Poland :: This War of Mine

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Not everyone is a hero in war

Many people recommended different games from Poland. Most (all) of them mentioned different parts of the famous series The Witcher. I already player The Witcher, and I would totally agree. However, one game – which I haven’t played yet – I heard a lot as well was “This War of Mine”. Reading about the background story of the game already touched me. The game is inspired by wars and sieges such as the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 – 1996), when Sarajevo was besieged for more than 3 years. More than 5000 civilians were killed during this period. This War of Mine tells the dark story of war – not from the perspective of the glorious war-hero or the fighting soldier, but from the perspective of the victims: civilians trying to survive in such a raw and dark period.

You would start the game in a small shelter with three characters – Katia, Bruno, and Pavel – all of them with a different background story. The only goal is to survive. The resources such as water, food, or time for sleeping are extremely limited. It is cold, and in times of war you never know if you should open the door when someone knocks. The characters have to build objects to create different resources and try to survive day by day. At night one of them is able to scavenge the nearby places, such as an old fuel station or an empty villa to find food and material.

When encountering other characters in this game,  you never know if this is someone who would help you, or one of the characters trying to rob and/or kill you. You start becoming very suspicious about everyone and everything. Together with its dark atmosphere, this setup makes the entire game much darker. You would meet people sitting in front of graves. While you would be afraid of this person trying to rob you, he would answer sadly “Don’t worry – I’m just taking care of a friend”. Things, which are usually normal – like helping the neighbor and her baby – suddenly become a process of weighting between risk and value. And at some point you also have to decide whether you want to rob an old couple, which would be their certain death, in order to survive just one more day. And it is not only the situation outside your shelter, which is the worst part. All this anger, the fear, the war also break the characters inside this shelter at some point. After taking the food from the old couple, all characters in the house became depressed for several days. This choice broke them even though it was the only way to let them live.

This game made me really think a lot. Would you steal the last food from others to survive? Would you let your neighbor die just because you are too afraid of a trap? Would you rob an old couple to be able to have food for you and your friends for one more day? Bruno died. Katia got extremely depressed and shortly died after him. Pavel left our shelter and was shot the next morning. This war definitely did not only break my characters. Another screen for the Hall of Pain. Playing this game was not fun, but definitely an important experience.

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Release 2014
Genre Survival, Strategy, Resource Management
Developer 11 Bit Studios
Publisher 11 Bit Studios / Deep Silver
http://www.11bitstudios.com/games/16/this-war-of-mine

South Africa :: Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon

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Shedding some (neon) light on the dungeon…

Finding a game from South Africa was not a challenge. Choosing one instead was. The association “Make Games South Africa” (http://makegamessa.com/) is a vivid forum of motivated game makers and was immediately helpful by pointing me to interesting games. A first link-list could be found on their Steam page (http://store.steampowered.com/curator/5025202-makegamesSA/). This list is full of all sorts of games. Violent bunny games, sci-fi horror games, dark dungeons, and more violent bunny games. Many games are developed in Johannesburg or Cape Town. All of these games are pretty young and were published between 2013-2015. The South African game developer association seems like a vivid and growing community. More games (also many free ones) can also be found on https://itch.io/c/39646/south-african-games-on-itchio. Intense colours, top-down view, pixel graphics, and a good prize at Steam Sale (0.99€ instead of 4.99) made “Pixel Box and the Ever Expanding Dungeon” a very attractive choice for my game from South Africa.

The game starts with a very unique narrator-voice telling me how to play the game (or rather commanding me how to play the game). The tutorial is very well and interesting designed. For every new command, they have designed a separate room in a dungeon. The commands and how to use them are displayed on the floor in shiny blinking red. After the tutorial you start the actual game in a town (which reminds nostalgic-me a lot of Game Boy top-town Pokemon towns) where you would encounter other characters, some puns, and jokes. This is the starting point for the different dungeons, all of them procedurally generated, full of different monsters (chosen by the mob maker 9000), items and keys to collect,… and colours. Elements you would collect in the dungeon can be used for crafting new items, weapons, and armours.

The game itself is a rogue-like game. Since this is the first rogue-like game in my article-series, I’d like to shortly describe this genre. Rogue-like games are inspired by or similar to the prime father dungeon-crawling-DOS-game “Rogue” from 1983. Rogue was one of the first games, where items, monsters, and dungeons are randomly and dynamically (procedural) generated. Dying in the dungeons means usually losing a lot of items (in the case of evil Pixel Boy: ALL :-( ) and starting over at the entry again. (So while playing Pixel Boy I suddenly found myself stuck playing 1984 DOS Rogue again. Just another awesome dying screen inspired me also to create the page of the Hall of Pain with my “favourite” game-over screens I’ll see during my project.)

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Back to Pixel Boy! The art style of Pixel Boy is really interesting and colourful. While the dungeons are styled in a dark and dull way, the monsters and the entire combat is designed with intense, contrasty colours. Many styles are mixed and an intense fight feels like “disco disco”. The soundtrack of the game is fantastic. Even though many reviewers would especially praise the option to turn off the narrator’s commentaries, this is definitely one interesting and unique part of this game.

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Release 2014
Genre RTS, Shoot ’em up
Developer Giant Box Games
Publisher Giant Box Games
http://store.steampowered.com/app/263080/ 

France :: Alone in the Dark

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Polygons in the dark…

France is a leading country in the video games industry and known for developing MANY excellent video games. So I was actually pretty worried that I would have to decide among an entire list of French games. But when I asked my French friends what game I should play they all answered immediately “Alone in the Dark“. I found a version (also for Mac) on www.gog.com for 5$. Alone in the Dark was released in 1992 and is considered as a breakthrough title because of the innovative use of 3D-graphics and as the first survival horror game. It is named on several “games-you-have-to-play-before-you-die”-lists and if not – it definitely should be.

In the beginning you would choose your protagonist: Emily or Edward Carnby. I chose to play Emily. The first minutes of the game feel like a detective story. The story takes place in 1924. Emily’s uncle Jeremy hanged himself and she wants to go to his “creaking old mansion” (named Derceto) to eventually find a note explaining his decision. Some hints already lead to suspect a hidden drawer in the piano where she hopes to find the suicide note. Then the game starts with an intro. Polygon-Emily enters the mansion (whoops – the door closes as if by an invisible hand) and walks up (and up and up) the stairs to the attic. First, looking at the graphics and hearing the story I expected some kind of point-and-click detective adventure. BUT as soon as the actual game begins, there is no clicking or any mouse interaction at all and it is clear- this game is different. The controls are pretty unusual, the cameras are fixed with dramatic angle-changes, and the gameplay is not entirely clear. So you would move her polygon-body through the room until the music (great music) changes and a dinosaur/bird-thing would jump into the room from the window. Emily dies and a random zombie drags her to her grave. The game ends with an extremely cool outro-scene and the typical “Game Over” message.

Lucky me saw this pretty cool outro-scene many more times. This was most probably one of the shortest game experiences I had. Ever. And this would happen again. And again. (And again.) So this is how it feels if stories from H.P. Lovecraft meet DOS game: horrifying frustrating. Survival game mode = save the game every minute. After getting used to the controls and finally also discovering the “fighting” mode and how to use weapons, I was able to concentrate on the story, the atmosphere, and the puzzles. Entering room after room (saving and saving) you would immerse more and more into this polygon-world. And even though we are probably already extremely used to fancy and realistic 3D graphics, the 3D art in this game was the aspect I appreciated the most. One can feel all the effort and care the developers put into this game, developing the innovative 3D technique in an atmospheric and engaging setting.

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Release 1992
Genre Survial Horror
Developer Infogrames Entertainment
Publisher Infogrames Entertainment
http://www.gog.com/game/alone_in_the_dark

New Zealand :: Path of Exile

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A lot of splatter, stories, … and 1320 skills

The first game from New Zealand recommended to me was Path of Exile (POE). Shortly after reading some first keywords related to this game such as “hack-and-slay”, “similar to Diablo”, and “Fantasy+Action heaven” I was already happily immersed into the POE universe. Path of Exile is a giant, multi-user online free-to-play action hack-and-slay splatter roleplaying game with a GIANT skill tree. Seriously – after playing so many games, I thought I’ve seen everything. But this skill tree is just.. overwhelming. According to the website the skill tree/web/forest contains about 1320 skills. So I’ve decided I would fight my desire for achieving the 100% and would just do some first missions to write this text. The game was developed by a relatively small team of developers, who all have a passion for ARPs. So they had the mission to create an ARP game, which they always wanted play and succeeded. It was successfully co-funded by the crowd with a crowdfunding campaign run on their own website.  

You start the game on a boat and can choose from different classes (witch, ranger, shadow, templar, marauder, or duelist). You cannot change appearance or sex (witch and ranger are female). After choosing your class you would start the game waking up on a shore. You’d pick up your weapon and start your first nice conversation with another survivor – who immediately gets killed by a zombie thing. And this is already a preview for the entire scene and story of POE. It’s pretty dark and full of splatter with a nice story.

As in most multi-user games, the first sentences in the chatbox you’d read happen to be full of trolling. So I started to discover the island with my pretty weak witch girl. After fighting the first zombie it felt like I was the queen of world. Just a few seconds later I discovered the first horde of undead and found myself right back at the first spawn point. So I was pretty happy finding my first piece of armor – a mighty pot to keep my head save. This is also the point where you realize that you will be more dependent on your skills than your armor. And levelling and levelling. Even though I only wanted to get a first idea of the gameplay, I just wanted to “complete this last small quest to level one level up..”. The gameplay is similar to Diablo, but the environment and the story immerse players into an entirely new world. To me, playing the first few quests of this game felt like this typical wonderful after-work-hack-and-slack-meditation. And the most wonderful fact – it’s totally free so you can also use is for after-not-work-meditation. And it’s worth every penny you don’t have to pay.

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Release 2013
Genre ARP
Developer Grinding Gear Games
Publisher Grinding Gear Games
http://www.pathofexile.com/

Hungary :: Imperium Galactica II

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Back in time and still in the future..

When I asked a guy from Hungary what I should play, his first idea was the Rubik’s Cube. Since it would most probably take me 43 252 003 274 489 856 000 combinations to solve it and write my story to the game I’ve decided to go for the second choice. The video game several Hungarians mentioned immediately was Imperium Galactica II. I was pretty excited when the question was raised: “Can it be more than 10 years old?”. THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR. But it was actually pretty hard to find the original version at gog.com or similar websites promoting old games. I was therefore all the more surprised that there is a neat version for the iPad (4€) available.

Wow. Playing Imperium Galactica II took me back, reviving the RTS trend of 2000. One of my favourite games was always Command & Conquer: Red Alert, so I was already pretty excited to play a rather old RTS game. Compared to many other RTS games, Imperium Galactica II comes with a nice story. The gameplay graphics (such as the starmap) remind of this very very old universe maps. However, in contrast to this, the cutscenes look extremely fancy and make the story alive.

Playing the campaign, you would choose between three races, with different skill sets. So it’s up to you to play with militaristic skills and strategies (brute force), diplomacy, or trading. It took me a while to get used to the controls, however, playing a RTS on a mobile device is still not the thing one is used to. First, I really had issues getting used to the game principles and the controls. Even though the game provides a nice video tutorial, the in-game tutorials of games are really appreciated. After a short time of frustration, however, it really gives you this feeling of playing one of these old, but futuristic RTS games. You could just play for hours and hours. Constantly new messages with new missions and encounters are waiting. These missions come with an interesting story by the way (a stolen virus will be spread at one of your planets…). After a short period of frustration, the excitement is overwhelming and I am definitely happy to have this game in my game collection on my iPad for traveling.

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Release 2000
Genre RTS,
Developer Digital Reality
Publisher GT Interactive
http://imperiumgalactica.com/

Switzerland :: Feist

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Feist – I’m a small, small thing in an evil, evil world.

The first game recommended by some guys from Switzerland was Feist. I was also pointed to the Steam Curator-List “Swiss Games”. Feist is a indie game developed by the Zurich studio Bits & Beasts. Looking at the website, this game won about 1000 awards. So I was also very excited to download the game. I was even more excited to see an offer at HumbleBundle for 7$.

At first glance the graphics and atmosphere of the game look very similar to Limbo. But I’ve loved Limbo, so – good for me. You start the game as .. a box. I didn’t see this coming, but ok. So I would make my way through the game as a box. After introducing the controls, and making the box swing, you get the idea that something might be inside the box. When I finally managed to destroy the box, I was super-excited to see this amazing small, fluffy creature, which somehow reminded me of this Austrian book for children “Swabidu”.

What immediately catches the attention is the intense and atmospheric background music. Also the graphics are very artistic and would give the game a very special ambience.

The first level is very smooth and gives a nice introduction to get used to the controls. And then.. the game already starts with its first tricky puzzles. And pretty soon it gets depressing. Your enemies are very uncomfortable and fast, and the puzzles definitely not easy. From this point you wouldn’t relate Feist to Limbo anymore. So suddenly the game principle is clear: fail to succeed. You have to learn from your failures. And you will fail a lot. This is actually a mechanic not a lot of AAA games would dare to use anymore. Early games, such as Zelda – Ocarina of Time were constantly challenging players with tricky puzzles and forcing players to actually restart levels several times (or look for level guides in the web – which was very slow back then). New games often give players hints really soon (if the player fails too often) in order not to frustrate them and lose their attention. Replaying Zelda on the Nintendo DS, for instance, was a shocking experience. They’ve included this “stone of wisdom”, which would give players hints to the solution – in form of video clips showing how to solve the puzzles.

So in Feist, you are living through this tiny, fluffy, hairy creature, which gets pushed around by all the other creatures in the forest and is either trapped or on the run. Your weapons are ridiculous powerless sticks and cones – your enemies giant thorny mosquitos, caterpillars, and moles (?). Often you would just run. Sometimes you would hide or look for ways out. And this game design works. I’ve definitely enjoyed playing Feist and would recommend it to everyone with a free evening, but don’t expect it to be stressless.Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 22.22.13

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Release 2015
Genre platformer, puzzle
Developer Bits & Beasts
Publisher Finji
https://playfeist.net

Zambia :: SCND Genesis: Legends

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SCND Genesis: Legends – Handcrafted RTS meets a fistful of 2d fighting

Looking for a game from Zambia I first thought I would have a rather hard time. But after a very short period of research, my attention was drawn to Sithe Ncube. She is part of the GGJ (global game jam) organizers from the Zambia GGJ location, and part of ubongogamelab.com. She told me about the growing game development scene and pointed me to some games. One of them was SCND Genesis Legends by Ifunga Ndana. Seeing some screenshots of this game and knowing it is based on a web comic already convinced me that this is the kind of game I’d love to play today.

The game is a hybrid of a fighting and an RTS game. It combines an interesting comic-style with 2d “street fighter” fighting games and anime-inspired animations. The developer has created an entire story as environment for different fights. Every character has unique special skills and you would choose a chain of attacks for your next strike. The first fights were pretty frustrating. The game doesn’t explain any controls or the gameplay. I didn’t win any fight. Not one. Not even close. So I had to do something.. totally.. new to me: I’ve started the game tutorial from the main menu. Apparently I’ve missed the wonderful secret weapon – the FURY STRIKE. After learning this extremely helpful super-skill I was able to win some fights and concentrate on the main attraction of the game: the graphics.

The developer, who has also created a web-comic around this story, has created his own world with loving attention to details. Very nice hand-drawn graphics and animations make this game an extremely nice experience and one can feel how much effort and commitment the developer put into this game. Even though the game is not perfect and one would come across minor bugs, this game is a thoroughly piece of work, developed by a guy combining his love for stories, comics, and (fighting) games.

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Release 2011
Genre fighting, RTS
Developer Ifunga Ndana
Publisher
http://www.scndgen.com/

Denmark :: Limbo

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Limbo – The art of dying

Limbo, developed by the Danish studio Playdead, was one of the first games suggested I got from several Danish friends. Until then I was not even aware that Limbo, this well-known title, was actually made in Denmark.

I’ve already played Limbo before starting this list. However, Limbo was one of the games which immediately fascinated and inspired me. That’s why I’ve decided to add it to the list and just play it again.

Limbo is a very dark game. The entire environment, the character, the music, and the sounds create a very dark and gloomy atmosphere. You start as a boy lying on the ground in a dark forest. Neither the story, nor the controls are explained to the player. You would start this game alone and disoriented, without a clear goal or a sense of control.

After making the first few steps the game makes you aware of its game mechanics by letting you die. The main game mechanics are small puzzles, overcome different traps, and a precise timing. The main and unique elements of this game are definitely the dying animations. The game design requires the player actually to die at some points to understand how to solve the puzzle. However, just because of the variety of all the different dying animations at specific points one could spend hours just trying to find the most creative ways to let him die.

To the gloomy atmosphere, different and new kind of traps, and the constant dramatic sound of your footsteps keep the game exciting. In the second part of the game, the environment changes from the forest to a machinery environment. The puzzles become more challenging and additionally include smart physics elements.

This game was an amazing and intense experience with a surprisingly satisfying ending.

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Release 2010
Genre platformer, puzzle
Developer Playdead
Publisher Microsoft Studios
http://playdead.com/limbo/

A year of playing the world :: preparations

Every one has this idea at the beginning of a new year to start one of this … bla bla each day/week/{insert-time-span} .. projects. This year I tried to find a similar project (learn how to draw, get fit, read books), but as usual I stopped sometime between Jan 2-3. So I thought.. maybe I should do something daily, what I actually already do daily..

I play a lot of games. Also, as an instructor of game development I have to play a lot of game prototypes and students games. So usually at home I would fully focus only on AAA super-fancy-super-polished-megagames – as a kind of compensation. However, I always feel guilty, trying to support the indie game industry all the time, buying the games constantly, but never actually playing one…

So a couple of days I’ve read of this really inspiring project http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/. In 2012 the Ann Morgan read a story/book from 196 countries in one year. She has made the most interesting experiences while reading and also while trying to find material to read in this year. Her story and her idea inspired me to start a similar project. For the next year I’ll try to play a game from every (listed) country (197 at the moment?) of world. Or at least as many as possible in this timeframe.

My choices will be based on recommendations of people. If you would like to give me tips/recommendations for games for specific countries, please write a comment, email me, or tweet #ayearofplayingtheworld.