Category: games

SpyParty And Restraint, Or: How I Learned To Ignore Biology And Love Fourth Down

Playing NFL Blitz on the neighborhood N64I was one of those awful kids who picked “Da Bomb” almost every play. I was capable of complex running maneuvers and comfortable with the intricacies of fakes, screens, and rushes (ok I don’t actually know football) but it was that long-shot Hail Mary and its exaggerated payoff – and extravagant risk – that really rattled my adolescent adrenal glands.

Needless to say I failed to convert a bunch of fourth downs.

Long coddled and damp in the blubber of “adulthood,” those fight-or-flight organs shriek with electricity again as I take my place in the early-access beta for SpyParty, Chris Hecker’s irresponsibly brilliant social experiment turned cat-and-mouse battle of wits — a game a little bit like a slow-motion fourth-and-long, except people die.

SpyParty Spy Swapping Statue

Actually the game is very unlike a football match — except in its distinct phases of offense and defense — and it is very unlike me to lean on a sports analogy, so here’s The Point: SpyParty’s tense espionage conveys that same all-or-nothing anxiety while rewarding the punt fake over the long pass. In other words, the game tells you have one shot (truly, as the Sniper) and while that makes you want to scramble and sprint, to be that kid who plays “Da Bomb” and gets it over with, you will be mercilessly punished for anything more brazen than a brisk promenade. That drives the kid in me crazy, and I love it.

If you’re unfamiliar, SpyParty is a two-player game of deceit and surveillance set at one upper-crust gala or another. One player controls the spy, whose mission may include contacting a double agent, tapping the ambassador, planting microfilm in a book, swapping one statue for another, etc. The trick is making it look natural — the computer-controlled guests will read books, admire statues and chat up the ambassador, so barring a few subtle animation “tells,” the spy can make their missions look like natural mingling.

Basically you’re asked to act like AI, a task with rich technical and thematic potential — all of which has been more fully explored elsewhere, so, onwards.

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IndieCade, Micropalooza and Incredible Ape

Announced today were the 2012 IndeCade nominess, a list of 36 that included DYAD, Botanicula, The Stanley Parable, Guacamelee, Splice, and Analogue: A Hate Story.  I mention the games I’ve heard most about — actually, they’re just the the games I would most enjoy playing because — Ok, wait. Yeah. I have not played a single game on this list. What is wrong with me.

Botanicula indiecade nominee 2012

I don’t and unfortunately have never owned a Playstation, so that rules out DYAD and I’m sure a lot of other games too… no, it looks like pretty much all these games are on PC. Some are playable in-browser. Worst of all, I already purchased Botanicula, and I’ve never even booted it up. I’m really, really sorry, indie world.

It’s weird that I’m so behind because I’ve been feeling more and more “in tune” (wait for it) with my own Neighborhood Gaming Community. I’m helping out with Portland’s newest (first?) chiptune zine, an actual physical object devoted to chip music and the brainchild of an industrious pretty-much-cofounder of the Portland Indie Game Squad. We’re both newcomers to the genre, so we”ll be actively digging up what bonds us to this music and asking ourselves why the cords are so thick. That is to say that we cannot and will not be elitist about this music because we’re still figuring out why we love it, if we love it, what’s to love.

Micropalooza 2012 Mechlo at Ground Kontrol

For that zine I’ll be writing up a “review,” a personal essay sort of piece on Micropalooza, the annual chiptune extravaganza that happened to Portland last Sunday. Between Micropalooza’s two concert sets (which I’ll describe more fully in the zine piece, which should have some sort of online portion) PIGSquad had the crowd to themselves for about two hours. They set up a projector, two microphones and an Xbox, and then Josh Schonstal and Ian Brock – aka Incredible Ape – let loose their ingenius co-op sidescrolling jetpack shooter, PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewon an unsuspecting and pleasantly intoxicated public.

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“Girlfriend Mode,” Barbaric Barbara And An Ancient “Origins” Review

Rayman Legends Barbara The Barbarian via Eurogamer

Am I the only one who didn’t hear Rayman Legends was coming out this year? And that it was a Wii U launch title? And that they just introduced the world to Barbara the Barbarian? And that bloggers everywhere started making “axe to grind” jokes? I guess that last one’s not surprising.

If you’re just hearing this as well, this not-so-news of Legends’ (token) female character comes on the heels of yet another sexism-in-gaming debacle, in which a developer let fly a lazy and insensitive jab at girlfriends everywhere. “Girlfriend Mode” is what he called a certain skill tree geared towards less experienced players.

Many are saying that it’s a mild symptom of a bigger sickness and maybe not worth fighting over. That’s almost true — certainly Hitman and Tomb Raider are much more deserving of vitriol. But it should go without saying that dismissing “small time” sexism is a cop out. In my mind, it’s exactly John Hemingway’s sort of presumptuous cheap shot that begs a response because it’s made so casually, with the unspoken assumption that “Hey, you know what I’m talkin’ about, huh buddy? Broads!” It’s offhand sexism — offhand racism, offhand homophobia — that is the most insulting because it is perpetrated in broad daylight, with full confidence of one’s safety from criticism. They’re just plain asking for it.

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A Series of Cubes: Portal’s Ancestors, Spiritual Successors, Bastard Children

I downloaded Three Sprockets’ Cubemen the other day, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything but its aesthetic that drew me in. That’s surprising, because I’ve played my fair share of tower defense games and at this point I’m a bit bored with them, looks and all—there’s a limit to the surface-level makeovers developers might use to prop up its sagging appeal (Dungeon Defenders notwithstanding). But hey, Cubemen is different, they said: your “towers” have arms and legs, little cubey heads, agency, (family, friends?) and they’ll soldier around the map for you, shifting all sorts of dynamics and things.

But all that fell flat, and honestly it was “the look” that opened my wallet. In that Cubemen revealed my embarrassing, enduring affection for the clean lighting and crisp geometry that can of course be traced to a single source: Portal.

… Which can be traced back to the simplicity and symbolism of the games of yore, classics like Marble Madness

Now, some rambling: back in the proverbial “day,” games made the best of their technical constraints by conveying complex ideas with idealized shapes. Marble Madness married a very basic visual geometry with a clever imitation of 3D movement, and voila — a “physics-based” game emerges years ahead of its time, and it just feels so right. Because I looks so right for how it feels. Am I making sense?

The visuals are powerfully and directly symbolic; they’re just stand-ins for the more expressive systems that make up the real meat of the game, namely friction, gravity, inertia. To convey phenomena like that convincingly (without the benefit of modern physics engines) the game needed to streamline its visual presentation to underscore, to somehow make more real-feeling the central system. Form empowers function.

Like I said, that streamlining was partly out of necessity. As technology progressed that approach became less necessary — complex systems could be presented and understood without enthralling the entirety of the game’s aesthetic.

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Uncanny Valley Be Damned

Quantic Dream’s “Project Kara” has me all aflutter. The video (below) is more technical showcase than artist’s statement, but it has nevertheless thrown me headlong into the games-are-so-art frame of mind that tends to exclude me from civil conversation. Giddy — that’s what I am.And it’s not that they’re breaking new ground for interactive play, making a statement with player positioning or any of that — they’re just showing us what we’re physically capable of with the tools we already have. With those tools they’ve injected more humanity into seven minutes of real-time game footage than I thought was possible, and its just bursting at the seams with pathos. Here, just watch it:
And here’s the gist of what David Cage and Co. hope to accomplish with their focus (technical and thematic) on emotional expression:It’s an interesting problem that games face as an audience that grew up with them slowly outgrows them, the medium often seemingly trapped in an infinite teen twilight of guns and fast cars, and one that Cage hopes to be able to solve.“Being older, when I ask people around me what games they play they say they don’t play them anymore,” Cage says. “They still watch TV, they still go to the movies – and the fact that they don’t play games anymore isn’t because they don’t have time, it’s because there are no games for them any more.”

I desperately hope that the final product will be as pure as their intentions. Considering the mixed reviews and ambiguous classification (Cage admitted himself that it was more of an interactive movie than a game) of their last project, Heavy Rain, I can’t say I harbor too much hope of Quantic’s next project bridging the formidable gap between simulation (interactive media) and representational narrative, pristine as that representation appears here.

At the very least, I’ll take Cage at his word: if Quantic Dream can make a game that drives my dad — the man who introduced me to Doom, Warcraft 2 and Myst in lazier days — back to video games of his own volition, I’ll be happy and hopeful enough.

SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and Gaming

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Polish Parliament Protests ACTA January 2012

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, internet heavyweights Wikipedia, Reddit and Google joined a wide-ranging protest of the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), two bills seen by their opponents as serious threats to the open internet.

The call to action was an unprecedented success, inspiring millions of citizens to voice their dissent online: Google reported over seven million signatures just 24 hours after their petition’s release.

But one group in particular—the gaming community—has more to lose than a day on Wikipedia and is fighting hard, now as before the blackouts, to defend the democratic forums upon which it depends, in large part, to survive.

“Our ability to create online games… depends on a free and open internet,” Mark Kern, co-creator of World of Warcraft, founder of Red 5 Studios and one of the many industry voices raised against the bills, stated in an Extra Credits video released on Penny Arcade TV.

Kern and his fellows are troubled by the broad language of bills whose ambiguity could lead to the blacklisting of entire domains, should their owners fail to police all content for copyright material. For sites that rely on user-submitted content—gaming forums or YouTube, for example—such policing would be impossible, and the punishment for failure would be too immense for all but the most deeply entrenched institutions to bear.

This approach would put gamers in a particularly thorny position. The bills could target websites that showcase live streaming of competitive games like League of Legends and Starcraft 2, or the discussion forums that temper development with player feedback—not to mention unaffiliated websites widely used for sharing and creating independent, game-related content, sites like YouTube, Reddit, DeviantArt and others.

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MW3 as eSport? Call of Duty Sales Numbers & Development Strategy

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 Promo COD MW3

Activision juggernaut Call of Duty has made entertainment history once more with the release of Modern Warfare 3, which sold 6.5 million copies in its first day of release, The Guardian reported.

In 24 hours CoD:MW3 made $400 million in the U.S. and UK alone, shaming opening day sales for Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the July release that set the highest-grossing opening day for the film industry at $91 million.

“Other than Call of Duty, there has never been another entertainment franchise that has set opening day records three years in a row,” said Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick, referring to records set by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 and Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010. “Life-to-date sales for the Call of Duty franchise exceed worldwide theatrical box office for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, two of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time,” Kotick said.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 builds upon the highly successfully model of quasi-realistic, larger-than-life, shoot-em-up gameplay that has been bringing in the dollars since CoD:MW’s release in 2007.

But CoD:MW3 doesn’t innovate as much it tweaks, polishes, streamlines. Activision struck gold with this formula and they’re not about to gamble away a huge potential for profit to take their game new places: like anyone who could feasibly stuff their California King with Benjamins, they’re quite comfortable where they are, thank you.

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A Brief History of Minecraft

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

PS: Yes, I realize how painful my gushing praise seems in light of more recent ugliness. But I wrote it so here it is. 

Minecon Notch On Stage

At a convention in Las Vegas on Nov. 18 or 19, a Swedish game developer will announce the “release” of a game that has already sold nearly 4 million copies, earned a “big pile of awards” (developer’s words) and assembled a devout fanbase as dedicated to the game’s growth as its creators—Mojang’s Minecraft.

Minecraft is an indie, open-ended sandbox game that, in the humble words of the homepage, is “about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine.” Judging from the game’s astronomical success—in its cultural impact (particularly among geeks) and considering it has never been commercially advertised—digital building blocks must have some fundamental appeal.

Think Legos on a cosmic scale: players explore a randomly generated world of blocky mountains, forests, seas and caves, gathering resources and constructing tools to shape the world to their liking. Gameplay hinges on the simple mechanics of placing and removing cubes, an elegant concept that overlays the more complex tasks of tool-crafting, monster-slaying and structure-building.

All of this will sound like old news to fans. Minecraft has been attracting attention since its first release as an alpha test on May 19, 2009, but the November “MineCon” convention in Nevada will mark its first “official” release—ports to Xbox 360 and iPhone are also in the works. Since 2009 the game has grown into nothing less than an online phenomenon—forums and wikis offer exhaustive guides, tips and FAQs; discussion groups like the Minecraft forum ( see constant traffic and visits from the Mojang developers themselves; how-to videos, live-action parodies, merchandise and other pop-culture runoff crops up all over the web.

Minecraft might even make it to the silver screen: 2 Player Productions, responsible for the first season of PATV (a serial study of the folks behind webcomic mammoth Penny Arcade), is currently filming a documentary on Minecraft’s unique conception, reception and evolution, with a focus on the lead developer, Markus “Notch” Persson.

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The Casual’s Guide to the Casual Industry

Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.

Rovio Angry Birds Industry Overlord

Assuming you have had any amount of spare time since the late 90s, you have probably logged more than a couple of hours in simple simulations of matching jewels, numbered minefields, virtual crops and cattle or (most likely) green pigs and fowl-flinging slingshots.

The upstart industry of “casual gaming” continues to enthrall the masses, mystify the diehards and rake in loads and loads of cash—love them or hate them, “casual” games like “Farmville” and “Angry Birds” have earned both economic and pop culture relevance. From Microsoft’s “Solitaire” and “Minesweeper” to “Words with Friends” and “Zuma,” the “casual” philosophy is simple: accessible mechanics and quick gratification draw the user into the addictive cycle of trial and reward that makes social obligations seem dramatically less pressing.

What you might not know is just how lucrative the industry is: the games might be banal, but the business is anything but.

Consider Seattle-based game developer PopCap Games, creators of the seminal “Bejeweled,” “Peggle” and “Plants vs. Zombies.” PopCap, a company that deals exclusively with “casual” gaming, garnered so much attention—and revenue—that industry overlord Electronic Arts acquired the company for $750 million in 2006.

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