Thursday, November 19, 2015


It's a game about... choice.  Is that helpful?  No?

Undertale is pretty unique.  I don't want to tell you too much about it.  It's best at:

  • Surprising you with mechanics
  • Surprising you with emotions
  • Surprising you with meta-awareness
  • Surprising you with humor
  • Just plain surprising you

The overall game art style looks very retro in screenshots, to the point of looking amateur - especially when it comes to the terrain.  But, when you get into the game, you see that the work put into animations, dialogue timing, sound effects, and character art is tremendous.  There is a LOT of charm lurking underneath the surface of this game.

If you played Earthbound on the SNES, you'll find a lot is familiar.  An even bigger emphasis is put on character relationships and non-combat solutions.  There's a kind of... twisted innocence, I think is what I'd call it, that it shares with its spiritual predecessor as well - a sense of the world's tremendous capacity for evil, and wrongness, and at the same time just being silly, cracking jokes, and having fun.

The combat is just bonkers.  The acronym I would coin to describe it is Contextual Shape-Based Bullet Hell (CSBBH).  It really is a brilliant approach, feeding conversational elements into the gameplay, taking something very basic and making it feel novel, something that changes drastically with every foe or friend you meet.

It's also a game that, from a storytelling perspective, got me to feel invested enough that I experienced some real anger at some of the "surprises" - so angry I uninstalled it.  Then, I re-installed it, and played through from the beginning again.  And I don't regret that.  I'm completely satisfied with my experience.  I can't say that of many games now, especially not having the time to play as much as I used to.  I really felt like I had to play it again.

You can get through the game in 5-6 hours, though it offers much more with subsequent playthroughs, and might involve a significant time investment if you want to see all it has to offer.  I really enjoyed the writing, the charm, and the world the game builds.  I highly recommend it.

If you're still not sold and want to learn a bit more, I suggest the Rock Paper Shotgun article on the game.  It manages to avoid spoilers while giving you a little more on the details of what makes it unique.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

PAX 2015

I'm walking down the street in an unfamiliar city. I've been to Seattle once before, as a visitor and a sightseer, but I'm in Seattle for something very specific this time. I came here chasing down a convention I've been trying to attend for three years: the Penny Arcade Expo. And now the convention is almost over, and there's just one thing left to do.

I'm following half-remembered directions to restaurant where a concert is happening... I think. Some guy from some line mentioned it. I like everything to be planned out explicitly, so walking eight blocks toward something I think might be happening is a little unusual for me. But, after four days of roaming the convention, I'm willing to take a little risk to see something cool.

In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made that whole weekend.


I often ask myself why the idea of gaming is so compelling for me, when at the same time it carries such a cultural stigma. It's hard to reconcile, but the word "gaming" to me is actually kind of distasteful when written out. I want some other word to describe this hobby.  Somehow, “Gaming” brings out a feeling of judgment in my head, judgment from of the uninitiated.  Perhaps it's just too vague of a word. It doesn't really mean anything – it doesn't even describe play adequately. It sounds like running, walking, or breathing. Activities, not states of interaction.

Still, I think much of the social confusion around the word has infiltrated my own perspective. It's with this in mind that I decided to attend what is one of the largest gaming conventions in the world, founded by two people who are personally some of the most influential in my thinking about games and about what the word “gaming” means, Gabe and Tycho from the Penny Arcade comic, which I have been reading for most of my adult life. I was reading the comic when Diablo 2 came out, for Christ's sake. Am I really that old?

Anyway, I wanted to see what it was like when thousands upon thousands of people who shared the interest in this pastime gathered together. Would the stigma evaporate? Or would I just find a better word for it?


I walk into the restaurant. It's Monday, the last day of PAX, after the end of the last official event, but you can still see lanyards around peoples' necks – the easiest way to spot fellow attendees. I also spot some folks wearing shirts with geeky videogame lore and other science-fiction or fantasy cultural icons. So I think I'm in the right place.

It was one of the many people I met standing in line at PAX who I happened to strike up a conversation with that told me about the concert. Over the previous three days, I had spent so much time running all over downtown Seattle going to all the various panels, unreleased game demos, and other random rooms and nooks and crannies at PAX, that I had never felt up for going to any type of after-hours event. So this was my last chance.

I ordered a burger and a beer and sat down and waited. I was pretty good at waiting by that point.


The insane Magic the Gathering set piece
PAX started with a line. It continued with many more lines. For the most popular events, it's not uncommon to try and show up two or three hours early just to ensure that you get a spot (as a general rule, I would say that if you see a long line at PAX and it's not capped, you should probably stand in it, because it is probably something awesome). The first people I met in line, Bree and Laney from Monterey, weren't even there for the panel I was in line in – the two opening panels of PAX, Storytime (with Kim Swift this year) and a Q&A with Gabe and Tycho – they were there for the third panel, two panels away, a guy named rooster teeth. Apparently, he's pretty popular on the YouTubes. And they wanted the best spots in line.

From the beginning, I wanted to talk to people. And it seemed like the other people of PAX want to talk as well. Every time I started up a conversation, it flowed naturally from various topics in common, and others nearby would join in randomly. Topics ranged quickly from gaming to culture, to the best things to do at the convention, and always back to gaming; what were people playing, what was new, etc. And, in my favorite line-based diversion, people would occasionally just sit down in the middle of the line and play something. If the line wasn't moving, you could usually get in a game of Magic or two in before you had to stand up again.

So I talked. I talked to Russ on the plane from Santa Barbara (there were four other people attending PAX on that plane). He had recently broken his foot and was going to the convention on the little knee-scooter. He was big into first-person shooters and another Rooster Teeth fan. It felt strange, realizing we had little in common in our gaming habits (I'm not a big FPS player), and yet it felt like we had so much in common in attending the convention. There was an urge to converse there that was new to me. I'm not a person who normally gets chatty with strangers, but this was special. Someone else has made the choice of expending time and money to go to this crazy thing that I'm also going to, because they love games, had even built a social circle around them – his Halo clan attended PAX regularly to meet up.

I talked to Zach, Chris, and Alex – about World of Warcraft and all that's changed since I played, about Magic the Gathering (we also played a quick game in line), and about the celebrities at the convention. The three of them were all “Enforcers”, a class of attendee who actually volunteer for most of the convention to help it operate; they manage lines, they move merchandise and gear, and they help people have fun while waiting in line by giving out goodies, organizing random little talent shows or other events, and just generally making you feel like there was a warm presence around you at all times, which you could query if you were lost or confused and get answers. Enforces are awesome, and I told them as much.

I also talked to people constantly about their early gaming memories. Nostalgia is one of the greatest bonding agents. When strangers say SNES like it's an actual word, and not an acronym, my heart melts a little bit.


More people are appearing now. I am starting to wonder about this band. All I know is that they're called 7bit Heros. I assume they play video game inspired music, but I didn't even ask the person who told me about the concert why they wanted to see this band. I can see they're setting up merchandise for sale in the little side booth, but I'm not exactly sure where the band is playing. There doesn't seem to be a space in the narrow restaurant/bar area for a band to stand.

Tickets for the band are about to go on sale. Two girls walking to the bar and hover near my table, so I strike up another conversation. It seems these two are big fans of the band, and mentioned something about there being an app you can install while you're listening to the concert. Interesting.


Enough about waiting. Let's talk about the Expo Hall, that massive space of darkness and light.

The Expo Hall is open from 10 AM to 6 PM. This year, it spanned two floors of the convention center. It is full of games which have not yet been released, and you can stand in line to play any of them, oftentimes earning some free swag for your trouble such as T-shirts, lanyards, beta access codes, etc.

When I first arrived in the Expo Hall, I was a little overwhelmed. Too many choices. Then, looking through the paper schedule that Bree and Laney had given me (they'd had an extra), I saw a gigantic spaceship.

I like spaceships. I pledged too much money to Star Citizen. And these spaceships were even bigger!

The game was Dreadnought. It's a game that I had seen Rock Paper Shotgun do a story on a while ago and had been enamored with. The game pits gigantic lumbering spacecraft against each other in team combat, over broken landscapes. It looked amazing and had the kind of graceful slow-paced combat of Mechwarrior, akin to naval warfare in its carefully planned maneuvers and slowly shifting front lines.

The Dreadnought booth
I made a beeline for the Greybox booth, saw they had a huge number of stations set up, and got in line. I was not disappointed. The fact that the game is set up as a five versus five means that some of the people you're standing in line with will invariably be your teammates, or your enemies. This makes for great conversation about the various roles and strategies – there are tankish ships, artillery ships, support/healing ships, etc. Each team also gets a set of wired headsets and microphones to help coordinate. The game was a huge blast. For beta access, you can sign up to the closed beta on their website.

I also fooled around with a few other games in the Expo Hall, mainly the VR rigs Oculus Rift and Morpheus, which were interesting but nothing mind blowing. It was really just fun to walk around and see all of the games being played, the gigantic inflated Pikachu hovering over the Pokémon booth, the grunts, grows, and impacts of the Street Fighter V booth, the sheer spectacle and newness of everything.


We go up and get our wrists stamped and head into the tiny venue, which I didn't even realize was part of the building. How they are going to fit 100 people in this room, I have no idea, but the girls who had been hanging around my table and I are there early enough to actually get a seat near the back. After a little longer, someone who I assume is the band manager begins walking around asking people if they've installed the app, explaining how to log in, etc. Talking to my booth mates, I'm told the app doesn't work very well on android, which is unfortunate for me.

The band has also brought their own Wi-Fi access point. Apparently there will be some sort of coordinated interaction through the app if you connect to the Wi-Fi.

The band gets set up on stage and people fill the little room. A projector displays an image behind the band. A little blocky-headed avatar appears along with the bubble-text “I'm the tutorial!”


The Expo floor is amazing, but that's not the coolest thing about the convention. The coolest thing is all of the other little bits and bobs, hidden rooms, and random events that you can stumble into while you're wondering around.

At the top of my list of random side-attractions is the Smash Brothers and Console Freeplay rooms (plural). Arguably the most wonderful experience I had at PAX was stumbling into a room with rows and rows of tables and displays running the newest Smash Brothers – which I had never played – and immediately sitting down and battling it out with a bunch of strangers. I had forgotten how much I loved this game. It's just so satisfying, even when you aren't doing very well, to land a great attack and clobber someone. Combined with that nostalgia bonding agent that comes with the game populated by Nintendo characters, you make instant friends.

The Joust crowds are another highlight. This aspect of the convention that doesn't come out until after dark, when strange circles of people form on the upper levels of the convention center around 9 or 10pm, with figures dancing in bizarre slow-and-fast motion in the center, holding little glowy orb stick things.


The first day I ran into the joust crowd, I played once and got instantly eliminated. I was a little disheartened. I'm not a person who usually likes physical contact sports, and this ran a little too close for my taste. The rules are that you have to keep your little motion sensor thing moving steadily to the pace of the music, and you can push and shove other players gently. But on the second day, I walked by again, and realized that I felt like I was missing out on something.

So I jumped in and played for around two hours, until the building shut down. Something about the game really allows people's personalities to shine through their play. You could play aggressively and move quickly, try to surprise people by sneaking up behind them and bumping their arm, even try and blend in with the crowd of spectators to avoid detection. This is a game that I think anyone who doesn't really consider themselves a gamer could get into.

On the panels, of all of the random panels I went to, the Dub Fight panel is probably my favorite. I didn't even know what it was until I was in line for it. The videos should eventually be up on their website, but you can see some of their older clips there.


We're sitting at the back of the venue, up on the backs of the booth seats to get a good view. The two girls whom I had just met turn out to be hugely into World of Warcraft.  One of them is GM for a guild on Malfurion, and the other is a member of that same guild. They had never met in person, but had known each other online for nine years. PAX was, for them and many others, an excuse to make that meeting face-to-face meeting happen. 
I have never been plopped into a group of 40,000 people with whom I have so many things in common.


Something that I've always taken for granted as a gamer since a young age is the language we learn – the icons, the instructions, the expectations – something entirely unique, and something that takes time to master and appreciate. You learn how deep and extensive this languages when you introduce someone who has never played a game to a system and they struggle with the basic concepts – like how to navigate, what a mini map is, how mouselook works.
Although I think a lot of us like to think games are intuitive, in truth they are filled with a hodgepodge of conventions and shortcuts, almost as arbitrary and self-centered a language as something like music notation. Why should the right stick control the camera and the left stick control movement? What happens when you run over the little power-up shaped like a rocket? Why does jumping on things kill them?

If you know the answer, you're part of the club. And for once, at this convention, that meant inclusion – not exclusion.

Yes, of course it's fun to be around people who think like you do and who share your interests. There's not much new about that. But building that shared interest around a medium that is based on interaction? I think that produces something unique.


"A space pyramid! Let's shoot face lasers at it to see if it's friendly!”

Eight random player avatars from the audience suddenly appear on the massive projection behind the band, and they all begin tapping away on their phones and tablets, firing lasers at a pyramid looking thing. The game the band has created to accompany their concerts is exceedingly simple – press the button the fastest, get the highest score – and yet it works perfectly. No real knowledge of how the game works is necessary. Only timing matters.

The pyramid explodes, melting under the concentrated firepower of tippity-taps. A large purple thing pops out.

Oh no! It's SPACE CAT!”

The large purple thing, which I recognize now as a legless purple flying cat (or space cat), flies off screen. The game's villain is established.


I often wonder how to describe the things that gaming contributes to culture. Gaming is a conversation between the player and the game, in a language that takes time to master. So, after the convention, after giving it some thought, here's what I think: gaming provides an avenue of interaction not only with fiction, with narratives and art, but with other people. It can be a social conduit and lubricant. It provides a space of thought where cooperation and competitive experiences can be explored with limited consequences. And, when enough people who value these things come together in one place, it can contribute something very meaningful: acceptance. That's what a crowd of strangers, what PAX, gave to me, and what thousands of hours on the internet could never really provide.


As the band plays, SPACE CAT swallows the players and now they're in the SPACE CAT intestines.  There are bees for some reason, and SPACE CAT throws them all up.   


Now the players tap to run away on SPACE CAT's really, really long tongue to avoid being eaten again. The players fall off the tongue, and in a brief dialogue, one falling player comments on the unfinished nature of the game.  This is apt, because the game wouldn't even run on my phone.  I didn't care.  Something weird was happening as I was watching – I had a feeling of rightness, a feeling of two things put together I had never seen before (public performance and interactive gaming), a feeling of the complete absurdity of what I was watching, and a feeling that I and everyone in the room was completely invested it.

The 7bit Heros game gives off a familiar vibe; you feel like it started with a pile of weird lyrics and goofy characters, and had a story written on top to give it meaning and connect it all together into something that made sense. Looking at the big picture, I think PAX is the haven of absurdity that gives this culture meaning.  It takes the idea of gamers, of having a passion for play, and, without trying to make it serious in an academic way, makes it feel worthy on a very personal level.

I will definitely be back.

Friday, July 3, 2015

What I'm Playing

Hey look, a short-ish post!
While I wait for Witcher the 3rd to go on sale (I'm sorry, 10% is not a real sale in my book), I'm currently playing two games from the Summer Steam sale.  The beautiful platformer Ori and the Blind Forest, and the college freshmen simulator/adventure game Life is Strange.

What I can say about Ori and the Blind Forest is that I initially thought the game had blown its aesthetic and emotional wad in the first few scenes, and shown me everything it had to offer. I didn't think my interest would stick after getting into the actual game.  However, every time I come back to it, I can't get away from how much fun it is to watch this little guy scamper around.


The game is very Zelda/Metroid-esque in hiding sequentially powerful upgrades all over the place. I've played a million games like this, but none of them look like this.  The only way that I can describe the animation is: "joyful."  Another interesting feature is that saving your game is integrated into the gameplay. Although there are regular checkpoints as well, you can also save in the middle of a level if you expend a little bit of one of your energy resources. Energy is also used to open certain locked doors, and to use certain attacks.  Tying a gameplay focused resource to an optional save feature is honestly a brilliant idea, especially in a game as challenging as this one.  It makes for lots of interesting decisions.

The other game, Life Is Strange, is an adventure-ish game in which the main character, Max, is a 19-year-old girl with the power of to reverse time at will. Off to a great start.  I was a transfer student, so I never got that freshman year in the dorms. Also I'm not female. So this game offers some interesting social perspectives, in addition to the time travel.

The game seems to be about toying with reality and undoing decisions that you don't like, in an interesting inversion of the typical consequence-focused adventure game such as the Telltale Games, which seem to discourage you from "rewinding" so to speak and undoing your decisions.  My assumption is that they feel the mystery of not knowing what would've happened if you made the other choice tends to give your decisions much more weight, but here, the game encourages you to try to cheat, weaseling out of bad situations, orchestrating good ones, and gathering every piece of information before you commit to a choice.  


In Life Is Strange, you can literally rewind a conversation you didn't like and redo it, entirely within the fiction of the game.  You can do something crazy and piss someone off, and then un-piss them off.  It feels a little sacrilegious at first, but really, it's tons of fun.  I'm excited to see how they toy with this later in the game.  And the writing seems pretty good.  There are some hefty allusions to the Butterfly Effect, as you'll see from the video...


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alternative Input: The Devil's Due

I want to talk about something that is not very fun. Pain. Thanks to a life integrated with computers, I have been dealing with chronic wrist, hand, and shoulder pain for the last two years. Some of my friends know about this, but I've never really revealed the extent of how it's affected my lifestyle.  It has affected a lot of things, but it hasn't affected anything like it's affected my gaming habits.  It has affected what I can play, how long I can play it for, and how I can play it.  And it's affected one game more than others…

Let me start by saying that I love the Diablo series of games. I have loved them since the very first game.  I can remember it as one of the first truly addictive experiences that ran on our first family computer, a Pentium 90.  The dark, Gothic aesthetic; the atmosphere drenched with morose and yet slightly folksy music; the writing, which I found to be pretty strong with the original game; just an overall sense of being pitted against a grotesque menagerie of things you could never understand or predict (it was one of the first games I remember playing with random dungeon layouts). And it had some truly memorable enemies.

Still, one of the incredible things about the first Diablo game was that, in multiplayer mode, when you died, your character simply dropped everything on the ground.  It was the original hardcore mode, and while playing this way, it was actually quite easy to lose every single one of your items if you died in the wrong place on a high difficulty setting. I can remember playing as the Warrior getting into a particularly bad situation somewhere in the caves section, the third major environment you encounter.  I believe it started with me walking into a small enclosed cage with a treasure chest inside. I was then murdered by a pack of invisible ghouls.  Coincidentally, these monsters have some great backstory:

But back to the story.  When I died, all of my equipment was dropped inside a small cage filled with murderous invisible ghouls. You can see that this was a problem.  I also wasn't left with very much money. Without a full set of armor, the ghouls would likely kill me in one hit, so it would be pointless to buy a new melee weapon.  If I died again, I probably wouldn't have enough money to buy a single item, and I'd have to start over punching rats on the first floor.  The only thing that seemed useful for purchase in town was a Staff of Firewall.  This is a staff with a limited number of charges of the spell Firewall, which, predictable, creates a wall of fire.  So I spent all my money on the staff and trudged down to the floor I died on for an all-or-nothing charge.

My valiant charge went something like this:
  1. Enter level.
  2. Hear the sound of an invisible ghoul moaning at me.
  3. Panic.
  4. Spam-right-click Firewall on every visible open space, filling the ENTIRE SCREEN with fire.
  5. Hear the sound of dying ghouls.
  6. Wait for the inferno to dissipate, walk out and claim my equipment, then flee.
I can remember many experiences like this. The prospect of losing all of your equipment added something that I had never experienced in gaming - true fear.  We actually played in multi-player mode, even when playing alone, for that feeling.  The adrenaline kept me playing, and my Dad who played alongside me as well, for a very long time. 

When Diablo 2 came out, it was more of the same, with better graphics, more spells, and more items.  You can probably imagine how much time I spent with that game.

Let me take a moment to point something out about the Diablo games. Although they can definitely be challenging, they have extremely simple controls. Left click, move or attack. Right-click, cast a spell.  Some assorted hot keys for other spells (most of which also are mouse targeted). Easy. But when you're facing rooms full of 50 monsters at a time, you end up clicking quite a bit. I would venture to say that there are few games that require you to move the mouse and click as much in the course of playing.  Diablo is a game about slaughtering hordes and hordes and hordes of monsters. And you have to click on each and every one of them.  Not only that, you need to click on every single item you want to pick up, often sorting through piles and piles of trash to find the one good item that dropped.  Lots of clicking.

Now, the first two Diablo games I played back when I was in school and not working so much.  For a moment, consider that activity added on top of an eight-hour workday spent almost entirely using a computer, respond to emails, doing database entry, etc. – basically, clicking and pressing keys tens of thousands of times in a day.  And that sets you up for the dramatic conclusion to this story: the release of Diablo 3.  A Diablo even more fast paced than its predecessors.  A greatly enjoyable game, especially with friends; and, one that I couldn't play for more than an hour without my hands hurting.
It was a hard thing to acknowledge. My body has limits? Surely in avoiding physical sports throughout most of my childhood, that was no way I could hit these kinds of limits!  But as I kept trying to keep up with my friends, it became more and more obvious that I had hit a very firm limit. Diablo was no longer the type of game that I could really play and enjoy. And it was not the last casualty. As I came to acknowledge the price of interacting with physical interfaces all day, and to acknowledge the cost of all that information burning along my wrists and down my fingers and into the keys, it was clear to me that a lot would have to change for me to continue to be able to use a computer in any recreational sense.

So began an era of experimentation with input devices that continues to this day.  I have programmed a WiiMote to control the mouse cursor on my computer using software called GlovePie; I have set a mouse pad on the floor and used the mouse with my foot; I have purchased piles of devices, touchpads, trackballs, foot switches, joysticks, gamepads (many of which I configured with the excellent utility Joy2Key); all eventually winding back to the same point, the point of strain, the point where the game is asking more of me than my body can give it without undergoing stress. 

And that's the reason that I'm typing this post with my voice, and not with my hands. 

It's quite hard to play Diablo with your voice.  I haven't given up on games; I have found that there are still games out there that I can play and enjoy. Games that ask a little less of the player than 100% twitch reflexes, and constant input.  Yet, I can tell that this is not something that's just going to go away. What this has really taught me is that staying healthy for me will require a lifetime commitment to using the resources of my body in moderation.  And, unfortunately, charging into the fray with a Staff of Firewall is probably not on that menu.

Staff of Apocalypse, on the other hand...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Want to Play This

Very badly.  I've been following No Man's Sky since RPS first posted it.  I am of course a huge fan of procedurally generated worlds, prime examples Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, yet I've not found one that approaches the term "world" on the scale, at least visually, that this game is presenting.  It's just plain beautiful.  Sniff... something in my eye...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Storytelling in MMOs

I want to talk a little about storytelling in MMOs. I have been playing the Wildstar Beta on and off over the past week, and it has really made me realize just how much I am craving something new in the storytelling department when it comes to online games.

It amazes me that these games focus so much on creating an individual "identity", in character appearance, class, abilities, equipment, etc., and yet focus so little on changing the story to match that identity. Everyone wakes up in stasis, performs the same series of quests, and follows the same main plot line. If that's the way you're going to do things, why even give players distinct characters? Why not give everyone characters with firm identities in the story, dialogue of their own, some reason to be notable in the world other than "I am a player, not a nonplayer"?

One of the few MMOs I have played them attempts this path is Dragon Nest. In it, you do name your character, and customize them, but the role that you plan story is treated as the role an actor might play in a film – when the performance is going on, everyone who chose the "warrior" class is actually playing the role of a specific character in the story of the game. Of course, the problem is, you then have a bunch of players running around as clones of each other. The illusion of individuality wouldn't be possible. And, in my eyes, the real point of these games is not to tell a story, but to provide that sense of individuality in a fantastic yet mundanely social setting.

So why am I complaining about the story when I've just admitted that the story really isn't the point? Because I feel that it could be the point. You can create a feeling of individuality purely through aesthetics, but you can create something much stronger by tying the player into a store unique to them, supported by the game's mechanics and not just sprinkled on top like confetti. Imagine the extreme – a game tied into your Facebook account which pulls elements of your life into the plot as obstacles or discoveries for other players. Or a game where every element of the story is spun up by players, with little worlds being born, dying, and reborn to support the cycle.

What kind of mechanics would make these games tick? Any kind of mechanic where the player makes a meaningful choice that impacts their relationship to other players more than it impacts their standing with the world's fictional characters.  Mechanics that take player behaviors into account, turning grief causing players into outcasts and nemeses, turning benevolent players into allies. One might argue that these kinds of events are already built into our psychology and don't need to be supported by game mechanics, but I would reply that for the story to be the focus of the game and something that distinguishes one player from another, it must be able to etch itself into the game's reality in meaningful ways. That is why such a game would exist – to be a blank canvas upon which the players detail, elaborate, and record their stories.

I guess I'd just like to see a lot of the fun storytelling mechanics that come out of many pen and paper role-playing games make their way into online games.  So many interesting stories are being told and can be told, that aren't really recognized by online games and leveraged into giving their worlds more life. And without that extra injection of vitality, I fear that more and more the bones of the grind at the heart of games like World of Wacraft and Wildstar will be visible underneath the story that comes in the box.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I finished Brothers this afternoon.  I went into the game expecting a serious but rewarding experiment with an unusual control scheme I had heard about, wherein you control each brother with the same controller, using the two joysticks simultaneously.  I was expecting a short game with OK graphics, and a strong story to make up for middling technical specs. 

In other words, I was completely unprepared for the experience of playing through this game.

Technically, the game is exactly what it needs to be, at all times.  It is at times as sunny and upbeat as Disney, as dark and tragic as one of Grimm's fairy tales, loud and intense, quiet and subtle... the presentation is masterfully executed.  It's never excessive. This finesse with its presentation only makes the rest of the game feel more credible.  The control mechanic which I have heard so much about works very well, and even if the puzzles are often fairly straightforward, they still feel inventive and fun to solve.

This kind of technical credibility is certainly a staple of a top-notch game. However, what Brothers achieves, which I have seen very few games achieve before, is an effective cashing-in of that credibility.  It opens the way to tie you so closely to the story of the two brothers, through directly helping them to overcome each challenge, that you feel a personal connection with what happens. I knew it would be an emotional game, but roughly halfway through I realized that it was punching way above its weight, in unexpected ways, and at the end would probably leave me an emotional wreck. I was not wrong.  It takes an awful lot of credibility with the player to pull this kind of story off correctly.  That is what makes this game such a gem.

This is the kind of game I would recommend very carefully, without mentioning many details, because the sanctity of the experience -- the gradual ascent, aesthetically, mechanically, and emotionally -- is something that requires a little bit of mystery to have the impact that it is capable of having. 

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a beautiful and sometimes painful experience, and one that I think is worth having for anyone with the means to do so.  It is what I think of as the best kind of story: one that tempers its beauty with tragedy, and its despair with hope.  Go and play it, if you get the chance.