Slowing Down This Exact Moment Somewhere in The Past (Grindstone)
It is the impossibility of seeing anything with absolute clarity. When you’re asked to recall a moment in your childhood you weigh the appropriateness of the story with the age of the recipient, shuffling through a hipster’s vinyl record collection worth of memories, discarding categories of humorous violence and childish crudeness, constantly connecting words of conversations long forgotten, with smells of recurring situations, bringing with them cascades of other scenes. You are never in one places at any one time, always travelling along edges and nodes of, splitting off into two, seven and three other directions, shifting focus mid-word, because something was funny, sad, profound, related, of equal amounts, inappropriate, you’re drunk, a moment of a muscle, or a play between many actors resulting in something that will never happen again, so you have to go along now or reflect on what might have been. Of course that wouldn’t have happened, since in the blinking conversation, too many elements are lost to mourn any single one. It is only in the physical space of going somewhere that the many tunnels of everywhere seem to align themselves in such a way that the appropriate patterns finally emerge, and you’re able to, for only the length of a short walk, reflect. As if every single event of a single day decided to appear in front of you, neatly arranged in such a way that you understand the pointlessness of regret. That which you still desire, or have long since given up on. The many choices that were taken with too little information at hand, rashly in order to get somewhere you would still have to wait. All that would so surely be and never were, those things that would never happen, and didn’t, and the way that the vastness of unseen time shrouded everything in such a way that the most obvious next instance could somehow come creeping closer, caped in a raucous billboard. The chorus of a manifold voice is speaking with you plainly, chiding you for the little victories, while the inverse voice is beckoning you to think, strategies on how you might reach a place that ceased to be a long time ago. Almost inaudible, an echo chimes in to remind you that all of these are good. The blinking, the measuring, every little insecurity, and all the certainties are still here, part of what is. Even those fading ones, when you know with a total conviction it would never be covered or left behind, their gradual transparency carry with them a worth, not comparably greater, yet still immeasurably equal, had they always remained, clear as the universality they didn’t become, and not beautifully already withering as the temporality you should have realized in that exact moment it would always be.
Sitting in a hostel in Kyoto around a week or so before the Tohoku earthquake I was rewatching a video on Vimeo of some people from Capybara Games discussing their new game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. What was this game? How did it play? It looked so unique, the music was a bit scary but also very enthralling. It was gonna be playable on a device that was the actual future in your hand, but in the actual present. I was in a city representing the very idea of culture, in a land all about mixing fantastic aesthetics with the most interesting, newest technology, and porn was literally everywhere. That last part wasn’t really related, it just surprised me how ubiquitous the stuff was. It was incredible to hear these guys talk about Sworcery. They were really honest about what they were doing, yet were also really trying not to give it all away. It was about a month from release at the time I was watching the video, and the hype got to me so bad. Since then, so many devs have unapologetically ripped off the Superbrothers twig-pixel-man style. Not a lot have tried to be what the game was. Mobile gaming wasn’t what it was today. It wasn’t really anything yet. It was ripe for doing whatever the fuck you wanted. Capy sure did. Back when Lost was airing its second or third season, I thought it was really interesting that the number of firearms on the show was super scarce. Every gun mattered, and became not just a tool for shootouts, but a symbol of power. Hell, every bullet mattered. Being a super dull person, I thought “what if games did that”. Sworcery sorta did something like that with its battles. What are there, seven or eight mandatory battles? They’re simplistic, and a bit repetitive, but feel great, and narratively they carry a lot of weight. Also, you grow more and more sick and frail as the game progresses. It’s inverse Zelda. Honestly I did kinda want Sworcery to be a lot more. A lot more content. A lot more Zelda too. My hype prevented me from being disappointed, but I definitely was. I now realize I was a moron. Sworcery was so much better and so much more than we’ve gotten since then. It might have been the best that mobile games have ever been (in certain aspects). To not have been as hyped, but also to more easily have understood what Sworcery was, I should a) definitely have finished season two of Twin Peaks, and b) believed the Capy chaps when they were trying to tell us what the game was and wasn’t, in that video. Even when you fundamentally, apparently, misunderstand what someone is telling you, that doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate the conversation. Learning about and playing Sworcery was having a conversation while drunk, in a language you speak poorly, about a topic you know nothing about. There was a lot to talk about. A lot about what became and what didn’t
Around 2010 I played too much Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. I had moved across the country (it’s a small country, it wasn’t really that far) and with every train trip back and forth, my DS became more and more permanently attached to my hands. A year later I moved to another city, with my hands now perfectly resembling an iPod-white clam-shell gaming device developed in Kyoto, city of vegan chiptune restaurants and ancient, overcrowded shrines and temples. I wouldn’t know that last part until a year later. My newly mutated hands were perfect for playing Clash. The following experience has since then become my go-to way of telling if I’ve played a game too much (the hands eventually returned to their original shape). Playing a game that much, is so dissonant with my life anno 2020, that I’m having a hard time even recalling how I did it. How did I (kinda) attend uni, (kinda) maintain a social life, and (absolutely) devour that game? After waterboarding myself in hot, steaming pixel art, and ingenious game design for over a week, I got sick and had a wild ride of a fever. Not unlike when I over-indulged in Puzzle Bubble a couple of years before, in high school, all I could see were the patterns of lining up soldiers to activate powerful arcane units, and stacking magically appearing, and overlapping fences. The fever exaggerated this effect: I would imagine complex situations, units standing in numerous positions, and contemplate how to react, and counteract with every possible action. It made my head spin, so I had to sleep, but in my fevered dreams, the colors and patterns were still those of elfs and little knights fusing and chaining into more powerful constellations. The fever broke, I woke up. I abandoned the game. A few years later a buddy of mine discovered Clash and so I went back in, controlled myself, and finished the story. Many wonderful multiplayer skirmishes followed. There was something so wrong with this game. The story and dialogue were too good for what was almost a tie-in game, and the game design was the kind of simplicity that makes me go “surely this has been done already” ( and subsequently, “smack my bitch up, somehow, it’s a first!”). Other examples in that category of ought-to-have-been-done-but-have-not are Threes, Baba is You, and Petal Crash. Fortunately, Capybara Games used to be quite active in talks and presentations, so they’ve told us how much time they laboured over Clash, back when it was still called Little Big Battle, how it used to be real-time, and how they worked with Ubisoft to make it a Might & Magic game. If you spent a few seconds thinking about it, of course the game didn’t come about on it’s own, and of course no one had done this before. Even with Puzzle Quest before it (and Gyromancer releasing a month before, but that’s hardly time to act on inspiration), Clash was definitely a new, and wondrous type of experience. Something to treasure and put on a pedestal. To go back to and think “how”, and “more please”. It’s a classic case of more than the sum of its parts. Sure it’s a strategic puzzle game with RPG elements and an engrossing narrative. It’s just a few years before also having unnecessary crafting and a superfluous skill tree. Clash is so finely balanced (and even a bit more balanced in its HD re-release) and fine-tuned for a maximum amount of good feelings. It’s making a new friend, messaging said friend, who immediately sees and replies, wittingly, earnestly, and thoughtfully. It works in singleplayer, it works in multiplayer. One mode does not feel like it came before the other. It is what puzzle games could strive for, and what they never really were again after that. I suppose much of what I praise Clash for, became the good parts of all those deck building games. Except Clash wasn’t dependent on some careless design idea like “your units are actually cards”. Its units were physical parts of the world, and despite them waiting around like good little JRPG teen warrior wizards, there is a completeness to the way all the elements of Clash fits together, that doesn’t need some cheap abstraction like “you’re building a deck of cards”. The DS cartridge is the full experience (arguably the Steam release you ought to buy when you’re done reading this is the full release plus).
Ten years after hallucinating my way through a fever, matching bears and pixies into treants and druids, I found myself in some seaside town of Poland. Between endless time-bartering sessions, using a currency I wasn’t in possession of, selling stuff I wasn’t in control of, to people who must have known the pointlessness of the entire exercise, I escaped into my phone. If your hair isn’t still dripping wet from placenta juice, you remember that phones used to be shit. They’re incredible now, and testaments to incredible wasted potential. A device of such magnitudes of things never achieved, is the perfect platform for a game as vapid and full of nothingness as Legends of Solgard. This game is the unwanted, accidental, and abandoned hate-spawn between a patron eldritch horror of uninspiredness, and a man who masturbates to spreadsheets. I played it ferociously, every break I got, for three days. I then threw it away, like a man who realises mid-bite in a MacDonald’s that he is eating a patty of burned cardboard semen. Coincidentally, I was once again ill (planes are disease incubators). This time I didn’t have a fever, but it didn’t exactly improve the situation either. It’s incredibly boring to try and recap what has happened in video games between Clash and Solgard (that was my first draft). Suffice to say, Solgard is the final scene of There will be Blood. It’s a huge, magnificent, empty mansion where an insane old, white guy lives. Traditionally, a game can’t commit acts of violence, but it’s likely that someone at King.com once beat a man to death with a bowling pin, carving his skull open like a ripe watermelon. Metaphorically of course. Or whatever. It’s a flowery way of saying that Solgard takes something beautiful, and though it makes it absolutely shittingly addictive, it also twists and breaks Clash into a symbol of its own opposite. It is the uruk-hai to the Elves. I could go on for pretty long, taking a massive dump on Solgard, and anyone involved. This is crazy behaviour for a multiplicity of reasons. There’s really no reason to care. The game objectively plays more pleasantly than Clash. And finally, while I haven’t been inside the satanic quantum gravitational reactor core that spawned this game, in a previous life, I did stare into a similar Ba’al Engine. Clearly people work on something like this for many reasons, and they are just normal humans, and we can’t all create ingeniously designed toys that reinvent what a genre can be. And while I certainly didn’t worship the Dark Lord of that Machine in my former life, I was also not not part of the whole... coven, as peripheral as that involvement might have been. And even though I’d brought my Switch to Poland, loaded with that absolutely oversized demo of Dragon Quest XI, I mostly played Solgard after frying my brain all day long. It felt good. Activating the familiar combinations, getting hits in, summoning reinforcements. It retained the best parts of Clash to such an extent that playing a game that was in most regards far better, became a herculean mental Labour. The real tragedy of Solgard is the one concerning what this game might have been. This entire text is evidence that few others would have appreciated a good Solgard as much as me, and I certainly did try to extract those specific areas from it, trying with all my mind to simply ignore the parts I knew were actually there to exploit the players. Also, for some reason it’s perfectly acceptable to take a break by pulling out your phone and playing something one-handed. Apparently it gives off the same vibes as texting, and for that I appreciate Solgard for allowing moments of respite, which really were needed. Solgard isn’t the only trajectory for how puzzle games could evolve from Clash. With any luck, some years from now, perhaps a more human-friendly ideology develop in mobile games. Like all things in that sphere, it’ll be driven by greed, but in field as inconsequential as mobile games, if the ends and means are just, I can’t say I care if the motive is synonymous with a villain from Fullmetal Alchemist.
When I was 4-5 years old, I'd watch my older brother play DooM on some ("Donatello…") DOS machine. It ran Norton Commander, and was mesmerizing. Why did he have a computer in his room? A year later we moved, didn't bring it, and from then on newer computers were in the living room or basement. The next day I would draw the level overlay maps and the grown-ups would comment and praise me. DooM is cool. DooM is so insanely cool that even today, most games seem rudimentary next to its brutality. Shotgun-shell-meets-Zombieman is a crystallized moment of what feels fantastic in video games. Replaying it on Switch on a hundred billion inch TV with big-butt wall-mounted Bowers & Wilkins speakers, and an oversized amplifier, I realize, perhaps a bit late, that DooM is exceedingly violent. In fact, I would have certain qualms playing it in front of MY currently 4 years old son. My dad’s explanation of the situation in 1993/94 was as follows:
“Hah. I didn’t give two shits what you boys played.”
My father is the greatest man who ever lived. Not because of that, but it didn’t detract any points either. Despite these thoughts of the influence of violence, I sure did play a lot of Grindstone in front of the boy. The enemies are clearly sentient, occasionally scared, and they sure do get absolutely ripped apart. One unfortunate is even, post-battle, pummelled apart. He can be kissed out of existence, but I didn’t realize this the first time (or I really wanted to beat the snot out of him). What to translate the enemy names into was quite the challenge as well. Some are called Jerks, which is just such a fantastically chosen word. It’s sort of storytelling. I imagine it’s the insane player character who calls them jerks. It’s sort of a meta-term, in that it’s probably something a lot of players would use to refer to these enemies as anyway, since they sure are a bunch of jerkwads. It even solves a second storytelling issue, as any in-universe lore term would be sort of cringy to say aloud, and the Capy lads probably didn’t want to go down that particularly nerdy alley, in a game about intelligently executing a mountainous genocide. Problem with “jerk” is how English or rather American it is. It’s a pejorative, but a (I believe) mild one. All the same, it’s really punchy (pully? (JERKY?)), on par with “fuck”, but, as noted, not as offensive. Finding a word in my native language that fits so nicely into that space is basically impossible. The literal translation misses some of the connotations and isn’t succinct at all. Anything that is pleasant to say, is definitely more offensive, and though I don’t really care which words my boy goes around say, it does get a teensy bit annoying when he finds a particular love for that one massively offensive word around dinner time. Some of the thoughts that helped shape Grindstone were apparently already there at the time of Clash, but as far as puzzle games go, Grindstone is almost a different genre. No more playing with a buddy, it’s a seemingly endless cavalcade of butchery and gem-collecting, with a control setup originally designed specifically for those ever so disappointing touchscreen devices. On the Switch they developed a new control scheme that is, almost by definition, a tad forced. It works really well though, but is one of those traits that tell us what happened in gaaaaaming in the last couple of years. Grindstone has no story, no conversations, no exploration. You ascend a vertical map of nodes representing levels, use your loot to buy or restock equipment, and that’s it. I can’t deny that from a certain point of view, it’s a purer experience than having experience points, and an expansive narrative. Being developed (in utmost secrecy) for a smartphone before a console, probably had this influence. Maybe not. I still haven’t played Capy’s previous work, Below. Does it have a skill tree? It is a roguelike, so they can’t exactly claim they are free from a Zeitgeist of the Boring (though Below was in development for so long that maybe they started before it was passé). Maybe Grindstone would have been the exact same game had it initially released on PS4 or Switch. I’m guessing no. Capy has marinated their little hatred simulator in smartphone sauce and ginger. What probably saved Grindstone from being an actual smartphone game (I say that with all the implied vitriol you can imagine), was that some corporation was willing to let them release it on their premium game service, and so there are no vestigials of what normally comes from being a matching game on mobile. It’s kind of beautiful. The exact design that makes these games excellent money machines for assholes, is what makes the game an experience that’s been reduced to its purest essence. That vertical level selection map is so essentially that of a mobile game, that it's interesting to give it some extra thought. So much game design was created for console and computer experiences, but in the last ten years, new thoughts are developed for mobile. Not many of these are brought back to console though, but here we see this degenerated version of the Super Mario Bros. 3 map that was designed to make mobile games as casual an experience as possible being brought back completely unashamed. Calling it pure a few sentences ago was a way of really trying to see the bright side of the way games are on mobile. A way of trying to not be the guy who says “mobile games aren’t real games”. Grindstone definitely is a real game. It’s great breadth and depth. It’s not trying to nickel and dime anyone. Yet for all my praise, I haven’t finished Grindstone. I don’t think I’m even close to doing all the levels. That vertical map is a tool. It’s a tool to present countless, slightly changing levels in some other way than a simple list of names. It tells you how much you get for free, and is just involved enough to feel like a game without making you feel like a neeeerd. The vertical map turns out to have a different effect when the game is no longer an exercise in secretly exploiting people. Even though it doesn’t look like a to-do list, it does feel like the prettiest to-do list ever. At least after some eighty levels or so. From the classic console game perspective, without a compelling meta game or narrative of any sort, the map serves no point, and from the mobile phone direction, if the game isn’t trying to enthrall you to eventually get something out of you, trying to constantly remind you how much you’re getting for your buck, becomes more of a weight on your shoulders than feature. When I played Baldur’s Gate 2 I accidentally did this to myself by accepting and not completing an indian train carriage worth of subquests. So yeah, I don’t really feel done with Grindstone, but I kinda just want it to be some twenty or thirty fantastic levels, and then a random slash infinite mode.
My god. Did I get filtered by a god. Damn. Filthy. Casual game, for being too abundant?
It sure is an interesting evolution to see what psychotic, money-lovin’ dick-barf-drinkers in San Francisco (or wherever these kinds of mobile games were first invented) can make real, but the world map/level selection in SMB3 on a darned NES was apparently still the best choice for a good game experience, and Clash adding a bit of story on top might have diluted the purity of the game a bit, but it didn’t hurt the experience either. Doesn’t make Grindstone a bad game at all though, it might just be beneficial to consider where we’re drawing our influences from, and whether those influences are worth assimilating into the medium in general.
Grindstone is drawn in Capy’s “episode of Adventure Time where PB has soon-to-rupture gangrene” artstyle, similar to the cartoons for Super Time Force. It is clean, legible to an extreme degree, kinda nauseating, and probably the best choice for today’s divine displays of very small pixels, if you’re doing a 2D game, have talent, a budget, and a good sense of design. All that said, I don’t really like it. Gory stuff is fun and cathartic, but I don’t really like the “flat-shaded, lumpy characters with goofy faces”. It feels like something I often see in recent cartoons. That’s a cop out explanation. I could just say I find it ugly, plain, and impersonal. I have to admit that because I’m about to say I wish the game was drawn with the same great low-resolution pixel characters that Clash or Timeforce were drawn in, and is there really anything more unoriginal than doing low resolution pixel art in 2020 (roguelike with deckbuilding?)? That might be the most nit-picky I get in this text, but I’m sure someone made a chart that shows how nit-picking is both proportional and inversely proportional to the quality of something.
The most basic, build-it-with-legos-paper-prototype version of Grindstone is of the player painting a line of homicidal intent in a specific type of “Creep of Color”. Kill enough CoCs, and you can kill a Jerk. This reduces your Kill Count, but you can switch to a different ethnicity, keep the chain going and attempt to increase the Kill Count again to kill another Jerk, and so on. It is Words with Friends, where no one is your friend, there is no talking, in a game that’s actually fun, designed by video game auteurs, simplified enough for common schlubs, but worthy of the time from the truly sophisticated connoisseur, who only plays video games with a glass of 16 year old, single cask Laphroaig next to them.
Doing well in Grindstone is a prerequisite for getting any dopamines from the experience. The minimal interaction isn't enough to get any feel-good vibes, but it tickles you to try a little harder. No matter how plain that observation is, don't forget that mobiles strive to make sure that you either don't need to do well, or hardly even need to interact in order to feel like a champ. It's you who is observing the patterns in Grindstone, you who executes the plan. The short chains might come cheaply, but planning a route through a sea of creeps and executing upon it isn't. That feeling is earned. The inherent benefit of doing well in a game like this, is that you also feel a little bit smart for seeing hidden patterns in the chaos. Once you’re done with Grindstone, the next game to play isn’t Clash or god forbid, Bejeweled. It’s Into the Breach. The similarities could fill a second text this size, but one great, and similar, design choice I’d like to point out, is that both games are very deterministic, save for one detail: In Breach, the buildings you so desperately try to defend might occasionally repel damage with a randomly activating shield. You can’t count on it, but it’s wonderful when it happens. In the same manner, bifurcating a Jerk will catapult a gemstone onto the playing field, crushing a random Creep. The gem is valuable afterwards, and is another object that’ll let you switch which ethnicity you’re murdering, so the random location it lands on is truly blessed. This trait of being widely deterministic, but then still showing random gestures of kindness is a great little mechanic.
In Tim Rogerseseses’s Dissidia Final Fantasy NT is Like Doing Your Taxes on The Moon video, he lauds it for being overdesigned. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else talk about something being over designed, and especially not in a positive sense. It’s wonderful. Most game developers, especially the more chatty independent ones, love to praise the virtues of minimalism and simplicity, maybe citing Fumito Ueda’s Subtracting design method (GDC, 2004). Indirectly, this tells of a distaste for many things Japanese Role-Playing Game wise. Clash was perhaps one of the only overdesigned puzzle games. You prepared your team before starting, numbers weren’t exactly minimal, characters had many aspects not immediately visually evident. Perhaps most interesting, was that there was so much information, you even had to hold down a button. during matches, to see an overlay with additional information. On the one hand, it would be more clean if this wasn’t necessary, and on the other I really enjoy having many aspects to consider at same time, so such an overlay adds delightful complexity. Grindstone as noted (did I note this?) has far fewer levers to pull and buttons to push (that’s not a pun on initially being touchscreen-only). Neither the player character (his name is JORJ! That’s great!) nor the creeps and jerks, really have any additional information about them, hidden away in some invisible layer of far eastern tactical game design philosophy. Still, Grindstone does have enough supplementary yet vital information, that a Danger Overlay, like the one in Clash, becomes necessary. It’s not like the mechanic means anything to me on a nostalgic level, but it still speaks to me. As if someone might be saying “simple stuff is cool, but, you know, sometimes it’s nice being a little fancy”.
I left Kyoto on the 9th or 10th of March, 2011. Tokyo had been cool and overwhelming. I’d walked too much in the days I was there, to see too many sights. I’ve always wanted to go back to experience it far more leisurely. It’s doubtful I’ll get the time now. Fortunately, after ten intense days in Tokyo, I went to Kyoto and explored the city with just that attitude. I loved my days in the city. Loved them so much I changed my plans and came back later. A girl in my year at university had scored higher marks on her test and had gotten to go to a university in Kyoto for the semester abroad. I had to attend a university in Akita prefecture. That’s another story, but I’ll always think back with a certain amount of contempt on this girl who got one of the two spots for the university in Kyoto, and never even went. There are a lot of what-if moments in life, and to most of them I can say: I don’t care, I like what the end result was, despite a journey that I definitely didn’t appreciate at the time. There are moments I truly appreciated in the journey that didn’t include me living half a year in that ancient city, but, c’mon! It was gosh darned Kyoto. City of vegan chiptune restaurants! In comparison to Kyoto, Osaka seemed downright filthy. It probably wasn’t, my expectations had just become a bit skewed. The other hostels had been these cool, hip places where beautiful tourists from Canada and Sweden gathered, and shared their stories of fun stuff they’d done. The Osaka hotel was in a creepy highrise with unpleasant fluorescent lights and staff that didn’t quite wanna be there. I don’t remember meeting another guest. Later on I got a much better impression of Osaka and all it had to offer (Lemme tell you: Ame-mura. That was later though). We just got off on a rough start. Me and my travel buddy walked around the downtown area, scouting decent coffee shops. We went to Den Den Machi which was a bit of a disappointment. Walking home that evening I remember feeling so very tired and cold. We stopped at what I remember as a Chococro. Once again, I was sick. It would appear that trains are also disease incubators. It wasn’t gonna be fun getting back to the hotel with a fever going full force. My fevers are always really bad. Intense sweating, nightmares, feeling super cold while burning. The next day my buddy met up with a friend of ours. I think they went to the aquarium (I went a couple of years later. It was fantastic). On his way back to the hotel, he told me, he thought he might have gotten sick as well, since everything suddenly started shaking. At the same time, I was thinking my fever was a bit worse than usual.
The next month was weird. At some point, me and my travel buddy arrived in Hiroshima. It’s a famous city, but I feel like more people ought to know about the modern day Hiroshima. It definitely has a unique flavour. Our hostel of choice was once again a nice place to stay. We ran into a couple of soldiers from our own country. They’d gotten a huge load of money from being in Afghanistan and decided to travel around Asia. Knowing how to read the Japanese characters for “okonomiyaki” and “nomihoudai” makes your travels in Japan a lot more fun, so I’d like to claim we made the rest of their journey a lot better, even though we only went out drinking with them that one evening. The next night I was sitting in the common area of the hostel. There was one other dude, an American. He told me his bosses were pissed at him. He wasn’t supposed to have left Tokyo, but he was pretty scared about what might happen in Fukushima. Apparently he was a (the?) lead tech guy on the new engine for a long running, world-renowned Japanese role-playing game franchise. There was a lot he couldn’t discuss, but he was pretty open about how tired he was of the corporate BS, and how he was sure they really wanted to fire him, but couldn’t. I’m pretty sure I recognized him in one of the promotion trailers they released a bit before the game the engine was developed for was actually released, a few years later. Part of why I liked that game was definitely what he had been part of. I didn’t meet him again after that. His personality was pretty off-putting that evening, but it was nice to have a conversation, while sober, in a language I had a good grasp of, about something I cared about.