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Lego Batman 2: the best interactive essay on Superman

BruceBeyond being a surprisingly well-written entry among Traveler’s Tales’ more recent Lego-Whatever titles, Lego Batman 2 may contain the most poignant expression I’ve seen of Superman’s perhaps most obvious narrative problem: how does one make a literally omnipotent character dramatically interesting? What does it mean when there’s this one guy always front-and-center who can outdo any individual, super-powered or otherwise, at whatever thing they feel makes them special?

Lego Batman 2 shines a spotlight on these questions in the very best way a videogame can, purely through play mechanics, and with reserved brilliance. Much like the first (much weaker, far buggier) Lego Batman game, the first few acts of the story mode lend Players One and Two the unsurprising respective roles of Batman and Robin. At the start of the second act, the plot twists in such a way that the latter finds himself bumped into the wings when Superman swoops into the Player Two spot. And then things get interestingly weird.

Now, this game has the same core rules as every previous Lego title going back to Lego Star Wars, including the crucial rule that death is extremely gentle. If you let your Zelda-style four-heart hit-counter run dry, your minifig-persona falls to bits while yelping like a Vaudevillian slipping on a banana peel, but only a second later reappears fit as a fiddle right where they fell. Players may suffer a moment of embarrassment and drop a handful of collected loot, but otherwise neither lose progress nor face any real sense of failure or loss.

Even against this backdrop of universal plastic-hero immortality and inexorable victory, the Lego Batman 2 incarnation of Superman flies in with all his aforementioned baggage in tow, and succeeds in using the distinct play-language of the Lego games to make subtly profound statements about the nature of his character.

The Lego-ized Superman’s button-tied powers assert themselves from the outset: he can fly, shoot heat vision, blow freeze-breath, and use super-strength to pull obstacles apart. This already starts to shame his buddy Batman, who can jump around and fling boomerangs, and (on finding the right powerups) change his clothes to temporarily gain other powers.

Superman’s amped-up abilities extend to the game-specific. Since 2005’s Lego Star Wars, an on-screen pile of bouncing, burbling Lego bricks acts as a cue for a player to approach and hold a button down; this directs their character to build some sort of useful device, ally or vehicle out of them, while the players look on in eager anticipation as the thing slowly comes together. It’s the games’ own version of Link’s rooting-around-in-a-treasure-chest animation. Superman does not play into this: he tears through the pile at super-speed, finishing in an eyeblink. One supposes he thinks he’s just being helpful.

Lego-Superman also possesses true invulnerability, at an angle that makes the quick-respawn abilities of all his minifig allies look like a sham. He still has a hit-counter up in his corner of the screen, but it spends the entire game grayed out, untouchable by any foe, fire or fall. (Not that Superman can fall, either. He’ll gladly topple over the lip of a deadly chasm if you send him there, but then proceed to hover patiently.) The presentation of that life-bar really drives the point home: it evokes the fact that, in all media, Superman has the outward appearance of just another mortal earthling, and indeed consciously chooses to present the façade of a friendly neighbor — when in reality dude’s a divine being of inexpressible power and terrifying potential.

I’m pleased to say that the game’s writing helps set this up, but steps aside at the right time, allowing the mechanics to deliver the punch, as it were. Superman first shows up in a cutscene, delighting fanboy Robin but immediately exasperating Batman, the cynical loner, who rebuffs his offers to help. Clearly Superman’s sunny boy-scout attitude chafes against Batman’s need to brood about criminal psychology from the shadows, a pairing familiar to anyone with more than a passing exposure to these comic-book personalities. So it feels like an especially powerful coup when Superman later becomes Batman’s player-controllable partner, and within a few minutes of play — and without the need for any further cutscene — we start to empathize with Batman, but not in the way the cutscene would lead us to expect. Sure, their personalities clash, but Batman must feel completely, even ridiculously redundant when trying to fight crime with this humble-bragging jerk in the red cape hanging around.

With both characters in play, one gets the impression that Superman could easily wipe out the entire game if he wanted to, and holds back out of politeness, or perhaps even a desire to make his friends feel strong or important. He refuses to enter arcing electric fields, something Batman can accomplish while wearing the right suit. Superman’s exaggerated “Oof!” when lightning hits him seems like theatrics, though: a dad pretending that his toddler play-tackling him actually knocked the wind out of him, a favor to the kid’s self-esteem.

Inevitably, Lex Luthor shows up later in the story and starts setting up Kryptonite-based traps and obstacles that Superman legitimately cannot cross; Batman must jog ahead and disable them to clear a path. But this only invites the view that Superman remains the real force of the pair, with Batman his janitorial support staff.

If the game relegated this Superman to a non-player character, just a foil to a controllable Batman, this wouldn’t work. It probably also doesn’t seem as powerful an effect if one plays through Lego Batman 2 in single-player mode, swapping between which hero one controls as needed. I played through the game’s story with a loved one on the couch beside me, with one of us controlling exclusively Batman or Superman, respectively. The Batman-player never felt like they were having less fun; their shared levels’ designs make sure that both have plenty to do. However, in a way that doesn’t quite match any previous Lego game, the intentional power-mismatch between the player-characters of Lego Batman 2’s middle act provides just enough of a sense of legitimate role-playing — even within the loose and consciously silly Lego videogame rules — to teach a couple of comics-culture-saturated grown-ups something new and surprising about these familiar old characters in the way that only a game can, through game mechanics. And that’s awesome.

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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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What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

9780810984233.jpgThis week I complete my writeup of the stuff I hoovered off the merch tables outside the very first PAX East expo hall last month. As I mentioned last time, almost everything I bought at this game expo was some kind of printed matter.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga

I don't understand how I haven't run into Jason Shiga's work before last month[1], where two of his self-published books lay among the Printed Works of Interest on display at the PAX IF Suite. One of them, a black-and-white, intriguingly dogeared comic book called Meanwhile, caught my attention immediately, and I was delighted to discover that a brand-new full-color hardcover edition had not only just been printed but was for sale at the expo. For my money, it is a best-case scenario of print-based interactive fiction.

First of all, it's great comics, mixing Shiga's delightfully chunky, cartoony art with a loopily recursive SF story, delivered through dialogue that's a charmingly correct mix of goofy and poignant. But what really defines the book is its game element: the panels are read not sequentially, but rather by following colored pipes that connect them. These pipes snake in all directions, often abruptly directing the reader onto a new page entirely. Crucially, panels often have more than one "outflow" pipe, and sometimes the pipes themselves branch; these represent decision points faced by the main character, leaving it up to the reader to decide which action he takes. (The story's first page serves as a friendly tutorial, setting the protagonist in an ice cream shop and having the reader decide his fate in the form of which flavor he chooses. Things rapidly get more interesting after that.)

So far, it sounds like an indie-comics homage to Choose Your Own Adventure books. And while Meanwhile most certainly is such an homage -- Shiga is on-record as a tremendous fan of that book series, and two of the hardcover's back-cover blurbs are from classic CYOA authors -- it transcends mere adaptation of form through a subtle twist of its own. The book's front matter contains, in small print, a brief developers' note from the author, which reads in part:

Once the outline of the story was structured, a computer algorithm was written to determine the most efficient method to transfer it to book form. However, the problem proved to be NP-complete. With the use of a V-opt heuristic algorithm running for 12 hours on an SGI machine, the solution was finally cracked in spring of 2000. It was another six months before layouts were finished, again with the aid of homebrew computer algorithms.

The author (who, helpfully, holds a degree in mathematics) is too humble here. Mechanical algorithms may have generated the book's complex graph of panels and pipes, but the final physical layout is clearly the result of painstaking creative work. As you play through the book, you start to realize that the various other panels on the pages you travel through, most inaccessible from your current path, don't share the page merely for efficiency's sake; they are meant to be seen, and read. You will see unusual symmetries on apparently unrelated pages that defy coincidence and demand explanation. Appropriate to the story's theme, these glimpsed path-fragments suggesting alternate pasts and possible futures start to feel like echoes of parallel timelines spookily flitting by, totally unreachable -- or are they?

I must also note that the book contains its own version of a text adventure game's "AMUSING" post-play segment. Once you reach the most complete ending (it's not explicitly marked as such, but the story is sufficiently well written that it you'll still know when you get there), there's not much left to do but start deconstructing the book yourself, flipping around freely and seeing what happens. Wonderfully, the book anticipates this, and responds appropriately. To say more would spoil it. All thinking playful persons should experience this book.

Incidentally, the other Jason Shiga book in the IF suite, Knock Knock, was a related but entirely different example of mad genius that I would also very much love to own. In this story, the player-character has three moves to deal with an unwelcome visitor to his tiny home. To make a move, the reader choses which of the many objects in the one-room apartment that the character should interact with. Every object is "useable", in the IF sense, at the end of every turn. The comic contains every possible four-page story that can results (all but one of which come to a disastrous end), and thus the whole work is the size of a phone book. Sadly, I am told that it is out of print. I strongly encourage this situation to amend itself.

Calvin & Hellen's Bogus Journey, by Calvin Wong and Hellen Jo

This minicomic by titular cartoonists Wong and Jo is the alleged instruction manual to a real but very silly downloadable Windows game. Standing alone, the book is a giggly parody in both format and content of the very earliest Nintendo game instruction booklets, such as the one that accompanied the original Super Mario Bros. (and therefore most every NES sold, at least in the US). It nails everything from the unsettling safety warnings at the start through the disconnectedly worded background story, arriving inevitably at the pages and pages of enemy-character depictions and understated micro-biographies that always constituted the bulk of the old manuals.

The downloadable game is by Derek Yu, who with both Spelunky and TIGSource under his belt is one of the world's most prolific and respected indie-game auteurs. So my discovery of this project feels like, I dunno, coming across an obscure pamphlet linking to a short-film adaptation of itself that Quentin Tarantino burped out on a lark and stuck on the web without further commentary. I love the world of indie games.

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort

I have not yet read Montfort's 2003 treatise on the history and form of interactive fiction. Nor did I have the author autograph it at PAX, even though I bought it amidst a running gag of Jason Scott, selling the book at his table, repeatedly calling Nick over to sign other people's copies every time he tried to enter the nearby expo floor. But I couldn't just let it sit there unpurchased, especially since I did manage to last year read and enjoy Racing the Beam, the excellent examination of the Atari VCS's technology and societal impact co-authored by Montfort and follow game-studies scholar Ian Bogost.

Digression: It is a good time to be an independent ludologist in Boston. In the typical mold of a Cantabridgian techno-slacker of no particularly noteworthy academic pedigree, I frequently find myself knocking about the MIT campus for one thing or another, which increasingly involves interesting events in the vein of game studies. I run into Nick fairly often in that context, hence my not vying for an autograph. A one-man agitator of everything that has to do with creative new applications of digital writing, Nick hosts the Boston IF meetups in his office there, and he also organizes the Purple Blurb seminar series. He's also kindly sat twice for filmed interviews with me, though I've yet to actually apply any of this footage to a finished project. So, on that note, I'll wrap this column up and slink back to my Final Cut workstation.

[1] Not entirely literally true. I did run into a brief reference to Shiga in Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, which I re-read last month as research for another column. McCloud pegged Shiga as an emerging talent when he wrote the book in 2000 - which, alas, was about the last time I myself paid deep and regular attention to the world of comics.

I empathized with Paul O'Brian's lament, in his own PAX writeup, of feeling like he'd been in suspended animation for years as far as interactive fiction went. That's quite similar to how I felt paging through Reinventing Comics for the first time in a decade, albeit from the other direction: this material was ten years old, yet still felt novel to me.

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The Silver Age

3680301979_4de6bcc232.jpgI wish to make an extended footnote on last Monday's post, regarding further similarities I see between the comics and video game markets. When I was in high school I went through a profound comics-geek phase where, beyond the typical obsessive book-hoarding, I undertook to learn everything there was to learn about that medium's history (a full decade before Wikipedia came 'round, my son). I've long since sold my longboxes full of Mylar-bagged pulp, but that knowledge remains, and I can't help but get very tangential when I have reason to compare comics to any other medium. Having thus further established my nerdboy bloviation credentials:

I see Valve Software today holding the same position in the overall media landscape that Marvel Comics occupied in the early-mid 1960s. In both cases, we have two experienced studios, neither the mainstream-recognized giants of their fields, who made an unusual decision: they chose to spend the creative capital gained from prior commercial success to quietly revolutionize their respective medium's dominant genres, rather than take the safer path of grinding out more derivative sameness.

The Orange Box, you see, is Valve's own Amazing Fantasy #15. In 1962, that generic-sounding title was the magazine issue that introduced the world to Spider-Man, a hero who wasn't the usual sort of alien demigod or unapproachable avenger that had defined costumed-adventurer tales for decades. Instead, he was a nerdy kid with a crappy life whose heroics were just as much an escape for him as they were for his readers. Sure, he ran around in long underwear and beat people up, just like his literary forebears had been doing for years: Spider-Man continued to embrace the core tenets of his genre. But did so in a way that was so personable, so identifiable, so likable, that it helped to redefine the superhero genre -- and, in turn, forever change the face of western comics.

Similarly, headlining The Orange Box was the continuation of Valve's known-quantity Half Life series, but the actual payload of the package comprised Team Fortress 2 and Portal. Both of these games are shooters, through and through, as much as Half Life is. But beyond being exemplars of their genre, they both brim with personality to the point of being lovable. There's a reason why the internet is filled with fanart of the TF2 gang, the weighted companion cube, and the rest of Valve's recent characters, while the literally faceless and fungible army dudes of Modern Warfare 2[1] make few appearances outside of the game's own "realistic" and utterly colorless warzone.

For all of Modern Warfare's sales today, I wonder how many people will fondly remember it, let alone still play it, five years from now.[2] I would be willing to wager that the number will be smaller than the number of people who can hum the theme song to the Spider-Man animated TV show from the 1960s. (A significant percentage of whom where born many years after the show went off the air.)

Spider-Man ultimately played a key role in the Silver Age of Comics, a reinvigoration of the art that helped make possible its vibrant and increasingly diverse future. We can't say right now what Valve's work will do for digital games further down the timeline, but The Orange Box's success did help them to develop and release further develop and significantly extend Steam, which has been working some transformative magic of its own. I speculate that this project would have had a much harder time gaining traction had Valve focused solely on the further adventures of zero-personality killing machine Gordon Freeman, much as Marvel would have sunk into obscurity if they didn't risked inventing heroes outside of Captain America's mold.

If the territory of adolescent power fantasies must remain so overcrowded, then let there be more best-case scenarios found within. Improving an artform's dominant genre improves that whole artform, and when that artform as a whole is becoming increasingly dominant within the current state of human culture... well, I can't find the heart to complain too much about it.

Update: Some readers have brought to my attention the fact that Steam predates The Orange Box. When I wrote about the relationship between the two, I was thinking of Steam as it is today: not just Valve's content delivery network, but a dominant force in PC gaming and player interaction. I myself hadn't even heard of Steam until a couple of years ago, and today it's vying for cross-platform ubiquitousness.

[1] I suppose the conceit of effectively featureless character models is that a single player is controlling not just one guy but whole cadre of soldiers, one at a time, like unto Persian Immortals: cut him down, and an identically dressed warrior steps forward to replace him. Yet another reason I respect Valve is the way they subvert this convention by taking it to extremes, by imbuing their more recent playable characters with highly distinct appearances and personalities. You don't choose play as a sniper in TF2, you play as The Sniper, a bloke who is at least as well-defined as many of his fellow cartoon characters, no matter the medium. He's a unique character -- even if there's already five of him on the battlefield when you join, on both teams. I read this as subtle and entirely intentional parody, and one executed with such a sense of giddy fun that players enjoy it at face value and that's just fine.

[2] And I ask this without even approaching the ugly fact that this particular game serves as a particularly egregious example of the deep and disturbing brokenness that lay at the heart of the game industry's big-budget blockbuster factories.

Image yoinked from i_hate_my_screen_name's flickr. And as erickjoeywong notes in comments there, yes, this is a strikingly unflattering depiction of a game's protagonist as its cover-art image. "Oh no, Spidey™ is about to fall on his big blue butt! Can you use your ATARI™ VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM™ to help him?"

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Shelf Space

2920993639_173d82738e_o.jpgOne of the more memorable chapters of Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics - his somewhat obscure followup to the paradigm-shifting Understanding Comics - is a critique of how much of the comics market (outside of Japan, anyway) is given over to superheroes. While acknowledging that he'd launched his own career with superhero tales, McCloud described the frustration that a comics creator faces when they wish to tell any other sort of story: that a graphical medium of boundless possibility should fail to have significant sales for anything other than the ripping adventures of flying musclemen in longjohns.

This came to mind for me as I recently started exploring multiplayer online games. Leaving aside certain Facebook games and other capital-c casual exercises, the space seems clearly dominated by either first-person shooters or MMOs. Wandering through discussions on web-based forums, or browsing the games that people were playing together on networks like Xbox Live or Steam, I found very little activity that didn't involve a picture of a gun poking out of the lower-right of the screen. This leads me to think about connections between these games' predominance and the consistent rank-and-file of men in tights on the walls of the comic shop.

Now, I'm not here to despair that other people have the nerve to buy media that I don't like as much as them. There's a perfectly natural reason for these sales patterns. Both superhero comics and first-person shooters are, for their respective media, probably the best known delivery vehicles for adolescent power fantasies. And adolescent power fantasies sell very well indeed to their core market, which comprises both actual adolescents (usually male) as well as adults seeking escapism. (And a glance at my own game library would suggest that I at least occasionally belong to the latter group.)

That's well and good, but it becomes a problem when one genre, adolescent or not, crowds everything else out of the marketplace. In Reinventing Comics, McCloud focused on the question of shelf space. When comics' primary sales channel involves people buying books at a store, then everyone in the publication chain after the creator -- from the publisher who chooses what to print, down to the retailer who stocks the shelves -- has an interest in maximizing the effort put into selling what's known to move. Only a bare minimum becomes invested into experimenting outside of that safe zone. Why take the risk?

I have to wonder whether the shelf-space question is as relevant to video games as it is to comics. There are shelves involved, after all; GameStop seems to be doing good business. But a place that sells video games is not like a bookstore. For the most part, one doesn't browse, picking up something that looks like it might be interesting. It's far more likely that one visits a game shop with a short-list of titles in mind, and will walk home with one of them or nothing at all.

Browsing does happen online, the location where an increasing number of game-sales occur. Increasingly, savvy game creators - including indies - make free demos available, and game buyers can make purchases with more knowledge and confidence in what they're getting, leading to a real everyone-wins scenario (at least for games that are smartly designed enough to hook potential players within five minutes). So, if the "shelves" of the internet are infinite in size, and the potential for variety of online games is similarly limitless, why do boyish explodey games continue to dominate the online space?

My totally uninformed conjecture of the week is that the store-based sales model for digital games is being artificially extended due to the greater entertainment industry's long since figuring out how to ring the fanboys' dinner bells, playing just the right notes so that they work up a good froth over a film or game that they won't be able to even see for another six months. The act of visiting the store to buy the game becomes the climax of an epic story that they get to be part of. (Actually playing the game is the resolution, and the story fades away quickly thereafter.)

Therefore, there remains a problem of finite space, but instead of physical shelving, the container is the market's total attention capacity. The whole market of game-players is quite a bit larger than the "core gamer" demographic, the fans salivating for the next shooty-shooty coming down the conveyor belt. But the message about these games, as picked up and propagated by the mainstream media, is large enough to cover the whole pie. The next Halo or Modern Warfare game now receives as much popular attention as the next big-budget superhero film does. The notion that there is a new solitary Game To Play Online -- inevitably a shooter or MMO, because these are the known sellers -- bleeds back from the general public into the game-player community, and numbs them to the fact that there's all this other great stuff to play with their friends.

Even as indie games, much like indie comics, find increasing success working the interstices of the online marketplace -- I am pleased to know a growing number of quit-their-day-job creators -- their art, at its best, tends to focus on creating sublime single-player experiences.

Making a successful multiplayer game in today's environment remains very difficult, because it requires crossing the additional hurdle of gaining the critical mass of players necessary to make the game playable as intended. This means getting word of your game heard over all the rattling gunfire of the predominant genre, and the independent, self-marketing developer's voice is usually strained enough as it is. (This isn't helped by the fact that making a working demo of an online multiplayer experience is a far harder problem to solve than creating a trial mode of a single-player game.)

That said, there are games finding ways to work around this problem. I plan on examining their ideas further in the near future.

Image credit: clevercupcakes, via Flickr.

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Digital nonlinear CYOA comic

...or, digital nonlinear CYOA comic with dinosaurs?

I know which one I'd choose.

(Fortunately, they're the same choice. I mean there's only one link there. Narrative forced choice for the win!)

Seriously, this is brilliant on about six different levels. It's digging into CYOA structure, the way players react to CYOA structure, the way videogames react to the way players react to CYOA structure (by putting friction into the lawnmowering process). I could relate it to my current favorite topic, the way online multi-authored multi-threaded text has grown beyond the traditional notion of text as a medium, into some kind of performance -- something that can only be followed in real time, see?

It also riffs on "camping", a familiar notion from multiplayer shooter games. And, on top of that, it's got dinosaurs. So that's six levels right there.

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If you haven't read Order of the Stick, I highly recommend that you go read it (it will likely take you at least a few days to get through the 600+ pages that currently exist). It's a stick-figure comic about a group of Dungeons & Dragons characters. It's hilarious, and it's also a really good story.

A few years ago, the creator of Order of the Stick started hosting a new comic, Erfworld. It takes place in a world where a turn-based strategy wargame is the reality. People think in turns and how much move they have left. People can see other people's stats. The terrain is divided into hexes. And everything is cute and pulls in references from all sorts of things from our world (games, movies, Internet culture, etc.). In the beginning, one of the sides needs a new warlord, and they end up summoning someone from our world, someone who plays turn-based strategy games (apparently tabletop ones, as shown in the comic, rather than video game ones), who is obsessed with them, in fact. The comic is all about how he learns how the world works and tries to come up with a winning strategy.

I stopped reading it after the first several strips, because I found it really difficult to keep up with a comic with a continuing story (that doesn't have a gag every strip) that had a new page come out once per week. However, the 150-page (plus a dozen bonus pages) Book 1 has come to an end, so I went back and read the whole thing in the past couple of days. It's a very different experience from Order of the Stick, but it's also a really great story, and getting to know this game world is pretty neat, too. Apparently they encourage fan works, and there is a fan-made video game project in the works.

Erfworld now has its own website, and Book 2 is scheduled to begin in the fall.

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Comics about digital games

A cheap topic, perhaps -- there are web-comics about everything. But I stumbled across two of these this week, and was reminded about the third. So let us venture forth.

(Links are to the first strip of each comic.)

To be honest, the binding thread across these three comics is my reaction: "Why... would somebody... be writing a comic... about that?" (Picture plaintive gesticulation of at least three limbs.) I plead guilty to the freak show. In each case, however, there is an answer to the question.

+EV is written to the audience of a great and powerful online gaming industry -- of which I know practically nothing. (I even have friends who work in that industry! But the all-seeing eye of Zarf is really pretty nearsighted and parochial. I stick with my non-third-person adventure games. It's a life.)

Clockwork Game concerns a piece of gaming history. It's too young a strip for the plot to be apparent, but I'm intrigued.

And My Name is Might Have Been is self-justifying. I won't spoil it.

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