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    Depression Quest (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Dec 4th, 2016 at 22:34:13)

    This semester I gave a presentation on gender and sexuality in gaming post-Gamergate, i.e., what has changed in response? I read more about Gamergate than I ever had before and figured I'd download the game that sparked the shitstorm. I'm all for interactive fiction and games thematically outside the norm, as is practically everyone who studies the medium. So one of my questions was simply, "Did I think this was a good game?"

    My first point is, although this isn't a game by mainstream definitions, it's a game by academic ones. That was the first and main criticism of Depression Quest before sex and journalism ethics was brought into it. There's artificial conflict (between your character and him/herself and other characters), there are rules, and there is a quantifiable outcome where your depression exists along a continuum. There is a goal (manage your depression), a feedback system (the answers you select change the following scenes and your character's depression state), and you play voluntarily. Given that I'd read soooo many diatribes calling this not a game, I kinda thought it wouldn't be, but it totally is, though atypical.

    My second point is that this is an important game. One way you can tell it is an important game is by the controversy it caused. People are having existential crises over games not looking and playing like AAA titles, which is bizarre in 2016. There are more indie games than grains of sand on the beach, man! Though one can easily imagine something more interactive to teach us about depression, this is a solid effort. I've recently played a game about a blind girl (Beyond Eyes) that provides some insight into that condition, and hopefully some empathy. I've played Papa & Yo about having an alcoholic father and child abuse. I have my students play Darfur is Dying to give them insight into life as a refugee in the Sudan. There's an app about everyday racism. There are so many important games that are not about shooting aliens or getting high scores. This is art that needs to be made and experienced. You can't convey in a painting what I just experienced in this simple text game about depression.

    Intro matter aside, I do not have depression. I do live with someone who does. My favorite person in the world suffers from it. I see her in this game. But the game encourages the player to see themselves too. I relate to some of the social anxiety that the character deals with (being anxious at a party, avoiding socializing with strangers, wanting to retreat to a room and/or just drink a lot real fast to get comfortable around strangers). That stuff isn't abnormal. One difference is that a depressed person is often embarrassed or ashamed by their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, whereas non-depressed people usually aren't. My partner sometimes sleeps like she's dead, stays in bed half the day, thinks she's screwing everything up, avoids difficult tasks, has low self-esteem, even talks about killing herself when things get overwhelming. That's life. You draw support from your network. You see a therapist. You try to find things that are meaningful to you. You try to find things to look forward to. It's not always going to happen, but you keep working at it. It's important for non-depressed people to understand that you can't rationalize a depressed person's thoughts. I can tell my girlfriend all day long, "You are stressed out because you are sleeping until 3pm and then you don't have time to do anything, and it's making you more stressed out" and it doesn't matter. Depression isn't rational. And depression makes people spiral inward and downward.

    The ďquestĒ element in Depression Quest is thought-provoking, as I actively managed the characterís depression. That's the goal: get less depressed; manage it. It worsened to severe, but I got it back down to regular depression, and then to under control. Seeing a therapist helped in the game as in real life (luckily the character had a good therapist!). I usually couldn't pick the dialogue option that the real me would pick, but there was usually an option that's like a more resigned version of what Iíd pick. Like, instead of ďJust get out of bed and get ready for work. Youíll be late, but itís better than not going at all!Ē I picked ďI guess I'll get dressed and go to work, even though I'll be so late it won't be worth it.Ē Thereís not that optimism, that positive thinking there. Itís more dread, futility.

    After I completed the game and got the "good" ending where you are successfully managing your depression, I replayed making clearly terrible choices and predictably the outcome was terrible. I hated my job, my girlfriend left me, I made a scene at dinner, I'm terribly lonely, etc. I must be good at dealing with life since I made all the "good" choices in the game. Oh, I also like that you can get a cat, which again as in real life, helped the character feel less lonely (if your cat isn't an ass at least).

    But does this sort of invalidate the premise of the game, that you can make choices that ease the depression? The game sort of undermines its own premise because you can easily choose the "correct" answers and get a positive outcome where the character manages their depression very well. I imagine this simply confirms for some people (who don't suffer from depression) the idea (that people with depression refute) that you can just think yourself out of it, which is problematic for developing empathy.

    I found Depression Quest a worthwhile experiment to click through. If you're curious, it takes like 45 minutes. Definitely made me think a lot more than I'd anticipated.

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    Crypt of the NecroDancer (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Dec 4th, 2016 at 15:27:49)

    Didn't think I'd finish so quickly after playing last time, but as with the other Zones, Zone 4 just takes some persistence. Learn the enemy's patterns, continue unlocking better weapons and armor, and eventually you'll get good enough to beat it. After you defeat the boss unique to Zone 4, you kill the NecroDancer, but there's a plot twist and the credits roll, but the story isn't over. You play through as two more characters to complete the story. I played through as one of them which took another hour (1 hour to play through with Melody vs the 9 hours it took to do one full playthrough the first time, haha). But I stopped there because all characters have their unique rules. The last character you have to play through dies if she gets hit or if she misses a beat. I think you can find health upgrades (I found a potion) and she comes with one potion (prevents death once), so actually you get one screw up before you insta-die. And you only have a dagger, no more weapons. Uuuh, I tried a while and think that's the skill cap that I don't want to bother surpassing. I watched a couple people beat it on YouTube and it is pretty incredible. You have to be absolutely perfect.

    Aaaanyway, this game is brilliant. Everyone with the slightest interest in roguelikes or rhythm games should play. The rhythm-based movement is unique and the game is a blast to play. One reason I think I liked it so much (same with Spelunky and FTL) is that there's more emphasis on player skill rather than luck. If you die, you always know why. It's always your fault. The game is never unfair. I don't think I cursed once. You just observe your death, correct the error (you always made an error), and restart. I've said before that it's quite a sight to behold the game in action, and when you're playing and you're three or four floors down in a zone and you realize just how fast you are moving and thinking, you feel like a professional. A game hasn't made me feel this good in a long time! So stop reading and go buy Crypt of the NecroDancer.

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    Crypt of the NecroDancer (PC)    by   dkirschner       (Dec 2nd, 2016 at 21:39:12)

    Add this to the list of roguelikes that I enjoy! Alongside favorites FTL and Spelunky (neither of which I ever beat). Crypt of the NecroDancer is unique. As the name suggests, itís part rhythm game. You move to the beat of different songs. Every enemy has a movement pattern in synch with the music too. So playing well is a matter of learning enemiesí movement patterns and then multitasking to move your character with the beat and kill enemies and avoid being killed.

    Itís really quite amazing to behold the game in motion, and all the simultaneous actions you have to perform are surprisingly intuitive. At first I didnít like the controls. They felt limiting. All you do is use the four arrow keys to move up, left, right, down. You automatically attack, and your attacks differ based on the weapon you have equipped. So for example, you begin with a dagger, which attacks one square in front of you. If you are next to an enemy, and you push in the direction of the enemy, you will attack. But now, I think the controls are very clever and I think they need to be simple.

    There are a handful of different attack types (spears let you attack two spaces away, broadswords give you a wider attack so you attack in like a 1x3 line in front of you, etc) and various weapon types too (glass weapons can break, bloody weapons leech HP, the flail has a knockback effect, etc.). Thereís also armor for the body, head, and feet, and a variety of magic rings and spells that you find in treasure chests, from blowing up walls, or purchase from the shopkeeper with the gold that enemies drop.

    Diamonds are another currency and those purchase upgrades in the hub. You can unlock some NPCs in the first two zones (of four) who will sell you items for the global item pool (which you subsequently have a chance to find in chests). You have some control over this item pool later on and can actually spend more diamonds to take items back out. For example, I unlocked a mystery ring which I later found out makes the level really dark so I couldnít see except right in front of me. Thatís a recipe for disaster, so I paid a diamond to take it back out of the item pool so I wouldnít get it again.

    Each of the four zones has different enemies, and you can train in the hub against them. Spend diamonds at another NPC and you can unlock training grounds for minibosses and bosses! Very cool! The first few times I made it through the first zone and got to one of the random bosses, I died, and it was demoralizing to not have any clue how to kill the boss that Iíd spent so long to reach. There are 5 random ones and some are more straightforward than others. I think Iíve beaten 3 or 4 different ones so far, and havenít seen the fifth yet. But during levels, there will be up to like 10 enemies on screen at once all moving according to their unique patterns. Itís a lot to keep track of and training with each type helps predict their movement and makes staying alive in the heat of the moment easier. This becomes really important when bigger enemies like fire-breathing dragons or sirens that silence the music or giant bats that move at random join the fray because minibosses can really mess you up.

    Two of the bosses are most memorable. The first (and the first I encountered) is named King Conga. King Conga sits in a chair playing the music while a ton of zombies in conga lines dance to the beat around the screen. You have to figure out where theyíre going (and they will step on traps that reverse their direction or make them confused and wander), avoid King Congaís simulacra, and then eventually kill him. Blues Chess is interesting. The King piece is the boss on a chess board, and all the pieces begin at one side and you at the other. They move in rhythm as chess pieces move across the board, and they attack you if youíre in their line (bishop attacks if youíre diagonal, for example). So you have to strategically take out the pieces on your way to getting the king in the back. If pieces reach your side of the board, they turn into queens, yikes!

    Last thing, you unlock different characters with different abilities. Cadence, the main character, is played normally, moving to the beat and having normal interactions with items. Others Iíve unlocked include Monk (he dies if he touches gold, but items at shops are free), Bard (enemies donít move until you do; Bard is easy mode), one guy that has infinite bombs but canít use other weapons, and a pacifist who canít attack but the stairs to the next floor down are always unlocked (normally you have to kill the floorís miniboss to unlock the stairs). There are achievements for beating the game with all the different characters, but my goal is just to do it on normal with Cadence! I unlocked Zone 4 tonight, which looks to be the final zone. Iíve gotten to floor 2 once. There are always 3 floors then a boss, assuming itís the same for Zone 4. But Zone 4 is really difficult for now. Here's to practice!

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    Letter Quest Remastered (PS4)    by   jp       (Nov 30th, 2016 at 18:52:08)

    I have no real explanation for why I've played this for a few hours other than the fact that I was intrigued by the existence of a "make words from a jumble of letters" game on the PS4 (also, it being free helped). That being said, I've enjoyed playing it so far even if, as is usual for these kinds of games, I sometimes run into words that aren't in the game's dictionary which is a bit frustrating. Overall it's a grindy game as you tackle areas where monsters hit you and you hit back by crafting words with the letters available. Some letters are better than others (I think there are basically three tiers), longer words are better than shorter, and there are sometimes additional effects/constraints in play (using a certain tile does damage, certain tiles will change next turn, etc.). Overall it's a series of interesting challenges that keep the game interesting (even as you unlock upgrades to do more damage) since the challenges add a certain puzzle element where I've found myself trying to figure out how to use a certain letter in a word simply because of the bonus I'll get or because the monster has a certain weakness I'm trying to exploit.

    I'm not sure how much longer I'll play, but it's a nice example of micro-advances in a design space I haven't really paid much attention to...

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    Ōkamiden (DS)    by   jp       (Nov 30th, 2016 at 18:43:50)

    I'm about two hours in having moved beyond the early tutorial and into the first "real" part of the game. I've beat the first boss. It's been an interesting experience so far, tinged with a bit of boredom. The latter mostly comes from the fact that there is a lot of slowly paced dialogue that you can't accelerate (though you can skip past, but I've been loath to do so). For now I'd describe the game as a Zelda-like experience. It features a lot of similar humor, crazy characters, and, to a degree, a familiar aesthetic. It is less bright (in terms of color) and the camera is regularly annoying. Fortunately it hasn't been a major source of frustration, but I fear that as I make progress in the game and get to more challenging parts, it'll start to intrude poorly.

    In Zelda the "verbs" are mostly tied to equipment you acquire that lets you do new things such as access new areas or interact with objects (generally to access new areas). The setup feels similar in this case, but with some more signposting (use this now!) and less puzzle-solving. Here the verbs are brush strokes that have effects and, surprisingly, I've unlocked 5-6 already. I wonder how many more there are! So far there's "draw a sun", slice things, complete/repair things, re-vitalize plants, and I forget the rest. Interestingly, because there's the wolf pup and the boy, you sometimes have to split them up and send the boy of to do things...

    The highlight so far was the boss fight, actually. Not so much because of the fight, but because I realized that I had to figure out how to defeat the boss (had to use a brush skill) and, in a surprise twist for me, had to figure out another brush skill to use in order to defeat the boss' 3rd "go". I'm looking forward to more interesting bosses and again, was reminded of Zelda.

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