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Arisia: IF and gaming panels

I spent this past weekend at Arisia, an SF convention. Like many conventions, it's diversified its topics to SF (and fantasy) in comics, TV, movies, and gaming. So I wound up at a whole series of nifty panel discussions that mentioned interactive fiction.

Okay, it was the deadly trifecta of gaming discussions: Are games literature? Are games art? And what the hell are games anyhow? But the moderators all ditched the cliche questions and got on to interesting stuff.

(I was not on the panels -- just sitting in the audience. I got to throw in some comments, though.)

I do not have transcripts of these. I tried to take notes, but at some point in each panel I got caught up in the discussion and spent my time thinking of comments rather than writing down what people were saying. So you get a rather disjointed view of all of this. Sorry! I think it's worth copying my jottings anyhow.

Quotes are guaranteed not accurate. I attempted to get down what I thought people meant; errors are mine. I've also thrown in some of my responses that I wasn't able to get out loud in the panel. Editor's privilege.

Games as Literature

Emily Lewis, John McDaid, James Meikle, Mark Waks / Justin du Coeur, Alan Wexelblat (mod)

The moderator started off by declaring that the panel was about multi-player and other collaborative game forms. (Single-player games are equally literary, but have been discussed plenty elsewhere.)


  • JMcD: Wrote an old-school hypertext novel: Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse
  • EL: Worked on a group game/educational course, Operation LAPIS.
  • JMk: Designs roguelikes.
  • JdC: Writes LARPs.
  • AW: I missed what he does, other than "gamer".

JdC: When I create a LARP, I am writing the first half of a novel.

JMcD: The notions of character and story arc are baked into traditional literature -- but this is a bug, not a feature. They come from the affordances of written-down story as it evolved out of oral literature. Interactive fiction is not bound to them.

JMk: (Computer) MMOs are not literature; they're history or politics. (Just like history textbooks are not literature.) They're history of a fictional world, but this is not the same as fiction, because all the actors are real people wearing masks. (The goals are fictional, the struggles are not.)

AW: A game has failure conditions, literature does not.

JdC disagrees: LARPs are designed to not have failure conditions. Tragedies in the LARP story should be successes for the players, because the players' goal is to be true to their characters. Also, MMOs mostly don't have failure states, only short- and long-term setbacks.

(I also disagree, for a different reason: I simply think that literature may or may not have failure conditions. That may be a good criterion for deciding what a game is, but it's orthogonal to literature.)

JdC describes a combat system for an Oz LARP: Everybody has a combat strength, represented by a number. In combat, you compare your strength to the opponent, and the stronger takes the weaker captive. This is what combat situations look like in the Oz books, so that's how the game should behave. (Why the abstraction of numbers? Because it determines a result simply, without distracting players from the scene. Once the outcome is known, players can concentrate on role-playing to get there.)

JdC: A work is literary if the author intends it as literature.

JMcD: No, it's about reception. A work is literary if the reader (player) takes it as literature. (Describes a reader who didn't realize that Uncle Buddy was fiction; thought it was notes about an actual science fiction author. Eventually made that leap to reading it as a story rather than history.)

Some discussion of whether reality (real life) is vastly more boring than literature, or whether reality is the biggest, most exciting story possible. (Clearly these are Great Truths, since they're opposite and both true.) MMOs (think Eve Online) have long boring stretches, but interesting moments of story come out of them.

EL: What if you blend reality and game? (Leads to discussion of Ingress, an augmented-reality game.)

AW: Ingress is a terrible game, but a really interesting experiment. (Why terrible? Notes that Ingress has no representation of other players, much less any way to interact with them.) Augmented reality calls into question who the author of a story is.

JMk: The MMOs that seem most story-heavy are the ones where players compete for resources in a meaningful way. (Again, Eve. Players' time is always the base resource.) Competition is necessary for interesting cooperation.

EL: Is a work literary because players can follow a story, or because players can invent their own story, or what?

JMk: "Literature" is not a binary -- a work is literary to some greater or lesser degree. (General agreement.)

JdC, EL: The literary result of a collaborative game is the "war stories" that players tell afterwards. (It's an oral tradition, in the end.) The "literature" of Eve is not the day-by-day play, but the narratives in people's heads after some dramatic event. Therefore, game designers can't just design an experience; they must consider how players will remember the experience.

That's No Game

Izzy Peskowitz, Yitzy Abramowitz, Maddy Myers (mod)

I didn't get detailed notes on this one. It was a spirited discussion on the various kinds of games that get the "not a game" label, which seem to be heavily weighted towards interactive narrative: Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Walking Dead, choice-based IF, parser IF.

Everyone in the room was happy to adopt a broad definition of "game", so the discussion circled around why these things are contentious. Audience mismatch? Bad marketing? What expectation of a gamer is not being satisfied?

Maybe the whole question will subside as IF becomes more mainstream. Once "games like Gone Home" are a familiar category on Steam, players won't be disconcerted by them.

Much talk about when player choice counts as (or feels like) "real" choice. The panelists seemed to be evaluating everything by the ending -- a player choice which does not affect the final scene "doesn't count". I brought up Emily Short's notion of reflective choice (as a player, you can decide what you think of an event even if the game doesn't recognize that).

Also, games like Depression Quest convey meaning by how they offer choice -- meaning from game mechanics. Also, in literature, we commonly agree that how the protagonist gets to the end is more important than what the end is.

A reductio ad absurdum: if you add a non-interactive cut scene to the very end of a game, does it invalidate all the choices the player made up to that point? I say no.

Much discussion on how these categorization questions are political. Gamers like a particular kind of game, and when an unfamiliar category shows up, they push back: this new thing might drive out the stuff I like! (I didn't have a chance to mention how this exact political reaction has been playing out in the IF community.)

Does it matter whether these things get labelled "games"? It sure does if you want to make money on Steam. But on the other hand, Maddy Myers talked about failing to describe Gone Home to non-gamers. Maybe she should have been trying to describe it as literature rather than as a game?

Games as Art

Christopher K. Davis (mod), Maddy Myers, Izzy Peskowitz, Brianna Wu, Frank Wu


  • BW: Producing Revolution 60, a choice-based graphical adventure (upcoming).
  • FW: Doing artwork for Revolution 60.
  • MM: Videogame critic and journalist.
  • IP: Gamer.
  • CKD: Gamer.

Again, I didn't get specific notes.

Everyone agrees that games are art, sure, no problem. BW says that everyone on her team is an artist -- the art people, the sound people, the programmers, it's all high-level creative work. (I think programming is "design" rather than "art", but so what, really.)

The spectre of Roger Ebert still hovers above us. (After his widely-reported "games are not art" post, Ebert tried some games, and declared that Flower was art. Interesting that his criterion seems to be the opposite of what we got from the previous panel; hardcore gamers might say that Flower is "not a game". Is Ebert just stuck in a games-vs-art dichotomy?)

Games and game-related art are big in the New York gallery scene. Pixel art, interactive installations, etc. The Museum of the Moving Image has an indie-game exhibition; even MoMA has fastidiously stepped over the line.

Tangential comment by MM on how Boston indie game devs are spooked by journalists. Promote yourself dammit! Talk to the media! (I am terrible at this. I got her business card.)

Interactivity in Fiction

Heather Albano, Erik Amundsen (mod), Max Gladstone, Forest Handford, Carolyn VanEseltine


  • HA: Author of Choice of Romance and other choice-based games. Lead writer on Codename Cygnus. Two self-published novels.
  • FH: Director of Firefly Arts Collective (local Burning-Man-style hacker/art group).
  • MG: Published two fantasy novels, then wrote Choice of the Deathless (choice-based game in the same setting).
  • CVE: Working on Revolution 60. Several parser IF games.
  • EA: Gamer, writer, poet.

MG: Second person is exciting to work in. It's unusual in written fiction (though not unknown, Stross etc). It adds a storyteller or narrator voice. (I humbly add my lecture on this subject from a few years back.)

FH: Interested in stories that bleed over into real life -- books with in-character web sites, etc. (I tend to call this "alternate reality fiction", which is not necessarily a game. Although interactivity bleeds in whenever the reader starts exploring and engaging.)

CVE: Planescape Torment had a powerful moment when the game turns and asks you what you think about the game events. (Again, "reflective choice".) Interested in player investment -- a game doesn't move forward without some player commitment.

HA: There's a big psychological need to be the narrator, particularly in kids, but to some extent for everybody.

EA: Look all those online "which foo are you" tests.

MG: The fun of constructing a character -- defining the narrator through accumulated choices.

CVE: But there's also IF where you have to commit to a character without knowing who it is. (Mentioned Spider&Web, unreliable narrator.)

MG: Interactive stories about redemption. You have no choice about doing something awful; your choices are about how you deal with it.

MG: I'm a fast writer, so I've been able to do novels "by the seat of my pants". But building Choice of the Deathless required a lot more planning. Had to learn to outline. (Not to map out events -- the sequence of events is fixed -- but to map out the various ways a player can approach them. Which NPCs are allies, rivals, friends, enemies, etc.)

CVE: IF can place the storytelling "camera" at a large distance (cut scenes) or close-up (moment-by-moment interactivity). There's no middle range. This is different from traditional fiction. Also, in IF you usually stick to one viewpoint (or maybe two), to keep the sense of engagement strong.

MG: Right -- in novels I like to jump between character viewpoints, because they see things (and each other) differently. CotD didn't do that.

HA: Constructing a story arc in a game and in a novel are the same technique. But static fiction has more techniques available. The "Choice of" game model doesn't have cut scenes at all; the camera is always close in, making immediate choices.

MG: All types of IF have inherent illusions. Myst has the illusion that you can travel anywhere, without barriers. ChoiceOf games have the illusion that any life course the player can imagine is available. (Of course in both cases there are strict boundaries, and the game designer works hard to draw the player's attention to targets inside them.)

EA: This is very different from table-top roleplaying, where the GM is expected to let the players go off on any crazy tangent, and improvise to keep up.

Much discussion on "railroading" in game design. Audience comment: Railroading in games is like exposition (infodumps) in novels. You have to do some. It gets a bad rap, but it's not per se evil -- it's just really noticeable when it's done badly.

I made my standard point about multi-level game design: unless you're writing a tiny/experimental art piece, your game is doing more than one thing at a time. It's not a tradeoff between railroading and agency, it's a tradeoff between short-term, medium-term, and long-term agency. As long as the player's attention is on the level with plenty of choice, the player won't feel railroaded at other levels.

HA: Yes, that's why the ChoiceOf model is a series of episodes.

CVE: Similarly, that's how Fallen London works -- if you're focussed on long-term stat goals, you're okay with the simplistic short-term grinding structure. (Well, up to a point.)

HA: Shared-world anthologies (Thieves' World, Bordertown, some of the Darkover canon) are interactive in a sense -- interactive among authors, rather than between audience and author. (Mention of Alternity, a collaborative journal fanfic game.)

MG: Fantasy Powers League, a collaborative/competitive online story game that he got into as a teenager.

Game Developer Women (Carolyn VanEseltine, Brianna Wu, Maddy Myers): I didn't attend this, but it apparently got into Twine and indie narrative games. Hopefully someone will report on that one.

Not a panel, but worth noting: A friend turned me on to Torchbearer, a recently-Kickstarted tabletop RPG. It describes itself as a "love letter to Basic D&D", but I'm seeing a link to old-school IF as well.

Why do I say this? Because, as my friend described it, Torchbearer's three core mechanics are:

  • The light timer (your torch burns down quickly)
  • The hunger timer (you have to eat regularly)
  • The inventory limit (you can only carry so much)

These are the three Zork/Adventure-era tropes that modern IF has comprehensively dumped. (Everyone bitches about mazes, but we acknowledge that a creative twist on the maze can be cool.) I'm keen to see a game constructed around them.

And those are my gaming notes from Arisia. I will be at Boskone next month, but Boskone tends to be more book-focussed. We'll see.

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Animated Screenshots / If We Don't, Remember Me

I find it tempting to write that Leon Arnott’s Animated Screenshots is the If We Don’t, Remember Me of video games, but I’m not sure if that’s exactly true.

Somehow Gus Mantel’s IWDRM, through its slight and carefully controlled animation of film stills, creates long, silent, haunting moments that feel like an extension of the movies they’re from, without being direct excerpts. Arnott’s work, as far as I can tell, comprises literal moments from the games they quote, and as a result feel less like subtle new interpretations of an existing work and more like — well, animated screenshots, really.

Time in a videogame moves naturally in loops. Sit your character still, and the world does in fact stop moving, the clouds drifting past while the candles flicker their four-frame animations in their sconces — forever, or at least for as long as you care to wait. Play a boss fight passively, and watch as the screen-filling terror reveals itself as a predictable, on-rails process, ultimately powerless.

The two sites do share similarity in their surprising use of the animated GIF as a vehicle for quietly contemplating, and even discovering, works in other media. (Does the animation above make you as curious to play The Extinct Bird as it does me?) Definitely worth a browse, in both cases.

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US Postal Service shows some gaming love

Love stampsDelighted to discover this USPS stamp design, depicting a quietly romantic moment between one of western culture’s most cherished (if occasionally cursed) couples, during today’s post office errand. It was designed by Derry Noyes and Jeanne Greco.

Sure, like all their court, they have a reputation for fickleness. But isn’t it always nice to see them together like this anyway?

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What game reviews on the web can be

Kill Screen magazine, the praises of which I have sung before, recently started publishing game reviews on the web. Despite my open disgust with mainstream reviews, I’ve been so far reading and enjoying this welcome alternative review source in silence. Today, a review by J. Nicholas Guest of Infinity Blade forces me to shout and point.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a review quite like this before, a piece of animated and (lightly) interactive text-art sharing a thematic groove with the work it addresses. It strikes me as possessing a digital version of what makes Mathew Kumar’s zine exp. worth reading, but I won’t otherwise spoil it for you. Block out 20 minutes and have a look.

(There does lurk an interesting — if surely coincidental — confluence between this review and Zarf’s The Matter of the Monster, eh?)

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Inevitably I am drawn into the games-and-art thing

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Comparison: Ritual

A group of monks singing a service, daily or weekly or whatever the ritual entails -- or Tibetan sand mandalas, or etc. The song, or the visual design, may certainly be recorded and reproduced as art. People may perform (sing, construct) works in the traditional artistic sense, for an audience. But this is not the goal or experience of the ritual practitioners -- not primarily. They are doing, not presenting.

But then, where did the song come from? Someone composed it for the monks, and we accept that as an artistic activity (even if the sung service itself might be something else).

Perhaps it is improvisatory. (I don't know where mandala designs come from.) The conventions, elements, and boundaries of improvisation might themselves have been composed by someone. More likely -- in such improvisatory traditions -- they evolved, in a thousand unattributed acts of creativity over years or centuries.

Where is a videogame against that backdrop? Not at the purely compositional end; the player is doing more than interpreting a score. Not at the purely improvisatory end; there is always a game designer composing the boundaries, affordances, and elements of choice. But this looks like a range along which various games can comfortably sit.

Comparison: Sports

A group of basketball players on the court are not there to perform -- not primarily. They're there to find out who is better at getting a ball through a hoop. They are observed, but a sports audience is not a performance audience.

But then, where did the rules of basketball come from? I bet someone knows... yes, from a Dr. Naismith in 1891 (followed by years of community evolution). Well. Here we have a game designer. For all the discussion of sports in our culture, little light falls on the designers. There's plenty of light (and heat) on the rules of the game, mind you -- particularly as they evolve and change. But the terms are the fitness and functionality of the rules, and how they shape play today. The history and context of the creators are only of marginal interest; nor is how they may influence sports of the future. This is discussion of day-to-day craft and function, not a discussion about art.

That is: the question of whether the game of basketball is art is not a question that sports people care about -- and maybe the videogame world should take that as a cue. ...But if you said that some change to the rules made the game ugly, or more beautiful, I suspect that most sports people would know just what you mean.

The domain of practice that requires fitness, functionality, and beauty is design, not art. No one blinks at calling videogames a field of design. I'm a game designer -- objections? No. And of course we accept that design can be studied at art schools, discussed in art journals, and displayed in art museums. So perhaps that's all the reframing we need.

(Art museums love exhibits of chairs. I love 'em too. If I weren't into games, I'd design chairs.)

And so: Design

What nerves get tweaked if we say that games are design rather than art? Three of mine:

  • The origin of sports are few and distant in history. Videogames are made by people striving before our eyes. I want to dignify that struggle as artistic effort. (I note that while basketball and baseball feel like permanent features of life, Catan and Dominion are current. Board games, like videogames, are a live topic. Plus, of course, the best-known ab initio creation of a sport, these past few years, took place in a novel.)

  • Games have text and story. We have a strong bias that text -- the text of fiction and narrative, if not necessarily the text of description or argument -- is art. Design is often for text, but only occasionally includes it. (If a writer illustrates and inscribes her own text, we think of that as art upon art. The magazine layout designer gets no such generosity.)

  • Design has function. Art, in some angle of my terminology, does not. (I think of the song and the painting, which exist to convey an experience and impinge upon no worldly concern. Of course I know this is an idealization and is bunk. The monks would say the same.)

If the upshot of all our argument is that videogames are too functional to be art, and that art is supposed to just "sit there and do nothing", then I am going to laugh and laugh and laugh.

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A new face for the PR-IF. Comrade.

zarf on a rinform posterThe People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, the Boston-based IF collective of which I’m a member, has relaunched its website, thanks to the efforts of fellow members Michael Hilborn and Andrew Plotkin. It’s now a proper blog, with an actual RSS feed you can follow to stay in the know about IF events in the ol’ Bay State.

I checked its own list of recommended games while writing the previous post, and was really struck by the beautiful new design. I especially like the graphical elements referencing Dave Lebling’s The Lurking Horror, a classic title set on (a thinly veiled version of) the very campus our monthly meetings occur in. (And of which we hosted a group playthrough, last Halloween!)

Please note that the group’s moniker is a reference to a local pet name for Cambridge. It has no relationship to our friends in the Russian IF community, though they’re quite welcome to occasionally borrow our members’ likenesses for their own use, as seen in this poster by Anton Zhuchov in support of the Russian Inform project.

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Maga's illustrated IF list

GalateaLove these blurbs by Sam Kabo Ashwell of modern IF works he recommends, as much for their icon-sized spot illustrations as their smart and succinct text. (He also wrote blurbs and drawings for a large collection of SpeedIF games).

It’s nice to see someone else mark Emily Short’s Savoir Faire so highly. That game is one of my very favorite 21st century (or 18th century, depending on how you look at it) IF works, and one that I think often does get overlooked on best-of lists. Yes, it is very puzzley, but so deliciously so…

(Thanks to Doug for the pointer!)

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The day I skunked MacCribbage

If you’ll permit me a bit of silly personal nostalgia:


I came across this screencap, dating from the summer of 1994, while pawing through some old files. Apparently I managed to skunk my Mac at Cribbage — that is, I crossed the 121-point finish line before it hit 91 points, which my dad taught me counts as a double-win, especially if you’re playing for stakes — and was so thrilled with my achievement (and perhaps chagrined that the final scoreboard didn’t acknowledge the mustelid nature of my victory) that I took a screenshot and filed it away.

Please note that the size of this image was the size of my entire monitor at the time, at least in terms of resolution — when projected upon my screen via jet-age electron-gun technology, it measured 12 inches along the diagonal.

Incredibly, MacCribbage’s homepage still exists. Despite the page’s year-one webdesign (and, indeed, an on-page timestamp reading 3/14/95), you can still download the game there, though it’s been many years since any Macintosh computer has shipped with the means to run it.

Meanwhile, the game’s author, Mike Houser, has carried his work into the future with an iPhone version. My heart aches to see the stylistic differences in those two pages’ screenshots, comparing the pixel-perfect artwork of his 1990s work with the flat, anti-aliased color fills of the 21st century adaptation. Fortunately, he still sells a handful of Mac OS X-friendly solitaire games that make use of his charming original deck art, including those smileymac-visaged court cards.

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Speak with Monsters

Screen shot 2010-06-22 at 11.39.46 PM.pngAs a palate cleanser after the previous eye-rolling meta-post, allow me to offer a link to Lore Sjöberg’s Speak with Monsters, a gameish webcomic I admire for its doing a lot with a narrow subject space. Specifically, Sjölberg wanders up and down the pages of 1977’s original Monster Manual from first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, adapting its uneven but unforgettable artwork and Gary Gygax’s far-out descriptive text and and rules into a series of four-panel comic strips.

It starts out on a high note with a cartoon starring that mustachioed dude from the original book’s “Rot Grubs” illustration (who quickly becomes a recurring character), and continues to explore other oddities of the Gygax era like Shambling Mounds, Bulettes, and, er, Herd Animals. If you’re like me (where “like me” might mean that you burned all the original Monster Manual illustrations to memory as a child), you’ll gulp down the whole mad menagerie in a sitting, and then subscribe for more.

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Two Braid-related things

Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about indie videogames, featuring Jason Rohrer (Passage), Jenova Chen (Flower), and Jon Blow (Braid). Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • "Ebert said video games can't be art," Rohrer said. "He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer."
  • "Other media are capable of masterpiece-level works of art," Rohrer said. Behind him, a slide showed Picasso's "Guernica," a poster for the movie "Blue Velvet" and the cover of "Lolita." "The question we have to ask is: How can we follow in their footsteps?"
  • "I like technology," Chen says, "but the blockbuster games use it for the same thing over and over again. What we tried to innovate was the emotional content." Flower has an environmental message, about the fragility of life, but more important is the primal experience of playing. You can experience it like a film, passing through a whole range of emotions from beginning to end. "Flower," Chen says, "is about the sublime." It is a game to be played in one sitting, he said, and preferably "alongside your lover."
  • "People are starting to realize that games can't survive on narrative and character," Rohrer says. "It's not what video games are meant to do. It doesn't explore what makes them unique. If they are going to transcend and have real meaning, it has to emerge from game mechanics. Play is what games offer."
  • "Braid is something you could show to Roger Ebert and say, 'Here is a work of authorial intention,' " Rohrer says. "It captures something about the modern zeitgeist."

Speaking of Braid, Blow pointed out on his blog a video walkthrough of a game suspiciously like Braid, Time Travel Understander. The Game Helpin' Squad also made video tutorials for two other games, the MMORPG World Quester 2 and the sports game Severe Running. All three are very helpful, with excellent attention to detail. You might need to watch them multiple times to get it all!

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The Nephilim notebooks

I have been an on-again, off-again role-playing game player since I first discovered the hobby in high school. Since moving back to Boston at the start of this decade, I've had the pleasure of playing with some remarkably creative game masters. The first of these was Joshua Wright, an archaeologist and world traveler who expertly applied his first-hand knowledge and experience of cultures past and present to help guide and shape the stories that our group would tell together.

Josh recently departed for greener scholarly pastures on the left coast. After settling in there, he put back up online some web pages, PDFs, and other digital goodies that he'd made as supplementary material for the many games he's run over the last couple of decades. The campaign I played in is under the red "Nephilim" link; it was an instance of Nephilim, an RPG of supernatural secret histories.

I link to them here with Josh's permission, and present them without further context, both because they are more delightfully mysterious that way, and because I am lazy. I invite players and GMs of all role-playing game types to poke around; among the character sketches, plot outlines and historical-fact (and "historical"-"fact") compilations, you may find some unexpected inspiration.

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Paintings from Azeroth

Rob Noyes discovered that WoW screenshots take on a new light if run through various Painter filters. Thus, he presents a gallery of original fine-art works by his Troll dude, including some in-character commentary.


Haystacks in Westfall, Eastern Kingdoms. Oil on whatever the heck that thing was.

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Braid, Portal, and selling poetry to gamers

I am pleased to report that I am the 1,492nd person to complete Braid, according to its leaderboard.

I really like Braid, and recommend that anyone with an XBox 360 download it and take its free trial levels for a spin. It's already a darling of the professional reviewers, and deserves all its praise. That said, I do wonder how its sense of reception will fall out after some tens of thousands of people have kicked it around for a week or so. It's an interactive art piece, implemented by mixing dollops of text (which, in style, intentionally evoke Italo Calvino), quietly beautiful graphics, contemplative music... and an action-oriented puzzle game that requires a moderate level of video-game skill to get through. So, as art, it chooses to limit its audience to people who are at least pretty good with video games.

Not that there's any kind of deception afoot, here: Braid bills itself primarily as a puzzle game, and it's a very good one. It also follows in the footsteps of Portal - last year's celebrated action-puzzler - by balancing its brevity with a tight structure and sense of purpose, so that when the game is done you feel more like you've just experienced a fine work of artistic entertainment, and less like you just pushed over an amusing but rather small collection of puzzles.

But Portal was bursting with, begging your pardon, a very nerdy sense of humor, full of dark-jokey irony that echoed the best of Monty Python. It also left players with a basket of souvenirs to take home after the game was over, most notably that catchy Jonathon Coulton end-theme, and some repeatable catchphrases and iconography suitable for wearing as T-shirts or forum avatars. Braid eschews these; after playing, you take home no more than what you would after, say, savoring a short poetry collection, or studying a large oil painting for some time.

The striking difference in attitude makes me very curious to see how well the game is received by the XBox-owning public, for whom - if I may risk stereotyping - Portal's macabre humor seems like a far easier sell than Braid's airy, contemplative sketches on the fragility of human relationships and the tenacity of regret. (Yes, by way of puzzles where you dodge cannon-fire and bounce off monsters' heads, which as far as I'm concerned is part of the joy of it.)

Portal established a precedent for high-concept, low-budget commercial games with small, tight structure and scope, planting its flag in relatively safe territory and reaping tremendous success. Braid starts there too, and ventures a little further out, taking some unusual and interesting risks, given its audience limitations. I want to see and play more games like these, so I really do hope that it enjoys a similar fate as well.

Aside: Braid also, for me, shines light on some of the more interesting challenges that digital games face when they present themselves as art. I carved out these bits and may turn them into another post later.

Aside 2: This is the second XBLA game I've played this summer that prominently features an in-game reference to the iconic phrase but our princess is in another castle, which originates from 1985's medium-defining game Super Mario Bros. Always interesting to witness the construction of a 25-year-wide artistic feedback loop, and be able to say you were there at the start.

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Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

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Iranian propaganda rips Star Control?

Maybe. (As seen on Gridskipper.)

(We reviewed Star Control 2 back in Episode 2.)

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