Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hearthstone and Accessibility

Garrosh from Hearthstone
This week on PopMatters, I root about in modern card games and Hearthstone in particular.

See, I remember the day I decided to give up my futile efforts to stay abreast with Magic the Gathering. I owned a lot of cards, played nearly every day for many years, and even went to local tournaments. I was a Magic aficionado for a time, although never a very good one. Even so, I did my best to pay attention to the new releases and prepare myself accordingly. But, as many of you know from first hand experience, keeping up with Magic is basically impossible.

The day I decided to give up was the day I decided to invest in a really fun deck. I pooled some money together and bought some high-end cards online, all the copies I was missing and dual-lands that would really tie my deck together. I made it myself, and I was proud of it. It was my last, final hoorah into Magic for many, many, years. I had a blast, but card games just fell out a favor.

But with the resurgence of designer board games, card games are back in a big way. From Legendary to Android Netrunner, it has never been a better time to play card games again. The genre, if you can call it that, has largely abandoned some of the more tedious costs, streamlined the play experience, and borrowed heavily from Eurogames. Even Magic has caught up with the digital versions of the game, which still offer some immediately satisfying experiences without suckering you into a pay-for-random-cards business model.

The release (aka "open beta") of Hearthstone is a significant moment. The game is played and discussed by people who, in other circumstances, would never touch a CCG. My perhaps overly optimistic hope is that, after a little taste into what tabletop card games can offer, they come back for more.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

EXP Podcast #261: Assessing Early Access

Image from
Getting early access to a game used to be a pretty tall order. You might weasel your way into a limited beta, find a preview disk in a magazine, or poke around the shadier parts of the Internet. Today, it’s much easier: you can just buy your way in. Whether it’s through Steam or directly from the developer, increasing numbers of games are offering prospective players the chance to play the game before it’s official release. Of course this brings into the question the definition of release dates and what it even means to call a game “finished.” This week, we use Rowan Kaiser’s article on the topic to explore early access trend and what it means for customers, designers, and critics. 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:

- "Early Access exposes the lie that the best games should, or even can, be finished," by Rowan Kaiser, via Polygon
- Runtime: 34 min 44 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What is This: HOARD

Jorge and Scott discuss wyverns, drakes, and foul wyrms. Gaze in terror upon vicious dragon-on-dragon battles!

What is This: Shadowgrounds Survivor

Sadly, we failed to survive. In fact, you might say we never truly lived. In any case, we have a fun chat about the mechanics and ethical implications of warp drive. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Living with the Second Screen

This week at PopMatters, I proclaim my love for the Wii U or, more accurately, the Wii U GamePad.

I like the GamePad for a very specific reason, one that’s not due to any particular game mechanics. Most of the game specific implementations have been gimmicky touch inputs or holding pens for UI elements. In fact, the actual hardware itself isn’t all that great: the screen is low resolution and the resistive touch screen isn’t nearly as responsive as the standard multitouch capacitive screens we get on most phones and tablets. The value comes can be seen at a broader scale.

Because I’m clearly a glutton for punishment, I tried coming through the OECD and some other sources to figure out how many hours people are working these days. There seem to be conflicting reports, so I’ll go with what I know: my time is at a premium and despite historically unprecedented levels of productivity, I don’t see the number of hours I work decreasing any time soon. While I await the neo-unionization movement led by software engineers and IT professionals (come on, folks, you’re our only hope!), I have no choice but to try to make my leisure time more efficient.

This is where the Wii U and the second screen movement in general comes in. As I write in the column, the ability to play a fully-featured console game without monopolizing the TV has already changed the way I think about playing games. At the most basic level I’m not hogging the TV and I don’t have to cede my full attention to a game that doesn’t really need it. On a more philosophical level, it makes console experiences feel more like the pick up and play experiences of a mobile game. Less gear is involved and you don’t have interrupt your current workflow to engage and yet you benefit from the generally deeper gaming experiences that console games provide.

The Wii U GamePad and PlayStation Vita-PS4 connection lower the amount of friction for getting into a game, which I believe will ultimately benefit the persistent on-line games that are looking to define this generation. The ability to flow gracefully from a single-player to multi-player experience or transition from a low-engagement experience to a high-engagement experience requires tools that make it easy to stay connected and ramp up your involvement without it feeling like a chore.

If you’re anything like me, it’s increasingly difficult to schedule your time around games, so the games must instead fit into your schedule. Find the the opportunity and the justification to replay Wind Waker is much easier if I can search for rupees or grind through fetch quests while also keeping an eye on the football game. The Wii U GamePad demonstrates that the real power of the second screen isn’t about augmenting the content that’s happening on the TV, but rather helping the content survive in a crowded battle for time. At a time when more games are asking you to participate in latent multiplayer or buy in to an entire ecosystem, the second screen allows you to do so without even having to change the channel.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

EXP Podcast #260: Brothers Debrief

Out of seemingly nowhere, a little unambitious game was included on both Scott and I's favorite games of 2013. That game was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a simple coming-of-age story that manages to achieve, seemingly with ease, what so many Triple-A games try to accomplish. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I finally give the game the attention it deserves. Join us 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: 38 min 03 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

League of Legends: ARAM and Being Supportive

Scott is on vacation I thought it would be a great opportunity to stream some League of Legends! Watch as I futilely whack against Garen and contemplate the changes Riot has made to the game's support system. Got thoughts of your own? Share them in the comments!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Systems and Activism in Papers, Please

Papers, Please poster via DeviantArt
My latest PopMatters article is now live: Systems and Activism in Papers, Please.

A couple weeks ago I peeked ahead at this article by comparing Papers, Please and Steve McQueen's (now Oscar nominated) 12 Years a Slave. In the game and film alike, I find fascinating looks at survival and complicity and the mixed feelings towards acting out one's agency within a system of oppression. It was my way of giving back some agency to the protagonist of Papers, Please, even as I undermine that same sense of agency in this week's PopMatters piece.

See, Papers, Please isn't just bleak in its theme, the systems it constructs are simply not built for lasting positivity. There is very little hope to be found in Arstotzka. No matter how much mastery over the game you achieve, it still creates a vicious cycle of success at a cost. To focus on the minute, Papers, Please argues, you must necessarily miss the whole. And therein lies its message about activism: enacting dramatic change requires great effort, especially when combating the very systems of oppression that make change so difficult. Political activism is, in some ways, a privilege.

This isn't to say those who find themselves within systems of exploitation or oppression cannot make political change, but that doing so, again, is costly. While not in the game's forefront, you could easily read a strong pro-union message in Papers, Please, as unions have historically offered a collective political voice to those seeking to change the very systems in which they find themselves in, diffusing the burden among the group and pooling knowledge. You could also use the game's systems to make compelling arguments for more civic engagement opportunities to the public at large, particularly in the educational system.

Again, none of this is explicit in Papers, Please. Even so, the game simply and elegantly expresses the extreme vulnerability and powerlessness of an individual alone, uninformed, and constrained.

Further Reading:
- "Experiencing the 'Banality of Evil' in Papers, Please," by Scott Juster via PopMatters
- "Papers, Please: A Game about Border, Stamps, and my Family," by Becky Chambers via The Mary Sue
- "The Art of Papers, Please," by Rob Parker via First Person Scholar 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

EXP Podcast #259: The Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1 Debrief

Much like the eponymous monsters for which it is named, The Walking Dead is back! This week, we have a thorough conversation on episode one of Telltale's second season of the Walking Dead. For those of you who haven't played it, what are you waiting for? But seriously, you can listen to the first half of the show without fear of spoilers, as we use it as an opportunity to talk about adventure games, tweaks to the mechanics, and the state of the series in general. After that we jump right in with story details. We're looking forward to comparing notes with folks that made different decisions, so feel free to 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: 48 min 32 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2014-01-13 Spelunky Daily Challenge: Mining for Mines

Jorge and Scott venture into the depths in search of riches and instead find the most valuable treasure of all: BEES!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

2013 Game of the Year Honorable Mentions

This week at PopMatters, I keep the spirit of the season going with some 2013 GoTY honorable mentions.

Jorge and I have a pretty strict three game policy when it comes to our official top games of the year, so this is a way of highlighting some of those games that didn't make the podcast.  Some, like Super Mario 3D World, I just came to at the very end of the year.  Suprise: I think that game is great.  Actual surprise: it may have even broken through Jorge's icy heart and slightly renewed his faith in multiplayer Mario.  How much better can a game be?

I also included Spelunky on the list.  Technically it's from 2012 and even more technically, the free version is much earlier than that.  But I still played dozens of games and spent hours watching others try their hand at the brilliant daily challenges.

It gets added to the constantly expanding list of games that I consider to be my "favorite."  Now that I think about it, that's a weird concept.  I'll certainly be playing Spelunky much longer than I'll be playing any of the other games on this year's list or any other year's for that matter.  Can a game continue to be a favorite if it's never played again?  For pure lasting power, does the fact that I try to play Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball as often as I can make it due for a spot in some year's list of honorable mentions?

Probably best not to think about it too deeply.  That's brain power I could be using to get better at one of my other picks, Dota 2.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

EXP Podcast #258: The Year Ahead 2014

A poster from one of our most
anticipated games of 2014
The year has barely begun, but already the horizon is chock full of interesting titles, from competitive indie sword fights to face-crunching future-battles. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I delve into our most anticipated games of 2014. There is a lot to be excited for if you are the optimistic type, so jump into the comments below and let us know what releases you eagerly await!

- 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 40 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

FTL: The Raggedy Edge

In the cold dark blackness of space, no one can hear you swear at your crew mates. Join us this week as Scott and I venture into the starry void that is FTL.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Choice and Oppression in Papers, Please

PopMatters is still on vacation this week, so no big article from me quite yet. However, I want to give a little sneak peak of the article today anyway, mostly to cover an important issue I didn't have space for and to spend a little more time talking about film.

My next article is about Papers, Please, the much-adored indie game from Lucas Pope in which players control a border guard in the fictional autocracy of Arstotzka. Scott's already written a great article about The Banality of Evil in the game, I highly suggest you read. It captures expertly how the mundanity of the game reveals the poisonous system as its core. My article on the other hand discusses activism in the game and the terrible options the protagonist has as an individual within a massive and largely invisible system of oppression. The game makes some fascinating, albeit depressing, arguments.

My biggest concern after writing the piece is how we might interpret or judge the player character in Papers, Please. In particular, I wonder if we can judge the person within that position as someone lacking agency or whether instead we see him as someone refusing to throw himself upon the instruments of his own oppression. I know, I know, the border guard is just an excuse to play the game, but while doing so, I had to ask myself, why don't I just refuse? If I know I am complicit in serving this autocratic regime, why don't I just rebel? Indeed, in my future post, I argue Papers, Please makes a compelling argument that structure change demands a huge investment on the part of those rebelling against it.

I think the answer in Papers, Please, as in reality, is a lot more complicated. It sounds strange to say aloud, but there is a complicity in brutal survival, even while survival is itself a form of dissent. The protagonist of the game, for the most part, is barely surviving, and in that act of survival is a strange dichotomous existence.

A good comparison may actually be 12 Years a Slave, the latest and critically-praised film by Steve McQueen. The story follows Solomon Northrup, a free man who is captured and worked as a slave for the titular twelve years. Two scenes stand out as particularly significant. In the first, Solomon shares a sexual encounter with a fellow slave. It is not romantic or sexually charged. On the contrary, it is a short, desperate, and sorrowful embrace of human contact. The second scene is an extended take of Solomon in a group of gospel singers. He stands silently before joining in, lifting his voice to great heights while he wears a multifaceted look of both anger and solace.

Both of these scenes in 12 Years a Slave show Solomon's momentary acceptance of his place within an alien system. In some ways he does not identify as a slave, but in these moments he makes a decision, within a constrained environment, to both embrace and in doing so reject his position within the system of slavery. Survival comes at great cost, and at times can feel like complicity.

I mean no judgement here, good or bad, and I don't mean to equate the horrors of slavery with Cold War politics or the like. Still, the protagonist of the film, and the protagonist of Papers, Please, have meaningful albeit constrained decisions within their system of oppression. It is not impressive, it's incredibly important, that Papers, Please can evoke through the deeply mixed feelings the destitute and exploited feel towards decision making within the system that keeps them oppressed.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

EXP Podcast #257: WiiU Wanderings

Authentic Hyrulean Inscriptions
Scott made Santa's shortlist this year and the jolly old man dropped off a beautiful Zelda-inspire WiiU on his doorstep. This week on the podcast, Scott and I explore some of the subtle and not-so-subtle elements of the WiiU interface. We also take our podcast ship on a tour through the "Miiverse" and try to understand the future of social platforms. Oh, and of course Mario makes an appearance.

Have a comment to share on your WiiU experience? Leave us a note in the comments below or shoot us an email! We love hearing from all of you, so make a New Year's resolution to get in touch!

- 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 min 59 sec
- "A breakdown of 2013's most fascinating video game moment" by Douglas Wilson via Polygon
- Music by: Brad Sucks