Jan 30 2009

Opertoon-ity Knocks?

Ruben & Lullaby is one of the more interesting iPhone/iPod Touch games to appear recently, and has inspired a whole new discussion thread in the ongoing conversation regarding The Jesus Phone’s narrative possibilities. Probably the best piece I’ve read so far about Ruben & Lullaby is Emily Short’s new GameSetWatch column, in which she compares this “opertoon” (defined by Ruben & Lullaby’s designer Erik Loyer as “a story you play like a musical instrument”) to Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas’s Facade:

As I played, I couldn’t help comparing “Ruben & Lullaby” with “Facade”. (There are after all only so many game/interactive experiences that thrust the player into the middle of someone else’s romantic discord.) The two complement each other in odd ways, one getting right what the other didn’t. In Facade, the characters were specifically drawn, abounding in motives and neuroses, often to such a degree that I wondered why my character was friends with them in the first place.

On the other hand, it was often hard to tell how my actions were controlling the outcome of the game, and interaction — typing full sentences of dialogue — was clumsy. Things I wanted to say were often woven into the wrong place by the time I hit RETURN. (And I’m a pretty fast typist.) In fact, the comparison is more or less a case study in the value — and danger — of using verbal content in games. Dialogue characterizes, clarifies, makes specific. At the same time it’s hard to interact with and potentially confusing.

These are important issues to consider as games continue narrowing the gap between the real and the virtual, and especially so when game designers ask players to converse with their games as they might an actual, breathing human being. In Ruben & Lullaby, we interact with the game’s characters and influence their world by shaking or stroking our iPhones (and, really, who doesn’t love that for its own accordant pleasure), but we are nonetheless locked outside the environment; if we shake the screen, the characters don’t get angry with us, but rather take it out on one another.

I definitely see the connection Short is making here, but I can’t help make an entirely different one between Ruben & Lullaby and The Sims. While an exponentially larger “God game” in almost every sense, for me The Sims still affords us players the luxury of not living in the lives we have created for those poor bastards trapped behind our computer monitors. Ruben & Lullaby is a beautiful, elegant expression of this same notion, only infinitely more portable.

That we can so quickly and easily wreck (or–*sigh*—save, I suppose…) an intimate relationship and have that interrupted by a text message or phone call from a telemarketer seems both sinister and by the same token incredibly appropriate; it seems we’ve atomized our humanity on nearly every level, and the most pressing decision in the fray could very well be how many rollover minutes we’ll have left at the end of the game session.

Jan 26 2009

FWR Episode 013: Possibility Spaces

In Episode 013 we discuss the holiday-weighted release cycle of the game industry. Looking forward to the next few months, we decide that independent games are filling the spaces left vacant by such a release schedule, also getting into the overreactions to Super Columbine Massacre RPG and Douglas Stanley’s Invaders!, Ian Bogost’s Jetset, and homebrew communities versus XNA and the iTunes App Store. Thanks for listening.

Jan 24 2009

Beam us up, Nick & Ian

Gentleman, scholar, and first-ever FWR guest Nick Montfort’s new book, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Game System, is now available for keepsies from the fine folks at MIT Press.  Montfort co-authored the book with the brilliant Ian Bogost, and describes it thusly over at Grand Text Auto:

The book examines the relationship between the unusual hardware design of the Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600), the games that were created for it, and how those games influenced later titles and genres. Ian and I discuss the Atari VCS itself and six telling cartridges for the system: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We delve into the technical specifics of the system, tracking developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics.

Montfort talked a little bit about this project when we interviewed him last fall for Episode 007, and I am very much looking forward to picking this up from my neighborhood Powells store in Cedar Hills. Congratulations, guys.

Jan 23 2009

Survival of the Poorest

This week I’m struggling to catch my breath after spending a long weekend in Las Vegas with two of my oldest and dearest friends from college. The three of us are all cash game poker players in varying degrees of severity and seriousness; one of my friends had never played live poker in a casino until this past weekend; another plays daily online, hosts a low-stakes home game virtually every weekend, and at least once a month takes a daytrip to a tribal casino.

As for me, I fall right in the fat middle, having played a little bit in casinos for real money and also online strictly for fun. I do not consider myself a serious poker player, but I do take the game seriously when I play it. Until this past weekend, I had never strung together more than two or three hours of continuous play, and even then it was within the confines of a small, comfy home tournament hosted by a group of friends. So when we all met up to play a weekend’s worth of poker, I had to find some serious stamina somewhere, and fast.

Poker is arguably one of the most ubiquitous games in Western culture, largely due to its simple rules and how it encourages social interaction both within the game experience and outside it. It’s a game easily played while enjoying a few adult beverages, and given the right combination of people at any given table, poker is a game that makes fast friends among virtual strangers. A player who plays the game long enough will see the luck of the cards do equally providential and terrible things to the fortunes of the people holding them; furthermore, there is usually a communal sense among players that the highs and lows will eventually catch up with us all.

In other words, there is a peculiar fatalism in playing this game always held in check by the egalitarianism inherent in the random spill of the cards. No person—not even the dealer—can be held responsible for the luck of the draw. And this, of course, is what makes playing games like poker for money so intoxicating and so potentially personally destructive to the players who play them. There is no golden elixir to swallow, no magic sword to wield, no discernible pattern to memorize, no Konami code to punch in that will immunize and protect a player from the highs and lows of this game; the best any one player can do to protect herself is to find comfort in the statistical probability of seeing that last card she needs to make the straight flush with three other players betting and raising into her before the river card appears, and as any table-top RPG player worth his salt will tell you, percentage odds are cold comfort when you’re in the very belly of the beast. How to best describe and categorize these kind of experiences is puzzling at best.

My friend and I had played a brilliant session of $1/$2 no limit hold-em at the Mirage, in the early evening of our last full day in Vegas. We sat at a table where the players—most of them clearly rounders—were finishing their last few hands before breaking for dinner. We barely played for 25 minutes; I only played three flops and my buddy played four. We collectively walked away from the table up nearly $400 for our time and trouble. As I cashed in my chips I literally felt bulletproof, that if the zombie apocalypse broke out right then and there (next to the Cirque de Soleil tribute to The Beatles, natch…), my friend and I would certainly survive.

Only a couple of hours later, however, I was at the tail-end of that same day, and playing another session of $1/$2 no limit hold-em at the MGM Grand, and I walked away from the table having flushed my whole chipstack chasing the last card that would have given me the best possible hand given the cards in play on the table. I had done all the math, considered the possibilities, and took a swing at bluffing another player off a huge pot that would have tripled me up for the day; unfortunately (and predictably, given the odds, of course…) I missed. When it came down to the end of the hand and I had lost what I had convinced myself was the best strategy out of this particular dungeon, that was the moment it struck me that poker isn’t a conventional game of chance.


See, cash game poker is a survival-horror game.

Cash game players are able to last into the wee hours of the next day’s morning (surviving mostly on the sugar from their weak-sauce well drinks, of course) because if they play enough decent-sized pots their bloodstreams are constantly awash in the ebb and flow of adrenaline and melatonin. I raked enough $40 and $50 pots last weekend to begin recognizing that cold flood racing down my arms and into my fingers as I pulled the chips into my little hovel: it’s the same feeling I’ve had when narrowly escaping the fish-people police in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth or using my final 20 machine gun rounds to drop that last Big Daddy in one of the deeper, darker levels in BioShock.

More to the point: cash game poker is a game structure that players cannot win; it can merely be survived. A winning hand of poker is only better than the other hands on the table at the end of the betting cycle; after the players pay each other accordingly, the cards are shuffled and a fresh hand is dealt. If we consider the simple fact that in a cash game, another hand will always be dealt as long as there are two people sitting at the table, poker is clearly a game of stagnation and stasis with no discernible or desirable end-state. Yes, a player can build an impressive stack of chips in front of her, but the game itself remains unchanged; the game does not care how many chips the players possess, for it is hermetically sealed from those who play it. Like H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth and Ken Levine’s Rapture, the cash game is an abandoned, fallen city, and its players are—at best—self-serving looters.

In the best survival-horror videogames I’ve played, I have always walked away realizing that I might be richer for the experience, but I have not truly won or fundamentally changed anything about my surroundings. Thus, playing a long weekend of cash game poker with my friends only to get on a plane and fly home feels eeirly similar to the feelings I’ve had finishing a session of Left 4 Dead:

Woah….that was close.

Jan 17 2009

FWR Episode 012: Left 4 Dead

In Episode 012, Shawn Rider assumes 1/3 of the hosting duties here at FWR. For his first official episode, we talk about Left 4 Dead, the differences between fear produced by games as compared to other mediums, and contrasts between zombie games, films, and comics. We ask why zombie fiction has resurfaced in American culture, looking at some of the social and political parallels that accompany its rise as a popular horror narrative. We look at the motivations and emotional qualities behind zombie narratives, and finally decide that all of the characters in Left 4 Dead are doomed because their plane/helicopter/boat is clearly destined to end up in a situation at least as bad as the one it takes off from. Unlike Bill, Zoey, Louis, and Francis, we escape from this episode with most of our limbs and sanity intact, if only barely. Thanks for listening.

Jan 15 2009

Notes From Under the iPhone Underground

The iTunes App Store recently achieved over 10,000 apps on offer. According to AppShopper.com, about 24% of those apps are games. That means there are lots and lots of games available for the iPhone. Like over 2000 titles. For comparison’s sake, Wikipedia lists 950 original Xbox titles. The iPhone is already a more prolific gaming platform than entire generations of previous hardware, a fact that has propelled the platform into the mainstream of mobile gaming, which is itself a little-known underground of actual mainstream gaming. The iPhone can arguably be called the first gaming platform with mobile phone capabilities.

Two things are completely true when it comes to iPhone games: 1) Most of them suck. Sturgeon’s Law comes into play big time on this platform. 2) It is a complete pain to discover which games don’t suck.

Sure, it’s easy to discover Fieldrunners or SimCity, but the iTunes App Store is woefully inadequate when it comes to highlighting interesting games. In spite of being one of the most prolific platforms around, there are few blogs, magazines, podcasts or TV shows that cover iPhone games. It is a crowded underground, seething with life, but not well-known.

Fortunately, sites like Touch Arcade and Finger Gaming have been stepping in to help us get to know iPhone gaming. The effort to inform the masses about the great things happening in iPhone game development is a noble one. I believe in it so much that I want to throw in with them and highlight two games that I have discovered deep in the underground of the iPhone gaming underground. The two examples I’ve chosen today represent opposite poles of the ludological spectrum. Mote Massacre is an open source tower defense game dedicated to quality play above all else, while Bank Panic is a profound one-liner that succeeds in ways most games don’t even attempt.

2009 Grant Jones

Mote Massacre 2008 Grant Jones

Grant Jones developed the first, as far as I know, tower defense game for the iPhone. His game, Mote Massacre (or Mote-M, as the cool kids say), quickly gained a following although it has never been prominently featured in the App Store lists. Mote-M costs 99 cents, and it always has, but after Apple lifted the NDA preventing developers from discussing or sharing iPhone code Mr. Jones decided to open source the game. Again blazing an indy trail, Mote-M became one of, if not the, first iPhone games to release its full source code (discounting, of course, all the iPhone games that are ported from open source projects).

Mote-M is a “desktop” or open style of tower defense, where the towers the player builds form the maze that the baddies must traverse. Strategy is key in designing your maze, but so is luck since Mote-M layers on an aspect of chance in the form of randomly appearing free upgrade opportunities. Although the graphics are not much to brag on, the game-play is super solid and the online high scores leaderboard has kept me coming back to defend my honor. This is one not to miss, especially for fans of the tower defense genre. And for any budding iPhone developers, the source code is well worth checking out.

While the focus on game-play in Mote-M is well taken, sometimes a game doesn’t need to become part of the daily routine in order to be an excellent work. Bank Panic is an example of how the iTunes App Store and iPhone software model can support works of art as well as works of productivity.

2009 Codeon Communications GmbH

Bank Panic 2009 Codeon Communications GmbH

Codeon Communications GmbH have created a timely art game called Bank Panic. The game looks like a classic LCD style handheld game, complete with residual images showing where the figures can move. The player has two buttons: move left and move right. The player controls two firemen with a rescue blanket who must catch bankers who are plummeting from the windows. As the game’s website explains, Bank Panic checks the status of the Dow Jones at the beginning of each game and modulates the difficulty based on how poorly the markets are doing. A falling market causes more bankers to jump, increasing the difficulty of the game.

Bank Panic is less a game than an art experience. Contextualizing the economic collapse in an old-fashioned LCD game makes it seem quaint and almost enjoyable. The morbidity of the Dow Jones integration also highlights a certain schadenfreude inherent in watching the ultra-rich beg for financial help on the nightly news. (I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t take a little glee seeing the heads of Detroit’s “Big Three” get chastised by a government panel? That’s good TV!) This mixture of comedy, tragedy, and the pressures of history elicits the sort of reaction that can only be achieved by a good game. That is also sort of effect that unsettles those who do not understand games, which boosts Bank Panic’s under-underground street cred.

Taken together, these two titles offer a glimpse into the great variety of game content available now for the iPhone. As developers share code and influence each other with bold concepts, the iPhone gaming platform is clearly set for great things. As recent consumer electronics shows have proven, other phones offer similar snazzy hardware and featuers, but it is the end-to-end software development and distribution model of the iTunes App Store that has given the iPhone such a great lead over its competitors. And within the iTunes App Store, games have been a driving force.

Jan 14 2009

Crashing the Gate

I’m usually not one to get excited about XBox Live’s downloadable content, and I’m easily made weary from seeing a certain someone at a certain console manufacturer spam Twitter with messages about the same.  (What’s that you say? I can buy a polo shirt now for my Live-atar? Do go on!)

But I’m feeling markedly different today because XBL is releasing the first in-game content for Behemoth’s truly majestic sidescroller Castle Crashers, a game that has grown dear to my heart due the simple fact it’s in heavy rotation (still…) in my home.

Now, mind you, I haven’t actually played Crashers in months; rather, I have three boys (ages 12, 7 and 5) who are endeared and committed to this game on a level that is deeper even than their affinities for the new Clone Wars series, pepperoni Hot Pockets and chocolate milk. These boys of mine are good-natured, thoughtful, and respectful in ways that mark their close bonds to one another, and the large amounts of time they’ve spent together have always involved both physical and virtual gaming. They are, for the most part anyway, compassionate gamers, too, which I believe is incredibly important if they are to fully enjoy and learn from their experiences. I do not tolerate any squabbling or frustrated pissing/moaning about how a certain game is—to quote the 7 year old—”a big fat rip-off!” And for the overwhelming majority of the games they play, they are genuinely, positively engaged.  My oldest in particular has recently taken a very serious approach to playing Japanese RPGs, and he is meticulously replaying the Kingdom Hearts series on his PS2, literally wringing every drop from the narrative. He is serenely contemplative as he plays these games, and he considers them to be equally important to the “tween” novels and manga he reads so voraciously.

But when it comes to Crashers, all three of them viscerally respond to the game’s beat-em-up aesthetic that is much more than just skin deep. The suavely color-coordinated knight-sprites are very much action heroes to them, and for at least the last four months I’ve had the youngest boy wake me up every Saturday and Sunday morning (well before any sane or mature person would consider to be a reasonable time to get out of bed, by the way) with the faint but familiar whisper:

Dad, can we play on the 360?

Their incredibly hip grandmother visited us back in October for two weeks, and after living in our a household (where television programming takes a distant third place to web surfing and playing videogames), she became so well-acquainted with the thunderous, triumphant music that plays while the game is loading she bought each of the boys a vinyl figure of their favorite chromakeyed character. These they have kept in their acrylic showcases every night since Christmas, and the middle boy is dead-determined to use his figure to craft a Halloween costume for himself this year (thanks, of course, in part to having seen pictures of this dude’s amazing ensemble).

When Crashers was released last year, there was much a kerfuffle over how much Microsoft was charging at the gate. I was baffled by this conversation back then, and probably even more so now. As regular listeners of the podcast already know, I don’t like to get caught up in conversations about games-as-commodity unless we’re talking in only the most theoretical of terms. However, in this particular case, I think it’s fairly obvious Behemoth has a rock-solid intellectual property that is not only an economic success but is arguably a cultural one as well.  There’s really no need for WiiFit in our house because my 5-year-old son constantly jumps up and down as he plays the game—usually and virtually nonstop for 30 or 40 minutes—as he imitates his knight’s animation. He does this unconsciously, too, it seems, because I make him stop when he is obviously tiring himself; after only a minute’s rest at most, he will be back on his feet again, the music and movement coursing through him as might a dream.

Castle Crashers is—and will probably always be—at the very least a fond childhood memory for the three most important people to me on this planet. In the end, I guess what I’m asking, is how do you put a price on something like that?

Jan 13 2009

LittleBigPlanet and Visions of a Pirate Utopia

I can’t help getting excited, still, at the prospects of LittleBigPlanet. There are prominent cultural themes that the game taps into very capably, and I think that Media Molecule have done an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the moment inside of a package that is commercially viable. There have been technical and conceptual issues, but LittleBigPlanet is one of the most ambitious and philosophically radical games of the recent past. Creative functionality in games like Guitar Hero aside, this is a game that allows the user to make, from start to finish, an identifiable video game.

I take issue with the handling of copyright infringement instances, but I understand that sacrifices must be made in order to create something this ambitious. I can only imagine the potential of a LittleBigPlanet hack, living on some sleepy alternative server, where creators don’t have to worry about their creations being (rightly or wrongly) identified and removed for copyright violation. But, even in its current state, I think that it deserves both creative and analytical attention.

LittleBigPlanet has in its favor the potential to reach an extraordinary number of people. As these current and future creators populate and fill the space that it provides, their PlayStation ID names become associated with the content that they produce and offer for public perusal. They might choose to create a unique object and offer it as a prize for completing a level. Another creator plays that level, uses the rewarded object in their own level, and suddenly the game is a high-profile platform for game design with something like Creative Commons usage rules.

It seems, unfortunately, that most creators are not as of yet offering their levels for public download and editing. I can only hope that as a sense of community develops, worries over improper usage and crediting will become secondary to the collective creative potential. LittleBigPlanet arrives at a time when creative culture seems to be heading in the direction of collaborative content, in a space that has historically fought to maintain authorial control in most cases, and offers a glimpse of the implications of these movements for game culture.

Jan 10 2009

FWR Episode 011: Michael Abbott

Against the sad backdrop of the EGM/1Up gutting, Shawn Rider and Michael Abbott join us for Episode 11 to talk about the state of game journalism. Michael runs The Brainy Gamer, an excellent blog and podcast that takes an intelligent, contemplative look at gaming. We discuss bleak predictions for the future of print and its possibilities in a digital age, the potential and breadth of online communities, and the very particular role that 1Up and EGM filled. Overall, a hopeful episode as a tribute to the impacted staff and community, in which we explore possible futures for game journalism and criticism. Thanks for listening.