Tuesday, 24 June 2014

What I'm Playing: HOPLITE

Part two in a promised four part series, trying to figure out why mobile games so rarely make any impact on me.

Hoplite Logo

Hoplite is a roguelike. Comfortable with that bit of game jargon? Then you can skip the next section. But if not, allow me to quickly explain:

Named after Rogue, a 1980 game that cast the player as an adventurer pushing deeper and deeper below the crust of a fantasy world, the roguelike is a peculiar little subgenre. As in the original, movement and combat most are commonly based around tiles and turns. Heroes are upgraded by levelling up and/or collecting equipment as you descend. But most importantly: every death is permanent, whisking you back to the start of the game to face a whole new set of randomly-generated dungeons and monsters.

More recently, the likes of Spelunky and FTL have distilled the genre's spirit into something frothier, keeping the permadeath and different-every-time levels but translating them into platformers or strategy games. These game are known as roguelites.

(Suggested Further Reading: my potted history of the genre for IGN.)

Hoplite 1

Hoplite keeps the same quest structure as classic roguelikes: you play a chunky little Spartan warrior, tasked with the retrieval of the Fleece of Yendor. (The name is a dual reference to the McGuffins from Jason and the Argonauts and classic roguelike Hack.)

The Fleece is on the sixteenth level down, protecting an ever-increasing number of enemies. Once you've picked it up – which took me a few dozen attempts – you can choose to port back to the surface, ending your game in victory, or push further and deeper for a better score and the simple thrill of challenge.

In fact, while it feels like a roguelite, Hoplite is actually a remarkably orthodox example of the genre. As well as the permadeath and random levels, it maintains the turn-based combat: your avatar is able to move one hexagon at a time, slaughtering anyone on an adjacent hex, or take one action, then the forces of hell take their go.

The big difference is that Hoplite is built from the ground up with mobile in mind, streamlining the experience to fit the small screen and fat fingers. Classic roguelikes utilised an entire keyboard's worth of commands, even down to capital letters having a different effect to their lower-case equivalents. Hoplite does away with all that, leaving only movement and three attack commands: use shield, jump, or throw a spear.

Combat feels like a puzzle, thanks partly to this limited arsenal and partly to the clean Fisher-Price presentation, which displays attack paths for any character you hover a digit over. It encourages the player to think ahead a couple of turns – if I jump over this baddie's head, running him through with my sword, I can use this demonic demolitions-expert as cover from that archer, and next turn deflect his bomb back at them both – for my money, more than Threes ever did.

Hoplite 2

You'll need that kind of forward planning as you descend further. Each successive floor pushes up the number of enemies by one and adds new flavours of demon to the mix – the most fearsome being the sorcerer, who can shoot fireballs across almost the entire screen. Before long, each level is  painted with a convoluted criss-cross of attack patterns leaving only one hex safe, and often tantalisingly out of reach.

To balance this out, there are altars on every floor where your Spartan can pray – in a shouty Scottish accent, if 300 is to be believed – for one of five upgrades. It's the levelling up process simplified to its absolute core principles, minus skill trees or item augmentation.

The upgrades on offer range from prosaic (an extra healthpoint, a quicker reset on the shield bash attack) to game-altering (the ability to teleport to any hex your spear lands on), and can be expanded through the game's achievements system. Restore your health with a single heart remaining, for example, and next game you'll be able to pray for a pair of winged sandals which let you leap across much further distances.

These upgrades, once unlocked, are available from the same altar each time. That's useful for planning but it's also indicative of Hoplite's one major issue . The game in general could do with a little more randomness. Each floor always features the same number and type of enemies, with only their placement and a few scattered lava tiles to differentiate it from the last time you made it this far.

Maybe that won't matter the first few dozen times. But after your hundredth battle with the third level's two swordsmen, one archer and one bomber, it starts to feels a little restrictive. And make no mistake, your playthrough count will reach the triple figures.

It's shocking how well the pecularities of the roguelike suit mobile. Just about any chunk of dead time can be transformed into a string of enjoyable deaths, a couple of minutes apart. In fact, once you've done it a couple of times, beating Hoplite – that is, picking up the Fleece and teleporting back to the surface, presumably to be carried on the shoulders of your cheering comrades and paraded through the streets as a hero, never to sleep alone again – can be done inside of ten minutes.

But as the challenge of grabbing the Fleece fades, the promise of cheers and endless lovemaking for your little Spartan pales into insignificance next to the promise of a few extra points, a new level reached, a new ability unlocked. You push deeper and deeper, taking more chances, deftly avoiding the attacks that would have felled your younger self.

Until you suddenly realise you have to jump off at the next stop, and abandon your hero's epic tale, never to be finished. So what? You've lost maybe fifteen minutes of your time. It's not like you would have done anything good with it in the first place.

Hoplite 3

Other games what I've been playing:

Friday, 20 June 2014

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #1: "People We Want"

Image's The Wicked + The Divine #1 landed this Wednesday, bursting with the promise of being my new favourite comic. It's too early to say that yet and, besides, reviewing single issues of a comic is a bit of a vulgar business. So let's get our essay on.

(Spoilers follow, both visual and textual.)

WicDiv Covers


Let's kick off this two-part blog with a big old declaration of bias:

Jamie McKelvie & Kieron Gillen together make up just about the only fandom that I'd identify as part of. Their first comic together, 2006's Phonogram, introduced me to a whole host of ideas – formalism, poptimism, Kenickie – which make up a not-inconsiderable chunk of who I am today, and not just why but the way I'm writing this blog.

Their work is the exception to the rule that I don't buy comics monthly, and certainly not as print issues – I'm writing this having read a digital copy of issue one, knowing there's a pre-ordered copy waiting for me in my local comic shop. Their Thought Bubble DJ sets drag me halfway up the country on an annual pilgrimage of drinking, dancing, and ill-advised behaviour. I'm pretty sure Drunk Alex has tried to make out with at least one of them.

I am a complete fanboy and frankly, my opinion on any new comic they put out is not to be trusted.

WicDiv1

So why the hell am I telling you this? Because it's one half of what The Wicked + The Divine is about. It's a story about the relationship between creator and consumer, centering around an excellent high concept: once each century, twelve gods reincarnate on earth. In human bodies. As pop stars.

The story is already in motion when we join it. The gods have been manifest for a while – or at least, based on the three blanks in the chapter's introductory Jonathan Hickman-esque diagram, nine of them are. The public are aware of their apparent divinity and are reacting in various ways, ranging from utter devotion to the application of semi-automatic weaponry.

This is a narrative-driven comic – exposition and explosions, a couple of mysteries, a cliffhanger to close – in a way Phonogram never was. My first impression was that the issue flies past too quickly, despite the doubled page count, but it actually manages to seamlessly introduce the concept and establish an incredibly broad cast across two distinct time periods without ever having to stop the story to make time for introductions.

So let's do some introductions:

WicDiv characters

So far, it appears that The Wicked + The Divine belongs to Laura, our viewpoint character. For now, she's pretty much just a Fan, with the suggestion that she's trying to escape something in her own personality through her relationship with music.

Amaterasu is the first of the gods we see, mixing Florence & The Machine and Kate Bush with an added splash of Bolan glam, some openly mystical iconography and eyes that (in a classic McKelvie/Gillen motif) turn into tiny eclipses when she's in full performance-god mode.

Luci(fer) is the first god we actually meet. She's an androgynous Bowie-esque retro revivalist, referencing the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Philip Larkin, decked out with a white suit and a La Roux quiff. Luci probably gets the most development of any character in the issue. She's introduced as something of a standard-issue Warren Ellis Female – sharp tongued, fearsome and permanently smoking – but towards the end of the issue that trope gets exploded, fairly literally, and again we get a glimpse of the young woman she is underneath.

If Luci and Ameratsu were real pop stars, though, I suspect they wouldn't be part of my pantheon. The god I could imagine tributes to on an alternate-universe version of this blog is also the one we see least of: Sekhmet, Egyptian cat goddess by way of Rihanna.

It's the most striking and direct visual resemblance to an actual celebrity in the comic. More specifically, though, Sekhmet embodies a particular side of Rihanna: the pelvic thrust of S&M, the stamina-and-virility-challenging super-dominatrix of Rude Boy. She's all that good stuff stripped back to pure animal form, draped over two groupies (one of each sex, obv), uninhibited in the most literal sense, chasing red dots across the furniture like an actual cat.

Then there's Cassandra, a journalist and non-believer who probably deserves her own essay. For now, let's just say acts as the voice of scepticism. 

(Something you might have noticed – that was a lot of 'she's. Of the (by my count) ten potentially recurring characters, just two are boys. If that doesn't sound too important to you, well, you're probably not a regular comics reader.)

WicDiv 3

Cassandra tries to ground Amaterasu by reminding her she's just "a seventeen-year-old from Exeter". It's simultaneously a paean to the transformative power of pop and a suggestion that maybe she's just playing the same game as Laura. Less Amaterasu, basically, and more amateur.

She points to Sekhmet, saying it's not "a dignified way for a woman to behave". You've probably heard someone say a similar thing about Rihanna or one of the other pop stars in Sekhmet's DNA, and it raises a question of control and choice. Would whoever Sekhmet was before have chosen to become a cat sex god? How much of Rihanna's sexualised presentation is self-determined?

For a comic which I said goes by far too quickly, it manages to pack in a remarkable amount of questions about the creation and consumption of pop creation, both the specifics and the universal. Here's one more question: how much am I extrapolating?

Look, I told you I wasn't to be trusted. The Wicked + The Divine feels like a comic that was made for me, from concept to execution to the fact that, based on the caption box and the look of the houses, Laura lives a ten-minute walk from where I'm currently sat.

There's a scene early in the issue where Laura attends an Amaterasu gig. The star-god scans the audience, and meets Laura's eyes. You can read in her wonderfully-rendered expression what Laura's thinking: some variation of 'she knows me'. 

"It's so seductive when she understands", to steal a Kenickie lyric. But it's more than that. The art responds. Ameratsu extends a hand, in a gesture I last saw on the poster of Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam that hung on the wall of my student flat, next to a McKelvie print.

What makes Laura different, so that she is the one picked out? Internally, we don't know yet. But externally, I think it's that, unlike the other girls at the gig cosplaying as Amaterasu, unlike the one passing out to her left, Laura's makeup is a reaction to the style of her hero, not a straight lift. It's a work of criticism.

You can maybe see why I like her.

WicDiv2

Saturday, 14 June 2014

What I'm Playing: THREES

I've been moaning since 2010 that I don't have enough time to play games anymore. With an hour-and-a-half of dead time to fill each commuting day, mobile games should be the perfect solution, but I've struggled to find anything I really loved. 

This is the first of four posts going up over the next month or so, looking at the mobile games that have been dominating my tube journeys of late, and trying to work out if there is anything that can change my mind. Threes Logo

Even as I'm playing Threes, I don't really understand why I'm doing it.

Threes is a puzzle game where you move around tiles with multiples of three on them. If you can get two matching numbers next to each another, they can be combined into a single double-value tile. Two 3s become a 6, freeing up more space and, once the game is over and points are being counted, exponentially growing your score.

The exception being 1 and 2 tiles. Firstly because, as the more eagled-eye of you may have noticed, they aren't multiples of three. And secondly because they can't be combined with themselves, only with the other corresponding number. Two adjacent 1s other aren't any use to you, but a 1 and 2 can be squashed together into a 3.

Threes 1

This is a game of mathematical speed dating, and to matchmake these tiles you have to move the whole board. Each turn you have four choices: move all free tiles up, down, left or right. Trace Three's family tree back a few generations, and you'll see that it's a direct digital descendant of those plastic sliding block puzzles found in Christmas crackers and at the bottom of 99p lucky bags.

The key difference is that, being a virtual game rather than a disappointing toy, Threes is able to introduce more tiles with each turn. Move everything to the right, and a new tile will pop up on the left. This also introduces a fail state: let the screen fill up and you're out of moves. Game over.

Sat at the top of the other major branch of that family tree is Tetris, and like that mighty Russian patriarch, Threes presents you with a preview of the next tile, so you can control roughly where it will land, and make space for it to get intimate with a compatible number. In theory, you can predict what comes next, what you need to do, what the smart move is. In theory.

Threes 2

In practice, that doesn't happen, at least not for me.

Threes should be one big balancing act. I should be massaging my chin, muttering to myself: 'Right, if I move this, then this will squidge into this, but this will block this'. But for a puzzle game, I rarely feel like I'm solving anything.

That preview of what's coming next doesn't make me more strategic, it just makes me reactionary. The sky is constantly falling, and I'm thoughtlessly swiping to avoid any chunks landing on me. I look for easy matches, never thinking more than one move ahead and worse, it doesn't feel like I really need to. Once, out of curiosity, I tried to force a game over, sliding my finger around randomly, and was disheartened to find the game lasted another couple of dozen turns – probably longer than if I'd actually been trying.

You might have noticed we've switched here from the second person 'you' to the first person 'I'. I can't escape the feeling that the fault is with me. Honestly, I can't quite work out why I don't like Threes more.

The game removes any complexity of controls, which so often trip up mobile games, in favour of a single motion. The focus is put firmly on challenging the player's mind rather than their aching thumb joints. Each game is randomised, meaning it's endlessly playable. And most of all, the presentation is gorgeous. Everything has its corners rounded off like a safety-tested child's toy – all the way down to the fonts and icons and the pastel colour scheme. Every tile has its own little face, more detailed and filled with personality for each increasing number.


Threes 3

Here's the thing: I've played a hell of a lot of Threes. But I still find it very difficult to recommend. There's no elation when I beat my previous high score, no real feeling of defeat when that last immovable tile fills up the screen. 

Around the time I started playing Threes, a lot of my life was waiting for stuff to happen, stuff that was out of my control, and that's how the game feels to me, a process of swiping and watching things fail and then press restart until the allotted time is over. The fancy big-money word that cropped to mind, then and now, is 'anhedonia'.

In my Hearthstone blog, I said that game might have been better off with its fantasy trappings removed. Playing Threes suggests I was wrong. For all its visual charm, the game lacks any real theme or flavour. It's too abstract to give you the pleasure of filling a character's shoes and playing out their role, or just moving around in their world.

I was about to say that I can't work out why I've spent so much time playing Threes – but that's not quite true.

It's the ne plus ultra of a certain aspect of mobile games Threes is a precision-crafted time killer. A few rounds tesselate perfectly into a tube journey, or a waiting room, or an early morning trip to the loo. It's a process for gobbling up dead time. And it's great at making that time disappear, but it entirely fails to do anything more with it.

Of course, that might just be a problem with me. I'm the guy who doesn't like Angry Birds or Bejeweled or Tetris.

Threes 4

Other games what I've been playing:

Sunday, 8 June 2014

What I'm Playing: MONIKERS

A quick break here before we launch into a four-part special, ignoring the huge backlog of games I've made notes on and instead talking up a game I first played last weekend and just couldn't keep quiet about:

MONIKERS!

Monikers doesn't really exist as a game yet. The version I've played was printed, by me, onto some card we had lying around the flat. The lovely pictures I'm using throughout this post are nicked from the game's Kickstarter.

Which brings us neatly to the reason I'm writing about it now, rather than any of the other games I need to get written up before Mario Kart 8 arrives and dominates my playtime for the next half-year. While Monikers quickly passed its rather conservative $20,000 goal, you still have the chance to help the campaign push past its various stretch goals and essentially help improve the game you, and everyone else, will play.

And unlike most Kickstarter games, you can be guaranteed of Monikers' quality. Why?

Because I've played it, and I'm telling you it's ace, obviously. And also because you can play the same demo version yourself, for free.

MONIKERS!

Monikers is based on a public domain game called 'Celebrity'. You might not have heard of the game, but you'll have played a variant of it. Split into teams, pick a bunch of famous names from a hat, set a timer, and try to get your teammates to guess as many as possible using verbal clues. Taboo + the Copycat cards from Cranium + that 'Who Am I?' game they play in Inglourious Basterds where one of the Nazis is King Kong.

You play with a partly random, partly chosen deck of cards shared by both teams – each player picks up seven, throws out two they don't fancy, and combines them all into a big pile. This gets whittled down in a series of 60-second rounds, as the correct guesses are plucked out of the deck and the remainder are shuffled back up and passed to the next player. You keep playing until even the names that nobody's heard of (Punxsutawney Phil and Thomas Kinkade were the ones that killed our group) have been guessed.

The range of names on offer is Moniker's first stroke of genius: a mix of history, celebrity and internet culture that feels carefully picked to guarantee the maximum amount of conversational silliness. The second is that the process I've just described is only round one.

Once the two teams have worked their way through the deck, the the whole cycle begins again. The scores at the bottom of each card are counted up to find each team's score, then the cards are shuffled back together. Welcome to Round Two, where teams again have 60 seconds to guess as many names as they can, but this time they can only use a single word.

Eventually, the deck will be conquered once more. Count. Shuffle. Round Three. Where those same few dozen names have to be conjured with only gestures and sound effects.

MONIKERS!

Using charades to convey, say, 'David Foster Wallace' is a pretty tall order, but because the card will have cropped up at least twice before, your pathetic impression of a lobster stands a fighting chance. Unless, of course, 'Sebastian the Crab from The Little Mermaid' is also in your deck.

Because you're working with a finite number of cards, of which each player saw five before the game even began, you can start factoring traditional game skills like memorising and elimination and card-counting into your strategy.

All of which might sound like cheating, but it's not really. This is how Monikers wants to be played and, because it's a chaotic party game you're most likely playing with a drink in hand, it's hard to get too serious about things. Instead, this strategy manifests as a makeshift shorthand, a language each team constructs as they play.

(And I have to admit, as beautiful as the cards in these pictures are, I'm a bit concerned about the effect that the added descriptions will have. Our version of the cards just feature the name and a category, meaning that when you encounter 'Krang' (the brain-in-a-belly villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, fyi) and have no clue who they are is, you either have to find a unique angle of approach ("like the cartoon sound effect for two swords clashing against each other") or give up and move onto the next one, something that's explicitly encouraged in the game's rules.

Whereas in the forthcoming version of the game, when you've got a minute to fire through as many names as possible, and you hit the same card and there's a helpful 50-word biog of someone you've never heard of, the most sensible thing to do is to read it out loud. It's also the lame thing to do, and I doubt anyone I'd want to play this game with will rely on it, but the temptation is certainly there.)

MONIKERS!

As it is, though, Monikers balances both halves of the party game equation beautifully. It gets competitive in a way that Cards Against Humanity, generally considered the gold standard around these parts, never does but it also encourages you to be even more inventive, more silly, more filthy. Unlike Cards Against Humanity, you don't have to work blue – only a few of the cards are rude ('Fluffer', 'Goatse', 'James Deen' with that vital second 'e') – but it quickly goes that way because your friends are disgusting human beings.

Take the example of 'Rick Santorum', which cropped up in one of our group's games. Santorum is a US Republican Senator most famous for being a vocal opponent of gay marriage, but as far as clue-giver Dav 'Ain't No Stinkpen' Inkpen is concerned, the single most salient fact about him is that his surname has been coined, in a moment of beautiful internet vengeance, as the term for a slushy byproduct of anal sex.

Our team has no idea about any of this. But when the cards finally get back to me and I draw 'Rick Santorum', having no clue who this is but figuring that they sound appropriately gross, I look at Dav and say "anal leakage?". He gets it instantly.

By the second round, this becomes simply "leakage". By the third, I'm standing up making a deeply unpleasant combination of hand motions and mouth noises that probably factors into the imminent closing of the bar we're in.

Monikers has you reaching for old in-jokes to communicate ideas as quickly as possible, mining years of friendship for a word you can use instead of 'horse'. Better still, by repeating the same cards over and over, it forces you to create new ones too.

MONIKERS!

Other games what I've been playing:

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Alex-Spencer.co.uk is 300!

Just noticed that my published posts counter has ticked past 300. Six years after I started the blog, and almost exactly five years after I bought the Alex-Spencer.co.uk URL, it seemed like a good time to quickly celebrate the accumulated weeks of my life I've poured into it, and give a quick primer to everything half-decent I've written here.

Diving back through the site's archives, there are plenty of posts I daren't even open. Some because I know they contain badly thought-out arguments that would make 2014 Me wince. Some, even more terrifyingly, that I remember being really pleased with and don't want to be proven wrong.

The earliest post I'm happy to point you towards is 'The Scariest Game I Have Ever Played', from March '09 (nearly a full year after I started the site). It's me trying on New Games Journalism for size, with a tale from my time playing Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, and tapping a theme that's key to pretty much every successful article on videogames that I've written since: death.

Other commonly recurring motifs: 
  • Cartoonish PC roguelike SpelunkyThe piece I'm fondest of is the Oral History, which I think is about the neatest bit of how-this-works exposition I've ever written.
  • Los Campesinos!, probably my single favourite band over the period this blog has existed. The best thing I've written about them, or at least the most involved, wasn't actually for here. It was the closing post on the side-Tumblr I maintained during my six months of post-uni unemployment. It's an almost listen-by-listen untangling of my feelings towards their fourth album, Hello Sadness. If that doesn't sound awful to you, it's probably worth checking out.
  • The output of animation studio Pixar, which made a remarkable five appearances on my Top 50 Favourite Films list. Up is a perfect film, by my reckoning, and was the backbone for the first piece of freelance work I ever did, a piece on Disney, death and videogames for The Escapist.
  • Spotify, which has fascinated me since I first used it as a Kate Bush listening machine back in '09 and now dominates the way I listen to music.
  • Long-running high-concept features. Whether it's 30 Days of Music (which kicked off my years-long bromance with longtime blogging comrade and now 9-to-5 colleague Tim Maytom), the aforementioned Favourite Films on Friday (which, for all its flaws, was partly responsible for getting me the 9-to-5 job that allowed me to employ Tim), Project 52 (the biggest collaborative project I've ever attempted, with Tim, Bret Canny and Michael Eckett joining me in an effort to review every single first issue in DC's New 52 relaunch), I've always been a sucker for a snappy premise that hands me a structure and a deadline.
Let's wrap up with a few assorted pieces I'm really proud of and that I think make a nice primer to my writing. 
And finally, 'Keeping the Peace in Los Santos', a feature about trying to play as a pacifist in GTA V that started life as a rejected pitch I once wrote after two bottles of wine. There's a really nice symmetry between it and the Viva Piñata post we began with. It's my game writing at its most anecdotal, leaning heavy on the fiction writing style I don't exercise much anymore - and, obviously, it's about death.

Thank you for reading. See you in another 300 posts' time.

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.