Even a Slot Machine Can Tell a Story

When done right, a match-three puzzle can be as strategic as any other form of RPG combat, and even a slot machine can tell a story.

I like a lot of mobile games. I've become the mobile-game guy among my friends and at Moving Pixels, but even I have my prejudices: I hate match-three mobile games.

I hate how they're always timed, rushing to you make a match so that you can never really think about or plan your actions. I hate how cluttered they are, with so many different symbols in play on a little grid that it becomes hard to find a match. My eyes just glaze over the mess of icons until time runs out, and I fail at whatever I was trying to do. I hate how abusive they often are. The issues I mentioned before abuse my time and efforts, while microtransactions for special items abuse my wallet. Sometimes these two things work together, like when a level becomes impossible to beat unless you pay for point-boosting items. Even the supposedly great games like You Must Build A Boat just get on my nerves .

And yet, I've somehow put over 25 hours into Hero Emblems, a match-three RPG, a game that somehow turns an annoying and abusive gameplay system into a satisfying and thought-provoking gameplay system.

I've been to Las Vegas a few times in my life, and each time I've always avoided the slot machines. They just seem like a stupid waste of time. I'd rather play an actual game, one with rules and strategy, like black jack or poker. Heck, even roulette can be fun, if only because it requires a big plastic peripheral. Slot machines aren't even fun to watch, like a sports game or a race. They're the purest embodiment of abusive Skinner Box manipulations.

And yet, I've put countless hours of play and thought into the Tower of Fortune series, the whole time marveling at how these slot machine RPGs manage to combine player progression with a gameplay system that seems designed to prevent progression.

Between these two surprise gems, I'm convinced that there's really no such thing as an inherently abusive gameplay system. Any abuse exists only in execution.

I see an abusive gameplay system as one designed to prevent interaction, like a match-three game that makes it hard to match tiles or a slot machine that discourages pulling its lever over and over again.

Hero Emblems avoids this abuse by making matches easy to find. The challenge isn't in simply finding a match. Instead, it's in finding the right match. Do I want to match staves and heal my group or shields to bolster my defense or swords to attack with blades or stars to attack with magic? I'm rarely ever lacking for choices, and each tile has its own unique effect on things depending on how I've equipped a particular character. My swordsman may be using a fire sword against a fire resistant monster, which makes his tiles useless unless I use them to set up other actions. In all my hours of play, I've never once stared at the screen and only found one possible match option.

I have the ability to pick and choose actions, which begets strategic thinking. Hero Emblems is fun because it's not just about matching tiles, it's about strategic planning. Combat progresses in turns, which means I'm very aware of a battle's progression, like who will act when. I know the monster will attack next turn, so do I go for a kill now or turtle up and take the hit? Or do I throw away my turn on a dumb match in order to set up a power move next turn?

Hero Emblems doesn't want you to rush through its central gameplay, making bad matches out of panic because it's the only apparent option (like the overrated You Must Build a Boat). Instead, it wants you to take your time and consider its gameplay carefully, so that you can interact with it fully.

I've written about Tower of Fortune 2 before, but to summarize: It keeps the odds in the player’s favor. On every slot machine, there’s only one symbol that’s truly bad: the skull. It represents failure, a total absence of progress or positivity. In combat, it results in an enemy attack. During exploration, it results in setting off a trap. During forging or cooking or any mini-game, it results in a loss.

Yet for all the negativity associated with the skull, it doesn’t really hurt all that much. Getting attacked is inevitable, traps are more annoying than dangerous, and we can upgrade our camp to give us an advantage in cooking and forging. The skull is less about reversing progress and more about denying our forward progress. We don’t get to attack, we don’t get to do something helpful while exploring, we don’t cook good food items, and we don’t forge good armor. In each instance, we don’t lose anything as a result of our failure. We just don’t win anything.

That's how you make a slot machine player-friendly. Put the odds in our favor and then remove the emphasis on loss. That way one bad spin doesn't reverse the progress of 20 lucky spins.

Some gameplay systems can be abusive, and often are, but their badness isn't inherent. With a few tweaks, a match-three puzzle can become as strategic as any other form of RPG combat, and even a slot machine can tell a story.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.