From the Outside Looking In

A good critic is not a good creator. We saw this well with Roger Ebert, who became one of the most important voices in the film industry for his critiques and reviews, but the actual movies he was behind saw a troubled reception at best. Critiquing something takes a totally different skillset than creating something, which itself takes a totally different skillset than getting someone interested in something. Talking about what did or would make something good in retrospect is a completely different picture that building something good from the ground up. And frankly, creators have the harder job.

I used to follow Shamus Young’s blog pretty consistently. Dude’s pretty prolific with it, so I’ve read a lot of his words. His former LP series was the first Let’s Plays I got into, so… yeah. He’s put a lot of thoughts on video games out into the world, and I’d absorbed a lot of his ideas over the years I spent with him.

About the time I moved on from his content, he was working on building a game of his own. I ended up being surprised that it actually existed when I caught it by chance on a Steam sale last year, so I picked it up, toyed around with it a few times, and finally gave it a good, earnest playthrough relatively recently.

There’s something very surprising about Good Robot. Namely, after all his commentary on games that I’ve consumed, this would be the last game in the world I would have expected him to make.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t end up being the only person making the game. He took it to a point, but got another team involved once it turned out he couldn’t get it to where he wanted himself. But still. There’s a lot in that game that runs completely along the same lines as things he’s been completely dour for before.

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Let’s give you a picture of what we’re looking at first. Good Robot. It’s a twin-stick shooter roguelike. And… that’s about it, actually. The real notable things about it are the interesting things it does with vision, and the fact that the levels are truly procedurally generated rather than being a collection of pre-built rooms in random formation. Aside from that… meh. The engine seems pretty solid, and it feels good to move and shoot, which is what you do most of the game, but it’s aggressively simple and feels like it’s just wasting a lot of potential. Also has some pretty major, avoidable flaws that just make the game less fun.

And it’s those flaws that are really interesting to me, because I’ve seen Shamus identify them in other works before.

Let’s talk about the most apparent one to me, and probably the biggest one with the game. Good Robot is a rogue-like. Meaning that death is a complete restart of the game. But it’s a slow, long rogue-like. The game encourages hesitant and defensive play by virtue of having the permadeath in the first place, and the levels are just so loooooong. I beat the game. It took about two hours, start to finish. If I had made a stupid mistake (which I never do, but hypothetically) at any point during the latter part of that run, that’d be a solid two hours of my life cut down by a video game punishing me for essentially pressing buttons wrong.

That’s a problem on its own. But then that comes from a guy who once termed the “Dark Souls problem” wherein failure makes you repeat something you’ve already done in order to get to any new content. This comes from a guy who stated that rogue-likes don’t have to do this, followed by examples of some who have circumvented the problem by implementing a level select. This comes from a guy who complains about a game’s difficulty coming from punishment rather than challenge, yet built what’s potentially the most punishment-heavy game I’ve played in a long while.

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There’s plenty of examples like that, but I don’t want this post to be turning too negative on an innocent blogger I haven’t followed in a while. Rather, the big thing I want to focus on is why that happened. And why you’ll see that happen in most critics-turned-creators. It all comes down to what I mentioned, that there’s completely different skillsets involved.

What I would consider to be good critiquing largely comes down to being able to analyze oneself, particularly one’s own thoughts, and being able to communicate them well. Sure, being able to analyze the work itself, break it down into its component parts and talk about how that works, because that gets people to understand how what relates to you would relate to them, but overall, critiquing is really a selfish process. It’s all about your own opinion, how you’ve arrived at it, and what reactions you have to what’s going on with whatever you’re looking at. I’d like to say that good critics are able to analyze themselves the whole way through and track their emotional development throughout, but particularly in video games it seems that the most popular critics never leave their first impressions, just making things work because they’re good at communicating those first impressions. In any case, though, critiquing is very self-focused, very reactionary, and has a strong basis in communication.

Creating has a strong basis in communication as well, but aside from that, it’s where the similarities with critiquing end. It’s not about communicating a reaction, it’s about communicating a vision. Which of course, requires being able to build an interesting and full vision in the first place, having the technical chops and the resources required to achieve that vision, and a whole bunch of other skills I probably can’t speak to very well because I’m not a professional creator. Creating is forward-looking whereas critiquing is reactionary, building the material to deliver that reaction from whole cloth.

Which is not to say that being good at one can’t help you with the other. But there’s a lot of primary skills in both that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of stuff we can bemoan about a bad game, and armchair game design is a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t be able to build anything better without a lot of skill-building to overcome some of the realities of game creation. I can rail against the rogue-like nature of a game that seems poorly suited for it here, but perhaps without that the game had some even greater flaw.

It’s easy to be a critic. I’ve done it. So have plenty of other random internet weirdos with some free time and a checklist of slightly edgy jokes. And critics are very valuable. I’d say they’ve become even more valuable as it’s become easier to be a critic. And it is still important to call out bad games for what they are. But I have found Good Robot to be an excellent reminder that just being a good critic doesn’t mean anyone would be a good creator. Bad games are bad usually because game creation is hard and complex way more than anyone not involved in the process can understand, and that can sometimes be hard to see from the outside looking in.

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The Tabletop Critique-Ticket to Ride: First Journey

I’m not positive, but I’ve heard that some people out there have these things called “children”. From what I’ve been told, they’re a type of parasite. They hatch out of eggs inside people’s bodies, then progress to devour their hosts’ time and money as they grow. Oddly enough, people seem to like having these children around. And so they purchase products specially made to appease them.

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Our subject today is one of them. Ticket to Ride: First Journey. As you might guess from the name, it’s based off of a larger, slightly more complicated game that’s made for grown ups, which is what I’ve been told children become when they exit their larval stage and develop muscles and body hair. Now, I’ve never played the original Ticket to Ride, but I’m guessing that this is something of a simpler version of the original. Less rules, less pieces, and some more colors and happy faces.

But in any case, let’s take a look at how the game stands on its own.

So, Ticket to Ride: First Journey is a competitive game about trains. You’re in control of a train company, trying to outperform your competitors by buying and establishing transportation routes between key cities. Specifically, each player is given specific cities to connect with each other. If your routes can take someone from one city to another, you get a ticket. First player to six tickets win.

I’ve heard a lot of very positive reports about the original Ticket to Ride. Apparently it’s the height of easy to pick up hard to master-ness, featuring some simple gameplay with some deceptively complex resource management and predictive strategizing behind it. Ticket to Ride: First Edition definitely maintains that simplicity. The game is pretty easy to work through. So easy, it feels like you just go on automatic, sometimes. It does not seem to have much depth or complexity to it, though. It does have some element of strategy to it, particularly when you have more than two players there and the board starts getting crowded. So skill does make a bit of play. But it doesn’t seem that you have much room to exercise it. Which, you know, you’re playing a kid’s game here, so you shouldn’t be going into it expecting a masterful hardcore tabletop gaming deal, but you know, just saying. It strikes a really good balance, though. It’s enough thinking that your engaged, so you’re having a good time, but not so much that you really have to be planning things out, if you’re not up for plumbing the limited depths there are here.

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One thing I really have to give the game credit for, it is snappy as nothing else. The game moves fast. Even when you’re playing with kids, it is a swift game. It helps that you only do one thing each turn, and you’ve only really got two options. You either get more resources, or use your resources to buy a route. It’s pretty easy to choose what you’re going to do. Even if you’re one of those kid things. This makes it feel super active. It’s not one of those games where you have to wait like ten minutes for the other player to figure out their move because the game never bothered putting in a time limit and your fellow players don’t care about anyone else having a good time. Man, freakin’ scrabble. No, here, you’ve barely finished your turn and it’s your turn again. Same thing for everyone else. It moves fast. Like, cheetah speed in SimCity or something.

The game is pretty rife for abuse, as well. Making plays that, although perfectly legal, are not exactly sporting. For example buying up routes for the express purpose of denying other people easy access between Chicago and Washington DC, or buying worthless routes solely to run out of trains so you can end the game early when you’re ahead on tickets but behind on resources. The rulebook says that you shouldn’t do that, but what is it going to do? Give you a paper-cut when you’re tasting the sweet, delicious, brutal victory? This might be taken as a flaw in the game, a gap in the design. Really, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. This opens up the opportunity to reveal to this ‘children’ the valuable lesson that the world is a horrible place and everyone you trust will take advantage of you if given a moment’s chance. Sure, they may cry in the moment, but think of how better they’re going to be set up to move forward in life.

You know, I wonder if that’s why I don’t get asked to babysit so much. It seems parents would rather just leave their children weak.

So yeah, Ticket to Ride: First Journey. I really wouldn’t recommend that you play it with a group solely made up of ‘mature people’. I actually had a good time playing it with kids, though. It moves quickly, it’s easy for them to pick up on their own so they don’t need me planning out their moves for them, and when you’re working on that level, it’s pretty fun. I didn’t play it long enough for its lack of complexity to wear thin, although that’s a definite possibility, but hey, if you’ve got some of those childrens in your life and you’re looking for something new to do on those slow Tuesday nights, Ticket to Ride: First Journey is really solid. I had some good times with it.

The Tabletop Critique-Cards Against Humanity

I’m just going to guess you’ve heard about Cards Against Humanity by now. Because, really, chances are. It’s gotten a little bit of attention. On the interwebz. I hear some people like it.

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Right, so, if you don’t know about Cards Against Humanity, it’s basically Apples to Apples, except it’s intended to be played the way everyone really played Apples to Apples. The game is played by someone throwing out a statement card. Everyone else plays the cards in their hands that finish up the statement in the most humorous or awful way. Whoever gets the biggest laugh wins, then it all starts over again.

Also, the cards, they tend to be a little… brusque. Dirty jokes and black comedy. That’s part of the charm. Don’t play this game with your mom.

So yeah, game’s simple to play, so there’s not much analysis of the mechanics here. Let’s get down to the judgment here. Is the game good? In the right circumstances, it’s a great time. You have to enjoy this type of humor to have a good time with it, but if you do, yeah, it’s good. It’s pretty dependent on having a good-humored crew playing with you. Larger groups do seem to make it more fun, but the big key is that they have a sense of humor that aligns with yours. I played with a group that did, and had a great time. Played with a group I didn’t know so well, whose humor was more about alluding to baby murder as quickly as possible, and it was a lot more hit or miss. I played it drunk in a party, and it was like I found a new reason for living. I played with my mom, and we ended up having a long conversation about Jesus and my eternal soul.

Blazes, this is the quickest post I’ve written in a long while.