Results tagged “digital games”


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

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

Telltale Television

Winkyandyou head07The publisher itself doesn’t market them this way, and I haven’t run across anyone else applying the label. So, from my own perspective, let me say it first: Telltale Games’ most recent narrative video games, including The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, have realized the ancient dream of true interactive television.

By this I don’t mean TV shows with audience call-in gimmicks attached, or experimental games delivered via broadcast television, or similarly venerable exercises of the medium. I mean an evolutionary application of contemporary television storytelling techniques to the naturally interactive environment of video games to create something entirely new, and deeply interesting.

DayZ and new experiments in interplayer violence

When the excellent internet-culture podcast TLDR tweeted a couple weeks ago that its new episode featured an interview with someone who witnessed her persona within a certain video game get sexually assaulted by other human players, I had an immediate guess which game they’d name. I was right: the incident occurred in DayZ, a popular MMO with a nominal post-apocalyptic survival theme.

My knowledge of DayZ is quite limited. I’ve never played it. I have had one friend, a inveterate fan of actual role-playing in online RPGs, regale me at length about all the time she’d spent there with an online improv group, experiencing varying success at playing out story-games in its setting. When the game got a wider release on Steam last year, I read a long comment-thread on imgur about all the goofy ways new players had died, with a strange focus on other players force-feeding them rotten fruit or drain cleaner.

And then, earlier this year, I discovered this video, following a link describing it as something amazing that happened in the game. With my lack of knowledge about typical interactions in DayZ, and otherwise not knowing what to expect (outside of the video’s title), I found the first 40 seconds — which isn’t supposed to be the amazing part — very stressful to watch.

Those 40 seconds contain one of the most violent exchanges I have ever seen in a video game, even though (modulo some casual language) the incident, if dramatized on film, wouldn’t rate more than a PG in the US. In one sense, it’s just two men talking; neither so much as lays a finger on the either.

The third man who shows up at the 40-second mark is the star of the video, and immediately changes the tone in an unexpected and genuinely impressive direction. But from context, I take it that one player brandishing a gun and verbally instructing an unarmed player to kneel, humiliated, is such a typical interaction in the game that it doesn’t even bear comment. This video uses it as mere stage-setting; one gets the impression that if the third character hadn’t appeared, this player wouldn’t have bothered posting this video.

Puzzle-combat in "I Am Alive"

Playing Bioshock Infinite reminds me how much I wanted to write about I Am Alive, a game I finished earlier this year and found both easier to enjoy and quite uniquely thought-provoking. So let’s do that now.

This Ubisoft-produced survival-horror game appeared as a downloadable console title last year to little fanfare (which is to say, nobody on my Twitter timeline had much to say about it), and I bought it on a hunch, putting it aside for later. Even though it took me another year to actually pick up and play through, I found I Am Alive a delightful and rewarding surprise. While the game’s narrative isn’t spotless, I found the script and voice acting very good, and think the game explores genuinely new directions for survival-horror games in terms of both mechanics and story.

Let me describe here what I especially liked about the mechanics, because that’s the easy part. I hope this’ll be a warm-up for the narrative stuff, which I expect to have harder time writing well about. The game is about a man searching through a destroyed city for his family, and among the various situations he faces while under the player’s control are frequent encounters with opportunistic ruffians. That’s the bit I want to talk about here.

Why I still play Spelunky

Piano lessonI strikes me as a bit counterintuitive that I would enjoy Derek Yu’s Spelunky as much as I do, while I remain estranged from Dark Souls. Aren’t both games super-cruel dungeon crawls, presenting maddeningly difficult challenges while swiftly and severely punishing the slightest error? Perhaps, but they do so with practically opposite attitudes towards the player, a difference suggested by — but much deeper than — the two games’ radically different aesthetics.

Dark Souls: Pain without Pause

4300012375_05c6e3171b.jpgI’d like to follow up on that last post about Dark Souls, providing a little more context for my reaction. While it occurred against a backdrop of environmental stress that was probably incompatible with such an unusually demanding game, I find the real trigger to lie with a single, curiously underreported feature of this work.

No essay about Dark Souls I encountered before this week has mentioned its lack of a pause button. Pressing start on the controller summons up an equipment-swap overlay where you can futz around your character’s belongings in typical RPG fashion, but it does not stop the in-game action. The only way to make the game halt, even temporarily, involves quitting it entirely.

Thus, if the doorbell rings while your character is under assault and in danger of losing all your recent progress, you will have a certain choice to make. I found this design decision first perplexing, then fascinating. It seemed devilishly in-keeping with the game’s overall attitude of reward for those who learn to play by its rules, and utter disdain for anyone else. Oh, I’m terribly sorry, says Dark Souls to the player looking for the pause button. I thought you had come here to play. Clearly, I was mistaken. I do apologize. Why don’t you come back when you’re ready?

When Dark Souls broke its contract

charlie_brown_lucy.jpgLast semester I found myself needing two copies of Xbox Left 4 Dead so that we could study that game in class. I already owned one, and feeling too lazy to requisition another from the university, I arranged a temporary trade for a friend’s copy. He requested Dark Souls in exchange, having observed my copious tweeting on that topic a few weeks before. The semester’s over now, and my friend had quickly found that Dark Souls wasn’t really his cup of tea. I’ll propose a lunch to reverse the exchange sometime, but I’m in no particular hurry: I don’t really want to see Dark Souls in my house again, let alone in my game console.

To say I don’t like the game would be an oversimplification bordering on falsehood; in fact, the game brought me many hours of enjoyment, and I carry lasting fond memories of certain gameplay moments. As reports from friends filter in that they are finally finishing the game (it takes upwards of 100 hours to traverse), I think back to these moments, and the chance that I’ll give it another look someday rises above absolute zero. But this can’t happen in the near future: my relationship with this game ended so disastrously that it’s really better for both of us to avoid contact for a long time.

I must risk sounding melodramatic to explain why this game so profoundly unsettled me: I had never felt such purely negative emotion about a videogame in my adult life as I did at the moment when Dark Souls betrayed my trust.

Matt Weise on Zelda's succumbing to nostalgia

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

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

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

A pleasant journey through NightSky

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

The Lethean waters of Ooh, Shiny

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

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

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

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

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

Smartypants L.A. Noire reax

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

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

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

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

Not knowing "no", in Dragon Age and elsewhere

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

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

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

It’s everywhere.

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

Knowing when to scrap it

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

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

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

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

Lester's Legacy

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

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

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

Playing co-op with Zach

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

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

Chronogamer on Space Invaders

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

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

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

The Warbler's Nest, and some IFComp thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Friday links: Race and Dominion online

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

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

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

On shorter games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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