Category Archives: Jmac on Games

Telltale Television

Winkyandyou head07The 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.

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DayZ and new experiments in interplayer violence

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.

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Canceling my stamp on correspondence play

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.

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Lego Batman 2: the best interactive essay on Superman

BruceBeyond 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.

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A hypothesis on the life cycle of combat RPGs

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?

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Some thoughts about Gone Home

I enjoyed Gone Home. The rest of this post is full of loose and extremely spoiler-filled thoughts about it.

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Columbia under glass

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.

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Puzzle-combat in "I Am Alive"

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.

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On how IF resembles poetry, and how that kind of sucks

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.

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XCOM's mastery of player complicity

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:

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Want to make games? Don't worry about the code.

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.

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"And then those limits pushed back."

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.

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Santiaga for Senate

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.)

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Why I still play Spelunky

Piano lessonI 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.

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Why I love Hero Academy

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.

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Let's use rot13 for game spoilers

ThirteenThis 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.”

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Slash Fiction and other puzzles

mime_slashfiction.pngAs 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.

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Dark Souls: Pain without Pause

4300012375_05c6e3171b.jpgI’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?

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When Dark Souls broke its contract

charlie_brown_lucy.jpgLast 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.

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The best achievements are the least obvious

AmusingOne 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.

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