Author Archives: Jason McIntosh
The publisher itself doesn’t market them this way, and I haven’t run across anyone else applying the label. So, from my own perspective, let me say it first: Telltale Games’ most recent narrative video games, including The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, have realized the ancient dream of true interactive television.
By this I don’t mean TV shows with audience call-in gimmicks attached, or experimental games delivered via broadcast television, or similarly venerable exercises of the medium. I mean an evolutionary application of contemporary television storytelling techniques to the naturally interactive environment of video games to create something entirely new, and deeply interesting.
When the excellent internet-culture podcast TLDR tweeted a couple weeks ago that its new episode featured an interview with someone who witnessed her persona within a certain video game get sexually assaulted by other human players, I had an immediate guess which game they’d name. I was right: the incident occurred in DayZ, a popular MMO with a nominal post-apocalyptic survival theme.
My knowledge of DayZ is quite limited. I’ve never played it. I have had one friend, a inveterate fan of actual role-playing in online RPGs, regale me at length about all the time she’d spent there with an online improv group, experiencing varying success at playing out story-games in its setting. When the game got a wider release on Steam last year, I read a long comment-thread on imgur about all the goofy ways new players had died, with a strange focus on other players force-feeding them rotten fruit or drain cleaner.
And then, earlier this year, I discovered this video, following a link describing it as something amazing that happened in the game. With my lack of knowledge about typical interactions in DayZ, and otherwise not knowing what to expect (outside of the video’s title), I found the first 40 seconds — which isn’t supposed to be the amazing part — very stressful to watch.
Those 40 seconds contain one of the most violent exchanges I have ever seen in a video game, even though (modulo some casual language) the incident, if dramatized on film, wouldn’t rate more than a PG in the US. In one sense, it’s just two men talking; neither so much as lays a finger on the either.
The third man who shows up at the 40-second mark is the star of the video, and immediately changes the tone in an unexpected and genuinely impressive direction. But from context, I take it that one player brandishing a gun and verbally instructing an unarmed player to kneel, humiliated, is such a typical interaction in the game that it doesn’t even bear comment. This video uses it as mere stage-setting; one gets the impression that if the third character hadn’t appeared, this player wouldn’t have bothered posting this video.
(An improvement, should anyone feel up to it, would involve letting one back out of the process via the resulting dialog’s Cancel button. Feel free to tell me about the existence of improved versions. I share this code as-is because helping the Twine community sit at the larger IF table makes me happy, and also because lazy.)
Jason recently played through LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, and found himself quite impressed at not just its overall quality but its surprising and subtle characterization of Superman. Starting with a deeper examination of this game, Jason and Matt discuss adaptations of comic books into games and film, and the ways that some games can uniquely express character concepts not just through story but through the mechanics and language of gameplay.
Matt and Jason return after a long break intending to talk top-ten lists. Instead, beginning with a digression about the Interactive Fiction Competition, they discuss the changing face of game development away from monotonous triple-A dominance and towards something more inclusive to other voices and styles.
But: no revolution passes bloodlessly.
I still love Hero Academy from a design standpoint, and nothing will undo all the fun and fascination I had with it in 2012. I bagged the 40-wins achievement towards the end of that year and I still feel good about it. Once iOS-exclusive, the title now makes itself available across all significant desktop and mobile platforms, and I continue to encourage folks interested in the overlap of tabletop and digital games to check it out, for all the reasons I wrote about back then.
I last month dipped back into it and ended with only disappointment, though — not with the work itself, but with my own failure to see a single game through. I happily launched myself into four simultaneous games, much as I would have a couple of years ago. After a flurry of initial activity in each, though, I allowed all to lapse into default over the holidays. By not registering any moves during the 14-day limit, I automatically and tacitly sent my friends home with rather toothless victories.
Time was I loved games that moved at the pace of correspondence, taking days or weeks to play out, but I don’t believe it true any longer. I’d like to try examining why this may have come about.
Beyond being a surprisingly well-written entry among Traveler’s Tales’ more recent Lego-Whatever titles, Lego Batman 2 may contain the most poignant expression I’ve seen of Superman’s perhaps most obvious narrative problem: how does one make a literally omnipotent character dramatically interesting? What does it mean when there’s this one guy always front-and-center who can outdo any individual, super-powered or otherwise, at whatever thing they feel makes them special?
Lego Batman 2 shines a spotlight on these questions in the very best way a videogame can, purely through play mechanics, and with reserved brilliance. Much like the first (much weaker, far buggier) Lego Batman game, the first few acts of the story mode lend Players One and Two the unsurprising respective roles of Batman and Robin. At the start of the second act, the plot twists in such a way that the latter finds himself bumped into the wings when Superman swoops into the Player Two spot. And then things get interestingly weird.
A question from the blog-topics backlog which I’d now like to throw out to the readership: If you have ever played a combat-oriented tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, did you ever actually use miniatures on a grid, as the rulebooks generally assume of their players, with each square representing a 10’-by-10’ area? Or did the combat, as with the rest of the gameplay, stick to an entirely verbal format?
Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has announced a new book project with the working title 12.28.86: One Day. For the next two years, he’ll research stories about what happened all around the United States on that date, whose numbers he drew from a hat.
Gene is currently collecting stories and research leads on the project’s Facebook page; one can also email stories privately to an address found in that page’s description. He states openness to anything from headline-making news down to personal narratives.
The date held immediate resonance with me, and so last night I wrote up a little remembrance. It crosses over with games (and the roots of my lasting interest in games) enough that I feel like sharing it here as well.
The XYZZYs are trying something new this year: every nominee must have an IFDB entry. While a perhaps bit wobbly in its homegrown editing interface, the IFDB nevertheless allows anyone to edit its existing game entries, or create new ones. In particular, a game’s creators are not barred from creating or updating their own works’ IFDB entries.
I stress that games you’d like to make eligible via the IFDB needn’t adhere to the classic parser-based IF format. This month I myself have added IFDB entries for both a web-based hypertext game and a commercial game-book adaptation for tablets, both of which I hope to see among the 2013 nominees. The competition’s post on the subject goes into more detail on what is and isn’t acceptable, under the section “Interactive fiction” — though it allows that this style of play does find itself in a period of definitional transition at the moment.
I shared the source of The Warbler’s Nest to GitHub last weekend, a project that took a couple of hours by one measure and nine months by another. I started getting the codebase ready for sharing last spring, shortly after giving an invited presentation about the game at MIT. I considered the event as good a capstone as any on the game’s active presence in my mind, and releasing the source struck me as appropriate epilogue. As it turned out, this preparation would end up perhaps the last personal project I picked up before a family crisis would occupy much of my attention until wintertime. And when, things calmer, I happened across this MetaFilter thread asking about Inform source examples shortly after I received an email from a Warbler player pointing out an embarrassing typo in the story, I thought: Oh, right. And so GitHub.
Mere hours after announcing all this on Twitter and such, I would laugh out loud from the solid upstaging my little effort would receive next to a truly delightful surprise: Daniel Ravipinto announced a special 10-year-anniversary re-release of Slouching Towards Bedlam, an IFComp-winning masterpiece released by Star C. Foster and himself in 2003. Daniel recast the game into Inform 7 (which didn’t publicly exist ten years ago) as an exercise, and this in turn allowed him to easily publish a web page linking to both the downloadable game file and its source text. I sincerely recommend taking this opportunity to try the game if you haven’t already; I quite look forward to playing it through again, myself.
I enjoyed Gone Home. The rest of this post is full of loose and extremely spoiler-filled thoughts about it.
For two years running, Sam Kabo Ashwell has done a heroic job organizing per-category reviews of the previous year’s XYZZY Award-nominated works of interactive fiction, written by authors of prior award-winning games. This year it took the form of a blog, with one writer’s take on a single award category’s nominees rolling out every day over the course of several weeks. Sam posted the final summary on Monday, linking to all the past posts by reviewer and category.
I managed to write four reviews, all covering the 2012 nominees for Best Implementation. I found an interesting challenge in not reviewing the games as whole works, as I normally would, but instead examining them in light of their epitomizing — according to the greater IF community — how a well-implemented text game ought to play. In at least one case this directive let me to write a rather crabby review of a game that I actually quite enjoyed playing, as I found myself rather disagreeing with the community about that particular game’s strongest aspects. I’ll leave it to you to read more about that, if you wish.
I thought the project worked quite splendidly, both as a reviewer and especially as a reader and player, and I look forward to reading more next year. But well before then, I look forward to returning to read many of these reviews, whose mere presence has moved me to queue up and belatedly play a bunch of these 2012 games first. I very much expect I’m not alone here, and that thought does please me.
Sometime in the latter midgame of Bioshock Infinite, I happened to notice that an archway I was about to scoot under was decorated with little bas-relief cherubs. Slowing down my usual breakneck pace through the map, I tilted my view up as I walked under the arch, and observed that, yes, the cherubs were fully three-dimensional, not simply a shadowed texture painted onto a flat surface. Someone at Irrational had taken the time to carefully model this sculpture and place it at this one spot in the game world.
What a shame, I thought.
Playing Bioshock Infinite reminds me how much I wanted to write about I Am Alive, a game I finished earlier this year and found both easier to enjoy and quite uniquely thought-provoking. So let’s do that now.
This Ubisoft-produced survival-horror game appeared as a downloadable console title last year to little fanfare (which is to say, nobody on my Twitter timeline had much to say about it), and I bought it on a hunch, putting it aside for later. Even though it took me another year to actually pick up and play through, I found I Am Alive a delightful and rewarding surprise. While the game’s narrative isn’t spotless, I found the script and voice acting very good, and think the game explores genuinely new directions for survival-horror games in terms of both mechanics and story.
Let me describe here what I especially liked about the mechanics, because that’s the easy part. I hope this’ll be a warm-up for the narrative stuff, which I expect to have harder time writing well about. The game is about a man searching through a destroyed city for his family, and among the various situations he faces while under the player’s control are frequent encounters with opportunistic ruffians. That’s the bit I want to talk about here.
I’m pleased to announce Spoilerific, a new web-based service I created to allow the safe discussion of story spoilers on Twitter.
Spoilerific represents a followup-in-action to a Gameshelf post I wrote last year, Let’s use rot13 for game spoilers. As Spoilerific’s About page says, my suggestion to end encoded tweets with a link to rot13.com never really caught on. And of course no major Twitter clients have recently added rot13-encode/decode features, which remains the thing I really would love to see. So, for lack of any of that, I offer this.
Jon Irwin wrote a piece for Kill Screen about Spoilerific’s place in the the rich ecology of community-created retrofits for technologies that don’t quite reach as far as we’d like, and I take that as a compliment. I’d love to hear what you think, too.
I posted the sixth episode of Play of the Light last month, rounding out our first six-episode season of “a conversation about videogames” featuring myself and the much wiser and more handsome Matthew Weise.
The full episode list, in a nutshell:
- Episode 1: Fallout: New Vegas and how changing US political attitudes can stamp themselves on a decades-long game series.
- Episode 2: Dark Souls and the gulf that can form between a complex work’s surface reputation and its true, deeper shape.
- Episode 3: Mass Effect and the tension between a big-budget videogame’s desire to tell a compelling story while also being an exciting pew-pew gamey-game.
- Episode 4: Deadly Premonition and how videogames are uniquely suited to present their own style of cross-medium adaptation and homage of other works.
- Episode 5: Various multiplayer games, from Hero Academy to J.S. Joust, and the fundamental differences between solitaire-player design and multiplayer.
- Episode 6: The Walking Dead and ZombiU and the role of The Zombie across western media over the last half-century.
The podcast’s homepage contains relevant RSS feeds and copious per-episode links. Please enjoy at your leisure.
 We’d planned to complete the season in three or four months, not ten. (I announced the podcast here last April.) I ended up adding a six-month delay halfway in so that I could pursue Sixis; only after that shipped in November could I resume Play of the Light production. A personal education in how many things I can do at once (as well as what counts as “a thing” in this equation), but I regret that the podcast suffered in neglect as a result.
Barring further cataclysmic weather phenomena, my snow-postponed Warbler’s Nest presentation shall now happen at 5:30 PM on April 22, 2013, in MIT’s room 14E-310. As before, and like all events in the Purple Blurb series, it shall be free and open to the public. Please come join us as we traverse the game together on the big screen, with a discussion period to follow.
A word on context: Purple Blurb is a series of smart and diverse digital writing presentations originally organized by long-time Boston-area IF supporter Nick Montfort, and I encourage Boston-area readers to check out the other events on the Blurb’s schedule this spring. All cost nothing to attend and are full of further electronic-text-mashup goodness, a rich field of which interactive fiction is merely one facet.
Due to the weather that buried Boston over the weekend, we’re postponing my presentation about The Warbler’s Nest at MIT, originally scheduled for Monday. I’ll post again when I know the new date.
Sorry about that. Stay warm, y’all!
Sad to report that television pioneer Gerry Anderson passed away today. I’d like to briefly recognize an interesting and surprising connection between one of his works — perhaps one lesser-known outside of Europe — and the modern videogame landscape.
The startlingly outlandish 1970 TV series UFO, co-created by Anderson with wife Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill, described an oddly low-intensity invasion of Earth by small teams of silent extraterrestrials. Their motives were unknown, but their methods were unmistakably hostile; they had a particular penchant for kidnapping earthlings and borrowing their internal organs. Neither slavering Xenomorphs nor chatty Klaatus, the puzzle the enigmatic aliens posed in their highly objectionable but weirdly small-scale incursions provided the show’s unique hook. The show’s protagonists worked for an international defense force tasked not just with tracking and confronting the UFO-riding, laser-wielding aliens through a network of specialized satellites and aircraft, but attempting to work out the invaders’ motivations and secrets in their futuristic science lab.
Why, yes, this does sound rather a bit like the plot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game which has recently captured my attention and imagination. Julian Gollop, lead designer of UFO: Enemy Unknown, the 1994 computer game upon which XCOM is based, has said in interviews that the TV show played a key role in inspiring the design (to say nothing of the title) of his game. Even through at least two layers of abstraction and twice as many decades of intervening influence, one can still trace the unlikely lineage between this best-case blockbuster videogame and this quirky lo-fi TV show.
Isn’t cross-media pollination wonderful?
Here’s the show’s brassy and compelling opening sequence. This could almost be an alternate teaser trailer for XCOM, as-is.