Jason recently played through LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, and found himself quite impressed at not just its overall quality but its surprising and subtle characterization of Superman. Starting with a deeper examination of this game, Jason and Matt discuss adaptations of comic books into games and film, and the ways that some games can uniquely express character concepts not just through story but through the mechanics and language of gameplay.
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Matt and Jason return after a long break intending to talk top-ten lists. Instead, beginning with a digression about the Interactive Fiction Competition, they discuss the changing face of game development away from monotonous triple-A dominance and towards something more inclusive to other voices and styles.
But: no revolution passes bloodlessly.
I posted the sixth episode of Play of the Light last month, rounding out our first six-episode season of “a conversation about videogames” featuring myself and the much wiser and more handsome Matthew Weise.
The full episode list, in a nutshell:
- Episode 1: Fallout: New Vegas and how changing US political attitudes can stamp themselves on a decades-long game series.
- Episode 2: Dark Souls and the gulf that can form between a complex work’s surface reputation and its true, deeper shape.
- Episode 3: Mass Effect and the tension between a big-budget videogame’s desire to tell a compelling story while also being an exciting pew-pew gamey-game.
- Episode 4: Deadly Premonition and how videogames are uniquely suited to present their own style of cross-medium adaptation and homage of other works.
- Episode 5: Various multiplayer games, from Hero Academy to J.S. Joust, and the fundamental differences between solitaire-player design and multiplayer.
- Episode 6: The Walking Dead and ZombiU and the role of The Zombie across western media over the last half-century.
The podcast’s homepage contains relevant RSS feeds and copious per-episode links. Please enjoy at your leisure.
 We’d planned to complete the season in three or four months, not ten. (I announced the podcast here last April.) I ended up adding a six-month delay halfway in so that I could pursue Sixis; only after that shipped in November could I resume Play of the Light production. A personal education in how many things I can do at once (as well as what counts as “a thing” in this equation), but I regret that the podcast suffered in neglect as a result.
In what I hope is a pleasant Sunday surprise, Play of the Light, the podcast I produce with Matthew Weise, returns after an overlong hiatus with a new episode, this time focusing on developments in multi-player games:
Topics include Jason’s history with MUDs and current obsession with Hero Academy, how Matt’s dislike of Settlers of Catan led to lost job opportunities, that time we played Johann Sebastian Joust on the subway, what Glitch Tank teaches us about how machines play games, and more.
Listen, download, subscribe, and browse show notes at the episode page.
I am pleased and proud to announce the first episode of Play of the Light, a new audio podcast presenting a conversation about videogames between myself and Matthew Weise (former design director of MIT’s GAMBIT Game Lab, now narrative designer for Harmonix).
My inspiration to give the pure-audio production medium a spin comes from the work of Dan Benjamin and company at 5by5, a podcast network that exploded into prominence rather recently and which hosts many of my favorite shows, including Back to Work and The Ihnatko Almanac. Over the last year I have observed and absorbed the values and techniques these shows employ to create highly listenable radio. While I didn’t quite realize it until I had finished cutting the first episode, I want Play of the Light to answer the question “If 5by5 hosted a videogame show, what would it sound like?”
The real answer to that question must remain a platonic model in my head, and I can only splice together my best imitation of it, especially since audio-only recording and editing is new turf for me. But I think I did all right — my video work experience proved at least partially transferrable — and I’ll only get better at it.
I also had a sort of counter-inspiration coming from nearly every other videogame-themed podcast I’ve heard. While I have sampled only a tiny slice of the full field — this is a very well-covered topic in podcast-land — I found most such shows difficult to enjoy. They tend to feature friends talking about new games they like or don’t like (as well as whatever else may spring to mind) until they feel done, and then they publish the result with little to no editing. Listening to the result, for me, feels like awkwardly trying to mingle with a group of strangers who all know each other and have their own language, and this overshadows the ostensible topic.
I wanted to create a show that demonstrated at least a little more care than that, from the topics chosen before recording to the style of editing performed afterwards. As I write in the new show’s About page, I really do consider videogames to play an increasingly central role in human culture, and desire to bring the topic more thoughtful and digestible discussion than the internet-audio medium typically delivers.
We have committed to creating an initial “season” of six biweekly episodes, starting this week. Many will be discussions of individual games or game series, but I hope to get into some wider cultural examination as well. I do hope you’ll listen along as it happens!
The 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.
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.
Thanks to Twitter, I found myself vicariously attending GDC this year. Allow me to recount some of the more interesting things I heard people talking about.
Anna Anthropy released REDDER, a puzzley explore-and-collect game, free to play on the Newgrounds portal. Unlike When Pigs Fly, her previous effort, the difficultly comes not from its demanding feats of digital dexterity, but rather from the large size of the world, and the things about the world you must learn and remember while you strive to collect the shiny treasures. Give it a try, and block out a couple of hours to play it through if you like it.
One reason why I like Anna's games in particular is the same reason I liked watching the latter-day Battlestar Galactica so much. Ron Moore, BSG's executive producer, took advantage of internet publishing to create and release commentary tracks, in podcast format, almost at the same time the shows aired. They felt less like a producer reminiscing about a past project, and more like lectures about the challenges and strategies of putting an episodic TV show together, spoken by someone who was still in the thick of it.
Similarly, Anna is at least as active in presenting lectures and articles on level design (which we've linked to before) as she is with releasing actual games. Soon after I started When Pigs Fly and saw the grassy turf three screens over from the start, I may have said "heh heh" out loud. I felt that I knew exactly why she put it there, even though it had no explicit in-game effect, and I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't been reading along with her exegetic work.
Ian Bogost gave a presentation at GDC, titled "Play With Us", about how good games connect authors with their audiences in ways also seen in good poetry. He's posted its text and images on his website.
Pound's poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.
The reader does not "receive" the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.
The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.
When we play, we excavate.
Jason Roher, best known today for Passage, recently announced his next independently published game, Sleep is Death. This essentially looks like a tool for setting up and game-mastering two-player online storytelling RPGs, with each player sitting at a separate internet-connected computer.
I myself lack the creative muscles to get much out of storytelling games -- that is, light-ruleset role-playing games where the main goal of players and GM (when there is a GM at all) involves telling a story together: more improv theater than dungeon crawl. However, I must treat the timing as quite auspicious, given my recent appeal to the heavens for more experimentation with online multiplayer games. As such, I anticipate the game's release with eager curiosity.
I will be interested to see whether this project appeals to crowds larger than the niche who is already enjoying tabletop storytelling games, including expressly two-player works such as Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice. I predict that Sleep is Death won't launch any sort of narrativist-game revolution, but that it will introduce people to that niche who should have been there all along, and just didn't know it yet. To the rest, it will be food for thought. And this will be a net win.
Please do click through the charming and clever demonstration slideshow, which mimics a gameplay session while showing you everything you need to know to get excited about this project (if you're me).
Image credit: Battlestar Galactica publicity still by SyFy; chubby little astronaut art by Anna Anthropy.