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May 2008

Curbing my Beyond Good and Evil 2 enthusiasm

Bge_art_02_2 Beyond Good and Evil is one of my favorite games of all time. Sure, it's not perfect - the combat system is  simplistic and repetitive, for example - but how refreshing to encounter a game that doesn't require guns and focuses more on investigating and documenting than killing or blowing things up.

The allegorical story evolves naturally through dialogue and gameplay, and the game flows in and out of its cutscenes more seamlessly than any other I can think of.  In fact, Beyond Good and Evil may be one of the best arguments against the current critical obsession with eliminating cutscenes. And the game is an aesthetic marvel, even by today's graphical standards, with the distinctive world of Hillys beautifully rendered and full of interesting characters.

And then there's Jade. I've mentioned both here and on the podcast that she's one of my favorite characters in any video game, and Beyond Good and Evil's presentation of her as a tough, smart, compassionate, and resourceful woman (with a normal-sized chest) proves what's possible when developers are willing to break the Lara Croft mold. Jade's relationship with her rough-edged uncle - the boar-like humanoid Pey'j who raised her - is one of the warmest and most affectionate of any pair of characters in video games.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard yesterday that the game's creator Michel Ancel has announced a sequel to Beyond Good and Evil. Oh happy days!!

And then I saw the screenshots. Followed by the teaser trailer recorded entirely in-engine. Uh oh.

Beyond Good and Evil is going from this:


to this:


and from this:

to this:

Is it an improvement? I realize I'm working with very little information here, so you should probably take everything I say with a big grain of salt. But it appears that Ancel and crew have jumped head-first into the deep-end of the next-gen graphics pool, jettisoning the beautiful, stylized environments of the original in favor of a CGI-enhanced Pixar rendition of the planet Tatooine. And poor Pey'j has been transformed (and re-voiced) from an adorable rough and tumble handyman to a hulking juiced-up creature out of Orwell's Animal Farm. Ugh!

I'm interested in the way developers often translate "more horsepower" to mean "more realistic," even when their source material may not be best served by such a treatment. Beyond Good and Evil is such a case. I mean, why is it necessary to create a photorealistic rendition of a talking boar who walks upright and has a penchant for hovercraft maintenance?

I don't want to fly into a tizzy over a trailer and a screenshot (I'll leave that to the Metal Gear zealots <grin>), and I suppose we'll all find out more soon enough. In the meantime, I'm encouraged by a remark recently made by Ancel: "I really hope that Jade will continue to keep her values and her personality."[1]  I hope the same may be said about the game as well.

Hail Freedonia!

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."--Groucho Marx

Marxbrothersharpochicogroucho_2 I've been playing Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and I find myself thinking about comedy in games, comedy in movies, and, well, comedy in general. I'm far from the first person to observe it, but comedy ain't easy, folks. In the theater, after we lay an egg onstage, we're fond of quoting the English actor Sir Donald Wolfit who said on his deathbed, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." True that.

"If you've heard this story before, don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again." --Groucho Marx

As any experienced performer will attest, it's fairly easy to elicit empathy from an audience. Put a little girl on stage and communicate the possibility that she may be mistreated by a mean old man, and the audience is immediately on her side, engaged and concerned for her well-being. Bioshock toyed with this natural tendency in us, turning it on its head for useful effect. We are naturally empathetic creatures - which is often the one thing that keeps me going when wars, genocides and elections challenge me to question why we humans make such awful choices.

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." --Groucho Marx

Comedy is difficult because rather than aiming at our vulnerable hearts, comedy aims at our mixed-up, culturally disparate heads - and those are shifty targets at best. If you don't get the joke, it's not funny. If you don't like the joke, it's not funny. Comedy also relies on technical expertise. If the punchline gets bobbled, it's not funny. If the pie to the face arrives a second too soon or too late, it's not funny. If I make it look too hard or too calculated, it's not funny. A perfectly good joke or pratfall can be messed up in a thousand different ways, each one rendering it not funny.

"Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted." --Groucho Marx

Comedy is hard to get a grip on because, unlike tragedy, it comes in so many different forms. Parody, satire, slapstick, black comedy, musical comedy, romantic comedy, grotesque comedy - and mash-ups that mix sub-genres together. Much of the brilliance of the Monty Python troupe was its ability to easily move from one genre to the next, mixing musical, parody, grotesque, social satire and one-liners - often all in the same sketch. Dave Chappelle has demonstrated similar skill forging his own subversive satirical critiques.

"Room service? Send up a larger room." --Groucho Marx

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness operates within the fairly limited comedic palette of parody. I say this not as a criticism, but merely as an observation. Will Farrell is essentially a parodist, and I think he's one of the funniest guys on the planet. The Penny Arcade game plays with RPG conventions, inserting PA references and generally washing the all-too familiar genre with a fresh coat of Penny Arcade sensibility. It's fun, especially for fans of the comic strip, and it captures the defiant but ultimately warm embrace of video game culture Gabe and Tycho are known for. It's a stylish and welcome gift  (albeit not a free one) to the community that Penny Arcade has built over the last decade, and I salute them for tossing their hats into the ring with an actual game subject to scrutiny, rather than merely using video games as the fodder and frame for their comics.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness also has me thinking about the Marx Brothers and hoping the next episodes of the series move beyond simple parody and one-liners to more ambitious satire and commentary  - much like the Marx Brothers did when they made the transition from vaudeville to the movies. Such a transition would, in my view, also align the game more directly with the comic strip that inspired it, which is often significantly more transgressive than the video game.

When the Marx Brothers moved to Paramount Pictures, their first two movies were basically film adaptations of their two most successful Broadway plays: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). These early talkies were knockabout farces full of anarchic action, one-liners, and musical interludes. They may feel a bit dated today, but they remain laugh-a-minute romps with Groucho, Harpo, and Chico unleashed on high society.

The last film the Marx Brothers made for Paramount, Duck Soup (1933), was very different. All the zany antics remain, but in this film it's all in service of a deeply satirical and biting assault on the lunacy of war. The musical numbers highlight the absurdity of unbridled nationalism while simultaneously satirizing the ridiculous nature of musicals. Duck Soup illustrates the Marx Brothers growing awareness of film as a medium, self-reflexively using the language of film to comment on the action, characters, and story. Groucho's blatant assault on cinematic continuity - each cut in one scene finds Groucho wearing a different hat signifying various eras of military conflict - simultaneously targets the madness of war and the arbitrary "rules" of moviemaking.

"Either this man is dead, or my watch has stopped." --Groucho Marx

When form and content coalesce as they do in Duck Soup (Dr. Strangelove is another very different but similarly effective example), comedy emerges like a force of nature that must be reckoned with. Is such a thing possible in a video game? It seems to me it ought to be, especially if the next PA game aspires to more than poking fun. I haven't yet completed the game, so perhaps more is in store for me than I think.

Finally, regarding comedy in games and inspired by the Penny Arcade demo, my friend Chris over at The Artful Gamer has written an appreciation of LucasArts' classic Day of the Tentacle which he describes as "unmatched in its synthesis of humor, story, and world." It's well worth a read.

"Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know." --Groucho Marx


Sheepish gaming

Pikachu_car Like most of you, I'm guessing, I don't mind identifying myself as a gamer. In fact, I use that moniker more than ever these days, and I'm often pleasantly surprised to find colleagues or acquaintances genuinely curious about what systems I own or which games I'm playing. In my circle of friends, video games have replaced weather as the go-to topic of casual cocktail conversation, and I couldn't be happier.

While I'm always pleased to dispel misguided notions about GTA IV, offer in-stock Wii sightings, or trade Guitar Hero tips and tricks, there's one video game franchise I rarely discuss or admit to playing, purely out of sheepish embarrassment: Pokémon. I take no pride in saying this, but for some reason I never bring it up, and I've been known to close the lid of my DS mid-battle when I see a friend approaching. What's up with that?

Sure, Pokémon has a kiddie reputation, and I'm sure that's a big factor, but a few months ago I was gladly evangelizing to all who would listen about Zack and Wiki, another addictive and mentally engaging game wrapped up in a shiny jangly saccarine sweet candy wrapper.

Games like Hot Shots Golf and Power Pro Baseball - with their big headed, doe-eyed, cartoon players - look downright childish next to their mo-capped face-mapped next-gen cousins Tiger Woods and MLB: The Show. Yet I have no problem admitting that I typically prefer the non-sims and find their gameplay more satisfying. Heck, I'll even happily cop to enjoying many of the Mario Party games, and those max out the kiddie-richter scale at about an 11.

Most recently I've been playing the latest Pokémon Mystery Dungeon game for a PopMatters review, and I've noticed an odd and embarrasing shift in my attitude. Suddenly, I feel perfectly comfortable discussing the game because, of course, I'm not playing it out of any personal interest or enthusiasm. Oh no, not at all. This Pokémon game you see stuffed inside my DS is there only for the purposes of review. It's an assignment, really. I have no perverted overgrown adolescent fascination with these silly games. I'm just a reviewer with a job to do. I'm not enjoying this at all.

While it's true that I'm not happy with this particular Pokémon game (I'll explain in my review), it has nothing to do with those absurd Pokémon critters or the "kiddie appeal" of the game. Yet for some crazy reason, *not* liking the game makes it easier for me to talk about it without feeling a little ridiculous. I am seriously not pleased about this, but if I'm honest I must admit it's true.

Why do I feel so sheepish about admitting that I like - no, strike that - that I love playing Pokémon games, especially Red/Blue and Diamond/Pearl? Anybody else an occasional sheepish gamer too?

Ten early impressions of Wii Fit

Wiifitjp After four days with Wii Fit, I have a few thoughts on the, um, game (I honestly don't know what to call it, which I think is a good thing). These are simply impressions based on my own daily use and observing my wife with the system. If you're curious about Wii Fit, perhaps you'll find something useful here.

  1. The balance board is very sturdy and well-constructed. It's heavier than I expected, and it never shifts under you. You will feel stable and well-supported standing on it.
  2. Your trainer is encouraging, but also rather demanding. He/she will praise you when you're doing well and alert you when you're not, e.g. "It looks like you're swaying a bit on that leg." At the end of an exercise, your trainer will frankly assess your performance. If you were expecting a relentlessly upbeat "Nintendo experience," Wii Fit may surprise you. It may also discourage you when you think you've done rather well and are told "It looks like balance isn't your strong suit."
  3. At the end of certain exercises, Wii Fit will recommend an accompanying routine to maximize the effectiveness of your workout. For example, a half-moon pose (yoga) may be recommended following a rowing exercise (strength) to more fully address certain core muscles. The system is clearly trying to do more than offer a bunch of random disconnected activities.
  4. After you select your Mii from the Wii Fit Plaza, the game may ask for your impressions of another member of your family registered with the game. Today when I logged in I was asked whether my wife is looking "slimmer," "heavier," "more toned," or "the same." Be very careful here, ladies and gentlemen. ;-)
  5. You can definitely get a good workout if you make your way through each training area (Yoga, Strength, Aerobics, and Balance) choosing at least a couple of routines from each. Some routines like the jacknife and push-up and side-plank will tax rarely used muscles (as I discovered this morning when I noticed sore muscles that haven't been sore in a long time).
  6. Finishing your workout with a short or long run, followed by a couple of balance games or yoga poses is a nice way to end strong by raising your heart-rate, followed by a stretching cool-down.
  7. Table Tilt (where you manipulate marbles over contoured surfaces into holes) is damnably frustrating. The sensitivity of the balance board to subtle shifts in your weight is both the key and the obstacle to success. The chances of me progressing to the advanced levels seem remote at best.
  8. The Wii Fit Channel is a convenient way to do your daily check-in without loading the game or even having the disc in your Wii. The game asked me if I wanted to install the channel for the first time this morning. I'm not sure why I wasn't asked when I first loaded the game.
  9. The wii-mote tucked in your front pocket does a nice job of accurately reading your running in place strides. Following a lead runner through scenic surroundings (and watching all your other Miis pass you by - "Hey, that Woody Allen can really run!") is a terrific way to make me forget I'm jogging and going nowhere.
  10. User rankings are a strong motivator, especially if several people in the same house are registered. At the end of each exercise or game, your score is ranked among everyone else's attempts. This could keep you coming back for more...or it could simply drive you away if somebody decides to be Mr. Hyper-Competive-Wii-Fit-Athlete.

At the risk of sliding down the slippery Nintendo-shill slope, I must say that Wii Fit has my wife and me hooked. We'll see if it continues to hold our interest and motivate us to monitor our fitness daily. So far, so good. As I write this, she's currently setting a new record with the Hula Hoop and informing me that she's "whooped me but good."

Well, we'll just see about that.

RPG Syllabus - the data

Fallout_01 I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here.

Several weeks ago I asked you to suggest RPG titles you considered essential for a seminar course devoted to the history of the genre. I quickly received a slew of useful suggestions; then, after Kotaku and several other sites picked up my story, a second wave arrived. I've also received many helpful email messages from gamers far and wide. I can't thank you enough for your interest and willingness to help a person you've never met construct the best experience he can for his students. I'm terribly grateful.

I thought you might enjoy seeing some summary data, so I've compiled the results of all your suggestions and tallied them below. Over the next few days I will generate a draft of the syllabus with the preliminary list of games I plan to assign. A few quick thoughts:

  1. Games like X-Com and Zelda: Ocarina of Time clearly stretch the definition of "RPG." Many respondents argued these titles illustrate how great games have effectively incorporated RPG elements into other genres like strategy or adventure games. This makes sense to me. Given the short time I have available to me (one semester), I will try to illustrate these influences as best I can without veering too far off the RPG track.
  2. Obviously, time restrictions present a special challenge because many RPGs require dozens of hours to complete. I deal with this by assigning asynchronous work. Various games are assigned to small groups of students at different times, and throughout the semester students present their games to the class in an analytical format.
  3. Several of you suggested using save files as a way of abridging certain games. I like this idea, especially for games I want to expose my students to without assigning them.
  4. I don't feel bound by a linear historical progression. Jumping from Wizardry to Etrian Odyssey, for example, could be a great way to study the lineage of certain RPG design motifs.
  5. While it's very interesting for me to consider how many people recommend game X over game Y, ultimately this project isn't an RPG popularity contest, and I must choose a collection of games that best serve my pedagogical goals.

Here's the list. It represents responses I received from 156 people. To keep the list manageable, I've included only titles suggested by two or more people.


Game Title # of recs


Chrono Trigger 35


Earthbound 31


Final Fantasy VII 31


World of Warcraft 26


Ultima IV 24


Elder Scrolls: Oblivion 22


Planescape: Torment 22


Fallout 21


Knights of the Old Republic 21


Diablo II 19


Secret of Mana 19


Elder Scrolls: Morrowind 17


Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 17


Mass Effect 16


Zork 16


Dragon Warrior 15


Final Fantasy IV 15


King's Quest 14


Deus Ex 14


Rogue 13


Baldur's Gate 12


X-Com 12


Neverwinter Nights 11


Persona 3 11


Betrayal at Krondor 10


Fallout 2 10


Final Fantasy Tactics 10


Final Fantasy XII 9


Phantasy Star 9


Ultima VII 9


Wasteland 9


Everquest 8


Nethack 8


Ogre Battle 8


Skies of Arcadia 8


Tactics Ogre 8


A Bard's Tale 7


Diablo 7


Gold Box series 7


Sid Meier's Pirates! 7


Super Mario RPG 7


Wizardry 7


Colossal Cave Adventure 6


Fire Emblem 6


Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire 6


Space Quest 6


Ultima Online 6


Xenogears 6


A Mind Forever Voyaging 5


Final Fantasy VI 5


Grand Theft Auto IV 5


Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy 5


Pokemon Red and Blue 5


Quest for Glory 5


Suikoden II 5


Baldur's Gate II 4


Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden 4


Dark Cloud 4


Disgaea 4


Etrian Odyssey 4


Harvest Moon 4


Syndicate 4


System Shock 4


Lunar: The Silver Star 4


Dragon Quest III 3


Ultima Underworld I 3


Lunar 2: Eternal Blue 3


Adventure 3


Actraiser 2


Dragon Quest V 2


Dragon Quest VIII 2


Grandia II 2


Paper Mario Thousand Year Door 2


Super Columbine Massacre RPG 2


System Shock 2 2


Golden Sun 2


Vagrant Story 2


Lost Odyssey 2


Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga 2

More soon!

My handheld has motion control!


I tried to walk away from this one. Really I did. (See "late to party" update below.)

From Reuters:

Two Belgian beer fans have launched a video game named Place to Pee which allows players to slalom down ski slopes or kill aliens while relieving themselves at urinals.

Werner Dupont, a software developer, and Bart Geraets, an electrical engineer, got the idea while drinking Belgian trappist beers, they told Reuters Television at a local festival on Sunday.

"This thing had to be invented by Belgian people and that's what we are," they said.

The Place to Pee booth is designed for two users at a time and offers two games -- blowing up aliens in outer space or skiing down a virtual slope. Gamers hit their target by aiming at sensors positioned on either side of the urinal.

A specially designed paper cone allows women to play too, the inventors say.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Brainy Gamer programming.

Update: A vigilant reader informs me that Belgian police have intervened and banned the game. Apparently Reuters' report, published yesterday, is late to the party because this story first appeared in 2007. Which makes my post not only late, but downright laggardly. Oh well. At least I found an excuse to post that cool Easy Rider shot.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 14

Stevegaynor_and_bigdaddy This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features an interview with Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin (studio developing the next Bioshock game) and author of the Fullbright blog. We discuss game design, the first Bioshock game, and Steve's desire to help create a new vision for interactive expression.

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

Related links:

Steve Gaynor's Fullbright blog
Steve's essay "Noir" at Gamasutra
Steve's essay "Wager"
The MDA Framework: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research

Gamespot - tough crowd for the Wii

Critic I mentioned in my last post that I've been spending a lot of time playing Wii games lately. Among the mostly forgettable spate of recent releases (Deca Sports, Emergency Mayhem, Iron Man), games like LostWinds and Boom Blox have delivered far more delights than I expected. And, of course, Wii Fit arrives tomorrow, hotly anticipated by family and friends.

Normally I don't give much thought to review scores, but I'm often curious to see how reviewers write about games that veer off the path of the tried and true - or even stretch the very definition of "game." I've been struck, in this regard, by the relatively low scores and lukewarm reviews that Gamespot has assigned to recent Wii games. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, nor do I think Gamespot hates Nintendo or any other such silliness. But I do find the rather stark discrepancies interesting, and I wonder what they mean, if anything.

Looking only at the most recent releases, here's how the scores break down among the three major online outlets, Gamepsot, IGN, and 1UP:

Boom Blox - IGN 81;  1UP A+;  Gamespot 7.0
LostWinds - IGN 82;  1UP B;  Gamespot 5.5
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles My Life As A King - IGN 75;  1UP B+;  Gamespot 5.0
Wii Fit - IGN 80;  1UP 83;  Gamespot 7.0

My first thought was to consider the possibility that Gamespot has decided to tighten up review scores across the board. But a look at their scores for other games released during the same period (Dark Sector, Iron Man, The World Ends With You, etc.) shows that Gamespot tends to fall near the middle of the pack - or in the case of the three games listed, slightly above the average.

I don't have a theory to explain this, and it probably doesn't matter very much. But I confess it bugs me to read that one of the fatal flaws of LostWinds is that it "lacks personality." I love this little game, but I'll admit it has some repetitive gameplay issues, a few bugs, and somewhat less than inspiring level design. But no personality? That's the single most distinguishing feature of the game.

Similarly, the review of Boom Blox misses the core experience that sets the game apart: its tactile, physics-based 3D puzzle-solving. It's fair to dismiss the game's cutesy shell as potentially unappealing to adults. But the uniquely defining characteristics of the game deserve more consideration than they received.

I said I don't care about review scores, and here I am all worked up about a few review scores. Oh well. Maybe it all boils down to a feeling I've had for some time that Gamespot - and quite a few reviewers from other outlets - don't "get" the Wii and haven't properly understood it from the beginning. Wii Sports, a game with a greater impact than just about any other game of this generation, was described by EGM as "an overly publicized demo" and rated a 63. Mercury Meltdown got a 72.

I don't pay attention to review scores. Much.

Pwned by my controller

Miyamotoconducts_2 With the release of recent games like Boom Blox, Mario Kart Wii, The World Ends With You, LostWinds, Okami (Wii), and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time with my hands on Nintendo hardware. Despite wide variations in gameplay, genre, and target audiences, I find myself moving easily among these games, with no difficulty managing the controls or remembering how to do certain things. Recently, that hasn't been so easy.

I recall returning to Mass Effect after a couple of weeks away from the game, and I was utterly lost. I had almost no idea how to do anything in the game, and I needed the manual to remind me what all the buttons, triggers and thumbsticks did. The same could be said of my experience playing a whole list of recent Xbox 360 and PS3 games.

I realize my increasingly feeble brain bears some responsibility for all this, but it does seem to me we're reaching the outer limits of what the average gamer can be expected to know and remember when it comes to video game controls. While serious gamers may tend to lock onto a game and play it with few interruptions, I don't think that represents the way many gamers - or more importantly, potential gamers - play games.

Speaking only for myself, gone are the days when I played one video game for eight hours at a sitting. These days, I'm still an avid gamer, but I'm more of a dabbler, moving among several games, playing what happens to appeal to me in the moment. In many ways, I play games today much like I used to watch television: considering my options, selecting one, and spending an hour or two with my choice. As the market for video games continues to expand, I think an increasing percentage of gamers will choose a similar mode of play. And I think that means we need to take a hard look at these 7-button, 4-trigger, 2-thumbstick, 4-way directional pad design nightmares.

My friend JC Barnett over at Japanmanship has been thinking about game controls in the context of so-called "casual" and "hardcore" gamers, and he raises some interesting points that resonate loudly with me:

...somehow, along the line, developers and publishers have started equating “casual” with “bright, friendly” or “shitty simple”. You do not have to make main characters pink with huge eyes, involve horses or kittens or make boring mini-game collections to make a casual game. Just make it easy to play. ... There are a lot of “casual” gamers out there who would like a zombie survival horror game or a gritty World War 2 shooting game, but would not be able to learn or enjoy the 150 button combinations needed to control it. This doesn’t mean those games would have to be made so simple a 5 year old could play them, but it would mean having a good hard think about how these players control the game, adding more contextually automatic actions and using a controller that doesn’t look like a robot with acne.

Amen brother! You can read all of JC's essay here.

The World Ends With You - review

Theworldendswithyouds My review of The World Ends With You has been posted at PopMatters. Here's a snippet:

Of all video game genres, RPGs would seem the most conducive to powerful storytelling. All too often, they are not. JRPGs, in particular, have become mired in threadbare plot mechanics and recycled characters. The World Ends With You is different. No grinding. No random battles. No interminable cutscenes. The game even rewards you with a stat boost for turning off the system and taking a few days off.

You can read the full review here.

You may also be interested in two other views on the game from a couple of Brainy Gamer blog pals. Chris Dahlen reviewed TWEWY for The Onion's AV Club and liked it as much as me. Richard Terrell over at Critical-Gaming found the game unnecessarily complex with poor mechanics. More proof that RPG beauty is in the eye of the role-player. :-)

Chris Dahlen's review at The Onion's AV Club
Richard Terrell's analysis "Mechanics and Abstractions" at Critical-Gaming

RPG syllabus - books and journals

I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here.

As I narrow down the big list of games to a final cut (which will definitely include the coming-soon-to-Virtual Console Earthbound!!), I've been working on a bibliography of resources devoted to RPGs. The list below is a collection of books and journal articles that could be helpful to a student interested in a serious study of role-playing games. I'll also rely on this list for specific reading assignments as the semester progresses.

You'll find some esoteric stuff here, but every title is germane to the subject in one way or another. I've also included books like Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, portions of which I plan to assign as foundational texts.

So far the bibliography only includes traditional materials (books and academic journals). I'm working on supplementing the list with online and popular media resources devoted to RPGs. This part of the process is a lot of fun, but separating the wheat from the chaff is quite a hefty task. Sites like Gamasutra and Hardcore Gaming 101 are terrific resources and provide a wealth of valuable info and analysis. Unfortunately many other sites...well, let's just say peer review isn't always a priority. ;-)

Here's the list. If I've omitted a title you think should be included, please let me know. If you have a favorite website or online essay devoted to RPGs (history, analysis, special focus on a single game or developer, etc.), please feel free to drop me a comment. I'll be sure to add it to the list I'm working on, which will be posted here in a few days.

Did I mention Earthbound is coming to the VC? :-O


Aarseth, Espen. 2004. Quest games as post-narrative discourse. In Narrative across media: The languages of storytelling., ed. Marie-Laure Ryan, 361-376. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press.

Bartle, Richard A. 2004. Designing virtual worlds. Indianapolis, Ind: New Riders Pub.

Barton, Matt. 2008. Dungeons and desktops : The history of computer role-playing games. Wellesley, Mass: A K Peters.

Bogost, Ian. 2006. Unit operations : An approach to videogame criticism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The hero with a thousand faces. 3rd ed. Projected Date: 0807 ed. Novato, Calif: New World Library.

Carr, Diane. 2006. Computer games : Text, narrative, and play. Cambridge ; Malden, MA: Polity.

Castronova, Edward. 2005. Synthetic worlds : The business and culture of online games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cook, Monte, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams. 2003. Dungeons & dragons player's handbook : Core rulebook I v.3.5. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Corneliussen, Hilde, and Jill Walker Rettberg. 2008. Digital culture, play, and identity : A world of warcraft reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Crawford, Chris. 2005. Chris Crawford on interactive storytelling. Berkeley, Calif.: New Riders Games.

Ellevold, Barbara L., and William R. Cupach. 2004. Virtual culture and fantasy : An examination of identity management in the sims online.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared fantasy : Role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gee, James Paul. 2003. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Howard, Jeff. 2008. Quests : Design, theory, and history in games and narratives. Wellesley, Mass: A.K. Peters.

King, Brad, and John Borland. 2003. Dungeons and dreamers : The rise of computer game culture : From geek to chic. Emeryville, Calif: McGraw-Hill/Osborne.

Mackay, Daniel. 2001. The fantasy role-playing game : A new performing art. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co.

Moorcock, Michael. 2004. Wizardry & wild romance : A study of epic fantasy. Rev. and expanded ed. ed. Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain.

Montfort, Nick. 2004. Twisty little passages : An approach to interactive fiction. Cambridge, Mass: London : MIT.

Murray, Janet Horowitz. 1997. Hamlet on the holodeck : The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Nephew, Michelle Andromeda Brown. 2003. Playing with power : The authorial consequences of roleplaying games.

Peterson, Dale. 1983. Genesis II, creation and recreation with computers. Reston, Va: Reston Pub. Co.

Punday, Daniel. 2005. Creative accounting: Role-playing games, possible-world theory, and the agency of imagination. In Poetics today. Vol. 26, 113-139. Duke University Press.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2006. Avatars of story. Electronic mediations ;; v. 17. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. 2003. Rules of play : Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Schick, Lawrence. 1991. Heroic worlds : A history and guide to role-playing games. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.

Schut, Kevin Paul. 2004. Fantasy play-worlds : A study of culture, communication and technology as they intersect in computer fantasy roleplaying games.

Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play between worlds : Exploring online game culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Tolkien, J. R. R. 2005. The lord of the rings. 50th anniversary edition ed. London: HarperCollins.

Underwood, Michael Robert. 2007. What's in a game? : Aesthetics, genre and subculture in role-playing games.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. 2007. Second person : Role-playing and story in games and playable media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

———. 2004. First person : New media as story, performance, and game. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

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Journal articles

Allison, Sara E., Lisa Von Wahide, Tamra Shockley, and Glen O. Gabbard. 2006. The development of the self in the era of the internet and role-playing fantasy games. American Journal of Psychiatry 163, (3) (03): 381-5.

Cole, Helena, and Mark D. Griffiths. 2007. Social interactions in massively multiplayer online role-playing gamers. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10, (4) (08): 575-83.

Dickey, Michele. 2007. Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation. Educational Technology Research & Development 55, (3) (06): 253-73.

Gravois, John. 2007. Knights of the faculty lounge. Chronicle of Higher Education 53, (44) (07/06): A8-A10.

Hsu, Shang Hwa, Ching-Han Kao, and Muh-Cherng Wu. 2007. Factors influencing player preferences for heroic roles in role-playing games. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10, (2) (04): 293-5.

Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy. 2000. Dreams of time, times of dreams: Stories of creation from roleplaying game sessions. Studies in Cultures, Organizations & Societies 6, (1) (03): 71-86.

Moore, Robert, Nicolas Ducheneaut, and Eric Nickell. 2007. Doing virtually nothing: Awareness and accountability in massively multiplayer online worlds. Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing 16, (3) (05): 265-305.

Smyth, Joshua M. 2007. Beyond self-selection in video game play: An experimental examination of the consequences of massively multiplayer online role-playing game play. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10, (5) (10): 717-21.

Waskul, Dennis, and Matt Lust. 2004. Role-playing and playing roles: The person, player, and persona in fantasy role-playing. Symbolic Interaction 27, (3) (Summer): 333-56

Updated 5/27/08 

Wee games bring Wii joy

Boom Blox and LostWinds are a study in contrasts. One is published by mega-developer EA with artistic guidance from the most famous movie director in the world (Steven Spielberg); the other is a side-project created by an independent studio (Frontier Developments) born out of a suggestion posted on an internal discussion forum. One is a puzzle game with story elements; the other is a storytelling platformer with puzzle elements. One is distributed on a disc in a plastic case; the other is beamed into your home via Nintendo's brand new Wii Ware service. One is lots of fun, while the other is...also lots of fun.

Boomblox_box_2 Boom Blox
Boom Blox taps into that nasty destructive feeling you get when you walk into a room and see your sister building a tower of blocks. No matter how impressive this feat of construction may be, you've simply *got* to knock it down. Boom Blox is about knocking things down. That's pretty much the whole game. Fortunately, it presents so many clever ways to do this - all with well-implemented and responsive Wiimote gestures - that you never tire of the process. Locking onto your target point and winding up for a monster fling that will bring down those blox in a single throw is the most satisfying use of motion control I've yet seen in a Wii game.

Of course, you can also grab, push, pull, shoot, and blow up blox as well. All of these (and more) are fun, but the real challenge - and what keeps you playing puzzle after puzzle - is the detective work you must do before making that throw or taking that shot. It's often possible to bring down a complex set of columns all at once, if you can determine exactly where to aim that bowling ball. Hit it just right, and a chain reaction begins that eliminates every block on the screen. Chances are, a great deal of your time will be spent replaying the same level over and over until you achieve that perfect one-turn success.

I've yet to try the multiplayer modes, and I've only toyed with the editor that allows you to build your own levels. For a game with small but manageable ambitions (for which I'm grateful), Boom Blox provides a lot of gameplay. It's a shame that so few people, as far as I can tell, are aware that this game even exists. Boom Blox is the perfect game for so-called casual gamers ready to try something else with their wiimotes.

Lostwinds876_2 LostWinds
If you're looking for a purely joyful gaming experience, LostWinds is your game. If you wonder whatever happened to graceful 2-D platformers, LostWinds is your game. If you'd like to send a message to independent developers that artfulness and beauty are worthy game design goals, LostWinds is your game, and you can buy it for 10 bucks.

To describe a unique game, we often refer to touchstones in other games. It's possible to see pieces of Wind Waker's visuals, and Kirby Canvas Curse's control scheme, and Okami's gestural use of the natural environment, and even Super Mario Bros floaty jumps. These can all be found in LostWinds, but the game is so much more than a cobbled together set of play mechanics.

LostWinds conveys an organic feeling to the player. Its levels fully integrate their environmental elements as gameplay, puzzles, obstacles, motion, and story. Everything connects. The wind - the central natural element in the game, controlled by the player - affects everything it touches. It is a jetstream, a conduit, a conveyor of water and fire, and a weapon. It is all you have and all you need.

The peaceful music and the sounds of the wind rustling through trees create a perfect soundscape to accompany your journey through the game's caverns, fields, and villages. Few games seem to take into account the possibility of a player taking his or her time. Lingering too long in one area usually leads to looping musical distraction, but LostWinds' spare wind-instrument melodies weave in and out seamlessly and almost unnoticed. Taking your time in this game is a pleasure, not least because it's such a beautiful place to be.

LostWinds tells a story about spirit stones and recovering lost artifacts and protecting the land from an evil force. We've heard it all before, of course, and I suppose the game might benefit from a more original story. But it hardly matters, really. This game has such a big heart and warm soul - and making the journey is such blissful joy - you will likely be sad to see it end after 3 hours or so. LostWinds' final gift may lift your spirits, however. It ends with a "to be continued" screen, and Frontier has already confirmed a sequel is in the works.