Braid

Game: Braid Developer: Number None

In the summer of 2008 I had a little custom whereby every Wednesday I’d download the latest xbox live arcade game demo to try. I didn’t read a lot of video game coverage back then and xbox live didn’t get much attention. The game that particular week was completely unknown to me the thumbnail art caught my attention. It was a broken hour glass with the sand pouring out and a sand castle that seemed to be melting into the sand. It wasn’t trying to convey what the games was it really stood out to me. It kind of reminded me more of the hand drawn Atari ST boxes I owned as a kid back then 3.5″ floppy disk used to come in giant boxes for some reason and some of the box was really abstract.

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I remember loading the game and the title screen being playable it was a very fresh feeling idea.

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You run to the right as the world moves from shadow to light you get to a house.

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Upon entering the house you find yourself in the game hub which was a playable menu and progress screen all in one. It was subtle everything was old and familiar yet fresh all at the same time. It’s hard to explain but it was almost like video game tropes were being perfected rather than reinvented. There were five rooms in the house but only one of them was available to choose.

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I opened the first door and was greeted by a cloud room with what almost look like school desks with books on them. I walked towards the book first book as it opens to reveal text. I started to read the text and it was that moment I really started to appreciate the beautifully haunting music. The music in this game is licensed and was unlike anything I had ever heard.

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Over the years since Braids release this text has been the subject of criticism of the game to me it seemed to speak to me personally. It was the first time a game had steered real emotion inside of me. I’ve loaded up the game on more than one occasion just to read the text and listen to the music. This game made me feel in a way no movie, book or TV show ever did the only thing that every made me feel that way was pouring through book in my art college library, had games just become art, or had I just had my eyes opened.

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Upon entering the first door I was greeted by what looked like an oil painting of a garden the music was pleasant and it hit me straight away it was like a Mario game I didn’t need the tutorial level.

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I did however find myself naturally pressing up to go through doors which isn’t the case in Braid it’s a button press which oddly both contradicts and compliments Mario as doors are also used to access levels as well as take you from level to level.

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Other than that the game is similar to Mario in fact the goal was to rescue the prince from the castle, no not that one.

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I’m sure the games designer meant the Mario theme to be some sort of commentary on the games industry, game design or even game narratives and hero’s otherwise why do it, why copy Mario so closely. but to me it felt like games had matured game had finally grown up and I was loving every second of.

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About three levels in and the Mario gameplay is replaced by a simple logic puzzle as the rules of the game change and up to level four you can be forgiven for not dying but some clever blind jumps and falling enemies will try to change that.

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Player death is really important because upon your death you learn that you can rewind, you time to reverse your mistake and if you were paying attention you’ll notice that gameplay mechanic fits into the opening narrative. I was blown away it was simple and yet elegant this was pulled off this theme would carry on for the entirety of the game.

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I completed world 2 and noticed that those random collectables that look a bit like jigsaw pieces are in fact jigsaw pieces and if you can collect them all you could make a picture I also noticed that world 3 is now available to play. I was so compelled I ignored the jigsaws and moved on.

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I entered the cloud room excited and wondering what power this new world would give me.

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The first level  is a tutorial (without the button prompts this time) in the form of logic puzzle and if successful you will have learnt that items with a green particle effect are not subject to the same rules and that they cannot be manipulated by you time reversing powers.

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The music is once again splendid and it’s starting to sink in how much this game is about the puzzles more than the Mario theme suggests.  In fact world 3 three is puzzle happy and really drives this point home I believe there are two reasons 1) to let you know it’s a puzzle game 2) its ok not to get all the pieces you can come back later as the puzzles are a set up from world 2.

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This message is also reinforced by the fact it’s easy to replay levels and each level has a puzzle piece counter. Your expected to go away and come back later the UI accounts for it.

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The last but one level  lightens the mode with a fantastic but not difficult boss fight. Both the fight and the bosses visual life bar are very well done I almost wish there wasn’t an actual life bar as part of the UI. The fight wouldn’t feel at home in a Mario game. While I was happy this fight was in there I did wonder the motive as the Mario theme seemed to only be a vessel by this point. Then it struck me the boss was not manipulated by time and for the first time Tim had killed something that cannot be revised by reversing time.

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The level then ends with a slightly less convincing the princess in is another castle. All is not as it seems.

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At this point I decided to press on and compete the game. The remaining mechanics are clever and fun all while increasing the difficulty of getting puzzle pieces. The text mood of the text becomes more somber you start to realise Tim is not happy with his life, his home doesn’t feel like home and maybe there isn’t a princess.

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Although there is time for cheeky nod to Tolkien as the levels progress to the point straight forward platforming disappears and the full puzzle game emerges with every more complex puzzles to solve.

It was at this point once I’d read all the text that I decided to go back and re attempt world 2 and get all the pieces. I collected all but two pieces really quickly. Something I didn’t mention before is the fact you can solve the jigsaw puzzles within one of the levels in the game world like this.

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The final two pieces require almost a fourth wall breaking puzzle as that shelf on the picture in the puzzle is in fact a platform.

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Wow what a game! It was the art style music and Mario theme that grab me but it was the puzzles that would hold my attention. Each time you solved a jigsaw puzzles a piece of ladder  would appear in the  hub world.

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This would allow you to progress to the attic where the final story pay off happens and it doesn’t disappoint. I spent the following months looking for a like Braid almost nine years later and I still haven’t.  I would go on to pay really close attention to a multitude of gaming sites, you tube and social media I would never again find a mystery gem of a game. I would even go on to learn Jonathan Blow the creators name and read/watch interviews and film documentaries about him but Braid was the like when I was a kid walking into a game store with my birthday money and buying a game based on the box art. I was excited by it and couldn’t wait to tell people about this great game. I’m like Tim I  guess Mellon Collie searching for my video game princess that’s always in another castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why do I own so Many Copies of Super Meat Boy

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So, what’s the idea of today?

I shouldn’t like Super Meat Boy its designed to be hard as nails and frustrating. I don’t like games that are hard and frustrating so why do I own five copies of it? That’s more duplicate copies than any other game I own multiple copies of. For example, I own three copies of Metro 2033 and I’ve completed it six times. Yet I own five copies of Super Meat Boy and I haven’t even completed the game once. Why am I compelled to buy this game again and again?

Is it a classic case of gamers contradiction?

I have my gamer contradictions for sure. Like I claim to not like open worlds or horses yet The Witcher 3, Shadow of Colossus and Twilight Princes HD are three of my favorite games. I’m quite self-aware when it comes to that stuff so I don’t think it is that.

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Is it because you think the money is just going to two cool dudes rather than a corporation?

I’ve watched Indie Game the movie and life after. Yeah, I liked Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen for sure. I like to think if I met them in a pub and brought  them a pint or five we’d really get on really well (that wouldn’t happen of cause I’d go all giddy and embarrassed and just look at the floor or something. But in my head after five pints we’re like hobbits singing and dancing on the table). Look, like I said, I like the guys I wish them success they’re clearly talented so if they have benefited from my multiple purchases then great I’m happy about that.

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Is it because it’s simply a great game? It’s a great game but there are loads of great games I don’t five copies of.

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Tell me about Super Meat Boy?

Super Meat Boy is a 2D platform game about a boy without skin he’s losing blood because the only person who can save him is his girlfriend bandage girl but she has been kidnapped by the evil Dr Fetus and you have to rescue her so she can rescue you. I have no idea why but that story kind of gets me I have never cried at movies or TV and I’m not an emotional person at all but there is something really touching about it.

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A boy without skin bleeding to death? It’s a real charmer!

Its presented in a really cool cartoon art style. From the title screen to the cut scenes the art is very good in this game. Its beauty is in its simplicity and its use of bold colours like a bright red title screen. This carries through the overworld menu which has a Mario 3 vibe but with a same clean simplistic art style not overly cluttered like Mario 3. Meat boy kind of has the same walk animation though it wears its 8 bit influences on its sleeve for sure. The levels have a duller colour pallet meat boy is just a square it has an 8-bit vibe to it. When Meat Boy touches a surface he leaves a blood trail and when you die your previous blood trails remain there for subsequent tries so if you die a lot and you will you can paint the level red. You can also use them as a guide to where to jump it’s a very clever feature. Its a platformer that features both fast and slow sections. The level design is incredible/incredibly mean it’s good but the levels get pretty hard. It builds up nicely though its paced really well I always hit my skill ceiling at around world four when the salt comes out.  It’s tough if you play it you’re going to die a lot but the soundtrack is upbeat and never gets annoying in a way it helps balance out the frustration of dying so much through its happy melody.

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It’s a platform game right how does it control?

Insanley well it has your basic run, jump of an 8 bit platformer but then things get interesting and far from 8-bit you can slide up and down walls to help navigate the levels and the run button has separate physics applied to it so it alters your angles, distance and speed in the air. Which always messes me up because I like to hold the run button down when I play Super Mario World.

Super Meat Boy

Huh?

You meant Super Meat Boy.

No wait I didn’t, that’s it isn’t it.

That’s what?

That’s why I own five copies.

I don’t follow.

Dude Super Mario World it reminds me of Super Mario World. Not in the presentation but in the way it makes me feel and the perfect controls Super Meat Boy is the only game I’ve ever played that’s come close to Super Mario World. Not even Nintendo have ever come close to repeating the perfect controls of Super Mario World.

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So why is that so important to you?

My school years were tough, I had a rough time. I’m mean not warzone tough but you know 1st world tough. Anyway, everyday I’d get home from school wipe my 96 level save on Super Mario World and complete all 96 levels before dinner and it made me feel a little better about being me it’s a game that means so much to me. It got me through my difficult teens.
And Super Meat Boy provides you with a similar feel to your old comfort blanket and that’s why you keep buying it. Well that’s that one solved. Let’s a GO!

You’re a dick!

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General Ignorance: Dark Souls

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Developer: From Software

“Dark Souls is hard” anybody’s video game analysis of the Dark Souls that starts and ends with “it’s hard” really isn’t worth your time.  It’s one dimensional there is so much more to Dark Souls and what’s worse is they project this lazy analysis on the Dark Souls fans “They only like it because its hard” and that writing of one of the best communities in video game. So lets look at what makes Dark Souls so compelling.

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I love Dark Souls and I never play games on hard just for the challenge. In most cases, hard mode just cheapens the game leaving you feeling cheated. So, if I love Dark Souls and don’t like hard games why do people say it’s hard? That’s simple Dark Souls features very fair tactical combat that’s a world apart from cheap bullet sponge enemies of hard games but requires a certain approach. You have to think before you move and choose your move wisely.  It works like this “that thing is swinging its sword at me I probably shouldn’t run in. I should walk back, dodge or block”. With Dark Souls enemy attacks are telegraphed and directly after the enemy attacks they leave themselves open so you can safely move in for a couple of attacks (don’t get greedy) then move out. The rush comes from the fact if you get greedy or you are careless even the weakest enemies in the game can kill you in small groups and bosses can take multiple attempts to learn their attack patterns. Ultimately though the only fight is with yourself and your patience. It’s core gameplay is simple you can complete the whole game with a sword using just light attacks and yet there is real depth to Dark Souls combat. Is it easy? No Does it require a level of skill? Yes but its fair it never cheats you.

The combat however is only is only one part of the appeal there are five pillars to Dark Souls appeal.

1. Combat

2. Design

3. Lore

4. Boss Fights

5. Exploration

Combat

We’ve explored the combat at its highest level but what I’ve yet to mention is the variety the game offers. You create your own “build” by leveling up and picking certain attributes. This means you can tailor the game to the way you play. There is a serious amount of freedom in character building and weapon choices.

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I like to put all of my points into strength and hit foes really hard with a big sword. The choice really is yours if you want to run around magic staff in one hand and a sword in the other like Gandalf you can. Certain weapons will scale to your attributes. And here is the point nobody really mentions when they say Dark Souls is hard its actually quite easy to overpower yourself in Dark Souls to reduce the level of tension in the combat if it all gets too much for you. And to be honest by the time you’ve finished grinding slugs for Large Titanite Shards which you can use to upgrade your weapons to +10 you’ll find your power level has increased.

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There are too many weapons, spells and things to grind for to list I couldn’t even begin to do it justice in a single article in fact you could write a book about it. I suppose though I should mention weapons can have up to three attacks heavy, light and a running attack and that there are additional technics like back stabbing and ripostes which are nice skills to have but not all builds or even weapons support these moves so I’ll skim over those too.

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Design

Design is almost too broad a category to cover when you are talking about Dark Souls but to summarise Dark Souls is a video game that knows it’s a video game and never tries to be anything but a video game. And it excels in being a video game more than most purely for that reason. Its basically a collection of very video games systems a sort of greatest hits collection of video games. It doesn’t soften an edge to make it less of video game and more welcoming to none video game players you’ll find no tutorial here just a small starting area before it releases you into the wild.

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The dark fantasy medieval art style of Dark Souls is fantastic. It’s an art style that really works for the game as an RPG and is definitely one of the reasons I choose to play Dark Souls even though I wasn’t sure I would like it.

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You’ll hear a lot of comparisons between newer games and Dark Souls but what you will rarely hear is how close Dark Souls is to the Legend of Zelda.  It’s a comparison that had more people made instead of “it’s hard” I probably would have played Dark Souls earlier. Even some of the basic sword and shield combat is actually quite close to Twilight Princes combat (although not by design). Both focus on exploration and distinct areas with a boss fight at the end and both contain secrets that you can complete the game without ever knowing they were there. However Dark Souls unlike Zelda which has an open world that tends to be simple Dark Souls world is expertly interwoven it’s unlike any other game I’ve played. You’ll be making your way through an area thinking how far you are away from where you have been when suddenly you open a door a short cut opens up and you know exactly where you are you’ve double back on your self.

An area of Dark Souls design that deserves a special mention is optional area’s and bosses and the only reason these work is that you (to a point) can tackle the game in any order you choose. Secrets are a huge part of Dark Souls design, hit a wall and poof the wall disappears and secrets lay beyond. Plus there are NPCs you need to talk to at a certain time to advance their story. It adds a massive amount of replayability rarely seen in any game.

The next element of design I want to touch on is the unique multiplayer which I must admit can be a marmite experience. In the game, you can take one of two forms human and hallow. When in human form you can summon a human or AI co-op partner to help you but this in turn allows a random human and AI characters to invade your game as an enemy.

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Dark Souls UI is arguably outdated almost to the point it makes a statement and its why I love it again its not trying to be a iPhone its trying to be a video game.

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Lore

Hidetaka Miyazaki the games creator has confessed to being a fan of choose your own adventure books as a kid. The problem was English wasn’t his first language so he had to fill in some of the gaps himself. Dark Souls is like this every item or bit of dialogue hints at something and you have to fill in the gaps yourself. Either by finding another item and making a connection or by paying attention to your surroundings and spotting something in the environment and using that in your story. The story becomes your own.

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There are even NPC’s in the game with timed events which means your game experience can be completely different to a friends.

Boss Fights

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The boss fights… ah the boss fights. Like Zelda each boss is a mixture of puzzle and combat but the bosses are closer to The Legend of Zelda on the NES as opposed to 3D Zelda’s where the puzzle is linked to an item or the environment. Each boss has a pattern you must learn and you will only have time for a few hits before you need to step back and repeat the process and like Zelda bosses can change tack part way through the battle. One element unique to souls is the ability to roll through a bosses attack , you roll speed it determined by your equipment mode and this leads to different strategies for different bosses. If you have little experience with the Souls games then you are unlikely to beat a boss on your first go but after sometime with the series you will.

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Like other combat in the game bosses are fair and can be beaten provided you are using the correct tactics this is the origin of the “Git Gud” meme which was never meant with malice the Dark Souls community are infamous there support and if you are struggling with a boss you’ll find no shortage of help. And struggle you may for some bosses in the Dark Souls do require you to master a certain skill like rolling through attacks and you are unlikely to master this on your first try. You will also find AI partners that will appear as summon signs near some bosses if you complete their quest or defeat them as an invader plus there is the option of calling in a friendly sunbro.

Exploration

Exploration is where the incredible level design of Dark Souls really comes into play. Dark Souls nails risk vs reward with enemy and item placement. If you explore you put yourself in danger but get rewarded with items. You really want to explore but sometimes you want to preserve your souls or get the next bonfire or short cut to know your safe. The beauty is that you will never know where those will be and this is where a system that allows players to write a message on the floor comes into play. Players once again can help each other by leaving notes on the floor. These same notes will not show for all people which is great because once again in Dark Souls your playthrough is your own and can be a completely separate experience to a friend’s playthrough of the same area.

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There is a real tension to exploring especially when you have a large amount of Souls because Souls (the currency used to level up you get by killing enemies) are dropped on the floor when you die. To retrieve your souls you need to make your way back to where you died and pick them up within one life or they are gone forever.

I’m not going to lie and tell you Dark Souls is an easy game but its a different kind of difficulty than we are used to dealing with in video games and the game has real depth.