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Monday, Aug 18, 2008
L.B. has an odd lapse into remorse and gives a shout-out to some of Ken Levine's best games. Spoilers abound.

I was skimming some of the pieces that have gone up for Banana Pepper Martinis here at PopMatters when I noticed something: I tend to rag on Bioshock a lot. I’m not alone in this; most critics pull it down from their dissection shelves and point to it when they are making a case. Do this, avoid that, this could’ve been better. It’s just that…there are so few games that have ever attempted to engage with art or philosophy, and here’s this game that had the guts to do it. And a lot of that criticism doesn’t just get aimed at the game, it goes to the figurehead behind it, Ken Levine. I’m guilty of ragging on him excessively as well. Ever since the GDC lecture on plot in which he advised developers to simplify their game plots, I’ve tended to call him Ken “Make The Plot As Dumb As Possible” Levine in forums. This, of course, is taking the quote totally out of context, and I’m being hypocritical because I tell people to write plainly all the time. But I’m gonna make it up to him. Folks, we’re going to talk about how awesome Ken Levine’s impact on video games has been. And best of all, I’m not going to mention Bioshock once while I do it…starting now.


The first two major games Levine helped to create used The Dark Engine, which was developed by Looking Glass Studios. A great deal of credit goes to the programmers and designers for creating a game engine that allowed the artists to independently create in-game assets without technical help. They could design and create character actions and plot elements on their own. In conjunction with a brilliant sound-detection game design, Levine got a chance to flex that writing muscle on his first game Thief. Before we get into that, there some basic themes to Levine’s writing you learn to recognize and appreciate. As a former screenwriter, Levine has a good edge with dialog and he relies on it heavily in all of his games. The plot is usually delivered via heavy-handed narration with interesting fictional quotes mixed in about the environment itself. Most action sequences are left up to the player, but when the game does have a cutscene with action, the moments are appropriately full of nuance and powerlessness for the player. Levine is a writer who is very aware of the fact that he’s writing a video game and always uses static instances when the player’s input would be irrelevant anyways. His games usually feature two morally complex philosophies in conflict, you’re usually stuck in the middle, and no one comes across as a good guy. It’s a moral predicament that Levine seems to like and it is in this setting that he evokes the settings of his games.


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Sunday, Aug 17, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-18

While I’m not the type of person who subscribes to the idea that a gaming system or company has to have a mascot to survive, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Despite its tremendous stable of long-running characters, Mario will always be identified as the true symbol of Nintendo.  Sega, for better (the ‘90s) or worse (the ‘00s), will always have Sonic standing at the forefront of its stable of games (maybe the angry fella at the center of MadWorld can take over next year).  At one point, Sony had Crash Bandicoot out front, but his star has lost a bit of its luster over the last 10 years or so.  So who’s taken over in the Sony stable?


Some might say that the torch bearer of the Sony brand has now become Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series, and that’s not a bad guess—Snake’s current incarnation of the old man showing the kids how things are done seems particularly à propos for the place that Sony is attempting to take in the modern gaming market.  Still, no series has offered the sort of consistency and quality (not to mention a whole pile of releases) as Ratchet & Clank.  The two of them combined may well be the current face(s) of Sony; immense firepower, copious cunning, and Ratchet’s ever-present smirk seem as though they would serve Sony well, if Sony were ever to push them to the front of a marketing campaign.  They’re even kid-friendly, at least in image, which would help the company cut into the Wii family market.  Are you listening, Sony?  Everyone who was going to buy the PS3 because it’s also a Blu-Ray player has already bought the thing.  It’s time to shift your target.


The Ratchet & Clank series is relevant right now, because the latest iteration of the series is on its way this Thursday as a PlayStation Network download.  I’ve spent a lot of time this month extolling the virtues of the Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s almost as if it only seems fair that I would highlight a PlayStation Network game this week; Ratchet & Clank surely gets the nod over an(other) updated version of Galaga no matter what the updates to the latter.


Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty isn’t so much a new game as it is an episode in the mythology of the duo. as it’s only a three-to-four-hour game.  Still, despite the short length, the consensus so far is that it continues the traditionally consistent and engrossing experience of its predecessors, and that anyone who still likes to play the old pseudo-platforming action/adventure style of game will be richly rewarded by the game, even if the high won’t last all that long.


Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing


Elsewhere, the ever-controversial Too Human is on its way this Tuesday, a game whose controversy stems not from any objectionable content, but from the tremendous length of its development cycle.  Advance word says that the roundabout way that it eventually came to be may have hurt the play experience, but it still seems like an interesting (and graphically impressive) enough experience to warrant a look, even if it might be destined for bargain bins sooner than later.  Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm makes its weekly appearance on the PC release schedule (perhaps it’s time to let it go…), and hey!  It’s Anibus, for the Wii, which surely must be a…sequel?  Prequel?  Who knows?  But chances are, it has something to do with last year’s shovelware stink fest Anubis II.  So there’s that.


Looking forward to anything else this week?  The full release list, and a trailer for Quest for Booty, are after the jump.


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Sunday, Aug 17, 2008
Glenn McDonald's coverage of GenCon continues...

More updates from GenCon:


I’m a total sucker for old-school, turn-based RPGs, like the first few videogame iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, you controlled a party of 4-6 characters, and would lead them in turn-based combat against the bad guys. That meant each character would act individually in turn—the elf fires his arrow at the orc, the wizard moves three squares and shoots a fireball at the troll.  Time crawled to a stop in these games. This was combat which in game time was resolved in seconds, actually taking an hour or more to play in “real” time, as you carefully executed each hero’s actions.


Promo art for The Continuum

Promo art for The Continuum


This is the kind of excruciatingly minute control that turns on a certain variety of videogame RPGers—like me. The new D&D games, like the otherwise excellent Neverwinter Nights series, move too fast for my old bones. I like the old-school approach. So I was psyched to check out a new game premiering at GenCon: The Continuum. A hybrid of sorts, The Continuum combines elements of turn-based RPG play with strategy wargames like Axis and Allies, along with a Collectible Card Game (CCG) aspect. I demoed the game in the main convention hall, and man-oh-man, am I sold. This game is going to get me in a lot of trouble, I can tell.


The cover of issue #1 of The Continuum's comic book

The cover of issue #1 of
The Continuum‘s comic book


The Continuum lets you control entire armies of 300-plus individual characters, each of which has its own stat block, equipment, etc. The CCG element comes in when you assemble your armies. You essentially purchase new and better combatants, much in the way you would purchase new cards in the digital version of a game like Magic: The Gathering. Your army becomes, in essence, your deck. What’s really cool here is that the game is entirely browser-based—it’s all managed via Flash animation, and the raw throughput of data they are managing here suggests they have a real design savant on staff somewhere. It’s nicely scalable, too. You can command various squads of up to 20 characters, or even your entire army as a whole, if you want to play quick and dirty. But—if you really want to—you can micromanage all the way down to the level of each individual fighter, commanding each in turn just like in the old days.


The Continuum just came out of beta a couple months ago, and already has a solid, global player base (you can play others online or go solo against the AI). The game has a very cool and compelling narrative chassis as well – check it out for yourself at www.thecontinuum.com.


I spent a good part of the rest of the day attending various writers workshops and symposia (besides writing about games, I also occasionally write for them—I recently realized a lifelong dream by co-authoring a Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook, an advanced geek achievement I am proud of beyond all rational proportion).


A little bit of exposition in EVE Online

A little bit of exposition in EVE Online


There’s an interesting trend happening in this area. As the videogame industry continues its phenomenal growth, companies are starting to recruit science fiction and fantasy writers—and tabletop RPG game designers—to provide the narrative content needed for their rapidly expanding worlds. This is especially the case with MMOs, massively multiplayer online RPGs like World of Warcraft, Everquest, EVE Online, etc. One panelist, speaking at a workshop on freelance fantasy writing, estimated that every new expansion of a videogame RPG or MMO requires about 500,000 words of scripted dialogue to populate the conversation “trees”.


This writing used to be done by the coders themselves, or a small team of copywriters pulled over from the marketing division. And it showed. So the idea that the big companies are now hiring fantasy and sci-fi authors is a win-win for everyone. The games get more literate, and the writers have a new market. 


As always, the most fun to be had at GenCon is wandering the exhibit hall and people-watching. Or troll-watching, or stormtrooper-watching, or what have you. More pics after the jump…


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Saturday, Aug 16, 2008
Glenn McDonald reports from day one of GenCon, Gary Gygax's annual tabletop and board game convention.

Hello from GenCon, the largest annual gathering of hardcore gamers in the world today. Founded by Gary Gygax, the inventor of a little something called Dungeons & Dragons, GenCon has long been the mecca of so-called “hobby game enthusiasts”—popularly known as D&D geeks.


I’ve been attending GenCon for several years now, to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary game design, which I find endlessly fascinating. This convention—held every August in Indianapolis, Indiana—truly is the event horizon of gaming. Not videogames, mind you—although that is part of it—but games in a more fundamental sense. Card games, dice games, role-playing games, board games, pretty much any game you can think of that doesn’t involve sports or gambling.


So: A few quick hits and photos, and hopefully I’ll be able to blog in again tomorrow. One of the areas I’m tracking this year is general-interest, family-friendly board and party games. The games that, their developers hope, will supplant the moldy old stand-bys of Monopoly, Life, and Trivial Pursuit.


Talking with some of the exhibitors in the main hall, I’m getting a better sense of how the industry works. For instance, it usually takes about five years for a new game to even get a chance at cracking the retail shelves of big-box outlets like Wal-Mart or Target, or even the expanded game sections of bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Typically, a game has to move hundreds of thousands of units on its own merits, via online sales and specialty hobby game stores.


One such success story is Wits and Wagers, from the small Washington D.C. outfit Northstar Games. I played a demo on the convention floor with some other passing gamers, and it’s very fun indeed—an ingenious mash-up of trivia and Vegas-style oddsmaking. Wits and Wagers just recently earned enough success to get some coveted retail shelf-space at Target, and it won Games Magazine’s Best Party Game award last year.


Publicity art from Grey Ranks

Publicity art from Grey Ranks


On the other end of the spectrum, I spoke with Jason Morningstar, creator of the literary role-playing game Grey Ranks. A radically indie game project, Morningstar’s game is only sold online and via mail order, and is shipped, literally, from Morningstar’s living room. No wizards or lasers in this game. Instead, a player assumes the role of a Polish teenager during the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in Warsaw. Dark in tone and aesthetically sophisticated, the game deals with themes of adolescence, love, war and death. Grey Ranks won this year’s prestigious Diana Jones Award—GenCon’s equivalent to the Indie Spirit awards. My prediction: The industry will one day look back at this game—and its recognition at this year’s convention –- as a watershed moment, a turning point in which the RPG as an artistic form began to fulfill its potential.


Then, of course, we have the real fun of GenCon – people dressing funny. I leave you with a handful of pics from the Convention Center, after the jump.


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Friday, Aug 15, 2008
A look at Kevan Davis' quietly groundbreaking grid and text-based sandbox MMORPG.

Just before Christmas 2006, I heard about a new(ish) online game played in real time.  In it, you create a character, gain experience to level up and buy skills, and engage in combat with other player characters.  The game lacks NPCs, so every interaction takes place between two real people.  The action takes place in Malton, a ruined, quarantined city after a zombie apocalypse, and players may take the role of either survivors or the undead.  Best of all, the game is browser-based and free to play.  So what’s the catch?  Widespread narcolepsy, apparently. 


The game I’ve described, Urban Dead, is grid-based, and each movement on the map, use of an item, or search conducted uses one action point.  These action points are rationed to about fifty per day—they replenish at a rate of one per half hour, give or take.  When your action points are used up, you fall asleep.  In an abandoned bar, in the street, wherever—you just pass out.  I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water in Malton, but it sure as heck isn’t caffeine. 


The rationing of action points is not an entirely new system—Kingdom of Loathing has been running a similar system since 2003—but unlike life in the Kingdom, which mainly pits player characters against NPCs, running out of action points in Urban Dead can cause your survivor character to be dismembered and devoured by undead minions hungry for the bloody flavor of harman hambargars (that’s zombish for human hamburgers), or your zombie might end up getting a fire axe to the back of the skull and staying down for the count (requiring ten additional action points to stand up after a head shot). 


Urban Dead has its own mythology, much of which is documented in its dedicated wiki, and which includes the ability of certain individuals with the requisite training to revive those who have been infected with the strange zombie virus and restore the undead to the, ahem, sunny side of life.  This has created a number of conventions invented from whole cloth by the players on both sides of the grave, which in many ways is more interesting than the game itself.  For instance, those who prefer to play as survivors and log in to find that they have been chewed on during the night can move their shambling corpses to one of several dozen designated revive points—usually cemeteries—and stand in a queue to be brought back to life.  There are players who devote their entire daily ration of action points to reviving their fallen comrades, and who may never actually fight zombies at all. 


Then there are those who play as survivors, but instead of helping their fellow humans fight the zombie hordes, they load up on shotguns and rampage around shopping malls, capping innocent bystanders and generally spreading chaos.  To combat these “player killers,” an unofficial character class has evolved, and bounty hunters seek out and kill the player killers.  Of course, death is a temporary state in Malton, so the circle of life and undeath ebbs and flows like a bloody river flowing to an eternal sea.


Most fascinating, however, are the groups that have repurposed the mechanics of Urban Dead to play a game so completely their own such that it resonates both in-game and out.  Take, for instance, The Shamblin’ Crooners.  This is a group of zombie players that travel from venue to venue performing for human audiences.  In-game, zombies with sufficient experience can buy skills that allow them a rudimentary form of speech (using only the letters a, b, g, h, m, n, r, and z) and something called “Flailing Gesture,” which unlocks the option to point north, south, west, east, or at nearby people or objects.  The Shamblin’ Crooners combined these skills to choreograph elaborate song-and-dance numbers, to be executed just before all the survivors in the chosen venue are, well, executed.  The result: a bunch of dead players who are pretty amused by the whole thing, really, when it gets right down to it. 


I could go on. There are zombie lexicographers, who tirelessly catalog the constantly evolving slang that is zombie speech (survivors with guns: bangbang manz).  There are keen hackers who forge slick apps to make the user interface prettier, tidier, or more accessible.  There is a group called Upper Left Corner, which gathers in the titular corners of malls (which occupy four grid squares) and consume themselves with small talk and witty banter—zombie apocalypse be damned. 


Urban Dead has inspired a few spin-offs since its inception in July 2005, and its creator, Kevan Davis, has been supportive of games like Nexus War.  In my experiences with these games, however, the relaxation of various limitations—responses to common complaints about Urban Dead‘s restrictive gameplay—renders them too simple and drops the stakes to an unsatisfying low.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, it’s rather like playing tennis with the net down.  The limited capabilities of Urban Dead characters inspire creativity and resourcefulness in its players, and therein lies its real magic.  Instead of creating a story and inviting the players to watch it unfold, Davis has succeeded in crafting a sandbox and letting the players create their own world inside it.


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