A member of the Destructoid team handed me a Razer Taipan gaming mouse at PAX, so basically we're all best friends now.
Additionally, I love playing my Wii, my Xbox 360, my PC, and my iPod Touch. If I'm not gaming, or writing about gaming, I'm usually thinking about one of those things. Red Dead Redemption just might be my favorite game of all time, but there's a special place in my heart for all things Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Mass Effect, and Assassin's Creed. First person perspective games make me nauseated but I played through Portal and am playing through Portal 2 twenty minutes at a time, so I don't vomit. That's what you mean to me, Gabe Newell. That's what you mean to me.
I love all indie games. I mean that almost literally. I have many games in my Steam library that I need to play but they're nothing compared to how many games from all of the Humble Bundles that I need to play. Video game music is a hobby of mine, and one of the factors of a game I always notice first. I blog first on littlesistergaming.com, but those posts will most likely end up here not too long after their initial debut there.
When I read the synopsis of Splice in the back of the PAX program, with the rest of the PAX10 games (ten indie games at PAX, highlighted by industry experts for how awesome they are), I was pretty sure it was going to be over my head. But I had made a goal to try and play all ten PAX10 games before the doors of the convention center closed two days later. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to play all ten games (I couldn't find six of them whatsoever, so that's on you, PAX), but I did get a chance to try out Splice and pick up a coupon code so I could buy it on the cheap after PAX, which I did.
Splice was made by Cipher Prime Studios and is currently available in the iTunes app store as well as on Steam for Mac and PC. The marketing copy boasts over seventy levels, and the company also offers a deluxe edition that comes with the soundtrack. That was my first tip off about the music. Just like Catch-22, in the exhibition hall at PAX I couldn't hear the soundtrack but when a game starts offering their soundtrack along with the game, not as an afterthought months later, you know it's going to be a good soundtrack.
I didn't get to talk much to the Cipher Prime guys at the booth because some "big wig" who "voted for their game to be in the PAX10" or something lame like that walked up right when I did. Sheesh. The nerve, huh? /sarcasm. Anyway, I pieced together a little bit of the game play, got stuck on the seventh strand of the first sequence, congratulated them on the game, and left. I finally got around to buying, installing, and playing the game last night.
As for the actual game play, all the player has to do is move around microbial units (sure, that's what we're gonna call them) to fit in the frame that the level provides. But when you move one microbe, it effects where the others are and they move as well. You have a limited number of splices, or moves, to get all the microbes to match the shape of the frame. In later levels, microbes get special actions, such as splitting in two to make more microbes, and other actions that are harder to explain. I heard one YouTube reviewer compare the sequences to worlds in a platformer, and the individual strands of Splice to levels in a platformer. So when I say sequences and strands in the rest of this, think of it like that. Strands are levels essentially, and they're grouped into sequences, which are pretty much only there for organizational purposes. The funniest phrase of this paragraph is "all the player has to do," because for its simple objective, I found Splice stupidly hard.
My previous admission about how terrible I am at puzzlers still stands. So it shouldn't be surprising when I got stuck on the same strand of the same sequence two weeks after I played it at PAX. I eventually got it on my own, but it took me so long, it wasn't even gratifying. I was still shaking my head, like "Man, how could I have figured that out faster?" I got stuck again on sequence two, strand three but not wanting to waste more time (which is how I always view beating my head against puzzles, i.e. as a waste of time), I googled a solution. Thankfully (for my pride, anyway) the reviewer explained some more mechanics of the game so I didn't have to watch the full solution; I realized the solution now that I understood what the new microbes actually did.
I haven't rage quit Splice . . . yet
I stopped my brief run through at sequence three, strand five. Like all puzzle games I play, it might be awhile before I actually finish this one because I am impatient and apparently an idiot. I recognize the deliberate choice to go minimalist on the game play by not explaining how to play the game, but at the same time, players get nothing to go on . . . For as much as I love progressive gaming, the lazy, puzzler-handicap in me shakes its head at setting up gamers to fail. And it's more than others. Limbo, for instance, explains nothing. But it's such a familiar backdrop (i.e. platformer) we instinctively figured out what to do. Splice is breaking boundaries all over the place, so our frame of reference is limited, if not gone entirely for those of us who don't play puzzle games often enough. I think at the end of the day however, I'd rather developers assume I'm too smart than assume I'm too stupid. This rant is just because I'm mad that I'm really bad at this game.
Far and away though, this has got to be one of the most beautiful indie games I've ever played. There isn't a ton to go on visually throughout the game, it's true, but again the minimalist art style and controls, as well as a superb soundtrack (officially called Flight of Angels) that I'm going to buy off of Bandcamp in just a few minutes, creates an ephemeral place in which to ragequit. Ahh, how pleasant.
If you like puzzle games, you will love Splice and you should definitely spring the $10 to buy it. It's only $4 for the iPad, and I don't see anything telling me that it has any fewer levels, so if you have an iPad, save some dough and buy it in the app store. If you don't like puzzle games, I think this is still a beautiful enough game that if you like being challenged in non-puzzle games, you'll appreciate the experience in Splice. Just wait until it goes on sale.
Bitmob.com was a suggestion from Chris Kohler actually (that wasn't even a joke, I swear I will stop saying his name) that I had never heard of before. Community writers populate the website with content and editors of the site go through and pick their favorites of the day to put on the front page. They're also partnered with VentureBeat which has a sub-community/page called GamesBeat that gets the same features. SO! I'm on two sites! I'll save you the time of reading it by saying the content is nothing new, but they did edit the beginning a bit for clarity, which is a really good point for me to take away (i.e. always making descriptions and set ups as clear as possible). Anyway, again, just wanted to share for a minute. It's probably a lot less important than I'm making it, but at the same time, it feels pretty gratifying, since I've applied to about a dozen jobs and haven't even heard back from any of them, that's how far away from achieving my goal I feel. So this is a small victory, in the small bout of failure I've been in. Woot!
Bottom line: if you want to get published about games stuff, try bitmob.com! I'm in such a good mood, I won't even pretend to keep this to myself.
I should've posted this yesterday but I realized if I get into the habit of daily posts, I'll be beating myself up to maintain that and I don't want to sink into gaming as a chore again. So I paced myself, played another one of the PAX10 (ten of the best indie games shown at PAX, chosen by a panel of industry experts) called Containment, and had a fairly good time doing it. Good, not great.
I happened to wander by the Bootsnake Games booth in between waiting in line for panels. It was on the sixth floor and not in the hubbub of the AAA title company booths on the fourth floor, which I preferred. I set out at the beginning of the weekend to make sure I played all the PAX10 games (which didn't happen), but I saw this booth fairly early in the weekend and confidently stood behind someone else playing a demo to listen to an explanation of the game (I did in fact play the game a few days ago, have no fear).
Containment is a zombie puzzler, where you manipulate people in four classes (primarily designated by four different colors) to surround a zombie in the four cardinal directions. Once a zombie is surrounded on all four sides by one color (e.g. all pink, all green, all blue, or all orange) the colored characters kill the zombie and more characters slide down from the top of the screen to fill in the spaces that were just occupied by the zombies and the attacking characters. You can swap characters from any spot on the grid to strategically place a character. Don't be fooled though, it's not a turn-based game. As I sat for the first few seconds pondering what I wanted to do first, a zombie ate the character next to it and turned it into a zombie as well (the primary zombie movement mechanism - infecting others). You can surround groups of zombies with one color of character to defeat them as well, and edges of the count as the color of character you're using, automatically. Defeating all the zombies in a grid before another zombie can crawl it's way in advances you to the next grid and through the game. Below is a link to the offical trailer.
Different classes drop different items. Surrounding zombies with all pink doctors will sometimes mean these pink ladies drop a hazmat suit item that protects three horizontally adjacent characters of your choice to be protected and to act as character color wildcards, still swappable anywhere on the grid. Surrounding zombies with all green soldiers will occasionally net you a grenade to blow up a cluster of people, whether zombies or friendlies. Blue groups killing zombies will sometimes drop a sniper shot to take out one zombie outright (there are varying classes of zombies that are harder to kill as the game progresses), and orange characters that kill a zombie or group of zombies sometimes drop a Molotov cocktail that will burn a cluster of zombies and allies without discretion.
As I said, one of the first game play features I noticed was that it's not turn-based. Zombies don't want for you to strategize before munching on your citizens. Initially I thought this was clever because it forces players to think and act quickly, which isn't always the case for the puzzle genre. Later in the game though, I realized more and more that I was approaching levels with a brute force approach because I felt time was more important than finesse. It's a fine line to be sure, and one that might be praised by some and criticized by others. I vacillated between the two, as I said.
Another strength to the game were the characters. While the animation was clean and neat, but nothing special, the characters you move on the grid to surround and kill zombies had some really clever short lines of dialogue, and the voice actors did a good job in their brief appearances.
Now to reference the title, and my easily contained excitement for the game. I was impressed that the team at Bootsnake Games bothered to put in a story at all, and the exposition that rolled onto the screen in between zombie grids had some funny one liners every so often. However, overall it was your standard zombie tale, without novelty. Also, I couldn't imagine a more boring font. I'm no typographer so I don't want to purger myself but the font of the story was something like Helvetica or Arial. Seriously? I would've preferred the cliche zombie font over reading three acts with five levels a piece entirely in the plainest sans serif font available. A small detail, you'd think, but from the time the first bit of plot was scrolling off of the screen and to the next grid, I was already bored of reading it the exposition in such a boring font.
Seriously, I would've rather read pages of this, as annoying as it is, than ARIAL.
Overall, the game was a little easy. I didn't die once until sometime in the middle of the second act. In Bootsnake's defense, I only played through the campaign mode. There is also a survival mode that I would bet gets pretty difficult. Additionally, there is no penalty for incurring collateral damage. In fact, killing more of your allies unlocks Steam achievements. I think an easy way to up the difficulty would be to penalize players for avoidable friendly fire. Without that penalty, I was dropping grenades, warheads, and Molotov cocktails willy nilly, just to get a few zombies.
Update: I just jumped into Survival mode for a few rounds to double check, and not be a lazy/crappy reviewer, and you do get ranked on how many civilians you kill per round. Having said that, I wasn't too careful about it, and I got an "A" in the first three rounds so . . . maybe it's still not that hard.
And again in the game's defense, there is the company itself, Bootsnake Games. I said it once and I'll say it again - the nicest people go to PAX. I listened to one of the people working the booth explain the game and gently guide the PAX attendee playing the game to make better choices. Another booth worker came up to me to answer the rest of my questions, invite me to try it out on the iPad, and convince me to buy it for $3 there at the booth. Supporting the indie devs! My favorite pastime.
Wa hoo, independent developers! Stick it to the man!
The game is available on Steam for the PC (which is how I played my copy when I got home from PAX) and it's in the Apple App store. For $2, I would recommend giving it a shot on the iPad, just because it is generally fun and I bet you can get more traction out of the survival mode than I got in the few hours it took me to complete the campaign. For $5 on the PC right now . . . sure, I recommend it too, so long as $5 is chump change to you (right now, $5 is a day of food for me so Containment wouldn't be a priority. Catch-22 would be, just for reference). Like I said, I just love giving independent developers all of my money.
Any zombie games you guys have totally loved? I usually try to avoid the genre, but this was a pleasant introduction. Leave suggestions for me in the comments!
Hardy har har, what a clever title. I actually really enjoy the novel, Catch-22. But the point is that the game Catch-22, a puzzler that was one of the PAX10 (ten indie games selected by a panel as the best indie games at PAX), is truly delightful.
I am notoriously bad at puzzle games. I talk about how bad I am at them all the time. I googled my way through many spots of Portal, I watched a lot of YouTube videos for Braid levels, I am basically the worst. Hell, I even looked up how to get through a couple spots in the A Book of Unwritten Tales demo I played. Perhaps the worst part is that I don't even feel bad about the internet searching I do for answers and experiences that aren't my own. So for me to play a puzzle-type game (maybe more a strategy game? I'm not sure what genre to put it in exactly) and then get really hyped for it is notable.
Built by a three-man team that started the development company Mango Down, Catch-22 features a green ball and a blue ball circling a pink sphere in opposite directions. You first control the blue ball as you jump over the green ball to collect gold coins hovering above the pink sphere's surface. Once you collect all the gold coins (which increase in number with every level you pass), you swap to controlling the green ball and have to collect the same gold coins which then reappear. The catch (HEY-O!) is that the blue ball remembers the exact trajectory it took while you tried to collect all the gold coins the first time. So you have to dodge its jumps, and collect coins. After you move back to the blue ball, the green ball remembers its most recent path, so on and so forth.
It's a total brain bender for me. It's so beyond the realm of my intelligence that I can still laugh every time the balls collide and I lose. For a brief moment after all the gold coins are collected, both balls look slightly shattered and if you can maneuver them to collide in that brief window of time, then both balls forget their past paths and you get a clean slate for the upcoming coin collection, which is a bigger bonus than you realize until you play the game. The video below is a demo of a slightly earlier build of the game, but the premise is the same.
The art is really simple, which I'm a sucker for. Warm tones and cartoon-y fonts give it all a whimsy feel, and I love that it doesn't try to make it anything more than it is - a fun, simple game to play on your mobile device when you're waiting in line. One piece of the puzzle I didn't get at PAX due to the noisy exhibition hall was the music playing in the background. When I started playing it on my PC, I was pleasantly surprised by the warm strings and mid-range notes that guide you through the game. Very beautiful and soothing, a great addition to the experience.
And perhaps best of all, when I stopped by at PAX to play this, the guys were so incredibly nice. I'm not sure which one of the gentleman I talked to, but he answered all of my questions, didn't laugh at my abysmal lack of skills, and just seemed genuinely happy and enjoying the spotlight of the PAX10 (which with the high caliber of indie games that were there, is a huge and well-deserved accomplishment for Catch-22). More than the gameplay, the artwork, or the music, that makes me root for Catch-22 to be a roaring success.
The game doesn't have a release date yet (a couple of false dates are floating around on their Facebook page and website, but it is confirmed in Facebook comments that it isn't available yet), but when it does come out it will be on iOS and Android platforms. To be even more awesome, the guys at Mango Down put out a completely free Facebook app version, found here! Great practice before the app officially releases for mobile devices. To play, just install the Unity web extension (which it will prompt you to do when you click the link) and wait for a not short amount of time for it to load.
My high score is level 8, 25,087, which I'm proud of now but I feel like once you all start playing and commenting your high scores I'm going to be severely disappointed. Leave a comment, what's your high score? Better yet, are you hooked already?
I don't think I should talk about Chris Kohler from Wired any more (Chris Kohler), but while I was waiting to talk to Chris Kohler, another aspiring games journalist/writer/designer like myself, named Ted, came up to me and took the panelists' advice to network to heart much more directly than I did (and he is awesome for doing so). As we discussed our backgrounds (both English majors, from Washington, etc.), his friend came up and Ted introduced me to Arian, a newly-minted tabletop game designer and indie developer himself. Even though Arian and his game Pocket-Tactics had just gotten picked up by Wired for investing in a 3D printer and taking care of all the manufacturing of the game himself, with the rest of his team at Ill Gotten Games (one of the best company names I've heard in awhile, I must say), he graciously agreed to meet up with me the next day, let me play through his game, and review it. I'm telling you, the nicest people go to PAX.
On a Tuesday night some months ago, Arian had an idea for a dice-oriented tabletop game, inspired by the game play of Final Fantasy Tactics and its strategy game predecessors. By the end of the night, the idea was finalized and by Friday of that week, the first copy of the game was printed, painted, and fully playable. Not too shabby, by any standard. Its first iteration features two factions, the Legion of the High King and the Tribe of the Dark Forest. Each faction has strengths and weaknesses, so picking a side is a part of the strategy, not an arbitrary color or figurine preference. Arian said that there are more factions in the works to be released so players can have a wider variety to choose from. There are six classes per faction, ranging from strong melee characters to necromancers to archers. Each faction also has an accompany stats sheet so you can see each class's defense and attack points for melee, ranged, and magic attacks. The stats sheets also show terrain advantages and abilities for each class.
The most exciting part of the game to me was the map. Players take turn picking one hexagonal piece out of a small bag at a time and placing it around one player's base. There are some placement rules that force players to build at least slightly outward. Each piece is painted and designed slightly differently to differentiate terrain types. Different factions will have benefits depending if they're on a forest tile, a hill tile, etc. A different game play experience every time for a map-based tabletop game is a cool innovation, and I can only imagine how experienced players can use it to their advantage, or their opponent's disadvantage. As a super noob, I didn't really implement it myself, and I think Arian was too nice to just wipe the floor with me with that particular strategy.
Each player only starts out with three figures on the board, which they get to choose, and more pieces can be added on subsequent turns but only to specific tiles near each players home base. The object of the game is to defeat the other player's base, which in turn usually requires you to destroy all of their individual fighters. The base itself has 3 defense points, which means every attack against the base, the defending player can roll three blue dice. The attacking player uses 1 to 3 red dice (depending on how many attack points for that specific action that player's figure has) and whichever player has a net total of higher dice either successfully defends or is defeated off the board entirely. The same process applies to attacking other figures as well (which have 1 to 3 defense points and can use 1 to 3 blue dice), not just bases. Each turn, a player can only move, spawn, or attack with one figure.
There are more intricacies of that; I'm doing the game an injustice, just as I did the day I reviewed it when I had to do a rushed play through to get into a panel that was starting. The strengths of the game lie in the fact that I found it to be a pretty simple implementation of an advanced strategy. Figures get defense bonuses depending terrain and if allies are nearby, move bonuses for nearby allies, and disadvantages for standing on water map tiles. And yet in the quick thirty minutes I had with Arian to review this, I remembered all of that and I thought I was doing all right strategically during the short time we played.
And maybe that's the biggest point - Arian would probably be too nice to tell you if I was really blowing it anyway. I'm not trying to say that people should lie in favor of my skills (but it's nice when they do) but I'm saying it's really awesome to see good people like the team at Ill Gotten Games getting some coverage from Wired and some success for following their passions. I love small companies and small projects to get big time coverage and success, so I'm happy to spread the word about a game that I will definitely buy, Pocket-Tactics.
That opportunity to buy the game will be coming sooner than we think, Arian said that in the very near future a Kickstarter campaign is launching to raise funds to print Pocket-Tactics on a massive scale. I'll be sure to post when that goes live so you can all get in on the fun earlier than the rest. And that might be the only downside to the game at the moment: while Ill Gotten Games may be printing the pieces, it remains to be seen who will be painting them, players or the manufacturers. It seems like it will depend on the success of the fundraiser; if it does well enough, we might be able to fund Arian painting board games pieces for fourteen hours a day until ship date, heh. Time, and the details of the campaign, will tell us.
Ill Gotten Games' other project is an RPG game, similar to the style of GURPS, but unfortunately we didn't have time to delve into that too much. I hope the group has more games slated to release in the near future, if they can keep churning out fun and simple yet strategic games like Pocket-Tactics.
Here's the thing: I'd love to write about the great games I played at PAX, but I'm too busy implementing the awesome knowledge I got at PAX. For example, I've applied to about a billion jobs tonight. That may or may not be hyperbole. The point is, I didn't review games like I was supposed to tonight because I'm trying to do what all the geniuses at PAX panels told me to do. Here's what they told me, that I am now going to share with you all:
* First I went to the Destructoid panel on Friday morning. I had zero idea of what to expect, but things started off on the right foot when a Destructoid employee randomly handed me a Razer Taipan mouse. Sweet! I'm now an insta-fan. The biggest piece of advice I got was to post like crazy on sites internal blogging systems. For example, I blogged a lot on that IGN system when I was trying to get to E3, but apparently I shouldn't have stopped. Sites that have internal bloggers like to hire from that pool. I didn't get a chance to ask if they wanted original content or if it didn't matter, but because I've already invested money and time into littlesistergaming.com, I'm going to double post from there to IGN to Destructoid to BitMob, to any other place I can find.
* I went to what was called the PC Gamer Mega Panel as well that had Notch, Dean Hall, Sean Vanaman, a guy I should know who is a big wig with that new XCOM game coming out, and another guy I should REALLY know because he was big time involved with Bastion at SuperGiant games. Man, ultimate fail with names right now. Anyway, it was mainly just fascinating to hear these guys talk about storytelling in video games (the subject of the panel), primarily because they had two true developer-created stories in The Walking Dead and Bastion, and XCOM to a certain extent, but then it was juxtaposed against the player-created worlds of DayZ and Minecraft. Just really incredible to listen to and contemplate. Put that in your brain basket and chew on it for awhile. Leave comments with awesome insights. One great insight in my notes that I wrote down was "Create real loss in games," ala DayZ. Another post with more thoughts on this forthcoming.
* Friday night I got the best advice of my life from Chris Kohler, from Wired. I asked the panel if I should give up my writing job because it wasn't in video games, or keep it because it was writing, and the advice didn't exactly match my question. But one of the panelists mentioned that her fiance just happened to be a gaming journalist and I could talk to him afterwards, and of course I did that. So I got to ask him my question and he said "Well if you really don't care where you end up, script writing or journalism [which I don't] then you should just get into the industry by any means then work your way towards writing." BOOM. DONE, CHRIS KOHLER. Finally a definite answer to something I've been puzzling over for months now. So, I've been applying to all kinds of jobs tonight. Mainly SEO, writing, and PR stuff, things that I think I would still enjoy doing if I were actually hired and have a minute amount of experience in, but man . . . very time consuming. Also, it should be noted that that is not an absolute direct quote from Chris Kohler. That was the gist of what he said to me, personally. I don't want to get in trouble with Chris Kohler for a misquote or something. Chris Kohler.
Saturday's panels were less helpful to me, but somethings that might help you:
* These are great tools to use to start actually making games with little to no programming knowledge: Construct 2, Game Salad, Game Maker, Unity. Even though the panelists of the "Breaking into the Industry" panel weren't writers, many of them started making games on their own to then work their way into a company and to get where they wanted.
* The number one advice in the "How Not to Write a Game Review" panel was to be specific and to not use cliches. For example, don't say something was good or bad, but make sure you mention specifics and if you reference a past game or different game in comparison, you gotta explain that to. THIS was the panel that I got Evan Lahti's card from PCGamer.com. BOOM. Small victory.
Long. Lots of text. Nothing to funny or exciting. But I know the majority of anyone reading this blog post is someone who like me is blogging for fun and trying to get somewhere. So I thought maybe I could let you benefit from my experiences. To close, I'll share the inspiring story from Niero Gonzalez, founder of Destructoid, that I hadn't heard before.
He started a a gaming blog all on his own. He would get up early to schedule blog posts about gaming news throughout his day while he was at his day job, he would then sneak onto his blog to post and write during his day job, and then he would stay up late to write more content to auto-post the next day while he was at work. In his first year, he published 2,000 blog posts. And when he saw PAX was coming up, he called to see how he could get there with a media badge and they said all he had to do was show them his professional website. So with his minimal knowledge of web design, he made his site look as professional as he could, PAX bought it, and he got a media badge to go cover his first PAX. He posted mostly humor, and just about anything he could find in his first year, and that's how he started his following.
It was kind of intimidating to hear that story, to be honest, but I also found it inspiring. He did it, guys. We can too. It'll be really hard, but we can. I don't think that's naivete, I think it's hope and hard work. My goal, for the record here, so I can be held accountable to strangers on the internet, is to make it to PAX with a difference badge next year, whether as an exhibitor because I helped write and develop a game or as a media representative because I'm writing for an outlet, or my own blog that I tricked them into thinking was real. I'm not sure how, at the moment, but next year I'm going to PAX as more than an attendee. And you can too!