How hard games make you a hard man

Or woman.

As a freakish fallout to this game trend of ultimate hedonism, wondrous examples of counter struggle appear, with its own bands of fanatically faithful followers. Examples like Dwarf Fortress, DayZ, The First Two S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games X series and the Misery mod for Call of Pripyat… These are the weird ones, the ones that go against the wave, with another wave made out of blood, or tiny cute ASCII blood.

blood copy

Marketing a hard game is something publishers are not really accustomed to, I mean who in their right mind is a masochist in this world of infinite pleasure and instant doughnut lava cakes? Why would people flee from the punishing monotony of their daily lives, to get some more punishment in a different medium? You need ironclad game developer balls to build something that isn’t instantly attractive or requires an “acquired taste” for it to start working its magic. So hard games keep to the fringes, for now.


 Mods are usually on the front lines since their budget (which is usually zero), isn’t very restraining towards the content of the game. Some developers like Dwarf Fortress’s “Toady” Tarn Adams eschew the graphics all together, while crafting the ultimate roller coaster learning curve together with one of the most intricate games ever devised. The Misery mod of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dries out all the flora, rips the mercy out of the game and makes you scrounge for food in the worst, morally uncomfortable ways possible. If there were puppies in the Misery mod, they’d all have AIDS and a propensity to bite animal lovers.
Success in hard games is rare, but oh so rewarding. A hard game is an experience that the brain interprets less like a pleasurable stroll through the meadow and more like I’ve lived through hell and back. That specific kind of interpretation is what true game experiences are, they stick with you throughout life, and you apply those experiences in real life when need be. Games that break through the barrier of real life, that make you remember your experience there, without actually having to touch a computer. Games that feel like you’ve been living there for a small percent of your life, and you’ve siphoned the experience, the culture, you’ve been to another alternate universe and it is a part of your experience like that one time you got stuck with your family on a mountain trip, no gasoline, no phones, and you had to learn to adapt to the new environment, make that your new temporary home.

Welcome to the Polish Zone, the 30HA, czyli projekt S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Socho

These are experienced Stalkers we are talking about, and they leave no room for badly improvised situations: Emissions are announced by a portable audio system, maps and compasses are readily used, canned food is primary food source, they’ve even devised closed breathing system replicas for the SEVA suit aficionados. Exoskeletons are also something that you might run into if you happen to run into this Polish version of the Zone.

They have their own versions of artifacts scattered throughout the world, and radiation warning signs is something that this Polish Zone does contain, so it is clearly evident that this Zone is a living breathing area and the Stalkers are its inhabitants. They tend to create original scenarios and quests instead of just copying them from the original games. Their inspiration initially comes from the book Roadside Picknic, later from the movie Stalker form Andrei Tarkovski and most recently from the PC game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. This is what they have to say about the Books, Movie and Game series:

“”Roadside Picnic” has and always will be the point of reference. It is where everything started, and it is the unreachable ideal of a man’s journey through life. The movie is the quintessence of solitude and desolation, of trying to put together the shattered puzzle of life. The game is the crowning of both, set in the post-apocalypse universe of a world about to devour itself”

When I asked about a broad description of what they do, I received a poetic and very inspired reply back: “We try to capture the fleeting spirit of the Zone, getting as deep to Her twisted roots as we can… …The world is evolving, floating seemingly aimless in the black abyss of the Sarcophagus, and so are we… ”

They also have interesting plans for the future, so I wholeheartedly advise any STALKER addicts to like their Facebook page and keep an eye on anything they post there:

BIG games are BORING games, how BIG games make dull experiences

Today’s trend, and the trend of the last 5 years, is to make MASSIVE games. The bigger, the better. Developers bragged about their games being 5 kilometers and with seamless loading of new areas. I’m naturally referring to FPS games, 3D person and driving games.

It seems that, as the game worlds got bigger, they got emptier. They had less graphical content per square kilometer, less gameplay content per square kilometer and looked bland/badly procedural. Like watching the whole set of seasons of Law and Order a few times over. The numbers do sound impressive but are the gamers happier? Or much more importantly, are the games more immersive, interesting and offer a fuller experience than their colleagues on diet?

I would rather argue that modern games that are smaller, are usually better. Developers that aren’t pushed to advertise in kilometers, how “good” their game is, usually end up making better, fuller experience games. Now this is a very broad statement, and there is naturally a myriad of counter-examples. A bit older example wasThe Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, but even there, you can see the start of this trend. You could walk for miles and not encounter anything, nor experience an important ambience or scenery. Daggerfall is actually a terrible example here because it was actually quite a good game that held on to some principles that AAA game developers need to relearn even today. Bethesda itself should look back towards Daggerfall and Morrowind for some pointers as to how to de-crappify Skyrim along with Oblivion.

To get back to my initial argument, BIG games are BORING games indeed. Think of how developers focus on programming a smooth experience, fantastic graphics without slowdowns while loading massive worlds, while the story writers and gameplay innovation is given a back seat ride, or even a ride in the trunk of the car. Bigger games also don’t cause familiarity with the terrain and areas, they are just places to be exploited and the player moves on, they don’t have that impact that you can carry with you as a personal intimate experience. And why should they? When bigger areas are mostly more bland and shallow.

Games need to guide or even force the player to familiarize themselves with the specific atmosphere/environment of people, objects, terrain so well, that playing a specific game should leave the player remembering his experience years after he hasn’t even thought of the game. Detailed knowledge of the culture, the specific area, the people, should be implemented as gameplay elements, and rewarded when successful.

That impact has diminished in recent times, we can barely relate to areas even if we’ve been there many times over. There is no interaction with the specific area, it’s just an empty scene of cardboard props, meaningless, lacking substance. Striving to build BIG is the culprit, among other things.

What smaller games can do, is focus on their advantage over their bigger counterparts, engage with elements of the playing field. Make props important, integrate them into the whole of the gameplay. Make the environment believable, as if it has actually evolved over time, and you are entering a culture, not actors and Truman Show scenes. Imagine a tiny, limited area of gameplay, with a major focus on culture immersion, people skills, subtle things that a strong familiarity with that specific gaming area would immensely promote. Creating virtual culture that is interconnected, contextual, sensible is actually quite hard, but also quite rewarding, and in a way, games of such calibre leave a visible mark on players lives. When culture, atmosphere and gameplay are intertwined well, the player could literally spend hours on end, just enjoying observation of interaction of NPC’s, or observing causal relationships that develop when you influence the game subtly or just enjoying being there, as a part of that alternative virtual culture. Alternative to IRL that is.

EDIT: Was advised to put some examples of good and bad games that aid my argument.

Bad massive games: Lost Cause, Skyrim, Prototype, Oblivion…

Good tinier games: Deus Ex, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, Thief series

HUD Minimaps is what is ruining modern games

That, among other things.
HUD Minimaps floating at the end of your screen just takes away attention from the environment, and graciously delivers it to that ugly pacman-ish minimap. Do we need the player mainly focusing on primitive and simple graphics that serve no purpose other than to make the game easier, or do we want the player completely focused and immersed in the environment our game proudly creates?

If I wanted to play a minimap game, I would be playing games from 30 years ago. And those games are still more immersive in their own specific world, exactly because they offer a directway of playing the game. The “meta” game of minimaps diverts attention away from the game.

My previous post here gives attention to the fact that games are usually filled with other games, minigames that branch out of each other and influence one another, but a successful game is a game that guides the players attention, through the minigames, towards the main presence in the game. Minimaps do the exact opposite. Immersion means bringing the necessity of attention to the actual game and theimmediate presence in the games environments. Getting lost and learning how to navigate throughout the world is one of the most rewarding experiences in games of the recent past. It also is a very good trait to learn, today I rarely get lost in very new and confusing environments because of games that needed direct attention.