Wednesday, July 31, 2013

EXP Podcast #235: Love, Hate, and Peculiar Pet Peeves

Image from Giant Bomb
Enclosed, please find one ticket to the Player Haters' Ball. After last week's podcast about the potential benefits of having a strong personality and being outspoken about your opinion (even if it's unpopular), Jorge and I decided to jump up on our soapboxes. We try to keep things pretty positive around here, but sometimes you just have air your grievances. This week, we talk about the things that annoy us, especially those things that everyone else seems to like. Don't worry: things get pretty silly and it's all in good spirit. Sometimes it feels good to talk about what grinds your gears, whether it's a beloved character, a particular genre, or a universally-loved indie darling. Want to get something off your chest? Jump into the comments!

- 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: 35 min 43 sec
- Scott's post about Final Fantasy VII's
- "What We Leave Behind," John Teti's Rogue Legacy review, via The Gameological
- Adam Jensen Does A Safety Dance! (Deus Ex: Human Revolution)
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Relaxing with Roguelikes: The Binding of Isaac

Watch as Scott goes into a fugue state and talks about LARPing, xPadder, and the concept of free software while also playing The Binding of Isaac.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Good Sci-Fi in 'The Swapper'

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I talk about one of the best games I've played all year: The Swapper.

I tend to agree with Dan Teasdale's recent thoughts on the overabundance of sci-fi in video games, but I think The Swapper shows just how useful the genre can be when it's used for more than simple set dressing. There's no doubt that instant-cloning and swapping consciousnesses are squarely in the realm of fantasy, but The Swapper grounds them with just enough seriousness that they can be used as tools. The result is a game that is a great exploration of morality and individuality. These sci-fi tropes also make for some excellent puzzles.

One thing I didn't get a chance to touch on the article was the game's art style. It actually reminds me of stop-motion animation: things are textured photorealistically, but the proportions and even the items themselves are stylized and fantastical. The shuttle pod looks like a tin can and some of the environments seem like they could be made of cardboard (in a good way). All these materials and shapes offer just enough familiarity to be recognizable but also unnerving. There's just something "off" about the way things feel. Where LittleBigPlanet used the same techniques to effect warmth and playfulness, The Swapper uses them to transmit uncertainty and alienness.

The Swapper doesn't take dozens of hours or require elaborate set pieces to get its point across. Combat is nonexistent, yet the game is both challenging and suspenseful. It puts sci-fi themes to excellent narrative and systematic uses, which shows that perhaps the misuse, rather than overuse, of genre conventions is the actual problem with the gaming landscape. After all, if all sci-fi themed games were as thoughtful as The Swapper, I don't think we'd have much to complain about.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

EXP Podcast #234: Assessing the Creative Asshole

Wario, the king of assholes
Scott and I like to think we are experts on the subjects of jerks, meany-heads, curmudgeonly folk, and brutes. Yet while our opinions on assholes might be settled, the role of the creative asshole in the games industry is still hotly debated. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I wonder if maybe our best game designers are naturally assholes, if their behavior is positive for the industry, and what it means to maintain a healthy public persona. We do hope you let us know your thoughts in the comments, we'll be nice, we promise.

- 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: 31 min 23 sec
- "Why you want assholes to make your video games," by Ben Kuchera via The Penny-Arcade Report
- "Assholes are assholes," by Rob Fearon via WMTCLD
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Homesick for Games

When I stayed home sick as a child, my regular ritual included laying on the couch and watching The Price is Right or Fantasia. I don't know why these two in particular, but almost without fail, if I were feeling unwell, I would gravitate towards a game show and a Disney film. That simple, mundane, repetitive experience, brought me comfort.

Today, certain games now provide that dull warmth I associate with sick days. While growing up, Sundays were reserved for naps, Calvin & Hobbes, and long game sessions. Now when I imagine lounging about my house on a lazy weekend, I think of JRPGs, something long and time consuming.  Chris Dahlen recently captured this simple pleasure wonderfully in his recent Polygon article: "The mechanics of a game mimic the scaffolding on our real everyday lives. The big moments aren't the most important ones."

One of the reasons I was recently drawn to the idea of fatherhood in games, particularly in Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, and The Walking Dead, is because all these games portray the little and seemingly pointless moments of life. Ethan playing with his kids, Joel chatting about ice-cream trucks, or Lee brushing Clementine's hair, all capture the ordinary. Those moments trigger something in me that reminds me of home, or the idea of home, at least temporarily. These are no spandex-clad heroes or demigods. They're normal folk who, like all of us, create defining moments in little acts of kindness or care.

Other games also trigger a calm comfort in me. Any of the Professor Layton games, Harvest Moon, most point-and-click adventures, they all involve simple systems and repeatable tasks. The reliability of these experiences and their low stakes create a sense of ritual. Surely part of Animal Crossings allure is finding joy in the mundane rituals of picking fruit. I ridicule tedious games all the time, but much of the attraction is in doing these seemingly boring actions. Repetition is the mechanic of comfort. These games create a sense of normalcy through play.

In two weeks I will be moving again. Yesterday, as I packed my belongings into cardboard boxes, I considered getting rid of my old PS2 and pile of games. I haven't touched those things in years, and many of them are available online in some capacity. Nevertheless, I'll be taking my collection with me. Maybe packing puts me in a sentimental mood, but those games, even if they remain in my closet forever, give me contentment. They remind me to be grateful for the little rituals found in play.

When I'm all settled in, I'll get back to hallway shooters and overwrought fantasy worlds. For now, I want the comfort of home.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Exploring Fatherhood in Games

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Exploring Fatherhood in Games.

I don't know how it happened, but I completely missed out on Sebastien Wuepper's Gameranx article on nearly the exact same subject. I highly recommend you check it out if the subject of father figures in recent games interests you. In addition to touching on The Last of Us, he also brings up all the BioShock games and Dishonored as well - all great examples.

I was very tempted to discuss BioShock Infinite in my piece as well, but cut it for a couple reasons. First, it actually explores many of the same themes that The Last of Us addresses better. Booker, for the majority of the game, is simply not a father figure. Only the final revelation reveals him as a tragic figure, someone who failed to protect his child and came to regret the decision. But most interesting, when he does reclaim his father status, he also inseparably ties himself to Comstock, who takes on the role of the father for Columbia itself. There's a fascinating message there about fatherly domination and patriarchy, but unfortunately its undermine by a massive amount of brutal gunplay (and yes, so are the messages in The Last of Us, albeit less so).

I also want to use this space to specifically differentiate fatherhood versus motherhood or even the gender-neutral parenthood. As a concept, fatherhood carries with is all sorts of cultural baggage. There are loads of gender assumptions pertaining to leadership, protection, aggressiveness, aloofness, etc., that we commonly associate with fatherhood in ways we do not with motherhood. It's one of the reasons that discourse around female leaders, from Thatcher to Ghandi, often address their perceived masculine traits. The games I compare in my article specifically deal with fatherhood as a concept, both how they adhere to normative associations and how they redefine notions of fatherhood.

That being said, I barely make a dent in this subject. There are oh so many games that confront general parental issues, including motherhood. I would jump at the chance to read (or contribute to I suppose) a more thorough explanation for the way games create, perpetuate, and undermine ideas of parenthood.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

EXP Podcast #233: Of EVO and eSports

Image from Giant Bomb
As Tuesday's video demonstrated, Jorge and I had a great time watching EVO 2013 last weekend. It was a pleasure seeing players at the top of their games, but it was also a great opportunity to check in on the state of fighting games and eSports (from an amateur's perspective, of course). What does the increasingly digital future have in store for fighting games? Can a balance between decentralized, DIY tournaments and corporate-organized, high-budget shows exist? What's the fighting game equivalent of the NBA's slam dunk contest? We tackle all these questions and more. As always, don't hesitate to step into the ring with your comments.

- 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: 44 min 12 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Super Smash Bros. Melee at EVO 2013

This past weekend, Jorge and I came to the harsh realization that our Super Smash Bros. Melee skills were downright pathetic compared to the pros at EVO 2013. We found watching that tournament finals fascinating to watch, so we fired up our mics and did some meta commentary on the matches.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Thanks to Ryan Davis, Senior Editor at Giant Bomb

Image from Kotaku
This week at PopMatters, I celebrated my one-way friendship with Ryan Davis.

We never really knew each other, but thanks to the incredibly weird ways of the Internet, I feel like I hung out with him a lot over the past five years. The enthusiasm and humor he brought to talking about video games made Giant Bomb my favorite gaming website. He had a plain-spoken, fun-loving, and just plain genuine personality that continues to serve as an inspiration for how come across like a real person on the Internet.

It's sad that he's gone, but it has been great to see the outpouring of kind words from his friends, even those who only knew him second-hand from podcasts and videos. It's a nice reminder that you can make a difference to people you may never actually meet. Few people are lucky enough to leave such a thing behind as a part of their legacy. Fewer still can claim a litany of hilariously-dumb sight gags as another part of their legacy.

There's not much else to say.  Thanks, Ryan.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

EXP Podcast #232: The Walking Dead: 400 Days Debrief

Our summer is only a few months long, but in The Walking Dead, apparently it lasts at least 400 days. Maybe that's just Georgia... This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I hunker down in our tree-fort and discuss the latest episodic DLC from Telltale! As always, we start off this podcast spoiler-free, so jump on in without hesitation. When you're done listening, do come back and let us know in the comments: whose ankle would you shoot off, mine or Scott's?

- 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: 54 min 57 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Growing Lore of League

How do you build a rich world around what at first seems like a haphazardly put-together world? The answer, one patch update at a time. When League of Legends  was first released in 2009, the background story of the game was shallow at best. Now, after several background redesigns and expansive lore building outside the game, Riot has set out to craft a rich world around the mundane.

League has changed dramatically since launch. The game was released as a spiritual successor to Defense of the Ancients and brought over some of the same champion designs, including some absolutely absurd creations. The original set of forty playable champions included a pyromaniac little girl, a minotaur, a scarecrow, and a little Yordle riding a yeti. Little bound these characters together other than some contrived story about the world of Runeterra settling their differences in the League of Legends.

Annie's original skin art
Since launch, the numbers of playable champions has ballooned to 114, with the upcoming Lucian marking the 115th champion in the league. While Riot added pieces to the game's narrative sporadically, the unique champions have kept coming. Newcomers have included a staff-wielding monkey-man, a woman with enormous steam-punk gauntlets, an armored polar bear, and many more. At quick glance, the selection of characters appear just as hodge-podge as ever.

Regardless, the game lore has become increasingly expansive, even while the actual gameplay has changed very little. Several champion backgrounds, a few paragraph-length stories that explore a champions past, have been updated since launch, toning down the humor and adding darker or more expansive lore. Some characters, like Thresh and the upcoming Lucian, have backgrounds that tie together. In this case, Lucian's deceased wife had her soul taken by the lantern-wielding ghoul.

In some cases, these lore do in fact have a presence on the battlefield. Riot launched the recently released Howling Abyss map with a blow-out event that re-wrote character lore, established a history for the new location, and included a website that split some champions into warring factions. If you play a certain character on the map, unique audio cues enrich the story. Likewise, if the characters of Ashe and Lissandra are on opposing teams, each team may be given a unique quest that is satisfied only if one of them kills the other.

Again, functionally, none of this lore matters one bit. However, lore speculation and fanaticism over specific characters seems to have grown. If anything, Riot is merely adding narrative content to meet a player demand for not only an entertaining game, but a compelling back story that enriches each individual match. As far as I'm concerned, it's a remarkable success. I long for the rounds I can watch one character duke it out against another, and I do find myself reading into the characters I often play. For a game that never needed it, the effort Riot has put into the story is impressive. In fact, maybe it's even rich enough for the story to break out of the MOBAs and into other game genres entirely.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Blaming the Game

I am pretty sure I met a video game conspiracy theorist yesterday. While playing the latest Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBLA, I faced off against another person with a headset. Already it was a strange occurrence. The vast majority of players do not use their mic, and those that do tend to speak very little. This guy was a rambler, immediately going off about his deck, the strategy he was planning around it, and how lame it was Stainless Games allowed forty-card decks instead of the standard sixty. He was already blaming the game for what he considered would be his inevitable loss.

After a few turns, he actually had me on the ropes. I had four health left and he had a massive attacker on the battlefield. Knowing I had limited options, I played a card that left my look through my library and draw Pacify, a card that would neutralize his creature and win me the game. After playing it, I heard him speak over the mic: "That's bullshit. This game gives me shit luck." He was convinced the game kept giving his opponents exactly what they needed, without giving him anything in return, nevermind that I had drawn that card intentionally.

I get it, sometimes we like to blame luck for in-game failure, maybe more so than necessary. It's an easy out form having to take responsible for the simple reality that sometimes we're just bad at video games, or bad at understanding why exactly we fail. And of course readability plays into perceptions of luck and failure, as does actual luck of course.

But then this player started making strange claims. He started raging against the game for putting cards in hid deck he never wanted. In fact, he specifically stated that when he turns the game off and goes to bed, the game sneakily adds in cards at random into his perfectly tuned deck. He was so convinced of this fact that he was thinking of asking for a refund, believing his digital download file were so how corrupted, or maybe possessed by some trickster Djinn.

Why are some people so convinced that the games they play are out to get them? Is there a severe misunderstanding of how games work technically? Sure, I curse luck now and again, but only facetiously. True randomness sometimes seems to have patterns, even unfair patterns; that is the very nature of randomness. But blaming luck and blaming a game are two very different things.When the results of player behavior are construed to create a bizarre theory about a game's design, then a terrible misunderstanding is taking place.

I should have confronted this player. I should have let him know that no, in fact, he probably just forgot to remove the card from his deck, that maybe his finger slipped and he didn't save his actions. Still, I figure if he wasn't going to believe in the immutability of our shared code, then he would never believed a stranger on the internet demanding he take responsibility for his actions.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

EXP Podcast #231: The Last of Us Debrief

Nothing says "summer fun" like a bleak journey through a ruined society whose inhabitants are more deadly than the monsters that caused their original downfall! This week, Jorge and I talk about The Last of Us. There's a lot to talk about: stealth mechanics, family dynamics, and doomsday preppers all make appearances. As always, we'll give a spoiler warning when we dive into specific plot points. For those of you who have faced the fungal apocalypse and lived to tell the tale, 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:

- Runtime: 1 hr 1 min 19 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Secret of "The Swapper"

What's better than one brain?  Two!  What's better than two brains?  Two brains that have an infinite supply of bodies created under ethically dubious circumstances that can be used and abused with impunity!

This week, I recruit Hanah and an army of clones in order to explore the mysterious world of The Swapper.