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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 10, 2009
A closer look at the Jungian elements of Psychonauts. Spoilers abound.


The hindsight-driven popularity of Psychonauts has grown in leaps and bounds as a cult classic thanks to support from popular critics like Yahtzee and others. The game is a clever combination of adventure gaming with platform elements. Although both Yahtzee and Wikipedia point out that the idea of the game started out as being a peyote hallucination, creative director Tim Schafer’s appearance on the 1Up Podcast explains the final product a bit more clearly. The peyote idea was the start but it eventually evolved into attending a summer camp of psychics and visiting people’s internal dreamscapes. Citing a course in psychology he took at Berkeley, Schafer explains that he found it fascinating that otherwise unpoetic people could develop these elaborate metaphors and modes of expression about their problems. Carl Jung, one of the founders of dream analysis, explains in


Memories, Dreams, Reflections

, “Paranoid ideas and hallucinations contain a germ of meaning. A personality, a life history, a pattern of hopes and desires lie behind the psychosis…At bottom we discover nothing new and unknown in the mentally ill; rather, we encounter the substratum of our own natures.” It is this concept that Shafer turned into a game—a game that, if you can get past some gameplay issues, manages to explore subjects far outside the norm.


One of the great strengths of a point and click game is that you have to fill the world with a lot of details. Since the player is going to be looking at and fidgeting with everything, it means that all manner of things have a purpose and story behind them. Doing this makes your environment seem richer and more fulfilling, particularly if the player is able to engage with those details in some meaningful way. Psychonauts’ main hub, the campground, is filled with campers who can all be directly spoken to and be seen interacting in dozens of random conversations. Since these sequences are usually initiated by the player or are only starting when we’re walking around a passive environment they don’t feel as intrusive as cutscenes sometimes during active combat can. Combine this with the outlandish coloring and cartoonish appearance of each person, and the campers are easily distinguishable both visually and by their personality. For example, Chloe is marked by her space helmet and desire to contact aliens, Mikhail has a weird obsession with wrestling bears and Elka is easily recognized because of her constant ramblings about her boyfriend. A game with 25 active characters that are all recognizable and easily differentiated is no small task. These characters are then scattered about the camp and have their own story threads that can be ignored or followed. The game is basically creating an emergent camp drama for its first half. Until you complete a certain mission and night time falls, all of these details and events can be missed or seen by the player. The game itself does not suffer should the player choose to skip them, but the world becomes richer and fuller if they observe them.


On many levels, this peaceful camp setting forms a stark contrast to the chaotic minds that the player must enter psychically. Outside of the occasional wild animal, the camp is a safe place. Once we enter the dreamscapes of the various characters, however, we encounter a world that is no longer orderly or rational. The opening training level is an amalgamation of the battles of Coach Oleander’s past. In a nod to Jung, his primal memories are bizarrely tame and only show his victories and happy memories. We aren’t made aware of the oddness of this normality until we enter subsequent minds and begin to realize that, unlike Oleander, everyone has issues. Every mind has emotional baggage scattered about, which is reflected in the game design by being another item that can be collected by the player. This point is emphasized because the baggage is often loudly crying. Each person’s mindscape will even contrast with the loud sobbing coming from this baggage, such as the party world of Milla Vodello whose internal world makes her into a superstar. Another example would be the orderly mind of Sasha Nein which is mostly grey and dark. The baggage contrasts this color scheme and sticks out aesthetically just as much as it does with the sound. The game design encourages us to notice this because it is collectable and unlocks content, but its emphasis lies in realizing that everyone has issues.  Jung comments on the extreme problems of meeting people someone who claim to have no problems and are normal, pointing out that normality is often a shield people put over greater issues that are hidden deep in their psyche. Later on, Oleander’s deceptively “normal” mind will eventually reveal its true nature in the last level when we reach the true mindscape that Oleander was hiding.


 


The symbolism of the game is equally strong. The opening screen of the game depicts Raz standing on a brain, which represents the player’s mind, so that the game world itself is our own personal dream being played out. When Raz enters his internal dreamscape, he enters the carriage he was born in and emerges from an egg, the symbolic representation of his own life beginning. When we enter the mind of a lungfish who has been mutated to far beyond its original size, we are reminded that it still perceives us as larger than itself. In that dreamscape we are a giant creature despite the boss battle we have just had with this creature. In the game’s most hilarious and clever level, we enter a deranged Milkman’s mind who is obsessed with conspiracy theories. Using the clairvoyance ability, the people in this dreamscape perceive us as 2-D and defined by the items we carry. It shows the simplified worldview and lack of real perception the man’s mind utilizes. The actress whose level consists of people acting out her childhood traumas requires you to defeat the evil critic who is constantly dragging her down. His weapon is a pen. The wrestler whose rage at being dumped in high school manifests into a complex interplay between his rage (which is a bull) that knocks over the tower of cards he is building to his neglected lover. Once the main plot is put into action and the campers have been kidnapped, it becomes night time in the game world. This is a nod to Jung’s dream analysis as well, where night time is the symbolic element of danger and confusion for dreams involving darkness. True to form, the camp will be filled with monsters and devoid of the immersive narrative that we enjoyed during the daytime there.


Marring this excellent game are a few complaints about gameplay and technical issues. When researching this article I could never find much consent about what anyone means by this. Both Yahtzee, the 1Up crew and various forums typically agree that the game’s wonky camera and clunky but easy combat certainly exist but also aren’t deal breakers. What does stick is the difficulty curve of the last level. It isn’t that the camera is causing this problem because by this point you’re used to actively swiveling the thing. And you didn’t get to the last level (The Meat Circus) without already being able to negotiate the game’s flaws anyways. Personally, throughout the game whenever I got stuck with a platforming problem I was always reminded of Insecticide (which you should play if you liked Psychonauts) and a trait that games which meld adventure elements with action always have. They tend to think of the platforming section as a puzzle rather than an act of skill. The developers want you to do one specific thing or use a power in one way to get through the obstacle. In most cases, this is the only thing that will work. The problem is that this goes against the failure feedback of a platforming game: the reaction to failure when jumping is to try to do it better, not try something new. To give an example, the worst moment in the Meat Circus is a circular series of nets you have to jump around while water is filling the tent. The only way to beat it is to use the float ability. The problem is that most people’s impulse is to just double jump since the net is right next to them. Rather than try something new the player thinks they’re not skillful enough and they keep trying again, resulting in a broken feedback loop where the player is failing more than they should.


The last level is a fitting end for a game dealing with psychology and dreams. Raz, while helping the villain confront his father issues, must in turn deal with his own. Throughout the game Raz’s father has been a looming specter, he is coming to take Raz away from the camp and drag him back to the life he is trying to break free from. When confronting the psychological manifestation of Raz’s father in the Meat Circus, the player must jump through various obstacles in an impossible attempt to impress their father. At the end of the level, Raz’s mental impression of his father accuses him of cheating and ignores this accomplishment. It is impossible to win the approval of this awful persona. When the real father arrives using his mental powers he sees firsthand this terrible depiction of himself. He asks Raz, “Is that…really what I look like inside your mind?” The father explains that he was only looking out for our best interests and that he only wanted us safe. The psychological delusion has been undone, the father issues that have been so prevalent in Raz’s mind are resolved and Raz is now liberated from his own personal issues. Jung, while discussing a “normal” patient he encountered, had to discourage the man from pursuing a career in psychoanalysis. Jung comments, “Do you know what it means to be an analyst? It means that you must first learn to know yourself. You yourself are the instrument. If you are not right, how can the patient be made right? You yourself must be the real stuff.” True to Jung’s standards, our reward for conquering Raz’s own issues is to become an official Psychonaut. In this way Psychonauts excels at not just being a wacky game to explore, but also a psychologically hilarious one.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Mar 8, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-03-09

When Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Glaser and their friends got together to make The Running Man back in 1987, there’s a good chance that none of them had any idea how prescient it would seem 20 years later.  Is there anyone, at this point, that doubts that killing in the name of sport hasn’t crossed the mind in a very real way of at least one major television executive at this point?  The Running Man, with the benefit of hindsight, is now more of a satirical statement on the direction of television than it is a gruesome sci-fi fantasy; while both elements certainly existed when the movie was released, the balance in emphasis between the two has shifted.


Of course, nobody could have predicted that the runner and the biggest, baddest stalker in the movie would go on to be governors less than 20 years later either, but perhaps I’m getting off topic.


Madworld, coming out for the Wii (of all consoles) this week, is for all intents and purposes a 21st-century update of The Running Man—that is, it centers around a sadistic gameshow on which mayhem and death are leveraged for entertainment purposes.  Of course, it’s a little different this time around, as the “game show” is put on by terrorists, and most of the participants are simply the unwitting inhabitants of a fictional city, but it’s the same idea, more or less.  It’s The Running Man as drawn by Frank Miller, with a little bit of Gears of War thrown in for chainsaw-related purposes.  I’m almost ashamed to say it also looks fun as hell, even if you’re not into violence for its own sake.


Will the satirical elements be as strong as those in The Running Man? Probably not, given that it’s more of a “save the city” narrative than a “save your ass” narrative (with a subtext of “look what entertainment has come to!”).  Regardless, I can’t wait to find out.


Also releasing this week is, of course, Resident Evil 5, which I haven’t wanted to talk about at all, quite frankly, but I suppose I can’t ignore it any more.  It looks like Resident Evil, except that it’s in Africa, and it’s all shiny and smooth, thanks to the current generation of hardware it’s been developed for.  You still can’t move while you’re shooting, but people are bound to love it anyway.  As for the elephant in the room, I just want to say that racist intent is not a prerequisite to racist product.  I haven’t seen the game (or even the demo for that matter), so I can’t make a judgment on it, but the single most ridiculous argument I’ve seen as to why parts of Resident Evil 5 can’t possibly be racist is because its developers didn’t intend for them to be.


You see? This is why I never want to talk about it.


Elsewhere, we get a boardgame (Trivial Pursuit), some rehashes (Nintendo’s New Play Control! series), high-powered dirtbikes (SBK), and a whole pile of DS shovelware.  Hooray!


Tell us what you’re playing this week, or try and bait me into a Resident Evil 5 conversation.  Your pick.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 6, 2009
This post acknowledges the existence of sex and various game related ways of engaging with the act. Be warned.


This post acknowledges the existence of sex and various game related ways of engaging with the act. Be warned.


As the moral outrage at a Japanese sex game involving rape called Rapelay continues to spread, game critics are confronted with a fairly tricky problem. On the one hand, why is our artistic medium not allowed to discuss rape? It’s not as if books and film did not long ago breach the topic. Blue Velvet, Boys Don’t Cry, or Thelma & Louise all feature incredibly graphic rape scenes. Literature has obviously covered the topic extensively as well, from Wuthering Heights to The Kite Runner. People arguing that these books are superior in their content because they handle the topic maturely are on shaky ground because, frankly, who wants to detail how to tastefully portray rape? As soon you establish some kind of standard you’re just going to inspire something more revolting because the entire point of discussing a topic like rape is the awfulness of it. If Rapelay is the standard of what games should not do, someone will create something just to cross the line.


On the other hand, this is not really the game to stage a protest over. This is not the first filming of two men kissing on-screen in an elegant discourse on the plight of men dealing with H.I.V. in Philadelphia or something equally valid. It’s a bad Japanese dating sim targeting people with a disturbing fetish. Another problem is that considering this is a medium that is short on female protagonists and even shorter on portraying loving relationships, video games haven’t really earned the right to talk about rape. Both film and books long ago covered love and relationships in every way imaginable before discussing this sort of violation. Video games, drawing close to 40 years old, do not have much that demonstrates they can even handle the topic of sex in the first place. So, in the spirit of our last post on sex games, we’re going to discuss another video game that handles the topic of sex responsibly.


It’s debatable whether the creators of the rumble feature in game controllers knew what they were getting into, but the uses for such a device outside strict gaming have been discussed before. A vibrating controller is going to have its uses for anyone with a private moment and a locked door. What’s interesting is that up until now there was never a game that gave you direct control over the vibrations. The girl in the linked article describes a few games where you could get this state going indefinitely, but Rez’s attempt at coordinating vibrations with techno music was the first real breakthrough in consistency for her. The Xbox Community game Rumble Massage has changed all that. For a measly 200 points you can download the game and adjust the vibration rate of your controller and massage any part of your body that you choose. Another addition allows a partner to control this aspect for you over Xbox Live. In essence, one person is moving the joystick adjusting the vibration rate while the other holds the vibrating device. It all works a bit like the vibrating egg from Shortbus without the awkward remote or invasive egg. Fans of the game, it seems safe to say, should keep one controller locked away somewhere.


It all goes back to interaction when it comes to games. The reason people get so upset about sex in games is because the player is interacting with it. The reason people have so much fun with games is because they’re interacting with it. I don’t think any of the sex games we’ve discussed in this series could accurately be called a simulation, but they do represent a unique conceptualization of sex. I’ve not played the game, but Rapelay’s biggest problem might simply be the failure to represent interacting with sex in a way that isn’t one-sided. If Rumble Massage or The Dark Room Sex Game are any indication, sex games seem to always best maintain their dignity as co-op experiences. If YouTube videos like the tasteful Everybody Daylight are acceptable depictions of the act, I suppose video games can manage something eventually.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Mar 2, 2009
A film about the healing power of Nintendo.


The idea for writing an essay on The Wizard came after watching the Angry Video Game Nerd episode about it. The basic criticism of the movie is that it’s a giant commercial for Nintendo products. While this is technically true, I’d just randomly watched The Mindscape of Alan Moore before this one and was full of some heady notions about the power of writing. When he claimed that most modern magi are drunks, neglecting their talent or working in advertising, it made me wonder what kind of magic would go into an entire film that’s about a single product. If you think about it, there aren’t too many films that can actually claim this. TV series? Sure, G.I. Joe and other shows were glorified ways to sell toys. But those were only about 24 minutes long. An entire 90 minute film that’s about selling a product to a person? That is a spectacle which, however much bullshit it may be proposing, is worth taking a look at just for its sheer audacity.


 


The film begins with a troubled child lost and confused, only able to say the word “California”. We are then surrounded by his family in turmoil. A divorced mother has taken refuge with a man who doesn’t love her children. The father, unable to perform the traditional motherly functions of cooking for his children, is shown missing her. She is also sorely missed by her two boys, but when the father is asked to care for his third helpless child, the divorce blocks him because he does not have custody. Even Christian Slater, playing himself trapped in another bad movie, is acting like a dick. What could possibly heal this broken family and restore the joy to their lives? Fred Savage, equipped with his grapefruit head, only knows that family is what matters most. He traces his third brother to a mental home where he was placed by the cruel step-father. He sees the fate his brother has been doomed to: sitting blank faced, watching television, with no California in sight. What could make the activity of watching T.V. not so bland, no so emotionless? Fred Savage has a plan: sneak onto a truck full of chocolate cake while they head towards his brother’s favorite state! Fred is eventually horrified to discover that the script is going to demand someone change at some point, and storms back with the plot device that they are out of money. It is then that he discovers that his youngest brother, in a scant five minutes, has gained 50,000 points in Double Dragon. This sentence was originally a long explanation about why this was impossible, but then I realized that I’d have to do that for every other part of the film and replaced it with this.


 


Quick to notice this prowess at video games is the girl from The Goonies. Attracted by his skill at games, she is quick to recognize that his gaming abilities are a potential source of income and power for the once ostracized little brother. Fred Savage, grapefruit shining, shows his support for his little brother by betting money on his brother’s skills. The challenge does pan out but they are soon forced to find other ways to make money once the bus leaves them. Why not gambling? Indeed, risk is a fundamental theme of this film as 3 children hitch-hike across the country to a video game tournament in Los Angeles. Roger Ebert complained that the film actively promoted that children would be safe wandering the open roads. Which is true, but in the spirit of the film it is also promoting the liberation that Nintendo has provided these kids. Thanks to his ability to master Nintendo, they have money to spend, and one can’t help but notice that Fred is a little more confident with the Goonies chick. Interspersed with these successes are scenes of traveling through a vast and exciting landscape. The freedom these children have gained through Nintendo is developed by showing the oddities of the world. This is made literal by showing bikers, truckers, and all the other exciting things kids would love to do if they were truly free. Before Nintendo they were sleeping outside and hearing wolves; after Nintendo they’ve got a chick and money and the open road.


 


Christian Slater and the Dad are unable to communicate as they look for Fred Savage and the Wizard. The father’s ineptitude continues, allowing the empowerment of the son as he is the only one who can “follow the map”. Christian Slater struggles to express his feelings for the Dad until, while laying in his boxers with the Dad in a very small bed, he tells him that he loves him. The father is unable to appreciate this moment and Christian Slater is forced to retreat into video games. Despite the initial resistance of the Dad, Christian Slater awakes to see the Dad enjoying the same game. They have a newfound common ground thanks to Nintendo. Fred Savage, the Wizard, and the chick from The Goonies must continue to rely on their game skills and luck to survive. A couple of cow farmers prove that adults can’t be trusted, and some old geezers prove to be easy bait for the Wizard’s skills. But they soon realize that it’s not just adults who can’t be trusted, but kids too. A couple of older punks victimize them because of the Wizard’s Nintendo skills and beat up Fred Savage. Even worse, some gamers can actually be total assholes. The Kid With The Power Glove is quick to demonstrate his mastery of the Nintendo Universe. He owns every game (all 97) and he’s good at all of them. Our shining model for competency, the only player who is a worthy opponent of the Wizard, attained his status through practice and by buying every product possible. When he pulls out the Power Glove, everyone is in awe of its newness. The Wizard, firmly warned not to ruin the pace of the film, refuses to play against him because, “California”.


 


Throughout these moments there have been the interspersed scenes of the adult males acting out their masculine aggression in unproductive ways. A Professional Child Kidnapper and the Dad engage in several such battles with their cars. Smashing, destroying, and ruining each other’s productivity, the two men are not just at war, they are undermining their very ability to work as a business. If only something could come along that would allow them to express this sense of dominance that they mistakenly project on one another. As the Power Glove Kid and the Wizard show to us all, it is the children relying on Nintendo who have found an alternative. With these shenanigans also come the scenes of the games themselves. Rarely are we subjected to mindless slashing sessions. Driving a car in traffic, defusing bombs, and acrobatics are the themes of each gaming scene. To the parent watching Nintendo in action, they can see that this is a game system that’s about something more than just sitting front of a TV. Eventually there is a plot twist and it is revealed that the source of the Wizard’s trauma was watching his twin sister drown. The chick from The Goonies is quick to join in, admitting that her father is a trucker and that she wants to buy her own father a new home.  But the kids know they are going to have to work hard to win at Nintendo despite all these issues. Investing several hundred dollars in the Nintendo hotline, they are quick to find the information they need to become video game masters. Working tirelessly, they demonstrate the hard work and financial investment it takes to be as good at games as someone like the Kid With The Power Glove.


 


The culmination of the film is at Universal Studios. In a bold move, the qualifying game is Ninja Gaiden, a title whose challenge is legendary and that few can handle. The Wizard is able to deliver though, but just before he can move on to the final round the Professional Child Kidnapper is upon them. In these final moments the film makes its protagonists become parts of their very hobby. The screaming King Kong and the jets of fire all introduce fantastic elements that deliver these kids into a video game itself. The Nintendo has become real. In the nick of time they get back to the competition and the Wizard is able to play. In this final showdown, all members of the family are shown drawn together to support him. As each one roots for the Wizard, they slowly find a sense of commonality amongst each other. Even the Professional Child Kidnapper is seen rooting for him in the end. The once broken family has been healed by the power of Nintendo. The final scene shows the Wizard finally finding his peace as they drive back to Utah. Earlier in the film, the first coherent words he murmured were, “I don’t want to Quit [playing Nintendo so we can win the Big Tournament and I love you].”  Truly, it is the Wizard who senses that his gaming abilities are not just about playing games. It is he who detects the family coming back together through Nintendo, who realizes that by competing with the Kid With The Power Glove he can someday go on to put the memories of his sister to rest. The Wizard is able to succeed at this thanks to the power of, one more time, Nintendo.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
The recent release of NOBY NOBY BOY cements the PS3 as the most reliable destination for "play" with or without the "game".

What NOBY NOBY BOY does for you is entirely dependent on two things.


First, it depends on your tolerance for the utterly bizarre. Its entire color palette is made up of pastels—no primary colors, really, but never quite reaching the unnatural glow of pure neon. You start as a peanut-shaped thing but quickly turn yourself into a worm with a disproportionately large head and backside. You crawl around a floating, rectangular patch of land, the danger of falling off ever-looming, while you eat and poop everything you can in an effort to make your worm-like body more stretchy, and by extension longer. There’s something called a space squirrel involved. If you zoom out far enough, you get to see a space-eye view of the planet you’re on, complete with a little character of some sort sitting on the top. And, in an oddly phallic twist for an E-rated game, you (as BOY) report your length to something called GIRL whenever you feel it necessary, contributing along with the rest of the NOBY NOBY BOY community to her own eternal stretch through the solar system.


Right.


If you’re still interested, then, there’s one other thing that will determine the extent of your affinity (or lack thereof) for NOBY NOBY BOY: your willingness to self-motivate. Yes, there are trophies, but all except for one of them are hidden, and almost all of them are the sorts of things that will happen naturally through the course of exploring the game (though at least one of them is so obscure that it seems to work as a tipoff that GameFAQs was consulted for the sake of its capture). There is no death state, no love of BOY’s life to rescue, no world to save; there simply exists the directive to “explore! Have fun!”, with the cooperative objective of growing GIRL into new planets to explore.


For the most part, what this means is that there is no “game” to NOBY NOBY BOY; there is only “play”.


This sort of mechanic is becoming something of a habit for the PlayStation 3, particularly in the PlayStation Network’s library of downloadable titles. In the week before NOBY NOBY BOY was released, we saw Flower, the hype for which is actually stealing the thunder from this week’s release of Killzone 2; though we know who’s going to win in sales between those two, I don’t see Killzone getting a gushing writeup on Entertainment Weekly’s blog any time soon. Preceding Flower was flOw, another non-game with a dubious set of “goals”, and even the early PSN title Pain is little more than a sandbox in which to play. The trophies are here to satiate those who would try to wring a “game” out of these titles (and some of them present themselves as more linear and game-like than others), but the game is not the point. Simply being a part of these games’ respective worlds is the point. Even Home, the PS3’s answer to Second Life, falls into this category, giving PS3 users something else to do even as they’re not strictly gaming.


What Sony seems to have hit on here is a way to appeal to mature gamers, likely the ones who’ve been with the Sony brand since the original PlayStation, by providing a counter-argument to the idea that what mature gamers want is bigger, bloodier, and more photorealistic. By providing these open worlds, “games” with an innocence and a distinct lack of competitive appeal alongside things like Metal Gear Solid 4 and the aforementioned Killzone 2, they’re acknowledging that “mature” is a multifaceted concept; that sometimes, all we need is a little bit of peace, a little bit of joy, and maybe a little bit of community.


This last brings us back to what is perhaps the most innovative, and potentially most interesting, feature of NOBY NOBY BOY—space exploration. The length of GIRL, at any given time, is the cumulative length that’s been reported to GIRL by every single player playing NOBY NOBY BOY on the PlayStation Network. This past Monday, four days after the game’s release, GIRL reached the moon thanks to those efforts, and now we have a new playground to play in. Somehow, knowing that those of us who bought the game early were a part of such a monumental task is enough motivation for some of us to start working on the next goal—namely, Mars, which could potentially be a long way off (scroll down to q3c’s comment in the preceding link).


This is not a cooperative goal like those of recent first-person shooters or even the hero-sidekick mechanics of something like Super Mario Galaxy; the quality of the game for everyone who plays it is entirely dependent on the willingness of its entire population of players to play it enough to expand its solar system. If the game’s fanbase quickly diminishes, we may never know the extent to which its programmers planned for GIRL to stretch, and there’s something exciting about having to depend on the rest of a world of players to find out. We may not even ever know what Mars looks like, which would be a right shame given the mass improvement that even the moon presents over the earth in terms of gameplay—the bigger surface on which to stretch and the multitude of new creatures to look at contribute to the sense of just how absolutely vital this aspect of the game is to maintaining player interest.


As such, I implore you: Buy NOBY NOBY BOY. Not because I think you’ll enjoy it—really, there’s no way of telling you whether this game will be your cup of tea or not, other than perhaps your sense of the two factors I presented at the top of this little writeup. No, I want you to buy NOBY NOBY BOY because the more of you who play, the quicker we get to Mars, which I’d like to see before my kids graduate college.


Also, it’s $5, which seems a small price to pay to help promote the sort of imagination present in an experience like NOBY NOBY BOY.


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