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August 2011

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 35, pt. 3

Jon_blow This is the final installment in my series devoted to game designers and the design process.

In this edition I talk with Jonathan Blow, creator of the highly-acclaimed Braid and a new game called The Witness, slated to appear next year.

We discuss a wide array of topics, including the game community's reaction to Braid and his goals for The Witness. Jon is refreshingly open about his discoveries and missteps in the ongoing development process of his new game. He also explains why he's grown uncomfortable characterizing his projects as "art games." It's a fascinating conversation, and I think you'll enjoy it.

Thanks for listening!

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

The Witness website

Crime of opportunity

Burglar_bill__small__91dn Last week thieves broke into our house while we were sleeping, entering through an unlocked window in our living room. According to the detective assigned to our case, they knew what they wanted. They took my PS3 and Xbox 360 (and corresponding controllers), my Macbook computer, and approximately fifty games. 

They ignored our flat-screen TV, stereo system, a 3DS in a case sitting next to the Macbook, and my Wii with controllers nearby. Feel free to joke about 'left-behind hardware' in the comments section. I'm ready for some levity. :-)

The detective called this a "crime of opportunity," which he explained as a crime committed without planning or premeditation. A perpetrator discovers he has a chance to act and seizes it, in most cases taking advantage of the owner's carelessness.

Word to the wise: a Beatles Rock Band drum set in clear view just inside an unlocked window has 'crime of opportunity' written all over it. 

We assume such things don't happen in small-town Indiana where I live, but they do. After a couple of sleepless nights wondering if they might return, I began to focus on something far more positive and, it turns out, longlasting.

When I tweeted that we'd been robbed, I received well over a hundred responses - replies, direct messages and emails from online friends - nearly all of whom I've never met, expressing concern and offering me and my family encouragement. Several shared their own theft stories and reminded me that our safety far outweighs a list of missing stuff.

Gamers (and I use that term broadly to include anyone who enjoys games) are routinely depicted in our culture as antisocial, self-absorbed indviduals who lack empathic impulses. Violent games have desensitized us to the pain and suffering of others, and we simply don't take time to reach out to one another like our parents and grandparents learned to do. We start flamewars and issue homophobic epithets to strangers through our headsets. Gamers aren't very nice, and we prove it in all sorts of ugly ways.

Except when we don't. I've walked away from this unnerving experience with an unexpected feeling of hope - a reinvigorated sense of faith in the community of gamers I'm part of here and elsewhere. Kindness and generosity aren't difficult to find in these parts, especially when you're in a tough situation and need a little support.

The next time you hear somebody paint this community with a broad ugly brush, consider mentioning a few more nuanced portraits:

  • Somebody asked me for a list of games I lost to see if she could send me a replacement or two. "I can't afford to buy you new ones, but I have a few games on my shelf I'd happily send if you need them."

  • Somebody sent me a detailed set of instructions for tracking my PS3 through Sony's theft response system.

  • Somebody shared his own experience with a break-in while his family slept upstairs. He cautioned me that such an event can be more traumatizing than we might expect, and he was right.

  • Somebody reminded me to feel compassion for the people who did this. They are likely suffering in ways we often neglect to consider, and he was right.

  • Somebody offered to organize a collection to raise money to replace the games I lost.

  • Dozens of people went out of their ways to simply say they were sorry to hear what happened. I read every one and shared them all with my wife. Wonderful and welcome gestures for which we're grateful.

One more related and lovely anecdote. Last night I turned on a PS3 from school and logged onto PSN. Within seconds a text message arrived on my phone from a dear friend: "You get a new ps3? Bc yr online and i want to make sure its not yr burglar."

I think 'crime of opportunity' describes what happened to us perfectly. The break-in provided an ironic opportunity for me to experience something good and pure about another community I inhabit. Both places have their dark sides, but I live in both, buoyed by people with gentle spirits and kind hearts.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 35, pt. 2

Matthew-Burns This is the 2nd in a 3-part series devoted to game designers and the design process.

In this segment I chat with Matthew Burns, founder of Shadegrown Games a small studio developing a new music game called Planck. Matthew is also a Producer (contract) for Microsoft, and he's worked on the Halo series since 2006.

Note: We do not discuss details of Halo 4. No tidbits. No sneak peeks.

The final episode in this series will appear in a few days, and it will feature an extended interview with Jonathan Blow.

I hope you enjoy the show. Thanks for listening!

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

Shadegrown Games
Eurogamer profile of Matthew and Planck 

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 35, pt. 1

Manveer This edition of the podcast begins a 3-part series devoted to game designers and the design process.

In this first segment I chat with Manveer Heir, Senior Designer at BioWare, about his work and the challenges presented by a complex project. Manveer discusses his day-to-day duties; problem-solving as creativity; why developers keep secrets; and why he routinely "ruins peoples dreams."

Note: We do not discuss details of Mass Effect 3. If you're hoping for juicy tidbits or inside info on that game, you will not find them here.

Parts 2 and 3 of the podcast will appear later this week. Listen to the opening of this episode, and you will hear me reveal whom those guests will be!

I hope you enjoy the show. Thanks for listening!

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

The Catherine masquerade


One refrain typically overwhelms all others when we talk about narrative games. Give us something different. In my own case, it’s Give me something truthful. In a critical environment where genre blends and formula tweaks are hailed as major advances in game design, a thematically ambitious title that genuinely challenges conventions and boundaries deserves special attention. Catherine is not that game, but it comes tantalizingly close.

Catherine masquerades as a sexually edgy interactive experience, and Atlus’s promotion, box art, and collector’s edition (Destructoid called it “wanktastic”) collectively send the message that Catherine is a naughty, wink-wink little game. It isn’t. I wish it were. Maybe Atlus lost its nerve, or maybe its designers never intended to cross certain boundaries of 'taste.'

I generally try to avoid taking a game to task for what it isn’t, but it’s hard not to see Catherine as a missed opportunity to navigate territory few games have explored. The potential is there. The game is remarkably effective at plunging the player into the subconscious of its protagonist, deeper than most games have delved. (The Darkness comes to mind as a notable exception.)

Vincent is one messed up dude, as are nearly all the men presented as NPCs. To Catherine’s credit, it shows us male characters we seldom see in games - vulnerable, damaged, self-loathing - all gathered in a freakish final-exam-nightmare purgatory. “Why am I constantly hurting the one I love?” wonders one NPC. Another ponders whether he should answer the test questions honestly, or choose the “right answer” - a dilemma reflected in the player’s experience choosing Vincent’s answers throughout the game.

Katherine The game features a series of hallucinatory images - metaphorical personifications of Vincent’s fears and insecurities - that help us see the world from inside his head. Sadly, this imagery feels curiously restrained for a game that stakes out the psycho-sexual territory Catherine seems to want to inhabit.

Catherine presents a Madonna/Whore dichotomy faced by Vincent, a shiftless, self-absorbed, 32-year-old heterosexual man torn between two women inexplicably drawn to him: Katherine (security, responsibility, parenthood) and Catherine (freedom, spontaneity, sex with no strings).

At times, Catherine flirts with adventurous material. Such a moment occurs when Vincent’s phone vibrates as Katherine is talking to him about taking a maternity leave. She's talking about a vitally important subject...but that phone just keeps buzzing. It’s a deliciously staged moment - awkward but tantalizing for Vincent. Is it Catherine calling? Has she sent another nasty photo of herself? Why am I so tempted to take this call, even as Katherine is reaching out to me? Why do I hate myself for even thinking this way?

Gradually, a cacophony of voices fills Vincent’s head as he tunes Katherine out. The thrill of the hunt collides with the fear of commitment. A whirr of thoughts and desires spin through his feverish mind, and just when you think something interesting may emerge from this chaos, the game bails Vincent out of the situation and the scene abruptly ends. This pattern is repeated at various key moments throughout the game.

We routinely denigrate cutscenes because they function as shortcuts to outcomes that might have been more richly realized through interactivity. Catherine’s cutscenes are more effective because they lead the player to make choices that significantly impact Vincent’s path through the game. Those of us with a special fondness for JRPGs have made our peace with a brand of interactivity that encourages replays to produce different outcomes. Catherine has a total of eight endings, branching from three central narratives. These endings differ wildly, and it’s fun to discover just how wide the gaps among them are.

Vincent Unfortunately, prime moments for player choice - situations that might lead one to fully explore Vincent’s darker desires - are off the table. Catherine teases an experience untethered from societal norms - and it offers an ending that liberates Vincent from all traditional mores - but the road to that outcome curves around all the best views. Games can provide safe places to explore our fantasies, but Catherine only lets us look out the window as they pass by.

I’ll leave it to others to analyze Catherine’s ‘gameplay’ elements. The question posed by its designers: “Can Vincent overcome all the blocks in his life?” creates an opportunity for action-puzzle sequences that strain to maintain their metaphorical relevance.

For the first hour or two, the story/play connection feels sound and occasionally even inspired. Sadly, the difficulty spikes unreasonably high, and the metaphor grows stale. Vincent keeps climbing - and reaching the top of each section imparts a feeling of victory - but these nightmare sequences soon begin to feel like filler material.

Catherine points at the potential for games to explore (responsibly) ‘off-limits’ sexual and psychological elements of human behavior, and it boldly allows the player to chart a course for Vincent that takes him to an M-rated destination. Perhaps another game will make the journey itself a playable fantasy.