Wind Catcher Games

Games by Josh Raab

Archive for the category “Savor the Void”

Savor the Void #5

Ice, Ice, Earth, Earth, Earth: The Open Toolbox in Magicka

Ice, Ice, Ice, Earth, Earth

In a classic adventure game, the main character starts out almost helpless and must earn his way to strength. He battles monsters to gain experience, sells loot to buy better weapons, solves puzzles to obtain power-ups, and completes quests to unlock abilities. By the time the player meets the final boss, a villain who once seemed invincible, the protagonist is prepared to take him on. Sometimes, as in Paper Mario, the two may have even battled at the beginning of the game, the main character’s first inevitable defeat making the final victory all the sweeter.

Many strategy games follow a similar arc. The player initially controls a tiny piece of territory with low technology, a pitiful military, and a bare-bones economy. As he gathers resources, expands his holdings, and devotes time to research, he gains access to improved units, better buildings, and sometimes special abilities. By the end of the game, he controls a vast and mighty empire, poised to destroy any and all opposition.

Beam of Death

Of course, this is not the model for all games. For instance, the difference between Mario at the start and end of most of his early adventures is quite small. But Mario doesn’t have a lot of gadgets or abilities; his toolbox is quite limited. In fighting games, on the other hand, characters generally have access to a huge variety of techniques at all times. Even if there is something that unlocks a special power, like the title gems of Power Stone or the Smash Ball of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, that just adds one temporary possibility to the character’s sprawling array of existing moves. I term such a situation, where the vast majority of powers are immediately accessible, the open toolbox. Contrast this with the restricted toolbox, where the player gradually unlocks abilities over the course of a game.

Water Ball

An open toolbox emphasizes the skill of the real-world player, while a restricted toolbox highlights the power of the in-game character. A master of Street Fighter will defeat a novice every time, whereas a mediocre player with level 100 Pokemon stands an excellent chance against a much better trainer whose team is only level 50. Only a talented strategist can win a Total War campaign on Very Hard, while only a hacker can defeat Bowser on the first encounter in Paper Mario.

The open and restricted toolboxes are not mutually exclusive. A player’s grasp over the abstract complexities of a restricted system will improve in parallel to the increasing power of his character. Likewise, even games with an open toolbox often reward long-term play, for example with unlockable weapons in the Soul Calibur series. In Arrowhead’s Magicka, the player discovers spellbooks with unique “Magicks” hidden around the world. Usually these are a reward for exploration, though some are clearly on the expected path, while others are necessary to continue through the game.

List of Magicks

What makes Magicka interesting is that it’s an adventure game or RPG with an open toolbox. Those genres traditionally stick to the restricted version, but Arrowhead has changed the formula to good effect. The found spellbooks do contain a few extra abilities, but they pale compared to the vast palette of powers available from the very beginning.

The characters have access to eight primary elements, plus a couple secondary ones. Any spell can contain up to five of these in almost any combination, including duplicates. Once the elements are determined, the player can cast a personal, weapon-focused, targeted, or area-effect version of the spell, and often can charge the spell up or release it right away. There are also some combos, like lightning damage being increased against wet foes. Multiply all that by four, the number of players who can join the same adventure, and the resulting possibilities for spells on screen are mind-boggling, even before you add in the unlockable Magicks.

Electrocution

This could be seen as a negative; an open toolbox can be overwhelming. For players who aren’t comfortable with experimenting, either because they want to practice a known optimal strategy or because they want the game’s system to be introduced more gradually, this can be a serious problem. The open toolbox also sacrifices a sense of progression. There can be pleasure in comparing your end-game character, or empire, to the version you had at the start, but only if the difference is significant.

There are also issues of handling player skill. Since the main vector of improvement lies with the unknown player, not the designed character, it can be harder to craft an appropriate challenge arc. Likewise, a player who beats the game may not want to restart, since the beginning will be easy and dull. A simple difficulty setting can help, but can also be frustrating: smarter players want to face smarter enemies, not just more numerous or powerful ones. In a similar vein, an open toolbox magnifies imbalances between human players, since greater experience with the system provides such a huge advantage.

Shield and Lightning

Despite these drawbacks, there are many reasons to employ the open toolbox. Gaining skill as a player is far more satisfying than having your character gain power. While it’s fun to watch numbers go up, it’s even better to feel yourself improving at a task. The open toolbox encourages experimentation and creativity; there are so many options that you want to explore them all. This adds to a sense of agency. Picking a new Pokemon move is exciting in its own way, but discovering a powerful combination in Magicka makes you feel like a genius.

Ice Personal Area Spell

The sheer variety of possibilities is empowering as well. In a spellcasting game like Magicka, it helps the player imagine he’s really a wizard, with the forces of the natural world at his fingertips. The open toolbox also adds to the experience of sharing your discoveries with friends. In games with a restricted toolbox, most players will follow a similar path, gaining the same powers or at least being aware of everything that’s available. Since there’s a real opportunity for experimentation and discovery in open toolbox games, you can genuinely surprise your friends with the cool stuff you managed to figure out.

Area Shield

Not every game should have an open toolbox. A sense of progression can be critical to pacing and the player’s enjoyment, and the peeling back of restrictive layers is a time-tested technique of both game and narrative design. The open toolbox requires trust, dedication, and a willingness to experiment on the part of the player. But Magicka shows us that the concept can work in unexpected places, and proves that the process of discovering and honing new abilities is truly something special. No matter the type of game you’re making, at least give the open toolbox some serious thought. It can lead to truly innovative gameplay.

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Savor the Void #4

Of Hobos and Histograms: Repeatable Puzzles in SpaceChem and Stacking

Once you beat a puzzle, you move on, right? Until you forget its solution, what else is there to do? Unlike problems of, say, strategy, diplomacy, or resource management, puzzles are not dynamic. The designer has crafted a solution, and the player must simply work towards it. After figuring it out, why give a puzzle a second look?

Zachtronics Industries’ SpaceChem and Double Fine’s Stacking both address this question. Each game encourages players to revisit puzzles, even immediately after beating them. Let’s look at SpaceChem first. The game provides feedback histograms charting the player’s efficiency compared to everyone else who’s ever beaten the puzzle. Three vectors are considered: cycles elapsed, reactors used, and symbols used. As the designer himself has noted, “players who optimize for one criterion often do poorly in the others.” Because each is displayed separately, not as an aggregate score or grade, the odds of an encouraging result are higher. For example, your solution may have been inefficient in the elapsed cycles category, but if you used an unusually low number of reactors, you still have something to be proud of. You might then want to improve on an area where you did poorly, or further refine a point where you excelled.

While SpaceChem is one of the most intellectually taxing games I’ve ever played, it was ultimately never frustrating. This is because its system allows for a remarkable variety of solutions; even if your high-level approach is poor, as mine often was, you can almost always make it work by pouring enough thought and effort into the details. If you’re determined to solve a puzzle within certain constraints, you’ll likely be able to manage it– eventually. A more punishing, less flexible system would undermine players’ confidence and discourage them from revisiting puzzles.

Stacking takes a different approach. Each of its puzzles has a number of quite specific solutions. Whenever you approach an area with a puzzle, any solutions you’ve already found are listed by name, while others are shown by question marks; this means you know exactly how many remain at any given time. This information is accessible from the pause menu as well, making it easy to check your progress anywhere. Unusually for an adventure game, you can try puzzles again the instant you beat them, and may do so as often as you want thereafter.

The game provides many rewards for discovering new solutions. If you beat a puzzle in every possible way, you can access a unique associated doll, often with a fun ability. Your hobo friend Levi records your triumphs with murals and statues, providing a conventional “trophy room”. An overall completion percentage is shown whenever you load the game; this increases with every different solution you find, whether or not you’ve beaten the puzzle before. But for me, the strongest motivation was perhaps the solutions themselves: even beyond the basic enjoyment of a puzzle solved, the delightful cutscenes were always worth the effort.

A final note: neither game forces you to revisit puzzles. You aren’t required to attain a certain level of efficiency in SpaceChem, and you only have to beat each puzzle in Stacking once. But both titles provide inducements that keep luring the player back. In SpaceChem, it’s partly the histograms with multiple scores, and partly the system’s open-endedness. These encourage improvement without providing an impossibly high benchmark, and give the player eternal hope.

The incentives in Stacking are more conventional and blatant, but no less effective. It’s interesting that Double Fine chose to focus so heavily on that aspect; they could easily have included multiple solutions without highlighting and rewarding them the way they did. Likewise, while the system of SpaceChem inherently allows for a wide variety of solutions, the method of feedback represents a creative and active effort on the part of Zachtronics to promote repeatability. Both titles also share the critical feature of allowing the player to return to any puzzle as soon as it’s beaten and explore new solutions right away. For designers looking to add replay value, these games offer bold and unusual examples from which to draw.

Savor the Void #3

The Invisible Bow: Motion Control in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

When I first played Wii Sports, the day of the Wii’s release, I thought the visionaries at Nintendo had revolutionized gaming forever. The game was so much fun, and the technology so exciting, that I was sure I’d be playing motion-controlled adventures in no time. The release of Kinect and Move seemed to further the notion that the games of the future would be played with our bodies, not just our fingers.

But motion control has been, for the most part, a flop. After some early failed experiments in “hardcore” games—remember Red Steel?—the media, developers, and the gaming public decided that the technology was a gimmick, reserved for casual or family products. There have been a few exceptions, like Rise of Nightmares and Sorcery; while both garnered mixed reviews, such bold forays should be commended and encouraged. Otherwise, however, it seems that only dance titles and mini-game collections use motion as their primary input. This isn’t always a bad thing, as anyone who’s played WarioWare: Smooth Moves can attest. But there is still so much wasted potential. Leave it to Nintendo, the industry giant with innovative ideas and the resources to pursue them, to push the boundaries of the ground they broke themselves. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Skyward Sword is a great game. An extraordinary game. A perfectly paced epic full of humor, drama, and beauty, a scintillating exemplar of game design with tremendous aesthetic appeal. While I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite game of all time, it may well be one of the best I have ever played. Even accounting for nostalgia, it measures up to Ocarina of Time, the masterpiece of my generation’s childhood.

“But wait! You don’t review games in Savor the Void! Josh, you’re a liar and a scoundrel!” I know, but my point is this: Skyward Sword is magnificent, independent of its control scheme. It would have suffered little as, for example, an N64 game. And yet, its motion controls are not a trivial addition, as they were in its predecessor, Twilight Princess, and many other first-party Nintendo titles. Rather, motion is fully integrated into the gameplay. That, combined with its stellar overall quality, sets Skyward Sword head and shoulders above every motion-controlled game that came before it.

We’ll get to swordplay shortly, but our first example has to be the bow. Ever since I laid my hands on a Wiimote and Nunchuk, I’ve wanted to use them for virtual archery. It just seems like such a natural use for these controllers. There is one slight problem, though: to hold the “bow” in a realistic manner, the Wiimote has to point upward, not at the screen. This could make for some strange aiming. However, Skyward Sword lets the player recalibrate instantly at any time. Wherever your Wiimote is pointing, that’s the new “center” of the screen for input purposes. This is extremely convenient in many situations, allowing you to sit and play with your arm held at any angle you find comfortable. But it also happens to let you grip the “bow” realistically, if you recalibrate with the Wiimote pointing straight up. You may not be able to shoot as accurately, but the immersive, badass feeling is easily worth the sacrifice.

We’ve accounted for the Wiimote’s role in archery, but what about the Nunchuk’s? Even better. There are two ways to draw the bow. You can hold down the Wiimote’s A button, which will slowly charge a shot over a couple seconds. Or, you can press the C button on the Nunchuk and pull it back, readying a shot almost at once. From a gameplay perspective, there is no reason you would use the former, more boring option. The Nunchuk motion control is faster and, other than being trivially more difficult, has no inherent drawback compared to the Wiimote button press. This clever design decision encourages players to use the motion control, reversing the ordinary paradigm whereby “fun” motion controls are less precise and so tend to be ignored in favor of more effective conventional button inputs. This feature, along with the instant recalibration option, makes archery in Skyward Sword a delight. (I recently played a pumpkin-shooting mini-game until my arm got tired from holding the “bow” out in front of me. Again, the vertical Wiimote orientation made it harder to aim, but I was having too great a time to care.)

Of course, Link is primarily not an archer but a swordsman. Skyward Sword makes a noble and fairly successful effort to refine bladework, steering away from the flailing chaos of, say, Twilight Princess. For example, foes with weapons tend to block a specific angle of attack, and they’ll shift their guard around to keep you on your toes. A couple fights take place on narrow walled bridges that do not permit horizontal slashes. Elements like these turn combat into a sort of fast-paced puzzle, a characterization I suspect fencers and boxers may find familiar.

The system is not completely intuitive. My first instinct was to make grand, dramatic motions, but these are (predictably) imprecise. I found that what I thought was a downward diagonal slash was actually a horizontal attack, or that my one-handed thrust became a two-handed spin attack. Small, measured motions provide much finer control. It’s not that the Wii MotionPlus can’t handle sweeping gestures; as far as I can tell, the sensor is perfectly accurate. Really, it’s more that my body isn’t trained to move with geometric precision. This made for some difficult battles, especially the first boss fight, which requires great accuracy before I had time to really get comfortable with the motions.

As a side note, this could have been ameliorated with better on-screen feedback, for example by showing the path of your swipe. Such an interface element might be awkward and immersion-breaking in a Zelda game, but developers, bear it in mind! Players come to every game untrained; feedback is what teaches them. I want to see more precision and more difficulty in motion-control games. (This is the driving idea behind my Imitation Heroes design.)

A couple more notes on the melee combat in Skyward Sword. Pointing your Wiimote up to charge a “Skyward Strike” can feel pretty cool, if a bit silly. It’s doubly satisfying after you realize you can delay your attack; the decoupling of charge and strike emphasizes the release of energy, adding a sense of magical force to the motion. The fatal blow mechanic is similarly empowering. You are only required to swing the controllers upward, causing Link to leap at a stunned foe, but I always found myself slamming downward as well, in time with the killing blow. This superfluous but compelling action is a wonderful illustration of the immersive capacity of motion control, its ability to batter down the barrier between player and avatar.

Skyward Sword strikes a solid balance between encouraging such immersion and bowing to the expediencies of gameplay. Some trivial actions, for example rolling or throwing items like pots and bombs, use motion controls. Others, like drinking from bottles or filling them up, suggest obvious motion controls but are in fact handled through conventional button pressing. I feel that the distinction lies in the nature of these actions. It’s fun to chuck a breakable pot into a wall, or bowl a bomb down a tunnel. Scooping liquid into a bottle, on the other hand, is pretty mundane. Drinking is not only boring, but also a vital combat action; assigning it a potentially awkward motion control could impede the player’s battle effectiveness and thereby create frustration. (This apparently happened in Sorcery.) The decision to keep select actions motion-free cannot be taken for granted, and deserves applause.

There’s one action that should never use motion control: character movement. I want to emphasize this point. I got to test a pre-release of Rise of Nightmares, and I felt the same way about its movement control scheme as all the reviewers seem to have: it was super awkward and added nothing to the game. Putting the player on rails, like Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest or most of Kinect Star Wars, is an okay solution but entails massive limitations. For now, the joystick is by far the best character movement input we have, and thankfully Skyward Sword stands by it, at least for walking.

There are two other main methods of locomotion for Link: flying and swimming. Flight involves steering a giant bird around by tilting the Wiimote. Like swordplay, this is tricky to get the hang of, but it soon becomes smooth and satisfying. Underwater movement is not so happy. While also mostly based on tilting, it never stops being awkward and difficult. Fortunately, Link flies much more often than he swims.

I’d like to end by calling out two motions in particular. The first is drawing glyphs. This is very rare; you can only do it on special walls and at a few specific points in the story. But it is incredible. I have a huge thing for glyphs (a design fetish?) and I’ll explain why. There is an ancient connection between symbols and magic. At some level, everyone understands that if you draw the right symbol in the right place at the right time, you will channel a secret power and gain the keys to the world. I’m speaking as, I suppose, an anthropologist here; I don’t literally believe what I just wrote. But put away your rational mantle, and deep down… don’t you?

That is part of the potential power of motion control. I’d like to drop the hippie crap (it is a little embarrassing), but it remains relevant to the final control we’ll examine: dowsing. This is the traditional art of taking a stick and walking around until you mystically sense water, or something. I emphatically do not believe in dowsing, but there is something to it here. In Skyward Sword, you “dowse” by aiming the Wiimote around the screen. Audiovisual cues indicate whether you’re looking in the direction of the thing you’re dowsing for. It could be just as easily done by moving a reticle around the screen with a mouse or joystick, but the fact that you’re physically pointing makes it feel more real, as though the controller is a magical artifact. (Another side note: the Move controller, with its glowing head, has tremendous potential in this regard. The controller-free Kinect has zero, but lends itself to exploring the power of gestures. Developers take note!)

Whether or not I believe in glyphs or dowsing, I do believe one thing for certain: motion control has the potential to change gaming as we know it. Companies need to take risks with it. Indie developers need easier access to it. Skyward Sword shows us that it is not a gimmick, but it also doesn’t guarantee fun by itself. The task of making great games remains a difficult one, regardless of the control scheme. But there is so much opportunity here. I want to explore it more… don’t you?

–Josh, 7/22/12

Savor the Void #2 (Part 2)

The Battle of Tanagra: Organic Warfare in the Hegemony Series

In the first half of this article I defined the term organic warfare, considered other games as counter-examples, and went over some of the factors that allow the Hegemony titles to deliver this rare experience. These included their near-exclusive focus on war; their single-player, real-time nature; their skillful AI; and their elegant handling of logistics, troop movement, combat, and siege. Of course, that roster is not exhaustive, so I may end up addressing other aspects of their design in this half. Now, as promised, I will examine the gameplay in greater detail, attempting to determine exactly what feels organic and why.

Beginning at a broad level, warfare in Hegemony comes in two main flavors: invasions and raids. The player expands by launching large-scale assaults into hostile territory, and must repulse enemy armies to hold onto conquered lands. When manpower is lacking, the player can send smaller raiding parties, weakening foes too powerful to destroy outright. The AI loves to do this, constantly harassing the player’s borders and coasts, though different factions have varying aggression levels. From a tactical perspective, troops may engage in many types of military action, most importantly reconnaissance maneuvers, skirmishes, pitched battles, sieges, and blockades.

I covered raids a bit in the previous piece, stating the natural value of light infantry and cavalry in carrying them out. These swift units can dash in and out of enemy territory with impunity, capturing unguarded possessions, burning farms, and disrupting supply routes. Most cavalry will need to flee if the enemy mounts any reasonable defense, but light infantry can actually defeat enemy heavy infantry by darting around open terrain and turning to hurl a few javelins when they’ve fled to a safe enough distance. With sufficient care, 10 peltasts can defeat 40 hoplites, or at least distract and annoy them for a long time.

This may sound like an exploit, but it doesn’t feel like one. AI hoplites will charge if they have the stamina, so the player’s fragile light infantry need to be carefully managed, as they’ll rout quickly if caught in close combat. Furthermore, enemies won’t stray too far from home, and will retreat if in serious trouble. History also supports the power of hit-and-run tactics. Greek light infantry proved so effective that hoplites shed most of their armor over the course of the Archaic and Classical periods, their iconic bronze panoply eventually reduced to a metal skullcap and shield. This was an attempt to increase battlefield mobility, awareness, and endurance, as peltasts were running circles around the ponderous phalanxes.

If anything, Hegemony doesn’t go far enough, as forests and hills don’t slow heavy units or benefit light troops. According to Thucydides, Athenian and allied hoplites suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of local skirmishers in Aetolia due to exactly such rough and unfamiliar terrain. Even though the game doesn’t incorporate this advantage, the light infantry maneuvering it does allow is nevertheless realistic.

Since this is such a good way of dealing with enemy hoplites, defensive garrisons often benefit from the presence of peltasts. Cavalry can drive off enemy skirmishers and hurry from town to town in response to shifting threats. Heavy infantry are essential for holding narrow passes or fighting off large invasions, while cheap spearmen are good for keeping the peace, since occupied towns will rebel if left empty.

Each faction boasts different unit types and aggression levels, so the player needs to constantly tailor his defenses as his borders grow and his armies march for new fronts. The AI seems to have some sense for when a region is poorly manned, and negligent players can expect to face incursions until the frontier is strengthened. Likewise, the AI won’t throw itself at an impregnable fortress, though it may well send minor raids. Watch towers are an indispensable component of defensive strategy, giving the player time to prepare appropriately when the enemy crosses the border.

Offensive intelligence is no less critical. There is no espionage system, so cavalry or ships can provide necessary reconnaissance. After scoping out an area for conquest, the player will need to prepare, as haphazard invasions are guaranteed to fail. Good preparation is complex. First, a route must be chosen, by land or sea. Most areas have multiple natural approaches, each with drawbacks and advantages, so this can be a critical choice.

The Isthmus of Corinth won’t fall easily. Better approach by sea, or land elsewhere in the Peloponnese and come up from behind.

Next, an army of sufficient size, with an appropriate unit mix, must assemble at a staging point. This can be a city, a fort, or even a field; Hegemony includes a “camp and forage” command to facilitate this last option. If the best location happens to be in hostile hands, the player may want to launch a preliminary assault. For example, in my Sandbox campaign with the Phocians, I conquered the Athenian-held island of Corcyra to serve as a naval base for my invasion of Epirus. Scyros and Aegina fulfilled the same purpose in the strategic action which opened Part 1 of this article, part of my Ionian War game.

With the men gathered, the player must ensure that enough supplies are available to feed them during the trek and subsequent siege. The larger the army, the more they eat and the slower they move; these factors combine to discourage massive hordes. Witness the massive Persian invasions of Greece, devouring entire harvests and drinking rivers dry. If the area has plentiful farmland, summer and fall are the best campaigning seasons, as the troops can plunder farms at their most productive. On the other hand, new flocks appear in the winter…

Get away from my sheep, dammit!

…so the time to invade mountainous areas may be the end of autumn, as the AI will quickly send units to haul the lambs into the safety of their cities. Since ships can’t move long distances during winter, spring or summer are most auspicious for long-distance naval movements. All that said, there is flexibility here: food can be transported manually, beached ships recover health, and so on. The game guides the player in realistic ways, but clever planning can overcome its barriers.

Once the invasion is underway, the player must take care to see it through. For example, sending a screening force of empty triremes can save the men aboard a transport fleet; even if the scout ships sink, no soldiers are aboard them to drown. Likewise, the player may not want to send infantry to assault a city’s walls right away. At any time, the whole garrison can come pouring out, overwhelming the besiegers.

In many cases, the superior option is to lure the foe into a pitched battle outside. The AI isn’t stupid enough to come out for no reason, but the player can draw them out by ravaging the countryside: seizing mines and forts, capturing or burning farms, and blocking off supply routes. Catapults can cause serious damage to walls without exposing themselves to danger, forcing the enemy to sally forth to destroy them. Decoy attacks can send AI reinforcements running to other towns, leaving the player’s true target undefended. Again, enemies are smart about this, and such a diversion has to be well executed. When it works, it feels natural, as though you’ve just outsmarted an actual foe, as opposed to tricking some dumb algorithm. These all seem like natural considerations and strategies for an ancient general.

With the Megarian garrison distracted by the battle at Tanagra…

…it’s time to pounce.

Let’s take a moment to examine pitched battles more closely. Geography heavily affects their course; for instance, a battle in a narrow pass will likely be determined by the quality and quantity of heavy infantry present on each side. Open fields favor cavalry and flanking maneuvers, though a battleline of phalangites or hoplites is essential as well. Hegemony’s map, which is based on satellite imagery of the Aegean region, offers a wide variety of terrain to fight in, keeping the player on his toes. The forces required to invade the mountainous kingdom of Epirus are quite different from those needed to subdue the tribal horsemen of the Danube valley or take on the Athenian maritime empire.

As a rule, though, mixed-unit tactics will win the day. Battles follow a natural sequence of shock, melee, and pursuit, and different unit types are built for different phases. Heavy infantry can defeat other troops in close combat, but when two hoplite squads are duking it out, light infantry support can give one side the edge. Quick-moving cavalry are ideal for charging peltasts and chasing down fleeing foes, but won’t last long in hand-to-hand fighting.

All this is fairly standard, but what’s amazing is how battles seem to just happen, and how naturally each unit’s attributes feed into the system to create an organic command experience. Proper “battles” rarely happen in many games; for example, Civilization tends to have amorphous, drawn-out wars. Total War games bring them about by a clear contrivance: opposing armies passing near each other are obliged to engage in formal combat or else retreat a fixed distance. In Hegemony, the transition from strategic to tactical movement is seamless, but proper pitched battles still occur—just like in real life!

This is, to me, the epitome of “organic warfare,” and quite probably the main reason I’m writing this article. Cavalry are useful in reconnaissance for the exact same reason they’re useful in pursuit. The large size of heavy infantry units makes them hard to maneuver and feed, but indispensable in melee and siege. Their “armor” may be abstract, represented by statistics of speed and defense that bear no necessary relation to each other, but it’s easy to imagine one factor both slowing them down and making them hard to kill. Everything just makes sense.

And it’s not just an internally coherent system: the history matches up too. At the start of the Peloponnesian War, King Archidamus of Sparta ravaged the Attic countryside. Confident as the Peloponnesian troops were in their combat superiority, they nevertheless lacked the technical skill to overcome the Athenian Long Walls. Pericles, knowing that the city could be supplied by sea as long as those walls held, forbade the Athenians from marching forth, refusing to risk the security of the city in a pitched battle against the dreaded Spartan war machine.

Year after year, the Spartans and their allies returned to burn the fields, but they accomplished almost nothing of value. (They did accidentally facilitate the spread of the devastating Athenian plague by penning up a huge population in a space not fit to hold them, at least not under sanitary conditions.) Meanwhile the Athenians raided the Peloponnesian coast, harrying the Spartan allies and wearing down their reserves of patience and money.

Plague aside, Hegemony allows for very similar events to happen unscripted. Huge quantities of food can be transported by sea over any distance; the system of population and recruitment allows for wars of attrition; and sieging a well-stocked city by land is a slow and dangerous process. This last factor goes double for the Peloponnesian War campaigns in Wars of Ancient Greece, where catapults are not available.

A note on catapults. Philip’s use of these weapons represented a major advancement in offensive siegecraft, greatly reducing the time and danger involved in taking a city by force. Therefore their power makes sense in Philip of Macedon. However, they do feel out of place in the second Hegemony title’s Sandbox mode: while the player can build them as any faction, the AI never does so. From a design perspective, this imbalance may make up for the lack of “objectives,” which provide bonuses when completed in the other campaigns. While the exclusive ability to use catapults gives the player a similar boost in the Sandbox mode, perhaps maintaining the right challenge level, it feels like an unnatural advantage.

However, on a similar topic, the game perfectly demonstrates the military role of citadels and forts: they are bases from which armies can march out against invaders, and to which they can retreat when threatened. If you have ever wondered how a castle actually controls the countryside, there you have it. Borders in Hegemony, while shown on the map, are fairly abstract: soldiers do not follow different rules of movement, supply, or combat in enemy and friendly territory, as they do in many games. It is a testament to Hegemony’s organic nature that the conquest of towns and forts remains nevertheless critical for the safety of advancing armies.

A final point: these fortified bases represent such major obstacles that virtually every one requires a conscious plan to seize. Aside from keeping the player constantly engaged, this engenders a sense of gradual conquest which seems appropriate to the period. There was no Hellenic blitzkrieg. Rather, massive armies often failed to take tiny walled towns, or at least only succeeded in doing so after long months of siege. The story of the ten-year Trojan War, while exaggerated in the details, is a good illustration. As mentioned, though, catapults do upset this balance, as does the new alliance option in Wars of Ancient Greece, which essentially causes an entire faction to join the player for a fee. Diplomacy was a major factor in ancient Greek interstate politics, but Hegemony does not handle it well.

Still, to focus purely on the military, Hegemony creates an experience like none other. When I studied ancient history in college, I read about all these things: the impact of geography, the importance of logistics, the convenience of naval transport, the difficulty of siege. But I didn’t know exactly how they worked. Hegemony brings them to life in a way that makes it all click better than any other strategy game I’ve played.

To return to where we started, perhaps that understanding is what allowed me to conquer not only Oichalia and Megara, but Tanagra as well. It was a fiercely fought battle, with hundreds of casualties on both sides, but by the end my Peloponnesians stood on Athens’ doorstep. It wasn’t long until we swarmed beyond Eleusis into the great city herself. A generation of war had ended. We had won.

–Josh, 7/8/12

Savor the Void #2 (Part 1)

The Battle of Tanagra: Organic Warfare in the Hegemony Series

Attica was a fortress. Though my Peloponnesians had conquered countless islands from the hated Athenians, including Aegina and Salamis right on their doorstep, their home peninsula remained forbidding as ever. To the north lay Euboea, a seabound shield against the Sporades. Megara on her isthmus, Tanagra in her open field, and Eleusis by her mountain held the western approaches. And any invasion via Sounion would break against the walls of Athens herself, as the Cape held no smaller towns to serve as forward bases.

But hope was not lost. I had marshalled my forces from all directions. The troops of Attica and Euboea were legion, but they could not protect every front at once. From my staging point at Aegina, I would land hoplites near Megara. I would transport men from the freshly taken Scyros down to Euboean Oichalia. Most dramatically, I would launch an all-out assault on Tanagra, the centerpiece of the Athenian defensive line. As my hoplites were only just numerous enough to surround the city, they would need to fend off enemy reinforcements while simultaneously maintaining the siege. I would provide them with plentiful cavalry and peltast support, but auxiliary units like these would collapse quickly without a battleline of heavy infantry to act as a holding force against enemy hoplites. Two more of my own hoplite units were holed up in Decelea, behind Tanagra, but their supply lines had long been blocked. They were starving, and would rout at once if engaged.

This is a scene from Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece, but with a little rewriting it could be a passage from Thucydides. That’s not in itself remarkable; most strategy games can support a realistic narrative. Hegemony may be more detailed than some, but detail is a known variable, commanding the familiar spectrum which runs from simplified/abstracted to complicated/realistic. More intriguing to me is a certain nebulous quality, a term I will have to coin and explain here. Hegemony does a better job than any other game I know at creating organic warfare.

So, what am I talking about? It’s fuzzy territory, but I’d like to propose at least a working definition. Let’s say organic gameplay comprises situations, events, and results that appear to happen naturally, in accordance with what we expect from our knowledge of the real world. In that case, a game with organic warfare should complement our conception of commanding a military force. It should suspend our disbelief, creating seamless flow by immersing us in the experience. Things should “feel” right, as though they are happening as part of a logical, consistent, and more or less realistic system. And that system must appear unstructured and elegant, even though it of course arises from design decisions and lines of code.

Not satisfied with that explanation? Me neither. It may help if I explain by negation, telling you what is not organic. First, and most important, hyper-realism is not organic. There are two flavors of hyper-realism in games of war: experiential and statistical. History buffs like to imagine a game that would play exactly like being a soldier or general. You would have to worry about signaling orders in battle, gathering and checking intelligence, purchasing and maintaining equipment, posting sentries, drilling your soldiers, and so on. That game would suck. More, it would almost certainly fail to feel organic. The more closely it approached reality, the more painfully obvious the limitations of the game system would be. With sufficient technology, it might in time become indistinguishable from commanding an actual army, but I suspect that’s not as much fun as playing a strategy game.

Statistical hyper-realism, on the other hand, has too hard a focus on mathematics. Though ideally the calculus reflects tactical principles, winning is often more a question of arithmetic than of generalship. All strategy games rely on numbers at their core, true, but an organic system will minimize the player’s involvement with them, highlighting the experiential aspect instead. A helpful analogy may be the difference between a baseball card game like Strat-O-Matic or MLB Showdown and a baseball video game: which feels more like playing baseball?

Along similar lines, turn-based video games like Civilization, Advance Wars, or Fire Emblem can hardly feel organic. All rely heavily and blatantly on numbers. They are highly abstracted and stylized, making it much more difficult to forget that you are playing a game. The Total War series occupies a sort of middle ground here, zooming back and forth between real-time tactical battles and turn-based empire management. This shift, already unnatural enough by itself, also mandates certain structural concessions. Strategic movement happens by turns and in groups, reinforcements and retreats are handled awkwardly, and so on. While the Total War formula has many advantages over Hegemony’s, for example facilitating the management of massive empires and allowing the player to devote his complete attention to each battle, it nevertheless remains the less organic of the two.

What about real-time strategy games like StarCraft or Age of Empires? In these, the player is required to split his attention between resource management and troop maneuver, distracting from either by demanding both. The breakneck pace of competitive matches compounds the problem, making physical speed and hotkey mastery at least as important as tactical prowess. Furthermore, at least for factions that rush, units pop out, move, and die so quickly that they possess little individual value. These systems are deep, strategic, and fascinating, but the experience they create is a beast all its own, little resembling that of a conventional general.

The Europa Universalis titles are grand-scale RTS games like Hegemony, and so perhaps a good candidate for comparison. However, they simply lack any tactical element, preferring to focus on exploration, economics, politics, research, religion, and so on. War is conducted at a macro level, with the player handling little more than recruitment and strategic movement, reduced to a spectator in battle.

Hegemony games, on the other hand, are all about warfare. The first installment, Philip of Macedon, had no diplomacy system whatsoever, and the one in Wars of Ancient Greece is skeletal at best. The only resources are food and money, the latter of which is divided solely into income and expenses, instead of being gathered and spent as in a typical RTS. Foreign trade does not exist, and while internal supply lines do generate a minimal income, their main function is to move supplies around to feed soldiers. But these are not mere omissions. Rather, I would argue that Hegemony achieves organic warfare in large part by making that aspect its primary focus.

But there are other factors as well. The game benefits from being real-time, as its necessary abstractions are less apparent. For example, a hoplite brigade in Hegemony consists of 40 to 50 men, representing roughly the military capacity of a small ancient Greek town. A more realistic figure might be around 200, but in a turn-based game, the unit would probably be displayed as a single piece. Likewise, measuring in game time, troops take seasons, years, or decades to cross even short distances in Total War and Civilization titles, while movement in Hegemony occurs at an impressively realistic clip.

The game’s single-player nature also helps, allowing the player to stop, think, and plan like a real strategist. The level of coordination this permits might be unrealistic, both in local combat and between far-flung forces, but it’s also true that one general would not personally command every brigade in a battle, or be expected to manage armies hundreds of miles apart (unless his name is Subutai). Ready access to the pause button allows one player to act as many captains without worrying about his APM.

A single-player game could not be organic with poor AI: few things shatter immersion faster than finding an exploit. But Hegemony delivers smart, skillful enemies. Their workings are also reasonably transparent; though their funds are invisible, their troop creation and movement can be tracked with a bit of reconnaissance, from which it is clear that the computer operates within the same system as the player. Strategy game AIs are notorious for bending the rules to increase difficulty, as in the case of the dreaded “tiny nation with a giant army.” (Looking at you, Total War and Europa.) The challenge may be fun, but the idea is ridiculous. Now, the Hegemony AI isn’t perfect, especially on the sea. But it’s humbling, fascinating, and infuriating in the best way to be repulsed by an expertly staged defense, or punished with incessant raiding for leaving a border poorly guarded. The AI’s ability to mount a decent naval invasion, a feat that eludes many of its ilk, deserves a special mention.

The conflict between player and AI which provides the core gameplay relies on several closely connected systems, foremost among them logistics, troop movement, combat, and siege. Each of these contributes to the organic feel of play. Logistics are simple, allowing the player to concentrate on maintaining blockades, ravaging the countryside, and protecting his own supply lines. Since units need food in the field and big armies tend to move slowly, major invasions require careful planning lest the men starve before they capture their target. When moving far afield, larger forces may need workers, slaves, or ships to bear additional supplies, though enemy farms or captured sheep can provide rations in a pinch.

Conversely, small raiding parties of cavalry or light infantry can scout ahead, harass enemy supply lines, and capture unguarded locations, then use their speed to flee if necessary. Triremes can whisk battalions across great distances unopposed; in Philip of Macedon, the Athenian navy is the bane of the early game, popping up out of nowhere to harass your heartland before disappearing with impunity.

For a game about war, Hegemony’s combat is surprisingly straightforward. There are only a few land unit types: the campaigns in Wars of Ancient Greece star hoplites, peltasts, and light cavalry almost exclusively. Others have prominent roles in the Sandbox mode (notably catapults) and Philip of Macedon (notably phalangites) but recruiting options are always limited, so it’s easy to know which unit to pick for a given job. Battles follow basic rules: heavy infantry thrash light infantry and cavalry, while a cavalry charge can rout light infantry. Being flanked or pelted with missiles reduces morale, as does running out of food or losing soldiers. I won’t describe the whole system, but it’s pretty easy to wrap your head around, especially if you have some grounding in the history of the period.

Sieges are even simpler. Besiegers reduce the hit points of cities or forts at a certain rate. Soldiers within slow this rate and rain missiles from the walls. If the target is starving or undermanned, it falls faster. Bigger towns have more hit points. That’s about it.

These systems and others combine to create a realistic, engaging, and organic experience. In the second half of this article I’ll explore what exactly that entails. How does a game with organic warfare play out? What does the player do? How does the AI respond? And what makes the whole thing “organic?”

[Special thanks to Ryan Belanger for setting me straight on StarCraft, or at least trying. If I still messed that part up, the fault is mine.]

–Josh, 6/23/12

Savor the Void #1

The Moods of the Moon: Writing Style in Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

“She told us about how the dreams of her people held many mysteries & how they reflected the moods of the moon in strange ways.”

A shadow looms over our culture. It is the shadow of fear: fear of sincerity, fear of beauty. The creation and display of earnest art invites vulnerability, exposing the creator to parody and derision. There are ways around this: keeping one’s work private, sharing it only with carefully curated communities, professing disdain for the taste of critics. I have employed all of these.

But the best defense, perhaps, is self-effacement. If you strike the first blow against yourself, you cut off that avenue for others. More, you demonstrate awareness: “Of course this is absurd; we have outgrown the beautiful.” It is a knowing wink to the wolfpack: “I am one of yours.”

Yet sincerity has not perished. The drive to create works of wonder lingers, struggling against the fear of shame and alienation. A crystalline case of this conflict can be seen in the writing of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. It is not hard to find; quite often, these opposing strains cohabit a single sentence:

“The Bright Moon looms & we just woke a sylvan sprite from the still waters of a lake where a mother duck was freaking out.”

“We had heard about the gateway to the infinite at the summit of Mingi Taw & we thought it sounded like something cool to see.”

From text like this, it is possible to surmise that the writers are repressed poets, hiding behind a hipster slang shield. (This is a good place to admit that, despite some research, I cannot figure out who the writers were, or if there was more than one.) In this reading, they wanted to craft a shimmering song of sworcery and mystical musical mysteries, but knowing that so doing would expose them to shame, they chose to compromise rather than retreat completely.

But I think this is wrong. I believe S&S is written just how its creators desired, employing a deliberate dualism of irony and beauty. Perhaps this style could only exist in the current cultural atmosphere, but its wielders inhabit it so completely, explore it so fully, and use it so effectively that one cannot help but feel it is their natural state.

“In my dream-walking there is a thrilling stillness when the moon is brightest… and when the moon is darkest the woods are wild.”

To back up that statement, I must examine the precise mechanics of S&S’s writing style, moving beyond, or rather into, its general duality. What persuaded me that the text is a work of love and not a work of fear? And can I use it to persuade you as well?

To me, the most salient aspect of the style was the iron bond between certain nouns and the adjectives or phrases that describe them. In most fiction writing, such description serves first as an introduction and later as a reminder, but does not impose itself every time a thing is mentioned. If we meet a “tall man,” we will be annoyed if we read that phrase, “the tall man,” whenever he acts or appears. It would feel pointless and condescending: we get it, thank you. Plus it’s not that important anyway—verbs are what drive action, not adjectives or descriptive phrases. In a graphical video game, where we have sight and sound, such language should be entirely superfluous.

But that is exactly what we find in S&S. The effect goes far beyond what we encounter in ordinary writing, and eclipses even the Homeric epithet, a tempting analogy. We recall “Hector,” not “Hector, tamer of horses,” but in S&S these descriptors are inseparable components of identity. We don’t pass through just any old cave to reach the Trigon Grove, but rather a “cavernous cave.” We use a “burdensome book” to complete our “woeful errand,” which takes us from a “deepwater pond” up along “the old road to Mingi Taw” to a “perilous precipice.” We encounter the “deathless spectre” and “worthless sheep.”

And we remember them due to a second stylistic mechanic: constant repetition. If we only read each of these phrases once or twice, we might notice the general effect, but specific examples wouldn’t stick. Now, some of them are one-off, being attached to puzzles or unique events, but many appear over and over. The noun phrases mentioned above are not the only case either: we “monitor the moods of the moon” to determine when it will be (maybe just maybe) “a time of miracles,” and so on.

In case another mnemonic was needed, the writing features frequent alliteration. Some examples have already been noted: the “cavernous cave,” the “burdensome book,” and so on. But there are entire sentences as well:

“Strange sylvan sprites—swources of sworcery—slumber in ponds, woods & meadows. Seek their subtle sonorous spumes.”

“Sadly the Scythian’s corporeal self & psyche have been significantly sapped by sworcery—she is at death’s door.”

I initially suspected they might overplay the “S” thing and the whole game would end up like the protagonist’s opening monologue in V for Vendetta, but they use it with discretion. Likewise, not every descriptive pairing involves alliteration: “woeful errand,” “worthless sheep,” “placid lake.”

While not all alliterative, every repeated phrase, and the vast majority of the writing in general, was crafted with close attention to meter. Not that the script is in iambic pentameter, but it’s closer to Tennyson than Ginsburg, dealing broadly in dactyls (“perilous precipice”) and trochees (“deathless spectre”). Of course, the ironic sections drop this completely, along with most (but not all!) of the other mechanics I’m discussing (move it move it).

“Miraculously the sinister storm has lifted & glorious sunlight has returned to the realm so that’s totally awesome.”

Finally, we have the use of florid but meaningful diction. When writing a mysterious savant character like the Archetype, it’s easy to have them speak in pseudoscientific gibberish. However, when he speaks of the “mythopoetic cosmology” of S&S, or indicates that you will need a knowledge of “psionics, cryptozoology, and miracles,” his words carry actual meaning. S&S has a distinctly mythical feel, built in part by its treatment of space, time, and order. Sworcery is a form of mental magic; the Grizzled Boor is essentially a dancing yeti of the Caucasus; and miracles abound.

I have been focusing on the mechanics of the poetic writing in S&S, not the ironic. At this point, it may seem hard to defend my claim that the irony is a natural part of the style. Aside from the perfect integration of irony with beauty, what evidence do I have? Well… you might ask Dogfella. Or, Logfella. Or, better yet, Girl:

“Did you ever notice that sometimes words just sound like noise but other times noise makes the prettiest sound?”

–Josh, 6/10/12

Beat Juice Radio is LIVE! (also I wrote a thing)

Check it out!

Experience the never heretofore experienced magic of competitive rhythm! Tangle with diabolical AIs! Beat the crap out of your friends! Support indie games! And so forth.

Also the first (and zeroth) installments of my new column, Savor the Void, will most likely be up by the time you read this. Discover my pretentious and impenetrable insights! A bewildering world of wonder awaits.

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