Wednesday, February 29, 2012

EXP Podcast #161: Playing the Gears of War Board Game

We finally did it: we played Gears of War: The Board Game!  Last year, Jorge and I discussed the game in a podcast about the general relationship between board games and video games. Being fans of Gears and games in general, we decided (for better or worse!) we would play it once it was released. We finally did so and now we've regrouped to offer our thoughts on the game and its relationship to its source material. As always, feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- For those who played the game: did you like it? What worked and what didn't?

- It was somewhat surprising that the Gears board game felt very faithful to the video game. What are some video games might lend themselves to board game adaptations in a similarly counter-intuitive way?

- What lessons can video games take from their more tangible brethren?

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: 41 min 35 sec
- Official website for Gears of War: The Board Game and some discussion at Board Game Geek
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Staying in Touch with Old Games

Here's a pro-tip for all you first time Link to the Past players: after you charge up your sword, you can still throw your boomerang and retain your charge attack. That way, you can prepare a strong attack, quickly stun the enemy, and then move in for the killing blow at your leisure. It's not very narrative intuitive (how can Link be throwing a boomerang when his hands are occupied by his sword and shield?), but it's relatively easy to pull off: just press the Y button while holding down the B button by stretching your thumb a little bit to the left.

Of course that's assuming your using the Super Nintendo controller. Hanah and I just started playing Link to the Past on the Wii's Virtual Console. I haven't been able to get my hands on a Classic Controller Pro yet (soon!), so we started our journey using our trusty GameCube controller. Normally, it's one of my favorite ways to play a game: the curved handles and ergonomically shaped buttons won't win any beauty prizes, but they are certainly comfortable.

The problem is that these features were not designed to be functional in the 2000s, not the 1990s. Trying to do my patented boomerang sneak attack meant arching another finger up to the Y button while desperately holding onto the small B button in the lower left corner. It feels weird playing a top-town Zelda game with an analog stick, so I attempted to use the controller's d-pad, only to find it much tinier than I remembered. Using the shoulder buttons to zoom in and out on the map is made more cumbersome (not to mention noisy) by the controller's huge analog L and R buttons. The game is certainly still playable and quite enjoyable, but using a GameCube controller is not ideal.

The point of all this is that when I think about game preservation, I often worry about losing the bits and bytes when I should really be worrying about losing the plastic and the metal. Emulation is well-developed art and I'm willing to bet there will always be people dedicated and talented enough to port their favorite games to any kind of machine. Even today, almost everything with a screen can run a pretty good version of Doom.

Software can't simulate that smooth, weighty Marble Madness ball or that springy click of the Nintendo Zapper. Unfortunately, those things are relatively more expensive and time consuming to build and maintain compared to a vast digital library of emulated software. I'm not naive enough to suggest that companies continue to churn out hardware for defunct systems and I think that solutions like the Classic Controller Pro are good compromises. However, it would be nice if big companies like Nintendo could do periodic, limited runs of old hardware modernized just enough to interface with contemporary consoles. I'm sure they could paint it gold, call it a collector's edition, and charge a tidy sum for such relics once every ten years or so.

Nintendo would get its money, collectors would get their trophies, and everyone would get the chance to experience what old games actually felt like on the most basic, physical level.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Game Over:' A Look at Nintendo's Past and Future

This week, I continue my slow march through published video game history with a review of David Sheff's Game Over, a story about Nintendo's rise in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I actually mentioned the book a while back when I wrote about Minoru Arakawa's transition into the Yamauchi family business. Hiroshi Yamauchi was able to convince his son in law (against his own daughter's wishes) to assume the duty of establishing Nintendo in the U.S. Everything ended up turnint out fine, but imagine Yoko Arakawa's thoughts when she saw Mino venture into the maw of the beast that had driven a permanent wedge between her father and his family. For that matter, imagine Nolan Bushnell's ambition as he was running Atari out of a warehouse staffed with weird kids and hippie burnouts (among whom Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two). Imagine negotiating with U.S.S.R. officials for the rights of some obscure game called "Tetris," knowing that other companies are actively working to sabotage the deal. Thanks to Sheff's dedication, this is all possible.

The book meanders a bit, but I can hardly hold that against it. Those early console days were fascinating, interconnected times. Business concepts that we take for granted (like the legality of proprietary cartridges) were being hashed out alongside artistic practices that continue to define the medium. I'll excuse a little sprawl if it means being able to read the candid accounts of industry titans like Trip Hawkins and Howard Lincoln.

I hope Sheff is taking good care of his notes. In the absence of detailed footnotes, you have to take the veracity of the facts for granted. Based on my knowledge from other sources, everything in the book seems plausible. I'm actually more interested in making sure the interviews and research he did survives. Documenting the past is difficult, especially when dealing with tight-lipped people in a tight-lipped industry. Just because video games are a modern medium doesn't mean we can't lose our history. With Henk Rogers pushing 60, I think it's time to start pushing for more interviews from people who were around during those formative years.

Finally, like any good history, Game Over sheds light on our current times. Nintendo's controlling demeanor towards third-party publishers has been a problem since the company's inception. Its obsession with squeezing every ounce of performance (and profit) out of underpowered hardware dates back to the NES. Ideas like the Nintendo Network and Wii Fit have been kicking around since the early 1980s. The company has long been comprised of an odd mixture of artists and ruthless businessmen.

That mixture has produced some of the industry's most enduring practices as well as the medium's most revered games. As Game Over demonstrates, it has also produced some fascinating history.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

EXP Podcast #160: By Any Other Name

Are you a "Gamer" and proud of it? Some actually shy away from the term or want to abandon it entirely. The name "gamer" evokes images of basement-dwellers and incredibly long sessions of World of Warcraft, at least for those outside the community. But can we salvage this form of gaming identification? Should we reclaim the word and shout "I am a gamer and proud of it" from the rooftop? This week on the EXP Podcast, inspired by an article from Jason Johnson, Scott and I discuss the gamer moniker, knitting circles, and more. As always, you can find the original article in the show notes below and we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below and while you're at, feel free to leave us a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!

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: 34 min 27 sec
- "Will the Real Gamer Please Stand Up?", by Jason Johnson via Kill Screen Daily
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shadow Hunting

After writing that recent article about Endeavor and the economics of slavery, I have been itching to write about more board games. For the past four months or so, I have been frequenting a board game club where I gather around a table with strangers and play a variety of board games. Some of these involve the cutting and distribution of pies while others involved the strategic proliferation of stone-age homo-sapiens. Every week I come home with a renewed appreciation for clever game design.

While our gaming group plays an assortment of titles, we often come back to several games time and again, the most frequent of which is Shadow Hunters. Like some of my favorite board games, Shadow Hunters has a secrecy mechanic and is pseudo-cooperative. Depending on the number of players, an assortment of identity cards are distributed to each player. Each identity belongs to a particular faction: Shadows, Hunters, and Neutrals. For the most part Hunters is a team game, but I find its variable win conditions its most interesting and well executed feature.

As a player, your win condition entirely depends on your identity and associated faction. Hunters will always win if they kill all the Shadows. Shadows will always win if they kill all the hunters or, with enough players, if they kill all the Neutrals. Neutral players add the real flare, each coming with their own win condition. Allie, for example, satisfies her win condition if she is alive when the game ends, and therefore wants to speed things along as much as possible without making herself a target for aggression. In Allie's case, she can share a victory with other players. Similarly, another character claims victory when the person sitting to her immediate right wins the game. If this character reveals her identity, she can switch her allegiance to the left on her turn. 

Other Neutrals have more selfish desires. Charles wins the game when he gets a kill after two or more characters are already deceased. Daniel, on the other hand, wants to be the first to die. Both of these characters take the solitary win, leaving all other players out in the cold. Of course Daniel and Charles might not be in the game at all, making the pursuit of information that much more important. 

Hermit Spell cards help players discover learn information about the identity of others, but rarely is this information completely clear. A Hermit card might say "I bet you're a Neutral or a Shadow. If so, you receive one damage." If you are playing a Shadow, and the person says the card does not apply to them, then maybe you have found your target. Or maybe they are the Unknown, the one Shadow character permitted to lie. If they do receive one damage, they could be an ally, or a Neutral biding their time for the right moment to strike.

As you can imagine, playing the game becomes as much about information gathering as reading player behavior. Is that play Daniel, being a little too aggressive in hopes of making enemies? Or is that a Shadow, taking your inaction as an opportunity to strike? Variable win conditions change gameplay for an individual, but they also change the entire game every match. With many ways to win, comes dynamic ways to play.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Questioning Our Moral Boundaries

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Questioning Our Moral Boundaries in Video Games

My intention was not to stir up the hornets nest of fear mongers scared of violent entertainment nor the zealots of jovial gore. This post actually started because did two things in short succession. First, I watched Hugo, which is a delightful and wonderfully made film by Martin Scorsese about cinema and the wonder, and occasional danger,  of technological progress. Scorsese shot the film in 3D and it is an absolute marvel to watch. Like Cameron before him, Scorsese makes a compelling argument that 3D film making can be as magical as color in cinema if used deftly and with tact.

After partaking in some child-like wonder, I then played The Darkness 2, which forges a very adult experience. The gore in this game is so over the top I started to marvel at the absurd violence. I think I used to be more squeamish and sensitive to this type of content. What happened? And what will continue to happen? At some point, when game designers reach the upper tiers of photorealism and start wielding 3D as effortlessly as Scorsese, will I consume this content so easily?

Honestly, I don't know. Some depictions of violence are too much for me to handle. I also wrestle with the value of depicting violence towards civilians or children in certain games. My opinions are by no means settled. But this is precisely why I want to think of these moral concerns early. Moral boundaries shift, and that is normal. I just do not want them shifting without my knowledge. The Darkness 2 is generally innocuous, but who knows, maybe I will be playing a Saw derivative some day, happily tearing people limb from limb, ignorant of the borders I thought I would never cross.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

EXP Podcast #159: Needless Noise, Appropriate Anger

Every week, it seems like there is some sort of mini-controversy happening. Whether it is outrage over a shady DLC scheme or frustration over a classic series' new artistic direction, there is never any shortage of noise and fury. This week, we use Sean Sands' observations on the recent Super Bowl to explore the line between constructive criticism and pointless rage. Feel the need to get something off your chest? We're always here to listen, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments

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 00 sec
- "The Noise and the Fury," by Sean Sands, via Gamers With Jobs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day Retrospective

Cynics might say Valentine's Day is a contrived pseudo-holiday manufactured by corporations looking to sell flowers, cards, jewelry, and candy. The romantics might say it's a valuable opportunity to appreciate those you love. I say it's a great opportunity for shameless self promotion. Over the years, Jorge and I have written our fair share on the topic of love in video games, so I thought I'd offer a quick retrospective on some of the highlights.

2008's Prince of Persia is one of our favorite games from the last few years. One big reason for this is the interesting relationship between Elika and the Prince. Few games from major publishers explore the arc of an adult relationship, but Prince of Persia explores everything from regret, to levity, and even selfishness. It does so through dialog and cutscenes, but also through visual and mechanical storytelling. As Jorge pointed out, seeing two characters physically interact with one another is a rare experience, one that speaks volumes without using words. I like the dynamic between the Prince and Eilika, but that doesn't mean it isn't without its problems. Prince of Persia might not be a standard "save the princess" story, but that doesn't mean it doesn't reflect traditional gender roles. Even fake relationships have their problems.

On the subject of fake relationships, I was happy to get the chance to learn more about the dynamics behind of gaming's most famous couples: Link and Zelda. While playing The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, I was delighted to find Zelda and Link working together on a joint journey. Instead of being stuck in a crystal for the whole game, a disembodied would possess hulking monsters to help Link fight his way through dungeons while making little jokes and sarcastic comments all the while. The two were inseparable by necessity and not simply predestined to be linked. After decades, it was nice to have the chance to get to know Zelda.

Veering back towards real life, we find my thoughts on how Braid captures the social dynamics that occur when people find out that you're married. However, not everyone forgets your individuality when you tie the knot. For example, Jorge very graciously celebrated Hanah's and my marriage with a excellent (if embarrassing!) post on love. For a more rule-based approach, check out my latest contribution to Ctrl+Alt+Defeat, in which I explore the ways games express emotions with systems. It's one things to fill the screen with hearts and flowers, but it's another to simulate the feel of feelings.

Speaking of feelings, I'm feeling pretty good now that Hanah and I have finished The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. We were attempting a joint playthrough, and thankfully our relationship survived all the devious dungeon traps and furious Wii waggling. It was the first time I had played a single-player game so closely with another person and it definitely made it a more enjoyable experience. In the days to come, I hope to expand on this experience. For now, I'll just recommend that everyone tries this experiment for themselves with some sort of action/adventure game. What could be more romantic than venturing into a dark cave with your loved one and beating the hell out of some rabid bats?

So there you have it: a brief retrospective on love, relationships, and video games, Experience Points-style. Let it never be said that Jorge and I are Valentine's day grinches; clearly we're just big softies at heart.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Faith vs. Sonic

Aside from their looks, I think Sonic the Hedgehog and Faith from Mirror's Edge have a lot in common. Why, then, do I admire the latter far more than the former? I tried to answer that question this week on PopMatters.

Part of it stems from design. I started thinking about this after reviewing Sonic CD: Poor Sonic always finds himself environments that aren't conducive to his success. Sonic's a race car that gets thrown into the middle of an obstacle course. Instant deaths and unforgiving platforming segments wouldn't be so irritating if they fed into the traits that make Sonic unique. Is it any surprise that a game built around speed starts to feel off when things slow down?

Mirror's Edge suffers from similar problems, but at least Faith has a wider variety of abilities on which to fall back. It's exhilarating to sprint across the rooftops, but the game is as much about careful jumping and climbing as it is about racing. If you're willing to push through the difficulty, the non-running segments of Mirror's Edge will still reward you by showcasing carefully constructed facets of the game.

I also think my recent re-discovery regarding the importance of a game's presentation pushes me in Mirror's Edge's direction. It's an obvious thing to say, but Mirror's Edge is a novel game. First-person parkour games are in short supply, while cartoonish sidescrollers are a known entity (anyone remember Bubsy?). Mirror's Edge still has many of the same problems that plagued older games, but these problems are easier to excuse thanks to the fresh perspective.

Of course there's also the nostalgia factor. I don't have the history that some do with the Soinic franchise and it's hard to go home to a place where you've never lived. One player's flaw is another's cherished quirk. All things being equal, if I have identical gripes about two games, I'll give the benefit of the doubt to one that's taking chances.

Subjective as this all is, I had a good time conducting this little thought experiment. As always, there's no accounting for personal taste, even when it comes to my own.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

EXP IndieCast #10: Gods, Cats, and Clones

Scott and I have returned with another selection of independent games that deserve your attention for more than a few reasons. We begin with two browser-based MMO's, the first a bullet-hell RPG the other a surreal cat roleplaying game, both of which will tickle your... fancy feast (YEAAAA!) We round out the show with a more serious look at Triple Town, Yeti Town, and the dangers of clones and patent laws. You can find links to all the games in the show notes below along with a few articles of interest. 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: 39 min 55 sec
- Realm of the Mad God, by Wild Shadow Studios
- Chatchat, by Terry Cavanagh and Hayden Scott-Baron
- Triple Town, by Spryfox
- Yeti Town, by SixWaves/LoLApps (and allegedly Spyrfox)
- "The Bulldog and the Pegasus," by Ian Bogost via Gamasutra
- "Attack of the Clone Attackers," by Jamin Warren via Kill Screen
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

iOS Revisited

I am a mobile gaming naysayer. I have been given too few reasons to believe my iPhone is somehow the messiah of the medium. The games on the app store lean towards brevity and shallow storytelling in general and consistently leave me feeling unsatisfied or even manipulated. However, I will begrudgingly admit to playing an excessive amount of a few iOS games of late that I believe deserve your attention.

Super Crate Box

Initially a PC release, this frantically paced shooter/platformer recreates the enthralling masochism of Super Meat Boy in a tiny package. In one room, with just a few platforms to navigate, enemies of various size, speed, and deadliness stream from the ceiling while you snatch up randomly spawned crates. Each crate cycles out your existing weapon for another, sometimes giving you an advantage and other times cursing you with a pea shooter when all you really wanted was a rocket launcher. Death comes frequently and inevitably, but another try at beating your crate box high score comes just as quickly. While the game relies just a tad too much on luck for my taste, and the touch-screen controls still make me cringe, Super Crate Box delivers  bite-sized portions of frenzied play.

Where's My Water

Disney built a surprisingly rich physics-based puzzler with Where's My Water. The game wraps a silly story about a bathing crocodile around seven themes stages. Like Angry Birds and numerous games like it, each stage adds a particular spin to the gameplay and unlocks an additional stage upon completion. Using the touch pad, your goal is to carve a path through dirt such that water falls into a drain pipe. Even with the addition of contaminating purple sewage, rampant mold growth, explosions, and acidic goop, delivering clean water to its destination is seldom difficult. However, capturing every rubber ducky along the way without losing a critical mass of water can demand some quick fingers and smart thinking. With too few competitors in the physics-based puzzling genre, Where's My Water easily floats to the top.

The above games are great, but Puzzlejuice is the real star on the iOS for me. The game is a wonderful combination of Tetris, a match-3 game, and Boggle. It might sound strange, but when playing Puzzlejuice its  simplicity beautifully locks everything into place. Like Tetris, your goal is to strategically place assorted blocks and make them disappear before they fill your entire screen. However, instead of vanishing, lines of block only turn into letters. The blocks are all variably colored, and by clicking on three or more contiguous pieces of a color, these too turn into letters. Only by tracing your finger across letters to spell a word can you clear the board. The skills for one aspect of Puzzlejuice do not fluidly transfer to another, so you will find yourself constantly shifting between ways of thinking, trying to suss out the logic of a match-3 game while scanning a wall of letters for a big word, absolutely twisting your brain into knots. The game aptly states it will "punch your brain in the face." After getting my own mind thoroughly beaten, I can only imagine the great combinations of genres that might surpass even Puzzlejuice's commendable efforts. Physics-based, platforming, crossword puzzle anyone?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Gated Learning in 'Rayman Origins'

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Gated Learning in Rayman Origins.

One of my biggest complaints about Super Mario Brothers Wii was how absolutely unfriendly the game was in multiplayer. I also wrote about flawed multiplayer in Donkey Kong Country. I get that some people really enjoy painfully difficult platforming and feel that newcomers either pick up the pace or get out of the way. As I see it, a good multiplayer experience makes room for players with various skill levels without making them feel absolutely useless.

If you play wither others from the very beginning, the gated learning system Rayman Origins implements can handle a lot of the multiplayer hangups of difficult platformers. While the skilled player could risk life and limb pursuing hard to reach lums (Rayman's version of coins), the second - or third, or fourth - player can traverse the map per usual. These secondary players may also feel valuable when the skilled player, trying to grab some hard to reach lum, falls to their death and has to be popped by the less skilled and inherently more cautious player. The large lum that temporarily increases the value of smaller lums can also comfort secondary players who can pick up any overlooked lums the skilled players miss.

The gated learning system is a remarkable and transparent learning tool. When Origins becomes truly difficult, it still may not be enough to maintain the commitment and interest of players unfamiliar with the genre. I hear three and four players can also get excessive, with the ability to attack other players becoming immensely frustrating. Since many of the multiplayer conundrums facing platformers are arguably behavior based, it would be interesting to see developers teach good multiplayer behavior with the same finesse they teach mechanics. This can be said regarding most multiplayer experiences for that matter. I have a feeling actual high school teachers might have a great deal to teach the games industry about wrangling players and fostering cooperative learning environments.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

EXP Podcast #158: Listener Mail!

This week's podcast is brought to you! We solicited questions from readers and listeners and received a great batch of topics. We touch upon a huge variety of issues, including region locking, games with historical settings, and the different approaches to games criticism. This was a fun show to record and we'd like to do it again, so keep those questions coming via email, twitter, or singing telegram. Thanks for your questions and thanks for listening!

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: 39 min 50 sec
- Krystian Majewski on Mass Effect and Batman: Arkham Asylum
- Music provided by Brad Sucks