As of tomorrow, May 8th, 2012, you’ll all be able to buy your own copies of Starhawk! I think you should do this.
I’ve been working on Starhawk since I left Stardock almost three years ago and moved out to Utah (and then to Austin). It’s been weird to freely talk about the game at all, but it’s even weirder to see the game in stores, ads, and the fact that people are a mere fourteen hours away from buying it and playing it themselves.
My focus on the game has primarily been mission design/implementation, cut scene design, inner loop tuning/balancing, and writing a whole lot of LUA script for our missions, tools, and other systems. All things considered, I ended up working pretty heavily on five of the missions in the campaign. I also ended up doing a final (and in some case, last) pass of refinement/camera movements/scripted sequences throughout every mission in the campaign in the final weeks of development. It’s been a great project and we’re all super proud of it and hope y’all buy at least a few thousand copies per-person in your family.
More importantly, though, is that I think our team here at LightBox Interactive has accomplished something truly impressive and my coworkers are all totally ace.
The game I’ve been working on as a designer for the last couple of years was announced last night; the game is Starhawk. The official site is at www.starhawkthegame.com and there are some good screen shots and videos there.
Basically, though, we have a giant transforming robot. And here are some more screen shots for good measure:
Life One, Soul Four
After failing to properly heed the advice of the dead guy I watched fall off a narrow path and falling to the same fate mere moments later, my fourth soul respawned at the beginning of the world. Soul Four felt like a winner.
I retracted my steps back to the narrow path on the outer side of the castle wall, regained my soul by touching the blood splatter where I had died (gaining back the money I lost by dying earlier). I then activated the blood splatter to watch the ignorant soul that was Soul Three laughably fight an enemy and then fall off into the depths of the ravine surrounding this castle. Learning from Soul Three’s naivety, I approached the ambushing enemy with care, let him strike first, and then dispatched him with a strategic strong attack lunge.
I then declared victory on life.
As I moved carefully through the following segments of the level I paid very close attention to all environmental details, red, dead ghost replays, and the messages left by other players. I was occasionally astonished at the size of the level; there seemed to be a handful of instances where there was more than one or two equally plausible paths for progression. By the time I came across these, though, I was too afraid to really explore them and just settled on any given one. Soul Four was treating me well and had been alive for twenty-thirty minutes. Minutes. I didn’t want to jinx that by being all adventurey.
And then I saw a dragon. He was just chilling on a tower in the distance. He was probably sleeping. That said, he was a dragon. He was probably a half-mile away from me and I still felt dwarfed by this sleeping giant. And you know what they say in the kingdom of Boletaria: let sleeping dragons lie. I tepidly proceeded along my path through the level, wary of the fact that a giant behemoth was in the background and could, potentially, awaken at any moment and fry my tender soul. He didn’t, though, and I kept progressing through the level and tactically annihilating all foes who attempted to get in my way. I felt I had a handle on the game for the first time since the tutorial. I was prepared for every encounter and knew the game’s tricks.
Demon’s Souls does not consider this a healthy mindset.
A bit further into the level (still the first section of the first world), I came upon a lengthy bridge. Near where I was standing was a charred pile of bodies. I also heard a terrifying screeching noise in the background. I thought: no. Video game, don’t you dare make me fight this dragon. I tentatively walked onto the bridge and a terrifying screech echoed through the level. A message was near the ground where I was standing that said, simply, “This is a safe spot.” I had an idea forming in my head as to what it was safe from, but while it was materializing, I heard a loud screech, and flames filled the entirety of my television screen. I watched as the source of these flames came into view as the flames moved along the length of the bridge and, eventually, showed the body of an enormous dragon flying above the bridge, searing everything in his path. Once the dragon successfully roasted everything along the length of the bridge, he flew back into the air.
While I was recovering from my heart attack, I saw the dragon repeat the same pattern again. When he was finished, I had decided it was time. I waited for the dragon to come again, timing my run across the bridge like Sean Connery did the movement of the furnace flames when entering Alcatraz, and sprinted across that bridge with fury and intent. Moments before I was safe, I heard and felt the dragon’s next pass behind me, and I rolled into safety just as he would have roasted my character. It was a perfectly timed sequence that Soul Four just barely managed to execute.
Shortly after this, I found a switch which opened the front gate that I remembered seeing at the beginning of the level. While I was progressing from this point (presumably to that newly-opened gate), I encountered a new blobular enemy whose head was a giant shield. This enemy was wielding a large spear which he either threw at me (with frightening accuracy) or, as I discovered when I got close, simply jabbed me in my face. A nearby player message suggested I use fire, so I tossed a Fire Bomb on this enemy and he died. Huh. I remember thinking: that was easy. I did this five or so more times.
Eventually, I made my way back to the beginning of the level and the front gate which I saw open earlier. I walked near the gate and saw a large fog plane covering the entrance. I entered the fog plane thinking, oh, hey, neat refraction effects. As I later discovered: the fog plane signals that some serious shit is about to go down.
I entered the fog plane and saw a brief cinematic which introduced the Phalanx to me. The Phalanx is a big, cohesive mass of the aforementioned blobtastic shield-head enemies with big spears. The enemy does, in fact, move like a Greek Phalanx except, well, composed of viscous fluid masses with shields for heads and self-replenishing supplies of spears for appendages. As I ran in horror from column to column as these blob enemies were tossing spears at me (and dropping off blobs here and there to chase after me apart from the Phalanx), I remembered: oh yeah! Fire! I scrolled through my inventory for my Fire Bombs and discovered a terrifying fact.
I used all of my Fire Bombs on the individual blobeons that the game was getting me acquainted with as I made my way to this boss battle. Oops.
I resigned myself to hit-and-run tactics where I would strike one of these blobs in their shield/head, recoil from the fact that I just hit a giant shield with my unimposing slab of metal I called a broad sword, then run away utilizing serpentine escape tactics. Using this strategy I estimated that I would be done with this boss battle in approximately three hours. This would not work. I ran from player message to player message in the room, saddened by the discovery that they all said “Kill it with fire” (paraphrasing here) and “I need help, please recommend this message” (not paraphrasing and I hate anyone who put these in boss arenas).
At this point, my years of video game knowledge kicked in: behind these shield heads must be a juicy, defense-less blobby back which is weak to my sword! I serpentine’d my way behind a rogue blob that was separated from the Phalanx, tried this tactic, and was able to kill the enemy in two swift attacks. Using this strategy, I kept attempting to isolate and then kill the black blobs that were falling off the phalanx. I whittled down the Phalanx to its still enormous blob core and, then, was able to fairly easily strike at it continuously to slowly bring down its health. At one point, the Phalanx blob core did damage to me and I attempted to heal myself by using the SQUARE button to activate my healing item. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a healing item handy.
Whatever item I did have selected, however, lit my sword on fire. Two sword strikes later and the core of the Phalanx gloriously died. I beat my first boss in Demon’s Souls without dying (during the boss fight, anyway). I was proud.
I went to the Archstone that appeared in the middle of the room and activated it. I received a demon’s soul for the boss I killed, which is placed in my inventory and can be used later to receive a large sum of souls (currency). The purpose of these items is to be persistent in a player’s inventory and, unlike the active quantity of souls, does not dissipate if a player dies. They can just be “used” later in exchange for whatever number of souls the item contains. It’s a handy concession to the game’s purported love of killing the player (a love I would understand in the future).
By touching the Archstone, my character was also restored to physical form. Soul Four really was a winner.
Life Two, Soul Four
I touched the Archstone again and was transported back to the Nexus. When I was transported back, the game took this time to introduce me to the more of the story and over-arching narrative. This narrative was delivered by a cute, gothic-looking blind lady. This lady then told me to go seek one of the “Monumentals” in the upper-levels of the Nexus. Six stair-cases later I came upon a row of babies in Monk clothing. Apparently, only one of these Monk Babies was alive and he told me the story of some heroes and demons and fog and stuff.
When I made my way back down to the base of the Nexus, I prepared to go back to the world I had just left to continue my trek through the level. I purchased some statistics upgrades with the souls I earned throughout Soul Four’s life, upgraded my shield, and talked to some other NPCs in the area. Then I remembered about the random item that, essentially, saved my life against the Phalanx.
Looking through my inventory, I saw I had six “Turpentine” items. This item sets your weapon on fire and adds fire damage to all of your attacks for a set period of time. Information I wish I would have known approximately, oh, before my fifteen minute boss battle: that I didn’t need Fire Bombs when I had a way to light metal on fire.
This face was the face of my introduction to Demon’s Souls. Then I made him normal again and we got on well.
Life One, Soul One
I took my more normal character and walked through the tutorial, adhering to the various concise messages plastered throughout. I walked, I rolled, I sprinted, I thrust, I parried and riposted. Then I learned about strong attacks and I enjoyed running up to various enemies and strong attacking them in the face. I then laughed as they crumbled to the ground. I felt strong and in charge of this video game. I knew the score. I was then ushered into a room with the biggest, scariest demon ever and he killed me with what I assume was actually a fairly cordial hand shake gone wrong. Or a violent paw swipe. This was the end of what the game considered to be my tutorial for Demon’s Souls.
I was resurrected in a chamber in soul form in “The Nexus” (game hub). I was glowing and half of my health was inaccessible. I was not sure whether or not I failed the tutorial or if my death at the hands of mega-paw was intentional. I still don’t know, but I like that. I wandered around the Nexus for a bit, reading what messages the game had spread around for what I presumed to be a running tutorial and introduction to the world. Some of these messages had some awkward wording and mysterious positioning, but I chalked this up to a quirky level designer convention.
When I had enough of the Nexus, I tried to figure out what the first “level” was. A message told me that the obelisk I happened to be standing near was good for beginners, so I entered that and was transported to a bridge near the front gate of an enormous castle. I saw transparent white auras running around the area, engaging in air fighting. After watching these auras for a while, I realized that these were my game’s representations of other human players in these area. Watching these player ghosts flail about I was able to figure out where enemies were coming from, roughly how many the ghost was fighting, and where I could go from my current position. I fought through the enemies in my starting area and proceeded along the most readily-visible trails through the beginning of this area.
As I walked through, I noticed some blood splatters every so often. When I activated one, I saw a red aura appear and enact a set of actions before, ultimately, disappearing around a corner I hadn’t gone to yet. I decided to follow this ghost, as I was working off the assumption that it was another player guiding my way. When I rounded the corner, a group of enemies jumped me and beat me to a pulp. Their initial attack was so powerful that it drained most of my health, and the one-two combo attack the duo of enemies had going never gave me a chance to get off a counter-attack. It was around this point when I remembered a quote from Atlus: Demon’s Souls has the goal of remedying all of the bad RPG habits that players have gotten used to over the years. The game has the goal of enforcing the full set of possible player interactions: defending, parrying, evading, attacking, and counter-attacking. If players attempt to get through areas solely by hacking-and-slashing, they will die.
This was the first step in my RPG rehabilitation.
Taking my new knowledge of this game and working off of my assumption that the white ghosts were active players in my area, I now decided that the red ghosts were “replays” of other players who died in this given area. When I saw a white ghost, I was likely watching a player experiencing the same part of the level in the same way I am: blind to what is going to happen when moving to the next room. Now, though, I can activate a red ghost and properly determine what not to do. And when I got back to where Soul One died, I watched the red ghost more carefully, prepared for the enemy ambush, and quickly dispatched them with my systematic use of a parry-riposte and then a defend pose into a strong attack on baddie number two.
Then I realized that this was the first time the game didn’t have a message in the area to warn me about an imminent ambush. Crafty little game, I thought, it’s ramping up the difficulty slowly.
I proceeded through a bit more of the level and eventually came to a message that said “Trap!” I looked around the area and noticed nothing of the sorts. It was simply a hallway with no triggers anywhere or anything. The message had a number attached to it, 16, which I assumed meant it was for a certain difficulty level or for a certain ordered play-through of the area. I kept walking assuming the game screwed up. Moments later, I heard a “Clink” and a bunch of iron spheres fell out of a chute in the ceiling, traveled a small distance, and knocked my character on his ass. I didn’t die in this scenario, I just lost most of my health. It was a hilarious moment to me. I wasn’t sure if the game tricked me or if I’m completely blind. Neither was really out of the question.
I then was thinking about what strange placement that particular message had in the level. I went looking around at a few other messages in the area and discovered they all had different numbers attached to them. I messed around with my controller to see if there were any buttons I hadn’t really used at the time and, eventually, discovered that the SELECT button gave me the option to “Write a Message” or “Recommend a Message.” This was when I discovered that all of these messages I had been reading throughout the level were, most likely, all created by other players who learned the level’s tricks the hard way.
I healed my character up and progressed a bit further in the level. I ended up on a narrow walkway on the outer edge of one of the castle walls. It had no barrier, so I clung to the castle wall as I carefully moved towards the door at the other end of the walkway. I came upon a blood splatter, activated it, and then watched the red ghost as he walked as carefully up the walkway as I did. He eventually struck an attack pose and then moved backwards (as if pushed) and fell off the edge of the walkway. “Haha, moron fell down,” I said aloud to my cat who was watching the game. Or sleeping. Probably watching, though. I finally made my way to the doorway and an enemy jumped out at me. I parried, as I was working off the assumption that something made that red ghost I watched earlier strike an attack pose on the walkway. I failed my counter-attack, though, and the enemy pushed me back. I didn’t feel comfortable at such close-range, so I moved backwards a bit to give myself a bit more room to operate — Oh, okay. So, I just fell to my death. Okay.
Sorry random gamer, I didn’t mean to laugh at your replay. The more you know, and all. Onward we go, Soul Four.
Flower is a rare video game. For one thing, it has flowers. For another, no one dies. It’s a game where the player controls the wind that guides a lonesome flower petal (and its eventual flock of follower petals) through a game world in need of nothing more than some attention, love, and nourishment.
Flower is also a game that is difficult to explain.
In the most simplistic sense, Flower is about guiding a stream of petals from one checkpoint to another where each “checkpoint” is a flower in the landscape. Once the player’s petal stream touches a flower, the checkpoint is considered “met” and a petal from that flower flies into the air and joins your petal posse. When all, or enough, of the flowers in a given area have been touched, a scripted sequence is set off and urges the player the progress onward. A new player’s actions may feel fairly simplistic or minute, but this is a feeling that will dissipate quickly. As the player fills more and more of these area-by-area conditions, the landscape begins to come alive: dead grass is reborn, new plants spring forth from the ground, trees regain their color and lush leaves, and so on. As a player progresses through the world of Flower and the areas that it’s made up of, the game is also attaching a sense of gravitas and emotion to its most fundamental game mechanic: touching a flower.
Flower’s other main game mechanic comes for the sense of flow that the game encourages a player to maintain. With only a handful of exceptions, it’s always possible to stop going from new flower to new flower to unlock new areas and, instead, just fly around the landscape as it exists at any given moment. The ability to just guide a stream of flower petals through the air with no sense of purpose is a near-constant possibility in the game and that lends a great deal of validation to the atmosphere of the game. That said, Flower is at its best when a player can maintain a mildly fast and uninterrupted pace throughout an entire area and the chime that each flower emits when its touched is properly strung-together with the other flowers that make up a given “path” and the player is consistently experiencing rewards for completing the objectives in a given area. This emphasis on flow is especially true of the final three areas, where there is an actual feeling of urgency that motivates players.
The marvel of Flower, though, is its ability to convey emotion to players. Like no video game that I can think of before it, Flower revels in happiness and serenity. As players progress through the six areas in the game, the only possible result for any player that can allow themselves to submit into the game’s atmosphere is a feeling of profound, rewarding warmth. The music, the art direction, and the controls all lend themselves to a playing experience where a player is able to minimize the gap between the player, the controller, and the game and buy into the concept that a player’s direct actions are the reason these streams of flower petals are flying and sweeping through the gorgeous in-game landscapes.
Flower’s developer, thatgamecompany, is doing some very unique work within the realm of video games and it will be interesting to see where they go from Flower. The company’s last game, flOw (and the Flash release), is a game that also creates a very unique, strong atmosphere while allowing a player to define his/her own play style. While it bears very little gameplay similarities to Flower, flOw’s minimalism and clarity of design are even more pronounced and well-defined in Flower.
When I finished all six of Flower’s primary areas (and the exceptionally clever Credits segment), I went to Metacritic to see how the mainstream game reviewing sites handled their treatment of Flower. It was surprising to see how traditional the reviews for the game were; especially Eurogamer‘s piece which, of all things, criticized the ten dollar price tag of the game. Aside from my issues with the game’s imprecise and flow-breaking sixaxis -based control scheme, I find it difficult to find much to gripe about with Flower; least of all its paltry entry fee for a game that lasted me about two-three hours and a game that I will no doubt look to play-through again when the memories of the game have faded a bit or I want to be reminded that games don’t have to be about guns, death, and sex.
Flower is the rare kind of video game from which discussions of games as art, entertainment versus experience, and dollars per hour will blossom. Don’t listen to that nonsense. Flower is a game in the traditional sense that, simply, doesn’t utilize traditional game mechanics orfeatures. It’s a game about life and a game that should be able to find an audience in anyone.
A handy flowchart for playing SOCOM: Confrontation:
1. Purchase game. Timespan unknown.
2. Unpack box and headset. One minute.
3. Be an idiot with gadgets and technology and not understand that a headset has to be paired with a given system. Five minutes.
4. Realize that scanning for devices for ten minutes doesn’t work because the headset isn’t in pairing mode. Ten minutes and thirty seconds.
5. Setup the device in pairing mode. One minute.
6. Attempt to launch the game and realize you need to install 2GB of data from the game disc. Ten minutes.
7. Put the headset in your ear and think hell yeah I’ll finally find out if other people play Playstation 3 games online. One minute depending on ear.
8. SOCOM requires a 480MB update; downloading takes about five-ten minutes. Installing takes about five-ten minutes. Fifteen to twenty minutes.
8a. The Playstation 3 finds 720p to be an optimal display resolution for a 1080p TV; the solution is to uncheck 720p as a supported display resolution and then a game will proceed to use 1080i or 1080p. One minute complemented by profanity in regards to basic usability.
Time from system launch to playing the game? Roughly fifty minutes. Game experiences:
9. The server browser is Battlefield 2 bad.
10. There is no single-player bot mode; I had to learn the hooks of the game with people. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how to use the headset.
11. I log out of a server and I’m prompted for a system update.
This is just mind-boggling.