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Thursday, May 5, 2011
Lugaru HD surprised me, and not just because I hadn’t expected it to be a game about knife-wielding rabbits. It revealed how often I let my experiences with past games define my responses to new ones.

Back in 2009, I joined 138,813 other people in hopping on the Humble Indie Bundle bandwagon.  It was the perfect opportunity to justify the purchase of more games. I wasn’t just hoarding games and adding to my ever-expanding backlog; I was making a statement by supporting independent developers!  I happily bought a collection of games I knew very little about.  I had played (and loved) World of Goo but had never even seen screenshots of the the rest of the collection.


2011 rolled around, and I realized that I still hadn’t played any of the games for which I so righteously paid.  For no reason in particular, I installed Lugaru HD and proceeded to experience something I hadn’t felt since I played my first video game on my Dad’s early-1980s Zenith computer: total ignorance.  Aside from its title and its menu icon, I knew nothing about the game.  This lack of knowledge drastically affected my response to every portion of Lugaru HD and prompted me to reexamine my approach to video game analysis as well as the pitfalls of knowing too much about a game before playing it.


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Thursday, Apr 28, 2011
Portal 2 is a marvel, and the Rat Man -- accompanied by Valve’s gorgeous comic -- only adds to the game's charm.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Portal 2 and its accompanying comic Lab Rat. I encourage you to read the comic, which you can find here before you continue reading.


Last week saw the release of Valve’s much anticipated Portal 2. Already, the game has earned a great deal of well deserved praise. (For an excellent assessment of the game, check out G. Christopher Williams’s review of the game.). Put simply, the game is a joyful masterpiece, an absolute delight to play. Without veering far from the original game’s themes and system, Portal 2 adds several wonderfully implemented new puzzle elements, including laser beams, laser bridges, and a bunch of cool goop. Newcomer Stephen Merchent also voices a hilarious addition to the series in the form of Wheatley. While I adore the robotic British eyeball, I am also drawn to an even more tangential character, someone hidden away in the game itself behind wall panels and in secret rooms. Featured in the comic accompanying the game, and narratively playing a large role in the Portal canon, the Rat Man’s story and presence in Portal 2 enriches Chell and the play experience.


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Thursday, Apr 21, 2011
Picross 3D might not have a "story" in the traditional sense, but it still has a lot to say.

Works that feature traditional narratives often enjoy the distinction of being the most popular, critically acclaimed, and carefully analyzed form of video games. Blockbusters like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption center around plots reminiscent to those found in film or literature. Popular independent games like Limbo or The Path also adhere to themes that have been explored in other forms. Obviously, video games differ from these traditional media, as players actively collaborate in the story and have at least some control over crafting the character behavior. Thus, game criticism often focuses on the dialectic between the themes a game’s plot conveys and those advanced by its rule systems. The BioShocks of the world elicit a preponderance of essays that parse the ways in which their stories and rules interact, but comparatively little is ever said about about what Gran Turismo tells us about the cultural role of automobiles or whether Madden NFL makes implicit arguments about football’s social value.


I recognize the bulk of my work has (and will probably remain) focused on games with plots, but I thought I would try and mix things up a bit. What kinds of values do games without stories impart? What do they say about the medium and about culture in general?  In search of answers, I turned to Picross 3D.


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Thursday, Apr 14, 2011
While we all have our own experiences to draw from, we relate to many symbols similarly. Our semiotic understanding of a situation is, in some ways, predetermined by those symbols already present in our collective conscience.

At this past Game Developers Conference, Brenda Brathwaite gave a talk titled “One Falls for Each of Us: Prototyping Tragedy”. She gave a nearly identical talk by the same name in 2010, which is available online and I would encourage all of you to watch. Brathwaite is a powerful orator, imbuing all her talks with vigor and emotion. Her six part, “The Mechanic is the Message” game series has drawn immense interest and critical acclaim for generating an equal amount of critical thought and emotional weight. One Falls for Each of Us, the fourth in the series, models the US slaughter of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. While I appreciate the title of her series, the mechanical reconstruction of history is not the message alone. Or rather, the components of a historical system mean little without a conjoining emotional system. Brathwaite’s work exemplifies how game designers can create provocative player-imbued systems of emotion.


During Brathwaite’s presentation, one powerful and important statement stands out: “Wherever there is human-on-human tragedy, there is also a system.” This is particularly true during large scale tragedies. In the case of Train, her well-known boardgame about the Holocaust, Brathwaite creates a game out of the systems required to collect and transport millions of Jews to concentration camps. How could you make a game about the Holocaust? Well, it turns out pretty easily.


Creating a game system inspired by human tragedy need not succeed in creating a strong response. Brathwaite imbues her work with deep emotional resonance, and not by solely relying on her collection of relevant historical units. Numerous games draw upon human tragedy without evoking many feelings at all. As she states, “as long as they are decently abstract, they don’t make us uncomfortable.” Someone could have a strong emotional response while playing Civilization V, but that is incidental. The sensations of disgust, revulsion, guilt, and melancholy generated by Train are not. Brathwaite calls the games Puerto Rico and Sid Meier’s Colonization two different versions of One Falls for Each of Us, as they all draw upon the tragedy of colonialism and incorporate representations of the oppressed into the game mechanic. How can One Falls create such an emotionally moving experience with the same basic conceit?


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Thursday, Apr 7, 2011
What is the state of mobile/handheld gaming out in the wild? If the sights taken in on one recent trip are any indication, the traditional kings of the jungle might need to worry about their place in the food chain.

Recently, I had to travel from England to the San Francisco Bay Area.  Because of my modest net worth and the unfortunate unreliability of matter-transport/teleportation technology, I faced a nearly 24-hour journey.  I figured that since I would already be stuck in a variety of vehicles and security lines, I might as well find a more productive use for my time and spy on people.  The information that I was after was nothing so trite as national secrets or personal financial information.  I wanted to see if anyone was playing video games and, if so, what they were playing.


After what amounted to essentially an all-nighter of observation, I came away from the project quite surprised.  I saw little of what I expected and much of what I did not.  Although it was hardly a scientific survey, my little gaming sightseeing adventure did affect the way I think about mobile gaming and made me even more interested in the future of the field.


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