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April 2011

Get up!


When I was a kid, my mother used to say, "Go play!" - which always meant two things: 1) she needed a break from us; and 2) it was time for us to go outside and find something fun to do.

These days, many of us translate "Go play," to mean "sit down," and that's become quite a problem. If your life is anything like mine, you probably spend six to eight hours each day sleeping and 30-60 minutes being active (walking, exercising, etc.). That leaves 15 hours for everything else. So what do you do with all that time? 

I sat down (irony) yesterday and crunched the numbers for myself, and here's what I discovered. When I add the time I spend at my computer (writing, corresponding, and doing work-related tasks) to the time I spend commuting, eating, reading, and playing games, I typically spend 12 (sometimes even 14) of those 15 hours sitting. That's not good, and here's why.

A recent study at the University of South Carolina considered adult men and their risk of dying from heart disease. In a nutshell, the study indicates that sitting a lot can mean dying sooner.

The study shows that men who were sedentary more than 23 hours per week had a 64% greater risk of dying from heart disease - even if they routinely exercised - than those who reported 11 or fewer hours a week of sedentary activity. These numbers suggest that regular uninterrupted sedentary behavior may be even riskier than smoking.

A sedentary lifestyle can also be a risk factor for diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and obesity.[1][2] In other words, if you spend long periods each day in your chair without moving, you're asking for a world of trouble.

I should know. In 2008 I developed a painful compressed disc in my neck that required months of physical therapy to cure. It was caused by a combination of prolonged periods at my computer, poor posture, and one other major factor.

Do you remember 2008? Do you remember Fallout 3, GTA IV, Far Cry 2, LittleBigPlanet, No More Heroes, Left 4 Dead, World of Goo, Persona 4, and Burnout Paradise? I do and so does my neck. I was a gaming maniac in 2008, and nearly all my recreation that year occurred sitting on my butt. And I paid the price.

So what can you do? Easy. Take breaks. A recent study at the University of Queensland, Australia, showed the importance of "avoiding prolonged uninterrupted periods of sedentary (primarily sitting) time," and recommended taking regular breaks to walk, stretch, or otherwise get up and move.

The study reported that "increased breaks in sedentary time were beneficially associated with waist circumference, BMI, triglycerides, and 2-h plasma glucose." Even one-minute mini-breaks, once an hour throughout the day, can make a difference. The point is to use your big muscles to remind them not to shut down, which they're prone to do when you sit in a chair for hours at a time. 

Apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, and iOS can remind you to take a break at intervals you determine (sounds crazy, I know, but I need help remembering). And you can always do little things like play Portal 2 standing up and perform a little wiggle dance at every loading screen. Or something. You're a gamer. You can do this. Use your imagination. Just get up!

FYI, I recommend Patti Neighmond's recent report on NPR, which inspired this post and includes tips on "beating the cubicle trap."

"You can smell the paper."

I promised in my last post to share Chris Dahlen's talk at Wabash College yesterday, and here it is. Chris (Editor in Chief and co-founder of Kill Screen Magazine) discusses writing about games, launching a new print magazine, and he offers advice to aspiring writers. At the end he answers questions from the audience.

I'm tremendously grateful to Chris for traveling to our tiny spot on the map and discussing his work with our students, faculty, and staff. He was immensely gracious with his time and energy, and he made a very positive impression. When the President of the College (decidedly not a gamer) requests a copy of the magazine - and proceeds to actually read it - a positive and encouraging exchange is happening.

FYI, Chris' slides aren't visible in the video, but you can download them here. I hope you enjoy.

Chris' PowerPoint slides.

The robot cometh

Savetherobot Precisely three years ago today, I interviewed Chris Dahlen on my podcast. I had never met or spoken to him before - heck, I was still figuring out how to do a decent interview back then - so I was surprised and delighted that he agreed to do the show. 

We spoke for an hour and covered a wide range of topics. Chris was charming and thoughtful, and I remember feeling happy about how well we hit if off. We said goodbye, I logged off Skype, and it suddenly hit me: I had forgotten to hit the record button. Our entire conversation was lost.

I had small meltdown, and my wife said, "Why not just call him back?" I said I felt humiliated, but she insisted, so I rang up Chris again on Skype and explained my screw-up. "No problem. Let's do it again," he replied. And so we did.

And so began my friendship with Chris Dahlen and my continuing high regard for his work as a writer, editor, and family man. No one has done more than Chris to advance the cause of thoughtful writing about games, and no one is more respected among his peers. Nice guys don't always finish last.

Today I'm delighted to note that Chris is visiting Wabash College as this year's McGregor Visiting Artist and Scholar in the Humanities. He will visit a variety of classes; meet with students and faculty; and deliver a presentation on professional writing and the challenges of launching a new magazine (Kill Screen) aimed at an audience that supposedly isn't intererested in reading or thinking hard. 

If you happen to live in the vicinity, you're welcome to attend two events open to the public. One is a conversation about the graphic novel Watchmen with students in my Enduring Questions course. The other is Chris's noontime presentation. Here are the details:

  • Watchmen discussion - 11:20am, Wednesday, April 20, Fine Arts Center
  • Public presentation - 12:00pm, Thursday, April 21, Center Hall 216 (lunch served)

A campus map is available here. Directions to Wabash (located in Crawfordsville, Indiana) can be found here. All are welcome.

Since most of you live nowhere near me, I'll post a recording (audio for sure, possibly video) of Chris's talk later this week. 

Driven to abstraction


A powerful display of artistic vitality is unfolding before our eyes, but we're conditioned to overlook it. The game industry's obsessive focus on graphical fidelity has given rise to a counter movement away from realism and toward a purposeful abstraction that defines some of the best contemporary games. We're in the middle of an abstract design renaissance.

Because we routinely associate advances in graphics technology with progress in game design - many review sites continue to score "graphics" with a clear bias toward high-polygon whiz-bang visuals - we tend to describe abstract designs with easily-understood terms: "retro," "8-bit," or "arcade-style - or, worse, we associate them with hardware, e.g."NES-style graphics." Steven Totilo described Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP as "Ico meets Atari."

I'm not suggesting incompetence or dismissiveness here. We do our best to describe the games we play, and that can be difficult with the unconventional ones. "Ico meets Atari" is a clever characterization that says something true about S:S&S EP, and I sort of wish I'd thought of it.

The problem with such descriptions, however, is that they can devalue the aesthetic impact of these designs. Describing a game as "8-bit" may tell us something about its general appearance, but it doesn't say much about how that visual style communicates meaning. Fifteen years ago, primitive graphics may have suggested a concession to limited resources or inaccessible design tools, but no longer.

EverydayShooter_1 Today, games like S:S&S EP, Osmos, the Bit.Trip series, and pretty much anything designed by Mark Essen (aka, Messhof) represent designs that embed their "primitive" visual styles into the core experience of playing them. In other words, they look that way because any other art style would diminish them.

We are seeing a creative explosion of such games situated at various points on the abstract-to-representational spectrum, and these designs inevitably influence other designers across genres and throughout the game design space, from indie to AAA developers.

It's easy to see the impact of Pong, for example, on a vector-art inspired game like Bit.Trip.Beat, but Rez can also be found in the mix, as can Nintendo's unheralded bitGenerations design signature. We like to describe games with multiple genre influences as hybrids (e.g. Bit.Trip.Beat is a retro rhythm-based paddle game, aka Pong meets Rez).

CommanderVideo But play mechanics are only part of the story. The Bit.Trip games serialize a set of experiences meant to reflect the evolution of a human life as seen through its protagonist, Commander Video. Levels entitled GROWTH, DISCOVERY, DESCENT, DETERMINATION, PATIENCE, and FATE cast the player into playful experiences that reflect the hero's trajectory through life and all its hardships and rewards. Developer Aksys describes the Bit.Trip story this way:

Everything comes from something.
We were before we became. From life comes rhythm, and from rhythm comes life.
We are beings of information.
Everything is a conduit for learning.
We communicate in bits and bytes.
And we will return to something once we become nothing.

Pixelated abstraction makes this possible and communicates a kind of cold digital universe that eventually grows warmer and more colorful. Life flowers and pulsates as you progress, but the designers wisely trust the player to discover and assemble (or not) this experience emerging from abstract presentation. Some may see and enjoy the final game, Bit.Trip.Flux as a more accessible iteration on the original Bit.Trip.Beat, which it is. I experienced it as Epiphany and Catharsis, bringing the 6-part narrative to a fitting and satisfying conclusion.

Sloan 6th ave   Kline NY
Depictions of NYC: 6th Ave by John Sloan (1928) and New York, NY by Franz Kline (1953)

The surest demonstration of an art form's dynamism is dialectic creativity - a kind of call and response among artists who see, process, respond, and create - provoking a recurring cycle among other creators that advances on its own collective energy. We bemoan the derivative nature of games, and we're fed a steady stream of imitative designs that prove the point. But focusing on threadbare tropes and overused mechanics may cause us to overlook the astonishingly creative work being produced by game designers experimenting with form, representation, and abstraction.

User review of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, posted on App Store

In my next post, I'll take a closer look at Superbrothers: Sword & Scorcery EP and discuss how it exemplifies what I'm talking about...and why its design should be seen as more than retro hipster cool.

Let me count the ways


How do I ignore thee, Monster Tale?
Let me count the ways.
I overlook thy most generic of generic names.
I  scorn thy tedious kids-save-the-world conceit.
I disdain thy prosaic box art.
I yawn at thy derivative anime stylings.
I scoff at thy clinging to 2004 technology.

These truths evident, Monster Tale, tell me why
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach. Or at least as much as Castlevania.

Monster Tale does its best to make you ignore it. But take note. If you overlook this gem, you will miss one of the best games ever released for the Nintendo DS.

Dreamrift, the studio that developed Henry Hatsworth, has produced a splendid hybrid game (aren’t all games hybrids these days?) that fuses Metroidvania exploration with Pokémon husbandry, mixed with RPG elements (don’t all games have RPG elements these days?). It's a marvelous concoction.

Monster Tale’s hero is a young girl named Ellie who whacks baddies with her handbag and raises a little sidekick named Chomp from scrappy infant to thunder-brawling adult. Together they navigate an ever-expanding map, unlock new areas and power-ups, free monsters from captivity, and evolve Chomp into a variety of forms useful for specific situations. Along the way Ellie must overcome platforming and puzzle challenges and face off against several pathological kid-bosses.

Does any of this sound groundbreaking? Nope. Does it matter? Nope.

Hybrid design
Monster Tale illustrates how a clever hybrid design can do more than simply mash together familiar elements. Henry Hatsworth showed how genre fusion can be less about mixing and more about juggling. In that game, Dreamrift assigned the DS’s two screens to separate mechanical functions - the top for platforming and the bottom for Bejeweled-style puzzling. Activity on one screen impacted events on the other (often frenetically so) but each screen essentially hosted a self-contained game. It was stylish fun, but the two styles never quite clicked for me.

Monster Tale cannily iterates on that formula by reassigning the bottom screen to a monster pet sanctuary where Chomp eats, grows, and recovers. At any point in the action above, Chomp can be summoned to the top screen to help Ellie battle baddies. As you progress, Ellie acquires a battery of special moves, and Chomp evolves in customizable forms with strengths and weaknesses against certain enemies.

Deep pet simulator?
When you account for the branching complexity of the pet simulator elements of Monster Tale and combine them with the platforming and boss-battle challenges, you discover an accessible game rooted in a surprisingly deep core system. It's quite brilliant, actually. Lead Designer Peter Ong describes his approach:

We...thought the concept of pet-raising was interesting, but we were unsatisfied with the extent to which typical pet-raising games integrate the growth of the pet into an overall game that matters. Our goal was to explore the idea of an evolving pet that can help the player within a different type of game mode, producing a combination that we haven’t seen before.**

Wisely, the game constrains Chomp’s abilities - he grows tired on the top screen and must be sent below to recover - and sometimes Ellie is better off doing things herself. So the player must decide when to use Chomp and when to let him stay below. As a shrewd added benefit, Chomp can use items you collect for him (e.g. catapult, soccer ball, race car) from the bottom screen, launching them into the top screen to assist Ellie.

Against the grain
Dreamrift seems to relish unconventional protagonists. Henry Hatsworth was an aging, bluster-prone English explorer fond of tea. Monster Tale continues the studio’s nonconformist approach with a young, wide-eyed girl who simply wants to find her way home. This decision did not go over well with publishers, according to Ong:

This choice was actually somewhat controversial with some publishers. Our experience was that many publishers are looking to avert the risk of a main character that hasn’t been proven to capture large audiences. As a result, there was some concern from publishers that Ellie should change to a male or a more mature/sexy female.**

Kudos to Dreamrift for sticking to its guns, and kudos to Majesco for publishing this terrific game. Do we really need more hulking-badass men or sexy-dangerous women in our games? Yeah, I know. Nobody's listening.

I have only two minor complaints about Monster Tale. The game occasionally suffers from pedestrian level design (I love the colorful visuals, but the platforming can be unimaginative and repetitive). The game also requires too much backtracking, and the same enemies respawn in the same locations throughout. One upside, however (unlike other Metroidvania titles), is that you can use this backtracking to grind Chomp’s level up, so retracing your steps feels at least a little productive.

It’s fun to discover unheralded games and proclaim their merits, but I can’t take credit for this one. Brad Gallaway recommended Monster Tale on my last podcast, and I owe him a big thanks. I encourage you to give this wonderful little game a try. Reward developers and publishers willing to devote their creativity and resources to risky new IP. 

How do I love thee, Monster Tale? Let me count the ways.

**Nintendo Power, January 2011

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 33

Old-microphone This massive edition of the show features a Gamers Confab segment with Mitch Krpata (Boston Phoenix, et al); Nels Anderson (Klei Entertainment); and Brad Gallaway ( We discuss a slew of games we've played recently, and we successfully persuade Mitch to stop hating LittleBigPlanet. Well, maybe not.

Segment 2 features a roundtable conversation with Patrick Klepek (EGMi), Matthew Burns (Shadegrown Games), and Chris Dahlen (Kill Screen) recorded at GDC. We chat about our favorite sessions at the conference and trade a few stories. Did you know Patrick covered his first GDC at the age of 14, accompanied by his father?

Segment 3 features a short chat with Sean Duncan, also recorded at GDC. Sean is a professor in the School of Education and the Interactive Media Studies program at Miami University

I hope you enjoy the show, and thanks for listening!

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
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Show links:

Games discussed in this episode:

  • Gods Eater Burst
  • Yakuza 4
  • Ilomilo
  • Monster Tale
  • Metro 2033
  • Bit.Trip.Flux
  • Cysis 2
  • Dragon Age 2
  • Okami
  • Nitrone Games
  • Dead Space 2
  • Battlestar Galactica board game