Early Access Snapshot: Dead Cells

Early access games are little presents from possible futures: you're not quite sure where the game is going to end up, but the developer is playing around with ~*~something~*~ and wants to know if it works. For this reason, early access games are chances for the developer to have a dialogue with players: what works in the game & what doesn't; what's exciting & what's rote. 

Sure, you may have to contend with some bugs and crashes, but watching something grow and develop (and getting to see how a game is built from the ground up) is unlike anything else in gaming.

Today, we take a quick look at Motion Twin's upcoming game, Dead Cells, currently available on Steam in early access.

One of the things I continue to find alienating about the gaming industry is the prolific use of insider terminology. Games are often categorized by their similarities to games of the past. If you don't have knowledge of those prior games (due to access, only more recent interest in games, or any other variety of reasons), these terms can be opaque to the extreme.

Such is the case for most articles that discuss Dead Cells, an early access game from developer Motion Twin. Heck the promotional website for Dead Cells is subtitled "a metroidvania rogue-lite with some souls-lite combat" (it continues, but the rest of the title is cut off due to the merciful Google gods).

I could write a whole article about the use of language like this, and how it distances potential players while, I suppose, drawing in the type of folks who believe that "real games" are a thing. I had to put three hyperlinks in that above sentence! That's absurd. Gatekeeping is boring at best.

But Dead Cells kept getting stellar reviews for how flat-out fun it is. So, when the Steam sale rolled around, I decided to give it a try. I figured I'd play for a few minutes, get anxious, and reaffirm that this just isn't my sort of game.

Turns out, it's a gosh darn blast. 

I've been playing it for hours, and have felt nothing but adrenaline-fueled excitement. My partner, who is usually petty video-game averse, even picked it up. We passed the controller back and forth, cheering each other on, only taking breaks for Honey Nut Cheerios and high-fives.

At its heart, Dark Cells is simple: the player battles through randomly generated levels (meaning: the enemies and general feel of each progressive level is consistent on each play-through, but the layout of the level/general composition changes each time), trying to get as far as possible. When the character dies, the player starts back at the beginning.

The excitement comes from a number of individually small factors: 

First, the game is fast and exceptionally smooth. Battling requires thoughtfulness, but is always swift. The limited number of inventory slots help with this: you can only have two weapons and two special items (like bombs or bear traps) at any given time. To get a new item, you have to eject an old one. 

Further, as you play, you collect "cells" from fallen enemies. These cells can be invested in upgrades at certain checkpoints. (If you die before reaching a checkpoint, you lost the cells you accumulated up until that point, natch.) These investments can be in weapons upgrades, unlocking new weapons, increasing the number of health potions you get in between checkpoints, etc. These investments remain in place even after you die. So, though frustrating to die (especially with the checkpoint in sight and 40 cells in your pocket, ready to invest), the game feel like you're still progressing. 

I also loved the necessary adaption that came with randomly generated levels. There were certain weapons I preferred to others. However, the game always starts you with the same basic weapons, and what weapons you get from there depends on whatever the game's algorithm throws your way. So, on a certain play-through, I might not get the dual swords I usually prefer to use. This means I have to work with what I have. If I get a weapon early on that does twice the damage to targets on fire, you can bet that I'm going to try and get my hands on fire grenades down the line. This "work with what you have" mentality makes the game feel different every single time.

To put it simply: the gameplay is incredibly smart.

Motion Twin recognized that they were making something difficult and, so, made sure that the design was as smooth as possible. 

In playing difficult games, I usually get pretty anxious. I never feel quick or good enough at these sorts of games to ever feel confident. I can usually feel the anxiety building as I get further along in the game: I know that the farther I get, the more frustrated I'll feel when I inevitably fail. That's why I haven't played Dark Souls, and why I've avoided anything like it.

But Dead Cells hasn't once even given me a whiff of that anxiety. 

The game is certainly difficult, but it feels extraordinarily light and breezy. Dying in the game isn't a gut-punch. Sometimes, it's a chance to start fresh. Every time I fail, I'm greeted with a familiar but still entirely new scene, and I get to start over from scratch and experiment with what comes my way this time. (Until I die again.) 

Motion Twin should learn something from their own design when it comes to promoting Dead Cells: it could be a wonderful introduction to a whole different style of gaming for folks like me. I would have picked it up a lot quicker had it not come burdened with its own weighty subtitling. (I still can't believe I had to use three different hyperlinks.)

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some dungeons to crawl.


Grab Dead Cells on Steam. (15% off if you get it before July 5. Get on that Summer Sale bandwagon!)

Watch a short playthrough via IGN here, or below.

'Tis the Season

The longest day of the year has come and gone for those of us in the northern hemisphere. I've gone swimming not once, not twice, but THRICE this week. (Put my body in water; it's where I belong.) I've been buying fudgsicles from the corner store on my walk home from work. 

To some, this might mean summer is finally here. To me, it means that the annual Steam summer sale is now underway.

It's that beautiful time of year when all the games on one's wishlist finally feel like they're in financial reach. Sure, I might not get to some until winter rolls around, but at least I'll have them when the nights start getting longer.

Looking for recommendations on what to get? This is what I've picked up so far:

Age of Empires II (75% off; $5)Age of Empires hold a certain place in my heart. It was one of the first games I played almost daily. A childhood friend of mine had the first Age of Empires on her dad's computer. The only catch was that it was in Italian. But that didn't deter pre-teen me: I was quickly sucked in to the resource management, the army building, and the intricate strategy of the game.

Age of Empires is a classic real-time strategy game. You start with a small village on a mostly-dark map. You collect resources, build fortifications, develop an army, and hopefully overtake your enemies. You can choose your preferred civilization with the knowledge that each has its own particular benefits. (The Chinese, for example, get gunpowder earlier than others.)

Honestly, I'm not that great at Age of Empires; I've never been very good at planning ahead. But even as my village is crushed by an opponent's army again and again, I find it deeply satisfying. I build. I hope. I repeat.

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Dead Cells (15% off; $14.44)Dead Cells is still in its early access stages, but it's received quite a lot of positive press. It came on my radar after Polygon posted a short playthrough video. Roguelikes are not usually up my alley, what with their fast pacing and permadeath. Both of those usually spell out instant anxiety for this gentle gamer.

However, this looks like a load of fun. The sheer variety of options, along with some delightful ways to combine elements/attacks, somehow alleviates my nervousness. If the game is about just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, I can deal with that.

The likelihood that I'll get nervous and throw my controller across the room is, admittedly, still pretty high. I'll likely grab a friend and cheer them on as they dungeon crawl to their heart's content. 

Shelter 2 (85% off; $2.24)Shelter 2 was one of those games Steam recommended to me. (I never know what to do with Steam recommendations. Sometimes it recommends Proteus and all seems right with the algorithm. Other times it recommends Prey, and I wonder if it's been toying with me the whole time.)

Shelter 2 drew me in with its idiosyncratic design. Everything looks like a paper cutout. The sun is a big swirling ball of yellows. It feels like nature, but nature through the eyes of something else.

This makes sense, since the player controls a lynx trying to survive in the world and raise a litter of kittens. Pursuing user reviews, it seems like this game might tug on the heartstrings a little. As someone who regularly cried over pictures of cats available for adoption from the SPCA, I can't wait to become a blurbing mess over 3D rendered felines.

Kentucky Route Zero (50% off; $12.49): OK, so I already own Kentucky Route Zero. I've played it over at least four times, but I'm including it here anyway because you now have no excuse not to play it. It's the best game I've ever played (and was the first I wrote about on Gentle Gamers). It's a perfect package and does things I've never seen other games do. With its themes on debt, ghosts, and Americana, I can't imagine a better time to spend an evening on the Zero.


Other Gentle games available for sale on Steam:

  • Stardew Valley (40% off; $8.99): Gentle farming sim that lovingly held me in its clutches for 100+ hours. Review here.
  • Everything (34% off; $9.89): Game that breaks the idea of what a game can and should be. Proper review forthcoming, but for now, you can read my ode to David OReilly here.
  • Papers Please (60% off; $3.99): A game that, using the simplest of mechanics, will make you challenge your humanity and morality. Review here.
  • The Witness (50% off; $19.99): The most furious you will ever be at a series of lines and dots (contained within the most beautifully rendered world). Review here.

There's something in the woods

Spoilers to follow for Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods

It's been a few months since I played Night in the Woods. In my original write-up, I lauded the game's ability to create complex, identifiable characters. However, I wasn't as taken with what felt like the tacked-on supernatural element of the game and a clunky reveal of the Big Bad. 

The third act of the game reveals that the "thing" haunting the woods is actually a secret cult of men from the town, who take part in a dark ritual wherein they kidnap and sacrifice townpeople to some eldritch horror that lives in an old mine. 

When asked by Mae why they're killing people for this thing, a spokesman for the cult says: "You got to understand. In those days it was the end of the world. Jobs gone. Our kids were leaving. Government didn't care, only wanted our votes. Just puttin' in more regulations, sendin' our jobs overseas, spendin' our taxes on lazy people and immigrants, while we worked ourselves to death." [Mae's friend Bea interjects: "I hate this crap. You old dipshits."] 

He explains that praying at the church didn't help, but once they started sacrificing people to this old god, money came back to the town, people got healthier, things were stable.

This game came out right at the start of 2017. Trump's election was still new and raw, and it felt like people were grasping at any straws they could to explain what was happening. Part of my frustration with this turn of events from Night in the Woods was that it felt like this was their attempt to do just that. I remember telling a friend, "Oh, this is why the game got delayed," meaning that I assumed they probably meant to release it sooner, but once the election happened, things needed to be rewritten to address our new shared reality. I mean, the language used by the cult leader was familiar to the point of being tired. I sighed and added this to my growing pile of, "All Art is Now About Trump."

In the months since playing, I'd forgotten about this moment, until I came across an article about the rise of Odinism in America, specifically among white male populations. 

The headline was pretty matter-of-fact: An ancient Nordic religion is inspiring white supremacist terror (tw: anti-Semitism, Nazi imagery). The article explores the recent popularity of Odinism, a religion based around worship of Nordic gods. Odinism is preferred by some white supremacists who feel it is a "pure" white religion, "untainted" by influence from people of color. (Christianity is eschewed because, after all, Jesus was Jewish.) Further, it is a religion that can be based around militarism, where violence against the "other" is a positive, is righteous.

I suddenly felt like Night in the Woods' final scenes were more knowing than I originally gave them credit for, and perhaps more nuanced. In the above article, the author describes rituals held in the woods at night, mysticism embraced by populations who might not be normally seen as practitioners of the occult. (W.I.T.C.H.es, these men are not.) I

was clouded by the familiar language of Night in the Wood's cult leader. The cult was a metaphor to a larger thing. In my original overview, I wrote:

I found a real satisfaction in not knowing (before, during, and [honestly] after) if that "thing" haunting the town was an actual thing, or if it was just the shadow of desperation in a town that feels like its been forgotten by the rest of the world and is slowly falling apart.

Or both, tied together.

And I stand by that. Obviously, Odinism is not the keystone. It is one part of a many-headed hydra of white male fear and anxiety. However, there was still some gut-punch feeling I got reading the above article and realizing that though the game's cult is still a metaphorical representation of adherence to a certain sort of desperation, it has a literal analogue in the real world.

There is something in the woods, and we'd do well to understand that and root it out.

Non-gaming, but still,

I like Polygon. It's a gaming website that doesn't really fall into the gross pit of presumed mainstream gaming culture. Their website is fine, but it's their video series that I like the most. 

Because of the amount that I've watched Monster Factory (and I could write a whole 'nother piece about just that series & its breaking/bending of games [or really about their Boy Mayor of Second Life]), Youtube is quick to recommend other Polygon videos.

So, when it recommended an episode of Issue at Hand, a series hosted by Susana Polo, I shrugged and gave it a click. It could also have had something to do with the clickbait-y title of this particular episode--"Wonder Woman: Her Kinky Origin Story"--buuuuuut

what I ended up watching was a video that featured a woman who reminded me of the women who work at Fantastic Comics, a comic book store I frequent in downtown Berkeley. Like Susana, the women at Fantastic Comics are not only incredibly knowledgeable, but they are unabashedly so, even in a field that has been presumed to be dominated by men. For me, Fantastic Comics was an oasis: I stopped reading comics when it felt like I was being stared at every time I walked into a comic book store; I'd buy trade editions from my local bookstore instead.

But when I moved to Berkeley, I happened to wander into Fantastic Comics. I was greeted by not one, but TWO women working behind the counter. Behind them hung a sign, styled like a "_ many days since we had an accident." Only it read: "It's been _ days since Heather & Juliette have mentioned WicDiv" with a big zero scrawled into the blank space. 

Now I go there every Wednesday, before I go for a swim at the Y. They've recommended I get into the new Hulk run. They hold my Sex Criminals NSFW-cover editions for me. They're smart, they're relaxed, and they're the best.

And Susana's series on Polygon is very much like stepping into Fantastic Comics: showing that the medium is much wider than its presumed audience or, rather, that something that seems exclusionary is actually much more diverse and wide than others might have you believe. It's the same thing I hope to do with Gentle Gamers.

And she made me want to get into Wonder Woman, so: kudos, Susana.

Video here or below.

Early Access Snapshot: Overland

Early access games are little presents from possible futures: you're not quite sure where the game is going to end up, but the developer is playing around with ~*~something~*~ and wants to know if it works. For this reason, early access games are chances for the developer to have a dialogue with players: what works in the game & what doesn't; what's exciting & what's rote. 

Sure, you may have to contend with some bugs and crashes, but watching something grow and develop (and getting to see how a game is built from the ground up) is unlike anything else in gaming.

Today, we take a quick look at Finji's upcoming game, Overlandcurrently available on itch.io as a late-stage alpha.

When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to play chess. I think it was an attempt to calm me down and teach me reasoning, but mostly my tiny horse-obsessed self was excited to play a game that featured pieces that looked like horse heads.

For long rainy afternoons, my dad would teach me how to approach the game, how to plan steps and steps ahead, but also how to stay responsive to the ever-changing field. 

I wasn't very good at it.

In an attempt to bolster my confidence, my dad would go easy on me. I think he didn't want be to be discouraged, but I hated knowing that he was being more lenient than he would for, say, a peer. I disliked this more than even losing. What was the point of a difficult strategy game if it wasn't hard?

Overland bears a resemblance to a chess game: it too is turn-based, with different sprites on the field having different powers. It too takes place on a limited field, divided up into squares.

More accurately, though, I guess I should say that Overland  bears a resemblance to the chess I played as a kid against my dad... but only when he finally said, "OK," and took off the training wheels. 

Overland is unrelenting and difficult. But, as a strategy game, it should be. Its leanness and its meanness makes it captivating.

Overland is a turn-based strategy game with roguelike elements (specifically: the levels are generated algorithmically [thereby changing with every play-through], its gameplay takes place on a grid, and characters experience permadeath).

It takes place after an unspecified apocalyptic disaster. The player starts with one (possibly two) characters, and can build their team as the game progresses. Each character has a random skill: some get an extra move on their turn, others can revive fallen comrades within a certain time.

The player navigates these characters as they attempt to cross the United States. Along the way, the player can decide when to make pit-stops. Each pit-stop might bring the player some needed resources (a med kit, a toolbox, gasoline, a new car, a new companion), but each stop is also full of scuttling little alien mutants. These little mutants glow like they're straight out of Attack the Block and intend to kill every human that they hear. 

Any little noise will attract more: move a dumpster, and a few will pop out of the ground, drawn to the sound. Pit-stops that seem relatively relaxed could suddenly become out of hand with one ill-timed explosion. I lost a whole group of survivors over the course of one awful turn when my car exploded, drawing in a whole bunch of nearby mutants to pick off the one un-scorched human.

Most of my games ended quickly and frustratingly, with a group of survivors I had carefully tended and curated suddenly done in by one wrong move on my part.

I say it was frustrating, because it absolutely was. But it always felt fair, albeit difficultly so. So, I was never frustrated at the game, only at myself for not adequately thinking far enough ahead. Whenever I invariably lost one group of survivors, I would just start a new game and try again.

The more I think about it, this website is my attempt to reason out why I don't connect with a vast swath of mainstream video games. Specifically: I run in circles around the question of why mainstream video games lean into very specific horror/tension-generated mechanics (first person, survival, jump scare, etc.).

Playing Overland , I ended up thinking a lot about how it effectively shows a different and, ultimately, successful way of generating tension and horror in a gaming mechanic. There aren't any jump scares, and I'm never lulled into a state of empathic connection with a first-person perspective. However, throughout the game, there's a looming sense of dread. My partner started to watch me play, but had to quit due to the tension he could feel building in his chest.

Overland doesn't pressure you into any timed requirements. In fact, it gives you all the time in the world to plan your strategy, since the monsters only move once you say it's the end of your turn. Sure, you're limited by how many moves your characters can take each turn, but with a "go back," button to undo any thoughtless clicks, there's room and time to make sure your character goes where you want them to.

But, within this, the game finds ways to make you feel tense. The board is small, creating a feeling of claustrophobia that seems incongruous with the vastness of America, but totally in line with the myopia of terror. The sound design is a constant low and ominous hum, something that would be perfectly at home in a David Lynch movie. The mutant monsters move erratically, in ways that follow rules but are unpredictable to the player.

And, to go back to it: the game is hard. Like I said, one ill-timed move can spell the permanent end for a group of survivors you've grown attached to. (I felt especially tied to one all-women group that had made their way out of improbable escape after improbable escape. They were ended when I misjudged how many tiles away I was from a fast-moving mutant. It took out my group's strongest member and medic, and the rest crumbled from there.)

This difficulty means that the game requires the player's undivided attention. It draws you in. I played with a furrowed brow and clenched jaw. I was determined to beat it, even as it continually caused the pit to drop out of my stomach whenever I realized (yet again) that I was about to lose.

I haven't beaten Overland (/I don't even know if Finji has built out an ending yet), but I don't know if I ever beat my dad at chess either. That really wasn't the point. The point was to keep trying and to push myself past the point of tension or nervousness or self-doubt (or even just to sit in it). It's the only thing I've ever wanted, anyway.

Overland can be purchased and played on early access at itch.io. The game definitely has some mechanics to work out (how to store items in my car??), but these are few and minor for such an early-stage game. Overland explores horror in an exciting way, it is tight and lean and satisfyingly difficult, and it's beautiful to boot. There's little not to love.

"If Itch.io were personified, it would be a literal mosh pit full of art punks."

If the gaming distribution software Steam were personified, it'd be a yuppie: a young person with lofty dreams, in some well-tailored suit, ready to embrace both the good and bad parts of capitalism. They'd be all about efficiency and streamlined design. They'd use phrases like, "We have our finger on the pulse," or, "Gamifying the game market." You know what you're getting with Steam, which certainly isn't a bad thing.

On the other hand, if Itch.io were personified, it would be a literal mosh pit full of art punks: scrappy, excited, and rough-around-the-edges. It'd reply to questions about content and curation with a shrug and a "Why not?"

Steam might be great for bigger released, but for trolling around to see what folks are working on at the periphery of gaming, there's no better place to go than itch.io

itch.io was founded as a direct response to the difficulty of getting small games onto Steam. An April 2017 article on PCWorld explains:

[Developer Leaf] Corcoran started working on Itch.io in late 2012 as a response to Valve’s Steam Greenlight program, which used a community voting system to let indie games into the store. He wanted to create something more open, inspired by the online music marketplace Bandcamp. Developers would get to list their games for free and customize their game pages. Shoppers would be able to pay any price above a minimum as a show of appreciation, and the whole marketplace would be decentralized, with no way to browse the entire catalog or comment on any of the games.

In this way, itch's ethos centered around "do what thou wilt" and gave both developers and buyers a vast amount of freedom.

With no barriers to entry, itch has grown into a breeding ground for exploration. Developers can test out new mechanics and ideas without worrying about price points. They can experiment with ideas and game mechanics that deviate wildly from the established norms of gaming. Developers can test and patch their games, honing in on what they're excited to make, with no outside pressure besides their own drive to do better.

Meanwhile, gamers gain access to hundreds of games, many of which are available for free or almost-free. Gamers can also get early access to games that are still in progress (like Overland, which I'm currently devouring). It all feels very relaxed and personal, like you've stumbled into a friendly discussion with a group of highly-educated strangers... and weirdos, natch.

Sure, the download process isn't nearly as elegant as Steam, and the UI of the site can get a bit wonky at times, but who cares when you still get what's most important: access to a wider variety of games than can be found most anywhere else.

Looking for some games to while away the hours? I've created a few small collections of games in my itch account: gentlegamer, including games I will always recommend and games I'm eager to get to.

But, with a whole world of games being added by the day, the thing I recommend most is diving in and seeing what excited you.

"Let's Play" It: Little Nightmares

As a Gentle Gamer, there are some games I'll just never play. My nerves just can't deal with the stress, or I know it will give me nasty dreams for months, or whatever other thing might affect a soft soft buddy like me.

But that doesn't mean less-gentle games don't intrigue me. So, I found my loophole: watching Let's Play videos on Youtube. Watching other people play games doesn't fill me with the same sort of anxiety that playing first-hand does. With this little bit of distance, I can see what mechanics games are toying with, without having to deal with subsequent anxiety dreams.

This week, I watched a play-through of Little Nightmares, a beautiful game that falls into some icky tropes. We ask instead: how can we use the familiar language of horror to expand our world instead of contracting it? 

READ MORE.

A Brief Ode to "Hey Ash"

I'm certain that it was my brother that introduced me to Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'? a video series that started on Destructoid and then branched out to Youtube and beyond.

He definitely tried to get me to watch Red vs. Blue on Roosterteeth, and that just wasn't my jam. But Hey Ash, he promised, was a little different. For one, it featured a woman, Ashly Burch, who served as the manic id to her brother Anthony's calmer superego. Moreover, she wasn't a supporting character; the show was named after her, after all.

At the time, it was the early late aughts there was a huge internet video hole in my heart (Homestar Runner was on what seemed like a permanent hiatus), and I was looking for anything to fill that spot.

And, at the time, Hey Ash suited me just fine.

Truth be told, I've stayed pretty caught up with Hey Ash over the years; they've continued to put out videos pretty regularly. However, I sometimes wonder if I'm looking at them through a hazy nostalgic love: a lot of the early videos featured jokes that were 100% not-in-best-taste and reflective of some of the grosser sides of gaming culture (misogyny, homophobia, racism... the usual players).

But, while keeping that in mind and keeping accountability in tact, I'm trying to keep in mind that they were literal kids who were making videos for the internet in a time when that was still new. It doesn't excuse everything, but it gives it context. 

We all made some comments on Livejournal that our adult selves regret. (By "we all" I obviously mean "me.") (Jesus.) (I wish I could burn my Livejournal.) 

Since then, it's apparent that Ashly and Anthony's hearts are certainly in the right place. For example, they went back and put trigger warnings/retractions on their videos.

But they've also gone on to larger things, professionally. Anthony writes for video games, most notably for Borderlands 2. Ashly worked on a number of smaller projects, has gone on to create quite an impressive voice acting resume, and has given a number of talks about the social aspects of gaming (for example: "Curiosity, Courage and Camouflage: Revealing the Gaming Habits of Teen Girls"). 

But why does Hey Ash hold such a place in my heart to this day? Is it that Ashly plays the right sort of off-the-wall maniac? Is it that Anthony sets her up perfectly?They obviously are having fun with it. They both so deeply love gaming and also each other. It's dumb. It's (sometimes) thoughtful. It's two people who aren't white dudes doing a thing that usually is centrally controlled by white dudes.

But WHO AM I KIDDING. I hope that I know better than to try to make this into a thinkpiece:

These make me laugh. Hazy nostalgic love or not.

That Look

Sometimes, you're re-playing Portal to write about the relation of that game to female anxiety, and your partner takes some candid photos of the face you make when you're really feeling that final fight with GLaDOS.

"And behold," I said, "Behold the power of an immersive experience."

(P.S.In case it was unclear: piece about Portal and female anxiety coming soon.)