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No video game I have played as an adult has affected me as profoundly and personally as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has. I’ve already written about my technical admiration for Telltale’s interactive television dramas (whose titles have doubled in number between the date of that essay and just this week), but now I wish to get personal. This may take more than one post.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the “Walking Dead” video game.

I purchased all of Walking Dead season one during a half-price sale at the end of 2012, spurred by the raves of many trusted friends. I tried part of the first episode, approaching it like the point-and-click adventure game I had expected, and it didn’t really gel for me. (To my past self’s credit, and as I wrote before, the first few episodes of this then-new style for Telltale did hold over many inventory-focused, get-batteries, put-batteries-in-radio adventure-game elements that would become wholly vestigial once the series hit its stride.) I remained in this skeptical relationship with the when Matt Weise and I recorded the Play of the Light episode about zombies in video games.

I would pick up the game the following summer, playing it straight to the end over the course of a month or two. In part this was likely due to the passage of time letting me see the game from a fresh perspective, and play it the correct way: much more a choice-driven narrative than a series of puzzles. I discovered, to my surprise, that The Walking Dead does not wear the flimsy frame-excuse to destroy human bodies with impunity that the zombie trope typically brings to fiction, and to video games especially. Instead, it is a wholly human drama about people scrabbling for hope in an utterly hopeless world. Each episode brings fresh horrors for the characters — not merely decaying body-horrors, but new revelations that they’d been thrown into a world with literally no love left for them. I treated each chapter as an ampule of poison I injected willingly, at a pace of my own choosing: escape through recreational despair.

The especial reason this appealed to me on second viewing, I strongly suspect, had to do with my rapidly changing family situation of that time. That spring, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He succumbed within weeks, barely giving me time to secure power of attorney over both parents’ affairs without getting probate courts involved. And then things became truly difficult, as his death revealed that my mother had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and that he’d been covering for her for years. But it took my brothers and I, as well as the framework of helpers and professionals I assembled from an initial position of zero knowledge or experience, months to realize that.

At first, I was assured, her confusion was due to grief and stress. So we moved her into a nice, loving retirement home in Bangor, Maine, not far from where she lived with dad; she could keep her cat, and room and board cost almost exactly her monthly pension. It was perfect. And within a week, the home asked that I please relocate her elsewhere.

Like a lot of elderly with Alzheimer’s Disease, my mother suffers from a condition called sundowning. As the day turns to afternoon, such a person’s grip on reality becomes weaker, and can disconnect completely once night falls. Mom would be in a great mood through lunch, then call me repeatedly to ask me to come fetch her from this weird hotel she was in, and take her back home to dad. The calls would stop by night because, in utter confusion, she’d disconnect her phone, then proceed to wander the halls. She’d sometimes bang on other residents’ doors, or just let herself in and proceed to violently accuse them of invading her home.

I have no pat answer for why The Walking Dead appealed so much to me at the same time I was daily negotiating with a series of assisted-living homes and elderly-care advice sources, all while sinking into financial ruin (spending upwards of $10,000 per month) to support a woman who would daily tell me that I must hate her to have abandoned her penniless among strangers in a ski lodge or wherever she was, stealing all her cars and emptying her bank accounts and whatever else I must have done so that she wasn’t even sure of her own identity any more. Maybe I just found myself possessing a deeper well of sympathy than before for Lee and Clementine’s unsolvable and ever-worsening plight. Maybe I felt relief to step directly into their situation in the unique way that Telltale’s dramas allow and experience how very much worse their lives were than mine (even if make-believe). With navigating my utterly unfamiliar situation as my full-time job, maybe it just felt good to chase another call with mom or with a social worker with the fantasy of having all my problems coalesce into something so easy to understand as shambling corpses, and a short-term solution as simple as an icepick.

Our luck changed as summer ended (and after I finished playing through the end of Lee’s story in season one). I finally connected with a particular elderly-care resource in Bangor able to give me direct assistance towards getting my mother an actual Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Soon after, I found her a place to live in a truly beautiful “memory care” facility in Brewer, full of staff who work exclusively with Alzheimer’s patients, willing to guide them with dignity through the variably lucid twilight of their lives. And at the same time, my mother’s lawyer succeeded in connecting her with Medicaid, staunching my own financial bleed-out. By the time 2013 ended, so had these tribulations with my mother. As I write this, she has lived in this home for more than a year, and remains safe there.

So, then. Season two.

Season two of the Walking Dead game memorably twists two survival-child tropes. In its first episode, Clem encounters a lonely dog right after she loses her whole family (for the third time in two years). As she and the dog travel through several scenes together, the game lets us believe that the animal will become Clem’s companion, a source of trust and comfort who will reflect Clem’s own relationship towards Lee in the previous season. And suddenly, the betrayed and bleeding Clem must choose between slicing open the formerly domesticated dog’s jugular or just leaving it, mad but paralyzed, to die of its wounds.

This encounter’s true purpose in the season’s narrative arc has it act as foreshadowing for Clem’s relationship with Sarah, a girl who evidently dwells somewhere in the autistic spectrum, and whom Clem meets in the lodge where she reunites with Kenny. Sarah has no ability to grasp the fact that the world has ended, and she makes an obstacle of herself in stressful situations. Her father, overworked as the group’s only medic, treats her with exasperation. Jane, a loner who accompanies the group for a time, warns Clem not to let herself be dragged down by people like Sarah who — she says — can’t fend for themselves.

Once again, the game lets us believe that Clem and Sarah can become friends, working together to overcome Sarah’s disability, or perhaps even allowing it to become her saving grace. Maybe her sunny optimism, borne of her inability to recognize that the world has died, will buoy the survivors’ sprits when they need it most. Plenty of narratives would take that tack, so comfortable in tales of kids helping each other through tough times, and do quite well with it.

This narrative demurs. In this story, contrary to every trope, Jane is exactly, inescapably right. Within the cruelly libertarian world of The Walking Dead, one with no time or pity for people who cannot function without community support, Sarah’s autism makes her dead weight. She doesn’t directly attack Clem like the dog did, but she endangers her just the same, over and over, while Clem — and the player — stubbornly refuse to just let her go.

My middle brother, whom here I shall call “Hank”, had a worse year than I did.

We shared the same parents, obviously, and he lives near the rest of my family in Bangor, but he did not help my eldest brother Ricky and I during our crisis with mom. He was too busy caring for his ailing wife, something he had made his full-time job since she became bedridden the previous year. They lived on her social-security income; Hank had quit his job, and had no savings or fallback of any kind. He supplemented their income with credit cards, at least until he found that he couldn’t open any more new credit-card accounts.

But I, too, was very busy navigating our mother’s dilemma, and so we didn’t talk much. He showed up for dad’s funeral and read from Dylan Thomas, which I honestly wouldn’t have expected of him, but didn’t have anything to say beyond that. I wouldn’t speak with him much for about a year thereafter.

His wife moved into hospice in April of 2014. This meant that Hank, who was neither elderly nor disabled, had to vacate the subsidized housing they shared under her name. He had no idea what he was going to do, other than vaguely planning to literally become a homeless person, and he watched TV while waiting for this to happen. The day before his forced eviction, I drove to Bangor, found him an inexpensive apartment on Craig’s List, put myself down as co-signer — I didn’t want his underwater credit rating to spoil my mission — rented a van, and helped him and his cat move into it. He expressed sincere gratitude, and promised that he would weather his situation and land on his feet.

His wife died a few weeks later. The funeral was on his birthday.

This past fall, after months of working with grief therapists and other counselors, he got a job at the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant by the Bangor Mall. The management hired him despite the two-year gap in his work history, as they had his social workers’ good word behind him. He phoned me right after the interview, ecstatic, and laughingly complaining that he only had one pair of decent pants, and he had already used them for the interview. I sent him some money for some more pants. He did not show up for his first day.

Ricky, a disabled veteran, has received social-security benefits for decades. He has also earned significant experience with America’s welfare system and the many sorts of people one meets within. He feels sadly confident that Hank has become the sort who has simply given up, and who will never muster the intent to re-enter the workforce. Ricky has been working his connections to try to get Hank declared disabled too, but without finding much success.

Hank thinks maybe he’ll next apply for a job at a nearby hotel, some months from now, after they’re done building it. In the meantime he told the city’s general-assistance board that I help pay his rent, so they cut off his monthly dole.

I saw a therapist myself a handful of times this year, the first time I did so since high school. We resolved the immediate impetus for my visits quite quickly, and spent the rest of the time talking about Hank.

At the climax of the fourth episode, the observation deck of the survivors’ temporary camp collapses, and Sarah and Jane both tumble down into the path of the advancing zombie herd. The game prompts the player to either give Jane a hand back up, or tell Jane to rescue Sarah, catatonic and screaming while the monsters approach.

At this moment I had an epiphany not unlike that upon my return to season one: since the last time I had played, something had changed on my side of the screen. I realized anew how the game wanted me to play it.

We recognized, finally, the locus of our problem, Clem and I. And we cut it away.

Clem looked on silently as the creatures swarmed Sarah, who in previous episodes had lost her father and the rest of her adoptive family, one by one, to various monsters. “I’m gonna die!” she cried. “That’s right,” I said to my television, as they tore into her.

Nobody would mention Sarah again. She left nobody to miss her.

I could ask Hank if the things other people believe about him are true. I haven’t, because I haven’t taken any of his calls since the one from the Wendy’s parking lot. I have my bank print and mail him checks every month, and I will continue to do so through April of next year, when his lease — and my legal obligation to pay his rent — ends.

Maybe I will pick up the phone, sometime before then. Maybe I’ll just write a letter. I don’t know yet. Perhaps this is related to the fact I haven’t spoken to my mother since she moved into the Alzheimer’s home, either. In any case, I don’t find myself moved to worry about it much.

His story is sad. All of our stories are sad.

Today, I do not talk to the dead.

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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.

Each episode of these games, with a typical playtime of between 90 minutes to two hours, has a set storyline with a structure of major acts and lesser beats familiar to anyone with knowledge of screenplay writing — or, indeed, anyone with many years’ experience watching TV dramas. But while the major events that define the story’s acts are fixed in place, the player has limited control over the beats that make up those acts, and quite a bit of control over the protagonist’s dialogue choices and other minor actions leading up to each beat.

For example, frequently in both of these series the protagonist has a discussion (or a heated argument) with one or more non-player characters about what they ought to do next. The player receives several opportunities to choose a response or interjection from a menu, usually comprising three possible utterances the protagonist might make, with a fourth choice of “…” having them say nothing. (Depending on dramatic context, this latter might represent passive silence, or it might result in a non-verbal response, such as the character crossing their arms and glowering at their interlocutor.) The game ties most of these conversational choice-points to a timer only a few seconds long, and it will roll ahead with “…” if the player makes no choice within the timespan of what, on a television show, would constitute a pregnant pause.

However, if you reduce a latter-day Telltale game’s branching beat-and-act structure to a flowchart — which, unsurprisingly, fans have done — then little to none of this conversation appears to “matter”. The story doesn’t branch until you actually get up to the beat, the point where the player-as-protagonist decides which path to take. The conversation leading up to them does not change the timing, nature, or consequences of these choices in any structurally major way.

And yet, the conversation, all those myriad little choices folded invisibly within the straight lines of that flowchart, makes up the largest part of these games’ material, the dark matter to the more obvious “playable content” of the overt branch-points. Almost all the player’s interaction with the game happens via these timed choose-a-response prompts, which usually stack several to a scene. The games’ producers put a lot of resources into recording and animating every line the player-character might choose to say, and all the ways that other characters might react. (This isn’t an Elder Scrolls game where the character models just lip-flap robotically as their scripted dialog passes through them; these are simply but fully animated characters, and animators have had to plan how they block and deliver each line.)

So: if all these conversation options “don’t do anything”, why do they account for so much of the total mass of the game?

The naive answer might suggest that these sections merely avoid making the game too short, since there are only so many branching choice-points in any episode’s narrative. But that isn’t quite right — these games do contain pacing mechanisms, but they come in the form of vestigial adventure-game scenes. Using technology held over from earlier Telltale works (e.g. the Sam and Max games), these occasional breaks in the story’s flow let the player directly marionette the protagonist around the set for a little while, walking about and variously interacting with nearby objects or people. These scenes never last especially long, and in the latter chapters of Wolf Among Us they become almost comically short, giving the player nothing to do except walk up to a door and open it, for example. But in every case, these sections provide a break from the tension, letting the player control the pace for a while before triggering whatever action resumes the game proper.

So, perhaps they are meant to avoid turning the long stretches of exposition between choice-points into interminable cutscenes, giving the player a way to twiddle their thumbs entertainingly between major choices. That explanation would hit a little closer to the truth, but would not account for the uncanny sense of investment that I experience with these games, and which I very much doubt I’d feel were they merely Choose Your Own Adventure-style works adapted into teleplays.

When I talk about Walking Dead, I talk about what “my Lee” did in Season One, and how his choices inform what “my Clementine” is doing in Season Two. Even though every significant thing that happened to them was completely predetermined, I felt like I co-developed these characters. I have a pretty good idea how these games work as systems of rules and procedures, and I’m quite aware of the artifice and stagecraft involved. And yet the Lee of my one Walking Dead playthrough still feels like “my Lee”, and I know that he always will.

This is magic. I don’t know how it works; I write this essay to help myself think through some ways that it might. Right now, I suspect that much of the magic lurks in all that dark matter, all those dozens of little choices the game offers the player between the major choice-point beats.

To describe my approach to these games from the beginning: all the latter Telltale titles feature superb voice acting through and through, and great (if limited-budget) art direction, so I’ve no problems diving through the surface. The subject matter’s another thing; I find most zombie fiction loathsome, so it took a year or so of trusted friends’ insistence as to the game’s quality (plus a one-day sale of the series’ Xbox version) before I finally tried Walking Dead. I do love a good horror-story hook, and that game’s first episode had one, so I was in.

Once there, I found myself paying far more attention to the stories of the three extant Telltale seasons than I have from any TV show in recent memory. Because a prompt to react might literally appear at any moment — more true in the Walking Dead games, perhaps, which have license to interrupt most any scene with a door banging open and unspeakable horrors shambling in — every moment I spend playing sees my full, undivided attention focused on the game. I can’t even zone out in the limited way I do when traveling between familiar areas in an RPG, say, or bouncing through a new-but-still-familiar obstacle course in some platformer. No, I am drinking in every detail I can, listening closely to what the characters are saying (and how they’re saying it), keeping a close eye on little interpersonal tells.

But it’s not like I’m an air-traffic controller, here; I’m not just monitoring people-shaped blips booping around on my TV. These are characters as wholly fleshed-out as any you’ll find on a modern American television drama, and in paying as much attention to them as I am, I can’t help but build models of them in my mind, becoming familiar with their personalities and motivations.

With all this set-up in place, then, the game frequently asks me to choose the protagonist’s immediate next action or utterance from a short list, giving me no time to ruminate or second-guess. That on-screen timer, shrinking down like a fast-burn fuse, challenges me to trust my model of not so much what the character should do next, but what they would do. And in this way — even though I’m choosing from little pre-arranged lists, and even though the events that befall the character never change, no matter what buttons I hit — I feel like I am molding that character. I cannot help it. It really does feel like an act of co-creation, despite all the constraints.

All of which cause the inevitable arrival of the actual story beats, the choice-points, to not feel like mechanical nodes on a prose flowchart but to instead carry all the weight of irrevocably life-changing decisions. Lee, Clementine, and Bigby all live partly in my head, taking up residence one conversation-node at a time in a way that no TV character and perhaps no game character I’ve met before them ever has. Despite their being wholly fictional, even fantastical, their experiences feel shared, and so do the costs and consequences of their — our — decisions.

Seems pretty simple, when I lay it out like that! But I know it’s a difficult alchemy that’s been a long time coming, and has a lot more development and refinement ahead of it.

I’ll note that just because these games have realized a new kind of interactive television doesn’t mean they’ve perfected it. They’re at their weakest when they dip a little too far into their video-game substrate. In particular, certain quicktime challenges, on failure, result in the untimely death of a main character and a corresponding GAME OVER screen. When this happens, it feels less like I experienced a routine failure as a videogame player, and more like Netflix just cut out. Telltale is clearly experimenting with these bits, as they change dramatically in tenor from the first Walking Dead season[1], and I surely support the presence of controller-fumbling action sequences in games that are largely about building and then releasing tension, but I’m not sure they’ve gotten it quite right yet.

I have more I want to say about the particulars of how these games have moved me personally. But for now, I believe it suffices to say that my household has found the Telltale games to be among the most emotionally involving and affecting media to ever appear on our television set. I genuinely look forward to playing more, and not just from Telltale.

[1] The first season of Walking Dead allows this to get especially frustrating, as I sometimes had to replay the same zombie-dodging scene five or six times, towards the end of which I had to draw on my reserves of faith that, yes, despite all appearances the game did actually want me to finish it and I should give it one more go.

Among other things, it changes the button you need to hit in order to yank the screwdriver out of the walker’s eyesocket or whatever with every fresh attempt. I found this terrifically exasperating, if not downright trollish. Emily Short read this experience as part of the text, feeling that the game was intentionally refusing to allow the player to get good at slicing up walking corpses, because it took place in a world that isn’t meant to feel like a video game. Both Dead season two and Wolf have fight scenes that feel far more forgiving… but now that I think of it, both the supernatural Bigby and the veteran survivor-child Clementine might have more excuse to display rather more combat acumen than ol’ Lee, so perhaps they’re all playing by the same rules anyway.

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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.

I have killed, and been killed by, others in online multiplayer videogames like Team Fortress 2 many times, and have never considered that activity gross or personal violence. These games are silly cartoons, and I can take them only as seriously as their verb-sets allow. Pretty much all you can do in TF2 is run around shooting and stabbing people, and all characters are equally powerful. When my character — who is not, by any stretch, “me” — is blown to bloody bits by an enemy rocket, there’s really no route for me to take it as a personal affront. I laugh, and wait for my respawn, where I’ll jump back in just as heavily-armed as I was before.

DayZ shifts this. Most obviously, like other MMOs, it presents players with a vast open world full of countless strangers, most of whom you’ll never see, rather than a fixed arena containing a only a handful of other players. More subtly, it starts all freshly spawned characters as completely weak, unarmed and powerless to do anything except run. Those with enough luck — or cunning — will scrape together enough weapons and other resources to become objectively more powerful than other players. Then it becomes in their interest to maintain this position however they can, because if their character dies, they lose all that stuff and have to start over from the bottom.

An obvious solution to this, then, becomes to prey on weaker characters as you come across them. This is how every typical RPG works, after all, yes? Slay another hundred orcs, take their stuff, go up another level. And other online RPGs have long let you attack and loot other players’ characters. But DayZ, through its design, seems to make this action far more intense and personal than the heavily abstracted violence found in the “PvP” mechanics of fantasy MMOs, let alone that of offline games where one player knows all the other players.

If this were a board game or even a LARP I can imagine any number of in-game mechanic that would allow this to play out. You’d say “OK, my attack is 5 and your defense is 2. That means I rob you!” And I’d say “Argh! OK,” and then let you pick a card from my hand while returning my pawn to home base or whatever. But in DayZ you would say “You: freeze. Good. Now kneel. Don’t try anything stupid.” And I’d kneel, and I’d stay there kneeling while you went through my stuff, and I’d hope you didn’t feel like shooting me anyway.

I’d likely have never heard your voice before, and I’d perhaps never hear from you again, either. This might be our only interaction during our entire lives together on this earth: your putting a gun to my head for a minute in a videogame while you nullify my last few hours’ work within it, all while we can hear each other breathing into our microphones. And then, one way or another, we part company.

I find this equal parts horrifying and fascinating. Obviously, during the exchange in the video, the player controlling the man with the gun cannot literally shoot the other player, sitting in front of his PC. Obviously, the men who cornered the woman as described in the TLDR interview could not, at that moment, physically assault her in reality. And yet, the violence portrayed in these cases does not feel like complete pantomime to me. It feels, on some level, real: one person forcing another to consciously act against their will, under threat of worse harm.

Sure, “it’s all a game”, but the abstractions and safeties one expects in games seem absent. Even if we step out a level, we see a situation where the player of the gunman, sitting at his computer, did in fact force, though threat-laden speech — real speech, delivered in plain English — the player of the shovel-wielder to input the sequence of keypresses and mouseclicks to make his character stop and kneel for inspection, lest he lose that shovel and everything else he’d managed to collect. There were no rules saying he had to do that, as one would find in other games; it was a compelled action, made under duress. I can’t read it any other way.

DayZ does seem to be exploring new territory for what games can do. Objectively, I find that valuable. Because I haven’t played it myself yet, I don’t feel I can pass much judgment on it beyond that. But I can’t hide that I find these stories very interesting, very important, and deeply troubling.

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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.

I Am Alive contains a style of tense but enjoyable puzzle-combat involving rules that feel quite coarse and discrete, almost to the level of a turn-based tactical game, even though the encounters unfold in real time. You come to discover, as they grow increasingly more complex and difficult, that surviving hostile encounters in I Am Alive relies very little on controller-jockeying and more on learning how to assess, control and shape the combat situation.

Your character begins the game in possession of a pistol, and one of the game’s key verbs is “point the pistol at the nearest jerk who is threatening me”. (This isn’t a shooter, so your character isn’t perpetually sighting down his gun barrel; it instead demands a discrete action.) Bullets are very rare in the game world, and actually pulling the trigger feels expensive. Both of these are common tropes in the survival-horror genre.

The game’s real twist is that (most) enemies — who are meant to be modern humans, with not a shuffling zombie or slavering hell-beast among them — freeze when you get the drop on them like this. They put their hands in the air, and begin to suggest that you take it easy. This is where things get interesting!

While you have the bad guys’ attention like this, you have a few moments to size up the situation and decide on the least expensive path through it. The pistol trains itself square on the closest baddie with single button-press, and other buttons shift it to point at other enemies; no manual aiming necessary, here. You’re free to move around while maintaining your aim, and you can command your current target to back up a few steps (if you’re far away) or give him a shove back (if you’re close). If you linger too long in this mode, though, the bad guys decide you’re only bluffing, and move in to attack you.

The inverse situation also exists: when you first encounter a group of hostile strangers, they will usually start advancing slowly on your character, who will put his own arms in the air, and mutter his own entreaties. Some of these characters are neutral parties who simply don’t want to make friends, and give you an opportunity to find a route around them, but most are true villains who will continue swaggering towards you, dangling their weapons at their sides. The skillful player will soon learn to use this phase to scan the field and set up the best position to be in before pulling their own weapon and raising the stakes.

Your goal here is to either kill the thugs or intimidate them into surrendering; often the best path involves a bit of the former to encourage the latter. Your secondary goal is to do so while spending as few bullets as possible. After that comes not getting hurt or killed; I usually found it easier to recover from injury, or retrying after a fatally botched combat, than to solider on with overly depleted supplies.

You can always just pull the trigger, which instantly drops whichever unfortunate you’re aiming at, but costs a precious bullet. You can also shove an enemy whom you’ve backed to a precipice over the edge. (Encounters often happen near blown-out plate glass windows, empty elevator shafts, or just bottomless rends in the concrete of the setting’s earthquake-wracked city.) Later in the game you can get enemies to surrender, a technique requiring you to quickly determine (via speech and pose cues) which bad guys are the group’s leaders and taking them out first, one way or another. In any case, it’s up to you to determine how to apply what you’ve learned to tackle each new setup.

My favorite single rule, and the one that made me realize that the game’s combat offered a short of “real-time tactics” approach, is the fact that you are guaranteed to defeat any single enemy in a one-on-one fight, without using any ammunition — but it always takes a few seconds to carry out. If another enemy’s attack interrupts you, your own attack fails. The game keeps you busy by having you spam a button during this “struggle-kill” sequence, so it takes a few instances to realize that the fight involves no arcade skill at all: either you have succeeded in getting a bad guy alone before invoking the rule, or you haven’t. Failure feels eminently fair, more like being on the wrong end of a referee call than screwing up a complex controller maneuver. When all this dawned on me, my perception of the whole game changed for the better.

There are other rules, which the game reveals slowly, often involving new additions to the modest arsenal that you’ll collect over the course of the game. In every case, though, the result is combats that feel to me closer to good boss fights, challenging the player’s perception and judgment in ways I find much more satisfying than the mad bullet-spraying encounters of other videogames I could name, and doing so in an engagingly novel way. Rare that a videogame makes me feel like I came out on top of a bad situation by heroically improvising, but this one did.

Gee, but all of this sure does sound uncritically super-violent and morally questionable, huh. Well, that’s what you get when I skip over I Am Alive’s narrative layer entirely. I look forward to diving into that in a future post.

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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.

Dark Souls treats player error as player failure. Like a draconian music teacher, when you misstep it cuffs you on the ear, sends you back to the start, and growls do it again. Over and over, from the top, until you get it right, or until your hour in the conservatory’s up and it sends you home with a sigh and a vague admonition to practice every day, making it clear with its tone that it knows you won’t.

Sure, this is fair — the notes are right there on the page, after all! You’re either playing them or you’re not, and when you’re not, you have introduced a state of objective error that has spoiled the whole performance, invalidating all your most recent effort. Eventually you’ll do this so many times that — if you’re like me — you’ll start feeling rather distant and disconnected from your past motivation for starting play.

This is not Spelunky’s way. Spelunky joyously scrambles up its world before every play, refusing to provide a rote book for you to follow, and instead handing you a crazy Burroughsian cut-up of a platformer level based on a capricious randomizer which the game itself seems barely in control of. While Spelunky has the visual trappings of an adventure game, I would argue it lies closer in spirit to a pinball game. Like a well-designed pinball table, the layout of a Spelunky level is inherently fair — there’s always a clear path from the start to the exit, littered with eminently surmountable obstacles. But the player’s by-definition unfamiliarity with the level, fresh from the procedural engine, plays the same role as physics does in pinball. While theoretically in total control of the game’s wholly deterministic world, the fallible player is guaranteed to slip up and either drain the ball or deposit the on-screen adventurer onto a bed of spikes, respectively.

Crucially, Spelunky responds to this eventuality by immediately crashing the curtain down with its game-over screen, sharing in a morbidly celebratory tone how well you did this time. Yay! it cries. You just finished another game of Spelunky! Did you have fun? Wanna play again? This is not a game that gapes in mock astonishment that you still haven’t gotten it right, nor will it speculate out loud that perhaps you’ve forgotten which part you’re supposed to blow into. Rather, Spelunky is all about mastery through iterative play. For all its on-screen depictions of death and dismemberment, its high-score tables and clever earned-shortcut system emphasizes the player’s own high-water marks, rather than their most recent mistakes.

As I write this, I know that I can get through the introductory mine levels without problem during most plays, a feat that seemed quite impossible when I was new to the game. While the subsequent jungle levels usually chew me up, I have seen the brutal ice caves that follow them at least a few times, and I know that in time even they will start to feel familiar. How different this feels than Dark Souls, which encourages worry and obsession between play sessions over the current obstacles between the player and the endgame, challenges that they’ll have to throw themselves against again and again until they finally nail it.

I have to admit it: for me, the prospect of mastering Dark Souls involved awakening an certain long-dormant internal voice muttering that my parents are paying good money for this, by god, and why would I have asked for the trombone purchased the game if I didn’t seem to care about playing it right? I realize that not every player would find themselves similarly encumbered. But Spelunky, for all its various surface similarities, does not stir these feelings, even though I must have “lost” at Spelunky an order of magnitude more times than in Dark Souls. This suggests a fundamental difference that isn’t just about me, and tells me with certainty which of the two instruments I’d sooner recommend picking up.

Image credit: a cropped still from David O’Reilly’s amazing, variably tasteful, and entirely not-safe-for-work short film The External World.

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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?

I understand that a rules constraint is also in play here; Dark Souls contains occasional real-time multi-player features, both cooperative and competitive, and pausing during these exchanges would certainly have an uncertain effect. But for most of the game your character is strictly alone in their world; you often see the flickering shadows of other players rushing past, but cannot interact with them in any way. And indeed, I never reached any true multiplayer segment, so as far as my own experience is concerned, the lack of a pause button serves only as another tool the game uses to mold the player into the correct mindset for disciplined play.

Searching specifically for other writers’ commentary on the missing button turned up posts on game-hobbyist web forums, for the most part, and these invariably had responses suggesting that the player desiring a short break simply park their character in a quiet spot. The game has no map-roaming enemies, so if nothing is actively attacking your character, then they can stand in place indefinitely, to no ill effect. The trouble comes during all those other times. And if you live with a loved one, or otherwise need to occasionally respond to real-world attention-calls, players of Dark Souls quickly find that those other times seem to invariably arrive at the worst times.

Allow me to cast this more personally. Years ago, I agreed to a Left 4 Dead play-ban while my partner was home and awake, because that she finds that game’s nonstop Grand Guignol audiovisuals quite irritating. (Frankly, I’d probably feel similarly if I lived with someone who played noisy shooters at all.) That was the only game we placed under such a restriction until last fall, when she asked me to make a similar agreement with Dark Souls — but not because of anything on the TV screen. Her objection instead stemmed from what would happen in the living room.

When playing this game, I became a cretin who would yell BOSS FIGHT! through the front door at his grocery-laden girlfriend, letting her fumble in the dark for her own keys, and unpack in the kitchen alone. I could not help but feel resentful that yet again she had the insensitivity to come home and distract me just when Dark Souls needed my attention the most. What, did she think I’d just happily let the Taurus Demon smash me into the parapet, making me lose all my loot, just to help put the eggs away? I would bite down this resentment when she returned to the living room to chat about the day, and all would be fine for a while — until I rounded a corner where, in thinking about dinner, I had forgotten another bad guy lurked, a half-second away from shoving me off a cliff. Unable to stop the action, I instead stopped the conversation, slamming it shut behind a door of wailed invectives as I desperately worked the controller. I might turn to continue the conversation once I’d settled that matter, but usually she’d left by then.

I’m really sorry about that, I’d say to the game, sheepishly, as I would after finally dismissing any annoying distraction. Where were we? The game would smile, and I felt grateful for its rare, cold forgiveness. We were really getting somewhere, the game and I. I kept playing.

The portcullis incident happened soon after my partner had, after putting up with this for several days, asked me to arrange my Dark Souls play-schedule so as to keep my insufferableness to myself. I stand by every word of my previous post — my feelings at the time of the incident ran just as described. However, being so recently made aware of the effect the game had on my personality, it’s likely that I was semi-consciously seeking a reason to take an indefinite break from the game anyway.

The reader must here trust me that the transformation that would overcome me did not represent how I usually play games. If I usually turned into a nasty, raving jerk over games, I’d long since have either stopped playing them or lost all my friends, and in neither case would this blog exist. This leaves me, then, to wonder why this would happen. I have several smart friends who played all the way through Dark Souls, and as far as I know they didn’t wreck their home-lives in the process. It could be that I am simply somehow incompatible with this game; perhaps it rubs against some unknowably deep-core bit of my personality in just the wrong way, producing a well of burbling acid to poison my normally sanguine demeanor. In which case, alas, I should just never play this game again.

But I think it’s more likely that I simply picked the wrong game to play at the wrong time. When I bought the game in early October, I had made it a third of the way through my semester of teaching a game-studies lab at Northeastern, a job that I found both vastly rewarding and surprisingly stressful. While billed as a part-time job, running the class soaked up nearly all my time and attention for those three months. With most of the semester still hanging over me, I had no head-space left for creative work (hence my total silence on this blog during that time) and precious little time for recreation.

One Sunday, on a whim, I hopped on a bus and picked up this game from the mall. I heard tell of it from both friends on Twitter and from some of my more apt students, and found myself immediately intrigued. I knew about its Playstation-exclusive predecessor, Demon’s Souls, from friends who loved it, as well as from Jeff Howard’s guest blogging on this very website. That an Xbox incarnation of that game had suddenly popped into existence took me by surprise, and it seemed like it might be just the thing to unwind with after a crushingly stressful day.

In retrospect, I now see how Dark Souls might have been a poor fit for that particular task.

The portcullis affair, in particular, occurred a few days after my laptop (along with a bunch of unique classroom materials I’d created) was stolen while I ate lunch at a Panera Bread near campus. While I’d eventually recover it, my time without it may have represented the apex of that semester’s stress level. So when that portcullis slammed shut, denying me even the fantasy of accomplishment at this game — a game that strained, I now knew, my relationship with my significant other — my desire to have any further truck with it also came crashing down. Dark Souls, I decided, was bad for me.

Whether it was bad for me just then or completely unworkable for me at all remains to be seen. I can offer none of this contextualization as an excuse for my behavior; I became an unpleasant jerk while playing this game, and that was awful and I never want to have that happen again. But I recognize all that is good about the game, just the same; I don’t really disagree with any of the comments from last week’s post. I still need time away from it, but maybe, when all that stress is long behind me, I can suit up and wade in again. With luck — and with assiduous use of my phone’s send-to-voicemail button — next time I can constrain my loss of Humanity points to the poor sap on the screen.

Image: Pause Button by Kevin Grocki, CC BY-NC-SA.

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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.

The contract between the game and myself was simple, and should prove familiar to anyone who has played or even read about the game: play very conservatively, and you will find reward. One of the first things I read about the game described it as a critique of the power-gamer fantasy present in most single-player action-adventure games. Contrary to expectations set by games such as Arkham Asylum or, indeed, Left 4 Dead, rushing into a mob of common bad guys will almost always result in the player-character’s demise: one solid hit from even a weak enemy sends your character reeling, defenseless against further abuse from any other nearby enemies, who will not hesitate to dish it out. Watching your scary armed-and-armored warrior get torn to shreds by a trio of naked, gibbering wretches is quite humbling, and teaches the player quite effectively that, unlike most other games in its genre, being outnumbered is not a setup for a cinematic brawl that will let the player vicariously exult in the main character’s superheroic prowess. Rather, it’s something to flee from, desperately looking for higher ground or narrower footing, so as to instead confront the baddies one at a time.

This fascinated me, and I bought into it. After the shock of initiation into the game’s reality — the tutorial level is less on-ramp than boot camp, pulling no punches as it beats any action-adventure preconceptions out of your gut — I found myself even enjoying it. This process involved a small but real personal transformation, at least while I was in Dark Souls’ world; I had to unlearn and relearn so much about playing videogames like this, and to take nothing for granted and to focus entirely on the game while I played. Significantly, the game has no pause button, so I needed to coldly ignore (or irritatedly dismiss) any real-life requests for attention or assistance. Dark Souls insists that if you’re going to give it any of your attention, you’re going to give it all of your attention, until you win or you fail. This outrageous attitude only fascinated me more; I was hooked.

As I learned to play by its rules, very slowly, Dark Souls started to reward me. I still recall the thrill I felt when, after hours of play, I found a wooden shield better than the junky, broken one you begin the story with; it was as if my harsh taskmaster casually grunted a compliment at me for the first time. Much later, when I finally bought a reasonably powerful attack spell, and had a fairly good understanding of the world’s initial areas, I felt like I was finally starting to approach the game as a peer.

The betrayal took place at the start of a planned evening with the game, the day after an especially enjoyable and (I thought at the time) successful sally through the sprawling early set of levels called the Undead Burg. After many trials, I had finally wound my way to the other side of a certain portcullis not far from a central save-point, finding a lever there that raised it. I took this as a clear signal that I had completed that area, and opened up a new one. I could see more bad guys waiting beyond, but at this point I had played Dark Souls long enough to know better than press my luck and charge on in: when you die, you permanently lose all the “souls” (experience points, basically) gained since the start of your session, and I was too laden with spoils to risk that. I chose instead to stick to the contract: I retreated, back through the portcullis and to the save point, calling it a night.

At the start of my next session, I reentered the space with the open portcullis; the usual array of enemies surrounded it. (That all enemies you have slain come back to life every time you save the game — or get yourself killed — is one of the first things you learn, so this came as no surprise.) But something new happened this time: as soon as they saw me round the corner, several of the goons in the distance turned and ran through the open gate, towards that lever. A second later, the gate slammed shut. And then the auto-save icon flickered in the corner of the screen, confirming that my progress across the map from the previous evening had been tidily erased from the single save-slot that the game allows you.

As a young teenager, I would sometimes get very angry at videogames. I threw controllers and shouted and carried on just horribly when I spent a month’s allowance to buy Golgo 13 (which looked so cool in “Nintendo Power”) only to discover how ugly and mean it was, or when the hated Blue Wizrobes in The Legend of Zelda made their first appearance, shifting up the game’s difficultly level by a quantum.

In retrospect, of course, I see these as childish reasons to become upset; as an adult, I recognize these rather as reasons to take a break, or at worst to give up and move on to something more worthwhile. Like all well-adjusted gamers past a certain age, as I get older I tend to be much choosier about the games I spend my time with. In Dark Souls, I thought I had found something rare and remarkable, worthy of investing long hours into its exploration and eventual mastery.

In one stroke, with a clatter of chains and an echoing thud, it showed me how just much it respected my investment.

Part of me still expecting an evening of play, I mechanically stumbled on for a few minutes more, like a body that doesn’t realize its brain is dead. My fighter engaged the foes as usual, but the fight had gone out of us. Slowly, deliberately, I placed the controller back on the coffee table, and stood. My character lowered her shield, and stood also. Her enemies wasted no time, and she was already sighing her familiar death-moan — losing the precious powerups that we had won the previous day — as I stooped to press the console’s power button. Then I crossed to the bedroom and sat, silently, as my partner asked what happened. It took several minutes to find the words to even begin describing my feelings, then. I managed a little more on Twitter the next day, and I finally try to express it in full, today, months later.

I found the event a two-pronged insult. Bad enough that the game proposed I re-conquer the same section of the Undead Burg again, repopulated with the exact same enemies and challenges, as if the previous evening’s hours of play had never happened. But the setback came not as a result of foolishness on my part. It would have been one thing had I slipped up, or gotten too cocky, and allowed my character to die; at this point I had long since accepted swift and costly death as the game’s constant risk, perhaps even its central pacing mechanism. But I didn’t die; after winning a little bit of ground, I fell back to regroup, so that I might fight some more another day. I was following the rules. I had maintained my end of the contract to the letter. And then, through the use of wholly unclued events — enemy characters had never before this shown any interest in the environment, lever-pulling or otherwise — the game made up a new reason for failure, on the spot. Lucy pulled away the football, grinning, and as I lay there stunned she invited me most sincerely to try again.

A little out-of-band reading revealed the correct path in this area. The lever is an outright ruse; one is supposed to press on past it, finding an elevator that actually performs the permanent map-expansion that the portcullis pretends to offer. But while I did start up the game once or twice after that, with my skills perhaps dulled by resentment, I never came close to replicating my feat of reaching that area a second time. The more I thought about it, the less sure I became that I even wanted to actually succeed and continue. Now that the contract lay broken, I had no assurance that the game wouldn’t pull similar or worse maneuvers on me in the future. Why would I willingly walk into that? Friends on Twitter understood my plight but urged me to continue anyway, insisting that this event was an anomaly, or that the game front-loads all this sort of player-griefing to its earliest stages. I appreciated the sympathy, but it all came too late: I had been well and truly burned, and just couldn’t play the game in good faith any longer.

I do not regret the time I spent playing Dark Souls. It really did impress me that a solitaire videogame experience could make me feel real-life betrayal, and my experience as a game critic is richer for it. One of my friends, while in the midst of an ultimately victorious Dark Souls traversal, commented that they found it an excellent videogame adaptation of an abusive relationship. The portcullis affair made me feel I knew just what they meant. The game knew that it still had what I wanted, and waited for me to pick myself up and crawl right on back for more. It took an act of will to loan away the disc instead, my way of turning and walking out with my head held high. Perhaps it’s better that my copy of the game stays, unplayed, in someone else’s house for a while longer.

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Matt Weise on Zelda's succumbing to nostalgia

Matt Weise writes provocatively on the arc of Legend of Zelda games since 1998, which he sees as creative triumphs of daring disruption crashing down into a shameful regression to mainstream pablum:

I was at Aonuma’s talk at GDC 2007, which was a double apology. First he apologized for making Wind Waker. Then he apologized for making Twilight Princess, the game that was an apology for Wind Waker. After the Western gaming press responded badly to Wind Waker, he tried to guess what this mysterious audience wanted. He did his best. He threw in a werewolf because he didn’t have any better ideas (yes, he said that). But he still wasn’t personally thrilled with it. The game was still a polished piece of craft, but the spark was gone, the bravery that made Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker such stand out experiments, almost arthouse games.

I haven’t played through any of the console Zelda games since Ocarina. Like many of my friends in the Bostonian game-smartypants circle, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Matt hold forth in person about Majora’s Mask, to the point where I’ve promised him that I’ll make the time for it via WiiWare. Embarrassingly, I still haven’t placed it on my queue, though I seem to have plenty of time to roll glass balls through caves or pretend-wander around New Vegas and whatnot for hours on end. Reading this post of his inspires me to amend this. Watch this space.

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A pleasant journey through NightSky

smallball.jpegGameshelf readers receiving the latest Humble Indie Bundle as a holiday gift are advised to begin with a playthrough of Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren’s NightSky. If through some oversight you do not yet own this game, there remains as I write this one day left to buy it and 11 other indie videogames for Windows/Mac/Linux at whatever price you wish — I put up the radio-button-suggested minimum of $15. (Twice, in fact, making an easy Christmas present of one.) Indeed, I like NightSky enough to generally recommend it at its usual $10 price once this bundle’s done.

I initially saw NightSky as a disappointment, because I have very fond memories of playing through Nifflas’ Knytt games, and looked forward to more of the same. On the surface, this isn’t that: the NightSky player-character doesn’t leisurely explore Knytt’s large world of interconnected caverns and aeries, but instead rolls left-to-right, in Super Mario tradition, through a series of short stand-alone levels. Where the game offers exploration, it comes in the form of rolling and bumping your little marble across each level’s crags and conveyances, testing how it slots into or caroms away from each. You sum these observations to find the one path that safely carries the player-marble over the obstacles and beyond the right edge of the playfield, ready for the next course.

Yet somehow, the same spirit that powers Knytt is present here as well. Much of this comes through the soundtrack and audio effects. The player’s marble clinks and clatters like something porcelain as it bounces against hard surfaces, giving the audio a somehow nostalgic quality, like sounds echoing up the deepest recesses of the memory-well. Strains of music — often relaxed acoustic meditations, though sometimes nervous synthesized patter — wander through the ambience of wind and water, but only briefly, as if they’re passing through on their way to somewhere else.

This rather matches the attitude the player must show the game while traversing it. Unless I’m mistaken, all the levels are exactly three screens wide, though many offer only one or two screens’ worth of obstacles. Rather than just abbreviate these levels’ length, NightSky fills the remaining width with flat open space for the player to roll their marble through, unopposed. These occasional breaks offer the player a chance to stop and admire the sounds and the scenery, the graphics that invoke Limbo’s shadow-play on the surface, but also the gently sloping, gradient-filled aesthetic of Cliff Johnson’s 3 in Three. NightSky’s world contains other living things as well: trees sway in the background, and sleepy creatures perch on crags, watching impassively as the marble rolls on through their dens. But the marble cannot linger: the right side of the screen calls it onward, and the player must inevitably answer, saying goodbye to all this, passing through just as the music does. I certainly don’t claim that NightSky is the first work to pace level-traversal like this, but it does do it so well: despite the game’s minimal setting, I often depart a level feeling like I’m moving on after visiting someplace nice.

As part of evoking this on-holiday attitude in the player, the game demands little in the way of twitchy reflexes, despite its adopting the structure and mechanics of a platformer. Several times I misread a new sort of obstacle as Aha, here is the moment when the tutorial has ended and now I must perform some real feats of digital acrobatics against a cruel timer. In every case, I was mistaken: the marble’s best path was no more gymnastic than that on any prior level. It was just a bit more obscure, requiring a little more testing and exploration. Where there are timers — all based delightfully on player-initiated simulated physics, rather than arbitrary countdowns — they are quite generous. The challenge of each level lies in finding the path, not in traversing it.

A practical note for new players: NightSky includes an “Alternative” mode, available from the get-go, which it recommends for those who “simply like a good challenge.” I advise experienced game-players to put aside the temptation to swagger directly into this option, at least until you’ve played through all of the normal game. It’s quite difficult, layering on persnickety platforming challenges that quite eclipse the qualities making this game special. Starting out on this foot deepened my disappointment with the game’s non-Knyttness until a friend on Twitter bade me to try the normal game. The easier mode includes an option to shut off tutorial messages, which I happily did sight unseen, and that led to the very pleasant experience I have had with this work since then.

Image Credit: based on “beach ball” by Ross Day, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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The Lethean waters of Ooh, Shiny

Weiss fk in the coffee schwarz t shirts designWriting the lead graf of yesterday’s post on L.A. Noire felt vaguely familiar, but I failed to dig any deeper at the time. Afterwards, reading Amanda Cosmos’ tweet about making her videogame police detective swerve drunkenly around the city in his patrol car gave me pleasant memories of Deadly Premonition. This led to my recollection of the last time I proclaimed the presence of an immersive, non-psychopathic adventure game — only two months ago.

This feels especially embarrassing to me since I tend to so easily criticize the typical game-enthusiast forgetfulness of everything they’ve ever played and enjoyed, in favor of all the shiny, shiny unplayed (and unpurchased) titles tantalizing them. And here I have fallen into the same trap, and in full view of the public! Dreadful.

My penance, at least, is clear: per the conclusion of my first post on Deadly Premonition, I must eat through the rest of that game and then write further about it. While I have reached its ending, I know that I missed a whole lot of midgame content, due to my lack of understanding about why the game placed story-advancing scheduled events so far apart from each other on the clock. My York spent a lot of time chain-smoking in order to speed that clock up and get to the next piece of story, unaware of all the side-stories we were missing.

So, before I visit Los Angeles to get really good at analyzing the corners of peoples’ mouths, I’ve got to spend some more time tooling around Greenvale, looking for flowers in the rain.

Image by “maurrokh,” available on this T-shirt.

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Smartypants L.A. Noire reax

I have long been holding out hope for an immersive, Rockstar-style adventure game featuring a protagonist who was something other than a violent psychopath. I did not assume that Rockstar itself would be the source of this game, so I didn’t pay much active attention to L.A. Noire’s release.

With surprise and interest, then, did I read how C.E.J. Pacian, author of Gun Mute and other recent works of experimental text-game excellence, bought an Xbox console just to play L.A. Noire. It’s early yet, but he seems to be having fun with it:

First I accused the only witness of lying and she stopped speaking to me. Then, driving away from the crime scene, I crashed straight into a shop front. Getting out to make sure that none of the people who ran away screaming were hurt, I stepped in front of a car and was knocked down. Now confident that no-one was injured (except me) I then got back in my patrol car and proceeded to reverse over the body and fail the case.

Shortly after that, I was promoted to the traffic division.

Before I can think he’s simply being far too kind to yet another ultimately soulless Grand Theft Auto product, I see that the reaction of my smartypants ludeaste friends elseweb ranges from grudging respect to total delight. The game’s extraordinary facial animation attracts especial interest: Juhana Leinonen believes it to be the first foot planted past the nadir of the uncanny valley, and Courtney Stanton is impressed that Rockstar published a game that places its ladies’ visual focus above the neckline.

And then there’s this this Charlie Brooker review in The Guardian which invokes interactive fiction by name, hailing both L.A. Noire and Portal 2 as big-budget major-studio works that carry forward, after many years of commercial absence, the spirit of the old Infocom text games. He’s hopeful that these games prove harbingers of a highly visible revolution of high-quality, intelligent work, perhaps one like American television has been enjoying for a while.

Strong words all! I won’t give in to the temptation to write a shred of my own opinion until I play the game myself. But I do find it worth noting that this has suddenly become far more likely to happen than I’d expected.

Aside: It seems I ought to keep a closer eye on Mr. Brooker’s writing. I enjoyed his brilliant and naughty comics for British videogame magazines in the 1990s (which, sadly, appear to have faded from the web), and he appears to have made a larger name for himself in the UK media since then. I’d be willing to forgive his apparent embrace of the fallacy that all movies were better when you were twelve if he lets his games writing reflect the fact he’s been thinking about the medium for longer than six months, unlike far too many of the people now getting paid for it.

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Not knowing "no", in Dragon Age and elsewhere

Alex Feinman writes a very insightful analysis on the cultural assumptions and pressures that caused the “Straight Male Gamer” to feel threatened when his male player-character in Dragon Age received come-ons from other men. Even though the game prominently offers the choice to turn these offers down, Alex argues, that player’s culture lacks adequate training — especially for boys — on gracefully rejecting benign-but-unwanted advances.

So now that poor, helpless gamer is stuck in quite a conundrum. He doesn’t want to fuck this man. But he doesn’t know how to say no in this situation. He doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know—he just knows that he feels trapped. He can’t even see the problem. So it must be the fault of the rejected—that’s the pattern he knows.

This pattern is writ large in our society. “You can’t let a woman ask a man to dance! What if he doesn’t want to?” We mostly learned that one already. “You can’t have gays in the military—what if one of them comes on to a Marine?” Gee, I guess then the Marine has to learn how to say no, in a way that doesn’t harm unit cohesion. “You can’t have interracial marriages—it makes me feel icky. What if a black woman asked me out?” Well, maybe you should date her. Or maybe you should say no in a manner that doesn’t upset her. “You can’t let fat people think they’re sexual human beings who deserve to live! What if—”

It’s everywhere.

Bonus reading: via Twitter, Adam Cadre points out a relevant excerpt from the webcomic Bad Machinery.

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Knowing when to scrap it

Scrap cars leftFire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers goes on sale today on the PlayStation Network, and if you’re so equipped I suggest you have a look at it. I’ve been following the progress of this game since I first met Fire Hose founder Eitan Glinert at the inaugural Boston GameLoop in 2008, and it involves one of the most amazing development stories I’ve been privileged to personally watch unfold.

At the start of 2010, the nascent Scrappers was a side-scrolling action-adventure about superheroic construction workers, flying around and patching up bursting dams. I watched the developers demonstrate it at a local monthly game-developer gathering, and found it rather impressive. For the Fire Hose crew, though, it wasn’t quite gelling as a compelling play experience.

A few weeks later, I visited Eitan at a game-marathon-for-charity event that GAMBIT was hosting. He gratefully took a break from his nonstop playthrough of the first Final Fantasy to show me Scrappers’ current version. It barely resembled what I’d seen before: gone was the scrolling cityscape of crumbling dams and waterspouts, replaced with something that at first glance looked like a Tetris-based minigame.

Eitan explained to me that, while kicking around ideas for gameplay variants, the Fire Hose team hit on the seed of a uniquely chaotic multiplayer falling-block battle. They immediately saw that this model held an entire, sellable game all by itself, and that game was fun. And so, they decided to clear the table of the old design — with god knows how much time and resources poured into it — to focus on developing this idea instead.

As much a fan as I am of the Brooksian principle of “plan to throw one away”, and of being a harsh self-editor unafraid to throw one’s own priceless output into the fire for the sake of the greater work… at that moment I kind of thought that Eitan was off his rocker. Such a drastic shift seemed like a desperate move to me.

And one year later, I found that sidling past Fire Hose’s booth at PAX East was a challenge, so clogged were the surrounding corridors with folks gawping at the game, and waiting for their turn to play it. (And nobody could mistake it for Tetris anymore, either.) Time will tell, but by all appearances, the Playstation-owning community has been impatient for a while for the chance to finally give Fire Hose their money.

Despite the conceptual distance the block-battle idea had from the game’s original concept, and heedless of all the work put into the old model, Fire Hose shed few tears about stuffing it into the wood chipper and running with the better one. Because it was better, and they had the game-development chops to recognize this, as well as the courage and flexibility to do the right long-term thing for themselves, despite the pain.

I keep this story on one end of a mental continuum I use to help judge when it’s time to throw out what you’ve made and start fresh. (Joel Spolsky stands at the other end, wagging his finger.) My friends in the Boston game-development community like to grimly recommend “killing your babies”, but it’s not about destroying what you love for its own sake. It’s about simply allowing your eyes to open to the fact that what you thought was the final masterpiece was actually the rough draft. Celebrate that, and savor what that implies about how brilliant the actual work will be. And then light the match.

[Image credit:, CC BY-NC-ND.]

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Lester's Legacy

Wiley Wiggins shares the news, learned at last week’s GDC, that Eric Chahi plans to bring his groundbreaking 1991 work Another World (known as Out of This World to us Yanks) to the iPad.

What moved me to mention it here, though, is the YouTube embedded in his post, the first half of a speedrun through the game by YouTube user ghost1215. (I’ve embedded both halves to this post as well, after the jump. Edit: Oops, it looks like they deleted their account the day after I posted this! Here’s the first part of someone else’s speedrun, though without the opening cinematic, alas.) I played a fair amount of this game in college, never getting far beyond the bit with the wobbly cage, so found fascinating the chance to watch a full playthrough.

A couple of minutes in, I thought: Hey… it’s Limbo! The similarity struck me not just in the subject matter and play style, but in the overall user experience: both works are rare examples of great games that never present any messages directly to the player, circumventing the display of “in-world” information. There is no HUD displaying health or inventory, nor do any tutorial prompts to press buttons ever appear. The games offer no subtitles for in-game dialog, because there isn’t any. You learn through a moment of initial experimentation how to make the defenseless little guy on the screen jog around and jump, and do your best from there. When the control scheme is simple enough to avoid frustration, this can be an elegant way to add a layer of unsettling, even alienating mystery to a game.

Both games also gleefully murder the protagonist in dozens of creative ways before the player sees the ending screen. Something these YouTubes don’t make obvious is Another World’s absurd difficultly level. Whoever’s playing it in this video seems to possess a very practiced hand at it (to the tune of Wiggins’ “billions of times” playing it as a kid). In reality, every time poor Lester, the ginger-haired and extremely fragile hero, gets eaten or dissolved or ray-gunned — an inevitability, several times over, with each new screen he explores — the checkpoint he reappears at is often located some distance in the past, requiring replay of several challenges. This being one of the classic ways to make a game you can speedrun through in 20 minutes (i.e. two YouTube videos) feel like a weeks-long epic to a new player.

Limbo, as I’ve written about, had its release long after cruel games have fallen from vogue. So even though (judging by the lengths of its YouTube collections) a Limbo speedrun takes more than twice as long as Another World, its vastly kinder distribution of respawn points (as well as, it seems to me, its much better-clued puzzles) means that you can traverse the work from end to end in an evening or two. By crafting a highly polished and deeply evocative experience, the makers of Limbo number among contemporary designers who stake that their games should aim to have longevity in their players’ memories, not necessarily on their game consoles.

I’ll be interested to learn how newcomers react to this 20-year-old design on the iPad — or if certain tweaks have been made to it, to better suit modern players’ palates.

Note that the following two videos spoil the entirety of Another World. Proceed with caution.

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Playing co-op with Zach

Agent Morgan02I had to put down Deadly Premonition last week, after an all-day binge. Happily, the problem wasn’t the marathon session itself; far away from running a cynical, lizardbrain-exploiting reward-treadmill, my drive to keep playing had more in common with my occasional internet-enabled activity of gulping down a whole season of an excellent TV series all at once. There’s just too much to do before PAX weekend (which is to say, the 2011 IF summit), though. I’ll return to it later this month.

What a strange, time-delayed sleeper hit this game feels like. Wikipedia tells me that the US saw its release a whole year ago, but I hadn’t heard about it before quite recently, when several friends started writing about it at the same time. First, Darius shared an intriguing vignette of gameplay experienceA full-budget console game about FBI agents who are also peeping toms? — and then Matt found himself unable to say much about it other than that it was his favorite videogame of 2010. After I mentioned on Twitter that I had picked up a new copy for less than $20 on Amazon, Courtney responded by writing an Agent York / Molly Bloom microslashfic, and I knew I was in for something unusual.

I’ll be frank: I love this game. Much as last year’s Amnesia used the sub-medium of the FPS to present a tense and interesting game where you can’t actually attack anything, Deadly Premonition may be the closest I’ve seen to applying the sandbox paradigm to tell a worthwhile story that isn’t yet another chronicle of a kill-happy psychopath (be it Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion).

Once through the somewhat shaky prologue and able to drive freely around the town of Greenvale, I found myself fully engaged with the story — rather, with the investigation, my internalized voice of protagonist Agent York corrects me. In drawing me in for hour after hour of exploration, Deadly Premonition offered the most wonderfully solid proof possible that you don’t need to make every game-verb a different act of violence in order to create a compelling story-driven experience in an open-world game environment.

And maybe more than any title outside of pure-text IF I’ve played in recent memory, the major driving force is the player character. The eccentric Agent York, an overt homage to Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, has a personality perfect for this role (and implemented superbly by voice actor Jeff Kramer). If he’s more than a little off-kilter in his approach, whether in solving murder cases or just in talking with other people, he’s just unbalanced enough to counterweight the often stilted writing which is perhaps inevitable from a cross-cultural product (in this case, a Lynchesque crime drama produced in Japan and then acted in American English).

Somehow, it all balances out into a world whose conversations are at least as fun to explore as its locations. I found myself repeatedly striving to find the next plot-advancing encounters or side missions specifically because I wanted to hear more dialogue involving York. How often does that happen in a console game? Given the choice between listening to an info-dump on Asari mating rituals while standing around in a space station or hearing an FBI agent hold forth on the commentary tracks found in Roger Corman DVDs while driving down a spooky forest road, I know where I’d rather be.

And just to seal the bargain, York’s most identifiable dialogue quirk is as irresistibly quotable as it is deliriously meta-gamey (no spoilers here). I quickly discovered, on Twitter and elsewhere, that suffixing one’s utterances with “Right, Zach?” has become a cake-is-a-lie-style watchword for smartypants videogame snobs (hello!) to identify one another.

And all this despite the fact that the game appears to be built on a survival horror engine, or at least has the air of a survival-horror project that had a mid-life career change. Interface elements and tropes specific to that sub-genre occurring throughout the whole experience, even when you’re miles away from any zombie-popping action.

Zombies do require popping from time to time, and I don’t yet know quite what to make of it. Their appearance seems to act as a pacing mechanic so that you don’t rush through the peaceful portions of the game too quickly, such as with the shadow creatures in Ico. But unlike that masterpiece, the combat scenarios in Deadly Premonition seem entirely modal — the game lurches into a level of Resident Evil 4, more or less, and you must clear it before continuing the investigation. With a handful of exceptions, these are the only times in the whole game York uses his weapons. As Matt notes in his review, this is among the weakest parts of the experience, even though it’s apparently where the game allows its survival-horror roots to assert themselves.

The game does at least drop some hints that there’s some meta-narrative winking afoot with the shooty parts as well; we’ll see. Maybe it’ll all become clear by the end. I very much look forward to completing this title and writing more about it from that perspective.

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Chronogamer on Space Invaders

My pal Joe points us at this entry in Chronogamer, regarding the 1980 Atari VCS port of Space Invaders. It caught Joe’s eye because of its explanation in the comments (by “supercat”) of the game’s “double-shot” exploit — a very early example of an undocumented game-console cheat, and a possible side-effect of Space Invaders’ pioneering two-player co-op mode.

This post also serves as my discovery of Chronogamer. This weblog documents the quest of user “Mezrabad” to play every single home console game commercially released in the United States, in chronological order, starting in 1972 with the Odyssey. The blog appears to have entered hiatus in 2010, but only after five years of writing and eight years’ worth of retrospective, so that’s quite a lot of cartridge-cobbled ground covered.

Chronogamer’s writing style can get rather breezy at times, but if that helps the author keep pushing through the games, I approve. I’m very happy someone is doing this, really, since it reminds me of the original concept behind Jmac’s Arcade, before that ended up sailing off its own thematic direction. It’s not impossible that I’ll return to Arcade with a more general goal of historical documentation, rather than personal memoirs (a much shallower well). But if some other halfway decent writer wanted to pick up that flag for coin-operated arcade games in the meantime, I’d applaud it.

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The Warbler's Nest, and some IFComp thoughts

I am pleased to announce the release of my new game, The Warbler’s Nest. It’s a very short work of interactive fiction, a mood piece more than a puzzle-filled adventure. An experienced IF player might take 15 minutes to traverse it once, and around half an hour to explore more thoroughly. Less experienced players may wish to budget a little more time, and keep a friendly quick-reference card handy.

The game is sufficiently brief that I really can’t say anything else about it here, except to mention that you can play it in your browser, thanks to the happy modern-IF technologies I celebrated in my recent video. (And to remind you that works of pure text like this are about as safe-for-work as a videogame can possibly get, ahem.) Naturally, you can also download a copy to play on an interpreter, if that’s your thing, and a visit to the game’s homepage will satisfy any further curiosity you may have about the work.

With that done, I’d like to share some thoughts about the Interactive Fiction Competition. A less polished version of Warbler eked out a tie for ninth place (of 26 entrants) in the 16th annual IFComp, which wrapped up last month. This was a very strong year, so I’m pleased that the game even made it that high; I played and quite enjoyed most of the other contestant works. First prize went to Aotearoa, Matt Wigdahl’s masterfully constructed take on the “modern kid visits an island full of totally awesome dinosaurs” style of young-adult adventure story.

The annual community-wide metagame of creative and intelligent reviews of IFComp entrants seemed stronger than ever this year, as well. Among my favorite review collections of 2010 are those of Christopher Huang, Sarah Morayati, Brooks Reeves, and Emily Short.

And yet: even though I look forward to writing and releasing my own next work of interactive fiction, I do not plan on doing so as part of the IFComp.

My experiences as a contestant were quite mixed, mainly because of how the competition’s rules prohibit authors from modifying (or publicly discussing) their entry for the entire six-week-long judging period. I did not foresee the real pain I felt when the first reviews came in, soon after the comp began.

Every reviewer, whether or not they liked the game, ran without fail into the same handful of bugs and stylistic flaws that had managed to elude me and my initial playtesters, writing about them in their reviews. (The reasons they were invisible to us make for an interesting design lesson and story unto itself, and one I hope to write about in another post.) By the end of the first week, I’d catalogued all these problems, and planned fixes for each. But there’s the thing: the reviews kept coming, naming the same problems, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. With the comp rules binding my hands, I could do nothing but silently allow people to continue playing my flawed game for another entire month, even though I could fix it with a single file upload.

In all my work, both professional and creative, I’m used to — perhaps spoiled by — digital tools that let me work quickly and iteratively, attacking errors as soon as they’re identified. But in this case, I found myself fixedly and weirdly misrepresented by my past self’s flawed vision, when my present self had something better to offer but was unable to share. I found it a deeply uncomfortable exeprience.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I found all the feedback and criticism I received during those six weeks, both in public reviews and private communication, immensely valuable. I worked hard to synthesize it all into the game’s current release, and Warbler as it stands now is so much more polished and playable as a result of all this free labor from smart people. This is brilliant, and I can’t thank everyone enough.

But, for me, that damned rule did its best to outweigh my happiness about the good stuff. As the days after the October 1 starting gun stretched into weeks, the torture I initially felt at being unable to leap in with bugfixes and improvements boiled away into simple frustration, stress, and heartbreak. While I continued to promote the comp online, I found myself conversationally advising people not to play my game until December, when I planned on publishing and promoting the “real” version. (Unless they wanted to run the whole comp gantlet as a judge, of course, but that’s not really a feasible suggestion for new or casual IF players.)

You’ll note, however, that at no point in the article do I suggest that the rules themselves are flawed. They didn’t end up working out so well for me, but that’s OK because — thankfully — it’s not about me. The rules of the interactive fiction competition are not put into place to make Jason McIntosh happy. The rules are there to make sure that the comp functions as a stable engine that rotates once per year, burping out dozens of fantastic new IF games unto the world. And I argue that, by god, it’s done it again, meeting a high watermark entirely appropriate to a 2010 that’s seen more exciting news and advances in the art of IF than anyone last year could have predicted.

I am pleased and proud that I participated in the 16th IFComp, regardless of how well my work scored. But now that it’s over, I intend to promote Warbler as an independently produced videogame in its own right — and will skip directly to this step with all my future IF works. While the comp helped give me the confidence that my work is worth promoting, the salient point is that I do have that confidence now, and intend to make full use of it from now on, all under my own power.

And I will release bugfixes in a goddamn timely fashion!

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Friday links: Race and Dominion online

RFTGScreenSnapz001.pngTurns out that both of the card games I wrote about Monday have officially sanctioned online versions. Dominion’s had an internet-playable implementation on the beloved BrettspielWelt for some time, but I only today got around to trying Race for the Galaxy’s computerized counterpart (pictured here). Both games are perfectly functional and free to play, but have a cost in… well, let us say that a polished user interface is not the top priority of either effort.

The brazenly unstyled HTML of Keldon Jones’ Race for the Galaxy page lets you know from the start that he isn’t out to impress you with a razor-sharp UI. But if it’s Race practice you’re after, I find his solution far more satisfying than the solitaire variant that comes packaged with the card game’s first expansion set. Keldon has been developing this AI in the sunshine for nearly a year, updating it frequently, and it’s very good. It consistently kicks my butt, anyway, whether with the base deck or any of the expansions — every one of which the programmer has implemented, and which you can mix in or out before each game.

In the tradition of one-hacker game-adaptation projects, obsessive focus on the rules and AI leaves the UI a secondary concern. Even with the simplest setup, it’s hard to tell with this Race board when anyone draws cards, for example, or which turn-phase is active. However, it quickly earned my trust that it wasn’t skipping any of the growing pile of interacting rules-exceptions that build up over the course over a single game. The requirement for every player to perform their own bookkeeping represents the weakest part of the physical game’s UI — one that I mess up all the time, to the annoyance of my friends, who grudgingly allow me to draw the bonus card I forgot to draw two phases ago. But this computer game quietly makes a non-issue of it, and I like that.

I was personally interested to discover that, all told, the interface Keldon designed shares several similarities to the UI I came up with for a digital version of Andy Looney’s Fluxx in 2005 [1]. We both chose, for example, the same solution to the puzzle of representing cards both as teensy icons that all fit on the screen, while allowing all the text on the cards to be readable: when you roll over any small card, a full-sized version appears in the window’s upper-left corner. I suspect that this is simply a result of drawing from the same deep well; I have been enjoying fan-digitizations of board games since I owned my first personal computer, and in almost every case found them as full of heart as they were of somewhat dubious interface practices. There are worse models to follow.

I must mention that, according its homepage, this adaptation exists with the full knowledge and blessing of Rio Grande Games, the boxed Race game’s publishers. We scratch our heads over the fact that they still print an email address on brand-new game boxes in 2010, but this shows that they know a thing or two about the benefits of not holding onto an IP with a death grip, especially when your product has creative superfans willing to do your internet-based marketing for you.

Take, for example, BrettspielWelt, which houses the digital Dominion. The user interface for BSW’s downloadable Java client is a deplorable mess, a nightmarish melange of tiny, overtiled panes with candy-colored buttons whose unclear purpose has nothing to do with the fact that the application is natively in German (appropriate to der Vaterland of many of its supported games, and of course only a problem to monoglots like me).

BrettspielWeltScreenSnapz001.pngAnd yet, it’s become the one place you go to play many popular tabletop games online, because that’s where everyone else goes. If you cross your eyes and look at this screenshot (click to enlarge), you’ll note that churning mass of colored bars in the background all say “Dominion” in them. Each of those is a game of Dominion in progress, and that horizontally(?!)-scrollable pane contains many more, stretching far off-screen. It’s like this all day long, filled with players from around the world and its many time zones. It doesn’t seem possible to play a game against bots, alas, but if you can convince friends to join you — or if you don’t mind practicing with strangers (and the risk of their ragequitting) — then this is the venue for online Dominion that the world has embraced.

The actual game does an acceptable job with its interface, given the constraints. Wisely, its designer chose to render the cards as space-saving squares or minimized rows of text (depending on context), rather than copy the physical cards’ oblong shape. This means that the cards’ various powers are expressed only as mouse-hovering tooltips, but really, you should use them only for reminders anyway; I can’t recommend coming anywhere near the BSW version of Dominion if you don’t already know how to play. Fortunately, the rules are available online, if you need a refresher — or if you’re feeling brave enough to try the game for the first time there.

Keldon Jones’ Race game also features an internet-play mode, which — as of Friday evening — houses a healthy handful of active players. So I do believe I’ll wrap this up, wish you a nice weekend, and go knock over some planets.

[1] And, yes, you can actually play this Fluxx adaptation, made by myself and Andrew Plotkin, via, our misbegotten internet-game thingy that we haven’t developed further in years, but continue to keep propped up because why not. But this link goes into a footnote because it requires you to download a Java-based game client, the very sort of thing I go on to slag two paragraphs later. Look, I started designing it in 2003, and it seemed like the right idea at the time.

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On shorter games

Quite by accident, my last post reflecting on the trend away from difficult slogs in all kinds of games fell on the same day that several indie game developers banded together to blog in support of intentionally short videogames. My post and theirs drew inspiration from the same well, though; many of these posts pointed to the brilliant Limbo, which I wrote about on Monday, and the sniping it received from the enthusiast press for having a total play-length of less than ten hours.

As expected, Jon Blow writes a compelling (and short!) entry, after which he (like all the other writers in this exercise) compiles a list of links to the other participating game developers’ short-game essays (a list which, to my delight, includes Boston-based developers and Gameshelf friends Eitan Glinert and Scott MacMillan). Jamie Fristrom also caught my attention with a look back, with some regret, on decisions he took part in producing Schizoid and Spider Man 2, both long and difficult games which very few of their fans have played to completion. (In fact, I count myself among this impressed but unfulfilled majority in both games’ cases.)

My spur to finally write this acknowledgement came via Sean Murray’s “The Long Game”, in which he stands with the short-game fans, but then flips the argument onto its head in a defense of longer games (such as the one that his own studio develops). While I do appreciate the perspective, I can’t quite cross the bridge he builds there.

Arcade-style skill contests like Geometry Wars to one side, I’m very skeptical of any single-player videogame’s ability to “amaze and delight over weeks of play”, at least not with the unremitting intensity of novelty that defines the games on the Braid/Portal axis. Members of this family are short because they end when they’re empty, when they have no new things to show the player within their intentionally narrow play-domains. The tightest examples of the form establish their rules and spaces quickly, and then proceed to explore every interesting permutation of it, avoiding repetition in either game presentation or player activity. When the whole space is explored, the curtain closes (perhaps after a finale that ties up the frame story, if necessary).

At no point does the game suggest that it might be worth the player’s time to go tromp through a fifth procedurally generated dungeon, or scan an eighteenth planet for random-number “rare ores”, or what have you. They are not about escape, of spending as much time as you can away from reality before the game comes to a close (or becomes too boring to bear any further). Escape will always have a role in the world of videogames, but there is no good reason why new games should be judged in light of how expansive an escape they provide. Some games would rather try to enhance your life with brief and brilliant new patterns that will leave a mark on your mind than deliver a slow-drip soporific.

(Yes, there are always exceptions. Most multi-player games I hold almost entirely exempt from this line of reckoning, since I find them such fundamentally different experiences. Then again, I suppose I might want to label treadmill-based MMOs as exempt from my exemption. And where do half-breed board-gamey timesinks like Sid Meier’s Civilization fit into this? Well, perhaps that’s a column for another time.)

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Take thy sting and shove it

thpsx-castlevania-death.pngI really enjoyed Limbo (Arnt Jensen et al), holder of this year’s Portal-Braid Memorial Award[1]. Beyond being a densely packed and very clever puzzle-platformer of exactly the right length, it has some interesting things to say about the concept of “death” in videogames, and how this concept has evolved over the last quarter-century.

From its title (and unnervingly flyblown title screen) through its murky shadow-puppet audiovisual aesthetic, Limbo makes death a thematic focus long before it actually shows up as a gameplay element. And death, in the traditional videogame sense, will visit its player many, many times: your on-screen character succumbs to an obstacle, you get a little “oopsie” animation, and you must try again to overcome it.

However, over the course of a single Limbo playthrough you will die far less often than you’ll send Mario, the unironically happy little bouncyman, gurgling down into his game-over grave while learning to play his own candy-colored signature game — even though we don’t see Super Mario Bros. as a particularly macabre title. What’s going on here, exactly, beyond the obvious differences in visual design?

Among the first things Limbo teaches the new player is the peculiar nature of death in its world. As you have the hero take his first steps through its enshrouded landscape of black-on-black objects, you don’t initially realize that the lugubrious depressions in the ground will make him instantly drown on contact, or that the jagged patterns in the shrubbery are actually bear traps that will snip his head clean off in an eyeblink. But you learn quickly, because the game merrily lets you trip into each one, and bam-you’re-dead.

That sounds horrible, and it rather is, at least in one sense. But in the same stroke (ho ho), the game teaches you something else: death in Limbo might be swift and shocking, but it is never cruel. After displaying a very short animation appropriate to how the hapless protagonist met his “end”, the game immediately — without so much as “PLAYER ONE GET READY!” intertitle screen — resets itself just a tiny bit. The hero, knit back into one piece, stands a single play-moment before the point he succumbed, and the player resumes control mere seconds after losing it.

In a blog post about Super Meat Boy, another modern platform game, designer Edmund McMillen calls this the “No time for tears” principle: if the game is remorseless about killing the player-character, it should keep the player equally remorseless by never stopping the action. But Limbo puts its own interesting spin on this. Super Meat Boy, and other indie platformers of recent vintage including When Pigs Fly and VVVVVV, apply the fast-restart philosophy to making sequences of challengingly merciless mazes to navigate repeatedly and rapidly until you succeed. “Death”, here, is as clear-cut as the holes that the ball bearing drops through in classic wooden labyrinth toys.

In the particular case of Limbo, these first few deaths are less “no time for tears” as they are “no time to quit the game in disgust”. It lets you hold the outrage of your character’s swift and apparently unclued demise for exactly the length of time it takes for your jaw to drop and brows to knit, and then hurls down the other shoe a split second before you can pick your jaw back up to assist in the formation of a few choice words.

What you learn, in the first minutes of play, is that while death is everywhere in Limbo, it is neither capricious nor unkind. Even as it “kills” you, it also demonstrates that it’ll pick you back up whenever you fall, and — crucially — will never expect you to redo any feats you’ve already passed[2]. Emboldened, you carry on, and the first time you anticipate a trap just by the suspicious shape of the land, leaping over the hidden swinging blade on your first try, it feels like an especially thrilling triumph. Despite the buckets of blood and guts you spill over the course of play, you soon end up feeling indestructible. In pace with the player’s lessened worry over failing its various digital-dexterity challenges, the game gradually mixes in puzzles of increasing complexity. By the time you get to the most intricately interlocked deathtraps housing malevolent lurking horrors, it somehow seems like a laid-back experience, something to explore at your own pace, and never mind the three fatalities per minute.

Combine this with the fact that the game hides glowing extra-credit candies in non-obvious places, and you’ll quickly make your character gleefully leap off ledges or crawl into the mouths of horrible grinding machines just to see what’s there. At worst, you’ll get to watch another briefly gory death animation, which by that point appears as nothing more than a playful finger-wag, and then you’re placed right back in control, ready to see what this button does…

Of equal importance to this instant-recovery mechanic is the fact that the game, also in the mode of recent indie platformers, keeps no tally your character’s stumbles. Videogames used to have “lives” as a rule. They were de rigueur in single-player coin-operated games, borrowing a handy design element from their non-digital neighbors in the arcades. Pac-Man rolls three Pac-Men into your queue in exchange for a quarter, challenging you to get the highest score you can with each one, for the very same reason you get nine chances to peg that center ring in the Skee-Ball lane right behind you. It made sense at the time, enough that the concept carried into Super Mario Bros. and its innumerable home-console colleagues.

The world’s palate for videogame difficulty has become refined since then. When games involve lives today, they often do so out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia, usually because they’re the latest iteration of a long-lived “franchise” that mistakenly sees limited lives as an intractable part of its core definition. One of my most unpleasant videogame experiences of the last couple of years involved Bionic Commando: Rearmed, which had the misfortune to be released on Xbox Live Arcade exactly one week after Braid. I enjoyed it right up until the first time the game responded to a fumbled maneuver by showing me a “GAME OVER” screen, inviting me to try again from the beginning. “This is not treating my time and attention as precious,” I said out loud, paraphrasing Braid’s compelling tagline. And I never played that game again.

Then there is Super Mario Galaxy. While I found it fun enough to play through to the end, it insists on tracking “lives” that moderately skilled players will never deplete, apparently to give the brand-defining 1UP Mushrooms something to do. While Mario and his handlers have embraced the gentler difficulty of modern platform games, they cannot let go of this atavistic holdover from their own glory days, or invent a more fitting risk-reward system.

Like the middle-ground level of afterlife from which the game takes its name, Limbo reduces death to less of a punishment than a judgment-free consequence, and even an opportunity for learning, as the player explores the space of each subsequent puzzle. How far we have risen, says this game and its indie contemporaries, from the scalding Inferno that platform videogames once didn’t scruple to plumb — even while certain of its plumbers still struggle to rise above it.

[1] This is a name I made up just now for short, clever, beautiful console games which, once I complete them, compel me to schedule evening-long group-playthroughs at my house with my friends.

[2] Well, almost never. My least favorite part of Limbo was the one violation I encountered of this trust. It added 15 rather unfun minutes to my otherwise pure play experience, and it would have been so obviously fixed by placing the respawn checkpoint at a different location that I have to regard it as a bug in the level-design data. (Rot13 spoiler: Vg jnf gur whzc qbja gur fybcr, evtug nsgre gur pneg ba gur mvcyvar.)

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