[Game: Jak II, Naughty Dog, 2003]
Jak, Too:

Extolling the Virtues of Naughty Dog’s Second Jak & Daxter Title via an Unintuitive Analogy

 

Introduction:

For about a decade after I originally played it, Jak II was my favorite game. In the run up to its release back in 2003, I spent over a month convincing my parents (especially my violent-media-averse mother) that it would be alright for me to purchase the game, despite the fact that it would be rated ‘T for Teens’ and I would not quite yet be a teenager.

My ironclad arguments included that I had already played the T-rated games Ratchet & Clank and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4; that Jak doesn’t get access to guns until partway through the game; that the enemies in Jak II simply vanish without any blood when killed; and that I had already completed its E-rated predecessor, Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Ultimately, I doubt my folks were swayed by any of those arguments. Rather, they probably relented because I was almost a teen anyway, and I had demonstrated so extensively and so annoyingly the depth of my desire to play it.

In fact, I had not simply completed Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. I had one hundred percented it. And the game did not reward that effort with a chunk of additional gameplay, as had titles that I had previously one hundred percented (such as the entries in the original Spyro trilogy); instead, it simply provided a short, cryptic cutscene lightly teasing the inciting incident of Jak II. This may go some way to justifying my eagerness to play the sequel. Nevertheless, when I did finally get my hands on it, I was astonished by the quality of the game.

Jak II screenshot with piloting zoomer in slums - Naughty Dog, retrospective analysis, analogy, comparison

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[Game: Jak II, Naughty Dog, 2003]
Jak, Too:

Extolling the Virtues of Naughty Dog’s Second Jak & Daxter Title via an Unintuitive Analogy

was last modified: July 29th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Darkest Dungeon, Red Hook Studios, 2016]
Inordinate Exsanguination:

On the Design Decisions Bloating Red Hook’s Otherwise Terrific Strategy Game Darkest Dungeon

 

Introduction:

Despite all of its thematic darkness and mechanical brutality, Red Hook’s Darkest Dungeon can be quite a joy to play. It has a balanced mix of depth and breadth in its D&D-style strategy mechanics, making for a satisfying experience when formulating and executing plans. Its level of aesthetic polish stands out as exceptional, putting it alongside the work of other artistically gifted small development teams like Supergiant Games, Nitrome, and Team Cherry. And its level of difficulty makes for an agreeable challenge that requires players to develop non-trivial strategies for longterm success, as all strategy titles should.

I most assuredly have an overall positive impression of the game, and if this were a simple review of it, I would only feel that I was slightly misrepresenting my opinion if I closed by giving it an unabashed recommendation. It’s a very competent mix among an RPG, a roguelike, and a strategy game, all set against a backdrop of Lovecraftian horror—what’s not to like?

But the game’s literal tens of thousands of positive Steam reviews more than adequately cover its merits, so that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, this article will be focused on the abundance of small design decisions, surfacing roughly between the 20-hour mark and 60-hour mark of a playthrough, which serve to weaken the game’s demonstrable strength.

I should clarify right at the outset that none of the things I will be discussing in this article are elements covered by the title’s gameplay options (which include a number of toggles for enabling or disabling some of the game’s more contentious mechanics). Rather, the decisions I will highlight include non-optional mechanics that unduly slow its pace, that mislead the player to push them toward sub-par strategies, and that add challenge in ways that feel sloppy or even unintentional. Alone, any one of them would probably be nitpicking for me to discuss; but together, they sum into a disrespect that the game demonstrates toward the player’s time.

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[Game: Darkest Dungeon, Red Hook Studios, 2016]
Inordinate Exsanguination:

On the Design Decisions Bloating Red Hook’s Otherwise Terrific Strategy Game Darkest Dungeon

was last modified: June 19th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Pikmin, Nintendo, 2001]
Thinking, with Pikmin:

Why Pikmin‘s Campaign is Superior to Pikmin 2‘s Campaign (in Tone and Design)

 

Introduction:

Pikmin was one of the last few entirely original game concepts produced for Nintendo by Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Star Fox, The Legend of Zelda, and more), and it is certainly overshadowed by the worldwide phenomena of his earlier creations. Still, I feel that the original Pikmin is a tremendous game, well worth discussing, and is a very unique approach to the otherwise mostly warfare-focused genre of real-time strategy.

Dedicated readers of this series will probably find the title of this article oddly familiar. That is because it is almost identical to the title of an article I wrote previously about Valve’s Portal franchise. I couldn’t help but notice the similar thesis here, where I am saying that the campaign of a sequel to a distinctive and well-known title is weaker than the original, against the critical consensus, and on the basis of both tone and design. But in this case, I feel that the quality difference is much more pronounced. Whereas I consider Pikmin to be an excellent game deserving of classic status (like both Portal and Portal 2), I find Pikmin 2 to be a stale, stilted, and even at times boring game to play.

The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling plot details of Pikmin and Pikmin 2, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you do not mind spoilers or have already played the games.

Pikmin screenshot with bulborb and red pikmin - Nintendo, Pikmin 2, comparison, analysis

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[Game: Pikmin, Nintendo, 2001]
Thinking, with Pikmin:

Why Pikmin‘s Campaign is Superior to Pikmin 2‘s Campaign (in Tone and Design)

was last modified: May 18th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: The Witness, Thekla, 2016]
DeMystified:

A Deconstructive Reading of Jonathan Blow and Thekla’s The Witness

 

Introduction:

Game designers who take seriously the idea that they are creating works of potential artistic significance operate at a great risk to their peace of mind. Regardless of the quality of their efforts, if their works are successful, they can expect to be bombarded with accusations that they are over-serious, over-dramatic, pretentious, overly political, egotistical, fatuous, and snooty. While players may be mostly united in the proclamation that games can be art, they often behave as though they are allergic to what it would mean for the world to accept that postulate: the production (and later the analysis) of works that are as challenging in subject matter as they are in mechanics.

One frequent target for that manner of criticism is Jonathan Blow, the lead designer and partial programmer of The Witness, which was made with a small team under the developer name ‘Thekla.’ The Witness is a game in which the player wanders an uninhabited, brightly colored island, slowly uncovering its landscape and details by tracing lines on the faces of circuitry panels installed throughout. On first glance, The Witness is a quasi-conventional title in which the player solves visual logic puzzles in order to ascend and explore a conspicuously placed mountain. Beyond that first impression, however, it slowly becomes clear that The Witness is a work overflowing with visual trickery, peppered with recordings of fiction and philosophy, offering a coherent-yet-concealed story concept, and harboring some of the most astonishing secrets hidden in plain sight in any piece of popular media ever made. These latter elements, much like the narrative details of Blow’s prior game Braid, have garnered a fair amount of the heavy-handed dismissal described in the paragraph above.

The Witness screenshot with entire island - Jonathan Blow, Thekla - analysis, deconstruction, meditation

Presumably, players are so keen to reject this kind of material precisely because it is at present relatively uncommon, unexpected, and thus instinctively unwelcome in games. But this tendency of people to brazenly dismiss ideas which are not straightforward in their delivery does not land only on game designers, and is in fact a longstanding tradition among the public reactions to certain academic fields and artistic styles. A natural case-in-point is the practice of deconstruction, a method of analysis popular in the philosophy of the humanities in the late 20th century as part of the movement of poststructuralism. In a very simplified nutshell, deconstruction teases out contradictory content in the grammatical, linguistic, and thematic content of a work in order to demonstrate a general idea about an inability to access the work’s “true” meaning and the world’s “true” qualities.

Interestingly, I personally feel that the reactions of most onlookers are not the only things that deconstruction and Thekla’s game have in common. I intend to show here that the method of deconstruction provides a remarkably appropriate path into analysis of The Witness.

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[Game: The Witness, Thekla, 2016]
DeMystified:

A Deconstructive Reading of Jonathan Blow and Thekla’s The Witness

was last modified: April 2nd, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Infinifactory, Zachtronics, 2015]
Infinite and Individual:

On Zachtronics’ Infinifactory, and What it Means to Approach Games as Art

 

Introduction:

Most players agree that games can be art, yet act in ways that betray the fact that they do not personally approach games as art. For such players, it is as though the word ‘art’ is merely a badge that gets to be worn by things people particularly like. They see that some people seem to like novels quite a bit, and that those therefore get to be art. Well, they want to make it clear that others now like games a great deal, so of course they want games to be allowed to wear the badge too. I am certainly of the opinion that games can be art, but from my perspective, the word ‘art’ does not refer to a vague and insubstantial category of preferred works.

In this article, I would like to zero in on this topic of games as art. My test case for this purpose will be the design-based puzzle game Infinifactory. This example is a very conscious choice on my part, as Infinifactory is one of the many games that I consider to be poised between conceptions of games as art and conceptions of games as not art. If that sounds strange or you’re already making assumptions about where I’m going with this, don’t worry: I’ll explain myself with considerable specificity in the sections that follow.

This article will have four primary parts. First, I will present a working definition of art that I consider to be both flexible and rigid enough to be tenable. Second, I will apply that definition to games in general. Third, I will justify my claim that players often approach games as though they are not art. Then fourth and finally, I will describe how one may conceive of Infinifactory as a work of art. In doing all of this in a systematic fashion, I aim to foster a more specific and concrete discussion of this topic than most of the extant debates and articles produced about it over the past few decades have engendered, as a small contribution to spreading the formalist revolution in the study of games to a wider audience.

Infinifactory screenshot with corpse - Zachtronics - games as art, definition of art

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[Game: Infinifactory, Zachtronics, 2015]
Infinite and Individual:

On Zachtronics’ Infinifactory, and What it Means to Approach Games as Art

was last modified: May 18th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski