Phoenix Wright: Justice for All

Developer: Capcom

Completion level: Finished game

Spoilers: Plotline may be spoiled. Sorry. Finish the game first.

Many many years ago, there was a developer named Sierra, who made adventure games.

You played a character (and oh boy, some of them were Characters) who wandered throughout a world, usually a strange, bizarre, twisted world, generally with some goal in mind. (Not always with a goal in mind.) You collected random items as you went and jammed them in your inventory. There were puzzles. You solved puzzles, frequently using your inventory, the "plot" continued, and the games were well-received and quite enjoyed at the time.

In retrospect, most of the old Sierra games were terrible.

I don't mean the graphics weren't up to our current standards, because obviously they weren't, we're talking really old games. I mean the gameplay was atrocious. The games penalized you for exploring (by dying), they penalized you for logical deduction (by dying), they penalized you for taking a reasonable approach to the problems (by dying), and even if you somehow managed to pass all the hurdles and read the developer's mind you would still frequently end up in a spot where you couldn't possibly finish the game . . . with no way of knowing that you were stuck. And when I say "read the developer's mind", I really do mean "read the developer's mind" – puzzles were byzantine at best, and at worst they were an exercise in surrealism that has rarely been matched since.

Adventure games got more and more complicated, increasingly weird and unsolvable, and nobody realized it. Hell, I didn't realize it at the time – I loved those games, and it's only looking back on them that I realize how much sheer frustration and guesswork went into playing them. People stopped buying them, they died a grisly protracted death, and considering that Sierra was responsible for much of the genre at that point, I place most of that responsibility squarely on Sierra. Adventure games became entertainment non grata in the industry, and roleplaying games sort of awkwardly shuffled into the niche that adventure games had previously filled.

Many many many many many years ago, there was a developer called Infocom. They made "interactive fiction" games. You had an inventory, you solved puzzles, the puzzles got increasingly complicated and byzantine over time . . . you see where this is going?

Infocom doesn't exist anymore.

Yeah, I bet you did see where that was going.

Phoenix Wright is a game about a defense attorney.

Each game is broken up into four or five independent cases. At the beginning of the game, someone is murdered. Someone else will be accused of murder. You defend that person.

The gameplay consists of two segments, which often repeat several times within a case. Occasionally, you'll be in court, picking holes in the witnesses' testimonies, using court evidence and their own words to ferret out the truth. This is amazingly fun. The developers did a wonderful job of making it suspenseful, through music, dialogue, and fabulous art. Alternatively, you might have to inspect the crime scene, interview witnesses, interview people who you can call to the witness stand, etc etc. This part isn't quite as fun, for me at least, but it's still damn entertaining and it makes the first part all the better.

"I've never held any sort of weapon. I've never even touched one!"

"OBJECTION! Why are your fingerprints on this sword, then?"

"Where . . . where did you get that? That . . . it must be a mistake!"

"From a broken locker . . . behind your car. With your fingerprints on the lock!"


Phoenix Wright puts a lot of work into ensuring that you can't get yourself stuck. For example, there's no "I'm done, go to court!" button – if there's stuff left to discover, then you keep wandering around until there isn't. If there isn't, you go to court immediately. The same philosophy works its way into the entire game. If you've discovered all you can from a witness, the cross-examination ends. If you haven't, it doesn't. At all points, you know you have what you need to finish the next segment, because if you didn't have it, you wouldn't be here.

The end result of this is that, generally, it's obvious what you're supposed to do. Either you need to wander around the game world a bit more and look for more clues, or you need to find a contradiction in what the witness is saying right now. The upside to this is that it pushes you along in the game at a reasonably nice clip. The downside is that the game becomes rather linear, which exacerbated by the occasional "false choice" – you're given a choice, yet all the choices lead to the same path. Still, the writing is skillful enough that you usually don't notice these unless you're watching for them or replaying the game (and, let's be honest here, these games have zero replayability.)

The game almost pulls everything off flawlessly, and if I was writing about the first game in the series, I'd say it did – because the first game did. I ran into some trouble in this game, and it worries me.

Basically, the cases are getting more complicated.

There's more stuff going on. There's more surrealism. The puzzles aren't byzantine yet . . . but they're sort of nudging around the edges of it. They're considering it. If I was a history major you'd be getting a cute historical joke involving "not being byzantine yet", but I'm not, so just pretend there's one here.

This creates some issues with the linear Phoenix Wright gameplay – namely, that you can occasionally logic things out better than Phoenix did, and you get penalized for it. And sometimes, even though you know exactly what you want to say, you can't figure out how to say it within the confines of the game.

I'm going to spoil the hell out of the third case here, so, y'know, consider yourself warned.

The third case takes place in a circus. The ringmaster was found dead, the magician is a suspect, you're defending the magician, blah blah blah. The real criminal is the acrobat, and at a late point in the game you've figured out that he had both motive and opportunity, but you're still pinning down the details on how it happened.

Well, I wasn't pinning down the details. I'd figured it out. His pet monkey helped him. (This is not abnormal in a Phoenix Wright game.) So when the judge asked if the acrobat had an accomplice . . . well, yeah, he did. It was the monkey. Duh.

But you're not supposed to realize this at that point in the game. Despite being right, that was the wrong answer. I was not conforming to the exact pattern they wanted, and the game penalized me for it, and I had to work gradually through the guesswork they wanted me to guess at . . . eventually coming to the conclusion that, hey, the monkey helped him. The entire process was extraordinarily difficult, as it's very hard to figure out what they want you to say when, in fact, you know the right answer but aren't supposed to.

In a game like this it is vital to playtest thoroughly – ridiculously thoroughly – so you can see where people get stuck, and where people think too much and come up with an answer they're not yet supposed to have, and figure out how to design the game so that neither of those are a problem. And this is really really hard, especially when you're trying to make a game which is essentially linear.

There's two more games in the series that I haven't played yet (okay, the most recent one is Ace Apollo, not Phoenix Wright, but it's still the same series) and at least one spinoff being produced. It is entirely possible that they've recognized and fixed the problem by then.

But it's also possible they haven't. And this worries me, quite a bit. We're finally rejuvenating the old adventure game genre, after Infocom damaged it and Sierra did its best to finish the genre off. It's a good genre. There's a lot of fun to be had, there's a lot of entertainment, and I don't want to see it gone . . . but it's also a genre that's very easy to do badly, and very hard to do well, and painfully hard to tell the difference.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next game. We'll see.

Patapon Dissection

2008, May 22nd 5:00 PM


Developer: Pyramid

Completion level: Finished game, not 100%

Spoilers: I am not going to spoil the plotline. I will be spoiling the gameplay mechanics. If you're planning to play the game, however, you may want these spoiled for you.

I swear, it took me a week to figure out what I wanted to say here.

I keep notes on games as I play them, y'see. Anything that annoys me, anything that impresses me, any thoughts I have, it all goes into the notes. Eventually I finish the game, and I write up a dissection based on my notes.

Patapon has more notes than every single dissection you've seen so far put together – as well as two you haven't. To say that I am divided on this game would be an understatement.

So let's start at the beginning.

Patapon is a sidescrolling rhythm game. You control a bunch of little mobile eyeballs with weapons named Patapons, and you "control" them in a moderately indirect manner that takes the form of a rhythm game. You have a set of "commands", and if you punch in the commands with the right rhythm, your little eyeballs do things.

Once you finish a level – whose goals are virtually always either "get to the end of the level" or "kill a boss" – you are returned to the Patapon Village, where you can play various minigames, buy and upgrade Patapons, and go out to a new level.

That's the game.

First off, the game is pretty – I mean, look at that picture up there, that's almost exactly what the game looks like. You fight giant enemies, ten times the height of any of your warrior eyeballs, weapons visibly stick in them as you fight, the animation is brilliant, etc etc etc I don't really have a lot to say about the graphics besides "yum". It's worth buying just for the awesome visuals.

Besides that, though – Patapon has issues. Big, humongous issues. And it took me days to figure out why.

First off, your units do not have a vast repertoire of abilities. They have, for example, "move right", and "attack". They can also "defend", "run away", and "charge up the next attack". You'll never use "charge". You may notice this gives you four useful abilities . . . in the entire game . . . and you would be exactly right. You will be doing those four things over and over again. There's one more ability – "magic" – but to be honest you'll use that one perhaps twice in the entire game. You see, it ends Fever Mode, and that's something you never want to have happen.

So there's the first problem – there's no variety. Fundamentally you just don't do many things in the game, and you do them over and over again.

The next problem is Fever Mode.

Patapon is, as I mentioned, a rhythm game. Each of the abovementioned "attacks" is four drum beats, which you press in rhythm. If you get the rhythm right, consistently, then your Patapons eventually enter "Fever Mode" and become useful.

Yeah, read that again. If they're not in Fever Mode they are basically useless. Archer units fire three times as many arrows in Fever Mode and I think each of them does more damage. Mounted units gain the only ability that makes them worth bringing along. Units run away faster and go further – without Fever Mode they kind of run away, a bit, and then get stomped by the huge range of the enemy you're currently fighting. Their defense gets stronger, their speed goes up, everything your units do is vastly improved, with the end result that your performance is directly correlated to how long you can maintain Fever Mode.

And Fever Mode is a fractious, unruly beast-queen. The manual is unclear on how it starts and ends. Sometimes you'll enter it after a mere three commands, sometimes it will take ten. Sometimes you'll have no trouble staying in it for long periods of time. Sometimes it will end for no obvious reason, even when the commands seem to have been input correctly. A frustratingly large amount of the time it will end on the very next command after you enter it. The timing that you need to push buttons is extremely tight, and there's no visual or auditory clue as to whether you're too early or too late. There is an auditory clue as to how close to the beat you are, but it's subtle and if you start concentrating on it you're almost certain to miss your timing a little bit – which sort of defeats the point of concentrating on it. On top of that, the mechanics involved with Fever Mode are byzantine and complicated, and never explained anywhere. More than once, especially at the beginning of the game, you'll be fighting a boss, and you'll think "oh, maybe I will beat him this time!" and then you'll drop out of Fever Mode randomly and get slaughtered.

Yes, there are bosses that will one-shot your entire army.

Unless you're in Fever Mode, of course.

And to cap things off, there's the Patapon Village. You can buy new Patapons, but apparently randomly you'll get a different kind of patapon – maybe one with bunny ears that can't use armor? Maybe one that looks like a hedgehog! Or, hey, this one has angel wings. Unless you're extremely observant you're just not going to figure out what causes different Patapon types until you – like me – go and check a walkthrough.

It took me about a week to figure out what the underlying cause to all of this annoyance was.

There's a concept I've heard of which is occasionally called an "expert interface". The idea is that it's an interface designed explicitly for experts to use it – not for novices. A lot of professional 3d software has this sort of interface – it has a grueling, brutal learning curve, but once you learn it you're able to work incredibly fast – far faster than you would be able to work with a "novice interface". Often these interfaces include many byzantine and inexplicable key combinations, and every aspect of them is chosen for speed of work rather than intuitiveness.

Patapon is an expert game.

The game isn't designed for newbies. It isn't designed for casual gamers. It's designed for people who are willing to sit down and absolutely master the interface, and it's designed to still give them a good gameplay experience once they do so. Experts don't need to be told whether they were just a little too fast or a little too slow on a button-push – they just know. Experts know that dropping Fever Mode is probably death, and they just won't drop it. Experts will understand the nooks and crannies of the interface and, honestly, probably won't even notice them.

Patapon does a really good job of being an expert game.

Once you figure it out – which takes quite a while, admittedly – it has amazing flow. Yes, there's only four things you'll realistically be doing, but it like you're coordinating the movement of all your little suicidal patapons rather than simply giving them orders. Enemy ahead! Pata pata pata pon! Attack! Pon pon pata pon! Keep attacking! Pon pon pata pon! Dodge, pon pata pon pata! Pata pata pata pon! Pon pon pata pon! Chaka chaka pata pon, pon pon pata pon, pata pata pata pon, pon pon chaka chaka, pon pon pata pon!

(Don do-don do-don.)

And that's when the game shines – when you're no longer fighting with Fever Mode, when you're not trying to decipher what the hell a "Mofeel" is and where it came from, when you're just assaulting these ridiculously gigantic and fantastic monsters with your army of little eyeballs.

It's worth talking about Expert Games a little more, because I expect that this is going to come up again. I don't think the people who made Patapon intentionally made an expert game, because if you intentionally make an expert game, you generally think to include a good detailed tutorial.

Accidentally making an Expert Game is unfortunately easy. It's a common trap to fall into in game design. The game is yours, therefore you know everything about it. The mechanics are clear to you (since you know them all by heart) and therefore you see no problem with learning them. You can make a game which is fun, balanced, and polished, and then release it to the world and . . . nobody can figure out how to play it.

This is, incidentally, sometimes I've tangled with constantly in Devastation Net. Devastation Net is an expert game. You're meant to get to the point where you fundamentally know the weaponry, and where you fundamentally know the abilities of tanks, and that is when the strategy takes place. Partially I'm trying to solve this by making all of the game balance numbers available to you, and in your face – move the cursor over a tank, you instantly see how tough it is and how fast it is. Choose a weapon and you should quickly see how it works. Partially, though, I'm having trouble with the learning curve, because teaching people things is hard, especially when it's an uncommon game style.

Unfortunately it's really not something game designers have much experience with in multiplayer games. Generally, the way you teach the game to someone is you lead the player through a single-player campaign that unlocks things one step at a time. That just doesn't work with a multiplayer game.

I'm still trying to find a good solution, to be honest.

I've rambled on long enough at this point.

Patapon is a beautiful game. It is also a fun game, once you get past the initial learning curve. Don't be afraid to check a walkthrough on this one – read everything except the mission descriptions, and you'll be thankful.

Super Smash Brothers Brawl dissection

2008, March 24th 2:30 PM

Super Smash Brothers Brawl

Developer: Nintendo

Completion level: Beat Subspace Emissary

This is going to be an extraordinarily short one.

I wasn't even sure I would write on this topic for a while. What do you say about SSBB? It's got standard Mario-style graphics (I touched on this in the Mario Galaxy dissection), it's been painstakingly balanced to a knife-edge, and it's hugely popular. I was originally just planning to note that, yes, I played it, and really didn't have anything to say about it. They don't do anything particularly notable extraordinarily right, and they certainly don't do anything wrong. So there we have it.

But there's one thing I decided I wanted to say.

SSBB has a single-player mode called the Subspace Emissary. In this mode, Mario and Co team up to defeat the Bad Guys. Most of the missions include a rendered cutscene at the beginning and the end, showing the interactions between the characters and the inevitable action-movie-esque "Hey! You really are on our side!" moments.

The cutscenes are fantastic.

They're funny. They're entertaining. They're beautiful. They do a phenomenal job of setting the stage without ever actually interfering with the player's enjoyment of the game. There's no Final Fantasy "okay, go get a snack, you're going to be here for twenty minutes" moments. There isn't a single cutscene that becomes boring. They're just all excellent.

And they're done almost entirely without dialog.

I think Snake says something when he shows up for the first time. That's all, though.

The interactions are shown with body language – and considering that we're talking body language between an anthropomorphic fox, a mobile pink marshmallow, a monkey, and a lot of robots, this is a nontrivial task. These aren't even simple interactions. There's betrayal, there are turncoats, there are characters whose motives are unclear and contradictory in the beginning . . . and all of it is explained by the end. Nonverbally. It's really incredibly impressive, and if you don't plan to play the game, I actually recommend watching them. 1 2 3 4 5 6. Yeah, that's about an hour of video. If you don't want to watch that much, at least check out the Donkey Kong/Fox arc – 6:00 to 7:30, 1:50 to 3:40, and 7:55 to the end.

You'll notice that this clip is in Japanese. You'll also note that it doesn't matter. The only thing you miss is what the names of the various characters are. Even with those short Japanese clips, you get a reasonable idea of their personalities and interactions.

That's damn impressive.

I think, in my next game, I'm going to try hard to make the game's plotline understandable with dialog removed. I do plan to have dialog – but I'll add the dialog after the game makes sense without it.

And that's really all I have to say on this game.

Yeah. I just wrote a page about Super Smash Brother Brawl, focused entirely on the cutscenes in Subspace Emissary mode. Deal with it.

Mario Galaxy dissection

2008, March 20th 1:08 PM

Super Mario Galaxy

Developer: Nintendo

Completion level: 100% completed

This is NOT a spoiler-free review. In fact, in the next line I plan to spoil the entire plot of the game.

Okay. So there's this princess, right? And she gets kidnapped by a giant dinosaur named Bowser. I know you're shocked by this. I was too. But luckily, help is on the way! Some guy named Mario – who is apparently a plumber – rescues her.

That's the plot.

It may sound familiar to you.

At the moment, there are, as I would count them, three major lines of Mario games. First, and best-known, are the Mario sidescrollers, starting with Super Mario Brothers and continuing up through Super Paper Mario. Second are the roleplaying games, which I believe started with Super Mario RPG and somewhat branched with the Paper Mario series and Superstar Saga series. And last, there's the 3D exploration games, including Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy.

You'll notice a bit of confusion – I'm calling Super Paper Mario a sidescroller, but I'm also mentioning how the Paper Mario series is a roleplaying game. Super Paper Mario is an experimental intersection of sidescroller and roleplaying game. Nintendo has never been one to keep its games locked in tightly-defined precise boxes – Nintendo's built around fun. They make games which are fun, and if a certain convention gets in the way of making the game they want, the convention gets thrown away.

For example: lush, spectacular graphics. Mario games don't have those.

Their graphics certainly aren't bad. The art is always good, and it's always reasonably high-end by the standards of the console. But it's designed to be effective. it's not designed to be spectacular. it's not designed to be flashy. it's designed to convey how the world is constructed, and hold to a theme, and be consistent. All of which it succeeds at, quite nicely, but nobody will ever say "Oh man, did you see the latest Mario game? I didn't know video games could look like that!"

We all knew video games could look like that. We saw it in the last Mario game. This one just has more triangles.

Plot is another thing that, with the exception of the roleplaying line, Mario games just don't do. There's a princess. She gets kidnapped by Bowser. Mario defeats Bowser. Everyone lives happily ever after, inevitably including Bowser, who, don't worry, will try again next game. I don't even want to think about how many times Peach has been kidnapped – I suspect she's playing along with it at this point. Nothing else could possibly explain it. (At some point I should write about how Mario isn't based in story, it's based in myth. This is not that entry.)

So. "3D Exploration Game"? What's that?

Shine Get!The Mario 64 series has a gameplay style which I honestly can't say I've seen in any other game ever. Your goal ("save the princess") is governed by a very simple game mechanic: a series of things you must collect. In Mario 64 it was stars. In Mario Galaxy, well, it's stars. In Mario Sunshine you had to defeat Shadow Marios, and the way you got to them was by collecting "shines" . . . which look exactly like stars.

The game inevitably consists of a number of major areas – from seven up to around fifteen – and each one contains a number of stars, generally from six to eight. On top of that there's some number of minor areas that include one or two stars each. In order to unlock a new major area, you collect a bunch of stars. In order to unlock a new minor area, you collect a bunch of stars.

You can probably see a theme here.

There are some variations. Mario Galaxy divides its "galaxies" up into six groups, and to unlock the next groups you have to collect the single Grand Star. There are green stars, and red stars, and comets, and star bits, and hungry Lumas who eat star bits and explode forming into new galaxies which you can travel to and, surprise surprise, get a star. But fundamentally, the game comes down to:

  1. Collect a star.
  2. Can you fight the end boss? If so, go do it.
  3. Can you fight a midboss? If so, go do it.
  4. Return to step 1.

And this is one of the series's greatest strengths. There's never any question on what you should do next. You should go find another star. The game is carefully balanced so that, once you get past the first few stars, you always have several options on where to go next. If you get stuck on one particular zone, or decide that you don't really want to dodge fireballs today and you'd rather go play with flowers or space stations, you can always take a break and try another area.

It's a brilliantly simple game mechanic, but unfortunately I think Mario Galaxy missed one of the things that made Mario 64 great.

As I mentioned, most areas contain multiple stars. But in Mario 64, you can frequently pick up the "wrong star". Maybe you're meant to go ice skating, but instead you explore in the wrong direction and end up on top of the mountain. There's a star on top of the mountain, but despite the fact that the game said "Time for ice skating!" you haven't done any ice skating. That's okay. We can work with this. You can grab the star, and head back into the zone, and it'll say "Congratulations! You found the MOUNTAIN CLIMBER star! Your next star is: ICE SKATING." And then, when it would have normally said "Let's go climb a mountain!", it just skips that one – after all, you already found the mountain star – and sends you off to fight a Yeti, or collect a ton of coins, or race a penguin or something. Many of which you could have done instead of ice skating or mountain climbing.

In Mario 64, exploration is heavily rewarded. Each zone has several stars you can get at any point, and while you're encouraged to get the "next one", there's absolutely nothing forcing you. In Mario Galaxy, this is no longer the case. The vast majority of the time, only one star even exists in an area at a time. There are a small number of hidden stars – precisely one per area – but that hidden star only exists if you choose the right "non-hidden" star to go after. If you choose ICE SKATING you can get to MOUNTAIN CLIMBER also. If you choose YETI SLAYING you're going to go slay that yeti, or fail, and there simply aren't any other options. Have fun, good luck.

And that's sort of sad. In Mario 64 I felt like I could just wander wherever I felt like. Some feature of the landscape look interesting? Chances are good there's a star there. Find a wall that looks challenging to climb, but still possible? Probably a star at the top. Whereas Mario Galaxy, once you choose what star to retrieve, is an annoyingly linear game. The exploration is gone, and for a game that balances right on the edge of having a glorious sense of wonder about it, Mario Galaxy stops just short of what I was hoping for.

(As I'm imagining the game I wanted Galaxy to be, I get much of the same feeling as I did with much of Aquaria – the feeling that there's a small universe out there just waiting for me to find it. I didn't get that feeling at all in Galaxy.)

There's two other things I want to mention, but they're both pretty short.

Like most Mario games, the developers have decided to spend the time to write quite a large number of minigames and game mechanics that only show up once or twice. There's a section with you balancing on top of a giant sphere, for example. There's a racing section with riding stingrays on top of a (completely awesome-looking) floating water course. There's a quite neat segment with "spotlights" that cause matter to exist – if you jump in an area without a spotlight, you fall endlessly to your doom. In fact, there are exactly two sections of each of these. Despite all the trouble that these are to implement, the game designers saw fit to only use the code twice, in the entire game.

Partially this is annoying. Racing is fun. I want to do more of it! But on the other hand, it also neatly prevents burnout. I'm sure everyone reading this has seen a game which was fun at the beginning, but frustrating at the end. (Puzzle Quest is my most recent example of this.) Mario Galaxy doesn't do that. It doesn't even come close.

"Leave the audience wanting more." There's no other way to say it, and there's no better way to get the player excited to try out your next game. After all, maybe there'll be more stingray racing!

And finally, I noticed some neat subtlety with the music. The music actually changes depending on what you're doing – some tracks fade in, some fade out, and the music rapidly morphs to emphasize whatever you're currently doing. This is an amazingly powerful and beautiful technique, and I do not know why more companies don't do this. Nintendo's been doing this ever since the Super Nintendo (go jump on Yoshi in Super Mario World, the music is slightly different if you're riding Yoshi) and it's something I never see in other games. For a simple example, enter any Bowser boss fight – if you didn't notice this when playing, I recommend checking it out. It's worth it.


Good game. Polished to a phenomenal level. Effort and money was spent on gameplay gameplay gameplay – not spectacular special effects, not a riveting plot, but on making sure the game was fun in every possible way. Game lacks the exploration sense that Mario 64 had, which I feel is a loss, but gets just about everything else right.

There's a reason Nintendo is doing well right now, and Mario Galaxy is a great example of it.

Aquaria dissection

2008, March 13th 5:11 AM


Developer: Bit Blot

Completion level: Main ending, not 100%

This is NOT a spoiler-free review and I'm not going to be making any attempt to keep spoilers out of this one, or flagged before they show up.

Aquaria is going to be a tough game to talk about.

Let's start with the easy stuff: the art. Aquaria is fucking gorgeous. I described Layton as "clean", but Aquaria can only be described as "lush". The game takes place almost entirely underwater, and Aquaria has done a fantastic job capturing the feel of tropical reefs. Colors are bright and saturated, schools of fish dart between reeds which sway gently in currents, and nearly every movement causes ripples to wash out from your character. When I had a difficult time seeing it was because I was in an intentionally badly-lit area. The only creatures I had trouble recognizing were the ones who were camouflaged. The animations are very well-done, with sprites deforming appropriately to create realistic-looking movement. I found this game to be even prettier than Odin Sphere, and that's saying quite a bit. The music is probably the weakest part, as none of the tracks are particularly memorable or exciting, and even it sets the mood quite well. The controls are fluid (once you switch to a gamepad, at least – I personally couldn't stand the mouse). To put it simply, the game's pretty, and it feels good to play it.

The game itself is an exploration game, similar to Metroid or Castlevania. The main character, Naija, has a collection of songs she can sing that do various things. The majority of these songs transform her into another form, giving her a new set of powers, from "ability to shoot fireballs" to "ability to make plants grow" (which is moderately more useful than it sounds.) The bulk of the game involves you exploring new areas to unlock new forms which you can then use to explore more areas. It's not a game design that's particularly popular right now, but it's certainly a classic and it's one I've always loved.

So there's the easy stuff. What Aquaria does well, it does really well, in an excellent way but not one I'm really going to talk about. I want to make it clear, before I move onto the rest, that Aquaria really is a good game – this isn't a review, it's a dissection, and the parts I want to talk about most are the ones that Aquaria got wrong. And that's why I'm going to spend the rest of this talking about Aquaria's problems.

The writing is . . . dubious, in places.

Naija starts out alone with amnesia. It's a cliche, but a common and useful one. She spends a lot of time moping about how alone she is, and how she doesn't know where she came from or where anyone else is, and – pretty quickly – the player actually ends up resigned to being alone. It's a lonely game. It's just Naija, and a huge sea of water, and a lot of aquatic creatures, and it has a certain stark beauty.

And then Li shows up. Li is a human. Naija meets Li and instantly falls completely in love with him, despite the fact that they never communicate in any way. Not just love – dedication and devotion. It comes out of nowhere – she quite literally falls in love with the first living sentient creature she meets. It feels like a high school romance. "Oh! Boys exist! And I LOVE THEM. Forever." There's no courting, there's no romance, there's absolutely nothing besides the game informing you that, oh, by the way, you're now in love with this dude.

Li proceeds to follow you around the game. The stark solitary exploration is gone. Instead, there's this random guy following you. He shoots things occasionally. He's not particularly useful (his firepower is extremely limited) – largely he just serves to make you feel less alone. Unfortunately, the loneliness was, for me, one of Aquaria's great strengths. Before I met Li, I felt like I was exploring a huge, uncaring and yet beautiful world. Li didn't make me feel cared for and didn't make me feel like my quest was either more or less important. He was just a guy, following me and distracting me from the ocean's beauty.You can tell Li to knock it off and stay at home, which I did. But eventually you need him. You could claim this is making a statement about human social behavior, or the problems with trying to be self-sufficient, and maybe it is, but honestly I just felt irritated by him.

I don't actually believe it's a statement about human social behavior, though, because the plotline is unambiguous and blunt. It's about how much gods suck. This is a recurring theme in the game – every time you find out about a destroyed race, it was destroyed because a god decided to destroy it. Maybe it was the god that created the race. Maybe it was a different god. But every time a god is mentioned in the entire game (and this happens frequently) the god is described or shown destroying things.

It's not clear whether this was an intentional decision or not because it's never explicitly mentioned. If there were good gods involved in plotlines I wouldn't have had trouble with the plurality of evil gods. If Naija had, at any point, mused about how all the gods she encountered were evil, it would have at least shown me that the writer was aware of the evil-god fixation. But neither of those things happened. I'm left not knowing whether it was an intentional theme – perhaps it was meant to be a recurring plot issue, or perhaps the writer is just an obsessive atheist and hates the idea of benevolent gods. I don't know which and I quickly ended up feeling very disconnected from the plot thanks to how out-of-place this recurring element felt.

Let me set the stage for the last part of my playing. I was perhaps 3/4 of the way through the game. I'd found Li, and been annoyed by him. I'd started to notice and be sourly amused at the recurring Evil God issue. I still loved the smooth gamepad controls, and I was still enjoying the sheer beauty of the game. The game was annoying me slightly, but largely I still loved it. I entered a new area called The Abyss.

The Abyss is dark. There is no light. The only light in the level comes from you, in your Sun Form, which coincidentally means you can't attack. You're either reliant on Li for attacks or you're switching forms like a madman for any kind of combat. Or you simply run away from everything, which is what I did. Down down down in the bottom of the Abyss is a large door, marked with symbols that I recognized from Li's cave. I checked it out, ran into it a few times, tried playing Li's song, tried shooting it with fireballs, growing plants on it, and using all the forms I could to get it open. Nothing worked. Eventually I gave up and went looking for another area I hadn't yet explored.

Two hours later I went and asked for help on the forum. It turns out that the door can't be opened using the game pad. You have to click on it.

Yes, that's right. One of the supported control methods leaves the game completely unbeatable. There's no way to realize this on your own, there's no sign that this is the case. If you haven't been using the mouse to get around you're simply not going to think about clicking on it. It is not something that comes to mind. I'd just spent literally two hours swimming around pointlessly because it hadn't occured to the game designers to maybe, you know, trigger the door script when I moved close to the door.

Saying I was annoyed would be an understatement.

I wandered through the next area, solving some (admittedly pretty cool) puzzles, and then Li got kidnapped. Remember that Li just showed up out of nowhere perhaps five hours ago, and I was told Naija just spontaneously fell in love with him. Well, Naija went on this huge emotional tirade, ending with the following line:

"I knew that I would hunt down that dark creature . . . and kill it. I would not be alone again."

Naija. Come on. You've known this guy for less than ten hours. I know this because I've been playing for less than ten hours, and I met Li midway through, and then I had him stay in a cave for a good chunk of time. On top of that, you have literally not spoken to him once. There has been no period of time in this game where you could have had a long heartfelt talk with him that I couldn't see. I have had conversations with strangers that lasted longer than your entire romance. Stop being such a drama queen.

I continued on to rescue Li from whatever had kidnapped him, entering a new area in the Abyss that had previously been closed off from me. Now, a lot of previous puzzles had some kind of hint attached to them. Naija had feelings about the solution, or hunches, or said things like "I decided to check out the X and see if it was important", which is usually a good sign that maybe X is important. But the first puzzle I ran into was spelled out. "I found the X. And I knew that it would do Y." Somehow, Naija wasn't guessing anymore. How did she know? No clue. If she'd said that the knowledge came out of nowhere, okay, fine. If she'd said a memory returned to her, I can buy that. If she talked about writing on cave walls, great, we've got a reason. But no, none of those. Another glaring issue, on top of a lot in quick succession.

And then the end boss turned out to be . . .

. . . oh come on, you can guess, right?

Yeah. It was an evil god.

Okay. Deep breath.

I've written the last few paragraphs to demonstrate how annoyed I was getting at the game. Any one of those issues would have been a relatively small issue. Any one of them would have resulted in me sighing heavily, making a note, and then probably mentioning it in this dissection. But four big issues, back-to-back, starting with a seriously frustrating one, did more to knock me out of the game than nearly anything I've seen before. The first 3/4 of the game was deep and immersive and fantastic. The last 1/4 of the game left me annoyed and laughing at it. All the drama, all the suspense, all the beauty it had built up? Gone . . . and largely because I had to click on a door, instead of just bumping into it.

Summing It Up

The game's beautiful, in more ways than one. The gameplay is well-done. The plot is dubious and somewhat cliche, and unfortunately written in several places. And the interface is great and fluid . . . except in one unfortunate location.

Suspension of disbelief is an incredibly precious and fragile commodity. If you're lucky, your players will forget they're playing a game and just enjoy what they're doing. That's the ultimate goal of virtually all games. You have to be agonizingly careful to avoid squandering that, and once it goes away, it's difficult at best to get back. Once that first problem hits, even things that wouldn't normally be an issue can throw the player right back out of the game over and over again.

I've talked about "fighting the villain" vs "fighting the game" before, and this is the textbook example of the latter. The door wasn't hard to open. Figuring out how to tell the game I wanted to open the door? That was deadly. And I've never had it demonstrated quite as thoroughly as I did in Aquaria.

Aquaria is going to be released on Macintosh shortly. The forums say that a PC patch will be released along with the Mac release that, among other things, fixes the door bug. It is a good game, and it's very worth playing. But if you buy it before the patch, and you find yourself stuck, and you're using a gamepad . . . try clicking on things.

I play a lot of games.

That's a huge understatement, of course. I've got a stack of four DS games sitting in arm's reach, I've got a stack of six console games sitting over my by TV, I've got at least four games on the PC that are queued up to play, and if UPS would show up already I'd have three PSP games also. (And another DS game, and three more console games.)

Partly, of course, I play games because they're fun. This should go without saying, considering the focus of this journal, but even in this industry it's untrue surprisingly often. (I can't help but think that anyone in this industry who doesn't really love games is insane to be here, judging by the work hours and the pay. That's another post altogether though.) But I also play games for research. I can tell you what PN-03 did wrong. I can describe, in detail, why I think the Halo series was such a success, and only part of that is Microsoft/Bungie marketing. I can really ramble on at great extent on why save points are both irritating and absolutely crucial for any kind of suspense, and, in fact, at one point I was considering writing a Gamasutra article on that subject which never actually got finished.

It's sort of hard to figure out where to start with all of this.

Finally, however, I've figured out where to start. Ironically, I figured this out about one day before Greg Costikyan talked about people producing something similar to what I intend to, which makes it hard to take credit. But it's simple.

I play games partially to learn from them. As I play games, I'll write about what I've learned, what I'd do differently, and what I thought was fantastic.

These aren't reviews, so I'm not calling them reviews. I'm not going to say, at the end, that a game's score was 74.3% which places it at the top end of "Mostly Good Games" but not quite into "Games That Are Slightly Better Than Mostly Good, But Not Quite Really Good". I might, at most, recommend that people play certain games and avoid others, but these recommendations won't be based on how good the game is, they'll be based on how interesting the game is from a design perspective. Sometimes the worst games teach us the most. (Oh, how you'll get tired of me talking about PN-03.)

These also aren't criticisms. They're probably closer to criticisms than reviews, but I'm not entirely sure what critcism is. It doesn't seem that anyone really knows – Metacritic should probably be called Metareview, if we assume the two are different, but they're hard to separate. When I think "critic", the first thing that comes to mind is the hideously stereotypical French modern art critic, and I really don't want to be associated with any part of that.

In the end I've settled on calling these dissections. It's the most appropriate term. I'll be taking these games, pulling them apart as best I can, and describing all the interesting little squishy bits I encountered on the way. These are not guaranteed to be spoiler-free, though I'll try to mention when a major spoiler is coming up. Still, if you hate spoilers and plan to play the game, I recommend just skipping the dissection entirely (or rather, bookmarking it and coming back to read it later. Sending it to your friends would be appreciated also.) I will mention this at the beginning of every dissection, just to make sure it doesn't get forgotten, and I'll give some basic facts on the game at the beginning as well.

So, for my first dissection, we have . . .

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Developer: Level 5

Developer's other notable games: Dark Cloud, Jeanne D'arc

Completion level: 100%

And, of course, the obligatory Penny Arcade strip.


Professor Layton is a puzzle game. Phrases like "primarily" or "first and foremost" simply don't apply, because Professor Layton is purely, 100%, a puzzle game. The gameplay is simple. You walk around the town of St. Mystere talking to people and examining suspicious objects. As you do this, you are shown puzzles. You solve them. Once in a while, someone advances the plot, unlocking more puzzles, more locations, and more plot. There are no action sequences, there are no time limits, there is nothing whatsoever to interfere with your contemplation of the puzzles. It is a very pure game, in that sense.

Art and Feel

The art style reflects this beautifully. I inevitably end up comparing art of this style to Tintin – it's clean and innocent, and while you may get the sense that there is evil lurking beneath the surface, it will certainly be vanquished well in time for tea. Layton himself is the perfect wealthy, honorable, British explorer archetype that never actually existed, with a mansion in the country that he rarely stays in, traveling from city to city in strange lands with a plucky assistant, having wild and yet somehow simultaneously sedate adventures that never leave you doubting who will eventually prevail. (It's the good guys, of course. But don't worry. The bad guys will escape and return again, and nobody will actually end up dying, ever.) This archetype may have started with Sherlock Holmes and I feel certain that Professor Layton and Sherlock Holmes would be fast friends within five minutes if they were ever to meet.

The game includes some FMV, and I was going to say that I didn't consider it particularly necessary, but thinking over it more closely it's actually just as understated and perfect as the rest of the art design is. Dialog-heavy console games can have issues providing a sense of how characters move and talk – Phoenix Wright gets around this by having extremely expressive sprites with exaggerated gestures and animation, Disgaea does much the same thing with equally-exaggerated single-frame pictures during dialog, Advance Wars: Dual Strike fails at this and honestly suffers for it, and Professor Layton pulls off a victory with its careful use of FMV. You never feel like you're watching a movie (or a recent Final Fantasy game, burn) but it sets the scene and the tone for each segment of the game wonderfully.

Tone is important for a game, and Level 5 nails this brilliantly. You're given the feeling that this entire town exists solely to provide puzzles for you and that it exists, in some sense, outside time. (I'll be revisiting this point, so don't forget it.) There's rarely any pressure on the player, and when there is it's gentle at best – people requesting your presence at your earliest convenience is about as pushy as the game gets. To make things even smoother, the game carefully leads you through the plotline. Whenever you're not actively in a puzzle the map screen contains a line of text telling you what to do next, from "Visit the park" to "Talk to Dahlia". I did run into a few cases where I forgot my goal and the text wasn't quite specific enough ("Talk to Beatrice" is unhelpful when you can't remember who Beatrice is) but even knowing that I'm supposed to be talking to a specific person is enough to narrow down your search significantly. You simply can't get lost in this game, and if you're stuck, it's because you're having trouble solving puzzles, not navigating.

That point is worth emphasizing, actually, as it's something I'm going to be bringing up frequently in these dissections. The player should never feel like he or she is fighting against the game. The player should always be fighting against the challenge, or the villain, or today's group of bad guys. There are cases where the interface is part of the challenge, but the controls should always feel smooth – there is a huge difference between "it's difficult to control my player" and "the player doesn't do what I tell him". Take a look at Steel Battalion for the first, and PN-03 for the second – Steel Battalion was difficult to control because you were controlling a giant robot with a three-foot long controller that had no less than five axes of movement, PN-03 was difficult to control because you couldn't jump left or right. (Why not? I still don't know.) It's a crucial difference, and Layton's interface does a fantastic job of staying out of the way from you and the puzzles.

The Puzzles

The puzzles are kind of a mixed bag.

It's nearly impossible to summarize the puzzles in any kind of useful way. There's 135 of them, and they range from matchstick puzzles to spatial analysis puzzles to word problems to the classic 8-Queens problem and many, many more. Whatever you're good at, it's probably in there, and whatever you're bad at, it's probably in there too. The vast majority of puzzles are technically unnecessary to beat and if it wasn't for a few points that require you to have solved a specific number of puzzles, you could likely get through the game with less than two dozen puzzles solved. You don't have to tackle the hard ones, unless you want to solve everything.

Unfortunately, some of the puzzle designs interact rather badly. First, a significant number of the puzzles are of the "Gotcha!" type. They reward you for thinking out of the box and finding the hole in the problem description rather than solving the puzzle as given. This isn't a problem intrinsically – puzzles of this type are fun. The problem is that some of the other puzzles are ambiguously written. When you've been trained to find loopholes in the problem text, and then the problem text starts having ambiguous segments in it . . . things get bad, quickly, and I failed several puzzles because I was thinking too carefully and not choosing the "obvious" correct answer. I wasn't having trouble solving puzzles. I was having trouble interpreting puzzles.

Worse, failing a puzzle gives you a permanent, irrevocable penalty. Each puzzle is worth a certain number of "Picarats", which they say is currency but which you could easily describe as "points". Answering a puzzle wrong reduces its worth by a certain amount – usually by 1/10 of its base value, but for multiple-choice puzzles it's often up to 1/4. There's no way to get these points back, besides starting the game over or saving before every single puzzle. You can replay puzzles as many times as you wish, but since they contain literally no random component, repeatedly solving them gives no extra bonus. (I eagerly await the first Professor Layton speedrun, as it will be moderately hilarious due to how predictable each puzzle is.)

What this means is that each time you interpret a puzzle incorrectly, due to ambiguous phrasing, the game penalizes you quite harshly. And, as someone who likes being able to perfect games, this is frustrating. The game does provide a hint system that you can check to get suggestions for puzzles (each hint costs a hint coin, which are available in limited quantity throughout the game, though profusely enough that I never felt worried about running out) but the hints are frequently either unhelpful or too blatant, and there's no way to know what sort of a hint it will be before purchasing it. In either case, they rarely cleared up the ambiguity without practically solving the puzzle for me. I'm not sure if there's a solution to all of this, besides semi-randomized puzzles and some ability to retry puzzles and reclaim your points, but it's probably the most irritating thing I ran into in the game.

There's little more to say about the puzzles – they're puzzles, they're (mostly) well-constructed and they seem to give the right number of points for their respective difficulties. Despite being the core of the game, it's oddly hard to talk about them, due to how diverse they are – any real in-depth discussion would be pages long, and I don't have that much to say. So I won't get into depth there – for the purposes of this dissection they're actually the least interesting part.

The Plotline

Back on a lighter note, though, the plot is almost perfectly suited for the game in more than one way. The plotline is, in many ways, a puzzle itself – you can go through the game without thinking about it if you wish, but I suspect most people who play the game treat the plotline itself as another optional puzzle, and it holds up quite well. Plot is delivered by people's discussions and by clues found in the village, and occasionally by Layton himself, who reveals villains in a manner Sherlock would indeed be proud of. (It's a little unclear where the player stands in all this, as the player is clearly not strictly either Layton or his protege Luke, but this never really gets in the way.) Most of the plot can be solved, by the player, before the denouement, and any fan of mystery novels knows that this is both crucial and surprisingly difficult.

Major spoilers begin here. Skip down to where I say they end (it's also in bold) if you don't want to read them.

Better yet, all of the major plot points are delivered very early on. The tower is clearly important, the highly-suspicious murder of one of the village inhabitants happens practically in scene 2, and every single suspicious point is laid out clearly near the very beginning of the game – and the vast majority of them are resolved, in rapid-fire, at the very end. The game pulls you in and doesn't let you go until the last threads are finished. In a brilliant stroke the developers included a section of the interface that lists the major unsolved mysteries, easily showing you everything that has not yet been answered.

I mentioned above how it felt like the entire village existed solely to give you puzzles, and as it turns out, that's exactly what the situation is. The village is a collection of puzzle-providing robots, built to test potential caretakers for the Baron's only daughter, Flora, who they have been taking care of for years. (Obviously anyone good at puzzles will be a proper caretaker. That's just how things work in Layton's world.) Besides Flora, the only human in the town is Bruno, the Baron's old mechanic and the designer and maintainer of the robots. Once Layton arrives, Bruno traps him there, along with Layton's archenemy Don Paolo who we end up knowing essentially nothing about, and that's why Layton is stuck in a town with a bunch of robots answering puzzles.



The game ends up with "To Be Continued" and at least one giant mystery, namely who this Don Paolo person is and what he has to do with Layton. The game series is apparently designed as a trilogy (the second game in the series is now available in Japan and will doubtless be ported to English rapidly) and I presume its plot will be laid out in more detail in the future, but at the moment Don Paolo is a bizarrely loose thread in an otherwise extremely tight story. It almost feels like, at the last minute, they decided they needed a villain and so they grafted Don Paolo in. Similarly, Don Paolo's plotline really isn't a puzzle in any way. Don Paolo is masquerading as a detective, and very early on you think the detective is merely a jerk – there's no sign that he's a fake – but quickly it becomes clear that something is very wrong with his behavior, and the plot simply isn't subtle enough for him to be anything other than a villain. When he unmasks himself (thanks solely to Layton calling him out, and a small amount of evidence, most of which showed up after his villain status was clear to anyone who understands plot) it's just not a surprise, and it's far too late for you to feel clever for solving the puzzle quickly.

Why is he here? What's his connection to Layton, if any? We just don't know.

Major spoilers end here. Welcome back!

So in the end, the plot is good. Definitely good – we're well past the "there's a guy, and he's evil, so go kill him thanks" stage. But it's not perfect, and there are dangling bits that should not be dangling. I'll have to see if and how those are tied up in the sequels.

I'm running out of things to say, and I think it's time to finish this.

What Worked

I can't say enough good things about the atmosphere in this game. I think I may actually make tea for myself when I play the sequel, just to get more into the mood. The game is beautiful in a fashion which does not draw attention to itself – the art and town designs exist solely as a backdrop to the puzzles, and they support the puzzles magnificently.

What I'd Change

The weakest point is the puzzles – and that's really saying a lot, considering the quality of the puzzles. However, some of them are just a little too ambiguous and irritating to feel satisfying. I don't know if they got a serious game rules-lawyer type to go over the puzzle descriptions in agonizing detail or not, but if they didn't, they should have. Few things are more irritating than being seriously penalized for something that could have honestly been taken multiple ways. Just shouldn't happen.

The first thing I'd do is hire someone truly obsessive and anal to go over the puzzles and find every single point of ambiguity. As a programmer, I think a programmer would be perfect for this. Each of those points need to be squashed, and completely, unless it's actually the key to the puzzle. The only ambiguity left should be intentional ambiguity.

If I had more time, I'd figure out some way to partially randomize puzzles, and rig up a system where you could reclaim points by retrying puzzles. It should be possible to get a perfect score with sufficient skill, even after you've "beaten the game" with an imperfect score.

What I Learned

If you're building a game around a single concept, make sure the entire game revolves around that concept – the main gameplay, the supporting interface, and the plot. A game based around timetravel without an insane self-referential plot just isn't right, and if you're writing a game about puzzles, every part of the plotline should be a solvable puzzle. Layton got that about 90% right, which leaves the remaining 10% surprisingly glaring.

But honestly, I can't fault it too much, and I'm eagerly awaiting its sequel.