Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Is It So Difficult to Find Fear in Video Games?

That better be a shadow puppet...
This week’s PopMatters column is about scary games.  Tis the season, after all.  More accurately, it’s about why scary games are hard to pull off.

I think most of it comes down to familiarity.  A huge part of fear is not knowing how things work or what is going to happen in a given situation.  Games purposely acquaint you with systems and teach you the rules that govern a world.  It’s also much easier to take it upon yourself to peek behind the curtain in a video game.  Whereas a novelist or film director can forcibly obscure or highlight details, it’s very hard for a designer to prevent a player from poking around the inner workings of things.  Taking note of spawn points, observing scripted enemy behavior, and seeing the seams that hold the game together.

I find this familiarity is mostly thanks to the length and repetition most games exhibit.  A little unscientific searching reveals that The Shining was 146 minutes long.  Silence of the Lambs was 118 minutes.  Alien was 117.  The movie-to-video game comparison is perilous, but I think its telling that the time it takes to get to a movie’s credits is roughly the same time it takes get out of the tutorial and get access to all the mechanics of many mainstream games.

I’m sure part of this is my growing predilection for games that get to the point.  Maybe its just a function of not having much free time or perhaps its because I’ve grown used to genre conventions, but one of the best things a game can do is know when to quit.  I see this in The Walking Dead, in P.T. and in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, all games that maintain tension, inspire fear, and build a cohesive world in the span of a few hours.

Of course this leaves developers open to the perennial time/content/replay vs. money criticisms that come from both players and investors.  Honestly it surprises me that we get the number of horror games we do.  Trying to make things scary contradicts some of the medium’s most entrenched tropes and expectations.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

EXP Podcast #300: Jumping Around

Jumping Destiny's Hellmouth via VG24/7
This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I get up out of our seats and jump around! It's time to dissect the art and design of the perfect jump.

Oh! One other thing we forgot. The EXP Podcast has reached 300 episodes! Thanks to each and every one of you that have listened to the show over the years and jumped into this crazy experiment with us. We appreciate each and every one of you and look forward to filling your ear holes with more of "serious but not humorless" chatter.

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 40 mins 43 secs
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lone Survivor: Apartment Hunting

Spooktober continues with another horror-game play session! Check it out below and tell us what scares you in the comments below.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Labyrinths of P.T. and The Shining

Jack also encourages you to play.
In my latest PopMatters piece I revisit the twisting halls of The Shining and P.T..

By sheer coincidence (or via the machinations of an unearthly hand), I recently rewatched Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and immediately followed it with the excellent documentary Room 237. After PlayStar here on Experience Points mentioned it in relation to P.T., I couldn't help but spiral into theorycrafting around the game and its relationship with the film.

Now I want to take a moment to dispel some of the criticism unfairly targeting Room 237, and this is important in regards to P.T. as well. Room 237 is not entirely a film about The Shining. Yes it exclusively includes theories about the film, but it's far more about the act of searching for meaning in film period. Importantly, all of the theories, from the hoaxed moon landing to the psychosexual themes in the move, are given equal weight in the film. It's not a documentary judging these individuals and their expression of obsession over the movie. Indeed, they don't even appear physically in the film! Instead, their ideas are shown expressed across the provocative visuals of The Shining, many of which are repeated again and again.

Somewhere in Room 237 it becomes easy to accept some of the weird ideas about The Shining. Sure, maybe Kubrick didn't make it about Indian genocide, but there sure is a lot of symbolism around the subject. Maybe there is some subtext there. Or maybe you catch a theme the others haven't and you start coming up with your own ideas about what being locked in a food cabinet could mean. Room 237 opens the door for spinning your mind in the search for meaning, something we humans so love to do, and it makes the space safe for you to really reach and strive for that.

In its complexity and demand for crowdsourced solutions to its puzzles, P.T. does the same thing, and it's brilliant.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

EXP Podcast #299: Hidden Last-gen Gems

Nothing can stop Boy.  Image from Giant Bomb.
Your digital library might be limitless, but your entertainment center only has so much space on it.  At a certain point it’s time to box up your old consoles and join the next generation.  Before that happens, it’s worth taking a time to look back on some of the games that probably won’t make the generational leap.  Even in today’s environment of cross-platform releases and remastered releases, there inevitably be experiences that will soon be lost to the sands of time.  This week we talk about a few of these games and make some predictions about what will fade away as the sun sets on the PS3, the Xbox 360, and the Wii.

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 35 mins 05 secs

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mundane and the Magical in 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter'

Noting more peaceful than the great outdoors...
This week, my PopMatters column is about one of the most pleasant surprises of the year full of pleasant surprises: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Every once in a while a game comes along that I just want to root for.  Ethan Carter tackles fairly non-traditional subject matter, making it more akin to Gone Home rather than BioShock in the world of first-person immersive sims.  The developer, a group of folks called The Astronauts, previously worked on games like Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement, so it's nice to see them branching out.  They also have a great website where they post about everything from their technical approach to the YouTube influence on game sales.

What I like most though is Ethan Carter's juxtaposition of the natural and supernatural.  The world feels quite normal until a portal to another dimension opens up.  This portal is rendered with just as much care as any of the game's trees, giving it a sense of magical realism that few games have.  Odd as it sounds, I don't think many games take advantage of their innate ability to insert unexpected events into simulations of the real world.  It's either full on fantasy or a slavish devotion to verisimilitude.  Ethan Carter does a good job of mixing the mundane and the magical in a way that reminds me of Papo & Yo, one of my favorite game's of 2013.

I don't want to say too much more because experiencing it is very well worth experiencing the game without a lot of foreknowledge.  The game boldly declares that it won't hold your hand within the first few seconds and this ends up being a great thing.  It forces you to pay close attention to the world, which makes its magical elements all the more impressive.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

EXP Podcast #298: Eating Through Games

Kirby: The best chef in video games.
On your lunch break? Starving for a mouth-watering podcast to sink your teeth into? Look no further! This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I head to the kitchen to discuss food in games. We round out the podcast at our usual thirty-minute mark, but there is a bounty of food topics to discuss in games. What are your favorite hunger mechanics? What are the most effective examples of eating in games? What is your favorite game that features food and why is it Chronotrigger? Let us know in the comments below!

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 30 mins 23 secs

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Long Dark: Survival Challenge

The Long Dark Alpha is out, so the relatively spooky month of October continues with a journey into the frigid north. How long will it take before Scott and I try to eat each other? Find out below!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting Physical with Board Games

Transparent cards in Gloom. Steal that idea!
And now an ode to cardboard in this week's PopMatters piece on the physicality of board games.

This past weekend, I went to the first ever Tableflip Conference, a tiny little mini-con dedicated to board game design chats and play sessions. This is where I first played Forbidden Desert, Matt Leacock's  successor to Forbidden Island, which I discuss in the article above. I am a huge fan of Matt's work, so it was a pleasure to hear him talk about his games and his approach to autonomy among players. The "alpha gamer" problem is always a risk in the design of cooperative board games, I genre I adore, and you can see a clear improvement through his work into Forbidden Desert in particular. The physicality of the game plays a significant part in mitigating the problem, largely thanks to a shifting board state that makes optimal decision making difficult for one player.

I want to emphasize how unique a shifting board state is among board games. Yes, the play space change in importance as little pieces move around a table or cards are played, but few games ever consider having entire pieces of the environment fall off or rotate out from under you. These are games that aim to reach the interest of a younger audience, which is why I think Leacock gets away with some of this clever physicality.

In fact, there are plenty of games that use physicality and art to interesting effect. Dixit's art-interpretation puts interesting emphasis on creative storytelling that could easily be wrapped up into games of that ilk. Gloom uses transparent cards to stack visual components to both mechanical and comedic effects. Why don't people make more games with transparent cards? It's so cool. Fantasy Flight's X-Wing miniatures game includes asteroid fields players set before each match, letting players take turn creating the board state before every game. How neat is that?

Next time you play a board game and take all the pieces out of the box, ask yourself if the designers really used the physicality of the medium as thoroughly as they could have.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

EXP Podcast #297: Back to the Grind

The now-legendary loot cave in Destiny
You wake up and roll out of bed.  You strap on the rare gauntlets you found yesterday, you realize you don't have time for breakfast.  When you reach the mouth of the cave, you load your rifle and pull the trigger.  The thrall's head snaps back, it's body crumples to the ground, and you try to decide whether you hate this daily grind or whether it's the best thing in the world.  This week, we revisit the concept of "grinding" in games.  Whether it's farming rare items or trying to trying to level up, what lessons can we learn from devoting time to repetitive action?  As always, jump into the comments and share stories from your time in the mines.

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 35 mins 46 secs
- "The Serotonin Machine: On Grinding," by Mark Filipowich, via The Ontological Geek
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Weird, Weird Woods

It's fall: the air is brisk, the leaves are turning colors, and the restless spirits are haunting abandoned towns. Join us for a stroll through the forest, but look out for the bear traps.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Limits, Secrets, and Community of 'P.T.'

"On second thought, let's go out for lunch."
Welcome to October, everyone. Let’s get spooky and let’s start with P.T..

I had been meaning to play P.T. for some time now and was afraid that I had missed the opportunity to play it before the collective Internet hive mind had cracked open all its secrets. It’s rare that any sort of video game mystery can remain unsolved for a week, let alone a month. Fortunately for me, enough is known that I could see the entire story but there are still plenty of obscured details.

Obscurity is simultaneously the best and most frustrating thing about P.T.. An experience that doesn’t overload you with tutorialization or shove an obvious plot at your face is a rare treat. I defy Kojima to stick with this minimalism with Silent Hills, but I suppose weirder things can happen. In any case, the game’s opacity means you have to be especially attuned to everything that is going on: What exactly are these buttons doing? Do these sound effects have mechanical significance? Is that garbage in the corner set dressing or a crucial clue? The game’s mechanics aren’t all that complex, but the subtlety of the feedback demands your attention.

At the same time, this obscurity can be extremely annoying to the point of feeling unfair. I doubt that any one person can finish the game without either consulting a guide or simply lucking into it. You could argue that this is purposeful, that in this age of the streaming and hyper-dedicated fan bases the single player game is actually a meta-multiplayer it is completely legitimate to require players collectively work on a single player experience. I’m willing to indulge P.T. on this, thanks in no small part to the sheer audacity of attempting such a trick. It’s a gutsy line to walk and I admire that.

All this makes it easy to forget that P.T is also “playable teaser” for another game. The developer freely admins that Silent Hills may bear little resemblance to P.T., but the fact that they were willing to put out something so experimental gives me great hope for whatever they’re working on next. Seeing Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to anything is exciting, but seeing that they’re apparently willing to take risks. Silent Hills has quickly become one of the primary considerations of when to upgrade to the current generation of consoles.

I’ve gotten this far without talking about how P.T. succeeds as a horror game, but that’s what the column on PopMatters is about. P.T.’s creative choices, especially the way it embraces the tactic of limiting the player, make for an exciting experience that both isolate players in the moment while inspiring them to connect in hopes of unraveling the complete mystery. How long this will take (or if it will ever happen) might be the game’s greatest and creepiest trick.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

EXP Podcast #296: P.T. Debrief

The queen of nope.
What does P.T. stand for? Podcast time! This week on the show, Scott and I explore the endless hallways of P.T. and come back with our thoughts on the Silent Hills playable teaser, the creative mind of Hideo Kojima, and what the final product might look like in its most fearsome iteration. Also, after to listen to the podcast, come back and watch the YouTube analysis of the game by Marszie below in the show notes. It's truly amazing.

- Here's the show's stand-alone feed
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format, or click play below.

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 38 mins 37 secs
- P.T. Playthrough and Analysis: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
- Music by Brad Sucks