Tagged: indie

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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Gettin’ Goin’

It has been an excellent couple of weeks: a few days ago, I got a job as a freelance translator. I’ll be writing little English articles about big German companies, and someone will give me currency for that, which is extremely nice of them.
A rusty and creaking train of thought, one that departed an academic station in 2011 and had since wound across the long rough country of Rewrites and Research, pulled in at The Escapist Magazine yesterday. To my great surprise, people seemed okay with it being there, and no one was much bothered by the billowing smoke (read: hot air). Anyway, it was my first “real thing.” I’m happy with it.
In more concrete and thus more invigorating news, I met a bunch of game developers, an elite cadre operating under an ominous moniker:
They are without a doubt Good People, and I can’t wait to see more of them and their work. With a pronounced Community Outreach bent, PIGS has been making a difference all over town; in a couple weeks they’ll be hosting a game tournament for charity in an space-themed dive bar. It’s going to be good. Actually, they’re loosely affiliated with a chiptune show going on this evening — I’ll update with pictures once I have them.

Good, good, great. All great. Mostly, though, I just can’t believe this happened:

I just went to the bathroom and came back to four more clicks on my bitly link. This is the sort of thing that makes me happy.

Microreview: Sine Mora

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.

With Mass Effect fever running high and Skyrim still managing to wedge itself into conversation almost five months after its release, spring alights on a landscape all but dominated by gaming’s mainstream titans.

But skittering around the ankles of giants are a handful of plucky challengers to AAA control, games that might lack the broad scope of mainstream narrative but still manage to cut deep with stylistic daring and technological grace—games like the relentlessly satisfying Sine Mora.

Sine Mora LizardReleased March 21 for Xbox Live Arcade, Sine Mora is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in the tradition of classics like Space Invaders and Galaga and modern titles like Ikaruga and Jamestown. The pilot of one agile, airborne hell-raiser or another (new planes become available throughout), the player blasts through swarms of baddies, torrential barrages of screeching missiles and neon hailstorms of deadly plasma.

The shoot-em-up goes by another name—“bullet hell”—and Sine Mora has no qualms earning that ominous title. At the same time, while the steep learning curve of the “bullet hell” has earned it a strictly niche position,Sine Mora stands out in its willingness to widen its appeal with charming visual innovations, surprisingly engaging narratives, and (thank the Maker) adjustable difficulty levels.

The unique look and story are the fruits of inter-developmental collaboration. Sine Mora is the lovechild of Tokyo’s Grasshopper Manufacture (of Killer7 fame) and Budapest’s Digital Reality: Grasshopper handled art direction and sound design, while Digital Reality worked on the game’s programming and story.

Between the two of them, the developers lend Sine Mora some serious star power. Grasshopper is home to composer Akira Yamaoka, revered for his work on the Silent Hill series, and his score for Sine Mora is another feather in his already crowded cap.

Grasshopper also brought on anime artist Mahiro Maeda (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill Bill, The Animatrix) to design the game’s boss battles—these encounters are as imaginative as they are soul-crushingly difficult, and give the game a palpable character.

Pair this powerful aesthetic with unrelentingly challenging mechanics and you’ve got a seriously potent title on your hands. Sine Mora is delightful proof that straying from the beaten path can be more than an entertaining diversion—now more than ever, there’s ripe, fully-formed experiences to be found and savored outside the high walls of blockbuster dominion.

Panning for indie gold, but more of a PS3 person? Download thatgamecompany’s pensive and critically acclaimed Journey, or the charming puzzle-platformer from Denmark’s Die Gute Fabrik, Where Is My Heart—both Playstation exclusives, for now. These games will not only deepen your understanding of the human condition; they’ll also give you the upper hand in drunken debates on the true nature of art!

If all you’ve got is an iPhone and a burning desire for cartoony carnage, check out Action Button’s Ziggurat. It’s got all the arcade intensity, visual charm and alien life that make Sine Mora so great, but you can carry it everywhere you go! Play it while waiting for your John Carter tickets—or during John Carter, even. You know what, why don’t you just stay in tonight?

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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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 minecraft.net 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 Reddit.com Minecraft forum (reddit.com/r/minecraft) 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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