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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.

by Eric Swain

15 Oct 2014


Since its release, quite a few people have described Spec Ops: The Line as a horror game. It’s easy to see why one would describe it that way after playing it. The hallucinations, the harsh treatment of the player, and the symbolic imagery of hell would be enough for a player to come to that conclusion regardless of anything else that the game might be doing. If one was to call Spec Ops: The Line a horror game, it wouldn’t be monster horror or gothic horror, but the strange twisted nightmare of psychological horror. The kind of horror that makes one look inward at an obstacle course of torture of one’s own making.

I can see the argument for it, and yet, I don’t know if I could fully subscribe to it. Instead I want to focus on a design technique. Spec Ops: The Line seemingly borrows from horror games, particularly early survival horror games like Resident Evil. The early Resident Evil games managed to cultivate a terrifying game with static camera angles and difficult to maneuver tank controls and other design choices that weren’t optimal in the traditional sense. These design choices were born of technical limitations, but as we saw over the years as the developers added better player control that the games lost what made them effective horror games. Spec Ops: The Line isn’t quite this extreme, as much of it still functions like a traditional third-person shooter, and instead operates under the same ethos but with a more subtle approach to sub-optimal design.

by Eric Swain

8 Oct 2014


When Watch Dogs was first announced, I was as excited as anybody for a new IP, any new IP. That the game would seem to take our modern world into consideration along with modern questions and challenges that exist in daily life made me sit up and take notice. Even if that wasn’t what Ubisoft explicitly stated at E3 several years ago, it’s what was on display at every showing of the game. As time wore on, my enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of others waned. Maybe the game was shown too far in advance of release for the promise to hold our attention? So, I soon forgot about it and simply waited for the game itself to finally appear.

There was a palpable tension when I first put the disk into my console and then waited for the mandatory updates before I was allowed to continue. Would this game live up to the hype or would it fall far short of expectations? Would it even try to live up to its own implied promises? The opening sequence of the game set in a stadium seemed to set the player up for a hard boiled thriller in the style of Heat or Drive. I could see the promises on display. Or at least that seemed to be the case in the first few tutorial missions. This feeling did not last for long, though.

//Mixed media
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"Two wide and handsome Italian thrillers of the 1970s.

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