Skinny Stone Tower of Babel

Everyone’s playing Minecraft these days, so here’s a scene that might be familiar. I’ve built my sweet cliff-side villa and I want to go exploring.  The thing is, getting lost is easy when the world is made of blocks.  I want to make a monument—an unnatural landmark—so that I can always find my way back home.  It’s time to build a skinny stone tower of Babel.

But first, I must undress. I’ll put this nice wooden chest down right here, and I’ll strip naked and fill it with my clothing, my materials, and my tools.  Two stacks of stone blocks should be all I need.  And now I build.

I’m a herculean builder. The ancient Greeks told stories of me—Kent, god of speedy architecture.  My building method involves jumping and block-dropping. I put a block on the ground and I stand on top of it. I then hop into the air, balancing a second block below my feet.  I hop again and drop a third block on top the second one. Fortunately, I can stuff my pockets with enough stone blocks to build 700 giant temples where my worshipers can admire my building prowess.

Up and up and up I go, laying the blocks as fast as I can jump, and the ground rushes away from me. Pretty soon the only limit to my range of sight is the clip distance. The blocky grass reminds me of rice terraces in Thailand and tea plantations in Darjeeling.

Whenever I show this game to someone new, particularly to people who don’t play many games, they say that the graphics are terrible. I guess that I can understand this. The omnipresent wielded tool or hand-stump is a constant reminder of just how grainy the textures are. Even at medium distances the textures don’t tile well.

The way to convert anyone is to climb the tallest thing you can find. Minecraft vistas are sublime.  They’re so unabashedly digital, and yet so organic.  Who can look at a scene like this and not be overcome with awe and wanderlust?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I haven’t come for the view. I’ve come to jump. I toe the edge of my impossible obelisk, and then I plummet awfully to the ground. Game over! Score: &e0.

Alright, so: Game Over screens. These are used to signal that the game has ended in an unfavorable way. Maybe you’ve run out of time, or you’ve run out of lives, or you’ve run out of hearts, but the game is over and you didn’t win it.

When I die in Spelunky or Rogue, I have to restart from the beginning. When I die in Dragon Age or Dead Space, I have to return to a save state, rewriting history as though I never died. But when I die in Minecraft, I return to the same world that I left. That tower I built is still there. The crater that the exploding creeper left in the mountainside is still there too.

Remember the nonsense score on the Game Over screen? It’s a holdover from an earlier version of survival mode, when you got points from killing monsters. But to me the broken score counter is emblematic of how Minecraft eschews traditional gaming impetuses and measures of success. Minecraft isn’t about getting a high score. It’s about exploring and building and destroying.

I’m easily exhausted by traipsing around a city in order to collect hundreds of assassin’s flags, but I love exploring in order to see what there is to see. I have a perpetual desire to crest the next hill, to see what’s at the top of that cliff. There’s something about hearing the low moan of a zombie while you’re entombed in a narrow tunnel of your own construction that strikes a wonderful harmony of fear and curiosity. It’s great to stand gazing into an abyssal cavern and be overwhelmed with the simple need to see what’s inside.

Minecraft is special because the main character isn’t you, it’s the world around you. You are only as important as the effect you have on the world. AND SUCH IS LIFE. Now join me and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Do I control your body or your mind?

I’m going to talk about Loved now.  If you haven’t played it, you should go fix that.  It won’t take long.

I believe that all games require trust.  When we start playing a game, we form a pact with it.  To some extent we’re giving ourselves to that game—we’re allowing it to affect the way that we move our hands, and maybe even the way that we think.  To play a game is to surrender.  We allow ourselves to be led.  We trust the game and, more abstractly, its maker.

Well, Loved is a game about trust.  It’s about a child and a god.  “Are you a man or a woman,” it asks me. I can’t know that the asker is more important than the answer.  I click on man. “No, you are a girl.”  It’s so strange for a game to begin with a contradiction.  I am asked a question and I answer honestly. I surrender to the game, and it betrays me.  Why are so many games afraid to jerk you away from yourself, to break your trust, to reject your answer? It’s so effective, so startling. It asks me who I am and then it tells me who I am.

“Will I teach you how to play? Or not?” If you click on play, the speaker responds, “you don’t deserve it.”  If you click on not, the speaker says, “you will fail.”  Either way he’s taunting you.  The strangest thing about this proposed tutorial is that your decision has no effect whatsoever on the game.  The prompt only provides the illusion of choice; the demeaning responses of the program are coupled with the demeaning implication that your decision doesn’t really matter, that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.

And so begins our abusive relationship: me and the game maker; the little girl and her god.  I hop across the silhouetted land, and he gives me orders.  “Jump across those barbs… good girl. Touch the statue and I will forgive you.”  The first meaningful decision comes at a branching path.  The top path looks easy and safe, while the bottom path looks perilous. “Take the bottom path.” Do I trust him?  I take the top path.

“Ugly Creature.”  A flash of light, and I continue.

There are two ways to play the game.  Either you trust the narrator or you don’t.  Either you obey or you rebel.  The game maker sets up his stand-in as an antagonist from the beginning, with a brash contradiction and a couple of insults.  As soon as I disobey him, he insults me again.  So I keep disobeying, even when it wouldn’t hurt me to obey, even when he’s only asking me to stand still.  I won’t stand still, I keep moving, and something strange starts to happen.  I don’t notice it at first, but my surroundings become increasingly clouded with colored boxes, giant pixels, until by the end of the game they fully obscure the details of the environment.  I can barely discern my surroundings: there’s the sky (blues), the ground (multi-colored), and danger (red).  Maybe this is all that I need to finish, but it’s frustrating.  It’s like the world around me is disintegrating, becoming cloudier.  In the final hallway, I run, red blocks descending in pursuit, and I fall….

“Why do you hate me?”  No decisions at all. I can only click on hate.  The game responds, “I loved you.”

Strange.  I play a second time, and I take the lower path.  In place of insults I get condescending praise.  “Good girl,” he says, like I’m a dog.  This time there aren’t any colored blocks.  In fact, everything appears in black and white.  At the same time, the world becomes clearer, building in detail and intricacy.  Vines trail from the ceiling and flowers grow on the ground. Maybe the colored blocks were some sort of punishment, and the detail is a reward.

Is the black and white world really better than the colorful and abstract one?  I think that the colorful world is harder to navigate, but it’s also more vibrant.

I believe that all games require trust, and perhaps all movies and books do too.  Maybe art is about surrender.  Maybe we surrender our eyes and our minds every time we look at a wonderful painting, every time we hear a beautiful song.  But compared to games, other art forms are passive.  Midway through the game, Loved asks you, “do I control your body or your mind?”   The more I think about this question, the more it disturbs me.

The truth is: I trusted Loved, and it abused my trust, and that is why I love it.

I toe the edge of a precipice lined with barbs, and my god tells me, “jump.”

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.

A Palmful of Guilt

The sun rises around 6 am and that’s when it starts to come full force.  Something about the hazy pink morning light strikes the perfect chord of misery.  The mouse in my hand is a palmful of guilt, guilt, guilt, and my fingers clatter on the keys like the legs of a spider.

It’s Final Fantasy XI and I’m 15.  I’ve turned off the volume and stuffed a towel along the bottom of my door so that my parents don’t know I’m still awake.  The door swings open and the silence of my father’s eyes makes my chest implode.  His shadow circumscribes me and the light from the hallway gives him a sort of halo.  “What are you doing?”  He asks because he wants me to say it.  I remain silent, too ashamed to even form the words.  My father sighs, deeply.  My eyebrows furrow into my head.  I want to melt into the floor.  “Turn the game off.”  On the screen my warrior has lost agro and the monster has killed my party.  Profanity tumbles through the chatbox.  /quit.  “We’ll talk about this when you get home from school.  The bus leaves in half an hour.”  He tries to shut the door behind him but it’s caught on the towel so he just walks away.

It’s World of Warcraft and I’m 18.  My roommate rolls over in bed.  Class in two hours.  I have a headset on and my friends are laughing because we’re winning in 3v3 arena.  “This is my last one,” I type.  “Gotta get ready for Greek class.”  We lose and they want to keep going but I tell them to have a good night and I log out.  I crack my neck and Brenton mutters something in his sleep.  In the shower I bow my head and close my eyes and feel the hot water washing down my body; I try to imagine it as a sort of baptism, a sort of cleansing, and I can still feel the guilt in my chest because I won’t be ready for the test at 8 am, because we lost that last game.  My friends are online and sometimes the booming solitary feeling of gaming overwhelms me even when I can hear them talking in my ears.  I can still hear them talking when I lie down for just a quick nap and I sleep straight through the test.

It’s Digital: A Love Story and I’m 21.  My girlfriend is sleeping on the bed behind me, illuminated in the blue glow of the screen.  Soft chiptunes pop hiss and crackle in my ears, and that purple-pink haze washes through the window, onto the desk, onto my keyboard.  The computer tells me, “I know what it’s like to be lonely, believe me.”  The computer tells me, “I think I’m in love with you.”  I turn around.  Ellie is so quiet when she sleeps, but as though she can feel my gaze, she rustles, she opens her eyes and she looks at me.  “Come to bed,” she says.

“In a minute, I’m almost done.”

PAX Indie Showcase

Nestled in the center of PAX East’s enormous expo floor, between AAA game demos and hardware booths, were two low rows of tables crowded with widescreen monitors and laptops. This was the Boston Indie Showcase, a collection of six games from Boston-area independent developers, selected from a pile of submissions. Their prize was exhibition space, and our prize was the chance to see these games, one of them—Fire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers—for the first time.

While Showcase winners Waker, Dearth, and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!– A Reckless Disregard for Gravity have all been available for some time, Meigakure and Slam Bolt Scrappers are still in production. Meanwhile, Turba was available for only hard-copy purchase during the show, but had its online release on Saturday, April 4th. These games run quite a gamut of genres and styles—Dearth and Waker are incredibly slick student flash games from the MIT Gambit Labs, while Turba, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Aaaaa! were developed by small production teams. Meigakure, on the other hand, is the result of Marc Ten Bosch’s individual labor. It was also an Excellence in Design finalist at the IGF this year.

The crowds were thick and the lines were long, so we split up to focus on different games and get the closest possible look at each. I focused on Meigakure, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Waker, while Laura tackled Dearth, Aaaaa!, and Turba. Here’s what we found…

Miegakure, Marc Ten Bosch

The PAX-East show floor is filled with bodies.  I huddle over an unfamiliar keyboard.  My head hurts, my stomach aches, and I do not know how to get the little man on the screen to the glowing Japanese gate.  I feel stupid and I glance around to see if anyone is watching me, judging me.  I have to fight the urge to stand up and leave—to move on to the next game so that no one discovers my intellectual ineptitude.  And then suddenly I know what to do—my forehead lifts with a flash of insight.  I shift some cubes around, I change dimensions and I’ve solved it!  Three hops and I am Rocky at the top of the stairs, I am Kasparov whispering ‘check mate’ to Deep Junior.  My imaginary onlookers mutter in awe.

If the mark of a good puzzle game is a headache followed by cathartic victory, then this is a damned good puzzle game.

Miegakure is a 4-D puzzle platformer.  Trying to explain the game’s mechanics makes me feel like Flatland’s A. Square struggling to describe the third dimension to the baffled 2-D King.  Suffice it to say, you solve puzzles by moving yourself and other objects through different worlds and spaces where several worlds coexist.  It makes you feel like you’re using a muscle you didn’t know that you had.  You don’t fight against the game so much as you struggle against your own mental limitations.

Mark Ten Bosch says that he’s at least a year from shipping.  I think I’ll preorder.

Slam Bolt Scrappers, Fire Hose Games

Tetris is fun and everything, but I’ve always thought that what it really needs is punching.  Fortunately, Firehose Games shares this line of thought: Slam Bolt Scrappers is a team Tetris brawler.    You play as a burly little guy with a funny hat and giant fists.  He uses these fists to punch miniature chubby Cthulhus with aviator hats, an action that is logically rewarded by the acquisition of colorful tetris blocks.  You then use these blocks to build a fort with shields and weapons—you have to destroy the other team’s structures while protecting your own.

Laura and I are the best people in the world at Slam Bolt Scrappers.  I know this because we beat a team that had one of the game designers on it, who was in no way going easy on us, ok?  The game started off really confusing, but as we figured out what was going on it started to be a lot of fun.  It’s fast paced and frenetic, but that fits with the game’s overall absurdity.  The part of our brain that we use to solve spatial puzzles is very different from the part that we use to punch people who are trying to solve spatial puzzles; frequently switching between these two activities leads to a unique and enjoyable experience.

Slam Bolt Scrappers has a lot of personality, but it unfortunately also has its faults.  For one thing, the four characters look so similar that it’s easy to lose track of which one you’re controlling and which ones you’re supposed to be punching.  The screen is so crammed with color, movement and explosions that your eye never knows what to focus on.  The backgrounds are way too sharp and saturated, so they only add to the clutter.

Still, though. Tetris. With punching.

Waker, MIT Gambit

Back in September everyone was talking about an interesting gaming experiment: the MIT GAMBIT lab had created the same game twice—once as a set of abstract actions, and once with a story layered over these actions.  The idea was to see how the presence of narrative affected the player’s experience of the game.

Five months later at PAX East, GAMBIT has removed the story-infused game, Waker, from the context of its abstract companion piece, Woosh.  This lack of context didn’t do Waker any favors, though, because Waker’s story feels like it was pasted over a finished game.

It begins with a long voiceover that tells me I have to save a little girl from being trapped in her dream.   I then proceed to the actual game and it has no relationship to this plot whatsoever.  The platforming is competent and sometimes even clever, but what does hopping around on little platforms have to do with saving a sleeping girl?  Why does it say “Wisp obtained!” whenever I clear a stage?  After each level I’m fed a little piece of voiceover, but I can skip even these by just walking off of the screen.

As an experiment, Waker and Woosh were intriguing.  On its own, though, Waker is just another decent platformer with a poorly implemented story.

Dearth, MIT Gambit

Dearth is unusual. Set in a desert landscape inhabited by tribal beings with fish for heads, its play focuses on enemy creatures which look uncomfortably like hairy water-balloons filled with sweat. They’ll chase you and your AI (or human) partner, and if you stop moving for even a moment with one of these animals on your tail, it will start to kill you. Your job is to keep moving, maneuvering into positions where you can smash your creatures into your partner’s, destroying them. It’s a game about movement, constant movement, but it’s also the kind of enjoyably frustrating puzzle that makes you want to take your hands off the controls and go find some scratch paper. If you do that, however, you’ll die: the game wants you to keep thinking on your feet and compensating for your mistakes on the fly.

In the loud and distracting PAX environment I found it extremely confusing, as did the strangers who played with me. Once I figured out the rules, though, the single-player game became too easy. The two-player game, with its crazily complex maps and the added human variable, is much more interesting. After PAX, I showed this game to some friends in a public space, and as we tried to figure out some of the tougher two-player stages we attracted quite a number of spectators. For a while they crowded around us, calling suggestions over our heads and laughing at our frequent mistakes. When a puzzle game can inspire that kind of moment-by-moment excitement, I’m impressed.

I’d recommend completing the single-player levels quickly, to get an idea of the strategy involved, then quickly finding someone to play with. It’s interesting but unsurprising to me that although Dearth was designed specifically to show off a slick AI implementation, it only really shines when you get another human’s hand on the keyboard with yours, and start solving the puzzles together.

Turba, Binary Takeover

Turba is a rhythm puzzle that uses a grid full of colored blocks. Like many other games based around a block grid, it challenges players to empty the grid by removing groups of like-colored blocks before the screen fills. Unlike other, similar games, it allows players to set the challenge with their own music. The beat of the chosen song controls the rate at which the blocks are added, and clicking with the beat will award more points. A faster song means faster blocks and, thus, higher difficulty.

It’s not a simple clear-contiguous-colors game, though. The one mode I was able to see rewarded the most points only if a player was able to clear groups from each of the four colors simultaneously. Because the player has the ability to swap columns, and because there’s an incentive to hold off cashing in the points until you’ve got a group from all four colors, there’s an interesting risk-reward struggle apparent in each moment of play—should I clear the blocks now, or wait to make a bigger combo? I failed songs several times because the screen filled while I was too busy swapping columns to notice. It’s much faster and more frantic than many other, similar games, and the developers have obviously been thinking about new ways to break puzzle-game tropes and make their game unique.

Perplexingly, the Turba devs were only selling hard copies of their game at PAX. Since then, however, they’ve had their online release, and are now selling downloads from their site, and have made a demo available. They’re also working on moving it to digital distribution hubs like Direct2Drive and Steam.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!—A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, Dejobaan Games

This game has been out for quite a while, and anyone interested in indie games has almost certainly heard about it before. Though Dejobaan won’t release sales numbers for it, it’s obviously been incredibly successful: it hit the top five Steam sales during its first week after release.

Kent and I attended a PAX panel titled ‘Indies Will Shoot You in the Knees: Why We Don’t Play Fair’ at which Dejobaan’s winningly enthusiastic Ichiro Lambe asserted, several times, that the game’s success stems from the sheer quantity of personal character that the developers crammed into it. He is absolutely right: as an expression of joyous individuality, it’s a masterpiece. After playing it for the first time, when the alpha came out last year, I felt as though I’d run into an insane genius at a crowded party and enjoyed a fleeting, absurd conversation before losing him in a crowd. Watching Ichiro talk at PAX was a similar experience.

It’s not a game to play alone, really. Play it by yourself, of course, but for every minute you huddle alone with it, promise yourself that you’ll spend another minute showing it to friends, or to your family, or to random strangers on the street. Not only will they think it’s incredible, but they’ll love you to death and assume you’re awesome for liking it. And you will be awesome. The entire game is about celebrating what an awesome, sassy person you are—at any rate, about celebrating the kind of person you become once you start leaping off of floating skyscrapers in a crazy world of neon lights and hilarious graffiti. It’s marvelous.

Garrysmod anthropologically

Our podcast on griefing and countergaming, and the response to the shownotes, got me thinking about in-game communities and how we police them. What’s the best kind of game community—the one where the players make the rules and ‘police’ themselves, or one where empowered community watchmen—GMs, forum moderators, and the like—control, censor, and organize interaction? What are the tradeoffs? Is there really a difference?

Here’s an elaborate case study. Er. Anecdote. It’s not a direct response to anything. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about.

I spoke in the podcast about my crazy experience on a Garrysmod server last spring. While joining a server I hadn’t been on before, I was identified as a newcomer/trespasser, so a moderator seized me, ragdolled my character, and called upon all the ten other players on the server to construct an elaborate machine around my frozen, puppetlike body. They used WireMod to construct a CCTV circuit so I could see what they were doing to me. They welded a bunch of stuff to my arms and legs and exploded it. They did some rather obscene things to my character model. This all went on for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before I was released: I subverted the whole endeavor by calling the server denizens “good sirs” and complimenting their WireMod skills with overly-polite, sarcastic quasi-Victorian-speak. They found it hilarious enough to let me go.

Anthropologically speaking, I’d just experienced a ‘rite of passage.’ Something like a baptism or spirit quest. Psychologically and socially, raping ragdolled server-newcomers with a giant contraption built out of Half Life 2 props fulfills the same purpose as a circumcision ceremony: the victim has to undergo symbolic change in order to transition between two social states. My experience wasn’t official, but it fulfilled the same purpose and transformed me into a community member. When I was between those two social states, I was in a crazy position where I had no social identity at all, and that’s when all the nutcase shit happened. Hazing in sports teams or college fraternities performs the same purpose. To use technical athropology-style terms, I was ‘liminal’ when this stuff happened: I was on a threshold between two ways of being. It was like a spirit quest or some shit, man!

Despite the hilarious extravagance of my spirit-quest hazing ritual, it seemed to me like a more realistic approximation of community dynamics than anything I’d ever seen in multiplayer gaming before. The sheer number of options Garrysmod players have—the number of props, modes, tools, contraptions, mods, and so on—gives them a peculiar freedom unavailable to players in other, more-gamelike environments. In TF2 or Counterstrike, there’s no easy way to stage a transition ceremony: why stop shooting each other in the face? Our real lives are filled with transition ceremonies, so there’s a good reason to keep them out of games. Transition ceremonies aren’t necessarily fun. The’re complicated and cruel and maybe a waste of time. We play games at least partially to escape these kinds of social rules.

But these ceremonies cement communities. Though their participants get to transcend social rules for a short time, these ceremonies make the normal, ordinary, everyday social rules stronger. My hazing reinforced that server moderator’s power and leadership. It also highlighted the players’ sense of community by allowing them to demonstrate that I could only enter it on their terms.

I’m arguing that the lack of gameplay ‘rules’ in Garrysmod made it easier for these players to invent ways to demonstrate their community’s power. The lack of structure also made it easier for the players to construct elaborate community conventions—unwritten rules. Garrysmod is a haphazard collection of strange communities with baroque regulations: on some servers, destroying another player’s constructions gets you punished, while on others, people build only to destroy. Some servers are all about car-racing. Others are for ‘serious builders only,’ and demonstrating noobiness will get you kicked. Other servers are aggressively noobified. Some servers exist purely to stroke their teenage moderators’ egos. Some are elaborate roleplay worlds. Garrysmod throws away the structure inherent in most Source games, then leaves communities with ability to create their own structure. So this is what happens. An endlessly diverging community, a zone where anyone can build their own perfect little world and rule it like an absolute despot. Freer, in its Source-Engine chains, than Second Life.

If you’ll allow me to wax poetic for a moment: the unique lawlessness of this terrain makes it a surprising mirror for the human soul, even more acutely than a standard MMO like WOW or COH. Instead of relying on game mechanics for rules, Garrysmod communities have to create their own, cooperatively or despotically. There aren’t any standards: each server is radically different. Each game mode changes community interactions dramatically. I couldn’t predict anything about each server’s rules of social interaction until I’d figured out what game mode they were running. Even then, I could rarely guess anything until I’d been dunked in headfirst.

So, to return to the top of my post: Garrysmod is an example of a community-policed, low-rule-density environment. WOW is an example of a company-policed, high-rule-density environment. Garrysmod has no standardized ‘gameplay,’ no reward structure, no subscription fee. It’s creative and lawless, and despite its exterior wackiness,  it produces creative and ‘realistic’ social situations, in both good and cruel ways. It mirrors the dark and sweaty interior of our psyches. Where else could I have experienced such a vivid, human form of hazing? Not that the hazing was a positive thing—it wasn’t. It was merely very human.

But you say: high-structure game communities can invent their own ceremonies of transition, too, can’t they?

I’m going to argue that there’s something fundamentally different about that kind of experience: it’s not terribly expressive. Or even interesting! User creativity is at an all-time low there, compared to the effusive nuttiness of Garrysmod. These WOW players are working solely with what they’ve been given because they have no other choice. I think this shackling of creative expression limits the height of community affirmation and the depth of community cruelty possible in standard, company-policed MMOs.

Real-world social ceremonies, cruel or kind, are where we really let our human creativity loose.

It makes sense to me, then, that a creative game would mirror the dark side of social interaction more closely than a stricter, limited game.

I’m sorry this stuff gets thick and academicish. That wasn’t the point of this blog– I wanted to write things about games without getting too deep in the academic shit. I wanted to make the kinds of things we discussed in my games class accessible to those of my gamer friends who weren’t interested in reading big-time games scholars like Espen Aarseth. If gamers are going to be self-aware and not a bunch of mindless dicks, they need the opportunity to talk about this stuff without taking an entire liberal arts degree first. I mean, I love reading some academic writing about games, but I wanted to write the kind of stuff on this blog that’s thoughtful without being overtly academic. I mean, hell, that’s work to me. Right now, that’s grades. I want to write for a living, and I don’t want to write for academic journals. Not right now, anyway. Capisce? Capisce. I’ll try harder in the future.

Let’s come up with excuses for why I die in Spelunky

You’ve played Captain Forever, right? If you have, you’ve picked up the drips and slivers of its story. Despite its neon graphics and cheekily deadpanned flavor text, it’s secretly a soul-crippling tale of sacrifice and cyber-horror! Hooray! Captain Forever is a trapped pilot doomed to fly forever in a kamikaze ship that reassembles itself after destruction. He must kill hundreds of enemies in an infinite cycle of death and gruesome rebirth! It’s like something out of Harlan Ellison, but with less Harlan Ellison. I adore it.

See, it’s awesome when games bother to explain in-game death and rebirth. Lord knows they don’t have to—have you ever seen an arcade game that bothers explaining ‘INSERT COIN’ in the context of the game’s story? It’s hard to talk about that mechanic directly without leaving the perspective—the ‘diegesis’, to use the technical term—of the game-world. Farbs didn’t have to come up with a backstory that explains why I can play Captain Forever over and over again, even after losing. But he merged old-school permadeath shmup game-logic with a WOWlike focus on repeat play and mined this for every ounce of crazy, and it’s awesome.

I started thinking—what would it be like to explain permadeath and infinite rebirth in another game? How about Spelunky? What’s going on there? Shall we sink into the sweaty morass of its diegesis—down into those caverns where La Mulana and Nethack collide head-on? There are bits of brain spattered all over the walls. There are little bats squeaking adorably. I am killing the shopkeeper, over and over again, throughout eternity. Yes. Let’s do this. Let’s make this as crazy as possible.

There are many archaeologists.

Under layers of dirt and grime and tattered clothing, each archaeologist seems identical, but each is really a unique man, each capable of unique mistakes and uniquely spectacular deaths. Some die in a fluke accident five seconds inside—others last longer.

Some are wicked, heartless fellows. They toss the women around like beanbags. Some are kinder. Some proceed cautiously, wringing every last ounce of gold out of the place before creeping on. Some will use the lady’s corpse to bludgeon a skeleton to death. Some will sacrifice her to Kali! But in the end, everyone wants to kill the shopkeeper—web him to the floor, blow out his brains from behind with a pistol. What can we say? It’s something about these caves.

The archaeologist is a ghost.

That’s why you keep running the same dungeon over and over, see. You ran it once, in human form—you probably died in the tutorial cave, or moments afterwards, feeling the first bat’s teeth in your jugular. Whatever it was, it wasn’t impressive.

So now you’re a ghost. Still unwilling to release its pathetic grip on your corpse, your spirit dreams endlessly of running the dungeon, of the infinite disasters you would have met had insane chance allowed you to live a minute longer—another minute—a few seconds. You run the dungeon over and over and over again, but your imagination always fails you: you have not yet imagined the dungeon’s furthest point. Someday, you might. You might dream a victory profound enough to bring this all to an end.

It will probably take you a long time.

There is no archaeologist.

We plumbed these tunnels with sonar long ago, and found them so complex and endless that it would be madness to send a team down there—and worse than madness to send a man alone and unaided. So we’ve simulated all its terrors, and now we’re taking applications. Applications for Suicidal Hero, that is.

Each applicant is tested  against the program. We’re looking for the ideal string of hops and whips and sprints and crimes. We’ll put them through again and again until we’re sure: the perfect super-soldier. We’ll train him up. It’ll be like Ender’s Game, but underground. Or something. When it all comes down to the big win, the blood will be real. The archaeologist will be carrying a machine gun, and he’ll be wearing a super-science bodysuit that gives him super-strength, and he won’t actually be an archaeologist. If he dies on the spikes, it’ll be a lot grosser than what you’re used to in 8-bit.

The archaeologist is a mistake.

We didn’t mean for you to see us. Truly, we’re very sorry. Usually when we go out into public, we make sure the holographic cloaking devices are fully powered. Nobody wants to see a tentacle-beast straight out of HP Lovecraft go waddling down the street in full daylight, and none of us wants to have to hunt down and mind-erase the blistered memories of any Earthling who saw us like that. It’s a sticky business, it is.

But you—with you, we screwed up. By the time we found you huddled in the dumpster, brain a soup, face stained with tears and twisted permanently with disgust and horror, your memories were burned too deep to wipe away. So we gave you Spelunky instead: we took you to the orbiting mothership and hooked you up to the game. It’ll give you something to do while we research a cure for Madness. It’ll provide you with infinite bliss! There’s no getting tired of Spelunky. Not as far as we know, anyway—we once had a patient on it for forty years while we tried to fix him up, and we’ll keep you on it, too, as long as we feel is necessary. It’s like a kind of therapy. It’ll soothe your splintered consciousness back into shape, so it will. You’ll play it forever, if you have to!

And you can play it forever. That game is a bitch to beat, even when you’ve got forty tentacles, like we do, and a mind capable of thinking twelve thoughts simultaneously.

Pfft. Spelunky.

Second Person Shooter at PAX East!

Laura and I are going to be perusing the games, panels, and booths of PAX East for the next few days.  If you’re going to be there, let us know!  Here are a few of the panels we’re excited for:

Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction

Text adventures have been quietly experimenting with narrative gaming for thirty years. Five authors from the amateur interactive fiction community discuss the design ideas in their games — reordered storylines, unreliable narrators, deeply responsive NPCs — and how they apply to other kinds of games.

Panelists Include: J. Robinson Wheeler [JRW Digital Media], Robb Sherwin, Aaron Reed, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin

Indies Will Shoot You In The Knees – Why We Don’t Play Fair

Everyone is talking about Indie games — titles like World of Goo, Braid, and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity are making press and making money. But they’re fighting against games with $200 million dollar budgets and 100+ person dev teams. How do Indies compete? Three Boston-based Indie developers will check their water-guns at the door and tell you why and how Indie games are kicking more ass, taking more names, and chewing more bubblegum than their AAA rivals. You will hear from the Ichiro Lambe (IGF Finalist Dejobaan Games, Aaaaa!), Scott Macmillan (Macguffin Games, All Heroes Die) and ex-Bungie AI wizard Damián Isla, founder of the new indie Moonshot Games. The panel will be moderated by Eitan Glinert, founder of Fire Hose Games

The Death of Print

It´s no longer a secret: Print is a dying medium. The past few years have been brutal for print media in the game space, but the plummeting sales and editorial team layoffs came to a head in 2009. It´s no surprise many of the key players at those institutions have moved on to web-based ventures, but has the industry as a whole ultimately lost something or gained something? In this 60-minute panel, Russ Pitts, Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist speaks to several journalists who were deeply involved with the events of the past year about the run-up to the decline of print, and the effects on game journalism – and games. Panelists: John Davison, Editor of the new Gamepro Jeff Green, formerly of Games for Windows Magazine, Julian Murdoch, Freelance Writer.

But Thou Must: Choice in Games

Role-playing games need choice to propel the plot and motivate the player. The methods can vary from smoke and mirrors to extreme branching reactivity – what is the right balance to strike in a game? This panel dissects SEGA and Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol, the issues involved with introducing choice into a real-world spy genre, and presenting the consequence to the player – along with the consequences it had for the development team.

Panelists Include: Joseph Bulock [Cinematics Designer, Obsidian Entertainment], Shon Stewart [Lead Cinematics Animator, Obsidian Entertainment], Matt MacLean [Lead Systems Designer, Obsidian Entertainment], Chris Avellone [Lead Designer, Obsidian Entertainment]

Forcing Your Way In & Coming Out On Top: The Game Industry in Rainbow Color

Many of the friends and writers of the GayGamer.net community are a mixture of people that work or have worked in various fields within the gaming industry from big-time producers to lowly QA grunts. We’re back again, with our east coast crew to impart our wisdom of what the industry is like for anyone trying to get a foot in the door as well as what it can be like for someone doesn’t quite fit the status quo. Flynn DeMarco, Chris Schroyer, David Edison, and Helen McWilliams will divulge how we made it into programming, production, marketing, and media, impart war stories we’ve collected from the trenches, discuss the multitude of issues that can arise in the ever expanding ecosystem that is the game industry, and show how the game industry is growing with everyone in mind and in action.

Sequelitis Snake Oil: Quack Medicine for the Video Game Industry

Why do passionate gamers treat the word “sequel” as a pejorative while often bestowing their highest praise upon those very same sequels? This panel will seek to diagnose the video game industry’s purported “sequelitis” and – by way of discussion from thoughtful panelists, including Irrational Games’ Ken Levine; Harmonix’s Dan Teasdale; Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann; and moderator Chris Grant, from Joystiq – debunk the quack medicine that’s identified video game sequels to be symptomatic of the industry’s creative bankruptcy.

Sounds fun, right?  You can find the full list of panels here.

We will also get a chance to check out the games in the Boston Indie Showcase that PAX selected for the event:

Miegakure (Marc ten Bosch)
AaaaaAAaaa…A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Dejobaan)
Dearth (MIT Gambit Game Lab)
Waker (MIT Gambit Game Lab)
Turba (Keith Morgado)
Slam Bolt Scrappers (Fire Hose Games)

If there’s anything you’re particularly interested in hearing about, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or drop us an email.  Watch this space for the next week or so for thoughtful coverage of the event.  Hope to see you there!

Galcon Fusion is good times, some of the time

The gulf between multiplayer and singleplayer Galcon is like the gulf between an adorable puppy and a dead puppy that is already rotting.

Actually, that’s very unfair. But there is a huge divide. In my opinion, this iPhone-game-turned-PC-clickyfest is practically only worth playing on multiplayer. Multiplayer, particularly the team multiplayer, is a strategy-rich experience; the singleplayer is a dull, brief, staccato process that seems particularly ill-suited to the PC. I’ve heard good things about it on the iPhone, but when you’re playing thirty-second strategy games in your hand, while, as one reviewer put it, brushing your teeth, that’s a very different experience from hunching in front of your computer while the whole screen fills with robot strategy triangles. It’s simply not interesting enough to deserve all that space in front of your face.

Somebody got owned. By triangles.

Because that’s what this game is all about: circles and triangles. Lean, lean visuals. Admirable depth evolving out of a very slight, pared-down set of mechanics. And the developers tried to give this PC version some more totally unneeded complexity by including a seething mess of ill-explained singleplayer game modes that seem to have no reason for existing. And then there’s the AI. It comes in ten levels, some or most of which I could not actually tell apart from one another while playing. So, make of that what you will. This is a game which deserved more than to be weighted down with a million irrelevancies.

This is mainly because the multiplayer is so fantastic. I played multiplayer once last week—during finals week at my college—for over three hours straight. And it did not feel like a waste of time.

See, Galcon multiplayer is is more explicitly a kind of communication than it is in any other strategy game I’ve tried, simply because it’s so stripped down. The units are triangles; they point where they’re going. More triangles means more troops. No triangles means a player’s turtling. Everything that happens is right there on the table, ready for players to draw their own conclusions from. The pull and play of triangles is like a conversation between opponents.

The result is an incredible range of strategy—incredible, really, for a game with only one kind of troop, one kind of command, and automated unit production. By manipulating your troop output, you can trick enemies into thinking you have more or less troops than you actually do; by changing your troops’ direction mid-flight,y ou can pull off some impressive feints. And because your enemies here are people, not AI, the kind of strategy and trickery you can pull off is so much broader, so much more satisfying. There are such a diversity of viable strategies that by the time you’ve grasped the basic mechanics you’ve probably developed a distinctly personal play-style. And these styles stick out. The game is so slight in visuals that player behavior takes the absolute center stage. Other players in your game will know you by your favorite tricks. And you’ll know them by theirs. And team multiplayer is even more glorious—those games are all about wordless cooperation, about games turning on a dime, about perpetrating a fantastic kind of human chaos. It’s something that simply isn’t possible in the singleplayer.

So, the game has terrible music, unimpressive graphics, and a singleplayer mode that struck me as a waste of time. But it has a multiplayer that, out of a few bare-bones elements, inspires a pretty-much endless strategy experience. This is some really tight design. I am incredibly impressed with it. What I’m not impressed with, though, is the fact that the multiplayer servers go absolutely cold during much of the day, which makes it impossible for me to enjoy the one aspect of the game that I actually adore.

Actually, this is what the game looks like most of the time. A bit more placid, I'd say.

I got the game for two bucks as part of an indie bundle; knowing what I know now about the singleplayer and the multiplayer server situation, I’m not sure I would have bought the full ten dollar game just by itself. At any rate, there’s a free demo on Steam. I’d certainly recommend that, but since I bought the game already I don’t even know if that demo has multiplayer in it. I hope it does—this game certainly wants to show potential customers the best it has to offer, not the worst.

Wondered where we were all last week? We were doing finals. It was kind of a bitch. But we’re back now, and you’ll be seeing some interesting stuff soon!

Also, we are going to PAX East. More about that later.

ALSO ALSO, Galcon, regular iPhone Galcon, won the Innovation in Mobile Game Design award at the IGF last year. Here’s the dev’s– Phil Hassey’s–website.