12th May, 2023
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: notes, D&D, and hatboxes.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.
I dunno, I guess Tunic was a pretty decent action-adventure at some point? But that feels like lifetimes ago. Now I have succumbed. Now, I am a slave to The Manual, lost in a whirl of inscrutable annotations and margin notes.
I’ve barely touched the controller in hours, if not days. My inefficient Notes app lies long abandoned and I now sit cocooned in a blanket of paper scraps, all adorned with the furious scribblings of an obsessed man. I am haunted by configurations of stars, snagged on an invisible web of connections, terrified by the implicit demands of those tentative translations.
I’ve even spent a not-insignificant amount of time hanging upside down off my sofa to get a fresh perspective on things, and it’s testament to Tunic’s - or rather the other Tunic’s - genius that it bloody well worked. There is a chance I am now permanently lost amid the pages of The Manual, but if this is how I go - sinking in a sea of enigmas, ensnared in the wondrous promise of countless bygone gaming manuals made real - then so be it.
Dungeons & Dragons, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight
I played D&D for a chunky eight hours straight last weekend. It was a lovely way to begin a new campaign with a new group, and I am proud of myself for doing it - mostly because my rabbit bare knuckle boxer Thumper (good name, isn't it?) was crowned monarch of the Witchlight Carnival. Not for punching people, I should add, but for generally helping untangle some problems around the carnival. Oh, and maybe for performing a death-defying dive from a towering board into a vanishingly small puddle of water on the ground below, through a stream of knives being thrown at a friend attached to a spinning board. And, full disclosure, I was level one when I brazenly attempted this, with nothing in my toolkit to guarantee a, um, non-fatal outcome. Me and my stupid mouth.
But it's that 'not punching people' part that really impressed me about the beginning of the The Wild Beyond the Witchlight campaign, because it's not a set-up you see often in the game, or even in an RPG video game. You know how it normally is: meet your friends, get a quest, try out some combat. But the combat didn't happen here. And yet, there was still plenty of gameplay.
What is gameplay in D&D, really? It's mechanical interaction, in imaginative settings, with some dice rolling to add a randomised thrill to outcomes. And in this carnival-full of attractions there were plenty of opportunities to do that at different attractions which behaved, really, like mini-games. And quite imaginative mini-games at that - I don't want to spoil them in case you play because there's joy in simply discovering them. Suffice to say, though, that they all find ways to have you roll dice and compete, often, and then give you great rewards. And the moment you realise this is the moment you'll find yourself wanting to visit every attraction (but there's a time limit so you won't be able to).
That, coupled with an overarching happiness gauge to the carnival - tied to your actions - makes it all feel like you're playing something like a board game, or a game within a game. And it made for one of the most exciting starts to any role-playing adventures I've ever come across. I could almost feel the designers breaking out of a mould, a template, and pushing the D&D experience towards something different, and I absolutely loved it. An unexpected and very strong start!
Mr Sun's Hatbox, Switch
Sometimes the truth is pretty straightforward. Someone pitched me Mr Sun's Hatbox by saying it was a combination of Spelunky, XCOM and Metal Gear. That's clearly one of the greatest pitches ever, and it's true. Mr Sun's Hatbox is all those things. And I love it.
It's a 2D platforming game at heart in which you're dropped into a series of procedurally crafted scenarios to kill a target, pinch something, or kill everyone, and get out again without being killed yourself. There's Spelunky in the platforming and procedural stuff and consequences of actions, there's XCOM in the way that you slowly build a base back home in between missions, and there's Metal Gear in the fact that you can stealth through levels and send items back home by use of the Fulton Recovery System. The balloon thing! It's great.
It's the items and the variables that make it sing for me. Hats are a big deal here, so I went around yesterday with a hat that had a spring on it, so when anybody tried to jump me to knock me out they were fired off into the distance. I've seen hats with spikes, hats with boxing gloves, and even turret hats knocking around.
The avatars you take on missions also have procedural wrinkles to them that make them different from one another. The last guy I had was squeamish about killing, and also had dry eyes, so he was blinking the whole time, and obscuring my view of the world. Lovely stuff.
Mr Sun's Hatbox is made by Kenny Sun, who's a designer I've been following for a while. This one's a treat, and if it sends more people off to explore his other work I'm doubly cheered by it.