Review: Back to the Cubeture (1)

January 4, 2010
A rootin' tootin'... whatever
At a Glance:
Genre(s): Point and Click/Item-Based/Adventure
Difficulty: Low
Warnings: Off-color humor, adult themes, small Hitler reference
Control scheme: Mouse with [space] bar for certain interactions
Piano-man Songs: 2 (If you’re willing to brave a searing desert for the second)
The Set Up:
Criminal kitty arch-villain Esquire Padrino is at it again! With his Time-Warper, the feline felon could upset everything which is why you, the angularly gifted Cuboy, must set out to stop him. Only you are too late as your furry nemesis slips into the time machine (which curiously looks like a cardboard box with “Time Warper” written on it inexpertly with a marker or large crayon of some sort), traveling back into the past and inadvertently taking you along with.
As play commences, you find yourself stuck in a rustic town of the Old West, complete with one cell Sherriff office and Saloon equipped with batwing doors. You’ll have to talk to the locals and solve puzzles if you want to find and stop Padrino, and (far more important) escape this hell-hole of a place that these barbarians seem to call “home.”
The Low Down:
There are many places where Back to the Cubeture is an unmitigated success, nay, a triumph, and there are aspects of the game that are something of a let down. The most obvious thing that strikes you about Back to the Cubeture as the title and main character might suggest, is the cubecentric visuals laid out in an isometric fashion.
In the past, I have been firmly opposed to the usage of isometric layouts. In over twenty years of gaming, I simply haven’t seen more than a handful of decent games done in isometrics, while the vast majority tend to be confusing failures. On paper isometric might look fine, but time and again putting theory into practice results in catastrophic effects. But here in Back to the Cubeture, the isometric foundation supports the cubic presentation which gives the game much of its personality. The graphics may look simple, but watching them in action is a treat, and the way they are used, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, for sight gags and visual cues is highly effective. Further, the designers here had enough sense to keep things small enough to be encompassed by an isometric field of play, but also kept things uncluttered enough so that everything doesn’t get in the way of everything else. In short, if this is what isometric perspective can offer in a game, I thoroughly approve.
If the brilliantly executed visuals give Back to the Cubeture a large portion of its personality, it’s the comedic dialog that provides the rest. At once Cuboy’s adventure is self-effacing and self-aggrandizing, switching wonderfully back and forth between expertly deadpan to whimsical. There seems to be a joke lurking behind every corner, and most of them are well played. Be warned, though, while there are no naughty words (that I’ve found anyway), there are some naughty subjects. Far from the most offensive game out there, there will still be those with tender sensibilities that may object to some of the subject matter. Also, I don’t suggest playing this one with the kiddies unless you want to explain what “Ladies of the Night” are, with all the lovely fun questions that go along with that.
Where Back to the Cubeture falls way short, though, is in gameplay. The adventure elements are rudimentary to the near extreme with puzzles that really aren’t puzzles at all. Granted, sometimes it’s nice to play an adventure game that doesn’t put the thumbscrews to the gray matter, but this one doesn’t even offer the equivalent of a serious glare. Meanwhile the “action” sequences are one-button games of the worst sort; quick draw and tap the [space] bar as fast as you can until a, b, or c happens. We’ve played one-button games that boast surprising amounts of depth and require various levels of skill. None of the offerings found in Back to the Cubeture qualify. And, to make matters worse, Cuboy plods… slowly. This is not typically a problem until you get to the desert portion of the game and you find yourself getting up to make a sandwich as you wait for Cuboy to plod his way from one screen to the next.
In summation, it’s clear that the game in Back to the Cubeture is not the end, but instead the means to an end. It is what you are required to do as the team behind the title show off their visuals and wit. Happily, the visuals and wit go an awful long way to make this an enjoyable if short experience.

Ed McMillen’s Advice on Game Development

January 1, 2010

Over at the Indie Games Blog they have an itemized list of do’s and don’t’s for aspiring game developers up by none other than famed indie developer Edmund McMillen of Meatboy and Time Kfuc (among many others) fame. If you’ve ever even thought about attempting to make games, I think this should be mandatory reading. Even if you’re quite content not making games, it still makes for an interesting read if for no other reason than to gain a little insight into one of the more successful independent developers in the game.

As someone on the other side of the equation (critic/consumer, as opposed to developer/producer), I admit that some of McMillen’s items don’t necessarily speak to me. At the same time, other items have me nodding enthusiastically as my experiences in evaluating games have brought me to no end of violations of these tenets. When I read “Don’t make something that looks or feels exactly like an existing work,” I’m struck with how many times I’ve come across games, even during my year long tenure at Jay is Games, that were nothing more than rehashes of rehashes.

I get the urge to want to copy and duplicate. As a developer you want the affirmation, you want dozens of comments in Kongregate telling you how great your game is, and in order to get that, you want to present something that you know people will like. You know, for instance, that people like The Legend of Zelda, so it would make sense that if you made a game that closely emulated the framework of Zelda, you would have a hit on your hands.

There’s a problem with this thinking, though, and it is one that persists these days in just about every entertainment/creativity based industry we have. When you look at the music industry, or the film industry, or even mainstream gaming, the same complaint applies equally; everything is pretty much the same. How many comic book movies with ridiculously high budgets and A-list actors got made this decade? How many pop music artists right now are indistinguishable from each other? It seems you can’t make a hit song these days without heavy auto-tune abuse. In this regard, mainstream video games could be the worst, thanks in part to characters that never die or grow old (MGS will get a nod here for at least recognizing Snake in old age). Like 80’s slasher flicks, video game franchises rack up ridiculous numbers of sequels: Nine Megamans, Seven Metroids, More Zeldas than I could possible count and even more Super Marios. Hell, even recent franchises like Mystery Case Files are boasting plenty of follow up titles.

And whether its an indie developer intentionally biting off of a formula for a positive reception, or a major corporation guiding its creative agenda, the principle is the same. You know what people like, so you capitalize. For corporate entities, it’s about profit. We already know anything with HALO on the package is going to sell, so there is always a push for more HALO games. The downside to this, and this is what I think McMillen is speaking to here, is that this tendency also stifles innovation. If you’re trying to constantly capitalize off of the old, you’re not spending your time building the new.

That’s fine for industry establishment types. We’re doomed for years to come to have to suffer radio stations playing Brittany Spears clones ad nauseum. But this is far less forgivable a sin in counter cultures such as the one provided by indie gaming because that is where you go to get away from the stale and recycled output that clogs up the mainstream. I love homages, I love retro-gaming, I love parodies, but I don’t stick mostly to alternative gaming for those reasons. No, I am loyal to alternative gaming because I get games here that you won’t find sitting on a store shelf. I get concepts and gameplay that you won’t find in the mainstream. What is risky to a high level exec, is daring to someone like me. Sure, sometimes these ideas fall apart or fail, but it is better in my mind to have made the effort than to stick with what was safe and create something that lacks courage and passion.

Which is another item list that also resonates with me. “Design from your heart.” Believe it or not, heart shows in a work. Passion shows in a work. There are tell tale signs in a game that let you know how passionate the developer was about their work. Did they take the time to really polish up the aesthetics (not necessarily “good” graphics, but “consistent” graphics)? Is the game thoroughly debugged? And there are peripheral tell-tales as well. Do the developers get out there and really sell their product (more on this one in a minute)? Do they get in the comments sections of the places where their games are posted and really engage the players and dialog over the criticisms? But even without these minor tells that you pick up over time as a critic or game enthusiast, there is still an otherwise unidentifiable quality of a game that was created by someone who was clearly in love with his or her own work. I think most people, if really pressed to do so, could identify games they have played that were made with love and passion.

The final point I wanted to remark upon is McMillen’s second to last; “Try to make money.” Ed’s point here is totally utilitarian and a good one that I can’t hate him for in the slightest. But I would like to take it a little bit further than merely the act of collecting a paycheck. When you try to get paid, that means you have to actively sell yourself and your work and I think that act can be beneficial to aspiring developers in so many ways, and in fact can reinforce some of Ed’s other points earlier in the list. For instance, making a commitment to selling your games can indeed force you into critical thinking. When you undertake figuring out how to sell your game, a critical part of that process is figuring out why people wouldn’t want to buy your game, and coming up with clever and effective counter arguments. If there is a reason not to purchase your game that you can’t counter (say, your control scheme is horrible, or your menu system doesn’t work), then take that as a cue to retool or debug your work. Also, selling your work requires that you have pride in your work. Trust me, no one wants to buy something from you that you yourself don’t have pride in/think worthy of selling. Hopefully what this means is that if you make something you intend to sell, you will make something from the heart, something to be proud of.

Finally, selling your work establishes a special relationship between you and your audience, one that goes beyond monetary exchange. Some of my favorite developers don’t sell there games, and I can think of at least one off the top of my head that is morally and ideologically opposed to it. That’s fine, but you’re still missing out on a customer/provider relationship, one that has its own advantages, but is also perhaps more trying on behalf of the developer. Once money is exchanged, there is a greater responsibility placed upon the developer, whether its customer support due to acting as your own distributor, or the more distant but still integral role of overall supplier. With money involved, things become more intense, potentially, but that also could put the pressure on you to perform better than you have in the past.

So, like I say, Ed’s list is a good one to read, and he has the chops to back up much of what he says. I suppose it’s important to understand, too, that his points don’t just resonate with developers, but also with the critics who watch them. I won’t speak for every critic out there, but I will say that for me at least, many of the items on Ed’s list are one’s that I’ve been paying attention to in my own head over the years, even if I didn’t know it until now.

Dire Grove, Dark Passenger Etc.

November 25, 2009

So I have been largely focused on building my Interactive Fiction entry for JiG’s CGDC 7 contest, and having oodles of fun learning how Inform 7 works. As I warned, this may put off preparations for the official ADITMO relaunch and I’m sticking with that. As of now the working title of the IF I’m working on is “Dark Passenger”. Dark passenger will probably be the final title but I’m leaving it a working title as I contemplate a potential small change, and a potentially larger change.

In either case, Dark Passenger will be a part of the title so there you go.

But while that has become my primary diversion as of late, something has even taken me off of the scent of my IF for the time being–Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove.

I’ll likely publish a full review despite ADITMO’s under construction status if for no other reason than because Dire Grove is such a big release, the break from the break might just be mandatory. Until the freal review drops, though, know that this is already shaping up to be the best MCF game yet, without a doubt.

Staring down a hard weekend

November 19, 2009

I’ll be working twelve hour shifts this weekend. I don’t know how that will affect my work here at ADITMO, or on the IF I intend to write. It’s a crap shoot. There’s the potential that I can get a lot of writing done, and then there’s teh potential I’ll be tied up and buffetted about the entire time.

Still, I’m hopeful. I’m most productive on my side projects while I’m at work, and i’m staring down a weekend that seems tailor made for such things.

On a different note. One of the things I’ve been considering is whether or not I’ll start hosting games through this site (ahem, once I’ve, you know, done all the behind the scenes work I want to do).

As it stands, because I spend so much of my day at a place where games are generally firewalled, I have taken to downloading my vaforite swf’s and taking them with me wherever I go. As a result, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that difficult for me to just go ahead and post them once the site is ready to handle it.

Something to think about. anyway.

Could My First Game Ever Postpone My ADITMO dreams?

November 18, 2009

Started talking to a friend I haven’t really been in touch with for months. It’s interesting in that she and I have been dancing around the possibility of collaborating on a creative project for some time. Enter Jay is Games’ 7th Casual Game Design Competition, and at least the stage is set for a collab to come to fruition (I’ll post a link to the compo page when I get home tonight).

I don’t know that this will actually happen. The time constraints of the contest and the fact that I’ve never made any kind of game, IF included, means I need a partner, and if my partner can’t jump in on this one, then maybe not. But I’m telling you, I love this moment, when the inspirations and promises of a new project hit the creative nerves like a hurricane… truly wonderful.

If I do go all in, our deadline for this contest would be Jan 31. I wouldn’t, of course, halt all ADITMO preps between now and then, but I would say that ADITMO would take backseat to the compo, and I would naturally push the launch time for ADITMO to sometime in February.

Progress Report

November 18, 2009

Last night I sat and chatted with an old partner of mine, laying the initial groundwork for getting ADITMO up to 100% capacity. Also, I have been taking the opening steps towards establishing how this site will be organized. Part of this organization involves the writing of a ton of blurbs or short essays, and over the course of 2 days, I’ve got five of them done so far.

Still an AWFUL lot of work to go, and an awful lot of people I need to get back in touch with. Also, I’ll be asking for feedback in the coming months from anyone willing to give it, so please keep your eyes open and your opinions handy.

A Work In Progress

November 16, 2009

I think today is the day that I finally made the decision as to what I want to do with this site, and my online writing career (if, indeed, you could call it a “career”).

The truth is, I haven’t really written anything of import since September, though I felt half motivated to change that since then and now. It’s just trickier now than it used to be. I first started as a solo political blogger, not sure where I was going or what I wanted, but positive that in only a year or two I would be this wildly famous voice for… well… for something, that would be for damned sure. That’s not how things happened of course.

I’ll spare you the long and somewhat sordid history of where my journeys in online writing took me. I’ll only say that I’ve been some interesting places (metaphorically), spoke to some interesting people (corresponded is more accurate), and accomplished much I am proud of. Hell, I’ve even pulled in a paycheck for the words I’ve written, something that, two or three years ago, would have been little more than a pipe dream.

And so here I am, 32, and looking at re-kick-starting my writing career again for the umpteenth time. Not much is firm about what this next plunge in the world of words will bring, but I’ve two guidelines, compass needles that I hope steer me true as I make my way to what one hopes is an amenable final destination.

1) When I recommence writing, it will be to a purpose and it will be planned. I’m not foolish enough to think that once my path is selected I will not veer off that path for nothing, but I think I’ve finally learned that if I hope to have any measure of success a plan not be necessary, but at least the general flavor and shape of a plan would be beneficial. All this to say that I’m going to take my time getting ready to start things up again, and when I do, I’m going to do so with a certain amount of deliberation and even caution.

2) I’m going to stick with gamingj. On twitter today, Gamezebo highlighted this NYT article that at least partially informs why independent gaming remains such a cherished passion of mine.

Let’s face it, I’m a product of my generation; video games are the medium that grew up with us. We watched these creations evolve from Pong to Modern Warfare 2. Think about that for a moment. What other medium of creation had so humble of a beginning as pong? Cave drawings were more sophisticated in relation to the Mona Lisa than Pong is to, say, Metroid Prime 3. This was, as I grew from child to adult, the meter of a counter culture. Just as kids before me watched Rock and Roll evolve into Nu Metal and Alternative, or Superman evolve into Spawn and The Maxx, I watched mushroom stomping plumbers evolve into trained tactical espionage experts with reptilian names.

Now, at 32, with a wife and two kids, the Wii sits in my living room as a testament to the possibility, even the probability, that my days as a “hardcore gamer” are over. I’m now, for want of a better word, more casual than hardcore, and more indie than mainstream. Of course, there are still holdovers, tributes to my youth. In betwee Wii Sports Resort and Dance Dance Revolution sit Metroid Prime Trilogy and Dead Space Extraction. Resident Evil 4 and the Umbrella Chronicles stand there defiantly reminding me of when I used to care about frame rates and graphic intensity. About button mashing and feeling the sweat trickle down your forehead as the blood splashes across the screen.

But there’s the kicker. Even though I still have these mainstream titles, 90% of my gaming remains independent. I’ll tell myself that tonight, after the kids go to bed, I’m going to finally beat that tenticle boss at the end of level 6 in Dead Space, but instead I’ll find myself three hours later trying to figure out how to get past the first Epic Boss in Gemcraft Chapter 1. I’ll play my brother-in-law’s Playstation 3, and indeed, the graphics will be gorgeous, but the aesthetic beauty found in the PS3’s titles hardly match in my mind the more metaphysical beauty found in Roehrer’s pixelated offerings. I’ve yet to come across anything in the mainstream that is as deep as Gregory Weir’s Silent Conversations or Bars of Black and White, nothing as just outlandishly freaky as Cactus’s Mondo duet, nor any story at once as heartbreaking or as uplifting as Kyratzes’s House at Desert Bridge.

Within the world of independent gaming there is this lush jungle of textures for the spirit and soul. It’s not just a choice between which kind of badass hero with which kind of badass weapon goes after which kind of badass enemy. There’s depth and sincerity and more often than not an invested effort towards introspection. To this degree, I disagree a bit with the developers talked to in the article linked above. From Blow to Roehrer, they all speak as though there is still this uphill struggle to turn video games into an acceptable forum for the creation of art. In my mind, we’re already there. Okay, sure, you’re not going to see single games being sold in galleries for thousands of dollars, but each medium is different in the way that it defines success. All that matters is that the vehicle is being used to express, to package thoughts and emotions and ideas in powerful ways and subsequently given to the public to experience.

Across all mediums, the creation of art has still this thing in common–the artist creates, expresses herself, and the audience experiences. That’s really all that is necessary, Roger Ebert can go screw himself for all that. Almost two decades ago a virtual god in the world of video game development said the following in an interview:

I think great video games are like favorite playgrounds, places you become attached to and go back to again and again. Wouldn’t it be great to have a whole drawer full of “playgrounds” right at your finger tips?

Mr. Miyamoto’s words have never left me from the moment that I first read them so many years ago. Now, I find that most of my fingertip playgrounds are not shrinkwrapped in plastic on store shelves for 50 bucks a pop; they’re downloadable for chump change, or more often, free online. The swingsets and slides I’ve grown most fond of more often than not can be played right in your browser. When you’ve played some of these titles and seen the blood, sweat, and tears that were poured in until they start to leak out and spill onto you, it’s not hard to see how I’ve grown so passionate about this world of independent gaming.

So yeah, this site will be dedicated to indie games, and casual games, but not yet. Like I said, if I’m going to do this, I intend to do this right, so I’m going to spend some time making sure everything is in place before I do. I have some folks I want to talk to, and some old friends I want to dig up. There’s some organizational stuff I need to handle, but I’m hoping to be in a position to do this thing here sometime early in January. Until then, the only updates I intend to post here are how things are going in working to that goal.

Until then, should you feel the need to catch more of my raves and rants, you can always follow PROTIPZ on the twitterz.