Writing Hiatus

April 14th, 2015

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As is probably evident by now, I’m currently on a writing hiatus. I’ve stopped writing since September last year and will probably remain inactive for the near future. I’m currently doing a masters so that I can teach Mandarin in Australian schools. I’m also taking advantage of the opportunity to improve my Mandarin and bring it up closer to a native speaker level. It’s the right time for me to be taking these steps, so I’ve had to put writing aside for the time being. Such is life.

The good news is that I still have time to play games and take notes as I play. I’m also sitting on about three issues of copy for the new zine project, Adventures in Games Analysis. Daniel (Stolen Projects) and I were ready to release the first issue a bit less than a year ago, but I had trouble banging out the preface (which I’d left to the last minute) and decided to put it on hold as I stew over the direction of the series. The problem was that in the time between writing the original copy and being ready to publish it, I published GDC: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, edited the Starseed Observatory, designed The Cave of Atman, and had been working to support a small group of critical gamers. These engagements changed my perspective on my own writing, and that change wasn’t reflected in the first issue of the zine. The actual analysis in the zine is great and doesn’t require much modification. Rather, I just need a few weeks to sit down and make some sensible cuts, additions, and tweaks.

Speaking of content and copy, here is a list of everything I’ve finished or have in draft copy for the first few issues:

And there’s a few more things that are in various stages of completion. Just typing out this list makes me super excited to get back into the writing game. I’m doing all that I can at the moment to make my transition into Chinese teaching a smooth and successful one. The way I see it, any effort that I invest now is going to go a long way in freeing my time and energy in the future, so it’s worth putting in the hard yards now.

If you’re absolutely dying for your fix of games analysis, though, I recommend checking out Joe Rothenberg’s game Nobody Said it Was Easy. Joe studied Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4 and then applied the concepts to his own game. Each level is short and communicates its ideas succinctly, so playing with a critical eye is a great way to review your understanding of the concepts covered in the book.

See you soon,

Daniel

Introducing The Cave of Ātman

July 1st, 2014

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Play Here (in browser)

“The Cave of Ātman is a sequential strategy RPG puzzler inspired by games such as Fire Emblem (GBA) and Jeanne d’Arc (PSP). A band of brave warriors find themselves summoned to a mysterious cave following a short tremor. As they descend the cave’s many floors, they unearth a secret that rests deep inside their souls.”

- Game Description

Background

The Cave of Ātman is a game I developed with my brother, Chris Johnson, and my games analysis buddy, Hayden Davernport. I did the game design and graphic work, Chris did the programming and project management, and Hayden did the music and sound effects. I came up with the idea early last year after I finished working on Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. Chris put the framework together over Christmas after I pitched the idea to him, I’ve been working on it on and off since January, and Hayden joined in March after we completed work on Starseed Observatory.

Concept

The idea evolved out of a series of notes I’d written on Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together (PSP), Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones (GBA), and Jeanne d’Arc (PSP) shortly after I finished the final edit of Game Design Companion. Since I’d been playing these three SRPGs at roughly the same time, my observations kind of congealed together. Before I knew it the only way I could cover all three games without heavy repetition and overlap: a three-in-one game repair.

Long story short: I discovered that many of the RPG systems in SRPG games (leveling, equipment, and custom unit selection) deconstruct strategic gameplay, and that the only way to maintain pure strategic gameplay is to remove these elements completely. No matter whether the RPG systems are heavy (Tactics Ogre), medium (Jeanne d’Arc), or light (Fire Emblem), they still place a strain of the strategy. In this sense, there’s an inherent conflict between the two halves of this sub-genre.

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Another point that I often returned to in my mini-case study of the genre was Jeanne d’Arc‘s excellent Burning Aura system. After attacking an enemy, an aura appears behind the enemy. Players can then move a unit into the aura tile to launch a critical attack. I love how this system adds new strategic wrinkles to the game whereby you manage the spacing of units with various attack ranges so as to combo up critical hits. The only issue I have with Burning Aura is that the auras fade away at the end of each phase cycle and so, with only a handful of units at your disposal, you can’t create very deep chains. I wondered what Jeanne d’Arc would look like if the auras stayed around a bit longer.

With these two ideas in mind and my repair job turning into a game of its own, I started planning my own SRPG. As I was thinking through the potential unit spacing, attack combinations, and suspension elements, I realised that I could distill this concept down further into a puzzle game, and thus The Cave of Ātman was born.

Lessons Learnt

It’s actually not like Jeanne d’Arc – The beauty of Jeanne d’Arc‘s Burning Auras is that enemy units can be attacked multiple times, and they usually have enough health that you need to attack them a few times. This anchors the spatial jig-saw around a central point. In The Cave of Ātman enemies die in one hit, assuming you’ve got enough aura, and therefore the puzzle challenges are centred around hot potatoes that move through the play space. The natural dispersion of enemies on the battlefield, where they might not always be in near reach, also makes it hard for the Jeanne‘s auras to be suspended across interactions (never mind the turn-based limitations). As I developed the rules for The Cave of Ātman, I realised that in order to turn the concept into a puzzle game, I had to shed some of Jeanne‘s identity and push the project into an alternative design space. The end result is more “inspired by” then “developed from”, but that’s cool.

The Particulars – When I write games analysis I always focus on the details and the power they have to influence a work on the whole. This is something that I found difficult to translate into game development. It’s easy to come up with ideas; the hard work is all in the implementation. Chris, who had the task of putting my ideas into code, would often ask for details on things I hadn’t originally considered.

Heavy Handed Tutorials – When I playtested The Cave of Ātman with a group of games analysis buddies, almost everyone said that the tutorial levels were so heavy-handed that players could complete them without even understanding what they were doing. Through their analysis, the group had unearthed a piece of me within the game. As a teacher (my job), I like to always be in control of my class and ensure that the students are getting enough feedback. I hold myself to the same teaching standards that I find in my favourite games and often compare my performance with those games. In this case, I hadn’t realised that my approach had been to the detriment of the learning design.

Planning Ahead – I had a clear understanding of the game I wanted to develop and the game we made turned out just as I envisioned it would. Having a clear understanding of the design space and also keeping everything limited (single turns, one enemy type, etc.) made it easier to work through some of the challenges that cropped up during development.

Conclusion

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give The Cave of Ātman a go. Share it with your friends too. I’d love to hear your feedback. I don’t have any grand ambitions to get into game development or anything like that, this was just a hobby project, but I have put up a new page on the site which lists my background in working on games. With the Starseed Observatory and The Cave of Ātman finished, I can return my focus back onto writing, so expect some more of that soon. Big props to Hayden and my big brother Chris for their hard work and commitment on the project. :)

Press Coverage

Jay is Games - The Cave of Ātman Review

Indie Statik - The Puzzling Delicacy Of Slaughtering Smiling Skeletons In The Cave Of Atman

IndieGames.com – Browser Pick: The Cave of Atman

Introducing Starseed Observatory

March 4th, 2014

Ah, so here is that mysterious group project I’ve been working on. It’s something Richard and I have been discussing for years and is a seed for something that I hope develops into something much bigger. I was the lead editor of the project and did the podcast-video feature Twin Perspectives. I like how the page offers listeners a lot of different ways to engage with the content. Later on, once I get some more time to myself, I’ll do a full write-up on the site, but for now, please enjoy this press release:

Press Release: New Starseed Pilgrim website is an experiment in the next generation of games criticism

Collaborative games criticism group, Critical-Gaming, releases ambitious new website on Starseed Pilgrim.

Dallas, Texas – March 3 2014 - Critical-Gaming today announces the release of Starseed Observatory(http://starseedobservatory.com), a new games criticism website exploring the indie puzzle-platformer Starseed Pilgrim. The website is an example of quality games criticism, a tool to help players critically discuss video games, and a resource to display and connect visitors to the discourse on the game.

Starseed Observatory is a mixed-media presentation that contains articles, podcasts, music, videos, imagery, and gameplay demos all co-created by members of Critical-Gaming. The criticism ranges from analysis of the game’s design, music, and gameplay strategies to personal reactions and reflections.

Droqen, the creator of Starseed Pilgrim, has supported the project by creating playable snapshots of gameplay to accompany the articles. In the next few months, Droqen shall release a new update to Starseed PilgrimStarseed Dreamwalk. The modification contains a mix of new ideas and suggestions put forward by Critical-Gaming.

On Starseed Observatory, co-founder, Richard Terrell, says:

Video games are complex works of art that utilize many different types of design and craft. All the work that is put into games makes them more interesting, engaging, and enjoyable experiences for players. One way we can share great experiences we have with games is by talking about them. Proper criticism gives us the language to understand and enjoy games better (even the games we don’t like!).”

Starseed Observatory is available right now at http://starseedobservatory.com.


About Critical-Gaming

Critical-Gaming are a diverse group of game analysts, designers, and writers. The team has met online every Sunday for almost a year to keep in touch and brainstorm ways to fix the current state of games criticism. The group was co-founded by Richard Terrell and Daniel Johnson.

 

About Richard Terrell

Richard Terrell writes the Critical-Gaming blog and co-developed BaraBariBall, an indie fighting-sports game hybrid that’s part of the Sportsfriends compilation on PC, PS3, and PS4.

Web: critical-gaming.com

Email: richard@critical-gaming.com

Twitter: @kirbykid

 

About Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson is a former GameSetWatch columnist and the author of Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4 and Adventures in Games Analysis.

Web: danielprimed.com

Email: danielprimed@gmail.com

Twitter: @danielprimed

 

For media inquiries, please contact:

Richard Terrell

Email: richard@critical-gaming.com

Phone: 214.995.8424

Availability: 9am central – 10pm central