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April 2010

Dante's Inferno


I like Dante's Inferno. There. I said it. It's off my chest, and I feel like a new man. Since I'm in a confessional mood, I might as well spill all the beans, so I'll admit that I even prefer the game to its source material, Dante Alighieri's epic-poem medieval Christian vision of Hell. To all the reviewers who (rightly) panned the game for its repetitiveness, I say have you read the book? In this regard (and this regard only), maybe we should praise the game for fidelity to its source. Oh boy, here comes the hate mail.

Of course, we all know Dante's epic poem is merely a wrapper for the game's actual source material: God of War,  so it seems fair to judge Dante's Inferno against that highly regarded measuring stick. But I won't. We also know EA promoted the game with a repugnant marketing campaign that many of us found offensive, so it seems fair to appraise this game with that in mind too, but I won't do that either.

Considered on its own merits as a hack-and-slash adventure, Dante's Inferno is a terrific, if occasionally flawed game. Set in a series of grotesquely redolent environments, the game features an addictive combat system with responsive controls, a variety of interesting weapons and over-the-top allegorical bosses, and an art style born of Caravaggio with striking chiaroscuro lighting. Dante's Inferno looks and plays like a self-assured high concept game, even as its gameplay reminds us we're in wholly derivative territory.

We were supposed to hate this game, and I was fully prepared for the task. EA did its best to kill my desire to play it, so when Dante's Inferno finally appeared I peeked at a few lukewarm reviews and moved on. Inferior God of War clone with lots of gratuitous nudity. End of story.

Then something interesting happened. I met a human being who helped build the game - a developer from Visceral who worked on the visuals - and we had a conversation. I asked him what he thought about the response to the game, and he said, "Have you played it?" When I told him no, he said "I wish you would. Everybody had their minds made up before they even saw the game." When I asked him if he blamed EA for that, he replied "No comment. But you should play it."

So I did, and I'm glad. Dante's Inferno is far from perfect. It unravels in its last two levels, and it suffers as a game that mimics, without improving on, God of War's formula. It finally runs out of stylish imagination - its best quality - and it relies too heavily on turning cranks, swinging ropes, lumbering beasts, and solving environmental puzzles.

Nevertheless, this game is full of marvelous ideas, mainly attributable to imaginative art and sound design that translate into fantastical depictions of Hell and its tormented inhabitants. Each circle of Hell visually communicates a particular sin (greed, lust, gluttony, etc.), essentially turning the game's level design into a deadly sin theme park. That the game largely avoids making this seem contrived (it is contrived, of course, but somehow not ridiculous) is a testament to Visceral's design team. 

Distorted sexual forms, twisted sculptural elements embedded into their environments, protruding human organs - all convey theme via fantastical place and grotesque form. Place communicates meaning and emotion, often in disturbingly outrageous dream-like ways. It all runs at 60 fps, which normally means little to me, but in this game the fluidity shows.

What does corpulence sound like? The music and ambient sound in the Gluttony level create a sickening atmosphere that's difficult to describe. The symphonic score (by Bioshock composer Garry Schyman) incorporates choral voices in a manner similar to Demon's Souls' score, but listen to how the instruments themselves are distorted within the vocal mix inside the arrangement. 

Click to play

Dante's Inferno is Schyman's best and most ambitious video game score, and it highlights excellent work by many other designers in this game. 

If you were put off by the negative hype surrounding Dante's Inferno, I suggest you play it and take a careful look at the work of its talented team of designers and developers. I personally chose not to purchase the game because EA's degrading "Sin to Win" campaign made me unwilling to support such marketing with my money. [Visceral Games is wholly owned by EA.] You may or may not agree with my decision, but regardless, I encourage you to give the game a look and determine its merits for yourself.

Vintage Game Club 2.0

AnotherWorld_Poster2 In 2008 my friends David Carlton and Dan Bruno teamed up with me to form the Vintage Game Club. We wanted to host a friendly place where gamers could collectively play and discuss games out of the just-released spotlight. We believed (and still do) that older games have much to teach us, and we savored the chance to revisit some old favorites in the company of like-minded folks.

Two years, ten games, five-hundred+ members, six-thousand+ posts, and over a million page views later, we've been thrilled by the success of the VGC, and we're grateful for the support it has received from members and visitors. 

But we believe there's plenty of room for improvement, and we recently solicited feedback on ways we might improve the VGC to better serve the community. Having gathered that input, David and I met last month at GDC in San Francisco to draft some changes, and now we're rolling them out. Vintage Game Club 2.0, if you will. 

The new stuff:

  1. The Champion - From now on, we will require someone to serve as a "champion" for each game we select. The champion can be any club member; moderators can serve as champions, but other club members are also strongly encouraged to serve in this role. If multiple people express interest, they can serve as co-champions for a game. The champion's role is to organize the playthrough and generally help members get as much as they can out of the game.

  2. Game Selection - We want to move away from a moderator-directed system and be more responsive to games people want to play, so we've opened a "game proposals" discussion thread in the "What game next?" forum. If someone suggests a game and wishes to serve as its champion, he or she may open a vote-gathering thread for that game. If five or more people are willing to join the champion, we'll open a dedicated forum for playthrough and discussion of that game. 

    Unlike in the past, we ask you vote for a game only if you will make time in your schedule to play it, even in the face of other known commitments and new game releases. Multiple game playthroughs can take place simultaneously, though we will space the beginnings of playthroughs at least two weeks apart.

  3. Communication - You may now follow the VGC on Twitter and on Facebook. We will post announcements of all voting threads and all selected games in both places. If you don't use either service, you can also subscribe to the Twitter account through an RSS reader.

We hope to continue improving the VGC and responding to our members' suggestions. If you'd like to join the club, we'd love to have you. All that's required is a valid email address. I will never share your address with anyone, and you will only receive email when I have important VGC news or announcements to share.

Finally, I'm happy to say that our first VGC 2.0 playthrough will be the classic and highly influential Another World (1991), championed by me, and set to begin soon. The 15th Anniversary edition of the game is available for download here. This edition also includes a manual, hi-res wallpapers, development diary, technical handbook, soundtrack, and making-of video. Fumito Ueda (Ico), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear), and Goichi Suda (No More Heroes) have all cited Another World as an inspirational game that influenced their work. I hope you will join us.

Race, create, share


I try not to let anticipation get the best of me. Too many letdowns. Too many broken promises. Hype-fatigue. Dubiosity.

But sometimes I can't help myself. A game appears on the horizon, and the old intoxication sets in. The fervid calendar watch. The release date countdown. And why not? It's fun to be excited. The worst that can happen? A game disappoints, I get over it, and my gaze returns to the horizon. All the while, a library of terrific games awaits at my fingertips, ready to be played. Yo ho, a gamer's life for me.

ModNation Racers is my horizon game, and it's got me in quite a state of commotion. If this game delivers on its promises, and I have reasons to think it may, ModNation Racers could turn out to be something very special - and Mario Kart, one of my favorite game franchises of all time - may have finally met its match. 

In case you haven't heard, ModNation Racers is a kart racing game from Vancouver-based United Front Games. Sony likes to describe it as a cross between Mario Kart and Little Big Planet, and while you should always be wary of "if you liked game X, you'll love our new game Y" PR drivel, this time the description is spot-on. 

ModNation Racers marries LBP's "Play, Create, Share" mantra with Mario Kart's player-friendly racing formula, including all the familiar MK elements (boost, weapons, drifting, upgrades, etc.). Having played the beta last December and a recent preview build, the racing part of the game looks to be solid. MK vets will find that the MNR karts feel heavier, and drifting feels like a cross between MK and Burnout. The game is a visual treat, mixing realistic environments with MNR's urban vinyl-inspired cars and characters.

All of this matters, of course, because MNR is, at its core, a racing game (with local 4-player split screen and 12-player online modes). None of the user-generated content will amount to much if the racing fails to make creating stuff feel worth doing.

But what most distinguishes MNR from other games - not simply other racing games - is a set of creation tools and a content sharing system that practically compel you to start making things from the moment the game begins. MNR enables you to create and fully customize your character and your kart, and then it hands you a incredibly intuitive track editor and says 'build it.' 

Essentially, MNR translates track building into 'paint driving' - you paint down a track as you drive over a flat terrain, adding other elements like surface textures, water, mountains, trees, and weapon items later. 29 types of terrain and landscape elements like bridges, tunnels, and trees can be painted on with a virtual spray-can. If you grow tired of track building and find yourself with an unfinished circuit, MNR will complete it for you at the press of a button.

If you're wary about designing a track from scratch, you can download someone else's creation, including tracks built by MNR's dev team, edit it to your heart's content, and then upload it for others to try. The original creator's name remains affixed to the track, with you listed as a modder.

The designers at United Front have spoken about their efforts to build a toolset that strikes a balance between depth and usability, noting that this aspect of development presented a bigger challenge than designing the racing game itself. 

From what I've seen of MNR, their efforts have paid off handsomely. This game, which clearly owes a debt to Little Big Planet's player-as-creator ethos, is a clear advancement on LBP's powerful, but difficult to use level editor. Some would-be designers will balk at the limits MNR imposes its track creator, but I found it surprisingly robust, with just the right balance between power and ease of use. Those wishing for more design content will likely find it arriving in a steady stream of post-release DLC.

As always, the usual provisions apply. I'm writing about an unreleased game that may contain more or fewer features than I've seen. Server reliability will be vital for online racing and sharing content, and we can only hope that system works well. Load times were an issue in the beta, and the in-game track announcer drove me batty. Here's hoping he arrives with far more and way better quips...or an off switch. 

If ModNation Racers can be the game it wants to be, players and creators alike are in for a real treat. Mario, my friend, it's your move.

I encourage you to check out the Sony-produced MNR tutorial videos. PR propaganda aside, they do a nice job of illustrating how the track, character, and kart editors work.

Building permit

If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe. --Carl Sagan

Bobbuilder I spend most of my time teaching students how to be creative. More accurately, I teach them how to harness their own ideas and express them creatively. I offer my students tools, and, over time, they learn how to use them.

I've learned that unlocking a student's creativity - especially when he doesn't believe he's creative - is often a matter of handing him the right tool and letting him discover its utility by playing with it. A close observation assignment, for example, can teach a young actor how to carefully note the small details of a person's gait and posture, leading to a discussion of the conclusions we typically draw from such information. Soon, the student learns to incorporate those physical adjustments into the creation of a character, and studious observation proves itself a valuable tool.

If a student finds a tool helpful and easy to use, he will add it to his arsenal. If not, he won't, and no amount of cajoling from me will change that. Some students (especially those who dislike taking copious notes) don't respond well to the observation assignment I described. In those cases another tool, such as a mirroring exercise, can point them in a similar direction. My job is to offer an array of tools (customized as needed), clear instructions for how to use them, and supportive feedback on the results.

Video games are terrific teachers when their pedagogy is aimed at teaching us how to play. Scholars like James Gee and Margaret Robertson have told us about the remarkable ways games facilitate learning, and they make a convincing case.

But when they purposely aim at enabling our creativity, games fail more often than they succeed, and it mostly boils down to lousy tools or bad pedagogy. 

In the past, games with creative toolsets were aimed at specialists and experts with the time and skill to learn how to use them. The modding communities that formed around games like Half-Life and the Elder Scrolls series, for example, have generated amazing content and extended the lives of these and many other games. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Unfortunately, the steep learning curve for such tools puts them out of reach for most of us.

Recently we've begun to see the emergence of games designed to promote creativity in the rest of us. These games proudly proclaim "Be Creative!" as a principle design feature. Games like Little Big Planet, WarioWare D.I.Y., Sleep is Death, Spore, and Guitar Hero 5's Music Studio suggest we can all get creative if we're just willing to roll up our sleeves and have some fun. Sadly, you won't get your muse on quite so easily as these games would have you think. 

Little Big Planet is particularly disappointing to me in this regard. I'm no designer, but I gave LBP's level editor everything I had for 3 days. In the end, I had a rickety nondescript 2-stage level and 10 stiff fingers to show for my efforts. LBP's toolset is robust and powerful, but overly complex and incredibly difficult to manage with a controller. I don't personally know anyone who built an original level with it, and I know lots of creative people who played and enjoyed LBP.

WarioWare D.I.Y. enticed me with tools to be a game designer, but its laborious means of teaching me how to use them squelched my desire to learn. The game begins with a tedious series of tutorials that require nearly an hour to complete. Each incremental step is intended to explain the principles of game design, but after a 20 minutes I began to feel like a recalcitrant kid being tutored by a pedant. 

I've sung the praises of Sleep is Death in my previous two posts because I see it as a significant re-think of how we interact with games. But after two weeks I've yet to find anyone I know (and you really need to play this game with a friend or loved one) willing to be the Controller. Two minutes with the unintuitive UI has sent six of my students and colleagues fleeing for the hills, never to return. And that's a shame, because learning SiD's interface is worth the effort. Sadly, the very people I want most to play this game with me are the very people least likely to play it.

Spore suffers from an inverse, but no less disappointing problem. Spore nails the toolset and makes the player feel instantly at ease creating creatures...but to what purpose? My best memories of Spore are all connected to playing with its powerful creature creator, and that's no small feat. Perhaps we should admire the game for that playful achievement alone. But in the end, Spore gave me little reason to care about my creations as the game progressed. Spore suggested my choices would have broad implications, but ultimately they didn't. 

So where is the game that unleashes our creativity with an easy to use interface, a toolset that smartly balances depth with utility, and gameplay that makes all that creativity worth the effort? 

Well, I believe I may have seen that game, and I'll tell you all about it in my next post. 

Sleep is Death player manual (and guide to better living)


With Sleep is Death, Jason Rohrer has facilitated a fascinating convergence of player, avatar, game world, and role-playing. Longtime gamers who know all about such things will feel right at home with SiD's retro 8-bit aesthetic, but may soon find themselves disabled by the game's lack of a clear directive. "What am I supposed to do?" is the common response among students and colleagues to whom I've shown the game.

SiD doesn't tell you what to do. Instead, it offers a toolset and a system for 2-player cooperative storycrafting. What you do with it is up to you.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I won't try to convince you there's a single best way to play Sleep is Death. If you've enjoyed a SiD session for whatever reason, then you're playing it right. 

But if you've struggled with SiD - maybe you've had trouble sustaining a story for more than a few turns; or maybe your stories quickly dissolve into strained banter - I'm here to help you generate a fun, sustainable, and maybe even meaningful game of SiD

This is a black box theatre type of set up...and you can play out a complete story just in this very basic mode of operation. --Jason Rohrer

It turns out that many of the tips and strategies we use in improvisational theatre work equally well playing SiD. No surprise, really. The game rewards collaboration, openness, imagination, a willingness to go where the scene wants to go - the very same essential characteristics shared by good improv actors.

With that in mind, I'll offer the following list of improv tips easily applicable to SiD (and many to life in general). Use them as you see fit. Don't think of them as rules. Think of them as road signs to guide your travels.

  1. The answer is YES. Saying no eliminates possibilities. (Player 1: "I saw your wife last night with another man." Bad Player 2: "I'm not married." Good Player 2: "Really? What was she wearing?")

  2. A Player needs 3 things: 1) A character who wants something. 2) A clearly defined situation, ideally with an inherent obstacle or conflict. 3) Strategies for getting what you want. The first must not change, the second may change, and the third must change.

  3. Accept and build. If your partner hands you a box, at some point in the scene that box must be opened.

  4. There are no wrong ideas. Even if an idea seems wrong, follow it until it leads to something better.

  5. Be honest. Don't try to be funny. Humor emerges from a truthful encounter with a situation. Jokes are usually a sign that the player has disengaged from the situation.

  6. Treat your partner as if every idea she offers is a gem.

  7. Listen for both the idea and the delivery. Sometimes how your partner says something will provoke you more than what he says. 

  8. Pay attention and stay in the now. The scene is always about this moment. Don't try to plan the next moment or steer the scene. The Controller, ironically, succeeds best by controlling least. Create an environment and a context, but avoid forcing an outcome.

  9. Hold all your planning ideas loosely in your hands. Be prepared to let go of them completely if the advancing scene urges you to do so. The 'storymind' will generate its own ideas, and you squelch them at the expense of the scene.

  10. Exposition is boring. Start in the middle of an unfolding situation. A: "Who are you?" B: "I'm the psychiatrist. Who are you?" = DEATH.

  11. Don't describe yourself. Let your choices and actions reveal you.

  12. Make the active choice. Talking is good, but doing is nearly always better. 

  13. Make the unusual choice. The road less traveled really can make all the difference.

If you'd like to learn more about improvisation, I recommend Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater and Halpern/Johnson's Truth in Comedy. Both are invaluable resources.

If you'd like to know more about Jason Rohrer and his thoughts on Sleep is Death, I recommend Chris Dahlen's terrific interview with Rohrer here.

Avatar improv

Spock_scotty_meld I believe Jason Rohrer stole his new game, Sleep is Death, from me. I can't prove anything, but I've got a pretty solid theory. I believe he performed some kind of Vulcan mind meld thing on me when I wasn't looking, possibly at a recent GDC, and he extracted a fully-formed game design straight out of the fiery yearning cauldron of my Id. 

How else to explain a game that fuses improvisational theatre and video games? How else to explain a game that exploits the interactive power of the medium in service of storytelling (actually, storycrafting)? I mean, seriously! What the heck have I been writing, teaching, and generally prattling on about for all these years? 

I wouldn't be surprised if the game's original title was Baseball is Death, but Rohrer changed it because, COME ON, then it would just be so obvious it was all my idea!

Okay, so maybe he didn't. Maybe I should give Rohrer the benefit of the doubt. After all, he's clearly one of the brightest minds making video games today. His "Beyond Single Player" presentation at GDC 09 was one of the most thoughtful talks on games I've heard. And, of course, his game Passage is perhaps the definitive title in the art-game movement. So, yeah, Rohrer probably didn't need any help from me to make Sleep is Death

But, in fact, he does need my help to make Sleep is Death meaningful. He needs your help too because SiD is less a game than a storycrafting device (tool? environment? engine?) for two people who collaboratively create a story, taking turns, with one person functioning as Player and the other as Controller. The Player responds to characters, environments, and objects created by the Controller, and the Controller responds to the actions or dialogue of the Player. In SiD, the intelligence on the other side of the screen isn't artificial at all; it's a person, ideally someone you know and in the same room with you.

And, actually, that Vulcan mind meld analogy isn't far off base. In a well-played game of SiD, two players join to create a 'storymind' that exists as a fusion of both players' thoughts and actions. One player hosts as the other probes, and each succeeds - so far as success can be measured in a game with no win state - by the degree to which each fuels the other's imagination. It's improv with avatars and a level/sprite editor. In the right hands, it's genius. In the wrong hands, it can be, well, less so. 

In my next post, I'll offer a few thoughts on how to improve your chances of avoiding 'less so.' Before I do, however, let me explain what I won't do. I won't suggest there's a single best way to play Sleep is Death. I won't insist on any predefined approach. 

Maybe you've had fun messing around with the game's Controller tools. Maybe you've waged a thrilling no-holds-barred insult hurling contest between you and a buddy. Fun is fun, and SiD can be played in all sorts of ways, so who am I to say you're doing it wrong?

What I will suggest is that SiD rewards, even insists on, a certain collaborative approach that's different from other co-op games. SiD relies, more than any video game I've played, on imaginative, improvisational actions and choices from both players. In my next post, I'll suggest a few simple things you can do to feed this dynamic process and make SiD sing.

A bigger small


I don't generally write about hardware, but today I can't help myself. Last week I bought a Nintendo DSi XL, and after a week of putting this PhatBoy through its paces, an unexpected love affair has blossomed between me and this marvelous piece of kit. Read on for all the smoochy details.

First, let me say that I won't recommend you abandon a perfectly good DSi for the new super-sized XL - even though that's exactly what I did. In terms of functionality, it brings almost nothing new to the table. Same control layout; same screen resolution; same processor; same twin cameras. The XL has a larger battery than the DSi (1050 mAh vs 840 mAh), which translated into approximately 15 hours of continuous operation for me.

The XL is bigger, and that's pretty much the whole story. But, for me, that difference makes all the difference. This is the best handheld game system I've ever played, and I've played just about all of them. (Sorry Watara Supervision, I never got around to you.) If you're an original DS or DS Lite owner considering an upgrade, you should definitely give the XL a look.

When I say 'give it a look' I mean get your hands on it and play it. I had no interest whatsover in this device until I saw one in the store. Even then, seeing a stack of XL boxes inside a locked case failed to break my stride. What finally piqued my curiosity was a salesperson asking me if I'd like to have a look at "the new GameBoy." I said yes, and he pulled a shiny burgundy XL out of his vest pocket. I flipped open the lid, turned on the unit, loaded up Zelda Spirit Tracks...and within 30 seconds I was sold.

I'm probably not the average DS owner. Portability (i.e. tucking a handheld in my pocket and playing on-the-go, on the bus, plane or train) isn't very important to me. At least 90% of my time playing handheld games, dating back to the original GameBoy in 1989, has been spent in a chair or on a sofa. I've never been interested in carrying a handheld on my person. If it fits in my shoulder bag, that's portable enough for me.

The DSi XL hits a perfect ergonomic sweet spot for me: small enough, but now big enough too. At 6.3-inches long and 3.6-inches wide, the device is taller and wider than previous DS models, but it's still less than an inch thin. More importantly, its 4.2-inch screen is 93 percent larger than the DS Lite's, and this is the difference you must see to appreciate. In recent days I've shown my XL to various friends and students, and their reactions typically arrive in two stages. First they see the device closed: "Hm"; then they open it and discover the two bright screens: "Wow!" 

Rhythm Heaven is exactly 52.3 percent easier to play on the XL thanks to the bigger screens. Okay, I'm just making up numbers, but certain games that require writing (Brain Age), note-taking (Spirit Tracks) or precision jumping (New Super Mario Bros) all similarly benefit from the extra real estate. Cell-shaded games like Chinatown Wars and The World Ends With You look better and brighter than ever.

Other games, like Nintendogs and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, appear slightly pixelated, and that's because the XL's screen runs at the same 256 x 192 resolution of previous DS models. Nintendo has increased the size of each pixel, so games that rely on antialiasing suffer a bit on the XL. The difference is slight, however, and most games show no degradation at all, as far as I can tell.

Audio volume and clarity are greatly improved on the XL. The pen-sized stylus feels far more comfortable, and the unit feels impressively solid in my hands. The screen is a bit brighter than the DSi's; but it's no iPhone, and the device is still essentially unplayable in sunlight. Wi-Fi remains wonky, as it has been throughout the DS life cycle, and some will consider the system overpriced ($20 more than the DSi).

But if you're a devoted Nintendo handheld gamer with a library of DS games you still enjoy playing, you should give the DSi XL a look. Or, better yet, a grip. Of course, you may wish to hold out for the recently-announced Nintendo 3DS, due to appear in North America a year from now. I'm curious about that one, but I expect by the time it appears, I won't regret my year-long romance with this little big sweetie.

Same as it ever was

You may find yourself living in a Pokémon preserve
And you may find yourself in another part of Johto
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a small Pokéwalker
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful Mom
And you my ask yourself - did I get here?**

PokewalkerIf there is one constant loop in the video game universe, it is this: Nintendo releases a Pokémon title; game sites make jokes about Nintendo's license to print money; reviewers rate the game 80+ but insist the next edition must offer something more/different/better; Nintendo releases another Pokémon game; the cycle repeats.

And so we arrive at Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver - essentially a remake and largely the same game we've been playing since 1998 - ranked as the highest-rated Pokémon title ever released. How does this happen?

It happens because we like chocolate ice cream. Once we discover we like chocolate ice cream (probably as kids), we can't be talked out of it. We like it, and that's all there is to it. Sure, we enjoy trying other flavors, and we know we can't live on ice cream alone. But when it comes to putting food in our mouths, we'd rather eat a delectable dish of chocolate ice cream than just about anything else available. Try to convince us we shouldn't like it so much, and we think you sound like a yammering killjoy.

Pokémon developer Game Freak is in the chocolate ice cream business, and years ago they discovered a foolproof way to keep us happy: preserve the basic recipe, but every 18 months or so, stir in a new ingredient to surprise us and subtly enhance the flavor. No overhauls; no substituting chocolate for butter brickle; no willy nilly dumping in M&Ms, cocoanut, gummi bears, and rainbow sprinkles. Just a little stir-in to help us pay attention to the difference; to savor the enhancement rather that sort through a mouthful of colliding new flavors. 

Importantly, the chocolate ice cream always remains the allure, even when they ever-so-subtly improve the recipe with better ingredients, and even when they move it from a dish to a fancy new DS cone (DS meaning 'double scoop,' of course).

We don't simply enjoy Pokémon. We're attached to its universe, and that process begins from the moment we press our noses against the glass of the locked game cabinet at Target. Our first moment with a new Pokémon game is defined by a choice. 'Which one will be mine?' We know there's precious little difference between Gold and Silver, Diamond and Pearl, or Red and Blue - and yet we deliberate. As evidence that this choice is, in fact, substantive for plenty of gamers, consider that as of this writing, Pokémon HeartGold is currently #3 on Amazon's Video Game bestseller list, and Pokémon SoulSilver is #16.

From there our engagement grows, as almost everything we see and do in a Pokémon game tracks to a system of attachment. We learn to nurture these quirky creatures. When we capture them (and some are tricky to snare), we're offered the chance to give each a nickname. We protect them; we teach them; we help them grow; we give them gifts; and we keep a close eye on their health and happiness - all over the course of many hours, many hard-won battles, and many transformative maturations. 

Is it possible we're teaching our kids useful lessons in reasoning, math, and reading when we let them play Pokémon? Is it possible we might even learn a few lessons in parenting? 

And now, with Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver, we can stroll with these pocket our pockets. We've always enjoyed the portability of Pokémon games, but the new Pokéwalker gadget adds a clever new dimension that feels much more purposeful. We extract a single creature out of the game, board him on a little red and white disc, and take him with us wherever we go. Why? Because it's good for him. Because it makes him happy. 

Today I will teach my classes certain in the knowledge that I'm the only member of the Wabash College faculty with a Quilava happily leveling up in my pocket. It'll be our little secret. At the end of the day I plan to sit down and enjoy another big tasty scoop of chocolate ice cream.

**Sorry Mr. Byrne. I won't let this happen again.

A dark cave


This is the second of two posts on Cave Story. You can read the first one here.

Cave Story is a masquerade. It poses as a charming retro sidescroller featuring a plucky robot boy and a race of bunny-like creatures called Mimigas. Built over a period of five years by a soft-spoken indie developer nicknamed Pixel - who cites his greatest reward from the game's success as "I'm looking forward to my wife becoming more interested in my game creations," - Cave Story has 'feel-good' written all over it. Six years after its release as freeware, Cave Story has reemerged on Nintendo's family-friendly box, dressed up with a graphic makeover that renders those cuddly Mimigas more adorable than ever.

Let none of this fool you. Cave Story is a bloodbath. This apparently modest little game tells the story of a wizard subjected to horrific torture and driven to madness, who finally burns down his kingdom and murders his wife and children. Cave Story is about engineered genocide. It's about a race of humans destroying foreign villages from afar with robotic devices. It's about victimized people willing to make themselves killing machines if it increases their chances of defeating the enemy. Cave Story features a central character named Misery.

Storytelling aside, there is nothing little or modest about Cave Story. Pixel's immaculate levels present challenge after challenge, invite playful exploration, and reward a variety of strategies. Something about these levels feels perfect, as if every block was carefully set in place with a clearly defined purpose.

The shattered egg corridor is a model of inspired design. You return to an area you've visited before, but transformed and full of new enemies. Giant bugs shoot dual energy balls and follow you through walls. Dragon zombies hurl fire; stalactites fall from above; narrow winding paths require careful attention, and precision platforming is a must.

Each of these enemies (and many others throughout the game) emerge naturally from the storytelling. The dragons are zombies because they failed to hatch from their eggs properly, due to all the harmful activity surrounding them. Various weapons and methods can be effective, even in boss fights, so you rarely play "guess what the designer was thinking" in Cave Story. Progress is linear, but your strategy for overcoming each level needn't be, and each opened area may be revisited and further explored.

If you wish to play through the entire game using only the original weapon you receive at the beginning, you can. If you wish  to play without saves, restoring health only through resting, you can. It's possible to complete the shattered egg level all the way to the boss without killing a single enemy. Possible, I said. Not easy.

Possible because Cave Story is so perfectly balanced. It offers a stiff challenge to experienced players, especially if you unlock the Sacred Ground; it's chock-full of secret areas and goodies to satisfy collectors and completionists; and it ramps up in difficulty so gradually, doling out new weapons and power-ups at just the right pace, that diligent newcomers can gain their footing and progress.

Balance only matters if a game plays well, and Cave Story controls like a dream. Your character (named 'Quote') leaps, glides, and lands no less elegantly than those who dwell in the Mushroom Kingdom. Weapons are responsive, easy to use, and often multifunctional. The machine gun, for example, can enable Quote to float when it's fired pointed down. Every inch of this game, from controls to art style to sound design, is polished with a high-gloss sheen.

Cave Story contains three very different endings. We like replay value, and this game offers it in spades, but Cave Story's endings function as more than replay incentives. Choosing one - the easiest and, consequently, most destructive - denies me roughly half the game. Another path offers peace and redemption, but in this murderous world, such a conclusion is incredibly difficult to achieve. Given the story this game tells, that seems right to me.

If you reach the Sacred Ground (a secret area at the end of the game), you will meet the tortured wizard Ballos, the man who gazed upon the spectacle of his loved ones dying...and laughed. He is waiting for you. Final bosses are always waiting for us, but this one feels at once familiar and different. Ballos longs to be released from the horror of his existence. "Long, long have I waited… Waited for the one who would finally subdue my magic’s fury… Now, kill me! Or I-- shall kill you!!”

What ensues is a battle I have yet to win, but I'm determined to find my way. A fitting end to a game that draws us into a brilliant, chimerical, but ultimately very dark cave.