Garfield Kart – Furious Racing

The bar for franchised game tie-ins is a moving target, but it’s rarely above sea level. Often, it spends time in the Mariana Trench. I’m lucky in that the franchises I love started as games, so the games are usually pretty good (or in the case of Pokémon, “Yes, it’s the same thing, but I bought it and it was okay the last 5 times so I guess I’ll do it again.”)

There are exceptions, of course, coughMagic:Legendscough but on the whole, I don’t actually play many games based on “Things I liked when they weren’t games.” I’m much more likely to buy a shirt because you wrote Undertale on it in comic sans, than I am to buy a game because it has LeBron James, or Rick and Morty in it.

All of this is a lead up to say that my expectations for Garfield Kart – Furious Racing were low. Very low. And while the game does exceed my expectations, the fact that it doesn’t crash constantly and runs on my Ultrawide monitor at all is already miles above what I expecting. My expectations were right next to the funny looking fish with the glowing bulb attached to its head.

Garfield Kart – Furious Racing is a a cart racer based off the Garfield comic strip: the fat orange cat who hates Mondays, loves lasagna, and made its creator Jim Davis a fortune. As a child, I actually liked Garfield if only because a cartoon where the cat actually wins made me happy. A a teenager I thought it was incredibly stupid, and not actually funny. But a stronger understanding of how syndication works, and how easy it is for a comic strip to get kicked from a paper at least makes me respect the effort it must take to tell 20+ years of mildly inoffensive “jokes” and not upset anyone.

Anyway, the theming is skin deep. Garfield Kart is fairly straightforward cart racer. If you’ve ever played any Mario Kart, you’ll pick it up quickly. If you haven’t played any Mario Kart, well, it’s a cart racer, so you’ll pick it up in like 5 minutes tops anyway.

Mechanically, Garfield Kart isn’t hugely technical. Press a button to go forward, toggle your drifts on curves to get a mini-turbo, and hit item boxes for consumables. The consumables range from a lasagna (a single use speed boost), to two variety of pies you can throw at your enemy (one type homes, the other type you have to aim). And it wouldn’t be Mario Kart without an item to royally screw the first place player. In Garfield Kart, that’s the UFO: a trio of three alien spaceships that fly ahead on the course, lay down tractor beams, and grab the first person to pass through.

Strangely enough, the UFO is fairly good for illustrating perhaps my biggest gameplay gripe with the game. Once a player ends up in first place, it’s incredibly difficult to catch them. A lot of the speed loss in Garfield Kart comes from crashing into other carts, and once you get ahead, it’s incredibly easy to just chain mini-turbos. And because of how item rolls work, it’s unlikely that the second place player will get the red shells homing pies they need to close the gap.

Outside of that, we have the actual racing tracks. Garfield Kart has 16 tracks, all of which are fine. There’s a fair amount of asset reuse between them, but that’s not really a big deal to me.

What is a slightly bigger deal to me are the bugs. Garfield Kart is mostly stable, but has a fair number of bugs. In the 10 hours I’ve played, here’s a sampling of what I’ve seen: 1. Item display from item boxes not updating, and showing you as having an item after you’ve used it. 2. Cart collisions acting inconsistently. 3. Netcode resulting in other carts clipping into you, and launching you through the ground. 4. Hitting geometry at weird angles can easily result in carts getting stuck tilted up at 90 degrees, and unable to move. 5. AI getting permanently lodged on rocks.

Garfield Kart isn’t a bad game. It’s effectively just a low budget Mario Kart clone with a more boring theme, fewer tracks, and less polish. And while I would normally say “Just go play Mario Kart,” what sets Garfield Kart apart is its price point and system.

See, Garfield Kart regularly goes on sale for about a $1.50, a price at which you can buy 10 copies, send them to all your friends, and have an amusing cart racer to play with everyone for under $20. Compare to Mario Kart 8, which is $60 for the game alone, and another $50+ for each controller, and all of a sudden Garfield Kart is an absolute bargain.

So yes, while I do recommend Garfield Kart, it’s a conditional recommendation based on having 3-4 other folks to play it with, and spending about as much as a Snickers bar per person on the game itself.

h8machine Demo

This writeup is about the demo for an indie game called h8machine, a card game based around the idea of internet arguments. The name is presumably a reference to everything modern social media has become. Before I talk more about h8machine though, I want to talk about a very different game: Binding of Issac.

Image of two blurry faces, one a red angry emjoi, the other a robotic one, sitting above the text h8machine.
Even the game’s splash art has that uncomfortable poorly-trained-neural network feel to it.

Binding of Issac, if you haven’t played it, is a roguelite themed around the idea that you’re an abused child who has escaped into the basement. You’re trying to avoid being murdered by your mother, who is hearing a voice telling her to kill her son. There’s a lot more to it than that, and it drags a lot of mechanics and ideas from the OG Legend of Zelda games. But it’s not the mechanics I want to talk about here, it’s the theming and aesthetics of both of these two games.

As you might gather from my description above, or from looking at the Steam page for 30 seconds, Binding of Issac could likely be described as gross or crass. Many enemies and mechanics are poop or urine themed, and the whole thing is deliberately repulsive. I’m not writing this to argue that you shouldn’t be offended by these things, but more to note that the theming of Binding of Issac likely turns off a variety of players who would otherwise be very interested in it. Binding of Isaac is carefully crafted and well made, but it’s a multilayered chocolate cake, carefully frosted to look like a massive turd.

So why am I talking about this in relation to h8machine? Well, h8machine gives off a very similar to vibe to me based on what I’ve played, and seen of the demo. That vibe being “Something very careful and clever, with the theming and flavor of bathroom stall graffiti.”

Instead of child abuse and fecal matter, though, h8machine themes itself around internet discourse. Your resources are emoji. Every enemy has a procedurally generated anime avatar, and all the cards are questionable internet arguments. Even the Steam page and description of the game have the tone of a cringe worthy copypasta.

Underneath all of that, though, I found the demo fairly engaging and interesting. The game bills itself as a sort of real time card game, with the maplike progression structure used in Slay the Spire and Inscryption. Instead of collecting individual cards, you collect “personalities:” sets of cards that you can run up to 3 of at a time, combined with offcolor/filler cards to make up your deck. You burn cards to generate resources of the same color, and try to construct your engine to wipe out your opponent before they complete construction of their own engines.

It’s not the greatest thing I’ve ever played, but it did convince me to keep an eye on it.

If any of this sounds interesting, I suggest you try to the demo, which you can find here on Steam. I honestly don’t know if h8machine will end up being good, but it feels created with the intention of being a good game, and not just being shock material.

A Rant About Winning

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever read about games was written by David Sirlin, a very smart game designer. He wrote it in a book that I picked up out of curiosity, and early on I encountered this quote.

I believe there is a great deal more of this “fun” to be had while playing to win than while only playing casually, but there is no use in entering that debate now.

David Sirlin

This was the quote where I put his book down, because it speaks to me of a fundamental misunderstanding about human beings. I’m going go through a fair number of anecdotes here, but I think every single one of them demonstrates that his point is wrong. They illustrate a variety of examples where Sirlin has completely ignored human behavior.

If you had board games or video games as a child, and had younger siblings, you likely had to play games with them. And if you did, you likely chose to throw games to keep them happy. Perhaps David Sirlin likes making his siblings cry. I didn’t. There’s no fun in crushing, or being crushed. This brings me to my second example.

In college, the dorm I lived in had Wii-U in the communal space, and it was used primarily for two things: Smash Bros and Just Dance. There was a set of two players who were simply much, much better at the game then everyone else present, and would often play against each other. At one point, one of them moved out, after which a funny thing happened: virtually no one wanted to play against that second player. The gap was simply too wide.

We often played Magic, AKA M:TG, in the dorm. Quite a few people played, and many had a variety of decks. One of the more popular formats was commander. I remember one particular game with 8 players, in which I got the following combo out.

For anyone keeping score at home: this combo destroys every single other card each player had in play, and would continue doing it every turn until someone stopped it.

Unsurprisingly, everyone scooped, and started a new game. I would not describe it as very “Fun”.

A few more quick ones: games like Diablo Immortal, where “Winning” is temporary, and based on spending cash. Playing games against newer players who you’re trying to introduce to the game.

There’s a reason that the Magic: The Gathering personas are Timmy, Jimmy, and Spike. Not every player is going to derive satisfaction from winning all the time. Sirlin’s thesis seems to be that “Every player should strive to be a Spike” which is one of the stupidest fucking things I’ve ever heard.

So why am ranting about this now? Sirlin’s book is 20 years old, there’s a zero percent chance anyone ever reads this post, and it’s not like any of this is relevant.

Well, I’m mostly ranting about this because of something someone said to me recently. I’ve been making Historic Brawl decks while trying to use every possible legal commander as a commander, and I got some feedback that I should make fewer decks, and more “good” decks. To this I have two responses.

First off, yes. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that it makes “easy” content. It’s much less effort to sit down, build a deck over a day or two, and then live stream myself playing it to YouTube 5 times a week than it is to spend a month tweaking and tuning a single good deck. Because guess what? I’ve spent two years writing things for this blog, doing interesting interviews, and here’s the sad truth: no one reads it.

I can play an entire fascinating indie game, spend a week doing a writeup, post it, tweet it, and it makes not GOD DAMN iota of difference. Nobody fucking wants good content. Everyone wants easy consistent content. We’d all rather have grey sludge every day than chocolate chip cookies once a week.

So yeah, if making shitty Magic decks every day and posting about them is what it takes to get an audience, I’ll do it. I started this blog so that I could avoid being shafted at conventions because I’m not an “influencer.” Don’t think for a second I’m not super passionate about games. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t still be writing this.

My grey slurry is making historic brawl decks with cards that aren’t good historic brawl commanders.

And secondly, some cards are just BAD. I ranted about how much I hate Jaxis as a commander recently. I’m currently trying to make a deck with Korlessa, Scale Singer. Not counting Korlessa, there are 26 TOTAL dragon cards in green/blue/colorless. Of those 26, maybe 6 are actually worth playing as bombs in Historic Brawl. So congrats, you go make a “good” deck based around a commander that offers absolutely nothing except the ability to see the top card of your deck, and do nothing with it.

I’d be in favor of arguing that Korlessa is just a worst version of Falco Spara, in both colors, statline, and abilities. There’s not even any REAL reason outside of flavor for Korelssa to be legendary. What are two copies gonna give you, two 1/4’s?

So when I encounter Korlessa, I have two choices. I can build a deck with those 26 dragons, and Maskwood Nexus/Whir of Invention, and I can try to do something interesting to show people.

Or I can build slurry. I can stuff the deck so full land ramp, return to hand, and counterspells that you could swap out commander to be Gretchen Titchwillow, and there would be literally no difference in playing the deck, except it would be better, because guess what, Gretchen Titchwillow is a better commander!

At which point, why bother? It’s not a Korlessa deck. It’s blue/green good stuff.

In conclusion: Winning is not always fun. Winning is not necessarily good content. David Sirlin is much smarter then me, a very good game designer, and his book reads like the 80 page manifesto at the end of Atlas Shrugged in terms of its relationship to a majority of the population.

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 4

This is final part of a series from an interview with Jongwoo Kim, the creative director of Lucifer Within Us, a unique mystery game. To read our writeup on the game, click here. To read part three, click here.

Headcanon, Scalpels, and Lessons Learned

Fritz Wallace: One of the things I mentioned in the writeup was that Lucifer Within Us does feel a bit short. Like, I solved the last case, and the big reveal happens, and I’m ready for the next part… and then credits roll. Was the game intended to be a setup for the next part of the adventure after those first three cases?

Jongwoo Kim: In my headcanon, Ada goes off and it’s a longer adventure in that world to find those acolytes, and exorcise each one. It would be much more episodic. LWU as it is almost functions as an origin story for this world, and Ada, to set up the other “Books” in the series, if we were using Sherlock Holmes as an example. I would love for her to go on more adventures.

Fritz Wallace: Another lore question, if you don’t mind. Is Ada’s ability to use the timeline a supernatural, or a technical ability? Or is it something else?

Jongwoo Kim: I think that’s an excellent question. She’s an exorcist, but what makes her special? When we initially envisioned the project, when the timeline was created, it was meant to be a mind’s-eye sort of thing. It’s someone replaying in their mind. But that was when it was one of multiple tools the player had access to.

Given how dominant it became, I don’t we ever really decided “how” it worked. I think if it was an actual supernatural ability, we would have had some visual of her engaging in the timeline mode, but we didn’t do that. So I think the reality of the game that we actually delivered is that Ada is just visualizing it in her head. It’s not magic, a special technology, or supernatural ability, it’s a skill she has. At the same time, given the setting, I can see why folks might view it as one of the first three.

Let me put it this way. Something I really wanted to avoid doing was… I feel very frustrated with Quantic Dream-style mystery adventure stuff. Occasionally the player gets amazing abilities. In Heavy Rain, the Agent gets Ari, where he can go into his own world, and solve stuff. But you can only do that when the player is allowed to. The game decides when you can do that.

It raises the question “Without this ability, is the Agent a worse detective?”
I didn’t want to diminish Ada, and by extension the player, by implying that this is just a trick, or magic. I wanted the player feel like they solved the case through their sheer intellect.

The only concession and supernatural ability is the ability to exorcise demons, and to enter the sanctums of the suspect. So, in that way, she doesn’t have any other supernatural crime solving abilities, because that would be truer to her character, and the spirit of the game.

Fritz Wallace: I feel like the game did that really well. Throughout the whole game, there was only one moment of adventure game logic: that bit in the second case where you have to pick up the scalpel, and then give it to the doctor to have them perform an autopsy.

Jongwoo Kim: God, that scalpel. Yeah, that case has a long history, and lot of iterations. I’m not super happy with how the scalpel stuff was implemented in the end. So I sympathize with you there.

I do want to comment on that a little bit. One of our challenges was figuring out if problems in the game were due to UI, or to mechanics. One of the things we ended up doing over time was simplifying down interactions you can take with a character. So instead of asking or presenting, it would be just one action.

Generally we wanted to avoid what you called “Adventure Game Logic”. Shouldn’t Ada be able to perform the autopsy herself? In terms of the scalpel, in terms of trying to ship with the assets we had, we ended up going that direction [having the doctor perform the autopsy]. If I could, I’d have Ada examine or autopsy the body herself.

Fritz Wallace: You’ve mentioned a few games whose mechanics you don’t feel do mystery very well. Were there any other games or stories that did influence Lucifer Within Us? I feel like the default suggestion is something like Sherlock Holmes.

Jongwoo Kim: So, as far as Holmes influence, I don’t think any specific case or book influenced the game. But it was important to me, as far as player experience or the dream of the game. The phrase I kept repeating during development as “The player should not feel like Watson, the player should feel like Holmes.”

I often feel that in a lot of mystery games, the rug is pulled from underneath you. As much as I like Dapangropa, I get frustrated with every debate, because it’s like “Oh my god, you’ve been withholding a critical piece of information the whole time. I could not have known the solution, or I could guess, but given the evidence in my log, I could never have solved this case the way you wanted me to with the given mechanics.”

In that way, Holmes is a big inspiration. While I complain about the Frogwares Holmes games, in some ways, Holmes had a very kinetic style of investigation. He got into scuffles, he was at the scene of the crime. Ada is distinct from that. It’s a very clean investigation, followed by exorcism. But within the space of the investigation, there’s no field work other than the scene of the actual crime.

So, for character and experience, Holmes was a big influence. Beyond that, Phoenix Wright for the contradiction system.

Fritz Wallace: It’s interesting, since it’s such a clean investigation, relative to a lot of other things.

Jongwoo Kim: It is a little ironic that to do that idea, we had to change the idea to be about the supernatural. I’m super happy with it too! But a part of me does wonder if it would have made a stronger mystery game [if it had maintained it’s Cyberpunk theme] even if the project is more interesting and compelling as a result of its unique setting. But I don’t know. I would love to try to make something with the timeline mechanic again to be sure.

Fritz Wallace: One thing that did happen to me was that the game gives you 3 demons, and by the third case, there’s only one demon you haven’t exorcised yet. So it feels like it gives the game away a bit.

Jongwoo Kim: I mean. I see it both ways.

On one hand, I think it’s inevitable that if a game has an overarching arc, the player gets some sense of it. I think rewarding them on that front is good. So at some level, I’m happy if an astute player can see what happens in the third case ahead of time.

At the same time, I was surprised by how many people were caught off guard by the victim of the third case, because they thought the abbot was set up to be the big bad, or what not.

If I learned nothing else, I learned that it’s quite hard to predict how someone else will perceive the intended arc of a mystery. And I think that makes it interesting from a mystery design standpoint. It indicates there’s more to explore, and different levels of challenge one can design, without overwhelming the player.

Fritz Wallace: I will say, I didn’t get the overarching structure of the game, with the spear and whatnot, until the second time I played it, and went “Oh, that’s how it all comes together.”

Jongwoo Kim: Awesome. Well, I’m glad that worked for you on the second playthrough for sure.

Fritz Wallace: I think that’s pretty much everything I had to ask. This is the part where if you want to give a shout out, or mention a current project, this would be the ideal place to do that.

Jongwoo Kim: Well, I definitely have something cooking right now, but it’s not ready to show yet. I’m excited to unveil it to the world, and it’s coming soon.

Fritz Wallace: Well, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!

Lucifer Within Us is available for PC on Steam. If this interview has made you interested, you can find it here!

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 3

This interview is part three of a series from an interview with Jongwoo Kim, the creative director of Lucifer Within Us, a unique mystery game. To read our writeup on the game, click here. To read part two, click here.

Technical Troubles of Transforming Time

Fritz Wallace: Lucifer Within Us has an incredibly unique timeline mechanic that allows you replay and see what each suspect claims to have been doing at any given point in time, and to rewind and move around. How does that system work?

Jongwoo Kim: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but most games with a replay system won’t let you rewind. For example, if you watch a replay of a game like StarCraft, or an RTS, it’s usually not actually a replay, it’s just a recording of all the button presses.

But for Lucifer Within Us, because the player needs to be able to smoothly rewind, we had to record the animation data for anyone point in time, in addition to recording all the animations and false testimony for any given point in time. And in addition to that recording, we had to make sure all of this was consistent with the audio for any given point in time.

For example, if Gideon says one thing, but is located somewhere else, it won’t be a smooth experience. So you have to be sure when things are going to play, aligning your time cube.

It’s actually a weird technical challenge that isn’t done often. It’s the kind of thing I’m quite proud of, like a very cool toy sort of thing. It’s quite satisfying for me to be able to rewind things back and forth, and see the characters move around.

Fritz Wallace: I’m curious about this, since I’ve done a small amount of work with Unity myself. What made it so difficult?

Jongwoo Kim: So certain parts are Unity specific, but the bigger problems are “How do you make a system where the player can rewind to any point, at any time, and still have it make sense?” And there are quite a few problems.

The first one is logistics. How do you ensure a character’s movements are believable and make sense if the player can watch every moment of what they’re doing? Especially if what they’re doing a lie. The simple solution is to have them idle for a large amount of time once they reach what they’re doing.

Before we implemented rapid scrolling/skipping, it was frustrating for the player experience to watch everything happen slowly, when you have idling like that. But if we’re assuming that the player should be able to navigate at any point in time (which is what you’d want to be able to do as an investigator), there are other weird challenges.

For example, characters say their lines, but that won’t necessarily line up with the length of a given section of movement. Initially we had extensive testimony lines, but we realized players don’t want read paragraphs of text. Also, any text that’s not explicitly describing the actions being taken tended to be misleading, and players wanted to ask questions. There needed to be coherence between what was spoken, what was happening, and what was seen.

But all of this still has to align with the logistics of the case, how the character gets there, and be continuous, because it’s a timeline. So the solution we came up with was that we had an editor built on top of Unity, that would allow us to record the case from beginning to end for every possible variant. And there are additive variants, it’s not like it’s just every single variation. So you’d have the vague testimony for every character, the true timeline for every character, and then every layer in between.

Fritz Wallace: So for example, in the third case, where each of three suspects has to still line up and make sense at any point in their stories.

Jongwoo Kim: So yeah, those three paths have to happen, but you have to keep in mind, sometimes the timing of objects involved in the case changes too. For example, in Gideon’s case, when and how he manipulates the coronet changes the testimony and outcome. The same is true of Abraham and the shovel. So you have to make sure certain objects disappear from the timeline, and only appear when they’re speaking.

The coronets explosion example, she (Alex Bull, 3D Artist) had to make an animation, and then adapt the animation so it’s rewindable, but with the pieces still appearing and being discoverable on the ground.

If you go back and look at everything side by side and where things are, you actually might notice a few small changes. There are some errors, and we tried to be very careful about avoiding them, but it was very tricky. We also discovered during testing that certain players are much more obsessive about certain errors then others. In the first case, the glass door and its position at the start of the case would frustrate players, because the door ends the testimony closed, but if it was open when the player gets there, it raises questions about who opened it, because someone must have.

And so any error like that in the recordings became frustrating to players because it both throws the player off, and breaks that sense of being a detective. The vision of the game was for the player to use everything they see, and figure out the answer themselves. It was damaging and misleading when we made mistakes like that.

From a very tech point, and this is Unity specific. There’s no built-in system in Unity that supports rewinding animations for the duration of the cases we have. While Unity does have a system that can work for 2 minutes in length, there was no guarantee that our cases would be under 2 minutes. It also has further restrictions: i.e., can only record during run-time. So a player would have to watch full case normal speed 1 before that system was usable.

So we had to figure out another way. I won’t go too much into details, since I’m not sure that’s interesting to anyone who isn’t trying to perfectly recreate the system in Unity. There was an alternative animation system available in the Unity made by the developers that allows you to play any animation arbitrarily. And so by using that system, and then another way to capture either every frame, or however many intervals you wanted, to take a snapshot of a character, their exact animation state, what they were holding. And we’d take snapshot after snapshot, and then using those snapshots, we didn’t have to use Unity’s animation system any more. And using those snapshots, we could interpolate between the states.

It’s a bit strange to say snapshots though, because that makes it seem like it’s an actual film in a way, right? But in reality, it’s still taking place in the physicals space of the game, the characters still are moving around, and have physical properties.

In the ideal world, I would have wanted it so you could just reverse time whenever you wanted. If someone threw an object, you would just have the physics system run in reverse, accelerate it in the other direction. But because the player could skip around to any moment in time, and physics going backward is not something Unity supports, the approach we took was different, by recording at every major interval and interpolating, and taking enough snapshots that it looks smooth.

Fritz Wallace: That’s a pretty intense technical challenge.

Jongwoo Kim: Yeah, I don’t think the studio ever talked much about the technology we built for this project, but it is certainly something weird and unique about the game.

Fritz Wallace: So it seems like a lot of effort was put into both designing these systems and making them work technically, which is fairly impressive.

Jongwoo Kim: Yup.

Fritz Wallace: Would you ever want to make more games using the timeline mechanics? Or more games in that setting?

Jongwoo Kim: Yeah, so if I were given the opportunity to revisit that world, I’d really love to. Would I like to revisit those mechanics, whether it was using that IP or not? My answer would be a careful “Yes”.

While we didn’t milk everything we could out of it, in terms of logistics and mechanics, it’s a very particular setup. In the sense of, not just the implications of the mechanics, as much as the logistics of making a game like that work. In order for that to happen, since I no longer have access to the code base, I’d have to rebuild a lot of things. And that’s the main thing I’d be reluctant to do.

If I could, I’d love to make more cases. I think a timeline based approach has a lot more space to be explored. I also think some of the choices we made for Lucifer Within Us do restrict some future possibilities because of the narrative commitments of that project. I’m very happy with those narrative commitments, but at the same time a digital exorcist needs to exorcise demons. So we have to provide demons, and that narrows the possibilities compared to a traditional investigator. I don’t think that pertains to the timeline though.

This concludes part 3 of the interview. The final part will go up tomorrow and involves the games lore, headcannon, and some of the lessons learned from the project.