Lifeless Planet and Stranded approach a similar concept in two very different ways. Whereas Stranded tells us as few details as possible in order to let our imaginations fill in the blanks, Lifeless Planet takes a more conventional approach to its mystery that grows in scope with each new twist. However, despite these very different design philosophies that don’t invite comparison, the two games have very similar beginnings that do invite comparison. I wrote previously about how Stranded is too minimalist for its own good and how it fails to establish mystery, atmosphere, or a desire to explore. Lifeless Planet is Stranded done right, at least for the first hour, before it goes off in another direction. That first hour is similarly minimalist, but uses its minimal details to establish a compelling mystery, to subvert our expectations, to create dramatic tension, and to guide exploration.
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Personally, I love a game with any kind of minimalist aesthetic. I still feel haunted by Metrolith and Home, I’m still mocked by Blackbar, I still go gamble in Tower of Fortune, and I think One Finger Death Punch and A Dark Room are two of the best games of the year. However, that said, Stranded is an example of everything that could go wrong when a game tries too hard to be “minimalist.”
No one really wants a fair game. For the most part, we want a game that skews to our advantage so we can finish it and move on to the next game. It’s unfair, but it’s unfair in our favor, which makes it fun. Generally, when a game is unfair to our disadvantage we call this out as a negative, something to be rectified with a patch or update. However, after having recently played Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation, I’ve come to appreciate how unfair those games can be. They prove that balance and fairness are overrated because the most exciting moments in these games stem from the systems that are stacked against us.
A few weeks ago, Scott Juster asked why it’s so hard to find fear in video games. It’s a question that immediately struck me as odd because I’ve never had a problem finding fear in video games, but while reading his post, it became clear why our experiences with horror have been so different. The post also highlights one of the most difficult paradoxes facing the horror genre and gaming especially: the problem of audience participation.
I just got the Brand ability, which allows me to take over the mind of an orc and have it fight for me. I can do this easily mid-combat, so I can very quickly turn a horde of enemies against itself, then stand back and watch the battle. I also got the Shadow Kill ability, which allows me to teleport to any orc and instantly kill it. Or I can use my flaming arrows or my “infinite executions.” These are all late-game abilities in Shadow of Mordor that make it easy to slaughter countless orcs. The horde that once frightened me, that I once ran from on a regular basis because it was too much to handle, is now my playground of death and decapitations, made even more fun by the fact that reinforcements just keep showing up, so my genocide never has to end.