Author Archives: Jason McIntosh
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.
I encountered this conversation a couple of months ago while idly thumbing through my list of saved Twitter searches, of which “warbler’s nest” is one. The first poster is Mark Sample, a humanities professor at George Mason University.
Introducing students to interactive fiction today with Jason McIntosh’s The Warbler’s Nest. bit.ly/WjjooK— Mark Sample (@samplereality) October 3, 2012
@samplereality So here’s a question: Why teach IF? Isn’t it a tech w/o a readership (beyond academics and other IF authors)?— Garrison LeMasters (@glemasters) October 3, 2012
I am delighted to announce that my interactive fiction work The Warbler’s Nest will lead the Spring 2013 Purple Blurb events at MIT. Purple Blurb is Nick Montfort’s long-running series of guest lectures and presentations from a wide variety of digital-writing creators. Past talks have included play and discussion of IF I greatly admire, and I’m honored to have Warbler follow them.
We’re currently working out exactly how the presentation will work, but it will definitely involve a spectator-friendly playthrough and reading of the game, followed by a discussion period.
The presentation will happen on Feb. 11 at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310. Like all Purple Blurb events, it will be free and open to the public. If you’re around Boston in February, please visit!
In what I hope is a pleasant Sunday surprise, Play of the Light, the podcast I produce with Matthew Weise, returns after an overlong hiatus with a new episode, this time focusing on developments in multi-player games:
Topics include Jason’s history with MUDs and current obsession with Hero Academy, how Matt’s dislike of Settlers of Catan led to lost job opportunities, that time we played Johann Sebastian Joust on the subway, what Glitch Tank teaches us about how machines play games, and more.
Listen, download, subscribe, and browse show notes at the episode page.
Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.
Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.
This happened to me yesterday:
At the top of this year, the Code Hero project launched its Kickstarter drive, quickly attracting positive attention ranging from highly visible blog write-ups to TV news interviews. Code Hero promised to teach anyone how to make video games by way of a videogame, an undeniably attractive proposition to many.
The team’s own enthusiasm for the concept effectively counteracted the fact that the extremely ambitious project was in the earliest stages of development, and they blew past their initial $100,000 funding goal. Their page remains frozen at the moment the drive ended, so you can still see their admirably bold appeals to US senators to plug their states’ educational budgets into the project, and their giddy promise that the game would transform from a single-user experience into an MMO if they could raise just a few more thousand dollars.
As winter settles in, however, the comments page for Code Hero paints a dire portrait of the project’s status: a cascade of unhappy, empty-handed backers asking for refunds, which has more recently evolved into community investigation of where their money might have gone. Clicking around the project’s Kickstarter page and the official website, one gets the picture that the project’s team went completely quiet after missing its self-imposed early-September deadline. (Though you can continue to order $13 copies of the game on its apparently still-functional order form, if you wish.)
Perhaps the team has chosen to take a hard-line approach to completing their development with no further promises or teasers, even to the point of allowing a dissatisfied-customer backlash to flourish unchecked on their Kickstarter page. I would be delighted to see the team resurface a year from now with a polished 1.0 release. But today, I do not foresee this happening.
I surprised myself by feeling a little bit angry about this development as I revisited it recently. Not simply because the project may likely fail — I have been in the software business for long enough to let Failure just keep one of my guest parking passes in its car. It happens, and we move on. But from my perspective, this particular failure helps me better see what sounded a little off-key to me about this project when I first heard during its higher-energy days. The problem, to my ear, lies right in the title: I very much doubt that an effort to teach game design or development that leads with code, or with any other technical aspect of the art, can truly succeed.
As I write this, the Sportsfriends Kickstarter drive has just 14 hours to go and and still hasn’t quite met its goal. I encourage Gameshelf readers to go have a look and consider dropping in a pledge if there’s time left; for $15 you’ll preporder a copy of the finished work, a cross-platform collection of four indie games which all stress group-play.
The headliner is Johann Sebastian Joust, which isn’t a videogame but an ingenious computer-aided party-sport that is a pure joy to witness, let alone actually play. I couldn’t shut up about it after taking part in several J.S. Joust melees at last spring’s PAX East, and I would love to be able to play it with friends (as opposed to friendly strangers at game cons, as much fun as that is). You can see videos of the game in action on the project’s Kicstarter page.
We learn that the browser-based MMO Glitch is shutting down next month. The team at Tiny Speck breaks the news in a frank statement that eloquently and powerfully expresses the heartbreak they feel coming to this decision; I take the expression as genuine, and not without my own source of sympathy.
I accepted a friend’s invitation to mess around with the game a bit only a few weeks ago, and two things struck me immediately. First, the writing was very good, especially in terms of in-game text and dialogue. I’d also been nosing around with Guild Wars 2 at the same time, and found the contrast between Glitch’s intelligently whimsical banter and Guild Wars’ generic-fantasy blah-blah quite striking.
But I could not shake the feeling that this game really wanted to live on a tablet. The colorful, 2D world with its goofy, melon-headed player-characters seemed very out of place running on a PC. This is a game that invited play as a pleasant attention drain while relaxing in a comfy chair, perhaps with the TV on, or chatting with others in the room — not sitting at one’s desk, with mouse and keyboard at hand. And indeed, Tiny Speck points to the inexorable trend towards mobile — and, by definition, away from their chosen platform of Flash — in their shutdown announcement.
I’m very happy to announce the release of Sixis for iPad. This is an adaptation of the dice game of the same name published by fellow Bostonian Chris Cieslik of Asmadi Games. I became convinced to take it up as a project after overhearing more than one smart friend independently describe the original game as “Yahtzee, except good.” That’s as good an elevator pitch as any, so I’ll just pair that with a note that Sixis works on any iPad running iOS 6, and costs US$1.99 (or your local equivalent).
I still need to cut together a trailer video; a swell of day-job client work carried the chance to do that out of my hands this past week, but I can offer a sort of artist’s statement, which constitutes the remainder of this post. While the core game design is not mine, I did find myself faced with many interesting decisions while crafting this digital adaptation, and I’d like to write a bit about why I chose the paths I took.
I happened to be visiting Portland on the weekend that the official website of the Maine Republican Party put a lot of energy into mocking Colleen Lachowicz, a state senate candidate, for playing World of Warcraft. The story became literal front-page news of the October 5 Portland Press Herald, so that the toothy green face of “Santiaga”, Lachowicz’s orcish in-game persona, grinned from within every nearby newspaper kiosk.
Among the many surprising upsets and turnarounds that happened through state and local ballots in the shadow of Tuesday’s presidential election, nestled among sudden groundbreaking advances for women and gay rights, came the conclusion of this story: the mockery seems to have backfired, and Lachowicz won the election, unseating incumbent state senator Tom Martin. (Her support came largely from Waterville, my own fond home for several years post-college.)
The first of several tweets I have seen from game-players all making the same comparison:
I find this at least as inspirational as I do humorous. Is there any better medium than games for taking a concept like “86 percent probability,” which the lazily pattern-seeking human brain is predisposed to gloss as a sure thing, and illustrating in full interactive clarity what that number means in practical application?
Should Obama not win today’s election, I’d be willing to wager that, of all the people who would crow about how Nate Silver’s predictions were entirely wrong, not a single one of them would have ever played a dice-heavy tactical combat game.
(Obligatory: I am writing this in the mid-afternoon on the east coast of the US on election day, and there’s a good chance that the first time you read this, you too are a US citizen whose polls are open for a least a while yet. You have voted already, right? Yes? OK, good.)
A tiny update to an earlier post: the BostonFIG submission deadline’s been extended by another 10 days, to Monday, August 20. That gives another week and a half to New England-based game creators, working in any medium, to submit their work for inclusion in this year’s festival.
A prize-list for the videogame showcase, comprising various hardware and software goodies, is starting to appear as well. Full details at the BostonFIG website.
Patrick Klepek of the gaming-news site Giant Bomb interviewed me last month about modern interactive fiction in general and The Warbler’s Nest in particular; the resulting feature story is now online. The article ends with an exhortation to play through PR-IF’s curated starter-games list, which is nice to see as well.
While I do wince a little at yet another Adventure games are not dead after all! headline, I can’t help but think to myself: Well, it beats the alternative. And when it sits atop thoughtful articles whose comments sections quickly fill with self-styled gamers enthusiastically recommending IF works at one another, that gives me even less reason to complain.
Speaking of the 2012 No Show Conference, all twelve of its talks and presentations are now online for public enjoyment and enrichment. Visit its presentation page with any Flash-capable browser, and click a talk’s Continue reading button to make its video player pop up.
I attended every talk that weekend in person, and found them all rewarding. Going by the metric of new things I learned, my favorite talks include Mitchell Smallman on how economic classes affect gameplay access and Andrea Shubert on practical card game design. But I recommend the whole lot of them; this was a really well curated lineup.