Previous month:
September 2010
Next month:
November 2010

October 2010

Zombies invade Culver City!


Earlier this month I attended IndieCade, a festival devoted to independent games, mainly out of curiosity. Next year I'll attend it as a must-do event. If you're interested in new games and the people who make them, mark these dates on your calendar: October 6-9, 2011. That's when the next IndieCade will be held in galleries, bars, cafés, and theaters throughout Culver City, on the west side of L.A. If you want a first-hand look at artistry, innovation, and creative collegiality in the indie game community, IndieCade is your ticket.

IndieCade bills itself as a conference and a festival, and it makes good on both promises. I'm a huge fan of the Independent Games Festival held annually at GDC in San Francisco. Simon Carless deserves enormous credit for his ongoing effort to shine a bright light on indie devs and their work. Unfortunately, three rows of game stations, tightly packed together, each hosted by designers shouting over the din of a noisy exhibition hall - well, it ain't exactly a festive festival.

Don't get me wrong. IGF is an amazing showcase, and its sublimely awkward awards ceremony is one of my favorite events at GDC. It's great to see so much promising talent on one show floor; but I always seem to walk away with a headache and a sense that my impressions of these games are derived from bullet-point summaries delivered by shell-shocked designers trying their best to accommodate so many curious visitors. 

Fade out. Iris in on Culver City: a municipality with a law on the books requiring all public and commercial buildings to display public art. A town at the intersection of art and commerce since Thomas Ince built the first film studio there in 1918. When IndieCade relocated from Seattle to Culver City in 2009, organizers clearly saw an opportunity to host a festival devoted to games in a community accustomed to celebrating creativity. And IndieCade, I can happily report, occupies some funky Culver City locales.

For example, one morning I attended a session devoted to ARGs on the second floor of the Foshay Lodge, a Masonic Temple built in 1928 (click here to see photos, including 'Brother Chris simulating the antique Chamber of Reflection').

This session was followed by a fascinating talk on Minimalism held in a black box theater that's home to The Actors Gang (an outstanding renegade theater company); followed by a talk on Indie Funding Models at a restaurant/bar called Rush Street several blocks away. Over the weekend, IndieCade spread out to include playable game displays at nearby art galleries, a bakery, and even the Culver City Fire Station.

It must be difficult to organize an event that captures the spirit and non-corporate vibe of the indie game scene without fencing it in somehow. This year's co-chairs, Rich Lemarchand and John Sharp, deserve credit for encouraging spontaneity and leaving room for a little messiness in the flow of events. Conference sessions ran on time for the most part, but the festival aspects of IndieCade developed their own flavor and energy.

For example, on Saturday I was walking back to my hotel when I found myself unexpectedly surrounded by two cadres of Humans vs Zombies players warily eyeing each other on opposite sides of Culver Blvd. "You'd better get out of here," a 20-something Zombie-player warned me. "This is gonna get ugly very soon." I hustled out of the way, and moments later a Zombie assault on the streets of Culver City commenced. It was a sight to see. The next day I ran into one of the players at the Fire Station and asked her how it turned out. "You don't want to know," she replied. "Let's just say I wasn't wearing this Zombie headband yesterday."

IndieCade succeeds because it offers a uniquely receptive venue and a shrewd mix of programmed and free-flow events that showcase exciting work and explore ideas. If you care about indie games and the community fostering them, I encourage you to check out IndieCade. The other attendees will be happy to greet you...and consume your tender human flesh.

Riffing on the flagpole


Grab an umbrella, it's raining platformers. A left-to-right moving system has stalled over game-land, and more side-scrolling adventures are in the forecast; so put a log on the fire, brew some tea, and settle in for the next downpour. 

As for me, I'll walk down the lane with a happy refrain...singin', just singin' in the rain. :-)

Some people claim this wave of 2D platfomers - especially the recent deluge from indie devs - signals creative stagnation in game design. They say games like Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and Kirby's Epic Yarn feed gamers' nostalgia, but do little to advance design beyond mixing in stylish visuals, gameplay tweaks, and self-aware homages. 

I say they're wrong. I say we're witnessing an exhilarating burst of collective creativity among designers, drawing inspiration from video games' richest mine. If you love side-scrollers, this is the best time to be a gamer since the end of the 16-bit era. We're in the midst of a platforming renaissance, and that's a thing to celebrate.

Platformers are our purest gaming expression. Unlike shooters, strategy, or sports games, they draw from no real-life analogue. Their inherent absurdity defines them. We jump and glide and bounce for no useful reason other than the playful thrill of doing it. We reach the flagpole and we're rewarded with...another flagpole. Traversing the Mushroom Kingdom is a psychedelic trip because making logical sense of such a world takes all the fun out of it.    

Designers continue making platformers for the same reason musicians continue recording versions of Body and Soul or 'Round Midnight. Platformers are our jazz: original creations built on a foundation of well-built standards. Familiar, but evergreen; invigorated by the vision of artists who breathe new, personal life into songs we've heard a thousand times.

What is Super Meat Boy if not a medley: a torrid bebop riff on a catalog of great side-scrollers? It's a game rendered through the vision of designers who see the platformer not simply as a genre, but as an idiom. SMB (see what they did there?) isn't just an amalgam of tribute levels; it's a twisted, comic, self-reflexive expression of love.

As long as I'm playing this analogy, I may as well play it out. Miyamoto is our Louis Armstrong. Ornette Coleman is Mega Man; Dizzy Gillespie is Sonic; Billie Holliday is Castlevania; Viewtiful Joe is Chick Corea; and Braid is our Kind of Blue. I just finished Kirby's Epic Yarn (which I adore and will write about soon), and I can't help feeling the sweetness and fluidity of my favorite jazz pianist, Bill Evans.

I know it's silly to make such transmedia connections. They're tenuous and strained. I share them because they help convey the sense of recognition I experience when I play these recent games. From a design perspective, Kirby's Epic Yarn is a 2D wonderland of imaginative world-building, but I rarely play games 'from a design perspective." When I play the new Kirby game, I'm transported to a familiar place that feels like home - but that home has received an extreme aesthetic makeover, and I'm eager to tour every room and experience what these clever artists have done to the place.

Creativity is rarely about pure invention. We all use the same materials. Good artists understand the value of "re-" - as in re-examine, re-imagine, re-purpose, and revitalize. This is the place of intersection for artists across media. It's why I believe there's no fundamental difference between Nicklas Nygren's (aka Nifflas) concept of immaculate simplicity and Miles Davis'. They both ask formal questions about style and structure, and their answers are remarkably similar.

What? Do I dare compare an obscure game designer to one of the great jazz artists of all time? That question bores me.

Layers are added (Another World / Thelonious Monk) or stripped away (VVVVVV / Modern Jazz Quartet). Chord progressions and melody lines; rules and game mechanics - each can be subtly altered or thoroughly overhauled. If the artist makes it swing, we don't ask why. We just play it.

Vintage Game Club - Planescape: Torment


At some point in nearly every conversation about storytelling in games, someone will reference Planescape: Torment. At the very mention of the title, clouds open, angels sing, and we wistfully ponder why so many games released in the intervening decade have failed to match its narrative greatness. Kieron Gillen at Rock Paper Shotgun calls PS:T "as close as we've come to the videogame equivalent of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsy...and worthy of real literary consideration." Heck, I've waxed philosophic on the game myself.

PS:T is awesomeness, gameified. It is your father, Luke. It stands at the summit of a mountain few games have climbed. ... Too much? Yeah, probably. 

So why all the effusive praise for a game that failed to generate big sales or critical interest when it was released? Have we created a critic's darling that's fashionable to talk about, but no longer fun to play? Can an 11-year-old isometric Advanced Dungeons & Dragons RPG speak to modern players? Is it possible for a game to improve with age?

Now is your chance to answer those questions for yourself by examining (or revisiting) Planescape: Torment in the company of friendly folks who enjoy playing and discussing older games together. You're invited to join us at the Vintage Game Club for our collective playthrough, which begins tomorrow.

Good Old Games has re-released PS:T in a DRM-free version that runs well on modern PCs. If you already own a boxed version of the game, that will work too. We'll be happy to help you get whatever version you own running on your system. We can also help you install widescreen and UI mods if you're interested in those.

We all have busy lives, so the VGC is a no-pressure environment. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games. All are welcome!

The Vintage Game Club

Far to go


"...the heartbeat of Medal of Honor has always resided in the reverence for American and Allied soldiers." --Greg Goodrich, executive producer, Medal of Honor

Much of the critical response to the new Medal of Honor game has focused on its specificity. Unlike other modern war games set in near-future Middle-East environments (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare) or fictional places like "Zekistan" (Full Spectrum Warrior), MOH clearly communicates its contemporary setting. 

The game takes place during the early stages of the U.S. Special Forces invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the brouhaha over EA's removal of the "Taliban" label from MOH's multiplayer mode, the single-player campaign contains no such ambiguity. Alternating among four different character perspectives, the player takes the fight - raiding hideouts, rescuing hostages, operating helicopters and ATVs - directly to the enemy; and that enemy is the Taliban and, later in the game, Al-Qaeda.

EA has also made much of MOH's authenticity. The publisher hired consultants from the U.S. military to help its designers more accurately depict infantry soldier combat, and the game's missions are intended to simulate those issued in real-life warfare. The fleeting but unmistakable reference to 9/11 in the game's opening sequence leaves no room for doubt. This game will attempt to tell the truth. As a PR rep from EA put it, "Medal of Honor is set in today's war putting players in the boots of today's soldiers."[1]

Ironically, EA's decision to avoid ambiguity ultimately disables Medal of Honor's narrative and impairs the game's authenticity. MOH's refusal to address complexity (or go anywhere near it); its saccharine deification of the American soldier; and its persistent refusal to allow the player to think for himself, neuter what might have been a powerful interactive experience. 

And that's a shame, because MOH leaves so many possibilities unexplored: the strategic improv required when intel fails to match reality on the ground; the tension between 'liberator' and 'occupier'; the distinctive personalities of soldiers who make mistakes, experience fear, and exhibit human frailty; the reality that non-combatants and displaced civilians are ever-present factors in Afghanistan, despite their complete absence in this game.

EA's effort to get it right is laudable, I suppose, but in the end, they punted. Medal of Honor is yet another formulaic war game: a typical good vs. evil FPS; a vainglorious celebration of American exceptionalism wrapped in 'war is hell' portentousness. It's a shame because this Medal of Honor - a war game about a real ongoing war - could have been a game changer.  

In his Ars Technica review, Ben Kuchera calls MOH "a love letter to the armed forces," and I can't think of a better description. Compassionate soldiers and mindful officers take every precaution to ensure each target is a "bad guy." Without exception, every battle in the game is preceded by clear assurances that all targets are enemies. No Afghan civilians die in this game because Afghan civilians don't exist in this game.

And so we watch Taliban fighters tote rocket launchers out of caves, assemble them, and, lest any doubt remain about their evil intentions, load them with grenades before finally receiving the go-ahead to kill them. Intercom orders repeatedly remind us "We are engaging combatants only!"

These elite force soldiers are humane warriors, going out of their way to remove an Afghan goat shepherd from danger seconds before combat begins. An innocent hostage is spared when the game slo-mos a gunfight, enabling us to pick off the bad guys without hitting the good guy. 

Of course, mistakes are made and soldiers die, but not because of anything resembling fallibility in the Afghanistan-stationed military. No, it's a clueless suit in Washington (a blowhard General named "Flagg," looking, oddly, like a burn victim) who barks misguided orders at the boys at Bagram, forcing our heroes to embark on dangerous missions with random time limits against great odds. When good soldiers die in Medal of Honor, it's because politicians and career-minded Generals in far-away offices don't know how to fight a war. Our men and women in uniform do their duty and pay the price, which only heightens their nobility.

The pre-release controversy over MOH centered on concerns about playable Taliban, issues of free speech, and perceived insensitivity to real-life soldiers and their families. Those concerns were genuine, but misplaced, in my view. The greater insult to the men and women who have fought the longest war in U.S. history is EA's refusal or inability to depict them as skillfully as the weapons they wield.

Critics who decry EA for making a game out of a bloody current event have a point. MOH treats its soldiers like video game characters - sympathetic, courageous, self-sacrificing heroes to be sure - but 2-dimensional video game characters nonetheless. Characters in games needn't be so simplistic, of course; but most games don't know that.

Midway through MOH a soldier is heard to say "At least we're gonna make it farther than the Russians did." Perhaps, but they're a long way from winning a war that may ultimately prove unwinnable. Maybe EA's effort to put us "in the boots of today's soldiers" treads farther than previous games, and maybe that effort will prove valuable in the long run. For now, Medal of Honor suggests we still have far to go.

All about the Journey


At IndieCade on Saturday, Jenova Chen and Robin Hunicke discussed their work on Journey, the follow-up (due in 2011) to thatgamecompany's superlative Flower. If you're a regular visitor here, you already know about my unbounded affection for that game. Needless to say, I was especially keen to hear Chen (Creative Director) and Hunicke (Producer) present a work-in-progress report on their newest creation. 

If you're not familiar with Journey, it's a game in which players meet and travel with strangers through a vast landscape. The game purposely omits voice and text chat, so players must communicate in other ways. Because Journey bears few similarities to other games, media coverage has tended to focus on its visuals, which often elicit comparisons to Fumito Ueda's Shadow of the Colossus. Chen and Hunicke acknowledge the influence, but Journey is a very different sort of game.

Hunicke began by articulating TGC's "AAA" design philosophy dating back to Flow. TGC wants to create games that are Abstract, Artistic, and Accessible. "Humans have a broad emotional palette," she said. "Games are good at accessing a small part of that palette." Journey is an attempt to widen that emotional appeal by changing the way people play together in a virtual space.

Social play
Jenova-chen "I'm the kind of guy who likes to think big at the beginning," declared Chen, who went on to explain why he has recently spent so much time thinking about the social dimension of games. Entertainment, he noted, can usually be mapped to one of three spaces: Intellectual, Emotional, and Social.

The social aspect of games has grown increasingly important for designers; but in Chen's view, multiplayer modes often feel "tacked on." We spend a lot of time in 3D multiplayer games "looking at our partner's ass." Social play facilitates combat in many games, but communication in these games is generally limited to utilitarian responses like "Headshot!" and "I need health!"

"If we want to do something else, we must rethink from the ground up," noted Chen. "We're trying to make a game in which 'social' becomes the core mechanic." TGC's aim with Journey is to create a space for communication that goes beyond how to defeat, kill, or win. That means raising the stakes on human to human interaction and making such communication feel fun and meaningful to the player.

Chen and his team experimented with a variety of communication options, but hardware issues limited his choices. Many PS3 owners aren't equipped for voice or text chat. "So we decided to go with no text and no voice. No words." This constraint ultimately helped define the nature of the project.

Robinhunicke2 Pilgrimage
Hunicke described TGC's early concepts for Journey: "A sense of wonder about the unknown. A sense of awe about an environment. Somewhere you feel very small." She noted that Chen's early work was about pilgrimage - making a journey that others have made before you. The designers wanted to explore the feeling of togetherness between people facing daunting environmental situations. "We talked about monsters. ...We were influenced by Chinese dragons. We talked about killing enormous monsters...but then we realized that was Shadow of the Colossus. (Laughter)"

The team explored (and rejected) many scenarios designed to make the player feel small or vulnerable: hiding until a monster passes; building a shelter against a giant sandstorm; collaboratively climbing to reach great heights. They tested these ideas by building a 2D prototype game called Dragon, and they invited individual players to try it out. "We had people play the game, but we didn't tell them the other characters were controlled by real people."

Lessons from Dragon
Dragon taught the designers valuable lessons, and it refocused their approach. "It became too easy for players to stop caring about each other," observed Chen. "As soon as they were able to, players began pushing each other into the pit." While it served as an interesting experiment in player behavior and emergent gameplay, this was not the game Chen wanted to make. He began thinking about how to deliver feedback that would guide the player toward different behaviors without steering him or her too much.

"If you want to teach players not to do something, you don't need to smack them. You need to give them zero feedback." Negative feedback, Chen explained, is no less stimulating than positive feedback, especially as it relates to game design. Much of TGC's work on Journey has been focused on designing feedback that supports the game's ethos without dictating the player's behavior.

For example, the designers experimented with a karma system (enthusiastically supported by Sony marketing), which would have allowed gifting from player to player. "But we killed it," stated Chen. "Players would exploit it, and it feels too preachy. ...We want players to feel karma from their actions, but we don't want to lead them by the nose."

Dragon imparted other lessons, according to Hunicke. "It's not cool to design a game where everyone must repeat what everyone else does." Players must be able to succeed on their own and also with others. The downside of such flexibility is that it introduces tremendous complexity to the design. If every puzzle or problem must accommodate multiple play styles, things get very complicated. Journey, it was decided, would accommodate two players.

Journeytall Journey is not a co-op game
At this point Chen made an important distinction. "Most co-op games are forced collaborations. You have no choice. ...Journey is not like that. Journey is not a co-op game or a 2-player game. It's a game you play together or by yourself." "The game must allow you to maintain your own identity," Hunicke added, "We need to offer the possibility to engage or disengage from shared activities. This way collaboration will be truly genuine." 

Chen stated that development on Journey has required an inordinate amount of time addressing camera issues. "The feeling of seeing each other from great distances is very cool, but also very hard to do in a game. It's way too easy to lose track of each other." The team continues to explore ways of addressing this, including "tuning the shout" - the game's system (triggered by the circle button) for helping players locate each other when they've exited each other's visual frame.

Journey will encourage players to join each other; but if a collaboration doesn't work, the game will allow players to separate and find someone else, or go it alone. Chen and Hunicke were purposely vague about details, but it appears the game will utilize a system that dynamically responds to players joining and disbanding without exiting the world or calling up a menu.

Thesis statements
The team at TGC likes to craft thesis statements for their games, and they rely on the pre-production and development periods to test a game's fidelity to its thesis. Their original thesis for Journey was "Together we can move the mountain." As the game evolved, this was later replaced by "We all walk the path; each journey is different." "It sounds a little religious, but we like it," said Hunicke.

Nevertheless, it doesn't quite capture the game they're making. What thesis statement best describes Journey now? "We have a philosophy that we don't reveal the thesis of our games," Hunicke noted. "We're converging on what that is, but we want players to discover what they think it is for themselves."

Big responsibility 
As for game mechanics, Chen noted that players tend to get obsessed with resources, especially if those resources make you powerful. He's tying to create mechanics that avoid causing jealousy between players. "True collaboration is hard. Collaborating because you want to, not because you're forced to; not because you're trying to slay a monster, but just because it feels good. Very hard." The design challenge for Chen and Kunicke is clear: how to design dynamics that will make the player feel rewarded for such collaboration, without the standard bag of goodies (XP, treasure, weapon upgrades, etc.) games routinely rely on.   

Finally, in the Q&A following the presentation, Chen responded to the question: "How do you (or should you) control a player's ethics? Chen replied emphatically: "When you create a world, you create a value system for that world. This is a big responsibility. ...We are engineering people's behavior, but we don't want to be preachy. It's a very hard balance to strike."

Headed to IndieCade

Logo_menu_indiecade I'm on my way to Los Angeles for IndieCade, a festival and conference the LA Times calls "the video game industry's Sundance." It's three days of presentations, panel discussions, and informal conversations featuring indie game makers, industry pros, journalists, and critics.

IndieCade is highlighted by one special event that distinguishes it from other indie game gatherings: the Game Walk. Here's how the festival organizers describe it:

Spend the weekend wandering in and out of galleries and cafés throughout downtown Culver City, playing games and meeting game creators. The crowned jewel of the festival, 32 finalist games will be installed for hands-on gameplay at multiple gallery locations, as well as many other games and gameplay experiences at more than a dozen locations. Plan to spend many hours engaged in riveting gameplay. The Game Walk is FREE and open to the public.

I was initially interested in IndieCade, but hesitant to make the cross-country trek. The impressive list of games piqued my interest, but it was the Game Walk that sealed the deal for me. Strolling through galleries and cafés playing games and meeting their creators? I'm on that like a duck on a junebug.

Stay tuned. I'll report here on the games I play and people I meet at IndieCade. In the meantime, you can learn more about the festival here, and peruse the full schedule here.

Happy gaming!

Impotent narrative

Birth-by-sleep-ss-01  Eo3

In the early 1920s a Soviet filmmaker named Dziga Vertov denounced classical Hollywood narrative as "impotent." He believed motion pictures should sever their formal ties to theater and literature (which he saw as mindless immersion) and develop a language all its own - one that leverages the unique powers of film to do more than simply make audiences forget they are watching a film.

We can see the impact of Vertov's ideas on cinéma vérité in the 1960s and in the work of other non-representational styles of filmmaking. But if we look broadly at the history of motion pictures, it's fair to say his ideas have been largely ignored. Most mainstream Hollywood films released today don't stray far from the filmmaking D.W. Griffith perfected nearly 100 years ago - a model Noël Burch called the "institutional model of representation"[1]:

  • Characters are depicted realistically, with a progressive character arc.
  • Stories are told linearly with a clear dramatic arc.
  • Every effort is made preserve spatial and temporal continuity (i.e. "invisible style")

Fast forward, and the narrative debate continues, but now the locus is video games. I've often been struck when I hear designers and critics talk about authored narrative, non-linear design, and emergent gameplay that we're essentially having the same conversations filmmakers and theorists like Eisenstein, Vertov, Bazin, and Burch explored throughout the early to mid-20th century.

It's not exactly the same, of course. Direct player control and interactivity add a dimension Vertov could never have imagined. To his credit, though, Vertov (and especially Kuleshov who followed in his footsteps) understood that a viewer constructs meaning by processing a series of juxtaposed images on his own, and their observations presage some of the possibilities inherent in games.

What we're talking about is how games can best provide a meaningful narrative experience for players, which is a different and more interesting question than simply "how can games tell stories?"

The important distinction between those two questions recently became clearer to me when I played two new games released last month: Etrian Odyssey III and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

Contrast these quotes from reviewers about Etrian Odyssey III...

  • "There's little to no story in Etrian Odyssey III..." --Destructoid
  • "Bare-bones storyline provides little impetus." --Gamespot
  • "You command a group of explorers...which is about as deep as the story goes." --GameZone

...with these quotes about Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep:

  • "...bold storytelling approach..." --Game Informer
  • " of the most ambitious storytelling devices yet." --IGN
  • "The ambitious storytelling works unexpectedly well." --Level Magazine

Such reactions left me scratching my head because my own experience of story and engagement with these games were quite the opposite. KH:BbS struck me as a muddled mess of storytelling and stylistic incongruities - a narrative filled with characters for whom I felt no attachment. EO3, on the other hand, had me on the edge of my seat for many hours, deeply invested in the lives of its characters, driven to explore its world, and immersed in the fiction of both.

I guess it depends on how you define "story."

[large][AnimePaper]scans_Etrian-Odyssey_Rid(0.61)__THISRES__117102 If we examine why we care about stories and characters, it's mostly about investment. Emotional attachment, empathy, feeling connected, caring about outcomes. These two RPGs present very different methods of hooking the player and eliciting concern and attachment. One succeeds because it leverages the player's motivated, explorative, self-driven experience; the other fails because it relies on a hackneyed, disjointed "epic" plotting (told in 3 separate plot-lines via cutscenes) with incongruous settings and 2-dimensional characters.

One succeeds because its formal systems directly feed the player's connection to the world and characters; the other fails because its formal systems bear no discernible relationship to the stories the game wants to tell.

You will hear people describe EO3 as an "old-school" RPG; a hardcore throwback dungeon crawler for the roguelike set. KH:BbS, on the other hand, is a stylish action-based RPG with big production values and all the Square-Enix trimmings. It's a full-scale Kingdom Hearts game squeezed onto a handheld system, which is seen by some as a kind of miracle.

I won't dispute these characterizations. EO3 isn't a game for everyone, and I don't presume that if it's not your cup of tea, you're less of a gamer than me (although I do hope you'll give it a try). I understand this sort of game has seen its day.

But I think it's worth considering how a game like EO3 integrates all its elements so effectively. Atlus promoted EO3 with the tagline, "In Etrian Odyssey III, there are as many stories as there are players," and that's an accurate claim. You form a guild and investigate rumors of a sunken city in the Yggdrasil labyrinth. Depending on how you play and what you choose to focus on, you may or may not uncover what happened.

Forming different parties creates different narratives and different outcomes. If you bring a Farmer with you, he'll wish to pursue different objectives than the Arbalist, and you'll encounter different things. We talk a lot about "choice" in games and making choices "meaningful." This game delivers on both. Halfway through EO3, decisions that once felt merely strategic begin to feel more personal than that. The stakes grow higher. It's possible to grow close to your characters in this game, even though they never say a word.

Yes, EO3 is old-school. You draw your own maps on the DS' lower screen, and you explore dungeons with foes that will shred you if you're not prepared. Speaking with townspeople will offer valuable gameplay hints, but aside from these interactions, you're on your own.

More interesting than the fact that you must draw your own maps is the question of why you must draw them. The answer is simple: investment. You care about EO3's environments not simply because they're the places you fight monsters and find treasures. You care because you uncover them, square by square, as you go: locating shortcuts and hidden passages; mapping the world to gain advantage over your foes. It sounds difficult, but it isn't. Cartography in EO3 couldn't be simpler. Draw a good map, and you'll survive or even thrive; draw bad maps, and you're dead.

Spot_etrianodyssey-11 You build your characters from distinct classes, each specializing in specific abilities. You must spend your skill points wisely. If you aren't careful, you can waste them. Why does the game handle skill points in this way? Once again, investment.

EO3 doesn't try to keep your attention by doling out backstory and plot twists. You're glued to your characters because they're your babies - evolving works-in-progress that you must wisely and patiently help along if they are to reach their full potentials. It's not paint-by-numbers. Classes can be played differently depending on how you spend your skill points. It's in your hands. There is no single right choice, but you can make plenty of wrong ones. Sort of like life.

The stories that emerge from EO3 are inevitably personal, harrowing, even thrilling. I can think of no better example of what this looks like than Jeremy Parish's beautiful essay on playing Etrian Odyssey. Here's a snippet, but I urge you to take the time to read the whole thing. Read it and then see if you think "there's little to no story in Etrian Odyssey III."

The essence of the game is found in the tension between the dungeon, which must be mapped, and the player’s guild, which must be defined. At the outset of the journey, you’re given the digital equivalent of thirty sheets of graph paper, 20 character slots, and a wish for good luck... EO does not deign to hold your hand, nor does it want you to win. Yet neither does it want you to lose. It’s entirely neutral, a labyrinth riddled with hazards that demand the player’s guild to excel and strategize and really think about how it wants to develop. Failure is met with decisive defeat and daunting setbacks. Success is its own reward.

In Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, the player travels through familiar Disney-themed locales, battling the Darkness and triggering cutscenes to advance the plot. One alternates from action battle sequences to walking about Cinderella's Castle listening to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo. If it sounds like I'm trivializing the game and its story...well, I guess I am. Here's a typical sequence from the game. See for yourself.

It's worth thinking about how we might translate EO3's design values into future games in other genres. Etrian Odyssey III can't match KH:BbS's visuals, high production values, or familiar characters; but as a vehicle for delivering a richly satisfying personalized story, it leaves Mickey, Maleficent, and Cinderella in the dust. Etrian Odyssey III has been broadly characterized as a backward looking RPG, but if you want to see regressive design in a modern package, I say you're looking at the wrong game.