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.

The soundtracks for our power fantasies

Okay, so that Civ 4 menu music is pretty iconic, isn’t it? A quasi-orchestral arrangement of the Swahili version of the Lord’s prayer. Awesome. I have a friend who uses that song to de-stress while writing papers, and recently I bought the song off of iTunes, too. Oh, Baba Yetu: I wish I’d had the sense to buy this earlier. As a kid, see, I listened almost exclusively to game soundtracks—exclusively to bad game soundtracks. I had a Walkman and a stack of blank CD-Rs, but no budget for buying my own music (PC games and Pokemon cards are expensive, man), so when I got sick of listening to my dad’s collection of classical music I would jump on the PC and dig around in Program Files.

And thus, at the age of ten, I discovered Caesar III’s horrifically brash and overbearing soundtrack.

Listening to Caesar III’s music is like being repeatedly hit over the head with the British Museum. It’s calculated. It’s dry. Designed to be loopable ad-infinitum, the music has few swells or changes in emotion or tone. Just… trumpets. Drums. It sounds like the design team told the composer to “make the game sound like that one scene in Ben Hur,” but forgot to tell him which scene they were talking about, so it just ended up sounding like all of them. There are little marchy-marchy sounds, like jangling chain-mail and clattering army-sandals, built into a couple of the tracks.  They only make it worse.

Listening to the music of Caesar III is like listening to Mussolini or some shit, guys.

But I adored it. I had a brash and overbearing personality when I was ten. I liked listening to movie soundtracks, but I only liked listening to the loud, triumphant bits. As the years went on, my burned CD of Caesar III music became a short-term fix for me in the low periods between Lord of the Rings soundtrack releases.

Because I played Ensemble Studios and Maxis games almost exclusively until middle school, the soundtrack of my early childhood gaming experiences not a very good soundtrack. Looped. Marchy-marchy sounds. Bad MIDI plunkety-plunk stuff. Eventually, it all started sounding as sour to my ears as it must have done to my friends and parents: when the time came for me to graduate to ‘real people music,’ I immediately ran out and purchased Paul Simon’s Graceland from Wal-Mart. Since then, game music has been conspicuously absent from my iPod.

Well. World of Goo got on there—that’s a magnificent soundtrack, that is. And today I spent quite a while listening to fragments of Baba Yetu. But all of those other brazenly triumphant tracks are gone. On top of that, my favorite games are no longer the ones about violence, civilization, barbarism, and control. I don’t even play Civ 4. When I was a kid, I played games partially (mostly?) to enact power fantasies, I suppose. Caesar III and its music were part of that. Now I play mostly indie games, and my favorites are the ones that baffle me, the ones that play tricks on me. When I was ten, the games with the biggest emotional punch for me were the ones where I perpetrated the deaths of millions. Now they’re the ones where I die constantly, or the ones where death isn’t even an option. Those two in particular have some brilliant, moody music. I still like to listen to Lord of the Rings soundtracks, yeah, but now I spend more time listening to jazz, or to the Talking Heads: music that bleeds out from our marginal cultural spaces, I suppose.

Is there something juvenile and coarse about violence? Yes, definitely. Is there something juvenile and coarse about music that celebrates violence? Usually. Are games about violence juvenile and coarse? I’m going to say that they don’t have to be. But am I saying that just because I do admire so many violent games? Am I going to wake up someday and decide that I’m too much of an adult to play Dead Space, or to admire screenshots of MadWorld? I’m already too much of an adult to enjoy Condemned 2: Bloodshot (I mean, it’s terrible), and, like Leigh Alexander recently mentioned, I’ve always been uncomfortable with games that seek to replicate exactly the violence of the real world without really addressing– actually, let’s face it, without criticizing— the morality of that violence.

Power fantasies will always be a part of gaming and, therefore, of game music. I think it’s important that they stay with us, obviously—games are a relatively safe place to have that kind of power fantasy. It’s good for us in the same way it’s good for little kids to play violent make-believe. It’s a kind of exploration. There’s some kind of exploration going on in the Christopher Tin arrangement of Baba Yetu I put at the start of this post– it’s marginal in that it’s the Swahili Lord’s Prayer, but it’s been turned into this kind of crazy grandiose thing, and it’s in a game that’s all about dominance and power fantasies. Something to think about later, I guess. There’s certainly a place for that kind of music: we need power-music to go along with our power-trips.

But this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop hating on the Caesar III soundtrack.

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.

Torchlight is like a job you don’t get paid for

Attention universe! I have completed the primary Torchlight campaign! Why did it take me three months of halfhearted, intermittent play? I will tell you. It is because there is no point to Torchlight.

See, unless clicking on colorful enemies is what you enjoy most in life, there’s almost no reason to ‘finish’ playing the game. Because Torchlight has an Endless Dungeon mode, finishing the primary plot only enables more and more of the same-old same-old: you get to go further down, and you get to click on baddies and receive loot. Nothing new there. There’s also no emotional or narrative reward to finishing the plot itself. Quite a lot has been said about the skeletal nature of the game’s plot, about how tepid, uncommitted, and unclear it is.  Not only does it provide no resolution—the dungeon continues—but it makes no sense. The final boss-fight is a tedious and largely-unfair low-framerate ass-raping in which the game’s evil mastermind—a badly-explained, overpowered something called ‘Ordrak’—spams mobs at you for twenty minutes. When you’re done you get a shit-ton of worthless loot.

So why did I keep at it? Frankly, I’m a sucker for numbers that go up. Preferably, numbers that go up very high, and very quickly. It’s why I bothered finishing Infectionator: World Dominator, even though I broke the game, balance-wise, while still in Africa. In Torchlight, the numbers never stop going up. It is impossible to play for an hour without leveling up twice. You are presented with improved gear so frequently that it is hard to keep track of how fast those numbers are rising. There’s not too much need for strategic assessment: each weapon has a tooltip detailing its DPS and bonuses and providing a side-by-side comparison with your current loadout. You simply look at the numbers and choose whatever has the bigger ones. At times, this kind of constant reward feels very sinister, as if the game is trying to keep you sated with numerals while it simultaneously performs a subliminal and evil reconstruction of your brain. You stagger away from the computer, a lizardlike numbness reigning in your mind, and all night long digits scroll before your eyes while the clink of gold rattles in your ears. This is Torchlight. It’s addictive like a Facebook game, but with all the garish stupidity of that genre replaced by Diablo nostalgia. It is a powerful and scientific designer drug.

But the habit is relatively easy to break. Like I said, it quickly becomes clear that there’s no higher reward to playing the game. No dramatic conclusion, no ultimate weapon, no satisfying plot twist. Just more and more of the same. This was apparently the aim of the design team, and by gum, they seem to have accomplished it. If ‘the same’ isn’t enough for you, I can’t see why you’d bother finishing the game, unless it’s for street-cred-related reasons. Instead of dragging me onward, it only left me exhausted.

This raises questions for me, though: do I play games because I want a continuing experience, or because I want a story or a progression that eventually comes to an end, the way a book or a movie does? For me, I’ve discovered that it’s the latter. I don’t want to play the same thing for ever and ever; it’s only human that our tales come to ends. If a game doesn’t want to tell me a serious story, fine, but it’s at least got to resolve itself somehow, because that, too, is human. Currently, my conception of a ‘good game’—and I understand that, with social games, casual games, DLC and so on, this isn’t the way the industry is heading—is something with a beginning, a middle, and a proper, conclusive end. A death. A max level. A final challenge that unlocks extras, maybe. Anything but an infinite perpetuation of identical play experiences. I don’t need to be able to win it—I just need to be able to feel a sense of closure, or to have a chance to find my own kind of closure. Me, personally. Any thoughts on this, guys?

Here’s a secret about me and Torchlight: I almost didn’t quit. Apparently, there’s a secret level filled with horses for characters in the 40s level range, based on the cow level in Diablo II. I consider this idea incredibly attractive. But you have to grind the incredibly dull fishing minigame to get there, so I’ve decided that I won’t be bothering.

Max Payne and the Pictoralists

Kent’s post about games and their relation to old media got me thinking. It’s best to read this one if you’ve read his first.

Because my 360 is at school and my computer is too shoddy to handle Bioshock 2 right now, I’m currently playing Max Payne. In case you never played Max Payne, here’s what you need to know: it is The Departed crossed with John Woo crossed with every B-movie cops-and-robbers flick you’ve ever seen. All the cutscenes are comic strips. They’re not even real comics: they’re photographs layered over with ultra-cheesy Photoshop art filters, with speech bubbles and word boxes slapped on top. The language is such a heavy kind of noirish nonsense that it gets hard to handle after a while. Constant references to the dark nature of the city, the predatory howl of sirens, the call of the night, that kind of thing. In short, the game wants so badly to be everything that crime novels, action movies, and gritty thriller comics have ever been that it’s practically bleeding out the anus to accomplish this.

Nevertheless, it’s fun as hell. The John Woo fighting moves are incorporated as bullet-time dodge-jump-and-shoot attacks—at one point, Max even remarks that he’s about to get “all Chow Yun Fat” on his enemies’ collective rear ends. It’s marvelous. The whole game crawls right up into that sweaty place under the armpit of twentieth-century pulp fiction and sits there grinning like a monkey and clapping its hands, and there’s nothing you can do but love it.

Aside from the bullet time effects, which were very unique and awesome when the game came out, there’s not much special about the stuff the player does in the game. You’ve got a million different weapons, grenades, rocket launchers, et cetera. Stupid boss fights. A couple halfhearted puzzles, because every game in the universe needs a puzzle, right? It’s the standard shooter rigmarole through and through. A few hallway laser-bomb puzzles are direct references to situations found in Half-Life. What saves it from being derivative is the style: By accessing that whole antihero-thriller- noir-cops-and-robbers heritage, Max Payne transformed itself from a poorly-balanced shooter into something completely magical.

Its aims are a bit like those of the Pictoralists, described in Kent’s post, but with a bit more punch. Max Payne adopted non-gamic inspiration in the most audacious manner possible by flaunting its relationship to movies and comics. It’s trying to be a movie and a comic, at the same time, while also being a game. The basic attacks are obvious homages to Woo’s Hard Boiled, for crying out loud! It doesn’t try to be a movie in the same way that Heavy Rain does, but it’s still trying, and it cleaves so tightly to that heritage that it inherits all the excitement and energy of the old media. It knows why we love movies and trashy books and comics, and plays up to that. We don’t keep playing Max Payne simply because the game itself is well-made; we love it because it’s a bombastic send-up of everything pulp and horrible. In spirit and attitude, it’s the ultimate action movie and the ultimate comic.

So: Demons’ Souls is fantastic, on a gamic level. But not every game has to be Demons’ Souls. And not every game should be. Games that go in the exact opposite direction are often just as marvelous.

Guest Article: Your Social Network Sucks

Morgon Kanter writes about an irritating new trend in game design.

The first time I ever played an MMORPG online was in 1996. It was called Medievia, and it was back in the days when “MMOs” were really just called “MUDs”, short for Multi-User Dungeons (anyone remember those?). The first time I ever played a video game online was in 1999. I was 11 years old, and I had just gotten my hands on a shiny new copy of Unreal Tournament. For those of you not old enough to remember, Unreal Tournament was, at that point, considered to be the greatest multiplayer shooter ever made. It even managed to accomplish this when most of the world was still playing it on dial-up.

Unreal Tournament, in all its account-free glory

Medievia was the first and last time I ever felt it necessary to make an account for a game. It was natural, really: it’s a persistent world where you’re expected to log in and continue where you last left off. Medievia was even a little unusual about that when compared to other MUDs, because you didn’t lose your equipment when you logged off. Unreal Tournament did not require me to sign up for account. I don’t even think the developers had conceived of the notion of requiring dial-up users to log in to their weak, easily-DDoSed servers in West Nowhereville before playing the greatest multiplayer game ever made. If one of them did, I have this little fantasy in my head wherein said person walked into CliffyB’s office and brought it up to him: “So, CliffyB, do you think we should make everybody sign up for an account and log in to play multiplayer?” To this, CliffyB would dutifully reply: “That’s the most fucking retarded thing I’ve ever heard.”

Fast forward a bit under a decade, and the most fucking retarded thing that my fantasy CliffyB has ever heard has gained some traction. I don’t really know where this idea started, though I have a few ideas: Xbox Live for the original Xbox, and Steam. On both places it makes sense: the former because you had to pay for it so of course you had to log in to play, and the latter because all the games you bought ended up tied to the account so of course you had to log in to play. But wait! Now the concept has expanded…to individual games? Now I need to log in somewhere to play multiplayer on a PC game, where I don’t have to pay for the privilege? This isn’t like Steam, where you log in when your computer boots up to access your games — all your games. Now I’m expected to launch an individual game, then fill in a username and password in order to get online and shoot people.

UT3, on the other hand, demands you make an account.

My first brush with this terrible idea came, rather ironically, with Unreal Tournament 3, where after booting the game up I was expected to do these foreign actions like “create an account” and “log in” in order to play with other people online. I don’t see why this is necessary — it wasn’t necessary in Unreal Tournament, or Unreal Tournament 2004. (The realistic answer is probably “it’s not necessary, but they want to see and control who is playing their game” or in industry-speak “preventing piracy.”) Part of me is glad that that game did so terribly for that reason; I absolutely cannot stand having to sign up for an account to play a game I already paid for. It’s even worse now that the game is on Steam, where first you download it to your Steam account and then once you launch the game you have to make another separate account. WTF, man? Could you imagine if you had to do that for every game you own? But wait, you say, that’s just for multiplayer. UT3 is a multiplayer game, so making an account is okay, right? What about single player? Funny you should mention that…

Turns out that requiring accounts for single-player games is also gaining traction. Dragon Age: Origins with its “social network” is a well-known example (required for the DLC), and anything made by Ubisoft now gets a special mention for the doubly asinine requirement of remaining online while you are playing even though it’s a single player game! Now, Ubisoft is absolutely terrible, and there is absolutely no redeeming feature in that model. But the thing with Dragon Age: Origins, that doesn’t have to be so bad. But there is just one thing…and it’s the same thing that bugged me so much about UT3. How many people bought Dragon Age over Steam? Given how it was in the best-sellers list for a while, I’m willing to bet the answer to that question is “a lot”. Now, with Steam, I am already signed up for an account. I signed up for this account the first time I bought games with Steam. This account is used for multiplayer in a number of Steam-based games (not just games published by Valve). Does it seem a little annoying to anyone else to have to sign up for *another* account, solely for Dragon Age, just for the DLC? Couldn’t they have just used my damn Steam settings?!

All things considered, Dragon Age is pretty tame. I don’t care about their stupid “social network”, but at least it doesn’t require me to run the Games for Windows Live client to play the game, which some games on Steam do require. That makes even less sense to me — I bought the game on Steam. STEAM. Why do I have to download and run ANOTHER stupid client just to play the fucking game?

Really, Bioware? You want me to blog about my DA experiences on your social network?

This deal with creating new accounts to play games (multiplayer or otherwise) is getting out of hand. I recently bought a pack of indie games on Steam. I generally expect indie games to be free of the nonsense and general stupidity over these meta-gaming issues that plague larger development and publishing houses. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that I had to sign up for accounts — separately — for two of these games. I see no reason to not name and shame, so let’s do that: Altitude, and Galcon Fusion. Seriously guys, what were you thinking? I have over eighty games in my Steam account. Just think of what that would be like if I had to sign up for a separate account for every one of these. Think about that for a minute, developers. Can you start to see the problem?

I’m not entirely uncharitable here. I can understand why even small game studios would want people to have accounts for stat tracking or other sorts of persistent information (or “fighting piracy”). But making me sign up for another account when I bought your game over Steam is inexcusable. If you want to handle your own accounts, you need to come up with a way to make the Steam account details automatically transfer over. I actually brought this up to the developers of Altitude, to which they replied that they couldn’t because of privacy issues. That’s a good joke, guys. Privacy issues. As if I’m not going to go sign up for an account so I can play the game I just bought. Make it transfer! Bother Valve until they make some API calls to support it, if Steam doesn’t already! It’s not impossible. It’s not even that hard. So do it already. Stop dodging the issue or issuing these weak mea culpas, because I don’t want to have to make and remember separate accounts for all 83 of my Steam games.

CAGE MATCH: PART TWO: Indigo Retrospective*

I haven’t played Heavy Rain, as I don’t own a PS3, but I have played the hell out of Indigo Prophecy, David Cage’s prior attempt at the interactive-story genre. When I picked it up, I’d just returned from an exhausting term abroad, and I wanted to sit back and enjoy a reactive game, something without statistics or strategy—basically, anything that wasn’t Dragon Age. So: Indigo Prophecy. I finished it in under two days. Then, like Jane Goodall emerging from the sweaty depths of the forest, I reemerged into society, slightly the worse for wear. Like Jane Goodall, I’d made important discoveries about the animal kingdom. Namely, I had discovered that David Cage is an absurd beast with a humorlessly bad taste in pulp fiction.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Indigo Prophecy. I thought it was an absolute riot. But the story was awful, and the controls were absurd, and I never knew exactly what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, which was also pretty unpleasant. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoy bad community theater: it was comfortable, not too taxing, and charming in an embarassing kind of way. Whenever I see bad community theater, I want to leap up onstage and protect all those terrible little actors from the criticism of the outside world, and I felt the same way about Prophecy. I didn’t want to compliment David Cage myself, but I wanted him to receive comments, abstractly, from somewhere: I wanted him to feel good about himself, even though he’d made a pretty questionable game.

What makes it so terrible? The controls are, in fact, awful. The disconnect between what you are doing with your hands (infamously, of course, playing Simon Says) and what your characters are doing on the screen is occasionally so unreasonable that it bears no excuse. So much has been written about this. I find it unnecessary to add anything.

According to Me, reader of this many books, the plot is also horrifically bad. I can’t justify turning this into an outright spoilerfest, but those who haven’t played it should know that they may understand only around 60% of the plot. It is a mélange of unrelated science fiction and horror tropes, cobbled together in the least convincing way. The final hour of the game consists of a showdown between, basically, two opposing tropes: teams of secret soldiers who represent different science fiction clichés actually fight and kill each other with guns. I found this hilariously symbolic. Furthermore, that final hour develops jarringly: a very filmic ‘cliffhanger’ signals a kind of act-switch, and most of the player choice that took place in the beginning is rendered meaningless afterwards. The tropes move in and take over, the illusion of agency dissolves, and the player is left wondering how the hell the plot got where it seems to have arrived. Game suffers to story here in a big way, yeah, but story suffers too, in that it’s a bad story.

But: independence? Uniqueness? Yes. The game has it.

I played Prophecy off a 10-day Dragon Age high, and I was sick of the kind of choice-making that characterizes DA. The choices in Bioware games are simply too present. Will making this decision cut me off from awesome content? Will I lose a chance at a cool party member? There’s so much content and so much choice in these games that the player can actually reign with a crazy tyranny over the plot, doing whatever he or she pleases to see whatever content he or she wants. Mass Effect, with its stupid achievements for playing through with different party members, actually encourages this kind of illusion-breaking manipulation. Now, I know that you don’t have to play a Bioware game this way, but the temptation for me is overwhelming. I want my party members. I want my absurd dialog options. If they’re there, I’m going to game the system until I get them.

Prophecy eschews this kind of analytical, manipulative play. Stuff happens, fast. You don’t have time to think about it. In order to enjoy this game, you have to give in to the writers and just let their silly story play itself out.  And when you do that, it’s fun! Nonsense occurs, and you react! You punch those fucking buttons! Snap at your boss? Yes, please! Today we’re angry! Comfort your brother? Totally. No time to think. No matter what you impulsively choose to say, characterization stays pretty solid throughout, and even when the player makes discordant decisions—decisions along the lines of the much-maligned Heavy Rain sex scene—those crazy lines are delivered with conviction by the darling cardboard cast. It’s diverting, in the Jane Austen sense of the word. It doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s the weirdest thing ever, and it’s got a confidence and a ballsy drive to be unique that more than makes up for the fact that its foundational element—its story—is a load of steaming bullcrap.

I hope Cage wasn’t too set on changing lives when he made Prophecy. It doesn’t. I think people are nervous about Heavy Rain because Cage wants it to change your life, to change the way you perceive games in general. And it seems to be actually working as a challenge to the industry, a cannon-shot over the bows, so to speak. Prophecy was more like a challenge fired out of a potato-gun. But if Heavy Rain were about nonsense science fiction instead of serial child-killers, if its emotional plot was mostly-shallow twenty-something romance instead of nervous broken-dad misery, people wouldn’t feel so challenged. David Cage figured out that battling giant green Aztec beetles was less than emotionally-compelling, so he refocused: when he says that he’s working along the same tradition as the rest of his previous work, he’s wrong. There’s something pathetic and nonthreatening about Prophecy, but Heavy Rain’s been doing a whole lot of threatening. I’m pretty sure Cage figured out that the best way to hit people emotionally was to drop the canned sci-fi chatter and go for situations that were (marginally) more-relatable.

*AW YEAH. I just typed that.

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.