Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 25, 2009
Killzone 2 proves that even a dirty depiction of war can be fun.

I played Killzone 2 a couple weeks ago. At one point, after a tough battle, me and Rico, a squad mate, were riding an elevator to a top of a tower. As it was rising, I looked at Rico and noticed him staring at the floor, as if deep in thought. I stepped towards him, wanting to put an hand on his shoulder and as “You OK?” I didn’t really care for Rico, most of his vocabulary consisted of curse words meant to prove his bravado, and he seemed unable to say a word without shouting it; he was arrogant, impulsive, and I found him all around unlikable. But I did care about Rico: He was the guy next to me in the trenches, the guy who killed any Helghast soldier that flanked me, the guy who help keep me alive during the tough battle earlier. So, even though I didn’t like him, I stepped towards him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder and ask “You OK?” But I couldn’t. Because this was a game. So instead I just watched him, feeling bad that I couldn’t to anything. The game finished loading, the elevator doors opened, Rico shouted “Let’s go kill some Higs!” or some other generic line meant to prove his bravado, and I continued playing.


Killzone 2, more than any other game, captures that chaos, confusion, and violence of war. And that’s precisely what makes it fun


There’s a constant oppressive atmosphere in Killzone 2. At multiple points in the game, characters comment on the state of the planet Helghan, pointing out how desolate it is. During one level in a desert power plant, we’re told that the beauty of the planet was sucked dry by the constant war machine of its inhabitants (the Helghast). Whenever we leave the city we see this for ourselves. The ground is always dry, the sky is always dusty, and I can’t remember ever seeing a piece of greenery in the game. Looking at it from that perspective makes the history of Helghan rather tragic: A people fueled by war deplete the resources of their planet, and now war is all they have left. It makes sense then that this planet would be home to a race of warriors since every day is a fight for survival. This is a hellish place to live.


Reinforcing that idea is the heavy focus on urban warfare. Fighting through the rubble of a destroyed city is always distressing, even if it’s the city of your enemy. There’s just something unsettling about the imagery. You’ll also spend a large part of the game moving through corridors or small rooms, lending an important sense of claustrophobia to the combat. We’re always trapped, confined, always fighting in the shadow of some structure. Even though the story has us invading Helghan, the level design is meant to make us feel like the oppressed victim.


The graphics were a selling point of Killzone 2, but it was criticized in many reviews for it’s rather limited color palette of browns and blacks, with nary a primary color in sight. But this art style was necessary to maintain the constant dark atmosphere. Unlike the “destroyed beauty” art style of Gears of War, there is nothing beautiful about the environments in Killzone 2.  You’re fighting in a destroyed city, and the colors used effectively portray a city under siege. This world feels dirty and grimy, the kind of place no one would voluntarily visit.


But I did visit it voluntarily. I then returned to explore every nook for collectibles. I returned again to play online, where the battles are even more chaotic than those in the single player campaign. Despite oppressive atmosphere in Killzone 2, it was still fun. What did I, and so many others, find entertaining about this chaos?


The answer, I believe, lies in another game. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, whenever the player dies, a quote about war is displayed on screen. The quote that has stuck with me the most was by Winston Churchill: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Out of the 80 possible quotes that can appear, this is the most appropriate one because it doesn’t just describe war, it describes our infatuation with it. People love danger, it’s exciting, and being shot at is certainly dangerous. But most people don’t want to put themselves in harm’s way, so they choose to live vicariously though entertainment: Books, movies, and of course, video games. War games will always be fun, no matter how grimy, dirty, violent, or chaotic they become, because we’re being shot at without result. We get that exhilarating adrenaline rush of being in danger without actually putting ourselves in danger. No matter how realistic a virtual world or its inhabitants are portrayed, the fact that they’re not real will always turn the violence into a theme park attraction, rather than something genuinely dramatic. However, perhaps when a war game involves real people, in a real battle, in a real war, then, like with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, that traditional gameplay we’ve become so used to will be given a powerful subtext and change the way we view our actions. Until then, war is fun as hell.


Tagged as: killzone 2
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 23, 2009
The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.

I deeply admire the audacity of the title of Bethesda’s Wet.  “Wet” refers to the protagonist, Rubi Malone’s, occupation as assassin (skilled at such “wetwork”) and also implies a less than subtle bit of sexual innuendo.  Given Wet‘s overt exploitation cinema influences, the ability to work that genre of film’s two dominant interests, violence and sex, into just one three letter word is pretty clever. 


Character concept art for Wet

Curiously, though, despite the come hither look of the game’s box art, nevertheless, Rubi is an only somewhat sexy female lead.  As my wife observed on seeing the character in game (rather than in the more overtly sexy box art imagery), “I kind of like her; she’s not really that pretty.”


A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote about “Miconceptions About the Female Avatar” elsewhere in Moving Pixels. Jeffries used a study, “Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?” as the basis for his discussion of how women may react positively to “hypersexualized” female avatars in games.  As defined by the study, hypersexuality is represented in games that tend to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of female characters.  Specifically, the 34D-24-35 measurements of Lara Croft were cited as the “embodiment” of this kind of hypersexual representation.


Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Anniversary

Lara is an interesting (and due to her notoriety as something like the first sex symbol of video games, of course, obvious) choice in discussing the topic of how women respond to female representations in games.  Female gamers have long expressed a variety of opinions, from appreciation to dismay, in response to the character and her appearance.  While the study, which was interested in seeing how men and women responded to a female protagonist of different body types from thin to curvy to hypersexualized, controlled for additional representational issues like clothing and the like in some way (the female models that they selected for their test subjects to respond to all wore the same clothing styles regardless of body type and were featured in the same game), Rubi Malone’s recent appearance, and Lara’s too for that matter, got me interested in considering more than the mere shape of female avatars but what other visual and aural markers might tell a player about these women.


Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

While Jessica Rabbit’s observation about the representational qualities of her own hypersexualized body suggests that exaggerated curves might provoke a negative ethical evaluation of an individual: “I’m not bad.  I’m just drawn that way.”  That Ms. Rabbit is generally “drawn” in an off the shoulder cabaret costume slit nearly up to the top of her thigh in addition to the application of her pouty make-up might also contribute to her assumption that people’s negative perceptions of her are related to the sight of her body and what it is interpreted as suggesting about her character.


In that regard, I find that both Lara and Rubi, who have each provoked both positive and negative responses regarding what they look like, are interesting, since what they wear marks them and might alter perceptions concerning how they should be interpreted in addition to interpretations that might arise from their exaggerated silhouettes. 


To begin by examining the appearance of the first lady of video games, Lara’s most essential representational marker in addition to her body is probably her voice, and even more specifically, her accent.  For Americans in particular, I think that the British accent evokes an irrational correlation with sophistication and culture.  Lara “sounds” elegant to the American ear, since she speaks the King’s English in what is perceived to be a traditionally aristocratic way (of course, Lady Lara Croft is also quite literally aristocratic).  This element of Lara extends from aural cues to her own visual representation.  Hair pulled back in a pony tail or braids might signal casualness or even childishness, but when severely drawn back (as Lara’s most often is), it also signals sophistication and elegance.  Up-dos suggest formality and seriousness of purpose.  Such elegance does also extend to her wardrobe.


Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Anniversary

While most often garbed in short shorts and a skin tight sleeveless shirt, such attire is often not seen as formal attire so such a notion might seem counter to this claim.  Nevertheless, simplicity is a synonym for elegance in both science and fashion.  Lady Croft is certainly not planning to attend a dinner party in her outfit, but then again, she is raiding tombs not garden parties and casual but elegant (or simple and basic) attire does exist.  Affluent New York casual fashions are often dominated by single toned tank tops and crisp jeans.  Lara is also not wearing spandex booty shorts and generally not sporting cleavage in her most iconic attire.  Her shorts are shorts, and they look expensive, not hoochy.


In other words, Lara might be understood as sexy as a result of her possessing hypersexual curves, but she really doesn’t look like someone that you would pick up at a dive bar.  Her clothing marks her otherwise and adds an additional layer that communicates a message beyond her availability (indeed, it may suggest a lack thereof).  She looks expensive, not cheap.


Bayonetta concept art

Compare Lara’s simple, sexy, but fashionable outfit to that of the clothing options of the protagonist of the forthcoming Bayonetta or any one of the female combatants of the Dead or Alive series, and you will see that Lara’s hypersexuality is tempered by an effort to mark her body with something other than mere sexual presence.  Bayonetta‘s glasses might mark her as “smart” but naughty librarian seems a more accurate interpretation considering the other elements of her costuming and how they relate to that one seemingly “intellectual” representational quality of the character.


Wet‘s Rubi Malone also has additional messages layered onto (or possibly over) her possibly hypersexualized body as well (I am unaware of whether Rubi’s measurements have been publicized, but she appears to be slightly less busty than Lara).  Despite being a protagonist who is modeled on female characters from a cinematic style oriented towards fairly overt sexual representation (in addition to probably Lara Croft whose stance in game is quite similar as are many of her jumping animations), Rubi’s foul (foul, not sexy, unless you consider lines like, “Hey, fucktard” and “Fuck you, door” to be sexy) mouth and rock and roll clothing style suggest a degree of toughness that again speaks more a message of a lack of availability than of a woman of questionable moral character (you know, the whole “I’m not bad” business that Ms. Rabbit is complaining about). 


Rubi is not elegant like Lara.  As noted, her mouth suggests otherwise.  So too, do her tattoos, a marker most traditionally associated with the lower or working classes or counter cultures, not high culture.  Her tattoos are interesting, though, like the economic and social classes that they have historically been associated with (sailors, criminals, and the like), they mark her as “tough.” Contemporarily, tattoos have become a fashionable accessory, however, sometimes (especially for women) they additionally suggest a sexual quality as the lower back tattoo’s description in the vernacular, the “tramp stamp”, attests to.  While Rubi shows a slight amount of midriff and lower back, her tattoos remain in less sexualized locations on her body.  Her arm is tatted; she is not, however, “tramp stamped” as these markings do not appear in the vicinity of more sexualized areas of the body, like the bare lower back. 


Rubi Malone in Wet

In this regard, what Rubi is not wearing becomes most significant when contrasting what is typically associated with “sexiness” to what she is actually wearing.  Again, she does bare her midriff, though, only maybe an inch and a half or so.  She is not wearing a low ride cut to further emphasize skin or anything else one might expect a female avatar that is showing skin like the midriff to normally wear.  Instead, Rubi wears more clothing that marks her as “tough” rather than sexy: a leather jacket (again, a very counter culture or even criminal marker, evoking rock and roll, punk, or a Mafia vibe), military fatigues, and combat boots that are not (as they so often are for video game characters) stretching all the way up the calf but more like an actual soldier’s combat boots (an occupation associated with toughness and rigor) that end about mid-calf.


I am not attempting to suggest that Lara and Rubi are not representations of women that are not sexualized or not in part subject to the gaze of their viewers (though the question of whether avatars are watched becomes complicated in a medium in which what you watch is something that you are also “being”—that is a subject for another lengthier discussion, though) and likely in part intended to be objects of desire for their viewers.  But what I am suggesting is that the sexualized body is complicated by clothing and other markers that may alter and refine the message being sent in such representations.  Lara is both sexy and elegant (or expensive) and Rubi is both sexy and tough.  Both characters have at least two layers (and, okay, it might only be two, but I think that that is one more than many avatars both male and female often get in their visual representations) and that those layers may modify one another in significant ways that alter how players (both male and female) might respond to them either positively or negatively.  Fundamentally, I don’t think either character’s appearance reduces them to a woman who can be seen as “merely sexy.”


My wife says she likes Rubi because (not in spite of) the fact that she isn’t exactly pretty.  What makes her “not exactly” pretty might be that other element that can be read on her body.  Rubi’s clothing might be communicating a message more loudly than her body.  She might be sexy, but on first glance, she looked pretty damned tough to me.  The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009
A breakdown of the multiplayer elements of Left 4 Dead.

The mark of a good competitive multiplayer game is one that can be enjoyed by a variety of players. For me, this equates to a game that I can play when I’m unwinding from work or when I come home from the bars on a Friday night. A game like Call of Duty 4 is fun when I’ve got my act together and I can focus, but otherwise, I’m going to get my ass kicked. There’s no secondary way to play the game, it’s just get in the trenches and brawl. One of the reasons I still consider Halo 3 the best multiplayer FPS on a console is because it finds a way to give the inept player some action. Between chucking a plasma grenade at someone or breaking out the shotgun, you can usually get in a few kills against a superior player (assuming we’re not talking about the shotty/sniper elites). The one problem with this is that whenever I log onto Social Slayer after needing a cab to get home, I’m not exactly a good teammate. Finding a way for a group of total strangers to coordinate is difficult enough without factoring in that everyone is at a different skill level. Most of the time everyone on a team will just scatter in a Halo 3 match usually with the result that the organized group always dominates. Valve’s procedural multiplayer game Left 4 Dead manages to create a game whose design promotes team work. It does so by imposing certain moments where a player will need assistance from others and creating a mutual aid dynamic. Where the excitement begins is in seeing how the various skill levels of the players pans out.


The game’s levels are set up a bit like a race track. At the start and at certain key points, you can pick up guns and ammo. Whichever gun you pick at the start is your primary weapon, with the secondary being a weaker pistol with infinite ammo. One health kit at the start and various pills and bombs are scattered randomly on the course. The higher the difficulty, the less time you’ll have to look around because you’ll be running non-stop. A player can be incapacitated from a variety of situations that will require someone’s help. Three types of zombies can knock you to the ground and continually attack, meaning someone has to come shoot them off you. Falling off a ledge or running out of health also means someone has to come help before you die permanently for that round. The way that you keep an expert player from ever dominating this system through memorization and skill is by procedurally generating the monsters. The game uses an AI director to study how the team is playing and match their performance to zombies. Gabe Newell in an interview for EDGE explains, “In terms of the signal that you’re giving the player, a difficulty level is like a flat line response as opposed to a wave. We tend to think of it almost in terms of signal processing. A difficulty level just says ‘go up to this level and remain constant’ in terms of the experience that it’s giving to people. That isn’t really the most entertaining experience that you can give people. They want peaks and valleys and really big reactions to the choices that they make.” Each level has its own unique ebb and flow that’s created based on the people around you rather than any set formula. As Simon Ferrari points out on his post on L4D, the game’s strength is its similarity to rhythm games.


From IGN.com

From IGN.com


What’s interesting about the system is the way that it encourages players of a variety of skill types. Justin Keverne uses Richard Bartlett’s essay on player types in online RPGs and applies it to the game. Each character in L4D represents a personality type, Bill is the grizzled veteran or Achiever. Zoey is the player who likes to organize people and sustain the group. Francis is the more narcissistic type of player who is interested in winning while Louis represents the explorer who wants to just experiment and see what happens in the game. As Keverne explains, the Francis character is liable to abandon you for the safe room so that they survive while the Louis character is liable to accidentally shoot you. Like an MMORPG, you can’t just cut out and go lone wolf in the game, so you begin to categorize players and adjust your style accordingly. Usually it is in the middle of a giant mob of zombies that you realize that you’re playing with a trigger happy nut. The sadly departed PixelVixen707 wrote that, “The game feels like a moshpit, and the kicking and flailing happen capriciously. In fact, I suspect many people will get sick of it almost immediately, and jump back to some metalhead shit like Gears of War 2.” That game, like Call of Duty 4, is just about winning. The only people who are getting much out of the experience are the Bill and Francis types of players.


That’s an idea Graffiti Gamer harps on in his excellent NGJ Post about multiplayer session. After playing the game with both friends and random strangers, he found that the random players generated the more interesting experience. When he played with people he knew, they quickly organized themselves into a solid team. You didn’t abandon someone or hog your medkit because you knew this person, you trusted them. With random strangers, the group dynamic is far more interesting. After playing a series of levels with one group, he explains that they grew to trust each other despite the flaws in the other players. One player quickly showed themselves to be the Achiever while another was decent but tended to jump in front of friendly fire. Louis, true to Keverne’s categories, ended up being a bit unpredictable and hard to work with. By falling behind and forcing everyone to come rescue him or by choosing to shoot wildly, the player was a constant liability. But by the end of the game, they managed to coach him into sticking with the group and working with them. At the end of each group of levels is a final test for the team, a timed last stand where hordes of zombies attack until help arrives. Do you run for the helicopter or boat even if your teammate is trapped? Louis, in this particular session, abandoned everyone to their death. Infuriated along with the rest of the team, Graffiti Gamer writes, “I’ve yet to experience such impassioned feelings, a sensation of knowledge sharing, such an exceptionally interesting narrative when playing with friends as I have with randoms.”


Considering how remarkable the procedural zombies are, it’s still unsurprising that Valve resorted to a massive overhaul of the design by releasing a sequel. Although the overall experience is initially novel, it’s limited by a lack of real variety in weapons or zombies. The zombie horde needs a massive infusion of variety, and since the guns basically boil down to shotgun or assault rifle, some additional options are also needed. This becomes the most apparent when you play the game in Versus Mode, in which you can be a zombie yourself. There isn’t really any means of attacking the survivors except to wait until one or two fall behind the rest of the group or you hit them at a key choke point. Everything else you can do boils down to just distracting them or causing more of the AI zombies to swarm. On the first map of “No Mercy” for example, there’s a pit to the lower floor of the apartment building that you can’t climb back up. If you wait for just the right moment, you can catch a straggling player who is still up top while his teammates are trapped down below. The problem is that over time everyone learns these points and compensates for them. Everyone just ends up striving to play a certain way, and since there are only five kinds of zombies, there is a definitive peak method of doing this. You’re still just using the same tactics over and over again.


A fresh infusion of new weapons, zombies, and maps would help keep things vibrant. More ways to fight, betray, and aid one another would help to heighten the stakes. The ability to procedurally generate maps at random might be a bit difficult one, but Valve might also consider the Far Cry 2 solution. Just include a map editor that’s ridiculously easy to use and have users submit the maps to the network and vote on quality. Since you tend to only play a map once, lack of sophisticated planning is compensated for by the experience of exploring a new space. Left 4 Dead is able to make playing with a group of people of varying skills possible for everyone. Thanks to the internet, it can constantly shuffle the deck of who you have to work with. But like any good card game, you need a variety of cards to keep that interesting.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 18, 2009
Trials HD is a brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.

Last week I wrote that the perceived difficulty of a game is less affected by the individual challenges that make up said game than it is the ramp-up in difficulty and other elements surrounding those individual challenges. Essentially, punishing games can be fun. For all the negative connotations of the word, it more describes a very demanding style of gameplay than a level of difficulty. Punishing the player while keeping him entertained is a tough balancing act, but Trials HD strikes that balance: A brutally punishing game that does everything it can to remove the frustration from the punishment.


Trials HD is part puzzler and part racer. Set on a 2D plane, the player rides a motorcycle through an obstacle course, racing against the clock. The earlier courses focus more on speed and timing, while the later courses present the player with insane obstacles that require some creative thinking in order to pass. Every course demands practice and patience. For example: A beginner’s course is just filled with ramps, but simply holding down the gas will not get you a gold metal. Counter to many arcade-style racers, which Trials HD seems to be at first, you must learn when to slow down in order to gain momentum.


Forgiving Checkpoints


There are many, many, checkpoints in each course, nearly one after every obstacle. If you go off a ramp, you can bet there’s a checkpoint on the other side. This ensures that the only challenge players are ever concerned with is the one directly in front of them. It’s always frustrating, in any game, when we fail a challenge and must then replay the build-up to that challenge; having to slog through that same build-up over and over again turns playing the game into actual punishment, as in an unwanted consequence for failure. Trails HD realizes this and never forces the player to replay large sections of a level. Once an obstacle is overcome, it can be forgotten, and the player can focus all his attention on what’s next.


Retrying Is Easy


There’s also a “quick-load” feature that allows players to reload from the last checkpoint with the press of a button. If you miss a jump or go off at the wrong angle, you don’t have to wait to crash before you get the option to retry. You can just press a button to get back on the bike immediately. Having to watch the same death/failure scene over and over is annoying, especially when the death/failure scene lasts longer than the actual time spent playing. Trials HD makes it as easy as possible to retry after failing.


Variety


Variety is important in warding off potential frustration, and Trials HD has a surprising amount of variety considering how everything in the game revolves around motorcycles and obstacles. The main game is split into five levels of difficulty ranging from Beginner to Extreme. Naturally, as the player completes the courses in one difficulty level, they unlock the next, but players don’t have to finish every course in order to advance, just a majority of them. So if one level proves to be too hard, we can skip it and still be able to advance. There’s never a single obstacle preventing the player from progressing.


Then there are the Skill Games, a collection of seemingly random mini-games that offer the player a break from the main mode. They range from seeing how long you can stay balanced on top of or inside a ball, to how far you can ride up an ever-steepening slope. Some of the skill games (like the one in which you try to break as many bones as possible in a single fall, or the one where you try to fling the rider as far as possible) provide a cathartic release of any anger garnered in the main game. But for all their fun, they also teach the player valuable skills necessary to pass some of the later courses, such as balance, keeping momentum, and (especially) climbing. So even as we take a break from the main courses, the game is helping and preparing us for more.


Trials HD panders to the player in every way except lowing the difficulty. While playing other punishing games, it can sometimes feel like the game is giving itself an unfair advantage in order to up the difficulty, which can anger players and convince them to quit. But in Trials HD, it feels like the game is helping us, urging us on despite its merciless courses. We’re not actually competing against the game; the courses serve as an arena in which we compete against ourselves and our friends for the best time. The game does urge us on by offering medals, but sometimes it’s satisfying enough just to be at the top of you Friends List, even if you only have a silver medal. Competing in such passive, inanimate courses means that any mistake is clearly our fault. If we can’t get up a steep ramp, it’s not because the game is steadily increasing the incline, it’s because we’re not hitting the gas at the right time. The only person we can ever fault is ourselves. That’s what makes Trails HD punishing in all the right ways.


Tagged as: trials hd
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Text:AAA
Thursday, Sep 17, 2009
An indie project to help raise awareness of the history and background of the Iran Riots.
From www.gamesetwatch.com

From www.gamesetwatch.com


As the difficult economic times and profit margins continue to force AAA to appeal to the broadest audience possible, it is becoming increasingly likely that the indie scene will be the place where games will address contemporary issues. Unfortunately, funding these ventures is still going to be difficult. Jonathon Blow received help from various sources to help get Braid off the ground, with much of the game’s expense coming from paying for the art assets. Jason Rohrer was able to create his work thanks to similar aid. The more eccentric a game wants to be, the less money people are potentially going to be willing to spend on it and thus the less likely investors will back it. Fortunately, art patronage in games is now more possible than ever thanks to websites like Kickstarter. Rather than try to have one group of investors bear the risk of a large investment, a game can be funded by numerous small donors who are promised copies of the game and other perks.


One such game that has begun to garner attention is Borut Pfeifer’s The Unconcerned. He writes, “The game is set in Tehran, Iran, during the post-election riots that took place this summer. You play a father and mother looking for their lost daughter, amidst crowds of protesters and police. It’s a puzzle/action game, set from a 3/4 overhead perspective in 2D.” You play as both the mother and father, interacting with Iranians, and discovering details about the event as you progress through the game. Playing as a woman will force the player to navigate the repression women experience in Iran while playing as the father comes with its own complications. Pfeifer explains, “I have over 9 years experience making games, and have an extensive network of friends and colleagues that can help me find the other resources I need to finish the game with the funding provided through Kickstarter.”


Games can and should provide players with a way to engage with modern issues in a manner that lets them learn about these issues through play. As a growing medium with a thriving indie movement, efforts like these can make the strengths of the medium shine. 10 dollars buys you a pre-copy of the game, 25 gets a signed copy, and so on until 1,000 earns you a spot as an Executive Producer. The game could potentially end up on PC/Xbox Arcade/PSN and other gaming networks.


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