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Play This Now! Sphere.

You've probably played Portal. (If you haven't played Portal, for the love of God go play Portal.) Assuming you have, use Portal as a starting point, but instead of a portal gun, you have a marble. And you throw that marble around the world, and it bounces off of things and makes lovely sort-of-physics-based parabolas as it careens off of walls and platforms. And whatever path the marble took, you can then fly along. Need to cross a lengthy gap? Bounce the marble down a long hall and then skip across like a stone over the water. Need to get around an impossible corner? Bounce the marble off a wall so that it makes a similar corner. That's Sphere. In their words, "a puzzler about trajectory transmission."

Here, the video will help.

It's free. It's really clever, and when you figure out a new puzzle you feel pretty brilliant. It runs on Windows or Mac. If you're patient it'll even play in your browser, via Unity. There's really no reason not to try it right now. Go!


Pirates! Just the combat. But multiplayer! And free!

So I've spent most of my gaming time lately playing Diablo III, like the rest of the Internet. Yes, it's fantastic. Yes, the online-only requirement is bullshit and a serious mistake. Yes, it's fantastic despite that. Yes, I'm still looking forward to Torchlight II a whole lot.

Oh, I'm also in the Torchlight II beta. I might talk about that soon.

But right now you need to know about Windward, a crazy and cool action game that loads in your browser and sucked up two hours today I really didn't expect it to take. Also, it's free. Everybody likes free.

RockPaperShotgun, as they are wont to do, did a fine write-up over here, but if you just want the short version it is that it's Sid Meier's Pirates! meets HOARD (which I also wrote up and liked a lot). You get a confined map of the ocean, with ports, lighthouses and guard towers ripe for the taking. You get a ship, and some teammates. You're put up against another team that wants to take the same stuff you do. You fight over it for about 10 minutes. Then you do it again.

It would get old fast (and still may get old, given enough time), but the combat mechanic of Pirates! is represented well here, with your slow moving ships playing a game of strategic positioning to try to point your cannons at your enemies without exposing yourself to their fire. A leveling mechanic and offensive/defensive skills with cooldowns add a bit of persistance and depth, though you can only save your ship across sessions if you choose to toss $10 at a pre-order of the final game (currently this is an alpha). Just the free game is plenty fun, though, and since it loads in your browser via Unity plugin, you've got nothing to lose but time.

Here's some gameplay footage.

I ponied up for the pre-order, myself. I love Pirates!, and I want to see where this is going. Look for me on the ocean, if you try it out. My boat, to nobody's surprise, is named "Serenity."


Walk With Me

"But the beauty is in the walking -- we are betrayed by destinations."
-- Gwyn Thomas

I played a couple of unique games in the last couple of weeks that have made me do a lot of thinking about what we expect from this medium, and what it's well-suited to deliver outside the experiences we've become accustomed to. I'm sure that according to some people, neither of these even qualify as games, as neither has a fail state, neither provides the player with challenge, and neither has victory conditions. If you can't win, is it a game?

Perhaps not. It may be that we need better terminology, and that labeling these "games" is a disservice to gaming, or to them, or both. But they each gave me something that I don't think any other medium is currently capable of providing in the way that they did, and that's notable to me.

The first, Dear Esther, has received a fair amount of attention from the enthusiast gaming press, largely for being a unique experience in which narrative is more important than gameplay. The battle between gameplay and narrative gets a lot of focus in games journalism, usually because game designers often succeed in serving one only at the expense of the other. In that respect, I don't think Dear Esther actually breaks the mold - it simply eschews "gameplay" in the standard sense almost entirely in favor of its story - but the relationship between narrator and audience has rarely been as interesting to me in a game as it is here.

In some respects, it's easy to pass Dear Esther off as nothing but a storybook with moving pictures, or rather pictures that you move through. The player has no influence whatsoever over the happenings on the ruined, abandoned island they're set upon. You'll walk around, you'll see what there is to see, and you'll be told a sad confusing story set to music. That's it.

That's oversimplifying, of course, but not by much. The trappings are remarkable, I'll admit. Dear Esther is one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, and if it were nothing more than a 3D environment looking as good as it does, it would be worth a few dollars to walk through. The musical score is similarly appealing, haunting and mournful. And the narration, while occasionally heavy-handed, is skilled. But in the end, you're just walking through an empty island while a man tells you a story.

But the beauty is in the walking.

Dear Esther isn't just a story - it's a place. A place with nooks and crannies and buildings and caves and cliffs, all of it lovingly crafted and there for you to experience - or not - as you choose. The story is there waiting to reward you the more you look for it. You take it at your own pace. Hear a bit of narration, then stop and listen to the music and think about it for awhile before you move on. Or rush forward because you want to know what happens next. Or skip an area for awhile, but then go back to it even though it obviously isn't the way to progress because you just need to know if you missed anything. I did all three of those at various points in my multiple playthroughs, and found them all rewarding.

"Multiple playthroughs? Why would you play through a game with no gameplay twice?" "Well, why would you read the same book twice?", he asked cheekily. But it is a valid question, and if it didn't have an interesting answer Dear Esther would be little different from an audiobook you listen to while you walk around. But it does: you don't get the whole story when you first play through the game. You don't even get the same bits of story in the same places, when you play through the game again. It's randomized, and honestly I'm still not sure whether I've seen and heard everything there is. I'll have to play through it yet again to see. If you want the story, you have to explore. Persistently and repeatedly. Your engagement has to go deeper than passive consumption, or the game won't give up what it has to offer. There are no enemies to defeat, no test of skill to overcome, but you need to be curious, and interested. If you're done after one time through, that's fine - if you want more, Dear Esther is happy to give it to you, but you need to buy in first. And that's great, and it's something no other medium of storytelling can do quite this way. It isn't the greatest tale ever told, or even the greatest one I've seen in a game, but it captured my attention and my imagination and I want to see more developers experiment with narrative this bravely. Bravo.

Dear Esther is $10 (well spent) on Steam.

The second game, Proteus, has no explicit story at all, but certainly shares the same basic ethos of rewarding exploration. It's still in development (which means you can nab it for a discount, if you're interested), so I can't write about its features as a finished product, but it's basically a random landscape generator with a strong focus on visual and audio synthesis. It makes a world, different every time you play, and you wander through it enjoying the sights and sounds. The end.

It's hard to get much more different in terms of aesthetics than Proteus is from Dear Esther. There is no attempt made at realism here, and the graphics and sounds are intentionally lo-fi, to the point where I imagine they'll be unattractive to some. (Though to the game's perhaps-accidental credit, they remind me strongly of the aesthetic of King's Quest, which is always good for a few free points with me.)

While I stand in slack-jawed awe of the visual beauty of Dear Esther, Proteus' lack of sharp detail also appeals to me. Its landscapes feel dream-like. Unfinished. Imaginative, like something a child would draw when asked to remember a place they walked through. The colors and shapes aren't quite right, but they're wrong in deliberate and creative ways, and the soundscape of the game is consistently pleasant and interesting. I generated 4 different worlds in Proteus, and as I walked around them I watched blocky leaves fall from trees; walked through the rain as clouds passed over me; chased frogs and lightning bugs who continually danced out of my reach; stumbled across abandoned cottages and graveyards and strange stone cairns. At one point, at night (the audible crickets at night are a nice touch), I found a creepy set of statues atop a snowy peak, and as I stood among them the music swelled and the stars distorted above my head to perform an improptu light show for me. Afterwards I descended to the beach below, and watched their reflections twinkle on the sea.

So that's what Proteus is like, and I hope it'll continue to be just that as it rounds out development and nears release - a large collection of pleasant, surprising experiences for you to explore and relate, a little different every time. If it manages to get a multiplayer mode so you can share them with others, that'd be lovely, but I enjoyed it as a solitary experience as well. Was it a game? I have no idea, but I enjoyed the journey. A destination wasn't needed.

Proteus is $7.50 until release, $10 after, on their website.

There you have it. Neither of these - games? well, whatever they are - will ask you to shoot bad guys or save princesses or score touchdowns or win races. They won't ask you to do anything but participate. Turn out the lights, put on headphones, hop into their worlds for awhile and poke around. Think. Feel. Listen.

I'm really happy that stuff like this is getting made, and I'm excited to see more of it. If you feel the same way, you can try them out for the price of a lunch. Interested? Walk with me.


Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 85: Deity

Oh, this is a treat.  Every once in awhile a game just shows up out of nowhere, grabs me by the throat, and won't let go until I finish it.  When the game is free, it's even better.

What if I told you that somebody had taken the isometric perspective of Diablo, the sneaky murdering of Assassin's Creed, and the bouncing-madly-between-enemies combos of Arkham Asylum, and blended them all together into one experience?  Would you want to play that?  I'd want to play that.  Good news!  We can.

Brought to us by the brilliant students over at Digipen, Deity is "a stealth action game" controlled entirely by use of the mouse.  Far from being a simplified or dumbed-down affair, though, it will tax both your brain and your reflexes with its deliberately limited control scheme.  There isn't much in the way of plot, but the basics are these:  you're a creature of darkness, harmed by light but capable of shifting effortlessly and unseen through shadow.  Your homeland's been invaded by legions of enemies, and you need to sneak through an occupied castle to take down their leader.  If you have to take down a bunch of grunts along the way, well, there's no harm in that, is there.

Those guards will never know what hit them.

Basic movement is standard Diablo-style click-to-run, but that's a great way to get killed fast, as anyone who sees you on the ground will start attacking you immediately.  Luckily, your specialty happens to be hiding incorporeal in the flames of torches, and (like the gargoyles in the aforementioned Arkham Asylum) they're all over the place.  Right-click a torch, and you'll jump to it, changing its color and hiding your presence.  If there's another nearby, you can jump from torch to torch, covering large distances almost instantly.

This also forms the first half of the combat mechanic;  attack a guard from behind from a hidden position, and you'll instantly kill them as well as regain some health.  (Claiming a torch for the first time also gives you a health boost.)  Attack a guard from the front, though, and you'll take damage.  Careful timing is paramount to success.

The second, more interesting half of combat comes from your ability to "chain" together a number of jumps before needing to get back to a safe place to hide.  Hold the right mouse button and left-click, and you'll set a chain waypoint, of which you have a limited supply.  (Three at first, more as you progress through the game.)  Any guard you hit in the chain will be killed instantly, without damage to you, even if you attack from the front.  Gargoyles scattered around the level can be incorporated in your chain jumps as well for tactical advantage and extra distance, though you may not rest on them.

Torch > Guard > Torch.  One less enemy, and no-one the wiser.

Chains replenish over time, and using a chain triggers a slow-motion effect to help you plan your moves precisely.  Any guard left alive after a chain will start attacking you, so isolating and eliminating groups is key.  As the game progresses, each level becomes a freeform combat puzzle, working out how to take down the guards without being spotted and killed.  Jump to torch.  Chain to gargoyle, guard #1, guard #2, and back to torch.  Wait for next patrol, then chain to guard #3, guard #4, gargoyle, back to torch.  Move on.  It feels great when you get the hang of it, and complications like well lit (therefore deadly) areas and invincible winged guards patrolling the halls keep things from getting too repetitive.

Also protecting against repetition is the length, which is very short - really the only negative thing I have to say about the game.  It's the work of less than an hour or so on Normal;  I haven't tried Hard yet, so it may provide more of a challenge, but the boss fight at the end was twitchy enough on Normal to make me less than eager to find out.

If you'd like to see how it looks in action, well, here you are:

Regardless of its brevity, I can't recommend downloading Deity enough.  Creative, slick and satisfying, it brings to mind some of my favorite games while still being a little different from anything else I've played this year.  Digipen frequently delivers stuff worth checking out (remember Igneous?  If you never played Igneous, go check that out too), and this is a great example of what they can do at their best.

Deity is...

  • a great implementation of stealth gameplay in an isometric perspective.
  • fast-moving and challenging with extremely simple controls.
  • further proof that Digipen is a force for good in the world of gaming.
  • over too quickly, but it speaks well of it that I want more.

A little less than 200MB for the installer, Windows only;  pick it up here.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.  If you're done with this one and want more, feel free to browse the archives.


Videogame Music Fans, Take Note.

First of all, if you've somehow never made your way to OCRemix, head on over right now and lose hours of your time.  There's some truly fantastic work available there, all for free.  Every flavor of musical interpretation you could ask for, from chiptune to big band to slow jazz to heavy metal.

Right now, though, I want to call your attention to "25 Year Legend", the album they've just released in honor of the 25th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda.

I've loved the Zelda series for about 20 of those 25 years, and the overworld music from Link to the Past has a permanent spot in my heart as the most iconic videogame song ever written.  It's just a magnificent piece of music.

"25 Year Legend" includes new takes on songs from Link to the Past, Link's Adventure, Ocarina of Time, Link's Awakening, Wind Waker, Majora's Mask, and the newest game Skyward Sword, written by a very diverse group of composers.  Not every song on it is an out-of-the-park hit, but it's a delightful variety, an obvious labor of love, and free.  If you have any affection for videogame music, please, go check it out.