Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bedazzled by Bejeweled

I'm only half joking when I say that, after an hour or so of playing any game, I start to filter out a game's aesthetic layers. If you could somehow record a real-time feed of my brain, you'd see what looks like a high-level Quake player's view: wire frames, textureless polygons, and the sound of silence. I tend to place heavy emphasis on a game's systems, so this isn't anything surprising. However, every once in a while I discover (in the most recent case, re-discover) a game that reminds me just how important video game aesthetics can be. All this is just an overly-elaborate way of saying that I love Bejeweled.

This all started when I found an HTML5 version of Bejeweled in the Chrome store. I apologize to those of you who clicked that link; I hope you enjoyed your productivity while it lased. At its core Bejeweled isn't that different from its great granddaddy, Shariki: Like all match-three games, it taps into that primal urge to group similar things. Bejeweled is special because of its production values. Does it need its slick animation, crisp sound effects, and ridiculous Mortal Kombat-esque announcer? It depends on what you think the essence of Bejeweled is. Strip away all of its slick style and you'd still have the same basic game systems, but you would lose Bejeweled's personality.

As silly as it sounds and as tired as the word is, I can't help but describe Bejeweled as "epic." It's flashy animation and dramatic music build a magnificent facade around its very simple rule set. It's hard to describe something so intangible, but the fact remains that Bejeweled aesthetic compels me to revisit it whenever I need my match-three fix. There is something aesthetically pleasing about the way the gems shatter, how the lighting pieces crackle, and how huge combos seem to line up with crescendos in the game's frantic soundtrack. I want to succeed not only to achieve a high score, but to embark upon mini match-three journeys, one minute at a time. Without, all the flamboyant effects, I simply wouldn't care as much.

For mechanics-focused folks like myself, it's important to remember that aesthetics are often powerful enough to affect the way we interact with game systems. The way the camera subtly zooms and bobs during a swan dive in Assassin's Creed still elicits a tingly feeling in my stomach. The drive to seek out this feeling is as powerful a motivator to climb the game's many towers as any of the strategic gains such actions grant me. Similarly, in Flower, picking up petals in specific sequences yields pleasant musical tones. Even though this doesn't add to any kind of "high score," the experience affects the way I play the game. I learn how to navigate more precisely, testing the limits of the control system and my reflexes not only to collect the petals, but to hear the music they make. It's an aesthetic cue that leads to a aesthetic reward, but serves to deepen my knowledge of the game's systems.

Trite as it may be to say, there's a reason we call them "video" games. Were it no so ungainly, we would more accurately call them "audio/video games". When searching for the essential features of a video game, its powerful multimedia aspects shouldn't be ignored.

Speaking powerful, the irresistible force that is Bejeweled beckons. If the podcast doesn't go up this week, send help.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mail Call!

Hey everyone! Jorge and I are interested in doing a "mailbag" show in which we take questions from listeners. Of course, for this to work, you all have to be interested as well!

So if you want to hear us jabber on about a particular topic, feel free to send us an email (experiencepoints AT gmail dot com), message or reply to us on Twitter (that's @JAlbor and @sjuster), submit a comment on this post, or dispatch your trained hawk to one of our homes.

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:

- Run time: 39 min 50 sec
- Krystian Majewski on Mass Effect and Batman: Arkham Asylum
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Strategies, Tactics, and Turnovers

Brace yourselves: this week at Popmatters, I'm talking about football. Don't worry, I'm also talking about video games and board games.

This weekend I was able partake in all three areas: I watched the 49ers' heartbreaking loss, I played the deviously complex Game of Thrones board game, and I plugged away on a few video games I've been playing. The combination of the three started to help me crystallize the way I think about video games as a medium in comparison to its other ludic cousins.
This piece was a hard one, and even after trying to think it through over the past couple days, I'm not entirely happy with it. An email exchange with my always-helpful editor, G. Christopher Williams, actually helped clarify my article's point, so I'll paraphrase my own emails here:

"Essentially, I'm trying to say that many video games are more like sports [than board games] because pressure to perform and tactical challenges can upset your strategy to a greater extent than can happen in most (all?) board games.

Another good example [of the connection between video games and sports] [is] tennis: if you're serving and you fail to get the ball over the net two times in a row, your opponent gets a point. Any tennis player worth his or her salt can easily get the ball over the net, but random mistakes, mental lapses, over-thinking their opponent's next move, even the wind can mess them up. When this happens, their whole strategy needs to change: now that they're down a point, they might not charge the net, they might try to serve slower but more accurately, or they might have just given up the game. The best tennis players are good at overcoming the pressure and mitigating random factors and are thus able to implement their strategy without having to worry about tactical mistakes.

Most board games do not, and possibly cannot, simulate the feeling of your body betraying your mind. You're never going to throw the dice "wrong." You're never going to have trouble playing a card; even if it is the wrong card from a strategic sense, you'll never have trouble implementing your action. Very few games have "double faults" in the way tennis does; random bad luck is either purely random (in the form of dice rolls or random cards) or nonexistent (like in chess). Video games with any kind of action component require at least some minimum amount of coordination between mental and physical effort, which makes them seem more like sports to me.

[Playing a board game might elicit an emotional response], but I imagine most of the groaning comes from the strategic binds [the game] places you in, rather than the immediate challenge of making your decisions. Now, if you had a timer that was ticking, forcing you to quickly move your pieces around the board, shuffle your cards, or count up points, I think you'd be bleeding back into sports territory, as a sloppy tactical mistake (dropping your tiles, counting incorrectly, missing a card, etc.) could compromise your strategy."

Granted, the line can get a bit murky, but I think the video game/sport relationship is understudied. Again, this theory isn't fully formed, but I think there is something to it.

In any case, at least it took my mind off of the 49ers' inglorious end.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

EXP Podcast #157: Breaching the Wall

We may say we are all part of a large gaming community, but some groups of players may be living in a walled off city, isolated from the popular discussion of games. World of Warcraft may have millions of players, but is the WoW community excluded now more than ever? Katie Williams thinks so in her article that inspired this week's podcast discussion. Who built these walls? What are we losing by isolating ourselves? And most importantly, how do we tear these walls down? Join Scott and me this week while we try to answer these questions and many more. As always, we encourage you to read Katie's original piece which you can find in the show notes below. We also encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Discuss starters:
- How relevant is WoW today?
- Are MMOs unique enough such that they inherently exist in a walled off city?
- What role do developers, and community managers in particular, play in fomenting conversation between 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:

- Run time: 29 min 05 sec
- "The Walled City of Gaming: World of Warcraft," by Katie Williams via Gameranx
- "Bow Nigger," by Always Black
- "Alice and Kev: The Story of Being Homeless in Sims 3," by Robin Burkinshaw
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ready Player Two

As you all know, I am a consumer of so much media I find it shocking I have enough time in the day to eat. This includes film and literature. So it is great when I can combine some aspects of one interest with another. I recently finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and I want to share some of my thoughts on a book filled to the brim with pop-culture references. My hope is that Scott and I will discuss the book in greater detail on the podcast at some point. It rightfully stands out among other young-adult novels in its unabashed glorification of "nerdy" videogames, television, movies, books, music and more, particularly the classics (for better of worse) of the eighties. The book is of and for the first generation that grew up on videogames and therefore casts light into the cultural space from>whence many of us come.

To give a quick plot synopsis of the work, Ready Player One takes place in a dystopic future in which the world has fallen prey to environmental degradation, an immense economic collapse, corporate power, and a general malaise. The vast majority of citizens spend all their time hiding from reality in the OASIS, an MMO in which the laws of fictions are routinely broken and players can visit thousands of worls to have adventure, shop, or even go to school. When the game designer dies, he leaves behind a set of riddles and puzzles themed around the pop-culture artifacts of his time and promises that the winner will inherit his fortune. Ernest Cline takes the premise of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and writes a love letter to the art of his era, from John Hughes' oeuvre to every game published for the Atari 2600.

I will avoid detailing any more of the plot or themes from the book. If you are reading this blog, I assure you the book is well worth your time.

It is strange reading a book that feels intentionally written for you. I will admit, I was born in the early eighties,  so I was still a child when a lot of this book's cultural icons took shape. While a miss many of the book's references, most make my smile and laugh at the fondly remembered canon of my youth. Ready Player One is filled to the brim with nostalgia. Every time the protagonist casually makes a Star Wars reference or relies on Dungeons & Dragons knowledge to overcome a challenge, it feels immensely rewarding. In the real world, I carry with me a lingering sense that the media I consumed as a child was a waste of time, that my mind is filled with useless limericks and crudely drawn dungeon maps. In the world of Ready Player One, trivial knowledge is invaluable. The book is an ultimate vindication of a youth spent in front of the television or around an arcade cabinet.

Yet the book's protagonist is a hero because of his actions when tested, not his collection of 80s pop-culture information. Cline manages to avoid glorifying the "otaku" image of a nerdy kid isolated from the world while also praising the cultural artifacts of an era. We partake in the stories we have consumed, be they games, books, or literature, and they have rewarded a bounty of lessons and, yes, even escapism. I welcome the nostalgia of Ready Player One because it is familiar, sure, but also because it finds value in the artifacts of the past and, most importantly, it wants to share them. At times when playing a game, I am struck by a sense of eager jubilation, and I want nothing more than to share this particular moment with the world, spreading my enthusiasm for a game, a piece of writing, or even just a digital vista. Of course we cannot always do that. But Ready Player One tries anyway. It creates a world born of many of our shared experiences, a love letter meant to share an appreciation of the media that helped raise a generation.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Endeavor and the Economics of Slavery

My latest article is up on PopMatters: Endeavor and the Economics of Slavery.

I am a big fan of board games but rarely get an opportunity to discuss their design or significance in this venue. On several occasions Scott and I have discussed on the podcast whether certain game genres lend themselves better to certain experiences or messages. Board games are a fuzzy genre-like case because, theoretically, you could duplicate all the systems of a board game in a digital space. Many companies do in fact. Apples to Apples is now a video game, with significant rule changes from the card version. Carcassone is quite popular on XBLA and on the iOS as well. However, these digital versions still fail to capture the social and tactile elements of board games that fundamentally shape their play experience. 

In the case of Endeavor, we can imagine a strategy game that chooses to model something like slavery in a similar fashion. But even if the rule system remained essentially the same, players may respond differently to the moral issues a model of slavery elicits. The shackles printed on the cards, for example, brought up disturbing visions of the human wrists and ankles they were meant to confine. The infamous drawing of a slave galley filled to the brim like a can of sardines came to mind, a high-school history lesson I will never shake forget. I brought my own morality to the table and I grew uncomfortable with finishing the game without first abolishing slavery. 

Of course not everyone thinks twice about the moral or ethical implications of game design. I argue in the article that game designers should be less concerned about giving offense because creating offensive content might be required before we can mine historical systems for all their worth. Given the same system, perhaps digital game designers need to be more sensitive. Maybe the act of playing alone makes one less critical of a game's moral quandaries than playing with others and discussing the content as it arises. Everyone generally knows how atrocious the slave trade was, so it may not be the best example to explore how group play affects rhetorical outcomes. I would be even more interested in a game tackling the modern day slave trade. That would be truly brave game design. In the mean time, Endeavor might teach us how to approach such sensitive material, both the risks and rewards.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Stop SOPA and PIPA

Hey folks. As you may have heard, two pieces of disturbing legislation are currently working their way through the U.S. government. The Stop Online Privacy Act ("SOPA") and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act ("PROTECT IP" or "PIPA") threaten to grant big media companies the power to censor the Internet, stifle innovation, and monopolize the business of creating media content. We won't go into further detail here, but for those interested, Reddit has compiled good guides for educating yourself about the bills' various provisions and implications:

A Technical Examination of SOPA

When a group as diverse as the Internet's founding architects, security experts, legal scholars, major tech companies, MoveOn, The Tea Party Patriots, a host of video game companies, and millions of citizens come out in opposition of an idea, you can be certain something interesting is happening. Like the other opponents of SOPA/PIPA, Jorge and I stand for an open Internet, free from the draconian policies big media companies wish to implement.

Simply put, the kind of copyright laws SOPA supporters (which include companies like CBS and Viacom and organizations like the MPAA and the game industry's own ESA) seek would make it very hard, if not impossible, to foster the kind of creative space we have carved out here at Experience Points. Government-endorsed censorship, blacklists, and monopolies have no place in the video game sphere, on the Internet, or any in any other realm of human culture and society.

We know how busy everyone is and how daunting such a huge task can feel, but anything you can do to resist this threat would make a difference. Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Ars Technica all offer good starting points for contributing to the cause. Speaking out on these issues, petitioning your government representatives, and supporting independent media are crucial steps to take. Whether you live in the U.S. or are one of our many international friends, this issue effects you. Whether you do so with your voice, your political support, or your wallet, please oppose the forces that lead to this type of legislation.

Again, we know it seems overwhelming, but we can do it. In the face of today's protests, you can see SOPA's proponents getting worried. Shrill rhetoric is often a sign of desperation.

Thanks for your help and support!

- Jorge and Scott

EXP Podcast #156: Contextual Greatness

When we talk about the greatest games of all time in terms of their design, technology, and art, are we fooling ourselves? In a recent opinion piece, Leigh Alexander suggests that "truly great games" are all about players' personal contexts. This week, we use her article about the mystique surrounding Ocarina of Time as a starting point for a discussion about how our memories and the passage of time shape and re-shape some of our favorite games. As always, we're looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!

Discussion starters:

- When you think about your favorite games, how crucial was the context in which you played themt?
- Have you ever revisited a game and then come away with a drastically new opinion?
- How should we take a game's context into account when thinking about its legacy?

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:

- Run time: 30 min 20 sec
- "Truly Great Games," by Leigh Alexander, via Edge
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Charming Little Monsters

I realized the other day that, even though it has been some time since Jorge and I began our foray into Facebook games, I haven't actually written much about them. Fear not: this isn't going to be a post dedicated to pro tips on min-maxing strawberry production (although I have some thoughts on that). Instead, I'd like to recommend what I believe to be a quality "gateway" game for traditional players interested in social games: PixelJunk Monsters Online. PixelJunk Monsters Online is a clever take on a few familiar concepts and it manages to leverage its platform without indulging in the many of the more questionable habits other Facebook games exhibit.

Like its console counterpart, it's a tower defense game, and a fairly traditional one at that. After a round of building stationary defenses, lines of enemies with various abilities and strengths stream towards your base. The more enemies you stop and the more upgrades you make, the higher your score. It's a simple, yet challenging game that is well suited to leaderboard dynamics. There is always a better, more efficient way to defend a stage and since you're playing on Facebook your friends will be able to prove it. On-line leaderboards come naturally to Facebook and, since the game is free, it is much easier to build up a group of players to compete against.

From a mechanical perspective, I've always found tower defense games to be most enjoyable on the PC. Being able to quickly click on defenses and areas of the map is faster with a mouse and the static playing field and cartoonish graphics don't lose their impact when played on the small screen. Strategically queuing actions is usually the key to victory, but actively controlling your avatar to collect items before they fade away has saved me more than once. These actions are perfectly suited to the strengths of the mouse and are not dependant on high production values. This isn't to say that PixelJunk Monsters Online is aesthetically boring. Q-Games brings a fittingly whimsical art and musical style that, while more cartoonish than its console counterpart, is still distinct.

I admire the game most for its ethical implementation of common Facebook game payment schemes. Like most other Facebook games, Pixel Junk Monsters Online limits the amount of progress you can make in any one play session. Expend all your in-game currency and you'll have to wait a few hours before you can access any new levels or search for more powerups. "Rainbow juice" can be used to automatically open levels and can be bought with real money, but it can also be won though skilled play. Clearing stages perfectly yields rainbow juice, which essentially means that the better you get, the more you can play.

Whereas many Facebook games give you no other way to earn more currency besides begging your friends or trading it for cash, PixelJunk Monsters Online offers a proposition. Practice, improvement, and success are rewarded by longer play times and a richer social experience (it's annoying to be bumped from the top of the leader board, regardless of whether you're king of stage 1 or 100). Someone without a lot of money to spend won't be priced out of the game, whereas people with cash to spare have the luxury of skipping the grind if they so choose. Either way, you have access to two legitimate ways of playing the game: you can go for high scores or push yourself to explore all the stages.

By allowing for both these options, Q-Games has made a social game that respects your time, your money, and your friends. Instead of leveraging players and their social connections as pure assets, PixelJunk Monsters Online rewards skill as much as it does free time, money, or the number of friends you have. At its core, it taps into an ethos that dates back to the arcades: money can buy you more time, but only practice and skill will make you better at the game and allow you secure your spot in the most enviable social position: the top of the leader board.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Search of the 'Skyward Sword' Audience

This week at PopMatters, I take aim at The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Zelda is one of my favorite series, one that I believe usually showcases the best the medium has to offer. Over the years, Zelda games have pushed design philosophy forward, implementing dynamics to which most other games still aspire. Therefore, it brings me no pleasure to say that Skyward Sword is a disappointment.

Certainly, there are bright spots. The world is vibrant, the art style is charming, the music is superb, and some of the motion control is enjoyable, although "some" is a very important qualifier in this case (more on that topic in the future). Conceptually, the puzzles and secrets are as clever and inventive as ever.

The game's implementation is another story. As I wrote last week, Hanah and I are playing the game together, and our unique gripes about the game started me thinking: who is Skyward Sword's intended audience? I get exasperated by the didactic tutorial sequences, the slow storytelling pace, and the inexcusable technical snafus (such as irritating load times and weird motion control). My wife gets irritated by the game's demanding difficulty and obscure quest design. We are both annoyed by inexplicable rule changes and poorly telegraphed action sequences that both assume a level of familiarity with other game conventions that are neither taught to the player nor suited the franchise's historical design.

Making a game for "everybody" is a dangerous course of action, but one that Nintendo probably felt compelled to pursue. After all, the Wii's accessibility was the key to its success, so it's understandable that Skyward Sword would be slowed down and simplified for an audience comprised largely of first-timers. Simultaneously, Zelda is one of the few reasons "core" gamers still come back to Nintendo year after year. Skyward Sword needed to meet their expectations as well. Combine all this with a rapidly changing industry landscape (one that has shifted sharply away from Japanese RPGs and towards action-oriented, set piece games) and you have the recipe for an exceedingly strange brew.

Playing Skyward Sword has been a mixture of pleasure, frustration, and outright confusion. It doesn't feel like it was made for any single type of person, and thus ends up feeling like it was made for no one.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

EXP Podcast #155: 2012 Predictions

We have consulted the Mayan calendar, had a chat with John Cusack, and returned with our prediction on games, habits, and hardware for the coming year. This time we take a scatter shot approach, going down a long list of topics and releases in hopes of sharing out quick thoughts on almost every 2012 issue on the horizon. Naturally we missed out on something you are eagerly awaiting. Let us know what that is in the comments section below. Again, happy new year and we look forward to discovering what the future actually holds.

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:

- Run time: 34 min 45 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Some Past Reviews

As a result of a fast moving schedule and a gradual multimedia posting schedule, I have neglected to discuss three game reviews I have written over the past few months. I want to spend some time talking about writing these reviews, what thoughts went into it, and a bit about the games themselves, none of which I have yet talked about in posts or on the podcast. To read the reviews, just click on the titles. In the future, I promise to bring your attention to these posts a little sooner. If you have plated any of these, I would also love to hear your thoughts.

Magic The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012: Ascend Into Darkness

Yikes! I wrote this back in October (and wow, what a mouthful of a title).

This was an interesting one to write because it brought up all my memories of playing MtG back in grade school. In the seventh grade, when some of my friends started getting into recreational drug use (kids these days), I started getting into epic Magic battles scheduled nearly every day in the library during lunch time. By high school I was slightly more cool, but still played with friends and even frequented weekly Magic tournaments at Clark's, a comic book and game store that hosted matches in the cramped and poorly ventilated back room. I was just a kid with very little money to invest in building a solid deck, but I admired the game and its skilled players nonetheless.

Today I still have a hefty collection of Magic cards and a favorite deck of mine I built later in life when I had some extra cash to spurge on my childhood dream. If you are ever in the Bay Area, I will absolutely play with you in person, which offers a special experience the xbla version of Magic cannot provide. That being said, the game is still as sharp as ever. Wizards of the Coast has refined the formula over the years and today, after instituting some prudent cuts into the bloated collection of rules and cards collection, still put out the best collectible card game on the market. I miss the days when I was "in it," and Duels of the Planeswalkers brings some of that back to me.

Crimson Alliance

Few people enjoy writing a bad review for a game, so I will leave this part short. After writing this review, I ventured online to see what other critics thought of the game and was surprised to find a decent number of positive reviews. Where I saw a deliberate abuse of genre conventions others saw a decent four-player dungeon crawler. I understand the game might scratch an itch, but it irritates me knowing Crimson Alliance does so without trying to add upon, or even respect, the existing fantasy/dungeon-crawler formula. This is fast-food gaming.

Professor Layton and the Last Specter

Playing Professor Layton always fills me with child-like wonderment. I can only equate the sensations I get from playing the series to the sensations I get from watching Studio Ghibli films. They are both otherworldly and comfortably familiar simultaneously. While Last Specter is certainly the worst in the franchise, it still delivers on tone and atmosphere familiar to Layton fans. I am eager to see what Level-5 can do with the Nintendo 3DS for both their animation and their puzzle design.

Oh. In reverence to the spirit of the Layton series, I hid a simple word puzzle in the review, which made this a treat to write. See if you can figure it out.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Playing Dark Souls Desperate Acts and Our Shared Humanity

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Playing Dark Souls: Desperate Acts and Our Shared Humanity.

I almost called this article "Why Playing Dark Souls is Like Chopping Your Own Arm Off." I try to keep an inspirational tone throughout the piece, which I really do feel while playing the game. I also feel an immense amount of frustration. Most of the time my frustration stems from my own failings than the game system itself, and  more importantly, how little the game respects my time. Like its predecessor, Dark Souls lacks a pause feature. OK, I get it. I need to fully commit to playing, I cannot go in half-hearted. I respect that philosophically. In fact, that plays right into the sensations evoked by Danny Boyle's take on Ralston's experience. Even the way I learn to defeat minions and bosses on the way to the next bonfire demands I do it all at once lest I forget.

Unfortunately, I cannot feet Dark Souls easily into my normal life. I cannot always commit to hour-long play sessions, particularly free of interruption. I might get a phone call, or have get a call from by boss, and have to frantically find a place to rest while spending every minute outside the game trying to remember the dance maneuvers that will save my life when I go back in. I am sad to admit this, but I do not think Dark Souls is a game I will finish. That being said, I welcome your pep talks.

Now on a slight tangent. I realize 127 Hours came out awhile ago, but I found the film immensely compelling. Boyle gorgeously lavishes our human capacity to overcome challenges and even our own mistakes. I would almost call it a "feel good" movie even though it is about a man who chops his own arm off.

However, there are darker tales of our universal humanity. For example, Into Thin Air chronicles author Jon Krakauer's trip up Mt. Everest on which eight people lost their lives in a single night. I implore you: read this book. It will keep you thinking well after the final pages have turned. Whereas Boyle shows the human capacity to overcome great obstacles, Krakaur shows how humans can also succumb to their own egos, frailties, selfish whims, and ignorance when faced with these same obstacles. The book frighten you with its critique of mistakes any of us could make. Indeed, we all make mistakes all the time, and in extreme circumstances, this mistakes are revealed to be monstrous and grotesque. I love Dark Souls for the universal humanity it depicts on the apex of tenacity, but I also want to clime that mountain and find only human remains, the bones of all the fools that have come before.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

EXP Podcast #154: 2011 Games of the Year

It's that time of the year again, folks: time to pick our game of the year! Jorge and I could never pick just one (or could we...?), so we each pick three of our favorite games from 2011 and talk about what makes them great. It was a great year, if I do say so myself, and our lists reflect the many diverse and memorable titles released over the past year. Of course, we don't come close to discussing all the great games of 2011, so we're looking forward to hearing your favorites in the comments! Happy New Year 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:

SPOILER WARNING: Our picks are included below

Jorge's Games of the Year:

Portal 2

Scott's Games of the Year:

don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story
Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars
Portal 2

- Run time: 34 min 53 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Zelda for Two

Honestly, it took some will power to step away from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword long enough to write this. I'll share some in-depth thoughts about the game itself and its place in the series in the coming weeks, but today I want to take a different approach. As it stands now, it's not necessarily the game itself that keeps drawing me in, but the way I'm playing it. For the first time ever, I'm doing a collaborative playthrough of a Zelda game. My wife Hanah is making her first foray into the Zelda universe, while I am a grizzled veteran of the series. Together, we make an odd couple, but our partnership has been made the experience uniquely enjoyable.

If you're being charitable, you could call Skyward Sword rooted in tradition. Some would argue that "repetition" is a better word. Either way, there is little denying that Zelda games have a specific formula. Playing with Hanah is refreshing because she hasn't grown accustomed to the formula yet. I know that we're almost done with the first three primary dungeons and we haven't yet filled out our inventory, which means there are likely four to seven more second-wave dungeons to go. I know exactly what happens when you catch a fairy in a bottle. I've done the ghostly toilet paper quest before. But to Hanah, this is all new and the novelty she experiences offers a vicarious excitement.

It's also nice to have someone to diffuse my nerd rage and generally jaded outlook. Ultimately, it really doesn't matter that they Link isn't a lefty in Skyward Sword, and the fact that there are hidden treasure chests all around the world is actually pretty neat. Playing along with someone who is relatively new to the universe is an easy way to appreciate the things I usually take for granted. Thanks to my prior knowledge, we can quickly cut through the extraneous dialogue and didactic explanations of basic moves and get back to what makes a Zelda game special: encountering the unexpected. Thanks to Hanah's patience for questing and item collection, I've paid more attention to the crafting system than I would have on my own. As was the case in Twilight Princess, the world is crawling with insects to catch and utilize. Thanks to my wife's interest, they are more than simply moving scenery this time around.

Of course, not everything in Skyward Sword is a re-hash. Thanks to its extensive use of motion controls, it's a new experience for even long-time Zelda players. Testing the capabilities of the Wii Motion Plus by experimenting with the new swordplay techniques, item capabilities, and even Link's basic movement is an adventure unto itself. Since the motion invalidates a good chunk of my prior skills, we're both analyzing the best tactics to employ. We've already had some in-depth discussions about the game's design choices that, in retrospect, were worthy of a podcast.

While Skyward Sword hasn't always been the most intuitive or technically polished adventure (for example: a malfunctioning nunchuk hampered the first few hours of our journey), it has been a memorable one. Skyward Sword is a dramatic departure for the series in a variety of ways, and it's been nice to have a companion in this brave new world that has such waggle in it.