Box Boy!

Box Boy!
Developed by HAL Laboratory
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo 3DS

I bought a couple of games for my dusty 3DS last month – the remade Majora’s Mask (because it’s one of only two major Zelda series entries that I’ve never played) and Super Mario 3D Land (because Mario). Of course, as it goes with game purchases, I’ve hardly touched them. Instead, my commute time has been occupied with the 3DS’s recently-released $5 minimalist puzzle-platformer Box Boy!, developed by HAL Laboratory. This game is well-designed, highly-approachable, and very enjoyable.

The Visuals

HAL Laboratories is best known for the Kirby series of games. Kirby himself is a prime example of super-simplistic character design: Pink ball. Eyes, mouth. Rosy cheeks. Oval hands, oval shoes.

The protagonist of Box Boy is Qbby, who is a box that is also a boy. Qbby’s simplicity makes Kirby look like the Mona Lisa. White square with a thick black outline. Dots for eyes, and short lines for legs. The minimalism on display here is extreme.

The game is almost entirely black-and-white, with a couple of grays for shading and occasional splashes of red as indicators. If you’re good enough, you might even unlock a little bit of green or yellow or purple for cosmetic character items, but that’s about it for color in this game. Platforming surfaces are solid black. The background is solid white. These choices do make for a particularly stark visual style, but there is an unexpected depth to it as well. (Well, there’s no literal depth. Everything is perfectly flat – your device’s 3D slider won’t change a thing.)

The simple animations are very fluid and actually give Qbby a surprising amount of life. His little stick legs move urgently when he’s running, or dangle uselessly (and adorably) when he’s suspended in air. You can wear a selection of unlockable costumes (such as male, female, rapper, knight, bunny, rapper, wizard, rapper) that each come with three or four unique Kirby-like victory dances.

Despite his eyes being represented by only a handful of pixels, Qbby’s straining scrunchy-face shows off just how much effort it takes to make several boxes protrude out from your body. Because that’s what this game is about. Box Boy makes boxes.

The Gameplay

The visuals compliment the gameplay mechanics in the sense the both are incredibly simple at the surface level. Qbby’s goal is to walk from left to right to get to the double-doors at the end of each level. Whenever you want, you can make a solid connected chain of boxes protrude outward from your body, snaking them in whatever direction you like. You can walk around with these new boxes connected to you, or you can detach them and push them where you like. Every time you make a new box structure, the previous one disappears. Qbby can jump a height of one box, so if you wanted to get over a wall that was two units high, you’d place a single box on the ground next to it as a stepladder. If you wanted to get over a wall that was three units high, you could drop a larger three-box L-shaped stepladder next to it and climb your way up.

Qbby can also retract attached boxes, and this proves to be a vital technique. If you create two boxes on your head in a “little-r” shape (box up, then box right), you are now, as the in-game hints suggest, a hook. If you hook your “little-r” onto a ledge above you, two things happen. One, Qbby’s teeny legs dangle in the air and you will love it. Two, you can retract your boxes, pulling you towards the box that is held in place by gravity, effectively pulling yourself up onto the ledge. You can also spawn boxes when you are against a wall, which will push you away from that wall – this technique can sneak you under low overhangs, as well as help to minimize the number of boxes you need to use in a level. Minimizing your box usage is important if you want to collect all of the bonus crowns in each level, which will vanish if you exceed your quota.

This is pretty simple stuff, though it takes some time to really wrap your head around it in-game. The game is separated into 17 main worlds (of 6-7 levels each) and 5 bonus worlds. Each main world is designed to ease you into a new mechanic or game element. World 1 is all about basic box placement to get over walls and across pits. Later worlds focus exclusively on hooking, or snaking. Other worlds cover pits, spikes, conveyor belts, etc. Few elements are especially surprising or revolutionary, but each is easy to understand and adds another layer of depth to the game. I particularly liked the addition of sticky tiles, which usually force you into coming up with some complex push combinations.

The Structure

Each world has a simple upward ramp which teaches you about each new element. The first obstacle in the first level in each world is usually there to teach you what the new element is in a no-fail manner. The next couple of obstacles are natural extensions of the first lesson – still easy, but they’ll require just the slightest bit more effort. There are unintrusive checkpoints after every obstacle, and the reset time after each death is near-immediate. The ramp-up over the first couple of levels in a world is so gradual that you’ll barely notice you’re swimming in the deep end by the world’s end.

That said, the main campaign in this game is on the easy side of things, and you’ll probably be able to blow through it with few hang-ups in a couple of hours. The best stuff this game has to offer is in the final world as well as in the five bonus worlds, where you will see much more interaction between the elements you had encountered earlier. The last two worlds even pull out an exciting (though in retrospect, obvious) mechanical twist that make them worth unlocking.

One thing that I’m not pleased with in this game is the deliberately slow pacing. Qbby walks slowly. Conveyor belts take their time. Moving elements on a cycle take forever to complete their cycle. Maybe this is relative, but I’m hugely impatient with my games. Games already have the ability to suck up a player’s time, so I think it’s criminal to take more of a player’s time than absolutely necessary. I can accept the slowness in-game. This isn’t supposed to be a twitch-platformer. Every puzzle in the game can be beaten with slow deliberate action, and you don’t have to be beholden to your reflexes to succeed. However, I reeeeeally want a way to speed things up in menu or world map navigation. The worst offender is the between-levels world-map animation. It’s unskippable, it takes a few seconds, and it happens every time you finish a level. I hope you’re willing to watch that one 150+ times.

Despite that, Box Boy! gets a big old stamp of approval from me. I love a good puzzle game, and this one presses all of the pleasure buttons in my brain. It’s five bucks on the 3DS E-Shop. It’s a steal. Box Boy! is strong game design distilled down to its purest form. I recommend it.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Developed by Starbreeze Studios
Published by 505 Games
Played on Windows 7

A few weeks ago I wrote about Never Alone, which was a two-player asymmetric co-op game. Though it was likely intended for two players to play, it did make concessions to allow a single player to control both characters if one wanted to, which was how I played it. The idea of a single player controlling both players in a cooperative game reminded me of the 2013 game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Brothers requires you to control two characters simultaneously, and though it has the trappings of a co-op game, it can only be played by a single player.

I played Brothers early last year and in addition to finding the control scheme to be novel and the game to be gorgeous, it created one of the most ingenious and emotional moments I’ve ever experienced in any game. Rather than talk about the game as a whole, this week I will instead talk about that particular moment. This is going to be extremely, hugely spoilery. There’s no way to talk about this moment without totally ruining your ability to freshly experience it yourself. If you ever think you will play Brothers, go and do that (should take 3-5 hours, if I remember correctly), and then come back.

The Part Where I’m a Nitpicky Jerk

As a spoiler buffer, I have to talk about how dumb this game’s title is. I’ve harped on dumb game titles before, and I don’t want to be a curmudgeon, but this title is particularly bad. Games, like film sequels, love to use the title-colon-subtitle format. The problem with this game is that nearly every word in the subtitle is redundant. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Brothers – The main title.
A Tale – This is basically implied by the medium of interactive entertainment.
Sons – Brothers are, by definition, sons.
Two Sons – Brothers, being pluralized, suggests that there are at least two sons.

The only piece of information that the subtitle gives us is that there are exactly two sons and no more.

Controls

The controls in Brothers are hugely important to the game’s feel and narrative. In Brothers: The Tale of Two Sons, you guide two brothers through their tale to recover medicine for their ailing father (of whom, it should be mentioned, they are each sons). This game is intended to be controlled by a dual-analog stick controller. I played with an Xbox 360 controller. Each brother gets two inputs – one analog stick and one trigger. The stick moves, and the trigger is used to interact with with the nearest item. It’s as simple as that. On the same controller, one brother is controlled with the left hand, and the other is controlled with the right hand.

These two brothers are not identical. The older brother brother, dressed in blue, is taller, stronger, and faster. The younger brother, dressed in orange, is slower and often in need of his older brother’s help. Though both brothers’ input is symmetrical, the fact that the younger brother runs slower really adds to the character of both boys. The player will naturally push both sticks forward, and in doing so, Orange will naturally tag along behind Blue. It’s brilliant. This alone gives you the sense that the orange brother looks up to the blue brother.

One noteworthy difference between these two boys is that Blue can swim, while Orange does not know how. For Blue to swim, he must hold his trigger as he walks into a body of water. For Orange to navigate water, he must wade up to Blue and hold his trigger to grab onto his shoulders. Blue will then guide Orange through the water.

The two brothers are close, and you can see it in their interactions throughout the game. They are initially somber about their father’s predicament, but as they travel through we see them laughing and sharing their experiences with awe. There is spoken dialogue in Brothers, but it all takes place in an invented language. There are no subtitles, so the game has to convey what is being said in the inflections of the dialogue. This is a very effective choice – the player has to understand the story emotionally, and that creates empathy for the characters. The only words in the language that we learn are the names of the two brothers – Naia and Naiee.

Through the journey, the brothers befriend a troll, glide on a flying machine, travel through a town of frozen people, walk through a literal river of blood in the aftermath of a war among giants – you know, the sorts of things you might expect to see on a long walk. Towards the end of the game, the brothers find and rescue a girl who was about to be sacrificed by a group of tribesmen. The girl joins them on their journey, and Blue begins to fall for her. Blue starts to pay more attention to the girl and distracting them from their mission, much to Orange’s dismay.

At one point, the girl beckons Blue into a cave, and Blue gladly follows. We quickly learn that the girl is actually, of course, a gigantic evil spider posing as a girl who lures her prey to her cave.

A battle ensues and the boys defeat the spider-girl, but not before Blue is critically wounded. Blue rests against a tree and directs his younger brother to continue the journey for the medicine on his own. Orange continues onward, finds the medicine, and returns to the tree to save his brother. It’s too late. Blue is dead. Everybody is sad.

Orange is devastated, but he still needs to get back to save his father. His controls still work, but his brother’s do nothing. Orange has lost the spring in his step. He moves slowly, head hung and whimpering. With the help of a griffin the brothers had befriended earlier, Orange’s quickly flies back to his corner of the world. He is dropped off near his home, but he still needs to make the walk along the shoreline to get to his house. It’s dark and stormy, and he knows his father is running out of time. He pushes himself forward until he comes across a part of his path blocked off by water. He can’t swim. It’s impassable.

The Best Moment in the Entire Game

As a player, your first instinct is to try to push the younger brother through the water. He will get in, but he can’t get through. He’s scared. The player walks around in vain trying to come up with a solution. There’s no immediate path forward.

The player naturally thinks back to other experiences with water in the game, where the older brother can swim by holding down his trigger, while the younger one has to cling on to his back. The older brother isn’t here anymore – wouldn’t it be great if the younger brother could do what the older brother could? If he could swim just by holding down his trigger? You walk up to the water, hold Orange’s trigger, and press forward. Still can’t do it.

If only you could swim the same way. You walk up to the water again. This time, you hold Blue’s trigger. Orange, channelling the spirit of his older brother, dives into the water, huffing, panicking, and swimming. He makes it across, he makes it back home, and he delivers the medicine to his father, saving him.

I loved this moment. I’m not one to get emotional at games, movies, or television, but I really felt it when I inspired the younger brother to jump into the water. This is the sort of moment that only interactive media can deliver. You can’t progress without experiencing the emotionally-inspired choice to pull the older brother’s trigger. There’s a moment of shock when Orange jumps in – you’ve only just then had the thought to ask what Blue would do, and all of a sudden you’re going for it. You’re swimming and your heart is swelling. You’ve looked up to your brother, and you’ve learned from him. He’s gone, but you will be able to look to him as a guiding inspiration, and in doing so you can carry on his memory.

There’s a lot going on in that moment, in that symbolic squeeze of the wrong trigger. It’s a brilliant usage of the controls, which were already brilliant in their own right. The controls themselves became a vital component of the narrative, which is an incredible thing to pull off. I loved it, loved it, loved it.

I really hope you played it before you read this. I don’t feel like written words can do it justice. If not, sorry for ruining it for you.

Fibbage/Jackbox Party Pack

Fibbage/Jackbox Party Pack
Developed/Published by Jackbox Games
Played on Amazon Fire TV and Playstation 4


Jackbox Games, formerly known as Jellyvision Games, is best known for their popular You Don’t Know Jack series of trivia games. YDKJ is stylized as a game show, featuring an irreverent audio-only host pitching zany multiple-choice questions to the side-by-side local players who each race to buzz in first with the correct answer (or to screw another player by forcing them to answer a question they don’t want to). The first YDKJ was released in 1995, and there were over 20 YDKJ games released over the next 20 years. Jackbox is a small studio, and YDKJ has been their bread and butter. They’ve done very few other projects over the years.

I remember playing the very first YDKJ with my family on our home computer and having a blast with it. In particular, I remember playing the final round (the “Jack Attack”) with my brother. If one of us was behind the other one in the final round, we would mash the other’s buzz-in button on the keyboard, causing a significant score penalty. This would go back and forth until both of our virtual cash totals were both grossly in the negative. Only one of us would win the tarnished round on account of being less terrible than the other. As the virtual credits rolled, the virtual host would remind us that we both owed him some virtual money on our way out of the virtual studio. We loved this game.

Jackbox excels at party games in this vein – it is basically the only sort of thing they have ever done. It is fantastic that they have branched out to create the party game Fibbage in addition to the entire contents of the Jackbox Party Pack. Their choice to make their games as accessible as possible, both from a technological and a design standpoint, is an approach I’d love to see other game developers run with.

Overview

Whenever I explain Fibbage to others, I compare it to the mechanically similar (and classic) tabletop game Balderdash. In Balderdash, the dealer draws a card which contains an obscure word and its definition. The player reads the word, and each of the other players write down a made-up definition. The dealer then reads all fake definitions in addition to the real one. Each player then votes for the definition that they think is real. Any player whose definition is voted for receives points, and any player who chooses the correct definition also receives points. Fibbage is basically Balderdash without the obscure words.

In each round of Fibbage a YDKJ-style host reads a statement of fact with one word replaced with a blank space. For example:

It then plays out like Balderdash. Each player enters a word of their choice to fill the blank, with the goal of picking a word that other players would pick. Everybody’s words are displayed along with the correct word. Players choose the word that they think is correct. The fake and real answers are revealed and scoring plays out like Balderdash. Lots of games have adapted the Balderdash mechanics (Dixit comes to mind), but Fibbage does it best.

What Works

This game is a blast. Here’s where Fibbage gets it right:

Humor
Balderdash can be dry, because of the dry nature of its obscure words. The true definition of its words aren’t comedy, which means that bluffing players can’t be funny without obviously standing out as an obvious fake choice. Fibbage’s statements of fact are all absurd, or suggest plausible absurdity. Players who submit funny answers in Fibbage can be successful, and often have an advantage. In part because the humor is written by the players in the room, the high moments are even higher. Players can also give a cosmetic “thumbs-up” to answers from others that they liked, which encourages clever answers. Not only is this a game that is funny, and is also a game where you can be funny. That just isn’t something that video games do.

Because everybody is making successful bluffs, guessing the right answers, and earning thumbs-up, everybody is is constantly receiving positive feedback. This game keeps players feeling good. In the end, even though a winner is declared, nobody remembers who it is – everybody just decides to start another game. Its the in-game moments that Fibbage creates that people remember afterward. Everybody ealks away remembering their best bluff, or the best answer that others have posted.

(As an aside, the host isn’t especially funny, and is more of a distraction than anything else. He’s unnecessary, really, and a relic of YDKJ. I wish you could turn him off.)

Pacing
After every round, the votes for answers are revealed. One answer is slowly displayed, then after a beat, we see all of the names of players who voted for it. After another beat, we see whether or not the answer was the truth, and if not, who wrote it and how many points were scored. Then we repeat with the next answer. This process is slow enough to remain suspenseful, but fast enough to keep the game’s pace moving at a reasonable clip. This reveal is core to the game, and if they didn’t get it right, the game just wouldn’t work. Thankfully, they nailed this exciting pacing.

Accessibility
Many modern games are completely impenetrable for people who don’t speak their language. Controllers with a dozen buttons, multiple sticks, and blinking lights are intimidating to the uninitiated. Genre games often require prior knowledge in the genre for a player to feel comfortable. Sure, I know that when playing a first-person shooter on a controller, one of the analog sticks is for movement and the other is for the camera – would a brand new player understand that language from the get-go? I have a memory of an aunt clutching the N64 controller’s analog stick with all five fingers as if it were an arcade cabinet’s joystick.

Jackbox wants everybody to play, and this design goal is evident in each of the games in the Jackbox Party Pack. Nobody uses controllers to play – everybody uses their phone, which they are presumably already familiar with. When launching a game, players who want to join are instructed to sign in to jackbox.tv on their phone’s browser, punch in their name and a 4-character room code, and voila! They’re in the game. This process couldn’t be easier, and you can fill up an 8-player room in a minute. No specific hardware required, no cords to untangle, no extra app to install. Even the most technologically illiterate among your friends and family can play along. The games’ mechanics and means of input are simple and concisely explained. Kudos to Jackbox for their emphasis on inclusivity.

The Rest of the Collection

Besides Fibbage, here’s a quick rundown of the other games in the collection:

Drawful
Each player is given a different written prompt to draw a picture on their phone. In each round, one drawn image is shown, and all other players write down what they think the prompt could have been. Like Fibbage, all prompt submissions are then displayed, and players must guess which one was the real one. After Fibbage, this game is the next best in the collection. The developers made the wise choice of not including erase functionality – drawers are forced to commit to their ink instead of slowly agonizing over their art.

You Don’t Know Jack
A new release of the classic game is included with this pack – it’s just as fun as it’s always been. It’s the most risque of the games in this pack. The tonal differences between these games are a bit odd. YDKJ is PG-13, Fibbage is PG, and Drawful is G. One drawback to using phones as input is the increased input lag. YDKJ is time-sensitive (based on who buzzes in first), so the lag is impactful here.

Lie Swatter
Lie Swatter is the simplest game of the bunch. A series of statements appear on the screen, and each player must quickly decide if each is true or false. Players who get the correct answer first earn bonus points. This game is a little bit too simple, and lacking in personality. Like YDKJ before, the input lag can cause timing problems in this game. Lie Swatter can support up to 100 players though – that’s pretty cool.

Word Spud
This game is the only real turd of the bunch. This is a word association game played in turns. On your turn, you write a word associated with the previous word. Each other player then votes on whether or not they like your word. Repeat. The player with the most votes in the end is the winner. The voting system is what breaks this game. If you want to win, your optimal strategy is to never vote for anybody else. Since the optimal strategy ruins the game, Word Spud winds up being more of an activity than a game. And it’s not a very fun activity.

Content Creation

One more thought to end on here. One complaint I’ve read about Fibbage relates to its lack of questions. I haven’t hit this myself, but apparently it doesn’t take very long before questions start being repeated, despite the fact that each game is only 7 questions long. The lack of content unfortunately means that there’s a shelf life to this game, which has been the case with each release of YDKJ. As far as I can tell, each question for Fibbage includes:

  • The written question/answer
  • A few pre-made decoy answers
  • Audio recording of the host reading the question
  • Writing of additional host banter
  • Audio recording of additional host banter

It seems to me that the majority of the work for each question goes into host-related things. If, say, we took the unnecessary host out of the picture, all that is needed for each question is the question itself and decoy answers. And really, the decoy answers don’t necessarily need to be associated with each question – you could pull decoy answers from a common pool and they would serve their purpose just fine. That means all we really need is a question.

If you cut the cruft, there really shouldn’t be much to creating additional content. It would be awesome if Fibbage had a system in place for players to submit questions of their own which could find their way into others’ games. You could implement a voting system to ensure that the best questions rise to the top. I know I will continue to play Fibbage over time, and I’d hate to completely exhaust my question pool. I’d definitely fork over a few more bucks to play with a system like that in place.

Overall though, Fibbage is an excellent game. I recommend inviting a bunch of people over and making it the focus of your party.

Chuck’s Challenge 3D

Chuck’s Challenge 3D
Developed by Niffler
Published by Nkidu Games
Played on Windows 7


It’s incredibly weird that Chuck’s Challenge exists. It’s one of those things that could only spontaneously appear among our current indie-development climate. Here’s what it is, and here’s where it came from:

In 1989, Chuck Sommerville developed a game called Chip’s Challenge which was released as one of the earliest titles available on the Lynx, Atari’s also-ran handheld console. The game saw release on several other platforms soon after, notably on Windows systems, where it was included in the popular Microsoft Entertainment Pack series of releases. I get the sense that a lot of people, including non-gamer types, have been exposed to Chip’s Challenge. My wife is not a video gamer, but even she played this game as a kid. She just calls the game “Chips,” which I assume comes from the fact that the game’s executable was named CHIPS.EXE.


Chip’s Challenge is a simple puzzle game. You play as a boy named Chip, and you walk around on a grid collecting, um, computer chips, in order to unlock and escape to the next level. You collect keys. unlock doors, push blocks, flip switches, and navigate impassible terrain. You must avoid enemies and automatons who are out to kill you. Movement along the grid is discrete and orthogonal, but real-time. If you stop to think, the bad guys aren’t going to wait around for you.

Chip’s Challenge is a generally well-regarded puzzle game, and though my memories of playing it as a kid are fuzzy, I was fond of it. There has been a significant online community supporting Chip’s Challenge, developing additional level sets and remakes of the game. Chuck Sommerville completely developed an official sequel (Chip’s Challenge 2) but it never saw the light of day due to copyright issues. In the 20+ years since, Chip’s Challenge was owned in spirit by its community.

When Kickstarter emerged in 2012 as a hot new way to fund game development, Chuck Sommerville re-emerged with a pitch for Chuck’s Challenge 3D, a spiritual sequel to Chip’s Challenge. The game was successfully funded with a razor-thin budget of about $13,000, then was developed and released on Steam one year ago yesterday.


Before I beat this game to death, I want to say that I have all the respect in the world for what Chuck Sommerville has done. The size of that budget says that this was always intended to be a personal project of his. I can’t imagine that Niffler’s very small development team was being paid very much upfront. I have to assume that this was a moonlighting labor of love for most of them. Kudos to Chuck for making the game he wanted to make – that’s something I’d love to do one day.

Even though it fixes a lot of issues that plagued the original game, the main problem with Chuck’s Challenge is that the core game just isn’t very fun. Chuck’s also has serious issues with its productions values and quality level – the game only feels slightly better than an amateur effort.

Non-Comprehensive, Itemized Complaints (Abridged):

1. The camera in this game is awful. Compared to Chip’s, the fact that Chuck’s has a controllable camera at all is great because it means no level information is visually obstructed from the player. Unfortunately, Chuck’s camera animates poorly. A particularly bad design choice in this game is that the camera is in clear focus on your character, but gets blurrier the further away you get. You’re supposed to be looking at the entire level in this game – the choice to blur things is baffling. Very distracting.


2. The addition of the ability to undo moves is great (Chip’s had no undo, and unfair deaths were particularly annoying), but being able to step back actually exposes how poorly designed the levels in this game are. For billing itself as a puzzle game, there are actually very few places where you need to exercise your brain. Many levels are actually about running away from enemies more than anything else. If I can undo my moves, I can just push through the bad guys with trial and error. There is incentive to complete levels without undo – you can earn medals by playing quickly, and undos come with a time penalty – but the medals are just cosmetic, and if I were to try to get them without undoing, then we’re right back to the original problem that Chip’s had.

3. This game decided it would implement cloud saving for some reason, and it’s totally broken. Many times when I beat a level it simply wouldn’t save my progress anywhere, and I couldn’t unlock more levels as a result. Other times, when I relaunched the game, I would discover huge chunks of progress missing. I assume that my game with syncing up with the wrong save in the cloud. Cloud saving is an easy thing to get wrong, and if you do get it wrong, it can have huge consequences. Chuck’s cloud saving system only caused me pain.


4. Okay, so, um, this one’s especially weird and off-putting. Chuck Sommerville wrote himself into his own game. That’s the kind of thing an 8-year-old would do. The premise is that the player character (a purple alien named Woop) teleports Chuck into his puzzle world because he wants a game designer to make him puzzles. Game-Chuck is wearing a red Hawaiian shirt. It seems that Real-Chuck considers this red shirt to be his trademark, which is an odd identity for somebody to give to themselves. The Kickstarter videos feature Real-Chuck in the red shirt.In-game dialogue (in awkward, grammar-averse speech-bubbles) is triggered whenever you step on tiles with a red shirt on them. Woop cracks jokes about Chuck’s shirt, but Game-Chuck brushes it off.

I think what bothers me about Chuck writing himself into his game is that it’s a weird sort of self-reverence. It says to me, “Look at me! I’m the great designer of that one game! You remember me, right? Don’t you know I have a wacky shirt?” It feels like an old guy grasping for recognition of something he did a long time ago. It makes me feel weird and uncomfortable to think about it.

Don’t bother playing Chuck’s Challenge. There’s nothing especially worthwhile here. If you’re nostalgic for Chip’s Challenge, find some way to play that instead. Or don’t. Playing Chuck’s has helped me cement my opinion that Chip’s is actually pretty busted too.

Ittle Dew

Ittle Dew
Developed/Published by Ludosity
Played on Windows 7

Ittle Dew is a very dumb name. I think it’s supposed to be a play on words, maybe? Ittle Dew is the name of the game’s protagonist, and my best guess is that the developers were hoping to come up with an adequate name for the character that they could look back on and say, “Eh, it’ll do.” Hence, Ittle Dew.

This game’s name is why it landed on my radar at all. It was included in the “PC and Android 10” Humble Bundle from last summer, which I picked up primarily for Frozen Synapse and Skulls of the Shogun (neither of which I wound up playing for more than an hour). I immediately wondered if the name was a typo, or if not, what an Ittle even was, so I watched the trailer video. I learned that the game was puzzle game dressed up like Link to the Past. You can sell me with that description 95% of the time. Ittle Dew found itself on my to-play list. I played through it in a couple of hours in January and was thoroughly charmed by the experience.

Though this game has very clear Zelda-like trappings, it is first and foremost a block-pushing puzzle game. You swing a stick, which can bonk enemies or activate switches. You can push solid blocks orthogonally onto floor switches. You can push bombs, which can be triggered to destroy cracked obstacles. If pushable objects are frozen, they will slide when pushed until they hit another obstacle or wall. Enemies can also occasionally play into the puzzle mechanics as well, either by activating floor switches or pushing objects themselves.

The player character has three primary weapons that can be used for puzzle solving and combat. The Fire Sword can light bomb fuses and torches, or can shatter frozen items. The Ice Wand freezes things (blocks, bombs, enemies) and makes it so they slide when pushed. If you shoot an ice projectile at a wall, the wall will freeze and can reflect projectiles back. The most interesting weapon is the Portal Wand. The Portal Wand will create a pushable portal block where you stand (only one of these can exist at a time, so the last portal block you made will vanish). The Portal Wand can also shoot teleportation projectiles – anything his by the projectile will teleport to where the portal block is, including yourself.

Once all three of these items are unlocked, they synergize well in the late-game. You might find yourself freezing a portal block, then sliding it to an inaccessible location near a cracked wall, then lighting a bomb’s fuse, and finally teleporting the lit bomb to the cracked wall, which it destroys. This example is downright simple when compared to the actions you need to perform in the optional advanced dungeon.

The overall structure of the game is a bit unusual, with some experimental choices that work and some that don’t. As you advance through the large central dungeon in the game, you earn money which lets you buy access to the three external dungeons that contain the main items, which in turn allow you to progress further through the main dungeon – I though that was neat. There are also a few shortcut puzzles in each dungeon which are much more difficult, but permit you to skip large sections of the game, which is a cool idea. I didn’t like that you couldn’t re-access dungeons after you beat them, though – if you took a shortcut, you couldn’t go back to see what you skipped.

Amazingly, the game is designed so that it can beat without requiring all three items. The game can be completed with any two of the three items, and there are achievements tied to winning with each combination. Since many puzzles in the central dungeon appear to require all three items at first glance, I can only imagine that trying to beat those puzzles while omitting a particular item is a completely different experience. I never tried a second, third, or fourth playthrough (each of which wouldn’t be too long, considering the shortcuts and how small of a game this is), but I applaud the design that went in to making each of those playthroughs unique. It’s a great example of achievements done right.

This game struggles when it comes to the combat and boss fights. This game is about the puzzles first, and the combat feels tacked-on in order to make the game better fit the Zelda mold. The player doesn’t have a lot of mobility or attack range, so you wind up taking frustrating damage more often than you should. There isn’t a large penalty for death (you simply restart the room at full health), but still sucks to get your puzzle reset because you took damage on accident. Because combat is secondary in this game, I wish the player character had been more overpowered.

The character design in this game isn’t very deep, but it’s hugely charming. The world is built on Zelda tropes. Newly collected items are held with two hands above your head. Ittle eats hearts from the ground. Dungeons are filled with ugly statues. You wouldn’t think twice about these things in a Zelda game, but Ittle Dew exaggerates them and lovingly mocks them. Most of the enemies you fight in this game belong to one of two factions that have been at war for years: one side consists of monster girls dressed up in animal costumes (known as the “Jennys”), and the other side is made up of vampire turnips. Nothing in this game takes itself too seriously – everything you encounter is either funny, adorable, or both.

Ittle is portrayed as a brash think-with-your-sword character (in contrast to the puzzly gameworld) who washes ashore on this mysterious island with a flying fairy-fox companion named Tippsie. Tippsie is a spoof on Zelda’s classic obnoxious advice-giving fairies, like Navi or Midna.  Both characters are drawn with an intentional gender-ambiguousness. Tippsie’s name has a double meaning – not only does she give you tips of dubious usefulness, she is also noticeably impaired from the frequent slugs she takes from her red “health potion”, which she refuses to share with you.

At one point in the game, another character refers to Tippsie using a female pronoun. Ittle, speaking perhaps as a proxy for stereotypical game consumer who expects male protagonists, exclaims, “Wait, you mean Tippsie’s A GIRL???”

At another point later in the game, a different character refers to Ittle using a female pronoun. Our main characters are dense, so there’s no reason to believe that their expectations of gender should change even if they experience the same situation a second time. Shocked, Tippsie says, “Wait, Ittle. You’re a girl?”

It’s sort of a throwaway joke, but these gender reveals stuck out for me as memorable moments. I spent most of the game wondering if the ambiguous Ittle was male or female (and the game made sure not to give me any hints), and ultimately it didn’t matter. Would people lower their opinion of the game if they thought they were playing as a boy only to learn that they had been a girl all along? Obviously you shouldn’t, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some players felt that way. I’m glad that Ittle Dew gleefully thumbs its nose at gender expectations in games, particularly in our present day of vocal anti-feminist gaming subculture. Ittle Dew probably wouldn’t self-identify as a game that’s delivering a message, but I’m glad that it included this timely gag among its tongue-in-cheek sweetness.

Never Alone

Never Alone
Developed by Upper One Games and E-Line Media
Published by E-Line Media
Game played on Windows 7

This game attempts something I can’t recall ever having seen in any other game before. On top of being a co-operative platformer, Never Alone is also part-documentary, part-oral history of the Alaskan Inupiaq tribe. The documentary components of Never Alone are what truly stand out, showcasing the potential of games as an engaging educational medium.

Part of the reason the game’s oral history component works so well is because of how tightly entwined it is with the gameplay itself. The entire game is short (2-3 hours), so you will actually a significant percentage of your time viewing the 24 unlockable “cultural insights” videos, which run for about 1-2 minutes apiece. Most of the videos are unlocked when you encounter corresponding owls in the game world, which are the game’s only collectables. Nearly all of the owls are located on the player’s golden path through the game – it would be more difficult to avoid them than to collect them. The owls are pretty evenly distributed throughout the game, so you encounter them frequently. Because you can access the unlocked videos immediately (and are encouraged to do so with a prompt each time you find an owl), the gameplay loop becomes:

1. Progress for five-ish minutes until you find an owl, unlocking a new video.
2. Watch unlocked video for a minute.
3. Repeat.

The pacing of the gameplay-video-gameplay-video loop is spot-on, keeping you engaged on both sides of the equation. The videos have a high production value, and each one, when unlocked, is contextually relevant to the current moment in the game. The game’s introductory animation features uniquely-stylized characters stiffly moving along a brown textured background. Immediately after that introduction, you will unlock this video explaining the tribal practice of carving on baleen known as Scrimshaw.

When you encounter the world’s spirit helpers, you’re treated to a video explaining the culture’s connection to the spirit world. When you are trapped on an ice floe, you unlock videos about the impact of climate change on the local environment and one man’s harrowing story of being adrift on a floe of his own. When you first see the northern lights, you unlock a video telling you about the belief held by children that aurora spirits will snatch mischievous kids into the sky. You spend the rest of that chapter dodging those very same glowing spirits.

Each video teaches you more about the world you’re playing in and the story that’s being told. The videos add to the experience, and because of their brevity, none of them feel like a distraction or an interruption from the gameplay. Skipping them (or even watching them all in a row after finishing the game) would be a mistake – this game is designed for these videos, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, though the integration of the cultural elements is stellar, Never Alone‘s platforming gameplay comes up short.

This game gives you control of two characters – an Inupiaq girl and her white fox companion. The game is designed to be a two-player cooperative experience, with each player controlling a different asymmetric character. The fox is faster and better at climbing and fitting into tight spaces. The girl can push objects and throw her bolo pojectile at objects in the distance. If you play as a single player (as I did), you can switch between the two characters on-the-fly with a button press, relinquishing control of the other to the AI. The single-player companion AI is pretty smart in the early portion of the game, but as the levels become more complex towards the end, you’ll find yourself wishing that the AI would just STAND RIGHT THERE WHERE YOU LEFT IT FOR ONCE. The single-player AI is a semi-busted adaptation for what is clearly intended to be a cooperative game. If you’re going to play this, I can only imagine that you’d get more satisfaction out of playing it with a friend.


I wouldn’t be so grumpy about the AI if the platforming were more precise. The edges of platforms in this game are very fuzzy, meaning it’s not visually clear where you stand and where you fall. It’s hard to visually parse what point where you need to jump from if you’re going to successfully grasp the platform on the other end of the pit. That’s not to say that this game needs to be pixel-perfect. This game isn’t Super Meat Boy.

You can have fuzzy platform collision and be just fine. The problem is that there are a good number of long tight jumps that you need to make in this game – you’re going to miss them a bunch. Checkpointing is friendly and frequent in this game, but I still failed certain sections often and had to repeat often. These failures didn’t feel fair to me, and were not a function of my skill. This isn’t a game that needs to be about tricky jumps – it should be more about figuring out how to successfully navigate each area, with execution as a secondary concern.

Another platforming problem arises as the result of a major story element – the frequent blizzards. Our main character has left her village to discover the source of these blizzards, which are powerful enough to blow people backwards. Blizzard gusts appear in the game, pushing the player backwards unless you press the “brace” button, which causes you to grab the ground until the wind dies down a second later. The gusts occur on short loops in predefined locations in the game. Bracing is not a fun mechanic – all it does is ask the player to wait until they can move again. The gusts can extend or compress jump lengths when the player is in the air – this doesn’t serve to improve anything, it only creates frustration and asks for more waiting from the player.

Ultimately, the platforming isn’t really trying anything new, and what it does try it doesn’t do very well. Sections where you move spirit platforms are difficult to control. The characters’ motion is slow. The final chapter introduces a significant change to one of the characters, which renders them even more difficult to control effectively. The best gameplay moments come during the chase scenes – the game’s excellent first moments have you running away from a polar bear. The environments are lovely, particularly those that were the largest in scope: the inside of a whale, and scaling the back of an ice giant in motion.

I think that despite the weakness of the gameplay, I still recommend this game for what it does with the form. Are there other games out there that can call themselves documentaries? I’d love to see more game developers take a stab at this genre. Never Alone breaks some exciting ground in that regard.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter
Developed/Published by The Astronauts
Game played on Windows 7

At the very start of the The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, on-screen text tells us in no uncertain terms what this game is:

“This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”

Hand-holding in certain games can be egregious, to the point of actively taking away from the player’s enjoyment of the game. If a game has too much hand-holding, the developer might as well be telling the player that they don’t believe they’re smart enough to understand the game. The Legend of Zelda series spent years falling deeper and deeper into the hand-holding trap when they transitioned to 3D, severely undermining their pacing.

Skyward Sword was the worst of the Zelda series when it came to explaining and re-explaining and re-explaining what every single element in the game does. I spent most of that game avoiding Amber Relics (and items of their sort) like the plague. Even though I found those items to be particularly useless, the game kept throwing them at me and stopping the gameplay whenever I picked one up to remind me in slow-scrolling dialogue what it was exactly that they did. Nintendo was so afraid of any player losing their way that they added hours of unnecessary over-explanation.

(Mercifully, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which was Nintendo’s next Zelda game after Skyward Sword, jumped off the excessive hand-holding train – for the most part they just let the player do their thing. Huge improvement. I hope they’ve learned from the past and stick with this design philosophy in the future.)

So — good for you, Ethan Carter, for aspiring to be a narrative experience that doesn’t hold the player’s hand!

My experience with this game in short: I really wish Ethan Carter had decided to hold my hand.

The thing about hand-holding in video games is that there’s a sweet spot. You shouldn’t be taking a position on either of the all-or-none extremes. A well-designed game should provide enough subtle hand-holding to get the player to accomplish their goals while still letting the player feel that they accomplished their goals on their own accord. The game should push the player in the right direction without the player ever realizing that they’ve been assisted and clued.

Here are some of the many places where Ethan Carter gets this wrong. Obviously, this contains major spoilers about the game’s mechanics and structure, which are intentionally obscured from the player.

1. Everything is too far apart


This game is separated into a handful of self-contained scenes spread out across a large environment to explore. The environment, though it doesn’t immediately appear to be, is long and narrow. The narrative-advancing scenes don’t need to be triggered linearly, but do all need to be hit one way or another in order to complete the game. One of these scenes is at the very beginning of the game, and is easy to miss, or just misunderstand and skip past. If you walk through the entire game world (not a quick process) and reach the dead end at the other end of the world, well, sucks to be you.

These scenes are too far apart, easily overlooked, and there is no way to travel quickly between them. There is exactly one shortcut in the game, but it is unlocked very late, and is mostly useless. The shortcut is literally an elevator without a call button, meaning that is only useful for travel in one direction in any given time. This is very unfriendly to the player. Traveling through previously-explored spaces is a drag in any game. There’s a reason modern games implement “fast-travel” systems. If the design goal was to obfuscate what the gameplay scenes even are, then I understand the decision not to include a fast-travel system (on top of lacking narrative justification). But why is the design goal to hide gameplay scenes?

2. There are too many puzzle dead-ends, with no clear way to advance


Early in the game you find yourself walking along train tracks. The tracks act as breadcrumbs moving you forward through the environment, keeping you, um, on-track. Eventually you come across dead grass on the track which you can “inspect”. You play as a detective, so when you inspect objects, your thoughts appear on screen in phrases that swoop by. For example, you might see some thing like “dead grass? sun blocked? train tracks… missing railcar?” At the end of the line of thoughts, the word “railcar?” appears all over the screen, swooping and swirling.

My initial thought was that this was a stylistic choice. The words represent the character being stuck, but knowing that he needs to find a railcar. Or a crank. Or a stone crow. Or a lantern. Swooping words everywhere. I just need to walk around and find these things, right?

It actually turns out that these swooping words are a core mechanic in the game – you need to walk around until they all line up, and then they will supernaturally show you where the missing item is. I am super-duper glad that I resorted to using a walkthrough early because there is no way I would have made that discovery on my own. Because the words can be explained stylistically, there’s no reason for a player to ever return to them. I could have played this game for days and not come to that realization. There’s no reason to expect these words to work/behave this way, and there’s no sort of clues suggesting this at all. If I had made this discovery on my own, it would have been entirely due to luck, and I wouldn’t walk away feeling like a clever player. There are many examples of hidden mechanics like this in the game, but this probably the worst.

3. Needles (specifically, hiding them in haystacks)


Even if you know what you’re looking for, and even if you’ve seen a supernatural vision telling you exactly where they are, important things are incredibly difficult to find in this game. The worst hidden object in this game is the secret entrance to a mine (which connects you to the second half of the game world). The front entrance to the mine is sealed by a locked gate, and dialogue in the game speaks about the existence of a key to that gate. So I’ve got to find that key, right? Nope. There’s a secret entrance off to the side of the mine that you use instead. The gate will never open during the game. If you spent any time searching for that key, sorry! You won’t be getting that back.

(Note: When you emerge from the other side of the mines, you find yourself on the lower portion of the dam that is featured prominently in the game. I don’t know much about mines, or dams for that matter, but I think that maybe the two shouldn’t be near each other? Just a thought.)

I dead-ended trying to get into the mine, so I consulted the walkthrough again and it told me about the secret entrance and where it was. And guess what: it still took me another 10 minutes to find the entrance, even with explicit instructions. This game world is simply too big to expect that people will find that entrance if they are looking for it, and no player would even know that they need to look for it. You NEED to stumble on this entrance to open up the second half of the game at all.

Conclusion

I’ve been harping on the bad, but there is still a lot of good in this game. The narrative is interesting, with a strong ending. The murder chronology sequences are fun (and appropriately clued!) if you can discover how to trigger them. And the visuals are absolutely gorgeous. But it’s hard to ignore how player-unfriendly this game actually is. It’s reminiscent of Gone Home in its narrative aspirations, but it lets its gameplay systems get it its way. And it wants to be Myst in its obtuseness, but it’s gone too far down the path of making its narrative undiscoverable. I couldn’t recommend this game to anyone to play without prior knowledge of its mechanics, or even with a walkthrough to guide them. The best way to consume this game is probably by watching a video of somebody playing through its golden path to actually see its content.