Archive for category games

Date: May 25th, 2017
Cate: games
3 msgs

On Company of Heroes

I often describe Company of Heroes as the RTS that has made it difficult for me to play any other RTS.

There are a lot of things that make Company of Heroes special to me. Here are some of them.

World state

Something memorable in Bungie’s Myth is in how bloodstains and scorchmarks are permanent:

The marks exist as a chronicle of sorts. Every moment stains the battlefield, ensuring you don’t forget a thing.

Company of Heroes takes that ideal and runs with it.

  • Buildings are chipped away until they’re ultimately destroyed, denying infantry a place to garrison:
  • Barricades can be smashed through, creating new paths for others:
  • Craters from artillery and explosions deform the ground, and become cover pieces for infantry:
  • Bridges can be destroyed (and repaired), opening and closing routes:

Your choices alter the battlefield, both intentionally and inadvertently. Sheltered bays are a flip-flop away from becoming deathtraps.

The terrain constantly shifts. Sometimes to your advantage, sometimes against you, but always in a way that makes the world alive, reactive, and consistent.

Resource model

Like Relic’s previous RTS outing, Company of Heroes focuses on territory control. This is done through their resource model.

Here’s how it works:

  • Each map is split into a series of territories:
  • Each territory bears one control point:
  • Control points are captured with infantry units:
  • And owning more territory results in faster resource accural:

Simple, right?

But! There’s a gag. The gag is: a territory only produces resources if it has a contiguous connection to your headquarters. Think of it as electrical lines — if the chain has a missing link, the flow gets truncated:

It’s an elegant system. It is rules-light and possibilities-heavy.

It opens the door to cutting off large swathes of an enemy’s supply line. Dramatic moments of everyone fighting over one tiny hill are consistently produced.

But most crucially, it builds the game on a foundation of one thing: pushing players out of their bases and onto the battlefield. Company of Heroes is aggressively anti-chuffa and cuts straight to the chase.

The game starts, and the very first thing you do is the thing you’ll be doing for the entire match: push, expand, and capture.



Infantry units can take cover behind any chest-high object — sandbag wall, a farm tractor, a haystack, a crater, you name it.

Cover grants a substantial defensive bonus, putting any unit out in the open at a disadvantage.

Emplaced weapons provide enough firepower to lock down an area, but have a limited firing arc:

Tanks are heavily armored in the front but are unprotected in the rear:

A basic fundamental part of an RTS is moving units around. With Company of Heroes’ design decisions, every move order is compounded with a pile of circumstances to consider.

It becomes geometry and angles, guessing and second-guessing.

  • Where do you think the enemy most likely is, and how do you orient yourself in a position advantageous to that?
  • How do you best use that rickety barn to block enemy sightlines to your weapon emplacement?
  • You’re going to have some blind spots, so which blind spots are the most acceptable risks?

And because all of these factors are represented by physical in-world objects, everything is instantly readable and intuitive.


Which leads directly to where Company of Heroes shines particularly bright. If positions and cover are directional, it opens the door to flanking.

When the enemy’s forces are arranged to expect you coming from one direction, it becomes a veritable wall. A wall that shoots bullets.

And what better way to deal with a wall than to simply go around it.

Circling around and attacking from the side or the rear is something that Company of Heroes’ design revolves around. And that design choice pays off in an incredibly satisfying way.

Not only does it just feel good to break an enemy’s iron defense with a small clever move, but it gives a sense of flow to the battlefield. Like the shifting terrain and like the resource model, units are always on the move and in a state of flux.

This is a game where a basic move order is consistently a brutal way to destroy a fortified defense.


With the tap of a button, you can order units to retreat to headquarters:

During a retreat, you have no control of the unit. They automatically decide the fastest route back to headquarters, and run. A retreating unit sometimes gets killed, but they are overwhelmingly successful in making it home in one piece.

It’s a design decision that, had I worked on this game, I would’ve raised a stink about. It opens up a can of worms. How could this possibly be balanced. The amount of design implications and edge cases is staggering.

With that said: retreating is one of Company of Heroes’ best design choices. It’s one of the mechanics I most admire in the game. As a developer, it’s an incredible feeling to see a potentially problematic design choice be executed with such skill.

There’s a lot of things to like about it. The thing I most appreciate is how it bolsters the storytelling aspect.

When a character dies, that is the end of their story. They were born. Then they died. The end. As a net whole, I feel dead characters just remove potential story possibilities. (It’s one of the reasons I subscribe to Tom Francis’ Failure Spectrum ideal)

On the other hand, giving the player the ability to easily and frictionlessly keep characters alive — not forever, but at least longer? This results in a storytelling machine.

You end up with a grizzled rifleman squad who took out two bunkers and a halftrack. You end up with heroic last stands with that machinegun crew you’ve had since forever. You end up with strong character attachment.

When your battle-scarred weapons crew gets taken out — oof! — you feel it in your bones.

Et al

Company of Heroes proposes what a RTS can be. It breaks down what an RTS is, trims off cruft that has glommed onto the genre over the years, and rebuilds it in a way that is fresh, new, and unusual in an exhilarating way. When I first played it, it had that feeling of playing a game decades ahead of its time, and arguably, it still does.

It feels dynamic, it feels alive. It’s one of those games that has blood pumping through its veins.

All of its components — the terrain deformability/destruction, the resource model, and its combat model — touch and play with one another. I can’t overstate how systemic it all is, and how all of its system overlap. The same map will produce dramatically different outcomes, every single time.

This highly systemic approach is the reason why after every match, my officemates and I at my old job would convene and talk about all the wild things that happened during the battle. These post-game chats are some of my fondest memories of working at Pandemic, and also some of my fondest memories in playing games.

There are many ways to tell a story. Company of Heroes is one of the most impressive examples I know of.



Date: September 26th, 2016
Cate: games

On Far Cry 2

Let’s talk about Far Cry 2.

This is a game that does not want to be your friend. This is a game that throws you into a foreign land where you don’t know anyone, hands you a gun that jams all the time, and infects you with malaria — all within its opening minutes. It is belligerent, uninviting, and unwelcoming.

Far Cry 2 is easily one of my favorite pieces of work.


Admittedly, when I first began playing Far Cry 2, I had difficulty enjoying it.

About an hour later, it clicked for me. I stopped looking at it through the lens of my expectations, and instead looked at it for what it was aiming to be. This is not a game with a traditional power curve. This isn’t a game about feeling mighty.

There are many things I appreciate about Far Cry 2. Here are some of them.



Far Cry 2 treats many of its components like simulations. Guns degrade the more they are used. Weather patterns cause stormy days and sunny days. Enemies carry their wounded mates to safety. Wildfires dynamically spread across dry brush and climb up wooden structures.

The in-game map likewise shares the same approach. The protagonist pulls out a paper map and GPS device. If you’re standing in the shade, the map will be dark and difficult to read. If you’re driving a car, good luck focusing on both the road and the map.

Unlike many other games, the in-game map is not a safe shelter. The game world does not pause. Bullets whizzing through the air prior to opening the map will continue to whiz straight into your body.

By treating the in-game map like a simulation, the storytelling door is opened wider. That time you were looking at the map and your jeep soared off a cliff. That time you absatively posolutely needed to withdraw and had to shuffle through your pile of maps while under fire.

In my book, Far Cry 2 is in good company as one of the most effective in-game maps.



The surest way to grind momentum to a halt is to kill the player, reload the game, and have them replay a section over again. Stop, rewind, try again; wash, rinse, repeat.

Well now, let me tell you about Far Cry 2’s buddy system.

In an early section in the game, you make acquaintances with one of the mercenaries in the country. Like all the mercenaries in the Far Cry 2 universe, your new buddy is someone with a murky past that’s dubious at best.

Then at some point, because Far Cry 2 aggressively doesn’t care whether the protagonist lives or dies, the protagonist will probably die during some random gunfight. And when that happens, your character topples down. Your hands clutch the earth. Your face smashes into the dirt.

And it cuts to black.


But here’s the gag: the screen then fades back up, to you looking at the sky. Your mercenary buddy is at your side, firing wildly at your attackers while dragging you to safety. You’re patched up with pliers and bandages as your buddy defends you. To commemorate you returning to the land of the living, your buddy hands you a pistol.

And that’s not all: after you’ve been rescued and you’re repelling the last of the stragglers, there’s a chance your buddy may get wounded in the firefight. The relationship flips and now you’re the one saving someone’s bacon.

And — AND — that’s not all: once your buddy takes one too many hits, they shuffle off this mortal coil — permanently.

Your story goes on. A great little wrinkle is added, the world keeps spinning forward, and the momentum does not halt or hitch or hesitate for one single second. The game takes a failure state and sees it as an opportunity, flipping it upside down into a memorable moment.

I highly recommend reading Tom Francis’s excellent writeup about failure spectrums for a further dive into failsafes and storytelling.



Far Cry 2 tells you what a given mission’s objective is. Destroy the convoy passing by this road. Acquire this valued object. Rescue this character.

However, it doesn’t tell you how to do it. It does not hint at effective ways to do it. It does not place gameplay objects in such a fashion to nudge you toward a suggested play style. It does not rely on a row of dominoes for a canned let’s-burn-our-budget set piece.

It tells you what to do, but doesn’t tell you how. What, not how.

When control is relinquished, it frees up room for the player to join in, participate, and share the authorship. We’ve all been in that situation where one person just dominates an entire conversation. Far Cry 2 is a generous partner. A conversation is most engaging when both parties get to contribute.

By making a world that reacts to your actions, continues to run when when you’re not looking, and leans toward the simulation approach whenever it does anything, the game always has an interesting reply to whatever you say. By always keeping the player in control (Far Cry 2 is one of those rare games that lets you walk away while talking to someone, and it is glorious) the game has massive respect for player agency and the player’s time.



A few things before I go:



Date: December 31st, 2012
Cate: games
4 msgs

Played in 2012

Writeups on games I played this year. By writeups, I mean one sentence.

My emotional attachment to its little pixel people rivals the original XCOM.

Max Payne 3
Very pretty.

Tight-as-a-drum sequel to Thief in all but name.

XCOM (2012)
Constantly makes you make the kind of decisions that give you premature grey hair.

Mark of the Ninja
Expect to see all future stealth games pick and choose from Mark of the Ninja’s clever set of mechanics.

Syndicate (2012)
Its “They Live”-esque vision mode is a great bit.

Skyrim truly shines when you pretend its fast-travel doesn’t exist.

Silent Storm
If you enjoyed XCOM, then for chrissakes play Silent Storm.

Makes bold and very welcome changes to the roguelike formula.

The Walking Dead
Choosing between right and wrong is what most games do; choosing between wrong and wrong is what The Walking Dead relishes.

Co-op + roguelike + smart design = one of the best games of 2012.

Spec Ops: The Line
I like it when games are critical.

Far Cry 3
Is absolutely fantastic when the game embraces its open-world environment.

Borderlands 2
Has great humor from start to finish, which is particularly impressive because the game is jumbo sized.

Day Z
This is the future of games, folks.

Batman Arkham City
I felt like Batman, which is probably the best compliment in the world.


Date: July 5th, 2012
Cate: games

Golden Idol on Pressure Plate

Yesterday, Mossmouth’s Spelunky was released.

Yeah, it’s the best. Here’s why:


People like to learn. People like to find out new things and expand their minds.

Video games often have a bad habit of equating learning to a task. A task you must trudge through before you’re granted access to the meat and potatoes and allowed to have fun.

I dread the first several minutes of games because I know that’s when I’m going to get barraged with words. Words telling me what I’m supposed to be doing, inane story babble, and what this and that button does. I pay this tax because I know the real game is lurking somewhere after this tutorial level, upon which I realize all the tutorial words have already seeped out of my head like water from a sieve.

Spelunky equates learning with fun. It doesn’t pause the game and pop up a window explaining how to jump. It doesn’t lock you in a room and force you to listen to VO.  Instead, it lets you loose in the world and makes you flex your curiosity muscles.

“Hey, there’s a bloody sacrificial altar. What happens if I blow it up?”

“Look, there’s a golden idol sitting on a pressure plate. What could possibly go wrong?”

“Hi shopkeeper, you have a lot of things we want. What happens if we rob you?”

“Well, that ended in tears.” Yup, it sure did.


Many games would work just as well, if not better, were they converted into literature or Michael Bay movies. (And no, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

Spelunky is an example of something that unquestionably works best in its current form. It does this by laser-focusing on systems-based gameplay, something very unique to games.

What’s systems-based gameplay? Basically, it’s when your various game mechanics are designed to poke and prod one another.

Basic example:  the Arrow Trap is triggered when someone or something moves near it.  How does one safely trigger an Arrow Trap?

  • Pick up a rock and throw it at the trap.
  • Don’t have a rock? Pick up one of the other players and throw them.
  • Lure the giant freaky spider toward the trap.
  • If there’s a spiderweb, stand behind it so the arrow gets snagged in the webbing.
  • Go on Youtube and find solutions from incredibly creative people.


Layering these systems upon one another results in wonderful chain-reaction situations the game’s developers never imagined. There’s something fantastic about creating a unique moment that will never happen again, but more than that, the game generates these unique moments with such apparent ease.

In short: a variety of these rich interplaying systems + 4-player multiplayer + my sloppy thumbs = good times with Spelunky.

Et al

Spelunky lets you screw yourself over royally. As a testament to how tightly the game is made, this self-screwage never feels unfair or out of the blue. The game doesn’t screw you over, you and your dumb decisions screw yourself over.  With the looming horror of permadeath and lack of safety net checkpoints and savegames, the decisions you face suddenly become life-and-death in significance.

Mix all these things together, and you end up with a darn fine piece of work.

The Roguelike is a game genre I’m very fond of. Their main tenets are things I love: procedural worlds, player-generated narratives, systematic gameplay, and an adamant anti-chuffa stance. Spelunky takes and runs with these promising aspects, while doing that thing that great work does: that twist, of flipping the genre into a platformer, of making a roguelike that doesn’t require memorization of twenty-seven hotkeys, and letting (really, encouraging) you and your friends to throw one another toward giant freaky spiders.

So yeah, Spelunky is the best.

Date: May 14th, 2012
Cate: games
11 msgs

Day Z

I played Day Z for the first time today. This is what happened:

In short, Day Z is full of things I like to see: player-driven stories, a gameplay focus on systems interplaying with other systems, and interactions that extend beyond plopping bullets into fleshy surfaces.

It’s rough around the edges. It’s mean and ugly and probably smelly, and I say all that as a compliment. It’s unafraid to be downright boring at times. A lot of games make it their responsibility to push you to toward the ending – then you have things like Day Z that make you pull your dehydrated, starving body toward a glorious, crunchy demise.

Anyway, try it out.


Some of the comments were asking how to get/install Day Z. Here’s the steps I took:

1. Get and install “ARMA II: Combined Operations”. I got it from Steam, so I’ll be writing about the Steam version.

2. Exit Steam.

3. Start Steam again via the “Run as administrator” option.

4. Run “ARMA 2”.

5. Quit ARMA 2.

6. Run “ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead”. In the dialogue box that appears, select “Play ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead”.

7. Quit ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead.

8. Go into your ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead folder.

9. Create a folder named @dayz

10. Within that folder, create a folder named Addons (it should now look like this: steam\steamapps\common\arma 2 operation arrowhead\@dayz\Addons)

11. Download all the files from (site unfortunately seems to be down at the moment. Perhaps poke around and try to find out if the files are being mirrored elsewhere.)

12. Unpack all the .rar files into the Addons folder.

13. In Steam, right-click ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead > Properties > Set Launch Options

14. Enter this:  -nosplash -mod=@dayz

15. Run ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead. In the dialogue box, select “Launch Arma 2: Combined Operations”.