Thursday, August 30, 2012

Unmanned and the Rhetoric of Division

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Unmanned and the rhetoric of division.

Molleindustria has received quite a bit of attention for their consistently critical games. Phone Story might be their most widely played game, partially because Apple removed it from the marketplace seemingly because it criticized the relationship between technology and exploitation. Every Day The Same Dream received quite a bit of positive press for its evocative message about monotony and labor. These game are great, but I really do believe Unmanned is their best game yet.

In many ways this article is a sort of scoreless review. I had initially planned to talk about a few other games that use separation as a mechanic and a metaphor, but I think Unmanned deserves the spotlight. The themes of division and delay go far deeper than the two split screens. The game itself and the way it intentionally alienates itself from war games and, indeed, most flash games, drives home its multifaceted message so well.

The issue of boredom I find particularly interesting. I briefly mention Greg Costikyan's blog on gamasutra in the piece, but it deserves another mention here. I like this bit especially:

Gamers are trained to react to "boring" games by putting them down; they are not likely to play a little longer, to understand that boredom is part of the subtext of the game, to see that it is boring for a reason, that the designers are purposefully shaping a boring experience to bring out a sense of the anomie of life, and the distancing that drone warfare brings to combat.

I also think boredom is used to highlight the danger of "fun". Kirk's child plays war games and has a grand old time. Indeed, the most mechanically satisfying moment in Unmanned is playing along with him. But that thrill he gets is so alien to the war game experience of Unmanned. I do not suggest that violent video games necessarily desensitize to the violence of war, although that very well might be the case. Rather, Unmanned asks us to question how the act of fun might be a deliberate way we choose to distance ourselves from global systems - the same global systems that might construct the backdrop of the games we make for fun. In Unmanned, division involves choice. This isn't just a story about the injustice of drone warfare, but about psychological division and personal culpability. It might not be fun to play, but it is a nuanced and important experience.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

EXP Podcast #186: Playing with Psychology

Image from Flickr user One From RM
What does the way we play games say about our real life behavior? It's a question Lore Sjöberg poses in a recent article about the way our external psychology manifests itself in our virtual avatars. We touch on everything from behavioral quirks to personal notions of justice, so hopefully by the end you have a better idea of what makes Jorge and me tick. Feel like a little bit of therapeutic sharing? As always, we welcome 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: 32 min 22 sec
- "Alt Text: It’s Time for Videogame Psychotherapy," by Lore By Lore Sjöberg, via Wired
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Subtlety in Solitaire Blitz

Image from PopCap
As I've said before, I think PopCap publishes really great games. Even when it's something as simple as a match 3 game, their attention to detail and high production values set their games apart from the crowd. It's not always about flash though: many PopCap games are also great at presenting the player with interesting choices and game dynamics. This is the case with Solitaire Blitz, one of the Facebook games I've been playing as part of my ongoing quest to improve my knowledge of the social games scene.

Muscle Memory and UI

Solitaire Blitz is a variant on the Klondike Solitaire ruleset. The goal is to get all the card columns into the top stacks before you cycle through the rest of the deck or run out of time. The rules are slightly different, in that cards don't need to be stacked by suit and can be stacked in ascending or descending order (for example, a 4 can be laid on either a 5 or a 3, regardless of suit). I quickly grasped the basic rules, but found myself having an unusual problem: I kept accidentally pausing the game.

It's hard to self-diagnose behavioral anomalies, but I think my problem stems from UI design and Microsoft's hold on my brain. Take a look at a Solitaire Blitz screenshot:

The portion I've circled controls the pausing and unpausing of the game. It also houses the timer and the game's mascot: a cartoonish worm that wriggles and makes noises as you play. This draws a lot of attention to that corner of the screen, which in turn makes it easy for your cursor to drift over there. It's not a deal breaker, but it can be distracting. Who knows? Maybe this is part of the game's challenge.

However, it's not like the draw deck is hidden. On the contrary, the cards are big and they're quite close to both the top rows and the bottom columns, which allows you to see most of the important parts of the game in a single glance. But if that's the case, why did I find myself inadvertently pausing the game?

Here's my theory: Windows Solitaire has trained me to automatically go to the top-left corner of the screen if I want to draw a card. The draw deck is exactly where the pause button is in Solitaire Blitz:

I've undoubtedly played hundreds, if not thousands, of games of Solitaire in my life. The vast majority of these games were played using a particular interface that, while perhaps not perfect, has successfully trained me to play in a certain way. The fact that I kept mistaking Solitaire Blitz pause button for the draw deck isn't necessarily a slight against the game's design, so much as it is a demonstration of how much influence entrenched design conventions wield.

I actually think PopCap's way makes more sense: having the deck closer to the top row means it is in a more central location relative the bottom stacks you'll be working with. Placing it there minimizes the average distance you need to move your cursor while playing, which is important in a game in with a time limit. However, making this choice means I have to unlearn decades of behavior that has been hardwired into my brain. On top of this, the decision to put a lively, moving sprite with important information in that location further draws my attention to the area.

Again, this isn't to say that the design decisions made in Solitaire Blitz are bad; it just illustrates how influential subtle details can be.

Interesting Choices, Constrained by Time

Solitaire Blitz's game dynamics are also subject to very subtle rules. The game constantly presents you with decisions which you are forced to weigh quickly. I recorded a video and made some annotations highlighting some of the small, yet significant, turning points in one of my games:

The video only shows only a few of the myriad situations Solitaire Blitz presents to players. Playing the game is a continual exercise in concentration and examining the relative risks of your available choices:
  • Should you try to quickly chain together cards for a score multiplier or go for a time bonus?
  • Is a quick glance enough to tell how many cards are blocking the bonus time line, or do I need to count them carefully?
  • When considering your next move, what do you do if you have multiple options?
  • Is it worth the precious seconds it takes to think about the next few moves before you make them?
  •  Is a good combo worth more than immediately unlocking another deck space in the top row?
  • What happens when you start clicking before the counter starts? (You can sneak a few extra moves!) What happens if you randomly click or try to make illegal moves? (You lose a bonus!)
I purposely ignored the game's larger financial model in this discussion, which is based on the Facebook free-to-play "energy" system. Unsurprisingly, you can circumvent this limitation by involving your Facebook friends in the game or by simply paying for more energy with real money. On top of all this, there are powerups you can use before a round that can do everything from extend the time limit to give you bonus cards. Similarly to the way energy is implemented, these items can be bought with in game cash earned from winning, by enticing your friends to play the game, or by simply opening your real-world wallet.

The important thing to note about this is that none of the game's core mechanics are hampered by the financial model. This is something I think a lot of social developers can learn from. Even if you never pay anything out of pocket, you'll still be able to experience the system of interesting, meaningful, cascading decisions that makes Solitaire Blitz an outstanding game.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

'Demon's Souls' Debrief

Image from
The following post contains spoilers for Demon's Souls.

This week at PopMatters, I finally wrap up Demon's Souls.

I actually finished the game several weeks ago and had been meaning to write something about it. The problem was that I couldn't figure out what to say. I think this was partly due to the general numbness one feels after finally finishing a game as brutally difficult as Demon's Souls.

A less hyperbolic reason is because the ending is strangely ambiguous. The entire game is about making your way through ridiculously dangerous environments in order to fight massive, deadly bosses. At first, it seems like this the last boss will conform to this pattern. After all, you fight him inside an enormous living beast that also happens to be the source of the evil you've been battling for the entire game. But then, you get to the final confrontation and are presented with what I see as a joke conveyed through game mechanics: for the first time in the whole game, you're able to easily dominate your opponent.

I actually didn't get a chance to talk about the most amusing thing about the ending in my column: after you finish the game, you're immediately dumped into newgame plus mode. As if after dozens of hours and thousands of lost souls, the first thing you'll want to do is start again on an even harder difficulty setting. Imagine the research and the skills necessary to go through the whole thing again. Actually, when you put it that way, it would be interesting to see just how powerful the revamped enemies are...

It's this feedback loop that ultimately made Demon's Souls so compelling. Things start out pretty discouraging, but each time to try something new or progress a bit further you learn something that will help you next time. Eventually, you've constructed a plan and developed your reflexes to the point where you can succeed. On top of this iterative mindset, you also develop a brutal disposition, similar to the one your enemies have towards you: when you encounter a new enemy, you know that survival is about decisive, merciless action. When you reach the end and employ this mindset against the final boss, his pathetic strength serves to highlight how much you've come to resemble the brutal demons you've been fighting.

I guess the fact I was essentially transformed into a monster via systemic interactions should be disturbing, but my I suppose my mind has been warped: I just think it's funny.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

EXP Podcast #185: Gamescom 2012 Recap

Gamescom has come and gone, and with an amazing turnout at that! The yearly European game conference brings out all sorts of good news and this year, the news mostly concerns brand new games on the horizon. Join us on the EXP Podcast this week to discuss downpours, puppetry, armies of Pomeranians, and so much more. As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Also, be sure to check out the show notes for links to all the game trailers we discuss on the show!

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 40 sec
 - Trailers: Rain, Remember Me, Tokyo Jungle, Until DawnPuppeteer, Tearaway.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On Interracial Relationships

According to the United States Census Bureau interracial marriage is at an all time high? It really shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, interracial marriage has only been protected by law since 1967, when the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia agreed with the now common-sense belief love need not follow social conventions. The same year, Director Stanley Kramer broached the still heated subject in film with  Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a film about a young white woman who brings her highly educated, respectable, and black fiance to meet her "progressive" liberal parents. The film remains one of the best takes on race relations and, in its time, pioneered the rare depiction of positive interracial relations in the media.

I could go into great detail about growing up as a person of color and the ways the world seems cordoned off. It was still uncommon to see interracial relationships when watching films and television shows. Suffice it to say that, for a time, I felt perpetually stuck in ethnic boundaries not of my choosing. Like most partners in interracial relationships, the uniqueness of the situation rarely crosses my mind unless a third party comments on it ("That's different" being my personal favorite) or if I watch Friends (which always seemed so shockingly homogeneous).

Every now and then it's nice to see my lifestyle affirmed in the media I consume. This has been discussed in gaming of late by a slew of talented writers who correctly interrogate the lack of diversity in both television and games. While we are collectively on the subject, I just want to put in my vote for more diverse relationships. I too am thrilled that Dom Santiago diversifies the Gears of War cast, but it also feels a bit conformist to see him shacked up with Maria. Even in the decayed future, romantic racial lines generally follow normative values.

Also, to give praise where it is due, three cheers for Commander Shepard and her inter-species love affairs. I don't quite know how Garen and Femshep are meant to copulate, but I would guess that under the covers, even anatomical differences matter little. I should also don my hat to Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance, whose romantic tension is palpable and completely ignores social conventions. Maybe there is a young Latino kid out there, a little me, who after playing Mass Effect, decides to step outside his internalized constraints and make his move.

None of this is to say I find all same race (usually white) couples in games aggravating. You would be mistaken to presume I didn't blush at the touching scene between Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher in Uncharted 3. But hey, when it's time to draw up a touching love story next time, why not take a look at the diversity all around us. Yes, a majority of people still marry partners of their own race or ethnicity, but these figures are changing, particularly among the young and college educated. Also, even these relatively low marriage numbers are skewed. People of all races date and cohabitate together with higher frequency than every before. Let's take Shepard's lesson and race to a galaxy full of diverse romantic options. If love can buck conventions, so can games.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Extremes of Human Systems

My latest PopMatters article is now life: The Extremes of Human Systems

This post idea initially came from pondering on books that I think would make compelling game experiences. Unsurprisingly, I tend to think about how most any media or cultural artifact could relate to video games. When I thought about books, I kept coming back to non-fiction and Into Thin Air in particular.

When I first read Into Thin Air, I could not stop thinking about it. Krakaur's narrative slips so fluidly between normalcy and incomprehensible reality on the summit of Everest, but it also takes its time. You know the fate that will befall the team, so each mistake, each piece of every system that leads to that deadly night, feels foreboding and ominous. Yet even with all the pieces laid out, it is not so easy to put everything into a sensible package.

See, most complex systems, while understandable in parts, are so intertwined and reliant on disparate pieces that getting sense of the whole is nigh impossible. Sure, we can imagine how a system works from a high level of analysis. The quantifiable metrics of trash collection, for example, can give us a glimmer into the workings of a major city. But these metrics can shed very little light on the inner workings of a family system, itself no less intertwined with the systems around it.

Situations of extreme survival provide easy opportunities into the human condition precisely because in these scenarios, systems start to break down and you can see inside, as though cracking open some alien creature's rib cage. Underneath large systems, we find smaller ones that, in times of great stress, mean absolutely everything. We have insane survival scenarios in games all the time, but very rarely do these scenarios hide anything but trivialities.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

EXP Podcast #184: Winners, Losers, and the Olympics

Image from
How important is competition? What does the thrill of victory (and the agony of defeat!) teach us? Ian Bogost sparked these questions in a recent essay about the importance of competition, and we use his piece as a starting point to hash out the merits of having games with clear winners and losers. We also go on liberal tangents about the Olympics, dodgeball, and the effects of public leaderboards in single-player 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: 41 min 04 sec
- "In Defense of Competition," by Ian Bogost
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Thoughts on Reviews and Missing the Bandwagon

Image from
I try to steer clear of coverage on games I'm reviewing in order to minimize my preconceived notions. I'm not a maniac about it, as it's nearly impossible to insulate yourself completely, and sometimes considering the larger context of a game is important to understanding it. Still, given the choice, I always err on the side of coming into a game without knowing too much about it. It strikes me as being fair towards the developers and it gives me the pleasure of discovering a game's surprises on my own.

My recent review of Dyad got me thinking about the popular opinion around high profile games. I ended up liking it quite a bit, but I was initially a bit worried: I had made the mistake of reading some of the pre-release hype and felt like I was missing something. A preview in Kill Screen made the game sound like a religious experience:
In short, McGrath has brought the life-affirming sensation of looking at a great painting, watching an incredible film, witnessing a rare performance; having your understanding of the world violently reinvented; whatever, they are all the one thing called art, into the acts of moving a stick and pressing a button. Videogames have made profound observations and statements, but as things for anyone to simply behold in wonder, they have faltered. This is a first for videogames.
The notoriously picky Tim Rogers starred in a promotional video that, while comedic, was a clear endorsement of the game. My Twitter feed was full of designers and writers singing Dyad's praises. I was having a good time (and I think Dyad is an excellent game), but I wasn't having the existential revelation that others seemed to be having. Amusingly enough, my review ended up being a fairly typical one: the general review consensus seems to have settled into a similar "great, but not earth-shattering" mindset.

For a minute there, I thought I might be entering "Tom Chick on Journey" territory. It wouldn't be the first time I missed the bandwagon on a popular game. For example, I found Limbo underwhelming. A more controversial example might be my opinion on pretty much every Sonic game I've ever played: I find them to be average (at best). Last year I revisited Sonic CD and came away with the same question: why do people like these games so much? Maybe it was just playing them in the right place, at the right time. Or maybe I'm still missing something, some key to unlocking their appeal?

Despite the risk of self-indulgent navel gazing, I think asking these types of questions is necessary from time to time. No one lives in a vacuum, so we might as well be aware of our influences and biases. What about you all? Do you bother insulating yourselves from chatter about games you intend to play? What games do you have a hard time "getting?"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Missing the Point in 'Metroid: Other M'

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I explain why I think Metroid: Other M "misses the point."

Basically, the game falls victim to the curse that's been plaguing Star Wars since the prequels came out: Other M focuses too much on the details of its lore and, in the process, loses the spirit that made the series special in in the first place. Instead of focusing on environmental storytelling and exploration, Other M shovels the equivalent of a heaping pile of midichlorians onto the screen. The existence of unimaginative writing and exposition dumps is bad enough, but what's truly sad is the way Samus becomes a victim of the dialog and cutscenes. A mysterious, effective warrior becomes an incompetent sniveling child before our eyes.

Equally tragic is the way this surface-level appreciation of Metroid infects the game's mechanics. I go into this in the article, but I think it bears repeating: Doing the wall jump in Super Metroid was an achievement. It required exploration, problem solving skills, and the manual dexterity to pull it off. It was special because it summed up the game's exploratory approach and required actual effort to execute. Wall jumping in Other M is all but automatic: the procedure is literally spelled out for you in an onscreen prompt, and the action itself is simplified to the point of triviality. The result is something that looks right from a visual perspective, but lacks the essence of what makes the move special.

It's just one of the many elements in the game that was seemingly included out of obligation, rather than necessity. As the Prime series demonstrated, you don't need to blindly follow precedent and mine (or perhaps manufacture?) a backstory in order to make a Metroid game that upholds the tradition of the NES/SNES games. If Retro could make three great first-person games, it's conceivable that Team Ninja could have delivered a successful, more melee-centric take on the franchise. In some ways, they did.

However, there is simply too much facade and not enough substance in Other M. Or rather, there is too much substance when it comes to story and dialog, and not enough when it comes to meaningful game elements.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

EXP Podcast #183: Listener Mail 2

We made the call and you answered. By post, pigeon, and pyschic connection, you sent in questions for the show. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I answer them. We touch on game ideas, to DS favorites, and even the latest Kickstarter craze, the Ouya. As always, if you have questions or topics you want to hear discussed on the show, you can contact us at any time at experiencepoints[at] or via twitter (@sjuster and @jalbor). We would also love to hear your thoughts in the comments section 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:

- Run time: 32 min 07 sec
California Extreme's website
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Familiarity and Tacarigua

As a result of work, review obligations, and some unfortunate lost save files, I have played through the first major island of Risen 2 five times. Tacarigua, an island of pirates, giant crabs, wild boars, escaped slaves, and enough fetch quests to make a a player sick after just two playthroughs. My familiarity with the geography of this island and all the quests it hides in its coves and jungle has removed all my natural enjoyment with this initial section of the game and replaced with an entirely different form of appreciation.

See, I just cannot approach Tacarigua with eyes anew. Every conversation feels rehearsed in a way it never felt on my first playthrough. The land itself has become so predictable that I feel as though I constructed myself with lego blocks. The island has become a clearly designed piece of architecture.

Scott frequently mentions a tendency to view games as though they were wireframes, transparent pieces of design in which he plays. I imagine my feelings towards Tacarigua are much the same. There is a particular cave just off the beaten path that hides an enemy players will have a hard time killing at low level. A glint of light makes it a tantalizing place to explore, but it also clearly to the side and around the corner of one’s intended destination.  Weeds grow high around it and now, after seeing most of the island this many times, it seems clearly marked as dangerous territory. Five times through, the entire island is dotted with traffic signs.

Of course I have played a few games multiple times in the past. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus I worked my way through several times at least, and I am just familiar with the rocks and plains of those games as I am with Tacarigua. Of course, at least thus far, those two games are far more compelling than Risen 2. Also, I tend to separate my playthrough with a year or two. So while I can appreciate the island of pirates with a newfound appreciation of its more subtle touches, I have also grown so very tired of the same damn missions. My thoughts on this one island have been colored by my extended stay. But once my boat leaves its harbor for the last time, the shores of as yet unexplored terrain become that much more exciting.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Exploring the Episodic Nature of 'The Walking Dead'

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Exploring the Episodic Nature of 'The Walking Dead'.

So I wrote about The Walking Dead, again. Frankly, I can't quite stop thinking about this game. I know it is far from perfect. Some of the story decisions, even in the first two episodes repeat themselves. Other times, the decisions are sudden and blunt, their outcomes too obviously telegraphed. For the most part though, these are rare occurrences.

I come back to this game because, like the best RPGs, I genuinely feel invested in these characters and their relationships. In a zombie-infested world, where things can go terribly wrong, the tensions these relationships evoke are even stronger. Lee and Clementine's father-daughter thing going on (they are not actually related), would be compelling in any atmosphere, true. But when the living are more dangerous than the dead, when some guy comes out of nowhere to bash another person's skull in with a giant salt block, I feel as tough these characters are living on a much thinner thread.

I also think I come back to the game because, after playing just two episodes, I have the what-happens-next hook in me. Of course I find the episodic nature of The Walking Dead compelling, I am eagerly awaiting the next episode of the game like those tied to cable subscriptions eagerly wait for the next episode of Vampire Diaries. The game works amazingly well because, not despite, of its episodic nature.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

EXP Podcast #182: Live from California Extreme!

Photo by Hanah Zahner-Isenberg
Last weekend, Jorge, Hanah, and I went on a field trip to California Extreme. Best described as "a classic arcade games show," it's a celebration of historical video and pinball games and a chance to literally play with history without having to worry about running out of quarters. After spending some time on the show floor, we regrouped to talk about our some of the standout games, our arcade wishlists, and the future of classic gaming. We cover a lot, but it's impossible to do justice to everyone's favorite arcade games, so feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!

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: 42 min 38 sec
- California Extreme's website
- Music provided by Brad Sucks