[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: 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

[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: June 4th, 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: July 30th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski