[Game: Flywrench, Messhof, 2015]
Color-coded Careening:

On the Ingenious Design of Messhof’s High-speed Pared-down Platformer Flywrench

 

Introduction:

Mark Essen, under the pseudonym and eventual team name Messhof, rose to prominence as an indie developer through the breakout success of his simplistic multiplayer swordfighting game Nidhogg in 2014. But within the burgeoning indie scene of the late 2000s and early 2010s, he had already been known as the developer of, among other things, a free 2007 release called Flywrench. Evidence of this indie community fame can be found in the 2010 game Super Meat Boy, which includes the ship from Flywrench as a playable character. By that reasoning, Flywrench should be at least as well-known as BIT.TRIP RUNNER.

But it would be another five years before Messhof would put the finishing touches on the full and final release version of Flywrench, which became available in 2015. This is a somewhat unfortunate fact, as by 2015 the indie scene had grown massively (not least of all with platformers). And so the game launched to relatively few sales and relatively little fanfare. Thus, one of the early notable titles of indie platforming, which with slightly faster development could have been remembered alongside Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Limbo, Fez, Braid, Spelunky, and Cave Story as one of the forerunners of the explosion in indie games in general and indie platformers in particular, has in its final form been more-or-less lost within that very explosion.

In this article, I hope to help fix the timeline—by highlighting how Flywrench remains today, even among the countless competing options now available, a truly original, unique, and enjoyable game.

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[Game: Flywrench, Messhof, 2015]
Color-coded Careening:

On the Ingenious Design of Messhof’s High-speed Pared-down Platformer Flywrench

was last modified: November 17th, 2021 by Daniel Podgorski

[Game: Spelunky 2, Mossmouth, 2020]
Motivations to Spelunk:

On Spelunky 2, and Three Corruptible Virtues of Implementing Achievements for Games

 

Introduction:

This essay begins with a confession, one that feels on-par with admitting that one collects rocks or baseball cards or a similarly useless class of artifacts: I like achievements. In games that I am already enjoying, I actively make an effort to get achievements provided it does not impede that preexisting enjoyment. In fact, far from being impediments, I have often found that certain types of achievements lead to goals and playstyles that enhance the experience of a game. And if nothing else, purposefully attaining 100% achievement completion for a game can be a method of paying tribute to a game of exceptional quality—or of feeling that one has reached a satisfactory conclusion in otherwise endless affairs like roguelikes, arcade-style games, or even normal linear games that one can not seem to cease replaying.

In this article, I shall be covering the three clearest ways that achievements can be used for potential gains in terms of player experience and engagement. My main example in making this argument shall be Spelunky 2, as I believe that it and its predecessor represent nearly perfect implementations of achievements across all three categories to be covered.

The garden of achievements, however, is not filled exclusively with roses. There are a great many weeds and poisonous herbs to be found growing there. Achievements are often an afterthought, tacked onto a game by weary developers at the end of long projects, and—even when implemented with intention—may nevertheless include tedious, unappealing, or even exploitative goals. Thus, in each section of this article, after presenting the possible virtues of each prominent achievement type (with reference to Spelunky 2), I will also cover the vices and corruptions to which each type is vulnerable (with accompanying examples from other titles).

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[Game: Spelunky 2, Mossmouth, 2020]
Motivations to Spelunk:

On Spelunky 2, and Three Corruptible Virtues of Implementing Achievements for Games

was last modified: February 10th, 2021 by Daniel Podgorski

[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: June 15th, 2021 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: August 26th, 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: December 30th, 2021 by Daniel Podgorski