Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mundane and the Magical in 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter'

Noting more peaceful than the great outdoors...
This week, my PopMatters column is about one of the most pleasant surprises of the year full of pleasant surprises: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Every once in a while a game comes along that I just want to root for.  Ethan Carter tackles fairly non-traditional subject matter, making it more akin to Gone Home rather than BioShock in the world of first-person immersive sims.  The developer, a group of folks called The Astronauts, previously worked on games like Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement, so it's nice to see them branching out.  They also have a great website where they post about everything from their technical approach to the YouTube influence on game sales.

What I like most though is Ethan Carter's juxtaposition of the natural and supernatural.  The world feels quite normal until a portal to another dimension opens up.  This portal is rendered with just as much care as any of the game's trees, giving it a sense of magical realism that few games have.  Odd as it sounds, I don't think many games take advantage of their innate ability to insert unexpected events into simulations of the real world.  It's either full on fantasy or a slavish devotion to verisimilitude.  Ethan Carter does a good job of mixing the mundane and the magical in a way that reminds me of Papo & Yo, one of my favorite game's of 2013.

I don't want to say too much more because experiencing it is very well worth experiencing the game without a lot of foreknowledge.  The game boldly declares that it won't hold your hand within the first few seconds and this ends up being a great thing.  It forces you to pay close attention to the world, which makes its magical elements all the more impressive.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

EXP Podcast #298: Eating Through Games

Kirby: The best chef in video games.
On your lunch break? Starving for a mouth-watering podcast to sink your teeth into? Look no further! This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I head to the kitchen to discuss food in games. We round out the podcast at our usual thirty-minute mark, but there is a bounty of food topics to discuss in games. What are your favorite hunger mechanics? What are the most effective examples of eating in games? What is your favorite game that features food and why is it Chronotrigger? Let us know in the comments below!

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 30 mins 23 secs

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Long Dark: Survival Challenge

The Long Dark Alpha is out, so the relatively spooky month of October continues with a journey into the frigid north. How long will it take before Scott and I try to eat each other? Find out below!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting Physical with Board Games

Transparent cards in Gloom. Steal that idea!
And now an ode to cardboard in this week's PopMatters piece on the physicality of board games.

This past weekend, I went to the first ever Tableflip Conference, a tiny little mini-con dedicated to board game design chats and play sessions. This is where I first played Forbidden Desert, Matt Leacock's  successor to Forbidden Island, which I discuss in the article above. I am a huge fan of Matt's work, so it was a pleasure to hear him talk about his games and his approach to autonomy among players. The "alpha gamer" problem is always a risk in the design of cooperative board games, I genre I adore, and you can see a clear improvement through his work into Forbidden Desert in particular. The physicality of the game plays a significant part in mitigating the problem, largely thanks to a shifting board state that makes optimal decision making difficult for one player.

I want to emphasize how unique a shifting board state is among board games. Yes, the play space change in importance as little pieces move around a table or cards are played, but few games ever consider having entire pieces of the environment fall off or rotate out from under you. These are games that aim to reach the interest of a younger audience, which is why I think Leacock gets away with some of this clever physicality.

In fact, there are plenty of games that use physicality and art to interesting effect. Dixit's art-interpretation puts interesting emphasis on creative storytelling that could easily be wrapped up into games of that ilk. Gloom uses transparent cards to stack visual components to both mechanical and comedic effects. Why don't people make more games with transparent cards? It's so cool. Fantasy Flight's X-Wing miniatures game includes asteroid fields players set before each match, letting players take turn creating the board state before every game. How neat is that?

Next time you play a board game and take all the pieces out of the box, ask yourself if the designers really used the physicality of the medium as thoroughly as they could have.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

EXP Podcast #297: Back to the Grind

The now-legendary loot cave in Destiny
You wake up and roll out of bed.  You strap on the rare gauntlets you found yesterday, you realize you don't have time for breakfast.  When you reach the mouth of the cave, you load your rifle and pull the trigger.  The thrall's head snaps back, it's body crumples to the ground, and you try to decide whether you hate this daily grind or whether it's the best thing in the world.  This week, we revisit the concept of "grinding" in games.  Whether it's farming rare items or trying to trying to level up, what lessons can we learn from devoting time to repetitive action?  As always, jump into the comments and share stories from your time in the mines.

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 35 mins 46 secs
- "The Serotonin Machine: On Grinding," by Mark Filipowich, via The Ontological Geek
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Weird, Weird Woods

It's fall: the air is brisk, the leaves are turning colors, and the restless spirits are haunting abandoned towns. Join us for a stroll through the forest, but look out for the bear traps.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Limits, Secrets, and Community of 'P.T.'

"On second thought, let's go out for lunch."
Welcome to October, everyone. Let’s get spooky and let’s start with P.T..

I had been meaning to play P.T. for some time now and was afraid that I had missed the opportunity to play it before the collective Internet hive mind had cracked open all its secrets. It’s rare that any sort of video game mystery can remain unsolved for a week, let alone a month. Fortunately for me, enough is known that I could see the entire story but there are still plenty of obscured details.

Obscurity is simultaneously the best and most frustrating thing about P.T.. An experience that doesn’t overload you with tutorialization or shove an obvious plot at your face is a rare treat. I defy Kojima to stick with this minimalism with Silent Hills, but I suppose weirder things can happen. In any case, the game’s opacity means you have to be especially attuned to everything that is going on: What exactly are these buttons doing? Do these sound effects have mechanical significance? Is that garbage in the corner set dressing or a crucial clue? The game’s mechanics aren’t all that complex, but the subtlety of the feedback demands your attention.

At the same time, this obscurity can be extremely annoying to the point of feeling unfair. I doubt that any one person can finish the game without either consulting a guide or simply lucking into it. You could argue that this is purposeful, that in this age of the streaming and hyper-dedicated fan bases the single player game is actually a meta-multiplayer it is completely legitimate to require players collectively work on a single player experience. I’m willing to indulge P.T. on this, thanks in no small part to the sheer audacity of attempting such a trick. It’s a gutsy line to walk and I admire that.

All this makes it easy to forget that P.T is also “playable teaser” for another game. The developer freely admins that Silent Hills may bear little resemblance to P.T., but the fact that they were willing to put out something so experimental gives me great hope for whatever they’re working on next. Seeing Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to anything is exciting, but seeing that they’re apparently willing to take risks. Silent Hills has quickly become one of the primary considerations of when to upgrade to the current generation of consoles.

I’ve gotten this far without talking about how P.T. succeeds as a horror game, but that’s what the column on PopMatters is about. P.T.’s creative choices, especially the way it embraces the tactic of limiting the player, make for an exciting experience that both isolate players in the moment while inspiring them to connect in hopes of unraveling the complete mystery. How long this will take (or if it will ever happen) might be the game’s greatest and creepiest trick.