Thursday, March 31, 2011

Overcoming the Fate of the World

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Overcoming the Fate of the World.

I originally purchased Fate of the World because I thought it might prove an interesting case study for a potential paper. Not only is the game perfect for that reason, but I was genuinely surprised to find the game incredibly compelling. Time and again I have tried to defeat the second 'Oil Crisis' scenario without success. Bur rather than deter me, I have only become more committed to handling the world's problems. Can you really just walk away from the endangered pandas?

Believe me when I say Fate of the World is rich and complex. I have not nearly explored all the game has to offer, and somewhat intentionally. It is interesting to examine the sorts of decisions players choose not to make because of their own beliefs and valuables. For example, Fate of the World allows you to deploy a set of political policies to influence regions. At first I was very resistant to the idea of meddling in the affairs of other nations. Instability eventually ran rampant and led to a series of famines. Eventually, I began providing increased security to stabilize vulnerable regions. To some extent, the game forced me down an undesired path of political and military involvement internationally.

Of course the game is peddling its particular procedural rhetoric. In this case, seriously addressing development and climate change demands the capacity and willingness to make difficult political decisions. However, there are far more drastic measures you can take, including funding black ops or instituting regime change. Choosing to ignore those options without even knowing the effect the might have on the world is a personally meaningful ethical decision. The same goes for many of the policies and strategies you might use to employ or ignore. Some educational games exist solely to encourage personal exploration of the game's subject matter. Fate of the World manages to evoke the same introspection about a variety of issues while also fostering complex systems literacy. This dual achievement alone makes the game well worth out attention.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

EXP Podcast #123: First in Line

When everyone else is nestled snugly in bed, the most die-hard fans are battling the elements, sleep deprivation, and mall security in hopes of being the first to procure a new console or game. This week, the tale of a man named Isaiah-Triforce Johnson came to our attention. After waiting in line for a week, he was one of the first Americans to buy a Nintendo 3DS. His quest got us thinking about the strange rituals surrounding console launches and game releases. It's a surprisingly broad topic, and we cover everything from the "first!" impulse to frostbite. As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts, as well as any of your release night stories in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever stood in line for the release of a console or game? What was your motivation?
- Why is it important to play something immediately upon release? Is it even important?
- Should developers incorporate release day bonuses into games?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the 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, March 29, 2011

Watching Dragon Age

With so many games and so few hours in the day, I often have to make tactical choices as to what to play and analyze. While I would like to wade into a sprawling RPG like Dragon Age II, I know I wouldn't be able to put the time or effort in to do it justice. Like its predecessor, I'm content to sit on the sidelines and watch both the game and the discussion surrounding it. With Dragon Age II, said discussion has been just as interesting than the game itself.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Grasping Inside a Star-filled Sky

In my latest post over at PopMatters, I delve into the depths of Inside a Star-filled Sky.

The more time I spend with it, the more I admire it. The game draws inspiration from traditional twin-stick shooters and marries it with procedural generated, recursive levels and an open-ended progression structure; elements that seem to be all the rage these days.

I find myself fighting with the controls from time to time and the game has made me appreciate the elegant simplicity and transparent rules of classic shooters like Robotron. Despite these issues, I appreciate the game's tactical feel. In addition to elements of bullet hell and pattern memorization, being able to reconfigure power-ups and enemy abilities ads a lot of strategy to a genre that is usually based on twitch-based skills.

As luck would have it, Jason Rohrer, Inside a Star-filled Sky's creator, released a major update just as this post was set to publish. The update has made the game much more social, which detracts from the sense of individuality and isolation I felt while playing it. Although my essay is now a bit outdated, I still think it's an interesting testament to the difficulty of writing about games. A simple update can drastically alter a game's message, which makes it even more important to document changes before they become lost in the ether.

In a way, it's poetic that Inside a Star-filled Sky has already grown beyond the game I wrote about. It's a game whose dynamics center around endless expansion, growth, and variation; it makes sense that the game itself would continue to change.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

EXP Podcast #122: The Selfish Podcast

Are gamers selfish? That is the question Michelle Baldwin from Pioneer Project asks herself when confronted with "the look." When some unfamiliar with games hears about your small obsession or hobby, a curious glare not uncommon. Where does this look come from? How might social games address the divide between gamers and non-gamers? And how might we contemplate selfishness that makes us better thinkers, designers and players? Join us this week as Scott and I discuss all of these questions and more in the most selfish EXP Podcast to date. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section and check out Michelle's original article in the show notes below.

Some discussion starters:

-What sort of reactions do you receive when you share your gaming interests with strangers?
- Can social/casual games bridge the gap between self-identified gamers and non-gamers?
- How do we handle concerns about the ethic of the hobby and the gaming industry?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the 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, March 22, 2011

Poké Huddle

I last put my Poké balls on the line with Pokémon Diamond, a game I simultaneously criticized for its unethical game design while cuddling it affectionately in the corner. Almost two years have passed since I made my attempt at catching them all, or at least a sizable chunk. I told myself I was clean, that I would not subject any more pokémon the horrors of confinement and myself to the horrors of slow and tedious gameplay - no matter how much I enjoyed it. Alas, my defenses have weakened. I am increasingly gravitating towards Pokémon Black and White. To be clear, the game is less to blame than its army of players.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Fate of Documentary Games

My latest PopMatters article is now up: The Fate of Documentary Games.

I want to be clear that I believe there is a space for documentary games in the style of The Cat and the Coup and others, they can be valuable contributions to the medium while also addressing important historical events. The problem is the burden of documentary storytelling. As I see it, documentary games cannot satisfy player agency and present factual information about historical events without confining the game aspects from the documentary in critical ways. At which point, the entire experience becomes supplementary. Again, this is fine, but it relegates the genre to the outskirts of what games and documentaries can do alone.

As in the post, I differentiate between games about issues and games about actual events. Some experimental games might actually get us to a happy medium between the two perhaps. Simulations, if they can put enough pressure onto players to corral them through a documentary experience, can provide some interesting insight into the processes by which events actually occurred. Opera Omnia, a game Scott and I discussed during our 2011 GDC roundup, might offer a glimpse at some weird experimental design elements that can play with history in unique ways. Omnia is essentially a game about historical revisionism, in which players change the logic of the past to change the justification for why the present exists. If we were to plug real historical information into that process, it might commit the greatest historical sin and allow players to rewrite history as they wish. However, if we were to set the puzzle perimeters such that they demand a complex understanding of a historical process, if players had to correct history and therefore understand, then maybe a game like Omnia could overcome some of the burdens on documentary games.

All that aside, I am actually looking forward to playing The Cat and the Coup. Frankly, I am less interested in the gameplay than I am the very idea of the game. I may have put a glass ceiling on documentary games, but I still think there are not enough of them. I actually think a murder mystery style game could be really interesting enriched with documentary information. David Fincher's Zodiac, for example, is a dramatic retelling of historical events that takes a great deal of historical liberties while also drawing tons of information from actual case documents. With some factual fluidity, games can do amazing things with real world contexts. Zodiac is one of my favorite mystery films, and if games aimed as high as Fincher, I'm certain I would add documentary-game-ish experiences into my favorites list.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

EXP Podcast #121: Bits and Board Games

When Jorge and I found out that someone is making a Gears of War board game, we were a bit puzzled. We're both fans of the series, but Marcus and company never really seemed like the tabletop types. This week, we use this odd development as a chance to discuss the relationship between video games and board games. Topics include the cultural overlap between the board game and video game communities, the strengths of tabletop gaming, and whether the forthcoming Gears of War board game will be "SWEET!" We look forward to hearing about some of your favorite cardboard campaigns in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- A Gears of War board game: terrible idea, or terribly-awesome idea?

- For primarily video game folks: what keeps you away from board games and what could draw you in?

- For board gaming folks: what sorts of lessons can video games learn from board games?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the 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, March 15, 2011

Playful Packing

Over the past few days, I've been doing some serious inventory management. I've got some long bus and plane rides ahead of me and I need to make sure I take everything I need without getting bogged down. It's times like these, when I find myself begging the zippers on my backpack to close, that my mind drifts to the concept of "inventory Tetris."

While I haven't done any scientific studies, I get the impression that limited inventory systems and item management aren't very popular game systems. This is understandable, as arranging and storing virtual items usually isn't as exhilarating as exploring fantastic landscapes or battling mythical beasts. As one poster on RPGnet Forums put it: "There is nothing epic about packing your goddamn bags."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nested Design in Stacking

My latest post at PopMatters is about the many delightful layers of Double Fine's new game, Stacking.

It's a celebratory piece, and I hope it convinces at least a few people to give the game a try. To be fair, Stacking isn't perfect; it starts a bit slowly and the controls can be finicky, but those niggling problems shouldn't deter anyone. It's a very approachable game that takes elements of various genres (e.g., adventure, third-person action, and open world) and makes them accessible for a wide variety of players. Rather than cater to a certain type of player, Stacking accommodates a variety of interests and skill levels. Novices, veterans, tourists and completionists are all invited to shape the game to suit their tastes.

In terms of its artistic design, Stacking seems right at home next to Pixar movies. Like Toy Story or Cars, Stacking's anthropomorphic objects are imbued with a quirky spark of life. Additionally, Stacking's characters and story strike that delicate balance of appealing to folks of all ages. The slapstick humor appeals to kids (as well as the kid inside all of us) and the various puns and bits of satire ensure the story also operates at a higher level.

Stacking represents some of the trends that make me optimistic about the medium. It's great to see a developer like Double Fine find a niche that allows them to make such creative games despite not having a huge budget. On a broader scale, games like Stacking represent a compromise between the "hardcore" and "casual" approaches to game design. There are plenty of challenges to be had in Stacking, but they don't come at the expense of a relaxing experience. One can play Stacking like a traditional adventure game or as a sandbox experience and still be exposed to the concepts that make the game so unique.

Said concepts range from industry in-jokes to fart mechanics. What more could one want?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

EXP Podcast #120: GDC 2011 Roundup

The 25th annual Game Developer's Conference has come and gone. In its wake, besides a pile of business cards, beer bottle caps, and shattered dreams, is a burning desire to make the games industry a better place. A cornucopia of panels and sessions were devoted to this very task, the vast majority of which Scott and I completely ignore in this podcast. However, we do manage to pluck out a few gems. Join us this week while we discuss the state of social and mobile gaming, Iwata's defensive positioning, Notch's funny hat, and inception-style worlds within worlds. You can find referenced material in the show notes below. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section for all to admire.

Discussion Starters:

- What are your thoughts on the Social Gaming debate? Should we be as nervous as we are?
- Are the effects of the iPhone on mobile gaming permanent? Detrimental?
- What are some amazing experimental game concepts you find intriguing?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. 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, March 8, 2011

A Class Act

When wandering the sci-fi corridors of Dead Space, its grey monotonous piping filling my field of vision, I often grow bored - at least until a necromorph with a bad case of eczema pops out of a ventilation shaft somewhere. “What am I doing here? These people keep telling me to do things for them. Am I even getting paid?” While I let my mind wander through empty corridors of both the Ishumura and Isaac’s vapid character, it dawned on me Dead Space might actually have a thing or two to say about class.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Allure of ARAM: Custom Games in League of Legends

The latest PopMatters article is now up - The Allure of ARAM: Custom Games in League of Legends.

They did it again. Riot Games brought me back to LoL from a break I thought permanent. In some ways, Riot had less to do with my return than the players of ARAM, or All Random All Middle - a user-created game mode. On the other hand, the very existence of ARAM is a testament to the depth and nuance within their game system.

I think it is interesting to approach user-generated content as crowd-sourced criticisms of game systems. ARAM is like a ludic meta-critic by LoL fans. Just like meta-critic, users still disagree about what features they do and do not appreciate. Similarly, player-made rules and maps in others games may function as user-curated museums, constently contested spaces in which players feature the art-work (design) of the game's they like to play. In this way, a LittleBigPlanet rendition of Ikaruga is more a stylized examination of LBP's mechanics than a homage to the shmups. In fact, I would love to see some cultural analysis and research on how player-developer relationships change as a result of playing user-generated content.

I sing a lot of praise for Riot. I think they maintain some of the best community relations in the industry. That being said, their custom game matches have a slew of problems. To run with the museum analogy again, developers need to provide better tools and space in which players can hang their works of reverential art. A terrible search engine, player doldrums of abandoned matches, and a lack of moderators brings the entire enterprise down ("ARAM NO JEWS ALLOWED" should not remain on the match list so long). Attentiveness to player-generated content may require an ethos that sees player-created space not as not as a zone of unburdened chaos but an extension of user interaction with the game itself, where players praise and condemn games in their own way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

EXP Podcast #119: Dead Space Debrief

With the release of Dead Space 2, Jorge was finally enticed into playing the first Dead Space. I had played the game some time ago and had quite a positive experience (check out the show notes for some of my writing on the game), so I was excited to get a chance to discuss it on the podcast. As with all of our in-depth discussions on particular games, we cover everything from the rule systems to the story themes, giving folks ample warning before revealing any crucial plot points. We discuss everything from the aesthetics of hydroponics, the nature of the sci-fi genre, to signs of an extra-terrestrial Professor Layton. While no one can hear you scream in space, feel free to sound off with your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Is there a way to balance the impulse to create a unified world that avoids becoming repetitive? Are Dead Space's sterile hallways a liability or a strength?

- How does Dead Space relate to other survival horror games?

- What are the benefits and drawbacks of revisiting or playing an original game before its sequel? For those of you who have already played Dead Space 2, how did your knowledge (or lack thereof) with the original affect your experience?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. 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, March 1, 2011

Tricks of the Trade

Video games demand an unusual amount of skill in comparison to other media. If one wants to get the most out of a game, factors like manual dexterity, the ability to distinguish between colors, and spacial reasoning all come into play. There's also an additional layer of skill set one builds up as the years pass: simply getting games to work properly can be its own kind of challenge. The amount of complex software and hardware involved in running a game is staggering when one stops to think about it, and it's inevitable that the ride can get bumpy at times. Recently, Hanah and I encountered one such bump during our joint re-playing of 2008's Prince of Persia.