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January 2009

Nunchuck jockey

Zoe1 The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 2 be restricted from television viewing. My wife and I decided to heed that advice when our baby Zoe arrived 13 months ago. I expected such a restriction would feel like a big sacrifice, but it really hasn't. We don't watch much TV anyway, and the small handful of shows we enjoy don't come on until after she's gone to bed. Sports can be a problem, especially during baseball season, but we have an old TV upstairs I can always retreat to.

But video games...well, that's another story. I do my best to abide by our parental agreement. I play late at night or very early in the morning; I play in my office sometimes; and I play on my laptop computer. Basically, I get my gaming in however I can, but it's not as easy as it was in the old days. And the older I get, the less I can manage those late-night gaming benders without zombie-like consequences.

So I guess you could say I'm a Responsible Gamer Dad now. Hard to believe those three words belong in the same sentence, isn't it?

But the old rebel-gamer hasn't disappeared completely. Zoe and I have a secret. We play Animal Crossing together. That's right. Come and get us, Academy of Pediatrics. If you can catch us, that is.

We play for 10-15 minutes a day. She operates the nunchuck, and I handle the Wiimote. We fish, plant flowers, dig holes, chop down trees (her favorite), and generally mix and mingle with the denizens of our little town. Zoe's still working on motor skills, so she can't do many things by herself, but the game works remarkably well as a co-op experience, at least for now. I can tell by the way she keeps jerking the Wiimote out of my hand that co-op mode may not last for much longer.

Zoe2 I've written here before about how much I love the Animal Crossing games, so I won't go on about them again. The Wii version, City Folk, doesn't add a lot of new content, but I don't mind much. These games have never been about feature-lists and content upgrades. Crazy as it may sound, I still find it novel and thoroughly charming that every day in Animal Crossing is different from the next.

The trees got decorated for Christmas, and Zoe noticed. An anteater named Cyrano moved in the other day. Zoe liked him because he was new; I liked him because he's an anteater named Cyrano.

Tomorrow I think we'll drop by Shampoodle. We'll see how Zoe feels about a new hair color.

What game next?

Vintage pc junk2 The Vintage Game Club is accepting nominations for its 4th collective play-through. If you'd like to take advantage of the current mini-lull in new releases, why not join us for some friendly gaming and conversation? Among the many games already suggested: Resident Evil (original), Chrono Trigger, Super Mario 64, Dodonpachi, Zork, and Beyond Good and Evil. A wide-ranging assortment of possibilities to be sure!

We'll welcome nominations through 10pm EST this Sunday. Then we'll choose a handful of finalists and hold an official vote. You'll need to join the club to submit a nomination (simple registration requiring an email address).

By the way, we use the term "vintage" purposely because its primary definition - "Characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal" strikes me as just the right way to describe the games we play together. As far as we're concerned a vintage game can be 20 years old or 5 years old. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter.

You can submit your nominations here. Happy gaming!

1UP down

Egm+1 It would be easy for a guy like to me to sniff dismissively at the news of EGM's demise and 1UP's uncertain future. After all, I'm a crusty academic out of touch with the often-snarky hipster brand of journalism produced by the network's gallery of print, online, and podcast mini-celebs. Plenty of us have expressed concern about the cozy relationships between the writers covering games and the developers making them, particularly in the preview-stage.

And let's face it, the 1UP gang relished their insider/outsider status and frequently exhibited a child-like delight in teasing us with privileged information they knew, but couldn't share. Sometimes when I listen to their podcasts, they remind me of a bunch of slightly inebriated frat boys a little too enchanted by themselves and their camaraderie.

But, damn, I'm gonna miss em. These guys are good, and they know their stuff. For me, that's always been the 1UP edge. I didn't always agree with them, but Bettenhausen, Lee, Davison, and Pfister delivered a ton of useful information, amidst the whisky shots, every Friday, and I know at least a little bit about how much time and effort a well-produced podcast requires.

I think a solid case can be made for the late GFW Radio as the best overalll gaming podcast we've heard. Jeff Green and Shawn Elliott are genuinely gifted writers, and their on-air chemistry and jovial but penetrating analysis of games is unsurpassed in my book. Elliott, more than anyone else, conveys a perspective on gaming - and the processes at work when we play them - within a broad cultural context. His frequent analogies to art, literature, and philosophy go a long way to opening up our understanding of how games work and what they mean. Plus he's hilarious. Not a bad combo. And as a longtime fan of JRPGs, Shane Bettenhausen's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre makes me swoon just a tiny bit.

You probably didn't read them, but the last batch of EGM issues, with Dan Hsu and, finally, James Mielke at the helm, began to point the way to a kind of journalism that meaningfully integrates games-as-fun with games-as-art. Boiler plate reviews gave way, in these last issues, to more thoughtful analysis of design, genre, and culture. And, at least to my eye, the overall quality of writing improved. Edge Magazine approaches games in a similar way, but near the end EGM seemed to find a signature playful voice and a deft touch all its own. Sadly, the more EGM improved, the thinner it became.

EGM ran its ship aground in good company. If you'd like a reality check on the current state of print media, read this month's Atlantic Monthly feature, End Times, on the precarious state of America's paper of record: The New York Times. For antiquated newspaper lovers like me, it's scary stuff.

30 talented people lost their jobs yesterday. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the 1UP crew. Word has it Davison and the ex-1UPers have already begun discussing a new podcast. Here's wishing all of them the best. See you again, wherever on your feet you land.

Prince of quitting


This is the final post in a short series devoted to the new Prince of Persia. You can find the previous entries here, here, and here.

Game endings must be very tricky business for designers to manage. Not only must the story reach a satisfying conclusion, but this conclusion must be coordinated with the player's input getting there. Typically games make us earn our endings (some going so far as to supply multiple versions), hinging gameplay success with narrative resolution. Navigate the environments, solve the puzzles, beat the bosses, game over. We know the routine.

It's no accident that for many gamers, reaching the end of the story means "beating the game" more than it means resolving the narrative. I confess I've completed plenty of games I can barely recall story-wise, but I could provide vivid accounts of their final bosses. Castlevania series, I'm lookin' right at you. ;-)

So I must give Prince of Persia producer Ben Mattes and his team at Ubisoft credit for trying to rethink the notion of "ending" and for throwing us a welcome curveball at the conclusion of the game's story.


The game offers the player a choice: revive Elika and unleash Ahriman back into the world...or turn the game off and walk away.

I didn't see it coming. Prince of Persia isn't a "meta-game" ala No More Heroes. It functions until the very last moment exactly as one would expect a conventional platforming adventure to behave. Then, suddenly, Elika sacrificed herself and I was presented with a provocative dilemma: pursue the goal of my avatar, the Prince - whom would most assuredly revive Elika - or disconnect from that avatar and choose my own path.

After helplessly exploring other options, I realized I had no other choice. I never liked the Prince anyway, so I felt no devotion to him. I chose what I believed Elika would have chosen. I walked away. The Prince, as far as I'm concerned, can locate his donkey and find another tomb to raid all by himself.

Some will say the game offers no choice at all. The only real action the game allows is resurrecting Elika. I say poppycock. The credits roll when they do for a reason. Anything that happens after that is a coda. The game invites you to walk away...or not. It's up to you. The genius of this moment (in an otherwise highly problematic narrative) is in the way it provoked me to reflect on a character's death, assess my choices, and assume responsibility for the one I made.

Was the simple act of quitting ever made with such deliberate reflection? In the case of Prince of Persia, walking away means honoring the last wishes of the only character in the game who earned my respect. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a tough decision after all.

Lots of good writers have opined about Prince of Persia, many focusing on its controversial ending. I invited a few to share some cross-blog conversation with me. Below you will find other opinions, some in direct opposition to mine. I've also included a couple of unsolicited links on the topic. I encourage you to give them all a look. And, as always, I'm curious to know your thoughts as well.

Update: other related links suggested by readers:

Prince of promises


I'm not sure how it happened, but I've devoted far more time than I ever anticipated playing, replaying, and discussing the new Prince of Persia. Sadly, I've discovered I admire the game less and less the more I reflect on it. This raises a couple of questions for me:

1) Am I thinking too much? (Some of you have already answered with an indubitable YES!) As I wrote originally, if we accept the game for what it is - an effort to broaden the audience for the PoP series - the game looks and plays brilliantly. I enjoyed this game on a cursory playthrough and so did my friends and family visiting for the holidays. Shouldn't I just leave it at that?

2) Is it necessary that I care about the game's story and characters? You might say Prince of Persia is what it is: an accessible platformer wrapped in a standard adventure genre plot. A little Shadow of the Colossus; a little Zelda; a little Okami stirred into a rousing Prince of Persia recipe. Is that a bad thing? If I want a good story with interesting characters, I should go read a book, right?

The problem is that Prince of Persia sends a series of mixed signals about its intentions. We have a wise-cracking titular hero accompanied by a woman whose family and civilization have been obliterated by a force that the game itself takes very seriously. The less I know or care about all this devastation, the less bothered I am by the Prince's one-note comic relief. But the game offers me the opportunity to know much more, and the game tells me in all sorts of ways that I should care about what I learn.

We're left with a tonal collision that creates more wreakage the closer we inspect it. Perhaps wisely, Ubisoft chose to shield the player from the quips, verbal sparring, and philosophising by making most of them elective for the player. Ironically, the deeper you probe - the more you let the game reveal its story - the more cracks appear in its narrative shell.

The Prince and Elika essentially sustain one long conversation through the game, and this conversation bears little or no relationship to the events they punctuate. Prolonged, high-drama events or confrontations occur, followed by "As I was saying..." dialogue passages or backstory exposition that arrives in dribs and drabs for no apparent reason. I understand the Prince is meant to function as comic relief, but his winking observations grow so repetitive and arrive so unrelentingly that I found myself avoiding the dialogue options altogether. The unfortunate result of this choice is that I learn less about Elika and her story, which happens to be interesting and worth caring about.

I also think Prince of Persia tells the wrong story. The narrative arc of Elika and her mourning father is fascinating - far more interesting than anything that happens in the game. It's a shame that nearly all of this is treated as backstory. Sometimes writers write around the scene they need to write, describing via dialogue the compelling, impactful stuff that happened offstage. Such is the case with Prince of Persia. The best story has already ended before the game begins.

Traversing a corrupted land, fighting monsters, collecting healing light seeds - it's easy to see how a platforming game can be built on such a narrative framework. The story that emerges from this activity, and the events that provoked it, seem to lend themselves to a past-tense narrative experience.

Could a Prince of Persia game have depicted the inciting events surrounding Elika and her mourning father; the release of Ahriman and the resurrection of Elika; the flight of Ormazd? I don't know. But if none of this matters, and these stories are just window-dressing for a game about jumping around a lot, I would prefer not to be teased by the promise of a character like Elika with a story I hoped to care about.

Tomorrow: a final Prince of Persia post focusing on the game's controversial ending. I'll be joined this time by a few friends. You can read my previous two posts on PoP here and here.

"I'm With the Band" - a short play

Fortune Teller
Scene: Felicity the Fortune-Teller's parlor on a dark and stormy night.
Time: January 2, 2005.

Lights up to reveal MICHAEL, a hapless but earnest college professor, entering the parlor. FELICITY sits at her table, gazing at a mysterious crystal ball.

FELICITY: Sit down, Michael.
MICHAEL: Thanks. (He sits) Wait, how do you know my name?
FELICITY: I have powers you cannot understand.
MICHAEL: Oh. I see.
FELICITY: No, you don't.
MICHAEL: I don't?
FELICITY: I am the seer. You are the seeker. You see nothing. I see all.
MICHAEL: Um...okay.

(FELICITY sits in silence staring at the crystal ball)

MICHAEL: you need me to pay in advance, or-
FELICITY: Why are you here?
MICHAEL: Why am I?...well, that's actually a very funny...see, my wife gave me this sort of joke gift for Christmas. She thought it would be hilarious if-
FELICITY: What do you seek?
MICHAEL: What do I seek?
FELICITY: What brings you to this place?
MICHAEL: Oh. Well, my wife actually dropped me off. She's parked just right around the-
FELICITY: You are lost. You have come here to find something you have never possessed. You seek that which eludes you.
FELICITY: I will guide you to that place, if you wish.
MICHAEL: You will?
FELICITY: If you wish.
MICHAEL: Will that cost extra?
FELICITY: Gaze into my eyes. Gaze deeply. Do not look away.
MICHAEL: Alright.

(FELICITY gazes intently at MICHAEL for two seconds)

FELICITY: Ah! I have it!
MICHAEL: (after a beat) That's it? That's all it took?
FELICITY: You are an open book. What you seek is written for all to see.
MICHAEL: Wow. Pretty short book, huh? Should I be disappointed by that?
FELICITY: The object of your yearning is abundantly clear. Even a fool could see it.
MICHAEL: Is that so? Hm. But you're still going to charge me, right?
FELICITY: I will tell you what you seek, and I will tell you how to find what you seek.
MICHAEL: Ah! So it's a value-added thing you're doing.
FELICITY: You wish to be cool.
MICHAEL: (after a beat) Huh?
FELICITY: Your desire is to feel and to be seen as cool.
FELICITY: That is what you seek.
MICHAEL: (ponders this for a moment, then) You know, I think you're right.
FELICITY: Of course I am.
MICHAEL: How about that? I want to be cool. Yeah. I do. I really do.
FELICITY: Would you like to know how? Are you prepared to discover your journey? Shall I show you the road to cool?
MICHAEL: Bring it!
FELICITY: Then gaze into the crystal ball!

(Suddenly, she waves her hands over the ball and begins swaying in her chair, emoting and chanting incomprehensibly for a few seconds. Just as suddenly, she stops.)

FELICITY: And there it is! I see all.
MICHAEL: Man, you're one fast fortune-teller.
FELICITY: I see a guitar.
MICHAEL: A guitar?
FELICITY: A plastic toy guitar.
MICHAEL: (after a beat) I don't get it.
FELICITY: You will attach a strap to this guitar, and you will sling it over your shoulder.
MICHAEL: Oh, I see! This is, like, a memory from my past. Because when I was 10, for my birthday I got a-
FELICITY: I do not traffic with the past. I see only the future.
FELICITY: In the future you will play with this plastic guitar for hours on end. It will produce no music of its own, only a stream of rather annoying clicks.
MICHAEL: Clicks?
FELICITY: You will play with this toy until it breaks, and your anxiety over this loss will cause you to purchase another plastic guitar and pay extra for overnight shipping. Such will be your attachment to this toy.
MICHAEL: Overnight shipping.
FELICITY: The toy will consume nearly all your free time. You will think about the toy when you are away from it. The toy will make your fingers ache.
MICHAEL: Oh my god! An adult playing with toys. I'm headed for a brain injury!
FELICITY: No injury. What's more, your wife will demand a plastic guitar of her own. Soon you will both play together for hours on end.
MICHAEL: Okay, now I know this is way off because my wife would never do that in a million years.
FELICITY: And as you grow in skill, you will begin to think of yourself as cool.
MICHAEL: How's that?
FELICITY: My crystal ball tells me you will hear music - great classic rock tunes - and you will believe, truly believe, that you are playing that music on your toy guitar. And you will feel, truly feel, that you are cool. A hero of the guitar.
MICHAEL: Me? A Guitar Hero?!
FELICITY: Perhaps. Hard to say. My ball is cloudy on nomenclature.
MICHAEL: That would be amazing.
FELICITY: And the cool will extend beyond a feeling inside you. It will grow to be shared by friends with their own toy guitars. They will observe you playing your guitar, flawlessly shredding on Expert.
MICHAEL: "Shredding on Expert?"
FELICITY: I can only describe what I see, not what it means. These friends will watch you play, and they will envy your skills. You will add virtuoso flourishes to entertain them: Pete Townshend windmills-
MICHAEL: Pete Townshend!
FELICITY: Needless facial grimaces and head bangs to make easy passages seem difficult-
MICHAEL: Angus Young!
FELICITY: Turning away from the screen without missing a beat-
MICHAEL: The screen? What screen?
FELICITY: Like I said...
FELICITY: And your teenage son will be driven to surpass you.
MICHAEL: Ugh. Of course he will.
FELICITY: Developing a method for playing the plastic guitar with his feet. On Expert. An act which will transcend anything you will ever be be capable of.
MICHAEL: Dammit!
FELICITY: Thus exceeding your skills, if not your coolness.
MICHAEL: Well, I mean, playing a guitar with your feet is impressive, but can we call it "cool?" Doubtful.
FELICITY: He will not surpass your coolness. You will always be cooler.
MICHAEL: Good. (after a beat) You're saying that just to make me feel good, aren't you?
FELICITY: Once again, the ball is cloudy.
FELICITY: Finally, one day, you will reject the heroic guitar.
MICHAEL: Really? Why?
FELICITY: You will put it aside for a Rock Band.
MICHAEL: A Rock Band??!!! Are you serious??!!! I will join a Rock Band??!!
FELICITY: The crystal ball does not lie.
MICHAEL: With a singer and a bassist and a drummer and everything?!!
MICHAEL: Oh my god!! I feel cool already! Turn it up to 11!! Oh, man, I've gotta update my wardrobe.
FELICITY: And the singer, it turns out, will be...
MICHAEL: Yes? Yes? Annie Lennox? Beyoncé? One of the Pussycat Dolls?!!
FELICITY: Your wife.
FELICITY: Yes. Your wife.
MICHAEL: How can that be?
FELICITY: The crystal ball-
MICHAEL: -Never lies. Got it. (beat) Wait a minute.
MICHAEL: Plastic guitar again, right?
FELICITY: (she checks crystal ball) Indeed.
MICHAEL: Dammit!! ... But will I still be cool?
FELICITY: Certainly. Even more so than before. You can be a drummer.
MICHAEL: (after a moment's reflection) Rock on!