[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: January 15th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Slay the Spire, Mega Crit Games, 2019]
Someone Else’s Strategy:

On Mega Crit’s Slay the Spire, and the Occasional Heresy of Outside Help

 

Introduction:

The deck-building roguelike Slay the Spire is a well-designed, challenging, engaging game. Each of the game’s characters has a unique set of cards from which options are randomized and dealt to the player during each run, usually as a choice of one from three at a time. Each run begins with a small standard deck, which the player improves, expands, contracts, and (ideally) eventually uses to conquer 50-54 floors of the spire. On succeeding, the player unlocks a slightly harder version of the game for the character that won, up to a maximum of 20 difficulty modifiers (a system called ‘ascension’ in-game).

Deck-building games, like most games with card-based combat, are a subset of the strategy genre. The principal challenge of Slay the Spire—as in its broader strategy siblings—is, as the name of the genre implies, developing and executing an effective strategy. In theory, barring some truly horrendous luck, a person who has robust strategies should be able to beat the game a reasonable proportion of the time, even at high ascension levels. Figuring out which strategies work and which strategies don’t work forms nearly the entire gameplay loop and motivation structure of the game throughout nearly the entire time a player will spend with it.

I feel that these facts must be patently obvious to most players of Slay the Spire, yet I’ve encountered again and again people who give new players some truly objectionable advice which would never come from someone that understood those precepts. The advice in question runs rampant in the forums across the web dedicated to the game, and even feels implied in the words of the developers within the game’s graphics settings when they say that they “recommend Borderless Fullscreen for fast alt-tab.” The relevant advice is to make use of secondary resources—such as watching high-level players in order to “learn the game,” or having a wiki open while playing. I intend to argue here that doing so is tantamount to telling new players to skip the most engaging and valuable content of Slay the Spire.

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[Game: Slay the Spire, Mega Crit Games, 2019]
Someone Else’s Strategy:

On Mega Crit’s Slay the Spire, and the Occasional Heresy of Outside Help

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

[Game: Dark Souls, FromSoftware, 2011]
Unchosen Undead:

A Thorough Existentialist Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Original Dark Souls

 

Introduction:

Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s dark fantasy masterpiece, is a seemingly impenetrable work from an interpretive and thematic standpoint. First, famously, much of its worldbuilding and story can be reached only by careful attention to environmental set pieces, optional character interactions, and item descriptions. Second, and more of an obstacle for our present analytical purpose, Dark Souls is a game which seems to be about death, decay, and annihilation—but which is simultaneously a game starring a prophecy-driven character who survives death, and in which souls are demonstrable realities.

But would-be Souls scholars should not despair. As for the subtlety and density of its worldbuilding, this is no rarity in the wider world of art. While it’s nowhere near as complex as a Modernist novel, I would contend that Dark Souls is similarly rewarding to careful study as are, for instance, the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. So, obviously I don’t consider the difficulty of accessing its story to be an insurmountable detriment. And as for the seeming thematic contradictions of the game, these are not intractable.

A reading of Dark Souls as being in conversation with the canon of existentialist philosophical thought yields a relatively straightforward path toward interpretation: Dark Souls, especially through its story and gameplay mechanics, is an allegory for the human condition in an entropic universe with no inherent meaning. That might seem vague and insubstantial, but hereafter I intend to provide support for it (and eventually specificity) through careful attention to both the game and the relevant philosophy.

Dark Souls screenshot with Furtive Pygmy, Dark Soul, and First Flame - existentialist philosophical analysis of Dark Souls - FromSoftware - existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche

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[Game: Dark Souls, FromSoftware, 2011]
Unchosen Undead:

A Thorough Existentialist Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Original Dark Souls

was last modified: January 28th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Terraria, Re-Logic, 2011]
Yes Half Measures:

5 Reasons You Should Play Terraria on Mediumcore Difficulty

 

Introduction:

Terraria screenshot with home base - Re-Logic - Mediumcore DifficultyAny players of Re-Logic’s Terraria will know that difficulty levels in the game do not merely affect the stats of enemies. A ‘softcore’ character will only drop held money on death. A ‘mediumcore’ character will drop held money as well as held and worn items on death. A ‘hardcore’ character, when it dies, just stays dead. (Terraria possesses an overabundance of difficulty-related terminology, so, just to be absolutely clear: I’m not talking about normal mode versus expert mode, and I’m not talking about pre-hardmode versus hardmode.)

These are pretty dramatic differences in consequences for each character’s demise, and as a result the vast majority of players choose softcore mode. Those looking to prove what they’ve learned, on the other hand, are likely to crank it up to hardcore immediately. My personal opinion is that both are sub-par options when seeking the best playthrough of the game.

Here is my one caveat to this difficulty advice: if you’re really just playing Terraria as an artist or an architect (i.e. you just like building things), then softcore obviously make the most sense. But if you want the most enjoyable possible RPG adventure experience, then I highly recommend mediumcore. Here’s why:

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[Game: Terraria, Re-Logic, 2011]
Yes Half Measures:

5 Reasons You Should Play Terraria on Mediumcore Difficulty

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

[Game: Rogue Legacy, Cellar Door Games, 2013]
Turned Up to 11:

Rogue Legacy‘s Remix Bosses and the Virtues of Nonlinear Difficulty Scaling

 

[On the five-year anniversary of Rogue Legacy‘s release (two years after this article was published), Cellar Door Games patched Rogue Legacy with an update that (among other things) allows players to buff the characters for the remix boss fights. This significantly degrades the remix boss mechanic in Rogue Legacy as an example of the inflexible, nonlinear-scaling elements discussed in this article. The article remains archived in its original form, however, as the general theoretical case it makes remains intact (as regards the earlier version of the game, and all other instances of this type of design in other titles). – The Gemsbok]

 

Rogue Legacy screenshot with castle - Cellar Door Games - remix bosses - nonlinear difficulty scaling

Introduction:

Today’s topic is yet another indie game, and yet another roguelike-inspired game, and yet another game that I will be praising for its satisfying difficulty. But having covered similar topics so many times now in this series, I would like to do something a little different with Cellar Door Games’ Rogue Legacy by discussing its implementation of remix bosses as an absurd (and, from my perspective, totally welcome) spike in difficulty.

I have done this a few times in this series so far, primarily when covering games that have already been met with overwhelming praise by critics and audiences alike. In such cases, rather than throwing my praise on the praise pile, I try to offer something new, from a reading of the pixel art in FTL to a look at the atmosphere in Spacechem to a precise account of The Binding of Isaac‘s succession of The Legend of Zelda. Today’s angle: Rogue Legacy‘s various remix bosses may be seen as a prime example of nonlinearity in the scaling of a game’s difficulty, which produces potentially unintuitive benefits for the player.

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[Game: Rogue Legacy, Cellar Door Games, 2013]
Turned Up to 11:

Rogue Legacy‘s Remix Bosses and the Virtues of Nonlinear Difficulty Scaling

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