Blood, Sweat and Pixels

I’m going to talk about something different today. Recently, I finished reading Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier. It was something I’ve been wanting to read since it came out and it turned out my university actually had a copy of it. Considering that the writer is an editor at Kotaku, I expect the Typical Gamer to roll their eyes and snark about that “Shin Megami Tensei IV is the Dark Souls of Persona” article, but they should set that stupid bullshit aside and check out one of the most interesting books about games I’ve read.

Blood, Sweat and Pixels is a brutally honest look at the video game industry. There are triumphs in this book, but it isn’t 100% unwavering praise and cheer like a lot of video game related books I picked up from bundles on Storybundle. Every success story comes with human costs – and some of the stories in the book aren’t even success stories.

Each chapter of Blood, Sweat and Pixels focuses on the development of a single game, showcasing the many different experiences and setbacks of the industry, at times contrasting with each other. Many stories have studios struggling to meet the demands of publishers, while the story of Witcher 3 has a publisher trying to make it big as a developer. You read the story of Pillars of Eternity and how Obsidian easily found the Kickstarter funding to make their game, which is soon contrasted with Shovel Knight‘s story of how its developers struggled to get the word out to get enough funding for their game.

And “enough” is used loosely in this situation. Looking at the big success Shovel Knight is today, you never would have thought that the developers had to force themselves into working long hours to make the most of their funds, sometimes toeing the line of poverty. This is one of the stories of the book, stories of the human creators behind the games we love being screwed over because of financial reasons or because of decisions by bigwigs and publishers. Read on as the ambitious studio behind Halo Wars gets unceremoniously shut down, with its workers continuing to develop the game knowing that they won’t have jobs in the future; this is partly because of an office schism that led to wasted resources on projects that tried to escape Ensemble Studio’s hole of being the “RTS company.” Feel that the first Destiny’s story elements is a mess? Behold the miscommunications and mismanagement that led to that happening. And it all ends on the downer that is Star Wars 1313, Disney’s cruel ever-consuming noose tightening around LucasArts.

The one thing that connects all these stories together (besides being about games) is crunch, the dreaded practice of working long hours at the expense of health and personal life. Frequent stories about crunch have employees working their ass off to get games out on time or so they can have a big fancy demo ready for E3. Crunch not only exists to meet deadlines, but obligations, such is the case of Stardew Valley‘s creator, who forced himself to work long and hard to achieve perfectionism for the sake of satisfying his audience, leading to severe burnout. He, thankfully, had a loving family to fall back on during his time, but reading his chapter reminds me that not many developers have that same luxury.

Looking at recent big game industry news, nothing much has changed. Studios still crunch. Big wigs still screw people over. Passionate developers continue to be taken advantage of. A tidbit in the Halo Wars chapter mentions that Ensemble Studios crunched to get the first Age of Empires out, which leads one to wonder how long this has been going on for and if it’ll continue. It certainly has for Red Dead Redemption 2.

Speaking of which, fucking Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s just a walking plague of many of the problems described in this book. But what gets my blood boiling the most is a quote by Dan Houser, a founder of Rockstar, in a recent interview:

Sam and I talk about this a lot and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.

Dan Houser, bastard man

Which is bullshit, but of course, it’s easy to dismiss the value of your employees when you’re the boss.

Reading Blood, Sweat and Pixels feels defiant in light of Dan Houser’s nonsense. It’s a book that reminds you that, no, elves don’t make this shit, people do and they often suffer to do so. I personally believe that this book should be an important cornerstone in gaming culture. It’s a reality check that people need, showing the side of games that the average consumer doesn’t typically see. It’s not perfect by any means, as the book isn’t representative of all experiences in making games, but compared to the general consumer knowledge about what goes on, it’s still valuable.

The Freeware Works of Modus Interactive Games

Today, we’re looking at the freeware games of Modus Interactive, a developer whose outfit is mainly walk-around games defined by lo-fi aesthetics and horror. I originally wanted to only play SPIRIT by Modus Interactive, but it ended up being really short. So, I ended up looking at the rest of their freeware work. The developer has also made a larger, commercial game called Sanguine Sanctum, which I hope to check out at a later date.

SPIRIT–

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SPIRIT– sets you on a ghost hunt… well, I assume that’s what the creepily garbled text in the description says. This game actually offers a version that can be played in VR – however, I don’t own any fancy headsets, so my experiences are based on the non-VR version.

You start out in a lo-fi park, tree sprites and weird machinery surrounding you. You hear static and buzzing around you, from no discernible source. You step away from the noises and search for your trusty ghost-hunting tool, a sort of screen that lets you peer into an alternate world.

And then you see what the world really is. Through the window you see the sources of those awful noises are the ghosts, just watching you from the other world, mostly similar to your own but with corrupted, visceral textures.

You don’t actually hunt ghosts in this game, you just sorta watch them, which I feel would disappoint some people. I think it’s an interesting horror game, though. The concept of peering into a different realm on top of your own gives this sense of unease. Nothing jumps out at you or attacks you, but they’re all watching you. You’re always being watched, but you would never know unless you watch back.

Maybe there’s another realm to our own, where we’re being watched by our own ghosts. Silently. Constantly.

Empty House

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An empty house sits in an empty land. And that’s all there is to it.

Semi-realistic textures are distorted through filters, bizarre coloration making the mundane feel alien. Empty House follows a similar idea to SPIRIT in that looking through glass offers a different perspective of the world, the world from inside the house being distorted.

It’s much simpler than SPIRIT, though I really like the look to this game. It’s got this cursed found footage vibe that I really dig and something that I’d want more of in my life if I wasn’t so squeamish.

PC_001

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In PC_001, you play a game within a game where you’re trying to escape from the tower. And honestly, that’s all I’m going to really say about it, because the game’s main conceit is something that you’ll stumble into and talking about it will ruin it. While less atmospheric than the other games, PC_001 makes up for it with a neat premise.

Siren Head

Siren Head was made for The Haunted PS1 Jam, which is a good fit for Modus Interactive considering the rest of their work. It has a bit of a narrative, though it’s no less mysterious, especially when you come face to face with the eponymous creature. The creature is honestly pretty cool, being an extension of a mundane yet always jarring regular occurrence. It’s real short but it’s also the one that I want to see more of. The other games feel like they’re long enough to convey what they needed to convey, but I feel that there could be more to play around with in this game. I want to see more of this majestic monster.

Neko Yume

On the subject of haunted PS1 games, there was also a game jam that celebrated LSD: Dream Emulator’s anniversary, with Neko Yume being Modus Interactive’s contribution to it.

While there are a few horror elements, Neko Yume is generally just a surreal romp through dreamscapes of goofy cats. While textures act wonky, Neko Yume captures the feel of LSD: Dream Emulator’s areas, with worlds obscured by low draw distance and revisits having slight variations (be it different textures, NPC changes, etc). Like Siren Head, it’s something that I’d like to see more of.

Furthest Reach

Furthest Reach steps away from the soft lo-fi horror to go with some sci-fi with a twinge of horror. You travel in a small spaceship, scouting out planets in between periods of stasis.

After every FTL stop (assuming you put the right amount of time on your stasis), you’ll pull up alongside some planets. You then hop onto the ship’s cameras and fire some drones toward the planet to analyze them. Watching the drones just whiz by from the window and your monitors is a neat effect.

After that you… turn the FTL back on and go back to sleep. Well, you’re just out here doing science. not going on grand space adventures. It’s a really lonely journey, your only company the stars and a variety of electronic loops.

Twinkle Witch ~save the sweets!!~

How about that Deltarune? I played it, you probably played it, probably a good chunk of the internet’s played it – which is why I won’t be talking about it! I usually try to avoid talking about extremely popular indie games because I’m all about bringing attention to lesser known ones. So, I decided to take a look at something that was floating around during Halloween that I thought looked really cool!

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For the Halloween season, Jocelyn Kim brought us Twinkle Witch ~Save the Sweets!!~, a cute em’ up. Twinkle Witch is sleeping in on Halloween when, alas, three fiends decide to take candy away from the local village! The kind witch doesn’t want the children’s Halloween to get ruined (and wants to make Crystal Witch happy), so she sets off to fight the monsters responsible!

The game is presented in a small window, graphics mimicking old shmup games. As a cute em’ up, the art style is bright and cutesy, with the standard monsters having this “ugly cute” vibe to them. Tying the cute Halloween aesthetic together is the jaunty chiptune soundtrack. It carries this mood of going out trick-or-treating with friends and just having a good time, which is a mood that I feel is underrepresented in Halloween media.

Twinkle Witch is divided into horizontal stage sections and vertical boss battles. The stages are super straightforward, with the stage’s local enemies charging at you. Aside from flight patterns, enemies don’t pose much threat, since they don’t shoot bullets. With each stage only having one enemy type, there is little variety.

The game does get harder if you try for score. For whatever reason, these fiends have stuck candy caches into clouds. Shooting clouds causes the candy to bounce out for you to catch. Suddenly those flying formations of enemies seem much more dangerous, blocking your valiant efforts to catch the candy. The game also gives you a shield that lets you ram through enemies, though you won’t gain candy from defeated enemies.

While the stage sections are super simple, the boss battles are more involved. While the enemies of the stage enemies seem to kinda be minding their own business, the bosses and the enemies they summon actively gun for you, making the game more frantic. Dracula in particular uses some unusual moves that makes for an engaging climax.

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I love the cutscenes for giving a better look at the character designs; Twinkle Witch’s is extremely good.

Twinkle Witch is a short and sweet time. I wished that there was more to the experience, but it’s good for what it is and it nails down the cutesy Halloween look.

On RPG Maker Preservation

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Video game preservation has been a hot topic, with the takedown of emulation sites such as Emuparadise, but the conversation goes beyond emulation. Digital only games are particularly vulnerable to being lost forever for a variety of reasons. Music licensing issues led to games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Alan Wake being removed from stores.  Sometimes, games are simply lost, with servers going down and download links disappearing and RPG Maker games happen to suffer from the latter.

Early RPG Maker culture was centered on forums, users sharing games with each other through temporary download sites. More centralized hubs were set up for these downloads, like rpgmaker.net, but many of the early games were never set up on that site, just floating around out there – if they haven’t been lost entirely.

Continue reading “On RPG Maker Preservation”

Releases, Demos and Upcoming Stuff #2

I missed out on posting something last week because I was too busy working on projects and studying for mid-terms. In fact, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to put out a proper game review this week. And so, let’s take another look at interesting stuff I got in my inbox that I’ll probably never get around to but still think is worth talking about!

Trancelation

Developer: MythicOwl
Early Access Date: October 17, 2018
Default Price: $14.99

Trancelation is a game now up on early access. You are thrown into a neon world with synthwave music and instead of doing some ultraviolence like this aesthetic typically implies, you’re off to do some word association games. It’s a game aimed at teaching you languages, though if you don’t care about the learning part, you can turn it off for a purely arcade experience. Personally, I think it’s an interesting concept and I feel that the world can never have enough learning games.

Train Valley 2

Developer: Flazm
Early Access Date: March 29, 2018
Default Price: $9.99

Another game up on Steam Early Access is Train Valley 2. Train Valley 2 is a puzzle tycoon game where you map out and maintain railroads, meeting the needs of cities and making sure the trains run on time. Engage in low poly versions of different historical settings to create the best train experiences, choo choo!

In the PR email I got, Train Valley 2 had a big update back on the 16th, the Electric Age. This update promised to shake the game up with the introduction of electricity as a mechanic, making it so that you have to construct and maintain power plants to keep the other buildings on the map running. New levels were added alongside this, so it’s a rather sizeable update.

Quantum Replica

Developer: ON3D Studios
Release Date: May 31, 2018
Default Price: $15.99

Quantum Replica is a top-down stealth action game in a cyberpunk world. Investigating a hellish corporate alliance, you use time manipulation powers to sneak around and get the drop on enemies. This game seems to be one of many that just flies under the radar.

The Witch’s House MV

Developer: Fummy
Release Date: October 31, 2018

So this one isn’t actually one from my inbox, but me being the RPG Maker Stan, it’s up my alley enough that I think it warrants mention. This is a remake of The Witch’s House, a popular RPG Maker horror game that I actually enjoyed and I was rather surprised to see this announcement. I’m a bit wary because I don’t trust the RPG Maker MV engine, but hey, let’s be optimistic here.

Solid Aether

If you missed the last post, I decided to start doing weekly masterposts pointing at games that were sent to my inbox that I thought were worthwhile but didn’t have the time or competent enough computer to play.

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And Solid Aether was one of them! Solid Aether is a shoot em’ up by FAL Works (or just FAL), aiming to be a bullet hell with minimalist aesthetics. Characters and bullets are represented as simple black shapes, there is no complex scoring system –  just the core, shoot em’ up experience.

Continue reading “Solid Aether”

Releases, Demos and Upcoming Stuff #1

So if you checked out my about page, I put up an e-mail for people to hit me up about game stuff and I’ve been getting a lot of requests to play things. Unfortunately, due to my limited free time, I can’t find the time to cover things, even the stuff I’d be personally invested in, and there’s some stuff I actually can’t run. As the about page also mentions, Indie Hell Zone is a one-person joint and I currently don’t make money on it, so I can’t just hire people to write stuff and asking people to write for free goes against my personal ethics unless they insist on it. Please give me money.

However, after a few e-mails I started feeling awful about just leaving people to dry. So, I’ve decided that for some future game promo e-mails I get, regardless of whether or not I play them, I’ll make a weekly masterpost of things I think are worthwhile to at least spread the word on them!

Dream Car Builder

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Press kit screenshots

Developer: RoKo0
Release: September 21, 2018
Price: $14.99

Dream Car Builder was a game that was in Early Access at the time I was e-mailed but formally released September 21. With many Steam reviewers comparing the game to Besieged, you spend your time in Dream Car Builder constructing cars in a complex editor before testing it in the elements. There is a multiplayer component to the game where you and your friends can race alongside each other, but as the developer puts it, it’s not a real-time multiplayer game, which may be a sore point for people that want to crash cars with other players.

The Corridor: On Behalf of the Dead

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My own screenshots from the minute I was able to play of the game

Developer: Desktop Daydreams Studio
Release: August 30, 2018
Price: $14.99

This is a game I actually attempted to play because I liked the premise and the e-mail pitch I got, but alas, my laptop is awful. The Corridor’s main conceit is that you’re a government agent in a dystopic setting that can dive into the minds of accused criminals. You are thrust into the first-person horror worlds of these minds, searching for the truth while trying to maintain your form in these worlds.

Solid Aether

Promotional screenshot

Developer: FAL Works
Release: September 27, 2018
Price: $6.99

FAL Works makes their debut on the indie scene with Solid Aether. It aims to be a minimalist bullet hell experience, nothing but bullet patterns in a black and white world.

Log Jammers

Developer: Mega Cat Studios
Kickstarter End Date: October 12

Log Jammers is a wacky take on Windjammers, people flinging axes toward each other’s sides to score goals or chop up unfortunate cheerleaders. This is an expansion of a game of the same name that’s playable on an NES cartridge, as per much of Mega Cat Studio’s works. The Kickstarter goes toward funding console ports and online multiplayer functionality.

If you’re interested in backing the game, check it out here.

Giraffe Town

Screenshot by @bfod

Developer: Samer Khatib
Release: October 2, 2018
Price: $14.99

Giraffe Town is a game about a giraffe on a grand quest to find love. Unfortunately, the giraffe is rather bad at walking, and so, much like people with bad personalities, his greatest obstacle to finding love is himself. It also may or may not be a horror game amidst its Octodad-esque madness.

Anodyne (PS4 Version)

Before getting into this, allow me to get a bit personal.

Many years ago, I had a netbook, a cheap laptop aimed for basic internet use and nothing more. The netbook’s lack of power and me being a teen without the autonomy or money to just buy things really limited my options to get games. So I looked around the Internet for free things that I could play that wasn’t from Newgrounds (I wasn’t really into the flash game scene), which led me to getting into RPG Maker games, and I’ve been in RPG Maker hell ever since.

But I wanted more. And that’s when I read an interesting Kotaku article: a game called Anodyne was up on the Pirate Bay, which the creators stood by and used as promotion. I thought the game looked cool and if the creators were cool with it, I might as well go for it.

And so, outside of RPG Maker games, Anodyne became the first indie game I ever played. It’s a game that I hold close to my heart because it really showed me what a handful of people were capable of putting together. I remember reading through the game development thread a bunch. I remember reading through the Even the Ocean thread a few years later when it was still Even and Ocean. When I was able to buy things I finally formally bought the game off Steam and recently, I won a giveaway for the newly released PS4 port. Sure, I have a backlog and a bunch of e-mail requests to check out games, but if I’m getting one of my favorite games for free, you sure as hell can bet I’m on that.

Anodyne is a game made by Analgesic Productions, consisting of Sean Han-Tani and Marina Ayano Kittaka (note: the opening credits uses a previous name she went by), with the PS4 port done by Nnooo. Anodyne throws you into the Land, the dream world of Young, a youth armed with nothing but a broom on a grand quest to save the Briar (maybe).

Continue reading “Anodyne (PS4 Version)”

Plug & Play and Games & YouTube

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Plug & Play is a game by Michael Frei and Mario von Rickenbach, based off of a short film the former did that can be watched here. “Based off of” might be the wrong phrase, though, as the game is essentially an interactive version of the film.

Plug & Play is about connections, whether they’re created or severed. Humanoid creatures with plugs and sockets for heads interact, trying to find love sometimes, other times acting hostile to each other. The interactive nature adds a layer to the game’s themes that the animation lacks, with you acting as a facilitator, a matchmaker in a weird world.

…After playing this, I realized that I’d have a hard time writing about this. This is mainly because the game is pretty much 10 minutes long. To go in-depth would ruin your own experience playing it. In fact, by linking the short film, I fear that you’d be turned away from the game to watch the film, since you’re essentially getting the same takeaways.

But that line of thinking led me to thinking about people watching other people play this and YouTube in general.

Plug & Play, even if it wasn’t intended to be, is YouTube let’s player bait. It’s got the bizarre imagery for people to react to, it has that subtle horror atmosphere for them to be comically scared by. Look the game up on YouTube and you’re guaranteed to get a bunch of thumbnails of let’s players in full “what the hell is this” mode (as well as videos for plug and play consoles).

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Let’s plays normally act as advertisements for games to a let’s player’s audience, but, when it comes to linear narrative games, it might be a different story. With games focused entirely on narrative and nothing else to engage with, potential players might instead turn to watch a playthrough. This became a sore point for the developers of That Dragon, Cancer, who felt that let’s plays hurt the game’s profitability, believing that many are satisfied merely watching a let’s play than getting the game and experiencing it for themselves. Looking Plug & Play up on YouTube, you can see videos on that game having millions of views (like Markiplier, above) – but you can probably guess that actual sales are less than one percent of the views for a single video.

Another thing that I feel works against games like Plug & Play is Steam’s refund policy. The policy, if you don’t already know, allows people to refund games if they’ve played for less than 2 hours. While this policy lets people demo big games, the policy gets abused when it comes to shorter games. This sort of thing infamously cropped up with the narrative game Firewatch, with people abusing the game’s short length to finish it and get refunds – even if they enjoyed it. Of course, with Plug & Play being about ten minutes long, it’s easily suspect to being refunded, another potential victim of the value of games being cheapened.

Reading through this, you might be wondering: is the game worth it, do I think it’s worth it? Well, Plug & Play is inexpensive and I do think it’s interesting. However, ignoring the let’s plays that easily show off the entire game, there’s the fact that simply watching the original short movie cheapens your personal experience with the game.

But that led me to thinking: has the original animator seen money for the original Plug & Play animation? It was acclaimed, yes, but did he ever get financial gain from it? Surely, he could put the short film up on YouTube and rake in views from crowds interested in this kind of stuff.

However, back on the subject of YouTube screwing people over, there’s little appreciation for animators. The Algorithm(TM) favors videos with long watch times, which puts animators at a disadvantage, as long videos mean way more work for them. Changes in YouTube monetization at the beginning of the year didn’t help things either, only allowing channels to be monetized if a collective of 4000 hours was watched within 12 months. Chances are, the only animators that can see success in this system were already successful to begin with.

The way I see it, the game adaptation provides an avenue for the animation to be supported, exposing it to new audiences that might otherwise not have seen it. According to Steam Spy statistics, Plug & Play is owned by 100,000 – 200,000 users, which is still respectable, even if there’s a huge disparity between that and YouTube views on videos of Plug & Play. Of course, it helps that it was previously part of a Humble Bundle and it is still pretty cheap – and come on, you’d have to be pretty stingy to refund $3.

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To summarize: playing Plug & Play somehow led me to thinking about how these big content platforms suck ass for small creatives. The game’s interesting, yeah, but I think Plug & Play‘s place in this online culture that can easily devalue it is also interesting. Ultimately, I feel that people should support interesting animation/games any way they can in a brutal web hellscape filled with gamers that flip their shit over puddles.

Danmaku Unlimited 2

Writing about this was on the back burner for a while. Like, a long while. I even recorded a video back when my computer could actually handle that well. But then my computer had some weird nonsense happening and I kept getting distracted by stuff, you know how it is. It was only recently that I started looking at my backlog of stuff I had that I could play for this blog that I remembered that I should have written about Danmaku Unlimited 2 by now.

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Danmaku Unlimited 2 is by Doragon Entertainment, a one man indie studio. As the name indicates, it’s a bullet hell game. It’s a generic title, but thinking about it, it’s rather fitting.

Continue reading “Danmaku Unlimited 2”