Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shootin' Dudes and the Importance of a Good Plot

This week at PopMatters, I commend the strength of interesting plots.

I'm always a bit wary of opening the whole "story vs. gameplay" can of worms, mostly because it's a false dichotomy. As Mattie Brice succinctly puts it, "narrative is a game mechanic." If a game's authored story impacts the way you play the game, it is functionally another rule you interact with as you negotiate a game system.

My point is that mundane game systems can be galvanized by a clever story. Without Red Dead Redemption's plot about the struggle against cyclical violence, it would have just been another open world game. John Marston's fate and his family's struggles alter the way it feels to participate in the game's events. Visual and audio choices serve a similar function. Mechanically, Heavy Rain is little more than digitial game of Simon says rather than a tense thriller.

I touch briefly on some reservations I had regarding Starhawk's story that I want to clarify. I think creators should be free to create the stories they want to create. Just because the game has two black lead characters doesn't mean it has to grapple with race as a thematic element. Sometimes, not addressing an issue is actually a statement unto itself. My point is that the absence of any complex social, cultural, or historical themes doesn't do anything to bolster game systems that would benefit from a little support.

Playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 isn't all that different from playing as Master Chief on a mechanical level. What makes this moment special is the story: suddenly, you're playing as "the enemy." You're seeing a new perspective in the war, one that reveals new narrative complexities that broaden Halo's overall scope. The Elites become more than targets: they're actual characters. I think BioShock is a similar example: its legendary plot and sudden twist turn the game into a commentary on the medium itself rather than a prettier version of Doom.

Stories in games are tricky, but they don't (and I would argue they shouldn't) always strive to accommodate whatever the player wants. Even the most inflexible plots can inject meaning into game mechanics and dynamics. I think we should embrace that concept by continually pushing for interesting stories.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

EXP Podcast #174: Now Playing

The same gaming lull is here, but out gaming habits are as vibrant as ever. Believe or not, but Scott and I do find time in our busy schedule to actually play games. This week we take a break to chat about the games we have been playing recently, from everyone's favorite Blizzard release to an unexpectedly enjoyable side-scrolling MOBA. Let us know what you have been enjoying lately in the comments section below, and be sure to chime in with your thoughts on the games we've discussed in 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, May 29, 2012

Kickstarting Enthusiasm

When Double Fine Adventure first took off on Kickstarter, I joined the bandwagon. A Tim Schafer/Double Fine point-and-click adventure game? Sure, why not? I had no idea the Kickstarter crowd-sourced funding model would take off like it did. Now game news sites and podcasts put out weekly updates about the most interesting Kickstarter campaigns looking for funding and the twitterverse rallies around whichever developer has a funding goal just out of reach. The "indie darling" has been replaced with the "kickstarter darling" and even I have bought into the idealism of community funding.

Of course I do not mean to disparage the plenty of brilliant creative minds seeking financial backing from existing fan bases or complete strangers. Kickstarter is breathing new life into games that would never have received a traditional publishing deal. Of course any hint as a dramatic change in the status quo receives reactionary hostility, much of it warranted. Many have compared Kickstarter campaigns to elaborate pre-order schemes, complete with their own subtle but no less detrimental set of pre-order bonuses. I have no problem with pre-order bonuses in theory, but I see where the hesitation comes from. Others are concerned Kickstarter will breed scammers or will be easily co-opted by major publishers and studios looking to make risky investments slightly more safe - both completely reasonably concerns.

Regardless, I am finding myself increasingly intrigued by Kickstarter campaigns. While I have only supported a few campaigns, I check the site almost daily, scanning for new and interesting projects, within the games sector and without, and looking at what friends have recently backed. What gets me so excited about Kickstarter backing, however, is not the promise of reward or the sense I am undermining the major studio publishing empire, but the bountiful sense of possibility at the idea of games still in their infancy.

Of course I am buying into a sort of delusion. I have already backed Jason Rhorer's Diamond Trust of London, which was already complete when I backed it, it simply needed money for publishing costs. Others, such as Haunts, offer more room for movement and represent developer excitement for a project that does is relatively far from completion. I backed Haunts also because Mobs Rules Games sounds committed to transparency, a policy I have lauded time and again. Of course so many of these games could fall through. Double Fine Adventure might flop and the plug might be pull out from our Kickstarter boat. If this happens, we should remember what the excitement around Kickstarter represents. Developers and players alike have a near endless enthusiasm for the possibilities games represent.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In Support of Supports

My latest PopMatters article is now live: In Support of Supports

I thought about spending the entire length of this article talking about support classes in League of Legends, of which there are quite few immensely entertaining champions. Lulu can turn enemies into a cupcake... a cupcake! I also thought about exclusively discussing TERA's Mystic class, but I have a review in the works for that game. Instead, I talked about each briefly and instead focused on support classes in general.

For now, I want to examine why some players actually enjoy support classes above so many others. I freely admit my adoration of supportive roles in multiplayer games. I played a restoration druid in World of Warcraft for many years and did my best to excel at a healing role. Most multiplayer games, if there is a support role to fill, I will gladly heal, buff, and otherwise back up my allies anyway I can. There are several reason I believe I am drawn to support roles.

First, I have very little faith in my ability to play anything else. Simply put, I lack confidence. I play too carefully too often and it diminishes my killing potential. Maybe I should rush that hill, lob grenades into a crowd of infantry, and thin mow the opposing team down with a hail of bullets. Instead, I crouch in some bushes for twenty-minutes and then peak my head out just in time to take a sniper bullet to the head. Why throw myself into the fray, where every little mistake matters, when I can hang back and seize my opportunities strategically, backing up my friends whenever possible. After all, someone has to lay down cover-fire.

Second, I am actually pretty good at them. Playing a support demands you pay attention to the game system as a whole, monitoring all team activity while also playing an entirely different meta-game than your allies. It might now always be the hardest role to play in a game, but certainly is unique. After so many years filling the all too often unwanted role in a team, I have come to know what is expected of me. I feel comfortable stepping into a support role in any game, knowing that the knowledge I carry regarding my approach to gameplay is somewhat transferable.

Third, I love feeling like a part of a team. As a carry, the heroic damage dealing character who is the first to jump into the fray, a game can feel like a solitary experience. You have your enemies to dispatch as quickly as possible, you can leave the rest behind. As a support, I am nothing without my team. Unfortunately this means I bad team will drag you down. I have lost many League of Legends games because, no matter how much advice and amazingly timed heals or knock-backs I delivered, I could only do so much. But when a team comes together, playing a support class can feel like captaining a ship. When the team celebrates and even shows gratitude for amazing support, I feel an immense amount of appreciation for role-based gameplay and the creators of well designed supports.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

EXP Podcast #173: Virtual Urban Legends

We all know there's no such thing as ghosts (right...?), but what about virtual ghosts? This week, inspired by Jason Johnson's piece on Red Dead Redemption's haunted mansion, we discuss the myths, urban legends, and tall tales that crop up around games. We talk about the ways games facilitate far out theories and why mysteries are so alluring to players. Of course, you can't have conspiracies without fellow conspirators, so we're looking forward to hearing your theories in the comments.

And, just for fun, here's one of my favorite haunted RDR videos:

Some discussion starters:

- What are some of your favorite gaming myths, rumors, and/or ghost stories?

- What type of game best facilitates folklore? How do rules, systems, and plots inform theories?

- How have gaming urban legends changed over the years?

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:

- Run time: 29 min 48 sec
- "Black Undead Damnation," by Jason Johnson, via Kill Screen
- A list of rumors about Tumbleweed, from the Red Dead Redemption wiki on Wikia
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Video Game Tall Tales

In tomorrow's podcast, Jorge and I talk about the phenomena of video game folklore; the myths, legends, rumors, and ghost stories that crop up around our favorite games. After the conversation, I fell down a nostalgic black hole of rumors and glitches. Allow me to share some souvenirs.

Alright: I know I've been somewhat obsessed with the X-Files recently, but bear with me for one more paragraph on the paranormal. A big chunk of tomorrow's podcast deals with Red Dead Redemption, a game that has spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists. Check out this video put together by someone looking to find a werewolf in RDR:

I think the X-Files theme song really ties the whole thing together, don't you? The most hilarious thing is that these types of videos have in turn spawned counterarguments. Not only are there virtual conspiracies, but virtual conspiracy-debunkers:

So many of these videos play out exactly the way real paranormal-sighting footage does. Check out this RDR UFO:

Shaky camera? Fuzzy picture? Disregard for any mundane explanation? It's all here.

Of course, RDR doesn't have a monopoly on creepy sightings. Check out these spectral figures in Super Mario Galaxy 2:

Allegedly, people have been able to dig into the game's files and reveal more of the mystery. Be they demons, trees, or simply forgotten pieces of an abandoned feature, they sure are creepy.

Sometimes, the greatest mysteries result in banal explanations. I remember being peering through my sniper rifle in Goldeneye and fantasizing about what was hidden on that distant island in the dam level. Well, it turns out that fantasy was way more interesting than reality:

Speaking of fantasy, I've always hoped that this Animal Crossing anecdote is apocryphal. Something so tragic, yet also so targeted straight at gamers' hearts seems a bit too convenient to be true. Then again, would we really want to admit that a cloying hoax transformed us into blubbering children?

Anyway, let's end on a high note, literally. I, like many people, dreamed of one day vaulting Super Mario over the those iconic flagpoles. And, like many people, I came to terms with the fact that those poles would forever be the digital Lucy to my virtual Charlie Brown. Every time I, no matter how close I came or how much I believed it, I fell short. I can only imagine how satisfy it must have been to discover this trick:

Of course, this leaves us with the question: Now that we know what's on the other side of the flag pole, what now? I'm sure we'll find other mysteries to investigate, even if we have to create them ourselves.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Multiplayer Memories in 'Demon's Souls'

This week at PopMatters, I share some of my experiences with Demon's Souls' online components.

First, a quick side note: the name, "Demon's Souls," is one of the most ungainly word pairings I've ever encountered. Say it out loud and you're tripping over the alliterative double "S" sound in the middle. Write it out and you find yourself staring quizzically at apostrophe placement. The game's name is as ridiculous as the game itself.

Anyway, those who have been following the site for the past month know that I've been trying to beat Demon's Souls before they shut off the multiplayer servers on May 31. It's not looking too good: time constraints and the game's punishing difficulty have turned out to be formidable roadblocks. Still, I'm happy I started playing when I did, as the multiplayer components have turned out to be one of the most memorable portions of the game.

Demon's Souls can still be played as an off-line experience, but the subtle presence of other humans sets it apart from most other action RPGs. Whether it is stumbling across a sarcastic hint, seeing the ghostly demise of another adventurer, or forming short-lived alliances and rivalries, interacting with other people adds dynamism to a game that thrives on repetition. You'll play the same level a dozen times, but there's always a chance you'll see a new message or even be pulled into someone else's game.

Closing down the servers won't be as damaging to Demon's Souls as it was for MMOs like Tabula Rasa or the The Matrix Online, but it still means that we'll be losing a significant aspect of the game. The online systems will disappear, taking their place in our memories alongside other digital artifacts like pre-Cataclysm World of Warcraft. It's times like this I wish I had a capture set up so I could more literally document the game for posterity.

Alas, I was too late (and too lazy) to undertake such a project. Instead, I'll just contribute some qualitative evidence to the historical record by sharing some thoughts about the dark, dangerous, and hilarious experience of playing Demon's Souls online.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

EXP Podcast #172: Critical Mastery

There are some truly stunning game players out there, people who can shoot, soar, jump, and score through the most difficult gaming challenges around. They show a true mastery over game systems. But does this make them good critics? How good at games do we have to be to contribute the most valuable video game discussions? This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I tackle an excellent article by Kyle Stegerwald addressing the question of skill and games criticism. As always, we 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:

- Run time: 32 min 37 sec
- "Bad at What? The Question of Skill and Games Criticism", by Kyle Stegerwald via medium difficulty
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Licensed Expectations

I am an avid fan of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy epic. I gnawed on the books for well over a year, slowly making my way from the seven kingdoms to the shores of the Jade sea, devouring Martin's lavish world with steady determination. Naturally I have also watched the Game of Thrones HBO series and eagerly look forward to every new episode, even when I already know what's going to happen. The point of all this is that for the first time, I feel I have a genuine interest in how a game company handles licensed material. I love Star Wars of course, but my expectations are relatively low when it comes to Lucas-inspired game products. The novels, the immensely successful television series, and even the board game, lifted my hopes for any media tie-in at this point.

You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I spotted some of the very negative reviews given to the recent Game of Thrones video game by Cyanide. This is not the first attempt at a Song of Ice and Fire game, but it is the first that actually struck as a potential success. Now I have not played the game yet, so this is not a judgement on the game itself. Rather, I want to discuss a few of my general expectations of a well-executed Game of Thrones game.

Tone: The world of Westeros, in both the novels and the television series, is oppressively dark and often hopeless. Character we grow to love are killed mercilessly and right when things couldn't get any worse, they do. At one point, during the third novel, I completely despaired (If you've read the series, you will know moment). I wanted all of Westeros to burn to the ground because, as I saw it, all was lost. But after a short hiatus, I read on, pulled further into the world, and forced again to care about its outcome. Any game adaptations of the series must be saturated with despair and, nevertheless, a sense of determination, even in the face of certain death.

Politics: More interesting than some of the mundane tertiary characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are the political machinations and greater levels of intrigue populating Westeros, both out in the open and hidden. The series is more than the story of a few noble houses. It is the story of feuds, lies, lust, and betrayal stretching back centuries. Anyone, even a child, can change the world with just a few words or quick stab with a sword, sending political ripple throughout the seven kingdoms. Some nations lie in wait, scheming until they find the perfect moment to strike, others play than game of thrones out in the open, fighting their political battles with sharp tongues and a inked quill. No game can do Martin's world justice if sword and shield is more emphasized than diplomacy and deceit.

Themes: Similar to the above, A Song of Ice and Fire is rife with grand themes about loyalty, honor, religion, and heroism. This is a world in which the power of the Gods is palpable, but still distant; in which prayer matters because the night really is dark and full of terrors. Heroes are seldom pure and purity is never enough to keep your head. The series stands out in the fantasy genre because it tackles some very adult themes because and in spite of its unrepentant abandonment of many genre norms. Any game that lands its vessel upon the shores of Westeros must be prepared to address themes too few games ever approach.

Looking back at these requests, I can see my expectations are a little high. In fact, they are probably impossible to meet. But I thought the same thing at the news the books would be made into a television series. Our my dreams too lofty? Is this how you approach games based on titles you love from other mediums? My only hope for games based on properties from other mediums is that they be made by developers who truly care about the source material, above all else, even game design. I think I would rather see an effort that shows conviction than a quick attempt at a cash-in.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

MMOs and Limited Innovation

My latest PopMatters article is now live: MMOs and Limited Innovation.

This article is the kindest I could be to the MMOs out on the market right now tearing into studios that frankly deserve a heap of praise for finding success in a market that has grown stale. I wanted to spend a bit of time in this extended piece talking about about TERA's genuinely interesting gameplay and the way the game redefines the traditional class-based tropes of the MMO. However, I will save that for another post. Instead, I want talk about why I have a lot of hope for the MMOs and why I believe the next four years will see renewed exploration of the genre.

Let's start with some charts (courtesy of BAM!

85% Elf
We sure do love our Tolkien mythology, don't we? Time and again we have returned to stories or mages, knights, rangers, orcs, dragons, and various combinations of mythological tropes. Yes, Skyrim was incredibly well received, but is anyone really surprised by the tepid reaction to Elder Scrolls Online? If anything, the Elder Scrolls games up to this point have shone precisely because we explored their enormous landscapes in utter solitude. Teaming up with other random strangers to tread the same fantasy path again holds little excitement. Let's look at two more graphs:

The two graphs above track subscription numbers for MMOs within the 150k to 1M+ levels. Two things to notice from these graphs. First, with few exceptions, every one of those games share two or more of these four qualities: point-and click gameplay, fantasy setting, WoW-inspired quest system, Tank/Healer/DPS class system. Second, that's actually a surprisingly large number of games, some of which have dropped off the critical games radar ages ago. Everquest, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, are also still holding strong numbers. Personally speaking, I have underestimated the size of the committed MMO community.

Which is why I am hopefuly for MMOs in the coming years. The players of these games are a committed bunch. I have seen first-hand strong social-bonds form within MMO communities, leading to lasting friendships and even hostilities against rivals. Log on to a just released MMO and you will find hundreds of players on at any given time planning out their play experience months or even years into the future, plotting out strategies and goals with a doe-eyed enthusiasm. Most importantly, their numbers are not small. MMOs are growing stagnant, but their communities are not. A steady decline might be in the immediate future for numerous MMO publishers, but more likely than not, a daring group of developers with breath life back into the tired genre sooner or later. When they do, an army of fans will be waiting to doll developer loot, free at least from limited innovation.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

EXP Podcast #171: Infuriating Interactive Experiences

We try to stretch, maybe do some breathing exercises, and envision that "happy place" in our mind's eye, but even the best of us experience game-related grumpiness. This week, thanks to Mitch Krpata's recent and refreshingly honest appraisal of his video game raging, we talk about games that make us mad. We touch on everything from specific games to the ways frustration manifests itself, while trying to keep fury-related flashbacks to a minimum. As always, don't just stew in silence; feel free to burst into the comments with your thoughts on angry gaming.

Some discussion starters:

- What specific games make you mad? Are there certain franchises that continually rile you up?

- How do specific games systems foment anger? Conversely, are there certain types of mechanics or dynamics that are naturally calming?

- Let's hear your horror stories: Broken controllers? Smashed monitors? Lifelong bans? What are the consequences of Hulking out?

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:

- Run time: 28 min 42 sec
- "All the Rage," by Mitch Krpata, via Insult Swordfighting
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Finding Video Games in the X-Files

Ever since I discovered that the entire run of The X-Files was on Netflix streaming, I've been devouring the episodes at an alarming rate. For me, it scratches the same itch as Star Trek: earnest (if somewhat convoluted) overarching stories that tackle issues of science and philosophy, broken up by one-off stories, genre pieces, and monster of week episodes along the way. Imagine my delight when I came upon one of these "light" episodes called, "First Person Shooter."

Yup, it was time for Mulder and Scully to enter the mysterious world of video games. I'm always a sucker when it comes to analyzing how games are portrayed on the small screen, so let's see if this episode does justice to the medium.

Military Grade Secrecy

Mulder and Scully are sent to investigate a mysterious death at a video game company specializing in making extremely realistic virtual reality shooter games. Of course, before they can even talk to anyone, they have to go through more security than they encounter in the FBI building. Badges, retinal scans, private security, harsh NDAs; it's all only slightly more extreme than the steps real game companies take to hide their own trade secrets. Wouldn't want the number of grenades you can carry in the next Call of Duty to leak, right?

Gender Wars

The crux of the episode revolves around a digital femme fatale AI who goes rogue and starts killing players. Of course, she conducts business burdened only by the most minimal amount of clothing. The twist (you know you saw this coming) was that the AI was originally created by a female programmer as a side project to undercut the testosterone-laden environment in which she worked.

Putting aside the killer AI for a moment, it's still a familiar story in the video game industry. Blockbuster titles are still overwhelmingly created by men and targeted at traditionally male audiences. Power fantasies, scantily-clad women, and explosions defined the fictional game, but such characteristics apply equally well to any number of popular shooters we play today. Scully skewers games as immature hobbies made for men to "get their ya-yas out," and she's not wrong. Unfortunately, she also dismisses any women that might be interested in the medium (which almost leads to her demise).

It's also important to consider the historical context in which the episode was released. In early 2000, the frat house environments of companies like id software and 3D Realms reigned supreme. The CEO of the fictional game company is a dark cross between David Jaffe and John Carmack. He's obsessed with both technological and design matters but blind to any consideration for inclusivity.

The Asian Prodigy

The FPS company brings in the legendary Daryl Musashi to figure out what went wrong in the game. Everyone except Scully regards him with a hushed awe, as he is world's premier gamer; someone that seems to be naturally in tune with the program. The preternaturally-skilled Asian kid is a persistent stereotype, one that I'm sure people have (or will) study for some time. After all, we talk about Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara the same way folks talked about Dennis "Thresh" Fong back in the heyday of Quake.

Who knows if the writers (William Gibson(!) and Tom Maddox) knew about this real life analog. I made the connection, but of course I may have been acting the fanboy, just like Mulder and the rest of the geeks.

The Search for Immersion

The episode relies heavily on the assumption that the holodeck is the holy grail of games, that with sufficiently advanced technology, we can physically enter a game. All this makes sense in the context of the late 1990s and early 2000s, during the hardware wars and graphics card competitions. However, after the turn of the century, something unexpected happened that disrupted this vision of the future.

Instead of retreating into game worlds, we're pulling games into our world. The rise of social networks and new platforms like iOS have blurred the line between where a game ends and where everyday life begins. We're not wearing goggles or haptic gloves, but many of us are under a constant barrage of game-related information. Push notifications, status updates, email reminders that it's your turn to move in a dozen different Facebook games get mixed into the everyday tasks of life. Games have become increasingly immersive thanks to social tools rather than virtual reality.

In the alternate reality of this X-Files episode, a game like Rage would be more important than Angry Birds, since it pushes us closer to photorealism and theoretically draws us further into the game. In our world it's the opposite: games like Angry Birds are designed for us to draw them into our world and integrate them into our daily routines. It's not the kind of immersion we dreamed of in the late 1990s; it's a much weirder, unexpected, gradual phenomenon.

Chest-high Walls

In a shocking display of prescience, about 75% of "First Person Shooter's" action sequences involve people taking cover behind chest-high walls and shooting dudes. Also, Scully's big move to save the day was basically one extended turret sequence in which I discovered that watching such a scene is about as dull as playing through one.

Arbitrary cover and boring turret sequences in the year 2000? I suppose we're supposed to think that the episode was just ahead of its time? I, for one, am not buying it. I've watched enough X-Files to know that somewhere, there is an ominous, cigarette-smoking man who visits every major publisher to "convince" them of the need for chest-high walls. The truth is out there.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Segmented Sky

This week on PopMatters, I work through some issues concerning The Legend of Zeda: Skyward Sword.

Said issues are both of the game design and personal variety. Let me explain:

My brain has trouble fully grasping rapid transportation. Intellectually, I know what it means to take a long plane ride, but deep rooted instincts still make it hard to believe that I can climb into a metal tube, close the door, wait for a few hours, and have it open up to a place thousands of miles from where I started. My feeble primate brain simply has a hard time believing that, within the span of a day, it has traveled a distance that would take months (or years!) on foot. In video game terms, the plane lets me "fast travel" past the world's terrain; a landscape so vast that I have a hard time conceptualizing its size in any tangible way. My stay in economy class is essentially an inconvenient load time between two points in a largely incomprehensible environment.

Games like the original Legend of Zelda do a great job of creating expansive worlds that are manageable enough to comprehend as a whole. Eventually, you'll be able to warp around the word, but there is comfort and pleasure in knowing that everything is connected and accessible via non-magical means. The spirit of this seamlessness lives on on in the best open world games. Red Dead Redemption, for example, has a massive world that still manages to feel connected. The land's various ecosystems gradually transition into one another. If you see mountain in the distance, you know you could walk there, even if you almost always fast travel to save some time. Sometimes an illusion-breaking load time is an acceptable in the interest of time.

In Skyward Sword, you never have the choice of a tradeoff. The game is densely segmented to the point where the game's various lands are literally disconnected from each other and gated behind an absurd number of load screens. None of them are long load screens, but the fact that they exist suggests the Zelda team is either behind the times from a technological and design perspective or that they simply don't care. For the sake of the franchise, I hope it's the former. It would be sad for Nintendo to settle for a segmented Zelda world, thereby abandoning to seemingly abandon one of its biggest contributions to the medium.

As you may have guessed, I've been thinking about Skyward Sword for a long time. Spurred on by Tevis Thompson's writing, I'm going to formalize a few more of my thoughts in the coming weeks. For now though, I'll just say that Skyward Sword's seemingly expansive atmosphere is a lot smaller than it looks.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

EXP Podcast #170: Cheating Habits

I may be a low-down dirty cheat, but I am not alone. In fact, plenty of people glitch against walls, harvest the brilliant internet hive-mind for puzzle solutions, or ask the twitterverse how to build the sweetest weapons and armor. Are we losing something or gaining something by cheating? And why do we cheat in the first place? Join Scott and I while we discuss these questions, our own cheating habits, and so much more. As always, we encourage you to leave your comments below and let us know how, when, and why you have opted to rely on outside help.

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:

- Run time: 35 min 30 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Breaking Out of Fez

Alright, I may have cheated on Fez, but I stayed with the indie darling regardless. Have no doubts, Fez offers a bounty of clever and mind-bending ideas that will burst your brain into a million piece. There is a good time to be had, even if you transgress and seek out the internet hive-mind for help solving any one of the game's maddening puzzles. However, as I keep venturing down Fez's 2D/3D(/4D?) rabbit hole, I am finding the "good times" harder and harder to locate. The more Fez deviates from the norm, the less attentive I become.

 I feel as though my reactions to Fez's more mind-bending puzzles completely contradict their intended purpose. Some of the the game's tricks should be downright shocking, and they were... at first. I smiled with glee when the game first pretended to glitch and toss me back into the start menu, and I was delightfully surprised when I realized the runic scribblings scattered across the game's many stages were actually written words, some filling in the flavor of the world others offering solutions or further riddles to the many mysteries of Fez. The game plays with the genre and completely shatters expectations. Few games dare to upend convention so completely as Fez. For this reason alone, its existence is exciting and long-overdue.

That being said, the longer I play the more Fez feels like a jumbled speech composed of passionate soliloquey, tedious exposition, and half-crazed prophecies. I genuinely enjoy the vast majority of the game's platforming puzzles. It is a thrill to take a flying leap though a twisting environment to grab a cube and a joy to unlock the mechanism that opens a hidden door. Yet progressing demands I leave some of these puzzles behind, to explore a doorway, to take time thinking about the solution, or simply because some puzzles cannot be solved unless certain states are met in other stages. Even with three dimensional map in hand, finding the rooms again and retracing your steps can become painfully tedious. The few teleportation windows in the game feel like puzzles themselves and only warp players inbetween hubs. Quick travel is off limits, so getting to those "good times" can far too long.

Most significantly, the jarring "out-of-the-box" puzzles have quickly turned from clever to gimmicky. That QR code puzzle which at first seemed so cool now feels weird and misplaced. I had to leave the world of Fez behind while I searched for my phone in the other room, unlocked it, downloaded the QR code reader I deleted long-ago because the technology seemed increasingly irrelevant, and lined up the camera to my television. This may sound like a childish rant against a minor inconvenience, but when I was enjoying the atmosphere of Fez so much, the act of accessing a device that is practically designed to distract me with work emails and push-notifications felt intrusive. To a lesser extent, I felt the same way about the long strings of text I attempted to translate with pen and paper before turning to an online resource. Even the vibrating controller puzzles feel less inspired with every one I encounter.

Fez breaks out its genre mold and carries me with it. Venturing into such unknown territory, particularly in its early moments, feels absolutely liberating. However, long after the lessons have sunk in, I find myself more eager to stay in the game for more than five minutes and settle down for something a bit more by the book.