Category Archives: Essays
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.
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?
I enjoyed Gone Home. The rest of this post is full of loose and extremely spoiler-filled thoughts about it.
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 strikes me as a bit counterintuitive that I would enjoy Derek Yu’s Spelunky as much as I do, while I remain estranged from Dark Souls. Aren’t both games super-cruel dungeon crawls, presenting maddeningly difficult challenges while swiftly and severely punishing the slightest error? Perhaps, but they do so with practically opposite attitudes towards the player, a difference suggested by — but much deeper than — the two games’ radically different aesthetics.
Robot Entertainment’s Hero Academy is my favorite new videogame of 2012, and far and away the best original-to-platform tabletop game I have enjoyed on iOS. I have felt more intense highs and lows playing this strictly player-versus-player game than any other videogame of the last year, to the point where it rekindles my interest in tablet games and their potential for great multiplayer experiences. Beyond that, I admire the publisher’s sales approach, and hope that it becomes a model for other game studios to follow.
On reflection, the fiero that fills me when a Hero Academy sally goes well (and the hunger for same I feel when things go badly) is identical to the thrill of a face-to-face boardgame that’s really engaged my attention. I credit this to Hero Academy’s various smart design nudges that make starting (and, subsequently, managing) games with real-live opponents a pleasure, doing it better than any cardboard-to-digital adaptation I’ve seen so far. It helps remind me why I tend to treasure my experiences with great multiplayer games far more than any solitaire game.
This post contains minor spoilers for Fez, but only if you deliberately decipher them.
Yesterday I asked this question on Twitter:
Fez hint request: Jbhyq vg or jbegu zl gvzr gb gel qrpvcurevat gur jevgvat (abg gur ahzoref) nf n fvzcyr pelcgbtenz? rot13.com
I have asked spoiler-class questions about games, films, or books in this format before, usually to little response. In retrospect, it’s clear that I assumed too much in expecting any friend or follower to see it as anything other than gobbledygook. In yesterday’s tweet, I tried an extra step with appending that URL, and to my delight received several nice replies on Twitter and Facebook — as well as a handful of retweets, which I read as compliments on my chosen encryption method.
Some of my correspondents on Twitter chose to adopt the same encoding. “Anu,” advised one reply. “Pbairefvba vf cerggl enaqbz.”
“V’z gbyq gung gur jevgvat vf n fbeg bs zrgn-chmmyr,” countered another, “fb lrf.”
As I have done every year since 2004, I spent the second weekend in January playing (or solving, to use the field-specific lingo) in the MIT Mystery Hunt. I always feel quite privileged to play; each hunt iteration represents a one-time-only interactive artwork that a team of passionate amateurs spends the better part of a year planning and constructing, culminating in a single weekend where a thousand puzzle-hungry solvers trample through it.
Like an informational World’s Fair, it leaves its husk behind for the late-but-curious to tour: you may browse all this year’s puzzles online, and note that they seem to be arranged around a theme of ill-advised Broadway mashups. Without the context of the hunt alive around them, though, the puzzles lose a certain amount of motive force. When presented all at once like this, they lack the light but necessary hunt-specific narrative that organizes paths for the solver to follow. (This year, it featured a storyline based on the further adventures of the swindling showmen from The Producers.)
I would also argue that, even though each puzzle now links to its own solution page, these puzzles must still seem impossibly obscure to curious layfolk who stumble upon them. So in this article, rather than examine the hunt’s overall form where carefully paced groups of puzzle-sets slowly reveal the twisty superstructures of meta-puzzles, I’d like to highlight a few of the several dozen individual challenges which defined the weekend for the hunt’s players.
Let’s start with the puzzle titled Slash Fiction, designed by (and starring) Seth Schoen and Vera Yin. It makes a nice blog-post headliner because it happens to take the form of a six-minute video, one as fun to watch as to solve.
Have you watched it? All right, then: your challenge, as with every hunt puzzle, is to somehow definitively produce an English word or phrase based on this input.
I’d like to follow up on that last post about Dark Souls, providing a little more context for my reaction. While it occurred against a backdrop of environmental stress that was probably incompatible with such an unusually demanding game, I find the real trigger to lie with a single, curiously underreported feature of this work.
No essay about Dark Souls I encountered before this week has mentioned its lack of a pause button. Pressing start on the controller summons up an equipment-swap overlay where you can futz around your character’s belongings in typical RPG fashion, but it does not stop the in-game action. The only way to make the game halt, even temporarily, involves quitting it entirely.
Thus, if the doorbell rings while your character is under assault and in danger of losing all your recent progress, you will have a certain choice to make. I found this design decision first perplexing, then fascinating. It seemed devilishly in-keeping with the game’s overall attitude of reward for those who learn to play by its rules, and utter disdain for anyone else. Oh, I’m terribly sorry, says Dark Souls to the player looking for the pause button. I thought you had come here to play. Clearly, I was mistaken. I do apologize. Why don’t you come back when you’re ready?
Last semester I found myself needing two copies of Xbox Left 4 Dead so that we could study that game in class. I already owned one, and feeling too lazy to requisition another from the university, I arranged a temporary trade for a friend’s copy. He requested Dark Souls in exchange, having observed my copious tweeting on that topic a few weeks before. The semester’s over now, and my friend had quickly found that Dark Souls wasn’t really his cup of tea. I’ll propose a lunch to reverse the exchange sometime, but I’m in no particular hurry: I don’t really want to see Dark Souls in my house again, let alone in my game console.
To say I don’t like the game would be an oversimplification bordering on falsehood; in fact, the game brought me many hours of enjoyment, and I carry lasting fond memories of certain gameplay moments. As reports from friends filter in that they are finally finishing the game (it takes upwards of 100 hours to traverse), I think back to these moments, and the chance that I’ll give it another look someday rises above absolute zero. But this can’t happen in the near future: my relationship with this game ended so disastrously that it’s really better for both of us to avoid contact for a long time.
I must risk sounding melodramatic to explain why this game so profoundly unsettled me: I had never felt such purely negative emotion about a videogame in my adult life as I did at the moment when Dark Souls betrayed my trust.
One of my favorite aspects of Portal 2 is its effective use of achievements, those meta-gamey pleasure-center tinglers now ubiquitous across modern videogames via services like Xbox Live and Steam. While the game carries the usual payload of milestone-badges, unavoidably “unlocked” just by traversing its two play modes, it splits the remainder between encouraging various player interactions in co-op mode and inviting a replay of single-player mode in a new context. This latter class of achievements proves most interesting to me, and brings to mind a certain beloved feature of classic text adventure games.
Near the beginning of David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, published in 1983, the author, a Berkeley-based sociologist and polymath, describes his discovery of the Atari VCS at a friend’s party. Missile Command in particular intrigued him so much that he immediately visited a store to buy his own console. That game was out of stock, but the salesperson recommended Breakout instead. He proceeded to play that game obsessively for three months, and then wrote a 160-page book about it. The resulting artifact was unique for its time and remains an unusual work; even as the field of games criticism grows deeper and richer, this book from the previous century has something to teach us.
I have always loved presenting films to my friends. One of my local pals held a weekly movie night at their apartment for many years, and my favorite such events were those when I brought the disc. Even though my name wasn’t on the work, I still felt connected to it to the point of personal pride, knowing that I was the agency through which my friends got to discover this thing I admired. (Putting aside whether or not they agreed with me.)
I recently launched an event I’d been meaning to do for a long time: something like these movie nights, except for videogames. That is, rather than just inviting friends over to fart around in Smash Bros for a couple of hours or whatnot, we’d gather to play, observe, and discuss a particular game I consider noteworthy apart from its ability to confer a few moments’ diversion.
The notion to do this has been cooking in my head for a while.
While I have a half-written post about my Origins 2011 adventures, I must defer it to address instead recent iOS adaptation of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Ascension (originally designed and published for the tabletop by Gary Games, iOS version by Incinerator Studios), and planned to write about it anyway. But it won priority in the wee hours earlier this week when I discovered myself hallucinating my way through a game. Only several moves in did I realize that I was lying on my side in bed, staring at a wall in the dark.
I did in fact enjoy a very real game just hours before that, sitting on Cambridge’s riverside esplanade with several excellent friends, passing my iPad around while we waited for Boston’s Independence Day fireworks to start. And while memories of a good game session have often rolled around in my head for hours after playing, I don’t recall the last time my subconscious mind blustered in and demanded to watch the tapes in full as soon as my head hit the pillow. So, something’s going on here.
Allow me to expand on my parenthetical aside about the shifting sands of Ra from Tuesday’s essay:
First of all, I must emphasize that the iPad edition of Reiner Knizia’s Ra, implemented by Sage Board Games, passes the most important test I could give it. After writing that post, I brought my iPad to a friend’s regular board game night, and a shifting group of us played or watched the game several times. We had a perfectly splendid time! I quite genuinely look forward to my next opportunity to go a few rounds in the Middle Kingdom with my friends.
At the same time, this incarnation of Ra also features a handful of UI design problems, made more obvious through that heavy play session. Most of the issues come down to per-player controls popping up in inconsistent locations, which caused us to sometimes take each others’ turns inadvertently, as well as the use of simple recoloring for choice-highlighting — almost never a good UI decision. (If you see two choices, and one of them is red and one is yellow, which one is selected?)
But what moves me to write today is the sand.
I’ve been living with an iPad 2, my first tablet computer, for a couple of weeks. Last year, playing a few games on Zarf’s iPad got me thinking about how gameplay on tablets harkens back to the “cocktail games” of yore. Now that I have a tablet of my own, able to play games on it whenever I wish, I find myself possessing a nigh-religious conviction that this is where digitized board games have wanted to be all along.
It suddenly strikes me as laughable that once upon a time (that is, two whole weeks ago) I was okay with the idea of playing a board game by moving a mouse to control a pointer which in turn manipulated the images of playing pieces located a vertical screen somewhere else on my desk. So many layers of abstraction between me and the game! Compare to today, when I can play a digital game by touching the piece directly with my finger, whereupon it leaps in response to my subsequent dragging and poking as I carry out my move.
The finger of which I speak is my real, non-metaphorical, made-of-meat finger, the very same one I use push around bits of wood and cardboard when playing an analog board game. It doesn’t matter that, on a tablet, the game pieces my finger touches are tricks of the light, and under a pane of glass on top of that. Somehow, the simple matter of direct touch makes all the difference between perceiving the thing as simply another published edition of the game, rather than a forced adaptation onto a digital platform.