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Despite there being a million match-3 games out there, there are two things I'm having trouble finding. I wonder if you can help!

1. Mathematical data about Bejeweled-type games. If I randomly fill an n x n grid with gems of k colors, how many moves will there be, on average? How many existing matches (i.e. gems that break before my first turn) will there be? How many new possible moves per turn does ideal play create, and how many does playing at random create (or remove)? And so on.

I could do the math on some of those questions with a little work (and I could Monte Carlo them even more easily), but not all of them, and anyway I wonder if somebody's already done it. Like that guy who proved there's no strategy for Tetris that guarantees you won't lose.

2. Match-3 games with strategic elements or substantial game mechanics outside the board. There's the wonderful-but-slightly-grindy Puzzle Quest (and a bunch of failed followups by the same company), and Dungeon Raid for iOS. Oh, and you could count Gyromancer, but its RPG elements seemed like window dressing to me-- the different creatures you summoned were interchangeable.

Maybe potential imitators of Puzzle Quest were put off by the fact that even the people who actually designed Puzzle Quest couldn't do it a second time. But seriously, look around the App Store or Kongregate-- the current state of casual match-3 development is the closest thing the gaming world has to an infinite number of monkeys. Something interesting must be happening.

By "match-3" I mean the Bejeweled mechanic but also "Bejeweled Twist" (rotate 2x2 sections of the board) and path-tracing games like Azkend or Dungeon Raid. Anything that involves matching tiles on a static board which refills itself whenever a hole appears-- as opposed to games where you fill the board yourself one piece at a time, like Tetris or Snood.

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Download it free for Mac or PC.

Reviews of video games have a lot of somewhat disingenuous warnings about addictiveness. "You won't be able to put it down!" But addictiveness is in fact just about the only thing wrong with Super Crate Box-- it's a really elegant tiny game that's unfortunately tempting to play all the fun out of in one sitting.

It's ingenious, though. You face a room constantly filling up with monsters; your weapon changes randomly every time you pick up a crate, and your score is the number of crates you pick up before a monster gets you. With a good weapon, it only takes a few seconds to clear the room, at which point... well, if the next crate sucks, hopefully the one after THAT will be good. Or the one after that.

The thing to realize is that although there are new weapons and levels to unlock, this isn't a game with a constant supply of treats to give you. You should think of the weapon unlocks as an extension of the tutorial-- the weapons that are hard to use will be introduced one at a time, but still all pretty fast. After about 20 minutes, once you've got them all, it's just you and the high score board.

When Portal came out, Jerry Holkins called it "slapstick", which struck me as weird. How can slapstick happen, if you're in control of the protagonist and you aren't trying to get hurt? But slapstick is about timing, and if Portal's physics are such that you sometimes fling yourself into a wall with perfect timing, it's funny! And so it is, sometimes, in Super Crate Box when a monster falls on your head, or you open fire with a gun whose recoil pushes you into a pit, or... well, I'll just say that one of the best power-ups comes with a well-deserved apology from the designers.

Unquestionably worth a few minutes of your time, and impressively deep and well-balanced for how simple it is. It's just not quite deep enough for how much fun it is.

(I've unlocked SMFT on the first arena, but not the other two, and I haven't gotten Ambush Mode. So there may be gameplay I'm missing. The stuff I *have* seen doesn't make it seem that way, though.)

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I got one of the 102-button (6 strings x 17 frets) guitar controllers for Rock Band 3 and am trying to learn to play it. Which is the sort of thing I'm tempted to post about in painful detail, except--

No, never mind, I will in fact post about it in painful detail. )

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Super Meat Boy has made me realize I don't know what 'difficulty' is. How long it takes to finish a game? No, there are long easy games. How frustrating it is? That's definitely part of the way a hard game feels, but frustration is draining in some games-- the ones that don't feel like they SHOULD be frustrating-- and not in others. How many tries each goal takes? No, otherwise trial-and-error puzzles would be the hardest ones, as opposed to just the most tedious.

Super Meat Boy is very hard. I think. It seems hard, anyway; I'm close to 4000 deaths (it counts for you) and that's at not quite halfway to the real ending. A lot of levels I've finished seemed impossible, which makes me feel good for beating them but just proves my sense of these things is highly fallible.

Is the game forgiving? Maybe that's the key. It's brutally unforgiving about basic failure/success; if you're jumping over a sawblade, a split-second mistake usually means doom. On the other hand, if you have the right plan for a speed run, you can bobble the execution in a few places and still get that satisfying "GRADE: A+" at level's end.

Plus, the more you focus, the more forgiving you can make it. Meat Boy and his friends are all very steerable in mid-jump, though this will do you more harm than good until you internalize just what rates of acceleration you can expect from various characters and situations. Most of the levels are designed to reward precision recklessness-- take every jump at full speed and everything lines up but the floor is always falling out from under your feet; jump cautiously and you can catch your breath, but the angles are awkward.

It's a very technical game. You have to enjoy seeing how the little details fit together, because there is no big picture other than "beat enough levels and you win". If you're capable of feeling like a winner for getting through level #28 out of 300, though, even knowing that level 29 will be even harder, you have to play Super Meat Boy at least once.

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I played Rock Band 3 alone, with the keyboard, for an hour or two last night.

Overwhelming very first impression: This feels like a dashboard, not a game. Even the firstboot experience ("oh okay, I have to calibrate, and pick a bandname, and choose default characters") is way more like the exciting-yet-slightly-boring feeling of setting up a new tech toy than like the first 5 minutes of a new video game. Not that, in retrospect, the previous RBs weren't like that-- they were. But this time the designers knew it, so it became obvious to me. Except for...

Second impression: I take it back, this is like the beginning of John Cooney's Achievement Unlocked. The in-game awardments* are called Goals, and there's one for calibrating, one for picking a band name, one for playing a song, one for visiting the store... and at least at first, many of these are also Achievements (i.e. the XBox OS awardments), so every time you do anything, you get two different-styled popups. It is ridiculous.

Okay. Gameplay.

Expert keys: I ventured a guess that I might as well jump in at the highest regular difficulty level. I immediately almost failed because I didn't realize how the controller worked-- the keys are divided into five colored sections, and I assumed the deal was "hit any key in the red section for red", etc. But no, you use five adjacent white keys; realizing this, the song became easy.

Looking closer, I noticed the colors don't even go in the right order (red is leftmost, for example). I guess it's assumed you don't need to look down to play green-red-yellow-blue-orange** on a controller where the layout of buttons corresponds exactly to the picture on the screen. The color markings are for...

Pro Easy keys: This was what I was looking forward to anyway; might as well try it. The first song, Need You Tonight by INXS, had only one note, played about once every other measure. I picked a different beginner song, and it was nearly as boring. Let's try...

Pro Expert keys: For good measure, I also went up one tier of songs in difficulty. OMG NOTES. The game seems to play a whole chord if you hit even one note in it, which means random flailing produced a few desired sounds amid the plinking error noises, but okay, no. I ended up going into Practice mode and playing one verse of a song (I forget which) over and over again until I had it perfect. After that, I had my proprioception calibrated enough to sometimes look at the screen and play notes at the same time, which let me play Pro Expert (still on the easiest songs) for the rest of the hour.

I don't remember difficulty-titration being this much of a pain before, which speaks well of the whole 'Pro' concept. Pro Easy isn't the difficulty above Expert; it's Easy difficulty, with all the simplification and note-spacing that implies, on a much harder instrument.

The gap between what I can sight-read on Pro Keys and what I can get through with practice is FAR bigger than it has been after two hours with any other new plastic instrument. In other words, it seems like there's an element of *learning music* that wasn't there before, however realistic the controllers are or aren't.

This demands to be played with friends. Annoying that both of my guitar controllers have broken in the past month or so; I do want to get one of the insane Pro Guitar things, which can technically be used for GRYBO, but I don't know whether it makes sense to do that in terms of ease or fragility.

* This is what the XBLI game Hypership Out Of Control calls them. I like it.

** Another coinage, I don't remember where from: "GRYBO". Useful, now that there are controllers that speak GRYBO, controllers that speak something else (Rock Band Modified MIDI?) and controllers that do both. But I mean, we'll see if it catches on.

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I downloaded Super Meat Boy for Xbox last night. It's a good game. It's really hard.

It also uncritically uses the "you're the boy! the girl was kidnapped! save her!" trope, which isn't a capital crime but is pissing me off more and more. It got me thinking, though.

One of the best known-games, in the micro-genre of incredibly hard platform-hoppers, is I Wanna Be The Guy. I quit playing it in disgust when I discovered that, if you set it on the easiest difficulty level, your protagonist (The Kid) appears with a bow in his hair. Because girls are bad at things! Ha ha. Fuck that.

Moneyseize, on the other hand, is the ultra-hard game I've probably spent the most time with. It, too, aligns succeeding at the game with cultural privilege, just less maliciously-- you play Reginald Q. Moneyseize, who is in search of gold coins to fund building a huge manument to himself.

Money and masculinity are both, famously, goals that attract huge cults of people who can't be satisfied-- who would say, if asked, that there's such a thing as 'enough', but who strangely can never reach 'enough' themselves.

And that's interesting! If you give up halfway through Super Mario Brothers, I think you feel-- I felt, anyway-- as though Mario 'really' does meet his Princess in the end; you just didn't get to see it. Do people who quit halfway through Moneyseize feel as though it's the story of a man who indeed builds the world's tallest tower? Or is the received story about a quixotic project that's destined to fail on its own terms (even if Reginald and/or the player find it a satisfying way to spend time, and if some minuscule fraction of players get a version of the story where he succeeds)?

The grandparent of this sub-genre, N, doesn't take the privilege angle*, but it does focus on the inevitability of death. And what about Super Meat Boy?

Meat Boy leaves a trail of blood behind him when he runs, and the blood doesn't go away when you die; far from being morbid, this made the level strangely homey to me. "Hey, there's the spot where I always grab that wall! There's the ledge I step back and forth on trying to find the right angle through the meat grinder! There's the-- oops." Best of all, when you do finish a level, the game shows a simultaneous replay of all your attempts, like this. A whole flock of Meat Boys, surging forward to victory! You've crowdsourced the rescue mission, only you (the player) get to be the winning member of the crowd no matter what. Eventually.

The game is also strangely encouraging. There's a time limit for each level, but you can go as far over it as you want-- it's just that if you beat it, you get a big "RANK: A+!" (and, well, unlock an even harder version of the level). And the load screen is a big grinning Meat Boy face with a black eye and missing tooth, apparently thrilled to still be going regardless of the difficulty; meanwhile, the villain Dr. Fetus (don't get me started) always looks frustrated during his constant re-stealing of your companion.

The internet also tells me now that Bandage Girl herself is an unlockable character, though I don't know whether you get to rescue Meat Boy, or how she differs from him as a player. (There's no game-mechanical way to make her weaker than Meat Boy, and Meat Boy's superpower is already to be really really fast, so the two most stereotypical ways to distinguish her are out. Yay.)

* Well, in N your ninja is collecting gold coins, but there's no suggestion that you will ever enjoy any interpersonal power from them: "You are a ninja. Your God-like speed, dexterity, jumping power, and reflexes are all the result of an amazingly fast metabolism; sadly, so is your natural lifetime of 1.5 minutes." Pieces of gold make you happy, extending your life by 2 seconds each. If you're disappointed about this footnote ending here, ask me when I'm actually going to write that essay about video game diegesis.

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Play it at Kongregate. (About 8 minutes per playthrough for experienced gamers.)

Today something (masochism?) had me rereading discussions about Roger Ebert's idiotic* declaration that video games were not art and never could be. As wrong as people like Ebert are, it's true that we're just barely leaving the time when it would take someone maybe a week to get familiar with all of the games that might get mentioned in any games-as-art debate (play Portal, Bioshock, Braid, Katamari Damacy, So Far and something by Jason Rohrer, and you're prepared for 50% of those conversations). So it's cool that short-short games which add to the discussion are flourishing now.

The first time I played Loved, I thought it was a little heavy-handed. After reading the discussion at Jay Is Games, I had to change my mind-- Ocias did an excellent job of making the game genuinely ambiguous, even if most people, like me, didn't initially see any readings other than their own.

One interesting bit is the radically different interpretations people had for hard parts of the game based on different readings of the 'death' mechanic. I still think of video game 'death' as being death-in-the-story (or at least failure); it's just that the medium allows you to try until you reach the end of the story. Some other people, though, interpreted a section which took multiple tries to get through as the protagonist learning to perform a difficult but not impossible task. And under the latter reading, since the game is not actually that hard, when the voice sends you toward the more dangerous of two paths, it's teaching you something for your own good.

(Since I can't help seeing Loved as about an abusive relationship, I find the "for your own good" reading upsetting. But by almost any conception of the designer-player relationship, I am happy when designers do unpleasant-seeming things for my own good. It matters, of course, that they aren't taking my autonomy away, just, at worst, wasting my time.)

It used to be rare that I thought a game was worthwhile without being much fun (and indeed, Loved isn't much fun, though it depends for its power on some of the yay-i-did-it satisfaction that provides the fun in plenty of games). Now it happens a lot! These are interesting times.

* Strong words! I was chastised by a friend yesterday for having a narrow view of the world when it came to things I feel strongly about. But there are at least a dozen insupportable things about Ebert's essays on this topic, and come on, the man is a professional art critic working on a medium that was considered inherently worthless in living memory. That he doesn't understand what's going on speaks really, really poorly of him.


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Dorothy Fennel

February 2016

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