First Impressions: Gravity Ghost

I have a tiny bottle that lives on my bedside table. Inside this tiny bottle, there lives some sparkling blue sand, little seashells, and a tiny, clay fox that smiles when you shift him out of the sand. Finally, I know that this fox’s name is Voy.

Gravity Ghost is puzzle physics game by Erin Robinson’s Ivy Games and I played it first at PAX in 2013, where I acquired my tiny bottle and Voy. I was immediately drawn in by it’s soothing music, whimsical colors, and girl floating through space. Gravity Ghost was still a full year and a half away from release at that point – it came out yesterday, January 26, 2015, and is why I just so recently learned the fox’s name. I had pre-ordered, so I was able to get in a few days beforehand. Score.

I finished Gravity Ghost in four hours, across a three-day period. This series is called First Impressions, where I generally talk about a game before I finish it. I started writing this a few times before I finished, but I couldn’t finish it before I was compelled to finish the game. You know those dreams you have, when you suddenly slam awake, gasping for breath, feeling like you just fell? Gravity Ghost doesn’t wake you up gasping for breath, but you do fall, and when you fall, you keep on falling, around planets and in circles and through stars. That is to say, I couldn’t write beginning thoughts without finishing it, as I fallen headfirst into its music, story, and characters. What I can write here are my middle thoughts, because even though I’ve completed the game, I’m nowhere near done with the story (or talking about).

The main character is Iona, a ghost girl searching for her fox friend. Along the way you learn about her family and friends, and meet new animal friends too. Gravity Ghost is physics based and its means is through planets – you jump and swing around them, collecting flowers that increase the length of your hair (why this doesn’t exist in real life, I don’t know). Your hair acts as your inventory, storing the animal friends you find along the way (I, also, keep animals in my hair). Eventually you gain abilities to terraform planets, through elements like ice and fire. You collect stars that open up new levels and puzzles and you reunite your animals with their bones, freeing them to scatter more flowers into the stars as they joyfully bound away.

Sound quirky? It is. There are a few problems, of course. The gameplay can be repetitive and some levels feel frustrating. I thought the skill level ramped up with no warning, which is just my take on it as someone who is admittedly bad at actually playing games. Those levels are few and far between, though, and most outlets have called Gravity Ghost out for not being challenging enough, so take that as you will. The game also uses its main three voice actors for several different characters and while they all do admirable jobs, it’s a bit jarring in practice. My main problem was the length: I could easily, easily play for much longer in this planet system.

The flaws are far from distracting, however. This game is everything that I love about indie games. It feels tender and touching and heartbreaking. The music and almost chalk-like art work together flawlessly. It’s scored by Ben Prunty, who brought us my personal favorite soundtrack, the soundtrack for FTL: Faster than Light. When I heard that he was doing the music for Gravity Ghost, I was excited. Rightly so, it turns out. The game opens with the Ivy Games logo, and then the following quote by Charles Simic: “Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships.”

When the quote fades, you see Iona and Voy the fox happily playing together. Together, the quote, the words, and the music took my breath away, before I even exited the menu screen.

Maybe that “waking up, grasping for breath” metaphor works, after all.

You can purchase Gravity Ghost on Steam here, and the soundtrack here.

First Impressions: Elegy for a Dead World

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game quite like Elegy for a Dead World. The closest I can think of is Lydia Neon’s game Player Two, which invites players to explore their feelings in a safe environment, by responding to open ended questions in a chatbox. Elegy for a Dead World plays similarly, asking for your words in chatboxes, except the scope is much larger, and the prompts more varied.

Eerily pretty, Elegy for a Dead World places you as an astronaut, floating in a vividly bright space, with stars twinkling in the background as you fly along. The central area is surrounded by clouds, and you are meant to fly toward bright, circular portals that will lead you to the worlds written by three famous deceased authors: Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bhysse Shelley. As you explore these worlds, you are tasked with completing writing prompts. Yes, writing prompts. This game wants you to write.

Imagine that!

I was instantly sold. Challenges emerge from these worlds, ranging from songs to rhyming couplets. The game asks you to create stories told from the perspectives of people who lived on these worlds. The “gameplay” is fairly simple: you enter one of the worlds and choose a writing prompt. From there, you fly or walk, side-scroller style, until you find more words to help you complete the prompt. You keep going until you reach the end and from there you can re-read your story and edit, and then, if you choose, publish it on Steam Workshop. There, other players can read and “commend” it. If you get enough commendations, you get a Steam achievement (hot diggity).

There’s also a free writing exercise, which lets you drift through the world without a prompt. I went in thinking that I would like this option better, since I consider myself a writer already. I can think of my own prompts! I thought smugly, as I sat down to play it. And then sat there for a few minutes trying to think of what words to put into this bold, colorful universe. Properly chagrined, I selected what seemed like a simple enough prompt, without too many constraints, and blasted through it, enjoying the fuzzy ambient sound. I published it and moved onto another prompt eagerly. This one tasked me to write about a villain who had destroyed a world and write about what had happened. In the middle of my solitary journey through the landscape, it was revealed that had destroyed the world. Uh-oh. I enjoyed flipping the narrative, though I did have to go back and make some adjustments to my earlier writing.

I’m looking forward to working my way through more of the prompts. As I floated through space and what felt like time as well, I wondered what my younger self would have done with a game like this. I filled up notebooks and notebooks with words when I was younger, mostly fanfiction – which, if you think about it, Elegy for a Dead World sort of feels like, since you’re taking the atmosphere of dead poets’ worlds and springing from those. This is a game that I wish younger me would have had. She would have really enjoyed it.

First Impressions: Duels of the Planeswalkers

Magic: The Gathering was always something that I wanted to play. Out of all the nerdy things I found in high school to love, MTG seemed like the most nerdy of them all. Naturally I was fascinated, but never took my fascination to the level of actually playing the game. I had a few friends who played, frequently at our underage drinking parties (oh, to be young again). I would watch with avid interest and once or twice they asked me to play, painstakingly trying to teach me how, and I would inevitably get flustered and lose and quit.

I’m in my mid-20s now with more confidence, so when I went to the Games Developers Conference as a volunteer and there was a group teaching Magic, I decided to stick around and learn. And it was excellent. I had already played Blizzard’s card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and so had some of the fundamentals of a game with mana and beasts and spells under my belt. After leaving GDC, I was lucky enough to chance upon The Lady Planeswalkers Society, a group dedicated to creating a safe, friendly environment for women to play Magic in. Sign me up!

It’s been about three months since I started playing regularly and I’m still learning – which brings me finally to Duels of the Planeswalkers. I had dabbled in Magic Online but when I first tried it, the terms still flew over my head. Haste? Trample? Vigilance? I have a better understanding of these things now, though I still consider myself very new and liable to mess things up at any given time (I always preface my in-person matches with “I’m still new, please let me know if I mess up!” I also use this tactic in Smite when I play a new character and surprisingly, it somehow works better IRL. Who knew that people are less likely to be assholes when I’m actually staring them in the face? Such a mystery). Duels of the Planeswalker sees my trepidation as new Magic player, nods, and then goes wild with making sure that nothing goes over my head.

“You’re confused about haste, new player? Let me pop up a window and explain it to you every single time you get a card with haste.”

“Oh, this is your COMBAT stage. I will remind you of this every single time you COMBAT.”

“Oh myyy, that’s a mighty big creature he’s got there, panic!” 

Okay, that last one isn’t true. But good lord, do some of the beginning tutorials last forever and throw big creatures at you without the ability to return battle in a proper way. Deck building at first seems nonexistent and you have to earn cards through the campaign play, winning booster packs for the AIs you defeat. You choose your starter colors – I originally chose the blue-white combo, as that’s what I used in the physical Magic 15 pre-release and won handily with, but ended up switching to black-red, my old standby – and are handed pre-chosen cards in that color to play with. I’m disappointed that a lot of the cards appear to be called “premium cards,” meaning that you have to purchase them to play with them and they can’t be gotten through simple grinding.

I guess that’s the nature of the beast, but I still find it disappointing.

Duels of the Planeswalkers also suffers from some technical mishaps. I have the game on my Kindle Fire, my partner has it on his iPad, and I have it on Steam as well. All three versions suffer from non-responsiveness to touch and click and while I understand why the game tries to be meticulous, the excessive need to confirm and re-confirm your choices wears me out. It doesn’t feel good to play, especially compared to the smooth sailing of Hearthstone, which is extremely responsive both on iPad and online.

With all that negative stuff out there, I still am enjoying Duels of the Planeswalkers so far. I appreciate the care it takes to coach new players through – if I’d had this tool back in high school, maybe I’d have actually played with people I knew and made new friends. The art is superb, as it always is, and the core game is still the same timeless, nearly flawless game. I find it a fantastic tool to keep learning more about Magic, so that when I play in-person, which is still my favorite way to play, I’m a better, tougher competitor. Maybe it’s working – last night I won two more physical booster packs at an event with my white-black deck. It felt good.

First Impressions: Smite

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these – primarily because I’ve been too busy playing Smite to play and write about anything else. The title isn’t exactly correct, either, because my first impressions of Smite have turned into second looks, third glances, and now tenth or eleventh eyerolls and bulging stares as I learn more and more.

Smite is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), like Dota 2, League of Legends, and Blizzard’s new entry into the territory, Heroes of the Storm. Smite is developed by Hi-Rez Studios, is free to play, and was officially released out of beta into the wild in March. Smite’s camera is third person over the shoulder, utilizing WASD instead of clicking and directing your character with your mouse. You have 3 basic attacks, with one ultimate attack, a passive ability, and a store to choose items from depending on your build. You play as gods, some with name recognition, like Thor, Odin, and Athena, and others that you’ve never probably never heard of, like Bakasura, Ullr, and Geb.

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First Impressions: Altis Life

Altis Life is a mod of Arma 3. If you want to see what it looks like, you should check out Frankie’s video series. I’ve been eyeing Arma 3 for months, and last weekend Bohemia Interactive had an anniversary sale, so I finally picked it up. I had idly wanted it for some time, but after finding Altis Life videos, I couldn’t wait to own it.

I haven’t even touched the Arma 3 part of the Arma 3 game. Oops.

Altis Life is a roleplay mod, with two factions (normally; servers can choose to switch things up if they want): civilians or law enforcement. Most servers have some sort of application process or you need to know someone to play a cop. I happen to not like filling out applications and I happen to not know anyone either, so my experience has been playing as a civilian. Civilians (and I assume cops) are awarded a paycheck ever 5 minutes or so, ranging between 500-1000 dollars, and most servers start you off with a respectable sum of money to get going, enough to get food and a cheap vehicle.

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Oops.

My current day job is fisherman. I bought a wet suit (after buying a diving license) and swam around, gathering fishes and selling them at the fish market. Eventually I earned enough to buy a boat, so I bought a cheap rescue boat (after buying a boat license) and now I can go into deeper waters, where there are bigger fish that earn me more money. There’s something oddly relaxing about being underwater, snatching tuna from their home, and then taking them off to be eaten. On a good haul I earn about $7000 and if I spend a whole day just fishing I can earn up to $30000.

altislifeOff we go, into the wild blue yonder~

 It’s slow work, considering the fact that another prime job is running drugs. My foray into the drug business was extremely brief: a random fellow asked me if I wanted to sell with him, I said yes, he drove me to his safe house, and the cops were raiding the place. Busted. I talked my way out of a ticket and have been looking for a side job of running drugs ever since. No such luck.

Once my day job is over, I take up my night job: harassing cops.

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Watcha goin do, watcha goin do when they come for you?

I hang out in front of the police complex, randomly yelling when they drive by and trying to engage them in conversation. Once, I was able to distract them long enough for a new friend to escape. He had stolen a gun. It was exhilarating. When I see them arresting someone I run over and yell at them that this is a police state, this is communism, this is unfair, film the police, no justice, no peace.

It’s basically what I used to do in my past that I can now recreate in a video game. No video game has offered me the opportunity to do that before.

Altis Life is not for everyone. It’s a roleplay game, above anything else. Like my love of DayZ, my love of Altis Life comes from character interactions and the opportunity for player relationships. I play mostly on the same server (because it’s run well and also because I’m quite, quite rich now) so I run into the same players when I’m around at night and it’s a really unique, lovely feeling to see the same people around, living their lives as I try to live mine.

Right now I’m saving up to buy a helicopter. I’m still about 400,000$ away from that. I will continue with my fishing, to try and make my way as an honest worker, to build up my tuna catching empire. Once I get an in on the drug trade, though, I’m through with that petty stuff. My life of crime awaits.

First Impressions: Child of Light

Child of Light is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to.

The characters, the background, all is made in a waterpaint-esque way, drawings that hearken to children’s books and imagination. You are Aurora, a princess with red hair that flows behind her, leaving stains on the sky as she goes, a crown perched on her head.  Igniculous, her firefly companions, follows in her wake, collecting wishes from flowers that let him shine so brightly he can scare back dark creatures that would attack. Her companions will come to include a jester looking for her brother, Aurora’s sister, and a down on his luck, older than he looks gnome wizard seeking redemption.

It’s dreamy, whimsical artwork is accompanied by a dreamy, whimsical soundtrack that I want to listen to for hours on end. The battle theme makes my heart race every time; your heart soars with the flying music. I don’t think I’ve had such a strong visceral reaction to a game soundtrack since I played Thomas Was Alone. If Child of Light isn’t your type of game, I still highly suggest you pick up the soundtrack.

All of these whimsical, dreamy touches are appropriate because the story is a fairy tale, telling the tale of Princess Aurora, she with the flaming red hair, and her journey through Lemuria to bring back the sun, moon, and stars, and to return to her father. It’s so goddamn pretty to look at and listen to that I’ll delay winning battles just to watch and listen some more. It’s aesthetically pleasing to the extreme and the story isn’t shabby either – Aurora’s got a temper and snubs being called a princess. She’s hellbent on getting back to her kingdom and her family. Her friends have their own stories and their own goals to achieve. From what I’ve seen, the Queen of the Night, who captured the celestial bodies and spirited Aurora away from her home, is shaping up to be an interesting character with her own mysterious reasons for her sins.

Combat is turn based, which is not something I normally love in any game. However, as characters gain speed boosts throughout battle, there is a visual representation of how speedy they are on the screen, with your marker surging past enemies’ markers as you boost past them. There’s also a gem crafting system, which lets you craft larger gems that drop from enemies and appear in random chests throughout the world. Each crafted gem can be slotted into a weapon to increase speed or add more damage to a sword or a shield. I’m not a big crafting person, but the system is very easy to understand and gems seem to be plentiful, so I never feel like I’m raging against an invisible, non-gem producing wall that wants me to fail.

What grates at me right now is the text. Like a fairy tale, everyone speaks in rhyme. And by God, is it not one of the most annoying things I’ve ever seen in a video game. Some of the rhymes are enchanting, especially near the beginning. But as the story progresses, the rhymes keep getting cheesier and cheesier. Lines fall flat again and again as more and more rhymes are shoved down your throat. It’s a chore to get through. I appreciate what the creators wanted to do with the game, to stay in line with the fairy tale the game is telling, but it starts feeling tedious and uninspired quick.

Still, the story that Child of Light is telling feels fresh and beautiful. If you can get past the cheesy lines, it’s worth a play.

I think that last single player game I played was Jazzpunk, which I only put about an hour into before my attention waned. The last single player game I put any real time into was Gone Home, which was a magical experience for me. Child of Light feels almost like that in a way – I’m invested in Aurora’s story, just like I was invested in Sam’s story in Gone Home. After sinking hundreds of hours into multiplayer games since i finished Gone Home, it’s invigorating to find a good game that can still hold my attention.

On a more personal note, I never thought I’d be a keyboard and mouse player. I’m using a controller for Child of Light, and goddamn, do you lose your muscle memory for a controller after not using one for awhile. Past Kim would be shocked and appalled at how far I’ve fallen.

First Impressions – 7 Days to Die

It was dark and I immediately heard creepy whispers everywhere. I started yelling how I didn’t like the game and then immediately died (I actually think I didn’t get killed by a zombie – I think it was a bug). Suddenly, a deer bolted out of nowhere in front of me and I watched it in amazement and then a zombie screamed in my ear and I died.

7 Days to Die is apparently Minecraft- meet DayZ – meet every other zombie survival game you can think of. I started with nothing, but also with tons of inventory space, which is quite excellent, with lootable items everywhere (though many of them turned out to be useless). I joined a server with only my friends and was able to find them immediately. They led me back to their camp and I started regretting my fuck this game, fuck this game! yells before.

I’ve played my fair share of Minecraft and it’s hard to not notice the similarities, at least on the surface level. You can get materials by destroying trees or houses, and you craft by using a table in your inventory. Torches are made with sticks, which you craft from plywood, which you craft from raw wood. You mine iron, then you make iron ingots, then you get sticks, then you can craft axes and pickaxes … and so on and so forth. You place raw, square materials by holding them in your hand and placing them to create structures like houses or castles.

Beyond that, it reads like a zombie survival horror game. There are maybe half a dozen different types of zombies. At night they run at an alarmingly fast clip; during the day they only amble, giving you plenty of time to hammer them in the head. They also carry loot, and valuable loot too – I found a flashlight, a pistol, and ammo on one. Compared to the scarce loot normal to DayZ, I was especially pleased to find useful materials so easy to obtain.

It’s fun. It’s Minecraft with a more sinister twist. The zombies are definitely not the geometric shaped enemies that creepers and Endermen are. The music isn’t so sweet and the noises each type of zombie makes can be downright scary, especially at night. It hits all my zombie survival game buttons, with the added crafting twist, which is something I haven’t experienced before. The graphics aren’t amazing, but the game is only in alpha, so I hope that maybe they will improve as time goes on.

I am not pleased with the artistic choices in terms of the lady characters, however. The women models both have cropped, torn tshirts, exposing taunt stomachs. Their torn shirts are low cut. Both men and women models can’t be changed in terms of skin color, which is disappointing.  One of the zombies carries the title “Plague Nurse” and wears what appears to be a “sexy nurse” Halloween costume, complete with short skirt and heels.

I’m disappointed in the choices concerning the women characters and I hope changes are made to those in the future. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, considering the game is still very early alpha, but I’m less than hopeful considering that the studio is named “The Fun Pimps.”

I don’t envision myself playing this game for very long, as it appears to be something I’ll get bored with rather easily, but I’ll probably give it at least another go to see what fun can be had.