Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Other Guy With a Red Hat

Image from Flickr user MatthewJJ
The holiday afterglow is still in full effect in my household, so I thought I'd stick with the spirit by mentioning two games that always remind me of Christmas. I was a pretty lucky kid in the 1990s. In 1991, Santa gave my brother and me a Super NES. While I can't remember how early we woke our parents up in anticipation of what was under the tree (I'm sure it was still dark outside), I do remember what that morning sounded like.

Super Mario World Overworld

Five years later, my parents took over Mr. Kringle's tradition and gave us a Nintendo 64. Just as the image of my dad crawling through the growing tangle of wires behind the entertainment center to hook up the system(remember RF switches?), this song has stuck with me:

Dire, Dire Docks (as first heard on Jolly Roger Bay)

For me, this is more than the sound of the holidays; it is the sound of amazement. Super Mario 64 looks pretty crude by today's standards, but exploring such a massive 3D world was revelation back in 1996. Even today, the size and intricacy of the game's worlds is impressive.

On a less nostalgic note, I think these examples demonstrate the importance of launch dates.  By positioning their big, important games during the time of year people receive gifts, Nintendo ensured Mario would show up in a lot of stockings. As an added bonus, they made sure that people like me would be experiencing their games during a holiday focused around creating warm family memories. Hearing these songs not only reminds me of great games, but of fond times that are now inextricably linked to those games.

 But enough of my rambling; anyone else have any inadvertent holiday games?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

EXP Podcast #204: 2012 Games of the Year

Alas, the year has come to an end! With 2013 around the corner, what better time to look back on some of our favorite games from the past year. In Experience Points tradition, Scott and I discuss each of our three favorite games of 2012. What makes our lists? Will we continue the trend of sharing the same Game of the Year? Listen and find out!

Also, what are your favorite games of 2012? Or even your favorite "things", period? We would love to feature it on the podcast. Find out more here!

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:

SPOILER WARNING: Our picks are listed below!

1. Journey
2. The Walking Dead
3. Borderlands 2

1. Journey
2. The Walking Dead
3. Papo & Yo

- Runtime: 39 min 09 secs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays

I've got my presents, some hot chocolate, and a house full of family, so I'll be taking the holiday off today. Happy non-denominational festivities readers and podcast listeners. I hope you are taking some good time off and playing some games today!

We will be back tomorrow with an End of the Year Experience Points Podcast. Until then, happy holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Reign of Missiles and Conflict Narratives

My latest PopMatters article is now live: A Reign of Missiles and Conflict Narratives.

I should really talk about the intersection of game design and international politics more often, this stuff is fascinating. I was lucky enough to get my MA at a University that embraced such unique combination of concepts and ideas and, frankly, I miss jumping wholeheartedly into the two fields simultaneously. The Reign of Missiles board game is hilariously perfect to pique my interest. A game about Israel and Palestine conflict? What's not to love?

The board game, designed by Paul Rohrbaugh, holds far more depth than my article could thoroughly explore, at least within any reasonable length. There are loads of various interesting systems that reflect particularly perceptions and narratives related to the ongoing conflict. Israel, for example, potentially has access to airborne Commandos that can attack up to two targets in the Gaza area.  These special units still have the same chance of inflicting civilian casualties when attacking. The chances of administering civilian casualties, 60% for both sides, is relatively high, particularly for a small band of ground troops. The frequency of such casualties depict a consistency in fatalities in both sides, regardless of motivation and engagement. Depending on your political perspective, this could be interpreted as a harsh reality or a gross over exaggeration.

A Reign of Missiles joins of many games about real-world conflict and a wider genre of war simulators. As such, there seems to be a clear pursuit of objectivity in the rules here. Of course such goals are impossible to achieve. That being said, A Reign of Missiles is complex enough to offer multiple perspectives on the conflict. As a piece of participatory folklore, the stories this game, and others like, can tell, is incredibly educational.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

EXP Podcast #203: 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II' Debrief

This week, Jorge and I return from top secret mission with classified info on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. This show (which is for your ears only) covers everything from multiplayer dynamics to geo-political commentary, so there's something for everyone. BlOps 2 (as we affectionately call it) offers some intriguing changes to both the mechanical and thematic aspects of the series, so there is plenty to discus. As always don't hesitate to infiltrate 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:

- Runtime: 41 min 50 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Game Notes: Frog Fractions

Image from Twin Beard Studios
I'm going to take this whole "experimental Tuesday" thing to heart and start what I hope to be an ongoing series in which I post some of the notes I take while playing video games. Of course, this kind of thing raises some questions:

Why do you take notes while playing a game?

 Because I am a nerd, clearly. Also: I have to remember things in order to write and podcast about them and my ancient brain isn't as absorbent as it used to be.

How will you publish these notes?

If it's a digital document, I'll just link or embed it. I'll post screenshots of my mad scribblings if I have a notebook. Finally, maybe I'll go all Twin Peaks and post voice memos as I encounter points of interest. Think of it as live casting, but not live.

Will this change your note taking practices (physics observable experiment effect)?

Maybe, but what are you going to do? It's true that the simple act of adding this extra layer will probably have some kind of impact on my "natural" process, but I'll try not to post for every game and try to keep myself focused on notes.

 I came up with this idea while playing Frog Fractions. Before reading any further, you should really go play the game yourself. It won't take long and I'm about to reveal the hilarious ending. Frog Fractions is partly a parody of old educational games, but you don't actually have to do any math until the very end when you gain control over the production of bug pornography. The point is that you have to make a profit selling it on the open market while taking into consideration the costs of production and the risks of unknown setbacks. After a couple losing campaigns, I started writing things down in a spreadsheet:

It started innocently enough: writing down single numbers just to remember totals. It then morphed into something a little more serious with expected net/gross totals, complete with cells that took into account the data entered in other cells. Without meaning to, I was beginning to poorly and crudely reinvent accounting 101.

I soon realized better ways of organizing the spreadsheet and more accurate ways of tracking expenses while factoring in unexpected setbacks. I cursed my younger self for not taking more practical classes in college as I painstakingly expanded my profit margins. Then I realized that I would probably have to play the game all day in order to legitimately hit my target profit and opted instead to simply print enough money to finish the game. As the game says, let the next generation deal with inflation.

There are probably some real world lessons in here somewhere. The fiscally responsible option will always be slower and more time consuming to maintain than the quick and easy option. A grasp of basic economics would probably solve a lot of personal and political problems in this world. One freak storm can destroy an entire production run of insect pornography. The list goes on.

One thing's for sure: it had been a long time since a game inspired me to create a spreadsheet.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Call for Favorite Things of 2012

The year is wrapping up, which inevitably results in the "Game of the Year" conversations, which certainly have their place in the industry. This year, Scott and I want to expand upon both the idea and the conversation by asking podcast listeners, guests past, and anyone, to send in your favorite things of the year to be featured on an upcoming EXP Podcast. Be they favorite levels, themes, industry trends, characters, games, or anything you can think up - all favorites are welcome!

Since we plan on including some of these favorites in an upcoming podcast, we encourage you to actually send in a recording of yourself talking about your "favorite thing". Don't be shy. Just email us an audio file of you answering "What is your favorite thing of 2012 and why?". Keep the messages under two minutes and feel free to talk about anything you like.

Want to participate but do not have easy access to a mic? Email us your favorite thing and why it is a memorable experience/idea/etc. from 2012 and we might read it/talk about it on the show. We look forward to hearing your picks!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finding Value in The Unfinished Swan

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about the The Unfinished Swan.

It's not officially a review, but in retrospect it pretty much reads like one. In year of exceptionally strong downloadable titles (e.g., Journey, The Walking Dead, Papo & Yo) The Unfinished Swan manages to stand out in a number of ways. First, it's a first-person game that isn't about mass murder, which is always refreshing. It also has a collection of game mechanics that could be easily split off into several stand alone games.

At another time in my life, this probably would have bothered me. "They could have gone so much deeper, made so many more puzzles, and had so many more levels!" my hypothetical past self would have argued. It's true, The Unfinished Swan paints with broad strokes when it comes to exploring the various abilities you have. However, when you consider the gameplay in conjunction with the plot, it's clear that the point of the game isn't to challenge you to paint as fast as you can or to stymie you with puzzles. The Unfinished Swan uses interactive systems to let you feel the game's central metaphor. I won't say too much more about this metaphor, other than it's been quite a year for exploring interpersonal relationships in games this year(again, e.g., Journey, The Walking Dead, Papo & Yo).

One thing that I didn't get a chance to comment on in the post was Terry Gilliam's voicing of the game's eccentric King. It's a pretty interesting choice on a meta-textual level, as the King plays a weird role that is part antagonist, part tragic figure, and part narrator. He's clearly a brilliant architect,, but his creations often turn out half-finished, misunderstood, or simply inscrutable. Gilliam definitely has a better track record than the King, but if anyone has ever had the idea to create a completely white, shadowless Kingdom guarded by a lazy giant, it has to be him.

In any case, I definitely recommend The Unfinished Swan. It may not be the longest game or have the most expansive world, but all its components fit together to form an excellent story.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

EXP Podcast #202: The Walking Dead Debrief, Episode 5

Image from Telltale Games

At least, Lee's story has come to end. After the fifth and final episode of The Walking Dead (Season 1, I hope), we have so much to talk about. What decisions did you make in the end? And, more importantly, does the game satisfy our expectations? Join us this week on the podcast as Scott and I dissect The Walking Dead, Episode 5, and discuss the game's many accomplishments.

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:

- Runtime: 56 min 34 secs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

EXP Podcast #201: A Day Z Dilemma

We mentioned in our 200th episode that the Experience Points Podcast would try out some new things. Well here is one of our first experimental podcasts. At the heart of this one is a great story by Drew Dixon about his time with Day Z. Initially I wanted to explore why good people do bad things in video games. Instead, I learned more about how reflecting on ethical dilemmas, even ones that turn out less than perfect, can be more rewarding than first imagined. A huge thanks is owed to Matt Lightfoot, Carolyn Jong, and Drew Dixon, for their incredibly insight and willingness to chat. The conversations we had were dramatically shortened for brevity, but every word was fascinating.

Of course we encourage you to share your thoughts on both the topic and this more experimental/themed podcast episode in the comments! If you like the show, be sure to share this episode with your friends and review us in iTunes. This type of podcast not your "cup of tea"? Never fear! We will be back tomorrow with another regular EXP Podcast.

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed and our Stitcher 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: 22 min 56 sec
- "It's all gonna break," by Drew Dixon via GameChurch
- Music provided by Brad Sucks, Alastair Cameron, Broke For Free, and Hey Rosetta!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Black Ops 2 and American Fears

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Black Ops 2 and American Fears.

Last week Scott wrote a great piece about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 that serves as a great companion for my article this week. Both look at the political and historical realities of the game and, I think, help illuminate some really rewarding content that you can find in the games.

I have always been of two minds on this series. On one side the series has pretty consistently levied interesting and compelling criticisms of US foreign policy, the military industrial complex, the war on terror specifically, and more. But it has also glorified some truly atrocious behavior and funneled players through set pieces that are more style than substance. I keep getting the sense that half the team working on these games are brilliant and the other half, well, less so.

For example, I love how oddly personal Black Ops 2 is. Menendez is driven almost entirely by revenge, mostly towards Woods and Mason at that. Meanwhile, Mason junior and the team are focused primarily on taking out Menendez, just one man. Meanwhile, in the background, huge political machinations are taking place. Whether or not players kill Menendez or imprison him at the end, Cordis Die still exists. Which, by the way, is the vaguest terrorist "organization" in video game history, if you can call it organized. You can read this as a critique of the military's inability to affect meaningful diplomatic change or win hearts and minds. Or this could just be an accident. Honestly, I don't know.

The political themes in the game, particularly those that tap into modern American fears of vulnerability, are absolutely fascinating. How much of are intentional and how much are implemented as clever lead-ins for Blacks Ops 3 I couldn't tell you.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

EXP Podcast #200: The Bicentennial Show

Image from Flickr user Studio H (Chris)
Alright, so we haven't actually been doing the podcast for two hundred years, but it's still been a pretty long time! Two hundred episodes ago, Jorge and I started the podcast. It's been more fun than we could have imagined. This week, we get a little bit meta and talk about the show on the show. Don't worry: it's not just self congratulation. We're looking to switch some things up and try out some new ideas in hopes of making the next two hundred episodes even better.

As always, we couldn't be more grateful to our great audience. To everyone who has ever listened: thank you!

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:

- Runtime: 34 min 39 sec
- New site banner and logos by Phillip Andrew Wong,
- Sound effect from Freesound user Halleck
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Games Are Not Toasters

Image from Flickr user
Like most folks, I'm willing to trade the some personal ownership in exchange for Steam's convenience. I'm fine with ceding some traditional notions of ownership in exchange for its service-based approached to selling games because the service itself is so valuable. However, I'm not fine with false analogies. Check this passage out:
A Steam gift purchase is a one-time transfer—after the recipient has activated and installed the game, it is a non-refundable game in his or her Steam games collection. Also note that you may only gift new purchases—you may not transfer games you already own. That’d be like wrapping up and presenting the toaster you’ve used every morning for the past year. (Steam Support)
This is precisely the wrong way to think about digital goods.

A toaster degrades: the coils wear out, the lever gets jammed, the casing gets stained. You wouldn’t wrap up a toaster and re-gift it or resell it at full price because it’s no longer worth what it was when it was new. As a physical product, it's form and function degrades over time, thereby changing its value.

A digital game never degrades. Whether you use it three times or three thousand times, it will always function the same way. There is no difference between downloading a "new" copy of Half Life and using someone else's digital copy. All those 1s and 0s are as pristine as the day it was released.

Theoretically, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to gift Steam games you bought for yourself. A gift code could be generated and sent to a new person. Once the new person activates it, your license to run the copy of the game would be revoked, thus completing the transaction.

Steam's explanation regarding why you can't gift old games is cloaked in pro-customer rhetoric, but that's not the real reason the policy exists. Games are expensive to make and distribute, and this policy is Steam's way of trying to find a balance between creator's and customer's rights while still making a profit. Trying to disguise it in terms of the content as opposed to the access and delivery system in which that content resides is dangerous.

"Dangerous?" you might say, "Isn't that a little alarmist?" Maybe, but such rhetoric is insidious. Trying to bolt the logic of physical goods onto digital media is what spawns things like the DMCA and SOPA/PIPA. Attempting to run an industry as if it were still the 1950s is what the RIAA and MPAA do. Media companies have a vested interest in maintaining the idea of tangible "things" in the digital age. If you can get people to agree to treat digital media like physical toasters, it's much easier to maintain old, product-based business models.

Digital games will only become more important and prevalent as we prepare for a new console generation, and I highly doubt that Sony and Microsoft will let you relinquish your licenses to other players. When it comes to the transition from physical to digital goods, we're already stuck with the toaster model: even though they never lose functional value, we can no longer trade, sell, or gift the games we payed money for.

I often worry that it's too late. Everyone (myself included) is deeply invested in this system and it's hard to fight the good fight for unrestricted content when we all have bills to pay and lives to live. I hope that, at the very least, we can remember that games are not toasters.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Real World in 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II'

David Petraeus in Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Activision, 2012),
image from
This week at PopMatters, I talk about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's relationship with reality.

Maybe it's all in my head, but I always feel a little sheepish when playing and analyzing a Call of Duty game. As I noted in the article, Call of Duty is almost a punchline for a certain subsection of the game community. "What are you going to next," someone (like me) might ask, "explore the subtle themes of a Michael Bay movie?" I can't deny that there's some merit to this. Black Ops II has enough 'splosions and Hoo-rah for a couple of games.

Still, the games never fail to interest me. The Black Ops series particularly so, since it tackles actual historical events and people. If I told you that there was a video game that addressed CIA ties to terrorist organizations and put you face to face with Manuel Noriega, would you think that I was describing what will be one of the top selling video games of the year? It sounds more like something you'd find in the independent scene. Few other games acknowledge our reality in even the most general sense, let alone call out specific people and events.

The problem is that Black Ops II plays fast and loose with the real historical topics it leverages. In the marketing and in the game Oliver North is presented as some vague authority figure. There are always hints that the CIA is up to some shady business, but the game rarely takes a definitive stance on its actions. Jonas Savimbi is all soldier and no politician, and his ties to neo-conservative U.S. groups are ignored. China is a continual lurking threat, but the roots of the conflict are hard to follow as you frantically strafe through the levels.

Folks like Jorge and me routinely express our desires to see video games branch out to tackle more diverse topics. For every ten games about wizards, we're lucky to get one about politics. At best, I think Black Ops II goes halfway: it's not afraid to reference historical events and figures, but it doesn't offer much in-depth insight. Still, that's more than most games do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

EXP Podcast #199: Inside the Cube

Peter Molyneux is at it again! This time with a massive experiment involving millions of cubes, a mindbogglingly persistent player base, and an almost mythological promise that could only come from the eccentric mind of the infamous game designer. So what is in the heart of Curiosity - What's Inside the Cube? Is it a prize that can literally "change your life", or is it an exploitative train wreck of an experience? Join Scott and I this week as we discuss the always the power of Curiosity.

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:

- Runtime: 36 min 42 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Sound of Violence

Drowning in the noise of gunfire and orchestral music is the sound of a man dying, begging for help. With the unnecessary noises removed, his pleas sound like they echo in an empty room. Turn off the SFX and Music in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and the aural landscape becomes a theatre with no audience, a stage on which actors deliver a strange dramatic reading of violence and war.

For occupational reasons, I recently subjected myself to the entirety of Call of Duty: Black Ops II with no sound effects or music. The experience was awkward and unsettling, Lynchian in its surrealism. With no orchestral score or visceral gunfire, everything seemed out of place, flattened by silence. A helicopter sweep in with no introductory chopping of its propellers or brass instruments announcing its dramatic arrival. From the jungle of Angola to the jet fighter scene in Los Angeles, the trappings of warfare became play pieces, like cut-out marionettes at a puppet show.

The sound of violence sits alone in all the silence. Every grunt and cry of pain of the hundreds of slain enemies echoes constantly. I can also hear Mason and Harper yelling about some unheard threat or voicing their anger to the non-existent audience. Without the sound of incoming bullets, the urgency of the situation vanishes. Instead, Mason's silence expresses a cold distance from the battle. His steady breathing while aiming down his scope, amid shouts of anguish, seems suddenly monstrous.

This is not the right way to play Call of Duty, I know. Like a sitcom needs a laugh-track, the shooter needs its musical flare and auditory foliage. Without it, the violence is naked. The cries of pain seem almost free of cause, brief and alone with no aural cues to mark their passing.

I remember talking with friends about the sound of video game weaponry, praising the sound of sniper fire and the satisfying click and lock of a bolt-action rifle. Not once have I called the sound of suffering perfect in its fidelity and satisfying in its delivery. I shroud anguish, muffling the consequences of violence under the loud, explosive, and bombastic sound of digital warfare.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Holiday Hiatus

Sonic at Thanksgiving Parade, John Minchillo, Associated Press
Experience Points and PopMatters are taking the day off to chow down on food and spend time with friends and family. We will be back next week with our regularly scheduled programming, but before we take long naps to sleep off the food binging, we want to thank each and every one of you for sharing in our work - be it by reading our articles or listening to our podcast. We have been doing this for about four years now and we cannot be more thankful for all of your support.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

EXP Podcast #198: Jim Crawford and Frog Fractions

Image from Twinbeard Studios
This week, we are pleased to welcome Jim Crawford to the podcast! Jim is a game designer whose latest work, Frog Fractions, teaches us all about the hidden wonders of math. Well, it actually does a lot more than that, but you really owe it to yourself to play it (it's free!). Jim was kind enough to come on the show and chat with us about everything from design philosophy, the role of nostalgia, and the legend of the Twin Beard. We hope you enjoy it and thanks for listening!

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:

- Runtime: 42 min 38 sec
- Jim Crawford's website: Twinbeard Studios
- Follow Jim on Twitter
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan

Image from
I usually like to play a couple games concurrently. Being able to switch back and forth helps me think laterally about the games I play. Oftentimes I'll notice common design techniques or different ways to implement similar systems.

Of course, this habit also leads to some hilarious juxtapositions. Case in point: I spent last week alternating between Call of Duty: Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan.

I've talked about "gaming whiplash" in the past and the transition between Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan is a classic example. Shifting gears from a Tom Clancy-esque murder fest to what turned out to be a modern fairy tale was a bit bumpy. Thematically and aesthetically, it's hard to find two different games. For a good illustration, check out the trailers:

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The Unfinished Swan

Both games are striking in their own ways and both do a good job establishing a tone. Black Ops II embraces a realistic art style that makes its constant bedlam even more stressful. Whether it's the campaign, multiplayer, or zombie mode, the game rewards twitch reflexes. As is the case in the game's plot, unseen threats are everywhere and even a moment's hesitation means failure. It's a shoot or be shot world where victory is as much about quick reflexes as it is strategy. My neck tenses up just thinking about it.

On the other hand, The Unfinished Swan largely avoids moment-to-moment pressure and instead challenges the you to discover and then master unfamiliar tools. You're dropped right into a completely blank world and left to experiment with how to fill it in. Devoid of any button prompts, quest markers, or specific objectives, you're left to both reveal and then make sense of the environment. Along the way, you experience a story about personal growth that mimics the way you enhance the world.

I didn't think about it at first, but your method of interacting with the world in Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan is essentially the same: you shoot things from a first-person perspective. Of course, in the former game you're shooting people's faces with bullets, while in the latter you're lobbying paint balls at various targets in hopes of enlivening the world.

When it comes to categorizing games, I'm often biased towards perspective and mechanical classification: I'm much more apt to think of something as first-person shooter or a platformer than as a horror game or a political thriller. However, Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan make a strong argument for taking into consideration themes, visuals, and narratives when comparing games to one another. You may play the games from the same perspective, but their core viewpoints are vastly different.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spatial and Social Realism in Dishonored

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I write about some of Dishonored's more true to life features.

Realism itself is a strange topic for video games for few reasons. First, it's hard to decide on a single definition of the word: we can find realism in visual representations, sound, physics systems, social simulations, etc. Secondly, is it even a goal worth chasing? Is making something that simulates the real meaningful beyond the simple challenge of doing it. One of the reason I likes games is that they allow for experimentation within systems that simply couldn't exist in the real world.

But that's a longer discussion for another day. The point of my article is that, despite the fact that you can teleport, read minds, and control a horde of rats, Dishonored manages to resemble the real world in a few crucial ways. This is mostly due to how rich the game is from environmental and storytelling perspectives. Dishonored is full of people and places that feel like their exist for more than the player's entertainment. Everything is understated in a way that makes discovering things special and more satisfying that having it served up to you on a silver platter.

I don't do this very often, but I'd recommend that you play Dishonored with the quest markers off. They default to on, but I feel like it makes it too easy to simply critical-path your way through the game, thereby missing the things that make the game special. I'm hesitant to say that there's a "right" way to play the game, but throwing away your in-game GPS will certainly help expose you to the game's interesting uses of spatial and social realism.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

EXP Podcast #197: Pulp and the Legacy of Halo 4

Master Chief fan art
by Ling Yun via Deviant Art
What do Master Chief, James Bond, John Carter, Luke Skywalker, and Shakespear have in common (besides huge egos)? They are all lasting cultural icons that show no sign of disappearing from popular consciousness anytime soon. Can we consider all of these "pulp" works in a sense? Join us this week on the podcast as Scott and I discuss Halo 4, the strength of Halo's lore, and the lasting repercussions of 343i taking creative control over a modern gaming hero.

As always, check out the articles that inspired this conversation in the show notes below and be sure to leave your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.

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:

- Runtime: 33 min 49 sec
- "How Halo Went From Video Game to Pulp Empire," by Erik Sofge via Popular Mechanics.
- "Why Video Games Are the New Pulps," by Mark Bernardin via io9.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Assassin's Creed III's Introduction

Warning: Spoilers for the first section of Assassin's Creed III.

While the reviews for Assassin's Creed III three are generally positive, there are plenty of  acute critiques of the game - most of which I agree with. Some earlier features have been abandoned and some of the side missions in the latest title feel forced and poorly put together. Perhaps most consistently frustrating player is the game's first few hours.

See, the game stars Connor, a half-indigenous native of Massachusetts with a grudge against the Templar. We all knew this going into Assassin's Creed III. The bow-and-arrow touting assassin is still plastered over bus stops all across San Francisco. Yet when players first start the game, they are treated to a British aristocrat with a chiseled face and years of experience. The game breaks expectations. Where is the white robed, tree-climbing assassin we were promised?

After a few moments, most players likely assume Haytham, the temporary protagonist, is in fact Connor's father, and rightly so. Like a good deal of others, I figured this was their way of introducing us to the world. Newly excited, I'm interested to learn about Connor's assassin father.

And then the game chugs on unbearably slow. Haytham spends time running back and forth on a boat, really getting across the tedium of seamanship. When the crew finally spots land and the title card appears, for a moment it seems like it was all worth. Eighteenth century Boston! Freedom at last! Then the reigns are pulled in again and the game shuttles Hatham along to various missions and force players to accomplish their goals in a terribly constrained environment. All the while, Haytham takes an unbearably long time finding and courting Connor's mother. Finally, after an insufferably long introduction, Connor's parents conceive of the game's actual protagonist, whose existence I questioned by this point.

Suddenly, a plot twist. Haytham is not an Assassin at all, but a Templar. Connor will have to kill his own father! It all made sense. I understood why Ubisoft spent so much time with Haytham. He shares his first vision of Boston with players. His traversal of buildings, the feel of which we all know so well, is our first climbing experience in the game as well. We naturally fall right into playing Assassin's Creed III, and so we comfortably associate ourselves with Haytham. His Templar status was a genuine surprise, and a neat one at that.

The problem with the games introduction, or more aptly its prologue, has nothing to do with length. I would have been perfectly happy playing a young Connor for more hours than the game offers. The problem is its quality. Assassin's Creed III insists on holding your hand for the first four hours, a travesty considering how well known the series has become. It creates this false feeling of constraint that serves no real purpose, other than to usher Haytham along a narrow path towards the game's twist. By the time the introduction feels firmly over, well into Connor's history, the pacing is so off that what could have been an interesting story comes off as poorly constructed attempt to shock players. This late in the franchise, such tricks are best left off the table.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Halo 4's Master Chief and Community Ownership

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Halo 4's Master Chief and Community Ownership.

This post came about for two reasons, first, I read the Wired article by James Verini on digital pop-star Hatsune Miku. The animated icon's existence is a testament to community involvement in the continued construction of a cultural artifact. Where ten years ago the idea of a virtual songstress with thousands of adoring fans eager who create costumes, songs, and music videos for her might have sound so very "Japanese", today it seems like a natural byproduct of larger-than-life characters.

Second, I was genuinely surprised by how instantly compelling I found Master Chief when he woke up. I am a pretty optimistic guy, but I do not think I'm a fanatic when it comes to video game characters. Regardless, hearing Cortana speak and watching Master Chief wake-up was stirring - I got the chills.

In a weird way, the continuation of his story feels "right". The 343 transition, with the power of hindsight, seems natural. In a way, Master Chief is becoming like the Doctor. With a sort of cultural immortality firmly established, why not slowly relinquish the idea of complete character control? The idea our favorite video game characters could become diffuse, spread out among traditional creators and community creators, is not so alien. I don't want to undervalue 343's contribution to the character and their smart handling of the franchise, but in a way, Master Chief would have risen eventually anyway.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

EXP Podcast #196: Dishonored Debrief

Image from
You didn't think we'd let Dishonored sneak by without talking about it, did you? This week, we dedicate an entire episode to the game. It's dense in the most positive sense: with multiple solutions to even the most mundane obstacles, an open-ended upgrde system, and a surprisingly massive (albeit hidden) amount of lore, everyone's playthrough will be slightly different. For example, one of us was an unassuming (and slightly bumbling) assassin, while the other was a terrifying rat lord. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments!

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:

- Runtime: 49 min 41 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For the Empire

Image from
It's election night here in the U.S., and what better way to pass the time than to write about video games? Don't worry, I already did my civic duty, so no one can blame Halo for preventing me from voting. Maybe I've just been swept up by the political season, but I found myself thinking about Dishonored's fictional government.

It's hard not be grossed at least a little grossed out by election season. Months (more like years!) of constant bickering, selective fact checking, and baseless predictions is tiresome. Additionally, because most of my adult life has been dedicated by studying my country's history (academia is a weird place), I have a hard time buying into the triumphant narrative that gets trotted out every few years. Without launching into a huge discussion on race, gender, and socio-economics, there are plenty of smudges on America's record and plenty of things the country needs to work on.

However, there is at least one thing that makes me proud of my country: the U.S. does not have, and has never had, established royalty. This brings me back to Dishonored.

Maybe I'm more patriotic than I thought, but I couldn't help be feel a little depressed that Dishonored's plot revolved around the attempt to reinstall a monarch. Democracy isn't perfect, but it at least opens the door for common folks to have a say in who rules them. As Corvo, not only was I responsible for killing more than my fair share of innocent bystanders and guards who were just doing their jobs, I was also ensuring that they would remain the subjects of an autocrat.

When you get right down to it, Dishonored's political system is pretty terrible. Consider some of the major players:
  • An evil vizier who harbors genocidal intentions towards poor people murders his way into authoritarian power.
  • The Abbey of the Everyman appears to be a government-backed church that functions to suppress the poor, eradicate traditional beliefs, and squash dissent with an elite, ecclesiastical army.
  • The wealthy upper class are able to hire police and government officials as private security for lavish parties while the poor people starve and die in the city's alleys.
Juxtaposed against these elements, a theoretically benevolent Empress is the least of all evils I suppose. The Empress' daughter seemed like a nice girl, but my quest to return her to the throne meant that I had to live among the common folk. I saw their neighborhoods at street level and watched them go about their day to day lives. With a little bit of magical help, I listened to their inner thoughts and learned about their backgrounds. The more I learned, the more I doubted that Emily understood or deserved to rule them.

But I didn't have any choice in the matter. I was playing for the empire and, try as I might, I couldn't stab my way out of a monarchy. Democracy will have to wait for DLC.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Unconventionally Creepy Games

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about games that creep me out even though they aren't in the horror genre.

If you listened to this week's podcast (which I highly recommend!), you'll be able to hear the basis of this post forming as I speak. I still stand by my assertion that games don't really scare me. It's not that I'm trying to be macho; it's the medium's fundamental nature that renders traditional horror techniques impotent. A game like Amnesia does a great job of setting a creepy tone and throwing in a bunch of jump scares, but it's also a very structured game. Puzzles, enemies, and environmental features behave in specific ways that can be learned and understood. Once I start to see the logic behind the madness, things just aren't as scary.

With this in mind, I decided to look for a handful of games that actually did unsettle me (albeit subtly). The common thread isn't a particular artistic style or thematic genre, but rather a willingness to subvert established mechanical foundations. Simply put, if I spend a few hours learning and then relying on my knowledge of a particular rule set only to encounter a situation that shakes that foundation, I get freaked out.

Also: I find myself increasingly fascinated by the river krusts in Dishonored. They're just so weird and gross. Plus, I found a note in the game that suggests they are hermaphroditic and can self-fertilize. I don't want to alarm anyone, but I think Dunwall could be in for a second plague. One of a slimy, crusty variety. One that can reproduce with an efficiency that would put tribbles to shame. One that must be cleansed by the pure, scouring wrath of flames. Yes, that's right my fellow citizens, we must burn the city to the ground if we are to save it!

Sorry; I got a bit carried away there. Fear will do that to you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

EXP Podcast #195: Halloween Horrorcast

Mario Ghost Pumpkin from NintendoLife
Happy Halloween listeners! The witching hour is tonight, and as a means to satiate the hunger of the elder gods, we submit to you this aural offering. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I enter the haunted crypts, blood hallways, and creepy forests of Slender, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Home, and more. What we bring back might terrify you, or at least entertain you with our insight into the construction of excellent horror games.

As always your comments are appreciated. Let us know what horror games make you favorites list, especially if you play them yearly as a Halloween treat!

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:

- Runtime: 36 min 01 sec
- Music by Frederick Magle, performing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d Minor, and Parsec Productions, Slender music after locating Page 1.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Length of Video Game Endings

Legend of Zelda
I recently finished Dishonored, the stealthy RPG-like action game from Arkane Studios. The game is built on player-driven choices. The world is of your making and it feels responsive to how you play Corvo, the game's protagonist, be him a rat-king murderer or a lurking pacifist. For a that lets players take their time, I was genuinely surprised to see such a rushed conclusion.

When the last enemy has been dispatched, a cut-scene kicks in that eulogizes Corvo's past-deeds and the way they shaped the history of Dunwall. To be fair, it's not a terrible ending by any means. It actually pulls off some neat visual tricks during its post-game montage, but it still felt too short, like I was being rushed out of a theater while the credits were still rolling. I wanted some closure, a longer denouement, some way to step out of the spotlight gradually. There must be a video ending "sweet spot", right?

Thinking back on past video game endings, the "run-time", if you will, varies dramatically. Apparently Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots has an ending that lasts nearly an hour. Red Dead Redemption, which has one of the best game conclusions ever, essentially has no ending. Alternatively, the game has multiple endings, each better than the last, before continuing once the credits begin. Alternatively, the original Super Mario Bros. has an ending that literally lasts four seconds: "Thank you Mario! Your quest is over."

Good endings are clearly not defined by the total length of a game, otherwise Mario's ending would be a travesty and Skyrim would demand an ending of epic proportions. So in our end-length calculations, we must rely on the painfully subjective and amorphous idea of "investment". The more investment I put in a game, which itself is an amalgamation of emotional investment, gameplay investment (I'm thinking the RPG aspects here), and time investment, the longer an ending should. Of course there should be diminishing returns as well - no one wants an hour long conclusion to a game (I hope).

My ideal ending need not follow the traditional cut-scene format. I think Red Dead Redemption has a perfectly suitable tail for the investment I put into the game, and most of the ending is playable. I consider Mass Effect 3 one giant denouement for all the investment I put into the series in the previous two games. Similarly, Flower has two levels I would consider "ending" like - the final city-rejuvenation level and the playable end-credits. Of course I always prefer quality over quantity, but when looking for an ideal game ending, an excellent conclusion demands room to breathe.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

iBeg: An Interview with Chris Worboys

My latest PopMatters article interview is now live: iBeg: An Interview with Chris Worboys.

I also recommend you read this Kotku article by Patricia Hernandez. I actually have a lot of problems with her article, and really the way games press examine social impact games in the first place, but that is for a different article. The piece is a decent quick look into some of the major issues facing the genre of so-called "serious" games.

Chris and I specifically address some of the concerns raised by Patricia's piece as well. Of course what is true for regular games is also true for social impact games: good intent need not result in a good game. That being said, it does seem Chris is taking this game, and all the burdens it entails, with complete seriousness.

iBeg is not seeking to rid the world of homelessness completely with a single game, it will not even necessarily make a noticeable bump in homelessness in Vancouver, the city in-which it is based. Yes, Chris says in-game purchases will partially fund actual services and programs targeting the homeless, but the game clearly seeks to raise awareness more than it does to feed the homeless.

The simple fact that money is going towards a program with amorphous measurements of success is controversial, yes, but this is not exclusive to social impact games. Patricia, in her article, talks to a representative at a homeless shelter and gets a predictable response: this investment money could actually go to a homeless shelter instead of game development. Why invest in an unknown reward when we have mouths to feed? For the five years I worked in the non-profit sector, this question was always on the forefront of peoples minds. NGOs the world over can't agree how to distribute aid, let alone win the hearts and minds of regular civilians, not to mention politicians and philanthropists.

I do believe games and game developers have a place in changing our political and social landscape, in fact, they already do. While I am convinced iBeg comes from good intentions and has a designer dedicated to making a successful and tactful experience, I cannot promise it will be a success. Regardless, we need more designers willing to take risks in this space. We should be having these conversations more often, not less.

If you're interested in checking out iBeg's Kickstarter page, you can find it here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

EXP Podcast #194: Nels and the Ninja

Image from
This week we have the pleasure of welcoming Nels Anderson back the podcast. You may know him from one of his many appearances on the podcast...but it's much more likely you know him as the lead designer of this year's breakout hit, Mark of the Ninja! Design philosophy, player choices, and teleportation: we cover a huge array of topics and have a great time doing so. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, thanks for listening!

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:

- Runtime: 01 hr 03 min 34 sec
- Official website for Mark of the Ninja
- Nels Anderson's website
- "The Long Road From Ninja to Mark of the Ninja," by Patrick Klepek, via Giant Bomb
- "The Stealth Letters," via Rock Paper Shotgun
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dishonored and the Amazing Fire Breathers

Image from
Let's get one thing straight up front: I'm really enjoying Dishonored so far. I don't mean "'s a good way to pass the time" enjoying it; I'm talking about "I can't stop mentally playing the game while I'm at work," enjoying it. It's definitely going to factor into game of the year discussions come December. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, let me tell you about something that really irks me about the game: fire breathing thugs. They're low level bad guys, they swill alcohol and then light it on fire to attack, and I find them annoying as hell.

The funny thing is, I'm self-aware enough to know that it's actually ridiculous to be irritated by these guys. The first time I got caught up in one of their fireballs, I remember thinking: "Well, that's a bit of a stretch." Yes, that's right: in a game in which you literally teleport, inhabit rats' bodies, and commune with a supernatural deity, I had the audacity to criticize something that actually happens in the real world as unrealistic.

Maybe this comes from my knowledge of fire safety and my faith in the competence of your average underling. If college taught me anything, it's that alcohol and fire definitely mix, but almost never in the way you expect (or intend). The fact that low-level cronies seem to be crude pyromancers is also a bit weird in the context of the world. I haven't finished the game yet, but their ability to spit flames is almost supernatural thus making them weirdly similar to Corvo (the character you control), who seems to be one of the very few people wielding magic.

Of course, there are great mechanical reasons for giving thugs this attack. It gives them a ranged combat option, which makes battles more dynamic. The whiskey bottle has a different profile from other ranged weapons, which serves as both a surprise and a constant reminder to pay attention to your opponent's tools before and during fights. Logically, getting toasted depletes a large amount of health, which means a seemingly simple fight can quickly become catastrophic if you're sloppy about it. The fire breathers are as much a teaching tool as they are a simple opponent.

Ultimately, this is probably the real reason I resent them: they have the uncanny ability to make me look very dumb, very fast. They're low-level baddies who would usually be cannon fodder in other games, but in this game they can (and do) embarrass me unexpectedly. Dishonored can make me feel like a master assassin, but a momentary lapse in judgment turns me into a scorched buffoon.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the disbelief I harbor towards the fire breathing thugs is mostly misplaced frustration. In a world in which I stalk my enemies by seeing through walls, is it really so ludicrous that belligerent drunks can breathe fire on command? I doubt it. Is it more believable that I resent the ability of characters that are essentially the equivalent of Star Trek red shirts to completely ruin my power fantasy? Probably.

But you'll never get me to admit it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Relearning Patience

Image from Stephen Andrew
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about patience.

These days, when free time is at a premium, I find myself looking to maximize my free time. This is pretty much the best way to ensure I don't actually enjoy said free time. When I'm worried about making every minute count, I inadvertently miss out on the best parts of many of the games I play. And when you're playing a game like Dishonored, patience isn't so much a virtue as it is a necessity.

On a broader scale, the merits mellowing out are especially useful to remember during the fall release season. We're entering the time of year when it feels like a "must-play" game is dropping every other week. It's tempting to burn through them as fast as possible, but ultimately it's not really fair to me or the game. As Michael Abbott said way back in 2008 (geez, time flies!), it's important to "chew your food."

As I say in the column, I've gotten more patient in most other aspects of life. But, despite being able to keep a cool head in a traffic jam, in-game patience is a continual process.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

EXP Podcast #193: The Walking Dead Debrief, Episodes 3 and 4

Image from Telltale Games
We are back again with another visit the zombie-infested South. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss episodes 3 and 4 of The Walking Dead. This podcast jumps right into spoilers, so if you are looking for more general insight into how the series tells its story, check out last week's podcast.

 As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts and your own play experiences in the comments below. Of all the episodes of The Walking Dead, episode 4 might reveal the most about one's character and approach to surviving the apocalypse. Let us know how you shaped Lee's decisions.

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:

- Runtime: 54 min
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Overcoming Triviality in Dishonored

This recent Kill Screen review of Dishonored earned its fair share of criticism, and rightly so - the review reads more like a rant than a well-reasoned criticism of the game, but I am no expert on the matter. I rarely review games, partially because I have a sneaking suspicion my comments are suddenly less compelling when numbers are attached. Instead, I prefer to explore ideas and their executions in more free-form and isolated situations, which is exactly what I want to do here.

The reason I mention the review at all is because the author specifically calls out Dishonored for its array of choices which, as he states, feel absolutely meaningless. As the article tag-line states, "Dishonored lets you do whatever you damn well please. Why?" Could it be that the glut of choices makes each of them trivial?

For awhile, I actually thought this was true. For those unaware, Dishonored is a stealth-action game, or rather, it is a stealth game and an action game - and a few other things as well. Corvo, the game's protagonist, can approach his assassination missions with a huge array of variability. He can use his Blink ability to teleport along the rooftop, out of sight from the watchful guards, or he can lurk in the shadowy sub-basements to reach his target, or he can leap into action and stab everything that moves, or summon rats, or possess fish, etc. etc. etc. It can all feel quite overwhelming.

Here is how I played the game for the first two hours: First I tried being stealthy, maintaining a height advantage over my enemies and sneaking up to guards. Then, time and again, I failed miserably. I would blink off the side of a building and land on top of a guard, or move out of the shadows and bump into a roaming NPC. In response, I would panic, kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, and then run back in the shadows. Frankly, it was boring and disheartening.

Then I learned how to play. Today I went through The Royal Physician campaign twice with two self-imposed conditions. In my first attempt, I would avoid touching the ground whenever possible. Functionally, the floor was lava. In my second attempt, I would kill...everyone (I know, I'm a terrible person). Both experiences were viable and incredibly entertaining, mostly because the I established the limitations myself and I was able to handle the job efficiently.

Play became an artful form of practice. The pathways left unexplored were intentionally abandoned. I felt more like an artist choosing her color palate rather than a tactician in battle. My perspective changed from when I first stepped into Dishonored. I abolished the sense of triviality in the face of so many options by measuring my ability, learning, and, most importantly, choosing to find meaning on my own terms. Sometimes you have to work for your enjoyment.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Transformation and Papo and Yo

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Transformation and Papo & Yo.

So I wrote about a very personal game in a somewhat personal way. For the most part, I tend not to talk about my own history of familial abuse. I am not shy about it by any means, it's not a big secret at all really. I have mentioned it on the podcast a few times in the past and I discuss it a little in the article without going into a whole lot of depth. I tend to avoid it for a couple of reasons.

First, I actually don't think it applies for the most part. It's not something I need to get off my chest, so I unless it is somehow applicable (and in this case it is), then it never comes up. Also, especially if it does not apply to the subject at hand, I doubt most people are all that interested in my personal history.

Second, my experience with child abuse no longer defines me. Or rather, I made a conscious long ago to be the arbiter of how my experiences growing up affect my well-being today. Dealing with a history of abuse is a process and each person's experience is different, but often times that process starts with a personal confrontation - an recognition and acceptance of one's experience.

I say in the article that Papo & Yo is about transformation, but equally - or even necessarily - it is also about confrontation. Quico's monster is every present and always returns to him, at times by coercion and at other times by cue. His connection to Quico is constant and physical. Even when he is not present, you are constantly aware he is around a corner. Time and again Quico must confront the monster out of necessity. This act is a powerful one and the familiarity with his destructive tendencies pushes and prods Quico to his own personal confrontation.

I want to stress here something I perhaps do not make clear enough in the article. Papo & Yo is not a perfect game by any means and I do genuinely agree with those who believe the game could be harder without sacrificing its themes. However, this game is about something, explicitly and completely. If you give it time to work its magic, it can be a transformative experience.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

EXP Podcast #192: The Walking Dead Debrief, Episodes 1 and 2

Image from Telltale Games
We've caught the fever. You know: the one that starts with a mild cough and ends with you chewing the flesh off your friends and loved ones? That's right, we've been playing Telltale's excellent adventure series, The Walking Dead. This week, we devote a good chunk of time to the series' interesting design and mechanical choices before heading into spoiler country to discuss the details of episodes 1 and 2. Part of the fun of these games is hearing how other people dealt with many impossible decisions they present, so feel free to jump in with your thoughts in the comments.

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:

- Runtime: 50 min 51 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Discovering the Chrono Trigger Anime Short

Image from Square Enix
A while back, I was cruising around the Internet, looking at Chrono Trigger stuff (surprising, I know), when I found something amazing: an official Chrono Trigger animated short, Dimensional Adventure Numa Monjar (which I've embedded below).

A quick jaunt over to Wikipedia confirmed that it was created back in 1996 and screened at a Japanese manga festival. It's great fan service for Chrono Trigger devotees: A Nu and Mamo (one of the kilwala enemies) are a Laurel & Hardy duo looking to make it big at the Millenial Fair. Unbeknownst to the humans, the game's monsters put on their own celebration the night before the fair opens. Pratfalls abound as old favorites like Gato (or "Gonzales," as he was called in Japan) and Johnny show up to celebrate.

In this age of tightly controlled corporate tie-ins and meticulously constructed expanded universes, it's rare to find spinoff content that hasn't been carefully packaged for consumption. In fact, the mid-1990s was probably the end of the era where you could be completely surprised by some kind of transmedia content. And now, thanks to the Internet, it's easy for fans to create and distribute their own tributes to huge audiences. None of this is a bad thing (especially the ease at which fans can spread their art), it just makes it less mysterious and surprising when you run across extracurricular material.

I still remember when I happened upon the Zelda manga in Nintendo Power. Suddenly, the bounds of a game I loved seemed bigger, it's legend (pardon the pun) richer. Similarly, the Chrono Trigger anime offers an alternative look at the characters and world I love. It expands on characters I know and love while keeping the same quirky sense of humor found in the game. It's fan service and that's ok; anyone who cares enough to watch is also the same kind of person that will get the weird visual jokes and cameos. It's a strange, charming little detour that expands the a beloved game's world.

Wondering what happens before Crono wakes up? Give it a watch:

Part 1 of 2:

Part 2 of 2:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

'Sleep No More' and Storytelling in Games

Image from PopMatters
My latest PopMatters column was inspired by a podcast about a play. How's that for abstractions?

I'm a regular listener of the Freakonomics podcast. A recent episode dedicated to exploring the way our social environments dictate our behavior introduced me to an experimental theater project called Sleep No More. In this production, audience members are given masks and then asked to explore a multi-room warehouse in which actors play out various storylines. As you might expect, the combination of anonymity and unfamiliar circumstances causes people to act a little...weird.

Anyway, I couldn't help but feel a little irked while listening: the show is undoubtedly bold, but conceptually it's very similar to what video games do. Yet, despite all the references to interactive storytelling, presenting people with challenging rules, and allowing them to create a temporary avatar in a new environment, video games were never mentioned. Again, I know this probably had more to do with making sure the podcasts segments and run time remained snappy (it's something I struggle with every week!). Even so, I wanted to draw attention to the close relationship between theater and games.

Thanks to their visual spectacle, games are often compared to movies, but I've always argued that they are closer in spirit to theater. After all, every time you play a game you're taking part in a performance. Even the most tightly scripted games vary slightly from player to player and from session to session, just as staged performances do. Every time you pick up a controller to participate in some mixture of directorial and role-playing creation that has the potential for spontaneity. No two audience members will experience Sleep No More the same way, just as no two players will have exactly the same experience in Red Dead Redemption, or Geometry Wars, or The Walking Dead.

I'd definitely be interested in seeing Sleep No More if I had the chance. It sounds extremely ambitious and artfully executed. It's just that the concept of taking on another identity and piecing together a story by interacting with a strange environment doesn't strike me as that "far out." I've been doing the same thing in a digital form for years now.