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October 2008

The glory of the amorphous hero

Hero2 Why do we play RPGs? Why are we drawn to these experiences and what do we derive from them? Clearly, we play these games for all sorts of reasons, and yours may differ from mine; but the defining aspect of the genre - that which separates it from others - is the creative role-playing dimension at the core of the experience.

What we're really talking about is pretending. Make-believe. "Role-playing" may bless the activity with a marginally more acceptable moniker, but when we play RPGs we summon our most primitive urges - the ones we've had since we were children - and we tap into something about the human psyche that inclines toward empathy.

We love pretending because we possess an innate desire to understand (to know and to feel) what it would be like to be *this* man or *that* woman. To mold a character through our own choices and to walk in his shoes, with as many in-world consequences and as few real-world consequences as possible, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

We know all this, and we've known it for a long time...but sometimes it pays to stop and take a another look. Sometimes we're jolted into knowing something in a better way than we knew it before.

My students have written autobiographies for the characters they created in Fallout 1 and 2. We use this exercise in the theater quite often because it encourages an actor to think about the life of a character outside the bounds of the script, accounting for his or her life experiences beyond the playwright's pen. Constructing such an autobiography can empower an actor in all sorts of useful ways, and it usually results in a more complete and nuanced understanding of the character by the actor.

It never occurred to me that my RPG seminar students would benefit from writing such an autobiography until we began discussing the characters they had created in the Fallout games. The sense of ownership they clearly felt, and their remarkably vivid descriptions of their experiences in the games, made the assignment a no-brainer. I asked for it, and they delivered with a wallop.

Some wrote in diary form; others constructed an interview between a reporter and their character; most simply told their stories in first-person. We read them aloud in class (I asked for 3-5 page essays), and for the better part of 75 minutes yesterday I sat listening, stunned in my seat. As I said before, sometimes we know things, and sometimes we *really* know them.

Lest there be any doubt about the creative freedom and personal investment great RPGs can engender, these students put those doubts firmly to rest. I found myself occupying a room with a collection of characters loosely bound by a defined world and a set of mission objectives, but otherwise radically different from each other in a myriad of ways. A few examples from the essays:

I sat straight up in my bed, covered in a sheen of cold sweat. Tomorrow morning would be the running of the gauntlet, both physically and mentally. ... I had no fear that I would be capable of completing the tasks inside the temple, but the sheer weight of what was at stake was apparent even in the dead of night. This was not some ritual to prove myself a man or any such nonsense; this was to prove my ability to venture out into the world, out of my ancestral home, to try and help my tribe...In whatever way that might entail.

I killed most of the people because Ian ran out of bullets. When we made it to the gate the asshole that had told me to put my weapon away and his girlfriend, the one I had saved from the raiders, were there and attacked us. I took them both out with a single grenade; the explosion was awesome, though the chunks of flesh that flew at us were rather annoying. It felt good to kill all of those idiots.

I stepped into the village to utter shock. My home had been completely destroyed with no one appearing to be left. I searched high and low for signs of survivors but was only met by Haukin, the village shaman. In his last few breaths he told me I must head to a place called Navarro, and there I could find my friends. I must save my people at all costs tomorrow. I just pray that I make it to them before they meet the same fate as Haukin and Sulik.

Q: What's with this Vic character?
A: "Save the Tribe." Bullshit. Vic could save my whole tribe by telling me something, anything about the Vault! And the bastard wouldn't--I realized no one in the whole world gave a shit about anyone.
Q: You didn't meet a single half-way decent person at all?
A: Not until it was too late.

Little did I know my inclination towards stealing would only grow over the ensuing months. At first there always was a reason, a need, but I always seemed to "need" more. As my resolve weakened so did my sense of importance in who I stole from. My selections became less about the righteousness and superfluity of the victim and more about convenience. I realized I was going down a bad road when I found myself one day contemplating stealing from a nearby beggar. What would I even gain from such a person? They would have at most one or two coins, money that unquestionably kept them alive. Still, I was low on cash and I would need a weapon soon...

Heroes with remorse and heroes with none. Heroes seeking honor and heroes seeking blood. Heroes evolving from good to evil, evil to good, and heroes who never deviate. Psychopaths and patriots and everything in between. Everybody takes a journey, and everybody has a different story.

None of this should have surprised me. I know what RPGs are all about. At least I think I do. But something about hearing those voices and those stories - alive in front of me - made me realize anew how absolutely singular a well-crafted RPG experience can be.

Listening to the psychopath chuckle about his violent exploits made us laugh at first, until it grew awkward and oddly disturbing. None of it really happened, of course...but in a way it really did. Similarly, the student who delivered a first-person account of the death and burial of Ian recounted a first-hand experience. He was there. He dug the grave himself. It happened.

This is why we play RPGs. This is why we remember them. This is why they can matter so much.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 18

This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features Leigh Alexander and Mitch Krpata in the Gamers Confab where we discuss our games of the month and the current state of the survival horror genre. We also chat about the game review grind; remind ourselves that games cost money; and remove the 4th-wall in a horrifyingly authentic podcast recording surprise in which no harm comes to Leigh whatsoever!

All this, and a plea for slowing down, in this edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast!

Leigh Alexander's Sexy Videogameland   
Mitch Krpata's Insult Swordfighting

Mitch's review of Dead Space
Mitch's review of Silent Hill: Homecoming
Leigh's "Does Survival Horror Really Still Exist?"
Leigh's review of Silent Hill: Homecoming

  • Listen to any of the Brainy Gamer podcasts directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
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  • Download the podcast directly here.

Chew your food

Latenight It's a great time to be a gamer. We're in the middle of a video game deluge the likes of which I can't remember. I've got games to play for pleasure, games to play for class, games to play for review, and games to play for vintage appreciation.

I'm fortunate indeed to be in this position, especially when I stop to consider the economic hardships many people are facing these days. Simply owning all the next-gen consoles is a big deal to most folks I know. Nearly all my local friends choose one system and stick with it, buying games for special occasions like birthdays and holidays. I'm a lucky guy, and I need to remind myself of that more often.

So if I'm such a lucky fellow, why am I not having more fun? Instead of delirious joy about all these terrific games, I'm mostly feeling pressure to keep moving, play quickly, keep pace with the cognoscenti crowd, be part of the conversation, stay relevant. The Far Cry 2 discussion is happening now; Clint Hocking is jumping on boards and responding to critics; you don't want to miss this, do you?! But I haven't even started Far Cry 2 yet! I'm only a few hours into Fable 2, still haven't finished the magnificent World of Goo, Fallout 3 arrives tomorrow...and Little Big Planet beckons me like a beautiful woman on the other side of an impassable canyon.


I know exactly what's happening here. I've boarded the Game Review Express, and this ride is giving me a bad case of kinetosis. The engineer of this fast-moving train is a games media with a woefully short attention span and no time to stop and gaze at the scenery. Its itinerary is an ever-expanding list of station stops, and its passengers do not tolerate delays. The Game Review Express is barreling down the tracks as fast as it can go because it only knows one speed.

I need to get off this train now. It doesn't suit me. I'm a very slow gamer. I want to explore every nook and cranny of Albion. I want to look over my shoulder when I leave Bowerstone and study the hazy outline of the city in the distance. I want to jump off cliffs and dive into water simply because I can. I want to talk to the people and explore every inch of every town. If the designers built it, I want to see it. I realize not every gamer feels this sort of imperative; but I do, and the Game Review Express forces me to barrel right past most of these things in order to fulfill the railroad's prime directive: marathon play sessions, finish game, compose review, move on to next game.

I want to believe this approach to playing games makes sense if you're a professional reviewer facing an onslaught of games, but I don't really believe that. On a practical level it's certainly understandable, but I nevertheless wish reviewers could truly take their time - especially for games like the ones appearing now - to luxuriate in a game world and reflect on their experiences in ways less driven by a deadline and more responsive to the shifting nuances and provocations posed by each individual game. Unrealistic? Sure. But a thing to be wished for nonetheless. Business is business, and I get that.

However, I'm surprised by the degree to which many of us (myself included) jump on the Game Review Express of our own volition, even when we're not charged with producing reviews. We behave as if we're all joined in a lockstep march, and pity the poor soul who can't keep up.

Social networking tools like Twitter exacerbate the situation. The amount of sturm/drang/envy produced among gamers following other gamers who already have their hands on just-released titles can be extraordinary. Reading Twitter friend X extolling the virtues of Fallout 3, having just completed Far Cry 2, after recently posting a Fable 2 review produces a small avalanche of desperate cries among the late-comers. The serious gamers are moving ahead, taunting us with their knowledge and teasing us with tidbits of info. "I won't spoil it for you, but wait until you meet Character X or see Location Z." It's all good fun, of course, and nobody forces us to take any of this seriously, but it's very easy to get caught up in the frenzy and feel a very real sense of pressure to pick up the pace and play these games NOW.

I don't mean to prescribe an "approved" way of playing games. If you enjoying plowing through a game quickly and moving onto the next one, I say go for it and have fun. The game industry loves you. But for those of us who enjoy contemplative play - and if you haven't tried it, I heartily recommend it - I suggest we slow down and chew our food. Resist the urge to finish a game simply to stay with the pack. Leave open the possibility of writing about and discussing games weeks or months after they're released. Enjoy the scenery. Jump off the train. I suspect it's headed nowhere anyway.

Image courtesy of fumblesteed at DeviatArt

Best golf game...ever?

With a splendiferous triad of "F" games descending on us this month - Fable 2, Far Cry 2, and Fallout 3 - chances are you haven't been thinking much about EA sports games lately, and who could blame you? The annual release ritual of Madden, NBA Live, NHL, NCAA and FIFA can easily dull the senses, especially when it seems each new iteration brings less and less to the table.

But wake up somnabulant sports game fans! Tiger Woods is here to remind us that EA can occassionally hit the ball squarely on the screws and boom one past the fairway sandtrap. In fact (strap yourself in for burst of hyperbole) Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 may be the most fully-realized sports game EA has ever made.

Here's a snippet from my PopMatters review:

Dating back to its roots as World Tour Golf, I have played nearly every annual iteration, and year after year I find myself thinking the same thoughts: these games are slick and well-produced, but essentially soulless. They’re full of pizzazz, but feel cold. They lack the spirit of the real game, which is a problem for a series that purports to deliver a realistic simulation of golf.

So when this year’s edition, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, arrived at my door, I expected more of the same. But a funny thing happened on the way to the clubhouse. Walking off the 18th green after a scintillating match-play duel with Vijay Singh at the nasty/gorgeous TPC Sawgrass, it hit me. This is the golf game I have been waiting for. This is the best Tiger Woods game I’ve ever played. This may quite possibly be the best golf game ever made.

You can read the full review here.

Hey EA, next year how about throwing in that course designer we keep asking for. Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition had one back in 1992. I'm just saying.

Vintage Game Club - Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee

Abesoddysee The members have spoken and voted, and the next game up for the Vintage Game Club is Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee.

Selected by the fickle finger of fate, Abe, floor-waxer first class for RuptureFarms, is catapulted into a life of adventure when he overhears plans by his boss, Molluck the Glukkon, to turn Abe and his fellow Mudokons into Tasty Treats as part of a last-ditch effort to rescue Molluck's failing meat-packing empire.[1]

Abe's Oddysee is an innovative and gorgeous 2-D side-scrolling platformer like nothing seen before when it was released for the PS1 and PC in 1997. Eleven years later it remains one of the most unique and distinctive video games ever made.

As I've pointed out in the past, we all have busy lives, so the club requires nothing but your interest to join. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it - or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. Join in, drop out, come back...whatever. We're just here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

A few details:

  • When do we start? - Monday, November 3. That should give everyone a chance to get their hands on the game. PC users can purchase it from Steam, and the PS1 version is available via a variety of sources such as Amazon and eBay.
  • How will it work? - We'll try to play together at roughly the same pace and post our thoughts as we go along. Post daily, weekly, every once in awhile - whatever works for you. I will try to organize the comments so they flow in a way that reflects the unfolding of the game. I hope these comments will look more like a conversation and less like a series of disconnected posts.

If you've never played Abe's Oddysee, now's the time to give it a whirl. If you've already played the game, feel free to jump in and lend a bit of your expertise to the discussion. All are welcome.

The Vintage Game Club

Fallout 180

Fallout3__poster Some ardent defenders of the Fallout series - let's call them Fallout traditionalists - have a beef with Fallout 3 and the RPG they fear it will be: non-isometric, non-turn-based, sans dialogue trees, simplified (i.e. dumbed down) SPECIAL system, and a distinct lack of the offbeat, self-referential Fallout vibe. Such a game, say the traditionalists, may be perfectly suitable for gamers who prefer 3-D action RPGs like Oblivion. But it's just not Fallout. So don't call it Fallout.

My students have been playing Fallout 1 and 2 for a couple of weeks, preparing for the release of Fallout 3. They are an unexpected mix of gamers: a small handful of RPG veterans, a large majority of relatively casual gamers (mostly sports games and shooters), and a few with almost no experience playing video games at all. Quite a challenge for a teacher who expected to be met by a small legion of hardcore D&Ders with a possible cosplayer or LARPer thrown in. Fortunately, they're all terrific guys willing to try anything I throw at them.

So when I handed them Fallout (half played the original, half the sequel) with no instructions or special preparation, they struggled. A lot. They had the original manuals, but almost nobody read them. After exiting the vault, they had no idea where to go or what to do. Their movements were limited for no apparent reason; "action points" made no sense; and they died within minutes nearly everywhere they went.

A few early posts from our online forum:

Idk if anyone else has this problem but I am having a hard time getting anything done... I started as Max Stone hopin to kill some things and level up... but there isn't much 2 kill... the redscorpians are owning me...  Any way to move like a little bit quicker?

I kept walking back and forth between 15 and 13 and get stopped by travelers... they took me to a town where I forgot to save and got dominated and lost all my experience and time...

i have enough to fire a gun and kill a scorpion, but then i'm only 1 action point short to use a weapon and i get screwed because i can't fight do i gain more action points and why do they randomly go away when i'm fighting?

I'm terrible about reading manuals and whatnot, so it took me forever to find out how to rest because the pipboy doesn't work originally and I didn't try it again until I clicked it by accident. So far, I appreciated being left to my own devices, but because the game is so old, with the graphics it has and whatnot, it sometimes is hard to recognize what needs to be done. Like it's only after you play a game like this that you realize how much easier having glowing objects of interest is.

Our first Fallout conversation was a disaster. Few students had posted on the forum as I had asked them to, and it was obvious that almost no one had devoted much time to playing. They basically tried the game, got frustrated, threw up their hands, and walked away. Our midterm break began the following day, so I told them I expected them to continue playing over the break, be resourceful, roll up their sleeves, and figure it out. "Somewhere in there," I assured them, "is the best RPG you will play this semester. If you dig harder to find it, I promise you will thank me." A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I meant it.

All of these students have seen the trailers for Fallout 3. When I told them we would play the game immediately after release, they burst into spontaneous fits of delight. I should mention that I made this announcement at the conclusion of our Planetfall discussion, a text adventure they gamely tried to enjoy because I told them they should - but which they mostly detested. In this setting, Fallout 3 was received like mana from RPG heaven. Subsequently, Fallout 1 and 2 were seen as trials to be endured while awaiting the modern gameplay savior of 3.

Then, during the break, something broke. I began to notice increased activity in the discussion forum, which soon turned into a small flurry of posts. A sampling:

What is interesting about the random encounters in the game is that not all of them are hostile encounters. The kind of encounter that is very rare in games is the neutral encounter where you encounter people fighting. You can help either side but even then sometimes they will just turn around and attack you when they beat whoever they were fighting. My favorite way to deal with these encounters is to wait till a few of them die, and then it's looting corpses time. It’s amazing what kind of nice loot you can find on them. It’s also where I got my first gun.

Think about it, they have almost myths of what we know about these people and things. They don't know everything and have to rely on what they do know.  I'm really interested in seeing how much information is lost because of the isolation caused by the vaults.

That's an interesting idea. What effect would the isolation of the vaults have on the society? And what would changed based on the nuclear apocalypse? It would be like taking all the data in the world and deleting random parts. It would cause mass chaos, especially once the original humans (from pre-nuking) die out. Or, alternatively, there could be a safe-haven somewhere. From a developing standpoint, how could that effect the game? Could it?

I just found out that the greeter at the Den tells you to be vewy vewy quiet he is hunting rabbits, and i just stopped and laughed for about fifteen mins.

Suddenly, they got Fallout. They grokked the mechanics and embraced the non-linear gameplay. They made peace with uncertainty. But more importantly, they built a relationship with the character and the offbeat but perilous world. As Iroquois Pliskin points out in an essay I shared with my students: 

And so this feeling of vulnerability that Fallout inspires is apt, because it does what good games do: it uses mechanics and gameplay rules to create a sense of character. All the aimlessness and danger make you feel dislocated, out of your element, and this is exactly how your protagonist must feel after emerging from a life of tight-knit isolation from the outside world. You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship.

But this takes time. Fallout doesn't greet you with a getting-to-know-you opening level or a hand-holding tutorial. My students were willing - granted, at my insistence - to keep plugging away, and they were richly rewarded for their efforts. It's nice to be right. I may have even gained back the credibility I lost with Planetfall (which is a great game no matter what they say!)

And so we met again this morning. After a long and productive conversation I asked them how they were feeling about Fallout 3. "They're totally gonna screw up that game," said one student. "They're gonna say shoot this guy in the eyeball, like they're giving you all these choices, but you know they're gonna make it run and gun. You're gonna be running around blowing stuff up, and all the shooter players are gonna love it. But it won't be Fallout. I promise you. It won't be Fallout." "It looks pretty amazing," observed another, "and it should be fun. But yeah, it probably won't be Fallout."

Among the zealous converts, Fallout traditions die hard.

Games to help

The big-name game avalanche is here, and I'm sure we'll all be talking about each one for the requisite 7-10 days before dropping it and moving on to the next big thing. In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy knowing about a couple of games bound to be overlooked due to the timing of their releases and the fact that their objectives differ significantly from commercial titles.

Sleepercell Operation: Sleeper Cell is a massively multiplayer puzzle game designed to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It could also be described as an ARG since it incorporates a story that ties in real-world resources like blogs, Twitter, and live events.  The game is designed and run by Law 37, an alliance of designers, programmers, and writers "working together to create pro bono, pro-social games." Importantly, all money raised by the game is donated to Cancer Research UK, with a maximum of 5% of the proceeds spent on running the game.

You can play Operation: Sleeper Cell for free. If you can't afford to donate, you can still play all the missions that others have unlocked. A new mission appears each week. The game started on September 23rd and will last for approximately ten weeks, but you can join in at any time and not miss anything.

Tracesofhope Traces of Hope is another socially aware ARG. Sponsored by the British Red Cross, the game focuses on Joseph, a Ugandan teenager searching for his mother during a time of civil war. The game puts players in virtual communication with Joseph as he attempts to discover if his mother is alive or dead. "He has a satellite phone, you have the web – together you’ll make a great team. Time is running out; guide Joseph through sickness, fire and violence as together you follow his traces of hope."

After registering, you begin receiving email messages from Joseph, written in a way that conveys a palpable sense of desperation. Soon you are drawing on resources like Facebook and search engines to help Joseph locate a Red Cross official to begin the tracing and messaging process used to reunite displaced refugees.

Both these games are valient and worthy attempts to reach new audiences through creative, interactive, cross-media gameplay. I encourage you to give them a try and support the voluntary efforts of the people who designed and built them. My thanks to Adrian Hon, the person behind the Let's Change the Game initiative; and to Dorothea Arndt of the British Red Cross for contacting me and letting me know about these projects.

A cutscene offer you can't refuse


I forgive you for ignoring Yakuza 2. It appeared last month with little fanfare, designed for a console on its last legs, stuffed in a box that screams "generic Japanese PS2 game." Whatever excitement it generated on its release in Japan dissipated over the nearly two years it took Sega to bring the game to North America. When you ignored it, you weren't alone. The game has sold less than 50,000 copies in the U.S..

Sega does this sort of thing. They occasionally make a game that reminds us why they're one of the premiere developers in the industry, and years later we look back and write "Say, that Jet Grind Radio was a damn fine game," or "Hey, that Shenmue was a real groundbreaker, wasn't it?" "Too bad nobody outside Japan bought them."

I have a feeling we may say the same things about Yakuza 2 in a few years. It may not break ground like JGR or Shenmue, but it exhibits every bit of Sega's commitment to excellence and attention to detail found in those games. Its ambitions are modest compared to the bevy of AAA games on the way this month, but Yakuza 2 manages to make good on every promise it makes.

Yakuza 2 (Ryu ga Gotoku) is the best narrative game I've played this year, by a wide margin. Better than GTA IV and way better than MGS4. It can't match the the toys in Liberty City's sandbox, nor can it compete with Snake's superlative stealth. But in terms of pure storytelling finesse, Yakuza 2 conducts a clinic on how to deliver a rock-solid, minimally-cliched tale featuring characters that earn our empathy through their choices and vivid personalities, rather than via tortuous backstories, rambling expositional dialogue, or overreaching attempts at profundity. Yakuza 2 does storytelling the old-fashioned way: sound dramatic structure, compelling characters, convincing performances, and a good story worth telling. It helps that the game also happens to be a blast to play.

Yakuza 2 makes no effort to incorporate dynamic story architecture, AI-based emergent narrative, or any of the other current interactivity buzzwords. Thus, Yakuza 2 makes a hypocrite out of me and my "Narrative Manifesto" notion that games must move away from cutscene-driven storytelling. In many ways, the game is thoroughly backward-looking: an old-school brawler mixed with simplified RPG elements and sandbox-style mini-missions - all punctuated by a series of cutscenes responsible for delivering 90% of the story.

Watari But, oh, what cutscenes they are. Sega wisely jettisoned the stilted and embarrassing English-dubbed voices from the original Yakuza, replacing them with generally well-written colloquial subtitles and preserving the performances of the original Japanese cast, including Tetsuya Watari, one of Japan's most respected actors. 

Without casting aspersions at actors like Michael Madsen or Mark Hamill, both of whom have done fine voiceover work in video games, I can't help but wonder what a first-rate, well-trained English-speaking actor might contribute to a video game from the beginning of the process. Watari and rising star Satoshi Tokushige are both fixtures in the series, and it seems clear the writers built their roles to take advantage of their emotional range and expressiveness as performers. Seldom, if ever, are video game actors afforded the kind of room these actors were given to flesh out their characters over the course of a lengthy and complex story. These are not one-note performances. They are personal and nuanced characterizations (embedded into well designed animations) the likes of which we almost never see in video games.

Games usually contain weak narratives because their stories are tacked onto pre-existing gameplay structures. Yakuza 2 conveys the impression that the opposite approach was adopted here. The brawling is fun and well-implemented with plenty of special combos and tough bosses to keep the beat-em-up gamer happy. The sandbox elements work well too, highly reminiscent of Shenmue's atmospheric rendition of Yokosuka's shops and restaurants, with mini-game opportunities throughout.

But all these features have been woven around the true centerpiece of Yakuza 2: its narrative. The utterly regressive, unrelentingly linear, cutscene-driven, genre-derivative story that I swallowed hook, line, and sinker. The one I was genuinely sad to see end. 

Did I mention that I never finished GTA IV and only limped to the end of MGS4 through sheer stubborn will?

Should we eliminate cutscenes in video games? Should we move beyond the sender-receiver relationship between gamed designer and player? Should we fully integrate gameplay and narrative to exploit the unique interactive power of video games? Probably. But Yakuza 2 reminds me the old dog still has life in her, and I'm beginning to think I might miss her when she goes.

Vintage Game Club - the next game

Super_Mario_64_box_cover  Oddworld_abes_oddysee_front Smetroidbox

Deus Ex wraps up this week, and on behalf of my co-moderators Dan Bruno and David Carlton, I want to thank all of you who joined in the lively discussion. The VGC now has 135 members from all over the world, and our Deus Ex discussion generated 928 posts and well over 60,000 page views from members and visitors. That's what I call a conversation. :-)

So, what game next? After some discussion we agreed to choose a (mostly) non-narrative console game this time. Having played two story-heavy PC games - Grim Fandango and Deus Ex - we'd like to zero in on game mechanics and level design this time. Gamers don't often have a chance to discuss or analyze these elements, and we rarely share our personal experiences playing platformers or side-scrollers, other than to say we beat a certain level or boss.

We also want a shorter play session this time. Deus Ex has been great, but it's a long haul. Looking at the release calendar of AAA games on the way this month, we decided to go with something shorter that would lend itself to briefer play sessions.

So, with all this in mind, we tossed open the doors for suggestions, sorted through all the submissions, and narrowed the list down to a final three:

  • Super Mario 64
  • Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee
  • Super Metroid       

This is where you come in. Between now and Sunday we'll discuss these games and patiently endure the high-pressure lobbying campaigns waged by passionate advocates of each. Voting will take place from Sunday until Tuesday at 7pm EST, and we will begin playing on Monday, November 3. We hope this will give folks time to get their hands on whatever game we choose, and allow the Deus Ex players a bit of a breather. So if you're a member, come on over and join the deliberations about these three great games. 

If you're not a member and wish to join us, what's stopping you? We'd love to have you, and now would be a great time to jump in. Just hop over to our discussion forum, sign up, and you're in. If you'd prefer not to join but simply want to follow the discussion, you're welcome to do that too.

Vintage Game Club - Short list for Game 3 thread

The poverty we forget


I'm participating in the worldwide Blog Action Day focusing on the issue of poverty. It's easy to be cynical about these kinds of online efforts, but I choose not to be. Collectively directing our attention to the issue of poverty, even for a day, can encourage us to work together to assist those who need help and address the root causes of the problem.

Today I'm focusing on the poverty I know and best understand: rural poverty in America. Millions of children in the wealthiest country on earth will go to bed hungry tonight, including children whose names I know, living in my neighborhood.

When we think of poverty in America, we often conjure up images of blighted urban areas and neighborhoods racked by drugs, gang violence, and rampant unemployment. These images are real, of course, but they don't tell the whole story of what poverty in America really looks like. A few facts:

  • 340 of the 386 (88%) Persistently Poor Counties are rural.
  • 18% of rural counties are persistent poverty counties, versus only 4% of urban counties. The non-urban South, with over 40 percent of the U.S. rural population, has a significantly higher incidence of poverty.
  • 82% of the rural persistently poor counties are in the South.

Persistent Poverty Counties are those that have had poverty rates of 20% or higher in every decennial census between 1970 and 2000.

I grew up in a single-parent family on the margins of poverty in small-town rural Indiana. Few of my friends went to college; most graduated or left school early to work in the factories or on the farms surrounding our town. When those factories closed, hundreds of people I grew up with - now with children of their own - were thrown out of work and forced to scramble for minimum-wage jobs, often working two or three at a time. Today my home town looks like a bombed out version of the one I remember as a child. Those old jobs aren't coming back, and that little town will likely never recover. But the people are still there, and they struggle to make ends meet every day.

If you'd like to know more about the issue of rural poverty in America, including a fresh look at effective antipoverty policies that have been proven to work, I recommend this document (PDF format) published by the Rural Poverty Research Center. It contains several articles that explore the basic assumptions behind the causes of rural poverty, and it calls for a new direction in philanthropy that recognizes the critical roles race, class, and power play in perpetuating rural poverty.

I've got goo on my Wii


My World of Goo joyride continues unabated. Since my post yesterday, I've received a handful of messages from readers eager to try the game, but unsure which SKU to purchase. [Notice how using the term "SKU" makes me sound like a game industry insider? I'm ready for my 1UP Show closeup, Mr. DeMille.]

Aside from its obvious charms, World of Goo offers an unusual but welcome assortment of platforms to choose from: Windows, Mac, Linux, and Wii. If you've got to play the game now, Windows and Wii are your only options since the Mac and Linux versions are still in beta. But if you purchase the Windows version, you can download the Mac and Linux versions when they're ready at no extra charge. [Now I sound like a PR rep for 2D Boy - nonsalaried, I assure you!]

So the PC version sounds like a no-brainer, right? Actually, no. If you're looking for the best overall experience playing World of Goo, I strongly recommend the Wii version. Here's my case:

  1. Display: The only real beef I have with WOG is its fixed 800x600 resolution on PC. If you have a widescreen LCD, you have two options, neither of them optimal. You can restrict your monitor to maintain the aspect ratio and play the game in a small window in the middle of your screen; or you can stretch the image to fit your screen, distorting the graphics in ugly self-defeating ways.

    The Wii version runs in the console's native anamorphic widescreen 854x480. You can detect jaggies if you look carefully, but overall the image produced by the Wii version is crisp, colorful, and well-suited to my living room HDTV.

  2. Control: The Wiimote rarely beats the trusty old mouse as an input device (SimCity Creator is a lesson in fatal mouse-envy), but in the case of WOG it most assuredly does. With the possible exception of Boom Blox, I can't think of a game that makes better use of the Wiimote as a simple point-grab-move controller. It's utterly intuitive, responsive, and elegant. I tried the PC version again this morning for comparison purposes, and I was yearning for my Wiimote within minutes. WOG on Wii = Happy.

  3. WiiWare: Nothing sends a stronger signal to developers than the cash in your purse or wallet. WiiWare is a great opportunity for small and indie developers to reach the Nintendo audience, but the games on offer have been spotty at best. Buying first-rate games like WOG, Lost Winds, Mega Man 9, and Orbient sends a message that says gamers will support quality WiiWare titles.

  4. Moolah: World of Goo for the Wii costs $15; the PC version will set you back $20 (granted, with the Linux and Mac versions thrown in).

  5. Co-op: The Wii version has 2-player cooperative play (which is terrific, by the way, and quite helpful on tough puzzles), and the computer versions don't.

So there you have it. Buy the Wii version...or better yet, buy both for less than the cost of a single boxed game. Oops. There I go shilling for 2D Boy again. And you thought Brainy Gamer had a strict no-ad policy. :P

When good guys win


World of Goo is taking the gaming world by storm at the moment, garnering off-the-charts reviews and lavish praise from all corners of the gaming press and blogosphere. I've been playing it pretty much non-stop since its early release last night, so it's likely I'm composing this post in a sleep-deprived state of delirium - which seems an appropriate state of mind for the madcap rush of delirious joy that is World of Goo.

This isn't a review. If you'd like to read one of those, I recommend John Walker's superlative-filled response to the game at Rock, Paper, Shotgun; a site, by the way, not given to fits of critical happy dancing.

I want to reflect, instead, on the positive effects of doing things right. Because if there's one thing that can be said about Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler, the two guys responsible for this bundle of joy, it's that they deserve every bit of praise raining down on them. From they beginning, their approach to building this game and bringing it to us can be seen as a model for how to do an indie game right.

GablercarmelI met Carmel and Gabler at the Independent Games Festival at GDC last February. World of Goo was running in a kiosk wedged into rows of other kiosks featuring indie games like Audiosurf, Crayon Physics Deluxe, and The Path. Curious attendees jammed the aisles, gathering around each demo, straining to hear the designers answering questions about their games. No crowd was bigger than the one huddled around the World of Goo booth.

For three days I watched Carmel and Gabler patiently and enthusiastically walk endless streams of visitors through the game, explaining their inspirations, answering questions, and generally serving as amiable hosts in the worst atmosphere for conversation imaginable. Each time I tried to make my way to them, I was crowded out or simply ran out of time in my schedule. Finally, near the end of the third day I was able to chat with Gabler by myself, and I must say he looked shell-shocked. Hoarse and bedraggled after hours and hours on his feet, he was nevertheless friendly and fully-engaged, and he made every effort to explain his game for the zillionth time to yet another guy with a badge bearing the name of a blog he had never heard of. 

Gdc1This is what you do at GDC when you're an indie developer trying to get your game noticed, and World of Goo certainly generated more than its share of buzz. It won IGF awards for Design Innovation and Technical Excellence, and 2D Boy emerged as one of the most promising new developers at the show. Carmel and Gabler's excitement and gratitude at the awards ceremony were a delight to see.

Fast forward eight months, and World of Goo continues to do things right. 2D Boy releases a demo and announces versions will be available for PC, Mac, and Linux, as well as the Wii. Linux users like me leap for joy. Forums open and Carmel and Gilbert regularly appear to answer technical questions and track down bugs. A spirit of friendly, jovial cooperation permeates the place. There is even a dedicated forum devoted to "Pictures of your Cat."

Finally, last night the game is released "quietly" a day early. After purchasing, I receive an email with confirmation that World of Goo continues to get it right:

We are trying an experiment: World of Goo has absolutely no copy protection or DRM at all, since we want to give you (and everyone) the best experience we can. Thanks for not distributing this, and helping us make this possible!

The message is signed: "With Love, 2D Boy Automated Email Friend." With love indeed. Everything about World of Goo exudes a spirit of love for games and gamers. Even the installation process receives the wry 2D Boy treatment, lampooning corporate largesse:

Install screen 1: World of Goo welcomes you, valued customer, to an enjoyable installation process!
Install screen 2: Here at the World of Goo Corporation we understand that your disk space is valuable.
Install screen 3: Your enjoyable installation process is complete! Good luck.

The game loading screen scrolls platitudes and self-critiques by you almost faster than you can read them:

Tokenizing innovation
Distilling beauty
Stretching images
Constructing non-linear narrative
Challenging everything
Blitting powers of two
Filtering moral
Sandbagging expectations
Meticulously diagramming fun
Deterministically simulating the future

All this before the game itself even begins. World of Goo is a truly wonderful and quietly subversive game. I hope the game community rewards 2D Boy for going out of its way to treat us with respect and, yes, even love. In my view, it's the least we can do.