Wednesday, October 31, 2012

EXP Podcast #195: Halloween Horrorcast

Mario Ghost Pumpkin from NintendoLife
Happy Halloween listeners! The witching hour is tonight, and as a means to satiate the hunger of the elder gods, we submit to you this aural offering. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I enter the haunted crypts, blood hallways, and creepy forests of Slender, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Home, and more. What we bring back might terrify you, or at least entertain you with our insight into the construction of excellent horror games.

As always your comments are appreciated. Let us know what horror games make you favorites list, especially if you play them yearly as a Halloween treat!

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: 36 min 01 sec
- Music by Frederick Magle, performing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d Minor, and Parsec Productions, Slender music after locating Page 1.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Length of Video Game Endings

Legend of Zelda
I recently finished Dishonored, the stealthy RPG-like action game from Arkane Studios. The game is built on player-driven choices. The world is of your making and it feels responsive to how you play Corvo, the game's protagonist, be him a rat-king murderer or a lurking pacifist. For a that lets players take their time, I was genuinely surprised to see such a rushed conclusion.

When the last enemy has been dispatched, a cut-scene kicks in that eulogizes Corvo's past-deeds and the way they shaped the history of Dunwall. To be fair, it's not a terrible ending by any means. It actually pulls off some neat visual tricks during its post-game montage, but it still felt too short, like I was being rushed out of a theater while the credits were still rolling. I wanted some closure, a longer denouement, some way to step out of the spotlight gradually. There must be a video ending "sweet spot", right?

Thinking back on past video game endings, the "run-time", if you will, varies dramatically. Apparently Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots has an ending that lasts nearly an hour. Red Dead Redemption, which has one of the best game conclusions ever, essentially has no ending. Alternatively, the game has multiple endings, each better than the last, before continuing once the credits begin. Alternatively, the original Super Mario Bros. has an ending that literally lasts four seconds: "Thank you Mario! Your quest is over."

Good endings are clearly not defined by the total length of a game, otherwise Mario's ending would be a travesty and Skyrim would demand an ending of epic proportions. So in our end-length calculations, we must rely on the painfully subjective and amorphous idea of "investment". The more investment I put in a game, which itself is an amalgamation of emotional investment, gameplay investment (I'm thinking the RPG aspects here), and time investment, the longer an ending should. Of course there should be diminishing returns as well - no one wants an hour long conclusion to a game (I hope).

My ideal ending need not follow the traditional cut-scene format. I think Red Dead Redemption has a perfectly suitable tail for the investment I put into the game, and most of the ending is playable. I consider Mass Effect 3 one giant denouement for all the investment I put into the series in the previous two games. Similarly, Flower has two levels I would consider "ending" like - the final city-rejuvenation level and the playable end-credits. Of course I always prefer quality over quantity, but when looking for an ideal game ending, an excellent conclusion demands room to breathe.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

iBeg: An Interview with Chris Worboys

My latest PopMatters article interview is now live: iBeg: An Interview with Chris Worboys.

I also recommend you read this Kotku article by Patricia Hernandez. I actually have a lot of problems with her article, and really the way games press examine social impact games in the first place, but that is for a different article. The piece is a decent quick look into some of the major issues facing the genre of so-called "serious" games.

Chris and I specifically address some of the concerns raised by Patricia's piece as well. Of course what is true for regular games is also true for social impact games: good intent need not result in a good game. That being said, it does seem Chris is taking this game, and all the burdens it entails, with complete seriousness.

iBeg is not seeking to rid the world of homelessness completely with a single game, it will not even necessarily make a noticeable bump in homelessness in Vancouver, the city in-which it is based. Yes, Chris says in-game purchases will partially fund actual services and programs targeting the homeless, but the game clearly seeks to raise awareness more than it does to feed the homeless.

The simple fact that money is going towards a program with amorphous measurements of success is controversial, yes, but this is not exclusive to social impact games. Patricia, in her article, talks to a representative at a homeless shelter and gets a predictable response: this investment money could actually go to a homeless shelter instead of game development. Why invest in an unknown reward when we have mouths to feed? For the five years I worked in the non-profit sector, this question was always on the forefront of peoples minds. NGOs the world over can't agree how to distribute aid, let alone win the hearts and minds of regular civilians, not to mention politicians and philanthropists.

I do believe games and game developers have a place in changing our political and social landscape, in fact, they already do. While I am convinced iBeg comes from good intentions and has a designer dedicated to making a successful and tactful experience, I cannot promise it will be a success. Regardless, we need more designers willing to take risks in this space. We should be having these conversations more often, not less.

If you're interested in checking out iBeg's Kickstarter page, you can find it here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

EXP Podcast #194: Nels and the Ninja

Image from
This week we have the pleasure of welcoming Nels Anderson back the podcast. You may know him from one of his many appearances on the podcast...but it's much more likely you know him as the lead designer of this year's breakout hit, Mark of the Ninja! Design philosophy, player choices, and teleportation: we cover a huge array of topics and have a great time doing so. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, 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:

- Runtime: 01 hr 03 min 34 sec
- Official website for Mark of the Ninja
- Nels Anderson's website
- "The Long Road From Ninja to Mark of the Ninja," by Patrick Klepek, via Giant Bomb
- "The Stealth Letters," via Rock Paper Shotgun
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dishonored and the Amazing Fire Breathers

Image from
Let's get one thing straight up front: I'm really enjoying Dishonored so far. I don't mean "'s a good way to pass the time" enjoying it; I'm talking about "I can't stop mentally playing the game while I'm at work," enjoying it. It's definitely going to factor into game of the year discussions come December. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, let me tell you about something that really irks me about the game: fire breathing thugs. They're low level bad guys, they swill alcohol and then light it on fire to attack, and I find them annoying as hell.

The funny thing is, I'm self-aware enough to know that it's actually ridiculous to be irritated by these guys. The first time I got caught up in one of their fireballs, I remember thinking: "Well, that's a bit of a stretch." Yes, that's right: in a game in which you literally teleport, inhabit rats' bodies, and commune with a supernatural deity, I had the audacity to criticize something that actually happens in the real world as unrealistic.

Maybe this comes from my knowledge of fire safety and my faith in the competence of your average underling. If college taught me anything, it's that alcohol and fire definitely mix, but almost never in the way you expect (or intend). The fact that low-level cronies seem to be crude pyromancers is also a bit weird in the context of the world. I haven't finished the game yet, but their ability to spit flames is almost supernatural thus making them weirdly similar to Corvo (the character you control), who seems to be one of the very few people wielding magic.

Of course, there are great mechanical reasons for giving thugs this attack. It gives them a ranged combat option, which makes battles more dynamic. The whiskey bottle has a different profile from other ranged weapons, which serves as both a surprise and a constant reminder to pay attention to your opponent's tools before and during fights. Logically, getting toasted depletes a large amount of health, which means a seemingly simple fight can quickly become catastrophic if you're sloppy about it. The fire breathers are as much a teaching tool as they are a simple opponent.

Ultimately, this is probably the real reason I resent them: they have the uncanny ability to make me look very dumb, very fast. They're low-level baddies who would usually be cannon fodder in other games, but in this game they can (and do) embarrass me unexpectedly. Dishonored can make me feel like a master assassin, but a momentary lapse in judgment turns me into a scorched buffoon.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the disbelief I harbor towards the fire breathing thugs is mostly misplaced frustration. In a world in which I stalk my enemies by seeing through walls, is it really so ludicrous that belligerent drunks can breathe fire on command? I doubt it. Is it more believable that I resent the ability of characters that are essentially the equivalent of Star Trek red shirts to completely ruin my power fantasy? Probably.

But you'll never get me to admit it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Relearning Patience

Image from Stephen Andrew
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about patience.

These days, when free time is at a premium, I find myself looking to maximize my free time. This is pretty much the best way to ensure I don't actually enjoy said free time. When I'm worried about making every minute count, I inadvertently miss out on the best parts of many of the games I play. And when you're playing a game like Dishonored, patience isn't so much a virtue as it is a necessity.

On a broader scale, the merits mellowing out are especially useful to remember during the fall release season. We're entering the time of year when it feels like a "must-play" game is dropping every other week. It's tempting to burn through them as fast as possible, but ultimately it's not really fair to me or the game. As Michael Abbott said way back in 2008 (geez, time flies!), it's important to "chew your food."

As I say in the column, I've gotten more patient in most other aspects of life. But, despite being able to keep a cool head in a traffic jam, in-game patience is a continual process.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

EXP Podcast #193: The Walking Dead Debrief, Episodes 3 and 4

Image from Telltale Games
We are back again with another visit the zombie-infested South. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss episodes 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead. This podcast jumps right into spoilers, so if you are looking for more general insight into how the series tells its story, check out last week's podcast.

 As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts and your own play experiences in the comments below. Of all the episodes of The Walking Dead, episode 4 might reveal the most about one's character and approach to surviving the apocalypse. Let us know how you shaped Lee's decisions.

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: 54 min
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Overcoming Triviality in Dishonored

This recent Kill Screen review of Dishonored earned its fair share of criticism, and rightly so - the review reads more like a rant than a well-reasoned criticism of the game, but I am no expert on the matter. I rarely review games, partially because I have a sneaking suspicion my comments are suddenly less compelling when numbers are attached. Instead, I prefer to explore ideas and their executions in more free-form and isolated situations, which is exactly what I want to do here.

The reason I mention the review at all is because the author specifically calls out Dishonored for its array of choices which, as he states, feel absolutely meaningless. As the article tag-line states, "Dishonored lets you do whatever you damn well please. Why?" Could it be that the glut of choices makes each of them trivial?

For awhile, I actually thought this was true. For those unaware, Dishonored is a stealth-action game, or rather, it is a stealth game and an action game - and a few other things as well. Corvo, the game's protagonist, can approach his assassination missions with a huge array of variability. He can use his Blink ability to teleport along the rooftop, out of sight from the watchful guards, or he can lurk in the shadowy sub-basements to reach his target, or he can leap into action and stab everything that moves, or summon rats, or possess fish, etc. etc. etc. It can all feel quite overwhelming.

Here is how I played the game for the first two hours: First I tried being stealthy, maintaining a height advantage over my enemies and sneaking up to guards. Then, time and again, I failed miserably. I would blink off the side of a building and land on top of a guard, or move out of the shadows and bump into a roaming NPC. In response, I would panic, kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, and then run back in the shadows. Frankly, it was boring and disheartening.

Then I learned how to play. Today I went through The Royal Physician campaign twice with two self-imposed conditions. In my first attempt, I would avoid touching the ground whenever possible. Functionally, the floor was lava. In my second attempt, I would kill...everyone (I know, I'm a terrible person). Both experiences were viable and incredibly entertaining, mostly because the I established the limitations myself and I was able to handle the job efficiently.

Play became an artful form of practice. The pathways left unexplored were intentionally abandoned. I felt more like an artist choosing her color palate rather than a tactician in battle. My perspective changed from when I first stepped into Dishonored. I abolished the sense of triviality in the face of so many options by measuring my ability, learning, and, most importantly, choosing to find meaning on my own terms. Sometimes you have to work for your enjoyment.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Transformation and Papo and Yo

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Transformation and Papo & Yo.

So I wrote about a very personal game in a somewhat personal way. For the most part, I tend not to talk about my own history of familial abuse. I am not shy about it by any means, it's not a big secret at all really. I have mentioned it on the podcast a few times in the past and I discuss it a little in the article without going into a whole lot of depth. I tend to avoid it for a couple of reasons.

First, I actually don't think it applies for the most part. It's not something I need to get off my chest, so I unless it is somehow applicable (and in this case it is), then it never comes up. Also, especially if it does not apply to the subject at hand, I doubt most people are all that interested in my personal history.

Second, my experience with child abuse no longer defines me. Or rather, I made a conscious long ago to be the arbiter of how my experiences growing up affect my well-being today. Dealing with a history of abuse is a process and each person's experience is different, but often times that process starts with a personal confrontation - an recognition and acceptance of one's experience.

I say in the article that Papo & Yo is about transformation, but equally - or even necessarily - it is also about confrontation. Quico's monster is every present and always returns to him, at times by coercion and at other times by cue. His connection to Quico is constant and physical. Even when he is not present, you are constantly aware he is around a corner. Time and again Quico must confront the monster out of necessity. This act is a powerful one and the familiarity with his destructive tendencies pushes and prods Quico to his own personal confrontation.

I want to stress here something I perhaps do not make clear enough in the article. Papo & Yo is not a perfect game by any means and I do genuinely agree with those who believe the game could be harder without sacrificing its themes. However, this game is about something, explicitly and completely. If you give it time to work its magic, it can be a transformative experience.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

EXP Podcast #192: The Walking Dead Debrief, Episodes 1 and 2

Image from Telltale Games
We've caught the fever. You know: the one that starts with a mild cough and ends with you chewing the flesh off your friends and loved ones? That's right, we've been playing Telltale's excellent adventure series, The Walking Dead. This week, we devote a good chunk of time to the series' interesting design and mechanical choices before heading into spoiler country to discuss the details of episodes 1 and 2. Part of the fun of these games is hearing how other people dealt with many impossible decisions they present, so feel free to jump in with 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:

- Runtime: 50 min 51 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Discovering the Chrono Trigger Anime Short

Image from Square Enix
A while back, I was cruising around the Internet, looking at Chrono Trigger stuff (surprising, I know), when I found something amazing: an official Chrono Trigger animated short, Dimensional Adventure Numa Monjar (which I've embedded below).

A quick jaunt over to Wikipedia confirmed that it was created back in 1996 and screened at a Japanese manga festival. It's great fan service for Chrono Trigger devotees: A Nu and Mamo (one of the kilwala enemies) are a Laurel & Hardy duo looking to make it big at the Millenial Fair. Unbeknownst to the humans, the game's monsters put on their own celebration the night before the fair opens. Pratfalls abound as old favorites like Gato (or "Gonzales," as he was called in Japan) and Johnny show up to celebrate.

In this age of tightly controlled corporate tie-ins and meticulously constructed expanded universes, it's rare to find spinoff content that hasn't been carefully packaged for consumption. In fact, the mid-1990s was probably the end of the era where you could be completely surprised by some kind of transmedia content. And now, thanks to the Internet, it's easy for fans to create and distribute their own tributes to huge audiences. None of this is a bad thing (especially the ease at which fans can spread their art), it just makes it less mysterious and surprising when you run across extracurricular material.

I still remember when I happened upon the Zelda manga in Nintendo Power. Suddenly, the bounds of a game I loved seemed bigger, it's legend (pardon the pun) richer. Similarly, the Chrono Trigger anime offers an alternative look at the characters and world I love. It expands on characters I know and love while keeping the same quirky sense of humor found in the game. It's fan service and that's ok; anyone who cares enough to watch is also the same kind of person that will get the weird visual jokes and cameos. It's a strange, charming little detour that expands the a beloved game's world.

Wondering what happens before Crono wakes up? Give it a watch:

Part 1 of 2:

Part 2 of 2:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

'Sleep No More' and Storytelling in Games

Image from PopMatters
My latest PopMatters column was inspired by a podcast about a play. How's that for abstractions?

I'm a regular listener of the Freakonomics podcast. A recent episode dedicated to exploring the way our social environments dictate our behavior introduced me to an experimental theater project called Sleep No More. In this production, audience members are given masks and then asked to explore a multi-room warehouse in which actors play out various storylines. As you might expect, the combination of anonymity and unfamiliar circumstances causes people to act a little...weird.

Anyway, I couldn't help but feel a little irked while listening: the show is undoubtedly bold, but conceptually it's very similar to what video games do. Yet, despite all the references to interactive storytelling, presenting people with challenging rules, and allowing them to create a temporary avatar in a new environment, video games were never mentioned. Again, I know this probably had more to do with making sure the podcasts segments and run time remained snappy (it's something I struggle with every week!). Even so, I wanted to draw attention to the close relationship between theater and games.

Thanks to their visual spectacle, games are often compared to movies, but I've always argued that they are closer in spirit to theater. After all, every time you play a game you're taking part in a performance. Even the most tightly scripted games vary slightly from player to player and from session to session, just as staged performances do. Every time you pick up a controller to participate in some mixture of directorial and role-playing creation that has the potential for spontaneity. No two audience members will experience Sleep No More the same way, just as no two players will have exactly the same experience in Red Dead Redemption, or Geometry Wars, or The Walking Dead.

I'd definitely be interested in seeing Sleep No More if I had the chance. It sounds extremely ambitious and artfully executed. It's just that the concept of taking on another identity and piecing together a story by interacting with a strange environment doesn't strike me as that "far out." I've been doing the same thing in a digital form for years now.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

EXP Podcast #191: Papo y Yo Debrief

Every now and then a game comes along that attempts to address a delicate and rare issue. Minority studio's debut title Papo y Yo does just that. The platforming-puzzle game of sorts is quite explicitly about a young boy and his alcoholic and abusive father. While the game might be "a bit on the nose" for some, it actually reveals quite a bit of narrative depth and artistry. Join us this week on the podcast as Scott and I discuss this indie gem. As always leave your comments below and check out the trailer for Papo y Yo 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: 41 min 50 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

League of Legends and "Honoring" Good Behavior

Since May of 2011, Riot Games, the developers of League of Legends, have sought to curtail hateful, vitriolic, antagonistic, and deliberately offensive behavior within their community with their Tribunal System. Like all online competitive gaming communities, the immensely popular "MOBA" game has been plagued by trolls, "AFKers", and your average "internet fuckwads". The Tribunal, a peer-adjudication system that allows users to review and punish their fellow players, was groundbreaking. I called it a step towards an "information revolution" and praise it for its use of "public shaming". Now Riot has instituted several changes, adapting once again the way developers and communities police behavior.

While the Tribunal system continues to act as the proverbial stick, Riot has added a carrot to their community management repertoire. The new Honor system is designed to encourage positive social interactions between players. The Tribunal is considered a success.  As of May 25, 2012, more than 47 million votes have been cast. About half of those who have been punished never face the Tribunal again. Still,  weeding out the worst players in a gaming community changes the communities behavior, their culture, very slowly. It does little to actually shape behavior for the better.

One would hope we would never have to teach players how to be kind to to their peers. Unfortunately, a macho and incredibly offensive set of behavioral norms is already entrenched in games culture as a whole, particularly within competitive games. We have come to the natural evolution of the "teabag". Those wishing to positively shape their community's culture cannot afford to take half measures.

Interestingly enough, the Honor system is actually less complex than the Tribunal. After any given match players can distribute honor to both their teammates and their competitors with a simply click of a button. Honor categories include "Helpful", those know willing to share knowledge and tips, "Friendly" to acknowledge those who foster a healthy match environment, "Teamwork" for those players who put in the extra effort to work as a team, and "Honorable Opponent" to those enemies who remain "humble in victory and graceful in defeat".

While Honor offers no in-game reward, at least not yet, it does appear along your persistent character, or summoner, profile. All the world can see how well you are appreciated by your fellow players. The Honor system acknowledges the social capital we already maintain. In a persistent environment, including digital ones, how others view your behavior matters. For some its just another number, but the hope is that honorable behavior will become its own reward. If the digital recognition of positive social behavior succeeds here, we may yet see such honor systems repeated elsewhere in online game spaces. It is an experiment a long time coming.

Oh, and I should not. Riot has considered "Honor trading" - the intentional distribution of honor between friends to artificially inflate the value. The system accounts for this by calculating total honor to include consistency across a large number of players. For those who violate the rule anyway? They face the stick.