video games

Steaming: Binding of Isaac

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

As far as I’m aware, it is impossible to not own Binding of Isaac, so writing about it feels a little redundant, but it was next on my pile of shame, and it was the next game I played, so here we go.

Binding of Isaac is a rogue-like that plays a little like Smash TV, designed by Edmund McMillen, one of the guys behind Super Meat Boy. The story goes that Isaac’s mum receives a message from god demanding the life of her son, so Isaac legs it into the basement which is full of monsters. He battles through until he defeats mom herself. It is quite quick to play through, but being a rogue-like (one of the first in the latest spree of them, I think?) you die and restart a lot.

I am terrible at this kind of game. I like them, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time on them, but I just can’t get good. While many of my friends whizzed through Binding of Isaac shortly after release, I plodded along for a long, long time, until it rose to the top of my pile and I forced myself to achieve something. Given the nature of the game it is a little hard to define “complete” - while I could have attempted to 100% the game, I decided that defeating Mom’s Foot, the initial end-of-game boss, would do. Strictly, killing the foot only opens up another section of the game, and I could continue to unlock more, but this will do as far as clearing my pile goes. I have more important games to get to. BoI isn’t really the kind of game that you ever completely stop playing, so I expect I’ll pick it up again and get further in future.

Binding of Isaac is, initially, divided into 6 floors - 3 chapters with 2 floors each. When I first started playing, I thought that the first two floors were hard, and I wouldn’t get through them every game. I fought on, determined to clear this pile of shame that weighs over me, heavy with the knowledge that I was only on my second game of the list, and then only on B - Braid, Dark Souls, down to XCOM all waiting in the wings. I switched from keyboard to gamepad, using JoyToKey, and eventually found that getting down to level 5 was a reasonably easy task. That level 5, though. When you get down to the depths, things change up a little - everything hits you harder and a few enemies can’t be attacked from the front, so movement becomes even more important.

Then, one day, after a few warm-up runs, I had the perfect game. I got the right items in the right order: good orbitals, powerful shots, a whole ton of health, and, wonderfully, Spirit of the Night, granting the ability to fly. From there, it was on. I swooped through the depths and found myself at the last floor. Could I make it to Mom’s Foot? Of course I could. For the first time I stepped into Mom’s room - full health, all the powerups I could dream of, but knowing, deep down, that you never, ever kill a boss on your first go. I didn’t even know what moves she had, what patterns she ran though. Deep breath. I make it through a few rounds of stamping, I kill some adds, I’m doing damage, and then I take a few hits. My health isn’t looking great but her health bar is looking low, so I get a bit sloppy trying to increase my damage output. I take a few more hits and I have maybe 2 hearts left, but she falls. I have, in a sense, completed Binding of Isaac. Onto the next game.

Steaming: Antichamber

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

Antichamber was top of my steam list. It is an indie, first person puzzle game, with simple graphics and a unique brand of puzzle. I picked it up in a sale a long time ago after seeing a let's play video, thinking it looked like my kind of thing.

Antichamber starts out great. It looks completely unique, starting out in a small room featuring the game settings on one of the walls. The idea that you’re stuck in-game and that everything is first person lends really well to the minimalist feel of the environment. There are no textures, no real lighting, no enemies, no other entities: just you and a series of cell-shaded corridors and rooms, mostly decorated in black and white. Each puzzle is marked by a zen-like proverb and a cute drawing on a black panel, which serves as a navigation tool. The initial puzzles are fantastic - they play with perspective and your perception of the environment in ways only matched by Portal. Shortly afterwards, though, the use of the game’s “weapon” is introduced: you are given a gun which can pick up and drop blocks in the environment, and the puzzles become based around using the blocks to hold doors open and push switches. Over time, you gain upgrades to the gun which allow you to move blocks in the environment instead of just placing them and eventually you’ll find yourself creating new blocks. It’s a great idea, in theory: it creates the idea that if something seems unsolvable now, it’ll become easier once you find the next upgrade. Unfortunately, that didn’t often seem to be the case for me - it mostly turned out that the way to solve the puzzle was something that felt rather glitchy and unintended, such as just catching the edge of a block, or nudging blocks around inch by inch until I could leap between them, and I didn’t need the upgrade at all. Everything just felt fiddly.

Ideally a puzzle game stumps you for a while, but never for too long. It makes you feel stupid, and then makes you feel smart. In Antichamber, I just felt stupid, and when I did achieve, I felt like I’d cheated or glitched my way through. I had to use guides for a few of the puzzles, but I did complete it. Steam says it took me 6.7 hours.

What I Played Last Week Stag Edition Pt. 3

Last, but not least, I wanted to chat a bit about the video games played at my stag weekend. I am so excited by the recent return to same-room co-op that we’re seeing in games, and I can’t pass up an opportunity to mention a few. Well, to be honest, I’m only really interested in telling you about one game: Mount Your Friends. The others are a footnote.

Mount Your Friends

Mount Your Friends is a skill-based physics game that theoretically supports more players than you have friends, but realistically plays best with 8 players or fewer. It is turn-based, so, a little like a rowdy game of ten pin bowling, you’ll be cheering each other on as you go about each turn. As the timer in the top corner ticks down, the crowd around the active player will become louder and louder, and each successful turn is always met with cheers from the crowd and groans from whoever has to take the next turn. The tension builds throughout the game and you’ll all be screaming by the time you’re down to a 1v1 climb to determine the champion. This is a fine example of sport transposed into video games and you all need to play it.

Oh and by the way you all play as men wearing nothing but banana hammocks and your dongs swing in the breeze as you mount each other over and over again.

Nidhogg

When you first play Nidhogg, the 2-player sword-fight-em-up you never knew you needed, you think it’s mostly button-bashing and you don’t understand how anyone can ever actually be good at it. Then you play a second round and realise you were so, so wrong. You figure out that you can throw your sword, punch, jump kick, dodge, parry and disarm. You realise that, in fact, it is possible to be good at the game, and you probably never will be.

Nidhogg looks gorgeous, sounds gorgeous, and plays incredibly well.

Crawl

Ok so I didn’t actually play Crawl that weekend, I just watched a bit, but I've played it before and it is so innovative that I can’t leave it out. This is a 4 player dungeon crawl in which one player becomes the hero and the rest take on the role of the monsters in the dungeon. if you manage to kill the player, you swap roles, and suddenly the team of monsters you were working with are against you, and you’re on your own. Levelling up the player gives the monsters levels too, and there’s a whole tree of monster advancements you can work on as well as a shop full of treats for the player. I love the way you swap from being friends to enemies in moments, and it doesn’t hurt that the game plays really well and looks great.

Crawl is in development, and my only criticisms of it feel like things that will change as they develop it: it needs more variety to stay fresh. Therefore, it might be worth waiting for a full release, but I absolutely recommend keeping an eye on it.

I'm Still Dwarf Fortressing

Another fortress crumbles and I start again. I thought I was building near a river last time, but when I embarked, there was no river to be seen. Perhaps, I thought, it is underground, and my dwarves dug and dug until they all died of dehydration.

I start again, gazing once more upon the world screen where I chose the location for my next little (vast) dwarf house (fortress). This time, I make sure I am near a river. It transpires, through a conversation with Charlie, that I was not near a river at all. It turns out that, when on the embark screen, looking at the world map, the region map, and the local map, you don’t actually embark onto the entire local map. You embark onto a tiny square inside that, lit up, and movable using yet another set of keys that I hadn’t even spotted on the cheat sheet along the bottom of the screen. I was never near a river. My dwarves had dug in vain.

Turns out, you don’t even need a river, says Charlie. Dwarves need beer, not water. I had simply forgotten to brew. What kind of a monster denies a dwarf beer?

I start again, making extra sure to include a river in my starting region this time, and building a still very early on. I appoint a bookkeeper early to train him up and make sure that I always know how my beer stocks are looking. For some reason, a year in, he still isn’t too clear on it. I need to figure out what’s up with that at some point. First, however, I need to figure out weaponry. I have a small militia, but they’re all forced to become wrestlers, because I simply have no metal. I dig deeper and deeper, and strike gold, but gold is no use to my warriors. You can’t make hammers out of gold. I dig deeper.

Dwarf Fortress

When you start a region in Dwarf Fortress, you set your computer the task of building the history of a world. You wait, and you wait, as it works through the ages. You see empires rise and fall before you in ascii art as your processor creaks and groans for whole minutes (which, of course, is a relative age, when you think about how long it takes for the average game to load), and, eventually, you’re presented with a map, and asked where you want to embark.

The world always, always looks completely impossible to survive in. At least, it does to me. I’m sure that a professional Fortress enthusiast sees their fresh map and thinks “Great, a massive mountain range to hollow out! We will do well here!”, but when I look at the map I just see my dwarves, shivering in the frozen wasteland, cursing my name again and again.

You’re expected to pick a location to start out. The region is massive. You think Grand Theft Auto V is big? You have no idea. The game includes a handy search tool to help you pick out an ideal place, which, again, takes actual time to run: you see it narrow down possible areas of jungle and mountain until it picks you a plausible place to start your adventure. You take a look, check for a river, some metal, some soil, and, happy with your findings, you embark. This jumps you into a close-up view of the game where you’ll actually play out the lives of your dwarves. You press “Embark!” and find yourself looking, top-down, at a little wagon, surrounded by seven dwarves.

Yeah, seven.

Gameplay is not carried out through directing your dwarves: rather, you define a job to be done, and a dwarf with the appropriate qualifications goes and does it. Your first move, then, is to mark out an entrance hall for your fortress so that your dwarves can get digging. As soon as you mark out a stockpile, the other dwarves will start off-loading goods from the wagon and piling them up inside. At that point, it starts to feel like you’ve moved in. From there, you need to get food growing, find somewhere to put the rubbish, build some bedrooms, and generally make a happy place for dwarves to live.

It’s easy to get it wrong. In my first fortress, I neglected to build near a river, and my dwarves ran out of drinking water. In my second, I couldn’t find soil to grow any plants. My third ran ok until I realised, far too late, that I had no military: I was taught this important lesson by a goblin horde that laid waste to my fortress in seconds. On the plus side, all my dwarves were unhappy because they wanted a well, so it was only a matter of time until I flooded the fortress trying to build one anyway.

All my failed experiments live on in the world: ruined and abandoned, they’re there, somewhere, for me to find again. The world keeps on ticking while more dwarves pile in and, under my leadership, fail to get anything done and perish. The history of the world feels deep and storied. This is a game that runs deep - succession games of Dwarf Fortress span years and create stories that are retold again and again. Trying to explain to anyone else why you’ve built your fortress the way you have involves explaining all the other things you’ve tried, and all the dwarven moods that meant you simply had to build the crypt before you had time to build a farm. Anyone who’s never played the game will boggle at the complexity of what you describe; anyone who has played will nod, knowingly, and regale you with a tale of the time their fortress was overrun by elephants.

Video Games I Played Last Week, 16/09/14

Well, not strictly last week, but you get the jist. I’ve played a bunch of interesting things lately.

Dota 2

Finally back to my old habit. I’ve been playing Dota for about 3 years now, racking up 827 hours in-game. I am terrible at it. Really, really bad. I love it though, and after a few months of barely playing, it feels great to be back. It’s a game that really benefits from a consistent team, though, and I wish I had the time to play with one. Still, I have an amazing group of friends who are great fun to play with, so I’m never too lonely.

Dota is a game that changes little enough to always feel familiar. There’s just the one map, and the formula is always the same, so you never really feel completely lost, and you can always come back to it, but at the same time, it’s so, so deep. Over 800 hours in, I still know so little about it. There are still 5 or 6 heroes I haven’t played. I know nothing about proper team play. I like how lost I feel despite how much I know about the game.

The Dota 2 Workshop Tools

Ok ok, so it’s not a game, but wow, these tools are good. It’s super simple to throw together a really good-looking map. I’m expecting to see an incredible modding community for Dota very, very soon. The Warcraft 2 community was great - I just hope that this editor is just as accessible to 12 year olds who can’t spell so we can enjoy the same terrible, but hilarious, maps as back in the day.

Dwarf Fortress

Dota’s deep. Dwarf Fortress is a whole other kind of deep. The Dwarf Fortress UI is manageable after a few hours, but the actual mechanics of coping in the world is truly weird to a newcomer. I followed a tutorial and made it through my first few seasons, but as time went on I found that my dwarves were running out of water. I was confused, for a while, but eventually discovered that I’d neglected to build near a river, leaving me fairly stuck. I abandoned the fortress and started a new one, only to find that I’d neglected to embark anywhere near soil, so I couldn’t grow any plants. Once I understand the game, I’m sure these problems will be minor inconveniences and I’ll work around them with ease, but for now, they’re game-breaking, and I have no choice but to start again.

I’m playing a succession game with a few friends, taking a year each to run the fortress. I entered my year with 55 dwarves, and handed it off to the next player with just 20. My mayor got upset, you see, because I hadn’t given him a desk, so he punched my mason, killing him. My mason was the guy responsible for building coffins, so I had nowhere to bury the body - it rotted on the floor, making other dwarves unhappy, who then killed the dwarves around them. It was what’s known as a “tantrum spiral”, which, the wiki assures me, will “most likely result in fun”. I appointed a police force to calm them all down and eventually got back to business, just in time to hand off the fortress to the next player.

This game is The Sims turned up to 11. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but it does a good job of occupying my entire brain for hours at a time.