Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chell and Portal 2's Rat Man

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Chell and Portal 2's Rat Man.

My entire article is really about the single-player storyline of Portal 2 and the way the Lab Rat comic enhances Chell and the play experience. While I absolutely adore Chell's adventure, the glorious core of Portal 2 shines brightest in the cooperative campaign.

I cannot stress enough how well Valve balanced the coop experience. The two-player testing chambers are far more than two sets of single-player puzzles joined together. They seldom feel contrived or hastily patched constructed. While playing, the solution nearly always seems to come as a result of two minds distorting their mind according to portal logic. In my experience, myself and my partner shared in the excitement of discovery equally. Most often we would come to one conclusion simultaneously or work separately at pieces of the puzzle, sharing our train of thought over voice chat until everything clicked. Frequently, we also swap plans of action. My partner would come up with one idea, and fail, then I would try mine, until we reached a breakthrough. Alternatively, one person would just "get it," laugh to themself maniacally, and then usher the second player through the experience. Even on these occasions, I never felt shepherded or useless. I would have to trust in my partner's actions and ruminate on its logic. To build a campaign in which two players can share in moments of ecstatic realization is a feat of wonder.

Having built these sensations of awe and companionship, Valve then exploits them hilariously. The "rock, paper, scissors," while silly, is actually quite meaningful. Personally, if I lose a game of roshambo, I feel compelled to comply with my partner's demands - even if this means being her personal test subject, risking my roboting limbs in their misguided experiments. Half of the aforementioned plans were wrong, leading to some painful falls, bullet wounds, or spiked deaths. GLaDOS never fails to point out these mistakes in her attempt to divide players with ridicule. Instead, my companionship with my partner only grows stronger. With Portal 2, Valve has shown an expertise in shaping relationships and emotions in cooperative play. It almost makes me wish the Rat Man could have accompanied Chell. I never knew that testing could get so lonely.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

EXP Podcast #125: Mortal Kombat Konversation

It is time once again to heed the call of the Elder Gods and protect Earthrealm from the evil forces of Outworld and the Netherrealm in the time-honored tradition of Mortal Kombat. Or at least that's what Wikipedia said the game was about...In any case, this week we're talking about the latest Mortal Kombat release!

As an added bonus, check out the slide show Hanah made of Jorge and me playing the game. I think the pictures demonstrate the game's real strengths: much of Mortal Kombat's fun comes from sharing its the gross absurdity with friends. Fighting games, and Mortal Kombat in particular, are great spectator sports.

Some discussion starters:

- Mortal Kombat is one of those iconic games that most people have at least some familiarity with. What's your history with the series?

- How effectively does the latest Mortal Kombat cater to both fighting game veterans and newcomers?

- What does the future hold for Mortal Kombat and for the fighting genre in general?

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dark Clouds

It's been a rough few days in the world of on-line infrastructure. Last week saw major outages in Amazon Web Services as well as the beginning of the ongoing Sony PlayStation Network debacle. As someone who spends a fair amount of time on Reddit, Giant Bomb, and PSN, I've felt the impact of all the downtime acutely. What with not being able to aimlessly surf rage comics, vicariously play Persona 4, or get any downloadable games on the PS3, I've had some time to reflect on this brave new world. In hopes of both organizing my thoughts and distracting myself from the prospect of having my credit card stolen, I'll share some potential lessons I've learned from the whole experience.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Puzzling Messages in Picross 3D

This week at PopMatters, I've written an essay about a puzzle game you've probably all heard of. Its name starts with a "P," it has a quirky sense of humor, and the gameplay consists of challenging logic puzzles that mess with your visual perspective and require a cool head under pressure. That's right: I'm talking about Picross 3D!

Coincidentally, I noticed Patrick Klepek talking about Picross 3D on Twitter the other day. I was both amused and sympathetic as I watched him spiral into a "Just one more!" cycle of cubic obsession. I guess I'm not the only one that one that got hooked on the game.

Like most folks who fancy themselves video game critics, I spend most of my time playing and analyzing games whose narrative structures resemble other traditional media. Most single-player games have a plot structure and characters meant to impart certain themes. Because of this, analysis often stems from how these plot and character-based elements relate to the messages conveyed by the game mechanics and dynamics.

In hopes of breaking out of the old routine, I decided to take a closer look at Picross 3D, a game without a "story." Fortunately, despite not using a plot or dialogue to communicate its messages, the game contains a number of interesting themes. Things spiral off into wacky territory towards the end, as I touch upon everything from Mount Rushmore to industrialism. Sometimes a little creative interpretation is fun; hopefully you enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

EXP Podcast #124: Now in HD!

There are so many great games from the past, but do they look terrible on your huge HD television? Are those blocky polygons jarring and atrocious? Maybe we should convert them to high resolution remakes. Or maybe not. Sometimes, as Michael Abbot states, "better isn't better." This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss the risks and rewards of HD remakes, touching upon designer intent, history lesson box-sets, contextual play, and more. As always, you can find Michael's original article in the show notes. We also encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Uncomfortable Countdowns

With much excitement, the eagerly awaited Portal 2 launched last night. Those who pre-ordered and pre-loaded the game were the first to delve back into Aperture Science laboratories, their patience rewarded after an uncomfortabe marketing ploy by Valve. To stir up excitement for the game and earn a few extra bucks, Valve decided tp release the game early. I pick my words carefully here. I have neither the evidence to prove Valve’s campaign was a failure nor the gall to call the project an affront to common decency. The marketing stunt, if we can call it that, is unsettling, at least personally, because it fires a spotlight on the cultural power differential between the development studio and its player fan base.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Sensationalist: Mastering Systems of Emotion

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries

My latest PopMatters articles is now up for your reading pleasure: Mastering Systems of Emotion. Check it out.

I believe it was Clint Hocking's talk during the Game Developers Conference that mentioned how fiction and gameplay are inexorably bound. His example was a Train version of Tetris, in which fitting the pieces together well represented good management of fitting Jews into train cars. People would play the game completely differently, or not at all. The pieces, because we know what the symbolize, create different meaning than the abstract pieces of the original game alone.

Systems of emotion, I imagine, are game systems in which we are not explicitly told what game components symbolize, but designers intentionally lead players to interpret them within a general theme. If players are contributing to the emotional system by imbuing symbols with personal meaning, than the emotional efficacy of the game will be strong.

Somewhat tangentially, almost two years ago exactly, I wrote a brief review of The Path. I called the game "obscure."Michael Samyn, one of the game's designers, stated: " I think it's as clear as it can possibly be. But its subject matter is complex, making it impossible to give straight answers." To be honest, I did not really agree with him or really understand what he meant until now. If The Path models an emotional system in which each interactive object and location jointly evoke particular emotions regarding specific themes, then Michael is very much correct. All The Path requires is that players keep an open mind and follow it. I do not think the game has any more intention than to have players confront their own feelings that arise as Tale of Tales escorts them through the forest. Even now, The Path is a beautifully designed game and, control scheme aside, a great example of designer-player storytelling.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

EXP IndieCast #2: Stargazing with Jason Rohrer

We had such a good time on last week's IndieCast that we decided to do double up! This week, we welcome game designer Jason Rohrer to the show. Jason is the creator of a host of games, including such well-known titles as Passage and Sleep is Death. Most recently, he released Inside a Star-filled Sky, a top-down shooter that combines classic arcade dynamics with innovative approaches to procedural level generation and unique social aspects. Jason and his games are always thought-provoking, so Jorge and I were delighted to get the opportunity to chat with him. We cover everything from Picasso to Spelunky and even manage to touch upon lunar exploration. We hope you enjoy the show!

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Nintendo's L O S T History

Minoru Arakawa
I've been doing some reading about the olden times recently. Thanks to David Sheff's 1993 book, Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, I've come across some amusing and interesting pieces of Nintendo history. Despite the book's alarmist title, it's actually quite thoroughly researched and well-written. Mixed in with the corporate history of the company and analysis of the 1980s and early 1990s game industry are compelling stories about the people behind the company. One such story reminded me of a certain popular sci-fi show with which many of you are familiar.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mobile Gaming Safari

Life has been busy the past few weeks, partly because of some unexpected travel. I have a hard time getting things done on the road; I find it hard to concentrate on anything. This past trip, I decided to give myself a little mission: I would keep an eye out for video game-related stuff as I made my journey. The results are over at PopMatters.

I was a bit surprised not to see many traditional gaming devices, but I suppose those are the signs of the times. I do not envy those in charge of Nintendo's 3DS or Sony's NGP projects. Based on my experience, it is getting increasingly difficult to convince people to carry and use single-purpose gaming devices. In the era of smartphones and on-demand entertainment, the once convenient action of reaching into one's bag for a Game Boy has become more of a chore.

Perhaps it was the travel fatigue or maybe I'm just becoming less of a grumpy traditionalist, but I'm starting to see the allure of Facebook games. Done correctly, I can see them realizing the potential of the Dreamcast VMU. While they might never offer the rich experience of a full retail game, they can act as supplements to a game's systems and fiction. For developers unlocking the secret of compelling, ethical games will be huge: I lost count of how many people I passed browsing Facebook on their phones. For players, quality Facebook games can offer a taste of a new franchise or supplement an existing series. I can't speak to its quality, but Dragon Age: Legends is an interesting game from a theoretical perspective. A game with traditional RPG systems that ties into a larger experience is definitely more appealing to me than whiling away the hours on a never-ending virtual farm.

I'll be interested to see what the next five years have in store for the mobile gaming scene. How much of the market will Nintendo and Sony retain? Apple seems to be in a strong position with the core gamers, but they just tip-toeing around the sleeping giant that is Facebook? In any case, it's a jungle out there.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

EXP IndieCast #1: Explanations and Stargazing

The Experience Point Podcast is branching out. Scott and I have decided to put on our swim trunks and wade into the world of independent games with a brand new monthly podcast dedicated to the too often overlooked members of the games industry. At least once a month, we will explore two games that have caught our eye. We will also supplement this talks, when possible, with interviews with their designers. This week on the show, Scott and I discuss the rocket-boosting madness of No Time To Explain and the infinitely recursive realm of Inside A Star Filled Sky. Check out the games in the show notes and join the discussion in the comments section below.

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Measuring Pokémon for Kids

What makes a good videogame for children? The answer, of course, depends largely on the interests of parents and guardians, as well as the child. Even children’s literature is notoriously hard to gauge. If we picked an age range, say 10-12, we would still have trouble agreeing on the best books for children to read. Should they be educational? Moral? Challenging? We face the same questions when assessing videogames for children.

Pokémon Black and White surpassed 2 million sales in North America the first two weeks, and the numbers continue to climb. In Japan, they sold over 2 million copies in just two days. The advertisements, toys, cards, and various media tie-ins seem largely targeted towards children. Yet clearly a vast number of adults are finding time to build up their pokedex. The game clearly remains broadly appealing, and has maintained its attraction for years. Yet there is something special about the game as an experience for children. Many adult players continue playing Pokémon today because it rekindles a sense of nostalgia for the first version they played as kids.

Pokémon certainly has many of the trappings of a children’s story. The main character is a child or young adult who leaves home to partake in an adventure. The protagonist is joined by a cast of friends, both human and animal, and confronts various threats during her journey. The pokémon themselves are cute and lovable, and when they battle, they do so harmlessly - fainting, never dying. The entire world, lovingly created, is gentle, joyful, and consistent.

Maybe we cannot agree on what elements make a children’s book great, but we can mostly agree on the value of some of the best. Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, The Lorax, The Giving Tree, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland are all widely lauded as some of the best children’s books of all time. Narratively, Pokémon is far too sanitary and simplistic. None of the books I just mentioned play it safe. Charlotte’s Web wrestles with death, The Lorax with human greed and environmentalism, and the others with anger, aging, isolation, poverty and more.

I am intentionally using an unfair comparison. Pokémon’s story might not measure up to the greatest children’s literature, but the experience may still prove perfect for children. While the ethics of the game might be dubious, the Pokémon meta-game is uniquely suited for children. As I mentioned two weeks ago, Pokémon is socially appealing. Chatting with friends about the latest catch, trading and battling pokémon with others, and sharing an experience with people across the world is more than fun, it is rewarding.

Partaking in the construction of a personal narrative, the journey through the game itself and the real life experiences surrounding play, is incredibly constructive for children. Pokémon provides a coming-of-age testing ground set in the real world. Children explore the value of personal accomplishment and competition in reality with the help of a digital aid. Similarly, players become self-empowered agents - building their own team of creatures, training them, battling them, and picking their favorites. The game is simple, but the act of public play is complex. Even animosities that arise because of Pokémon confront children with low-stakes learning opportunities, some of which can be settled with a pokébattle or reinterpreted through the eyes of an honor-bound and righteous pokétrainer. In the case of Pokémon, measuring the value a children's game has less to do with the game itself than the real life experiences the game induces.