Thursday, February 26, 2015

Anarchy in Netrunner

**** you, mother******, Anarch for life!

I love playing anarch in Netrunner, which partially explains the subject matter of my latest PopMatters piece. Anarch was the first runner faction I fell in love with, Noise in particular. I come from a heavy Magic the Gathering backround and my favorite decks were always weird. From control hijinks to graveyard manipulation shenanigans, I love cards that upset the norm. The anarch faction is designed precisely to keep the corporation guessing.

I touch a little upon MAXX in this write up, but I want to spend a second here to expound on her play. At the beginning of the runner turn, MAXX trashes the top two cards of her own deck and draws one card for free. Drawing a card normally costs one click, or action, so this ability over a course of the game is amazingly efficient. Unfortunately trashing two cards every turn can also be a risky maneuver. What if that program you need so badly gets tossed before you get a chance to play it?

That's where recursion comes in. Like Magic, several cards let you play things directly from the runner's heap. As a result, MAXX's heap is almost like a second grip (hand), the contents of which are random. There is a beauty here, mechanically and narratively. During the course of a game, nearly every card in your deck will make an appearance. Piloting MAXX is all about managing the chaos of the game and exploiting her efficiency with a fiery aggression. It is a heightened version of a process you already engage with through play.

Additionally, the concept of a runner embracing the dangers of the hacker lifestyle fits wonderfully with Netrunner lore and even the politics of anarchism. Edward Kim, fighting for human rights, might contact a Stim Dealer and induce brain damage, all to fight corporate tyranny. Alternatively, a Shaper might do the same thing just for fun.

What an amazing game.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

EXP Podcast #317: The Thimble Symbol

A perennial classic.
Why is the thimble the best Monopoly piece?  What makes naked Shulk so enraging?  Why does your best friend always pick the red token?  Lots of things influence the avatars we pick in games.  Inspired by G. Christopher Williams' piece about his affinity for blue, we dive into the rationale behind the characters we pick.  What color palette is near and dear to your heart?  Let us know in the comments!

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

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 35 mins 42 secs
- "I Am Blue," by G. Christopher Williams, via PopMatters
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trine 2: Into the West

What do you see / On the horizon? It's the end of Trine 2, that's what you see. Yes, our journey is finally at an end.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Death and Do-Overs in 'Game of Thrones'

A scene from the worst job interview ever.
You should be proud of me: I’m pretty sure that I wrote an entire column about Game of Thrones without making a stupid pun!

I’ve been playing the Telltale series and enjoying it.  Overall the games have been faithful to the themes built by the show and the books.  Episode 2 felt a little uneven, but I think it is mostly a case of trying to figure out exactly to meaningfully convey drama and consequences.

The opening scene illustrates this: five minutes in you’re faced with several consecutive QTE sequences and of you mess up, you get a game over screen.  I (and I assume everyone else) comes to these types of games for the story and character interactions, so it’s frustrating when you’re pulled out of the moment right when you’re trying to get immersed in the story. 

I see why these instant-fails exist: there needs to be some way to instill a sense of urgency and danger, especially since violence is such a core theme of the Game of Thrones.  It’s a widely recognized way of heightening tension with mechanics.  However, I don’t think it serves Game of Thrones well.  There are other examples like The Walking Dead or Beyond: Two Souls that downplay mechanical failure and substitute in either an extremely convincing solution or supplant it with social consequences.  What if failing a QTE changed your character model to look more beat up or resulted in the exclusion of certain NPCs?  These are two basic suggestions but the point is that thematic drama can be just as stressful as the threat of a fail state.

Finally, a word on adventure games: what does that term even mean anymore?  Is the term even meaningful any more?  Is Game of Thrones even an adventure game?  Are wacky puzzle and item combo games at all related to faux-medieval political intrigue simulators?  We’re a long way from the Colossal Cave.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

EXP Podcast #316: Game of Thrones, Episode 2 Debrief

"Oops." ~ Mira Forrestor
It's time to take the black my sworn brothers and sisters. This week on the EXP Podcast, we jump right back into a world dark and full of terrors: Game of Thrones. Telltale's story continues, taking us on a journey from Essos, to Westeros, and the Wall. As always, let us know what you think of episode 2, The Lost Lords, in the comments below.

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

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 62 mins 56 secs
- Music by Brad Sucks, HBO's Game of Thrones

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Spelunky: Oh My Godus

What will we find in the mines of Spelunky? Will we find the scattered remains of Peter Molyneux's broken promises? Or maybe Scott's admission letter into the Spelunky NBA?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Growing Up in Life is Strange

My latest PopMatters piece this week is about growing up.

There is something about the "coming of age" story I find endlessly compelling. Maybe it's the fact growing up is clearly a process we never quite, well, grow out of. At least I haven't. Everywhere you look in games you have characters learning new things, growing stronger, embracing their new found power. There are children's stories everywhere in games.

But still, there are not many stories about being a child or a teenager, especially a child or a teenager growing up today. I can't imagine the different types of social pressures that must weigh down on teens in the internet era. Life is Strange actually does a pretty good job of setting the proper modern backdrop to the story. The threat of a someone posting a drawing of you on facebook is a significant outcome of your decision in the game, and snooping on someone else's social accounts is a good way to gain information. Even the amount of texting between friends in Life is Strange is something I certainly never had to deal with when I was young.

Even so, the game moves beyond a simple coming of age high school drama, even in the first episode. Max is already stricken with an unhealthy blend of regret and nostalgia. Her relationship with Chloe is defined by actions she cannot amend with time travel and that burden, the sense she is to blame for her lot in life, sits heavily on her shoulders. Regret is a rare emotion to wrestle in games and I commend Dontnod for trying.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

EXP Podcast #315: Earthbound Debrief, part 1

There's no place like Earthbound
The time has come!  Grab your baseball bats and and your hamburgers because it's time to play Earthbound.  We start our journey with some broad thoughts about this supremely strange game and make it to the Happy Happy Village before calling our dad and turning in for the night.  Playing along with us?  Don't hesitate to visit the comments and ward off your homesickness.

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

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 44 mins 43 secs
- Music by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Endless Dungeon: Post-scarcity Spaceships

In which dust is our most precious currency and we find out what Zero Suit Samus does in her downtime.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Seductive Power of 'Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor'

Yes, precious; we wants one more achievement.
This week on PopMatters I talk about Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Or as I like to call it: my precious.

Shadow of Mordor wound up on a lot of folks' best of 2014 list and I definitely see the reasons. It takes the best parts of the recent Batman games and the Assassin's creed series and further refines their already smooth action. Simply moving through the world or fighting a group of orcs is simple, elegant, and satisfying.

Underneath it all is the Nemesis system, a relationship simulator that I'm sure we'll see in more games very soon. Orc captains have their own attributes, rivalries, and memories of your past encounters. Depending on how much you invest in getting to know these captains, they can actually become familiar enough to be long term foes.

It’s a great system, but I don’t think I truly experienced its intended results. There were definitely a handful of emergent moments where random captains joined the fray, but for the most part the nemesis system functioned as a never-ending supply of targets to kill and enslave. Without really thinking about it, the game became a supremely fun warlord simulator. I could kill or enslave anyone I wanted and would be rewarded with more power which the led to more pleasurable ways of dominating orcs.

What I was left with was a extremely fun game that may actually be the antithesis of its source material. Instead of a story about the ways lusting for power corrupts and weakens you, it rewards you for being unthinkingly bloodthirsty. Slipping into that mindset is easy and by the time you realize that you’ve become addicted to the power treadmill, it’s too late to stop.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

EXP Podcast #314: Fording the River of Tragedy

Getting raided in This War of Mine
From overturned wagons to the earthquakes, games have long been rife with disaster, but how well have they depicted tragedy? And what risks do we take when designing for tragedy in games? This week on the EXP Podcast, we are inspired by Paste's Maddy Myers when she asks "should disaster games be fun?" The answer, of course, is complicated.

As always, we encourage you to share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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

Show Notes:

- Runtime: 32 mins 22 secs

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Trine 2: Belly of the Best

The game that never ends continues! This time, join us while we explore the intestinal track of a strange sand beast.