Player Too: Episode 4 - Game of Thrones, Speed Runners, Agar.io & Sherlock Holmes

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays everyone! This is my last post of the year and completes my goal of doing one post every week for the year's duration since I started in April. I didn't set a time limit then but in my head I said "6 months or to the end of the year, then we'll see". I do think I'll keep it up, but maybe less frequently. If you'd like to see the blog continue weekly, please do let me know. A lot of time goes into it every week and it's nice to hear back if people are finding it worthwhile. Alors (it's French)..

Finally, I return to Player Too! Sorry to anyone following this particular series that it's been so long since the last one. Claire and I took our holidays in the intervening time and were each busy enough before and after that we didn't get many opportunities to game together. That said, I've a lot of games backed up now to talk about today. So without further ado..

Game of Thrones (A Telltale Games Series)

Disaster! I mentioned at the end of the last episode that I'd just bought (in a Humble Bundle, admittedly; so not too expensive) almost all of the Telltale Games, including Game of Thrones. I, and just about everyone else who made us recommendations (thank you, guys. Keep them coming), figured Claire might really enjoy these since she was liking puzzles, narrative, the Game of Thrones books/show, and was still a bit of a novice when it came to skill based games.

The first Telltale game we tried was GoT, and it was not a success. We started up the game and the story began. We understood that your character is an original character from a new family, but who will tie in with characters and events from the main GoT story eventually. That's grand. A few minutes and a couple of minor choices in, a big battle starts in your camp and along come the quick time events (QTEs). At the risk of sounding redundant, this is where the game limits your control input to just a few buttons. It plays an action like somebody about to hit you, then prompts you to quickly hit a given button or direction to avoid the danger and progress.

The first action is to press up to raise your shield as you run at somebody firing arrows at you. If you fail once then you die and actually have to re-watch about 20-30 seconds of cutscene just to try that again. It's unskippable. Most people would see this as a minor game design failure. Anyway, what I didn't count on was that Claire's laptop wasn't quite up to the recommended specs and the frame rate was very low. This made the QTE responses (especially where you have to move the cursor into a small moving circle to hit a target) feel very sluggish and much harder to perform. Claire had also never seen QTEs before (and doesn't readily know where X, Y, A, and B are versus each other) so when as I wasn't present to explain the first one, she kept at it, rewatching the same cutscene and death about 20 times before asking for help. This built her frustration. I tried passing the section (very hard with the low frame rate) and moving to the next QTE later in the battle.

Quick Time Events demand that you press a certain button within a very short space of time to progress.

Quick Time Events demand that you press a certain button within a very short space of time to progress.

Claire asked and I acknowledged that a lot of the gameplay and obstacles to progression in any Telltale game would be based on QTEs and she said in no uncertain terms that she didn't want to play any of them. 

Player Too Result:

We can't say anything to recommend or not recommend the game. It has very positive reviews, and I've always found the Telltale Games to be very engaging (if depressing), and their QTEs to be quite intuitive. If danger approaches from the right, you'll press left. If you have to hit something, it'll usually always be the same button. 

The problem was that Claire is unpractised in QTEs and the laptop's frame rate was adding an unwelcome handicap. The game forcing you to rewatch the same cutscene every time you fail was a major frustration though. It took over a full minute to retry the same two seconds of QTE each time, and the first one wasn't terribly clear on whether you had to press up on the left stick, right stick, mouse, or W key. So it actually took trial and error, too.

I think it's a shame to fail such a recommended series at the first hurdle. However, Claire feels strongly that it's not the kind of game she wants to play, and that's a result too. It brings us one step closer to finding the type of games that really are for her. Speaking of which..

SpeedRunners

This was on a Steam Free Weekend a few months back (if I remember correctly. There is a free demo too but I think we played the full version) and we played it then. It's a 2D side-on racing game. You pick a character and the game starts you running. You always run so your main input is to decide when to crouch, jump, or use power ups as appropriate to gain the upper hand. There is also a grapple that you use to swing from certain environmental objects to reach a shortcut or just to gain momentum. You can also use this to grapple on to the person in front of you and pull them back to overtake them. You can play either in multiplayer or with bots.

It works a bit like the old Micromachines games in that the camera tracks all players at once. If one falls to the back of the screen they are eliminated and the round continues until only one player is left. This means that the player at the back can see the furthest ahead of them and can more easily avoid obstacles than the player at the front can. It's a very simple mechanism that simultaneously balances the game and creates tension.

As you can tell from the trailer above and from my description, the game is fairly skill based, but this didn't stop Claire from competing. This was the first game where we both played on the same screen simultaneously and we had a lot of fun. Claire usually lost and after a few rounds I went to play online multiplayer while she continued against bots. In the multiplayer arena it was my turn to get my ass handed to me repeatedly. Skill levels are all relative.

I enjoyed this game for what it was; a fun party game and a short, simple distraction. Claire felt the same. She liked it in the same way that she liked Race The Sun. It's a simple, action-packed game with very few inputs. It's challenging but fair and with quick restarts when you die. This last point is very important, and is in stark (pun intended) contrast to what I said above about Game of Thrones. The learning curve is also fairly soft but you definitely get better every single time you play.

However, after an hour or two, each of us was kind of done with the game. We weren't tempted to buy it to play more. I guess this speaks to the value of games nowadays. They're (sadly) a dime a dozen and as gamers/ rabid consumers, we tend to just have a taste and move on. There are so many great games to play that games often have to be more than just "very good and a lot of fun" to get sales. That said, anyone who's more into racing games, skill-based platformers, and/or party games than me (and those three are not what I tend to go for normally) might find that this is exactly the game for them and get hours out of it.

There is a free demo of the game and I'd encourage anyone to try it. It's quite fun and if you want more do consider buying it. I realise I sound hypocritical encouragin you to buy when I didn't but it didn't have staying power for me and as an indie developer myself I'm in the unfortunate position of very much wanting to play and support all manner of indie games, but having neither the time nor money to do so. Sometimes the best I can do is spread the word. Go here and find the 'download demo' button to try SpeedRunners.

Player Too Result:

The fact that Claire liked the game reinforces what we found with Race The Sun. Simple but engaging gameplay, a small number of input controls, short but challenging rounds and quick restarts (not to mention speed, apparently) make for a solid an enjoyable gameplay experience. 

However, the fact that we both liked both games yet didn't purchase or return to them suggests that round-based games without a story or greater progression are not exactly what we go for. I already know I prefer story-based games or tactical ones with a greater overall progression (like X-COM or FTL. I'm currently playing The Witcher 3 and Satellite Reign). But this series is about finding the type of game that makes Claire lose hours to fascination, to look for new releases along the same lines of this undiscovered game, and to voluntarily declare herself a gamer.

Agar.io

The most Googled game of 2015, believe it or not! This game is fantastic, and Claire agrees. It's an extremely simple online multiplayer game played in your browser (or now on mobile), and it's completely free! You can go to the address and just play. Signing in will track your progress and allow upgrades (like your own avatar or entering your name) but it's not necessary.

You play as a small circle, very reminiscent of a cell. The camera keeps you centre-screen as you move around a flat and empty (but large) square-shaped arena. There is graph paper in the background for scale. You move your mouse to guide your circle towards smaller circles and as you meet them you consume them and grow larger. There are some small static cells to eat, but most are other players, and it will seem at first that they're all bigger than you. 

It's ingeniously simple. You flee bigger (but slower) cells and chase smaller (but faster) ones to climb the ranks. It feels like evolution at its most basic. The ultimate game! You catching a smaller, faster player often means that you succeeded in trapping them against the outer wall or simply between other players. There are only two additional controls. You can split yourself so that you become two or more (faster) cells of smaller size, all of which now follow your mouse in a cluster. This can help you catch smaller targets or (half) escape larger ones. You can also dump mass which makes you smaller and faster but allows your pursuers to eat up what you leave behind.

That's almost all there is to it. There aren't even sounds or music. This is a great example of raw gameplay done right, and its appeal is universal. There are millions of players around the world, and the servers are never empty. 

Player Too Result:

Some of the names or avatars you see really add to the game's unpredictable character. Some are offensive, But being chased by a giant Angela Merkel is pretty hilarious.

Some of the names or avatars you see really add to the game's unpredictable character. Some are offensive, But being chased by a giant Angela Merkel is pretty hilarious.

Both Claire and I loved this game, and you will too! We both played at least an hour longer than intended on the first day, and went back to it several times. Even today as I looked it up while writing the article I spent about twenty minutes on it when I didn't mean to. It's a very "one more round" kind of game. Claire swore off it so as she could get other stuff done. Games that don't end can be kind of addictive and dangerous for productivity, but the fact that she forced herself to stop rather than start playing is a testament to how good this game really is, and real progress for the Player Too project. :P

The fact that Claire really liked a game as stripped-back (dare I say "casual"?) as this proves at the simplest level that she engages with games. I posit that anyone who plays even one round of this game and doesn't enjoy it simply doesn't like computer games. I bet I could even get my dad to play, and that's saying something!

This was also her first time playing a competitive online multiplayer free for all death match! I wonder if, as her skills improve, she'd take to online racing or shooters. What is Call of Duty multiplayer if not Agar in 3D with guns? Thank God there's no voice chat in Agar. That said, I did see people renaming themselves as Star Wars spoilers and getting the high scores. The world is full of ass-holes, and it's generally what turns me away from multiplayer games.

So, from gameplay at its most basic, to today's last entry; a full modern mystery game.

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

Given our relative successes with the mystery games Gone Home and Her Story, as well of the fondness Claire and I already share for Sherlock Holmes in general (we've each read all of the books), a Sherlock Holmes game was pretty much a no-brainer. Of the plenty to choose from, Crimes & Punishments by developer Frogwares was the best rated and most recent.

The game presents six unrelated cases that you can play in 90 - 180 mins each, depending on how stuck you get or how sure you want to be about the result. The first case is lifted directly from the books with only a minor change, so it wasn't all that challenging for us. The rest seem inspired by the stories but not directly lifted from them. The first case is naturally a bit simpler as the game introduces you to the mechanics, of which there are actually quite a few. Mini-games and set pieces abound, and the game doesn't often let you wonder what to do next. If it wants you to press X, it'll damn well tell you.

I'd often complain about that but not here. There are a lot of mechanisms to remember and without prompts you'd be more likely in this game than most to get stuck and give up. Indeed, there is still plenty to slow you up. Gathering clues amounts mostly to wandering a scene looking for pop up boxes to press A on until the game tells you that you more or less have them all, and reveals more story. In a sense, this eliminates any meaningful 'examining' of the crime scene, but as players aren't generally trained detectives, maybe this is for the best.

What does that leave you with?

Fortunately, quite a bit. Each case features a number of locations that you reveal as the story of that case goes on. You can travel between the discovered ones at almost any time. This could have been done without but they left it in, allowing you more agency over what to do next. When you're a bit into each case, you'll have a few leads suggested to you and generally you can pursue them in whichever order you like. The negative side of this is that you can often miss just one clue hidden somewhere in one of four locations and waste half an hour or more scouring every inch of multiple levels to find the one clue that will trigger the game to progress, when you may have already figured out what the clue was/meant, but you need the game to trigger that the Holmes on screen knows it. That's unfortunately a disconnect that can come with story-based mystery games, and the best that developers can do is to minimise it. If you're a fan of mystery games, it's likely that you've come across this before and it doesn't bother you much.

The real value this game offers is that each case can be solved incorrectly. You actually can have two or three results, and within those you can choose the 'punishment' that the game's oddly pluralised title refers to. Generally this means you can absolve the criminal or let the police handle it. It's a moral choice. There may also be a quick time event where the accused attempts suicide or to murder another party. You can fail or succeed at stopping them and still proceed. At the end of a case you can choose to see if you found all clues, if your conclusions were correct, and what other players chose to do. If not for this feature I think the game would really have been very dull as you'd just be walking around pressing buttons and revealing the story, but here you really have to think! That's the real promise of a detective game, and this one delivered.

It's achieved through the 'Deduction Space' mechanic, shown above. As you reveal clues in the game, they populate your brain. You combine some of these as makes sense to reveal little nodes in the deduction space. Many of these nodes allow you to make two choices about what the clues mean. See 'Missed Chesterfield' above. It's half blue and half grey, showing that you can make an alternate conclusion there. When enough conclusions join up, those white lines connect and reveal the golden node, which triggers an ending if you select it. The thing is it's very possible to get the wrong conclusion, or partly wrong conclusion, which is where the gameplay happens. You have to intuit things and decide who you believe to come up with the answers. This can be very fun when done with another person. Claire and I played the first two cases together and actually got the second one partly wrong. She then played the final four by herself over the following weeks.

Player Too Result:

Very positive! This was at least a twelve hour game, and while Claire initially refused to play as she was frustrated by the dual stick move/camera controls coupled with over 8 other inputs (so I played the first two cases), she did pick up the controls herself and solved four additional cases with little or no input from me, beating the game! 

I mentioned already that Quick Time Events aren't her friend at the moment, and she failed to stop one or two suicides, unfortunately, but the fact that the game allows that as a consequence only speaks in its favour.

We both found this quite an engaging detective game, though were at times frustrated looking for one trigger clue when we already knew the answer. The developers could have done more to minimise excessive backtracking, as it came into almost every case we played and really slowed the pace. That, and long loading times on Claire's laptop broke the immersion for her, but it's telling that she stuck with it. The game engaged her and she looked forward to beating each case. She went back to it night after night in the last couple of weeks. Those are some telling habits.

At the end, she said she really enjoyed it and would be quite interested in playing other similar titles. Frogwares have previously made a number of Sherlock Holmes games, but as this is reputably the best, it's unlikely that we'll look backwards. They are releasing Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter in Spring 2016 and it's quite possible we'll take a look. The only reason not to would be if it doesn't feature original stories but instead borrows from something like A Study in Scarlet, in which case we'd know the ending already. I doubt this is the case, but there isn't much information available yet.

Next Time on Player Too

I think that the 'project' (for lack of a better term) is coming along quite well. It was nice over the Christmas days to be playing something myself with Claire sitting next to me on her laptop frowning at clues or gasping at revelations. This is also the first time she's beaten a long game and wanted to play more.

The Stanley Parable isn't long but it's still on the list, as is Life Is Strange (which has a new free demo out, fyi). Given that the Telltale Games games were a bit of a fail, has anyone got other suggestions for games based on what you've read today? Skill-based games are still a no-no, but Claire's definitely improving in that area and we're getting closer to Portal, I feel, but aren't really there yet. Valiant Hearts has also been recommended.

Sorry for the long post today, but we had a bit of catching up to do. See you all in 2016! And do please drop a comment if you've been following and would like to see the blog continue weekly.

Until next time..