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by Eric Swain

3 Feb 2015


I said in my PopMatters review of 80 Days that the titular 80 days of the bet that inspired this trip around the world in the first place is a macguffin. The real core of the game is the act and art of traveling through the foreign locales. The sights, the people, and the adventures are what matters. They matter far more than making the trip in an arbitrary number of days. Whereas Phileas Fogg is content enough with his cabin and his newspaper, we play as Passepartout, and he is out and about finding information about travel routes, making trades and getting into mischief.

That much I still believe about the game. 80 Days is the artful worldbuilding and allowing the player to explore it that matters. Given that the 80 days may seem like an extraneous challenge for those who have already explored the world, it is nonetheless an important component even to those who wish to experience the title as interactive fiction and not a challenge.

by Eric Swain

20 Jan 2015


This post contains spoilers for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

There’s a saying when it comes to writing fiction. Never reference a better work in your own writing. You’ll only make the audience wish they were reading that instead. The saying is only half true. In reality, the effect of making a reference to other pieces of fiction is generally an enhancement of the feelings an audience already has towards your work. Making a reference to a better work in one that the audience isn’t liking, will make them wish they were reading that instead. However, making that same reference in a work that the audience is liking, will make them appreciate it as an homage or possibly as a deepening of the thematic message of the original. This goes for movies, poems, songs, and, yes, video games.

Ignoring for the moment that making a direct reference is complicated, it is a substantial risk because it can have the above effect of making the audience wish they were reading/watching/listening/playing the other work right now. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does refer to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other genre fiction, but peppered throughout the game world are a number of side stories that have an unfortunate, detrimental effect. Those short side stories make me wish any one of them were the focus of the game instead of the Carter family.

by Eric Swain

16 Dec 2014


The first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead earned widespread critical praise, mainstream public appreciation, and a bevy of game of the year awards in 2012. Come two years later, the direct follow up, The Walking Dead Season Two, has received, shall we say, a somewhat more muted reception. Between the first and second seasons, there was a change in The Walking Dead. While there are many obvious changes one could point to—a new playable character, a greater focus on action, etc—the particular change I thought had the most impact was the loss of that certain je ne sais quoi that sunk the first season’s talons deep into our collective psyches. Every other obvious change to the series seemed to have some interesting possibilities to it, whereas the “feel” of the game was off in its second season.

There are quite a few possible explanations for this. The writing team behind the episodes changed significantly between the two seasons. There were three writers that worked on Season One, one of which wrote three of the episodes by himself. Season Two had a total of eight writers, who ended up working in pairs for over half the season. It could be that the narrative opportunities for the game shrank with by changing the protagonist into a young character that couldn’t have the social influence of her older predecessor. Maybe it was the shift in structure from the more episodic, single issue storytelling of the first season to episodes more clearly geared towards advancing a single narrative arc over the course of the season. However, I like to pin the fault on something much more basic. The episodes in Season Two were an hour shorter than their counterparts in Season One.

by Eric Swain

10 Dec 2014


Monument Valley (ustwo, 2014)

It’s human nature that after one comes to a conclusion about a topic that one holds on to that belief. That sounds like a rational thing to do, until you remember that time moves forward and that things change. Opinions on mobile games, like that they are somehow lesser than “real” games, are still as prevalent as they were a few years ago. This opinion has always been nonsense, of course, but one can see where such opinions come from. Such games are primarily time wasters, something you play in a few seconds and then shut off without thinking much about the experience. Frequently such games come jam packed with levels and updates, and they devalue everything released on mobile platforms since most of them are available for 99 cents—if the developers charge anything at all.

Like most opinions, this one is one that is seen in retrospect, seen from a time when Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Temple Run were new and represented the standard for what appeared on mobile devices. Times change, and the idea that mobile is only the province of time wasters or dubiously ethical free-to-play games is an out-of-date notion to anyone who is even only casually paying attention.Here at PopMatters, we recently recorded podcasts on two mobile games, Device 6 and Year Walk, both games by Simogo, that came out last year and challenge the notion of what a mobile game is. Here’s a few more great mobile games from this year that I’ve played.

by Eric Swain

3 Dec 2014


There’s a particular phenomenon in tabletop RPGs in which two different types of knowledge are pitted against one another. There is what the player knows as a person in the modern world sitting around a table pretending to be someone else and there is what the character knows about the fictional universe used for play. This is a constant tug-of-war in any tabletop role-playing environment, one that is usually based on players recognizing narrative tropes and what probabilities mean as a result og the die rolls that the characters know nothing of. The tension created is whether or not the player can internally separate these two distinct types of knowledge when making decisions—or even if they want to in the first place.

Such a disparity between what is known is not limited to just RPGs. Any game in which the player can infer more knowledge than what their character should know leads to this disparity. In a video game, it can be as simple as a third person camera granting a view of the hallway around a corner when Metal Gear Solid‘s Snake is pressed against a wall. There can be more direct acknowledgement of the disparity, such as in Telltale’s notification system in its adventure games that lets the player know who will remember what. Snake cannot see what is around that corner, nor can Lee (of The Walking Dead see what is inside other people’s heads. Yet, the game leverages these disparities to its own purposes. Unrest manages to leverage such seemingly contradictory ways of knowing the world as a form of dramatic irony.

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