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Michael Abbott posted an entry Please stop listeningBrainy Gamer
"You are shaping the future of Xbox, and we are better for it."         --Phil Spencer, Head of Microsoft's Xbox Division One way to understand E3 is as a series of carefully timed PR blasts detonated in the epicenter of America's entertainment industry. No wonder game journalists and pundits talk in terms of "bombshells," "megatons" and which console maker "won" or blew away the competition.. E3 is an awkward mix of artistry, cutting-edge tech and old-fashioned hullabaloo, filled of grandiose proclamations delivered by hucksters with $200 haircuts. It's a thing to see. A more useful way to understand E3 is as an expression of values from the game industry's Big 3 and a crafted set of signals aimed at the audience each wants to capture or retain. If E3 teaches us how each console maker sees its audience, the lesson we learned from Microsoft this year was especially discouraging. "[We wanted] to bring a diverse lineup that had something for everyone. We wanted to show broad appeal and we wanted to curate this show."         --Yusuf Mehdi, Chief of Marketing and Strategy for Xbox [1] It's hard to see how this "curated" presentation of forthcoming Xbox games could be seen as having "broad appeal" and "something for everyone." That is, unless Microsoft has narrowed its audience to a core group of gamers that 1) no longer comprises a diverse and sustainable base of consumers; 2) isn't growing; 3) has restricted its gaming appetite to mildly differentiated killing simulators. I'm hardly the first to observe that the Xbox press briefing felt like a hostile place for gamers like me. As I've noted before, the problem isn't ethics. I have no issue with shooters per se - I'm currently blasting Nazis in the new Wolfenstein and loving it - the problem is homogeneity. I wasn't offended watching the Xbox briefing. I was bored. "I thought overall we had a really solid cohesive collection of killing simulators." "I liked the part in the Call of Duty trailer where they killed the guy by throwing the grenade, and it hit the guy, and he blew up."        --Justin McElroy and Chris Grant sardonically wrap-up the Xbox briefing for Polygon So how bad was it? I decided to break it down, and here's what I found (click to enlarge): 58% of Microsoft's E3 briefing contained images of characters killing, preparing to kill, or otherwise battling a deadly on-screen enemy. (52 mins out of 90 total). I applied this definition of "violent imagery" fairly lightly. Ominous situations suggesting pending havoc (e.g. Tomb Raider trailer at Xbox briefing or much of Bloodborne trailer at Sony event) were tallied as non-violent. In comparison, only 26% of Sony's E3 briefing contained violent imagery (27.5 mins out of 106 total). To be fair, Sony's presentation contained far more talk (e.g. a 25-minute segment devoted to hardware, PSN, Playstation Now, Sony film and television, etc.). We can also fairly accuse Sony of delivering the two grisliest trailers shown at E3: Mortal Kombat X and Suda 51's Let It Die. But it's telling to note that early in their respective briefings, Microsoft and Sony each devoted 8-and-a-half minutes (the longest game demos in each event) to important marquee titles. For the Xbox One: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. For the PS4: LittleBigPlanet 3. It's also worth noting tonal differences between the two. The Xbox briefing began with a blackout in the auditorium, followed by pounding music, a brief image of the Xbox One hardware (somehow made to feel menacing?), then a chaotic sizzle reel[...]












Michael Abbott posted an entry Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 42Brainy Gamer

(image)

In this episode I make my guest Steve Gaynor squirm uncomfortably in his seat. Of course, we also discuss his new game Gone Home, creating authentic characters, an important lesson from Ken Levine, and a secret room no reviewer has yet discovered. Plus other things.

I hope you enjoy.

  • 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.

Show Links:

(image)

In this episode I make my guest Steve Gaynor squirm uncomfortably in his seat. Of course, we also discuss his new game Gone Home, creating authentic characters, an important lesson from Ken Levine, and a secret room no reviewer has yet discovered. Plus other things.

I hope you enjoy.

  • 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.

Show Links:













Michael Abbott posted an entry The games we deserveBrainy Gamer
What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is a bad man but a good man's job? If you don't understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.                 --Tao Te Ching, ch. 27 We hear it said that games need to grow up, but when I look at the fractious, often hateful community surrounding them, I wonder if that's likely. I've written about this before, dating back to '08, and have always seen reasons for hope. Now I'm not so sure. I think we're getting worse, not better. When we pillory critics for saying hard but true things; when our leaders who've championed inclusiveness issue (and defend) bigoted remarks; when we plod from one spiteful spat to the next, played out (performed, really) in online forums and social media with all the requisite snark and ad hominem attacks, it's worth asking what kind of audience are we? When we're persistently, thoughtlessly cruel to each other, aren't we getting the thoughtlessly brutal games we deserve? I'm purposefully using "we" and "us" here because that's the unavoidable reality of our circumstances. Like it or not, the world is always we. It can never be otherwise. In our case, we all care about games. We all want a healthy thriving industry, indie to AAA. We all want to feel respected and free to be ourselves. We all want to have fun. Why is that so hard? We have many new ways to communicate, but our powerful tools have outpaced our abilities to harness them responsibly. It's just so easy to be mean. Compassion and empathy are much harder, and their results are often inconclusive. When you launch a missile that hits its target, you get a big conspicuous result, and it feels good. Then it escalates, destruction ensues, and nothing remotely positive emerges from the rubble. Rinse and repeat. We've got to stop it. Forget about altruism. If politeness and respectful behavior don't float your boat, then do it for the games. If you want the game industry to treat us like discerning adults with wide-ranging tastes, then stop acting like a bunch of selfish entitled brats. If you want games to grow up, then learn how responsible grownups behave. What does that mean? Here's a set of tools drawn from my experience as a teacher, informed by conflict resolution principles that work. I offer them humbly, not as cure-all prescriptions or to censor ideas or points of view. They're merely tools to help build and preserve an environment for productive, respectful communication. Try them. Modify them. Whatever works. The initial goal is increased understanding. Resolving conflict requires a genuine awareness of points of view. We may decide to disagree (even vehemently), but we must first seek to clearly understand each other. Avoid the temptation to make another person look foolish, even when he clearly "steps in it" or "deserves it." Nothing degrades communication faster than an attack designed to humiliate. Talk to each other, not to the crowd. I realize this requires a constructed approach that ignores the public nature of Twitter, forums, etc., but if you can avoid "performing" a conversation for onlookers, you're more likely to build honest, personal communication. Taking it offline is always an option too. Focus on needs, not positions. When we say "don't take it personally," we ignore how identity is inextricably tied to beliefs and needs. Find out what the other person needs; let her expl[...]


















Michael Abbott posted an entry A humongous adventureBrainy Gamer
This is about a train, a game, and a girl. A few days ago I took my daughter Zoe on her first train trip. We boarded Amtrak's Hoosier State bound for Chicago at 6:58 AM. Zoe was exuberant, equipped with all the necessities for a 4-hour excursion: a stack of her favorite books, a bag of snacks, and her 3DS loaded with Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Zoe was eager to ride on a real train because lately she's a frequent traveler on the virtual train connecting her town to mine in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. We're both enchanted by the game, and we've spent many joyful hours playing it together. Her favorite activity - emergent gameplay runs in the family, folks - is filling her pockets with "presents" (i.e. junk she doesn't want), boarding the train to my town, and hiding them for me to find. She also loves making a gleeful nuisance of herself, digging as many holes as she can (loaded with pitfall seeds when she's got them) before I boot her out and close my gate. Apparently I'm raising a griefer.  At approximately 8:30 AM, I boarded the AC train to Zoe's town with a fishing pole, which wasn't yet available in her local store. I had just begun teaching her to fish when our train (the real Amtrak one) suddenly lurched, thrusting us into the seats before us. Seconds later a large John Deere tractor careened past our window in a cloud of dust, metal pieces flying in all directions. The train hit its brakes, and we slowly came to a stop. We had crashed into a farmer attempting to beat the train through an intersection. He was hauling a tank of anhydrous ammonia. The farmer and train engineer suffered injuries, but survived. None of the passengers was injured beyond bumps and bruises. We were extraordinarily lucky. I snapped this picture a few minutes after the collision. The proximity of the ammonia tank to the tracks illustrates just how lucky we were. If you heard about the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas last month, you know the devastation anhydrous ammonia can wreak. I powered down our 3DSs, tossed them in a bag and gathered our stuff, ready to evacuate the train. As we turned to head down the aisle, Zoe looked at me with an alarmed expression on her face. "Oh no, Daddy. We're going to get a big lecture from Resetti." I laughed. She was going to be fine. As this little video illustrates (shot accidentally while trying to text my wife), it all became an adventure to her. frameborder="0" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/lf46qF6m7cI" width="420"> Buses transported us to a small town nearby where the Red Cross was on hand to shelter us. After a few hours, other buses arrived to pick us up and deliver us to our destinations. Zoe and I reached Union Station in Chicago later that day, safe and sound. In the days since the accident, we've tried to detect signs of trauma or stress in Zoe, but we've found none. She eagerly tells the "crash story" to anyone willing to listen, and she happily displays her Red Cross Mickey Mouse doll to all her friends. Of course, we continue playing AC:NL every day. Now when she enters the in-game train depot, Zoe warns the stationmaster not to put us on a train that will crash. This morning I asked her if she would ever consider taking the train to Chicago again, and she replied, "Yes, Daddy, but two things. Only if we can play Animal Crossing the whole way and only if we tell all the farmers we'[...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Notes on GenreBrainy Gamer
The term 'genre' eventually becomes pejorative because you're referring to something that's so codified and ritualized it ceases to have the power and meaning it had when it first started. --Christopher Nolan Here's what we think we know about genre: it limits creativity. It binds artists to tried-and-true formulas and encourages derivative work. A creator must be free to follow her muse, unhindered by prescriptive rules. An artist working on a genre-bound project is like a caged bird. She can sing pretty songs, but don't expect her to go anywhere interesting. Genres are agents of ideological closure; they limit the meaning-potential of a given text. --John Hartley, A Short History of Cultural Studies, 2003. Artists aren't the only victims. As Hartley notes, genre may even limit our ability to interpret and respond as readers and viewers. We're constricted by formal conventions we're conditioned to ignore. When you can't see the walls anymore, you forget how small the room you're in actually is. Some artists try hard to avoid genre influences on their work. Filmmaker and 5-time Oscar nominee Paul Mazursky once noted, "One thing I know is that I don't want to be a director for hire, making genre films. That would be death." Mazursky believed genre implied servitude, limiting personal vision and fomenting homogenized, focus-grouped entertainment. So it's worth asking: what artist worth his salt would self-impose such constraints? Well, lots of artists, actually. Great ones. My name is John Ford, and I make Westerns. --John Ford, 1950 Lots of gifted artists have been drawn to genre because of its formulaic nature, and many of our greatest artistic treasures are clear expressions of genre inspiration. In fact, many artists routinely hailed as pioneers in their fields - Shakespeare, Cézanne, Virginia Woolf, Miles Davis, Akira Kurosawa - each demonstrated a keen awareness of genre and produced extraordinary work situated well within genre or other formal boundaries. These artists didn't steer clear of genre "limits." They embraced them. Artists crave freedom, but most quickly learn that limits, even apparently harsh ones, can be more friend than enemy. In 1922, the great Russian director Stanislavski was invited to stage a production in America. He was asked how much rehearsal time he would require. "Six months," was Stanislavski's reply. Startled, the American producer informed him that it would be impossible to host (and pay) a visiting theater company to rehearse for that length of time. "Not a problem," replied Stanislavski, "Give me three weeks." The production was a triumph. Sometimes a blank slate can be less inviting than a rough outline, especially to an artist who sees opportunity in an apparently moribund genre. When John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was seen as a lifeless form mostly aimed at juvenile audiences. The lineage of post-Ford writers and directors drawn to the Western as a template for self-expression - Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, David Milch - suggests the "dead" Western springs back to life every decade or so whenever an artist comes along to imprint the form with his own personal vision. Film Noir? I don't know. When I make a picture, I never classify it. I say 'this is a comedy' and I wait until the pr[...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Shooter apotheosisBrainy Gamer
  Elizabeth: I can't believe you did that. They're all dead. You killed those people.Booker: Elizabeth, I...Elizabeth: You're a monster!Booker: What did you think was going to happen?                                                                                    --Bioshock Infinite  Bioshock Infinite is a shooter with a problem, but the problem isn't the shooting. The problem is that Bioshock Infinite has nothing to say about the shooting. A game that earnestly tries to explore morality and personal responsibility ducks those questions by placing the player on a conveyor belt of hyper-violent sequences, shuttling the player from one narrative set-piece to the next. The shooting is what you do. The story is what you (mostly) hear. The two have little to do with each other. The violence does have a function. Elizabeth realizes one demagogue is no less monstrous than another because she (and the player) witnesses the human toll of violence first-hand. Like both previous Bioshocks, Infinite guts empty ideologies that rationalize violence and unbridled power. No games portray "world gone wrong" better than the Bioshock series, plunging us into environments littered with loaded imagery: a defaced statue; a toppled champagne glass, a bloody surgical tool; a child's apparently innocent drawing. We taste brutality born from polluted ideas because these games make us navigate their debris. Whatever their limits, shooters like Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Metro 2033 can fly us directly into the eye of dystopia. But as valiantly as it tries to explore social-political issues, Infinite is tethered to its mechanical nature as a shooter in ways that undermine its aspirations. It's possible to love the game for all it tries to do, but still feel smothered by its insistence that so much of our experience is delivered staring down the barrel of a gun or other deadly weapons. The issue isn't about being pro- or anti- shooter games; it's about how standard FPS design limits the narrative possibilities of a game that clearly aspires to dig deep. How might I have behaved, and how might I have reflected on Infinite's provocative world, had I not spent so much time shooting or avoiding being shot? The game's story isn't really about shooting at all, but the player's lived story is, and that collision is impossible to overcome. I'll do my best to keep you supplied with remedies. --Elizabeth Much has been made of Elizabeth's role as a companion character. It's true that her story frames the narrative and delivers some punchy reveals along the way. But Elizabeth's primary function - her most direct impact on the player's lived experience in the game - is to keep him fed with ammo, scrounge for supplies, and open locked doors/portals. Elizabeth's own needs (e.g. her desire to reconcile with her mother) are highlighted in In[...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 41Brainy Gamer
   This is the final episode in my series of conversations about the State of Games. I encourage you to listen to the first three shows featuring a variety of smart and thoughtful guests. In this edition I talk with Kirk Hamilton, features editor at Kotaku, and Brett Douville, Lead Programmer at Bethesda Game Studios.We discuss the impact of indie games on AAA developers, "Anita and the cesspool," and why now is the best of all possible times to be a gamer...among many other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show Links: Kirk at Kotaku Kirk on Twitter Brett on Twitter Damsel in Distress: Part 1 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games    This is the final episode in my series of conversations about the State of Games. I encourage you to listen to the first three shows featuring a variety of smart and thoughtful guests. In this edition I talk with Kirk Hamilton, features editor at Kotaku, and Brett Douville, Lead Programmer at Bethesda Game Studios.We discuss the impact of indie games on AAA developers, "Anita and the cesspool," and why now is the best of all possible times to be a gamer...among many other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show Links: Kirk at Kotaku Kirk on Twitter Brett on Twitter Damsel in Distress: Part 1 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games [...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 40Brainy Gamer
This is the third in a series of conversations I'm hosting on the State of Games. I encourage you to listen to the first two episodes and stay tuned for the final installment which will appear in the coming days. In this edition I talk with Tom Bissell, essayist, critic, and most recently script-writer for the new Gears of War: Judgment game. We discuss writing for games, the perils of Metacritic, the future of storytelling in games, and many other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show Links: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter" Tom at Grantland Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation   This is the third in a series of conversations I'm hosting on the State of Games. I encourage you to listen to the first two episodes and stay tuned for the final installment which will appear in the coming days. In this edition I talk with Tom Bissell, essayist, critic, and most recently script-writer for the new Gears of War: Judgment game. We discuss writing for games, the perils of Metacritic, the future of storytelling in games, and many other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show Links: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter" Tom at Grantland Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation  [...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 39Brainy Gamer
        This is the second in a short series of conversations I'm hosting on the State of Games. I encourage you to listen to the first episode and stay tuned for the final two which will appear in the coming days. In this edition I talk with Chris Suellentrop, video game critic for the New York Times, and Steve Gaynor of the Fullbright Company, an indie game studio developing Gone Home, a finalist for the Excellence in Narrative award at the Indpendent Games Festival later this month. We discuss the transitional state of the game industry, the relationship of the critic to the designer, and the need for a proper festival for games ala Sundance, among other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show links: Chris Suellentrop at the New York Times Chris Suellentrop on Twitter Steve Gaynor's Fullbright Company Steve Gaynor on Twitter         This is the second in a short series of conversations I'm hosting on the State of Games. I encourage you to listen to the first episode and stay tuned for the final two which will appear in the coming days. In this edition I talk with Chris Suellentrop, video game critic for the New York Times, and Steve Gaynor of the Fullbright Company, an indie game studio developing Gone Home, a finalist for the Excellence in Narrative award at the Indpendent Games Festival later this month. We discuss the transitional state of the game industry, the relationship of the critic to the designer, and the need for a proper festival for games ala Sundance, among other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show links: Chris Suellentrop at the New York Times Chris Suellentrop on Twitter Steve Gaynor's Fullbright Company Steve Gaynor on Twitter [...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 38Brainy Gamer
     This is the first of several round-table conversations I'm hosting on the State of Games, an admittedly unwieldy topic, but well-timed, I think, in this transitional period for games and the game industry. In this edition I talk with Leigh Alexander and Brendan Keogh, two of the leading critical voices examining games and the culture surrounding them. We discuss the "ecology of games," play as communication, the culture wars, and why we need to "talk about the tree," among other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show links: Leigh on Twitter Leigh on Thought Catalog Brendan on Twitter Brendan's "Killing is Harmless" ebook Brendan's Critical Damage Unwinnable      This is the first of several round-table conversations I'm hosting on the State of Games, an admittedly unwieldy topic, but well-timed, I think, in this transitional period for games and the game industry. In this edition I talk with Leigh Alexander and Brendan Keogh, two of the leading critical voices examining games and the culture surrounding them. We discuss the "ecology of games," play as communication, the culture wars, and why we need to "talk about the tree," among other topics.  I hope you enjoy. 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. Show links: Leigh on Twitter Leigh on Thought Catalog Brendan on Twitter Brendan's "Killing is Harmless" ebook Brendan's Critical Damage Unwinnable [...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Why baseball is better than democracyBrainy Gamer
I don't often stray from video games on this blog, but sometimes my interest in games and my work as a stage director converge. My production of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out opens tomorrow night, and throughout the rehearsal process I've been struck by the play's analytical, yet lyrical take on baseball as a game that's more than a game.  Take Me Out (winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play) tells the story of a Major League Baseball player named Darren Lemming who suddenly announces he's gay. The play explores the powerful aftermath of his decision and its consequences on him and the players around him. It is also a love story. Darren's openly gay business manager Mason discovers the game of baseball and comes to embrace it as "this...astonishment! ...This...abundance." For the first time in his life, Mason learns to feel part of something bigger and greater than himself, and the experience fills him with gratitude. Greenberg is hardly the first writer to wax philosophical on baseball as metaphor, but I find his argument especially persuasive. Those of us who understand the restorative nature of play and its transformative possibilities may resonate with Mason's observation that baseball achieves a "tragic vision" that other organized activities avoid. In a beautifully crafted soliloquy, he explains why baseball is better than democracy: I have come (with no little excitement) to understand that baseball is a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society. It has to do with the rules of play. It has to do with the mode of enforcement of these rules. It has to do with certain nuances and grace notes of the game. First, it’s the remarkable symmetry of everything. All those threes and multiples of three – calling attention to – virtually making a fetish of the game’s noble equality. Equality, that is, of opportunity. Everyone is given exactly the same chance. And the opportunity to exercise that chance at his own pace. There’s none of the scurry, none of that relentlessness that marks other games – basketball, football or hockey. I’ve never watched basketball, football or hockey, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like them. Or maybe I would but it wouldn’t be the same. What I mean is, in baseball there’s no clock. What could be more generous than to give everyone all these opportunities and the time to seize them in, as well? And with each turn at the plate, there’s the possibility of turning the situation to your favor. Down to the very last try. And then, to insure that everything remains fair, justices are ranged around the park to witness and assess the play. And if the justice errs, an appeal can be made. It’s invariably turned down, but that’s part of what makes the metaphor so right. Because even in the most well-meant systems, error is inevitable. Even within the fairest of paradigms, unfairness will creep in. And baseball is better than democracy – or at least democracy as it’s practiced in this country – because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss. While conservatives tell you, ‘‘leave things alone and no one will lose,’’ and liberals tell you, ‘‘interfere a lot and no one will lose,’’ baseball says, ‘‘Someo[...]









Michael Abbott posted an entry Vintage Game Club: System Shock 2Brainy Gamer
When we discuss great games, we often cite particular moments burned into our brains: seeing Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina; the chainsaw zombie in Resident Evil 4; the death of Aeris; "Would you kindly..."; "The cake is a lie"; emerging from the sewers to gaze on Cyradil for the first time;  insult sword fighting; the final ascent in Journey; "Kick, punch, it's all in the mind." Those are a few of mine. System Shock 2 has many such moments, perhaps more than any other game. When devoted players discuss storytelling in games, someone inevitably declares System Shock 2 one of the best ever, and rightly so. Its canny mix of FPS, RPG and survival horror elements remains among the most thoughtful and well-balanced in video game history. Today, nearly every game is a mash-up of familiar genres. System Shock 2 was the first to do it right. And if you're an audio nut like me, SS2 remains one of the most affecting sound designs ever created for a game. Critics routinely describe SS2 as "atmospheric," and it certainly is, but more of that feeling creeps into your ears than your eyes. Wear headphones for this one, and don't ignore the audio logs. Let's play it!Today is a day to celebrate because Good Old Games (coming soon to Steam) has released System Shock 2 for all of us to revisit...or play for the first time. Along with the game, optimized for modern systems, players will receive the soundtrack, artwork, concept maps, an interview with Lead Designer Ken Levine, and the original pitch document, which is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and evolution of games. So is System Shock 2 the great game many claim it to be? Are we wistfully clinging to a critic's darling that's fashionable to talk about, but no longer fun to play? Can a 14-year-old game with primitive graphics speak to modern players? Is it possible for a game to improve with age? Now is your chance to answer those questions for yourself, 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 Monday, February 18. Good Old Games has released SS2 in a DRM-free version that runs well on modern PCs. If you already own a boxed version of the game that works on your system, that's great. Players on GOG's forums report that community mods (Hi-Res, widescreen, etc.) appear to work with the GOG version too.  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[...] When we discuss great games, we often cite particular moments burned into our brains: seeing Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina; the chainsaw zombie in Resident Evil 4; the d[...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry The stuff of Fairy TalesBrainy Gamer
Some think the World a Mysterie  Through which to blindlie blunder, Yet Wiseards since Prehistory Have sought to know its Wonder.            --”The Wizard’s Companion,” Ni no Kuni A hundred years from now, when cultural historians and literature professors look back on the games we’ve played for the last 30+ years, they will see a renaissance age of Fairy Tales. They will study a deep catalog of storytelling games filled with heroes and supernatural helpers, anthropomorphic animals, magic potions, healing fruit and epic sojourns. Tales of fate, souls redeemed, loved ones lost and found. Nature as leitmotif. Wise trees, restorative stones, and guiding wind. The stuff of fairy tales. The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, Mass Effect, Fable, despite their obvious differences, all exist within the "Perilous Realm” described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories: Fairy-story as “stories about fairies” …is too narrow. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. Like the video games we play, “fairy tale” is fraught with misconceptions, perceived by many as mindless frivolity aimed at children and adolescents. But we should know better. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (actual title: Children’s and Household Tales), our wildly imaginative games are accessible by children, but they also function on a deeper level where adults may unpack metaphorical connections to themes that challenge and captivate us, no matter our age. The melancholy, for example, that casts its shadow over the apparently childlike world of Wind Waker may not be apparent to children, but it’s there if you’re mature enough to see it. When those curious academics look back at our fairy tale games, I believe they will recognize Ni no Kuni as a significant achievement. Few games have captured the once-upon-a-time magic and fanciful spirit of fairy tale so completely. Menacing darkness - a mother’s death, an abandoned child, and an evil spirit bent on destroying him - underlies a bright enchanted universe of eccentric fairies, cat-kings, and cow-queens. A boy overcomes his fears. A perilous journey is undertaken. Of course, as with most fairy tales, there’s little new here, but novelty plays almost no role in such stories. Familiarity is a pivotal dimension of fairy tale because it is in the act of telling and re-telling that we dig into these apparently simple tales and derive meaning. In Ni no Kuni the infusion of Studio Ghibli style is notable because it distinguishes the game from the avalanche of teen-angst anime that has dominated JRPGs for s[...]






Michael Abbott posted an entry The humble caseBrainy Gamer
A few days ago, I wrote that reasonable people have genuine concerns about the effects of violent video games - and depictions of violence across media - on our kids and society at large. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, harsh critics of video games have pitched drastic measures to curb violent content, while defenders contend our fascination with violence is healthy, innate and as old as The Iliad. Neither argument is fully persuasive, and I think most of us fall somewhere between the two perspectives. Banning or censoring “objectionable” material is a dangerous and self-defeating precedent ; but the ceaseless flow of combat, death and destruction in games has come to feel overwhelming, even to those of us who sometimes consume and enjoy such media. It’s important to note this isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them. That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games - beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium - are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. I am forever explaining why this hero-saves-the-world game is infinitely superior to that one, among colleagues who can see no apparent difference between the two. But they are different, and those differences matter. As a teacher, I’m predisposed to believing we can teach and learn our way past most problems. Maybe that’s a naive perspective. Perhaps Ian Bogost is right when he calls Joe Biden’s meeting with the video game industry “a trap.” The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education. I understand Bogost’s point, but I don’t believe talking to a politician implies acquiescence. We can’t surrender a point we haven’t yet owned (I didn’t say “earned,” which is a different thing). Bogost and I (and probably you) know from experience that games are, in fact, a “diverse and robust medium,” but the conversations I described in my last post suggest we’re nowhere near ubiquity on that point of view. Brendan Sinclair gets it right in an op-ed piece that appeared on GamesIndustry earlier today: Despite everything the Wii and mobile and social games have done to[...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Notes from the wildBrainy Gamer
This holiday season I went off the grid. No email. No Twitter or Feedly. Notifications disabled. Nothing chirping for my attention except my kid, whose startup sequence deploys at 6:30 A.M. This wasn’t something I planned, but after a few days I decided to stick with it. I expected to feel disconnected, but instead it felt cleansing, liberating…necessary. If you can manage to cut the cord, even for a few days, I recommend giving it a try. You may find yourself noticing things like the UPS man’s nifty gloves, the sound of snow crunching under your feet, or your own breathing. During my time in the analog wild, I thought a lot about games. I made a point of discussing them with anyone willing to chat with me about them. My circumstances in recent weeks brought me into contact with students from all over the world, travelers, family members, and a broad assortment of friendly folks I met between Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Recently I’ve begun to reflect on how we think and talk about games and the industry producing them. By “we” I mean developers, critics, enthusiasts - basically anyone likely to visit this site or others like it. The upside of our evolving community is an enhanced critical focus on games and quality writing about them. The downside is that we’re growing increasingly detached from the people who play games and fuel the market for them. I see this as a predictable (and not altogether negative) result of several factors: growing specialization among critics and a trajectory toward more micro-analysis; an increasingly segmented market of games and players; and a natural tendency to overestimate the prominence of the echo chamber we’ve built to host our conversations. My informal chats with “regular gamers” have led me to a few conclusions, none of which I’ll attempt to quantify. I’m relying on impressions gathered through careful listening here, so if you’re looking for hard data, you should probably get off the bus now. I’m an artist, not a sociologist, folks. :-) We don’t pay enough attention to the games people actually play. Many of us were happy to learn that Dishonored recently topped 2 million in sales, exceeding expectations of its publisher. According to Bethesda’s Pete Hines, “We clearly have a new franchise." Good news for a good game, but consider it in context with Rovio’s recent announcement that its Angry Birds games were downloaded 8 million times on Christmas Day alone, and 30 million times in the week of December 22–29.  Clearly, I’m comparing apples and oranges in terms of design and price, but my point is that we routinely ignore mobile/tablet games that utterly dominate the games marketplace. Sure, many of these games are throwaways (as are some console games that receive far more attention), and a few receive critical-darling treatment (e.g. Superbrothers: S&S, Osmos). But most mobile/tablet games appear and disappear quietly with little critical fanfare outside mobile-centric sites like Touch Arcade or Slide to Play. For games like Dream of Pixels, Gua-Le-Ni, [...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry X of the YearBrainy Gamer
I'm a sucker for all the "best of" lists that appear at the end of the year, but they do get repetitive. This year we'll see an avalanche of game roundups that include Journey and The Walking Dead, among other deserving games. Just for fun, what do you say we try something a little different? I've been thinking about things that stuck with me playing games this year. Little moments. Surprises. Disappointments. People who made me stop and think. So I decided to make my own highly subjective list to account for them. Here are a few of my favorite things (and one not-so-favorite), 2012 edition. [Feel free to add your own "X of the Year" categories and winners in the comments below. I based these on my own experiences. I hope you'll do the same.] Mechanic of the Year - Dishonoured's Blink "Blinking" in Dishonored was the most fun I've had since donning a Tanooki suit in Super Mario Bros. 3. When a game mechanic encourages you to abandon all pretense of story or progress and simply fool around with it for hours on end, that's the mark of a fun mechanic. Blink (the ability to instantly teleport short distances undetected) is the core tool in Dishonored's strategy arsenal, so it had better feel like butter. And it does. Like any well designed mechanic, it's also multipurpose, useful in various situations (e.g. climbing, sneaking, fleeing, exploring). In 2012 Assassin's Creed 3 gave us a Dissociative Identity Disorder assassin hurtling through trees, but I'll take a failed bodyguard blinking his way around steampunk Dunwall any day. NPC of the Year - Kenny in The Walking Dead The Walking Dead is the first game I've played that can truly be spoiled by spoilers, so I won't say anything too specific about Kenny. I will say that 90% of all media (not just games) that depict characters like Kenny present him as an ignorant chaw-chomping redneck spouting homespun "wisdom" for comic relief. Kenny in The Walking Dead is a man you can't size up in a glance. Telltale wisely refused to dull his sharp edges or dismiss him as foil, sidekick, or obstacle. He's a man with a family in an impossible situation. That Kenny appears, flaws and all, in The Walking Dead sans dramaturgically convenient devices attached is a testament to the ongoing maturation of storytelling in games. Comeback of the Year - PC gaming Some time in the mid-1990s we began hearing the death knell for PC gaming, and that bell hasn't stopped ringing...until this year. 2012 was the year PC games reemerged as a dominant platform for gaming, thanks to several converging factors: 1.) The ubiquity of Steam and its status as the industry model for digital distribution 2.) All three major consoles reaching the ends of their life-cycles 3.) Developers no longer ignoring or shipping sloppy ports to PC. Nearly all cross-platform AAA games released on PC this year were on-par or superior to console versions 4.) Indie games taking root on the PC, aided by Humble Bundles, Steam sales, and[...]






Michael Abbott posted an entry Gallery of goodnessBrainy Gamer
It’s time to stop fretting about storytelling in video games. Five years ago - around the time Bioshock appeared - designers and critics began to intensify our focus on things like player agency and emergent gameplay. We coined phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance” and “on-rails” storytelling to characterize how games often fall short of their potential or dim in comparison to more mature media. Games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 became rallying points for us to gather and measure the progress of narrative games to that point. These were tremendously useful conversations, well worth the energy they consumed. But times have changed and so have the games. If the crop of 2012 proves anything, it’s that games and their designers now claim storytelling space across a wider spectrum of design and discourse. Progressive designers have severed ties with film and other media, or they’ve repurposed the language of those media to serve their creative ends. Abstraction is no longer a low-budget refuge, but a tool leveraged by artists who see opportunity in fracturing time and space, filling their storytelling worlds with punchy ideas that push us to assemble meaning. The narrative games of 2012 have the audacity to make us keep up. Have you played Thirty Flights of Loving, by the way? The games of 2012 suggest that designers are discovering and exploiting more channels of communication with players. In the past, these efforts have mostly been about experimenting with genre. Limbo is a great example of a developer mixing familiar gameplay mechanics with macabre horror elements to make something that looks familiar, but feels different. Filmmakers have done this for years, mimicking or reframing genre (e.g. zombie movies, westerns, vampire tales), applying a canny modern sensibility to address contemporary themes. Quentin Tarantino has made a career of it. But few filmmakers stray from conventional storytelling forms. They may play with linearity or occasionally rethink the screen space (television is actually more ambitious in this regard), but most thematically ambitious films conform to standard presentations of time, place, and character. Not video games. In 2012, many of the best play-worthy games were built by designers who found their voices by re-thinking the essential structure and function of games. This year, the very definition of “game” was thrown into question more often and by more designers than ever before. If the signature of a vibrant art is artists pushing conventional boundaries, questioning formal assumptions, and producing provocative, wildly divergent work, this was a very good year for the art of games. For a taste of what I mean, consider this gallery of assorted goodness. (Note: some parts of these descriptions are drawn from developer blurbs or related sources, but most are my own): Unmanned - Winner of the 2012 IndieCade Grand Jury Prize, molleindustria’s newest game is about a day in the life of a drone pilot. The game relies on [...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry The wreckage and the way outBrainy Gamer
I tried hard not to write this post. I finished Papo & Yo three weeks ago, and each day since, I promised myself I would sit down and write about it. But each day I found a new way to dodge the job. Too busy. Couldn’t find the words. Moved on to other games. Who cares what I think anyway? Always a reason to avoid facing the empty page and the memories. For five years I’ve written about all sorts of games here. Papo & Yo is the first to incapacitate me; to make me feel awkward and inadequate to the task. Papo & Yo brought me face-to-face with painful truths I've never addressed. It resurrected pieces of my childhood long buried in the dirt. It took me where I've never wanted to go. Back to my father, and that fearful time, and all the wreckage. Papo & Yo opens with a boy alone in the dark, cowering in the corner of his room as a growling monster paces outside his door. Trapped and petrified, the boy hugs his favorite toy, hoping the danger will pass. Suddenly a mysterious glyph appears on the wall: a magical escape portal summoned, we soon learn, by his imagination. He gathers his courage, rises, and walks toward it. Nearly everything we need to know about this boy is conveyed in these few vivid moments. Papo & Yo is not a sentimental game. Instead of gently liberating him from the monster, the portal forcibly ejects the boy, tossing him head over heels onto the stone pavement where he lands in a heap. A young girl beckons him through a mysterious door that disappears when he draws near it, and she revels in confounding him. The monster reappears, burning with rage to chase and assault him. Soon a white chalk line will inexorably draw him to revisit violent images from his past. Death, abuse, and reckless violence unfold, and Quico is powerless to dispel them. He must learn to adapt. Accept. And let go. Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. When Quico rearranges the favela, bending buildings like vinyl tubing, it’s possible to see this reconstruction as absurdly easy puzzle-solving. But doing so presumes “gameplay” cannot be abstracted in the ways we routinely abstract other design elements. In other words, instead of assuming Papo & Yo’s puzzles were designed by hopelessly incompetent puzzle-makers, why not consider the possibility that their simplicity communicates something essential about the story this game wants to tell? Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. Quico’s challenge isn’t solving puzzles. There is nothing puzzling about his existence. Quico is painfully well acquainted with his dire existence. His challenge is to survive and overcome a sinister reality. Activating gears and rearranging buildings are simple means to evocative ends. Quico runs and climbs and imagines he [...]









Michael Abbott posted an entry Emotional experience through a gameplay worldBrainy Gamer
The nature of our terms affects the nature of our observations.                                                                                     --Kenneth Burke We need a better way to write about games. I don’t mean a new form of journalism. I’m not seeking the Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael of video games. My point is much simpler. We need more words. For a long time we’ve tried to make games align with our critical sensibilities. We’ve focused a dramaturgical lens on narrative games; we’ve applied film theory to cinematic games; we’ve examined games as rhetorical systems; and we’ve tried to understand the systemic principles that define games. These are worthy efforts, not a waste of time. We each shine the light we own. But as we’ve waited for games to “grow up” and claim their cultural place in the sun, the medium has broadened and deepened beyond our ability to discern it. In other words, as we’ve struggled to affix labels like “art game” and “experiential game” to a broad stylistic spectrum, game makers - mostly, but not exclusively, in the indie space - continue to push ahead, challenging us to keep up and find new ways to critically engage. I'm talking about designers like Jonathan Mak, Mark Essen, Christine Love, Jonathon Blow, and Jenova Chen, among others. I'm talking about studios like Molleindustria, Capybara, and Tale of Tales. I'm talking about an indie movement bigger than games, driven by what Paolo Pedercini (Molleindustria) calls a "soft-rebellion" of artists with "an excess of creativity…a creativity that exceeds the ability of capital to commodify it." We’re no longer waiting for designers to produce games worthy of critical scrutiny. The situation has reversed. Creative designers are building games, inviting us to find a language or critical approach to convey their essential meaning...or if not meaning, then what they are. What they do. New tools (or refined tools) for new games. We can go about this in several ways, but maybe the best place to start is to think about our critical lexicon. We need new words. Or better words. Or simply different words. We’ve worn out the old ones. I'll show you what I mean. Focusing on three “artsy” games released this year - Journey, Papo & Yo, and The Unfinished Swan - I collated review and analysis texts from a range of outlets[...]



Michael Abbott posted an entry Crafting wonderBrainy Gamer
Players and critics are hardwired to classify. We obsessively index and categorize the games we play, relying on their mechanical properties (platformer, RTS, FPS, etc.) to communicate their essential characteristics. Not content to classify the games, we even classify the gamers, building taxonomies to describe who plays games and why. We’re human. We file things. We can’t help it. Publishers follow suit, describing their games in familiar terms. When I saw Dishonored a few months ago at E3, the booth rep made sure I knew the game would appeal to FPS and stealth and RPG fans alike. The Arkane/Bethesda folks wanted us to know Dishonored would blend and refine familiar elements from other successful titles, and those expectations frame how we see the game. It's hard to find a review of the game that doesn't focus on Dishonored's mechanical debts to Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex, etc. UnclassifiedBut what about games that downplay or discard traditional game architecture? How do we classify them...or should we? We can discuss games like Journey, and Dear Esther in the same breath with Eric Loyer’s games (Ruben & Lullaby, Strange Rain) or the work produced by Tale of Tales (The Path, The Graveyard), but these games share little in common, aside from their status as “art games” or “experiential games.” There I go classifying again. It’s possible to ask more interesting questions. At IndieCade last week, I attended an illuminating panel discussion among three designers from different places on the design spectrum: Jenova Chen, Creative Director of Journey and Flower, Amy Hennig, Creative Director of the Uncharted series, and Ian Dallas, Creative Director of The Unfinished Swan. Moderator Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther) began by asking what developers can learn from adopting an unorthodox approach to game design. Jenova Chen observed “there is a big difference between being a designer and a director,” noting an important distinction between mechanics design and 'experience design.' “I really see my brain functioning differently when I'm trying to create an emotional arc and meaning. I'm thinking as a director, not a level designer or a mechanics designer.” He emphasized the importance of crafting the player’s experience, enabling the player to behave freely in a game world, but within purposeful constraints that impart meaning. Amy Hennig concurred, stressing her belief in authored experiences. “All my favorite games have a definite authorial voice. It is a crafted experience.” For the developer, this requires a “giant act of faith” in your team. It is unrealistic to expect one person to drive a singular vision. A team must build “creative trust and humility” to determine that vision and collectively pursue it. The Fun Imperative “In experiential games, we're not necessaril[...]












Michael Abbott posted an entry What a lifeBrainy Gamer
I know a game designer. He is quiet. Absorbed. A bemused observer. The one who notices patterns. The smart kid who sat in the back at school, bored out of his mind. He is a builder, but for as long as he can remember he's been caught between two conflicting impulses: save the world, or blow it up and make a new one. He lives in the space between, drawn to anarchy, but irritated by disorder. He believes a robust system can harness chaos, but he knows entropy will play the last card. Still, he stubbornly believes he can win. The triumph of design. The elegant loop. Optimal trumps beautiful. Strike that. Optimal is beautiful. He does his best work alone. He trusts his instincts, but fears he may be too smart for his own good. His intelligence both enables and alienates him. He lacks the common touch. The winning smile. The self-effacing demeanor. He says the thing that needs to be said, but at the wrong time, or with the wrong inflection. Charm is an awkward chore. He wishes we could skip the diplomacy and just focus on the work. For him, it's always about the work. Keep your eye on the ball. Leave your pride at the door. Bromides, but valid ones. He lives for incremental progress. The daily grind is the fun part for him. The crashes and roadblocks are his wheelhouse. Eureka moments are lovely, but overrated. He has learned to appreciate the squashed bug that stays dead. He shares an uneasy relationship with his audience, the player. Without her, his game doesn't exist. He needs her, yet mistrusts her. She will teach him things he needs to know about his game, but what will he teach her? What is she willing to learn? Can he challenge her expectations without losing her? Her confusion will be his mistake. How to balance the urge to please with the resolve to push, to innovate? Sometimes when his mind wanders, he recalls his days in QA. It's definitely better on this side of the fence. Now he's on an airplane with the latest build on his hard drive. He's headed to an event where he will show and tell and show and tell. He's got the business cards and the pithy description, but his ace is the game, all by itself. Out of the kitchen before it's finished, he'll share it with people he's never met, hoping they will spend a few moments to consider a thing he's risked everything to make. He'll take notes. Maybe he'll get a meeting. I know a game designer. His work lives in an unreal space. Call him an artist. Or don't. It makes no difference. His game is the thing. File it in whatever cultural drawer you like. I know a game designer. He acts like God. What a life.[...] I know a game designer. He is quiet. Absorbed. A bemused observer. The one who notices patterns. The smart kid who sat [...]