Thursday, September 27, 2012

Borderlands 2 and the Art of Support

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Borderlands 2 and the Art of Support.

I am head-over-heels infatuated with Borderlands 2, in no small part due to a very intelligently designed support class - my role of choice in most multiplayer games. I would chat more about the role supports play in games, but I think the article speaks for itself in that regard. Besides, I am sure I will talk about support-role design again when the next class-based multiplayer game strikes my fancy.

So I am actually a Borderlands convert. I tried a few of the characters out in the first game, just a few hours each, and it never struck me as entertaining, the guns missed constantly and for no clear reason. The environments were absolutely dry and monotonous, and the enemies came in three basic types and colors. No matter how much praise the game received from close friends, I never quite "got" what made Borderlands  so compelling.

In the sequel, Gearbox amends the aesthetic mistakes right away. The game starts on a snow-covered mountain - literally the antithesis to the desert flatlands I recall from the first Borderlands. While the game does feature deserts again and more than your fair share of skags, it also offers up a variety of biomes - from the wilds of the Wildern Preservation to fiery valleys. It is actually a joy to explore the world of Pandora - another one of my gaming interests.

While the story does dip into the ludicrously dumb at times (oh, real bad on occasion), for the most part its actually compelling and funny. It also hides a lot of in-jokes and secrets throughout the game, which I would bother searching for if I didn't spend so much time in multiplayer pulling the slot-machine levers. If you can get a group of four friends together, Borderlands 2 reignites that fire for co-op experiences like few shooters today.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

EXP Podcast #190: Kickin' it with Kickstarter

Image from Kickstarter
Over the past year, Kickstarter has made a huge impact on the video game scene. Whether it's huge success stories (like Double Fine's campaign) or one of the dozens (hundreds?) of projects that never get off the ground, the crowd funding site has established a new way to create, market, and distribute games. Even so, there's still plenty of ambiguity surrounding the Kickstarter model: questions of what kinds of projects belong on the service, the way rewards are handled, and what people should expect from their investment still linger. This week, Jorge and I talk about the kinds of projects we've backed, our approach to what we invest in, and how Kickstarter may aid in the search for the perfect barbecue sauce. As always, feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!
To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking 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: 33 min 45 sec
- "Kickstarter is Not a Store," via The Kickstarter Blog
- "Some personal Kickstarter stats," by Darius Kazemi, via Tiny Subversions
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hardware Revision Remembrances

Image from Giant Bomb
In a move that caught me completely by surprise, Sony recently released a third hardware redesign for the PlayStation 3. It's common for consoles to go through at least one revision: increasingly efficient supply chains, internal component redesigns, and injecting new life into an established product make it an attractive option for companies. I suppose the fact that Sony thinks it makes sense to to release a third revision of the PS3 is a testament to the protracted console cycle we're currently in. Then again, Sony has never been one to put too much stock in "making sense" when it comes to their hardware decisions (see: the $600 launch PS3 and the PSP Go).

Whatever the reasons are, the announcement got me thinking about some of my favorite hardware revisions from past years, three of which I'll share here.

The Original Xbox Controller or "Duke"

Sleek, understated, ergonomic: none of these words have ever been used to describe this monster. Microsoft was looking to make a big impact on the console market with the Xbox, and their original controller was a physical manifestation of this goal.

Image from Wikipedia
I never could get used to the size and weird button layout of this controller. Thankfully, there would eventually be an option for people without Yeti-sized hands.

The Xbox Controller S

Image from Wikipedia
Amazing what a little button placement can do for comfort. Looking back on it, a lot of hints about regarding the 360 controller are apparent: the diamond cluster for the face buttons and elongated hand grips would make a triumphant return in the next generation.

The Original NES

Part VCR, part toaster, all 80s: the original NES occupies a place in my heart as the box that started it all. To this day, its two-toned color and harsh angles have a retro-futuristic appeal to me. It's like something that would have seemed at home within an alternate reality future in a science fiction story from the 1950s. Of course, the design has some major drawbacks: not only were there plenty of moving parts to break (both the cartridge tray and hinged cover underwent a lot of stress in my house) the flat surface had the unintended consequence of acting as an alluring, yet very expensive and highly delicate, drink table.

Image from Wikipedia
Even so, the thing was a workhorse. So much so that it still made complete sense to release a hardware revision well into the 1990s, nearly ten years after its release.

The NES-101 Model

Image from Wikipedia
A crueller, more cynical person might say this design was meant to placate folks not lucky enough to have the very similar-looking Super Nintendo. However, in 1993 the NES' library still stacked up pretty favorably to it's more powerful successor, and did so at a much lower price. The NES-101's curvier, more compact, top-loading form was a simple, clean, and efficient way to play some of the most influential games ever made.

Thankfully, the NES controller also received a redesign. I'm not sure why the North American NES controllers had sharp corners, but I do know that it was hard to convince your parents that you hadn't been playing video games all day when the evidence was imprinted on your palms.

The Game Boy Advance

I love the Gameboy Advance as a platform, but I was never a fan of the original hardware. There's nothing offensive about it; it's just kind of uninspired. Not quite a rectangle, yet not quite an oval, it makes a relatively big footprint and doesn't offer much in the way of protecting its screen from the bumps and drops inherent in mobile gaming. Also: what is with Nintendo's infatuation with purple?

Image from Wikipedia
As luck would have it, the Advance's revision is one of my favorite pieces of gaming hardware (albeit with one huge caveat).

The Game Boy Advance SP

Image from Wikipedia
In many ways, the SP continues to define Nintendo's handheld design. It has clean lines, but retains comfortable curves. The clamshell design saves space and protects the screen. It's backwards compatible with the previous hardware generation. It's a small, sturdy device that is comfortable, portable, and able to play a massive library of games. Hell, the Pokemon games from the Game Boy/Game Boy Advance era alone will entertain your for hours and hours (that is, unless the unapologetically consumption-driven ethos of "Gotta Catch 'em All" weirds you out. Just remind yourself that those monsters need to be attacked and enslaved for their own protection).

Of course, the SP's major drawback is the lack of a standard 3.5 mm audio jack. Whether this was a technical limitation or a cheap cash grab on Nintendo's part is unclear to me. Nintendo would never cut corners and then turn around to sell a kludgey, overpriced add on...right? I mean, right? In any case, adapter cables are easy to come by these days, making up for the one weakness in an otherwise outstanding package.

So there you have it: three of my favorite hardware revisions. I suppose it's the never-ending paradox of the hardware business: by the time a piece of hardware reaches its best incarnation, it's time to move on to the new thing. As we approach the end of another cycle, allow me to open up the floor and invite you to stroll down memory lane: What were your favorite video game hardware revisions?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kids, Monsters, and Metaphors

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I take another look at Papo & Yo.

Like I said in my review, I think it's well worth playing, largely because it's not afraid to tackle themes that most games don't touch. The game uses platforming and puzzle solving as a metaphor for heavy subjects like alcoholism and child abuse. I've heard some people complain about how obvious these themes are (especially toward the end of the game), but this didn't bother me. On the contrary, I admire the game for unambiguously embracing a message. There's a variety of ways to undermine the "it's just a game" brush-off that many folks throw around. Papo & Yo's technique is to make the larger message a critical part of the game that can't simply be ignored. And since so few games address the themes Papo & Yo explores, I think its heavy-handed approach is more than justified.

It's been interesting to read reviews of Papo & Yo, as it is the kind of game that highlights a constant tension in game reviews. The question is whether games should be evaluated holistically or should each piece be evaluated and then aggregated in order to find the value of the whole package. As the years go on, I find myself increasingly drawn to the holistic approach. A game like Papo & Yo doesn't have to have a perfect frame rate, flawless controls, and Portal-caliber puzzles to be great, because that's not (in my mind, at least) the point of the game. Complaining that the puzzles aren't hard enough strikes me as a bit like criticizing Rock Band's story. For more on this, I highly recommend Drew Dixon's piece over at Bit Creature in which he warns against falling into the trap of actually demanding ludonarrative dissonance.

Finally, much of my post revolves around the way childhood is presented in games. I don't often see the topic discussed, but thankfully Jorge is well-versed in the subject. I don't cite them specifically in the article, but his knowledge of children's literature as well as the way youth is portrayed in games definitely influenced my thinking as I played Papo & Yo. Do yourself a favor and read that stuff!

I realize I've been cheerleading for Papo & Yo, but when a game is willing to embrace topics most games don't even acknowledge, I think it deserves the praise.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

EXP Podcast #189: Exploring Intelligent Nostalgia

Ah, remember the good ol' days? Back when you would have to blow on your games to make them work? When Battle Toads was so difficult you would cry, but keep playing anyway? When the "hottest graphics" were about as detailed as your Lego castle? Do you miss those days? Could that charming haze be the tell-tale sign of nostalgia glasses? This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss the power of nostalgia, retro-graphics, and mumblecore. As always, check out Leigh Alexander's inspiring article in the show notes and leave your thoughts (and your examples of nostalgia), in the comments 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:

- Runtime: 34 min 21 sec
- "Opinion: In Search of 'intelligent nostalgia'", by Leigh Alexander via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In Defense of Small Choices

Tadhg Kelly over at What Games Are recently penned an article calling The Walking Dead a "Great Story" but a "Bad Game". By now you all know how fervently I adore Tell Tale's adaptation of The Walking Dead comic/television series. I believe it is the best piece of The Walking Dead franchise period. Naturally, I have some problems with Kelly's assessment.

However, I have talked enough about The Walking Dead. Instead, I want to focus on this statement right here: "I want the experience to only be about the big choices, and for those choices to make sense. I want to feel as though there is a way to find the true course, and for every conversation to be important."

I actually agree with Kelly on many points in his article and I do not mean to undermine all his arguments. He states at one point that "games are bad at storytelling, irrespective of the quality of their writing." I disagree, but I think his sentiments are based purely on personal opinion. Kelly, it seems, would prefer a nodal form of interaction with The Walking Dead, bypassing the mundane fetch quests and interrogative Q&A sessions to get right to the meaty decisions: who lives and who dies. For some, the big choices are the ones that matter, but we miss out on the minutiae of relationships and meaning in games if we so willingly set aside small scale decisions.

Heavy Rain perfectly represents a game saturated with silly choices in between matters of life and death. In a game ostensibly about a serial killer, a few moments stand out in particular: Sword fighting with Ethan's kids and letting his son win, trying to fix a shoddy dinner in a run-down apartment for his surviving son, and collecting the materials needed to chop off Ethan's finger.

While cutting your own finger off is certainly a momentous moment, the most compelling aspects of that scene has more to do with the slow pace immediately preceding the decisive act. Finding a knife, disinfecting it, finding a bandage, all the pieces that went into the painful moment felt like a ritual. The slow pace heightened the tension and made the amputation so much more powerful. The "big choice" was never very hard. If it were my own loved one, of course I would chop off my own finger if it brought me closer to saving them. The small moments, however, emphasize the natural hesitation, fear, and doubt I would have in the process.

In an idea adventure game, the small decisions provide a pillar upon which the big decisions take place. If I hadn't fumbled the simple task of pouring orange juice early in the game, the tension I felt at Heavy Rain's climax would have been far less powerful. The same can be said for the simple act of finding chalk in The Walking Dead. When I made the apparently mundane choice to talk to Duck and Clem before the adults, my decision altered the relationship I formed with the characters. I defined Lee's priorities. When these priorities are tested, when these established relationships become strained, these small choices reveal themselves to be the makings of big ones. They make up the small portions of a much larger system that could not be possible otherwise.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Death and Meaning in The Walking Dead

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Death and Meaning in The Walking Dead

So I wrote about The Walking Dead, again. I am of course smitten with the game. This time around, I want to come to the defense of how the game handle's choice, specifically decisions pertaining to whether or not characters live or die.

In the first episode of the series, Lee has the opportunity to save one of two characters twice. While the first decision is ultimately meaningless in regards to who lives or who dies, the second decision does matter. Unfortunately, these two early options, couples with the trend in games of giving players control of major turning points, results in unfair expectations in players. When three characters deaths occur in the third episode, none of them preventable, it can feel jarring and unfair to some players.

This is precisely the problem Mass Effect 3 created for itself within the series' conclusion. With the right expectations, both games succeed marvelously at their machine. The real meat of Mass Effect 3 is found in the continuous denouement that occurs throughout the game. Meaning is found in the quiet moments with characters and the culmination of story arcs that have traced their way throughout the series. The best parts of Mass Effect 3 occur are not the results of single Paragon/Renegade decisions, but the fulfillment of player choices and long-term relationships established earlier in the series.

For a game set in post-apocalyptic America, the irrevocable deaths of friends hit emotional beats precisely because the represent the chaos of a crumbling system. My hope is that the third episode removes incorrect expectations from players and makes the story of the following two episodes that much more effective.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

EXP Podcast #188: Slightly Off

Image from
Have you ever been playing a game and suddenly come across something that is a little bit..."off?" I'm not talking about an NPC clipping through a wall or the weirdness you find in a Suda51 game; I'm talking about the little (or not so little) details that take you out of the experience. For example, Sam Machkovech wrote a recent article about how, as resident of Seattle, Deadlight's depiction of the Emerald City left him cold. We use his discussion of fictitious billboards and erroneous geography as a starting point and go on to discuss the ways in which small details impact a game's ability to foster a sense of place. Do you have an eye for detail? Have you played any games set in your hometown? Feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking 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:

- Runtime: 33 min 45 sec
- "Dead Wrong," by Sam Machkovech via Unwinnable
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

PixelJunk Racers and Wish Fulfillment

Image from
I'm a big fan of Q-Games, so I was glad to finally get a chance to check out PixelJunk Racers. Aside from the obvious clue in its title, I wasn't sure what kind of game it was before playing it. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was a slot car game; talk about a niche within a niche!

While not as high-concept as Eden or retro-chic as Shooter, Racers has the same sleek, high definition charm and precise controls as the other games in the PixelJunk family. Like many other games, it allowed me to live out a kind of power fantasy. No, not the kind of daydream fulfilled by blasting aliens with Master Chief or saving the world with Link; something much more humble, though nearly as elusive.

When I was a kid, my parents gave me a small slot car track. In my head, I imagined playing with it would look like this:

In reality, it was a lot more like this:

On a side note, I'm pretty sure that, except for the Cars theme, that playset is the exact one I had. It seems the only thing that has changed about kids' slot car toys is the branding.

Anyway, the point point is that PixelJunk Racers captures the essence of what I imagined an awesome slot car track would feel like. The fixed perspective, trigger-style acceleration (using the L2 and R2 buttons) and orderly race lanes are all there, but the faulty batteries, warped plastic, and bent wires are not. Since it's a video game and therefore unencumbered by the laws of physics or parental admonishment, Racers allows you to jump between tracks, smash opponents' cars, and build up speed boosts when darting in and out of traffic. It's as close I can get to living out all the wacky scenarios I imagined while playing with my janky set.

Of course, the digital medium also has its drawbacks. Irritating as unexpected malfunctions with real slot cars were, the kinds of crashes they caused were often hilarious. The chaos in PixelJunk Racers is far more controlled: taking a turn too fast won't make you careen off the track. There are a variety of courses, but you can't rearrange them or add your own obstacles to them. I also find myself missing that weird slot car scent: nostalgia has the metallic scent of hot electronics and cheap plastic.

It may be a compromise, but I think it's a good one. As a video game, PixelJunk Racers stacks up well against other score-chase titles like Trials or Dyad. It has the power to stir up the "just one more race" impulse that can easily make the hours fly by. At the same time, it does a great job of giving me the slot car racing experience I always imagined as a kid without forcing me to drain my bank account and cede my living room floor. Not all video game power fantasies revolve around blasting dudes and saving the universe; sometimes you just want to chance to win a little race against dozen other tiny cars. Winning a small trophy never hurts, either.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rediscovering JRPGs

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about rediscovering JRPGs. As you may have guessed, the column was inspired by our recent conversation with Michael Abbott.

I touched on this in the post, but I think it's important to reiterate the role game criticism has played in helping renew my interest in a genre I've been neglecting. Plenty of people (including myself) are constantly arguing in support of games criticism. We insist that it's an important and meaningful pursuit, yet it's a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. How exactly does smart writing change to way we look at games?

Good game criticism helps us look at old things in a new. Michael's framing of JRPGs as systems-oriented exercises rather than authored narratives made me realize that I've been focusing on the plot of JRPGs too heavily. I still think most JRPG stories are (at best) pretty goofy, but that's not what makes them unique. Plenty of games have trope-laden plots and shallow characters, but few have the unapologetic granularity that JRPGs have when it comes game mechanics. Where many games try to obscure the consequences of your choices or simulate chaos, JRPGs are great at emphasizing tactical thinking and clear causal relationships.

Criticism is also helpful for bringing peripheral events into clearer focus. Without Michael's discussion of Xenoblade: Chronicles or Simon Ferrari's analysis of Final Fantasy XIII, I could have easily written both of those games off as titles that conform to my entrenched notions about the genre. Instead, I'm now aware that both games (and perhaps others?) experiment with environmental storytelling that turns the game world itself into a metaphor that conveys the stories themes. The days when the overworld map was just set dressing for random encounters seems to be over.

A few months ago, I gave my brother Xenoblade: Chronicles as a gift because I knew he still likes JRPGs. I didn't realize it at the time, but so do I. I think it's time to exercise my familial borrowing privileges!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

EXP Podcast #187: JRPG Systems and Xenoblade Chronicles

The Japanese RPG as a distinct entity still exists, despite the rise and prominence of the "Western RPG" market. Some games, like Xenoblade Chronicles, might even move the genre forward while reinvigorating the joy we once had in playing the latest JRPG. This week on the podcast, Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer joins us to discuss "Why We JRPG". As always, thanks for listening, particularly to these longer episodes, and we encourage you to leave your own thoughts on the genre in the comments 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:

- Runtime: 55 min 53 sec
- "Why We JRPG" by Michael Abbot via The Brainy Gamer
- Music provided by Brad Sucks and "Main Theme" by Yoko Shimomura from the Xenoblade Chronicles Original Soundtrack

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Narrative Crutches in The Walking Dead

Did I mentioned I love the The Walking Dead? Because I do, very much. I was thrilled to play Episode 3 of the five-part episodic series which just released this week. Before I did however, I turned the "Story Notifications" features in settings. This option defaults to on and controls if players are notified of certain story conditions. Generally, they tell players if a character will remember a something. Without Story Notifications, players make decisions blind to their long-term outcomes.

Now I was hesitant to turn off Story Notifications, but heard from friends and acquaintanceship that it was the "real" way to play. The logic is sound. Lee, the series' protagonist, lacks prescience, so why should players be given some sort of sixth-sense that alerts them to the internal feelings of others? Knowing that Clementine will remember Lee failing to save her or seeing that Kenny will remember specific details about a conversation. might change how you interpret certain scenes and the entire game. Players might be more on edge with Kenny if they know he is chewing on something Lee said earlier in the game. Naturally, I turned it off.

I gave this plenty of thought: turning off Story Notifications was a terrible decision. I need these narrative crutches.

It might just be me, but the history of games has taught me filter out information. I have been trained to ignore anything that is not immediately useful or important, especially tangential information. The result is that I have started taking stories at face value. Put simply, I don't know when to care. Playing through Episode 3, I found I missed the notices that Clementine would remember something I said. Am making an impression on her? Does she understand the severity of the situation? Without helpful cues, I started seeing her as less mutable, less affected by my decisions and by the story as a whole, the game seemed a little more vapid than I remember.

Story Notifications actually help the experience, at least my own. Yes, if Lee were a real person, he would never know if and how decisions shaped Clementines view of him. However, if he were a real person, he would also have facial cues and hours and hours of down-time to watch her behavior and reactions. In the abbreviated and heavily stylized world of The Walking Dead, it can be hard to read another person's response to actions and decisions. Story Notifications are simply short-hand for information that, theoretically, Lee could know. Also, these notifications are not particular clear. They provide no great insight into a person's reaction other than they appear particular responsive to an event. Clementine will remember certain actions, but I have no idea how she will remember it.

With the notices in the top left, I feel comfortable again. Maybe I have been enfeebled by years of video game training. Maybe The Walking Dead will help me stretch my "narrative legs" without the crutches of story notifications. I will not know until I play the game a second time. For now, I am committed to playing on default. I would rather enjoy the excellent game with some assistance than hobble around on my own.