Why all the dungeons in Oblivion look the same

I play a hell of a lot of Oblivion, even now. That game is awesome. It’s even better if you play through all the conversations with the sound off and your hand securely planted over the pasty pasty faces of the chattering NPCs.

But, jokes aside, I think that players can live with the ugly faces and the stupid voices. The only major failing I’ve ever really cared about in that game is that all the dungeons look the same. They do. Well– there are a few distinct varieties, yeah, but they’re awfully similar. You play through a dungeon and see the same landscape asset recycled five or six times; you play through another, and realize it’s practically the exact same as the first dungeon, except instead of being filled with imps, it’s filled with wolves. Or… vampires. Or armored skellingtons. So, yes. If you disagree with me, you’re bad and wrong, and we can never be friends.

Here’s why all those dungeons look the same.

1)      The designers ran out of ideas with the first one

You’ve got to admit, the first time you crawled into a dungeon in Oblivion, you thought it was the coolest shit ever. You found this big old ruined circular castle overgrown with weeds, all crumbling into the mud, directly across from the exit to the Imperial Sewers. And you thought: Forget that main quest—I’m going to explore this magic castle thingamabob! And so you did, and it was awesome. See, that experience was great. People worked hard on it. I dunno, maybe they worked on it for the whole development cycle? It was so cool that it used up all their brain essences, and they had nothing left. They brought the first dungeon over to the project lead, and he plays it, and goes: “Hot damn! This is fine stuff! What else you got?”

And the dungeon designer goes, “I got nothing.” This is it, man. He’s all used up, like Sparrowhawk from that Wizard of Earthsea book The Farthest Shore. It’s noble and epic, see. He’s slain the symbol of his divided soul and reclaimed the world for goodness and purity and all that jazz.

And so the project lead thinks for a few moments, then goes: “That’s cool. Because this is fine shit.” And so they sit around for the rest of the day smoking big old cigars and staring off into the distance and feeling awesome about themselves.

2)      They made others, but had to scrap them all

The Disneyland-, Lord of the Rings-, Star Wars-, NFL-, Capri Sun-, and Harry Potter- themed dungeons were awesome, but they all violated IP copyrights and so, of course, they had to go; so did the dungeon based on September 11th, and the one based on live footage of births. They had partnered with medical researchers to produce a dungeon based on the epidemic of childhood obesity which would teach players about the importance of exercise and healthy diet, but they figured that it might be a bit of a downer, and in the end they couldn’t figure out how to implement it tastefully.

3)      The dungeons aren’t all identical, idiot!

Honeybees see ultraviolet light. This allows them to navigate using the sun, even on overcast days; it also permits them to see identifying markings on certain species of flower. Indeed, the world of the honeybee is filled with depths of color and detail far beyond the capability of mere humans to perceive—theirs is a brighter world, and one more-varied. Truly, the honeybee is a marvelous creature. We ought to envy its life.

If you were to look at Oblivion with the powers of the honeybee’s ultraviolet sight, you would see such a gorgeous wonderland of variance, beauty, and striking design that your brain would flip upside-down in your skull and you would spend the rest of your days trying to eat roses.

4)      All the dungeons are reflections of the Platonic model of Dungeon contained in the mind of God

Oblivion’s dungeons are all reflections of the Ideal Dungeon, which exists only in the mind of God. According to the Greek philosopher Plato, all objects in the real world are merely pale shadows of perfect prototypes, called ‘universals.’ God manufactures these universals and stores them up in the holy warehouse of his mind, where they are preserved forever and made real to the outside universe via his magic. Like, all dogs are different, but we know that they’re dogs because the concept of ‘dog’ is eternal and born from the everliving consciousness of a God whose main purpose is to imagine and sustain the perfect images of things in his holy brain.

We recognize, in the imperfect things of this world, bare echoes of the shining ideals which underly them. We catch the merest glimpses, and see the overarching similarities that tie them together. In Oblivion, that sublime game, we see the underlying framework of the universe! Truly, there is but one Dungeon, and all these many dungeons are but blurred representations of it, cast from different lights, like flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.

Okay, okay! Okay. I’ll shut up.

But seriously. It’s a spiritual experience, man.

Indies already won. Like, years ago

Congratulations, Indie Games! I have good news! The news is: you have already won the battle against AAA commercial games. On several very meaningful levels, the results of the struggle are obvious. You are victorious. It is time to wipe the froth off your beard, relax, and drink some delicious mead out of Bobby Kotick’s skull.

No, seriously. As of several years ago– although we didn’t all realize it at the time– indie games were already poised for a secret ninja-takeover of the hearts and minds of the world’s internet-literate youth, a campaign they continue to pursue, with great success, to this day. The most progressive and important modern art being created anywhere on the earth comes in the form of digital games, usually indie games: particularly, experimental ones which push at form and design standards. Because of the model under which indie game designers struggle, this groundbreaking art has been available, for free, to anyone and everyone who cares to access it.

Basically, for the first time in history (maybe? I’m willing to discuss this), almost the entire canon of the world’s newest and most important artistic movements are available for zero cost to anyone. So long as they have internet access (and unfortunately, in some cases, so long as they are fluent in English), people, particularly young people, can have a world-class artistic experience–on Kongregate or Newgrounds. Just like that. And if they choose to do some more exploring and dig up developers’ sites, they’ll have access to even more groundbreaking art. Usually for free.

This incredibly broad exposure was not part of the growth of arthouse cinema, western literature, or the static visual arts. Nearly all the major works of each of those mediums except maybe public statuary were at first restricted to people of certain education backgrounds or class origins. Internet is still limited to those who can afford it, and who can afford the leisure time to enjoy it, but that’s a lot of people. I suppose the closest we’ve ever come to this before was during the development of rock music as a new artistic movement, when radio made it available to people of all age groups and backgrounds– but even then, the kind of discussion and community involvement we’re able to have about indie games on the internet was impossible over the radio, even though adoption of the new movement was broader. With rock music, the music was also controlled by an industry; indie games, on the other hand, are often self-published and anti-industry, and there’s no barrier to artists entering the movement.

This all occurred to me when I decided, in desperation, to read through all of the comments on Newgrounds for Gregory Weir’s Looming, one of the best indie games I’ve recently played. See, I’d found all of the artifacts in less than an hour, but I’d spent an extra forty-five minutes wandering around Looming, with nothing to show for it. Finally, shamed, I decided to search the comments to see if anyone had put up some hints. Back then there were something like 100 of them. Now there are over 500, and the game has earned a large banner on Newgrounds’ front page. The game is getting massive exposure. Furthermore, when you read the comments–both supportive and frustrated, by those who felt moved by the experience and by those who didn’t get it–it’s obvious that this game is betting played by the whole of the basic Newgrounds cross-section. So, a lot of these players are very young. They’re excited and invigorated by the work they’ve just experienced, they’re eager to talk, and they’re young.

This, of course, is the key detail. See, my current internship in the office of a small Japanese-owned games publisher has given me information and perspectives about internet advertising and audience targeting which have been incredibly enlightening in the context of my background in games writing. Newgrounds is one of those sites which targets its advertisements at teenagers– often quite young teens. The people clicking on banner ads on Newgrounds– the people it knows it’s making money off of, and thus the demographic the whole site is geared towards– are in high school, or occasionally even younger. This meshes with my personal experience with Newgrounds: In early high school and late middle school, I remember spending at least an hour every weekday on that site. I haven’t yet heard the marketing team here at my internship talk about Kongregate, but I assume it covers at least part of a similar demographic.

So: an army of impressionable young people, internet-literate, at the stage in their lives where they are making incredibly important decisions about the kinds of things they want to dedicate their existences to, are accessing cutting-edge art on websites that present these works as normal, cool, and interesting. And these websites are encouraging kids to talk to each other about them. Most interesting about Weir’s game is that it includes developer’s notes for those who finish the game. This seems to have gone over enormously well with the Newgrounds crowd– I saw more than a few comments from players who felt like this helped them to ‘get’ the game, or made them more excited about it than they already were. So not only do we have young people talking about art with one another, now we’ve got the artist talking back to them. Which is, of course, fantastic, if you want to get kids excited about indie gaming.

Now, I know it’s not as utopian as I might be suggesting it is– Newgrounds is no place to access cutting-edge indie art games compared to, say, Play This Thing, which filters through everything and highlights the high-points. But it’s happening anyway. Indie games are snagging kids before they’re done with puberty. Indie games snagged me that way, too: as a young teen with no income, I adopted freeware games in late middle school as a way to entertain myself for free. I gradually began playing more and more ‘artsy’ games, so to speak. Discovering Cactus’s work for the first time was even more exciting than when I discovered funk and jazz, around the same time. It was like waking up.

Indie games can’t yet compete on an equal commercial plane with AAA games, largely because of the way they’re treated by the hype-dependent games journalism machine. But indie games were already winning the battle when it came to enlightening and engaging young people from a broad variety of backgrounds– players and nascent devs alike– even back when I started following freeware games in 2004. They’re winning even harder now. I predict further catastrophically magnificent world-devouring win from here on out, too. It’s like the indie games community on the internet is some vast, hulking, star-destroying insectoid brood mother, laying her egg-spawn in the millions of teens who access their work on Newgrounds and Kongregate every month. Someday, them eggs are gonna hatch.

Dying in Space

I failed to restore oxygen to the moonbase.

It was devastating, at first. I knew that I was going to fail long before the moment actually came—by the time I had about 8 minutes left, I was pretty sure that the end wasn’t going to be pretty. I put it down to my inability to grasp the minigame soon enough: I wasted about five minutes dicking around with the welder before I realized what part of the circuit board I was supposed to be playing with. There was also the issue of my poor robot-driving skills. To top it all off, I also actually got lost a few times—a tough task, admittedly, since there were only about three locations on the entire map. With eight minutes left, the seconds were counting down and there was no one to blame but myself and my incompetence. My incompetence, yeah, and certain fanciful misconceptions I had developed about the game while playing it. See, I kind of psyched myself out, when it comes right down to it. Yeah. Weird. I pretty much worked myself up into a terror. But I would have been perfectly satisfied with this self-inflicted terror, however, if it hadn’t led me to make a rather disappointing discovery about what happens when you fail the game’s scenario.

Bottom line: NASA ruined their own game for me with their squeamish space-positivism.

Moonbase Alpha is supposed to be played in multiplayer mode, pretty much. But when you tackle it alone, it’s got a certain atmospheric element that I think I might have missed if I’d played with another human—a strange combination of cheery optimism and desolate harshness that strikes me as particularly odd. In recent weeks, Neptune’s Pride and Gregory Weir’s Looming have given me the pleasure, if it can be called that, of some real quality intentional hopelessness. On the other hand, Moonbase Alpha is one of those games where you can’t tell if the desolation is intentional or not. I’m not sure if it’s just in my head—a conundrum I’m intimately familiar with after years of reading ‘hard’ science fiction. Space madness! It’s like I’m part of some crazy space-horror novel, I guess, but super low-key, and without the blood running down the inside of the visor dome and all that.

Moonbase Alpha is not necessarily for the kind of small children who tend to be obsessed with astronauts. It was, apparently, inspired by America’s Army, and that says a lot about the direction it takes, I think. It’s actually quite tough on the first playthrough, and though it’s got some cute minigame mechanics, there’s an awful lot of silent trudging, drab regolith, suffocating dust, and fiddly difficulty. Playing it alone, I really did feel like a bewildered, trapped spaceman. There isn’t any music. There aren’t any people to see. It’s in the Unreal engine, but everything feels rather more dusty and much less shiny-shiny-slick-and-fancy than other Unreal games tend to look. The disembodied voices of your fellow spacemen, stuck indoors with a dwindling oxygen supply, are more anxiety-producing than they are comforting.

Meanwhile, however, we’ve got the contrast of pretty LCD panels on the outsides of all our important moon-buildings, a bright glowy UI, oddly adorable maintenance robots, and the whole euphoric people-living-on-the-moon situation to deal with. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think about the situation. If I’d succeeded in fixing the oxygen system, I doubtless would feel quite different about the game now. I’d probably be focusing more on the cute than the lonely.

See, I really did psych myself out: I was convinced, throughout the whole playthrough, that the astronauts would die, that they would suffocate to death if I didn’t save them. Dead astronauts are the creepiest things modernity has offered us in the past fifty years. Americans these days generally only pay attention to astronauts when they’re dead, or in peril of dying, and everyone loves putting them in movies and scaring the fuck out of us with them. (If you’ve seen Sunshine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) I myself have a particularly strong fear of dead astronauts. As a child I desperately wanted to be a live one—specifically, a Payload Specialist. I even got to go to Space Camp in Florida for my tenth birthday, a gift that, to this day, remains the best present I have ever recieved. Space occupied a pretty significant portion of my daily thought-load—I would lie in bed for nearly an hour before falling asleep every day and try to imagine what it would be like to do a spacewalk and repair a shuttle. I almost always had nightmares after doing that, but they were particularly awesome nightmares, so I put up with it. Only a few weeks after Space Camp, though, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I immediately convinced myself to give up the whole plan. Didn’t stop my scary dying-in-space nightmares, though.

So when the game began, I immediately convinced myself that these astronauts would die if I didn’t save them. I don’t know if the game tells you otherwise right at the beginning and I missed it, but I was sure that I was the last hope they had, and that they were all slumped in their living quarters, slowly turning ice-blue, while I hopped desperately through the rising dust like an idiot. Imagine my surprise when, the moment I fail, the trapped astronauts suddenly speak up and announce that I can go back and try again, and that my failure’s only resulted in a lost day of productivity!

Listen, NASA. We gamers believe certain things about space. We believe that space is vast, and detailed, and largely friendly; we also believe that it’s as crowded with alien life-forms and awesome laser-gun fights as Canaveral and JPL are with PhDs. Your cute little robots are a step in the right direction when it comes to that kind of propaganda. But as Americans, as science-fiction nerds, we believe other things: we believe that spacemen die, horrifically, on television, with fire in the sky and immense mechanical screeches and explosions and bits of Our Heroes The Spacemen plastered all over the continent. Children of my generation know the ISS, but we also know Disaster in Space. We’ve read the books. We’ve watched the movies. We’re fascinated with space because it’s recently become a place for robots, not for people, and we know why.

I know why you made your design decision, NASA, but for God’s sake, let your spacemen die. It’s the only way we’ll ever be excited about your digital moon.

Oh God, not THAT discussion

On this blog, I’ve been trying to keep my commentary as far as possible from the “girls and games” topic, partially because I feel like I have little that is original to add to the discussion. I am a female who plays and enjoys nearly every kind of digital game and I have never seen much merit in the idea that girls and boys inherently prefer different essential gaming experiences. I know women who love and excel at shooters and men who play Peggle and other ‘casual’ titles obsessively (I see their Steam notifications. They can’t hide from me.)

True, most western AAA video and computer games are marketed toward adolescent males. Their art, themes, and stories promote or at least embody the fantasy of masculinity treasured by that particular demographic, and they’re created by an industry where a majority of the producers, designers, artists, and management are themselves male. It is from this that the notion that girls can’t be ‘core’ gamers derives: ‘core’ games like Gears of War, Modern Warfare, and God of War all work hard to satisfy those culturally-reinforced male fantasies. This makes them a bit awkward to play if you don’t share in the fantasy, regardless of what your gender is. Anyway, games really have no trouble providing us with fantasies if we don’t bring our own to the game; most ‘core’ games are simply providing fantasies that are deliberately very exclusionary to females.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t enjoy them. I still love games, and I still love the medium, and I still love shooting digital people in the face, because it’s exciting and challenging and because I have strong nostaligic memories associated with the shooting of digital people in the face. But I’m also hyper-aware that the AAA industry doesn’t usually give a shit about people like me. This is part of the reason why I love indie games so much: most of them are directed at fulfilling basic human fantasies, not adolescent male ones. They don’t adhere to the same bullshit aesthetic of ‘gritty realism’ that those AAA games do, and they often tackle very mature issues on a symbolic level. I appreciate this maturity more than I appreciate the posturings of maturity found in many AAA titles.

At any rate: games and girls. I bring it up now because I’ve had a number of strange games-and-girls related interactions over the past two weeks.

The first occurred at E3. A female friend of mine—actually, she’s a game tester—and I were eating lunch at the food court area when two heavyset older gentlemen seated themselves at our table. Space was tight at the food court, so it made sense to share. As we each carried on our separate conversations, however, my friend and I suddenly realized that the conversation these middle-aged guys were having right next to us was infinitely more interesting than our own.

“But girls don’t like that,” one said.

“Oh, you guys are doing it all wrong,” the other replied. “See, what girls don’t like is senseless violence. If it has a purpose, fine. They like that, if it has a point, like if it does something good for the world. But they won’t play it if it has senseless violence.”

I don’t remember what else they said. I and the woman I was talking with left shortly after this comment. I wasn’t able to see what the names on these two guys’s tags were, and I still don’t know whether they were designers or marketers or executives. But they were somebodies.

“Girls don’t like senseless violence,” the other woman muttered to me as we walked away.

“It was interesting for me to learn that,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind next time I find myself enjoying shooting dudes in the head.”

I enjoy meaningless, senseless violence in games as much as the next gamer. What I don’t enjoy is always having to be a man whenever a game lets me commit senseless violence. Or always having to be a hyper-sexualized woman whenever a game grants me the privilege to be a lady while I kill dudes. Part of the excitement of games is the ability to “be” somebody else, to explore a story from the perspective of a new character. It gets depressing, though, when an entire industry seems to have decided that you, people like you, and the fantasies and perspectives that you have, are not fitting material for games. Generally, in order to experience a AAA game, a woman will have to ‘be’ a man. Only culturally-masculine fantasies are worth immortalizing in games, it seems.

Okay. Whatever. They’re still fun.

I’ve moved to Los Angeles for the summer and am living in an apartment with three other female students about my age. All three are actually from a very different cultural background than my own: they’re all of Pakistani heritage, and they’re all very ‘Californian,’ while I’m a very east-coast Irish Catholic. We have very different expectations when it comes to socialization, food, dress, and so on—mostly due to the east-coast/California divide, not the Pakistani/Irish one. But all three grew up with N64 or Super Nintendo consoles in their homes, and loved Zelda and Donkey Kong Country—so games are, surprisingly, one of the cultural elements that we absolutely share.

So I thought, anyway. I think it still baffles them that a girl can care so much about games and devote as much time and intellectual energy to them as I do. While eating dinner a few days ago, one of them asked me, rather aggressively, what I thought about violence in games. I tried to give her a reasoned explanation of my feelings on the subject—parents are responsible for the media their children ingest, so to speak, and they must use ratings responsibly and control purchases themselves. She told me that she’d seen a sociology study proving that little boys who play violent games are more violent; I told her that no such thing had been actually proven. She told me that the study had actually proven that they were more tolerant of domestic abuse against women. I had no clever answer for her, as I’d never even heard such an accusation before.

She then went on to ask, rather slyly, what I thought of CounterStrike. She demanded that I explain why “perfectly good, intelligent boys” can be so engrossed by the game that they “get sucked into it for hours.” I told her that ‘game addiction’ hasn’t been proven to exist, that people who can’t control their play time probably have different, underlying troubles. Like depression. This offended her—or her concern for the unnamed CounterStrike player, I suppose.

The conversation degenerated.

Just thinking about it over the past few days has absolutely infuriated me. I will not be held accountable as a kind of gender-traitor because I care deeply about the world’s newest and most important modern artistic medium. I will not allow the fact that this medium is currently controlled by industry, not artists—that the strings are being pulled by the kind of fat, middle-aged businessmen who, while stopping to eat lunch together at E3, decided between themselves what it is, exactly, that this medium can deign to offer women—I will not let this kind of thing control what people think about me. Or the medium. The medium is most important.

Which is why I will use indie games to educate my roommates, over the next few months, about what exactly it is that games can offer the world. Just to be controversial, I’m starting with Hey Baby.

I’ll keep you posted.

This is what the PokeWalker reminds me of

When I was quite small, I was obsessed with Pokemon. I couldn’t actually play Pokemon, since I didn’t have a Gameboy and the party line in my household was that Gameboys would rot your brains. But I was obsessed nevertheless. I was obsessed because it was a thing I couldn’t have.

So I watched the show religiously. I had a bajillion cards organized in two three-inch D-ring binders. I also had a Pokemon Pikachu II, the silvery-glittery Pokemon pedometer meant to connect with the Gold and Silver games. I didn’t have the games, but the pedometer worked kind of like a Pikachu-themed Tamagotchi even without the games, so it wasn’t a huge problem. By accumulating steps, you’d earn Watts, and these watts could then be used in a betting game to accumulate more watts. If you had the Gameboy game, they could be sent there; where, I assumed, they served some perplexing and unknowable brain-rotting service. Alternately, you could give them to the Pikachu. The Pikachu would be so pleased by the gift that he/she/it would perform some wild trick. The more Watts, the crazier the trick. If you were a cheapass, the Pikachu would just stick its face real close to the screen and make a happy face. There was another trick, I think, where it would give you an acorn or some other shitty seed you certainly weren’t ever going to need, in the same way a cat offers its owners dead mice. And then there was the top trick—Pikachu would leap into the air and fireworks would explode around it. I don’t know whether the fireworks were incidental or the Pikachu was supposed to be a licensed pyrotechnican, but that’s what would happen.

I adored my Pikachu. I first received it just before a summer trip to Yellowstone National Park, as a way to entertain me in the car, I think. It worked. See, I had an epiphany in the first few moments after unwrapping it and turning it on: sitting in my mother’s minivan, I lifted the Pikachu up to the cabin light to get a better look at the screen, heard the clicking and rattling of its internal components, and realized that I could shake it with my hands to accumulate Watts.

This, of course, immediately became the main objective of my waking life. I would get up in the morning and run around the house while shaking it in my hand, because I reasoned that this combination of violent movements would cause the footstep meter to rise the fastest. I quit playing computer games entirely during that summer. Any time spent seated was wasted time. I set myself ludicrous benchmarks: 10,000 steps before lunch was the normal one, and one, in fact, that I regularly met. I developed an idiosyncratic way of shaking the device; I’d hold my upper arm out rigidly, angled up above my shoulder, and shake the Pikachu up and down as fast as possible at cheek height. I could do more reps more quickly that way, I learned.

At the swimming pool my sister and I swam at, we were suddenly the cool kids. However, this lasted for only about half a week before my devotion to the Pikachu began to bore my friends. My good friend Elizabeth particularly hated it. It kept me from swimming with her.

“I need to get to ten thousand,” I’d tell her. “Uh, you just get in the pool, and I’ll jump in when I get there.” I’d stand and shake it on the side of the pool, staring off crosseyed into the distance, while she did flips in the deep end and gave me resentful glances. I actually got tennis elbow from shaking the Pikachu that summer—a huge knot of muscles gathered at the base of my forearm, just above my elbow. It ached whenever I pressed it.

The Pikachu was an infinite well of mysteries. I don’t think I ever found all of Pikachu’s tricks; the first time I discovered the fireworks one was on the Fourth of July, and I was so baffled by it that I assumed it was some kind of holiday event. Because I had no Gameboy game to worry about, I could use the Watts for whatever I pleased; chiefly, I used them to play the card game with Pikachu. Though it was only a guessing game, I developed the belief that I was an expert at it. I played constantly. Waiting in line for a seat at Applebees; at the doctor’s office; in the car; I even once played it in an airplane during takeoff, chancing (I thought) a bloody death for the entire crew. Such was my adoration for Pikachu: capricious, unwise, in defiance of sense and safety. Pikachu and I were closer than Ash and his Pikachu. We were business partners. My obsession was clinical and calculating; my methods were tested, double-checked, analyzed, and finally, rigorously scheduled. We were in the business of collecting footsteps. We were in the business of collecting Watts. We maxed out the Watts once, my Pikachu and I. I gave it 999 Watts in celebration, and the Pikachu adored me for it. It had max happiness. I had max happiness.


That was a good summer. During the following school year, because Tamagotchis and Tamagotchi-likes had been banned the previous fall, I carried the Pikachu secretly in my pocket. I would jiggle my leg and tap my toes on the floor to keep the footstep meter running. But we had lean times, Pikachu and I; without the ability to shake for benchmarks, the store of Watts was slowly depleted. I stopped giving it gifts. I had to play the card game in the bathroom, in secret. Life was tough. When the next summer began, I had almost kept my Pikachu running for an entire year. The hoary old thing was scratched, half-broken, and weak on battery power, but I kept it clipped to my waistband anyway. The clip had been bent, though, and it gripped my clothes with less surety now.

This is key to my story.

See, I would frequently go kayaking or canoeing with my sister and my father on a lake near our house. We’d bring our own canoe, or rent the kayaks they had there for a dollar an hour. I forgot to take the Pikachu off one day while kayaking, and when we got home, I realized it was gone. It was hard not to cry. I assumed that the little thing was dead at the middle of the lake, Pikachu’s ghost drifting sadly among the catfish. We called the lake office; they said they couldn’t find it anywhere on the beach. We drove back to the lake. When we arrived, however, they’d already discovered it exactly where I’d bent to pull the kayak back up onto the beach, knocked off by the edge of my life-vest and drowned under a foot of water. The lifeguard gave it back to me I pretended to be very thankful.

“I had it for almost a whole year,” I told my mother in the car on the way home. “That’s a long time for one of those toys to last,” she said. Unhelpfully. That the Pikachu had been such a magnificent survivor only made its death worse. I felt emptied. I felt as if a real creature had died.

Wielding a glasses repair kit, I disassembled its corpse on a sheet of Kleenex on the floor of my room. I soaked the water up off the tiny green chip with a stack of q-tips. I rolled a slice of keenex into a tiny rope and threaded it down around the screen area, soaking up hidden drops. I let both halves of the toy dry in a sunny spot for two weeks.

When I turned it back on, the memory had been wiped. All the footsteps and watts and max happiness meters were gone.

I totally lost the drive to play with Pikachu after that. He/she/it was dead.

So: my new PokeWalker is a sorrowful, sorrowful thing. I can hardly use it. It feels false and deadening. Also, they figured out a way to make it immune to most kinds of shaking. There’s no point to it anymore.

If it can’t be like the old times, I don’t want it at all. Which, of course, says a lot about me. And about gamers. We want what we want, of course, because we can’t have it.

An alternative interpretation

For reasons associated with an internship I just began working on in LA, I was at E3 on Wednesday.

It was terrifying.

E3 is the Great Babylon of the games industry. E3 is a birthday designed by plutocrat after his kid couldn’t get a reservation at LaserQuest. E3 is a digital fleshmarket. E3 is what happens when the high gods of video games descend to earth and make terrifying ESRB-slaying love to the scaly-assed demons of corporate sin.

Okay, it was a ton of fun. But it was also insidiously evil and ultimately pretty horrifying.

I grew up in New England, where we have a reputation for stoicism, grim jaws, and frugality. I didn’t necessarily grow up in a frugal household, but my family are not the kind of people who wheel money around in a wheelbarrow in our back yard. We do not make daisy chains out of twenty-dollar bills and string them around our living room like holiday garlands. I’m naturally a bit wary of extreme expressions of wealth; I’ve always believed that people who make a lot of money would be better off using it to buy expensive PCs than platinum motorcycles. So to speak.

But the people who make E3 happen probably have suits made out of money. Stitched together with the hair of the poor. Yeah. They probably name their dogs “Benjamin” (or “Benjamins,” to emphasize the quantity they possess). E3 is an enormous lavish media-whoring dollars-spectacle of doom, and it is a bit chilling.

First of all: the media are the kings and queens of E3. It’s a publicity event, and they’re the real guests, not the industry people. I’m not saying that I saw Gabe Newell give five hundred dollars in cold hard cash to every media person he saw, or that Cliffy B gave the staff of Game Informer foot-baths with his hair, Mary Magdalene-style, or that Peter Molyneux personally kissed every baby of every reporter present at the entire conference—but the people (and they were mostly media people) at the Microsoft keynote DID all get free Xbox Slims. So. Make of that what you will.

Bethseda’s booth had a fifteen-foot-tall plastic T-Rex in it, and it was entirely walled off. You could only get in if you were from the media and had made an appointment. For the entirety of the show, Square Enix’s booth had an enormous screen playing footage from its upcoming games. The videos were synchronized with all of the lights on the booth, such that they would change color and flash in time with the footage. When you take into account how large their booth was, well—I’m guessing that this particular booth cost as much to run per hour as, say, a minor-to-middling Broadway production.

I bet if you tally up all the money spent at making E3 be E3 and divide it by the number of reporters present, you’re looking at many thousands of dollars per reporter spent. Like, maybe over ten thousand. Maybe a lot over ten thousand. And that’s the real focus, of course—spending money to make the media happy. E3 happens for the people at home, but so that the reporters to convey that experience to consumers in the best light, publishers and developers wine and dine the fuck out of them, so to speak. But here it’s more like “demo and dine the fuck out of them,” or “demo and free system the fuck out of them.”

So, yeah. I’m never really going to enjoy any E3 coverage ever again, guys. If I had been sent there by a media outlet, I would feel pretty fucking unclean now. Luckily, I wasn’t.

But still. It was like watching two strangers have sex in a tub filled with golden coins.

Is Deus Ex 3 a movie or a game?

Because it looks like it would be one hell of an excellent movie. I haven’t seen a cinematic trailer this long, plotty, or robust in a while.

I mean, I’m totally aware that cinematic trailers can be like this. I didn’t expect gameplay footage or anything. But usually when we see these kinds of things, they’re only fifty seconds long. Just a short clip of characters pumping shotguns and saying “Let’s roll!” in Clint Eastwood voices, or giving the camera heavy-lidded angst-eyes while titles and release dates flash by, or talking about why they love Commander Shepherd, or things like that. Clearly prerendered, but framed in such a way that we know we’re talking about a game, here. Even the ME2 cinematic trailer was just a list of squad members presented flashily. The launch trailer was also a list of squadmates, and it even had some in-game sex-scene footage in it. It had the framing logic of an RPG. When we start talking lists of recruitables, we know we’re talking about that kind of game. The Deuz Ex 3 trailer doesn’t have any of that framing logic.

The other type of cinematic trailer we see is the type where everything is patently cutscene footage. But the Deus X trailer feels like it was taken from a larger story, from a whole movie’s worth of story, not from just a few cutscenes. It feels like I’m going to want to play this game in a huge empty room with a bucket of popcorn and an Icee on hand. Which is, of course, kinda tough, right?

Here’s the thing: I’m starting to think that part of the reason we’re so skeptical of game movies (and I haven’t yet seen Prince of Persia, so I could be totally wrong about this) is that it’s not wise to try and make players feel the same way about a game character the same way we feel about a movie character, and vice-versa. Obviously, different strategies are involved in the characterization and the world-building, and so on. The kind of player-character that appeals to people in a game is often flimsy enough to be inhabitable, while simultaneously characterized enough not to feel like a sock puppet. Action-movie heroes are also vehicles for self-insertion, but in a different way: we spend more time regarding them from the outside than from the inside, so they’re shinier on that side, so to speak.

From what I see of these characters in this trailer, they’re the kind of people I want to regard from the outside. Or—I mean—they’re the kind of characters I don’t yet feel like I can regard from the inside, they’ve been polished up so hard.*

What do you guys think? I mean, when it comes to trailers-what-make-me-feel-excited, I think this is right up there among the best. But it doesn’t feel much like a game trailer.

*Except for that giving-orders guy  near the end. His voice acting just screams VIDEO GAME


All of my writings for school are done.  My brain hurts, and migranes have inflicted me with temporary blindness. I wrote 35 pages in two days and read over a thousand pages in one weekend to prepare myself for the process. Now I cannot focus my eyes more than five feet in front of my face, and I have a headache. Hooray!

So I wrote this frivolous thing. It is a list of all possible definitions of the ‘Second Person Shooter.’  See, most of the random web searches that get directed here are phrases like “definition second person shooter” or “example second person shooter.” People out there want to know what a second-person shooting-people video-game would look and feel like. And they think we know? Pah! We don’t.

Frankly, we’re curious, too. We picked the name “Second Person Shooter” basically because it sounded interesting. Our excuse: we were despairing. We’d just spent over an hour combining random nouns in the hope that something would click, but we’d only come up with monstrosities like “Antelope Rapture” and “Black Hole Church.” (I still think either of those would have been awesome. Perhaps we can sell them to nameless indie-rock bands.) At any rate, we are definitely not the experts on what a ‘second person shooter’ would look like. I myself don’t think that a second person shooter would be any fun to play, unless the idea was approached with a certain amount of drunken levity.


In this game, you have control over yourself, in a first-person perspective, and over another individual, the shooter. It would be a little bit like that one team-building exercise where blindfolded people team up with non-blindfolded people who shout instructions at them while they and navigate mazes or throw yarn balls at one another. Have you ever done that? I did it once at a summer camp staff training, and it was horrible.

Anyway, for this game, I’m thinking of things along the lines of the robot segments from TLC’s Logic Quest. Remember that one? You had to program a robot-like boxy-man painted up to look like a king or a knight. He was always inside this weird kind of spacious jail cell, and you would have to program him with a set of commands that would let him unlock the cell. Anyway, this variety of second person shooter would require your embodied digital self to either 1) program or 2) directly control a separate individual who has a gun. Objective: shoot dudes without getting you or your puppet-man shooter shot. It would be INCREDIBLY COMPLEX. There would be WAAAY TOO MANY CONTROLS. Basically, this setup would translate poorly to the kind of moment-by-moment excitement of a shooter— it would be awesome, but only for five minutes. After which point every player would either tear the game directly out of their hard-drives with the brute psycho-magnetic force of their unholy rage, or commit pathetic, despairing suicide in the drippy corner of their local basement. That’s what I did after a few sessions of Logic Quest. Yep.


Such a game almost already exists. It’s Night of the Cephalopods: A Terrifying Experiment in Narrative Excess, a lovely bit of indie freeware from 2008. In it, you, the terrified Lovecraftian protagonist, run through a foggy forest while squidly-face monsters chase you. You shoot them. EVERY TIME YOU DO ANYTHING, the narrator describes it. There aren’t too many variations in the voiceovers, so you’ll quickly reach the extent of your amusement with this game—but for its length and complexity, it’s brilliant. It would BE  a second person shooter, except the descriptions are phrased in first-person rather than second.


I’m thinking of something in the style of The Onion’s ‘Close Range’, but instead the player is the guy who gets shot. And dies. Over and over. Or maybe the player never dies, and just stands there while he or she gets shot again and again for no reason. Not sure which would be more effective. Basically, though, that’s the bottom line: you watch as someone shoots you over and over and over and over again. Infinitely. Not much else to say about this idea. Maybe the environments would change? In one level, you’d stand there while people shot you in a jungle; then there’s be an ice level, and every time you’re shot your body would physics-slide all around the map, ragdolling against barriers? No idea. Not even sure where player action would fit into this game.

(Also: the staff members of the embarrassing college humor magazine I write for consider Close Range to be one of our favorite-ever videos. New recruits sometimes have a hard time understanding why we love it so much. But we do. It is sublime. And I love the Max Payne references.)


Pros: Would teach our children the important moral binaries they will need in order to navigate the modern, adult cultural world.

Cons: Would be very short. Also, very easy. Too easy.

5)      …GOD OF WAR?

While checking over this post, Kent suggested to me that the famous from-the-victim’s-perspective death scene in GoW III is a second-person death scene. A shooter version of that, he posits, would be a second-person shooter. So: like idea number 3, but instead of playing the silent victim, you’d shoot yourself. Gosh! So  crazy!

I would only play this game if there were a bit where time slowed down while the bullet flew towards your face, and you had to contemplate the philosophical profundity of your self-capping act.

Logical Journey

In 1997, I made a new best friend.

He was the son of an incredibly famous person, but I didn’t know this at the time. I actually remember my parents being rather shocked when they met his mother—as I learned much later, she’d been all over the news for reasons related to Bill Clinton’s government appointments. For some reason, they moved to my area just before September 1997, and now her son was in my school. Let’s call him Ricardo. He was in my third-grade class for a single year.

Ricardo was absurdly charismatic. He had twelve kinds of Napoleonic complexes, claimed to have read Hamlet, and showed off his family’s wealth with a shameless, mesmerizing kind of pride. He spent nearly every Reading Hour arguing with the teacher about whether or not he was permitted to spend the period reading the dictionary. He started a club “about Egypt.” He started another one “about Rome.” He got half our entire grade to sign the membership lists. He wore little polo shirts instead of t-shirts or turtlenecks. Despite not being Hispanic, he had a haircut like a novela actor, and he pulled it off. For whatever reason, we all thought he was awesome.

And he wanted to be my best friend. See, we both played the same computer games: we were absolutely hooked on edu-games made by The Learning Company. There was Treasure Mountain, Treasure Cove, Treasure Mathstorm and Treasure Galaxy, all math games; then there was Reading Rabbit and its bland successors. Additionally, we loved Broderbund’s The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a logic game he and I both begged our parents to buy out of that year’s book fair catalog. We were obsessed. We’d go over to each other’s houses and sit for hours to watch each other play. We solved math problems together. We discussed secrets and strategies. He had a computer of his own, and it was in his room. He was the smartest and luckiest kid I knew. But he was new in school, and his friendships were all nervous alliances of awe and mistrust, and I was pretty awkward and lonely myself. So I guess we were good for each other.

There’s one day in particular from that year that I still remember. I arrived at his house sometime in the early morning; we ran upstairs to his bedroom, where he still had Zoombinis running from the night before. I plopped down in the chair next to his and was rather horrified by what I saw happening on the screen.

“What have you done?” I asked.

Ricardo settled down in the rolling office-chair his parents have given him, crossed his legs on the seat, and gave me a look. “I haven’t done anything,” he said.

“But you have two of each Zoombini,” I said.

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a selection of logic puzzles which focus on pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and deductive reasoning skills.  The chief elements of each puzzle are the Zoombinis themselves—little blue fellows, a bit like punk-rock Mr. Potato Heads, each with a different arrangement of facial features, nose colors, hairstyles and limbs. Many of the puzzles involve arranging the Zoombinis in series or matrixes according to which facial features they have in common. Failure usually results in one or two Zoombinis getting left behind. Run out of Zoombinis, and you fail.

You’ll have to work quickly to get them through the puzzles and out of harm’s way: as players progress through the difficulty levels, not only do the puzzles get harder, but they begin to incorporate timers, penalties, and three-strikes-you’re out mechanics. I remember feeling the difficulty level increase, as if the air around me were filling with smoke, or some frantic kind of fear-gas. As a kid, I felt these logic puzzles viscerally. I began as a logic-starved whelp : by the time I began to tackle the highest difficulty levels, I could tell that I had grown mentally. I’m pretty sure that my brain was actually altered by this game.

The genius thing about it was that your own choices—the Zoombinis you designed for your team at the start of each play session—were one of the primary sources of difficulty. The more diverse you made them as a group, the tougher it got to solve some of the puzzles, particularly the ones that required you to arrange them by shared elements. You’re not supposed to have two of each Zoombini. You’re supposed to be battling against the clock with a crowd of misfits. Against all odds, even self-imposed ones, you’re shepherding them across this puzzle-studded wilderness to safety at the end of the overworld map. The final destination is Zoombinivile, and the Zoombinis, in fact, are refugees. The plot is: you’re rescuing these refugee Mr. Potato Heads from a dark and stormy prison-island with the righteous power of pure logic. It’s glorious.

So, having two of each Zoombini is cheating, I thought. Unquestionably. I could feel in my bones that it was a shortcut, an unfair advantage, and an unforgivable sin. Having two of each Zoombini makes each puzzle twice as easy.

I could not express my horror. Ricardo just smirked. “You know, if you double-click on the ‘make Zoombini’ button when you’re designing them at the start of the map, you make each Zoombini twice,” he said. “You get two of each instead of only one.”

“But that’s cheating!” I exclaimed.

“No, it isn’t. Why does the game let you do it if it’s cheating?”

He had a good point, but my world was falling apart. We argued for a long time about what constituted a ‘fair’ game of Zoombinis. “You have to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter,” I proclaimed. It was a garbled version of a phrase I’d just learned from my father, and I thought it sounded dramatic.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ricardo told me.

I suppose it makes a kind of symbolic, cosmic justice that the first gamer friend of mine to play a game with shrewdness and corner-cutting slyness, the first of my friends to take confident possession of an exploit, was Ricardo, the son of United States politicians. But that’s a trite and useless observation for me to make, really, and I feel kind of stupid making it. Ricardo didn’t teach me how to cheat; he taught me how to think about games. He taught me when to take my head out of the game-world and look at it from the outside. He taught me when to mess with the system and when to play by its rules. Before our argument about Zoombinis, I’d regarded games as rigorous but entertaining exercises passed down to me from some higher power, totally immune to my criticism or critical thinking: I’d perform the required actions and receive fun, like a hamster in a laboratory cage. After my  Zoombinis revelation, I began to look at my games with suspicion. I began prodding at them, manipulating them instead of letting myself be manipulated by them.

At the end of the day, I went home and started up my own copy of the game. I started a new game session, beginning at the Zoombinis’ home base. As I put a new team of them together, my sister ran up to watch.

“How do you do that?” she gasped.

“Do what?” I asked.

But I already knew what she was going to ask. “How do you have two of each Zoombini?”

I shrugged like it was nothing. “You double-click the ‘Make Zoombinis’ button each time you make one. It makes two instead of one.”

“Oh.” She stood there for a while, watching as I assembled a team of lifeless clones. “Doesn’t it make the game too easy?” she asked. “Are you still, like, doing logic?”

I was still doing logic, yeah. Just… a different kind of logic.

Games are Dreams

Okay, bear with me for a bit. I’m going to pull some crazy literary theory shit.

There’s this one famous footnote that Freud added to one of his books, Interpretation of Dreams, years after it was originally published. The gist of the footnote is this: “Hey, everybody, quit assuming that EVERYTHING in dreams is a symbol for something!” Freud thought that dreams had two layers of meaning: the obvious meaning (what was going on in the dream, on the surface) and the ‘latent’ meaning, which is all the stuff that is symbolized on the dream—the meaning under-the-surface that we always think about when someone says ‘Freud’. Freud said we should, basically, quit getting so overly-Freudian on our dreams. He said that we should try to find the ‘dream-work,’ or the combined meaning of the surface and latent elements of the dream. Instead of just saying, “oh, this obviously symbolizes this,” we should say, “when we take all the surface elements into consideration alongside the symbols, what does the whole of this dream actually mean?” I like to think of it in terms of vector math:

So, dreamwork is what you get when you add the rest of the stuff together equally. It’s what the dream is pointing at.

Now, the only people in the universe who still take Freud pretty seriously are literary theorists, and they don’t even take all of him seriously. I have an awesome professor right now who studies comics, and he uses dream-work to understand comics and graphic novels: “When we combine the effects produced by both the surface and the symbolic aspects, what’s the work of this comic? What is it actually pointing at?” It works very well because comics are filled with icons and symbols, and are very fertile grounds for both latent and obvious meaning.

I like to think about games this way, too. When you combine all the stuff that is in a game—the obvious stuff, like the art and the script and the mechanics, and then all the ‘latent’ stuff, like “how does this control scheme influence the way I think about the game?” or “what’s special about the actions the game makes me perform?” or “what does this game assume about its audience?” or “how did the game’s creators establish its tone and mood?” and so on, it helps you to get a more complete and holistic idea of what’s actually going on in the game you’re playing—what’s special about it, and what it’s doing to your brain. And because games are a bit like dreams, the comparison works.

Anyway: have you ever had a moment where you feel particularly conscious of a game’s latent content? The moment I would cite is probably when, while playing Don’t Look Back for the first time, I suddenly became hyperconscious of the way I normally play platformers, and realized what DLB was doing to force me to change that. The nuke moment in Modern Warfare was also pretty effective in this way. It made me suddenly conscious of what kind of agency I expect to have in a FPS, and, in taking that agency away, attempted to express its political message on a kind of subconscious level. What else could have made me want to shoot those renegade Russians so badly? They’d killed me, Anakin-Skywalker-style, once already!

And what about the gamework—have you ever tried to explain the essential essence of a game to a friend, only to get caught up stumbling over words because games are actions, not words, and it’s hard to heal that breach? I feel like the writers who are best able to talk about a game’s work are the ones who write artistically– who try to articulate gamework through the language of metaphor. Tim Rogers’ recent God Hand article does this brilliantly: the final paragraph is so clever that I cannot read it without being ashamed of myself. There are some NGJ pieces out there that I think really make a serious grab at expressing gamework, too—Quinns’ piece on Wurm Online was scary as hell. It made me feel that through this game I could suddenly understand the essential wickedness of man or some shit, even though I hadn’t even played it yet and don’t believe in the essential wickedness of man.

I wish that I’d have been able to articulate this concept back when I’d been studying games for school. It would have solved so many pointless arguments about what the ‘most important part’ of a game is, or ‘what makes game X different form game Y,’ or ‘what is the point of game genre X’—those are all ultimately very rocky ways to think about games. I feel like we should be encouraging each other to look at what games are pointing at, too. Games are like prefab dreams—which is simultaneously awesome and pretty spooky.