Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolutions, 2011

They may be cheesy, they may be naive, they may be doomed to failure, but I still enjoy New Year’s Resolutions. Reviewing the past year’s events is always useful and I like the feeling of starting a new year with fresh goals. Like everyone, I make the usual promises to myself: exercise more, eat less junk food, spend more time with family, etc. I also make some video game-specific plans that I’d like to share.

First, let’s see how I did on last year’s resolutions. I specifically set out to play three major 2010 releases: God of War III, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and The Last Guardian. Since The Last Guardian’s release remains as mysterious as its titular mythical beast, it seems I met these modest goals. GoW III and SMG 2 were two of my favorite games of the year and I see myself going back to them throughout 2011.

I planned on taking a stab at my backlog in 2010, and while I didn’t get around to everything, I did have the pleasure of playing Dead Space and Braid. Dead Space was a great game that used classic techniques from horror movies to instill a sense of dread as I rounded every corner. As pretentious as it sounds, Braid turned out to be one of my favorite games of all time. I’ve written quite a bit about it, so I’ll just move along before anyone starts throwing tomatoes.

Of course, I bit off more than I could chew and ended up leaving a list of games untouched, which leads me to my first resolution: to be more selective regarding my backlog. I’m a big Batman fan, and any game that brings back the cast of Batman: The Animated Series deserves my attention, so Arkham Asylum stays on the list. Additionally, I love analyzing unique approaches to challenge and difficulty, so Demon’s Souls is a game I’ll be looking forward to playing. Aside from that, I think I’ll just go with the flow and see what 2011 has to offer in terms of big releases. Vanquish, one of my favorite games of 2010, wasn’t on my radar until shortly before its release and I want to stay open to more unexpected surprises in 2011.

My other major resolution is to actually implement last year’s “broadening horizons” project. I never strayed too much from my genre comfort zone in 2010: major console platformers and action games took up most of my time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would like to keep my eye on other sections of the gaming world. This year, I have a plan!

Soon, I’ll have an iPod Touch, which will allow me to jump into the exciting iOS realm. Although it’s a cliche, I really think that the advent of the AppStore has had a remarkable effect on the market in terms of price, player expectations, and accessibility. In some ways, it feels like mobile gaming is going back to the Game & Watch days: short games with simple presentations, built around streamlined rules. At the same time, games like Infinity Blade are experimenting with the limits of the technology, while titles like Game Dev Story seem to succeed in commenting on the industry by using the game rhetoric. Also, people have been talking non-stop about Angry Birds, so I’ll be happy to figure out just what the hell that thing even is.

Lastly, I want to wade deeper into the indie and experimental scene. To do this, I’ll use Christopher Hyde’s excellent list of 99 Free Games From 2009 as a guide and follow any tangents that present themselves. Christopher compiled a great collection of games and I’ve only played a fraction of them. I find it amusing that Minecraft is nestled in there at number 23. Who would have expected it would make such an impact in 2010? It raises the question of what other potentially massive gems can be mined from the obscurity of the Internet. There’s only one way to find out!

So there you have it: In 2011, I resolve to be more selective with my backlog, to go with the flow in terms of new major studio releases, and to explore platforms I’ve historically neglected. As always, we’ll see how this turns out, but I think all this is quite feasible. Finally, I’ll turn it over to you, dear readers: What was 2010 like for you? Any specific game-related goals for the new year? Anything I or anyone else should check out?

As always, thanks for visiting the site. It’s been a great year. Take care and have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

EXP Podcast #110: 2010 Leftovers

We have covered our games of the year, but 2010 held far more than just six titles, and 2011 will hold many more. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss some of the game we neglected last week, from games we never played to games we look forward to playing. Join us around the table while we devour our leftovers. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:
- What games are people neglecting that deserve more attention?
- What games of 2010 do you regret not playing?
- What games of 2011 do you most look forward to?

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 25 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Critical Eyes on Civilization

Last week, Ben Abraham posted an article calling for more persuasive games writing. In his post, Ben cited my recent article on Barbarians in Civilization V as an example of a piece that doesn’t quite achieve his desired goal. He states:

“Albor assembles the facts like a curios botanist might overturn a moss covered rock to see what grows underneath, and the facts are indeed worth assembling and investigating, however, Albor closes out the post before taking down any notes on what he finds under there. It finishes before reaching anything like its full potential.”

Looking back on my post, I could not agree more. While I both agree and disagree with Ben’s far more comprehensive article, I’ll be setting his many points aside (although for more, see David Carlton’s response and their brief conversation in his comments section.) Previously, I looked at one aspect of Civilization V’s procedural rhetoric and the game deserves much more. This post seeks to amend that error.

There are a few important aspects of Civilization V that are very important to recognize, but that I do not want to belabor entirely. Civilization V is dangerously simplistic of identity groups at best, if not flat-out racist. India’s unique trait, for example, is “Population Growth,” which doubles unhappiness from the number of cities and halves unhappiness from total population. This feature is most suitable for cultural victories. Firaxis mechanically constructed the Indian civilization, and cultural expansion in general, to conform to the notion of culture as a calculable attribute of groups of people, a notion that suggests the crowded streets and slums of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata compose the necessary features of a cultural Mecca. Meanwhile, these densely packed cultural oddities, the game suggests, are relegated to fanciful dreams of utopia. India is just one example of vagrant stereotyping among many.
Diplomatic victories are equally shallow. In order to win such a victory, players must build the United Nations and win an election for world leader. The UN in Civilization V is a mockery of the actual international body. Players construct the UN independently. No general assembly exists, therefore there can be no international agreements, no peace settlements through UN channels, and certainly no human rights declaration. The UN functions as a narrative facade, obscuring one method to declare a single individual the winner. An election does take place in which city-states vote and play a deciding role. However, city-states can be bribed with gold or permanently influenced by liberating their city from other civilizations. A diplomatic victory announcement frames it as a competitive event, stating “you have triumphed over your foes” and your cunning has “divided and sown confusion among your enemies.” In Civilization V, enough riches can buy peace, and peace is just another form of selfish control.

Civilization V peddles modernist myths of linear and irreversible progress and characterizes political relations as neatly organized and legible. In fact, the hexagonal tiles of Civilization V mirror what Political Scientist James C. Scott calls the “imperialism of high modernist, planned social order.” Like the grid logic that allows states to impose order upon a people, and thus exert control, the tiles of Civilization V allow the player to quickly understand, order, and control their civilization. The games does more than depict a legible world, it calls on players to procedurally create such order. The barbarian encampments, the nomadic tribes, are eliminated only when the entire world is within line of sight of a civilization’s units. Illuminated by the presence of the state, the tiles are free of risk and can be purchased and exploited at will.

A civilization’s expanding borders are a visible depiction of control over an increasingly legible landscape. Scott’s discussion of rural settlements could easily be attributed to the creation of new digital civilizations when he states, “A new community is thus, also by definition, a community demobilized, and hence a community more amenable to control from above and outside.” Whereas Scott criticizes states with “an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects,” Civilization V retains no such claim. The subjects of Civilization V have no values, desires, or objections to speak of. The game recreates the high-modernist discourse of ordered and legible civilizations as a digital playground.
Civilization V procedurally renders a vapid conception of social relations marked by blanket uniformity. Although players can unlock globalization as a technology, the game does not model a complex economic system of globalized production and consumption across borders. Civilizations are neatly confined and controlled. Poverty and inequality are not an issue, and class holds no explanatory relevance for historical processes or civilizational growth.

The game sure is fun though, isn’t it. To be fair, there is a lot of value in Civilization. For one thing, it can give unique insight into the process by which paradigms and practices shape the reality they seek to describe. Players can even challenge dominant narratives of history. However, all this demands a critical perspective. Games that depict real world processes and systems should not be played lightly, at least not at first. While Civilization V alone may not be all that persuasive, particularly for gamers who seem so damn good at ignoring a game’s fictions, it functions within a greater discourse about civilization and progress that does, in fact, sway popular perceptions and global policies. Designers and players should first and foremost navigate the intersection of digital systems and global systems critically, before we become enraptured by fun alone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Unopened Gift

Most of the internet this week is on holiday vacation, including PopMatters. Scott and I are taking it slow as well, filling our hot chocolate mugs so full of tiny marshmallows that it becomes a single gelatinous glob of sugary goodness. Yet I feel it would be a missed opportunity to ignore the holiday season. While I wish all our readers a happy agnostic/non-denominational wintry season, I am going to talk a bit about Christmas.

I did not grow up in a particularly festive or cheery home environment, even during the holidays. I do not reflect on past holidays as the most wonderful times of the year. Yet I do recall looking forward to opening presents, hoping to receive a videogame. My family was fairly low income for a good segment of my adolescence, so my gaming habits mostly required access to used videogames. I also thrived off of game magazines and the demos they used to include in the packaging, which I admittedly stole on numerous occasions. Getting my hands on a new game was a rare and glorious experience reserved primarily for Christmas.

The idea of a new game, wrapped in tacky Christmas paper lying on the floor, was infinitely exciting. It represented unbridled potential. Even unwrapped, a game could be anything, take me anywhere. A single disc could consume my world for weeks. I could escape my often tumultuous family situation by becoming another person or creature, inhabiting a whole other world. The videogame Christmas present was the ultimate gateway, promising untold opportunities.

My siblings knew this more than anyone. One particular Christmas’s come to mind. Once, my older brother took me and my sister into Best Buy and stole a copy of some Marvel videogame featuring Iron Man and a few other superheroes. He let us pick which game we wanted before he broke the protective plastic, took off the magnetic tape, and hid the game under his coat. I see now that it was probably a bad lesson, but it was well meant. At this time, my family was poor. My brother was not committing thievery to spoil his younger brother. He was offering a moment of possibility, in which doors were not closed, but open, in which any game world was reachable. He fueled my escapism because he could little else. That single act of heroism is still far more impressive than any the X-men accomplished in that easily forgotten game of the 90s.

This Christmas, I will open up a Christmas present that will include a board game or a videogame. I’ll even buy some for myself during one of Steam’s holiday sales. They might be good, even amazing. Yet especially during the Christmas season, the very idea of a game holds so much meaning for me. They represent the many worlds in which I have safely hidden and happily explored. Until Saturday, the unopened gift, the box that just might be a game of any sort, is a nostalgic symbol of opportunity, basked in the reassuring glow of ornaments and tree lights.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

EXP Podcast #109: 2010 Game(s) of The Year!

It’s GOTY season, and we just couldn’t let the opportunity go without talking about some of the outstanding titles we played this year. Naming the one true “Game of the Year” is a hopelessly subjective task, so instead we each chose three games from 2010 that made strong impressions on us. As always, feel free to join in on the conversation. What were your highlights from 2010?

Jorge’s Top Games of 2010:

Mass Effect 2
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Red Dead Redemption

Scott’s Top Games of 2010:

God of War III
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Red Dead Redemption

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: 35 min 45 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pen and Paper

Last Saturday, Hanah and I made the fateful decision to try and visit London to do some sightseeing. Unbeknownst to us, Nature was planning to put on a little show. When all was said and done, the sights we saw were mostly buried by snow. What started out as us playing the roles of tourists morphed into an impromptu version of the Amazing Race. Through a combination of buses, subways, taxis, and trains, we finally escaped from the city. Thanks to Hanah, we even managed to retain a little sanity.

It was the last leg of our journey and our spirits were flagging. We had already spent five hours on a bus trying to get into the city, only to find that the snow had managed to shutter the entire place. We sloshed through the soot-stained snow near the Thames and decided to call it it day. In what was either a terrible coincidence or a brilliant tactical maneuver on the part of transit unions, many of the subway operators happened to be on strike. Compounding this chaos were power outages, signal failures, and lots of cold, cranky people. After a number of creative transfer-station decisions and with the help of a taxi, we made it to a rail station and hopped on a train with only moments to spare.

Or so we thought. The train that was miraculously waiting for us had already been sitting there for an hour and would continue to sit there for another half-hour. Even two lovebirds such as ourselves start to get testy after twelve disappointing hours of cramped seats, crying kids, and damp clothes. My morale was a bit low and I found myself wishing for a little digital distraction to help me escape. All around us, people were taping away on their smartphones, taunting me. All we had was a small notebook and pen. Undeterred, Hanah challenged me to a game of movie-title pictionary.

We played game after game. We laughed at eachother’s drawings, discovered which movies we had both seen, and turned a lost day into one I’ll remember for a long time. Later, I tried imagining how the scenario would have played out had we each had an iPhone or a DS. I have a hard time thinking there would have been as much laughter, and I highly doubt we would have thought to save our crude doodles. We probably would have looked like a lot of the other folks sitting around us: content, yet isolated.

Here’s a snapshot of one page of our game:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Finding Humanity in Machinarium

Although it was released a year ago, I’ve finally gotten around to writing about Machinarium. Coincidentally, it’s a part of this year’s Humble Indie Bundle. If you haven’t played it, now is a great time to pick it up at great price while supporting a good cause.

I’ve never considered the adventure game genre to be very approachable or intuitive. Walking back and forth across a dozen screens, methodically traveling down long dialogue paths, and trying to divine the often-inscrutable uses odd inventory items is an acquired taste that not everyone enjoys. Personally, these game mechanics and dynamics usually have the effect of distancing me from the story. Machinarium is a brilliant counter-example to these complaints. It smooths out many of the genre’s rough edges and contains a story that has a lot to say about humanity, despite all the characters being robots.

I also think Machinarium makes a good case for dropping the term “Flash” as a descriptor when talking about games built using that engine. The game’s story, art, and systems allow it to transcend the negative connotations that traditionally go with calling something a “Flash game.” It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into Machinarium. The result is a game with a singular style whose innovation and charm measure up to the most expensive triple-A titles. Whether it lives in your web browser’s cache or your Xbox’s disk drive, a great game is still a great game; there’s no need for a qualifier.

That tangent aside, I’d be obliged if you took a look at what I wrote. In terms of stories about cute anthropomorphic robots, Machinarium gives WALL-E a run for its money.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EXP Podcast #108: On the Grind

In clinical psychology, continually doing a repetitive action with little or no justification is tell-tale sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In MMOs, it's just called the grind. Why, after so many complaints, is the grind still a major feature of nearly every MMO RPG on the market? Inspired a post from Zach Best writing for Game Design Aspect of the Month, that is the very question Scott and I will be exploring in this week's podcast. You can find the original article and a pouch of magic destiny in the show notes. We also encourage you to leave your own gaming experiences in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:

- Do you enjoy grinding? Does it fulfill an important purpose for you?
- Is grinding a permanent feature of games with leveling mechanics?
- How much of the grind is self-imposed?

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 20 sec
- “The Opposite of Grind," by Zach Best via Game Design Aspect of the Month
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Barbarians at the Gate

I was playing Civilization V the other day, going about the day-to-day business of managing the mighty Roman empire, when I started thinking about barbarians a bit more critically. Now barbarian tribes are nothing new to the the massively popular franchise. They harken all the way back from the first Civilization. Yet I had never noticed how comfortably they fit within a somewhat unsettling discourse about civilization and modern progress.

Functionally, barbarians are early-game threats to the player, minor enemies to pester budding civilizations or, alternatively, target practice for those new to world domination. Civ 5's manual calls barbarians "fiendish." It describes them as "roving bands of villains who hate civilization and everything that goes with it." Does this sound like the divisive binary rhetoric espoused by George W. Bush to you, when he stated of terrorists that they "hate our freedoms?" It does to me.

Barbarians are civilization's antithesis, malevolent forces of chaos with no rational for their actions. The game periodically generates barbarian forces in spaces players cannot see - they literally spawn from darkness. Also, unlike other civilizations and city-states, players cannot interact diplomatically with barbarians, they only exist to undermine progress.

Barbarian spawn points are called encampments, which seems to imply they are temporary fixtures of nomadic peoples, a far cry from the settled inhabitants of civilizations. Strangely though, barbarians are also designed to maintain pace with the players, allowing them to spawn a military unit equal to those of the most technologically advanced civilization. This means these backwards barbarians can spawn tanks and bomber planes, and will continue to do so "until the entire world is civilized."
What exactly are we meant to learn here? The term "civilized" is never defined. With only the barbarians as a counter-point, we can only conclude that to be "civilized" is to be geographically fixed and committed to perpetual growth and expansion. Barbarism, on the other hand, may arise at any time period, fueled only by hatred towards civilization proper. Players can eradicate barbarism by force and cut off its source through territorial expansion. In fact, as the game progresses, this almost becomes inevitable. Progress is an unstoppable monolithic force.

What of the barbarous people? Are they simply eradicated, dispersed into the wind? Or does my civilization teach them the error of their ways? Do the Romans give them a bath and a philosophy teacher and thus "civilize" them? While I respond to the procedural imperative of progress, expanding my borders and advancing technology, I can not help but feel confronted by the rhetoric of backwardness and savagery. The Roman empire is following a linear path towards development and growth, one with no room for the barbarous. Forgive them, for it is the only path they know.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Civic Education on a Spaceship

My latest PopMatters article is now up: Civic Education on a Spaceship.

If it's not clear by now, I can't really stop going back to Mass Effect. When I do revisit the game, I bring along a mess of subjects and concepts along with me. This time I brought with me an article about "Games for Civic Learning' which you can find here. The writers put forward a concept of civic education games that include not just raw information, but ethical decision making and critical analysis. Specifically, they suggests educational games are best when they "provide an interactive models of social life that reveal the consequences of players' decisions for multiple actors and for society." That sounded a bit like Mass Effect 2 to me.

Of course not everyone plays Mass Effect 2 the same way. Some people just want to kill things. But I am certainly not alone in appreciating the game for its demanding ethical dilemmas. I had to give serious thought to the effects of my choices during loyalty quests - not just because I was worried what one character might think immediately, but because of what my decision might lead to for the entire galaxy. Bioware creates a unique form of empowerment. In the words of retconned Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility." That is a valuable lesson to teach procedurally, even to those unwittingly in the class room.

Speaking of class room, I think people could make the argument that the potentially educational aspects of Mass Effect 2 are wasted because they are not in an educational environment. I don't completely buy that argument, but I think it holds some water. We human beings are pretty good at separating realms of existence. But we are also predisposed to learning, comparative thinking, and extrapolation - that's partly why stories with morals have been historically important and powerful. Also, although ME2 isn't designed to be used in a class setting, I think it certainly could be. My series on the politics of ME aim to prove that, at the very least, the game can raise interesting topics pertaining to real world politics.

A last interesting caveat: much of my praise for Mass Effect 2, I now realize, somewhat depends on the fulfillment of a tacit promise. Bioware has proven they can transfer your decisions from one game to the next, but it isn't all that gracefully done between first and second games. The completion of the trilogy can, to some extent, undermine the preceding game's ability to ask players to think critically in the long term (at least for those player in the know). Still, it's a promise at least partially fulfilled.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

EXP Podcast #107: The 10 Minute Rule

It’s crucial for games to catch a player’s attention, but what is the best way to ensure that someone will stick around to the end? This week, we use Leanne C. Taylor’s article to think about the ways both cutscenes and mechanics are used to keep players’ interests. She examines the concept of the “10 minute rule” that many movies follow when attempting to engage their audiences and examines its applications in video games. Hopefully, the first 10 minutes of our show persuades you to stick around! If so, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What sorts of story-telling devices capture your attention when you start a game?

- Are there specific genres that benefit from a particular kind of hook?

- What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of a cut-scene approach vs. a gameplay approach?

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:

- “History, Mystery and Story: Games and the 10 Minute Rule,” by Leanne C. Taylor, via Gamasutra
- Run time: 35 min 45 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Behavioral Quirks

We’ve all been warned that video games will warp our fragile little minds. While some might say otherwise, I feel that I’m a pretty well-balanced individual, despite my long history with such a wicked pastime. I maintain good relationships with my family and friends, I pay taxes, and I bathe regularly. However, just because I’m not a rocket-jumping maniac doesn’t mean I don’t have a few quirks, some of which seem at least partly inspired from my antics in the virtual world. Here are three examples I’ve noticed recently.

Efficient Build Orders

I don’t play RTS games very often, but I definitely take an interest in efficient tactics. Performing routines in the optimal order is crucial whether you’re trying fend off a hoard of Zerg or simply trying to get out the door in the morning. As a wise Redditor once said “socks act as pant lubricant,” so keep that in mind when you wake up at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed and discombobulated. Just remember, while the exact reverse build order is an effective system for undressing, it should be modified in certain circumstances.

Corner Strafing

Long ago, I learned that the key to avoiding the business end a BFG is eliminating blind turns. Even a slight lateral pivot can give you a clue as to where your enemy is lurking. Today, my “enemies” mainly consist of oblivious people on their cell phones, runaway shopping carts, and folks with overfilled cups of coffee. Still, my virtual training has helped me avoid countless faux-fraggings.

Map Completion

I’m usually one of those players who enjoys seeing everything a game environment has to offer. When a game offers me a choice between a clearly defined “correct” path and a possible dead end, I like poking around the road less traveled, scrounging for loot, and looking for little secrets. As you may have guessed, it takes me a while to make it through a game like BioShock. This impulse has served me well in my daily life. When construction rendered my apartment without a bathroom, I had already scoped out the public showers in my building and noted their respective levels of cleanliness and water pressure. I’m currently enjoying the warmest, quietest carrel in the library because I gave each seat a trial run.

Is thinking about clothing efficiency nerdy? Yes. Is circling around corners in the grocery store a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side? Probably. Did my curiosity for exploration nearly get my wife and me trapped in an abandoned building at Yale on one occasion? It depends on your definition of trapped. What some see as quirks I see as a little digitally-informed wisdom.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winking at the Player: Subtle Hints in Straight Faced Games

This week at PopMatters, I wrote about my search for self-awareness in otherwise earnest games.

I’m a big fan of games that toy with the fourth wall, and I think it happens more often than we think. Even games that aren’t outwardly comedic or satirical wink at the player in order to acknowledge design limitations, common narrative or mechanical tropes, and the culture of games in general. In fact, I think that big-budget games designed to appeal to a wide audience are quite interesting to study in this regard. Since “triple-A” games need to be accessible and profitable, they hide their subversive, self-aware traits in places only the more observant players will see.

Part of this essay references my silly experiment in counting the casualties in Uncharted. Nearly a year and a half later after writing it, I still look back fondly on that post.

That essay in turn owed a great deal to Clint Hocking’s landmark piece on ludonarrative dissonance in BioShock. It’s an important piece in games criticism, but after all these years I still find myself disagreeing with Clint’s fundamental reading of BioShock. I think that the environment, narrative, and reward system in regards to saving or harvesting sisters presents a clear value-judgment on behalf of the game. The authored themes and mechanical systems seem to argue that while Objectivism may be the path of least resistance, it’s ultimately the road to perdition.

I’m much more sympathetic to the idea that ludonarrative dissonance crops up after the climactic scene with Andrew Ryan. Based on Levine’s comments and the essentially traditional design philosophy of the game, I think those who worked on BioShock knew about this problem but simply didn’t have the time or the means to fix it. Instead, they chose to soften its harsh effects: using the story to acknowledge the gameplay sacrifices was a nod to the players that care about such things. It would take another whole essay to properly flesh out this argument, so I’ll spare everyone and stop here.

In the essay, I also try to redeem the much-maligned Tingle. Despite how annoying he is, I've always been slightly amused at the larger implications of his character. Try not to think less of me, but I hope he finds his way into the forthcoming The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

I’m interested to hear about other games that may contain subtle winks. Such signals are difficult to find and highly subjective, but I think the search itself is a large part of the fun.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

EXP Podcast #106: Poking the Cute Aesthetic

In a series of posts lavishing praise on Nintendo's latest iteration on the Kirby Franchise, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Michael Abbot of the Brainy Gamer has been exploring the game's charming concept. It seems these days you can't shake your Wiimote without hitting a title, from both indie and traditional developers, that exploits some of the tactile art designs, lullaby-like musical themes or children's book narration that comprise some of the elements of the "cute aesthetic." Join us this week while Scott and I discuss the adorable betrayals, cuddly characters, and charming anomalies of "cute" games. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below and check out Michael's insightful articles in the show notes.

Discussion starters:

- If you had a chance to play Kirby's Epic Yarn, what did you think of the art design? Does it make the game feel "childish" in a bad way?
- Is the textured approach to art design growing old?
- Does the cute aesthetic hold up to the test of time better than other art designs?

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 17 sec
- "Kirby's Epic Concept" by Michael Abbot, via The Brainy Gamer
- "Plush Tech," Ibid.
- "Kirby's Epic Sound," Ibid.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks