No Mercy

There I was, making my way down a gently descending mountain road, trying to get as far as I could from the death and destruction I had escaped mere moments before. Getting a last minute reprieve from my own execution by a dragon attack was not exactly how I planned this day to go, but what’s a Nord to do?

With a new lease on life (for the moment, anyway), it was up to me to warn the people of Skyrim that death from above was on the way, and they’d best start finding some hidey-holes if they wanted to survive. Unfortunately for the people of Skyrim, there was a narrow trail leading off the road that I just couldn’t possibly pass up.

Clambering up the trail, I spotted an old mine tucked into the mountainside. As mines so often do, this one had a bandit standing guard outside of it. Clearly, there were nefarious things afoot within, and it was up to me to snuff them out (I was sure the dragons could wait).

Stepping forward, I met the bandit in heated battle. Her sword clashed against my stout shield, iron rang out against iron as our blades crossed, and blood mingled in the dirt beneath us. Shoving her backwards with a blow from my shield, I stepped forward and brought my axe down in a might strike. That’s when it happened: worn down to the edge of death, the bandit dropped to her knees and cried out for me to spare her.

This was not something I expected.

Continue Reading…

Barriers to Entry

When I was 12 years old, getting together with my friends for a sleepover meant a few key things. First, someone was invariably going to explode a bottle of soda all over the basement of whoever was hosting. This was not done out of a malice… it was simply a fact. Second, several couch cushions would literally have the stuffing knocked out of them in attempts to simulate the Tombstone piledriver.

But, most importantly, it meant that at some point during the night, we’d all turn out our backpacks and dump out random piles of NES cartridges and get to playing. Choice selections from each of our libraries (or maybe whatever we happened to grab on our way out the door) meant that a night could go from Base Wars to Jackal to Tecmo Bowl with the mere swap of a cartridge.

It was easy; the simple motion of putting cartridge to slot meant that adventure was just one the click of the power button away. And our games could travel with us, thoroughly unconcerned about which house they started in.

These days, there may not be sleepovers anymore, but there are still plenty of late nights. The soda has been replaced by beer, and the couch cushions remain generally unmolested. But also gone are the days when games were just a click away… and the barriers between us and our games keep getting worse.

C:\What’s a HIMEM?

My first home gaming experience was with the Intellivision my dad brought home when I was probably around five or six years old. Outside of having to fiddle with the controller overlays, it was very much in the click-n-play model.

My second gaming experience at home was with the gloriously chunky Apple IIe we had for, ostensibly, educational purposes. While Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail  were great, my interests quickly wandered to Maniac Mansion.


-PC gamer, which had higher barrier to begin with.

-Ubisoft and U-play

-Nature of digital download

-Can’t take games over to a friend’s house anymore


Know Thy Enemy

A memorable villain in a game can be a powerful force. Players can learn to hate them, fear them, or even pity them. Everyone who has played Final Fantasy VI remembers Kefka, and any StarCraft player in the world probably has a firm opinion on the Queen of Blades. The big villains – the bosses – have a lot going for them when it comes to memorability: the story usually revolves around them, they usually get the most epic battles, and quite often they get the best graphical treatment, too.

But what about the little guys? What about the endless underlings the player crushes on their journey to the Big Bad? What makes those guys memorable?

Consider, for a moment, the humble Goomba. Almost anyone who has had contact with video games over the past 25 years can probably identify one in an instant, most likely right down to even knowing their name. Even those that might not know the name still know they are “the little mushroom men from Mario” (as my father has called them). Koopa Troopas fall into that same category. Heck, most of the enemies from the Mario series fall into that category. But why?

For the Mario cast, much of it comes down to longevity and repetition. Goombas and Koopas and the like have been harassing gamers for over two decades, remaining relatively constant throughout. Though there have been subtle changes to their looks over the years, they remain easily identifiable, even after the jump from 2d to 3d. Add to that plenty of out-of-game marketing of the characters, from cartoon appearances to plush toys, and you’ve got the makings of some pretty iconic underlings. So while the Mario minions have a lot going in their favor, what about all the other game baddies that stick in our minds, regardless of repetition or merchandising? What turns a low-level baddie into something that stays with us, sucking up precious memory space?

We Remember Bad Guys With Personality

Though they may not have a rich, intricate history – or even say anything, for that matter – even the slightest hint of personality can go a long way into making the cannon fodder into something more memorable. Consider the Tonberry of various Final Fantasies. First appearing in FFV, the player knew right off the bat that there was something different about this enemy. Unlike the innumerable bats or imps or what have you encountered along the way, the Tonberry appeared alone, standing ready to face what looked like inevitable defeat. But the Tonberry did not lay down and die; instead it simply advanced slowly, every turn, until it was directly in the party’s face. That’s when it got serious. With a vicious attack, the Tonberry could start to hack your party apart.

Tonberries continue to appear in Final Fantasies, usually replicating that same basic behavior. Despite their lack of visual distinctiveness (brown lumps with green heads), their unique behavior gave players something to latch on to. These weren’t just the normal monsters set for slaughter – these were isolated, vindictive, single-minded killing machines. Once they found you, they were out for blood and would inexorably march for you unless you could find a way to stop them.

Consider also the Mets of the Mega Man universe, hiding under their giant hard hats, waiting for a chance to strike (or perhaps run away). Just one look at them and you can sense their shyness – dare I say cowardice – and think that, perhaps under better circumstances, these are the kinds of robots you should be friends with. When I was younger, before we even knew their proper names, the Mets were the Mega Man foe that we made up names for (“Hard Hat Harry” was a popular one). This is the sort of thing that players remember; enemies that they can build a personality around, even if none is really provided.

We Remember Bad Guys That Look Cool

While personality certainly counts, let’s be honest: sometimes a pretty face doesn’t hurt, either. Or a scarred face. Or a robot face.

If, on your journeys through a game, something comes along that makes you really stop and look, it’s probably going to stay with you. Sure, bosses have it easy, often getting to fill up half or more of the screen, but it’s a lot harder for a foe that might not even be as large as the player to make a visual impact. If you’ve seen one skeleton, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The same goes for zombies, heavily-armored soldiers, and rats.

In the Pokemon games, any journey through a cave will result in approximately 1.5 million encounters with Zubats and Geodudes. Neither of these creatures are particularly inspired in their visual design, with Zubat looking pretty much like a bat, and Geodude like a rock with arms. But, as you get further in the game, you run into Zubat’s evolved form: Golbat. From the first moment you see a Golbat, it sticks with you: the sweeping wings, the goofy little feet, and most importantly, that gaping maw. Golbat’s huge, exaggerated mouth with its sharp little fangs jump out at you, and even if a non-afficianado of Pokemon sees one, they will most likely remember it. Again, it might just be as “that bat-thing,” but they still have that image seared into their brains.

Unique takes on common baddies can also help make them stick out. In Wizardry VII, the vastly mundane slime enemy makes multiple appearances, but the designers decided to shy away from the standard gelatinous green blob look, and instead tried something different. Slimes in Wizardry VII are oozing, disgusting piles of yellow puss and sludge. Looking like a pile of vomit after a particularly rough evening at the mall food court, they represent themselves as nothing less than the stinking mounds of filth they are supposed to be. Add to that beady little eyes that stare out at you, and you have the recipe for a foe that players are going to remember (quite possibly in their nightmares).

We Remember Enemies We Hate

Sometimes the things that stick with us most are the things that annoy the crap out of us.

I need only say the words “Medusa Head,” and every Castlevania player in the world will cringe with memories of being shoved to their death countless times. Mention the “Angry Sun” and every Super Mario Bros. 3 fan will shake their fist in impotent rage.

The simple truth is, the enemies that kill us the most tend to be the ones we remember most vividly. The cheaper the kill, the more vivid the memory. The birds in Ninja Gaiden, for instance, hold a particular spot of infamy amongst many gamers.

The enemies in question don’t even have to kill you to garner real hatred; do enough to inconvenience a player, and it’s often even better than killing them. The Wallmasters of the Zelda universe, with their inconvenient habit of dropping out of nowhere to grab an unsuspecting player are a perfect example of this. Sure, they let you live, but only after throwing you back to the beginning of the dungeon. Did you enjoy the last ten minutes of gaming? I hope so, because you are about to have to do it over again.

My advice to designers, however, is that if you want your enemies to be more memorable, this is probably not the best way of achieving that…


It doesn’t take much to change the endless parade of stompable, shootable, smashable enemies that players encounter into something more unique, but doing so can go a long way towards putting lasting, hopefully fond, memories into a player’s mind. A little more thought into art design, a few extra nuances to give just a hint of personality; even something as simple as giving that minion a name can go a long way towards achieving that goal. In the days of manuals, games used to list every enemy by name, with a short description, so a player had a vision in their mind before they may have even turned on the cartridge for the first time – I knew the names of every Zebesian tunnel dweller in Metroid long before I ever saw most of them. But the days of manuals are long past, and most low-level foes are lucky to even get a name, let alone one that is ever shown to the player; Enslaved is an excellent game, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the enemy robots were called.

So designers, give your lowly baddies a little love, and help create a richer world for your players, one that will stay with them long after Game Over. And players, take the time to appreciate the little guys before you dispatch them to the great beyond; they may just have a story to tell.

Friendship is Rare

As it turns out, I am a dangerous person to travel with.

First, there was Uthgerd, who I met in the inn at Whiterun. She had a fiery temper, and insisted that we get down to fisticuffs after the briefest of conversations. I gave her a sound thrashing (as heroes are wont to do), but her toughness impressed me. She was happy to find a travelling companion, so with that, the two of us set off into the world.

Our first few weeks together were spent merrily exploring the lands around Whiterun; slaying bandits, dispatching wolves, that sort of thing. Eventually, I decided it was time for us to push our horizons a little further, and we set off to the west to see what adventures lay there. All was well and good until the fateful day I agreed to check out some Dwemer ruins buried beneath Markarth, for it was there that our adventures came to an end. A might spider, far greater than it’s pathetic kinsman we’d been purging from caves across the land, confronted us in its lair. Seeing this foes power, I fell back into the tunnels, using the rocks to my advantage to pepper it with arrows. Uthgerd, on the other hand, did what she always did: ran directly up to it and began hacking away. The spider had her on her knees in a few moments, clinging to life. Mere seconds after that, its deadly poison finished the job and she was gone (or perhaps it was an errant arrow of mine; let’s not dwell on the past).

I felled the mighty beast shortly thereafter, and knelt by Uthgerd’s side to mourn her. Also, to take her armor and weapons so I could sell them back in town. With that brief bit of ceremony out of the way, I returned to Whiterun to find a new travelling partner. Fortunately, I knew I had a housecarl named Lydia more than ready to take the job…

You Don’t Have to be a Doctor to Have a Companion

The concept of the companion is not anything new in gaming: a computer-controlled character that travels with, and fights for, the player. And in most cases, for as long as I can remember, I have never been able to care about them. On the surface, the idea seems sound: provide the player with a character that is out of their control, but that they can begin to feel responsible for. In that manner, the player should begin to connect with them, and thus have a deeper in-game experience.

The problem is that AI companions are usually have about as much depth as the puddle of spilled coffee I inevitably step in on the train. Take Wasteland, for instance, which offers several potential NPC companions through the course of the game. Beyond whatever initial situation you rescued them from/hired them in an alley/agreed to help them with, they really have nothing going on. Once Ace convinced me to go deal with the problems in Vegas, he pretty much just sat around and wasted ammo if I gave him the opportunity. For the most part in Wasteland, you handed your companions a melee weapon and treated them like a glorified pack mule. Now, I know what you are thinking: Wasteland came out over 20 years ago. And yet, here comesSkyrim.

Much like Wasteland decades earlier, Skyrim offers an array of eager companions through its world. Much like with Uthgerd, the player usually has to accomplish some minor task before earning the devotion of these followers. Once that’s out of the way, however, they don’t have much to say. All it took was a few swings of the fist to earn Uthgerd’s eternal loyalty, and as we travelled Skyrim together, about the only thoughts she could muster were that she had  bad feelings about places.

My second companion, Lydia, was no better. Quite literally assigned to me by the jarl, Lydia was – to quote herself – “sworn to carry my burdens.” And carry them she did, back and forth across the lands of Skyrim. She too spoke often, but had little to say. In a fight, she was more than ready to run ahead and get herself hacked to the edge of death. And, much like Uthgerd before her, met her unfortunate end in some forgotten ruin when she caught the wrong end of a fire burst scroll.

No Tears for the Fallen

Now, I know many Skyrim players have become obsessed with their companions (Lydia specifically), but I think that has more to do with being able to remove her armor than any sort of depth she possesses.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much to make me, as a player, care about my companion. In the original Fallout, the player could pick up a handful of NPC companions to travel with them. While Tycho might not have been the most talkative guy in the world, when he did choose to speak up about a location, it gave me glimpses into who he was. Upon entering the Deathclaw lair, for instance, Tycho states: “Note the lack of any animal life for quite a distance. And the piles of bones. Whatever lives here is a real beast. Keep your weapon handy.” Based on Tycho’s already established history as a Desert Ranger, this simple comment helps reinforce that he is a knowledgeable traveler, and someone you would want at your back while navigating the wasteland. A simple thing to add, but with a powerful impact on the player.

On top of that, Fallout – even with its simplistic companions – at least let me give them some combat orders along the lines of “stay back” or “charge forward.” InSkyrim, while I can give them some basic instructions about waiting for me or pulling levers and things, when it comes to combat they pretty much seem to do whatever they feel like. If I’m hurling fireballs down into a pit of draugr, they seem more than happy to dive right in the way. Not to mention their perverse joy in setting off every trap we come across.

With no personal connection to these companions, I can’t really feel that bad for them when they hurl themselves into the line of fire and suffer the consequences. That being the case, I’ve left a lot of dead travelling partners in my wake.

I bring this up because, as with most of the flaws in Skyrim, it stands out so starkly against so much of what is done right. In such a lush, detailed world, why is it that the people that can accompany me on the journey are so shallow?

Bredth, Not Width

In Skyrim’s case, the experience would be better served with fewer potential companions, but more richly developed ones. Rather than just plunking down another 500 gold for a new mercenary, or working my way up to another housecarl, why not trim the fat a bit and give me a more richly-developed Lydia? Skyrim is a huge land with a rich history, so how does Lydia fit into all of that? She must be from somewhere, and surely a skilled fighter such as herself has done some travelling before. Much like the example of Tycho from Fallout so many years ago, Lydia must have some opinions on the places we’re travelling. Even if it is something as simple as telling me that Markath is famous for its dwemer ruins, or even that she really, really hates necromancers. Just a few little touches to give her some personality beyond her penchant for sounding sarcastic. Or Uthgerd could have a habit of insisting we visit every meadery we pass, or of picking fights with giants. Anything, really, to give me some reason to feel something for these walking loot stashes.

I fully understand that in our current world of having to have every single bit of text in a game spoken, adding dialog is not as easy as it used to be. However, I think eliminating some extraneous lines elsewhere, and refocusing that time and money into creating a few richer companions would be well worth it.

In terms of combat, we’ve seen that AI companions can in fact be smarter than a bag of hammers; Alyx Vance managed it over eight years ago in Half-Life 2, so I would hope that we could see some more advancement in that area.

That Special One

Again, I focus on Skyrim here because it does encapsulate how little we’ve advanced in twenty-odd years, but by no means is it an indictment of the game as whole. The developers took a look at the massive world they wished to create, and they obviously put some priorities ahead of others. From my vantage point, though, if it comes down to Skyrim having 10 more semi-identical caves vs. better travelling companions, the choice is pretty clear. A player is far more likely to remember the way Jordis overcame her fear of spiders to bail you out of a tight spot in a Frostbite nest than they are that one fort up on that one hill.

You know, the one with the bandits?

Yeah, that one.

Home Sweet Home

This past weekend, my wife and I packed up all of our belongings into a series of increasingly heavy boxes, paid some dudes to carry it all down the four flights of stairs from our current apartment and load it into a truck, and unload it all into our new home. As I sat on the floor of our new living room, surrounded by half-unpacked boxes, trying to figure out where to a particular lamp was, I looked around at the strange new walls that surrounded me and realized, “This is my home now.”

Home is a familiar idea to just about everyone. It’s the place you wake up in on most days, the place where you cook your meals and watch TV, and it’s the place you (usually) lay your head down at night and go to sleep in. For something so integral to most of our lives, the idea of the home is not one that has seen much focus in the world of gaming.

links_houseThe first game I can recall that had a character’s home in it was Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the wonderful opening sequence of the game, you begin with Link in bed in the small cabin he and his uncle share. After you leave the cabin to chase after your uncle on that particular dark and stormy night, well, you really don’t have to ever come back. This may not seem a particularly striking example, but to me, this was the first time I had run into a game that even remotely indicated that your character had a place he could call home. Link’s house remains for the entirety of the game a safe refuge to stop by and fill up on some hearts. I would often pop in if I happened to be in the area, if for no other reason than to see if maybe, just maybe, anything had changed. To me, this was Link’s home, and so long as it was safe and well, things were probably going pretty well in Hyrule.

This game vision of the home became the archetype for many that would follow. Pokemon, for instance, always provides you with your pastoral country home. Mom is always there waiting with words of encouragement and an offer to let you rest for the night. Chrono Trigger exemplified this formula as well, replete with helpful mother and soft bed. Countless other RPGs follow this same trope.

Always, the idea is the same: home is a safe haven, a place to retreat from the troubles of the outside world and get a nice meal and a good night’s sleep (all for free!). A different take on the home in games that comes up often is the idea of home as the expression of self.

In games like Animal Crossing and The Sims, the player builds the home themselves. With a blank canvas before them, they can pick and choose what they want to fill it with, and what they want it to say. Does your virtual home scream “I’m a retro gaming junkie” or “I’m really into art deco!” Ultimately, the choice is up to you. This is home as a mirror of the self, home as art.

Regardless of which image of home a game may use, be it haven or mirror, there is still the underlying idea that a home is something constant – something controllable – that the player can always count on. Even in games where the home is mutable, these changes are enacted by the player – you choose to put the red wallpaper up with the gold stars, or to install a warp pipe in the ceiling. This is how most of us would want to view home in the real world, as well. Much like the real world, though, having something happen to our home can be a powerful experience, and one that is not explored by games very often.

The one game I feel that managed to tap into the emotions of having a home become something other than a constant is Mother 3. Mother 3 is different from many other RPGs in the way it is structured around the village of Tazmily. Instead of trekking off into the great wide world seeking adventure, the various chapters of the story occur in the same place as it changes over the course of time.

mother3_photoIn the beginning we see Lucas and his family at home – an idyllic-looking home if there ever was one – and we see Tazmily as a place of friendliness and joy. After the initial events of the game, the family’s home remains intact, but there is a critical difference: it now stands empty. Returning at different points of the game shows that it stands vacant, just as the family left it, a stark reminder of happier times. As if the loss of the house itself was not enough, Tazmily itself, the place Lucas calls home, becomes more twisted and unrecognizable with each passing day. The player must watch as all that seemed good and pure about this imagined home is stripped away, one Happy Box at a time.

In many ways, this resonated with me as a player far more than having an asteroid fall from the sky and wipe the town out of existence (or any other number of disasters you can think of). A home, in my mind, has a soul – it holds a piece of yourself – and if it is destroyed in an instant, then yes, it is gone, but at least you have your memories intact. By taking Tazmily and having it rot slowly away, growing more and more warped as the game moved on, it serves to almost make a mockery of what once was. It is a powerful storytelling tool, and Itoi wields it masterfully here.

Mother 3 gives me hope, though, that games will still yet make more of homes than simply being free inns or places to stow your knick-knacks, and that creators will tap into our natural emotions towards home for both sadness and joy.

The Killer

I am a killer.

In my wake lay the bodies of the fallen, and those left behind to mourn them.

I do not remember their faces, their names, or anything about them.

To me, they are nothing more than bumps on the road to victory.

I didn’t ask to be this way; I’ve never had any other choice.

Continue Reading…

The Experience

t is October 1994. I am on my way back from the mall with a brand-new copy of Final Fantasy III for the SNES tucked safely in a bag next to me. I would love to be reading the manual on the way home like I usually do, but I am the one driving this time with my recently-acquired learner’s permit. When the arduous fifteen-minute drive ends, I rush into the house and head straight downstairs to the basement, where the SNES patiently waits for me. Tearing open the box, I settle in on the couch and begin to read the instruction booklet. Yes, I am one of those people. Once I’ve learned about how to set Espers and seen that I will be able to equip Relics with a multitude of effects, I am more ready than ever.

Running back upstairs to the kitchen, I grab a can of Coke and a box of Harvest Crisp crackers. Supplies in hand, I head back downstairs and pull my comfy, if somewhat threadbare, beanbag chair over in front of the 26″ CRT Panasonic TV and slide the cartridge into the SNES with a satisfying click.  Flipping the system on, I settle back into my beanbag and let the first strains of the opening theme wash over me. I have, of course, run the SNES sound through the stereo to take advantage of the bigger speakers.

I am hooked pretty much instantly. The moment those mechs come walking through the snow towards the lights in the distance, I know that this is where I’m going to be spending most of my time for the next few weeks.

Somewhere just outside the basement door, my father is splitting wood for the stove. Winter is coming soon.  The rhythmic thuds of his axe striking the logs punctuate the theme of Narshe.

I should be out helping him, but I’ve got a world to save.

Continue Reading…

Reaction – Ghost Trick

I bought Ghost Trick with a serious misunderstanding of what I was purchasing. Based on what I had seen prior to release, my impression of Ghost Trick was that it was going to be an Incredible Machine-style puzzler, with the player setting up chain reactions of objects to achieve certain ends, and thus saving lives. As a big fan of The Incredible Machine, I was more than happy to give this a try.

When I got the game home and began to play, I quickly realized that my prior impressions were mostly, if not entirely, incorrect.

And I couldn’t have been happier.

Murder Most Foul

Ghost Trick begins with the player in a bit of a pickle: they have no memory of who they are, why they are in a junkyard, and why a strange red-headed woman is about to be gunned down in front of them. Also, most importantly, they seem to have died. Despite all these handicaps, the player’s bodiless spirit is determined to help. Fortunately, in the nick of time, another spirit shows up and informs the player that they can still slightly affect the world around them through the “powers of the dead.”

Through this, we are introduced to the basic mechanics of Ghost Trick. The player, in their ghostly state, can possess the “cores” of inanimate objects. Once occupying a core, they can then perform a “trick” to make the object do something. Possess a desk drawer and you could trigger it to open; possess a basketball and you could get it roll across the room. Some objects can’t be manipulated at all, and the player’s movement is limited to a short range between cores.

Taking advantage of these new powers, the player creates a brief window of escape for the red-headed stranger, and she makes a break for it, only to be killed anyway mere moments later.

Not to worry!

At this point, your ghostly guide introduces you to a far more powerful ability you possess: the ability to travel back in time to four minutes before a person’s death to attempt to change their fate. Unfortunately, you can’t use that power on yourself, but you can use it to help the lady in distress. Blasting back through time, the player uses their new tricks to manipulate various objects around the junkyard to, ultimately, solve the issue by dropping a several-ton wrecking ball on the gunman.

While this solves the immediate issue of saving the red-headed girl, it still does little to shed any light on who the player is, and why they are dead. It’s then that “Ray” (your spirit buddy) tells you of your final power – the ability to travel through phone lines to different locations. With this array of powers, he believes you have the tools required to find the answers you are looking for.

One catch, though: spirits cease to exist at daybreak. If you want to solve this mystery, you have to do it tonight.

It’s a Mystery!

Whereas my initial expectations for Ghost Trick were for a series of separated puzzles, each played out and solved via some mechanical manipulation of objects, what I got instead was a story. Everything that happens in the game ties back to Sissel’s (the player’s name, as you eventually discover) quest to discover who he is and why he died. All the lives you save and the puzzles you solve are to work towards this goal.

The tale of Sissel’s death is one of vengeance, murder and ill-timed (or perfectly timed) meteor impacts. The many characters Sissel encounters along the way are all memorable in their own way, and the plot itself takes enough twists and turns that it’s never boring. Ultimately, the more I played the game, the more I realized that the puzzles were, in many ways, completely secondary to the story; saving lives was interesting, but most of my tricks were being used to navigate me to different locations to learn more pieces of the mystery, or to set up situations in which I could gather more information. And, again, I was perfectly fine with this.

Ghost Trick is, in many ways, an old-fashioned adventure game. Instead of simply walking around, you manipulate cores to create paths for yourself; instead of finding the Blue Key to open up the next room, you change the Red-Headed Woman’s fate so that she walks into it for you. The goal of the game is not to get a better weapon or level up your ghost powers; it’s simply to make your way through a well-told story. Old fashioned? Perhaps, but if you’ve got a strong enough story, then you will keep your player’s interest. More importantly, the actual puzzle mechanics are integrated skillfully with the story elements, and even take advantage of them to offer some “non-standard” storytelling techniques.

Never Say Die

As far as I can tell, there is no way to lose Ghost Trick. Now, as we’ve discussed in the past, finding ways to avoid the “Game Over” screen is a noble challenge for any designer to take up, but it’s important that they do something more interesting with it than simply let the player continually start a section over and over again. In Ghost Trick, with Sissel’s ability to travel to 4 minutes before a person’s death, it doesn’t matter how many times you screw up saving someone: you can always jump back and try again. Time is your plaything, and you can spend as much time as you like working out how exactly to change a fate.

That by itself would be well and good, but the designers of Ghost Trick take an all-important extra step: failure is not simply a “try again” option; there are often pieces of information you can gain only through failing. At the most basic, there are hints as to how to solve the puzzle you get through your failures – perhaps Sissel notices that a certain object moved a way differently than was expected – but there is more to it than that. In many areas, the player has the ability to travel away from the scene of the action and explore the world nearby (or far away, in some cases). A phone call may come in mid-puzzle, giving the player the option to jump to the other end of the line or to stick around where they are. Sometimes, this jump is necessary to change a fate, but more often than not it serves instead to provide the player with another snippet of story, another morsel of information, that they couldn’t get otherwise. In the act of getting it, they’ve probably failed at their primary task, but instead of feeling like they’ve lost, they’ve actually gained a sweet reward. Failure ceases to feel like a punishment, and slipping away from gunning for instant success starts to feel like a more viable option.

Ultimately, however, the player is still driven along the path of success, and in that fashion the game is decidedly linear. Though you may slip away down a side street now and again, the game still drives you to the same destination. The puzzles do not have multiple solutions, and there is only one conclusion to the game. This is not a game with a lot of replayability beyond finding story snippets you may have missed, but the central story is strong enough to stand on its own.

You’ve Got the Look

Though this isn’t usually something I dwell upon, I would be remiss if I didn’t take some time to mention Ghost Trick‘s art. The game has some of the best 2d animation I feel like I’ve seen in a long while, with a unique style that fits the game’s story perfectly. Every character in the game has a distinct look, accompanied by an equally distinctcharacter portrait, which serves to give them all a wonderful sense of personality beyond the dialog they speak. The animation is incredibly fluid, with a huge amount of variety: characters strut, they run, they fidget and they dance (oh the dancing!) each in their own unique way. The animation brought, to my mind, memories of Out of This World, though in a far more refined fashion. I’m not sure entirely what method the artists used to create the animations (3d models converted to 2d, motion capture, etc), but it turned out wonderfully.

Additionally, the game environments themselves are richly detailed, with plenty of animations for the “trickable” objects and more than plenty of background details to look it. There is not a single place in the game that felt sparse; these were living environments, evocative of a whole world beyond the confines of the screen.


As you might have guessed, I really loved Ghost Trick. It was one of those games I found myself breaking out the DS at home to play whenever I could, which is not something I do that often. The game hooked me with its story and wonderful art style, and the more I played, the deeper I was drawn in by its quirky charm and ever-growing mystery.

The game is not without its flaws; the puzzle mechanics occasionally take a jump into situations that require quick reflexes that seem incongruous with the otherwise steady pace, and the story is, ultimately, quite linear. That being said, the clever use of “no lose” mechanics means that even a failure of reflexes is never punished heavily, and the otherwise linear story has enough twists and turns and hidden gems to stand solidly on its own.

If you’ve got a DS, I would strongly recommend picking up Ghost Trick. It’s a unique game that most developers probably would pass on these days, and it’s executed with skill and style. It’s also got the greatest Pomeranian in the history of video games, and that has to count for something.