Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EXP Podcast #45: A Real Downer

You've put in hours into a game, the final boss is just on the horizon. While the end might be nigh, it probably isn't unpredictable. Game endings tend to be repetitive success stories, lacking the ambiguous or downer endings readily available in other mediums. Menveer Heir, of Raven Software and Design Rampage, inspires us again on this weeks podcast with his post lamenting the lack of depressing games. Join Scott and I while we discuss player agency, dead avatars, Roman aggression, and authorial control. As always, leave your thoughts in the comments section below and we'll shower you with praise.

BE WARNED! This podcast contains potentially significant spoilers for about twelve games and two movies. These are listed in the show notes, along with Manveer's original article. If you are sensitive to spoilers and hear a game title, go ahead and skip ahead a few seconds.

Some discussion starters:

- Confession time. What downer game endings have tugged at your heart strings?
- Does character failure equate to player failure? What about failure and downer endings in non-character driven games like Civilization?
- So you've got a sad story to tell. How do you pull it off with out upsetting the all-powerful player?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- "Life is a Series of Down Endings," by Manveer Heir via Design Rampage
- Run time: 29 min 3 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks
- Show includes spoilers for: Prince of Persia, Shadow of the Colossus, Chronotrigger, Passage, Halo 3, Call of Juarez, Call of Duty 4, Eternal Darkness, Far Cry 2, Final Fantasy X, Bioshock, Braid, Braveheart, and Marley and Me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kids These Days

Recently Chris Lepine, of The Artful Gamer, wrote a piece titled "The New Dark Continent of Childhood," which explores changing notions of childhood and how a gaming experience with his cousin seems to validate, in someways, the loss of "exploration and excellence" in today's gaming youth. In Chris's case, his thirteen year old cousin is morally defeated and quick to give up in his confrontation with Jack and Daxter. To many veteran gamers, this lack of tenacity is an affront to game difficulty and the classic games of yore. To some, a shift in attitude towards difficult games is a modern day tragedy, the games industry death knell.

I'm no fan of needlessly arduous games, and I'm certainly no gaming doomsday prophet. That being said, how children grow up today is markedly different than how they grew up ten, twenty and thirty years ago. I see no reason why these changes wouldn't manifest themselves within the gaming community. Shortly before reading Chris's article, I had my own "kids these days" moment with my neighbor. It is not easy games that irk me, but player apathy.

My landlord lives below me and has three kids who periodically come over and storm through the house like a tornado: brief, but loud and chaotic. The middle child fancies himself a gamer, and usually hangs out in front of the console. Most recently, right after buying Halo 3: ODST, he came over eager to play multiplayer. We hopped into a game of firefight, the game's survival mode. Within moments I was familiarizing myself with weapons, noting cover and choke points, and selecting fall back positions. I discussed strategy while my neighbor (let's call him Tom for convenience) was wandering around, itching for a fight.
The moment enemies appeared, our play styles veered in opposite directions. Hunkering down behind cover, I watched as Tom went Rambo, running head long into groups of covenant, blasting anything that moved with no regard for cover. When I wasn't covering his ass, I was ushering him back to safety. Regardless, Tom died four times in four minutes. Having some experience with his competitive nature, I flaunted my lack of deaths, encouraging him to play intelligently. Finally out of lives, Tom just sat and watched me play on my own. In his few moments with the game, Tom already hated ODST, completely regretting his purchase. "Let's play some Gears of War 2" he said, "That's the best game I've ever played."

Tom's attitude towards ODST is not the game's fault in any way. We were playing on normal difficulty, and Tom has a lot of experience with Halo 3. The game was only difficult because his impatience made it so. I can understand someone wanting instant gratification, but to lambaste ODST after a mere five minutes is ridiculous. Instant gratification is available for those who know how to find it.
Ben Abraham, of SLRC and Critical Distance, aptly responds to Chris's post in the comments, citing Clint Hocking's opinion that older gamer generations tend to idealize tenacity in the face of abusive game design. Gen-Y gamers, Hocking suggests, appreciate cooperative games more than competitive games. Easier games satisfy alternative play styles and are no better or worse because of their difficulty. I mostly agree with all of these statements.

However, Tom is an altogether different gamer. He favors competition, or cooperative games that rank players. It seems his ultimate goal is to dominate a game quickly and win. What is most upsetting, is that he has no desire to learn. Tom appears to find no interest in the system of rules that define his gaming experience. ODST holds no inherent value besides creating the sensation of success.

I don't want to suggest Tom is representative of "kids these days," or even that my few experiences with him have given me an accurate portrayal of his gaming tendencies. Yet surely my experience is not unique? Is gaming laziness a growing characteristic of modern gamers?

It is not tenacity that I value, but an interest in learning, in testing the limits of a game world, the rules that shape your gaming experience. The pursuit of in-game knowledge is valuable regardless of difficulty. Some games teach better than others, which may explain Tom's appreciation of Gears of War. But even the easiest and most intuitively controlled game has to teach. I have no sympathy for those unwilling to learn.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Plays Well With Others

I have always thought of myself as a solitary gamer. The mental image of playing a video game elicits a similar feeling as the mental image of reading a book.

However, I can feel the ideological ground shift beneath me. Co-op gaming has ruptured my self-styled image of as a "lone wolf" gamer, and I fear I am becoming dependent on the company of others, regardless of what game I am playing. Our story starts in the wild, wild West.

As we discussed in our last podcast, neither Jorge nor I enjoyed Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. In addition to its numerous mechanical quirks and its many thematic cliches, the game seemed to taunt us with the fact that we could not play it together. The addition of a co-op mode would probably have left us with a much more favorable impression, even if every flawed aspect of the game was left intact.

The genius of co-op is that it can be fused onto mediocre or rehashed gameplay and serve to make an otherwise underwhelming game engaging. Call of Juarez's cover system was not as fluid as Gears of War's, its control was not as precise as Call of Duty 4's, and its storytelling was not as good as Bioshock's. However, had we been able to play together, the experience of cutting a path of destruction from Appalachia to Mexico would have been something Jorge and I would have talked about for months.

As I write this, I can think of a host of games in which the simple act of including another player within a proven framework drastically increases my interest:

1. Resident Evil 5

In many ways, I consider RE 5 a step back from RE 4 in terms of inventory management, weapon options, and boss battles. Jorge forthrightly asserts he would have never finished the game had he been playing solo. Despite these gripes, fighting against the deadly (but repetitive) zombie horde together has become one of my favorite RE experiences.

2. Scribblenauts

Like many folks in the community, I was perched atop the Scribblenauts bandwagon. I am now back on the ground, smarting from the abrupt blow dealt by reality.

Save for its expansive dictionary, everything that could have gone wrong with that game did: The control scheme falls into the trap of over-utilizing the touch screen. Most of the time the sloppy hit detection and character movement feels like it was implemented as a hasty afterthought. The items rarely interact in the way I expect them to. I thought liquid nitrogen could freeze just about anything, but I guess bears are more resistant to cold than I thought. The puzzles and objectives are exceedingly vague and are liable to be solved more effectively with repetitive, brute force techniques, rather than wit and creativity.

The main reason I am still playing the game is because of a co-op patch Hanah and I created. Elegant in its simplicity, we huddle around the DS and stumble through the game together. My reliance on dragons usually proves less effective than her skill with a fishing rod, but we are making steady progress by doing a couple levels every night.

3. Professor Layton

While word problems, geometric visualization exercises, and jig-saw puzzles remind me of standardized testing, the prospect of sitting down with another player has convinced me that perhaps it is worth a shot. While I am more naturally inclined to get my video game-British-gentleman fix from platforming, perhaps Professor Layton will keep my mind as fit as Sir Hatsworth keeps my thumbs?

4. Army of Two: The 40th Day

I scarcely believe I am writing this, but it just serves to demonstrate how big an influence co-op gaming can have on a game. After hearing rumors and promises that the game will present the players with situations that have multiple solutions, I am hopeful that the game will emphasize actual negotiation between the two players. Theoretically, if a mission to assassinate a Bad Guy can be accomplished by either blowing up a building or by a precise sniper shot, the players must come to a consensus on how important collateral damage is.

Like RE 5, it is the external game dynamics (the interpersonal relationship between the players), rather than the game's internal dynamics that create novelty. While the graphics, story, music, and general "bro-ishness" of the game leaves are cringe-inducing, I cannot help but be interested in how the co-op experience will shape the game.

5. New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Despite one of the most generic titles of all time, this game promises to do something that no other Mario game has ever done: Simultaneous Mario platforming will become a reality.

After playing this game at PAX, I realized that it might better be classified as a "competitively cooperative" game. Players are able to jostle each other for position and snatch items away from one another, but to clear a level, at least one of the four must make it to the end. This means that while griefing Luigi might be hilarious, a player must balance this fun against the cost of potentially spending a 1up that may very well become the difference between seeing the flag pole or seeing the game over screen.

So there you have it: I admit, venturing out of my single-player cave is sometimes a necessity, and many times an enjoyable one. What do you folks think? Do you welcome the apparent rise of co-op gaming? Which (intentional or otherwise) co-op games are looking forward to? What lackluster games have been saved by the addition of more players? How must we change the way we evaluate games now that the experience often depends so heavily on the availability and uniquely personal interaction between players?

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to decompress from all this socializing with a game of solitaire. But then again, I bet co-op solitaire would be pretty fun...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

EXP Podcast #44: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood Debriefing

Saddle up pardners: Today, you're riding out west with the EXP Gang. OK, I'll stop. This week, we discuss the recently released Western-FPS Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. We cover everything from co-op, to cover mechanics, to Confederates. Although the game had some shortcomings, it ended up provoking a fruitful discussion. Feel free to mosey on over to the comments section to share your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- What are your favorite things about Western film and literature? What games (Western or otherwise) evoke similar feelings?

- How can the thematic topics seen in many Westerns (explorations of civilization and the wilderness, violence and the law, morality versus barbarism, etc.) best be incorporated into games?

- Are we getting to a point where co-op, much like competitive multiplayer, is becoming a standard feature that we expect from games?

- For those of you who played the game: What are your overall impressions?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 39 min 14 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: The Puzzling Success of Professor Layton

My gaming appetite is diverse. I'll happily consume story driven epics of grandiose proportions alongside my daily zombie killing escapades. That being said, some of my favorite games have been quiet additions to my normal routine. Games that I will never talk about, for whatever reason, routinely surprise me with how engaging they are, despite being no innovative cup of tea. Sometimes, as Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer laments, "critical discourse surrounding games gravitates to and celebrates the new while overlooking the familiar."

There is one particular DS game that I owe more than a cursory glance. The newest addition to a franchise that accomplishes nothing extravagant, but everything skillfully, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is one of my favorite gaming experiences of this year. Developed and published by Level-5 (the creators of a Dark Cloud, an old RPG favorite of mine), the creators have earned every ounce of praise for their subtle success.
For those new to the series, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, along with its sequel recently released in the U.S., Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, follows the adventure of the titular academic and his young apprentice Luke as the traipse around towns and trains solving riddles. Each game features a longer narrative broken up into segments. While the Professor pursues answers to a larger puzzle, townsfolk offer up an assortment of riddles.

I found this particular story driven point-and-click adventure late. By the time I got my hands on the Curious Village, the game was already highly regarded by a seemingly vocal fan base. My response, happily given to those would listen, is that Professor Layton had no right to be this good. Not only is the Layton series a success, but at a glance, it does nothing extraordinary to deserve it.
Many of the puzzles in Diabolical Box are variations on those found in Curious Village, and are themselves variations on any puzzle you might find in a book on brain teasers. They often test the player's spacial reasoning, logic, or ability to move object around for one reason or another. The story, in any other context, would seem muddled with frequent interruption. The number of times a total strange demands an answer to a riddle is almost ridiculous, even when a serious circumstance would make such inquiries entirely inappropriate. Coupled with mini-games and mini-mysteries, Professor Layton should be no more than a collection of distractions for your weekly commute.

However, Professor Layton (and I include both U.S. released titles in this statement) is far more than a patchwork puzzler. Although both games include excellent animation and voice acting, with an engaging story carrying the entire piece forward, it is the imbued sense of mystery that makes this game shine. Each normal puzzle makes up the game's basic interaction. In the Diabolical Box, alongside these puzzles is a hamster mini-game, a camera mini-game and a tea-brewing mini-game, which help the player along the way and add optional teasers to the game's vast collection. There are also small mysteries Layton and Luke solve during their journey, which each play in part in solving the over-arching mystery.
Professor Layton is submerged in puzzles. The game doesn't bend genre as much is it bathes in it. The art and story design, put together with loving care, is in service to the idea of mystery. Until the very end, the player is always immersed in puzzles, from the moving match sticks, to revealing a person's identity, to solving murders. The entire game is an ode to riddles. Layton is the most charming detective since Angela Lansbury, and his devotion to puzzle solving is infectious.

From the beginning, with its dialogue and fluid hint system, Professor Layton is welcoming. When each game wraps up, when Luke and Layton solve the mystery of the week, the satisfaction of finding a single solution is magnified. The game becomes a conglomeration of riddles and eased frustrations. Professor Layton, without flare or vanity, is more than a collection of puzzles, it is a solvable and inviting piece of art devoted to the magnificence of curiosity.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: The Novelty of New Super Mario Bros.

Hang around me long enough and you will no doubt be subjected to some effusive gushing about Super Mario Bros. and its influence on the way I view video games.

Super Mario Bros. exists as a quasi-sacred entity within my conception of video games. As a child, it set me on the trajectory that guides my gaming habits to this day. I enjoy a wide variety of styles and genres, but nothing tops playing a console platformer. Either consciously or subconsciously, every game I play is in some way compared to Super Mario Bros.

With this in mind, I entered into New Super Mario Bros. with caution. It is difficult enough to follow in the footsteps of Super Mario Bros., let alone directly aspire to present a "New" version of it. It is an audacious goal: The game implicitly calls Super Mario Bros. "old," bringing to mind questions of its enduring relevance.

While much of what I found in the game was not necessarily new, it was not exactly familiar. In the end, the most appropriate title for the game may be "Super Mario Bros. Deja Vu."

Moving about the world as Mario is a bit like riding a bike: while extended time out of the saddle can make for some initially wobbly rides, some combination of brain and body ensures that one never truly forgets the basics. NSMB feels strikingly similar to the original SMB. Running in one direction full tilt and and then turning in the opposite direction causes Mario to skid. The height of jumps is dictated by the length of button presses, and momentum can be modified in mid-air. Through a combination of speed and faith, Mario can sprint over gaps that are no more than one block in diameter.

Mario's repertoire has expanded over the years, and NSMB demonstrates how agile our favorite plumber has become. Mario now does a great Samus impression by wall-jumping his way out of danger, and he has also adopted the ground pound move pioneered by Yoshi. At some point, Mario's enemies took a turn for the springy, which allows the player to use them as makeshift trampolines. In SMB, jumping on a goomba results in more of a "thud" than a "boing."

Although the goal of each level adheres to its historical roots, the rules that govern the experience of getting from the starting line to the flagpole have changed. Upon vanquishing Bowser at the end of NSMB (spoiler alert?), I had amassed over thirty extra lives. A quick play-through of SMB on the NES demonstrated that the availability of both coins and 1up mushrooms seems to have skyrocketed since the 1980s. Thankfully for the Mushroom Kingdom's Federal Reserve, this inflation has done little to harm their value.

NSMB softens the harsh realities of the Mushroom Kingdom. The original SMB was a cruel game in some ways: one lucky hit from a goomba would demote even the all-powerful Fire Mario back down to regular old Mario. Checkpoints were often unforgiving, and saving one's progress, seeing a continue screen, or even having a password option were unheard of.

In NSMB, an errant koopa shell still extinguishes Fire Mario, but he is able to retain his Super stature. As was the case in Super Mario World, an extra item can be stockpiled for emergencies. Coins are now an actual currency that can be used to purchase power ups and extra lives. If one pays attention, a faint whiff of RPG elements wafts through the game. All of this is committed to record and stored safely in the player's save file.

Most of what is found in the game can be found in its predecessors, which initially makes it seem less like a "New Super Mario Bros.," and more like an "Updated Super Mario Bros." From Super Mario Bros. 3's over-world map with branching paths to Super Mario 64's triple jump, this game is a wonderful synthesis of Mario's best evolutionary traits.

However, NSMB is more than an exercise in "re-imagining" an old property. The game's amalgamation of Mario's many innovations is its most important accomplishment. As I argued in my review of Super Mario Galaxy, the innovations found in every Mario game are both powerful and subtle; new characteristics seem to instantly become part of how we conceptualize the character and the franchise. NSMB skirts an impossibly thin line: It indulges in nostalgia while simultaneously smoothing out history's rough edges (both figuratively and literally). The beauty showcased in New Super Mario Bros. reinforces Super Mario Bros. as a masterpiece, but it also serves as an articulation of the legend that has grown around that game.

Distance makes the thumbs grow fond, and while the frustrations and the flaws of Super Mario Bros. have been subsumed by nostalgia, New Super Mario Bros. ultimately offers exactly what its title promises. It forges the legend of Super Mario Bros. into a real game, and in doing so, gives us something truly new.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

EXP Podcast #43: Tact and Dead Celebrities

How we depict figures from our cultural history and actual history is our entertainment media is fascinating. We tend to overly praise and ridicule these individuals, particularly celebrities. Deciding which depiction of a cultural figure is too offensive or disrespectful is no easy task. The appearance is Kurt Cobain as a playable character in Guitar Hero 5 runs this border. Giving more options to players is great, but is allowing a deceased celebrity, particularly one who died in a tragic way, to sing ABBA too much?

This week, Scott and I discuss this Cobain fiasco and the philosophy behind open access to potentially disrespectful material, and we don't stop there. Our topics include duck hats, Johnny Cash, mash-up culture, and Frederick Douglas. As always, we love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Is there an inherent benefit in giving players the option to play as dead celebrities?
- Would your opinion on Guitar Hero 5 be different if it were Jimmy Hendrix?
- How much "influence" should we give players over historical figures in their games?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 32 sec
- "Kurt Cobain to Appear in Guitar Hero 5" by Gus Mastrapa via Wired
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, September 14, 2009

Supplemental Gaming

If you take a quick glance to the right of this page, you will notice the list of games Scott and I are each playing currently. These are usually accurate, with changes arriving when we move on from or finish a game. If you pay attention to this space, you will also realize we are never playing just one game. For myself, three is the average. I just cannot pay attention to one thing at a time. I'm only comfortable when juggling multiple games. Which is exactly as it should be. Even the serious title is best played in tandem with other disparate games.

Yet I always feel a tinge of guilt when deciding which game to play. There is a conflict of interest when playing multiple games at once, particularly when a time consuming power-house of a game is on the table. Each block of time spent with one game limits the block of time you can spend on another. This is a weighty pressure for anyone, especially when free-time and money is limited. Deciding what to play can become a form of cost-benefit analysis.

If it takes forty hours to complete Fallout 3, but I only play two hours a day, each decision to play another game is serious business. What if I forget important story elements? What if I forget what to do or where to go? What if I never finish the game and waste my money? What if the entire experience is watered down because of my diverted attention? And if so, if I end up hating Fallout 3, is it my fault for not taking it more seriously? The amount of potential guilt is tremendous. However, this guilt is outweighed by the benefits of game multitasking.

Playing different games at once can repel gaming fatigue and temper some of the above concerns. Other games can scratch a previously ignored gameplay itch, relax nerves during gaming frustrations, and generally make the player more amiable to the blunders and inconsistencies every game suffers. A certain amount of distance between play sessions, and gaming experiences, can freshen the player's approach to a game. It is easier to find the good in a game, or at least the interesting, when constant interaction does not fuel hostility or numbs the mind.
My current play through of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood may be an illuminating example. The game is not very engaging and the mechanics are not fun. Controls are cumbersome, the voice acting is horrendous, even the user interface is annoying. Despite my frequent vocalized complaints, I am committed to finishing Call of Juarez. The story doesn't seize me, but the ideas and approaches to the story do interest the part of me fascinated by Western mythology. In this extreme case, I'm pursuing my interest in one particular aspect of the game and supplementing my gaming experience with other titles.

The game I've put most into while playing CoJ is Twisted Pixel's Splosion Man, a cute and humorous puzzle-platformer available on Xbox Live Arcade. The game is simple, immediately engaging, colorful, and mentally challenging, all things Call of Juarez is not. It also provides the exhilarating multiplayer experience Call of Juarez seems to demand. I have neither the patience nor the stamina to play even the most thrilling Western game to completion without adding supplements to my gaming diet.
There are some games that I do not list to the right, but are still in my gaming rotation. I still regularly play Left 4 Dead for its zombies, Battlefield 1943 for its competitive and chaotic environment, and Flight Control for random challenges. In fact, if I were to include the board games, role-playing games, and card games that frequent my gaming repertoire, I don't even begin to "mostly" play any single game.

This is all as it should be. Like most gamers, my tastes are many and my play styles vary on whim. Though some games sweep me away like nothing else, it is impossible for any one creation to satisfy all my desires. Some design choices I admire are, in fact, incompatible with each other. So I consume diversity, I thrive on it, and each game is better because of what it is not. I seek out my interests in the medium, and it is oh so rewarding.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Unexpectedly Serious Games

One of my favorite talks from PAX 2009 was the "Murder, Sex & Drugs" panel that asked the question: "Do video games have a cultural imperative to present serious topics seriously?" The basic consensus on the panel was a definitive "yes," but there was some worry that the largest mainstream games often blunder into social issues naively or halfheartedly. Additionally, folks agreed that a system of dual responsibility was required for games to address serious issues: Developers needed to take responsibility for fostering serious topics while also making the games engaging, and players needed to take responsibility to then seek out these games, purchase them, and partake in the discussion.

Throughout the discussion, I felt as though most folks were resigned to the idea that we are probably years away from realizing a widespread social commentary in games. While I definitely think that game development and analysis will become increasingly sophisticated in the years to come, I believe there is another movement underway that is already laying the groundwork for the way we examine how even the most popular games interact with complex social issues.

First, it is important to think realistically when forming expectations for how games should tackle serious social and cultural issues. Simply put, it is difficult to create a work of art that is both commercially successful and thematically challenging; take a look at the 2008 top grossing films in the U.S. versus the ones that won Oscars. The point here is not to damn video games to the trajectories of other mediums, but to temper our expectations for mass acceptance of difficult games.

That being said, I believe we are in the midst of an exciting trend within the critical game analysis community. A group of dedicated writers is taking the initiative to extract socially meaningful content from games that were not necessarily designed to convey any specific social message. Instead of waiting for developers to create "message" games, a growing number of folks are mining some of the most popular games for commentary on many of the issues raised in thePAX panel:

- Justin Keverne and Travis Megill have engaged in a cross-site conversation about the portrayal of mentally ill people in the recently-released "Batman: Arkham Asylum." Both authors raise valid points about the ways in which the game taps into the often-sordid history of mental health care.

- Sparky Clarkson reviews Red Faction: Guerrilla, and finds that it does little to mimic the ways in which an actual insurgency functions.

- Simon Ferrari examines the stereotypical portrayals of gender roles and racial constructs in the Gears of War universe.

- Duncan Fyfe writes about the "entertainment wars" found in Call of Duty 4 and Far Cry 2. Without any real consequences, these games are absurd idealizations of what happens on the battlefield.

These are only a few of the many folks actively expanding the discussion of some of the most high-profile games. Most striking is the fact that the conversations are sparked by the games' omissions or deficiencies, and what these oversights imply on a societal level. in the games leading to broader societal implications. It is the lack of humane mental health treatment, the sterilization of warfare, and the lack of progressive gender and racial portrayals that has catalyzed these writers to explore the serious content these games posses.

Similarly, I recently spent several weeks simply analyzing what was "Missing In Action" in Call of Duty 4: the absence of civilians, the messy aftermath of battle, and the consequences of individual sacrifices acted to convey extremely powerful, if not optimistic, societal messages. CoD 4 ended up being a surprisingly meaningful game: The game's missing pieces allowed me to look outward for historical and cultural material to fill those gaps.

Again, it is not realistic to expect a drastic shift in the way major developers integrate societal issues into mainstream games. As is the case in every other medium, making something that is challenging to the audience is often at odds with making something profitable. The preponderance of innovative, thought-provoking games will still come from smaller companies that are both willing and able to take risks on something that would not get past the shareholders of a larger company. However, the video game community is lucky to have a growing number of critics dedicated to preserving their casual enjoyment of a game while simultaneously challenging its content and pulling it towards the serious end of the gaming spectrum.

Gamers have shown that they are more than willing to meet developers halfway along the path of serious, engaging games. Up until this point, the movement of analyzing serious issues in contemporary mainstream games has focused on looking at the issues games gloss over, or the topics they deal with unsatisfactorily. Clearly, there is a large group of people interested in games with thematic challenges: instead of letting the absence of serious topics stymie their analysis, they instead utilized the absence to their advantage.

These folks are doing more than waiting for developers to meet them in the middle: they are actively calling out to them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

EXP Podcast #42: Title Bouts

There is nothing like a little friendly competition to get a heated discussion going. In fact, according to Leigh Alexander's recent interview with Capcom senior director of communications Chris Kramer, rival development teams may lament their bygone days of battle. Join us this week while Scott and I discuss the Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter debate, the pros and cons of exaggerated competition, and some of the more memorable video game rivalries.

As always, you can find the original article in the show notes. We would also love to hear your thoughts on the subject, as well as memorable rivalries we may have missed, which you can leave in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever found yourself picking sides on a video game rivalry? Did this enhance your experience with the game or the gaming community?

- Do you think video game rivalries are healthy for the industry? Is there a genre or particular game that needs a boisterous competitor?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 25 min 1 sec
- Interview, "Capcom 'Would Welcome' Return Of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat Brand Rivalry" by Leigh Alexander via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, September 7, 2009

Farmpocalypse Now

This past weekend concluded another excellent PAX convention, easily the largest convention dedicated to games and players. Scott and I had the opportunity to attend a bevy of fascinating panels (you might have noticed). One of our favorite panels was actually more of a lecture. Hosted by Andrew Mayer, the designer of Petz and currently a social games consultant. Besides giving an excellent lecture and presentation on the future of games, he also coined our new favorite term: Farmpocalypse.

Mayer has an expertise in Facebook games, and heralds the increasing popularity of farming games amongst an increasingly diverse and casual crowd. Playable in any web browser, farm games have stormed Facebook with a frenzy of users. Farmtown, Farmville and MyFarm are but a few, and the number is growing. These games rake in large profits, mostly through advertisements and offers, and there doesn't seem to be an end to their viability as profitable browser games. The end is truly nigh, and most surprising, my mother is one of the four horsemen of the Farmpocalypse.

Let me preface the rest of this piece by saying I am actually a fan of farming games. I find immense satisfaction watching my crops grow to harvest. So I do understand the appeal in a browser based farming simulator. As Mayer discussed, these games are very approachable, offering easily perceived values, daily rewards, and simple repetitive actions - they create what Mayer calls "bite-sized grinds."

But why does my mother like this game? I grew up with her tolerating my game playing, but I never thought she would become a gamer herself. She does, in fact, consider herself a gamer. During a long discussion of her virtual farming practices, my mother confessed to playing a inordinate amount of Farmtown , albeit in small chunks of time. She supplements this time by planning crop rotations, scheduling harvest times, and chatting with co-workers.
This is where things get interesting. Mayer discussed the changing approach to user metrics; it seems finding out who plays is less important than finding out how they play. For my mother, the two seem inextricably tied. My mother's experience is fundamentally defined by the office environment in which she plays and her farming colleagues.

It was a co-worker who first introduced her to Farmtown, and she quickly found herself amongst a cadre of office farmers. Nearly every woman in her office plays at least occasionally, with a few outliers resisting their co-workers call to plowshares. The office acts like a team, breaking up their work schedule by building their own farms and acting as cheap labor for the others. Mutual cooperation improves their own standing and give them a chance to see their compatriot's farms and houses.

Inevitably, comparisons are made between users. As Mayer mentioned, showing off is crucial to the experience, it also fosters competition. My mother proudly regales me with her status relative to her co-workers. She is a good farmer, willing to plant risky crops for high reward, but she is far from the best. There is one woman at the office who has a particularly nice house, and another who has let her farm collapse, unable to catch up to the office leaders. Thus, Farmtown is overtly cooperative, but covertly competitive.

Office-Game relationships emphasize relative gains, with each participant eager to match, if not surpass, the accrued wealth of their friends. In game achievements and announcements create virtual pride and jealousy. In fact, the entire system looks very similar to existing office culture. In an environment that combines teamwork with the chance of individual promotion, office workers become adept at measuring the relative success and failures of their co-workers. Office behavior has changed to match this new environment, with most office employees attached to a farming alter-ego.
Mimicking the day-to-day search of rewards and failures found in even the minimally competitive office environment is not necessarily a bad thing. Players do feel satisfaction and pride for themselves and for others. A safe place to simulate and manage office pressures may be very rewarding. If it weren't for office culture, the game would just not be the same.

Gauging the relative importance of various game features, I asked my mother if she would continue playing the game under certain circumstances. She would stop if her co-workers did not play. She would likely stop if she could not visit other people's farms. She would stop if there was no more stuff she could purchase for her farm. She even pays attention to developer updates in case a change threatens to alter her play experience. She also discusses the game design with her co-workers. Relationships in the office are slightly different because of this.

The Farmpocalypse has made my mother a gamer, but one of a particular breed. She has become an educated consumer as well as a mini-marketer, converting Facebook friends to farm hands. Social gaming has changed her office culture in subtle ways, the same office culture that I believe makes her amiable to Farmtown in the first place. Social gaming changes social environments at the same time it is informed by them. The post-Farmpocalyptic landscape is a strange place indeed.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

EXP Podcast: PAX 2009, Day 3

The final day of PAX 2009 has come to an end. Though saddened by the thought of an empty convention, eerily devoid of digital revelry, we are filled to the brim with satisfaction. The last day of PAX was as busy as ever. Panels included such interesting topics as the future of videogames, gamer culture, and depictions of sex and serious topics. The excellent panelists gave us loads to talk about on this episode, but we also discuss games from the show floor and out feelings towards the unique PAX event over all. We invite you to leave your thoughts in the comments section and join us next year for PAX 2010!

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 33 min 16 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Saturday, September 5, 2009

EXP Podcast: PAX 2009, Day 2

It's Day 2 of PAX and Experience Points is going strong! Today we sat in on on a variety of panels that covered everything from sex, to gender, to story telling methods in games. We also were lucky enough to witness the spectacle that is the Omegathon, a PAX-wide video game tournament featuring attendees. In this episode, we recap our thoughts on the panels and re-live the glory of the Omeganauts. As always, we love your comments, so feel free to jump in with your thoughts.

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 29 min 10 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

EXP Podcast: PAX 2009, Day 1

Experience Points is in Seattle for PAX 2009! The days are unbelievably packed with all things gaming related. Much of our first day was spent in the various panels, so this podcast serves as a sort of debriefing session. Feel free to to leave your thoughts or questions in the comments, and if you are in Seattle, let us know so that we can stop by and say "Hi!"

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 29 min 08 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Friday, September 4, 2009

Henry Hatsworth's Harried Heroics

I have slowly been making my way through Henry Hatsworth In the Puzzling Adventure. It is probably the most brutal game (in terms of skill-based difficulty) I have played since the Bit.Trip games. Somewhere around World 3, the difficulty curve becomes a sheer cliff. Being the kind of person I am, I see this as a personal challenge. Maybe it is the completionist inside of me, or maybe I just cannot bear to see Hatsworth's cute little imperialistic ventures thwarted, but I have resolved to see this thing toward the end.

After dozens of re-tries, I fear the game has started to warp my mind. With every defeat, I increasingly think of the game in terms of Tony Robbins-style platitudes for personal and business success:

1. Manage Your Deadlines, Don't Let them Manage You

The stage timer has seemed to fall out of favor in modern gaming. Games from the original Super Mario Bros. generation often added pressure to the gameplay by imposing a time limit on the stage. While Hatsworth does not do this explicitly, the puzzle section on the bottom screen performs this function: As enemies in the top screen are defeated, they wind up in the bottom screen as meddlesome blocks. Left unattended , they work their way back up to the top screen and attack the player.

Some of the stages boast large environments to explore, but their treasures will be missed if you let the puzzle chase you out too soon. By effectively managing the puzzle, you are in affect rolling the stage clock back and choosing to travel the stage at your own pace.

2. Success Requires Poise and Confidence

As I mentioned earlier, the difficulty spikes sharply around the game's half-way point. One of the game's favorite tricks is to send hoards of different types of enemies appear simultaneously to attack you in unison. Even if you manage to vanquish them, their afterlife in the puzzle means they will come back to haunt you. Soon, both screens are inundated with threats.

It is tempting to watch the puzzle like a hawk and try to eliminate enemies as soon as they turn into blocks. However, the fact that you can freeze the platforming action at any moment does not always mean it is a good idea. Many enemies have specific attack patterns, and even a few minutes away from the action can be disorienting: Does that enemy have two fireballs left, or three? Is that airborne enemy on his way up or down? Oh, wait: I'm in the air! Am I starting or ending a jump?

Success requires you to monitor the puzzle while having the discipline to stay out until it is strategically logical to clean it out. This mindset requires confidence that, no matter how tricky things look, you will be able to fix the situation before it deteriorates.

3. An Obstacle is Really an Opportunity in Disguise

By clearing blocks in the puzzle, you build points used towards activating a hilarious and deadly steam punk mech. Enemies in block form give you more power towards your special attacks, making what at first seems like a punishment a boon to clearing difficult levels.

When you are running out of health, seeing enemies becomes a relief. I soon found myself purposefully allowing enemies to build up in the puzzle, as I viewed them as tools rather than impediments.

4. Every Failure is Actually a Learning Experience

Some of Hatsworth's enemies have irritatingly strong attacks, but their consistency is their downfall. Every enemy has precise attack patterns and ranges. As these do not vary, you can practice and refine your technique until you can implement it flawlessly. If you die, it will not be because something unexpected happened; instead, it is because you flinched in the face of the enemies' brutal predictability.

Additionally, if you find yourself dying repeatedly, it may point to a resource allocation issue. Weapon and ability upgrades can be purchased in between levels, but determining which abilities would most help your situation can be tricky. While it may seem like trying to stock up on hearts will prevent deaths, I found that buying offensive upgrades meant I could dispatch enemies before taking damage. These quasi-RPG elements made deaths more thought provoking than those in traditional platformers, as I was forced to determine the elements contributing to my failure.

Admittedly, these mantras have not completely eliminated the occasional expletive-laden outbursts I shout while playing the game. Nor have they changed the fact that I have been stuck at 79% completion for days now. However, I have confidence that seeing the end credits is a more of a matter of "when" than a matter of "if." With the power of positive thinking, what could possibly stop me?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

EXP Podcast #41: Survey Said...Depresssion?

The mainstream acceptance of video games is a relatively recent phenomenon, as is the scientific study of how games effect players. When studies are conducted, it is important to examine them closely, as they can influence political decisions, social perceptions, and future research trends. This week, we explore a study looking at gamers' physical and mental health. We discuss some of the study's shortcomings and anticipate the ways in which future research can benefit the larger gaming community. As always, we welcome your input so feel free to read through the articles and weigh-in with your comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What is the best way to organize the gaming community in a study? Number of hours gaming? Relative importance of gaming in someone's life? Can we find any way to define what constitutes a "Video-Game" player?

- How do people utilize games to deal with problems in their life? Are games something that attract a certain mental or physical profile? Do games cause ill health or does ill health lead people to play games?

- What can games teach us in terms of our lifestyles? How do games (even those that are not "serious") improve our lives?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 21 sec
- The Two Articles from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine can be found here, in the August 2009 press release section. They are in PDF format.
- "Study: Average gamer is 35, fat and bummed," via
- Music provided by Brad Sucks