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Before I broke my computer and had to send it off, there was one game I spent an entire week playing. I was intending to make a review for it, but that never happened. Even still, Freedom Planet needs to be mentioned. It was an incredibly fun game. It reminded me a lot of Sonic, but with a lot of added features to make it unique. There were puzzles, combat was more involved, and speed wasn't always the answer. Furthermore, the characters were quirky and likeable. The art was astounding. It was vibrant, colorful, and each region had it's own unique style. The animations were smooth as well. There isn't much I can really complain about with the game. It's great, and with the three characters having somewhat different story lines and very different play styles, it can be played over and over again. Plus, it's like $15 on Steam. So, it's pretty cheap and well worth the money. Oh, and you get to ride motorcycles up walls. That's always fun.
Three weeks ago we took a look at indie game Spate, a surrealist 2.5D platformer from designer and animator Eric Provan. This week I talk with the developer about his beginnings in the industry and pick his brain about what the game has in store for us, touching on the theme of the games and how they will affect the player. _______________________________________________________________________ The world of Spate and its gameplay mechanics look incredibly unique and compelling. How did your initial concept come about and how has it evolved over the course of development? Eric: Spate has evolved so much in the 3 years that I have been working on it, but I do remember setting some guidelines that have stuck. First, I wanted the game to be extremely rainy and damp. This grew out of my love of films like Stalker, Angels Egg, and Dark City. There’s a certain feeling that I have when watching and listening to rain, and I wanted that to come through in the game. Second, I wanted there to be no HUD and the controls to be very simple. I feel like games have gotten too convoluted. Things are kept relatively simple in Spate to keep the player in that world. It’s more important to me that the player is lost in thought rather than thinking. The actual drinking mechanic came very late in the games development. I always had the idea for this character to slowly go insane throughout the game. And I introduced drinking very early into the story. But, it wasn’t until game designers David Jaffe and Jenova Chen played Spate (on IGNs Game Boss show), that I added the actual drinking mechanic. They enjoyed the demo very much, but felt like there was nothing connecting the storyline to the gameplay. This is where the drinking mechanic was born. In the trailers it makes mention that the absinthe makes Detective Bluth hallucinate. Will players be able to explore a different side of the story under the influence? Are there other negative impacts that the insanity brings? Eric: Players can beat the game whether they choose to use the drinking mechanic or not. There are just parts that will be easier if the player uses the mechanic because it lets them run faster and jump higher. This forces players to think the way a drunk would think. “Yeah, it would be nice to get wasted, but then again, things around me could suffer because of it.” I am also toying with the idea of having a few different endings depending on how many times a player uses the drinking mechanic. I should also mention that there are more factors in the game that are making this character go mad then just the drinking. I was very inspired by Journey, and how in that game it felt like this world got harsher and more challenging, but you always kept moving on because there was that feeling like there was a light at the end of this long tunnel. I’ve modeled Spate this way, in that these mysterious islands start off simple enough, then you start to see weird stuff, and by the end you are climbing a mile high tower that is growing out of a female statues head. Because of this progression, I think the players feel the madness that the character is feeling. About how long a journey will it be? Have you made any painful cuts that might turn up in a future work? Eric: The game takes me just under 2 hours to get through it. I imagine a new player is looking at 2-4 hours. I think the length works perfect for the kind of game Spate is. The story is very much structured like a film and I think to get the full emotional impact of the game, its best to play through it in one sitting. I have had to cut a lot of things in the development of Spate. This is something that is hard to learn as an artist but sometimes you have to “kill your babies”. I have recently been recording entire playthroughs of the game and then editing it down after watching the playthroughs. A lot of the recent cuts have been to keep the game simple. The more complex things get, the more the player gets pulled from the world of Spate. One thing that I cut from the game that I may use in the future is physics based puzzles. I should be clear, I didn’t cut all of them, but in the beginning, I drew out tons and tons of puzzles and then had to scratch many of them. The cuts came because they broke up the flow of the game to much, and quite honestly, they were hard to program for a new programmer like myself. Perhaps I will go back to that sketch book and use them in the future! How did you get your start in the entertainment industry? Did games come first or animation? Eric: I started my career at Take-Two’s Kush Games working on their 2K MLB and NHL series. It was a good experience, but as an aritst, I quickly got bored working on realism. This led me to work on characters at The Jim Henson Creature Shop. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to get out of the game industry, it was more that I wanted to step away from realism and work on something with a bit more style. Henson provided that. What was it like working in the beloved Creature Shop? I grew up watching his work and loving movies like Labyrinth and the short lived Jim Henson Hour. Any favorite project you look back on fondly? Eric: I grew up the same way. If you haven’t seen Henson’s The Storyteller series, you have to check it out! When I was there, they were transitioning a lot of their TV stuff to CG, so I didn’t get to work on anything to memorable. With that said, just going to work at the Henson studio in Hollywood every day was a trip. I remember on my first day, I took a wrong turn and ended in a hallway that had an original Skeksis puppet from Dark Crystal. It was that kind of stuff that I remember most. I remember seeing the episode “Fearnot” as a kid and having the heebyjeeby’s scared out of me by the Half Man that dropped out of the chimney. “Master of Illusion” was another favorite. The whole series changed my writer’s imagination permanently. What are your favorite stories that you use to stoke your imagination when you need some creative juice? Eric: My favorite was “Sapsorrow”. Jim Henson does Cinderella? Count me in! As far as what gets my creative juices flowing, it really depends on the project I am working on. For Spate, I have a rolodex of about 20 films that I go to for creative inspiration. The Name of the Rose (1986) and Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974) being two great mysteries that I found in the process. I love stories about solo character’s given unbelievable tasks. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea falls into that category and is definitely inspiration for Spates main character. It’s amazing how story resonates with us on such a deep level. How do you think players will feel about Detective Bluth? I don’t want to pry too far into the story until everyone gets to play it, but what kind of emotional resonance will we walk away with when we come to the end of his journey? Eric: I think players will relate to the Detective and his battles. We all have our own demons (as I chug a soda), overcoming these demons is no easy task (as I chug soda again), and there is a familiar feeling of emotional achievement and satisfaction from overcoming these demons. That’s the feeling I believe the Detective in Spate and his journey through the XZone will pass on to its players. Any last thoughts before we part ways? Do you have an anticipated release date, or do you share Blizzard’s stalwart response, “When it’s ready?” Eric: The release date for Spate has been a tricky thing for me. I’m lucky enough to have had a successful Kickstarter campaign with over 750 backers of Spate. Keeping them waiting has weighed heavy on me. The original release date for Spate was Dec. 2012. Personal matters, and design matters collided and pushed that date. Spate is [much] different than any project I have ever worked on. I see it as my one big chance to create something special. Something that people will really enjoy. For this reason, I have definitely adopted the Blizzard way of thinking. I believe that the game and the players deserve for this thing to be done right. And, if that means a bit more time, then I’m going to take that time and make the most of it. The best estimate I can give right now is summer 2013. Eric, it’s been great talking with you, and we hope to catch you again closer to release! Eric: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you! Thanks for giving me a platform to get some of my thoughts out here. All the best! This post has been promoted to an article
BattleBlock Theater is one of those games that comes along and makes you think, “Wow, I hate my friends.” For the low price of 1200 Microsoft Points (somehow 1200 becomes $14.99) you too can experience the…experience..that is BattleBlock Theater available on Xbox Live Arcade. BattleBlock Theater (henceforth known as BBT) is the third game developed by The Behemoth studios following years of playable demos at conventions and press conferences. Behemoth’s first title Alien Hominid had one or two players fighting through levels in a completely 2D beat-em-up style of gameplay. Later came Castle Crashers utilizing the same 2D style and also playing like a beat-em-up only now with an extra axis of movement and character growth. This entry uses the same cartoony art style and poop jokes Behemoth has become famous for and even includes some basic fighting mechanics. What is strange though is that BBT is no beat-em-up, instead being a fast paced puzzle game. Behemoth has added what every puzzle game has been missing, pig mounts! The mechanics for the puzzles are more or less the tried and true platformer mechanics gamers have come to known. After briefly inspecting something, players should be able to quickly realize what exactly it is doing in the puzzle…and that’s a good thing! Spike traps hurt, catapults launch things, conveyor belts…convey things, and teleporters teleport. Everything acts as you would expect it to, and even those who only play the occasional platformer or puzzle game should be able to identify what they can successfully interact with. Where BBT gets especially interesting is the way it utilizes these puzzles. The goal of each level is to get from the starting point to the end, trying to collect at least 3 gems along the way to open up the exit. Each level contains anywhere from 5-7 gems and a ball of yarn. Collecting all of the gems and yarn gains the player a higher Grade on the level and a fast clear time can allow that to go all the way to A++ which rewards the player with even more gems. Gems are not only useful for completing a level but also let players “free” additional prisoners on the island (oh yeah you are competing in death matches on the island, that’s the basis of the story), which unlocks different cosmetic heads. While not important in beating the game it does fulfill that urge for completionists to “collect” them all, as there are over 200 prisoners to set free which will require a lot of gems. If you are not a completionist and suck at platforming puzzles, that is okay, you can still advance through the game due to only needing 3 gems to complete each level. Your score will be much lower and you will have fewer cosmetic choices but the game will not prevent you from progressing and I think this is a rather wise design choice. One thing you shouldn’t skip over though given the chance is Yarn. Yarn is the currency you use to bribe the cats on the island (yes, the prison guards are giant cats) to unlock additional weapons. While you don’t particularly NEED any specific weapon to complete a level, certain ones can come in handy, such as a dart gun that can make impromptu platforms when shot into a wall. Essentially there is a lot to collect and unlock but if you only want to play through for the experience and the story you don’t need to try and 100% everything. Now onto more important topics, like co-op play! You don’t need to be fast, just faster than your teammate. BBT has two campaigns as well as a few different multiplayer modes. The two campaigns share the same story progression but the levels are completely different with one campaign being built for single player and the other built entirely for co-op. Between the two there are literally hundreds of levels to play through. While each level will only usually last you a few minutes, some can take as long as ten or so minutes (it was a REALLY hard level!), and even at the speed in which you can complete them, that is a lot of content packed into one game. If you are no completionist and only play each level once you are sure to run out of content after a while. That is until you go online and discover this game comes with a level editor and allows for users to share their custom made levels with one another. As long as the community stays active there should be a constant stream of new levels available to play. In order to encourage such a community the game also has several multiplayer arena modes which are basically different variations of Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Race to the Finish. While none of these modes are incredibly unique it must also be said that they are quite enjoyable and the inevitable chaos that emerges makes them all the more fun/aggravating. Different colors mean opposing teams, though to be honest your color is meaningless when the grenades and fireballs start flying. All in all BattleBlock Theater is a game that oozes polish in its overall design and you will be hard pressed in finding a better co-op game in the platformer genre. The single player is an enjoyable experience, but the game truly shines in its co-op campaign. If you plan on playing alone go ahead and take a look, but if you have a friend willing to play with you, go out and at least get the demo right now. Also prepare to make new friends as the co-op campaign will test how much you really care about somebody when they throw you into the spike trap for the fifth time in a row, giggling madly. Oh and I almost forgot to mention the game’s opening cinematic…