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Full House Poker vs 1 vs 100

5638935722 cebd40cfc3 bMy online-multiplayer itch has been acting up again, so on the recommendation of some of my Xbox Live-playing friends, I recently started playing Full House Poker. Designed by Microsoft Game Studios, it provides a satisfyingly polished implementation of Texas Hold ‘Em. It manages to really impress me in a couple of more subtle and surprising ways, though, one of which has little to do with Poker itself.

With delight did I realize, after spending an evening with it, that Full House Poker is the spiritual successor to the late and quite lamented 1 vs 100, a game killed long before its time. I managed to write about that one only once during its brief life, recounting a wonderfully humiliating moment I suffered before an audience of thousands. Between the banter provided by a live host, the clever blend of game show and videogame tropes, and the simple fact that it really was a simultaneous ludic experience shared among a huge and diverse audience, 1 vs 100 was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to true interactive television.

And I assume that’s what did it in, too; when you mix a videogame with a television show so successfully, I suppose you must also introduce television-specific risks to your game’s health. And so I witnessed a game near to my heart suffer the same fate that befalls half the TV shows I discover and love: it got cancelled two seasons in, for reasons the audience can only guess at. It will almost certainly never come back, forever buried under the immovable weight of expired intellectual-property agreements.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to discover though Full House Poker that Microsoft didn’t write off the entire parcel as a failed experiment. While it doesn’t present the same experience, or at the same scale, I find it very clear that a great deal of technology, philosophy, and in-house experience developed by Microsoft for 1 vs 100 lives on in Full House Poker, despite the significant differences in the games themselves.

The resemblance comes through strongest in one of the game modes, “Texas Heat”, a tournament-style game available only during certain evenings (similar to the timing of 1 vs 100’s twice-weekly live shows). These events drop the player into a room containing several dozen other live players, spread across a set of tables with varying stakes. Excellent play lets you graduate to a higher-stakes table, while losing all your chips drops you to a lower one; as a result, players shuffle seats fairly regularly. The tournament runs over the course of a few rounds, each with a strict timer attached; at the end, each player collects in-game rewards based on how well they fared compared to all the other players.

Even though the Poker room you find yourself in contains only a few tablefuls of players, it still manages to express the notion that you’re playing with real people, and lots of them. While there’s nothing like the live color-commentating announcer that 1 vs 100 employed, Full House Poker does pause between rounds to display some statistics about the evening so far, and rattle off an appropriate pre-recorded comment about the number of concurrent players. In my experience so far (and assuming there’s no number-fudging afoot), that figure’s been in the middle four digits; a smaller turnout than I seem to recall for 1 vs 100 live events, but still enough to help reinforce the feeling that you’re enjoying this game with many other people, all together.

I’m not sure I quite know why yet, but this information dramatically changes the tenor of the experience for me. Even when I can’t directly see or hear the people I’m playing with, to know they’re there anyway makes the time I spend playing feel far more worthwhile than a solitaire activity. And I like to see the range of avatars at the table, too; assuming that most people try to put a little of themselves into their Xbox avatar choices, I see myself playing with both men and women of a variety of ages and backgrounds, and that makes me even happier.

Crucially, “Texas Heat” (and, to some extent, the game’s other, unstructured online multiplayer mode) also provides a place to play with the general public that feels, to me, like a safer space than a typical console-game multiplayer lobby. The Xbox avatar animations are entertainingly various and so well integrated with the flow of gameplay that there’s no real need to use the voice chat, or otherwise manually emote. The option is still there if you want it, and I have had enjoyable games chatting over my friends-only channel, but tournament players seem to generally see no need to add in any communication that’s not already part of the game.

As far as I can tell, the most threatening in-game action you can accomplish is have your little avatar turn to look at other people’s avatars, an animation that occurs when you choose to examine a table-mate’s play statistics and other info. I’m not sure I’ve seen any real abuses of this, though I did one online table’s host perhaps attempt to turn this into a teabag by diddling his look-at-other-players button rapidly. As a result, his avatar just sort of bounced in his own chair like an idiot. (I still left the table and blocked him, because: idiot.)

(I’d be curious to hear if my observations about safety jibe with the experiences Full House Poker players who don’t share my perch on the straight-wide-dude privilege mountain. I can only extrapolate based on my own objective sense of online tact.)

I’m happy to see the wisdom gained from 1 vs 100 applied to Poker, a game that, any current faddishness to one side, belongs to the public domain — any game maker can implement and experiment with it freely, unencumbered by tetchy legal agreements that may threaten to dismantle it from the outside. If Microsoft Game Studios had to use a delicate licensed property in order to gain the wherewithal to introduce this play style to the world, so be it; arguably, it’s found a better home now, gone to ground with a traditional game that nobody can issue a cease-and-desist letter over.

I hope that Full House Poker has a long life online, extending itself in interesting directions. More than that, I hope that it serves as a beacon to encourage more polished, high-concept, and widely attractive same-time multiplayer without resorting to the limited appear or cynical treadmill-play of an MMORPG or Zynga game. (I also hope to write more about my adventures with this title that relate to the actual game of Poker, but we’ll see how the chips fall for that, ho ho.)

Photograph by Rosella Bevivino, CC BY-NC-SA.

Review-esque disclaimer: I bought _Full House Poker myself. It’s a $10 download from the Xbox game marketplace._

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Take thy sting and shove it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

MA_revisions_06-large.jpgThe opening cinematic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash shows a towering and unearthly creature -- cowled, hunchbacked and literally bird-legged, yellow eyes glowing like lanterns over a beaklike proboscis -- tenderly caring for some chubby, babbling babies. We see it helping one learn to walk, letting the child grasp its absurdly long, bony finger, leading it along gently.

The scene is not played as a shocking reveal; the entire, bizarre tableau is displayed at once, as soon as the game loads. The game knows damn well that you downloaded it after reading a blurb, either on Steam or on Xbox Live, that led you to expect an action-adventure about beating people up. And then it shows you this.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.

"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan.

This the opening of "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle, whose work I discovered via Pseudopod, a podcast of new short stories in the horror genre. I started listening to the show a couple of years ago as a change of pace from Escape Pod, the trailblazing SF podcast that became popular enough to spawn a handful of subgenre-specific shows, Psuedopod among them. I quickly came to prefer it over its parent show -- to my surprise, since I have never identified as a horror fan. And while I don't love every story it features, it manages to air a real winner with sufficient frequency that I look forward to each week's new show.

I quote Nickle because his stories, and the experience of having them read to me by Psuedopod's varied but consistently fine vocal talent, came to mind as I started to play Zeno Clash. From my perspective, the game appeared without warning or fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade last week. (It's been on Steam for a year, but, not much of a PC gamer, I hadn't noticed.) By coincidence, I'd purchased Nickle's collection Monstrous Affections earlier that same day -- after hearing and loving, for the third time, a story of his on Pseudopod -- so stories like "The Sloan Men" were fresh on my mind.[1]

The two stories' openings share the tactic of taking something familiar and domestic -- one parent lovingly caring for its infant children; another, enthroned in her kitchen, casually grilling her son's new girlfriend -- and mixing in something very wrong, letting it jut out in plain sight, as obvious as an exposed fingerbone. The disconnect, when executed correctly, produces a thrill in the audience, a recognition of the normal world gone horribly (aha!) awry somehow, and generates a hunger to learn more.

For me, this artful juxtaposition of the mundane with the monstrous is the very definition of contemporary horror at its best, far more so than the zombies and vampires that bulk up the genre's stereotype. What struck me about Zeno Clash, as I worked through the first hour or two of its single-digit playtime total, was its successful implementation of this particular flavor or horror literature into the videogame form, and the fact that I couldn't recall the last time I'd seen such a thing -- at least, not outside interactive fiction, which has long used the strengths of its text-based medium to establish its own tradition of horror-themed games.

You can say a lot of nice things about Left 4 Dead, but it doesn't make much room for narrative subtlety. The storied survival-horror videogame subgenre that informs it (Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, et al) relies on the formula of an audience-identifiable outsider trapped in a dark place they don't belong, trying to fight their way back to normalcy. The player-character of Zeno Clash, on the other hand, lives among the monsters of his world as a native; and unlike, say, the Oddworld games, the situation isn't played for ironic laughs. Instead, you-the-player find yourself both repulsed and tantalized by the game's setting, unable to completely sympathize with the alien protagonist but nonetheless finding just enough familiarity among the unsettling scenery to be drawn in.

The game does an excellent job maintaining the uneasy tone established with the opening nursery scene. The tutorial level takes place in an uncertain dreamscape. Your fighting instructor, while teaching you how the controller works, keeps saying odd things, always concluding with the repeated insistence "But you are not dead" in a breathy growl. What kind of trainer is this, exactly? Soon after the plot gets underway, the main characters find themselves in a forest populated by a tribe of gibbering madmen wearing bizarre costumes. Unexpectedly, the protagonist displays admiration for them, revealing that he used to be one himself. Between fights with the colorful (and spry) lunatics, he introduces them to his traveling companion, calling them by name and noting the unique, single-minded purpose that each displays. As the camera pans over a masked figure slumped against a fallen tree, the hero beams, "She peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, because that is what she did." This is perhaps the oddest thing my Xbox has ever said, and -- as the line came delivered via good, understated voice acting -- served to trigger the connection I drew between this game and my listening to the stories of Pseudopod.

The writing keeps its high quality throughout the game, sometimes seeming somewhat too good for a game whose interactive sequences mainly deal with pounding people to a pulp with your fists. It features perhaps the least intelligence-insulting bit of foreshadowing I've seen in a console game's story: an unusual event that happens early in the game remains memorable enough that, when it's echoed by a major mid-game plot development, it relies on no supporting flashbacks or voiceover to remind you. It's subtle enough that I missed the connection while playing, realizing it only when I stopped to take a break, and I laughed with delight. (That introductory cutscene plays a similar trick, incidentally. It, and a few short subsequent cinematics, play every time you load up the game. If you play through the game over several sessions, as I did, those scenes re-contextualize themselves with every repeat viewing, and the result made me smile each time.)

The artwork is fine, too, weirdly blending a gunpowder-using society with a neolithic aesthetic, looking something like the organic landscapes of Moebius by way of Jack Kirby. I could keep going, but the game is too short to pick apart further without spoiling the rest. I'll just place Zeno Clash among the most refreshing of console-style videogames I've had the pleasure to experience in a long time. I recommend playing through the trial which -- at least on the Xbox version -- gives you a taste of both the narrative flavor and the nature of the martial-arts simulation that defines the game's action sequences. If both appeal to you, you could do worse than invest in the full game, which offers several hours of phantasmagoric fighting and storytelling of a sort I've never quite seen before.

[1] Nickle has the full text of "The Sloan Men" on his website, but I especially recommend giving a listen to the story's audio version, read by Cunning Minx.

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Just to prove I'm not ashamed

I got into The Mob on 1 vs. 100 tonight, after several personal-best high-scoring rounds, and then blew it on the first question. Yes, I said that the act of swishing liquid inside your mouth was to gaggle. Because it was the first choice that appeared, and because I was freaking out about being in the Mob.

So, if you ever play the game and wonder what the hell kind of idiots got that wrong? when you see the inevitable group of Mob knockouts after the first, always-easy question, I am here to tell you: some people just don't act their fanciest under sudden stress.

See also:

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Meeting my complain-about-consoles quota

I just got my second Xbox RRoD in three months. This is kind of ridiculous. It appears to be the power supply this time, rather than the internals, and the phone rep I just spoke with said he can get a new one to me within two or three weeks. (Since I called, the power supply graduated into a flickering sorta-kinda working state, but I don't expect it to hold out much longer.)

I'd be less sad about this if Microsoft were more like Apple (ha ha) when it comes to repairs. If your under-warrantly MacBook dies, the truck delivering your repaired machine nearly runs the truck picking up the broken one off the road. Microsoft's Seattle attitude is rather more shall-we-say relaxed than that of their high-strung Californian competitors, and you can expect a solid month to pass between the day those red lights start flashing and the day you can once again get down and dirty with whatever your high-def poison is.

A more astute comparison might be how my Atari VCS lasted a good 11 years before it experienced any kind of hardware failure... but that was a rather simpler device. Are modern consoles' hot-running guts just too complicated and failure-prone for users to expect to work for any long stretch of time?

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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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Reviewing Xbox Indie Games

I've been playing a lot of Xbox Indie Games (née Xbox Live Community Games) lately. This is the ever-burbling channel of new, downloadable, inexpensive games created by folks with Microsoft's low-cost XNA Game Studio toolkit, located in a back alley of the Xbox 360's interface. (To get there from the console's main menu, move up to "Game Marketplace", select the "Explore Game Content" pane, then scroll up to "Indie Games".)

Unlike the console's more exclusive Arcade channel, Xbox Indie Games is open to anyone with the will and the means to create a game in XNA and throw it up online. As such, the good stuff tends to be modestly sized, tightly focused works that put a lot of creativity into a narrow space, and are likely too short-form for acceptance into traditional game-distribution channels. The bad stuff, meanwhile, can get pretty bad indeed, lacking even the polished-turdiness of the worst retail-sold games.

Because of the prominent presence of this latter category, I have heard friends dismissing the entirety of Xbox Indie Games as crap. But, I know that that's just not true; Sturgeon's Law applies as much to this channel as any other medium. Yep, a full 90 percent of it most certainly is crap, but that doesn't mean that you should turn your back on the remaining good stuff. However, given the lack of guidance, I can't really blame people for turning their back on the whole deal after wasting their time on a few stinkers.

With that in mind, I intend to occasionally supplement this blog with reviews of more noteworthy things I happen across in Xbox Indie Games, starting with my next post. (It's one of several reviews I started writing in September, right before my Xbox RRoDed and required a month-long holiday in Texas. But, it's back now, so I finished it.) Enjoy!

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Planbeast is live

I can finally announce that web-based service involving games which I have been coyly hinting at in recent posts here: Planbeast, a free scheduling service for Xbox Live games.

In a nutshell, Planbeast lets you use the web to schedule times that you'd like to play your favorite Xbox 360 games online. You can use RSS or iCal to know when other fans of these same games set up matches of their own, which you can then join as a guest. When the time comes to play a scheduled game, everyone who has opted-in for notification receives an email or an IM telling them who's playing, and how to get started.

Xbox Live is a very clever and robust online game network, but - like all the major such networks - its "matchmaking" functionality is rather wanting. Depending on the game, trying to play online with strangers all too often means either finding nobody at all online, or finding yourself playing with unsavory sorts. Planbeast aims to help this by connecting fans of games with one another, and letting a game's online players know who and what to expect from the other folks at the table.

We think it's really cool, and if it proves popular enough, we'll consider expanding it to cover other online game networks as well.

I've been working on this project with my Volity Games colleagues Andy Turner and (the Gameshelf's own) Andrew Plotkin in what time we could scrounge over the last six months. There's lots of work to do still (holy cow is there), but the site does everything it says it will in its present state. It's going to be in public beta for a while, so I would be thrilled if you visited and let us know what you think. We plan on making daily tweaks and updates to the site for so long as our users continue finding bugs and making suggestions.

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Help me research some Xbox Live stuff

As I mentioned last month, I'm leading the development of a new, game-flavored, web-based service. We're now very close to launching its first draft, but before that happens, I could use a little community help with a certain aspect of it.

In order to make sure its user documentation is correct, I need some experience playing Xbox 360 games over Xbox Live with non-random people. In other words, I need to get more familiar with XBL's invitation and "party" systems, versus just hitting "Quick Match" after firing up a game and taking your chances playing with the total stranger the system pairs you up with. (Which is often nobody at all, for games other than the most popular.)

Because of my confidence that viewers and readers of The Gameshelf are some of the finest and most erudite game-players on the internet, I would like to invite whichever of y'all have an XBL Gold account, a headset mic, and some free time to give me a hand here. Basically, I'm just asking for folks to play a game or two with me, sometime in the near future. The main goal is for me to better grok how invitations work in XBL, but if I must actually play the games in order to do this, then this is a burden I am willing to bear.

Here are the titles I would be willing to try this with (but feel free to suggest alternates):

• Carcassonne
• Catan
• Bomberman Live
• Castle Crashers
• Team Fortress 2 (The Orange Box)
• Schizoid
• Assault Heroes
• Aegis Wing
• Ticket to Ride
• Lost Cities
• Every Extend Extra Extreme
• Heavy Weapon
• Uno
• Worms

If you are able to help, feel free to contact me about this through comments here, via email, or, yes, via XBL (that's my Gamercard there on the right). All I offer in return is a thank-you note in the project blog, along with the knowledge that you helped improve a project that is seeking to make online gaming a better experience for everyone. Also you get to play a game with me, so there's that too.

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Speaking of Llamasoft

You may have known (as I did) that Space Giraffe's eye-bending visuals resemble Neon, the Xbox 360's built-in music visualizer, because they come from the same creator. But perhaps you did not know (as I didn't until just now) that Neon is meant to be a fully interactive experience, whose manual can teach you how to use up to four Xbox controllers to influence the on-screen animation, with each one modifying a different attribute, including camera position, tunnel effects, and "boingy".

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Space Giraffe flies again

I mentioned Jeff Minter's Space Giraffe on here a while ago. It's been out as an Xbox Live Arcade title for over a year, and Minter's Llamasoft just ported it to the PC. To help promote this new release, Minter created some text-n-video walkthroughs of the game's early levels.

To me, this is most notable for being a complete - and completely correct - reversal of Minter's initial reaction to the game's critical reception, including the infamous "grow a pair" post on his company's blog, where he attacked the idea that modern video games should contain tutorials of any sort. It's too bad he left that sulky post up on the blog's front page for a whole year, but I am willing to overlook all in the face of this clear good-faith effort to show that he is, in fact, listening to his audience.

Personally, I love the crazy graphics that so many have complained about, but playing it still makes me frustrated. There's a point about a dozen levels in where I lose all my accumulated lives without the foggiest notion why. I know from my reading of the game's development history that the information's in there somewhere - part of the challenge is learning how to read all the colors and sound effects whizzing by. But the game doesn't make this challenge explicit, so unless you are taught from an external source, like a GameFAQ or these videos, as far as you know your giraffe simply becomes suicidal after ten minutes of play.

In this sense, the videos are rather an overdue patch to a deeper design flaw, but I'm nonetheless pleased that they've appeared. I look forward to absorbing these videos and attempting a renaissance with my own copy of the game. And in any case, I maintain that the Xbox version of Space Giraffe is totally worth five bucks. It's a game that deserves experiencing.

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Braid, Portal, and selling poetry to gamers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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On Authorial Intent and Space Giraffes

Last year I became interested in a notion of literary theory known as authorial intent. In a nutshell, it states that if there's a conflict between an author and their audience about the interpretation of a work, the audience wins. Put another way, an author's own statements about their work, when stated outside of the work itself, carry no more or less weight than those of any other well-informed reader. This I learned about after the controversy that arose after Ray Bradbury stated that his 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 was not at all about censorship, but was rather a critique of television's social effects. I found myself feeling so strongly about it that I became involved in a Wikipedia edit-skirmish over it, after certain individuals quickly marked up the book's article to indicate that decades of academic study regarding the work had become invalid overnight due to Bradbury's new words.

1183407644_08a53177d2.jpgThis came to mind again recently as I stumbled across the curious story of Space Giraffe while researching the market of XBox Live Arcade. To be honest, I'm not sure how correct it is to call this particular case another instance of an author's intent running contrary to that of the audience - in this case, the game's players - but it's close enough to warrant a comparison anyway.

You'll forgive me if I now give far more words to the background of my eventual point than to the point itself, since it's actually a rather interesting story. Jeff Minter, the founder and core personality of the tiny Welsh game-development house Llamasoft for the past 25 years, is at least as much a Grand Old Man of digital gaming as Bradbury is of fiction. He established his reputation early on with the international hit Gridrunner, and throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s he produced a great variety of rather strange commercial and shareware games with names like Llamatron and Revenge of the Mutant Camels. These were far better known in the UK than in the US - in the days before the web, the Atlantic Ocean still presented a significant barrier against fast information flow, even where video games were concerned.

His second great work, Tempest 2000, a rethinking of the classic arcade shooter by David Theurer, appeared for the all-but-forgotten Atari Jaguar console in 1994. (Arguably, if anyone today remembers the Jaguar at all, it's likely as not that they're remembering only Tempest 2000.) He and Llamasoft then spent several years in the background until they re-emerged just last year with Space Giraffe, a five-dollar game for the XBox console, distributed through Microsoft's Live Arcade downloadable-game service.

But the world had changed, and for a producer of video games the difference between 1994 and 2007 was far vaster than the difference between 1982 and 1994. The web had grown from its infancy to its current adolescence over these years, and "blog" had become a meaningful word. The digital game marketplace had also grown tremendously. At the start of Minter's career, he was primarily selling to fellow hobbyists and enthusiasts. Now, his medium was in the very core of the mainstream culture.

The collision between the Llamasoft's eccentric design aesthetic and the expectations of entire modern internet did not fall in Minter's favor. In fact, my own introduction to Space Giraffe, and from there my learning about Llamasoft's fascinating history, came about through my discovering references to Minter's own reactions to the game's reception. At least a couple of online discussions link to a post on Minter's personal blog where he expresses muted optimism at the game's tepid sales after its launch last summer, and another on the game's official development blog where he angrily rebuffs players (and reviewers) who find the game too difficult or unfriendly to "man up and grow a pair", ranting that the expectation of the modern gamer to encounter some easy tutorial levels followed by a steady-but-gentle difficulty curve is more pandering to the masses than a time-tested refinement in game design philosophy.

This alone paints an interesting portrait of a truly old-school game designer discovering the sort of controversy that would arise only as a result of the almost anachronistic insertion into the XBox Live Arcade catalog that Space Giraffe represents - a brand-new, high-definition, surround-sound game that still somehow feels like it's from 1985. What brings it all around to my thoughts on authorial intent are articles like this one, where Minter insists that Space Giraffe is not a followup to Tempest. Except... it totally is. I put forth that not a single person who has played the original Tempest, and who has had no contact with Minter's own thoughts on Space Giraffe's design, will fail to immediately think "Aha! Tempest!" upon seeing the newer game. Furthermore, even if they like the game enough to stick with it and discover all the ways that it's different - and there are indeed many - they will still consider it a Tempest offshoot.

Again, this particular case may not be the best fit for a real discussion of authorial intent - it smells more like a case of the author not quite succeeding in branding a particular work as non-derivative, despite their own insistence, and further despite games being a medium where derivate works are usually quite welcome, so long as they manage to bring something new to the table. But the comparison nonetheless comes to mind, and makes me more attuned to the ways that digital games continue to insinuate themselves from mere pastime to validated artform. I look forward to encountering an increasing number of games that invite gobbets of literary theory called down upon themselves with more confidence from hacks like myself.

As for my feelings about the actual game, I encourage our XBox-owning readers to download its free trial version and judge it for themselves. If you are as immediately charmed by its utterly lunatic audiovisual sensibility as I was, and also find yourself unable to resist its particular band of infectious joy, and you're willing to invest some effort into learning how to play it (chiefly from out-of-channel sources like Minter's own Space Giraffe gameplay exegesis), then it's certainly worth your 400 MS points. Otherwise, I'd pass on it. At any rate, Minter's hinted elsewhere that Llamasoft intends to continue producing further XBLA titles in the vein of Space Giraffe, and having learned all about their history just now, I can't wait to see what they do next.

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Quick Links (Spring Cleaning Edition)

Not so much with the posting lately; a new (game-related!) project that I can't talk much about yet has sprouted in my middle of my life like a delicious and fecund springtime mushroom. You see what it's done to my sense of metaphor? You don't want to see my writing right now, anyway.

But for now, it's time to close some tabs!

The fellow got his hands on an ancient hard drive from the offices of Infocom, the long-defunct (but Cambridge-based!) publishers of the most well-known text adventure games in the 1980s. He shares some details from "the best parts", including design notes and swirling, dramatic internal emails regarding a never-released sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Because this received so many links from more timely game-news blogs (cough), a lot of the Infocom alums mentioned in the story showed up in the attached comment thread to flesh out the details personally, and one of them's apparently been move to pen his own view of the saga for Wired magazine. (See? There is an advantage in waiting a week to link to it. Mm-hmm.)

Lost Cities is out for XBox 360 now (as a US$10 download), and here's a video (using some whackjob MS-proprietary format, sorry) about the team adapting the tabletop party game Wits & Wagers for the platform. Word on the street that the numba-one game on Microsoft's "Live Arcade" downloadable-game service is not any sort of action-fighty game, but Uno, which has put away around 1.5 million copies through it.

So, yes, Microsoft has thrown down and put forward this console as embracing the world of tabletop games that are more obscure to American audiences than Risk. The examples I've gotten to see so far have been fairly decent and faithful adaptations, so I cautiously salute this.

Archaeologists in Iran have indentified some grid-shaped rock carvings on Khark Island as being the play surface of a millenia-old board game. No word on what kind of game it was, though the article seems to imply that it could be some relative of Backgammon. No additional commentary from the original designers this time, sadly. Anyway, an interesting antidote to the last time Iran showed up in this blog.
Andrew at Grand Text Auto describes another interesting never-was game from the 1980s, an Atari VCS game where you had to program an on-screen robot to complete tasks, such as navigating a maze. Yes, it looks like a totally bomb-ass cool version of Secret Collect. I would have loved this. Apparently the original designer is releasing some homemade cartridges with the game software on it; see article for details.
Via Play This Thing, we see that several of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf pick-a-path adventure game books from the 1980s have become free downloads. I played and enjoyed these as a kid, and as Greg notes in that post, they're an important evolutionary step in the development of single-player role-playing experiences, even though nobody(?) is publishing books like them nowadays.

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Digital Carcassonne

This isn't news to anyone but me, but still worth a post: Carcassonne, the tile-placement map-building game that we covered in episode 4, was released for XBox Live last year. I only recently got a chance to try it, and am pleased to report that it seems quite faithful to the board game. (Oddly, it didn't seem to allow the placement of farmers, which I hope was an artifact of my copy being a free trial version.)

The game displays, as public information, the tile that the active player is "holding" and pondering - this is good, as Carc's rules specifically state that it's supposed to be so. It also highlights all the spaces on the table that you can place the tile, which I suppose is unavoidable for a computer adaptation, but unfortunately obviates much of the reason for interplayer discussion during a physical game. I find myself quite curious what online Carc culture is like, and how chatty it is, compared to my in-person play experiences (where it's one of the chattiest non-cooperative board games I know of). I'll report further after I have a chance to investigate.

This digital version looks just like the physical board game, with just a subtle and restrained addition of special effects. Only when you complete a structure goes the game drop some 3D magic, making that map feature "pop out" and turn into a tall castle, cloister or road. The aesthetic makes it feel like the flat, incomplete structures are blueprints, and that you're not so much revealing a map of an existing landscape as you are actively constructing it.

I imagine people liking the XBox version so much that they go out and get the wood-and-cardboard edition, and find themselves gawping at the little meeples, crying "Wow, this is just like the video game!!" I am having a hard time thinking of other examples of digital adaptations with this peculiar potential. Many people have undoubtedly played, say, Chess against a computer before playing with a real set, but chess sets are so ubiquitous that all these folks had probably at least seen one before. Not so with games like Carc, which (at least from an American perspective) remain somewhat exotic artifacts.

Possible exception: Days of Wonder, who have made a point for years to have excellent and mostly-free-to-play online versions of their games available. In this case, they're Java-based, in-browser, highly literal adaptations, and so feel less "video-gamey" than anything you'd play on an XBox. But they definitely help move the tabletop product - heck, it's why I own my copy of Ticket to Ride.

Anyway, I note all this only today because I picked up an XBox 360 of my own last weekend. My Gamertag is "Jason McIntosh", and XBox-enabled Gameshelf gawkers should feel free to friend me, though I'm still learning how this thing works. I've been meaning to check out the XBox world for a couple of years, actually, because I've been quite curious about how Microsoft is handling online play - as far as I've been able to tell, they're the only console manufacturer who's been doing it correctly, and online gaming is a topic I have a deep personal investment in.

(Image ripped from GameSpot.)

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