Tag Archive for computer games

Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural Ambiguity

I’m well aware of the love it or hate it reaction to ambiguous, exploration-driven indie games. For every rave about a Journey, there’s an equally passionate pan. The pros and cons are sometimes even the same on both sides of the review spectrum.

limbogame Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural Ambiguity

Get your copy of Limbo

Never has this been more clear than the critical divide over Limbo. The gorgeous side-scrolling puzzle platformer set in an inky black and white world of deadly traps allows you, the gamer, to create your own narrative. The mechanics and puzzles are locked into place with very exacting solutions. The actual story being told is intentionally left not only unresolved but underexplored.

The crux of Limbo is the maddening build of suspense. Your character, a young boy shown in silhouette alone, races through forests, rooftops, caves, and factories to achieve something. For a while, the motivation is staying alive. Other children lay traps and even attack him directly. Then a young girl enters the picture and the game changes tone entirely.

Throughout the exploration of the world, you come to distrust every element put in your way. Is that footswitch a bane or a boon? Will pulling that lever flood the forest or just the chamber you need to pass? And why are so many of the settings so familiar again and again and again?

limbolocation Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural AmbiguityAbout 2/3s of the way through the game, the truth of the design is revealed. The world seems to repeat itself because the environments of the game are recycled and revisited in unexpected ways. The neon signs you passed over long before are now your escape ladder from the murderous factory before. Signs you saw in the distance are shoved to the foreground, introducing new gameplay mechanics that make you realize anything is possible in Limbo.

The game creates a terrible sense of foreboding from the start. You learn quickly that not even light is your friend. Everything is an act of misdirection that can lead you right to a pit of spikes or murderous spider. The game begins to take on a rhythm of introducing a trap, then adding more and more encounters with the trap until the next big threat is revealed. For example, a puddle of water you drown in becomes a chasm becomes a lake becomes a spring at the bottom of a hill you have to go down to advance. The stakes are spun higher and higher until the new style of enemy–be it brain parasite, flooding structure, or spinning gears–steps up for its own set of rotations.

limbomisdirection Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural AmbiguityThe traps and enemies do overlap in pretty challenging ways as the game progresses, but the prevalence of the trap stays true to the circular nature of the trap design and pacing. The technique forces you to question every move and really hone in on the environmental factors. Everything you will encounter in the game is foreshadowed in the first few minutes of play with the blurred shadows in the distance. Likewise, everything you play in the first few minutes swings around to the distant background as you explore the world. It’s an inventive way to establish a cohesive world when the structures and environments look very similar but play in totally unexpected ways.

Whether or not Limbo physically begins and ends in the exact same place is one of the ambiguous elements of the story. My gut instinct says yes, but a bizarre almost-cutscene in the middle of the game might suggest otherwise. The important thing to realize is that the game repeats structural and design elements again and again as a way to increase the challenge level and suspense. Not knowing what exactly will come next but presenting it in a familiar way is a very cool way to build suspense and interest in the outcome of the game.

Thoughts on the structure and story of Limbo? Share them below.

GameFanShop Deal Round-Up: April 8, 2013

Have you had a chance to check out my GameFanShop partner site yet? Each Monday, they update their weekly deals. Some are brand new, some are carried over, and some are gone entirely. I’ll be doing a quick update post on the new deals, new releases, and even some older games I enjoy that you can get right now through GameFanShop. Shopping at GameFanShop helps fund Sketchy Details so I can offer you new and exciting features on the site.

First, if you didn’t take advantage of the awesome $46.99 deal for Bioshock Infinite, you missed out. They are sold out of Steam codes for that game right now and I don’t know when they will get new stock. There are plenty of other new releases on sale to satisfy your gamer interests.

gamefanshop4813defiance GameFanShop Deal Round Up: April 8, 2013Defiance, the MMOshooter inspired by the SyFy series of the same name, is available in two different forms. The regular edition is on sale for $49.99, down from the regular price of $59.99. The deluxe edition is on sale for $59.99 down from $69.99. The deluxe edition includes an additional costume, an extra weapon, an extra shield, extra storage for in-game items, and a 30 day boost in xp and script. The interesting part about Defiance is that SyFy claims the actions of the online community will have an impact on the TV story. I’m curious to see how that plays out in the long-run.

Crysis 3 is on sale for $46.99, a 22% savings on the regular price. The new Tomb Raider is on sale for $36.99, a 26% savings on the regular price. Far Cry 3 with all the DLC is on sale for $33.99, a savings of 37%. And the biggest new release deal of the week is XCOM: Enemy Unknown for $29.99, a savings of 40%.

gamefanshop4813alanwake GameFanShop Deal Round Up: April 8, 2013Last week, I had the opportunity to write a lot about Alan Wake. The horror/noir game has a lot of things going for it. The story is excellent. The voice acting and character development are strong. Alan Wake looks really good and mostly plays well. I came down hard on one element–the FPS controls as the game progresses–because it was the expected choice in an otherwise very inventive game.

Alan Wake with all the DLC is on sale right now for $17.99. That’s 55% off the regular price of $39.99. It’s more than worth it.

GameFanShop sells digital downloads for computer games. Once you register and your payment goes through, you’re e-mailed the code to download your game from Steam, Origin, or the publisher’s own website.

Introducing GameFanShop

I’ve spruced up the layout at Sketchy Details over the last few days, which includes quite a few new ad partnerships. The site has been self-sustaining for years now, earning enough to pay for its own hosting and expenses. The only way to get Sketchy Details to where it could and should be is to increase revenue on the site. I have a lot of ideas of how to do that in the coming weeks and you just need to trust me.

The biggest partnership is with a site called GameFanShop. GameFanShop sells PC game downloads through Steam as well as points and membership cards for Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo, and various MMOs. I was accepted into their partnership program earlier this week and added one of their banners to the top of the site.

GameFanShop runs really great sales on PC games. Through Sunday, for example, they have the cheapest price available on Bioshock Infinite. The sales change out every week so you never know what’s going to be the next best deal available. There are over 1000 games to choose from in every genre you can imagine so there’s plenty to pick from.

gamefanshoppartnership Introducing GameFanShopHere’s how the site works. You click through to the Sketchy Details GameFanShop and browse for downloads. You register your account when you check out for the first time and I get a very fair commission rate for sending you to the site. My commission does not impact your price point and I take the hit on any coupon codes I offer. Once the order is processed, you’re e-mailed your Steam code and can download the game immediately. GameFanShop has exclusive deals so it’s worth checking out to see if you can get a better price on the game you want.

I have no problem being honest with you guys about how this site works. I figure it’s better to let you know that I’m not just cramming random things at you and have a reason for all the changes. If you like Sketchy Details and like to play games, consider shopping through my partner shop. I’m going to do a weekly post exploring the best deals on GameFanShop.

Here are some of the deals that expire on Sunday:

  • Bioshock Infinite is on sale for $46.99, down from $59.99
  • The new Tomb Raider is on sale for $36.99, down from $49.99
  • Borderlands 2 is on sale for $38.99, down from $59.99
  • Skyrim is on sale for $29.99, down from $59.99
  • All Xbox Live Gold Memberships are on sale, from $13.99 for a one month membership (down from $14.99) to $49.99 for 12 months (down from $59.99)

Run your ad-block program if you must, but I’m personally screening all the ads that come through here now. I have deals with game companies, iTunes, Vudu streaming video, and even Rifftrax downloads. The Google Ads that have been here since the rebirth of Sketchy Details are always targeted to you through their algorithm. Everything else is my own effort to anticipate your interests.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1

tropesvswomeninvideogamesblog Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1Anita Sarkeesian’s new series of Feminist Frequency videos debuted on YouTube yesterday. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is the Kickstarter project that the trolls didn’t want you to have because of misconceived notions of what feminist criticism actually is. The fact that Sarkeesian covered really nerdy topics from an academic perspective meant nothing once she tried to raise money for an educational series about the role of women in video games. Hate mail, cyber attacks, and death threats followed in short order, causing the opposite effect the trolls hoped for. Their malicious actions resulted in a wildly successful Kickstarter for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, earning over 26 times the amount she asked for in short order.

The first video in the series is Damsels in Distress: Part 1. Sarkeesian obviously used every cent she earned on producing an excellent series of videos. The production quality is higher than some of the premium YouTube channels paid for by YouTube itself. The images are crisp, the audio clear, and the editing flawless.

tropesvswomeninvideogamesdamsels1crystal Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1

Wait a minute. This isn’t the Krystal that appeared in Star Fox Adventures…

The research on the Damsels in Distress trope alone is quite extensive. Sure, she covers the extensive history of Princess Peach and Princess Zelda. Did you expect her to cover the ridiculous studio blunder of Star Fox Adventures? What about name dropping Splatterhouse, Super Adventure Island, and Adventures of Lolo? I actually remember renting Adventures of Lolo and being confused by the gameplay footage on the back of the box that showed the girl as a playable character when you could only start as the boy.

The key to understanding this video is understanding what, exactly, the damsel in distress is. Simply put, when a female character is abducted or put in danger she herself cannot get out of as a plot point, she becomes a damsel in distress. It doesn’t matter if the plot point is resolved in five minutes or five hours. When the female character is reduced to a stolen artifact in a game–like a legendary sword or staff–she becomes the damsel in distress.

In the smartest move of the entire project, Anita Sarkeesian has disabled comments on this video series on YouTube. If you doubt the choice, check out any comment thread about this video on a gaming site. Once again, her opinions are dismissed by listing arguments she herself did not make or with straight up lying about what she meant. Of all places, the PA Report thread has one of the more bone-headed discussions going on, with users arguing the video is poorly researched by putting words in Anita’s mouth. She does not say that the Damsel in Distress trope is inherently harmful. Her clear implication is that the Damsel in Distress trope is harmful when nothing is done to develop a character beyond her victimhood and the character makes no effort on her own to escape. She obviously did play and research these games, as the trope has no time requirement or even gender/species rescue requirement. If the female character cannot get out of the perilous situation herself, she is a damsel in distress.

Other sites have trolls already bringing up “what about male tropes?” as a way to dismiss her criticism. If you want to start a feminist research project on pervasive male tropes in video games, be my guest. That has never been announced as a goal of this series by Sarkeesian and is nothing more than a strawman argument and a moving of the goal posts when she failed to be the villain the trolls painted her as.

And don’t forget the people who claim the video is poorly researched because she didn’t cite every example of the Damsel in Distress trope in a 30 minute video on video games. Apparently, not saying that modern romance novels do this, too, invalidates her argument somehow. I don’t know how. It’s like saying your knowledge of the latest Super Bowl is invalid because you didn’t also list every winner of the World Cup when stating the Ravens beat the 49ers. I have to use a troll to English dictionary when I troll trolls for fun and research.

Top 12 Video Games of 2012

I have a bunch of “best of” posts planned for Sketchy Details that I’m going to break down into shorter, more digestible features in the coming weeks.

First up are video games. 2012 was a sort of renaissance for indie, low-budget, and online gaming. That is not to discredit the merits of the Triple A titles that came out. It’s just the reality of a market that has quickly embraced independent productions. Each major console now has a fully functional online marketplace, including handhelds, and Steam allows for easy download and trial of PC games.

Mobile gaming has continued to grow, as well. The tablet market exploded and smartphones are gaining a larger portion of the market every day. Social networks are somehow able to attract high quality games based on big Hollywood properties. And user-generated sites like Newgrounds are still holding on as a testing ground for larger releases.

Here are the Top 12 games of 2012.

12: Marvel: Avengers Alliance (Facebook)

marvelavengersalliance Top 12 Video Games of 2012Marvel: Avengers Alliance is a Facebook turn-based RPG inspired by The Avengers, both the film and the comics. You play as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tasked with leading the superheroes into battle. You start with a small arsenal of characters battling Marvel enemies from all eras and quickly earn points to recruit seemingly any character that ever joined The Avengers.

It’s a whole lot of fun to watch She-Hulk, Wolverine, and your gun-toting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent battle Loki, The Wrecker, and The Enchantress in an ever-expanding series of missions. The PVP tournaments and character customization are a nice touch. You level up your superheroes until you’re allowed to reassign abilities (there’s a rock/paper/scissors or Pokemon-styled trumping system that adds a nice twist) and enhance with a variety of technology.

The only downside is that the resources are quite limited if you do not convince all of your friends to play. Free to play on Facebook often means “until you run out of resources, then give us money” and, sadly, Marvel: Avengers Alliance is no exception.

MoMA Adds Video Games to Permanent Collection

After seeing the beautiful Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian in D.C. last spring, I was wondering which major US gallery would be the first to take the plunge and add video games to their permanent collection. The winner is the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

14 video games from the past 32 years will have a permanent home in the Philip Johnson Galleries at MoMA starting in March 2013. This wing is focused on architecture and design. The selected video games back up that categorization. These are not the most influential or even the most artistic video games ever made. What they represent is innovation in interactive digital design.

The first 14 titles to enter MoMA are Pac-Man, Tetris, Another World, Myst, SimCity 2000, vib-ribbon, The Sims, Katamari Damacy, EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress, Portal, flOw, Passage, and Canabalt.

momaanotherworld MoMA Adds Video Games to Permanent CollectionThere are two really exciting elements to this story that are being glossed over in a lot of write-ups. The first is the presentation of the games. These are going to be original copies of the games displayed on the original consoles. That means computer games shown on computers, arcade games shown in arcade cabinets, and home console games shown on their home consoles. This collection is as much about celebrating the artistic design in video games as it is about preserving video games themselves.

The challenge of including a medium like video games in an art gallery is preservation. We know how to safely display a painting. You need good conservation framing, the right light, proper anchoring on the wall, and experienced technicians who know how to properly clean and restore the art work for generations to come. A statue, a drawing, even furniture and home decor can be handled with relative ease at this point by trained experts.

momavibribbon MoMA Adds Video Games to Permanent CollectionVideo games pose a number of challenges. For starters, no one expected them to become as popular as they did. These were not machines designed for the ages. Console generations last anywhere from five to ten years, with overlap in between. Developers have to compete for a larger portion of the market share, so better versions of old consoles are constantly in development.

The games themselves aren’t exactly in a long-lasting format, either. Cartridges and floppy discs from the early generations started to malfunction within months of play, resulting in the sale of cleaning kits and homegrown remedies like blowing on the exposed connection underneath. Newer media on CDs, DVD, and Blu-Ray is easily scratched if not handled with care. Restoring a broken cartridge or scratched up disc is a risky bet that doesn’t always pay off.

The second big part of the story is the plan for the future. MoMA is not sitting on their laurels with 14 titles. These are just the first titles in a wishlist of 40 games they want for this collection. They’re also looking at a whole new category of art for inclusion in the actual art galleries.

momacanabalt MoMA Adds Video Games to Permanent CollectionThis is huge. MoMA is actively preserving the history of video games and making the attempt to elevate them to art. Considering people still fight about whether or not video installations and performance art really belong in traditional galleries, the video games as art debate is not going away anytime soon. What helps the case is prestigious art galleries inviting in curated exhibitions of games and adding titles to their actual displays and archives.

What do you think? What titles should make it into MoMA in the future? I’m pulling for Okami and Shadow of the Colossus, myself.

When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle Games

I love a good puzzle game. It’s one of the main genres in my wheelhouse (right behind music/rhythm games and the OCD madness of leveling up and resource distribution in a turn-based RPGs) because of the way I think. I love taking things apart and figuring out how they work.

Puzzle games normally have a breaking point where the learning curve radically shoots up after the basic mechanics are demonstrated. That’s part of the fun. You have to start putting together everything you know to succeed.

quantumconundrumcover When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesQuantum Conundrum has multiple learning curves happening at the same time. The game hinges on the manipulation of physics in a mad scientist’s world. You have very little time to master the intricacies of each of four variables before solving a puzzle demands precision control of various random elements.

You play as a young boy sent to spend some time with your uncle, the brilliant inventor Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. He transported himself to an alternate pocket dimension while testing his latest invention and needs your help to bring him back. Your goal is to start up the generators in the various wings of his mansion to help him return.

To do this, you must use a glove that lets you manipulate gravity and time through dimensional rifts. The Fluffy dimension makes everything super light. The Heavy dimensions makes everything super heavy. The Slow dimension drops everything but your character to one-tenth speed. The Reverse Gravity dimension flips gravity for everything but your character.

Once you get past the first few puzzles, you’ll be manipulating multiple forces at once. You quickly learn things like throwing a big box in Fluffy mode before shifting it to Heavy mode at the last second to smash through a big window or blocking lasers with the appropriate dimensional shift to pass by safely.

What isn’t immediately apparent is how some of the forces link together. Even in some of the later Fluffy/Heavy-only puzzles, the solution to the puzzle isn’t always a logical one. You can block the right laser, but be off by just a slight amount and be stuck for a long time trying to figure out what else you missed. You didn’t miss anything other than the one spot on the wall that the box, held up by a large industrial fan, will line up everything; too bad the graphics already look like you lined it up perfectly even if you’re off by a quarter-width of a box.

portalinstruction When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesThe challenge of designing a good puzzle game is deciding where to draw the line between challenge and innovation. Portal, the previous release from Kim Swift (former lead designer at Valve, now with Airtight Games), does a remarkable job of balancing this out.

The only thing you’re told in Portal is that you’re a test subject with a gun that shoots portals. Place the orange on one side of an obstacle and the blue on the other and walk through to advance. There are frustrating spots, but only because of the wide variety of possible solutions and the omnipresent element of human error. The game is challenging in the best way possible.

Perhaps Quantum Conundrum‘s biggest challenge is not overly specific level design. It’s rare that you have to do something in just the right order or way to succeed. It could just be that the game guides your hand a bit too much with its training elements so that you expect certain elements to come into play that don’t.

When the techniques you were already taught aren’t relevant to the new puzzle, it’s frustrating. It’s like the moment in a Super Mario game where you first get the new power-up and have no clue what it does. Trading in for the Tanooki suit is great in a precision platforming area, but won’t help too much when the Fire suit would get you past a room full of piranha plants much faster. Some puzzle games introduce new gameplay elements with no explanation again and again as some way of ramping up difficulty.

Puzzle games only have so many ways of creating more challenge to keep a player interested. They can add new gameplay elements, like random enemies or new power-ups. They can expand on the scale of the puzzle, taking you from a single screen of material to a much more sprawling location. They can intentionally leave information out so you have to put the pieces together yourself. And they can also betray your expectations and cause you to break every rule you’ve already been taught to advance.

I love a challenging game. It’s not uncommon for me to spend weeks playing a single title that people can beat in a few hours of gameplay because I want the full experience. You better believe I’m going for all the side quests, meeting all the NPCs to get the full flavor text, or going for the full clear on my first playthrough.

puzzlequest When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesPuzzle games rarely allow for that level of variance. The entire point of the puzzle genre is to solve puzzles. You might couch it in a larger narrative like the Professor Layton series or put in a clear singular throughline like Braid. You can also just make it a series of individual challenges held together by style or character like Tetris or Lumines. You can blend in other gaming elements (music puzzle games like Amplitude or RPG-based puzzle games like Puzzle Quest), but the driving force is clearly the puzzle solving element.

So how do you actually maintain interest in a longer form puzzle game like Quantum Conundrum? It’s honestly a game of chance. People stop playing games all the times for any number of reasons. Puzzle games add on the challenge of taking a singular gameplay conceit–the time reversal of Braid, the black on gray mystery of Limbo, etc.– and expanding it to a full length game.

So many of the popular mobile games are puzzle games because they’re often best enjoyed in small bursts. Could you imagine sitting down for four or five hours at a time to full clear Angry Birds or Cut the Rope? I couldn’t. It might take me a few months to go through all the stages playing a handful of puzzles at a time.

The complications come in when selling a full length, full price console or PC puzzle game. Nowadays, people expect more than the singular action of Tetris or Breakout for the usual console price of $40-plus dollars. Developers add in extra modes or build an elaborate story around a game genre that, until pretty recently, was all about beating stages and levels for a high score.

limbopuzzle When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesIn many ways, these full-length, fully-featured console/PC puzzle games are still an emerging genre. The tricks that worked before–point and click mechanics, especially–don’t necessarily grab interest anymore. Experimental games with puzzle elements (like Journey or Limbo) tend to work best as adventure/platform games with some light puzzle elements rather than puzzle games with some light platforming to get to the next puzzle.

Injecting a traditional narrative into a puzzle game comes down to the story being told. Sometimes, that story isn’t worth dealing with the seemingly random introduction of new gameplay elements just to make the game harder. The line between challenge and obstacle is a fine one. In the puzzle genre (where some gamers are naturally going to be better at certain styles of puzzles than others), that line can be as fine as it is arbitrary.

I haven’t exactly rage quit Quantum Conundrum at this point. I really enjoy my time playing the game. There are just points where the level of frustration created by a particularly inflexible puzzle outweighs the joy of solving the puzzle. I just have to walk away and play something else for a few days.

quantumconundrumprecision When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesIf the gameplay was the same in each stage, I would get bored and walk away. If it changed radically in style, I would get frustrated and walk away.

There’s just no way to predict how a gamer will react to a title, puzzle games especially. You can have the best, most inventive conceit to come around in years and fall short because one hard puzzle doesn’t logically flow with the gameplay up to that point. How we respond to games is up to a wide variety of factors that cannot be predicted. I’m not going to be my best at a puzzle game when I have a migraine the same way an arcade fighter fan is going to struggle to adapt to a fighting game that only uses the Wiimote.

The only thing that can be controlled is the actual functionality of the game and story. Do the controls work throughout the game? Does the story make sense and have a logical conclusion? Are there enough hints in the game to at least clue the player into the tools needed for a level? Everything else is up to the gamer’s preferences.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line when it comes to challenging video games? What are some of the puzzle/hybrid games that balance this out well? What game could you just not finish because the whole package didn’t work for you? Sound off with your thoughts below.

Play It: Pokemon Black & Blue

I love the Pokemon games. They hit on so much I like in gaming. They’re turn-based RPGs, they feature adorable creatures, and they require an obsessive knowledge of an absurd fighting rubric to really succeed. They also feature game mechanics that reward “full clear” gameplay. You just have to catch’em all. You just have to.

PETA has long had problems with the Pokemon games. They believe that the games are a pastel illustration of animal abuse. You’re trapping wild animals and forcing them to fight until they’re severely injured for profit. They see parallels to dog fighting, exotic animal capture and breeding, and straight up physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.

pokemonbwparodybattle Play It: Pokemon Black & BlueIn anticipation of Pokemon Black/White 2, PETA put out a strong satire of the game series to argue their perspective on Pokemon as exploitation. You play as Pikachu escaping from his trainer’s house. You are covered in bandages and not in great shape. Half of your moves are traditional physical attacks; the other half are methods of fighting against animal abuse.

As you progress in the game, you encounter more injured Pokemon and more archetypes from the series. The Nurse has abandoned the corporate system to protect wild Pokemon. Team Plamsa shows up and is praised for their Pokemon liberation efforts before revealing their sinister turn at the end of the last game.

If you’re going to make a politicized game, it better be an entertaining one. Otherwise, you’re going to lose your potential audience. PETA has succeeded in crafting a fun and thoughtful parody in Pokemon Black & Blue. It plays just like the highly addictive game series, only laser-focused on a particular social message.

pokemeonbwparodymap Play It: Pokemon Black & BlueIt’s not an irrelevant or absurd notion, either. The goal of the game is capturing wild creatures for combat. The only way to catch them is to stalk them in their natural environment and beat them until they’re about to fall over from damage. Your game only stops momentarily when all the Pokemon on your active team can no longer fight.

Whether or not the real game actually reinforces this critique is beside the point. PETA has managed to produce a polished argument against the series in a format that appeals to the game’s fans. In coopting the format of the series they don’t like, PETA is able to make a stronger argument in favor of their view of the game.

I’ve embedded the full game below. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to play through. Just a warning: some of the presents you receive are the graphic “Meet Your Meat” videos. You don’t have to open the gifts to keep playing.

SimCity: Day by Day

I’ve already said how excited I am for the new SimCity game coming out next year. EA put together a beautiful trailer that showed off the newest version of the popular city management and creation simulation very well.

Now, they’re releasing videos exploring how the game actually plays. The first video focuses on what you have to do in the early stages of SimCity. It shows off features like a free landscape to build upon, “paint” zoning, and the early stages of large industry specialization. The menus look intuitive and the landscape responsive to the basic actions you have to perform.

It might seem silly to point out how easy it is to build a city in a city simulation game. The fact is that many simulation games in the SimCity fold–all those theme park, mall, and even farm simulators are cut from the same cloth–are so complicated that you lose interest quickly. An intuitive menu system and responsive layout are not a hindrance to difficulty settings. Challenge comes from deciding which path is the right path for you and handling the consequences.

DayZ Will Get Standalone Release

DayZ is the wildly popular mod to the first person shooter ARMA II. Instead of battling enemy forces, you fight to survive during the zombie apocalypse. Achievement is surviving for hours instead of minutes as the slightest mistake can mean instant demise.

DayZfight DayZ Will Get Standalone ReleaseAdding to the complication is the online multiplayer. You can be running a perfect stealth game, slowly descending upon your target without notice. Out of nowhere, another player comes running by and gives away your location. Or, you can be minding your own business when another player decides to shoot you without even communicating to find out if you’re alive.

The best illustration of this challenge I can find is the Penny Arcade strip “DayZ, DayZ.” Go take a look. It’s a great sight gag.

Despite the challenge (or because of it), DayZ has gained a large following of fans. However, to play the game, you had to purchase ARMA II and then install the mods.

Not anymore. Dean Hall from Bohemia Interactive, the creator of the DayZ mod, has announced a standalone version of DayZ slated to come out in December. The game will be built on the same engine as ARMA II–the game engine of developers ARMA II Operation Arrowhead–without the pesky war game basis.

DayZ will be filled with new features, including new methods of virus transmission, household items, and no more user interface. The goal seems to be an immersive survival horror grounded in a gritty realism. This isn’t Resident Evil. You’re probably not going to make it out alive.

You can follow the development of DayZ at their Tumblr.

So what do you think? Are you interested in the standalone version of DayZ? I’ve played the game on other people’s computers but refuse to buy another game to play a mod. I’ll gladly pick up the standalone version when it’s available. What about you? Sound off below.

Humble Indie Bundle 6 Expands

Humble Indie Bundle 6, what I called probably the best collection of games they’ve assembled, has just expanded its lineup for the last few days.

If you didn’t get in on the deal last week, maybe four more titles will sway you. These titles are included automatically if you beat the average price. Pay more than $6.16 as of this writing and you get them on top of the other titles I reviewed last week.

  • Bit.Trip Runner is a super stylized run and dodge game. You play as a 2D character jumping, dodging, and kicking 3D 8-bit-styled obstacles in front of a lovely animated background. If you make one wrong move, you’re sent right back to the top of the level. The look of the game takes some getting used to, but the gameplay is solid.
  • Gratuitous Space Battles is like S.P.A.Z.‘s stylish older sister. It’s another space combat simulator with far more advanced graphics. The RTS elements are not nearly as in depth, but the combat and fleet control is a lot more accessible and fast-paced.
  • Jamestown is a retro-overhead shooter with beautiful steampunk style. The controls are tight and the difficulty challenging but balanced. The biggest draw is a four player cooperative multiplayer mode that assumes that you’ll be able to keep your whole team alive. It’s a lot of fun for arcade shooter fans.
  • Wizorb is a cross between an RPG and a block breaking game. You gain magical abilities to better control the orb as the game progresses. It’s a nice spin on block breaking that might open up the repetitive gameplay to a wider audience.

I feel like this Humble Indie Bundle package is a no-brainer. There’s bound to be something that appeals to every game fan. And just think: you’re getting 10 different games for just over $6. That’s a whole lot of gameplay for not a lot of cash.

Have you picked up Humble Indie Bundle 6? Did you download the extra games yet? What do you think? Sound off below.

Humble Indie Bundle 6 Is Out

Humble Indie Bundle 6 went live this week, offering up five indie games for download for as much as you want to pay. If you pay $1, you get Steam keys for the games. If you beat the average price (currently $5.78), you get a sixth game. The money earned goes to the developers, Humble Indie Bundle, and charity depending on your preferences.

I’ve played a little bit of the available games and any of them would be a steal for the over average price.

Take a look at the pitch then read my quickie reviews.

Rochard is a side-scrolling platformer with really inventive gameplay. You play as Rochard, an intergalactic miner trying to save his station from being shut down. You solve a series of puzzled created by the rundown space station using a gun with a tractor beam and the power of physics. Once you get the handle of the controls on the keyboard (pro tip: you have to switch out the crouch control manually; there is no “left control” key on your keyboard and you will get stuck), Rochard is a fun and challenging platformer with a lot of style.

Shatter is a wall breaker game in outer space. You control a paddle that bounces a ball into the bricks, which shatter into fragments you need to unleash your special abilities. The great twist is that you influence the movement of the ball with gravity. You can push the ball, fragments, and power-ups away or suck them right back up like a vacuum. You can also shield yourself from enemy attack. Oh yes, there are boss battles, and they’re mind benders.

S.P.A.Z. stands for Space Pirates And Zombies. It is an outer space combat simulator/RTS game that goes beyond my skill level. There are a ton of upgrade options and lots of ways to micromanage the playing field. It’s challenging but incredibly rewarding when you do manage victory in a specific quadrant.

Torchlight is a dungeon crawling RPG all about the dungeon crawl. It’s you, your trusty pet (your choice: puppy or kitty), and all the bad guys that exist beneath the town in a series of caverns rich with magical resources. The gameplay is elegant and embraces the dungeon crawl. This isn’t killing 100 wild boars to level up; this is fighting an unpredictable series of enemies while helping the poor townspeople not blessed with the skill for magic and combat.

Vessel is a puzzle platformer all about liquid. You are an inventor who has essentially mechanized water. You manipulate the flow of water to create Fluros, water machines trained to seek out and press light up buttons. The problem is they don’t stay put unless all the buttons in an area are depressed. They might move faster than you, but you need to think faster than them. The controls are workable on a keyboard. The game itself recommends a controller and I can’t disagree.

The sixth game, only available if you beat the average, is Dustforce. This is a fast paced platformer about sweeping. You are a stealthy, acrobatic cleaning ninja tackling the world’s dustiest locations. You jump, flip, slide, and run up walls to beat the dust out of the world. The game has a sharp learning curve but once it clicks, you’ll be hooked.

This might be my favorite Humble Indie Bundle yet. I can see myself going back to all of these games again and again (even S.P.A.Z.) and playing in short bursts. Only Rochard lacks a dedicated save but the checkpoints are plentiful. It’s the perfect game pack to get a quick burst of stylish and challenging gameplay.

Did you pick up Humble Indie Bundle 6 yet? What do you think? Sound off below.

The Perils of Kickstarter: Gaming Edition

Kickstarter is not the most reliable funding source for video games. About 43% of these projects reach their fundraising goals, which makes them the 4th least successful category on the site. It’s a higher rate than pitching to a big video game company, to be sure, but not exactly a guarantee by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet, Kickstarter themselves declared 2012 The Year of the Game. Of the 11 projects to break the $1million threshold this year, 8 were directly connected to gaming; 7 of those were actually games. I can be glib and point out that Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter album Theatre is Evil includes a cover of Lana Del Ray’s “Video Games” as a bonus track to supporters, which would make it 9/11.

Another video game project crossed met their goal recently, but not without starting a wave of controversy. Obsidian started a campaign for an RPG called Project Eternity. They hit all the right buttons and got the fans on their side. The pitch is really good and the game could turn out great.

Then Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart wrote a comment on his own Kickstarter project:

We were actually contacted by some publishers over the last few months that wanted to use us to do a Kickstarter. I said to them “So, you want us to do a Kickstarter for, using our name, we then get the Kickstarter money to make the game, you then publish the game, but we then don’t get to keep the brand we make and we only get a portion of the profits” They said, “Yes”.

I’ll give you a moment to unroll your eyes and pick your jaws off your tables.

Video game publishers contacted indie game creators to get them to Kickstart a game they wouldn’t invest in themselves. Then, the publishers wanted to release it themselves and give the indie game creators who did all the work a percentage of the profits.

That might be one of the more evil business pitches I’ve heard in a long time. Leave the game developer to take all the risk, then buy them out and take all the rewards for yourself (minus a percentage). That’s ballsy to say the least. At least Obsidian was smart enough to realize this was a bad deal.

Thanks to Urquhart, Kickstarter supporters know that some of these gaming projects might be too good to be true. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the kind of project I want to support through that site. I’m looking for independent projects from artists and content creators who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do them.

How do you hear this story and not question if the indie game creator is being backed by a publisher dangling a bad contract in front of them? You don’t unless they slip up.

For example, EA announced that they’re going to support Kickstarter projects. Technically, all they’re doing is waving 90 days of fees for indie developers who release their game on EA’s download system. If my math doesn’t fail me, that means they’ll start paying fees three months into a release that EA is collecting a cut of for every sale. Who knows what else EA has in store for indie developers using Kickstarter if enough agree to this risky proposition? What other companies are offering deals or scouting revenue sources that exploit Kickstarter projects?

There is never a guarantee that a Kickstarter project will be funded, let alone completed. Now we have more reason to assign “Caveat Emptor” as the new slogan for the crowdsourcing site.

Thoughts? I think the big publisher offer is sleazy and can only hope people smart enough to develop a game are smart enough to read between the lines on an opportunity like that. Share your thoughts below.

Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Meet Anita Sarkeesian. She runs the media criticism site Feminist Frequency. One of her focuses is on the use of tropes in media. Essentially, she breaks down how certain character types repeat over a broad range of media.

Here’s a sample. In this video, she analyzes the use of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games through the lens of realistic responses to violence and trauma. Her analysis is even-handed and backed up by evidence every step of the way. She defines her focus and presents her arguments in a clear and logical way.

Sarkeesian decided to launch a Kickstarter project to examine five tropes used again and again in video games. She does not use loaded language or judge the repetition as overtly negative or positive because she hasn’t completed her research. True, she says that the tropes are “harmful.” That’s when she also mentions that there are games that hit on these tropes in more positive ways.

The goal was to raise $6000 to cover the costs associated with playing hundreds of video games for five videos. Presumably, these include acquiring the games, capturing images and playback, research expenses, and the actual labor that goes into putting a video series together. It’s a small amount for a video game project. Plus, that’s a genre that has really taken off on Kickstarter recently.

The project has been so successful that Sarkeesian is going to produce 12 videos: another six videos on tropes and one video on common defenses of sexism in gaming. She’s even writing a classroom curriculum to accompany the videos. What a great and positive use of resources for education, right?

Not so fast. Anita Sarkeesian has gone from pop culture critic to an example of how women are portrayed in media. Apparently, some male gamers have decided that Sarkeesian is a bad person for even suggesting that there might be female stereotypes in games.

That’s the kind way of saying what they’re doing. The reality is disturbing. A group of 4Chan users–though I doubt they’re the only ones doing it–are trying to get her Kickstarter project taken down for various TOS violations. They’re flagging her YouTube videos as hate speech because, to them, feminist means someone who hates men. They edited her Wikipedia page so much that it got locked. They flooded her comment sections with hate speech, telling her to lie back and take it, go back to the kitchen to get them a sandwich, or shave off her hair and stop wearing makeup if being a feminist matters to her.

It doesn’t matter that Sarkeesian hasn’t said any of the things they accuse her of saying. They’re trying to redefine the argument as “video games aren’t designed for women” or “men are portrayed poorly, too, so this project is invalid.” They’re actively campaigning against her success for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with her project. It’s clear that most of the participants in this effort did not watch her Kickstarter video or read her project proposal. They’re setting up straw men while demonstrating the continued need for this kind of research at all.

tropesvswomeninvideogamesblog Reality Reflecting Criticism: Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Maybe the outrage proves how much we need an analysis of harmful tropes in video games

To Sarkeesian’s great credit, she has not removed the comments. They are, if nothing else, evidence of the harm that stereotypes and tropes can bring through pop culture. The arguments they’re making are arguments that are constantly fed through the channels of pop culture.

Cartman says most of these things on South Park and he’s quoted verbatim in many of the comments. You can find references pulled from Peter Griffin, Stan Smith, and a host of other TV and movie characters. In the context of their shows, this behavior is funny because the writers realize how absurd the comments are. In the real world, it’s disturbing because these people actually believe what they’re saying.

Anita Sarkeesian’s project is funded so long as the Kickstarter stays up. As of this posting, she raised over $92,000 for the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project. I look forward to seeing her finished videos and can only hope that these objectors actually take the time to listen to her actual arguments. I’m not holding my breath.

What do you think? Any games you think Sarkeesian should look into for the project? I think Haunting Ground provides an interesting angle for Damsel in Distress. Fiona is the active investigator in the game, but she is incapable of defending herself against any attack unless her big strong dog is by her side. One game mechanic is actually running away and hiding to decrease the risk posed by a hulking male menace.

And what about this whole “they’re only trolling” defense I’ve seen pop up? Does that mitigate the outrageous nature of the attacks at all? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.