at the Adventure Door portal, and would have to go through everything all over again.
…except I don’t think I am. I have 35 hours into Don’t Starve, and was relishing the thought of being “done” with the game once Adventure Mode was beaten. “Done” in the sense of achieving sufficient mental satisfaction to allow me to move on to another game. Now? I just feel so goddamn empty. Dying to the last boss in Binding of Isaac feels terrible, but you are only really out an hour or so. Same with FTL. With Don’t Starve, I just saw 7-10 hours of my life evaporate into the ether. While that is technically how all leisurely pursuits end, I don’t usually end a gaming session feeling, well, like an empty husk.
It’s not really Don’t Starve’s fault – if the game were easier, even a tiny bit, it wouldn’t be the same game on a fundamental level. I like that a harsh game like this exists, as it pushes you into uncomfortable scenarios in which inaction is punished. I just don’t know if I want to be playing “long-form” roguelikes like this anymore. Permadeath is fine in the proper contexts, and said context is always in short games, IMO. Putting roguelike qualities into a game that simultaneously demands X amount of investment just strikes me as cruel and unusual. Some people like that sort of thing, sure. But I doubt that the end reward for our valiant efforts will be sweet enough to cover the acrid, bitter bile that is seeing so many hours go up in smoke.
Fake Edit: I tried again anyway. Died a few times, tried some more. Got the insanely difficult “forever winter” stage as my first level, but persisted anyway. Somehow made it even farther. Got to the 4th stage, and was feeling pretty good about myself. Run into a field of killer bees looking for a Thing, and died. Now at 48 hours /played. FML.
The night after the prior post, I made it to my first Don’t Starve winter.
The snow birds should have been a sign I was getting close, but they were a warning left unheeded as I wasted several days gathering the materials to build a bee box (for harvesting honey, of course). Bees don’t come out in winter though, and my crops were thinning out. Moves needed made.
Having found and “killed” a lureplant, I decided that I needed to set it up in a more tactically advantageous way. A lureplant is essentially a fleshy bulb plant surrounded by a field of eyeball plants with teeth. Par for the course in a game where Nightmare Fuel is a literal item needed to craft magic items. The surrounding eyeball plants can’t grow on rocky terrain though, so you can build a safe walkway to the bulb and harvest the meat and other materials that the eyeballs “eat.” The problem is that this world randomly has an incredible lack of rocks.
But, dammit, winter is coming.
I made the ~1.5 day trek out to the one location I knew had rocks, while nervously glancing at the freezing ice starting to cover my screen. Torches do nothing to assuage my growing frostbite, so I periodically set fire to bushes and trees near the road. Once I get to the rocks, I realize that I can’t actually dig up the terrain here – the difference must be rock vs rocky. What does “rocky” look like? Oh, shit, that’s a Tallbird that is attacking my walking treasure chest! Oh… but it has left its nest undefended with its beautiful, succulent egg…
Pro tip #1: a Tallbird will one-shot you without armor.
Pro tip #2: resurrecting at a touchstone, practically naked in the dead of winter, with all your items in a pile around a Tallbird nest, is not actually all that useful. Especially when a pack of Hounds just happens to spawn not 20 seconds later.
Pro tip #3: Life is full of emptiness and disappointment and despair.
I started another two games after that, abandoning the first when my initial 10 minute search for gold was fruitless. The second game though… hey, I might be getting somewhere. Bees? Fuck bees. I got two smoking racks, a bird cage to transform monster meat into eggs, and have 8+ traps on top of the rabbit holes in a nearby field. I’ll look to survive this first winter, erm, first before upgrading my base with bees. Maybe dig up a few more berry bushes and plant them closer, although the fish in nearby ponds are more than enough to keep me sustained.
And that’s when I found it. Maxwell’s Door. Adventure Mode, aka Challenge Mode, aka a purpose greater than mere survival.
I’m coming for you, Max. You thought you could leave me to die in your hellish wilderness realm? I got news for you, boy: it’s you who are trapped in here with me.
Not for long though. Not. For. Long.
As I mentioned back in my Card Hunter post, it is pretty rare that I get 100% engrossed in a given game. The all-in immersion in a game’s delicious logical systems is precisely what I desire, but gaming today is typically focused on front-loading the fun, followed by a tapering off of stimulation. So color me surprised when I found myself playing Don’t Starve until 6am again, trying (in vain) to get myself prepared for a winter I have never survived long enough to see.
In a nutshell, Don’t Starve is an indie survival roguelike. You wake up, get taunted a bit by the above-pictured guy, and… that’s it. As the Steam store description states:
Uncompromising Survival & World Exploration:
No instructions. No help. No hand holding. Start with nothing and craft, hunt, research, farm and fight to survive.
They’re not kidding. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of a particular mechanic… BAM! You get stung to death by angry bees.
If you die, that’s it, game over; your save file is erased. Occasionally there will be a sacrificial altar-looking thing, which acts as a one-time respawn mechanic. You can even construct your own Meat Effigy, which will also respawn you once… but you will have a lower maximum HP for as long as it exists. And keep in mind that you don’t resurrect with your gear – all of your shit is piled on the ground next to the giant spider nest or
murloc Merm camp or swamp filled with giant tentacles or whatever nightmare area you died in.
And that’s another thing: there’s a sanity meter too.
But, seriously, Don’t Starve is one of the most brilliant games I have played in years. While I sort of feel like it’s still in beta (there’s a countdown until the next patch on the title screen), how all the game systems already interlock is astonishing. As you might imagine from the title, getting food is important. But actually getting enough food to survive is pretty easy. The problem is that actually foraging all that food will consume a large portion of your day, leaving you little time to explore before nightfall. You can’t just hoard food either, because it spoils. Even worse, no crops grow during the winter and the ponds freeze over and you can’t eat monster meat without going insane and… you get the idea.
What I find so engaging is how I feel like I’m… juggling. You know in RTS games like Starcraft (etc) when you’re trying to micromanage some battles and having your base produce more units and sending scouts out to look for expansions? I actually dislike RTS games that are structured that way – I can do any one of them well, but not all simultaneously – but Don’t Starve somehow threads that needle. I would spend a few days making food supplies, then trek out into the wilderness looking for more of a certain resource I was lacking, foraging when I could, and trying not to get too far afield. Then come back, craft some new feature in my camp, and then get attacked by Hounds and die on Day 22.
And I’m not even mad.
Each world is procedurally-generated, which means next time I might be able to locate an even better starting location for my camp. Or maybe I’ll run across one of those random set-pieces and get a huge leg-up on survival with the ready-made supplies there. Or maybe I’ll actually find that goddamn Maxwell’s Door again and be able to play the game within a game. Oh, did I forget to mention that? The base game is a sandbox, but you can do Adventure Mode (a story-ish game mode) if you walk through Maxwell’s Door. If you die inside though, you get booted back outside into the “normal” world and it’s forever closed to you on this world. Collect four mysterious items though, and you can jump to a brand new world with another Maxwell’s Door located somewhere on it.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, because none of us are likely to make it. As it says on the Steam page:
Randomly Generated New Worlds:
Want a new map? No problem! At any time you can generate a new living and breathing world that hates you and wants you to die.
One day, I will see the winter. And die horribly, no doubt. But seeing it will be enough. For now.