Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Horror of The Wolf Among Us: Smoke & Mirrors

At the Pudding and Pie
The Wolf Among Us: Smoke & Mirrors, the second episode of Tell Tale's Fables retelling, is absolutely horrifying.

Not in the terror sense per se, but in its painting of a grotesque world. To be honest, I am still not sure it is a good thing for the series. Sure, noir fiction has roots in pulpy gothic horror fiction. Bigby works as a hardboiled detective out to shine some light on the seedy underbelly of Fabletown. Still, having made such a significant thematic shift in Smoke & Mirrors, it will be hard to return to perhaps a more mechanically resonant experience.

In the first episode, the did-I-make-the-right-decision paranoia that comes so naturally to Tell Tale's narrative system works wonderfully with the detective setting. NPCs constantly ask Bigby what he things about one thing or another, and as a player full of self-doubt over their own decisions, players can give no easy answers. Trying to read other characters and making measured decisions with unknown impacts is par for the course for this style of interactive fiction.

However, with Bigby inhabiting an even darker portion of Fabletown, his decisions mean far less, and intentionally so. People ask him, and by extension the player, fewer questions. Other characters command more attention, they talk to Bigby reluctantly, or at him and not with him, or sometimes not at all. The repeated theme is one of exploitation, over and over again, and in the middle of the five-part series, Bigby is stuck in the mire.

 The Wolf Among Us still works, maybe even more so than the first episode, but it is not a fun place to be. Can we really look forward to what comes next?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

EXP Podcast #265: Watching Games Play Themselves

Gabe Newell, VGCW Champion
There are some weeks when I swear I spend as much time watching games as I do playing them. Let’s Plays, Twitch streams, and tournament broadcasts are thriving. The usual assumption behind all these types of broadcasts is that there are people on the other end controlling them. What happens when there isn’t? Strangely enough, it’s easy to find game broadcasts in which humans are relegated to the sidelines. This week we talk about the allure of AI vs. AI violence, the allure of gambling, and what happens when thousands of people try to plan a Rube Goldberg machine.

- 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 17 sec
- Video Game Championship Wrestling
- Salty Bet
- Twitch Plays Pokemon
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Spelunky: Treacherous Twerking

It's our mine shaft we can do what we want. It's our mine shaft we can say what we want. It's our mine shaft we can bomb who we want, we can stab who we want, we can rob who we want.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

From Sochi to 'Spelunky'

Image from PopMatters
This week on PopMatters, I write about the Olympics. Of course, I spend most of the time comparing it to Spelunky, as my obsession with that game is still going strong.

I like watching all kinds of sports, but the Olympics are particularly fascinatiig. The pressure to execute is huge: they only happen once every four years, so even the most talented athletes age only get a handful of tries (if they are lucky). On top of that, many of the events are structured such that even the best players can be knocked out of competition by a single mistake. Clip the side of a wall in the luge or make a bad jump on the ice and your potential to win plummets.

It's also mentally taxing. Many of the sports are solo, which means the audience is doing nothing but watching you. The only variables are your ability to execute on your technique and capacity to remain calm under pressure. So often winning is a function of not inadvertently beating yourself.

These dynamics make for extremely exciting games and are a huge reason I love consequence-heavy games like Spelunky. The rules are easy to grasp and internalize, but the pressure to execute within them is massive. Even the most experienced players fall victim to carelessness or flat out mistakes.

It's easy to get invested in games like these because the choices carry weight. Whether you're playing or watching, you know that any moment can be the key to an amazing victory or a tragic loss.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

EXP Podcast #264: Discovering Games

Steam tags for what game exactly?
How do you find games? Or do they find you? Who are your trusted sources for video game news and what sort of effort do you put into finding strange or weird games? This week on the podcast, Scott and I wonder how we heard about The Walking Dead and whether or not Steam tags are absolutely useless. As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below and hey, maybe even give us a game recommendation or two!

- 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: 29min 37 sec
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Octodad: Fumblecore Families

Being an dad is a lot like being an octopus. Well, at least that's the point of this remarkably fun and surprisingly touching game. Check it out in our longest EXP video ever!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Politics of Netrunner

This week in my latest PopMatters article, I equate the wonderful game of Android: Netrunner with political cartoons.

I know, it sounds strange, but hear me out. This game is steeped in political themes about corporations locking down their nefarious agendas from rebellious hackers. It's the stuff of science fiction, but it's also oh so real. As such, the CCG (or LCG) model provides numerous opportunities for timely little critiques and commentary on the political landscape of our time.

This was a hard piece to write, because I did not want to come off as overly gratifying of the political thought put into Netrunner. It is, first and foremost, a somewhat jovial experience. This is not Papers, Please by any means. Fantasy Flight wants to support a game with a strong theme, not alienate its own users.

Still, I also didn't want to underplay the importance of small opportunities for political commentary. Few games try to incorporate topical subjects at all, and few bother to do so with any tact or bravery. Every data pack released by Fantasy Flight has one tongue-in-cheek derision of the modern techno-political landscape in one way or another. These little manifestations of political commentary add up. Through play, we carry our an exercise in roleplaying and engage with an ongoing political discussion, even unawares. I would love to see more of this small-scale commentary included in more games, particularly those with regular updates and releases.

All that aside for a moment, I am still madly in love with the game of Netrunner itself. If you have know nothing about Netrunner at this point, feel free to move on:

Most recently, I have moved past my hatred of so-called "Fast Advance" decks in general and embraced an attempt at making the strategy work for Weyland. It's clearly not as successful as an NBN attempt, but the nigh-endless source of money Weyland can accrue, coupled with the constant threat of Scorched Earth, makes it far more thrilling than the current meta trends. I can't get enough of it.

Also, embracing Weyland's tendency towards bad publicity does so tickle my affection for political gaming experiences.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

EXP Podcast #263: Figuring out Flappy Bird

The site of Scott's defeat
Last week, an unassuming little game called Flappy Bird managed to ruffle some feathers. Sorry, I just had to do that. The entire saga is actually a fairly sad tale about the video games press, attitudes towards intellectual property, and the state of mobile gaming in general. Flappy Bird may be gone from the app store, but legal, financial, and ethical questions it embodied remain. 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:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Samurai Gunn: Swords and Shenanigans

Jorge and Scott count pixels, run on walls, and ultimately fall on their own swords. Actually, they fall on the many swords of a massive ninja horde. Also: Who knew that wolf-men were so handy with swords? Or guns, for that matter.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Nintendo and the Wario Approach

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters I join the burgeoning field of people who, despite being completely unqualified to do so, feel the need offer design and business consulting services to Nintendo.

As is usually the case, Gus Mastrapa beats me to the punch with an excellent article parodying exactly the kind of column I wrote.  However, there’s a seed of truth in every joke. Gus’ overall theme that people want Nintendo to make fun games, make more of them, and make them more widely accessible is what got me thinking about the topic in the first place.

My thoughts came together as I played Game & Wario for the Wii U. Its full of weird experiments and short mini games that reminded me that Nintendo still knows how to make (or hire people who know how to make) arcade style games that would fit right in with the ongoing neo-arcade revival on mobile devices. In fact, they’ve been using the Wario brand as a way to do this for years, but all the quirky, bizarre, and compulsively repayable games have been locked away on cartridges, disks, and single platforms.

I feel like Nintendo could use Wario as means to establish itself in the changing game landscape. Mario and Zelda would continue on as major tentpoles and prestige titles, but Wario would embody the company’s experimental efforts. And not, the “let’s make Link flat” type experiments; I’m talking about “Let’s bring Cactus in to make some Wario Ware” type of experiments. Take a page from Steam and set up flash sales or social hooks that entitle players to new games if they score certain achievements in the current ones. Take chances in such a way that plays into the character that’s most aligned with grunginess, throw out some weird ideas, and see what happens.

Wario has always been a strange black sheep in the Nintendo pantheon, so why not take advantage of the history of thematic and mechanical weirdness and use him as the face of a new era for Nintendo?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

EXP Podcast #262: Dark Souls and Status Symbol Games

Dark Souls in a nutshell.
I have not finished Dark Souls. Can I still sit at the big kids table? This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I join in on the AV Club's discussion about Dark Souls and status symbol games. How did this brutally difficult game become not only popular, but a video game rite of passage? And how will it be remembered in ten years? Let us know 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: 33 min 04 sec
- "Why do games like Dark Souls become geek status symbols?," by Matt Gerardi & Drew Toal via AV Club
- "Android Netrunner - The Game Designer's Game," by Krystian Majewski via Game Design Scrapbook
- "Playing Dark Souls: Desperate Acts and Our Shared Humanity," by Jorge Albor via PopMatters
- Music by: Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Spelunky Daily Challenge - 2014-02-03: International Relations

Sign up for a spelunking adventure and we'll throw in a tutorial on international relations, California water politics, and lizard men.