9 Hot E3 2017 Observations

 

  1. Though apparent at the time, it is now clear that the “indie” movement was co-opted by large companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in an attempt to beat each other out in the recent console war. Few indie games were shown in press conferences – surprisingly, Microsoft did the best job (Ashen, Tacoma, Cuphead, The Last Night). I think Sony has given up on indies at E3 entirely. A handful of indie games were shown in the PC Gaming show, only to quickly cut to a minutes-long discussion of the latest gritty robot military hell shooter.
  2. However, the indie games shown often have a lot of work put into art style or are in being created by studios of 4-6+. Though showing these games is nice, it still sends a message that there is absolutely no place (in a big company’s marketing bandwidth) for games with extreme experimentalism or art styles that buck trends.
  3. Most AAA games are lost in a downward spiral of pursuing higher and higher fidelity graphics. Indie games, too… ! Endless multiplayer shooters with ‘photorealistic’ graphics, without any questioning from developers as to why this is a worthwhile at all goal. Likewise, games have difficulty keeping up with the huge art budgets, so it’s rare to find interesting art styles. There is a disturbing uniformity amongst the AAA announcements. This manifests itself in Japan as games with your generic Anime style or Shounen Manga JRPG Plot, or in US/Canada/Europe as Another Gray Shooter/Fucking Zombie Game.
  4. The VR evangelism is still strong from Sony and other companies, but outside of practical uses such as medicine and research, on the level of popular culture there are not many signs VR is amounting to much other than a toy for the well-off to play largely the same games, or a platform for art world artists to impress their art world critics and friends through their first steps into digital space.
    1. For the near future, I think VR will mostly be relegated to VR theaters or gallery spaces, or lower-end experiences such as Gear VR. I think this is fine as the means for the general public to engage with VR games/films/art/etc, but there should be lower financial/visual quality bars for artists/developers to meet to show their work. Forcing a creator to implicitly need to meet a sales bar will only hurt the quality of future work, or leave future VR work to those with the resources to create something popular/marketable.
  5. There is little interesting design or art direction experimentation in AAA. There are and always be interesting little touches, designs and polish to any AAA game worth ‘mining’ and using as influence, and many recent AAA games are fun and good, but overall things are more or less the same, with some progress here and there. Occasionally something *really* interesting pops up: the climbing in Breath of the Wild (in an otherwise average game), commanding your dog in The Last Guardian. Yes, Nintendo showed a lot of fun-looking stuff, but when you really look at it, there isn’t much fundamentally different in say, Kirby, Yoshi, or Mario, etc. Perhaps you change the way you collect the Green Goblets of Good or whatever, or you’re in Cookie Town instead of Castle Town, but things kind of feel the same.
    1. Perhaps the most depressing example of lack of design/art direction innovation are the constant HD remasters, such as the newly announced Shadow of the Colossus Remake, Mario Superstar Saga remakes, Metroid 2 remakes. While some games could desperately use design revamps and remasters, largely these feel like cash-ins that also operate under the false assumption that upgrading textures and graphics automatically improves a game. What would really be interesting would be to see remakes that don’t ‘upgrade’ the art stylebut still fix design problems. I think it is a fact that some older art styles, such as on the SNES or PSX, can create artistic themes other than nostalgia that are *impossible to create* through the pursuit of “HD”.
  6. It’s interesting to think about how as AAA companies move away from creating sequels or games in the style of what fans want (Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, top-down SNES RPGs, Metroidvanias), we see indies coming in and creating these games that fans demand.  Games that satisfy these criteria can become immensely popular: Undertale for Earthbound, Stardew Valley for Harvest Moon, Ooblets for Pokemon/Animal Crossing, Tunic for 2D zelda, Hyper Light Drifter for SNES 2D action RPGs, Owlboy and many more for metroidvanias, etc. Often you will find a popular indie game satisfying a niche that AAA no longer creates for.
  7. Looking at all these E3 trailers, I still feel the pressure of games needing to look “Good” or “Polished”, and a focus on a game needing to be designed to create good ‘marketing fuel’ – being able to show well in short clips or what not, to have their premises easily and quickly digestible. This kind of competition and how fans engage and relate to the games creates an environment where it’s really hard for an experimental work to ‘make it’ – or even be seen, as it is drowned out by more popular-appeal games.
  8. This pressure to create a ‘marketing fuel’ game also inherently reduces the amount of risk-taking in the design process. You see the effects of this most prominently in AAA, but it’s pretty common in indie as well – most games you see might innovate in a few tiny ways, but are largely beholden to its predecessors it looks to improve on. I think it would help for new games to try and take larger ‘leaps’ from predecessors, rather than make a few improvements/innovations – to create something that cannot be easily defined as a mix of “X, Y, Z” – to create the anti-elevator pitch.
  9. The same goes with art styles – we have computers and can create literally any image on earth, but the range of art styles I see tend to feel frustratingly stuck in a small range of choices. I think it might help to view the art direction/style more as an Artistic Tool rather than a Marketing Tool.

Towers and Navigation in Breath of the Wild

The towers and navigation in Zelda: Breath of the Wild (hereon BotW) have problems.

Towers, revealing the landscape

Viewing and pinning landmarks from the top of the tower tied into the theme of using landmarks as navigation. To understand the landscape as an environment to remember, rather than an obstacle blocking the way between a fast travel point and the goal.

The best moments of this navigation were creating pins on landmarks – a strange looking rock out cropping. Oddly shaped trees. A meadow I haven’t seen. The worst – pinning shrines. Adding a chore to my list, a destination which, once I arrive, would often be a passable puzzle box or easy fight.

BotW could have taken a page from Shadow of the Colossus – create a vague map, one without precise roads or area names shown all at once. Never let it fill in with detail, but let the player fill it with their own markings. Forget reaching the top of a tower and revealing 200 place names. I want to see the name only when I walk into the space, and I want to reach these spaces through the use of the tower.

Smaller size for better exploration

BotW’s tutorial plateau is the best part of the game in terms of learning about a landscape through surveying and exploring. In the plateau, we gain this ability to survey the land and decide where to go, to see a forest, a small mountain, and go and check it out – yet, because we are confined to the plateau, there is not as much distraction of the infinite other places to see.

The plateau is how all of the areas in BotW should have been designed. A contained, small geography, which is easy enough to keep in one’s mind while exploring, small enough to become as familiar as one’s morning commute.

Still an open world, but where you rarely need to fast travel.

As in other open world games, fast travel in BotW parallels the creation of public transit hub – neighborhoods centered around train stations, leading us to forget about what lies along the paths in between. Convenient in real life, but flattening with respect to a game’s landscape. BotW’s world feels more like a series of tiny islands we barely think about, warping from one to the next. It’s fun to uncover new places, but rarely did I establish a relationship with one environment, because of how I was constantly in transit.

To be sure, exploration between shrines in BotW is engaging, but it becomes watered down when the game hangs quest, shrine, and Korok seed collection over our heads. It’s hard to focus on that joy BotW does so well, when we’re also looking out for shrines, a certain item, or odd markings that lead to Korok seeds.

I like to imagine a BotW which keeps its towers but removes their Google-Maps-ifying of the landscapes I travelled to reach it. I wonder about how a game might be influenced by Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, to use its ideas of dense, layered levels with exteriors and interiors – and transfer that thinking to creating an enhanced BotW tutorial plateau.

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It is no surprise that the second strongest area of BotW is Eventide Island, a tiny, but multifaceted island where you must complete challenging tasks, stripped of most of your items and weapons, only using what you can find. BotW shines when you must actually Think about the items and things you encounter in the landscape, as the game progresses more and more situations become setpieces to steamroll through.

Interiority 

As Tevis Thompson mentioned , there is no underworld in BotW. A few moments do achieve a sense of this – Tevis’ examples: the final castle mimicking traditional 3D action games, Divine Beasts where the traditional ceilings become activated parts of the dungeon space, the introduction. And a few more I like: a cave hidden in a deep hole, where you must go through a small river. A giant skeleton inside of a hidden cave in a remote mountain.  A temple filled with Guardians at the end of a quiet canyon. A shrine at the end of a hidden, underground, snaking and icy river. The hidden passages of the tedious labyrinth areas. The approach towards the clan hideout.

Shrines though technically interiors – do not count, with their uniform aesthetics leaving me with a sense of confusion of place in the same way visiting a Starbucks in Chicago and then in Tokyo does. Their spaces are totally disconnected from the entrances in a nonphysical way.

BotW has made a great argument for open world designs, but as one might expect, BotW falls to the issues of scale that plague many other open world games. At least one solution lies in scaling down these worlds.

I look forward to what game designers come up with in response to BotW.

Next time – a few words about the musical spaces of BotW’s shrines, as well as thoughts on the design of how players find shrines in BotW.

 

Detention’s Resolution of Taiwanese Martial Law

返校 [Detention] (RedCandleGames, 2017)

Last year, I was thrilled when I heard about a Taiwanese team of developers creating a game set in Taiwan’s martial law period (1940s-1980s). It has sold well, reaching wide English and Chinese-speaking audiences. Though not one of the bigger countries in a USA/Europe context, Taiwan has always had a presence within gaming history, from early RPGs  to more recent titles also addressing Taiwan’s political history.

The gameplay is standard point and click horror with the occasional puzzle. The main character, a female student named Ray, has both a reality and a horror/dream-state world. The player guides her through both. The horror world has motifs of prison, otherworldly monsters drawing from Taoist and Buddhist culture. These motifs, as well as textual documents in the game, contribute towards a sense of unease and repression, partly intended to portray the martial law period. During this period, people were unable to create art freely (literature and film were often repressed in this period), unable to study freely, and people who broke with the status quo could find themselves imprisoned (or worse).

The game’s story is a little cryptic, but it turns out that Ray committed suicide during the martial law period, due to mental stress from a dysfunctional family, and pressure/jealousy from a failed relationship with her high school guidance counselor. Before her suicide, she ratted out an illegal reading group in her school, leading to the imprisonment of a classmate, the guidance counselor and a female teacher.

Since the main action of the game is controlling Ray, keeping her safe, and exploring her alternate reality, the game succeeds primarily as a horror game, and secondarily as historical exposition/exploration. The game shows events related to the martial law such as school propaganda, Ray ratting out a reading group, teachers being taken away by the police. Though these events make sense to use as background for a horror narrative, I would be more interested to see the issues explored in a more nuanced fashion – perhaps looking at why people went with the status quo (as either oppressor or oppressed), or went against it (and faced consequences) – rather than a sort of blanket horror atmosphere.

At the end of the game, it skips into the future, after martial law, where you briefly play as the newly-freed classmate of Ray, who was originally imprisoned due to Ray’s snitching. At this time, the weather is sunny and cheery, the environment, calm. There are no obstacles or monsters in the school.  This historical transition comes off as a simplification of the end of martial law.

I don’t think the developers personally view it this way – they had done lots of research, grown up in Taiwan, etc. – but the ending conveys the sense that of Taiwan being in one of two states: martial law or no martial law – skipping over the intervening periods of transition – creating a gap. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is worth noting as an effect of jumps in time within narratives.

(See http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/tc31-int.pdf for a news brief from around the time of the martial law lifting).

Policies changed quickly after the martial law lifted – art collectors were eventually able to investigate Taiwan’s history of objects and propaganda. Scholars could study and research events of the war and the previous ruling system. Taiwan became a stable democracy, though favor for the Kuomintang (KMT) party is still relatively high. The KMT ruled during the martial law period, and falls in and out of power with each government election. The remnants of martial law still float amongst Taiwanese society and diaspora.

Despite my criticism I don’t mean to paint the game as ineffective in shedding light on the martial law period. I bring up the criticism as a point of inquiry into how such a setting could be used in other effective ways. According to the many Steam reviews and tweets about the game, non-Taiwanese players learned about a part of history for the first time, and some Taiwanese reflected on the progress of their society. It’s nice for non-Taiwanese to learn about the country, as Taiwan usually only comes up in the news when being talked about relative to US-China tensions, or its odd name in the Olympics. And according to developer interviews, it was their goal to help non-Taiwanese learn about Taiwanese culture in the same ways games from other countries have helped them do the same.

Incorporating ancestors’ experiences into games

In bringing up the issues with martial law as a backdrop, I want to think about how a historical event can be represented in a game by ancestors of those who lived through the event.

How should a person represent an aspect of their ancestor’s history in a game, what should be left in or out? How prominent within the game should the period be? Should it be a direct representation, abstracted, etc?

I think it’s important when doing a reading of a work, or creating your own, that you recognize the limitations of analysis/creation. From analsysis and criticism’s standpoint, a game cannot possibly represent every aspect and view of the causes, events and repercussions of something like martial law – or perhaps any event. As a creator, when trying to make work about a period of time, at some point you just have to focus in some way, rather than trying to cover all your bases.

My feeling of the time period being mostly a background for atmosphere in Detention seems mostly correct based on interviews with the developers, who picked it as it fit a preconceived narrative theme. I personally would have liked a little bit more investigation, characters, etc., but at the same time knowing the challenges inherent in making a game, I can’t fault the developers’ intentions, especially in light of their success at reaching players outside of Taiwan.

And there is a benefit to the ‘time gap’ I brought up earlier – though the game may sharply jump from the time period of martial law to the aftermath, that alone still conveys to a player, “How did Taiwan get from point A to point B?” Even though Detention does not investigate that point, it brings up the point for discussion. And so it makes me think that, we may leave gaps in history or analysis in the works we make,  but if framed carefully, those gaps can become launchpads for players’ further research or interest. The gaps may simplify the process of social change, but gaps are better than no gaps, and I think Detention’s team knew this well. A gap in time does not necessarily imply that the historical transition was “easy”. The choice to end the game this way, I think, is much better than to just end it during martial law. Doing otherwise may have seemed more exploitative of the “Martial Law” aesthetic – purely used to make a horror game and mesh with the main character, Ray. Or, possibly unrepresentative of Taiwan, which was definitely not a goal of the development team.

Loose Ends

Who has free reign over making work of a particular period? That is a sticky question whose answer can’t be easily generalized. I would like to say I welcome investigations by any person of something like the Taiwan martial law. I believe it is much more up to the skill of the game designer, than their ethnic background, to determine whether or not they will do an effective job in investigating the various vectors of history pointing to and from the period.


Related links…

Review – http://www.thestar.com.my/tech/tech-news/2017/02/22/taiwan-white-terror-brought-back-to-life-for-gamers/

Interview – https://newbloommag.net/2017/02/22/interview-detention-game/

Guide to the game’s plot/endings: http://www.oneangrygamer.net/2017/01/detention-game-endings-explained/22848/

Buy Detention here.

 

 

Time and Eternity: 42 Metacritic

If you see this game on the shelf, don’t touch it, don’t even look at it. You would have much more fun spending your money on a dentist appointment.

I implore you to avoid this game at all costs, and play just about anything else on the market with the joy in your heart that you aren’t playing Time and Eternity.

Time and Eternity, PS3, 42/100 metacritic

A video posted by Sean 韓谷陳H Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan (@sean_htch) on Dec 26, 2016 at 6:53pm PST

There’s no need to talk about why the game is bad – look at any reviews. If we idealize any popular JRPG form, TE doesn’t stand up to it. I had thought that the game may have been more popular for the original audience in Japan, but a cursory glance at the reviews shows that Japanese-speakers didn’t like it, either. One review title reads something to the extent of “it’s impossible for something to be this shitty”, its first line asking if the 5-star reviews were written by the game’s developers.

A few reviews mention the positives – which I agree with – there are some absurd story beats which end up seeming like pasted-over stories from some writer’s life, cut and past into the fantasy of TE’s world. In the game’s first main arc, you have to defeat the Assassin’s Guild, but you end up running into the Assassin’s Guild Fan Club, which has monthly magazines about the true guild. Some point later on a side quest, you have to remind a journalist walking around a field as to what his job is. As it turns out, he completely forgot his purpose for being there, the main male protagonist even questioning how he can do his job when all he does is walk in small circles.

But what’s more fun, at least for a few hours, about TE, is how the ways in which it is broken point to ideas about JRPGs/games in general.

I get a small sense of “Why on earth do I exist?” from many of the NPCs. Why does any NPC exist? It’s a well-treaded subject, and as I played TE I found myself being able to see the writers behind the game. Because the writing was so flat, the characters so predictable and shallow, it’s almost as if I could see the spreadsheet and outline of plot points and story beats to hit laid bare before me, the game’s mismanagement, tangible.

It makes me question long, 20+ hour games. The game sends you back in time – to fix something – only to have a time paradox erupt and require you to go slightly less far back in time. I quit at the beginning of the second arc. Perhaps this would work in the right hands, but there was no way the game was going to get better, and I didn’t want to play the same thing for another arc, so why bother?

Most long games suffer from repetition wearing thin over way-too-long playthroughs. In this sense, TE made a great choice to have fighting be (a flawed) 1 on 1 system, but made a poor choice to spawn battles every 20 seconds and have most battles require killing 3-4 enemies in a row.

The same wearing thin can occur by separating any of the story beats by hours of fighting, or some other repetitive task. Take Persona 5, which was harmed by dungeons that always went on for an hour or two too long – thus wearing thin its difficult balance between seeing the benefits of the dating-sim aspects of the game influencing your stats in the game’s dungeons. Unfortunately P5 worked just well enough that it didn’t bother most people enough, so I’d assume that for Persona 6, the dev team will probably try to make it even longer!

This points to the popularity of Undertale. Undertale eliminates the long-playtime inaccessibility of JRPGs, and combines and simplifies popular aspects of the genre such as character development, NPC dialogue and battle systems into a 3-5 hour package with enough variance from playthrough to playthrough. Its most interesting setpiece being that its game world, abstractly, is a character with its own development and reactions that you can influence through the battle system.

For the record, I enjoyed both P5 and Undertale but didn’t encounter much new territory from a thematic standpoint, though some of P5’s arcs (and its characters in general) were very fun. TE was terrible across the board, though playing it makes apparent that in many JRPGs I’m going through the motions of the battle so I can just see the next bit of a story. Repetitive area after repetitive area, fighting recolors of 6 enemy types, with a few sidequests and treasures to find before advancing the plot. How many JRPGs are like this, but slightly better and with these mechanical cores harder to see?

As far as shorter playtimes go, from a development standpoint there’s less to worry about in terms of player pacing, and a higher chance players will “See Everything”, or at least get into a position where they can dive deeper into repeated or alternate playthroughs. There’s a lower chance that you’ll wear your story themes or characters thin through repetition or a grating, endless battle system, a higher chance you end up presenting the more interesting ideas by trying to work within a smaller playtime. Does a game really need 40-80 hours to cook and say something interesting? I don’t think so!

Next time: A review of Deidia’s soundtrack, maybe some post-release thoughts on Even the Ocean and intuited limits on the narrative possibilities of games? 

On knowing the fate of FF15’s world on a second playthrough

Spoilers for FF15.

The best part of FF15 is in the second playthrough or a spoiled first playthrough – it’s a part that you can only experience once given the knowledge of the game’s final arc and what happens to the world (before you save it, of course…!)

FF 15’s main plot consists of 14 chapters.

The first time you play FF15, you spend Ch. 1-8 driving around the open world of Lucis, playing as Prince Noctis, advancing the plot, fighting monsters, character-developing the main cast.

Your time in Lucis, is colored and contextualized by mystery of what will happen to the world and the characters.

Eventually you progress onto Chapter 9. The game becomes linear – taking place not in Lucis, but on a long train trip through the Evil Empire’s country. By the end of the train ride, daytime has vanished, and the Darkness has taken over the world (oh no!).

NPCs and characters worry about this in an unproductive way, not taking action, because of course, it’s a Final Fantasy world and there’s no way a normal person has any ability to affect change – only you, Prince Noctis, do!

What this all leads up to is a huge ‘whoa’ in Chapter 14 – where you end up, 10 years later after separating from your 3 friends, at an early area in the game, alone as Noctis. This area was a pleasant beach resort but is now overrun by a ton of demons. You’ll probably decide to run past them.  You end up in a car driven by a character who you encountered as a kid in the first arc. You head back to the first area of the game, surveying the countryside and watching demons run around everywhere, as you talk to this driver about what’s changed, and what hasn’t. Your friends are still alive. The gas station, Hammerhead, where you started the game, is now more or less an outpost for demon hunters.

For all its flaws, I think this progression is pretty brilliant – a logical conclusion to the slow insertion of hopelessness and (on average) reduced sense of power in the player throughout the game’s 2nd arc.

Anyways, you sacrifice yourself and save the world. Hooray.

OKAY SEAN WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF FINAL FANTASY 15??

Now we’re ready to talk about that!

The best part of FF15 is the emotion of inhabiting Lucis’s landscape in your second playthrough, knowing what tragedy will befall it. Viewing its visual spectacles, going on fun hunts with your band of buddies, and still having that colored by knowledge of the world’s future.

It’s the feeling of know that every anxious NPC and person you are talking to, is doing too little, too late. Whether anyone likes it, eventually once you’re on that train, daylight will wane away, demons will grow, people will die. You know things will end up linearly, on a slow train ride through deserts, as the world turns to dark.

As an NPC in the Train Arc says on the radio – the shifts happened so slowly that no one noticed it until the effects were extreme.

Hmm… that sounds familiar…

And I say emotion, because once you drill into it, you realize this is a pretty dumb game overall and the reason that emotion exists is because of a silly fantasy narrative where almost every non-hero is literally Pointless.

The social system the game creates is one in which NPCs have zero power to do anything collectively, except maybe give you money which helps you save the world (oh wait, did I just make an argument for the existence of collective action by NPCs in JRPGs? Hm).

But still, it’s a powerful feeling. You grow to hate the night while playing FF15 – you can’t fast travel, overpowered enemies spawn. And this feeling is accentuated because the entire world and everything positive about it will be lost to that night.

 

Maybe this parallels our world now – talks of organization against fascism. Of course, our world is different. If people band together, they can do something! We don’t have to wait for a Prince Noctis. Still, those emotions of oh, shit about the future, that perpetually color our air, are worth noting.

It’s worth bringing up a game, Even the Ocean, which has a similar feeling on its second playthrough.

Spoilers for Even the Ocean

Even the Ocean is carefully colored by a silent tone of growing dread, culminating in the ending, where everyone dies. You can completely miss this by playing through quickly or skimming dialogue.

On a second playthrough, things are toned similarly to FF15 – you know the world will end, except in ETO, the world ending is permanent. So you get this sense of dread thinking about how people are idly sitting by or misinterpreting the situation, rather than, it’s a crazy fantasy plot and Prince Noctis and the Gods will swoop in and save it all!

It’s a hopeful, maybe realistic ending, once you drill down – one in which it’s acknowledged that there could have been change, a way to avoid the events of ETO’s ending – had people known to act together earlier.

Thanks to this piece by @eatthepen on jrpgsaredead whose observation about a weird feeling hearing a song play while driving, spurred me on to write this short piece.

If you liked this piece, consider buying Even the Ocean and telling friends about it!


A note on this blog coming back

Decided to re-consolidate things here… Medium was kind of annoying and weird to manage. Website works, but it’s nice to have this stuff working here and it looks like wordpress has decent backup exporting. Plus there’s old stuff here already.

On the blog name, not sure. It’s a term I use to describe my music, and I kind of like the juxtaposition it makes in your head. Blogs need a name, I guess.

Some essays from the time in between: http://seancom.nfshost.com/writing.html

It’s been 3 years since posting on here! Other than that writing, well, Joni and I finished Even the Ocean. Funny that the last post here was “goals of Even the Ocean”. I think we did a good job overall, the best we could. It’s not selling great. Oh well. Bad time to release and everyone wants to write about Hot Dogs 2 and Dishonorable the Second, and soon, This Game Again 15 and etc. (oops i just wrote about it too). We might get more coverage in coming months?

I kind of wish the press or Youtube or Twitch people, would do less talking about spreading diversity and then, uh, stamping it entirely out by never reporting or talking about minority work. I understand the economic issues behind why this isn’t always possible… but still!

A lot of other things happened, but are of less concern to this blog. I guess one main thing is that I now teach at SAIC  for the Experimental Game Lab class, in which I taught a bunch of minority work and had students make their own games. I hope to write about that in a few weeks once it wraps up, as well as release course materials (I’ll be teaching it in the spring, too.)

 

Thinking About “Morning Coffee”

originally posted on Medium

A short-form game asking us to think about our morning routines.

 

Play Morning Coffee. It is short.

Morning Coffee looks at the daily morning routine most humans have. Morning tasks are done with a variety of motivations: for your health, to help in accomplishing tasks later in the day, and sometimes for less productive reasons — occasionally done with a stressful awareness of time passing.

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Morning Coffee requires the player to perform three interactions, the first two happening immediately. Drink the coffee to wake up. Check the time on your phone to make sure you aren’t late. These actions are simple and relatable, which has an effect of changing the player mindset from one of “I am playing a game” to one partially of “…and now I am doing my morning routine, but I am still playing a game” — which lends itself to an increased awareness of the tasks that are being done. If you don’t drink coffee in the morning, you probably know someone who does. Checking your phone for the time is an action anyone owning a cellphone can relate to. The same goes with the later (optional) gesture of picking up keys — if you don’t drive or live in an apartment by yourself where remembering the keys is often required, then you’ve probably experienced semi-regularly a parent or guardian getting keys before leaving the home.

In addition to being relatable, within the context of a morning routine, these tasks contribute to a sense of urgency. When do we drink coffee? To wake up, when we need to be awake for doing something later. Why do we check our phone in the morning? To make sure we’re still on schedule. We pick up the keys and leave when we believe we are ready and prepared for the point-of-no-return action of leaving home for the day — which can occasionally be stressful in the context of a rushed morning routine.

To additionally activate our memories and increase our ability to relate to the actions, in place of music, the game uses the prominent sound of a heavy rain onto a house — waking up to this noise can be occasionally calming, until remembering the need to deal with rain once leaving the comfort of the home. Choosing this single sound works well, because it is almost universally present to humans. Contrast this with the effect of ambient music, which may be able to shift the mood more specifically, but doesn’t have the power of memory that the rain does. Other sound cues are cleverly used: setting a mug down, sipping coffee, picking up keys.

Pick up the keys, notice the common household objects and minimal texturing

You can walk around the room a bit. The living-room/apartment architecture of the space, as well as visual cues in the 3D objects, remind us of what we use to feel more comfortable living: books to read, a laptop to work or entertain, couch to lay on, coffee makers, etc. Minimal 3D texturing and the inability to interact with such objects works well in contributing to the idea that we need to leave the room. It’s 7:41 AM, we need to leave, no time for play. I’ve felt similarly when leaving for high school, passing by various game consoles while making sure I had all of my schoolwork. In the context of Morning Coffee, we reflect on how these objects are for a different time, and how they play roles in our lives.

 
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There’s nothing left but to leave the house now, with or without keys in hand.

Morning Coffee creates enough thinking about the morning routine through its actions and design alone, but the ending tries to increase that awareness through a contrast. The ending zooms out from Earth, the solar system, then the galaxy. This action now gives us something to think more about with respect to the morning routine: the existence of the universe.

Let’s look at the artist’s description:

“Morning Coffee the daily ritual
the little things
the big things

A short-form video game ‘poem’ which attempts to link contexts between our small daily activities and … bigger things.”

The game establishes relating the player to the morning actions, which is then needed to put the morning routine in context with something else…in this case, the universe. What point exactly the game makes with that is left somewhat unknown, to the detriment of the game: the ending leaves you wondering: am I supposed to feel nihilistic? hopeful? upset? etc. There’s a variety of directions it could go, unproductive or productive for the player. Most people will be confused.

A slight bit of text would do very well for Morning Coffee, both in the ending and the gameplay. Everyone might not feel rushed in the morning, but the ending seems to want to be putting whatever you just did in context with the universe, and it seems like that comparison only has effectiveness if the player was caring or stressed about what they were doing in the gameplay — the phone saying “Work: 8:30″ , for example, and the phone’s clock slowly passing time. It builds stress, which is good, because the game wants us to reflect on that stress.

The ending is vague. I could see some players taking things the Wrong Way and feeling like their actions are pointless because the World Is So Big! Which is a horrible thing to make a player feel: nihilistic feelings are almost always counterproductive — everyone has them anyways, so there’s no point (I feel) in making someone feel more nihilistic.

A smaller space of interpretation for the ending would work well.

Perhaps short sentences in the zoom-out from Earth in the ending would be nice too: “I left home/Forgot my keys../but Work went well today.” To remind the player of the existence of the player-character within this universe being zoomed out from, as having importance, maybe in a small degree, but still important to some people — just like our everyday lives. We think about how stressed we felt even though it was okay in the end. This could lead to more self-reflection in a larger number of players, without a didactic sense from the text: The text serves the same role as the objects around the house: reminders of certain times or feelings throughout the day.

Sean Hogan (Co-creator of Anodyne and Even the Ocean)

Found via:
http://wip.warpdoor.com/2014/04/21/morning-coffee-animal-phase/

Play it for free at: http://wip.warpdoor.com/2014/04/21/morning-coffee-animal-phase/

Created by: https://twitter.com/animalphase

(detour: abstract games are great for various reasons, but when there’s the opportunity to also do something that can lead to a more concrete takeaway for the player without hurting the underlying game too much, I think it’s OK to step in that direction: it initially feels purer to keep a game abstract in narrative, but in reality maybe 95% of players will be confused or hazy about what’s happened, and 5% will find meaning no matter what, so making the game more accessible, even slightly, is there to help out everyone. Your game will likely still have plenty to interpret, but it will have at least a backbone of something accessible that the common player can learn from. )