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Scores and Gaming

Thoughts on game scoring systems, which help make a game a game.

I recently played Cortex Command, a 2D game similar in some respects to Terraria except rather than being built with blocks, it is built with pixels. You are a brain in a vat, and you can control soldiers and robots to assault against another brain in a vat (also in control over forces).

It took a bit to get into the game, to get a feel for it. It does have a tutorial, but the initial experience is rather clunky until you get a feel for it. The tutorial only gives a sense of what the game is. It’s a game about digging (you can mine gold to buy more forces) and assault in a pixel-destruction environment.

The tutorial has a small pile of dirt you dig, with gold in it, but in my first attempt it wasn’t clear how much digging I would be doing in the game. They should have buried an object to dig for, just to make the point clear.

It’s a fun enough game, once you learn the ropes and begin trying the combat challenges (called scenarios). But it doesn’t quite gamify itself enough.

I’m currently playing AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, which is another simple enough game. You jump off a starting point and fall down. You get points for falling close to buildings, among other things. But A for the Awesome has something going for it that Cortex Command lacks: a point system. That’s really all it took to make something that would seem about the same (a fun mechanic without a lot beyond it) into a game that has more depth. Counting up the scores at the end, and seeing what points are needed to get five stars really gives the game a different element that it needs. A challenge, something to dig for.

In many games, there is a narrative structure that provides that challenge. And there may be upgrades that the player can seek out along the way. But these goals, these challenges, are what makes it a game. It’s not just a simulation, but it’s a mountain to climb.

That’s what Cortex Command seemed to lack. It didn’t track points. How did I do last time? Can I do better this time? The past didn’t exist. It was a blank slate every time. That lack of continuity, of any kind of goal, made it less of a game, less likely to draw you back to try again.

It was still a fun enough experience, once you got into it. Same with The Long Dark‘s survival mode in some ways (though they have a story mode that’s really great). Surviving can go on for ages, but every time you start it’s a blank slate again.

Maybe The Long Dark‘s survival mode could add a version more like what A for the Awesome does. I believe they are working on more challenges, which are separate from both survival and the story. Anyway, fun games. Time to go jump some more.

Terraria: Journey’s End (Plus: Some more plague activities)

Some brief thoughts on Terraria and other things to do with kids during a pandemic.

If you came for the plague activities, please scroll down.

I was a latecomer to Terraria when I first played the game in the spring of 2017. Best I recall, I saw a screenshot of something someone had built in the game, and intrigued by that creative aspect I gave it a try.

That is still probably my biggest plus for the game: building, creating. The worlds are generated, which gives you a good amount of variability to begin with. That variety includes the different zones or biomes like the ocean, desert, and jungle. Each has its own flavor, and you can build in any of them.

A house in a jungle with a roof made of living vines and plants.

The final major update has released today. The official word was that there would be some delay in Linux (and Macintosh) stability or optimizations, but so far it plays fine here.


One of the other neat things about Terraria was digging into their savegame format (with the help of some sites that publish some of the specification) with Python. Prior versions (we’ll see what 1.4 does) use what’s known as run-length encoding (RLE) to store a subset of the actual world tiles. You can think of it similar to a keyframe system in video, except it marks the last tile type and then the number of (vertically and below) tiles of the same type. Given that large parts of the world are filled with the same type of material (dirt, sand, etc.), this saves a lot of space.

Anyway, for awhile I had a lot of fun messing with that, even wrote a simple tool to turn an image file (using PIL as I recall) into background walls (something that, from a search at the time, had been done by several others).


The main thing I’m looking forward to for 1.4 is the improvements for building (including the ability to craft previously-uncraftable walls and some of the new furniture and other enhancements). They also add a feature called block-swap that speaks for itself, but will be useful for quickly changing the look of a building without having to tear everything down.

A single-mast ship with sail down (in port).

But some of the other features will be nice, including the more responsive world, updated artwork, added music, new town NPCs, and even golf.

Plague Activities (to get them out of your hair long enough to catch your breath)

As obvious, age-appropriateness depends on propensity to put things in mouth, dexterity, etc.

  1. Painting the basement walls. Requires a paintbrush and some container with water. Suffice it to say, you let the kid dip the brush in the water, then use the brush to make wet the basement wall, because it looks like they’re painting it. Could work on other surfaces like sidewalks/walkways or exterior walls. Good for a relatively unsupervised 20 minute break.
  2. Sort the things. Requires three containers, items to be sorted. Preparation: dump the things to be sorted into one bucket, then task your child to put the items of each type into the other buckets. More buckets needed if more than two types of things. Elastic task, as the more things to sort the longer it lasts, but boredom may take hold at around 20 minutes depending on complexity/enjoyability of the particular stuff being sorted. Suggested items include coins, pasta of different shapes, nuts and bolts, goats and sheep, etc.
  3. Terraria! The new version has so-called “journey mode” which lets you turn off enemies. You could build in peace, and you could play a video game while your kid(s) help you decide what to build. Something to consider anyway. Probably works better if you’re already familiar with Terraria. Not as unsupervised as some, but you get to videogame while keeping the runts entertained! Could work for some other games including Minecraft, bridge building games, Besiege, etc.
  4. Tape recorder. If you have an app or other way to play with audio recording, kids can amuse themselves quite awhile just recording, then replaying what they recorded. (At least I did when I was wee. I spent a lot of time playing by myself, in case you wondered.)
  5. Draw your own alphabet. (Requires basic alphabet skills.) 26 new drawings for new letters. Even if they take a minute to come up with each one, that’s 26 minutes back to you.

Things to Fun During This (2020)

Some ideas of activities to help jump-start brainstorming of ideas for activities.

Here is a list of random things to fun. I know it’s not comprehensive, or even that great. But if you have kids that are in need of something to do, or are just a bored adult, maybe it’ll spark an idea of a decent way to stave off the boredom a bit. They’re all more-or-less adaptable to different age groups.

  1. Everyone in group finds one thing around the house, does a bit of online reading about it, and then does a 5-15 minute show and tell about it. Minimum time: 15 minutes + number of people × report lengths; average 30 minutes to one hour.
  2. Origami of various kinds. Requires paper, flat surface. Look up some various things to make with paper. Planes, swans, geometric shapes, boxes, all sorts. Minimum time: 30 minutes.
  3. Paper+trash basketball. Requires paper, unlined clean trashcan. Ball up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash. Repeat ad infinitum. Minimum time: 1 minute. Maximum time: Can you believe we just wasted an hour throwing balls of paper in the trash?! Educational opportunity: each participant must answer a topical query (e.g., geography, capital of a state) before they get throw.
  4. Bar tricks. Go online and look up match tricks and other small bar-bet tricks and go to town. Educational opportunity: teach kids to pour or mix drinks. Minimum time: ten minutes.
  5. Editor. Find random websites or other text content, and rewrite or edit it for spelling, grammar, tone, etc. Share your changes with the group. Minimum time: 30 minutes.
  6. Photo-editor. Same as previous, but using a program like GIMP or Photoshop. Add mustaches to famous people! Fun! Minimum time: 30 minutes.
  7. Gueeeess thaaaaaat Tuuuuune. Requires audio modification software, song files. Someone picks a song, slows it down, and plays it while everyone else has to guess what it is. Minimum time: 20 minutes.
  8. Counting games. Each round has a rule, like odds are replaced with animal names (bird, 2, dog, 4, …). Last person to make a mistake has to pick a rule for the next round. Minimum time: five minutes.
  9. Mad libs. Find a text, remove the nouns and modifiers and then replace them with your own! Minimum time: 20 minutes. (_Chilly_ _beans_. Find a _smurf_, remove the _ears_ and _feet_ and then replace them with your own!)
  10. Look for more ideas for tomorrow! Minimum time: five minutes.

Dunno. Maybe this helps. Seems like there are a lot of options, but there are a ton more where this came from.