Video Games Crunch

Polygon published an article about the crunch and emotional labor that goes into most big budget videogames these days. It’s partly a reaction to someone at Rockstar mentioning multiple 100-hour weeks as part of the development process for Red Dead Redemption 2:

What will be left of the people who make our games?

Crunch exists, however, because the industry is ultimately fueled by emotional labor — the demand that one always be the kind of person willing to endure all of this with a smile…

I cannot fathom how I would be able to call myself a good–or even passable–father or husband or friend and also work multiple 100 hour weeks. Maybe other people have stronger relationships than I do? I’m skeptical.

There are times when, yes, you need to put in extra time on a project. When Scope Creep Studios is close to launching something we essentially add a part-time job on top of our day jobs. However, 100 hour weeks are never necessary. I’d put money down that hours 70-100 (or even hours 40-100) don’t accomplish anything that you couldn’t accomplish in less time with more rest.

Creative projects will always have moments where they go outside of a strict workday schedule. It’s just the nature of the beast. That said: you need to remunerate the peple that work the longer hours, have those hours be optional (like really actually optional), cap those hours, and project manage as if no one will take you up on it. No deadline or creative vision is worth the sacrifice of relationships and health.

Games I Enjoyed Enough to Put On a List: 2017

I wrote one of these last year and found that it sparked some good conversations and also that I checked it throughout the year to remember what the heck I played in 2016.

Always blog so you can remember it later.

In 2017 my wife and I bought a house and our baby became a toddler, which means my time for gaming was drastically reduced while we packed, unpacked, did projects, and wrangled a suddenly very mobile little child.
Also, Scope Creep Studios, the videogame studio I run with a few friends, released Night Lights Toddler Toy, a simple toy app we made for our toddlers. It was supposed to be a simple few week project that, of course, took a few months to get launched.

The Second Half of Final Fantasy XV (PS4)

After loving the first part of this game I put it down for almost a year. I’m glad I did. In fact, this is the first game I’ve played in which I wish I’d just waited a year to play it in the first place. They seem to keep shoving in features and story tweaks into the game with every patch to the point where I’m not when you call the game “finished” vs. “minor improvements”. It’s a fascinating historical problem that I hope academics figure out how to deal with. For those living through it can be obnoxious. If I was younger I’d eat it up. Bring on the content! Now though I do not have time for that and would rather play the game when its “done” (or at least closer to the developer’s vision than hitting a release date set by Marketing).

That’s enough griping about a game I really enjoyed. Huge over-the-top setpiece boss fights, frenetic combat, emotional road trip bros, and the general whiplash of going to “the world is ending because of the gods” to “monologue about Cup Noodles” completely won me over. Final Fantasy is at its best when the stakes are impossibly high but you instead spend hours, say, playing a snowboarding mini-game. It’s melodrama rolled in the banal and I love it.

Obduction (PC)

It’s a very pretty and mysteriously charming game that only Cyan seems capable of really pulling off well. I got bogged down about halfway through by house whatnot. I don’t love playing this sort of game on a PC though because it’s a lot of sitting and thinking I’d rather do on the couch, plus I had a few hard crashes that took me out of the experience. Going to pick up the ps4 port in 2018 to finish it.

The puzzles I did get to were, of course, well designed and integrated into the world. The in-game world seems to expand and also come into focus as you learn new information through the puzzles. A vast setting coming into focus as you wrap your mind around its rules and places. Riven did this incredibly well too and Obduction has a similar feel.

Mario Kart Wii (Wii)

I almost forgot to put this on the list somehow! I think it occupies a different space in my head than other games. It’s inherently a social game. The only time I played by myself was to unlock more tracks for us to play together. My wife and I would play after our daughter would go down for bed. We even had a friend over to specifically play it for a game night. My mother-in-law played with us once too!

And then recently our daughter started asking to watch us play. She and I even tag teamed an adorable, although frustrating, lap in which she handled accelerating and I handled steering. Needless to say she took her power seriously and refused to accelerate at all … we eventually finished a lap in 11 minutes by me sneaking in button presses.

Universal Paperclips

The first draft of this post included it twice I liked it so much.
I’m a sucker for clicker games and this took up an entire weekend. It’s a refined clicker/energy mechanic game, which is to say after you get past the initial flurry of clicks you likely are barely ever madly clicking again. Just managing your spreadsheet of inputs and outputs and enjoying the ride as you accumulate resources as you race towards your goal.

What I liked most about it was that it had a fantastic sense of humor and progression curve. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly got its hooks in me fast.

Honorable mention here is Realm Clicker, a game that Andrew Brooks showed me on New Year’s Eve that I played incessantly on NYE and New Years Day itself. It didn’t make the list as its own game because it doesn’t have an easily accessible ending like Universal Paperclips. I hit a point where the game started playing itself with me checking in now and then. I’m quitting cold turkey before it becomes a chore. It’s really good though.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS)

I’d played this one a while back and it’d been long enough to have forgotten most of the puzzles. I love the fiction of going into towns where people are so obsessed with puzzles that they will stop whatever is going on to give you one. The story is mostly a glue to give you opportunities to meet weirdos who NEED you to solve a puzzle before they can tell you an important factoid. Lovely music, lovely artwork (heck, they had a Color Design Team on this game), and a solid lineup of fun puzzles.

10 More Bullets (iOS)

A very simple game that I played in one extended sitting. You have 10 bullets left and are trying to use them as best you can. You slowly upgrade as you collect resources until every time you fire the game explodes in a cascade of debris from ships. Really satisfying.

Night in the Woods (PS4)

Delightful writing and wonderful art. Plus it says something about the experience of coming home after being away in a way I don’t think I’ve encountered in other media. The ennui of adulthood setting in and trying to recapture something you will never get back. I didn’t love the game-y platformer parts of it. I did love the little mini-games peppered throughout it though. I’ll likely play through it again in a year or two purely for the writing.

This game was also very wrapped up in the experience of following their kickstarter updates and the creators on social media. I’m not sure it’s possible to divorce the game from the backer updates and twitter exchanges. The creative team on the project seem like cool and thoughtful folks and I’m excited for whatever it is they do next.

ABZÛ (PS4)

A PS+ freebie that hit me at the right time during house buying and moving. I found this to be an utterly relaxing experience. I meandered through it slowly and my toddler watched now and then and pointed out fish. Soundtrack is delightful too. It’s not a hard game by any means, but I never felt like it was wasting my time being overly clever about how I should progress to the next rich environment. It’s a hangout game. A game you want to inhabit for a while. Most of the games on this list are hangout games in some way, actually…

Hollow Knight (PC)

A very moody metroidvania with inspiration from Dark Souls and a style all its own. I picked this up on a recommendation from a friend towards the end of 2017. The first part of it was fine and then I picked up a few of the movement based items and it started to shine. The art direction is highly controlled and the soundtrack is lovely. You don’t feel like you need to rush through it (although I’m sure a speed run would be impressive). My complaint with it is that it’s stingy with save points. Likely no more stingy than, say, Super Metroid itself, but dying in Hollow Knight often than not leads to me to quitting until tomorrow rather than diving right back in.

Dungeons & Dragons and 7th Sea (Tabletop)

Another big change to “gaming time” was that I started running (a few) D&D games. After years of swirling sort of around the tabletop RPG hobby we got a group together. My wife had finished up listening to The Adventure Zone’s Balance arc and I asked her if she wanted to play. I volunteered to be the DM and quickly am realizing that I really enjoy prepping and thinking through what would be fun for everyone. We’re playing through the Starter Set, which is 20 bucks and so well designed I recommend it to anyone and everyone who has been curious but not sure where to start. Or talk to me in person and I’ll talk your ear off.

Videogames learned a lot from tabletop games, and in turn tabletop games seem to have (finally?) picked up on certain things (like approachable rulesets) from videogames.

I’m also playing in a 7th Sea game which has consistently been some of the most fun role-playing I’ve been involved in. It’s a system designed to make you feel like a sea-faring swashbuckling (and/or sorcerous) hero while telling interesting stories.

Notes on other games

What Remains of Edith Finch? and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are like tailor-made for Chris, but I haven’t had a chance to play them. I’m putting bets that they’ll both be on my 2018 list. Firewatch too, which I keep forgetting about.

And for reference’s sake, here’s a list of friends who have written 2017 wrap-up posts. I’ll add to this as y’all get yours published. It’s nice to go back to these when wondering what to play:

Cleaning NES and SNES Consoles

NES Console

72 Pin with four different choices: Boil, Clean Bend, or Replace

Clean

You can clean the connector somewhat by putting isopropyl alcohol on a clean cartridge and reinserting it a few times. Clean the cartidge between insertions. Or, dismantle the console and clean the connector itself off of the board.

Boiling

While this sounds like it couldn’t possibly work, it looks like it does.

Bend

I’d really recommend against this. I’ve tried it. It’s hard to do and I did more harm than good. If you must, get some quality dental tools. If cleaning or boiling didn’t work you should replace it.

Replace

You can get a replacement for between 10 and 30 dollars on the internet. Here’s what 10 gets you.

I’ve tried one of these before and didn’t like it. Super stiff and felt like it was scratching the pins of the cartridge.

The Blinking Light Win, on the other hand, looks very promising.

Go more expensive if you can. The cheaper ones are often not built to nice tolerances. Replacing it is a matter of unscrewing screws and careful popping off the old one. If you’re reasonably handy it’s extremely doable.

SNES Consoles

The easiest way to clean the connector inside is to clean a cartridge, then wet the cart, insert it, clean the cart, and repeat that process. An alternatively is to, very carefully, use a microfiber cloth and alcohol. There’s a lot that can go wrong (snag on the pin because you delved too deep) so be careful!

The design of the SNES is such that the pins will rarely go bad, which is good because replacing the pins is more or less impossible without a lot of soldering.

Note on replacing batteries

Games with save systems rely on a battery backup to keep the save stored on the cartridge. That battery will eventually go bad. The batteries are a standard CR2032 and is–relatively–easily changed. You’ll need access to the insides of the cartridge. After that, you disengage the battery from the cartridge , replace it, and secure the battery back in place. This might require some soldering, although there are tutorials for ways to do it without soldering. You can also buy battery replacement kits

Cleaning NES and SNES Cartridges

Your NES or SNES is likely not broken. The problem is almost always do to a poor connection between the console and the cartridge. Over time either the pins inside of the console, or the pads on the cartridge, get corroded and encased in funk. Get rid of the offending materials so a proper connection can be made between the two and everything magically works.

How do you do that though?

Don’t blow into it

Really, don’t do that.

If you’re able to get a game to work by pulling it, blowing on it, and reinserting it, all you did is either seat the cartridge in a slightly different place, scraped off some of the gunk onto the internal connectors. Or, worse, the moisture from your gross mouth is facilitating a connection. Whatever the cause, later on the moisture is not going to be your friend, which is why you shouldn’t do this.

If you must force air into it use compressed air. However, unless there’s an obvious bit of fuzz in there, the problem is likely something that’s not readily removable.

Opening things up with Gamebits and Pens

Picking up a set of gamebits–really an inverted torx–for cleaning and repairs is advisable. There are two that you’ll need: one for the console itself and one for the cartridges. If you get a good set it’ll be universal across almost every game system that accepts cartridges. Plus, if you have a good game store nearby, like the excellent Get Your Game On in Ann Arbor, they might have them available. Alternatively, you can order a set from amazon or an ifixit kit that has them included.

My feeling is that if you’re going to do this more than a handful of times it’s worth getting a set. It’ll speed up cleaning since you have more surface area visible to you without trying to peer around plastic.

On to the cleaning

Whether or not you get the gamebits cleaning is about the same: scrape off what you can with dry materials then get the rest with wet materials until it’s squeaky clean.

Here we have a shockingly gross looking copy of Final Fantasy. I’m honestly not sure where I got it, but, yikes:

Front of cartridge

Side of cartridge

Interior of cartridge

Dry Process

I’d suggest loosening anything on the plastic part of the shell with a toothpick if it doesn’t come off with a dry q-tip. This is surprisingly effective at gently scraping away offensive stuff. On this Final Fantasy cartridge I was able to remove most of the sticker and a chunk of the whatever it is from the casing.

If you can open the cartridge you can use an eraser on the pads as well. Just be careful to clean up the leftover eraser bits after you’re done. If you use one, I’d recommend a separate eraser (the trapezoidal pink ones work well) not one attached to a pencil. You’re liable to slip at some point and you don’t want to gouge the PCB with the metal eraser holder.

Wet Process

Q-tips and isopropyl alcohol. Go with 91%. If you need it fast, it’s easily found anywhere that has a pharmacy. I’d recommend a small bottle if you can. You’re unlikely to run out and a smaller bottle is easier to handle.

Wet one end of the q-tip in a small amount of isopropyl alcohol. Then rub that on the pads inside of the cartridge. Continue to do this until the q-tips stop coming out with any amount of blackness, or brownness, or grayness. Just white wet q-tip, please.

Depending on the cart this can take a lot of q-tips. Throw on something on netflix and scrub away.

Clean front

Clean Side

The detritus

Once you’re done, put it all back together and try it out!

The definitive guide to cleaning is from hardcoregaming101. I haven’t tried Brasso yet, but am planning to on at least one NES cartridge I can’t get to work in any other way:

Retrowaretv recommends against brasso.

As a point of interest: cartridges have different pins!

Games You Should Play 2016

Here are some games I played in 2016 that I think you might like as well.

Games are split into what I’m calling a commitment level. Unlike say books or movies I think it’s completely fair to put a game down when you’re stop getting what you’re looking for out of it. Some games are the sort that require more than a few hours to get anything out of. You wouldn’t play an hour of Final Fantasy XV and think you’ve seen everything there is to see. You might do that with Leap Day though.

Low Commitment

The majority of games I played this year were on iOS and iOS is the place for low commitment games.

Snakebird by Noumenon – this is a brutally hard puzzle game wrapped in an adorable package. The solutions to each puzzle are often simple in retrospect, but involve many intuitive steps to get there. It’s the sort of thing where you might spend a few days figuring something out and then finally it’ll click and you’re left with this tremendous sense of accomplishment. The controls are very simple tapping and swiping with infinite time between turns. If you enjoy difficult logic puzzles you should pick this up immediately. Snakebird is available on many platforms

Hidden My Game by Mom by hap Inc. – it’s charming. Little escape rooms where you’re attempting to find your gaming system that your mom has hidden from you. It’s very Japanese, very cute, and very delightful. Sometimes the answers make sense, other times they don’t, but the point is to try things and enjoy the outcome. From here I played through most of the developers’ back catalog. They reuse their aesthetic and assets from game to game such that they all feel like they’re inhabiting the same cute world. Hidden My Game By Mom is available on the iOS App Store

Leap Day by Nitrome – this is arguably better than Mario Run while being a similar concept (your character keeps running and you control the jumping). Leap Day’s hook is that there’s a new level every day. This does involve tight timing and platforming skills. I found it to be a very approachable game to pull out and play for 10 or 15 minutes here and there. Leap Day is available on the iOS App Store and on Google Play

Human Resource Machine by Tomorrow Corporation – it’s coding exercises wrapped up in an odd and forgettable story. If you have a degree in Comp Sci or are a professional developer this might feel like work, or like a set of warm ups. What I liked about it was that I was playing it alongside some other friends. We’d swap screenshots of progress and complain about levels. It’s the sort of game that shouldn’t have a multiplayer aspect, yet strangely lent itself to sharing stories and solutions. Nothing is timing based, in that you need to do quick actions in a row, but the interface is mildly complicated. I started on my iPhone and eventually moved to our iPad which was much more convenient. Human Resource Machine is available on many platforms

Pokémon Go by Niantic – when Pokémon Go was at its height it was electric. You’d walk down the street with your phone out and there’d be twice as many people outside all with their phones out smiling. We had a slack channel devoted to sharing progress and stories. There were endless blog posts and stories written about how it was changing society and gaming forever. A lot of that didn’t come to pass, but I do think it opened the door to companies trying more with alternative reality games. My enthusiasm about it has cooled quite a bit, but a few days ago I had to sidestep two 10 year olds who were excitedly trying to catch a Pokémon on Main street. If I had to wager a guess, I think we’ll see cycles of interest in Pokémon Go waxing and waning based on weather and updates. Pokémon Go is available on the iOS App Store and Google Play

Medium Commitment

Kentucky Route Zero Act IV by Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realism play experienced via videogame as delivery mechanism. The controls are simple, the story is dense, and I think when it wraps up with Act V–whenever that is–it’ll stand as one of the greatest game stories we have. A more reductive way of looking at it is that it’s really good interactive fiction. You can buy a season pass for Kentucky Route Zero which will give you Acts I-IV now and V when it comes out

The Legend of Zelda (Zelda 1) – the original Zelda holds up fantastically. I put it in my NES recently just to test things out and found myself playing it. It’d been years since I’d attempted an actual playthrough. On the original hardware–without the aid of the internet or savestates–the game takes on a completely different feel. You start to feel every hit as you’re fighting to keep your hearts intact, you realize you don’t quite know where dungeons are and since you can’t look it up you’re just going to have to wander for a while. It’s a surprisingly consistent experience if you pay attention to what the game is telling you there isn’t a whole lot you’ll miss. Play it with someone and draw a map! Officially you can play this game through the Virtual Console. I’d recommend an NES and the cartridge if you can swing it though

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by The Chinese Room – gorgeous soundtrack, beautiful visuals, and a story that I can only describe as “adult” in that if you were a teenager you’d miss all of the nuance. It deals with death, love, hate, being an outsider all through vignettes backed by an operatic score. Games like this make me excited for the medium. I’d recommend this one to people interested in stories if if they’re non-gamers. You do need to be able to navigate through a 3d space with a controller, but there’s no real timing or enemies to speak of. It tells a story in a world that feels very well realized. My wife and I played this together and enjoyed it quite a bit. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is available on the PS4 and on Steam

You’re in for it

These are games that I can’t recommend to non-gamers. I think they’re good, but they assume a level of proficiency with videogameyness that I wouldn’t force upon anyone who didn’t want to deal with it.

Dark Souls 3 by From Software – it feels like the logical endpoint of the Soulsbourne games. It’s confident in what it is and does it extremely well. The story is silly and over-the-top high fantasy. You could go back and play the other ones if you wanted to, but really you only need this one. I loved it, I really did. A friend, Andy, and myself sent emails back and forth with each other as we were going through it. We even took on a few of the bosses together while on voicechat. It was a tremendous amount of fun. Dark Souls 3 is available on anything with an actual graphics card

FF XV by Square Enix – I’m only 10 or so hours into this big wacky, dumb, lovable game, but I don’t want it to end. It’s a string of meandering sidequests set in the framing of a roadtrip with four bros. And these bros really love each other so very much. The characters are more fleshed out than any other final fantasy while also coming across as more grounded. The fact that one of the character’s main contribution to the storyline is taking pictures that they then present to you at the end of every in-game day is just brilliant. This is candy. Utter candy. It’s an anime as a videogame. It’s not difficult, but it is cool. Final Fantasy XV is on PS4 and Xbox One and probably later on Steam

The Witness by Thekla – a high-minded game of logic and perspective wrapped up in story that is quasi-philosophical diatribes and quotations from the world’s philosophers. My wife and I played this together swapping the controller back and forth. There are series of puzzles based around kinds of logical puzzles. It worked really well to play it like this as there were entire sections that one or the other of us “got” while the other didn’t. There were a few puzzles we looked up. One I’m annoyed with myself for not figuring out, another based on sound that I still don’t understand the solution. It does some fascinating things with perspective that I really enjoyed. The Witness is on PS4 and Xbox One with an iOS port coming