Search Results for: television

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.

Each episode of these games, with a typical playtime of between 90 minutes to two hours, has a set storyline with a structure of major acts and lesser beats familiar to anyone with knowledge of screenplay writing — or, indeed, anyone with many years’ experience watching TV dramas. But while the major events that define the story’s acts are fixed in place, the player has limited control over the beats that make up those acts, and quite a bit of control over the protagonist’s dialogue choices and other minor actions leading up to each beat.

For example, frequently in both of these series the protagonist has a discussion (or a heated argument) with one or more non-player characters about what they ought to do next. The player receives several opportunities to choose a response or interjection from a menu, usually comprising three possible utterances the protagonist might make, with a fourth choice of “…” having them say nothing. (Depending on dramatic context, this latter might represent passive silence, or it might result in a non-verbal response, such as the character crossing their arms and glowering at their interlocutor.) The game ties most of these conversational choice-points to a timer only a few seconds long, and it will roll ahead with “…” if the player makes no choice within the timespan of what, on a television show, would constitute a pregnant pause.

However, if you reduce a latter-day Telltale game’s branching beat-and-act structure to a flowchart — which, unsurprisingly, fans have done — then little to none of this conversation appears to “matter”. The story doesn’t branch until you actually get up to the beat, the point where the player-as-protagonist decides which path to take. The conversation leading up to them does not change the timing, nature, or consequences of these choices in any structurally major way.

And yet, the conversation, all those myriad little choices folded invisibly within the straight lines of that flowchart, makes up the largest part of these games’ material, the dark matter to the more obvious “playable content” of the overt branch-points. Almost all the player’s interaction with the game happens via these timed choose-a-response prompts, which usually stack several to a scene. The games’ producers put a lot of resources into recording and animating every line the player-character might choose to say, and all the ways that other characters might react. (This isn’t an Elder Scrolls game where the character models just lip-flap robotically as their scripted dialog passes through them; these are simply but fully animated characters, and animators have had to plan how they block and deliver each line.)

So: if all these conversation options “don’t do anything”, why do they account for so much of the total mass of the game?

The naive answer might suggest that these sections merely avoid making the game too short, since there are only so many branching choice-points in any episode’s narrative. But that isn’t quite right — these games do contain pacing mechanisms, but they come in the form of vestigial adventure-game scenes. Using technology held over from earlier Telltale works (e.g. the Sam and Max games), these occasional breaks in the story’s flow let the player directly marionette the protagonist around the set for a little while, walking about and variously interacting with nearby objects or people. These scenes never last especially long, and in the latter chapters of Wolf Among Us they become almost comically short, giving the player nothing to do except walk up to a door and open it, for example. But in every case, these sections provide a break from the tension, letting the player control the pace for a while before triggering whatever action resumes the game proper.

So, perhaps they are meant to avoid turning the long stretches of exposition between choice-points into interminable cutscenes, giving the player a way to twiddle their thumbs entertainingly between major choices. That explanation would hit a little closer to the truth, but would not account for the uncanny sense of investment that I experience with these games, and which I very much doubt I’d feel were they merely Choose Your Own Adventure-style works adapted into teleplays.

When I talk about Walking Dead, I talk about what “my Lee” did in Season One, and how his choices inform what “my Clementine” is doing in Season Two. Even though every significant thing that happened to them was completely predetermined, I felt like I co-developed these characters. I have a pretty good idea how these games work as systems of rules and procedures, and I’m quite aware of the artifice and stagecraft involved. And yet the Lee of my one Walking Dead playthrough still feels like “my Lee”, and I know that he always will.

This is magic. I don’t know how it works; I write this essay to help myself think through some ways that it might. Right now, I suspect that much of the magic lurks in all that dark matter, all those dozens of little choices the game offers the player between the major choice-point beats.

To describe my approach to these games from the beginning: all the latter Telltale titles feature superb voice acting through and through, and great (if limited-budget) art direction, so I’ve no problems diving through the surface. The subject matter’s another thing; I find most zombie fiction loathsome, so it took a year or so of trusted friends’ insistence as to the game’s quality (plus a one-day sale of the series’ Xbox version) before I finally tried Walking Dead. I do love a good horror-story hook, and that game’s first episode had one, so I was in.

Once there, I found myself paying far more attention to the stories of the three extant Telltale seasons than I have from any TV show in recent memory. Because a prompt to react might literally appear at any moment — more true in the Walking Dead games, perhaps, which have license to interrupt most any scene with a door banging open and unspeakable horrors shambling in — every moment I spend playing sees my full, undivided attention focused on the game. I can’t even zone out in the limited way I do when traveling between familiar areas in an RPG, say, or bouncing through a new-but-still-familiar obstacle course in some platformer. No, I am drinking in every detail I can, listening closely to what the characters are saying (and how they’re saying it), keeping a close eye on little interpersonal tells.

But it’s not like I’m an air-traffic controller, here; I’m not just monitoring people-shaped blips booping around on my TV. These are characters as wholly fleshed-out as any you’ll find on a modern American television drama, and in paying as much attention to them as I am, I can’t help but build models of them in my mind, becoming familiar with their personalities and motivations.

With all this set-up in place, then, the game frequently asks me to choose the protagonist’s immediate next action or utterance from a short list, giving me no time to ruminate or second-guess. That on-screen timer, shrinking down like a fast-burn fuse, challenges me to trust my model of not so much what the character should do next, but what they would do. And in this way — even though I’m choosing from little pre-arranged lists, and even though the events that befall the character never change, no matter what buttons I hit — I feel like I am molding that character. I cannot help it. It really does feel like an act of co-creation, despite all the constraints.

All of which cause the inevitable arrival of the actual story beats, the choice-points, to not feel like mechanical nodes on a prose flowchart but to instead carry all the weight of irrevocably life-changing decisions. Lee, Clementine, and Bigby all live partly in my head, taking up residence one conversation-node at a time in a way that no TV character and perhaps no game character I’ve met before them ever has. Despite their being wholly fictional, even fantastical, their experiences feel shared, and so do the costs and consequences of their — our — decisions.

Seems pretty simple, when I lay it out like that! But I know it’s a difficult alchemy that’s been a long time coming, and has a lot more development and refinement ahead of it.

I’ll note that just because these games have realized a new kind of interactive television doesn’t mean they’ve perfected it. They’re at their weakest when they dip a little too far into their video-game substrate. In particular, certain quicktime challenges, on failure, result in the untimely death of a main character and a corresponding GAME OVER screen. When this happens, it feels less like I experienced a routine failure as a videogame player, and more like Netflix just cut out. Telltale is clearly experimenting with these bits, as they change dramatically in tenor from the first Walking Dead season[1], and I surely support the presence of controller-fumbling action sequences in games that are largely about building and then releasing tension, but I’m not sure they’ve gotten it quite right yet.

I have more I want to say about the particulars of how these games have moved me personally. But for now, I believe it suffices to say that my household has found the Telltale games to be among the most emotionally involving and affecting media to ever appear on our television set. I genuinely look forward to playing more, and not just from Telltale.

[1] The first season of Walking Dead allows this to get especially frustrating, as I sometimes had to replay the same zombie-dodging scene five or six times, towards the end of which I had to draw on my reserves of faith that, yes, despite all appearances the game did actually want me to finish it and I should give it one more go.

Among other things, it changes the button you need to hit in order to yank the screwdriver out of the walker’s eyesocket or whatever with every fresh attempt. I found this terrifically exasperating, if not downright trollish. Emily Short read this experience as part of the text, feeling that the game was intentionally refusing to allow the player to get good at slicing up walking corpses, because it took place in a world that isn’t meant to feel like a video game. Both Dead season two and Wolf have fight scenes that feel far more forgiving… but now that I think of it, both the supernatural Bigby and the veteran survivor-child Clementine might have more excuse to display rather more combat acumen than ol’ Lee, so perhaps they’re all playing by the same rules anyway.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

XCOM: A Link to the Past

Sad to report that television pioneer Gerry Anderson passed away today. I’d like to briefly recognize an interesting and surprising connection between one of his works — perhaps one lesser-known outside of Europe — and the modern videogame landscape.

The startlingly outlandish 1970 TV series UFO, co-created by Anderson with wife Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill, described an oddly low-intensity invasion of Earth by small teams of silent extraterrestrials. Their motives were unknown, but their methods were unmistakably hostile; they had a particular penchant for kidnapping earthlings and borrowing their internal organs. Neither slavering Xenomorphs nor chatty Klaatus, the puzzle the enigmatic aliens posed in their highly objectionable but weirdly small-scale incursions provided the show’s unique hook. The show’s protagonists worked for an international defense force tasked not just with tracking and confronting the UFO-riding, laser-wielding aliens through a network of specialized satellites and aircraft, but attempting to work out the invaders’ motivations and secrets in their futuristic science lab.

Why, yes, this does sound rather a bit like the plot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game which has recently captured my attention and imagination. Julian Gollop, lead designer of UFO: Enemy Unknown, the 1994 computer game upon which XCOM is based, has said in interviews that the TV show played a key role in inspiring the design (to say nothing of the title) of his game. Even through at least two layers of abstraction and twice as many decades of intervening influence, one can still trace the unlikely lineage between this best-case blockbuster videogame and this quirky lo-fi TV show.

Isn’t cross-media pollination wonderful?

Here’s the show’s brassy and compelling opening sequence. This could almost be an alternate teaser trailer for XCOM, as-is.

Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Torchlight, Lost, and Blow's Treadmill

4.jpgIn terms of popular culture, May 2010 goes into the annals under the headline “The month that Lost ended.” For some of us, another fact about the month is at least as significant: Valve released its Steam content-delivery service — and corresponding a passel of new games — for Mac people. And for me in particular, this meant that I could immediately start playing Torchlight on my Mac.

While one of these things is a game and the other a television show, both represent implementations of the thing I’ll call Blow’s Treadmill, that diabolical device eloquently deconstructed by Jon Blow in a talk we’ve linked to before. Blow’s Treadmill, in a nutshell, describes any system of game mechanics that give a game player a sense of accomplishment and advancement when, for all practical in-game purposes, they remain right where they started.

While the Treadmill criticism is most frequently levied against CRPGs (Blow’s archetypical example is World of Warcraft), Matthew “DefectiveYeti” Baldwin applied it admiringly to Lost in an excellent essay from a couple of years ago:

During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail ‘N’ Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each-the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST-is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.

This may sound like criticism, but it’s not. It’s admiration. Like the creators of World of Warcraft, the writers of LOST have managed to throw a saddle on the addictive lure of leveling and ride it to success. And bully for them. Like I said, I love this genre, even if I can visualize the levers they are pulling.

Like Matthew, I must sheepishly admit that I rather enjoyed Lost, despite myself. Unlike Matthew, I never really liked that I liked it. I, too, felt that I could see the levers, and felt both hopeful that I wasn’t merely being played by the show’s producers, and resentful knowing that I probably was anyway. But the show offered moments of stand-up-and-applaud brilliance — tasty meatballs in a soup of bland TV clich├ęs — exactly often enough to keep me eating, in spite of it all.

Just as Lost ended, Torchlight appeared — already in my possession from a Steam shopping spree I engaged in last Christmas, but now easily playable on my Mac. And lo, once again I find myself gobbling some media down in hours-long gulps. As before, I’m not terribly happy with my diet, but something about it is different this time. In fact, I lately start to perceive Torchlight as far less valuable to me, to the point of self-harm. If Lost is food possessing a dangerously addictive quality, then Torchlight is a mere drug, a narcotic with little nutritional value.

A key difference lay in the stories that these different works generate. Lost itself is a story, of course, but it was unusual among television shows in the striking amount of passionate audience participation it engendered and encouraged, even while it aired. As Baldwin noted, fans collaborated online to knit and share ten thousand variants of the show’s mysterious background and projected future over the course of the series. I myself even did this. (And I’ll make no muttering here as to how many of these fan-theories proved more objectively satisfying than the canonical wrapup, ahem).

But what is Torchlight’s story? On the surface, it is exactly the same as many other roguelikes, from Diablo, its direct ancestor, to grandfather Angband. You live in a town sitting on top of a multilevel, monster-infested dungeon, which houses a Big Bad at its deepest level. Kill it! Also, kill everything in between, which will make you grow in strength from a fragile weakling to an unstoppable superhero by the time you get to the bottom, just in time for the final battle.

No, not a very good story. Fortunately, at least in games like Angband, the stories that matter are the ones that you generate as you play. Much as with Lost, the internet is full of people telling Angband stories, sharing tales of their greatest triumphs, their closest shaves, and their glorious game-ending deaths. 1 Angband’s very small creative team leaves the graphics abstract to focus instead on a super-rich internal ruleset, developed and refined over many years. Make no mistake, the game’s focus remains entirely on exploring a dungeon and killing everything you find there. The vast variety of the beasties, however, and the unique ways that they interact with the player and the environment, means that novel battles — requiring the player to stop, analyze the tactical situation, and calculate relative risks — happen rather frequently.

In Torchlight, though, all the levels are the same but for the graphics used to paint them, and the same goes with the monsters, who come in many shapes and sizes and yet are all fighters, archers, or flingers of Glowy Balls of Ouch. As such, all the fights are the same, too: when you see a monster, you click on it until it dies. If you see a lot of monsters, right-click to nuke them with your magical attack, and then resume left-clicking to mop up any stragglers. When your health-tank drops past quarter-full, top it back up by pressing your “1” key, applying one of your dozens of healing potions. (You’ll find at least one more before you’ll need another.) That’s as deep as the tactics go. The only Torchlight battles I’ll remember in a year’s time are the boss fights, perhaps, and then only because the bosses are really big and look cool; fighting them involves no need to adjust your click-pattern. No stories can come of this.

There’s my attitude laid bare. So why, according to Steam, have I invested 16 hours into this activity since MacSteam’s premiere?

Torchlight presents a shockingly raw implementation of Blow’s Treadmill, expertly exploiting the concept so that it utterly hooks people like me, and hours have passed before I start to smell something truly fishy. And then I play for another ten hours anyway, because I can say without sarcasm that watching numbers attached to your in-game persona tick ever upwards in exchange for your real-life time and attention can make for some really compelling stuff.

Only now, after the equivalent of two full-time work-days playing the game, do I see the depths of Treadmill-enabling baked into its design. I see it summed up most handily in the info-boxes that hover over the weapons in your inventory screen. The weapons have interesting appearances, descriptive names, and lists of effects, but the only thing you need to notice with each one is the big, white Damage Per Second number floating at the top of the pane. Correct play means ignoring any narrative implied by all the other stuff, there to make it feel like you’re not playing the part of an extremely inefficient sorting algorithm. And do note the name Damage Per Second: a prominent in-game statistic acknowledges that one of the game’s chief goals involves your voluntarily burning up measures of your lifetime in exchange for the ability to “damage” hordes of identical monsters via mouse-clicks. This, in the end, represents game design bordering on the cynical, and more offensive to me than Lost at its lamest ever was.

Kicking a drug habit is hard work, whether the drug is a chemical you ingest or an activity that stimulates your brain to squirt tasty hormones at regular intervals. First, as they say, comes admitting you have a problem, and I write this column in part to shock myself out of the habit, since — again, unlike nobler cousins like Angband — the game lacks a permadeath feature to slap me back into sobriety when I’ve played long enough. And so, having bought myself a window of introspective clarity, I have deleted Torchlight from my Steam library.

And if I made sure that my 20th-level Vanquisher’s save-file was properly secured in the Steam Cloud before I deleted the program? Well. Let us agree that I am simply being a responsible game researcher and archivist.

[1] More recently, this has been done one better by _Dwarf Fortress_, which produces more interesting stories via itself giving you a more interesting story to start with.
Posted in Best Of, Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

My (vicarious) GDC takeaways

bsg and redder.jpgThanks 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.

Read the whole thing, please.

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.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prisoner: discussion post

Occasionally I co-opt this space to just talk about stuff. Then I figleaf it by raising some spurious connection to the world of games -- which I can always do, because games are connected to everything. I mean, dude.

Today's topic -- and tomorrow's and Wednesday's -- is the new TV remake of The Prisoner. (The figleaf, of course, is the best videogame ever made, which I played along with the IF premieres of Infocom and Scott Adams, back in 1980.)

I have now watched the first part (or first two parts of six, depending on how you count -- just like Tolkien). I want to get some thoughts down on blogpaper before I either read other people's thoughts, or see more of the show. So this will be my comment post. I will update it on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Spoiler-free judgement: good job so far. Ian McKellen is magnificent.

The rest of this post will contain SPOILERS. Comments will also be spoilery, I expect. Continue on if your mind is already contaminated.

EDIT-ADD Tuesday evening: Added comments about part two ("Anvil/Darling"). Spoiler-free judgement: overcompressed but promising.

EDIT-ADD Thursday evening: Added comments about the conclusion ("Schizoid/Checkmate"). Spoiler-free judgement: not awful, but disappointing to Prisoner fans.

(I mean it about the SPOILERS, after the cut.)

Part one: Arrival, Harmony

There must, of course, be changes. The new Village is not the old Village. The new Two is not the old Number Two. A remake cannot reiterate; we expect that.

Most important change first. The role originally played by Albertus has been given to Optima Bold. (See the map links above to view them in context.) Risky -- Optima is a familiar player these days, without the crazily retro associations of Albertus. But it works quite well. Optima is elegant, but overuse it -- and The Prisoner, old and new, gleefully uses the hell out of its core font -- and Optima gets on your nerves; it's unsettling, over-recognizable, intrusive. Exactly right.

Yes, fonts are trivial. Seriously now:

The Village landscape is different. No longer cozy and self-contained; it's expansive, barren, surrounded by deserts (like so many fairylands). Its focal points are starkly alien, not quaint. I'm willing to go with it. Post-apocalypse, time travel, virtual cyberworld, reconstructed by aliens? All of those have been done before, and I'll admit I'll be disappointed if the show settles on any of them. But I like the wordless way the possibilities have been raised.

The threats are different. Six's former employer has a name. He is an ex-corporate analyst, not an ex-spy. That is no surprise. The old Village was the perfect reflection of the Cold War -- governments were all, terrifying and secretive. The new enemy is the private, megalithic corporation which stands on the hazy edge of governmental influence. The stakes are still your privacy, your rights, and the control of your life; only the masks have changed.

The construction of the story is different. Two's game is not just about Six; it is rooted in Two's own life, his wife (if that is his wife), his son (if that creepily underaged beautyboy is his son). We don't know the game yet, of course, but it's not the duel simple for Six's soul.

(Do I need to mention that Ian McKellen is magnificent? Benign, charming, all-powerful, slightly mercurial, mildly frustrated with Six, and, just possibly, batshit insane. He's the perfect distillation of all Number Twos -- except, so far, for the trembling wreckage that Number Six occasionally managed to leave in his wake. We'll see if we get there by Tuesday.)

(I'm also pretty pleased by the hints of the old show, and the old Six, surfacing in the background. Patrick McGoohan did not live to see this show filmed, but I believe they had a place reserved for him, and it is fitting.)

All of this is still trivia. My judgement is positive, though still reserved: I'll buy all of it and see where it goes.

The interesting changes are deeper, and they have given me insight into what I believe The Prisoner is.

In the New Village, nobody believes in New York (or London). There is no outside world. Six's initial collision with Village life is not "I will escape," but "I believe that there is somewhere to escape to."

Metaphorically, sure, the theme of The Prisoner has always been "the world is the Village". But literalizing it like this -- I'm not sure.

See, if Two's story is right, then Six is deluded. And if Six is right, then everyone around him is deluded. And the story can't do a lot with that. It's the he-said-she-said problem: what do you do after they've said? Eventually, someone turns out to be right.

I know, the old show had its share of episodes that tried to rewrite Six's memory. (And more than its share that he spent drugged out of his gourd.) I remember them fondly. But ultimately they wind up in that annoying montage where Six twitches and mumbles and has memory flashes; and that's just where the first part of the new show wound up.

(I guess I'm glad, because that implies they'll do something else tomorrow.)

The creepy thing about the Old Village was that the Villagers weren't brainwashed, mostly. They accepted the Village. They were passive collaborators, or active ones. Six wasn't surrounded by zombies -- he was surrounded by Them. His peers, explicitly -- retired spies, inventors, movers and shakers -- who were no longer on Six's side, no longer shared his goals (even ignoring the surface boundaries of the Cold War).

This element did begin to surface last night, and I think that's when the new show really started to sizzle. When the tour bus drove by the Clinic, and the Villagers got very quiet. When Two arrives, and the stink of desperate terror fills the air. Later, of course, when they begin admitting to lies.

Because that's when you know they know. They may not know New York, but they know there are sides. The Villagers have agendas; they have things that they want; which means they have things they will betray to get what they want. And that's what The Prisoner is, to me.

Part two: Anvil, Darling

This didn't work as well, because they slid out of miniseries mode, back to the series/episodic model of the original show. Not completely -- but this was clearly two episodes, the Show Where Six Works Undercover and the Show Where Six Falls In Love. (Maybe the first two-hour chunk could be divided up that way, but it didn't feel like it at the time.)

I say it wasn't completely divorced from miniseries structure, because each episode was strongly tied to the miniseries plot: the first to the present (Two's son), and the second to the past (Six meeting Lucy in New York). The problem is, they tried to have self-contained, one-hour plots as well. And they couldn't fit all that into one hour.

The result felt like stand-alone episodes which had had half their scenes edited out. We never had a chance to follow the schoolgirl 1100, so her loss at the end of "Anvil" was flat and pointless. It should have been a damning indictment of Six's quest -- he set her off, after all -- but it never connected. As for Six's romance, it went from heavy petting to the chapel scene so fast that I mistook it for 832's funeral. All the story's connective tissue was missing.

Which is a shame, because the other story material -- Two's family, the flashbacks -- were fantastic. I love the background building. (The "Reformation", "Number Two the 14th," "Who is Number One?" and every hand goes up.) None of that was dispensible. And for sure I prefer under-explained, elliptical, fast-jumping scripts to the overexplained kind. But this part of the show needed another hour of screen time, minimum, and that's all that's to be said.

The mysterious holes seemed very random and perhaps pointless... except that they're really of a piece with the Village's perverse and unstable geography: vanishing oceans, omnipresent crystal towers, a trackless desert where every track leads to the same anchor. If the last part of the show takes this somewhere, I'll be happy with the holes. If not, I'll be somewhat put out.

(However, they will still be redeemed by the "HAVE A PIG... FOR STABILITY!" posters. I want one.)

Let me put in a word for Jim Caviezel, by the way. One wants to just mumble ecstatically about Ian McKellen, but really Caviezel is doing a great job of being The Prisoner without doing a Patrick McGoohan impression. I think he's taking some cues from the classic McGoohan performance -- watch him searching the liquor cabinet in part one, for example -- but he's got his own brand of prickliness and suspicion.

On to part three....

Part three: Schizoid, Checkmate

These two hours still had an episodic slant (the Evil Twin, the Conclusion) but the hour-long stories were better integrated with the overall show. They fit in as chapters within the overall arc, and they didn't try to introduce new characters with their own self-contained stories. (This, in retrospect, was the failure of Anvil and Darling: they tried to provide complete stories of 1100 and 415, while still following Six, and that's what didn't fit.)

I said last time that if the show went somewhere interesting with its surreal geography, I'd be happy with the Unexplained Dirt Holes. But then, I said earlier I'd be disappointed if they picked a standard SF trope like "virtual cyberworld" or "all in your head".

So, both. I'm somewhat happy, and somewhat disappointed.

Because I am in a good mood, I will start with the disappointment.

The Prisoner is a show about agendas, principles, lies, promises, and betrayal. That's why an "all a dream" ending would have been a cop-out: because if all of the Villagers are figments of Six's imagination, they can't be real people who choose wrongly (or rightly). They can't be afraid; they can't demand things; they can't betray Six. It would just be Six sabotaging himself, which is not the point.

(Again, I admit that the old show had plenty of dream sequences. But the point was that the dreams were tools, ultimately -- Two's weapons, or sometimes Six's. They were elements of the game.)

(...Except for the final episode, which went to wackyland and didn't come back. I shall not add to the lake of ink which has been spilled over Fall Out; you make up your own mind about it, and that's its point.)

Now, I don't categorize the new show as a simple "all a dream" story. The writers developed the concept in an interesting way; and they populated their fairyland with real people, not zombies or figments. But, at the same time, the show presented them as not really conscious people. They were unaware of the real world, unaware of their own history.

That's not a recipe for agency. Sleepwalkers don't make interesting decisions; they just react to their dreams. Even 415/Lucy, who had a dynamic role in the New York scenes, became passive once she transitioned to the Village. 16 (Six's "brother") and 909 (1112's boyfriend) had moments of choice -- but their choices didn't really matter to Six, did they?

And with the question of what matters, we turn to the surreal aspects of the show.

The old show carefully framed its surreal moments (with the exception, again, of its conclusion): you always knew, by the end of the episode, what had been dream and what real. (Though not, perhaps, which events had been faked or staged.) A few episodes were mostly hallucination, but physical reality dominated.

The new show, in contrast, metered out a steady stream of surreal, hallucinatory moments; they were woven into each episode. A few were explicitly marked as dreams (for example, Six's rescue of 313 in the tunnel). But most of them simply flowed past, ungraspable. The vanishing ocean. The holes. Six's twin being invisible from some viewpoints. Six being hauled off for treatment, and then reawakening at home undisturbed. (How many times did that happen, actually?)

This was, of course, all lead-up to the core revelation of the Village as a shared dreamworld. And that colors how I react to it. As writing, as a sustained atmosphere of dissociation, I find it excellently done. I've always been a sucker for surreal stuff -- any fan of my games knows that.

And I am seriously damn impressed by the underlying mechanic of the show's writing: the New York flashback scenes which turn out not to be flashbacks. The miniseries is presented (I am convinced of this) in unadorned chronological sequence; everything occurs in the order that we see it. It is the nature of this Village that every inhabitant -- every real inhabitant, I mean -- is simultaneously inside and outside, going about a conscious and an unconscious life in parallel.

Pulling that off, using the conventions of film and then turning it inside out by disclaiming the convention -- that is a hell of a trick, and I damn the writers forever for thinking of it first. Leaving it unexplained and unremarked -- merely implied, more and more strongly, as the show concludes -- that is iridium gonads of the first water. Not to mention that I'm gonna have to watch the whole thing again, paying attention to the simultaneities.

But. And on the other hand. The endpoint of all this surreality is a Village in which most of the Villagers don't matter to the story. They sleepwalk through their world, and either survive or vanish at Two's whim. Six does not need to trust them or help them, sacrifice them or destroy them. When these things happen (as with 1100), Six isn't even aware of it. And the conflicts of the Village do not matter to the world.

Which is why I say this new show is well-written, but it is not The Prisoner. If I can wrench my mind away from this fandom that I have held since age 10, if I can forget all the Prisoner catchphrases and clever references, I can see it as an excellent work of psychological science fiction. But as The Prisoner -- no. It's not about the same questions.

Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Episode #7 - Diplomacy

I am pleased to present the seventh episode of The Gameshelf, a product of over four months' work from both me and my totally stellar cast and crew. In this episode, we focus on a single board game: Diplomacy, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its original publication this year. In usual Gameshelf fashion, we show you a game in play. But this is a very unusual game, so we took an unusual approach to filming it. I hope you enjoy it.

Watch it through the embedded player above, or download it as a high-quality Quicktime video file.

This was the most ambitious show we've ever made, and I am as proud of it as I am looking forward to returning to humbler (read: easier to edit) show styles.

Some show notes and links:

  • A Chicago Magazine profile of Diplomacy's designer, Allan B. Calhamer, from earlier this year. Describes the life of a trailblazing game designer in a time when the world wasn't quite ready to support his chosen passion, which is why he spent most of his life as a mail carrier. (He's now retired.)

  • The two websites I mention towards the end of the show:

    • The Diplomatic Pouch, a Diplomacy fansite with deep roots, collecting lots of resources related to the game. It includes an archive of a "Dip" fanzine nearly as old as the web, and links to print zine archives decades older.

    • WebDiplomacy.Net, an online implementation of Diplomacy with some pretty sweet graphics, and the ability to browse games in progress. This website was brought to my attention from Matt Sakai (Italy), who hadn't played Diplomacy at all before the weekend of filming, and then went on to play several games online.

  • Wizards of the Coast's Diplomacy page. As mentioned on the show, WotC is the game's current publisher, and kindly provided the copy we used to play.

  • This is the weddingest episode of The Gameshelf ever:

    • Kevin Jackson-Mead, who played Russia, flew off to real-life Russia the following weekend to get hitched. (He wrote a blog entry about his experiences there as a visiting gamer.)

    • Dave Heiman (Turkey) and Diana Mirabello (France) got married to each other earlier this month.

    I'm fairly certain that, in both cases, the weddings were planned well in advance of our game shoot. But who knows how existing passions may have been further enflamed by the desperate clash of anthropomorphized nation-states?

  • We set up a "confessional camera" (a MacBook with a webcam app loaded) in a closet. All the players (and some of the crew) made healthy use of it, but I ended up not using any of the footage so collected in the final show. I plan on releasing a "bonus episode" that will simply concatenate all the confessions into a single document of world domination.

  • This was the first episode of The Gameshelf filmed without any use of the Somerville Community Access TV studio, though I still made use of their camcorders, with gratitude. All filming took place in my home, including the greenscreen bits.

Posted in Gameshelf TV, Videos | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Lee Stewart's Random Oddness

Just a little side-link: Lee Stewart has been part of The Gameshelf's small and constant crew since the first episode, mostly doing camera work, but also assisting in other aspects of production and studio management during shoots. Sometime when I wasn't looking, he turned his blog Random Oddness into a showcase for his recent adventures in screenwriting. As a fan and supporter of DIY television, I feel obliged to toss him a link!

Bonus Gameshelf Trivia: I'm pretty sure I mis-credited him as "Lee Marvin" in at least one early episode.

Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Quick report: Ralph Baer's talk

This was the most crowded I'd ever seen a Post Mortem gathering, and the packed room was bursting with love for the speaker. When Baer showed a video of his 1967 self and a colleague demonstrating "the ping-pong game", the room went wild; here was footage of a gentleman in thick glasses holding a bulky, knob-encrusted controller showing off what would become the very first home video game console, and the person showing the video through his MacBook was the exact same guy, 40 years older but just as enthusiastic. (The audio on his laptop cut out, actually, so he just narrated the video in-person instead.) I have to say, it was something else, all right.

baer.jpgTelling the story of Odyssey's development took less time than scheduled, so he continued by opening up a Word document that contained illustrations of all his inventions over the decades, telling the tale of each. These were mainly commercial failures you've never heard of (Talking doormats! TV-interacting hand puppets!) but there were a couple of bigger names which clearly subsidized all the other experiments.

Undoubtedly, the biggest of the hits was Simon, a stand-alone electronic game that has been on sale continuously since its introduction in 1978, and whose most recent designs barely stray from the original. (Baer named the bright and many-colorful LEDs in new models, a technology unavailable 30 years ago, as one welcome change.) How many other battery-operated toys can claim that distinction?

During the brief Q&A, one fellow asked him whether the Odyssey was a digital or analog computer. Baer replied that he didn't feel it was computer at all; just a very clever arrangement of relays and switches that interfered meaningfully with the TV's normal operation. (Though I rather feel that to be a perfectly valid, deconstructionist definition of a computer system...)

His response to an enthusiastic "Sir! What advice do you have for us!" was basically: Eh, I dunno, you're all writing software, and I'm just an old TV hacker. But, he noted, there will always be a market for console peripherals.

His parting words for the evening, spoken with a grin, hinted that he was looking at the Wii schematics with some interest...

Crappy iPhone photo by me. You can learn more about Ralph Baer's life work at his page on the Smithsonian's website.

Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

"The Balcony is Closed"

Roger Ebert, reflecting upon the end of Ebert & Roeper, formerly Siskel & Ebert.

Notable here since The Gameshelf's review format is greatly inspired by the two-critics-having-a-conversation style that Gene and Roger pioneered on television decades ago. I'd been an on-and-off fan of the show since my own childhood. My inspiration to try my own hand at TV production came about after rediscovering the show via the magic of TiVo in 2003, and then watching it every week for the next couple of years.

Tagged | Leave a comment

Werewolf vs. Mole

The Mole is about to start a new season here in the US, after an absence of several years. I hadn't heard of it before and was about to come here proclaiming that clearly it was inspired by deception-themed party games we've covered on The Gameshelf, such as Werewolf and Shadows over Camelot, but Wikipedia tells me that the concept is many years older than the latter game and rather contemporary with the former's invention. (Though it could certainly be informed by Mafia, Werewolf's progenitor.)

It still strikes me as a potentially fascinating reality show concept - I especially like that the TV-viewing audience doesn't know who the "traitor" is, either. I'm quite curious to see how well it works in execution. Any "Mole" fans here? (For the record, my favorite reality show - indeed, the only one I can watch without feeling dreadful - is Top Chef, which is a straight-up competition featuring a group of talented individuals doing what they love, as opposed to a group of random folks playing arbitrary games and encouraged to backstab each other and otherwise generate teh drama on the way to victory. Though I do wish they'd lay off the super-obvious tension-adding editing. And retire the screeching "Uh oh something bad just happened" sound effect. Anyway.)

Speaking of television, please accept my apologies that the most recent episode is taking a long time to come together. All my spare attention's lately taken by that mysterious game-related project that popped up in March and will likely take me the rest of the summer to complete, much less talk about. I went into this year hoping that I'd be able to produce a lot of episodes, but circumstances (which is to say, my own habit of leaping at shiny, shiny opportunity) dictate otherwise for now. Still, the show will be done when it's done, and then will suddenly appear in the RSS feed as usual. Hurrah for surprises!

Tagged , | 1 Comment


For folks with access to cable TV in Somerville, MA, I'll be appearing on an upcoming episode of Inside SCAT, a new show about stuff going on around the community access TV station that helps me produce The Gameshelf. The show airs Tuesday evenings at 7:30 on channel 3. I'm on either next Tuesday or the week after, depending upon how quickly stuff gets edited. Hurrah for community access TV!

I also got a chance to meet Danny Martinez, a Somerville High student who produces a weekly live TV show about video games called S'Ville Games. It airs every Tuesday at 3:30, and features call-in segments. Give it a watch, if you're in town!

Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Casting call!

The Gameshelf is looking to expand the pool of people it invites on the show to play games. Prior to this casting effort, this has been limited to game fans whom we already knew. I'd like to cast the net a little wider in an effort to get a broader variety of gamers on the show.

Guest gamers help the show by simply playing games on-camera, usually in SCAT's Somerville TV studio and occasionally on-location somewhere. We then mix clips of this gameplay footage with the hosts discussing the game. To get an idea how this works, watch any of our recent episodes, or one of our YouTube excerpts, such as Werewolf or Acquire. We sometimes also invite guests to participate in the little skits that punctuate each episode.

Because The Gameshelf is a low-to-no-budget effort, guests are paid only with the glory of appearing on a community access TV show and video podcast, and having their names forever in that episode's credit roll.

Guest gamers should either live in the Boston area or be able to visit without much hardship. They are punctual, showing up on-time for any shoot they agree to help with, and once arrived they are cool and good-humored under camera. Most importantly, though, Gameshelf guests love games, and want to be part of a group effort to bring the message of joy through game-playing to a global audience.

If this sounds like you, fill out the application below! You don't have to answer every question, but the more complete your form is the better your chances are. All replies will be confidential; I won't go copying your email address onto another webpage or sell it to spammers or anything like that.

Callbacks will be as spotty as The Gameshelf's own production schedule. Perhaps you'll hear from me immediately; perhaps it'll take months. Perhaps you'll bump into me on the street one day and ask me about the time you submitted the application and never heard back, I'll look all confused. At any rate, all applications will be read, filed, and ruminated upon. We may invite you to appear for an on-camera audition, which will probably involve playing a short game or two with us or with your fellow applicants.

All that out of the way, here is the actual application. Please email your answers. Make the subject line of your email Gameshelf casting.






What city do you live in?

What is your favorite tabletop (board or card) game? Why?

What is your favorite digital (video or computer) game? Why?

Any other games you love? (Sports? Role-playing? Puzzles? Etc?) Why?

Why do you want to be on this show?

On that note, why would I want you to be on it?

What would you change about The Gameshelf?

Anything else you'd like to say, or ask?

Finally, please attach a photograph of yourself to your email. Nothing glamorous, but enough to show me what you look like. If possible, have your photographed self wearing the sort of clothing that you'd expect to wear on camera. Use your own best judgment about that!

Feel free to toss a link to this blog entry to anyone else who might be interested in helping, and of course you can ask me any questions about the show or the casting process by commenting here or emailing me. Thanks!

Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments