Ethnicity in Xenoblade Chronicles X

This is an article I wrote in 2015 about a video game.  My commenters had some insightful responses, so a few of their insights are now incorporated.

In my apartment, free time has recently become dominated by Xenoblade Chronicles X, epic Japanese RPG. The premise is explained in this video:

Quick summary: In 2054, Aliens destroy earth. Earth sends out colony space ships. One of these, New Los Angeles, crash lands on an alien planet.

Xenoblade Chronicles X offers an interesting case study of ethnicity in Japanese video games, because unlike other games which take place in fantasy worlds, this one takes place in our world (although a different planet). What’s more, it takes place in a future version of Los Angeles. Los Angeles, of course, is very ethnically diverse, so by looking at the cast we can see a Japanese interpretation of ethnic diversity.
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Cards Against Humanity is a bad game

Cards Against Humanity is first and foremost a ripoff of Apples to Apples. The rules are identical, only the cards are different. There’s no copyright on game mechanics, you see.

Apples to Apples is a family-friendly party game, published in 1999. It had a lot of staying power; I recall playing it in college about ten years later. My boyfriend and I have an old copy on our shelf, which proudly states, “Over three million games sold!” Going by their website, that number is now 15 million.

Cards Against Humanity was published in 2011. I don’t know how many copies it has sold, but it obviously became a bigger deal than Apples to Apples.

To be honest, I was never hot on Apples to Apples. It’s the lightest of light party games, a great board game for people who don’t really like board games. Nonetheless, I appreciate it’s clever design, and I’ll talk about how Cards Against Humanity used and abused that design.

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Breath of the Wild: A nihilistic view

cn: There are no spoilers in this article, and the discussion is purely about game mechanics.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has received near universal praise from critics, with Metacritic listing it as one of the best video games of all time. This is an exciting time, as we anticipate the numerous clones that will try (and fail) to capture what makes this game so great.

Like most adventure games, BotW is essentially a power fantasy. What makes the game exciting is the acquisition of power, and the illusion that your power matters. For example, you find better weapons and equipment, which grants you the power to access further game content. If BotW is better than similar games, then it is probably because it maintains a greater illusion of power for a longer period of time.

And indeed, the illusion of power is precisely what most critics praise. BotW is a game that lets you do anything! You can climb anywhere, and paraglide down. You can experience the story in any order, or just skip straight to the final boss immediately, if you so choose.

But as critics praise the extent of power that the game grants you, they are ignoring the other essential characteristic of a power fantasy: the illusion that the power matters.
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Review: Obduction

[cn: This review is spoiler-free. I can’t speak for the comments.]

Obduction is a new game by the team that brought us Myst. Having played all the Myst games when I was younger,* I ended up buying Obduction, and almost immediately regretted it.

Hear me out, it’s not that it’s a bad game. It just reminded me of why I think retro pixelated games are so popular these days. Game creators can advertise high-quality graphics all they want, but ultimately the hardware required to render these graphics is sold separately. In many ways, this game had uglier graphics than Myst IV. I had to put the graphics on the lowest settings, deal with terrible frame rates, and sit through lots of long loading screens. My advice: bring a book.

That aside (and also putting aside numerous other technical issues), Obduction is an okay game. The main attraction is the story. Just sharing a bit of the game’s introduction: you find yourself teleported to a strange world, a deserted mining town surrounded by an alien landscape. You have to use environmental clues to figure out both the mechanics of the sci-fi world, as well as the events leading up to the desertion. But it’s not all mystery and sci-fi, it’s also about the human angle.

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Image credit: Cyan

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Life lessons from board games: Hanabi

Just as we can analyze fiction for its meaning and implication on our lives, we can also analyze board games. In some cases, the analogy is direct, if the board game is heavy on narrative and flavor (“You are investigating strange occurrences in Arkham, closing portals to other realms while the Ancient Ones stir in their slumber”). However, a lot of meaningful content could be extracted from the underlying mechanics and rules. Hanabi is a card game with virtually no narrative at all (it’s about making a fireworks show), and yet it says something deep about the nature of communication.

A Hanabi box stands in front of some tokens, and cards with colored numbers on them. The box says 'Race the clock... Build the fireworks... Launch your rockets!'

Hanabi is a cooperative card game, where players, as a team, seek to play cards in the right order. The problem is that players hold their cards backwards, and thus each player can only see other players’ cards, not their own cards. You can’t just tell other players what they are holding, you have to provide them with a limited number of clues, each clue obeying certain constraints. The game is thus all about efficient communication.

Hanabi is easy to carry around and teach to new players, so I’ve played a lot of games with beginners. I will discuss a common beginner’s mistake, and what it says about communication.
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A puzzle snob reviews The Witness

(Content note: this is a spoiler-free review, though I can’t speak for commenters.)

The Witness is a puzzle game created by Jonathan Blow, famed creator of Braid. The central mechanic of this game is a path-drawing puzzle, which looks like this:

Several grid-shaped puzzles in a row

When I first saw this mechanic, my reaction was, “So adventure game designers finally discovered Nikoli-style puzzles, eh?” Nikoli is a Japanese publication that popularized a certain genre of puzzles using numbers or symbols on a grid. The best known puzzle of this genre is Sudoku, but there are many others, like Fillomino, Heyawake, Numberlink, Masyu, Slitherlink, and Nurikabe (almost all of which I think are better than Sudoku).

Outside of Nikoli, you can find many more created by Grandmaster Puzzles, and you can try the annual US Puzzle Championship. I should mention that I am fairly competitive in the USPC.

The advantage to Nikoli-style puzzles is that they’re scalable. Contrast with the Myst series, where most puzzles revolve around poorly-designed user interfaces for fantastic mechanisms. Could you really pack hundreds of such puzzles in a game? It would be too hard to write all those puzzles, much less make the graphics to support them. And since there are so few of those puzzles in the game, you have to make sure each one counts for every player, without being so challenging that players start looking for solutions online.

On the other hand, as far as Nikoli-style puzzles go, dedicated puzzle-crafters will have video game designers beat. Sorry, Professor Layton! What I want to see in a video game are puzzles that could only be done in a video game. Luckily, The Witness passes this test, being a lot less like a Nikoli puzzle than it first appears, and not just because solutions are non-unique.
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