Steaming: Braid

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow, I forgot to talk about Braid. I played through it after Binding of Isaac, I suppose - that’s where it’d be in alphabetical order, so that must be when it was.

I’d heard a lot about Braid. One of the true original indie stars, it catapulted its author, Jonathan Blow, into the headlines and did the same for indie games development. Suddenly, anyone could make a game. It was an interesting time to be into games and the industry. I read a lot about it, but I didn’t actually play Braid. It was released in 2008 and I was catching up on games I’d missed while I’d been away travelling. I think I was knee-deep in Bioshock. Well, it’s time to fix that. This is a puzzle game based around time travel, and the manipulation of time: throughout the various worlds, you gain various powers over the passage of time and the world reacts to them in unusual ways. You must collect puzzle pieces in each world to complete a series of jigsaw puzzles.

Braid is gorgeous: it looks like a moving painting, and that’s exactly the aesthetic it was going for. It is, however, a little dated by today’s standards, and I don’t mean to sound like one of those people who talk about framerates when I say that: I just mean that it somehow looks as old as it is, which I wouldn’t have expected from this kind of game. Perhaps it’s more down to how character movement in 2D gaming has changed. Spelunky, for example, has made the platformer look so much more refined than Braid. It’s not exactly a criticism, but it certainly struck me.

Braid’s not about movement, though. Not like Spelunky is. And it’s not about looks, although they must have been a part of it’s success. It’s about the puzzles, and Braid is a brain teaser for sure. Where Antichamber felt like it was trying to be clever, Braid actually is, and the solution to almost every level in this game is reached with experimentation and lateral thinking that makes you feel genuinely clever. You often find yourself moving in the right direction, close to reaching the jigsaw piece that you’re trying to grab, but not quite making it. You try again, and again, getting closer each time. Eventually, you crack it, and it all fits together. Where Antichamber failed in this was that the solutions often felt a little too organic: I felt like I’d cheated my way through rather than solving the room in the intended fashion. With Braid, there are a few moments like that (in one puzzle I think I glitched a key through the floor) but overall the balance feels right. It felt like I was coming up with the solution myself, but the solution wasn’t painful to execute each time.

Braid is on the short-but-sweet side of gaming, clocking in at 5.9 hours for me according to Steam, and none of that time is wasted. There’s no filler here - barely even any story, in fact - and I was left feeling happy that I’d bought it and played it. I was a little disappointed by the difficulty, though: I’d heard so much about what a hard game it was and went in hoping for a real challenge, but I never really found myself stuck for long. I suspect that feeling is down to the hype surrounding the game rather than my ability to solve puzzles.

Steaming: Dark Souls

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I never thought I’d get to write this. I started playing Dark Souls years ago, but due to one thing or another, I’d never been able to put much time into it. Dark Souls is, to the beginner, punishing and frustrating. It doesn’t hold your hand at all and does little to guide you through any part of the experience. It’s hard to bring yourself to spend time on it when you don’t know what you’re doing. I decided, foolishly, to play through it blind. This was a terrible mistake.

A while back I decided that I was too casual a gamer to do this kind of thing: the hardest difficulty setting is not for me. I’m there for the experience more than the challenge, and the lowest difficulty setting is usually quite tough enough for me, thank you. Dark Souls doesn’t have a difficulty option though: it just has the option of googling for answers, or not. If you do, you’ll find a reasonably pleasant game that will push you but is ultimately a fair, consistent system which is a pleasure to pick apart and learn. If you don’t, you will die a lot. Over and over again. In the same spot.

My first Dark Souls attempts are something that I’m quite proud of because they demonstrate that I am, if nothing else, persistent. I made it to Anor Londo in 50 hours. I fought bosses 20, 30, 50 times, who knows? I spent over 2 hours on the Anor Londo archers. I was terrible at the game. I decided to give up on the blind thing, start fresh, and learn about the game. I wanted to be good at it.

I learned which weapons were the most practical (to its credit, there is no “best” weapon in Dark Souls, only different ones), how to upgrade them effectively, and which armour to get hold of first. I looked up maps of the areas. Suddenly, the game became not just playable, but incredibly fun: I stomped through to the same spot I’d reached in my previous game in around 12 hours, I think. It’s still not fast, but perfectly acceptable for me. Most importantly, I really, really enjoyed it. I took time to appreciate the game’s world and level design and found that when you can see the map, each level is actually quite short, and the time between bonfires is no longer hours but minutes. Those save points went from being far too far apart to almost too close together for a game with this reputation. I felt like I was finally seeing the game that the world fell in love with.

Dark Souls is a poster child for the idea that games are all about environmental storytelling. Almost none of the plot is explained to you outright, there are few cutscenes, and you’ll only interact with the handful of characters in the world on rare occasions. Instead, the plot is all around you. The world tells the story, the environments you work through provide clever hints at something bigger. The game doesn’t give you any clues as to the ways that you can change the storyline, but it’s actually wide open: your actions have real effects on the world.

A part of me wants to write that Dark Souls would be better if it had more of a tutorial, or just a few more guidelines. I don’t know if that’s true. It’s certainly true that learning more about the game enabled me to enjoy it, and the game didn’t provide a way to learn that suited me. Is that ok? Is it part of the game to uncover those mysteries? It was refreshing to play something so opaque and deep and weird, but I’m glad that someone else is out there making the guides that allowed me to enjoy the game. I hope they had as much fun making them as I had using them.

Steaming: Binding of Isaac

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

As far as I’m aware, it is impossible to not own Binding of Isaac, so writing about it feels a little redundant, but it was next on my pile of shame, and it was the next game I played, so here we go.

Binding of Isaac is a rogue-like that plays a little like Smash TV, designed by Edmund McMillen, one of the guys behind Super Meat Boy. The story goes that Isaac’s mum receives a message from god demanding the life of her son, so Isaac legs it into the basement which is full of monsters. He battles through until he defeats mom herself. It is quite quick to play through, but being a rogue-like (one of the first in the latest spree of them, I think?) you die and restart a lot.

I am terrible at this kind of game. I like them, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time on them, but I just can’t get good. While many of my friends whizzed through Binding of Isaac shortly after release, I plodded along for a long, long time, until it rose to the top of my pile and I forced myself to achieve something. Given the nature of the game it is a little hard to define “complete” - while I could have attempted to 100% the game, I decided that defeating Mom’s Foot, the initial end-of-game boss, would do. Strictly, killing the foot only opens up another section of the game, and I could continue to unlock more, but this will do as far as clearing my pile goes. I have more important games to get to. BoI isn’t really the kind of game that you ever completely stop playing, so I expect I’ll pick it up again and get further in future.

Binding of Isaac is, initially, divided into 6 floors - 3 chapters with 2 floors each. When I first started playing, I thought that the first two floors were hard, and I wouldn’t get through them every game. I fought on, determined to clear this pile of shame that weighs over me, heavy with the knowledge that I was only on my second game of the list, and then only on B - Braid, Dark Souls, down to XCOM all waiting in the wings. I switched from keyboard to gamepad, using JoyToKey, and eventually found that getting down to level 5 was a reasonably easy task. That level 5, though. When you get down to the depths, things change up a little - everything hits you harder and a few enemies can’t be attacked from the front, so movement becomes even more important.

Then, one day, after a few warm-up runs, I had the perfect game. I got the right items in the right order: good orbitals, powerful shots, a whole ton of health, and, wonderfully, Spirit of the Night, granting the ability to fly. From there, it was on. I swooped through the depths and found myself at the last floor. Could I make it to Mom’s Foot? Of course I could. For the first time I stepped into Mom’s room - full health, all the powerups I could dream of, but knowing, deep down, that you never, ever kill a boss on your first go. I didn’t even know what moves she had, what patterns she ran though. Deep breath. I make it through a few rounds of stamping, I kill some adds, I’m doing damage, and then I take a few hits. My health isn’t looking great but her health bar is looking low, so I get a bit sloppy trying to increase my damage output. I take a few more hits and I have maybe 2 hearts left, but she falls. I have, in a sense, completed Binding of Isaac. Onto the next game.

Steaming: Antichamber

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

Antichamber was top of my steam list. It is an indie, first person puzzle game, with simple graphics and a unique brand of puzzle. I picked it up in a sale a long time ago after seeing a let's play video, thinking it looked like my kind of thing.

Antichamber starts out great. It looks completely unique, starting out in a small room featuring the game settings on one of the walls. The idea that you’re stuck in-game and that everything is first person lends really well to the minimalist feel of the environment. There are no textures, no real lighting, no enemies, no other entities: just you and a series of cell-shaded corridors and rooms, mostly decorated in black and white. Each puzzle is marked by a zen-like proverb and a cute drawing on a black panel, which serves as a navigation tool. The initial puzzles are fantastic - they play with perspective and your perception of the environment in ways only matched by Portal. Shortly afterwards, though, the use of the game’s “weapon” is introduced: you are given a gun which can pick up and drop blocks in the environment, and the puzzles become based around using the blocks to hold doors open and push switches. Over time, you gain upgrades to the gun which allow you to move blocks in the environment instead of just placing them and eventually you’ll find yourself creating new blocks. It’s a great idea, in theory: it creates the idea that if something seems unsolvable now, it’ll become easier once you find the next upgrade. Unfortunately, that didn’t often seem to be the case for me - it mostly turned out that the way to solve the puzzle was something that felt rather glitchy and unintended, such as just catching the edge of a block, or nudging blocks around inch by inch until I could leap between them, and I didn’t need the upgrade at all. Everything just felt fiddly.

Ideally a puzzle game stumps you for a while, but never for too long. It makes you feel stupid, and then makes you feel smart. In Antichamber, I just felt stupid, and when I did achieve, I felt like I’d cheated or glitched my way through. I had to use guides for a few of the puzzles, but I did complete it. Steam says it took me 6.7 hours.