Thursday, February 28, 2013

Legendary and Deck Building Games

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Legendary and Deck Building Games.

In one of our recent EXP Podcasts, I talked about this Marvel superhero licensed board game with Scott, but a five minute chat wasn't enough. I fell in love with Legendary and I could not stop gushing.

A decent chunk of the article is a familiar criticism I have with what I call "minimally-interactive" board games. These are games that largely undermine one of the best things about board games: they are, by necessity, social experiences. I include most worker-placement games and deck-building games in this bunch. Legendary manages to surpass all of these titles by creating a incredibly social and largely cooperative experience while using many of the core mechanics from the deck-building genre.

While I think anyone could hop into a quick round of Legendary and have a really good time, I actually think Marvel fans will get the most out of the narrative experience. Underneath the "systems management" enjoyment of the game's mechanics is a really fun storytelling game. The sense of forging a team of unique superheroes together is strong at both the personal level, in building one's own deck, and on a team level, working with other players and their decks to overcome the Master Mind.

Every combination of superheroes also recreates some of the over-the-top and ragtag team dynamics you find in comic books. Spider-man working with Rogue, Captain America, The Hulk, and Wolverine, all against Loki and an assortment of villains, makes for an entertaining imaginary battle right from Marvel lore. The unique heroes, with their own set of abilities and effects, make for some immensely satisfying combinations that remind me of the Marvel video games, whose combination attacks are always a highlight. Like some of the best games, Legendary was clearly made by a team who designed the game with great care and affection for the Marvel experience.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

EXP Podcast #213: Data-driven Reviews

Image from Wikipedia
Bust out your tin foil hats, because you're being watched. Of course, you probably already knew that; achievement logs aren't all that hard to find, are they? There's no doubt that we have more data about how we play games than ever before, but what does this mean for game reviews? Are we due for a New York Times/Tesla controversy? This week, inspired by Sam Machovech's article, we talk about what it means to review a game in an environment where your opinions and your actions can disagree.

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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: 32 min 22 sec
- "The Critic and the Cloud," by Sam Machovech, via Unwinnable
- The New York Times' responds to questions about their Tesla review
- KnobFeel: Reviews of receiver knobs
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scott Tries to Load a Gun in 'Receiver'

Hey folks! I thought I'd give everyone a visual representation of Receiver, a game we discussed on last week's podcast. It's a game where remembering whether you fired five or six shots can mean the difference between life and death. It's also hilarious to fumble around with ammo clips and live in fear of what appear to be glorified Roombas. On a broader scale, this was a way for Jorge and me to start testing out streaming and video features for the site. The quality is a little rough since I'm using all-free options, but look for these types of things to get smoother as we ramp up. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Interacting With Virtual Guns

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters I write about a topic I know almost nothing about: guns.

Over the last week or so, I've experienced a mini Dunning-Krueger phenomenon when it comes to virtual firearms. At the risk of getting overly "meta," it's not that I was simply ignorant, it's that I didn't know what I didn't know.

Things started to come into focus as I played Far Cry 3 and Receiver concurrently. Both games are about shooting things with guns, but they are extremely different in their approaches. Far Cry puts a premium on visual fidelity and sound quality, but all of its exotic weapons function in the same basic way: there's a button to look down the sights, a button to shoot, and a button to reload. All these actions can be performed independently from each other at any time and require very little practice to execute properly. Receiver goes in the opposite direction by simulating the multistep process that is wielding a gun. Your gun doesn't just bob at the center of your field of view; it must be leveled and aimed. Reloading and arming your weapon is a manual process of switching out magazines and chambering rounds, a process that's easy to screw up if you skip steps or do them out of order. It's a painful learning curve, but a great demonstration of how the mechanical process of shooting has been simplified to an extreme level of abstraction, even in games that aspire to a high level of realism.

The second part of the column focuses on the larger social forces around video game guns. Simon Parkin's excellent Eurogamer piece on how gun manufacturers license their products to game companies made perfect sense after I read it: why wouldn't gun makers capitalize on the chance to make some money while also getting a great advertising opportunity? The embarrassing thing is that I simply hadn't given the topic that much thought until this point. Everything from soda to cars gets licensed for games, so why wouldn't guns? Everyone draws their own moral lives in different places, but I don't think I'm alone in feeling uncomfortable that I've been funding assault rifle companies with my gaming dollars.

So what is the point of all this? I'm not the biggest fan of exploratory pieces that offer little in the way of resolution. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I'm not sure what the next step should be. I'll definitely be more aware of how abstracted the shooting is in most games, even if they look realistic. Maybe some trips to the shooting range to get a better understanding of how guns realistically work are in order? As for the relationship between arms manufacturers and publishers, I'm not quite ready to write off all military shooters, but I'll be more careful about the ones I recommend and fund.

As a side note, Simon's article is exactly the kind of writing about games we need: the kind that makes established players in the industry uncomfortable. Publishers want people to post recycled press releases, rumors about new games, and even controversial or tasteless ad campaigns. It's all part of the marketing plan as it gets people talking. It's the stuff they don't want to talk about, the stuff that gets hidden (like their deals with gun makers), and the stuff in need of some sunlight and serious consideration.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

EXP Podcast #212: Springtime Playlist

The PlayStation 4 was announced! OMG! But hey, that's still a long way from release and we have games to play now. This week on the podcast, Scott and I discuss the games currently on our playlist. From the over-the-top Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance  to Legendary, Marvel's marvelous deck-building card game, we browse the games a catalog of games. If you have played any of them, do let us know in the comments below and let us know what you have been playing as well!

To listen to the show:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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: 39 min 25 sec
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Falling in Love with Ni No Kuni

I think I am falling in love with Ni No Kuni too fast for my own good. Despite my attempts to avoid spoilers and hype-building, and even knowing the somewhat mixed reviews the game has received in the press, I fear I may be playing Level-5's JRPG with rose-colored glasses.

I fully admit that I am coming into this game with  a deep affection for the studios behind the game. Studio Ghibli has animated some of my favorite films of all time. They always imbue their worlds with a stunning sense of magic and wonder. Now, the moment I see a piece of animation clearly produced or even influence by Studio Ghibli, I alight with excitement and open myself up to be impressed.

I feel the same way about Level-5, the creators of the beloved Professor Layton series of puzzle games (and Dark Cloud, which I still remember fondly). The Layton games are clearly made with such care and affection for the story and I cannot help but revel in their stories. Above all else, I love that every game is so wholly built in adoration of curiosity and  inquisitiveness. Their consistency and care is intoxicating, so much so that I even built a word puzzle in my review of The Last Spectre.

With this in mind, who better than these two studios to collaborate on a fairy-tale JRPG? Playing Ni No Kuni, even in the first couple hours, I find myself looking for signs of each studio's touch. I actively search for the wonder and joy I expect, and earnestly, I find it in heaps. However, I also realize my expectations could be coloring my experiences for the better. I am not an JRPG zealot, so I have no instant fuzzy-feelings towards the gameplay, but did you see that little hope my familiar gave!? How cute was that? Speaking of familiars, isn't it amazing how well illustrated and the movement animations appear? Also, isn't it neat how closely the story adheres to children's literature conventions?

Really, I go on and on like this. How do I know if my attitude towards this game is too heavily influenced by my preconceptions? Or maybe this is a good thing. Maybe I'm willing to look a little harder than most and find the best parts of Ni No Kuni.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dead Space 3 and Co-op Horror

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Dead Space 3 and Co-op Horror

I am really enjoying Dead Space 3, even though it's not particular scary in any way. What I'm not enjoying is the all-too-frequent sentiment that "horror" and "cooperative play" are incompatible. As I say in the article, I think designers just need to balance vulnerability with reliability. It's not an alien idea, but I do think it's important to use these words in regards to system design.

Alright, now for my favorite part, let's do a thought experiment. I want you to participate in the comments section if you have the time. Question: How would co-op play affect Amnesia: The Dark Descent?

Imagine exploring the ruined castle with a friend. Some missions split each of you up, forced to activate pieces of a puzzle in separate rooms. You cannot see what your partner sees, but you can hear them over voice chat as they start to breath heavily. Their voice comes out strained as their own fear rises, yet they try to remain calm as they describe a message written in blood on a wall, ghastly pictographs that you must understand to solve your own piece of the puzzle in another room entirely. As they describe the message, you hear them scream, their very own monster has shown up, and they wrestle with dual pressures: Do they flee or do continue their description, the one you need to progress.

You solve the puzzle and continue onward when suddenly you spot movement. You jump in your seat before realizing it's just your partner, still alive, returning to your side. Moving forward the room darkens and your partner uses not one, but three tinder boxes to light your way. She's using your limited resources. You didn't need those there you argue, now your access to precious light is gone. Your partner's initiative has made you vulnerable in the dark.

Together, your ally hears a sound you don't quite pick up. Are they messing with you? Is this a "you moved the Ouja board pointer" moment? Fearing the worst, you hide in a closet... which only fits one. Your partner yells out you for your betrayal. You slowly creak open the cupboard to see them being eaten a live by a terrible stalking beast. "She deserves it," you tell yourself, slowly closing the cupboard door. She shouldn't have wasted all that tinder.

Could this work? Why give up when anything is possible?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

EXP Podcast #211: Dissecting Difficulty with Mattie

Image from
When it comes to conversations, especially between three talkative people, Twitter just doesn't cut it. Therefore, when Mattie Brice, Jorge, and I started trading tweets about the merits of difficulty in games, we knew it was time to change venues. This week, we're excited to have Mattie on the show to talk about the meaning behind the challenges games offer. We cover everything from Super Hexagon to Pokemon, and even throw in some parallels to BDSM to spice things up (Pro tip: don't Google BDSM+Pokemon…unless you're into that). As always, thanks for listening, and feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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:

- Mattie Brice's website
- Runtime: 52 min 39 sec
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Boredom, Terror, and Pokemon

Oshawott, my noble champion
Inspired by Jorge and Mattie, I have started playing Pokemon using the rule variant known as the Nuzlocke challenge. I'm not sure if I'll "finish" it (more on that later), but I'm glad to have tried it. First off, a quick refresher on the Nuzlocke rules:

1. You attempt to catch the first, and only the first, pokemon you encounter in each new area.
2. If a pokemon faints, it is "dead" and you must release it.

It's the first time I've ever done the Nuzlocke challenge. It's also the first time I've played a Pokemon game since the original Blue/Red editions. I decided on Pokemon White Version 2 so that I could have the most up to date experience. That combination of circumstances has led to some interesting realizations:

1. Pokemon (like war) never changes

Even though I haven't played a Pokemon game since the 90s, the game feels remarkably unchanged. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste at this point. What some call repetition others call ritual. Whatever your opinion, I think everyone can agree that it's remarkable that things like "PKMN" have persisted. I always imagined this weird abbreviation was more a function of screen economy, but maybe now it's house style? The franchise is fast approaching its twentieth birthday and has remained remarkably faithful to its roots.

2. Nuzlocke turns you into an NPC

I was always amused by the juxtaposition between you and the NPCs in the Pokemon world. On one hand, the world is full of modest trainers with small stables of pokemon. They talk about the lifelong bonds they form with their pokemon. Many run with lineups consisting of entirely of one type. On the other hand, there is this one trainer ransacking the wilds, capturing hundreds of pokemon, rolling over gym leaders as if they were amateurs, literally writing the book on the world's pokemon by catching and training them all. Nuzlocke's limitations mean that you're just one of the litany of small-team trainers trying to scrape by.

Thanks to my initial choice, my successful capture of Azuril, and the untimely death of my Patrat, I've become one of those trainers I always mocked. I don't have a big party, I feel especially close to my team since there is no replacing them, and I'm rolling with an all-water squad. In most Pokemon games, you're the Michael Jordan of trainers; in Nuzlocke, you're just another schlub trying to get by.

3. Long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror

Because your opportunity to catch pokemon is so low and the penalty of death is so high, the Nuzlocke challenge incentivizes grinding. Pokemon is already a fairly slow-paced, grind-oriented game, and this rule dramatically magnifies these traits. You need to be able to win battles without fainting, so levelling up is key. Especially early in the game, you don't have much money for health items like potions, so a short time of wandering around in the grass and fighting random encounters, you'll have to go back into town to heal your pokemon. I swear I can see a pixelated rut forming on Route 19.

On the other end of the spectrum, every encounter is potentially a life and death ordeal. Never have random trainers provoked so much terror. How many pokemon will they have and what types? Did I remember to heal my squad after that last battle? I bet my pokemon has enough HP to withstand another critical hit, but did I do the math correctly? Knowing that each battle is a game changing encounter is exhilarating.

4.  Deconstruction vs. Destruction

The Nuzlocke challenge is a novel way of adding some exciting consequences to what is usually a very forgiving game. Even so, I'm not sure I'll stick with it. First: the game's already slow pace begins to feel glacial if you're trying to effectively manage your small stable of Pokemon.

Secondly, and more importantly, the rule change cuts out a huge swath of the game. Without being able to catch and train a large stable of Pokemon, the game becomes a pretty bare-bones JRPG with extremely limited characters. True, your actions now carry heavy consequences, but such consequences feel bolted on. Games like The Walking Dead and Dark Souls have consequences that are indigenous to their rule systems. The Nuzlocke challenge is an interesting variant, but it dismantles a huge section of the game and leaves the remainder a much more homogenous experience. It makes sense that it arose from a veteran player's desire to add some spice to the game. He had already experienced the widest array of rules, so he pinpointed a specific challenge for himself.

In any case, let's place some bets: What will end my Nuzlocke challenge? Boredom, death, or glorious victory?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Finding the Right Amount of 'Asura's Wrath'

Image from PopMatters
This week on PopMatters, I rage out with Asura's Wrath.

Actually, there's not much to be angry about, as I liked the game quite a bit. I had been casually following Asura's Wrath up to its release, so I was surprised by the final product. I expected a more formulaic character-action style game in the mold of God of War. What I got was more like an interactive Dragonball Z show.

The actual direct-control fighting isn't all that interesting compared to other games; you have a weak attack, a strong attack, and a handful of contextual moves. The game's quicktime events aren't all that challenging either. What's special is the framework in which all this happens. In a bizarre, yet highly-entertaining move, the game is presented episodically.

We're talking full-on, Saturday morning cartoon style episodes here: intro credits for each chapter, episode previews, dramatic breaks right before a confrontation. It takes a little while to get used to, but I think it was ultimately a great design decision. The game is repetitive in multiple ways: combat is the same basic charge-to-special move every time. There are only so many possible QTE prompts. Even the sound effects and musical themes get reused regularly.

In short, it's a lot like an episodic television show. Watch enough episodes of anything in a row and you'll quickly see familiar plot arcs, the same sets, and reused soundtracks. It's something that I hadn't thought about too much in the context of gaming, largely because even the most "episodic" games rarely span the length of a single TV season, let alone an entire series.

Like many folks, I've all but abandoned broadcast TV at this point. If I watch a series, it's usually in a compressed timeframe made possible by Netflix. My game habits have followed this model for a long time. If I don't set aside a large chunk of time, I'm probably not going to play anything. Asura's Wrath reminded me that this method might sacrifice enjoyment for efficiency. Playing an episode every day or so helped me appreciate the game's structure and cadence. Suddenly, something that might have first like filler was a welcome ritual.

I'm not sure I'll be able to serialize my play sessions when it comes to other games. Experiences like Far Cry 3 have a habit of lending themselves to marathons. Still it's a good thing to keep in mind when facing the prospect of devoting an entire day to a single game. Familiarity can breed contempt. In Asura's case, it would probably breed rage. That guy makes Kratos seem easy going.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

EXP Podcast #210: Gaming Football

America's most widely celebrated holiday, the Superbowl, has come and gone. While all of us over here in the Bay Area are mourning, Scott and I have our minds tuned to video games - well, sort of. Specifically, inspired by an article from Tim Rogers, we're discussing the similarities between American Football and Final Fantasy Tactics. Is Tom Brady a White Mage or a Black Mage? And what's a safety called in JRPGs? Join us this week on the EXP Podcast while we chat about fandom, e-sports, and more. As always, share your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to check out Tim's original article in the show notes!

To listen to the show:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes
- Find the show on Stitcher
- Here's the show's 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 mins 13 secs
- "Football: The Review," by Tim Rogers via Kotaku
- "The Chris Johnson Problem," by Chuck Klosterman via Grantland
- The slowest bicycle race you will ever watch:
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Frustration with Anti-Chamber

Wow, for a minute there, I actually thought I could overcome the challenges and mysteries of Antichamber without relying on a guide. Turns out I was wrong. What started out as a joyful and mind-bending exploration of Alexander Bruce's astounding first-person puzzle-platformer turned into exasperation. Whether the fault is my utter lack of patience or the game's shifting puzzle mechanics is still undecided.

Before treading over my own problems with Antichamber, I should say I think the game is a stunning accomplishment and well worth your time. You can find it cheap on Steam or, if you prefer, it will likely appear in one Indie bundle or another at some point in the near future. Without a doubt, the game consistently surprised me and evoked more than a few bouts of excited laughter. Check out the trailer below for a minor taste of the game. Really, stop there and play it. This is a game best experienced with zero expectations.

While playing the game, I made a comment on twitter that captures nicely my immediate assessment of the game: Playing Antichamber is like playing the role of Sarah in 1986 classic fantasy film Labyrinth. Without revealing too much of my fanatical obsession and appreciation with Labyrinth (seriously, it's an amazing movie!), the film portrays Sarah's coming-of-age by manifesting feelings of "unfairness" and "hidden truths" physically within the ever-changing form of the titular maze. Walls appear in the maze where there were none before, optical illusions obscure pathways and traps, and the ruler of the land cheats when he pleases. Yet when she comes to accept all this, the maze becomes navigable.

Antichamber recreates the same arc almost perfectly. Early on, puzzles exist not necessarily to impede, but to impart some important lesson that will remain true - until it doesn't. Placards on the wall tell you things like "Sometimes going backwards can open doors" or "When you absorb your surroundings, you may notice things that you didn't see before." Experimentation can lead to stunning shifts in perception and reality and accidentally stumbling into new territory is a frequent occurrence. For the first three-quarters of the game, Antichamber is magical.

Then the game slows down precipitously as progress demands precision, and not just in thought. At some point, you gain access to various "guns" that absorb and dispense colored cubes. Every new gun acquisition opens up whole new areas to explore, but too often progressing demands minute control over the game objects and the world itself. Moving those little cubes, while timed, through a tiny maze, with a small pointer and a poor view can be absolutely mind-numbing - especially when one slip-up can force you to redo your hard work.

While you can always return to the starting room easily if, say, you fall through a hidden trap, in later portions of the game, where you spawn and how you navigate the rooms matters greatly. Messing up can mean backtracking again, having to redo these same precise movement to overcome frustrating puzzles you have already solved. The "world map" itself fails to convey the spatial relationships very well, an immensely difficult for both this game and Fez, another mind-bending puzzle that suffered from these same problems. When I know for certain I have the answer, but the difficulty lies in executing the actions, Antichamber  loses its magical ambiance and, sadly, brings back home to the mundane world, where David Bowie is not a goblin king and video game walkthroughs are a few clicks away.