Category Archives: Toronto Gaming

Boss Talk!

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Been a while. This is just a short informal entry, anyway, getting back into the swing of things.

Went to a talk yesterday at my new haunt in the Toronto indie/art gaming scene: Electric Perfume. (Yes, the proprietress Daniele Hopkins is a friend of mine that I’ve promoted in this space before…but nobody’s getting paid for this.) I’d been there on Saturday for the annual general meeting of the Hand-Eye Society . That got slightly dry, but I got the reminder for last night’s boss event, so it was worth it.

What was it about? Well, it was Kyle Duffield (Hopkin’s longtime artistic partner and EP Technical Director) and Ryerson’s Walter Lai talking about video game bosses: what they’re for, what characterizes them, the role of the boss within the game experience, how they reinforce a game’s aesthetic, how they’re often used to break the fourth wall, that kind of thing.

They pulled out loads of examples of bosses for this, everyone from Psycho Mantis to a few Colossii to good ol’ Bowser. Duffield and Lai included a few that I’d never heard of, like the first “boss” character: the Gold Dragon from an ancient 80’s Dungeons and Dragons game, or this big ol’ UFO from an old Galaga-alike that looked like an early Atari version of the Tron fight against the MCP.

Weirdest part? Most of the fights were demonstrated using YouTube clips. It was effective, but maybe a bit too effective. For a lot of them, I found myself thinking “just let it play!” when they were skipping forward and back in the clip. It reminded me how invested we become in these conflicts. Players often tune out the regular mooks, but boss fights? Fully in the moment, especially if it’s a good one.

I did provide a bit of a contribution myself. They’d asked about favorite boss fights. My answer? The Lich King. Definitely The Lich King. Blizzard has always been good at building shockingly elaborate bosses in their games, and the entire endgame of World of Warcraft basically serves as elaborate lobby for their baroque boss fights. But thanks to the combination of a near-decade of character history and Blizzard spending the entire game building him up as an omnipotent force, it was a big deal to finally take him on in a fight that was both mechanically complex and thematically appropriate. Even broke the fourth wall a bit with the resurrection gimmick.

(Plus, like all raids, it was massively co-op. Co-op makes any boss fight infinitely better. I think that’s a law or something.)

Sadly couldn’t stick around for their followup event where you recorded “boss taunts” for Hopkins and Duffields’ own “Laser Equipped Annihilation Protocol”—an honest-to-goodness real-world security laser-dodging game—but I was glad to come out.

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JUNICORN!

(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 

Juunicorn!

(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.

UNITY.

Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.

———–

So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Comics vs. Games 2 at the Toronto Comic Art Festival

I’ve been working on a somewhat-lengthy react to Spec Ops (which I’ve finally played), but since I’m waiting on something else I thought I’d give a breakdown of some of the games I got to try out/demonstrate as part of the Hand-Eye Society, Bento Miso, and Attract Mode’s Comics vs. Games 2 and Bit Bazaar presentations during this weekend’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Where is My Heart 

This one did my head in a bit. Like all of the Comics vs. Games exhibits, this was a game that riffed on the comic aesthetic. It seems simple enough at first, with three little 8-bittish monsters running around being controlled one-at-a-time, as a sort of lo-fi Lost Vikings.

Then it changes, and the screen breaks up into comic-style panels that, crucially, are not directly spacially related to each other. You could start up in a panel on the right, move to the left, and end up in a panel above you, and then a panel below you, and then a panel on the other side of the screen, and then two panels above that one at the same time. And that’s just the start; soon you’re rotating the screen underneath one of the characters in order to get them where they need to go. It was around the point when teleporters got involved that I moved on. I want to go back, though.

(by Die Gute Fabrik, published by the Copenhagen Game Collective. Out on PSN, coming to PC.)

Framed

Enjoyable if short iOS demo. This is a murder mystery where you don’t directly control the main character. Instead, you arrange the panels that he travels through, with the story ending differently depending on how the panels are arranged. It’s got a sorta Lemmings-ish feel to it in its own way, mixed with the sort of “Siliwood” look that went away in the 1990s and that I do sorta miss on some odd level. Demo was only about three or four screens, though.

(By Love Shack Entertainment, coming for iOS and other platforms.)

Gorogoa 

This one was almost disturbingly beautiful. It focused on panel manipulation (definitely a theme here), but this time you were arranging panels on a 2 by 2 grid in order to get…fruit? To stop some sort of …monster? I don’t know, it makes sense in the context of the game. You zoom in and out of gorgeous 2D environments, and can shift around the pictures at nearly any time, trying to create serendipitous arrangements that get your character where he needs to be and get him the fruit(?) that he needs to get. The strangest part is when you move a panel and discover a layer coming off, creating an overlay that needs to be used with a completely different zoom level in a different panel. That happens a lot,  it’s not always terribly intuitive, and certain puzzles just felt annoying more than anything else. When it worked, though,  it did a good job of disrupting the sense of space and embodiment.

(By Jason Roberts, coming out later this year on PC and then later on mobile.)

Storyteller

To my intense surprise, this was the breakout hit. It was almost always mobbed with people.  it doesn’t seem like much at first, just a set of panels and some little 8-bit people to place on them to tell little comic stories. But, quickly, the game starts challenging you to create surprisingly difficult and involved scenarios involving those little people, and then continually reveals that you’ve retold classic stories (like Romeo and Juliet, or Waiting for Godot, or even Star Wars) in three panels or less.

People were ENTHRALLED. It wasn’t any longer than Where is My Heart, but while people would just wander away from that one, people would practically camp out at Storyteller. It’s not that there would be any tension or fighting, either; people would be collaborating to try to figure out how to best tell the story, and to pull off the optional “achievements” for telling the stories in non-intuitive ways.  Some of the best players were kids, too; a fact which surprised and delighted me. Daniel Benmergui has a winner on his hands; can’t wait until he releases it.

(By Daniel Benmergui, coming out later this year on PC/Mac/iOS.)

Here’s a few initial impressions of a few of the Bit Bazaar games I played as well:

Beat Patrol

A fascinating and frankly fiendish combination of bullet-hell shooter and rhythm game. The basic conceit is that it’s a one-on-one fight between a little SWAT-alike bounty hunter (that moves like a shooter ship) and a single big alien that shoots out bullet-hell patterns in time with music. His patterns become your patterns; you have to shoot back in time with the rhythm of the music yourself.

The way I described it to people was like a combination of Space Channel 5, The World Ends With You, and a Cave shooter. The game was clearly rough, and there were certain elements (like feedback on missed notes) that needed work. Still, the core is there, and it’s very clever.

(By Daniel Orellana and Patrick Rainville, release date TBD)

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Picture a cross between fl0w and FTL. That’s LiaDS. You and a friend control two little guys that have to manage something like five or six different stations between them in a little asteroid-cum-starship that’s locked in constant battle with an endless tide of killer robots or aliens or whatever. The aesthetic is awesome, like FTL but more so in the cutesy-things-shooting-at-each-other sense, and it’s wildly chaotic fun. Especially when they demonstrated the four-player mode they’d cobbled together.  Picture the shouting.

(By Asteroid Base, release date later this year)

Actual Sunlight

This cross between JRPG and text adventure would perhaps be better called “Trigger Warning”. Anybody who has even a vague knowledge of serious depression will recognize the mental state of the protagonist after bare seconds. After a few minutes of this demo, it starts hitting dangerously close to home. After a few more, it will annihilate you. I hate to even conceive what playing the full game is like.

It’s an important work, but I honestly don’t even know whether to recommend it. Be cautious.

(By Will O’Neil, and you can download the latest build right now.)

They Bleed Pixels

Yes, this one’s been out for a while, but due to my computing situation this was the first chance I’d had to play it. Pity. It’s an instantly engaging cross between Marvel vs. Capcom combat (albeit simplified),  Super Meat Boy’s unforgiving platforming, and Miguel Sternberg’s characteristic (and carefully-thought-out) shareware-era PC aesthetic. I can’t wait until I get to play more.

(by Spooky Squid Studios, out now on Steam.)

So, yeah, there ended up being a darned good crop of indies here in Toronto this weekend. The comics crowd were definitely into the Comics vs. Games exhibit, and Bit Bazaar showed how real-world interaction and engagement can still be important in this era of digitally-distributed-everything. ‘Twas a good time. Even if some jerk did reset one of the demonstration computers that one time.

(Oh, and I finally got to meet Christine Love, who lived up to all my expectations. Even if she is WAY too harsh on Persona 3.)

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Diablo and Local Toronto Gaming Stuff

Hey, folks. Just a quick note to say that I kinda want to do more of this sort of thing; writing about local Toronto gaming stuff instead of simply doing broad discussions that everybody else is doing. I’ll flag it with a “Toronto Gaming” category and tag.

Also, really happy with the response to my piece on Diablo and economics over on Nightmare Mode. Being able to contribute to Patricia Hernandez and Tom Auxier’s site has been an honour; they’re both excellent writers that I respect a lot. Only thing I’d add to it is what I said in comments: that the issue with Diablo is that it’s a deflationary economy, at least at lower levels. Gold comes in, Gold goes out, but good gear sticks around indefinitely. That’s going to lead to prices going down as more and more goods are being sold to chase a stable amount of cash.

I’ve heard that it’s different at the high end when you hit Inferno. I had an interesting twitter exchange with Stephen Keller on that. He’d said that Inferno is actually wildly inflationary. I don’t have any experience with that, or at least not a ton. What I’d say in response is that the two problems are linked; the dispiriting nature of acquiring gear at lower levels probably has a lot to do with the lack of people who are getting new gear at the higher end. If people drop out, their gear is going to drop out with them, unless they decide to cash in once-and-for-all with the real-money auction house. The few left over at Inferno aren’t going to be enough to contribute the volume of gear needed for price deflation to happen.

If people were playing through to Inferno, we’d likely be seeing the same thing happen there.

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