Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Making of Family in Gone Home

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Making of Family in Gone Home.

For a game that's completed in just under two hours, there sure are a lot of interesting things to discuss. In case you missed it, I already wrote a bit about my nostalgic sentiments here. Scott and I also chatted about the game in one of our occasional debrief podcasts, in which I try, at least a little, to play the devil's advocate. That is to say, there are plenty of reasons you might just dislike Gone Home, and that's OK.

With this PopMatters piece, I tried to explore how exactly the game manages to create a sense of family, an all too rare occurrence in games. While yes, the objects in the game map the tangible outlines of the family, the process by which their lives become real is participatory. When so much is left unsaid, the game is as much a combination of role playing and self-reflection as it is constructed narrative. In all likelihood, your own family experiences heavily influence all the minor perceptions you make while you play the game, and subtly augment your understanding of the Greenbriar family.

Of course that doesn't mean this somehow gives the game a pass. It is, in fact, a constructed experience. Nevertheless, and this applies to something like Dear Esther as well, the act of play is far more than mundane exploration. It's not a slideshow.

Does it paint the way forward for narrative in games? Well, I wouldn't go that far. But I do think these small participatory narratives, particularly when done so well, prove good stories don't need the trappings of an epic. They just need intimacy and outlines. We'll take care of the rest.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

EXP Podcast #239: Gone Home Debrief

Hot off the heels of our "Homage to Homes," Jorge and I have made our way through Gone Home, a game whose entire point is to explore a house and its inhabitants. It's dedication to portraying everyday environments and ordinary people actually makes it unique amongst a landscape of fantasy and super powers. The care that The Fullbright Company gives to the game's environments and characters helped spark a wide ranging discussion. We cover topics ranging from teenage romance, punk music, and the folly of trying to become a Street Fighter champion, while leaving plenty of time to discuss the more subtle plot points. As always, we hope you make yourself at home and share your thoughts in the comments.

It's the first game from The Fullbright Company, and it stands out for a few reasons.

- 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 28 sec
- "Creative Restriction And The New Realism," by Matthew Burns, via Magical Realism
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

8/27/13 Spelunky Daily Challenge

My quest to win the Spelunky daily challenge continues. As you can see, the video is only about 15 minutes long, which means things either went very well or very poorly...

Thursday, August 22, 2013

'Spelunky,' Roguelikes, and the Good Death

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I write about Spelunky and the concept of a "good death."

It's not an overly metaphysical piece in the sense of coming to terms with the realities of human existence. It's more focused on the importance of failure, and why difficult roguelikes such as Spelunky incorporate death into their stories gracefully, albeit brutally. Simply put: the fact you start from scratch every time means your death is the end of a discrete story; a stand alone adventure with it's own arc of challenges and triumphs. There's no cognitive dissonance of having to reconcile "death" with some canonical in-game story (as is the case with most plot-driven games).

There are other ways of tackling this problem. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time's "That's not how it really happened" voice overs after a failed jump come to mind as a particularly novel example. Spelunky takes a different approach by actively embracing every act as canon: everything you do is actually "how it happened." The beauty is that, thanks to the game's systems, you also know why it happened. Every death is the end of a story, but it's also a lesson (often a cruel one) for the next adventure. It's a dramatic death; an educational death; a good death.

Finally, I included a neat video of Derek Yu, Spelunky's creator, talking about and playing the game. It's still relatively rare to hear developers talk candidly about both the philosophies and logistics behind their games, and this good natured play session is well worth your time. It's also great to see Spelunky rise up thwart the very person who created it. For some reason, I take solace in the fact that Derek can get dispatched by the same traps that end my runs. Hearing his philosophy of experimentation, challenge, and iteration based on past failures is interesting; seeing it in action as his run is ended by the systems of his own creation is delightful.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

EXP Podcast #238: Sports Games from the Sidelines

NHL 94
The football season is upon us! Yet while the games might be raging in the stadiums, our gaming habits have long since abandoned sports games. Why did we play sports games more when we were young? Why did they fall off our radar? And what could bring us back to the field? This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss our professional ping-pong careers, Madden, and free-to-play economics. Let us know your own relationship with sports games in the comments below!

- 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: 29 min 16 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Punk, Magic Eyes, and Gone Home

With a few touches of familiar objects and locales, a piece of art can fill me with so much nostalgia I feel like I've traveled back in time. It's a weakness, one we all likely share, but still, nostalgia is an amazing phenomenon. This explains how something like Ready Player One can feel like a novel written, literally, for me, as though the author plumbed his way through my memories, finding every piece of nerdy subculture I could never forget and used as inspiration for his own story. In many ways this is what Gone Home accomplishes its expansive but lived-in world to explore.

There is a lot to discuss about Gone Home, which will have to wait until next week, but I want to take some time now to poke out my own susceptibility to its environmental trappings. See, I think nostalgia is a cheap way to get at someone's heart. Maybe "cheap" is the wrong word, it does have negative connotations, but at the very least, nostalgia seems like an easy distraction. See, the moment I stepped into the Greenbriar home, I was captured.

The game takes place in the wet and wooded American Northwest, Portland to be exact. While I never visited Oregon in my youth, or owned a mansion-sized home for that matter, I did grow up in the rural parts of Northern California. Our home was surrounded by red woods and a mighty storm could easily feel like the thundering backdrop to Gone Home. I also fondly remember the wooden mansion-like retreat our family would reserve for reunions every couple years which, when empty, were filled with the same imaginary apparitions that tickle my spine playing the game. The first moments, after just a glance at the house and an introduction to the storm outside, I felt at home.

Is that a sail boat?
When nostalgia grips you, you know it. I did my very best to set that aside and explore the game objectively, but two things ruined my attempt at achieving such a removed perspective: a punk mix tape and two Magic Eye posters. Like many children of the 80s, I loved the optical illusions. I hung at least two on my own wall and remember bringing them to school to show to my friends. They were novelties, but today they reflect so much more.

As for the punk tapes, they dug deep into my high school days. I remember going to my first punk show, I think my friends, or people I wanted as my friends, were playing in between sets in a tiny little room. The whole affair felt transgressive and liberating. The music was ultimately mediocre, but the message, the feaux trappings of adulthood, the open aggression that so many teens clung to, it was moving. It felt good. It felt like I was young. Putting in a tape into the record player in Gone Home called back into existence, for just a moment, an exhausted, adrenaline-filled, and deeply hopeful version of myself.

It felt really good.

So when Sam's story begins to unfold, I was ready for it, every piece. No, the whole story is not entirely relatable, no its not perfect, and yes, I can see why many people may not enjoy this game. Yet with all the memories this little worked stirred up, I had to feel like coming home again.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Small and Serious Games

Screenshot from NarcoGuerra
My latest PopMatters post is now live: Small and Serious Games.

Sometimes you have to be curmudgeonly about games. While I'm generally a positive fellow, I understand why every now and then, folk have to let out an exasperated sigh when they have to explain some things again. This PopMatters piece isn't actually all that curmudgeonly, but it comes from a similar place. It's another attempt of many to turn an eye on serious games not to somehow make them better, but simply to make more of them.

Many designers in that sector aim high, and many for good reason. Money is scarce for a lot of people. Those who receive government grants or philanthropic aid are competing for pieces of a small pie indeed. To garner attention, they have to make big promises and try to solve huge problems. Their goal is not to make a small, interesting, compelling game, but to raise awareness of one social plague or another among some pre-determined demographic, etc. etc.

None of this is to lay criticism on those who go into game design with clear and measurable goals, but some of the more interesting example of games that model or address real world issues are small, simple affairs. These games are cheap, quick, inspirational, and terribly flawed, but that's exactly what I want to see more of. I want to churn out so much garbage that an industry pops around criticizing them to death. I want games about small communities on the raggedy edge of poverty in Belize, on struggling labor activists in Italy, on the riots in Egypt, and so much more. And, yea, I want most of them to be bad. Its the small ones that make the big ones so much better.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

EXP Podcast #237: Our Dearly Departed Franchises

Image from
I've come to terms with the fact that there's probably never going to be another Bubsy game. That won't break too many hearts, but what happens when we're faced with the potential "death" of a widely loved series like Final Fantasy? Chris Kohler made such a suggestion and was greeted by more than a few irritated fans. We took his articles and analysis as an opportunity to discuss Final Fantasy and whether a few other high-profile franchises have shuffled off this mortal coil. If you have thoughts on a series that isn't long for this world or one that is primed and ready to rise from the ashes, 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: 32 min 32 sec
- "Final Fantasy Isn’t Dying. It’s Already Dead," by Chris Kohler, via Wired
- "The Bad Death of Final Fantasy: Reasons Why It’s Over," by Chris Kohler, via Wired
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Rogue Legacy: The Children are Our Future

Jorge and Scott slog through generations of gruesome deaths in hopes of creating a better life for our digital scions.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

'Sword & Sworcery' Revisited

Image from PopMatters
This week I wrote about my thoughts on Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery.

We're still in the relative lull of summer, so I feel like I can get away with playing a game for a second time. I actually find this phenomenon fascinating and more than a little disheartening. There is value to initial impressions and immediate feedback, but revisiting a work is crucial to understanding it. You might miss things the first time. Maybe your current life circumstances had a unique influence on your opinion? Historical context will almost certainly change your view; technology, politics, and culture are intertwined with each experience.

It's unfortunate then that I (and many others) feel pressured to rush through games in an ongoing sprint to keep up with the times. To be fair, it's an embarrassment of riches; there are so many great, interesting games out there that it seems a shame to miss them. But it's also unfortunate that we miss out on the unique perspectives that come with more a more long-term study of a game. For example, I've read The Great Gatsby multiple times. I strongly disliked it the first time through, but something changed upon re-reading it. Or, more accurately, I changed. Now it has become one of my favorite books.

Long term video game criticism is hit particularly hard for simple, practical reasons: it takes a long time to play a game. First you have to simply learn how to maneuver within their systems. Then, you have to get through the content, which can easily take dozens of hours. I could watch a film or read a book multiple times through in the same time I could play a video game and that's to say nothing about the necessity of jumping into multiplayer games early, before the community evaporates.

All this is to say that I enjoyed playing Sword &; Sworcery again, even if I don't like everything about the game.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

EXP Podcast #236: Homage to Homes

Home from Animal Crossing: New Leaf
In one of the moving boxes around my home are my gaming systems, surely one of the nondescript ones at the bottom of a box mountain. While I try to maneuver through the moving process, we thought now would be a good time to discuss homes and the stuff we put in them. Join Scott and I this week as we chat about, Skyrim, Fallout, and haunted houses. As always, share with us your home-away-from-home games in the comments below!

- 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: 30 min 40 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Far Cry 3: Fear the Flaming Tiger

Neither of us have finished Far Cry 3. Still, that doesn't mean the savage island has become stale. Watch below as we hop back into the open world game and somehow manage to create a perfect advertisement for the chaos of sandbox adventures.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Mystery of 77 Days

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Mystery of 77 Days.

"Dinner in the boardroom. What time is it?"

Humans are obsessed with patterns. It's one of the reasons why conspiracy theorists have an almost ferocious disposition to make connections between unrelated events and occurrences to construct a grand narrative. They force patterns onto disparate facts, partially out a tragic desperation to make simple sense of tragedy and partially to satisfy their desire to make something clean and understandable, to clarify the innately obscure. 

Those into puzzle games and riddles satisfy some of the tendencies when they clear a board, make a sudden mental connection, or set things right in place. The joy of a good mystery is solving it, or at least teasing the idea that it truly can be solved at all. This is why I love reading about number stations or other strange phenomenons, even when I know the truth is far less interesting than reality. 

Alternate Reality Games, and 77 Days in particular (if it is an ARG at all), blends these two extremes. Participants walk the line between conspiracy theorists and puzzle solvers. The dark and unsettling components of the mystery and a little less frightening in the safety of internet communities. The stakes, at least for now, seem low, making it a relative approachable experience. It lets you pretend to be crazy for a little while, because being crazy holds the best option for unlocking some of its secrets.

Meanwhile, the puzzle-like components are not locked down. The challenges and tasks are self-imposed or contributed by other participants. While I might not be able to decode spectrogram, I can browse google for images that might lead toward a future breakthrough. I can even contribute by editing text and making the document easier to read. With no solid barriers to entry, anyone and everyone can play, or even sit and watch. As a play experience, few are as accessible as ARGs like 77 Days, at least for those willing to think outside the box and make connections.

All that being said, I keep asking myself how I would feel if 77 Days ends as a marketing scheme to drum up attention for some sophomoric novel or cliche video game. I have to admit, I would at least be a little disappointed. Even so, what I focus on instead is the collaborative efforts of so many others. In chat or on an expansive doc, I'm surrounded by the work of minor geniuses. It's like a massive, text-based Minecraft experience, but scarier. Whenever this mystery finally ends, regardless of the outcome, I'm proud of these internet gumshoes.