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All-Star XYZZY Reviews, 2012 edition

For two years running, Sam Kabo Ashwell has done a heroic job organizing per-category reviews of the previous year’s XYZZY Award-nominated works of interactive fiction, written by authors of prior award-winning games. This year it took the form of a blog, with one writer’s take on a single award category’s nominees rolling out every day over the course of several weeks. Sam posted the final summary on Monday, linking to all the past posts by reviewer and category.

I managed to write four reviews, all covering the 2012 nominees for Best Implementation. I found an interesting challenge in not reviewing the games as whole works, as I normally would, but instead examining them in light of their epitomizing — according to the greater IF community — how a well-implemented text game ought to play. In at least one case this directive let me to write a rather crabby review of a game that I actually quite enjoyed playing, as I found myself rather disagreeing with the community about that particular game’s strongest aspects. I’ll leave it to you to read more about that, if you wish.

I thought the project worked quite splendidly, both as a reviewer and especially as a reader and player, and I look forward to reading more next year. But well before then, I look forward to returning to read many of these reviews, whose mere presence has moved me to queue up and belatedly play a bunch of these 2012 games first. I very much expect I’m not alone here, and that thought does please me.

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Speaking of console games

Blogging has been slow, because I've been writing code and Jmac is off at Origins. Surely he will have tales to tell when he returns, but in the meantime, I will talk about games.

Not in any incisively analytical way, mind you. It's just that I snarfed four PS3 games this gaming season, and in the past month I booted them all up.

In order of how much I liked them:

Little Big Planet

I picked this as one of my two free games from Sony's "we're sorry, we suck, have some free games, oh look we still suck" promotion. (See also: I picked it because it was the PS3's you-gotta-play-this-one of... not last year... crap, of 2008? I am behind.

I'm sorry to say that it didn't grab me at all. Yes, I get the adorable, and the narrator voice is undeniably perfect. But the toy world somehow didn't give me the "show me a world I haven't seen" buzz that I require. Super Mario games give me that, for heavens' sake, but not LBP. It was the opposite of environmental storytelling: the environment told me "this doesn't matter, there is no story". After a couple of sessions I let it slip through my fingers.

You'd think I'd get into level-building, but again, this is not the world I want to build. Sorry.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

This was my first Castlevania game. (Oh, second, I suppose. Ten years ago I played a little way through... hm... which the heck was it... You know, I don't think that was a Castlevania game at all. Well, now I feel silly.)

Anyhow. This was my first Castlevania game. It was on discount, and it's my genre: over-the-shoulder sword-swinging action-adventure games. With architecture and interesting boss fights. (Really, that's what got me into console gaming in the first place. Macs are one thing, the iPad may be another, but on consoles -- these.)

Not this one, though. The camera was notably terrible even for an over-the-shoulder game -- some kind of "atmospheric" camera jitter brought me closer to mal-de-videogame than I've ever been. The writing wasn't good. The scenery was decent, and so was the exploration-puzzling, but when I got to the first big boss fight I just wiped out. Nothing clever in it, just the bash-and-dodge multi-stage whompfest that everyone thinks is inevitable in these games. I'll get through one of those if I like the game -- sometimes. But if I've burned half an hour replaying one fight over and over -- in easy mode -- eventually I give up. I gave up.


The second of my freebies from Sony. Grand Theft Auto except you shoot lightning instead of stealing cars. I started out enthusiastic about this game. Running around is fun, climbing buildings is fun, zapping baddies is fun (in easy mode, sure). Running missions is fun. Package-hunting is bonus fun. The writing was awful, the good-evil decisions were the type specimen of lame videogame morality, and the story presentation managed to completely miss out the experience of learning to be a superhero; all of your reactions to the situation somehow happen off-screen. But being a superhero was fun.

Even the boss fight at the end of the first city area was fun. (A little bit clever, good use of scenery, and I didn't have to retry it six times.) But then I realized that was the first city area, out of three. The game had pretty much shown me everything it had to offer, and it was only one-third complete.

I played a little way into the second area -- the missions were mostly repeats, and the baddies were now tough enough that fighting them was tedious. Sorry. This game is three times as long as it should have been.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

You know what? I enjoyed this one unreservedly. It's not that it was particularly innovative; it's an over-the-shoulder quarterstaff-swinging action-adventure game. (With running references to the Journey to the West, but those were understated enough to be resonance, not pastiche or rewrite. I expect most Western gamers never noticed them.)

No, this game was just built with thoughtfulness and care. The writing was -- okay, I won't say it was great writing, but it consistently sounded like people talking, right? People talking to each other -- people who had goals and desires and made decisions and sometimes joked around. When bad things happened in the story, I felt for the characters. Infamous and Castlevania didn't even come close to that.

Like this: the designers motion-captured all the cut scenes -- with the actors, you know, acting. Here's a short clip (youtube). The gag is straightforward (at the end they're all running for the escape pod in the back), but the whole way through, the two standing characters are alive. They've got facial expression and body language. They're part of the scene.

(I found out after playing that the protagonist was voiced and, er, motioned by Andy Serkis. He also co-directed the cut scenes, I believe. So no surprise that he set a high standard; the surprise is that a videogame project gave that much priority to acting in the first place.)

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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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[IFComp2010] Seven Games Reviewed

I played some more IFComp games. Behind the jump you’ll find mini-reviews of seven games. There will be some amount of spoilerage after the jump, so be warned. If you would just like to know whether I think these games are worth your time, here are the non-spoilery micro-reviews:

  • Rogue of the Multiverse: Highly Recommended
  • The Sons of the Cherry: Not Recommended
  • A Quiet Evening at Home: Not Recommended
  • Gris et Jaune: Recommended
  • The Chronicler: Not Recommended
  • Death Off the Cuff: Highly Recommended
  • East Grove Hills: Highly Recommended

Rogue of the Multiverse by C.E.J. Pacian
Even though this is an “odd-format” game (read, not Z-machine or Glulx), it’s by the celebrated author of Gun Mute, so I had high hopes for this game, and I wasn’t disappointed. You start off in prison, and I wasn’t initially entirely sure if I was just supposed to go along with things or try to escape. After getting killed during my first escape attempt, however, I figured this wasn’t that kind of game. The game as a whole is fairly linear, but the story is excellent, and there certainly is enough interactivity to make it engaging. What really shines about this game for me, and why I highly recommend it, is the writing. It’s humorous sci-fi, which I can sometimes like but which I sometimes tire of pretty quickly. This managed to hit the perfect tone of being humorous without being comical, and I certainly never got tired of it. Your interactions with the doctor are particularly fun. And, of course, the game is solidly implemented, so it’s really a nice way to spend some time.

I had two main problems with the game. The first was that I didn’t really know much about my character. I could assume I was some kind of “rogue” from the title, and I knew that I was a human currently in a world dominated by non-humans, but that was about it. My second problem was that I didn’t find the ending very satisfying. Near the end of the game, you are presented with a binary choice, and this seems to lead to the two endings (at least I didn’t find any more than two endings). Neither ending was very satisfying.

However, the problems I had didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the game, and it’s short enough that I didn’t feel too let down by the endings.

The Sons of the Cherry by Alex Livingston
The last of the odd-format games, this one uses ChoiceScript, a choice-based programming language (think Choose Your Own Adventure books with stat-tracking). I was not feeling very hopeful after the first decision I had to make was what color shirt I was wearing. It asks you a number of questions at the beginning to determine your various statistics. Not all of them are as bad as the shirt one, but it just wasn’t very motivational. But OK, I thought I’d give the story a chance. And it’s got some promise, but you’re very much railroaded along. You’re allowed to choose to refuse to go along with what the main NPC wants you to do, but then you’re told that you do it anyway, except that you’re not as powerful, so you end up dying early. Of course, the reason I didn’t go along with what the main NPC wanted was that it was obvious to me that he was a bad guy, responsible for my troubles. I decided to replay the game, going along with what he wanted (and what the author obviously wanted) just to prove to myself that the main NPC was in fact a bad guy. And guess what? I was right.

Unless you’re a big fan of choice-based narrative and want to see an example of how not to structure the narrative, you should definitely give this one a pass.
A Quiet Evening at Home by Anonymous
This is obviously the author’s first attempt at writing interactive fiction. You can check out the other reviews of the game to see all its problems. I don’t want to dwell on it, because it has all the sorts of problems you’d expect to find in a first game that has not been betatested. And that’s the main point I want to make. If you’re going to take your first game and put it out there for public consumption, please have it betatested to some extent. Try asking at the various online places. If you’re too shy for that, try asking people you know, even if they know nothing about interactive fiction. Just having the experience of watching someone else try to play your game, or reading a transcript of someone else trying to play your game, will help immeasurably.

I saw some real promise in here. There were some funny responses to various actions. I was impressed to see that the refrigerator door swings shut by itself if it’s been left open for a few turns. I liked the ending where I was sprayed by a skunk. I think just a little bit of polish would have let all these things shine a bit more, even if it wouldn’t have made this any kind of masterpiece. So, anonymous, please keep writing, and please have your next work betatested (I’d be happy to do so).
Gris et Jaune by Steve van Gaal
I was definitely intrigued by the beginning of this game, and up through about half an hour in I was totally into it. I loved the setting and the story, and even though it was fairly linear, I was enjoying the interactivity. If the beginning of this game had been submitted to IntroComp, it totally would have won. However, after the first act, the game opens up completely, and I was lost. I quickly learned what I shouldn’t do, but I had no idea what I should do. I did a few things. I resorted to the hints. I still couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have the energy (or the time) to start over and use the hints from the beginning.

I totally recommend that you play the beginning of this game. It is very much worth it. And then just decide to end the game when you’ve escaped the house. Pretend that that’s the end of the game and call yourself a winner. It’s OK; you have my permission.
The Chronicler by John Evans
It’s not a good sign that the help says: “Unfortunately, due to time constraints it’s only half finished, or perhaps three-quarters. I can only hope that you’ll find some amusement from the manipulations of objects it affords, while apologizing for the shortness of the experience.” It has a standard sci-fi type of setting, but I never mind that, being a sci-fi fan. However, after not having much motivation, seeing various unimplemented things (scenery, verbs), and getting an error, I kind of lost interest. I really tried to force myself to play a little more, but I was unable. Given all the marks against it, I just couldn’t care about the game and certainly didn’t want to invest any energy in it. Maybe I didn’t give the game a fair shake, but if it starts out admitting that it’s unfinished, why should I put in the effort?
Death Off the Cuff by Simon Christiansen
I know that there are other murder-mystery IF games out there, but this is the first one I’ve played, and I have to say I really enjoyed myself. I really liked how it excused the fact that you the player don’t know what’s gone on. You are a detective with everyone gathered in the room to make the big-finish accusation, but the detective doesn’t have a clue who the murderer is. So you’re just making random observations about people, hoping that they will confess or in some way slip up.

The first time I was able to accuse someone, I didn’t because I didn’t think he did it. After playing some more and getting somewhere but still not able to accuse someone else (even though I’d started to figure out something of what was going on), I decided to save the game and see what happened if I accused the guy I thought was innocent. And it was a very nice ending. The guy is obviously not guilty, but you ruin his life with the accusation, which eventually causes him to commit suicide. The ending part that usually says “You have won” or “You have died” instead says “You have saved your reputation.” Awesome.

One thing I’ve learned is to definitely type “about” or whatever if the author tells you to in the beginning. Some of these games would have been a lot more frustrating without a bit of guidance. In particular, the about text for this game outlines what the interaction is going to be like (mostly just talking about people or objects, with just a little manipulating the environment), which helped me enjoy it more. I certainly would have gotten more frustrated if I went into it expecting to be able to search for clues around the room, move objects, etc. and then finding I wasn’t able to.

The other kind of losing ending I found (there are several versions of the “You have saved your reputation” ending, depending on whom you falsely accuse) was particularly great, too. I had run out of stuff to do, so I started talking about my own moustache. It lets me keep talking about it, which is usually a sign from the game that there’s something interesting there. But I was saying stupid stuff, and then I was shot from behind while pacing around the room pontificating about facial hair.

I highly recommend this game, and it makes me want to go look at some other murder-mystery IF games.
East Grove Hills by XYZ
This is another pretty linear game. There aren’t really any puzzles to solve, and there’s not much to do besides move the story forward. However, it really worked for me. The story jumps around in time, and it all revolves around an attack on your school. Most of how you advance the story is through conversations, and the conversations worked pretty well. I was a bit confused by the second conversation, though. You were given your conversation options, but then after those came some notifications about other things going on in the room at the time, and then you were able to respond. I wasn’t entirely sure if those things happening in the room were supposed to have happened before my response, at the same time as my response, or after my response.

This entry is pseudonymous (although it might as well be anonymous given the pseudonym XYZ), but that pseudonymity is essential to the fiction of the game. You find out during the game that this piece of IF started as a failed attempt at a school project and was later turned into the current game as a response to the tragic events. The narrator dropped in some references to IF games earlier (saying that he thought in compass directions because he had been playing too many games), but the revelation that this game you are playing is referenced in the fiction was just a really neat experience for me, and it’s a lot of what made me appreciate the game. I’m not that well-versed in the history of IF, so I don’t know if something like this has been done before, but having the actual artifact of the IF game itself be a part of the story is really, really cool. Go play this game.

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Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, by Aaron Reed. Cool-looking book, eh? It's been out for a few weeks, and I haven't seen a review beyond short "this book is awesome!" posts. I finished reading it last week. I ought to write a review.

This book is awesome, and... hm. What is it? Hm. Okay, what isn't it?

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 by Aaron Reed

Aaron has not written a reference manual, nor a tutorial, nor has he duplicated the standard I7 manual. What he's written is example code -- except it's example code that covers the entire game-creation process, step by step, from the first room up to a finished game. By the time you reach the end, you will have had a tour of I7's core features. But it's all driven by "What do I add next to this game?"

This gives the reader an unusual progression of topics: first objects, then relations, descriptions, actions... Traditional programming constructs like if-statements and variables don't show up until halfway in. This may infuriate readers with a traditional programming background. But then, maybe not. The point of this approach is to explain constructs as they're needed, and you can frame out an awful lot of an Inform game without using a global variable. (Okay, "if" is more crucial. But the sorts of conditionals that are most common in I7 -- conditional text and rule conditions -- do show up earlier. They're just not presented in the context of old-school statement-by-statement imperative programming.)

To be sure, the standard I7 manual (which comes built-in with the I7 IDE) tries to use the same model. It, too, offers topics in the order that an I7 programmer might need them. However, without the underlying structure of the game-in-progress, that sequence can seem opaque. Aaron's sample game... well, pun not intended, but it provides the narrative for his manual.

More important: the game, Sand-dancer, is a good game. It is not the sort of example that exists to have one of everything in the manual. It is the sort of game that exists to make IF better. Aaron puts it together on your workbench. You can see the parts going in, and I don't mean rules and action constructs now; I mean character, background, voice, theme, and narrative drive. He explains what he's doing, and what each game element is for. He talks about story structure and shape of interactivity. He discusses what you have to do to get the player involved and what you have to do to put the player in control.

You'll come out the far side of this book with a clear view of what goes through an IF author's head. I won't go so far as to say this is a platform-neutral IF writer's guide. It's about Inform 7, and it spends most of its time teaching you to program in Inform, not to design IF games in general. But if you're an absolute newcomer to the field -- if you have no idea of what this medium is good for, or why anybody bothers -- you could get worse introductions than Aaron's book.

(Or you could play Sand-dancer right now, in your web browser. The source code is also available -- complete, or as of each chapter of the manual's construction process.)

My reviewer's license (nice wallet-sized card, laminated, hologram seal -- ask me sometime) says that I should pick some nits before I go. Well, the "tip" icon -- for highlighted "tip!" paragraphs, you know -- is a weird-looking black light bulb. That's not a nit. The nit is about the "caution" icon, which seems to be a dead alien vampire baby head. I guess those do make me cautious, so it makes some sense. Maybe?

Really, my only complaint is that it's not always clear when Aaron is teaching you his own personal I7 usage style.

For example -- sorry, I'm going to lapse into I7 technicalities for a moment -- Aaron claims that "instead" rules are always for specific situations, and "check" rules are for changing default behavior. Well, you can do it that way. Indeed, the built-in I7 manual makes the same claim -- but neither book digs into the reasons why that might be true. The fact is simply that an "instead" rule bypasses the "check" rules; so if there's a conflict, "instead" takes precedence. You will often want specific checks to take precedence over general ones, but not always. There's a lot of ways you could use this tool, and the book doesn't go into many of them. Is this a fault? Of course not; the book could be twice as long and not detail half of I7's subtleties. But I'd have appreciated a hand waved in the general direction.

Or too: The book leans heavily on the slightly-cutesy mnemonic BENT, for "bracket every notable thing". This is Aaron's proffered solution to the problem of under-implemented objects in games. Basically, you write each room description in such a way that the compiler nags you to implement all the objects (if only minimally). As a solution to a specific problem, it's fine. Is it the most urgent problem for students of IF, and is it the most comfortable solution? Is it what they need to be nagged about? I'm not convinced. But of course, I'm a crotchety old IF guy and my habits are set. Don't put me in front of students.

Really, any programming guide will teach you the author's programming style. Especially in a bactrian programming language (which I7 very much is).

(Eh? Bactrian, as in there's always (at least) two ways to hump your pack across the desert. As opposed to a serpentine programming language, in which there's just one way to slither through, no side limbs. Got it? Good.)

But now the reviewer's license is satisfied; it's cooling down from its red heat with faint pops and pings; I can go back to praising the book.

So yeah. Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, by Aaron Reed. Cool-looking book. Also worth reading.

Aaron Reed provided a free review copy of his book for The Gameshelf. It didn't actually arrive until after I posted this review, though. I bought my copy off B&N like a regular schlub.

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The clouds clear for The Silver Lining

I can never resist the chance to follow up on two Gameshelf posts at once, so here you are:

The Silver Lining is a fan-made King’s Quest game that, as Kevin noted back in March, found itself cease-and-desisted earlier this year by the company that owns that IP. Rather than vanishing quietly, the project’s fans got the word out, bringing global attention not just to its legal plight but to the fact that the project existed at all. Certainly, the first I’d heard of Silver Lining was its “Sorry, we’re shutting down now” announcement page, concluding with a heartbreaking image of game-protagonist King Graham’s trademark cap lying abandoned in the dust. And somewhere nearby lay a link to a petition…

Today, I learn via a review by John Walker in Rock Paper Shotgun that the project has ridden the resulting wave of new fan support to overcome its legal disputes, and has also followed through and made its first episode available for play. It’s a short review, but then, it sounds like a very short game. It does make clear that the game attempts to pack a lot of narrative into tight quarters in novel ways:

Look at a vase in the halls of the castle and you won’t hear, “It’s a vase.” You’ll instead hear a tale about the Queen when she was young, playing in these hallways. Look at the floor and rather than being dismissed you’ll likely listen to lines and lines about how King Graham feels about the situation he’s in - his son and daughter-in-law’s wedding being interrupted by a mysterious, cloaked figure, who has put the pair into an undisturbable sleep.

(Rather reminds me of IF games like Bronze, actually, but that’s another rack of bells.)

I consider this news a twofer because Gameshelf reader JayDee offered up the site as a source of solid game reviews, one of several great responses I got to my previous post asking for exactly this.

I note with interest that the site seems to divide its reviews into two categories: “An Hour With”, providing initial impressions soon after a game is released, and (as is the case with this piece) “Wot I Think”, essays written after the reviewer has spent enough time with the game to fully digest it, perhaps weeks later. Many titles eventually get representation in both categories. I find this dichotomy an interesting tactic of dealing with the fact that games can often take a long time to absorb well enough to properly comment on, while acknowledging the reality of the pressures a review-based publication faces to react quickly to the appearance of new works.

An aside: I see the word “tribute” applied to Silver Lining in this review and others, but I don’t find it a great fit. It implies that the new work is merely a celebratory acknowledgement, or otherwise contains little original content, as in “tribute band”.

To my ears, more appropriate would be a word like “fanfiction”, or perhaps just the more general “fanwork”. The Silver Lining was created by people so filled up by the canonical King’s Quest stories that they couldn’t help but find more stories spilling out of them, and then labored intensely to make them real and shareable. The result is something entirely new — grounded in work invented by others, but then extending into wholly original spaces.

The internet plays host to a movement offering growing legitimacy to these transformative works, with greatest emphasis on their presence in written fiction. I look forward to it crossing over ever further into games.

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Seeking an alternative to enthusiasm

The best game ever made.pngThis image is one of the ads that has been flitting across my Steam dashboard lately. It depicts two characters from Half Life 2, paired with the blurb “The best game ever made”, attributed to PC Gamer magazine. And it, alone, provides an excellent summary of why I don’t read game reviews very much.

This saddens me, becuase I would in fact love to regularly read a videogame reviewer or two, the way I follow a small group of film critics whose voice I’ve come to understand and trust over the years. My favorite film reviewers are sources of continual education and enrichment, not just about the work on the table, but about the medium and its history as a whole. But I find the field of videogame reviews so choked with the sorts of writers able to produce blurbs like the one in this advertisement that it’s very hard to find any other kind.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can confidently say that Half Life 2 does in fact represent groundbreaking work that anyone interested in the medium and its history should study — as discussed here before, it’s part of the canon. But neither HL2 nor its potential audience is well served by a ridiculous blurb like the one in that ad. If I heard someone say “This is the greatest book ever written”, I would assume that they were a religious person showing obligatory praise for their faith’s holy scripture. And even then, that person is not extolling the book’s literary merit, but rather its utility for spiritual improvement, or some other quality generally inaccessible to others.

That Valve can, six years later [1], continue to hold up this blurb with neither embarrassment nor (as far as I can tell) irony shows the much sadder fact: Both in 2004 and today, this kind of language is normal and expected from videogame reviewers. And that sentiment is, sadly, hard to prove wrong. And so you have tragic situations where a poor soul like me has no firm idea if, say, Alan Wake is worth the significant time-and-money investment to obtain and play through. I have no writer or publication that I can turn to with reasonable expectation of finding a review with an ounce of perspective.

To clarify: my dilemma more involves studio-produced, retail-sold works. More humble, independently produced games seem to be better served here. Sites like Jay Is Games and Play This Thing feature daily reviews, often quite satisfying to read, about works other than blockbusters. My own hobby horse, interactive fiction, has long been tied to a tradition of thoughtful reviews from its fans (perhaps unsurprising, since loving the medium enough to write about it requires a particular affinity for text). But when it comes to “triple A” titles — the big productions that get slices of retail shelf space, the games that gather so much news and attention and, unavoidably, enjoy a great deal of cultural cachet — I honestly don’t know where the worthwhile reviews for these lurk.

Despite my ludeaste pretensions, I know that many of these disproportionately shiny games are worth playing, and I simply want to know which ones these are. But the vast majority of professional game reviewers are products of the modern enthusiast press, and as such have such a skewed sense of their medium’s history that I find their writing utterly unhelpful.

Following the pattern set in the web’s earliest years by Harry Knowles and the rest of the Ain’t It Cool News gang, a typical game reviewer does not examine a new game in light of all that has come before; instead, it’s evaluated only in terms of how well it holds up to the writer’s expectations, after weeks or months of silverware-banging anticipation for its arrival. These writers rarely if ever invoke history — of which videogames, while still a young medium, have multiple decades — to answer the question of how that new game might contribute (or fail to contribute) something new to the meduim. Games whose titles end with numerals might get some feature-by-feature comparison with their immediate predecessors, but that’s as deep as the typical enthusiast-shovel digs.

So where else can I look? Increasingly, videogame reviews have become a regular feature of print periodicals, some themselves steeped in history and a strong editorial tradition, and so perhaps that’s my salvation. But while the quality of writing and editing in these publications might be of an overall higher caliber than on the web, I have so far found them to suffer from the same lack of contextual insight I also find missing among the enthusiasts.

For example, take the work of Seth Schiesel, who regularly writes game reviews for the New York Times. (I single out his work mainly because, by writing for the NYT, he preaches from the tallest nearby pillar, and thus becomes the de facto target for any stones I cast. Let my criticism of his work apply to that of all his colleagues, as well.)

As it happens, I recall encountering some grumbling about his review from May of Red Dead Redemption, specifically about its lede, stating boldly that this game is the new “leading edge of interactive media”, which does rather sound like a subtler variant on “the best game ever made”. But, let’s give this piece the benefit of the doubt and keep reading. Later in the review, we come to a gameplay description:

Riding along in the desert, you may see two groups of men shooting it out. Whether to intervene is your choice. If you do, it may not be clear which are the good guys. Perhaps there are no good guys and instead it is two groups of bandits, or it may be the Mexican Army battling a band of rebels. Or perhaps you are riding along a remote trail and a woman cries out that her wagon has been stolen. That may be true, or she may be bait for an ambush. Do you help?

As a reader, my immediate response is: all right, but how does this compare to 2004’s Spider Man 2 (Akihiro Akaike, Tomo Moriwaki, et al)? Or, you know, if not Spider Man 2, then some other game that features procedurally generated plot events; there are plenty to choose from. I hold up Spider Man 2 because I played it a lot, and so I can tell you that the game memorably uses a pacing mechanic of giving Spidey lots of trouble to fix on the way to the next plot point: muggings to thwart, people dangling from high ledges, and the like. I found them novel at first, but after a while they felt like a tape loop. Soon enough I was letting clumsy doofuses pancake themselves left and right, and allowed the skies to darken with crying childrens’ lost balloons, while I pursued the far more intersting work of fighting supervillains and advancing the main plot.

I ask about Spider Man 2 because the in-game situations Schiesel describes sound like procedural random encounters to me. It could be that they’re not — perhaps they’re unique and carefully scripted one-time events. But, see, I don’t know. If RDR really were the first sandbox-style videogame to throw environmental events at the player like this, then the reviewer would have more leeway in describing them so broadly, and with such implied wonder, having no history to compare it to. But that just isn’t the case.

My point is that either the writer doesn’t know about the earlier work that RDR builds on and attempts to add to, or he does but doesn’t feel it worth making any comparisons. And in either case, that makes for a much weaker review. This problem re-emerges in at least one other point in the review (with an offhand statement about the apparent perfection of RDR’s non-player characters), but let’s just skip to its end. Arguably, I so far have only been able to sniff and sigh at the column, and how it fails to rise to my la-di-da expectations — but it concludes on a note of such objective wrongness that I honestly had to read it at least twice before realizing that the reviewer meant it literally. After quoting a passage of satirical in-game text, Schiesel writes:

Of all the world’s game developers, only Rockstar would even dream of a passage of such relevant hilarity. No other game developer has been so willing, and quite so able, to riff on the real world rather than sticking to elves or dragons or aliens or fantasized battlefields.


A graf so willfully ignorant of the span and history of a given work’s medium has no place in any publication’s review of it. The “dragons or aliens” bit, alone, bespeaks either deep ignorance of all the settings digital games have already explored, or the willingness to temporarily feign ignorance to score a point, something I hardly find much nobler [2]. And yet there it is, not in the sputtering praise of a sterotypical game-fan bashing away at their keyboard, but in the staid and venerated Newspaper of Record.

So, between the Knowlesian enthusiasts of the web and the Schieseleque shortsightedness of print reviews, you can see why I feel stuck.

Let me put out a call: Please tell me about your favorite game reviewers. And if you yourself are a professional reviewer, I’d like to hear from you as well. I hunger for game reviews outside of the norm — those that don’t so much insult my intelligence as ignore my knowledge. And I’m not that knowledgeable, I’m just some jerk who happens to possess both 30 years of videogame experience and a good memory. In this regard I am certainly not unique, and I know that there must be reviewers out there somewhere who share my attitude. Help me find them.

[1] I can’t find the original review online, but I did find this contemporaneous excoriation of it by “Steerpike” of, proving at least that I’m far from the first person to raise an eyebrow at it.

[2] Full disclosure: This wording strikes a particular nerve with me, a lifelong SF fan, and the stone in my shoe that is the “Wow, a science fiction story that isn’t about robots or spaceships!” film or book review, which will never tire of repeating itself.

(See also: “Pow, zoom, comics aren’t just for kids any more!”, “This groundbreaking young-adult novel features topics more mature than The Poky Little Puppy!” et cetera.)

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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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Games I played this holiday season

I spent two weeks sitting around playing games, because it was time to do that. Or, possibly, not yet time... because Bioshock 2 is February, Heavy Rain (from the Fahrenheit guy) is February, that Inferno game is February, God of War 3 is March, Prince of Persia the Movie the Game is May... Yes, I know, those are mostly the brand-name cranking for the year, and I am Part Of The Problem. There are other games that I'm looking forward to.

The point is, it's WinterStuffFair, and what is there out on the shelves that looks cool? Assassin's Creed 2, and a Silent Hill Wii game that they swear isn't another pointless sequel, but a (pointless?) remake.

I didn't play any of those. Instead, I played the original Assassin's Creed, and took breaks in Machinarium.

See, I hate jumping in on the middle of a series. So I figured I should buy Assassin's Creed on discount, try it, and then maybe go on to AC2 if I liked the original. Big mistake. ...But not the mistake you're imagining.

I read all the reviews that said that AC2 was better than AC1. I expected a somewhat clunky game. And it was clunky. I got through the intro (nifty! Exploring game!), got into the first assassination mission... and thought, oh hell, they've promised me nine of these. And I can already see that they're all going to be identical. Fine, fine, I'll finish one and see if it's sufficiently entertaining to keep going.

I then spent a week and a half confronting the paradox of AC, which is this: I like story games. I like running around and climbing games. I like games where you complete lots of little fiddly exploring goals. AC allows you to enjoy any one of these things. If you are completist about the the exploring, it takes so long to advance the plot that the story-brain says "BORING". If you rush through the missions to reach the next bit of plot, you're skipping half the exploring, and the completist brain says "NOT PLAYING OPTIMALLY". If you climb lots of buildings, you discover that they're all identical (aside from the lookout points, and even those run out of variations halfway through) and you're not achieving anything useful.

So, there are many ways to play AC, and all of them are irritating.

I played as the completist. I got through the nine missions. I enjoyed the scenery. I appreciated the tiny, tiny slivers of plot that emerged from the past-world/present-world interplay. I became curious as to how the present-world situation would play out. (Really, that was my only motivation for the endless slog of city-cranking.)

I then got to the boss fight, which reaches the apex of the running, climbing, exploring, stealthing, hiding game... by putting you in a tiny flat arena with some broadsword-toting goon and his army of goonspawn. Winner is the last grunt standing.

I tried this boss fight about eight times, and actually laid metal on the goon twice. After the eighth ignominious death (tenth? who knows) I realized that my reward for winning this fight was to see the end of the plot -- and my reward for not winning it was an excuse to avoid AC2. Which sounded awfully tempting. So, I stood up, made a rancidly biological suggestion to AC and all its spawn, and turned off my Playstation.

You are now going to tell me that AC2 is a much better game and I should play it. You are wrong, and I will tell you why.

My rule is "if I can't finish the game, don't start the sequel". This is a carefully-constructed position, and it's not about the game's strengths, or the possible strengths of the sequel. It's about weaknesses.

Game series generally get harder over time, if the difficulty changes at all. This is because each game is designed for the fans of the previous game. Sometimes the developers keep it roughly even, to the benefit of newcomers; sometimes they go all-out, piling on new mechanics and challenges until the remaining three players suffer aneurysms and die. If I can't finish AC, it's a good bet that I can't finish AC2 either.

AC2 may be improved in any number of ways, but I don't know whether the designers understand what I enjoyed about the first game. In fact, the way the first game was put together implies that they don't understand what I enjoyed about it. So it's a good bet that they'll amp up the parts I didn't like more than the parts I did like.

And finally, of course, they have my money for the first game. I'm not going to return it and get my money back (I'll do that if the game outright doesn't run, but not for disappointment). But I can wallet-vote by not buying the next game. And I will.

Of course these are all statistical arguments, and I could theoretically go do research about what AC2 is really like. For example, I could read my friend psu's comments on AC and on AC2... oh, dear, that's not very encouraging, is it.

Did I mention the bit where, if I did try to go back and finish the boss fight, I would have to start at the beginning of the level and re-slaughter the four waves of prefatory goons before I got to the goon-arena? Because the game doesn't understand how checkpoints should work? Yeah, seriously.

Well, then, I shall talk about Machinarium, which will probably take up a lot less blog-space, because I enjoyed it greatly and recommend it to everybody.

Machinarium is an example of the "point and click" adventure game -- a label which is too absurd at the literal level even for me, and I write "interactive fiction". But it's the term people seem to be using. We're talking about a two-D third-person adventure game with an inventory... and no dialogue, which neatly avoids the worst design traps that the third-person-adventure genre has traditionally fallen into.

One is tempted to compare Machinarium to Samorost, an earlier Flash game by the same designer -- one of the earliest Flash adventure hits, in fact. It's dialogueless and cute, all right, but don't wrap the comparison too tightly. Samorost was a peculiarly freeform affair, in which you had to click on anything and everything, observe the results, and then figure out the state diagram of the scene. (Okay, most people wouldn't say "state diagram", but that's what it was.) The little protagonist figure was just one of many game elements that would react interestingly when prodded. It gave the sense that you were playing the environment, or the narrator, or God, rather than the protagonist per se. Whimsical, and with a constant sense of discovery, but also rather random.

Machinarium takes a much more traditional view for a third-person adventure: clicking on something means that you, the little robot figure, will do something to it. (Furthermore, you have to walk up to the target first, so that it's within the reach of your little robot arms.) (There's a second dimension, where you can stretch yourself -- see, I'm saying "you" -- stretch yourself taller or shorter to reach high or low things. A wash, interaction-wise, as far as I'm concerned -- it pays for itself but could have been left out.)

Anyhow. It's still true that you, the robot, do interesting and surprising things when you, the player, click on objects. But this is deftly handled; it give the sense of discovery without the frustration or confusion. Portable objects are always picked up. Puzzles may be manipulated in the obvious way, or played with in a demonstrative manner. You may discard an object after using it, but since this is automatic, you infer that it's no longer needed and let it go.

Furthermore, while many story events occur "automatically" -- that is, of the robot's choice rather than the player's -- the designer never mixes these up with puzzle events. You always know the goal for the puzzle you're facing, and your interaction choices pertain to that goal. When you solve the puzzle and the plot moves on, the outcome may be surprising; but you didn't need to telepathically deduce that that outcome was your goal. Which is to say: the game is both revelatory and playable.

(I finished without looking at any hints. Although I spent quite a bit of time near-stuck -- wandering around clicking at random, and trying inventory items at random, before I figured out the next bit. Maybe a hair more stuckness than I like with my adventures. I'm not going to raise it to the level of a complaint. If you're curious, the jam points were mostly either failing to notice a small object on the screen, or failing to notice that a mechanism remained active after the first use.)

The final point that must be mentioned is the music, which is absolutely delightful -- it would make the game even if the game were sub-par. It's a folky acoustic-electronic mix; the tracks vary between scenes and also follow the music-related story elements. (Which include one repeat-the-melody puzzle, I confess, but also several puzzles which put the music in the game world.) I've been listening to the soundtrack as I write. Yum.

And finally, tonight, I fired up Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I played for half an hour and stopped... because nothing creepy was happening and I was creeping myself out trying to anticipate when it would. This will be a game to take in small doses, I can tell.

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Planet M.U.L.E. - First thoughts

Planet M.U.L.E.ScreenSnapz002.pngYouTube review by me of the original M.U.L.E. is here, if you need some background.

Last night I played a couple of games of the brand-new Planet M.U.L.E. - one with some friends over the internet, and one by myself. It is a faithful (sometimes a little too faithful) adaptation of Dani Bunten's original economic simulation from the 1980s, and it does indeed finally meet the long-time dream to bring internet playability to this intrinsically multiplayer game. Unfortunately, at least in its current version, Planet M.U.L.E. is marred by some design choices that will, I fear, significantly limit the size of audience.

More details after the jump:

Despite the extra word, Planet M.U.L.E. is M.U.L.E., through and through. It updates the graphics, sound and music only as much as necessary so that they don't seem completely out of place on a modern computer. It leaves every other aspect of the game completely untouched, from the many examples of on-screen text to the pace and style of the various animated events. I cannot tell for certain that the game's internal rules for supply-and-demand simulation are the same, but I have no reason not to believe it. [Update: See's Eeyore's comment.] Any player of the original game will feel at home here, and anything you might have heard, read or seen about the older game will apply directly to this one. So in that sense, yes, it's just as worth your time to play, and that counts double if you especially enjoy internet-based gaming. (Part because it's a lot of fun, and part because computer-controlled players in this game are dreadfully conservative and boring - which, I seem to recall, was also the case with the original.)

This faithfulness to the source material is followed so closely that it sometimes results in cross-time oddities. For example, the on-screen text makes reference to the player's "button" and "stick", as if they're using an archaic one-button joystick, rather than a keyboard with a spacebar and arrow keys. This seems a willful choice to adhere to the letter (literally!) of the original game, even at the cost of confusing modern players by deliberately printing incorrect instructions on the screen. I can guarantee you that every single first-time player, seeing the message "Press button when ready", will think Er... which button? before flailing uncertainly at their mouse and keyboard until something happens.

(A smaller and more curious example: one of the random events makes reference to "your Space Gypsy cousins" trashing the town. This might have been seen as a harmlessly cute joke a quarter-century ago, but it is only winceworthy today. Couldn't we have made them, I don't know, "Space Hobos", or something?)

Planet M.U.L.E.'s deeper flaws lay not in its gameplay or interface, but in its distribution and packaging. First of all, the game is presented as a downloadable Java application. I'd be curious to know the developers' reasons for not making it a web application, Flash-based or otherwise. One of the lessons that Zarf and I learned with Volity was that most people, including most "gamers", hate downloading stuff, and will avoid it as much as possible. Someone who is only mildly interested in checking out a game will, upon discovering that it requires a download, wander off in search of easier entertainment. Put it on a webpage, on the other hand, and you have a much better chance of hooking them.

Planet M.U.L.E.ScreenSnapz001.pngOnce you have downloaded it, you must endure a wiltingly player-hostile setup process before you can enjoy the game. You are faced with a stark and colorless window with controls for starting new games or joining internet games in progress. The program informs us that, to host a new game, the player must open a couple of ports on their firewall, and then set up port forwarding for them; in other words, they must be willing and able to mess around with their home router's configuration. This effectively excludes anyone except for begging-your-pardon nerds (like me, yes, like me) from accessing one of the core modes for any internet-based game: the ability to set up a table, populate it with our friends, and kick out the riffraff. It also bars anyone who might not have access credentials to the local router - I'm thinking of kids, here. That's a shame.

It's true that you can just join existing games in any case. However, if you and a friend wish to play together without having to deal with any strangers, but neither of you happens to have the ability to modify your home network configuration, then you're out of luck. Or, more likely, you'll try anyway, get frustrated at the hanging "Connecting..." screen, and then give up entirely.

(And, that it requires the open ports in the first place questionable by itself - I have enjoyed many internet games from behind the snug safety of my NAT's firewall, and none prior to this have asked me to punch holes in it for their own benefit.)

This very cranky and dirty interface for setting up a game lies in direct opposition to the simple and smooth interface for actually playing the damn thing, once you've gotten it going. I know that the presence of internet play meant that the developers had to make an exception to the literal-adaptation philosophy (I believe the method for starting a game of the original M.U.L.E. was "Press the Start key"), but it's as if they strapped the game to the Java-UI equivalent of one the game's titular ornery and failure-prone beasts of burden, rather than a fittingly friendly and helpful interface that doesn't require any more network knowledge than, say, a typical Xbox Live user would have.

Sadly, there were some out-and-out bugs, too; I experienced several crashes while setting up my multiplayer game, and suffered a fatal freezeup when I was playing single-player. Problems like these are par for the course for any v1.0 product, and I expect them to be fixed presently. But again, because it's a downloadable game versus a web-based one, the burden is on the player to check for and then download new versions by themselves, rather than simply reload a webpage. (And, no, the application doesn't appear to have a new-version-checking feature.)

I had fun playing Planet M.U.L.E. with my friends, and look forward to playing it again. I congratulate Turborilla and Blue Systems on the loving gameplay adaptation, and on getting it all shipped on time. But all that said, this is a mule that could stand to spend a little more time in the outfitting shop.

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Xbox Indie Game: The Headsman

You, the titular axe-swinging noggin-collector, must efficiently behead an endless line of trembling wretches, timing your blows so that their tumbling melons plop into baskets whizzing past. Stash as many heads as you can in this deft manner before the game's timer ends. This timer serves at the game's real standout feature, taking the form of the eponymous song "The Headsman" by Deathlike Silence, a four-and-a-half-minute rock ballad about - yes indeed! - choppin' off heads.

Headsman_screenshot_3.jpgAn accompanying music video plays while you hack away at your gory work, the lyrics scrolling along in time. I had not heard of this band before I discovered this game, and this is at least partly because I'm not 15 years old. The Finnish band's act is a sort of cartoon death punk, with the video depicting the gothed-up contralto frontswoman leading her cloaked and cowled band through graveyards and dungeons while the camera frequently jump-cuts away to weeping angels or grinning skulls. It's the sort of thing a movie containing a parody of a goth band might put together, but as far as I can tell the band is playing it straight (look, they have a website), and that is bloody beautiful.

The game's own activity is lightly tied into the timing of the song itself; when the refrain comes around, even the condemned can't help but start nodding to the beat. More effort appears in the audiovisual treats you receive for arcing a flying head into one of the more distant baskets, which scores you the most points. These range from basso profundo cackling to the sight of your otherwise unseen audience rising to its feet to cheer your skill at rocking the axe.

These thematic rewards serve to create a sort of custom remix of the song's prerecorded video. Combine this with the one-button control scheme, as well as the jawdropping sight of Deathlike Silence doing their thing, and despite the game's core dopeyness I find myself not just inviting all my visiting friends to play through it, but occasionally returning to myself. If you're anything like me, you too will have fire it up now and again to see if you can improve your scoreboard rank from "Rarely-miss Randy" to "Bruce the Butcher" while taking guilty pleasure in letting the music make you feel like an oily teenager again. (Yes, I have gone ahead and purchased the song from iTunes, as well.)

Interestingly, "The Headsman" was created by David Flook, previously known for the highly praised 2008 Xbox Indie game "Blow", a mellow puzzler where you guide bubbles through a vernal obstacle course. It's quite polished and beautiful, where this latter game instead revels in its rough-hewn (sorry) graphics and overt silliness, lending it the air of something knocked out quickly to blow off steam between larger projects. Despite this, this deliriously short and fun game falls solidly in my own blood-soaked "totally worth a dollar" bucket.

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Embittered Movie Review: "Metro Polis"

If you enjoy my game videos, perhaps you will like this. The idea for this literally woke me up in the pre-dawn hours last Saturday, and I found the time to put it together last night.

There actually is a game connection, here. I was inspired to try applying the attitude of certain contemporary reviewers of very old video games -- who often make little to no effort to place their comments in the games' historical context -- and apply it to a very old movie. It flew off the rails from there, of course, for the sake of comedy. But, there it is.

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Quick links: Zarf reviews adventure games (and one more)

I post some game reviews here, but I also write game reviews that appear on my own web site. I've been doing this for over a decade now, and I live in the iron grip of much shorter-lived habits than that, so I'm not going to abandon that page now.

And I don't want to double-post everything.

So, I'll just link to the backlog. Here are the last few adventure games I've reviewed:

Up in the next couple of months: Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis.

And now I will pass out, because I blew too many hours this evening playing Endgame: Singularity. This is a free casual Civ-style game which I found cute and clever. You're a newly-arisen AI, living in the Internet, trying to rent enough server space (under fake ID) to survive and grow.

I usually avoid Civ games, but this one had sufficient chill factor to pull me in -- once. Keep in mind that I avoid Civ games because I like the exploration factor, which means I hate failing and starting over. In fact, I don't even care for succeeding and starting over. I grabbed Endgame in order to play it once, and I succeeded (thank you, Easy Mode), so it was all good.

This is not a struggle of several AIs under symmetric rules. You are the AI. Your only enemy is the complacent herd of humanity: ignorant of your existence, and you'd better keep them that way, because if they find out about you, it's plug-pulling time. You set up computational bases on rented servers (and, eventually, larger facilities). Occasionally -- purely by chance -- one of your bases will be discovered and shut down. When this happens, humanity becomes more suspicious about Weird Stuff On The Internet; the more suspicious they get, the greater the chances of another base being discovered. You, in turn, can use your CPU and capital resources to research technologies to hide yourself better -- and, of course, to build better servers.

So, rather than a war, it's a building game with intermittent, localized disasters. Keep a few backups and don't get greedy, and you'll do well. This is the sort of dynamic I enjoy. (The dynamic I don't enjoy is when a rapacious horde of rivals comes over the Wicked High Mountains and outcompetes me. Or when an earthquake destroys my whole country. These are things that Endgame does not do to you.)

I also enjoyed feeling like I was a cross between Daniel Keys Moran's Ring and the bad guys from Odyssey 5. These are not virtues of Endgame, but riding a cultural wave is one of the things that games can succeed or fail at, and this one succeeds.

Open-source smugness: Endgame is a GPL project written in Python. Maybe somebody will write that multi-AI struggle version someday.

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Review: The Tower SP (GBA)

Many people are not aware of the history of this game. At first glance, most people would call it a “SimCity rip-off”. However, this is completely false! It is SimTower, with a few cultural differences between the Japanese and North American versions.tower1.png

The Tower is a construction management simulation game designed by the infamous Yoot Saito while his original company OPeNBooK Co. was around. During this time, SimCity was a critically acclaimed game and was a major factor in Will Wright’s popularity in the simulation game industry. Saito’s The Tower was published in North America by Maxis and the game was renamed to SimTower as a way of standing out better in stores and increasing sales. The name change worked to benefit Maxis, but never replaced the critical acclaim of SimCity. Again, I must stress that Will Wright had nothing to do with this game in any way.

After this, Saito retained all the rights to the game, with the exception of the name “SimTower”, and stuck with the name “The Tower”. OPeNBooK later joined forces with Sega, and made a new version of his game for the PC and named it “Yoot Tower”. In addition, he created The Tower for the unsuccessful console, the Panasonic 3DO, and was only released in Japan. These versions were more complex than SimTower with different types of buildings that had various effects on a residents stress levels (e.g. restaurants, restrooms, etc.).

tower2.PNGYoot Saito formed another company, Vivarium Inc., which is well known for the Dreamcast game, Seaman, a pet simulation where the player uses a microphone to speak with the character directly to interact with it in addition to regular caretaking activities. OPeNBooK later on merged into Vivarium Inc and continued to develop more games with Sega.

The Tower SP is another game made directly by Vivarium. It still retains the visual similarities with its previous versions and makes good use of the GBA hardware with better controls and a better interface. The letters SP is a reference to the latest revision of the Game Boy Advance, the SP version, which is more compact and opens like a laptop computer and the newer Nintendo DS. This is the first time I recall a GBA game adding the letters SP to its name, where other games would use the word Advance.

The player takes on the role of a constructor for Yamanouchi Construction and needs to construct a building that people can live and work in, while making sure that everything is easily accessible, in good condition, secure, clean and making profit at the same time. As the building gets a higher population, the player is allowed to add different things such as a hospital and a train station to accommodate different people. The final objective is to have more than 40 floors, a population of 2000 and a wedding must take place during a weekend to receive a 5-star rating and the label of “tower” status. At the time of this writing, I have a 4-star rating and a population that fluctuates between 500 and 1900 and I am starting to slowly redesign the placement of everything to make it less stressful for the residents so they people don’t leave so much. It’s very challenging.tower3.PNG

The controls on the GBA are much better than the PC versions since there are buttons mapped to functions such as construction, increasing the rate of time, saving, reading help documents about various structures and examining people and rooms. In order to speed time, the player needs to hold down the A button. At first, I had a problem with this, because I’d end up holding down the A button for several minutes just to watch people move in to empty condos and fill up offices, then I realized the reason why they force players to hold down buttons is because there are messages that show on the screen such as “Single 40s female demands restaurant” and “Elevator #3 too crowded” which may or may not have a fatal impact on people’s stress level causing them to leave the building completely and it is important that the player has a chance to deal with these issues.

In addition to managing stress, the player needs to ensure that they are always making a profit with everything in the tower. This part requires plenty of patience. If the prices are low, people will move in, but move out if it’s too expensive and the stress level rises again. A trick I love to use is to lower the prices of offices and condos, and slowly raise it as people move in. One thing I had to do often is after a lot of people move in, I hold the A button to speed up the time and simply wait and watch as my money grows to 1 million dollars or more so that I can spend more time expanding.

tower4.PNGAs the player’s building expands, it will need more cleaning staff. Every morning, they will go through each floor and clean as much as they can. If there are not enough cleaners, there will be rooms left dirty, cockroaches will grow, causing more stress, forcing residents to leave the building. The player is capable of directly taking part in maintenance in strange ways. For example, the player can select a dirty bathroom and rapidly press A to clean it, saving the cleaning staff time when they do their daily routine. When a new restaurant is made, sometimes the player can select it and press A to increase the chances of residents to buying food there. This is a very miniscule way to add more player action so that they’re not always just waiting for money to roll in every time.

There aren’t too many bad things about this game, being that it is of the simulation genre. The thing I like the least about The Tower SP is the complexity of the rules. For example, a building can only have 4 elevators with a maximum of 4 carts and they cannot expand over 20 floors, people can take a maximum of 4 stairs at a time, there can only be 1 big elevator and can only be accessed every 10 floors, there is a limit to the number of restrooms, etc. The list goes on. Although, as the player gets a higher star rating, the president of Yamanouchi Construction will inspect the building once a year and give advice to make the building better.tower5.PNG

As a simulation game, it certainly lives up to the genre’s name. There’s just something about constructing a large building filled with little pixilated silhouettes that I find so appealing. Even with the complex rules and limited graphics compared to the PC versions it’s still a good game for anyone who is very patient and likes simulation games such as SimCity.

towermario.jpgWhile I was reading about this game, I found out that Vivarium Inc. made another sequel to this game for the Nintendo DS in Japan, appropriately titled “The Tower DS”. They did this to celebrate The Tower’s fifteenth anniversary. When The Tower SP for the GBA was released, most of the reviews for it were negative due to the fact that it is fairly long for a portable game and is still wrongly called a “SimTower rip-off”. The Tower is virtually unknown to most people, and the label “SimTower rip-off” causes so much confusion amongst people.

Due to the negative reviews, I don’t believe The Tower DS will ever reach North America in English. Reading text is a very important part of this game, and is nearly impossible to expand a building if the player is unable to tell what residents demand, so it’s not a game I can import from Japan and still understand. It makes good use of the dual-screens, so I don’t need to scroll up so high, since both screens display the tall tower better than on the GBA.

The only reason why The Tower DS was mentioned in some game news pages is because people saw the statue of Mario standing similarly to New York City’s Statue of Liberty, and there will be a point where the player can add rooms inside of the statue of Mario.

In addition, Sega did not publish The Tower DS. It was published by another Japanese company called DigiToys Inc. I don’t know if this is because Sega wasn’t interested in The Tower, since they were willing to produce a sequel to Seaman for the PS2 in Japan. It could also be due to the fact that The Sims and Spore are dominating the simulation game market here. Those are great games, and it’s a shame that Vivarium Inc. developed 2 games that we will most likely never see in English.

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Review: Every Extend Extra Extreme (XBLA)

Listed as E4 on Xbox Live Marketplace.

E4.jpgEvery Extend Extra Extreme (E4) is an enhanced remake of the PSP game Every Extend Extra (E3) which is an enhanced remake of the freeware game Every Extend (E2). Every Extend Extra Extreme has been developed by Q Entertainment, the synesthesia wizards who have also made Rez and Lumines which also make excellent use of light, color and audio.

The freeware game only has one level which can be easily finished in less than 10 minutes. It is very basic game and it started to truly evolve into an arcade masterpiece once Q Entertainment got their hands on it.

There are 4 modes of gameplay: Unlimited where there is a countdown timer that can be extended, timed where the countdown timer cannot be altered, a mode to use music stored on the Xbox hard drive to affect the level and a mode called “The Revenge” where the player shoots down multiple objects instead of using chain reactions.

The controls are simple: Left analog stick to move around, A to explode (or shoot in The Revenge mode), and B to end a chain reaction.

There are 4 levels in single player mode, each with its own music and behaviors. As the music plays, objects fly across the screen in geometric patterns such as V shapes, and the sounds in the songs affect their speed, direction and how fast the screen will become crowded.

When the player pops in the level, they have a shield and remain invulnerable for 5 seconds so they don’t die immediately in an over-crowded level. When the shield goes down, they can still freely move around, but cannot touch any enemy objects. If they do, they will be destroyed, and seconds will go down before the next player appears in the center of the screen, so they need to move more carefully.

As enemy objects move in, the player must find the best possible place to explode to start a chain reaction. When the player presses A to explode, any objects caught in the explosion will also explode, continuing the chain reaction. The player can press B to end the chain reaction to respawn and collect time extensions for more time to score points.

There are 4 objects the player can collect to help rack up a high score: Quickens make explosions faster, multipliers increase the score for every exploded object, shields which give you a short time of invulnerability and time extensions which increase the countdown timer.

The player’s score will increase at an alarming rate. For example, when I played for 10 minutes, I had a score of 1 trillion. This is because the player receives 1 point for every object that explodes in the chain reaction times the multipliers that have been collected. If a player gets 2000 chains and 2542 multipliers, they will receive 5084000 points.

In addition to simple controls, score modifiers and simple strategy, E4 has the same attributes that can be found in Rez and Lumines: The player’s movements and actions create sounds that match the level’s music, there are plenty of colors, flashing objects, different modes, the controller vibrates with the music and it be played for long periods of time. I found myself bopping my head to the music as I watched my 45-second chain reaction make clapping sounds that are in sync with the upbeat techno dance music.

The next mode, titled “Wiz Ur Musik”, prompts you to choose a song from your hard drive, which will be played and used to control how objects will move in the level. Prior to this, I inserted one of my music CDs into the Xbox and had it copy it to the hard drive which took a while. While I played this mode, I didn’t feel or see anything different from other songs. It looked like it was only counting bass and snare sounds and using that to control the pace of the game. In any case, it was nice to hear my own music for a while.

The final single player mode, “The Revenge” gives you the power to fire a weapon instead of exploding. Before the game starts, the player can choose if they want to fire in all 4 compass directions, or have those 4 directions of fire concentrate in the forward direction in a cone shape. Afterwards, the player can also choose the speed of the levels before it starts. When the game starts, the player has the same 5 second shield, but this time, must destroy a certain amount of objects, then defeat a boss afterwards. The enemies move faster and in different patterns as the levels progress. This is a fun variation of E4, and it’s a lot more challenging too since I can’t use the explosion to escape when I’m surrounded by enemies and I have to find a way to shoot my way out.

There is online multiplayer over Xbox live, but there’s nobody hosting or seeking any matches so I can’t say anything about this feature. If I wanted to play online, I’d have to add a friend who has E4 and send a message to them to arrange some time to play together.

Overall, this is an excellent game on Xbox Live Arcade. It is definitely without a doubt, much easier, more addictive and fun than Geometry Wars. This led me to believe that Geometry Wars became more popular due to the fact that Microsoft Game Studios was publishing it. This is the simplest and most addictive casual game I have ever played in my life. Even though there are only 4 single player levels, it can last from a few minutes to a few hours depending on how long I can stay concentrated and gather multipliers, quickens and time extensions. I know that not many people are aware of this game and if you have 800 points lying around in your live account and you want something to do for 10 minutes to an hour, then E4 is worth it. I wonder what they’ll make the fifth E stand for in E5 if they ever make a sequel: Every Extend Extra Extreme... Elephant?

Link to the freeware game: Every Extend

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Review: Laser Quest (Danvers, MA)

Did you know that laser tag still exists as a commercially viable concept? When the gf stated that she wanted to celebrate her birthday this year by playing laser tag, I reacted quizzically. My concept of laser tag does not stretch beyond memories of the Worlds of Wonder-branded toy that flared into a bright but brief fad in the 1980s. I recall the spread it had in the Sharper Image catalog, and its cheesy Saturday-morning cartoon. My friend Jaimy and his little brothers got some sets for Christmas one year, back then, and we played at running around zapping each other in his driveway at least once. But that was all long ago, and I'd assumed it had long since gone the way of all gimmicky plastic.

ltvests1.jpgBut according to Wikipedia, the concept of laser tag - that is, mounting an infrared flashlight into a gun-shaped casing and firing it at wearable, IR-sensing targets - originated with the US military in the late 1970s, and started appearing in a variety of toys at around the same time. While home versions no longer have an aisle to themselves in toy stores, there continue to operate across the US laser tag "arenas" operating under a variety of names and trademarks. The closest one to us happened to be Laser Quest in Danvers [noisy Flash link, sorry], so we grabbed a dozen or so friends and tripped out to the suburbs.

We played two 20-minute games, both of which had rules I can best summarize as those of a first-person shooter deathmatch - every man for himself, basically. As with an FPS, the penalty for "dying" - getting beamed in any of the sensors attached to your vest or gun - was to leave play for a few seconds, during which you can't fire (or be meaningfully fired upon). You gained 10 points for zapping someone, and lost some points for getting zapped, varying by the sensor's location and who shot you. And the end, everyone receives a scorecard detailing whom they tagged and were tagged by, on which sensors, and for how many points.

The arena was impressive, despite (and perhaps somewhat assisted by) a certain low-budget-ingeniuty charm. It was essentially a large wooden labyrinth, its walls painted with goofy fun-house designs in colors that reacted well to the black light employed throughout. While it wasn't truly multilevel - there were no bridges to walk under - it did employ a lot of variance of elevation, accessed through a series of ramps. This gave a sense of high ground you could take, which actually did give you a better view of the whole maze (and all the potential targets within).

The biggest surprise for me was the use of real lasers in the guns. While the actual "munition" was the usual IR beams and sensors, the guns also shone red lasers forward when their triggers were pulled. What made this actually impressive was that the labyrinth was filled with mist before each match, not thick enough to obscure vision (especially in the dim light) but enough to make the lasers fully visible. I was truly taken aback the first time I pulled my trigger and saw a coherent beam flash out!

In this mode of play, the Laser Quest organizers seem to prefer piling as many players as they can at once into the maze. So our first game pitted our group against a horde of 10-year-old boys who happened to also be visiting that day. We then took a breather while the boys were allowed to play by themselves (while a theory circulated among our group that the boys' parents were tweaked to see them being pursued aggressively by some 15 adult men and women of questionable maturity). I scored 12th out of 28 players; not bad! First place went to one of the little ones, while one of our party took second.

Our second game was just ourselves, along with three teenagers who came alone. I am embarrassed to admit that, during this second round, I forgot the rules that explicitly prohibited sitting, lying down, or taking any other non-vertical pose. Wigging out a little from the relentless fog of war, I commenced crouching and tumbling around all bad-ass like you see in movies. Don't do this, perhaps especially if you're of a certain age or older. While it was fun for a while and I felt all hardcore, after a few minutes I spontaneously overheated (the place is not the most well-ventilated or air-conditioned in town) and had to sit down because I couldn't move anymore. The gf found me in this state and valiantly defended my prone position for a while. After I told her I was OK, she kissed my forehead, shot me in the chest and ran off to seek more challenging targets. It was truly a touching scene.

Anyway, despite this momentary lapse (where I quite deservedly came in last place) I had a delightful time, and look forward to playing again sometime. The scorecards imply the existence of other rulesets, including team-based and even capture-the-flag-style play. Some in our group, intrigued by this, are already talking about the 60-person all-night special the facility offers. I shall have to remember to take it easy, that time.

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Review: Cursor*10 (Flash)

Don’t be fooled be the simplistic black and white vector shapes. Cursor*10 is a very quick unique and challenging puzzle game that can be played in any web browser as long as it has Adobe Flash installed.cursorx10title.gif

Cursor*10 is a flash game made by Yoshio Ishii, who has made numerous games for Nekogames, using a simple point-and-click control scheme and a simple visual style that reminds me of old DOS and Atari games. Even though the website is Japanese, the game is in English and doesn’t require anyone to learn button combinations or advanced tactics. All the player needs is quick reflexes and a basic understanding of the game’s objectives.

The object of every level in Cursor*10 is to click on the staircase that goes to the floor above, eventually reaching the 16th floor. There is no main character to speak of; however your own mouse cursor could be considered a character in this game. When you start a level, there is a timer at the bottom-right corner that starts at 650 and continues to fall down towards 0 increasingly faster as the player tries to move through each floor. When the timer reaches 0, the first cursor explodes, the message “Cursor No. 2 ready” is showed, and the player restarts the entire game from the beginning. However, this time, Cursor No. 1’s movements and clicks are being replayed as Cursor No. 2 continues to move around, and when No. 3 is ready, its predecessors will be replayed and this continues throughout all 10 cursors. This gameplay mechanic is first used where there is a button on the ground that reveals a set of stairs when the button is pressed and disappears when that same button is released. This forces the player to use Cursor No. 1 to hold that button down until it explodes, then Cursor No. 2 repeats those floors, but this time, Cursor No. 1’s movements are being replayed, which includes holding that button down, giving Cursor No. 2 the chance to go up that flight of stairs and get closer to the 16th floor. The multiplicity strategy is used multiple times, such as another situation where a box needs to be clicked 99 times for the next staircase to be shown but there’s not enough time for 1 cursor to do it, so another cursor must sacrifice its life so the next cursor can make it through.

Out of all the games I’ve ever played in my life, I don’t remember a single one that uses this concept of the player dying and as they use replay the game, their previous actions are replayed in real time in such a way that they help themselves out. It’s a very short game that can be finished in less than 15 minutes once you understand what needs to be done to get to the staircase to the next level.

This makes me wonder if this concept of multiplicity can be implemented in future games; there’s been many interesting puzzle games involving changing your visual perspective of objects (e.g. EchoChrome, Crush, Super Paper Mario), matching specific color blocks (e.g. Audiosurf, Lumines, Dr. Mario) and even blending adventure with puzzles (e.g. Zack & Wiki, Professor Layton). Whatever happens, I’m glad that the puzzle genre is no longer limited to jig-saw puzzles, crosswords and Tetris-clones.

Cursor*10 is a short, fun and original flash puzzle game that is easy on the mind and can be easily played from beginning to end once the player remembers where the stairs are and where the buttons are.

Link: Cursor*10

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Review: ClayFighter 63 1/3 (N64)

I don't have Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but I do have ClayFighter 63 1/3 for the Nintendo 64, a game that feels like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Killer Instinct mixed with clay and Ren & Stimpy.

There's some interesting speculation behind why they used the suffix of 63 1/3 instead of the number 64. The obvious guess being that it is making fun of the clichéd 64 slapped on the end of many game titles. The other is a rumor that Interplay was running out of time and that Nintendo kept rushing them without giving any extra time, so the 63 1/3 would seem to be a message this game could have been much bigger and better if it had spent more time in development.Kung Pow vs Taffy

There is no story whatsoever. The player simply chooses a character and fights to the top. It's simple, straightforward and doesn't force anyone to remember any character backgrounds such as "this guy killed my father" or "I want to be the best of the best to prove that my family is the greatest!"

All the character sprites and animation were made using photographs of clay models. It went for that funny cartoony, surrealist style for the characters and made the characters look very unique. Even though the sprites are two-dimensional, the levels which the fights would take place were completely 3D. This is one of the many things that madeClayFighter stand out in the first place. Other games did not even dare to try this approach.

As the fighters move closer or further away from each other, the camera would rotate around to show that this isn't just a sidescrolling level. Both characters can move around in a circle if they keep moving left or right. This is only the point in the level where neither character can pass. It is at this point, an opponent can smash the opponent with a strong attack then end up at another section of the level that isn't normally seen. This would usually be the roof of the level, inside a castle, or inside a sewer. The player can even knock the opponent back to the previous part of the level if they get cornered again.

There are 12 playable characters, with 3 of them being unlockable. Interesting enough, there are 2 characters that people may be familiar with who aren't ClayFighter-exclusive characters: Boogerman and Earthworm Jim who both had their own games on the Sega Genesis, which the previous ClayFighter games were initially made for. Even though there are no character stats that show which ones are stonger, faster or jump higher, the character that is chosen is pretty much a matter of preference. I always let the game choose randomly for me by holding the L+R triggers together. The 3 hidden characters can be chosen after pressing the right key combination at the character selection screen. Each character has unique animations and sound effects for every attack and damage taken. You will hear things suck as "cluck you", "quit it", "I will destroy you", "I told you I'd win" and even "you suck". It never gets annoying.

In addition to the quirky characters, there is also a combo and fatality system reminiscent of serious games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Killer Instinct. At the beginning of every match, the narrator would shout "Let's get ready to crumble", which is aspinoff of Michael Buffer's catchphrase "Let's get ready to rumble". When the blue power meter is full, the player can pull off a combo that will set off into crazy combos causing the announcer to shout things such as "itty bitty combo", "tripple brown betty combo", "insane combo" and even "little girly combo". These combos can consist of landing 3 to even 400 hits (that's right, 400) and up depending on how high the meter is and how close you are to the opponent. When either player loses their health completely, they kneel to the ground waiting to be taken down with one hit or with a fatality, whichClayFighter refers to as a claytality. These claytalaties can range from throwing them in the air flying up from the island they're on hitting the camera as if they were going to fly out of the TV, being blasted in a cannon and even being chopped in half! The word "CLAYTALITY" would appear in big bloody letters.

The controls were great. It utilized the obvious A and B buttons, and the C buttons were each used for attacking as well. The L+R triggers would be used to step sideways, which is useful to dodge projectiles, but I barely used it since I can jump over most attacks and I fought just fine without them. At low difficulties,ClayFighter 63 1/3 is a crazy button mashers, and at the "PSYCHO" difficulty, the computer will grab you and unleash 10-hit combos of their own. There are 5 difficulties altogether: Cookie, normal, whoa, dude and psycho.

It also allows two players to fight against each other. It is a simple one-on-one versus mode. It's been years since I've actually played against another person, so I can't say too much about this.

With all the jokes, funny characters, and slapstick sound effects, ClayFighter 63 1/3 still feels like an unfinished game. There is no save option anywhere, so any unlocked characters and victories will never be recorded. Once the N64 is turned off, the player is forced to start all over every time. The character movements are slower compared to other fighters such as Super Smash Bros. and Killer Instinct. A sequel was made as a blockbuster-exclusive rental,ClayFighter Sculptor's Cut and it suffered the same problems as 63 1/3. The fact that Sculptor's Cut could only be rented from blockbuster and not purchased made it appeal to an even smaller audience. To make matters worse, the developers of ClayFighter 63 1/3, Interplay shut down in 2004 due to financial problems, making it seem highly unlikely that a new ClayFighter will ever emerge. Since Interplay owns the rights to the game, it will may never appear on Nintendo's beloved Virtual Console or even as a Nintendo DS remake. When ClayFighter first came out for the Sega Genesis, it was a childish fighter that took place in a carnival after a radioactive comet crashed. On the N64, it evolved into a funny game that paid homage to the fighting giants Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Killer Instinct through parodies in gameplay mechanics. It appealed to an older audience and toned the violence down enough to make it youth-friendly at the same time. It is a real shame that it never skyrocketed into popularity with its visual style and the strangeness of the characters themselves.

The button-mashing style of play at the lowest difficulty was always my favorite and I loved pushing the opponent to different parts of the level and then finishing them off. The crazy clay characters and the parodies of other fighting games appealed to me and is a nice between a combo-crunching fistfight and being just plain weird. The lack of a story took nothing away from the game quality. The camera is always smooth and never obstructed my view. If Interplay ever gets back on their feet and starts making games again, I would beg them to work on ClayFighter somehow. It's been 11 years, and I can't think of anyone else who's made a decent fighter game that has a crazy style of humor that feels similar to other games mixed with clay and insanity. With the cartoon visuals of Team Fortress 2, Battlefield Heroes and Zack & Wiki, I can't see a reason why they can't make their own in-house visual rendering technology that can make 3D models look like clay. ClayFighter is one of those games that died too early in its infancy and needed more time to grow. It dared to go in the opposite direction while other fighting games became more complicated with higher-quality graphics and near-clunky controls.

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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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Review: Audiosurf (PC)

Do you want to play a game like Rez without holding on to your PlayStation 2, Dreamcast or saving up for an Xbox 360 for Rez HD? On February 15 2008, Steam released a game called Audiosurf, a game that is very hard for me to explain, so I will try my best; it's just one of games where you have to watch some YouTube videos to understand what is happening...

Before you start any level, the player will be asked to choose a ship with different abilities, and then choose a song from the computer; this can be any file format from an MP3, OGG, FLAC, M4A, WMA, and of course, CD format. It even reads the DRM protected files as well, so it can run those online purchased songs without any issues. After the song is selected, it will take a moment to analyze the track, which results in the design of the level.

After loading, the player will have his ship at the beginning off a strange looking wavy road that was shaped by the sound waves of the chosen song. The speed of the song and the beats in the song (e.g. snares, hand claps, bass, guitar, etc.) will affect the speed that the ship travels on the road and where and how many colored blocks are placed on different parts of this musical road. The player will see an aerial view of the road for a few seconds before the song starts playing.

Below the player's ship is a grid where colors go when they are collected. The objectives vary depending on the difficulty chosen; the easiest will only require the player to simply collect any block that is not gray; the medium difficulty requires the player to collect 3 or more of the same color and have them be adjacent to each other, and collecting gray blocks will make the player lose a significant amount of points; the highest difficulty will have a barrage of gray blocks, and the player will be required to collect the few blocks that are actually colored. The song doesn't get distorted when the ship miss blocks or hit the gray blocks by accident; the player simply lose points and can continue playing normally. At the end of the song, the ship enters a very geometric space tunnel, and you score will be compared with others in the world who have also played that exact same song; through this online scoreboard, I have learned that I am not exactly the best Audiosurf player out there and all that matters is that I had lots of fun! There were a few songs where I was the first person to play, and I popped up at the #1 spot by default; this is only because the game came out yesterday.

With this concept, every song in this world is basically waiting to be turned into a level; I found myself searching my hard drive for MP3s and my room for CDs for the simple reason to have it played in Audiosurf and collect points; it's not just a really cool visualizer; it's the perfect game for both hardcore and casual gamers; I played many songs from techno, dance, rock, pop, classical and even hip-hop; Audiosurf was able to scan each one and turn it into a unique level. The only one I couldn't use was this 176 MB MP3 file of a DJ Tiesto performance, because it was too long and Audiosurf just gave up because of the nature of its algorithm; I'm just mentioning this because I think it's funny and that most people in their lives may never have an MP3 file of that size. It had me listening to songs differently, wondering how it would look if I was playing it in Audiosurf. It is obvious that this will get people plugging in their Walkmans (i.e. the ones that actually play MP3s), iPods and Zunes to their computer to play more songs in hopes of making it on the online scoreboard.

When people describe this game, they describe that it has elements in other games, but there hasn't been any solid comparisons; for example, I'm the only one so far who has stated that it reminded me of Rez because of how it gets you hooked and you forget about everything else around you. The compared games are:

- Rez; I experienced the same synesthesia.
- Tetris; lining up those blocks
- Guitar Hero; the road scrolls vertically like the guitar's neck
- F-Zero; the futuristic vehicles

I actually came across this game by chance; I opened up my Steam client to play Team Fortress 2 online, then I saw a popup for a free demo for Audiosurf; the tagline read "ride your music"; it caught my attention with the futuristic ship it displayed in the ad, so I downloaded the demo quickly, and I played some songs I happened to have on my computer; it was awesome! However, I realized that the demo only allowed me to play 4 songs and after that, it kept telling me to buy the game if I wanted more; and I did want more! I paid the low price of $9.95 for the full version and I have no regrets! It's one of those games that I'll always play whenever I'm extremely bored and I want something to do for 20 minutes, or if there's a bunch of songs I've never heard and I want to listen to them differently. Also, this is a music rhythm game that is not a Dance Dance Revolution rip-off or a Guitar Hero wannabe; it's completely different and it's all about the concept of turning a song into a playable level and being amazed every time.

I can't think of anything I hate about this game; it's simple, addictive and it will never get boring with the limitless songs that can be obtained; the multiple file compatibilities and DRM support make Audiosurf even easier to use since I never reached a point where I had to convert something. The only problem I had was installing the game itself; when I bought the full version, the game would still tell me to buy the new version; at first, I thought I did something wrong, then I deleted my content for Audiosurf, and reinstalled Audiosurf then the game worked without any problems; at this point, I played as many songs as possible before I stood up to get some coffee. I am not the best player, and even though I make mistakes that make me lose a lot of points, it's all part of the experience; there's just something about collecting colorful blocks while driving a ship on a road that's been shaped by a song that makes this one of the most innovative and unique games out there. Whenever I played a song directly from a CD with the standard CD format, the game would freeze for a few seconds making it seem like it has crashed; it still works nonetheless and will be resolved with future updates. There was a short moment where I had problems logging my account in Audiosurf and that was only because of the heavy server load on the first day of this game's release. Other than those miniscule bugs, everything about this game is just good, clean and simple musical fun.

I looked at the credits, and there's only 5 people listed and a group called "Pedro Macedo Camacho" for composing an original musical score and "Paladin Studios" for the 3D models; they certainly did an amazingly good job at this game; this is definitely NOT the cliché "college game programming project" that they only did for the sake of getting a grade; this is an experiment that bloomed into a huge success! All I hope is that they continuing working on this, and I know that it will turn into something that is bigger than it already is; Valve did a very good job promoting it as well; with the purchase of the full version, they included their entire soundtrack of "The Orange Box", which includes Portal's end credit song, "Still Alive"; yet another good deal. In addition, there are even free songs available online from the Audiosurf servers that can be played if the player wants to play something that is not on their computer. All of these tracks have played well in the game, and perfectly in sync, and these people did an excellent job in mathematical calculations, sound wave analysis, and creating a nice futuristic feel that reminds you that nothing is real, and it's all about having fun.

With its musical versatility, fast pace, low system requirements, online scoreboards and incredibly cheap price of $9.95, this is definitely worth buying for anyone who wants to play a rhythm game that doesn't force the player to "be in sync or else" and wants an arcade-style experience. If you don't want to spend a cent, just play the demo to understand what it's all about, and you will love it; just make sure you choose your four songs carefully, because after that, it won't give you another chance to play.


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