Making Games is Hard.

I guess I already knew that, but I’m reminded of it now that I’m helping to make another one for my Media Studies final project. It makes me think about all the hard work that goes into games made by small teams, like Dear EstherBraid, The Path, Super Meat Boy…the list goes on. After watching the documentary Indie Game: The Movie (watch the trailer here) I better understood the pain and struggle of completing a game. You put your sweat, blood, tears, soul, everything into it for a few years and let it out into the wild to be judged. You spent all your money on this game–if it flops, you’re broke. That’s part of the reason I buy indie games, and that’s part of the reason why I try not to make snap judgments about them. It takes so much time and money and must be the worst feeling in the world for it not to be received well. In Indie Game: The Movie they asked the creator of Fez what he would do if the game didn’t sell well, and he said, “Probably kill myself.”

But all that effort usually pays off. Independent games are often some of the most unique experiences you can find, pushing the boundaries of gaming and asking important questions. Often they engage the player on a much more emotional and intellectual level. In essence, they treat you with respect. Indie games are notoriously hard. They don’t coddle you. They don’t tell you everything you have to do. The developers understand that you are an intelligent human being and you can figure it out yourself.

Every game we played in my class was indie, which I think is saying something. The games we played had stories to tell. They were more than just your average shooter–they stuck in my mind for weeks to come, making me ponder their hidden meanings. I mean, Dear Esther is an extremely simple game gameplay-wise, and takes only two hours to complete, but it takes much, much longer to begin to understand the story and meaning in your head. When I came back to play it for the second time, I was surprised by the different text, and came to more revelations about the story. (I recommend everyone play it more than once)


I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make here…but I guess I think more people should play indie games. A lot of my friends dismiss them as simple and stupid, but I think if more people gave them a chance they would not be disappointed. (Side-note: you can buy bundles of indie games here–you set your own price)

…I think I need this game.

Braid Review

This is the second time I’ve played Braid. I wasn’t able to solve all the puzzles without a guide either time. Braid is not a game I would call “accessible.” However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Braid’s gameplay forces you to think in ways you don’t normally, in ways you thought you never would. Jonathan Blow, the creator, said he hoped it would be “mind-expanding,” and it certainly was for me. It simultaneously pays homage to and deconstructs platform games and how we approach them as gamers.

The classic platform games of the NES and SNES eras are often celebrated for how difficult they were. They required pinpoint accuracy and razor-sharp reflexes. Braid is difficult for very different reasons. Wrapping your brain around each new mechanic is incredibly hard, and once you feel you’ve mastered the concept, putting it into practice is an entirely different story. This translates to the narrative as well—it is very deep and whenever I thought I had a piece of the puzzle, something else comes up and I don’t know what to make of it. An interesting thing to note is that you can actually blow through the game without collecting all the puzzle pieces, but you won’t see the ending, which is really the crux of the narrative, unless you do. Blow rewards players for engaging with the game and understanding its systems.

In many ways, Braid is a critique of modern gaming trends. Its references to Super Mario Bros. and its very different take on the “save the princess” motif are particularly striking, but something else I noticed is that you really aren’t given very much choice. Each puzzle has exactly one way to solve it. It is very deliberate, almost scientific puzzle design. A trend in modern games is giving the player more choice, and making those choices have impacts on the game world. “Open-world” is the name of the game; “linear” is almost a bad word. Since you can’t really die in Braid, it’s kind of like a sandbox for the player to experiment in, which could have lent well to having more player choice, but Blow’s decision to make the game without choice provides a very different experience. Since the gameplay is so scientific and exact, it makes me think that the narrative is similar, in that there may be only one way you are supposed to interpret it. In his interview with the AV Club, Blow seems to suggest that some people get it and others just don’t. I think he intended for there really to be only one interpretation of the work. “Braid isn’t a subjective work of creativity: it’s a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn’t up to broad interpretation. If you think the puzzles are too rigid, or you hate the text – maybe it’s because you don’t understand the point. If you pull an interpretation out of thin air, it’s probably wrong.”

Aside from gameplay and narrative, Braid features beautiful, painstakingly crafted graphics. The backgrounds look as if they are alive, using particles and other effects to give the illusion that they are moving. But they don’t distract from the gameplay, because everything in the foreground is sharper and more focused. The music is also very beautiful, and works well with the time-rewinding mechanic, playing backwards when you reverse time. A particularly cool instance of this is in one world where time is mapped to left and right movement—that is, moving left rewinds time, and moving right moves time forward—and a lullaby is played, forwards and backwards in time with your character.

Everything in Braid is there for a reason. There are no random platforms, no random enemies. Everything is very deliberate, everything has a purpose. The same goes for the narrative. It is clear that a ton of work went into making the game as polished as possible. The puzzle and platform design is very tight. My only complaints are that the game is unnecessarily frustrating at times, and I don’t see how anyone could solve some of the puzzles without using a guide. There is no mistaking it—Braid is a hard game. But it is so worth playing. If the ending doesn’t blow your mind, I’d be very surprised.


World’s largest game of Pong—does it get more epic?

The Path Review

I just recently played The Path by indie developer Tale of Tales. I had to play it for my media studies class. I don’t think a video game has ever evoked as many emotions in me as this game. 

Let me start this by saying that I don’t even know if The Path should be considered a game. In fact, the developers often call it an “anti-game.” It is more of an interactive art piece, which is why I won’t be attaching a score to this review. However, it does have a few game-y elements, like collectibles and a map and goals. Nevertheless, this game is not for everyone. But if you open your mind, and let this game take you away, you will likely find it very rewarding.

The Path has you playing as six different girls, each representing a different stage of a girl’s life between 9-19. (The developers talked about this and other aspects of the game in a post-mortem essay here) It is basically a retelling of the old fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. You start on the path, and text appearing on screen tells you to go to your grandmother’s house, and stay on the path. So, that’s what I did the first time. However, staying on the path actually results in a failure, and you are forced to start over. I was so confused. Years of playing video games has taught me to always obey instructions. Am I supposed to deliberately disobey? So during my second attempt, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a girl in a white dress running in the woods. I went off the path and followed her. The colors began fading and everything turned greyscale. The atmosphere is incredibly dim and foreboding.

I followed the girl into a graveyard, where my character made some morbid remarks. You can interact with certain objects to add memories to your basket (inventory), such as the skull that my character buried in the ground.

With no onscreen instructions and no map, I was left to wander aimlessly through the forest. I tried to get back to the path, but to my horror, I discovered that once you leave the path, it is impossible to get back. If you just keep walking, you will eventually loop around again, which I could see from the map of your trail which flashes on screen every 100 meters. 

Every girl has her “wolf,” which apparently is supposed to be like each of one of the developer’s ex-boyfriends. They are archetypes for men. One is a lumberjack who spends all day chopping at trees and drinking beer. Another is the “cool guy” who is smooth and wears a leather jacket. These aren’t your typical “wolves” and took me by surprise. I didn’t know they were the wolves until I completed the first chapter and it said “Wolf encountered: yes!” Wolf? I don’t remember seeing a wolf…was the wolf…WATCHING ME?

These wolves are pretty much ordinary people on the surface (except for the werewolf) but your character often talks about the romance or fascination with giving in and submitting. A sort of perverse enjoyment out of not being in control. 

And to relate this to the actual mechanics of the game, you don’t have much control as a player. You can walk, run, or interact with objects, but you don’t decide how your character interacts with the objects—she does. And maybe you wanted to be a good girl and just stay on the path, but you’re penalized for it. You are essentially forced to get yourself lost. Never before have I played a video game where I was actually encouraged to get lost—and never have I been more enticed by it.

After you meet your wolf, you black out, and wake up lying in front of your grandmother’s house in the rain. You walk very slowly, almost in a trance, into the house, where you go on an on-rails, first-person journey through it. This is definitely the weirdest part of the game, and I can barely begin to interpret it. And it is up to you to interpret what happened during the blackout. I have heard people say that you were raped, but I don’t think that’s what the designers intended. I think it is your character coming to a sudden realization, perhaps the loss of her innocence, snatched away by her wolf. When she goes into grandmother’s house, everything is chaos, and not the way it used to be. I have heard that you are murdered in the house, but really it’s open to interpretation.

That’s what I love about games like this. You are completely free to interpret them in the way you want to. That’s what makes this game art—it evokes different responses, and means something different, to each individual. The soundtrack, the art design, all contribute to making The Path a truly beautiful game. 

My only complaint might be that this game is far too slow. I understand that it is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of game, where you are supposed to take in all the sights and explore everything, but the walking speed is much slower than it needs to be, and frustrated me. You can run, but I stopped running early on because I realized that it actually makes things worse. The camera lifts up and gives an overhead view, with your character at the top of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s in front of you, and it gets much darker on top of that. Also, the coin flowers that you are supposed to collect (there are 144 of them, for symbolic reasons that won’t really make sense unless you read the developer’s blog) disappear when you begin running. So the game basically encourages you to walk the whole time. I’d rather you be able to run, without the negative side-effects.

This game divided people into two camps: the more hardcore gamers who criticized it for not even really being a game, and the more casual ones who loved everything about it. But what’s important is that more games like this need to be made, or the video game industry will never evolve. We have enough Call of Duty’s; we need more games like this that push intellectual boundaries and actually stimulate us, the way literature and cinema have for decades. This is as “art game” as it gets, and I loved it. If you open your mind and give it a chance, I think you will too.