Mini Game Review: Minit

I got Minit when it was released on the Epic Games Store!

On the whole, I enjoyed the time I spent with Minit. The game looks deceptively simple, but unfolds into a game with a lot of depth and clever surprises. The map is expertly crafted to ensure that you will always be trying to reach what you are looking for with mere seconds to spare, which is the most satisfying part of the game. It’s basically a race against yourself.

The biggest problem I found with the game was that it was difficult to pick back up after being away from it for a couple of days. The game’s minimalism — which didn’t give me any indication of my progress — made it difficult to get my bearings or remember what exactly I was supposed to be doing. The game is definitely meant to be enjoyed in a single sitting, and I think taking the time to do that would have eliminated some of my frustration with its world.

I’d recommend this game to casual and experienced gamers alike, though the game definitely does lean on players having some awareness of classic top-down RPG conventions. Remember to smash every pot you see!

Games to Think About

Games are a lot of things. They’re entertaining (usually). Often, they’re feats of technological prowess. Sometimes, they’re art. Ultimately, the form of the game is just a vehicle for human expression. Like writing or painting, games are a medium for their creators to express ideas. These ideas might not always come across the way the creator intended, but I doubt anyone makes games that don’t in some way try to move the player. That could be making a player laugh at a delightful event, cry at a character death, or fling their controller across the room in frustration at a particularly difficult level. Whatever the emotion, it’s part of a game designer’s job to make the player feel. A game which leaves its players stone-faced, feeling nothing, is probably a bad one.

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A Hard Medium: Managing Difficulty in Games

“Should FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have an easy mode?” This question has sparked a fair amount of debate in the gaming world lately, and it seems like the community is split. A key argument from those against the inclusion of an easy mode is that such a thing would compromise the game designer’s carefully-engineered, difficult experience.

The thing is, difficulty is relative. Some people may take 100 tries to defeat a difficult boss in Bloodborne, while others might succeed in just 10 or 20, for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they’re physically incapable of executing difficult button-press combos. Maybe they only have time to play games when they’re tired. Maybe they just suck at a certain style of combat–for example, I found God of War much more difficult on Normal difficulty than Spider-Man on Hard. A game with difficulty that’s insurmountable, or impractical, for players like these to overcome, results in them being locked out of an experience that they’ve made honest attempts at being a part of.

Anyway, this blog post isn’t here to argue about whether easy modes for infamously difficult games should exist. Rather, I’d like to present a few ways games could, and have, included lower-difficulty modes in a way which doesn’t compromise the experience for players. Also, for simplicity’s sake, this blog post focuses on single-player games (or games which can be played single-player, such as Borderlands 2).

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X-Factor: Why Factorio feels like play, not work

Before I started playing Factorio, seeing screenshots of the game scared the crap out of me.

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Source

All the uninitiated see in a screenshot like this, is an indecipherable mass of pixelated machinery plowing through a muddy landscape. Is this a puzzle game? A simulation game? It’s hard to make any sense of what’s going on, and man, is it ugly.

But even as a fairly new player–one who has barely scratched the surface in terms of progression in the game–I’m slowly starting to see something more like art in these images.

In Factorio, players only have one goal: launch a rocket into space. The process, however, is far more complicated. First, players must craft a rocket silo, then load the silo with 100 rocket parts. This becomes a gargantuan task once you realize each rocket part is made from low density structures, rocket control units and rocket fuel; each rocket control unit is made from speed modules and processing units; each speed module is made from advanced circuits and electronic circuits; each electronic circuit is made from… and so on and so forth. In terms of raw ingredients, creating 100 rocket parts requires 9,500 coal, 293,519 crude oil, 77,500 copper ore, 89,100 iron ore and 240,370 water–for perspective, players start off with a single burner mining drill that produces 0.25 of whatever raw material it’s mining per second. Crafting a rocket part by hand using the game’s in-game crafting menu would take a player 1500 seconds, or 25 minutes.

Fortunately, Factorio’s main gameplay loop lies in extending and optimizing your factory to account for automating the creation of these complicated recipes–which, surprisingly, is fun.

The game makes creating a production line–no matter how efficient–feel extremely rewarding. It’s satisfying to watch raw materials be fed into complicated chains of conveyor belts and robotic arms, and your carefully hand-placed assembling machines spew out end products, that are then fed into other assembling machines, and so on. Because each product is an end product of a combination of other products, it’s easy to break down a long recipe chain into smaller, more manageable parts–mini-production lines and factories. Even if these parts are built haphazardly, the map stretches out into infinity in all directions, allowing players to lay their factories down almost anywhere–meaning you’ll be able to link your work together no matter what, even if it does end up looking like spaghetti.

Optimizing your production line provides more layers of accomplishment–the game lets you tune machines with modules that make them run faster or consume less power. Manipulating your production line on this micro-level can ensure your factory is always running at peak efficiency. Witnessing a factory tick on without any stalled conveyor belts is another satisfying moment to be had.

While I enjoy these architecture and optimization elements to some extent, the bulk of my fun from playing Factorio comes with playing it with others. Early on, your factory can get so large that traversing from resource to resource becomes a pain–and it’s usually why I give up on single-player mode fairly early on. Playing with friends, however, is a very different experience. Just like how the game’s structure allows for recipes to be split into manageable parts, having multiple people working on the factory makes the building process even more streamlined. One player could be adding more assembling machines to create more science packs, while the other works on the raw material mining setup on the other end of the production line. Players who don’t enjoy messing around with factory elements can do their teammates a favor by exploring the map and taking out colonies of pollution-attracted Biters–the game’s enemies and the only thing that really stands in your way–before they make it to base; or reinforcing the factory bounds with gun turrets on the off-chance that they do launch an attack.

Factorio might not be immediately accessible, but I think anyone can find enjoyment in it, even if just for an hour or two. Playing the game is like watching and creating your own Rube Goldberg machine–it’s captivating, and I think most people feel the same way when they witness a complicated machine in action. So even if factory-building doesn’t sound like an appealing concept–it’s something that appeals surprisingly to our baser instincts, and ends up being fun.

I, Protagonist

In games, do players really embody the characters they control?

They move left when you move the left stick to the left. They move right when you tilt it to the right. And they jump if you press A (or B, or X, or Y, or Space). It’s as if keyboards and controllers just melt into our bodies and become a muscle we flex to bend a knee or wave an arm.

Indeed, lots of games have made me feel like the virtual character I’m piloting. In Skyrim, I can almost feel the weight of a sword with each left-click I make. In Harvest Moon, I wrestle with maximizing my farm’s profit as if the gold in my inventory is linked to my real life bank account. My consciousness is somehow tethered to these pixels and polygons, and I end up caring about the virtual avatars I possess, as if taking care of my own body.

Other games aren’t as successful. (To me, at least.) For how immersive games like Fallout 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition purport to be, I’ve never once felt like I was the one trekking through the Commonwealth or slinging spells at giant spiders. Instead, these games make me feel like a floating head behind their real protagonist, manipulating their actions, giving them commands. I hardly feel like the character I’m controlling; instead, the experience feels like it has far more in common with playing The Sims than you’d think.

One reason I think games like Fallout 4 and DA:I fail to deliver this player embodiment is something that’s somewhat of a recent trend: they have voiced protagonists. These are two game series that shifted away from having silent protagonists, to having one with fully-voiced cutscenes. There’s dissonance there: these games let me heavily customize the player character’s physical appearance to whatever I envisioned, but seeing my custom character speak and emote in ways I didn’t agree with or expect really broke any sense of ownership I had over them. Cutscenes in Fallout 4 rip the player out of their first-person view and thrust them behind a third-person camera instead, making them watch someone who, just a few seconds ago, they were.

The shift towards having voiced protagonists also greatly affects player choice. With recorded dialogue now being a major limiting factor on the game’s writing, the number of choices players should be given with what they want their character to say is necessarily reduced. It’s no surprise that Fallout 4 and Dragon Age II (the first Dragon Age game with a voiced protagonist) also overhauled their dialogue systems, opting for a wheel instead of multiple choice. Limited space on a wheel often requires that options be labeled with truncated versions of what the recorded line actually is, and one of two things happen: the nuance of the final response is lost and players get tricked into picking an option they didn’t intend to, or dialogue is written to be intentionally simplistic or vague, to avoid such misunderstandings happening. The predecessors to these games, Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age: Origins, while still limiting players with multiple-choice dialogue selections, at least gave me the full sentence, which made it much easier to pick something I would personally say. More recently, Divinity: Original Sin 2 also does the same but with a more classic RPG flair, peppering responses with *actions in asterisks*.

It’s probably common sense (and the above examples illustrate this perfectly) that it’s much easier to project oneself onto a character if they’re more of a “blank slate”, with no voice and no predetermined paths of action or dialogue. I’d even go as far as to say that these two elements are far more important than things like being able to customize the player character’s physical appearance, or having an immersive environment. As a 10-year-old I felt innately invested in my blond farmer girl alter ego in Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town (where the extent of character customization is choosing what color overalls to wear), simply because she could do everything I wanted her to do, exactly the way I wanted, within the (comparatively tiny) scope of the game.

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She still feels like me! Source

It’s been mentioned that Nintendo characters like Mario and Link have been designed as blank slates–but again, I’ve never once felt as if I was an Italian plumber or a Hylian warrior. Their initial incarnations might very well have been good blank slates, but over time the franchises they’ve sustained have injected so much of their lore into the collective consciousness of gaming culture to the point that I don’t think anyone who’s played their games before would attempt to deceive themselves into thinking they’re embodying Mario or Link. Instead, we’re helping these familiar characters achieve their goals.

Which begs the question: do we always need players to feel like the character they’re playing? Obviously not. Games like The Last of Us or Uncharted don’t try to make the player become Joel or Nathan Drake; instead we sympathize and empathize with them as their pre-scripted, linear character arcs unfold in front of us, while we point them in the right direction like an omniscient god. Super Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild do the same. If a game tells us what kind of experience it’s trying to give us from the get-go, it’s easy to accept its confines and play freely within them.

However, games like Fallout 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition send us mixed signals. We get to customize our characters as if their faces are made out of modelling clay, rename them, and in Inquisition, pick their voice. But once the game starts we are immediately plunged into worlds which give you constant little tastes of freedom before grabbing the reins, and then shoving them back in your direction when a cutscene is done. I feel like I’m supposed to be my Inquisitor, but I never really get there.

Ultimately, it’s a question of managing player expectations, and defining what a game’s essential experience is. I think that Dragon Age II did a better job in this area compared to Fallout 4 or Inquisition–we’re told that our protagonist is a member of the Hawke family, they have a canonical physical appearance, and the early scenes establish strong relationships between this character and their family which develop over the course of the game. I found myself seeing Hawke not as myself, but as a character I was trying to help–which made it a much better experience.

Being a protagonist in a novel, or a film, or a game, is a fantasy that’s irresistible and ubiquitous. It’s tempting to force players into a leading role, but it also sets them up for disappointment. Doing this well, however, can create incredibly powerful experiences.

Crafting Connections with Coziness

New Year’s Eve, 2013, 11:59 AM. My sisters and I each stare at the screens of our Nintendo 3DSes, in intense concentration. We–well, our villagers–gather in the main square of the Town of Gotham, where a big sign counts down to the beginning of 2014. When the time comes, we press ‘A’ in unison, and the party poppers in our hands explode in a shower of confetti as fireworks fill the sky.

This is an actual recording of that night. I’m the one on the left.

I’ve made memories like this with others in a variety of games, but never really examined why these particular moments have worked so well–both for me, and the people I’ve shared them with. What makes these virtual spaces effective at helping individuals connect and create lasting, positive memories? In short: why do these kinds of games function well as spaces for socialization?

First, I’d like to introduce the concept of coziness in games. In this report from the 12th Annual Game Design Think Tank, the authors discuss how coziness is important in fulfilling the higher order needs of players.

According to this diagram, having and maintaining social relationships for comfort and companionship is a higher order need compared to basic needs like food or shelter. Makes sense: being able to socialize with friends isn’t essential to our survival, but it (generally) puts us in a good mood, making us better equipped to deal with life. A cozy game allows players room to socialize, by making them feel safe, relaxed, and familiar with what the game expects of them. Most of the games I talk about in this post will, unsurprisingly, have cozy elements–see if you can identify them.

I’ve examined some of my own positive social experiences in gaming, and have some ideas about how the design of said games allowed these experiences to come about.

Aesthetic Customization

I played Starbound obsessively with a group of friends for a month or two in 2017. While a few of them found great joy in combat and gathering hard-to-find resources, I found more joy in declaring myself the base’s architect and quartermaster. I built upgraded crafting stations, organized materials into various chests, and erected a monument to our achievements, painstakingly emblazoning our (user)names onto animated signs.

Our base, established on a peaceful planet, was already a source of respite from the dangers of traveling the stars, but being able to design our virtual headquarters literally any way we wanted made hanging out here something we enjoyed immensely. Starbound boasts a massive amount of furniture and decorative items, and other robust customization systems for things like animated signs. Having this amount of personalization at our fingertips really helped us feel like this space was our own.

If players are allowed to customize the environment they play in at all, then allowing them more freedom of customization will aid in creating comfortable spaces for socialization. Games can do this by adding more variety in decorative items, ways to customize existing items, or even let players create their own items.

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Player-created patterns in Animal Crossing allow for highly customizable towns. Source

Private Rooms and Custom Game Modes

Other than in Animal Crossing, I’ve also spent a New Year’s Eve countdown in another game–Overwatch. Trapped at home with nowhere to go, my friends and I decided we’d celebrate in style: creating a custom game in Overwatch (which was a relatively new development in 2016) where we’d make our own firework show.

An excerpt from our group chat.
What we were trying to do.

Overwatch‘s custom games not only allow players to create private rooms, but also give them complete freedom over any existing mechanic they can think of: reduce gravity, make ultimates charge 300% faster, or make it so players don’t deal damage unless they get headshots. I’ve been in custom games that are basically chat rooms, with players practicing their aim on AI bots (or each other) while they converse over voice chat or Discord.

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Just some of the options you’re given when making a custom game. Source

In a private space of our own design, the game became a more appropriate place for socialization, rather than a hectic competitive battle where everyone tends to focus on the action. Allowing players to curate their own experiences increases opportunities for social interactions outside of competitive gameplay. This isn’t to say that Overwatch‘s main gameplay loop doesn’t encourage being social, but having the option of breaking out of the game’s existing structure is always a plus.

Soft Focus

I have many fond memories of Minecraft, but one that stands out is an instance where it helped members of my family bond during a tragic event–a funeral.

Everyone in the family was put on shifts to guard the body throughout the night during the wake. I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to take over from my cousins and sister, and realized they’d kept themselves busy the entire time by playing Minecraft. My sister was feeding a sea of cows in an underground bunker, while the rest chipped away at some cave systems in search of diamond. Naturally, I joined in.

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A cow farm. Source

Everyone had decided on a set of repetitive tasks they would dedicate themselves to, and carried them out like a well-oiled machine. While the work we did was often mundane, this offered us a lot of mental leeway to have conversations. This wouldn’t have been possible if we were forced to be 100% focused on what we were doing at the time.

In games like Starbound and Minecraft, expansive crafting systems often require that players gather resources and materials through a variety of means, and craft items via long recipe chains. After going cave-digging or planet-exploring, players come back to their group’s headquarters to unload items and begin crafting, which serves as a welcome break from the action and a prime opportunity to socialize. Tense, challenging moments in games like these usually just punctuate lengthy sections of less engaging tasks: you need to endure several minutes of digging and walking around, before stumbling upon a dungeon in a typical Minecraft cave.

To encourage players to socialize, then, it seems like it helps when games don’t try to completely consume a player’s attention, which could otherwise be invested in communicating with their fellow players. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be keeping players from being in a state of flow, but rather the game’s flow should be designed such that it isn’t easily interrupted by players trying to socialize with each other. Better yet, having conversations with other players should feed into each player’s flow state, and increase their engagement with the game.

Coziness?

The design choices I’ve highlighted in my three examples are essentially just ways to increase a game’s coziness (as defined in this report): Private rooms and adjustable game settings can help one feel safe. Freedom to customize things and places allow players to exist in an environment that appeals to their sensibilities. And allowing players to play in a state of “soft focus” frees up the mind and allows it to stray a little from what the game demands of them. These all contribute to creating a cozier, and hence more conducive environment for players to interact and socialize in.

Sharing my gaming experiences with others has only enhanced my enjoyment of them, particularly if I can invite them to into these virtual spaces to see what I’m talking about for themselves–and I think many gamers feel the same way. Designing games that make these moments of sharing and socialization special, then, is surely a worthwhile pursuit.