Maintaining the Status Quo (on Games Criticism)

August 10th, 2014

Every now and then I come across a great quote that articulates something that’s been sitting in one of the dark corners of my brain, patiently waiting for that light bulb moment of articulation. One of the great things about this game design discussion group that I’m part of (more details here) is that such quotes come regularly. Here is one on games criticism:

“I think a lot of the criticism field is about proving authority through displaying how well you fit in the group. You do this by outward displays of intellectualism, which is easiest to manufacture by taking the simple and rendering it complex enough to justify your college degree. Since today’s game design culture is such a loose world of ideas with very little in the way of concrete knowledge, currying status among the critical community doesn’t mean producing results that others can reproduce and use–it means harnessing intellectual fads and making everyone feel good (read: smart). “Let’s come up with language that is less ambiguous and more concrete so we can more directly describe how games work and how we can do game design better” is actually at odds with this status quo, and thus needs to be said. It’s tempting to see a statement so close to our values and say “well, isn’t that obvious?”–it’s not obvious, though no one will argue the other side of it because admitting that games criticism is primarily a status game would damage the status communication mechanism that is games criticism and provide no benefit to the vast majority of games critics who would prefer to continue their effective status-gaining strategies.

Regardless, there are often kernels of truth and useful information to be gleaned from the needless verbal profusion of games criticism.”

The speaker sums up a lot of the ideas I was forming back in 2007-2008 when I first started writing and interacting in this space. Not much has changed since then and not much will change going forward without a critical language to ground our conversations and communities. What are your thoughts?

Introducing The Cave of Ātman

July 1st, 2014


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


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.


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.


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 – Browser Pick: The Cave of Atman

E3 2014 Notes and Commentary

June 19th, 2014

This video was too funny to pass up.

For the first time in a long time I was completely satisfied by the E3 showing this year. Loads of great games and plenty of innovation. After hours of reading, watching, and reflection, here are my main take aways from the show:

Presenting Gameplay

Video playthroughs focused on select portions of a game accompanied by developer commentary and gameplay trailers with few cuts are the best way to show off your gameplay to a new audience. Montages, CG trailers, early prototype video, and conceptual demos of the developers talking high concept just doesn’t cut it. Let the gameplay do the talking.

Between Nintendo’s Digital Event and the Treehouse Sessions, they covered these bases pretty well. However, the Treehouse videos were often drawn out due to the Japanese to English translation. Yes, I’m interested in Codename STEAM. No, I don’t have 45 minutes to sit through a slowly narrated playthrough with translation delays. Sony’s developer interviews were much more digestible at 10 minutes a piece, but they were too unfocused. Take this video of Hohokum for the PS4. After watching a 9-minute interview, I still have no idea what you do in this game. Start the interview with a short, elevator-pitch summary guys….geeze. The interviews are also inter-spliced with short snippets of trailer footage. It’s a good idea, but there’s not enough gameplay or context in the interviews to be constructive. Sony’s punchy length and Nintendo’s dictated playthroughs together would make a winning formula. Next year, guys.

The Conferences

If you stripped out all the CG trailers and meandering demos from the E3 conferences and replaced them with focused gameplay explanations, they’d be much more effective. I’m an E3 nut, but 1hr and a half of sizzle grows tiresome real quick.

It boggle the mind that Sony and Microsoft continue this pissing match of minor exclusivity. “Console debut”, “DLC first”, “it’s better on…”, “exclusive alpha version”, every time you hear these words—or in the case of self-apparent multiplatform titles, not hear—you know that it’s still a free kick to the other team.

Microsoft’s conference was basically a rehash of what they’ve been doing for the past 7 years: shooting, stabbing, and driving. I have no problem with these kinds of games, but there wasn’t anything genuinely new—unlike Titanfall

The start of Nintendo’s Digital Event was so refreshing especially after two marathon hours of self-important sizzle. It was funny too; I almost fell out of my seat. I also love the idea of Nintendo pushing back against the vocal minority of idiots in the Nintendo fan base. However, it was unfair of them to use Mother 3—a game which they can easily bring over to the virtual console.

Sony gave even more time than last year to indie games and it certainly injected a shot of dynamism into their showing. I’m not sure that Microsoft’s “we have 100s of these games” tactic is as effective as Sony’s curation approach. Giving these games a platform outside of a video montage and winning over some exclusivity on key titles is the best way to demonstrate commitment. That’s to say I think that players are more interested in playing the next great wave of indie games than having a large quantity of indie games to play. After all, we’ve all got PCs. In saying all this, though, maybe it’s just a consequence of the way Sony presented their indie game line up, but it was hard to see how these games were unique outside of their visual flair.

New Zelda

I was surprised that no one said that the new Zelda looks like Killer is Dead meets Skyward Sword. It totally does, right?

Nintendo say that the latest Zelda will be “open world”, but I wonder what that means exactly. Open world design works against the squeeze of gameplay, so I wonder how they’re going to pull it off while still maintaining the high level of gameplay quality that the Zelda series is known for. I guess A Link Between Worlds, which I have sitting on my 3DS SD card unplayed, will answer some of those questions for me. Whatever the case, I think it’ll take all the design ingenuity that Nintendo can muster to deliver on what Aonuma articulated during the digital event.


Splatoon was my game of the show. The genius behind this game makes my head spin. Territory control represented visually and organically as ink. Ink as a central dynamic that syncs into movement speed, traversal options, abilities, game flow and progression, and spatial dynamics. Ink as a solution to the issues inherent to gunplay (easy-to-see bullets that you can respond to, a weight dynamic to aiming, gyro to tune aiming, non-violent gunplay). Motion controls, touch screen controls, and traditional controller inputs. A reinvention of a well-worn genre. In terms of design, this is the most modern and sophisticated game I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m also surprised that no one said that Splatoon looks like a Sonic team game.

Odds and Ends

Yep. Very satisfied indeed. What did you most enjoy about the show? Let me know in the comments.