Mar 25 2009

Giddyap! The Oregon Trail

Just a quick post here to say I am love-love-loving Gameloft’s adaptation of The Oregon Trail for iPhone and iPod Touch.  Oregon Trail was probably my first computer gaming experience when I was but a wee one growing up in the nightmare of Reagan’s America, and like a lot of us from that era, I still have fond memories of my classroom’s Apple IIe and its always-sticking left arrow key.


A quarter century later, I still find this a very fulfilling and enjoyable game, and probably moreso given the fact I teach full-time at a college in Oregon City, OR (where I teach a games studies course every spring, no less…) that—yes—is literally located on the Trail’s End Highway. Call me a goober, but last week I purposely waited to download the game to my iPhone until I would be physically there on campus, at the end of the trail, index finger poised and at the ready to rustle up some grub.

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.